Friday, February 29, 2008

School Visit from Heaven

What a fantastic school visit I had yesterday. Camille Hogan, media specialist extraordinaire, planned the perfect day. Props to all the teachers and students at Prairie Junior High School in Alsip, Illinois! Here's how they did everything right:

Before I got there....
1. They talked up JULIA'S KITCHEN and got it circulating.
2. They offered my book for sale.
3. They told the kids that 10 of them would get to have lunch with me. In order to qualify for lunch, they had to purchase my book, read it, and e-mail the media specialist a couple questions they would like to ask me. She chose the kids with the best questions, and she also bought them lunch. How cool is that?
4. They created a lesson plan about character descriptions and worked my presentation about revision into the lesson.
5. They had a display in the library about me, my book, and my upcoming visit.

When I arrived...
1. The administrators in the office greeted me warmly because they were expecting me.
2. The library was set up with enough chairs for all the students and with a digital projector for me.
3. They offered me yummy coffee.

During my presentations...
1. The students paid attention and asked thoughtful questions.
2. The teachers paid attention, took notes, and asked thoughtful questions.
3. They gave me a nice break in between presentations. I even had time to lounge on a sofa and read a bit!

During lunch...
1. They got my lunch order exactly right. (No onions. Yes cucumbers!)
2. The kids and teachers were delightful.

1. The teachers gave me wonderful feedback about the students' responses to the presentation, and they told me they plan to incorporate some of the revision skills I talked about into their lesson plans.
2. They allowed time for me to sign books for all the students and teachers who had purchased them.
3. Camille gave me specific reverse directions so I wouldn't get lost on my way home. (I am directionally-impaired!)
4. And last but certainly not least, they told me they would love for me to come back next year!

Thank you Camille and Prairie Junior High. I wish Camille could give lessons to other schools on how to organize an author visit. Perhaps she should write an article or something. I'm pretty sure this was her first author visit, but you would never know from how well she ran it!

I took a couple of pictures, but for some reason, I can't get them to load right now, and I have to get ready for my weekend writing workshop with Richard Peck. So I'll try to get the pictures up next week.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Anderson's Children's Literature Breakfast

Saturday morning I was lucky enough to be a guest at Anderson's Bookshops Sixth Annual Children's Literature Breakfast where I got to hear featured speakers The Spatulatta Sisters, Kevin Henkes, and Richard Peck. I love hearing other authors speak because I know I have much to learn, not only about writing, but also about presenting.

The Spatulatta Sisters taught me that you just have to be yourself and have fun when you're presenting. These two young girls were so natural and poised. I was impressed.

Kevin Henkes read from his new novel, Bird Lake Moon. I have never been very good at listening to people read aloud. I'm a visual learner, so unfortunately, I wasn't able to fully appreciate his novel excerpts, but I will definitely read it when it comes out.

Richard Peck was incredibly polished. He had the audience in the palm of his hand. Right away I realized I should be taking notes so I could truly take in all the wisdom he had to offer. But I didn't want to miss even one moment of listening in order to find a pen and paper. One thing I do remember is that he said, "Nobody grows up in a group." How true! I remember doing a lot of growing up myself senior year of high school when I suddenly realized I didn't really like my group of friends anymore. There were so many other bits and pieces of wisdom and inspiration. Now it's all a jumble in my head. Note to self: Be prepared to take notes next time!

Luckily there will be a next time very, very soon! I am heading to Champaign this weekend for a writer's retreat, and guess who is leading it? Richard Peck! Yippee!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A New Interview

Barbara Bietz, author of LIKE A MACCABEE, has a terrific blog about Jewish children's literature. Today she interviewed me about JULIA'S KITCHEN. Check it out!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Finding an Agent

Today's post is the last in the Valentine's Week Extravaganza: Why and How I got an agent.

First, the Why...

Many people ask if they need an agent to get their children's book published. My short answer is no. After all, I sold my first two novels on my own to a well respected New York City publisher. (Yay FSG!) There are a lot of houses that are open to unsolicited submissions, and if you write a fantastic manuscript and do your research in terms of where to submit it, you could be lucky enough to get published.

But (here's the long answer)... there are also a good number of houses that are closed. That means they won't accept unagented submissions. After spending about four years submitting THE YUCKIEST, DROOLIEST, STINKIEST, BEST VALENTINE'S DAY EVER, I had pretty much run out of the open houses. I considered sending my manuscript to the closed houses with the wild hope that they would read my story even though they said they wouldn't. But common sense prevailed, and I saved my postage. Instead, I figured maybe it was time to find an agent. After all, I had sold two books, and one of them had won a pretty terrific award. I wasn't quite a nobody anymore.

And now for the How...

Deciding which agent to pick was not what you might expect. I didn't spend days researching. I took a short cut. One of my critique partners, Jenny Meyerhoff, had recently signed with Michelle Andelman at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and she was loving her. (Jenny had done lots of research. Thanks, Jenny!) I looked up Michelle, and she seemed like a good fit for me, too. Best of all, she accepted e-mail submissions!

So the very same day I came up with the idea that maybe I should get an agent, I submitted my manuscript to Michelle. And, believe it or not, that very same afternoon, I received a response from Michelle saying she loved my manuscript and was going to share it with her colleagues at ABLA. And the very next day Michelle said the whole team loved my manuscript, and she scheduled a time to phone me to talk about representation!

In an industry that is notorious for moving painstakingly slowly, this fast paced acceptance blew my mind!

Michelle sold my manuscript to Harcourt about six months later. Yay!

Sending love today to Michelle and the whole team at Andrea Brown!!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rejection Phone Call

I've received plenty of rejections in my writing life. But the best one ever came from Steve Meltzer at Dutton Children's Books.

I sent Mr. Meltzer an early draft of my Valentine's Day manuscript (when the chase still went around the globe, and the Valentine still jumped into a volcano). He responded with a revision request, and in his letter he asked me if I had been trying to do a fractured version of the Gingerbread Man story.

The Gingerbread Man??? That thought had never even crossed my mind!

My initial reaction was that this editor obviously didn't get what I was trying to do. Gingerbread Man stories were sweet and a little boring. I was trying to be edgy and fun. But then I went to the library and read every fractured Gingerbread tale I could find. THE STINKY CHEESE MAN was my favorite. And it inspired me to think I could write a fractured fairy tale and still be edgy.

So I went to work. Thinking in this new Gingerbread Man framework was the key to my success. When I sent Mr. Meltzer the revised manuscript, I had a really good feeling. I knew I had written something saleable. And when the phone rang five weeks later and the caller id said New York Call, my heart practically leaped out of my chest.

Mr. Meltzer has a kind soul, and the first thing he said to me was that he was not calling with good news. But he went on to say that he absolutely loved my revision. And that he had to take a pass on the story only because they had already contracted for a number of fractured Gingerbread Man stories at Dutton. He also said he thought another house would snap my manuscript up right away. (Turns out it was three years later, but who's counting?)

So thanks, Steve Meltzer! Thanks for the Gingerbread Man idea. And thanks for calling!

Have you received any really great rejections? Tell me about them in the comments!!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My True Love

I consider myself to be a disciplined person. Most days I am good about putting my butt in the chair, opening up my work-in-progress, and getting something accomplished. It doesn't matter how little that "something" is. As long as I'm taking baby steps toward my big goal, I'm satisified.

But today was not one of those days. Today I spent my two hours of writing time playing on-line Scrabble with my hubby. (He is beating me, by the way.)

I felt a little guilty about wasting my time like that. But then I questioned why I considered that wasting time. Alan is in Barcelona this week for business, and with the time difference, it's been tough. So this afternoon, when he was supposed to be catching up on e-mails before a late dinner, and I was supposed to be writing before the kids got home from school, we had a chance to reconnect and have fun together.

I am married to my best friend. We started going out when we were 19. (He actually had bottom braces when I first met him!) We were just kids, really. And man, have we been lucky! We grew together. We have a fantastic marriage, better than I ever dreamed possible. Our relationship isn't some kind of perfect fairy tale. It's real, with ups and downs, good days and bad. But truthfully, I fall more in love with him with each passing year.

So I don't care that I didn't write today. I can do that tomorrow.

Happy Valentine's Day, Bud! (It's already V-Day in Barcelona.)
And Happy Valentine's Day to all of you, too. Tell someone you love them!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Necessity Breeds Invention

I mentioned before that I originally wrote THE YUCKIEST, DROOLIEST, STINKIEST, BEST VALENTINE'S DAY EVER for my daughter's second grade class. Well, here's how it happened: I was one of the moms in charge of the class party that year, and since I love books, I volunteered to find the perfect Valentine's Day picture book to read to the class. I figured that was way easier than figuring out the craft, games, or food. I'd zip into the book store and zip out, my job complete.

Alas, it was not that easy!

I went to the library and my local book store, and I spent quite some time reading all the books on the Valentine's Day display. I found a lot of lovey dovey books, a lot of sweet, tender books, and a lot of lesson books (sending a mean valentine is wrong, kids!). But I didn't find any books that would appeal to a class of sophisticated second graders. With a son and daughter in second grade, I knew almost all these kids well. They weren't about to fall for anything lovey dovey or sweet. And they certainly didn't want anything that would teach them a lesson. So I decided to write my own story, filled with adventure and humor, and with no lesson in sight.

The original title was "The Great Valentine Escape," and in it, Leon chases his valentine onto an airplane, over an ocean, and up a mountain, which turns out to be a volcano. In the end, the valentine jumps into the bubbling lava below (I kid you not) and Leon magically returns home.

It was a crazy story. But it was fun. And the kids were captivated all the way though. (More proof that kids enjoying a story is not reason enough to think it should be published.) They laughed and gasped at all the right parts. I knew I was on to something, even if I still had work to do.

And boy, did I have work to do! Over the next four years, every single thing about the story changed (except for Leon and the Valentine). But now I have a book that will someday be on a Valentine's Day display in book stores around the country. And some random parents or teachers might choose it to read to their class on Valentine's Day. How cool is that?

Sending love out to Faith and Mrs. Phillips' second grade class from 2003!!

Characters Inspired by Real People

Lisa Greenwald, over at The Longstockings, blogged about a shirt her grandma gave her. The shirt said, Careful, or I'll put you in my novel. There were some interesting comments about how authors do or don't use real people when they create characters. I definitely get inspired by pieces of real people. But I would never make a character a duplicate of one particular real person. That would be way too weird.

However, I came pretty close to that in THE YUCKIEST, DROOLIEST, STINKIEST, BEST VALENTINE'S DAY EVER. Many years ago, when Jacob was in first grade and Sammy was in kindergarten, I was struck by how different kids can be, especially when it comes to Love. Sammy was so excited for Valentine's Day. He couldn't wait to have a whole day focused on love and hugs and sweetness. Jacob, on the other hand, came home from school on Valentine's Day and promptly began sorting his Valentines into two piles.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Looking for the good ones," he said.

He wasn't even opening the valentines, so I was curious. "How do you know which ones are the good ones?"

"Easy. The ones with candy." And he proceeded to thow away all the valentines that didn't have candy taped to them. "It's awesome!" he said with a huge grin. "It's like Halloween in February."

A story idea started forming in my head. Two views of Valentine's Day: Is it about love? Or is it about candy? What if I turned the typical Valentine on its head? He could be like Jacob: He'd believe that love is yucky, that girls are disgusting, and that Valentine's Day is all about candy. Contrast that with Leon, who, like Sammy, would think that Valentine's Day is all about love. Despite the social reperucussions of admitting you like a girl in elementary school, he would be brave and romantic, true to his heart.

And that's how this story came to be.

So today, I send love to Jacob and Sammy. Thanks for the inspiration, boys!

The Truth About Rejection

I started submitting THE YUCKIEST, DROOLIEST, STINKIEST, BEST VALENTINE'S DAY EVER to publishers in February, 2003. Over the course of 4 1/2 years, I received approximately 70 rejection letters. 70!! (I bet you didn't know there were that many publishers. Truth be told, some of those rejections were from agents, and some were contests I entered and lost.) One of the questions people ask me all the time is, "How do you handle the rejection?"

Here's how I see it:

Rejection is part of the process. You never hear of an author who gets published without first receiving rejection, so you have to just accept it. In fact, you can celebrate it. You are doing exactly what every author does... submitting work!

I give my rejection letters different grades. There's the form letter that comes back without a signature. I give that kind of rejection a C.

There's the form letter with the one line written at the bottom by the editor, something along the lines of: Thanks! or Cute! That rejection gets a B.

There's the personal rejection letter. That's when the editor actually takes the time to write you a whole letter, telling you what he/she did and didn't like about the manuscript. You should seriously celebrate when you get one of those. That means you are getting very close. You just need to get lucky now! That rejection is an A for sure.

A+ rejections come in three varieties:

1) A request to submit another manuscript. Awesome! That means the editor really likes your writing, but there is just something about this particular manuscript that isn't right for their house. Send something new out today!
2) A phone call rejection. Someone liked your manuscript enough to call you??? Holy cow! Good work.
3) A request to revise and resubmit. That's not really a rejection at all! You are so close, you can practically see your name on the spine of the book. Get to work!!!

Of the 70 or so rejections I received for YUCKIEST, close to thirty were personal rejections, half a dozen were requests for revisions, and one editor actually called to reject me after I did a revision for him that he loved. (More on that later.)

I know that rejections hurt. I know it's hard to wait months, sometimes years, to hear back from publishers. But you have to believe in yourself. Dust yourself off. Take another look at your manuscript to see if you can improve it. And send it out again. YUCKIEST changed dramatically over the years I spent submitting it. It got better and better with each revision, and it finally found a home at Harcourt.

Today I am sending love to all the editors who sent me those personal rejection letters. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to give me your feedback. You helped me improve my story and helped me to keep the faith!

Valentine's Week

One of my husband's co-workers celebrates her Birth Month every year (as opposed to just a Birthday), and I love that idea. So, inspired by her brilliance, I hereby proclaim this week: Valentine's Week! All week long, feel free to show the people in your life how much you love them. Cards, flowers, candy, secret admirer notes... whatever it takes. Have fun!

Speaking of Valentine's Day, I guess now is the perfect time to tell you about my forthcoming picture book. It's called THE YUCKIEST, STINKIEST, DROOLIEST, BEST VALENTINE'S DAY EVER, and Harcourt will be publishing it sometime in the near future. (Near future in children's publishing is not actually "near." But I'm not complaining!)

In this story, lovestruck Leon is determined to give his crush a handmade Valentine, but his cynical, wisecracking Valentine comes to life and runs away. It's pretty silly stuff!

Interesting facts about YUCKIEST:

1. I collected over 70 rejections for this manuscript.

2. Leon is modeled after Sammy, and the Valentine is modeled after Jacob.

3. I originally wrote this story for Faith's class Valentine's Day party when she was in second grade.

4. The first time an editor ever called me was to lovingly reject this manuscript.

5. Less than 24 hours after submitting YUCKIEST to Michelle Andelman at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, I received an e-mail from her expressing interest in representing me. About six months later we had an offer from Harcourt to publish it.

In honor of Valentine's Week, I will post more details about each of these facts during the week.

Meanwhile, today I'm sending love to Stacie, one of my readers who sends me terrific e-mails about anything and everything!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

New Baby Books

Last week my sister-in-law had a baby boy! He is such a cutie. Alan and Sammy are driving to Michigan tomorrow so they can be there for the bris. Let's hope this snow lets up, so the drive won't be too bad. Sadly, I'm not going to the bris because we didn't want Jacob and Faith to miss two days of school. (Seventh grade is proving to be quite a challenge.)

I did get to pick out a baby gift for the new baby today. What did I buy? Books, of course! I love getting babies started with their own library. It's never too early to read to your child. In fact, here is Faith, when she was just 5 months old, already showing her love of books:

Here are the board books I bought:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr., illustrated by Eric Carle
All three Ferber kids loved this book, and it was the first book they "read" on their own.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
A classic for every nursery. My kids loved to find the mouse on each page.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
It has it all: counting, nature, junk food, and holes for little fingers!

Boynton's Greatest Hits Volume I by Sandra Boynton, including: Blue Hat Green Hat, Doggies, A to Z, and Moo Baa La La La!
There is nothing better than the sound of babies and toddlers cracking up from Sandra Boynton books.

And here are the picture books:

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
No matter how many times I read this book, I still love it.
Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day
My kids loved the pull-tab version of this book, and they were mucho disappointed when I showed them this book without any moving parts. Hopefully the new baby won't mind.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems
Seriously hilarious! This book wasn't around when my kids were little, so today when they came home from school, I sat them down and read it to them. (Peraps a mom reading a picture book to her 6th and 7th grade kids is a little weird?)

The Napping House by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood
I remember reading this book to my kids with the wild hope that they would actually all three take a nap at the same time.

How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague
Everyone loves a good dinosaur book, and this one is my favorite. If you've ever had a kid fight bedtime, you need to read this book.

Fun! I hope my brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and new cutie nephew enjoy these books for years to come.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Muscle Memory

15 years ago, I worked at the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency. They had a little gym across the street called, "Revisions," where I used to work out. One day, they offered a self-defense class, and on a whim, I signed up. The class was taught by an amazing karate sensei, Jeff Kohn, and everyone loved the class and Jeff so much that he ended up teaching a weekly karate class at Revisions. So that's how I ended up taking up karate at the age of 25!

Karate was the best mind-body-spirit exercise I'd ever experienced. I loved how you had to concentrate so completely on what you were doing, and, in the same moment, you had to stop thinking and let your body just do its thing. At that time, I was struggling with infertility, and let me tell you, I was pretty obsessed about it! Practicing karate was just what I needed for my mental health. In that hour, I couldn't think about infertility. I only stopped training when I was five months pregnant with twins and could no longer tie my gi!

Fast forward to this past summer. My good friend Julie called me up one morning and out of the blue asked me if I wanted to take karate. Without considering cost, or time constraints, or anything, I agreed.
We train twice a week with that same amazing sensei, and I love it just as much as before. This morning, Sensei taught us a new kata - at least I thought it was new. I hadn't remembered learning it, but I must have. Because after just a few reminders from Sensei, my body knew just what to do. Muscle memory.

When I wrote my second novel, I had thought it would be easy. Or at least easier. After all, I'd already written one! But if anything, it was harder. It had its own challenges, its own lessons to teach me. And now I'm writing my third novel. I don't expect it to be easy. But I am finding that I have a bit of muscle memory now when it comes to writing. I'm not planning as much as I used to. I'm just writing. And I'm trusting that my body will know what to do.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Winter in Chicago

I like the seasons. All of them. But winter can last an awfully long time, especially in Chicago. We got about a foot of snow last night, and this morning my kids were thrilled to hear that they would get to enjoy a snow day instead of going to school.

Unfortunately, the Chicago Public School system did not close their schools, and I was scheduled to do an author visit for about 500 fourth-eighth graders at Rosario Castellanos this morning. So I trekked downtown in this lovely weather. It took me two hours to get there, but I have to say, it was worth it! I really love getting to do these presentations. Today's was all about revision. I hope the kids learned something. I hope I inspired them.

My husband ended up working from home so someone could keep an eye on the kids. It was a nice change to be the one to leave the house for work! Jacob shoveled the driveway, and he did an amazing job. He didn't ask for any help, but I helped him anyway. That snow at the end of the driveway is always so heavy! Now I'm beat, and I'm looking forward to ordering pizza for dinner and relaxing.

Happy Weekend!