Picture Books

The Top Holiday Books by Texans – Yeehaw!

It’s almost December and the holiday season is upon us whether we like it or not. Here’s an easy way to knock some of those items off your “To-Do” list. Celebrate the wealth of artistic talent in Texas by buying books created by Texan authors and illustrators. I promise you’ll find something perfect for all the kids on your list!

Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman
Every younger brother or sister will enjoy this original tale of a nasty older brother who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus and is proven wrong in the end. Sibling revenge fantasies aside, parents will also be relieved to discover a few “scientific” facts to support the existence of Santa Claus. Three Bears’ Christmas by Kathy Duval, illustrated by Paul Meisel
In this twist on the Goldilocks tale, Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear go on a walk at Christmastime through the snowy woods in order to pass the time until their gingerbread has cooled off enough to eat. When the Bear family returns, they are surprised to find the gingerbread eaten, chairs broken and bed covers rumbled. Kids will love discovering the clues the Bears’ mysterious guest leaves behind.

Merry Christmas, Merry Crow by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jon Goodell
Celebrate the holidays with an industrious crow as it flies through a small town gathering bits and pieces to decorate its own outdoor Christmas tree.

Gingerbread Man Superhero! by Dotti Enderle, illustrated by Joe Kulka
Another traditional tale with a holiday twist! As the oven door opens, Gingerbread Man leaps out, shouting “Flour Power”! Then the cookie crusader takes off to save the world and sweet adventures commence!

A Christmas Carol Pop Up, by Chuck Fischer, paper engineering by Bruce Foster
Charles Dickens’s timeless fable, A Christmas Carol: A Pop-Up Book features artist Chuck Fischer’s richly painted depictions of the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, brought to life in intricate pop-up scenes by paper engineer Bruce Foster.

Rocky Mountain Night Before Christmas by Joe Gribnau and Salima Alikham                When Santa loses his voice and all the reindeer get sick it is up to the tiny calf Sugar Lump and his cow friends to pull the sleigh and save Christmas.

Librarian’s Night Before Christmas by David R. Davis and Jim Harris                                      A hard working librarian is surprised by Santa who with the help of his elves cleans up the library and puts away the books in a blink of an eye.

Christmas Kitten, Home at Last by Robin Pulver and Layne Johnson                                Santa and Mrs. Claus worry about what do with Cookie, a homeless kitten. Unable to keep the kitten themselves (Santa is allergic!), they luckily find a perfect home for a very special kitty.

Happy Holiday’s everyone! Wishing you and your family the most peaceful of new years!


Interview with Greg Leitich Smith


Attorney by day, author by night, Greg Leitich Smith is a special brand of Texan super-hero. Recently Greg took a minute to visit about what enticed him to make Texas his home, how he became an award-winning author and what new projects the Austin-based Superman is working on now.


How did you end up in Texas?


I grew up in Chicago and I came to Texas for the first time for graduate school, when I got my master’s degree in electrical engineering at UT. I really enjoyed the culture (and weather) in Austin, but I moved back north for law school and then eventually took a job at a firm in Chicago. After suffering through the second worst blizzard in Chicago history (and also having experienced most of the others in the top ten), my wife, Cynthia, and I decided we’d had enough, and made the move down to Austin.


Please describe your road to publication.


I think for every children’s author, it starts when you’re a child, and with falling in love with reading and writing. When I was very little, my parents would read to my brother and me. Throughout my childhood, we would make very regular trips to the local library, coming back home with shopping bags filled with books. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that it might, someday, be kind of cool to write one of these. While I kept that idea in my head, I also liked math and science, and eventually went on to get degrees in engineering and law.


More immediately, of course, Cynthia started writing before I did. And the first thing she did was to read children’s books. One of our author friends had told her that in order to write in a genre, you should read at least 100 books in that genre. Cynthia was taking it seriously, bringing home tons of picture books, middle grade novels, and YA novels from the store and library. We would both read them, and had the pleasure of experiencing for the first time in a long time the richness of children’s literature.


By the time Cynthia had sold her first novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, I had decided to try my hand at it, as well. I came up with the idea of doing the Galileo story, set in middle school and as a comedy (this eventually became NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO). I presented the first two pages of the manuscript to an editor at a conference, where they were well-received; although that editor didn’t end up buying the manuscript (she did have some excellent editorial suggestions). I received a couple more editorial rejections, and did some revisions, and eventually Cynthia told me I should send the manuscript to her agent, Ginger Knowlton. I’m almost positive Ginger viewed the prospect of reading a client’s spouse’s work with trepidation, but she read the manuscript and offered representation. The first editor at the first house (Little, Brown) she sent it to bought it.


You have published both middle grade novels and picture books. How do you approach writing to different formats and age groups?


A picture book is easier than a novel, but it does require that you puzzle out a concept and a story arc, determine if there are enough illustratable images, and then, of course, make the language sing. It has the virtue of being short, typically having only a single plot point, so it’s easier to hold all this in your head at one time. A novel, though, requires the interweaving of multiple story lines and character arcs over a much larger number of pages. Logistically, it’s harder to keep track of. Also, the fact that it is a large number of pages means it takes significantly longer to get a first draft or any kind of draft done.


With our joint picture book manuscripts, Cynthia and I have typically come up with an idea and then hammered out a draft in the course of an afternoon (Of course, revision takes considerably longer, and we go through many, many drafts before we decide it’s “right.”).


With a novel, it usually takes at least a couple months for a really bad first draft, and that doesn’t include pre-writing (i.e., research, character-building exercises, outlines if any, etc.). And then revisions take as long as necessary, sometimes to the point where almost nothing remains of the first draft.


How has your creative process changed through your career?


Early on, I would have an idea with a vague notion of the arc and how it would end, and then just sort of muddle through a draft until I had something novel-length.


For my more recent projects, I’ve tried to produce something resembling a loose outline. Basically, I use a spreadsheet and make some notes in each “cell” about what happens in each chapter or scene and then follow it in the first draft. I try not to stay completely wedded to it, though, and am willing to deviate if something more interesting/funny, etc., comes to me.


It’s still fairly organic, though: I’ll have a couple “proto-first drafts” (say, fifty to seventy-five pages) before I get to a full, novel-length first draft that I can then work on until the final draft.


What were your favorite books as a young reader?


The first ones that come to mind are SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I loved the whole idea in SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON of surviving without modern amenities (by which I mean electricity and indoor plumbing, not Wi-Fi!). THE LORD OF THE RINGS appealed to me for its sublime world-building and its themes of good vs. evil, temptation, duty, honor, and rollicking adventure.


For more recent books and authors, I recommend many on my blog: http://www.greglsblog.blogspot.com/


What project are you working on right now?


I’m hoping to be able to make an announcement on a middle grade/tween science fiction/fantasy novel soon. Beyond that, I have been working on a YA set on a ranch here in Texas for a while now, and I think it’s finally starting to come together.


You can read more about Greg and his books on his web site http://www.gregleitichsmith.com. His novels and picture books are available at your favorite local or online bookstore.

This interview also appeared in the August 2010 version of the Houston Banner.


SCBWI Houston Conference 2010

Today was chock-full o’fun with the wonderful SCBWI Houston conference. We had a bevy of wonderful presenters who inspired, encouraged and educated a sold-out crowd of aspiring authors and illustrators.


The day kicked off with the award-winning author Cynthia Leitich Smith. My favorite highlights of her speech were her suggestions to “take your writing seriously, even if others don’t” and “craft is the key. Nothing else matters”.


Next up was the charismatic Harper Collins editor Ruta Rimas. Unfortunately, I missed most of her discussion in lieu of my manuscript critique. I did catch the end of her speech when she shared an inspiring quote from John Gardner, “It’s the sheer act of writing, more than anything else that makes a writer”.


Patrick Collins followed. He’s the Creative Director at Henry Holt. Patrick guided us through the development of a variety of book covers. Who knew that changing a font or a color could so dramatically change the appearance of a book?


Our star agent of the conference was Sara Crowe. She spoke on how to find the perfect agent and how as writers we needed to “embrace revision”!


Nancy Feresten from National Geographic provided us a bounty of information about the ever-evolving nature of the publishing industry. She also informed the crowd that National Geographic is looking for writers of serious reference, innovative narrative nonfiction and fun reference materials.


Lisa Ann Sandell, author and editor for Scholastic gave us advice for writing the perfect query letter. Pointers included being straightforward, concise and to never include rhetorical questions.


The conference concluded with the wonderful Alexandra Cooper, senior editor for Simon and Schuster. She walked us through the intricate acquisition process.


It was a fantastic day – thanks to all the magnificent organizers and attendees!




Interview with Debbie Gonzales

February marks the Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese calendar. Tradition promises that 2010 will be a year of action and change. One author who embodies all of the positive Tiger characteristics is Debbie Gonzales. Between writing books, maintaining her creative website and organizing events with the Austin chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators), Debbie is always in motion. Recently I visited with Debbie about inspiration, discipline and the craft of writing.

Where did you grow up?

As a child I transferred all over the United States with my father’s business. I’ve lived in California, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. But I proudly call Texas my home! I was born in El Paso and have spent most of my years in the Dallas area. I love the Lone Star State. There’s no place like it.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

Here is where I struggle. Because I am working hard to build a new career as a freelance writer, most of my time is spent working on projects for my beloved clients. I craft teacher guides, design curriculum, teach creative writing workshops, annotate lessons with state academic standards, and work on web copy. I also have several other academic projects in the queue. All that to say, I have to be ultra-determined to chisel out time for my creative work. So, a normal day, you ask? It’s up at 5:00 for an hour of creative work. And then, from 8:30 until 4:00 it is all about my business. After spending some evening time with my sweet hubby, I might sneak back to my desk and crawl back into my fiction for a few hours before calling it a great day.

Where do you get your inspiration?

From my well over 35 years of working with children. I have had the privilege of working with kids from ages 2 to 20; troubled kids, rich kids, poor kids, funny, silly, and sad kids. I’ve been able to experience the drama of life while sided up, shoulder top shoulder with the finest people on this Earth…kids! Most of what I have written about has been pulled directly from an experience or observation I have had with a child. I truly consider myself to be blessed with such riches.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

When I first began this journey, my favorite authors were those that I felt moved children, especially kids that were reluctant to read (What a joy it is to witness a child’s first delight in reading independently!) Jerry Spinelli can get a kid to read. So can Louis Sachar, Lois Lowry, Mildred D. Taylor, and Marion Dane Bauer, to name a just a few.

Of late, because I have the honor of getting to know some the finest writers in the nation, I have come to love not only the amazing work of a number of contemporary authors, but appreciate their personal demeanor, as well. I am truly grateful for the incredible selflessness of so many talented and successful writers who play a huge role in the success of countless fledging authors. Off the top of my head, to list some of my current favorites Kathi Appelt, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, Stephanie Green, Nancy Bo Flood, Liz Garton-Scanlon, Uma Krishnaswami, Rita-Williams Garcia, Deb Wiles, John Dufrense, and Jane Kurtz come to mind at this moment.

Tell us about your books and what you are working on.

In addition to the Gilt Edge Early readers, I have two completed middle grade novels that I am quite serious about publishing, ALIEN ALL-STAR and BEAR MOUNTIAN.

Both novels have had a wee bit of buzz, and after yet another rewrite, maybe they’ll find a home with a nice publisher. I won’t stop working on them until they do.

Describe your website. (It’s so cool!)

“Simple Saturday” is a direct result of my years, and years, and years of working with kids. The premise is to weekly present a variety of inexpensive, simple, yet entertaining activities for families to enjoy together. That’s it. In addition to books reviews, and posting teacher activity guides, I include all kinds of things to do…magic tricks, art and science activities, anything and everything…simple pastimes intended to bring families together for some low cost fun. The way it works is that on Friday I post the materials needed to make Saturday’s activity. A step-by-step, tongue-in-cheek, description of the activity is posted early on Saturday morning, complete with goofy pictorial shots of my husband demonstrating some of the steps. Honestly, the response to my blog has been astounding! Truly, I post on Saturday morning and just watch the page view counter soar. Wow! I am having fun with the website, and it seems lots of other folks are enjoying it, as well. Come by and see me at http://www.debbiegonzales.com and join in the simple-and-sometimes-very-silly fun!

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Find a community of writers. Surround yourself with people who are serious about the craft. Let me repeat…serious about the craft. Craft, first. Publishing second. Work on your skills. Hone them while keeping your eye on the prize. Also, actively participate in the larger community of writers. Volunteer to help with your local SCBWI group. Establish a critique group. Become involved in whatever ways your schedule will allow you to do. Stay positive and always move forward. When you do, I believe that is when the good stuff happens. Keep writing. Don’t stop. Support others, and they will happily support you.

In February I will be assuming the role as Regional Advisor for the Austin SCBWI Chapter. We already have so many great events planned for 2010. I’d like to encourage your readers to check out our website at http://www.austinscbwi.com to keep abreast of the great things happening in Austin, Texas. Y’all come join us! We’d love to see you.

Are you a author or illustrator with a recently published book? Any questions or comments? Please contact Melissa at melissaburon@yahoo.com or visit her blog Book Addict at http://melissaburon.livejournal.com.

This interview also appeared in the Houston Banner newspaper.


Interview with Varsha Bajaj

January is for new beginnings. After spending a few years overseas, I have an immense respect for people who pack a bag, get on a plane, and begin again in a new country and culture. One award winning Texan writer did just that. Varsha Bajaj left India in 1986 to attend graduate school in the United States. Now more than twenty years later, Varsha is an American citizen, wife, mother and successful author. I caught up with Varsha recently and visited with her about families, perfume and the craft of writing.

Where did you grow up?
My story begins in Mumbai, India. My slice of Mumbai in the early 1960s was a
rambling house built in the 1930s surrounded by coconut, guava and beetle nut
trees. I was raised in a joint family; my father’s parents and his
sister lived with us.

My father and grandfather were perfumers and sampling strips of sandalwood
and jasmine were always being sniffed and perfected. Making perfumes became a
part of my imaginative play. Didn’t everyone make perfumes of dirt, crushed
flowers and pebbles?

What made you want to become a writer?
I have always loved books and reading. As a teenager I considered becoming a journalist, and dabbled in poetry to express my teenage angst. (Isn’t that mandatory?) I didn’t consider becoming a writer until much later in life. I guess the possibility of making a living as a writer didn’t seem real. I trained and worked as a therapist for several years. I began writing after I had children and started reading to them. The amazing picture books I read to them inspired my own creativity.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?
I try to “write” for at least two hours several days a week. This does not include time spent in doing research, brain storming, reading writing related blogs etc. There are times when I write for much longer, it happens when I am in the thick of a project and the ideas and words are flowing especially freely. I wish I was more disciplined about writing schedules, but life can get in the way.

Where do you get your inspiration?
I get inspired by my kids, by the headlines, by my memories, and by issues that are important to me.

Who are your favorite writers and why?
Among picture book writers I admire Mary Ann Hoberman, Doreen Cronin, Jane O’Connor, Kevin Henkes and Kathi Appelt among others. They make picture book writing seem easy and effortless while it truly is one of the most difficult things to do. I equate writing picture books to writing poetry.
I love the magic of Kate DiCamillo’s stories, the simplicity of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick books and Beverly Cleary’s adventures. I would have loved Sarah Dressen as a teen. Her characters are so real. I enjoy Houston writer, Dotti Enderle’s Fortune Tellers Club series. Austin’s Cynthia Leitich Smith introduced me to the world of vampires with her paranormal books set in Texas.
There are so many writers and books that I love, I could go on and on. So many books. So little time….

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Read, Read, Read. Read and study as many books as you can. The road to publication is paved with rejection, so be strong and be patient. And become a member of SCBWI (www.scbwi.org) if you write for children.

If you want to learn more about Varsha, please visit her web site: http://www.varshabajaj.com. She is the author of the award-winning book, How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight. Sleeping Bear Press will will publish her latest book T is for Taj Mahal: An India Alphabet Book, in September 2010.

This interview first appeared in the HOUSTON BANNER newspaper.


Eternal and Cynthia Leitich Smith

Vampires, werewolves and wolverines are all enjoying a steep rise in popularity with mortals these days. If the supernatural makes your pulse race, don’t miss Eternal, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s newest novel. Eternal is the story of Miranda, an average Dallas teenager who is chosen by the King of Vampires to become his next princess. Luckily for Miranda, her guardian angel Zachary moves heaven and earth to save the eternal soul of the woman he loves. Teen and adult readers will find irresistible the alternating points of view between Miranda and Zachary as they battle the powers of darkness in the world and also within themselves. Recently I interviewed Cynthia about her new novel Eternal and writing about the supernatural.

What is your research process when writing a fantasy?

When you’re revisiting mythologies that are well known–like vampires and shape shifters and ghosts, it’s important to study what’s come before you. That way, you can to find out what’s already been done so you can make a fresh, meaningful contribution to the conversation of books. I began by studying folklore from around the world, then the early Gothic masters, and continued up until present day–taking a look at modern horror, pop culture, and of course the body of literature for young adult readers.


How did you get your start writing?

Even as a child, I’d always thought of myself as a writer, and I majored in journalism at The University of Kansas. I went on to complete an additional degree at The University of Michigan Law School because I felt a graduate education was important and the law was fascinating, not because I had a burning desire to practice per se. It wasn’t long after graduation that the lure of story led to me to a full-time writing life.


Which writers inspire you? Why?

I’m fond of YA authors Annette Curtis Klause, Libba Bray, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare for their strong girl characters. I was also a terrific fan of Joss Whedon and his "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.".

What’s next for you?

Currently, I’m working on Blessed, which will crossover the casts of Tantalize and Eternal, picking up where Tantalize left off. There’s also a graphic novel adaptation of Tantalize in the works. However, my next book will be for much younger readers–Holler Loudly (2010), an original southwestern tall tale picture book.

Cynthia may be found on the Web at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com. She makes her home in Austin, Texas; with her husband, author Greg Leitich Smith in a beautiful old house that may or may not be haunted.

This interview will also apppear in the latest version of The Houston Banner.