{pinned post: book events in september}

Thanks for your interest in my book events!
(This post will be continuously updated.)


Essay • “Checking the Weather” Teen Librarian Toolbox Blog @SLJ

Interview • “Writer Q&A” @NerdDaily

Interview • “Author Q&A” @Confessions of a YA Reader

Interview • Author Q&A @ at Karen B. McCoy’s

Interview • Conversation @ Edie’s Cotton Quilts

BOOK GIVEAWAY • from September 16th – 21st: CLOSED Recipients have been contacted on Twitter and Instagram. If you were contacted, please use the drop down the menu on the left “About This Site” and leave your address in the contact form. Thanks!


ICYMI: View the Crowdcast of my book launch with Janae Marks here.


View the Shelf Stuff conversation with Saadia Fauqi and Shanthi Sekaran, and educator, Dr. Dawn Bolton at Brave & Kind Books here.


View the Princeton Children’s Book Festival’s Book Jam with Damian Alexander, Kathryn Erskine, Lee Durfey-Lavoie and Veronica Agarwal here.


{sing out loud: the girls of summer}

Irene Drive 9

“In summer, the song sings itself.” ~ William Carlos Williams

A secret cupped like a gorgeous blossom in small, grubby hands: the first day of summer. Anything can still happen, and there is wonder and beauty around every corner, and every day is at least a week long. At least, that’s what summer seemed like, all the days of childhood. Now, it’s more people frowning about if what they’re wearing will be a wrinkled, sweaty mess by five o’clock, and if they can get away another day without shaving. Never mind. I’m here to reconnect with wonder, and do a little happy dance that I’ve been named a Summer Girl by the fabulous Girls of Summer Book Club.

The Girls of Summer are the girls of awesome. Co-founder Gigi Amateau (CLAIMING GEORGIA TATE; COME AUGUST, COME FREEDOM) is a children’s author in her own right, and as such, this is doubly wonderful that she gives back to her community in this way. Each year, she and her friend and fellow author, Meg Medina (TIA ISA WANTS A CAR; YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS) pull together a list of just eighteen books – definitely difficult! – as their Summer Girls reading list. The list covers picture book to young adult fiction that are fab for summer reading and celebrate and develop that awesomeness that makes a summer girl strong. Each year, Gigi and Meg hold a live launch in Library Park (a name that just begs you to get on the lawn with a book!) – behind the Richmond Public Library (or inside, in case of rain) where readers meet Virginia authors in person, take part in book giveaways, helped along by bbgb books, and indulge in cool, sweet treats. As PR icing on the cake, Richmond Family Magazine and the Richmond Times-Dispatch covers the events and the books in their literary section. These Summer Women are, together with their community of book people, making Richmond, Virginia an awesomely more literary place.

And this, their third summer together, they picked one of my books!

I’m in such excellent company as Ian Falconer, Sharon G. Flake, Kekla Magoon, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Atinuke, Anita Silvey, and more. Every Friday, there’s an author Q&A with one of the eighteen selected authors. I had a great time being involved – this was such a treat for me. I wish I could have been at the reading the other night – and had some of that ice cream.

Virgina Summer Girls

Click to enlarge; photo courtesy G. Amateau

Thanks, Girls of Summer. Thank you, Gigi and Meg. Thank you, Richmond. I’m honored.

Today is still a glowing secret, cupped in your two hands – the longest day of light. What is it, that you plan to do with this one, wild precious life?

Celebrate it.

{heart of your matter; matters of your heart}

I don’t remember where I got this, but I love it.

In grad school, my critique partner, J-Dawg (a petite, Caucasian, blue-eyed blonde who named herself thus), commented that every writer writes the same thing. Whilst at Mills, J chaired the first Aphra Behn conference, edited an anthology called “Scandalosissima Scoundrelia:’ A Collection of Critical Essays on Mary Delarivier Manley”, and her graduate thesis was something to do with the voices of 18th century women. I sensed a theme early on. It didn’t matter what class she was in, what paper she was writing, somehow, someway, J’s work ALWAYS came around to the writings of subversive women; or to make you all wince, Chicks Acting Up (Well-behaved women rarely make history, right?). “Every writer has a theme,” J-Dawg told me. I had no idea what mine was.

Fast forward to SAM mentioning once that I wrote like Joyce Carol Oates. “That’s a good thing!” he responded to my stricken silence. “Um… great!” I replied brightly, trying to remember what books I’d read of hers past ORDINARY PEOPLE when I was about ten (did I even finish?). I wondered if today’s teens had even ever heard of her. (Probably. BIG MOUTH & UGLY GIRL and AFTER THE WRECK weren’t that long ago.) I had no idea what my agent meant, and became somewhat obsessed with not fulfilling his prophesy – which is completely counter to what editors and publishing houses infer that you should do. Writers are supposed to have a brand, a market, a niche. A THING they do. I didn’t want to do a THING. I didn’t want to write like Joyce Carol Oates – awesome though she might be. I wanted to be free to do what I wanted. This silly supposition that I was supposed to be able to just write what came into my head is the sort of thing that gives marketing people migraines. And yet: marketing isn’t an exact science, is it? Maybe what I wanted to write next was going to be The Next Big Thing. I felt I was doing myself favors by not having a single thing that I did – I wanted to remain open to the possibility of doing it all.

Yeah. Like that works.

This morning I read a Cynsations interview on that very thing. Instead of calling it a theme, Janet S. Fox calls it a “core emotion.” And she agrees: every writer has one. The trick is finding yours.

Why? Because if you can find your core emotion, you can find your life’s thesis, as it were; your reason for writing. So many of us are utterly inarticulate as to the reasons why we’re doing this. The YA lit field is PACKED, stuffed. Why are we writing? Who needs one more book about, even one not about sparkly, emo vampires or zombies or fallen angels or, or, or — ? How can we justify our need to put ink to paper and scribble to the world if we don’t know exactly what it is we’re dying to say? (Because, as Charles Bukowski reminds us, unless it comes out of our souls like a rocket, and we absolutely cannot not say it, we should not speak.)

So, I looked at every book I’ve ever done – the two which are out of print, the more recent three with Knopf – and found they have a common theme. From summer camps to the ETO to Spring Break, every one of my novels has been about relationships. Tangled ones, romantic ones, familial ones, failed ones. This, I think, is what SAM picked up on – JCO is famous for depicting the fractured family. I can live with that, I thought. However, I read a review of HAPPY FAMILIES this week in Bookslut (thanks, Colleen!) which suddenly brought things into focus. Colleen writes:

“…Ysabel and Justin manage to get their parents to get real. It’s this focus on the damage to the family that makes Happy Families really succeed — Davis sees that with all the questions about what transgender means (and those questions are excellently explored), the real core to this novel is that the children were lied to. This is the essence to all of the novels in this column — in one way or another, the parents have failed their children, and in every instance they have insisted that failure did not take place. While some of them feel very badly — particularly in Happy Families — and while some are just complete asses — see Dora — the drama of each novel all comes around to the teenagers demanding fair and worthy attention from the people who are supposed to love them most. It doesn’t work out for all of these families; some are just too damaged to save, but in each case there are moments of amazing honesty in which the kids realize that they deserve to stand up and be heard; they deserve respect. For Ysabel and Justin, that moment is a good one, a not quite happily-ever-after-one, but at least a moment that shows them the way forward.

People who know me, or who get to know me find out in due time that I am not a liar (not a good one, anyway. I tell outrageous lies for fun, and watch people laugh). I am a storyteller – I believe in the power of fiction instead of lies – but I am also straightforward to the point, at times, of making myself and others uncomfortable. I do not respond well to lies. There is only one person I can think of, off the top of my head, who is still my friend after a lie, and there are extremely extraordinary circumstances involved. I have zero tolerance for liars and lying. It has been that way since I was a child and woke up to the lies I was told. Since then, it has been my personal mission to napalm out of existence all lies told to me… and the lies I have lived.

And within this epiphany, I begin to glimpse a theme… a core story. The lies our families tell (sit venia parentum), the lies with which we grow up, which are written on our bodies and secreted in the folds of our brains; the lies which are within the silence that we keep about the ways we’ve had to live, have had to compromise; the lies that inform our identity and shape us, and leave us rootless when we discover the truth… these are my heart matters, my core emotions. This informs my work: characters struggling to rip their way through what they thought they knew, into a world where what they hold within is ALL that is true.

Now, all I have to do is hold onto my truth, and hold it up, until I truly see it, and… well, then, everything should resolve itself from there.

…this is my hope, anyway; that all I will see is my truth, that all will see my truth. That the rocket will trail a light that rivals the sun.

{Summer Reading. Summer… not…}

…and summer still dragging up bad puns. C’est la vie.

Wow, how many years have we been doing this now? Four? Five? Well, either way, it’s once again time for the Summer Blog Blast Tour, where fifteen or twenty bloggers get together for a week to interview their favorite children’s literature authors and illustrators. Twice a year this small segment of what we term the “kidlitosphere” celebrates celebrate story in all its manifold permutations, and renew our love of books — and give everyone some great books to chase down for their summer reading projects.

This project is a lot of work — it takes getting past one’s reflex shyness to approach an author or their agent, it takes reading their work deeply enough to ask intelligent questions that they’ve not already heard fifteen times, and it takes a huge amount of coordination for Colleen (who is made of Awesome and Woot with sprinklings of Spreadsheet, probably) to get the interviews set up and spread out and linked each day. It’s a labor of love, though. I really love stories — they’ve shaped my life, they’ve saved my sanity, and they’re just the larger part of what makes me, me.

Come be a part of the stories. The official schedule is up at Chasing Ray, and I hope you drop by!

Guest Blogger Sherri L. Smith: On Passing & Identity

Today we welcome back young adult writer Sherri L. Smith to Finding Wonderland! Sherri is the author of Lucy the Giant, a novel about a tall girl from the immense state of Alaska who tries to lose herself and her past in the wilds — and finds out what it means to have someone care enough to find you. Lucy’s story was Sherri’s first novel, and one of our all-time favorite Under Radar Recommendations.

Sherri’s other novels include the 2009 Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award nominee, Sparrow, and last summer’s MG novel, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. This month we celebrate Sherri’s newest release, Flygirl, which hit bookstores just last week, and received a starred review from Booklist.

~~~

Passing. People of one ancestry or ethnic group being able to pass for another. Where does the phrase even come from? Once upon a time in the days of slavery, African American slaves who traveled away from their owners were required show passes to anyone who asked for them, to assure that they were on legitimate business. People who were not questioned, who were light enough, due to the blending of their genetics with those of the master’s family, were said to be able to “pass.” And from a long ago and ugly place we come up with a word that is alive and well today.

When Sherri told us the topic of her book, we gave a little twitch. Passing — is a loaded word, and not really a topic that gets talked about much in “polite society.” And certainly not in a novel for young adults!

Obviously, “passing” was a great big deal in the Jim Crow days, because African Americans were legally not allowed to do a whole bunch of things. People anxiously protected the status quo because most of the time, society prefers to tell us who we are, instead of letting us decide for themselves, so that there’s some kind of stability. The full force of the law came down on those who tried to rock the boat and choose for themselves. It could have cost Ida Mae her life to pass for white — but let me not give away any spoilers! Instead, let’s let Sherri talk!


When Tadmack and Aquafortis invited me back to Finding Wonderland, we exchanged more than a few emails geeking out over the shared backdrop of our latest novels—my Flygirl and Tadmack’s forthcoming Mare’s War are both set during World War II with African American heroines. We commiserated over the amount of research required, and what it was like to imagine the experience of a black woman in a Jim Crow world, never mind a segregated military. What we discovered is that we could go on for hours talking about race and identity. What it means to be a woman in a man’s world, what it means to be a black person in a white landscape. And it got me thinking about what our characters had to give up in order to be who they become during the course of our novels.

In Flygirl, Ida Mae Jones is a young black woman, the daughter of farmers, who learns to fly on her daddy’s crop duster. When the war comes, her brother enlists, and she finds herself, in a time of rationed gasoline, faced with the chance to fly again by volunteering for the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). This was a non-military program that trained women to fly Army planes in the United States—everything from towing targets for artillery training, to ferrying and testing new planes to be shipped overseas—all in order to “free a man to fight,” as the propaganda posters said. The catch is a big one, though—no blacks allowed. Ida Mae, thanks to her father’s side of the family, is light-skinned enough to pass for white. Her mother warns her against such a path—it could cost her her safety if she is found out, and her family if she wishes to stay on the “white” side of life. But Ida is young. She can only think of the immediate future, of a need to do something to help end the war. And so she leaves her mother, her grandfather, and her little brother behind. She changes the way she talks, the things she says, and she becomes, in all outward appearances, a new woman. A white woman.

T: This is such a great hook to the story – readers are interested already on many levels. Can she do it? Is it right to do it? Will she get caught? Perhaps for an African American reader, there’s an even greater drama. This is The Betrayal. This is the thing so many people are taught is The Great Evil. In stories passed down, in books, in old, old movies, this is what is known: you don’t “act White” you don’t “talk White;” you’ve got to “represent,” even if you have no clear idea what any of that is supposed to mean. The court of public opinion is in session, and if you’re not careful, you may find yourself held in contempt. But to choose to accept that part of her ethnicity that is not African American, and to choose to embrace that part… Wow. That is unimaginably heavy, indeed, at least for that time period.

Nowadays, we’re okay with letting, say, the sitting president of the country choose to identify with a specific part of his ethnic identity.

Right?

AF: This IS a great hook into a story with a provocative theme—one that has the potential of making readers of any ethnicity think more deeply about our history and about what a struggle it can be to have to make a deliberate choice about how we portray ourselves to the world.

In thinking about it further, I strongly feel we need stories like this, stories that help us not to forget the more painful parts of our racial history, or, to paraphrase what George Santayana said, we might risk repeating it in some less flagrant but still insidious way—especially at a time that, some opine, is somehow “post-racial.” The idea, maybe, is to go forward aware of our histories, regardless of whether we choose to “represent” or not, whether we identify with one history or another.

It’s easy to leave where you come from. Just jump a car, hop on a bus or an airplane with a one way ticket and never go back. It might be hard. You might miss it, but once you’re gone, you’re gone. How, on the other hand, do you leave behind who you come from? The fact that you have your mother’s smile, and her way of shaking a finger when you’re angry. The way you walk like your dad, shoulders squared against the world, but a roll in your step like you’re always on vacation. How do you change or deny the fact that you and your grandmother both love to dance? How do you forget that knock-knock jokes always make you and your little brother laugh? I don’t think you can leave those parts of yourself behind. To do so is an act of great violence. It’s suicide. Self-immolation. Or, more precisely, it is surgery. Sharp, exacting, and without anesthesia.

T: It’s erasing yourself.

AF: Yet don’t we all want to exist on our own terms, independent of that “who,” that “where,” at the same time that we’re part of them? How much of that self-separation is a mask, an illusion?

I suppose at first that the rewards this surgical removal of self gains you act as a painkiller of sorts. The euphoria you feel breezing past the “members only” signs. The knowledge that you sit at the big table now, that you are looking out of the windows of the same big houses you used to stare into so longingly. You have become the face on the movie screen. That might ease or mask your pain.

But it must wear off. Everything does. Can it console you in the middle of the night when all you want is your mother’s cool hand on your fevered brow, when you are sick and feel hopeless and alone? You have money now, position, power. You can hire a chef to make the same soup your mother would have made you. You can even pay someone to sing the same songs to you. But would the recipe, would the lyrics give you away? You have traded a child’s solace for your new position. And you can never trade it back. Not evenly. Not equally. You might lose your new role one day, but the old one is definitely gone forever.

T: Well, to a certain extent, every one of us who leaves home to grow up walks away from a place, a role, a set of clothes that has grown too small and too confining. We lose our place because we become too big for it – we allow ourselves to grow. But if we’ve chosen to grow in the direction of the dominant culture, that’s so different, because we have chosen. But does that always mean that there would be no place for us within the minority? I guess historically, the answer would be… yes.

AF: And what if even the less visible, but no less fundamental, choices of identity—your aspirations, your goals, the ideas you hold most dear—also separate you from where you came from? What if the assumptions and judgments of your family, of the culture you chose to leave, build an invisible wall just as much as the choices you’ve made?

On the flipside, how do you forgive someone who has traded your love for brighter lights? You might. If it’s your child, you might forgive them anything. If it’s your friend, you might take pity when they come home. But how do you forgive yourself, if you are the one who has crossed the line? I cannot imagine. And imagination is my trade.

T: The question few people ask is whether or not there needs to be forgiveness — or, whether or not there was any wrong done except in the legal sense, during the Jim Crow era. The sense of moral outrage that people had over this was, in part perhaps because there was a Line, a broad line between the races that strictly divided ‘have’ from ‘have not’ and ‘can’ from ‘cannot.’ Would people truly have issue with someone “acting White” or “choosing White” if there were not still social and monetary consequences for doing so? Does the privilege of the majority actually exist without the subjugation of the minority — I mean, isn’t deciding one group of people is better basically a game you play, based on who you decide not to like? It’s very much like a playground game, with no real right/wrong, rhyme/reason, and when the whistle blows, the reality of the game dissolves. Which brings up the question of if there is a kind of moral obligation for a person who can go either way to embrace the minority culture, or else be considered a bad person?

AF: Another question: If you embrace one of your cultures, does it automatically entail a denial of the other(s)? I believe we have a tendency to assume that’s still so, because in previous eras—e.g., in the Jim Crow era—it did mean that in a very real way. But now, the idea of the “dominant culture” is a little more complicated than simply “white culture.” Maybe that means there’s some room for variation, and room to keep what once had to be denied.

My mother passed away a little over a year ago, and my father passed just this last November. More than ever, I am constantly reminded of the pieces of them that make the whole of me. Why I read what I read, why I speak in the cadence I do. Who gave me that favorite sweater—what did they know about me that would make it my favorite? Why I feel about the world the way I do. Some of it is unique to me, I suppose, but so much of it is given to me by my parents, and their parents and so on. Our personalities are our inheritance. So, then, how do you walk away from who you come from when they are encoded in your DNA? If Ida Mae marries a white man, will she still worry that their first child’s skin will be dark like her mother’s, or her brothers’? Will the baby’s heritage show itself in the genes? Or just in a familiar smile, a way of laughing that twists Ida’s heart because it sounds like the brother she left behind?

To always be afraid that some of your “self” might be showing—what kind of a life is that? It’s a life so many people have lived, by choice or by necessity. I know at least two people who discovered only after their mothers’ funerals, that their mothers had been secretly Jewish. I know a boy whose oldest sister is in fact his mother. A charade that the entire family played for years. I only learned the truth when the boy was whining one day and called his sister “Mommy.” The middle sister, my friend, pulled me aside later to explain. And it was never mentioned again. And then there was the former acquaintance who believed himself to be securely in the closet, unable to remember the drunken cocktail hour during which he outed himself (in very unfortunate language) to his bosses. (It did not matter to them that he was gay, but the manner in which he told them… and the entire bar, left something to be desired.)

T: That is such a tough way to be outed — when you stumble and do it to yourself. A woman I knew had a child with a man of Mediterranean ancestry, and did not let that secret go until her son had children of his own, and her grandchildren had a genetic disorder common to people of Mediterranean ancestry… there really is no way to walk away from who you are, when it is encoded into your DNA. And even if the secret is mostly kept, when it is discovered, that same explosion occurs sometimes, as those who thought they had a right to know the secret of your true self feel ultimately betrayed.

What does it cost to be “sister” to your son or your nephew? What does it take to deny that you ever gave birth? What does it mean to hide your faith, your heritage because the people you move among, work with, the people you marry might despise you if they knew the truth? Clearly, for at least one of the above people, the pressure was too much, and the secret burst forth like steam erupting from an overheated engine. Imagine, then, the pain of holding the truth in for the rest of your life.

AF: It’s quite interesting living where I do, in a rather large town that still, in many ways, retains many small-town characteristics. There are still milieus where I keep quiet about the Pakistani heritage I get from my father—especially over the past eight years—and about the fact that, yes, he is a Muslim. And I feel like, on a day-to-day basis, I AM passing—for somebody Latina, maybe, or Mediterranean, or just somebody with a really dark tan. Being mixed does mean that sometimes, even if you don’t mean to, you’re hiding something about yourself simply because it’s not immediately apparent.

Now, some of you are thinking, “I could never do such a thing.” Those of us who believe we are too righteous, too proud, too much our selves to pass as anything other — what are we lying about? How are we passing?

Some days, I’ll walk down Rodeo Drive and put my nose in the air, walk into a shop like I own the place because, for all the shopkeepers know, I’m a millionaire. Sometimes I pretend I’m waiting for someone because I don’t want to look like I’m alone at the bus stop as the sun goes down. And once, in college, I allowed a friend to tell people I was in a recovering alcoholic because I didn’t want to drink at a party and everyone was so insistent that I should. It wasn’t my idea, but I didn’t deny it once it was said. Small transgressions? Maybe. Not with the weight of cost that racial, sexual or religious passing implies, perhaps, but it gives a taste. The frisson in the spine, the tiny terror of being found out. The fear of being discovered a fraud by either side of the line you’ve crossed. (The rehab rumor earned me whispers and sympathetic nods—and a sense of guilt. I did not drink in college—it would be like falling off the wagon and suddenly I found I had an example to set.)

Now imagine that that terror never leaves. That it grows, that it wraps itself around the base of your brain and calls it home to stay. It can’t unmake who you come from, only force you to suppress it time and time again. And then, I wonder, do you eventually suffocate? Or does only the part of you, the secret, the offending detail, die?


T: A difficult and poignant question, which reminds me of another question asked by the poet Langston Hughes. “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Keeping who we truly are a secret must cripple in so many, many other ways. Passing for reasons of race, gender, class, or ethnicity is historically depicted tragically in literature and film — and nowadays, it’s played in an exaggerated way for laughs, but few people explore it seriously, and even fewer in YA literature. Sherri, I really appreciate that you kind of climbed out there on a limb and wrote about this — from a historical perspective, which allows us to both consider our distance from the past, and to think about our identity within the context of our own times.

AF: Yes–and we’re honored that you chose to stop by and share your thoughts with us. Thanks!!

A discussion guide for Flygirl is available on Sherri’s website.


Continue on the Flygirl: Mostly Virtual Blog Tour!
~~~

Read Sherri’s funny interview at The Five Randoms,
Find out what she’s looking forward to this month at Bildungsroman,
Next Monday, stop by The YA YA YAs for a thoughtful Q&A, and then wind up the tour with Shelf Elf on the 13th.

After that, Sherri’s off to Hedgebrook, for two weeks with no phone, no worries, and someone else to make the coffee. Sounds like a well-earned writing retreat to us! Congratulations!

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Elizabeth E. Wein

She’s a woman of many enthusiasms. Change Ringing. Planes. Folklore. Traveling. Punting. Time machines.

Okay, I made up that last one, but her books so far all take place in the long-ago and far away, and the detail with which she writes them convinces me there’s something fishy about the reason she now lives in Scotland; I’m pretty sure she’s found a time machine. A brilliant student of folklore and myth, archeology and history, Dr. Elizabeth Gatland neé Wein — which is actually her real, non-writing name — lives what appears to be a pretty blissful live in the gorgeous city of Perth here in Scotland with her husband, two cute kids, and random wild things.

Wonderland is really really privileged to take a moment of her copious free time (apparently she works less than a sleeping hamster, according to her daughter’s nightmares) and invite her to share a bit about her life and her work and her awesome books.


Finding Wonderland: Hi, Elizabeth! First of all, your website says you were “born in New York City and grew up in England, Jamaica, and Pennsylvania.” You’ve also lived in both England and Scotland — how have the places you’ve traveled and in which you’ve lived informed your writing, or have they? How are you liking Scotland? Will you, as people always ask Tadamack, ever write a “Scotland novel?”

Elizabeth E. Wein:Wow, that’s at least three questions in one!
The places that I’ve traveled always inform my writing. The Winter Prince, my first novel, is set in the place I used to live in England (Artos’s estate at Camlan is superimposed on our house in Mottram St. Andrew in Cheshire, and I am fully willing to believe that there is an undiscovered Roman villa buried beneath the cabbages in what was our back garden). The exotic setting of the subsequent books has given me more of a chance to draw on my Jamaican childhood.

I kind of ran wild in Jamaica. We ate everything and anything that grew—the countless trees in our untended garden produced at least 12 different kinds of tropical fruit, and I thought nothing of climbing on a neighbors’ roof to get at the varieties we didn’t have. The neighborhood kids all had routes to each other’s gardens through the fences and down the gullies (the ubiquitous Jamaican riverine storm drains). Some pretty desperate and hungry homeless people used the gullies to hang out in, too, and chopped fruit out of our gardens with machetes, and once there was a knife fight which ended with the arrival of the police, and at times rival kids would hurl rocks at each other—I was one of the few white kids around but rather blissfully unaware of this difference, since the more obvious difference was whether or not you had a garden in the first place. All of which is to say that my child hero Telemakos’s clandestine, scrappy, but privileged early life is in large part based on my own.

I had only been living in Scotland for a year when I wrote The Sunbird, the first book in which Telemakos plays a starring role, and in writing it I used a lot of my recent tourist experience climbing around in castles. As I mention in the note on the back page of the Firebird paperback edition of Sunbird, Britain was under a pretty serious quarantine while I was writing the book. So political and cultural reality were being very much reflected in my fiction.

Another way my life in Scotland turns up in my fiction is in Telemakos’s closeness to animals. I see a lot more wildlife here than I ever have before—not just garden birds and squirrels, but seals and dolphins, osprey and heron, roe deer and red deer and foxes and leaping salmon. The seals swim right into the middle of the city of Perth, following the salmon. A buzzard—not an American vulture, but the European hawk buteo buteo, which looks like a small golden eagle—killed and devoured a pigeon in our front garden this morning. Also, having little kids around has driven me to the local petting zoos and safari parks. When we play a “Safari Trivia” game that my son got for his eighth birthday, I’m the one who says, “Go on. Ask me a hard question about lions. Go on, ASK me something about lions I don’t know.”

I adored Scotland when I first moved here, but lately I am finding it Just Too Cold. I am constantly cold. It is kind of grinding me down. Apparently the lions at the local safari park grow long winter coats and enjoy frolicking in the snow. But unfortunately the park is closed in winter so I haven’t been able to witness this.

A Scottish novel… I kind of feel like Jane Yolen keeps getting there first! Telling an original Mary Queen of Scots story is as difficult as telling an original Arthurian story. The honest answer is I don’t know. Telemakos’s father, Medraut, who is also the narrator and anti-hero of The Winter Prince, is supposed to have been born and raised in Orkney. I suppose I could go back and tell the story of his childhood at some point.

I know there are a few readers out there who wouldn’t mind another story about Medraut. (We know WE certainly wouldn’t!)

FW: What were the first words that you wrote of Telemakos’ story? Did they change, or stay the same?

E. Wein: A.) 19 July, 1999: “When I was twelve, our kingdom had been sealed off from the rest of the world in a self-imposed quarantine for the past five years.”

The first person narrative did not work for Telemakos. I have tried it again since, and it just isn’t right for him. He is not self-conscious enough to pull it off (some would say Goewin isn’t, either). He is not boastful, he’s not self-deprecating, and he doesn’t have any guilty history he wants to get off his chest; you have to have some combination of those, I think, to want to talk about yourself.

So, two days later, I made another attempt:

B) 21 July, 1999: “Telemakos could not remember a time when his aunt had not lived in his grandfather’s household.”

After a few pages of this effort is the note: “Jeepers, how am I going to make this interesting?”

C) 1 September, 1999: “Telemakos lay among the aloes at the edge of the fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain’s rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make, and the black and white colobus monkeys that were chained there helped to disguise his movements. Telemakos was watching his aunt.”

For the sake of comparison, here is the actual first paragraph of The Sunbird, published in 2004:

“Telemakos was hiding in the New Palace. He lay among the palms at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain’s rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make. Telemakos was watching his aunt.”

I wrote the whole of the first chapter of The Sunbird in September 1999, and then I literally began to feel sick whenever I thought about what was going to happen to Telemakos at the salt mines… and I had to stop. I did not start work on the second chapter till 6 March 2001 (I have a good excuse: in early 2000 we moved to Scotland and I had a baby). But once I got going again I used the first chapter almost entirely as I originally wrote it.

That’s actually pretty awesome — in a thoroughly unawesome way — to be so convinced about what’s going on with your own character that it literally makes you ill. It WAS a horrible, rough scene, too. {And if you haven’t picked up this book yet, we’re certainly not going to TELL you what happened. Read. The. Book. Go on, now.}


FW: Many of our readers and fellow bloggers and writers love to know about a writer’s process—and we’d love to hear about yours. How do you start your writing day? What feeds your creative process, and what do you do when you get stuck? What part do creative things like flying and change ringing play in your writing process?

E. Wein: I would say that the most vital nutrient to my creative process is coffee. It has become something of an inside joke with myself, and you can spot it in my books. I tend to use it to symbolize both sovereignty and sex (!!!). Medraut, Artos’s (Arthur’s) son, symbolically sells his kingdom for a cup of coffee. In the story I’m writing now, “drinking coffee with Gwalchmei” has become a sort of euphemism for sex. Telemakos is a coffee lover but is rarely allowed it; in The Empty Kingdom, the morning after his guardian tells him “You are no longer a child,” the queen of Himyar leaves coffee out for his breakfast (AND it is hinted that she fancies him, too!). I am making myself laugh as I write this and think about it (a cup of coffee is standing protectively guarded between my wrists as I type)—coffee is what you sip from the Holy Grail.

But what does that have to do with my writing process?

I feel like such a charlatan these days. Over the past few years I haven’t had a process; I do laundry and fool around on the Internet and drink coffee and do the garden and then maybe about eleven o’clock in the morning I panic and move to a different room and write a page and then make a sandwich. I run up to the kids’ school three times a day because my eleven-year-old daughter never remembers to take her glasses or her lunchbox. This morning I sat watching the Raptor Show in the front garden for two solid hours. (I took a lot of pictures, too, but they are on the film camera and might take a while to print.)

This year we have installed a so-called “summerhouse” in the garden. It is a glorified shed, but it is a MAGIC SUMMERHOUSE. It transports you to Walden Pond and it MAKES YOU WRITE. So lately, whenever I want to work, I take a cup of coffee out to the summerhouse and sit there and I get tons of work done (I am sitting there now). I write longhand in spiral bound notebooks and transfer this, chapter by chapter, to the computer. I still have a sense that paper is more permanent than electronic print, and I like to see my first drafts written down.

This is only true for fiction. I blog away at the keyboard like anyone else.

I try to carry a notebook with me wherever I go. I have conversations in my head between characters and if I don’t write them down right away I tend to forget them. I ran a writing workshop last weekend and one of the people who came said that she keeps bathtub crayons in her shower so that she can make notes while she’s showering—what a great strategy, as the shower is where I get some of my best ideas! Note to self: Must buy bathtub crayons.

Obviously flying and change ringing don’t have much to do with ancient Ethiopia, but I have written four (I think) short stories about flying. The most recent will be included in Sharyn November’s Firebirds Soaring (Firebird Books, Spring 2009). It’s about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother and flies fighter planes in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Of all the short stories I have ever written, it is my absolute favorite.

I’ve got a short story about change ringing in The Horns of Elfland, edited by Ellen Kushner, Donald G. Keller, and Delia Sherman (Roc/Penguin, 1997). And there is an unpublished novel, the old “manuscript under the bed,” which has change ringing as a theme. But the problem with writing about change ringing is that it’s so complex and arcane that you have to spend pages and pages explaining what’s going on, or else leave the reader in limbo not understanding that end of things (as Dorothy Sayers does in The Nine Tailors), and that doesn’t really work in a children’s book. The symbolism of bells are wonderful, though—they ward off thunder and the devil, they warn of fire and flood and invasion. They’re always female (a bell is a “she,” not an “it”) and they all have individual names. Some of them are also very old. I used to thrill to ring a certain bell in Magdalen College, Oxford, because it predated Columbus’s discovery of America. Most musical instruments that old are in museums, not in public use.

I have all kinds of tricks for getting around writer’s block: drawing pictures of my characters, acting out a scene with myself, writing out the problem in a kind of conversation with myself. Taking the project to a café or a beach or a public library and working on it without the usual distractions sometimes helps. Every writer should have a summerhouse.

(Definitely!!!)

FW: Aksum is a compelling and dramatic setting for the story of Medraut, Goewin, and Telemakos. How much of the setting and society is based on verifiable history, and how much was imagined? What attracted you to that setting?

E. Wein: Goewin’s story, A Coalition of Lions, is as much a story of Aksum as of Goewin. The society Goewin describes more accurately resembles medieval Ethiopian society than that of ancient Ethiopia, which we don’t know a lot about, but the history is certainly verifiable. Where I have to make things up is in the social mores rather than in the furnishings or the food.

The setting was originally suggested to me by an uncle, Roger Whitaker, who had been in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the late 1960s. But what really attracted me to it—indeed, what drove me to ask Rog to suggest a North African or Middle Eastern setting in the first place—was the desire to introduce some diversity to the books.
A lot of my characters are based on real people. Imagine my surprise to discover this afternoon that Abreha, the enigmatic king of Himyar who gives Telemakos such a hard time in The Mark of Solomon, has got his own Wikipedia entry. Most of the historic data matches up. But who knew he had a wife named Raihäna? And it says he abducted her, too, which I suppose should not come as a surprise somehow. The source for this information was published in 2007, the same year as The Lion Hunter, in which my version of Abreha is married to a woman, invented by me, named Muna (who happens to be Telemakos’s second cousin). When I discovered Raihäna, do you think my first thought was, “Oh, I got the name wrong?” (Sabaean girls’ names being hard to come by, most of the female characters in The Mark of Solomon have modern Arabic names). No—it was more along the lines of, Oh, so Muna dies and Abreha gets married for a third time, the slimedog.

Hah! I can totally see that one, too. Eew.

FW: What made you decide to tell the story of “post-Arthurian” events from the viewpoint of Medraut, Arthur’s illegitimate son who is often portrayed as untrustworthy if not downright evil?

E. Wein: It started with Hamlet, really. Medraut is really an extension of Hamlet. The king’s nephew and ALSO his son, get it? With a bit of a taboo crush on his mother? Eh, I was deeply in love with Hamlet. What can I say. I was 15, and within a year my mother had been killed in a car accident, my adored younger brother was in a coma and permanently paralyzed, I had just discovered that my father was gay. All of that together took some dealing with at fifteen. I thought I was the reincarnation of Hamlet.

I had just got over The Lord of the Rings and I was also obsessed with King Arthur—a natural progression, perhaps, from The Lord of the Rings, which had been my obsession at fourteen—the difference being that now I wasn’t stuck reading the same novels over and over, because there was so much written about King Arthur (my English teacher recommended both Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural). And it kept coming—when I was fifteen, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, and Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy were all half-finished. John Steinbeck’s Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was released that year. The Mists of Avalon hadn’t been written yet. I had a theme.

Mordred was the most Hamlet-like of Arthur’s family, I suppose. I hated him quite vehemently at first, and, like Guinevere, was eventually seduced. My Medraut would point out that he, too, is considered untrustworthy by many people.

FW: Which traditional mythological cycles–besides the Arthurian legends that most readers know about—were a source of inspiration for your series? What literary and historical sources were most useful or compelling to you in writing these books?

E. Wein: If anyone asks me where I get my ideas, I just answer Star Wars. (HAH!) Actually, I had mapped Lleu and Goewin to Luke and Leia well before anyone knew that the latter two were supposed to be twins as well. And then there’s the matter of Luke’s hand getting chopped off (as a teenager, I was disgusted that he immediately got a new one. Where’s the melodrama in that?). And isn’t Ras Meder obviously Darth Vader? (HAH! Seriously, I just had NOT put the two together… but, now…whoa.)

To be fair, part of the reason I loved “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” as a kid was because they both so obviously drew on the same archetypes, themes, and cycles that I loved. Lleu the Bright One, the narrator Medraut’s young foil in The Winter Prince, is named after Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the hapless sungod figure of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion (which is the 13th century Welsh legend that Alan Garner used as his basis for The Owl Service, another of my favorite books). It was inevitable, perhaps, that I should try to blend the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes with Arthurian legend. The Mabinogion, which means simply “Collection of Tales,” is divided into two parts. The first four stories, or “branches,” are referred to as the “native” tales—they’re straight-up thirteenth century Welsh. The rest of the stories are Arthurian. They bear some strange resemblances to the French Romances—the Welsh “Peredur” and Chretien de Troyes’s “Perceval” have many similar elements, but some scholars believe (and it seems to me) that both are based on an independent tale rather than either one being influenced by the other.

So I made up children for Arthur and Guinevere, who were canonically childless. (In my very earliest version of the story, Merlin magically engineers this.) In my own authorial role as Merlin (or God), I gave Arthur and Guinevere legitimate children, twins, Goewin and Lleu, named after characters in the fourth of the Mabinogion’s “native” tales—tales which, it seemed to my naïve fifteen-year-old self, a historic Arthur and his wife would surely have known well. I love the name Lleu—a word so ancient it is basically untranslatable, but which most likely means light—the Bright One.

Tolkien is there in the background, too; when I reread The Lord of the Rings a couple years back (when the films came out), and I got to the scene where they’re fleeing the mines of Moria, I was amazed at how much it reminded me of the scene in The Winter Prince where the copper mines at Elder Field collapse. Not in terms of plot so much as in the way the rhythm of the scene plays out. Here’s the Tolkien:

“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered, and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. “Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone.”

Compare Medraut’s words (my words):

“For answer—it was an answer—came a low rumble and clatter from deep in the tunnel, and the lower shaft collapsed. It sealed itself from the roots outward, as though some starved inner core hungered to consume the entire hillside. I have killed another friend, I thought, buried alive six men; and so imagined the abyss closing around me, and plunged into the devouring darkness.”

I certainly didn’t intend any similarity, but I think the general tone is very evocative of Moria to anyone familiar with the scene. (Seriously. Wow.)

I won’t go into the profound influence T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has had, and continues to have, on my writing. But it’s there, very deeply, in all the books.

FW: Surprisingly, you visited Ethiopia after writing your first two books. What was the most memorable part of those travels? What of your visit will you incorporate into later books, if anything?

E. Wein:The whole thing was eye-opening and unforgettable, but certainly the most exciting part for me was being in the city of Aksum and visiting Debra Damo, the clifftop monastery that features in A Coalition of Lions. Mind you, I did not get to go inside, because like Goewin, I am a woman… Unlike Goewin, I am not princess of Britain and friends with the Aksumite emperor. I had been taking notes like crazy all through our two-week trip, and during our tour of the ancient necropolis in Aksum (which also features in Coalition), my uncle Rog said, “Why aren’t you taking notes?” My aunt Susan answered for me: “She already knows all this.”

Rog called it “retro-research,” a term I like. I did not feel that I’d got anything drastically wrong, but I did feel like I’d left things out. Little details, like the green leaves strewn about the floor during the coffee ceremony, or the way all the kids walk hand in hand, or the sticks that the shepherd boys carry across their shoulders. The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom have more of these minute details included.

I really felt that there is a great effort and excitement alive in Ethiopia—that its people are absolutely determined to better themselves. You don’t get this feeling when you watch the shows the media gives us here in the west, you just feel that they’re all starving or ill or at war. The feeling that I got was that they are all working, inexhaustibly and in spite of the worst odds and conditions possible, to build a country they can be proud of.

I would love to take my children there.

A more detailed description of my trip is up on my web site. If anyone would like to comment on it, the same story (but without pictures) is up on my blog.

FW: THE MARK OF SOLOMON is part political thriller, part family story, and thoroughly engrossing. Do you think you might ever revisit this world and tell a story from a female point of view? What do you think eventually happens to Athena?

E. Wein: I have, in fact, recently started writing a thing from Athena’s point of view. (Oh, yaaaay!) She’s about twelve in this venture; it takes place back in Aksum. I told myself that the book I’m working on now (NOT this one) “ties everything up,” so technically Athena’s story isn’t dependent on what goes before. And the characters we’ve come to know and love are just so grown up by the time Athena is twelve, you know?

I have always imagined her as becoming a Vet. (Partly because it’s what my daughter wanted to be for a long time, and partly because it makes sense.) She keeps homing pigeons.

It is fun making up babies for everybody so she can have a crowd of cousins!

FW: When THE EMPTY KINGDOM released this year, you introduced many of your American readers to an organization called Ethiopia Reads. Please tell us a little about how you discovered that organization, and what prompted you to get involved?

E. Wein:I’m only tangentially involved with Ethiopia Reads, in that I promote it whenever I get a chance—and of course make donations, both in books and in US dollars, when I can. Ethiopia Reads, formerly known as the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF), was celebrating the First Annual Children’s Book Week in Ethiopia when I was there. (Here’s a the full history of the organization.) I got a very brief look at the organization in action On Site—although the actual library was closed and they were in a marquee in a public square to generate some publicity at the time.

I found out about Ethiopia Reads through Jane Kurtz (www.janekurtz.com), the author of over 25 books for children and educators, many of them set in Ethiopia. She grew up there (her parents were missionaries) and she was one of the “first readers” for several of my books, a great help to me in spotting cultural or geographical bloopers.

Here’s the history of the project. Jane became involved when Yohannes Gebregeorgis, a native of Ethiopia, enlisted her help. He’d been taught in high school by Peace Corps volunteers—exactly what my uncle and aunt, Roger and Susan Whitaker, had done in Ethiopia—and came to the United States as a political refugee, took a master’s degree in library science and became a children’s librarian. The dearth of books available in any Ethiopian language in his own San Francisco library, despite a large population of Ethiopians there, spurred him to organize the non-profit Ethiopia Reads in 1998. Jane and Yohannes set about publishing a picture book for Ethiopian children in 2002. It’s called Silly Mammo and it is the first ever bilingual book in both English and Amharic, as well as being one of the few books at all published in any Ethiopian language. The book was used as a fundraiser, and after six years and some huge amount of further fundraising effort, 15,000 books were shipped to Ethiopia and in 2003 became the basis for the Ethiopian Children’s Book Center, the first free library for children in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, a city of more than three million people.

In their own words, “The main purpose of Ethiopia Reads is to improve literacy and create a culture of reading in Ethiopia, in order to bring hope, vision and educational skills to this generation of Ethiopian children.”

In the last month Yohannes Gebregeorgis has been named a “Top 10 Hero of the Year” by CNN, out of more than 3,000 individuals nominated by viewers throughout the year. The full story is here, and you can vote for Yohannes to be named THE Hero of the Year over here.

This is pretty time sensitive, as the The Top 10 Heroes will be recognized in CNN’s “All-Star Tribute” to air on Thanksgiving Day, so vote now!

FW: Now that THE MARK OF SOLOMON duo is completed, we know you’re not just coasting on your wings. Can you give us a sneak peek at what you’re working on now? Will you include change ringing or flying in what you publish next?

E. Wein: The big project at the moment is The Sword Dance, which is supposed to wrap up the Arthurian/Aksumite cycle that I tend to call The Lion Hunters—the cycle that began with The Winter Prince and which includes The Mark of Solomon. My facetious working title for The Sword Dance is “Telemakos in Love.”

The facetious working title for the Athena book is “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (moving on from Star Wars)—because, well, it is. In addition to “Telemakos in Love” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” I’m ALSO in the process of revamping the Novel Under the Bed, the one about change ringing. That’s called The Oysterman’s Opera—it’s a huge departure from my usual setting, as it takes place in New Jersey in 1936. Harry Alden, the pilot character from “Chasing the Wind” (in Sharyn November’s Firebirds, 2003), is the 14-year-old viewpoint character of Oysterman.

All my characters are distantly related somehow. The heroine of “Something Worth Doing,” the flying story that will be in Firebirds Soaring next spring, is a contemporary of Harry Alden. Somewhere in the distant future I’d like to expand on that story, too.

It is a curious fact that whenever I invent a pilot, he or she is also a bell ringer.
It’s hard to come up with a REAL sneak peek that isn’t full of spoilers, but try this (there is technically a spoiler in here, but it’s kind of an obvious one):
***

Telemakos’s small sister was not allowed to eat with the adults when there were guests. You could no longer call her a baby, but unlike Telemakos, no one had ever put much effort into teaching her courtly restraint. You could count on Athena to point out a visitor’s every smallest imperfection, and to try to plait his hair for him while he ate, and to turn out her apron pocket to show off a collection of owl pellets and bits of discarded snakeskin. She had once made a nest for a family of mice in the bread basket. When there were guests, Athena was required to eat in the cooking hut.

Telemakos joined her there, while the guests were appropriately welcomed into Grandfather’s household with hot baths and clean clothes belonging to Grandfather himself. They were presently to be served a small feast of a dozen different kinds of wat, including a stew of Telemakos’s gazelle; Telemakos’s mother and his aunt were going to wait attendance at the meal. Telemakos ate his own supper in the kitchen with his sister.

“You always bring dead things home,” Athena said mournfully to Telemakos, folding her bits of meat into her injera bread with such minute delicacy that you scarcely noticed her fingers moving. Her own manners were exquisite, for all her inattention to other people’s tastes. “You bring big dead animals to the house and everyone is happy. I bring little ones in alive and everybody shouts at me.”

Telemakos laughed. “I take mine to the butchery to be cut up in tiny pieces. You drop yours on the table where they run about.”

“Who are those white men you came in with today?” Athena asked.

“They are our kinsmen. They are all princes, in our father’s homeland.”

“The red one kissed Goewin. It was very improper.”

“He meant it as a formal greeting. They do things differently in Britain. He is her cousin, and her servant,” Telemakos repeated. “He has been ambassador in Himyar, and liege man to Constantine, Britain’s high king…”

He could not eat. He had not expected this summons to come quite so soon.

“You need a bath,” Athena said, leaping from topic to topic as usual. “You should go wash up or they won’t let you sit with the guests tonight.”

“What a good idea, little Athena.”

“Mother and Goewin will give them coffee in the little court after they eat,” Athena said. “The red man has brought something for you. Goewin says I can open it.”

“I say so too.”

Telemakos washed at the water butt in the walled kitchen garden. He ran inside and changed into clean clothes, then made his way through the cool stone hallways of the house to the private inner courtyard where the family sat on summer evenings. The weather was fine, and the woven grass awnings were drawn back. There was a dark blue square of night overhead. Moths fluttered about the hanging lanterns; stars littered the sky.

“Are you getting ready to serve coffee or start a war?” Telemakos inquired.

Gwalchmei’s sword was drawn and lay bare across his knees; the orange flames of Turunesh’s coffee burner flickered gold in the shining blade. On the floor by Medraut’s side lay a dozen short spears, and an assortment of spearheads, Telemakos’s entire arsenal; and Ras Priamos, the emperor’s cousin and translator and Aksum’s former ambassador to Britain, was brandishing a very antique Roman short sword in earnest demonstration before Gweir and Owain. Similar weapons from at least three different kingdoms lay bare-bladed on the flagstones, among the pepper leaves and white rose petals that his mother always spread about the floor when she made coffee in Adwa in the summer.

“What are you doing with my spears?”

Everyone looked up at Telemakos as he spoke. His mother stopped pouring cold water into the spout of the coffee pot to keep it from boiling; she sat poised over the burner, her dark eyes shining. Goewin had Athena on her lap. They were making a wreath with the pepper twigs. Athena gathered up the twigs and passed them to her aunt, and Goewin bound them into a garland. She was weaving among them a narrow saffron-colored ribbon that she had pulled from her own black hair, shimmering now like a fall of silk down her back as she bent over Athena’s shoulder to tie the leaves together.

Athena snatched the green-gold garland from Goewin’s hands and waved it at Telemakos.

“Look,” she cried. “We’ve made you a crown.”

“Telemakos Morningstar,” Goewin said quietly, patting the old stone floor at her side beneath its carpet of spice leaves and flower petals. “Come sit here, my king.”

Copyright ©2008, Elizabeth E. Wein, all rights reserved.

***

FW: And just that fast, the magical spell is woven again. Oh, we SO WANT TO READ THIS BOOK!!

E. Wein: While I’ve got your attention (if indeed I’ve still got anyone’s attention at this point!), can I finish by pointing out a crazy project that my kids and I are working on—acting out the entire story of The Winter Prince (my first novel) in Playmobil? It’s playing now (continuously) here. I have a web site but the real action goes on at my blog. Please drop by—it’s very informal!

Thank you so much for the fun opportunity to blow my own horn here. These are great questions, and I hope I haven’t made anyone’s eyes go crossed with my long-winded answers. I hope I see some of the readers here on my various blogs!

FW: It’s been fun to sort of visit the very brilliant and busy inside of your brain, Elizabeth! Thank you for all the amazing book recommendations, and thank you so much for coming by!



Have just been as enormously entertained and educated as I’ve been? I think before the next Telemakos book comes out, I’ll enjoy rereading all the other ones over again, and then tracking down the various short stories so I’ll be ready for the Novel Under The Bed. Also, I *really* have to encourage you to visit the Playmobil theater. It’s very amusing — and shows a deep dedication to posing plastic toys in a literary fashion that amuses me deeply.

Sigh. Can I just admit it? I need a magic summerhouse.

There’s more bookish and author-esque goodness today on this, the first day of the Winter Blog Blast Tour! Don’t miss:

Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray
Louis Sachar at Fuse Number 8, School Library Journal
Laurel Snyder at Miss Erin
Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman
Susan Kuklin at The YA YA YAs

SBBT 2008: Varian Johnson, Mild Mannered Engineer By Day…

We’re pretty sure that Varian Johnson is a Super Hero in disguise. He’s a mild-mannered engineer by day, then he busts out with his YA chops by night – which qualifies as pretty super to us. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in Civil Engineering AND he’s enrolled in the Vermont College MFA Program for Writing for Children and Young Adults. Talk about a guy with dual identities!

In 1992, Teen Talk Barbie burbled “Math class is tough!” But Rhonda Lee would beg to differ. In Varian Johnson’s most recent novel, My Life as a Rhombus, first person narrator Rhonda Lee is good with the quadratic equations, imaginary numbers, and complex calculations, but her life contains a number of challenges much less cut-and-dried than mathematics.

We loved the gorgeous cover of this book, we were intrigued with Rhonda Lee as a drama-dodging, smart-girl diva, and we were further intrigued by the choices Varian Johnson made as a writer about her character and the situations she faced. Ethnicity, social status, family, and friendship issues loom large in this novel, and we couldn’t help asking hard-hitting questions about some of the most thought-provoking aspects of the story. Fortunately for us (and for our readers), much like his characters, Varian Johnson has risen to the challenge.

Okay, so he doesn’t like tofu. We forgive him. He’s a Texan, and that ‘steak’ thing is in the blood. He’s got a sharp mind and a nice smile, and we’re more than happy to welcome him to Finding Wonderland and the Summer Blog Blast Tour.


FW: Do you remember the first words you wrote for My Life as a Rhombus? Where were you when you wrote them? Did they change, or stay the same?

The first words I wrote for Rhombus were, “Are you Rhonda Lee?” At the time, Rhonda was still a math tutor, but she was tutoring David (then named Isaiah). Sarah was still David’s brother, but she was a spunky eleven-year-old, not the character that we see today.

I was living in Dallas when I first started the novel, way back in the summer of 2003. It’s changed a lot since then, but the core part of the story is still the same. Likewise, the opening chapter is still very much the same.

FW: Rhonda and Maxine are the main characters in your two novels – both girls and both carrying a tremendous chip on their shoulders. Do you think you’d portray a Ron and a Max with the same angst and anger? What did you do as a writer to give yourself more of an insight into young adult girls?

I think Maxine portrays her anger in a much more sarcastic, and perhaps even self-deprecating way, than Rhonda. I wanted Rhonda to express her anger in a scientific, controlled manner—yet I still wanted to give Rhonda an “out” every now and then to react to something in a totally unscientific way.

During the time I worked on the novel, I was a member of a critique group made up of mostly women. In addition, I asked a few female family members and friends to read early drafts. Everyone was quick to let me know when something didn’t quite work.

FW: Wow, the sole man in a critique group full of women? That must have been an unique experience! Obviously it worked out well!

“It seemed as if girls like her were either always starving themselves or throwing up their tofu lunch.” (My Life as a Rhombus, pg. 2)

As a lover of tofu, TadMack has to defend her girls from Rhonda’s criticism! It seems that both Rhonda and her father blame wealth and privilege for Rhonda’s early downfall. Do you feel it’s more important to discuss class than race with young adults?

Tofu? Blah! Give me a steak sandwich any day!

I think both class and race are still important. However, with Rhombus, I was more interested in exploring the differences in social status within an ethnicity than problems solely tied to race. Rhonda, Sarah, David, and even Gail to a degree, are products of their environment. While their race has affected them, it’s their (and their parents’) different social statuses within the community that really affects how they see each other.

FW: (We maintain you just haven’t had tofu done right! Anyway!)

The adults in Rhonda’s life are pretty complex and full of their own issues – Rhonda’s Dad maintains a double standard with regard to his sexual behavior and hers, and Sarah’s mother uses her position as a Supreme Court Justice to get enough information to blackmail Rhonda (which was really scary). Did you add conflict to the adults’ lives for a specific reason? In your experience do young adult novels depict adult lives as generally problem-free?

As parents are an integral, necessary part of teenagers’ lives, I think parents are an important part of the young adult novel. Things don’t get easier for a parent just because they are older, have a job, etc. And while most parents try to do the right thing, like teenagers, they sometimes get it wrong.

I don’t see Rhonda’s dad or Sarah’s mother as “bad guys.” I see them as parents trying to make the best of messy, unfortunate situations. I wanted to show that even adults don’t always have the right answer. Of course, it’s difficult to have the “right” answer in situations like Rhonda or Sarah’s where there is no “right” or “wrong.”

FW: That’s a really good point.

Rhonda defends David’s violence toward Johnnie by telling Sarah “it’s in his nature to take care of you,” but a moment later argues that David beating up Christopher is “a funny way” of showing his love for her. Rhonda obviously disagrees with the idea that loving her means beating down the people who offend her, but what do you think she would describe is a boyfriend’s role in a relationship?

I think Rhonda is still figuring out want she wants out of a boyfriend. I think she leaned on Christopher too much emotionally, and when that relationship went bad, she closed herself off from all male relationships.

Right now, I think Rhonda would describe a boyfriend’s role as just “being there” for her—not necessarily fighting her battles, but just being there for support. As she gets older, I would hope that she would see that some battles are easier to win when two people are fighting instead of one.

FW: We were surprised to see Rhonda prevent her father from confronting Christopher or his family. Why did she choose to protect him? What do you see as the role of fathers in this story?

I think Rhonda still cared for Christopher at the time she chose to protect him. While she and her father were somewhat close before her pregnancy, they still had a strained relationship, as Rhonda’s father struggled to deal with her mother’s death. I think Rhonda was looking for emotional support from someone—anyone—and that just happened to come along in the form of Christopher.

As I said before, I don’t see Rhonda’s father as a bad guy, I just see him as a guy trying to protect his daughter. He doesn’t always get it right, but all of his actions stem from his love for his daughter.

FW: Rhonda finally being able to cut down her food intake because of David and to confront Christopher for David’s sake points to how she really feels about him – and how little she values herself. When she finally takes action for herself, it seems almost anticlimactic – during the writing process, did you consider her taking other options than throwing the rock?

I did consider a few other options, but I felt that Rhonda didn’t need to do anything else in the scene. I think she’s too smart to engage in something worse with Christopher, like resorting to something more physical. I think she realizes that it won’t do her any good to hurt Christopher just to get even. While she doesn’t necessarily forgive him, she comes to realize that it’s time to let the past stay in the past.

FW: Rhonda is an intellectual who enjoys math, and her friends are all unique or unusual in other ways. What attracted you to writing about characters that are out of the mainstream? Do you find yourself gravitating towards writing about particular types of characters?

Well, I majored in engineering in college, so I was really attracted to the idea of writing a novel that featured three-dimensional characters that happened to like math. At the time, I hadn’t seen many novels that reflected this. Of course, a few months after I sold the novel, both John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines (Dutton, 2006) and Wendy Litchman’s Do the Math: Secrets, Lies and Algebra (HarperTeen, 2007) came out.

I don’t know if I gravitate toward any particular type of character. However, I fully admit to being a fan of contemporary fiction. Perhaps I’ll try another genre one day, but for now, it’s all about realistic YA.

FW: Did your own experiences in young adulthood affect your choice of subject matter or themes in your writing? If so, how? What drew you to writing for young adults? What projects are you working on now?

I think most YA authors find that their childhood affects their writing in some way—although for me, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing. If anything, when I look back, I realize just how important my high school years were in shaping the person that I am today. That’s probably why I enjoy writing YA so much—it’s a way to explore feelings and ideas when a teen is just experiencing them for the first time.

For the next few months, I’ll be finalizing my next novel, tentatively titled The Path of the Righteous. The easiest way to summarize it is that it’s a coming of age story about a preacher’s kid. After that, I’ve got a few other projects that I’m tinkering with, but I’m not far enough along to speak confidently on them.

FW: What’s one thing you never get asked in interviews that you’d like your readers to know about you?

Most people don’t know that when I first thought about writing My Life as a Rhombus, I considered writing it as an adult novel from Rhonda’s father’s point of view. But very quickly, I realized that this was Rhonda’s story, and if anyone was going to tell it, she was.

FW: Definitely. A strong woman like Rhonda has a strong voice, and tell it, she did.

As usual when we’ve finished an interview, we think of 1001 OTHER questions we could have asked, like, ‘Where and how to do you write? How do you juggle your writing with your day job? What has been your family’s response to your work?’ However, the main point of the SBBT is to pique everyone’s interest and to remind them of just how many great books there are out there to read and share. THANK YOU so much for stopping by and giving us a bit of your time! We wish you creativity and excitement and a long, long career in the superhero — er, YA writing business!


This has been an amazing week! Colleen at Chasing Ray has a list of EVERYTHING from the past week, so if you’ve gotten behind, visit the list and catch up!

More author and illustrator goodness can be found on blogs all across the ‘sphere today; check out these links for the last day of the 2008 Summer Blog Blast Tour:

The very articulate Jincy Willett @ Shaken & Stirred
Gifted poet John Grandits @ Writing & Ruminating
The long-anticipated Meg Burden @ Bookshelves of Doom
That cool Wednesday guy, Gary D. Schmidt @ Miss Erin
More ‘newes’ from Mary Hooper @ Interactive Reader
The hugely talented Javaka Steptoe @ Seven Impossible Things

Happy Summer!

Read All About It

I love SBBT… because when you read the interviews, you find out all the skinny on the real world of writing and illustrating for children. For instance, now I know about…

The REAL YA Mansion…um, Farmhouse:Delia Sherman @ Chasing Ray

Four words: Pink. Bible-toting. Buses. No, really. Ingrid Law at Fuse #8.

Penguins. Wings. And one REALLY awesome book on the power of shoes. Polly Dunbar @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Visiomutation = coolest goddess power EVER.Tera Lynn Childs @ Bildungsroman.

Staying on my toes! Siena Cherson Siegel @ Miss Erin’s place.

Even mid-revision, he’s witty. I kind of hate him for that. Barry Lyga @ A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy.

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BONUS GREAT YA INTERVIEW!
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Kelly Bingham candidly answers questions @ MotherReader’s. Don’t forget to sign up for the Third Annual 48 Hour Book Challenge and maybe-perhaps-possibly win a copy of her great book, SHARK GIRL, or other creative, happy-making prizes!

The Summer Blog Blast Tour: The Fabulous LaFevers


Welcome to the 2008 Summer Blog Blast Tour at Finding Wonderland!

We were awfully taken with Cybils Sci-Fi/Fantasy Nominee Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. It’s a novel with mystery, magic, adventure, sinister villains, cool Egyptian artifacts, a moody Victorian London setting, cool cover art and—perhaps most important—an inquisitive and indomitable heroine. Theodosia Throckmorton is brave and intelligent, and like many of us writers, she’s also an observer. Through Theo’s eyes, author R.L. LaFevers brings this rollicking tale of intrigue and magic to life.

When she’s not wearing her author hat, R.L. LaFevers is also a professional cheerleader! Only, without the flippy skirt and the pom-poms, Robin relies on her experience in the publishing industry to gives encouragement and support to introverted authors. Together with fellow author Mary Hershey, in 2007 this busy lady launched Shrinking Violets Promotions, and the website tagline says it all: Marketing for Introverts.

It’s no surprise that we were eager to interview this author, and we’re thrilled to death that she agreed to answer our questions! So, without further ado…


FW: First off, it’s important to ask how far along you are with the SEQUEL to Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. Reader greed is perking here: just how long do we have to wait?

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris is all done and will be out Nov. 1, 2008, only a few more months! I’ll be signing ARCs at BEA and will begin posting teaser chapters on the Theodosia website beginning in September. So not too much longer!

FW: And please join us in applauding wildly for the world wide web debut of the new Theodosia cover art! (Please note that all cover art is used courtesy of Houghton-Mifflin, all rights reserved.) YAY! Wow! This is GORGEOUS! Illustrator Yoko Tanaka rocks the house! Thank you very much for letting us say YAY with you! Now, back to our prying questions…

Edgar Stilton, the most junior curate in the Museum is a lightning rod for the weirdness that goes on there… Theodosia’s noticed. Can you drop a hint about Edgar? Will we see him again? Is anyone else like Theodosia naturally? Are you?

Ah, Edgar Stilton. I just adore Edgar. And yes, readers will be seeing him again. He has an even bigger part to play in Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris. There is much more to Edgar than meets the eye.

As for your question as to whether or not anyone is like Theodosia, and more specifically, am I like Theodosia, I would have to answer with a qualified yes. Kids have amazing powers of observation and are still highly in tune with their own gut instincts. They often “see” or sense things that most grown ups miss. They haven’t gotten around to shutting down or ignoring large parts of their own experience if it doesn’t logically fit in with their preconceived ideas of reality or logic. It’s one of the reasons I love writing for children.

When I was a kid, I could always tell if someone had been in my room while I was gone, even if nothing had been disturbed. I could walk into a room where everyone was cheerful and pleasant and would KNOW that there was deep animosity between them. I can feel when someone is looking at me, and 90% of the time I know who is on the phone when it rings.

The thing is, when I do school visits and I ask the kids these same questions, a huge majority of them raise their hands indicating they’ve had similar experiences. But most adults discount this sort of sensory input or method of “reading” the world. And I thought, wouldn’t it be fascinating to read about a kid whose ability to do that was actually critically important? And in fact, maybe even instrumental in keeping the adults around her safe? Thus Theodosia was born.

FW: (See, that phone thing! I do that too! I knew there was a reason I really loved Theodosia. That’s a really cool premise for a novel! – Tad)

Theodosia bears a resemblance to other Victorian-inspired heroines of children’s literature: Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart, the girls from Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. What drew you to writing about this type of character? Who are some of your writing influences?

Many of my early reading influences were British, C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbitt, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien. Frances Hodgson Burnett. However, what drew me to Theodosia’s character were the reasons I stated in the above question: wanting to write about a girl who could sense things—vitally important things—that the adults around her couldn’t. Then I had to work backwards from there. What sort of environment would lend itself to creating the most conflict for a girl with these abilities? What sort of culture would provide even more conflict by stifling her or curtailing her freedom – both to move about and be heard? Then once I realized her parents would be Egyptology specialists, I had to set the book in a time when exciting finds were still being made.

FW: Do you remember the first words of Theodosia that you wrote? Did you change them, or did the first scene remain mainly the same? What sparked your interest in Egyptology?

I studied the small black statuette in front of me, wrinkling my nose slightly when I finally caught a whiff of the curse it contained. “Aha! I knew it!” I said, speaking out loud in my excitement. My words clattered around in the cavernous room before dissipating into the air and floating away in a swirl of dust motes.

Curses have a particular smell to them. It’s a subtle smell, and it can take a while to zero in on it, but once you’ve experienced the smell of ancient magic, you never forget.

Those are the first words of Theodosia that I wrote. And while I did begin the book with her sensing the curse on the statuette, I created a lot more context around it. My first drafts tend to be fairly bare bones—get the juice of the story down, then go back and fill in around it.

My interest in Egyptology has always been strong. Also, it seems to me that the Egyptian practices are the foundation for so many of the subsequent magical disciplines and theories, that it just seemed the biggest well to draw from.

FW: Writing a novel in the Victorian setting yet from a modern perspective surely required a huge amount of research. What were some of the resources you used to fill in the vivid details of Theodosia’s world?

Books that I found invaluable:

  • Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders
  • A New England by G. R. Searle
  • What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole

A website that was particularly helpful was: Victorian London.
And then, of course, Google. My personal best friend.

FW: Let’s talk writing challenges. Was it difficult to maintain consistency of tone and Victorian use of language while also writing a book that would appeal to contemporary readers?

You know, initially there weren’t a lot of challenges with this book — it was simply a “just for fun, just for me” project. Since writing is my favorite form of recreation as well as my job, I often have different projects going. At the time, I was working under contract on a trilogy, and Theodosia was my “down time” project. So I didn’t really think in terms of challenges while writing the book, but more like trying to solve a puzzle. It was my muses’ playground, so if it became hard, I let it go for a while and came back to it when I’d figured out how to make it fun again. The entire first couple of drafts were fairly stress free, and by the time I was done with those, the story had sort of “set” and it was either going to work as is or not. Of course, once I realized it was something I wanted to submit, it required a bit of shaping and polishing.

I did do a bit of juggling with the tone and language of the book. I heard Theodosia’s voice very clearly in my head, and early on I decided since I was writing historical fantasy rather than non-fiction, or even historical fiction, my aim was to evoke the time period rather than faithfully recreate it with 100% accuracy. I was very careful to consult with dictionaries and etymology guides to be sure that the words she was using were in fact in use at the time, as I wanted to avoid glaring anachronisms. However, while she speaks somewhat more formally than we tend to do today and she uses language and words that are true to her time, I also wanted her voice to be accessible to modern readers. If there were choices that had to be made between recreating true Victorian speech or making her accessible, accessible won. My own feeling is, when I am telling a story, everything I choose to include or use must serve that story, rather than the story serving as a vehicle for historical accuracy, or a thematic lesson of some sort.

FW: Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos contains elements of adventure, mystery, history and fantasy. Did you set out to write a book of a particular genre? What was the germ of the idea that became this book—what inspired you to write it? Did its crossing of genres make the process of finding a publisher difficult?

I actually didn’t set out to write a book combining all these elements. I knew it would be a historical fantasy and that was about it. The germ of the idea was that ancient artifacts still had magical power clinging to them, and there was a lone girl who had the ability to sense this. And I wanted her to have a grand, sweeping adventure—like so many boys in children’s literature get to have.

I don’t know that this mix of genres made it hard to find a publisher. I do know that a number of editors who read it loved a lot of things about it, but there was always one thing that held them back. One publisher wanted Theo to be American, another felt she wasn’t vulnerable enough, and yet another wanted more historical detail and setting. But I wasn’t comfortable making those changes. Then my agent had recently met Kate O’Sullivan from Houghton Mifflin, and decided she would be a good match. She was (and is) The Perfect Editor for Theo and me.

FW: You’ve written several other novels, including The Falconmaster, which is an old favorite. Do you think you’ll ever revisit historical fantasy fiction? What else (other than the next Theodosia) are you working on now?

I actually think I’ll focus more and more on historical fantasy, mostly because of the type of fantasy elements I prefer to write about: fantasy that has its roots in historical truths. History is so rich with the elements we consider fantastical today, that I like to go back and play with those. The thing is, what we consider “fantasy” today, was actually believed by earlier cultures and societies as truth or explanation or scientific discovery. By using these threads and expounding on them, I feel like it grounds fantasy in reality and gives it more of a “that could really have happened” feeling to it. Plus I just adore history. My husband teases me and says I only write fiction so I’ll have an excuse to do research!

In addition to beginning Theodosia Three, I’ve just finished up a chapter book about a young boy who is sent to live with a distant cousin of his father’s, and finds himself thrust into all sorts of new adventures. It takes place in the 1920s, before much of the current political climate and turmoil, so it’s historical as well.

FW: That sounds exciting! You mention on your blog that you’re not a fan of the idea of writing every day, and wrote that early in your career you were juggling parenthood as well. What has changed about your writing process? What is, for you, a successful writing day?

You know, I’m really not a fan of writing every day and I get rather tweaked when I hear people say you have to write every day to be a “real” writer. Well, that works for them, and hallelujah, I say. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and I strongly feel that everyone’s process is individual and has to work for them. I do think, in the very beginning especially, it’s important to commit to regular writing time in order to build some discipline and stick-to-it-iveness, which are hugely important in any writing career. But writing regularly can also mean devoting large chunks of time on the weekends, or devoting your entire summer to writing. It doesn’t have to be butt in chair every day.

I mean, think about it. So many transformative, creative processes require stewing time, or fermenting time, or even gestating. Pick which terms work for you, but the point is that sometimes a quiet, fallow mind is needed for the ideas to fully develop. Forcing yourself to write daily—if it’s not a natural part of your process—can interfere with that.

When my kids were younger, I wrote every day, many times a day. When they were napping, while I “watched” soccer practice, when they watched a video. However, the truth is, writing in snatches like that lets you develop some writing skills, but not others. I think sometimes it can be hard to go deep in those circumstances, to really immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about. Which can be a big drawback. As the kids got older I ended up with bigger, more solid chunks of writing time, which allowed my writing to grow further.

A successful writing day involves rolling out of bed, grabbing a cup of coffee and heading over to my writing spot—a rocking chair in our living room that looks out over the valley. I’m barely awake, but my subconscious is feeling very chatty due to all the good down time it had during the night. I usually write by longhand or on my Alpha Smart, whose keyboard is more comfortable for me than a laptop. Plus, there are no distractions such as email or the internet. A good day means six to eight pages in that morning burst, then maybe another page or two during the day when something else occurs to me. Depending on the project, I’ll spend the later part of the day on research or polishing what I already have or, quite often, working on plotting out what comes next and refining that in more detail.

My absolutely favorite part of writing is when the idea first begins forming and I get to play with it, massage it, watch it grow. It reminds me so very much of being a kid and playing in that fully imagined way that kids do. I love it.

FW: How did you and Mary Hershey come up with the idea of Shrinking Violet Promotions? If you could only give one piece of advice to introverted writers out there, what would it be?

Mary Hershey and I had many conversations (whine sessions, really) talking about how critical author promotion seemed to be and how difficult it was for us, both of us being introverts. As we talked and strategized and gnashed our teeth, we commented that we couldn’t be the only ones having this difficulty. The majority of authors, after all, are introverts. Too bad there wasn’t a support group for us introverted writers struggling with the concept of book promotion. We looked at each other for a long moment. Duh. We realized that we should start one, and that it would be a great way to give back to the writing community at large since we both feel very strongly about how incredibly generous and supportive the writing community has been to us.

My one piece of advice to introverted writers would be this: Don’t feel you have to do it all. Pick three areas you can comfortably manage (a website, printing up bookmarks, and volunteering for your local SCBWI chapter, say). As you become comfortable in those duties (and you will) then later you can find stretch goals for yourself. But whatever you do, don’t risk letting promotional duties kill your creative drive.

FW: We’re enormously grateful that you’ve stopped by. This has been both fun and informative, and we’re grateful for the support system you’ve set up for writers like us. Also, we can’t wait to get our hands on your next book! Thank you so much for your time! We wish you the very best as you continue to write amazing, entertaining, arresting and absorbing young adult books.


Don’t go too far! This party is just getting started. There’s nothing like the smell of sunblock and books in the summertime, so slide on your sunglasses and keep reading.

More author and illustrator goodness can be found on blogs all across the ‘sphere today; check out these links for more 2008 SBBT Monday goodness:

Adam Rex @ Fuse #8,
David Almond @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Dave Schwartz @ Shaken & Stirred
Elizabeth Scott @ Bookshelves of Doom
Laurie Halse Anderson @Writing & Ruminating
Susan Beth Pfeffer @Interactive Reader.


Mad props go to Colleen of Chasing Ray for organizing the Kidlit Blogging Fabulosity all over again into the blog-blasting beast it periodically becomes. Thanks, Colleen!

Five Questions for Ying Chang Compenstine

It’s been a busy month at the Tree House, as we’ve celebrated the Lunar New Year and African American History Month. Verrrry busy author Ying Chang Compenstine has taken time out of her TV and book tours, cookbook writing, picture book crafting and YA novel creating to have a lightning round of a mini-interview, and answer five short questions from Finding Wonderland about her little red book Revolution is Not a Dinner Party. Finding Wonderland would like to congratulate Ying, as her novel has received a starred review from Publishers’ Weekly as well as:
• 2008 Best Books For Young Adults (ALA)
• 2008 Notable Children’s Books (ALA)
• 2007 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
• 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Best Children’s Fiction Book
• 2007 New York Public Library 100 Best Children’s Books
• 2007 Fall Book Sense Children’s Picks
• 2007 Parent’s Choice Silver Honor
• 2007 Cybils Award Nomination for Young Adult Fiction
• 2008 Tayshas Reading List (Texas)
• 2007 Chicago Public Library Best of the Best
• 2007 Cleveland Public Library Celebrate With Books
• 2007 Cuyahoga County Public Library Great Books for Kids
• 2008 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for Social Studies!

(WOW!)

You can find an excerpt of this fabulously well-received book here. We’re so grateful that Ying took time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about her passions — food and books.

Finding Wonderland: It was scary to discover that this book is somewhat biographical, and is based on your memories of growing up in Wuhan, China in the 60’s and 70’s. How alike are you and Ling, the novel’s main character? How are you and your character different?

Ling’s childhood experiences are similar to my own. I was about Ling’s age when my family got caught up in the events of the Cultural Revolution. For this reason, developing Ling’s character was the easiest part of writing this book.

Other similarities: My parents were doctors, and my father was a surgeon trained by American missionaries. I was very devoted to my father, but always had a somewhat strained relationship with my mother, so my father was the person to whom I felt closest. He understood me and accepted me for who I was. Like Ling’s father, my father was forced to work as a janitor in the hospital, and then imprisoned in the city jail. He treated all of his patients with compassion, even those who had persecuted him. Many characters and scenes in the book are inspired by people I knew and events I experienced and witnessed.

The differences: I have two elder brothers. The character Niu is based on of one of my brothers and a neighbor boy who lived upstairs. At the height of the Revolution, one of my brothers announced that he drew a class line between himself and my Father. I can still remember how confused and angry I was and how hurt my parents were.

FW: Where’d you get the title of your book?

“Revolution is not a dinner party,” is a quotation from Chairman Mao. When I was young, I didn’t understand its true meaning. Only “Dinner party” stuck with me. I thought that a dinner party would be nice! We hadn’t had one in a long time.

It was only when I was older that I truly understood its meaning that a revolution is harsh and the people living through it endure suffering, cruelty and betrayal. Many lives are lost or ruined.

FW: We’ve read that food was scarce during parts of your childhood, and your father actually had to burn your books during your childhood in China. What made you write a book about food and literature, and how do the two go together in your novel?

Many of my childhood memories are associated with food and books, and both continue to play a very important role in my life. I love to cook, to host dinner parties, to write about food and to read.

Both food and literature play central roles in the book. Food is a featured part of the celebration of good times, as when Ling lingers over homemade ice cream at a neighbor’s home. During the bad times, its absence is a symbol of misery and suffering, as when the Chinese New Year feast is reduced to two pan-fried eggs. Ling’s family is a very intellectual family. Books and foreign magazines are prominent in their apartment, and her father struggles to continue Ling’s education in English even as it becomes dangerous to do so. There’s a direct, physical connection between food and literature in the book. Ling writes poetry on paper with rice water, so that the words can’t be seen by others.

FW: As an adult you’ve returned to China. How is it changed from the country you recall as a child?

During my trip I saw that Mao’s effect on China is still far-reaching and can’t be underestimated. You can easily find shops filled with Mao statues and buttons, and taxi drivers hang Mao’s portrait on their rear view mirrors. Yet life in China is steadily improving. The cities are filled with material goods and the pace of development is dizzying. I feel proud of today’s China and am happy to see it take on an important role in the world. China will always occupy a special place in my heart.

5. You’re a very successful, busy author, we know, so what are you working on now?

A YA – collection of Chinese ghost stories, A Menu for Hungry Ghosts with each story ended with a recipe, published by Holt. A cookbook- Cooking with an Asian Accent – Eastern Recipes and Wisdom in a Western Kitchen by Harvard Common Press, coming Spring 2009, and two picture books by Dutton and Holiday House. All four books will come out next year!

We said she was a busy woman, didn’t we?

DON’T miss the fabulous he Children’s Book Council/American Association of School Librarians joint “Meet the Author/Illustrator” column for the AASL journal Knowledge Quest, which contains an interview with Ying. She talks about her hunger for good books and food during the years of Chairman Mao’s revolutionist regime in China, and how she came to be an author and foodie. Almost all of Ying’s books for children and adults have something to do with food and words, from The Story of Noodles to The Story of Chopsticks to Ying’s three cookbooks – Secrets of Fat-Free Chinese Cooking, Cooking With Green Tea, and Secrets from a Healthy Asian Kitchen, so if you’re a foodie like us or enjoy reading to an aspiring chef, you’ll want to check out this author’s work!