Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy Holidays

Many blessings of the holiday season to all my Cynsational readers!

My husband, Greg Leitich Smith, and I plan to stay in Austin and have a quiet holiday at home. We're having chicken-and-lobster cooked together for dinner on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day. Our guests this coming week include my cousin Elizabeth, who'll be arriving from New York City where she works as a teacher. I dedicated my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), to Elizabeth.

I also look forward to my 38th birthday on New Year's Eve. When I was a little girl, I thought that the whole world was celebrating me that night.

Guess who was an only child?

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to illustrator Don Tate, whose picture book manuscript was an honor winner of the Lee & Low New Voices Award Honor winner!

Best Children's Books of 2005 from Kirkus Reviews (PDF file). Highlights include: Me, All Alone, At the End of the World by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2005)(author interview) and The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson (Clarion, 2005)(author interview).

Madame Esmé's 2005 Recommendations for New and Exciting Children's Literature from Planet Esmé. Highlights include: Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick)(author-illustrator interview); Bubba and Beau, Best Friends by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Arthur Howard (Harcourt)(author interview); Ready Or Not, Dawdle Duckling by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial)(author interview); The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran (Lee and Low)(author interview); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt); Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt)(author interview), and Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China by Ed Young (Chronicle)(author-illustrator interview). See also Esmé's Holiday Picture Book Picks!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Author Interview: Jordan Sonnenblick on Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic, 2004)(read excerpt). Thirteen-year-old Steven's life is all about playing drums for the All-Star Jazz Band, worshipping queen bee Renee Albert, and enduring the annoying attentions of his baby brother Jeffrey. But then Jeffrey is diagnosed with leukemia, and everything changes--the family routine, family finances, parent-son relationships, even Steven's popularity at school. Funny and touching, this tremendous debut novel is a story of life and death, loves lost and found, and an affecting inner journey. It doesn't miss a beat. Ages 10-up. CYALR HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I teach 8th grade English in New Jersey. One of my students had a younger brother who was being treated for cancer. I wrote this book because when I went to find a book that would help my student to deal with her family's crisis, I couldn't find one.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I wrote the novel very quickly: two weeks of research and ten weeks of frantic word processing. For those twelve weeks, life was a whirl of teaching all day, parenting all evening, and then writing from the time the kids went to bed until I finally collapsed into bed myself.

I finished the book in April of 2003, and signed the original publishing contract on July 1 of that year -- so the path to publication looked rosy.

Then my first publisher, a lovely small literary press called DayBue Publishing, went out of business in June 2004, just three weeks after they released Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie in hardcover.

Thankfully, the book was nominated for BBYA and selected as a Fall 2004 BookSense pick within days of my publisher's closing, so I was able to turn around very quickly and negotiate a deal with Scholastic to reprint it. They also bought my second novel for young adults, which I had just finished, so things turned out better than I could have imagined.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The research task was massive; I wanted to write about cancer realistically enough that the book would stand up to the most intense scrutiny from people who knew EVERYTHING about cancer. Fortunately, my childhood best friend is a pediatric oncologist, so he was my research guru. The literary and logistical challenges were no different from those faced by any first-time novelist with a family and a demanding day job.

The psychological part was the real kicker. When I was writing this book, I "borrowed" the wonderful personality of the younger brother from my son, Ross, who was five at the time. It was truly wrenching to put this beautiful paper child, who "felt" like my son to me, through the agonies of cancer treatment.

You do a wonderful job of balancing comedy and tragedy. What is the role of humor in a novel with serious themes?

Well, Frank McCourt was my high school creative writing teacher, and what I learned in Mr. McCourt's class (and, later on, from reading Angela's Ashes [Scribner, 1996][winner of the Pulitzer Prize]) is that people laugh a lot during the saddest times in their lives -- or at least, resilient people do. And that laughter is the cornerstone of the healing process, at least for me.

Plus, thankfully, I've never met anyone who was sad 24/7/365. So even the most serious novel should have some humor in it, I think, if only for veracity!

Your protagonist, Steven, is age 13, which arguably puts this novel in the 'tweener category. What are the particular challenges of reflecting this age group? How about marketing a book that isn't clearly middle grade or upper YA?

You know what? When I told my older sister I was writing a funny novel about a 13-year-old whose little brother has cancer, she said, "Sounds like a real commercial blockbuster. Let me know how that goes!" So, needless to say, marketing was the farthest thing from my mind. I wasn't thinking "middle grade" or "YA" -- I just had to tell this particular story. The fact that the book is actually selling well is just a cosmic bonus.

This is one of the most intensely internal novels I've ever read, even though it has a strong external arc. Your technique of using italics for speech only heightens that sense of reader-character intimacy. Then in the last chapter, those quotation marks for the dialogue sound so loud, so alive, so much a part of the world. Could you talk about your process?

I truthfully have no idea how or why I chose the italics throughout, capped off by the quotation marks at the end. I just knew while I was writing that the italics were adding to the internal intensity. Then when I got to the last chapter, the quotes felt right.

I know that sounds horribly anti-analytical, but I was concentrating so hard on polishing the cancer parts and the actual wording of the dialogue that everything else was either secondary or just decided unconsciously. Just please don't tell my students or my editor that I didn't have it all 100% planned, with a detailed rationale for every move up front...

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie is your debut novel. Could you describe your path to publication? What advice do you have for other writers traveling along the way?

As I said above, my path to publication was completely bizarre -- so I'm not sure anybody should ever get any publication pointers from me! The only real advice I have is to read a ton of books on publication, especially Judith Appelbaum's How to Get Happily Published [HarperCollins, 1998]. Also, network; tell everyone you know that you've written a book and are looking for a publisher. If nothing else, you will certainly find out who your true friends are.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I'm thrilled to announce that my second novel for young adults, Notes from the Midnight Driver, will be published by Scholastic Press in September 2006. You can read the first chapter at For what it's worth, both my mom and my dad liked Notes better than Drums. And the author's parents must be totally unbiased, right?

Cynsational News & Links

Author Interview from Jordan Sonnenblick's Web site.

"Some Stories are Meant to be Heard: Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie" from Bookselling This Week. September 2004. Offers more insights into the novel's publication history.

Summary and Commentary: more on Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie from the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database. See also a review from

Super Sibs: "To Honor and Recognize Brothers and Sisters of Children with Cancer."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to one of my Vermont College/UI&U MFA students, Marguerite Houle, recipient of the Houghton Mifflin Scholarship, as well as to Stephanie Green, recipient of the Anita Silvey Scholarship and Sarah Sullivan, recipient of the Harcourt Post Graduate Scholarship!

Congratulations to Tanya Lee Stone, whose upcoming novel, A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006), is a School Library Journal Book of the Week (read the review)!

Kat's Eye: musings, rants, and raves on writing, balancing work and family, and life after the MFA: from Kim Winters.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: a CBC Teacher Movie Review by Monica Edinger.

Clara Dunkle's Advice On Storytelling and Writing Fiction offers articles on the Basics of Fiction Writing, Writing Fictional Characters, Composing Dialog, Creating Fantasy Worlds, Suggestions for Adult Writers, and Suggestions for Young Writers.

Excerpt: Broken China by Lori Aurelia Williams (Simon & Schuster, 2005): hear the author read from the novel from National Public Radio. Lori is from Austin.

Author D. Anne Love's Web site is newly redesigned by Erik Kuntz of 2 Bad Mice Design. D. Anne's books include The Puppeteer's Apprentice (Simon & Schuster/McElderry, 2003); The Secret Prince (Simon & Schuster/McElderry, 2005); Semiprecious (Simon & Schuster/McElderry, 2006); and Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia (Holiday House, 2006)(note: Hypatia the first woman mathematician).

I was heartened to read on Big A little A about an event sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which involved Muslim, Jewish, and Roman Catholic children in New York coming together to paint pictures of Jerusalem. The event was inspired by Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents by Mark Podwal (Doubleday, 2005), which was one of my picks for Cynsational Books of 2005.

The YA Novel and Me: author Gail Giles' LJ weighs in on recent reads, including Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Knopf, 2006), Sandpiper by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(read excerpt), Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis (Simon & Schuster, 2005), and Open Ice by Pat Hughes (Random House, 2005).

"When Are You Going to Write A Novel for Adults?" by Gennifer Choldenko from Children's Book Council Magazine. Gennifer is the author of 2005 Newbery Honor Book Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam, 2004), and Notes From A Liar And Her Dog (Putnam, 2001). Her debut picture book, How To Make Friends With A Giant, illustrated by Amy Walrod (Putnam, 2006), will be followed by a new novel in spring 2007.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Doña Flor by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raúl Colón

Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About A Giant Woman With A Great Big Heart by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Knopf, 2005)(look inside). In this heartwarming and humorous original tall tale, Doña Flor is a giant woman living in a tiny southwestern village. She shows great kindness to her neighbors, especially children, and loves to read. One day, an enormous roar echoes, frightening all those Doña Flor loves. Whatever will she do? Ages 4-up.

My Thoughts

Pat Mora has brought to life an original tall tale that feels as fresh as it does timeless. The story itself is an inspiration, and her language in telling it is vivid and enchanting. Likewise, the art is breathtaking.

What's more, I cannot reveal the surprise twist in this story, but I have to say that I love it!

In addition to its charm as a story, this book would be wonderful for those seeking varied images of strong girls and women, especially given Doña Flor's giant status. She's a large, big-hearted, and beloved woman who uses her strength to protect and nuture others.

Pat Mora and Raúl Colón also are the creators of another wonderful picture book, Tomás and the Library Lady (Knopf, 1997). It received the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, an IRA Teacher’s Choice Award, a Skipping Stones Award, and was also named a Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List title and an Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature commended title.

Pat is a native of El Paso, Texas, and now makes her home in Santa Fe.

Raúl lives in New York City.

Cynsational News & Links

Meet the Illustrator: Raúl Colón from Houghton Mifflin. Includes photo. See also Raúl Colón's art at Storyopolis Art Gallery.

Meet the Author: Pat Mora from Houghton Mifflin. Includes photo.

Another new giant book is Walter The Giant Storyteller's Giant Book of Giant Stories by Walter M. Mayes, illustrated by Kevin O'Malley (Walker, 2005). Read a recent cynsational interview with the author and illustrator!

Seasonal Notes

I've already highlighted some 2005 holiday picture books and featured author interviews with Kathleen Long Bostrom on Josie's Gift, illustrated by Frank Ordaz (Broadman & Holman, 2005) and with Marilyn Helmer on One Splendid Tree, illustrated by Dianne Eastman (Kids Can Press, 2005).

But I'd also like to mention Santa Baby by Janie Bynum (Little Brown, 2005) and one of best of the backlist Fancy That (scroll) by Esther Hershenhorn, illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Holiday House, 2003)(see teacher's guide).

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cynsational News & Links

Geography Club Banned! The Final Chapter from Voices in My Head, author Brent Hartinger's blog. See Dec. 16, 2005 update post. Read a recent related cynsations author interview with Brent.

"JK Rowling in Full:" the full transcript of Jeremy Paxman's exclusive interview. Broadcast on BBC Two in June, 2003. Surf over to spookcyn for my thoughts on the film "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

The New York Public Library has announced it's recommended children's books of 2005 in the following categories: folk and fairy tales; non-fiction; picture books; poetry and song; stories for older readers; and stories for younger readers.

Highlights included Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Ho Baek Lee (Clarion, 2005)(see my related thoughts)(Linda Sue's Project Mulbery (Clarion, 2005) also made the list), Sketches From A Spy Tree by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005)(see my related thoughts); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt, 2005)(see my related thoughts); Gentle's Holler by Kerry Madden (Viking, 2005)(see author interview); Where The Great Hawk Flies by Liza Ketchum (Clarion, 2005)(see author interview); and Spy Mice by Heather Vogel Frederick (see author interview).

The NYPL also offers recommended "Books for the Teen Aged 2005" (full PDF available). Highlights included Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Cinco Puntos, 2004), which was my pick for Cynsational YA Novel of 2004, and The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)(see author interview).

Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook 2005): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith's blog.

"Working Together as a Writer and Illustrator Team" with Linda Lowery and Richard Keep from the Institute of Children's Literature. An ICL guest chatlog.
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