Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nancy Cavanaugh's 'This Journal Belongs to Ratchet'

Chicago's Printer's Row Lit Festival is coming up next weekend, June 8-9. It's a two-day gathering of booksellers, book writers, and book lovers from all over the Midwest to discuss and celebrate new titles. This year's "debut children's authors" panel features some changes from past festivals. Typically moderated by the inimitable Esther Hershenhorn over at Teaching Authors and held on Saturdays, the panel this year will be somewhat managed by yours truly and will take place on Sunday morning. Come hear four brand-spanking-new authors talk about their books and their journey to publication: Demitria Lunetta and her YA In The After, Eileen Meyer and her picture book Who's Faster? Animals on the Move, Tom Watson and his middle-grade Stick Dog, and Nancy Cavanaugh and her middle-grade This Journal Belongs to Ratchet.

Nancy's Ratchet (Sourcebooks, 2013), which earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, is a particularly enjoyable read in that it lets young readers enter her world via writing assignments the young homeschooler has to complete in her journal. Through exercises like poetry, dialogue scenes, and free writing, we see how 11-year-old Ratchet (real name Rachel) wants nothing more than to lead a normal life rather than the one she currently has fixing cars with her quirky mechanic father. She wants a friend. She wants to know about her mom. She wants her dad to stop being embarrassing.

So she sets out to make some things happen. Ratchet doesn't quite find the girlfriends she wants so desperately to make in the charms class at the community center. But she does find a kindred soul among the boys in the go-cart class that she helps her dad teach. In the end, Ratchet finds a way to accept herself and her dad and the "normal" that is their life together. Ratchet is a memorable character whose challenges can break your heart but whose triumphs can make you shout out loud.

Question: The format for This Journal Belongs to Ratchet is fresh and fun. Did you originally envision the book as told in journal format or did this idea evolve? Can you speak to that process?

Nancy Cavanaugh: The character’s voice is usually where the inspiration begins for me. From the very beginning, Ratchet’s voice came through as journal writing, but the idea for using the various types of writing assignments evolved as I began to let her story unfold. Writing the entire book this way always made it feel very creative and fun; but at the same time, writing the entire book this way was the biggest challenge. I really had to figure things out as I went along because it was something I had never done before.

Q: Where did the original idea for Ratchet’s character come from? What was the spark that made you put pen to paper?

NC: As I mentioned, my ideas almost always start with a character. I can still remember writing the very first words for the book. I was sitting outside in a lawn chair on the back porch. I had a brand new spiral notebook which I had purchased just for Ratchet because the idea of her had been percolating in my head for a while. I wrote down some of Ratchet’s thoughts. Some of those very first words I wrote, even after countless revisions, are still in the book today. After I wrote several pages in Ratchet’s notebook that day, I put the notebook away because I was working on another book at the time. I didn’t take the notebook out again for several months. By that time, Ratchet’s voice had grown even stronger. I can’t really explain that part – to me that’s the magic of writing.

Q: With all the talk about fixing cars and building go-carts, you could easily have made Ratchet a boy. What made you decide that your main character was female?

NC: Ratchet being a girl and being able to do things that most girls don’t do is one of the things that makes her so special. An important part of her story is about learning to accept her strengths, even though it’s easier for her to wish she were good at something else.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story? What do you want to accomplish with your writing?

NC: I love stories with heart and soul and guts; and that’s what kind of story I hope readers think Ratchet is. My wish is that anyone who reads Ratchet will be able to somehow connect emotionally with one or all of the characters. And in the end, I hope readers will be able to accept themselves and their circumstances in a more positive way, which is what Ratchet ultimately does.

Q: What will we see next from you?

NC: I’m thankful to be able to announce that my next book Always, Abigail will be coming in October 2014 from Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. The entire story is told in lists, letters, and writing assignments, in which a girl named Abigail uses her language arts class’s Friendly Letter Project to cope with the worst school year ever – and in the process turns it into the best year ever.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Next Big Thing Blog Tour Stops for 'Cupcake Cousins'

Not the book cover, just an appetizer
This week I'm departing from my standard operating procedure of interviewing other children's authors about their books. Instead I'm participating in a sort of blogger chain letter called the Next Big Thing. It's a blog tour that bounces from one writer to the next, throwing the spotlight on our individual writing projects.

The Next Big Thing blog tour started in Australia as a way for authors and illustrators to bring awareness to their work by way of their blogs. Many thanks to the lovely and talented Brooke Boynton Hughes, illustrator for our forthcoming book Cupcake Cousins from Hyperion/Disney, for tagging me and inviting me to participate. Brooke is also awaiting the arrival of the bouncing bundle of joy Baby Love by Angela DiTerlizzi (Beach Lane Books/S&S).

Here are official the Next Big Thing blog tour questions:

Question: What is the working title of your next book?

Me: The title for the book is Cupcake Cousins, which makes me hungry every time I type that out. When I submitted my manuscript to Hyperion, the working title was The Flour Girls, because my story is about two almost-10-year-olds who have been asked to be flower girls in their aunt's wedding but would much prefer to showcase their cooking skills by baking for the reception. What makes the story a bit different is that Delia and Willow, my two budding chefs, are cousins – one African American and the other white. So Hyperion thought we should emphasize their connectedness right up front rather than on my oh-so-clever wordplay. 

Q: Where did the idea come from for the book?

Me: The story is set in a sleepy Michigan beach town called Saugatuck. I live with my husband and three children in Chicago, and every summer we escape the landscape of high-rises and crowded streets for the open stretches of Western Michigan – just like the character Willow. There are endless opportunities for old school fun like going on hikes, building sand forts, picking berries and peaches, and roasting marshmallows around a campfire. We typically rent a beach house for one week every August with the kids' three cousins from Detroit – which is where Delia's family lives.

Two things were at play when I got the idea for the book. One was watching the special relationship cousins have. There's not the tension that siblings can develop, but there's still the deep devotion. No matter how different they are, no matter how many months they go without seeing each other, they are still so close. I wanted to celebrate that a bit.

The second factor was how fast kids grow up these days. It's not uncommon to pass third-graders at my kids' school reading Hunger Games. It makes me a little sad for them, that at eight years old they are plunging into such emotionally wrenching topics. Where's the magic of childhood? So I set out to write a book where the stakes were not too high (spoiler alert: the dog in this book does NOT die), and the issues, while still very dear to the cousins' hearts, were not so enormous.

Q: What genre does your book fall under?

Me: It's early middle-grade.

Q: What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Me: The most fun would be casting the loopy adults in this book. There is a Southern chef who endures the girls' cooking aspirations, and I was completely channeling Paula Deen. She is pursued by a charming gentleman who owns the beach house, and I pictured William H. Macy with all his goofy cuteness.

My two main characters are Delia and Willow. I could see Skai Jackson play smart, assertive Delia. China Anne McClain is exactly Delia's tormenting big sister, Darlene Dees. Isabella Acres with her curls could make a great Willow, though she'd need to become a redhead. 

Q: Who is publishing your book?

Me: I couldn't be happier to type these words: Hyperion/Disney. It's been such a fun ride!

Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Me: I had been writing for a while before the Cupcake Cousins story idea came to mind. And I am a slow writer who agonizes over every word. Then I went to a book talk where a friend was celebrating the release of his latest novel. He said he wrote his whole book, opening line to ending, in a matter of two months. That blew me away, so I made it my goal to get the first draft of my cousins book out in about six months. Then I revised and revised and revised over a year.

Q: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Me: I really admire Jeanne Birdsall's middle-grade series The Penderwicks. It is dense with relationships but still feels light and sweet as four sisters share hilarious summer adventures with minimal fighting. It was an instant classic when it came out. So that book was at my side as I wrote, as was Anne of Green Gables for many reasons but especially the sly humor and wonder of nature. The story also takes inspiration from Gone Away Lake, a 1958 Newbery Honor winning book by Elizabeth Enright, which also features kids experiencing nature and freedom and the joys of summertime.

Q: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Me: At the same time that all this soup was simmering in my head, I was also reading Last Child in the Woods, a book about the way we raise children to ignore if not fear being outdoors in nature. I grew up in Oklahoma, and remember my summers as being months of freedom spent outdoors. June, July, and August were for tearing around our neighborhood, splashing in the creek, eating plums from neighbors' trees, catching bugs, and playing endless games of kick-the-can and hide-and-seek until it was dark out. Then we'd start it all over again the next day.

Oh, and I recall never ever wanting to bother with bathing – it slowed me down from all my playtime. So my characters take a bit of that from me and my childhood.

Raising my kids as city folk, we take advantage of so much of what Chicago has to offer. But I do mourn their loss of freedom and connectedness with nature. We have to seek it out. And we're lucky that way – we are able to have a weeklong getaway and unplug. But many kids aren't, and they don't know the joys of spending time outside. How many kids today have actually watched the sun set? Or caught it rising in the morning? Or picked fruit from trees and bushes? I wanted to try to put these sensations into a book, to remind kids that it's all out there for them to discover. 

Q: What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

Me: There are fun recipes interspersed throughout the story! There are jokes! And there's a very large, highly irresistible dog!

Now it's time for me to tag: Check out Amy Timberlake's Next Big Thing entry on her blog. Amy is the author of the remarkable middle-grade One Came Home. Check it out if you haven't already!

And bounce on over to Liesl Shurtliff's place and learn more about what she's working on. Liesl's wonderful middle-grade Rump upends the traditional Rumpelstiltskin fairytale. (It's really hard not to get punny with Rump.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Jessie Hartland's "Bon Appetit!" Appeals to All Tastes

Some books are clearly for kids. And others are for the kid in all of us. Author and illustrator Jessie Hartland's Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child (Schwartz & Wade, 2012) is for everyone, young and old, who shares an interest in the food that's on our forks.

With Bon Appetit!, which is a 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project title and earned a starred review in Publisher's Weekly, Jessie takes readers on a journey through the life of Julia Child the chef, the cookbook author, and the television star. And what material to mine. Julia Child grew up in California, but her adventures took her to Europe where she worked as a spy during WWII. We see her as a student, attending cooking classes in Paris. We see her struggle with her writing as she tries again and again to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And we see her searching to find her "thing," awkward – the size of her feet are laughably long – and unsure. All are moments young readers especially can relate to. With a distinctive illustrating style and hand-written text, Jessie has created a lush book that is dense with information about this culinary and cultural icon.

You might also recognize Jessie's work from her Museum titles with Blue Apple books. How The Sphinx Got To The Museum (2010) tells how the sphinx of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut wound up in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum (2011) explains how a Diplodocus longus landed in the Smithsonian. And coming this fall, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum (October 8, 2013), chronicles how a meteorite ended up in the American Museum of Natural History.

Question: You're one of those rare birds who can tell a delightful story in both word and picture. And you don't just touch the surface – you dig deep. With Bon Appetit! packed full of so many historical details, can you explain what inspired you to tackle such an enormous project? Why a picture book about Julia Child?

Jessie Hartland: Thanks for the kind words! The book was my idea. I love to read biographies and I wanted to do a series of “graphic biographies” for children,  my own way. I pitched Julia Child as the first in the set. This was about five or six years ago, before Nora Ephron’s film Julie & Julia. The response I got was “…no one cares about Julia Child anymore.” However the film revived interest in Julia, and I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to do the book.

Q: You clearly did your homework in researching Julia Child's life. Was it hard to decide what you wanted to include in the story and what you had to leave out? Did you feel that you had any constraints?

JH: Well, I had a limited number of pages to work with: 48. More than the typical picture book of 32 pages, but not so many to cover the life of a busy person like Julia Child! I knew I wanted to spend plenty of time on the long and laborious process of getting the first cookbook published and to show how complicated and accomplished her cooking was, hence the 32-step galantine recipe.

The part I miss cutting most is a page when Julia has just moved to Germany and hasn’t yet mastered the language. She’s working on the poultry chapter of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and must visit a German butcher to buy ingredients. She flaps her “wings” and honks and quacks to communicate. The butcher responds, “Ach! Das Gans.” “Ya! Das Huhn!”

Q: Most people think of picture books as geared for a young audience, but Bon Appetit! appeals to the chef in all of us – at any age. Were you writing the story with a particular reader in mind, or with a broad audience of anyone who appreciates good food?

JH: Well, I started out writing this book for kids but then it got more and more complicated. I hope there is something for everyone in there.

Q: Do you like to cook?

JH: Yes, I love to cook. I grew up watching The French Chef on TV. My mother did not like to cook, and it was fun to watch someone cooking who enjoyed it. At home we ate frozen vegetables, canned fruit, and dreadful things made with soup mixes and such. As a teenager, I got an after-school job in my town’s only fancy-foods shop, where I had my first croissants, baklava, and French cheese.

While in art school I worked weekends and summers as a restaurant cook. Nowadays our family eats a lot of seafood caught by my 21-year-old son, Sam: tuna, sea bass, bluefish, porgies, mahi-mahi, and cherrystone clams. I grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and raspberries and have a thriving herb garden.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your books? 

JH: For the Julia book, I want readers to get a sense of Julia’s perseverance and all the hard work and years it took to get her first cookbook published. I also like how she was a free spirit,  a rebellious soul,  a late-bloomer, and was a feminist before there was such a word.

Q: Can you talk about what we'll see next from you?

JH: I’m in the middle of another biography, this one of Steve Jobs. It is targeted to older kids, though, and will be even more of a middle grade/adult crossover. It will have a  smaller format,  with many more pages and printed in black and white. It’s now at 186 pages and will be coming out in 2014. More focus on the writing and line drawings—and I’m up for the challenge! He’s another fascinating character: rebellious, intuitive, ingenious. . .

But next coming out is the third in my Museum series of books — How the Meteorite Got to the Museum. It’s about the Peekskill meteorite and the amazing story of a rock that fell from space and landed on a parked car in the town of Peekskill, New York. And in this same series, for the fourth book I’ll be working with MoMA, NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, exploring the provenance of an object in their design collection.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in your writing and illustrating life? 

JH: Having done picture books for some years now, I’ve been saying I’ve wanted the challenge of doing both a book without pictures, just words—and a book with no words, just pictures. So I have just taken a stab at writing a chapter book. We’ll see if someone will publish it!

Monday, May 6, 2013

First Sentence of 'Savvy' Inspired Ingrid Law's Newbery Book

I've always been fascinated by the marking of milestones. I'm the type that looks for some sort of glorious transformation when experiencing an important event, like the chiming of midnight on New Year's Eve – or even buying a new car that is not a minivan. But these moments tend to pass, like so many others, and life resumes its same old familiar routine. Thank goodness for Ingrid Law. With her Newbery Honor book Savvy (Puffin, 2008), she took the ordinary passage from 12 to 13 and made it electrifying. Then she followed it up with the equally extraordinary Scumble (Puffin, 2010).

In Ingrid's books, 13th birthdays are the moments when a "savvy" hits for the members of the Beaumont family. Grandpa's savvy power is that he can move mountains. For one brother, it's the power to cause hurricanes. For another, he can create electricity. On the eve of Mississippi "Mibs" Beaumont's 13th birthday, her father is involved in a car accident and winds up in the hospital. Mibs is convinced she'll get a savvy that can save him. And she sneaks onto a rickety old bus and heads out on an odyssey of sorts enroute to the hospital to help.

Scumble takes place nine years later, and it involves Mibs' cousin, Ledger. His savvy is that he can destroy anything, so he's been sent to a Wyoming ranch to learn to deal with his new powers while making sure nobody outside the family uncovers the Beaumont family's secrets.

Question: Where did the idea for Savvy come from? What was the spark that made you sit down and begin writing?

Ingrid Law: I knew I wanted to start a new book, but I didn't know what I wanted it to be about. I did know I wanted to push my creativity to its limits and to make the voice of the book quirky and unusual. So the first thing I decided to do was to sit down and write the first crazy sentence that popped into my mind without thinking too hard. Without judging. I wrote: "When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland, because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he'd caused it." It's still the very first sentence of the book! I think that sentence was magical.

Q: Can you talk about your creative process: How did you choose the savvies that each child receives? What was it like to dream up their particular powers? Are any of them powers you personally wish you had?

IL: I like choosing powers for my main characters that help them grow and learn in some way. Sometimes I think of savvy talents as metaphors for all of the crazy changes that start to happen for kids when then become teenagers. Other times a savvy talent might be a quirky exaggeration of a real-life talent. Mibs has to learn to regulate the voices in her head, real and imagined. Ledge learns that sometimes, when things fall apart, the broken pieces of a thing can be put back together in a different, more meaningful way. Grandma Dollop cans radio waves – my grandmother canned jam and peaches. Rocket is electric. . . mostly because writing about an electric character was fun. Samson is a savvy-powered introvert, able to build up stores of strength whenever he becomes invisible – strength he can share with other people whenever he chooses to reappear.

If I had a savvy, I'd wish for the ability to clone myself. Then two of me could be writing, two of me could be reading, one of me could be at the movies, and another me could be washing the dishes.

Q: Savvy was your debut novel, followed quickly by Scumble. Had you been writing for a long time before you began these story ideas? Or did these characters appear fully formed in your mind, and you had to race to keep up?

IL: I wrote off and on for 15 years before I tried submitting my work for publication. But the ideas for my "savvy" books were fresh and new when I began writing them in 2007. I hadn't written anything quite like them before. Sometimes writing is a giddy race to keep up with wild and wonderful ideas. . . other times, it's a meditation on patience and waiting for the right ideas – the really good ideas – to find their way into my imagination. Sometimes it's hard to be patient. It's easy to call such times "writers block," when really, perhaps, such times should be called "incubation" instead.

Q: You received a Newbery Honor right out of the chute with Savvy. How did this impact your world? What effect, if any, did it have on your writing life?

IL: A couple of years ago, I was on a panel titled: Newbies and Newberys, the Wows and Woes of Winning a Newbery Honor for Your First Book. I was joined by Kirby Larson and Jenni Holm. Originally, Cynthia Lord was going to be on the panel as well. I think the title of the panel says a lot. It was, of course, a thrilling, amazing, jaw-dropping experience to earn such an honor for my first book. But the award also took a toll on my writing life by setting the bar very high from the get-go. I used to worry about that bar a lot. But I'm learning to let go of all that and get back to writing for the sheer joy of creating a fun and compelling story, rather than worrying about awards and reviews and comparisons. Yet, it is nice to know that because of that shiny silver sticker, young people will be reading my book for years to come.

Q: You followed up Savvy with the equally delightful Scumble, whose cast of hilarious and outrageous characters is as long and satisfying as Savvy's. Was it natural to return to the Beaumont family and further explore its particular "gift"? Are they living, breathing members of your own family now? Will it be hard to ever step away from this remarkable world you've created?

IL: I do feel very attached to my characters – particularly Ledger, the main character in Scumble. I just love that kid! The world of savvy families I've created is very warm and welcoming to me; it's an easy world to return to again and again. I hope readers feel the same way.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your writing?

IL: With the "savvy" books, I hope that young readers can find inspiration to be themselves, to be the unique individuals they were born to be, and to value the innate talents that belong to them, whether those talents come easily or require a lot of hard work.

Q: What's ahead for you? What can your fans hope to see next?

IL: I'm working on a third "savvy" book now, starring Gypsy Beaumont, and focusing on her 13th birthday. Gypsy was 3 years old in Savvy and 12 years old in Scumble. Now it's her turn to have a savvy birthday. I'm such a perfectionist, I think I'm getting slower with every book I write, but I'm really loving this one a lot right now, so I hope my readers don't mind being patient with me a little longer, while I try to make Gypsy's coming of age story the best it can be.