30 Oct

Some things I learned from writing Shark Vs. Train and Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!

Attack Boss Cheat Code - May 2014

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I’ve got a new guest-post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog on the roles my kids played (and they roles they didn’t) in the creation of my picture books Shark Vs. Train and Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet.

Here’s a smidge of what I say:

Every book is an opportunity to navigate that territory in the middle, between what we adults want and love and think we know and what those kids want and love and think they know.

Through my experiences with Shark Vs. Train and Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, I’ve come to appreciate just how much room there is to maneuver through that middle ground.


To read the rest, please visit Cynsations

14 Oct

Why, yes — it has been a while…

CISYID to ABC

It’s been three and a half years to the day since the publication of my previous book, Can I See Your I.D.?, and today also brings the release of my new book, Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet.

It was not my intention to go so long between books, and according to my publishing schedule I’ll be making up for lost time in the next year and a half. That said, you probably didn’t even notice the gap — heaven knows there’s lots else in the world more worthy of your attention.

But I noticed, and I appreciate the patience of my wife and family, my agent and editors and friends.

And I especially appreciate all you readers out there who let me know in the meantime how much joy you were getting out of Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers. I’m so glad to finally offer proof that there’s more where that came from.

25 Jun

Bigger than a book: my new, (no longer!) secret project

For the past few months, while working on getting my next few books written and revised and ready to greet the world, I’ve been plotting away behind the scenes on a secret project with Austin, Texas, independent bookseller BookPeople. In this month’s edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, I at last get to tell the world what BookPeople and I have been up to — a program we’re calling Modern First Library.

I’m also giving away a copy of The Great Greene Heist, the smart, engaging, fast-paced new middle-grade novel by Varian Johnson, to one subscriber to my newsletter. If you’re not already receiving it, click the image below for a look — if you like what you see, click “Join” in the bottom right corner, and you’ll be in the running for the giveaway at the end of this week.

20140624 Bartography Express

11 Jun

Summer reading and home library suggestions from the ALSC

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If you need summer reading lists for students in grades K-8, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has your back.

ALSC — a division of the American Library Association (ALA) — has updated its lists and provided them in color and black & white formats that make it easy to print these up and distribute them.

ALSC also has the backs of Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers, both of which are included on this year’s summer reading lists. Not only that, but Shark Vs. Train is also included among the titles the ALSC included on its updated home library recommendation lists.

Thank you, ALSC!

10 Jun

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Melissa Wiley asked if I’d like to participate in this rolling series of authors’ monologues about their current projects and writing processes, and I thought…

Well, from the title of this post, it’s pretty obvious what I thought. So here goes:

What are you working on?

I’ve got a couple of things going on at the moment, both of them picture books under contract.

One is a biography whose ending my editor and I are still trying to nail down — we want to make sure that we hit the final note just right. Do we leave the reader with one last impression of the subject himself, or encourage the reader to view the bigger picture beyond this one person’s life, or invite the reader to look inward and consider how the subject resonates with them individually, or attempt to accomplish something else? The runaway for figuring this out is growing pretty short.

The other book is all made-up fun, or will be. Right now, I’ve got characters and a vague sense of what the conflict is going to be, but so far there’s neither a story nor, frankly, much fun. (Though I’m enjoying myself.) What I’m working on, then, is figuring out the specifics of what happens, or might happen, or could happen, or should, or ought to, etc. Opening lines popped into my head late last night, so I need to revisit those and see if they still seem to set the right tone and get the story going in a good direction.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t know that my picture books individually differ drastically from other narrative picture books, but collectively they stand out a bit by falling into two distinct camps. I love writing seriously researched nonfiction, and I love just making up silly stuff, and I feel just as comfortable doing one (The Day-Glo Brothers) as the other (Shark Vs. Train). Enough people have asked me some variation of “How do you do that?” that I understand that enjoying both types of writing is not the norm, but it feels perfectly natural to me. Writing for this audience wouldn’t be nearly as fun if I didn’t or couldn’t do both types of books.

Why do you write what you do?

I write my biographies because something about the arc of an individual’s life — regardless of whether anyone I know has ever heard of this person — fascinates me. I like writing about people who end up in vastly different circumstances from those in which they entered the world, and about how inner drive and outer happenstance work together to change the course of a person’s life, and about the impact that person’s life has on the rest of us. And I like writing about people whose fields of achievement offer lots for me to learn about along the way and lots to distill and convey to my readers.

I write my fiction because I’ve always enjoyed getting people to laugh — or at least taking a shot at getting them to laugh — through the words I string together. It’s no fun when my efforts fall flat, but the times when my audience (even if that audience consists of just one person) does laugh — those keep me going.

How does your writing process work?

For biographies, with the very first piece of research I consult, I generally start creating a timeline of key events in the subject’s life. From that timeline, the period of the person’s life that most intrigues me will begin to emerge — I don’t generally write cradle-to-the-grave biographies, so I’m on the lookout for a significant place to start my telling of their story and a meaningful, resonant place to end my telling. Then I’ll research and research and research until I’m not running into much new information, or not finding any information that alters the story arc that’s taking shape. By then, I’m feeling sort of full and antsy, and I can’t help but start writing, though I’ll probably continue doing research of some sort until the illustrator is entirely finished with the art.

That’s a fairly amorphous process, but it’s even more so for my picture book fiction. Sometimes, I bang out a full draft the first morning an idea occurs to me, or the first day I pull a previously-jotted-down story idea from a pool of candidates. Other times, there’s a lot of mulling — weeks and weeks of mulling — about how to approach a character or theme or plot point before I ever actually start writing what anybody else would consider to be a draft.

For both types of books, I tend to revise a lot as I go. I turn in very clean drafts — not that they necessarily get returned from editors in quite the same condition.

Who’s next?

Who am I going to ask to answer these questions after me? Well, Melissa has already gone to my go-to author.

So, I was thinking that instead I would ask the most recent commenter, which would be Tina Kugler. But I see that Tina has already taken a crack at these questions.

So, how about you? If you’d be up for keeping the Writing Process Blog Tour going — or if you’ve already done your bit — won’t you please leave a comment letting me know where the rest of us can find your answers?

11 May

Two lessons in keeping an eye on your files

In my school visits, I often shock audiences by revealing that it took THREE AND A HALF YEARS from the day I got the idea for Shark Vs. Train until the official publication date. And then I tell them that The Day-Glo Brothers took EIGHT years, and they all lose their minds — especially those who haven’t yet hit the eight-year mark themselves.

But some upcoming books of mine — and projects that might become books — will end up having gestation periods that make The Day-Glo Brothers look positively possumlike.

The two picture books I’ve got on tap for 2015, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker, made their first appearances in my computer files in 2006 and 2003, respectively. And the picture book manuscript I’m working on revising this week dates back to October 7, 2002, but it has a way of getting new life breathed into it periodically. Maybe this latest version is the one that will take, but even if it’s not, there’s something immensely satisfying in having an editor point out potential in it that I’d never noticed before in all these years.

The thing is, such projects continue having potential for me only when I continue paying attention to them, or at least when I routinely check in on my files to see if anything about them grabs me anew. There’s a project I had pursued — a biography of trombonist Melba Liston — that I took my eye off of for too long, and I learned this week that someone else has beaten me to it. My consolation is that this summer I get to read Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, the version of Liston’s story that Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison have created for Lee & Low, and that’s something for me and you both to look forward to.

In the meantime…

05 Feb

O Trem Contra O Tubarão!

SVT in Portuguese

And now you know how to say Shark Vs. Train — or, rather, Train Against Shark — in Portuguese.

I’d received word a while back that a Brazilian translation of SVT was in the works, but it was still a surprise when copies arrived yesterday, especially when I saw the cover of my book peeking out from a mailing envelope that I knew full well was too small to contain it.

It turns out that the trim size of the Brazilian edition is considerably smaller than that of the US edition. This difference will add another point for audiences and me to discuss when I display this book alongside the Korean version of Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers during my school visits.

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15 Apr

Signing times at IRA in San Antonio

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I hope to see lots of you at the jam-packed panel discussion on nonfiction picture books this coming Sunday at the International Reading Association conference in San Antonio.

There’s lots of good stuff going on at the same time, though, so if you can’t make it to our talk at 3 p.m., I’d love to catch up with you during the hour before. At 2 p.m., I’ll be signing The Day-Glo Brothers and Shark Vs. Train at the Anderson’s Bookshop booth, #1003.

IRA has a helpful guide to which authors will be signing which books at which times.

19 Mar

They both won

Colorado Children's Book Award for SVT

I was in Denver last month to attend the annual conference of the Colorado Council International Reading Association and pick up the Colorado Children’s Book Award won by Shark Vs. Train. The award itself turned out to be this magnificent, hefty thing, which I opted to have shipped to me instead of trying to slip into my carry-on bag for the flight home.

I wish I’d thought to snap a photo of the award before the CCIRA folks kindly packed it away, but here’s how the pewter versions of Train and Shark look now that they’ve arrived in their natural habitat.

By the way, here’s what I said at the luncheon where I received the award:

The thing in life that we’re going to be our best at may be something we haven’t started doing yet. That’s something I realized for myself about 15 years ago — a few years before I started writing books for children — and it’s something that’s almost entirely undermined by the ineptitude displayed by Shark and Train as they try their hands… fins… driving rods at playing piano, traveling through outer space, and attempting to jump a row of parked vehicles while riding motorcycles. All the same, I think it’s true — for me, and for you, and for the young people whose lives you help shape. When you go back to your libraries and classrooms, please make sure they understand that creating picture books was, at one point, something I hadn’t started doing yet, and the same goes for illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. But we didn’t let that stop us, and now I think we’re each getting pretty good at it. Having our book honored with the Colorado Children’s Book Award will only encourage us to keep at it, so we hope that’s what the children of Colorado had in mind. We thank them, and we thank you.