Friday, November 17, 2006

Author Feature: Lori Aurelia Williams

From Simon & Schuster: "Lori Aurelia Williams holds a master's degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was awarded both a James A. Michener Fellowship and a scholarship in creative writing. Her fiction is set primarily in urban areas and combines African-American storytelling with street slang. Born in Houston, Lori Aurelia Williams now lives in Austin, Texas." Read a previous Cynsations interview with Lori.

We last spoke in December 2000, not long after the release of your debut novel, When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune (Simon & Schuster). At that time, you were anticipating the release of Shayla's Double Brown Baby Blues (Simon & Schuster, 2003), which was a companion novel. Could you tell us a bit about your second book?

Shayla's Double Brown Baby Blues continues the story of Shayla and Kambia. It takes place about a year after the first book. The book is all about dealing. Kambia is trying to deal with demons from her past and Shayla is trying to deal with the negative feeling she has for her deadbeat father and his new baby girl. You also meet a new character, Lemm. Lemm is a thirteen-year-old alcoholic dealing with a tragic incident that took his younger siblings' lives. The book is about these three young people working through some very complicated problems.

What made you decide to write a companion to Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune?

I wrote the book simply because I felt like there was more story to tell. Readers wanted to know what would happen next with Kambia and Shayla, and so did I. I wanted to see if Kambia would ever get a normal fairy tale life, and if Shayla would ever get the father that she deserved. Of course, the only way to answer these questions was to write the book.

What are the special challenges in writing companion books?

I think the challenge is making the book stand on its on, but still be a part of the original work. I think I achieved that. With Shayla and Lemm, I wrote two independent stories that could reel the reader in without having read the previous book. And Kambia's story is also unique, since she dealing with a new problem we haven't encountered before. When you put all three stories together, you have a book that is connected to Kambia Elaine, but very different.

Congratulations on the release of Broken China (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(excerpt)! What was your initial inspiration for this story?

When I was a little girl growing up, I knew girls that would do all sorts of things to get money, including exploiting their bodies. These were poor girls who just wanted what every girl wants, food on the table, some of the latest clothing, and a place to hang that clothing up in. In order to get these things, they would often allow themselves to get pulled into bad situations. Out of that memory I came up with Broken China, a fractured fourteen-year old girl who wants to do one thing, get something special for her child. In order to do that, China takes a job at strip club, where she finds out life can be very scary and harsh in the adult world.

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

The biggest challenge with bringing China to life was making her seem real. China is a very mature young lady. The challenge is making people understand that there are lots of Chinas in the world, girls who don't get to be children because of the horrible situations in their lives. In order to do that, I started the book with China, the mother, hanging out with a much older friend and her children. I then switched to China the girl, hanging out with her best friend at school. I wanted the readers to immediately see her in both roles, so they would understand that was already living as a woman, but still very much a child.

We recently spoke together on a panel at the ALA JCLC in Dallas, and I was struck by your passion for giving voice to teens--like young teen mothers--who might otherwise go unheard. Could you tell about your connection to these teens and their place in your body of work?

I grew up in an area where teen mothers were as common as rain. It seems like there were teen mothers in every other house on the street. One of my best friends got pregnant right out of on elementary school, before any of us truly understood what sex was. We messed around without understanding that messing around could lead to a swollen belly and relocation to a special school. I remembered how confused and sad my friend looked, standing in the doorway watching the rest of us girls jumping rope in the street. When I write I try to express the feelings and emotions that she felt standing alone in her house, realizing that without meaning to she had given her childhood away.

You've written about difficult, sometimes controversial subjects that may make some grown-ups uncomfortable. Do you ever feel pressured to self-censor or have you faced censorship from outside forces? What keeps you on track in a political climate that sometimes tries to squelch artistic speech, especially that directed at young readers?

I have definitely been censored, but no matter what I will continue to write what I write. I deal with difficult subjects because I know that there are children who are struggling with difficult lives. I've met victims of sexual, physical, and substance abuse, children who have been locked up for robbery or assault, and children who were just unfortunate enough to make a bad decision about sex. I've met them, and I was one of them. When I write I write for and about those children. I know that this sometimes makes adults uncomfortable, but we often live in an uncomfortable world.

It's been six years since your last interview for Cynsations. How have you grown and changed as a writer since that time?

I think I've gotten more disciplined. It doesn't matter how much I have going on in my life I make certain that I get the writing done. Sometimes I'm writing late at night when I can barely keep my eyes open, but I'm driven to keep the text flowing and get the story told. I think that kind of commitment only comes with growth.

What advice do you have for beginning YA novelists?

My advice to all writers is the same, there's nothing to it, but to do it! Get into your characters heads and get the story out. Don't over think the plot, just keep writing until you have a finished piece of work. There is always time to fine tune your writing later, and your agent or editor can decide how the book should be sold. YA writing is the same as adult fiction writing. All you have to do is know your characters and know the situations you want to put them in. I've probably said this before, but if you can remember where you want Sally to go, and how she will feel when she gets there, you already have all you need to write a book.

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

I recently took a job at a publishing company called Badgerdog, which runs creative writing classes in several local area schools. I am the program coordinator for that program. I'm super busy, but I love visiting the schools and helping make certain things run smoothly. When I'm not doing that I'm trying to whip something up on the sewing machine or watching my favorite episode of "Project Runway."

What can your fans look forward to next?

Next is a book currently titled Hiding Demonee. I never tell the plot of a book before it's released, but it's about a seventeen year-old girl who makes a big mistake with the love of her life. The book is about the growth that comes from the consequences of that mistake.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

Signed copies of Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Björkman (Dutton, 2006) are now available at BookPeople at Sixth and Lamar in Austin, Texas; and at Barnes & Noble at the Lone-Star Pavilion, 711 Texas Avenue, in College Station, Texas. They also will soon be available Jacque's Toys in Bryan, Texas. Readers may contact stores for shipping information or write me for autographed book plates.

Look for us today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Thursday, Nov. 16) by the main tree at a table signing for "A Christmas Affair," sponsored by the Junior League of Austin.

More News & Links

Congratulations to M.T. Anderson, winner of the National Book Award (in Young People's Literature) for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (Candlewick, 2006). Read a Cynsations interview with M.T. Anderson.

Congratulations to the Flying Pig, now in Shelburne, Vermont, on its 10th anniversary! See also Vermont authors.

Take a sneak peek at the cover art from R.L. LaFevers' upcoming Theodosia Throckmorton and the Serpents of Chaos (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Read a Cynsations interview with R.L. LaFevers.

Then take a sneak peek at the cover art from David Lubar's upcoming The Curse of the Campfire Weenies and Other Weird and Creepy Tales (Tor, September 2007). Read a Cynsations interview with David.

Guide to Selecting Children's and YA Books about Native Americans by Elizabeth Kennedy from About: Children's Books. Thanks to Elizabeth for highlighting my website!

John Green's version of NANOWRIMO and Texas from author Tanya Lee Stone. Check out Tanya's report on the Texas Book Festival. Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya.

"The Mystery and Magic of Story: A Spell That Connects One Heart To Another" by Laurie Halse Anderson (PDF file) from the fall 2006 ALAN Review.

National Book Award Blog for The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin (Dial, 2006) from Nancy Werlin. Peer into Nancy's NBA experience. Read a Cynsations interview with Nancy.

The Printer's Trial: The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press by Gail Jarrow (Calkins Creek, 2006): a recommendation from Bartography.

Power in Numbers by Joy Bean from Publishers Weekly. Featuring the Class of 2k7, a group of forty first-time children's/YA book authors, founded by author Greg Fishbone. Subscribe to the Class's new e-zine, which will be published quarterly, beginning in January 2007. Subscribers will be entered into a drawing to win ARCs and/or finished books from 2k7 members.

"Read This Before You Begin Any Writing Workshop, Class, or Course" from The Working Writer's Coach: Information and news to help freelance writers become "working" freelance writers by Suzanne Lieurance.

Self-Publish Or Not by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon.

Thanks to Mitali's Fire Escape for cheering my recent interview with Charlesbridge editor Yolanda LeRoy. Mitali Perkins is the author of Rickshaw Girl (2007) and The Bamboo People (2009), both forthcoming from Charlesbridge.

Thanksgiving Lesson Plans: recommendations from Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature. See also Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw (Redleaf, 2002).

"The Waiting Game" by Denice Ryan Martin from the Institute of Children's Literature. Upbeat, healthy suggestions for writers waiting to hear back on a manuscript.

"The Voices of Power and the Power of Voices: Teaching with Native American Literature" by Marlinda White-Kaulaity from the fall 2006 issue of the ALAN Review (PDF file). Note: I provide a guest comment along with those by Simon Ortiz and Laura Tohe.

Who's Moving Where? News and Editorial Changes at Children's Book Publishers from Harold Underdown at The Purple Crayon. See November 2006 updates.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Jamel Akib

Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Jamel Akib (Lee & Low, 2006). How Arun aches for the arrival of his adopted baby sister, Asha, expected any day from India. How long it takes! Will Rakhi Day, the Hindu holiday of brothers and sisters, somehow still connect these long-distance siblings? Ages 4-up.

My Thoughts

I've read many adoption and/or international adoption stories rooted in the parents' point of view, and to me, Bringing Asha Home resonates more because it comes from young Arun's perspective. This one also rings true to life with its emphasis on the long legal and logistical journey of international adoption. The language is lovely, the emotion close to the page. I don't often become teary while reading picture books, but this one affected me that much.

Preview the story at Lee & Low. Read a Cynsations interview with Uma. See my bibliographies of adoption-related books and books with interracial family themes.

Now check out the review of Bringing Asha Home from Big A little a by Kelly Herold, who cried, too. (Not our fault; it's that good).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Santa Knows Signings and Book Plates

Hey Cynsational Readers! You're invited to upcoming book signings! My husband and co-author Greg Leitich Smith will be joining me in signing Santa Knows, illustrated by Steve Björkman (Dutton, 2006) at the following upcoming times, dates, and locations:

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16 (by the main tree), a table signing at "A Christmas Affair," sponsored by the Junior League of Austin. Other authors signing at the event include: Julie Lake, signing Galveston's Summer of the Storm (TCU Press, 2003)(interview); Jerry Wermund, signing Earthscapes: Landforms Sculpted by Water, Wind, and Ice (Rockon, 2003)(interview) as well as The World According to Rock (Rockon, 2005)(interview) and Focus on Minerals (Rockon, 2006); Elizabeth Garton Scanlon, signing A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes: A Pocket Book (HarperCollins, 2004); Jo Whittemore, signing Escape from Arylon (Llewellyn, 2006) and Curse of Arastold (Llewellyn, 2006)(author interview); Jane Scoggins Bauld, signing Hector Visits His Country Cousin (Eakin, 2002); Janice and Tom Shefelman, signing Sophie's War (Eakin, 2006); Anne Bustard, signing Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2005)(author interview); and Jane Peddicord, signing Night Wonders (Charlesbridge, 2005). See the Author's Corner for complete information.

10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 24 at The Twig Bookstore in San Antonio (5005 Broadway). Storytime reading and signing.

11 a.m. on Nov. 25 at the Barnes & Noble Sunset Valley in Sunset Valley, Texas (5601 Brodie Ln # 300). Storytime reading and signing.

2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Dec. 2 Barnes & Noble Round Rock in Round Rock, Texas (I-35 and 1325). Presentation, reading, and signing.

1 to 3 p.m. on Dec. 3 Barnes & Noble Westlake in Westlake, Texas (701 S. Capitol of Texas Highway). Signing in conjunction with Cedar Creek Elementary bookfair; everyone is welcome!

Please double check times and dates with the respective stores!

More Autographed Stock

On Nov. 15, we will be just signing stock at Barnes and Noble in College Station, Texas (711 Texas Avenue South) and at Jacque's Toys in Bryan, Texas (4301 B S. Texas Ave.).

In addition, autographed stock is now available at BookPeople in Austin, Texas (6th and Lamar).

Please contact stores directly for shipping information.

Book Plates

While supplies last, you're welcome to request a signed and/or personalized book plate(s) for Santa Knows (or any of my other books). Just be sure to include your address and any personalization information.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Author Interview: Shelley Pearsall on All of the Above

Shelley Pearsall on Shelley Pearsall: "I grew up in Ohio in a suburban Cleveland neighborhood called Parma. Imagine one of those neighborhoods where all of the houses are the same, all of the yards are the same, and each family has 1.5 maple trees on their tree lawn. The sameness of my neighborhood may explain why I craved different-ness as a child. I was the kind of kid who put on pioneer skits in the backyard, kept a menagerie of pets in the basement, and read a lot.

"I have to admit that not much changed once I grew up! In fact, my first real job after college was working for a local park system, creating and portraying park characters. They included an absent-minded recycling character named Tin Can Tilly and an early female botanist named Harriet Keeler. On the side, I earned extra money as a storyteller for various kids' events in Cleveland. After finishing a master's degree in education, I did a five year stint in the classroom, teaching grades four through eight. Most memorable school moment: the rocket launch that went awry in my 8th grade gifted class. But that's a story for another time...

"In hindsight, all of these experiences may seem like great preparation for writing books someday, but when you are in the middle of the path, sometimes it is difficult to see that the path is actually going somewhere. That it has a purpose. A direction. That you are not aimlessly wandering through the employment pages of life. Only recently have I been able to see the big picture."

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

As a first grader, I remember being allowed to write stories or draw pictures when my class work was done. Finishing those dull, old mimeographed pages (who remembers the smell of that purple ink?) became my goal. For years afterward, I think I saw writing stories as the escape, the reward that it had been back in first grade. Back then, my stories would also get passed around quite a bit, too. Sometimes, I'd receive comments from other teachers or administrators. Nothing really elaborate, just "great story" or "cool characters." But that was enough.

Math and spelling worksheets got smiley-face stickers, but stories got personal responses. That's what first called me to writing.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

Even though I wrote a lot of stories as a kid, the idea of writing for children never occurred to me as an adult. When I returned to college for my master's degree in 1993, a children's literature class brought me back to that world. The professor began each class by reading from the newly-published Night John by Gary Paulsen (Delacorte Press, 1993). I was spellbound by the story. Literally. It was like being given the key to a reading and writing world I hadn't visited since childhood. I had spent several years dabbling in various kinds of writing, trying to find my place, but this was the world where I belonged, and I realized it in that moment.

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

My first novel, Trouble Don't Last (Knopf, 2002), follows the journey of two runaway slaves: a 70 year old man and an 11 year old boy, who escape from slavery in the year 1859. Written for grades four to eight, the novel was the recipient of the 2003 Scott O'Dell medal for Historical Fiction.

Crooked River (Knopf, 2005), my second novel, focuses on the murder trial of an Ojibwe on the Ohio frontier in the year 1812. Based on a true story, the novel weaves together two unique voices to tell the story of the trial and its aftermath, from the Native American and white perspectives. The novel was a Junior Library Guild selection and an NCSS-CBC choice.

Congratulations on the publication of All of the Above (Little Brown,2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The idea came on a day when I wasn't really expecting to stumble across a new book idea. (It often happens this way!) My first book, Trouble Don't Last, had just been published and I was making one of my first school visits as a new author. The Cleveland school I was visiting was called Alexander Hamilton Middle School. Picture a run-down urban school, a gloomy gray November morning, and a very nervous author who was just hoping she wouldn't screw up her first program.

During my visit, the school's principal kept talking about his school's record-breaking tetrahedron project. To be honest, I didn't have a clue what he meant--what in the world was a "tetrahedron?" But when I had a free moment, he took me to one of the math classrooms to show me. I can still remember the jaw-dropping sight when he opened the door: the entire room was filled with giant rainbow-colored pyramids. They were suspended from the lights and lined up along the windowsills and bookshelves. It was a magical, almost gravity-defying sight.

Later on, I learned that a group of kids at this inner-city school had attempted to set a record by building the world's largest tetrahedron--a giant paper pyramid made of 16,384 smaller ones. In fact, they had spent an entire year on the project, working after school, trying to reach their admittedly unusual goal. From that moment, I was hooked.

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

My first visit to the school was in November 2002, and I returned a few months later to talk with some of the team members. Thinking that the tetrahedron would make a great visual element, I imagined the story as a picture book initially. In fact, remnants of that early picture book manuscript can be seen in the novel today--in the italicized text which opens and closes the story.

From 2003-2004, my picture book manuscript titled The Great Tetrahedron, made the rounds of publishers. Nobody was interested in the story as a picture book, although several publishing houses thought the characters and voice had potential. I was wrapped up in writing my second book, Crooked River, and couldn't devote any time to coming up with a new direction. The idea languished until Jennifer Hunt, a senior editor at Little, Brown and Company, called to say that she had read the picture book manuscript and was really drawn to the characters and their story. Over the next year, the manuscript evolved from a picture book into a multi-voiced novel with illustrations by artist Javaka Steptoe. The book was finished in late 2005 and published in September 2006.

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

Math does not lend itself easily to fiction! Just mention the word "math" and some math-phobic readers (myself included) go running in the opposite direction. Throw in the word "tetrahedron" and you really scare people away. Getting readers past the scary math term "tetrahedron"--which really means nothing more than a four-sided triangular pyramid--and into the stories of the characters and their lives, was a big challenge.

Telling the story through multiple voices also stretched me in some new directions a writer. Rather than having a seamless narrative told by a single person, each character's voice had to contribute to moving the story forward--much like each triangle contributes to holding up the tetrahedron. But each voice had to be distinctive and stand on its own, too. Often, I felt the characters themselves made this happen in the story, not me.

Other challenges: the recipes! Recipes appear throughout the story because one character works in a barbecue joint. My husband Mike and I had to concoct and test all of them. Believe me, we tried barbecue on everything--even cucumber slices and broccoli.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Read Anne Lamott's wonderful book, Bird by Bird (Pantheon Books, 1994). Set aside time in your life get started. If you don't give your dream the gift of your time and undivided attention--it won't happen. Revise, revise, revise. The best writing doesn't appear until later--maybe in the third or fourth drafts. Then revise again. And again.

How about those building a career?

Find a balance among family, writing, and work time. (I haven't succeeded in this area myself yet--but I'll let you know when I do...) Don't overlook the small moments that make this a wonderful career: the letters from readers, the e-mail from a parent who says your book was the first one his child finished independently, the second grader who wants to dress up as an author for Halloween after meeting you, and the school custodian who brings his poetry to share. These are the moments to savor! Stay open to ideas which might take you in unexpected and new directions as a writer --even into the world of math and barbecue!

What do you do when you're not writing?

From October to May, I'm often visiting schools, doing presentations and writing workshops. I spend about 25-30 days a year in schools and libraries. If I'm not writing or talking about writing, I'm probably playing kickball (badly) with my stepson Ethan, reading, gardening, or catching a play at one of our local theaters. Am I allowed to say that watching "American Idol" is my one guilty TV pleasure?

What can your fans look forward to next?

Clue number 1: I'm just a hunka hunka burnin' love...
Clue number 2: Thankyaverymuch
Clue number 3: It will be out in 2008.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Great Hanukkah Books for Kids List Released

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee of the Association of Jewish Libraries has released a recommended "shopping-and-reading list" of the best Hanukkah books for children. Twenty-seven Hanukkah titles are listed, with brief summaries and age guidelines. A special section lists seven Hanukkah titles by the prolific Eric A. Kimmel, who was named the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award winner in 2004.

"Many of these titles have received recognition from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee over the years," said Committee Chair Rachel Kamin. "The list includes everything from AJL Notable Books like Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion, 2005) by Esme Raji Codell to Sydney Taylor Honor Books like Chanukah on the Prairie by Bert E. Schuman, to gold medal winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Award such as The Chanukah Guest by Eric A. Kimmel."

Kathe Pinchuck, a Committee Member who helped to compile the list, added, "We’ve also listed books that are so new, they haven't had the chance to win any awards yet! We wanted to include as many in-print titles as possible from which readers and gift-givers could choose."

The book list is available in pdf format at; click on "Great Hanukkah Books for Kids" under News & Announcements. Blank space has been provided at the bottom of the front page so that libraries and booksellers can add their own information before distributing copies to their patrons and customers.

"We hope that this list will help families find great Hanukkah gift books for their children, as well as seasonal stories to borrow from the library," said Heidi Estrin, past Committee Chair and designer of the book list.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries to the best in Jewish children’s literature each year. A committee of children’s librarians and other children’s literature experts evaluates over one hundred books to find the best of the best. Read more about the award (and non-Hanukkah books that have won medals) at

Cynsational Notes

Author Update: Esme Raji Codell from Cynsations. Esme's Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion, 2005) is a Jewish retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Esme says in part: "I think when an author tells a story, he lights a flame, and just like on a Hanukkah menorah, one flame lights another. When Dickens wrote his story, he lit a flame in me." Read the whole interview.
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