Thursday, September 07, 2006

Illustrator Interview: Yuyi Morales on Los Gatos Black on Halloween

Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Henry Holt, 2006). From the catalog copy: "Under October's luna, full and bright, the monsters are throwing a ball in the Haunted Hall. Las brujas come on their broomsticks. Los muertos rise from their coffins to join in the fun. Los esqueletos rattle their bones as they dance through the door. And the scariest creatures of all aren't even there yet!

"This lively bilingual Halloween poem introduces young readers to a spooky array of Spanish words that will open their ojos to the chilling delights of the season."

Born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico, Yuyi Morales is an artist, author, puppet maker, Brazilian folkdancer, and former host of a Spanish-language storytelling radio show. She is the author and illustrator of Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Chronicle, 2003), winner of the 2004 Pura Belpre Award, the Americas Award, Tomas Rivera Award, and the California Book award among others. She is the illustrator of Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull (Harcourt, 2003), hailed as one of the best books of the year by Child Magazine, School Library Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Book Links magazine. Yuyi Morales lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son.

What about the artist's life first called to you?

I have drawn all my life. My mother keeps drawings I made when I was two, where I made pictures of myself wearing platform shoes and long hair (like I have now). But I never considered myself an artist. For most of my life, I imagined artists were geniuses born under magical skies, whose destiny was imprinted like signs in their hands.

Me? I was only Yuyi who liked to draw.

That is why when I was an adolescent growing up in Mexico and it came the time to decide on a profession, I went to school to be a PE teacher and later studied psychology.

As I got more involved with my student and professional life, I thought I ought to concentrate in the "really" important things, like making a living, and I drew less and less.

But then one day, things changed, and I found myself as a new mother and as a new immigrant in the United States. Things were very different for me here; I didn't have a job, I spoke almost no English, I had no friends, and I missed the love of my family. At first all I wanted was to go back to my country.

But then one day my mother-in-law, who spoke no Spanish but cared for me very much, brought my son and me to a place that would change my life forever. She brought us to the public library.

In the library, I eventually wanted to live, because in there I found everything I always needed: I found instructions, I found inspiration, and I found a path.

From the books I borrowed, I learned how to make handmade-paper, and baskets, and how to bind books, carve rubber stamps, and build puppets and make them walk. But mostly I learned that everything I always wanted to learn I could find it in a book.

From books in the library, I fell in love with children's literature and their art. I awed at the sight of illustrations and studied picture book after picture book, wondering at how illustrators could bring such a magic to their work.

From books in the library, I recognized that I too had stories to tell and images to bring to life. And I wanted to do it so much that, at last, I had no choice but to let books teach me that--even though I was only Yuyi, and I had not been born under magical skies, and I didn't have signs imprinted on my hands--art was my life.

What made you decide to illustrate for young readers?

Even thought in my country we have a very rich oral history, when I was growing up, we never had books as beautiful and rich as the ones I saw here in the public library of the U.S.A. And to me, it really was love at first sight.

Until that moment of my adult life, I had mostly only drawn, but I had no experience painting. But then I so much wanted to make books like the ones I got at the library that I bought my first set of paints and brushes and decided to learn how to paint.

My first attempts at painting were with watercolor crayons, and I wrote a story about my son--who was only a baby at the time--and I drew and painted illustrations. And when I was done, I bind the pages together the way I had leaned from a library book, and I even handmade the paper for the cover. And then I had done it! I had created my own children's book.

Of course there was, and still is, so much more to learn. But from that humble beginning it was children's books what woke up my urge to create.

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

My very first book was a book in Spanish, published exclusively for the school market, titled Todas las Buenas Manos by Isabel Campoy (Harcourt School Publishers, 2002). For this book I was hired to illustrate it in only twenty-two days, and it gave me the first glimpse into the challenges of the industry.

My first trade book was Harvesting Hope: the Story of Cesar Chavez by Katheleen Krull (Harcourt, 2003). I believe this book came to me so I could love it infinitely. In the process of making this book, not only I learned and admired the work and life of Cesar Chavez, the farm workers' rights activist and leader, but I also came to learn more about myself and my strength as person and artist. Among others, this book received the Christopher and the Jane Adams Award, both of them bestowed to works of literature that promote peace and world understanding.

My next book was a work written by myself in the style of the traditional trickster folktale. The title is Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Chronicle, 2003). This is the story of a grandmother who wakes up one morning to find a skeleton waiting for her at the door. As the skeleton, Sr. Calavera, tells Grandma Beetle it is time for her to go with him, Grandma stalls her departure by asking for 'just a minute' so that she can complete an increasing number of chores before leaves.

This is a story that had a hard time finding takers among the publishing houses. Most editors told me that due to the theme of the story it would be hard to sell this book to readers. Currently, Just a Minute has won fourteen awards and honors, among them the Pura Belpre Award, the Americas Award, the California Book Award, and was named to Notable Books for a Global Society. And I am also happy to report that the children meet at my author presentations tell me how much the like Sr. Calavera, and so far I have never found one that was scared with the story.

My last book was a story written by Amanda White, titled Sand Sister (Barefoot Books, 2004), which was published both in the UK and the United States, and which was named book of the month for by the European magazine Junior.

Congratulations on the publication of Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes (Henry Holt, 2006)! What about Marisa's text called to you?

I loved illustrating Marisa's text. The tale is open enough that I was able to come up with my own interpretation of the images. And what did I want to do with the book? Play with my childhood fears and spooky stories, of course!

The text, which rhymes words both in English and Spanish, allows for a good-humored marriage of two cultures. That is why when you open the book, and the Halloween creatures begin to creep out, swoosh, and dance through the pages, they all look like people I know from my country.

There you see the skeleton of Simon Bolivar, the so called "Libertador de America," parading in his gold-and-tassels suit. And ahead you’ll find "La Llorona," the Hollering Ghost Woman swooping through the air, the way I always I thought I would see her some day when I was a child. And beyond is a Cabeza Olmeca, an Olmec head, citizen of the mystic rubber land, except I added legs and arms made of, what else? Rubber! The painter Diego Rivera and the Ghost of the comic Cantinflas are also dancing at the monster's ball. There are many other people there from the Latino and Mexican history. Besides that, the witches are my aunts, my son is the boy in yellow suit, and even my dog, Chacho, is there except he is all dancing bones.

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

I agreed to illustrate this book almost three years before I could actually do the work. So, by the time I took out the text again, I was delighted to see that I had such a playful text, and that three years later I still loved it.

My first step was to do research, since I realized that there were a bunch of things about monsters and ghost from the U.S.A. culture that I didn’t know. For instance, the text calls for the picture of a ghoul, but I didn’t know what a ghoul was or how it was supposed to look like. So, I looked in the dictionary and I searched on the Internet, where I found all kinds of crazy ghouls that eventually helped me to come up with my own interpretation. Also, when my editor, Reka Simonsen, commented that she imagined that ghost's chains should have stuff attached to them like in Marley's Ghost, I had to go and find out who Marley was.

Another part of my research had to do with studying X-Games athletes. Have you seen them on their bikes or their skate boards, doing jumps in the air and soaring the winds? Well, that is exactly how I imagined my witches would ride the night. And so I exchanged bikes and skateboards for brooms, and now there you have witches in the book swooping and swishing and swooshing...

Also I did quite some research for clothing, because I wanted to bring to my work a taste of colonial Mexico. Many of the dead in the book come out their graves after hundreds of years and still wearing the clothes that distinguished such a controversial period.

After the research, the next step was creating thumbnails of all the illustrations. These are very small and rough images of what I envisioned every page would look like. For my thumbnails, I always use simple shapes and stick people drawings. At this stage, I mostly concentrate on how the elements tell the story and composition. I draw almost no details here.

Later, I transition to full size detailed sketches. This is the time where I decide who my characters are and how they will look like. In the story of Los Gatos Black in Halloween there really isn't a single main character, but, in my mind, every one of them has a story to tell, if you could ask them.

The look of my werewolf I created on an airplane napkin as I was coming home from one of my author visits. My first drawing was tiny, and it made me think that my werewolf actually looked like a rat. Based in this though, I developed Werewolf to look rather nerdy and timid; perhaps even a little mortified of being a monster. And he has worries! If you look at him in the illustrations, you will notice that there is a pink paper folded in his pocket. It is his report card, because, to me, he goes to the same school I went to in Mexico, and even though he is a good student in all his classes, he received an F in P.E. I think he might have been one of my classmates when I went to school, except nobody knew that at night he was a werewolf.

Developing my characters is one of my favorite things. I want them to have a purpose as well as a back story. My mummy was found buried in Peru near a volcano, where he slept for 500 years. Now he waits at the museum's warehouse, while the new mummy’s exhibit gets ready. In the meantime, he has come to join the parade on Halloween night.

Once the sketches were approved, it was time to create the color art.

For Los Gatos Black on Halloween I darkened my palette to match the mood of the story, and I began painting in layers that started at the back of the illustration and ended with the elements closer to the foreground. That means that I painted first the sky and the landscape almost in its totality, and then I started overlapping every character in the scene.

When I was done painting the last of the illustrations, I placed all of them on the floor and checked for continuity and for consistency in the images, and made the necessary retouches.

And when the last detail had been painted, I cleared the floor of my studio, and placed the fifteen paintings there together. Then I brought my camera and tripod, and with the help of the timer, I took a picture of myself lying down on the floor next to my paintings with my hands crossed over my chest in dead manner. The photograph I sent to my friends from my writers' and illustrators' critique groups with the following caption. “At last, I am done...”

What advice do you have for beginning children's illustrators?

I would encourage aspiring children's book illustrators to be students of the children's book work, and ,based in that knowledge, create a portfolio that they can be proud of.

Part of the purpose of the portfolio is to show editors and art directors not only what amazing artist one is, but also that one understands how to create a children's book.

Suggestions of what to create and include in a portfolio are things that you find in a children's book: illustrations of children in different situations, illustrations of animals, illustrations of outdoor scenes, illustrations of indoor scenes, and three or more illustrations of one same character that would show that you are capable of keeping your character's consistency through a story.

Also, in the same way a children's book writer doesn't write down for children, a children's book illustrator should be careful to not "illustrate down" for children. The artwork for children should be done with the same love, dedication, joy, and even painstaking discipline that any other work for adults. It is not easier or faster because it is for children. Much work is still required.

Also, recognize your teachers; we learn from everything we love, from what we are attracted to, from what catches our eye. I remember learning so much (and I still do!) from the illustrations I admired. I copied them, I tried to paint in the same way, and sometimes I even traced them over. At the end, this helped me in many ways.

First, it helped me recognize my interests from what I liked in illustrations, which was exactly what I wanted to illustrate myself. It also helped me expand my horizons, because when I tried to draw and paint like in the illustrations I liked, I pushed myself beyond doing only what was easy for me. And at last, trying to imitate my "teachers" made me move my hand and use my brain in a way that I wasn't used to. Eventually, all of these were an essential part of developing my own skills as an illustrator, and it even pushed me to create past my own expectations.

How about those building a career?

Oh, all I know about building a career is work, work, work. I try to be smart about what I create and how I present it, but mostly I aim to surprise myself every time. Whether I am doing illustrations for a book, or delivering a presentation for six hundred children, I always want to do what I love, be well prepared, and surprise my reader and myself with the results.

One of my must cherished moments is that precious space of time at my painting table, when after many layers of color and many days of work, I finally put the last stroke of paint on an illustration, and at last I stand back to look at what I have created. It is magic!

In all of this I recognize that every painting, every book, and even every career might look like a daunting, nearly impossible-to-accomplish project. But in reality you only need to begin with the small things and to continue steadily and little by little, until the moment when you can stand back and marvel, too.

What do you do when you're not illustrating?

I plant plants. Three years ago, and for the first time in my life, my husband and I bought a house with a garden, and as soon as I discovered how beautiful, amazing, and sculptural plants are, I couldn’t stop working in the garden, while paying extreme attention to color and form.

I spend many hours digging holes and filling them with plants, and looking at them in awe.

I also dance. I mostly take classes of Afro Brazilian and other dances from the African Diaspora. In occasions I have also performed with dance companies.

I am also a mother of a very tall and silly 12-year-old son, Kelly.

My favorite thing of the week is when we all go to see Kelly play his basketball tournaments.

What can your fans look forward to next?

They can look forward to Little Night (Roaring Brook Press, 2007), co-released in Spanish as Nochecita, a story I wrote and illustrated about the night being a child.

Little Night’s mother is trying to get her ready to come out and be the night, but the child is calling for Mother Sky to come and find her first. Where could Little Night be? Well, Mother Sky should better look well inside the raven nest, and in the blueberry fields, and the among all the dark things, because Little Night is enjoying this gentle game of hide and seek.

Little Night will be released in Spring 2007.

Cynsational Notes

Don't miss Author Interview: Marisa Montes on Los Gatos Black on Halloween from Cynsations.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Author Interview: Marisa Montes on Los Gatos Black on Halloween

Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Henry Holt, 2006). From the catalog copy: "Under October's luna, full and bright, the monsters are throwing a ball in the Haunted Hall. Las brujas come on their broomsticks. Los muertos rise from their coffins to join in the fun. Los esqueletos rattle their bones as they dance through the door. And the scariest creatures of all aren't even there yet!

"This lively bilingual Halloween poem introduces young readers to a spooky array of Spanish words that will open their ojos to the chilling delights of the season."

Marisa Montes has written several books for young readers, including Juan Bobo Goes to Work: A Puerto Rico Folk Tale (Rayo/HarperCollins, 2000), which won a Pura Belpré Honor. She lives in northern California.

What about the writing life first called to you?

I've loved books since I was a child, but I never believed I had it in me to write fiction. I was always a good writer in school and in college, and writing came easily for me. But that was writing essays and research papers. When it came to writing fiction, my mind was a blank; I simply had no ideas. I also lacked voice. In the few creative writing classes I ever took when I was a teenager, my writing felt forced, fake, stiff. It hardly came easily. And I couldn't write a fictional story or a poem to save my life.

When I became a lawyer, writing legal papers and clients' declarations was the most enjoyable part of my job. In 1984, after three years of practicing law, I went to work for a legal publisher and became a legal writer and editor. There, I learned grammar and punctuation inside out, I learned to state my thoughts clearly and succinctly, I learned to organize my sentences and paragraphs in a logical manner, and I learned to analyze and write quickly. I also learned to write directly at the computer, which has proven invaluable.

In 1987, after writing about legal issues from seven to nine hours a day for about three years, I sat down at my husband's computer on a rainy Saturday when he was gone to a conference, and I began to write.

What I wrote was a story--a fictional story about two children. It turned out to be the beginning of a fantasy-adventure novel that pulled me on and on for four to five months until I finished it. I only had time to write on weekends, but I wrote fast and furious during that period, completing around ten single-spaced pages per day. I was on the biggest high of my life, driven to see if I could finish it, and dying to find out how it would end.

It was easy to write that quickly because the scenes played clearly like a movie in my head, and I was just the stenographer taking down every detail I saw. It was also an exciting plot, and I was hooked, addicted to the writing process and to my need to see where this adventure that was going on in my head would take me...on many levels. It was as if all the technical writing I was doing had opened up the creative flood gates, and my imagination was set free. Now ideas flowed. It felt like a light switched on in an area of my brain where there had been only darkness before.

I was in my mid-thirties when I wrote my first novel. I was unhappy with the law and legal writing, bored and unfulfilled and resentful. I knew there was something out there waiting for me--something I was destined to do, something I could melt into, become one with, something that I could devote my life to joyfully, that I could work hard at willingly because it never would seem like work, it would feel like play. I knew that's how the right job should feel, and I knew it wasn't a fantasy that I'd dreamt up. I knew it because I'd seen other people who were that happy and fulfilled with their chosen careers. That knowledge just made it that much harder for me to accept that I was getting older and still hadn't found my destiny.

I'm a romantic, and I believe in sentiments like "everything in life has a purpose," "things are meant to be," "things happen for a reason." With this type of philosophy, I couldn't accept that my destiny was simply to earn a paycheck. I call the "perfect career" my "destiny" because to me, the "perfect" job is more than a means of producing income, but an expression of one's self, it's part of the fabric of one's being. And it doesn't matter whether you're producing income or not.

I compare my search for the perfect career to the search for true love. Both are equally elusive, and not everyone believes they exist. My YA novel, A Circle of Time (Harcourt, 2002), is a ghost story that deals with finding true love. In the beginning of the novel, I included a poem I wrote about true love, and the first lines are: "Like ghosts, true love is talked about; / but only few have little doubt / that either one on earth exists."

Another similarity between true love and the perfect career is that a lot of people are willing to settle for less, but I wasn't. I had already found true love--my husband and I have been happily married for 30 years now--but I was still searching for my perfect career. When I finished writing my first novel, I realized I may just have found it. It took a more few years of studying, attending conferences, and lots of reading and writing to confirm in my soul that I was meant to be a writer. This was my destiny.

Despite the revelation that I was meant to be a writer, I was self-conscious because I was starting so late in life. Was I too old to start a new career? I was obsessed with the question, so at every conference, I would ask famous authors how old they were when they started writing. It didn't help when they said something like: "I wrote my first book when I was six." It wasn't until Eve Bunting told me that she was in her mid-thirties or forties when she started writing, that I felt better and stopped asking the question. She told me she took a class on writing and started writing for children, so I started taking classes and self-teaching and reading all I could. And I wrote.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

As I mentioned above, the first fictional story I ever wrote was a fantasy-adventure novel with two children as the main characters. I didn't set out to write a fantasy or about children. I hadn't even read a children's book since I was in sixth grade. By seventh grade, I was already reading adult mysteries and gothic romances.

Of course, as I found out later, to write a good children's book, you need to read a lot of books in that genre--recently published books, not books that were published in the 1950s or '60s or before. That's why my first novel never worked.

But what worked was the experience of writing it. It showed me I could write a whole novel, it showed me I had an aptitude for writing adventure and exciting scenes, and it showed me that I had a natural voice for writing for children. I found out later that my voice was quite versatile and that I could use a storyteller's voice to tell folktales, a picture book voice to write picture books, a middle-grade or young adult voice for novels, and more recently, I discovered I had a third-grade voice for chapter books.

I must admit that I don't really write "for" children. Instead, I write for me. Often, it's for the child in me, the child who never wanted to grow up. I identify with the Toys R Us song, "I Don't Want to Grow Up." I never wanted to grow up; I loved being a kid. I even cried on my 13th birthday because I had become a teenager. I could never understand the girls who were in such a hurry to grow up and wear makeup and bras and high heels, and who wanted boyfriends and couldn't wait to get married. That just wasn't me. So, in writing children's books, I write what I would have enjoyed when I was a kid, or what I enjoy now, having that child still inside me.

Before I started writing children's books, I read a lot of adult novels. I enjoyed mysteries and thrillers and some of the bestsellers, but they all left me longing for more. I started reading some of the classics that I hadn't read when I was younger. I found those more satisfying, but I was still searching. I wasn't really interested in reading modern literary novels, I was looking for something in between classics and adult literary. Then, when I finished writing that first novel, which happened to be a children's book, and I started trying to get it published, I found out I really needed to read recently published children's books and study what editors are looking for nowadays. That's when I really got hooked on children's books, and I knew that's what I wanted to write. Children's novels of today--and I started reading them in the late 1980s--are like a mixture of literary and classic literature. For older books, that's more true of the award-winning books or books that have remained in print because they stood the test of time. There were, and still are, a lot of "escape-type" books like the series books and books for younger readers. But even most of those are well written. And more and more, what's being published for middle grades and young adults are extremely well-written, literary-quality books with meaningful themes, memorable characters, and satisfying stories that will stand the test of time. This is the type of book I enjoy reading and that I strive to write.

Could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

My first book to sell was my picture book, Juan Bobo Goes to Work, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (HarperCollins, 2000). It's a Puerto Rican folktale told in my bilingual style--I weave in some Spanish words into the English text and try to define them in context. I loved learning new languages as a kid (I spoke Spanish, English, and French by the time I was eight), so I enjoyed when a story had foreign words. But I resented it when they weren't defined in some manner. I originally wrote thirteen Juan Bobo stories and Rosemary Brosnan, my editor, wanted to buy all of them. But before she could give me a contract for the remaining twelve as a collection (rather than separate picture books), Lodestar collapsed, and she had to move on to Morrow Junior Books.

Morrow bought Juan Bobo Goes to Work, since it had already been bought by Lodestar, but they felt folktales were a hard sell in the late 1990s, especially collections, so they passed. Then Harper bought Morrow, and Juan Bobo was eventually published by them. Rosemary tried to publish my collection with Harper, but they, too, thought a folktale collection would be tough to market.

Juan Bobo Goes to Work went on to do really well--Joe's illustrations were delightful, and I was thrilled with his version of Juan Bobo. It won the 2002 Pura Belpré Honor, and last summer, I was asked to write the translation in Spanish. It was a little scary to write 1,200 words all in Spanish, but with my aunt's encouragement (she acts as my Spanish consultant and reviews my work), I did it. I'm really happy that I did because now I know I can write a short piece all in Spanish. The Spanish version, Juan Bobo Busca Trabajo, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (HarperCollins, 2006), will be in stores in September. Harper has also published the paperback of the English version, and it will also be in stores this September. There's even a puppet show/play based on Juan Bobo Goes to Work.

With all the changes of publishers, Juan Bobo took so long to get published (four years) that during that period I wrote and sold two novels and another picture book. Both my novels are supernatural mysteries--I love ghosts and I love mysteries and eerie stories. Something Wicked's in Those Woods (Harcourt, 2000)(excerpt), a Junior Literary Guild selection, is a middle-grade novel about two brothers who just lost their parents in a car crash, and they have to leave their home in Puerto Rico to live in Orinda, California with their aunt. Culture clash and poltergeists provide plenty of conflict. A Circle of Time (Harcourt, 2002), winner of the 2003 Willa Literary Award, is a young adult novel. This supernatural mystery has the added twist of also being a time-travel romance, the search for true love, as I mentioned above.

Around 1998, I started playing with poetry and rhyme, trying to learn all I could about them, and I wrote a lot of stuff that didn't work. Then I hit the jackpot--I came up with the story of an egg, a goose egg that rolled out of its nest and got lost in the forest. Its parents were frantic and all their friends in the forest--hooved, scaley, feathered, fuzzy, fluffy, or furry--came to their rescue and scoured the forest in search of the "stolen" egg. It was an "it takes a village" story, and I told it in rhyme. I called it Egg-Napped! (HaperCollins, 2002), illustrated by Marsha Winborn, a Junior Literary Guild selection. I had to fight for the title, but finally Marketing went for it, and it was published.

In April 2002, I got another break. Scholastic was looking for a Hispanic author to write a humorous third-grade chapter book series about a third-grade girl, a Latina, but there was a twist. She would live in mainstream USA and have professionals, not blue-collar workers, as parents, and she would speak both Spanish and English. My agent sent me a copy of the letter, which had been sent out to a lot of agents, and I honestly felt my heart in my throat. It would be a dream come true...if I could land it. But the letter was already a month old, and I knew I might be competing against at least five to eight well-known Hispanic authors, not to mention new authors like me.

My only chance was that I was so perfect for the job. I was that mainstream USA suburban Latina who spoke Spanish and English, and while my parents weren't professionals themselves, they had me on the fast track to becoming a doctor or a lawyer since I was born. The other reason I wanted this contract so badly was that I could never write the type of story most editors wanted from me: the plight of Hispanic kids who come to this country and have to live as farm workers' kids or who live in the inner cities and deal with having to make a choice about joining gangs. I never faced assimilation, language, or cultural issues. I moved to Missouri from Puerto Rico when I was four, and I learned English by the time I started kindergarten. I looked the same as the other kids, and I never had a problem fitting in culturally. I look American, I feel American (it helps that as a Puerto Rican, I was born American), and I think in English. Yet I speak to my parents and family in Spanish, and I'm fiercely proud to also be Puerto Rican.

Now, Scholastic was asking for my type of kid. A kid like every other mainstream American kid, but who happened to be Hispanic. A kid character any real kid could identify with. Her problems and issues would be universal issues, like standing up for one's self, being proud of one's family, overcoming fears, needing love and protection. I really wanted this contract. I was meant to get this contract.

So I called the editor, but had to leave a voice mail. Then I zipped off an e-mail to her, giving her a summary of my qualifications and giving her my website. A few hours later, she called me back and asked for me to write a sample for the series, the first few chapters. It was a Friday, and I had the chapters written by Saturday and e-mailed to her by Monday. The marketing committee approved my writing sample by mid-week and I got the contract. It was a contract for four books, and the series is called Get Ready for Gabí. My editor surprised me with the news that they had gotten Joe Cepeda to do the illustrations. The four books are: A Crazy Mixed-Up Spanglish Day (Scholastic, 2003)(excerpt), Who's That Girl? (Scholastic, 2003), No More Spanish! (Scholastic, 2004), Please Don't Go! (Scholastic, 2004).

Congratulations on the publication of Los Gatos Black on Halloween, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Henry Holt, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

In the late 1990s, my mentor, Barbara Steiner, sent me a Halloween postcard that had a fun, spooky four-line poem on the front. I pinned it up on my "inspiration" bulletin broad that hangs on the wall to the left of my computer in my office. I pin a lot of things to that board: favorite souvenirs from our travels around the world, meaningful fortune cookie fortunes, motivational blurbs on bookmarks, comics, postcards, special photos. I'd had the Halloween postcard up for a couple of years, and I'd reread the poem periodically. I really like the meter, the bu-bump, bu-bump, bu-bump rhythm of it. And it spoke of pumpkins and witches and black cats--all the Halloween things I'm so fond of.

One day, when I was sniffing around for inspiration, I reread the poem. With the beat in my head, I turned to my computer and started writing. I had already tried a few picture book poems in Spanish and English, but nothing had worked yet. Then it occurred to me that learning the spooky Halloween terms in Spanish could be fun for kids, so I tried blending in some Spanish. I wrote the first verse, the one about black cats, and really liked the sound and feel of it, so I decided to try calabazas—pumpkins. That one worked, too. I was really in the zone, and words and images were flying.

But after I'd written about four stanzas, I realized that in my excitement, after getting all wrapped up in the beat and the words, I'd forgotten plot. It's hard enough to sell a plotted story to an editor, but a picture book without a plot, one that's just a "slice of life" story or a series of events, is a really hard sell. It's often what editors call "slight" or "quiet" when they reject a manuscript. I didn't want to spend my time writing something else that would be rejected, even if I was having fun writing it. (I've heard the text of Goodnight Moon [by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd](1947), which is one of the bestselling picture books of all time, would not sell to today's editors and publishers because it's too quiet (and it has no plot).)

So at about the fourth or fifth stanza (I usually write sixteen stanzas for a picture book), I started thinking about how I could turn what I had into a plot, or something that would pass as a plot. I liked what I had and I didn't want to dump it and start over, so I studied what I'd written and I realized that all I had was a group of spooky Halloween creatures that hadn't come together yet. What I needed to do was to bring them together, have them connect in some way. Maybe they could unite in a monstrous parade... That's how I came up with the idea of the haunted mansion. Once I had the basic idea and a goal, to bring the creatures together at the mansion, my creative subconscious could take over and have fun. That's the way my writer's brain works: When I'm in the zone, I just sit back and let my fingers type the words that fly through my brain. It's like I'm channeling someone else's words and typing them down. I always work at the computer, I rarely write on paper unless I'm away from my desk and something brilliant occurs to me that I don't think I'll remember later.

My plan was to add a few more fun and spooky creatures and march them through the night and the trees to the haunted mansion. At that point, the voice in my head took over and wrote the rest of the story, adding a twist that surprised even me. I was so thrilled, I was giggling all the way through that last few stanzas.

Writing this poem was really one of the biggest highs of my life. I was truly in the right place at the right time in my life and everything came together. The story only took a weekend, about a day and a half to write. My best work seems to come out of me quickly. I believe it's because it's meant to be and it just happens.

While I was writing it, I remember working hard at getting the right words. Even though words were flowing through me at a rate I'd never experienced, I was still being very careful to choose the right words. So part of it was mystical--I was channeling words, images, and phrases from somewhere in the universe. But another part was a very conscious, deliberate effort to select just the right words. It was quite a magical experience. Then, once the first draft was written, it was done. I never changed another word till my editor had a few minor suggestions at the editing phase of the publishing process, and we changed a few words. But she accepted the original text without revisions.

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

It's been a long wait for the publication of Gatos Black. I wrote it in May 1999. It's less than 400 words and it's fifteen stanzas long--that's one short of my usual sixteen stanzas. (I like to aim for sixteen stanzas because it keeps the story short, keeps the plot tight, and it allows for one stanza per double-page spread and one stanza for the first page (usually page 3) and one for the last page.) But in this case, the last page was saved for the glossary.

After I wrote it, I was really excited and I wanted to share it with someone. But I resisted the temptation. I used to always pass my first drafts by my critique group to make sure it was ready for an editor's eyes. In this case, my gut told me it was ready, but I didn't want to show it to other writers for fear that they'd say it was too scary for kids the age of my target audience, 3 to 7. The text does talk about tombs shaking, zombies marching, and corpses with cold, dead eyes rising. But I know kids love being scared, and I'd rather leave it to an editor to tell me it was too scary. As for the text itself, I was sure it was as ready as it would ever be.

I've forgotten the exact timeline, but I think I sent it to one of my editors right away. I'm not one of those writers who follows the advice of those who recommend to sit on your work for a month, then look at it once again before sending it out. If I feel it's ready, I have no time to waste--out it goes. If it's not ready, waiting a month won't help. If it needs revision, I get right on it and keep working on it till it's right, then off it goes to an editor. I've never been successful at putting a story away because it's not working, then going back to it a month or two later, or even a year or more, and having inspiration hit me. That may work for some, but not for me. The story either comes together for me at the time I'm writing it or maybe within a few days, or it doesn't. I don't know why.

My editor replied that she didn't understand why I was using Spanish in a Halloween story. At first, I was really confused about what she meant. Why not use Spanish in a Halloween story? What does my using Spanish have to do with anything? What about the story? What did she think about the story? The words, the rhythm, the images, the surprise ending? What about all that? If the text itself was strong, what did it matter that it was bilingual?

Well, I soon found out that it mattered...a lot. First, I learned that some editors think that for a book to be bilingual, it must deal with a strictly Hispanic topic. That put me back in the pigeonhole of having to write stories about Hispanics and not write mainstream stories, which is what I wanted to write. It also made me realize that some editors don't know that Hispanics celebrate Halloween. In many Central and South American countries, they still celebrate El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, but basically, that's Halloween. I talk more about the challenges involved in selling a bilingual book in some of my answers below.

In April 2000, I submitted the manuscript in the California Writer's Conference Annual Writer's Contest. I had won first place in that contest twice before, but that was for middle-grade novels. This was my first picture book submission. It also won first place. I was thrilled because it gave me the renewed confidence I needed to continue marketing this book. So I started sending out my manuscript again.

I sent the manuscript to six or seven editors before it got accepted. It wasn't really that many submissions compared to some books I've sent out, but I wasn't submitting manuscripts like buckshot anymore. I used to multiply submit 10 to 15 copies of one manuscript at once, mostly to editors I didn't know. But that was early in my career, when there were many publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts, back in the late '80s, early '90s. Once I had established a relationship with different editors, I submitted to one editor at a time. It takes a little longer, but I get a personal response, and since they know me, they try to respond quicker.

At one point, I submitted the manuscript to a famous New York agent along with a few other manuscripts. The only one she was interested in was Gatos Black. She thought it was "promising" but the ending needed changing.

Well, I wasn't about to change the ending. First of all, to what? Second, it worked, and I wasn't going to mess with it. Anyway, I wasn't convinced that if I knocked myself out trying to change the ending for her that she was going to accept me as a client. Sometimes, you just have to trust yourself and believe in your work no matter what anyone else says.

I don't usually ignore advice, and I'm not suggesting that writers, especially beginning writers, should ignore advice from experts like agents and editors. I wouldn't have learned all I've learned and gotten as much published as I have if I didn't have mentors and people I listened to. But people's tastes are different and sometimes you just have to follow your instincts. My instincts told me that this agent wasn't interested in me and my ending was right the way it was written. However, I was also able to take from that experience that Gatos Black was worth my efforts in continuing to market it on my own. Somewhere out there was the right editor and the right publishing house.

Finally, in April 2001, I attended an SCBWI conference at Davis, California, where I heard Reka Simenson, an editor from Henry Holt, speak. She discussed how she'd loved books since she was a child and what she looked for in books, and then she spoke about words. She said how much she loved words and how she looked for the use of words in a text, especially an unusual combination of words and the sound of the words. Then she read part of a manuscript that she'd just bought from a local author, actually a friend of mine. That's when I understood. Words. Of course, on the face of it, that doesn't help since what else do we writers send to editors but words? Still, I felt that I understood what she meant, and I knew I had the right manuscript for her.

After all I'd gone through marketing Gatos Black, I was getting shy about sending it out. I was afraid that Reka was my last chance but that she might reject it, too. So from April to December, I sent her some of my other manuscripts. None quite worked for her, but I had her attention.

So finally, in December 2001, I sent her Gatos Black. I waited for months without a response. About six months later, I e-mailed her to ask its status. She wrote back to say that she and the other editors loved the text, but they had to find an illustrator before she could offer a contract. I'd never heard of finding an artist before accepting the text, but she said she loved it, so I had a chance.

By coincidence, Yuyi Morales had attended the same conference and had sent Reka samples of her art. In December 2002, a year later, Reka notified me that they'd hired Yuyi, and they wanted to publish my book. But Yuyi was becoming quite popular, so she wouldn't be able to get to my book right away. As it turns out, I was lucky to get her then because now Yuyi is thinking about only illustrating her own books from now on. Gatos Black may be one of the last books she illustrates for someone else.

Gatos Black was scheduled for release in fall 2005. Yuyi really got into it and spent months working on the art, but it must have taken her longer than she expected because the book had to be put off one more year to fall 2006. So from spark to print, Gatos Black took seven years to bring to life.

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

The biggest challenge in bringing Gatos Black to life was that in trying to sell it to a publisher; it had four strikes against it from the beginning.

The first is that it was written in rhyme. You hear often--certainly since I started writing, and it hasn't changed--that editors hate rhyming picture books, so you should never write rhyme.

Obviously, that's not true. Rhyming picture books are being published all the time. And many editors will admit that they love rhyme. However, I have one editor who loves poetry, but she really doesn't like picture books written in rhyme, and she doesn't accept them. So I never send rhyme to her. I found out later, that my editor, Reka Simenson, isn't that crazy about rhyme, but she loved the text of Gatos Black despite that and bought it. What most editors don't like is badly written rhyme. They also don't want forced rhyme, and they prefer rhyming text that tells a plotted story. That brings me to the second rule I broke.

The easiest picture book texts to sell to an editor are the ones that tell a plotted story. A "story" is basically a main character with a conflict that he or she resolves on his/her own by the end of the book and grows or changes from the experience. The "plot" is the path that takes the main character through to the end of the story.

In Gatos Black, I have no single main character, and technically, there is no real story. The monsters are the characters, but they don't really have a conflict or problem to resolve. As I mentioned above, there is a slight plot that takes the monsters to the parade, to the haunted mansion, and to the ball, where we get a surprise.

Despite the lack of conflict and resolution, the text works because the combination of rhythm, words, and images pulls the reader through to the end and makes them want to read it again. That's the best rule to getting a picture book published: Write a text that keeps the reader wanting to read it over and over. If a parent pays $16-$20 for a picture book, they want their child to get a lot of use out of it. The parent also loves a short text. They're the ones who have to read it over and over to the child, so they prefer it to be short. Gatos Black is short, and it's fun to read aloud.

The third strike against Gatos Black was that it is a seasonal (holiday) book. Since I wrote it, I've learned another rule to getting a picture book published: Avoid seasonal topics. That's not an editor's rule, it's a hard-knocks rule.

Writing seasonal books is fine for famous, prolific writers like Jane Yolen and Eve Bunting, but if a lesser known writer really wants to publish a picture book, he or she should at least start with something on a more general topic simply because it's easier to sell. It will also stay in print longer.

Actually, editors love seasonal and holiday books and are always looking for them. But there's only a three-month window within which to sell a seasonal book; then the booksellers take them off the shelves or maybe place them on a "seasonal" shelf, but don't really advertise them. Since it costs just as much to publish a seasonal book as it does a general book, editors have to be extra picky when selecting their seasonal books each year. They need to make sure the book will be strong enough to sell as many copies in three months as another book would sell all year. Maybe not exactly that many, but close. If the editor has something similar on their list, they're going to reject a seasonal book more quickly than if they had something similar that wasn't seasonal.

Gatos Black is a Halloween book, so I kept hearing that an editor had something similar or that Halloween books have a short shelf life so they have to be extra strong and (here comes the fourth strike) since my book is bilingual, it would be harder to market.

The fourth strike against Gatos Black is that it has a bilingual text--Spanish words blended in with the English.

You'd think that with the growing Hispanic population, a population that will soon be larger than the Anglo population in the US in a few years, publishers would be dying to publish bilingual books.

In the mid-1990s, when I first started trying to sell my bilingual manuscripts, I kept hearing editors tell me that bilingual books are too hard to market, that the only purchasers or readers would be Hispanics and Hispanics don't spend money on books (ouch!), and other unenlightened arguments.

However, while many publishers are finally coming around and publishing bilingual books, the booksellers, who are the main distributors are still not really on board. I've been told by booksellers in the high-income suburbs of Northern California, where I live, that their clientele doesn't buy bilingual books because it's a non-Hispanic clientele. So these booksellers have no great motivation to carry my books.

I get very frustrated because they're missing the point. I don't write these books for Hispanic children, I write them for all kids. That's why I choose universal themes that every kid can relate to. When English-only speaking kids are given a chance, they enjoy reading books with words that are foreign to them, but that they can learn. The good news is that all the booksellers I spoke to this summer had already ordered Gatos Black. Maybe things are changing...

What did Yuyi Morales's art bring to your text?

The main thing that Yuyi's art brought to my text was the unity it needed to make the story gel. First, it brought together all the monsters--the main characters of the story. Yuyi's first concern had been that she wanted the characters to be tied to one place somehow, preferably to the cemetery, so that they could all leave that area and march in a parade to the haunted house. My characters were sort of spread out all over the place (in the back of my mind, I realized that, but I'd hoped the illustrator would take care of it). There were some characters like the black cats, the pumpkins, and the witches, that didn't necessarily appear in cemeteries. We brainstormed about it, mostly Yuyi throwing out ideas.

Writers and illustrators don't usually do that, but Yuyi and I live near each other, and we're friends. At one point she suggested maybe switching the order of some of the verses, but I hoped that it wouldn't come to that. Once she figured out how to make it work, it worked beautifully. She arranged the black cats and the pumpkins in and around the cemetery in a very natural way. No one would ever question that black cats and pumpkins wouldn't belong in the cemetery Yuyi created.

Second, by using Mexican architecture for the buildings and traditional Mexican costumes for many of the characters, it ties in the Hispanic angle and gives it a definite Latin flavor that unifies my use of Spanish with the characters and the setting. Third, I love it when an illustrator adds a little subplot in the art. Look for the tiny black kitten that appears on each page—another way to unify the text.

Finally, Yuyi's art brings an eerie luminescence to the book. Her use of light against dark brings the characters to life and makes each page glow. It gives the scenes a three-dimensional quality, like the monsters are stepping out of the book. Thomas Kinkead, the "Painter of Light," step aside! A new Painter of Light is in town! And no one creates skeletons like Yuyi. I had already seen her skeletons when I heard that Yuyi was going to illustrate my book, and I was thrilled. So were the skeletons!

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Read 20-25 picture books a week till you've read 100. It's best to read what's new (the last 2-3 years), so I advise going to the children's section of a large bookstore and planting yourself for a couple of hours each week.

If you're really interested and determined to learn how to write a publishable picture book, it's worth the time and effort. Concentrate on reading the books by authors who do not also illustrate the book, and also concentrate on lesser known authors. The point is, you want to find out what editors are buying from new, less famous authors or complete unknowns, which is what beginners are. Also, the type of picture book that illustrators and famous authors (or celebrities) can get away with publishing may not be the type of book an unknown author can sell. Finally, while the classics are great to study, publishers of today are looking for different types of stories.

Either before or after reading these books, study my guide to writing a picture book, under "Lecture Notes" in the "Getting Published" section of my website. Once you've done that, sit down and write something that a publisher of today might buy. There's lots of general advice on writing and publishing in the "Getting Published" section of my website, which may be helpful to beginning writers.

How about those building a career?

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Attend conferences, meet editors, take writing classes and workshops, join or start a critique group, and if at all possible, get yourself a mentor who is published in the genre of the things you write.

Mentors usually take on a writer for a specified time (3-6 months) and for a fee. It's like getting a one-on-one tutorial. I had two wonderful mentors, both mystery writers. Most of this advice is more for writers of longer works, like novels, but it works for any kind of writing.

You have an especially wonderful author website with many resources for beginning writers. Could highlight what's there?

There's something inherently giving in the personalities of people who become children's book writers. When I joined the SCBWI, I had never felt so welcomed, so much a part of a group of people, and so quickly and readily. Everyone was so welcoming, so willing to share information and to help me succeed. I never would have gotten as far as I have if it hadn't been for all the information and assistance I got from the SCBWI and its members.

So much giving makes you feel obligated to give back. The easiest way I saw to give back, to help beginning writers the way I was helped, was to include in my website some of the information on writing and publishing that I had learned after years of studying and research. I could reach the largest number of writers that way.

For that reason, my website has a section on "Getting Published." This section includes a section on "Getting Started," which covers what to do to get published and a section on "Writing Tips," which includes plotting, overcoming writer's block, writing suspense, and my philosophy on writing books for children. It also includes some of my lecture notes, on subjects like "getting motivated" and "writing a picture book."

I also have a section that lists interesting words and gives the definition of words that cause writer headaches, like the difference between "further" and "farther."

I include a nifty table that I've used for years to track my submissions. It can easily be copied and used as is or modified.

In addition to tips on writing and publishing, my website includes many helpful links to other websites on writing and publishing, a children's bookstore database that contains the names and addresses of children's bookstores all over the US, and a list of FAQ's and answers about my writing.

Finally, my website contains the text of some of my poems and stories, as well as my bio, information on my published books, including the stories behind the writing of some of the books, and information on my critiquing services.

What do you do when you're not writing?

In the summer, I enjoy exercising in my pool. Three times a week, I do two hours of physical therapy to keep my joints moving because I have rheumatoid arthritis. With so much sitting and typing at my computer, any type of exercise is a welcome break. Of course, I also read a lot. You can't be a writer and not a reader. And lately, I've renewed my love of languages, and I've been relearning my French by taking free lessons on the Internet and listening to the news on French radio and TV (also on the Net) several times a day. It's amazing how much educational material is on the Internet! Now that I've got most of my French back (I used to speak fluently as a child because we lived in France for three years), I'm starting on some Italian lessons through a BBC website.

Night is my relaxation time, so I watch TV on the ten-foot screen in our bedroom. It's my only vice. I always wanted a home theater, so 15 years ago, we bought a ceiling-mounted video projector and the biggest screen the room could handle, and we placed it in the bedroom, so I could be comfortable. When my husband isn't writing computer books in his free time, he joins me. This summer we discovered Netflix (summer reruns drove us to it), and when we're not watching a movie, we're watching TiVo. We just bought a second TiVo that records two things at once. We're both techno-maniacs.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I don't know yet. It could be a novel, it could be a picture book, or it could be a chapter book. I never know where inspiration will take me.

Cynsational Notes

Don't miss Illustrator Interview Yuyi Morales on Los Gatos Black on Halloween from Cynsations.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

First American Indian Youth Literature Awards Announced

CHICAGO - The American Indian Library Association (AILA), an affiliate of the American Library Association (ALA), is pleased to announce the first recipients of its American Indian Youth Literature Award. This new literary award was created as a way to identify and honor the very best writing and illustrations by and about American Indians. Books selected to receive the award present Native Americans in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.

The award is presented in each of three categories-picture book, middle school, and young adult--and each winner receives $500 and a commemorative plaque, which will be presented during the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color's (JCLC) Children's Luncheon program in Dallas on October 13 at noon.

"We are thrilled to have this opportunity to honor authors and illustrators who best portray Native American culture for young readers," said Victor Schill, co-chair, AILA American Indian Youth Literature Award committee. "The rich literary heritage of this nation includes the oral and printed stories of its indigenous peoples. American Indian literature always has been and continues to be an integral part of our literary tapestry."

Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, illustrated by Sam Sandoval, and published by the University of Nebraska Press is the winner for the picture book category. Accompanied by rich watercolor illustrations, the text relates a culturally vital tale from the Salish people of Montana about the significance of the gift of fire and how it should be respected.

Louise Erdrich is the winner of the middle-school award for The Birchbark House, published by Hyperion Books for Children. Setting her book in the middle 19th century, Erdrich paints a detailed portrait of Ojibwa life through the experiences of 7-year-old Omakayas who lives on the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker on Lake Superior. The Birchbark House was Erdrich's first novel for young readers, and the first book she has illustrated. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and lives with her two daughters in Minnesota.

The young adult award is Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac and published by Scholastic Press. The book is set within the historical framework of the Vermont Eugencis Program, a Native American sterilization program in the 1930s, and tells the story of the haunting effects of this shameful and tragic deed on one of the Abenaki families victimized by it. Author of more than 70 books for adults and children, Bruchac is of Abenaki ancestry and is a nationally recognized professional storyteller living in Greenfield Center, New York.

To register to attend the presentation of the American Indian Youth Literature Award, please visit the JCLC Web site. Advance registration for the JCLC ends September 8, 2006.

In the near future an American Indian Youth Literature Award free downloadable bookmark and brochure will be made available on the AILA Web site.

Members of the American Indian Youth Literature Award are: Naomi Caldwell, co-chair, GSLIS, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I.; Victor L. Schill, co-chair, Harris County Public Library, Houston; Carlene Engstrom, D'Arcy McNickle Library, Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Mont.; and Gabriella Kaye, Mashantucket, Pequot Museum & Research Center, Mashantucket, Conn.

Author Interview: Sara Zarr on The Story of a Girl

Sara Zarr on Sara Zarr: "I grew up in San Francisco in the seventies, when lower-middle class people could actually afford to live there. I went to public school, played with kids in the neighborhood, and roamed all over the city with my sister, a bus pass, and little parental supervision!

"One of my favorite places was the public library. There's a branch on 9th Avenue that has this enormous children's room--almost a separate building, really--and I remember how empowering it was to fill out that little slip with a golf pencil.

"Around middle school we moved to Pacifica, a unique bedroom community of SF that is only twenty minutes away from the city but can feel like a different universe when you're a teen with no car.

"After surviving high school, I went to San Francisco State, got married, and had a couple of short careers before really focusing on writing. My husband and I live in Salt Lake City now, which is pretty different from the Bay Area but we love it. And it has great libraries! (The Salt Lake City Public Library was just named "Library of the Year" by Library Journal.) At any given time we've got twenty or thirty library books around the house."

What were you like as a young adult?

I had sort of a split personality in high school, as I'm sure a lot of people do. With my friends (who were mostly in the drama department), I was loud, brave, and funny--at least, I'm pretty sure I was funny. In unfamiliar surroundings or with kids who were above my social status as drama geek, I fell strangely silent and became self-conscious about everything I said/did/wore/thought and almost never took risks.

I'm pretty much the same way now, come to think of it! A total wallflower when I'm in a new or uncomfortable place, but with my friends I can get greedy for the spotlight.

What inspired you to begin writing for this audience?

I've always loved YA literature, from about age twelve right up to today. The author who really ignited my passion to write was Robert Cormier. My heart sort of stopped the first time I read The Chocolate War (1974)(excerpt), and I remember thinking yes, yes, this is how it is. Even if the situation in the story is extreme, there was that overwhelming "yes" in how I read it, that he nailed what it feels like to be in high school.

I know Cormier and that book especially continue to be controversial, but I was one of those readers who found solace in his unflinching look at the potential for evil, and the feeling of hopelessness that so often accompanies that transition from childhood into adulthood, the no-man's land adolescence can feel like. I think my first attempts at writing were responses to Cormier's books and the mood they put me in.

John Knowles' A Separate Peace had a similar effect on me, and I also loved ME Kerr, Norma Fox Mazer (author interview), Judy Blume (author interview)...all those pioneers of contemporary young adult fiction.

As I got older, I never lost my love for YA, and every story that emerged from my own mind featured characters in that strange place that adolescence is. Someone (I can't remember who) has said that childhood is like living in occupied territory. Adolescence is when you start to grope and grasp for your own piece of land outside of that, and the issues of identity that surround that are just ripe for stories.

I have to admit I'm not that conscious of my "audience." I think every adult still has their inner teenager to grapple with, and the things I write about usually correlate in some way to things I still go through now at thirty-five.

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

Oh, yes. Many, many stumbles! I could write a book. If someone had told me when I started that this would be a decade-long journey before I even got to the starting line, I don't know if I could have persevered. (Usually it's for the best that we can't see the future!)

I started my first YA novel around 1995, and had a little sprint at the beginning when I landed a good agent with that manuscript. I expected it would take a few months to get going, and then I'd just sit back and watch the money roll in! It didn't exactly happen like that. We had some interest in the book, but nothing that worked out. The market was a lot different back then--YA was pretty tough to sell while picture books were doing great, but the truth is that book wasn't ready for publication.

Meanwhile, I wrote a second novel but was so overcome with fear and uncertainty at that time that I never showed it to my agent. In 2000, when we moved to Salt Lake, I started another book. My friend got me into a great writing group where I started to learn more about craft and took my writing more seriously. This breathed much needed new life into my dream. I finished the third novel, felt pretty excited about it, and sent it to my agent. This was December of 2001, I think. Six months passed. Still unsure of the author/agent dynamic, I didn't want to "bother" my agent and waited patiently for word. During this time, I started my fourth book.

Eventually, my patience wore out and my agent and I ended our relationship. Within weeks of that, I was laid off from my job. It was summer of 2002, and the economy was suffering the after effects of 9/11. I had no job, no agent, and no prospects. There was a dark month of the soul wherein I questioned whether I should keep writing--maybe it was time to get a real career and invest myself elsewhere. I registered for a week-long writing workshop that summer and decided that at the end of that week I would know if I should give up or keep going.

The twenty pages I brought to that workshop were the beginnings of what would eventually be Story of a Girl. The responses from my teacher (Robert Clark) and my classmates were enough to convince me that I should keep going, and gave me the boost I needed to finish the book.

In early 2003, I began my search for a new agent. I did get a quick response from one big agency, but they saw some problems and requested a revision before deciding. The notes they sent were very good and the suggestions sounded right, so I embarked on a major revision and sent it back in July, assuming the next I heard from them would be an enthusiastic "yes." While I waited, I submitted the revised book to the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition, which has a YA category every other year.

In September, still waiting to hear from the agency, I found out that Story of a Girl had taken first place in the UAC competition. This was another much needed validation that I wasn't fooling myself about my abilities, and also confirmation that this book, these characters, had something special. So when the big agency sent me a "we like it but we don't love it" rejection in January of 2004, the UAC prize kept me from falling too deeply into despair.

I chose to focus virtually all my energy in searching for an agent rather than a publisher, because I didn't just want to publish a book. I wanted a career, and I wanted a partner who would help me develop that career, someone who would be an ally and, ideally, a friend.

By mid-2004, I'm pretty sure my query letters started to sound a little desperate. I just didn't know why no one was biting---I had a good query letter and a prize-winning book, after all!

In October, I sent a query and some pages to Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. He was quick to respond, and I sent him the rest of the book. I had a good feeling based on our e-mail exchanges, but again months went by.

I registered for the SCBWI New York conference, which was in February 2005. I e-mailed Michael to let him know I'd be in town and I'd love to meet him in person if he wanted to get together to talk about the book. He agreed. When I walked into his office, I went in assuming he was on the fence about my book and that I had to win him over with my personality and somehow convince him, without seeming desperate, that he should sign me. The meeting went well, we hit it off, and when I got back to my hotel he had e-mailed me the agency agreements.

Michael had great instincts about the book. We did a revision together and in late April were ready to send it out. Things happened quickly, then---the first week of May, Jennifer Hunt at Little, Brown bought it in a two-book deal. Little, Brown has turned out to be the perfect place for me. I love working with Jennifer and everyone there, and Michael has turned out to be the perfect agent. So if that ten years was what it took for all the pieces to come together--the right book, the right agent, the right publisher and editor--then that's how it had to happen.

Congratulations on your upcoming debut novel, The Story of a Girl (Little Brown, January 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

When I finished my third book, there was a side character who sort of haunted me. Deanna was one of those characters you don't plan for who seems to walk onto the page one day out of nowhere. It wasn't just her--it was her and her brother and his pregnant girlfriend and their parents, who all seemed to have a story to tell.

A woman in my writing pointed out that there were some echoes of Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding in Deanna's story, so I decided to explore that more--the ways we can fixate on a person or people who might save us from an existence that's challenging us more than we'd like. Also, I wanted to write about a character who, at 16, already feels like she has a past. Adolescence is supposed to be when you're moving towards a new beginning and getting ready to fly, but what if it felt more like you were already worn out and world-weary, that your whole future was more or less set?

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

Original drafts of the story were very different. Deanna's father had Gulf War Syndrome, and the central conflicts weren't well defined. Basically there were too many things going on, which meant that none of them had the power that they could or should. I needed to hone in on Deanna's longing for a certain kind of life, a certain kind of family, and focus on what was keeping her from that.

As for research, it didn't take much. I spent ages 11-18 living in Pacifica, and my memories of what it felt like to live there and the kinds of people I saw every day are still vivid. Like Deanna, I worked at a pizza place in a strip mall, and even though I felt pretty optimistic about my future, I saw how so many working people in a town like that can feel trapped or in a self-perpetuating rut. Or, like Tommy in the book, they're in a rut willingly and don't really see anything wrong with it.

In terms of the psychological challenges: the events in the book are not at all autobiographical, but central to the story is the way we're usually our own worst enemy, and I think that's something everyone has felt.

We can talk about YA books offering hope, and how kids need self-esteem, and there is this strong "believe in yourself" message that kids get from various quarters.

But what happens when you look to yourself and you see something you don't like--where is this self-esteem supposed to come from? I don't believe you can just manufacture belief in yourself, or hope, though the power of positive thinking.

With Deanna, I wanted to take her into herself and have her want to have hope, and want to do what's right, but come up against a wall the way that most of us do at some point in our lives. There had to be some external factors to help her out of the hole, because the truth is that sometimes we don't have the inner resources.

That's not to say that Deanna isn't strong, and that her inner strength doesn't help her at all, but ultimately it takes this little community of others to help her find what she's looking for.

During the writing of the book there were challenges going on in my own life that turned out to be remarkably similar to Deanna's. Telling her story became a way to help myself through that time. I missed the comfort of that when it was finished.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

The usual: you have to write, you have to read. And think about the big picture. Right now, the YA market is hot and it seems like people are making deals left and right. If you spend a lot of time reading blogs and hearing publishing gossip, you can feel like the only one in the world without a multi-book deal in the works and it's easy to feel over the hill even if you're only 25 or 26. But if you get caught up so much in making the deal, you're going to forget (or never experience) the joy in the act of creation itself, and the magical moments when a character you didn't expect comes to you or a plot turn surprises you, or how it feels to see yourself making vast improvements in the simple process of revision.

In the current climate, my advice would be to slow down. Even though I wouldn't have chosen the ten-year plan for myself, now that I've lived it and have seen what it gave me, I wouldn't trade it in for faster success.

What are some of your favorite recent YA reads?

Mary E. Pearson's A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005)(author interview)(recommendation) is an absolute gem---it explores some similar territory as Story of a Girl, and I love the quiet, poetic feel of it.

I loved Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler (Dutton, 2006)(co-authors interview).

E. Lockhart (author interview) has nailed some magical formula of fun, commercial fiction that is also true and good and moving. If she could bottle that, I'd buy.

Kirsten Smith's The Geography of Girlhood (Little Brown, 2006) is a novel in verse that made me cry, and I'm also crazy about A Different Kind of Heat by Antonio Pagliarulo (Delacorte, 2006) and Tara Altebrando's Pursuit of Happiness (MTV, 2006)(excerpt).

There are so many, many YA books to discover and love. The market is just overflowing with amazing writers.

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

I love listening to music and discovering new music and live music. Being a novelist is well and good, but if I could pick my talent I'd be an awe-inspiring singer-songwriter. Either that or a filmmaker--I love movies and would go to one every day if I could afford to. My Netflix queue is a mile long. Cooking, blogging, and going out to lunch are also favorite pastimes.

What can your fans look forward to next?

If all goes according to plan, my next book with Little, Brown will be about childhood sweethearts who find each other again while in high school, only to discover that their lives have gone down drastically divergent paths in the intervening years.

Monday, September 04, 2006

"The Pre-Side of Writing with Cynthia Leitich Smith" from The Institute of Children's Literature

Join me for a chat on the "The Pre-side of Writing" via the Institute of Children's Literature.

Just send your questions to, and then join me on September 14 from: 9 to 11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada; 8 to 10 p.m. Eastern; 7 to 9 p.m. Central; 6 to 8 p.m. Mountain; or 5 to 7 p.m. Pacific. Log in here!

Need help? See "I Want to Chat: Tell Me How" by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children's Literature.
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