Saturday, February 28, 2009

Author Interview: Ken Mochizuki

Welcome, children's and young adult book author, Ken Mochizuki!

I am so glad Ken is here today as part of Provato Marketing's big winter blog tour. :D Ken is the author of these great picture books:

Baseball Saved Us (illustrated by Dom Lee and published by Lee & Low Books, 1993)

Heroes illustrated by Dom Lee and published by Lee & Low Books, 1995)

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story (illustrated by Dom Lee and published by Lee & Low Books, 2000)

Be Water, My Friend: The Early Years of Bruce Lee (illustrated by Dom Lee and published by Lee & Low Books, 2006)

Ken, why do you write books for children and young adults?

It was because of a classic case of serendipity, or a fortunate accident. Up till 1991, my aspiration was to become a writer of adult novels. That year, I received a phone call from a Philip Lee in New York. He got my name from his wife, Karen Chinn, who I knew while she was in Seattle. Philip said he had started the children’s picture book company, Lee & Low Books, and was searching the country for authors and illustrators for its first published books. I had never written anything for children or young adults, but then Philip suggested the topic that became my first picture book, “Baseball Saved Us.” The critical and commercial success of that book launched me into a now 16-year career.

Over those years, I learned the necessity of writing for children and young adults – to provide them with an alternative to other mass media, to provide them with characters, experiences and information they will not be exposed to in any other medium.

Do you have a particular writing process or any writing rituals?

Once I have a setting and characters for a story, I usually come up with the ending of the story first. And then I rewind all the way back to the beginning and try to get those characters to that end. That’s where the work is – filling in all between those two points.

What is your definition of a “bad writing day”? How do you deal with bad writing days?

“Bad writing days” are: 1) When I can’t go any further, or “writer’s block” occurs. Students ask me if I go for a walk when that happens. I answer that I could walk forever and nothing is going to happen. Only in the actual process of writing will anything happen. So, either I “write my out of it,” which means that I don’t judge what I’m writing; I just do it and worry about how it fits in later. If that doesn’t work and I can’t bring myself to work on the current project, then 2) I go on to some other form of writing, like answering e-mails or responding to blog interview questions or reading a book.

What books and authors have influenced you the most as a writer for children and young adults?

As much as I hate to admit it, I learned the most about storytelling from serial TV of the ‘60s. Series like “The Twilight Zone” and the original “Star Trek” employed classic story construction that I learned from as a child that would later come in to play in any type of fiction writing, including those for children and young adults.

However, I do have a Big Three for YA: Judy Blume, for being daring and for still being one of the most censored authors in America; Laurence Yep, who can turn any complicated concept or information into mythology; and Walter Dean Myers, who can write about tough inner city life without using a four-letter word. And I always give credit to Yoshiko Uchida, a Japanese American picture book and YA author who came before me.

You have worked as an actor and as a journalist. How have these experiences affected your writing for children and young adults?

Being a print journalist served as excellent training for becoming a children’s book writer, especially for picture books, since all require knowing how to say the most with the least amount of words. An actor studies human behavior, motivation – why do people do what they do? That comes into use when creating characters and their actions.

Which books would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, popularity, or awards)?

If I could have the body of work that Linda Sue Park has, I would be happy. As far as a single book goes, if I could produce something like Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” I’d be happy with that, too!

Can you tell us a little bit about your book tours, school visits, or workshops?

This if from my current “Fact Sheet” and upcoming Web site: “During the past 16 years, I have conducted presentations around the country. For presentations based on my books, Baseball Saved Us and Heroes, I concentrate on making stereotypes, prejudice and racism understandable for students. I begin each program with an age-appropriate discussion of stereotypes. For earlier grades, I frame the subject in terms of "assuming without knowing" and name-calling. I use examples of how I have been affected by stereotypes in my own life.

For presentations based around Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story, I conduct an age-appropriate discussion of the Holocaust, focusing on the issues of the moral dilemma and conscientious choice. I also read Be Water My Friend: the Early Years of Bruce Lee, a picture book biography that address fighting and bullying. I accompany all readings of my books with the books' illustrations on slides. I also conduct a lecture on the history of Asian Pacific Americans in the U.S. military; and presentations about my Young Adult novel, Beacon Hill Boys (both for middle school and above).”

What are some of your favorite experiences from signings, interviews, and other promotional activities for your books?

Within those past 16 years, I have been invited to cities and towns around the United States and even in Germany once. Just the fact that I have been able to do that would be a “favorite experience.” Particularly rewarding for me is when a student or teacher tells me that one of my books has positively affected their lives. A memorable experience would be reading Passage to Freedom at the huge auditorium at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C.

What children's and young adult books are you reading now?

Most of the books I read are for research purposes for whatever writing project I am working on during the time. I should read more children’s books and YA. The most memorable book I have read within the past year is Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

Do you keep up with the blogs of the kidlitosphere? Which do you read regularly? Have you considered starting your own blog?

I’m an old Baby Boomer, so I’m trying to get with the 21st century but haven’t been a regular on the kidlitosphere. I’m looking into incorporating a blog on my new Web site.

What are you working on now?

I was working on a YA novel, but that has been put on hold while I await feedback from editors. In the meantime, I’m working on another picture book. I don’t like to divulge what they are until they are for sure (a contract already signed!), but they will have American characters of Asian descent again.

Do you have a message for your readers in Asia? :o)

As far as historians currently know, Filipinos were the first Asians to permanently settle with their own communities in North America during the 1700s; they first began arriving to the shores of present-day Mexico and California during 1500s as sailors aboard Spanish galleons. Of course, we know that Chinese arrived in large numbers during the mid-1800s. After almost 500 years in America, we Americans of Asian descent are often not seen as Americans, but as foreigners, as recent immigrants to America. Many of us Asian Pacific Americans, including myself, are trying to correct that perception. That issue plays a major role in why I do what I do.

Thank you so much, Ken, for stopping by to talk a bit about your work.

For other stops on the blog tour courtesy of Provato Marketing, please click here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Author Interview: 13 Questions for Ingrid Law

(book trailer for Savvy by Ingrid Law)

I watched the live webcast of the 2009 ALA Youth Media Awards and I wasn't surprised when I heard Ingrid Law's Savvy (Dial Books for Young Readers/Walden Media 2008) announced as a Newbery Honor Book. Savvy is written in very imaginative language and is an authentic coming-of-age story, affirming family tale, super fun road trip story, AND exciting middle grade fantasy all in one book. (Be sure to watch the book trailer at the beginning of this post to know more about the story.) I had been expecting it to win a Newbery Honor, and now I have the amazing privilege of presenting an interview with Ingrid Law. :o)

Thank you so much Ingrid for taking the time to answer my questions!

1. What motivates you to write for young readers?

Young readers still possess enormous reserves of wonder. The age group I write for has one foot on the path toward growing up and the other foot still firmly planted on the playground. This makes them able to see both the real world and countless imaginary worlds vividly. It is this vision that gives young readers the ability to be some of the best and brightest story lovers.

2. Do you have a particular writing process or any writing rituals?

I have a funny pair of fingerless gloves with built-in wrist support that I cannot seem to write without these days. At first, I bought them for ergonomic reasons. But now, when I put them on, I feel like I’m ‘suiting up’ to write. They are comforting and empowering the way I imagine a sports jersey might be. I will also pick out and listen to the same piece of music on a loop when I begin a new story and am actively writing and excited about the work. This music quickly gains the power to bring my mind into a creative place by association. So that later, should I ever get blocked or find it difficult to feel creative, I can use that piece of music as a tool to help me move forward. It’s very Pavlovian, but it works—at least some of the time.

3. Does your thirteen-year-old daughter influence your writing in any way?

Of course! She was instrumental to some very important aspects of the process that went into writing Savvy. She and I took the trip that the kids follow in the book as I was writing it. She made observations along the way, or had experiences or reactions to the things we did and saw that directly influenced the book. She went swimming in the pool at every motel where we stayed. Once, she even had a temporary tattoo that didn’t exactly stay on too long in the water…

4. Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that Savvy was going to be published? What were your first thoughts and feelings after hearing the good news?

I was working as a government records clerk and I got the call at work. I had been sitting on the very edge of my chair and slipped right off it to sit on the floor, stunned. I hadn’t dreamed that this book would find such phenomenal support. I was, and still am, very grateful.

5. Savvy reads like a modern American tall tale. Is there a particular tall tale that inspired or influenced Savvy? What is your favorite tall tale?

I had been reading a lot of tall tales at the time I started writing Savvy. I can’t even remember why now. But my favorite is probably the story about Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett. I’ve always liked stories about strong and spunky girls and women, and Sally Ann could cut a man down to size with nothing but a toothpick.

6. What are some of your favorite experiences from book signings, school visits, interviews, and other promotional activities for Savvy?

I love asking kids to share with me what their own savvy would be. First I ask them to tell me what their dream savvy would be. Then I ask them to tell me what their everyday savvy is: what they are good at—or working to be good at—right now. Some of the responses are funny, others can be quite poignant. I learn a lot about people with those two questions.

7. Savvy is available in different countries like the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Philippines. It will soon be available in Italy, Finland, and Denmark. How do you feel about Savvy being read all over the world? Was having international readers one of your dreams when you started writing?

I never expected to have international readers. It wasn’t even on my radar. But I’m glad that the book continues to find readers both here in the U.S. and out in the wider world as well. I received an email from a reader in Switzerland not long ago. She had read the advanced copy of the German version of Savvy and loved it. It was rewarding to hear that the translation was loved as well. With so many unusual words and such a specific pattern to the voice, I wasn’t sure those things could translate. But the translators I’ve worked with so far have been very dedicated and enthusiastic. I’m thankful for their hard work.

8. Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that Savvy is a Newbery Honor Book? What were your first thoughts and feelings after learning about your award?

It was very early in the morning, not quite 7am, so I was at home. After getting the call, I was excited, amazed, and incredibly relieved that I could stop wondering what might happen… after months of buzz and buildup, controversy about the award, mock awards, and predictions galore, it was getting difficult to stay focused and keep my mind on the task of writing my next book. Finding out about receiving the honor cleared all that away. It was a very exciting day for me and for everyone who has worked so hard to get the book out into the world.

9. What is your strongest or favorite memory from when you were thirteen?

I had a teacher who was very important to me when I was thirteen and attending a small private school. This teacher, Mr. D, was a man who was looking for meaning in the world and in life, and who taught us, his class of seventh and eighth graders, to look into the deeper meanings of things as well: choices, conflicts, humanity, illusion, being. Mr. D was supposed to teach us algebra and be our homeroom teacher, but he asked us, at twelve and thirteen years old, to think and reflect deeply about other things. And he respected us enough to believe we could. He valued what we had to say. I didn’t learn a whole lot of algebra that year, but what I did learn helped shape the person who I am today.

10. What are your favorite children's and young adult books? What children's and young adult books are you reading now?

When I was growing up, I was a big fan of the books of Diana Wynne Jones. I also loved Anne of Green Gables and The Lord of the Rings. One of my recent favorites is A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban. I just finished Shakespeare’s Secret, by Elise Broach, which I enjoyed very much. It has a mystery and a treasure and secrets. Now I’ve started reading Red Glass, by Laura Resau, who also lives here in Colorado and is an absolutely fabulous, truly elegant writer and, having had the pleasure of meeting her, a lovely person as well.

11. What book would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, popularity, sales, or awards)?

Sometimes I’ll read a book and be so knocked out by the beauty of the writing, the delicacy of its connections, or the flow of its narrative, and I’ll think… “Now, if only I could write like that!” Popularity and sales are wonderful to have if you can get them, but to be the kind of writer whose words can take someone’s breath away… that would be something really amazing. Whether I match or surpass anyone else is not important to me. I just want to find my own path and see where it takes me.

12. What are you working on now? Can you tell us about the sequel to Savvy?

I’m working on a follow up to Savvy—more of a companion really, as it switches main character and voice, and takes place nine years later. But, don’t worry! There will be some familiar faces along the way.

13. If you were to visit the Philippines, would you a) visit white sand beaches and underground caves, go sailing, go snorkeling and scuba diving, etc.; or b) check out the natural wonders above ground, like the Taal Volcano, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and the Chocolate Hills. Why? :o)

White sand beaches and natural wonders sound magnificent! I don’t scuba dive, so I would, unfortunately, have to pass on that. But the rest sounds irresistible. My aunt lived in the Philippines when I was a little girl and she once sent me a purse made from a coconut shell. Were I to visit, I would probably have to see if I could find another one of those, too. I could carry it with me to the top of the volcano and down into the depths of the underground caves, filled, I imagine, with as much wonder as I had when I was five years old.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Author Interview: Merrily Kutner

Merrily Kutner is the author of the picture books Z is for Zombie (illustrated by John Manders and published by Albert Whitman & Company, 1999), Down on the Farm (illustrated by Will Hillenbrand and published by Holiday House, 2004), and The Zombie Nite Café (illustrated by Ethan Long and published by Holiday House, 2007). She is an online writing instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. She teaches a unique course on picture book diagramming and offers one-on-one online instruction and written critiques. Her next picture book, Alphabet Magic, is illustrated by Coleman Polhemus and will be published by Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press in 2010.

I have read two of Merrily's books and enjoyed them very much!

Down on the Farm is for readers aged 3-6. It follows a day in the life of a little goat living on a farm. Its really fun rhymes and beautiful illustrations have rustic charm and down-home goodness. It's perfect for reading aloud with kids.

The Zombie Nite Café is for readers aged 4-8. It is about a boy and his dog stumbling upon a diner for ghouls, aliens, and other monsters. The Zombie Nite Café also has fun rhymes. The story and illustrations are scary AND funny, so the book is not too scary for children. Perfect for Halloween, or any other night the young 'uns want to read/hear a creepy little story.

And now let us welcome the author of these great picture books, Merrily Kutner! Merrily is here to chat about her work. :o)

Hi, Merrily! Will you please share with us what motivates you to write for children?

I want kids to read…to realize that reading is more than just seeing a story unfold. It’s about using their imagination in a particular way that they wouldn’t with computer games or guitar hero. And, this reading skill will help them to think “outside the box” and problem solve. Most learning is based on reading. So, if kids enjoy reading they’ll embrace learning for the rest of their lives. I’d like to think that when kids read my books they will feel more positive about reading and they will want to read more…there’s a book for everyone…you just have to find it.

Do you have a particular writing process or any writing rituals?

No…I don’t have a funny hat or a lucky robe or even a set time of day that I write. I just write almost every day (I’d miss it if I didn’t). Sometimes it’s almost as if my computer calls to me…come, sit and write…and that makes me smile when I walk into my office.

What books and/or authors have influenced you as a writer for children? What are your favorite children's books?

My favorite classic book, by Dr. Seuss, is Horton Hears a Who. My mother read it to me and my sisters when we were young. I can still recite some of the words. It made quite an impression on me. I aspire to write with the whimsy and creativity of Dr. Seuss, the skill of Jane Yolen and the sensitivity of Eve Bunting.
One of my current favorite books is Fancy Nancy. That little girl could be me. I think there's a bit of fancy in most little girls. I love anything that glitters and I can't seem to get enough “leopard” anything!

What are the challenges of being a children's book writer?

With the state of publishing (cut backs and a tight market) and the economy now (can people afford to buy books?), I would say the biggest challenge is to keep writing in the face of such obstacles. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep going while the rejections pile up. And, once you have a book published, it’s quite a task to get the word out…ah, the business of book promotion.

Navigating through the maze of book promotion…it’s very challenging for a new author to find a way to distinguish her book from the many others out there. You need to think outside the box when it comes to promoting your book to get people's attention. I use many eye-catching props when I do book readings and school visits…that helps. Also, writers have to focus on making their voice stronger. My agent says that finding your own "brand" is critical to developing a fan base. 

Surviving the reviews is another challenge. Some reviews will be very good…some not so good. I remember being so caught up in the "first book thrills" that I wasn't prepared for what the critics might say. (Now, of course, I know better and I always hold my breath before I read them, like that does any good?). I emailed my editor about my disappointment. She told me that to survive in this biz I was going to have to develop a "thick skin" about reviews. She told me how books with disappointing reviews even go on to win awards. I recall joking, that developing a "thick skin" was better than a "thick waist." Yet, I don't think I ever really got over it. My books are like my babies. How can I not take bad reviews personally? But, I think she's got something there with that "thick skin" advice. Trying to develop a thick skin is worth doing if you can do it. I'm still working on it!
What is your definition of a “bad writing day”? How do you deal with bad writing days?

I don’t have many bad writing days. I really enjoy writing. I was frustrated though when my agent asked me to revise a story. After a number of revisions and going around and around the story eventually wound up almost the way I had it originally. It made me begin to doubt and second guess myself as a writer. I questioned whether my vision was sound…that was a very bad feeling. Insecurity is the kiss of death for a writer…it can really stifle creativity. Now, if I get frustrated about what I’m working on or I’m at an impasse I know that I have to switch gears…I go on to something else. That’s how I handle it now.

Which children's books would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, popularity, or awards)?

Sure, awards are great and who wouldn’t want to be on the best seller’s list? To be recognized by one’s peers is a worthy aspiration. But, is it like a popularity contest? And, I’m not sure what criteria reviewers or judges look for when deciding on awards. I’d rather know that kids are reading and enjoying my books. If I write books that get kids reading, well, that means more to me. When my first book was named an IRA/CBC Children’s Choice Book (a program sponsored by the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council where 10,000 school kids around the United States vote on their favorite 100 books for that year), I was thrilled because the kids had voted for it. They’re my audience…I write for them, and to be validated by them meant a lot to me. I’d love my books to be as popular and embraced by kids as The Cat in the Hat or Fancy Nancy or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

Do you keep up with the blogs of the kidlitosphere? Which do you read regularly? Have you considered starting your own blog?

It’s funny that you ask this question. I have an author friend who is begging me to blog and sign up on different list serves. I consider myself a bit challenged when it comes to all the blogging and online exploration. I’m trying to get with it but I confess I still don’t have a handle on it. I’m still working on getting a web site up. I don’t read many blogs yet and I haven’t thought of starting my own. I guess I’m concerned it will take too much time away from writing. Right now I enjoy teaching an online writing course for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and that takes some time away from my writing.

What inspired you to write Down on the Farm? What do you want readers to take away from Down on the Farm?

My young daughter inspired me to write the book. She used to walk around the house making all kinds of animal sounds…baa baa baa, nay, nay, nay etc. It was so cute. And, I read a lot of books about animals and farms to her. One day, while reading yet another book about the farm, I read the sentence…“and down on the farm you find ducks and pigs…” Suddenly the little tune popped into my head…down on the farm, down on the farm. I thought of all the animals that might be on a farm and the noises they made and grabbed my rhyming dictionary. The book practically wrote itself (in two weeks). My husband made fun of the “sing song-ness,” as he called it, but I felt kids would like it.

I hope young readers enjoy the whimsy of saying the animal noises and have fun singing the repetitive refrain. One of the most rewarding experiences I got from writing the book was when a father told me that he read it to his 18 month old son. He said they made the animal noises, sang down on the farm and they bonded. Then his son took my book to bed with him. For a writer to hear this…it doesn’t get any better than that!

Merrily, I certainly enjoyed the whimsy of Down on the Farm!

What inspired you to write The Zombie Nite Café? What do you want readers to take away from The Zombie Nite Café?

The idea for this book was born while I was out walking my dog, Curly, one foggy night. My mind wandered and I wondered (the sci-fi buff that I am) what would happen if I stumbled upon a place where there were monsters...say, like a café…the zombie nite café. Then the refrain came to me…”in the zombie nite café” and I worked out most of the book in my mind on the way home.

I hope that readers will enjoy the “rhyming-ness” of it all. It’s not really meant as a cautionary tale…but maybe it will whet kids’ appetites for sci- fi stories…my favorite kind of books.

I'm a big kid who enjoyed the "rhyming-ness" of The Zombie Nite Café. :D

Can you tell us about your next book, Alphabet Magic?

Alphabet Magic is due to be published in the fall of 2010 by Neal Porter Books. It’s not your typical alphabet book. It’s a story from A-Z told in alliteration about a magician who goofs up the tricks. It was inspired by my son, Jonathan, who at the age of 10 announced he was taking up magic. We purchased tricks from a magic store and he practiced and practiced. Whenever Jonathan put on a “magic show” he goofed up all the tricks. It was so funny and cute. Then I wondered “what if” a real magician kept goofing up the tricks and crazy things happened. Don’t you just love playing the “what if” game? I do…I play it a lot.

Merrily, thank you very much for spending time at Into the Wardrobe to chat about your work. I look forward to reading Alphabet Magic. Keep on playing the "what if" game - I see that it results in great children's books!

For the folks who want to contact Merrily, here is her email address: :o)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Whoa, I can't believe it's February already. Where did all the time go?

Every month, the Carnival of Children's Literature brings together great blog posts on children's literature. January ends with another great edition of the Carnival over at Lisa Chellman's under the covers. Check it out!

And attention all book lovers! Attention all authors, illustrators, and publishers! February begins with KidLitosphere Central going live! (I can't think of a better way to start this month.) The KidLitosphere is a society of reviewers, librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators, publishers, parents, and others who blog about children's and young adult literature. KidLitosphere Central is an avenue for book lovers to all of the useful literary resources of the KidLitosphere. It is also an avenue for authors, illustrators, and publishers to connect with readers and reviewers.

I am so proud and happy to be part of the society of children's and young adult book enthusiasts! If you want to find out more about us and view a complete list of the KidLitosphere blogs, visit KidLitosphere Central today!