Friday, September 23, 2011

Houston Highlights: Blue Willow & Pasadena Schools

Huge thanks to Cathy, children's-YA specialist and events coordinator at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, for hosting me this week to visit the store and Pasadena schools. Thanks also to Candlewick Press—especially Tracy—for sponsoring/facilitating my trip. Here's a peek at my adventures!

First up, Pasadena High School, where I had breakfast with students and then spoke formally to a larger group. Special thanks and cheers to Emily Farmer and Ann Caesar of Pasadena ISD!

It was Superhero Day at the school.
The students had lots of questions about Diabolical (Jan. '12)
I had a kolache for breakfast.
Students settling in for the presentation.

Then we were off to Pasadena Memorial High School, where I had a spooktacular Sanguini's style lunch with a small group and, again, spoke more formally to a larger group. Special thanks and cheers to Adrianna Rabile and Jennifer Brabston of Pasadena ISD!

Lunch featured Gothic-themed decorations.
Lasagna, bread, and salad were served.
The small group begins to settle in for lunch.

I really loved the story tie-in decorations. So awesome!
It was such an honor to see Tantalize series images brought to life!
Both events included signings and giveaways.

Having professional librariansinspiring, ready with reading recs, managing and re-imagining a teen-friendly environmentmakes all the difference when it comes to author programming.

I talked to so many teens who're writers themselves and, because they were so well prepared, I had the opportunity to go deeper in talking about the craft of fiction and the conversation of books over time. I greatly appreciated the enthusiasm, respect, and thoughtful questions/comments of students at both schools. Pasadena teen readers: color me your forever fan!

Later that evening, I spoke and signed books at Blue Willow Book Shop. Here, the crowd is still coming in, but the seats quickly filled. I was so incredibly touched by the support of the local children's-YA writing and literature community. (Look for kidlit celebrities among the early arrivals.)

Authors, librarians, bloggers, readers and of course booksellersI appreciate you!

Blue Willow Book Shop is such a fantastic independent bookstore—to work with, to visit, for discovering books and connecting with book lovers. I give it my highest recommendation!

Thanks again and again to Valerie, Cathy and the whole Blue Willow crew!

And finally, big hugs to SCBWI-Houston and Literary Lonestars (Jen Bigheart!) for helping to get the word out about my event!

Cynsational Notes

Blue Willow Book Shop has author-signed stock of books in the Tantalize series! Shop online or call 281.497.8675 to order!

A more personal highlight of the trip was dinner at author pal Varsha Baja's home. Above, she models her latest book, T is for Taj Mahal, illustrated by Robert Crawford (Sleeping Bear, 2011). Note: she's not only a wonderful writer—she's a terrific cook, too!

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Suggested for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Books for National Hispanic Heritage Month by Kim Baccellia from Diversity in YA Fiction. Peek: "I looked for some of my favorite reads that show Latinos in a positive image. I hate the gangbanger stereotype and feel it’s important, especially now with some of the anti-sentiment out there, to share books that reflect what it’s like to be Latino."

Tips for a Better Book Signing by Theresa Meyers from 1rst Turning Point. Peek: "Handouts! You can still be helpful and make a personal connection to this person with a few very important handouts." Source: Jon Gibbs.

Process Talk: Tami Lewis Brown on The Map of Me from Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: "Most great juvenile road novels start out at home then enter a transitional space—neither here nor there. The unsettling experiences on the road give the protagonist the power to return home with greater strength or knowledge. Sociologists and literary theorists call this a liminal journey."

Thoughts on Middle Grade Voice by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman's Grimoire. Peek: "...self-consciousness can sometimes work in YA, at least more than middle grade, because teens are more likely to notice things  comment on them in a snarky way. Middle graders aren’t expected to be jaded just yet." Note: Stacy is the editorial director of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low.

The Continued Accumulation of Post-Book-Deal Stuff by Mike Jung from EMU's Debuts. Peek: "It’s having these souvenirs of the publication process that still feels like a new thing, even though I’m actually not so far away from the first anniversary of my book deal."

25 Years in the Making!
Picture Book Revision Takes 25 Years by Anastasia Suen from Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "Yes, this one has been a lo-o-o-ong time coming. I started this book when my son was 2…and now he’s 27!"

Interview with Kate O'Sullivan, Editorial Director at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children by Aline Pereira from PaperTigers. Peek: "Houghton is known for creating picture books that appeal across generations, so while there are increased expenses now associated with warehousing slow-selling books, it’s always our intention when signing a book that it has a long, vigorous life."

How to Write Fiction Without the "Right" Ethnic Credentials by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "I don't want to write only about Bengali-American girls growing up in California — been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali-American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well?" See also What Does "Authentic" Mean Anyway? from Malinda Lo and Authenticity and Authority from Kate Elliot.

Gradual Exposure from Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "Gradual exposure simply allows you to take actions toward your daily and long-term writing goals little by little. These small actions build on each other over time and form habits (such as daily writing, networking with other writers, writing a novel, etc.)."

Graphic Novel Book Clubs from Good Comics for Kids at School Library Journal. Peek: "Formats force all of us to pay attention to stories in different ways, and it’s always a great discussion to try to articulate why formats work differently."

Interview with Kelly Milner Halls on Searching for Sasquatch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct. 2011) by Deborah Heiligman from INK: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "Many of the legends seemed unlikely to be real, but a few were surprising in that credible evidence did exist to support the possibility of their being true, undocumented new species of animals. Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot, was one of those surprises."

Banned Books Month: Author Jessica Lee Anderson on Celebrating Our Freedom to Read from E. Kristin Anderson at The Hate-Mongering Tart. Peek: "Too worried to cause a rift which could compromise my job, I let the conversation move on naturally.  And to this day, I still regret not saying something that might’ve assuaged my supervisor’s fears or made her rethink the consequences of having the book removed."

Why Your Story Might Need a Gandalf or an Obi-Wan -- Adding a Sage Character from Project Mayhem. Peek: "There’s a long tradition in fiction of the Sage character. Joseph Campbell describes the wise old man or old woman, the Mentor, as appearing throughout history in storytelling, drama, and mythology."

Oh, Internet... by Kiersten White from Kiersten Writes. Peek: "I've been thinking lately about my online activity and how it impacts me. I went ahead and illustrated my worst tendencies for you, because I'm honest like that." Note: unicorns for everybody! Source: rockinlibrarian.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Midsouth Region!
SCBWI Midsouth Conference: read posts (keep clicking back in time) to "virtually" attend this conference. Highlights include insights from Emily Mitchell on Voice, Alexander Cooper on Developing a Character, Elizabeth Dulemba on Technology and the Future of Books, Michelle Poploff on the Acquisition Process, and much more!

This Pig Wants to Party: Maurice Sendak's Latest from National Public Radio. Note: audio and scroll to read text coverage. Peek: "Bumble-ardy is an orphaned pig, who has reached the age of 9 without ever having a birthday party. He tells his Aunt Adeline that he would like to have a party for his ninth birthday, so Aunt Adeline plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-ardy instead decides to throw a large costume party for himself after his aunt leaves for work — and mayhem ensues."

On Traveling Libraries and Heroic ‘Book People’: Inspiring children’s books about getting books to people in remote places and difficult circumstances by Abigail Sawyer from PaperTigersBlog. Peek: "I wonder how many lives are better today because a poor child of Appalachia or a German war orphan discovered books 50 or 60 years ago at the hands of an intrepid librarian."

Open Call for Submissions for YA Humor Anthology Open Mic, to be edited by Mitali Perkins and published by Candlewick. Peek: "...a compilation of funny short pieces written by some of today's best YA authors, people who grew up along the margins of race and culture in North America."

Jacqueline Woodson Fellowship for a Young People’s Writer of African or Caribbean Descent: a $1,000 fellowship for The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College. The award will be based on the quality of a writing sample. Applications are due Oct. 14 (not a postmark date; materials must be received before or on Oct. 14). Applicants are strongly encouraged to apply early. Notification letters will be mailed to winners only on Nov. 15. Awards must be applied toward the winter residency/spring semester directly following acceptance; fellowships cannot be deferred or applied toward a summer residency/fall semester start.

Using Powerful Cliffhangers in Quiet Times by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro. Peek: "If you don’t have an action novel, you can still have dramatic chapter endings, whether or not the characters are in physical danger."

Publicity Beyond Your Book Launch by Crystal Patriarche from Writer Unboxed. "Accept that not everything is going to work, that if you get a “no” it has nothing to do with  your abilities or work (reviewers turn away more good books a day than books they actually review) and go back to the drawing board to come up with some additional ideas and keep going." Source: Phil Giunta.

See also Best Articles this Week for Writers from Adventures in Children's Publishing and the ever-eclectic and brainy Thursday Hangovers from Gwenda Bond.

Cynsational Canadian News

From Lena Coakley

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be wins Lane Anderson Award from The Canadian Children's Book Centre. "The two winners of the 2010 Lane Anderson Award were announced last night by Hollister Doll and Sharon Fitzhenry, Directors of the Fitzhenry Family Foundation, at a celebration dinner in Toronto. The annual Lane Anderson Award honours two jury-selected books, in the categories of adult and young reader, published in the field of science, and written by a Canadian. The winner in each category receives $10,000. Evolution: How All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton, published by Kids Can Press, won the young reader category."

TD Canadian Children's Book Week: TD Canadian Children’s Book Week will run from Saturday, May 5 to Saturday, May 12, 2012. Twenty-nine English-speaking authors, illustrators and storytellers will visit schools, libraries, bookstores and community centres in every province and territory across the country. Apply to host a reading.

Bookweirder by Paul Glennon (Doubleday Canada) wins 2011 YA Sunburst Award from Locus Online News. See link for finalists. Peek: "The annual Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic is a juried award. It is based on excellence of writing and awarded to a Canadian writer who has published a speculative fiction novel or book-length collection any time during the previous calendar year. Named after the novel by Phyllis Gotlieb (1926-2009), one of the first published authors of contemporary Canadian speculative fiction, the award consists of a cash prize of $1,000 and a hand-crafted medallion which incorporates a 'Sunburst' logo, designed by Marcel Gagné." Note: more on Bookweirder.

Cynsations Canada reporter Lena Coakley is a full-time writer living in Toronto. Witchlanders is her debut novel. Lena contributes news and interviews from the children's-YA creative, literature and publishing community in Canada. See also Lena on Why Fantasy Saved Her Life.

This Week's Cynsations Posts
Cynsational Giveaways

Last call! Enter to win one of three Snuggle Mountain apps (IPhone and IPad users only). To enter, comment on this post (click link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "Snuggle Mountain app" in the subject line. Author sponsored. Deadline: Sept. 26.

For extra entries (itemize efforts in your entry comment/email with relevant links): blog about this giveaway; share the link to this post on facebook; share the link to this post on Twitter; share the link to this post on Google+; like Lindsey's Facebook author page.

The winner of Liar, Liar and Flat Broke by Gary Paulsen (Random House, 2011) is Irene in Alabama. See also Gary Paulsen on Writing About Boys.

Enter to win a copy of the 2012 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words.

Solve a Cynsational title mystery to enter to win Firelight by Sophie Jordan and Through Her Eyes by Jennifer Archer from Joy Preble at Joy's novel idea. Peek: "In the above post I have included the titles for three of Cyn's YA paranormal books!! If you want to play today, email me...and tell me those titles and the phrase in the post in which I hid them." Deadline: Sept. 26.

More Personally

The highlight of this week was fellow Austin author Jessica Lee Anderson at Book People and my school visits/bookstore trip to Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston--full photo report and bowing thanks to come soon! In the meantime...

Reflections on Influences for Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Undercover: The Best YA Fiction from Walker Books (U.K.). Peek: " was time for me, research-wise, to kick it old school. This was well before the paranormal trend in YA literature, so I started with the few YA Gothics and worked all the way back to Stoker." Note: the Walker release date is Oct. 6.

Young Adult Authors Thrive in Austin by Joshunda Sanders from The Austin-American Statesman. Peek: "The convergence of that growing e-book market with tech-savvy, engaged young readers has drawn more and more voices to Austin's young-adult author community."

Bloggers on Blogging: Cynthia Leitich Smith from Megan Frazer. Peek: "It’s critical to put positive energy into any creative community, and blogging is one way to do that. By positive, I don’t mean superficial or Pollyanna, but rather being consistently substantive and uplifting."

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events

Austin Teen Book Festival is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 1 at Palmer Events Center in Austin. The event is free! No need to register, just show up! Students do not need to be accompanied by an adult.

Illustrator Ming Doyle will be signing Tantalize: Kieren's Story at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard Street) in Brookline, Massachusetts. Guests are invited to participate in a vampire/werewolf costume contest.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be appearing at Austin Comic Con, scheduled for Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at the Austin Convention Center.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Guest Post: Sarah Cortez on Responding to Mystery’s Implicit Invitation

By Sarah Cortez

Rare is the person who doesn’t remember his or her first experiences reading mystery.

Whether that person was a younger reader of Encyclopedia Brown or a slightly older fan of the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Cherry Ames, or Ruth Fielding series, the adult mystery-lover can effortlessly spin a list of a favorite sleuth’s appealing qualities in these “juvenile series” books: an explorer’s love of action, resolute bravery, independence, clear and logical thinking, a well-developed sense of fairness, a satisfying participation in justice, and firm loyalty to family and friends.

No wonder so many young readers believe these sleuths are “real.”

An even more appealing, if not downright magical, characteristic of the mystery story in all its guises is its implicit invitation to each reader to step inside the story and solve the mystery along with the sleuth.

While all types of fiction must engage the reader in the created, i.e. imagined (but not necessarily imaginary), world that the author has written, it is only the mystery which says, “Step inside. Observe. Think. Figure it out.”

What could be more engaging? What could be more fun?

And once this invitation is issued, the reader’s attention must be kept through a clever plot, good characterization, believable dialogue, and an admixture of obvious and non-obvious clues leading to a satisfying resolution.

As the reader enters the mystery’s world, he/she is challenged in a plethora of ways: to remember; to analyze conversation, clues, and personalities; to compare; to rearrange data; to construe; to sift facts; to draw conclusions.

And due to the mystery’s intrinsic forward thrust on the page, the reader does all of this without bothering to think of those pesky, formalized “Essential Skills and Knowledge” goals, or their equivalents. Certainly, this is one of the minor miracles of a well-written mystery’s interaction with a reader.

More about Sarah Cortez.
For tweens and teens, in particular, the dynamics contained within a mystery make the excitement of reading one both timely and compelling.

Part of this is because a mystery ultimately confirms the solidity of the moral axis of the world. Remember that a mystery demonstrates that violence and crime do not pay, that problem-solving skills based on close observation and thoughtful analysis win the day, and that justice prevails.

Another additional crucial reason why young adults gravitate toward reading mystery is the mirroring of the naturally occurring, age-related upheavals in the teen’s life. At which other age are humans confronted with so many apparently unsolvable occurrences, i.e. mysteries, in daily life as when attempting to negotiate the transition from childhood to adulthood? At what other age do the parameters of social interaction, accepted and acceptable behavior, and occurrences of uncertain but intense mood swings weigh so heavily?

So, for the young adult, the pages of a mystery can be comforting due to the sure sense that justice will win and the mystery will be solved. The disrupted world of the sleuth will be normalized.

The pages of a mystery are a safe arena in which to glimpse a teen sleuth acting with more confidence, more bravery, or more independence than is yet available to the reader.

I would also like to point out that the expert mystery writer will leave ample space within the fiction not only for the reader to use logic, but also for the reader to use intuition, thus building on the young reader’s previous experience with people and augmenting it.

So as a mystery story works its magic, the reader—again, without knowing it—uses both left brain and right brain hemispheres, responding to the implicit invitation to solve the mystery.

Heather Wells mysteries.
Luckily, many talented authors have created young adult fiction in the mystery genre. Who can resist the loopy, consumer-driven, yet fiercely loyal protagonist Heather Wells, created by Meg Cabot? For other readers, the single-minded, fierce oddity of Robert Cormier’s characters in Tenderness (Bantam Doubleday, 1997) will be compelling. Perennial favorites include authors, Joan Lowery Nixon, Wilo Davis Roberts, Caroline B. Cooney, Lois Duncan and others.

Recently, I had the pleasure (and distinct honor) to be able to make an addition to the mystery stories available to the YA reader by selecting and editing the eighteen short mystery stories for You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens (Arte Público, 2011).

I originally conceptualized the project—the first of its kind—in order to create more resources for the legions of teachers and librarians across the U.S. who constantly ask Latino/a writers and editors for more books for Hispanic teens.

In issuing my challenge to Latino/a authors to write edgy, fast-paced mystery fiction for young adults, I was thrilled to receive compellingly crafted stories showcasing the unique realities and neighborhoods of Latino/a protagonists from the preppy, sophisticated, private school teen to the chubby, loyal and loving, only daughter in Los Angeles’ sprawl to the Bronx rapper with a heart of gold.

In closing, I would like to invite you to enjoy the almost infinite pleasures of reading mystery. Thus, I have joined my explicit invitation to the implicit invitation of the mystery story.

The fictional world between the pages is calling you to enter, to observe, to think, to figure out clues, and to solve the mystery right along with the sleuth.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Booklist says of You Don't Have a Clue: "This excellent collection, enriched by a thoughtful foreword by YA scholar James Blasingame, gives faces to Latino teens in a most original way."

Sarah Cortez is the author of an acclaimed poetry collection and winner of the PEN Texas literary award in poetry. She has edited Urban Speak: Poetry of the City and Windows into My World: Latino Youth Write Their Lives, winner of the 2008 Skipping Stones Honor Award. She has also edited Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery and Indian Country Noir. She is a co-editor for the crime literary journal Lineup: Poems on Crime.

Sarah has been a police officer since 1993. She lives and works in Houston as a freelance editor and writer. She brings her French, Comanche, Spanish, and Mexican heritage to the page and serves as the national treasurer for the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

Sarah graduated from Rice University and holds graduate degrees from UT-Austin and the University of Houston-Central. She has been named a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and is the only scholar to have been named to two consecutive years of a Visiting Scholar appointment at the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

New Voice: Audrey Vernick on Water Balloon

Audrey Vernick's debut novel Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011) is now available. From the promotional copy:

A warm debut novel about friendship and first love, from a popular picture-book author.

Marley’s life is as precarious as an overfull water balloon—one false move and everything will burst. Her best friends are pulling away from her, and her parents, newly separated, have decided she should spend the summer with her dad in his new house, with a job she didn’t ask for and certainly doesn’t want. 

On the upside is a cute boy who loves dogs as much as Marley does . . . but young love has lots of opportunity for humiliation and misinterpreted signals. 

Luckily, Marley is a girl who trusts her instincts and knows the truth when she sees it, making her an immensely appealing character and her story funny, heartfelt, and emotionally true.

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

I have visions of myself in a small white rocking chair in my bedroom, an open book in my lap. That could likely describe who I’ll be in another few decades—a reading grandma—but it was also who I was at five. Sometimes I would read to my gerbil, which sickens me to my core now, as I’m not a fan of rodents. But I digress.

It was all about character for me then, as it is to this day. I didn’t mind a great adventure or a historical setting, but if the author didn’t deliver on character, forget it.

As a young reader, when I was in love with a book, I felt like the authors had written them with a reader exactly like me in mind. I celebrated the characters’ quirks. I worried when they faced difficult decisions. I felt their sadness. Being a child who read often and widely was the ultimate training ground for empathy.

I was enamored with the friendships I read about. Adult-me has realized that these wonderful, idyllic friendships may have had something to do with the real-world disappointment I felt in many of my actual childhood friendships. I found literary friends to be far more interesting, loyal, funny, and daring than most of the friends I knew at school and in the neighborhood.

As a writer, I want to deliver that kind of character-reader connection.

The view from Audrey's office window.
Plot has never been of great importance to me as a reader, so it wasn’t a tremendous surprise to learn it wasn’t one of my strengths as a writer. I wanted enough to happen to interest my reader, but I found that one of my plot pet peeves presented a huge challenge to me as a writer.

I take great exception to the moment in a book—and it happens in so many books—when a character acts in a way that seems at odds with who he/she is. As a writer, I know we are supposed to make life difficult for our characters, throw challenges at them, let them make mistakes. But I find, so often, that the mistakes characters make read like choices an author made to take it up a notch, to ensure the plot twists and turns.

These are the books I throw across the room.

I did not want such a moment in my book. But something had to happen.

My main character has really good judgment. She can be a little self-pitying at times (as can many a thirteen-year-old), but she’s reliable, with good common sense. She doesn’t get into trouble.

The scene in which she makes a really bad decision was a pivotal one for me, part of a big revision with an eye toward making the book less quiet. I think it’s a believable moment; I hope young-Audrey would not toss Water Balloon across the room when she reached that pivotal page.

I imagine most writers set out to create the type of book they would like to read. It’s a little extra-satisfying for children’s writers, as the time spent thinking and writing is akin to a lengthy visit with our younger selves.

Audrey's office is decorated with art by her children; this fox is by her son.
How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

My first agent primarily represented writers of adult fiction. When I was first seeking representation, I read many of her clients’ books and felt something in the undercurrent of their texts that seemed present in mine too. I was thrilled when she offered to represent me, as she had some young adult sales, loved my upper middle grade book, and was determined to sell it.

As time went on, I kept writing for younger audiences and she stopped selling in the children’s market, so we parted ways.

Lesson learned: You can make what feels like the right choice and still have it not work out in the end.

Learn more about Audrey.
I wrote a second novel. I talked to friends about their experiences, read information in books and on discussion boards, attended conferences.

I went to one conference specifically to get a critique from Erin Murphy, an agent about whom I’d heard good things. The critique went very well.

I don’t remember why I reached the conference lunch late, but by the time I got there, there were hardly any open seats. I am very much not the kind of person who sits next to the agent who critiqued her work. But it was the only open seat that didn’t require me to get everyone at a table to stand. I took the available seat next to Erin.

Before long, my future agent and I shared a very large piece of chicken.

I am kind of a conference nightmare. I don’t want to be that annoying schmoozing person. I realize that networking is not generally considered annoying at a conference, but it is so far out of my comfort zone, the self-promoting schmooze. Just taking the seat next to Erin felt hideous.

Despite my discomfort, we had an instant and very natural rapport. We were comfortable. We laughed. We went halfsies on an entree.

I don’t think poultry sharing is a requirement when seeking representation. But it is important to do research, to know as much as can be known. In the end though, you can’t know everything.

It’s impossible to know with certainty whether or not, say, your agent’s enthusiasm will wane if your first manuscript doesn’t sell. Or if he will like your next project. Or turn out to be a reasonable communicator.

When possible, I’d urge people to find ways to get specific information from clients. When I relied upon reputation, I barked up a few wrong trees. There are some agents many consider top-tier whom I know would not be a good fit for me. One such agent considered my work very seriously. I had occasion to see that agent at a conference while still under consideration and it was plainly evident to me: it wouldn’t work. I felt the weight of the word "representation" and knew that person could not be the one to represent me.

Find out what you can and then use your best judgment. From there, it’s a leap of faith.

Spending that time eating chicken with Erin made me fairly desperate to have her as my agent, so I’m very grateful it worked out. Our senses of humor overlap. She connected to the emotional heart of my story. And I can’t say enough about her enthusiasm – what’s better than your agent being wildly enthusiastic about your work? I also like that she focuses on my career.

This depiction of Cookie Monster is by Audrey's daughter.
One insight especially stayed with me...

Sometime in the past year or two, I told Erin that I felt like I was in a zone, which likely wouldn’t last. It felt like a tiny window in which the picture books I was writing were matching up reasonably well with what the market wanted. It seemed crazy to turn my attention to another novel, as they are so hard and I tend to write quiet ones, which are hard to sell.

I’ve also always been mindful of the way novels consume me—the way they pull me out of family life for a while. I’m ever-mindful of the fact that my kids will only live with my husband and me for a finite time, and it seemed crazy to make myself so much less available.

Erin pointed out that it would be a good idea to look beyond now, to think ahead to when my kids don’t live here, and how well novel-writing will fit into my life then. She added that I should probably continue to nurture the skills required to write a novel, not let them go dormant. She further made the point that if I sold Water Balloon, the acquiring editor would likely want to see another novel at some point, which has turned out to be true.

Lesson learned: when a piece of chicken is clearly too large for one person to consume by herself, sharing can sometimes lead in unexpected and wonderful directions.

Cynsational Notes

From IndieBound: "Audrey Vernick is the author of the picture books Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?, She Loved Baseball, and Brothers at Bat (Clarion, 2012), as well as the novel Water Balloon. She has published short stories for adults and twice received the New Jersey State Council of the Arts' fiction fellowship. She lives with her family in New Jersey."

Literary Friendships: Musings on Writing, Children's Books, Stalking Strangers' Dogs, and Friends: a blog from Audrey Vernick.

See also Audrey Vernick on Getting to the Funny (Writing Humorous Picture Books) from Cynsations.

Tantalize: Kieren's Story (North America) Giveaway & Houston Event Reminder

Comment at Tantalized Graphic Novel Giveaway from Cari's Book Blogs from a chance to win Tantalize: Kieren's Story (Candlewick, 2011). U.S./Canada only. The winner will be announced Sept. 23.

Event Reminder

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."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guest Post: Vicky Alvear Shecter on Cleopatra's Moon & Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Info (Arthur A. Levine, 2011)(F)
By Vicky Alvear Shecter

I started out writing middle grade nonfiction, specifically biographies of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

It never occurred to me to write fiction until I came across a fact that grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. And it was this: Cleopatra was the mother of four children (one with Julius Caesar and three with Mark Antony). The only one to survive to adulthood was her daughter, Cleopatra Selene.

My initial response was: Wait, Cleopatra had a daughter?

I was floored. How come nobody ever talked about her? What, I wondered, must it have been like to have Cleopatra as a mother?

I mean, talk about mother issues!

Sadly, we have little information about Cleopatra’s daughter, which made it nearly impossible to tell her story with nonfiction. Knowing her date of birth, her parents, where she lived after her parent’s died, and who she married may be interesting, but it would make for a pretty short bio.

But oh, the opportunities with fiction! As long as I worked within the facts we knew, I could imagine what her life was like. So I went for it.

Along the way, I learned some things about writing historical fiction:

1. Never assume.

Info (Darby Creek, 2006)(NF)
No detail could be inserted without making sure that it was consistent with what we knew of the period. So, for example, in one scene, I had my characters sitting under an orange tree in a garden in Rome. And then it occurred to me—wait, did Rome have orange trees then?

After checking it out, I discovered they did not (they were introduced from China in the Middle Ages). So I had to change the tree.

2. Beware of modern words or phrases that will pop your reader out of the history.

For example, I had a character grab the side of a Roman ship in one scene. My first instinct was to call it a gunwale (the proper term). But there were no guns in the ancient world! That’s not what they would have called it. I deleted it.

3. Make sure it could've happened that way.

The fiction in historical fiction does not mean you have license to mess with the facts. You can’t make up a scene that contradicts the facts we do know.

Info (Boyds Mills, 2010)(NF)
Still don’t avoid being true to your character. Even though feminist ideals are a modern invention, it made sense to me that the daughter of the most powerful woman in the world—who saw great men bow at her mother’s feet—would have a sense that she was “equal to” or “better than” the men surrounding her. It might not have been true for the average ancient girl, but it certainly could’ve been true of Cleopatra’s daughter.

4. Get the sensory details right.

One of the best ways to capture this “other” world/other time is to thoroughly research the sensory details that will make the world come alive.

For example, what did Cleopatra Selene’s palace in Alexandria smell like? (Of ocean breezes mixed with the heavy sent of blooming lotuses.) What did the port in Roman Ostia smell like? (Of vats of rotting fish innards left to melt in the sun.) What did the Roman streets sound like? (Cacophony of accents and the constant thudding of hammers as construction flourished.) What did the Temple of Isis in Egypt sound like? (Jangling bells and low chanting.)

Learn how your characters experience the sounds, sights, tastes, smells and feelings of their world to make it come alive for your reader.

Having made the leap from nonfiction to fiction, I’m sure that if I can do it, you can too!

Vicky’s editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, Cheryl Klein, sent her an adjustable snake necklace.
Vicky promptly tried it on everything (arms, neck, wrists, ankles; cat; dog). Peanut liked the look very much.
Cheryl Klein also sent Vicky a Cleopatra action figure.
Vicky calls her “Drag Queen Cleo” "because of the GI-Joe face."
DQC often makes appearances on her blog, History with a Twist
Vicky says: "This includes just one my many bookcases.
"Check out the museum replica Spartan helmet.
"It’s usually not on my desk, but I wanted it in the shot.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Guest Post: Karen Blumenthal on the Power & Challenges of Using Photos & Cartoons in Nonfiction

By Karen Blumenthal

As a nonfiction author, I've come to appreciate that powerful photographs and cartoons of the day can truly help bring a time period alive for a young reader. But finding and acquiring those images from recent decades can be surprisingly difficult.

I ran into the problem headfirst working on two books that have just come out--Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (Roaring Brook, 2011), about the prohibition era, and Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man (Viking, 2011). Somehow, I nearly drowned in the potential images from the early 1900s, when photography was relatively new--and I struggled to find material for Mr. Sam, though he built his business after World War II.

How do you figure that?

It appears that the folks who commission and collected photographs, cartoons and other images were much more thorough and thoughtful about taking care of their collections when photographs were expensive and precious than they were when they became more common.

Decades-old magazine and newspaper photos, for instance, often have been turned over to libraries like the Bentley at the University of Michigan, historical societies or the Library of Congress, which had an extensive collection of Anti-Saloon League propaganda. Or they can be found in huge photo houses, like those at the Associated Press, Corbis and Getty Images, where I found a fabulous New York Daily News image of children trying to scoop up wine poured into the street.

But fantastic photos of Sam Walton that appeared in Fortune magazine in the late 1980s were nowhere to be found. A woman at the magazine--who had been laid off and was in her last few days--informed me that copies weren't kept and I'd need to find the photographer. Unfortunately, his last known phone number was disconnected and letters I sent to two previous addresses, including his current driver’s license address, were never answered. I never located him or his photos.

A search for 30- and 40-year-old BusinessWeek photos hit a similar dead end. A Forbes photo was a particular favorite, but Forbes didn't return emails or phone calls. Based on some threads on the Internet, I concluded the photographer, Bill Batson, had worked for a Kansas City newspaper. A helpful person in the photo department couldn't find the image, but told me Batson had left Kansas City to work for the paper in Omaha, Nebraska. Sadly, a former Omaha colleague informed me, Mr. Batson died in 2002 and the whereabouts of his photos the late 1970s were unknown.

Luckily, the University of Missouri had run the image in an alumni magazine, and I was able to use it from a scan, crediting the photographer.

Several people I spoke to told bone-chilling stories of librarians tossing old photos and negatives during one clean-up or another.

Contemporary cartoons are almost as hard to find. Outside of Doonesbury, finding a comprehensive electronic archive is almost impossible; you need to find some kind soul who has kept a file of favorites or call the artists directly.

Eager to find Wal-Mart cartoons from the 1980s, I emailed a half-dozen or so long-time editorial cartoonists whose information I found through the National Cartoonists Society and other searches. I came up empty--until Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Paul Szep wrote back that he hadn't done a cartoon, but he would happily draws a caricature of Sam Walton. A wonderful cover design grew out of that email exchange.

From about the mid-1990s on, images and cartoons commonly have been kept in digital form and increasingly are searchable. But too many contemporary images from the decades just before are being lost to budget cuts and general sloppiness.

Even if the images are donated to libraries or archives, budgets are so tight that they may languish in boxes for years before they can be catalogued, let alone digitized.

I don’t have a simple answer. But as a believer in the importance and power of history to educate and enlighten us, I can only hope that today’s photographers, cartoonists, archivists and librarians will make an effort to preserve these important images for the benefit of generations to come.

Karen's Tips for Image Research
  • Start early. This work takes times, so don’t wait til the end to do it.
  • Be persistent. If you love an image, keep looking. After searching several photo archives for a congressional photo, I found it in a university library, in the papers of a former Congresswoman.
  • Three words: Library of Congress. The photo collection is amazing, but you can also order scans of almost anything it has, such as long-defunct magazines.
  • Tap historical societies, local museums and university archives., a giant library catalog, can tell you which libraries have historical papers.
  • Go beyond photos. Advertisements, cartoons and political “ephemera” can add a lot of flavor to the page.
  • Buy it. eBay can be great for old magazines and knickknacks. Old books may have valuable illustrations.
  • Negotiate. The cost of permissions really adds up. Plead, beg, grovel and remind everyone that this is for a children’s book.
Cynsational Notes

Karen Blumenthal is the author of two new nonfiction books for young people, Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (Roaring Brook, 2011)(excerpt) and Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man (Viking, 2011). She lives in Dallas.
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