Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Interview with Allan Woodrow, author of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless

Yesterday, I took my nephew to the book launch party for The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless
Zachary Ruthless

My nephew (not nearly as rotten as Zachary)

I'm so excited about this fabulous new book for two reasons. First, it's a hilarious new series kids are going to love. And second, Allan is a former student of mine, so it's a total joy to see him find success!
My nephew and Allan Woodrow

Allan was kind enough to answer a few questions for me...

1. Where did you get the idea for The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless?

I wish I could say I stole it, which would be entirely appropriate since Zachary Ruthless is the world’s most evil boy. But actually, it stemmed from two short stories I wrote for my high school literary magazine too many years ago. They were about a bad guy named, appropriately, Fred Bad Guy. He had an evil worm named Spot. I was looking through some old papers and found the story a couple of years ago and wondered what Fred was like as a kid. So, a quick name change later, Zachary Ruthless was born.

2. Is Zachary modeled after anyone you know in real life? 

No! No! No! Thankfully. He is way too evil and rotten to have any attributes credited to anyone living (or dead). Although lots of moms seem to think I may have modeled him after their sons. I assure them it is mere coincidence and then run away as quickly as I can (before their sons can do anything evil to me).

3. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Usually, my stories are plot based and wrapping my head around the characters takes time and effort. Zachary was purely character based, and then I wrapped a plot (or plots) around him. So settling on the perfect plot scenario took some time. I had lots of early drafts that put Zachary in situations that were mostly removed or shifted dramatically, many revolving around school and teachers.

4. Can you tell us a bit about your path to publication?

You hear about people with dozens of rejection slips and years of frustrations. Then you hear about people like me.

New Years’ Resolution 2009: Write a children’s book and get it published. I wrote one in three weeks, sent it out to four agents and got four form rejection letters. So I took a deep breath, decided I had rushed things a bit, and vowed not to submit anything else for a year. I’d hone my craft. Understand the business. Learn to write for kids. Take classes. And take the pressure off myself. I also vowed to write every day, and I did. Three months later I had two more manuscripts written, one of which was The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless. But I thought it was just OK. I kept writing. Three months later I had another manuscript done, and part of another one.

I then heard about a writing workshop, co-hosted by you - Brenda Ferber (along with your co-moderator, Jenny Meyerhoff)! I signed up and planned to bring an entirely different manuscript, one that I thought was much better than Zachary Ruthless. Two weeks before class I re-read Zachary Ruthless, thought it had merit, and rewrote the entire book. So I brought in that.

The workshop, which lasted six weeks, went better than I imagined. I took the advice shared, made adjustments and when the class was over was encouraged to submit the book to agents. So even though my one year wasn’t up (it had only been 9 months since I first decided to try to write a children’s book) I sent it out to a few agents. Three weeks later I had an agent (the wonderful Joanna Volpe) and three weeks after that I had a four-book deal with HarperCollins.

The other manuscripts? They’ll never see the light of the day. I’m just thankful I brought Zachary Ruthless to the workshop instead!

What a great turnout!

 5. What did you do when you heard you had an offer for a four book deal? 

I had a glass of wine and then kept on writing. My resolution to write everyday was made 28 months ago and I’ve pretty much written every day since then, with a few exceptions (I’ve skipped some Sundays, and I went on vacations where I didn’t write every day – but I’ve brought my laptop every time). Being a published author has been a dream of mine since third grade, so when I think about that dream coming true, I do have a great sense of pride. But I’m greedy. I want more. I’ll celebrate when I retire. If I retire. Frankly, I’d rather write.

6. What's next for Zachary? And what's next for you?

I’d love to continue flushing out Zachary’s world for more than four books – I have ideas for him that would fill up quite a few more manuscripts, and we’ve grown quite attached to each other – but that will depend on whether anyone buys the first four! In the meantime, I’m always working on manuscripts. I have some things I’m excited about (and more things I’m not excited about), in various stages. I’ll cross my fingers that someone else gets excited about some of those, too.

7. Do you have any advice for kids who want to be as ruthless and rotten as Zachary?

Ack! No! Don’t be Zachary Ruthless! If you’re a Mom or Dad: I would never encourage anyone to be rotten. So stop reading now, please.

OK, we’ve gotten rid of all the old people. Kids – listen up. Here are a few pointers if you want to be ruthless. First, no one can suspect your true evilness. You can’t perform evil deeds while you’re grounded, or without an allowance. So pretend to be nice and sweet and huggable. And plot all your evil schemes in secret, preferably in a tree fort or hidden fortress. Next, unless you’re an evil genius – and if you are, then you don’t need my help – then it’s not easy to get evil gadgets like lasers that turn people’s heads into spaghetti or hypnotizing glasses. But you can order a lot of that stuff online at, the evil bad guy gadget website. Lastly, it helps to be part of an evil gang. Most evil gangs will supply you with a henchman, snacks, and a good health plan. A magazine like Super Villain Weekly is a good place to start – a lot of the evil gangs advertise when they have open slots. Oh, and you need a good evil name. Something like “The Diabolical Death Wart.” It has to look good on a t-shirt.

To learn more about Zachary Ruthless, visit

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Opposite of Fear

The opposite of fear is hope. And I've already written about fear. So today is all about hope.

Hope and fear actually have a lot in common. They are both ways of perceiving the future. They both can influence how you make decisions. And they both can cause you to obsess.

I know you're supposed to live in the moment. Be present and all that. But you can't be present all the time. You have to think about the future, too. And when you do, common sense tells you thinking about it hopefully is the way to go. But hope can stop you dead in your tracks just as much as fear can.

Have you ever had the feeling that something good, really good, is about to happen? I felt that way right before Julia's Kitchen came out. At that point, I was so excited and hopeful about my first book being published that I was actually unable to do anything productive. I was just walking around in this haze of hope and happiness. I enjoyed it most of the time, but I would have enjoyed it a hundred times more if I'd been writing my next book then. I wasn't exactly resting on my laurels. It was more like resting on my hope. Either way, it was too much wasted time.

Lately I've been having that feeling again. That something-good-is-about-to-happen feeling. Mmmm. It's lovely. I can sit around and enjoy it. I can think about it, journal about it, obsess about it. But at the end of the day, I'll have nothing to show for it.

It honestly feels like the good thing that will happen in the future is so wonderful that its energy is seeping into its past, my present. That's how firmly I believe. That's the level of hope that's bouncing around inside of me. So what can I do with this energy? I don't want to waste it. I want to use it. I want to take that energy and all the benefits that come with it - self confidence, joy, excitement, and power -  and I want to let that fuel my writing and living right now.

So that's the plan. Think of it as mental time travel. Or buying on credit.

And for all you pessimists out there who think it's dangerous to invest so much hope in an uncertain future, I ask you, what does it hurt? If the good thing doesn't happen, I'll be disappointed for sure. But disappointment doesn't scare me. I've been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale.

Here's to hope!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Books Not to Miss

So many books. So little time. Here are some I've read recently that I am super excited about:

For Adults:
Room by Emma Donoghue.
This is such a fast paced novel. You will not be able to put it down. It's told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy who has lived his whole life in an 11x11 room with his mother. He doesn't realize he and his mother are actually prisoners of Old Nick. This story will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Although the story is dark, there is a lot of hope and resilience in it, too. Emotionally powerful.

The Girls by Lori Lansens

I read this book in December, and I still think about it. A fictional autobiography about conjoined twins. Fictional autobiography? Did you hear right? Yes. It's fiction, but it's told as if one of the twins is writing her memoir. Very interesting format and done exceptionally well. If you have a sister, I bet you anything you will love this book. So beautiful. So touching. 

For Teens/Adults
These books are marketed for teens but have huge crossover appeal. I love crossover books. Frankly, I think all adults should read books for teens and kids. But that's just me. Anyway...

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Holy moly is this an amazing book! It received six starred reviews. Do you know how many review journals there are for young adult literature? Six. A clean sweep. I have to admit that sometimes I don't like books that receive so many starred reviews or big awards. I'm not that highbrow of a reader, and sometimes those kinds of books go right over my head. But this book is amazing. I finished it one day and started again from the beginning the next. It's that kind of story. A mystery and a romance and just enough fantasy to keep things interesting without making my head spin. It's about identity and how we have to fight the labels that others put upon us and learn who we are from the inside out. The story takes place in a swamp, and the language is so swampy, you just sink into it. And Eldric, the love interest? My new literary crush. 

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Another page turner. And another book I had to re-read right after I finished it. Do you like parallel universe stories? I love to delve into those ideas. This book is about a popular mean girl who dies. (I'm not giving anything away. It happens in the prologue.) The cool thing is that she wakes up the next day and it's the day of her death all over again. (Kind of like the movie, Groundhog Day.) Watching her learn and grow and try to change things as she repeats this tragic day over and over again is fascinating. Everyone is talking about Oliver's new book, Delirium. I read that one, too, but in my opinion Before I Fall has more interesting characters and a more emotional story arc. I guess it depends on your taste: popular mean girl gets a chance at redemption vs. cautious repressed girl falls in love and breaks out of her dystopian society. On a side note, I just saw and loved the movie Source Code and it made me think of Before I Fall. If you love Before I Fall, go see Source Code. (And vice versa.) You won't be disappointed.

For Kids
The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless by Allan Woodrow with illustrations by Aaron Blecha

You want a hilarious book for kids in 2nd-4th grade? You've got it. This book doesn't actually come out for a couple more weeks, but you can pre-order it now. I'm lucky enough to have seen this book grow from a baby manuscript into its lovely paperback form. Allan was one of my students, and the moment I read the first chapter of his book, I knew he wouldn't be my student for long. He was on the fast track to publication. So glad I was right! Kids (especially boys and reluctant readers) are going to go crazy for Zachary, a rotten and lovable hero.

Dear Tabby by Carolyn Crimi and illustrated by David Roberts

Okay, this book might be in the kids category, but honestly it's for everyone. I left it on my kitchen table, and my teenagers picked it up and loved it. Do you know how hard it is to impress teenagers?? Anyway, this humorous and heartwarming tale about a cat who gives advice is perfect for anyone who wants to bring some more happiness into their life. Tabby helps critters such as a hamster who keeps running but never gets anywhere, a parrot who doesn't quite understand the art of conversation, and a dog who sits around waiting all day for something interesting to happen. But can Tabby help herself? This would be a great book for a graduation gift. Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go is so yesterday.

Little Chicken's Big Day by Katie Davis and Jerry Davis

Looking for the perfect book to stick in that Easter basket? Here it is! I love this story, and the illustrations are so cute. My favorite thing is the catchphrase, "I hear you cluckin' Big Chicken!" I've been using that phrase since I heard it. It really comes in handy! Also, I've got serious book trailer envy. Check it out:

That's all for now. Have you read anything fantastic recently? Let me know in the comments.