Zip. Zilch. Nada. That’s what all the other numbers consider Zero in my new picture book that’s about, well, nothing.
Zero doesn’t add anything in addition. He’s of no use in division. And don’t even ask what he does in multiplication. (Hint: Poof!)
Still, he knows he’s worth a lot, and when trouble comes, Zero swoops down just in time to prove that his talents are innumerable.
This book grew from a conversation with a teacher, who mentioned that she uses the Zero the Hero concept to teach place-holding to her students. In her classroom, Zero is a hero because he enables us to count beyond the number nine. Without him, we’d be like the ancient Romans, unable to do much in the way of math.
I immediately visualized Zero as an underdog math superhero, complete with cape. But it took me about five years to actually finish writing a book about him. Lucky thing, because the manuscript hit my editor’s desk just as she was working with a wonderful New York Times-bestselling artist named Tom Lichtenheld, who agreed to illustrate it.
In this kind of “faction” (a blend of fiction and fact), the fiction component is always paramount. It’s the story. Young readers won’t necessarily pick up this picture book to learn math facts. They’ll likely want the story to entertain them, make them root for the characters, and wonder how it will all turn out.
Sure, Zero the Hero subtly teaches place-holding and arithmetic operations like addition and subtraction. It touches on stuff like rounding up and down, and even/odd numbers (and the fact that the number eight resembles a snowman). But all of that is secondary. I just hope kids find it to be a fast-paced, funny story. And who doesn’t love a superhero?
I submitted this picture book to Henry Holt/Macmillan as a dummy, complete with very rough black-line sketches, even though I didn’t intend to illustrate it. When writing easy readers, chapter books, and tween or middle grade, I submit a traditional, typed manuscript instead.
But when it comes to picture books, I think visually. So I create dummies. Sometimes they’re just words taped on pages that I can turn so as to get a feeling of how the story unfolds. Those never go to an editor. Other times—as in the case of Zero the Hero—I draw sketches, generally spiff things up, and actually submit the dummy itself.
Why? If you were an editor, and a book like Zero the Hero came your way asking to be published, which of these examples would you find easier to envision at first glance–my dummy page or my typewritten text?
Number 6, speaking to Zero: Hey! Aren’t you a Froot Loop? I love those.
Zero: No, I’m Zero the Hero!
Number 6: Um, yeah I don’t think so. Are you a donut?
Number 6: I’ve got it! You’re the letter “O”.
Zero: No! How many times to I have to tell you?
Number 6: Six.
Not every picture book requires that an author make a dummy. However, if you have a cast of ten numbers or more, all with something to say, and sometimes saying it in speech balloons—a dummy could be a good vehicle for communicating your vision to an editor. And you don’t have to be a professional artist to make one that gets your ideas across.
Speaking of creative ways to get your ideas across, look how Tom Lichtenheld used this birdhouse to display his earliest character sketches. Although Zero’s ‘look’ evolved quite a bit from this initial point, I was really wowed when I got this in the mail from Tom. It was my introduction to his humor and generous spirit, and I knew right away that the process of creating this book was going to be something special with him involved.
After the book was finished, our collaboration continued. Tom and I also wrote the script for an animated book trailer short about Zero the Hero that’s lots of number fun. We hope everyone will take a look. After all, you’ve got nothing to lose!
Peek: “Jan Berenstain, who with her husband, Stan, made up one of the most successful husband-wife teams in children’s literature, guiding an empire of books, videos and TV shows about the everyday problems of a family of bears, has died. She was 88.”
It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto
the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I’d ever seen–everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable…utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.
There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive.
Trapped within his golden frame.
I’ve crossed over into his world within the painting, and I’ve seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked–bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan.
And unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.
What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?
From a very early age I was attracted to Dickens, Poe, Austen, Wilde, 19th Century writers. I adored ghost stories and some of my earliest memories are of telling them, so Edgar Allan Poe really spoke to me from my very first encounter with his poetry and stories.
The more I write, the more I feel Poe’s influence.
I can’t explain my intense attraction to the era from such an early age–maybe a past life?
I started my first novel when I was about 12 years old, it was set in 1888, so this has always been “a thing” of mine. The 1880s has always felt like home and while I love my modern life and always have, I’ve always felt as though I am a child of that era too; that I hold an echo of it in my soul and I feel it whenever I read literature from the 1800s, enter a building from that era, listen to music of the time, or put on clothing from the time.
(Yes, my Victorian wardrobe is also “a thing”).
I’ve always been charmed by the rich language of the Victorians, by their beautiful clothing and elegance, and also horrified by the conditions so many lived in and by the arrogance and double standards.
Yet the contrast of the era is fascinating, the grit and grandeur of the era holds endless questions and curiosity for me.
Also, big words are sexy. That’s become somewhat of a mission statement for me as a writer.
It includes shout-outs to Gothic and atmospheric tales like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, the nightmarish visions of Poe and more, all my favorite classic works that have defined me (I like my classics with a scary edge).
I’ve always wanted to write a haunted painting story, so this is my chance.
The sequel, The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart, continues the Gothic adventure this November 2012.
As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language for today’s young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines?
I didn’t choose this era, this era chose me. As a pre-teen I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic style. I loved Victorian ghost stories.
I was about 12 when I started my first novel; a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, set in 1888. The aesthetics were the first things to draw me in; the whole look of the time period, the music, the language, the literature. I studied the era in college and after graduation took to adapting works of 19th century literature for the professional stage. I acted in Victorian-set productions and got a chance to ‘live’ in the era every night on stage. I traveled for research to various Victorian sites, and I read (and continue to read) a lot of 19th century fiction.
So I’ve “experienced” this past time period in as many ways as I possibly can, so I honestly don’t think too hard about “capturing” the voices of the era. I’ve been living and breathing those voices all my life and have to trust in all my homework.
Some people suggest it’s a past life that drives me. I’m not sure; all I know is that the era is my muse.
Because I live in a modern world but feel a Victorian one within me, I feel there’s a natural fusion between the modern ear and my internal Victorian voice.
The most important resource is reading the work of the era, watching carefully researched films of the era (and on that count, I only trust the BBC for accuracy) and then distilling the density slightly for modern audiences.
Pacing has to be adjusted, too. Watching films is helpful because there’s already a more edited version of the language in a screenplay.
Author Leanna Renee Hieber by gaslamp.
In writing for teens, its important to never talk down to the teen reader, I want to challenge every reader with rich language and big sexy words.
The most important thing in writing YA is to keep in mind the themes that appeal to teens and make sure they are universal ones, themes and conflicts that will ring true no matter the era.
My editor is vital, I could never write books without editors, and we go several rounds on a book to make sure both the voice and themes are firing on all appropriate cylinders. (One of my pitfalls is always pacing.) I get reined in here and there and have to be reminded to spread out historical detail so that it’s evenly dispersed and not just little lectures. (It’s hard, because I think historical details are like gems and I want to throw them in everywhere).
But the important thing is to make sure details are doing at least double duty and telling us something not only about the era, but about the world-building, character development and or plot.
Thank you so much for the privilege of being here, Cynthia, keep up your wonderful energy and talents! Every blessing!
Barbara Wright is the first-time children’s-YA author of Crow (Random House, 2012). From the promotional copy:
The summer of 1898 is filled with ups and downs for 11-year-old Moses. He’s growing apart from his best friend, his superstitious Boo-Nanny butts heads constantly with his pragmatic, educated father, and his mother is reeling from the discovery of a family secret.
Yet there are good times, too. He’s teaching his grandmother how to read. For the first time she’s sharing stories about her life as a slave. And his father and his friends are finally getting the respect and positions of power they’ve earned in the Wilmington, North Carolina, community.
But not everyone is happy with the political changes at play and some will do anything, including a violent plot against the government, to maintain the status quo.
One generation away from slavery, a thriving African American community—enfranchised and emancipated—suddenly and violently loses its freedom in turn of the century North Carolina when a group of local politicians stages the only successful coup d’etat in US history.
What is it like, to be a debut author? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?
I don’t think about audience as I write. For Crow, I focused on trying to get inside the head of the main character, in this case, a 12-year old African-American boy named Moses.
This was a real challenge, because, being a boy, he was interested in all kinds of things I am not—trains, firetrucks, boats, and pirates.
Because he lived in a different historical time, I had to be careful. I couldn’t write “He zipped up his jacket” because zippers weren’t in use in 1898. I couldn’t write “He slammed the screen door” because there were no screens.
Then there was the whole issue of race. I am white, so I had to figure out how a curious, intelligent boy would feel as he begins to experience prejudice, and it dawns on him that the world of possibility that his father has raised him to believe in may not be a reality.
As to what I love about being a debut kids’ author, what are the challenges and what came as the biggest surprise, the answer is the same: kids. They’re so smart, sophisticated, and responsive.
Thank goodness I didn’t think about this as I was writing the book, or I might have been intimidated!
As a historical fiction writer, what drew you to first-character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?
It was the incident of the 1898 race riot and coup d’état that hooked me enough to spend four years on the novel. I first learned about it in an op-ed article in The New York Times. I grew up in North Carolina and have spent summers my entire life at a beach next to Wilmington, and I had never heard of the race riot. My reaction was: How could I not know about this?
I plunged into the research.
In addition to reading history books and the riot report that was funded by the North Carolina legislature in 2006, I also looked at historical photographs, and visited museums and libraries. An original late 19th Century diary written in long hand by a white boy in a nearby town was particularly helpful. Thank goodness his handwriting was easy to read. This is where I picked up Moses’s fascination with bicycles.
On one of my frequent trips to Wilmington, I read the historical markers that are placed along the docks for tourists. It was here that I learned about the tunnels under Wilmington. This became an important plot point in the novel.
Barbara Wright’s office.
After I had researched the events leading up to the race riot, I wanted to create a family who could interact with the events in a personal way.
Thus, the father is from the thriving African-American middle class in Wilmington at the time. He is an alderman and works as a reporter for the Daily Record, which becomes key to the plot. He is an enthusiastic citizen who believes in democracy and cherishes the right to vote.
Starting out, I knew the job descriptions of the characters in the novel, but they didn’t become real people to me until I had been writing a while, and then each developed his or her own personality, sometimes to my surprise.
Boo Nanny was who she was from page one, and that didn’t change, but I did not plan on making the father such a principled man of character. When I put him in a situation, he just started acting that way.
In constructing Moses’s world, I tried to use things that were local or unique to the area. He likes pirates, because Blackbeard actually did operate off the coast of the Outer Banks, just north of Wilmington. The conjoined twins, Millie-Christine, are real people who were born in Columbus County, right next to Wilmington.
At one point, I describe the house on the Turpentine Plantation where Boo Nanny was a house slave: It faced a river that fed into the Cape Fear and had first and second floor porches that spanned the front of the house, with a separate building for the kitchen.
Long after I had finished this chapter, I came across a photograph of a plantation north of Wilmington that exactly fit my description.
It was both creepy and thrilling to realize that I had invented something totally out of my imagination that existed in real life.
While writing the novel, I turned to my husband for support. There are many tragic and sad things that happen in the novel, but after a hard day’s work, he could always make me laugh.
Close-up of Barbara’s desk.
“Crow is a fascinating and poignant story of one boy’s summer in the time leading up to the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. Thought-provoking, but not preachy, Crow pulls no punches as it remains true to the era yet always maintains the perspective of an eleven-year-old. Altogether, it’s a compelling read with an engaging and likeable protagonist.” —Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog
Brie’s life ends at sixteen: Her boyfriend tells her he doesn’t love her, and the news breaks her heart–literally.
But now that she’s D&G (dead and gone), Brie is about to discover that love is way more complicated than she ever imagined. Back in Half Moon Bay, her family has begun to unravel. Her best friend has been keeping a secret about Jacob, the boy Brie loved and lost–and the truth behind his shattering betrayal. And then there’s Patrick, Brie’s mysterious new guide and resident Lost Soul…who just might hold the key to her forever after.
With Patrick’s help, Brie will have to pass through the five stages of grief before she’s ready to move on. But how do you begin again, when your heart is still in pieces?
Fourteen-year-old Lucky Valera is a seasoned sailor about to join the crew of the whaling ship, Nightbird. But when his estranged older brother suddenly kidnaps him and forces him into servitude as a mule spinner at the mill, his life takes a dramatic turn for the worse.
Determined to escape, Lucky links up with some unlikely allies: Daniel, a fugitive slave who works alongside him at the mill, and Emmeline, a Quaker ship captains daughter. Emmeline offers Lucky passage on her fathers ship in exchange for his help leading escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad, but Lucky knows getting out from under his brother wont be easy.
When their plans go awry and Daniel is threatened by ruthless slave catchers, Lucky discovers that true freedom requires self-sacrifice, and he comes eventually to realize he is part of a larger movement from which he cannot run away.
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 grew up in New England and, as a kid, one of my favorite places to visit was the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I guess you could say my research began back then, with books from the gift shop and the rope bracelets my sisters and I wore every summer.
While New Bedford has long been famous for whaling, its connection to the Underground Railroad is not as well known. I first read about it in a newspaper story describing a secret room found when a building in the downtown area was demolished.
I was fascinated, and started to do a little digging. I learned that Frederick Douglass traveled the Underground Railroad using borrowed sailor’s protection papers. He actually lived in New Bedford and worked on the wharves as a ships caulker. Around the same time, huge textile mills had begun to spring up, competing with whaling for the city’s workforce.
It was a tumultuous period, and a story I couldn’t resist.
When I began research for the book, I looked at photographs, newspapers, and first hand accounts to get a picture of what New Bedford was like in the mid-1800s.
I also wanted to know more about life on a whaleship.
What I found was that the ship formed its own society, and in many ways a very egalitarian one. The work was so dangerous and the crew so dependent on one another, that their judgments tended to be based on ability rather than skin color (on my website is an advertisement made by the crew of a whaleship).
Still, my biggest roadblock was getting into the head of my main character, Lucky. Despite all the research I’d done, I was having a difficult time putting myself in the shoes of a boy who’d spent more time at sea than on land. How would he view the world? What were his hopes and dreams? What rules did he live by?
I was stuck.
After working on several different versions of the story, I set it aside for almost two years.
As writers, we often find inspiration in unlikely places. My greatest coup came from an estate sale. While looking through a box of books, I found a title I hadn’t come across in my research. Black Hands, White Sails by Patricia C. and Fredrick L. McKissack (Scholastic, 1999) is an inspiration in more ways than one.
Aside from offering a well-researched history of African American whalers, it contained a list of whalemen’s commandments. Rules such as fight anytime you think you can win, run when you think you can’t win, and never volunteer.
As soon as I read the whalemen’s commandments, I knew I’d found my main character, Lucky.
As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language of the era for today’s young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines?
The voices of the era were a challenge, mainly because there was such a diverse cast of characters. I turned again to primary sources, but also to works of historical fiction to see how other authors handled the voices of their characters. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster, 2008) is a favorite and a great example of brilliant dialogue.
Aside from the voice of a whaleman, one of my main characters is Quaker. To make her dialogue authentic I needed lots of thees, thous, and thines. Enough to make your head spin. What I’d done (at least on the first pass) was to get it written. But, of course, it was important to get it right. And to do so without making her speech so clunky that it stopped the reader.
Another challenge was that I’d fallen in love with the seafaring jargon of the era (my editor came to call it pirate-speak) and went overboard in the manuscript. I had to be brutal about cutting words or phrases with meanings not immediately clear in context. The dialogue needed to flow, and I had to resist the urge to launch into a history lesson.
An author is born!
But I wouldn’t change the process I went though. The salty language and Quakerisms made writing the story fun.
I guess my advice to other writers would be to jump right in: immerse yourself in the voices of the era you’re writing about. Revel in the wonderful words, phrases and expressions you’ve worked so hard to uncover in your research. You can always trim the sails later.
Questions You Might Be Asked When Offered Representation by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I
will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen
my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to
work with you for a long time.”
Blind Date: Those All-Important First Five Pages by Martina and Lisa from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “We are taking readers on a journey, and they want to be sure it isn’t one they have traveled before, but at the same time, they want to know what kind of a journey it is going to be.” Note: Includes questions for consideration.
Clarion Editor Daniel Nayeri: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek: “They represented, to me, the ability to assimilate–a quality that any first-generation immigrant desires on some level, for various reasons. I realize only now, looking back, that I was also beginning to see slang as a sort of mastery over language, a kind of expert-level code that only native speakers could employ.”
Reading Rainbow to Return as an App by Lauren Barack from School Library Journal. Peek: “Actor LeVar Burton wants to bring Reading Rainbow back—as an app. So says the popular show’s former host, who has kept the flame alive for the beloved children’s series, which launched on PBS Kids in 1983. Instead of a television show, Burton is planning to launch a mobile application, which will offer books to children.”
Permission to Be Stubborn by Rachel Harris from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “…hold tight to the story you want to tell. The core of your book. The things that turned you onto the shiny new idea to begin with. About a year ago, I read that author Stephanie Perkins always makes a Love List for her works in progress, and now I do, too.”
However You Can by Susan Fletcher from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: “While many writers seem to have some kind of inner sonar to guide them, I tend to stumble into quagmires and pit traps, taking vast amounts of time and energy to extricate myself and find my way back to solid ground. Panic is familiar territory — the gut-level feeling that I’m stuck, that I’ll never get out, that this whole thing has been a massive waste of time, that my career as a writer is over.”
Cynsational Writer Tip: If you write, you are not an “aspiring” writer. You are a writer. You don’t need publication to prove you’re a writer; just get the words down on the page. Own your awesomeness.
Marketing Consultation Giveaway with Shelli Johannes from Project Mayhem: The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. Peek: ” Build relationships online and help others. What comes around
goes around. That, to me, is the best tool an author can have. Other
than that, it depends on your target audience.” Enter to win a one-hour phone consultation with Shelli. Deadline: midnight EST Feb. 29.
2012 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Film Winners Announced
by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Peek:
“Books on vanishing frogs, secretive seabirds, and the fascinating
history of feathers were among the winners…. The annual award,
established in 2005, recognizes books for young readers that encourage
an understanding and appreciation of science.” Source: Chicken Spaghetti.
Are Teens Embracing E-Books? by Karen Springen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “‘The YA market has the largest demographic reach of any category,’ says Felicia Frazier, senior v-p of sales for Penguin Young Readers Group. ‘You’ve got little kids, eight-and nine-year-olds, some of them reading teen books, and 30- and 40-year olds as well. We want them to come to us on any platform, whether it’s physical or e-books. If we can get more people reading and interested in reading and having access, whether it’s physical or digital, it’s a win-win.'”
Story Water: The Cultural Wellsprings of Storytelling by Sayantani DasGupta from Hunger Mountain. Peek: “Just as American children recognize the cackle of a Halloween witch, what Bengali child hasn’t shivered with delight at the Haau! Maau! Khaau! of a carnivorous rakshas on the trail of a human meal?”
Enter to win a copy of Firelight or Vanish, both by Sophie Jordan (Harper). To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Please specify if you already own one of the books and are looking to win the other. Or email Cynthia directly with “Firelight,” “Vanish” or “Firelight/Vanish,” if you’re open to winning both, in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST March 5.
School Library Journal says of Diabolical: “…this captivating story combines action, suspense, and romance with just the right touch of humor to keep it entertaining. A great finish to an original and satisfying series.”
Writing Heroes: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Which is why I’m pretty sure she’s got some secret superpowers that enable her to watch over and come to the rescue of the global writing community.” Note: Highlighted that particular quote due to a longing since childhood for superpowers. Also, it’ll be a pleasure to pass on the generous critique giveaway offer to Cynsations readers; watch for announcement to come!
Note: Due to volume, I can’t feature the author/illustrator events of all of my Cynsational readers, but if you’re Austin bound for an appearance here, let me
know, and I’ll try to work in a shout out or two.
Emily Rivet (ER) graduated from Berry College in 2009 with a degree in journalism. She worked for Scholastic Book Fairs and Blooming Twig Books before becoming the Publicity Assistant at Peachtree Publishers in January 2011. At Peachtree, she manages the company blog, Facebook pages and Twitter feed. She also makes sure all the publicity mailings go off without a hitch — if you’ve received a review copy from Peachtree in the past year, chances are Emily packed it!
What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those for young readers?
MB: I have been a book fiend my whole life–pestering my parents to read to me, and then spending all of my time nose to paper after I learned to read myself. I was a flashlight-under-the-covers, “you’re-grounded-with-no-books!” kind of girl.
MB: All through school though, books were never presented to me as a viable way to making a living. It wasn’t until after college, dismally clutching my fine arts degrees, that I realized I had no clue what I was going to do for a career. I took stock of my interests, and reading was at the very top, so I tried to think of a career where I would have the most access to books. It was either working in publishing or being a librarian, and I just happened to pick publishing (I’m a big fan of librarians though!).
MB: I love working in children’s books–I believe that a good children’s book transcends age. I can pick up any book that I love as a ten-year-old, and enjoy it just as much today.
One of my favorite children’s book authors, Madeleine L’Engle, has a great quote that I think is very apt about young reader’s literature: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I count myself as extremely lucky to work in this field.
ER: I was always a fairly bookish child and I dabbled in creative writing in elementary school (my comic books about a super hero dog were pretty brilliant, if you ask my mother), but it wasn’t until late in college that it finally dawned on me to pursue a career in the book industry.
ER: I think my love of the book itself and the idea of what a book is to a child finally pushed me over the edge. I have a huge collection of children’s books that I’ve kept with no immediate practical purpose in mind – beautiful books, classic books I grew up with, books that make me chuckle (I’m looking at you, Mo Willems), etc – and one day a friend of mine asked me, “Why aren’t you majoring in something to do with literature or education? You sure love this stuff!” It was my “A-ha” moment.
Does being based in Georgia give the house a different point of view or “vibe” than, say, a NYC-based publisher? If so, how?
MB: I think so. A lot of our authors and illustrators are local, as in Atlantans, or at least Southerners. So we have several that drop in regularly, which is always a treat. In true Southern fashion, lots of them bake something for us for Christmas (which we love).
MB: I don’t think it’s unusual for authors to have a close relationship with their editor in New York. But I do think we are unique in that our authors and illustrators have close ties to all of us; they know who works in marketing, and who orders office supplies, and the names of the staff in the warehouse. I think that we have a much more close-knit community that our authors and illustrators are a part of.
ER: Absolutely, however, having never worked for a larger publisher, I can only speculate. I think our size in particular lends itself to lots of collaboration. I don’t work in editorial, but I’ve been part of meetings where we analyze a main character or talk about different ways a story may need to change in the editorial process. I’ve been asked my opinion on cover art, typesetting, etc. and right now as I type out my answers to this questionnaire, I can overhear a meeting going on between our publisher, one of our editors and one of our authors. It sounds like he has an idea for a new series, so they’re fleshing out the story and main characters.
ER: I count myself incredibly lucky to be working in a smaller office where I can soak up these artistic conversations. Authors are always stopping by, signing books, chatting, discussing current or future works and even if your daily job has nothing to do with that side of publishing, chances are you’ll still encounter it and reap the benefits of being near all that creativity!
How do you connect your titles to teachers and librarians?
ER: We have a great collection of teacher lesson plans and classroom discussion guides available for a ton of our titles, which include ties to national curriculum standards. A number of our authors are available for school visits as well, which is always so much fun. I remember thinking as a student how incredibly cool it was to meet a real, live author at school!
ER: We are also very active in library conferences where we get the chance to meet with teachers and librarians about their classroom needs.
ER: With so many constraints on their time and resources, teachers and librarians are always looking for the best way to get books to their students – hopefully we can help them with that!
Are there any particular books you’d like to highlight?
I love fairy tales, and I love a twist on a fairytale even more. The illustrations are a lot of fun, and I love the premise.
It does make you wonder about the original fairy tale–why did the prince want such a whiner?!
Have your marketing strategies changed during the recent economic downturn? If so, how, and what is your rationale?
ER: We have turned a lot of our focus toward social media marketing, not only for the benefit of a cost-efficient way to reach a lot of our readers, but also for the simple fact that so many people are online and using these social media outlets to connect with fellow readers. It’s a burgeoning market out there, and we’re one of many publishers who have jumped right into the middle of it with our blog, Facebook pages and Twitter feed.
What recommendations do you have for writers and illustrators in the submissions process? What are pitfalls to avoid?
MB: My best recommendation for writers and illustrators is to do your research and be respectful. Before you call with a question, make sure the information you’re looking for isn’t available online. Any house that takes submissions has specific guidelines they want followed, and they are always on their website.
MB: Never, ever show up uninvited to a publisher’s office. And remember, especially in a small house, you never know who might have answered the phone. Don’t be rude to someone that you assume is a receptionist, she very well might be an editor!
There’s been a lot of conversation of late about the current state and future of the picture book. What do you think?
MB: I think everyone in publishing can now see the changes that are coming. I have an e-reader, and even with my great love of the printed word, I believe that in the next ten years we will see a definite shift towards e-books over print.
MB: However, I think picture books will be a holdout. Can you imagine reading aloud to your children, holding up a screen? Well, maybe you can, and I’m sure it has been done, and will be done. But I think people have a real connection with picture books that maybe they don’t have with their trade paperbacks. There is just a certain connection that you get from holding a child in your lap, letting them turn the pages, and examining the artwork together. It’s just not the same on a screen.
Emily’s niece AKA “Miss Biscuit”
ER: I don’t think there will ever be an end to the physical picture book. In my opinion, they are too important to a child’s development – think of the motor skills they develop as they learn to turn a page, their growing attention span as they learn how to sit and get from one end of the physical book to the other (and often back again) and the satisfaction they get from looking at all the books on the shelf and getting to physically pick one out for themselves. It’s priceless!
ER: I have a niece who is 15 months old and her favorite thing to do, already, is pull all of her books out, spread them out and go through them one by one. She loves turning pages and will happily sit and “read” for as long as you’ll let her. She’s a girl after my own heart!
What is the one word you’d like people to think of when they think of Peachtree Publishers?
Thomas Gonzalez talks about his illustrations for 14 Cows for America, written by Carmen Agra Deedy. The powerful and true story recounts the gift of hope, generosity and compassion one small Kenyan Village made to the American people in the face of tragedy.
The inspiring story of one of the greatest moments in civil rights history as seen through the eyes of four young people who were at the center of the action.
The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March was a turning point in American history. In the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, the fight for civil rights lay in the hands of children like Audrey Hendricks, Wash Booker, James Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter.
Through the eyes of these four protesters and others who participated, We’ve Got a Job tells the little-known story of the 4,000 black elementary, middle, and high school students who voluntarily went to jail between May 2 and May 11, 1963. The children succeeded – where adults had failed – in desegregating one of the most racially violent cities in America.
By combining in-depth, one-on-one interviews and extensive research, author Cynthia Levinson recreates the events of the Birmingham Children’s March from a new and very personal perspective.
Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What and how did it help you?
These intensive, week-long sessions are by-application, by-invitation only. When the novel I’d been working on for four years was accepted, and I was assigned to work closely with Carolyn Coman, I was thrilled.
At our first one-on-one session, Carolyn talked with me about structure, point of view, voice—basic issues that I knew I needed help on but didn’t know how to improve.
Help seemed on the way! During the second evening’s group discussion, however, the other mentor-teacher so thoroughly criticized my draft, I thudded to a standstill. He was right. The novel was beyond help. At that moment, I switched to writing nonfiction.
For the rest of the week, I continued to meet with Carolyn. And we continued to talk about structure (especially, story-boarding, in which she’s an expert), point of view, and voice—all of the elements of fiction that play a role in good nonfiction writing. During private writing time, I pondered and explored the topics about which I wanted to write true stories.
At a previous Highlights-sponsored event, Chatauqua, I had talked with Lou Waryncia, editorial director of Cobblestone Publishing, who encouraged me to submit article queries to this group’s family of excellent nonfiction and fiction magazines.
It was one of the articles that I wrote for Cobblestone, called “We Shall Overcome,” about music during the civil rights period, that led to We’ve Got a Job.
As a nonfiction writer, how did you approach researching your topic? Then, how did you find the story, the focus, amidst all of your acquired subject matter?
Cynthia loves travel; here, she’s with a young guide in Bolivia.
I started by reading. Fortunately, much has been written about the civil rights movement, not only in general but also in Alabama and, in particular, Birmingham. The events there were so melodramatic—beatings, hoses, dogs, jails.
I started with two hefty Pulitzer-prize-winning tomes and, then, went on to other prize-worthy texts, including children’s books (though, at the time, nothing was available for kids on the Children’s March). I read solidly for three months.
At about that time, I discovered the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), which has an excellent website, and, even better for my purposes, video interviews with hundreds of civil rights activists. I watched snippets of these interviews online and read many dozens of transcripts.
Finally, I was ready for my first trip to Birmingham. In addition to spending days in the BCRI and Birmingham Public Library archives, I wanted to meet the people I was reading about.
But, as a new writer, with only magazine articles to my name, I felt like an encyclopedia salesman making cold calls. Would busy, professional people be willing to meet with me to talk about events of 45 years ago?
Many, many did! I interviewed not only black people who had marched in 1963 but also white people, including a policeman, about their perspectives. This trip convinced me that onsite research is invaluable.
But, you’re right, Cyn. All of this research produced a welter of material. How to make sense of it?
Two tasks were especially instrumental in that process.
First, on large poster sheets, I bullet-pointed six or eight major themes that surfaced from the research. One stated, “Birmingham was the most violently segregated city in the country.” Another, “The Civil Rights Movement was deteriorating.”
These statements formed the basis of my initial outline, which transmogrified into my first proposal. At that point, the book was going to be an overview of the Children’s March with supporting quotations from many different marchers.
The second step took me by surprise and required many, many more months of research, two more trips to Birmingham (one with my editor), and a complete revision of the proposal.
Here’s what happened. An editor who was interested in the book (but who, ultimately, was not able to buy it) suggested in an editorial letter that I tell the story through the voices of two or three marchers. Aha! Great idea. But, how do you do that?
It took a year before I found the exactly right four people (the story is so layered that two or three were not enough) who were willing to tell their stories.
Audrey, Wash, Arnetta, and James did a beautiful job.
Click to enlarge Cynthia’s outline.
Cynthia Y. Levinson interviewed dozens of participants in the Birmingham Children’s March and spent four years researching and writing We’ve Got a Job to share their stories.
A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey. She divides her time between Texas and Massachusetts.
Join Cynthia at 3 p.m. March 4 at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina (near Kealing at the corner of Angelina and Comal) in conjunction with BookPeople in Austin for a celebration of the release of We’ve Got a Job. The event will include a presentation, reading and refreshments.
Sophie Jordan grew up in the Texas hill country where she wove fantasies of dragons, warriors, and princesses. A former high school English teacher, she’s also the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Avon historical romances. She now lives in Houston with her family.
When she’s not writing, she spends her time overloading on caffeine (lattes and Diet Cherry Coke preferred), talking plotlines with anyone who will listen (including her kids), and cramming her DVR with true-crime and reality-TV shows.
Could you tell us about your path to writing for teen readers? What were the ah-ha! moments, victories and challenges along the way?
I had countless rejections before I landed my agent, and then, ultimately, my first book contract. Until then, the only thing that kept me going was sheer determination, the support of family and friends, and the belief that I had a unique writer’s voice.
While getting published was the first great victory, each book is its own challenge. You start over every time (even if you’re already published).
One of my first a-ha moments was allowing myself to just write the book. Get the first draft out. Later you can fix it and polish it. Allowing myself to write something less than perfect and adjusting my expectations was liberating. It let my writing flow. A first draft is just that — a first draft. It’s never perfect. The fun part is polishing that draft and making it shine.
Congratulations on the success of Firelight (Harper, 2010)! Could you tell us about the novel?
Thanks, Cynthia! Firelight is the first book in a trilogy. It’s about a girl that descends from dragons. She’s the last of her kind (there are other “draki”) that can breathe fire. Of course, that makes her doubly unique … and there’s lots of conflict … sexy boys … and kissing … and um… well, read the full summary here:
Marked as special at an early age, Jacinda knows her every move is watched. But she longs for freedom to make her own choices. When she breaks the most sacred tenet among her kind, she nearly pays with her life. Until a beautiful stranger saves her. A stranger who was sent to hunt those like her. For Jacinda is a draki—a descendant of dragons whose greatest defense is her secret ability to shift into human form.
Forced to flee into the mortal world with her family, Jacinda struggles to adapt to her new surroundings. The only bright light is Will. Gorgeous, elusive Will who stirs her inner draki to life. Although she is irresistibly drawn to him, Jacinda knows Will’s dark secret: He and his family are hunters. She should avoid him at all costs. But her inner draki is slowly slipping away—if it dies she will be left as a human forever. She’ll do anything to prevent that. Even if it means getting closer to her most dangerous enemy.
Mythical powers and breathtaking romance ignite in this story of a girl who defies all expectations and whose love crosses an ancient divide.
What was your inspiration?
Well, I first got turned onto YA by reading some really marvelous YA books. Snap! Just like that I was hooked and inspired to write YA. But it took a while for the idea of Firelight to come together.
I was thinking of paranormal creatures, and when I landed on dragons, it just triggered something. Other than fantasy, I couldn’t think of any “dragon” books grounded within a contemporary setting.
I started wondering what if dragons had been real… Where did they go? What happened to them? All those questions led me to create the lore of Firelight. With this lore, Jacinda’s story was born — a girl who looked human but wasn’t. A girl who was a dragon at the core…who could shape-shift, fly and breathe fire.
What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
Spark and publication? I love that! Hmm, the first spark came when I fell in love with YA and decided I wanted to write a YA (as mentioned above). Then the idea for Firelight itself didn’t come until almost eight months later. I was really waiting for the right idea. Sometimes the muse doesn’t come right away.
Of course I’d been writing as a career for a while now, so I was waiting for a really good concept — something not only I would love, but publishers, too. Once I had the idea, things moved pretty quickly. I already had an agent, so I drafted a proposal (synopsis, plus three chapters) and showed it to her.
We went back and forth on it for a couple weeks, and then I submitted it to HarperTeen. They came back with an offer within a week or two. All very quickly and very exciting!
Hooray for the release of Vanish (Harper, 2011)! How is it related to Firelight?
Well, it’s the sequel to Firelight. I definitely suggest you read Firelight before Vanish. Where Firelight largely took place in the human world, with Jacinda acclimating to the life of a “normal” high school girl, Vanish takes place back in her pride, in the world of the draki. It continues her story – with more action, adventure and, you guessed it! Kissing.
Rumor has it, you have some exciting movie news! Please fill us in!
Yes! Mandalay Pictures has optioned the film rights to Firelight. They’ve also hired screenwriter Nick Pustay to pen the screenplay, which is almost complete. Hopefully, there will be more news to announce this year.
You also publish books for grown-ups! How is it different writing for teen (versus adult) readers?
Honestly, not that different. For me every story is character-focused. In that regard each book is different because every character I write is unique. So every time I sit down to write a new book it’s a fresh adventure for me.
What, if anything, about it came as a surprise to you?
Hm… Probably how quickly it got snatched up for film adaption! Also…the teen/YA readers are amazing. They hold nothing back. Their response has been overwhelming and humbling.
What advice do you have for your fellow fantasy writers?
Think out of the box! If no one else is doing it, then maybe you should!
What can your fans look forward to next?
Hidden releases this September. It’s the final book in the Firelight trilogy…and there are definitely some surprises and twists that readers won’t see coming.
Enter to win a copy of Firelight or Vanish, both by Sophie Jordan (Harper). 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. Please specify if you already own one of the books and are looking to win the other. Or email Cynthia
directly with “Firelight,” “Vanish” or “Firelight/Vanish,” if you’re open to winning both, in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST March 5.