Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Talk: Reviews by Young Readers

Today in BookTalk: Reviews by Young Readers, I’m thrilled to have Sarah Dukes with us to talk about Jessica Day George’s Middle Grade novel Dragon Slippers. Welcome, Sarah! 

Hi, my name is Sarah, and I'm 13 years old!  I'm very passionate about writing.  With writing you can escape to a place you created.  Somewhere with drama, humor, horror, romance or mythical creatures.  A dream of mine is to become a published writer.  I often day dream of seeing the reaction my book would bring to people when I write.  Secretly I wish I could vanish into a book's world. 

I discovered that I also have a love for cooking.  One afternoon when Mom told me to make lunch is when it all began.  The only part of cooking I don't like is washing all the pots and pans afterwards.  What's the fun in that? 

Family is an important part of my life.  They are always there to help me through hard struggles and rejoice with me when there is victory.  Spending time with them is a blast.  We take lots of mini vacations through-out the year and are very close to one another.  My favorite vacation place we have visited so far is Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  It's a truly magical place!

Finally I believe music is words spoken through notes.  When I was going into the 6th grade I decided to play the violin.  Playing the violin is captivating.  It makes you wonder how you can create such beautiful music just by touching down on a string.  It's a wonderful feeling.  I've played once in my church for Veteran's Day and have gotten a solo in a music camp I attended. 

Review – Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George

In my spare time I soared on dragon wings and lived in Derda's shop with Cleer.  My head was nestled in the book Dragon Slippers

The book is quite fascinating and is told AMAZINGLY!!! All 317 pages of it, keeps you wanting more.  You feel the emotions of the character pull you in.  At parts I wanted to strangle Larkin and Amalia for what they did.
It gets so intense that you have to hold yourself from skipping to the end.  I enjoyed reading this book and so did my sister.  It's one of the best books I've read in a long time!
It's a GREAT story about dragons and what happens when unusual shoes get in the wrong hands.   You'll love it if you like reading fantasy, action, betrayal, and a pinch of romance!

Thanks, Sarah!! And now a few Q&A. Here we go!

How do you choose a book? Is it the cover art that catches your interest? A recommendation from a friend? The jacket flap summary?
I know I shouldn't do this, but I tend to choose a book on the cover art.  Like food it must appeal to my eye before I devour it.  If the cover looks good to me then I read the back to see what it's about.  I mentally check it over, and if it seems like the book for me I start reading.  Sadly that doesn't always work out the way I plan. 

What kinds of books do you like to read?

Books that take me to far away places such as a dragon's lair or in a castle.  But I think what really wraps a book together is a bit of romance and excitement!

Where is your favorite place to read?

Somewhere where I can let my imagination run wild.  Where I can get cozy and comfortable with my mp3 quietly playing background music.  Most of the time it's curled up on my bed.  The room seems to disappear and is replaced in the book's world.

Have you always liked to read?

Surprisingly, no.  I didn't always like to read.  I think that when I didn't like to read it was because it seemed hard and took a lot of work to enjoy.  But I really enjoy reading now!  It's that first book that really sparks your interest and gets you started.

Do you have a favorite book? Favorite author?

My favorite book is: My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison.  It's well told and leaves you smiling.  I've found her to be my favorite author so far.  The way she adds a bit of humor is like the icing on the cake...amazing.  Most of her books are romantic comedies.  

If a librarian asked you what type of book you’d like to see more of, what would you tell her/him?

I would like to see more appropriate romantic comedies and fantasy books.  Ones with dragons, knights, and a damsel in distress. 

Did you connect with the main character in Dragon Slippers? Why or why not?

I connected with Creel by the way she felt.  Her feelings were similar to mine and very strongly expressed.  I loved the way she was always ready to go forth with things.  Very brave!
What part or scene from the book resonated with you the most? And why?
I would have to say the scenes of Creel looking at Theordus’ and Shardas hoards. They seemed so beautiful! When I pictured Theordus’ I thought of the Beast’s library from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast except filled with shoes. A whole room filled with shoes, you have to admit it’s a girls dream come true. I imagined Shardas’ to be a huge room circling up with stain glass windows. Shardas’ took my breath away with how I longed for it to exist. I wanted to make it real! It just sounded so amazing and captivating. I would’ve stood looking at the windows for hours.
We know that dragons aren’t real so how did the author make you believe in her fictional world?
The author described the dragons as if they were still in a cave waiting to be discovered. And the brilliant idea of why people never visited them anymore. The stories townsfolk made up about the “evil beasts,m” it just seemed so real. Once you get caught up in the fairytale you live in the world as one of the townspeople too.
Sarah, thanks for the review and sharing your insights.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Author Interview: Julia Durango

Julia Durango is the author of picture books, adventure novels, and poetry for kids of all ages. Her middle-grade adventure novel, Sea of the Dead, was a Junior Library Guild selection, a Parents’ Choice silver medalist, and the winner of the 2010 Golden Kite fiction award for best children’s book of the year. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the audience that day when Julia accepted the award at the SCBWI summer conference. Today I’m fortunate to have the Illinois author on my blog to share about her writing process and to talk about her new books. Please welcome, Julia Durango.  

With the recent release of Under the Mambo Moon, illustrated by Fabricio VandenBroeck (Charlesbridge, 2011) can you share the inspiration behind the book?

I first fell in love with Latin American music when I was a teen travelling in Brazil.  Later, during college, I spent time in Colombia, Costa Rica, and other Latin American countries.  In each place, I encountered amazing music, from tango to salsa to mambo, which told stories about people transcending adversity and celebrating life.  I wrote Under the Mambo Moon as a tribute to an art form that has brought me so much joy throughout the years.

How long did it take you to write Under the Mambo Moon? Did the plot or characters come first? Any challenges along the way? Did you think about school curriculum tie-ins when you were writing it?

I wrote the first poems for this book back in 2001, perhaps even earlier (it’s been so long I’ve forgotten!).  I didn’t start with plot or characters, but rather the different types of music I wanted to explore.  Over the years, the collection slowly grew and evolved as I added more poems.  Marisol, the narrator of the collection, didn’t appear until much later, when I realized the poems needed a storyteller to hold them together.   As for school curriculum tie-ins, I must admit that I didn’t give them any thought at all!  I trust that good teachers will always find creative ways to incorporate books and poetry into their lessons.

You’ve also recently released the picture book Dream Away, written with Katie Belle Trupiano, illustrated by Robert Goldstom (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Is it exciting having two books out at the same time? Did you know that both books would be released around the same time? Although, each book targets a different audience, is it challenging marketing both books? Any tips?

Yes, it has been very exciting to have two books out at the same time, especially since both involve music.  WhiIe I didn’t know until later in the game that both books would be published in July 2011, I was quite pleased by the coincidence.  As you mentioned, the books target different audiences, so they’re not competing works.  As for promoting them, I’ve had a fun time emphasizing their musical nature as a “bonus” to readers.  You can read more about my collaboration with songwriter Katie Belle Trupiano and listen to her sing Dream Away click HERE 

You’ve come up with an innovative school visit program “Out of the Box” can you tell us about it? And how it came to be?

Since I am a school librarian, I am not able to schedule many traditional school visits as other authors do.  I love to connect with my readers, though, and wanted to figure out a way to “visit” schools that wouldn’t involve travel.  My “Out of the Box” program literally begins with a box – students send me a package containing a letter with questions and a stuffed animal or school mascot to go on “field trip” to my house.  I make a personalized DVD in return, which includes answers to their questions as well as photos of me and their stuffed animal or mascot.   I piloted the program with my sister Sherry’s second grade class in Missouri, and we all had a blast!  At $200, the program is also very affordable to schools where funds are scarce.

I was at the 2010 LA SCBWI National Conference when Sea of the Dead (Simon & Schuster, 2009) won the Golden Kite Award. Congratulations!! In your moving acceptance speech you talked about having special messages to your sons in your books. Is there a special message to anyone in Under the Mambo Moon? Or Dream Away?

Thank you, Carmen, I’m glad you enjoyed the speech.  The Golden Kite Award was a huge honor and definitely the highlight of my career so far.  Yes, there are hidden messages in the new books.  Under the Mambo Moon is my love letter to Latin America; in fact, many of the characters in the book were named after Latin American friends, teachers, and others I admire.  For example, Rubén is named for the great musician Rubén Blades from Panama, who has long been a hero of mine.  In Dream Away, the message is for the kids in my life and is quite simple:  Dream. Explore. Play.  And holler if you need me. J

What are your thoughts on when a writer should seek representation with an agent? Can you share your experience when you signed with Barry Goldblatt Literary? Were you published yet?

I sought representation after I’d made some magazine sales and a book sale to a small publisher.  I had also collected a stack of rejections – form letters at first, which gradually evolved into personal notes and a few close calls.  A trusted author friend and mentor suggested I submit to Barry, who had recently opened his agency, and I happily became his tenth client.  That was ten years ago and his agency has grown quite a bit since then!   As for when writers should seek representation, I think it all depends on their career goals and the quality of their writing.  This is where SCBWI membership can be so invaluable; the numerous conferences and events they organize can be great opportunities for networking and professional feedback.

What are you working on now?

A middle grade fantasy novel set in the Andean highlands with my writing partner, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.  Tracie has been my critique partner for the past ten years; in fact, she helped me enormously with Under the Mambo Moon.

What do you do when you’re not on deadline? For fun?

I spend time with my family, my dog, my friends.   I go for walks, read books (love my Kindle!), daydream about trips I want to go on, and read recipes I will probably never try.

Tell us 3 things you can’t live without.

My guys. Libraries. Gel pens.  

Tell us 3 things you wish were never invented.

Diets. Multi-tasking. Jersey Shore.

Thanks, Julia!!!

You’re welcome, Carmen. J

Monday, August 22, 2011

Author Interview: Jessica Lee Anderson

It's exciting when I get to interview children's authors whose work I admire and even more thrilling when that author is also a friend. I first met Jessica Lee Anderson when I attended a book signing party with several other Austin SCBWI authors at Barnes & Noble. At the time, she was signing her middle grade award winning novel Trudy (winner of the 2005 Milkweed Prize for Children's Literature) and her warm smile enveloped me with her inner beauty. She's one of the kindest, sincerest people I know. When you speak with Jessica you feel that she's invested in you. No one else matters. She's genuine and generous and incredibly talented. And no doubt why she was such an effective instructor when she taught for five years at the Institute of Children's Literature. Lucky students!

One of the things I admire about her as a friend and writer is her hard-working and determined attitude. She's always working to improve her craft, she has a Masters of Arts in Children's Literature from Hollins University, and open to sharing what she's learned so far in her journey with other writers. I've had the pleasure to hear Jessica speak on several occasions to peers, librarians and teachers, and her passion for writing and inspiring children to read and write is magical. Spell-binding. AWEsome. 

She believes in excellence and raising the bar every time her pen strikes the page. Her books touch you deeply and she's not afraid to write about serious topics like mental illness and border issues which she did in her Young Adult novel Border Crossing (Milkweed, 2010). She invests in you the reader and her characters. And I'm touched she took time out of her extremely busy schedule to talk with us. But I'm not surprised. Because that's just the kind of thing she does. Please welcome, Jessica Lee Anderson!

Describe your typical writing day for us? Are you a morning writer? A night owl? Do you write in an office? Under the shade of a lilac tree? A café? Let us peek into your writing world.

My typical writing day starts with a large cup of coffee or tea in the morning.  I check my email and then try to research, dig into a manuscript, or revise depending on where I’m at in the writing process.  I’ll write for a couple of hours, take a break for lunch, and then write some more in the afternoon if possible.  If I’m close to finishing a draft or a revision, I’ll write well into the evening.  I use to be a complete night owl and get my best writing done in the wee hours, but as I’ve gotten older and as my schedule has changed, I’ve forced myself to be more of a morning writer.

Do you set daily writing goals for yourself? Weekly? Yearly? Do you think goal-setting is important for your career? Are you more of an organizer or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants person?

I’m a loose organizer who sometimes flies by the seat of my pants! (See her interview with Samantha Clark on To Outline or Not Outline) Goal setting is definitely important to keep myself accountable and to be able to see how far I’ve progressed. That said, I do need to set some consistent daily writing goals, such as completing a certain number of chapters or writing a certain number of words.  Whenever I work on a new novel, I set goals in terms of when I’d like to finish and when I hope to have the revision(s) complete by. 

What do you like most about being a writer? What is the thing that surprises you the most about writing? Or being a writer?

I love the creativity of being a writer most of all—getting surprised by characters and their actions, hashing out a plot, honing words, etc.  When I first started writing, I was surprised by how effortless books were to read yet so challenging to write.  This reminds of a quote I love by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Easy reading is damn hard writing."  I’m constantly and pleasantly surprised by how supportive and wonderful the local Austin writing community is.

F. Scott Fiztgerald said, “Character is plot. Plot is character.” In your novels Trudy and Border Crossing your characters drive the plot? Their action and reactions direct the scenes.  When you begin a novel do the characters come first or the plot?

In most of my work to date, the characters drive the plot.  Their actions and reactions direct the scenes and influence future choices, etc.  In half of my novels that I’ve worked on, the plot came first, though.  I knew what was going to happen, but it took me a while to get to know my characters and their desires.  In the remaining half, I “heard” the character voices and then the action began to unfold.

In Trudy and Border Crossing the characters both deal with illnesses yet in very different ways?  Can you briefly describe why you felt compelled to write these stories?

Trudy is very personal to me as I watched my grandmother slowly slip away to Alzheimer’s. It was a very painful process, and I wrote as a way to cope. Years later, I became fascinated with the brain, and wanted to know more about schizophrenia.  This research eventually led to Border Crossing.

Both Trudy and Border Crossing are written in the first person point-of-view? Did you start the novels in this point-of-view? Or did the point-of-view change? Do you experiment with point-of-view when you’re writing a novel? Did writing in the first person point-of-view make it easier to get inside your characters’ head?

I’ve started with first person point-of-view with all my novels.  I’ve found that this close viewpoint makes it easier for me to better understand my characters and their motivations.  I experimented with the third person point-of-view in Border Crossing during a revision, but found that it was too distancing (even though my protagonist is an unreliable character).

Tell us about your newest novel Calli (Milkweed, 2011) to be released this September and currently available for pre-order on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. What was the inspiration behind the book?

My family and research into foster care inspired Calli.  Calli’s world changes when her moms take in a foster child named Cherish. Cherish kisses Calli’s boyfriend, steals things, and seems like she’s trying to ruin Calli’s life.  When Calli retaliates, things go horribly wrong. Even though there isn’t an easy solution, she tries to make amends.

Where do you find inspiration and motivation as a writer? What and/or whom are your “rocks” in your writing life?

I read as a way of staying motivated, and my friends constantly inspire me and motivate me.  Seriously, I don’t know what I’d do without PJ Hoover, Jo Whittemore, Kari Holt, E. Kristin Anderson, Stephanie Pellegrin, Jeanette Larson, and the entire Austin SCBWI chapterMy husband, Michael, is an incredible “rock”—I can't say enough about how lucky I am to have such amazing support!   

Jessica is also part of the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels seven authors and illustrators who write for children and teens.

What are you working on now? Eager fans want to know!

I’ve been working on a middle grade novel called Finding Bigfoot.  Everdil Jackson thinks she can repair her parent’s broken relationship and grow closer to her friends by proving Bigfoot’s existence after an unexpected encounter. Everdil ends up proving more than she bargained for, including her inner strength and ability to adapt.

You’re so sweet, Carmen!  Thanks for your time and thoughtfulness!

Thank you, Jessica!!!

To read additional interviews with Jessica visit Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog Cynsations on Trudy or her Guest Blog post with PJ Hoover.on Cynsations. She also has several others listed on her website.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Five on a Friday

It's the last Friday of the summer before the kids go back to school. Hubby has taken the day off from work and we're going to take the kids ice skating. I know ice skating in the summer sounds crazy, but it's been soooo hot here in Austin that you need to find indoor activities or risk melting. Literally. Applying make-up is sometimes useless because if you're outside for more than 5 seconds, it runs right off your face.

So before we venture out the door for our play date, I thought I'd leave you with "Five on a Friday." Here we go!

1.  Check out this amazing silent auction that BEYOND LUCKY author Sarah Aronson is hosting at her Beyond Revision blog.  There's a full novel critique with Sarah Aronson, a nonfiction critique with Tanya Lee Stone, a conversation with literary agent Sarah Davies, a critique with Dial executive editor Liz Waniewski, and so much more!!

2.  If you haven't participated in the 2011 WRITEONCON conference held from Aug 16-18 then head over to their blog and read some of the posts. And if you like what you see consider a small donation! It allows them to keep organizing these amazing events. 

3. If you haven't signed up the Austin SCBWI symposium/workshop Storytelling in the Digital Age than do so today! Seriously. How can you navigate the world of children's literature without staying on the cutting edge of technology and the new doors springing open for children's writers and illustrators. Embrace the change people!

4.  You must check out New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith's weekly round-up at her blog Cynsations. It's a wrap-up of some of the best interviews and posts in the cyber kidlit world not to mention all her links to Giveaways!!

5.  And above all as you embark on your weekend don't forget to carve out some time and write. Even if it's in 10 minute spurts or chunks. Do it! Write and listen to your muse. It's what sustains us people. Even when what we write sometimes sucks. Young Adult novelist Libba Bray said at the SCBWI 2011 Summer Conference, "Embrace the Suck...We have to get it wrong before we can get it right!" 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Author Interview Tricia Springstubb Part II

Last month, we met author Tricia Springstubb and talked to her about her writing process and her book What Happened on Fox Street (Balzer & Bray, 2010). Click on Part I to view our interview here if you happened to miss it. Today, she joins us for part II of our interview. Welcome back, Tricia!!

Congratulations on the upcoming release of Mo Wren Lost and Found (Balzer & Bray, Aug 23, 2011)! What can readers expect from Mo Wren in this adventure?

So many readers asked me what happened after Fox Street, and this is that story.  You can expect to see all the Wrens, including Mr. Wren, change, and for a new member to join the family!

What are the challenges in writing a sequel?

The challenges were much bigger than I expected.  For one, I wanted to make the second book a stand-alone, but not disappoint readers who knew all the characters from FOX STREET.  As always when writing for children, I didn't want too much backstory, but I also needed to convey all that Mo was giving up by leaving her home.  It was a real balancing act--and that's not even mentioning the surprises my characters threw at me along the way!

Like in the first book, you’ve created a strong sense of place in LOST AND FOUND with “Wren House” and “Soap Opera.” What were the inspirations behind these places? Did they come from your past? Were they fictional? Did you do any research?  

Thank you, thank you!  Sense of place is very important to me.  It was harder to evoke in LOST AND FOUND, since Mo's new world is so much wider than back on Fox Street.  I was thinking of a neighborhood on Cleveland's east side when I wrote, but all the places are fictional.  My husband and I rented for many years before we bought our house, so I've spent plenty of time in laundromats.  And Cleveland has lots of cozy, neighborhood holes-in-the-wall where people nurse a beer and commiserate over how badly the Indians or Brown are playing.

One of the things I admire about Mo Wren is her independence? Were you independent as a child? What was your childhood like and did that inform this character?

I was never as independent as Mo.  She's based more on kids I knew when I worked in a public library children's room, kids with responsibilities beyond their years--babysitting siblings, making meals, keeping a lot of things together.  That said, I did grow up back in the day, when children were supervised far less than now.  Summer mornings we'd "go out to play" and not come in again till supper.  My fiction is really all about what kids are capable of, how brave and resilient they often have to be, like it or not.

I was laughing out loud in various scenes especially the driving scene with Mo’s father. Does writing humor come naturally to you? Do you have any suggestions for how writers can interject more humor into their stories?

I come from a big Irish family that highly values a sense of humor.  Shakespeare said it was sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care, but for us it has always been laughter.  So thank you again--making other people laugh is one of my life's greatest pleasures!  I'm not sure it's something that can be taught, but being careful never to take yourself or your characters too seriously is a good start.  Life is full of absurdity--be on the look-out for it.

There were moments in the story when Mo second-guessed her decision or action and felt responsible for the outcome. Were these scenes hard to write? Has this ever happened to you before?

Mo is a thinker, and has always had an active conscience.  She feels responsible for her father and for Dottie and now for Carmella, the laundromat lady. But in this second book she also feels the tug to lead her own life.  She begins to feel some resentment over how many things seem to be her fault, and how unfair that is.  Writing some of those scenes surprised me--I realized Mo was growing up.  She even hates her hair now!

Did you know the ending when you started writing LOST AND FOUND? Or were you surprised in the journey of writing it?

I always knew Mo was going to find a home by the end of the book.  How that home was defined changed a number of times.  At first, the Wrens lost the Wren House due to poor Mr. Wren's incompetence!  In another version, Mr. Wren found a girlfriend.   Again, poor Mr. Wren--my editor Donna Bray thought the family should find its way without someone from the outside solving their problems, and she was right. (But readers will guess who that girlfriend was supposed to be--and I still believe she and Mr. Wren get together after the book ends!) 

Do you ever get stuck in the writing process? If so, what do you do to push forward? Do you advance to a different scene? Eat 4lbs of chocolate? Drive around aimlessly at 2am?

Stuck?  I get mired!  It happens with every book, and every time I'm sure it has never been this bad before.  I have a few techniques that help.  I give myself permission to write really terrible, this-will-never-see-the-light-of-day first drafts.  Because plot is so hard for me, I work till I have at least an armature I can twist and bend.  Then I revise and revise and revise.  When I get stuck in a section, it can help to go back a couple of chapters and re-read--often the clue I need is hiding there in plain sight.  And then there are the eternal questions: what does my character want?  What is standing in her way?  What am I trying to do in this scene and does it advance the plot?  When I'm really at a loss--when I just keep making characters walk in and out of rooms for no discernible reason--it's time for a clear-the-head walk, always with a notepad in my pocket.    

When I create my characters, they usually have several foods they love and hate? Can you list a couple of things Mo loves to eat? Can’t stand? What about Tricia Sprinstubb?

Mo loves everything her dad cooks, with the notable exception of meatloaf.  I hated meatloaf as a child and still do!  I have to say I'm an obnoxiously healthy eater who loves all vegetables except lima beans. I really don't know who decided lima beans are edible.

What can eager fans look forward to next?

I'm working on a new middle grade novel for HarperCollins, a sort of mystery set on an island in Lake Erie. I've also just finished the first book in a series for younger readers.  It's about a very, very helpful girl named Cody and her big brother Wyatt, whose special talent is the Houdini headlock.  Candlewick will publish it, along with my new picture book PHOEBE AND DIGGER. 

Thanks so much for the Texas hospitality here, Carmen!  Readers can visit or contact me at 

Thanks, Tricia!! We look forward to reading your upcoming new titles!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

SCBWI 40th Anniversary Summer Conference Day Three - Gary Paulsen

Wearing a ball cap, suspenders, jeans and a long-sleeved navy blue shirt three time Newbery-honor winning author Gary Paulsen told us about a A Writer's Upside-Down Life. A life of poverty. A life growing up on the streets of Manila, Philippines. A life with two drunken parents who didn't give a rat's darn about a seven-year-old boy. A life trapping rabbits and beavers in the woods of Minnesota to survive. A life touched by a librarian who made a difference and died never knowing it. His life.

I sat in the Los Angeles ballroom hanging on every word Gary Paulsen said including his colorful adjectives which injected raw humor in places of graphic tragedy. A man who's lived more in a lifetime than I could possibly live or see in two lifetimes. A story of a boy who came into a library one day to seek shelter and warmth, and left with a book in hand and a library card. A card with his name on it. Spelled correctly. I was somebody he said.

A boy who could barely read but forced himself to read pages over and over again until he'd read the entire book. A boy who'd return to the library month after month to take a new book out until slowly he was there on a weekly basis and soon a daily basis. A boy who grew into a man and taught himself to read. Then write. A boy who, against all odds, should've died at the hands of his parents but instead survived and thrived because a librarian cared and put a book in his hand.

I don't have any notes to share with you from this session because I didn't write a single sentence except the name Gary Paulsen. I couldn't. I was hypnotized. I can't share all his stories with you because I could never do them justice like the storyteller that stood on that stage on Sunday. His honesty exposed. His laughter real. I'll never be the same after hearing his story. It's had a rippling effect. He's the most passionate man I've ever met. Passionate about writing. Passionate about honesty. About truth. Passionate about writing for young people. Writing for adults is just ---- he said. Give kids your best.

You never know who or what is going to make a difference in your life. A librarian. Or a writer who's completed the Iditarod Dog Sled Race in Alaska. Not once. But twice.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

SCBWI 40th Anniversary Summer Conference Day Two - Libba Bray and Jon Scieszka

Having to present a keynote or workshop after the award-winning author Judy Blume has spoken could be construed as a daunting task but it seemed effortless for the authors I heard. Perhaps that's because Executive Director Lin Oliver and President Steven Mooser lined up an incredible team of talent for the SCBWI 40th Anniversary Summer Conference. Every presenter had something unique to offer and a different way of looking at things. Isn't that true of us all? What's inside of you? Are you making the most of your talent?

Young Adult novelist Libba Bray knocked it out of the park with her workshop Hello, My Name Is...Getting Past the First Date with Your Characters.  Don't make your characters blah. Mediocre sucks. Mediocre characters don't sell books. She asked us to question the assumptions and stereotypes of characters and to try subverting them. For example what if the pretty cheerleader isn't an all-knowing stuck-up snob. What might the opposite be? Play with the stereotypes? Do only good characters do good things? Do only bad characters do villainous things? Remember villainous characters don't think of themselves as evil. There's a motivation behind everything they do.

Is there a sociopath lurking in your subconscious? Would you like to explore realms of humanity that terrify you or confuse you? Do you want to look inside a character and reveal the unexpected? And if so, how do you get there? How do you get to know your character so deeply that you know them better than they know themselves? How do you get to the deeper cuts?

Libba Bray (lead singer) with band Tiger Beat (an exclusive band of Young Adult authors) in 2009.

She gave us several examples and exercises to try. But really the sky is the limit if you use your imagination. Use your own talents and interests to help you uncover things about your characters. For example, Libba listens to music when she writes. She loves music. So sometimes she makes a play list for her main character. What would they listen to on their mp3 player? What songs might another character make for the protagonist? What songs does your character refuse to listen to? What songs does the main character's parents listen to? Best friend? Antagonist? You get the picture.

Have you ever interviewed your main character? Wrote them a letter? Had them write you a letter? What would your main character say if they had a microphone and were speaking in front of peers? Adults? A football crowd? Try raiding the refrigerator one day and find all the foods your character loves and hates. There's all kinds of ways to get to know your character. Try keeping a spiral notebook and writing down their thoughts when they speak to you so you don't forget everything. The beginning of a novel and the end of a novel is a long process and you're bound to forget a few things along the journey so don't trust your brain to remember it all.

After lunch, author and National Ambassador Emeritus for Children's Literature Jon Scieszka treated us to dessert with his sense of humor. There really is no one like him. He's real. His opinions -- funny. The way he sees and interprets things -- authentic. His laughter contagious. He spoke to us about The Myriad Possibilities of Form, Style and Genre. His interpretation on the classic fairy tale is fresh. Hilarious. He uses his interests and childhood  to create magic on the page and he shows us that ANYTHING is possible. Don't be afraid to experiment people. But above all he knows his audience and who he's writing for. He spent time getting to know his readers before he created TruckTown illustrated by David Shannon, Loren Long and David Gordon. He spent time with kindergartners until he knew every kid in the classroom. He rolled play-doh into snakes. He got down to their level. He absorbed the details. And it shows in his stories.

Monday, August 8, 2011

SCBWI 40th Anniversary Summer Conference Day One

Over a thousand writers and illustrators, 1, 342 attendees to be exact, picked up their schedules for the sold-out SCBWI 40th Anniversary Summer Conference in the early hours on Friday morning. They were like a bunch of eager hunters on opening day of hunting season, with their book bags slung across their shoulders and their eyes dancing with anticipation of what they'd be going home with after a day of key note addresses and break-out sessions.

This was one of my favorite parts of the day, greeting people and handing out their registration packets. When I asked people if this was their first conference and they told me it was, I gave them extra tips and reassurances like breathe, soak it all in, editors and agents are just normal people, have a great conference and most importantly the bathrooms are located on the East and West side of the California level.

In past years, Executive Director Lin Oliver has asked faculty members to say an inspirational word when introducing themselves to the audience but in honor of the 40th anniversary, the faculty delighted conference goers with a sentence containing the word "forty" in it as they paraded across the stage. Literary agent Jill Corcoran "gets 40 queries a day," award winning author Bruce Hale joked saying he had "40 Margaritas" with his brother last night but he wanted to leave people with a word and it was "inspiration" and award winning author Libba Bray rapped for listeners, it would not be the first time she had the audience in stitches laughing that day.

The opening keynote address Ripples in the Pond: Why What we do Matters... and Matters...and Continues to Matter was delivered by none other than the award winning author Bruce Coville and it left ripples of goosebumps running up and down my arms and a few tears at the corners of my eyes.

He said children are worth our best efforts and even though we may tell children they are our most important resource for the next generation, we're having a problem collectively showing it to them as he referenced the slashes in education and loss of educators and librarians in the work force. But we have a powerful capability to impact children through our storytelling and reach hundreds of thousands of kids with our books, and we owe them our best and to do so we must master and improve our craft. If we do this, we can go home and drop some pebbles into the pond and watch the ripples -- effect the world.

Caldecott award winner Jerry Pinkney took the stage next and talked similarly about the importance of craft and how we need to continue to hone our skills. To look past our characters and over their shoulders. To envision more than what we first see and to appreciate and cultivate our tools from our toolboxes. I couldn't catch his entire presentation as I had ARA duties to fulfill and I quietly ducked out to introduce a speaker in a break out session.

In the Contract Basics break out session Jan Constantine, Esq delivered a knowledgeable and eye-opening session for writers and illustrators and implored the audience to read their contracts whether you had an agent or not. She's General Counsel with the Author's Guild and one of the benefits to belonging to this organization, $90 membership fee, is that members receive contract reviews -- a steal of a deal when we're talking about your life and the life and rights for your book. Most of us aren't going to marry rich and therefore we need to take care of ourselves and treat our writing like a business. We need to make sure we're not signing away all of our subsidiary rights to publishers and negotiating clauses for fair out of print, next book and special consideration to grant author consultation on book title, design and promotion. She crammed 7 weeks of instruction, an instructor at New York University, into one hour. No easy feat but than she was a pro.

At this point in the day, my grumbling stomach reminded me that it was time to grab some lunch and I met up with the other Texas SCBWI chapters to share a bite and to meet the other members who'd left the blistering Texas heat behind in favor of the cooler California climate. I devoured a turkey avocado wrap and chatted with writers Mike Giles, Laura Pashley, RA Vicki Sansum, ARA Millie Martin and RA Debbie Gonzales. We sat outside under sunny blue skies and and before we knew it we had to leave to catch our next session.

Award winning author Libba Bray didn't disappoint us. In fact, her keynote Writing it All Wrong: A Survival Manual was side-splitting funny. I mean roll-on-the-floor, clutching your sides hilarious. Another highlight of my day!

She said she turned in a young adult novel to her editor that was so terrible that she actually had to call a friend and ask her to "help me fake my death." And when she received the single-space 12 page editorial revision letter, her worst fears were confirmed. She told us to "embrace the suck." That getting it wrong is necessary to getting it right. That writing is freaking scary. We're putting ourselves and our DNA on the page and trust in the reader. And many of our first drafts and the revisions that follow are a form of self protection so that no one sees our raw truth. Our insides opened for the world to dissect, reject and ridicule. But when we're ready to be brave. To face our pain. To write what is intolerable for us to bear. Then we will get it right.

You know what -- she's right.

Henry Winkler and Award winning author Judy Blume

After Libba's session, I heard from co-authors Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler -- Writing with Humor and Heart. After I got over my initial star-struck shock of knowing I was in the same room as "The Fonz" from the TV sitcom Happy Days, I heard what I needed to hear. Create your own market by writing only what you can know. Writing from your heart. Your experiences. Your understanding. If you do this your emotional center will leap into the eyes of your reader and take them along on your emotional journey.

For me, I really connected when Henry said he and Lin abandon the outline because the book takes on a life of its own. Be open to the journey. Write the truth. And Lin said to vomit up your first draft. Barf it up. There was so much more I could share but that wouldn't be fair. But Henry closed with this, "If I can do it -- you can do it."

I think I can!

I'd like to go on and tell you more, but I'm afraid I've got to get out of my PJ's because there's more fabulous presentations to be heard and break out sessions to attend and I'm already running way behind.

I wish you were here with me but I hope in your absence you find a word or two in this post that inspires you to keep writing.

In closing here is a picture with award winning author/illustrator Paul Zelinsky and me at the autograph party. He is one of the nicest people in the world and I was lucky to be assisting him as he signed his gorgeous books.

Unwinding with Co-RA Monica Harris, RA Debbie Gonzales and me.

Check out SCBWI's blog posts at their official site. You'll get all the highlights there!