Heads Up, Illustrators! Scott Nash to Mentor SCBWI Squam

Imagine what you could learn from an author/illustrator with over fifty published books.  How about from the Art Director of a successful children’s media company specializing in branding and design?  Or the Chair of the Illustration Department at Maine College of Art?  A lot, right?  And, what if all this expertise was packaged in one warm-hearted and funny guy named Scott Nash, who is mentoring the NESCBWI Squam Retreat this September?  Well, guess what.  It is!  Illustrators, you in particular have a great opportunity here that can be hard to find at other events. Scott’s mentorship at Squam rounds out an already fabulous line-up of professionals at the retreat:  Author Lynda Mullaly Hunt, HarperCollins Children’s editor Sarah Dotts Barley, and Greenhouse Literary agent/published author John Cusick at the Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in Holderness, New Hampshire, where our mentor:participant ratio caps out at about 1:7.  How often does that happen?

ImageRecently I sat with Scott in his inspired Portland, Maine, office to ask him about his love of children’s books and kids’ culture, his career, and why he’s happy to mentor Squam.

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Me:  So, you’ve had a multifaceted career thus far, Scott. (Read Candlewick’s bio.)  You started in media, focusing on design and branding, and eventually moved into illustrating and writing children’s books. In 2012 Candlewick published The High Flying Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate, a visually exquisite swashbuckler you both wrote and illustrated. Tell us a little about your journey.Blue Jay the Pirate cover

 Scott:  I got into children’s media and writing for children because I have a love for kids’ culture.  I started a design firm specializing in kids’ culture called Big Blue Dot in Watertown, MA, which was the delight of my life for ten years. Out of working with companies like Nickelodeon, PBS, Simon & Schuster and Scholastic, I found my voice.  With Nickelodeon, we wanted to connect with kids, not talk down to them. This rekindled my love for creating stories for kids that were slightly subversive.  I loved RoaId Dahl as a kid, and I realized I loved a slightly irreverent approach to kids’ stuff. I became allergic to the side of kids’ media that one might say is cloying.  After running BBD I wanted to go from managing to creating.  I sent out a proposal for a book and Candlewick was the one that responded — and I took that as a sign that maybe I could do this. 

Me:  You make that sound so easy.

Scott:  Well, Candlewick didn’t actually publish that book.  They said, “Not quite there with this particular book, but we love the way you think, and we love the way you render images and characters.  We have a book for you.” And that became Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp, by Carol Diggory Shields (1997).  That turned into another book with her called, Martian Rock, then I did a book with Steven Kroll, Oh, Tucker, and then more books, not just from Candlewick but with other publishers, too.
Dinosaur Stomp

Me:  A lot of successes!  But, creatively speaking,  you think beyond books as well.

Scott:  Children’s books have always been a big part of my life.  I’ve loved stories, loved books, all different forms of media– storytelling in any form– since I was a kid.  I find myself an agnostic in terms of how I like to get my stories.  If it’s a movie, I’m happy, if it’s a cartoon, comic book– a good story is a good story, no matter what the form.

Creating a book is very satisfying, but I’m also interested in other forms of media.  I continue to search for new narrative forms. I get inspired by new forms of media and think, “How could this be a vehicle for storytelling?”

snashcurio

Scott’s curio cabinet contains his characters and other inspirations.

Me:  That kind of talk scares some publishing folks.  People fear the end of the book as we know it.

Scott: I don’t presume to say that this time is any more or less terrifying than others in our lives.  There was a time when comic books had a rating scale because adults saw them as so subversive they could be damaging to kids; my parents were terrified by my listening to Alice Cooper, who last week was on (NPR’s) Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me! and seems like the most affable and benign man ever, just sweet as can be.  But at the time, the fear was very real.  My parents were deeply concerned.

So with media, I do try to keep an open mind.  I like to engage authors in conversations about this. I ask longtime authors, “How do you know your narrative is best suited to a book?”  E-books and gaming consoles have the potential to convey narratives in a nonlinear way.

Me:  I’ve noticed a new emphasis on the appearance of books.  Your Blue Jay the Pirate is a great example.  You would never just want children to read it electronically, you want children to hold it in their hands and have it as a keepsake.

The two-page map from Blue Jay invites readers to pore over it and refer to it throughout reading.

The two-page map from Blue Jay invites readers to pore over it and refer to it throughout reading.

Scott:  Ah, the secret is out! This is a strategy with some publishers. I refuse to believe that books will go away.  But, publishers and authors have been tasked with something.  The challenge for publishers is to create physical books that are beautiful and are crafted in a way that people want to own those books.  I don’t think I’m being a Pollyanna here when I say we’re going to see a renaissance in the craftsmanship of bookmaking.  Some publishers are very open to conversations where we say, “Let’s make this book a tactile experience.”  Others are not.  I’m hoping and I believe that the publishers that care about craft are the ones that will thrive in this era of e-publishing.

Me:  Amen to that!  Tell us why you’re happy to be mentoring Squam.

Scott:  I love engaging with people. The idea of the isolated artist is highly overrated. I love having these kinds of conversations about children’s books and the craft of creating them.  All throughout my life I’ve mentored either students or my employees in all manner of narrative.  I’ve hired more illustrators than I can count.  I have the perspective of the Art Director– like asking, how does this work relative to the market?– and I’m also cognizant of the aesthetic issues and the turmoil we run into as illustrators.  I have both parts in my pyche, and it’s taught me to be constructively honest.  I’m really looking forward to Squam.

So are we.  So are we.  We can take four more participants. Sign up here.

Aside

Interview with Editor Sarah Barley, HarperCollins Children’s

Have you heard?  The weekend of September 6-8, SCBWI-New England will host its first Squam Lake Writing Retreat at the Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in stunning Holderness, NH.  My co-Rockywold-Deephavendirector for the retreat Julie Kingsley and I are excited to bring a new venue to the SCBWI small retreat scene.  RDC is a lakeside campground paradise, complete with a cabin boy to light your fireplace every night and chef-prepared meals around the clock.  There will be loons, my friends.  Loons.

Best of all, as this is an SCBWI event, there will be professional mentors for writers and illustrators.  We are thrilled to have HarperCollins Children’s Book Editor SarahEditor Sarah Dotts Barley Dotts Barley  as part of our line-up.  Sarah, whose focus is middle grade and young adult fiction, was promoted to editor from associate last year.  She’s worked with writers like Georgia Byng and Joyce Carol Oates as well as debut authors publishing this year. (Yay, debut authors!)  Sarah allowed me to ask her some questions about her career, her tastes as an editor, and about why she’s excited to mentor the Squam Lake Writers Retreat.

Me:  Hello, Sarah!  Thanks so much for taking time to let us get to know you a little better.  Can we start with what kind of a reader were you as a kid?  Do you imagine your child/ya self when you are reading manuscripts?

SDB: I was a voracious reader as a kid, but especially after my mom challenged me to read a certain number of books before I could get my ears pierced. That summer, I fell in love with reading in a whole, new, insane way, and will probably forever associate pierced ears and Amelia Bedelia! I think about myself as a child and young adult reader all the time as I read manuscripts, and ask myself questions like: Would I have been compelled to keep reading when I was eight, twelve, fourteen? Would I have wanted to read this for fun or because someone told me to? How much trouble would I be willing to get into for staying up late to finish this book? (Ideally, LOTS of trouble.)

Me: Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming an editor at HarperCollins?

SDB:  I grew up working at a bookstore my parents co-owned in Huntsville, Alabama, and my mom taught English at my high school. Reading and books and talking about books were always a big part of my life! I just never knew that much about publishing, though, and that it was something I could actually do for a career. I was really lucky to get my first job in the business as a sales assistant at Random House Children’s Books right after I graduated from college in North Carolina. I had AMAZING mentors at Random House—it truly was the best first job I could’ve had in children’s book publishing. I use something I learned on that job as an editor every day. After a couple of years in sales, I moved over to become an editorial assistant at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and then a few years after that, I met my current boss and took a job as an associate editor here at Harper. And I’ve been here very happily ever since!

Me:  What is your favorite part of the job?  Any surprises?

SDB:  My favorite part of the job has to be reading a manuscript and knowing that it’s something special, that it’s something that we absolutely have to publish. I also love the people I work with—not only our authors, but also so many of the people I see day in and day out every day in the office. This is sort of sappy, but I think I’d find it hard working at home too often, because I’d miss my pals! Since I edit mostly novels, the amount of reading I have on my plate is constantly surprising.

Me:  Squam Lake was the location used for the 80s movie ON GOLDEN POND.  In it, there is a whopper of a fish known in local lore as Walter.  Everyone tries to catch him or at least see him.  Do you have a Walter?  Is there a dream manuscript you’d love to find on your desk tomorrow morning?

SDB:  One of my favorite books of all time is BEAUTY by Robin McKinley. A book with those layers of meaning for different readers (or the same readers at different stages of their lives!), with that staying power, is something I think we all dream of editing.

Me:  Tell us why you’re looking forward to mentoring the SCBWI Squam Lake Writing Retreat.

SDB:  I’m really looking forward to being with the same small group of people over a few days at a retreat, rather than meeting hundreds of folks very quickly and not really getting the chance to know anyone. And, I saw pictures of where you’re holding the retreat…I cannot wait to be there! Lastly, John  is awesome and highly entertaining. 

Me:  We feel the same way!  (About smaller retreats and John Cusick, our agent mentor from Greenhouse Literary).  So, lots of people will wonder what  you are looking to acquire now.

SDB:  My sweet spot is voice-driven middle grade and YA fiction of any genre, so I’m always looking to fall in love with something I didn’t even know I wanted because the voice is so  convincing and compelling. I recently read (and adored) TIMMY FAILURE, and am currently loving every minute of a very funny and surprising YA novel, A CORNER OF WHITE by Jaclyn Moriarty. So I can definitely say that I wish I saw more humorous submissions! I also love historical fantasy.

Me:  Finally, what is your advice to all the authors out there trying to get that first contract?

SBD:  To write and to keep on writing for the love of it, because you have to tell this story.  Also, to read as much as you possibly can.

Me:  Thanks, Sarah!

Julie and I feel so lucky to bring Sarah to the first retreat at Squam Lake.  Hoping you’ll be there too?  Sign up!  All the details and registration info can be found on our retreat website.

What the World Needs Now: More Cynthia Lord Books

Great news!  I can’t blog about my favorite middle grade books of 2012!  My role as Cybils judge is officially underway; I have to keep my ’12 opinions under wrap.  What’s so great about that?  It gives me a chance to share favorite books published before 2012– I’m so backed up!  I know Christmas is over, but I’m making a last ditch effort at my 12 Days of Books initiative.  For the Third Day of Books, I present Cynthia Lord and her 2006 novel RULES (Scholastic).

Warning:  Cindy Lord is one of my personal heroes.   That’s what’s taken me so long to write about her work.  I mean, she’s been on my list since I started Feeding the Flashlight over two years ago, but how to write about her without coming off like a complete gushing idiot?  Well I can’t, so let’s just get over it and move on.

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A more perfect cover has yet to be made for a middle grade novel.

From Amazon:  Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She’s spent years trying to teach David the rules from “a peach is not a funny-looking apple” to “keep your pants on in public”—in order to head off David’s embarrassing behaviors.
But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the next-door friend she’s always wished for, it’s her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?

First off, I know something about what it is to have a son with autism, as Cindy does.  And I know what it’s like to try your best to raise him alongside his typically-functioning sister, while also doing your best to raise her, which Cindy also knows.  It can be very frustrating for everyone.  The rewards parents of kids with autism feel for each tiny step of progress, well, those rewards are often lost on the typical sibling, who’d pretty much rather melt into the wallpaper than have to be seen with her brother anywhere, but especially anywhere that her peer group might be.  What pushes Cindy into my Circle of Heroes is that she took that thing— the setback of a devastating diagnosis, the heartbreak of any parent, the day-in, day-out challenge of autism– and turned it into RULES, the beautiful story of a girl learning to accept her brother’s differences.  When my daughter finished reading it (the first time), she said, “Mom, it’s like Cynthia Lord wrote that book just for me.”  Seriously, I get a case of wet-eye just thinking about it.

RULES feels like a gift to me, too.  Part of the challenge of having a child with significant autism is the acceptance.  It doesn’t matter if you are the parent or the sibling, the grandparent.  This kid is not going to follow the path you thought. Which means your life isn’t either.  Captain of your own destiny?  I think not.  In the story, Catherine learns to accept there are things she cannot change about her brother, and I’d wager that’s something Cindy learned from her own son, just as I have learned from mine.  Some things are bigger than us and any plans, or rules, we can make.  The fact that Cindy could share her wisdom with such clarity while living in the thick of it all is a true marvel to me.

In the end, RULES celebrates and honors families that face autism every day, bringing them into daylight for the droves of kids that may otherwise never consider what such a life is like.  For that alone, RULES’ numerous awards are more than well-earned.  I mean, forget Newbery medals– we’re talking angel’s wings here.  But, it’s also a book that encourages empathy for all sorts of differences.  It invites readers to question the importance of popularity and to define true friendship.  Right about now, doesn’t that just sound like what the world needs?

Unknown

Are you kidding me?? Another gorgeous cover for Cindy’s second novel TOUCH BLUE (Scholastic, 2010).  Indeed, another gorgeous read.

Two Turtle Doves: Dealing with Grief

Blogging this weekend eluded me.  I found myself like all of you, I imagine– utterly numb.

The horrors of Sandy Hook shook me more than any of the other terrible shootings in recent history, because I live in an elementary school.  I’ve lived in elementary schools for more than twenty years.  My husband teaches in an elementary school, and my daughter attends one.  Elementary school is the orbit in which my family exists.

Even though I don’t know any of the Sandy Hook teachers, I look at their photos and I know them.  I know their kind smiles.  I know how they’ve been trained to react in lockdown situations, because I’ve had that training, too.  I know teachers who, I’d bet the farm, would be equally heroic as Sandy Hook’s teachers in the face of their own mortality.  That is what so many teachers I know would do for their children.  The brave educators in Newtown knew those students weren’t just their students.  They were their children.  All of our children.

In light of all that, I couldn’t imagine what books to bring to light. Blogging feels pretty small in the face of such devastating tragedy. But as people more eloquent than me have said, those lost are in Heaven now.  It’s the living we need to console.  And, I think, books are not trivial in their power to heal.  Books are potent salve.

So for today, Day Two of my Twelve Days of Books, I offer two books that help all of us, young and old, deal with grief.  First, a powerful book about sadness by esteemed British writer Michael Rosen, MICHAEL ROSEN’S SAD BOOK (Candlewick Press 2005).  Rosen’s honest portrayal of his own volatile emotions after the death of his son will resonate with anyone who has experienced periods of deep sadness, aged five to ninety-five.  I like it most because it separates the feeling from the person experiencing the feeling.  Rosen describes how his sadness makes him do crazy or bad things, and then turns to more healing thoughts and memories of himself with his son.  The book is gut wrenching but validating, and unflinching in its address of overwhelming emotion.michaelrosenssadbook

Another book I’ve found is I MISS YOU, A FIRST LOOK AT DEATH(Barron’s Educational Series, 2001), by psychotherapist/self-help author Pat Thomas.  Straight-forward in execution, this is a book to introduce very young children to the concept of death.  I think it would be helpful for any such situation, from the loss of a grandparent to more unexpected loss.  Thomas uses language to frame death in terms of a part of the natural life cycle.  It lightly touches on situations that are more sudden, but focuses on the finding of peace.

We could all use more peace.  All our hearts are broken.  I send my love to Newtown.

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The First Day of Books– The Partridge: ONE FOR THE MURPHYS

When I read ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin 2012), I laughed and cried, cried and laughed.  I should mention that I’m not really a crier.  When a writer can create a character that is equal parts sorrow and humor bound tightly as one– as Hunt does with Carley– it’s time to sit up and pay attention.  Somehow, through the keen eyes of our young narrator, we’re about to learn some penetrating truths.

OnefortheMurphys_low-ResONE FOR THE MURPHYS is a story about everyday heroes– adult heroes and kid heroes.  Carley is a 12-year-old girl forced into foster care when her mother is beaten to the point of hospitalization by a sleazy boyfriend.  The appalling scene is relived in Carley’s mind only in small bursts.  Hunt strikes a carefully balanced tone in its depiction, keeping it appropriate for the target audience.  While Carley struggles with deep issues of self-worth, she uses pride and humor as her coat of armor.  She’s not letting anybody in.

Enter the Murphys, a fully functional family with happy parents and kids.  Through the patience and unconditional love shown to her by Mrs. Murphy, Carley slowly comes to believe she may be worthy of such attention. In short, Carley learns to love the Murphys as she learns to love herself.  Every person matters.

THE MURPHYS is my partridge because so many people I have known use humor as their defense against painful circumstances– though perhaps less dramatic ones than Carley’s. Growing into the ability to be vulnerable, to trust, and to believe in one’s self, makes for a powerful, universal story, one Hunt masters with the perfect blend of heartache and Irish winks.  Though kids who’ve seen some misfortune like Carley’s may find particular solace in her story, this book is equally  appropriate for any child ready to see a world bigger than her own.

I can’t wait for more work by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

12 Days of Books

Okay, so I’ve been remiss in my blogging.  No doubt about it; it’s shameful I dare call myself a blogger.  And I’m a flipping CYBILS judge.  Shameful.

In my defense, I do teach full-time, y’know.  And I do parent our two children on occasion.  But that’s no excuse.  I see mothers of four with blogs, nay, websites that sell stuff, even, and it all looks so effortless and freakin’ cool.

Time for me to apologize.  Grovel, even.  Right?  WRONG!  Listen UP, people:

This historic 12-12-12 date marks the official opening to my 12-Day Book Review Marathon, ending on my birthday,partridge_400x400 Christmas Day.  THIS is your one-stop stocking stuffer hub for young readers.

Let me repeat.

I am blogging 12 books– my favorites from this year– in the next 12 days.  1 a day.  (Cue “Rocky” theme song now. Sorta fitting as 1-a-Day is a vitamin and contributes to good health.)  The posts will be short and sweet– no time for ruminating.  I told you, it’s a marathon.  I gotta keep moving.

Prepare thee selves…

Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading: Reverse Psych on Reluctant Readers

Welcome to my first ever Feeding the Flashlight Skyped author interview!  In it, Tommy Greenwald discusses how frustration with his own reluctant reader sons inspired him to create a middle school boy determined to avoid reading– ever.  Can a book about hating reading actually lure reluctant readers to, well, read?  Absolutely– I’ve seen it happen with the Charlie Joe Jackson.  Hear Tommy talk all about his wildly funny, wildly popular series and how it came to be.  I also include some of the books’ pitch-perfect illustrations, by J.P. Coovert.

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