Craft, Career & Cheer: Bonnie Christensen

Learn about Bonnie Christensen.

Note: interior illustrations below are from Bonnie’s Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2009) and featured here with permission.

What do you love most about the creative life?

In attempting to answer this question, I ran straight into a wall. There are so very many things to love about the creative life, can I love all of them “most”? I’ll try to be obedient and address the lovable aspects in order of preference. And I’ll explain why as best I can.

#1 The moment of creation. Where did that idea come from? Why won’t it leave me alone? What does it want me to do? Is it insane? Can I actually even mention it to my agent without feeling like a total ninny?

It’s pure bliss though, this something new that rose up out of the earth one morning while I was making the espresso.

#1. Freedom. This doesn’t just mean that I can wake up at a ridiculous hour and lounge around in my jammies, eating salt-and-vinegar chips and chocolate-covered coffee beans all day while reading every Jane Austen novel for the 100th time.

No. But maybe tomorrow. No, no. Freedom to explore, or do nothing, to take a walk or a shower at 3 p.m. The strange sort of place that a wonderful idea will crop up in the unstressed mind. I can spend a day at the beach, if I work all weekend. I’m a grown up, and I can create my own life, my own schedule. It’s wonderful to have the freedom to daydream and doodle and sometimes to do nothing at all.

I have a friend who often says “nothing is something to do.” I like that.

[Yes, #1 is a tie.]

#2 Research. The older I get, the more ignorant I feel. To create books or illustrations requires research of all sorts. Travel, reading, museums, meeting people, learning new languages, understanding other cultures, other times in history.

At the moment, I’m fascinated with Etruscans; three years ago, I knew nothing more than the name. But one day, when a series of ideas have percolated properly, the Etruscans will tap on my door and present me with a task. That’s when the work truly begins. But it’s work rooted in curiosity and enthusiasm, an exploration or the best sort.

#3 Change. From Etruscan to jazz musicians to a child learning to make borscht to a journalist putting her life in jeopardy for writing out against lynchings, each book brings a new universe of experience and understanding, new friends and enemies, new costumes and lighting and architecture.

In short, each book is a new life, each one entirely unique.

[Cover art from Magic in the Margins by W. Nikola-Lisa, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).]

#4 Fun. Jammies and espresso and a big table with lots of crayons and newsprint, or a tiny notebook with fine black pens. Crayons smell good; they really do. And I can blast my iPod as loud as I like, and when Marvin Gaye comes on, I can jump up and dance around like a dervish and then do it again and again.

I can do whatever I want in my studio. But I know that if I want to keep my studio, I’d better sit back down sooner or later and do the work part. And the work part is good too, always creating a challenge to be solved whether with illustration or writing, and I like challenges.

How do you define professional success?

Hm. This is something that changes constantly.

At one time professional success meant not being a “one-book wonder.”And then it meant “just keep going.” But that’s not success exactly, that’s really lining up work.

Now that I’ve stopped counting the books like birthdays, it seems professional success is really a personal philosophy. And what I’m concerned with is personal success within my profession. It’s easy to identify professional success; loads of books published, awards, being made into an action figure (okay, I exaggerate, but if I had the kind of success I’d demand it!)

Just look at the New York Times best seller lists, buzzing with brilliance. Once upon a time, these lists gave me sour grapes and ennui. Now I don’t look at them, and I’m much happier.

I let my mind wander. I let my body wander to foreign places. I play the violin.

I’m scatterbrained. Sometimes I go to an important event and later discover I’m coated with a nice layer of cat fur because I need glasses for more than reading.

I’m in the business of making the best books possible for me, and even then, they are never good enough, but I try to keep in mind the child who will read the book and discover elements included to amuse myself while working, and those same elements will make the child happy too. This is my personal success within my profession.

Could you tell us about your new release?

My latest book is Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2009) which I both wrote and illustrated. It’s a biography of Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist who rose to prominence in Paris dance halls of the 1920s and ’30s but was then badly injured in an accident. He didn’t give up guitar despite losing use of two fingers of his fretting hand; instead, he spent almost two years retraining himself to play in a new style adapted to his ability. Really an incredible man with a rare musical talent.


The other project I’m working on is The Princess of Borscht, written by Leda Schubert (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2011), a lovely and funny story about a girl trying to make borscht to help cure her grandmother who’s in the hospital. It’s quite a leap from the serious nonfiction work, and I’m loving the serendipity of it all.

After that, I have Fabulous, A Portrait of Andy Warhol (Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt, 2011), a picture book bio of Andy Warhol, coming out. Cool.

Cynsational Notes

Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist was named the 2010 Young Children’s Book Winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award. Peek: “The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Warren Hanson

Warren Hanson is an illustrator and author who has helped create some very beloved books.

He illustrated Tom Hegg’s NYT Bestseller A Cup of Christmas Tea (Waldman House, 2004) and four books about a lovable, many-colored bear named Peef (Waldman House). He has written and illustrated The Next Place (Waldman House, 1997), Older Love (Waldman House 2003), Kiki’s Hats (Tristan, 2007), Beginning: Encouragement at the Start of Something New (Waldman House, 2002), Raising You Alone, and many other books for children and adults.

He looks forward to the release of The Sea of Sleep, illustrated by Jim LaMarche (Scholastic, fall 2010), and has recently moved from St. Paul to Houston.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I’m not a very disciplined writer. Or at least it would appear that I’m not. I will go for weeks without writing a word. But the appearance is deceiving. I have many seeds planted in the soil of my mind all the time, and those seeds are each at a different stage of development. When suddenly one of those seeds is ready to sprout and be put down on the page, then I will write feverishly, for several hours a day.

During that stage, it doesn’t matter where I am. At my desk (often the least appealing), in the back yard, in a hotel room, at the library (my satellite office) or the coffee shop (my other satellite office). I seem to be able to tune out the noise around me and concentrate fully, no matter where I am. During those times, I am never without my notes and emerging manuscript. I have to be able to stop what I’m doing and write no matter where I am.

When a story is in this growth stage, and I am beginning to craft the actual words that will appear in the final version, I am often in awe of the process.

I suspect that all writers will say that there are times when we look at the page or screen in front of us and say to ourselves, “Oh my gosh, that is beautiful! Where in the world did that come from?!” So that old cliche of “it wasn’t written by me but through me” often feels real.

Of course, that is not to deny the hard, hard work that goes into this. It’s like working in a diamond mine. You dig and dig, toil and toil, and then suddenly there is a beautiful, sparkling gem winking at you out of the darkness. (I hope you geologists out there aren’t too critical of this illustration.) You just stare at it in awe. You suspected it was there, of course. But when it’s finally right there in front of you, it can be absolutely breathtaking.

How have you come to thrive in such a competitive, unpredictable industry?

Well, most of the time it feels less like thriving and more like its rhyming partner, surviving. And I do it by using every tool in my toolkit every day.

People who are outside the writing/illustrating/publishing arena often ask me what a typical day is like. But there is no such thing. Some days I’m writing. Some days I’m drawing. Some days I’m doing school visits. Some days I’m doing a program for a church group or a volunteer luncheon or a book club. And some days I’m answering email, networking, mailing postcards, freshening my website, researching publishers. And most days I’m doing a little bit of all those things and more.

Most authors get contacted often by people who have written a story and want to get it published. Those people make it feel like a hobby. But I work very, very hard every day.

Sometimes it doesn’t look like work. I might be sitting in the back yard with a pad of paper, staring at the sky. But that work is exhausting. So in order to “thrive,” I use every asset that I have, every day.

I’ve always been comfortable in front of an audience. In fact, I enjoy it. So I seek speaking engagements, both for the income and for the opportunity to read new work and gauge reactions. I’ve always enjoyed music, so now I incorporate my singing and songwriting into my public appearances, using music to relate to people in the same way that I try to with my books.

And I’ve never been afraid to act silly in front of other people. This now is a tool I use in cultivating school visits. If I can entertain the kids and at the same time teach them about the creative process, I feel like I’m doing good work.

So I’m very busy. Every day is full. And that’s how it needs to be, if I am to earn a living doing what I love to do.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a children’s bedtime book coming from Scholastic for fall 2010, and I’m really excited about it. The book is entitled The Sea of Sleep. It is a very lulling, gently rocking rhyming book that is truly intended to send little ones into dreamland. (I made the mistake of reading it to a group of kids during a school visit once. Bad idea!)

It’s illustrated by Jim LaMarche, who has long been an inspiration to me in my own illustration work. I had originally envisioned a very dreamy, ethereal approach to the artwork, and I knew from the beginning that I was not going to be the appropriate illustrator. I actually wrote it with Mary GrandPré in mind. This was before she got so busy with a boy named Harry.

The manuscript languished for years. Scholastic bought it in 2003. Then it languished again as the quest for an illustrator kept bogging down and editors kept leaving.

It finally landed in the hands of Dianne Hess, and she just about knocked me out when she called to say that Jim LaMarche would do the art.

He took it in a different and wonderful direction by drawing a baby otter floating in the sea on his mother’s loving tummy. The art is done, and I am absolutely thrilled!

But there are other projects in the works. I’ve had a picture book accepted by Beach Lane Books, Allyn Johnston’s imprint at Simon & Schuster. As I write this, I haven’t received the contract yet, so I don’t know anything about a schedule. It’s called It’s Monday, Mrs. Jolly Bones, and it’s a rather wacky book for young children.

I’m shopping a middle-grade boy novel called “Dawn of the Dork,” and I’ve had some nibbles. I’ve just finished writing an adult feel-good book called “Today’s Special,” which I trust will be picked up by Tristan, my long-time publisher in Minnesota. And I have a couple other irons in the fire. So I’m wishing on a lot of stars at the moment.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

In the video below from Tristan Publishing, Warren Hanson sharing his new release, Everything Happens For A Reason (Tristan, 2009) on KARE11 News.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Melissa Walker

Learn about Melissa Walker.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I write in the bay window of my garden-floor brownstone apartment in Brooklyn. We don’t get much light on at this low level, but what light does come in dapples my overstuffed pink flowered chair each morning through early afternoon. I sit right in the middle of it so I can create.

My schedule is steady when I’m on a book deadline (like I am now!). I usually start the day with yoga or a gym class or a walk outside to get iced coffee (cream and sugar, please). After I’ve had a little interaction with the world, I sit down in my chair and begin.

In this sunlit seat, with stillness all around me, I can lose myself in a character’s thoughts. There’s some noise from the street—people walking to the nearby park, children’s laughter, an overheard snippet of cell phone conversation, the rattle of glass as someone comes to collect the cans from my recycling bin—but mostly I’m alone with my fiction. The ambient noise may even help things, and it has entered my writing on more than one occasion.

For example, there was a day when a package arrived at my door. I had to stop writing to sign for it. I had been in the middle of writing a long phone dialogue scene, and I couldn’t figure out how the character would get off the phone when the emotional pitch of the conversation was so high. Then the doorbell flusters her in the middle of it all. A perfect exit strategy.

I don’t let my butt leave the chair until I have 1000 words written. They don’t have to be good words, but they have to exist on the page. Sometimes I get hungry, but that just spurs me on. I try to be done by 2 p.m., and usually that works just fine.

Then I have a lunch break, often set to “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and move into magazine writing or work for iheartdaily.com (a daily newsletter for teenagers which I run with co-founder Anne Ichikawa). Those are the other hats I wear in this creative life.

The timing works for me because once I have my fiction work done, the rest feels like cake. In my non-fiction writing, I don’t have to call on so much of myself, I don’t have to plunge into emotions or imagine reactions of characters whose motivations are different from my own.

So the hard work is done each day by early afternoon (ideally), and then I sit down in the chair again, this time with the phone at my side in case I have to conduct interviews or talk to my editor. My very posture is different when I work on magazine writing—I sit more upright, ready for action and very much in the present, not as sunken into another world.

I’ve gotten so attached to my chair that even though we plan to get a new couch soon that absolutely will not go with this upholstery, I can’t get rid of it. One day I may move into a bigger apartment and hide it in a guest room, but this seat will always be part of my writing.

Why is your agent the right agent for you?

When I got an offer on my first idea for a novel, Violet on the Runway (Berkley Trade, 2007), I was without an agent. I had contacted an editor directly, told her about my idea, submitted two sample chapters along with many published magazine clips, and been offered a deal.

It was a whirlwind fairy tale, but I knew that before signing, I wanted to find an agent—someone to guide me through this new part of publishing.

I talked to friends, who recommended people they’d worked with and liked, and I ended up whittling my choices down to three. There was one newcomer who was very Hungry, one Power Player who talked like Ari Gold from “Entourage,” and one Doug Stewart of Sterling Lord Literistic.

Doug met me for a drink at a local bar (we live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn) and brought me two young adult novels he’d represented. He told me in very thoughtful terms what he liked about my submission and why he thought we’d work well together. It was all very calm (unlike my interactions with the Power Player and the Hungry one).

The books he gave me were both wonderful—really well written. That made me feel like Doug knew quality material and represented the best authors he could find. It also made me feel flattered that he thought my writing was in the league of these other authors he represented.

After I signed with Doug, the Violet deal turned into three books, and the money went up significantly (it had started very low). I was instantly happy I’d decided to get an agent. Phew!

He also knew how to hold onto foreign rights, which earned me more than my advance in the case of Violet (it has sold in France and Russia), and also dramatic rights (it has been optioned for television). In the initial contract I was offered, none of those rights remained with me. It takes a good agent to negotiate those parts!

All through my book-publishing life, which spans three years now, Doug has been there to hold my hand and be the bad guy if I need him to (with late checks or publicity snafus or other incidents that fall into the category of “things I want to fix but don’t want to handle!”).

He’s also been the good guy. He’s been there to advise me on new book ideas, how to build myself as an author who’s here to stick around for more than her first book, how to figure out when less is really more with an editor or contract. Doug is responsive to my every question, and though I try not to bug him with things, I have a feeling he’d be infinitely bug-able just because he’s so accessible and open to my queries and musings about the publishing world.

Not to get all self-help-y, but in the end, Doug Stewart is the right agent for me because he believes I have talent and he believes I’m a valuable part of the YA book scene. And when he believes it, publishers believe it, too. And maybe, just maybe, I can believe it.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My next book will be out in early 2011! It’s called Small Town Sinners (Bloomsbury), and it’s the story of Lacey, 16, who’s grown up in a Christian community and always wanted to star in her church’s Hell House, a haunted house of sin. But when a childhood friend reappears, she begins to question her faith and all she’s been taught.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Claudia Guadalupe Martinez

Learn about Claudia Guadalupe Martinez.

Could you describe the your experience working with an editor?

I’ve only written one book, but I couldn’t have asked for a better experience—I may have to light a candle when I submit my next book in hopes that my next experience is this positive. I tell people that working with my editor was like getting a free MFA. I learned so much simply by diving in.

Because it is a small press [Cinco Puntos], I also get full service! My editor has been right alongside me, working hard to get the book buzz and recognition.

We’ve managed to collect a handful of honors including: the 2009 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, Américas Award Commended Title, and the Texas Institute of Letters Best Young Adult Book Award.

What do you love most about being an author? Why?

I love–love–visiting schools and libraries because I get to talk to kids. It’s wonderful to hear their questions and opinions, and to see my work through their eyes. Kids are so honest and in awe of books, and many of them want to write books, too. They make me feel like a rock star, and I’m not a rock star.

I also really enjoy festivals and opportunities to meet other authors. Most of the time I feel like I’m still a kid, too, and I love getting books signed. I was at ALA this summer signing books for about half an hour, and the highlight of that experience was being within three feet of Judy Blume.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

In The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (Cinco Puntos, 2008), Chela, an eleven year old growing up in El Paso, Texas; worries about typical things like popularity and grades. Sixth grade is a big deal because it’s her first year out of bilingual education, and she gets to be in the class that everyone else looks up to. Then her father gets sick, and her best friend dumps her. That changes all her plans.

In the story, the smell of old lady perfume is the smell of bad things. When something bad happens, like her father getting sick, Chela’s relatives show up, followed by that smell! It’s realistic fiction but melodic and very different from my next book.

My next book is set in Chicago, and has a bit of magic….

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Craft, Career & Cheer: David L. Harrison

Learn about David L. Harrison.

How do you define artistic success?

Perfection is the goal. Writers see in their imagination what they intend to create–a finished piece without blemish, a stunning accomplishment that holds readers close and thrills them with an astonishing experience. Results rarely match the dream that beckons us on, but some sort of internal scale determines how close we think we came.

Everyone else along the tortuous route from concept to book judges artistic success by their own rules. What I think ranks up around the eyes might fall nearer the ankles for someone in editorial, sales, promotion, reviewing, buying, or reading.

The only scale the writer can trust is his own, but only if he’s telling himself the truth. Until a writer learns to tell himself the truth, artistic success isn’t a likely issue.

However, not every writer measures artistic accomplishment the same way. Some of us come to the pen from the classroom. We were teachers; therefore, we are teachers and will be teachers. What we seek to create may reflect our belief systems about what children need to learn. Does this book encourage fluency? Comprehension? Does it build vocabulary? Phonemic awareness? If I’ve embedded teachable moments into my work and done it at a high level of artistic achievement, isn’t that a success?

Some of us come from other backgrounds. We may have grease under our nails or pencils behind our ears, deer heads on the wall or guitars in the corner or keyboard calluses on fingertips. It might not occur to us that readers need anything more than to be entertained, and our brains sing with ideas like birds on a wire.

Our sternly judgmental muses hold us up to great writers in our chosen genres and mutter in our ears that we could do better even if the current effort is a good one.

It would be wrong to say that every writer uses a different scale to determine his or her degree of artistic achievement, but I believe there are many scales that are equally valid. Were it otherwise, the wonderful diversity of children’s literature would be jeopardized.

Having said all this, I’ve left out perhaps the truest measure of artistic achievement: time. There are reasons why classics are classics. When generations of readers rediscover a story or poem or nonfiction book and love it, we are in the presence of creative genius.

Times change, language becomes dated, but somewhere at the core of a classic piece of writing, the author still lives. A voice that speaks across generations draws readers back again and again to sit still for a while to relish and wonder. Which books will last fifty years? Which will disappear like snow by next spring’s list? The writer can’t know in advance, but the dream of matching reality to vision keeps us trying harder.

How do you define professional success?

My advice to those who want to write professionally is to set realistic goals and celebrate each victory along the way, no matter how small.

First, start thinking and acting like a writer. Write something. It doesn’t matter what. The mind can’t revise a blank sheet of paper. Until you lay down a track of words, nothing is going to happen. Once you have committed your first thoughts to paper as a conscious act of writing, celebrate your first victory.

Celebrate your first rejection slip. If you have finished a piece of writing, submitted it, and received a rejection slip, you have already gone farther than ninety-nine percent of the population. (Okay, not everyone wants to be a writer, but more do than you might suppose.)

On the way to selling my first story, I got to celebrate rejection slips sixty-seven times in a row over six years. I thought that was rather too much of a good thing.

Is professional success measured by number of publications? Wilson Rawls decided at an early age to write his way out of poverty. I heard him say how many novels he wrote–dozens as I recall–before one was finally accepted. But one is all you need when it’s Where the Red Fern Grows (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1961). Fifteen years later he published Summer of the Monkeys (Doubleday, 1976), but his reputation was already established.

Barbara Robinson has also written a number of other wonderful stories, but mention her name and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (HarperCollins, 1972) comes to mind.

Exceptional literature doesn’t need to surround itself with numbers. It lives on its own merits. A writer who can create one memorable book may be more successful professionally than a writer who pumps out ten books to add to a list of publications.

Professional success develops over time–article by article, story by story, poem by poem. It comes from learning about the craft. It comes from attending meetings, visiting schools, speaking at conferences.

Many an emerging writer has longed for a publisher who loves untested authors, a generous soul with a big heart and a deep wallet who isn’t as picky and demanding as those tradition-bound, agent-only, you-have-to-have-been-published publishers.

There is no such publisher. Deep down no one really wants there to be. When you eventually sell something, you’ll celebrate, not because a publisher cut you some slack and let you slip by, but because he didn’t.

Can you tell us about your latest release?

My latest trade book is Vacation: We’re Going to the Ocean, illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2009). Some of you will remember Rob’s brilliant work in bugs: poems about creeping things (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2007).

I love to work with talented artists. Rob invariably comes from an unexpected angle that adds value and humor to every poem. For example, in bugs, I wrote about bugs moving under my welcome mat. Rob drew the bugs and the mat in such a way that together they spell out “we home.” In another poem, I wrote about how unfriendly the centipede is. Rob drew him opening a heart-shaped box of candy and throwing out all the chocolates. People seemed to like our combined efforts, and bugs was chosen as one of the best books of poetry in 2007.

Now Rob and I have a new collaboration. In Vacation, we take Sam and his family on a driving vacation to the ocean. Sam describes the trip, often from the back seat, as they drive along. Early in the trip, Sam starts a refrain that’s familiar to anyone who has ever traveled with children.

Are We There Yet?

My foot’s
asleep,

my seat
is sore.

You said
“another hour”
before.

You say
“an hour”
every
time.

Your
hours
are much

longer
than
mine.

Also out this year is a teaching strategy book co-authored with Tim Rasinski and Gay Fawcett: Partner Poems for Building Fluency, Grades 4-6 (Scholastic, 2009).

Tim is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on reading fluency, and he writes that sharing aloud poems for two voices is an effective tool for building reading fluency. I had fun writing 40 new poems for two or more voices for the book. Gay, who is another leader in this field, wrote student activities to follow each poem.

I’m already using the book at conferences and school visits. Kids and adults, individually or in groups, enjoy reading the poems aloud.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Pirates by David L. Harrison, illustrated by Dan Burr (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2008) was named to the Texas Library Association Bluebonnet List.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Michelle Markel

Michelle Markel is the author of Tyrannosaurus Math (Tricycle/Random House, 2009).

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had working on a book? Why?

Tyrannosaurus Math was a pleasure for many reasons. It was a quick and easy conception. I was substituting in a second grade classroom, we’d run out of math activities, we’d covered a very dry dinosaur story in the morning, and the classroom library books were uninspired. We were all pretty bored.

I invented some word problems using dinos that the kids loved. Voila, there it came–math + dinosaurs = a fun idea for a children’s book!

They say creativity often comes from joining two or more disparate ideas; that’s a good example.

There were few complications at birth (unlike my other books, where I spent hours, months, in protracted labor). I just amused myself creating the character–a bone-munching, number-crunching dinosaur.

(On reflection, I think the Tyrannosaurus was a way of channeling my violent disinclination to math. That, plus I’ve always had a weakness for T-Rex. I mean, he’s so vicious, but those short arms make him comical).

I also had a terrific editor, Joanne Taylor, who gently pushed me in the right direction. The revisions she suggested led me to deepen the emotional part of the story. The sibling conflict figures into the climax and resolution, which it hadn’t originally. And Joanne found the perfect illustrator, Doug Cushman, who totally got the humor.

How have you come to thrive in such a competitive, unpredictable industry?

Well, in flagrant disregard of marketing wisdom, I haven’t branded myself. I’ve got a wide range of interests, and I’ve doggedly written and published about just a few of them: social issues, cultural diversity, art, history. I wanted to get the stories out, even if it meant sometimes going with smaller presses.

The old saw is that “a good book will find its home.” Finding that home, i.e. the editor who falls in love with your story, is key, but it takes patience and perseverance (oh, if only there was Match.com for writers and editors! ).

When I started writing back in the ’90s I couldn’t search the Internet–or Cynsations–for information about the publishing industry like you can now. I managed to snag the right editors by joining SCBWI, reading Publishers Weekly, going to conferences, book fairs, and later being on listservs.

But I also inadvertently sold a book because of my careless tracking system. I submitted two different picture books to two editors at Houghton Mifflin, which is bad form. As soon as I discovered my mistake, I alerted the editors. When one of them rejected the manuscript I’d sent to her, the other found out and snapped it up. I have an agent now, who is discouraging me from wantonly spreading myself around at the houses.

In a competitive industry, the manuscripts that take chances (either stylistically or by choice of subject matter) are going to be noticed. I thought I was going out on a limb in writing a book about a labor organizer most people haven’t heard of, but the story was compelling. The heroine had to be honored. (See below). To be successful, you need to take risks and you have to be generous. Writing is a gift, an act of love.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Brave Girl: Clara Lemlich and the Shirtwaist Makers Strike of 1909–about a young Jewish/Russian immigrant who started the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history (HarperCollins, 2011). I’m delighted that Melissa Sweet, who received a Caldecott Honor for River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Eerdmans, 2008), will illustrate.

And a biography about Henri Rousseau from Eerdmans. The story is all about a highly unlikely triumph over relentless rejection, so lots of writers will relate!

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

From “The Rex Green Show:” in the video below, Dino-host Rex Green interviews author Michelle Markel about her new math book for kids. Note: Michelle does a great job of holding her own versus the host, a T. rex hand puppet.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Carolyn Crimi

Learn about Carolyn Crimi, and visit her team blog, Three Silly Chicks.

Carolyn’s latest book is Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick, 2009).

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

One of the joys of being a writer is being able to write wherever you want. Most days I write while sitting on the big red sofa in my living room.

In fact, I’m writing this from that very spot. I usually have my pug Emerson snoring by my side. I like to put fresh flowers on the coffee table. Sometimes I play a jazz CD—Miles Davis works for me. I always have a huge a pot of coffee brewing.

This is bliss. Absolute bliss. Coffee + dog + jazz + flowers = one happy writer.

Sometimes, though, I feel the need to shake things up, so I might bring my laptop to the café near my house. I live in a college town, so this particular cafe is frequented by over-caffeinated students writing furiously on their laptops. You don’t go to this café to chat with friends.

Heaven forbid! I think they might even kick people out for that. If I’m between projects, I bring a book of writing exercises and try some of the jump-start ideas.

The smell of coffee brewing and the sight of these stressed out students makes for a great working atmosphere.

In the summer, I enjoy writing on my screened-in porch. I can see my garden and listen to the birds while I write.

Are you jealous of me right now?

Because if I didn’t know me better I’d be jealous of me right now.

I have also had great luck writing in airports. I happen to love airports. Such hustle! Such bustle! More importantly, there’s not a whole lot to do in airports except eat bad tortilla wraps and stand in line for the bathroom. So I flip open a notebook and get to work.

I have yet to drive to the airport just to work on a story, but perhaps some day I’ll try that.

It’s important to me that my writing space feels comfortable and inviting. I know some writers believe in writing spaces with no view—like a basement or a closet—but I’d feel like I was being punished if I tried to write in such an atmosphere.

I want my writing space to whisper, “Look, Carolyn! See how comfy this sofa is? Don’t you just want to plunk yourself down and write here? Come on, it’s eeeasy…”


As for time, well, anytime after 10 a.m. is okay with me. Early morning hours are for birds and paperboys.

What do you love most about being an author? Why?

You mean besides the boatloads of money? The Maserati, the yacht, and the manicurist on call? Hmm. I guess I would have to say that school visits are the cherry on my author sundae.

Yes, of course, I love the act of writing—the buzz and the hum of crafting the perfect metaphor or line of dialogue. That’s a high that I can’t get anywhere else.

But there is nothing like a fabulous school visit. When a school visit goes really well—and they usually do—I am apt to feel sorry for anyone who isn’t me that day.

On those perfect days I find myself looking out into the audience and thinking, they’re paying me for this? I love making kids laugh. It’s addictive.

I love it the way I love chocolate and Bruce Springsteen.

During the first part of my visit I put on a silly “story-hunting hat” that always gets a laugh.

Then, a little later, I show my dog wearing his story-hunting hats. That’s when I begin to worry that these poor children might have some sort of group seizure. They laugh so hard that I think, oh, my, is this even healthy? Can one actually die of laughter?

But then I think, what a great way to go!

So far I have not lost a student, but it’s been close.

(I have considered doing a school visit that just features pictures of my dog in various hats. I’m not sure I can sell principals on this idea, though. Perhaps if I can somehow tie it in to the Six Traits of Writing? Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated.)

Now, if it were just about making kids laugh, I’d stop doing school visits and start hiring myself out as a clown. I’d probably make more money, and hey, I already own the silly hat. The laughter is great, but I also like to think that, in some small way, I’m making a difference in these kids’ lives.

During that 45-minute session, I am showing them that books and writing are fun. That coming up with new story ideas is a laugh riot. That writing can be hard, but it’s also worth the effort. That real people—not bleached, tanned, skinny supermodels—write books that they enjoy.

And then there’s that one student who approaches me after everyone else has gone back to the classroom. That one student who wants to be an author. We talk about writing and books for a while. I like to think these kids go home that day believing that they might grow up to be authors, too.

Here’s the thing–there’s always that one student. Even if there’s a fire drill in the middle of my session and there are five subs talking in the back of the room and the mic stops working and the building loses electricity, I can still count on making a difference with that one student.

That’s enough for me. It fills me up with all kinds of gooey goodness. Kinda like chocolate and Bruce Springsteen, only better.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

I was on a panel recently, and the moderator asked us which book was the most difficult to write. I held up my latest book, Henry and The Crazed Chicken Pirates. I went on and on about the difficulties with this book and how I almost gave up.

The audience was not impressed. I could see it in their faces. I know exactly what they were thinking.

How hard can it be?

For crying out loud, it’s just a picture book!

Maybe she’s a little…dimwitted.

Yeah, well.

Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates is a sequel. I have not read anything about writing the picture book sequel, and really, there should be a book on it. Or at least an article. Something.

If you are writing a sequel to a longer book–say, a middle grade novel–you have at least a page or two to catch the reader up with what went on in the first book. Actually, I’m sure some writers can weave this information into the first five chapters.

But I had a paragraph. One lousy paragraph. And I sweated it out.

I think I rewrote that first paragraph at least 15 times.

Another challenge with writing picture book sequels is that picture book characters are flat.

They are a distilled representation of humanity. Henry is a reader with every ounce of his little bunny self, and I wasn’t sure how much mileage I had out of that.

I didn’t want to write another book about how Henry saved the day with his book smarts. That idea bored me silly.

So in this book I decided that instead of just having Henry love reading books, I’d have him write his own book, too. It seemed like a natural progression for a book lover.

These are just some of the challenges I faced. I wrote a billion different drafts, and each one was very different. In the end, I actually liked how it turned out.

In fact, many months later when I read my first hardbound copy I found myself laughing out loud. Who is this funny writer? She’s so clever!

Oh, wait. It’s me!

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Bonny Becker

Bonny Becker is the award-winning author of 12 children’s books, including picture books and novels. Her book A Visitor for Bear, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick, 2008) was a New York Times Bestseller, Amazon’s Best Picture Book of 2008, and winner of the Golden Kite Award and the E.B. White Read Aloud Award.

She has two new books out: A Birthday for Bear, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, (Candlewick, 2009), and a middle-grade novel The Magical Ms. Plum, illustrated by Amy Portnoy (Knopf, 2009).

She’s also an instructor for the MFA in Creative Writing Program for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.

What were you like as a young reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite books?

I was the kind of reader who didn’t hear the call to dinner or notice the visitor who’d come in the door or the fading evening light. I loved anything to do with magic and fantasy: Mary Poppins [by P.L. Travers (Harcourt, Brace, 1934-1988)], the Oz books [by L. Frank Baum (George M. Hill, 1900), The Chronicles of Narnia [by C.S. Lewis (HarperTrophy, 1950-1956)], Doctor Doolittle [by Hugh Lofting (1920-1952)], the Edward Eager books, The Good American Witch (very obscure book by Peggy Bacon [Macmillan, 1959])… I have to confess that I didn’t really have favorite authors because I didn’t pay attention to that. I just knew the books.


What first inspired you to write for children?

I always wanted to be a writer, but at first I kind of stumbled around in the adult world, especially with short stories. But most of those were rather angsty slices of life capped with a little epiphany. I felt phony writing that way. I could do it readily enough, but I didn’t feel authentic.

Then I remembered that the books I’d read as a kid had always been my idea of a “real” book. Kids books have to commit to some view of the world and tell a complete story. They were much harder to write, but a lot more fun.

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

One of my early books was The Christmas Crocodile, illustrated by David Small (Simon & Schuster, 1998). My book illustrated by David Small! How great is that?

And it got a big, fat review in the New York Time’s Holiday Book review and was read on National Public Radio and it sold out in the stores and, instead of being duly humble and all that, I thought, “Well, of course. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” That’s the life of an author, right? So that was my sprint.

But then came a number of books that quickly went out of print. And a long dry spell of about four years when I couldn’t sell anything. Somehow I slogged through that, but I did wonder at times if I should just give up.

Now, I feel I’m almost into a second career with the success of the Bear books and The Magical Ms. Plum just coming out.

Looking back, in terms of craft, what was the single best decision you made in terms of advancing your writing apprenticeship and why?

It was the realization and acceptance of how hard you have to work. I’ve always been a good writer—one of those kids who got lots of praise in school, worked on my high school newspaper, etc. Writing always came pretty easily to me, but it was hard to discover that what came easily for me wasn’t going to be enough.

I had to do what wasn’t so easy. I had to listen to people tell me what was wrong with my story. And I couldn’t argue back. It was going to take many drafts. Millions and billions and trillions of drafts! Some of my stories, a lot of my stories, were going into the file drawer to stay—so disturbingly like one of those body drawers at the morgue.

If only it were as easy as sitting down and “opening a vein” as a writer* once said. At least it would flow! To me, writing is like pushing a rock up hill.

*There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. –Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

Congratulations on the release of The Magical Ms. Plum, illustrated by Amy Portnoy (Knopf, 2009)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Thank you! I’m really excited about it. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a kid. In other words, lots of magic.

It’s about a third grade schoolteacher with a magical supply closet. I like the way Kirkus Reviews described it: “Ms. Plum sends one student per chapter into her magical supply closet, which smells of ‘chalk and chocolate and something lovely no one could ever quite name,’ and that student comes out with a miniature version of an animal that behaves in a way that adds to the students’ understanding.”

It’s sort of a mix between Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1947) with maybe a touch of Sideways Stories from Wayside School [by Louis Sachar]. I hope anyway!

What was your initial inspiration for the story?

Well, I do live just a few blocks from the high school that Betty MacDonald (author of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle) went to, so maybe that was it.

Actually, I’m not sure. It’s such a mix of things. But I guess it started with trying to figure out a story involving just one miniature animal. It was going to be a picture book, and all I knew was that this little animal goes on a rampage in a classroom. And how it morphed into this—a teacher with a supply closet and a bunch of different little animals and different kids with different hopes and fears and problems—I really don’t know!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I wanted the animal “familiar” that each child finds to make sense for their particular dilemma. Matching that up was fun, but tricky, too. What animal would make sense for a kid who always wore black and said “woe is me.”? Or a girl who sees everything through rose-colored glasses? Was the animal appealing? What kind of things could that animal plausibly do?

Now I know why mice are so popular in kid lit. They have paws. They can do things.

Probably one of the bigger craft problems was how to keep the book from feeling too repetitive, so part of my solution was to weave in a story of one boy who spends most of the book trying to get asked to go into the closet. He seems to be the only one who never gets asked, so there’s an overall story arc for him.

Congratulations also on the release of A Birthday for Bear, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick, 2009)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Bear is his usual fastidious, grumpy self on his birthday—even denying that it is his birthday! Mouse disguises himself as the deliveryman, the postman, even as Santa Claus, trying to get Bear to admit it’s his birthday and enjoy the day.

It’s an early reader—four short chapters. My biggest worry was that I’d have to restrain Bear’s over-the-top vocabulary, but that wasn’t a problem. The Mouse and Bear books are in Candlewick’s Sparks line, which are “early readers” but not really “easy” or “learn-to-read” books. The idea is that advanced first grade and second grade readers who can handle bigger words and more complex syntax, still need content that appeals to someone that young.

By the way, Candlewick created a Birthday card based on A Birthday for Bear that can be send electronically or downloaded. Here’s a link if anyone would like one: Birthday Card.

It’s a sequel to A Visitor for Bear (Candlewick, 2008). Picture book sequels are rare. How did this one evolve?

After I sold A Visitor for Bear, I realized how much I loved these characters and I had more stories to tell about them. I started working on another book, but before I even finished it, my editor at Candlewick, Sarah Ketchersid, asked if I’d consider doing another Mouse and Bear book. We were on the same wavelength and fortunately, Kady MacDonald Denton, the illustrator, was happy to do more with these characters, too.

People say that the picture book market is depressed, but look at you! What’s your secret to success?

Luck! And a series that seems to be a great sharing experience for kids and adults. There’s a lot of interaction and spontaneous play that seems to come out with these books.

Allyn Johnston, formerly editor in chief of Harcourt Children’s Books and now with her own San Diego-based imprint of Simon & Schuster, Beach Lane Books, said something great about what she looks for in a picture book manuscript: she said she pictures an adult curled up in a chair with a child on his or her lap, reading together. And she’s looking for that moment, that strong emotional moment that she hopes the adult and child will share reading this book.

And I can’t tell you how much the charm of these books is due to my editor Sarah and Kady. For example, Sarah and the art director at Candlewick had the guts and vision to expand A Visitor for Bear from a standard 32-page picture book into a 52-page book, just to take full advantage of the comedic timing. And the charm of Kady’s work… well, let’s just say that I was almost literally dancing a jig when I saw her first early sketches.

What, if anything, do you wish you could change about publishing (as a business) and why?

I wish it were more about creating quality books rather than making money. I cringe when I see kids’ books that feel as if they were written, designed, and promoted as nothing more than “product.”

I don’t mind so much when a good book inspires merchandise. But when merchandise inspires the stories….

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell her?

Exercise more and start an IRA. Oh, you mean about writing. I’d say, don’t worry so much. Most of this is out of your control. Just write the best that you can, and then write better than that and keep doing that. The rest will follow.

What do you do outside the world of writing?

Is there one? Hmmmm, I seem to be on a roll here with the one-liners.

Okay, when I do look up from my computer, I hike, bike, I keep trying to learn French, I get together with family a lot, read…

I love books and articles about physics, astronomy, and cosmology. Not so much the stuff about what makes a star—but where and when and how did the universe start and where is it going?

What can your fans look forward to next?

A Bedtime for Bear comes out next fall. Mouse goes over for Bear’s first-ever sleep over and, much to Bear’s frustration, is not as quiet as a mouse at all.

And in 2011, The Sniffles for Bear comes out. Mouse is a tender attentive nurse for patient, stoic Bear (reverse all that and you’ll have it.) Then another early Mouse and Bear reader is in the works. And A Christmas for Bear is coming.

I’m also working on an older age novel—maybe a 12-14-age range. It’s quite a change to have so much room!

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Kimberley Griffiths Little

Learn about Kimberley Griffiths Little.

In the photo, she signs a three-book contract for The Healing Spell (Scholastic, July 2010), Secret Rites of the Goddess (Scholastic, fall 2010), and The Traiteur’s Daughter (Scholastic, summer 2011)!

Visit Kimberley’s Wanderings: Thoughts, Musings, and the Writing Life of YA Author Kimberley Griffiths Little.

What is the one craft book that you refer to again and again? Why?

I’ve got shelves full of writing books, probably 50 of them, but one book that I read over and over again is The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success by Donald Maass [now available as a free download].

Maass is an author of a dozen books as well as a top agent in New York. He knows the business inside and out. The Career Novelist is not a book geared particularly for children’s/YA writers, but it’s chock-full of writing and publishing experience and advice that fits any kind of writer, no matter what genre of novelist you aspire to be.

Because we’re seeing in this new 21st century a change in the way that children’s books are being bought, published, and marketed – much more like the way adult novels have traditionally been published, Maass’ books become even more relevant, not less, for us children’s literature lovers.

The Career Novelist is a book I read for fun. Once you dive in, you can’t stop. Maass backs up his advice with personal experience and anecdotes that are fascinating as well as delicious.

The first chapter is called “The Dream” – how can you resist that? Every writer starts out dreaming of publishing a book and wonders/hopes she can and will have success. Maass gives you the realities of the hard work and the disappointments and the opportunities, how to choose an agent, what “the market” means, how to write in different genres and the reality of the numbers game – AKA $$$.

But the magic of this book is that Donald Maass gives you the information and tools you need to carve out your own career and make it work. It’s like a shot of optimism, and he makes you believe that you really can become a novelist if you want to. Every time I read this book, I get excited all over again about the career I’ve chosen—or the career that’s chosen me.

I’m currently reading his newest book, The Fire In Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great (Writer’s Digest, 2009). The introduction alone is worth the price of the book. He asks the provocative question: Are you a status seeker or a storyteller?

So far, what’s the most fun you’ve ever had working on a book? Why?

“On Location in Egypt: How I Met The Queen of Sheba During Spring Break” all began one morning with two writer friends, Carolee Dean and Jana Striegel, around a meet-up for breakfast. All three of us had had books published, but were struggling, trying to sell our next projects (of which we had many in various stages) and getting more and more discouraged.

At the time, chick lit and romance were selling like hot cakes, and unfortunately, none of us had one written. Yet.

We started comparing notes on the books coming out from New York, our own extremely varied research (desert tribal people, a 16th century queen of France, and the chocolate-eating habits of the ancient Mayan people).

Giggling over eggs Benedict and jumbo muffins, we started throwing out wild and crazy ideas about a story told from three different 13 year-old girls’ point of view, and soon Kimmie, Jenna, and Lena emerged from the ashes of our own projects.

Kimmie’s father was an Egyptian movie director, Jenna was a dancer hired for his latest B film being shot “on location” in the Middle East, and Lena was visiting her mother, the makeup artist, for spring break–throwing all three girls together for the first time. It’s hate at first sight.

Then the girls discover that they each own a mysterious medallion given to them from a fortune teller in Venice Beach, and when the medallions come together–watch out! The girls soon find themselves a thousand years in the past, trying not to get killed by tribal raiders and with Kimmie being married off to the sheik’s son.

We smartly planned three books in our series, each book featuring one of us–I mean our characters!–in the lead role and jetting around the world to various movie locations.

Many more hilarious breakfasts were scheduled over the next few months, complete with laptops and notes and ideas flying.

We wrote a proposal of 60 pages, many version of a hilarious synopsis, but then we all were in the process of changing agents and the project got shelved for a long time.

“On Location in Egypt” was further shelved when Jana Striegel’s breast cancer came back after twelve years, reappearing in her brain.

After fighting it for another two years, the cancer took Jana’s life, but through her medical procedures and declining health, we continued to meet and write and encourage one another.

Jana was a professional ballet dancer before she donned the writer hat, and you can read her novel, Homeroom Exercise (Holiday House, 2002), about a ballet dancer with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Writing “On Location in Egypt” changed my life in many ways. Carolee, Jana, and I were able to help each other through some enormously discouraging times, not only in our careers but in our personal lives. Writing together also brought back the fun and pure enjoyment of story and creation into our lives and work, something all three of us had been greatly missing.

How do you reach out to teachers and librarians?

With two other authors, I launched a brand new newsletter this past September. It’s directly geared toward teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, and parents, and called “Spellbinders: A Newsletter for Teachers and Librarians to Help Create Lifelong Readers.”

The newsletter features interviews with well-known authors as well as librarians and teachers, along with regular columns about curriculum connections, literacy in the community, and book buzz.

I also do author visits at schools and libraries and conferences. Please visit my Author Visit page on my website for details! I have a fantastic hands-on writing workshop that has proven very successful and loads of fun for grades 3-8. Don’t hesitate to email me! kglittle@msn.com

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

My upcoming middle-grade novel–The Healing Spell (Scholastic Press)–is about eleven-year-old Livie Mouton who is hiding the biggest secret of her life when Mamma comes home from the hospital in a coma. Her daddy is determined that Mamma will only get better surrounded by the people who love her best, but Livie is terrified of her mother’s lifeless condition—and some sins are so dangerous they’re better left hidden.

Summoning her courage, Livie travels into the forbidden recesses of the swamp to seek out the mysterious traiteur, hoping that if she buys a healing spell, she can bring her mother back to life. Then Livie discovers that her mamma is hiding a secret of her own…

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m currently writing The Traiteur’s Daughter (Scholastic), which is also set in the Louisiana bayous, about a girl who gets involved in a dangerous clash between the traiteur folk healers and hoodoo magic through a secret circle of girls at school.

And Secret Rites of the Goddess (Scholastic) is a sexy YA romance about the roots of belly dance and the ancient goddess temples of the Middle East. It’s the YA version of The Red Tent [by Anita Diamant (Scribner, 1998)]!

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Heather Vogel Frederick

Learn about Heather Vogel Frederick, and Set Sail for Adventure. Her latest release is Dear Pen Pal (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

What do you love most about your creative life? Why?

The very best part for me is the moment I surrender completely to the story. I call it “entering the slipstream.” Real life falls away; time stands still. You’re transported. You live the story, exhilarated, and when you finally emerge, it’s as if surfacing from deep underwater. You blink, momentarily disoriented, and discover in amazement that hours have passed, hours that to you seemed like minutes.

I’ve talked with artists across the creative spectrum about this – painters, poets, dancers, musicians, sculptors, and so on – and am intrigued to find that it’s a common experience. It’s where the magic happens, where art is born. It’s the point at which you know beyond a doubt, this is what I was put on this earth to do.

How do you psych yourself up to write and to keep writing?

Ah, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Getting to that slipstream can be tough. There are days when I’m instantly in the groove and it’s no effort at all, and others when I would rather do anything but write. You know it’s bad when you’d rather clean the fridge than work on a story! And then there are days when you’re raring to go and nothing comes out the end of your pen but ink.

I have found that in many cases, the greater my resistance to writing, the greater the reward when I finally manage it. There’s an excellent book on this subject, one I highly recommend to all writers. It’s called The War of Art (Grand Central, 2003), and in it author Steven Pressfield deconstructs this resistance brilliantly.

For me, when the muse balks, I go into what I call “Golden Retriever mode.” I’m like that dog who circles and circles in front of the hearth before finally settling down for a nap. Only in my case I’m settling myself down to write.

I might tidy a bit, take a walk, putter in the garden, fix myself a cup of tea. That sort of thing. Eventually, these stealth tactics lull the muse, and I can sneak up on her and make her get back to work.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I write mostly in my office here at home, sitting in a comfortable armchair. I rarely write at my desk. I often start out longhand before switching to my laptop. It’s a bit like priming the pump, I suppose. I’m a morning person, and am up early. I’m always in my office by nine at the latest. This is my job, and I’m disciplined about showing up on time for it.

I’ve been writing for a living for over 25 years, first as a journalist shortly after college, then as a freelance writer and now as a novelist. I have a well-honed work ethic, which I think is half the battle in just about anything we undertake in life.

Occasionally I’ll write in a coffee shop, just for a change of pace. If the weather is nice, in the afternoons I head for the back yard. There’s a quiet, sheltered corner under our cherry tree that serves as my satellite office. I like to sit there and read, answer mail, maybe blog a bit – work on the business side of things.

So far, as a reader, what is your favorite children’s-YA book of 2009 and why?

There are several, but leading the pack is unquestionably Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry (Random House, 2009). It’s an absolutely stunning debut novel about war and its impact on family – in this case, a ranching family in Eastern Oregon. It will break your heart.

How do you define professional success?

Longevity. I look at writers like Susan Cooper and Avi, Jane Yolen and Walter Dean Myers and Richard Peck (I’m currently madly in love with his books) and others I admire, writers who have been in the game for decades and are still going strong. That’s who I want to be when I grow up.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a couple more Mother-Daughter Book Club (Simon & Schuster, 2007-) tales up my sleeve, and there are also several picture books in the pipeline that I’m really excited about. I’m eager to see how the artists involved envision the stories. Illustration is just a complete mystery to me. I’m in awe of anyone with artistic talent – I can’t even draw a stick figure!

After that, as far as novels go I’m looking forward to working on something a little different. Still middle-grade, as that’s the shoe that fits most comfortably and the voice that always seems to emerge whenever I sit down to write fiction, but the story I have in mind at the moment is a departure from contemporary realism into more of the fairy tale/fantasy realm. I’m holding it close at the moment, because it’s still a newborn, so that’s all I’m able to share just now.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.