Monday, November 9, 2009

King of YA at ACP this Thursday!

Ever read Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist? Ever see it? It was co-authored by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Many of you know that David is a YA king. From his authorial debut with Boy meets Boy (Knopf, 2003) to the anthologies he edits, Levithan gives readers an "honest dose of reality". Editorial director at Scholastic, and founding editor of the PUSH imprint, which is dedicated to publishing new voices and new authors in teen literature. Yep- he's a YA king.

This Thursday at 4pm at A Children's Place, David will be reading from his newest book Love is the Higher Law (Knopf, 2009). Levithan chronicles the lives of three teens whose paths are intertwined and forever changed by the horrors of 9/11 in NYC. It's been 8 years. I think I'm ready to read this now.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Move over, vampires!

If you're into compelling tales of supernatural desire, don't limit yourself to vampires. They're so yesterday, anyway. I've got a tip for you: head on over to Powell's on Hawthorne at 7:30 tonight and pick up a copy of Laini Taylor's and Jim DiBartolo's Lips Touch Three Times (Arthur A. Levine, 2009). As an added incentive, they'll be there, happy to sign any and all book purchases.

The blue-eyed mysterious beauty on the cover will mesmerize you. Check out this book trailer if you don't believe me.



If there's any way I can get out of doing the tuck-in tonight, I'll be there.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rosanne Parry: Heart of a Writer



Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

When I finished reading Rosanne Parry’s fiction debut Heart of a Shepherd, I had a visitation of sorts. The above lines of Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day kept haunting me. Like Oliver, Parry challenges you to bear witness to nature and reflect on the spiritual. But unlike Oliver, Parry throws down the gauntlet to middle grade readers of fiction. In her slim, tightly woven prose, Parry succeeds  in keeping our attention and challenging our thoughts, long after we put the book down. I don't make comparisons to the work of Mary Oliver lightly. I can’t recommend Heart of a Shepherd highly enough. 


In Heart of a Shepherd, Brother, the youngest of five sons, must run the family ranch with his grandfather when his father’s reserve unit is called to active duty. This provides Brother with an opportunity to prove himself- to show his father and brothers he is capable, despite his own self-doubts. He and his grandfather withstand many challenges, and Brother ultimately gains insight into how he can best serve the spirit of the land, his family, and himself.


Lucky for us, Rosanne has decided to write with her "one wild and precious life." And she does it in a tree! And lucky for Portlanders, Rosanne is making her first appearance at Wordstock on Sunday October 11th. Don’t miss her! Read on to learn about the genesis of her story, her craft,  and crucial advice for those of you who have searched your souls and found that writing is your vocation.


AB: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Heart of a Shepherd (Random House, 2009). I read it on a plane and tried in vain to hide my tears and puffy face from the person next to me. I was particularly struck by the realism in the story- Brother's family felt like my family, even though we've neither lived in Eastern Oregon nor raised sheep. What led you to write this story? 


RP: Thank you, I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book. I’m beginning to think that it should come with a little sticker that says, “Don’t read this book on a city bus!” I’ve actually gotten a few complaints on that score. It’s a real honor to have moved a reader, but I’m very sorry if you were embarrassed. If it makes you feel better, my editor refused to work my book in the office for exactly the same reason.


It’s sometimes hard to pin down one thing that inspires a story. I know plenty of ranchers and soldiers. That’s part of it. During the current war in Iraq, I’ve seen small towns deploying their most valuable community members overseas. The impact of their service on their communities seemed worth the attention of a novel. Ultimately though, I had a character I loved, and I was willing to follow him where his story led.


AB: What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about children's fiction appeals to you?

RP: There are so many things to love about kid’s literature. You will not find more attentive or passionate readers anywhere. I love it that children’s books are not about the writer, but about the reader and the story each reader constructs from her own abilities and experiences. I love school visits and letters from child readers, and I find the community of children’s writers a very inspiring place to be.


AB: What was the timeline between kernel of an idea to publication? 


RP: This story began as a poem I wrote about a boy and a grandpa playing chess at least 10 years ago. The poem became a short story that won a Kay Snow Award from Willamette Writers in 2003, the same year I met my editor Jim Thomas at the Oregon SCBWI fall retreat. Slowly, and with much pausing to work on other projects, the short story called The Chess Men became the first chapter of a whole novel. My editor made an offer on it in September of 2006 and it came out in January of 2009.  The audio book came out the same month as the novel, and I also sold the movie option for Heart of a Shepherd in January of 2009. It seems long but I’m lucky to have had the luxury of time to get the story just the way I wanted it to be.


AB: I have read your informative Cynsations interview. Could you tell me when you started becoming involved with SCBWI? How helpful has being a partof this organization been for you?


RP: I’ve been involved with SCBWI-Oregon for more than ten years. I count myself very lucky to be in the company of generous mentors at our region’s conferences and retreats. I met my Random House editor at one of our retreats, but far more importantly, I met friends who have supported and advised me in all the stages of my career.


AB: In 2004, you were the recipient of the Oregon Literary Arts fellowship for Young Readers' Literature. How did you hear about the Oregon Literary Arts fellowship?


RP: I made it a habit in the “pre-published” phase of my career to enter at least 3 contests a year. I was chatting with one of my SCBWI friends about what new contests I could enter, and she suggested OLA. It’s an amazing organization and a testament to the strength of the reading culture in our state.


AB: How did you find your agent, Stephen Fraser? Was it difficult to find an agent?


RP: I didn’t start to look for an agent until I had four finished middle grade stories, about a dozen finished picture book manuscripts, some published newspaper articles and the Kay Snow Award. I was at the point where I was consistently getting not form rejections but notes that said, “Thanks, good writing, but this is not what we do here. Please send us something else”.


I asked my friend Brent Hartinger, who loves his agent Jennifer Di Chiara, if she was taking new clients. He said, “Yes, but her list is very full. My editor at Harper Collins is becoming an agent in Jennifer’s agency. He’s great. Try him.” So I queried Stephen according to the guidelines. He got back to me in just a few weeks offering representation. So it wasn’t hard, but I believe that’s because I’d already done the hard work of creating not just one saleable manuscript but a body of marketable work and enough knowledge of the industry to have reasonable expectations and be an active partner with my agent.


AB: I understand that you work in a critique group. What and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?


RP: What I love most about my critique group is the variety of response. One member has a gift for copy editing. She has, with considerable patience, taught me much of what I know about the more complex elements of grammatical construction. She is also a genius at picking out the inconsistencies and errors in logic. I love that about her, and I depend on it. Another member is great at helping me sort out things like narrative distance and consistency in point of view. Yet another is great about telling me when I’ve hit the emotional nail on the head and where I’ve missed the mark. Perhaps most important of all, they are there year in and year out, expecting a new chapter from me every two weeks. It’s very motivating. Our group has changed membership over the years, but I can’t imagine how I’d get an initial manuscript into editor-ready shape without the help of other writers.


AB: I've read your website and know a bit about what you liked to read when you were younger. I've also checked out your "Goodreads" page. But I'm wondering: are you able to read much current middle grade fiction? If so, what are some middle grade books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed? What makes you like it/them so much?


RP: I wish I read more. My goal is to set aside at least one week and maybe two a year just for the purpose of keeping current in my field. I also try to keep up with what my children are reading both for fun and in their English classes. 


What have I read lately? I just finished Marcello in the Real World last week and found it one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in a while. I’m a big fan of Megan Whelen Turner’s books, The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia. I have enjoyed all of the books in my debut authors group the Class of 2K9.  One title in particular that stands out is the middle grade novel When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. I could never settle on a favorite but those are what spring to mind today.


AB: How about current picture books? 


RP: I also need to go on a picture book reading binge this week. Two that I’ve read recently are Deb Lund’s Dinosailors and Deborah Hopkinson’s Apples to Oregon. I think the Olivia books by Ian Falconer are both visually interesting and great characterization.  I’ve been a fan of folk and fairy tales all my life so The Paper Dragon by Marguerite W. Davol, illustrated by Robert Sabuda, and St. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman are long time favorites.



AB: Daddy's Home  (Candy Cane Press, 2009) is a lovely picture book in rhyme that you wrote which came out last spring. How are writing picture books different from writing middle grade novels?


RP: I have loved poetry all my life, and I do think that picture books have more in common with poetry than with novels. It’s good for my writing to switch between novels and picture books. The novels remind me to make the picture book have a satisfying arc no matter how short it is, and the picture books remind me of the importance of reading my work out loud.


AB: What advice would you offer a writer (like me) who is just starting out?


RP: Two things spring to mind. The first is probably advice you’ve heard before. Read. I would add to that: read current books. Read at least a dozen books in your genre every year. Think about what you are reading. When you find a book you love, pick it apart and figure out what makes the story work. Spend a little time with books you hate as well, particularly if it’s a best selling book that you loathe. Think about why you have the reaction you do and what other readers are seeing that appeals to them.

The other advice is to develop a body of work. Finish at least 3 or 4 novels or a dozen picture books. Learn all you can about the craft of writing from these first books. Work with a critique group or partner. Figure out the kind of story you like best and practice the work habits you’ll need to sustain a career in publishing.


AB: What can your fans look forward to next? Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming novel that takes place during the cold war? 


RP: My next novel will be Second Fiddle, and it will come out in the spring of 2011. It's an adventure story about three girl musicians living in Germany just as the Berlin Wall has come down. They rescue a Soviet soldier from death at the hands of his own officers and help him escape from East Berlin to Paris. It's a complete change of pace from the first book, but still a thoughtful coming of age story about trust, friendship, and a girl who loves music finding her own voice.


AB: Do you ever do public readings or speaking engagements? 


RP: Yes! I just returned from a wonderful weekend in Enterprise Oregon leading the Fishtrap Children’s Literature Workshop. I was very impressed with the enthusiasm of the Fishtrap staff, the quality of the participants and the brilliance of my teaching partner, author and story teller Meg Lippert. This is an event that happens every fall.

I’ll be making my first appearance at Wordstock on Sunday October 11th. I’ll be sharing the stage at my reading with Karen Cushman! How cool is that? I can’t wait to meet her. I’ll also be teaching a writing workshop called "Character and the Seven Deadly Sins." It’s a fun one. I’d love to see some friendly faces there, so stop by if you can. My reading is at 4pm on Sunday and my workshop is at 1:30.
I’ll also start scheduling my school visits and Skype visits. It’s my goal to visit 20 schools in the next school year. I’ve done two already in Wallowa and Enterprise, Oregon. I have Skype visits lined up in Chicago and Wisconsin. If you have a school that’s interested in an author visit, let me know. Interacting with readers is becoming my favorite part of the job!


AB: Thanks so much, Rosanne!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Walk in Beezus and Ramona's Footsteps Tour

Ever wonder where Beezus, Ramona and the gang trick-or-treated? Curious about where Henry Huggins first found his stray Ribsy? The answers to these pressing questions and more can be found right here in Portland, Oregon.

Beverly Cleary based most of her stories on the Grant Park/ Hollywood neighborhood, often with an actual house in mind as the homes of her beloved characters.  Join Portland City Walks author and expert Laura Foster on one of four "Walking with Ramona" tours offered through the Multnomah County Library this September and October. Check out the schedule and tour start location here!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mark Teague in Da House! (Well, at A Children's Place, Actually.)


Attention all kid lit-ophiles: Mark Teague will be at A Children's Place Bookstore today.
Today!
At 4 pm.

In case you don't know or have forgotten, Mark is the author of Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School , Funny Farm, and many others. He's also the illustrator of Cynthia Rylant's Poppleton early reader series.

The spotlight will be on his latest dino collaboration with Jane Yolen: How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? Hopefully, he'll also talk about his newest book, The Doom Machine (The Blue Sky Press, 2009) which will come out this October.

Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Maurice Sendak Makes Spike Jonze's Heart Sing

I just caught a glimpse of Spike Jonze's new documentary on Maurice Sendak.  It's called Tell Them Anything You Want, and from the looks of things, Sendak discusses the Ursula Nordstrom years and how he broke into the children's literature scene during its golden age. Here's a great article about the "mere illustrator" who didn't think his private life was anybody's business. (Also, check out the corresponding NY Times article about Jonze's difficulties making the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Nikki McClure: All in a Day's Work

For years, Nikki McClure’s self-published calendars have graced my office walls. I love the intricate beauty of her paper cuts and the ways in which she pays yearly homage to the nuances of each season. Her art is often peppered with words like "breathe" and "nourish" that challenge the observer to act with intention.

As are her many books. Her recent collaboration with Cynthia Rylant, All in a Day (Abrams, 2009) offers children and families a poignant reminder of the simple wonders that a day can have in store for us. I was thrilled to learn it landed on the NY Times bestseller list last spring, and that there are more books to come.


Nikki approaches art through communion with the natural world and her reverence for daily life. Whether it’s a Sleater-Kinney album cover, shirt design, or children’s book, each holds deep personal meaning for Nikki long after she’s put down her X-acto knife. On the way to her back yard studio, we passed a giant bucket full of blueberries. I suspect those berries will show up in her artwork before they make it into pies, and none will be wasted.

Nikki talked with me about her artistic journey and her successful foray into children’s literature. She also shared book recommendations, what makes her brain feel good, reflections on floor sweeping, and why she feels like a Lorax.

AB: Congratulations on the success of All in a Day. You’ve published at least four other kid-related titles including The Great Chicken Escape (1998), Welcome (2004), The First 1000 Days (Sasquatch, 2006), and Awake to Nap (Sasquatch, 2006). Were you always interested in children’s literature?

NM: I’ve always been into it, but it wasn’t until I had a child that I allowed myself to become fully immersed. I had collected some children’s books, like an obscure Maurice Sendak book from the ‘50s, but for the past five years I’ve been actively studying children’s literature.

AB: You went to college here in Olympia at Evergreen. Did you study art there?

NM: Mainly natural history, actually. I grew up in the Northwest, mistakenly thinking that salal berries were poisonous, so I wanted to learn the names of all the plants and animals that I shared my space with. I immersed myself in the sciences: entomology, botany, ornithology, soil science. I realized after doing some field work that my health and safety mattered more to me than data collection! So I thought about working in environmental education. I wanted to be a person who could travel around to schools talking about marine biology. That interest morphed into book making.

AB: How?

NM: In the early ‘90s, there wasn’t really a lot of kid-focused material on wetlands, so I felt like there was a need for a primer with an environmental message. I made Wetlands (1991) and it was funded by what is now People for Puget Sound. I rented a studio for $50 a month, covered it in linoleum curls, and delivered it ten weeks later. Nowadays, my images still have messages in them, but they’re more subliminal or instinctual.

AB: Have you always been artistic?

NM: When I was a kid, I’d dress up in crazy costumes to be “the artist.” In 6th grade, I decided to teach art to my fellow classmates! I was a misfit, but not a super nerd or anything. People always got along with me, but I liked to be different. I would go and sit in the park and play my flute badly to my dog, who’d howl. But I never thought I could be an artist when I grew up. I thought that was as attainable as becoming a princess or something. I was also the kid who sat and watched ants. An observer.

AB: When did you start doing paper cuts?

NM: I’d been working with scratch board, linoleum and India ink, doing the odd illustration job, when a friend of mine who went to Cooper Union named Tae Won Yu suggested I try paper cutting. When I did, it felt good inside my brain. Very meditative.

I began with my book Apple (1996). The first page was my first paper cut ever; the second page was my second. My work was a lot cruder to begin with, but now I use a supple cutting board from Japan that works so much nicer. I also like the challenge of working through mistakes in paper.

AB: During this period, you were designing album covers for the K Records and Kill Rock Stars labels. Were your books also part of the Riot Grrrl movement at the time?

NM: Yeah, it was kind of all happening at the same time, but the paper cut work was all post-Apple. I drew pictures for friends. It was all very natural and a part of my life. You work with what you know. Life is a political act. By making all these books, I was bringing what is personal to me to a political level. I was also expressing myself during the early nineties through what I would call “sung word”. I didn’t really play instruments, but I would strum the guitar, performing, touring, and making singles and records. As I started making more books and more images, I found I didn’t need to express myself by standing in front of a large crowd, knees shaking. With paper cutting, I like the idea that there’s this quiet interaction between my work and someone who’s sitting down and just looking at it or reading it – one person at a time.

AB: How did you first publish your books? Did you have an inroad or was it do-it-yourself?

NM: I’d just go to Kinko’s, then local press. But when I first started out, making something like All in a Day with Cynthia Rylant seemed like an impossible other world.

AB: What led you to illustrate All in a Day?

NM: The calendars – I call them my spores. They go out into the world. I’ve been doing them for ten years now and have doubled the volume each year. This year I’m publishing 15,000. They work better than any kind of portfolio or calling card. They end up in places like Patagonia design. This was also how I got a call from Steven Malk, asking to be my agent. That felt too easy. People ask me, “How do you get your foot in the door?” and I think, “I don’t know– I went through the back door. I don’t know where the front door is!”

I was in the punk rock world where people don’t have agents. I felt I could continue in the realm of self-publishing, but at the same time, I was limited in production quality. Paper cutting reproduces well, but four-color print jobs had been too giant for me.

I became aware that if I wanted to do more, I would have to work with larger companies. I looked at who Steven represented. He’s working with Carson Ellis. I emailed her and asked about Steven. She was exuberant, saying, “He’s gotten me all of these book deals!” And he represents Cynthia Rylant, an established writer. Carson’s great and talented, and I could relate to her story because Steven had approached Carson in the same way and she had been new to the book publishing world. But Cynthia Rylant was a veteran. So I decided to try working with Steve.

And I had already been working on a collection of my artwork called Collect Raindrops (Abrams, 2007) and asked him if he’d help me with negotiations. It made things smoother and the communication more pure. Eva Prinz was my editor at Rizzoli, but she left when she refused to publish a paper plane book with war planes in it. As a mother of a young child, I admire that. So she went to Abrams and the first book she brought over was mine.

AB: So next up came All in a Day?

NM: Yes. Steven showed me what Cynthia had written with my images in mind. She had bought the calendar at this small fine paper shop in Seattle called “de Medici Ming”. When I first went to de Medici Ming trying to sell my calendar, the lady insisted she didn’t have room to sell it. I said, “Yes you do! Here are three. If you sell them, you can pay me and I’ll give you more. If you don’t, then don’t worry about it.” Now they sell around seventy. I just love that connection- that Cynthia Rylant found my calendar at a store that almost didn’t carry it! And I love Cynthia’s writing. It’s really comforting. Her books make you feel good in a way that’s not sugary sweet.

AB: I get that same feeling from your work as well, so your collaboration feels like a natural synthesis to me.

NM: Writing my book after working with her made me realize that she uses the perfect words, perfect cadence, perfect message. She makes it look easy, but it’s so hard! I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to work with Cynthia.

AB: You sent out your spores. You’ve earned it! As Seneca said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Who was your art director for this book?

NM: Chad Beckerman is my art director and Susan Van Metre is my editor for the children’s books at Abrams. Together we worked out what a day would contain. Susan, working in New York, initially had the idea that the child would go out into the big world more, but I was interested in exploring all the possibilities of a young child’s world while keeping it close to home. I went to a park down the street for inspiration, which is where my family often was while I was working on this book. My son calls All in a Day his book since he’s prominently featured in it, so it’s very personal to me.

AB: Like Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” The best art does.

NM: All in a Day was the first project I made in my new studio. The birch trees outside the window became the fixed point in the pictures throughout the book. All the action happens around them. It was really symbolic for me, too. When I was thirty I bought this house as a self-employed artist and used every penny I had. I had no idea when I planted these trees that I would one day look upon them and feature them in a book and watch my family grow around them. So yes, All in a Day is bliss based, but different than the kind of carefree bliss I felt when I had done prior books. All in a Day was intentional bliss.

AB: Someone who reviewed All in a Day on Amazon said it had a “retro feel”. I thought that was interesting, because I haven’t seen your work as “retro”; I see it as “now”.

NM: Well, my child actually does wear suspenders every day! That is his outfit. He wears a wool, long-sleeved shirt and suspendered pants. He calls our home a farm, but it’s not in an Amish town –

AB: -it’s in downtown Olympia!

NM: Yeah! But I do love older children’s books by people like Robert McCloskey. Paper cutting is also a traditional art. And through my art, I’m always looking to accentuate the positive elements of being human. We’re really good at communicating, working together, using tools, telling stories, imagining, and working with our hands. So how do we use these skills to fix some of the parts of society that aren’t working? I don’t want my art to say, “Don’t do this!” I want it to say, “Keep doing what matters! Sweep your floor!” [laughing] Even when I sweep my floor, I’m aware of a basic link we have with humans who once lived in caves. Links we have with all of humanity, just through simple acts. If we lose sight of that, we lose our connections.

AB: I think your art works like a meditative bell: Remember!

NM: And remember Blueberries for Sal! [laughing] That’s a really important book.

AB: I’d love to know what books you grew up reading as a kid.

NM: Blueberries for Sal was definitely one of them. The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright, with super creepy black and white photos of a doll, but beautiful, too.

AB: You really gravitate to the contrast of black and white.

NM: And the pink gingham of The Lonely Doll! I also really liked The Black Stallion. And Moomin Summer Madness by Tove Janssen. Her illustrations are incredible and her characters are so real. They have their flaws and the black and white illustrations are so great. Also, I could read Wind in the Willows every day forever. We pretend we’re mole and ratty often around here.

AB: Had you read The Box of Delights (NYR Children’s Collection, 2007), and The Midnight Folk (NYR Children’s Collection, 2008) by John Masefield before you illustrated the covers?

NM: No, but now I really like them a lot. The first one has a lot of gun action, so I haven’t read it with my five year-old son yet, but I will soon. Have you read the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome?

AB: You’re the second person I’ve interviewed who has recommended it to me, so I definitely will.

NM: We just finished Coot Club last night. All three of us stumbled into bed for the conclusion. A dear friend of mine has been giving them to my son, and they really capture the feeling of being a child. They don’t take place in a magic land like Harry Potter; but there’s magic in how the children interpret real adventures through their imagination.

AB: You have two books in the pipeline which you are both writing and illustrating. Tell me about your upcoming book Mama is it Summer Yet? (Abrams, 2010)

NM: One day in March, my son came out in his bathing suit and asked, “Mama, is it summer yet?” I thought that could be a book about a child wanting it to be summer, but having to wait. I wrote minimal text and made it into a conversation between the child and the mother.

My initial set of full-sized sketches was kind of too cheeky – in one scene, the child was dressed up in a snorkel, in another, he was in his underwear. Susan suggested that I work on it more. So I sketched small thumbnails and she approved them. Receiving approval on thumbnails allowed for the freedom to incorporate additional elements in a larger format. I added details that could suggest the current state of the season, like mittens by the window and mushroom drawings in the background. I also placed cameos of some of my favorite books in the art. Comet in Moominland by Tove Janssen , Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton, and, of course, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey.

AB: What about the second book of your own that you’re working on?

NM: To Market To Market is its working title and should be on shelves in spring of 2011. I just went to a farm today to do an interview for it. It’s currently vignettes about farms and local farmers markets- the creation of how things get planted to how they get harvested and taken to market. I took my first pictures today and brought my son along, so we did a lot of tractor touring. This particular farm has been growing rye as a cover crop, and they’ve realized they can feed their chickens with the rye and use straw to grow mushrooms in. This might seem nostalgic and old-timey, but it’s the future, too. It’s sustainable.

AB: Nikki, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve got just a couple more questions. When you mentioned sustainability, it made me wonder: could you tell me about how your books are printed?

NM: I feel like such a Lorax, but All in a Day was printed on 100% recycled paper in the U.S. and Abrams charged $1 more to cover the cost. It matters to me and I think it matters to my audience. When I work with Sasquatch, they print in China, but they use recycled paper. Now, I’m working with Chronicle on postcards called Take Care (2009). They initially told me that they "endeavor to use" recycled paper. But I was the first to get them to sign a contract with 100% recycled paper with soy-based ink and now they’re starting an eco-line!

AB: How about for your next two books?

NM: Abrams felt they couldn’t make that commitment due to the downturn in the economy, so I wrote a note to the president of Abrams and stuck it on the contract, saying that I think it’s really important to print locally and use recycled paper. He called me back and told me that he’d never received a personalized note attached to a contract before, and that they would do their best to try to accommodate my request. So Mama is it Summer Yet? is being printed at the same press as All in a Day and I understand with recycled paper as well. When I make things, I don’t want to cut trees down to make it. I use recycled materials, because I just don’t think I could ever make anything as good as a tree myself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Voyage of Heather Vogel Frederick

At 1 pm on August 27th at A Children’s Place, author Heather Vogel Frederick will showcase the third book in her popular Mother Daughter Book Club series, Dear Pen Pal (Simon & Schuster, September, 2009). This entertaining series helps bring mothers and tween daughters together to read while surreptitiously educating them about classic fiction by women such as Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Jane Webster and Jane Austen. She is also the author of The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed series about an intrepid girl who learns to navigate a whaling ship, the award nominated Spy Mice series wherein tweens and mice engage in espionage, and two picture books coming to shelves near you in 2010.

I had the pleasure of meeting Heather at the May SCBWI Oregon conference, where she inspired me in her enlightening seminar Borrowed Fire: Getting to the Heart of Character. Offering humor and Hershey’s kisses as motivation, Heather pried me out of my shell and got me reading my work in front of a room full of seasoned writers. No small feat.

During last month’s heat wave, Heather joined me in my sweltering living room to discuss her work over iced tea. She generously shared insights about her journey as a writer. I was excited to note that her passion for libraries rivals my own. It seems we may be cut from the same roll of acid-free book jacket plastic! Our lovely chat covered everything from pink kitchens, whale oil and mean girls to what she would do if she were Empress of the World.

AB: You have written three series of middle grade novels. Did you always plan to write in installments?

HVF: No, I didn’t set out to do this, but growing up, I loved to know that there was a sequel by the same author with the same characters I cared about, waiting for me. Whether it was Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising or Nancy Drew.

AB: I understand that your editor approached you with an idea that led to your Mother Daughter Book Club series. Could you tell me a bit about its origins?

HVF: My editor called and said, “There are mother daughter book clubs around the country. I’m thinking that somebody should write a novel about one.” She knew I spent part of my childhood in Concord, Massachusetts where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. When I sit down to write, the voice that comes out is about eleven or twelve and I’ve become very happy in this tween world I inhabit. Even though I’m drawing on my memories of being in middle school, the books seem to resonate with girls today. We have different fashions, drive different cars. But we’ve always had to deal with mean girls. In Little Women, Jenny Snow is a mean girl. In Anne of Green Gables, it’s Josie Pye. In my series, it’s Becca Chadwick. In the fourth installment, the girls will be reading Pride and Prejudice with the deliciously awful Caroline Bingley.

AB: In your third installment Dear Pen Pal which comes out in September, the book club reads Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy. What led you to choose these books for the girls to read?

HVF: I decided to keep consistent by selecting another book with a female main character, written by a female author. The minute I thought of Daddy-Long-Legs it was one of those “well of course!” moments. I actually wasn’t familiar with Webster’s other books, so it was a treat to discover and have an excuse to read those as well.

AB: You're currently writing the fourth installment in which the book club will read Jane Austen. You spent some of your childhood in England. How long did you live there?

HVF: A little over half a year. My dad was an elementary school principal. He got a grant from Harvard to study innovative curriculum. We lived in a tiny village outside of Leicester in a four hundred year old stone cottage with a thatched roof and a pink kitchen. It was the best place ever.

AB: Were there any books you were exposed to in England that you might not otherwise have come across?

HVF: Yes. Arthur Ransome’s fabulous Swallows and Amazons series about some kids up in The Lake district and their adventures with a sailboat. Also E. Nesbit- specifically The Railway Children.

AB: How old were you when you lived in England?

HVF: I was eleven, just like the girls at the start of The Mother Daughter Book Club series. I was such a romantic. Down the street were the ruins of the castle where Lady Jane Grey lived. There was a part of me that still believed in magic and thought that maybe there could really be something lurking out there in the ivy covered stone walls. In the fourth installment of The Mother Daughter Book Club, my character Emma and her family will live in England for a year- in my old house!

AB: Will you write about the pink kitchen?

HVF: Absolutely!

AB: I’m excited to read it already! In The Mother Daughter Book Club series, you write from the perspective of each of the four girls (Emma, Jess, Cassidy and Megan) in the book club. Could you tell me about your process of defining each character?

HVF: I started by rereading Little Women and that gave me the idea for four characters for the series. The March girls are very different. Jo is a tomboy; Amy is artistic, Meg is very conscious of social stratification, and Beth is a homebody. I thought that would be a good thing to echo. I try not to edit a first draft too much. You can strangle yourself if you try to get it perfect. Then in the revision process, I really tried to sharpen the different voices among the girls.

AB: You’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. What particular influences led you on this path?

HVF: My family of bookworms. At a typical Vogel family gathering, we’d all be sitting on the sofa reading! My father read to me and my sisters every single night before bed. As soon as I could sign my name, I got a library card. I remember that shiver of excitement I’d always get entering a library, that distinct library smell, and the feeling that there was always something waiting for me there to take home and read and treasure. I devoured books growing up. When I was seven or eight, I had the ambition to read through everything in the children’s section, A-Z. I started on the first shelf. But that didn’t last long, because pretty soon I got into sports biographies- no, thank you! I’ve always lived within walking distance of a library.

AB: Has that been intentional?

HVF: When my husband and I were looking for houses, the first thing I would do was check out the library. A well-supported library told me a lot about the town.

AB: Any other influences?

In college I took a course on children’s literature. Marjorie Hamlin, the librarian who taught the class at Principia College, changed the course of my life. She was amazing and remains a dear friend to this day. She reintroduced me to books I had read when I was young, and introduced me to new writers. I remember sitting outside one day on the grass reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising thinking this was what I wanted to do.

AB: When did you first start writing?

HVF: I wrote my first novel when I was 12 at summer camp and my first novel as an adult after college when I lived in Cologne, Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. I like to joke that I was their distribution requirement. Everyone else with a Fulbright was from the Ivy Leagues and I was this little squirt from a college that no one had ever heard of in the Midwest. It was really wonderful. I still have good friends from that year.

I was kind of homesick off and on so just like at summer camp, I took refuge in writing. I wrote a tween middle grade novel. I came back to the U.S. and sent it to Houghton Mifflin. Of course, I got a rejection letter. But at that point, there was no SCBWI and I was too young and na├»ve to know there was a difference between a good rejection and a bad rejection. All I saw was, “Your book isn’t right for our lists.” I paid no attention to the next paragraph that went on to praise the things they liked about it and they asked if I had anything else!

AB: Do you still have that letter?

HVF: Yes, and it breaks my heart to some degree, but that was what propelled me into journalism because I had to find a way -- other than my dream of writing fiction -- to earn a living. I started off as a copy kid and worked my way up the ranks. And that was the best thing that could have happened then. It taught me wonderful skills. It matured me and ripened me for when I sat down to write again after twenty years.

AB: Can you tell me about your career as a journalist?

HF : I began at The Christian Science Monitor. I did various features writing jobs for them, was the assistant living page editor, and became the children's book review editor. I did that for about five years. After the kids were born and I was home, I started reviewing for Publisher’s Weekly. I would get various assignments interviewing an author, or writing big roundup pieces about things like trends in garden books. I worked there for 15 years and was a contributing editor by the end. I consider Publisher’s Weekly my graduate school because I read thousands of books working for them. And it was a delight. I saw what worked, and what didn’t.

AB: Let’s talk about your inspirations for your other two book series. Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.”

HVF: Exactly. Most of us carry little notebooks with us, because ideas come at very strange times. Mine often come in church or in the shower. Once I burnt a pot of soup when I went to write something down, but I had to or I’d never remember it!

AB: The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed was your first published book. What was your kernel of inspiration for the Patience Goodspeed series?

HVF: Pure serendipity. I was researching my genealogy and discovered that there was a branch of my family who were whalers living on Nantucket Island. An ancestor of mine ran away from the family farm and went to sea when he was fifteen. I had been force fed Moby Dick in high school and hated it, but I started reading general books about life at sea in the whaling industry and was fascinated. These voyages would last two to three years at a time in order to fill the hold with enough oil. That’s a long time to be away from the family. If you had a game wife, you took her and the kids and raised them at sea. There was a whole society of whaling families at sea.

AB: Why did you decide that the main character Patience would be a girl?

HVF: The main character was originally a boy, but then I found out that there were many girls at sea, many bright women who were bored out of their minds because there was nothing there for them to do, so they learned to navigate. That gave me the idea for the character of Patience.

AB: I assume you were somewhat connected to the publishing world at that point, having worked for Publisher’s Weekly. Was it easy to find a publisher?

HVF: You’d think so, but no. Reviewing books is a separate thing from the world of publishing. It’s like standing outside a bakery. You don’t know how the pies are made at the back of the shop. I had connections with writers, which was lovely, but not with publishers or editors- the back of the shop.

I got a grant from Oregon Literary Arts, and I just can’t sing their praises enough. It’s such a boost for a writer to submit something and have somebody say, “We’ll give you money so you can finish it.” The day I wrote the novel's last sentence, I burst into tears from that sense of completion and the fact that I knew in my bones I’d written something good.

But then what to do with it? A friend suggested I send it to her editor, Kevin Lewis at Simon & Schuster. I did, and he called me back a short time later and said, “Your writing is wonderful. I love your characters; however, nothing happens in the first hundred pages.” I had left out the plot! He very generously gave me a lesson in plot over the phone and poured out his ideas of what we could do. I polished the manuscript up, sent it off, and they bought it.

AB: Let’s talk about your second series. Spy Mice: Goldwhiskers has been nominated for the 2010 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award. Congratulations! It’s the third title in your Spy Mice series. Can you tell us about the evolution of Spy Mice?

HVF: The initial idea was sparked by a newspaper story I read about building The Spy Museum in Washington, DC. I thought instantly of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and had a goose bump moment: why not set a story in The Spy Museum? I have learned over the years to pay attention to those goose bump moments. Because when something really resonates with me, chances are it will with readers as well. I clipped out the article and saved it. I didn’t add the mouse element until years later when I finally sat down to write the story.

AB: Sally Wern Comport illustrated the US editions and Adam Stower for the UK publications. How might this affect how your work is received?

HVF: For me, it’s fascinating how Sally and Adam have such different visions of my story. As for affecting my work, if I were Empress of the World, I would make sure all middle grade fiction had illustrations in it!

AB: Speaking of illustrations, you’ve got two picture books coming out next year.

HVF: Babyberry Pie (Harcourt, 2010) and Hide and Squeak (Simon & Schuster, 2010) are bedtime books, both written in rhyme. Babyberry Pie likens the bathtime-and-getting-ready-for-bed ritual to making a pie- popping a “babyberry” into a pie crust (under the bedcovers), etc. Hide and Squeak recounts the evasion tactics of a little one who doesn’t want to go to bed. In this case, the little one is a mouse who leads his daddy on a wild chase through the house before finally getting caught.

AB: I understand that Amy Schwartz is illustrating Babyberry Pie and C.F. Payne is illustrating Hide and Squeak. I love their work.

HVF: I scored big with both of them! I can’t wait to see their final results, because with picture books, I do not have a preconceived notion of what they should look like. I’m not an artistic soul. I can’t even draw stick figures.

AB: Is your picture book creative process different from your novel writing?

HVF: Picture books are a mystery to me. Mem Fox once wrote, “Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in haiku,” which is true. The initial ideas for mine come to me almost complete, like a gift left on my doorstep in a nice little basket. Then it’s up to me to wrestle them into the bath and clean them up a bit.

AB: Is there a book that you feel you’re most proud of writing?

HVF: That’s like asking parents who is their favorite child, but to some degree, I’d say the first one I wrote: The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed. Just getting to the end was such a sense of accomplishment. But I’ve really enjoyed writing each book.

AB: What are you reading these days?

HVF: I’ve usually got a couple of biographies going. Right now, I’ve got one about P.L. Travers who wrote Mary Poppins, and one about P.G. Wodehouse; one of my favorite authors. And right now, I’m mired in stacks of books about Jane Austen, which is no hardship for me. I really like the research process. No matter what book I’m writing, I manage to find a research angle.

I’ve also read some recent middle grade fiction: Roseanne Perry’s Heart of a Shepherd. I loved that book. I highly recommend it. To add another MG rave to the mix, I read Richard Peck’s The River Between Us over the weekend (-yes, I know, I was supposed to be working on my own book, but I got distracted, what can I say?) He is truly an amazing writer. Can I be him when I grow up?

AB: An implicit part of being a children’s writer is touring schools and libraries and talking with other readers. Is that a part of your job that you enjoy?

HVF: Very much so. I love doing school visits. There’s a real energy that comes from talking to kids. What I never could have foreseen is that I’m now frequently asked to talk with mother daughter book clubs across the country by using Skype, but locally sometimes in person. At the age of eleven or twelve, readers are right on the cusp of adulthood. There’s sweet innocence combined with wit and savvy. Maybe it fills my need for a daughter, since I’ve got two boys!

AB: What do your sons think of your writing- are they supportive?

HVF: Yes! When my older son read the first Patience book he said, “Mom, that last part was so exciting, I forgot you wrote it.” That was the best compliment ever.

AB: Do you find yourself giving advice to young burgeoning writers?

HVF: I love responding to fan mail and email. I tell them to read. That’s the most important tip at that age, because they’re little sponges capable of soaking up beautiful language. I share the trick about keeping a notebook handy, and to not put too much pressure on themselves. They just should be having fun with it. I suggest that they find a writing partner to have someone to read things to.

AB: Heather, thank you so much for talking with me today. I have one last question: what advice do you wish someone would have offered you when you set out on your writing journey?

HVF: Just relax- you’re going to get there. Keep on course, your eye on the horizon, enjoy your life now. Enjoy time with your family. I think sometimes writers have a tendency to think all will be great once they get published, but it isn’t the Holy Grail. Real life is more important. Writing is a gift that I have to give. But life is bigger than just art.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Benjamin James Watson: Going Places

I'd like to take time out from my own writing to shine a spotlight on Benjamin James Watson, a fellow burgeoning writer from the Pacific Northwest. Ben's debut book The Boy Who Went Ape (The Blue Sky Press, 2008) is an entertaining tale of a boy whose behavior is generally so bad that his teacher does not notice when a chimpanzee takes his place during a field trip. The main character's name is also Benjamin. Coincidence? I think not.

Originally from Port Townsend, Washington, Ben now resides in Victoria, B.C. with his wife Amy where he's working on his novel and posting true confessions about his days as a children's picture book model on his blog: I, uh, think I killed my muse . But living north of the border didn't stop Ben from traveling stateside to participate in the Tenth Annual Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. Being a tad short on cash, I found myself living vicariously through Ben's report. He generously took the time to answer my onslaught of questions about his book, the conference, the publishing process, what inspires him to write, and Marla Frazee's excellent table manners.

AB: Congratulations on the publication of The Boy Who Went Ape (The Blue Sky Press, 2008).” My kids and I really enjoyed it. What led you to write this story?

BJW: Thank you very much! I like your kids already. This story started with my editor Bonnie Verburg looking at another story of mine. She had accepted that one but it never made it through the acquisitions committee. So, she asked me if I could write a naughty monkey book for boys. I asked her if she knew who she was talking to. Of course I could! Right up my alley.

The first inspiration and challenge I thought about was Curious George. How does anyone do a proper monkey book, particularly a naughty monkey book and still tell a unique story after those amazing books did it so well? Another source of inspiration for me was Blueberries For Sal and Mark Twain's The Prince and The Pauper. The switcheroo story line. I also wanted to express through my character something about the boy who just can't sit still. Not because he's bad, but because he's a boy who just wants to move and be free, not sit quiet in a chair in a classroom. I sure felt that way at times. At other times I loved school too, so I don't have an agenda against teachers or school at all. I've even spent a little time on the other side of the classroom.

AB: What was the time line between kernel of an idea to publication? Were there any major events along the way?

BJW: Wow. It took a long time. For one, my dad was still finishing up The Night Before Christmas illustrations and then got caught up in all the marketing and mayhem from its success. One week it reached the New York Times Bestseller List, and my dad had included Port Townsend people and places in the book, so locally it really took off. He nearly signed his heiney off. There was also a hook up just before it was being sent to the printers. One of the images showed a bank robber with a tommy gun, who at first, sorta looked like a college student (my dad had used my brother as a model- thanks, Jess!) Right before it was sent to the printer, the Virginia Tech shooting happened. One of the higher ups put on the brakes and said it needed to be changed. That missed the deadline and pushed it back one more year. I think at least four years, but I could be wrong. Maybe a little less.

AB: Were there any challenges (literary, psychological, emotional, psychosocial, logistical, metaphysical- I’m getting carried away here) in bringing it to life?

BJW: Yes, the metaphysical challenges were incredibly difficult. There was a ghost that would unplug my keyboard whenever I walked out of the room. Pesky metaphysical challenges.

AB: What’s it like collaborating with your father? What else has your dad worked on?

BJW: Collaborating with your father is like doing a potato sack race with him. You gotta fall down a lot and skin your knees, learn how to communicate, curse a little, and then you sort it out and start to race. For me it was a special honor to publish my first book with my name right next to my dad's. We had built up to this book with a few practice collaborations; one was a retelling of The Lion and the Mouse. That was our first attempt and we had to learn to trust each other to do our own jobs. That didn't just happen. We had to have some great fights. My dad [Richard Jesse Watson] has published a lot of books for around twenty years. Tom Thumb and The Night Before Christmas were two of his best known in the children's book field. Also, The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Rorious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake book by Nancy Willard, The Dream Stair by Betsy James, The Waterfall's Gift by Joanne Ryder, and his best-selling book, One Wintry Night by Ruth Bell Graham, to name a few.

AB: Last week you were in Portland attending the Tenth Annual Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. What were you hoping to accomplish there? Can you tell us a bit about the event itself?

BJW: I was hoping to get a better handle on my novel. Mission accomplished! It is a brilliant conference (to use Harry Potter speak) located at the peaceful Reed College in Portland. It is around fifty attendees with around ten faculty. You do the math. And if you're really smart, you stay on campus instead of commute, so you can eat with all the faculty and other writers as well as walk back and forth from meals/classes and talk about writing, illustrating or publishing. It has an advantage over the biggest conferences because the faculty are more relaxed, not feeling swarmed, so their guards are down. Incredible.

AB: I'm suffering from major conference envy right now. Which seminars were you most looking forward to? Did they meet your expectations?

BJW: I was looking forward to David Gifaldi's presentation on mining your memory with senses (or something like that) because his reputation had preceded him but I'd never met him before. He made the Mark Twain Award Master List too [for One Thing for Sure, Clarion Books, 1986] which pricked up my ears. It was great.

AB: Please share a seed of what you’ve gleaned from each member of the faculty.

Arthur Levine
BJW: Arthur was already my pal, but I was lucky enough to be the only one to be critiqued by him. He really helped me figure out the spine of my story and gave me great assignment to battle perfectionism.

Bonny Becker
BJW: Bonny is a story structure whiz. A Visitor For Bear is SOLID. No flaws in that story.

Susan Blackaby
BJW: Suz is another pal. She is a hilarious speaker who used to write for Garrison Keiller. 'Nuff said.

Marla Frazee
BJW: Marla is also a friend. Inspiring, humble, beautiful, stylish Caldecott Honor winner. Her next book might be better too.

David Gifaldi
BJW: Thoughtful, generous, writer/teacher. My small group critique leader and a fine writer.

Ann Whitford Paul
BJW: Got her new book, Writing Picture Books! Been hoping she'd do this for a while. Buy it.

Susan Goldman Rubin
BJW: Spunky, spunky, spunky. Smart and loves read.

Linda Urban
BJW: Genius who came up with "figuring out your story's spine". How to battle perfectionism. REALLY helpful to me. Funny too.

Elsa Warnick
BJW: Nice, interesting illustrator. I didn't get any of her talks because I was on the writer track.

Linda Zuckerman
BJW: Amazing woman. Tenth anniversary conference this year with her at the helm. Great editor, good writer. Old school editor that published Trina Schart Hyman. Yeah.

AB: Here's a perverse fan question: What’s it like to dine with Marla Frazee?

BJW: I have told Marla for years that she is the most stylish artist I have ever seen. She laughs at this because she says her boys would disagree. Marla is a good chewer. She somehow finds a stylish way to eat and talk with grace and a smile. West Coast girl all the way. Pasadena girl all the way.

AB: But seriously, Ben, back to you: What led you to write for young readers?

BJW: I never grew up. And I've been addicted to books since before I could read. You could also say that Sal's fist in the pail of blueberries, Ferdinand the bull smelling the pretty ladies flowers in their hair, and Samwise battling Shelob to protect his master all made me write. My emotions to those images have never faded.

AB: What and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?

BJW: Arthur Levine, my wife, my family.

AB: What about children's fiction appeals to you?

BJW: Less pretentious. Not so full of crap.

AB: What did you read as a child? (Did you read?)

BJW: Grab a chair, we'll be here for a while. Here's some biggies: Tolkien, James Herriott (or James Alfred Wight in real life), Jim Kjelgaard, Mark Twain and many other things.


AB: What advice do you have for those interested in writing/ illustrating a picture book?

BJW: Join SCBWI. Writing a picture book is like filming an advertisement. You have so little time, every word must matter. Keep it under 700 words (around). Don't give details, suggest them, it is going to be illustrated. You provide the spine of your story, the illustrator will extrapolate and tell their own part of the story. Don't fall in love with just one story. Finish it, then keep writing.

AB: What advice do you wish someone would offer you?

BJW: Get to work. Don't be a perfectionist. Focus on the emotional plot more than the external plot.

AB: What do you do when you're not writing?

BJW: Take Linus [Ben's dog] for walks with or without my cool wife. Watch tons of movies. I love going to the movies. Bike rides.

AB: Do you have a favorite children's/YA book out this year? If so, what makes you like it so much?

BJW: Tough question. I haven't read either yet but will soon, I'm expecting it to be Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan or Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor and Jim DiBartolo (fall 2009 release).

AB: What can your fans look forward to next? What’s in the wings?

BJW: My long suffering novel is coming around, slowly but surely. Some of my critique groups have likened it to Stand By Me, though I wouldn't presume that. Eventually my brother and I are going to do a picture book collaboration about brotherhood.

AB: Thanks so much, Ben!

BJW: Thank you Amy! Lovely town you live in and I enjoy your blog.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Eric Kimmel, Teller of Tales

Eric Kimmel Photo

Extra: Eric describes the art of
his grandmother's storytelling.




At 1 pm on July 23rd at A Children’s Place, author Eric Kimmel will showcase his latest book The Three Little Tamales (Marshall Cavendish, 2009). I’ve fed my children heaping servings of Eric Kimmel’s books. Eric’s original stories, historical fiction, and playful folktale adaptations are loaded with the goodness of a well-rounded meal, but basted with flavor like the best Texas barbecue. My kids always come back for seconds. And thirds.

Author of nearly 100 titles, Eric’s work appears on school and library recommended lists. He has garnered many awards, including the Caldecott Honor Medal for Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Holiday House, 1994), and the Sydney Taylor Picture Book Award for both The Chanukkah Guest (Holiday House, 1992) and Gershon’s Monster (Scholastic Press, 2000).

Last Thursday, Eric strolled over to my home to sit down with me and discuss his work. (You can hear a snippet by clicking the button above.) We talked about his nomination for the 2010 Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice Award, his fondness for Texas, how a writer can go out of print over a weekend, raising vampires (!), and that age old question: who is more important: the writer or the illustrator?

AB: Congratulations on the Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice nomination for A Picture for Marc (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2007). I’m interested in learning the history behind its publication.

EK: That story really begins with the one that came before in that series, A Horn for Louis, which I originally wrote as a picture book. My agent suggested I expand it a bit and make it a chapter book. We did and Stepping Stones picked it up. They liked the theme of a defining moment in somebody’s life. For the second book, I came across this anecdote about Chagall; that he’d never even known that drawing or art existed until he was well into school.

AB: I particularly liked the way you emphasized the bleakness of the landscape in Chagall’s hometown Vitebsk. It contrasted so nicely with the pictures that stemmed from his imagination.

EK: It really is a bleak place – flat, swampy – it was a good place to be from [laughing]. But the spark to be an artist can come from anywhere. On a personal note, what I liked about A Picture for Marc is that when I was growing up, considering a career in the arts was on level with being a bum. And most parents have that attitude.

AB: What led you to write A Horn for Louis?

EK: Louis Armstrong used to carry a typewriter around with him and between shows he would peck away. In New Orleans, I picked up some of his manuscripts in the library of Queens College and they really make great reading. He was a very vivid writer. And you know what comes through in his work? Everybody’s poor, but what are you going to do about it? You do what you have to do and hope that things will get better. But quitting was not a possibility.

AB: Do you have any new books that will be out on the shelves soon?

EK: A Spotlight for Harry. It’s the third in my Stepping Stone early chapter book series- this one about Harry Houdini’s defining moment. It focuses on when Houdini decided he wanted to be a performer. He goes to the circus and tries to hang in the air by his teeth on a rope. Of course, he loses some teeth in the process!

AB: What did you read as a child?

EK: I read everything. Science. Dinosaurs. Animals. And I loved fairy tales. I read my Grimm over and over until it fell apart. Robert Louis Stevenson. I can’t tell you how many times I read Treasure Island. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. One of my favorite writers was a British Victorian writer nobody reads anymore named H. Rider Haggard [who wrote] King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain -lurid adventure stuff. I mean, for a high school boy, this was like raw meat.

AB: Do you have any advice for young readers?

EK: Just find a book and if you’re into it, you’ll know by the first chapter if you want to read more. If you don’t, toss it aside! There are plenty more books in the world; why spend your time with a book that you don’t like?


AB: How do stories come to you? How do you practice the craft? Do you have a set schedule?

EK: No. I’m lazy. I write when I write. Something will catch my attention. For example, with Little Britches and The Rattlers (Marshall Cavendish, 2008), it’s [a retelling of] Little Black Sambo. Little Black Sambo in its original format is racist. There’s no point in defending that. But there’s a great story in it. Jerry Pinkney and Julius Lester interpreted it in their way [in Sam and the Tigers]. So I wanted to get the kernel out of that story myself. I wanted my crack at it. But in order to do that, I needed an angle. In the original story, the main character’s a boy, so I made it a girl. My Texas stories seem to do well, so I set it down in Texas. I ride horses, so I made the main character a rodeo girl, like the rodeo queens in [Portland’s] Rose Parade. So she’s off to the Rodeo and then enters the “Sambo format”. She meets a snake, ends up in a tree, comes to the gulch, and there the rattlers are. So here’s the problem: in Helen Bannerman’s book [The Story of Little Black Sambo] the tigers just chase each other around the base of the tree until they turn to melted butter. Well, that’s not going to work in the middle of Texas. How are we going to get rid of these snakes? So I go back to Joseph Campbell and that powerful image in mythology of the snake swallowing its tail and make the snakes swallow each other up! It’s kind of a metaphysical solution, but she gets to the rodeo and wins first prize! So a lot of writing isn’t something that you consciously work out; you’re drawing on your subconscious. Everything you are, everything you’ve ever experienced, comes to the encounter with the story.

AB: Have you sent any adapted folktales in to publishers lately?

EK: One called Jack’s Giant Barbecue, another one set in Texas. Jack has a barbecue, a giant stole his daddy’s recipe, and he’s got to go up to the giant’s barbecue shack in the sky to steal it back. Initially, I wrote that the giant falls straight into Jack’s smoker; Jack smokes him up, and serves him as barbecue! But my editor did not go for that. She said, “No cannibalism!” I said, “Why not? It’s in Robinson Crusoe!” So my editor suggested that the giant work for Jack, and I said, “Yeah, that works for me.” Now they work together and the giant tends the smoker. So I wrote it and sent it off and maybe it’ll be a book. I don’t know!

AB: You’ve got a thing for food from The Lone Star State!

EK: The people are wonderful; the food’s great, and like Oregonians, Texans love books. They’ve got the Texas Library Association. Texas has been very good to me over the years.

AB: Could you talk a bit about your submissions process?

EK: It depends on the book. I’ve been in the business so long, I know a lot of editors. You get a sense of what they like and send certain stories to certain editors. But it’s getting tougher and tougher to sell. People are always astounded when I tell them the fact that I’m writing doesn’t mean that I’m going to get it to print. I’ve got plenty of things that I think are pretty good that never went anywhere. So that raises another issue: we’re in a digital age. And if we’re talking about a digital book, what exactly does a publisher do? You put a book on a website; you can put it on a Kindle. It has never been easier to create your own book. The problem is: how do you get paid? Today’s changes in the industry are as big as the changes in the days of Gutenberg. Everything is different. You get your book on line, you’re there! Now, the question is, how do people find you? The whole industry is in a kind of chaos. It mirrors the recording industry. The world is changing, kids are changing, books have changed, the old model doesn’t work anymore and no one really knows what the new model is.

AB: Is Kindle the future of picture books?

EK: Good question. My generation would probably have a hard time getting used to one. But kids my grandson’s age going into first grade, and your kids, that doesn’t bother them at all. They spend hours looking at a computer screen. They’re quite happy to get a book electronically.

AB: I think my children wouldn’t be, actually. But then again, my idea of home decorating is a stack of books in each room. Probably that’s not most people's ideal.

EK: True. And publishers don’t know what to do about this. Schools and libraries, which used to be a good portion of the market, have had their funding slashed. More and more school districts have no librarian. Even [our neighborhood school, Beverly Cleary School] has to fight. But a library contributes to the program. The librarian is the one who steers kids to books. A good librarian makes the books come alive.

AB: Did you ever serve as a librarian?

EK: I was a public librarian as an adjunct, living on St. Thomas. My first job out of college. It was lovely! When I was in graduate school and taking classes in children’s literature, I had a wonderful teacher, Winnie Ladley. She taught me everything I knew about children’s literature. Not just the books but the attitude. She said, “OK. Decide right now: do you want to be in the children’s room or the rare book room? In the rare book room, the books are more important than the patrons because they’re extremely valuable and they’re one of a kind and have to be protected from the patrons. In the children’s room, the children are more important than the materials. And if the materials are doing their job, they’re going to be used up, consumed, left out in the rain, eaten by the dog.” She also said that you can always tell a good children’s library. It’s simple. It’s a place where children like to go.

AB: Just like our Hollywood branch of the Multnomah County Library.

EK: Absolutely. We’re blessed with the resources that we have. And my hope is that it will go on and on. What we have [in Portland] is extremely precious. These libraries that we have here didn’t drop out of the sky. We support them passionately. The books are here. It’s a matter of will and valuing them. And we have A Children’s Place, just a short walk away up on Fremont, with their kind of collection and their staff that knows everything. There are big cities that don’t have anything like that.


AB: You've frequently mentioned that you grew up listening to your grandmother tell stories from her heritage, and that this influenced you to become a storyteller. One of your Eastern European stories that I believe you first heard from her is now a family favorite of ours: Gershon’s Monster (Scholastic Press, 2000).

EK: Oh, Gershon’s Monster. It’s a creepy one!

AB: Made even creepier by Jon J Muth’s illustrations.

EK: He did a brilliant job. He’s a brilliant illustrator. I was so fortunate to get him.

AB: You’ve worked with so many wonderful illustrators…

EK: Most people think the author and the artist work very closely together [but] they have nothing to do with each other! I got to know Jon after the book came out, when we happened to be together at a couple of conferences. But my job was to write the text, and then he went ahead and did the illustrations. And if he had a question, he didn’t ask me.

Trina Schart Hyman [illustrated Eric’s book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Holiday House, 1994, for which she won a Caldecott Honor] explained it to me. You have some of the top graphic artists in the country. The artist will approach the story with a vision and they work out of that vision. It’s not necessarily mine, but when people ask if it bothers me, then I say, well, then I’ll have the obligation of going to art school!

AB: Are you generally happy with the vision of the illustrators, even if it doesn’t match yours?

EK: I’ve published close to 100 books and I would say 99% I’ve been very pleased with; and with the remaining percent, I’ve been astounded and amazed. With Gershon’s Monster, the story is about water and Jon’s specialty is watercolor. The book starts, and it’s like you’re flying over the sea towards the town. I had nothing to do with that. That’s him. And he creates the story where the kids are at the beach and they have a sand pail. Well, the actual story takes place around 1780 in Romania. The kids aren’t walking around with beach toys. But that’s a case where historical accuracy is irrelevant. What counts is the now-ness of the story.

AB: How he tied your readers into the now-ness of the story with seemingly simple details like that. But he derived all of that imagery from your words.


EK: Well, Janet Stevens and I always have this argument. We’re friends; she illustrates the Anansi series, and she’s very funny. We ask: who’s most important? I say the author, because without the text, there’s nothing to draw. Janet disagrees, and says the text is just a pile of paper. Who’s gonna pay $17 bucks for that? It’s all about the pictures! But the truth is, it’s an irrelevant question, because it works as a whole.

AB: Because a picture book in its form needs both. And that’s the beauty of it.

EK: Gershon’s Monster is not for tiny children. And I pretty much write for 2nd grade on up. And when you get to the upper extreme of the picture book, enter the graphic novel. The idea that picture books are for tiny children who aren’t able to read yet is nonsense because everybody loves pictures.

AB: I couldn’t agree with you more. I learned to read Japanese through manga and now I’m glad to see that graphic novels are successfully marketed in the U.S. But I have heard that picture books are suffering.

EK: It’s hard. This is an industry that traditionally sold to mainly schools and libraries, which no longer receive adequate funding. Now who really buys them? Not kids, but parents and the grandparents. So marketing picture books does not end up being cutting edge.

AB: You’ve seen the industry fluctuate.

EK: It’s a schizophrenic industry with one foot in the toy world with the next best thing vs. the literary world. If there’s an audience for quality, you’ll get quality, but right now that audience is getting smaller. A Newbery or Caldecott medal is worth how much in sales? A few hundred thousand dollars, unless it’s a big breakout. But in the publishing world, that’s peanuts. How many copies of Twilight were sold? You’re talking about millions. Nothing in a Caldecott or a Newbery gets close to that. And the Twilight books have terrific covers.

AB: They do.

EK: The covers are marvelous. That chess piece.

AB: And you’ve explained to me that Stephenie Meyer probably had little or nothing to do with that cover art.

EK: She was lucky!

AB: Very lucky. When my children were babies, everyone was buying crib mobiles that were black, white and red, for visual stimulation, and…

EK: …you’ll raise a vampire! [laughing] A great cover can make a book and a crappy cover can kill a book.

AB: How did you first land an editor?

EK: Dumb luck. It was hard in 1968 when I was starting, and it’s ten times harder now. We had more publishers back then, and they would read unsolicited manuscripts, and that is no longer the case. I went through Writer’s Market and looked for who was buying, which was magazines. I wrote everything. Detective stories, western stories – the last days of the pulps. I was writing true confessions, science fiction, all them god-awful! In fact, I found some of these old manuscripts and thought they were vile! I don’t want my name on them anymore! I was getting good at the true confessions/ romance genre because the editors started sending feedback in their [rejection] letters. If I kept with it, I could have been the king of Harlequin romances! But my mother sent me an ad from the New York Times. Harper and Row was looking for people to write children’s books. This is because there was federal money around for libraries.

AB: When was that?

EK: The late 60’s. The last of The Great Society. Can you imagine a publisher taking out an ad like that today? So I wrote something, sent it to Harper and Row, they gave me a lot of really good feedback, but I was so green that I looked at the two-page letter and all I saw was rejection. So I sent it out again to one of the great editors of our time, Ferd Monjo at Coward McCann, and he accepted it and revised that thing for the next four years. But it was a lot of hard work. The Tartar’s Sword (Coward McCann, 1974) was a lot of fun to write. It’s not a horrid book, considering that I didn’t know what I was doing! It does have its charm. I just got a letter from a kid in Texas who found it at a yard sale and wrote to me how much she enjoyed it. So I guess it wasn’t all that bad! I learned how to be a writer from Ferd Monjo. Then I did another one with him, and then Coward McCann’s warehouse burnt down and I was out of print over the weekend.

AB: Because the warehouse burnt down?

EK: Yeah, the books were gone and they weren’t going to reprint them. [laughing] Welcome to the world of publishing! That’s why I say to new writers, “You don’t know pain!”

AB: Earlier in our interview, you talked about Louis Armstrong having to keep going in A Horn for Louis. Now that rings true in your life as well.

EK: Yeah! You keep going! You spend years writing a chapter book or novel and it goes nowhere. You put your blood into it and it may well be your best but nobody cares!

AB: So, it’s the journey?

EK: It’s the journey, that’s right. You come to a kind of honesty that’s between you and that blank screen. One of my favorite quotes is from the editor Margery Cuiler. “Show me something new and wonderful that I haven’t already seen ten times today and I’ll send you a contract.” Do your craft. Do your art. Like the people in Saturday Market or someone with a guitar in Pioneer Square. Start! Do it.

AB: What do you say to burgeoning writers?

EK: There’s only one thing you can count on: if you have a story to tell, then write it. And what will be will be and if you want it in print, post it. Send it out. Send it to your friends. Or, put it in a drawer. It’s your choice. The joy has to come from the act of creation. And that’s a whole other world. You’re with the characters, on their adventure, having a good time. I’ve got tons of stuff I wrote that has never gone anywhere, but in fact, I think it’s some of my best work.

AB: You’re talking about the intrinsic value of a piece versus the marketability of it.

EK: Yeah. And those are two different things. And my answer is you just keep writing. You might get lucky and get a good cover! [laughing] And a movie deal!