Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Fall 2010 Books: MAD AT MOMMY by Komako Sakai

The Library of Congress CIP data summarizes this book as "A little rabbit is very angry at his mother, and he tells her the reasons why," which is accurate. But what makes it terrific and real is how specific and at the same time universal those reasons are: that she sleeps late when he wants to play; that she always tells him to hurry up, but then she never hurries up herself; or, as you can see in this next picture, that she yells for no reason (when it's illustratively clear she has very good reason!).

The resolution is satisfying for mommy and child alike, and the illustrations will make you both laugh and say "Awww!" for their expressiveness. . . . I mean, really, just LOOK at that cover, or this next image, the soul of four-year-old petulance:

Publishers Weekly said in a starred review: "This honest account of a small rabbit's angry outburst and the contrast between the adorable protagonist and his simmering emotions demonstrate Sakai's (The Snow Day) uncanny ability to tap into children's feelings," and Kirkus, added, with another star, "A playful story that offers young readers—and their big feelings—a serious voice. Charming, classy and current" -- three words that we may just take as our new motto at Arthur A. Levine Books.

The story we always tell about this book around the office is that the first time Arthur's son was read the book, he finished it, closed it reverently, and said, "This is a PERFECT book, Daddy." We couldn't agree more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Movie Recommendation: HOWL

Last night, somewhat through random good luck, James and I went to see a new movie called Howl, about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial over his famous 1955 poem. The screenplay for this movie is entirely taken from transcripts of the court trial, interviews with Ginsberg, and the text of Howl, and the film cuts among those three different story strands, with the text portrayed through both a recreation of the first public reading of the poem and gorgeous animations illustrating its images and themes. James Franco plays Ginsberg in the interview and the reading; Jon Hamm, David Straithairn, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels play various figures in the trial.

And it is just an immensely intelligent, passionate, and well-acted film. I felt as if I were getting to know Ginsberg, and came to really like his humility and honesty, through the interview bits (and I learned a lot about the Beat Generation besides); I fell in love with the poem, which I don't think I'd ever experienced in full before, through the reading and the animations (which have been collected into a graphic novel); and the trial portions coalesce into a splendid defense of a writer's right to speak in the language that comes naturally to him, and the importance of writerly freedom in expanding the boundaries of literary art. (I thought more than once of the #Speakloudly campaign.) As the poem is frank in its sexual language, so is the movie, and if that would make you uncomfortable, it's not for you; but for everyone else, and especially lovers of poetry and haters of censorship, very highly recommended.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Scholastic Spring 2011 Librarian Webcast

On Tuesday, Scholastic broadcast our Spring 2011 librarian preview across the web, with a number of editors, including moi, giving delicious little glimpses of some of the delights on the spring list. You can watch the preview (hosted by our intrepid School & Library Marketing Director, John Mason) here:

Scholastic Librarian Preview

If you're interested in Arthur A. Levine Books books particularly, you can see our books as follows:

  • At 7:59, Arthur discusses his forthcoming picture book, Monday Is One Day, illustrated by Julian Hector, with his editor for the book, Andrea Davis Pinkney.
  • At 18:51, he introduces Sidekicks, a super-awesome graphic novel by Dan Santat, edited by my friend (and yours) Rachel Griffiths.
  • At 20:17, fans of Ferragamo and Susan Shreve will adore The Lovely Shoes.
  • At 21:40, GENIUS ALERT! See selections from Shaun Tan's new compendium, Lost and Found.
  • And at 23:55, Trent Reedy and I talk about his wonderful middle-grade novel set in Afghanistan, Words in the Dust. (Apparently I move around a lot when I think I'm sitting still.)
And there is lots of other Scholastic-y goodness in there as well. Hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Talk to Me: What Makes You Buy a Book?

I've been thinking a lot about book marketing lately, and what actually "moves the needle" in terms of selling a children's/YA book to a customer. So I thought I'd survey my readership and ask:  When you're standing in the bookstore or sitting at your computer on a bookselling site, what makes you actually purchase a book? (Beyond the title, cover design, and flap/descriptive copy, of course, as I take it for granted those need to be great; and friend recommendations, as those can be personalized to you.) I don't expect anyone to answer all of these questions, but just to list some things I'm curious about:

  • Are you usually buying books for children in your life, or for yourself?
  • Do you pick up a book because you've seen a great review? In that case, what sources (which blogs or publications) matter most to you as a reader? Do you pay attention to user reviews or stars on  
  • Do you watch book trailers? Why?
  • Do you ever click through banner ads for books? On what sites do you notice them?
  • Do blurbs matter to you?
  • Do awards matter to you? What about lists? (E.g. Horn Book Fanfare, Texas Bluebonnet List)  
  • Given the small world of the kidlitosphere:  Of the last ten books you've bought, how many of the authors did you actually "know"? (Meaning you've had some substantive contact with them either online or in real life.)
  • If you pay attention to buzz, at what point does that translate to your seeking out a book? When it's everywhere? When the right person says it?  
  • Which of these factors -- again beyond the title, cover, flap copy, and friend recs -- has the MOST influence on you as a reader?
  • Opening it up:  Given our limited budgets, what should publishers be doing that we currently aren't doing in order to market books? Are there places we should be advertising to reach kids or teens? Media we should be in*? Cross-promotions we should be seeking out?
Obviously the answers are going to be different for every reader, and even every book bought by every reader, but I'd love to see what y'all have to say. Here are some of my answers:  I'm usually buying books for myself. I watch book trailers mostly out of curiosity about how their makers translate the book into visual form, given the usually limited budgets for such things. Reviews, buzz, and blurbs from or comparisons to the right author will all get me to pick up a book in the store, but the first pages have to sell me on it to get me to buy it. I notice banner ads in the PW newsletters and in the Unshelved weekly digest, and I also really like the Unshelved visual book talks and reviews. I love getting the Goodreads digest every day with my friends' substantive reviews, and those can inspire me to put a book on my to-read list, which is why I take good care with my own reviews (and also why I only add people I know in real life to my Goodreads friends list -- I don't need anything more to read!). The biggest reason I buy books is author loyalty:  I love a previous book by the author, and/or what I know of the author, and I want to have, and more than that, own his or her new one.


Thanks for sharing!
* Writing this, I suddenly had a vision of a video game in which somebody sits down and reads . . . but then the camera dives through the book, and you participate in the marvelous adventure in that book, until that comes to an end, and that tired protagonist sits down and opens a book . . . and then the camera dives through the book, and there's a completely different protagonist and you have to win through THAT adventure, which again would conclude in a book. . . . It would be the If on a winter's night a traveler** of video games! And awesome.

** Though I guess the TRUE Ioawnat video game would end each level with the protagonist sitting down to play a video game, thus keeping the loop going. And also there would be meta-commentary on what you-the-player would be doing between levels. This also sounds awesome.***

*** Now someone will tell me this video game was actually created in 2002. Go ahead, spoil my dream.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

See My Friend's Movie!

When I was a senior in college, I was selected to attend the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium, where I met my friend Jeff Reichert. He and I both ended up in New York after graduation, and while I immersed myself in publishing and children's books, he became a fixture in the world of independent film and film criticism, working in marketing for several indie distribution companies and cofounding an excellent film journal called Reverse Shot.

Then a couple of years ago, Jeff decided to take the plunge:  He quit his job and became a full-time documentary filmmaker. His subject:  gerrymandering, the manipulation of Congressional district lines for political gain.

This process happens every ten years, after the Census numbers come in, so it was a film tailor-made for 2010, and Jeff worked terrifically hard to get the film done in time. He interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, lawmakers in Texas (the famous group of Democrats that hid out in Oklahoma for days to prevent the Republicans from redrawing district lines), and a representative from our neighborhood here in Brooklyn. He shot and edited and shot and edited and essentially went into a two-year filmmaking cave.

This week, all that hard work is paying off as Gerrymandering hits theatres. I saw its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, and it's smart, sharp, funny and passionate -- a film guaranteed to get both Democrats and Republicans talking, while offering some nonpartisan solutions to this knotty political problem. The reviews have been great, and it's even been talked up for the documentary film Oscar! Gerrymandering is showing in a series of one-night stands across the U.S. this week, and then opening in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego on Friday, before spreading wider later this fall. If you're a fan of politics, passion projects, or just really smart filmmaking, please check it out. And yay, Jeff!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Q&A: Elizabeth C. Bunce, author of STARCROSSED

What were the initial seeds of StarCrossed? How long had the book been growing for you before you started writing it?
A long time! I started drafting the manuscript right after submitting A Curse Dark as Gold to you, in the fall of 2005. But I first heard Digger’s voice whispering to me more than ten years ago, when she was the main character in an adult novella that never went anywhere. And the seeds of her world and her story were much older still. Digger inhabits a fantasy world I’ve been tinkering with since I was a teenager, back when I first realized I wanted to write.

I can’t remember exactly what made me realize that my shiftless novella could be a much better young adult novel, but I do clearly remember deciding that StarCrossed would be the book to follow Curse. I was coming off three very intense years inside Charlotte Miller’s head, and I was eager to kind of shed that skin and work with a new character, a new voice—and especially work on a book that could be potentially lighter in tone. I remember telling my agent that I wanted to write A Fun Book, because as enormously proud of Curse as I am, and as rewarding as it was to write, “nobody could accuse it of being rollicking.” My agent responded, “Yeah, it’s not a romp.”

As it happened, my idea of A Fun Book apparently involved the main character’s lover being murdered by secret police on Page 1, so clearly my Fun Meter still needs some calibrating!

A Curse Dark as Gold was loosely based in the historical real world and on the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” How did it feel to create a wholly original world and storyline here? (I wonder if you even felt more free, not having to get those historical details right . . . ?)
Going about creating a new world was not so different—but working without a plot net (without the framework of a fairytale to guide my storyline) was definitely a little intimidating. This is the first novel I’ve completed that is not a retelling of some sort. On the one hand, that was nerve-wracking, but at the same time it was also very freeing. Since I wasn’t constrained to a predetermined set of plot points and conclusion, I never felt like I was “forcing” my characters into position, and they were able to go about their business quite naturally. As long as I could keep up with them, we did fine!

Even though this is a made-up world, I still did my homework, familiarizing myself with everything from lunar science, to castle life, to the tools of historical espionage, to our own world’s history of religious persecution, to period firearms and the technology of warfare! There was a little more freedom here, however, for a couple of reasons. First, Llyvraneth is not so firmly grounded in real-life Earth history as was the world of Curse, so I could focus on the details that served the story best, without concern about anachronisms or inaccuracies. But more than that, Digger herself was a much more impatient character than Charlotte, and tended to pull me away from the research to tell my story, already! a lot sooner than Charlotte ever did.

What sorts of reference materials did you make up to help keep track of the world?
Since I’ve been working with Llyvraneth for more than twenty years, I didn’t need much for my own reference (aside from a map), but a critique partner requested a glossary and cast list (which became the Lexicon included in the published book), and you asked me for at least a couple of documents to help flesh out the worldbuilding. If I recall correctly, one was a timeline of the political history that feeds StarCrossed's crucial backstory; and the other was an account of Llyvrin/Celyst mythology, chronicling the lives and characters of the seven gods worshipped by Llyvrins. These documents were wonderful fun to come up with, and I really enjoyed drawing on all those years of worldbuilding!

One kind of amazing thing happened during the revision process. I ran out of printer paper while printing out a set of your editorial notes, and I had to go digging around the dark recesses of my office to find something, anything that would run through my printer. I ended up with a pack of typing paper from my college word-processor days. When I actually went through and read the printed notes, I discovered that I’d printed a page on top of a hand-drawn map of Llyvraneth I’d done years and years before!

Many writers talk about having a markedly different emotional experience writing a second novel after the first has been published . . . either that it’s easier, because they know that they can finish a book and they’ll have some support, or harder, because of new concerns about expectations. What was your experience this time around? And did your writing process change at all with this book?
To be honest, I really don’t know what my writing process is anymore, because it’s been so different on all two-point-seven-five books! Curse took three years of painstaking craft and research, with six months of revision after the sale. StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon both sold on proposal, so I was already on deadline when I wrote them. StarCrossed happened in big chunks between bits of Curse, then was revised on a crazy, oft-disrupted schedule, which I’m sure you remember well and which I believe we are both sworn never to speak of again!  For Liar’s Moon I did extensive advance plotting, outlining, and preparation before I ever wrote a single word—and then had a solid first draft in just over three months. I’m kind of looking forward to the next projects, to see how else my process evolves, or if it ever settles down into something that I can point to and say, “this works.”

As for the emotional experience? Wow. So, so different. Leaving aside the schedule and deadline, it took me ages to understand that StarCrossed is, in fact, a vastly more complicated story than Curse, which has essentially a single, straightforward plotline. StarCrossed has something like five intertwining mystery plots that must all be resolved in order, in order to achieve Digger’s emotional and thematic development. Realizing this was a turning point for me with the manuscript.

But more than that, there was this odd, award-shaped shadow over the writing of this book that made it much more difficult than I ever anticipated. It was really hard to separate the new book from the expectations set up by the Morris Award (&c), and give StarCrossed its own special attention. I think it took me six months to realize that when I wrote Curse, I had never sat down to write An Award-Winning Novel. I’d set out to tell Charlotte’s story with as much honesty and authenticity as possible. That’s all. And that’s all I needed to do for Digger—not write The Next Curse. Just tell Digger’s story to the best of my ability—and I could do that.

I remember sending you a list of everything that was bothering me about one draft of the manuscript, and you wrote back, “You are being very hard on this poor book!” And I suddenly felt like a parent whose second child is never good enough: “Why can’t you be more like your big sister Curse? She won the Morris Award, you know!”

But I am happy to report that Digger has no trouble at all standing apart from her big sister’s shadow, and from everything we’re hearing so far, readers seem to be enjoying her story immensely (some even more than Curse!).

One thing we seem to consistently discover in the editing process for your books is that you’ve written mystery novels in fantasy dress. Are you in fact a mystery reader? Any authors or titles from the genre that you’d recommend?
Here’s the funny thing: No! I actually read very few true genre mysteries, if we’re talking Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, P.D. James, and that ilk. But I grew up loving Trixie Belden, and must have read each of those books a dozen times, and as a teen I was a huge fan of suspense authors like Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike. As an adult, I watch a ton of mystery TV: “Masterpiece Mystery” on PBS, “Law & Order” (the original only, thank you very much), and almost any show with a paranormal bent, like “Eleventh Hour.” So even though I’m not currently reading much by the way of genre mysteries, I’m never too far from a mystery plot. I’m sure all of that early reading and TV osmosis has fed my stream of consciousness!

As a reader/viewer, I appreciate stories that can combine genres, like Ken Follett’s espionage thrillers. Though they’re not “mysteries” in the true Whodunit sense, there’s always an element of secrecy, and an urgency to bring those secrets to light. And I believe it’s that story sense that brings the mystery into my own work. (Well, and then there’s Liar’s Moon, which is, in fact, a pretty classic murder mystery! I guess it's sort of "fantasy noir").

Digger is very different from Charlotte, the protagonist of A Curse Dark as Gold . . . chiefly, I think, in that Charlotte is driven to fight for one place and people she loves, while Digger almost actively resists being part of a community. Do you have more personal sympathy with one or the other of these perspectives?
It depends on the day you ask me, I think! I’m definitely an introvert with hermit tendencies, so it can be a struggle for me to remember to engage in my community (be that my actual physical neighborhood or the virtual ones online), but I do tend to hold onto people fiercely once I’m attached. The thing that interested me about Charlotte and Digger is that family is very important to each of them, but what that means, and how they go about identifying and protecting Their Own is very different. Charlotte is devoted to her actual family—her blood kin and her small village—and risks everything to hold them together, even when they might not deserve it. But Digger is perfectly willing to sever ties with her blood relations in favor of a family she’s putting together for herself: a mother in Lady Lyll, a sister in Meri, a brother in... well. You know. The goal is the same, even if their methods and definitions may differ.

Are you creating any clothing related to StarCrossed, as you did for Curse? Also, I know that for Curse, you did actually practice shearing sheep, spinning thread, weaving, etc., to have mastery over those skills. . . . Did you learn to pick locks, forge documents, or scale walls for StarCrossed?
Sigh. I only wish. My husband bought me a set of lock picks for Christmas last year, but I am technically deficient (I can barely operate an actual key), so I’m afraid they’ve done little more than sit on my desk looking very cool! I do have a passing familiarity with calligraphy, however, so Digger’s book-crafting adventure wasn’t wholly alien to me. And I did track down a replica 16th century pistol recently, as well.  As for costuming, my primary field of interest is the Renaissance, so this time around my costuming informed the book, if that makes sense. I drew on my understanding of how the clothing moves and feels, as well as the various pieces of women’s costume and the myriad hiding places they afford that a thief might rely upon! It was during one of my costuming projects a couple of summers ago that I hit upon the perfect place for Digger to keep her lock picks, for instance.

What drives you to write? What makes you get up in the morning and sit down at the laptop?
How are we defining “morning,” exactly? I have been writing for a very long time, and I can’t imagine my life without it; it’s at the very core of who I am. I do know that I definitely feel an almost physical need to stitch or sew, if I’ve been away from the needle for too long. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that same drive for writing, but, then, I’ve never really stopped writing long enough to find out! I can say that I have gads of stories to tell, and feel like it would be an awful shame not to tell them. That’s one of the reasons I’m so happy about StarCrossed—the world I created more than twenty years ago is finally really, truly a book! There is enormous satisfaction in that.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"In My Family," by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

In my family we're all tenacious, decide what we want and go after it.
We work hard, moving forward, when we're exhausted, and
think we can't move one inch more. I wonder if it's in the
genes, this need to finish everything we start, this belief that
hard work and perseverance will get us through. My sister
kept going to work for months after she had seizures and
couldn't walk. Her live-in aide took her to work in a wheel-
chair, pushing her down the road, because the sidewalks in
Hawthorne aren't handicapped accessible.

My father had a degenerative disease of the spine. He dragged
one paralyzed leg behind him wherever he went, and went he
did, driving until he was eighty-seven years old, cloth around
the pedals of the car so he could reach the brake, one shoe
built up to compensate for the unevenness of his legs, driving
to his friends' houses to play cards and visit, driving to the
courthouse in Paterson to file a petition for his friends or reg-
ister the legal papers he drew up, his body failing him, but his
mind sharp and willing him on.

My son John wants to think he is not like us. I hear how even
at thirty-two he takes responsibility for his life, how he gets up
at 5 a.m., so he can be at his office by 5:30, how he handles the
complex legal problems of a large corporation, working
straight through till he returns at 6 p.m. to help with the chil-
dren and to deal with the house, the yard, repairs. He takes
everything seriously. I love the way John carries his son in his
arms, the child running to him for comfort and the way they
speak to each other without words. I know that even my son,
who wants to think he is not like our family, is driven as we
are to keep on going, no matter what.

These are the things my mother taught us by example, my
mother who tripped over our skates when we were children
and got up and walked the twelve blocks to Farraro Coat
Factory on River Street. She worked until noon, walked back
home to make our lunches, and then walked back to work.
Only after she came home at 3:30, so she could be there when
we got home from school, did she collapse into a chair unable
to move. When she came back from the hospital clinic with a
cast on her leg, fourteen bones in her foot broken, she had to
rest her leg on a stool. That was one of the few times in her
life that I saw her cry, not because of the pain, but because she
couldn't do the work she told herself she had to do.