Sunday, October 30, 2011

Enjoy It While It Lasts

My son's class took a field trip last week. Not to the zoo, pumpkin patch, apple u-pick farm, or famous waterfall. To a park, just a short walk away. I joined in the fun, because autumn field trips happen quickly. Blink and you'll miss the sign-up list, and before you know it, it's winter and the only field trips offered are trips to the insides of places. Like museums, or puppet theaters. Which are all fine, don't get me wrong, but they're not out of doors.

We had a picnic. Some kids opted to roll down hills afterwards. I skipped out on that, preferring to keep my lunch down, but I loved watching them race around and hide in the rhododendrons.

After identifying five kinds of trees in the park, the real fun began. They scavenged for interesting leaves and fallen petals that pleased them. Then they got creative.

Just boys futzing around with leaves, right? Well, not really...
A pineconed, petaled offering.

Have you ever heard of Andy Goldsworthy? Have you ever seen his site-specific nature art? These kids have. Their teachers told them to use what was around them to create something beautiful, using no tools but their hands, heads and hearts. The results? Art installation on an autumn hillside in a city park, for passersby to enjoy.

A bed for a wood sprite.

Treasure it now. It is here and now.

Harlequin berry delight.

It is conceived of and crafted by our children.

Kids put bits of themselves in everything they make and do.

This is what they see in the leaves and the grass around us. Do you see their offerings?

 It will all blow away soon, and winter will come.

Enjoy it while it lasts. Find your own leaves. Make art to share. But be sure and look around for it. Blink and you'll miss it. The winds are coming.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Little Jewels and Patterns

I'm back from KidlitCon 2011, but I must have left my brain there, because it is still very much engaged in writerly/ readerly thoughts. I attended KidlitCon with Emily Whitman and Nora Coon in order to spend time with them and my newfound kid lit community, but also with the hope that I could pick up ideas for how to use my blog to full effect. What should I write about? What can I share that will benefit others in the kidlitosphere? How much of myself should I reveal?  I've been poring over my notes, going over choice bits, and making discoveries along the way.

Here's a thought that's particularly resonating with me today:

Little jewels.

The lovely and uber-creative Richard Jesse Watson talked about how blogs can offer 'little jewels' to those who read them.  His posts are little jewels to me. Short, concise gifts that spur me on to my own creative thoughts and pursuits. And I know I'm not alone in accepting these gifts, because Mary Bradley branched out and wrote an inspired poem about hope after seeing this painting of Richard's:

Poet Tree by Richard Jesse Watson

Now, I am on my own peculiar length of my creative journey. This stretch of the road seems newer than and perhaps different from Richard's, but here's where it's similar: when my eyes and mind are wide open, I can spot the little jewels. Here is one gem that I noticed today which I will share with you, and it is one word: patterns. 

Here are some patterns my daughter chose to wear to school:

So many flowers!

My grandmother, whom I adored and whose taste was impeccable, would have steered her away from this combination. These colors "clash" and the patterns together would be too "loud" and "dissonant". Social patterns concerned my grandmother, and she wouldn't want my daughter "sticking out". 

We are all entitled to our opinions, so here's mine: I love my daughter's sense of beauty. She loves flowers. She loves patterned fabrics. Why not wear as many as possible together at the same time?

Indonesian batik from Ashitaba
Now, my daughter has never lived in Southeast Asia, but I have, and one thing I know is that the ideas of what matches and what is mismatched are generally learned ones, based on social norms. As a kid, I loved the combinations women would wear on the streets of Singapore. Bright floral shirts with intensely patterned, Escher-like batik sarongs. In my 12 year-old mind, I loved how these women were breaking all the dress code rules I had grown up with. Now, I realize that they were breaking no rules of their own. In fact, they may have been abiding by many of their own strict cultural dress codes- their own social patterns- which had never been imposed upon me. Regardless, I still love the bold combinations of colors, textures and fabrics.

I'm delighted that my daughter sees beauty in these patterns combined, and that she didn't even need to be exposed to styles halfway across the world to decide that this was acceptable. It makes me wonder about all the things she looks at all day. I imagine that she sees beauty in many places where I have steadily trained myself not to look. With that in mind, I've decided to let my daughter dress me and am heading out the door now with eyes wide open to seek more little jewels.

I cannot take credit for this winning combination.
You can't miss me.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What's Your Wish?

Her wish is secret. What's yours?
It's technically been summer for two days now and I'm sick of cold weather, cloudy skies, and wool socks. Enough already- this is bumming me out. I need some vitamin D.

But you know what made me happy today? I saw a true harbinger of warm weather in my yard: our first dandelion. Thank the gods! For me, dandelions conjure all sorts of greatness. Rub them under your chin, and a child can tell you whether or not you like butter. (I do.) You can saute their greens. (I have. In butter.) Ray Bradbury made his into wine. (I could, I guess.) But here's the very best thing: you can make a wish on them. And Carolyn Conahan wrote the loveliest picture book about it: The Big Wish (Chronicle, 2011). Can you tell from the picture how much my daughter loves it?

Carolyn told me all about her idea and a bit about how she got it all down on paper. Plus, she gave me and her artistic daughters such a wise piece of advice which I'll share with you now. Read on, and don't forget to make your own wish!

AB: Please tell me about The Big Wish. What kernel of an idea set you off and running with this story? When did you first get the idea?

CC:Out walking in my neighborhood one morning, I came on a yard that was all dandelions, from side to side to side. Tall, vigorous dandelions, like someone had been tending them, fussing over them. Growing them on purpose. But why would someone grow dandelions? I answered my own question: For the wishes, of course. But so many–they must be going for the world record!  I loved the idea of a world record wish. It got me thinking about how all different people might wish all different things. And wondering: If you had the chance to make such a wish, (For the record. For the world!) what would you pick? How would you pick? 
Daydreamy, isn't it?

AB: For this book, which types of ideas came first: images or words?

CC: The sight of those dandelions on that slope of yard really struck me. So of course I doodled some notes and noodled with a few color sketches. But I try to get the story more or less worked out before I get too, too, involved with the drawings. I have a tendency to go off on tangents and draw a lot of pictures I can't use when the story changes direction. (Very sad.) I won't say it's a complete waste of time, because fun and useful ideas happen in the process, but it drains away energy, too. I like to finish a project once in a while.

AB: Could you talk about your process for creating the illustrations for The Big Wish? What medium/ media do you use?

CC: I bought a LOT of yellow paint, and I slopped it around with some green and blue for that weedy, sunny yard, springy-summer sky sort of look. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I tried out different looks for the place and the people, sketching characters on the bus, and around the neighborhood. That was fun.
Media is watercolor on paper. (I like watercolors for portability and easy clean-up.)

Dynamic wish-making!
AB: Could you talk a bit about the stylistic choices you make for your book illustrations?

CC: Ohhhhh. That sounds so serious and decisive, which I am not. Of course I want the illustrations to suit the story, to harmonize with it, or deepen it, or pack it up and take it exciting new places... or all those things. Every story has it’s own feel and “voice” so the pictures should, too. I wouldn’t like to do the same thing over and over.

AB: Who are some of the editors/ art directors you’ve worked with?

Depends on how far you want to go back, and if you want to count editors for whom I did revisions which did not result in a contract. No? O.K. Fine. I've worked with Marianne Carus, Debbie Vetter, Gail Pyszka, Julia Messina, Ron McCutchan, Lonnie Plecha, Karen Kohn, Sue Beck, and Kristin Scribner (among other people) at Cricket. Meredith Mundy Wasinger, Mark McVeigh, and Sarah Pope at Dutton Books. (I almost-but-not-quite-maybe-someday worked with Meredith again at Sterling) Nancy Koupal was the editor, and my husband, Mark, designed the books I illustrated for SDSHSP.  Emily Mitchell and Susan Sherman at Charlesbridge. Julie Romeis, and Kristine Brogno at Chronicle. Nice people, one and all! I've been lucky. 

AB: Correction: WE, your fans, have been lucky, Carolyn! I also love the work you do for Cricket Magazine. Can you tell us a bit about that, too?

Bug antics in Cricket Magazine.
CC: I draw the comic and the bugs making comments in the margins, and I illustrate the crossword (crossbird) puzzle. They are a splendid, funny, creative and dedicated group of people. I feel lucky to be working with them. It's been very good for me.

AB: What about the picture book medium appeals to you? Any interest in exploring the graphic novel format?

CC: I like words and pictures together, telling stories. I'm working on a couple of stories that I hope to do as graphic novels.

AB: What sorts of things inspired you to write and illustrate? Did you always want to do both? Did you want to do this when you were a kid? If not, what did you ‘wish’ you’d be doing?

CC: Good ideas inspire me to write and illustrate. Yes, I’ve always wanted to do both. When I draw, I am thinking of stories. When I write, I see pictures. This is pretty much all I ever wanted to do, except for a brief period when I enjoyed riding horses at top speed over jumps cross-country. But this sport (Eventing) requires buckets of money and I had none. 

AB: Did you study to become an illustrator? A writer? If so, where and how?

CC: Not really. I studied (more or less) a combined program at Reed college and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, but it was loosely organized at that time (or I was) so I was never quite sure what was required when. I think my educational “plan” at that time was to avoid acquiring any marketable skills. 

AB: Good grief. You just put into words my own previously unvoiced life plan. Ah well. Do you stay in touch with any of the teachers or students? How have they (either teachers and/or students) helped teach you how to write and illustrate for kids? What were the major lessons that you took away from PNCA?

CC: I actually haven’t kept in touch with people I knew at PNCA. I was still in my feral child stage at that time, not well socialized. (Still working on that.)

Love these pups.
AB: Come on, Carolyn- you're social enough, and besides: I like you! Can you give us a run down of the books you've worked on?

CC: Way back, I illustrated 3 books in a series for Capstone, which fell into a deep dark hole during a company reorganization and never saw the light of day, then 3 books in a series for Morehouse.
Discontented, yet proud.
Then I wrote and illustrated The Twelve Days of Christmas Dogs, published by Dutton. (Fall 2005)
I illustrated The Discontented Gopher, by L.Frank Baum, and The Prairie-Dog Prince, by Eva Katharine Gibson, both published by The South Dakota State Historical Society Press. (2006 and 2008)
Then I illustrated Bubble Homes and Fish Farts by Fiona Bayrock, for Charlesbridge (Spring 2009)
And that brings us to The Big Wish, which landed on shelves in May. Yay! 

AB: We proudly display your dogs, prairie critters, and farts on our shelves.Can you tell us a bit about you path to publication?

CC: It was long. And meandering. And long. Once I started meeting regularly with a critique group and going to conferences, I started making progress, too. Learning my craft, and proper practices, making good friends and useful connections. 

AB: What did you read as a kid?

CC: Books. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one, either.) Good books, bad books, comic books, billboards, signboards, newspapers and magazines. Cereal boxes.
Lush pictures; great science.

AB: Which artists have influenced you? What did you like looking at as a child? What impressed you?

CC:  When I was a kid I loved field guides. The field guide to birds, (eastern, western, european, etc...) and mammals, reptiles and amphibians, clouds, native plants, animal tracks... I wanted a pet jaguarundi. 

AB: What current authors and illustrators do you enjoy these days?

CC: There are so many! So many of them are local...  and I've been reading a lot of Catherynne Valente. But, in a disgustingly mom-ish sort of way (feel free to avert your eyes) I have to say my daughters are my favorite writer/artistic types these days. G is working on her master's at M.I.T.,  and writes fantasy/science fiction. She enjoyed spring break at the Dell Awards with her pack of prize-wining young writer friends. K is writing and illustrating and type-setting and printing and binding her stories at Reed, where she also dances with a flaming sword. (That’s it, I'm done. You can look now.)

AB: Carolyn, that’s far from disgusting- that’s truly fantastic. What’s the best piece of advice you wish your daughters will heed? The one you wish you had taken to heart when you were young?

CC: Don't be so determined to take every mistake personally. 

AB: That is a wise wish, Carolyn. Thanks for sharing it with us. 

Read Carolyn's inspired manifesto: In Defense of Dandelions.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Julian Hector: Monday is One Day

Scholastic, 2011
Julian Hector dreams in 32-page spreads. And vibrant primary colors. And tight narrative arcs. I'm certain of it. He didn't tell me this outright, but his enthusiasm for the medium is so contagious that he's got me doing it.

Everything about picture books appeals to Julian Hector. Writing and illustrating utilize all the things that he loves to do as a creative person: creating settings and costumes, exploring family and a sense of wonder about the world, conjuring anthropomorphic bugs, and of course, telling stories.

His latest book is a lovely collaboration with author/editor Arthur A. Levine. Monday is One Day (Scholastic, 2011) which, in touching rhyme, celebrates the special relationship between working parents and their children. Julian has graciously stopped by to share his work and enthusiasm with us.

AB: Congratulations on the publication of Monday is One Day! I love that the illustrations show many iterations of families. That pleases me to no end. Could you talk about how you decided upon your illustration content?

JH: Hey Amy, thank you for having me on your wonderful blog! The decision to have a diverse group of families was made when Monday’s third editor came on board the project. After reviewing my first dummy, which felt very dry in its depiction of only a father and son, she consulted with Arthur, and we all agreed that the book should be universally appealing. We wanted children with working parents of any arrangement to find themselves in Monday is One Day. For me, the book sprung to life when this decision was made.

AB: Could you talk about your process for creating the illustrations for Monday is One Day?What medium/ media do you use? About stylistic choices?

The paintings in Monday consist of watercolors and charcoal over a block of Arches hot pressed watercolor paper. I start by doing a graphite transfer of the sketch onto the paper, which leaves a very light outline, then I fill the shapes in with color. For this book,I wanted the colors to be as bright and saturated as possible, so I used several layers of paint, and ample white space to help the colors pop even further. When the paintings were complete, I went over with charcoal, outlining and shading everything. Stylistically, I wanted the book to be as friendly as possible, and the illustrations of H. A.Rey where my principle reference. Not that I actively researched his books; they’re all ingrained in my head. The limited palette of primary colors was crucial for this book: most picture books have a main character that you can follow across the narrative, but with Monday, each of the six main spreads features a different group of characters. It was important that color be used to maintain consistency across the pages. This is how I consider color when illustrating: it’s just another tool to help make the book work.

AB: How did you and Arthur become paired up on this project?
Disney-Hyperion, 2008

JH: I was contacted by Arthur’s editor at Scholastic, after Arthur viewed and liked the F&G of my first book, The Little Matador (Disney-Hyperion, 2008), at ALA in early 2008. I received the email while temping at American Banker during the Bear Stearns collapse. I was probably the only happy person in the financial district that day.

AB: I suspect you're right about that! Who are some of the editors/ art directors you’ve worked with?

I just finished a fourth book with my editor Namrata Tripathi at Atheneum. She and I started working together when I was a student at Parsons, and she was an editor at Disney-Hyperion. For Monday is One Day, the project had three total editors, but I was only on board for two of them: Kara LaReau and Andrea Davis Pinkney. They were both absolutely wonderful. The art directors that I’ve worked with are Ellice Lee (The Little Matador - Disney-Hyperion), Roberta Prussel (This is the Firefighter by Laura Godwin- Disney-Hyperion, 2009), Elizabeth Parisi (Monday is One Day - Scholastic), Ann Bobco (The Gentleman Bug, C.R. Mudgeon 2012 - Atheneum), and Martha Rago (Happily Ever After 2013 - Harper Collins).

AB: What sorts of things inspired you to write and illustrate? Did you always want to do both? Did you want to do this when you were a kid? If not, what did you wish you’d be doing?

JH: I’ve been writing and illustrating since I was very young. I had a lonely childhood, and created characters and narratives as a way of keeping myself entertained. I really am a product of my environment. I don’t feel that I have any natural talent. I definitely wanted to do other things growing up. I wanted to be an inventor, a paleontologist, a marine mammal biologist, and I entered Parsons wanting to be an architect, but quickly realized that my career should involve the set of skills that I acquired in order to survive my childhood.

AB: Do you stay in touch with any of the teachers or students from your time at Parsons? How have they (either teachers and/or students) helped teach you how to write and illustrate for kids? What were the major lessons that you took away from your time at Parsons?

JH: I keep in touch with two of my former professors; Pat Cummings, and Sergio Ruzzier. Pat teaches the Parsons Children’s Book making class, which I took my senior year of college, and where my first book, The Little Matador, was a class project. Pat acted as a mentor much earlier, though, when I expressed an interest in picture books during my first year in the illustration Department. She took me under her wing, taught me about the 32 page format, shared her publishing contacts with me, and cheered me on all the way to publication. I owe so much to Pat. My wish to become an author/illustrator materialized very quickly after meeting her.

Disney-Hyperion, 2009
AB: Can you give us a run down of the books you've worked on? Can you tell us a bit about you path to publication?
JH: Sure thing. During my junior year of college, I finally had a completed picture book dummy and portfolio. My mentor, Pat Cummings, approved of both, and gave me a list of editor contacts, while helping me polish my query letter with an important emphasis on getting a face-to-face meeting.

Initially, only Namrata Tripathi, of Disney-Hyperion replied and agreed to meet with me. Nami (Namrata’s nickname) was the warmest person and we got along immediately. She liked my work, and saw potential in my dummy (it was eventually turned down at acquisitions), but most importantly, Nami saw an image in my portfolio of a matador giving a bull a flower, and made it clear that she would love for me to give the scene a
story. When my senior year rolled around I did just that, and wrote The Little Matador, which, after a revision or two, was bought by Nami in a two book deal.

After finishing the Illustrations for The Little Matador in 2007, Nami had me Illustrate This is the Firefighter (Laura Godwin), while I wrote The Gentleman Bug. Then I was contacted by Scholastic, and Harper Collins, regarding Monday is One Day and Happily Ever After (a bilingual fairy tale anthology), respectively. I finished The Gentleman Bug, followed by Monday is One Day, then Nami offered me C.R. Mudgeon (Leslie Muir - 2012), which I completed last month. Currently, I’m finishing the Illustrations for Happily Ever After, which is due later in the fall.
Atheneum, 2010

AB: What did you read as a kid?

JH:  Dinotopia, Are You My Mother, No Fighting No Biting, Corduroy, In the Night Kitchen, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, Babar, Stellaluna, Trouble for Trumpets, David Macaulay’s books - City, Cathedral, Castle, The Way Things Work, The Little Engine that Could, Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher, The Far Side comics, Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons, Edward Gorey’s various anthologies, and The Story of Ferdinand. There are only a few exceptions where I branched out and read a picture-less book.

AB: Which artists have influenced you? What did you like looking at as a child? What impressed you?

JH: Trouble for Trumpets was probably the most impressive book that I experienced as a  child. I found it to be completely immersive, and I had it in constant check-out from the school library. It informs a lot of what I do as an illustrator, too. I owe my desire to have a map in all of my books to Trouble for Trumpets. Dinotopia was another book that I couldn’t get enough of. Both Trouble for Trumpets and Dinotopia feature thorough world-building, and that’s an element that I try to bring into my work. I usually don’t begin to write a story until I have a fully realized sandbox that I can play in.

C.R. Mudgeon by Leslie Muir, Atheneum, 2012
AB: What current authors and illustrators do you enjoy these days?

JH: Shaun Tan, Peter Brown, Sergio Ruzzier, Stephen Savage, David Ezra Stein, Suzy Lee, Renata Liwska, Jen Corace, Carson Ellis, and more Shaun Tan.

AB: If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning illustrator/ writer, what advice would you offer?

JH: I would have told myself to mind the deadlines!!! Not only is it healthy to meet your deadlines in the professional sense, it’s creatively healthy, too. Sidelining your sense of perfectionism to complete a book on time and get it out to the world, then move on to your next idea, is a wonderful cycle to maintain. I put far too much weight on making ‘perfect’ illustrations when I began. I think that I repainted the first scene in The Little Matador close to 20 times - bad!

AB: What is your best tip for book promotion? How do you balance your creative life as a writer-artist with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, contracts, etc.) of being an author-illustrator?

Julian Hector
JH: I’m a novice when it comes to promotion. I mean, I’ve done a few book signings, school visits, spoke at an SCBWI event, and I love all manner of social media, but I’m just now at the point where illustrating isn’t an all consuming endeavor and I have leftover energy to think about a book’s additional activities. Also, I’m a terrible multitasker, and have a hard time switching gears. Peeling myself away from the studio is difficult, but peel away I must - it really is crucial to get out and connect with people, and there’s an endless array of conferences, conventions, and book fairs to take advantage

AB: Monday is One Day hit the shelves on April 1st. Will you be doing any signings that I could mention?

JH: I don’t have any signings planned, but Arthur will be speaking and signing this weekend in the Twin Cities.

AB: Minnesotans- don’t miss out! Here’s Arthur's book trailer to get you excited, followed by info on Arthur's two book signings and one conference keynote:

Friday, April 29th at 6:30pm
Wild Rumpus
2720 W 43rd St
Minneapolis, MN 55410

 Saturday, April 30, 1011 a.m.
Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference
Welcome and Keynote Address with Arthur A. Levine

Sunday, May 1st at 2pm
The Red Balloon Bookshop
891 Grand Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Second Fiddle": A First-Rate Middle Grade Novel

Calling all fans of Heart of a Shepherd: Rosanne Parry made me cry...again! The first time was when she depicted the loving relationship between a ten-year old boy and his rancher grandfather near Oregon's Strawberry Mountains. This time, she did it when a trio of girls bond with themselves and others while playing ensemble in Berlin and Paris. (For the record, she also made me laugh and gasp and sigh.)

Second Fiddle (Random House, March 22, 2011) follows the adventures of eighth grader Jody and her two best friends who live on an army base in Berlin in 1990, just after the Wall has fallen. Jody and her family will soon be returning to civilian life in the U.S. and she dreads the thought of being uprooted and never seeing Giselle and Vivian again.  Before Jody moves, the three enter an ensemble contest in Paris as a string trio. Before their trip, they witness the attempted murder of a Soviet soldier,  rescue him and decide to help him escape to Paris.

Rosanne has artfully conjured a unique and engaging coming-of-age tale of an expat kid searching to find her way in the world. Lucky for us, Rosanne has stopped by to answer questions pertaining to political intrigue, resourcefulness, and the connecting power of music. 

AB: If you look in a school library for books discussing the cold war, you’ll be lucky to come up with anything. Why did you take on this mantle? Why did you set this story right after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

RP: Practical reasons first. When I was a kid I loved those stories where kids went off on their own and had adventures. Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan, From the Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg,  and Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson all had kids doing dangerous and thrilling things all on their own. Here’s the problem. You can’t have an adventure if you have a cell phone. This is why my own children have a cell phone. If something goes wrong, they can call me or google the answer. Wonderfully comforting to me as a mother—DEATH to the tension in a story. Cell phones did not exist in 1990. So convenient!

Up until recently there has been a hole in the canon of historical fiction around the cold war era. However in the past 18 months or so, several notable titles have been published and there is a list of them here on my website.   

I am particularly excited to see these titles because they have much to say about the fear a repressive system engenders, what makes a government fall, and how a new system emerges. Given recent developments in North Africa, this topic is particularly timely.

From an artistic standpoint, the chaos and uncertainty of the months right around the fall of the Berlin Wall nicely mirror the upheaval my main character, Jody, faces as she leaves her friends behind forever when her family leaves the military for civilian life in the states.

AB: Were there any challenges to writing historical fiction about the end of the Cold War in the '90's?

Historical fiction is always a challenge because even though I lived in Germany in 1990 and learned lots of the information I used in the story from German newspaper articles, or from conversations with my neighbors, my publisher insists on documentation for everything. Fortunately it did not all have to be in English, but having lived an experience is not enough. You really have to have back up for everything—the price of a train ticket, the train schedule, the time it takes to walk from Checkpoint Charlie to the Brandenburg Gate. I mentioned the names many people who helped me with my research and some of the process on my website

If you are a writer working in historical or even realistic fiction, you should keep detailed records of your sources because if you are going to be traditionally published, you’ll need to provide that information. My own source list for Second Fiddle had more than 60 references on it. They included books, maps, websites, recorded music, sheet music, magazine and newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and documentary films.

 AB: The theme that music can unite people regardless of language or background is beautifully interwoven into your tale. What led you to write a story about a girl in an orchestral ensemble?

RP: I played the violin when I was a kid and I never much cared for private lessons, but I loved playing in my school orchestra. I think joining the band or choir or orchestra or school play is one of the marvelously empowering experiences of middle school—an era not generally marked by either marvel or personal power. In these tough budget years I hope communities remember that music gives kids a voice and a community they would not find on their own.

One of the joys of working on this piece is that my editor, Jim Thomas, and my agent, Stephen Fraser, are both musicians and have been since they were boys, so they have an abiding appreciation for the power of making music with your friends. Jim was in the drum line in high school and when he moved to NY he started a band with some of his friends at Random House. Here’s a link to Jim’s band, Mr McGregor.
AB: Jody, your main character, struggles with her perceptions of being 'second fiddle' in her family, as well as with her best friends Giselle and Vivian.  In 'Second Fiddle' you also explore the theme of feeling in the background, like you are considered after others. Personally, it struck a chord with me, as I imagine it will with many readers. Can you tell me what led you to write about this particular feeling in pre-adolescence?

RP: When I was a girl I was in a children’s choir and stood next to a girl named Janet Chvatal, who lived down the street. Next to her I sounded like a squawkin’ chicken! She never said an unkind thing about my voice, but for ages I thought I couldn’t sing.

I found Janet again while I was living in Germany—this was pre-facebook; our meeting was due to the machinations of our mothers. I learned that Janet had come to Europe to study with a famous coloratura soprano, could sing brilliantly in 5 languages and was now singing the lead in The Phantom of the Opera in one of the finest opera houses in Vienna. She has since recorded many albums and you can hear an example of her amazing voice here.

We went to visit her in Vienna, and she got us seats in the loge (a spot normally reserved for reviewers and dignitaries). It was a magical night, and I realized that my childhood view of both of us had been completely wrong. Janet is so much more talented than I had guessed, and I have a perfectly adequate and occasionally lovely singing voice—but I’m not a professional singer and I’d never want to be one.

One aspect of “coming-of-age” is learning to see your talents for what they are and choosing which talents you want to spend a lifetime developing. In some ways that coming-of-age lasts forever. I could despair of ever writing as well as Patricia Reilly Giff or Katherine Patterson, or I could realize that I have my own themes to develop and that if I work very hard I can write something perfectly adequate and occasionally lovely.
AB: You write about a Ukranian soldier who hates what Soviet communism has done to his family, his country, and himself. But then the girls meet an American who runs a bookshop in Paris as a decidedly socialist commune. Did you intentionally decide to contrast these two characters and their perceptions of communism?

The one character I didn't invent is George Whitman, the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris. George Whitman was too good a character to pass up. There is a fabulous video of George Whitman in his 80s giving himself a haircut by setting his hair on fire. Seriously! Could. Not. Make that up. He’s a man with a vision of how the art of reading and writing could be nurtured in the world and, like many visionaries, is a tad eccentric. 

I’m actually not very interested in making a commentary on Communism or Socialism. There’s plenty of information out there on both systems. I’m sure my readers are capable of making up their own minds. In fact I didn’t realize George Whitman was a socialist when I first decided to use the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop as a location in the story. I read a really interesting book about his life and the bookstore called Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer. Once I understood his motivations for running the shop the way he did, it seemed natural for him to speak to the girls from his own point of view. I didn’t want him to be the “crazy American” living in Paris. There is more to him than quirkiness, and he deserves a fuller characterization, particularly since Mr. Whitman is still living in the rooms above Shakespeare and Company and his daughter is now running the store

 AB: When does Second Fiddle hit the shelves?/ an e-book near you?

RP: Second Fiddle will be out March 22nd. It is also available in e-book and audio book and downloadable audio. I recorded the author note for the audio edition, and boy, was that a lot harder than you’d think! It took me an hour and a half to read 5 pages. I have heaps of respect now for my audio artist Bri Knickerbocker who read the other 224 pages!
Rosanne Parry

AB: Thanks for your time, Rosanne. Before we say goodbye, tell me: what's up next for you?

RP: I have a very busy spring and I am hugely grateful to the bookstores that have generously agreed to host Second Fiddle events. Lots of these events involve kid musicians as well as the traditional reading. Here’s a list of where I’ll be this spring and into summer. I’ve still got a few plans in the works, so please stop by my website if you don’t see a book event in your area.
If you are a writer, follow the links to the conferences. They all have open registration. I’ll be teaching Character and the 7 Deadly Sins, Collaborative Marketing, and What Makes it a Children’s Book this spring and summer. 

April 8 , 4:30 pm: Young Writers Workshop Powell’s, Beaverton, OR

April 9 , 2:00 pm: A Children’s Place Bookstore, Portland, OR - with Liz Rusch (FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC, Random House, 2011) and musicians from Metro Youth Symphony.

April 12, 4:30 pm: Third Street Books, McMinnville, OR

April 15-17: Western WA SCBWI Conference, Redmond, WA

May 6: Northwest Fiddle Festival, Waucoma Books, Hood River, OR

May 14, 1:30-4:30pm: For the Love of Music & Books, Ethos Music ,Portland, OR, with Liz Rusch, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Trio con Brio, and the Portland Symphonic Girlchoir.

May 13, 4:30pm: Young Writers Workshop, Powell’s, Portland, OR

May 20-21: Paulina Springs Bookstore, Redmond & Bend, OR

July 9-17: Summer Fishtrap Writers Workshop, Joseph, OR

Aug 7-9:  Willamette Writers Conference, Portland, OR

Sep 8: Eugene Willamette Writers, Eugene, OR

Thursday, January 13, 2011

An Open Letter to the TODAY Show
Dear TODAY Show Representatives:

I am writing to let you know how disappointed I am that this year's Newbery/ Caldecott recipients were bumped from your show today.
I try, but somehow cannot hide from 'Snooki'. I do not need to know about her ghost-written memoir. I am asking you for less reality television junk pseudo-news and more about quality literature for children. Even in these times when we are numbed to the bone by 'shocking' TV dreck, I trust in the integrity of your viewers and their ability to enjoy the subtleties that good literature can afford their children.

I would greatly appreciate a response to this.

Thank you in advance,
Amy Baskin
Portland, Oregon

P.S. I also posted my letter on your website and am encouraging others to provide their feedback here as well.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Favorite 2011 Picture Book So Far & Young Writers Workshop

Clever, retro, gorgeous.
Congratulations to Philip and Erin Stead for winning the Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee! While those at ALA are cheering for the winners in balmy San Diego, I'm getting on my scarf and boots so that I can climb to the highest snowy peak and shout out praises for a delightful new winter read.

Veteran children's author Susan Blackaby was shown snippets of illustrator Carmen Segovia's work and given a challenge: could she make a story using Carmen's characters?

Yes. Oh, yes indeed, she could.

Blackaby rose to the challenge and together she and Segovia created the most exquisite picture book I've seen in years: Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox (Sterling, 2011). In engaging yet economical text, Blackaby gave spark to Brownie groundhog, who comes out of hibernation way too early, only to encounter a fox who means to eat him. The classic trickster tale is given an electric jolt with Blackaby's dry wit and comic sensibilities, and Segovia's elegant art evokes the best of the two-color gems from the '60s.

My advice? Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy. Then read it with a cup of cocoa and cinnamon toast. And if you like what you read, bring your kids to Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing at 4:30 this Friday. Susan and YA author Emily Whitman will be holding a free Young Writers Workshop, focusing on poetry, for 10-18 year-olds who love to write.

Written by Heather Vogel Frederick
Also, Susan Blackaby's official Brownie Groundhog unveiling will be held at 11am on January 22 at A Children's Place Bookstore. She'll be teaming up with Heather Vogel Frederick, who will share her new picture book, Babyberry Pie (Harcourt, 2010) in an event they've dubbed 'Elevenses with the Authors'. Bring your kids and join them for a sugar blast when they troop across the street to the Eclectic Kitchen for a post-reading nosh: cinnamon treats and berry tarts all around!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Susan Fletcher on Dragon Chronicles Book 4: Ancient, Strange and Lovely

Atheneum, 2010
Happy New Year, one and all! Today, Susan Fletcher joins me to talk about the publication of Book 4 in her Dragon Chronicles series: Ancient, Strange, and Lovely, (Atheneum, 2010). Personally, I can think of no better way of ushering in 2011. 

A consummate crafter of award-winning historical fiction and fantasy, Susan teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. This is fitting, as her body of work successfully spans the often arbitrary divide between middle grade and young adult classifications. Her skill at writing is matched only by her genuine gift for teaching. Susan shared with me the particular difficulties she has encountered in writing and gave me much to chew on in this delicious (and nutritious) interview. Pull up a chair, tuck your napkin into your shirt and dig in!
AB: Congratulations on the publication of the fourth book in your dragon chronicles series, Ancient, Strange and Lovely.  I was delightfully absorbed by your imagining of a near future earth, especially with teens who have developed creative, if unattractive, body art that highlights and protests the spread of environmental toxins. What were the challenges of writing a novel set in the near future?

SF: The near-future technology was incredibly difficult to write about; everything else was the kind of challenge I enjoy.   I’ll talk about technology issues later (see questions #4, re: “torture.”)   Meanwhile, the body art, especially the skwebbing (skin + webbing) was really a hoot to invent and think about.  I concocted a new rock subgenre (eco rock), some eco rock groups (i.e., Mutant Tide, Radioactive Fish), and parts of songs (i.e., “Cryptid Rant,” “Dragon Dreams,” and “Philange Web Salute.”)  I cooked up a super-encrypted eBay-like site for poachers and imagined some of the crazy (and disgusting) things they might be selling.  I extrapolated from some of the environmental problems we’re having now to imagine bad stuff that might happen in the near future.  This wasn’t exactly what you might call “fun,” because it’s scary to contemplate.  But it was interesting.  I had the best time, though, imagining how people would respond to the environmental problems.  Especially kids.

AB: What led you to write this story for young readers in particular?

SF: Ancient, Strange and Lovely is a funny kind of sequel to the books in my Dragon Chronicles series: Dragon’s Milk, Flight of the Dragon Kyn, and Sign of the Dove.  The earlier books have a medieval setting and extremely long-lived dragons.  I’d always wanted to bring the series up to the present or near future, but I didn’t know exactly how to do that until…  Well.  More on that in question #7.  A funny thing about age groups.  When the earlier three books came out originally, they were listed for ages 10 -14.  When they came out in paperback, they were listed for ages 8-12.  And Ancient, Strange and Lovely, though the main characters are in high school, is listed for ages 8-12.  These are marketing decisions, I think.   I like to imagine that kids might enjoy this story well into high school.
The lovely Susan Fletcher

AB: In your rich world building, your main character Bryn uses some terms you invented, including “’tants” and words you re-appropriated, such as ‘seismic’. For me it was reminiscent of the slang argot of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. I loved the not-too-distant future lexicon. How did you go about coining words? What was your process? Did you enjoy it?

SF:  I had a blast coining new words, but it was also really hard.  Slang is so tricky!  If you use current slang, you run the risk of dating yourself.  If you make up your own slang, you run the risk of sounding fake.  One option was to strip out nearly all of the slang…but it was clear to me that some of my characters wouldn’t speak in Standard English.  They just wouldn’t.   I’m not talking only about the poorly-educated characters.  I’m talking, too, about the brightest characters, the ones who are most alive. They would play with language, almost revel in it.  So I knew I’d have to deal with slang.  I kept three running lists of words: technology words, words evocative of mystery, and current slang that I’d overheard or heard in movies or TV.  I experimented, combined words in unexpected ways, played with them.  I read the manuscript aloud, just listening to how it sounded.  I changed it over and over, sort of feeling for what felt right.  The final result is a combination of Standard English, invented slang, and current slang that I thought might be around for, like, decades.

AB: Ha! I think you're right about 'like' not going anywhere for awhile. On your website,  you say that Ancient, Strange and Lovely was “excruciatingly hard to write. I’m talking torture. So with the fun and the torture happening at the exact same time, it was like when you eat ice cream too fast and it freezes the inside of your nose.” On behalf of readers everywhere, thank you for enduring this ‘torture’. What made it so difficult?

SF: Technology is changing so fast that it not only marfles my mind – it defies even the experts’ attempts to predict the tools we’ll all be using in the next five to seven years.  I was constantly scanning through technology magazines to try to keep up with what might be coming down the pike.  But even if you know what technology is coming, you don’t know what’s going to “take.”  You don’t know how things are going to be adopted, and by whom.  You don’t know if something’s going to out-and-out tank.  The iPad, for instance, was introduced not long after I’d made the final changes to my book.  I wondered if Bryn ought to have taken a tablet down to her basement, for example, instead of a laptop.  But it was too late to make the change.  The problem with the near future is…  My book will (I hope!) still be in print when some of these issues shake out.  So I worried that in a few years the book might be dated or anachronistic.  My brilliant editor, Karen Wojtyla, suggested a solution.  It’s an alternative near-future, right?  I wasn’t predicting the near-future; I was simply suggesting one way it might pan out.  After that, I was able to relax – at least, a bit!

AB: How long have you been writing? What was the timeline between the third book in the Dragon Chronicles series, Sign of the Dove, and Ancient, Strange and Lovely?
SF: I’ve been writing forever.  Professionally, I started out writing advertising copy, moved to writing for national magazines, then to writing novels for kids and young adults (my favorite).   My first novel came out in 1988; the third novel in the Dragon Chronicles (Sign of the Dove) came out in 1996.

AB:  Your stories generally involve a young heroine who, rises to whatever challenge confronts her courageously. In Ancient, Strange and Lovely, I enjoyed the way you vary the point of view, alternating from Bryn's first-hand account, to a close-in third perspective of other characters. I haven't seen much of this in MG/ YA fiction. Could you tell us why you chose this method of storytelling?
The third book in the series.
SF: I’ve never tried changing points of view before.  Well, there was just a little bit of it with the harper character in Sign of the Dove, but that’s about it.  I can’t remember exactly how I decided to vary the point of view so frequently in Ancient, Strange and Lovely.  I do remember that when I started moving my focus to other perspectives, it felt incredibly liberating.  Seriously, it was a blast.  In my other books, when something happened that my protagonist didn’t know about, I had to use all the craft I possessed to bring in that information unobtrusively.  This time, I just shifted to a new perspective and vamped.  Stuff came out that I had no idea was in there.  I think that this technique may work best for books in which rather complex events outside the protagonist influence the direction of the story.  I’m thinking of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series and His Dark Materials series, for instance.  Or Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm.

As to the first person…  I started out writing Bryn’s parts in third person, but they felt kind of leaden to me.  When I switched to first person, Bryn came alive. My agent felt uncertain about the combination of first and third person.  My editor had no problem with it.  At some point, I think, you’ve just got to trust the way in which the book comes to you most alive.  No matter what the rules say, if it’s alive…that’s right.

AB:  There is an underlying theme of environmental stewardship which runs throughout The Dragon Chronicles series. Was this something that was initially intentional on your part? Has writing this novel in the near future helped you explore different facets of environmentalism?

SF:  Way back when I was writing Dragon’s Milk, the story sort of bent, all on its own, in the direction of endangered species.  It was a discovered theme, not deliberate.  But it was at that early point that the idea of the relationship between humans and the environment became integral to the series.  Two questions that I explored throughout were: What do we lose when an animal goes extinct?  And how does that loss diminish us?

I was pretty jazzed about taking the series into the near future -- re-exploring the theme of environmental stewardship in light of what we know today.  But for a long time, I couldn’t find a way in…until one day my daughter, a microbiologist, told me about a rare lizard whose spit has microbes that might be able to clean up some seriously wicked toxins.  Returning to the questions I’d asked myself in the earlier books, I began to think about the idea of interconnectedness.  If this lizard has microbes in its spit that might get rid of environmental toxins, who’s to say that dragons might not have similar microbes – only better?  Who’s to say that they might not really help us to clean up some of the environmental messes we’ve made?

So if dragons disappear, you lose more than just the cool flying-and-flaming thing.  You lose the ability to clean up the environment, too.

AB: I understand that you work with a critique group. How is that helpful to you? Aside from the critique group, what and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?

SF:  I’ve been in a critique group for more than 25 years.  Some of us have grown up together, as writers.  I have learned so much from these smart, sensitive people!   I hear their voices as I write and revise, particularly the ones who were there very early on.  For example, I can still hear Eloise McGraw saying that each book teaches you how to write that book, but not necessarily the next.  Ellen Howard’s examples of emotional honesty and depth are always with me; they’re what I’m striving for.  I feel Margaret Bechard’s finely-tuned bullshit meter go off when I’m trying to persuade myself that a piece is good enough, but I know in my heart that there’s something wrong about it.  When I despair of ever getting it right, I think of Winnie Morris bringing a piece back to the group again and again – vastly improved each time -- until we can’t find a single critical thing to say about it.  At first, I processed everything through the group.  Now, I tend to go through a first draft before I show my chapters to anybody.

The other thing that’s been helpful is to reread favorite writers to try to penetrate their secrets.  First I read the book, and let myself savor the whole range of emotional experience.  Then I go coldly back and ask:  How did she do that?

AB: Are you able to read much current middle grade/ YA  fiction? If so,
what are some books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed?
What makes you like them so much?

SF: I don’t have time to read as much as I’d like to!  But definitely: I read.  Some of the kids’ and YA books I’ve enjoyed over this period are: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey; Skellig, by David Almond; The Crimson Cap, by Ellen Howard; The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt; Spacer and Rat, by Margaret Bechard; Thursday’s Child, by Sonya Hartnett; This Full House, by Virginia Euwer Wolff; The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo; The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer; Feed, by M.T. Anderson; Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel; Runt, by Marion Dane Bauer; One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams Garcia, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  I could go on.  This is just kind of a random sampling, books that are springing to mind at this moment.  Different qualities endear.  Some I love most for their deep exploration of a theme: The Monstrumologist, Feed.  For others, it’s a kind of mythic quality, books that don’t seem created, but feel as if they’ve always been in the world: The Underneath, Skellig, Thursday’s Child, Runt.  In others, I’ve fallen head over heels for their characters:  One Crazy Summer, This Full House.  And always, always, it’s the quality of the prose.

AB: What about writing comes easiest for you? What is most difficult about the craft?

SF: Sometimes, the words just come to me.  I wish I could figure out a way to make this happen on command.  There are parts of my books that have been written in the shower, or in airplanes, or in the car, or on walks, or while I’m in the middle of writing something else entirely.  There is an epilogue in Dragon’s Milk; there are many passages in Shadow Spinner; there is nearly my entire picture book, Dadblamed Union Army Cow.  There are more scattered passages like this throughout all my other books.  They just came into my head; I wrote them down.  Later, when I look at the finished books, I see that I hardly had to revise these passages -- these gifts -- at all.  For the most part, though, for me, writing is hard labor.  I don’t mean to over-dramatize it – no drops of blood springing from my fevered brow or anything like that.  It’s just work.   (My earlier comments re: torture notwithstanding!) The hardest part for me is when I’m partway through the marathon that is a novel, when I’ve done a whole bunch and there’s still a whole bunch more to do.  Trying to scrape up the requisite stamina and faith.

AB: You tend to engage in very thorough, often hands-on research for your writing projects. Could you tell us what went into preparing for Ancient, Strange and Lovely?
ALA Best Books for Young Adults

SF:  For Ancient, Strange and Lovely, I didn’t have the travel adventures that I did, say, for Alphabet of Dreams.  It was one of those books where I didn’t so much go out to find things as stay alert to stray stories and bits of information that crossed into my world.   There was the story my daughter told me about a lizard with a symbiotic microbe that cleaned up environmental toxins.  There was the newspaper article about a webcam, a thief, and a lawn dwarf named O’Merkley.  There was the lapidary store that I wandered into in Seattle, where I learned how to crack open a fossilized dragon egg. There was the story my hairdresser told me about people who engage in online trade in really creepy stuff, like shrunken heads.  There was a friend who wrote a book about an Alutiiq healer on a remote Alaskan island. All of these things, when they crossed my path, provided answers to questions the novel was asking.  All were serendipitous.

AB: In the meantime, what advice would you offer a writer who is just starting out?

SF:  I’m kind of old school on this one.  There is so much emphasis these days on marketing, platforms, new technologies.  The thing is, I’ve already worked in advertising.  I left that to do this.  I came to writing novels because I love to read them.   I’m talking about reading as in living a story, stepping inside of a book character’s world and breathing along with him, falling in love with him, breaking my heart over him, busting out of the tight little time-and-place box I live in and experiencing stuff I’d never imagined.  There’s a kind of magic in making that happen.  It’s sorcery.  And, ever since I first experienced this, I wanted to perform that kind of magic, too.

So I’d say, first, put your energy into learning how to perform that sorcery, to perform it as well as you possibly can.  Read and study books you love.  Take classes.  Go to conferences.  Read craft books and blogs like this one.  Write and rewrite your novel until you can feel the magic happening.  And then do the marketing.

Having said that, I want to say that marketing has become an important component in sustaining a career as a writer.  And I am very grateful, indeed, Amy, for this opportunity to chime in on your awesome blog!

AB: Thank you, Susan! It's an honor to interview you. Now, I must go and Google the lawn dwarf named O'Merkley forthwith.