Saturday, October 29, 2005

Author Interview: Hope Vestergaard

Weaving the Literacy Web: Creating Curriculum Based on Books Children Love by Hope Vestergaard (Redleaf Press, 2005). From the catalog copy: "provides a framework for developing engaging, developmentally appropriate curriculum in the preschool classroom based on books children love. Six comprehensive chapters provide an introduction to book-based webbing and ideas for activity planning, including math, science, and language and creative arts. This innovative handbook also provides helpful tips for observing children's interests and evaluating books for your own classroom library. " Scroll for ordering information.

What inspired you to write Weaving the Literacy Web, and what is the thesis of the book?

I had a work-study assistant teaching position when I was in college and the teachers were so clever and creative in their planning, it really inspired me. They did a crazy fun Where The Wild Things Are unit, for example. When I got my own classroom, I began using books in a variety of ways throughout the day because kids responded so positively to them. And after I became a center director, I wanted to see teachers reading more with kids.

I encouraged teachers to do more emergent planning (start with an idea and spin off activities based on children’s interests and questions), but they often chose themes that were more adult-focused than child-focused. Eventually I realized that books are a great starting point for web-style planning. The books children love tell us so much about their passions, their hopes, and their fears.

I began doing workshops and started a pilot program for teachers to do book-based curriculum webbing, which is an offshoot of Elizabeth Jones and John Nimmo’s Emergent Curriculum (1994). Emergent curriculum is non-linear, responsive planning that encourages children to think divergently *and* make connections across the curriculum and enables teachers to modify plans on the fly to better suit their group.

My basic thesis is that good books are rich with themes, concepts, and ideas that provide a springboard for activities across the curriculum. Numerous studies have shown that children learn best with context, and I think good books provide a perfect context for all kinds of learning.

What are the challenges of using literary trade books in the classroom?

The biggest challenge is monetary – in times of tight budgets, people often classify books as a luxury. Preschool directors wouldn’t dream about operating without enough blocks or construction paper or crayons, and it baffles me when they don’t consider books to be important equipment.

Another key is to think of books as a consumable rather than permanent classroom item. Books eventually wear out if they’re being used, and great new books are published all the time. Finding the money to keep a class library well-stocked is really a question of prioritizing.

The other challenge is educational – I find that adults don’t always understand what makes a children’s book “good.” Books should reflect the children in each classroom, as well as provide a window into other cultures. Great books are culturally authentic, have rich language and beautiful art, and feature compelling characters. People who aren’t used to thinking critically about literature can learn to do it with a few simple tools, which is why I included a detailed checklist in my book. I advocate building curriculum around great books, not mediocre ones!

What are the benefits?

Trade books are widely available, even to people who aren’t anywhere close to a brick and mortar bookstore. With so many publishers paying more attention to the bottom line, the bar has really been raised in terms of the quality of books being published today. Every season I find dozens and dozens of wonderful new books that are interesting, engaging, and fun. Even since I was a child, the industry standards have changed dramatically. Stories are much more succinct and less moralistic…they’re more emotionally accessible to young children. Literary trade books are also often available to school in affordable formats through book fairs or clubs like the Junior Library Guild.

What makes this book unique, a can't-miss read for teachers and school librarians? Would children's authors also benefit in preparing their school-visit presentations?

I took great pains to provide all the tools that planners might need to successfully plan activities around books. That includes developmental interests and behavioral challenges for each age group, so teachers can target these with activities that both allow kids to be successful and challenge them to try new things.

I also provided activity prompts for all kinds of learners and teachers, across disciplines. Many teachers feel strong on one or two favorite areas of curriculum, but I think my suggestions can really help them become well-rounded and successful outside of their comfort zones. There are existing books that have pre-planned activities built around books, but those didn’t satisfy me as a teacher or director for two reasons. First, the plans are already established. They don’t bend or morph according to the skills/interests of individual teachers and children. Second, once you’ve done all the plans in a book, where are you?

My book only features a few completed webs and they’re primarily for illustration or a starter-plan for people who aren’t confident. People can learn to be more creative with the right prompts.

I really wanted to show people how the process works, so they can customize plans that are exciting for them and the children they serve. With all the beautiful books in existence, the possibilities are endless.

I think the book will also help writers in two ways: the developmental guidelines can help them hone in on why a manuscript may not quite be working, and authors who do school visits can use the guidelines and activity suggestions to help them plan presentations that are meaningful and effective.

I've been concerned about the heightened emphasis on standardized testing in relationship to use of trade books in the classroom. Is this a real worry? If so, why and how should teachers work around this competing concern?

I share your concern! So many teachers tell me they find themselves spending lots of time teaching for the tests. Parents are buying into the “measured” achievement model, too. They want their children reading chapter books just as soon as they have mastered the ability to really read and enjoy a book, but children can enjoy picture books all through elementary school and even older for reluctant readers. There are incredibly engaging and informative non-fiction books being published on so many topics these days.

I’ve also heard teachers purchase books based on their tie-ins to things that are on the standardized tests. It seems to take a lot of the pleasure out of discovering and enjoying fabulous books. We’re homogenizing everything. It’s distressing.

That said, I do think that my book can empower teachers who are frustrated by the emphasis on testing to take back their classrooms. Kids who are doing book-based activities are still learning. In fact, they’re likely to be learning more within the framework of a particular book than they would by doing random dittos and sample tests. The simple act of reading and being read to more increases kids’ skills; I’m saying the benefits don’t stop there. The context books provide for all the math and science and social studies activities you can do with them will scaffold students’ learning and increase comprehension and retention. Kids learn by doing. If we are so concerned about learning, we need to give them fun things to do.

You're a literary trade author yourself, with an emphasis on books for very young readers. What are the challenges and joys of writing for this audience?

People think that the younger the age you’re writing for, the easier it is to write. Not so! I find toddlers to be among the most discriminating readers around. If your book is boring, or doesn’t meet their emotional needs, toddlers will just walk away. It’s quite a challenge to figure out what makes these kids tick and such a joy when you see that you’ve captured their imagination. Very young kids exist to explore and connect with people and things – I enjoy spending time inside their heads.

Could you tell us just briefly about each of your children's books and their inspiration?

Sure! Much of what I write is in rhyme. The first book I sold was Wake Up, Mama! (Dutton, illustrated by Thierry Courtin). I was inspired to write it when I realized how children often use adult bodies as furniture—the story was originally called “Mama Mountain.” I started Driving Daddy at the same time and finished it when my editor asked for a companion book.

Baby Love (Dutton, illustrated by John Wallace) was my first book to be published. It’s a collection of poems about milestones in a baby’s first year, in the voices of various people who love them. It was inspired by the many babies I’ve taken care of over the years, and by all the poetry my parents read to me when I was young.

Hello, Snow! (Melanie Kroupa/FSG, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott) was inspired by my childhood memories of playing in the snow with my dad, and by my children’s enthusiasm one snowy morning when school was canceled for the third or fourth day in a row!

Hillside Lullaby (Dutton, illustrated by Margie Moore) will be out in March of 2006. It’s about a restless little girl who unwinds by listening to the animals outside her window. The art really underscores the cozy, peaceful feeling I had when writing it. I also have What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo! (Dutton, illustrated by Maggie Smith) coming out next summer. It’s about an older brother who’s tortured by his younger sister’s behavior. Also inspired by real life! I have a few more books in the pipeline but I’ll save them for another interview. ;>)

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I’d love to hear back from teachers who read the book and try book-based webbing with their classes, particularly teachers of KG and early elementary students who can help with the planning process. I am always surprised and delighted by the cool ideas people cook up. In the pilot programs I did, teachers who were initially resistant to the approach found it to be very satisfying once they dove in.

Thanks for interviewing me!

Cynsational News & Links

Remember Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken) by Rosemary Graham (Viking, 2005)(author interview)? Well, check out C.J.'s blog for his side of the story.

Applit: Resources for Readers and Teachers of Appalachian Literature for Children and Young Adults.

Books in a Series from the Monroe County Public Library.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Interview: Adrienne Yorinks and Jeanette Larson on Quilt of States: Piecing Together America

Quilt of States: Piecing Together America written by Adrienne Yorinks and 50 Librarians from Across the Nation, quilts by Adrienne Yorinks, librarian contributions compiled and edited by Jeanette Larson (National Geographic, 2005). From the catalog copy: "There is no book quite like Quilt of States—the unique combination of handmade quilts with the voice of each state heard through the writing of one of the state's librarians to illustrate the coming together of the United States of America. Using one of the only two original American folk art forms—quilting (jazz is the other)—Adrienne Yorinks demonstrates her amazing talent for using quilts not only as art, but as information sources. Her work illustrates the history of our country and is accompanied by the words of librarians from every state in the Union."

PART ONE: INTERVIEW WITH ADRIENNE

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

AY: Quilt of States is an evolution of an earlier book I did called, The Alphabet Atlas [by Arthur Yorinks (Winslow, 1999)(scroll)]. I loved illustrating that book which featured a different country for each letter, so a book on how the United States came together seemed natural. My approach was to be chronological--that is how the United States actually came together as a country from Delaware, the first to Hawaii, the last.

AY: I also wanted to know why and how each state chose statehood instead of remaining separate. I thought this was fascinating.

AY: Early on, I decided to feature a different librarian from each state to tell his or her story. I thought it would create a much more interesting book to hear 50 different voices telling the story of their state the way they wanted to tell it. I wanted quilt of States to reflect the diversity of our country.

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

AY: The process is always important. From the spark of the idea to publication took over five years. That is a pretty long time but as my mother would say, "things work out for the best." Sometimes a book as important as Quilt of States, (meaning a book that speaks about the coming together of the United States) needs a lot of time to create a quality product. Part of the problem was the first publisher went bankrupt but then National Geographic stepped in, and I can't even imagine a better outcome.

AY: I am also indebted to my good friend and colleague, Jeanette Larson [of the Austin Public Library], who, when I told her my idea for getting a librarian from each state, she not only thought it was a great idea, she asked them all! With her support, this happened in a great way.

AY: I had three editors who worked on the book and each added something to the mix. As a true "middle child," I do value people's input, but then I like to go off by myself and put it all together-- my way!

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

AY: One of the challenges I presented to myself was how to make Quilt of States different, exciting and full of interesting information. As a child, I found many history and geography books boring, where states could be interchangeable. I wanted each state to shine on its own as you turned the page.

AY: The fact that my medium is fabric, added to the interest but also the challenge of illustration. I had collected thousands of "conversational" prints which are any fabrics that depict objects (cows, pigs, tomatoes) in order to NOT replicate a cow or pig or a tomato! We do have a lot of cows in this country but I did not want to picture the same symbol in each state that had them.

AY: I was so excited when I found the Liberty Bell fabric for Pennsylvania but my most favorite "find" was the fabric featuring Mount Rushmore for South Dakota. I still can't get over that.

AY: I loved working on Quilt of States. I created 65 pieces for this book and though at first it seemed daunting to me to figure out which motifs I would use for each state and what aspects I wanted to feature, I loved the process.

PART TWO: INTERVIEW WITH JEANETTE LARSON: one of the 50 librarian-writers from Quilt of States, she also compiled and edited the librarian contributions.

Adrienne mentions above that not only did you support her idea to include 50 librarian voices, you identified and invited the contributors for her as well. Wow! How did you go about that?

JL: When Adrienne asked me to find librarians and coordinate their writing about their own state, I started with my many contacts from national conferences. So, many of the librarians are very familiar faces on the national scene. After I exhausted all the people I knew, I posted cryptic messages to library listservs inviting librarians from specific states to contact me regarding a project. The secrecy must have been intriguing because I often heard from three or four people from the same state. Everyone was great!

JL: They understood the project and wanted to be involved. I especially enjoyed helping the librarians hone down the essence of their state's interest in being part of the United States and learned a lot (I'm ready for "Jeopardy!") about each state. Each librarian wrote more than we could use in the book, although Adrienne took some of the fun facts and incorporated it into the art.

As a librarian, what do you see as the book's appeal? Who's the audience? What makes it so special?

JL: I asked that the librarians focus on what was unique about their state's reason for wanting to be part of the Union. That makes Quilt of States very different from other "state" books. Fun facts are included, along with the information a student needs to include on a school report (flower, date of admission, etc.) but learning a bit of history from a unique angle makes the book very appealing to kids. The audience is first and foremost middle grade students. A lot of kids are fascinated by geography and learning state facts. Quilt of States makes this fun. Adrienne's fabulous art is fun to peruse, kind of like a puzzle where you look for the state flower in the fabric, figure out what is different in the cows, and such. A secondary audience has been grandparents and great-grandparents who want to share their enthusiasm and patriotism with kids. Every grandparent I've shown the book to wants to give it as a holiday gift!

JL: I don't know of another book that speaks with so many voices and that makes Quilt of State special. And of course, the beautiful art and the "snapshot" pieces that summarize where the country was as a Union at milestone moments is unique and special to this book.

Cynsational News & Links

The Américas Award: recognizes "U.S. works of fiction, poetry, folklore, or selected non-fiction (from picture books to works for young adults) published in the previous year in English or Spanish that authentically and engagingly portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States."

Bringing Mysteries Alive for Children and Young Adults by Jeanette Larson (Linworth, 2004) from cynsations.

Hot Off the Press: A Sneak Peek at Publishers' Newest and Hottest Titles from CBC Magazine.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sweet Thang by Allison Whittenberg

Sweet Thang by Allison Whittenberg (Delacorte, 2005). After Auntie Karyn dies, fourteen-year-old Charmaine's little cousin, Tracy John, comes to live with and annoy her while charming the rest of the family. As if that weren't enough, spiteful Dinah Coverdale of the light skin and silky hair is the real and gloating girlfriend of the boy Charmaine likes (and for whom she's doing homework). This debut novel looks at family ties and black-on-black prejudice. It's a 20th century historical, set in 1975. Ages 12-up.

More Thoughts on Sweet Thang

Sweet Thang kind of reminded me of those "special" episodes of "The Cosby Show" when the grandparents would visit, and everyone would reminisce about them being there to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. (Charmaine's daddy even quotes Dr. King at dinner). I really loved those episodes.

That said, what moved me about this novel--about Sweet Thang--was its characters Charmaine and Tracy John. I felt such a real bond between them. I believed in them, and I'm still cheering them on.

Cynsational News & Links

NorthWestWriters.com: "features books by the authors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska, and B.C., Canada."

Passport: International Children's Literature: "created from an United States perspective and defines international children's literature as anything outside of your borders."

Peace and Non-Violence Curriculum by Cecil Ramnaraine from the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse. Features extensive children's peace bibliography. See also Weapons of Mass Instruction: Anti-War Books for Young People, which includes links to additional bibliographies.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Author Interview: Philip Yates on Ten Little Mummies

Ten Little Mummies by Philip Yates, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Viking, 2003). From the catalog copy: "For the first time in prehistory ten adorable mummies are painting the town red. But what is there to paint in ancient Egypt? Find out in this refreshingly funny counting book, where the counting goes backwards from ten down to one little mummy. (Hint: some of the fun involves pyramids and a sphinx!) With a minimalist approach and a deep, distinctive palate, G. Brian Karas tickles the funny bone in this debut counting book..." Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Mummies have always cracked me up, especially when I'm driving and there's one in the middle of the road! In the summer of '96 I had just married and moved to Austin and, since I was out of work, I had more time for writing. That period there was lot of rhyming stories popping into my head, especially lots of monster poems since I have always been infatuated with monsters, even the ones that moved real slow--like mummies.

Up to then I had published, with my co-author Matt Rissinger, five books of humor with Sterling Publishing, including World's Silliest Jokes and Best School Jokes Ever. In every book there was a chapter on vampires and monster puns. I had stuff like "What do you do when a mummy rolls his eyes at you?" "You roll them right back." And "What kind of underwear do mummies wear?" "Fruit of the Tomb." Terrible jokes like that!

Ten Little Mummies came out of those riddles. I got to thinking how would mummies survive in the present day? My picture books always start with questions like "What if?". Anyway, the mummies go out to play and all kinds of horrible things happen to them that I thought was very funny: they unravel in revolving doors, a steamroller flattens one into an Ace Bandage, one gets lost in a museum and ends up on display, and so on.

You know something's good when you a laugh at it when you're writing the damned thing. And fifty drafts later I thought I had something genuinely worthwhile and hilarious. My other thought---these were harmless, cute little mummies and kids would love them and not be frightened of them and want to read their exploits to figure out how they would survive in the modern day world.

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

Spark to publication was seven years. The story evolved in the summer of '96 and I sent it out to nearly 40 publishers. In the Spring of 2000, I had just about given up hope. Well, the truth was I was writing lots of other picture books and plays and I never thought Ten Little Mummies would go anywhere. I just sent it out because having something out there in the slush pile gathering dust or, hope of all hopes, just being in an editor's hands, makes a writer feel likes he's accomplishing something. Still, I had no idea it would be published.

The last publisher I sent it to in April 2000 was Penguin Putnam (Viking). I sent it on a Saturday by priority mail and it came back the following Wednesday by Express. I knew something was up because what kind of editor sends your manuscript back by Express Mail?

So I did what I always do. I freaked out. Maybe it was so bad they mailed it back as quickly as they could. Like it was a virus. So I tossed it in the trunk of the car like I do all rejections.

Of course, the next day, I always look to see what happened. This time, after I tossed it in the trunk, I went back after a few hours and opened it. The first words from Judy Carey, the Viking Editor, was, "I have never laughed so hard in my life at a new picture book." Well, I didn't have to read the rest of the letter. The story, she said, was practically perfect, but.......

She felt it would benefit as an educational tool as well as a counting book if I stayed in Ancient Egypt and used the backdrops, ie, the Sphinx, the Pyramid of Giza and so on as the mummies playground. I was against it at first and I told Judy so, but when she told me to just try it, I did and it worked perfectly. Ancient Egypt for these mummies was like a magic wonderland. They could swim in the Nile, have chariot races, hang out with the baboons. The story truly came together then, though it was only 250 words long. But to get to that moment took four years and sometimes spending as much as a month on two lines!

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

I buried myself (the puns again!) in Mummy lore. I bought toy mummies, I ate mummy gummies, I had a toy mummy you took part and removed the heart and brains from. I read zillions of books on Ancient Egypt and the whole process of how to make a mummy. I watched Mummy movies, the great old Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. films. Basically, I wrapped myself up in the whole history until I knew everything there was to know about mummies.

Now of all this research I probably ended up using about 80% of what I read. There was not time to give a scenic tour of Ancient Egypt, the story had to move quickly and the setting became merely a place where mummies could play, but, at the same time, we would discover Egypt's historical significance. Still, reading all about Ancient Egypt gave me the atmosphere to work with.

The challenge was creating different ways of dying----getting eaten by crocodiles while swimming in nile, having heat stroke, etc. The unique and challenging slant was to give variety to the mummies play moments while keeping it Ancient Egypt-like. So I had to come up with unusual facts that would stir kids to laugh and learn about Egypt. For example, Baboons thrived in Ancient Egypt and I didn't know this. I had to use it because juxtaposing a mummy and a baboon seemed hilarious. At first I had them all dying and not reuniting at the end, which is very grim, which I like, but not realistic or logical for a mummy.

My editor, wise one that she was, indicated that "The little mummies are already dead to begin with, stupid," so why bother killing them off? So I came up with the ingenuous idea of getting rid of the mummies one by one, but not killing them, just making them conveniently disappear one by one. "One swims away from a crocodile," "One is arrested for painting the Sphinx," "One blows away in a sandstorm." We think these cute little mummies are gone, but not for rotten, I mean not forgotten. In the end, I had to have them come back.

"Duh," my editor wasn't afraid to say. "They have to come back because they are dead, anyway!" I also thought it would be cool to have a girl mummy be the survivor, though this is very subtle in the end.

The biggest literary hurtle I faced was worrying about the right illustrator. The editor, thankfully, gave me a choice------they had an illustrator who could do the illustrations in two months and the book would come out in a year. Or, I could go with G. Brian Karas of Saving Sweetness (by Diane Stanley (Putnam, 2001)) and Kathi Appelt's Incredible Me (HarperCollins, 2003), and wait three years. I loved Karas'elonogated playful humans in his previous books so I went with him. Sometimes three years is the right choice to wait for a book if you know the illustrator will make a difference.

The most heartrending psychlogical hurdle I faced was the impending death of my mother. She was so proud of the book, and I was so afraid she wouldn't see it or read it before she left us. Thankfully, the day before the stroke took her, I received the first copy of the book and read it to her as she lay in her bed. I think she stayed alive to see the book. She couldn't talk, but she did smile and nod her head. The next day she was gone. Waiting seven years was just fine with me just to see the smile on my mother's face.

Finally, the last great thing about the mummies is I was able to dedicate it to all ten members of my family (six brothers, two sisters) so now I don't have to worry about dedicating any more books to them.

Enough. As one of the mummies would say, "I'm so tired I'm dead on my feet."

Cynsational Note

Ten Little Mummies is now available in paperback.

Cynsational News & Links

Other recent interviews with picture book authors/illustrators include: Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America (HarperCollins, 2005); Varsha Bajaj on How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (Little Brown, 2004); Kelly Bennett on Not Norman: A Goldfish Story (Candlewick, 2005); Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Melanie Chrismer on Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang (Pelican, 2004); Carolyn Crimi and John Manders on Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies (Candlewick, 2005); Dottie Enderle on The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair (Pelican, 2005); Jean Gralley on The Moon Came Down on Milk Street (Henry Holt, 2004); Kelly Milner Halls on Wild Dogs: Past and Present (Darby Creek, 2005); Jan Peck on Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Lupe Ruiz Flores on Lupita's Papalote (Arte Publico, 2002); Anastasia Suen on Red Light, Green Light (Harcourt, 2005); Jerry Wermund on The World According to Rock (Rockon, 2005); and Kathy Whitehead on Looking for Uncle Louie on the Fourth of July (Boyds Mills, 2005).

The subject of MFAs in writing for children (or children and young adults) was discussed of late on childrens-writer@yahoogroups.com. These appear to be the current programs: Vermont College/Union Institute & University (where I teach); Spaulding University; Seton Hill; Hollins; Chatham College; and Western Connecticut State University.

Friends, Leaders Remember Rosa Parks' Life from YahooNews. The character "Rosa" from my short story "Riding with Rosa," which was published in the March/April 2005 Cicada, was inspired by Rosa Parks. The story is about harassment of a gay boy and students at an Indian college by football players on a team bus on Kansas 10 highway.

The Texas Library Association sponsors several lists of recommended books for young readers: the 2x2 for age two through 2nd grade; the Texas Bluebonnect Award for third through sixth grade; the Lone Star for sixth through eighth grade; and the Tayshas for high school students. Nominations for the 2x2 list must be submitted by November 15 (only 2005 books are eligible); the in-the-running list for the Bluebonnet Award has already been posted ("final choices will be made October 22"); nominations for the Lone Star (books from the last three years are eligible) and Tayshas (books from the last two years are eligible) appear to be ongoing. The committees welcome outside suggestions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Author Interview: Amy McAuley on Over and Over You

Over and Over You by Amy McAuley (Roaring Brook, 2005). Penny is haunted by vivid dreams that feel so real, almost as if they...were? After being tipped off by a psychic, she's starting to consider extreme possibilities, destinies, and even true love. Penny's voice is engaging, her plight compelling, and her command of historical factoids inspirational. A wonderful choice for romantics, fantasy fans, and those who appreciate psychic (and psychological) puzzles. Ages 12-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I'm a history buff. There's a story attached to every person who's ever lived, and while the ways in which people live change all the time, people themselves don't change that much--no matter the time period, they love, hate, hope, want, and dream. That's always fascinated me. And I love the idea of seeing history through someone else's eyes. In Over and Over You, Penny begins to, literally, see the past in her dreams. I wanted the reader to be right there with her. I also wanted to write a fun novel that both contemporary and historical fiction readers could relate to and enjoy.

Another inspiration for the book goes back to when I met my husband. After a series of strange coincidences, my second college-roommate introduced me to one of her male friends. (I'd forced the landlord to kick out my first roommate within days, because she just didn't feel like the "right one"--completely abnormal behavior for me.) My first thought when I saw this man was, "Hey, this is the guy I'm supposed to marry." Freaky!

So when I started writing, I thought about incorporating romantic notions such as fate and true love into a young adult novel. I mulled it over for years, while writing other books, but no ideas clicked with me. I had to wait for Penny to start talking to me (yes, authors do hear voices in their heads), and when she did, I knew I finally had the right main character and the right story.

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

The spark happened one night in 2002. As I tried to sleep, a girl's voice came into my head. "I've been in love with the same boy for a thousand years." The way she said it, as if she'd just heard that strange news herself and couldn't believe it, got me right out of bed to write. Who was this boy? Why had they been in love with each other for a thousand years? Were they destined to be together? One question led to another, and soon I had so many questions I needed answers to, I couldn't possibly not write the book. I had to find out more about the characters, their pasts, and their possible future together.

I finished a first draft quickly, and soon afterward, I got my agent. I liked the book, but it didn't feel complete. The thing was, I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with the book. My agent sent the manuscript out to several publishers over the course of a year. No bites. Just as I was getting discouraged, Deborah Brodie from Roaring Brook Press called me to discuss ways to make the book better. Her ideas were fantastic. I dumped a bunch of the book, sped up the beginning, bulked up one of the past-life storylines, and had a major AH HA!-moment about the ending.

I sent the revised manuscript back to her, but after years of rejections, I honestly wasn't expecting an offer. I was just so thrilled that she'd helped me improve the book significantly! But on October 16th 2003, I got a call from my agent. Deborah had loved the revision and made an offer. The news threw me for such a loop, I went into a weird daze and nearly threw up. My agent laughed and said, "Well go outside! Don't throw up on the good furniture!" Luckily, I pulled myself together enough to sort of listen to what he had to say and I didn't destroy any furniture in the process.

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

Right after I sold the book, Millbrook Press (Roaring Brook's parent company) announced that they were filing for bankruptcy and selling Roaring Brook Press. The future of the company became uncertain. I worried about my book at first, because it was quite possible it wouldn't be published. But Roaring Brook had such a fantastic backlist of books that included award-winners, and I believed they would be bought. I actually believed the sale would wind up being a great thing in the end, I just had to be patient and wait for things to sort themselves out. From late 2003 to April 2004, the fate of my book was up in the air, and that was tough on occasion. I hate that whole inability to see into the future thing I'm cursed with! But things did work out for the best. Roaring Brook was bought by Holtzbrinck Publishers (which includes Henry Holt, Farrar Straus and Giroux, and Tor, among others). Over and Over You came out just one season late--Spring '05.

Cynsational Note

Surf over to spookycyn to see my hypothetical past lives list.

Cynsational Links

Author-Editor Dialogues from CBC Magazine: Naomi Shihab Nye and Virginia Duncan; Tracy Mack and Brian Selznick; Karen Cushman and Dinah Stevenson; Katherine Paterson and Virginia Buckley; Kevin Henkes and Susan Hirshman; Christopher Paul Curtis and Wendy Lamb.

Secrets of the Successful Mystery Book Club by Gary Warren Niebuhr from Libraries Unlimited. See also Eight Things Mystery Readers Say by Jim Huang.

Reminder: it's Banned Books Week.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Author Feature: Niki Burnham

Niki Burnham has burst onto the YA romance scene wowing readers with such titles as Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004), and Sticky Fingers (Simon & Schuster, 2005). According to her bio, "Niki Burnham is originally from Colorado, but when her father joined the Army, she started moving around the world, too (because she was only six years old at the time, she didn't get a say.) She even wound up in Germany—twice. Now that she's grown up and theoretically gets to do whatever she wants, she still hasn't stopped moving. She currently lives in Massachusetts, where she also writes romance novels as her alter ego, Nicole Burnham."

Could you give readers a brief sense of each of your YA titles? What inspired the stories? What about the protagonists fascinated you?

The first two books, Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004), are about Valerie Winslow, a girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother comes out of the proverbial closet and divorces Val's father. Her father moves overseas, and Val is forced to choose where to live. It sounds heavy, and Val does deal with some serious issues, but both books are truly comedies. Val goes to live with her father in the fictional country of Schwerinborg (say that five times fast) and meets a prince. Val's a typical sarcastic teenager--she has rebellious thoughts about everything--but she's one of those rare individuals who is able to see people for who they are. She knows when someone is trying to put one over on her. As you might guess, I had a blast writing about her life. (Enough so that another book about Valerie will be out in June 2006!)

The third book I have on the shelves, Sticky Fingers (Simon & Schuster, 2005), is set in Framingham, Massachusetts. It's about a high school senior named Jenna Kassarian. It's a more serious book, as it deals with the way Jenna's life changes after she gets an early acceptance to Harvard--the way her boyfriend's attitude toward her changes, the way her best friend reacts, etc. Also, Jenna is a total control freak, and the book shows how that can affect someone if that perfect facade ever cracks.

Finally, I have another romantic comedy coming out in late December called Scary Beautiful. It's about Chloe Rand, a high school junior whose longtime boyfriend just dumped her cold in the middle of the airport terminal in Denver. Chloe is one of those girls who's beyond pretty, and she discovers that when you're the prettiest girl in school and suddenly single, everyone's attitude toward you changes. Girls don't trust you, boys aren't sure what to make of you, and everyone assumes you're stuck up, your life is easy, etc. Chloe was interesting to write because in fiction, we often see the not-so-pretty girl as the outsider. Here, the pretty girl is the one who's the outsider who feels no one understands her.

You were already publishing romance novels for the adult market when you decided to add YA books to your writing. What inspired you to branch out? What about writing for teens appealed to you?

A friend of mine, Lynda Sandoval, writes young adult books for Simon & Schuster. She sent me a few titles she thought I'd find funny, and said, "Nic, you really should be writing YA. It's your voice. Read these and tell me I'm wrong." I wasn't so sure, but I started reading the books she recommended and fell in love with them. And Lynda was right--writing for teens is a very natural thing for me. It's partially because I remember my high school years (and all the emotional ups and downs) vividly, and partially because I think the teen years are such fertile ground for stories. It's the time in your life when you're experiencing a great deal of change. You're earning who you are, you're learning what you can and can't trust about the world around you.

What are the challenges of writing a love story? What do you, well, love about it?

Especially for teenagers, love is a complicated thing. There's always a push-pull between what your brain is telling you is right and what your heart wants to do. There's also a push-pull between what you believe to be right and what society believes. I like writing about that push-pull. In addition, relationships are also a great tool for showing character growth--we're always more interested in reading about characters who learn (or don't!) from their mistakes and seeing how their perspectives change.

You're one of the lawyers-turned-writers. What inspired the switch? Does your legal background help you in any way?

I knew, probably by about halfway through my first year of law school, that it wasn't something I wanted to do my entire life. I was decent at it, but it wasn't something I burned to do, so I started looking elsewhere. I knew I was a good writer, so I focused on that.

As to my legal background helping me--I'd like to think it does, since I spent all that time and money on my legal education. hile it is handy when I have a publishing contract I need to read and understand, I'm not sure it affects my writing at all.

What advice do you have for beginners interested in writing YA romance?

Read, read, read. So many people think there's a 'secret' to writing YA. That you have to know someone in the business, that you have to have the right agent, etc. It's not true at all. The real secret? You have to write a good book.

So my advice? To write a good book, you first have to be able to recognize good writing. Then, you need to learn from it. So read a ton. And whenever you read a book, take notes on what does and doesn't work for you. Does a character resonate with you? Why or why not? Are there certain storylines or character situations that speak to you? Why or why not? That kind of analysis will point you in the direction of what you should be writing. You'll learn a lot about how to write simply from reading and studying authors you find captivating. Word of warning: don't imitate. Learn from the authors you enjoy, then go out and do your own thing. Readers want something new and fresh.

Finally--you've gotta sit your tail in a chair and write. I meet a lot of so-called 'authors' who spend very little or no time writing. This is a career you pursue because you absolutely love it. (And that passion for your work will show in your writing!)

What do you do when you're not writing?

I read a lot (no surprise there!) and I like to garden. I'm always out in my yard doing something. I also play softball in a women's league in my town--we have a fantastic time.

Cynsational Note

Nic and I became pals as classmates at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. I noticed that the Princeton Review ranks U of M Law #2 in the U.S. for "career prospects." Hm. Do you think they took future authors into that equation?

Cynsational News & Links

Today kicks off Banned Books Week.

Thanks to author Anastasia Suen for her e-card congratulating me on the permanent position at the Vermont College/Union Institute and University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults! Most appreciated. Read a recent cynsations interview with Anastasia Suen.

Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Leda Schubert: official site of the author of Here Comes Darrell, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Candlewick, 2000) and Ballet of the Elephants, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook, 2006).

You've Got the Look: The Author Photo from Agent 007.
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