27 Mar

What am I waiting for (3/07)?

News from editors on Pasta, James, Smith and P.O.

Submission (or revision) news on J.R. and Arbor.

Word on whether, where and when I’ll be traveling to do some on-site research for one project or another.

The Cybils post-mortem. Get your comments in now.

The receipt through Interlibrary Loan of an obscure figure’s autobiography — a book that might well be a crushing bore but might also inspire yet another research project. The two are not mutually exclusive, you know.

Official confirmation on a couple of fun pieces of news that I can share with you all.

The arrival of my very first issue of Horn Book, which I ordered over the weekend. It seems like it wasn’t very long ago, when I was first getting started in this business, that subscribing to Horn Book seemed like a total cart-before-the-horse extravagance.

01 Jan

The 2006 Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book Shortlist

And the finalists are…

3-D ABC: A Sculptural Alphabet written by Bob Raczka Milbrook Press
This art exhibit in a book begins with “A is for Arrow” and ends with “Z is for Zigzags.” In between a and z, readers are treated to a visual feast, with the different types of sculpture and the materials they use both indoors and out clearly explained.

Aliens Are Coming! written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy Knopf
McCarthy’s funny illustrations— of wide-eyed cartoonish people in a panic, drooling aliens on city streets, and long-legged Martian vehicles taking over the country—are among the many highlights of the book subtitled The True Account Of The 1938 War Of The Worlds Radio Broadcast.

An Egg Is Quiet written by Dianna Aston; illustrated by Sylvia Long Chronicle Books
This uncommonly elegant title explores eggs in their many shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and other qualities. With layered, wonder-filled text and gorgeous ink-and-watercolor art, it’s earned a standing ova-tion.

An Island Grows written by Lola M. Schaefer; illustrated by Cathie Felstead Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins
Simple rhymed couplets and colorful collage illustrations tell of an island’s formation, from the initial undersea volcanic eruption to the arrival of flora, fauna, people and culture. A graceful, engaging lesson in basic geology for young children.

Little Lost Bat written by Sandra Markle; illustrated by Alan Marks Charlesbridge
Markle describes the early life of the Mexican free-tailed bat. Her research is reflected in the storyline which also has an emotional tug to pull the child into the book. Marks evokes the darkness of the cave and evening sky and tenderly depicts the faces of mother and child.

Thanks once again to Anastasia, Susan, Camille, and Deb for their nominations-committee efforts, right down to authoring the summaries above.

To see the shortlists for the other categories, please visit the Cybils site. If you have a nomination for the 2007 Cybils, please send those to…

I’m kidding. Really. Just enjoy the 2006 lists. Please. And Happy New Year!

22 Dec

A shortlist that will last a long time

I’ll never read or write nonfiction picture books the same way again.

We on the Cybils nominations committee for nonfiction picture books all but wrapped up our work yesterday when we broke a five-way tie for the fifth and final place on the shortlist. The shortlist will be revealed to the world and submitted to our judges on New Year’s Day.

It was a joy to work with Anastasia, Camille, Deb, and Susan on narrowing the 40-plus nominees down to those five standout titles. Emphasis on “joy,” but also on “work,” as those titles were standouts among standouts. If you were to read only the titles that came in places 6-10 in our voting, you’d think that 2006 had been a stellar year for picture book nonfiction.

It’s been more than two months since Kelly first approached me about participating in the Cybils, and without a doubt the highlight for me has been the past eight days. That’s when the nominations committee began to discuss, debate, and deliberate each of the 14 titles that survived an initial vote.

I re-read and re-re-read books that I thought I knew well already, examining them more closely than I’d ever looked at a picture book, discerning what made them so appealing (if not to myself, then to other committee members) while also seeking out potentially disqualifying (though often nitpicky) flaws. With four other people doing the same, and all of us in the habit of expressing ourselves, we wound up with a lot to think and talk about. I loved it.

I’ll leave you with just a few of the qualities we considered in evaluating these books (and which I expect will form a mental checklist for my own work and my reading of others’ for a long time to come):

  • Age-appropriateness
  • Availability of source notes
  • Obviousness of research
  • Reliance on back matter for providing key information
  • Readability of font and design
  • Art that overshadows the text
  • Levels of accessibility
  • Fictionalizing
  • Earnestness
  • Self-indulgence
  • Simplicity
  • Oversimplification
  • Originality
  • Relevance
  • Narrative format
  • Emotion
  • Cutesiness
  • Breadth
  • Density
  • Usefulness in a classroom
  • Usefulness as conversation starter
  • Ripeness for reading aloud
  • Potential as a gateway to other books
  • Humor
15 Dec

All posted out

I’ve posted a lot these past couple of days, but none of it has shown up here — it’s all been in the discussion group for the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book nominations committee. We’ve narrowed the field from 40-plus to 14 titles, and over the next week, we’ll be coming up with our shortlist of five titles, to be revealed to the world on New Year’s Day.

I hadn’t considered how much thinking would be involved in this process. Critical thinking, even. Thinking hard. Hard thinking. But I’m enjoying the discussion and debate, and the insight I’m getting into what makes a good book a great one, and into what makes a book appeal to some readers but not others, should come in handy in my own work.

Ah, my own work. I remember it well…

27 Nov

Still reading

The good news is that, with a week still to go before my Cybils committee begins narrowing the nominated nonfiction picture book titles down to a shortlist of five, I’ve already come up with a top ten list.

The rest of the story is that there are still 16 nominated titles I haven’t seen yet, which means it’s a mathematical possibility that my entire top ten could be wiped out by books I read between now and next Monday.

Have I mentioned that I’m not getting any writing done these days? Or that I don’t particularly mind?

21 Nov

Thankful for good reading

What will I be reading this Thanksgiving weekend? Why, the candidates for the shortlist for the Cybil for Nonfiction Picture Book, of course. And they are:

3-D ABC: A Sculptural Alphabet
written and illustrated by Bob Raczka
Milbrook Press

A Place for Butterflies
written by Melissa Stewart; illustrated by Higgins Bond

Aliens Are Coming!: The True Account Of The 1938 War Of The Worlds Radio Broadcast
written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy

Almost Gone: The World’s Rarest Animals
written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins

American Slave, American Hero: York of the Lewis And Clark Expedition
written by Laurence Pringle; illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu
Calkins Creek

An Egg Is Quiet
written by Dianna Aston; illustrated by Sylvia Long
Chronicle Books

An Island Grows
written by Lola M. Schaefer; illustrated by Cathie Felstead
Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins

Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Other Sea Monsters
written and illustrated by Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart
Candlewick Press

Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth
written by Nicola Davies; illustrated by Neal Layton
Candlewick Press

George Did It
written by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain; illustrated by Larry Day
Dutton Books

Great Estimations
written and illustrated by Bruce Goldstone
Henry Holt

Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook
written by Georgeanne Brennan; illustrated by Dr. Seuss
Random House

Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas
written by Cheryl Bardoe; illustrated by Jos. A Smith

Honky-Tonk Heroes & Hillbilly Angels: The Pioneers of Country and Western Music
written by Holly George-Warren; illustrated by Laura Levine
Houghton Mifflin

If a Dolphin Were a Fish
written by Loran Wlodarski; illustrated by Laurie Allen Klein
Sylvan Dell

The Illustrator’s Notebook
written and illustrated by Mohieddine Ellabbad

I’m a Pill Bug
written by Yukihisa Tokuda; illustrated by Kiyoshi Takahasi

It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends
written by Robie H. Harris; illustrated by Michael Emberley
Candlewick Press

Little Lost Bat
written by Sandra Markle; illustrated by Alan Marks

M Is for Masterpiece: An Art Alphabet
written by David Domeniconi; illustrated by Will Bullas
Sleeping Bear

The Magic School Bus and the Science Fair Expedition
written by Joanna Cole; illustrated by Bruce Degen

written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Harcourt Children’s Books

Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor
written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
written by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Jump At The Sun

Near Mama’s Heart
written and illustrated by Colleen Newman

Nobody Gonna Turn Me ‘Round: Stories and Songs of the Civil Rights Movement
written by Doreen Rappaport; illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Candlewick Press

Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin
written and illustrated by Gene Barretta
Henry Holt

Oh, Rats! The Story of Rats and People
written and illustrated by Albert Marrin
Dutton Books

Our Seasons
written by Grace Lin; illustrated by Ranida T. Mckneally

Owen & Mzee: The True Story Of A Remarkable Friendship
written by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff & Paula Kahumbu; illustrated by Peter Greste

Perfect Timing: How Isaac Murphy Became One of the World’s Greatest Jockeys
written by Patsi B. Trollinger; illustrated by Jerome LaGarrigue

Selvakumar Knew Better
written by Virginia L. Kroll; illlustrated by Xiaojun Li
Shen’s Books

The Story of Salt
written by Mark Kurlansky; illustrated by S. D. Schindler

Su Dongpo: Chinese Genius
written and illustrated by Demi
Lee & Low Books

The True Story of Stellina
written and illustrated by Matteo Pericoli

This Jazz Man
written by Karen Ehrhardt; illustrated by R.G. Roth
Harcourt Children’s Books

What Athletes Are Made Of
written and illustrated by Hanoch Piven
Atheneum/Ginee Seo

What Is Science?
written by Rebecca Kai Dotlich; illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa
Henry Holt

What the Sea Saw
written by Stephanie St. Pierre; illustrated by Beverly Doyle

written and illustrated by Taylor Morrison
Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine

The World’s Greatest Elephant
written by Ralph Helfer; illustrated by Ted Lewin

Please note that purchase of these titles through the links on this page will provide a tiny commission to help pay for the Cybils’ tiny overhead and (hopefully not-so-tiny) future development.

Special thanks to Cybils co-creator Kelly for her help with formatting this post.

17 Nov

Projects + rejects = prejects

Let’s face it: Between the holidays and the Cybils and the fact that my current nonfiction project involves slowly reading a great big book, 2006 is just about over for me, productivitively. (Don’t bother looking that one up.) And between rewrites of older stuff and new projects that have gone into circulation, it’s been a satisfying year.

Which is kind of surprising, when I think of the projects I worked on this year that didn’t go anywhere, or at least not as far as I’d hoped. Remember E.F.? Toast? Tennessee? There was at least one more picture book manuscript that I don’t think I ever even gave a pseudonym to. Some of these took up a lot of my time, involved interviews and considerable research, and — for a while, at least — were what I expected to be working on for a long time to come.

As much as I’d like to have spent that time on projects that might sell, I don’t regret them. (And, of course, I didn’t know at the time that they wouldn’t sell, or that I wouldn’t be able to get them to a point where we could find out whether they would or not.) I learned a lot from each one, if not from the writing itself than from the research I did for them. I’m smarter as a result.

More importantly, I think I’ll enter 2007 with a better sense of the sort of project that’s right for me and right for the market. And if I don’t? Well, just watch this space next November.

13 Nov

Democracy in action

“I’m a kid,” 7-year-old S helpfully points out, “so I should help you pick the best kids’ books.”

This sounds reasonable to me, so Saturday night S and I sit down with the stack of nominated books I’ve received so far. Two-year-old F sits with us, too, but is mostly interested in leafing through Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels and discussing the death of Hank Williams.

“Why did Hank Williams die?”

“His body stopped working.”


Anyway, S begins sorting the nominees into a “Yes” stack and a “No” stack. Then, apparently swayed by a book that looks impressive but doesn’t much interest him, he comes up with a “Maybe” stack.

Meanwhile, F is pointing to a picture of the late Tammy Wynette.

“I want to go see that guy.”

“OK,” announces S, “I’m done!”

The “Maybe” stack has disappeared, the “Yes” stack is towering, and the “No” stack has just three books in it: the one with a script font (“I don’t read cursive”), the one that reads from back to front, and the one that’s unbound, the lone F&G in the bunch.

I’m pretty sure this is how the National Book Awards work, too.


You do know that you’ve got just one more week to get in your nominations for best Nonfiction Picture Book and the other Cybils, right?

10 Nov

I thought it would be easy, mais non

I suppose it’s a good sign that I’m having to turn down requests for personal appearances already: A local school asked me to be a “celebrity (hee!) reader” during Children’s Book Week, but I had to pass, given my commitment to the Cybils.

About that commitment: When I was asked to be involved in the Nonfiction Picture Book award, it never occurred to me that part of my job would be having to divine what’s nonfiction and what’s non-nonfiction. “Nonfiction” seemed pretty straightforward to me: It’s true stuff.

But then folktales and fairy tales and history-based slapstick and whatnot entered the picture. Libraries shelve some of them with fiction, and some with nonfiction. It can vary from library to library. Even some plainly true stories are showing up in the fiction sections, which just seems wrong, as does shelving items that don’t meet the “true stuff” sniff test in the nonfiction section. Anyway, we’re trying to do right by these authors and illustrators and give their books a fair shake in the right category. I just expected more fair-shaking and less category-righting.


In other developments…

There’s more good news from Disco Mermaids. Congratulations, Robin!

Cynsations’ neat-o series of editor interviews continues with Yolanda LeRoy of my favorite publisher.

If This Jazz Man sounded good to you, check out Publishers Weekly‘s article about how the book came to be.


And finally, Pasta didn’t stick with the editor I’d first discussed the project with back in January. I got a rejection letter yesterday — not for the topic, but for the voice I’d used in the sample chapters. She just flat-out did not like it — not one bit. I’m a little sad, on one hand, in that a project I’d been working on with this editor in mind failed to strike a chord with her, especially after she’d been so enthusiastic in the beginning and so patient along the way; I’m already thinking of other projects for her.

But I’m also oddly excited — I went outside my comfort zone in coming up with the voice for this proposal, and it may just be that producing something that’s not everyone’s cup of tea is simply part of going outside one’s comfort zone as a writer. I’m still very excited about the voice, and something about this rejection feels different from the many others I’ve gotten over the years.

Of course, this rejection could well turn out to be merely the first of many, by which point this feeling could be all too familiar.