Friday, May 12, 2006

Author-Illustrator Interview: Mélanie Watt on Scaredy Squirrel

Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt (Kids Can, 2006). Scaredy Squirrel feels safe in his nut tree--safe from germs, poison ivy, and sharks. He's prepared for danger with his antibacterial soap, Band-Aids, and parachuchute. But what happens when he's suddenly forced out of his tree?! A rare funny book about fear. Ages 4-up.

Mélanie Watt is from Montreal, Quebec. She has a college degree in graphic design and a bachelors of arts in graphic design from the Université du Québec à Montréal. Visit Kids Can Press. She describes Scaredy Squirrel as "the nutty adventure of a neurotic squirrel who faces his fears of the unknown."

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

My first story Leon the Chameleon came to life in an illustration class at the University of Quebec in Montreal in 1999. My teacher Michele Lemieux encouraged me to send it to Kids Can Press, and they contacted me shortly after to publish my book. I never knew that one day I would be writing and illustrating books for children, but now I can’t see myself doing anything else.

Congratulations on the publication of Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can Press, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Myself, and a few family members... It began to be clear to me that being too careful and never taking risks can stop you from discovering your capabilities or talents. We often find ourselves getting too comfortable in our lives and therefore have no need to get out of our comfort zone, just like Scaredy Squirrel in his safe and familiar tree.

Do you have any phobias? (I'm afraid of heights, enclosed spaces, germs, and lettuce).

Of course! I wasn’t kidding about the sharks! Since I saw "Jaws" as a child, I’ve had trouble swimming in a pool! I’m not too crazy about germs either...

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

I've had the idea in my mind since 2000. I knew I wanted to write a story about a squirrel that doesn’t know he’s a flying squirrel because he never leaves his nut tree. It took five years before this idea actually came together. It’s humor that finally made Scaredy what he is now. And writing humor was not something I knew I was able to deliver.

I sat down one day and decided to approach this story in a new way, by being as ridiculous as I could. Then, ideas started popping in my head. When I sent my squirrel mockup to my publisher, we made a few changes and things moved forward really quickly. I had a wonderful time and a lot of laughs developing this character!

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

I think the biggest challenge for Scaredy Squirrel was to keep things simple. Especially when there are graphics, exit plans and lists. I didn’t want to confuse kids with too much information, but at the same time I wanted this book to be different than a traditional picture book. One of the advantages of being both an author and illustrator is that you can work on two levels to communicate ideas; there are no limits to your imagination! In some cases, the visuals came first and in others it was the content. I’m thrilled with the results, I love how every page is so different from the next.

The book includes a fold-out page. How did this evolve?

Since this was a key moment in the book, I wanted to emphasis it by prolonging the suspense. It also created a nice visual transition from falling to gliding.

For those unfamiliar with your work, could you talk briefly about your other titles?

My first book, Leon the Chameleon (Kids Can Press, 2001), is a colorful story about being different. Leon always turns the opposite color of his surroundings. Kids learns about complementary colors as they follow Leon’s adventure and discover that being different has its advantages.

Where Does a Tiger-Heron Spend the Night? (Kids Can Press, 2002), which I illustrated, was written by Margaret Carney. It is a lift-the-flap book of questions and answers about a variety of different birds.

I wrote and illustrated a series of five concept books entitled Learning with Animals (Kids Can Press, 2003). More than seventy-five different animals help kids learn about numbers, the alphabet, opposites, colors and shapes in different environmental settings.

Bearcub and Mama (Kids Can Press, 2005), which I illustrated. It was written by Sharon Jennings. It is a story about a mother’s and child’s bond in moments of learning about life’s troubles.

This fall, my new book, Augustine (Kids Can Press, 2006), will appear in bookstores. It’s the story of an artistic young penguin that moves from the South Pole to the North Pole. She expresses her feelings of dealing with her new school through illustrations inspired by famous paintings.

What advice do you have for beginning author-illustrators?

My advice is to follow your instincts and keep pushing your ideas. I have always found that making mockups of my stories with illustrations helps me test out my ideas. I am a visual person and therefore find that this allows me to get a better sense of why something works or doesn’t.

As a reader, what are your favorites and why?

I love funny and witty books. Mo Willems is one of my favorite author-illustrators. His pigeon books really inspire me.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dean Mary Francois Rockcastle on the Hamline University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults

Mary Francois Rockcastle is the Dean of the Graduate School of Liberal Studies at Hamline University in Minneapolis and the founding editor of Water~Stone Review, a national literary journal. She is also the author of the novel, Rainy Lake (Graywolf Press, 1994). Hamline University is launching a new MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

What is a low-residency master of fine arts program?

In a low-residency program, students and faculty come to campus twice a year (in January and July) for eleven days of intensive lectures, workshops, seminars, and readings devoted exclusively to writing for children and young adults. Students meet with their faculty advisors who help them develop individualized plans of study and provide mentoring and detailed manusrcipt critique by way of monthly correspondence.

What are the advantages of a low-residency program?

The low-residency model accommodates working adults and those who do not wish to or cannot relocate to attend college. The model allows students to design their own course of study and gives them the opportunity to work with a variety of distinguished writers and teachers. The one-on-one mentoring provides the kind of personalized attention rare in regular graduate programs and offers a learning experience specifically tailored to the works-in-progress of each student. The on-campus residencies provide intensive community interaction.

Congratulations on the launch of the new MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University in Minneapolis! Could you tell us a bit about Hamline? Why did your administration decide that such a program would be a good fit for your university?

Hamline is Minnesota's first university, founded in 1854. It is ranked first in Minnesota among comprehensive universities in U.S. News and World Report. It has a diverse and talented student body of nearly 4,400 students in its undergraduate college, graduate schools, and law school. The new program is an exciting extension of our MFA program in writing for adults. Graduates of the program are winning awards and publishing novels; books of poetry, short stories, and essays at an impressive rate. The new program will take advantage of the structures already in place and will expand the opportunities for writers. It also draws on Hamline's reputation for academic excellence, for the personal attention shown to students, and for serving the needs of adult learners.

When you begin taking applications from students?

We are accepting applications now; the deadline for the January 2007 residency is August 1.

When will you host your first residency?

January 12-23, 2007

How will the program be structured--number of semesters, thesis requirements, etc.?

The usual time frame for earning the MFA degree is two years. Students enroll for a total of four semesters and five, on-campus residencies. In their first two semesters, students will work with their faculty advisors on creative writing and will be given pertinent lessons in the craft as well as an overview of the field of children's and young adult literature in English. In the third semester, students must submit--in addition to their creative writing--a critical thesis of twenty or more pages on an aspect of children's/young adult literature, or an aspect of craft or literary theory pertaining to the field. In the fourth semester, students must submit a creative thesis: a book-length manuscript of original work (e.g., poems, short stories, picture books, a novel--middle grade or young adult, or nonfiction).

What will your role be in the program?

I will provide the same oversight to the program that I do with our other two programs in the Graduate School of Liberal Studies (GLS)--the adult MFA in writing and our Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. I will work closely with the low-residency faculty to create a rigorous, exceptional program of study for students. I will ensure that we provide an effective administrative structure and a satisfying student and faculty life experience while on campus. And I will create partnerships and other connections with the local and regional children's and young adult literature community.

What will take place during a typical residency?

Students gather for an intensive--and exhilarating--round of lectures, workshops, seminars, and readings led by faculty, visiting writers and illustrators, and guest editors/publishers. Students will attend a half-day session at the famed Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota in which they will be given an in-depth tour, a lecture by Karen Nelson-Hoyle, the collection curator, and a hands-on examination of select, original manuscripts.

Why would a children's/YA writer want to pursue an MFA degree? What doors does one open, creatively and professionally?

Being able to study with a group of talented and experienced working writers will give students invaluable knowledge of the writing process, the craft of writing, and the business of publishing. Such a program also gives students a close-knit community of like-minded adults who serve as a support system long after students receive their degree. The residencies will introduce students to editors, publishers and others able to advise them on their manuscripts and future directions. Students who pursue this degree will have a far greater likelihood of publishing their work than students who work on their own.

Who will comprise the faculty of the program? What credentials are required?

The faculty are award-winning authors who are also seasoned, successful teachers. We currently have ten faculty: Marsha Wilson Chall, Carolyn Coman, Kate DiCamillo, Liza Ketchum (author interview), Ron Koertge (author interview), Alexandria LaFaye, Alison McGhee, Marsha Qualey, Phyllis Root (author interview), and Jane Resh Thomas. All faculty have published a minimum of four books in the field and all have experience teaching at the college or graduate level.

Could you describe the campus in Minneapolis?

Hamline's beautifully landscaped campus is located in Saint Paul, the Minnesota state capitol. It is only a short drive from campus to the historic Saint Paul downtown which features the Fitzgerald Theater, home to Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion," the Minnesota Children's Museum, and the Minnesota History Center.

How much will the program cost to complete (per semester and in total)?

Tuition for each semester is $5,800. The total tuition cost is about $26,000. The cost is slightly higher than that of our adult MFA degree program, mostly due to the intensive, one-on-one mentoring provided by the low-residency model.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Creating an MFA in writing for children and young adults here at Hamline is a match made in heaven. The program is a logical extension of our MFA program, makes excellent use of university resources, and will join a dynamic literary and artistic community. It will also take advantage of resources provided by our Graduate School of Education. My hope is to take the best of what other low-residency programs offer in the teaching of creative writing and add to that an in-depth understanding of the field of children's and young adult literature.

Cynsational Notes

Author Profile: Carolyn Coman from (2000).

Author Profile: Kate DiCamillo from (2003).

Ron Koertge's Summer Reading List from (2003).

Who Wrote That? Featuring Alexandria LaFaye by Patricia M. Newman, published in California Kids! (April 2004). See also A. LaFaye Discovers Her Worth by Roxyanne Young from Smartwriters.

Alison McGhee from Pippin Properties.

Marsha Qualey from Adams Literary.

Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Acceptance Speeches by Phyllis Root and Helen Oxenbury from The Horn Book. See also Phyllis Root from Minnesota Authors and Illustrators.

Jane Resh Thomas from See also Jane Resh Tomas from the Children's Literature Network.

See the Children's & YA Writers' Reading List: Links: Education for more on graduate study in writing for children and young adults as well as other related learning opportunities.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Author Dianna Hutts Aston and Illustrator Sylvia Long on An Egg Is Quiet

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006). Lyrical, informative language combine with magnificent illustrations to introduce children of all ages to the world of eggs. Perfect for lap reading and classroom discussions. A must-buy for school and public libraries. Arguably the best concept book in print. Ages 4-up. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

On Dianna Hutts Aston: We last visited with Dianna shortly after the publication of her debut picture book, Looney Little, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Candlewick, 2003). Dianna quickly followed this success with When You Were Born, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Candlewick, 2004), which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, and Bless This Mouse, illustrated by John Butler (Handprint, 2004). Her latest books include: Mama's Wild Child/Papa's Wild Child, illustrated by Nora Hilb (Charlesbridge, 2006) and Mama Inside, Mama Outside, illustrated by Susan Gaber (Henry Holt, 2006). See Dianna's 2003 interview. Learn more about rising star Dianna Hutts Aston. She lives in Central Texas.

Sylvia Long on Sylvia Long: "At an early age, I was designated the official family artist, in charge of making birthday and get well cards for relatives. It wasn't because my three brothers and sister couldn't do it, but their interests lay elsewhere. I took on the responsibility enthusiastically and found it fun and rewarding. My cards were usually formatted as small 'books,' so there were blank interior pages for each of us to write our individual messages. I believe it was that early family encouragement that nurtured my tenacious desire to create visually.

"My most successful and pleasurable creations are two wonderful sons and, indirectly, a granddaughter. My art is a close second, though. I've said many times that if I won the lottery, the view out my studio window is about the only thing that would change in my daily life. I know I'm extremely lucky to be able to illustrate books for my profession."

Learn more about Sylvia Long. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

What was your initial inspiration for writing/illustrating An Egg is Quiet (Chronicle, 2006)?

DHA: My sweet mama gets the credit for this beautiful book. Her hobbies are gardening, cooking, laughing, and rehashing the olden days of my youth. (I've heard these stories so many times I can lip synch them behind her back.) One of her favorites happened in 1981, when a teacher asked a preschooler--my best friend’s little brother, Dusty--if he would please tell the class something about an egg. He thought and thought and finally said, "An egg is quiet." I wouldn’t have remembered this—Thank you, Mama.

DHA: Flash forward to 2003 and my home in the country. I'd begun collecting eggshells, nests, rocks, fossils, etc.,...the way I'd once collected round bits of asphalt in Houston's parking lots. The eggs were especially enchanting. So one day, my mom called, and I told her I'd found some pretty, speckled eggshells. To which she promptly replied, "I'll never forget that time Dusty said, 'An egg is quiet.'" All of us who happily collaborated on Egg should celebrate my mom’s contribution with a pedicure of thanks.

SL: Dianna Aston's inventive, original and intriguing manuscript was the initial and continuing inspiration for Egg's illustration. Her mature seed fell on fertile ground. My general curiosity about nature was acquired through osmosis from parents who enjoy and revere all things natural. In my family, there was particular focus on bird watching, not as an end in itself (i.e. a "life's list of bird sightings"), but more for the process, which always involves getting outside where one has access to whatever natural elements are present, including the fresh air, plants, spiderwebs, shells, lizards, smooth pebbles in rushing streams.

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

DHA: With that spark, I began to consider eggs in a new light. What else were they, in addition to quiet? The other day (May, 2006), I came across an old journal, (one Cynthia gave me), and I found my initial ramblings about eggs. An egg is: quiet; a good thing unless it is rotten and stinky; an egg is like glue--it makes cakes moist; an egg is laid, quiet, warm, wobbly, hatched; it is cracked, scrambled, heated, cooked (with a note that says, eggs thicken at 144 degrees); boiled; dyed; hidden; found; it lives in the refrigerator; doubtful (whatever that means); gooey; lonely; eaten. After ruling out all of those but quiet, I limited my adjectives and focus to a natural context. The story flowed from there.

DHA: What happened next was the magic we writers hope for when submitting a manuscript. Victoria Rock, editor and associate publisher at Chronicle Books, who is most often described by her colleagues as "brilliant," had been hoping to publish a book about eggs, and she liked my manuscript--and she already knew exactly whom she wanted to illustrate it: Sylvia Long. Thankfully, this quiet gem of an artist agreed.

SL: Pictures flooded my mind during the first reading of Dianna's manuscript and I knew immediately that it would be delightful to spend eight months or so of my life emerged in her world of eggs.

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

DHA: When I research a subject, I look to the Web, my local libraries, and to experts, who are more accessible nowadays because of email; they're usually glad to talk about the subjects that fascinate them. The research wasn’t so much a challenge as a delight. Sylvia and I had a good excuse to contact scientists who studied fossils and ladybugs and ask them dozens of questions, which they answered patiently. If anyone wants to know more about eggs, there is a beautiful Web site, which was particularly helpful.

DHA: Egg is one of those books remarkable for the collaboration that produced it. I think of Victoria as the conductor, melding the talents of writer, artist, designer, calligrapher, and others into a lyrical tribute to eggs--and that’s just the creation of the actual book. Then Chronicle's marketing and publicity team stepped in to make sure it found its audience. I have the highest praise for everyone at Chronicle.

SL: Usually for me, it's rendering the illustrations that I enjoy the most. For An Egg is Quiet, the many weeks of research required for non-fiction was the biggest challenge as well as the most rewarding and fun. I found myself lost in libraries and on the Web many times, following intriguing threads of information to find colorful and fascinating examples for the various egg characteristics described in Dianna's text.

For Dianna, what do you think Sylvia's illustrations brought to your text?

DHA: The word I hear most often to describe the book is "gorgeous," and that’s a perfect one-word review. When I first saw the "colorful" spread, my eyes jiggled in disbelief. It’s a glorious, visual feast--the entire book is. When I read Egg to children in the classroom, this is what happens every time: I open the book and hold up the first spread, the gallery of eggs without text. No reading necessary after that. Kids forget everything the learned about "crisscross applesauce"--they literally can’t resist scooting, scooting, scooting up the eggs, on top of my feet, and over my shoulders so they can point, touch, ask, "What’s that one? What’s the green one? What’s that little bitty orange one? What’s the one that looks like a banana?" Sometimes, they’ll let me read a few pages before asking, "Can you go back to that other page?" It is immeasurably gratifying to watch a book have such an effect on children.

DHA: What Sylvia’s illustrations ultimately brought to me was a wonderful new friend. On both a professional and personal level, Sylvia is a treasure.

For Sylvia, what about Dianna's words inspired you?

SL: Her utter beauty and modesty.

SL: As a writer, Dianna has the equivalent of perfect pitch in a singer. Her verbal instincts are excellent and inspired my effort to meet the high standard she set in her manuscript.

What can your fans look forward to next?

DHA: A Seed Is Sleepy (Chronicle)—waking up in spring 2007.

SL: I'm happily busy finishing up the illustrations for Dianna's sequel to Egg.

Cynsational Notes

An Egg Is Quiet has received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus. It also was an April 2006 Book Sense pick. Barb Bassett of The Red Balloon Bookshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota; wrote: "'This has my vote for next year's Caldecott Medal.'" I agree.

Dianna has recently launched a picture book critique service, which is highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

Author Ronald Cree: official site of young adult mystery author Ronald Cree, whose first book, Desert Blood 10PM/9C, (Simon Pulse, 2006)(trade paperback) features an all-Latino cast and introduces 14-year-old Gus Gonzalez.

Congratulations to Jane Resh Thomas, author of Counterfeit Princess (Clarion, 2005), and Alison McGhee, author of All Rivers Flow to the Sea (Candlewick, 2005), who're both winners of the Minnesota Book Award. Jane won in children's fiction, and Alison won in young adult fiction. Finalists in children's fiction also included A Bear Named Trouble by Marion Dane Bauer (Clarion, 2005). See all the winners and finalists.

Congratulations to Liza Ketchum, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005)(author interview).

Congratulations to Holly Black, winner of the Andre Norton Award, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(author interview)(excerpt). Holly is the first recipient of the Norton Award.

Emerson Gallery Native American Fine Art: official site of the illustrator Anthony Chee Emerson. His books include Songs of Shiprock Fair, by Luci Tapahonso (Kiva, 1999); see additional titles. Site also features his Navajo folk art, collographs, poster gallery, etchings, original paintings, monotype, pillows, greeting cards, prints, etc. Learn more about Anthony Chee Emerson.

How to Write A Children's Book for a Very Specific Audience from screenwriter Steve Barancik. Dismayed by the computer-generated texts offered by so many "personalized children's book" businesses, Steve encourages adults to write a children's story specifically for the kids in their own lives. A fun exercise for parents, beginning writers.

"I Wrote It. Now What Is It?" by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children's Literature. On deciding whether a piece is a picture book or magazine manuscript. Learn more about Jan Fields; visit Kid Magazine Writers.

The Interactivereader: a YA librarian's blog from Jac. "While once intending this as a log of books, has now realized this to be a chronicling of her first apartment, her first job, her life 2,000 miles away from everyone she knows, and indeed, occasionally, about books."

The Nature of Critique Groups by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk.

Strong at Heart: How It Feels to Heal from Sexual Abuse by Carolyn Lehman (FSG, 2006). Official site in support of the book. As the introduction states, "Let's get real about child sexual abuse. It hurts children and teens in profound ways. But people can heal—and go on to lead rich and interesting lives." Includes information on featured interviews, contents, author bio, how to get/give help, and more. See also Carolyn's blog.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Author Feature: Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer is the acclaimed author of numerous books for young readers from newborns to young adults, and she received a Newbery Honor for On My Honor (Clarion, 1987). Runt (Clarion, 2002) has recently won children's choice awards in Georgia and Minnesota. Marion is on the faculty of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She originally hails from Oglesby, Illinois; and makes her home in Minnesota; learn more about her.

What were you like as a child? As a teenager?

I was a dreamy child. I used to come home with report cards that said, under the category then called deportment, "Marion dreams." It was not a compliment. As a teenager I was very focused, ultra responsible. I was editor of the yearbook, the director and script writer for the talent shows, etc. I'm more fun now, less serious, than I was then.

What inspired you to begin writing for young readers?

I was born with my head full of stories, so it didn't take me long to figure out that I wanted to write stories someday. I realized I wanted to write for kids when, for a college writing class, I wrote a brief description of standing in bare feet on a sunny sidewalk and then stepping into the cool grass of my back yard when I was about four. That description came alive for me in a way that nothing else I had ever written had done, and I knew then that childhood was my topic.

Could you you describe your path to publication--any sprints or stumbles along the way? Is there anything about your apprenticeship that you would do differently, knowing what you do now?

No, there is nothing I would do differently. I sat down and wrote something that was in my heart, writing it the best way I knew, and--I was very fortunate--it found a publisher. That book was Foster Child (Clarion, 1977), and it wasn't published until after I'd written my second book, Shelter From the Wind (Clarion, 1976), which led the way. But it is the only way I know to publication--even today, after more than thirty years of writing professionally--to write what is important to me the best way I know how to write it.

Your website opens with a few observations on the research aspect of your writing. Could you share with us any stories of your research coups and challenges?

I often do research for my novels, because factual accuracy is, I think, crucial to every kind of writing, including and especially fiction. I can't induce that willing suspension of disbelief unless I create a solid world, one that could have happened the way I'm saying whether I'm making up the people and the action or not. I've held a bear cub in the wild, stayed overnight in a sod hut, traveled the prairie in a covered wagon for a week, all in the name of finding a solid base for my stories. Occasionally I have done research and then never found the story I was researching, but no new experience is ever lost. It's all part of the richness I have to write out of.

Let's talk about a few of your most recent titles. How about A Bear Named Trouble (Clarion, 2005)(ages 9-up). What was the initial inspiration for this book? What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

The initial inspiration was a very brief AP article in a newspaper about a young brown bear that earned the name Trouble by repeatedly breaking into the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. The article said that he had been captured and flown to Minnesota and now lived in the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. I was fascinated, delighted by the irony of a bear who tries to get into a zoo and pleased that he now lived in my state. And so I set out to discover more.

I visited the Duluth Zoo, talked to the Zoo Director and to Trouble's keepers and met Trouble himself. Then I flew to Anchorage, explored the zoo there, and talked to zoo personnel involved in his capture. What I discovered in Alaska was that the true details of the bear's capture had been more dramatic than I probably would have felt free to create...while the zoo personnel were trying to dart him, the game and wildlife people were waiting at the gate to kill him as a nuisance bear if he got back outside. And all this was happening in the morning, just as the public were about to start coming into the zoo.

Trouble's story was easy and pretty much handed to me. The challenge was to create a parallel story of a boy, a completely fictional one, to give another dimension to Trouble's story. But the boy who imagined himself inside animals wasn't hard to come by.

Your 2005 releases also include The Blue Ghost (Random House Stepping Stone, 2005)(ages 7-up). What were your considerations in crafting the fantasy element in this book?

There were two different dimensions to creating The Blue Ghost. One was dealing with the third-grade reading level. This was my first time to write a novel to a specified reading level, and at first I found the task difficult and awkward. I have no problem writing to a first or second-grade level, because doing that is more like writing poetry. But this had to be prose. The language had to be simple. The sentences had to be short. Thank goodness, when I got to the point that I couldn't do it any more, the editor took over and, very skillfully, brought my text to the right level. I'm doing more Stepping Stones novels now, written to the same level, and I'm still struggling with the challenge of creating language that is utterly simple but still flows.

As to the fantasy element, I was mindful of my young audience, wanting a story that would feel mysterious but not too scary. When I was very young I had a repeated dream about being transported to a playground in my wall during the night. It was an utterly rapturous experience. So passing into or through a wall still feels not only possible to me but like a fine thing to be doing. It's an idea I keep coming back to in my stories. My next Stepping Stones novel, The Secret of the Painted House, has another wall that draws a girl in in an entirely different way. Who knows, I may yet find some more penetrable walls in my stories.

You're also the author of Ghost Eye, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Scholastic, 1992)(ages 9-up). What is it about ghosts that calls to you? Are you a believer?

I once heard Avi say, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories." And I would second that. I grew up with a chemist father who was skeptical of the reality of anything that couldn't be weighed or measured. While I'm more open to a world of spirit than my father was, I am, I'll admit, also thoroughly infected by his skepticism.

I like ghost stories, though, because they always deal with ultimate questions. After all, someone in the story is already dead but still wanting something. What desire can survive even death? Whatever it is must be important.

If Frogs Made Weather, illustrated by Dorothy Donohue (Holiday House, 2005)(ages 4-up) asks what would happen if animals made weather. Runt (Clarion, 2002)(ages 9-up) is about a wolf pup. The Very Best Daddy of All, illustrated by Leslie Wu (Simon & Schuster, 2004)(ages 0-4) celebrates fathers (animal, bird, and human). So many of your works show a connection to the animal world. Could you talk about your feelings toward animals? When the story calls for it, how do you get under the skin (or fur) of an animal character? How do you research to reveal animal actions in a way that's true?

I live in a world of pets--two dogs, two cats--and love having a connection with animals. They bring us back, I think, to what is, food, comfort, love. In stories such as Runt and A Bear Named Trouble I wanted to write about a wild animal and, in the case of Runt, to inhabit that animal's psyche. So I prepared to write by seeking out books written by biologists who studied wolves or bears in their natural habitat. I read, in fact, for months before I ever began to write. I read the way I usually research, until I no longer had to refer to notes but felt as though I had lived my subject.

Is there a particular animal that especially fascinates you? I spy a number of bears in your work. Cats, dogs, and frogs, too!

I don't know that there is one animal that appeals to me more than all others. When I first decided to write a story in which I would inhabit a wild animal, I chose wolves. I made that choice for two reasons. One was because I live in Minnesota, and Minnesota still has a population of wolves. The other was because I knew that wolves live in a family structure similar to our own, so I could write about a wolf pup and deal with the kinds of issues that matter to us humans, too.

In addition to your acclaimed body of fiction, you're also the author of non-fiction books for young, newly independent readers. Your titles include a series of Ready-to-Read Books on weather (Clouds, 2000; Snow, 2003; Wind, 2003; Rain, 2004) and a couple of more such books from a Wonders of America Series (Grand Canyon, 2006; Niagra Falls, 2006) published by Aladdin, all illustrated by John Wallace. What should writers of early readers keep in mind? How about non-fiction writers?

I enjoy doing these small books. I have a reductionist mind. Whatever I'm dealing with, I tend to take to its simplest, most succinct form. In some situations that isn't necessarily good. But if you need to take a body of complex information and present it to the very young, it is an essential skill.

If I have any advice for writers interested in writing nonfiction for young readers it is, don't write down. Start by choosing a topic you yourself are fascinated by.

I love weather, every kind of weather, and have lived much of my life in the Midwest which specializes in changes of weather. So that's where I started when I proposed a series to Simon & Schuster, with a topic I wanted to learn about myself. The same is true for the Wonders of America series that followed, and I am now completing the sixth book in a series on Natural Disasters. All of these topics have many books for young readers on the market, but few, if any of these books are aimed for the very young readers I am writing for.

And that brings us to a final piece of advice on the topic. Find a niche that isn't already filled or one that you can fill in a way that will be different.

I am a fan of your A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction (Clarion, 1992). It struck me as I was reading that it's as strong of a choice for adult writers as it is for kids and teens. What sort of response have you received to this book? What prompted you to write it?

I wrote that book initially for my adult students because I taught locally in the Minneapolis area for many years and got tired of delivering the same lectures again and again every time I started a new ten-week class.

When I tried to sell the manuscript, though, the response I got was something like, "This is very good. In fact, I learned from reading it. But your name won't sell it." So I decided to rewrite it to make it work for young writers because that was the market where my name would sell such a book.

At first, I'll admit I resented having to rethink everything to make it work for young writers, but I discovered in the process that the book became stronger and clearer and that it didn't lose any of the information it had always contained. So I'm always pleased when adult writers--especially writers for children--tell me they find my book valuable. They were my first audience. But I'm glad I've been able to help young writers, too.

In 1994, you edited an anthology, Coming Out from the Silence (HarperCollins). The book was published at a time when I had left children's/YA books before coming home to them again in 1997. What was the landscape for GLBT fiction like at that time?

The landscape for GLBT YA fiction was pretty bleak at the time. There were some books out there, but as one librarian said to me, quite seriously, "You can write about a gay character as long as he dies in the end." What I started with was the idea for a collection of stories by writers who were so good and whose names were so strong that librarians couldn't refuse to have the book on their shelves. What I had to find was a courageous editor. I found one in David Gale.

By the time the book came out, Bill Clinton had been elected president, and one of his campaign promises had been to open the military to gays. His promise was never fulfilled in a meaningful way, but the simple fact of his just talking about gays got us on the front page of just about every paper in the country, week after week after week.

By the time Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence came out, no one could deny that we exist...and the book elicited a strongly positive response. There have been many excellent books out since then, but Am I Blue? still continues to find a place. I have been grateful to be associated with it.

You're not only a writer but also a teacher of writers. Could you tell us about your that part of your life? What does teaching offer you in terms of your own growth?

To teach you have to be able to define what makes a manuscript work and what prevents it from working. It is through more than thirty years of teaching that I have come to understand my own process and the demands of the work I do. I am grateful for all I learn from my students, both through their insights and through their struggles.

What would you tell those considering applying to an M.F.A. program in writing for children and young adults?

If you are serious about writing for children and young adults, apply to a program that focuses entirely on that field. Our field is a wide and varied one. You will want to learn as much about the possibilities that lie within it as possible during your time of study.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write. Write and write and write. And of course, read. Read and read and read. And then return to your writing. Don't think of revising as fixing something you didn't manage to get right the first time. Think of it as taking something you already love and making it better.

How about those building a body of work?

Stretch yourself. Don't write the same thing again and again, sometimes in pink, sometimes in blue. Try different genres, different audiences. Some editors or agents may discourage you from moving outside a field where you have been successful. Don't listen. You can't keep a career alive unless you can keep it fresh, and the best way to keep it fresh is to take on new challenges.

How has your own writing changed over the years?

It has grown more varied. I hope it has also grown deeper.

What do you do when you're not reading or writing?

I love to cook. I walk. I kayak and bicycle. I do other exercise daily--pilates and water aerobics. I love being out of doors. I watch very little television, but I usually see a couple of movies a week. I love live theater, but I'll have to admit that some of the most exciting work happening today is in film.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Next spring I have a collection of semi-autobiographical YA short stories coming out with Clarion Books called Sin and Other Stories from Life. I also have a picture book coming out with Simon & Schuster called A Mama for Owen. It's based on the true story that many people have heard of a baby hippo separated from his mother by the big tsunami who adopted a giant tortoise as his mother. Those are the two books I'm most excited about.

Cynsational Notes

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