Saturday, July 16, 2005

Vermont College

"Real Texans do not use the word 'summer' as a verb."
--Molly Ivans

I'm a visiting faculty member for the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program summer residency, along with author Rita Williams-Garcia and author/editor Marc Aronson, but incoming guest faculty aren't the only visitors.

Others include: author/editor/commentator/educator Michael Cart; author Ellen Wittlinger, author Nancy Werlin; editor Melanie Kroupa; and author/teacher David Gifaldi.

I just saw Nancy at ALA and finished one of Ellen's novels. But it's my first time to meet in person Rita and Marc, with whom I'd briefly e-corresponded, and Michael, whom I know only by reputation. I also know a few of the students from WriteFest, Austin SCBWI, and list servs.

We all join department chair Kathi Appelt as well as Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Sharon Darrow, Louise Hawes (read her recent lectures at Vermont College) Ellen Howard, Liz Ketchum, Ron Koertge, Norma Fox Mazer, Jane Resh Thomas, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

Cynsational Trivia: Norma, Rita, and I share a wonderful editor in HarperCollins' Rosemary Brosnan; Kathi and Sharon are WriteFest alumnae; Sharon and I also used to be members of Illinois SCBWI; I first met Melanie at a Brazos Valley/Austin SCBWI conference in La Grange.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Vermont Bound

I'm leaving today to guest teach in conjunction with the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and I'm not sure how the Internet access will be there. So, in case I'm offline for the most of the next couple of weeks, everyone have a wonderful last half of July!

Please also note that Greg will be the Austin area Barnes and Noble Author of the Month for August 2005. He'll be signing Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, paper, 2005) and Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005) at the Barnes and Noble Round Rock on August 27. See his blog for details as they develop.

Cynsational News & Links

Counselor Belinda Miller at Commerce Elementary School writes seeking donations of children's picture books or easy/early readers. The school, which has a 68% poverty level, is starting a parent education program "aimed at helping parents help their children to read." In addition, it has a strong student teacher program. Please send donations to: Belinda Miller, Counselor, 600 Culver Street, Commerce, Texas 75428. Thank you.

Listen to Vivian Vande Velde read an excerpt from Three Good Deeds (Harcourt, 2005); see "bonus materials" under the cover art.

Nifty features of Susan Taylor Brown's site include: 200 movies about writers; quotes about writing; and a wide range of articles. See That Crazy Little Thing Called "Teen Love" and You Have To Want It Bad.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

What's In A Name by Ellen Wittlinger

What's In A Name by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon Push, 2000). Scrub Harbor or Folly Bay? The rich families with the $500,000 a year dads, they're the ones who think it's a good idea to change the name to Folly Bay. Good for real estate, good for the future. But the working class families who've lived here forever--Scrub Harbor sounds like home to them. Now the town teens are divided between the "Follies" and the "Scrubs," but that's not all that separates them. Each is trapped within others' expectations of who he or she really is. This novel, told from ten points of view, strips away those stereotypes, and looks deeper into what identity really means. Ages 12-up.

More Thoughts on What's In A Name

I love Ellen Wittlinger's work, and her Prinz Honor book Hard Love (Simon & Schuster, 1999) is one of my all-time favorites. So, I was pleased to read What's In A Name for my upcoming residency at Vermont College.

The characters include: Georgie, who lives in an apartment over The Pampered Pooch and whose previously absent dad suddenly wants her to move in with him in Los Angeles; O'Neill, who's debating whether he needs to reveal his sexual orientation; Ricardo, an exchange student from Brazil; Christine, who's long had feelings for O'Neill; Nadia, whose family moved to Scrub Harbor long ago from Russia but still doesn't fit in; Nelson, an Ivy-League-bound African American who's developing feelings for a girl bussed in; Shaquanda, who thinks Nelson doesn't know what it means to be black but is sure that it's not the sum total of her whole identity; Adam, who was popular at his old school but finding it hard to win acceptance; Quincy, O'Neill's football star brother who's not sure about his own girlfriend; and Gretchen, Quincy's girlfriend, sure, but much more her mother's daughter--at least in the eyes of the world.

But these, again, are the tags, the superficial descriptions, and this is a book about digging deeper, finding out more, and understanding commonalities. Read it for yourself and see.

Cynsational News & Links

See Create/Relate, Anastasia Suen's blog, on Madonna's alleged ghost writer and the denial of the story. This reminds me. The most hysterical thing I ever heard at the Texas Book Festival was Lindsey Lane's reading of her poem, "Madonna Is Stalking Me." Lindsey is the author of Snuggle Mountain, illustrated by Melissa Iwai (Clarion, 2003). See the 2005 list of children's authors appearing at the Texas Book Festival.

Thanks to Professor Judy A. Leavell's class at Texas State University San Marcos for their kind and enthusiastic thank you notes in response to mine and Greg's recent visit.

Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia offers summer M.A. and M.F.A. programs in the study and writing of children's literature.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Author Interview: Lara M. Zeises on Anyone But You

Anyone But You by Lara M. Zeises (Delacorte, 2005). It's one hot summer. Seattle's planning to spend her early vacation days hanging out with her stepbrothers--Jesse and Critter. But it's too hot for Sea to skate, too hot for Critter to chase girls, and responsible Jesse is busy working. Layla, the boys' mom, is working all the time, too, and Sea's dad took off six years ago. That leaves step-siblings-turned-best-friends Sea and Critter to venture to a swimming pool in an nearby upscale town. It's there that Critter falls for a pretty life guard, and before long, Sea's spending all of her time with a skater boy who's on the rebound and just visiting for the summer. Neither Critter nor Sea is happy, though both struggle with why, and then Sea's dad reappears, even further confusing the roles of friendship, love, and family. Ages 12-up. More on Anyone But You.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I almost always start with character. I had this idea that I wanted to write about the best friend of the popular girl - you know, the silent one who secretly has all of the power? That's how I started to conceive Sarah. And then I was thinking about how best to shake up her world, and thus Critter - a tall, skinny kid with a fixation on Rod Stewart - was born. But in playing the "what if" game, Critter suddenly had a blue-haired sister who wasn't really his sister. And then two of them became way more interesting to me than Sarah, so she took a backseat and I focused more on Sea and Critter.

I didn't know that Sea was a skateboarder until the second draft. This is partially because when I was writing the first draft I was convinced that Critter and Seattle were going to hook up. But by the time I started to write the actually hooking up parts, it just felt wrong. My editor, the brilliant Jodi Kreitzman, and I talked a lot about what direction to take the book in. The word "family" came up over and over and over. That's when I realized that this wasn't so much about a forbidden romance as it was a family in crisis.

In this context Seattle as a character needed some fleshing out. Jodi was pushing for her to join the swim team, but I knew Sea wasn't a joiner. And then one day I was talking to my friend and he said his cousin was dating a pro-skateboarder and WHAM! I knew instantly she was a skateboarder.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I remember the exact spot where I thought, "What if Critter had a blue-haired sister who wasn't really his sister?" I was walking across the parking lot to the Needham Library in MA, on my lunch break. This was November of 2000. In the summer of 2001, just after I'd sold/revised Bringing Up The Bones for Delacorte, I wrote maybe 16 pages, the first few in Sarah's voice (which I quickly discarded) and the rest in Seattle's voice (which I instantly loved).

That fall I sold Contents Under Pressure to Delacorte, and then a month later moved back to Delaware. In adjusting to the move, looking for a job, and revising Contents, I didn't get a chance to revisit Anyone But You until the fall of 2002. My agent had asked me for a full synopsis and some sample chapters and we used them to sell the book to Delacorte in spring 2003.

I turned the first draft - a big, ugly, messy draft - into my brilliant editor, Jodi Kreitzman, that fall. We talked a lot about what direction I wanted to take the project, and the word "family" came up over and over. So that's what guided my revision all through the winter/spring of 2004 (while launching Contents Under Pressure and teaching two classes at the University of Delaware). The second draft crystalized what the story was really about - this loving, lower-middle class family trying very hard to keep it all together emotionally, financially, etc.

Jodi and I were both pretty happy with the second draft, but we did another round of minor revisions before sending the manuscript into production. Galleys were sent out in early June and the book will be out on November 8th.

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

Since this was going to be my third book, I wanted to stretch my wings a bit. People had been asking if I was ever going to write in boy voice. And I wanted to play around with structure, too. The result was these two alternating first person POVs.

Then I had to deal with the sexy parts. I'm very, very vigilant about making sure that every sex scene is there for a reason, and not just to shock people or whatever. So I walked a super-fine line when dealing with those scenes, trying to be certain that every word, every action served a specific purpose. Shelli, Critter's "friend with benefits," was particularly difficult to write because I didn't want the reader to see her as pathetic, but I didn't want them to see Critter as a villain, either. She gets to have a moment at the end that I think gives her some real dignity, and I was glad I could have that and stay true to the voice of the piece.

The research for the skating stuff was relatively easy. I used to be a journalist, and that helps out a lot when I'm researching. I e-mailed a female pro skateboarder and talked to her about skating. I watched videos of tricks online, and read up on everything there is to know. Finally, I had the female pro and a college friend who skates and writes for skater mags to read through my pages to make sure I got it all right. They corrected a few mistakes but overall thought I nailed it.

The final big challenge I dealt with was that this was the first book I wrote outside of grad school. And while I thought about my characters 24/7, the time I actually spent writing their story was brief - the bulk of the first draft was written in six weeks and revised in another eight. I'm still struggling with discipline in terms of a writing schedule. Actually, I'd kill to have the tiniest bit of structure in my life. How do other writers do it? I do not know.

Note: Don't miss other recent cynsational front list interviews with: Anne Bustard on BUDDY: THE STORY OF BUDDY HOLLY (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2005); Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein on MISS LADY BIRD'S FLOWERS: HOW A FIRST LADY CHANGED AMERICA (Harper, 2005); Elisa Carbone on LAST DANCE ON HOLLADAY STREET (Knopf, 2005); Mary E. Pearson on A ROOM ON LORELEI STREET (Henry Holt, 2005); Cecil Castellucci on BOY PROOF (Candlewick, 2005); Kerry Madden on GENTLE'S HOLLER (Viking, 2005); and Jennifer Richard Jacobson on STAINED (Atheneum, 2005).

Cynsational Links

Author Interviews: Lara Zeises from Downhomebooks.com. February 2004. Also visit Lara's LJ, girl uninterrupted.

Interview with author James Deem from by Juanita Havill from The Purple Crayon. Emphasis on writing, Deem's work, and promoting books online.

Musings July 2005: "Writing Time Outs" Can Help You Polish Your Picture Book by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon.

See also July publisher editorial staff changes at The Purple Crayon.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Pizza for the Queen by Nancy Castaldo, illustrated by Melisande Potter

"The World calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers,
but they are just the people who have never forgotten the way to fairy land."
-- L.M. Montgomery,
quoted on Nancy Castaldo's Web site

Pizza for the Queen by Nancy Castaldo, illustrated by Melisande Potter (Holiday House, 2005). Raffaele is thrilled when the queen's messenger asks him to make a pizza for her. What an honor! But what should he put on his pizza? Giovanni's mozzarella, Maria's olive oil, Guiseppe's sausage, Niccolo's little fishes? Wait! He'll make three and the queen will have her choice of his best. But what does Meow-Meow do to the little fishes, and what then will Raffaele put on his third pizza? Which one will the queen like best? Ages 4-up.

More on Pizza for the Queen

Okay, it's a pizza book set in Italy. I love Italian food. I love pizza. There you go.

But it's also more than that. There's a tremendous charm to the language and art--it's like a vacation in a book.

The author's note features some historical background and some fun facts. Did you know that "93 percent of Americans eat at least one pizza per month..."? I probably average two.

I'm into thin crust, and my husband Greg is into Chicago-style deep dish. It's a mixed marriage.

note: Melisande has an accent mark over the first "e," but Blogger formatting is refusing to accept it. My apologies.

Cynsational News & Links

Old and New Stories from Appalachia by Tina L. Hanlon from The Five Owls. Thanks to author Kerry Madden for recommending this link. See also these related articles: Growing Up in the New South by Mark I. West; African Americans Making a Difference in the New South by Michelle H. Martin; and Ellen Foster: Survival in the New South by Paula Gallant Eckard.

Thanks to Cecil Castellucci for mentioning my recent interviews with authors Jennifer Richard Jacobson and Kerry Madden on her LJ (see 7/11 post).

Monday, July 11, 2005

Author Interview: Jennifer Richard Jacobson on Stained

Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Atheneum, 2005). Jocelyn loves Gabe, loves Benny, but Father Warren sees her as a demon child, a temptation, in league with Satan, all bad. Or is that just a diversion from his own agenda and manipulations? Ages 12-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Sometimes an event will spark an idea for a story -- and yet no trace of the inspiration exists in the final form. That's what happened with Stained. I had a dream in which a childhood friend (clearly distressed) told me that a marriage of thirty years was ending. He also said that he would miss the close relationship he had with his father. The next morning, I learned that my friend had died that night. We were both thirty years old.

For years I tried to write a ghost story around that dream. As you can see, there is no trace of a ghost, a dream, or a premonition in Stained. But somehow the many, many attempts to tell the first tale led me to the story I needed to tell.

Incidentally, my working title for Stained was Flying Dreams.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I had the dream in 1988 soon after my daughter was born. I had decided not to return to teaching and instead set out to write and consult (educationally) fulltime. I spent many years off and on trying to write this novel, but the Jocelyn's voice eluded me. All of my drafts sounded tinny and well, shallow. I published two picture books and eventually two young novels, but Stained languished.

Around 2000, I read Joanna Beard's wonderful memoir The Boys of My Youth and something went right through me. She writes of her childhood in first person present and you feel as if she hasn't forgotten a single detail. Experimenting, I began to write some scene's from Jocelyn's youth. These scenes had a power, an energy that had not existed in my earlier drafts. Her voice emerged. It was then that I started alternating chapters from Jocelyn's past and present. (Later I discovered a dream journal I had kept in my twenties. Jocelyn's voice is identical to the voice I used when recording my dreams.)

Franny Billingsley, who had heard early chapters of Stained at a writing retreat, introduced me to Richard Jackson at an IRA convention. Dick expressed interest in seeing my story, but I didn't have a completed manuscript. I couldn't get the ending. Not wanting to blow my chances, I continued to work on the story for two more years. My agent, Barry Goldblatt, read the story helped me revise a draft, and we FINALLY decided to send it off.

Dick called to say that he loved the story -- until page 136. He didn't like the ending. But, if I was willing to make a significant change (no spoilers here), he'd would be happy to work on it with me.

I imagine that we worked on the story together for a better part of a year (I have no sense of real time when I think of the writing of Stained. It is the only project I have allowed to grow entirely in its own time.) What did that look like? Mainly, Dick asked questions and I went in deeper for answers. My mantra that year was: "Is it true, yet?"

I didn't want to drive my characters - they couldn't act as vehicles for the story. I wanted to be true to their natures. All three of the kids in Stained were carrying shame, and shame causes us to act in confused and sometimes destructive ways.

Before we were done, Ginee Seo at Atheneum had also weighed in on the ending. She asked: What's Jocelyn's position in the community now? Is she more of an outsider than ever before, or is she more accepted? Essential questions like these helped me to continue to focus on hope.

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

Like most writers, I experienced challenges on both a logistical level and an emotional level. The alternating chapters proved to be the greatest challenge of craft. When I wanted to insert a scene from the past, I had to write another scene for the present and visa versa. And they couldn't be just any old scene. My goal was to have each scene from the past inform the present, and each scene in the present hint of the past. Sometimes I felt as I was constructing an elaborate puzzle. I don't think I'll use such a rigid structure again!

On an emotional level, I struggled with the larger themes: abuse, sexual identity, coming of age, faith. What did I want to say? Interestingly, one of the themes that interested me most, and has been largely ignored by reviewers, is misogyny. The early seventies is often referred to as a time of free love, but Jocelyn was caught in that psychological double standard that existed then and does so today. She was "in partnership with the devil, cheap." Today girls call one another sluts - and it's still meant to degrade. What does this do to the female psyche? How does it operate in our collective consciousness?

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the 70's and recalling the details of my teen years. I had a wonderful copyeditor who doggedly researched the details. Fortunately, she caught an error right up front. In my very first chapter, I had an answering machine. Although they were invented in 1975, middle-class families hadn't acquired them yet. Thank goodness for copyeditors.

Cynsational Links


I Am Alexandra Feodorovna AKA author Libba Bray's WriteFest report, posted to her Live Journal. WriteFest is the Leitich Smith novel workshop. (See more on WriteFest at spookycyn; see primary workshop posts from June 14-19, including the participant roster).

Bartography: the blog of Chris Barton. Chris is the author of The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2007). Happy belated birthday, Chris!

Come to Your Senses from Out of My Mind, Sharon A. Soffe's blog. On integrating sensory details into your writing.

The Quill Awards from Create/Relate, Anastasia Suen's blog. A listing of nominees, including: September Roses by Jeanette Winter (FSG, 2004); The People Could Fly: The Picture Book by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Diane and Leo Dillon (Knopf, 2004); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt, 2005); Gentle's Holler by Kerry Madden (Viking, 2005); Pinned by Alfred C. Martino (Harcourt, 2005); The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2005); Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005); So Hard To Say by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, 2004); Spin Control by Niki Burnham (Simon Pulse, 2005); Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005). Mark your calendars! Voting begins online August 15.

Sarah Sullivan Official Author Site: new debut site from the author of Root Beer and Banana, illustrated by Greg Shed, and Dear Baby, illustrated by Paul Meisel, both published by Candlewick, 2005. Includes school visit information.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Anyone But You by Lara M. Zeises

Anyone But You by Lara M. Zeises (Delacorte, 2005). It's one hot summer. Seattle's planning to spend her early vacation days hanging out with her stepbrothers--Jesse and Critter. But it's too hot for Sea to skate, too hot for Critter to chase girls, and responsible Jesse is busy working. Layla, the boys' mom, is working all the time, too, and Sea's dad took off six years ago. That leaves step-siblings-turned-best-friends Sea and Critter to venture to a swimming pool in an nearby upscale town. It's there that Critter falls for a pretty life guard, and before long, Sea's spending all of her time with a skater boy who's on the rebound and just visiting for the summer. Neither Critter nor Sea is happy, though both struggle with why, and then Sea's dad reappears, even further confusing the roles of friendship, love, and family. Ages 12-up.

More Thoughts on Anyone But You

Great Shades of Greg and Marcia! Lara Zeises is a genius. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Read it in one sitting. Okay, I was actually sprawled on the bed in front of the fan with a glass of iced tea, but it was one-sitting-ish.

Both Sea and Critter's alternating voices are engaging and distinct, conveying character and giving the reader insights that clarify motivation and fuel the story.

I, like Critter, am a fan of Rod Stewart. One of my clearest childhood memories is my one older cousin Laura dancing to "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" in my Grandma Melba's living room.

The skater (as in skateboard) girl perspective and culture was interesting.

I also especially liked how Critter found a variety of female body types attractive. His analysis of the girls from "Clueless" (especially Brittany Murphy) was appreciated.

The ending will leave you panting for more.

Cynsational Links

Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Chair Kathi Appelt has informed me that I'll be guest teaching under the wing of Margaret Bechard and leading a workshop with Ron Koertge. I am of course ecstatic.

Nancy Childress, daughter of Robert Childress, illustrator of the Dick and Jane books, writes announcing a tribute site to her father's work. Nancy was the model for "Sally." She is available for related presentations.

"Letting Go of Your Babies" by Linda George, in the Work Habits section of Writer's Support (Growing up as a writer) from the Institute of Children's Literature. On reworking early manuscripts rather than moving on to new projects. See also: "Overcoming CP (Chronic Procrastination)" by Heather Tomasello, in the Getting Started section of Writer's Support, also from ICL.

"Basketball and Murder: Taking the Perfect Shot at Mystery Writing for Young Adults." An ICL chat transcript with author Elaine Marie Alphin and Shannon Barefield, Editorial Director of Carolrhoda Books.
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