Tuesday, November 02, 2010

New Voice: Frank Dormer on Socksquatch

Frank Dormer is the first-time author-illustrator of Socksquatch (Henry Holt, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Poor Socksquatch.

All he wants is two warm feet, but things aren’t going his way. Even his friends can’t help.

What’s a monster to do?

Frank Dormer’s sweet, funny monster story will charm the socks off young readers.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I was very silent as a young reader. I didn’t want anything to ruin my concentration. I find most people are like that when reading.

I, however, have no compunction about asking several high volume questions of someone reading. Like, “What’s that book you’re reading?” Or, “Did you know the gross national product of Sweden is in the, like, billions?”

Now if you are wondering what I read, that’s a different story.

I don’t remember reading much when I was very young. When I reached age 10 or so, The Hardy Boys [by Franklin W. Dixon (1927-)] were what I remember picking up on my own and saying “I think I’ll read this.” I blew through all of the titles in the series in, like, three seconds.

If you want a more truthful answer, it took a few years. I hadn’t learned about public libraries yet and the books cost about $2 at the time and I think my allowance was about 75 cents a year.

I relied on that age-old custom called "hinting." About three years before my 12th birthday, I began dropping subliminal hints about what I wanted. My father would sit down to eat his breakfast and find a wadded up note in his eggs benedict with a list of unread Hardy Boys books.

I also read magazines of the day like Fangoria and MAD.

As an artist, I gravitated toward the work of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham during high school. As I write this, I begin to notice that there is a connection in my work between the humor of MAD magazine and the creatures of Rackham’s art.

I hope that Socksquatch works on two levels. Parents like the fun repetitive wordplay, and kids get to say things like “Got Sock?” over and over. Children like repeating rhythms in their reading landscape. It helps build confidence in their vocabulary.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for others interested in succeeding on this front?

I’m not sure I come with a double barrel of talent. Whoopee cushions, maybe.

I attended Savannah College of Art and Design in the '80s, and was shuttled out the door with a piece of paper that sits on my wall to this day. Of course nobody asks to look at the piece of paper before hiring me. Although I enjoy having had the experience of college, I rejoice in the fact that many artists in the field are self-taught.

I spent time as an editorial illustrator (Family Circle sends me an article, and I create an image to visualize the writing, etc.) and began teaching as well.

During that time, I took some courses in creative writing with an exceptional writer whose name I have completely forgotten. She asked us to write a summary of our experience in the class, and I did it in comic book form. After reading a gazillion summaries, she was so happy to get pictures with words instead of just words.

I remember having a discussion of another student's writing, and somehow we got onto the topic of setting. I had pictured the setting so well in my head from the written piece that I disagreed with how it was described.

The professor asked me to describe it and I did. Down to the last detail.

She was stunned.

It was the first time I realized that my brain is wired a bit differently. To this day, reading is my one joy. I do confess that I don’t read children’s literature much, only at my children’s request.

I started in children’s books in 2002. While waiting to get work, I decided to write my own stories to illustrate as a way of practice.

I found that my artist self and my writer self started off a bit shaky. The writer wanted to describe everything. The artist wanted to draw everything. They began to argue and then throw things like pencils and rubber erasers. I would wake up with a headache at 2 a.m. and start yelling at both of them. My wife didn’t appreciate it.

Once a person chooses this vocation and learns the basics, it’s a matter of practice.

My word-putting-down self and my artist self cohabitate better lately. I hesitate to say "writer" as my word count for this book is in the double digits and on the low side of 50.

As to advice, I never liked to state advice that others have already given much better than me.

Instead I would ask anyone who is interested in the field of children’s books a question: Can you put your writing/art next to the very best of the field and say that it is equal to theirs?

I don’t mean in terms of style or voice. Do you look at it next to theirs and visualize them on the bookshelf together? If the answer is anything less than "yes," go back to work.

I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that.

Cynsational Notes

Illustration above is from Frank's next book, The Obstinate Pen (Henry Holt, 2011), which is about a pen that won't write what people want it to.

"Frank Dormer lost his first sock on the way to the Savannah College of Art and Design. His students in his art class use socks for many things from painting to puppets. He lives with his wife and three boys in Branford, Connecticut."

Take a peek into Frank's studio:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a signed copy of Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year old Jamie Bates has a fail-safe strategy for surviving high school: fit in. Keep a low profile. And, above all, protect his biggest secret—he’s gay.

So when a classmate discovers the truth, a terrified Jamie decides it’s time to change. After accepting flirtatious advances from Celia, the richest and most beautiful girl in school, Jamie steals an experimental new drug that’s supposed to “cure” his attraction to guys.

At first, Jamie thinks he’s finally on track to living a “normal” life. But at what cost?

As the drug’s side effects worsen and his relationship with Celia heats up, Jamie begins to realize that lying and using could shatter the fragile world of deception that he’s created—and hurt the people closest to him.

A star-crossed romance with humor and heart, Love Drugged explores the consequences of a life constructed almost entirely of lies . . . especially the lies we tell ourselves.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Love Drugged" in the subject line. Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just message me with the title in the header or comment on this round-up. I'll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. U.S. entries only; sponsored by the author.

The winner of The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas (Aladdin, 2010) is Stacey in California, and the winner of Another Pan by Daniel and Dina Nayeri (Candlewick, 2010) is Natalee in Massachusetts.

Congratulations, Laura Logan

Congratulations to Lidia Bastianich and fellow Austinite Laura Logan on the release of Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia's Christmas Kitchen (Running Press, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

America’s favorite Italian-American cook, Lidia Bastianich, shares the story of the Christmases she used to celebrate in Italy with her five grandchildren.

When Lidia was a child, she spent Christmas with her grandparents, where she learned to cook with her Nonna Rosa by preparing food in their smokehouse and kitchen. Lidia and her brother would also find a big beautiful juniper bush to cut down for their holiday tree. And they made their own holiday decorations with nuts, berries, and herbs they collected for their meals.

This delightful picture book is filled with the story of Lidia’s Christmas traditions, delicious recipes, and decorating ideas all perfected over the years by Lidia and her family.

More News

Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac: "Daily children's book recommendations from Anita Silvey. Discover the stories behind children’s book classics and the new books good enough to become classics." Read a Cynsations interview with Anita.

Walking Through the Valley of Patience by Catherine Schaff-Stump from Writer Tango. Peek: "If your work is accepted, you'll need patience continually. Waiting for the edits, waiting for the publication, waiting for the proofs, waiting for the check, waiting, waiting, waiting. This is the nature of publishing."

National Adoption Month and Ethiopia by Jane Kurtz from The Power of One Writer. Peek: "I remember the first time I heard from a mom who had kids adopted from Ethiopia. Sandra Snook lived in Chicago in those days, and she was headed for Montana on vacation with a van full of her children–and she asked if she could stop in North Dakota so they could meet the author of Fire on the Mountain, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1994)." Read a Cynsations interview with Jane.

Online Persona Week Five: Taking Risks by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violets. Peek: "We avoid risk because we are afraid; we’re afraid that in exposing our true selves we will drive people away. But, if being plain vanilla and boring is going to keep people away anyway, why not throw caution to the wind and drive them away with the force of your views or personality?"

Happy [Belated] National Cat Day by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup. Note: highlights many of children's literature's finest cats, including four at the Leitich Smith house.

ReaderKidZ Featured Author Linda Sue Park: this month's features center on A Long Walk to Water (Clarion, 2010). Peek: "War, loss. Hope, gain. The scars of war are many. The thread of hope thin. But through it all, Salva Dut, one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, held on to his thoughts of family, and the things they’d shared in his short 11 years of life. Things like courage and the need to live one day – each day - at a time." Check back later this month for Bethany Hegedus, talking about Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Joseph Bruchac.

What's Love Got to Do With It? by Lisa Schroeder from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "Personally, I'd take a rejection that says, 'I just didn't love it' over one that says, 'The writing is really weak and the characters fall flat' any day of the week!" Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa.

It's Okay to Stay Private by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: "Lately, a lot of people have told me that they’re using Facebook just for family and friends or that they use Twitter to keep up with only a few people… and they say it in an apologetic way."

Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast: J. Patrick Lewis by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: "A 'prolific' writer is one who might toss off books over the weekend as if writing were a holiday game. Only people who do not write children’s books can harbor such nonsense. Golf ball manufacturers, the makers of M&M’s, and paper shredders are prolific. I’d much prefer to be thought of as indefatigable, though Jane [Yolen]’s 'versatile' would be okay, too." Read a Cynsations interview with Pat.

Out of the Box from the Horn Book. "its goal is to provide coverage of some of the many books, near-books and neo-books that don't need review so much as they need attention" (quoting Read Roger). Read a Cynsations interview with Roger Sutton.

Cynsational Screening Room

King of Ithaka Giveaway: Enter to win a copy of King of Ithaka by Tracy Barrett (Henry Holt, 2010) from P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth.

More Personally

Tomorrow I'm off to Kalamazoo, Michigan! Hope to see some of y'all there!

Cynsations will be on hiatus until Monday. Have a wonderful week!

Native Now: A Sense of Time and Place by Guest Blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith at Rasco from RIF. Peek: "These stories emphasize that Native people have a past, present, and a future. They bust inaccurate stereotypes and connect young readers—both Native and non-Indian—to tribally specific characters who hail from a variety of landscapes." See also a free readers' theater for Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002)--available for classroom use!

Holler Loudly Gets Everybody's Attention: a review by Jennifer Robinson from BookPage. Peek: "...an apt reminder that we are all unique, and in celebrating our gifts, sometimes it may be just as necessary to bellow boldly as to listen quietly."

Get Ready for Holler Loudly: an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Shutta Crum. Peek: "Writing a novel feels like running a marathon on uncertain terrain, stumbling occasionally along the way. A picture book is more like a sprint, exhilarating. It uses many of the same muscles in different ways. It’s more about the burst or series of bursts than endurance."

Cynsational Events

"Beyond Feathers and Fangs: Crossing Borders in Realistic and Fantasy Fiction, with Cynthia Leitich Smith" at The 33rd Annual Mary Calletto Rife Youth Literature Seminar - Kalamazoo Public Library. The seminar costs $40 (lower student rates are available) and is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Nov. 5. Note: Maria Perez-Stable and Beth Amidon will also present a book talk, and additional speakers are Gillian Engberg, Booklist editor, and Debbie Reese, UIUC professor. See more on the speakers. Note: I'll also be speaking at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 in a public event at the Kalamazoo Public Library!

Authors Bethany Hegedus, Brian Yansky and Cynthia Leitich Smith will celebrate their latest books at 2 p.m. Nov. 14 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. This joint author party will feature refreshments, alien tattoos, readings, a Q&A, and signing. Bethany's new release is Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010)(ages 9-up), Cynthia's latest release is Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010)(ages 4-up), and Brian's latest release is Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences (Candlewick, 2010)(ages 12-up).

“Give Yourself a Longer Shelf Life: Marketing for the Long-Term" panel discussion at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 at BookPeople. Panelists: Cynthia Leitich Smith, Jay Ehret and Dana Lynn Smith. Jay is a book marketing expert, and Dana is a book marketing coach and author of The Savvy Book Marketer Guides. Sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas.

"Fangs vs. Fur" event will include Cynthia Leitich Smith Nov. 19 at the University Hills Branch of the Austin Public Library.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Sherry Garland

Learn about Sherry Garland.

What first inspired you to write across formats in children’s/YA literature?

It was my red-headed Scotsman frugal nature. I’m a waste-not/want not kind of person, so after doing three years of research for a non-fiction fifth grade book about Vietnam, I had accumulated lots of information that I didn’t want to “throw away.”

Since I am a fiction writer first and foremost, I began to think of several fiction projects about Vietnam. First, I wrote a picture book, The Lotus Seed, illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi (Harcourt, 1993) about the life of a Vietnamese woman, from childhood in Vietnam until she was an old woman in America.

It came about because of the dozens of interviews I had with Vietnamese refugees in the Houston area.

Then I wrote a YA novel, Song of the Buffalo Boy (Harcourt, 1992), about an Amerasian teenager in Vietnam trying to find the truth about her American father. That one was inspired after reading an article in "Parade Magazine" during my research.

Next was a YA novel, Shadow of the Dragon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993), whose subject matter concerned Vietnamese gangs in Houston. Again, that came about from my research for the nonfiction book.

Also, there was a picture book about Vietnamese shrimpers along the Gulf Coast, My Father's Boat, illustrated by Ted Rand (Scholastic, 1998) that evolved when doing research about Vietnamese adjusting to American life.

Additionally, there were two picture books about Vietnamese folk tales (Why Ducks Sleep on One Leg, illustrated by Jean Tseng (Scholastic, 1993) and a collection, Children of the Dragon: Selected Tales from Vietnam, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Harcourt, 2001)).

Lastly, I wrote a short story about the Vietnam War for "Scholastic Scope" magazine, which was later used in a Scholastic seventh grade text book. So, from one big hairy batch of research, I produced seven books and one long-lived short story.

I did the same thing with the topic of Texas history. I was asked to write a picture book about the Alamo (Voices of the Alamo, illustrated by Ronald Himler (Scholastic, 2000)).

That research took about two years, which is a lot for a picture book, but then I wrote one of the Dear America Books about the same topic (A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836 (Scholastic, 1998)), so most of the research had already been done.

Then I wrote a YA novel about the same topic but from the Mexican perspective (In the Shadow of the Alamo (Harcourt, 2001)).

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

One thing I learned was to respect the picture book format. At first, I was like a lot of inexperienced people who thought that a picture book would be an easy project. I soon learned that in may ways writing a picture book is more difficult than writing a middle grade or YA novel.

With picture books, you do not have the luxury of 60,000 words to evoke emotions, describe scenes or use pithy dialogue.

For example, my forty-page historical picture book about Texas history took just as much research as my middle grade novel or YA novel about Texas history.

It was the same topic and same research, but with the picture book format, I had to get across an historical event in just a few stanzas, and cover a time period from 1500 to present day in about a thousand words. The words had to be poetic and emotional, yet at the same time convey history accurately.

The picture book process of culling down, cutting back, and selecting the most powerful words helped me learn to keep the novels more tight.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

If the author enjoys writing a certain kind of book, it can be a good thing to find a niche in the publishing industry. I am thinking of writers of mysteries, horror, romance, fantasy, series books or perhaps picture books for the very young.

Having a ready-made audience improves book sales, and your fame builds over time. The down side would be that once you are pegged, it may be difficult to break out of that niche, should you decide one day to try something different.

On the other hand, hopping around from format to format can be detrimental to your career. Publishers and librarians don’t know what to think of you; they may not be aware of all the genres you write. For example, I’ve spoken at elementary schools in which the librarians were totally unaware of my YA novels. And I’ve spoken at junior highs, where the librarians weren’t aware of my picture books. It’s more difficult to develop a following because those who read picture books are different than those who read YA novels.

Because I had so many books about Vietnam, for a while I was branded as a “multicultural” author. It was a good thing for me at the time because there was a market for the kinds of books I wrote. When that market went soft and I switched to writing books that were not about Vietnam, it was difficult to adjust. It was almost like starting over. Readers (even librarians) will forget you if you don’t keep producing.

On the positive side, writing for many different age levels increases the potential for schools visits. A YA author may only be invited to speak at middle, junior high or high schools. Picture book authors may only be invited to speak at elementary schools. But the author who writes for many age levels will get invited to all of these.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.
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