Friday, June 10, 2011

Guest Post: Daniel Kraus on "Why Do You Write Such Dark YA Fiction?"

By Daniel Kraus

My new novel Rotters (Delacorte, 2011) touches on physical and emotional abuse, drug addiction, homophobia, self-mutilation, insanity, necrophilia, cannibalism, and, most prominently, grave robbing.

It has already been called by one taste-maker as the most “adult” book ever published as YA, and is certainly in the running for the darkest.

This is no fantasy; there are no zombies rising from the grave, none of the characters have special powers, and I do not blink when it comes to the reality of the casket: bodies decompose, producing a muck known as “coffin liquor,” and they stink.

This is not a book for the easily shaken.

The question I receive from time to time is, “Why do you write such dark YA fiction?”

It’s a prickly question, and often comes with an undertone of accusation, as if it is part of my plan to infect young minds with especially unsavory ideas.

Well, guess what? They’re right. It is my job to infect young minds with especially unsavory ideas. Just as it is someone else’s job to make them laugh at poop jokes, and someone else’s job to offer hunky archetypes that would be groan-worthy in real life but work just fine in paranormal romance.

But these job parameters only come into play when I am forced to answer this question.

Here is the key: I don’t think about those poor, sensitive teens when I write. I don’t think about those poor, sensitive adults either. Or even those poor, sensitive elderly people. I just think of readers, plain and simple, who want to read a good story.

I’m an editor at Booklist magazine; I know my youth fiction. For younger grades, reading level is a genuine concern for writers. For my books, though, I give it very little consideration. I will write what I write; the agents and editors will determine how it is sold and marketed; the right readers, I trust, will find it.

No one’s forcing anyone to pick up Rotters. (Although, from a sales perspective, that might be a worthwhile experiment.)

What do I focus on, if not my readers’ age? I’ll tell you. I focus on what I prize most in authors: commitment. Some advice, if I may: If you’re writing something erotic, risk being ridiculed for your shameful depravity. If you’re writing something disgusting, go far beyond what you think is acceptable.

Commit, commit!

Sure, you’ll lose readers who find your story irredeemably smutty/horrific/ludicrous, but those readers who have been searching for someone who writes as if possessed will recognize you instantly as one who fears nothing but mediocrity.

So the only way I can really answer the question of “Why do you write such dark YA fiction?” is to strike out a few of the words: “Why do you write?”

It’s a much easier question to answer.

I write because I love it, and I want to pass that love on.

Turns out, it’s not about grave robbing or self-mutilation or necrophilia at all.

It’s about love.

Who would’ve guessed it?

Cynsational Notes

Daniel Kraus is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and filmmaker. He is the director of six feature films, including "Sheriff" (2006 season premiere of PBS's Emmy-winning "Independent Lens") and Musician (2007 New York Times Critics' Pick). His novel The Monster Variations (Random House) was selected to New York Public Library's "100 Best Stuff for Teens." His second novel, Rotters, is now out from Random House.

This post was written and scheduled prior to the recent Wall Street Journal article and resulting #YASaves responses.

Read an excerpt of Rotters from Random House.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

To Sir, With Love: Meet Terry Pratchett—royal knight, creator of Discworld, and one cool dude by Jonathan Hunt from School Library Journal. Peek: "Amazingly, I find that children understand rather more than their parents think they do." See Terry's Books for Young Adults. Source: Confessions of a Bibliovore.

The Cliché: Unloved and Underappreciated by Danyelle Leafty from Blog. Peek: "It's definitely possible to work within conventions while still bringing something new and fresh to the table. I write fairy tale-type fantasy, and those clichés and tropes can come in handy because they resonate with the reader."

Featured Sweetheart: Lara Perkins, Publishing Manager for Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary by P.J. Hoover from The Texas Sweethearts. Peek: "As Laura's publishing manager, I work closely with Laura as a part of her business, and my work combines some of the duties of an editor/agent with those of a business manager."

Promoting Your Book: The Do's and Don't's of Being a Great Interviewee by Carolyn Kaufman from Peek: "The more personable and professional you can be, the better the interviewer (and probably readers) will like you."

Kidlit Con 2011: How It's Shaping Up by Colleen Mondor from Chasing Ray. Kidlit Con will take place Sept. 16 and Sept. 17 in Seattle. Prices are quite reasonable, and early bird rates are available until July 1.

New Faces at Pippin Properties: An Interview with Literary Agents Elena Mechlin and Joan Slattery by Bethany Hegedus from Hunger Mountain. Peek: "The Underneath and Stitches are great examples of some of the darker work on Pippin’s shelves, but one common thread, and an important one in darker work aimed at younger audiences, is that there is a sense of hope and redemption in each."

How to Handle a Negative Critique by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: "You must mentally prepare yourself beforehand to the possibility that the person critiquing your manuscript may not like what you submitted."

Please Don't Serial Query by Mary Kole from Peek: " need to get to the next phase of your development, and possibly the phase after that, or the phase after that phase, before you’re ready. So don’t send me something else, immediately, from the same phase of your development."

What Happens When the Chains Won't Carry You by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Note: Robin talks money, using actual examples from her own books.

Giveaway reminder: Enter to win an author-signed advanced reader copy of Tantalize: Kieren's Story, a graphic novel by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011), plus a magnetic Sanguini's wipe board! Note: Sanguini's is the fictional restaurant that appears in Tantalize and Tantalize: Kieren's Story. To enter, comment on this post (click link), specify "Tantalize: Kieren's Story" and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with "Tantalize: Kieren's Story" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Deadline: June 17. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers.

The Year of Being a Writer from Jo Knowles. Peek: "It is a very scary thing, to really put your writing first. I mean, in front of a sure thing as far as a paycheck goes. But this, too, seems what being a writer is all about. Having a little faith in yourself." Scroll to view the book trailer for Pearl by Jo Knowles (Henry Holt, July 2011).

Take it to Heart or Shake It Off: Two Truths About Handling Criticism from Ashley Perez. Peek: "...the people to listen to are those who have a specific sense of what your writing is like when it's at its best. That is, their criticism is not geared toward turning what you've written into "their kind of thing" but rather is committed to helping you make your work what it is trying to be."

Jessica Lee Anderson: newly redesigned official author site. Jessica's next release will be Calli (Milkweed, September 2011).

Rejection is Not Personal from Nathan Bransford - Author. Peek: "It's one thing to know it, it's another thing to live it."

The Light and Round Project

"The perception that there's no variety in YA isn't true. Dark and edgy may be popular, and it absolutely deserves its spot on the shelf, but there are plenty of options and variety for people who are seeking something different. But the problem is, how to find it?"
--Jennifer Bertman

The Light and Round Project from The Mixed-Up Files of Jennifer Bertman will consist of a weekly roundup of suggestions for tween/YA books that are light-to-absent on dark and edgy elements.

Anyone can participate. If you are a blogger, email her a link to your post about a book that fits in this category. If you aren't a blogger, email her the book title, author, whatever you'd like to say about it, and a link to more information on the author's, publisher's or an Indiebound book page. Write fromthemixedupfiles(at)gmail(dot)com, and specify "The Light and Round Project" as the subject heading. There's no limit on the number of books you can recommend.

The latest roundup will be posted every Wednesday. Jennifer also will manage a running list of all the suggested books and related posts. (If multiple people submit a review/blog post for the same book, she'll include all links under the book title.)

Jenn says, "What constitutes 'dark and edgy' is subjective, and I don't want to place judgments on books. If it meets your criteria, then please share it. I'll post a note on The Light and Round Project page that the list is comprised of suggestions only, and to use one's personal taste to guide choices."

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Penelope Popper: Book Doctor by author-librarian Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Jana Christy (Upstart, 2011).

Check out the trailer for Pearl by Jo Knowles (Henry Holt, July 2011).

Check out the book trailer for Haunted by Joy Preble (Sourcebooks, 2011).

Buffy The Vampire Slayer & Angel: A Tribute Trailer by CarSmellBorp. Source: Kim Baccellia.

Mark your calendars! I'll be appearing as a comic creator Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at Wizard World Austin Comic Con, which is also featuring "Buffy"/"Angel" actors James Marsters ("Spike") and Charisma Carpenter ("Cordelia"), and that makes my little geek heart sing.

More Personally

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith: a "five bats" review by Amy from A Simple Love of Reading. Peek: "The human world and the underworld blend seamlessly in this novel, and her characters are honest and well rounded." Note: some spoilers.

Crissa Jean Chappell at Total Constant Order talks about her students' reactions to various YA books/shorts, including my short story, "The Wrath of Dawn," co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith for Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little Brown). Peek: "I took this home and read it with my daughter."

"Cat Calls:" Short Story Success for Cynthia Leitich Smith by Karleen from Kids' Ebook Bestsellers. My free e-book short story "Cat Calls" hit the #3 spot on the Books on Board e-book store bestseller list last week.

Thoughts on Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu by Matt Thompson from Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology. Peek: "The art work in Jingle Dancer is stunning. Bold and rich watercolor over the faintest charcoal lines. I have not seen finer watercolor in a children’s book."

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Tweet of the Week:

@davidlubar Confession: I save the really dark stuff for my middle-grade readers, 'cause they get too many puppies and rainbows. #yasaves #mgtraumatizes

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Author-Illustrator Interview: Mélanie Watt

Learn about author-illustrator Mélanie Watt.

Mélanie, you last visited Cynsations in May 2006. Could you update us on your new releases, highlighting as you see fit?

Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend (Kids Can, 2007)
Chester (Kids Can, 2009)
Chester's Back! (Kids Can, 2008)
Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach (Kids Can, 2008)
Have I Got a Book for You! (Kids Can, 2009)
Scaredy Squirrel at Night (Kids Can, 2009)
Chester's Masterpiece (Kids Can, 2010)
Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party (Kids Can, 2011)
You're Finally Here! (Hyperion, 2011)

Scaredy Squirrel and Chester (the ego driven cat) have become series. I have worked on different styles of picture books and always try to reinvent my storytelling.

Over the past few years, how have you grown in your art--both visual and literary?

Depending on the message I am trying to communicate, I like to reinvent the look of my characters, the graphic design of the books and the style of the fonts. I see the book as an object, an entity that brings an overall experience to a reader.

For example, Have I Got a Book for You! is about a salesman (fox) that is trying to sell you the book. I wanted a 1970s feel and look, and this decision inspired me throughout my creation process. I enjoy working on books and not knowing where exactly the process will take me.

Another example, with my new book You're Finally Here! It’s entirely rendered digitally and very different from Scaredy and Chester’s look and feel.

I really wanted this book to be kind of a reflection of our digital era and our approach to communication in these fast-paced times.

I thought it would be fascinating to have a character that only focuses on what could have been rather than appreciate the quality time that he’s spending with the reader in that moment.

I enjoy translating social topics, human behaviour and communication and boiling it down to what I feel is the essence. I start with a message or topic (like our fast-paced lives) and then decide on a new art style, then an animal that I feel could embody that message.

I think the only way I can keep pushing myself is by taking chances and trying new things.

Sounds like I learned a little from Scaredy's adventures.

Of late, we've seen media coverage, both positive and negative, on the future of the picture book. What's your take?

Creative ideas are communicated in many ways and formats. Adaptation is key.

What's new with my pal, Scaredy Squirrel?

Well, he’s made a friend, been to the beach, had a few sleepless nights, and planned a germ-free party. His fearful personality keeps inspiring me every day.

Also, we are starting to work on a Scaredy game, and it’s going to be really exciting!

Plus, Nelvana and YTV have created an adaptation of Scaredy Squirrel for an older TV audience.

WARNING: Different look, new setting, and this older Scaredy character has a job! Can you believe it?

Cyn Note: Don't miss Scaredy's official facebook page!

What words of wisdom do you have for your fellow picture book creators--new and established--who're sometimes fighting to keep the faith?

It’s best not to spend too much time worrying about the challenges of the book industry. Try to focus on creating. And keep going at it and reworking what you have.

Be true to yourself, and challenge yourself constantly. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will.

Will you be on the road any time soon? Where can your fans look for you?

Absolutely! I will be at the ALA in New Orleans in June.

See Mélanie at these signings:

-Kids Can Press, Sunday, June 26: Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party

-Disney-Hyperion, Monday, June 27: You're Finally Here!

What new books are on the horizon?

Probably a new Scaredy Squirrel book, and I am getting kid’s requests for the next Chester adventure, so who knows!

Also, I am trying to create a book about a subject I have had in mind for nearly a decade! I never seem to get around to it. It’s kind of challenging topic, but I am obsessed with making it come to life!

Critique Group Interview: Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen's critique group includes: Patricia MacLachlan, Leslea Newman, Ann Turner, Ellen Wittlinger, Barbara Diamond Goldin, Anna Kirwan, Corinne Demas, and of course Jane herself.

How did you all come together?

I began the group—in a different incarnation—almost 45 years ago. We had just moved to Western Massachusetts, and I wanted to join a group. There was none.

I am the only one remaining from that original group. But as members dropped out, new ones came in.

Patty joined about 35-38 years ago, then Ann, then Barbara, Anna, Corinne, Leslea, and lastly Ellen, who came about three years ago.

How do you structure your schedule, meetings, menus (if applicable)?

We try to meet once a week, and as long as three or four of us are available, we manage.

Summers are difficult—Corinne and I are out of the area, Patty is sporadically away.

And of course we have kids, grandkids, partners, spouses, illnesses (of ourselves, of our relatives), book tours, teaching gigs, etc.

Where do you meet?

We take turns in one another’s houses.

Why is that space good for y'all?

It is familiar family. We can lean back, kick back, and simply deal with the manuscripts at hand. We have snacks, coffee, tea, etc.

We begin with the news—sales, rejections, F&Gs, family stuff, agent problems, editor tough love, etc. About an hour of that.

Then it’s manuscripts all the way.

So, who's your big-picture person?

Ann, Me, sometimes Leslea.

Your logic guru?

Probably Leslea or Corinne.

Your poet?

Ann, Leslea, Anna, me.

The line-editor?

Ann, Leslea, Corinne, me.

What other superpowers have I missed?

The humorist: Patty. Barbara.

The professor: Corinne.

The sly one: Barbara.

The passionate one: Leslea, Anna, Corinne.

The tender one: Corinne, Anna.

What have been a few of your most glowing moments?

Patty winning the Newbery.

My Owl Moon, illustrated by John Schoenherr (Philomel, 1987) winning the Caldecott.

Other awards for other members. Also the births of grandbabies, Leslea as Northampton Poet Laureate, New York Times bestsellers, birthday celebrations. And every single new book sale!

How has the vibe and/or membership changed over the years?

The first incarnation was full of unpublished but good writers. Now we are all professionals.

What makes your group special?

The members. Really. We read aloud rather than pass manuscripts around, and we care truly and deeply about one another’s work and successes.

Cynsational Screening Room

From Robert H. Jackson Center: "Jane Yolen, noted author, spoke at the Jackson Center on April 5 and 6, 2011. In these excerpts, she (1) reads her Holocaust-themed poem "Alphabet"; (2) speaks about and reads from her book The Devil's Arithmetic; (3) reads her poem, 'The Rivers of Babylon, In Memoriam'; and (4) reads her poem, 'Ich Bin Ein Jude.'" Note: The Devil's Arithmetic (Viking, 1998) is highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Co-Authors Interview: Walter Dean Myers & Ross Workman on Kick

Walter Dean Myers and Ross Workman are the co-authors of Kick (HarperCollins, 2011). From the promotional copy:

For the very first time in his decades-long career writing for teens, acclaimed and beloved author Walter Dean Myers writes with a teen, Ross Workman.

Kevin Johnson is thirteen years old. And heading for juvie.

He's a good kid, a great friend, and a star striker for his Highland, New Jersey, soccer team. His team is competing for the State Cup, and he wants to prove he has more than just star-player potential. Kevin's never been in any serious trouble . . . until the night he ends up in jail.

Enter Sergeant Brown, a cop assigned to be Kevin's mentor. If Kevin and Brown can learn to trust each other, they might be able to turn things around before it's too late.

Walter Dean Myers is the New York Times bestselling author of Monster (HarperCollins, 2004), winner of the first Michael L. Printz award, and Harlem, illustrated by Christopher Myers (Scholastic, 1997) a Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Book. The inaugural recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, he is considered one of the preeminent writers for children. He lives in New Jersey with his family.

When Ross Workman was thirteen, he wrote a fan email to his favorite author.

When Walter Dean Myers wrote back and asked him whether he would be interested in writing a book, Ross was amazed—and incredibly excited.

Four years later, Ross is seventeen and in eleventh grade. In addition to writing, Ross plays a sport every season: high school soccer in the fall, high school wrestling in the winter, and club travel soccer in the spring. He lives in New Jersey.

Ross, you first contacted Walter to express your appreciation for his books. Which is your favorite and why?

It’s difficult to choose a favorite, because I like so many of Walter’s books. At the moment, my favorite is Monster, but I could easily pick others as my favorite.

After I learned why Walter used the format he did for Monster, I had a new appreciation for the book.

He often visits young people in prison, and he found that the people he spoke to would switch to the third person point of view when talking about their crimes. They wouldn’t take ownership of the crimes. I’m interested in the way Walter writes about Steve Harmon’s point of view.

Ross, it would certainly be flattering to be invited by your favorite author to collaborate--but also a huge commitment for someone already balancing school, sports, family. Did you hesitate? Jump right in? What made "yes" your final answer?

Honestly, I didn’t even have to think about it. This invitation from Walter Dean Myers—my favorite author—was too good to pass up! If I had thought about it, I would have worried more about whether I could actually write a book.

Ross, what surprised you most about writing a novel?

I had always thought that writers just sat down at their computers and the words just came to them and they wrote.

It’s not like that at all. There’s a lot of thinking involved before you even write a word. And sometimes just coming up with the right phrase or sentence can take a long time.

But I guess the most surprising thing was how much work there is to do after a book is accepted, and how much work an editor does. There are a lot of stages of the book to look at.

To both, what were the biggest challenges of collaboration? 


Trying to make sure my writing was good enough to appear in a book co-written by Walter Dean Myers. I wanted to do my best.

Walter: I’m so accustomed to going my own way that I had to stop and consider what my coauthor would do with a scene or where he might deviate from the story I had in mind.

Fortunately, we had worked out most of the details in advance and thought a lot alike so it wasn’t that much of a problem.

To both, what did you love about it?


 Getting a chance to work with Walter was amazing. I learned so much about writing! For me, the creative process is the most interesting part. I just love to write.

Walter: The chance to see another writer at work was wonderful. It was sort of like playing a team sport. The joy of winning as a team is very special.

Finally to both, what did you learn from the experience?


 I learned so much that I can’t list everything here. One interesting thing was that I saw my writing change as I got older. Now that I’m seventeen, I think (and hope) I write differently from the way I did at thirteen. If I wrote the book now, it would be quite different just because I am older and I’ve changed.

Walter: First, I learned that my faith in a young writer was justified. We came to a point at which I was sure that Ross could have finished the book alone. I’m glad he didn’t, of course.

I also saw, first hand, that the experience of writing increases the ability to write. Ross wrote much more convincingly at the end of this project than he did at the onset. I believe that structure helps in the writing process and working with Ross on Kick served to reaffirm this in my mind.

Ross, many teens read Cynsations, and many of them are writers themselves. What advice do you have for them?

You have to be willing to work really hard if you are serious about your writing. Once the more creative part is done, and it’s all just the hard work of revision, you need to put in the time and stick to it. Don’t give up.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

New Voice: Sheila O’Connor on Sparrrow Road

Sheila O’Connor is the first-time author of Sparrrow Road (G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2011). From the promotional copy:

“No music. No TV. No computer. No telephone.
And everyday, silence until supper.”

Those are the rules of Sparrow Road, an eerie artist mansion in the country, where Raine O’Rourke is forced to spend her summer. And worse, she can’t figure out why her mother agreed to work there as a cook.

“Not everything’s a mystery,” her mother warns, when Raine pesters her with questions, but Sparrow Road is full of secrets Raine intends to solve. Why did her mother take this sudden job out in the country? What’s the truth behind the silent, brooding owner, Viktor? The aging poet, Lillian? What happened to the missing orphans that lived once in the attic?

Cheered on by a cast of quirky artists that live there at the mansion, Raine sets out in search of clues. It's a summer full of mysteries and strange adventures, but it’s an unexpected secret from Raine’s own life that changes her forever.

A delightful story about improbable friendships and the power of imagination, Sparrow Road is an enchanted world that will win the reader’s heart.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting this year?

As a young reader, I was drawn to realism. I loved books that featured stories of ordinary people, people that could be me, because it allowed me very early to see a place for my own stories in literature. By the time I was nine or ten, I especially liked stories with trouble, stories in which the characters faced challenges with friends, family, school, culture. I looked to literature to teach me important lessons about life; I was happy to let the characters make mistakes that would save me from my own.

But always, I saw novels as long and wonderful dreams, worlds I could enter and live in, and for a time, lives I could inhabit that weren’t my own. Books still offer that same opportunity, but now I experience it as a reader and a writer.

When I was writing Sparrow Road, I had the honor to enter that world, to live in Raine’s reality, to discover what it was like to be a twelve-year-old girl spending an enchanted summer at a strange artist colony with only adults for friends. And I tried to write it with the kind of honesty I expected from good fiction even as a child, a sense of emotional truth that would make the reader trust the writer and the tale.

Beyond all that, I wrote it for the child I was, and the children I meet everyday, wise and insightful young people who understand all too well the complexities of loss, friendship, love, disappointment, and the ways in which the problems of adults influence their lives.

There’s a moment in Sparrow Road when Raine’s grandfather tells her she’s too young to know about grown up problems, and Raine answers: “Kids are always part of grown-up problems. Even when the grownups think they aren’t.”

Literature offers us a glimpse into those problems, but it can also offer hope and healing, the possibility to triumph in the face of loss. That’s my dream for Sparrow Road.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Before I was ready to query agents, I spent several years writing and then revising Sparrow Road. I adore revision, for me it’s the most empowering part of the writing process because it means improvement is ahead. And opportunity is always possible.

My agent didn’t ask for revisions, but my editor, Stacy Barney at Putnam, definitely did. What I appreciated most about Stacy was her respect for my own authority as the writer. Throughout the revision process she shared her concerns, but trusted me to work toward the solutions.

When the solutions didn’t fully address her concerns, I went back to the page. From the start, I was encouraged by her love for Sparrow Road, her desire to see it reach its full potential. I knew we were on the same side. She wanted the best for the book I’d written which is a real gift in an editor. And she’s an incredibly smart reader—when she says there’s a problem, there’s a problem.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

I have taught creative writing--poetry and fiction--since I was a MFA student many years ago so it’s almost impossible for me to separate those two identities.

My students have included kindergartners, the elderly, kids in detention centers, working adults, undergraduates and graduates. I’ve loved them all.

When I’m working with beginning students, there’s a tremendous joy in watching them discover the power of language, of claiming their personal voice and story on the page. And I’m always gratified when I meet a former student many years later that I taught as a young person or a beginner in some college course—and there he or she is, a serious committed writer, crafting their own books. I cannot tell you how happy that makes me.

At the same time, I am a full-time professor teaching MFA students at Hamline University, fellow fiction writers, and there’s great company and solidarity in working side by side with others who struggle with issues of story and craft. In my graduate courses, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together—we’re all trying our best to get a good book written, often against incredible odds. And their problems are my problems—pacing, character development, sub-text, structure, voice, etc.—so as I encourage them toward solutions, or share what I’ve learned about craft, I often stumble upon solutions for my own work.

I’ve been blessed to make a living thinking about craft, studying the essentials of storytelling and language, encouraging others to claim their own identities as writers. It’s been good work—work I’m proud of—even when it takes time from my own writing.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

When I finished Sparrow Road, I had several other middle-grade novels in-progress, plus a couple of picture books, and I decided I wanted the expertise of an agent who specialized in children’s literature.

I already had a wonderful agent for my adult novels, but children’s literature struck me as genre specific, and I wanted someone with deep knowledge of that particular piece of the publishing industry—someone who would know the right readers for Sparrow Road.

I did some research, talked to writer pals who had children’s books, and queried several agents. Rosemary Stimola had been highly recommended to me, and when she contacted me with a love for Sparrow Road, I knew I’d found my match.

The agent search is a difficult thing—for some writers it goes quickly, for others it can take years. Of course, the first and most important thing I tell writers is to give their attention to the work, write the best book they can, don’t compromise on quality, write a book someone will want to sell. After that, you have to stay in the game for the long haul, keep at it, pay attention to the agents who represent work you admire, contact them, and keep your fingers crossed.

Don’t give up. So much of it is luck. And if after all of that, you still can’t find an agent, send it out yourself. Wonderful books can find homes without agents. Believe in it.

Cynsational Notes

On Sparrow Road: "...beautifully written novel, with its leisurely revelation of secrets and sad events of the past. .. Readers finding themselves in this quiet world will find plenty of space to imagine and dream for themselves." --Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"I want to live in Sparrow Road. I want to row on the lake, drink root beer floats at the Comfort Cone, and make rhubarb taffy in the big old kitchen. Sheila O'Connor's book about the importance of love, loyalty, and dreams charmed and touched me. We accompany Raine through a summer of secrets and discovery, friendship and forgiveness, growing up and growing old. Sparrow Road is a place for wishing long and dreaming, and so is this terrific novel. Sparrow Road is quite wonderful and I recommend it highly."—Newbery author Karen Cushman

Find Sheila at Facebook.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Interview: Pelican Publishing Company


Nina Kooij had edited at Pelican Publishing Company since 1987.

Assistant to Publisher

Kathleen C. Nettleton has worked in all facets of the publishing industry during her career with Pelican.

She has been responsible for reinvigorating the convention and promotion initiatives, and strengthening the company's national profile.

In her current role as assistant to the publisher, she manages the day-to-day operations of this mid-size independent publishing house, encouraging growth and development in many areas including the company's online presence.

Nettleton attended Louisiana State University, receiving a degree in marketing, and has held an active role in industry organizations including Publishers Association of the South and the Small Press Steering Committee of the Association of American Publishers.

School Sales Manager

Caitlin Smith (pictured) has worked at Pelican as school sales manager since August 2005. It was her first job after graduating from Spring Hill College, where she studied business and English.

She started at Pelican two weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and returned to work after several weeks of evacuation from the city.

At that time, every single Pelican employee who had returned after the storm—including the publisher, Dr. Milburn Calhoun— worked together in the warehouse to ship out the backlog of orders from the company was shut down. "It was an interesting beginning," Caitlin says, "and things have only gotten more interesting (though, thankfully, in different ways) since then."

What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those for young readers?

Nina/editorial: My mother is an editor in the education field, and books were always a part of my family’s life. I excelled in English classes and went on to major in the subject and get a master’s in it. In high school, I edited the literary magazine, and in college. I was the fiction editor of the literary review. I interned at a small press and then was accepted at a summer publishing institute, where I met Pelican’s vice president. Pelican has a strong children’s list, and so I have had the pleasure of editing for young readers for many years.

Kathleen/publisher's assist: Books have been a part of my world my entire life. My dad was a book scout and then book dealer before purchasing Pelican in 1970. I frequently went with him to second-hand bookstores and thrift shops. When we bought Pelican in 1970, I worked on various projects throughout junior and senior high school. I never thought of any other career.

Caitlin/marketing: I have always had a voracious love for books, instilled by my mother. She was fortunate enough to be a student in Coleen Salley’s class when she attended The University of New Orleans, and Coleen’s insistence on the importance of reading to and with children really stuck with her, and consequently, with me.

I was fortunate enough to work with Coleen, since she was one of Pelican’s authors, and I think anyone who met her would tell you that Coleen was impossible to forget and if she told you something, you had better listen!

I have always believed that books are very powerful things, and the books that you read as a child can have a particular impact on the person you become. I’m also still a bit of a kid at heart. I believe you’re never too old for a good picture book, and YA novels are still among some of my favorite things to read.

Could you tell us about Pelican?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: Pelican is a medium publisher with 90 to 100 books released each year. Since we are run by an entrepreneur, many of titles reflect his varied interests. We are particularly interested in history--Civil War and World War II, architecture, cookbooks and children. New Orleans and Louisiana books in all categories appear on our list as well.

Caitlin/marketing: Pelican is an independent publisher that has been based in the New Orleans area for over 80 years. We usually publish 40-50 books a season. Those include picture books, middle grade novels, YA, and adult titles.

We’re a smaller company, so all of the employees know each other well, and the different departments are very collaborative. It’s a great place to start a career in publishing because you really get to see how the whole publishing process works, from manuscript evaluation and production to sales and promotion (and even shipping and receiving, after the hurricane!).

Because we are a smaller publisher, we have close relationships with our authors. I am fortunate to work with all of our children’s authors and illustrators (and some of our adult authors as well), and I am in contact with all of them at least once a month through a newsletter I send out and in contact with many of them more frequently than that.

They know they can send me an email or call me directly, and I will answer their questions (or find someone who can). I know who they are. I know what their books are. With many of them, I know about their families. I think that kind of a close relationship is more difficult with a larger publisher.

We’re also committed to keeping books in print for a long time. With some of the major publishers, your book can come out, and if it doesn't sell like gangbusters right away, it can be remaindered and put out of print in what seems like the blink of an eye. Our authors know their books are going to be available for years to come, and I know they appreciate that.

It's a family-owned publisher, yes?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: Yes, Pelican is owned by Milburn and Nancy Calhoun and Jim Calhoun (Milburn's brother). Jim Calhoun now handles a few projects a year. Milburn is still actively running the company. My mom, Nancy, was the first salesman for Pelican and did conventions for years. She has since retired.

As mentioned above, I have worked in some capacity in the company since we purchased. I have been full-time in the office since my graduation from college.

My brother, David worked as an editor during college and prior to attending graduate school. He is now a college professor and no longer works at the company. This summer his two oldest children - Susan and Leslie Calhoun -will be interning at Pelican.

Caitlin/marketing: That's right. Pelican has been owned by the Calhoun family for over 40 years. Dr. Milburn Calhoun is our president and publisher; his wife, Nancy Calhoun, is Vice President; their daughter, Kathleen Calhoun Nettleton, is assistant to the publisher; and James Calhoun, Dr. Calhoun's brother, is our special projects editor.

When they bought the company, Kathleen was just a child, and Dr. Calhoun was still working as a physician as well as publisher at Pelican, but he has since retired from medicine.

Could you share with us some of the history of the company?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: Pelican started in 1926 and has had several owners. The current owner/publisher is Milburn Calhoun. He purchased the company in 1970, and for many years ran it on the side of his main job. His "main" job was a family doctor.

This means that we had to set up a communication system. This was particularly important in the days before answer phones and email! He set up a system where each employee sends items home in a folder each day. He looks at this and responds. This system continues to this day and is known as "the box."

Prior to retiring, he would call every day at lunch to talk to any staffers that had immediate questions. He retired from the medical practice in 1997 and expanded his time with Pelican.

We have had some challenges-- in December 1997, we had a fire that totally destroyed the building along with about 60% of our stock. There are many challenges after this type of disaster, from finding a location to replacing lost stock. We had been looking for a building to expand but had not purchased anything at that point. We ended up in a temporary location for almost three years with the warehouse being in another location. Since we have always been in the same building, this did require an adjustment.

Another next big challenge was Katrina (August 29, 2005). There was significant damage to the building and stock. One of our dock doors was torn off of the hinges, which meant the building was open.

The publisher returned one week later to access the damage and then had to leave. He returned with one employee at two weeks. Other Pelican employees started returning as they were able throughout September.

All staff were doing things that were not exactly in their job description, but it enabled us to get back up and running faster. Twenty percent of our employees decided not to return to New Orleans, so the company had to recover from that. We have had another challenge with the BP oil spill in April 2010. This affected our customers, which in turn affected Pelican.

Caitlin/marketing: In 1970, the Calhouns acquired Pelican Publishing House from Betty and Hodding Carter and restored its name to Pelican Publishing Company. Its history embraces such names as William Faulkner, whose first trade publication was published by Pelican, Stuart O. Landry, whose vision kept the company alive from 1926 to 1966, and the Calhoun family, who expanded a small, ailing regional publishing house into an internationally successful company.

The company has survived several disasters, including a fire that totally destroyed the building that housed Pelican’s offices and approximately half of its stock of books in 1997 and then the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many of our children's books feature illustrated gators, but the Pelican warehouse was visited by a real, live alligator at one point, which animal control had to remove.

How about the history specifically with regard to children's book publishing?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: One of our first early successes was a children's book. The publisher heard an ad for Bergeron Plymouth, which included a "Night Before Christmas" poem with a Cajun slant. Milburn Calhoun knew immediately that it would be a great children's book, but it would need an illustrator--who could draw alligators.

Within the next few weeks, James Rice drove up on his motorcycle with a sketchbook showing his first book.

Milburn Calhoun asked him if he could draw alligators.

Jim's response was: "Give me a few weeks, and I will be back."

Cajun Night Before Christmas was the beginning of a beautiful partnership between James Rice and Pelican until his death in June 2004. James Rice had always wanted to be a book illustrator. He traveled year around promoting books in schools and bookstores.

Of course, the fall was a particularly busy time promoting the various versions of Night Before Christmas that he had illustrated. James and I did many conventions together, and I do miss him. The book that James Rice brought to Pelican that first day was actually his second book published - Lyn and the Fuzzy. It is still in print today. Cajun Night Before Christmas started two series- Night Before Christmas series and Gaston the Green-Nosed Alligator series.

The Night Before Christmas series includes many views of the classic poem from Texas and Hillbilly to Teachers, Principals and Librarians.

Another long series is Mary Alice Fontenot’s Clovis Crawfish series. She created the character to teach children about swamp characters.

Caitlin/marketing: We eventually branched out into children's biographies (in picture book and middle reader formats), alphabet books, fairy tales and folklore with a twist, YA, and more.

Pelican is based in Gretna, Louisiana. Does that offer you a different point of view than, say, a NYC-based house? If so, how?

Nina/editorial: I think our size as well as our location helps us provide a more personal touch for authors outside of the major publishing centers. All of us are accessible by phone. We also are open to topics outside the mainstream and authors who are at an early point in their career.

Kathleen/publisher's assist: I think that most publishers from outside of New York have a different viewpoint that reflects why they are in publishing. Pelican wants to promote New Orleans and the rest of the South through children’s books (as well as adult books). Many of the projects we receive are New Orleans/Louisiana related, but we are also interested in other areas as well.

Caitlin/marketing: I think so. For one, we're in the New Orleans area, and New Orleanians love the culture and history of our city. We really appreciate our region, which I think also helps us appreciate the special things about other regions in the country; hence, we publish a lot of regional titles. We also publish a lot of titles of Southern interest.

We have a lot of respect for different areas of the country and things that smaller cities and towns have to offer. The city where we're based is also not as frantic as New York can be, and I think that more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere comes through at Pelican to a certain extent.

By no means does that translate to laziness or lack of care about our work! If anything, we feel we have to work harder because our address is not in New York. It can be harder to earn respect just because we are outside of the Big Apple bubble.

Besides books for young readers, what other types do you publish?

Caitlin/marketing: We publish a very wide variety of titles!

Besides our board books, picture books, chapter books, and YA, we publish history books, art, architecture, political science, coffee table books, cookbooks (which are some of my favorites), memoir, biographies, travel, audio books, and even a small amount of poetry and fiction.

How has the list changed over the years?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: Children's books have become a bigger part of the company than I thought it would. Mainly because we are getting more good children's manuscripts in.

Caitlin/marketing: It has definitely expanded over the years! We publish many more titles per year than we used to, and children's books are a much larger part of our list than they once were. Our focus has evolved over the years as well. For example, though we still publish travel, we don't publish as much of it as we once did, and we have a greater focus on lushly illustrated cookbooks, like those in our Classic Recipes Series.

How would you describe the list now?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: Children’s books continue to be a significant part of the list. We are looking for more nonfiction children’s books to share historical figures. We are looking at more middle readers but being very selective.

Caitlin/marketing: The list is definitely diverse--I sometimes have trouble explaining to people everything that we publish since we cover such a wide array of genres!

I think our children's list is getting stronger all the time; I am really excited about the new authors and illustrators we've been working with over the past few years as well as our strong backlist authors we've been working with for years.

We’ve gone from publishing the occasional picture book to having new picture books, chapter books, YA, and/or children’s audio books on our list every season. To give you an idea of how the list has expanded, in our 2011 Fall catalog, there are 49 books included, and 21 of those are children’s books—they’re a very significant part of our list.

Are there any particular books for young readers that you'd like to highlight?

Nina/editorial: We are very excited about our picture-book biographies, such as Eliza’s Cherry Trees, about the woman who brought the famous trees to Washington, D.C.

Kathleen/publisher's assist: I am very excited about a new book for fall--Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer. It is a children's picture book based on her life. She is the one that set up the system for classification of stars. She was fascinated by the stars from a very early age. I think that it shows you can follow your dreams.

I am looking forward to The Cajun Nutcracker by Chara Dillon Mock, which is an adaptation of a class Christmas story with the added Cajun twist. This continues our interest in children’s Christmas titles, which started with Cajun Night Before Christmas.

Caitlin/marketing: I work with all of the children's authors and illustrators, so asking me to choose just a few to highlight is really hard!

I do adore Love the Baby--it is my go-to present when a friend or relative is going to have a second child. Steven Layne's hilarious text combined with Ard Hoyt's illustrations just can't be beat.

Mama's Bayou by Dianne de la Casas, illustrated by Holly Stone-Barker is my go-to for a first baby present--the sweet rhythmic text and highly detailed collage illustrations work so well.

I love Virginia Pilegard's Warlord's Series, since each book contains a really interesting math/science lesson and an activity.

The rhythmic text of David R. Davis's Jazz Cats is also fantastic.

Finally, we have two really unusual counting books that I love--one is called Ten Redneck Babies: A Southern Counting Book (too funny!), and one is Glubbery Gray: The Knight-Eating Beast (scroll for cover art above).

What new directions should we know about?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: We are looking for more historical children’s books like the Annie Jump Cannon book I mentioned--featuring individuals that children need to know about.

Caitlin/marketing: We're doing e-books now, which some people may not be aware of. For example, Steven Layne's YA novels This Side of Paradise and Paradise Lost are available on both the Pelican site and on Amazon as e-books.

Many more of our titles, including some of our picture books, are available as e-books through Google, and we are working with other partners to make them more widely available.

Also, illustrators should know that since James Rice's death, each new title in our Night Before Christmas Series has been illustrated by a different illustrator. That is one of the series that we are best-known for, so it's an exciting thing to be a part of.

We also just published a title this spring that has the complete text in both Spanish and English: How the Gods Created the Finger People. We have a lot of books with French or Cajun French sprinkled throughout, and we have a very limited number of books with text in Spanish and English, but we’re getting more requests for bilingual books all the time, so I think that is something we would be open to doing more of.

Big picture, what makes Pelican special?

Nina/editorial: We are interested in publishing books that are informative and uplifting.

Kathleen/publisher's assist: We really think that the publisher-author relationship is important and a partnership. The children's books that do the best are those by authors that understand their work is not done when the manuscript is turned in. Pelican considers backlist titles a strong part of the mix. There are titles on our list that we continue to promote and work with the authors years after the book has been published.

How do you connect your children's-YA titles to teachers and librarians?

Caitlin/marketing: At the most basic level, we send out catalogs and make our books available for purchase directly from us (schools and libraries get a 20% discount, unless it is a special event) and make sure they're available from the major wholesalers as well.

We also have activity guides for many of our books to make using them in the classroom as easy as possible. We send email blasts to those who have purchased from us before when similar titles arrive in which they might be interested. We submit them for awards and state reading lists.

Many of our children's authors and illustrators also do school and library visits, in addition to speaking at conferences, which is another great way to connect with teachers and librarians. We also try to reach them through Facebook and Twitter as well as our YouTube page.

Many of our authors and illustrators are making book trailers now, and when Paradise Lost by Steven Layne was coming out, we even had a book trailer contest for students, which was fantastic. They did such an excellent job. (See sample trailer below.)

Have your marketing strategies changed during the recent economic downturn? If so, how and what is your rationale?

Caitlin/marketing: We've definitely been looking at everything we do a little more closely--looking at the costs and benefits more than once before making any decisions. We know that budgets are being cut everywhere--our budget and our buyers' budgets.

We've been implementing some more low-cost approaches and utilizing more social media. We've also been considering what conferences we attend very carefully, but for some of those, though the costs are high, it's definitely still worth it to have a presence.

We’ve been doing more blog tours for new titles to garner more exposure without the expense of traveling all over the country.

Please describe your dream children's-YA author, illustrator, and/or author-illustrator.

Nina/editorial: In addition to literary and visual talent, they would have some professional experience in the field already and also be established in the public arena: making presentations at schools, storytelling conventions, bookstores, etc.

Caitlin/marketing: My dream author or illustrator is willing and able to do school presentations as well as bookstore signings. She (or he) has some sort of web presence (website, blog, Facebook, Twitter--maybe all of the above!) with easy-to-access information about her books.

She is outgoing, has a well-thought-out and concise pitch for her book to give to prospective buyers. She has her own marketing ideas, is willing to take initiative, and keeps me apprised of what she is doing--and what she is thinking about doing--to market her book so that we can work together effectively.

Pictured: Cindy Dike, cildren’s book manager at Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans; Johnette Downing, one of our children’s authors; and Caitlin Smith, school sales manager of Pelican (in the blue coat).

Do you accept unagented work?

Caitlin/marketing: We absolutely do. All of our submissions guidelines are on our website. We love receiving submissions from new authors. It is especially gratifying when I meet someone at a conference who later submits and gets accepted—it’s great fun to end up working with them!

What recommendations do you have for writers in the submissions process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Kathleen/publisher's assist: I strongly recommend reading the author guidelines located on our website. This will help them submit items properly. Looking at a publishing website can give you ideas on what types of books the publisher is interested in before you submit.

Caitlin/marketing: Follow the guidelines. That’s my number one suggestion. Also, do your research. When you are submitting, make sure your work fits in with what that company publishes. Proofread your submission, and then have someone whose grammatical skills you trust proofread it again. You want your manuscript to be as polished as possible, as good as you can make it, but also be aware that it's never going to be perfect. At some point, you have to let it go and send it out.

Then, be patient. Be very patient--the submissions process can take a long time. After a few months, it is okay to inquire if your manuscript has been received and where in the process it is--but don't pester the editor.

Don't claim your manuscript is the next Harry Potter, and don't say that it should be published because your cousin's six-year-old neighbor really thinks it's terrific.

There's been a lot of discussion of late about the current state and future of the picture book. What do you think?

Nina/editorial: Parents and kids will always seek out and enjoy picture books, in a variety of platforms.

Kathleen/publisher's assist: I think that electronic books and technology are changing everything.

Caitlin/marketing: I do think that changing technology is having and will continue to have an impact on how children's books are created and what is considered a "book." I do not think, however, that physical picture books are going to die out completely, at least not anytime soon.

There's something special about sitting with a child in your lap, reading a book, turning the pages, and looking at the pictures--and that's not going away.

As a reader, what have been your favorite new children's books of 2010-2011 and why?

Caitlin/marketing: Other than Pelican titles, I loved the Hunger Games trilogy, so I was so excited when I read Mockingjay last year. Suzanne Collins's unflinching portrayal of war is incredible.

I thought The Cardturner by Louis Sachar was impeccably written--it made bridge seem as exciting as Saints football. I still want to learn how to play.

I loved Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, though the setting was a little scary for those of us living in New Orleans! It definitely deserved the awards.

I also really enjoyed Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. I loved stories about vampires, werewolves, witches, etc., as a child, and that hasn't really changed. I have an ARC of Sweetly on my to be read pile--looking forward to that one!

What do you do outside the world of publishing?

Nina/editorial: My hobbies include cooking, traveling, and supporting live music!

Kathleen/publisher's assist: I read, but at the moment not many children’s books. My husband and I enjoy concerts and try to see many of the classic groups that are touring.

Caitlin/marketing: As I think we all do, I read quite a bit. (Right now, I am reading The Wise Man's Fear, which I picked up at TLA--it's great!)

I love to travel, so I do that as much as I can. I'm also an avid swing dancer and lindy hopper. New Orleans has a great swing dance scene, since we have great music for it!

Cynsational Notes

Check out one of the trailers for Paradise Lost:

See also David Davis and Jan Peck visit Britain Elementary School:

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