Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Author Interview with Nathan Bransford

Nathan Bransford, kidlit author and former agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., writes an industry blog I've been following for awhile. Lately, Nathan has also been blogging about his new book, JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW (Dial). This middle grade novel is a fun read and it presents outer space exploration as a whimsical and worthwhile adventure for its three main characters.  

Interviewing Nathan, I learned he is from Colusa, California, a small farming town in the Central Valley. Of his childhood, Nathan remembers spending a lot of time riding around rice fields with his dad and having what he calls a “very quintessential small town experience,” which included riding bikes around town, attending Friday night high school football games, and being in a place where everyone knew everyone. He studied English at Stanford and now lives in San Francisco. 

How did you decide you wanted to be a kidlit author?
I just had the idea for Jacob Wonderbar and decided to go with it. It wasn't something I really planned. 

How do you craft humor for a middle grade audience?
I try as much as possible to remember the things I thought was funny around that time. And I also believe we have an inner-ten-year-old inside us, and I try to channel it as much as possible. 

In JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, you created three distinct main characters. We have Jacob Wonderbar, who acts out on his private angst. We have Sarah, who tries hard to be the anti-girlie girl. And we have Dexter, who plays it safe but rises to the occasion. How were you able to establish three different points of views for Jacob, Sarah, and Dexter?
It takes a lot of work, and is something I find somewhat difficult. It's one thing to have a character and to know their traits, but when you're telling the novel from three different perspectives, you really have to get inside the characters' heads. It just takes time and writing. I think you kind of get to know the characters as you go along and then need to go back and revise the beginning based on what you learn.

On Planet Paisley, the resident substitute teachers are portrayed as scary aliens. What kind of experiences with substitute teachers have you had growing up?    
Haha, I actually had great subs growing up, though I definitely remember as a kid finding subs to be somewhat strange. As a kid you get so used to the predictability of your teacher being there every day, and all of a sudden without any advance warning some new person will arrive and throw your day in an unpredictable direction. It kind of felt like an alien had just shown up, no matter how good the sub was. 

How much did you have to read up on outer space and space travel before you wrote this book?
I actually took a class in college called "Cosmic Horizons," which was about the physics of the universe (and possibly multi-verse). My professor was an expert in (hope I'm getting this right) multi-planar and multi-dimensional fields and how there may be sections of the universe with more dimensions than the ones we're used to. It basically broke my brain.

But I threw all that out with "Jacob Wonderbar." In order for the novel to make sense, the kids would have to be traveling literally trillions of miles an hour and moving many times the speed of light as they're flying around the universe. I like to think of it as cartoon physics, sort of like the Road Runner cartoons. If I got bogged down in explaining the physical (im)possibilities of how the kids are flying around space, I think I'd lose my audience.

What's next for you and Jacob Wonderbar?
The next book in the series, JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE, is coming out in the spring of 2012, and I'm working on (tentative title) JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE INTERSTELLAR TIME WARP.

What are some of your favorite kidlit books and authors?

Everything by Roald Dahl, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O'Dell, MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN by Jean Craighead George, the Calvin & Hobbes comics, BY THE GREAT HORNSPOON by Sid Flesichman, and HARRY'S MAD by Dick King-Smith.

Thanks for the opportunity!

You’re welcome, Nathan!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Author Interview with Anne Ylvisaker

When I begin reading Anne Ylvisaker’s DEAR PAPA (Candlewick Press) or THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS (Candlewick Press), both middle grade books, I’d feel like I’m picking up an old black-and-white photograph. As the stories draw me in, the people and objects in the photograph begin to move as the depicted historical period comes to life in full color. Anne’s books easily immerse me into a different time period and the lives of her young protagonists living in them. Anne was very gracious about letting me interview her for my blog.

A native of Minneapolis, Minnnesota, Anne graduated with a degree in Elementary Education from Concordia College in Moorhead and later received an M.A. in Education from St. Scholastica in Duluth. Anne recalls having a tough time deciding on a major back in college. For Anne, one of the perks of teaching elementary school was that she could work with all subjects, so the job was a great fit for her. Today Anne lives in Monterey, California. 


How did you decide you wanted to be a kidlit author?
Kidlit found me more than the other way around, I think. I just wanted to write: letters, grocery lists, journals, stories. After many years in the classroom reading out loud to my students every day, I had children’s literature coursing through my veins. Through a friend, I got a spot in a class taught by the late Judy Delton, a marvelous youth fiction writer. I wrote DEAR PAPA, my first published novel, while in her class.

I wasn’t sure if DEAR PAPA was a children’s novel or not, and Judy advised me to not worry about market while I wrote, to just tell the story and think about how to market it later. Great advice for all writers, I think. Tell the story you have inside, then think about where it could go. I think of DEAR PAPA as a book for all ages, really, and have done programs with readers from elementary school age through senior citizens. When a child reads it and writes to me about it, I feel especially happy because kids are very discerning readers.

How did you come up with the concept of having the entire novel of DEAR PAPA told through letters?
I was visiting my Aunt Betty in Florida and asked her to tell me about her dad, my grandfather, who had died when she was young, and what it was like for her when he died. “I wrote him a letter before he died,” she said. “Let’s find it.” We looked through box after box of photographs and family memorabilia and didn’t find the letter. But along the way, I learned a lot about my family.

When I got home I wondered what a girl like my aunt might have said in a letter to her father, only I misremembered the details and thought she’d said she’d written to him after his death. I’d lost my own father in my 30s, and what I missed the most was not being able to tell him the small details of daily life, so it made sense to me that this girl would have written her father a letter after he died. I made up the first letter, then just kept going one letter at a time, making up the story as I went along.

In THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS, which was just released in April, some of Tugs' family members berate her and cut her down for her successes. Yet I couldn't bring myself to dislike this family. What is your strategy for crafting an occasionally bothersome but endearing family?
Families are a messy business. Every one has its blind spot and the Buttons have a whopper. They take pride in their bumbling ways. It’s their identity. I love the Buttons. They were a family in need of someone to shake up their self-perception and thank goodness Tugs came along to do it. I don’t think their intentions towards Tugs were bad so much as that they were set in their ways and Tugs shook the family tree.

I’m afraid I can’t claim any particular strategy beyond being empathetic towards the characters and having been part of a family. (Disclaimer: the Buttons are not based on my family!) I believe that most families have good intentions when we raise our children, but sometimes our methods are ill advised. So please, children, forgive us!

Why does writing historical fiction appeal to you?
Just as I didn’t set out to write kidlit, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but simply to tell the stories of characters who captured my imagination. I get inspiration by looking at old family photographs so it does make sense that the stories land where they do.

DEAR PAPA and LITTLE KLEIN fell very naturally into the 1940s, but with THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS, I tried several different settings from modern to 1976 to the 1930s. I wanted Tugs Button to win a camera. I poked around on the Kodak website and discovered that in 1930, Kodak gave a Brownie camera to every child that turned twelve that year. So I tried setting THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS in 1929 as it would have been more of a novelty for Tugs to win her camera before every one of her peers had one. That’s the year that really felt right for the story, so it stuck.

My next book is also set in 1929 but after that, who knows? 

What are the elements of compelling historical fiction?
I think the elements that make historical fiction compelling are the same ones that make any book compelling: a distinct voice, a protagonist you want to root for, and an intriguing storyline. Historical fiction has the added fun of interesting and quirky details of daily life in earlier eras. The themes of growing up are universal and I think kids connect with characters from any era when they recognize the emotions they have in common. 
How do you research a particular time period?
Since my stories are not based on particular historical events, my research is an exercise in learning about the nuances of every day life in a particular year. I read newspapers, listen to music, and interview people who remember the era. I look at photographs, and scour ads in magazines and newspapers.

I have a great reference book that tells year-by-year what was happening in the world, so I learn who was born and died in certain years, what events were influencing the world and culture in literature, art, music, movies, and politics. Some of those details make it into the story, most do not, but all help me know the characters better and settle my mind into a particular year.

What are your favorite historical fiction books in kidlit?
For most of the books that spring to mind I have to stop and think whether they are “historical fiction” or not. For instance, HARRIET THE SPY (a fave) was modern at the time it was written so I suppose it’s not historical fiction. So here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite kidlit books in general: A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, A YEAR DOWN YONDER and FAIR WEATHER by Richard Peck, STUART LITTLE by E.B. White, SEEDFOLKS by Paul Fleischman, WHAT I CALL LIFE by Jill Wolfson, MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURES by Polly Horvath, THE WHIPPING BOY by Sid Fleischman, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg, A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle, and OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse. I could keep going on and on through my bookshelf. So many favorites! Just starting to list these few makes me want to dive in and read all the way through my shelves again. Then there are new books coming out all the time. I guess I’ll stop here and get back to reading! Oh, and writing.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat about writing, Cynthia, and best wishes on your journey!

Thanks Anne, for your support and for chatting with me!

Feel free to check out Anne’s web site at www.anneylvisaker.com or her Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/AnneYAuthor

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Books I Read in May

THE OPPOSITE OF INVISIBLE by Liz Gallagher (Young Adult- Wendy Lamb) A girl is caught in a love triangle between her artist boy friend and a football player at her high school.

TIGER by Jeff Stone (Middle Grade-Yearling) A 12-year old orphan boy gifted in kung fu is forced to escape the Chinese temple he was raised in after his master is murdered.

THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS by Anne Ylvisaker (Middle Grade-Candlewick) Set in 1929, this book is about a 12-year old girl who is suspicious of a charismatic newcomer in her small Iowa town.Check out my author interview.

GUESS AGAIN! by Mac Barnett, Illust. by Adam Rex  (Picture Book-Simon & Schuster) This is a book told in verse and riddles where readers have to guess a person or object being described....and the reader's first guess is guaranteed to be wrong.

ABBY CARNELIA'S ONE & ONLY MAGICAL POWER by David Pogue (Middle Grade-Roaring Brook Press) A sixth grade girl discovers she has an unusual power and is sent to a special magic camp.

I'M NOT CUTE! by Jonathan Allen (Picture Book-Hyperion) A baby owl gets annoyed with other animals who keep calling him cute.