Tuesday, January 31, 2006


at the 2004 SCBWI National Conference
Glitter Ball
with Arthur A. Levine
(a.k.a. The Coolest Editor in the World)
- we won first place in the costume contest! -

Monday, January 30, 2006

Disco Mermaids?

What in the world is a Disco Mermaid? And why would we choose that for our moniker? Hold on tight because you’re about to find out.

Over the next two days we’ll post photos taken at the past two SCBWI National Conferences. Be forewarned, these pictures should not be viewed by those with weak hearts, bad backs, tennis elbow, a fear of shiny objects, or of mermaids with facial hair.

On Friday, we’ll post the first of a semi-regular feature called Fondue Fridays. One topic. Three Disco Mermaids. And a Lazy-Susan with a laptop.

First topic: Gettin' Jiggy at SCBWI

Fondue Fridays
- where everyone dips in, and everything comes up cheesy -

Saturday, January 28, 2006

I'm A-Frey-d So! -- Jay

Sex. Politics. Religion. The Holy Trinity of what not to speak with friends about if you’d like to remain friends. Eve, we've discussed all three and never disagreed. Actually, we've never disagreed about anything...until now. So why did it have to be about writing? Why writing? (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please read yesterday’s post by Eve before continuing.)

To keep us on track, I promise to wrap up this post with a comment on the frustrating world of publishing. But until then, let's get into it. Lying and exaggerating in a non-fiction memoir bothers me for two reasons.

One, I feel sorry for memoirists whose books will now be questioned no matter how hard they try to keep the ‘non’ in ‘non-fiction.’ There is a very simple remedy if you plan on making things up...just let us know. Let your readers decide how much to invest emotionally in your words. I loved Rocket Boys, later made into the movie October Sky, but the disclaimer stating that the author sometimes combined several characters into one character and sometimes altered the sequence of events constantly bugged me. Fiction and non-fiction stories are about cause-and-effect. If you change the sequence of events, then I can’t really understand why something happened (which, I assume, is why most people write memoirs). But thanks for letting me know.

Two, a lot of people are claiming, "His memoir has helped a lot of people. Who has it hurt?" True, it has helped a lot of people. I know people who have quit drinking cold turkey because his novoir (get it? novel+memoir=novoir...cute, ain’t it?) scared them silly. But according to a counselor at the addiction-recovery center Mr. Frey went to, he totally lied about his experiences there. So what if someone can’t quit cold turkey and needs the help of a recovery center, yet they’re too afraid to go to one based on this book?

Okay, time to get to the frustrating world of publishing. I don’t blame Mr. Frey...much. I see him more as a victim of circumstances. He tried selling the book as a novel, even though most of it was true. Gotta give him credit for that. But when a dozen publishers rejected it, his agent suggested that they market it as a memoir because memoirs were hot. With how frustrated I’ve become trying to sell my books, I can see the temptation. And then his book sold. To take out the lies and exaggerations at that point would have meant admitting to the publisher that they bought a book with lies and exaggerations...and apparently that’s only okay if you host a top-rated cable news talk show. [NEWSFLASH: I just learned that the above novel-turned-memoir story appearing in Time, Newsweek, and other publications to win the author sympathy were a lie. This guy can’t stop lying...even now! Dude, you're gonna get caught. What a great person to write a non-fiction book, right? So I won’t defend him anymore. The guy’s a jerk.]

Eve, this wasn’t personal, so go easy on me in your memoirs. And if you need to exaggerate, can I at least have approval on the ones about me?

- Jay

Friday, January 27, 2006


Although our blogging is about children’s books, I feel compelled, after being pummeled with “James Frey Is a Lie” headlines, to address this issue. After all, many a teen addict has read his “memoir”, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and come away with a new respect for the powers of rehab. So, to me it should be considered a “crossover” book, certainly marketed to teens as well as adults.

So, here’s my thing: Does any of Frey’s alleged fabricating matter in the grand scheme of things within the world of literature and entertainment? Nope. We spent a lot of time discussing how autobiographies/memoirs can never really be entirely TRUE in my recent teen novel writing class with the fabulous Valerie Hobbs. Anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 knows that memories are plastic, not perfect. They change. Do we embellish memories of yesterday or ten years ago when relating them to make for a good story? Yes. Do we ever remember things EXACTLY as they happened? Of course not. (This has been proven in multiple studies of witnesses to crimes…my sister, the Public Defender, told me) Does every memoir on the planet have some element of drama added for effect, mixed in with some hazy, imperfect, dream-like memories? Absolutely!

So…James Frey wrote a very entertaining account of a crappy little snippet of his sad life. So, he “lied” to Oprah. Who cares? I’m not condoning lying to anyone, but what human has never lied? Not one, I bet. And what memoirist has not made stuff up? Can you assure me that everything Augusten Burroughs or Dave Eggers has said is true? (Love Dave Eggers, by the way. Seriously, I idolize the guy.) Now, my friend Jay makes a great point in reminding me that James Frey actually made stuff up that contradicted public and police records…okay, not the smartest move. But does the fact that he embellished truths really make his story less heartbreaking or inspiring? I don’t think so. Jay disagrees. He feels “duped”, manipulated into emotionally investing in a dude’s story BECAUSE it was presumably true. Then, to find out most of it is false makes him distrustful and resentful for being roped in.

Which brings me back to my original point (and I did have one). Does it matter that James Frey lied? Not TO ME. To be fair, I totally see why others are angry. No one likes to feel “duped”. People are mad that they bought into the story and felt for this dude, who apparently never had it all that bad. He “Vanilla Iced” us. He
“Milli Vanilli-d” us. But guess what? I’m still entertained. I still love “Ice Ice Baby” and “Girl, You Know It’s True”. You know why? Because they’re fun songs. And James Frey’s a hell of a storyteller. But that’s what he is…a STORY-teller. He’s not a role model. He has no obligation to be completely honest with us. He’s not a journalist, a Priest, a politician (people we assume will tell us the truth…uh, yeah, whatever)…so he made some stuff up. The heart of the story is true.

Guess what book changed my life as an averagely depressive 13 year old girl? GO ASK ALICE, by Anonymous. Marketed as a “real life” diary of a drug addicted 15 year old girl, this teen nonfiction book has been one of the most recommended 8th grade reads for thirty years. Is it all true? No. Did it still entertain me and inspire me to stay far far away from drugs and bad kids? Absolutely! Served its purpose. So, I could not care less if the girl really truly lived on the San Fran streets and ate garbage and got butt-raped by a trusted older couple...among other horrific things...or if someone made it up. It is a fascinating read nonetheless. But that is because I see reading for pleasure as ENTERTAINMENT. Period.

If I really want to learn something, I’ll bust out my old medical textbooks. Come to think of it, a lot of that stuff is based on assumptions and outdated research. Should my PATHOLOGIC BASIS OF DISEASE book be re-labeled “Fiction”?

Note to James Frey’s editor: Just replace the little “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker with a “Based On True Events” sticker, and you’re good to go!

I’m outta here!


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Saving Anna -- Jay

Anna, on behalf of the children’s book writing community, I would like to say, “We’re sorry.” It was nothing more than a bad coincidence and I’m doing my part to rectify the situation.

Am I speaking to a specific Anna? No. I’m speaking to any Anna who reads books for teens. I changed the title of my YA manuscript because I couldn’t bear the thought of a girl named Anna seeing another book with her name in the title. It would be different if the books dealt with girls who lived fabulously comfortable lives with wonderful boyfriends, loving families, and attended schools where everyone was treated with respect. But they didn’t. The books dealt with teen suicide.

Whenever I’m working on a book, I research other books on the same general topic. And what did I find this time? Two more books dealing with the suicide of a teenaged Anna. After the Death of Anna Gonzales by Terri Fields and Drowning Anna by Sue Mayfield.

But before I discovered this eerie coincidence, my manuscript began winning contests using the title Baker’s Dozen: The AudioBiography of Anna Baker. It won a Work-In-Progress Grant from SCBWI and the Grand Prize in SmartWriters.com’s Write-It-Now Competition.

Even though their websites already listed my manuscript with the name Anna Baker in the title, I needed to change the title. I needed something close, with the same ring, but different. Hopefully you’ll soon find Baker’s Dozen: The AudioBiography of Hannah Baker in a bookstore near you.

And to Hannah, I’m sorry. I hope my book is the only one.

- Jay

Monday, January 23, 2006

Happy ALAAA Day


- How many have you read? -

(be sure to contact your state senators
to make this day a national holiday...as it should be)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Visit from Sammy Keyes-- Robin

We have a famous children’s author lurking in our town. It’s Wendelin Van Draanen, author of the Sammy Keyes mystery series, Flipped, and The Shredderman series. For some reason, I had never seen her speak.
But last week she came to the monthly meeting of our local writers’ group. Actually, I didn’t know about it until two hours before she was going to speak when Jay called me, so I frantically scrambled around and found a babysitter. Whew!
Here’s what I knew: she’s local, she’s wildly successful, I’ve never met her, and I already had an opinion of her:
a.) she’s probably a snob, b.) she’s probably a rich snob, c.) she’ll say things like, “Hang in there. Editors like a good hook, compelling writing, a unique voice, blah, blah, blah.” And I’ll be thinking, “I got a babysitter for this!?”

Here’s what I learned: she’s local, she’s wildly successful, and I love her! She was absolutely nothing like what I thought she’d be. Humble, hilarious, human and (thinking of another ‘h’ word…) she had nice hair! (Seriously. She did.)
She reminded me of myself (a mother, wrote early in the morning before the kids got up, was once a teacher, and stole names for characters from her student grade book). That’s so me! And I loved her story, how she came to be published, and it made me respect what she’s accomplished so much more. I came away with the feeling that I, too, actually could make it. And maybe even become the SECOND wildly famous children’s author lurking in this town! That is, if Jay and Eve don’t get there first.
Game on, guys!


Monday, January 16, 2006

Puppy Cancer -Eve

“Puppy Cancer” has become an inside joke term between Jay, Robin and myself, a euphemism for the things that ALL newbie writers do. Ever notice that at every conference when editors speak at breakout sessions, there is always one person who raises his or her hand and says something like, “I wrote a 53 page funny picture book about a little puppy with cancer and an old lady who nurses it back to health. It’s really good, written in rhyme, I drew the pictures myself, and my grandkids loved it! Do you want to see it?”

That’s right, I said ALL newbie writers have done this type of thing…maybe not this bad. But close. Can you count how many “rules” the newbie above broke? That’s right: 8!

1: No one wants a 53 page picture book (unless you’re Madonna’s agent and you’ve got a Hell of a lot of pull…HA!)
2: Puppies with cancer…not funny. Ever.
3: Old ladies as main characters don’t sell.
4: Rhyme that a newbie describes as “good”…do I even have to go there?
5: Never illustrate your own book (unless you’re David Diaz or some other amazing, ridiculously talented, well-established artist.)
6: No one cares if your grandkids, hairstylist, goldfishes loved it.
7: Do you really think that editors come to conferences to hear book ideas get pitched?…It’s the Anti-Nike campaign…JUST DON’T DO IT!
8: If you have to ask a question at a conference, make it a good one that is applicable to other attendees and the business of writing.

After several years of attending workshops, conferences, and classes, editing, re-editing and submitting manuscripts, and reading/discussing every “How To Write For Kids” book on the planet, not to mention every middle grade, young adult and picture book we can get our hands on, I feel like we’ve passed the “Puppy Cancer” stage and can laugh at our past mistakes (while also politely snickering at the “Puppy Cancer” newbies out there).

Just to prove that I’m laughing at myself as much as I laugh at others, here is my “Puppy Cancer” story:

When I taught First Grade, I spent a lot of time writing stories for my students. After a while, I convinced myself that I was pretty good at it and should be published. So I polished up an early reader chapter book called “Endangered Friends”, about eight walking, talking endangered animals who travel the planet seeking refuge from the hunters, poachers, and trappers who want to kill them. It had it all…talking animals, violence, plenty of overly clich├ęd descriptions, adverbs and adjectives galore, and to top it off…(DRUMROLL)…My own illustrations! How could editors resist? It was brilliant!

I scooped up a copy of Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, didn’t take the time to actually READ it…after all, I had to get this masterpiece out there for the world to see…and simultaneously submitted to about 50 publishing houses that sounded good. Of course I addressed every cover letter, “To Whom It May Concern”, gushed about how my students just loooved it, and how I would be happy to sell my artwork to them with the manuscript…for the right price. Idiot!

Some returned completely unopened (closed houses, of course). About half returned with form rejections. And the rest are probably being used to wrap fish or line birdcages.

The funny thing about the “Puppy Cancer” stage is that we lived in this fantasy world of self-belief. We’ve all been there…”I love children’s books; how hard can they be to write?” It’s not until we truly start learning the craft that we realize the level of talent, perseverance, and education required. THEN we start doubting ourselves. Because writing for children is frickin’ hard!

The “Puppy Cancer” stage is really fun at first…the wide-eyed attitude and adrenaline rush of finishing a story. The fantasies of seeing your 86 page picture book in the front window of Barnes and Noble…the crowded book signings overflowing with well-wishers and ecstatic children…the congratulatory champagne and caviar parties on P. Diddy’s yacht…Okay, lost myself there in the land of self-belief for a spell.

What’s your “Puppy Cancer” story?
Stay tuned…next week’s blog entry:
“Bunnies With Aneurisms”


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Children's Lit. Myth #1

People who read "Choose Your Own Adventure" books as children are 23% more likely to vote pro-choice.

The Study on Children's Books Unforeseen User Influence (S.C.B.double-U.I.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sue Alexander Award -- Jay

The Sue Alexander Award is given by SCBWI to the author whose manuscript, submitted for a critique at their national conference, is deemed "most publishable." Winning that award gave me a free trip to New York City to meet with editors. But this post isn’t about winning the award. It’s about not winning it...almost. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone if you want something badly enough.

Before going to my first L.A. conference, I was very shy. I’m still a little slow warming up to new crowds, but I thaw out a lot faster than I used to. And that change can partly be traced back to that conference.

My critiquer was Kathleen Duey, someone I now consider a friend. She read my manuscript (The ChocoBarn Cow, now called My Udder Life), and loved it. She said it was the most polished manuscript she’d read that year.

At the beginning of the conference, Lin Oliver told the audience about the Sue Alexander Award. Each critiquer could recommend only one manuscript for the award. So when it came time for my critique, and Kathleen said so many nice things about my manuscript, I assumed she would submit it for the award. But she never brought it up...and I was too shy to ask.

I spent the rest of that day kicking myself (figuratively...even though I can literally kick myself, as well). "Ask her," I kept telling myself. "Maybe she forgot about it. Or maybe SCBWI forgot to tell her about it. Or maybe she tells everyone they’re her favorite. But she doesn’t seem like that kind of person. But how do you know, you just met her? Stop kicking me!"

Finally, at the autograph party, I stood in Kathleen Duey’s line, ready to ask her a very important question. "Kathleen," I said, "would you sign my book?" And then I asked another important question. "I was wondering, cuz you said you really liked my manuscript, but you didn’t mention the Sue Alexander Award, did you want to submit my book for that award?" As it turned out, she had forgotten about the award. And yes, she would submit it.

I did it! I broke out of my shell. I so much wanted to be a children’s book writer that nothing was going to stop me from reaching my goal...not even myself.

But editors? So far, they haven’t been very cooperative.

- Jay

Sunday, January 08, 2006

My Story Had a Moment-- Robin

I’m going to pull my hair out. My middle grade story,
the one that’s been requested by Dutton, the one that
I’ve been avoiding like the plague, has finally had
one of those Oprah “aha” moments. It’s weird how
something you’ve been working on for three years
becomes its own entity: “my story.” It’s no longer me
just writing. I’m exorcising the demons. Get this
story out of me! AAAGGGHH!
Anyways, my story’s “aha” moment came tonight when I
finally discovered what the climactic moment should
be, and I finally figured out what that moment should
I didn’t write the moment, and I don’t know the
details of the moment, but I just know I’m going to
have one. And it’s going to be great!
Too bad the editors at Candlewick didn’t know about my
great moment when they sent me that form rejection
letter this week.
Their loss.
Now, if I could just figure out what the details of
that loss are, I’d stop pulling my hair out.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Why I Write -- Jay

In junior high, I wanted to be a comic strip artist. I loved creating characters and dropping them into embarrassing situations to see what words came out of their mouths two panels later. But I kept hearing how hard it was to sell new strips so I thought I’d try something else. What a mistake!

In high school, I dabbled in many genres of writing except children’s books and poetry--children’s books because it never occurred to me, and poetry because I hated it. The first piece I wrote that was published (in a high school anthology) was for a creative writing assignment giving animal qualities to a person. Mrs. Feeb resembled a cow, from the way she chewed in circles to her stocky body and hip-hugging muumuu.

In a college English class, we were asked to write about an event in our childhood that seemed magical. I wrote an essay called The Magic Jacket. The professor told me it was one of the two best pieces he’d read that semester. Of course, writing for children still didn’t occur to me as a creative outlet.

Then I took a class called Children’s Lit. Appreciation (because my mom had taken it and told me it was an easy A). When the required reading list landed on my desk, I was so excited. Bridge to Terabithia!--my favorite book as a child and the only Newbery book that kept me awake. I was so happy to be required to read it again, as if anything had stopped me before. For our final assignment, we had to do something…anything…involving children’s literature. I wrote two picture books and got my easy A. Plus, I found what I loved to write. I sent one of those manuscripts, The Chalkboard Drawings, to Houghton Mifflin and got a request for changes back. I made those changes and got a request for more changes. I made those changes and got a form rejection letter.

Over the years, my hopes have been raised many times. To see them not realized just as many times can be crushing. But I’ve learned so much over those years. Most noticeable is that I’m addicted to pain. And I guess that’s what this blog is about.

I shoulda stuck with the comics.

- Jay

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why I Write -- Eve

I hated reading as a child. There, I said it.

I don’t regularly admit this to anyone, but admission is the first step to recovery. And believe it or not, my objection to reading made me who I am today…an aspiring children’s book writer. We prefer the term “Pre-Published” to unpublished, as we know that it is just a matter of time.

The problem was not that I detested books or stories. Quite the opposite. In fact, I loved having stories read to me. I loved looking at books, touching, feeling, studying the pictures, making up my own stories. My problem? I was an incredibly SLOW reader and, as a result, had very low comprehension. It’s awfully embarrassing to watch the star reading group, “The Bullfrogs”, read LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE in first grade, while I’m in the “Plankton” reading group flipping through ABC books. Okay, we weren’t actually called the “Plankton” group, but you get the picture.

I spent a lot of free time as a young kid writing and illustrating my own books, sitting at my little orange toy box that I had set up as a desk. Why? Because I loved stories, but was bored out of my mind with the books I was given. It was rare to find a book at my reading level that interested me. My poor parents had to sit through twelve thousand readings of THE STUPIDS STEP OUT (By Harry Allard and James Marshall) because it is the only book I checked out on ‘Library Fridays’ for an entire year!

Humor…humor I tell you, is what I craved! Good, funny stories that weren’t too complicated, but not dumbed-down either. And they were rare. Slow, dull, not kid-friendly drivel is what they fed us through elementary school. I considered dropping out of the 5th Grade when we had to read five chapters of JOHNNY TREMAIN each night. It’s true!

As a recovering “slow reader”, I spent my adult years trying to prove my intelligence to the world. After all, I wasn’t stupid, just “different” and “slow” compared to my fellow students…Of course, all I heard was “DUMB”. I worked my tail off in high school, went to UCLA and then on to medical school…because the smartest people in the world become doctors, right? Okay, passed my medical boards…great, I proved I’m smart, but I hated my work.

What I really wanted was to help those “High-Low” children like me…you know, high interest/low ability (that’s what they call them now). So I became a first grade teacher in an impoverished rural New England school. Initially, I wrote stories for my students out of need. We had a very limited reading library for beginning readers, and zero budget for new books. While writing everything from alphabet books to chapter books, I fell in love with writing again. What my students especially appreciated was creating humorous stories together.

On hiatus now from teaching to write full-time, I have found my niche and “my people”. Children’s book writers are the happiest, most generous, open minded and fun people in the world. I am honored to be among them.

My goal is to write wildly entertaining, funny, kid-friendly books with Newbery-worthy prose. But the road to publication isn’t easy. It’s kind of like a churro…long and bumpy, but sweet. And though I love the process, it can be frustrating…which is what this Blog is all about. Thanks to my writing buddies, Jay and Robin, for being the “sweet” part of my churro!


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Why I Write -- Robin

I was sitting in the McDonald’s halfway between Atlanta and Athens, Georgia on my way to my first day of college at UGA. My dad and I were sitting silently, eating our value meals, not discussing the importance of this monumental day, not even commenting on the floppy fries. So I just came out and said it. “Dad, what should I do with my life?”

He raised his eyebrows and prepared to give me his usual fatherly advice. Only he didn’t. “Well, what do you like to do?” was his only response. Man, that was cool.

I answered with the first thing that came to mind. “I like to write.” And I did. In fact, my most memorable day in high school came not from my prom night (though I could tell you stories about that), but the day my 10th grade English teacher held my creative writing assignment above my head and announced in front of the class that “Robin is going to be a writer.”

It took 17 years before I ever made good on that statement. Seven years of teaching middle school, running away to New Mexico to get out of The South, two years of social work, running away to California to get out of The Southwest, and the birth of my son really got in the way.

My husband, who is a photographer for the local paper, was the only one who knew about my secret desire to write for children. One Tuesday I got a bizarre phone call from him. He was whispering. “Honey, I’m sitting on the floor of a fifth grade classroom taking pictures of a children’s book author. You’re not going to believe this…but they’re acting like she’s a rock star!”

That author turned out to be Sherry Shahan, author of “Frozen Stiff” and “The Jazzy Alphabet” (among others). My husband put the cell phone down on the ground and I listened to her speak to an audience of adoring little fans. That night, it was decided. I would go to a Night Writers meeting in San Luis Obispo and take my secret public. It was at that first meeting that I met Eve and was introduced the wonderful circle of SCBWI members in our area. My lifesavers.

It’s been three and a half years since I started writing to be published. And what I’ve learned is that it really sucks. Okay, fine. It’s rewarding and fun and I’ve met great people. But it also sucks. And that’s what this blog is all about.