Saturday, July 30, 2011

I, President

Campaign Headquarters
by Lupe Fernandez

I Hereby declare my candidacy for the office of President of the United States. 

My administration will support the Longer Recess, Better Cafeteria Food Initiative. 

If elected I promise to create new cabinet posts: The Department of Conferences, The Department of Critique Groups and The Department of Promotion. 

I will set our foreign policy to promote Children’s Literature across reading-loving countries. The Air Force will drop pictures books into anti-picture book countries. The Navy will sail the seven and a half seas – the melting North Pole counts as half a sea – and leave a book in every port. The Army and Marines will conduct house to house searches of book shelves to make sure they’re stock with the classics. 

Middle Grade Constituent
On the domestic front, my administration will create the No Book Left Behind program. No more remainders, orphans or out-of-print. 

My administration will raise the minimum wage for struggling writers so that they can achieve the Great American Dream – hiring a baby sitter to have time to finish the manuscript. 

The first act of my administration will be to open a Children’s Literature Library in the White House with a café serving milk and cookies, and a nap area. 

But I need your help with the campaign. A strong slogan is needed to communicate to America my narrative of the future.

Read My Book: No New Adjectives
Where’s The Plot?
It’s Page 1 in America
America’s Business is The Publishing Business

Tippecanoe and Illustrations, Too!

I Like Series.

Remember My First Book

Give Me a Cover I Like, or Give Me Death!

Whip Split Infinitives Now!
If you have any slogan suggestions, let us know. This is about you, the Children’s Writers of America.

Patriotic Cookie
This post was paid for by Imaginary Citizens for the Election of The Mexican-In-Residence.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Don't Read This Blog! Stop! Go No Further!

Too late...
Who is this person?

Through nefarious means at our disposal, we secured an interview with a person claiming to be Pseudonymous Bosch, Author of The Secret Series.
The Name of This Book Is Secret (2007)
If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (2008)
This Book Is Not Good for You (2009)
This Isn't What It Looks Like (2010)
You Have To Stop This (2011)

Dear Agent Bosch,
Thanks for answering a few Confidential, Top-Secret, Confidential, For Your Eyes Only, Authorized Personnel Only questions.

Don't Read This
What is the origin of the title The Name of This Book Is Secret? 
(Can you tell the story of W.P. May?) 
Can you keep a secret? The secret story is that I started writing the book in installments through the mail as part of a volunteer program called Writing Partners (a program where 4th and 5th grade students were paired with adults outside their school, as pen pals of a sort). I wanted to write a book for my writing partner but I couldn't think of a title. Then I thought, maybe that's because The Name of this Book is Secret! The rest is secret history...

Did the Secret Series begin as a Terces Society plan or a single book deal?
Not a Terces Society plan, certainly--they want to keep the Secret secret! Perhaps a Midnight Sun plan--they are the villains trying to get hold of the Secret and exploit it for their nefarious purposes. Sometimes, I fear I am their unwitting pawn, revealing vital information to the wrong people despite my best intentions...

What kind of responses do you get from your fans, enemies and spies?
From my fans, I get angry and threatening letters demanding to know the Secret. From enemies and spies, I get suspiciously flattering letters demanding the same thing.

Pay Attention
A writer claiming to be the REAL pseudonymous bosch stated that he was a screenwriter. What other talents in your background assist with your writing?
 Juggling and mustache twirling. As a children's book writer, you need to resort to all sorts of tricks to entertain your audience. 

In Chapter One of The Name of This Book Is Secret, you wrote, “Xxxx xxxx x Xxx.” Does this mean, “Xxxx xxx x x xxxxx. Xx xxx xx xxxx xx” or “Xxxxxxx-xx, xxx xxxxx xxx xxx; Xxxx ‘Xxx X Xxxx!’? 
The former, of course! 

By speaking directly to the reader and including activities in the appendices, your books break the fourth wall. Is this to encourage reader participation or to spy on them? 
Both. Seriously, while some adults find breaking the fourth wall to be irritating and affected (unless that's just their way of teasing me!), in my experience younger readers feel challenged and engaged when they are spoken to directly. This is the aspect of my books they most often site as their favorite. I suppose I am appealing to their narcissism. 

The author (spy) uses words (sight) to evoke the senses of sound, smell, touch and taste. Would you agree that writing fiction is similar to synesthesia? 
Yes, in the sense that the writer is always feeling his way in the dark. We are senseless creatures trying to create worlds out of insensible materials. This leads to much confusion--of the senses and of everything else. 

I had a question about Chapter 26, but I forgot about it to be safe. Do you remember my question? 
Yes, but I won't answer it until we're alone. 

Thanks for your questions-- I think. I only hope they do not represent another plot to get me to reveal the Secret. Please share my answers with no one--or almost no one.

Secretly yours, PB
The Management accepts no responsibility for personal injury, loss of chocolate or stolen cheese due to reading this interview. Should mysterious persons confiscate your blog, we can only say is We told you not to read this interview.

For more obfuscation, visit The Name of This Website is Secret.
Images and Video Courtesy of Person Claiming to be Pseudonymous Bosch

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jane Rosenberg, Writer and Illustrator
In Conversation with The Pen And Ink

by Lupe Fernandez

Jane has written and illustrated three children’s books on the performing arts. She started as a painter, living in lower Manhattan. Jane studied with the artist, Sol Lewitt and received a Masters of Fine Arts at NYU. “Minimalism was in flower in NY. I loved the aesthetic. It reduced art. It wasn’t arbitrary.” After graduate school, she worked full-time in advertising, then taught art in elementary school, but Jane didn’t have enough time for painting so she put together an illustration portfolio, hoping to freelance.

“In those days, I had a black portfolio that I carried around the city, as opposed to online submissions these days.” Jane set meetings with art directors and editors. She did illustrations for Scholastic, Highlights, Ms. Magazine, Brides, and Essence. She also did food illustrations for cooking magazines and illustrated the cookbook, Romantic and Classic Cakes, by the noted pastry chef, Rose Beranbaum. After illustrating for New York News for Kids, Jane served as their art director. It was distributed throughout the New York City school district. 

Jane’s early influences for her writing and illustration were fairy tales and the Eloise books by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight. Contemporary illustrators who she finds appealing: Peter Sis, William Joyce, Lane Smith, Gennady Spirin, and William Steig.

Her first book was Dance Me a Story: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets. Upon visiting Scribner's bookstore on 5th Ave in New York, she discovered a copy of ballet stories for children published in the fifties. Jane loved ballet. She had studied as a child. 

“I had a Eureka moment.” Since the only book on ballet had been written decades earlier and the illustrations were dated, Jane decided to write and illustrate her own ballet book. She started with “La Sylphide”, one of the oldest of the romantic ballets. Then she shopped the proposal to various editors. 

The fifth publisher she approached, Thames & Hudson, was interested in the project. This became her first book deal, and she had a wonderful working relationship with her editor. Merrill Ashley, a Balanchine trained prima ballerina with New York City Ballet, wrote the introduction. 

"Petrouchka" copyright 2008 by Jane Rosenberg, 
DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets
Jane often works in watercolor and gouache. Watercolor is at once transparent and vivid. It has a jewel box quality. “When I paint in watercolor I work on Arches Hot Press. I’m able to do the smallest details on hot press, unlike cold press. I do my best work in the morning, whether illustrating or writing, although I keep at it after a lunch break for another couple of hours. I write in silence but I often paint while listening to music: classical or jazz. My studio/office has white walls, a large window that looks out on an oleander bush in our side yard, packed bookshelves, a drawing table, a long white tabletop where my computer and printer reside; and a ten drawer flat file where I store my paintings, drawings, and paper, on top of which sits a light table for transferring my sketches onto paper for final art.”

"Petrouchka" copyright 2008 by Jane Rosenberg,
DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets 
Jane’s next book was Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children

She proposed an opera book after Dance Me a Story. Her publisher’s response was that it was a lovely idea, but they weren’t sure there was enough of an audience for a children’s opera book. Then, as luck would have it, the Metropolitan Opera called Thames & Hudson. They had seen Dance Me A Story and wanted Jane to do a book of opera stories with their imprint. Luciano Pavarotti wrote the introduction. 

The third book, Play me a Story: A Child’s Introduction to Classical Music Through Stories and Poems, had a different origin. 

The director from the education department at Alice Tully Hall wanted a book on classic music for kids and approached Jane and her publisher. “I suggested doing a book and accompanying CD but Thames & Hudson didn’t have the resources to produce a CD.” Disappointed, Jane put the book proposal in a drawer. Six months later she took it to Random House Children’s Books. The head of children’s books and the head of the audio division loved the book. The CD was complicated to produce.

The original poems by Jane (poems that follow the composer’s programmatic intentions) were read with musical underscoring. Then the musical excerpt was played. Knopf (it was published under their imprint) needed music in the public domain played by orchestras who didn’t charge huge fees. Jane wanted Dudley Moore to do the narration. At that time Dudley Moore was interested in promoting classic music, but he was unavailable. Instead, Knopf used local New York actors. This book sold briskly but is currently out of print. 

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" copyright 1994 by Jane Rosenberg,
PLAY ME A STORY: A Child's Introduction to Classical Music Through Stories and Poems 
For the illustrations of Play Me a Story and her other books, Jane drew on sources from art history. She was influenced by such artists as Jean-Antoine Watteau (see Pilgrimage to Cythera pictured below), the Commedia dell-arte engravings and drawings of Jacques Callot and Domenico Tiepolo, and the Russian artists, Benois and Bakst. Jane researched ballet and opera productions and costumes, attended ballets, operas and concerts, watched performances on video, and went to the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to watch ballet on film.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" copyright 1994 by Jane Rosenberg,
PLAY ME A STORY: A Child's Introduction to Classical Music Through Stories and Poems
Classical music is underrepresented in children’s literature. Regarding the interest her books generated from her publishers, “At that time, I saw an opening in the market, though today’s market is well saturated with music books. Unfortunately, too many schools have cut back on the arts. There’s little exposure to opera and ballet. Yet it’s important to introduce children to the performing arts when they’re young so they’ll develop a lifelong love of the arts.”

Pilgrimage to Cythera, Watteau, Jean-Antoine
Jane would love to do a book on world opera and world dance, featuring productions from across the globe outside of the traditional Western repertory. 

What’s Jane working on now? 

“I’m currently working on a YA fantasy novel. I’m also working on a Middle Grade novel – a musical mystery that teaches kids the vocabulary and concepts of music within a fantasy/adventure story. The illustrations are black, white, and red and painted in gouache. They reflect the flat, two-dimensional world of the sheet music that my young protagonist unwittingly enters.” 

Jane acknowledges missing the publishing industry of the past when there were more independent publishers. Why continue as an illustrator and writer in these difficult times? “That’s what I do. I’m never without an idea for a book, which I’m driven to write and illustrate.” Jane’s been drawing since she was a child. “When I was six or seven, I remember thinking: When I grow up I’ll illustrate children’s books so I can work at home and have kids.”

And that’s just what she’s done. Jane’s husband is a writer. They have three grown children and work from home. 

The Pen & Ink Blog would like to thank Jane for her time and permission to exhibit her work. 

For more about Jane see her website, Jane Rosenberg Children’s Books – The Watercolors or find her on Facebook at Jane Rosenberg Children’s Books.
Edited by Susan Berger
Images Courtesy of Jane Rosenberg

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Answers to June 7th First Line/Paragraph Post

by Susan Berger

I realize these answers were a long time coming, but we were the delighted hosts to the Vermont College of Fine Arts guest blogs. I have included Amazon links to all the titles, but you can find these books at at your local brick and mortar bookstore. In case you are traveling, here's a link to an independent bookstore guide. NewPages.

1. The statue has got to go.
That's my first thought as I prep the living room for Dustin's visit later tonight. I know I'm the only one who would notice the discriminating eyes of Mom's four-inch Jesus staring down from the mantle. Dustin probably wouldn't look away from my breasts if the room were two feet deep in holy water.
Still, I reach for it.

Losing Faith by Denise Jaden 
I read an interview with Denise and asked her if I could blog this first paragraph

2. Benny Imura couldn’t hold a job so he took to killing. It was the family business. He barely liked his family-and by family he meant his older brother Tom-and he definitely didn’t like the idea of “business.” Or work. The only part of the deal that sounded like it might be fun was the actual killing.

Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry 
This was a 2011 Cybil winner.

3. Now I have to start lying.
While I stare through the windshield at the building my brother lives in. I try to think up a good lie, but nothing comes to mind. “I was in the neighborhood”? Yeah. Right. It’s nineteen hours from Chicago to Albuquerque. If you drive all night. If you only stop for Mountain dews and KFC extra crispy. By the way, KFC closes way too early in Oklahoma.

Split by Swati Avasthi. 
This was a 2011 Cybil winner.

Sometimes I just know things.
Like when Lou asked me to go on that walk
Down by the reservoir last year
on the last day of eighth grade.
I knew he was going to say
He wanted to break up with me.

Her newest book is for adults: The Hunchback of Nieman Marcus. I heard her read from it at a meeting of Women Who Write and it was wonderful.

5. There were only two kinds of people in our town. “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectionately classified our neighbors. “The ones who are bound to stay or too dumb to go. Everyone else finds a way out.” There was no question which one he was, but I’d never had the courage to ask why. My father was a writer and we lived in Gaitlin, South Caroline because the Wates always had, since my great-great-great-great-grand-dad, Ellis Wate, fought and died on the other side of the Santee River during the Civil War.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
I couldn’t put this book down and I immediately ordered the sequel. If you want the answer to what happens when you cross Harry Potter and the Twilight books, go read it. I can’t wait for the third. 

6. If Sarah hadn’t put the monkey in the bathtub, we might never have to help the monsters get big. But she did, so we did, which given the way things worked out was probably just as well for everyone on the planet – especially the dead people.

The Monsters of Morley Manor by Bruce Coville.
I’ve read a lot of Bruce Coville’s work and this is my favorite first line.

7. My dad used to be Abraham Lincoln. When I was six and learning to read, I saw his initials were A.B.E. Albert Baruch Edelman. ABE. That’s when I knew.

My Life With the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis
This and the flap cover intrigued me enough to buy the book. I enjoyed it.

8. May 1, 1910 Seventeen days till the End of the World.
Earth Will Pass Through Comet’s 24-Million-Mile-Long Tail on May 18

Selling Hope by Kristen O’Donnell Tubb
SCBWI Crystal Kite Winner. (Many of the Crystal Kite winners do not have a viewable first page at Amazon. It’s harder to blog those. No disrespect to those authors is intended.)

9. A light breeze blew plumes of sand across the empty schoolyard. On the other side of a low wall the flat desert stretched out against the horizon. Over the course of the morning, the dark rectangle this side of the wall would shrink, and by recess would provide just enough shade for children like Akash who didn’t care to play cricket or run after a ball. From his seat by the open window Akash scanned the sky for signs of a rainstorm, for the swollen monsoon clouds that usually built up this time of year before they exploded with thunder and lightning to unleash sheets of rain. But the breeze only dies and Akash resigned himself to another day of relentless heat.

Saraswati’s Way by Monika Schroeder
This was a long first paragraph, but it does a great job of setting the scene and the book was another Crystal Kite winner.

10. Dusk creeps in and day is done.
      The last few rays of stubborn sun
      Cling to the hilltop, tree and town.
      We wish that we could push it down.

Bats at the Ballgame Written and illustrated by Brian Lies
This is also a Crystal Kite winner. I picked this one up at the library for the title and read it. Great fun and proves there is still room for rhyming books. This is Brian’s tenth published book.

There will be more First Line/Paragraph posts. In the meantime, here are some link to older ones.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lisa Yee
In Conversation with The Pen And Ink

The Pen And Ink Blog Management admires Lisa Yee – author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius, American Girl's Kanani books and Bobby books, and winner of the best decorated cake at Brightwood Elementary School in Monterey Park, California. She has a charismatic stage and online presence. She maintains a blog, LiveJournal, a website, a Facebook profile, a Twitter account, and the LisaYeeAndSon's video channel.

Her 14 year old son helps Lisa create and shoot the videos. He’s a filmmaker and directs Lisa. “It’s fun for him to boss me around. We collaborate.” For the Peepy YouTube video, Cautionary Easter. Lisa and her son hashed out idea, shot it in one day and her son edited the footage. Lisa and son have an upcoming video for the International Reading Association blog.

Lisa has a charismatic stage presence. For example, on Target stage at the 2011 Los Angeles Festival of Books, Lisa started speaking about her recent American Girl book, and then commented on her black boots.

“I’m more nervous about time and logistics. Do I need water? Do I need to go to the bathroom?” She doesn’t write prepared remarks for stage appearances. “I go off-topic. There’s no editor. It’s whatever it comes out of my mouth. Then I’ll say ‘what was I saying?’ Then the audience reminds me.” 

She visits schools, libraries and participates at conferences. “I travel a lot and enjoy speaking to promote my books.” During an appearance at the American Girl Place for her Kanani books at The Grove, “My son lasted five minutes. He gave himself a headache got a migraine and ran out screaming.”

For the book launch of Warp Speed, the publisher sent a blowup of the book cover. “I decided to do something with it.” Lisa propped a life-size cut-out of the book cover next to the podium at Vroman’s. People posed next to the cover and had their photos taken. During the book launch for Absolutely, Maybe, Lisa supplied pink wigs and photographed people.

“It’s fun. It’s gives people something to do while I’m signing.” 

Her learning curve about the business was high. Lisa’s first book, Millicent Min, Girl Genius came out in October 2003. “SCBWI was a great help. I would have floundered without it. I took workshops on the business aspects. I’m still learning.” 

Lisa hadn’t planned on writing Warp Speed. At a middle school visit in Colorado, a nervous boy stood up during the Q&A. “I need to know what happened to Marley.” Marley Sandelski was a minor character in Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time. “I was trying to figure what was the boy talking about. Later his teacher told me it was amazing that the boy spoke. He is Marley.” Also a girl had written Lisa about Marley, “He’s like me. I need to know he’s going to be okay.” Now she had to write the book. “I was taken by the phrase ‘I need to know what happened to Marley’.” She wasn’t writing to address the current “bullies in school” topic. 

Lisa is often asked, “Where do you get your ideas.” She says, “Those kids” like the boy in the back of the auditorium, standing up and asking questions. “I’ve heard from kids, teachers, parents about bullying.”

“I get a lot of mail from kids that starts, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before…” Lisa Yee urges the student to talk to someone, a teacher, a parent, a counselor. 

Lisa has an essay appearing in the forthcoming anthology, Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by YA novelists Megan Kelley Hall (Sisters of Misery) and Carrie Jones (Need). YA authors tell true stories that recall bullying incidents. 

No discussion of Lisa Yee is complete without mentioning Peepy, who according to her website, “…a.k.a. Peeps, is my travel companion and muse.” 

Lisa’s family has a definite opinion about her relationship with Peepy. “‘Nothing you do embarrasses us, except when you take out Peepy.’” 

Julia Andrews
Alas, there will be no book about Peepy. Peepy is “spoken for.” She is copyrighted by Just Born, Inc. The company is aware of Lisa’s blog. She once received a VIP invitation to the East Coast for an event. People bring their own peeps to meet Peepy. At the 2011 Los Angeles Book Festival, someone tried to buy Peepy. “Is this for sale?”

Peepy is always ready to break the ice with such luminaries as Julie Andrews, Sid Fleischmann and MT Anderson. Despite the many famous authors and illustrators Peepy has met, she stays loyal to Lisa. Though Lisa may be fearful in a public venue, Peepy starts a conversation starts and opens doors for Lisa. 

Amy Goldman Koss
There isn’t anywhere Peepy won’t go. “Peepy knows not to get into a microwave. She has her own fans. People make her clothes and sent presents. They want pictures with Peepy. Other plush animals come to visit. The whole world loves her.” 

Although, Amy Goldman Koss once attempted to eat Peepy as a sandwich. 

The Pen And Ink Blog would like to thank Lisa Yee for this interview. Proceed at warp eight to your nearest local book store and get a copy of Warp Speed.
Edited by Susan Berger
Images Courtesy of Lisa Yee

Monday, July 11, 2011

Its Annual Chocolate day Again July 7, 2011

by Susan Berger
Last Thursday was chocolate day. In honor of the event, Here are some more Chocolate titles and two delicious recipes.
The Chocolate Touch 
by Patrick Skene Caitling
Chocolate Fever
by Robert Kimmel Smith
Sorcery and Cecelia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot
by Patrica C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Missing Persons Chocolate Lover
by M.E. Rabb
Dying for Chocolate
by Diane Mott Davidson
The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder
by Joann Fluke 
And here are the recipes. These have been in my family file for over thirty years.

When I want to have a truly decadent cake, I use the Microwave Fudge as frosting for the Wacky Cake.

This is a link to the printable version of the recipes:

Microwave Fudge
1 box confectioner’s sugar (XXX)
1/2 cup cocoa (or 2 squares unsweetened chocolate)
½ c butter
¼ c milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
In glass bowl, combine ingredients. Cut butter into about 8 slices and dot over sugar mixture
Microwave on High 2 minutes
Stir until all the ingredients combine, then beat vigorously for one minute, or until fudge hardens.
Pour it into greased 8x8 square pan.


This next recipe came from Hershey’s Chocolate in the 1930’s. It used to be know as Depression Cake.
(This cake has no Dairy and is a family favorite Great with Microwave Fudge frosting, white mountain or cream cheese Frosting)

Preheat oven to 350
Use 9" x 13" pan
Bake for 40 minutes
  • 3 cups all purpose Flour
  • 2 teaspoons Baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon Salt
  • 2 cups Sugar
  • 1/2 cup Cocoa (Hershey's dark cocoa)
  • 2/3 cup Mazola oil
  • 2 teaspoons Vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons Vinegar
  • 2 cups Water

Directions: Sift dry ingredients in bowl. Then make three (3) holes in dry ingredients. Put Oil in one hole, put Vanilla in 2nd hole, put vinegar in 3rd hole. Then pour 2 cups of water over entire mix. Stir until well mixed
 Bake for 40 minutes at 350.

(Original recipe says ungreased pan. I put foil in the pan and spray lightly with cooking oil. Because I turn it out to frost it.)

You might also like this post:
It’s Chocolate Day July 7. 2010

Friday, July 8, 2011

Never Right the First Time or How I Learned to Love Revision

Mary Ann Rodman
When I was in school? Writing = grammar. Since creative writing was not part of the curriculum, I invented my own ways to sneak it in. The “make sentences with your spelling words” assignment became short stories. Science reports became episodes of Mr. Wizard or Wild Kingdom. Writing, I was in The Zone even before there was a “Zone.”

What was not to love about writing?


Just as writing = grammar, revision = correction. A “corrected assignment” was perfectly spelled and punctuated, contained only complete sentences, with all the nouns and verbs agreeing.

Teachers also wanted tidy work. My papers looked like grey Swiss cheese, with streaks of partially erased words, and holes where I had erased, too hard. No one cared what I wrote. No one ever suggested revision as a way of making my writing more concise or interesting. Once I mastered the dictionary and erasing with less vigor, I was done.

My No Revision Policy continued into high school, where I won several local and national writing contests. I was a real writer, and real writers always got it right the first time.

Then I met The Famous Southern Writer.

One of my contest prizes was lunch with The Famous Southern Writer. I was fifteen and had zero Idea of who he was or how gifted. I was much more interested in the prize check he would award me at the end of the meal.

The Writer liked to talk, mostly about the Agony of Writing. Of how he tore up five pages for every one that satisfied him. “I lose track of how many revisions my current book has gone through,” he moaned over his iced tea.

Gee, I thought, he must not be that good if he keeps writing stuff over and over. So when The Writer stopped talking long enough to take a bite of salad, I chirped right up. “You know, I never write anything but once.”

The Writer put his fork down. “Is that so?” he drawled. “Only once?”

I nodded modestly, trying not to blush.

“Well, my dear,” said The Writer, “some day you will learn to re-write and re-write and after all that, the d*** thing still will sound awful to you. Then you’ll be a real writer.”

You would think such honest and direct advice would’ve been my big “Ah-ha!” moment.

It wasn’t. Fifteen-year-olds often think they are very wise.

Not until the Vermont College of Fine Arts Program did I learn the how and why of revision. Then-faculty members Phyllis Root and Ron Koertge gave me an instant lesson in my first workshop. (Workshop is the heart of the VCFA program, where students share their work in small groups, critically assessing with praise as well as questions.) I listened in awe as Phyllis made rapid-fire suggestions.

“Have you thought about making it a short story? Or a picture book? Maybe the story belongs to another character?”

Then it was my turn. I stammered that the first twenty pages of my novel didn’t seem to be working. “I don’t know what to do with it,” I said, feeling very much not a real writer.

“I can tell you exactly what to do with it,” said Ron. Carefully, he counted out fourteen pages and thunked them into the trash can. “There,” he said. “Your story really starts on page fifteen.”

I looked at page fifteen of what ultimately became Yankee Girl and heard my old friend, The Southern Writer chuckling, “Told you so, girl.”

To quote William Zinsser’s book, On Writing: “Re-writing is the essence of writing well…We all have emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 per cent that it wasn’t.”

WRITER’S WORKOUT: Here are a few revision tricks I use. One is to emotionally distance yourself from the piece, especially if your characters are based on people you know. Another (a la Phyllis Root) is to change a basic element: write it in third person instead of first. Change the tense. Change the point of view. And if all else fails, put it away for awhile, then look at it again.

Keep an open mind. What you think is a picture book (which was the case with Jimmy’s Stars) might really be a novel. Or vice versa. You can’t force a story into a genre, any more than you can force size 8 feet into size 6 shoes (even if they are really cute and on sale).

Mary Ann Rodman is a VCFA grad. Her first picture book, My Best Friend, won the Ezra Jack Keats and Charlotte Zolotow Awards. Her middle grade historical fictions books: Yankee Girl and Jimmy’s Stars, have won or been nominated for over a dozen awards, both here and in the UK. She is one of the six teaching authors featured on the blog 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Writing Sex Scenes in YA

Melanie Fishbane
As writers of Young Adult books, I think there’s a tendency to shy away from the complexities of sex because we are writing to a younger audience and there is a certain responsibility that comes with that. Perhaps, someone will think that if there is a sex scene that we are promoting pre-marital sex. Yet, there is also a responsibility to our audience to tell a story that speaks to them. It is an audience that is probably having sex or knows people who are having sex, or, who is thinking about sex. I believe we would be remiss to not include a sex scene if it’s an important part of a character’s overall development.

At Vermont College of Fine Arts, we are encouraged to read novels that use particular techniques or themes that we are working on to help us navigate questions of style. I think that this exercise works well, because it gives us insight into how to write something differently than we had before. This past semester, I read two books, Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, in which the authors wrote a sex or make-out scene that was sexual and passionate, but also spoke to the complexities of how it feels to be thinking about being intimate with someone and having sex.
By observing how these authors write their own sex scenes, showed me different ways of approaching this scene in the novel. When Clary and Jace are making out in City of Fallen Angels, Clare combines the perfect amount of heat and intensity with Clary’s desire for Jace, coupled with the uncertainty of how far she wants to go. This fit in perfectly with some of the questions I had with my own character. Knowing that others seem to be asking the same kinds of questions, made me feel better about the scene that I was writing.

When writing the sex scene in my novel, I wanted it to be sexual, sensual and loving. I considered how my character felt to be kissed. What it would taste like to kiss her boyfriend after they’d just had some popcorn at the movies. How his fingertips lightly caressing her bare forearm would feel. I didn’t want to skim over the experience because it was an important development in their relationship that will influence how the characters relate to each other later in the novel.

I didn’t want the encounter to be perfect though. I remembered as a teen feeling confused and surprised at how my body responded to someone’s touch and my insecurities of my own “sexual talents,” so I tapped into that and used it in the scene. I wanted my character to have some of these insecurities. As she is enjoying the way he kisses her softly on the nape of her neck, she is worried if she’s doing it right. As he moves his hand up her thigh, she’s excited but also scared as to what will happen next.

At VCFA, I’m learning by reading other authors work, I can read as an observer, taking notes at how other authors do things, then incorporate those techniques into my stories.

Melanie Fishbane is starting her second semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. With over fifteen year working in YA/Kids lit at various Canadian book chains, she decided it was time to write one herself. She writes book reviews for the Canadian Children’s Book News and is active with online communities promoting children’s literature, Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery. You can see her blogging about writing, YA and her love of classic children’s lit at . Feel free to contact her with any questions about this post or the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program at

Friday, July 1, 2011

Romancing Reality In YA Fiction

Mandy Robbins Taylor
I saw a bumper sticker slogan on a Facebook page recently that read: “BOYS IN BOOKS ARE BETTER.” Of course, the comment thread that followed was a long string of female readers' bemoaning agreement. I have to agree as well. But I'll take it one step further and ask—why is that? I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I plan on taking on this topic in my January 2012 graduate lecture at Vermont College
It's probably safe to say that this slogan originated with the YA set as opposed to adult readers—I'm basing this assumption on the use of the word “boys” rather than “men”. Though adult romances certainly don't get a free pass, I'm going to focus on the utter falsehoods about love and romance being perpetuated by most YA novels out there right now—even some of my favorite books are guilty of starring the ideal guy with perfect hair, glistening biceps and the soulful sensitivity of a poet or musician (which he usually is). This boy will, of course, aggressively make all the first moves and pursue our heroine, but when it comes time to be there for her in the midst of her grief/confusion/fear, he's as sensitive and perceptive as her best girl friend who's known her since preschool.

What's not to like? Way better than real life guys, right? As a teen, I would swoon over these 'book boys' and dream about the day when I would find my own and fall madly in love and get married and live happily (and extremely together-ly) ever after. I went through high school, then college, and never found him.

You could criticize me for being fantastically moronic and idealistic to buy into this. You could argue that it's clearly just fiction, a made up story. You might believe I'm singular in my stupidity, but hear me out.

Is there such a thing as “just fiction”? Doesn't good fiction mirror life—at least in the heart of it, in the big questions it asks? Even fantasy novels often bring out the deepest real questions we're all living every day. So why depart so wholly from reality in our depictions of teen romance?

I'm not saying there's no place for a Cinderella story. There are romance tales that are allegorical in their truth, I think Cinderella is one of those. And, okay, sometimes pure escapism is a justifiable guilty pleasure. That's another topic altogether.

But in your average, contemporary, realistic YA novel, why do the boys have to be so much better than real life teen boys? What are we telling our girls to expect?

As I've walked with my closest friends through relationships that turned to engagements that turned to marriage in the last half decade or so, I've seen us all struggle with similar issues. The heart of all of them lies here: love isn't a fairytale. There are (much) harder things about marriage than picking up dirty socks off the floor and snoring. Passion fades—'Edward and Bella' love is pure fantasy. We all have days and weeks when we are certain we will end up divorced. Real people have real, serious, heavy, painful baggage, and sometimes it collides and explodes and we don't know where to go from there. Sorry girls, it's sad but true. There's is no perfect—or even perfect “for you”.

The real question I'm asking is: why are we hiding that part from teenagers? Do we think sheltering them from this reality is doing them any favors? Do we think they don't already see and struggle with it all the time, in their own dating relationships and those of their friends?

Books full of easy, passionate, flawless romance are communicating to them that real love is out there; they just haven't found it yet.

So why do YA authors do this? I have a few theories. The most relevant to this topic: I think we process our own grief over the loss of the fantasy by creating it in our heads. That's to say, we make up what we finally realize we're never going to have in order to move on from the expectation. Is this healthy or functional? I don't know, I'm not a psychologist. It could be. But is it healthy and functional to then publish these fantasy narratives and hand them to kids?

As YA grows ever hotter and the market continues to expand (hooray!), the depth and scope of subject matter has increased greatly. But something that remains the same in most genres of YA (which, it's worth noting, is still primarily written by women) is the fantasy romance. Even books that try to convey some complexity and difficulty take the easy way out—the boy is too beautiful, his hair too perfect, his kiss too melted buttery, to not forgive in the end. Or he has a flaw—but really only one. And it's surmountable, thank goodness.

Boys in books are better because they are fairy tales. They don't exist.

There are some notable exceptions to this phony, fantasy romance epidemic: Sara Zarr's Sweethearts may be the best example I've read in recent years. Jenny Han does interesting things in The Summer I Turned Pretty and its sequels—her teen protagonist's gradual realization that we don't necessarily only love one person at a time is achingly real and bittersweet. With her third book in the series recently hitting the NY Times Bestseller list that should say something to the naysayers who insist girls only want to spend their allowance on the fantasy. And Varian Johnson looks at the complexities of childhood friendships turned adolescent relationships—with a side of grappling with religion—in Saving Maddie. If you haven't read these books, please do.

If at this point you're tempted to write me off as a hopeless non-romantic, please don't. That couldn't be farther from the truth—I think the fact that I love romance as much as I do is the reason I'm even grappling with this topic to begin with. As I write this I'm listening to Taylor Swift's Love Story on my iPod for the 847th time—pure fantasy. But I can't help it, I just love, love, love it. There is no drug that can beat the feeling (or illusion) of a fairy tale romance come true. But I have to say this... isn't there room for something more? Can't we dare to put our emotional realities out there a little more often, as opposed to our emotional fantasies?

Alan Cumyn, an advisor of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts, engaged in extensive dialogue with me about writing from our core and dealing with our emotional realities. It isn't easy. I think there are as many reasons for avoiding it as there are people.

For example, Alan said recently about his upcoming YA novel, Tilt (Groundwood, August 2011): “Sex happens in this novel -- you might say it's the centerpiece. Stan's relationship [...] has its own complications, but eventually it represents a safe harbor for Stan. He doesn't have to manage the whole world alone, and he doesn't have to repeat his father's mistakes either.

“The intimacy is handled with some sensitivity, I believe. There is a moment of excruciating embarrassment -- there would have to be in an adolescent novel involving sex. In this case it's over premature ejaculation, a disaster that my lovers get through. But there’s also real tenderness and I hope a strong nod to the poignancy and power of first sexual experiences.”

Embarrassing stuff, right? When you're dealing with realistic relationships, complete with missteps, humiliations, complications, awkwardness, actions you can't undo and words you can't take back, I think it's bound to become more autobiographical, at least in spirit, than most writers are comfortable with. You'll get muddled, you'll get sentimental. You’ll get stuck at an emotional moment that hits so close to home it makes you freeze up. Yeah, vampire and archangel love will sound like a pretty novel idea at that point.

But I hope that one of these days, you'll take a deep breath, sit down, give yourself the “Nobody will EVER read this!” pep talk, and try to write your truth anyway. I hope you'll push yourself, make yourself cry, break your own heart again and rub salt in your wounds.

I hope you'll do it, and that despite your pep talk, you do let others, especially kids, read it someday. Because if you don't nobody will.

And I firmly, passionately believe (as my January VCFA workshop members who saw me start crying over it can attest) that these kids, our readers, deserve the truth about love—and all the garbage that comes with it.

Mandy Robbins Taylor will graduate from Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program in January 2012, though she would truly rather not. Ever. She loves writing realistic young adult, funny fantasy middle grade, and goofy picture books. She occasionally teaches workshops for teen writers, passing on some of that hard-earned MFA knowledge and staying connected with her audience. You can find her this October teaching the teen portion of the inter-generational Pacific Coast Childrens Writers Workshop...Feel free to email her at MandyRobbins7@aol(dot)com with any questions about this post, her writing, or Vermont College of Fine Arts.