Author Interview: Dianna Hutts Aston on A Butterfly is Patient

From the promotional copy:

The creators of the award-winning An Egg Is Quiet (2006) and A Seed Is Sleepy (2007) have teamed up again to create A Butterfly is Patient (2011), a gorgeous and informative introduction to the world of butterflies. 

From iridescent blue swallowtails and brilliant orange monarchs to the world’s tiniest butterfly (Western Pygmy Blue) and the largest (Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing), an incredible variety of butterflies are celebrated here in all of their beauty and wonder.

The series is written by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long and published by Chronicle.

Dianna Hutts Aston is the author of many books for young readers and the founder of a nonprofit foundation for disadvantaged children, The Oz Project. She lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

What was the initial spark of your successful nonfiction picture book series?

An Egg Is Quiet was born in the 1970s when my best friend’s three-year-old brother was in school.

The teacher said, “Dusty, tell us something about an egg.”

He thought and said, “An egg is quiet.”

Over the years my mom told me this tidbit countless times. When my daughter was a few years old in the late ’90s, we would walk around the neighborhood in the spring, hunting for eggshells that birds had dropped from their nests.

I thought they were exquisite, and I began to wonder, Why are some speckled? Blue? Of a certain size or shape?

That story my mom had told me finally registered as picture book material. An egg is quiet.

What else is it? Giving. Clever. Colorful. Shapely. And what other creatures besides birds lay eggs? Reptiles, fish, bugs. It all came together by curiosity, observation and research.

And then, what happened was one of those rare occurrences: The manuscript landed on the desk of an editor, Victoria Rock at Chronicle, just when she was looking for one, and one she wanted Sylvia Long to illustrate.

After Egg, my agent, Rosemary Stimola, suggested one on seeds and there came, A Seed Is Sleepy. Next, A Butterfly Is Patient. And soon, A Rock Is Bubbly.

What did you love about it?

What I’ve loved about the series’ publication is how the books open the eyes of both children and adults, encouraging them to think about ordinary objects in magical ways and to ask questions.

Maybe now, they’ll spend more time looking beyond computer and TV screens and look at the natural world right outside the door.

How has your process/experience been different from book to book?

Eggs, seeds and rocks are things you can hold, observe as long as you’d like. Butterflies flit, so obviously, it’s hard to study one unless it’s dead (I collect those). I spent a lot of time in beautiful places, just sitting quietly and watching.

One of the most inspirational moments in working on the butterfly book was when I was walking through a Mexican jungle and came upon a gathering of butterflies on a mud puddle. There were dozens of all shapes and colors, peacefully feeding on the minerals in the muck.

My presence didn’t bother them. In fact, they let me slip my fingers under them and hold them. I had four butterflies on my fingers once, and later, as I began exploring the jungle, one butterfly found a place on my arm and stayed there along the thirty-minute journey.

In my research, I learned that gatherings of butterflies are called “puddle clubs,” and they were indeed finding nourishment in the mud.

As for the process, with nonfiction or historical fiction, the pattern is the same. Curiosity, observation, research, revision, revision, revision.

The Moon Over Star, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Dial, 2008)—and Star is a real town in Texas—came about many years ago when I was unhappy and dreamless. Every night, I’d sit on the porch swing and look at the moon.

Its beauty is comforting and inspires prayers and dreams. I also imagined constantly that I could see the first astronauts on the moon. The more I thought about it, the more I was staggered by such an accomplishment. I was five when the first men landed on the moon, and there were more missions after that, so it became a “regular” part of life for awhile.

But thirty or so years later, the magnitude of what they’d accomplished resurfaced in my mind. I began to wonder about present-day astronauts and how they, as children, must have been inspired by that one magical night, when millions of people the world over came together to look to the sky in awe.

Although the main character is Mae, the name of illustrator Jerry Pinkney‘s mother, there is also an African-American astronaut named Mae Jemison, who would have been around our Mae’s age on July 20, 1969.

And the surprise on this book? President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama read it to second graders in D.C.—because, I think, its character has big dreams and she won’t let anyone discourage her. They are, after all, her dreams.

And that’s the gist of my life now, through The Oz Project and through books, to inspire children to dream and then make it happen.

What has surprised you?

The success of the series. It’s been the most pleasurable of my books to write, received not only great reviews and awards, (including an award from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science), but also connected with the audience in a way that made them marvel.

Surprising, delightful, gratifying.

In school, I always strove for those A’s of affirmation. The success of the series feels like straight A’s.

What have you learned along the way?

That there are an infinite number of ways of looking at something, be it an egg, a carrot, a person, a situation, the manifestation of a dream, smoke, clouds, fire, Ferris wheels, a single drop of dew….

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Play with friends in hot air balloons and take long motorcycle rides through the American West and Mexico. After discovering the magic of hot air balloons in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I moved there and started a foundation called The Oz Project.

Floating in the realm of the rainbow, I saw a world without borders and I thought, “This is where dreams are born. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you call upon your courage, your wishes usually find form in unexpected ways that are beyond your wildest dreams.”

This was my experience and I wanted to give it to children who have little magic in their lives: children in orphanages, rural villages and those with special needs.

To date, we’ve given rides to hundreds of kids, and it’s an incredibly joyful experience not only for them but for me and our crew. We get to watch children light up from the inside out as they float above the earth, maybe for the only time in their lives.

My hope is that the experience will encourage them to dream without limits and to pursue those dreams.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers, illustrated by Susan L. Roth releases this month—August 2011—from Dial. From the publisher copy:

Between 1921 and 1955, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia transformed broken glass, seashells, pottery, and a dream to “do something big” into a U.S. National Landmark.

Readers watch the towers rise from his little plot of land in Watts, California, through the eyes of a fictional girl as she grows and raises her own children.

Chronicled in stunningly detailed collage that mimics Rodia’s found-object art, this thirty-four-year journey becomes a mesmerizing testament to perseverance and possibility.

A final, innovative “build-your-own-tower” activity makes this multicultural, intergenerational tribute a classroom natural and a perfect gift-sure to encourage kids to follow their own big dreams.

Beyond that, rocks, bugs, shells, trees, stars… anything I see outside that makes me wonder.

Cynsational Notes

See an interview with Dianna and Sylvia Long on An Egg Is Quiet.

See also a grades K-5 teacher’s guide for An Egg is Quiet and A Seed Is Sleepy, a related conversation with Dianna and Sylvia and writer’s-artist’s notes for An Egg is Quiet, all from Chronicle (PDFs).

Giveaway: Blood Ties by Mari Mancusi

Enter to win an autographed copy of Blood Ties, book 6 of the Blood Coven Vampires series by Mari Mancusi, newly released by Penguin! From the promotional copy:

Though now officially back in the arms of her vampire boyfriend Magnus, Sunny finds she still can’t forget the gentle mortal Jayden who once saved her life. And when the darkness threatens to steal his humanity, Sunny finds herself with a choice. Stay true to Magnus and the Blood Coven or defy them in a desperate attempt to save Jayden’s soul.

Meanwhile, the Blood Coven is gearing up for its toughest fight yet—going head to head with a splinter group of Slayer Inc who’s regrouping in Tokyo, Japan, still determined to take over the world. In dark blood bars and hidden temples, it’ll be Vampires vs. Slayers in a showdown that could cost Sunny not only her heart…but also her very life.

To enter, comment on this post 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 “Blood Ties” in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: North America. Deadline: midnight CST Aug. 13.

Cynsational Notes

Kids Don’t Read Like They Used To…and That’s a Good Thing by Mari Mancusi from Cynsations. Peek: “The DVD extras generation is looking for an entire multimedia experience when he or she delves into a book. They want the world the author created to live and breathe, and they want to become a part of it.”

From Mari: “Order an autographed copy of Blood Ties from me, and I will throw in a young adult paranormal sampler, produced by my publisher… Cost is $9.99 for book, $2.50 for shipping. (Please inquire if international.) Total of $12.49.” While supplies last; see details.

Check out the video from the previous Blood Coven book, Night School:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Lee Bennett Hopkins! Last Thursday, Lee was officially inducted into Guinness Word Records as the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children (with more than 113 titles published).

A Delectable Taster of Picture Books from Singapore by Myra Garces-Bacsal from Peek: “Among the qualities I observed from the variety of picture books that I took pleasure in reading was that most of the narratives (1) are informative; (2) are meant to educate or share some knowledge concerning an individual’s developmental disorder/illness; (3) highlight some environmental issue or societal concern; or (4) provide some random fact about animals, place, or groups of people.”

The Secret to Twitter that Can’t Be Taught from Jane Friedman. Peek: “Whenever you set out to use social media as a means to an end (e.g., selling books), that tends to ensure you won’t attain your end. It’s a very Zen process that doesn’t necessarily reward those who ‘try’ the hardest.”

The ABCs of Story Structure by Stina Lindenblatt from Adventures in Children’s Publishing. Peek: “…turns out screenwriters had the right idea when they created the three act structure. For those of you who are new to the concept of story structure, here are the abbreviated ABC’s to help whip your story into shape.”

Cantastic Guest Author: Norah McClintock (“author of award-winning mysteries for teens) from Lindsey Carmichael at Ten Stories Up. Peek: “…for those who care to look or have eyes that are open to seeing and ears that are open to listening, joy and hope exist, often in the tiny things like a clear day, the smile of a stranger, the purr of a cat (that does it for me every time), and the daily proof of the adaptability, generosity, and goodness of most people who are, after all, in the same boat as us.”

Toot Toot Tootie Toot: an Illustrator Captures Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite by Don Tate from Hunger Mountain: A VCFA Journal of the Arts. Peek: “wanted a certain improvised spontaneity, but I had trouble loosening up. I normally paint very tight, very planned. Hopefully I accomplished a little of both. Ellington’s music has a certain spontaneity, but at the same time, it’s meticulously planned out down to the last note.”

The Great Wall of Publishing by Patricia C. Wrede. Note: an excellent post on an insider versus outsider’s perspective on publishing with particular attention to the role of agents. Source: Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.netBlog.

Kids, Comics, and Comic-Con International by Calvin Reid from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Comics aren’t just for adults at Comic-Con International. Big announcements for children’s comics share time with blockbuster movies and roaming hordes of costumed fans.” Source: Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market Blog.

My Query That Worked by Shelli Cornelison from Shelli’s Soliloquy. Peek: “This is my query that garnered requests, led to two offers of representation, and ultimately, my signing with Karen Grencik.”

New Low-Residency MFA Program in Writing for Young People from Antioch University in Los Angeles: “Author Kerry Madden will be teaching as Associate Faculty in this new MFA at Antioch, which will begin this December. Antioch hopes to recruit an initial cohort of at least six outstanding writers in this genre.” See more information.

Illustrator Patrice Barton by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: “Patrice Barton says her artistic talents were first discovered at the age of three, when she was found creating a mural on the dining room wall with a pastry brush and a can of Crisco.” Note: in-depth look at Patrice’s process for several of her books, from sketches on.

Conflict vs. Tension by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Conflict should create tension. But it doesn’t, not all the time. I think of the movies my brother-in-law likes to watch, where things are always exploding and I couldn’t care less. Lots of conflict. No tension.”

What Does an Agent Do with agent Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger agency and author Dan Wells from Writing Excuses. Note: about 15 minutes; an audio interview. Source: They Call Me Mr. V. See also a previous episode featuring Sara on Query Letters.

Pre-revision: Before You Break Out the Red Ink by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “The revision process is where I take that world teeming with life and shape it into something even more wonderful. It’s the place where I step out of the story and am myself again.”

Writing Workshop Report by Laura Atkins and Ann Perrin from Laura Atkins’ Blog. Peek: “I liked the writing exercise about how the wolf might eat grandma the very best. I think it bought out the child in us all.” Note: Laura is Cynsations’ U.K. reporter.

Author-in-Residence Uma Krishnaswami from ReaderKidZ. See also Uma’s Story and Your Friend, Uma. Note: ReaderKidZ is highly recommended to fans of fiction for younger children, and Uma Krishnaswami is highly recommended as an author, teacher, and speaker.

Kids, Books, and Blogs from the Horn Book. Note: an annotated list of recommended children’s book related blogs, including Cynsations (honored!).

The Art of Revising: Macro Revision by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “…revising is not the same thing as polishing. Polishing is about smoothing and shaping what you’ve got on the page. Revising is about really looking at the story and seeing if it’s working.”

Don’t Get Slighted by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Note: “How careful use of conflict and theme can keep you from ever being told your story is too ‘slight.'”

Revise Grand Entrance Scene to Set Up a Character Relationship by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Think about a stage play, where a character sweeps onto stage commanding the attention of the audience. It’s a first look at the character and sets the tone for everything that follows.”

Fear, Rejection & Writer’s Block by Gene Perret from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “There’s no such thing as cab-driver’s block, or plumber’s block, or librarian’s block. There’s only writer’s block because we’re the ones who sometimes begin our task afraid that it will be rejected.”

Fantasy in a Post-Potter World by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: “So what is the state of modern fantasy today?  I’m still reading everything I can, and not just fantasy, but I’ve seen a nice swath of titles.  They give me a sense of how things have changed since Harry took his final trip to Platform 9 3/4.”

Tips on Plotting Your Novel by Janice Hardy from Chris Eboch at Write Like a Pro! Peek: “Story ideas can come from anywhere, and those are the easy part of writing. It’s figuring out what to do past that glimmer of an idea where it can get tricky.”

Notes from the Career Development Desk by Jennifer Laughran from Jennifer Represents. Note: Jennifer muses and seeks advice for a southerner looking to break into NYC publishing. Don’t miss the comments.

My Imagined SCBWI Five Minute Keynote by Lee Wind from I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? Peek: “Just as African-American children and Asian children, disabled children and foreign children, Latino children and Jewish children, fat children and deaf children, and every other group of ‘other’ children do, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning children need that moment of seeing themselves reflected in the books they read.”

Celebration of Realistic YA Fiction is ongoing from Beth Fehlbaum. She offers reading recommendations with a synopsis, author information, and bookstore suggestions.

You’re Kind of a Big Deal by C.J. Redwine from The Last Word. Peek: “You know what other secret ingredient is required? Guts.” Note: highly recommended to writers pursuing their first contract (and everyone else). Source: QueryTracker.netBlog.

Things I Never Considered About Being a Writer by Lisa Gail Green from Paranormal Point of View. Peek: “I was an actress for a time, so I’m no stranger to the whole expect rejection thing. But this is different. For one thing, it takes more time to get that rejection, which is probably what I personally have had the hardest time with.”

Congratulations, Leda Schubert

Congratulations to Leda Schubert on the release of Reading to Peanut, illustrated by Amanda Haley (Holiday House). From the promotional copy:

Lucy has a special reason to learn to read and write. 

Why? It’s a secret. 

Mom and Dad help Lucy by making word-and-picture signs that she attaches to objects, just like her teacher does in school. Lucy draws a picture on a sticky note, Dad writes D-A-D, and Lucy sticks it on his nose. Her dog, Peanut, chews it. 

Peanut chews all the signs—Mom, beans, peas, corn, and more. 

After learning many words with the sticky notes, Lucy reveals her secret! She has learned to read and write to make a special birthday card for Peanut.

Kirkus Reviews says, “A strong choice for school or home reading. Nicely captures the excitement of learning to read and write, complete with the feeling of accomplishment that ensues.”

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Austin SCBWI

Faculty has been announced for the Austin SCBWI Annual Regional Conference from Feb. 17 to Feb. 19 at St. Edward’s University and The Writing Barn in Austin. Registration opens Sept. 1.

The program will include “professional consultations, one-on-one critiques, portfolio reviews and displays, wine and cheese socials, public readings, small group intensives, a full-day YA intensive, and an autograph party.”

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival 

The 90-Second Newbery Video contest will be curated by author James Kennedy and librarian Betsy Bird. The challenge: “make a video that compresses the story of a Newbery award-winning book into 90 seconds or less.” James writes: “We’re planning a star-studded 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the New York Public Library on Nov. 5. And at the Chicago Public Library on Nov. 16.” Deadline: Oct. 17; see more information and a sample below. Note: I’ve previously run this video, but it’s well worth another look.

“A Wrinkle In Time” In 90 Seconds from James Kennedy on Vimeo.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for There Was an Odd Princess Who Swallowed a Pea by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Lee Calderon (Marshall Cavendish, 2011).

More Personally

Are you interested in the difference between writing a prose and graphic novel? Or how to translate one to the other? Going Graphic by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Hunger Mountain: A VCFA Journal of the Arts. Note: a discussion of my process re-envisioning Tantalize, a prose novel originally published by Candlewick in 2007, as Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, a graphic novel illustrated by Ming Doyle and available later this month, also from Candlewick. Peek: “Here’s a look at the same scene in prose, script, and graphic format. Even allowing for the point of view shift, the difference in text length is apparent.”

I’m honored that my essay “Isolation” will appear in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (Harper, September 2011). Hazel Rockman of Booklist writes: “With authority often turning a blind eye and cyber-bullying rampant, this timely collection is an excellent resource, especially for group discussion, and the appended, annotated list of websites and further reading extends its usefulness.”

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Kati from Jagged Edge. Peek (regarding Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001): “I’m a huge fan of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and other books like it that end on a moment of hope for healing. I wanted to take the next step, picking up Rain’s story six months later and considering it as a process rather than a destination.” See also an online extension to the novel and teacher guides.

The winner of an author-signed bookmark and copy of Bumped by Megan McCafferty (HarperTeen, 2011) was Ashley in Ohio. Congratulations to Ashley! Thanks to Megan and all who entered!

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Highlights of the past week included lunch at Hyde Park Bar & Grill with Greg, Little Brown editor Alvina Ling, illustrator Marc Burckhardt and author Chris Barton. Note: I recommend the catfish, famous fries, and turkey burger on wheat.

Greg and I also hosted a reception and gave away 350 picture books (review copies) to Dr. Nancy Roser‘s The Art of the Picture Book class at the University of Texas; see the full event report! See also Just a Note of Gratitude by Caroline from Sweet Talks–Books, which includes a photo of some of the books she brought home!

In addition, we hosted Writing Day around the dining room table with Julie Lake, Donna Bowman Bratton, Anne Bustard, Tim Crow, and Jenny Moss. Note: that’s Greg (again) in white.

Julie made delicious tortilla soup.
That’s red grapes and cherries–perfect for a 100+ degree Texas summer.
It occurs to me that our menu was very southwestern.
Especially when I factor in Tim’s famous “armadillo eggs.”
Disco bull! In front of Whole Foods at 6th and Lamar in Austin.

U.T. Picture Book Class Reception & Giveaway

Nancy (in blue and white) chats with her students in the parlor.

Ever wonder what happens to the thousands of review copies of children’s and young adult books sent each year to Cynsations?

Greg and I carefully consider all of them, feature as many as we can, and then we turn our attention to giving them to good homes.

Over the past years, some have gone to shelters and hospitals and tribal libraries, others to school and classroom libraries and still more to juvenile detention centers and literacy organizations, among other places.

Most recently, we gave 350 to the classroom teachers in Dr. Nancy Roser‘s class, The Art of the Picture Book, in the Education Department of the University of Texas here in Austin.

First, we piled books on top of the shelves in the foyer.
Then we piled more on top of shelves in the foyer.
But we ran out of room in the foyer, so we had to move to the fireplace mantle.
We bought some roses because the students/teachers deserved roses.
We polished the glasses and set the table.

The menu included:

  • chilled gulf shrimp;
  • cowboy quesadillas;
  • “a selection of fine cheeses: triple cream brie, Drunken Goat, Manchego, Gorgonzola, goat cheese and English cheddar, served with Marcona almonds, fresh berries, dried fruits, fig almond cake, crackers and baguette;”*
  • “peak season fruits paired with cheddar, Jarlsberg, Havarti and Gruyere cheeses,
  • also with baguette and crackers;”*
  • macadamia nut chocolates;
  • and homemade chocolate-mint cookies.
The teachers arrived and began “shopping” for books.
Each left with 35 books and as many F&Gs as they could snag.
They chatted. I listened. The publisher they loved most? Lee & Low Books.

Cynsational Notes

The event was co-sponsored by Dr. Roser and the Leitich Smiths.

From The University of Texas: “Nancy L. Roser is Professor of Language and Literacy Studies, the Flawn Professor of Early Childhood, and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. A former elementary teacher, she now teaches undergraduate elementary reading and language arts, as well as graduate courses in teaching the English Language Arts and Children’s Literature. Her research interests include close inspection of children’s book conversations in classrooms.”

I strongly encourage my fellow bloggers to find great homes for the review copies they receive. For example, teachers are often seeking books for their classroom libraries. You should give them some. And flowers. And food and wine, too. Then say “thank you” for all the hard work they do.

*Whole Foods.

Interview: Françoise Mouly on TOON Books

Françoise Mouly founded Raw Books & Graphics in 1977 and was the founder, publisher and designer of the pioneering avant-garde comics anthology RAW, which she co-edited along with her husband, cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

Françoise joined The New Yorker as art editor in April 1993. Responsible for more than 800 covers over her past seventeen years at The New Yorker, Françoise’s work has been chosen by The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) as among the “top 40 most highly recognized, memorable, influential, compelling and iconic magazine covers of the past forty years.”

In 2000, Françoise launched a RAW Junior division, publishing books of comics for kids by star writers, children’s book artists, and cartoonists.

In the spring of 2008, Françoise launched TOON Books, her own imprint of hardcover comics for emerging readers, which have received universal praise and multiple awards for their innovative approach.

What kind of young reader were you? Avid? Reluctant? How has that affected the kind of books you love and publish today?

I was an avid reader, always lost in books and comics, but in France, where I grew up, children’s literature isn’t stratified the way it is in the United States. All children—and adults—read comics. Tintin is in the same category of classic as The Little Prince.

And then when I first came to New York as a young adult, I turned to comics to get better acquainted with English, and it’s while searching for good comics to read that I met my husband, Art Spiegelman, the author of MAUS.

So my love of reading has served me well, and now I publish the kind of books I would have liked to have first as a kid and later as a parent.

What was the initial inspiration for TOON Books?

Our daughter Nadja learned to read as soon as the teacher said so, but for her younger brother, Dash, it took much longer. If he had been limited to what was available as “easy readers,” I’m sure he would surely have become a “reluctant reader” (instead of a lit major now in college).

Kids are all on different timetables. I’ve heard Jeff Kinney (the author of the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid) say that “reluctant reader” is just a code for “boy,” and I can see how those labels get applied.

With Dash, my husband always read comics aloud to him. The visuals drew him into the stories, and kept him interested until he was reading them on his own. (Art has joked that he donated a priceless collection of comics to fatherhood.) I did the same with French ‘Bandes Dessinées’ (the French term for comics.)

The success we had with comics in our own family prompted me to want to publish good comics for kids. In 2000, I launched the Little Lit series, which was a collection of hardcover books of comics for young readers, authored by some of the best writers and artists, like Maurice Sendak, William Joyce, Paul Auster, David Sedaris, Lemony Snicket, and many more.

What I also wanted to do was to publish comic book easy readers, to create that first point of entry that would let children fall in love with books and reading.

So I launched TOON Books in 2008, now an imprint of Candlewick Press: our mission is to publish beautiful hardcover books that kids will grab and that parents, teachers and librarians can stand behind. We know that once we get them hooked, children will treasure the books forever.

How did it come to be?

When I first proposed the TOON Books, all the publishers rejected the idea! Literally everyone. They all said it couldn’t be done because it was outside of any existing category.

In the U.S., the publishing of comics has historically been feast and famine. Comics were everywhere for kids growing up in the ’50s; then they were burned in piles and denounced in Senate hearings in 1954.

More recently, they’ve been making a comeback as graphic novels for adults (and young adults), but no publisher wanted to take a risk on quality kids’ comics as a new category in publishing.

They said, “Where will we shelve these?”

So that was our first challenge, being unpublishable. But it turned out to be a blessing to be forced to publish on our own, because we’re a minuscule group of committed people, doing everything ourselves. Being small, nimble, and relatively new at children’s books, we can innovate (we wouldn’t know any other way), finding solutions without having to get approval from any editorial or marketing or design departments.

What were the challenges and triumphs?

Our first major success was getting a Geisel Honor for Stinky by Eleanor Davis in 2009 from the American Library Association.

I contacted Eleanor when she was still an undergraduate, and for her to receive such a major honor as a young woman cartoonist, for her first book, from a new independent publisher, was a thrill in so many ways.

The following year, Benny and Penny in The Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes won the Geisel, and Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith took home an honor.

It was amazing that in a year of publishing three books, two of them were recognized in such a big way!

What is the philosophy of the company? How is this reflected in the books you publish?

We believe that comics are a legitimate form of children’s books. Children connect very strongly with visual cues, and comics are the perfect way to get emerging readers to fall in love with reading.

In the world of children’s literature, publishers tend to focus on either books with high literary value that can win literary awards, or on books that are considered educational—seldom attempting to do both. But that’s exactly what we try to do—and with comics as the form.

What are some of your “big” books–in terms of popularity and/or critical acclaim?

All the Benny and Penny books have been best sellers, and that was reinforced once Benny and Penny in The Big No-No won the Geisel Award. The Geisel honor books, Little Mouse by Jeff Smith and Stinky by Eleanor Davis have also done extremely well.

But then all our books seem to receive good feedback: our very first book, Silly Lilly in the Four Seasons, received a starred, signature review in Publishers Weekly by the eminent critic Leonard S. Marcus.

How do you connect with authors and artists? Any submissions suggestions?

Between The New Yorker, RAW (the comics and graphics magazine I published in the ’80s), and Little Lit, I am in touch with most of the best artists and cartoonists around.

For the TOON Books, I focus on the authors who have a story to tell and who can tell it using comics. I have loved publishing French authors and introducing them to American audiences, like Agnès Rosenstiehl (author of Silly Lilly), Philippe Coudray (author of Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking, forthcoming August 2011), and Claude Ponti (author of another forthcoming TOON Book).

We have been able to work with both veterans, like Geoffrey Hayes, newcomers, like Eleanor Davis, and well-known cartoonists like Jeff Smith and Frank Cammuso.

They are all authors who have a real knack for reaching this very particular age group, the 5-8 set. A lot of people think children’s books are “easy,” but in fact it’s much harder to create something both elegant and entertaining when there are such strict parameters: 32 to 40 pages, leveled vocabulary, plus having to pay attention to the visual flow of the panels on each page.

I have to give credit where credit is due: All the authors we work with are troopers. They unreservedly put their talent at the service of the reader’s limited fluency. The result is something akin to poetry, a book that has the beauty of a haiku.

How do you work with teachers and librarians?

Before we publish any of our books, we go through an extensive vetting process with various teachers like Cindy, our treasured first grade expert, and other our advisors. Cindy teaches first grade in the same school in Brooklyn where she went as a child, and where her daughter went. She knows exactly which words and consonant blends young readers struggle with, and she lets us know what in the vocabulary needs to be made more clear. Often, we’ll work with the artist to get him or her use the visuals to illustrate the words.

We also take the books into schools ourselves, and read with kindergarten, first, and second graders. We want to check how fluently they read the text, but we also want to watch them read in order to fine-tune the visual storytelling.

We get our gratification from young readers’ takes on our books. I’ll never forget a reading session for Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes (one of the first three books we published). A five-year-old explained why he liked the book: “Benny learned what family is because his sister saved his life,” he told me. Even though Penny had only been shooing away a dragonfly, the reader had obviously correctly ‘read’ the caring bond between the siblings.

TOON Books recently became an imprint of Candlewick Press! What does that mean?

We feel incredibly lucky to be an imprint of Candlewick. We share the same values: they publish beautifully produced books that are innovative in their storytelling and at the same time can have high educational value. We’re glad to have such wonderful partners: we rely on their marketing, sales and distribution savvy, and focus on preparing more great TOON Books.

Would you like to highlight any of your 2011 new releases? What makes them special?

We have four 2011 titles: Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today? by Agnès Rosenstiehl, which came out in February, Patrick in A Teddy Bear’s Picnic and Other Stories by Geoffrey Hayes, out in April, and we will also be releasing two fall titles, Nina in That Makes Me Mad! by legendary artist Hilary Knight, based on a text by the prolific children’s book author Steven Kroll, and Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking by French artist Philippe Coudray.

What do you wish more grown-ups knew about comics for kids?

There seems to be the idea that kids should “grow up” from reading picture books to reading chapter books with no pictures, and that misconception can foster a prejudice against picture books and comics. Parents and educators should not be afraid of kids’ love for comics, and kids should not have to grow out of loving pictures— images can provide so much information, and for many kids, comics can be an essential step ladder into other texts.

I spent my young adulthood publishing RAW magazine with the agenda of, “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” and now I’ve devoted my life to saying, “Comics aren’t just for adults anymore!” I wish more grown-ups would realize that reading is reading, whether it’s a comic or a novel. Adults would be well advised to take a lesson from the children around them and learn to embrace visual communication. It’s a rich language we can all benefit from.

Booklist Webinar – Francoise Mouly from TOON Books on Vimeo.

New Voice: Sheela Chari on Vanished

Sheela Chari is the first-time author of Vanished (Hyperion, 2011)(author LJ). From the promotional copy:

Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument used to be her grandmother’s—made of warm, rich wood, and intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.

When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, Neela is devastated. As she searches for it, strange clues surface: a teakettle ornamented with a familiar-looking dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse.

The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela’s instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. If she is able to track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?

What is it like, to be a debut author (or illustrator or author-illustrator) in 2011? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

Being a debut author is an exciting, scary, nerve-wracking, one-of-a-kind experience. It means learning to work under a deadline and adapt to many changes along the way…but it also means seeing all that hard work pay off after so many years.

I think, as writers, we are so used to being sidelined, ignored, or rejected for so long, that it’s almost impossible to believe that now suddenly a whole team of people – editor, agent, cover artist, marketing and sales people – care about your book and are helping it to become a reality.

There are so many things I’ve loved about this year, but at the top of the list, has been meeting other debut authors along the way. One of the best decisions I made was saying yes when Sara Bennett Wealer (Rival, HarperTeen 2011) asked me to help her start The Elevensies, an online community for 2011 YA and MG authors.

A lot of the groundwork was done for us by the 2010 Tenners and 2009 Debutantes (our parents!), but Sara and I still had to learn so much along the way (I finally figured out what a chat room was!). I also know for me, being the shy, quiet writerly, type that I am, I would never have met so many people on my own had I not been a part of such a community from the beginning. They have been my life support, my go-to people, who’ve held my hand and celebrated my accomplishments through the whole year.

In general, I think I’ve been blessed in many ways. I had a fantastic editor who made me work very hard and raised difficult questions, but who always let me make the final decisions.

I had one of the most beautiful covers I could ever imagine made for my book by the fantastic Jon Klassen, and when my book was all done – I even had a first reader, my own eight-year-old daughter, who got to read my first ARC!

And I love talking to the librarians and booksellers in my area. I love that we are part of the same industry, that we are all passionate and energized about children’s books – that has really been like finding the mothership!

Still – as wonderful and all-consuming as the debut experience is, it does make writing the second book so hard. I thought I had it all figured out – plotting, editing, revising – but you end up having to do the hard work all over again.

Writing is hard work. And you have all the expectations and results of the first book hanging over you when you work on your second. The biggest challenge for me this year is finding the time to write new material, and not to expect it to be perfectly crafted and executed from the start.

In spite of that – in spite of the fact that I’m most happy when I’m writing, and I’m often dismayed by how much time I spend not writing while promoting (or worrying about promoting) Vanished – I know I will miss my debut year when it’s all over.

As a mystery writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time mystery reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

Well, I am not a mystery writer by birth. I actually started off writing literary adult fiction. After I finished my MFA at NYU, I worked on a contemporary adult novel set in New York City, which I had started while I was in the program, and I found I wasn’t gaining much traction with it.

Then really by accident, I began working on a “fun project,” which was originally supposed to be birthday present for Neela, my niece. She was in elementary school at the time and a huge Harry Potter fan. She also played the veena, a traditional stringed instrument from India, and I thought it would be fun to write a short story about her and her veena. Because she was into Harry Potter, I decided to make it a mystery story with fantasy elements (I think I even had some magical fruit in the first draft!).

Honestly, I never imagined myself writing for children at that point, or that the fun project I was working on would turn into something larger and more serious.

But as I continued writing, I began to ask myself all these what-if questions: What if I wrote about an Indian-American girl growing up in the Boston area, a place that might be one of the most historically American places I know? What if I combined that with writing about an instrument that was part of a rich and ancient music tradition in India?

Some people might have heard of Bollywood, or Bhangra music, or eaten a naan or two, but it was unlikely that they would have encountered a veena. And in the children’s books I’d read so far, I had seen very little of South India, the region my family and I are from.

So the what-if’s continued. What if I could introduce an Indian-American girl and the veena and the city of Boston and the city of Chennai to kids…in the form of a mystery novel? Which led to the last what-if: What if someone stole Neela’s veena?

And that’s really how Vanished was born. By answering a lot of what-if’s.

Of course, that’s where a lot of problems started, too! It’s not easy writing a mystery, I soon discovered. A lot of planning had to take place to make sure that the clues “added up” by the end. In my previous life as a literary writer for adults, I seldom relied on plot to advance my story, but on the nuanced changes in my characters. Well – scrap that!

I learned to plot, I learned to write cliff-hangers, I learned to make sure that my chapter endings would (hopefully) get my reader to turn the page for more.

Writing Vanished was the hardest, and yet the most rewarding writing experience I’ve had. It really taught me so much about structure and tension, about what to reveal and when.

At the heart of any good book is a mystery, of wanting to know what happens next. What better training than to write a mystery for middle graders?

I’m really happy with the way Vanished turned out – it underwent so many changes from that first draft I sent my niece. I hope that kids who read it today will not only have a fun time, but will also learn a little about South Indian music and the dynamics of a modern Indian-American household.

And oh yeah, how to slide a lock open.

Cynsational Notes

Sheela Chari on Vanished from Uma Krishnaswami on Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek from Uma: “I was thrilled when I first heard about Vanished (Hyperion, 2011), because I’ve long been calling for South Asian-American fiction for young readers in which culture and social issues do not in themselves constitute the story. Here you have mystery, music, school friendships, honesty and self-awareness all converging in a most engaging novel.”

Guest Post: Natalie Dias Lorenzi on Teacher Guides

Natalie Dias Lorenzi

By Natalie Dias Lorenzi

Why have a guide?

With No Child Left Behind, teachers don’t have much freedom to add to the curriculum—stakes are high for students to pass the state tests each year. The emphasis is on teaching certain skills, and books are vehicles for teaching those skills.

If the lesson is on conflict or characterization or metaphor, there are countless books that can deliver.

You want it to be yours.

How can you do that?

By providing a free, downloadable guide that teachers can use with their students.

Elements/considerations in creating a specific guide:

1. Include a balance of cross-curricular activities.

Teachers love using books that cover two or more subject areas.

2. Appeal to all kinds of learners.

Some kids learn best through movement, some through music, and others through talking. I like to incorporate Bloom’s Taxonomy (higher level thinking skills) and Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (different learning styles) to create activities and discussions that offer something for everyone.

2. Include state or national standards.

Align the activities in your guide to your state’s learning standards, and then let schools in your area know that the guide is available. Talk the talk by knowing what your state standards are called—for example, Florida calls them the Sunshine State Standards, and Texans refer to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Google your state’s department of education for more information.

 There are national standards (only in English and math) called Common Core Standards, but states still use their own exams to assess students on state standards each year.

Considerations in hiring someone:

She Loved Baseball teacher guide.

1. Prior work: Ask for references and peruse samples.

2. Format: Guides come in many forms—bookmarks, pamphlets, straight discussion questions and activities, or a full-blown chapter-by-chapter guide.

3. Design: Bare bones or something more elaborate? Color is more expensive to print, but teachers can go paperless by projecting activities via an interactive whiteboard.

4. Budget: Guides cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Ask if your publisher is willing to cover all or part of the cost.

Publicizing your guide:

I asked my clients how they spread the word about their guides, and here’s what they suggest:

1. Provide a link to the guide on your website. Send the link to those requesting author visits.

2. Send a press release to teacher’s publications with a link to the guide.

3. Bring the guide to author appearances. Audrey Vernick always offers the first few pages of her guides, and then refers educators to her website to find the complete guides.

4. Have the guide on your publisher’s website. Alison Ashley Formento says, “Publicist and sales folks both have told me that librarians and teachers love having that resource on the publisher’s site.”

Soar, Elinor! teachers guide.

5. Ask your publisher to include the guide on publicity sheets they use for booksellers and in the ARC marketing plan.

6. If you send postcards to advertise your book or author visits, include a handwritten note letting people know about your guide.

7. When you give signed copies of your book to schools or libraries, include the guide.

8. Tami Lewis Brown built a Facebook promotion around the teacher’s guide for her picture book Soar, Elinor!, offering a free download to anyone who becomes a fan of her Author Tami Lewis Brown page.

Within a couple of weeks of launching her page, she had over 3500 fans. She said, “I was thrilled and more than a little shocked by how well the guide was received.”

Cynsational Notes

From EMU’s Debuts: “Natalie Dias Lorenzi is a teacher, freelance writer and children’s author. Her debut middle grade novel, Flying the Dragon, will be published by Charlesbridge in Fall 2012. Natalie, her husband, and their three children live in northern Virginia during the school year and eat gelato in Trieste, Italy during the summers.” Contact Natalie about a custom teacher’s guide for your book or help with making your school visit presentation more educator-friendly.

See also the teacher guides for PreK, kindergarten, grade 1 and grade 2 created by Shannon Morgan for Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010).