Thursday, January 31, 2008

Beverly Cleary Forever

Just passing along a link to the Oregonian's recent profile of the 91-and-still-magnificent Beverly Cleary. (Note: The site makes you fill in some vital stats before allowing you to read the whole article. Saying that my zip was 11111 and that I was born an M in 2008 worked for them.)

During the interview, "she declined to speculate about the cultural implications of some studies that show children read less than they once did. 'I don't think I'm qualified,' Cleary said matter-of-factly, 'because I only hear from children who do read.' "

Love it. Love her books.

To hear Mrs. Cleary talk about writing, Ramona, and the future of the book, check out this 2006 All Things Considered interview from NPR.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

La-la, la-la-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la

Ever see the quote that goes something like, "If you can't get someone out of your head, maybe s/he's supposed to be there"?

I think I first saw it in someone's discussion board signature. It resonated, I Googled it to find no real source, and then I went about my day. Because it continues to pop in to my head every now and then, I thought I'd blog a few thoughts.

First, I agree with the dang thing — do you? I keep a host of people on the brain from all phases of life, those real-life characters who influenced me (strangers to soulmates, barely to profoundly) enough to carve out a tiny home in my brain's pathways. I don't necessarily think of these people every day or every year, but amazingly, when I need to see them, they tend to show up and give me a nudge in whatever direction I need to follow. Mostly, they show up in my head in a flash of waking memory or in a Brazil-i-fied dream. Sometimes they show up just as unexpectedly in a card, an email, a phone call, mentioned in conversation with others, at an airport, or walking on the same street 2,000 miles from home.

I keep coming back to this phenomenon in relation to the way my brain stores story ideas and characters. I have several that I've been thinking about since childhood, some since college, others since last year. I assume that I'll get to write everything, eventually. Who knows, though. You'd think that the stories I've wanted to write for years would have been written, by me, by now. Most have been started and filed away. Except for the picture book that's really my husband's idea. I don't think I'm that story's best author. Even though I absolutely love the storyline, I have to look at the notes we scribbled about it 10 or more years ago to even remember it. I always find it curious that I just don't recall the gist of the idea on my own. But then, the story doesn't come up in my thoughts or dreams. It comes up when my husband says, "You should write That Book!"

As for my waiting list of stories that do reside in my head, I'm working on one of them for real. The time seemed right about a year ago, and my guess is that it will take me another year or two to complete the writing (on my own time, off my writing-for-hire clock). I've been excited about the idea for about 15 years. But I needed to grow as a human being — and as a writer — to even attempt it. Same thing goes for a couple of stories I first wanted to write 30 years ago. Their time has not come yet. I trust that I'll recognize it — Time, I mean — when it knocks on my door or invades my dreams. In the meantime, though, I'll just keep enjoying those moments when thoughts related to those stories pop into my consciousness. I do believe that they're supposed to be there, rolling around, evolving and nudging me to make them happen.

Oh, btw, the post title is a reference to Kylie Minogue's infectious song "Can't Get You Outta My Head." I've never heard the whole thing, but part of it used to play in a fitness club commercial that I saw every day for about a year running. That "la-la" part really sticks with ya.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Power of the Book

Enjoy this video clip from a talk by Gary Paulsen, author of such memorable works as Hatchet, Brian's Winter, Winterdance, and Lawn Boy.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Personalized Classics? Huh?

I noticed an item on this in PW the other day but just got around to checking it out. Golden Books (a division of Random House) is partnering with SharedBook to offer customers the opportunity to buy personalized copies of the Golden Book classic The Poky Little Puppy by Janet Sebring Lowrey.

I mistakenly assumed at first that you'd be able to insert a child's name — and who knows what else — into the actual text of the book. And given the nature of this book, I thought "How on earth does that work with no child characters?" But, thank goodness, I was totally wrong. The personalization comes only in the form of a customized dedication page to which you submit a message and photo. Then SharedBook prints and ships your special copy.

Okay. Not as bad as I feared. I can see some appeal, I guess. But the standard-size Golden Book version costs $4.99 and a personalized copy sells for $25 (I didn't click through the whole process, so there may or may not be an added shipping charge).

Even for the same purchase price, I'd still prefer a nice bookplate or handwritten note.

Edited to add: 100th post!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Today is the 199th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birth. I just saw this interesting article about an annual visitor to Poe's Baltimore grave. The mystery man leaves 3 red roses and a half-filled bottle of premium-label cognac — a "toast" to the author — at the gravesite. This tribute has been going on for years, though exactly how many is up for debate.

Poe was one of my earliest all-time favorite authors. For a time as a child, I couldn't get enough of reading his tales or of watching the movies/listening to old radio shows based on them. It was a particular treat to work on my book of Poe retellings. Then just last year, I wrote a high school lesson plan for on comparing Poe's brilliant "The Pit and the Pendulum" to Roger Corman's remarkable 1961 film interpretation. If you haven't read or seen these works in a while, I recommend reacquainting yourself with them, one right after the other. I know you'll enjoy the experience.

I Get Letters

A fun perk of my work is that sometimes I hear from kids who read my books. I get the occasional email. I once got a phone call from a resourceful and unsupervised fan ("Is this L. L. Owens, the famous author?") And, of course, some people in this world still send snail mail. I love that!

The publisher of my 1999 book Bigfoot: The Legend Lives On forwarded two letters from third-graders that had selected the book as their favorite. So sweet! These kids are obviously Web savvy, too, as they had specific questions about my other books, personal life, and dog. I will write back to them this next week.

I'll have to actually dig out the book to answer a couple of the questions about my research/what I was thinking. I wrote the thing 10 years ago. Wow, that is hard to believe. I'm on my third computer and fourth residence since then. I can still picture the exact office setup I had when I started the book. I vividly remember my interviews with a couple of Bigfoot experts and my now-retired process of outlining and starting the writing using a fine-point black Uniball pen and yellow legal pads. I loved every minute of writing this book. It is gratifying enough to know that kids are still reading it — but knowing that an 8-year-old or two found the story exciting enough to comment on, and possibly remember for a while, is just the best.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

You Can't Fake Quality

I am really struggling to meet a deadline. The struggle stems from all sorts of reasons:

1) I am not as fast at the type of writing I'm doing right now as I am with other types (so, my own time estimations for the work haven't been spot on target — close, but not quite there).

2) My mind is on real life instead. As it should be.

3) Other higher-priority but unrelated time commitments sprang up after I took on this project, and there are only so many hours in a day.

4) I am exhausted.

I will press on, of course. Just taking a second to make this post because the literary quote for the day on my iGoogle page hit home. It is so very true, and I thought fellow writers out there would relate.

"So cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can't fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal."
—William Burroughs

Trouble is, a writer for hire has her deadlines. Can't exactly ignore them and keep her clients happy. It's part of the same issue I was thinking about in this post. At least when you work with people face to face, you know them a little bit and it's easier to build flexibility into schedules. In an office, turning in a project 2 days past its scheduled due date is very often considered fantastic, even when someone works that way ALL THE TIME. You and your colleagues have a better sense for how the workdays go and can put faces to the work, a reasonable sense of wiggle room to its execution. When a freelancer comes in late on a project, she is LATE. Even with wonderful clients.

But, you can't fake quality. I can't, anyway.

Best get back to desperately trying not to be LATE.

Monday, January 14, 2008

2008 Newbery Winners Announced

2008 Newbery Medal Winner
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz

See the 2008 Newbery Honor books here.

2008 Caldecott Winners Announced

2008 Caldecott Medal Winner
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

See the 2008 Caldecott Honor Books here.

2008 Coretta Scott King Awards Announced

This year's Coretta Scott King Awards for outstanding works of children's literature by African-American authors and illustrators were announced this morning at ALA's Midwinter meeting in Philadelphia.

The 2008 author award went to Christopher Paul Curtis for Elijah of Buxton. The 2008 illustrator award went to Ashley Bryan for Let It Shine.

The Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent went to author Sundee T. Frazier for Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It.

Additionally, two Illustrator Honor Books were named: The Secret Olivia Told Me by N. Joy/illustrated by Nancy Devard and Jazz on a Saturday Night by Leo and Diane Dillon.

See the ALA's press release for full details.

Congrats to all the winners!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Good Luck, Fellow Saturday Writers

See this poster and other Demotivators at

It Must Be Time to Write

So far today I have:

Initiated a pancakes-and-sausage breakfast, cleared off some counters, done the dishes, made a grocery list, checked email (twice), visited two discussion boards and added my 2 cents to one, commented on a friend's personal blog, hard-boiled some eggs (?), made 3-bean salad (??), tracked a UPS package, cleared off part of the kitchen island, asked my husband what he wanted to do today that might involve me (this after stressing last night that I'd be writing all weekend), unpacked a Target bag that had been sitting on the ledge since last weekend, stocked the guest bathroom with extra toilet paper, asked my husband whether he had a preference for the orientation of the roll (all these years and we have never discussed that; turns out we don't care), organized the top of my desk, and basically avoided getting down to business.

Time to write . . .

Friday, January 11, 2008

January "Hooked on Reading"

My review column went live today with my title picks for January:

The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! by Steve Martin (prereaders, all readers)

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (ages 4–8)

The Purple Coat by Amy Hest (ages 5–8)

Snow Dog by Jim Kjelgaard (ages 8+)

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll/Christopher Myers (all ages)

Love 'em all.

That reminds me . . . it's time to submit February picks to my editor. Better do that now.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Picture Books for the Digital Age

Have you seen Lookybook yet? It's an online collection of picture books that you can "flip through" on your monitor. You just click to turn the page. Here's a digital rendering of The Blizzard by Betty Ren Wright.

The reader/reviewer in me loves it: What a resource. Books at my fingertips. And such easy access. It's pretty cool.

The author in me is less enthusiastic. It gives me that slippery-slope-of-decreasing-authors'-rights feeling. And, for young kids, I hate the thought of their reading experience shifting to the computer screen.

I'll have to mull it over a bit more to form a solid opinion.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The New Mac|Life Is Here!

Sad, maybe, but seeing the February issue of Mac|Life in my mailbox made my little blinked-and-it's-almost-over day. This cover image is of last month's issue, which I missed as I waited to see when my new subscription would start.

Biz-publication-wise, the only other paid subscriptions I keep up anymore are for The Writer magazine (I just noticed that I'm paid through 2013 — not sure how that happened) and Children's Writer newsletter. And those tend to pile up on my desk waiting for a browse. As much as I love the print version of Publishers Weekly, I can't stay on top of reading or recycling it, so I recently let that one go; I get more good out of its free email newsletters anyway.

Carry on!

McGraw-Hill Education Downsizing . . . Again

Another educational publisher eliminating in-house jobs, centralizing management, and shifting focus. Sigh. Read the PW article for details.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Quote of the Day

The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.

—Agatha Christie

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Jon Scieszka Named First National Ambassador for Young People's Literature

Today's the day that the Library of Congress finally named its inaugural National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I've been waiting to see who it might be since I first read about it in May.

The new Ambassador is the terrific author Jon Scieszka. My favorite titles of his are — so far — The Stinky Cheese Man, Math Curse, and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Hilarious. I'm hoping to read his 2007 book Cowboy and Octopus soon.

Here's an excerpt from the Goodman Media press release emailed straight to my inbox a few minutes ago:

"Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has appointed children’s book author Jon Scieszka as the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The position was created to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education, and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.

“ 'The Library of Congress has long provided free, primary-source educational material for K–12 on the Internet,' ” said Billington. 'The position of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is a natural extension of that role. Jon Scieszka will be an articulate emissary, promoting reading and literature among young people, which are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society.'

“ 'Jon Scieszka’s platform will spotlight the diversity and breadth of children’s literature available today and in so doing present a solution to what can be done to change the state of reading in this country,' said Robin Adelson, executive director at Children’s Book Council."

You can read the entire release at the Children's Book Council site.

I think they've made a wonderful choice.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

FAQ: How Do I Get an Agent?

I cover this topic in depth, including my own thoughts about who needs an agent and who doesn't, whenever I teach one of my children's writing courses. I do it even when the class isn't really "about" the business of writing because the topic is just that popular.

The short answer to the question — assuming that you are serious about writing, that you are writing and have at least one finished manuscript in hand — is:

Do your research.

You can handle this, I promise. The process of finding an agent is similar to the one you'd use to find any other service provider. When you need a specialized doctor or attorney or building contractor (and bless you if you need any of those, btw), you start by researching who handles the type of issue you need handled. If you write YA sci-fi novels, then look for agents who represent YA sci-fi novels.

Once you've identified several likely candidates, try to find out more about the books and authors they've worked with. (Specific information will lead you to a better match.) Still comfortable with your list? Narrow it or don't. Then start getting in touch. Introduce yourself in whatever manner the agent prefers: email, snail mail; query only, query plus writing sample.

Each agent will tell you whether she is interested in working with you. The tough part about this stage is that some agents will not be interested. That may seem like they have all the power, but wouldn't you rather have your work represented by someone who loves your work? Sometimes a rejection is based solely on the fact that an agent deems a work wrong for the current market, or maybe she just doesn't work with your specific type of story because s/he doesn't have great contacts with the publishers likely to want it. Rejection from an agent does not necessarily reflect on the quality of your work. It may mean nothing more than you need to keep looking.

Remember, too, that you don't have to work with someone you're not excited about just because she wants to work with you. Assuming the agent sells your work for you, you will pay her for that service. In the end an agent works for you.

For more information, take a peek at these resources.

Agent Query
A huge agent database ripe for the searching.

Association of Authors’ Representatives
Members of this professional association agree to a set of business and publishing ethics.

Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market
This annual market listing for U.S. children’s publishers can help you determine which publishers are the best fit for your submission. Each publisher notes whether they accept agented or unagented works (or both).

Guide to Literary Agents Blog
The editor of the annual agent directory Guide to Literary Agents blogs about agency and other industry news.

Preditors & Editors
You can search this listing of agents to see which ones get high or low marks from the site and its visitors.

This is the international organization for professional children’s writers and illustrators. They have many thousands of members, chapters all over the world, local and national conferences, relevant-to-you publications, and an online discussion forum.
The online version of the popular annual directory Writer's Market. It contains market listings available in the Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. Features agent Q&As.

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