Friday, August 12, 2011

Cynsational News & Giveaways

How Writing About Terrible Things Makes Your Reader a Better Person by Donna Jo Napoli from The Official SCBWI Conference Blog. Peek: "'Characters who are hopeful and hold onto their dignity show readers a way to live decently in their world--even if it's only inside their heads,' she says. 'These books are of crucial importance to the unprotected child.' It's even more important for the protected child...." See the rest of the conference coverage. See also 6 Social Media Steps to Take After a Conference or Big Event by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident.

Ladies, Don't Let Anyone Tell You That You Or Your Female Protagonist Isn't Awesome by Sarah Rees Brennan from Sarah Tells Tales. Peek: "Talking about girls in this way is not useful. It just helps along the mindset that girls can't be awesome, the lie all girls get told, whispered in their ears over and over again, all through their lives." See also Ladies, Ladies, Ladies from Holly Black.

Superheroes for All: African-American Comic Book Artists Push the Envelope by Ann Brown from The Network Journal. Peek: "African-Americans in the comics industry may be a rare concept, but they are making more than a little noise. In fact, while their contributions may go unnoticed by the general public, they have helped changed the face of the field.

" Source: Bowllan's Blog at SLJ.

How to Celebrate Book Week 2011: One World, Many Stories from Aug. 20 to Aug. 26 in Australia from The Book Chook. Peek: "This is a great theme to introduce your children to literature from other cultures. I thought I'd help you get organized ahead this year, so you can plunder the library and plan your celebrations!"

Stephanie Brown's Intrinsic Importance to the Bat-verse by J.L. Bell from Oz and Ends. Peek: "Both within the fictional DC Universe and within the fan culture around that universe, Stephanie Brown came to symbolize someone who wasn’t getting any breaks."

I (Won't Let Myself) Get Satisfaction by Michelle Ray from EMU's Debuts. Peek: "Being published has been one of the best things in my life, yet it's fraught with emotional challenges."

How Does Your Story Sound? by Cambria Dillon from Adventures in Children's Publishing. Peek: "My point is that you have to consider how your words sound when someone else reads them aloud. Someone else who isn't trying to dissect your dialogue for awkwardness or scoff because you used 'blaze' when 'inferno' would've been a better choice."

Relationships Focus Characters by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "Asking about relationship seems easier to me than asking about how to characterize. It’s interactive, as one character does something, the other must respond. If I can find a central thing around which I can center conflict and reveal character with that, it will work."

Author Interview: Amy Lim from Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind. Peek: "I would say any children's literature generated locally would constitute Singapore children's literature for me.... There have been recent strides in terms of support, with the First Time Writers and Illustrators Initiative doing a great job in kickstarting several of us into the realm of published writers."

Thoughts from Picture Book Peeks: The Picture Book Pitch by Jean Reidy from A Totally Random Romp. Peek: "...a one-sentence summary is just as important for picture books. Why?"

How Big is the Writing Community? by Shelli Cornelison from Shelli's Soliloquy. Peek: "The next time I hear a writer talk about the 'community' I think it will have a much deeper meaning for me. I never really took the time to sit and ponder the awesomeness of it before."

The Art of Revision: Micro Revising by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: "Micro revision is all about the scene. Is the scene—the building block of my novel—working? Is it carrying its weight? Has it earned its place in the story?"

Bookish Ways in Math and Science: a blog about integrating children's literature in elementary math and science from Tricia of The Miss Rumphius Effect Fame.

Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Shows by Julie Bosman from The New York Times. Peek: "Juvenile books, which include the current young-adult craze for paranormal and dystopian fiction, grew 6.6 percent over three years." Note: hug a paranormal/dystopian writer. Source: Gwenda Bond.

Books-A-Million to Replace Borders in Sumpter, South Carolina from Business Wire. Peek: "The Company presently operates 231 stores in 23 states and the District of Columbia. The Company operates large superstores under the names Books-A-Million and Books & Co. and traditional bookstores operating under the names Bookland and Books-A-Million."

Picture Book to Novel Checklist by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: "Ask these questions after your first draft and each revision draft. You should be using this list many times before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent. The most often mistake writers make is to send their writting in too early."

Figuring Out Your Strengths and Weaknesses by Danyelle Leafty from Peek: " do you discover what you need to work on and what you're good at, but could amp up?"

Behind Jo Knowles' Pearl by Gordon West from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: "When someone you love dies unexpectedly, there are naturally many regrets and questions. I think there’s a natural progression of uncovering things you didn’t know about the person as you strive to make sense of his or her life." See also the "deleted scene" from the interview from Jo.

Do It Yourself: Making a Book Trailer by Christine Norris from Kathy Temean at Writing and Illustrating. Peek: "I spent about four hours of my time (most of that listening to music tracks and rearranging slides) and zero dollars to put this trailer together. And hey, if I can do it, you can too!"

Don't Feel Guilty About "Playing" Around Online from Jane Friedman. Peek: "If your play is building stronger connections to other people, opening your mind up to new possibilities, spreading the word about what you do, or helping you understand things about yourself and your writing, then continue to play."

The First Filipino Reader Conference is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 14 at the SMX Mall of Asia (Metro Manila, Philippines), Meeting Room 2. See more information from Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind.

FuseNews: a youth literature new round-up by Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production from School Library Journal. Peek: "Cynsations is created by author Cynthia Leitich Smith, and is so exhaustive that I wonder how she has time to write her YA fiction." Note: thanks for the shout out!


The second annual summer WriteOnCon is a 100 percent free, interactive online Writer’s Conference, scheduled Aug. 16 to Aug. 18. Peek: "WriteOnCon is also not exclusive to kidlit writers. In order to stay organized, the curriculum is focused on picture book, middle grade, and young adult writers. However, much of the information provided applies to all writers, and many of the publishing professionals who participate cross over." Check out the faculty.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a signed copy of Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri (Candlewick, 2011)! To enter, comment at this link or email me and type "Ghetto Cowboy" in the subject line. Extra entry if you share your best close encounter with a horse or a true life event that inspired you to write about it. Author sponsored; U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: midnight CST Aug. 22.

Enter to win an autographed copy of Blood Ties, book 6 of the Blood Coven Vampires series by Mari Mancusi, newly released by Penguin.

To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with "Blood Ties" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: midnight CST Aug. 13.

The winner of an author-signed bookmark and copy of Bumped by Megan McCafferty (HarperTeen, 2011) was Ashley in Ohio. Congratulations to Ashley! Thanks to Megan and all who entered!

This Week's Cynsations Posts

Support Schools in Joplin with Books & More

Superintendent C.J. Huff explains some of the ways you can get involved in helping students and teachers in Joplin, Missouri following the tornado. See more information from Caroline Starr Rose.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out this book trailer for The Poisoned House: A Ghost Story by Michael Ford (Albert Whitman, Sept. 2011). See also Victorian YA: Teen Heroines Kicking Down the Pedestal by Michelle in Marketing from Boxcars, Books, and a Blog: Albert Whitman Co.

Revenge is Best Served Loud by Vicky Smith from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: YA author Lara Zielin and Kirkus punch, counter-punch, and walk away friends. See also Editing Letter.

How to Get the Most Out of a Manuscript Critique: an Interview with Agent Jill Corcoran from Lee Wind at the Official SCBWI Conference Blog.

Celebrating Sean Petrie

About 20 Austin children's-YA writers and illustrators gathered Aug. 5 at Rounders Pizzeria in Austin to celebrate Sean Petrie, who graduated this summer with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Yes, that's Frankie and Sammy in the background.) Photos courtesy of Bethany Hegedus.

Sean shows off his graduation gift from Christy Stallop.
YA authors Mari Mancusi and Varian Johnson, who's also a VCFA grad.
Author & VCFA grad Lindsey Lane with semester 1 student Elizabeth White.
Rounders Pizzeria pepperoni & mushroom.

More Personally

Highlights of the week included 2011 Literacy Texas Annual Conference, which took place Aug. 8 and Aug. 9 at the Austin Westin at the Domain.

Friendly faces included library & literacy goddess Jen Bigheart.

I presented a workshop with the dynamic and inspiring Judy Blankenship Cheatham, vice president, Literacy Services, for Reading Is Fundamental. Judy is shown here with Debbie Johnson, executive director of Literacy Texas.

In our session, Judy talked about using Jingle Dancer to build literacy.
On the creative front, I received my first pass pages for Diabolical.

YA Novel Tantalize: Adapted to Graphic Novel from New POV by Zack Smith from Newsarama. An Interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith and illustrator Ming Doyle. Peek from Ming: " of the things I liked most of Tantalize on my first read through was how much it reminded me of a Holmesian adventure, with a healthy and intriguing dose of the mythical and bizarre thrown in for good measure."

Book Review: Tantalize (the prose novel) by Cynthia Leitich Smith from The Obscure Vixen. Peek: "Huge kudos to Cynthia Leitich Smith for giving me the refreshing, amazing read that I needed! This story takes off at the first page, and just keeps going. It has everything: romance, deceit, suspense, vampires and werewolves..." Note: 5 out of 5 stars! 

Personal Links:
From Greg Leitich Smith
Find Cyn: Author Site; Blogger; Facebook; Google Plus, JacketFlap; LiveJournal; Twitter; YouTube.

Cynsational Events

Attention, Houstonians! Please join Cynthia Leitich Smith for a discussion and signing of Tantalize: Kieren's Story (Candlewick, 2011) at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

Note: "This event is free and open to the public. In order to go through the signing line and meet Cynthia Leitich Smith for book personalization, you must purchase Tantalize: Kieren’s Story from Blue Willow Bookshop. A limited number of autographed copies of Cynthia’s books will be available for purchase after the event. If you cannot attend the event, but would like a personalized copy of her book, please call Blue Willow before the event at 281.497.8675."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Guest Post: Goddess Girls authors Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams on Sustaining a Series Over Time

By Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Goddess Girls started out as a four-book series for ages 8-12 that puts a modern spin on classic myths and follows the ins and outs of divine social life at Mount Olympus Academy.

We hoped that if the series was successful, our publisher, Aladdin, would request additional books. We hoped this, but we didn’t expect it. We’d each written other series that didn’t go beyond the original number of contracted books.

As we write, the sixth book in this series, Aphrodite the Diva, is just out. Book 7: Artemis the Loyal will be published in December, and Book 8: Medusa the Mean releases in April 2012.

And we’ve just contracted to write four more: a Super Special with a tie-in to the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics, followed by three more for a total of twelve.

To allow room for growth, we structured Goddess Girls in an open-ended way. Though the first seven books were narrated by one of our original four main goddessgirls—Athena, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Artemis—you can tell by the title for Book 8 that we’re branching out to feature other girl characters who’ve thus far played minor roles in previous books.

Every book is populated by a familiar cast of Greek gods, goddesses, demigods, and mortals—all students at Mount Olympus Academy. Sometimes, as with Book 6, we also bring in characters like the Egyptian goddess, Isis, from other pantheons. All the books have an actual Greek myth or two at their cores.

Factors contributing to the success of Goddess Girls are difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart. Nevertheless here are our thoughts:

(1) We picked the right topic at the right time.

Goddess Girls published soon after Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series came out. His series created a hunger for Greek Mythology-based fiction. Our series was able to capitalize on that interest, plus our books appeal especially to girl readers.

(2) We’ve promoted this series much more than our earlier books. 

A lot of this promotion involves social media. We do blog tours and Blog Hops that include book and swag giveaways. We both have Facebook pages, blogs, and author websites. We connect with our readers daily on our Goddess Girls Facebook page.

Joan tweets. Suzanne doesn’t. (But Suzanne does speak at schools, and at conferences for teachers and librarians.)

We’ve also started to do more virtual visits with classrooms and book clubs through Skype Authors. And we both do occasional in-store book signings too.

(3) It’s just possible that we write middle grade books better as a team than we do as individuals.

A favorite reviewer of ours thinks so, and she could be right. Two heads are better than one.

The big secret to successful collaboration is: Choose the right co-author! Someone who meets deadlines and has a writing style similar to your own.

Whatever the reasons for the Goddess Girls series success so far, we are loving it and plan to keep writing the books for as long as we can!

Cynsational Notes

Guest Post: Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams on the Goddess Girls series from Cynsations (April 2010). Peek: "We tossed our egos out the window and mercilessly rewrote each other's work until the series began to sound as if one author had written it."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Author-Educator Interview: Katie Monnin on Teaching Graphic Novels to Young Readers

From Maupin House: "Katie Monnin is an assistant professor of literacy at University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She has presented nationally at conferences on teaching graphic novels in the classroom, image and print-text literacies, and new media. Katie is the co-editor of Florida Reading Quarterly."

How did you come to be so interested in graphic literature for young readers?

Great question! But I have to backup a bit in history to give you the answer.

Unlike many people whom I admire and now work with, I was not a comic or graphic novel kid. I never read comics or graphic novels growing up, which, looking back now, fuels my now-passionate desire to get more kids to read comics and graphic novels, for comics and graphic novels can open up an entirely new format of reading for younger kids whose strong suit might not be print-text, traditional literacies.

So here’s what happened to lead up to being interested in graphic literature for young readers. At twenty-three, I had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, both in English Literature and Creative Writing. But I just felt like something was still missing. I couldn’t fill some sort of void I had in my heart for defining literature on a more modern, global scale.

Then, one day, Maus by Art Spiegelman literally fell off a bookshelf and hit my square in the head. Being somewhat superstitious, I opened it up and said: “A graphic novel? This isn’t really reading.”

Despite my objections, however, a greater force had gotten the best of me, and I sat down to read it anyway, preparing in my mind only to make fun of it from my literary-ignorant-poise I thought my degrees in English and Creative Writing had given me permission to project out into the world.

Boy was I wrong! As I read Maus, my young and arrogant idea of what counted as literature dissolved into the past. This graphic novel was not only literary, but also brilliant! It operated on two literary levels; both the image and the words fit every single definition of literature I had ever thought of.

And it was with that realization that I felt my heart fill with an intense passion to share my new found golden treasure with others. I spent the next eleven years reading, studying, and thinking about how literary comics and graphic novels really are.

That said, and as I prepared to earn my PhD in Education, I had two specific long-term goals. Those long-term goals ended up being Teaching Graphic Novels (Maupin House, 2010), which is for middle and high school young adults, and Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels (Maupin House, 2011), which is for kindergarten through sixth grade readers.

How has the use of graphic literature in classrooms changed over the course of your career?

Since 2001, I have noticed that more and more teachers are receptive to teaching a more contemporary literacy stage. As the world outside of school building has continued to be influenced by more and more screen- and image-based technologies that ask readers to be competent readers of what Gardner’s multiple intelligences identifies as verbal-linguistic (print text) and visual-spatial (image text) literacies, classroom teachers are no longer wondering whether or not these “new literacies” should be taught in classrooms. The world outside of school has already decided.

The future of reading rests in reading with print text and image text literacies together; for instance, some of the most popular modern reading experiences occur with iPods, iPads, email, the Internet, ereaders, hypermedia, film, television, and, of course, graphic novels.

In order to keep pace in what many literacy scholars are calling the greatest communication revolution of all-time, contemporary teachers must make the transition to teaching print text literacies alongside image text literacies. In fact, many literacy scholars now argue that, if teachers fail to make this transition to a more shared literacy stage, they risk creating the greatest disservice in the history of education.

In my opinion, the biggest change is that teachers are now more aware of the enormous and positive impact they can make at this specific moment in time. It’s an exciting and monumental time in the history of communication to be a teacher right now, for the future of reading is really in their hands. They hold the potential and the power to empower the most advanced generation of readers to date.

What is the appeal of graphic literature?

Honestly, I think there are various factors that influence what a reader finds appealing or not appealing. From working with so many children and studying what motivates them to read or not to read, the biggest overlying feature I have noticed is that appeal is in the eye of the reader.

Thus, I tend to think of the appeal of graphic novels like a visit to a renowned art museum. Just like each section or room of an art museum has its own style or appeal, each graphic novel has its own style and appeal as well. The reader or visitor can decide whether or not that appeal and/or style is a place where he or she wants to spend little or a lot of time.

How does this format facilitate literacy among young readers?

Today’s literacy world demands that students be competent readers of both images and print-text literacies. The graphic novel provides that exact reading format, and, in doing so, facilitates a lifelong love of reading for them in a format that matches the literacy world in which they live and love.

In fact, young adult graphic novel sales are at the top of the sales market when it comes to contemporary literature. Young adults are not only reading, but also buying graphic novel. And I think that is because the graphic novel format facilitates and offers a modern reading environment that young adults find appealing and comfortable.

Congratulations on the success of Teaching Graphic Novels! Could you tell us what to expect from the book. What was your overriding philosophy, and what were your areas of emphasis?

Teaching Graphic Novel’s philosophy is grounded in reaching out to middle and high school teachers and their secondary, higher education teacher educators.

The main idea of the book is to explore and explain why graphic novels qualify as valuable and literary-level 21st century texts.

That said, the book is also very practitioner friendly and has three primary areas of emphasis:

  • Theoretical insight on why today’s teachers should teach print-text literacies alongside image literacies with graphic novels
  • Recommended, thematically identified, and age appropriate graphic novels for middle school and high school students
  • Sample graphic novel lesson plans and teacher-friendly handouts for middle school and high school teachers

Congratulations of the release of Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels! Could you tell us what to expect from this book? And again, what was your overriding philosophy, and what were your areas of emphasis?

Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels is pretty much a sister-book to Teaching Graphic Novels.

In the case of TERCGN, however, the focus is on elementary language arts teachers. The audience is then elementary teachers and elementary teacher educators, and has a very structured format. It offers elementary teachers three primary areas of emphases as well:

  • Theoretical insight on why elementary teachers should begin to teach the reading process with both print-text literacies and image literacies, like those found in graphic novels
  • An in-depth cross-index of recommended, thematic, and appropriate grade level graphic novels
  • Structured guided reading and guided writing lesson plans for all K – 6 grade levels, with extra chapters and lesson plans on multicultural graphic novels and graphic novels for emerging readers

With regard to both books, what do you hope your readers take away?

When I originally proposed both of these books to my publisher, I told her that I had essential takeaways in mind for the book.

First, it was extremely important to me that teachers and teacher educators not only leave the texts with a better understanding of why they should value comics and graphic novels in 21st century classrooms, but also leave the texts with hands-on, teacher-friendly lesson plans and handouts for doing so.

Are there any significant considerations that separate using graphics with young versus older students?

Yes and no. Whenever we use image literacies in any type of school setting we need to be sensitive to the intended student audience. However, this is not to say that there is necessarily a difference between what we show older or younger readers.

I guess what I am trying to say is that teachers know their students best, and, out of respect for their professional expertise, I think that teachers are the best judges of what types of literacies – whether print-text or image text – their students will be and are ready to handle.

For instance, I often find teachers who have third grade students who read on a sixth or seventh grade level. These students are probably more ready for more advanced literacies, whether that be with print text or graphic text.

Conversely, I also encounter teachers of ninth or tenth grade students who read on a primary grade level. These students may need a more introductory approach to reading with print-text literacies alongside graphic literacies.

In sum, it all depends on how well a teacher knows his or her students and their reading level abilities.

What should we know about teaching graphic-format fiction versus nonfiction?

With graphic nonfiction, the images used by the artist need to be very carefully chosen. And when I say that I am thinking about historical accuracy with graphic novels on two fronts.

Is this a creative nonfiction graphic novel (like Spiegelman’s Maus, which is filtered through Spiegelman’s own creative lens and perspective of his father’s historical storytelling)?

Or, are we talking about an informational, historical graphic nonfiction novel (like C.M. "Chris" Butzer’s Gettysburg, which uses letters, diaries, Lincoln’s speech, and first hand accounts to document its historical findings).

What do you mean by media literacy? And how does that fit in?

For me, media literacy is a critical reading theory. It poses a specific list of questions of each text, asking students to see the texts through those lenses.

For instance, the questions ask student to think about some of the following ideas regarding the intentions of the creators or publicists who produce any media text or message (graphic novels count as a media literacy text):

  • Who is composing this text? 
  • What are their beliefs? And motivations in creating this message?
  • What is the message? 
  • How is it constructed? 
  • Why? 
  • When was the text made? 
  • Is the text factual, someone’s opinion, or something else?

For more information on teaching media literacy messages or text, teachers, parents, and librarians can visit the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) website.

What new directions are we saying in graphic-format literature?

One of the most significant new directions is in early reader graphic novels. Publishers are realizing that younger readers not only want to read texts that equally emphasize print-text literacies and image literacies, but also need to be able to read such texts (in order to prepare them for their future lives as liteterate, 21st century multi-literacy citizens).

What do you long to see?

Great question! I long to see comics and graphic novels overcome and passionately negate the negative stigma that they were given by Wertham’s 1950s publication of Seduction of the Innocent.

And, in all honesty, I think that the evolution of modern literary thought is already making that transition in terms of comics and graphic novels.

Comics and graphic novels are high-quality, literary-level texts that not only engage readers, but also challenge and enhance the contemporary reading experience.

Let’s say a teacher/library media specialist asked you, “What are the five must-haves for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools respectively?” What would you tell him/her? Briefly, why would you include each book on the list?

First, let me say that these lists are in no particular order. They are just the must-must-must haves for the various grade level teachers and/or library media specialists.

Elementary School

a. Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes
b. Little Lit, edited by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman
c. Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman
d. Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty
e. Tuesday by David Wiesner

Middle School

a. Bone series by Jeff Smith
b. Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi
c. Foiled series by Jane Yolen and Michael Cavallaro
d. Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel
e. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

High School

a. Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman
b. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
c. AD New Orleans by Josh Neufeld
d. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
e. Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale by Belle Yang

If I were to offer a brief explanation for each, I would probably fail to be brief. Each of these graphic novels are not only the best and most popular examples of the graphic novel format for these grade level, but also the best examples of just how high-quality and literary the graphic novel can be.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The only thing that I would like to add is that I am thankful for the time you and your readers have taken to learn more about the value of graphic novels in contemporary classrooms.

I would love to take any questions or comments from your readers and offer the following email address for those inquiries:

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Guest Post: G. Neri on On the Trail to Ghetto Cowboy & Signed Book Giveaway

By G. Neri

I’ve always said truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction can sometimes dig into that truth a bit more clearly. That’s why I write fiction inspired by real life.

My newest book Ghetto Cowboy, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Candlewick, August 2011) began when a series of arresting photos in LIFE magazine literally stopped me in my tracks.

The article showed a neighborhood in the worst part of North Philadelphiaan inner city rife with gang violence. But this wasn’t your ordinary low-income neighborhood.

It had black cowboys.

Black cowboys in the ‘hood? Really?

But there it was. The photos showed generations of horsemen, from elders to kids. Apparently, this had been going on for decades.

In the early part of the last century, many of the best horse trainers and jockeys on the east coast were black. When a horse was no longer earning, it was either put out to breed or put down for slaughter. Some of these black trainers, who’d grown to love these animals, started taking them home instead of letting them die.

They kept the horses in back yards and make-shift stables. When that proved too difficult, they began to lay claim to long-abandoned public land that the City of Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with. Their neighborhood was considered so beyond help that when the City built a freeway, it passed over the neighborhood with no exits.

So the horsemen turned that wasted land into stables and corrals—places where the elders could pass on their traditions by teaching the young’uns the art of raising horses.

When gangs took over the area and the neighborhood took a turn for the worse, horses became a way of saving lives. By getting boys interested in raising a horse rather than killing another human being, these cowboys gave the youth something positive: father figures, focus, and the ability to stand tall.

Well, suffice it to say, I was amazed that I had never heard about this unique subculture of American life. Even people in other parts of Philadelphia didn’t seem know about themuntil they became news.

A few years ago, the city, like a lot of big metropolitan areas, became interested in gentrifying the neighborhood and taking back that neglected public land for new development possibilities. All the big cities were doing it—when the hipster classes moved into blighted areas because that was all they could afford, the money soon followed.

But what the City didn’t realize was that they were up against cowboys who wouldn’t back down. They had a battle on their hands, and that became news. The horsemen had squatters rights—they’d occupied the land for so long, they had a claim on it.

The City had no option but to get them on supposed health and safety violations, performing dramatic raids for the media to prove these guys were a danger to the animals.

The allegations proved to be false, but not before they began tearing down their homemade structures. The horsemen fought back, proving their love and loyalty to these animals and their culture, but with little money and no one representing their cause in the media, it became a losing battle of attrition. And so, even as the good fight continued, the tradition was slowly dying.

It seemed like a modern-day western to me: cowboys vs the land barons, the good guys struggling to defend a way of life against the oncoming modernization of a city. And in the middle of it, black men acting as family, spreading values and traditions in the only way they knew how: the Cowboy Way.

I knew immediately that I needed to write about this. It was too vital a culture to let pass unnoticed. The story came quick to me: a young boy abandoned on the doorstep of a father he’s never known—a black cowboy. The boy, Coltrane, feels alone and trapped in a world he’s never seen before. Scared and searching for a way to get back home, but unwanted by both the mother who left him and the father forced to take him on, young Coltrane struggles to find his footing in a world filled with stirrups.

Ghetto Cowboy started to percolate, but information and access was hard to come by. I was in far-away Florida, and it wasn’t like I could just waltz into the inner city of Philly and say “Hey, I want to write a book about y’all!”

But with a lot of digging online, from articles to local message boards and blogs, I started to make connections, and started to find out the truths and details of this hidden world.

My main character, Coltrane, became my eyes into this world. He was a fish out of water, and so was I. Every new revelation, I experienced through him, and together, we slowly found our way.

I’d been wanting to write kind of a timeless father-son story, particularly one where an animal helps to bring them together. With Ghetto Cowboy, I think I achieved that.

After writing a few stories where the fathers were less than noble and often absent, it was nice to have a story where the father was a role model (though reluctant).

Recently, I looked through my list of favorite teen novels, and I didn’t see any books with these elements. It’s about time we showed the positive power of having an older male figure in a young man’s life.

This book has been an amazing experience for me. For once, everything seemed to fall in place. When I finally visited the real neighborhood in person, it felt like I’d just walked into my own novel. I knew who a lot of folks were, along with their stories. And here they were, living and breathing, like the characters who’d been dancing in my head all this time.

Sometimes a story ropes you in and doesn’t let go.

In this case, I was more than happy to go along for the ride.

Cynsational Notes

G. Neri
Ghetto Cowboy has been named a Junior Library Guild selection.

See photo 1 and photo 2 of the community featured in the story.

See also G. Neri on Beginning the Journey to a Finished Novel

Cynsational Book Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri (Candlewick, 2011)! To enter, share your best close encounter with a horse or discovery of some true life event that inspired you to write about it. Comment at this link or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Ghetto Cowboy" in the subject line. Deadline: midnight CST Aug. 22. Note: Author sponsored; U.S./Canada entries only.

Check out the book trailer for Ghetto Cowboy from Candlewick Press.

G. Neri's "Ghetto Cowboy" book trailer from Greg Neri on Vimeo.

The video below is: This American Life: Horses in North Philly.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Author Interview: Dianna Hutts Aston on A Butterfly is Patient

From the promotional copy:

The creators of the award-winning An Egg Is Quiet (2006) and A Seed Is Sleepy (2007) have teamed up again to create A Butterfly is Patient (2011), a gorgeous and informative introduction to the world of butterflies. 

From iridescent blue swallowtails and brilliant orange monarchs to the world's tiniest butterfly (Western Pygmy Blue) and the largest (Queen Alexandra's Birdwing), an incredible variety of butterflies are celebrated here in all of their beauty and wonder.

The series is written by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long and published by Chronicle.

Dianna Hutts Aston is the author of many books for young readers and the founder of a nonprofit foundation for disadvantaged children, The Oz Project. She lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

What was the initial spark of your successful nonfiction picture book series?

An Egg Is Quiet was born in the 1970s when my best friend's three-year-old brother was in school.

The teacher said, "Dusty, tell us something about an egg."

He thought and said, "An egg is quiet."

Over the years my mom told me this tidbit countless times. When my daughter was a few years old in the late '90s, we would walk around the neighborhood in the spring, hunting for eggshells that birds had dropped from their nests.

I thought they were exquisite, and I began to wonder, Why are some speckled? Blue? Of a certain size or shape?

That story my mom had told me finally registered as picture book material. An egg is quiet.

What else is it? Giving. Clever. Colorful. Shapely. And what other creatures besides birds lay eggs? Reptiles, fish, bugs. It all came together by curiosity, observation and research.

And then, what happened was one of those rare occurrences: The manuscript landed on the desk of an editor, Victoria Rock at Chronicle, just when she was looking for one, and one she wanted Sylvia Long to illustrate.

After Egg, my agent, Rosemary Stimola, suggested one on seeds and there came, A Seed Is Sleepy. Next, A Butterfly Is Patient. And soon, A Rock Is Bubbly.

What did you love about it?

What I've loved about the series' publication is how the books open the eyes of both children and adults, encouraging them to think about ordinary objects in magical ways and to ask questions.

Maybe now, they'll spend more time looking beyond computer and TV screens and look at the natural world right outside the door.

How has your process/experience been different from book to book?

Eggs, seeds and rocks are things you can hold, observe as long as you'd like. Butterflies flit, so obviously, it's hard to study one unless it's dead (I collect those). I spent a lot of time in beautiful places, just sitting quietly and watching.

One of the most inspirational moments in working on the butterfly book was when I was walking through a Mexican jungle and came upon a gathering of butterflies on a mud puddle. There were dozens of all shapes and colors, peacefully feeding on the minerals in the muck.

My presence didn't bother them. In fact, they let me slip my fingers under them and hold them. I had four butterflies on my fingers once, and later, as I began exploring the jungle, one butterfly found a place on my arm and stayed there along the thirty-minute journey.

In my research, I learned that gatherings of butterflies are called "puddle clubs," and they were indeed finding nourishment in the mud.

As for the process, with nonfiction or historical fiction, the pattern is the same. Curiosity, observation, research, revision, revision, revision.

The Moon Over Star, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Dial, 2008)and Star is a real town in Texascame about many years ago when I was unhappy and dreamless. Every night, I'd sit on the porch swing and look at the moon.

Its beauty is comforting and inspires prayers and dreams. I also imagined constantly that I could see the first astronauts on the moon. The more I thought about it, the more I was staggered by such an accomplishment. I was five when the first men landed on the moon, and there were more missions after that, so it became a "regular" part of life for awhile.

But thirty or so years later, the magnitude of what they'd accomplished resurfaced in my mind. I began to wonder about present-day astronauts and how they, as children, must have been inspired by that one magical night, when millions of people the world over came together to look to the sky in awe.

Although the main character is Mae, the name of illustrator Jerry Pinkney's mother, there is also an African-American astronaut named Mae Jemison, who would have been around our Mae's age on July 20, 1969.

And the surprise on this book? President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama read it to second graders in D.C.because, I think, its character has big dreams and she won't let anyone discourage her. They are, after all, her dreams.

And that's the gist of my life now, through The Oz Project and through books, to inspire children to dream and then make it happen.

What has surprised you?

The success of the series. It's been the most pleasurable of my books to write, received not only great reviews and awards, (including an award from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science), but also connected with the audience in a way that made them marvel.

Surprising, delightful, gratifying.

In school, I always strove for those A's of affirmation. The success of the series feels like straight A's.

What have you learned along the way?

That there are an infinite number of ways of looking at something, be it an egg, a carrot, a person, a situation, the manifestation of a dream, smoke, clouds, fire, Ferris wheels, a single drop of dew....

What do you do when you're not writing?

Play with friends in hot air balloons and take long motorcycle rides through the American West and Mexico. After discovering the magic of hot air balloons in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I moved there and started a foundation called The Oz Project.

Floating in the realm of the rainbow, I saw a world without borders and I thought, "This is where dreams are born. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you call upon your courage, your wishes usually find form in unexpected ways that are beyond your wildest dreams."

This was my experience and I wanted to give it to children who have little magic in their lives: children in orphanages, rural villages and those with special needs.

To date, we've given rides to hundreds of kids, and it's an incredibly joyful experience not only for them but for me and our crew. We get to watch children light up from the inside out as they float above the earth, maybe for the only time in their lives.

My hope is that the experience will encourage them to dream without limits and to pursue those dreams.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers, illustrated by Susan L. Roth releases this monthAugust 2011from Dial. From the publisher copy:

Between 1921 and 1955, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia transformed broken glass, seashells, pottery, and a dream to "do something big" into a U.S. National Landmark.

Readers watch the towers rise from his little plot of land in Watts, California, through the eyes of a fictional girl as she grows and raises her own children.

Chronicled in stunningly detailed collage that mimics Rodia's found-object art, this thirty-four-year journey becomes a mesmerizing testament to perseverance and possibility.

A final, innovative "build-your-own-tower" activity makes this multicultural, intergenerational tribute a classroom natural and a perfect gift-sure to encourage kids to follow their own big dreams.

Beyond that, rocks, bugs, shells, trees, stars... anything I see outside that makes me wonder.

Cynsational Notes

See an interview with Dianna and Sylvia Long on An Egg Is Quiet.

See also a grades K-5 teacher's guide for An Egg is Quiet and A Seed Is Sleepy, a related conversation with Dianna and Sylvia and writer's-artist's notes for An Egg is Quiet, all from Chronicle (PDFs).
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