New Voice: Shirley Reva Vernick on The Blood Lie


By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shirley Reva Vernick is the first-time author of The Blood Lie (Cinco Puntos, 2011)(teachers’ guide). From the promotional copy:

One autumn afternoon in 1928, a Christian girl disappeared near her home in a small upstate New York town. By chance, it was the day before Yom Kippur. 

Someone started a rumor – that the Jews had kidnapped the child, murdered her, and drained her blood to use in their holiday foods. 

People bought the lie. The police bought the lie. And they decided to take action.

That is the true story of the blood libel that happened in Massena, NY, just a few years before Hitler took power in Germany and began using the blood libel to help justify the oppression and ultimate slaughter of the Jewish people. 

The Blood Lie is a novel inspired by the events in Massena. Delving into the minds of both the perpetrators and the casualties, it’s a story about hate crimes and loving acts, despair and hope, loss and redemption.

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

Being a debut author is a wild, sometimes frustrating, often surprising, somehow always life-affirming ride. I don’t know if that feeling is 2011-specific, but I’m guessing it’s not.

For me, the best part is the actual writing — that gritty process of using words to create characters, settings, emotions and, ultimately, cohesive stories. I love to sit with my laptop and my muse (a dog named Twinkles) and make a narrative happen. The selling part, on the other hand, is the price I have to pay to do what I love.

I think the biggest challenge for new authors nowadays is the state of the economy, as reflected in the closing or shrinking of bookstores. Still, I’m lucky to be writing YA at a time when this age market is so popular.

My biggest personal challenge has been to thicken my skin against rejection. It’s easy to equate “no” with “you are a lousy writer,” or “it’s not my cup of tea” with a slap in the face. And, let’s face it, in a bad economy, rejections are more plentiful. I’ve developed a whole set of affirmations to remind myself that I can write well, that I’m more than my writing, that I will get to “yes,” etc.

My biggest surprise? Actually, I came into it thinking nothing would surprise me. As a journalist, I already knew the importance of revising, for example, and that facts can be tricky to track down. What I didn’t know was how magnified those truths become when you’re writing a book-length piece based on events from decades past.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

At the risk of sounding mushy, it’s my mother! I’ve always loved writing, even before I could write. I used to sit on Mom’s lap and scribble something on paper, and she’d tell me what it “said.” It was always something brilliant, of course!

As I got older, she encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming an author, even when others advised me to do something more practical. She gave me much-appreciated pep talks, as well as some tough love, and it made all the difference in the world. She also instilled a love of reading in me.

Even though Mom isn’t here any longer, I still have — and cherish — the motivation and enthusiasm she engendered in me.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Mothering is challenging. Making a writing career is challenging. Doing both is uber-challenging.

I do it by compartmentalizing my time. I write when my daughters are at school or asleep; otherwise, it’s all kid stuff.

This works only when I respect Murphy’s Laws for writers. First, writing projects always take longer than expected. Second, parenting responsibilities frequently and unexpectedly dash your plans to write (think late-night fevers, cancelled play dates, snow days).

You’ve got to take these realities into account when negotiating deadlines — even when the only person you’re negotiating with is yourself.

If you have a spouse, relative or friend who’s willing/interested in helping with childcare, go for it!

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Shirley’s work space, featuring Twinkles.

I decided early on to become actively involved in promoting The Blood Lie. I’m using social media, including a Facebook author page and a website. I’m contacting book reviewers and author interviewers who publish online or in print (newspapers, magazines). I’m also reaching out to relevant historical and library associations. And, of course, I’ve been telling all my friends and family!

My wonderful publisher has also been promoting the book through posts on their website, tweets, a book trailer, and networking with media, libraries, and other pertinent organizations.

I already knew a fair amount about promotion from my early work in public relations. But I was/am a neophyte when it comes to social media. Fortunately, my husband is a computer guy and has been instrumental in this endeavor. I have to say — and I guess I already did say — that I don’t love doing promotion. It’s not that people are mean to me — they’re surprisingly kind, once you reach them — but I just don’t enjoy the process. If I did, I probably would have stayed in public relations!

Fellow debut authors, do devote some time to promoting the book you worked so long and hard to get out there. But work smart — you need to start working on your next project!

When it comes to print media, keep in mind that many city newspapers only cover authors who have a local connection (you live there, you’re doing an event there, your book takes place there).

Finally, try to think of it all as a training ground for promoting your second book, which, with any luck, you’ve already got brewing!

New Voice: Katherine Battersby on Squish Rabbit

Katherine Battersby is the first-time author-illustrator of Squish Rabbit (Viking, 2011)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Squish is just a little rabbit. But being little can lead to BIG problems. Sometimes Squish is hard to hear, and see. And it isn’t easy making friends. 

But no matter how little Squish is, one thing is certain…he has a very large heart.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I was a hungry reader. Hungry for words and images and stories of characters living lives more exciting than my own. I inhaled books as if their words alone would keep me breathing.

When I was a wee little thing, my mum would take my brother and I to the local library once a fortnight. The building looked so big, and I remember being in awe of all the shelves of towering books inside. All those colours, spine-out. All those musty flickering pages.

We could choose up to ten books each to loan, which for me was like some amazing gift – it felt like Christmas all throughout the year.

I adored picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Penguin Putnam, 1969) and an Australian classic: Edward the Emu by Sheena Knowles, illustrated by Rod Clement (HarperCollins, 1990).

Once I was at school, I quickly discovered I had access to a whole new library. My mum worked long hours so I was often dropped at school long before the other kids, and learnt that the library was nearly always open. I began picking out books by random, reading my first chapter book about a little glider possum and another about unicorns. I loved fantasies and adventures the most.

Over the years, the school librarian got to know me and steered me towards new books she’d brought in (I love an enthusiastic librarian!). We also had a library cat that curled up on my lap as I read amongst the cushions.

My first picture book, Squish Rabbit, is about a very little rabbit with a big heart, and I often get asked why I like rabbits so much. I suppose this is fair, considering I grew up in Queensland, Australia, where rabbits are not only rare but also illegal to own as pets (due to farming).

So I’ve had to ponder this: why are there always rabbits hopping around the warren of my mind and gnawing their way into my stories? One of the obvious answers comes from the books I grew up reading. The first hard cover series I was given was a set of little Beatrix Potter books, my favourite of course being Peter Rabbit (Warne, 1902). I also loved Dick Bruna’s books, and not surprisingly found a favourite in his Miffy series (Big Tent Entertainment, 1955).

I have my grandparents to thank for much of my early reading also, as their house was full of old English tales and comic books that my dad and his brothers once read.

My dad was British, so I spent chunks of my childhood in England visiting his family. Memories of my times over there are quite dreamlike, almost as if I was wandering through some kind of storybook.

England was where I went to visit my grandparents in their funny little cottage with their ancient cat, where tea and toast were served morning and night. They had wild animals in their backyard that were new and fascinating to me, like snow-white rabbits and twitchy little squirrels (both of which feature in Squish Rabbit). The countryside was lush and green, and home to the kind of tangly forests where adventures were sure to happen.

It is no wonder to me that now as a writer and illustrator for children, when I need to escape to the storytelling part of my mind, this is where I go – back down the rabbit hole.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

I think one of the most valuable lessons in writing is something I was first told as a young writer, which is to write what you know. I have discovered over time that this is not meant to be taken literally, otherwise we wouldn’t have stories about vampires or magicians or tales set on Mars. If you could only write about things you had actually experienced then I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write a picture book from the point of view of a rabbit.

What is actually meant by this phrase is something I believe wholeheartedly, which is to write to your emotional truths. Write to the feelings that you know and understand. If you write about emotions you have sat inside of, then your characters and stories will be that much more alive to your readers.

Katherine’s Office

Looking back on my childhood, Squish Rabbit certainly captures my emotional truths. I recall vividly what it was like to feel small in a big world. I remember the first time I lost my mum in the supermarket. The panic was so big it filled up my small body, so that I honestly believed I would never see her again. I remember having important things to say, in a world where big people get listened to first. I recall having questions and thoughts and ideas bubbling up inside of me, and yet having no clue how to say any of it.

This is ultimately why I started writing and drawing – to express all those things I had trouble voicing.

I think another thing that is captured really beautifully in my favourite picture books is voice. That elusive element that makes one writer’s words stand out over another’s. Finding your unique voice is something you can’t force – it takes time to develop. Time and lots of writing.

I’d recommend giving yourself permission to play around. Write stories of different styles and genres. If you’ve always written serious stories, try on humour for a change. If all your picture books are written in third person, try writing from a first person perspective.

Writing muscles need stretching and challenging – regularly. It’s also rare that someone would immediately fall into the exact style of book they’re best suited to writing. I initially began writing quite dark tales, and although this is still a part of my writing, I’ve discovered I have many stories in me that come with a lighter, quirkier tone.

Finally, I would also urge writers to seek out other creative people. If you’re reading this blog then that’s an excellent start! Four years ago, when I first started attending writing workshops and meeting other writers and illustrators, my writing output tripled. There’s something about being around others that bubble with ideas and a passion for stories that increases your own drive.

Through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I also met my critique partner, who I’ve been working with for many years. She reads nearly everything I write (including proof reading this article!) and there’s no way I’d be published without her support and wisdom.

Also, if you can track one down, find a pet that can help with your editing – my pup is brilliant at eliminating wayward adverbs…

New Voice: Nikki Shannon Smith on The Little Christmas Elf

Nikki Shannon Smith is the first-time author of The Little Christmas Elf, illustrated by Susan Mitchell (Random House/Little Golden Books, 2011)(author at facebook). From the promotional copy:

Nina, the littlest elf in Santa’s workshop, doesn’t finish the teddy bear she’s making in time for it to get loaded onto Santa’s sleigh-but, encouraged by Santa Claus himself to not give up, she works far into the night to finish it. 

While Santa is out delivering presents, a baby is born. 

Santa comes back for Nina’s now-finished bear—and guess who he takes along to deliver it?

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget “the call.” I wasn’t expecting it at all, and it came during a really chaotic time. I submitted the manuscript in May of 2009, and over a year had gone by. I had given up on the possibility of it becoming a Little Golden Book, and had just submitted it to another publisher.

I was working as the interim principal of the elementary school where I usually teach fourth grade, and the school year had just ended. The campus was practically deserted, and I was trying to finish all of my closing tasks so I could drive to Florida the next day (with hubby, two kids, and father-in-law) for a family wedding.

I arrived in the office, opened my email, and saw Diane Muldrow’s name. My first thought was, “Oh, that’s sweet. She took the time to send a rejection note.”

There was no bitterness; I was genuinely appreciative. But when I opened the email, it wasn’t a rejection. She asked if the manuscript was still available.

Now, I know people say “I couldn’t believe it!” all the time, but I really couldn’t believe it. It had been thirteen months! I think I read that email about four times before I really believed it.

When it sunk in I jumped up and screamed. It must have been a piercing sort of scream, because the secretary came running in. I was crying, and she said, “Nikki, what’s wrong?”

I think she thought there had been a death in my family. I rattled off the story and she hugged me.

I couldn’t sit still, so I grabbed my cell phone and ran out the door. I called every member of my family and not a single one answered the phone!

I went back in to try to compose an email response. I hit reply, but my hands were shaking and I couldn’t type.

Eventually, I sent off an email saying that the manuscript was available.

Right after I hit send, a colleague walked in and my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the incoming number, so I didn’t answer. When my colleague left, I listened to the voic email. I had declined the editor’s call! (How’s that for irony?)

I called her back, and we had a lovely chat where she patiently listened to my excited ramblings.

(Kind of like what I’m doing here. I still get really excited when I think about it.)

I didn’t have a big celebration, but the best part of it all was the shriek on the other end of the line when I told my 10-year-old daughter. That was all the celebration I needed.

That kid had been saying for about six months, “Mommy, maybe it’s taking her so long to answer because she likes it and is taking it to all of her meetings.” She was right!

(Mostly… but that’s another story!)

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

I got a lot of great advice, both before and after the book sold, and I took it all. I went to an SCBWI session with Brain Farrey of Flux, and because of that I bought my domain name, got a matching email address and joined Facebook.

I’d been avoiding Facebook for a long time! I used a combination of my nickname, maiden name and last name, because I got a lot of “adult” results when I searched for Nicole Smith and Nikki Smith.

Greg Pincus

When the book sold, all I had to do was build my website. I also got advice from Greg Pincus at a SCBWI conference. I joined Twitter, made sure my website was updated, and started interacting more via social media.

I linked my twitter account to other sites, to make updates easier. I started accounts at Goodreads, JacketFlap, and Author Central (Amazon).

Lia Keyes’ blog had great advice on how to set up a Facebook Fan page, which I followed.

And there is nothing like the grapevine of a gigantic and very supportive family to spread the word!

Next, I had to think more about the book and getting “out there” physically. I combined my own ideas with ideas I found on Alexis O’Neill’s website, School Visit Experts.com, to create a media kit and information for schools.

I also found great resources on the SCBWI website. I asked neighboring regions of SCBWI to publish my good news in their newsletters. When the opportunity came up to apply to speak at a local SCBWI conference, I took it, and was accepted. I did the same for a local literacy event and was asked to visit the venue twice during the fall/winter seasons.

My name and book title were (or will be) included in the promotional materials for all of these events. I hit the pavement and introduced myself at local bookstores, leaving copies of my book postcard and bio. I also sent out a couple of advance copies for review.

Photo by The Davis Enterprise

All of this felt awkward to me, but I was booked for a few events that I consider to be a “big deal” as a result. For me, it’s a huge perk that each of these events allows me to give back to SCBWI and to my community.

As the release date got closer I combined my own ideas with Michael Stelzner’s launch ideas and did a countdown on my author page.

I contacted our local paper and invited a reporter to the “book birthday party” in my fourth grade classroom on the release date, and he agreed to come with a photographer.

I’m still really nervous about public appearances, but I guess I’ve gotten somewhat accustomed to promoting the book now.

It’s a lot of work, and is sometimes uncomfortable, but I have to admit… I’m loving it! I consider it a celebration to which everyone is invited, and that makes it feel more like a party.

My advice to others would be to take the advice of others! Be proud enough to toot your own horn a little bit, be willing to help others, be yourself, and enjoy your dream come true!

The bedroom-office-exercise-TV room where Nikki wrote her first book. 
She now has a dedicated room for writing.

New Voice: Jane Kohuth on Estie the Mensch

Jane Kohuth is the first-time author of Estie the Mensch, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Random House, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

What’s a mensch, and why does her family keep telling Estie to be one? She’d much rather be a jungle cat, or an alligator, or an octopus. But if being a mensch means helping a new friend, then maybe it’s not so bad after all?

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

Like many people who go on to be writers, I had an outsized love of books from the beginning. I maintain vivid memories of my earliest reading — specific images from picture books and collections of nursery rhymes, snippets of sound that still roll around my inner ear, characters who still make surprise visits.

My childhood reading experience was so powerful, so overwhelming to the senses, that I admit to not really having grown up properly as a reader. Sure, I went to college, majored in English and read literature I loved, but in that deep place of the imagination where my reading mind lurks, I still identify most powerfully with children’s books and the characters in them.

The child who loved rhymes and filled notebooks with poems fell easily into the short form, the rhythmic lines, the minute attention to language that picture books and poems share. So when I decided to move from writing poetry for adults to writing children’s books, I felt most natural working with the picture book form.

My debut picture book, Estie the Mensch, has its roots in a particular childhood reading experience. When I was about ten, I was very disappointed to discover that Anastasia Krupnik (by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin, 1979) celebrated Christmas. Anastasia seemed Jewish to me, her name sounded Jewish, but, it turned out, her mother was Christian, and the family put up Christmas decorations.

I am an omnivorous reader, and that was true when I was a child as well. I liked realism, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, even the occasional sports story if it was written well (despite the fact that in real life I detested sports). I enjoyed reading about children from other places and times, but I was also very interested in reading about children like me. That meant Jewish, observant but not Orthodox, city dwellers.

But I couldn’t find any books like that. I’d settle for Jewish non-city dwellers, but there weren’t any of those either. There was a handful of excellent historical fiction, the already thirty-year-old All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (Follet, 1951) among them. I loved the family of five sisters and the way the books were not about being Jewish, but showed how Judaism was important to the family’s rhythm of life.

But when characters were Jewish (or half-Jewish) in books about contemporary life, Judaism itself rarely made an appearance.

When I began writing for children, I knew from my continued reading of children’s books (I spent time as a children’s bookseller and library assistant) that the type of Jewish-oriented books available hadn’t changed much since I’d been a child. Jewish-themed picture books were (and are) still dominated by holiday stories, folk-tales, and historical fiction, while contemporary realism in all ages ranges featuring actively Jewish characters was still rare. I wanted to write the books I’d longed for as a child, both for Jewish children growing up now, and to add to the growing collection of multicultural books for children of all backgrounds.

But when I showed my manuscript for Estie the Mensch, a story which features a contemporary Jewish family, to agents, I heard the opinion that Jewish-themed books wouldn’t sell to major publishers.

After the acceptance of my first book, the early reader Ducks Go Vroom (Random House, 2011) my agent Becca Stumpf (the Prospect Agency) submitted a number of my manuscripts to my editor Christy Webster (PDF). We were both quite surprised that the one the Random House team chose was Estie!

So while my picture book manuscripts cover all kinds of subjects and themes, Estie the Mensch, holds a special place in my heart, and I’m very pleased that it will be my first published picture book.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

After my undergraduate years as an English and Creative Writing major, I chose to pursue at Master’s in Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. This was an intense and thought-provoking experience which informs my writing, but it did not teach me the nitty gritty details of crafting a book. So when I decided to “switch careers” only a couple of years in to working in Jewish education, and not being in a position to take out more student loans for an M.F.A., I set out to teach myself.

I had never stopped reading children’s books, but I stepped up my reading drastically. I joined SCBWI. I attended the New England Regional Conference every year. I joined a newly forming critique group, which continues to meet twice a month. I’ve learned so much from my fellow writers, whose various backgrounds offer a great variety of strengths. I read articles and books on writing, and I practiced. I figured out what it felt like to write a picture text, what sort of thought process I needed, what sort of ideas could work. I generated ideas by the dozen and got into the habit of thinking all the time about whether there was a story in a particular word, feeling, image, or memory. I began to read picture books like a writer of picture books, and that made my reading all the more helpful.

My natural strengths are a facility with poetic language — rhyme, meter, rhythm, assonance and alliteration. I’m good at writing short too, which is key to writing publishable picture book manuscripts.

My greatest challenges are crafting a narrative structure for my stories and creating enough conflict and suspense to sustain a listener’s interest.

When I first received comments about not having enough conflict in my manuscripts, I was confused. I didn’t necessarily want to write loud blustery stories. It took me some time to learn that conflict didn’t mean scary, intense, or angry, it meant a challenge that a character faces, internal or external, that drives the story and makes the reader want to find out what happens.

I was also relieved to learn that some books are concept books rather than story books, and that the rules of narrative structure you hear about don’t always apply.

I am still very much in the process of learning my craft, still looking for opportunities to learn more. I’m fairly sure I’d be fooling myself if I looked forward to a day when I’d be ready to approach writing with complete confidence. But complete confidence is boring. Much better for each new project to be an adventure.

Jane’s workspace.

Cynsational Notes

Take the Mensch Challenge for a Chance to Win Estie the Mensch from Jane Kohuth. Peek: “Send me a short description of a way you’ve been a mensch and, if you have one, a photo, and you could be my Mensch of the Month!”

Jane looks forward to the release of Duck Sock Hop (Dial, 2012).

New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders

Lena Coakley is the first-time author of Witchlanders (Atheneum, 2011). From the promotional copy:

High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.

It’s all a fake.

At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?


But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. 

Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—


Are about him.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year? 

I was a big daydreamer as a kid, and books were my raw material; I devoured them like a furnace.

Before I went to bed at night, I liked to retell stories in my head, using the characters and situations I’d read about, but putting myself at the forefront of the story: I was the fifth Pevensie sibling in Narnia; I was Dorothy Gale’s best friend; I traveled around Middle Earth as Gandalf’s magical assistant. These stories were fantastically complicated and could go on night after night.

One of my favorite things to do was go on long car rides, because then I didn’t have to wait for bedtime, I could just stare out the window and dream stories. I was probably a pretty weird kid, come to think on it.

In a way, writing a novel is just my brilliant way of getting paid to do this. Of course, there is a huge difference between dreaming up a story and writing it down. Somehow, when it’s written, all these huge flaws and plot holes and inconsistencies begin to materialize—things that certainly weren’t there when the story was in my head!

My childhood may have been my apprenticeship as a storyteller, but I had to go through a whole other apprenticeship as a writer before I had a publishable novel on my hands.

I still think daydreaming is a crucial part of writing, though. In fact, Witchlanders started out as a daydream about two young men, opposites in every way, trapped together on a snowy mountaintop. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, but I knew that neither of them could survive on their own, that they needed each other. For me, finding their story was a combination of my skills as a writer and my skills as a dreamer.

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts? 

Although Witchlanders is a high fantasy, it tackles some very gritty, real-world issues. To be honest, if someone had told me when I began that I was writing a novel about religious conflict, drug addiction and war, I would have been terrified. What did I know about those things? But clearly these were all issues that my subconscious was gnawing on.

People often talk about fantasy as escapism, but I’ve never seen it that way. For me, fantasy novels have always been a place to see real-world issues from a different point of view.

The two main characters of the book, Ryder, a Witchlander, and Falpian, a Baen, are on opposite sides of a bitter cultural divide. If I had chosen to write a real-world story about such a conflict, everyone reading it would have a preconceived notion about each group, but no one picks up the book with a preconceived notion about what it means to be a Witchlander or a Baen, so I was able to play with people’s sympathies. I hope that sometimes the reader will see the Witchlander point of view and at other times, the Baen.

In the end I’d like them to come away with a feeling that both cultures are deeply beautiful and both cultures are deeply flawed. And couldn’t we all say that about most cultures, including our own?  

Cynsational Notes

Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto. 

Lena contributes news and interviews to Cynsations from the children’s-YA creative, literature and publishing community in Canada.

New Voice: Carrie Harris on Bad Taste in Boys

Carrie Harris is the first-time author of Bad Taste in Boys (Delacorte, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Super-smartie Kate Grable gets to play doctor, helping out her high school football team. Not only will the experience look good on her college apps, she gets to be this close to her quarterback crush, Aaron.

Then something disturbing happens. Kate finds out that the coach has given the team steroids. Except…the vials she finds don’t exactly contain steroids. Whatever’s in them is turning hot gridiron hunks into mindless, flesh-eating…zombies.

Unless she finds an antidote, no one is safe. Not Aaron, not Kate’s brother, not her best friend…not even Kate…

It’s scary. It’s twisted. It’s sick. It’s high school.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

I am continually, constantly surprised. Every time I get an email or a picture or a note that says, “I read your book!” my kneejerk reaction is to wonder how they hacked into my computer and if I should press charges. Honestly, I pinch myself every morning. Because I’ve been dreaming about it for so long. Not exaggerating—I’ve been writing for fifteen years.

The whole thing started way back when neon was cool. I got the only F of my life on a creative writing assignment, and I tried to tell myself that it stood for “fabulous,” but I didn’t believe me. I wrote the heck out of the next paper, got an A+, and was hooked.

But I was determined to be a doctor, dancer, veterinarian, psychologist, and/or lifelong college student, so I wasted a lot of time changing my major to each of these things (except the last one, which is kind of implied by all the rest).

Finally, I took a writing workshop and changed that major for the last time, because it’s so much more fun to write about sparkly unicorns than it is to learn the Krebs cycle. Sparkle, sparkle, sparkle!

I figured I’d become a teacher and write on the side. So I started the first of a bijillion freelance writing jobs, went back for a masters in teaching, and big surprise! I changed my major again. To statistics, which only proves once and for all that I really am rat-in-a-coffee-can insane.

So now, I’m a statistician who writes freelance on the side, and I have no real idea how that happened. But it all worked out, because along the way I developed the obligatory list of wonky jobs that all writers seem to have. I sold orthopedic shoes and knives (but not at the same time), coordinated autopsies, and managed the national center for research in the human form of Mad Cow disease.

In short, I lived. And I kept writing. And I kept getting better.

This is what comes to mind when I think about the significant moments in my writing life. It’s not the years of writing websites and roleplaying games and med school study cards and all that other random stuff, although that certainly was important to do craft-wise. But even more important for me was figuring out who I am and realizing that maybe I’m not the kind of person who wins Pulitzers, and that’s okay! That maybe being a monster-obsessed, slightly crazed, extremely silly writer is exactly what I ought to be, and all those years of trying to deny that? Ultimately fruitless.

At the end of the day? I found myself through my writing. I think that’s pretty awesome.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

For me, comedy is all about trial and error, wordplay, and boob jokes. (Although I think I might have gone a little overboard with the boob jokes, because my editor requested that I give my most recent manuscript a breast reduction.)

Humor’s a really slippery subject because there are so many different ways to approach it. The thing that has surprised me so much about putting a funny book out on the shelves is that every person who writes me cites a different thing that really cracked them up. It really does go to show that humor is relative.

So if that’s true, how in the heck do you learn to write it? Honestly, I’ve read all the how-to humor books. Okay, not exactly true. I started a lot of them, but I don’t think I ever finished one. I don’t think humor is something you can break down into easy-to-follow steps. For me, it all comes down to studying at the feet of the greats and critically evaluating their work as a writer.

This sounds very impressive and technical until you realize what it actually means—I really just wanted an excuse to watch a lot of “The Muppet Show” and read a bunch of Dr. Seuss and call it “research.”

But it is! Jim Henson taught me more than any how-to book ever will. And when I write, I channel my inner Fozzie, or Kermit, or Piggy. (I once channeled my inner Animal, but I don’t advise that. My laptop still has bite marks on it.)

Instead of trying to write comedy, I try to make myself snort things out my nose.

I think it’s an important distinction.

And if all else fails, I’ve found that a good boob joke goes a long way…

New Voice: Matt Blackstone on A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie

Matt Blackstone is the first-time author of A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie (FSG, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Rene, an obsessive-compulsive fourteen year old, smells his hands and wears a Batman cape when he’s nervous.

If he picks up a face-down coin, moves a muscle when the time adds up to thirteen (7:42 is bad luck because 7 + 4 + 2 = 13), or washes his body parts in the wrong order, Rene or someone close to him will break a bone, contract a deadly virus, and/or die a slow and painful death like someone in a scary scene in scary movie. 

Rene’s new and only friend tutors him in the art of playing it cool, but that’s not as easy as Gio makes it sound. 

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

While sometimes it’s tiring spending my day with high school students and my evenings writing about them—parents of teenagers, who spend their entire days with their children, I salute you and bow in awe—it’s definitely a blessing being a teacher-author.

Each and every school day, I am reminded of the irrational and entertaining dynamics of girl/boy drama, I have their voices in my head, I know what’s in, I know how they speak—at least, I know how Bronx teenagers speak, which, come to think of it, isn’t at all representative of the rest of the country. If it were, then everyone would use words like “whack” (crappy), “wavy” (cool), “O.D. wavy,” (an overdose of cool) “violate” (insult) and “O.D. violate” (insult someone in a way that can never, ever, ever be forgiven).

Thankfully, my students are forgiving. When I test out new material on them during independent reading time, they usually say nice things. If they think it’s crap, they let me down easy, never O.D. violating me. For the record, there have been a few, infrequent violations, but never anything close to an O.D. violation.

I don’t think I could write without teaching. How do I know? Because my summer writing isn’t nearly as authentic. Okay, that was way too forgiving.

Matt’s wife made the book quilt in his office.

My summer writing is whack. Without my daily reminders during the school year, I forget how they speak, what they care about, how they react, how they think—and I just become a 30 year old man pretending to be young again, not that there’s anything wrong with that . . . it just isn’t very effective.

I simply can’t write without teaching. And, I’ve learned, I can’t teach without writing.

An admission: I used to lie to my students. A lot. As a young teacher in the inner city, I spent most of my first few years of teaching lying about my age, my birthplace, my hobbies, my background (I might’ve once said that I was in a gang . . . and I’m certain that I said in the military. And the Marines). But I’ve found that you can’t lie in your writing.

And that, in turn, has led to a more truthful and sensitive teacher. Exploring the inner-workings of troubled teens in my writing has definitely mellowed out my militant front at school. It has also helped me identify teen bullies, victims, real friends, fake friends, and those who could use a friend, or a teacher, to talk to during lunch.

And now I can’t do one without the other. If I’m teaching without writing, I’m unhappy. If I’m writing without teaching, my writing becomes an overdose of whackness. Yes, I may have butchered that phrase, but the school year has now started, and there are plenty of 10th graders waiting to put me on the right track. I only hope they can say the same about me.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

For years—three, maybe four, okay probably five—all I wanted was a book contract.

I would’ve have done anything to get it: put my soul on the open market, do cartwheels on flaming stones, eat a jar of mayo, denounce my love of the Phillies, accept bribes and teach my 10th graders that reading is for suckers, that Cheetos are healthier than carrots, that the principal is a rhinoceros, that true love is a bunch of hokey boloney unless it’s on “The Bachelorette,” that the economy has never looked so sexy, that cooties are real, that college is the devil, and that I am really a very manly woman.

If only I had a manuscript to edit. An acceptance letter, however corny the story, to open and read and frame, instead of a mountain of rejection letters piled so high on my desk that if I breath or cough or sigh with enough gusto the entire mountain will collapse on me like an avalanche and crush me and cover me in my own rejections and failures and nobody will hear me scream and I’ll die a slow and painful death, which newspapers will find fascinating and therefore report, on the front page in big bold lettering, “MAN DIES OF FAILURE; NOT HEART FAILURE, JUST FAILURE.”

And then an agent finally said yes—at first I thought the email said, “jes,” as in Jessica, which isn’t my name—a few editors also said “yes” not “jes,” and I was spared the headline. Still, it was hard to talk about. It made me irritable, itchy, like red ants were crawling up my thigh. I didn’t recognize my voice; no matter what I said, I sounded fancy—no, foncy—like I had a British accent, played a smashing game of Polo, and ate only “mixed greens,” and only with a salad fork. I told myself, “Self, yeah you, you’re not British; tell them the truth: your favorite food is hot dogs, you own one pair of jeans, suffer (sometimes for weeks) from writer’s block, and like to the sing “Poker Face” while washing your face in the shower.

But, I’ve learned, you have to talk about it. Not your Poker Face, your book. You have to sell yourself, even if the self you’re selling isn’t Mr. Foncy Ponts. This I realized early on in the process—and again a few months before my book came out and my book reading/signing schedule was . . . well, it wasn’t really a schedule, per say . . . it did say, “Matt’s Reading Schedule” at the top, but . . .

Matt Blackstone author photo

Cue Steven Colbert, adjusting his glasses, trying hard not laugh: “Nation, in the history of civilization, there are many men who rose above their circumstances and truly lived the American Dream. And then, Nation, there are those who saw the promised land, enjoyed the view, got this close [pinches the air] . . . and failed miserably. Like this guy. Matt Blackstone. [Cue my author photo].

I wasn’t okay with that. I had to get my book out there. I believed in its message (I wrote A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie for the outcast teens I teach). I believed that teenagers would enjoy and benefit from the story. I believed in my ability to present it. And I was tired of Colbert mocking me.

So I sat my butt in a white chair at the end of June and I emailed. I called. I visited stores. I stopped by libraries. I wrote letters. I contacted schools (and all their English teachers). I emailed the state of California. And half of New Jersey. I skipped breakfast, and then lunch. I called principals, superintendants. I mailed letters and books and flyers (Linda, at the local post office, thanked me for keeping her in business). I reached out to my friends, and their friends, and friends of their friends and their Facebook friends, and spent entire days on Gmail. I slept when I could no longer see. I ate dinner at my desk. I don’t know for sure how much time elapsed, as days blended quickly but passed slowly, but I was told it was more than six weeks.

Eventually, my wife staged an intervention. Threw me in the shower. Reacquainted me with washing machines and deodorant. Escorted me outdoors. Introduced me to the sunshine. The sound of birds. The taste of strawberries. The satisfaction of sleep.

Now, as I write this article, my precious teacher summer is over. But I learned an important lesson about self-promotion and hard work. And what it takes.

My Fall schedule now includes visits to 15 stores, 11 schools, 6 libraries, and 3 festivals.

A total of 35 Fall events. Can’t even keep a poker face. The number makes me smile.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

Marlene Newman, author of Myron’s Magic Cow (Barefoot Books, 2005). Aside from being a talented and hilarious writer, Marlene is a perfect writing partner. She’s honest. Smart. Witty. Creative but grounded. Tough but forgiving. Critical but complimentary. Nitpicky but always manages to see the big-picture.

She writes and edits for a purpose, and lives her life the same way. It’s an honor to call her my mentor, cousin, and friend.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Matt on Twitter, and check out his upcoming appearances.

New Voice: Trent Reedy on Words in the Dust

Trent Reedy is the first-time author of Words in the Dust (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011). From the promotional copy:

A beautiful debut about a daughter of Afghanistan discovering new friends and opportunities after the defeat of the Taliban.

Zulaikha hopes. She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven from Afghanistan; a good relationship with her hard stepmother; and one day even to go to school, or to have her cleft palate fixed. Zulaikha knows all will be provided for her–“Inshallah,” God willing.

Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the Afghan poetry she taught her late mother. And the Americans come to the village, promising not just new opportunities and dangers, but surgery to fix her face. These changes could mean a whole new life for Zulaikha–but can she dare to hope they’ll come true. 

How did you come to write for young readers?

I have always been fascinated by stories. When I was very young, I used to try to entertain my classmates at lunch by telling tales about elaborate escapes from school. Except for reading assignments, I never finished my schoolwork in first grade because I would be busy making up stories in my head. On rare occasions, our teachers let us write stories for schoolwork. By the fourth grade, I was convinced I wanted to be a writer.

I held on to that writing dream all through my degree in English at the University of Iowa. Since I had joined the Iowa Army National Guard to help pay for college, I eventually found myself in the war in Afghanistan, serving in support of the reconstruction mission.

Even then, I couldn’t stop writing. Very early in my tour I was stationed at a small outpost in the northwestern Afghan city of Herat. I managed to find a quiet room with a table and thought I would write. The only problem was that the room had a big window, and I could see the tops of the buildings across the street from our walled-in compound.

I feared snipers, but I also really wanted to write, so I pulled the curtains closed and kept my M-16 on the table next to my notebook while I wrote.

At some point during my time in the war, I began to realize that all the stories that interested me the most were stories about young people. Maybe seeing all those Afghan children who seemed to have had so much stolen from them by decades of war reminded me of my own comparatively wonderful childhood. I think also that growing up is the greatest human adventure, the ultimate time of wonder and discovery.

Forget spy thrillers, courtroom dramas, or the introspective existential. Give me kidlit! I think young people, with their full faith and trust in fun and friendship, may be closer than many (who would claim to be older and wiser) to understanding what life is really all about.

I was also led to writing children’s literature because of a promise I made during my time in the war.

My squad encountered an Afghan girl named Zulaikha, who had suffered from birth from a defect called cleft lip, wherein the two halves of her upper lip had never joined. This problem happens in the United States, too, but it is almost always surgically corrected very early in the child’s life.

Trent and Zulaikha after her surgery.

Because the Taliban would have not allowed a girl to see a doctor, and because medical care would have been expensive for her family, this girl was ten or eleven and still suffered from this problem. My fellow soldiers and I pooled our money together to pay for her transportation to one of our bases in Afghanistan where an army doctor performed the needed surgery.

I was astounded by how much better she looked after the surgery, and as she had become to me a symbol of the struggle all Afghans face in making better lives for themselves, I knew this story was important.

The last time I saw the girl, she was riding off of our base in the back of a truck. She could not hear me or understand my words, but I promised I would tell her story. No matter what happened after that, I knew I had to keep that promise.

My promise to that girl was what led me to write Words in the Dust

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

This is a difficult question to answer because people in the children’s literature community are really quite generous and so I have benefited from the help of many great people. Not the least of these are my Vermont College of Fine Arts advisors Rita Williams-Garcia, Jane Kurtz, David Gifaldi, and Margaret Bechard. And although I never had the honor of working directly with you at Vermont, Cynthia, I remain grateful for the advice you have offered me in response to my questions.

However, my most significant influence remains Katherine Paterson. My time in the war in Afghanistan was very difficult for me. My first few months there were some of the most difficult of my life.

Because our permanent base was still under construction, my fellow soldiers and I lived in a rented Afghan house that had been designed for a family, not for fifty men and their weapons and equipment. We were hungry, filthy, exhausted, and receiving almost daily death threats from the Taliban. Life was reduced to nothing more than weapons and body armor, and duty. I had serious doubts about ever making it home again.

Then one day the mail finally arrived, and with it, a paperback copy of Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia (HarperCollins, 1987). It was one of those rare days when I found enough time between missions and guard duty to read the whole book. Bridge to Terabithia saved my life. Or at least my sanity.

I absolutely needed that reminder of friendship and beauty. I needed to know that somewhere in the world, things were still okay. Katherine Paterson’s novel reminded me that there is still hope, even in midst of the most difficult circumstances.

I didn’t know anything about Katherine Paterson at the time, but I thought she should know how important her writing had been to me. I wanted to remind her that her books mattered in very real and important ways.

I sent her a thank you letter through her publisher with the hope that such a letter might cheer her up if she ever had a bad day.

Trent and Katherine.

I never expected a response. However, that letter began a correspondence that developed into a friendship that I cherish very much.

It was a long time before I admitted to Katherine that I wanted to be a writer. It was still longer until I told her about my wartime promise and my desire to write a book about an Afghan girl.

Realizing the controversy that sometimes surrounds the issue of white people writing outside their culture, I asked Katherine if she thought I could possibly write such a book.

She said that she thought I should try. That was all the permission I ever needed.

Katherine Paterson has told me that she could never be a writing teacher, but nobody could offer a better example of how to be a writer. I remain forever in her debt.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Despite spending a year in Afghanistan, living for a time in an Afghan house, and frequent opportunities to interact with Afghan people, I knew I would need to learn more about their daily lives.

One of the books Trent read.

I spent a lot of time in libraries reading novels and nonfiction books about Afghanistan. I interviewed Afghans and Afghan-Americans. I discovered that a lot of my assumptions about things like housework were proven true. Having washed my uniforms by hand in our rented Afghan house, I knew something of what it would be like for my novel’s protagonist Zulaikha to do the laundry.

In my research, I was delighted to discover an incredibly rich literary tradition in Afghanistan. There are volumes of wonderfully fascinating ancient poems. There are enormous shrines in Afghanistan and Iran dedicated to their ancient poets.

I thought that this was an aspect of Afghanistan that Americans didn’t get to see enough, and so I knew I had to include this in the novel somehow.

My greatest research challenge came much later when I was working on revisions with my editor Cheryl Klein. One of my Afghan friends told me that I had written the Afghan wedding scene all wrong. He attempted to explain how an Afghan wedding in his region would likely happen, but I still had trouble understanding.

Cheryl and I began interviewing others and searching for books and articles on the subject. We learned that Afghan weddings are wonderfully complex, involving many different celebrations that can take place over a course of days or weeks. We found many great sources of information, but not one of them completely agreed with another! Perhaps this shouldn’t have been so surprising, as after all, American weddings can vary greatly.

It was exhausting work, but finally Cheryl and I settled on an Afghan wedding that is entirely possible in rural western Afghanistan. Cheryl and I now joke that whatever difficulties we face in revision, they cannot be as challenging as figuring out that Afghan wedding.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

Words in the Dust is told in the first person from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old Afghan girl. People sometimes assume that my novel would be told from the perspective of a white American soldier, but I knew I wanted Words in the Dust to be completely Zulaikha’s story.

“Zooming out” into third person might have given me more freedom to tell the story in different ways, but I think that then the focus might have been drawn too far away from Zulaikha’s struggle. For example, in third person, I might have included the experiences and reactions of the American soldiers to Zulaikha’s surgery while she was still unconscious, but that inclusion would shift the focus and sympathy toward the soldiers. We would know that Captain Mindy loves Zulaikha. We would know that Corporal Andrews will spend the rest of his life wondering if Zulaikha is going to be okay and weeping for the memory of bad things he saw. It would make Words in the Dust more of a story about American soldiers, and I wanted the novel to reflect my belief that the Afghan people are at the heart of the struggle for peace, hope, and freedom in Afghanistan.

By writing Words in the Dust in first person, I could limit information and understanding, building distrust between the Afghans and Americans. I imagine that my fellow soldiers and I might have scared that Afghan girl when we came to her little village with all our weapons, looking for her. How could she have possibly imagined that we were on a mission to help her?

I wanted to include that sense of confusion and fear in Words in the Dust, and that might have been diminished with a broader perspective.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

I taught high school English and composition at English Valleys High School in North English, Iowa for four years, signing the contract for Words in the Dust in the middle of my fourth year.

I also worked closely with students as I directed the school plays and coached the contest speech and cross-country teams. The job demanded much of my time and thought but I wanted to work to help provide these young people with the best experience I could. I really do believe that growing up is the greatest adventure, and I felt a tremendous responsibility in trying to help the kids have the best adventure they could, all while they learned the reading and writing skills they’d need later in life.

While I worked hard for them, I also gained the benefit of a unique insight that benefits my stories about young people better than any research could. Working with them every day allowed me to get to know them as multifaceted people, not “merely” as children, not as the “other.”

I think adults sometimes have the unfortunate tendency to downplay the concerns of young people, to dismiss their problems as a “phase they go through at that age.” Such attitudes are easy for those of us who made it through those times.

How did you go about identifying your editor?

When my agent began sending the Words in the Dust manuscript around to different editors, I knew nothing about these editors who were sending back rejections. I had spent the previous several years working to learn how to write, not learning about editors.

Cheryl and Trent.

When I received an offer from Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books of Scholastic, there were a few other editors still looking over the manuscript. My agent arranged a phone call with Cheryl, and we discussed the project.

Of course at the time I was a little overwhelmed, as I had never really talked to an editor before, certainly not one who was interested in publishing my book. I knew there were probably intelligent questions I should have been asking, but I couldn’t think of any.

Then Cheryl said something that sealed the deal. At the time, President Obama was considering his stance on Afghanistan. She said that after reading Words in the Dust, she couldn’t read the news about the president’s war policy without thinking about what such a policy would mean for girls like Zulaikha. That was it!

Little girls like Zulaikha are what this mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be about, and Cheryl proved she is someone who understands that.

I knew then that she was the perfect editor for this Afghan story.

I have since been amazed by how impossibly hard she works and by the unique and insightful way she looks at each scene, at each line, throughout my manuscripts. It has been great working with her.

New Voice: Divya Srinivasan on Little Owl’s Night

Divya Srinivasan is the first-time author-illustrator of Little Owl’s Night (Viking, 2011)(portfolio). From the promotional copy:

It’s evening in the forest and Little Owl wakes up from his day-long sleep to watch his friends enjoying the night. Hedgehog sniffs for mushrooms, Skunk nibbles at berries, Frog croaks, and Cricket sings. 

A full moon rises and Little Owl can’t understand why anyone would want to miss it. Could the daytime be nearly as wonderful? Mama Owl begins to describe it to him, but as the sun comes up, Little Owl falls fast asleep.

Putting a twist on the bedtime book, Little Owl’s Night is sure to comfort any child with a curiosity about the night.

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

I had written and fully illustrated Little Owl’s Night in November and December of 2009, and sent it out to a few people the first week of January. I heard back from a couple of people I sent the book to, but then nothing for a while. So I sent it out again to two editors I was connected to through published friends of mine. One of the editors was Tracy Gates at Viking.

Tracy gave me great notes. Being a professional illustrator, I felt fairly confident about the artwork, but this was my first time putting writing out there and I was grateful for her feedback.

Little Owl was eight pages too long and felt like two books in one, she said.

I worked on a revision that mainly changed the middle of the book (from where the eight pages were extracted), and I nervously turned it in March 9. As soon as I sent in the revision, I was certain that it was probably no good, that I’d messed things up, and oh well, I’d better think of what to do next. I guess I was partly trying to not jinx things, but also preparing myself for possible disappointment.

Up until then Tracy had been getting back to me within a couple of hours, which I now know is a pretty extraordinary thing. But I didn’t hear from her the rest of that day. I had no idea what all goes on behind the scenes (and I’m still slowly learning–thank goodness for all the awesome blogs about publishing and writing!), so I took it as a bad sign.

Divya Srinivasan

The next morning I woke up mopey and decided I needed to think of another plan of action. I needed to make a list! As I was getting up the gumption to start yet another to-do list, the phone rang and I saw it was from New York.

It was Tracy, and she wanted to make me an offer on Little Owl’s Night. I can honestly say it was one of the best moments of my life, mainly because I was thinking about how excited my family would be when I told them.

I got my parents on the phone together and when I told them, they gave the perfect movie response, woo-hooing and squealing. My sister was ecstatic. She had cheered me on at every step, and I worked on a good portion of the book while visiting her, showing her illustrations as I finished them. It was great sharing the news with close friends who had looked at my early drafts.

As for me, aside from being excited to tell my family, I felt proud that Viking saw something special in not just my illustrations, but also my writing. It was probably the first time in years that I had reveled in my satisfaction for a whole day.

Used with permission; copyright Divya Srinivasan.

As a picture book author-illustrator, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

I’ve kept a journal consistently since college, where I draw and write, and jot down ideas, snippets of dialogue, and word combinations that I might be able to use sometime.

Up until Little Owl’s Night, the only writing-plus-illustrating I did specifically for an audience was a comic strip for The Daily Texan when I was at the University of Texas at Austin.

It was called “Another Knee-Locked Day for Sexually Repressed Girl.” (Incidentally, fellow author Chris Barton has since told me that he was the paper’s editor, back in 1992, who was responsible for my strip making the cut.)

Looking at that strip now is uncomfortable. But at the time, my strip seemed well liked, and students I didn’t know would ask how I knew about their lives. It was the first time I had such a big audience for my work, and it was amazing to find that thoughts so personal and situations so specific to me could be meaningful to complete strangers.

In 2000, I moved back to Austin from San Francisco, and to help process my thoughts, I wrote, drew, and took a lot of photos. I started putting these elements together on web pages, juxtaposing text with drawings, animations, and photos in a way that meant something to me, but that weren’t necessarily about me and that maybe no one else would see other than close friends. Still, I would get emails from strangers who stumbled upon the site, some telling me how funny it was and others, how sad, which surprised me.

One thing I realized while working on the site, the less text on the page, the better I liked it. Editing down already-short lines became a fun challenge for me, which turned out to be handy since picture book texts are so short. (You can still see the site, though as with many things I did years ago, I have to think of it as a time capsule and resist the urge to edit it down to nothing.)

As for illustration, I’ve always drawn on my own, and I’ve been lucky to have encouragement. On my animation projects, I’m often left to come up with the concept. Sometimes the theme is fairly obvious with music videos, determined partly by the lyrics, but even then I have to think about how images will tell a story, which is a big part of making a picture book.

I first think about images and atmosphere.

I drew the character of Little Owl before I started writing. Plot is something I have to work on, as I tend to focus more on details than on the big picture.

I think I’ve learned the most about writing picture books by reading Uri ShulevitzWriting With Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books and checking out a ton of picture books–old and new classics–from Austin Public Library.

Peek inside Divya’s office/studio.

Cynsational Notes

Divya Srinivasan is an illustrator and animator living in Austin, Texas. Her illustrations appear in New Yorker magazine, and she has done work for This American Life, They Might Be Giants, Sundance Channel, Sufjan Stevens, and Weird Al Yankovic. Divya was also an animator on the film “Waking Life.” Little Owl’s Night is her first book.

Join Divya at 2 p.m. Oct. 15 for the Little Owl’s Night launch party at BookPeople in Austin.

New Voice: Tess Hilmo on With a Name Like Love

Tess Hilmo is the first-time author of With a Name Like Love (Farrar Straus Giroux/Macmillan, Margaret Ferguson Books, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

When Ollie’s daddy, the Reverend Everlasting Love, pulls their travel trailer into Binder to lead a three-day revival, Ollie knows that this town will be like all the others her daddy drags them through—it is exactly the kind of nothing Ollie has come to expect.

But on their first day in town, Ollie meets Jimmy Koppel, whose mother is in jail for murdering his father. Jimmy insists that his mother is innocent and Ollie believes him. 

Still, even if Ollie convinces her daddy to break his three-day rule and stay longer, how can two thirteen-year-olds free a woman who has signed a confession?

Ollie’s longing for a friend and her daddy’s penchant for searching out lost souls prove to be a formidable force in this tiny town where everyone seems bent on judging and jailing without a trial.

What were you like as a young reader and how did that influence the book you are debuting this year?

Tess Hilmo

I have a vivid memory of when I was six years old.

I was walking down the street with a friend, singing “This Little Light of Mine” at the top of my lungs. My friend turned to me and said, “You shouldn’t be singing that song. You are just a skinny white girl who can’t carry a tune.”

Well, she was right about the singing part…I really am horrible. But, she was wrong about the other part. I loved southern gospel music from a young age and could not stop singing those songs. They made me believe I could accomplish anything my heart desired. They made me feel special and wonderful and – most of all – capable.

I kept singing songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Years later, I wrote a song patterned after those old spirituals called “Lead Me On.”

After hearing the song, my mother said, “You should write a story to go with that song.” And I did. With A Name Like Love is that story. It is a tribute to the music that made me believe in myself. Of course, I had to mix a little mystery into it in honor of my first favorite novel series, Nancy Drew. My original song, “Lead Me On,” is actually featured in the novel!

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first: character, concept or historical period? How did you go about building your world? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration and support?

Tess’s office chair: “Writing takes time and effort!”

Once I knew the novel had to contain those classic southern songs, the setting was pretty obvious. It had to be in the South.

I turned to my own family history for the rest…having a great uncle who was an itinerant preacher back in the 1950s helped. I read his writings, thought about his lifestyle, wondered what his children might have experienced.

My characters are all fictional, but having that family link really did assist me in my research. Also, I set the story in Arkansas because I had family records, diaries and pictures from relatives in Arkansas on my father’s side.

I knew I wanted to write a Southern murder mystery that would be both intriguing and, hopefully, uplifting. I simply tried to honor the people of that time period and explore how those special songs might have helped them through difficult situations.