Adam Sidwell on Making Evertaster #1 on Amazon

New author Adam Sidwell has an amazing story behind his debut novel, the self-published Evertaster, and he’s here to tell us how he got his middle-grade adventure book to Amazon’s No. 1 spot for Children’s Mystery.

Before Adam gives us the scoop, he’s represented by literary agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media Group, and she talks about Adam’s success with Evertaster over on From the Mixed Up Files. Evertaster wasn’t planned to be self-published. Like many such novels, the manuscript was taken out to publishers first AND, according to Alyssa, got great feedback, but sales departments didn’t bite, saying it was too quirky. When Trident launched its own ebook publishing platform, Evertaster was the first middle-grade novel in the line. And the hardwork paid off.

Here’s Adam:

Using Facebook as a platform for an online launch, my debut novel Evertaster shot up into Amazon’s top 100 list in a single day. It rose as high as #51 in overall books and claimed the #1 spot in Children’s Mystery right next to John Grisham’s latest novel and one of the Percy Jackson books. On that day, Evertaster passed up many of the current New York Times bestsellers as well.

And this all happened without the help of a publisher or an experienced marketing team. My agent at Trident Media Group was astounded at Evertaster’s immediate viral success, and she’s been around the publishing block. She said she’d never seen anything like it.

There were certainly a number of circumstances involved, but the Facebook Online Launch Event was a powerful tool to help Evertaster rise so high. Here’s why:

Facebook allows users to create events that differ from wall posts in the following ways:

  1. Events have a specific time and date associated with it.
  2. Friends can join, then decline or accept the event.
  3. Friends can invite other friends.

In the months leading up to the launch, I was very excited to tell all my friends about the book and show off the killer cover art that was being done by Goro Fujita, Dreamworks concept artist. There it is, to the right.

So naturally I wanted to show it off, and Facebook was a great place to do that. It is the perfect platform for authors to announce to the world and their friends that their book is coming out, especially because it allows so much interaction. In the months prior to the launch, the fan base for Evertaster grew to over 2,250 fans. Some of those were friends, but the overwhelming majority were not. This was an incredible place to start for the online launch event.

After you’ve created your facebook event, you can click on “invite friends” to spread the word. You can also encourage others who are attending the event to invite friends as well.  The advantage to having a specific time and place for your event is mostly this: people will remember to buy your book. We set our event for 12-2pm on launch day, and people were clamoring about it beforehand. It’s like having an online party — one that stretches across the world — and nobody has to get into their car or dress up to go. Once they get there though, they are expecting something fun. So in the case of Evertaster, I released a snippet of the book trailer I’d promised them. Then we also did a video recap of how things went. You can think of other creative media to share as well. It allows people to feel they’re part of something larger — which they are, and really makes for a fun hour in the middle of an otherwise boring work day. It is a great way to celebrate with the friends and fans of the book.

And the result? Well check it out:

To see some of the other fun ways you can engage your readers, come check out the Evertaster Facebook page.

Thanks, Adam. Facebook Events sounds like a great tool.

You can follow Adam on his blog, and definitely read his fun bio. And, of course, Evertaster is available on Amazon.

Author Interview: Shana Burg, Laugh With the Moon

Laugh With the Moon bookcoverIt’s launch day for the second novel from author Shana Burg, Laugh With the Moon (Delacorte Books for Young Readers), and Shana has graciously stopped by to answer our writerly questions.

Partly based on her own experiences traveling to Malawi, Laugh With the Moon tells the story of 13-year-old Clare Silver, who feels that mourning her mother’s death is far more important than being dragged overseas with her doctor father. Mad that she has to spend 64 days in the African jungle, Clare must learn a new language and deal with new surroundings. As she begins to make friends, things get better, but she gets more heartbreak when an outing to see more of the country goes horribly wrong.

Laugh With the Moon is suitable for ages 10 and older and is already getting rave reviews, including a starred review from the School Library Journal. Shana’s success from her well-received 2008 novel A Thousand Never Evers is obviously continuing.

We posed our six little writerly questions to Shana, and her answers are as interesting as her books. Here they are:

Shana Burg

How did the story come to you? Characters? Situation? Whole thing at once?

As a graduate student in public policy, I found myself in Malawi, Africa, one winter tooling through the bush in a jeep with my driver, Norman, who later became a friend. Norman and I were investigating whether there were adequate learning materials such as pens and pencils and notebooks in the rural schools. However, we found that there were hardly any materials at all. Still, the children and teachers in the schools had incredibly creative ways of getting by with what they found. So, for example, children learned to write with sticks in the dirt. And they made letters with the mud from termite hills.

I went to Malawi back in 1997. When I came back, my sixth-grade students saw my pictures and were fascinated. That led me to think that American kids beyond my classroom would be intrigued by the way children in Malawi live. But I didn’t really have a story or a character in mind, until I began free writing from the point of view of an American girl who visits the country with her father. My main character, Clare, changed ages several times through many drafts until I finally found the age—thirteen—when she seemed real and right to me.

From your first inspiration, did you outline or jump in?

I jumped right in for the first few drafts. Once I had a character who I liked enough, I moved to an outline. My outline included a very short description of each scene, along with sensory details that I wanted to feature in that scene, the conflict in scene, and any key lines of dialogue. This launching off process of jumping in and then outlining was very helpful, but still, there were a million more drafts that followed.

Shana Burg interviewing students in Malawi

Shana Burg interviewing students in Malawi

Which do you enjoy most, the first draft or revising?

I really like both for different reasons. The first draft is exciting. You think, “Okay, this time I’m going to get it perfect right off the bat.” But then you go back and read what you wrote, and reality sets in: “Nope! It’s going to take years again.” Good news is that when I wrote my first book, A Thousand Never Evers, the entire process from free writing the first pages to publication took me eight years. Now, I’m happy to say, I’ve halved that time with Laugh With the Moon. Four years.

Revising isn’t as tummy-turning with ups and down as the first draft, because I’ve already got something to work with, and I’ve already come to grips with the fact that this is going to be an uphill climb. I love revising because the characters and scenes you don’t need, peel away and what you’re left with is the stuff that really works.

Were there any scenes or plotlines that were written but got cut, and if yes, why?

Oh, funny you should ask that next. Yes, tons!! I have to say, one thing I’ve become a lot better at is being okay with letting things that I’ve written go, including sense or plotlines that I really like but I know, in my gut, aren’t working. I find that when I’m willing to cut, cut, cut, it’s always better in the end. By the time my manuscript is finalized, it only shows a small bit of the life that character has actually lived in all the previous drafts and scenes that have been cut.

What was your biggest challenge with this story?

The biggest challenge was updating my research to the present day from the time I had been in Malawi. I was very fortunate to work with two Malawian research assistants, who had access to the Internet and helped tremendously. I also reached out to many other Malawians, as well as Canadians and Americans, who were so generous with their time and expertise in answering my questions and translating words from Chichewa to English too.

When you’re done with a manuscript, how do you celebrate?

In my opinion, you’re never really done with a manuscript until it’s actually published. Until that time, there are milestones (like first draft, second draft, fortieth draft, copy edit, etc.), but it seems like there’s always another step, until you really and truly can’t make any changes anymore. To finally celebrate my pub date today, my husband and son and I are going to the bookstore to buy a copy of the book, and then we’re going out for dinner. I’ll also be celebrating at my launch party at BookPeople on Sunday, June 24 at 4pm. There will be live African music and Malawian crafts for kids. Everyone in Austin is welcome to join me!

Thanks, Shana. The launch party will be fun.

Shana explains more about the inspiration for her novel on Cynsations today, which is also giving away a copy of the book. So go there and enter.

Also don’t miss the trailer for Laugh With the Moon:

Cynthia Levinson on We’ve Got a Job

Cynthia LevinsonToday, I’m thrilled to have a guest post from brilliant author Cynthia Levinson, whose debut book has garnered more awards than a Steven Spielberg movie.

Cynthia’s We’ve Got a Job is an stunning non-fiction book that tells the amazing story of how, 49 years ago, hundreds of children in Birmingham, Alabama, went to jail for the civil rights of themselves and their families.

Cynthia has talked a lot on the blogosphere about the research and interviews she did to write this book. When I invited her on my blog, I wondered how she felt post-release, going from all the uncertainty of a new author to the whirlwing of all her well-deserved praise.

Here’s what she said:

Except for feeling vastly relieved, I don’t know what I expected would happen when We’ve Got a Job was finally published. And, I certainly had no specific hopes. In retrospect, that sounds loony or literally incredible. But, since this is my debut book, I was too naïve to know the possibilities. It’s now been out for four months, and I’m thrilled—as well as exhausted!

I’d started working on it in 2007, took an extended break for 18 months in 2008-09, during which time about 20 publishers rejected the manuscript. Then I picked it up again when Peachtree Publishers bought it. But, even then, there were periods when steady writing, frenetic research, intense re-writing, and frantic photo quests were interspersed with prolonged fallow periods while I waited for responses from my editor. All of this is pretty routine, I gather. The peaks, valleys, plateaus, and gullies kept me focused on the work itself, as well as on a few other projects I was developing, rather than on the aftermath of publication.

Responses starting popping when Peachtree began distributing ARCs (advanced reader copies) in the fall of 2011. A class of fourth-graders in Round Rock, Texas, led by one of the world’s greatest teachers, Mrs. Christa Armantrout, agreed to write and produce a video trailer of the book. Meeting with the kids and talking with them about the four people who tell their stories in We’ve Got a Job was a thrill. And their trailer, which had its world premier at the book launch in Austin, was a thrill for all of us.

At the same time, a class of 11th- and 12th-graders in Cambridge, MA read and discussed the book, focussing on heroes. I got to observe their discussions, which were fascinating. Some kids were angry that they’d never before learned about Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth; others were so intrigued by the four principle “characters” in the book that they concluded that everyday heroes are more important than well-known ones, such as Dr. King. So, I could tell early on that young people were likely to find the book appealing.

We've Got a JobEven before its February 1 release, a few reviews trickled in. Oh my goodness, ***STARRED*** reviews! First, Kirkus, then Booklist and, soon, Publishers Weekly. Naively, since this is my first book, I didn’t know that some journals publish reviews before the official publication date. And, some waaaay after. Horn Book provided a wonderful review recently, and School Library Journal announced a fourth ****STARRED**** review over three months later.  I was so naive, I didn’t even know which journals gave stars.

The biggest surprise was The New York Times, which provided a brief review on its children’s Bookshelf of Black History books in mid-February and followed that the next week by naming it an Editor’s Choice. This is a list of “books of particular interest,” both adult and children’s. As one friend who happened to see it said, “holy moly!”

And blogs! My friends at EMUs Debuts, the blog for the gang of first-time-published writers who are clients of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, planned a week-long release party that was the equivalent of getting balloons, cards, and cake every day.

Then, more blogs. And interviews. And, newspaper articles. I won’t list them all. But, I confess that every one is posted or linked on my website, making for a total to date of 23 reviews and a dozen interviews.

Requests for school and library visits started drifted in, too—which meant preparing PowerPoint presentations. And, since my older daughter is another one of the world’s best teachers, I knew I needed to make them interactive. So, I scripted a Reader’s Theater in which kids take roles, read quotations from real people, sing civil rights songs, and march. And, each “character” gets a prop, which I needed to construct. I also got permission to use contemporary newsreel footage of children being attacked by dogs and washed down the street by powerful water hoses, which I incorporated into my slides—but which required a lot of technological assistance and, ultimately, my buying my own video projector.

In addition, bookstores and libraries in Birmingham, Austin, Washington (twice!), and Boston offered to hold signings, and a friend hosted a book party at my publisher’s home in Atlanta—a very generous gift from both of them. I was invited to work with teachers in Delaware on incorporating nonfiction narrative into classrooms. And, I also gave a presentation at the International Reading Association in Chicago on Joseph Campbell, a scholar of myths and folk tales, and nonfiction writing.

On top of all this, a wonderful publicist, Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, suggested that I prepare video clips of interviews with my four main sources and post them on YouTube, entailing multiple SOS exchanges with audio-video consultants and expansion of  my website.

The most recent development is that Random House is producing an audio version of the book, and I was able to both read the Author’s Note at their studio in New York as well as to help select the narrator, who is wonderful. I’m also providing interview clips for an expanded version of the book on CD.

And, all of this happened, unexpectedly, in about a four-month period. A pell-mell and breathless, four-month period.

Every bit of it has been exhilarating. But, the most gratifying aspect has been sustaining the friendships I made with the principals whose stories propel the book. Audrey Hendricks, unfortunately, died three years ago. However, her sister, Jan Fuller, not only came, with many, many of their cousins, to the book launch in Birmingham, she also spontaneously sang the song Audrey sang while marching to jail. And, the 75 or so other people there sang along. Jan also let me record a copy of the title song “We’ve Got a Job,” from an album on which her father sang with the Birmingham Movement Choir. This song, too, is now incorporated into my presentations at schools.

Arnetta Streeter Gary, alas, has been sick recently. But, I’ve visited her in the hospital, and I’m keeping a scrapbook of all the reviews, interviews, articles, and blog posts, including this one, for her.

Washington Booker and James Stewart have participated in several book launches and have visited schools with me. They’ve even started doing school visits on their own. The conversations we’ve had with adults and kids following our presentations have been heartfelt and candid. Nearly fifty years later, the residue of the Civil Rights Movement continues to reverberate.

While the book’s reception has been a joyous surprise, it is this recognition—that, as a country, we still have much to say and to share about race, discrimination, and inequalities—that has been the most stunning and stirring revelation. To the extent that the articles, reviews, blogs, interviews, presentations, visits foster these ongoing conversations, I will consider the book to have fulfilled the goal that I was unaware I had while I was writing it.

Author Interview: Lynne Kelly on Chained

Lynne Kelly and her own Nandita elephant

Lynne Kelly and her own Nandita elephant

A huge congratulations to Lynne Kelly, whose debut novel Chained was just released — and I can’t wait to read it!

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Chained tells the story of 10-year-old Hastin, whose family borrows money to pay his sister’s hospital bill. To work off the debt, Hastin leaves his village in northern India to take a job as an elephant keeper, thinking it will be an adventure. But he isn’t ready for the cruel circus owner, who hurts the sweet elephant, Nandita — Hastin’s best friend — until she learns tricks perfectly. Hastin tries to protect Nandita, but knows the only way they’ll both survive is if he can find a way for them to escape.

The story sounds charming, and Lynne’s wonderful writing pulls readers in. I had the pleasure of reading the first chapter and I can promise, it’s beautiful.

Lynne graciously answered my 6 Little Questions for authors. Here they are:

Me: How did the story come to you? Characters? Situation? Whole thing at once?

Lynne: For this book it was the situation first, but I knew an elephant would be one of the characters. Most of the plot threads and characters were added later, but I’d planned to write a story about a captive elephant.

Me: From your first inspiration, did you outline or jump in?

ChainedLynne: I’m not an outliner at all, and I literally didn’t know from one chapter to the next what was going to happen. I had the ending in mind all along, but I didn’t know how the characters were going to get there and what they’d be going through along the way.

Me: Which do you enjoy most, the first draft or revising?

Lynne: I like revising much better! It’s scary having that blank white page staring you in the face, and it feels like such an accomplishment to have a first draft finished.

Me: Were there any scenes or plotlines that were written but got cut, and if yes, why?

Lynne: Oh, yes! One thing I’d like to do this summer is add a “deleted scenes” page to my website. I had a pretty cool stampede scene right after Nandita the elephant is loaded from the trap to the truck. The commotion attracted the attention of the herd, and they chased the truck as it drove back to the circus grounds. My editor asked me to cut it because it didn’t seem realistic to her. I also had Hastin telling his sister a story near the beginning of the book, when she’s sick and he’s helping to take care of her at home, but it turned out that the folk tale he was telling her isn’t one that’s told in that region of the country. I didn’t know the stories varied so much from place to place within the country, but it makes a big difference. I found a book of folk tales from Rajasthan, where Hastin lives, and there was one about a princess-witch who flew on a marble elephant! So I used that one, and when Hastin had to leave home later to work as an elephant keeper, he asked his mom to tell his sister that he’d flown away on the back of an elephant, and that he’d come back for her. We ended up cutting the storytelling scene althogether so it wouldn’t take the reader away from the story that was going on with Hastin and his sister.

Me: What was your biggest challenge with this story?

Lynne: Showing the Indian setting and culture accurately, and in a way that was clear for readers unfamiliar with it.

Me: When you’re done with a manuscript, how do you celebrate?

Lynne: Well, this’ll make me sound like a total dork, but usually I take time to read something from my giant to-be-read pile, after a little jumping up and down.

Me: Gotta have some jumping up and down. But I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.

Check out the wonderful trailer for Chained below, then head to your favorite bookstore to pick up a copy.

Author Interview: Lynda Mullaly Hunt, One for the Murphys

Lynda Mullaly HuntDebut author Lynda Mullaly Hunt‘s novel One for the Murphys doesn’t come out until May 10, but it has already received lots of praise, including a starred review from Kirkus. So, who better to talk writing with?

I met Lynda at a Writer’s League of Texas event in March and as soon as I heard about One for the Murphys, I put it on my to-read list. The middle-grade novel follows Carley Connors, who is thrust into foster care after a heart-breaking betrayal. In the happy, bustling Murphys family, Carley’s in a world she doesn’t understand, and it frightens her. She resists the life of dinners around a table and a “zip your jacket, here’s your lunch” kind of mom. But with the help of her Broadway-obsessed friend Toni, the Murphys show Carley what it feels like to feel like you belong. Until her mother tries to get her back.

Sounds like it could be heart breaking. (Check out the book trailer at the end of this interview.)

The winner of The Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children’s Literature, Lynda is a former teacher and scenario writing coach. Here’s what Lynda told us about her book and writing process:

Me: When you started writing One for the Murphys, did you begin with characters, a situation or did the whole story pop into your head?

Lynda: I always begin with pure character and then discover the plot later. The first seed of Carley Connors took root during a conversation with my 9-year-old son about Luke Skywalker (from the movie, Star Wars) finding out who his real father is. I began to think how interesting it would be to long for something yet wish it away at the same time. Although, there were other seeds germinating as well that would lead to Murphys.

I had seen the Broadway play Wicked and was struck by the wonderful writing, the main character of Elphaba and the idea of “Defying Gravity.” The more I played the soundtrack, the more Toni, one of my characters in the book, spoke to me.

When I was young, I lived with another family for a few months; they gave me a peek into a world I had not known before. I left their house with new ideas about what my life could — no, would — hold for me.

Finally, as a young teacher, I met a friend who became a mom-figure to me — always kind, supportive and protective. This woman’s initials are JM. This is why the foster mother is named Julie Murphy. I wanted her to have the same initials as this friend who had mothered me.

Three weeks after the Luke Skywalker conversation, the voice of Carley Connors popped into my head while I was doing the dishes. I ran to the computer (although it was awful to tear myself away from the dishes!) and wrote what would become the first chapter of One for the Murphys. I knew my character, Carley Connors, immediately. But, I learned her story as I went along. 

One for the MurphysMe: From that inspiration, did you outline the story or jump into the first draft?

Lynda: I’ve tried outlines, but they point and laugh at me.

Not only do I just jump in, but then I proceed to jump all over the place. I begin a book by writing the beginning; seems pretty normal thus far, right? When I’m a few chapters in, my mind will decide to show me the ending, so I write that. Then I spend the rest of the time connecting the two. However, all of those in-between chapters are written completely and utterly out of order.

My writing seems to be driven by the emotions of the characters. I really don’t know what part of the book I’ll be writing as I make coffee in the kitchen and “prepare.” Then, when I sit down — BAM! — it’s usually there. Something, anyway. (If the writing stinks to begin with, I just keep writing through the stinky period.)

After finishing a scene, I write its title/subject on a 3×5 card and put it on a magnetic white board. As the book progresses, I work on putting these cards in order. Every chapter of a book is a separate file on my computer; piecing them together to create a novel later is actually fun! It’s like doing the ultimate puzzle! When it is assembled, I read it from beginning to end and add text to create smooth transitions between chapters. It’s a nutty process — but it’s all mine!

Me: Which do you enjoy most and why: writing the first draft or revising subsequent drafts?

Lynda: Ooooh, hard to answer. Well, I have always liked to revise more than most writers do. However, I suppose I favor writing the first draft, as writers usually write to their strengths and revise to their weaknesses. Most of my emotion/character comes through on the first round and then I revise for plot, adding tension, deepening characters with details, etc. I guess I’m kind of a woos on this question, because I really can’t decide. I love to deepen characters while I revise! But I love to create them out of thin air, too!

Me: Were there any storylines, scenes or characters that you ended up cutting from One for the Murphys? If so, why were they left out?

Lynda: Actually, the first line that appeared in my head while doing the dishes that day was, “I ask the nurse how long I’ve been out.” I mean, I could feel the fatigue of this kid. Smell the hospital. I knew her instantly. It was weird.

However, during my last revision before my agent sent it out to editors, I decided that the story really begins with Carley’s arrival at the Murphys’. So, I cut the first three chapters of Carley being in the hospital (although I copied them off first and highlighted anything that needed to be kept and woven in later).  The story now begins with Carley’s car ride to their house and important hospital details are shown in memories.

Also, in the first round of revisions with my agent, I cut way back on two characters, Rainer and Mandy. Both still exist, but not nearly to the extent they did earlier. I wanted to deepen Carley’s experience with the Murphys and her friendship with Toni. If I hadn’t cut Mandy’s subplot, the book would have been too long.

Me: When you’re done with a manuscript, what do you do to celebrate?

Lynda: Erm…well…to be honest? I sleep before anything. However, my husband, children and I do go out for a fancy dinner!

My most *favorite* writerly way of celebrating, though, is early on when I have enough written (50ish pages) that it feels like it’s becoming a book. I go to Staples (They love me there. When I walk in, a banner drops from the ceiling that reads, “Welcome, Lynda!”) and I buy a new binder and new tabs and go home and print out chapters and begin to assemble it. Then I run around the house and show everyone! I LOVE this!

Me: Wonderful! And I love that you celebrate mid-book too.

Thanks for the interview, Lynda. Can’t wait to read One for the Murphys.

Find out more about Lynda on her blog. She also blogs at her agenby blog EMusDebuts and Class of 2K12 and can be followed at Twitter at @LynMullalyHunt.

Here’s the One for the Murphys book trailer:

Literacy and Dia With Jeanette Larson

As a writer, literacy is important to me, but not just because I want to make sure there’s a market for my books — literacy helps children grow.

Jeanette Larson

Jeanette Larson

Author and librarian Jeanette Larson has been a supporter of the literacy celebration Día, which happens annually on April 30, since it was founded in 1997. So, who better to tell us about the program and why it’s important?

Jeanette wrote a book on Dia for librarians and teachers, El dia de los niños/El dis de los libros: Building a Culture of Literacy in Your Community Through Dia, offering easy-to-use programs that are adaptable for a variety of cultures. She’s also the author of the delightful Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore From the Americas, published by Charlesbridge and telling fun stories about the amazing birds.

Me: Jeanette, tell us about Día and how the book celebration began…

Jeanette: Author and poet Pat Mora was in Tucson, Ariz., being interviewed in 1996 and someone asked her about Children’s Day. This is an international holiday, much like Mother’s Day, that recognizes children and started in 1925. It is a major holiday in Mexico but was unheard of and uncelebrated in the United States. Pat, who grew up in El Paso, was unaware of it. One of her major goals in her career has been to promote what she calls “bookjoy,” so she started thinking about combining the recognition and celebration of children with a celebration of reading, especially bilingual literacy. That became El día de los niños/El día de los libros, Children’s Day/Book Day.

A couple of librarians and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) loved the concept and started working with Pat to organize and promote it. The first celebration was held on April 30, 1997. I was working at the Texas State Library and had met Pat through several other projects and we were talking about how to help libraries implement Día celebrations. So my staff and I developed the first Día “toolkit” with ideas for librarians so they could create their own programs. My husband, Jim Larson, was even roped into creating a logo for it!

The goals of Día include a daily commitment to honor children and childhood, promote literacy, honor home languages and cultures, promote global understanding through reading, involve parents as members of the literacy team and promote the development of library collections that reflect the plurality of this country.

Día is celebrating 16 years this April 30, and it is moving to include more cultures and languages — whatever languages are important and relevant in your community.

Me: What happens on April 30?

Jeanette: In the beginning, April 30 was used as a day to really highlight and celebrate Día’s goals. Now it serves more as a culmination of a year’s worth of efforts for bilingual literacy. What takes place varies from very simple celebrations like a bilingual or multicultural storytime to full blown fiestas. In some communities, many agencies partner to put on a full day of events with storytellers, dancers, food, games, authors, singers, and other events that tie in to literacy and books. These partners can include the local consulates, public television stations, churches and synagogues, child welfare agencies, local businesses … anyone with a stake in our children! Often children receive a bilingual or multicultural book as part of the events.

Schools, libraries and other agencies that want to find ideas for ways to celebrate can look at the database that the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC is a division of the American Library Association) maintains. ALSC also provides a resource guide, which I helped develop. Some of the material has even been translated into Spanish and Chinese this year.

Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore From the Americas book coverMe: Why are books so important for children?

Jeanette: Books and being able to read them are the great equalizer for children. Whether the books are fiction or non-fiction, we learn from what we read, and books bring the world’s knowledge to us in ways that television and movies just can’t. Reading is the basis for everything we do. Even if you are a computer whiz, you need to be able to read. (I’m fascinated by the fact that some of the biggest proponents of reading, books and literacy are the giants of the computer and technology industry.)

It’s almost become a cliché, but books bring us knowledge but they also bring us joy. They can bring friends to a lonely child and they bring us the world! But it is also important that children have access to books that reflect their own culture, that introduce them to other cultures, and that celebrate words and language. And Día really puts the spotlight on the importance of these ideas.

Me: What can adults do to encourage children to become readers?

A lot of the things are pretty obvious and I often say that really there is more that adults can do to discourage kids from reading, like forcing a kid to finish a book he or she is not enjoying!

Surround kids with books and they will read! Borrow books from the library and leave them around the house. The worse thing that happens is you take them back on the due date unread, but if books are around kids will find them.

Be a role model. It does no good to tell kids that reading is a great thing if Mom and Dad never read anything. Kids know what adults value by how we spend our time and money, so spend time reading together (even older kids enjoy being read to) or just sitting together with each person reading silently (maybe sharing a good passage or something funny if the mood strikes you). Buy books as gifts. They may not elicit immediate jumping for joy like a new bicycle or a videogame, but they last and they tell kids that you care about them.

Ask your child to recommend a book for you to read — show you are interested in their literature and value their opinion about books. Take kids to bookstores and let them select what they want to read. Even if you think it is “junk,” so what? No real avid reader only reads great literature. Bring your child to author events and library programs so they see that reading is fun and can be a real social activity.

Me: What can writers do to make sure children will enjoy reading?

Jeanette: Write good books! Don’t try to write a story that will teach the child something. If your story is good, they will learn from it without you preaching to them. Don’t underestimate children. Writers sometimes write down or dumb down material because it is for children. A good book for children should also be a good book for readers of any age.

Celebrate that children are reading. It can be hard to find the time to respond when kids write a fan letter or ask a question (and yes, sometimes the questions are silly or repetitious), but it’s important that children know that we love reading and writing and we love that they are reading our books.

Me: Great insights and advice, Jeanette. Thank you!

Celebrate literacy in your family and community. And remember Jeanette’s advice for writers: Write good books!

Is there anything you do to support literacy in children?

Author Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith on writing a series

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Today I’ve got a treat, an interview with an author who’s as warm and generous as a person as she is skilled and talented with words: Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Cynthia is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins) and Holler Loudly (Dutton).

Her website at was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at was listed among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.

Cynthia makes her home in Austin, Texas, with four writer cats and her husband, children’s-YA author Greg Leitich Smith.

With Diabolical, the fourth book in her Tantalize series, just launched, I picked Cynthia’s brain about the challenges of writing a series. Here’s her great insight:

Me: When you came up with the story of Tantalize (I so want to eat at Sanguini’s, by the way), did you envision it as a full series of books or did that idea come after the publication of that novel?

Jingle DancerCynthia: I had hopes, prayers, Snoopy dances of anticipation with regard to publishing related stories, but at the time, I was thought of as an author of contemporary, realistic Native American books for younger children [including Jingle Dancer]. So, it was something of a risk to try me as a YA Gothic writer, especially before the paranormal boom. It’s what you might call an “earned” series. The first three books were published as stand-alones before Candlewick Press and Walker Books began using the “s” word in marketing them.

Tantalize sold before Twilight was published, and some of the early feedback I received was to the effect that there wasn’t a market among YA girls for books with monsters in them. I know that sounds jarring in retrospect, but keep in mind that, back then, horror was associated with popular series by Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine, which were viewed more as “boy books.”

Also, my work tends to skew literary, employing sophisticated techniques like epistolary elements, alternating point of view and unreliable narrators that can challenge less experienced readers. They’re sometimes called “thinking readers” novels, which is quite flattering, but also means they’re less inherently commercial than they could be. That’s both a blessing and a curse.

Me: I’d say a blessing! How did you plan each book’s story as an individual novel as well as in context of the series?

Cynthia: My idea was to assume that Stoker’s classic, Dracula (1897) was loosely based on truth and then inch backward in time toward that source material.

So, book 1, Tantalize, offers up Quincie P. Morris, a many-times great niece of one of Van Helsing’s original vampire hunters. Book 2, Eternal, assumes that the vampire royalty of today has taken on “Dracul” as an honorific and introduces the divine warriors that battle them. In book 3, Blessed, the Count himself is summoned from the ether to merge briefly with the antagonist, and in book 4, Diabolical, we go to the Scholomance, the famed school where the Count was said to have learned his evil ways.

Though there will be more stories set in the universe, this quartet forms a super arc. Or in other words, each can stand alone, but they do build on one another toward the fiery, heaven vs. hell showdown in Diabolical.

That said, these aren’t “vampire” novels per se. Rather, they’re set in a multi-creature-verse, featuring not only vampires, but also angels, a variety of shape-shifters (werewolves, werecats, werebears, werearmadillos), ghosts, demons, pesky humans and others.

Also, these are “books set in a world” rather than a straightforward, linear series. You can turn a corner (or page) and run into a character from any of the previous novels. In addition, the cast is diverse (defined broadly) and both girl- and guy-powered. This is one of few successful YA series with both male and female protagonists as well as protagonists of color.

They’re basically genre benders: Gothic fantasies with elements of suspense, mystery, romance and some humor. Not slapstick — I play it straight — but not angst fests either.

Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed

Me: About the different points of view you use in the books, how did you choose which characters to show the story through, and when you were writing more than one in the same novel, how did you keep their voices different?

Cynthia: Tantalize was originally written from Kieren’s point of view, but I switched to Quincie’s because she was in greater danger and what she was going through spoke more to the adolescent experience. That said, over the next few years, I gained a deeper appreciation of what Kieren was doing during that period and revisited his perspective for the graphic novel adaptation.

Big picture, I look at whose story it really is — who grows and changes and whether additional points of view can be justified in terms of the internal and external story arcs.

I also consider whether any co-narrators work as mirror characters. Does the journey of one illuminate that of another?

DiabolicalMe: Makes sense. Diabolical is the fourth book in this series. Did you have any challenges writing this fourth installment that you didn’t have in the other three?

Cynthia: My deadline was tighter than it has been in the past, in part because of writing the Eternal graphic novel adaptation, illustrated by Ming Doyle, in the interim.

That said, I had more fun writing Diabolical than any of the other novels. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of humor, horror, romance and adventure in the previous three titles. They can be read on many levels. But Diabolical’s core theme of second chances is inherently optimistic, and it offered me a chance to stretch the heroes while also celebrating how far they’ve come.

In addition, Diabolical introduced several new characters who captured my imagination. I think my favorite may be Evie, the wereotter. It was also a fascinating experience to write scenes literally set in heaven and hell. It forced me to question my own beliefs, what best served the story/characters, and whether there actually might be the equivalent of an atrium hotel outside the Pearly Gates.

Me: Oooh, sounds like fun. I can’t wait to read it! Your next YA novel, Smolder, is due out from Candlewick Press in 2013 as part of a three-book deal. Will this one be in the Tantalize series as well, or will it start a new series?

Cynthia: Smolder is set in the Tantalize universe and features characters previously introduced in the series, but it is not part of the conversation themes that grew out of Stoker’s Dracula. It’s its own beast, so to speak, influenced most of all by questions and letters from YA readers. This one, more than any book I’ve written before, is for the YA fans (and the GenXers out there who thought Andie would’ve been better off with Duckie, at least in the short term). It’s about secrets and the surprises within ourselves.

Me: Wow! Fans will love that, getting their questions answered in a book inspired by them. 2013 can’t come soon enough.

Thanks, Cynthia.

What do you like best about books in a series?

Author Recommendations

For my last post in Random Acts of Publicity Week, I’m sending out some love to my author friends:

Jaqueline Kelly‘s debut novel, The Evolution of Capurnia Tate, won the 2010 Newbury Award. The book tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who takes an interest in nature as she learns what’s it means to be a girl in the turn of the century.

Bethany Hegedus is the author of two middle-grade books, Between Us Baxters and Truth With a Capital T, about girls, secrets and family.

Jenny Moss‘ first book, Winnie’s War, is a historical middle-grade novel and won the Bank Streets Children’s Books of the Year award. She has also published two more novels, both young adult: the fantasy adventure Shadow and the romance Taking Off.

Jennifer Zeigler‘s three young adult novels are Alpha Dog, How NOT To Be Popular and the most recent, Sass & Serendity, a tribute to, you guessed it… Her How NOT To be Popular is being developed as a movie.

PJ Hoover recently published her first young adult novel, Solstice, this year, but prior to that, she wrote the Forgotten Worlds Trilogy for middle-grade readers,

Jessica Lee Anderson‘s young adult novel Calli is the latest in a line of five books. Jessica’s other work are the novels Border Crossing and Trudy and the non-fiction books What Is a Living Thing? and Presidential Pets.

Kari Ann Holt, or K.A. Holt as her reader fans might know her, has two books: the outerspace adventure Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel and the zombie haiku novel Brains For Lunch.

Gwen Cooper is the only author of adult books on my list. Her first novel is Diary of a South Beach Party Girl, and her second, Homer’s Odyssey, about Gwen’s amazing eye-less cat, is a New York Times bestseller.

Great writers. Great books. Check them out.

Rest in Peace L.K. Madigan

L.K. Madigan headshot

L.K. Madigan

In January, I wrote about the wonderful community that children’s book writing has and how they were supporting young adult author L.K. Madigan, who had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Madigan passed away this week, and the support for her family continues. Fellow author April Henry has written that, if you want to do something in memory of this writer, you can donate to her son’s college fund.

I didn’t know Madigan, but I’ve read wonderful advice she gave via former agent Colleen Lindsay: “The main thing is to WRITE. Some days it might be 2,000 words. Some days, you might tinker with two sentences until you get them just right. Both days belong in the writing life. Some days, you may watch a Doctor Who marathon or become immersed a book that is so good you can’t stop reading. Some days, you may be in love or in mourning. Those days belong in the writing life too. Live them without guilt.”

Madigan’s husband wrote a lovely post on her blog after she passed away.

Whether you know Madigan’s work or not, please spread the word about her and her books. She will always be remembered through those.

Write On!

Self-publishing and ebooks

Going into the Austin SCBWI chapter’s annual conference this weekend — it was great, by the way — I was curious to find out how middle-grade novels are selling in ebooks, as that’s what I write. I’ve seen lots of articles in the Publishers Lunch enewsletter saying that ebook sales are rocketing in adult books and even taking off in young adult, but I suspected that middle-grade was behind. According to Egmont‘s Elizabeth Law, I was right. She said they’re not seeing noticeable ebook sales in middle grade.

Anathema book cover

Megg Jensen's self-published YA novel Anathema

Even though MG is slower to this technology, it’s great to see ebooks being embraced so quickly. As I wrote in January, sales of ereaders were stellar for the Christmas season, with many places selling out. Although I still love — LOVE — physical books, whether a book is printed on paper or eink, it’s still a story. And if this new technology is enticing more readers to stories, that can only be good.

The new technology also is changing the publishing landscape. With ebooks, it’s easier than ever — and less expensive — to self-publish books. Author J.A. Konrath has written about this extensively on his A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing blog. He had gone the traditional route before he started publishing his books on his own as ebooks, but he gives good arguments of why that doesn’t matter. YA author Amanda Hocking is an example, selling more than 185,000 ebook copies of her self-published novels.

Now, I’m not saying all writers should stop submitting to agents and editors of traditional publishing houses and go it alone. There are definite advantages to being signed by an agent and getting your work published by someone else. Let’s face it, most writers are not so great at the business end. And throwing an ebook on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or wherever doesn’t automatically mean it will sell; there’s marketing, publicity … oh, and the book should be good (editors are invaluable) or repeat sales won’t be much.

But the advent of ebooks has made it easier for writers to take the publishing of their work into their own hands, and blogs and social networking make it easier to build publicity.

YA author Megg Jensen is trying just that with her novel Anathema. And so far, it looks like she’s off to a great start. The book launched on Tuesday, and as of Wednesday, she had already sold 50 copies. She’s hosting a contest right now where people can guess how many books she will have sold by March 11, and the main prize? An ereader. Now that’s what I call promoting future business.

What do you think? Would you be willing to read a book if it’s self-published, either in print or as an ebook?

Write On!