Friday, June 20, 2008

Cynsational News, Links & Giveaways

Enter to win a signed copy of the Australian edition of Missing Girl by Norma Fox Mazer (Allen & Unwin, 2008)(published in the U.S. by HarperCollins, 2008)!

From the promotional copy: "This is the story of five sisters. Beauty longs for love. Mim holds a secret tightly. Stevie is tempestuous and impulsive. Fancy talks too much and understands too little. And Autumn, the youngest sister, struggles to discover who she is. None of the Herbert girls is aware of the mild-looking man who has become obsessed with them--until the day one sister doesn't come home."

"Mazer's latest novel would give Alfred Hitchcock a run for his money." --Kirkus Reviews

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST June 23! Please also type "Missing Girl" in the subject line.

In other news, the winner of a signed copy of The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper (Greenwillow, 2008) is Anna in Louisiana!

The quote she submitted was from Romeo & Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1. "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but 'tis enough,' twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man."

Read a Cynsations interview with Suzanne.


The Cynsations grand-prize June giveaway is an autographed hardcover set of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, 2007) and First Daughter: White House Rules (Dutton, 2008), both by Mitali Perkins. Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST June 30! Please also type "First Daughter" in the subject line. Note: one autographed set will be awarded to any Cynsations YA reader.

Also, check out Mitali's recent post--Why Are Children's Books Still So White? at The Fire Escape--and comment her with your theories on the answer.

In celebration of summer reading, I'm giving away autographed sets of 25 Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) bookmarks to five YA public librarians.

One of those mailings also will include a copy of the Tantalize audio, and one will include a Sanguini's T-shirt (Sanguini's is the fictional vampire restaurant in the book). Due to popular response, I may add another T-shirt and audio.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name, the name of your library, and the library snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST June 30! Please also type "Summer Reading" in the subject line. Note: prizes will be sent on a rolling basis.

More News, Links, & Giveaways

Thanks for the positive response to this week's Cynsations interview with author Brian James! Good news: you can learn more about him in another interview, this one from Imperial Beach Teens of the Imperial Beach Library (Imperial Beach, California)! Plus, this month, the IBTs are giving away copies of both of Brian's new releases Zombie Blondes and Thief! Peek: [On surviving the teen years] "I was very confused, angry and scared most of the time and the way I handled that was do a lot of stupid things. I often look back and realize that it's a near miracle I survived."

The book wot I wrote by Stephanie Merritt from The Guardian. Peek: "The growth of celebrity fiction in both the adult and children's markets has led to a wider acknowledgement of the ghostwriter, who has partially come in from the cold; celebrities, their publishers and those who buy their books are quite knowingly and willingly colluding in a kind of illusion." Source: April Henry. Note: hugs to every author who's kept a chin up at their vacant book signing while folks lined up for the celebrity "author's" autograph.

LOL Cat Contest To Win Spiderwick DVD Books from Holly Black. Holly says: "I have been given six copies of the Spiderwick Chronicles DVD by the good folks at Paramount. I also have one Collector's Trunk with the five original Spiderwick chapter books and the notebook bundled inside." Deadline June 29. See more information.

"Today's After-School Special: Sales Peer Pressure" from Editorial Anonymous. Peek: "In my experience, it's mostly commonly a combination of authorial hubris and publisher gutlessness." See also Everyone! (Translation: No One!).

"Just the Facts?" by Don Brown at I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "...the trick still is to winnow a meaningful story to about 1500 words–I don't believe kids will sit still for more–without sacrificing narrative drive and in a manner that doesn't substitute fluff for meat." See also "Creative Nonfiction at Its Best" by Kathleen Krull.

Call for Submissions: Carnival of Children's Literature: Fathers in Children's Literature from Susan Taylor Brown at Susan Writes (author interview). Deadline June 21. Peek: "In honor of Father's Day I chose fathers in children's literature. What father or father figure has stood out in your mind long after you closed the pages of the book?" See more information. Note: Susan's novel, Hugging the Rock (Tricycle, 2006, 2008)(excerpt), is now available in paperback! Read a Cynsations interview with Susan.

Do You Have a Plot? from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: " my opinion, there is absolutely one thing every writer should start with before they begin writing. And that's a plot." Note: I would say "character." Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan. See also Can I Get a Ruling on Pitch Sessions?

Huge Giveaway: Amanda at A Patchwork of Books is giving away five copies of Mary E. Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Henry Holt, 2008). Read a Cynsations interview with Mary about the novel.

Writing Children's Nonfiction Books for the Educational Market: an upcoming online workshop scheduled for July 22 to Aug. 22 from Laura Purdie Salas. Laura says: "...walks you through the entire assignment-hunting process, so that at the end of the month, you are ready to send out your packet to selected educational publishers. And you'll know what to expect and how to proceed when you receive an assignment." See details and student comments. Learn more about Laura's nonfiction.

Pay the Toll for [Author-Editor] Jill Santopolo from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "I made myself a rule when I started writing that home time was writing time, and office time was editing time. I've pretty much stuck to that, though a lot of times it means working pretty late in the office to make sure that all my editing work is done before I head home to write." Note: Jill and I will be leading a workshop at Austin SCBWI's upcoming "A Day with an Editor"--see more information below.

Eric Carle's Colorful World of Children's Books from All Things Considered/NPR. Peek: "Carle's familiar characters were inspired largely by the fox holes, spider webs, bugs and animals that he found exploring castles as a child in Stuttgart, Germany." Note: don't miss the accompanying slide show! Source: Laurie Halse Anderson.

Y.A. New York: a site dedicated to young adult literature. Peek: "Here in this big city of YA, I'll be reviewing YA fiction, interviewing YA writers, covering YA events in New York City, and bringing you the latest YA news." Note: coverage with not to limited to NY-based authors.

Night Road by A.M. Jenkins (HarperCollins, 2008): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith of GregLSBlog. Peek: "For years, Cole has held himself aloof from the community, but now he's called back to handle an "accident:" an accidentally-created and newly-formed heme named Gordo." Read Cynsations interviews with Greg and A.M. Jenkins.

2009 Newbery and Caldecott Predictions - Halfway Mark by Elizabeth Bird of A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal. Note: I'm rooting for The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2008). Full Disclosure: it's dedicated to me (and Greg).

More Gifts for Readers and Writers by Cheryl Rainfield from Cheryl Rainfield: Avid Reader, Teen Fiction Writer, and Book-a-holic. All Things Books, With a Focus on Children’s and Teen Fiction. Note: shopping anyone?

Interview with Sundee T. Frazier from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "I knew the main character was biracial, with a black dad and a white mom, but the character actually started as a girl. Yep, Brendan Buckley was originally Brenda Buckley!"

Silhouettes and Stock Photos - Ho, Hum by Alison Morris from Shelftalker: A Children's Bookseller's Blog from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "My biggest problem with all of them [silhouette covers] is the fact they look almost completely interchangeable. They smack of covert operations or fugitive outlaws, but in a very generic, rather uninteresting sense."

Getting a Second Opinion by Allison Winn Scotch at Ask Allison. Peek: "Book editors and doctors don't come cheap...and if they do, you better do an ample background check on them to figure out why they're so cheap."

"Bad Writing Days" by Justine Larbalestier at Justine Larbalestier: Writing, Reading, Eating, Drinking, Sport. Peek: "When we are in that kind of state it's best not to remind us that the day before we thought it was the best book ever written. All you can do is nod and smile and make sympathetic noises and offer us food or liquid we find particularly comforting."

Illustrating Ron's Big Mission Cover by Don Tate at Devas T. Rants and Raves. Peek: "This style is somewhat realistic, yet stylized enough to offer some grace where my realism is off." Read a Cynsations interview with Don.

Salina Bookshelf is now at MySpace! Read a Cynsations interview with editor Jesse Ruffenach of Salina Bookshelf.

The Best Job in the World by Tanya Lee Stone at I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "How about this: A gentleman and his wife approach you a few minutes before your event is to begin. They definitely look like they have something to say, and I definitely don't know them. The man is looking at me with a small smile and a twinkle in his eye. The woman says: We heard about your book on the radio (further evidence of the Flying Pig's Awesomeness!) and had to come. She motions to the man still quietly standing by her side. My husband here is...are you ready for it..."

Recommended Reading: Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway with Elizabeth Stuckey-French (Longman, 2006) from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "This is the book you keep at your desk. It is a reference book, with chapters on the process, in general, form and structure, showing and telling, building character, place and time, point of view, comparison, theme, and revision." Note: this is a new feature at the Tollbooth; "Each month, we will recommend excellent craft books that we think will help you on your journey."

Three Books for Teens Who Hate to Read by Amber Gibson from NPR. Peek: "For girls who think Cosmopolitan constitutes summer reading, I recommend Melissa Walker's Violet on the Runway. Let's be honest--even the most tomboyish girls dream of being a supermodel, and this book provides an exclusive view at life on the runway." Check out the other two picks; here's a hint: read a Cynsations interview with Jay Asher.

In Memory

Tasha Tudor, 92; children's book illustrator and author known for delicate artwork by by Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer from Los Angeles Times. Excerpt: "Tasha Tudor, a children's book illustrator and author whose delicate and dreamy artwork was featured in about 80 books, including a 1944 edition of 'Mother Goose' that was so successful it enabled her to buy a farm and create a lifestyle rooted in the early 19th century, has died. She was 92."

Attention Austinites

BookWoman (5501 North Lamar #A-105, between North Loop and Koenig Lane) is hiring a part-time bookseller. Peek: "We are looking for a committed and energetic feminist who loves her local feminist bookstore and loves books (especially by and about women) and is able to talk about them, who works well with and around people, has excellent customer service skills, is self-motivated, hard-working, as well as detail-oriented; and has the ability to multi-task -- including data entry, publisher interface, and store upkeep." Application deadline: June 23. See more information.

Slumber Party @ Teen Fest: April Lurie (author interview)(MySpace), Jennifer Ziegler (author interview)(MySpace), and Cynthia Leitich Smith will join forces in a "lively, intimate discussion about books and writing for teen girls" at noon Aug. 2 at Carver Branch Library/Austin Public Library in Austin, Texas. The event will include a book signing, "games, snacks, beauty tips, and even a passionate reading contest. Pajamas and pillows optional!"

Austin SCBWI's "A Day with an Editor" featuring Jill Santopolo, author and senior editor at Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, and Cynthia Leitich Smith will be Sept. 13. "Mark your calendars now and prepare to register early as this event is expected to be a sellout. Registrations will open around July 1, and registration forms will be available at Austin SCBWI." Note: Jill is interested in literary novels, quirky middle grades, and picture books. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and is the author of Alec Flint, Super Sleuth: The Nina, The Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure (Scholastic/Orchard, 2008). Don't miss today's new interview with Jill at Through the Tollbooth.

More Personally

Thanks to Donna Gephart for highlighting Cynsations among "Some Blogs to Check Out..." in The Sand Scoop: The Official Newsletter of the SCBWI Florida Chapter! Read a Cynsations interview with Donna.

My main site at will be off-line June 28 due to server relocation.

In the wake of the Myanmar cyclone and China earthquake, the U.S. Midwest is being hit hard by a 500-year flood, and the American Red Cross is short on funds. Please consider donating.


Question of the Week Thursday: Heather Brewer from Robin Friedman's JerseyFresh Tude. Robin asks: "What has it been like to experience the enormous success of your new series?"

On a related note: "This video is about what it's like to be Heather Brewer's son."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Author Interview: Brian James on Zombie Blondes

Brian James on Brian James: "I was born in Virginia on January 7, 1976. I never really knew my real father, he and my mother split up when I was one year old.

"My mom was only 19 when I was born, and she raised me and my older brother by herself for the first few years of my life. We moved around a lot, living with family. We moved in with her boyfriend when I was four and stayed there for two years. He was really abusive, and I think that shaped a lot of my impressions at the time. She finally left him and ended up marrying my step-father shortly after.

"My step-father was great, and with him, we more or less lived the suburban life. I ended up with two sisters and two more brothers.

"Being in a big family often meant going unnoticed, which left me a lot of time to figure things out on my own...both good and bad. There were a lot of ups and downs, and things going on that confused me. I guess even as a little kid, I tended to work those out by telling myself stories...which naturally progressed into writing them down.

"In high school, I never took much interest in writing or reading. Not until I was 16 or 17. At that point, I made a new best friend who really turned me on to books and kept giving more and more things to read. I ended up senior year in high school taking mostly English classes and loving it. I moved to New York City with I was 18, and I ended up majoring in English Literature at NYU.

"I never took a creative writing class of any kind, I always assumed I'd learn more about how to write effectively by studying great books and then developing a style without anyone's help so that it would be unlike anyone else. I also studied psychology, which I found very helpful. Learning why people act the way they do to certain situations gave me a new insight on developing characters.

"Most of my early influences were music. I've a been huge fan of music since I was little, and since I didn't read for pleasure until I was 16 or so, song lyrics were the biggest influence on me at first. Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose, Syd Barrett, when I was starting, and even today Elliot Smith, John Frusciante and others. There are also a lot of authors that influenced my writing, William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh, Lewis Carroll, and John Fante.

"I published my first book when I was 23 and have since published four novels and about ten children's books. I have three more novels planned over the next two years and about ten more children's books.

"I lived in New York for ten years before moving to the Catskill region in upstate New York two years ago."

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

Others would have said I was a freak. I never thought so. But being overtly punk in a suburban town in the early '90s was a good way to get labeled "freak." I wasn't quiet about it either. I lashed out quite a bit. Looking back on it all, I would say I was definitely troubled. In a lot of ways, it's pretty amazing I survived past the age of eighteen.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? What helped you the most? What might you do differently, given the opportunity?

I was always interested in writing. But all through high school and college, I only ever shared any of it with a few select friends. I was always too embarrassed to show anyone else.

Because of that experience of really developing my style in isolation, I think I've been able a pretty unique way of writing. But it also stunted my editorial skills quite a bit.

Thankfully, I made the smart decision to take an internship in the editorial department of a major publishing house during my senior year of college. There I learned a lot about how writing is shaped into something great. I applied what I learned to my own writing after that.

If I could do it all over again, I think would've tried to be more open to other peoples' suggestions and criticisms earlier on in my development.

What is it about young people as fictional heroes and/or as an audience that especially appeals to you?

As far as character is concerned, I think young protagonists are exciting. There's opportunity to create emotionally dynamic characters whose actions would be less believable when projected onto an adult character.

As for an audience, I think teens are great for the same reason. They're really open to understanding different points of view. I also think they respond to a work of fiction on much more personal level sometimes, and as a writer, it's great to know your work has real meaning to its readers.

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

It was pretty much a sprint all the way. My first novel was sold when I was 23. I got extremely lucky. Having worked in publishing, I had a few connections that worked out quite well.

Could you please update us on your recent back-list and/or current titles, highlighting as you see fit?

I have another novel that is coming out around the same time. It's a book called Thief (Scholastic 2008). It's about a girl in NYC foster care who steals for her guardian. It's a companion book to a novel I wrote years ago called Tomorrow, Maybe (Scholastic, 2003). It's the second time I've done a companion set, where a character from one book goes on to narrate a later book. It was interesting to revisit a character after such a long break, but it came well.

I also just finished a new manuscript called The Heights, a modern reworking of Wuthering Heights, that should come out next year.

How have you grown as a writer over time? What do you see as your strengths? In what areas do you feel as though you must still push yourself?

I think as an artist, it's important to keep improving and pushing yourself. My strength has always been voice and making a character feel real.

I've always been more excited about language and character more than plot, and, therefore, that's the area that I always have to work hardest on. I usually rework a plot outline several times before I write a story. Zombie Blondes is really the first book of mine that has plot at the forefront, and it was really fun for me to work on it because of that.

Congratulations on the release of Zombie Blondes (Feiwel & Friends, June 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Sure. It's sort of my take on a horror novel. I wanted to write a horror novel that felt extremely real. So the main character Hannah isn't unlike the characters of my previous books, which would fall into the realistic fiction genre. She's a girl who moves around a lot and has trouble fitting in wherever she goes. The book deals with a lot of the normal problems of being in high school, but Hannah has the unfortunate luck to happen upon a school attended primarily by zombies who are very clever and devious when it comes to hiding themselves.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The initial inspiration actually came from Jean Feiwel. I'd worked with her in the past, and she had come up with the title Zombie Blondes but without a story. She got in touch and asked if I had any ideas.

I loved the title right away, but at first it seemed so far out of the range of what I normally write. But then the idea stuck around and the story started to take shape in my mind. I envisioned it as a cross between the movies "Heathers" (1989) and "The Lost Boys" (1987).

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

We started discussing the idea in the summer of 2006, and I wrote the book that fall and winter. There wasn't much time between then and now, since it was an idea conceived together with the publisher.

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

The main literary challenge to the book was figuring out how to capture the intensity of the scary scenes. Movies have the luxury of using music and quick camera cuts to shock the audience. I had to figure out a way to do that in a novel.

As for research, I lived most of it. I had recently moved from New York City to a small town in the middle of nowhere (which bears a strong resemblance to the town in the book). So Hannah's feelings were based heavily on my own.

So, I'm curious... Do you have a particularly intriguing history with zombies? Blondes? Both?

The zombies were based some images I'd been looking out by different artists and the songs of Roky Erickson. There are a couple of hidden nods to him in the book.

The zombies also represent a lot of my personal opinions about our society, and in that sense, I'm sorry to say, we all have experience with zombies.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I would try to focus on smaller themes. I used to set out to write an epic every time I sat down. Because of that, and my lack of experience, I often got lost in the story and let it spiral out of control.

What advice do you have for YA horror novelists?

Remember that sometimes the scariest things are realistic. If you can capture the horror of the everyday moments, then it magnifies the actual horror elements of the story.

What do you do when you're not in the book world?

I'm music junkie. I have a CD collection numbering in the thousands. So I'm always searching for new finds and listening to library I have.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My new novel, The Heights, which I mentioned earlier. I've also started another horror story that focuses on the survivors a plague. And I've been kicking around another story idea about a former child star who's self-destructing in his teen years.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Author Feature: Kersten Hamilton

Kersten Hamilton on Kersten Hamilton: "I was born in a trailer in High Rolls, New Mexico, in 1958. My parents, who were not very practical people, neglected to go to the hospital or inform anyone of my arrival, so some Official Document Confusion existed for a long time as to the exact year and date.

"By my sixth birthday, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a writer. I was fascinated by the sound of words, the sweep of story. I wanted to make word-magic and tuck it inside the covers of a book.

"A writer, of course, needs something to write about. Fortunately, my impractical parents were also quite eccentric. My childhood can only be described as 'exciting.'"

"I tracked caribou and arctic wolves across my family's homestead in Alaska, caught tiny tree frogs in the swamps and rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, and chased dust devils and rattlesnakes across the high desert of New Mexico.

"Against all odds, I survived. I was not electrocuted or drowned. Most of the bullets missed, and the incidents with bears, snakes, wolves, and angry moose were not fatal.

"Before settling down to have children I worked as a ranch hand, a wood cutter, a lumberjack, a census taker, a wrangler for wilderness guides, and an archaeological surveyor.

"Now that my children are all grown and off on their own adventures, I write full time."

Would you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? How did you develop your skills?

For me there are two equal--and equally difficult--parts to being a writer. The first is having something real to say. Being a writer is about telling the truth, even when it is ugly or scary. That takes courage. If I am not up to that challenge, I might as well put my laptop down and walk away.

The second is having the skill to say it in such away that readers sit up and take notice. This is hard work. I tell people that becoming a writer will take as much time and commitment as becoming a doctor. At least eight years of education. The difference is, most writers create their own coursework. They write everyday. They study the masters, new and old, every day. The learning never stops.

Right now the masters I am studying include Flannery O'Connor, Neil Gaiman, and Eiichiro Oda, creator of my current favorite manga, One Piece.

How was your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

"Sprints and stumbles" would about cover it!

A stumble: Early in my career being so hurt by a revisions request that I never sent the book back.

A stumble: Tripped over my ego and fell flat on my face when I expected the publishing world to change to accommodate my stories, no matter how long my picture books or how short my novels. It does not matter how wonderful your work is, if it will not fit the format, it will not be published.

A sprint: Finally understanding that books have a physical body and physical limitations--and consequently selling two picture books in one day!

A sprint: Learning when to break the rules. A few of my first picture books were in rhyme, and they followed the often stated "rule" of children's books: perfect meter, perfect rhyme. But one day, I decided to write about firefighters. Perfect meter and rhyme did not work for this story. They made it feel too light. The story cried out for something more dramatic. So I broke the rules. I used slant rhyme:

...Through the dark
through the smoke,
a bright red hat,
a yellow coat...

The book sold through its first print run quickly, and was picked up by Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. There are now about 200,000 copies in print.

Would you update us on your back-list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

I can tell you about some of my books, and why I wrote them.

Rockabye Rabbit, illustrated by Saundra Winokur (Cool Kids Press, 1995) was the story of a homeless boy. I wrote it because I experienced homelessness both as a small child and as a teenager. It was a subject that was near to my heart. Unfortunately, Cool Kid's Press went out of business only two months after the book was printed. Now it is a homeless book, with lost and lonely copies wandering the world.

The Butterfly Book: A Kids Guide to Attracting, Raising, and Keeping Butterflies (John Muir Publications, 1997).

When I was ten years old, I killed a butterfly. I didn't mean to kill it—in fact, I was trying to save it. I had collected a chrysalis before it could be destroyed along with a pile of weeds. I knew it was alive because it twitched when I touched it.

When the chrysalis grew stiff and stopped twitching, I thought it was dead. I cracked it open to see what had happened to it. The chrysalis was full of soupy green-brown goo. I thought the caterpillar had rotted.

When I researched it, I found out that inside the mummy–like chrysalis--a caterpillar's flesh and organs dissolve. It turns into a living soup! The few cells that remain together carry the blueprint for an adult butterfly. The caterpillar soup reforms around these groups of cells into the wings, legs and body of an adult.

I went on to raise many healthy butterflies, and thirty years later, I wrote The Butterfly Book in memory of the butterfly I killed. It is used in classrooms across the nation. I hope it saves tens of thousands of butterfly lives.

This is the Ocean, illustrated by Lorianne Siomades (Boyds Mills Press, 2001) describes the water cycle in lyric poetry. Science, music, and poetry have beauty, order, and structure in common. I was mixing them in unit studies as I homeschooled my children the year I wrote This is the Ocean.

Lorianne Siomades' torn paper art was not at all how I pictured the subject. But I adore it, especially the purple mountain goats!

This is the Ocean has recently experienced a jump in sales. I expect this is a side effect of the concern about global warming.

Firefighters to the Rescue!, illustrated by Rich Davis (Viking, 2005.) I wrote my "rule-breaking book" because I saw a curly-headed little boy in a preschool parking lot beside a shiny new fire truck. He was bouncing in place, as excited on the outside as I was on the inside! I wanted to share that excitement with lots and lots and lots of little boys…and that is just what has happened!

Rich Davis did a wonderful, complex job on the retro illustrations. I like to challenge readers to find Rich's sly nod to his favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Congratulations on the release of Red Truck, illustrated by Valeria Petrone (Viking, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Thank you! I love this book. It is the "youngest" picture book I have written. It is for three–year–old boys who love trucks and adventure.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This is such a short text—just 106 words—that very small things are important. Not just words—the sound of individual letters and letter combinations. The whole book was it was "sparked" by the sounds inside the title words: "red truck." I love the repetition of the R's; the almost hard D and the hard CK sounds. I like the way it feels to say them, I like the way they settled in my ears. They were fun, fun sounds and grew into a fun, fun book!

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

Red Truck might not be the best example of my creative process. Sometimes a book hits like lightning, and a story is burned in your mind. Red Truck was a lightning book. It was fast, and came out just right the first time. I think it took a whole week to sell.

That sounds nice, but recovering from a lighting strike is not easy. If there is one guarantee in the writing universe, it is this: after a lightning strike, the next book will not be easy.

My next picture book was hard fought, one painful word at a time, revision after revision. It took me weeks to get the first draft down, revision after revision to get the final draft right.

What did Valeria Petrone's illustrations bring to your text?

Atmosphere and drama through the color palette that she chose, a sense of place and character through the depiction of the fantastically fun truck driver, a child-like friendliness in the subtle expressions on the truck. That was needed to offset the gritty text. I love every bit of what Valeria did. I think she was the perfect illustrator for this book.

You write for both the mainstream and Christian markets. How do they differ?

Good question. There is very good writing and very bad writing in both markets, of course. I think the greatest difference would be in marketing and promotion strategies.

Library-and-school sales and school visits are the bread and butter of mainstream children's writers. In many places, public schools and libraries will not purchase books published by Christian book houses or consider authors published in the Christian market for school visits.

I find it ironic that two kinds of books get banned from school libraries: books with graphic language and/or sexual content and Christian books.

Christian writers do have some opportunities that are not open to authors of mainstream books. There are hundreds of Christian radio programs that are happy to do author interviews. This is an excellent way to reach homeschooling parents, who buy a lot of books.

You have written eight books in the Millie Keith series (A Life of Faith/Mission Press, Zonderkidz, 2001-)(scroll to view). How did the series come to be?

In 1999, Mission City Press gave me a marvelous opportunity—they asked me to write a series of novels based on characters created by Martha Finley, a Christian writer of the late 1800's.

I was delighted by the challenge, but a little worried that ladies of the Victorian age would be boring.

I turned to diaries and historical documents to find out. It turns out they weren't all prim and proper, sitting in parlors sipping tea. Some wrote books. Some challenged injustice. Some traveled the world alone. Three of the women I read about became the real–life models for the new adventures of Millie Keith.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a Southern judge and plantation owner, laid down their wealthy lifestyle, their social standing, and the respect of "proper" society to fight slavery.

Victorian ladies were not supposed to notice "indelicate" things such as the way slaves were treated. When Sarah and Angelina not only noticed but stood up and spoke against slavery, their lives were threatened. They were warned not return to the South. They were thrown out of two Christian denominations for being so bold! The Grimkes became suffragettes as well as abolitionists, fighting for the rights of women to have an education, to speak about social injustice, and to vote. Thousands of women attended their lectures; tens of thousands read their pamphlets and articles.

Isabella Bird's travels began in the 1840's, when she was hardly more than a teenager. Her father, an English pastor, sent his brilliant daughter to the Americas to report on the state of Christianity there. Isabella, a young lady of culture and refinement, traveled alone and loved it. She eventually became a world traveler, who wrote wonderful books.

Have you written any other books for the press? If so, could you tell us about them?

Yes. I wrote a young slave girl, Laylie Colbert, into the Millie Keith books. The editors liked Laylie so much they asked me to write a book about her. That book became Laylie's Daring Quest.

Laylie lived well before the Civil War, during the harshest of the slavery years. To capture the attitudes of the day, I read pro–slavery sermons and apologetics, anti–slavery sermons and Abolitionist papers, diaries and memoirs of plantation owners and southern whites, and hundred of slave narratives.

I have never cried so hard researching or writing a book. I hope it opens minds and changes hearts. Writing it changed my life.

You've also published four books in the Caleb Pascal & the Peculiar People Series (Standard, 2007-). Could you tell us how the series came to be?

The story of the Caleb series is a good counterpoint to the lightning-like creation and sale of Red Truck. It was both slow and difficult.

In writing Laylie's Daring Quest, I presented other people's pain. In writing Caleb, I exposed my own.

Thomas Wolfe said, "The deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or another was central to all living, was man’s search for a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united."

Wolfe touched on a literary archetype than runs through all cultures, and all times: The orphan, searching for what he has lost. It will be told a million times in a million voices, from Moses to Oliver Twist to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, and loved every time it is told well.

Caleb, Son of None is the story of my orphan heart.

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

The original story took months to work itself out of me, like a thorn coming out slowly from deep in my flesh. And when it was out, and when it was right…it didn't sell. For ten years, it didn't sell. Sometimes the market isn't quite ready for a book. And then, something changes.

When Standard signed for Caleb Son of None, they wanted three more books about Caleb. And they wanted all three in twelve months. Fortunately, the tight schedule of the Millie books and the painful honesty of the Laylie story had been a good school for me.

What advice do you have for picture book writers?

Get out your boots and Indiana Jones whip. It's time to blaze a path through no man's land, between oral tradition and the written word. Your readers are sophisticated thinkers and storytellers who lack only reading skills. Learning to track those letters across the page is one of the most difficult things they will ever do. Use every tool and skill you have to make sure it is a thrilling journey and that the payoff at the end makes the hard work worthwhile.

Dip into child psychology and emergent-reader studies. If your latest contact with that world was Piaget, who believed that a preschool child could not follow a narrative, or "Sesame Street," which was intentionally anti–narrative, you need to do some reading.

A three–year–old may not be able to follow complicated plot twist or subplots, but narrative is essential to them. They order, structure, and understand their world through narrative. They make sense of their daily lives through story.

For those who write YA and adult novels—thank a picture book writer today. If they had not broken that path through the wilderness long ago, no one would be reading your novels. Flowers and chocolates are appropriate gifts for picture book writers. Tossing rose petals in front of them while they walk is acceptable. Large checks are always appreciated.

Sometimes, when I finish a picture book, I put on my YA novelist hat and send my picture-book self a box of truffles.

Those writing for the Christian market?

I have four things to say to Christian writers:

First: avoid religiosity at all costs, and don't make excuses for it. Jesus had very little to do with religiosity, and certainly not the distorted version certain segments of the church display today.

Second: tell the truth. Faith is messy and scary and sometimes confusing. Every Christian is flawed. Write them that way.

People of other faiths—Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist, Pagan, Native people who embrace their traditional religions, etc.—can be deeply moral, caring, honorable people. If, in your books, they are morally or intellectually inferior to the Christians, you have portrayed them as less than human. Dig deeper. Being a follower of Jesus is not about being better than other people.

Third: don't be afraid to rattle the religious crowd. Jesus wasn't. If his Good Samaritan story were told with modern prejudice, it might go something like this:

A Bible scholar asked Jesus, "How do I get eternal life?"

"What does the Bible say?" Jesus asked.

"Love God with all your passion, strength and mind," the man replied. "And to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself."

"Exactly," Jesus said.

That answer was not quite good enough for the Bible scholar. The town was full of dirty people, people who didn't deserve to be loved.

"But who is my 'neighbor'?" he asked.

"Let me tell you a story," Jesus said. "A certain man was traveling through town when two thugs grabbed him. They beat him up, stole his wallet, and left him bleeding and senseless, face down in the filthy gutter.

"The youth director of a local church was in the neighborhood leading his high school group in a community project. When he saw the man in the gutter, he moved his students to the other side of the street. He would never hear the last of it if he let them get involved in that kind of mess.

"A mega–church minister was driving down the street on his way to a pastor's gathering. He slowed as he passed them man, and then went on. At the meeting, he told everyone about what he had seen. They prayed for God to abolish street violence, and voted to create a charitable fund for victims.

"Now, a transvestite prostitute happened to be working that section of town. When he saw the injured man, he fell to his knees and lifted him out of the filth. He cleaned him up as gently as he could, and carried him to the clinic down the street. The injured man’s money and ID were gone, so the transvestite paid for his medical care, and promised to come check on him after work. Which one of them was a neighbor?”

"The one who was kind," the Bible scholar said.

"Yes," Jesus said. "Go and do the same."

With just one story, Jesus turned the man's world upside-down. You see, the question was not: "How do I be a neighbor?" The question was: "Who is my neighbor? Who must I love?" And the answer was, "the most despised person in your community." The "go and do the same" was just icing on the cake; a very uncomfortable message in 32 CE or 2008. That's the kind of depth and revelation we should aim for in our fiction.

Fourth, and finally, my own motto: Don't let the plot drag. That doesn't honor God.

Those writing a series of novels?

Series are intense, engrossing, consuming. It is easy to lose track of them or to get lost in them.

Keep a series "bible," and update it frequently. Keep track of the small details. Eye color, middle names that are only mentioned once, random uncles. Keep track of your character's favorite foods and racy birthmarks, and the spelling of their names.

Also keep a family "bible," and I don't mean a Good Book. A notebook will do. In the family "bible," write down the names and brief descriptions of your children and your spouse. That way, when someone interrupts you, you can glance at it and figure out who they are.

Why are stories of faith for young readers important to you?

Doug Tennapel, in the prologue to his adult horror noir graphic novel Black Cherry, explains it perfectly:

"Modern stories have made sweeping efforts to hide or show embarrassment regarding our religious identity…I refuse to bow to their pressure for the same reason I don't remove the F–word from my dialog…because my job is to tell the truth. Mobsters, strippers, gang–bangers and priests have deep theological thoughts about their religious experience and so do my characters."

Yes. That's it exactly. My job is to tell the truth.

You are certainly publishing with much success! How do you structure your writing time?

Structure? What's that? And, um…what year is it?

How do you balance the craft of writing against the responsibilities of being a published author (correspondence, events, media, other promotion)?

I am a fairly good writer, very happy sitting in my own little space—any closet or cranny will do—writing, writing, writing. I love my stories!

I am a terrible author. If I could pay someone to make author's appearances for me, I would. Unfortunately, Lemony Snicket thought of it first. And, I foolishly put my real name on my books right from the start, which ruined any hope of future anonymity.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning author, what advice would you offer?

It's a good thing you love writing, kid. You are going to get to write to your heart out! Publishing, now, that's a different story. Your career is going to take longer, be harder, and have more twists and turns than you can even imagine. Don't give up.

What do you do when you're not in the book world?

Right now my favorite pastime is hunting dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts through the Ojito Wilderness and surrounding areas. The bones of huge monsters lie hidden in the deserts and badlands of New Mexico. I've found fragments of dinosaur bone, ammonites, an incredible acanthoceras from the Cretaceous, 8,000 year old camel bones, and possibly a pile of rhino remains. (The Natural History Museum has not identified those yet.)

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a new picture book coming from Viking next year that I am very excited about! Police Patrol is a cop shop story, nitty-gritty for the itty-bitty. R. W. Alley, the illustrator, has done a brilliant job. He's added a whole new layer to the story.

My current WIP is a mainstream urban fantasy loosely based on the Finnian Cycle. I am loving this book, the characters and the story. I can't wait to share it with the world!

The Brown Bookshelf Forum Features Chat with Agent Jennifer Carlson Today

The Brown Bookshelf forum at MySpace is featuring a chat today, beginning at 10 a.m. EST, with Jennifer Carlson, a principal agent with Dunow, Carlson, Lerner Literary Agency.

Peek: "Jennifer Carlson has been agenting for ten years. Previously, she worked at Henry Dunow Literary Agency and Harold Ober Associates. In addition to adult writers, she works with young adult and middlegrade writers (primarily fiction) and a select number of picture book projects. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York."

Looking for an agent? Don't miss Writing Links: Agents from Children's & YA Lit Resources. It's a comprehensive listing of agent interviews, information/tips about the submissions process, working with an agent, and much more!

See also a Cynsations interview with the founders of The Brown Bookshelf.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Executive Director Interview: Deborah Pope on the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

From the foundation site: "Deborah Pope has served as Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation since 1999 and has been a member of the Board of Directors since 1983."

Who was Ezra Jack Keats?

Born Jacob Ezra Katz to poor Polish Jewish immigrants in 1916, Ezra grew up in a tenement apartment in the East New York section of Brooklyn. This was a very poor community but Ezra was able to see the beauty in the vivid colors of the clothes hanging out to dry, the glorious sunsets over the skyline, and even the litter lining the street corners.

Even as a young boy, color and drawing were the most important things for him. This quality, the ability to see the world truthfully and yet with a youngster's fresh eye, was never lost to Ezra. His books are about his own experiences and because he retained the viewpoint of his childhood self, his books speak directly to children and the memories of their parents.

Why was he significant in the field of children’s literature?

Ezra broke the color barrier in mainstream American children's book publishing. In 1962, The Snowy Day featured the adventures of an African American child in the snow, without fanfare, without trumpeting the cause of integration, but simply as a description of what a day in the snow would be for any child.

The effect of this book was ground shaking. It opened the door to the publication of many more books about children of many races, but perhaps most importantly; it allowed children of many races to see themselves in the books they read.

A generation of multicultural artists recognize The Snowy Day as the book that helped them realize that they too could illustrate and write books.

In addition, and in no less a way, Ezra's art was just that. He didn't simply illustrate his books. He created art for children to study as they were read to and learned to read. His books remain as fresh today as when they were first created, and they have set a high standard for generations of children's book illustrators.

How did a foundation come to be established in his name, and what are its goals?

Ezra created the foundation during his lifetime as a way of supporting the causes that were important to him. His will directed that after his death the royalties from all his books be used by his foundation to do good works.

Ezra named a number of his friends as trustees, or guardians, of the foundation, and Martin Pope became the President of the foundation. Martin and Ezra had been best friends since they were young boys in junior high school. It was through the tireless work of Martin, and his wife Lillie, that the EJK Foundation has grown to what it is today.

Together, they designed all of the programs, the Minigrant Program, the Bookmaking Program, the New York Public Library/Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator and New Writer Awards, to name just a few. The EJK Foundation reflects the spirit of Ezra's work by promoting the idea that all children should be celebrated, and invited to join in the world of books, education and self-fulfillment.

What programs does it offer?

We are very, very proud of the programs run by the EJK Foundation. We are also proud of our new website, The best place to get a full description of all of our programs is on our website. If you visit you will not only learn about the foundation's activities, but also about Ezra's life and books.

Can you describe the New York Public Library/Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator and New Writer Awards? What makes these awards unique?

Unlike other children's book awards, ours honors new writers and illustrators whose work in some way carries on the quality and values of Ezra's books.

The past winners have been a very diverse bunch, including Faith Ringold, Bryan Collier, Cari Best, James Lagarrigue and Deborah Wiles.

All of these books are vivid and individual in style but they all celebrate a diverse world in which many children can come together and see their shared connections.

Also, by honoring new artists our Book Award hopes to encourage new talent to continue to produce special books for our multicultural world.

How do you work with teachers, librarians, and other educators?

In addition to the Minigrant Program, which was specifically designed to support teachers and librarians in their efforts to make learning more enjoyable for their students, we have been working on improving the information and lesson plan resources on our website.

In the coming year, we will continue to expand this page so that educators can visit our site and easily locate new and interesting ways to use Ezra's books to further their classroom curriculum.

Of Ezra's books, which is your favorite and why?

This is definitely a dangerous question! Each book is a favorite for a different reason.

I am very fond of Apt 3 because the sadness in the book is lifted through the joy of music.

When I want an example of how hard it is for a boy to show his friends that he actually likes a girl, I go straight for A Letter to Amy.

If shyness is a problem, then I enjoy introducing people to the series of books about Louie (Louie, The Trip, Louie's Search, and Regards to the Man in the Moon). In these four books we are able to see Louie reach out into the world and grow into a confident kid.

And for a last example, when bullies come center stage as a social problem, there isn’t a better book than Goggles!

Is there anything you would like to add?

It's been a treat to be able to talk about Ezra and the EJK Foundation. We don't often get a chance to brag about our work. Thank you for giving us this opportunity!
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