Thursday, July 30, 2009

Un zoo dans le frigo

I just found the site with the French version of Maggie's Monkeys. My year of high school French doesn't allow me to translate (why, why, why was I allowed to get through high school and college with only one year of foreign language?) but I get the gist of it. Il y a des singes dans le frigo, et ceux qui ne les voient pas sont des idiots.

Maggie is Mélanie in this version. It is so much fun to think of French-speaking kids reading my story!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A non-book recommendation

We interrupt our regularly scheduled children's literature blogging to bring you a recommendation. My friend and colleague Tracy Zollinger Turner writes Tiny Mantras, one of the best blogs I've read, and I think anyone who likes children or is a thoughtful person moving through the world should read it.

Pick a post at random, or start with "The story of my son" or "Donating hair" in the navigation bar at the top. Or, if you're a sucker like me, try the posts tagged "tooth-rotting sweet." If you're not hooked, well... I don't know what to say.

Tracy is a gifted writer and gifted observer of life, and her son Declan is a special child. I go to her blog whenever I need a lift.

(Okay, I realize I have almost no readership and she has tons. She doesn't need a mention from me. But this is not about me giving her a plug -- it's about letting my friends who like blogs know about my favorite one.)

Tracy, thank you for your honesty and wit.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lessons for a newbie author

Having my first children's book published has been a learning experience in lots of ways. Some of the things I've discovered:
  1. Amazon rankings are the work of the devil. They change wildly, mean very little and are highly addictive. I just checked the current sales ranking for Maggie's Monkeys and it is #329,313. Its high was #2,120 just after it was a Daily Candy book club suggestion. (Apparently as few as 50 sales can cause an enormous bump in rankings. Some authors reportedly have attempted to orchestrate such a bump.) Not that I've been keeping track of rankings. That would be so beneath me.
  2. Messing up the inscription at a book signing isn't the end of the world. My friend Dave at Blue Marble Children's Bookstore eased my embarrassment immediately, having me put a line through the botched name and add the words, "Even authors make mistakes." Thanks, Dave. (And when someone leaves a book for you to sign with a note about what the inscription should say, do they expect you to write exactly what they wrote?)
  3. There are a lot of little boys named Aidan. And a lot of ways to spell it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The trouble with blogging

As I was writing the previous post, I found myself going off on a long and circular digression. It went something like this:
(Also, who am I to criticize? Seriously. I wonder if I should even put my opinion in the public domain. I'm questioning myself even as I write this. Then again, it seems conceited to think it matters one way or the other. Who's going to read what I say? Three or four of my friends? If that's the case, why bother to write it at all? Shouldn't I just discuss the book with those friends? Like, in person?)
I'm really struggling with this whole idea of blogging. Sometimes it feels presumptuous. Sometimes it feels silly. Most of the time I don't know what I'm doing. (Is there even such a thing as a PS in blogging? Why do I end up using so many parentheses?)

I guess I'll just stick with it for a while and see what develops. What could happen?

Great expectations

I read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead this week. I came to the title with high hopes, based on reviews like this one from Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8, who does such a fabulous job reviewing and promoting books.

I don't know if it was one of those situations where high expectations set you up for disappointment, but I wasn't blown away. I liked it and enjoyed the premise, but wasn't ever drawn in enough to completely suspend disbelief. Partly, I think, that was because it didn't feel like the narrator's story. The most interesting action happened to people around her -- Miranda didn't make much of a journey on her own. The humor and some of the other technique also felt self-conscious to me.

I don't mean to blast the book. It was well worth reading (enough so that I handed it off to Abbie, which I don't do lightly) and I think the mystery at its heart is intriguing. Kids seem to love it, which is testimony enough. And who wouldn't welcome a book that pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time?

[Spoiler alert: I'm about to address a key plot premise.] While I didn't think about it as I read the book, I have questions about time travel. I am bothered by the logic of it -- what philosophers and scientists call the grandfather paradox. Which is simply the question of how can you travel back in time and change events without changing the future from which you came? (The name -- don't you love it when you find there's a name for some vague thought you've had? -- comes from the hypothetical example of a time traveler who goes into the past and kills his own grandfather before he fathers the time traveler's parent, making the existence of the time traveler impossible. Meaning he can't go back in time and kill his grandfather. If you think about that long enough, your head will spin.)

One theory is that when a time traveler changes the past, he or she creates an alternate universe. If I get it -- and I'm not at all sure I do -- both realities exist. I don't find that explanation very satisfying. Especially when the whole point of the time travel was to undo something that happened.

I need to read more about time travel, I guess. Anybody know a good place to start? Most of what I found online was either way complicated or too shallow.

And with the movie coming out next month of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger -- one of my favorite novels on the past few years -- maybe I need to understand.

PS: If you've read this far, please also read this related post.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What's the French word for monkey?

I'm on vacation this week, so please excuse the brief and self-absorbed post -- but I got good news from Candlewick yesterday. The French language rights to Maggie's Monkeys have been sold. Ooh la la!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The incredible Chinese brothers

Does anyone remember the Five Chinese Brothers? It's a Chinese folktale about identical brothers, each of whom has a unique talent. They work together to save one from being executed for a murder that wasn't his fault. (Another story that probably wouldn't be grabbed up by publishers or parents today.)

I had the thought recently that they are the original Incredibles.


(And who can name the five talents? I had to look them up: swallowing the sea, stretching his legs, an iron neck, surviving fire and holding his breath.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why I write for children

Sometimes people ask me why I write for children instead of adults. The best answer I can give is to tell them something that happened a couple of years ago.

My dear friend Michelle told me about one of her favorite books from childhood. She couldn't remember the title any more, but the plot was still vivid. It involved an adventurer in a giant balloon and Krakatoa, and was full of incredible inventions.

I didn't say much, but I came home and ordered a copy of the Newbery-winning The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois.

The next chance I had, I handed it to Michelle. Her whole face lit up. She clutched it to her chest, jumped up and down, and cried, "This is it!" She was thrilled to find it again.

Now, Michelle reads a lot of books. She's probably read hundreds since she read The Twenty-One Balloons. But how many of them would make her jump for joy?

The books we read as children touch us in special ways. I think it's because we don't have all those adult filters in place through which we experience books later on. The special books we encounter as kids go straight to our hearts.

That's why I write for children. In the hope that perhaps something I have to say will register with one other person the way this book grabbed hold of Michelle's imagination.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What could happen?

The Library Corner of The Daily Star in Oneonta, NY, raised an interesting question about Maggie's Monkeys in its list of summer reading possibilities today.
Do you have monkeys in your refrigerator? Probably not, but Maggie says their house has a family of monkeys living in their refrigerator. Trouble is, she is the only one who can see them. The rest of the family decide to play along in "Maggie's Monkeys" by Linda Sanders-Wells. What could happen if they agree to something they know isn't true?
Put that way it sounds as if Maggie's family is going along with something dangerous. Maybe even nefarious. I'm sure Ms. Bruni only meant to encourage kids to imagine various scenarios, but I had this reaction: Oh no, could something bad happen?

Once I got past feeling protective of my characters, I realized the power of that question. It's the mystery that propels all good stories. If you put these people in this circumstance, what could happen?

It's how I write longer fiction, actually. I'm not one of those people who plots the novel before writing a word. I tend to start a work with the characters and some general ideas about what the central issue is, then figure it out as I go along. It doesn't always work perfectly (one recent rejection suggested that I try to find a class in plotting) but it makes writing fun. If I've gotten to know my characters fully and have written honestly, it's usually a matter of figuring out what has to happen. There's a decision in front of the character and only one thing that he or she would really do.

There's nothing like the moment when it comes clear for me. Of course. This is what has to happen. How could I have not seen it?

What could happen? It's a perfect question for a librarian to ask.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Picture books have changed

A friend just gave me a vintage children's book called Timothy Tiger by Marjorie Barrows. Timothy's head is formed plastic and appears on all the pages through a cutout. The extra cool part is that his eyes glow. At least, that was probably cool in 1943. With age, it looks a little creepy.

The plot is a Are You My Mother? story -- a category that I find a bit disturbing. Why do we tell children stories that seem to say you could get separated from all you love and consider safe?

Here's the first paragraph of Timothy Tiger: "Timothy was a dear little tidy tiger who did not have a mother. He lived all by himself in the Great Big Jungle."

I don't think that would fly in today's market!

What's more, every time Timothy approaches a potential mother, he says, "I'm tidy. I can obey. I can work hard." Neatness and obedience, that's what we want from children.

But what do Mrs. Elephant and Mrs. Crocodile (and even Mrs. Monkey) say? "You don't suit me AT ALL. Go 'way!" Mrs. Elephant even blows a trunkful of water -- SPLASH -- right into Timothy's face.

Maybe our generation of parents is too indulgent of our children. Certainly, our ideas about how to raise healthy kids with a sense of security and confidence are different than they were a few decades ago. I won't claim that we've got it right and our parents and grandparents had it all wrong, but I'm glad we're telling our children different stories.

By the way, Timothy's eyes still glow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Imaginary friends, part II

Yes, I had an invisible monkey friend as a child. But I feel compelled to add that my family lived in Central America, where some children had actual monkeys. So perhaps it's not as strange -- or creative, if that's how you choose to look at it -- as it sounds.

And yes, it lived in the refrigerator. Not the family refrigerator, but my toy one. The monkey wasn't pink, though. The refrigerator was. You can see it in the photo, alongside the pink stove. Well, take my word for it: They're pink.

The guests at my tea party are my younger brother and Chatty Cathy. Which tells some people exactly how old I am.

Since there are no extra chairs or teacups, I'm assuming there were no invisible guests.

Monday, July 13, 2009

In a blue mood

Picture book lovers everywhere have already discovered In a Blue Room by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Tricia Tusa, but I recently bought a copy for a young neighbor. The lovely illustrations and calm pacing of the musical text make it a perfect bedtime book.

When Cana saw the book, she immediately reached up to her dad, asking to be lifted onto his lap so he could read it to her. She bounced with excitement and made little chirps and pointed to the pictures. Even though it was just past breakfast and she's younger than the intended audience, she clearly loved it.

What a treat for me!

I bought the book at one of the best children's bookstores around, the Blue Marble in Ft. Thomas, Ky., (which is actually part of Greater Cincinnati). Independent booksellers are an author's best friend, and Peter and Tina have been running their wonderful store for 30 years -- as noted in Publisher's Weekly last month. They're huge supporters of local authors.

And they have a full-size replica of the Great Green Room from Goodnight Moon, the bedtime classic in whose footsteps In a Blue Room follows.

Great Green Room, Blue Marble, In a Blue Room... See? Circles.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Me and Arlo

You'd think Alice's Restaurant alone would be a big enough deal he wouldn't need to take credit for my one little creation.

From a library listing of new acquisitions.

(I know I should link to or post a fun clip of Alice's Restaurant, but I'm not sure how to do that without violating copyright. Howard and I once heard Arlo perform the whole version which is something like 19 minutes long. Back in the days when we used to do wild things like go to concerts. Or leave the house.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009


My partner Howard and I sometimes joke that we should get a sampler to hang in our living room with the words "Everything is connected." It's something of a mantra for us -- a reminder that we are all part of something larger. And that what goes around comes around, cosmically speaking.

Few things make me happier than when the truth of that idea reveals itself. Circles, I call them: the completed connections that surprise and replenish me.

Maggie's Monkeys has been full of circles for me. One of them was the realization just a few months before the book came out that the story was about me. That sounds crazy, I know, but while I knew some of the obvious ways the story was about me (I had an invisible monkey friend as a child), I didn't get the most important way it was my story.

Not until I was writing a blurb about the book for the Junior Library Guild magazine -- note the subtle way I got in that mention? -- did I realize Maggie is essentially a writer. She creates an imaginary world and populates it with friends who are entirely real to her. Then she opens that world to those around her and invites them to join her there.

Isn't that exactly what fiction writers do? I just wish I could be as calm as Maggie about whether the people I care about "get it." Maybe when I have as much faith in my creations as she does, I'll also be as nonchalant as she is.

That was one circle. Another was the way in which Abbie's love of books -- and one in particular -- inspired my biggest success in writing for children. Reading to her when she was little helped me realize how much I love children's books and that's where my creative energy needed to go. To have her fantasy life and mine dovetail so nicely in this project pleased me. The book is dedicated "To Abbie and the Healer, who reminded me you can't always see what's real."

So about a year or so ago, I decided that we needed another copy of The Twenty-Five Mixtec Cats, because our original was so tattered. I ordered a used one (not realizing at the time that I could purchase it through the author -- sorry, Matthew).

When it came, it had been signed. And it became clear I was meant to have this copy.

I know Linda is a pretty common name, but still...

Last week, I sent Matthew Gollub a copy of Maggie's Monkeys, signed to him. And the circle is complete.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kids say the...

The best thing about getting a story I made up published in book form is sharing it with kids. I love hearing what they have to say and hearing stories about them asking for it to be read a third time in a row or not wanting to return it to the library. I am so honored to be part of any child's reading experience!

Students in Ms. Hughes' first-grade class wrote about the book in their journals -- help with the creative spelling provided by Ms. Hughes:

Emma: What I like about Maggie's Monkeys was when I found out that the monkeys lived in the refregaraer.

Gustavo: Maggie's Monkeys. Yes I liked the story. It was fun. I like the part when his setr (sister) inided (invited) her brudr (brother to the tea party) and her brudr set on the monkey's lap.

Rain: I love the part when they say that the monkeys are hiding behind the alivds (olives).

Peyton: I like in the book when her dad said they hid behnd the oluvs.

Makenna: I liked the pictures in the book Maggie's Monkeys. And the name of the story.

Grace: Maggie's Monkeys is a silly story because it is about a girl that thinks that she has monkeysin her refrigrater.

Haidy: I liked when she said no! when a boy almost opend the refiriforator. It was funny.

Meredith: I love the book of Maggie's Monkeys. I like the part when tears were coming out.

Hannah: I like the part of Maggie's Monkeys when they moved to the rifrijerater. That was funny. Haha.

Abby: I liked when they were pink and they got in the bath and they hid behinde the oluvs.

And students age 6 to 9 in Ms. Roark's class sent me letters:

Azaan: I like when you said they were polar monkeys, an
d they hid behind the olives, when olives are small and monkey are big.

Spencer: I like the book because I like monkeys. Will you give us your next book too?

Abysinnia: It was really funny when Kate dressed up the pink polar monkes. what wher you thinking about when you did monkeys and not zebras?

Emma: I hope you get relly famus and rich$$$$.

Ray: Why did you make the middle-aged brother not understand his parents were joking?

And I'm thrilled that Mariah B. sent me her version of the cover.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Not-so-imaginary friends

Writing is a solitary occupation, but it can't really be done properly without friends. I'm extremely lucky to have many supportive friends who have believed in me, read drafts, listened to my stories of rejection and disappointment, and celebrated my good news.

I would love to thank each of them in this space, but that's not realistic. And it doesn't make for great reading. So I'll just say to each of you -- and you know who you are! -- you have my heartfelt and unending gratitude.

I'd be remiss, though, if I didn't mention the role my writer friends played in getting me this far in my career. My critique group and other writers I met along the way helped guide me from rank newbie to first publication. Some of them are hugely talented writers who deserve to be published but haven't been picked up yet, and others have long lists of great children's books to their credit.

So, in the spirit of connecting, here's where you can find some of the ones who are published and their latest titles (more to come!):

Andrea Cheng: Brushing Mom's Hair. Ann is just short of fifteen when Mom is diagnosed with breast cancer. How can she tell the girls in ballet class that her mother had her breasts cut off? Her matter-of-fact sister, Jane, takes charge at home; her brother, Nick, calls from California; Dad helps when he can, as do friends, teachers, and relatives. Still, Ann is consumed with worry. Who's going to make sure that Mom drinks enough water, like the doctor said? Unless she is dancing or making pottery, Ann feels completely alone.

Sally Derby, No Mush Today. Nonie refuses to eat her yucky mush porridge for breakfast ('mush is baby food'), and to get away from her bawling baby brother, she runs next door to Grandma's house, where she thinks she'd like to live because she gets the attention she craves. After a day away from home, will Nonie reconsider her move and return to Momma, Daddy, and baby brother? Maybe . . . if she can make a deal about breakfast!

Linda Leopold Strauss, The Princess Gown. When small Hannah discovers a smudge on the gown her family has created for the princess, she finds a way not only to cover the mistake but to improve upon the design. Out of mistakes come innovation!

Imaginary friends, part 1

Somewhere in my cluttered (to be polite about it) office is a notebook with ideas for children's stories. On one page is a line that says, "Imaginary friend from sibling's point of view."

That idea came from living with the Healer, my daughter's new and invisible-to-us friend. She adopted him from a picture book she loved, The Twenty-Five Mixtec Cats by Matthew Gollub. (A wonderful folk tale-styled story set in Oaxaca, Mexico, that begins: “There once was a healer who lived alone in a village high in the mountains. You would never see any cats in his village.")

The Healer was absolutely real to Abbie, and her dad and I found ourselves playing along. I remember the day she asked me to comb the Healer's hair. When I started to, she said -- bewildered that I didn't know -- "He's wearing his hat."

We accepted the Healer into our lives because we love Abbie. At some point I realized that small act of love was a great theme for a kids' book and translated it into the story of Maggie and Jack. I tried to capture Abbie's absolute assurance about the Healer in Maggie's unquestioning confidence in her monkey friends. That made the story great fun to write, and led to such straightforward explanations for the seemingly impossible concept of monkeys in the refrigerator as "They're polar monkeys."

There's more to this story that I'll save for another day. But a tip of the (possibly invisible) hat to Matthew Gollub and illustrator Leovigildo Martínez for creating a character who spoke so strongly to at least one young reader.

That is the power of children's books -- and that's why I love them.

[To read Part II, go here.]

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why I did this

I'm not really planning to blog -- with just one week behind me since I got laid off, I should spend any free time I have looking for a new job. So why start this? Because a lot of people have been wonderful and generous since Maggie's Monkeys came out in April, and I don't have an easy way to be in touch with some of them.

So I'm going to do a little catch-up over the next few days. I'll post some links and other information about the book and the fun I've had with kids (and their parents and grandparents and friends) since then. And we'll see what happens.

To start off, here's a photo from one of my first signings. This was at the Blue Manatee bookstore near my home in Cincinnati. It was so much fun!


I've just established this blog as a way to keep in touch with friends in the children's literature community. Stay tuned...