Critique Group Interview: Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen‘s critique group includes: Patricia MacLachlan, Leslea Newman, Ann Turner, Ellen Wittlinger, Barbara Diamond Goldin, Anna Kirwan, Corinne Demas, and of course Jane herself.

How did you all come together?

I began the group—in a different incarnation—almost 45 years ago. We had just moved to Western Massachusetts, and I wanted to join a group. There was none.

I am the only one remaining from that original group. But as members dropped out, new ones came in.

Patty joined about 35-38 years ago, then Ann, then Barbara, Anna, Corinne, Leslea, and lastly Ellen, who came about three years ago.

How do you structure your schedule, meetings, menus (if applicable)?

We try to meet once a week, and as long as three or four of us are available, we manage.

Summers are difficult—Corinne and I are out of the area, Patty is sporadically away.

And of course we have kids, grandkids, partners, spouses, illnesses (of ourselves, of our relatives), book tours, teaching gigs, etc.

Where do you meet?

We take turns in one another’s houses.

Why is that space good for y’all?

It is familiar family. We can lean back, kick back, and simply deal with the manuscripts at hand. We have snacks, coffee, tea, etc.

We begin with the news—sales, rejections, F&Gs, family stuff, agent problems, editor tough love, etc. About an hour of that.

Then it’s manuscripts all the way.

So, who’s your big-picture person?

Ann, Me, sometimes Leslea.

Your logic guru?

Probably Leslea or Corinne.

Your poet?

Ann, Leslea, Anna, me.

The line-editor?

Ann, Leslea, Corinne, me.

What other superpowers have I missed?

The humorist: Patty. Barbara.

The professor: Corinne.

The sly one: Barbara.

The passionate one: Leslea, Anna, Corinne.

The tender one: Corinne, Anna.

What have been a few of your most glowing moments?

Patty winning the Newbery.

My Owl Moon, illustrated by John Schoenherr (Philomel, 1987) winning the Caldecott.

Other awards for other members. Also the births of grandbabies, Leslea as Northampton Poet Laureate, New York Times bestsellers, birthday celebrations. And every single new book sale!

How has the vibe and/or membership changed over the years?

The first incarnation was full of unpublished but good writers. Now we are all professionals.

What makes your group special?

The members. Really. We read aloud rather than pass manuscripts around, and we care truly and deeply about one another’s work and successes.

Cynsational Screening Room

From Robert H. Jackson Center: “Jane Yolen, noted author, spoke at the Jackson Center on April 5 and 6, 2011. In these excerpts, she (1) reads her Holocaust-themed poem “Alphabet”; (2) speaks about and reads from her book The Devil’s Arithmetic; (3) reads her poem, ‘The Rivers of Babylon, In Memoriam’; and (4) reads her poem, ‘Ich Bin Ein Jude.'” Note: The Devil’s Arithmetic (Viking, 1998) is highly recommended.

Co-Authors Interview: Walter Dean Myers & Ross Workman on Kick

Walter Dean Myers and Ross Workman are the co-authors of Kick (HarperCollins, 2011). From the promotional copy:

For the very first time in his decades-long career writing for teens, acclaimed and beloved author Walter Dean Myers writes with a teen, Ross Workman.

Kevin Johnson is thirteen years old. And heading for juvie.

He’s a good kid, a great friend, and a star striker for his Highland, New Jersey, soccer team. His team is competing for the State Cup, and he wants to prove he has more than just star-player potential. Kevin’s never been in any serious trouble . . . until the night he ends up in jail.

Enter Sergeant Brown, a cop assigned to be Kevin’s mentor. If Kevin and Brown can learn to trust each other, they might be able to turn things around before it’s too late.

Walter Dean Myers is the New York Times bestselling author of Monster (HarperCollins, 2004), winner of the first Michael L. Printz award, and Harlem, illustrated by Christopher Myers (Scholastic, 1997) a Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Book. The inaugural recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, he is considered one of the preeminent writers for children. He lives in New Jersey with his family.

When Ross Workman was thirteen, he wrote a fan email to his favorite author.

When Walter Dean Myers wrote back and asked him whether he would be interested in writing a book, Ross was amazed—and incredibly excited.

Four years later, Ross is seventeen and in eleventh grade. In addition to writing, Ross plays a sport every season: high school soccer in the fall, high school wrestling in the winter, and club travel soccer in the spring. He lives in New Jersey.

Ross, you first contacted Walter to express your appreciation for his books. Which is your favorite and why?

It’s difficult to choose a favorite, because I like so many of Walter’s books. At the moment, my favorite is Monster, but I could easily pick others as my favorite.

After I learned why Walter used the format he did for Monster, I had a new appreciation for the book.

He often visits young people in prison, and he found that the people he spoke to would switch to the third person point of view when talking about their crimes. They wouldn’t take ownership of the crimes. I’m interested in the way Walter writes about Steve Harmon’s point of view.

Ross, it would certainly be flattering to be invited by your favorite author to collaborate–but also a huge commitment for someone already balancing school, sports, family. Did you hesitate? Jump right in? What made “yes” your final answer?

Honestly, I didn’t even have to think about it. This invitation from Walter Dean Myers—my favorite author—was too good to pass up! If I had thought about it, I would have worried more about whether I could actually write a book.

Ross, what surprised you most about writing a novel?

I had always thought that writers just sat down at their computers and the words just came to them and they wrote.

It’s not like that at all. There’s a lot of thinking involved before you even write a word. And sometimes just coming up with the right phrase or sentence can take a long time.

But I guess the most surprising thing was how much work there is to do after a book is accepted, and how much work an editor does. There are a lot of stages of the book to look at.

To both, what were the biggest challenges of collaboration? 


Trying to make sure my writing was good enough to appear in a book co-written by Walter Dean Myers. I wanted to do my best.

Walter: I’m so accustomed to going my own way that I had to stop and consider what my coauthor would do with a scene or where he might deviate from the story I had in mind.

Fortunately, we had worked out most of the details in advance and thought a lot alike so it wasn’t that much of a problem.

To both, what did you love about it?


 Getting a chance to work with Walter was amazing. I learned so much about writing! For me, the creative process is the most interesting part. I just love to write.

Walter: The chance to see another writer at work was wonderful. It was sort of like playing a team sport. The joy of winning as a team is very special.

Finally to both, what did you learn from the experience?


 I learned so much that I can’t list everything here. One interesting thing was that I saw my writing change as I got older. Now that I’m seventeen, I think (and hope) I write differently from the way I did at thirteen. If I wrote the book now, it would be quite different just because I am older and I’ve changed.

Walter: First, I learned that my faith in a young writer was justified. We came to a point at which I was sure that Ross could have finished the book alone. I’m glad he didn’t, of course.

I also saw, first hand, that the experience of writing increases the ability to write. Ross wrote much more convincingly at the end of this project than he did at the onset. I believe that structure helps in the writing process and working with Ross on Kick served to reaffirm this in my mind.

Ross, many teens read Cynsations, and many of them are writers themselves. What advice do you have for them?

You have to be willing to work really hard if you are serious about your writing. Once the more creative part is done, and it’s all just the hard work of revision, you need to put in the time and stick to it. Don’t give up.

New Voice: Sheila O’Connor on Sparrrow Road

Sheila O’Connor is the first-time author of Sparrrow Road (G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2011). From the promotional copy:

“No music. No TV. No computer. No telephone.
And everyday, silence until supper.”

Those are the rules of Sparrow Road, an eerie artist mansion in the country, where Raine O’Rourke is forced to spend her summer. And worse, she can’t figure out why her mother agreed to work there as a cook.

“Not everything’s a mystery,” her mother warns, when Raine pesters her with questions, but Sparrow Road is full of secrets Raine intends to solve. Why did her mother take this sudden job out in the country? What’s the truth behind the silent, brooding owner, Viktor? The aging poet, Lillian? What happened to the missing orphans that lived once in the attic?

Cheered on by a cast of quirky artists that live there at the mansion, Raine sets out in search of clues. It’s a summer full of mysteries and strange adventures, but it’s an unexpected secret from Raine’s own life that changes her forever.

A delightful story about improbable friendships and the power of imagination, Sparrow Road is an enchanted world that will win the reader’s heart.

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, I was drawn to realism. I loved books that featured stories of ordinary people, people that could be me, because it allowed me very early to see a place for my own stories in literature. By the time I was nine or ten, I especially liked stories with trouble, stories in which the characters faced challenges with friends, family, school, culture. I looked to literature to teach me important lessons about life; I was happy to let the characters make mistakes that would save me from my own.

But always, I saw novels as long and wonderful dreams, worlds I could enter and live in, and for a time, lives I could inhabit that weren’t my own. Books still offer that same opportunity, but now I experience it as a reader and a writer.

When I was writing Sparrow Road, I had the honor to enter that world, to live in Raine’s reality, to discover what it was like to be a twelve-year-old girl spending an enchanted summer at a strange artist colony with only adults for friends. And I tried to write it with the kind of honesty I expected from good fiction even as a child, a sense of emotional truth that would make the reader trust the writer and the tale.

Beyond all that, I wrote it for the child I was, and the children I meet everyday, wise and insightful young people who understand all too well the complexities of loss, friendship, love, disappointment, and the ways in which the problems of adults influence their lives.

There’s a moment in Sparrow Road when Raine’s grandfather tells her she’s too young to know about grown up problems, and Raine answers: “Kids are always part of grown-up problems. Even when the grownups think they aren’t.”

Literature offers us a glimpse into those problems, but it can also offer hope and healing, the possibility to triumph in the face of loss. That’s my dream for Sparrow Road.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Before I was ready to query agents, I spent several years writing and then revising Sparrow Road. I adore revision, for me it’s the most empowering part of the writing process because it means improvement is ahead. And opportunity is always possible.

My agent didn’t ask for revisions, but my editor, Stacy Barney at Putnam, definitely did. What I appreciated most about Stacy was her respect for my own authority as the writer. Throughout the revision process she shared her concerns, but trusted me to work toward the solutions.

When the solutions didn’t fully address her concerns, I went back to the page. From the start, I was encouraged by her love for Sparrow Road, her desire to see it reach its full potential. I knew we were on the same side. She wanted the best for the book I’d written which is a real gift in an editor. And she’s an incredibly smart reader—when she says there’s a problem, there’s a problem.

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

I have taught creative writing–poetry and fiction–since I was a MFA student many years ago so it’s almost impossible for me to separate those two identities.

My students have included kindergartners, the elderly, kids in detention centers, working adults, undergraduates and graduates. I’ve loved them all.

When I’m working with beginning students, there’s a tremendous joy in watching them discover the power of language, of claiming their personal voice and story on the page. And I’m always gratified when I meet a former student many years later that I taught as a young person or a beginner in some college course—and there he or she is, a serious committed writer, crafting their own books. I cannot tell you how happy that makes me.

At the same time, I am a full-time professor teaching MFA students at Hamline University, fellow fiction writers, and there’s great company and solidarity in working side by side with others who struggle with issues of story and craft. In my graduate courses, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together—we’re all trying our best to get a good book written, often against incredible odds. And their problems are my problems—pacing, character development, sub-text, structure, voice, etc.—so as I encourage them toward solutions, or share what I’ve learned about craft, I often stumble upon solutions for my own work.

I’ve been blessed to make a living thinking about craft, studying the essentials of storytelling and language, encouraging others to claim their own identities as writers. It’s been good work—work I’m proud of—even when it takes time from my own writing.

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?

When I finished Sparrow Road, I had several other middle-grade novels in-progress, plus a couple of picture books, and I decided I wanted the expertise of an agent who specialized in children’s literature.

I already had a wonderful agent for my adult novels, but children’s literature struck me as genre specific, and I wanted someone with deep knowledge of that particular piece of the publishing industry—someone who would know the right readers for Sparrow Road.

I did some research, talked to writer pals who had children’s books, and queried several agents. Rosemary Stimola had been highly recommended to me, and when she contacted me with a love for Sparrow Road, I knew I’d found my match.

The agent search is a difficult thing—for some writers it goes quickly, for others it can take years. Of course, the first and most important thing I tell writers is to give their attention to the work, write the best book they can, don’t compromise on quality, write a book someone will want to sell. After that, you have to stay in the game for the long haul, keep at it, pay attention to the agents who represent work you admire, contact them, and keep your fingers crossed.

Don’t give up. So much of it is luck. And if after all of that, you still can’t find an agent, send it out yourself. Wonderful books can find homes without agents. Believe in it.

Cynsational Notes

On Sparrow Road: “…beautifully written novel, with its leisurely revelation of secrets and sad events of the past. .. Readers finding themselves in this quiet world will find plenty of space to imagine and dream for themselves.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“I want to live in Sparrow Road. I want to row on the lake, drink root beer floats at the Comfort Cone, and make rhubarb taffy in the big old kitchen. Sheila O’Connor’s book about the importance of love, loyalty, and dreams charmed and touched me. We accompany Raine through a summer of secrets and discovery, friendship and forgiveness, growing up and growing old. Sparrow Road is a place for wishing long and dreaming, and so is this terrific novel. Sparrow Road is quite wonderful and I recommend it highly.”—Newbery author Karen Cushman

Find Sheila at Facebook.

Interview: Pelican Publishing Company


Nina Kooij had edited at Pelican Publishing Company since 1987.

Assistant to Publisher

Kathleen C. Nettleton has worked in all facets of the publishing industry during her career with Pelican.

She has been responsible for reinvigorating the convention and promotion initiatives, and strengthening the company’s national profile.

In her current role as assistant to the publisher, she manages the day-to-day operations of this mid-size independent publishing house, encouraging growth and development in many areas including the company’s online presence.

Nettleton attended Louisiana State University, receiving a degree in marketing, and has held an active role in industry organizations including Publishers Association of the South and the Small Press Steering Committee of the Association of American Publishers.

School Sales Manager

Caitlin Smith (pictured) has worked at Pelican as school sales manager since August 2005. It was her first job after graduating from Spring Hill College, where she studied business and English.

She started at Pelican two weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and returned to work after several weeks of evacuation from the city.

At that time, every single Pelican employee who had returned after the storm—including the publisher, Dr. Milburn Calhoun— worked together in the warehouse to ship out the backlog of orders from the company was shut down. “It was an interesting beginning,” Caitlin says, “and things have only gotten more interesting (though, thankfully, in different ways) since then.”

What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those for young readers?

Nina/editorial: My mother is an editor in the education field, and books were always a part of my family’s life. I excelled in English classes and went on to major in the subject and get a master’s in it. In high school, I edited the literary magazine, and in college. I was the fiction editor of the literary review. I interned at a small press and then was accepted at a summer publishing institute, where I met Pelican’s vice president. Pelican has a strong children’s list, and so I have had the pleasure of editing for young readers for many years.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Books have been a part of my world my entire life. My dad was a book scout and then book dealer before purchasing Pelican in 1970. I frequently went with him to second-hand bookstores and thrift shops. When we bought Pelican in 1970, I worked on various projects throughout junior and senior high school. I never thought of any other career.

Caitlin/marketing: I have always had a voracious love for books, instilled by my mother. She was fortunate enough to be a student in Coleen Salley’s class when she attended The University of New Orleans, and Coleen’s insistence on the importance of reading to and with children really stuck with her, and consequently, with me.

I was fortunate enough to work with Coleen, since she was one of Pelican’s authors, and I think anyone who met her would tell you that Coleen was impossible to forget and if she told you something, you had better listen!

I have always believed that books are very powerful things, and the books that you read as a child can have a particular impact on the person you become. I’m also still a bit of a kid at heart. I believe you’re never too old for a good picture book, and YA novels are still among some of my favorite things to read.

Could you tell us about Pelican?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Pelican is a medium publisher with 90 to 100 books released each year. Since we are run by an entrepreneur, many of titles reflect his varied interests. We are particularly interested in history–Civil War and World War II, architecture, cookbooks and children. New Orleans and Louisiana books in all categories appear on our list as well.

Caitlin/marketing: Pelican is an independent publisher that has been based in the New Orleans area for over 80 years. We usually publish 40-50 books a season. Those include picture books, middle grade novels, YA, and adult titles.

We’re a smaller company, so all of the employees know each other well, and the different departments are very collaborative. It’s a great place to start a career in publishing because you really get to see how the whole publishing process works, from manuscript evaluation and production to sales and promotion (and even shipping and receiving, after the hurricane!).

Because we are a smaller publisher, we have close relationships with our authors. I am fortunate to work with all of our children’s authors and illustrators (and some of our adult authors as well), and I am in contact with all of them at least once a month through a newsletter I send out and in contact with many of them more frequently than that.

They know they can send me an email or call me directly, and I will answer their questions (or find someone who can). I know who they are. I know what their books are. With many of them, I know about their families. I think that kind of a close relationship is more difficult with a larger publisher.

We’re also committed to keeping books in print for a long time. With some of the major publishers, your book can come out, and if it doesn’t sell like gangbusters right away, it can be remaindered and put out of print in what seems like the blink of an eye. Our authors know their books are going to be available for years to come, and I know they appreciate that.

It’s a family-owned publisher, yes?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Yes, Pelican is owned by Milburn and Nancy Calhoun and Jim Calhoun (Milburn’s brother). Jim Calhoun now handles a few projects a year. Milburn is still actively running the company. My mom, Nancy, was the first salesman for Pelican and did conventions for years. She has since retired.

As mentioned above, I have worked in some capacity in the company since we purchased. I have been full-time in the office since my graduation from college.

My brother, David worked as an editor during college and prior to attending graduate school. He is now a college professor and no longer works at the company. This summer his two oldest children – Susan and Leslie Calhoun -will be interning at Pelican.

Caitlin/marketing: That’s right. Pelican has been owned by the Calhoun family for over 40 years. Dr. Milburn Calhoun is our president and publisher; his wife, Nancy Calhoun, is Vice President; their daughter, Kathleen Calhoun Nettleton, is assistant to the publisher; and James Calhoun, Dr. Calhoun’s brother, is our special projects editor.

When they bought the company, Kathleen was just a child, and Dr. Calhoun was still working as a physician as well as publisher at Pelican, but he has since retired from medicine.

Could you share with us some of the history of the company?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Pelican started in 1926 and has had several owners. The current owner/publisher is Milburn Calhoun. He purchased the company in 1970, and for many years ran it on the side of his main job. His “main” job was a family doctor.

This means that we had to set up a communication system. This was particularly important in the days before answer phones and email! He set up a system where each employee sends items home in a folder each day. He looks at this and responds. This system continues to this day and is known as “the box.”

Prior to retiring, he would call every day at lunch to talk to any staffers that had immediate questions. He retired from the medical practice in 1997 and expanded his time with Pelican.

We have had some challenges– in December 1997, we had a fire that totally destroyed the building along with about 60% of our stock. There are many challenges after this type of disaster, from finding a location to replacing lost stock. We had been looking for a building to expand but had not purchased anything at that point. We ended up in a temporary location for almost three years with the warehouse being in another location. Since we have always been in the same building, this did require an adjustment.

Another next big challenge was Katrina (August 29, 2005). There was significant damage to the building and stock. One of our dock doors was torn off of the hinges, which meant the building was open.

The publisher returned one week later to access the damage and then had to leave. He returned with one employee at two weeks. Other Pelican employees started returning as they were able throughout September.

All staff were doing things that were not exactly in their job description, but it enabled us to get back up and running faster. Twenty percent of our employees decided not to return to New Orleans, so the company had to recover from that. We have had another challenge with the BP oil spill in April 2010. This affected our customers, which in turn affected Pelican.

Caitlin/marketing: In 1970, the Calhouns acquired Pelican Publishing House from Betty and Hodding Carter and restored its name to Pelican Publishing Company. Its history embraces such names as William Faulkner, whose first trade publication was published by Pelican, Stuart O. Landry, whose vision kept the company alive from 1926 to 1966, and the Calhoun family, who expanded a small, ailing regional publishing house into an internationally successful company.

The company has survived several disasters, including a fire that totally destroyed the building that housed Pelican’s offices and approximately half of its stock of books in 1997 and then the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many of our children’s books feature illustrated gators, but the Pelican warehouse was visited by a real, live alligator at one point, which animal control had to remove.

How about the history specifically with regard to children’s book publishing?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: One of our first early successes was a children’s book. The publisher heard an ad for Bergeron Plymouth, which included a “Night Before Christmas” poem with a Cajun slant. Milburn Calhoun knew immediately that it would be a great children’s book, but it would need an illustrator–who could draw alligators.

Within the next few weeks, James Rice drove up on his motorcycle with a sketchbook showing his first book.

Milburn Calhoun asked him if he could draw alligators.

Jim’s response was: “Give me a few weeks, and I will be back.”

Cajun Night Before Christmas was the beginning of a beautiful partnership between James Rice and Pelican until his death in June 2004. James Rice had always wanted to be a book illustrator. He traveled year around promoting books in schools and bookstores.

Of course, the fall was a particularly busy time promoting the various versions of Night Before Christmas that he had illustrated. James and I did many conventions together, and I do miss him. The book that James Rice brought to Pelican that first day was actually his second book published – Lyn and the Fuzzy. It is still in print today. Cajun Night Before Christmas started two series- Night Before Christmas series and Gaston the Green-Nosed Alligator series.

The Night Before Christmas series includes many views of the classic poem from Texas and Hillbilly to Teachers, Principals and Librarians.

Another long series is Mary Alice Fontenot’s Clovis Crawfish series. She created the character to teach children about swamp characters.

Caitlin/marketing: We eventually branched out into children’s biographies (in picture book and middle reader formats), alphabet books, fairy tales and folklore with a twist, YA, and more.

Pelican is based in Gretna, Louisiana. Does that offer you a different point of view than, say, a NYC-based house? If so, how?

Nina/editorial: I think our size as well as our location helps us provide a more personal touch for authors outside of the major publishing centers. All of us are accessible by phone. We also are open to topics outside the mainstream and authors who are at an early point in their career.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I think that most publishers from outside of New York have a different viewpoint that reflects why they are in publishing. Pelican wants to promote New Orleans and the rest of the South through children’s books (as well as adult books). Many of the projects we receive are New Orleans/Louisiana related, but we are also interested in other areas as well.

Caitlin/marketing: I think so. For one, we’re in the New Orleans area, and New Orleanians love the culture and history of our city. We really appreciate our region, which I think also helps us appreciate the special things about other regions in the country; hence, we publish a lot of regional titles. We also publish a lot of titles of Southern interest.

We have a lot of respect for different areas of the country and things that smaller cities and towns have to offer. The city where we’re based is also not as frantic as New York can be, and I think that more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere comes through at Pelican to a certain extent.

By no means does that translate to laziness or lack of care about our work! If anything, we feel we have to work harder because our address is not in New York. It can be harder to earn respect just because we are outside of the Big Apple bubble.

Besides books for young readers, what other types do you publish?

Caitlin/marketing: We publish a very wide variety of titles!

Besides our board books, picture books, chapter books, and YA, we publish history books, art, architecture, political science, coffee table books, cookbooks (which are some of my favorites), memoir, biographies, travel, audio books, and even a small amount of poetry and fiction.

How has the list changed over the years?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Children’s books have become a bigger part of the company than I thought it would. Mainly because we are getting more good children’s manuscripts in.

Caitlin/marketing: It has definitely expanded over the years! We publish many more titles per year than we used to, and children’s books are a much larger part of our list than they once were. Our focus has evolved over the years as well. For example, though we still publish travel, we don’t publish as much of it as we once did, and we have a greater focus on lushly illustrated cookbooks, like those in our Classic Recipes Series.

How would you describe the list now?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Children’s books continue to be a significant part of the list. We are looking for more nonfiction children’s books to share historical figures. We are looking at more middle readers but being very selective.

Caitlin/marketing: The list is definitely diverse–I sometimes have trouble explaining to people everything that we publish since we cover such a wide array of genres!

I think our children’s list is getting stronger all the time; I am really excited about the new authors and illustrators we’ve been working with over the past few years as well as our strong backlist authors we’ve been working with for years.

We’ve gone from publishing the occasional picture book to having new picture books, chapter books, YA, and/or children’s audio books on our list every season. To give you an idea of how the list has expanded, in our 2011 Fall catalog, there are 49 books included, and 21 of those are children’s books—they’re a very significant part of our list.

Are there any particular books for young readers that you’d like to highlight?

Nina/editorial: We are very excited about our picture-book biographies, such as Eliza’s Cherry Trees, about the woman who brought the famous trees to Washington, D.C.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I am very excited about a new book for fall–Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer. It is a children’s picture book based on her life. She is the one that set up the system for classification of stars. She was fascinated by the stars from a very early age. I think that it shows you can follow your dreams.

I am looking forward to The Cajun Nutcracker by Chara Dillon Mock, which is an adaptation of a class Christmas story with the added Cajun twist. This continues our interest in children’s Christmas titles, which started with Cajun Night Before Christmas.

Caitlin/marketing: I work with all of the children’s authors and illustrators, so asking me to choose just a few to highlight is really hard!

I do adore Love the Baby–it is my go-to present when a friend or relative is going to have a second child. Steven Layne‘s hilarious text combined with Ard Hoyt‘s illustrations just can’t be beat.

Mama’s Bayou by Dianne de la Casas, illustrated by Holly Stone-Barker is my go-to for a first baby present–the sweet rhythmic text and highly detailed collage illustrations work so well.

I love Virginia Pilegard‘s Warlord’s Series, since each book contains a really interesting math/science lesson and an activity.

The rhythmic text of David R. Davis‘s Jazz Cats is also fantastic.

Finally, we have two really unusual counting books that I love–one is called Ten Redneck Babies: A Southern Counting Book (too funny!), and one is Glubbery Gray: The Knight-Eating Beast (scroll for cover art above).

What new directions should we know about?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: We are looking for more historical children’s books like the Annie Jump Cannon book I mentioned–featuring individuals that children need to know about.

Caitlin/marketing: We’re doing e-books now, which some people may not be aware of. For example, Steven Layne’s YA novels This Side of Paradise and Paradise Lost are available on both the Pelican site and on Amazon as e-books.

Many more of our titles, including some of our picture books, are available as e-books through Google, and we are working with other partners to make them more widely available.

Also, illustrators should know that since James Rice’s death, each new title in our Night Before Christmas Series has been illustrated by a different illustrator. That is one of the series that we are best-known for, so it’s an exciting thing to be a part of.

We also just published a title this spring that has the complete text in both Spanish and English: How the Gods Created the Finger People. We have a lot of books with French or Cajun French sprinkled throughout, and we have a very limited number of books with text in Spanish and English, but we’re getting more requests for bilingual books all the time, so I think that is something we would be open to doing more of.

Big picture, what makes Pelican special?

Nina/editorial: We are interested in publishing books that are informative and uplifting.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: We really think that the publisher-author relationship is important and a partnership. The children’s books that do the best are those by authors that understand their work is not done when the manuscript is turned in. Pelican considers backlist titles a strong part of the mix. There are titles on our list that we continue to promote and work with the authors years after the book has been published.

How do you connect your children’s-YA titles to teachers and librarians?

Caitlin/marketing: At the most basic level, we send out catalogs and make our books available for purchase directly from us (schools and libraries get a 20% discount, unless it is a special event) and make sure they’re available from the major wholesalers as well.

We also have activity guides for many of our books to make using them in the classroom as easy as possible. We send email blasts to those who have purchased from us before when similar titles arrive in which they might be interested. We submit them for awards and state reading lists.

Many of our children’s authors and illustrators also do school and library visits, in addition to speaking at conferences, which is another great way to connect with teachers and librarians. We also try to reach them through Facebook and Twitter as well as our YouTube page.

Many of our authors and illustrators are making book trailers now, and when Paradise Lost by Steven Layne was coming out, we even had a book trailer contest for students, which was fantastic. They did such an excellent job. (See sample trailer below.)

Have your marketing strategies changed during the recent economic downturn? If so, how and what is your rationale?

Caitlin/marketing: We’ve definitely been looking at everything we do a little more closely–looking at the costs and benefits more than once before making any decisions. We know that budgets are being cut everywhere–our budget and our buyers’ budgets.

We’ve been implementing some more low-cost approaches and utilizing more social media. We’ve also been considering what conferences we attend very carefully, but for some of those, though the costs are high, it’s definitely still worth it to have a presence.

We’ve been doing more blog tours for new titles to garner more exposure without the expense of traveling all over the country.

Please describe your dream children’s-YA author, illustrator, and/or author-illustrator.

Nina/editorial: In addition to literary and visual talent, they would have some professional experience in the field already and also be established in the public arena: making presentations at schools, storytelling conventions, bookstores, etc.

Caitlin/marketing: My dream author or illustrator is willing and able to do school presentations as well as bookstore signings. She (or he) has some sort of web presence (website, blog, Facebook, Twitter–maybe all of the above!) with easy-to-access information about her books.

She is outgoing, has a well-thought-out and concise pitch for her book to give to prospective buyers. She has her own marketing ideas, is willing to take initiative, and keeps me apprised of what she is doing–and what she is thinking about doing–to market her book so that we can work together effectively.

Pictured: Cindy Dike, cildren’s book manager at Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans; Johnette Downing, one of our children’s authors; and Caitlin Smith, school sales manager of Pelican (in the blue coat).

Do you accept unagented work?

Caitlin/marketing: We absolutely do. All of our submissions guidelines are on our website. We love receiving submissions from new authors. It is especially gratifying when I meet someone at a conference who later submits and gets accepted—it’s great fun to end up working with them!

What recommendations do you have for writers in the submissions process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I strongly recommend reading the author guidelines located on our website. This will help them submit items properly. Looking at a publishing website can give you ideas on what types of books the publisher is interested in before you submit.

Caitlin/marketing: Follow the guidelines. That’s my number one suggestion. Also, do your research. When you are submitting, make sure your work fits in with what that company publishes. Proofread your submission, and then have someone whose grammatical skills you trust proofread it again. You want your manuscript to be as polished as possible, as good as you can make it, but also be aware that it’s never going to be perfect. At some point, you have to let it go and send it out.

Then, be patient. Be very patient–the submissions process can take a long time. After a few months, it is okay to inquire if your manuscript has been received and where in the process it is–but don’t pester the editor.

Don’t claim your manuscript is the next Harry Potter, and don’t say that it should be published because your cousin’s six-year-old neighbor really thinks it’s terrific.

There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the current state and future of the picture book. What do you think?

Nina/editorial: Parents and kids will always seek out and enjoy picture books, in a variety of platforms.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I think that electronic books and technology are changing everything.

Caitlin/marketing: I do think that changing technology is having and will continue to have an impact on how children’s books are created and what is considered a “book.” I do not think, however, that physical picture books are going to die out completely, at least not anytime soon.

There’s something special about sitting with a child in your lap, reading a book, turning the pages, and looking at the pictures–and that’s not going away.

As a reader, what have been your favorite new children’s books of 2010-2011 and why?

Caitlin/marketing: Other than Pelican titles, I loved the Hunger Games trilogy, so I was so excited when I read Mockingjay last year. Suzanne Collins‘s unflinching portrayal of war is incredible.

I thought The Cardturner by Louis Sachar was impeccably written–it made bridge seem as exciting as Saints football. I still want to learn how to play.

I loved Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, though the setting was a little scary for those of us living in New Orleans! It definitely deserved the awards.

I also really enjoyed Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. I loved stories about vampires, werewolves, witches, etc., as a child, and that hasn’t really changed. I have an ARC of Sweetly on my to be read pile–looking forward to that one!

What do you do outside the world of publishing?

Nina/editorial: My hobbies include cooking, traveling, and supporting live music!

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I read, but at the moment not many children’s books. My husband and I enjoy concerts and try to see many of the classic groups that are touring.

Caitlin/marketing: As I think we all do, I read quite a bit. (Right now, I am reading The Wise Man’s Fear, which I picked up at TLA–it’s great!)

I love to travel, so I do that as much as I can. I’m also an avid swing dancer and lindy hopper. New Orleans has a great swing dance scene, since we have great music for it!

Cynsational Notes

Check out one of the trailers for Paradise Lost:

See also David Davis and Jan Peck visit Britain Elementary School:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win an author-signed advanced reader copy of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, a graphic novel by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011), plus a magnetic Sanguini’s wipe board!

In the first print journal review, Booklist cheers:

“This format- and genre-blending story delivers on several counts as a vampire-werewolf adventure, a mystery, a romance with teeth and claws, an authentic look at diversity (both ethnic and species), and a darn good read.”

Note: Sanguini’s is the fictional restaurant that appears in Tantalize and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story.

To enter, comment on this post, specify “Tantalize: Kieren’s Story” and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with “Tantalize: Kieren’s Story” in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Deadline: June 17. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers.

Cynsational Winners

Winners selected by numbering the entries* and requesting a winner from

*some giveaways include chances for more than one entry per person, which is factored in.

More News

Mystery and Magic by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly, Bookshelf Approved. Peek: “I do think holding up that banner and announcing to the world: I care about this; this is who I am is important.”

Why I Love Moral Dilemmas by Janice Hardy from The Compulsive Reader. Peek: “You never know where a choice might lead, but you’re pretty sure it’ll end badly for someone. And when they do make a hard decision, you cringe right along with them.”

YA Dystopian Novels List compiled by Amy H. Sturgis from Redecorating Middle Earth. Peek: “…defining ‘dystopian’ works as those that imply a warning by describing a world gone wrong: utopias that took a bad turn, worst-case scenario post-apocalyptic societies, post-disaster tales that focus more on the undesirable communities that develop after the disasters than on the disasters themselves, etc.” Note: list from 1960s releases to present day, plus a select bibliography of works about young adult dystopians.

Comics in the Classroom: 100 Tips, Tools and Resources for Teachers by Kelsey Allen from Teaching Degree. Note: many annotated links. Source: Shannon Miller.

Archetype versus Stereotype by Jen from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “…the difference is that archetype will use the template as a starting place, and stereotype uses it as the end point.”

Are You Setting Summer Goals? by Janet Reid Literary Agent. Peek: “Failure is not trying; Failure is not paying attention; Failure is giving up.”

Inside the Writer’s Studio with Liz Gallagher by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved. Peek: “I almost always write in first person. I think that’s because I need to hear my character talking in order to know what she’s feeling. I want the reader to feel close to her too, so I tend to use the voice reveal my character.”

Querying a Collaboration by Jessica from BookEnds, LCC – A Literary Agency. Peek: “With some collaborations authors choose to have separate agents (often they already have agents for other projects). Most of the time, however, one agent will represent the author team on the book.”

A Sense of Place by Jessie from The Life Story of a Book Worm. Note: the post references Tantalize in a flattering way, but I’m referencing it here for the points made about setting and regional diversity. Peek: “For me, a sense of place, has to be real. Dusty, Texas towns are there but not everywhere in Texas. You have cacti and sand dunes sharing space. You have graffiti and wild flowers less than thirty minutes from each other. This is all I know and this is what I write.”

10 Ways to Cope with Pre-presentation Jitters by Jon Gibbs from An Englishman in New Jersey. Peek: “If the venue room is empty, do something physical, like moving chairs around – it doesn’t matter if the room’s already set up perfectly, you can always move them back again.”

The Magic Formula: How an E-Book Can Become a Bestseller by Karleen from Kids’ Ebook Bestsellers. Peek: “I suggest that authors for children get in fast while the number of e-books for children is relatively low. It’s growing quickly, but right now you have a better numbers game in this genre than in many others.”

New Voice: Maureen McGowan on Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer from Cynsations. Peek: “So many people, including me, go into novel writing thinking they know how to write and tell stories, only to discover it takes time (and often several manuscripts) to develop the skills required to write publishable novels, no matter how talented you are and no matter how much you think you know about writing or literature going in.” Note: re-posted from Memorial Day for thosewho took a break from the kidlitosphere over the holiday weekend.

Cynsational Book Promotion Tip: Advertise at Young Adult (& Kids Book Central). Traffic is high, rates are reasonable, the site manager is helpful. Note: I’m currently running the book trailer for Blessed on the site.

What I Learned Doing My Kickstarter Project, Part 1 by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: “My Kickstarter project, Poetry: Spread the Word successfully funded on May 9th (and thank you all for your support) raising just over $6,900 to help me spread poetry into schools.”

A Chat with a Cool Chick – Erzsi Deak, founder of Hen & Ink from Melissa Buron. Peek: “No matter the doom and gloom that roams the bookshelves these days, I’m a little short on razor blades, so prefer dark with a dose of levity.”

2011 Arab American (Children’s-YA) Book Award winner is Saving Sky by Diane Stanley (HarperCollins) and the honorable mention is Time to Pray by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills). Note: the award is given by the Arab American National Museum. See also Cynsations guest posts on Time to Pray by Maha and Ted.

Congratulations to E. Kristin Anderson on being newly appointed Hunger Mountain‘s new children’s-YA lit assistant editor.

Release or How Authors Cope with Emotional Ups and Downs by Janet Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “Is it the best I can do with the skills I have at my command right now?”

Self-doubt by Jill Hathaway from Jill Scribbles. Peek: “…it was a big blow to my ego. I went from getting multiple offers of representation to being told that my book needed some insanely hard work. I cried. A lot.”

Staying Motivated – My Buddy and Me by Carmela Martino from Teaching Authors. Peek: “I found it very motivating to put my goals in writing and to know I’d have to be accountable to someone at the end of the week.”

Mariana Debut Year – First Signing from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “…when the first two people in line both mentioned how nervous I seemed, and I realized I was shaking and saw how chicken-scrawly and unfamiliar my writing in their books was, and all those people were looking at me, well…I became concerned.”

The Epic Post on Trends (Middle Grade & YA) by author-agent Mandy Hubbard. Peek: “Just like last year, editors are really short on MG and feel this market is primed to boom in the way YA has…but that hardly any one is actually, you know, writing it.

More Personally

“Cat Calls,” my short story e-book, has hit #8 on the BooksonBoard bestseller list. It’s also an “free” bestseller. Download “Cat Calls” for the Nook from Barnes & Noble and for the Kindle from Amazon.

Bookends: Cynthia Leitich Smith
from the Dallas Museum of Art. Note: interview focuses on writing as a career, Native youth literature, writing fantasy, and interacting with young readers.

Blogger of Awesome-Successful Author Talk with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Mindy McGinnis from Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire. Note: interview focuses on my recent three-book deal, my YA Gothic fantasy novels, my writing process, overcoming fear, trunk novels, the query process, social networking and marketing, blogging and more.

Q & A with Cynthia Leitich Smith – The Author’s Journey by Donna Bowman Bratton from Writing Down the Kidlit Page. Note: interview focuses on the pre-publication stage, traditional paths to a first sale, trends, branding, online marketing, and the inner writer versus the inner author.

Even More Personally

From last Wednesday to the Wednesday before that, I mostly took a break from my writing life. Okay, I still ended up working about five or six hours a day (because the rest of the world kept spinning).

But I also read The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses by Ty Drago (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, 2011) and Odd Girl In by Jo Whittemore (Aladdin, 2011) and met with friends for lunch at 24 Diner and tea at Sweetish Hill Bakery & Cafe and saw “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Thor” with Greg at Alamo Drafthouse.

Hence my twitter exchange of the week:

From @CynLeitichSmith (Cynthia Leitich Smith): @HornBook @librarianpirate *Loved* #Thor. Thinking #Asgard for my summer vacation. Don’t suppose there’s an @fourseasons in that realm….

From @FourSeasons (Four Seasons Hotels): @CynLeitichSmith No hotel in that realm yet, but we’ll try to make a pitch to our development team 😉

I also took a long walk to appreciate the flowers.

Exhibit flowers…

From Greg Leitich Smith

Personal Links:

Cynsational Events

The First Annual BooksmART Festival will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 11 as part of Arts & Letters Live from the Dallas Museum of Art. Peek: “Come spend the day with authors, illustrators, musicians and actors, and enjoy talks, workshops, gallery tours, and entertainment, designed to appeal to every member of the family and every age group.” Featured children’s-YA book creators include Rick Riordan, Norton Juster, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Wiesner, Jerry Pinkney, Gene Luen Yang, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Duncan Tonatiuh, Antonio Sacre, Joe McDermott, Jan Bozarth, and Ann Marie Newman. See also Dallas Museum of Art Announces Artists for First Annual BooksmART Festival by Mechele R. Dillard from The Examiner.

Authors Jennifer Ziegler and Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak to YA readers at 2 p.m. June 18 at Bee Cave Public Library in Bee Cave, Texas. Mark your calendars for book talk and pizza! See also event planner information on booking Jennifer and Cynthia for the joint “From Classics to Contemporary” program–two authors for the price of one!

Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak to the Cedar Park Teen Book Club at 11 a.m. June 25 at Cedar Park (TX) Public Library.

New Voice: Gae Polisner on The Pull of Gravity

Gae Polisner is the first-time author of The Pull of Gravity (Frances Foster/FSG, 2011). From the promotional copy:

While Nick Gardner’s family is falling apart, his best friend, Scooter, is dying from a freak disease.

The Scoot’s final wish is that Nick and their quirky classmate, Jaycee Amato, deliver a prized first-edition copy of Of Mice and Men to the Scoot’s father.

There’s just one problem: the Scoot’s father walked out years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. So, guided by Steinbeck’s life lessons, and with only the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set off to find him.

Characters you’ll want to become friends with and a narrative voice that sparkles with wit make this a truly original coming-of-age story.

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

From the time I could read chapter books (probably by the age of six) well into my young adulthood (before the busy constraints of “real life” took over), I was a voracious reader, one of those kids that came home from school every day and devoured an entire novel, unable to sleep or put it down until the very last page was turned.

The first novel I remember not being able to put down was Don’t Take Teddy by Babbis Friis Baastaad (Scribner, 1967). The book had won the 1969 Mildred L. Batchelder award and was about a boy and his brother, Teddy, in the Norwegian countryside. The book opens with the boys playing baseball. Teddy is mentally challenged and wants to play but the other boys kind of taunt him. He picks up a baseball and chucks it, not realizing it’s not a ball but a rock, and accidentally injures one of the other players. Teddy’s brother is petrified that the authorities will take Teddy away, so he grabs him and they run off together, fending for themselves in the harsh, rustic countryside. Poignant and terrifying moments ensue, at least if you are an eight-year-old girl.

I have very few moments of clear memory from my childhood before the age of 9 or 10, but I distinctly remember sitting on the couch in the living room of my first house (which means I couldn’t have been older than 8), frantically turning pages to see if Teddy would be okay before we had to leave and go somewhere. My sister sat breathless at my side waiting for me to finish because she had read it and wanted to discuss it with me.

Indeed, there’s an entire section of The Pull of Gravity that is a complete homage to that book. If you email me, I’ll tell you which one, but talk about a book sticking with you!

As preteen and young adult, I basically read every book I could get my hands on – from E.L. Konigsburg (From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (both Atheneum, 1967), and the latter of which my mother read aloud to me when I was home, sick as a dog from school and, oh my gosh, I can remember awakening every few hours from a sweaty, feverish sleep to request another chapter) and Mary Rodgers (Freaky Friday and Freaky Monday (both HarperCollins)) to Paul Zindel (The Pigman (Harper, 1968); “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” (1964); My Darling, My Hamburger (Harper, 1969)) and S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders (Viking, 1967) and That Was Then, This is Now (Viking, 1971)) and, talk about books that defined what you knew of adolescence, the incomparable Judy Blume (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Yearling, 1970); Forever (Bradbury, 1975); Deenie (Bradbury, 1973)).

Although I ventured occasionally into other genres (the astoundingly good Time Trilogy by Madeline L’Engle (FSG, 1962-1986)(OMG, my publisher!)), character-driven, realistic, contemporary YA was always the genre that called to me, and, alas, this hasn’t changed.

As such, when I set out to write a young adult book, this is really what I striven for: a contemporary (but classic) story driven by its characters–in my case, Nick, The Scoot and Jaycee.

I am definitely a reader who wants character over story, which is to say, to me, the characters are the story. If I care enough about the characters, I want – no, need – to know what will happen to them, and I hope in this regard, I’ve succeeded with The Pull of Gravity, while taking the reader on a page-turning journey as well.

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?

This is a great question, and I don’t have all the answers, given the rapidly-changing nature of technology. It is certainly a question that concerns me given that I write contemporary realistic fiction (both women’s and young adult).

Technology is a pervasive aspect of our culture and, in my humble opinion, you cannot get away with writing contemporary fiction without taking technology into consideration.

Especially if you are a young adult, every day of your life involves exposure to, and use of, technology, from email to facebook and Twitter, to the internet and Google searches (etc.), not to mention the ubiquitous iPods and cell phones and texting.

The concerns are several-fold (I was going to say two-fold, but really there are more): (i) you have to get the technology right, know how it’s used, and worry that, by the time the book is published and out there in the world, the technology will be outdated, thereby making your book feel antiquated; (ii) you have to get the voice/slang of the technology down; and (iii) you have to account for the existence of the technology in the storyline.

Starting from (iii) – accounting for the existence of technology — and moving backwards, for example, it used to be that when kids ran off by themselves in a story, there was no way to communicate with them or expect that a parent could find them. Of course, the kids could find a payphone, but that ability to contact went in only one direction.

Now, with the existence of cell phones, it’s not only the case that the parents could contact the kids, but that it is expected that the kids will check in with the parents by cell. And, of course, there is the issue of a cell phone running out of charge.

I have heard of several writers deciding to have their protagonists forget their phone, or lose it somewhere, or have it quickly run out of charge, but I think sooner or later, these ploys are bound to get old. Kids have cell phones. Most of them take them everywhere (and, yes, my 15-yr-old son hates his cell phone, never remembers to charge it, constantly loses it, and doesn’t take it anywhere, but that’s only because we refuse to buy him an iPhone [see, e.g. losing it]).

As for (ii) – having the voice or slang of the technology down – in The Pull of Gravity, Nick and Jaycee, and especially Nick and his brother, text to one another throughout the story. It felt important to properly reflect the way a kid would text these days with all the inherent abbreviations and “initialisms” (e.g. LOL, OMG, or shortening text to phrases such as “b4” or “c u soon”) while also making sure it didn’t make the read confusing to a kid not so keen on such forms of communications or make the manuscript feel so specifically of-a-time that it would soon outdate it, or worse, feel forced, and take away from its impact. I found this particular issue very challenging and thought-provoking when writing and revising The Pull of Gravity.

Finally, with regard to (i) knowing how the different technology is used, again tricky given the ever-evolving nature of such things. For example, when I first wrote The Pull of Gravity, flip phones and the likes were huge and Nick was constantly “flipping open” his cell phone.

By the time I got my book deal and my first pass pages were being prepared, more and more kids had iPhones and the likes which meant less and less “flipping open.” I went through and took the references to how the phone was used out as much as possible. In another scene, I have the kids using a GPS, when, by the time, the book gains steam, most kids will have a GPS-function on their phones and not need a separate device (sigh).

Notwithstanding the crazy-rapid changing nature of technology and the impossibility to, therefore, always be completely up-to-date, I think it is essential, if you write contemporary realistic fiction, to include it in your story. It is a ubiquitous influence on our culture and leaving it out would date a manuscript even more.

Guest Post: Carla Killough McClafferty on The Many Faces of George Washington

By Carla Killough McClafferty

Did George Washington really look like the Gilbert Stuart portrait that appears on the one dollar bill?

My new book The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon (Carolrhoda, 2011) tackles this question.

The leadership of Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, decided to create three historically accurate figures of George Washington to depict him at the ages of 19, 45 and 57.

To accomplish this, they gathered a team of experts in the fields of science, technology, art, and history to conduct a forensic study of the man. Only one thing that was off limits: George Washington’s bones.

Scientists studied the life mask, bust, and life-size statue of Washington created by Jean-Antoine Houdon using a cutting-edge three dimensional spacial laser scanner.

After this, some of the world’s leading artists took over. They brought life and character to the painted wax heads. They inserted human hair at a time to make it look as if hair was growing out of his head. No detail was overlooked as the team created the three incredibly life-like figures.

In The Many Faces of George Washington, half the book details how the figures were made, and the other half is a biography. The heart of the book comes from the biographical material.

As a biographer, I must connect with my subject on an emotional level. For some of the people I’ve written about, this connection came slowly as I studied their lives and read their letters. With George Washington, that connection came suddenly, unexpectedly-and in the dark.

When I decided to wanted to write this book, first I contacted Mount Vernon and received approval and blessings for the project. My next step was to arrange a visit Mount Vernon to see the figures for myself. To my complete surprise and delight, they told me I could stay on the grounds of Mount Vernon during my trip.

I’d been there for a couple of days when I decided I’d like to get up early to watch the sun rise. I got up while it was still dark and walked toward the mansion. I went around to the back of house that overlooks the Potomac River and sat down on the piazza.

In the silence, I watched as the first stirrings of light began to change the night sky. I soaked in the look of the place, the smell of the place, and the feel of the place. The sun peeked over the tree line. I watched as it slowly climbed higher and higher. When it cleared the tree line, the orange fireball was reflected in the river. It was spectacular.

I wondered how many times George Washington had seen the sunrise from this exact spot. My emotional connection to the man happened suddenly at that moment. George Washington was no longer a distant historic figure to me; he was a real man who loved Mount Vernon more than any other place. And I was a guest at his home.

I hope to introduce readers to the George Washington I’ve come to know in the pages of The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon.

Cynsational Notes

Carla is also the author of In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry (FSG, 2008), Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium (FSG, 2006), The Head Bones Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-Ray (FSG, 2001), and Forgiving God: A Woman’s Struggle to Understand When God Answers No (Discovery House, 1995).

Download a PDF of the discussion guide for The Many Faces of George Washington.

See also Write Nonfiction for Kids? Break Out with a High Concept Idea: an interview with Carla Killough McClafferty by Darcy Pattison from Wow! Women on Writing. Peek: “A high-concept children’s book is one that takes a universal theme and puts a fresh, original, creative twist on it. It can be explained in a sentence or two and will leave you wanting to read the book; or in the case of writers, it may leave you wondering, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?'” Note: also touches on proposals and otherwise connecting with an editor/publisher.