Friday, April 21, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to David Lubar (author interview) on the publication of Punished! (Darby Creek, 2006). A word-play comedy perfect for both reluctant mid-grade readers and strong ones. A Junior Library Guild Selection.

Avoiding Repetitive-Stress Injuries: A Writer's Guide by Geoff Hart from Note: the last time I mentioned a tendon twinge to my doctor, he said, "Switch the mouse to your other hand." I replied, "But that will slow me down!" And he said, "Exactly." I still haven't done it.

Author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen offers recent interviews with five editors: John Rudolph from Putnam; Alexandra Cooper from Simon & Schuster; Leann Heywood from HarperCollins; Liz Waniewski from Dial; and Kristin Daly from HarperCollins. Learn more about Sudipta.

Coaxing Back Your Muse by Shari Lyle-Soffe from Out of My Mind. Note: I find that a bath or exercise seems to help me past writer's block.

LaReau Sisters: official site of author Kara LaReau and illustrator Jenna LaReau. Learn more about them, read the fun FAQ, check out their books, and more. The sisters are the creative team behind Rocko and Spanky Go to a Party (Harcourt, 2004)(author-illustrator interview), as well as individual books by each. Don't miss the nifty desktops from Jenna.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Author Interview: Dandi Daley Mackall on Eva Underground

Dandi Daley Mackall is the author of more than three hundred books for adults and children, including the Winnie the Horse Gentler series. She lives with her family in Ohio.

Dandi Daley Mackall on Dandi Daley Mackall: "I grew up in a small town in Missouri (population 1,701 before the shoe factory closed), where we had to make our own entertainment. I was the official storyteller. Both my parents told a good story. At night Mom read me a library book, but Dad would make up a story, letting me name the characters, horses, and disasters. My best friends were our horses, and I rode every day. My mom still lives in Hamilton, Missouri.

"At age ten, I won my first writing contest for my 50 words on why I wanted to be batboy for the Kansas City A's. But when they found out 'Dan' Daley was actually 'Dandi Daley,' they refused to let a girl be batboy. Today, I could sue them and be a millionaire; but then, all I could do was become a St. Louis Cardinals fan.

"When I set off for the University of Missouri, I thought I'd major in journalism and have my own newspaper, 'The Dandi Daily.' But sticking to facts wasn't for me, so I ended up with a BA in foreign languages...just because I liked learning them. Meanwhile, I wrote articles for magazines like Reader's Digest, Woman's Day, Guideposts.

"But it was in Poland that I wrote my first book, by hand, a funny, nonfiction inspirational for grown-ups. I lived in a house with 20 Poles and no heat. Every night I'd hunker under the covers in my room, where snow on my boots never melted, and I'd pen my book. I like to say that I wrote my first book 'undercover' in Poland, although it would be about 300 books later when I'd actually write about my experiences there.

"I've written for every age group, from 0 to adult. I've lived in: Aix-en-Provence, France; Houston; Dallas; LA; Ann Arbor; Toledo; Norman, Oklahoma; and Chicago.

"I met my wonderful husband, Joe, a phenomenal writer for grown-ups, in Oklahoma, where we were both getting a Master's in English and Creative Writing. His first words to me, as he caught me exiting my 'How-to-Write Mysteries' class were: 'So what's your favorite way to kill someone?' Two months later we were married. Now we live in rural Ohio with our three kids, Jen, Katy, and Dan, horses, dogs, and cats."

Congratulations on the publication of Eva Underground (Harcourt, 2006)(excerpt)! For those who haven't yet read the novel, could you share a bit about it?

Thanks! And I appreciate the invitation to join your amazing website. Eva Underground is set in Communist Eastern Europe in 1978, before "The Wall" came down. Eva Lott has a lot going for her in Chicago-cool boyfriend, a spot on the swim team, great best friend-until her dad drags her to Poland to help with a radical underground movement. In Poland, there's no pepperoni pizza. No good music. And the government is watching everywhere.

But as Eva plots her escape, she forms an unusual friendship with a moody, handsome boy, Tomek, and she finds herself drawn into the country's beauty and its brave struggle for the freedoms she's always taken for granted. It's been called a "coming-of-age love story," and I guess, in the end, that's what it is.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

In 1978, I met a guy who knew a Polish priest who wanted someone to come over from the U.S. and teach writing and the Bible to a group of Polish students from various universities, people who wanted to make a difference in their country but needed writing skills and wanted to study the Bible. I naively said, "Cool!" and hopped a plane to Vienna, rented the cheapest car in that city, and drove the same route Eva and her dad drive through Czechoslovakia to Zakopane, Poland. The next 18 months were the most amazing of my life, as I was drawn into the spirit of these amazing people. I learned much more from them than they did from me. So the inspiration of the book was profound.

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

This is one long timeline! I knew in 1978 that I wanted to write about my experiences in communist Poland. But I was asked not to write about the events or people for ten years; the dangers were very real. After the Wall came down, and freedom flowed into Poland, I could have started my Poland book, but I was writing my first series, The Cinnamon Lake Mysteries, churning out picture books for Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers-Scooby Doo, Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Jetsons, and working on a new young adult novel.

When I finally turned my attention to Poland, I tried to write the novel as a contemporary, set in 1995, with older facts coming in through dialogue. It didn't work. Finally, I realized I had to set the story during the years I was there (duh!). At first, I wrote the whole novel in Eva's point of view. Something was missing. I let the novel sit for a whole year until I figured out that I needed to alternate points of view between Eva and Tomek, giving the reader insight into both mindsets. That's when Harcourt bought it. My wonderful editor at Harcourt, Tamson Weston, exclaimed, "Dandi, I love historical fiction!" That's when it hit me that my life had become historical. Sigh...

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

The literary challenge was finding the right genre and point of view, as I just explained. Much of the research was done-penned into big, fat journals I kept while I was living in Poland. I used the Internet and the library to double-check my facts and to supplement information. My best friend from Poland, Gosia Muchowiecka, read the manuscript and helped me immensely.

Psychologically, the challenge was to make the story relate to today's teens, many of whom have never heard of "The Iron Curtain" or "The Wall." The solution was in the relationships that cut to basic human nature and universal needs. Everybody loves a love story.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I've read some of the great advice you and others offer on your website, such as read voraciously and write prolifically. I second that. And love words-the sound of them: whispering, cantering, thump. Love the power of rightly placed words, the joy of a fresh image that can make a reader forever see things in a new way. Knowing that you've written a powerful sentence or created a fascinating, quirky character can help propel you past the pile of rejections until you're able to share your words with your readers.

How about those authors who're looking to build a career?

For the past 15 years, I've been making a very nice living writing children's books, and for that, I'm so grateful. Before that, I taught at a university part-time and wrote part-time. I wrote myself out of my day job by writing consistently and keeping lots of "irons in the fire." When you're waiting on one book to find a publisher, it's just not fair to the poor mailman you attack each day he shows up empty-handed or, worse, delivers a rejection. Just keep writing. And writing. I think you should love the book you're writing right now, love it more than anything you've ever written. If we're not growing as writers and getting better and better at it, something's wrong.

More than three hundred books! Wow! What's the secret of your productivity?

I honestly don't write fast. I do dozens of rewrites on everything. But I write a lot. Six days a week, dawn to way after dusk (if I'm not on the road or doing family things). I'm sure it helps that I love so many different kinds of writing for children-board books, picture books, historical, rhyme, middle-grade fiction, young adult novels. It's like changing channels. I can write the first draft of one novel in the morning, then do a rewrite on a rhyming picture book in the afternoon, and correct galleys after dinner. (But I'm a lot more fun than I sound like! Honest!)

What do you do when you're not writing?

There's nothing I like better than hanging out with my husband and kids-by the fire or at the barn or going to a movie. I do ride horses, play tennis, and go on long walks (always with my mini-tape player, a pad, and a pen, of course).

Cynsational Notes

I also have lived in Missouri, Dallas, Ann Arbor, Oklahoma, Chicago, and France.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ohio Thunder by Denise Dowling Mortensen, illustrated by Kate Kiesler

Ohio Thunder by Denise Dowling Mortensen, illustrated by Kate Kiesler (Clarion, 2006). This lyrical, rhyming picture book brings to life a thunderstorm in the rural U.S. Midwest. Lovely sensory detail and storytelling illustrations. Ages 4-up. Learn more about the author.

Cynsational Notes

I have a particular interest in contemporary books set in the U.S. central and mountain time zones, which are oddly underrepresented in children's literature. It concerns me, too, that this underrepresentation seems to go largely unnoticed. If we're concerned about ethnic and religious diversity, regional should also be a consideration.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ugly Fish by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Scott Magoon

Ugly Fish by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Harcourt, 2006). Ugly Fish is a big bully, and as a result, he finds himself lonely in the tank. What will happen when a bigger, meaner fish moves in? According to Kara's flap bio, she "was inspired to write this story after reading an article about childhood bullying," in which it was reported that some kids said they'd thought being mean was "cool." For those who like their picture books with humor and bite. Ages 4-up.

My Thoughts

For a long time, it seemed the prevailing theory was that bullies had low self-esteem. This is just anecdotal, but I was bullied by a girl in fourth grade, and my tormenter seemed quite comfortable with herself. In any case, that line of thought seems to be falling by the wayside, so books like this one are confronting the theme more head-on.

The two books have nothing in common except they're both about fish--arguably about dead fish. But for some reason, reading Ugly Fish reminded me of Arlene Sardine by Chris Raschka (Orchard, 1998), which was controversial at the time because of its dead-fish narrator.

Cynsational Notes

Interview with Kara LaReau and Jenna LaReau about Rocko and Spanky Go to a Party (Harcourt, 2004) from Harcourt Brace.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Author-Illustrator Interview: Matteo Pericoli on The True Story of Stellina

The True Story of Stellina by Matteo Pericoli (Knopf, 2006). From the flap copy:

"Stellina was a bird: 'CHEEP.'
"A very little bird: 'Cheep! cheep!'
"So begins critically acclaimed author Matteo Pericoli’s all-true story of how he and his wife, Holly, came to rescue and raise a little finch, Stellina, in the middle of New York City. When no zoo would take the abandoned bird, fallen from her nest onto a busy street, Holly took her home and gave her the best life she could. And there, in a Manhattan apartment, Stellina leaned how to eat, fly, and sing."

Matteo Pericoli on Matteo Pericoli: "I was born in Milan, Italy, in 1968. My family is from central Italy, from a region called the 'Marche' along the Adriatic coast. Cultivated hills roll one after the other accompanied by the sea on one side and the high Apennines on the other. From anywhere you can reach any of these three elements (water, hills or mountains) within a twenty minute drive. The multitide of different cultivations on the hills create a constantly changing color palette; the smells in the air follow the colors and the changing seasons.

"This idyllic image was in net contrast with Milan, a dense, mostly gray city that offers little or no color palette at all. One can easily be color blind in Milan and not realize it for his whole life.

"I studied architecture at the Polytechnic School of Milan. Right after graduation, in 1995, I decided to move to New York to work as an architect here, to learn what it means to be an architect in a place where history counts less than it does in Italy.

"And I moved here because I wanted to understand New York by being in New York. This city seemed far enough (distance-wise) and close enough (culturally speaking) to where I grew up to create a mixture of curiosity and fear about the move that proved to be very fertile. I have been living here since then, and during this time I have 'been' an architect, a teacher, an illustrator, a journalist, an author of adult books and, now, an author of children's book. My wife is from here (she was born in New Jersey), our bird was born in Manhattan, on the corner of 46th Street and Third Avenue, and our daughter (Nadia, two weeks away from her due date--I am writing this on April 11, 2006) will be Italian-American."

I found myself deeply affected by The True Story of Stellina (Knopf, 2006). For those who've yet to read it, could you tell us a bit about your inspiration for the book?

Stellina was a little wild finch that my wife found on a street corner in Manhattan. She reluctantly brought her home hoping to save her and give her away to someone who could take care of her. But since she was 'just' a wild finch, there was no one who would take her. So she was stuck with her, and probably vice versa too, they were stuck with each other.

Wild birds are very difficult to raise when they are that small. They die very easily. But my wife persevered, she not only saved her, she ended up raising her.

I met Stellina (and my future wife) at a later stage, when Stellina had already learned to sustain herself at home. When Holly and I moved in together, Stellina followed and I, too, was accepted instantaneously by the bird as a member of the family. We went on like this, i.e. a small family of two humans plus a feathered vertebrate, for almost eight years.

What really pushed me to write this story was my own sense of wonder and disbelief in realizing how such a tiny being (a wild finch is quite small) is capable of so much love. Not only to convey it, but to generate it around her. Every morning was a feast of joy as if that very morning was going to be the first and last of her life. Seeing Holly, my wife, was for Stellina the best thing that could happen to her. And, that's funny-- I thought--that's how I feel too.

I was raised in a family in which the hunting of birds is a deeply-rooted tradition, and birds such as Stellina often ended up on a plate, roasted, rather than freely flying on someone's head trying to build a nest. To say that living with a wild bird changed my view of hunting is a definite understatement.

Her death in late 2003 created such an unexpected void in our life that I searched for a way to make a sense of the whole experience. To whomever suggested that I write about it, I answered that it was such a simple and uneventful story that could not be told in an interesting way. But I knew that even simple stories, or especially simple stories, can be very revealing.

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

I would say that the major challenge was finding a way to draw Stellina that would convey the idea of Stellina, her character, her presence, her multifaceted personality rather than what she actually looked like. The fact that Stellina was a bird is, in my mind, almost coincidental. I always felt that this was a story about love and, as in most stories about love, joy coexists with sadness, doubts, uncertainties and labor.

What advice do you have for beginning writer-illustrators?

I don't have any advice. But I have a wish: each of us has a voice, our own way of communicating who we are, what we feel and what we need to convey. My wish is that through work and tries and mistakes and doubts everyone finds her own voice. I am still looking for my own.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent books for the children's/YA audience and why?

I believe that Edward Gorey found his voice in his books. And you can tell. I also immensely enjoyed, both when I was a kid and now, the work of Gianni Rodari.

What can your fans expect next?

I am currently working on a new children's book about a line that disappears from a drawing.

Cynsational Notes

What I love about this book is its profound kindness.

Cynsational News & Links

"A Career In Picture Books--Twice!" a chat with Dori Chaconas from the Institute of Children's Literature. April 13, 2006. Dori answers a lot of great beginner questions with an emphasis on picture books and easy readers.

Congratulations to winners of the Maine Library Association Awards! In the picture book category, the Lupine Award went to A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms by Paul Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Candlewick, 2005). The Lupine Honor Award in picture books went to Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). In the young adult category, the winner was Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (author interview), and the Honor Award went to Broken Song by Kathryn Lasky (Viking, 2005). In addition the recipient of the Katahdin Award for lifetime achievement ("to recognize an outstanding body of work of children's literature in Maine by one author or illustrator") is author Nancy Garden (author interview). Winners were announced April 13th at Reading Round Up (a children's and young adult literature conference) in Augusta, Maine; they are not yet posted to the website.
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