Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Which I Give You Three Things You Want! Maybe.

Sorry, I can't supply you with an iPad, a million dollars, or a puppy. But if you want . . .

  • To hear some of my thoughts on marketing, Shelli interviewed me over at Market My Words.
  • To contribute to a conversation about the editor/author relationship, Sara Lewis Holmes and I will be chatting in person (for the first time ever!) this weekend, and we're collecting Myths about said relationship that we can Bust in person on stage. If you'd like to offer one up, head over to Sara's blog by Saturday morning.
  • To laugh hard, visit -- some of the worst, most vulgar, and also most hilarious Facebook conversations you can imagine (recommended by Jennifer Crusie).
For everyone in New York this weekend for SCBWI National, I won't be there -- I'm sitting in the JetBlue terminal at JFK right now to fly to Austin for their SCBWI conference -- but I recommend both this list of things to do in the city, and the Kidlit Drink Night that Betsy is hosting tomorrow. Party on, dudes.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Earlier this afternoon, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and I conversed on Twitter about Eighth-Grade Superzero. You can view her wonderful book trailer above, with nice little glimpses of Gbemi, Brooklyn, the book, and its characters; and read the Twitter transcript here if you missed the chat itself. Thank you to all who participated!

The Best YA You Haven't Read

When I saw this post via Bookshelves of Doom, I thought of 2009's How to Say Goodbye in Robot and Destroy All Cars, both of which I've previously praised. But I thought most of this book:

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else
, by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's the story of Owen, a smart seventeen-year-old who's slowly being forced toward a grown-up life that he's not sure he wants; and his relationship with Natalie, an equally smart girl who knows exactly what she wants -- to be a composer -- and is working hard to get there. It's a slim little book (fewer than 1o0 pages) about soulmates, the difference between friendship and love, the transition from childhood to adulthood, feeling different, losing and finding hope, those rare and perfect moments that make everything worthwhile. I love this book so much that when it was out of print, I went to the New York Public Library and copied every spread on the copy machine just so I'd have the text for myself. There's very little story to it, and it's not for everyone, certainly, but if you were a "sensitive" teenager who loved reading and thinking and felt a little out of step with everyone else, THIS IS THE BOOK. It's criminally underknown, but Michael Stearns, bless him, brought it back into print while he was at Harcourt, so it's still available in stores. Read it and give it to any thoughtful teens you know.

Then, because I can't resist the opportunity to talk about my books, here are eight I worked on and wish people knew better:

  • Crossing to Paradise by Kevin Crossley-Holland -- The three books of Kevin's Arthur trilogy were on the indie Top Ten list, ALA Best Books et al., and highly praised by Philip Pullman and Karen Cushman. This pendant novel stands alone in its story of another character's pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but it also rounds out Arthur's story; and the writing in it is so, so gorgeous and poetic. . . . It's a wonderful gift for any reader interested in the Middle Ages, Jerusalem, pure faith, or again, lovely writing.
  • The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer, translated by John Nieuwenhuizen -- the only atheistic children's novel I can name is also one of the most joyous, rich, and strange books I've ever read, a book that literally changed my life with its protagonist's simple answer to the question of what he wants to be when he grows up: "Happy." Because that's what it's all about, isn't it?
  • The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley (Who Tried to Live an Unusual Life) by Martine Murray -- Seven years after we published this, I still think about its definition of love, its delicate and original imagery, its wonderful main character and her quirky family, and give copies only to people who I deem worthy to know it. . . . This one is truly a Book of my Heart.
  • Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano -- Every copy bought of one of these increases the chance that I might get to publish and edit Book III and find out for myself what happens next to Balsa. So here's my totally unsubtle request here: Please buy them! If you read these books and saw their incredibly fresh fantasy world and their incredibly wonderful female main character, Balsa, you'd have the same wish. They're just awesome, and now the only book + sequel to win Batchelder honors in consecutive years, I believe. (Someday I'd love to see the kidlitosphere do a Translation Reading Challenge to bring attention to the many, many highly original and underread books from other countries, because they could use the love and exposure far more than many U.S.-originated books, whose authors are here to promote them. But it's not like I'm biased on this subject or anything...)
  • The Singer of All Songs and its two sequels (The Waterless Sea and The Tenth Power) by Kate Constable -- The first of these came out in 2004, I think, right in the middle of the early-00s YA fantasy glut, and I think they just got overlooked. Which is an enormous pity, as they're beautifully written, highly original fantasies that are perfect for any fans of Tamora Pierce (who blurbed them), Robin McKinley, or Elizabeth C. Bunce.
  • Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee -- I daresay this was the best food YA novel of 2009 AND the best Los Angeles YA novel of 2009, a testament to Lisa's love of the city and really great tacos. It's also a great coming-of-age story with a terrific supporting cast.
Thanks for reading! And now -- go read the books!

Monday, January 18, 2010


Congratulations to Francisco X. Stork for winning the Schneider Family Award - Teen division for MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD! To quote the ALA website, "The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." MARCELO, of course, is about a young man on the autistic spectrum, among many other things, and everyone at Scholastic is thrilled the committee saw fit to honor it with this important award.

And then MORIBITO II: GUARDIAN OF THE DARKNESS was named a Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book! The author of the book is Nahoko Uehashi, the translator Cathy Hirano; and of course the first book in the series won the Batchelder last year. Congratulations again to them, and thank you to the committee -- it's an honor and a pleasure to have our AALB commitment to translation recognized once more.

Hooray for all today's award winners!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Chance to Twitter Chatter

The lovely Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and I will have a live Twitter chat to discuss her terrific Eighth Grade Superzero and various questions regarding writing and publication this Friday, January 22, from noon to 1 EST. Our Twitter feeds are at @olugbemisola and @chavelaque. If you'd like to follow the conversation easily, look for the hashtag #8GS0 (note that last character is a zero) in; if you'd like to skip it entirely, block us for the day on A transcript will be posted on one of our blogs afterward.

(Have I mentioned that Superzero received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and is the Book of the Month for Middle Grade? Consider that done. Yay, Gbemi! Also, a shoutout for Operation Yes, which is a finalist in the middle-grade category of the CYBILs. Yay, Sara!)

I'm writing this on the BoltBus on the way to Boston for the ALA Midwinter Conference. Wireless Internet never ceases to amaze me, and wireless Internet on a bus -- all the more astounding! I'm going to turn it off now and try to work instead. If you see me at the conference, come say hi.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Some Good and Important Things

  • Anyone interested in urban science education should consider attending this symposium in New York on January 24: Jhumki Basu -- a dear friend of James's -- was one of the most dynamic, interested, and interesting people I've ever met, and she died much, much too soon. (It was her wedding we were attending in the top picture here.) This foundation and symposium carry on her work as a teacher and inspiration.
  • We held my grandfather's memorial service yesterday -- a really wonderful event, exactly what he would have wanted, with stories from friends, authors, and family and readings from great children's literature, including Charlotte's Web and family favorite The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Any donations in his memory may be directed to the UCM Children's Literature Festival, in care of the University of Central Missouri Foundation, and thank you.
  • Writers of all races should check out the recent discussion at Black-Eyed Susan's regarding characters of color, particularly the wise and thoughtful exchange between Neesha and JL at the end.
  • And following on two of those things: I'll be speaking at the UCM Children's Literature Festival in March, followed the next weekend by a talk at the Books by the Bay Multicultural Literary Conference, and registration for both of those events is now open.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Another Terrific Editorial Christmas Present

A few years ago, my dear friend Katy gave me the best pair of gloves any story-lover could desire. This year, Gbemi Rhuday-Perkovich came through with my favorite editorial present. In her Eighth-Grade Superzero, one of the characters takes "THE GODSON" as his D.J. name ("It's like 'The Godfather' -- junior division -- 'Godson' -- get it?"). When I hit this line while I was line-editing, I loved it so much that, in a fit of editorial goofiness -- which, my authors can attest, come over me fairly often -- I wrote my own D.J. name in the margins for Gbemi's amusement. And thanks to this awesome shirt she made for me, now the world can know . . . I am . . .


You know, this may also be my professional wrestling name. My motto: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." Because quoting Shelley is how I roll, as The Editrix. Hee.

Thanks again, Gbemi!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

How to Write a Great Query Letter: An Example That Worked

In May of 2006, a writer named Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich sent me a query letter for a novel then called Long Time No Me. After several reads and a noncontractual revision, I acquired the book in December of 2007; and two years and a month later, that novel is now in stores as Eighth Grade Superzero -- praised as a "masterful debut" in a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Gbemi has kindly allowed me to reprint her original letter here and annotate it as a companion to the Annotated Query Letter from Hell; I think of this as the Annotated Query Letter That Does It Right. Much of what it Does Right is that it speaks so specifically to me and my tastes, as you’ll see—my interest in writers of color and in racial, religious, and other moral questions—and clearly those tastes would not be applicable to all acquisitions editors. But if you can divine from an editor’s books, blog posts, talks at conferences, or other material what his or her tastes are, then this might hint at ways to tailor your description of your novel to fit those tastes. And if you have no idea about an editor’s tastes, this is still a useful example for its professionalism, efficiency, thoroughness, and overall grace. The numbers in parentheses are my annotations.

May 31, 2006

(1) Cheryl Klein
Arthur A. Levine Books
557 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

(2) Dear Ms. Klein:

(3) We met at the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL) One-on-One Plus Conference last October, and (4) I’ve since enjoyed your words on moral dilemmas and character values, as well as some of the books you’ve worked on. (5) I loved Lisa Yee’s painfully funny Millicent Min, Girl Genius, and Saxton Freymann’s Food for Thought has been a crafting inspiration as well as a teaching aid.

(6) In my middle-grade novel Long Time No Me, (7) Reginald “Pukey” McKnight created a superhero character in kindergarten; (8) now secretly dreams of being a real-life hero. (9) The Guy who’s got game and gets the Girl. Instead, he threw up on the first day of school. In the middle of the cafeteria. In front of everyone. 8th grade has gone downhill ever since.

(10) Now Reggie can’t even look The Girl in the eye, and his former best friend is bent on shredding his already tattered reputation. Sometimes he thinks it would be best to just exist between the lines and slide under the school’s social radar. (11) That won’t be easy when Reggie’s current best friend is white, a fact that seems to matter more and more, and his oldest friend is bent on “speaking truth to power” to anyone and everyone. (12) Reggie wonders why things are so bad if God is so good; his faith at all levels is challenged by (13) his father’s unemployment, his encounters with a homeless man, and his role as a “Big Buddy” to a younger version of himself. (14) When he finally decides to “be the change he wants to see” and run for school President, Reggie learns that sometimes winning big means living small.

(15) I’ve been published in national teen publications such as Rap Masters, Word Up, and Right On, and developed teen-oriented projects for clients including Queen Latifah, Girls, Inc., and Sunburst Communications. (16) I focused on my writing for children in workshops with Madeleine L’Engle and Paula Danziger, and was a three-time mentee at the RUCCL One-on-One Plus Conference. The Echoing Green Foundation twice awarded me a public service fellowship for my work with adolescent girls. I received my M.A. from New York University in Educational Communication and Technology with a concentration in Adolescent Literacy, and my B.Sc. from Cornell University in Print Communication. (17) I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

(18) Would you like to see sample chapters of Long Time No Me? An SASE is enclosed. I can be contacted at [phone number redacted] and by email at [email address redacted]. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

(1) & (2) In the spirit of contrasting this with the Query Letter from Hell, it’s worth pointing out: She spells my name and gets my publishing house right, and refers to me as “Ms. Klein,” as is proper in business correspondence. I would call her “Ms. Rhuday-Perkovich” in turn.

(3) She identifies where we met, at the One-on-One Conference seven months previously. Even if I don’t remember an attendee specifically (which I often don’t, I confess, given that I attend three to six conferences a year), a line like this is useful in establishing that this isn’t a query out of the blue: The writer has heard me speak and knows something about me, my editorial values, and likely what I’m looking for, which increases the odds that this is a thoughtful query I will like, as opposed to a query-bomb directed to ten editors plucked at random from the Children’s Writer's and Illustrator's Market.

(4) She mentions material posted on my website or blog. I always appreciate small compliments like these, particularly when they show that the writer values the same things I value—in this case, moral dilemmas and characters with depth. However, I would caution writers not to place too much emphasis or spend too much time on these sorts of personal compliments to editors with blogs or websites or what have you: We judge a query on the description of the book and the strength of your writing, not how nice you are to us.

(5) She brings up two of the books I’ve edited, which again indicates that she knows something about me and what I like; and she adds comments that show she has read and really “got” the books, not just picked them out of my list of books I edited. I especially love her description of Millicent Min as “painfully funny,” because that’s exactly what that book is—a perfect little fugue of awkwardness and hilarity—and the fact that Ms. Rhuday-Perkovich (as I thought of her then) recognized and praised the pain in it, not just the funny, made me sit up and take notice of her own work.

(6) She identifies upfront what genre her novel is. This is extremely useful as picture books have to be judged by a different standard than middle-grade novels, and ditto for middle-grade vs. YA, or all of them vs. nonfiction or poetry; and an early-in-the-letter identification of the genre helps me move my brain into the standards of that particular form.

(7) The name “Reginald McKnight” would have signaled to me that this was likely a novel about a young Black man (as that first name and surname are most common in the Black community in the U.S.), and this also would have been a point in the manuscript’s favor, as I’d like to publish more books about and by people of color.

(8) Yes, there is a subject missing here after the semicolon, and I point this out only to say that I requested the manuscript anyway—that the writer and character and book all sounded interesting enough to outweigh the “mustard on the shirt” (in Query Letter from Hell terms) of a minor grammatical error.

(9) “The Guy who’s got game and gets the Girl. . . . In the middle of the cafeteria. In front of everyone.” Coming out of this description, I sympathized with Reggie not just because of the grossness of the event—puking in the cafeteria in front of everyone! Ugh, poor guy—but because I got a glimpse of him in the language. These little details of capitalization and rhythm hint at the manuscript’s voice, and that it’s a distinctive voice, not a voice I’ve seen in many other query letters and manuscripts.

(10) This, the major plot and theme paragraph of the query, says to me that this is a fairly domestic novel, concerned more with local relationships among family and friends than any large-scale external plot to be confronted—which was and is fine with me; my favorite novelist in life is Jane Austen, after all. However, that also means that the characters have to be really well-drawn and well-rounded in order to make readers care as much about the stakes of the characters’ everyday lives as they would about how to defeat the Evil Overlord, say. Here, I’ve already noted that the voice is distinctive, which is a good start, and the rest of this paragraph will bear out the characters’ and relationships’ complexity and depth.

(11) The fact that Reggie’s best friend is white, and that this is remarked upon, confirms my earlier guess that this protagonist is a person of color, and the earlier points in the manuscript’s favor. This next sentence also would have told me that the manuscript delved into racial and political issues, which I find fascinating—all the more so as they often aren’t discussed in middle-grade novels for children; and thus this revealed that Ms. Rhuday-Perkovich wasn’t afraid to tackle big and complex topics in the context of her characters’ lives.

(12) I also love religious questions . . .

(13) . . . and economic issues, so clearly this query is just pushing all my little readerly interest buttons. The reason I love racial, political, religious, and economic questions in books (among many other things, of course) is because we all, even kids, live in a world filled with such questions in real life; and if part of the greatness of art is its fidelity to life, great art, by its realness, must raise such questions. This query letter is saying to me that Reggie and his world and the people in it are all very real.

(14) A very humble, and therefore highly unusual, conclusion to draw; and unusualness + quality realism + ambitious questions + good writing = my interest is piqued.

(15) A biography paragraph in which every fact can be directly connected to (a) Gbemi's knowledge/experience in working directly with children or teenagers, (b) her experience in print communication (which translates as marketing and publicity), or (c) her experience in writing for children. If an author has special expertise related to the subject of his or her novel—if the book deals with a young girl in the world of professional horse racing, say, and the author had been a jockey at Del Mar for two years—then she could also have added (d), her personal knowledge of or experience with the subject; that would have indicated that she was writing from a position of some authority, which is good to know when it comes to an unusual subject or for publicity purposes. In general with queries, any biographical fact that does not fit in categories (a)-(d) should be omitted. Parenthood does not count for (a).

(16) I was especially impressed by the reference to Madeleine L’Engle and Paula Danziger, both of whose fiction I love; and my knowledge of their books and styles told me that most likely Eighth Grade Superzero would have elements of religious inquiry (as the query already demonstrated) and humor, which I would appreciate. (And it does!)

(17) If a writer belongs to SCBWI, that tells me that he or she should be at least somewhat familiar with the submission and publication processes for children’s books, which is very useful in setting expectations on all sides. . . . I can rest assured that the writer won’t be expecting a manuscript submitted in October to be published in book form by Christmas, as in the Query Letter from Hell.

(18) Having made her excellent pitch, Ms. Rhuday-Perkovich exits gracefully, with a direct statement of the letter's implied question—Would you like to see this?—and all relevant information should my answer be yes—which it was! (These days I ask writers to submit two chapters and a synopsis of their novel along with their query letter; this letter was submitted before those guidelines were in place.)

My thanks again to Gbemi for letting me share this letter, and I hope you all enjoy the book it produced.

Friday, January 01, 2010

For the New Year: "Finishing the Hat"

The title of this post relates to two things in my life in 2010. The first is that it's the title of the first volume of Stephen Sondheim's memoir, which is the book I'm most looking forward to reading (besides those I work on, of course) in the new year. And the second is that it's one of Sondheim's most rich and gorgeous songs, about making art, the sacrifices it can require, and yet its dizzying pleasure . . . the last two lines, sung right, always make me catch my breath for a moment. Here's good wishes and inspiration to all of us looking to start, create, or finish our own hats in 2010.

Finishing the Hat
from Sunday in the Park with George
by Stephen Sondheim
(sung above by Raul Esparza)

Yes, she looks for me--good.
Let her look for me
to tell me why she left me
As I always knew she would.
I had thought she understood.
They have never understood,
And no reason that they should
But if anybody could...

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat

Mapping out a sky
What you feel like, planning a sky
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky

And how you're always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light,
How the kind of woman willing to wait's
Not the kind that you want to find waiting
To return you to the night,
Dizzy from the height,
Coming from the hat,
Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that

Studying a face,
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see--
It's the only way to see.

And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give."
But the woman who won't wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat...
Finishing a hat...

Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat