Guest Post: David Lubar on The Name of the Prose

Tor, 2016

By David Lubar
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I love it when people ask the title of my new book. I get to say, “Character, Driven.”

Then, if they nod knowingly, I add, “Character, comma, Driven.”

If they smile at that, I add, “It’s a plot-driven novel.”

I feel it’s a clever title. But a title has to be more than clever. It also has to be a good. It has a marketing job to do.

With 35 books or so to my credit, and close to 300 published short stories, I’ve created a lot of titles. Some were good. Some weren’t.

My first novel, published back in 1999, was about kids with special powers. The working title was “Psi School.” I wanted something better.

Back then, I often watched “Double Dare” on Nickelodeon with my daughter. At the end of the show, host Mark Summers would ask if anyone in the audience had a hidden talent.

One day, as he said that, I realized Hidden Talents was a perfect title for my novel. This was back in the days when we didn’t instantly and constantly search the Internet for information.

Starscape, 2003
Starscape, 2004

It wasn’t until the book came out that I searched for it in online stores and discovered there was a Jayne Ann Krentz novel by the same name.

That’s when I learned my first rule: Try to make the title unique.

Even having a similar title can be a problem. I was aware that Wendelin von Draanen had written Flipped (Knopf, 2001) before I called a novel of mine Flip. (I couldn’t resist. The title fit the story so well.) I didn’t think it would be a problem.

I also didn’t think we’d ever be on the same panel at a conference. To this day, I still run into people who confuse the two books.

I didn’t have that problem with Dunk, which was about a boy who wants to work as a clown in a dunk tank. I checked. There wasn’t a previous book with that title. But the title presented another problem. I’ve met people who never picked up the book because they thought it was about basketball.

I guess there might have been people who picked it up for that very reason. Inevitably, some of them would be disappointed. My second rule: Avoid confusing potential readers.

Graphia, 2004
Dutton, 2005

A title has to work with a broad population. My novel, “Flux Sucks,” was renamed at the last minute, out of fear that “sucks” might keep it off the shelves in some communities. The hastily created new title seems to be a good one. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie works well, I believe, because it is intriguing, and it can have multiple meanings.

I think the same holds true for Character, Driven. My main character, Cliff, is both driven to succeed in life and love, and driven by his friends because he lacks a car of his own.

The title also hints at the metafictional nature of the narrative.

I think my most successful title, in terms of marketability, caused a different sort of problem for me. The story collection, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales (Starscape, 2003)(excerpt), inspired such brilliant cover art from illustrator Bill Mayer that I decided the next collection also needed a Weenie title story. It was a smart move.

There are now seven Weenies collections, with an eighth coming in September. But it is a mixed blessing. Some people don’t take the books seriously, for that very reason. I’ve seen them referred to as “garbage books” by one blogger, who I suspect never looked beyond the cover, and a friend told of hearing a parent tell a child who’d snatched up a copy at a book fair to “pick a real book.”

Happily, the millions of copies in print remind me that, all in all, it was a good decision to run with the Weenies. (Not to mention the endless jokes I get to make when authors gather.)

Darby Creek, 2006

I have a chapter book about a boy who is cursed to speak in puns. The title, Punished!, actually came to me first, inspiring the book. (I also wrote a sequel, Numbed!, where the same characters lose their math skills. That, too, began with the title.)

I never tire of saying to kids who select that book at a school signing, “I’m glad you got Punished!”

I feel it’s an excellent title. But I made a mistake when I went for emphasis. Some online book sellers aren’t set up to search for an exclamation point. So neither Punished! nor Punished will produce that book.

If you search for the keywords Punished and Lubar, you’ll find the book, and some alarming bondage photos (just kidding), but the truth is that people are often better at remembering titles than authors. So a title should be both memorable and searchable.

Speaking of which, I foolishly called an ebook of mine, built from stories that were deemed too problematic for the Weenies collections, Zero Tolerance Meets the Alien Death Ray and Other (Mostly) Inappropriate Stories. I suspect that many of the kids who heard me talk about it forgot the title by the time they got home. If not sooner.

I hope I chose wisely this time. As a title, Character, Driven is memorable (I hope), searchable (I tested the comma, and found no problems), and confusing only in a fun and ironic sort of way.

Is it a good title? I think so. But that’s really a question for the marketplace to decide. And that would be you. So let me know what you think. Or just smile and nod knowingly if we ever cross paths.

Guest Post: Annette Bay Pimentel on Educational vs. Trade Presses

By Annette Bay Pimentel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lately I’ve been dancing between two publishing worlds.

I just finished the editing process on my first book with a trade publisher, Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service, illustrated by Rich Lo (Charlesbridge, Aug. 2, 2016).

I also recently finished my first books with an educational publisher, My Brain (Inside My Body) and My Stomach (Inside My Body) (both Amicus, 2015).

So how did working with a trade publisher differ from working for an educational publisher? What’s the difference between the educational press and the trade press? Educational publishers prize consistency and predictability. Trade publishers seek surprise and novelty.

The differences start at the contract level. Educational publishers generally pay a work-for-hire fee, a straightforward amount without any expectation that the writer will participate in marketing. Clarity and predictability are the hallmarks of the contract. Trade publishers offer royalties and expect the writer to be heavily involved in marketing. There’s the possibility that a book will sell very well, but there’s also a risk that it will tank. The contract leaves room for wonderful (or not-so-great) surprises to play out.

Both my educational press and my trade press publishers were thorough-going professionals who love books and language and who insisted that every word be right. Both of them demanded careful, thoroughly-documented research. But despite those similarities, their editorial priorities differed.

When I started work on My Stomach, I dreamed up a hilarious way to deliver information about the digestive system. It differed in structure from the manuscript I had just finished for My Brain, but it was so funny I was sure kids—and my editor!—would love it.

She didn’t. She decisively rejected it, explaining that I needed to stick to the structure I’d used in the other manuscript.

Now that I have the books in hand, I see her point. Part of the attraction of the Inside My Body series is that the books within it are consistent.

Any reader–including frazzled teachers looking for materials to hand to twenty-odd clamoring students—can quickly figure out exactly what kind of information she’s going to get and how it will be laid out in the book.

Practicality. Predictability. Consistency.

My trade press editor, on the other hand, told me that she was initially attracted to my manuscript because it took a familiar subject—national parks—and looked at them in a new way. I tell the story of the creation of the National Park Service through the eyes of Tie Sing, a Chinese American trail cook, whose story, up until now, has always been peripheral to the stories of the main players.

During the editing process, my editor encouraged me to consider adding a historical character who is an even smaller presence in the historical record than Tie Sing.

At first I was dubious I could find enough information to credibly write him into this nonfiction story, but I dug around and found mention of him in historical documents and saw him (literally) on the edges in some photographs. So I added him!

The story this trade editor helped me craft is one that hasn’t been told before and one that I hope astonishes and delights my readers.

Novelty! Challenge! Surprise!

There’s a place for both kinds of books. Sometimes all a frazzled second grade teacher needs to make it through the hour is a series of books she can hand out to her students, knowing she can count on the reading level to be what they can handle, and the content to be what they need for a particular assignment. Hooray for educational publishing!

But sometimes that teacher needs a book she can read to her class to carry them all to an astonishing new place. Hooray for trade publishing!

May they both thrive.

Author Interview: Heather Lang on Fearless Flyer & Writing Strong Women

Visit Heather Lang’s official author site & @Hblang

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on your new picture book biography Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) and the starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal! 

I was captivated by your account of Ruth Law’s record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City one hundred years ago, and Raúl Colón’s illustrations are magnificent.

You are creating a wonderful collection of books about strong women from our past. How do you choose the women you write about?

I love to read and write about lesser-known women, who dream big, pick themselves up when they fall, and stay persistent.

These women might face poverty, racial or gender discrimination, disability, or other hardships. They’re not afraid of failure. They inspire me to step outside my own comfort zone and be brave.

What drew you to this story about Ruth Law?

Sometimes I’m drawn to writing about topics I fear. With fear, there’s always fascination—like when you don’t want to watch a scary movie, but you can’t help yourself.

I’m a nervous flyer, so I’ve always been intrigued by those who dared to fly the flimsy biplanes made in the early 1900s. Ruth Law opened doors for women aviators like Amelia Earhart to enter this male-dominated field.

I loved how Ruth immersed herself fully in flying, even mastering the mechanics of her plane. She could tell what was wrong with her motor by the sound of it!

Her passion and personality came through in her words—she had a lovely voice. I wove her words into the text, so Ruth helps tell her own story.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Fearless Flyer. Can you talk a little about your process? 

Every book I write is a treasure hunt. I never know where a clue might take me. My initial research involved reading a lot of newspaper articles, and in one of those articles Ruth mentioned she kept a scrapbook. I tracked it down at the National Air and Space Museum archives.

Heather researching Ruth Law’s scrapbook

Her enormous scrapbook was stuffed with newspaper articles, mementos, photos, and her own handwriting. It was a goldmine.

While I was there I visited the early flight exhibit at the museum, educated myself about her biplane, and learned about the evolution of flight. A lot of questions popped up about her plane and how she operated it, so I found a retired Navy Commander who pilots and builds these old-style biplanes. He had incredible insights.

I also consulted with the folks at the Glen H. Curtiss Museum and the National Air and Space Museum.

I am always amazed how generous people are with their time and how eager they are to help.

What is one of your favorite things about writing for children?

Other than being able to wear sweat pants or pajamas all day, I’d have to say one of my favorite things about my job is the community. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people than writers, teachers, and librarians. We all have the same primary goal—to have a positive impact on children, giving them books they can relate to and books that open them up to new people and places and dreams.

From Heather’s The Original Cowgirl, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky (Whitman)

I’m in two critique groups. We share the highs of clever endings, successful revisions, and accepted submissions. We share the struggles of faulty plots, poor reviews, and rejection. I rely on them tremendously for support.

What are you working on now?

with Alice Coachman

I’m launching a blog focusing on Girls With Grit and having a blast creating the content.

It will include real-life stories, psychology and science, classroom activities, interviews with authors, and of course children’s books with strong female characters.

I’m also adding supplemental materials to my website so readers can get to know even more about Ruth Law and her flying machine.

What do you have coming out next?

I’m really excited about my next picture book biography, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by Jordi Solano (Albert Whitman, 2016), about an amazing shark scientist AKA “The Shark Lady.”

Sadly, Genie (as she liked to be called) died last year at the age of 92. I had the thrill of interviewing her in person in 2014, and hearing about her remarkable adventures. Genie also reviewed the manuscript for me.

I look forward to sharing this amazing woman with kids everywhere.

Cynsational Notes

Helen’s muses

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College.
She writes both fiction and non-fiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies.

Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or teaching creative writing workshops for children. Helen also serves on the on the Board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Find her on Twitter @helenkampion.

Guest Post: Henry Herz on The Advantages of Independent Publishers

By Henry L. Herz
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Let’s first distinguish between the terms “independent” and “small” publishers.

“Independent publishers” (IPs) are publishers that are not part of a larger corporation (e.g., the Big Five).

“Small publishers” are defined in the 2007 Writer’s Market as those that average fewer than ten titles per year. So, while all small publishers are independent, not all independent publishers are small.

Pelican Publishing, home of my first three picture books (Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes, When You Give an Imp a Penny and Little Red Cuttlefish), puts out about 60 titles a year. It’s an independent publisher, but not a small publisher.

Having a book put out by a large publishing house, without question, offers some powerful advantages, including greater market reach, publishing industry relationships, more staff, and bigger budgets (and advances), than are often the case for smaller publishers. That said, there are significant benefits to working with independent publishers.

1. Access – Arguably the most important advantage of independent publishers is their relative ease of access. While most of the large publishers can only be queried via a literary agent, that restriction is rarely present with independent publishers. This makes independent publishers particularly appealing to newer writers who aren’t represented by agents.

2. Relationships – independent publishers’ smaller size tends to promote a closer relationship between the author and the independent publisher than may be possible with a large publisher. I feel comfortable contacting my editor and publicist at Pelican whenever it’s necessary. This ease of interaction promotes a more pleasant working relationship.

3. Influence – By virtue, at least in part, of the closer relationship, authors may also have more influence with independent publishers than with large publishers. Independent publishers may be more likely to solicit and consider author feedback on cover design, artwork, font choice, etc. That said, trust your independent publisher to know its business.

4. Author’s Efforts More Visible – This is the big fish in a small pond phenomenon. An individual author’s promotional efforts and resulting sales are more visible and account for a larger percentage of sales at an independent publishers than at a large publisher.

5. More Flexible – Independent publishers, by their nature, and more flexible than large publishers. This can enable them to focus on niche or regional markets, and offer a home to a book that would not be considered by a large publisher. Independent publishers don’t invest as much on a single book, and can thus more easily take calculated risks on innovative or unusual manuscripts.

6. Longer-Term Perspective – The philosophy of independent publishers is more aligned with a marathoner than with a sprinter. Slow and steady wins the race. Pelican keeps its books in print indefinitely.

7. Speed – Independent publishers can use their smaller size and greater flexibility to produce books faster than a large publisher. This was particularly true for my experience with Pelican, since I had complete artwork accompany my manuscripts (note: that is neither typical nor recommended for non-author-illustrators).

8. Stepping Stone – Independent publishers are quite capable of producing top notch books. A well-written and commercially successful book put out by an independent publisher may offer an effective stepping stone for authors’ careers, including gaining access to literary agents and, with their help, larger opportunities.

Cynsational Notes

Henry L. Herz‘s latest picture book is When You Give an Imp a Penny (Pelican, 2016).

Before you lend an imp a penny, there’s something you should know—such a simple act of generosity could set off a side-splitting chain of events!

A colorful picture book full of mythology, mischief, and magic, When You Give an Imp a Penny shows us just what happens when an accident-prone—but well-intentioned—imp comes along asking for favors! 

The same writer/illustrator duo that brought you Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes brings to life a comedy of fabled proportions.

Find Henry at Facebook and @Nimpentoad at Twitter.

In Memory: Louise Rennison

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Louise Rennison (1951-2016), author – obituary: ‘Queen of Teen’ whose comic novels captured the horrors and occasional triumphs of adolescence from The Telegraph. Peek: “Louise Rennison, the author, who has died aged 64, was the creator of Georgia Nicolson, the 14-year-old protagonist of such young adult novels as Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging and Startled by his Furry Shorts; the series achieved sales of 2.6 million in Britain alone.”

Goodbye, Louise Rennison – you captured the hilarious horror of girlhood by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett from The Telegraph. Peek: “Rennison understood the unique, farcical horror of being a teenage girl.”

Five Things All Louise Rennison Fans Know to Be True by Jillian Capewell from The Huffington Post. Peek: “Thanks to Rennison, I added snogging (kissing), nunga-nungas (breasts), lurrrrrve (self-explanatory) and away laughing on a fast camel (still working that one out) to my repertoire.”

“My Hero: Louise Rennison” by Philip Ardagh from The Guardian. Peek: “…there is comfort in the fact that her laughter lives on through the pages of her books. She was a class act and one funny lady.” See also Literary Agents Pay Tribute to Rennison from The Bookseller.

Cynsations News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

David Bowles on His Garza Twins Series & Pura Belpre Award from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: “…Anglo young people facing off against European or Western legendary beings, gods, or dilemmas. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice,’ we often mused, ‘to open one of these books and find a Chicana facing off against Aztec deities or Mexican monsters?'”

Multiple Point of Views, Alternating Between First and Third Person by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “Maybe the first person point of view would establish your protagonist as the most trusted narrator, when in fact readers should be trusting someone else entirely.”

WNDB Internship Grants from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “This year nine $2500 grants are available to diverse publishing interns, and the program has expanded to include interns at literary agencies as well as partner publishing houses.” See also Scholastic Collaborates with WNDB on Reading Club Flyers from Publishers Weekly.

Russia Purge: Publishing Children’s Books in Russia by Masha Gessen from The Intercept. Peek: “You would think that publishing a book for six-year-olds wouldn’t entail political risks, even in a country where political risks abound. You would be wrong.”

Writing Horror While Female from Courtney Alameda. Peek: “Women are no strangers to deep-seated, primal fear, which makes us candidates to exorcise those fears and frustrations on the page.”

South Asian Voices: A Roundtable Discussion from We Need Diverse Books. Peek from Uma Krishnaswami: “I define it geographically. For me, Asia begins in Afghanistan and ends at the Pacific Ocean. And within that there are words of cultures, languages, religions, belief systems, art forms, stories, ways of thinking and being. I see South Asia as very much a part of Asia. You didn’t ask that, but I’m saying it anyway. What would Asia be without Buddhism, or India without tea?”

Old-time Gals with Gumption: The Picture Books of Shana Corey by Barbara Auerbach from School Library Journal. Peek: “As Women’s History Month approaches, teachers and librarians rush to titles that will engage and inspire students, and offer discussion opportunities.”

Short Lists for the Canadian Library Association Children’s and Young Adult Book Awards.

C.M. Surrisi and The Maypop Kidnapping from the VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “I strive for adult characters who are respected as role models, even if they are sometimes difficult and test a kid’s patience.”

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry National Writing Contest from Penguin Books for Young Readers and We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “…launching a debut children’s fiction contest to find talented, ethnically diverse authors writing for readers ages 8-14. Submission period begins in April 2016.”

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Christy Hale by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “I look for color inspiration in art books. I research picture references for gestures, expressions, setting, clothing, and other aspects of daily living.”

Death to the Q&A by Kenny Brechner from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The customers’ energy and goodwill evaporates during the Q&A so that at its end, instead of staying to wait in line, chat, and buy a book, they run for it.” Note: Not all attendees may be able to afford a book (or they may already own a copy but want to connect in person with the author). However, they might purchase a lower-priced item at the event (or at the store in the near future). In fact, they may be introduced to the store by the event. That said, it’s agreed that Q&As (like readings) can become tedious.

Cynsational Giveaway

The winners of The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt (Scholastic) were Barbara in North Carolina and Aaron in Michigan.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Newest additions to my fairy door collection!

I’m thrilled to be attending the launch of Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies by debut author Carmen Oliver (Capstone, 2015) at 2 p.m. Sunday at BookPeople in Austin. Look for more about Carmen and this terrific pro-literacy picture book at Cynsations soon!

Are you writing across identity elements? Join me for Diversity Done Right from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 19 in conjunction with North Texas SCBWI.

Or would you like to pursue one of manuscript critiques and/or career consultations (not to mention the chance to learn from an outstanding creative and publishing faculty)? If so, now is the time to register for the Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference May 14 and May 15.

You can also find me teaching and speaking at the upcoming Asian Festival of Children’s Media from May 25 to May 29 at the National Library in Singapore. Peek: “The Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) is an annual festival in Singapore that celebrates and promotes the creation and appreciation of children’s books and content, with a focus on Asian themes.”

Personal Links

Click to see new members!


Guest Post & Giveaway: Hannah Barnaby on Writing for My Life: How I Dug into My Past for Fiction

By Hannah Barnaby
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In early 1999, I was a graduate student in the children’s literature program at Simmons College in Boston.

I had a work study job at the Simmons social work school, mailing out applications and entering information into a computer, and that’s where I was on the morning of February 16th—sitting at someone else’s desk, collating papers—when the phone rang.

I ignored it. It wasn’t my phone.

It stopped, and rang again, and stopped, and finally the receptionist came in and said, “You need to answer that. It’s for you.”

It was my father, and he was crying, and he told me that my brother Jesse was dead.

I was twenty-four years old. My brother was not even twenty-one.

There is no good reason for why it has taken me seventeen years to write Some of the Parts (Knopf, 2016), the story of Tallie McGovern, who is sixteen and has lost her big brother and feels that she has no right to still be alive. There is no good reason, except that I was afraid to write Tallie’s story because I knew that it would bring that day in 1999 rushing back like an unstoppable river.

And it did. I remembered things that I was sure I’d forgotten, like the single red mitten on top of a fence that I saw as I walked to the T station after that phone call.

Like the first thing I ate after I found out: a tuna sandwich.

Like the ride home to Albany from Boston that night, like what my mother looked like when I saw her at the door, like the guilt and the aching sadness of an empty chair in our kitchen.

I am often asked about the process of writing for teen readers, about accessing my “inner teen,” about telling stories that they can relate to. But the truth is that the experiences which truly shape us—loss and gain, trauma and victory, love and devastation—refuse to be forgotten.

We have only to glance back at them and they reanimate, like a movie unpaused, and they start to talk and move and sing.

Tallie’s story unfolded that way. I expected that writing Some of the Parts would be difficult, and it was. Nate is not my brother, and Tallie is not me, but much of their story is taken from my own and that is how I wrote this book—not just for teens, but for everyone who has lost somebody important.

I didn’t expect that it would heal me all over again. But it did.

I spoke to my brother’s friends from high school and college. I listened to his favorite music (Charlie Parker). I read his favorite writers (James Michener and William Faulkner). I ate his favorite ice cream (vanilla). I spent time with him, the way that Tallie spends time with Nate. I walked through every part of her story right along with her and when she was finally safe again, I knew that I was, too.

I don’t know if Jesse was an organ donor. He died in a fire and most of his personal belongings were damaged or lost, including his driver’s license. But he cared deeply about his family and his friends and the world we lived in with him, and in that way, he lives on.

As for me: I have a little heart on the bottom of my driver’s license. I am very careful crossing the street, and I always wear my helmet.

I have a little boy now. When Some of the Parts is published—on the seventeenth anniversary of my brother Jesse’s death—my son will be nearly six. He loves vanilla ice cream, and music, and reading. He has brown hair and dark eyes, like the uncle he will never meet.

Before I wrote this book, I didn’t talk about my brother with my children very often, because I thought it would be too sad, and because I didn’t know what tell them. Writing Some of the Parts gave me the words to say, and I hope those words are taken by readers and used in conversations about loss of all kinds.

Sometimes bad things happen, and we are not the same when they are over.

This is the line from Some of the Parts that sums it all up for me. When we lose someone, their empty space doesn’t get filled up. It isn’t like digging a hole in the sand and watching the hole disappear when the tide comes in. It’s more like this:

We grow around the memory of the people we’ve lost, and we carry them with us. And if we’re feeling very brave one day, we write about them.

Cynsational Notes

Hannah Barnaby is the author of Wonder Show (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), a Morris Award finalist; Some of the Parts; and the upcoming picture books Bad Guy and Garcia & Colette. She is a proud graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a former children’s book editor and bookseller.

Hannah lives in Charlottesville, VA with her family and teaches creative writing to anyone who will listen. Find her on Twitter @hannahrbarnaby.

Learn more about Hannah’s upcoming Write for Your Life workshop at The Writing Barn in Austin.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby (Knopf, 2016) and a sterling silver heart necklace. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Author Interview: Deborah Hopkinson on Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What was your initial inspiration for writing Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, illustrated by Charlotte Voake (Schwartz & Wade, 2016)?

Actually, several years ago my agent, Steven Malk, mentioned that it might be fun to do a book about Beatrix Potter. After reading about her life (and enjoying the film “Miss Potter”), I became fascinated by her story, accomplishments, and legacy.

My first attempts at writing a nonfiction book about her failed, however. But when I went back to try again, I hit upon focusing on one incident from her journal that illustrates her love of animals and of art.

The promotional copy describes the story as “mostly true.” So this is historical fiction, yes? Where did you honor the Potter’s actual life and where did you creatively extrapolate?

It’s absolutely historical fiction! I do author visits at schools all over the country, and one of the first things students and I discuss is the distinction between nonfiction and historical fiction. I’ve been previewing the cover of Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, and have found that even young children recognize that it’s a made up story (and slightly silly to boot).

In fact, some details in the story are based on fact, including the part where Beatrix borrowed from her neighbor a guinea pig named “Queen Elizabeth,” which expired in the night from consuming a feast of paper, paste, and other scrumptious tidbits.

As I mention in the note, Beatrix was actually in her twenties when this occurred, but we have set the story when she was younger. The dialogue is invented also, although we do include several excerpts from her journal in the book.

I’ve included an author’s note of her life that also explains that the story is fictionalized.

What were other the challenges–research, craft, logistical and/or emotional–in bringing the story to life?

One of the aspects of Beatrix’s own creative process I wanted to emulate was the “picture letter.” She originally got the idea for The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) when writing a get well note to a young boy in the format of a letter that included spot art illustrations. I wanted to make this book a sort of picture letter itself.

Working with Charlotte Voake’s delightful illustrations, the amazing team editorial team of Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade (Schwartz & Wade) were able to capture that feeling for the book. For instance, even before you get to the title page, there is a spread that begins, “My Dear Reader…” which shows a hand penning the words. At the end, the story is signed by me and the author’s note is in the form of a postscript.

I’m always looking for ways that teachers and librarians can use books with students, and I think that, in addition to being an author and illustrator children enjoy, Beatrix Potter is a model for someone who began working on her craft as a child.

How did Charlotte Voake’s illustrations enhance your text?

Charlotte’s work is absolutely perfect for this story! I love her illustrations of Beatrix’s pets, which are filled with wry humor.

Charlotte is British, and we’re excited that her British publisher, Walker, will be publishing the book in Great Britain in July to coincide with the 150th anniversary celebration of Beatrix Potter’s birth.

(This anniversary is, as you can imagine, rather a big deal in England, and the Royal Mint is even issuing special commemorative coins.)

What other new releases should your readers be sure to check out in 2016?

As it happens, 2016 is also the 150th anniversary of the founding of the ASPCA in April 1866. And this April I’m excited that my new historical fiction middle grade novel, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket, will be out from Knopf.

It’s set in New York City, and is narrated by a young Italian immigrant brought over to be a street musician. It also features appearances by actual historical figures involved with improving the rights of children and animals, including Jacob Riis and ASPCA founder Henry Bergh.

What advice do you have for fellow writers about historical research and blending facts with fiction?

In October 2016, I’ll be teaching a Highlights Foundation workshop (with Pamela Turner) on writing nonfiction for middle grade students. I taught this class last year, and one of our main discussion points was how to know when a project can — or should be — fiction or nonfiction.

I’ve always been a huge fan of both genres, and enjoy writing about the same historical periods in different ways. My first long work of nonfiction, Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York (Scholastic, 2003), came about because I had written a Dear America historical fiction book (Hear My Sorrow (Scholastic, 2004)) about the Triangle Waist Company fire. In A Bandit’s Tale, I am returning to the same setting but telling the story in a picaresque style.

I think the main point whether one is writing historical fiction or nonfiction is that the piece must work as a dramatic, compelling story. This sometimes means including less research than one might like – but, then, you never know when you might use it again.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Hopkinson lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @deborahopkinson.

2016 SCBWI Bologna Author-Illustrator Interview: Naomi Kojima

By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Naomi Kojima is an author and illustrator of children’s books. Born in Japan, Naomi has divided her life between Japan and the United States. Her first two picture books, Mr. and Mrs. Thief and The Flying Grandmother were published in New York. 

Since then, her books have been published in Japan, France, Sweden and Indonesia. 

Living and working in Tokyo, she is that author and illustrator of picture books The Alphabet Picture Book and The Singing Clams. She has been a keynote and presenter at major Asian conferences including the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore and has given illustration and picture book workshops in India and Indonesia.

Naomi serves as the illustrator coordinator of SCBWI Japan.

Welcome Naomi! Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your career as an illustrator, and about serving as a judge for the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery (BIG).

Can you tell us about how you entered the field of illustrating children’s books?

illustration from The Alphabet Picture Book

When I was a child, I wanted to become a writer of children’s books and illustrate my stories. I went to the school library almost every day, and read and talked to the kind librarian until it was time to go home. I would look at the bookshelves and dream that someday, my books would be on these shelves, and a child like me would take them off the shelf, read it and enjoy it.

I made my first picture book for a class assignment during my senior year at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. The story was based on my friend’s next door neighbor. We were sure they were thieves!

I wrote the story, drew illustrations, stapled the pages, and called the picture book Mr. and Mrs. Thief. Making the picture book brought back my childhood dream.

I knew in my heart that I wanted to keep on writing and illustrating picture books. But I had no idea how to start on the path as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. I went back to Japan after graduation, and worked as an art teacher.

Some years later, my husband and I moved to the U.S., to a college town in Massachusetts, and I met Jane Yolen. It was Jane who helped me start my career in children’s books. I went to the monthly meetings Jane organized in a small library in Hatfield. The group was called the Society of Children’s Book Writers, now the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators.

By attending the meetings, I learned how to make picture books. I worked on Mr. and Mrs. Thief, and received critique at the monthly meetings. After several revisions, Jane told me that Mr. and Mrs. Thief was ready. I made five appointments with publishers in New York City, and the editor at the second publisher showed strong interest in Mr. and Mrs. Thief and another picture book dummy The Flying Grandmother. Three weeks later, she called and gave me a contract for both books.

It was Jane and SCBWI that helped me make my childhood dream come true. And do you know what? The library at my elementary school in Tokyo has a special shelf for my books!

How did you discover your illustration style?

My illustration style is influenced by the illustrations from the books I used to enjoy as a child. One book I liked was a collection of New Yorker cartoons. It was my parent’s book, and I couldn’t understand the captions and I didn’t get the jokes, but I thought the black and white illustrations were so clever. I was amazed how much could be expressed in just black and white.

illustration from The Sparrow’s Gift

Another book I loved to look through, turning from page to page, was the Fireside Book of Folk Songs, which is a 300-page songbook. I didn’t know the songs, but I would look at the illustrations and try to imagine what the ballads were about.

Many years later, I realized the illustrations were by Alice and Martin Provensen. That was a wonderful surprise!

During my school years in Japan, I was fascinated with the illustrations by E. H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh; with Walter Trier, who illustrated many of Erich Kaster’s books; with Edward Ardizzone in The Little Bookroom; and Pauline Baynes, who illustrated the Narnia books.

Naturally, I chose pen and ink and water colors for my illustrations.

Do you have a favorite artistic medium for your illustrations?

I like to work in pen and ink and water colors. I like the clear and black lines of pen and ink, and a light layer of water colors over the lines. I also use colored pencils. I like to combine soft and hard colored pencils.

I like to work in pencil too. The illustrations for Singing Shijimi Clams are done in pencil. I used a mechanical pencil to get a very fine and sharp line.

Has that changed over the course of your career?

No, it hasn’t changed much. I experiment with markers and crayon, but I go back to pen and ink, pencil, water colors and colored pencils.

Do you illustrate your own stories, the stories of other writers, or both?

I illustrate my own picture book stories. I don’t think I would illustrate someone else’s picture book, but from time to time, I like illustrating long stories by other writers. As a child, I always looked forward to finding the illustrations in long stories. I think the combination of illustrations and words are beautiful, in picture books and in longer stories.

I have illustrated four stories by Japanese fantasy writer Sachiko Kashiwaba. The most recent book we worked on together is Princess Tapir’s Classmate. Her stories usually have mythical beasts and animals, which is a challenge, but also fun to illustrate.

What are the differences and/or similarities in the creative process when illustrating your own or other people’s stories?

The biggest difference is, if you are writing and illustrating your own story, you are responsible for everything: the content, the plot, the structure, the quality of writing and art.

When you illustrate other people’s stories, your mission is to interpret the story, and make illustrations that represent and enhance the story.

The similarity is that you give your best to make a beautiful book.

As a judge for the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery, what makes an illustration stand out to you?

Good illustrations have the power to draw you in instantly, and make you want to keep looking. The more you look, the more you see. It seems there are layers of things to look at.

It could be the movement of fine lines, the confident brush strokes, the subtle and rich colors, the careful details, the striking composition, the humor, the playfulness, the expression of the face or body that evokes a feeling, and reminds you of a place or time.

There are illustrations that are successful in catching your eye by using strong colors and composition, but when you look closely, you notice it is a dead end, that you cannot see or feel the artist, and you cannot go any deeper than the surface. Depth is an important quality in good illustrations.

The successful illustrator seems to know when to stop and when to add. This sense of balance, I believe, comes from training and experience, from many hours of drawing.

What are the benefits for illustrators from submitting their work to showcases such as BIG?

The biggest benefit for submitting to BIG is the opportunity of having your work displayed at the SCBWI Showcase at the 2016 Bologna Book Fair, where people in the children’s book business from around the world will come to browse.

Another benefit is the digital version of the shortlist portfolio, where thumbnails of artwork and contact information will be on display on the SCBWI website. SCBWI continues to display portfolios from 2010. This is wonderful, as it gives illustrators from around the world an opportunity to show their work on a long-term basis. Many editors come to the SCBWI website to find illustrators.

As you can see from this shortlist, the quality of the illustrations were very high. The judging process required a lot of concentration and energy, but I enjoyed every moment of looking at the submissions.

I know it takes a bit of courage to submit work to illustration contests, but when you submit, you are taking a step forward and making a commitment to your career as an illustrator.

What qualities do you think are important for an artist to have in order to be successful in the field of illustration for children’s books?

Good drawing skills, a love for children’s books, determination, perseverance, patience, objectivity and believing in yourself. And if you want to be a picture book illustrator, read many, many picture books.

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your career as an illustrator?

That life is much too short to make all the story ideas I have into picture books!

illustration from Singing Shijimi Clams

Thank you Naomi for your time! It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Cynsational Notes

Elisabeth Norton grew up in Alaska, lived for many years and Texas, and after a brief sojourn in England, now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in Switzerland.

She writes for middle grade readers and serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board games, and spending time with family and friends. Find her on Twitter @fictionforge.

The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.