Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Literary Rambles: Agent Spotlight... Part Two

Dave Amaditz and Marcy Collier

Casey McCormick

We hope that all of you had a nice holiday with friends and family.

This past Friday, December 23, 2011, we posted part one of a two-part interview with Casey McCormick, from Literary Rambles. The first part mainly focused on her blog, the history and what is required to maintain the site. Today, we'll talk mainly about how creating this site has affected her writing career. Let's get to the interview questions.

So grab a cup of coffee and what’s left of your holiday cookies and enjoy the interview.

Dave and Marcy: How long have you been writing for children?

Casey: I've been writing for children for four years.

Dave and Marcy: When reading your blog I have noticed that you have not yet submitted your work to agents because you feel your writing is not ready to submit. You’ve obviously read enough comments from agents to know that that is a wise choice. Do you feel you'll have something ready to submit soon? Do you have a pitch ready? How do you feel about the importance of a one line pitch?

Casey: I don't expect to have anything ready to submit anytime soon, no. The truth is, I'm extremely insecure and self-critical and it gets in the way of my writing hugely. Until I can find some self-confidence and a process that really works for me, I don't think I'll be ready for a professional career in writing. 

I'm beginning to think I belong on the other side of the desk, to be honest. The time I've spent helping other writers compared to the time I've spent actually writing suggests I enjoy the former more than the latter!

Dave and Marcy: I used to be able to pick up a book and read from beginning to end no matter what flaws were contained within. Now, as a writer who values a good critique of my own work, my critiquing skills are always on high alert, and I find it impossible to simply read a book or manuscript and accept what has been laid out in front of me without thinking it would have been better had something been written differently. Has this happened to you? Do you wish for a time when you were able to pick up any book and read from beginning to end without thinking about what could have been changed? Or, does your ability to critique a manuscript make you appreciate that much more for those manuscripts and books that are really done well?

Casey: I am definitely a far more critical reader than I used to be, but it really depends on the book. There are books throughout which my inner editor screams and screams, but there are books that are so good I struggle to be critical of them at all. Overall, I'd say it makes me appreciate good books more. I like being a mindful reader.

Dave and Marcy: How has your new blog partner, Natalie Aguirre helped develop the blog?

Casey: Natalie not only helps me with much needed updates, but she does amazing interviews and giveaways each week. She also started the "Ask the Expert" series, where she interviews teens about their reading habits. Best of all, having her as a partner has allowed me to step back and give my family more of my time, and I'm extremely thankful for that. Literary Rambles would be really quiet right now without her!

Dave and Marcy: How has interning for an agent helped further your writing and editing skills?

Casey: Interning has been an incredible experience. I'm exposed to a wide range of writing ability and it's helped me develop a better sense of what works, what doesn't, and what really stands out. It also forces me to be critical, so I'd like to think I'm constantly developing new editorial skills as well.

Dave and Marcy: What is the most important tip you could give to a writer seeking representation?

Casey: Don't forget that the main reason you need an agent is to SELL your project and future projects. If an agent (however nice and legit) doesn't have strong connections with editors in NY, they're probably going to be a waste of your time and writing. If not initially, down the road.

Check agency websites for deal news, subscribe to Publisher's Marketplace (even for just a month), research clients (who they are, what they've pubbed, how long they've been with the agent, if available), and make knowing a priority. If the information simply isn't available, make a note to ask during "the call" in the event you get an offer.

You want an agent who is actively making deals with the kind of publishers you hope to publish with (big six? specialty?), and the more deals they make in the genre you write, the better. 

Marcy and I would like to thank Casey for taking the time to answer all of our questions. If you haven’t checked out Literary Rambles  (http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/), please do. It’s a terrific blog! 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Literary Rambles: Agent Spotlight... Part One

by David Amaditz and Marcy Collier

Literary Rambles

Have you wondered where you should go when you want to find the most up-to-date and accurate information about agents? Search no further. Wonder no more. Marcy and I have found the place for you.

Casey McCormick started the Literary Rambles (http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/) blog in 2008 and began the agent spotlight segment in March of 2009. We view Literary Rambles as the one-stop shop when an author begins the arduous task of researching potential agents.

But her site is not just for those seeking representation. Other features of her blog include author interviews, writing tip Tuesday's, giveaways and more. Check it out for yourself. We're sure you'll be ready to become one of her over 2000 followers.

In this two-part interview find out how and why Casey began the blog, what it takes for her to maintain it, what agents think about the work she has done and how this has benefited or otherwise affected her writing career.

Grab a cup of hot cocoa or eggnog, curl up by the fire and read our interview with Casey.

Interview with Casey McCormick

Dave and Marcy: We view your blog as the one-stop-shop, the place to be, the place to go when searching for an agent. What goals did you have in mind for your blog when you first began? Have they changed since you've begun? What is it you are ultimately trying to achieve with your blog? Can you talk a little about future plans for the site? Can you give advice for those just beginning to blog?  How much time in an average day do you devote to your blog?

Casey: When I started Literary Rambles, I didn't have any goals in mind. I had met a group of aspiring authors at the AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php) who blogged and decided I would start one as well. Coming up with posts was always a struggle for me, however, so I began doing weekly features. The idea for Agent Spotlight struck me when I was trying to think of another new feature to add, and it's become the defining aspect of the blog. Somewhere along the way Literary Rambles became less about me and more about others.  I love helping fellow writers, and I think that will always be the focus.

I used to dedicate hours upon hours to blogging, but it's worn me down, to be honest. I've cut way back in the last year and only dedicate a few hours to it a week now.

As for advice, I think it's important to find what works for you and then be relatively consistent. You don't have to be one of those bloggers who posts every day, or even every week, but your readers should know what to expect in timing and content, at least generally.

Dave and Marcy: While on your blog, I have never come across any information you've posted that has been inaccurate. How long does it take you to research an agent? Are there any steps you take or have taken to make sure the information you post is accurate or up-to-date?

Casey: I'm glad you've never come across inaccurate information, though it does happen!  How long it takes me to research an agent ranges from a couple hours to several. 

When I research, I basically try to find everything I can on that particular agent and pay close attention to the timeline of content I find. It's so important to pay attention to dates! You have to be mindful of the fact that a lot can change in six months, let alone years. 

I also e-mail every agent I profile with an invitation to review the information I've collected. This gives them a chance to let me know if something is out of date or incorrect. 

Dave and Marcy: As a writer, especially a writer in search of an agent, I find your blog to be extremely helpful. Based on the number of followers to your site, it appears I am not alone. What is the feedback you've received from agents about their take on your site? What percentage have responded favorably? Could you share some of their comments?

Casey: Most agents respond favorably, though I can't say they all do.

It's always a relief when the agent I've profiled loves their Spotlight, and the best days are when the agent spreads the word about their feature, or claims I know more about them than they do.  That always makes me smile!

Dave and Marcy: I am actively seeking representation and have spent many weeks researching agents listed on your site. In that time, I've come across many agent websites that suggest linking to your blog for more information about them. How does that make you feel knowing that agents are now adding your link to their website as a place to find relevant and accurate information about them? Did you ever envision that happening when you began this process?

Casey: When I started Agent Spotlight, I didn't contact the profiled agents. I didn't expect they'd ever even see I'd posted something about them! So no, I definitely did not envision things developing the way they have.  I love that agents are finding value in the feature.  Knowing both writers and agents are benefitting keeps me motivated.

Marcy and I will continue our interview with Casey on Monday, December 26. We hope that you and your family have a safe and joyous holiday!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

3 Great Cheryl Klein posts on the Craft of Writing

I'm popping in for a moment to make sure writers hear about a terrific new mini-series on Cheryl Klein's Brooklyn Arden blog.

Klein often writes Behind the Book posts for the titles she publishes. This time she offers Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce.

Klein discusses (1) knowing what sort of story you're writing; (2) how to make a mystery matter; and (3) how to recognize the power of a damn good outline. You don't have to write for young readers to find these posts helpful.

It all starts with this post:


Cheryl Klein is a superb analyst as well as a terrific teacher, which is why we recommend both her blog and her book.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Let's Rum Ball!

By Cynthia Light Brown

I love rum balls. As a college freshman with very little spare cash, I would walk once a week to the local bakery and treat myself to a few rum balls. That has been – ahem – a few years ago, but I still remember that little pop of pleasure. Mmmm. They’re like a brownie with a kick.

Most recipes call for vanilla wafers, but I think using chocolate cake or brownies makes them more chocolate-ey (always a good thing) and, well, like a souped-up brownie. Enjoy!


1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans

2 Tablespoons cocoa powder

1 cup confectioner’s sugar (plus some for coating the outside)

2 cups brownie crumbs or chocolate cake crumbs

¼ cup rum

2 Tablespoons corn syrup (you can substitute honey)


Place the chopped nuts in a mixing bowl. Add the cocoa, stir, then add the sugar and stir again until everything is coated. Break the brownies into small pieces (as small as you can get them) and add. Stir in the rum and corn syrup. Put the bowl in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to help the dough firm up. Put some confectioners sugar in a small bowl.

Shape the dough with your hands into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in the confectioner’s sugar, then roll in your hands to spread the sugar evenly. You can use candy sprinkles instead of sugar if you’d prefer. Place the ball on wax paper. Refrigerate overnight. Then eat!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hand-Me-Down Cookie Recipes

or, The Pittsburgh Cookie Table--Christmas Style, part 6
We've been talking about favorite picture books. This was mine.
You may be more familiar with the iconic red and white folk art cover of earlier and later editions, but Mom owned the version published in 1956. I discovered Betty Crocker soon after I learned to read. She offered much more than lists of ingredients and procedures. Every recipe came with an anecdote, a bit of cooking lore or tidbit of celebrity gossip ("Christian Dior. . .sent us this recipe as a special favorite.") Charming, tiny illustrations accompanied these little stories.
Later in life, Mom haunted used book stores all over the country, searching for copies so that each of her four daughters could own the same edition. She succeeded—no easy task, for people cling to these cookbooks. Five years ago, my dear sisters presented me with Mom's own marked-up copy.
As a girl, I read the book so many times I can still quote bits. (Won't you come into our kitchen and join us in our "Cooky Shines?") I can still lose myself in its steam-stiffened, stained pages.
If you haven't the luck to own a handed-down copy, the original 1950 edition is available in a 1998 facsimile. (Warning: only the 1956 version contains the Eskimo Igloo Cake instructions!)
One indispensable component of any Christmas Cookie Table is found on page 220:


These scrumptious snowballs melt in the mouth. They'll also crumble into powder if you're rough with them before they cool. So treat them tenderly, and bake lots. (They freeze well.)

  • 1 cup soft butter
  • ½ cup sifted confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 ¼ cups sifted flour
  • ¼ tsp. salt
MIX IN ¾ cups finely chopped nuts
Chill dough. Roll into 1" balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet (cookies do not spread). Bake [at 400 or moderately hot oven for 10 to 12 minutes or] until set, but not brown. While still warm, roll in confectioners' sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again.
Makes about 4 dozen 1" cookies.

LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: I'd never try to mail or ship Russian Teacakes. But I've learned how to carry them safely on planes and trains. Nest one in each hollow of those hard, clear plastic boxes in which are sold a certain kind of popular round, gold-foil-covered chocolates. (You will have to find a way to dispose of the chocolates, first.)

Since I'm reminiscing about hand-me-downs and family traditions, I'll share two Eastern European cookies my family always makes:


Kolache (or kolacky) means, simply, "cookies." There are lots of versions—Polish, Slovak, Czech, and so on. We pronounce it cuh-lotch-key, and we bake two varieties. This first kind is a two-bite treat, not too rich, and it freezes beautifully. (The other is more of a breakfast pastry, larger and with a yeast dough, and we wait to bake it until Christmas Eve.)
  • ½ pound cream cheese
  • ½ pound unsalted butter
  • 3 cups flour
Begin with ingredients at room temperature. Cream the butter and cream cheese together. Then stir in the flour. Do not over-mix. Form into four flat, rectangular portions, wrap well, and chill overnight.
Roll out on well-floured board until so thin it's almost translucent. Cut into 3" X 3" squares. Drop about 1 teaspoon of fruit filling in centers. Overlap two corners of each square in the center, moistening the dough with water to seal. (The dough resists sealing; be firm.) Arrange kolache about 1" apart on ungreased pans (we like the air-filled, non-burning kind) and bake until tops start to turn golden brown (up to 15 minutes) at 375.
Just before serving, sieve confectioners' sugar on top.

LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Never, never, never fill your kolache with the commercial fruit fillings sold in 10 oz. jars. The filling will run out of your pastry and bake into fruit leather.
So what to use? Best is to make from-scratch fillings, simmering 1 pound of dried fruit and 1 cup of sugar in 2 cups of water until the goo is too thick to drip off your spoon.
But we're lucky enough to bake our kolache in Pittsburgh, where grocery store bake shops cater to home bakers by selling commercial fruit fillings in bulk.


That's an outdated name, of course. I believe the recipe was Croation to begin with. These are fussy to make, and your grocery bake shop sells something that looks similar. Trust me, there's no comparison; these are super-flaky, and the filling has a delicate meringue crunch.
  • 2 cups flour
  • ½ cup unsalted, chilled butter
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 cup sour cream
Make as for pie dough: in a food processor, pulse flour and butter together until it resembles coarse meal, with bits of butter still visible throughout. Add egg yolk and sour cream, and pulse just until a sticky dough forms. (Or you can make this pastry the traditional way, using a pastry cutter.) Shape into four flat rounds, and chill for one hour.
After 45 minutes, prepare the filling:
  • 2 egg whites (reserve the extra egg yolk for the egg wash)
  • 1 dash cream of tartar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
Add cream of tartar to egg whites and beat until soft peaks form. Beat in the sugar until meringue-stiff and sugar is dissolved. Fold in the vanilla and walnuts.
Remove one portion of dough from chiller. Roll into an 8-9" circle on a well-floured board. Gently brush with melted, unsalted butter. (Dough is delicate!) Cut circle into 16 pie slices. Put ½ teaspoon of nut filling on each wide end. Roll up and place on ungreased cookie sheet (we use the air-filled, non-burning kind). Gently brush with egg wash (1 yolk whisked with about 1 tbsp. water). Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes at 375. Cool on pan for 2-3 minutes. Remove cookies to rack while still warm, or they'll glue themselves to the pan.
It's traditional to dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Some of my sisters recommend rolling and shaping the Kifle right on the cookie sheet; and instead of brushing with melted butter, they spread the dough thinly with softened, whipped butter. All of us agree that a rolling pastry cutter works best for dividing the dough; a knife tends to drag and distort it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

E-Books for Eragon Fans (Andre Norton, Neil Ostroff, Katie W. Stewart)

SC Poe's Indie E-Book Sampler, #6

Christopher Paolini put dragons in the limelight this month with his release of Inheritance. Lest we forget, Paolini's smash series began with a self-published book. Therefore, here be more dragons, self-pubbed (and, in one happy instance, reissued).

In fact, there be a multitude of indie e-[pen]dragons stalking Middle Graders these days. So Poe will devote a second sampler to dragons (and Middle Graders) in the near future.


By Neil Ostroff
ished: September, 2011
Poe thinks this is MG and younger YA satirical sci-fi/fantasy

First sentences: “Stop!” Dan Larson heard the tiny shout as the rolled up Car and Driver Magazine he was wielding slammed down and squashed the fly that had landed on his night table.

What if humans were the pests, and insect-sized dragons started to swat back? What if the only thing standing between the tiny dragons and total world domination is—Dan Larson? (Though he's not quite alone. He's been recruited by a team of insect robots called the Defenders.)

Why is this high school sophomore the Chosen One? What can he do to save humankind? Poe wants the answers to all these questions.

Neil Ostroff has a young sensibility and a strong sense of humor. When the Defenders shrink Dan to insect size, a side-effect is to heal Dan's acne.

Ostroff classes this book as "teen/YA." But this adventure, with a plot reminiscent of those found in 1950's peril-of-the-earth movies, seems skewed to MG sensibilities. If there's any content-based reason to keep this book out of younger hands, it's not evident from the sample.

small but distracting editorial bugs (punctuation and usage errors, typos) become more numerous as the sample continues. Editorial glitches can keep an otherwise admirable title out of the school ebook collection.

That would be a shame, because Poe thinks kids, and librarians, will like Ostroff's stories.

Queued for future reading.

The Dragon Box

By Katie W. Stewart
Self-published in 2011

Poe thinks this is
MG fantasy/sci fi

First sentence:
James crept up the path to Mr McKenzie's front door, his legs trembling.

Mr McKenzie, we shortly learn, is a "cat zapper." Possibly a mad scientist. Definitely a tease. His house is a junk-pile of lab paraphernalia, computers, and goofy inventions. James, although initially suspicious, is soon fascinated by "Mack" and his geeky Wonderland.

The sample ends just as we start to suspect the peril of Mr McKenzie's most fascinating contraption. "Beware your own thoughts," the Dragon Box warns. It seems clear that this fantasy will be firmly grounded in psychological realism.

A sprinkling of Aussie vocabulary might slow some readers down a bit.

Stewart has also published Treespeaker, advertised as a fantasy geared to older readers.

for future reading.

(The Magic Books #4)

Andre Norton

by Starscape (Macmillan) in 2010 (originally published in 1972)

Poe thinks this is older MG coming-of-age mythological fantasy

First sentence:
Sig Dortmund kicked at a pile of leaves in the gutter, watched [sic] the crowd at the school bus stop.

Today's dragon theme offers the perfect forum to mention that Starscape seems to be in the process of reissuing Norton's entire classic Magic Sequence. In these stories, Fantasy's Grande Dame transforms a series of modern* coming-of-age struggles into heroic mythical-fantasy quests.

This volume introduces four middle-grade boys who discover a magic bridge to their diverse ethnic/mythic pasts (represented by four dragons—Scandinavian, Welsh, African, and Chinese).

*Poe uses the word modern, but the series was penned during the Vietnam War era. So the contemporary scenes have a historical feel, particularly when focused on African-American George, who has just changed his name to Ras ("Prince").

If Rick Riordan isn't publishing stories often enough to satisfy you, you definitely should get to know Andre Norton's Magic.

Poe's Rating System:

  • S for snapped up (Poe has already purchased the full)
  • Q for queued (the book is on Poe's to-be-read-someday list)
  • U for underwhelming (Poe will always explain the reason)
  • I for If/then (not Poe's cuppa, but perhaps it's yours)
  • R for rejected (Poe will always explain the reason)
  • E for editorially challenged (Poe will not mince words)

Caveat Emptor Internexi: Poe's samples are intended to provide a springboard for further browsing. Genre and age classifications are Poe's guesses based on short samples, and may or may not accord with the classifications suggested by authors, publishers, or anybody else. The buyer is always responsible for deciding whether the book as a whole is appropriate for the intended reader's age, interests, and reading level.

Poe's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of other members of this blog.

If you'd like SC Poe to sample your ebook on this blog, please follow submission guidelines.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Gift from Tomie dePaola

     Once upon a time I married into an Italian family.  To my delight, every Christmas Eve since then I have celebrated Italian style with a huge fish feast. And although I love the linguine with clam sauce, I don't care as much for the baccala.  I never questioned why Italian celebrations were always all about the food, but thanks to a new book* by Tomie dePaola, I have a much better idea.
*I really have to thank Karen MacPherson, whose weekly Children's Corner in the Tuesday Pittsburgh Post Gazette keeps me up to date on lots of new (and old!) children's books
Strega Nona's Gift chronicles the eight feasts celebrated by Italians from early December ( Feast of San Nicola), to early January (Feast of the Epiphany).  Strega Nona and Big Anthony are together again and taught me that the Feast of the Seven Fishes, "La Vigilia,"  was celebrated as a way of fasting by Italians since no meat was served until after the midnight mass.  If you'd like to find out how lentils and rice pudding, talking animals and red underwear are also a part of these eight Italian celebrations, make sure to give yourself (or a curious non-Italian child!) the gift of Strega Nona's Gift. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Two of the Best Books for Bedtime from Karma Wilson and Margaret Wise Brown

Let's all yawn for sleepy time books!Here's my first selection for Something New! Something Old! Paired Picture Book Reviews!

New! Bear Snores On (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2002)
Written by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman

What's so great: When you go to look at the Amazon reviews for Bear you'll find nothing but five stars. What is it that everyone enjoys? The gentle humor and sweet rhythm of this book make it a delightful read-aloud. The verbs are snappy and the illustrations are wonderfully expressive. As the story opens, a great big bear snores away as he sleeps in his lair. There is a snowstorm outside and, one by one, little critters seeking refuge find the cave. But Bear snores on. The tension that builds is quiet, and yes, there's a moment of surprise when the bear wakes up, but that tension is quickly blanketed with tenderness as the bear seeks to join his visitors and all settles quickly.

Who might enjoy this: It's recommended for ages 3-7, but I'm willing to bet that the tempo and catchy rhyme of this book would also suit a younger child. In the final scene as be
ar watches on all of his new friends each fall fast asleep.

Something fun to do: Why not have a child close their eyes and then, one by one, pretend to snore the way each of the different animals would. Finish this by saying, "Now, how about a little boy/girl? How do you snore?"

First page: "In a cave in the woods,
In his deep, dark lair,
Through the long, cold winter
Sleeps a great brown bear."

More to know: This is the first of a number of "Bear" stories. It remains my favorite.

Old! Goodnight Moon (Harper & Row Books, 1947)
Written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd
What's so great: Hundreds of five star reviews! Hundreds! the book has been declared a classic and over four million copies have been sold. I actually like what author Susan Cooper has said about this book, that rather than it being a story it is a "deceptively simple ritual." That's exactly what it is. That's what part of sleep training involves, providing a quiet, simple ritual that prepares a child for sleep. I had one daughter who easily went to bed and another who fought sleep as if it were a misery. They both loved this book and they looked carefully at each picture to find the subtle changes on each page.
I do have to comment here about the negative reviews I found. Most people found the book boring and didn't understand it. My very favorite negative review says, "I would definitely pass this book up. The picture on each page is nearly exactly the same as the picture on every other page--and they're all boring. The words are completely uninteresting. One advantage to this book is that it does put you and your baby to sleep." Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees! (Tee hee)
Something fun to do: Before reading, hide a small stuffed mouse. Allow the child to find the mouse before settling in to read the story. Then as you go through the book, find the mouse on each page.

First page: " In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of --"
More to know: There is a YouTube video that is actually very nicely done:

P.S. (Poems are Swell!)

When the lights go out and your little wormy is still squirmy, why not try a few favorite poems?

Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight
Wish I may, wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight

I see the moon and the moon sees me.
God bless the moon and God bless me

Good Night
by Ann and Jane Taylor

Baby, baby, lay your head
On your pretty cradle-bed;
Shut your eye-peeps, now the day
And the light are gone away:
All the clothes are tucked in tight;
Little baby dear, good night

Winky, Blinky
Winky, Blinky, niddy, nod!
Father is fishing off Cape Cod.
Winky, Blinky, sleepy eyes,
Mother is making apple pies.
Cuddle, cuddle, the wind's in the trees:
Brother is sailing over the seas.
Niddy, noddy, up and down,
Sister is making a velvet gown.
Winky, Blink, cannot rise;
What's the matter with Baby's eyes?
Winky, Blinky, cre-cri-creep,
Baby has gone away to sleep.

Do you have a favorite bedtime poem or story? Send it along to me and I'll put it in the next sleepytime blog! kitty241@earthlink.net

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gayle Forman is a Liar and a Thief (or so she says)

By Jenny Ramaley

How did Gayle Forman  arrive at this revelation about her shocking lack of moral fiber?  Pittsburgh got her explanation on Friday night when the YA author and journalist spoke at the Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Series: Black, White and Read all Over (see the Feb. 2011 blog about John Green’s Pittsburgh lecture). Her epiphany began when her young daughter asked her what she did for a living. Gayle explained that ‘mommy’ made up stories and invented characters to put in her books.
            “Oh.” The daughter took a moment to absorb this information and, with all the clarity of childhood, summed up her mom’s rambling reply. “Mommy tells lies for her job.”

            It’s a safe bet that most of us present in the small, intimate space of the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall were writers, both published and not, and this revelation created an instant, unspoken bond among us. Just as Gayle realized the truth of her daughter’s words, we realized that we, too, were liars.  
            Isn’t that what fiction is? Lies? Stories about people who don’t really exist, who haven’t really done any of the things the writer commits to paper. All lies . . . except with glimmers of truth. “Fiction is a lie that tells the truth,” Gayle said.
            Which brings us to the thievery.
            According to Ms. Forman, the entire world – family, friends, strangers – is ripe for pillage. Gayle explained that she is shameless, stealing experiences from others along with their quirks, gestures, and any other little things that pique her interest, picking a carcass as clean as a vulture. She asked the audience to share some of their odder experiences, and after a few did, she confirmed that she would probably steal the story about the drunk guy peeing his pants on the lawn – she had pre-warned us of her thieving ways, after all. These stolen moments are precious and worth stealing because they are the nuggets of truth that gird works of fiction.
            But it’s not just other people’s experiences. Gayle also steals from her own. Her award-winning YA novel, If I Stay, was inspired from a tragic car accident where she lost four friends. Ten years later, the invented character of Mia formed from the mist of her memories, supported by the mom, dad and kid brother, who were inspired by the people she lost.
            Gayle also admitted that her fiction isn’t totally driven by thievery. Three years after writing If I Stay, after the main characters of Mia and Adam refused to exit to her brain, Gayle waded into the blank slate of what happened to these characters. No longer having an actual life experience to draw from, the story of the sequel, Where She Went, grew from pure imagination. A much tougher slog.

            Based on her two latest can’t-put-them-down teen novels, I’d say Gayle’s onto something good with her mix of lies, theft and nuggets of truth. My writer friend Kitty has a t-shirt emblazoned by the words, “Be nice to me or I’ll put you in my novel.” Gayle might want to pick up one of those.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Holiday Book Picks: Search-and-Find Treats from Walter Wick and Joan Steiner

Something Old, Something New: Paired Picture Book Reviews
by Carol Baicker-McKee

This is the first of a new feature on our blog - reviews of picture books that pair up a recently released title with a complementary old favorite or forgotten treasure. I plan to focus on books of visual distinction; Kitty Griffin will target books that stand out for their language and story.

We welcome suggestions for titles in either category!


Can You See What I See? Toyland Express: Picture Puzzles to Search and Solve
BY: Walter Wick
Published by Scholastic, 2011

WHAT'S SO GREAT: This intriguing puzzle book features a dozen beautifully photographed, super-detailed, and richly colorful scenes with lists of objects to find. What makes it stand out even more is the sweet story - the spreads follow the "life" of a toy train from workshop to attic and back to being loved again.

WHO MIGHT ENJOY THIS: The publisher describes the book as for ages 6 and up. The "up" is definitely right; most adults enjoy these puzzles too. But "down" works too: preschoolers might need help narrowing their searches, but in my experience they also really like Walter Wick's books. This book will especially appeal to kids who like detailed artwork and visual puzzles.

FIRST PAGE: Shoot! I forgot to photograph it when I examined this at the bookstore. But you can see the first pages (and others) using the "Look Inside" feature on the Amazon page for this book here. The photo shows a toymaker's shop with the train being built and the rhyming text lists 20 objects to hunt for. Sample:
Can you see what I see?
2 balls, a birdhouse,
a pencil, a pail,
a ball of string,
a long cat tail...

MORE TO KNOW: This is the 8th book in Wick's Can You See What I See? series. Wick is also the co-creator with Jean Marzollo of the classic I Spy series, also from Scholastic. He has an interesting website you can visit here, and there's also a great video about the making of this book you can access by clicking on the link on his website. Wick also has a keen interest in science and illusions - check out his books A Drop of Water and Optical Tricks.

Look-Alikes Christmas
BY: Joan Steiner.
Published by Little, Brown, 2003.

WHAT'S SO GREAT: The book showcases 9 detailed holiday scenes, ranging from Santa's Workshop to department store windows to a toy train beneath the tree. This might just seem like an excellent copycat of Walter Wick's books - except the objects in all of Steiner's books aren't what they seem at first glance. Look more closely and you'll discover in the Nutcracker scene, for instance, that Clara is wearing a badminton birdie, the doors are actually white chocolate candy bars, and the curtains are a woman's long hair, held back by barrettes. The challenge is to identify all the "look-alikes" used to construct the scenes - and they are clever puzzles indeed.

WHO MIGHT ENJOY THIS: No age range listed, but like Wick's book will be enjoyed by 6 and up, with preschoolers getting pleasure sharing it with an older reader. Detail-lovers, puzzle-lovers, and those with a creative bent will especially get a kick out it.

One caveat: several reader reviews on Amazon noted that the outdoor scene includes items they found objectionable (there's a toy skeleton draped with a lacy bra to look like a snow covered mountain). I read this book with several young kids who weren't frightened at all and who found the presence of undergarments hilarious - but be forewarned if you or your kids would see it differently.


MORE TO KNOW: This was one of a series of Look-Alikes books by Steiner, including several Look-Alikes, Jr. books with simplified images aimed at younger kids. Sadly, there will be no more masterpieces from Joan Steiner; the creator died of cancer in September, 2010. You can read interesting obituaries about her here and here. Steiner's studio was once featured in the now defunct Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion Magazine and shows her working on this book.
One more interesting fact: Walter Wick has photographed other Look-Alikes scenes for Steiner.

WHERE YOU MIGHT FIND THIS OLD BOOK: Hooray! It's still in print. New copies are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and there are plenty of used copies floating around too. Most local libraries likely have copies - but they may be well-thumbed.

Other good search-and-find books include the now classic Where's Waldo series by Martin Handsford, and the book about an adventuresome orangutan that some feel inspired Handsford, Where's Wallace by Hilary Knight (the illustrator of the Eloise books), first published in 1964 and republished in paperback in 1991. For toddlers and preschoolers, The Baby's Catalogue and Each Peach, Pear, Plum by the British writer-illustrator couple Janet and Allan Ahlberg offer similar visual delights.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This is just a reminder.
Read your work out loud.
Voice--that special "something" that a character has that makes them come alive to the reader.
Voice--how we communicate.

I just read 20 pages of a novel out loud to my daughter and got a conk on the head regarding my character's motivation that I never ever saw when I read silently.

For those of you waiting to publish, remember this. Read your work out loud. If you stumble over a sentence realize that the reader may stumble. When in doubt, pluck it out! Edit. Edit. Edit.

After all, how do editors edit? They say, "I love it love it love it can you change it!" Just kidding, but not really. That's why it's best to make sure when you submit your voice is sound, your writing is clean.

If you don't have a daughter to read aloud to, try the dog.