Friday, May 21, 2010

Guest Post: Kelly Bennett on Celebrating Fathers: Daddy, Father, Pop, Son, Shel, Cash And Cole

By Kelly Bennett

"My Heart Belongs to Daddy" a' la (Cole Porter, 1938).

Okay, maybe not my heart, but certainly the inspiration for my two latest picture books belongs to Daddy, wherever he may be….

I grew up without a father. My parents married young and hatched two babies: my brother Joe, arrived nine months after their wedding, and I followed 22 months later.

I never saw my father. Word is, he saw me when I was a few weeks old, then took off.

No dramatic pause needed: I grew up in a loving family which included brother Joe, my mom, grandmother, and the best father model any child could ask for, my grandfather, Joe Silva. Frankly, I didn’t give fathers much thought until I became a mom.

As my children moved through childhood to teenville and then adulthood, I’ve examined the vital roles fathers—birth father, step father, father figures—play in their lives. And, as writers do, I used my work, creating picture books, as the basis for this exploration.

One of the most difficult (for me) decisions when writing is deciding when/where to enter a story. When I set about creating Dad and Pop, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Candlewick, 2010), all I knew was that I wanted to write about a child with two fathers, but I couldn’t figure out where to begin.

I allowed myself to get bogged down in the myriad of "family dramas," which could create such a situation: Were her parents divorced and remarried? Were her dads gay? Was she adopted? Did she switch houses every Wednesday? etc.

Like a hammer, the truth hit finally me: While the "drama" resulting in a child having two fathers could serve as the basis for a Lifetime Movie, it was of little importance to my character. After coming to this realization, Dad and Pop came easy.

It is the story of a girl who, while creating a scrapbook, compares and contrasts her two fathers. Along the way discovering that, in the most important way, both fathers are exactly the same--they both love her!

Author Toni Morrison said, "I always know the ending; that’s where I start."

That's how my process works, too. I back into my stories.

The idea for Your Daddy Was Just Like You, illustrated by David Walker (GP Putman, 2010) came from watching my son, Max, trying so hard to be like his fathers, to do all the things that are easy for "big guys"—a struggle which regularly ended with him being frustrated, angry, or disappointed.

I wanted to tell him: "Give yourself a break. You’ll get there."

At the same time, when Max frustrated his fathers, I wanted to say to them: “I’ve talked to your mother; I know you were a terror when you were little, and a scaredy cat, so lighten up.”

But I wanted to write a picture book, not a sermon, and I didn’t know where it would lead, and so the idea languished—for years.

Then, one day when I was in the backyard pruning—that’s what I do so I don’t have to stare at the blinking cursor—the last line came to me: “Your daddy is my baby…and he will always be my baby. Just like you.” With that line my narrator switched from mom to grandmother, and opened the door to a very different story.

Rather than a finger shaking sermon, Your Daddy Was Just Like You became a multi-generational love fest.

Thank you, Cynthia, for suggesting I consider why I’ve focused on fathers and family relationships in these books. It made me wonder what I’d be writing if my father had been in the picture, and brings to mind another song, this one courtesy of Shel Silverstein (as sung by Johnny Cash) “A Boy Named Sue.” Maybe Shel had Daddy drama, too.

P.S. According to Wikipedia, “Silverstein wrote a follow-up named 'The Father of a Boy Named Sue,' in which he tells the old man's point of view of the story.”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

"I spent three days a week for 10 years
educating myself in the public library...."
--Ray Bradbury
American Way magazine
(May 1, 2010; pg. 62)

Congratulations to Busing Brewster by Richard Michelson, illustrated by R.G. Roth (Knopf, 2010). From the promotional copy:

"Brewster is excited about starting first grade . . . until Mama announces that he’ll be attending Central—a school in the white part of town. Mama says they have art and music and a library bursting with books, but Brewster isn’t so sure he’ll fit in.

"Being black at a white school isn’t easy, and Brewster winds up spending his first day in detention in the library. There he meets a very special person: Miss O’Grady. The librarian sees into Brewster’s heart and gives him not only the gift of books but also the gift of confidence in himself.

"This powerful and tender story of desegregation busing in the 1970s introduces readers to the brave young heroes who helped to build a new world."

More News

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee (Candlewick 2010)(ages 12+): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog. Peek: "With her background in Victorian literature and culture, Y.S. Lee provides texture and pungency without overshadowing the characters or plots." Read a Cynsations interview with Y.S.

Sunday Sweets: Reading Rocks from Cake Wrecks. Note: check out these gorgeous cakes, inspired by classic children's books.

What Writers Can Learn from Betty White by Sarah from Glass Cases. Peek: "Surprise your audience and your peers, but, more importantly, surprise yourself."

Now In Hardcover: The Series in 2010 from Publishing Trends: News and Opinion on the Changing World of Book Publishing. Peek: "'When we bring an author’s proposal or manuscript to acquisition, often sales will ask if there are more, and we’ll sign them up as a series from the beginning,' says Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of Disney-Hyperion Books for Children. 'Other publishers might be more cautious at first and they’d rather see how the first book does before taking on more.'" Source: Nathan Bransford.

Calloo Calling: a new official blog from author Kathi Appelt. Peek: "It’s no coincidence that the inaugural blog is on the same day that I’m heading out for a book tour for my second novel, Keeper (Atheneum, 2010). I’m going to use this space as my travel notebook. And guess what? I bought one of those tiny Flipcam Video Cameras so I can record some of the places that I’m going."

Writing Great Picture Book Poetry: All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee: an analysis by Julie Larios from Story Sleuths. Peek: "The real miracle of its read-aloud quality is that Scanlon wrote this poem in couplets, and (as anyone who has ever tried knows) it’s not easy to get away with a book full of couplets. Usually, the sing-song quality becomes irritating, predictable doggerel. But not with All the World."

Public Speaking for Introverts: Jonesing for the Zone by Nancy Ancowitz from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: "You’ll need to rest up, prepare, and practice to do your personal best. Here’s what else you can do to get into the zone...."

Cynsational Author Tip: be discrete in your business relationships. Do not publicly complain about your agent, editor, publisher, fellow author or an event planner, especially on the Internet. This includes locked posts.

It Takes a Village to Acquire a Book from The World of Peachtree Publishers. Peek: "When a book is to be brought to an acquisitions meeting, it is made available to everyone in our office for review, and in turn, we fill out readers reports." Source: Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid.

Coffee Break with Cynthea Liu from Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: "...I've gotten many messages from adults in our industry that I am 'supposed' to write about my race. I am supposed to be more 'POC.' I am supposed to put things in my books that address the differences between our culture and white culture. That my books are meant for POC children. Whatev. I'm a regular person, too, you know, and I write for every child. Not just my Asian-homies." Read a Cynsations interview with Cynthea.

The League of Extraordinary Writers: a new blog from "a group of debut YA authors who write science fiction and dystopian works." Source: P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth.

J. Aday Kennedy: official site of the Texas-based Christian children's author. See also J. Aday Kennedy: A Writing Playground. Peek: "Read interviews of children authors, children illustrators, teachers, homeschoolers and tips on writing."

Quirks Are Character Life Support: Character Worksheet Part 3 by Martina Boone from Adventures in Children's Publishing. Peek: "Making a character true to life while simultaneously making her larger than life is one of the hardest tricks a writer has to pull off. Success requires balancing strengths and weaknesses, and introducing sympathy and lovable, memorable quirks."

Summer Blog Blast Tour 2010 Master Schedule by Colleen Mondor from Chasing Ray. Featured authors include Malinda Lo, Rita Williams-Garcia, Donna Freitas, Jess Leader, Nancy Bo Flood, and more. Check out the whole list.

Every Writer Gets Rejected by Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "...publishing is a human institution. Not everyone is going to see what others love in a book, even one that goes on to big success." Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

The Odds of Getting Published Stink and Why You Shouldn't Care by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon. Peek: "Those 8,000 manuscripts received by the publisher do not all have an equal chance of getting published. Of those 8,000, at least 7,500 are going to be rejected almost as soon as they are opened, as a reader note poor writing of one kind or another, a type of manuscript that the publisher never publishes, or some other critical flaw." See also Five Reasons Why You Don't Need an Agent and the latest updates to Who's Moving Where? Read a Cynsations interview with Harold.

Writers' Attention Deficit Disorder by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog: Writer Talk. Peek: "Writers simply have to live with the fact that their minds will often wander out of the moment. They have to try to control it so that they don’t agree to things they don’t mean to agree to." Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.

What If My Agent Doesn't Like My Next Book? by Rachelle Gardner from Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "The agent or publishing house signed you because they like you, they really like you. There were forty thousand other authors they could have signed, and they signed you. Yay." See also Rachelle on Reputations.

The Highs and Lows of Publication by Holly Nicole Hoxter from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "Some moments fell drastically short of my most modest expectations, while other moments far exceeded anything I could have hoped for. Some days I feel like a rockstar writer, some days I feel like a total failure..."

forwordsbooks from Kathy Bloomfield. "From the very beginning, forwordsbooks has always focused on bringing the best in Jewish children’s literature to the school’s we serve. But we have also had another, rather unique niche, in the types of books we have tried to deliver to our core audience. In addition to the best in Jewish children’s literature, we also look for secular books with Jewish values content."

Time Management by Maggie Stiefvater from Words on Words. Peek: "...when you know exactly how much time you have and how much you have to get done in it, it makes you more efficient." See also Maggie's post on "bad" parent characters and writing for young adults. Note: not badly written, but badly behaving. Read a Cynsations snapshot interview with Maggie.

Singapore Connections: a series of posts by Uma Krishnaswami on the Asian Festival of Childrnen's Content and more. See also Multilingual Publishing: Walking the Tight Rope. Read a Cynsations interview with Uma.

Picture Books for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup. Peek: "I celebrate and cherish the picture books I'm featuring today. The child in me says, 'At last...but I wish there were more!' The adult in me says, 'There absolutely should be more. I'll keep looking!'"

On Playing Nice by Alexandra Bracken. Peek: "Treat others respectfully. Don't dump the playground sand on someone's head just because you think it makes you look clever, or because you want to stir up controversy."

Q&A with Literary Agent Adriana Domínguez of Full Circle Literary by Nilki Benitez from musings. Peek: "Adriana is based on the East Coast (New York), and interested in building a strong list of children's picture books, middle grade novels, and (literary) young adult novels."

Creating a Book Series: an Interview with Marietta Zacker, an agent with the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency, by Stephanie Greene from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "The development of a series is usually much more organic than people imagine. That doesn't mean you shouldn't think of the infinite possibilities that exist with the characters and worlds you create, but always write as if that is the last time anyone will hear from those characters."

Manage Your Expectations: Rants and Ramblings by Rachelle Gardner from BronzeWorld Latino Authors. Peek: "...there are many writers who hold on to unrealistic expectations long after reality should be setting in. This is an ongoing concern for agents, editors, and publicists who constantly find themselves not living up to writers’ expectations. In many cases...the writer’s hopes and beliefs were simply too idealistic to begin with."

Hard-boiled Teens: a bibliography of recommended reads from School Library Journal. Peek: "These mysteries all feature a teen protagonist trying to deal with a problem while keeping up with daily life, a challenge that many teen readers can identify with, though likely with less severe consequences!"

Will the Internet Replace Nonfiction Books? by Tanya Lee Stone from I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "Context. Is one word too short of an answer?" Note: Look for Tanya's upcoming book, The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us (Viking, Oct. 15, 2010). Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya.

Agent Perspectives: Alyssa Eisner Henkin from Denise Jaden. Peek: "I am accepting new queries primarily for YA and MG novels. I am also looking to take on a very select number of new and returning author/illustrators with picture book dummies, as well as picture book manuscripts by previously published authors only."

Agent Interview: Chris Richman, Upstart Crow, from Alice Pope's SCBWI Children's Market Blog. Peek: "In terms of what I’m seeking, I’m beginning to get a reputation for the 'funny boy' books. Part of that is my own background in comedy, and part of it’s because I truly believe there’s a place in the market for these types of projects."

Talk Story

Talk Story: Sharing stories, sharing culture "is a literacy program that reaches out to Asian Pacific American (APA) and American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) children and their families. The program celebrates and explores their stories through books, oral traditions, and art to provide an interactive, enriching experience. Children and their families can connect to rich cultural activities through Talk Story in their homes, libraries, and communities. We welcome all ethnicities to customize Talk Story as needed for your community family literacy needs."

It's a joint project of the American Indian Library Association and the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.

Check out the American Indian/Alaskan Native Book List, the Asian Pacific American Book List, Tips for Selecting Books, Resources for Librarians, and more. Note: Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), and Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002), all by Cynthia Leitich Smith, are included among recommended reads.

Cynsational Screening Room

Candlewick Press Channel from YouTube. A new opportunity to view author interviews, animations, book trailers and more. See an animation for Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein, a book trailer for Movie Maker illustrated by Gary Parsons, a book trailer for Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, and a book trailer for Girl Parts by John M. Cusick--all fall releases from Candlewick.

In the video below, author Laurie Halse Anderson talks about the importance of libraries with students at the Mexico Academy school library. Learn more from the American Association of School Libraries. See also Save Libraries and Librarians by Deborah Heiligman from I.N.K.

On a related note, support the New York Public Library (whether you live in New York or not). Source: E.C. Myers.

Check out this video in celebration of Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up by Sara Albee (Walker, 2010). Note: trailer by Jake Cohen.

Check out this video for I So Don't Do Makeup by Barrie Summy (Delacorte, 2010).

Signing in the Waldenbooks by Mystery Author Parnell Hall. Note: I don't normally feature authors of books written for grown-ups, but I suspect many of us can identify.

More Personally

Definitely last week's highlight was participating in the New England SCBWI regional conference in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I had the honor of offering the opening keynote to an enthusiastic and generous audience, signing with my fellow faculty members, and sharing the stage for a question-and-answer interview by author Melissa Stewart, who asked terrific, thoughtful questions.

Thanks to everyone who was part of this amazing event, especially conference directors Anindita Basu Sempere and Greg R. Fishbone! I don't dare try to list everyone, so I'll just say quickly that it was a particular treat to hear fellow keynoters Marla Frazee and Allyn Johnston as well as workshop co-leaders Mitali Perkins and Deborah Sloan discussing "Social Media Tips and Tricks: How a Savvy Online Presence Can Serve Your Career."

Here's me with Mitali at the faculty dinner on Friday night. (Thanks to Mitali for the photo!).

While I was having fun in New England, Greg joined many of our fellow Texas writers at an Austin SCBWI advanced workshop with author Carol Lynch Williams (author interview).

Here's Austin SCBWI regional advisor Debbie Gonzales with Carol.

As promised, here are a few photos from my previous trip to the Pechanga Chámmakilawish School of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. It's a K-5 elementary school on the reservation. I had a wonderful visit.

My warm greeting included signs...

enthusiastic audiences of young readers (and the folks who connect books to them)...

as well as a few generous gifts (flowers not shown).

I also had the pleasure of staying at Pechanga Resort and Casino. I'm not a gambler, but the hotel was excellent.

And so were the views.

Special thanks to librarian Mike and my event coordinator Jean Dayton of Dayton Bookings.

Beyond that, it was fun to see a notice of Eternal (Candlewick, 2010) making the New York Times list under "Alumni News & Notes" on page 11 of the spring 2010 issue of J-links (PDF), a publication of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at The University of Kansas. I graduated from KU in 1990 with degrees in news/editorial and public relations.

Eternal Story Secrets & Giveaway

Thank you to fellow YA author Holly Cupala for my most recent interview Story Secrets of Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)! Here's a peek:

"Occasionally, a character will emerge who’s something of a composite of a number of folks I’ve known.

"Nora from Eternal is someone like that. She’s an older lady—the chef at the castle, nurturing, likes to treat trouble with a hot meal, and is always willing to listen. She’s a tribute of sorts to my grandmothers and aunties."

Leave a comment at the post for a chance to win a copy of the novel. Deadline: 5 p.m. PST Monday. See details.

Jingle Dancer Giveaway

Nathalie Mvondo is celebrating the 10th anniversary of my first book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) at Multiculturalism Rocks! A blog on multiculturalism in children's literature. Surf over to check out her thoughts on the book and to enter to win a copy of Jingle Dancer for the school of your choice. Note: Recipients (reader and school) of the giveaway will be announced May 28.

More Giveaway Reminders

Enter to win a copy of Smells Like a Dog by Suzanne Selfors (Little, Brown, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Smells Like Dog" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also Suzanne on Why I Love Writing for Middle Graders.

Enter to win a copy of Morpheus Road: The Light by by D. J. MacHale (Aladdin, 2010). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Morpheus Road: The Light" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message/comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also the book trailer.

Cynsational Events

SCBWI Florida: Mid-Year Workshop and Intensives will be June 4 and June 5 at Disney's Coronada Springs Resort at Walt Disney World. Note: I'm honored to be leading the marketing track with author/social media consultant Greg Pincus and Ed Masessa, author and Senior Manager Product Development, Scholastic Book Fairs. Picture book, middle grade, YA, and series tracks also are available.

Austin Area Events

"The Metaphor: So Much More Than a Simple Comparison," a lecture by Varian Johnson at 11 a.m. June 12 at BookPeople.

Picture Perfect! A Spit-Polish Workshop at McKinney Rough Nature Park, featuring famed Lisa Wheeler as Keynote Speaker is scheduled for Oct. 9 and sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Faculty also will include Sarah Sullivan, Stephanie Greene, Don Tate, and Laura Jennings. See more information (PDF).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Guest Post: Jo Whittemore on Everybody’s Doing It: Writing From Life

By Jo Whittemore

There are three things all writers do without even realizing it:

1. Use a particular word over and over again in a manuscript (mine is "so").

2. Perk up at email notifications and then deflate when they turn out to be spam.

3. Use their lives to write every single story.

I had you until that last one, right? Because you don't think your fantasy/adventure/story from the opposite gender's point of view is rooted in who you are. You've never been in a spaceship. You've never fought off a fire-breathing dragon. At most, you think you've contributed a few traits to the character and maybe you share a common interest.

But the story is you. Your characters know about the celestial wonder of outer space because you've laid in a country field and seen the stars fill the night sky. Your characters can react to the heat of a dragon's flame because you've touched a hot stove and know the pain.

All your experiences and senses are poured into the story, and that's what lends realism and makes people believe that the events could actually happen.

So now that you're aware, how can you enhance your story even more?

Practical rules for consciously writing from life:

1. Embellish a real life situation/sensation. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but the truth can also be more boring than fiction. Nobody wants to hear about your character drinking milk in the kitchen. They want to hear about your character drinking spoiled milk in the kitchen.

2. But don't overdo it. There's a certain suspension of disbelief with any story where the audience is willing to concede that something might happen. It's believable that your character would accidentally drink spoiled milk. It's not believable that he would die from it.

3. Rely on physical memories to conjure mental and emotional ones. Look at old photographs of trips you took or go through that footlocker of high school memorabilia you've held onto. Touch and smell and see and taste (if you’re brave) to bring back those sensations. Listen to music from your past. We all have songs that remind us of certain events and feelings.

4. Research. Many of us already do this. If you don't know a particular sensation or experience, learn about it. Read books and do interviews and, if possible, go through the experience yourself. When I was writing a sword-fighting scene for a book, I choreographed the moves with my husband. (Note: An excellent alternative to marriage counseling!)

5. Discover the dark side. Some of us are only interested in the positive aspects of something because we're afraid to experience and know the negative. We like parrots because they're colorful and intelligent. But many people don't know that, if not raised properly, they can be dangerous. They bite, and with 350 pounds of jaw pressure, you can be missing a chunk of your finger just by poking it in the cage.

Good luck! And stay away from angry parrots.

Cynsational Notes

Jo Whittemore is the author of the newly released contemporary novel Front Page Face-Off (Aladdin Mix, 2010), as well as the fantasy trilogy The Silverskin Legacy (Llewellyn, 2006-2007). She has been featured in newspapers and national magazines and loves all things chocolate, most things sparkly, and nothing that involves the words "back hair." See also Jo's Journal, and read a Cynsations interview with Jo.

Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Jingle Dancer at Multiculturalism Rocks! & Enter to Win a Copy for the School of Your Choice

Huge thanks to Nathalie Mvondo for celebrating the 10th anniversary of my first book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) at Multiculturalism Rocks! A blog on multiculturalism in children's literature.

Surf over to check out her thoughts on the book and to enter to win a copy of Jingle Dancer for the school of your choice. Note: "The recipients (reader and school) of the giveaway will be announced on Friday, May 28, 2010."

Cynsational Notes

See also my Jingle Dancer Curriculum Guide from my official author site.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Voice: Mara Purnhagen on Tagged

Mara Purnhagen is the first-time author of Tagged (Harlequin Teen, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Can Kate Morgan stand up for herself—without being labeled a snitch?

Kate is just as confused as her best friend Lan when she arrives at Cleary High to find the building's been "tagged" with a life-size graffiti mural. Could the culprit be one of their friends or classmates? And is the kind-of-amazing creation really vandalism, or a work of art?

She's tempted to stay out of it—mostly because, as the police chief's daughter, she's worried about being labeled a snitch. But when the same mysterious graffiti starts appearing throughout the state, putting more pressure on the authorities to catch the vandal, her investigative instincts kick in.

Now Eli, Kate's favorite coworker at the local coffee shop, is MIA. With Lan preoccupied with her own boy troubles, Kate needs to figure out some things on her own. Like why she can't stop thinking about Eli. And what she will do when all the clues about the graffiti point to someone she's close to...

Are you a plotter or a plunger?

I’m a plunger who always plots the first and last scene. I need to know where I’m starting and where I'm ending, but everything in the middle is unknown to me until I begin writing.

I like this approach because it allows me flexibility within a basic structure. If a writer is struggling with plot, I would suggest stepping back for a little while. Ask yourself what would be the expected thing to happen—then come up with something different.

As someone who's the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to carve out time to write?

As the stay-at-home, primary caregiver of three small children, finding a quiet moment to write during the day is nearly impossible! I have adapted how I write to fit my busy schedule.

Before I had children, I would sit at my desk for an hour and write.

Now, I write for a few minutes at a time. It works well for me. I’ll write a few sentences, then get up to change a diaper or pour a cup of juice or throw laundry in the dryer. But while I’m completing those tasks, I’m turning over the next sentence in my mind.

When I get back to the computer, I know what I want to write, even if it’s just one or two lines.

My advice for other writers in a similar situation is to adapt as best you can, prioritize your family, and realize that even if you’re not at your desk, you can still write in your head!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Guest Post: Allan Stratton on Writing for Young Adults & Writing Thrillers

By Allan Stratton

Borderline (HarperTeen, 2010) is my first thriller/mystery/suspense. As with my other recent fiction, it has a teen lead -- in this case a funny, gutsy Muslim-American named Sami Sabiri, whose dad is charged with being part of an international terrorist cell based in Canada.

I approach writing for young adults the same I approach writing any of my books. To me, there’s no difference. Adults are just teenagers with experience. Or, put another way, civilization is one big high school.

I like writing teen characters because they’re vulnerable to the newness of things; and vulnerability makes emotional responses raw, vital and unguarded. Lacking a context of consequences, choices are riskier and stakes higher. Life is lived without a safety net. As an author and reader, I find that a mighty charge to drama.

I started my career as an actor, so I suppose it’s always been natural for me to imagine myself as other people. I bring that theater background to my work. Just as I’d have to imagine my life as a medieval Danish prince if I was playing Hamlet, so I imagine myself as teens or adults depending on the character I’m assuming at the moment.

It’s like I’m doing a one-person improv. At the top of each scene, for each character, I ask myself: What’s my situation? What do I want? What am I going to do to get it?

Because the thing of it is, as I wrote in the Extras edition of Chandra's Wars (HarperTeen, 2009), under the skin we’re all the same. No matter our age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever else, we’ve all felt love, hate, joy, despair, the works. Our common humanity is how we’re able to understand and communicate with each other across our differences. It’s how we connect to stories and characters no matter when they were written or where they came from.

I always ask friends from the communities I write about to read my work to correct any details I’ve got wrong: cultural accuracy is important to me. But the human bond -- our shared emotional vocabulary -- gives me the confidence and comfort to know that if I’m brutally honest about how I’d feel and act as a particular character in a fictional situation, the heartbeat of my stories will be rooted in truth.

To me, that’s one of fiction’s main benefits -- letting us imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. More important than their development of verbal literacy, novels increase our emotional literacy.

The interesting thing to me about writing a thriller is the close connection it has to the kind of realistic novels for which I’m best known. This may come as a surprise, because thrillers require intricate plotting, and most people discuss plot and character as if they’re elements from separate galaxies. I.E. "Is title X plot-driven or character-driven?"

For my money, plot and character are two sides of the same coin. In real life, we judge people’s characters based on what they do. In novels, what people do is called the plot. Interesting people make interesting choices, ergo interesting plots. That’s why thin characters make for bad plots, because no matter extreme the hijinks, the stories are inevitably cardboard. Similarly, weak plots have ultimately empty characters because people who do nothing are boring.

So I guess my approach to writing Borderline is my approach to writing anything. I try to write fascinating characters in a fascinating story as honestly and truthfully as I can.

About Allan

Allan Stratton is the internationally acclaimed author of Chadra's Secrets (Annick, 2004), winner of the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Honor Book, the Children's Africana Book Award, and ALA Booklist's Editor's Choice among others.

Allan’s career took off with "Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii" (1980), one of the most produced plays in Canadian theatre history. His other award-winning plays include "Rexy!," "Papers," and "Bag Babies."

Allan’s last novel, Chandra's Wars, a Junior Library Guild selection, won the Canadian Library Association's Young Adult Canadian Book Award, 2009, and is on the CCBC (both Canada and USA) Best Books Lists. His novel Leslie's Journal (Annick, 2008) is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.

He is published in the USA, France, Germany, Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Slovenia.

He loves travel, cats and dogs, ice cream, working out, doing readings and workshops -- and, oh yes, and meeting readers!

Praise for Borderline

"A compelling coming-of age-novel about acceptance, The Other, and fear, wrapped in a fascinating adventure/thriller/mystery. All these elements are shaken mightily in Allan's Stratton's latest-- as are we." -Gary Schmidt, New York Times bestselling and Printz and Newbery Honor Author

"Allan Stratton spins these otherwise ordinary lives on a dime and a secret. Borderline is as astonishing as it is all quite possible." -Rita Williams-Garcia, National Book Award finalist

"Smart, meticulously plotted, and thrilling. The scariest thing about Borderline is how utterly believable it is." -Tim Wynne-Jones, author of The Uninvited (Candlewick)

"A powerful story and excellent resource for teaching tolerance, with a message that extends well beyond the timely subject matter." -Publishers Weekly (starred)

"A tautly paced thriller with well-crafted characters and realistic dialogue. It is the plausibility of the plotline that makes it, ultimately, so disturbing... A great fast-paced read... also notable for its characterization of a strong male Muslim who is true to his faith and struggles to do the right thing throughout." -School Library Journal (starred)

“Tense and compelling... Stratton’s grasp of daily Muslim life breaths life into this story... A fast, exciting read with weighty underpinnings.” -Booklist

Cynsational Notes

In the video below, Allan talks about Chandra's Secrets.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Guest Post: Author Jane Kurtz on American Girl: Lanie and Lanie’s Real Adventures

By Jane Kurtz, author of the American Girl Doll of the Year 2010 Books

I was doing author visits in Indonesia when I got a surprise email from the editor at American Girl that I worked with when I wrote Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (2003)(part of the short-lived “Girls of Many Lands” series).

She asked if she could call me to discuss another project.

I hit the reply button: only if you want to call long-distance to Indonesia.

(Once, I did get a call from a Simon & Schuster publicity person when I was doing an author visit in Kenya, and she wanted to tell me that the publicity response for River Friendly River Wild (2000) signings was “kicking butt.” It made me feel oh-so-glamorous.)

In this case, the editor said maybe she’d carry on the conversation via email.

Since I’d loved almost everything about creating Saba—including my editor’s strong support of including tough-but-true details for that girl living in Ethiopia in 1846—I was in thrilldom when I found out she wanted me to tackle creating the character of the Doll of the Year 2010.

After I got home, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin, to talk theme with the team. They wanted the new character of the decade to love the earth.

I showed them pictures of my always-outside childhood in Ethiopia and said if we want kids to save the earth, I’m one of those who thinks we have to get them outside, touching and smelling the earth…as I got to do as a girl. I showed the American Girl team an orangutan tee-shirt from one of the schools in Indonesia, where kids are involved in saving orangutan habitat. We had lift-off.

As I began to create Lanie’s story, I kept a couple of things front-and-center in my brain. One was that guilt is not a good long-term motivation of action. Another was how much I’ve been loving the funny spots in the novels I’m working on with my brother, who always makes me laugh. A third was the “power of one” emphasis of the Indonesia orangutan school, which I’ve also seen at work in the many kids who raise money for Ethiopia Reads and the first libraries for children in Ethiopia.

Soon, my girl began to speak to me. She said “thrilldom” a lot. She loved science and wanted to be a wildlife tracker and was wildly jealous of her friend who got to go to Indonesia to save orangutans. She thought she must have gotten outside genes when she was gestating…and the rest of her family got inside genes. She thought there was no way to save the wide wonderful world from a stamp-sized back yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My new friend Jim McCoy (Nancy Werlin’s husband) helped me understand the bird wildlife in the Boston area (and the obsessions of birding), which led me to the insect life that sustains birds and the plants that sustain insects. Orangutans can’t live without trees. Monarch butterflies can’t live without milkweed. A kid can save animals from an urban back yard.

I love the adventure so far—from the girls who waited from 5:30 a.m. on for the American Girl store in Chicago to open and told me they too love science/camping/bugs to finding out about a real Lanie who saves orangutans! The adventure is even inspiring me to blog. Can’t wait to see what else I’ll discover.

Cynsational Notes

Pie of the Month Club - Jane Kurtz by Heather Vogel Frederick from Set Sail for Adventure. Peek: "I got to go to Hollywood and sit in the Kodak Theater while he [Yohannes Gebregeorgis of Ethiopia Reads], was honored. Afterward, I said to Vanessa Redgrave, 'Thank you for coming.' She gave me a deep, earnest look and said, 'No, thank you. Thank you very much.'"
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