The thing that I find the weirdest in the process of writing children’s book is the juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous, the weighty issues and the tiny mundane quirks that all have to be lined up just right for the whole enterprise to work.
(For me. For writers whose deep and fabulous books just flow right out of them easily and without fanfare, moments of intense doubt, or quirks that drive copyeditors to drink, it’s a whole different story. A story some of use will never hear because we’ll have our fingers in our ears, and we’ll be going neee-neee-neeee-neeeee.)
My weighty issue: Mortality.
Specifically cancer, when my kids were very tiny, leading me to ask in a more urgent way than usual, what do I want in my life? What do I want my legacy to be? What’s important to me?
The answers being: I want to raise my children and spend a lot of time caring for my family (The “lot of time” thing was key here.), and I want to write books.
Specifically, books driven by what I care about and want to write, without my voice dulled out or dumbed down or my eye hugely on the market.
And even though this was probably completely selfish, my thought was that, given that my children needed to be loved and raised and that good books (It was my plan that these books would be good.) are inherently valuable and needed in the world, it wasn’t the kind of selfish that would detract from world’s overall well-being.
It was the socially useful and, in its small way (but for me, individually, huge way), a world-healing kind of selfish, and it has been my deeply appreciated good fortune to be able to work at those three things for eighteen years and counting post-cancer.
The way my books actually get written. How chunks of picture books got written in spiral notebooks balanced on my steering wheel in the carpool line and in the coffee shop of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena while my children were at choir practice down the street.
How when my youngest left for college and picture books didn’t fill my suddenly gapingly open days sufficiently, I went on an emotional-emergency shopping trip to Staples and agonized about the right color for a plastic three-ring binder in which to put a not-yet-written novel. (Red.)
How I need color-coded pastel paper clips and Post-it Notes to organize my hundreds of pages of manuscript because, being way on the side of 40 when the brain begins to turn to Swiss cheese, without sky-blue and lemon-yellow paper clips, I am physically incapable of organizing more than 15 pages.
How I cut and paste, and a significant aspect of my writing life involves crawling around on the floor with scissors and Scotch tape, trying to prevent my writers-helper dog from eating any significant passages. (He eats paper.)
And I think that what happens on the pages of the books, especially with the YA novel, reflects the same juxtaposition of elements that happens in my writing life.
There are the weighty issues and the aspiring truths — finding your own identity, figuring out who you are and then figuring out how to be true to that evolving person — all in there, but the way the story gets told is with concrete, mundane moments in the days of flawed, concrete characters who need their own versions of multi-colored paper clips, their own tiny concrete ways of getting through the minutes and hours of their lives.
Because with all the lofty aspirations in the galaxy, the only way to get there is to slog through the concrete details of creation.
Helen Landalf is the first-time novelist of Flyaway (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). From the promotional copy:
Fifteen-year-old Stevie Calhoun is used to taking care of herself. But one night, her mom, who works as an exotic dancer in a downtown Seattle nightclub, never comes home.
That’s the night Stevie’s life turns upside down.
It’s the night that kicks off an extraordinary summer: the summer Stevie has to stay with her annoyingly perfect Aunt Mindy; the summer she learns to care for injured and abandoned birds; the summer she gets to know Alan, the meanest guy in high school.
But most of all, it’s the summer she finds out the truth about Mom.
How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?
There were a number of things I had to research in order to make Flyaway as authentic as possible. For one thing, I had to learn about the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wild birds.
Print research is never enough for me, so I decided to get some hands-on experience by volunteering to work in the Bird Nursery at my local PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society). There I learned how to feed baby birds with an eyedropper, watched the birds progress from incubator to basket to aviary, and even got to witness a rehabilitated robin’s release back into the wild.
One of the major characters in my novel grew up in foster homes, so I needed to find out how that might have affected him emotionally. For that piece of research, I turned to a co-worker’s husband, who not only grew up in the foster-care system but also now works for the Anna E. Casey Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping foster kids. I did a phone interview with him and also had him vet portions of my manuscript for authenticity.
The most difficult aspect of my novel to research was methamphetamine use; as dedicated as I am to hands-on research, I draw the line at engaging in illegal activities. Both fortunately and unfortunately, someone close to me is a former meth addict, so my portrait of Stevie’s mom is largely based on my experience with that person. I also frequented some Internet sites where users discuss methods of taking the drug, the feel of the high, etc. I even called a drug rehab center and conversed at length with an intervention specialist.
The greatest coup for me, research-wise, was being able to spend a day at Second Chance Wildlife Care Center, a wildlife rehab center based in a residential home. When I saw the teens volunteering there, completely absorbed in caring for wild birds and mammals, and when I learned that they had been placed there to fulfill a community service requirement, I knew I had found the perfect model for the bird rehab clinic in Flyaway.
As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?
In addition to being a writer, I work as a freelance Creative Dance teacher in preschools and a Pilates instructor at Pilates Northwest in Seattle.
I love combining teaching with writing, because I get a chance to experience both my introverted and my extroverted side each day.
And even though only one of my students is a teen (my youngest dance students are two and a half; my oldest Pilates client is 85), just being in contact with so many people and listening to their stories and concerns can’t help but stimulate the idea-generating part of my brain.
Plus, with all the butt-in-chair that writing requires, I really appreciate the fact that movement is a major part of my day job.
Add to that the fact that my work in Creative Dance has spawned five nonfiction books for teachers, and you’ll understand why, for me, teaching and writing are a match made in heaven.
Helen is previously published in the picture book and adult nonfiction; however, the fact that this is her first YA novel makes her a “new voice” for our purposes at Cynsations.
And three lucky winners will receive a $15 iTunes gift card!
Teachers, librarians and book clubs also may enter to win one of five sets of 10 Tantalize: Kieren’s Story bookmarks or one of three sets of five Diabolical bookmarks! Please indicate your related affiliation in your entry. I.e., Suzy Q, school librarian, Austin Independent School District.
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 email Cynthia directly with “Tantalize Series Bling” in the subject line. (If you’re on LiveJournal, I’m also taking entries via comment at the Cynsations LJ.)
Cover Stories: Untraceable by S.R. Johannes from Melissa Walker. Insights from S.R. and Vania, the photographer. Peek from S.R.: “We wanted to use a real life model. I think stock photos are great but to me – we wanted that feeling of being in the woods. Of Grace hiding, and I think Vania got that. There is nothing like an original artwork.”
Rgz Salon: Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif (Flux): reviewed by Lyn Miller-Lachmann from readergirlz. Peek: “The author, of Kurdish and Muslim heritage, offers a portrayal that is both realistic and humorous. The experience of being caught between family rules and pressures on the one hand and the drama of peers on the other is one to which readers of all cultural backgrounds can relate.”
Interview with Diane Muldrow, Editorial Director of Golden Books/Random House, from Picture This! A Daily Guide to Picture Book Writing with Rob Sanders, Children’s Author. Peek: “A picture book is usually a read-aloud, so it has to be written in a way that will have a sort of musicality when read aloud. A picture book needs to have an emotional resonance, too. Or be really funny. It should—artfully—lead us to feel something, teach us something, or show us something in a new way…” Don’t miss the continuing interview in part two and part three. Source: Jill Corcoran.
U.K. Publisher Tamarind Books Seeks Quality, Multicultural Manuscripts by Caroline Horn from The Bookseller. Peek: “‘Authors themselves don’t need to come from a mixed community—although that can work well—but I am essentially looking for strong stories and a good mix of ages,’ said Bavishi. ‘It has to be a beautiful story—not a focus on the fact that the main character is not middle-class or white.'” Source: ACHUKA.
Cynsational Author Tip: if possible, mention your publisher’s name whenever sharing information about your books online. It makes it easier for prospective readers/buyers to find out more and follow up from there.
Daniel Abraham’s Private Letter from Genre to Literature from SF Signal. Peek: “I read through the collections of your most honored short stories, and what do I see? Fantasy, mystery, ghost stories, romance. How often you refresh yourself at my springs. I wonder whether your contempt might hide something deeper. Fear perhaps, that you might be less without me as I am less without you.” More on Daniel Abraham. Source: April Henry.
Rushing Toward that Dream? Wait. by Yahong Chi from Project Mayhem from The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. Yahong asks authors Kate Messner, Jonathan Auxier, and Stephen Messer what they miss from their days as unagented, unpublished writers. Peek from Jonathan: “…before I had a book in the world, I had no real sense of my audience. Audience was an abstract idea that couldn’t be pinned down and had little say in my storytelling.”
The Pen Name is Mightier by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Peek: “An author may use a pen name if his/her real name is too much like another author or celebrity. It can be hard to stand out as yourself if your real name is a close match like Steven King or Jan Yolen. It’s even harder if it’s exactly the same as the famous author. If the author is less famous, the introduction of your middle initial or a variant on your first name may be enough to stand out.”
SCBWI Pre-Conference Interview with Author/Illustrator John Rocco by Lee Wind from I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? John talks about how he approaches illustrating a cover, how his stories involve in terms of art and text, portraying diversity, and portfolio tips. Peek: “…make sure the work all looks like it came from the same person’s hand. It is okay to have more than one style, just make sure you separate those styles in different sections of your portfolio.”
Jean Reidy is celebrating cabin-fever creativity and the release of her latest picture book Too Princessy!, illustrated by Geneviève Leloup (Bloomsbury, 2012) by hosting a Boredom Buster Blog – chock full of rainy day ideas from parents, teachers, caregivers, babysitters, writers and other folks like you. Send in your favorite ideas and be entered to win one of five prizes, including a $100 bookseller gift card and autographed books. For every idea you submit before January 15th, you’ll be entered five times in the drawing for prizes. For every idea submitted after January 15th, you’ll be entered once. The drawing will be Feb. 29.
Thanks to my web designer, Lisa Firke, for her ongoing contributions to the success of the site!
After an hour, I found Blizzard in the laundry basket.
What else? My very cute husband (and sometimes co-author) Greg Leitich Smith and I have exchanged our most recent manuscripts. Mine is due to my Candlewick editor at the end of the month, and his is a first draft.
I had to drop out of critique groups to teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (I couldn’t read regularly for eight, plus, other novelists), so Greg is my only early reader these days.
We’ll sit down on Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon to discuss, and I’m excited to both check out his latest and soak up his feedback.
Greg’s next novel, Chronal Engine (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), will be out in March.
More Fantastic Books for Older Readers by Cynthia K. Ritter from The Horn Book. The highlighted four titles include Diabolical (Candlewick/Walker, 2012). Peek: “The Harry Potter–worthy final battle between good and evil — with a welcome dose of devilish humor added in — make this installment an expertly woven narrative, bringing new readers up to speed while satisfying invested fans with a happily-ever-after ending.”
P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth says of Diabolical (Candlewick/Walker, 2012): “…what really dawned on me in Diabolical is how absolutely awesome her two main guy characters really are. Steam comes off the pages in this one.” Note: Diabolical will be released Jan. 24.
Samantha Boyette says of Blessed (Candlewick/Walker, 2011): “Quincie has a spine and some personality… I mean sure, she still does crazy things to be with this guy, but she also runs a restaurant and has other friends too. She is a well-rounded character who happens to be in love.” Note: Blessed will be available in paperback on Valentine’s Day.
Brian Yansky will be presenting “Getting Organized” at 10 a.m. Jan. 14 on the second floor at BookPeople in conjunction with Austin SCBWI. “Brian will be sharing his secrets of success regarding how to keep all of the loose ends of crafting a manuscript in control while attempting to balance a busy everyday life.” Note: the chapter will offer an open critique group at 11 a.m., and then members Tim Crow, Lynne Hoenig, and Bonnie Crow will report on the Story Masters Workshop, featuring Chris Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Maass at 1 p.m.
Both, but to be honest about 80% of what I read is ARCs or review copies. But I love browsing both bookstores and libraries.
Do you keep a record of your reading? If so, how?
Yes. I am on my 34th volume of reading journals since August of ’94 when I started keeping track of reading and have an itemized list dating to October 1995. I also keep a list of favorite books each year and favorite authors each year.
Now I only count books I read for myself. I do not list books I read to my children or other children.
How do books for children and teens fit into the mix?
I tend to go through phases in my reading, currently I would say about 75% of what I read is YA or children’s literature. I have had a great fondness for children’s lit since doing a university course in it about 10 years ago.
Because of my dyslexia and not learning to read until later in life, I never read children’s books while a child. And now I have a deep appreciation and love for them.
How do you spread the word about great reads?
If it makes my top ten of the year, I tend to buy a bunch of copies and give it away for Christmas and birthdays. I now try and post a review of every book I read on my blog, Book Reviews and More. Once posted on my blog I cross-post to amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.ca and chapters.indigo.ca. After that, I tweet about it, post to Google+ and Facebook.
How do you store your books? Do you keep all of them? Donate?
With reading over 100 books a year I now keep very few, and if I buy an electronic copy, I usually do not keep the physical book anymore at all.
Most of my ARCs and review copies end up with Family and Children’s Services. My dad and stepmom are foster parents, and I pass along a lot that my stepmom reads with the kids. I also donate them to the FACS Library or Foster Parent Association garage sale.
I tend to only keep about one out of every hundred books I read, and usually only if I plan on rereading the book again and again.
Was there a book that changed your life?
The fiction book that had the biggest impact on my life was probably Jacob the Baker by Noah benShea. I have read the first book 13 times and the trilogy 10 times. They are books I reread every year, and each time they challenge me to be a better person. The books in the series are: Jacob the Baker, Jacob’s Journey and Jacob’s Ladder.
What were you like as a young reader?
To be honest, I could not read and did everything I could to avoid it.
In school, I rented the movies and did my reports based on the movies until after grade 7. I felt stupid because others in school could read and I could not. I hated having to go out to special instruction for English class time.
What challenges did you face?
I came out of grade 7 reading at a grade 3 level. And yet I passed the school year and was soon to be in high school. My parents sent me to a private summer school, and in two months, I went from reading about 30 words per minute to over 400 with comprehension, and from reading well below my grade level to reading at a university level. Once I learned how to read and discovered the joy in reading, it was like suddenly there were worlds I never knew existed and I became very addicted to it.
What advice do you have for young readers with dyslexia?
Be persistent. Get the help you need. There are worlds in books, and friends awaiting you. If one technique does not work for you, keep trying until you find the one that does.
What advice do you have for teachers and parents?
Lead by example. Be a reader. Also do not give up on anyone. I had teacher after teacher just pass me on in English.
Anyone can become a reader if they are really taught to read and the wonder of literature.
What do you do when you’re not reading?
Write reviews, workout, hang out with my wife and kids. Plan my next books to read. I usually have different books on the go on my Kobo, iPad, iPhone and physical books.
Currently, I have about 30 books in process.
What does reading mean to you now?
Books show us other ways of being; they can help us learn to be better at being. To help us become what we were meant to be.
I love this quote from Saint Erasmus: “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left over, I buy food and clothes!” That is the passion I have for books.
What is their special appeal?
Books can take us to places we have never been. They can take us to places we never dreamed of. They are friends we can visit again and again. They can be an escape or distraction or they can focus us to a greater purpose.
Why is word-spreading so important to you?
When I encounter something that I believe is wonderful or amazing, I do all I can to promote it.
I think, as readers, we have a responsibility to the authors and the characters in the stories that touch us to share them with others.
If, as I see it, books and characters can be friends…. Well, who doesn’t like their friends to meet each other?
Which were your favorite authors or books in your youth?
I tend to read an author’s entire body of work, not just books on a title by title basis. I find an author I like and read everything he or she wrote. When I was younger, it was Harry Harrison, Piers Anthony (all the non- Xanth books), Robert A. Heinlien, Steven Brust. Back then, I read mostly science fiction.
Which are your favorite authors or books now?
For the last few years I have been mostly on a young adult kick. I find the writing so much better, the stories tighter and the characters amazing.
As she attends a whirl of glittering balls, royal debutante Katerina Alexandrovna, Duchess of Oldenburg, tries to hide a dark secret: she can raise the dead. No one knows. Not her family. Not the girls at her finishing school. Not the tsar or anyone in her aristocratic circle.
Katerina considers her talent a curse, not a gift. But when she uses her special skill to protect a member of the Imperial Family, she finds herself caught in a web of intrigue.
An evil presence is growing within Europe’s royal bloodlines—and those aligned with the darkness threaten to topple the tsar. Suddenly Katerina’s strength as a necromancer attracts attention from unwelcome sources . . . including two young men—George Alexandrovich, the tsar’s standoffish middle son, who needs Katerina’s help to safeguard Russia, even if he’s repelled by her secret, and the dashing Prince Danilo, heir to the throne of Montenegro, to whom Katerina feels inexplicably drawn.
The time has come for Katerina to embrace her power, but which side will she choose—and to whom will she give her heart?
How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?
I started hoarding books on Russia after reading one about the history of the Moscow Art Theater over ten years ago. The culture that was flourishing in Russia at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century was fascinating to me–this was the time when artists like Tchaikovsky, Faberge, Tolstoy, and Repin were all creating their masterpieces.
I always knew I wanted to write a story about that time and place. I began collecting books, mostly used, about Russian history, from biographies of the Romanovs to old Russian cookbooks to museum catalogs of Faberge treasures. The prize of my library is a copy of Masha by Mara Kay (Lothrop, Lee, and Shepherd, 1968). It’s about a young girl growing up at the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens in the reign of Alexander the First. I fell in love with this school and decided it would be the perfect setting for my story.
The more I read about nineteenth century Russian history, I discovered the superstitions and rumors swirling around the Imperial court. My what if? moment came when I wondered what if these peasant rumors were true–what if the Russian court really did consist of witches and sorcerers? And what if one of the noble maidens at Smolny was the only one who could defend the tsar from these monsters?
My research began to include Eastern European folklore and fairy tales, many of which I’d heard as a child. My great-grandparents were of German descent but their families had lived in Russia for generations. My great-grandfather owned a bakery outside of Kiev in 1900 and my great-grandmother learned to speak several languages, including Russian, German, Polish and Yiddish, in order to serve the diverse customers that came into the shop. Stories told to me about the old bakery and its old samovar were woven in with stories about firebirds and snowmaidens as well as Grimm fairy tales.
As I researched the Romanov family tree, I decided not to use an actual person for my main character. Katerina Alexandrovna of Oldenburg did not really exist, but Evgenia Maximilianova and Alexander Petrovich of Oldenburg did. Prince Alexander really did open up the Institute for Experimental Medicine and really did give much of his wealth to hospitals and other charities.
I’d like to think that a daughter of his would have shared his interest in medicine. Women were not allowed to attend medical school in Russia in the late nineteenth century, but a generation later, the Empress and her daughters became nurses. They took care of wounded soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War under the supervision of a princess who’d attended medical school in Switzerland, Princess Vera Gedroits.
As a nurse myself, researching the early women doctors of Russia was inspiring.
Katerina’s story became a late nineteenth century fairytale, filled with spiritism and superstition of the era, as well as the hope for a new century filled with progress. I trolled the Alexander Palace Time Machine’s website for photographs and biographies of Russian nobility. I emailed back and forth with the director of the Museum of Medical History at the University of Zurich. I researched the mystical societies and secret orders of the time.
Not being able to read German and Russian texts has been frustrating, but I’ve had plenty of English resources.
Sarah Miller, a fellow Blue Boarder and the author of The Lost Crown, (Athenum, 2011), was kind enough to share tons of old Romanov photographs with me. Before The Katerina Trilogy is complete, I hope to travel to Russia and see the palaces and museums for myself.
As soon as I learn to speak Russian.
As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?
Being a pediatric nurse is a difficult but incredibly rewarding career. But it’s also perfect for me as a writer. I work three twelve hour shifts on the weekend, and then have the rest of the week at home to write. This works best during the school year, when I have an empty house to myself during the weekdays. Just me and the dogs.