New Voice: Rebecca Janni on Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse

Rebecca Janni is the first-time author of Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, illustrated by Lynne Avril (Dutton, 2010). From the promotional copy:

In Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, Nellie Sue does everything with a western flair.

Whether it is cleaning up the animal sty (picking up her stuffed animals) or rounding up cattle (getting the neighborhood kids together for her birthday party), she does it like a true cowgirl. All she really needs is a horse.

So when Dad announces at her birthday party, “I got a horse right here for you,” Nellie Sue is excited. But when her horse turns out to be her first bicycle, it will take an imagination as big as Texas to help save the day.

Could you tell us about your writing community – your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

My husband tells me I would get more writing done if I were a shy, introverted writer, living alone with a small tribe of cats. But that would never work for me, and he knows it. I love the revolving door that is our home, and everyone who walks through it supports me emotionally and professionally, beginning with my husband and family.

Iowa has a rich writing community, one that I first discovered at the local library. At the Des Moines Area Writers Group (DAWG), I found a wonderful and talented group of people passionate about stories. We’re an eclectic bunch of published and not-yet-published writers who write everything from early picture books to YA murder mysteries. But even with such varied interests, everyone agrees on one thing.

Must. Join. SCBWI.

So I did. Right away. I love the conferences because there are always opportunities to work on craft and to learn about the publishing industry. Plus, I meet more amazing people. I decided early on that, even if nothing ever came of my writing, I would never stop. I enjoyed the act of writing too much, and I was making lifelong friends along the way.

Three of those friends make up my magical critique group – Sharelle Byars Moranville, Jan Blazanin, and Eileen Boggess. We exchange our works-in-progress online and meet in person once a month to share critique and cookies.


Our lives and writing styles are very different, but we share a singularity of purpose and a mutual admiration. The end result is a lot of growth and grace . . . and cookies.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Hmm. Not well, I’m afraid. Our family of five grew to a family of six this summer, when we adopted our son from China. Now the muse in my life often masquerades as one of the kids. Life is full of joy and our entryway is full of shoes! Since our youngest is deaf, we’re also becoming a bilingual family – speaking and signing.


When I do manage to carve out time for writing, it usually involves my mother, a doting grandma who’s recently retired! I’m also quick to snatch up school time, nap time, and bedtime.

My best advice is what others have given to me, so I’ll pass it along.

(1) Find childcare, even if it is just once a week. If Grandma doesn’t live nearby, hire a babysitter or find a friend to help. Before my mom retired, a friend and I took turns watching each others’ kids.

(2) Make good work of school hours and nap times. If you have just a few hours between drop off and pick up, consider stopping at a library instead of going home. There will be fewer distractions.

(3) Attend SCBWI conferences. You’ll be inspired by the editors, agents, and authors who speak, and you’ll learn valuable information about the market. Plus, you never know what might happen . . .

(4) Take an occasional retreat – alone or with other writers. Writing weekends always give my productivity a boost. I’ve stayed at hotels, retreat centers, and even a friend’s farm. The benefits are huge – focused time to work on writing projects, immediate feedback from other writers, and inspiration that lasts long after the weekend is over. (At my friend’s farm, we even saw a calf being born!)

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 met Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency at (you’ll never guess) an SCBWI retreat right here in Iowa. While there were no calves born that weekend, it was a magical retreat – crisp October days, bright sun, vibrant colors, and leaves crunching beneath our feet. I had landed my first book contract about six months earlier, and I was ready to begin looking for an agent.

As Jamie presented, she struck me as kind and smart – a winning combination. Since I was so new to the business, I appreciated her willingness to do editorial work, to offer feedback on manuscripts before submitting them to editors. I knew I would love to sign on with Jamie, but I had just begun my search. How could I be so lucky?

I mustered up the courage to ask her a few questions, and we found ourselves chatting about my works-in-progress. She asked to see those manuscripts, and not long after, she offered to represent me. I was thrilled! I wanted to say “yes” then and there, but I took a step back and followed her advice, composing a list of questions for a follow-up phone interview.

One magical connector for us was the main character in my first book, Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse. Turns out Jamie has some cowgirl in her, but growing up in L.A., she could never have a horse. When she was little, she used to tie a jump rope to her bike handlebars to use as reins for her imaginary horse!

My best advice? I sound like a broken record, but I’ll say it again. Attend SCBWI conferences.

I was really glad to meet Jamie in person. Also, as giddy as I was about finding an agent, I’m glad I slowed down and thought through all of my questions up front. Somebody told me to remember that I wasn’t just being interviewed – I was also interviewing. When I did sign the dotted line, I felt confident that I was doing the right thing – no doubts or regrets.

Now, two years and three book contracts later, I couldn’t be happier to have Jamie as my agent!

Cynsational News & NE Tour Report

Children’s Author Stephanie Barden: official author site features biography, character blog, book info, contact information. Stephanie’s first book, Cinderella Smith, illustrated by Diane Goode (Harper) comes out in April. Two additional Cinderella Smith books have been purchased by HarperCollins.

E-Book Sales Rise in Children’s and Young Adult Categories by Julie Bosman from The New York Times. Peek: “In 2010 young-adult e-books made up about 6 percent of the total digital sales for titles published by St. Martin’s Press, but so far in 2011, the number is up to 20 percent, a spokeswoman for the publisher said.” Source: Varian Johnson.

At Tools of Change, Former ABC Director Kristen McLean to Discuss New Venture, Bookigee by Andrew Albanese from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Created with input from a ‘team of innovators’ in fields ranging from specialty design to retail, editorial, Silicon Valley tech, engineering, bookselling and book marketing, Bookigee has an admittedly ambitious goal—in essence, to begin reshaping a consumer process that has become entrenched over decades, but also somewhat inefficient.”

The Do’s, Don’t’s and “Stuff” of Writer Conferences by Donna Bowman Bratton from Writing Down the Kidlit Page. Peek: “When you find yourself in the room with revered editors, agents, and award-winning authors, there are certain rules of etiquette you should abide by.”

Author Skype Tour Blog: “a place where authors, teachers, and librarians can connect to help readers discover great new titles and learn more about writing. There are already great Skype-author resources like the Skype-an-Author Network and Kate Messner’s list of authors who do free, 20-minute chats with classes & book clubs that have read their books. But sometimes, teachers & librarians may want to connect with an author whose books students haven’t read yet…and sometimes, authors may want to talk with groups that haven’t read a book yet, to help get the word out about a new title. That’s what this site is for.”

The winners of the seventh annual Green Earth Book Award are: The Earth Book by Todd Parr (Little Brown); Not Your Typical Book About the Environment by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Clayton Hanmer (Owlkids); Mallory Goes Green by Laurie B. Friedman, illustrated by Jennifer Kalis (Darby Creek); and Boys, Bears and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots by Abby McDonald (Candlewick). See more on the winners and honor books. “The Green Earth Book Award is the nation’s first environmental stewardship book award for children and young adult literature. Over 135 books were nominated in four categories. NMF presents the awards April 5 at the Salisbury University Literary Book Festival in Maryland. Author presentations and book signings at university seminars and local elementary schools are scheduled for April 6. Each award includes $2,000 to the winning author and illustrator, as well as the contribution of winning books to schools and youth organizations in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.”

Managing Information Overload by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “I have no trouble producing pages, it’s the blocking out unnecessary ‘information’ that lurks everywhere, promising to inform and enlighten me to within an inch of my life.”

Teachers and Librarians Love Book Trailers by Darcy Pattison from Greg Pincus at The Happy Accident. Peek: “That is 99% of librarians surveyed who think trailers are effective. Wow!” See also Five Ways Your Characters’ Job Affects Your Novel by Darcy from Fiction Notes.

Two Literary Agents by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Learn what Molly Jaffa of Folio and Christina Hogrebe of Jane Rotrosen Agency are seeking in manuscripts/clients. Note: in New Jersey, all of the buzz was about the upcoming NJ SCBWI Annual Conference June 3 to June 5 in Princeton. We’re talking a mega list of editors, agents, and authors–well worth the trip! Early bird rate deadline: March 1.

Reminder: The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children’s Literature is ongoing. Don’t miss an interview with author-editor Kevin Lewis. Peek: “I honestly believe that you don’t find your way but make your way. No one ever gave me permission to write, or to write for children, or to write about truck and trains and dinosaurs.”

Beautiful Back Matter by Deborah Heiligman from I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: “This business of writing for multiple audiences is nowhere more important and challenging than in writing the back matter for nonfiction picture books. Especially, I think, picture book biographies.” See also Digital Books: Will Form Affect Content? by Loreen Leedy from I.N.K.

Promoting Your Own Books: Who Is Your Publisher? by Michelle in Marketing at Boxcars, Books & A Blog AKA Albert Whitman & Company. Peek: “Aside from the first time author (read: lack of brand name) issues inherent in those possibilities, your publisher just might be more concerned with Baker & Taylor and the American Library Association.”

Call for Characters by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “I’m looking for contrasts in names, height, weight, ethnic background, style of clothing and personality factors. If X loves cats, Y should love lizards. No, not dogs, silly.”

NYC 2011: Sara Zarr gives the speech that she wanted to hear by Candy Gourlay from Notes from the Slush Pile. Peek, quoting an agent: “The time between when you are no longer a beginner but you are not yet in the business is the hardest and no one can tell you how long this phase will last.” Read a Cynsations interview with Sara.

Borders Stores Closing from The Wall Street Journal: about 30% of stores; a complete list. See also FAQ for Vendors about Borders Reorganization from Borders Group Inc. Note: please support brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Seven Tips to Grow Your Mailing List by Katie Davis from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: “Let’s get you a mailing list. You are going to grow your audience and then stay connected.”

From Editor to Agent: a chat with Alyssa Eisner Henkin by Bobbie Pyron from From The Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek: “…I know both editors and kid readers are very ken on the plot-driven-pull-you-in-and-don’t-let-go books that are popular these days. So I’d say plot is a huge factor in my decision in whether or not to represent a book. However, a great voice is certainly of paramount importance.”

A Story of Dualities by Chithira Vijaykumar from The Hindu. Peek: “This is a story about balance. A tree and a road learn to reconcile with each other, the title of the book repeats itself (“Out of the Way! Out of the Way!”), and it has been created by two Uma Ks — one a Krishnaswami, the writer, and the other a Krishnaswamy, the illustrator.” See also A Tale of Two Uma Krishnaswami/ys from Cynsations.

Support Children’s Book Press

Children’s Book Press, a non-profit multicultural publisher, is seeking to raise $47,000 by March. Please consider donating, buying or promoting its books to show your support. See also an interview with editor Dana Goldberg of Children’s Book Press.

New Sports Publisher

Beach Ball Books, a new children’s publisher, is launching this season with sports books, board books and plans for a raft of colorful, entertaining books that kids and families will love. Headed by James Buckley, Jr., Beach Ball will capitalize on the extensive experience, market knowledge, and creative talent Buckley has gathered as Editorial Director of Shoreline Publishing Group, a veteran book packaging company that has produced more than 350 books, as well as magazines and magazine content and special sections for a dozen years.

In Memorium

Margaret K. McElderry (1912-2011) from Locus Online. Peek: “Children’s editor and publisher Margaret K. McElderry, 98, died February 14, 2011. She is best known as founder of her eponymous children’s imprint, Margaret K. McElderry Books.”

Redwall Author Brian Jacques Dead at 71 from The Washington Post. Peek: “Jacques wrote the first book in his famous Redwall series for the children at the Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool, England. The book’s hero was a timid mouse named Matthias who found the courage to protect his home, Redwall Abbey. ” See also Extreme Sadness: Brian Jacques from Book Moot.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Piggies in the Kitchen by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Canadian Writers Speak Out On Copyright from Marketwire News Studio.

More Personally

Thank you to Candlewick Press, the event planners, and everyone who turned out, cheered, and helped promote last week’s official Blessed tour in NYC, New Jersey, and the Philly area.

(The view out my window at The Standard Hotel in Manhattan/the meat-packing district.)

Cheers to fellow authors Jen Nadol, Sarah Beth Durst, Shannon Delany, and especially Daniel Nayeri (with whom I did two events), who joined me at stops along the way.

(Rita Williams-Garcia–to whom the novel is dedicated–models Blessed at Books of Wonder.)

Mega thanks to Books of Wonder, Francis Lewis High School, Teenreads.com, Borders Columbus Circle, Baker & Taylor, New Brunswick Free Public Library, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, NYPL Mulberry Branch, Romantic Times Book Reviews, The New School, Brooklyn Public Library, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School, The Voracious Reader, Mercer County Library, and Barnes & Noble, Cherry Hill, N.J.!

(Literary agent Mary Kole and Daniel at The Brass Monkey! Jill Santopolo was kind enough to organize this get-together of Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty, alumni & friends.)

(Susan Van Metre’s MFA class at The New School.)

(The Brooklyn Public Library.)

(Authors Libba Bray, Marianna Baer and Melissa Walker at the Brooklyn Public Library.)

(Shannon Delany, Jen Nadol and Shannon Delany at The Voracious Reader.)

Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Jessica from Chick Lit Cafe. Peek: “Quincie is smart enough to realize that her soul is who she is. If she gives herself up, there’s nothing left. Not her evolving patchwork family or the business she inherited from her mama or her amazing connection to Kieren. He loves her, the real her, not some monster walking around in body. She fights for herself because she has value intrinsically and to those who truly care about her.”

Book Review: Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith by Jessica from I Just Want to Sit Here and Read. Peek: “I love Kieren, Quincie’s best friend and the only hybrid werewolf. I actually found myself jealous of their friendship. There of course is the slight sexual tension because they haven’t pronounced any real feelings for each other, even though you want to scream at them!”

Links of the Week: Dear Teen Me by Bethany Hegedus and Won Ton: A Cat Tale in Haiku recommended by Mercury Boo Leitich Smith (don’t miss the comments).

Even More Personally

I’m voting for Chef Drew (Andrew Curren at 24 Diner in Austin) for best new chef in the southwest (and you should, too!).

(My Valentine’s Day flowers from my very cute husband and sometimes co-author, Greg Leitich Smith.)

Last night, we joined Anne Bustard and my former Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student (now alum) Janice Scully (in town from New York state) at the Broken Spoke for some country music by Tony Harrison and Hot Texas and then continued on to County Line on the Hill for barbeque.

Cynsational Events

Birthday/Launch Party for Michelle Knudsen at 6:30 Feb. 22 at WORD (126 Franklin St. Brooklyn, NY). Peek: “New York Times bestselling author and WORD favorite Michelle Knudsen celebrates both her birthday and the release of her new picture book Argus (Candlewick, 2011). Sallie’s class is supposed to be raising chicks as a science project, but Argus, the large, green, scaly creature that hatches from her egg, is anything but cute and fluffy. Hijinks ensue! Refreshments will be served and good times will be had.” RSVP at facebook.

Jeanette Larson: Loving the Librarian” will be at 11 a.m. March 5 at BookPeople in Austin. Sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Peek: “Librarians can do a lot to help writers and illustrators do their work and get their books into the hands of readers. Learn the secrets of librarians from a ‘semi-retired’ librarian who continues to work with librarians across the country to improve services to patrons and the community. While she has written extensively for libraries, her first children’s book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas (Charlesbridge, 2011), has just been published and she is seeing the world from the other side of the library shelf!” Jeanette’s book launch will follow at BookPeople at noon and include refreshments and sample art pieces. See also an interview with Jeanette and Adrienne Yorinks by Donna Bowman Bratton at Writing Down the Kidlit Page.

12th Annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 19 in Fort Myers, Florida. Note: speakers include Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Guest Post: Sarah C. Campbell on Connecting Nonfiction to the Curriculum

By Sarah C. Campbell

I think my two picture books, Wolfsnail (2008) and Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature (2010)(both from Boyds Mills) are perfect for use in elementary schools. Not only are they compelling nonfiction for emerging and beginning readers, but their content fits into the science and math curricula. My hope – and my publisher’s – is that teachers will use the books in their classrooms. One way to make this more likely is to develop educational materials, such as a teachers’ guide, lessons, and activities, that teachers can readily adapt for their needs. Many writers do the work of determining how a book fits into the curriculum before they sell a manuscript. (A strong curriculum tie-in can help an editor acquire a book.) When it comes to creating educational materials, however, the research gets more detailed. For example, in addition to knowing that first graders in Mississippi study the difference between living and nonliving things, I determined that they must also be able to identify specific animals that can be found in local ecosystems. Voila, Wolfsnail! State curriculum guides are readily available online. You may also want to look at the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by at least 36 states. If you have trouble translating a curriculum into plain English, ask for help from a teacher. Educational materials are as varied as the people who develop them. Look around at what other writers are doing. Be creative. For Wolfsnail, the teacher’s guide includes a variety of activities, from a very simple coloring page, which is perfect for bookstore and library visits, to suggestions for experiments that involve live snails. Luckily, my co-photographer (and husband), Richard P. Campbell, is an artist and was able to draw the wolfsnail for the coloring page. Don’t use a generic coloring image from the Internet unless you have permission from the artist. In addition to considerations about content, you will need to decide the form you want your materials to take. I publish mine on my website, making them available to anyone with internet access. When I go to a teachers’ conference, I print a copy of my educational materials for display so teachers will know what is available online. With Growing Patterns, my husband and I developed a web-based tutorial, complete with video, audio, and lots of color images, to explain The Fibonacci Folding Book Project, a lesson I created with a librarian friend for the 2010 International Reading Association (IRA) conference. For a month, in conjunction with this blog post, I am making the entire video tutorial available for free. Because it is a complete professional development package, I offer it to schools that have hired me for a residency with their students and/or teachers. Anything you can do to help teachers cover multiple objectives and/or multiple curriculum areas will make your materials attractive. For help with this, I researched model lessons on the IRA’s ReadWriteThink and the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge websites. Though my two books are straight nonfiction, I am confident that this process is applicable to fiction, too.

Guest Post: Tricia Springstubb on Chapter Two

by Tricia Springstubb

In my first writing life, I worked in a small room with next-to-no heat but, more importantly, a door. For some reason, my children, who burst into bedroom and bathroom without hesitation, respected the door to my work room.

The top of my desk was buried under work in progress, the drawers stuffed with failed stories and rejections. Eventually, there were contracts, too.

Years later, when the children were gone, I moved downstairs, to write in a room with ample heat and no need for a door. The old workroom was abandoned, till this past summer when I decided to excavate my old desk.

It was like a dig, down to the dust and rubble, but instead of stone hammers, precious amulets or an army of terracotta soldiers, what I found were packets of carbon paper, boxes of correct-o-type, and drafts of stories which I’d revised by literally cutting and pasting (scissors, scotch tape).

A manual typewriter! I began writing seriously in the late seventies, armed with a library copy of The Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest) for submission guidelines and addresses.

Back in the day, most children’s writers didn’t have agents. You just worked away, sending things “over the transom”. I submitted to Highlights, to publications now defunct, and to a then-fledgling press, Carolrhoda. When they accepted (for next to nothing, and no royalties) my first book, it was dance-of-joy time.


Eventually, I had a YA novel, Give and Take, with Little, Brown (1981), and went on to work with Delacorte and Scholastic, too. During those years of what I now think of as my first career, I published a dozen books for children.

My next door neighbor told me how she loved to hear the clickety-clack of my typewriter. When I took it to be serviced at the thriving Cleveland Typewriter Shop (now a Dollar General), the guy told me he’d never seen such a beat-up platen, and I was very proud.


Then, something happened. I still can’t say exactly what. Of course, everyone complained about the market, how our publishers were being bought up by big conglomerates, how the competition of TV (TV!) was forcing houses to be more commercial and profit-driven.

But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t only the market. It was also wanting to work harder on my adult fiction, as well as taking a new job to help put our girls through college.

Spread thin, I never quit working on children’s stuff, but I went unpublished. For a long time. Longer than, at this writing, I’ve let myself definitively calculate. I never stopped thinking of myself as a writer, but evidence grew thin.

During those years, I kept working (now on a P.C.) on a middle grade novel. I loved the setting and characters, and periodically, I’d send out a new version to one of the editors I knew or to one of the few houses still taking unsolicited manuscripts. No success. More time went by.

Meanwhile, I worked in the children’s room of an urban public library. Many of our patrons were kids from struggling families, kids who shouldered responsibilities beyond their years–cooking, minding young siblings. They did this with all the casual resilience and irrepressible mettle that kids are capable of. They were heroes.

One day I scrapped everything I’d done so far and began the novel all over. As anyone who’s done this knows, the experience was both scary and hugely exhilarating. The voice of my main character was suddenly speaking to me loud and clear. She lived on hardscrabble Fox Street, and she watched out for her little sister, the Wild Child. The heart of the story was her relationship with her widowed father, a restless man doing the best he could. I refuse to trust anyone who claims her book wrote itself, but this time, things came together.

When What Happened on Fox Street was finished, I knew I needed to re-invent my M.O. I started querying agents. One was interested. She warned it was a “quiet” book. She might not be able to sell it, but loved it enough to try.

Within a month, we were in the midst of, if not a bidding war, at least a bidding skirmish.

Oh, brave new world! My rusty beater of a writing life went from two miles an hour to pedal on the floor. The book was published last August by the stellar Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Just a few days ago, I finished the draft of a second Fox Street book. No correct-o-type. No crumpled carbon. But when I hit SEND, my heart thumped just as hard as back when I stood in line at the P.O., clutching a box swathed in brown paper and tape.

Are things really so different now? Yes. But in many happy ways, no.

Educator Interview: Nick Glass on TeachingBooks.net

Nick Glass is the founder and executive director of TeachingBooks.net. From the promotional copy:

TeachingBooks.net is an easy-to-use website that adds a multimedia dimension to the reading experiences of children’s and young adult books.

Our online database is developed and maintained to include thousands of resources about fiction and nonfiction books used in the K–12 environment, with every resource selected to encourage the integration of multimedia author and book materials into reading and library activities.

Could you tell us a bit about your professional background? What led you to TeachingBooks.net?

I view TeachingBooks.net as my contribution to educational equity. I’m trying to enable everyone to learn from authors when reading their books, and online technologies can act as a marvelous equalizer.

My background leading up to the founding of TeachingBooks.net is varied — with the common denominator that I’ve always been fortunate to do work that I love.

After college, I worked in Major League Baseball as an executive and stats person for the Chicago White Sox, the Office of the Commissioner, and then the San Francisco Giants.

After a few years of that, I wasn’t as happy as I wished and didn’t feel that I was having the societal impact that I hoped — so I went to graduate school to study educational policy and specifically the history of multicultural education.

It was then, while I was writing my dissertation, that I started working at Pooh Corner bookstore in Madison and formed what became the vision for TeachingBooks.net.

Founded upon the premise that educators find enjoyment and professional value in seeing and hearing authors talk about their work, TeachingBooks.net tries to offer readers an interaction with authors that is similar to what happens at bookstores or conferences or school visits. We strive to change the way one relates to the book by enabling readers to learn directly from the book creator. To accomplish that, we go into authors’ homes and film them. We call and record them, and we gather and aggregate quality online materials that match our collection-development policy.

In April 2000, the genesis for TeachingBooks.net took form. It debuted at the American Library Association convention in San Francisco in June 2001 and was launched on the Internet Sept. 1, 2001. TeachingBooks.net began selling licenses in November 2003 and is currently licensed in more than 25,000 schools.

Could you give us some insight into the history of the website?

I covered some of the history of the website in the text above, so here I thought I’d visually share some of the history. As you look at these four versions of our home page, I hope you can see how exciting, but also how challenging it is to display what it is we do.

The theme and mission of TeachingBooks.net has really been consistent throughout the ten years, but the visual elements certainly have varied.

Is there one that resonates with you more than others?

TeachingBooks.net home page, 2001 (above)

TeachingBooks.net home page, 2002 (above)

TeachingBooks.net home page, 2004 (above)

TeachingBooks.net home page, 2010 (above)

Why is there a need for this kind of website?

The need for me is really twofold: First, to enable educators to know how engaging and easy and appropriate it is for them to integrate online author and book resources into the work they are doing with books.

We want all teachers, for example, who are reading the books of Roald Dahl or Lois Lowry to realize that they can learn directly from these amazing authors in their classroom. So, from a pedagogical standpoint, there is this specific need and even an educational shift I’m trying to address.

Second, there is a need to organize and vet all the ever-growing materials on the Web about books and authors so that very busy teachers have exactly what they need the moment they need it. Our website is like a library, with a collection development policy that helps identify, vet, and make easily available authoritative resources about authors and books.

Who is the audience?

TeachingBooks.net is for anyone who reads, teaches, or enjoys books for children and teens. This is every student, every teacher in all content areas, any librarian, any curriculum coordinator, any university professor — anyone who reads and enjoys thinking about books in K-12, university, and public library settings.

Could you give us a more detailed overview of resources on the site?

My hope is that the homepage can reveal much about the site — so I’ll walk you through that a bit. But also feel free to watch this 10-minute video overview.

Central to the homepage is the purple search box. TeachingBooks.net is a collection of resources about specific books and authors — so we want users of the site to search for the book or author that they are reading. Once they do that, they’ll receive in one-easy-to-use online location a collection of quality resources about that author or title — ready for them to use.

For example, I searched on Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993) and found the more than 25 authoritative materials, including a movie filmed in Lois Lowry’s home, many novel units/discussion guides, a recording of her revealing the story of her name, and audio excerpts of the book being read by her and a professional actress.

Also on the home page are featured resources that TeachingBooks.net produces with amazing authors and illustrators. These featured resources change each week, and are always free for anyone to use, if they subscribe to TeachingBooks.net or not.

Here’s an image of what our featured page looks like.


What are a couple of your favorite features and why?

I love that we communicate with the most amazing authors and illustrators of today. We’ve had Elie Wiesel pronounce his name for us, had Maya Angelou share what inspired her to write I Know Why the Cages Bird Sings (1969), and filmed David Macaulay in his studio — twice! We spoken to Judy Blume, Jon Sciezzka, Nancy Garden and literally almost 2,000 other authors and illustrators.

I also really like our new Curricular Uses section of the website, where we highlight specific resources that can be used in different content areas — showcasing how and when you can infuse authors, books, and technology into all curricular areas.

You can find this section on our home page — just look for the green chalkboard.

What are the biggest challenges to managing content? Other challenges?

The biggest challenge we have in managing online content is reviewing the material and cataloging it so that readers can easily find it. Fortunately, I’m blessed to work with gifted librarians who know how to do this, so we have established consistent related rules and procedures. You are welcome to read our collection development policy.

We also must make sure that every resource on our website goes to the link on the Web that we think it should, and for that, we’ve written a complicated but excellent program to ensure that our links are as reliable as possible.

What plans do you have for new features in the future?

We have many exciting enhancements coming, all of which center around helping the user of our website easily seeing how relevant and exciting it is to have the author of a book available to them, and how powerful it is to integrate multimedia into their reading and library activities.

Right now, for example, we’re reorganizing the way we display search results. This is about a 1000-hour project that involves rethinking and re-envisioning the user experience in a way that I hope will be clear and exciting for all.

Much has been said about the competitive versus cooperative relationship between books and technology. Where do you see this all going?

Books are vital and marvelous. I deeply believe that books can be used in every content area in a K-12 school environment, and technology can compliment that in some marvelous and relevant ways.

TeachingBooks.net is focused on infusing technology to enable everyone to meet the author when reading the book, to let multimedia and online literacy experiences bring the book to life. I find it an exciting and relevant and vibrant relationship between books and technology.

New Voice: Catherine Stier on The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club

Catherine Stier is the first-time author of The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club (Albert Whitman, 2009). From the promotional copy:

No one at school had ever thought up a club like this. All you had to do to be in it was answer some questions and share them with the rest of the club.

Questions like: What is your favorite salad dressing? Who is your BFF? What was your most embarrassing moment?

There were plenty of reasons to be in the Tell-All Club. Kiley, T.J., Josh, and Anne each had a different motivation: One of them wanted to fit in, one wanted revenge, one had something to hide, and one of them was dying to find out another’s secret.

Told in four different viewpoints, this funny, touching novel explores friendship, social pressures, bullying, and other anxieties of ‘tween girls and boys alike.

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

As a young reader in the 1970s [pictured], I was intrigued by fantasy, historical fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson (1975) and the gritty realism of The Outsiders (1967) and other novels by S.E. Hinton.

But I also found myself turning to older books still available in the library, the lighter teen stories my mom read in the 1950s such as Going on Sixteen by Betty Cavanna (1946) and Double Date by Rosamond du Jardin (1951).

While these books did feature some out-of-date fashion references (I was probably not going to slip on a taffeta housecoat anytime soon), I could relate to issues of sibling rivalry, forming and maintaining friendships, contemplating the possibility of college and a career and experiencing the excitement of a first significant romantic relationship.

In creating my first novel, The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club, I remembered the importance of books that touched on the things I dealt with or anticipated in the future of my own life. Yet I hoped to address the concerns of younger readers, and I didn’t want to create a novel aimed specifically for girls. As the mother of both a son and a daughter, I felt it important to explore issues boys as well as girls face with friendships, families and trying to make sense of the world.

In my novel, four fifth-grade characters — two girls and two boys — begin to leave behind that little kid part of their lives. They start to structure their own identities, apart from their families. They sort out what is important to them, what they themselves believe in and stand for in their own developing value systems. They also, maybe for the first time, notice and form judgments on the flaws of family and friends. And one character, very tentatively, considers what it might be like to have a first crush, as modeled by the budding romance of an older sibling.

The book shares the viewpoints of four characters, Josh, Anne, Kiley and T.J., who try to figure out each other based on the behaviors they observe. But while the reader gets a peek at what motivates each character, the characters themselves sometimes find each other’s behavior inexplicable. That, of course, truly happens in real life, and I hope it is part of the fun of the book.

One last note: while writing the novel, I worked as a part-time substitute teacher and classroom aide. I saw how students enjoyed when teachers read aloud, yet how challenging it could be for a teacher to find a book that appealed to an entire classroom of students.

My secret daydream — and this was before the book had been accepted for publication — was that someday, The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club might be read aloud by a teacher to the class. Following the book’s release, I began to hear that this is exactly what happened. And, most gratifying, I was told boys sometimes ranked as the book’s biggest fans.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book?

Let me start by explaining the differences in the way I promoted my first book — a picture book released in 1999 — and the ideas I have for this book, a debut novel for ‘tweens, introduced some ten years later.

My 1999 title was the presidential-themed, nonfiction picture book If I Were President (Albert Whitman) that teachers still use with their classroom lesson plans.

Back then, of course, I took a very different approach to promotion for several reason. The technology wasn’t where it is today. Also, this was a picture book with a subject matter that worked well for some very specific markets.

One of my first moves was to call the White House Historical Association and ask if they might consider If I Were President as merchandise for their White House gift shop. The book had to pass a review committee, but in fact was chosen for their children’s book section. To my delight, they subsequently ordered hundreds of copies to fill their shelves.

The same thing happened with the Mount Rushmore History Association. Then the Smithsonian National Museum of American History picked up the title on their own.

Throughout the years, I’ve had the cheering experience of receiving phone calls from vacationing family and friends, who excitedly tell me they’ve found my book in local attractions’ gift shops during their travels. And one year, I was even invited to conduct a book signing at Mount Rushmore during their Independence Day celebration, when an estimated 30,000 visited the park in one day.


Now, years later, I have a website and a blog …and a ’tween novel. And I realize this kind of book requires a very different approach to publicize. My SCBWI chapter has been most helpful, hosting events that explore new media and technology for authors and illustrators. And I have learned from the example of other novelists that one way to promote a book is to have fun with some element of the title or plot.

In my debut novel, four fifth-graders each have to answer a tell-all survey of 50 questions to be part of the latest club. While I did create all 50 questions, only some were revealed in the book, both in story and in the chapter headings. The questions range from “What is in your locker right now?” to “What one thing about you would surprise people if they found out about it?”

I can see that these 50 questions may offer some unique opportunities for promotion. For example, I could tweet one question a week and invite responses from the Twitterverse. Or, perhaps, post one question a week on a blog and invite a guest children’s author to answer that question as he or she would have in fifth-grade, and as they would now. Hmmm…

My advice for other debut authors?

For picture books or novels, consider how your book might fit in the gift shops of museums, national parks, monuments, zoos, botanical gardens or other tourist attractions.

Also think about what unique elements of your book — such as the 50 questions — you might play up and celebrate on your website, blog, in press releases and at book signing events. Contact your local newspapers and alumni magazine.

Finally, author school visits offer a wonderful way to share your books. Research how your book might tie in with the curriculum, or relate to issues of concern to schools such as bullying. Emphasize those subjects, concepts or issues in your school programs as well as your promotional materials.

Blessed In-Person Author Tour in NY, NJ, Philly Area

Please join me on a stop of the Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) tour!

Events that are open to the public are indicated as such on the schedule below!

Authors Daniel Nayeri, Jen Nadol, Sarah Beth Durst, and Shannon Delany will be joining me here and there along the way!

Sunday, 2/6/11

1 p.m. to 3 p.m. – Books of Wonder – reading/Q&A/signing to public with Another Pan author Daniel Nayeri (PUBLIC EVENT)

18 W. 18th St., New York, N.Y.

Monday, 2/7/11

10 a.m. to 11:34 a.m. Francis Lewis High School

6 p.m. Borders Bookstore – reading/signing (PUBLIC EVENT)

Borders Columbus Circle
10 Columbus Circle, New York, N.Y.

Tuesday, 2/8/11

4 p.m. to 5 p.m. New Brunswick Free Public Library – reading/Q&A/signing (PUBLIC EVENT)

6:20 p.m. to 9 p.m. Rutgers University — guest lecture, “Materials for Young Adults” — room 203

School of Communication and Information — 4 Huntington St., New Brunswick, N.J.

Wednesday, 2/9/11

10 a.m. NYPL Mulberry Branch – visit with schools

10 Jersey Street (Between Lafayette & Mulberry Streets) New York, N.Y.

8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. New School Creative Writing Graduate Class – guest lecture

66 West 12th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues

Thursday, 2/10/11

11:15 a.m. to 12 p.m. Brooklyn Public Library – Professional Development Day

Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza

4:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Brooklyn Public Library – Will You Be My Paranormal Valentine Party (with teens)(PUBLIC EVENT)

Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza

Friday, 2/11/11

2:15 p.m. to 3 p.m. Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School Visit

Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin HS, LREI

272 Sixth Avenue, New York, N.Y.

7 p.m. The Voracious Reader – “Will You Be My Paranormal Valentine?” event with Daniel Nayeri, Jen Nadol, Sarah Beth Durst, and Shannon Delany (PUBLIC EVENT)

1997 Palmer Avenue, Larchmont, N.Y.

Saturday, 2/12/11

1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mercer County Library Event — West Windsor Branch (PUBLIC EVENT)

333 North Post Road, Princeton Junction, N.J.

6:30 p.m. Barnes & Noble, Cherry Hill, N.J. (Greater Philly area)(PUBLIC EVENT)

911 Haddonfield Road, Cherry Hill, N.J.

Not on the Tour? Attention Event Planners!

It’s two YA authors for the price of one! Book now for the 2011-2012 school year and beyond!

“From Classics to Contemporary:” a joint presentation offered by Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of the Tantalize series (inspired by Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)) and Jennifer Ziegler, author of Sass & Serendipity (inspired by Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)).

The authors will discuss how they were inspired by these classics, why Stoker and Austen’s themes are still relevant to teens/YAs today, the ongoing conversation of books over the generations, and much more.

Contact Dayton Bookings for more information and to schedule.

Cynsational News & Gveaways

Patchwork Collective Virtual Mentors for Writers of Color is accepting applications for its Virtual Mentoring Program. Peek: “Participants will be invited to join an online group and receive personalized advice from mentors on manuscripts and technique (no more than one critique of 10 pages of a long-form work, or one PB over the eight-week period), industry- and craft-related information (books, conferences, helpful organizations, Web sites, etc.), and more. Mentors will not be offering referrals to any agents or editors. If you are a writer of color in the ‘intermediate’ stage of your pursuit of a career in children’s literature, this is an opportunity for one-on-one online communication with a published children’s book author (PB-YA).” Via Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Source: Mitali’s Fire Escape.

Strauss-Gabel Named Publisher at Dutton Children’s Books from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Dutton will become a “boutique middle grade and young adult imprint with a focus on titles of exceptional literary quality and strong commercial appeal…”

How Writing Careers are Like Snowflakes by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “The fear of failure nips at our heels no matter what stage of our career we’re in. It is so, so easy to sit from the outside looking in and be certain–absolutely certain–that Author A is a raging success and has it all and their books are selling like hotcakes. But the truth is rarely that simple.”

China: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book (Williamson Books, 2008) Giveaway from Debbi Michiko Florence. Deadline: Feb. 2.

English-Language Children’s Books Related to Modern Egypt, compiled by Bernadette Simpson (PDF/bilbiography). Source: Mitali Perkins.

The Future of Publishing Poetry for Kids: an interview with Lee Bennett Hopkins by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children. Peek: “So many factors enter into a book doing well in the marketplace. A strong collection with a fine artist will do as well as any picture book might.”

New Agent Alert: Stephen Barr of Writers House by Chuck Sambuchino from Guide to Literary Agents. Note: Represents picture books (from author-illustrators) through YA.

Williams-Garcia’s New Children’s Novel Gains National Attention: an audio interview with Rita Williams-Garcia from Vermont Public Radio.

How to Mingle at Publishing Events by Alvina Ling from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: “The best ‘pick-up line’ is to simply say ‘hello’ and introduce yourself. Honestly, everyone at these type of events should be there to mingle, and even if they’re not, they at least expect others to introduce themselves.”

28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children’s Literature from the Brown Bookshelf. Check this link daily to learn about terrific books, authors and illustrators. Note: highly recommended.

Places in the Heart: Celebrating Black History Month by Rick Margolis from School Library Journal. Peek: “…we asked some of the top kids’ book creators to choose their favorite children’s book about the black experience. The title could be for kids of any age—from a picture book or graphic novel to a chapter book or collection of poems. We told them it could be new or old, fiction or nonfiction. The only requirement? It had to be a book that they truly loved—and, of course, it couldn’t be one of their own.” See also Black History Month: 15 Fabulous Reads for Children from Donna Bowman Bratton.

What Do Children’s Book Consumers Want? A new study looks at how they decide what to read—and where they buy from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Moms, teachers, and dads, in that order, affect book selection for 7–12-year-olds. Teens overwhelmingly turned to parents, teachers, and close friends for book suggestions. Librarians affected 24% of YA reading decisions, bookstores not so much.”

Blogging Dos and Don’ts by April Aragam from The Institute of Children’s Literature. Peek: “Remember that anything you say in your blog can be read by anyone including the person, editor or publication you are criticizing.”

Tips to Surviving Book Promotion (How to have fun storycatching too) by Kerry Madden from A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Peek: “Begin laying the groundwork for your book promotion six months before your book is published. Write a press release and fax it to newspapers and TV stations closer to the pub date along with a review or two if you have them.”

Win Your Dream Gown with The Vespertine from Saundra Mitchell from An Incident We’d Rather Not Discuss. Peek: “I’m offering you a chance to win your dream gown. Or, more accurately, this Visa Gift Card, worth $300.00…” Deadline: March 6.

Roxie Munro/Artist: official website of the author-illustrator of Hatch (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), Ecomazes (Sterling, 2010), and many more. Note: though currently based in Long Island, New York, Roxie was born in Mineral Wells, Texas and has created six books on Texas and environs.

Writers Links: Promotion: a mega compilation of tips, resources, and insights from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s-YA Literature Resources. See also agents, editors and publishers, education, and publishing.

Exploring Diversity through Children’s and Young Adult Books: Background Reading from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s-YA Literature Resources. See also Themes & Communities.

Wedding and Funerals and Everywhere in Between by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “We asked editors about the strangest place they’ve been pitched a book, and have collected a number of their stories.” Note: best to stick to the submission guidelines.

Celebrate Chinese New Year with Dragons, Dumplings, Drums…and Books by Joy Fleishhacker, Curriculum Connections from School Library Journal. Peek: “In China and across the globe, billions of people are preparing to celebrate Chinese New Year, which falls on February 3, 2011, and ring in the Year of the Rabbit. Determined by the Chinese calendar, this important holiday begins on the night of the first new moon of the year and ends 15 days later with the Lantern Festival, when the full moon is welcomed with cheerful parades of lights.” Note: includes annotated bibliography.

Analyze Your Plot Arc for Action by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro! A Free Online Writing Workshop. Peek: “Hopefully you have a strong emotion in every scene, probably a negative one—fear or grief or anger, for example. Strong emotions drive the story forward. But any emotion, no matter how strong, seems to flatten out over time.”

Save Libraries

Library Issues and Taking Action from the Texas Library Association.

TX Love LibrariesSave Our Texas Libraries! Peek: “Proposed state and local budget cuts are threatening the provision of local library services. From school libraries to public and academic libraries, our local libraries are in danger of losing significant funding for staff, programs, digital and print resources, and hours of operation.”

Authors for Librarians from the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations. Peek: “ALTAFF is bringing authors and libraries together in a unique partnership to connect authors with libraries, Friends of the Library groups, and library Foundations as well as to keep authors informed about issues and concerns affecting libraries on a national level.” Source: Liz Garton Scanlon at Liz In Ink. Note: soak up some Library Love at Liz’s LJ today.

Visit the new Austin Public Library Friends Foundation website!

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Cloaked by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins, 2011).

Check out this book trailer for Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by Dan Santat (Amulet, 2010).

In the following video, Brent Hartinger offers Seven Reasons You Should Read Shadow Walkers (Flux, 2011)(excerpt)(discussion guide):

Meet the Author: Kate DiCamillo from Adlit. Peek: “After college, Kate wrote mostly short stories for adults, submitted them, and collected hundreds of rejection letters. During a long, cold Minnesota winter, Kate felt homesick and wrote a story for kids that took place in the warm South. That story, Because of Winn-Dixie (Candlewick, 2000), was not only published; it received a prestigious Newbery Honor. When The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003) won the Newbery Medal, Kate solidified her place as one of today’s most popular authors for young people.”

The Bookanistas are dancing because we’re so excited that Beth Revis hit the NY Times Bestseller List for Across the Universe (Razorbill, 2011).” – Shana Silver

More Personally

Snow is on the ground, the rolling brownouts are over (we lost power nine times), my work in progress is resting, and I’m packing to leave town.

So, Cynsations is going on hiatus as I take off for my N.E. U.S. Blessed Tour! Those of you in New York, New Jersey, Philly & surrounding areas, I hope to see you on the road Feb. 6 to Feb. 12. I’ll resume posting on Feb. 14!

Blessed is now available from Walker Books Australia and New Zealand! See details!

Cat Calls (Candlewick, 2010), an e-book offering a short story set in the Tantalize series universe, is #15 of the Free Books on the Kindle bestseller list!

The winner of the Blessed Grand Prize Giveaway is Melissa in Washington! Congratulations! Thanks to everyone who entered. Cynsations giveaways will resume once I’m back in town.

Thanks again to everyone who attended or raised awareness of the Blessed and (Mari Mancusi) Night School Launch Party last weekend at BookPeople in Austin.

See the party pics and event report! You can order/pick up signed stock from BookPeople! Budget a little thin? Look for the Tantalize series at your local public library. If it’s not there, request it on loan.

Is the series not yet available in your country? International releases are still forthcoming (and I’ll keep you posted), but you can order the books from Book Despository, which ships free to anywhere in the world? Click to order Tantalize, Eternal, and Blessed. Note: my Native American powwow picture book, Jingle Dancer, is also available.

On a related note, see information from Mari on Finding Night School.

See also congratulations flowers from my mom (side) and a dear pal (below).

Blessed Blog Tour: Interview with Bradley and Giveaway from Pirate Penguin Reads. Peek: “Cursed Internet. Deception was such a readily available snack in the early-to-mid twentieth century.” Giveaway deadline: Feb. 6.

Blessed Blog Tour: Secondary Characters & Giveaway by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Badass Bookie. Peek: “Secondary characters mirror individual qualities of the hero. Illuminate them. Secondary characters challenge the hero. Fuel their growth. Secondary characters comment on the main characters. They help tell the readers what we need to know.” Giveaway deadline: Feb. 4.

Blessed Blog Tour: Top Ten YA Recommendations & Giveaway by Cynthia Leitich Smith from A Good Addiction. Giveaway deadline: Feb. 6.


Cynsational Events

Blessed In-Person Author Tour Schedule in Central Texas and the Northeastern U.S.: sponsored by Candlewick Press. Are you in Austin, New York, New Jersey, or the Philly area? Come join me along the way!

12th Annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 19 in Fort Myers, Florida. Note: speakers include Cynthia Leitich Smith.

SCBWI-Wisconsin Novel Revision Workshop with author Cynthia Leitich Smith from March 25 to March 27. Note: “Registration is limited to 25 persons.”


New Voice: Mark Shulman on Scrawl

Mark Shulman is the first-time novelist of Scrawl (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, 2010)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Tod Munn is a bully. He’s tough, but times are even tougher. The wimps have stopped coughing up their lunch money. The administration is cracking down. Then to make things worse, Tod and his friends get busted doing something bad. Something really bad.

Lucky Tod must spend his daily detention in a hot, empty room with Mrs. Woodrow, a no-nonsense guidance counselor. He doesn’t know why he’s there, but she does. Tod’s punishment: to scrawl his story in a beat-up notebook. He can be painfully funny and he can be brutally honest. But can Mrs. Woodrow help Tod stop playing the bad guy before he actually turns into one . . . for real?

Read Tod’s notebook for yourself.

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

The lead character in Scrawl is a tough kid named Tod Munn. He arrived in my mind like a lightning bolt, and because I wasn’t a novelist, I had no use for him.

Tod showed up one afternoon when my friend, the author Alison James, included me in a story-writing exercise. It was an experience that bordered on mass hypnosis. A group of writers lay on the floor while Alison spoke softly about… well, I don’t exactly remember. I drifted into something like sleep. Then, suddenly, she sent each of us head-first into a place. Any place.

I ended up back in my old high school. The hall was the same, the floor was the same. A kid was getting beaten up. That was the same, too. But wait, something was wrong. I was the one on top, doing the hitting. That’s not right – I’m supposed to be the other guy.

How is it I’m breaking this kid’s glasses? Me? Who am I? And then, without warning, Alison told us to open our eyes and write.

So, in one five-minute epiphany, I had a location: my old high school. I had my character: he seemed to be an amalgam of several thugs and punks I encountered in my inner-city high school. And I had a few surreal paragraphs written, in which my fictional bully eloquently contemplates delivering a beating as if it were an artistic experience.

And that’s how I discovered Tod. Then I put away the notebook and went back to all the picture books, nonfiction, humor, and preschool books I’d been writing for years. As for getting to know him, I had no intention of doing that. What did I want with an oddball character like him? He’s not such a good fit for a picture book.

A few months later, I was speaking with my future editor, Neal Porter at Roaring Brook (pictured right). He had looked over all my various books and asked me, point blank, what I really wanted to be writing. And who among us doesn’t want to write a novel?

So write one, he said.

Well, Mr. Famous Editor, I don’t know how to write a novel.

Oh, he said, don’t worry. Just send me something.

That afternoon I went back to my office, and this character Tod, elbowed his way forward yet again. Just to shut Tod up, I typed up and mailed out the paragraphs I’d scribbled down in the sweat lodge. Then Neal asked me for a few more chapters. And a few more. And somehow he coaxed a book out of me. I guess that’s why he’s Neal Porter.

In those early character/discovery chapters, which make up the front of the book, I didn’t try to dissect Tod. I didn’t work out his home life or his goals or his fatal flaws. I didn’t try to get to know him at all. I tried to be him. Or, more accurately, I became him while I was writing.

I can’t explain how it happened, but it was a genuinely natural experience for a guy in his 40s to become an angry teenager. And I should point out that I wasn’t an angry teenager myself. I was a dork and a troublemaker, but I was upbeat about it.

Tod is a smart kid, as well as a smart-mouth. He’s got a good sense of humor. He’s an interesting kind of bad boy, full of bravado and opinions and he’s got an answer for everything. He likes to hang out in the library and read after school because he can’t afford his own books. He’s also an extortionist and a thief, but nobody’s perfect.

They say a writer should just follow his character around. That’s what I did. Because the book is in journal form, each entry is essentially a day’s worth of writing.

I sat down with a loose goal in mind: say, write a scene with Tod and his friend Rex. Okay. First they’re walking down the street after shoplifting (at the same corner deli my school’s basketball team robbed with the starter pistol, ski masks, and their personalized team jackets.) Now there’s a street preacher. Now Rex is in his face. Now it’s getting out of hand. And suddenly Rex was saying and doing things that blew me away as I was writing them. Tod takes a back seat and ends up as stunned as I was.

Growing up, there was a type of kid – skinny and street-smart with a nervous tic and menacing eyes. They look rural, but they thrive in the city. That’s Rex. Every time he showed up, the story darkened.

My other favorite character is Luz. She’s a classic scene-stealer. I only wanted her for a quick purpose – to be the artsy, elusive goth girl whose creation, a statue, becomes the touchstone for Tod’s awakening. I didn’t need the girl, I needed the statue. But when you meet Luz, you’ll understand how such a fireball could barge her way into the book and make herself indispensable from beginning to end. She is a work of art herself, and it was fascinating to watch her develop. I’ve never met anyone like her. Luz’s back-and-forths with Tod make for some of the snappiest dialog in the book.

And finally, Mrs. Woodrow, the guidance counselor, looms omnipresent. Her time on stage is relatively short, but she writes notes in Tod’s journal and that allows her to have her own voice. She’s also the person Tod’s writing to throughout. It was fun for me to write in the second person, and make the reader actually become her, through Tod’s eyes.

Each of the characters began as a type, more modal than human. In each one’s case, Neal encouraged me to have them do something counter to expectation. And that’s how they all evolved – from a type to an unpredictable human. It’s the characterizations, rather than a plot, that drives the first third of the book. Once the plot kicked in, the characters did a lot of improvising, and it stayed in the book.

One last word about the characters: It would be easy to typify this as a “boy book.” Yeah, there are confrontations and fights and nefarious behaviors. But it’s more than that.

It’s a realistic story of a person who is a boy. Also, Tod and his droogs may be in the center of the action, but they’re not the moral center of the story. That honor goes to a trio of women, all no-nonsense types: Luz, Mrs. Woodrow, and Tod’s steely mother. They do not let the smart, sarcastic, difficult boy get away with anything. They’re the guardrails. And try as he might, Tod does not dent them.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

On the whole, I don’t think it’s a good idea for adults who aren’t deep in the teenage culture to attempt building any bridges to modern technology, cutting-edge slang, or the newfangled social situations of our nation’s youth. It’s so gosh-darned tough to get jiggy with the hep lingo, or stay fresh with the gadgets, or 2 b edgy. That stuff changes all the time anyway.

I’m told Scrawl has a ring of reality to it. I think that partly comes from my determination not to date the book in any way. Or, rather, to set it in the present but not root it there.

Because I don’t have kids in high school (yet…though my eight-year-old thinks she is), my teen observations are limited to school visits, subway rides, and street chatter. The only teenagers I could draw from were the ones I knew from childhood. So that’s what I did.

And aren’t the most important situations and issues universal anyway?

While I was writing Scrawl, I kept my story simple and relatively timeless. A seemingly hopeless boy gets in trouble, and with some help from a teacher, the power of words and art ultimately show him a path. Like any writer, I cut patches from life to make my quilt, and that’s the point where I had to update the story. The more clever and heartless bullies of my day would have to sneak something humiliating into the school newspaper to broadcast their fun. Now there’s the internet, with its enormous, unrelenting reach, and I had to include it. Why draw a cruel cartoon when students can post a cruel photo? And when it comes to out-and-out intimidation, destroying something electronic lasts a lot longer than throwing a bookbag into the trees.

Once I had the story finished, I spent an entire draft removing every reference I could find that would date the book. Laptop became computer. MP3 player became music player. DVD player became video machine. Xbox became video game. Camcorder became video camera, and so on. Out went YouTube, Facebook, Google. (Remember Prodigy?) If there was even the hint of obsolescence – an icebox or a jalopy – I wrote around it. Now that the book is printed and in stores, I’m told there can be no more revisions. That’s too bad, because I found cable TV and a CD reference I couldn’t improve on.


And, on that note, one of my reasons for not wanting an image of Tod on the cover was because he’d eventually look to future readers like the denizens of disco look to us now.

How do you know what’s going to persevere and what’s a hula hoop? I can’t say, except it’s an instinct. Cole Porter had it. In his 1934 song “You’re the Top” he seems to have had a time machine to pick some of the everlasting references he used. There were countless entertainers available, but he chose Irving Berlin, Mae West, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire. Mickey Mouse was only seven years old and he got mentioned. Gandhi wouldn’t free India for another 14 years. Even Pepsodent is still on the shelves. In fact, the song itself is more dated than its references. But that’s another matter altogether.


Can you keep a secret? I want Scrawl to last. As long as possible. For a book in the second decade of the third millennium, “as long as possible” is usually three months. I know the odds, but still, I set my sights for the ultimate goal: being book-report-worthy. And to do that, I had to leave out the temporary stuff. I hope it worked.

Cynsational Notes

From Roaring Brook Press: “Mark Shulman has been a camp counselor, a radio announcer, a maitre d’ in a fancy restaurant, a New York City tour guide, and a creative advertising guy. He’s written many books about many things–sharks, storms, robots, palindromes, gorillas, dodo birds, “Star Wars,” Ben Franklin, how to hide stuff, how to voodoo your enemies, and how to make a video from start to finish. He’s written picture books for Oscar de la Hoya (the boxer) and Shamu (the whale). Mark is from Rochester and Buffalo, New York, but he has lived in New York City for so very long that he tawks like he’s from da Bronx. So do his kids. His wife Kara, a grade school reading specialist, has perfect diction.”

Where the Trouble Began: Scrawl by Mark Shulman from Get to the Point: a blog by Macmillan Publishing Group. Peek: “The literacy rate hovered at about 50%. The dropout rate was maybe 25%.”

Guest Post: Neil Numberman on Illustrating Big Hairy Drama (Joey Fly, Private Eye, Book 2)

By Neil Numberman

When I first read Aaron Reynold’s manuscript for the second Joey Fly, Private Eye (Big Hairy Drama (Henry Holt, 2010)), I was blown away.

The characters were exceptionally crafted, the plot had the twists and turns like the smartest “C.S.I.” episode and the wit and irony of the best “Frasier” episode, and best of all, it almost all takes place in a theatre!

Little did Aaron know, I have a background in theatre too. Besides a ton of school plays I participated in, I worked at the famous Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia for over five years while in college.

It’s like he wrote this thing for me!

Beautiful, isn’t it?

So the first thing I did after I read the script (which is pretty much what it looks like, with “stage directions” and all), I called my old bosses at the Merriam and asked if I could stop by for the day and shoot the outside and inside of the theatre with my camera.

I took a day trip from New York, and spent a couple hours shooting everything, dressing rooms, backstage, box office, lobby, secret hallways and dark storage spaces. I was armed with plenty of reference going into this book!


Ah, the Merriam.

The next step was to thumbnail the entire book. There’s a good reason they call these sketches “thumbnails,” but even though they’re super tiny, they do give me a number of things I need to know before starting the real sketches. They help me pace out the entire book, to make sure scenes and act breaks end at the end of a page or spread. I also need to roughly figure out where everyone in the scene will be and their word balloons, in each panel.

It may not seem like it, but it’s a real pain to make sure the character who speaks first in a panel is on the left, and continues to be throughout the scene.

The thumbnails also give me another chance to read the script more in depth, and make notes in the margins to remind myself later for the sketch stage, like hiding hints and jokes, or an expression I know I want to give Sammy (usually along the lines of rage, confusion, or hunger.)


Our editor, Reka Simonsen, always requests to see these little thumbnails. I love that she wants to be so involved in the process, and she claims she loves looking at my thumbnails, but I have no idea how she gets anything from these sloppy little drawings.


What’s going on here?

Next up, I needed to create the panels and word balloons for the book’s designer, April. It’s a step I skipped with the first book, and I regretted it. I miscalculated the size the word balloons would be, and I had to expand them after the sketch stage, which meant I had to move a lot of the characters around to avoid being covered up by their own balloons!

But this time around, I created every single page, with every single balloon or caption box, sans any art whatsoever. Then April can throw the type in and make sure it works before I ever have to draw a thing.


Seen here, with text.

After that, it’s sketch time! That’s the best part, for me, of the whole undertaking. This is the most creative part, where I get to flesh out the characters and the world they live in, without having to worry about pacing and compositions, because I already took care of that with the thumbnails and empty panels.

This period involves a lot of research into the insect and arachnid kingdom, not to mention architecture, theatre, and old film noir movies. I don’t think that’s a very common crossover!


Insects and crime, who woulda thought?

The sketching took me about three months, which is pretty good time considering it’s a 128 page book. That’s almost a page and a half a day, and taking into account all the other junk one must get accomplished in daily life, I’m quite impressed with myself. The same would not be true for the finishes!

So, after the sketch stage, I hand ‘em over to Reka, and she hangs onto them for a month or two, making notes and passing them around to other folks at the publisher, so when I get it back, I have a giant printout of the entire book, with little stickie notes on them. There are often a lot of notes, but nothing major, since she’s been so hands-on from the beginning.

I can then make those changes as I start the finishes. This is by far the longest and most tedious part. The finishes require a steady hand for the inking, careful scanning, and pretty repetitive digital coloring. I’ve often been told I should get an intern for this stuff, and I even had one for a little bit, but I think it’s best if I take care of it on my own for now, especially because there’s a very specific look I’m going for with the Joey Fly universe.

So I print the sketches out at about 140%, trace them with a careful pencil line. Most artists use ink here, and I still call it “inking”, but I find I get the same results from pencils, a tool I’ve been using non-stop since I was two or three and can’t move on.

Then I scan those in and start the coloring.


Seeing this makes my hand hurt.

What makes the coloring stage even more boring, though, is that I actually color the entire thing in grayscale first. This makes it easier to get the monochromatic colors I need at the end, but whoa boy, it’s not exactly a party filling in 800 or so panels in graytones.

And how long do you think the finishes took? If you guessed something around six months, I commend you for thinking it took me that long. But you’re wrong. It took me longer. All in all, almost a year. Granted, I had other projects and jobs going on, but I at least spent a few hours a day on the book, and at most, twelve or thirteen.


Getting there…

Then I had to figure out what colors I wanted for each scene, and exactly how I wanted to get those colors. It was mind-numbing and technical, but after many back-and-forths with the art director and a printing specialist, we found some great tones to use in the book.

The first Joey Fly was mainly filled with a dark blue and rose colored monochromatic schemes. I got to have a lot more fun with the monochromatic palette this time around. Our blues are much more of a cyan, to really highlight that a cold snap that blows into Bug City. The inside of the theatre is a warm, royal orange. I also assigned different colors for each of the characters’ dressing rooms, borrowing from their personalities and interests. There’s also a major scene that takes place completely in the shadows back stage, and I used a deep purple to contrast with the warm oranges I use out in the theatre lights.


Whew!

The most tragic part of the whole process came at the very end, though, when I made what I thought was a perfect cover. It borrowed elements from the first, but was wholly its own. I fell completely in love with it, and as I’ve been told as an artist, I should never do that.


I cry just looking at it.

Because, of course, it got rejected by the publisher’s sales team. They thought it would look too similar to the first book. And I have to say, they know more about marketing then I do (I hope), so I must defer to them. I made a second, decent cover.

Finally, my job was complete. But I still had to wait six agonizing months to see the book in all its glory. Once I got my copy, the first read was a nerve-racking one. I get very nervous, looking for mistakes on my end, or even typos. But y’know what? Not a single mistake!…

Well, a few, but no one would ever notice them except me. And my ladyfriend and I read the entire thing, each playing particular characters throughout, and I gotta say, this is my proudest accomplishment as an illustrator.

And major big-ups to Aaron, who wrote an incredible story, and Reka, whose patience throughout kept me going.

And, hey, maybe we can take that original cover and make a poster out of it some day, when Joey Fly is in the hearts and homes of every ten-year-old in the country!


Or, say, a giant Sammy Stingtail.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy:

A cold snap has blown into town like an unwanted house pest. But there’s only one guy in the bug city with the power to put crime permanently on ice: Joey Fly, Private Eye. He’s always on the lookout for trouble, and he runs into it when he meets Harry Spyderson, proprietor of the Scarab Beetle Theatre and director of the much-anticipated Bugliacci.

Greta Divawing, the four-winged, long-legged leading lady, has gone missing. Harry hires Joey Fly and his assistant, Sammy Stingtail to crack the case. Can they find Greta in time to save the show?