Saturday, November 19, 2011

New Voice: Nikki Shannon Smith on The Little Christmas Elf

Nikki Shannon Smith is the first-time author of The Little Christmas Elf, illustrated by Susan Mitchell (Random House/Little Golden Books, 2011)(author at facebook). From the promotional copy:

Nina, the littlest elf in Santa's workshop, doesn't finish the teddy bear she's making in time for it to get loaded onto Santa's sleigh-but, encouraged by Santa Claus himself to not give up, she works far into the night to finish it. 

While Santa is out delivering presents, a baby is born. 

Santa comes back for Nina's now-finished bear—and guess who he takes along to deliver it?

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget “the call.” I wasn’t expecting it at all, and it came during a really chaotic time. I submitted the manuscript in May of 2009, and over a year had gone by. I had given up on the possibility of it becoming a Little Golden Book, and had just submitted it to another publisher.

I was working as the interim principal of the elementary school where I usually teach fourth grade, and the school year had just ended. The campus was practically deserted, and I was trying to finish all of my closing tasks so I could drive to Florida the next day (with hubby, two kids, and father-in-law) for a family wedding.

I arrived in the office, opened my email, and saw Diane Muldrow’s name. My first thought was, “Oh, that’s sweet. She took the time to send a rejection note.”

There was no bitterness; I was genuinely appreciative. But when I opened the email, it wasn’t a rejection. She asked if the manuscript was still available.

Now, I know people say “I couldn’t believe it!” all the time, but I really couldn’t believe it. It had been thirteen months! I think I read that email about four times before I really believed it.

When it sunk in I jumped up and screamed. It must have been a piercing sort of scream, because the secretary came running in. I was crying, and she said, “Nikki, what’s wrong?”

I think she thought there had been a death in my family. I rattled off the story and she hugged me.

I couldn’t sit still, so I grabbed my cell phone and ran out the door. I called every member of my family and not a single one answered the phone!

I went back in to try to compose an email response. I hit reply, but my hands were shaking and I couldn’t type.

Eventually, I sent off an email saying that the manuscript was available.

Right after I hit send, a colleague walked in and my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the incoming number, so I didn’t answer. When my colleague left, I listened to the voic email. I had declined the editor’s call! (How’s that for irony?)

I called her back, and we had a lovely chat where she patiently listened to my excited ramblings.

(Kind of like what I’m doing here. I still get really excited when I think about it.)

I didn’t have a big celebration, but the best part of it all was the shriek on the other end of the line when I told my 10-year-old daughter. That was all the celebration I needed.

That kid had been saying for about six months, “Mommy, maybe it’s taking her so long to answer because she likes it and is taking it to all of her meetings.” She was right!

(Mostly… but that’s another story!)

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

I got a lot of great advice, both before and after the book sold, and I took it all. I went to an SCBWI session with Brain Farrey of Flux, and because of that I bought my domain name, got a matching email address and joined Facebook.

I’d been avoiding Facebook for a long time! I used a combination of my nickname, maiden name and last name, because I got a lot of “adult” results when I searched for Nicole Smith and Nikki Smith.

Greg Pincus
When the book sold, all I had to do was build my website. I also got advice from Greg Pincus at a SCBWI conference. I joined Twitter, made sure my website was updated, and started interacting more via social media.

I linked my twitter account to other sites, to make updates easier. I started accounts at Goodreads, JacketFlap, and Author Central (Amazon).

Lia Keyes’ blog had great advice on how to set up a Facebook Fan page, which I followed.

And there is nothing like the grapevine of a gigantic and very supportive family to spread the word!

Next, I had to think more about the book and getting “out there” physically. I combined my own ideas with ideas I found on Alexis O’Neill’s website, School Visit, to create a media kit and information for schools.

I also found great resources on the SCBWI website. I asked neighboring regions of SCBWI to publish my good news in their newsletters. When the opportunity came up to apply to speak at a local SCBWI conference, I took it, and was accepted. I did the same for a local literacy event and was asked to visit the venue twice during the fall/winter seasons.

My name and book title were (or will be) included in the promotional materials for all of these events. I hit the pavement and introduced myself at local bookstores, leaving copies of my book postcard and bio. I also sent out a couple of advance copies for review.

Photo by The Davis Enterprise
All of this felt awkward to me, but I was booked for a few events that I consider to be a “big deal” as a result. For me, it’s a huge perk that each of these events allows me to give back to SCBWI and to my community.

As the release date got closer I combined my own ideas with Michael Stelzner’s launch ideas and did a countdown on my author page.

I contacted our local paper and invited a reporter to the “book birthday party” in my fourth grade classroom on the release date, and he agreed to come with a photographer.

I’m still really nervous about public appearances, but I guess I’ve gotten somewhat accustomed to promoting the book now.

It’s a lot of work, and is sometimes uncomfortable, but I have to admit… I’m loving it! I consider it a celebration to which everyone is invited, and that makes it feel more like a party.

My advice to others would be to take the advice of others! Be proud enough to toot your own horn a little bit, be willing to help others, be yourself, and enjoy your dream come true!

The bedroom-office-exercise-TV room where Nikki wrote her first book. 
She now has a dedicated room for writing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Teaching to Learn by Louise Hawes from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "I know now, what this mildly famous author missed by not working with new and emerging writers. He missed the chance to grow, to change, to be inspired far beyond his own lonely dreams."

Pacifiers or Catalysts: Your Choice by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "What fills our lives–what quells our anxiety–can be either positive or negative. The activity we choose can be either a pacifier or a catalyst."

Conjuring a Young Witch's World in Watercolor: Marsha Riti from Mark Mitchell at How to Be a Children's Book Illustrator.

Forensics Q&A: Not All Explosives are Created Equal by Kristy Lahoda from QueryTracker.netBlog.

Teaching, Writing and the Practice of Illusion by Uma Krishnaswami from Hunger Mountain: A VCFA Journal of the Arts. Peek: "'writing fair' has always been about creating illusion, placing emotional signposts, manufacturing an effect upon the page. The object is to come at truth, but in the most indirect ways possible." See also Making a Community that Promotes Creativity by Sarah Aronson and True Confessions of a New and Newbie Teacher by Debby Dahl Edwardson, both also from HM.

SCBWI Tokyo and Hong Kong by Mary Kole from Peek: "We met at the lovely Yokohama International School the Saturday before Halloween and then spent one long day talking about the marketplace, queries, craft, and the submission process."

Writing as Therapy? by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: "It has not provided me an avenue to work out my past and my own emotional baggage on the page. Instead, the hard work I do to make my writing better has spilled out into my non-writing life."

C.S. Jennings Illustration: an Austin-based illustrator, and sometimes author, working primarily in the children's media industries. Follow him on Twitter. Note: Christopher is recommended for Saturday children's book events.

Five-in-One Notebook Special: Children’s Books about Terezín from Candlewick – Editors Elizabeth Bicknell and Kaylan Adair, Authors Paul Janeczko and Ruth Thomson, Publicist Tracy Myracle from The Whole Megillah. Peek from Paul: "I spent a day in the town and in the 'Little Fortress' across the Ohře River, taking lots of pictures, visiting the museums, and just being there. I subsequently used the pictures I took as a slide show that I ran on my Mac as a screen saver. So, whenever the computer was on, those images of Terezín slowly floated across the screen of my computer."

Novelist Fights the Tide by Opening a Bookstore by Julie Bosman from The New York Times. Peek: "A collective panic set in among Nashville’s reading faithful. But they have found a savior in Ann Patchett, the best-selling novelist who grew up here."

The Sad Song of Okinawa: Life is Our Most Precious Treasure from the SCBWI Tokyo Translation Group. Peek: "...the heart-wrenching story of the Battle of Okinawa, 'World War II’s longest and fiercest battle,' as told from the perspective of two young Okinawan children. It is in the form of a picture book for young readers, but certain to stimulate discussion among all age groups about the nature of war and peace."

Comics Showcased at NYC Librarian Conference from Good Comics for Kids at School Library Journal. Peek: " do you address the student who comes in looking for books—comic books—on a certain level?"

Congratulations to Horn Book editor Roger Sutton who received the Norton Juster Award for dedication to children’s literature and literacy from the Reader to Reader Foundation.

Do Fiction Writers Need a Platform? by Mary Kole from Peek: "...platform shouldn’t be the thing you need to focus on before you write your manuscript. Once you get a book deal, you’ll need to shift into two modes, a) marketing Debut Novel, and b) writing Follow-up Novel. But that’s after."

Congratulations to Thanhha Lai, author Inside Out & Back Again (Harper), on winning the National Book Award in the category of Young People's Literature! Read an interview with Thanhha by Eisa Ulen from the National Book Foundation. Note: congratulations also to Fiction winner (and fellow University of Michigan graduate) Jesmyn Ward.

So Who Do We Write For? (Featuring Kathi Appelt, Tom Birdseye, Shutta Crum, Sharon Darrow, Jane Kurtz, Julie Larios, David Lubar, and Leda Schubert) by Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek from David: "Perhaps it marks me as a mutant, curmudgeon, or semi-solipsist, but I generally write with no audience in mind." See also more on audience from Stacy DeKeyser, Kimberley Griffiths Little, and Barbara Brooks Wallace.

SCBWI's Open Letter to the Kidlit Industry about No-Response-Means-A-Rejection Policies from Lee Wind at SCBWI: The Blog. Peek: "As an organization, we encourage both publishers and agents to find a cost-effective and efficient way to let writers know that they are free to submit elsewhere."

Back Up Your Blog by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: "Whatever platform you use to host your blog, it probably has a way to back it up. It’s worth doing for peace of mind."

All Vulnerable All the Time and Not Knowing Why by Jane Kurtz from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "That's one good thing about having lived through eighth grade--we have those feelings inside of us that we can use in our writing."

Reminder: Call for Entries! Austin Public Library Friends Foundation Award (Children's Book $500)(YA Book $500) from the Texas Institute of Letters. Deadline: Jan. 9 postmark. Requirements include a "statement of eligibility confirming that the entrant was born in Texas or lived in Texas for at least two consecutive years at some time. A work whose subject matter substantially concerns Texas is also eligible."

(Simon Pulse, Jan. 2012)
Live Action Book Trailer Contest for Film-making Enthusiasts from K.M. Walton. Prizes include: $500; personal film critiques by top industry professionals (an Oscar nominee, the director of the major motion picture "The Mighty Macs," writers for the MTV Movie Awards, and more). Deadline: Jan. 17, 2012.

Interview with Debbi Michiko Florence from Voicu Mihnea Simandan. Peek: "My heart goes out to the people of Japan."

Meeting Gandhi’s Grandson, the Making of a Picture Book by Bethany Hegedus from ALSC Blog. Peek: "I sat in my wooden seat in the middle of Town Hall and turned to a friend and said, 'These stories would make a beautiful picture book.' She agreed. But it was an idea for someone else. Not for me. I left Town Hall, after hearing Arun speak, stronger, less broken, and more able to forgive, albeit slowly."

What Not to Blog About by Rachelle Gardner. Peek: "...if you’re engaging in social networking as a way to help your writing career, you can’t afford major missteps in your online persona. The trick is to be a real person without over-sharing."

Last Call: Light Up the Library Auction: bid for a chance to win agent critiques, author Skype visits, original art and much more!

See also This Week for Writers from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing, which includes links to even more roundups.

Picture Book Month
Picture Book Idea Month
Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Candlewick, 2011)!  To enter, comment on this post (click preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Lala Salma" in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. Note: View an inside spread.

The winner of The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson, illustrated by John Rocco (Candlewick, 2011) was Halli in North Carolina.

Enter to win a prize pack for The Boy Project: Notes and Observations of Kara McAllister by Kami Kinard (Scholastic, 2011) from Uniquely Moi Books. Includes a signed ARC of The Boy Project, a tote bag, two cards, and bracelets.

Enter to win the Elevensies 2011 Book Feast Giveaway! Deadline: Dec. 30.

This Week's Cynsations Posts
Cynsational Screening Room

Picture Book Month 2011 Trailer from Carter Higgins on Vimeo.

The official trailer to "Hunger Games" (2012).

More Personally

Greg and I hosted a writing day on Tuesday in our dining room. Breakfast was comprised of blueberry pastry bread, egg burritos, fresh strawberries, tangerines, ginger chocolate, Oreo cookies, baked Lays potato chips, croissants, and peanut butter cups. Lunch was penne marinara with squash, and we had brie and French bread after we finished writing for the day.

Mari Mancusi, K.A. Holt, Liz Garton Scanlon, Margo Rabb & Greg Leitich Smith.
Erin Edwards, Sean Petrie, and Jennifer Ziegler.

Highlights of the week also included Austin Comic Con!

Pictured: Joy Preble (purple), Jo Whittemore (Batgirl), P.J. Hoover (goddess), Danny and Julie (the owners of Book Spot in Round Rock, Texas), Cory Putnam Oats (silver), Mari Mancusi, (cat), and in front Jessica Lee Anderson (Calli), Madeline Smoot (Mouseketeer), and K.A. Holt (zombie).

See my full photo report on the convention!

Thanks to librarian Nidia S. Rodriguez for sending the following photos of United High School students at my online author visit to five Laredo, Texas schools!

Thanks also to S. Laurel, who read Eternal with all of her classes! What a wonderful event! 

The next best thing to being there!
And once more, thank you to Carmen A. Escamilla, the additional librarians/IT gurus, and students who made my online visit yesterday with Alexander High School, L.B.J. High School, United High School, United High School (9th Grade) and United South High School in Laredo, Texas such a great experience! Thanks for your wonderful questions and for your enthusiasm for the Tantalize series!

Kirkus Reviews says of Diabolical (Candlewick, 2012): "A blend of romance, action and horror, this distinguishes itself from the crowd of paranormal teen fare with the employ of plenty of camp and a healthy dose of dry humor."

Congratulations to P.J. Hoover on the sale of Brazilian rights to Solstice!

Personal Links:
From Greg Leitich Smith:
Cynsational Events

Holiday Tree Lighting and Author Signing at LBJ State Park! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith for the tree lighting ceremony at LBJ State Park from 4:30 p.m. Dec. 18. Cynthia will be signing Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010). Lucy Johnson will be speaking briefly at the event, and Santa may make an appearance, too. See more information.

See also Cynthia's upcoming events in Austin, Albuquerque, Tucson, Sandy (Utah), Southampton (New York), and Montpelier (Vermont).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guest Post: Joseph Bruchac on Writing Fantasy & Wolf Mark

By Joseph Bruchac

First of all, I've been a fan of fantasy and science fiction for most of my life.

One of the happiest weeks of my childhood was when my grown-up cousin Bobby, figuring I was old enough (having turned twelve), showed me his collection of sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks. More than three hundred of them were carelessly stacked on the floor of my uncle Harry's unheated attic.

"I've read them all," he said, "take as many as you want."

I took them all, loading them thirty at a time in the basket of my bike pedaling the two miles home and then two miles back to get more. Van Vogt, Lord Dunsany, Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Howard, Vance. . .

I still have most of them, their yellowed pages and the prices on their covers (none more than 35 cents) reminding me how many decades have passed since then. And in those decades I've continued reading fantasy and have even taught courses in it on the college level.

Secondly, I've also always been a person who loves and feels a strong connection to our animal brothers and sisters, so much so that when I went to Cornell University I spent three years majoring in Wildlife Conservation before changing my major to English after taking several creative writing courses and embarking on a career as a successful poet who also wrote fiction and eventually ended up--after having my own children--as a children's writer.

Among those books for young people (and teachers) is the "Keepers of the Earth" series I co-authored with Michael Caduto, which uses American Indian traditional stories to teach science.

And then there is my Indian background, my interest in the real history and authentic culture of my own Abenaki ancestors and those of the other first nations of this continent. That interest is reflected in my work as a traditional storyteller and in most of what I write.

And I am deeply committed to pointing out whenever I can that American Indians and our cultures are neither vanished nor irrelevant relics, but part of the fabric of American life today.

So, when I first came up with the idea of writing Wolf Mark (Tu Books, 2011), I brought to it not only a wide knowledge of the field of fantasy but also a great deal of knowledge of the natural world, and a desire to reflect American Indian culture in a way which was neither stereotyped nor one-dimensional.

(One aspect of American Indian cultures, past and present, is a good sense of humor--often ironic and self-mocking. I've tried to use that indigenous sense of humor in the book and hope that readers find themselves laughing while they read it as much as I did while writing it.)

The best fantasy works for me when it is not just based in imagination, but in a world that seems as if it could--or should--be real.

Thus, in creating the setting, the characters, and the overall story, I did an immense amount of research. That research was not just into the entire werewolf mythos--in folklore, film and print--but also into such esoteric fields as firearms, spy lore, Russian rock and roll and contemporary Russian teenage slang. I also blended as much literature as I could into the story, not just in my translation of a poem or two by Anna Ahkmatova, but also places where I have paraphrased or quoted poetry from the past.

I should also mention that I've been studying and teaching martial arts for over three decades and hold the rank of Master in the Indonesian fighting system called Pencak-silat. So those moments when Luke makes use of his training reflect that reality as well.

Photo of Joe by Michael Greenlar
Most importantly, I tried in writing the book to honor an important part of my Abenaki storytelling tradition--the part that emphasizes that a good story must always have at least two elements to it. The first element is that it must entertain. The second is that it must teach. I hope I've succeeded in sharing a story that's not just exciting but also a sort of morality tale.

The last thing I want to mention is the difference I hope the reader sees between most werewolves and Luke when he puts on his second skin.

Rather than losing control and giving way to a "bestial nature," Luke simply becomes more himself. And that is as it should be, for the wolf is not a figure of fear to American Indians. Wolves are regarded as teachers, as scouts, as role models. There never was a war between us and the wolf, but a relationship of respect.

And anyone who has been around real wolves--as I often have--knows what powerful creatures they are and that they have no desire to cross our paths or attack us.

True, we do have traditions in most of our Native cultures about "skin walkers," humans who use power in a twisted way to take on an animal shape. But we have just as many if not more stories about people who are adopted by animals, who become animals themselves without any desire to harm humans or do the sort of things that are usually caused by human jealousy and greed and desire for power.

The characters in my novel who are that kind of "skin walker" are to be found in the Maxico Corporation and have nothing to do with American Indian legend, though you could see them as connected to the European werewolf archetype.

There's a lot more that I could say about the writing of Wolf Mark--a journey that sometimes took me in unexpected directions.

But I'll end this here without going much further into the story--and possibly spoiling it for those who've not yet read it and would be happy to do without further critical exegesis...such as my pointing out the places in the novel where I have gently parodied some of the cliches in werewolf stories or reflected a bit of Poe or Lovecraft or Lon Chaney.

But I will nod to one more writer who has been an influence on my career and my worldview. Walt Kelly, whose Will Rogers-like possum Pogo pointed out another of the crucial points I wanted to make in Wolf Mark: "We have met the enemy, and they is us."

Cynsational Notes

Teatime Tuesday with Joseph Bruchac by Debbi Michiko Florence from DEBtastic Reads. Peek (on his writing space): "It’s at the end of a dead end road, next to a seven acre pond with hundreds of acres of wilderness beyond the 12 acres I own there. I can hear the wind in the trees and the sound of leaves falling to the earth and I’m visited often by deer, wild turkeys, and can find the tracks of bears and moose nearby, though they’re seldom seen..."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Guest Post: Anne Ursu on Happily Ever After (or Not)

By Anne Ursu

In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Gerda and Kai are best friends until the day a shard of magic mirror falls into Kai’s eye and he’s cruel to Gerda.

In Breadcrumbs (HarperCollins, 2011), the same thing happens to Minneapolis fifth-graders Hazel and Jack. They’re best friends in the world, until one day Jack just changes. And then he disappears. Hazel learns he’s been taken into the woods by a witch-like woman in white. Her plan is simple: go into the woods, save her friend, and they can all live happily ever after.

But the fairytale woods in Breadcrumbs are not a happily-ever-after kind of place. Really, fairytale woods rarely are. The Cinderella-type stories that end with palace weddings and promises of eternal bliss are the succulent gingerbread houses that lure us into the fey world of mischief, vendettas, curses, and cruelty, where children are neglected, orphaned, abandoned—and that’s just at the beginning.

Child readers devour the tales, knowing full well what really lurks inside gingerbread houses. I think the idea that fairy tales are happy comes from adults, from a wish they have for kids and for the stories they love.

It’s easy to be so dazzled by fairy-godmother glass slippers that you forget a pair of shoes can just as easily make a girl dance herself to death.

We try so hard to protect our kids from the world as long as we can—hiding the ugly bits, promising certainty, security, a happily ever after. As adults writing for kids we protect our child characters, too. My first draft didn’t ask much of my protagonist Hazel, because I wanted the misfit girl in the beginning of the book to learn to feel okay about herself. And while Hazel struggled with the shifting landscapes of the real world, when she went into the enchanted woods she was fine. But I started this book wanting to write about growing up, and I wasn’t doing anything to help Hazel do so.

I recently worked with a student who was writing a book about a boy with Asperger's. The character was so deeply felt that as a reader I dreaded the struggle he would go through. But in the first draft, he didn’t struggle. The writer couldn’t put this boy through the sort of hardship protagonists are supposed to experience. She kept throwing in people and situations that protected him, eased him--the fairy godmothers of narrative—because part of her simply could not bear to have him suffer.

We talked about this, and she came back next time with a manuscript full of tests and trials for the boy, and a quote for me from a memoir by Tim Page about growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s:

"For some of us, stories where the characters don't live happily ever after, where the hero is too late to save the day, where nothing is redeemed are curiously restorative, for they present a vision of the world that serves to reinforce what we see with our own eyes, and the truth is not so terrible that it can't be told."

That's it. The truth is not so terrible that it can't be told. Sometimes the world is completely outside of the child's control. Growing up is a process of change, all the time, and the rules change too. Friends fall away, people get sick, families break apart, other kids are cruel. Nothing is assured, least of all happy endings. But that doesn't mean the world isn't so terrible you can’t live in it. That you can’t thrive in it.

The trick is simply figuring out how. And this is what stories help kids do.

The Cinderella ending is about safety and sameness. It's a reassurance that everything will be okay for the heroine as soon as the fairy godmother appears and waves her wand. And the heroine doesn't have to do anything but wait around. It is tidy, and easy, and it is small comfort.

Anne Ursu
Growth is something else. It is about a journey, it's about maturity and strength earned through hardship. It might not mean you get what you want at the end, it might mean you carry scars, it might mean you've lost things along the way. But it also means you're more able to live in the world as it is, to slay whatever dragons might come across your path in the future.

In the woods Hazel encounters people who have been lured in by the gingerbread-house exterior of fairytales. They believe in a happily-ever-after universe and so cannot live in the real one—and in their attempt to escape they’ve become trapped.

It’s not Hazel’s lot to be entrapped by stories—but rather to absorb them, to integrate them into her own understanding of the world even as they threaten and try to break her. The woods never affirm Hazel—they rock her and change her—but by going through them she’ll be better able to find her footing in the real world. And the magic in it, too.

Anne's office

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Governor General’s Awards Announced

Congratulations to the winners of the Governor General’s Awards, Canada’s oldest and most prestigious awards for English- and French-language Canadian literature!

Children’s Literature — Text

Christopher Moore, Toronto, From Then to Now: A Short History of the World (Tundra)

Martin Fournier, Québec, Les aventures de Radisson - 1. L’enfer ne brûle pas (Les éditions du Septentrion)

Children’s Literature — Illustration

Cybèle Young, Toronto, Ten Birds, text by Cybèle Young (Kids Can)

Caroline Merola, Montreal, Lili et les poilus, text by Caroline Merola (Dominique et Compagnie, a division of Éditions Héritage)

Source: Lena Coakley, Cynsations Canada reporter.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Event Report: Austin Comic Con

Me with Greg--I also wore a long Gothic-style gown to the convention (on day 2).
Thanks to Wizard World for offering me a complimentary table in artist's alley at Austin Comic Con

It was my first time at the show, and after consulting with fellow kidlit graphic novelists Barry Lyga, Jenni Holm and Matthew Holm, I decided to use the opportunity as a reader meet-and-greet.  

Greg Leitich Smith and I did giveaways of signed bookmarks and postcards, "blood" candy, and signed copies of Tantalize and Eternal as well as my own debut graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren's Story

I'm the world's biggest Babymouse fan!
We didn't advertise the giveaways--so as not to be mobbed by people simply grabbing free stuff--but rather let readers come and find us. We had some terrific conversations, dished on the series to established fans and hopefully won over new readers, too! 

To everyone who teared up, yelped, started bouncing, ran to drag your best friends over, or couldn't leave without a photo and hug, it's an enormous honor to write for you!

Thanks to all the YA readers, artists, librarians, and booksellers who stopped by to chat!

Upon arriving, I was charmed to find myself positioned across from Peter Mayhew (AKA Chewbacca) of "Star Wars" fame. 

Lending him my packing tape was the closest I'll ever come to an I-Saved-the-Wookie moment. Check out Peter's books, My Favorite Giant and Growing Up Giant. Note: he did a reading on Sunday, which was designated as "kid's day" at the convention. 

From there, the event was a blur of costumed fun. Here are a few highlights!

Green Lanterns were in abundance.
Austin author-illustrator Jeff Crosby.
The Riddler--very much in character!
Batman, likewise completely in character.
Author-editor Madeline Smoot & authors Jessica Lee Anderson, P.J. Hoover & Joy Preble.
Steampunk -- major representation!
The Joker.
Austin authors K.A. Holt & Jo Whittemore.
Captain Jack Sparrow.
R2D2 -- at my table!
Hogwarts students.
Austin author-illustrator C.S. Jennings--at the very next table! Super nice guy!
A better pic of our table!

Celebrity sightings also included James Marsters and Juliet Landau (Spike & Dru of "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" fame). Oh, and ask P.J. Hoover about Kevin Sorbo--really.

New Voice: Jane Kohuth on Estie the Mensch

Jane Kohuth is the first-time author of Estie the Mensch, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Random House, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

What's a mensch, and why does her family keep telling Estie to be one? She'd much rather be a jungle cat, or an alligator, or an octopus. But if being a mensch means helping a new friend, then maybe it's not so bad after all?

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

Like many people who go on to be writers, I had an outsized love of books from the beginning. I maintain vivid memories of my earliest reading -- specific images from picture books and collections of nursery rhymes, snippets of sound that still roll around my inner ear, characters who still make surprise visits.

My childhood reading experience was so powerful, so overwhelming to the senses, that I admit to not really having grown up properly as a reader. Sure, I went to college, majored in English and read literature I loved, but in that deep place of the imagination where my reading mind lurks, I still identify most powerfully with children’s books and the characters in them.

The child who loved rhymes and filled notebooks with poems fell easily into the short form, the rhythmic lines, the minute attention to language that picture books and poems share. So when I decided to move from writing poetry for adults to writing children’s books, I felt most natural working with the picture book form.

My debut picture book, Estie the Mensch, has its roots in a particular childhood reading experience. When I was about ten, I was very disappointed to discover that Anastasia Krupnik (by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin, 1979) celebrated Christmas. Anastasia seemed Jewish to me, her name sounded Jewish, but, it turned out, her mother was Christian, and the family put up Christmas decorations.

I am an omnivorous reader, and that was true when I was a child as well. I liked realism, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, even the occasional sports story if it was written well (despite the fact that in real life I detested sports). I enjoyed reading about children from other places and times, but I was also very interested in reading about children like me. That meant Jewish, observant but not Orthodox, city dwellers.

But I couldn’t find any books like that. I’d settle for Jewish non-city dwellers, but there weren’t any of those either. There was a handful of excellent historical fiction, the already thirty-year-old All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (Follet, 1951) among them. I loved the family of five sisters and the way the books were not about being Jewish, but showed how Judaism was important to the family’s rhythm of life.

But when characters were Jewish (or half-Jewish) in books about contemporary life, Judaism itself rarely made an appearance.

When I began writing for children, I knew from my continued reading of children’s books (I spent time as a children’s bookseller and library assistant) that the type of Jewish-oriented books available hadn’t changed much since I’d been a child. Jewish-themed picture books were (and are) still dominated by holiday stories, folk-tales, and historical fiction, while contemporary realism in all ages ranges featuring actively Jewish characters was still rare. I wanted to write the books I’d longed for as a child, both for Jewish children growing up now, and to add to the growing collection of multicultural books for children of all backgrounds.

But when I showed my manuscript for Estie the Mensch, a story which features a contemporary Jewish family, to agents, I heard the opinion that Jewish-themed books wouldn’t sell to major publishers.

After the acceptance of my first book, the early reader Ducks Go Vroom (Random House, 2011) my agent Becca Stumpf (the Prospect Agency) submitted a number of my manuscripts to my editor Christy Webster (PDF). We were both quite surprised that the one the Random House team chose was Estie!

So while my picture book manuscripts cover all kinds of subjects and themes, Estie the Mensch, holds a special place in my heart, and I’m very pleased that it will be my first published picture book.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

After my undergraduate years as an English and Creative Writing major, I chose to pursue at Master’s in Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. This was an intense and thought-provoking experience which informs my writing, but it did not teach me the nitty gritty details of crafting a book. So when I decided to “switch careers” only a couple of years in to working in Jewish education, and not being in a position to take out more student loans for an M.F.A., I set out to teach myself.

I had never stopped reading children’s books, but I stepped up my reading drastically. I joined SCBWI. I attended the New England Regional Conference every year. I joined a newly forming critique group, which continues to meet twice a month. I’ve learned so much from my fellow writers, whose various backgrounds offer a great variety of strengths. I read articles and books on writing, and I practiced. I figured out what it felt like to write a picture text, what sort of thought process I needed, what sort of ideas could work. I generated ideas by the dozen and got into the habit of thinking all the time about whether there was a story in a particular word, feeling, image, or memory. I began to read picture books like a writer of picture books, and that made my reading all the more helpful.

My natural strengths are a facility with poetic language -- rhyme, meter, rhythm, assonance and alliteration. I’m good at writing short too, which is key to writing publishable picture book manuscripts.

My greatest challenges are crafting a narrative structure for my stories and creating enough conflict and suspense to sustain a listener’s interest.

When I first received comments about not having enough conflict in my manuscripts, I was confused. I didn’t necessarily want to write loud blustery stories. It took me some time to learn that conflict didn’t mean scary, intense, or angry, it meant a challenge that a character faces, internal or external, that drives the story and makes the reader want to find out what happens.

I was also relieved to learn that some books are concept books rather than story books, and that the rules of narrative structure you hear about don’t always apply.

I am still very much in the process of learning my craft, still looking for opportunities to learn more. I’m fairly sure I’d be fooling myself if I looked forward to a day when I’d be ready to approach writing with complete confidence. But complete confidence is boring. Much better for each new project to be an adventure.

Jane's workspace.

Cynsational Notes

Take the Mensch Challenge for a Chance to Win Estie the Mensch from Jane Kohuth. Peek: "Send me a short description of a way you've been a mensch and, if you have one, a photo, and you could be my Mensch of the Month!"

Jane looks forward to the release of Duck Sock Hop (Dial, 2012).
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