Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Winnie Mack Book Giveaway!

Are you and/ or your tween daughter in need of a good summer read?  Be sure to comment with your email address at the end of this blog post for a chance to win a copy of Winnie Mack's debut middle grade fiction book After All, You're Callie Boone. It's a story about 11 year-old Callie, a girl who's having a cruddy summer but steadfastly pursues her top-secret Olympic dream, with the help of her quirky dad.  Kirkus reviews says, "Dive in, this story is fine!"

Winnie Mack, a.k.a. Wendy French has published four successful 'chick lit' titles, but is now ready to make a big splash in the realm of kid lit. Bring your kids along to meet Winnie at A Children's Place Bookstore this Thursday at 4 pm!

AB: Congratulations on the publication of your first middle grade fiction book, After All, You're Callie Boone (Feiwel & Friends, June 2010). Could you tell us a bit about how you came to write this particular story?

WM: I had always been a bit scared of writing for younger readers, as I don't have children of my own and felt a bit out of touch with what might interest them. But the more I thought about what I'd loved to read as a child, the more I realized that even though technology has changed things rather dramatically for kids, some aspects of social life are still very much the same.

So, I knew I wanted to write about a girl who was going through a hard time socially, but I also realized I wanted her story to be realistic. I wanted  her to be a "normal" girl like I had been, a girl who couldn't rely on special powers or magic to solve her problems.

I don't really know where Callie's love of diving came from, other than the fact that I wanted her to be striving toward a goal that she would ultimately have to achieve alone. She could have the support of family and friends, but success would come down to a moment alone at the top of a diving board.

AB: You have an established, successful career as a writer of witty women’s fiction under the name ‘Wendy French’. What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about children's fiction appeals to you?

WM: I wrote four "chick lit" novels as Wendy French, and as much as I enjoyed writing them, the market was flooded with pastel colored books by the time the final one was published.

Along the way, a couple of editors had asked my agent if I might be interested in writing for kids, and I'd always declined, but when a friend had great success with her first Young Adult book, I thought it might be worth a try. I had no idea I would love doing it.

AB:  How long have you been writing? What was the timeline between the kernel
of the idea to publication of your upcoming books? 

WM:  I have been writing novels since my I was in my mid-twenties. It took me 5 years, 3 novels and 137 rejection letters to land my first literary contract at age 29, and I am now 37.

As far as the current book goes, I jumped into writing Callie Boone during my lunch hours at work over a period of about two months in Spring 2008, with no idea of whether it could actually sell. It was purchased in June of that year and published this month (two years after the sale).

AB: How does writing for adults differ from writing for children for you?

 WM: Writing for kids is more fun! I like the fact that kids have some limitations they can overcome (like difficulty at school or mastering a hobby) and some they can't (like rules set by their parents). I find that I have a different mindset when I'm writing for kids.

AB: Do you work with a critique group? What and/or who has been most helpful
to you in developing your writing craft?

When I began writing novels, I belonged to a critique group who met weekly to share work, which was extremely helpful at the time. Once I had my first contract, I continued with the group for a year or so, then as I wrote more, I gradually became more confident about my ability to edit myself.

I think that growing confidence has been one of the most helpful elements of developing as a writer, as well as a willingness to listen to feedback from editors, etc.

AB: Are you able to read much current middle grade/ YA  fiction? If so, what are some mg books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed? What makes you like it/them so much?

WM: I haven't read a ton of current Middle Grade fiction, but I really enjoyed The Rules by Cynthia Lord, and I get a kick out of the Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. Both contain narrators with very distinct voices. 

AB:  What about writing comes easiest for you? What is most difficult about the craft?

WM: The initial spark of an idea is of course the simplest part, but as far as the actual writing goes, what comes easiest for me is the second draft of a novel, when I have something to work with and improve upon. I'm not a huge fan of getting through that first draft.

I have a full-time job, so sometimes it can be difficult to find time to write.

AB: What advice would you offer writers who are just starting out?

WM: Have fun with it. Writing is a very isolated hobby and it's important to enjoy yourself while you are doing it.

I would also advise them to keep at it. As I mentioned, I am no stranger to rejection, and I think it's very important not to take them personally.

AB: Thanks, Winnie! One last thing: what’s in the pipeline?

WM: I have written a hockey novel for boys called Hat Trick, which will be published by Scholastic Canada in October. I have just finished a basketball book, and I am now working on the sequel to Callie Boone, which features her friend Hoot.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Renée Watson Offers Hope Through the Storms

Renée Watson has been writing and performing since she was a kid at Vernon Elementary in Northeast Portland. She credits a teacher from Jefferson High School as her biggest influence to become a writer. Now, as an artist in residence in schools in the Bronx, she uses creative writing and theater to heighten social awareness and success among students.  

Renée writes stories that are not always easy to tell.  Her debut picture book A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, June 2010) deals with four friends separated in the aftermath of Katrina.  Caroline Kennedy calls it "a profound tribute to the power of friendship to heal and give us hope in troubled times." Her upcoming middle-grade fiction debut What Mama Left Me (Bloomsbury, July 2010) is about a 13 year-old whose father did "the worst thing in the world" and now she'll never see her mama again.

On June 24th at 7pm, Renée will be reading from both books and signing copies of A Place Where Hurricanes Happen at A Children's Place Bookstore in Northeast Portland. She will also be a featured author at the 2010 Wordstock this October.  If you leave a comment on this post with your email, you'll have a chance to win an advance relase copy of What Mama Left Me.

AB: Congratulations on the publication of your book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen. We are all connected in some way to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Could you tell us how you are connected? Could you tell us a bit about how you came to write this particular story?

RW: I visited New Orleans a few times before Hurricane Katrina and loved the city. After Katrina hit, I was asked to come to New Orleans and lead poetry workshops with young people who were coping with the aftermath. The summer camp existed before Katrina, but after the storm the director knew she needed to have students process their feelings, so the entire camp—the creative writing, art, dance, and music classes—were dedicated to processing the devastation that happened.

Once I returned to New York, I couldn’t get the children’s stories out of my head and I wanted to do something to honor them. In the beginning, I was only writing it for New Orleans, but once the book was finished, I realized it’s about any child, anywhere, whose life has been turned upside down and that there’s hope after any storm—literal or emotional.

AB: What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about children's fiction appeals to you?

RW: I’ve worked in middle and high schools for about twelve years. The pains and joys of adolescents are moments I witness on a daily basis, so I think their stories are always with me as I write.

Also, for me, the lives of children and teens are interesting—they are always changing. Their conflicts are more dramatic, and there’s just so much to sort through. All of this makes for good plots and complex characters.

AB: At The New School, you studied creative writing and drama therapy. At the time, did you focus on children’s literature and arts? Were there any professors or mentors who particularly influenced you?

RW: Yes, my focus in writing and drama therapy was children and young adults. I also took playwriting and solo theater courses.

I’ve been blessed to have many mentors. Several at the New School, but honestly, the person who influenced me the most when it comes to writing is my former high school teacher Linda Christensen at Jefferson High School. Linda treated me as a “real writer” even when I was just a student writing for the literary magazine. My senior year she would have me come to her freshman class and read my short stories and poetry to her students. She saw something in me and encouraged me to pursue writing and teaching. She challenged me and gave me books to read that made me a better writer. So yes, I had great professors at The New School—Catherine Stine, Julia Noonan, Nancy Kelton, Sharon Mesmer, and Sue Shapiro—to name a few. They added skill to my passion. But I must say Linda’s voice is always in the back of my mind cheering me on. The lessons I learned from her on writing dialogue and the basics of story telling are the catalyst for everything I write today.

AB: You work extensively with children who are coping with violence (sexual, domestic, even acts of nature). How did you come to choose this as your vocation? How do you explore these themes during your artist in residency programs?

RW: In a sense, my vocation chose me. I knew I wanted to work with youth through the arts but didn’t set out to use the arts to help young people cope with hardship. When I first started being a guest artist in the schools, I was strictly teaching the fundamentals of poetry and theater—which I still do. But I learned early on in my teaching career that students can’t leave their lives at the door when they come to school. They bring with them whatever is going on at home and in their communities. Poetry and theater provide an outlet for students to express themselves and process what they’re going through. So it was a natural thing that students were sharing intimate parts of their lives with me through their writing or in an improv sketch. Once I saw that this kept happening, I sought out training for working with youth who’ve experienced trauma.

But I also teach the basics of creative writing and theater. My in-school residencies are usually tailored to what the classroom teacher is asking for. I do a lot of arts integration with humanities and literacy teachers.

AB: How long have you been writing? What was the timeline between the kernel of the idea to publication of your upcoming books?

RW: I have been writing all my life—I wrote a 21-page story when I was in the 2nd grade and my teacher told my mother, “This girl is going to be a writer. Get her a journal.” So, in a very real way, I have always considered myself a writer. But professionally, as far as publishing my writing, these are my first books. A Place Where Hurricanes Happen took me two days to write. It all just came to me a few months after I returned from New Orleans and I couldn’t stop writing it. But of course, with revision and editing—which is where the real writing happens—it took me about four or five rewrites to get it where I wanted it. So all in all, it took about 4 months to write.

What Mama Left Me was first a stage play that I wrote in high school. Back then, it had a different title, but the storyline was pretty much the same. I’ve had these characters in my head for more than fifteen years. I wanted to do something more with the characters—go deeper with them, so I took the play and wrote it as a novel. It took me about a year to write the first draft of the novel and lots and lots of rewrites to get it in its final version. From start to finish it took me about a year and a half to write the novel.

AB:  Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming novel What Mama Left Me that will be on shelves in July?

RW: What Momma Left Me is about a thirteen-year-old girl who witnessed her father kill her mother. In the aftermath, she begins to lose faith in God. She doesn't understand why horrible things happen to good people and she's angry with her grandparents, who pastor a local church, for making her attend church and pray to a God that doesn't seem to be answering any of her cries. As she grieves the loss of her mother, she realizes her mother left her more than secrets and shame and she ultimately finds an inner strength that can be traced back to her mother and other strong women in her family.

The main character, Serenity, loves poetry and each chapter begins with a poem or quote. As she comes to terms with the loss of her mother, several people along the way come to her rescue: a best friend, a boyfriend, and a poet—Maya Angelou, who help her realize she is more than her past.

AB:  What Mama Left Me sounds profound and moving. Could you tell me about your emerging artists show Roses are Red, Women are Blue? What type of project was this?

RW: Roses is a one-woman show where I play six different female characters. The show explores women and their relationships with food, men, family, and friends. Each woman’s monologue makes reference to a rose—a bride’s maid who desperately wants to catch the bouquet at the reception so she can be next, a grieving widow who takes a rose off her husband’s casket, an abused woman whose boyfriend always apologizes with roses. The characters are based off of interviews I did with women ages 10 – 60.

I wrote the show at The New School, when I took a Solo Theater class taught by Alice Cohen, author of What I Thought I Knew.

AB: Do you work with a critique group?

RW: Yes, I’m a part of a group that meets twice a month. It’s a small group, about five of us. We met at The New School and wanted to continue to get feedback on our writing after we graduated. It’s so helpful to get their input and when I read and critique their manuscripts, it makes be a better writer. We all learn from each other. It’s great.

AB: Are you able to read much current middle grade/ YA fiction? If so,
what are some mg books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed?

RW: Yes, I love to read. Reading good books strengthens my writing. I love the Make Lemonade trilogy by Virginia E. Wolff. I also think Lisa Graff’s Umbrella Summer is a wonderful book. Looking for Alaska by John Green is one of my favorites, as is anything by Patricia McCormick. Another author I enjoy reading is Sherman Alexie. My favorite of his is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. As for poetry for young adults, I think Naomi Shaib Nye’s A Maze Me is great.

AB: What advice would you offer a writer who is just starting out?

RW: My advice is to read. I tell beginning writers to read a book through just for pleasure and then read it again and study it. What is the author doing that’s making this a story you can’t put down? Good writers read. I even encourage writers to finish a book they don’t necessarily like. Knowing why you don’t like something is just as important as knowing why you do. Understanding what makes a book work or not work for you will fine-tune your own writing skills.

AB: Thank you so much for your time, Renée. I can't wait to read both of your books. What’s next for you?

RW: I have another novel, which is untitled right now, that I am working on. I’m hoping to spend most of the summer finishing it. Summers are great for me because I’m on a teacher’s schedule, so I have summers off and can write, write, write!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Radiant Emily Whitman

There's something luminous about Emily Whitman. At least that's what I remember thinking when I met her at the book signing of a mutual friend last spring. Maybe it was her sparkling eyes, or the warmth and kindness in her smile that day.  But after reading her debut YA novel Radiant Darkness, I suspect Emily glows from the embers of a once rebellious teen still burning within her.  How else to explain how deftly she slips into the skin of her heroine, the young Persephone? And yes, you read that correctly- this Persephone is a heroine. She is no innocent victim, abducted and raped by lewd and lascivious Hades. Emily Whitman's Persephone chooses to assume her role as Queen of the Underworld. Why? Well, she loves Hades, for starters, and the realm of the dead is not as bad as you might think. Plus, she's sick of being coddled by an overprotective goddess - her mother.

I discovered that Emily comes from a rich family pantheon- of writers. But she's not interested in retreating to Mount Olympus and hoarding her creativity from mere mortals- she's ready to share her savvy with us.

AB: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Radiant Darkness (Greenwillow, 2009). Clearly, you have a passion for Greek myth and an aversion to smothering matriarchs.  I was captivated by your re-imagining of the ‘rape of Persephone’. What led you to write this story? 

EW: It came at me sideways. First, I realized I wanted to explore the time when you’re on the cusp of adulthood, straining at your chains, ready to break out into the world; and then I thought of Persephone, the archetype of a girl leaving home. In the myth, she’s kidnapped, raped, and then rescued by her mother. I wondered, what if Persephone wasn’t the ultimate victim, but a strong young woman with a choice? In Radiant Darkness, she finally tells what really happened, and why mortals got her story wrong.
AB: What was the timeline between the kernel of the idea to publication of Radiant Darkness

EW: In 2005, I was starting to write creatively again when a friend took me to an SCBWI conference in Portland. It helped me realize I wanted to tell Persephone’s story, and that meant a novel. I had no idea how to write a novel! I began throwing my characters into scenes, discovering how they talked, acted, felt. A month later I went to the Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. I have a confession to make: I went because it was close to home, so I could dedicate a week to writing without paying for airfare or a hotel! Well, it gave me just what I needed: how-to, approaches, excitement, energy. Faculty members were supportive and positive. I was so inspired, I decided to come back in a year with a complete draft of a novel. In 2006, Steve Geck of Greenwillow was the visiting editor at the conference. He read my first ten pages and said he’d like to see the rest. After multiple revisions and much back and forth, it finally went to an acquisitions meeting in April 2008. The result was a two book contract. Radiant Darkness came out last April, and Wildwing  (Greenwillow, 2010) is coming out this September!  

AB: What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about children's fiction appeals to you?

EW: It had become the bulk of what I read! My son and daughter have always been ravenous readers, and between us we were inhaling a lot of great books. And at the library I was helping kids and teens find books to read, hearing what they liked. This is an amazing time for YA lit. I love its immediacy, power, and emotional curve. The pacing. That it’s about a time of transformation, of finding your strength.

AB: When at Harvard and Berkeley, did you study children’s lit while pursuing degrees in history and literature?

EW: I don’t think it would have occurred to me to study or write for kids at that point! But I loved anything to do with language and stories. I remember a great poetry writing workshop, and a tutorial on light verse. I studied French cabarets and song lyrics as a way to look at shifting notions of class. I loved reading fat 19th century European novels. In grad school I became interested in finding the stories in history—but that’s a long time ago. This is a lot more fun!

AB: How helpful has being a part of SCBWI been for you? How about Linda Zuckerman’s Children’s Book Conference?

EW: Huge! I continue to be grateful and amazed by how supportive, talented, and friendly the kids/teens writing community is in Oregon. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in writing or illustrating kids’ books join the Oregon branch of SCBWI, go to their conferences, and get on their listserve.
The Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference was really what jump started things for me. It left me feeling, “I can do this!” It’s a very intimate conference, and something magical happens over the course of a week, getting loads of new ideas through talks, workshops, and conversations; and connecting at meals and through the day with faculty who are committed to teaching, and with participants who range from beginners to published authors.

AB: This summer, you’ll be on the faculty of the very conference you feel jump started your writing career- Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. What will you be teaching?

EW: I’ll be giving a talk on character, and one on writing for young adults, as well as leading a workshop. The conference is sponsored by PSU and held on the Reed campus, July 19-23. Liz Bicknell, editorial director of Candlewick Press, will be there this year. You can check out the faculty, schedule, and registration info here

AB: Do you work with a critique group? What and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?

EW: I trade pieces regularly with two other writers. I also share work with a friend who’s a screenwriter. My daughter is a fantastic reader with spot-on insights into character. She calls it like she sees it. I’ve learned, though, not to share things during the early stages of writing. That doesn’t work as well for my creative process.
As for craft, I’m always hungry for new techniques, exercises, and ways of seeing. I gobble up inspiration anywhere I can find it: conferences, workshops, books about craft, and reading, reading, reading.

AB: Are you able to read much current middle grade/ YA  fiction? If so, what are some books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed? What makes you like it/them so much?

EW: Um, how much room do I have? I just read The Mysterious Howling—that was fun. Hunger GamesCatching Fire for their nonstop pace. Jellicoe Road. Black Juice—that tar story! Harry Potter. The Knife of Never Letting Go. The Porcupine Year and Diamond Willow were MGs I enjoyed. The Goose Girl for turning a victim tale into a heroine tale. Oregon authors are doing fantastic stuff. Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch was haunting, amazing. I loved Susan Fletcher’s Alphabet of Dreams. Check out books by Christine Fletcher, Sara Ryan, L.K. Madigan, Suzanne Young, Lisa Schroeder, Rosanne Parry, Linda Zuckerman, Suzanne Blackaby (poetry), and April Henry. 

AB: What about writing comes easiest for you? What is most difficult about the craft?

EW: I love the earliest part that’s like falling into a dreamworld, where I see and hear and touch everything and my pen is dashing across the page, and I’m not worrying at all if things are right or good because I know I can always fix it later. I also like the first slash-and-burn edit, where my pages turn into giant x’s and arrows and blue pools of scribbled inserts. More challenging for me is figuring out what makes a story slow down in places, rearranging things. And I do endless nitpicky edits, over and over, trying to get the little things just right. Those drive me insane. And the copy editing stage is a necessary evil.

AB:  Unless I’m gravely mistaken, you have a sister Lissa Rovetch, aka L. Bob Rovetch, who wrote the HOT DOG AND BOB series. Did you both always know you’d be writing for children, or did you come to it independently?

EW: Yes! Lissa is my wonderful, talented sister—and the author of Hot Dog and Bob, and “Ask Arizona,” a monthly feature for Highlights, Ook the Book, Trigwater Did It, Cora and the Elephants, and much more. She illustrated There Was a Man Who Loved a Rat and Other Vile Little Poems—said poems being written by my mother in her 80s! Lissa also teaches classes in writing and illustrating kids’ books, and in creativity, which makes sense, because she’s probably the most creative person I know. She was writing and illustrating kid’s books back when I still thought my future was in academics, and that’s a while ago. She helped me start on my own journey by convincing me to write some passages for a project she was working on. Thank you, Lissa! 

AB: What advice would you offer a writer who is just starting out?

EW: Write! Read! Write! Don’t expect it all to be good, just keep going and when something interesting appears, follow up. Let yourself be inspired by books, conferences, other people you meet on the writing path. Share your work with people who are both kind and insightful. Connect with the local writing community. Get used to saying “I am a writer.” 

AB: Emily, thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses. One last question: can you tell us a bit about your upcoming novel WILDWING that will be on shelves in the fall? 

EW: WILDWING is a sweeping tale of love, time travel, and the wisdom of following your heart. The front flap says it really well: When Addy is swept back in time, she couldn’t be happier to leave her miserable life behind. Now she’s mistaken for Lady Matilda, the pampered ward of the king. If Addy can play her part, she’ll have glorious gowns, jewels, and something she’s always longed for—the respect and admiration of others. But then she meets Will, the falconer’s son with sky blue eyes, who unsettles all her plans. From shipwrecks to castle dungeons, from betrothals to hidden conspiracies, Addy finds herself in a world where she’s not the only one with a dangerous secret. When she discovers the truth, Addy must take matters into her own hands. The stakes? Her chance at true love . . . and the life she’s meant to live.