Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Interview with a Mystery Guest

In deciding whom to interview, I wanted somebody smart, funny, and whose work I admired. I thought about a number o people before choosing today's mystery guest. Some of you may know him, too.

Tell us about your latest project, how it's coming and the amazing timeline.

My latest project is a Minnesota alphabet book based on stunning photographs of letter forms found in nature taken by Joe Rossi. I've never had an editor approach me to write about a specific subject before, and I've never worked on a picture book where the visuals have come first. The lightning-fast (by publishing standards) turnaround time is new to me as well; I was contacted about this project at the end of December, the final draft is due in March, and the book will be published in November.


Yes, November 2010 is the scheduled publication date.

How are the revisions coming on your excellent middle-grade novel?

Ah! Such a different scenario than my alphabet book! This is a story I've been working on for almost ten years. It has taken me that long to find the heart of the story. Finally, in October, I was ready to send it to my editor, but alas, I have heard nothing back. I hope he doesn't take ten years to respond!

3. You are a man who enters many contests. Can you share a couple of favorite contest stories with us.

My friend Gary Nygaard and I once won a national scavenger hunt by finding such obscure items as a St. Patrick's Day card printed in German and a folding paper fan printed with a giraffe. In the "Rolaids Relief Hero" contest, I won $10,000 for nominating a woman who started an organization to match terminally-ill children with adult pen-pals (the woman I nominated won $25,000). And for describing in twenty-five-words-or-less how Healthy Choice products make me feel like a million, I won $40,000 (far more than any book advance I've ever been offered!). The most unusual contest I've won might be the five-minute video I made showing how good Senokot laxative makes me feel.

Is there any way we can see that video?

Alas, at the moment, no. Right now I only have it on video tape. Perhaps someday I can get it transfered to a CD and download it to the computer.

And how good does Senokot laxative makes you feel?

After I received my prize of a home entertainment center and a check for $10,000, Senokot laxative made me feel pretty darn good.

One last question, what is your favorite pie?

Definitely my sister's apple pie. Or French silk. Or fresh strawberry. Or Mile High Banana Cream. Or....

Who is this Mystery Guest?


A Writer on the Move

Eight years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the author Anne Ylvisaker at the SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles. Her first novel, DEAR PAPA was just published with Candlewick. We were both from the Midwest enjoying the sun and the ocean breezes. We got together again in Minneapolis that fall and started a wonderful writer’s group with three other writers, calling ourselves the INKSLINGERS, and meeting almost religiously every two weeks for three years. Our friendship grew deep and strong enough to withstand her move from Minnesota to Iowa. Her first novel’s deadline was completed in the midst of a move and a divorce, her second novel, LITTLE KLEIN was completed on deadline in the midst of a move and a new marriage, and now her third novel, THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS is being written in the midst of a move from Iowa to Monterey, California. (Luckily with a great marriage still going strong!)

1. You are a Midwest girl about to be transplanted to the West Coast—not only a very different geography, but also a very different culture! Since your novels have come from the landscape of your childhood and your ancestral neighborhoods, how are you feeling about leaving the source of your writing for an indefinite period of time? How do you think your move to California is going to affect your writing?

The farther away you get from something the better you can see it—even the move to Iowa three years ago allowed me to appreciate my Minnesota heritage in a new way. I derive a lot of inspiration from old family photos—I like to imagine my own stories about the photographs, even more than the real stories I have been told. It is a nostalgic experience that has captured my imagination since my childhood—I never lived in Southern Minnesota but grew up hearing stories of my grandfather who grew up there and also from my mom and her siblings, and it continues to spark my imagination.
California smells different, the trees are different… and maybe these differences will be reflected in future stories, but for now it is the familial and physical memories that drive my creative impulse.

2. You are in the midst of writing your third middle grade novel, THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS and you have to finish it before you move in less than two weeks- how is it working on a deadline like this?

I work better on a deadline. The closer the deadline, the more I get done. It forces me to let go of my perfectionist tendencies—in other words, I have to write fast without judging myself too harshly and thus, slow the process down. It’s kind of like living in a big house with lots of storage space as we do now versus in a smaller house with less storage as I did in St. Paul and as we will in California. It’s easy to fill excess cupboards with fluff but in a smaller space I have to make better decisions about what I actually need. Working under a tight deadline forces me to become efficient, keeping only what is essential.

3. Do you want to share anything about THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS?

Like DEAR PAPA and LITTLE KLEIN this novel was launched as a result of a mistake and like my first two novels it draws inspiration from old family photographs. But unlike DEAR PAPA and LITTLE KLEIN, this story includes a mystery. It’s the story of twelve year old Tugs Button. The Button family has been unlucky for generations and is resigned to their fate but when Tugs has a streak of good fortune on the Forth of July, 1929, she decides to become the first lucky Button.

4. You have become an expert in writing a novel through upheaval, is this part of your process?

Upheaval has seemed to find me in the midst of each novel and I wish I’d become expert – maybe I’d be having an easier time of it right now! What it has done for me is forced me to become more focused, not one of my strong suits. Also, each move has given me a new perspective both on the natural world and on the nature of community, and exploring the senses of place and community is what drives me to write.

5. In the three and a half years you have lived in Iowa, you have pulled together a writer’s group, The Tall Grass Writers, you have received a prominent Iowa Author’s Award and The Midwest Booksellers Choice Award. In other words, you have established yourself well as an Iowa writer. What do you think you will do to create a writing community in California?

As soon as we found out we were moving I started reading the great literature of the area – CANNERY ROW and SWEET THURSDAY by Steinbeck for starters. It made me really excited to explore the landscape and people that feeds writers there. Since writing is a solitary profession and I don’t have daily contact with peers, it is very important for me to seek out community. Writer’s groups have grown organically for me in the places I have lived. It takes time, patience, and being open to opportunities. What I have learned from moving is that my community actually keeps growing. My Tall Grass Writer’s Group will continue to include me once a month in their meetings via Skype, and I will continue to meet with Lauren via iSight, so the use of the internet has become a way to connect and embrace a broader community.

6. Anne, you are a “Foodie”. How does it feel to be moving from Iowa, “The Bread Basket of the World” to Monterey, CA, “The Salad Bowl of the World”?

It’s an exciting part of the adventure for me. My Iowa Cooking Club is giving me a final good-by with a Midwest Living themed dinner. Pork and corn are favorite local ingredients here. The lettuce in my fridge right now in Iowa comes from just a few miles from where my new home is. So I will soon be eating different ingredients locally. I look forward to learning to cook with fish and using fresh fruits and vegetables year round. My dream is to make guacamole from avocados and lemons grown in my own yard. It could happen!

You can follow Anne Ylvisaker’s travels and her books on her blog at: www.AnneYlvisaker.com

An Interview with Joni Sensel

I met Joni Sensel a few years ago when she was a group leader at our local SCBWI Great Critique. Things went so well that night, the five of us decided to continue meeting as a critique group. One member eventually dropped out, but the rest of us are going strong!

Joni is a busy gal. She has written two humorous picture books (one of which earned a 2001 Henry Bergh Children’s Book Honor from the ASPCA); a nonfiction history of Weyerhaeuser’s first 100 years; a very funny middle grade novel (Reality Leak); and, so far, three compelling fantasy titles: The Humming of Numbers (a Junior Library Guild selection), The Farwalker’s Quest (a 2009 Cybils Award finalist, now in paperback), and the forthcoming The Timekeeper’s Moon (available March 2). Joni also currently serves as Co-Regional Advisor for the Western Washington chapter of SCBWI.

In the midst of all this activity, Joni agreed to answer a few questions for our blog.

When you need a break from writing, what do you like to do?

Walk or run in the woods with my dogs. Or walk the earth in distant travels. But I rarely can resist working on a writing project for more than a few days at a time, so what I most like to do is be walking a bunch and writing a bunch on the same day.

Who/what inspired you as a kid? Now?

The first person I found really inspiring was Tina Turner. Her life story gave me a solid appreciation for determination, endurance, courage, and persistence — all traits I think writers need a lot of. Now I am inspired primarily by my travels, my experiences outdoors, my random imagination, and the general wackiness of life.

If you could time-travel through history, which era would you visit? Why?

I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to go backward, unless I can get a gender switch while we’re at it; otherwise, I would probably get myself burned at the stake or stoned or something equally unpleasant. So I’d like to move forward about 100 years — far enough that I won’t be here otherwise, but near enough that I might still recognize things. Or maybe not, but I’d like to find out!

I know you like to travel. Where is the coolest place you’ve ever spent time?

The Sahara, so far. (Well, it was quite hot, actually, but we’ll talk metaphorically.) I love deserts and I’ve been to several in this country and in Niger and Namibia. For me, the emptiness makes it easier to think, to gain perspective, to relax, and, if this doesn’t sound too corny, to feel the presence of the divine. And there’s so little sensory input, relatively, that everything that IS there to see or hear or smell gains brilliance. I find being in a desert cleansing and remarkably life-affirming.

Please complete this sentence: “The best part of being an author is…”

... being part of a close-knit community of other authors, both published and unpublished. I LOVE to see the work of people working toward publication and then look on (or even help) as they make progress and contacts, sign with agents, submit to publishers, and sell books. It allows me to enjoy all the excitement of succeeding with my own projects, without any of the revisions, insecurities, long waits, or headaches! As for the already-published writers, it’s great fun to feel like they’re kinda-sorta peers and that we have things in common. I think this tribal vibe is stronger with childrens’ writers than in any other genre or category, and I really appreciate that.

For those who want to learn more about Joni and her books, you can check out her website, www.jonisensel.com. She also blogs on the Jacketflap site.

Thanks, Joni!


Illustrators and Earthquakes

Nancy Hayashi is the illustrator of many children’s books, including Bunny Bungalow, by Cynthia Rylant, My Two Grandmothers, by Eileen Spinelli, and I Can Do It Myself, by Diane Adams (who happens to be me).

She lives in Los Angeles, but grew up in Bucyrus, Ohio, (don't ask me how to pronounce that - I can't remember), and graduated from Dennison University and The Cleveland Art Institute before beginning her first career as an art director for an advertising company.

In looking back over her high school yearbook recently, Nancy commented that she had written that she wanted to be a children’s book illustrator when she grew up. She has no recollection of writing that, but is glad that her words foretold her future.

Nancy broke into illustration after submitting a book that she had written and illustrated to Harcourt. They did not buy the book, but they did hire her to illustrate Cynthia Rylant's Bunny Bungalow. Not a bad start!

Some of her favorite children’s book illustrators are William Steig, Marc Simont, Marjorie Priceman, and Olof Landstrom. She loves their their mastery with watercolor, (her medium also), as well as their unique senses of humor.

By the end of our short interview, our talk turned to earthquakes, as we both live in Southern California and have experienced recent jolts. Her advice is to lay down next to a large object, such as a bed or couch in order to create a triangle of survival. (This is an update from standing under a door jamb.)

If nothing else, I hope this interview saves some lives, and gives you some talented illustrators to look up on the web.