everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for The Blue Sky Press

Rodman Philbrick Answers a Few Questions about ZANE AND THE HURRICANE

Zane and the Hurricane
Rodman Philbrick’s newest novel, Zane and the Hurricane, has caught the attention of young readers, and it has received three starred reviews and inclusion on the Texas Bluebonnet Master List. Philbrick has been writing since he was a teenager, and it took him many, many years to finally have a book published…but he never gave up. I asked him to answer a few brief questions about Zane.  (BIV) 
Why did you choose to write a novel set during Hurricane Katrina?
Shortly after Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of Florida, I had the germ of an idea for a story about a hurricane set in the Florida Keys, where I live for half of the year. By the time I got around to writing it, New Orleans had been hit by Katrina, and I thought that would make a bigger and more important story.

Is the process of writing a novel set during a famous event different than writing a novel set in a place of your own invention—such as the town where Freak the Mighty takes place?

Freak The Mighty was inspired by real people in a real place, but I purposely didn’t name the specific location in the hope that  readers might think it was set in their own back yard. But writing about a specific event – the Battle of Gettsyburg, or the devastation of New Orleans – means you have to get the details right. And that means lots of research. Lucky for me many of the survivors’ impressions and experiences are preserved on video, or in interviews with journalists such as Douglas Brinkley and Jed Horne, both of whom wrote terrific books on the subject. Those recollections and impressions helped me get inside the head of my character Zane–and see the flooded world through his eyes, in a way that I hope rings true to the experiences of the actual survivors.

Are there any autobiographical angles in Zane and the Hurricane?
None, I guess. Oh wait, Zane is a boy from New Hampshire. Me, too.
What are some of the more interesting comments and questions that have come to you about the book?

A couple of readers wanted to know if the strong and willful character Malvina was inspired by the young girl in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ The answer is no, because I began working on Zane’ in 2011, a year before the film was released, and long before I heard about it. Still haven’t seen the movie, but I hear it’s fabulous.

What do you consider the main themes of this novel? When you were weaving the story, were there specific issues in the story that you wanted your reader to think about?

I don’t really think about themes while writing (or much of anything but the narrative itself), but on reflection all of my stories seem to be about overcoming adversity. This is no exception. And if the story illuminates injustice, and class and racial divides, or makes readers think or want to read further on the subject, so much the better.

 

Zane and the Hurricane is popular among young readers for many reasons. Some of them are its fast pace, interesting characters, dramatic scenery, and real-life setting. How did you manage to balance these and other story elements?

Writing a novel is like juggling flaming bowling balls while riding a unicycle on a tightrope strung across the Grand Canyon. Lots of things can go wrong, and do. I concentrate on making each scene as crisp and visual as possible. My intention is that every scene – and every conversation – carries the story forward. I very much have my fifth-grade self in mind as a potential reader. Would I read this? Would I be intrigued? Would I want to turn the page? Does it ‘sing’ when read aloud? (By the way, Jerry Dixon did a fantastic job as narrator of the audio version.)

Thanks to Rodman Philbrick for answering these questions–but most of all, thank you, Rod, for continuing to write for young readers! (BIV)
(just for fun–proof of upcoming Zane and the Hurricane paperback cover)

Eat Spam, You Dumb Bunnies! Dav Pilkey and the Funny “Good Night Moon” Room Story

 

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A friend who loves Dav Pilkey’s funny books about the Dumb Bunnies recently asked me how we were able to get permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the first book, The Dumb Bunnies. Her question reminded me of a wild and unexpected series of events that happened as we created that cover. It makes me laugh now, but at the time, I was not laughing.

Dav sent me the dummy for The Dumb Bunnies long ago before The Adventures of Captain Underpants made him a household name. I put the dummy in my work bag and took it home. I remember it was raining, because I was standing in my NJ kitchen in my wet, black raincoat when I pulled the package out of my bag and put it on my kitchen counter. I was still wearing my coat when I read the whole thing.

You probably don’t know my sister JoAnn, but one of the things we share is a passion for Jim Marshall’s picture book The Stupids Die. A million years ago when we both lived in Boston, we used to read that book together, over and over, with peals of laughter. I had the same kind of laughter when I read The Dumb Bunnies, and I knew my sister would love it. I had tears streaming down my face, and I called her on the kitchen phone to tell her about it.

In-house we had many discussions about this controversial book. Other than Marshall’s The Stupids Die and the other Stupids books, I’m not sure this kind of humor had seen the light of day very often in children’s books. But Jean Feiwel and Barbara Marcus both understood great humor and both had a wonderful sense of what appeals to children. They could see what was appealing about the book, and they both backed Dav and me–so we were able to proceed.

We were in a meeting talking about marketing and publicity one day when Barbara came up with the idea of putting a sticker on the cover—a gold sticker that would be the kind we use when one of our books wins an award. It was her suggestion that the sticker should say something to this effect: This book is too dumb to win an award.

Geniuses, both of them. So we found a nice spot on the side of the front jacket for the sticker and proceeded to have them manufactured.

Meanwhile I was biting my nails because we still needed permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the book. Good Night Moon is about as sacred and treasured a classic as any children’s book can be, so I was hyperventilating about getting permission from both Harper and the Hurd estate to use Dav’s funny parody of it. I had been Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt prior to coming to Scholastic, and it was my private opinion that at Harcourt I would not have had a prayer of getting approval to use that cover parody. Jean assured me that Scholastic had very good relationships with Harper, in part because of our book clubs and book fairs, and that she didn’t think they would object. Another major difference between Scholastic and every other children’s publisher—I was constantly being amazed by the contrast.

Time passed, and the job of designing The Dumb Bunnies was given to Kathy Westray, who was either freelancing or had just joined Scholastic full-time after designing From Sea to Shining Sea. Her office was a cubicle, and she brought the finished mechanicals to my desk and left them for me to proofread. She’d done a lot of innovative, interesting things with the cover and interiors, and it was the first book of mine she’d designed. I could immediately see her brilliance—in my opinion, she is the best living book designer in the world—and after I carefully checked the mechanicals, I went to her cubicle, dazed.

“In all my years of being an editor, this is the very first time I have ever received a set of mechanicals that is perfect,” I said. It was true. Every design choice she’d made on the book enhanced it. For more than a dozen years, I was used to designs that had to be done again and again with typeface changes, margins off, ugly borders, unreadable titles…and The Dumb Bunnies was perfect in every way. (I would soon ask Kathy to become the Art Director for my imprint, the Blue Sky Press, and more than twenty years later, she still designs all my books…and I am thankful every day.)

Not long after, I got the amazing green light from Jean Feiwel that she had gotten approval for me to use the Good Night Moon room parody on the cover. So we went to press.

And I am trying to remember when exactly it was that I saw I had made a very big mistake on the book cover.

It was so big a mistake that I have probably blocked it out of my mind.

There, on a table next to the fireplace, was a can of Spam.

Yes, Spam.

     A trademarked can of ham—or something like ham–manufactured by Hormel.

And had I gotten permission from Hormel to use Spam on my book cover?

No.

     I was so occupied with getting permission from Harper and the others for the Good Night Moon room parody that I hadn’t even thought about the Spam. There it sat, and the book was printed—not shipped, but printed—and I dashed out a letter to Hormel and politely gave them all the reasons why it was an excellent idea to have Spam featured on the cover of The Dumb Bunnies.

     I was very, very, very worried about getting permission, but I could not imagine that they would deny it. Surely they would see the humor, and there wasn’t any harm in it, and it was a relatively small print run of a book by a relatively new talent….

Permission denied.

Hormel did not see the humor in the way its “food product” (I quote) was presented on the cover of my book.

I drafted more letters. Made phone calls. Begged. Pleaded.

Permission denied.

     I believe we shredded 30,000 posters that featured Spam on the cover of the book. We used to make a lot of posters back then, and I remember that our Marketing/Publicity Director, Doris Bass, was sympathetic. But what to do about the cover?

Barbara Marcus had saved the day with her idea of a sticker on the book. The sticker looked great, and miraculously the glue on the sticker was like cement. Once pressed onto the cover, it would not come off.

And although we had not planned to place the sticker so close to the center of the book jacket, it did a terrific job of eliminating the can of Spam. (This isn’t a great reproduction, but you can see where the sticker was placed on this first edition/first printing. As well, you may be able to see that the author, Dav, called himself “Sue Denim,” and it was always interesting that a vast number of people wanted to know about “Sue”–I hope you get the joke. If you don’t, think about it. In later editions the credits both went to Dav Pilkey, and the display type was changed to match The Adventures of Captain Underpants.)

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So that is why, if you are lucky enough to have a first edition/first printing of The Dumb Bunnies, you now know that under that sticker is hidden a can of Spam. “This book is too dumb to win an award” is the perfect gold medal to cover it up, don’t you agree?

We removed the Spam in the second printing, and the third and fourth and fifth and who-knows-how-many since; all these years later the book is still fresh and popular–because Dav had created a magnificent book that gave millions of children (including my sister and me) many more opportunities to laugh.

And I was—and still am—the happiest Dumb Bunny of all.

Why Head Lice are More Popular than Congress: David Shannon Understood It First

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Last night on THE DAILY SHOW, Jon Stewart announced that Congress is currently LESS popular than head lice.
This past fall, I published David Shannon’s BUGS IN MY HAIR!–a funny book about head lice. And it’s true, they are much more appealing than Congress.

HEAD LICE GET MY VOTE!

Ten Reasons Why Head Lice Are Better than Congress:

1. Head lice don’t fight among themselves.

2. Head lice get the job done.

3. Although it’s a challenge, you can make head lice go away.

4. Head lice are honest about what they do (feed on your blood and multiply), where Congress does the same thing but pretends to be helping you.

5. Head lice do not discriminate between rich or poor, black or white. Head lice treat every American the same way.

6. Head lice do not spend money and bankrupt anybody.

7. Head lice do not lie about themselves and one another.

8. Head lice do not send me 20-30 emails a day.

9. Head lice don’t pretend to care about what people think, where Congress doesn’t care but pretends they do.

10. Head lice come, and head lice go, but they don’t permanently wreck our lives. Congress, on the other hand, is destroying democracy.

VOTE FOR HEAD LICE!

Bonnie Verburg

VP, Scholastic Inc.
Editorial Director of the Blue Sky Press, an Imprint of Scholastic.

I published this book, and I approve this endorsement of replacing Congress with head lice!

(August 1, 2014)

Leo and Diane Dillon: Diane Dillon interviewed by Julie Danielson at Kirkus.com

I just read this lovely interview of Diane Dillon, written by Julie Danielson at Kirkus.com–and I want to share it. Thank you, Julie…especially for celebrating the enormous contributions the Dillons have made to children for more than five decades.
See the original at this link (with photos, illustrations, and nice typography):

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/making-better-world/

Making a Better World
By Julie Danielson on August 7, 2014

The dedication of the upcoming picture book with the names Leo and Diane Dillon on the cover reads as such: “In Memory of Leo, who wasn’t able to finish this one.”

The pair, who had been writing and illustrating picture books since 1970 and were twice awarded the Caldecott Medal, did indeed collaborate on If Kids Ran the World, a book from Scholastic’s Blue Sky Press, scheduled to hit shelves in late August. However, Leo died in 2012, just as they were finishing the book.

It’s a tale spilling over with unfettered joy, one that imagines a world full of peace, purity and utter harmony in the hands of children alone. A book that strikes such an unsullied and merry tone is certainly the best possible one with which to leave readers. “Leo was a very positive person and had a great sense of humor,” Diane tells If Kids Ran the Worldme. “One of his favorite sayings was: ‘Everything is going to be all right.’ The book was in its final stage when he died. The preliminary decisions had been made about the layout and what style and technique to use, and the research and many of the drawings were finished.”

The book also includes a note about the very collaborative process involved in the writing—that is, between Leo, Diane and their editor, Bonnie Verburg. This note states that the concept and multiple drafts came from Verburg, and despite protests from Leo and Diane, “she chose to be publisher rather than author.” Diane adds: “We had many conversations with [her] for nearly thirty years about how we wanted to approach the book—especially in the beginning. For instance, the underlying issues include hunger, homelessness, poverty, and war, but we wanted to illustrate the positive and hopeful actions people are taking, such as feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and promoting equality and peace.”

It’s a book that has been met with mixed reviews, given the pie-in-the-sky view of the world with children fully in charge. Think The Lord of the Flies and turn it on its head (or, really, just altogether throw it out the window): There’s no waste, no cruelty, no war, no strife whatsoever. But the Dillons, Diane explains, had their reasons: “We feel that children want to be needed and like to be helpful. They have an innate sense of fairness and honesty and a capacity for joy. Even in the midst of the most dire circumstances, children can be seen playing and laughing. They have an innocence that we tend to lose as we grow older. It’s true that If Kids Ran the World presents a utopian world, but why not aim for the highest possibility?”

In fact, it’s to this notion of underestimating children that Diane returns when I ask about diversity in picture books today. If Kids Ran the World is an overt celebration of multiculturalism and inclusion, something the pair had championed in their long and lauded careers. In Margalit Fox’s New York Times piece on Leo’s death, she notes the “stylistic diversity” that characterized their work, as well as their dedication to portraying people of all colors. “All schools should have the same quality teachers, equipment, and books, and the expectation that all children can learn,” Diane says when I ask what schools can better do to champion diversity today. “The best way to teach children about diversity and peace is to live it ourselves as parents, teachers, and leaders of governments and religions. Too often some children are underestimated and under-challenged. This book was meant to inspire them to be their best. They have a part in making a better world.”

And what’s next for someone who spent decades working so successfully in tandem with her life partner that their work was described (again by Fox) as “a seamless amalgam of both their hands”?

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“There is something in the works,” Diane says, “but it’s too early to talk about it yet. It’s a time of introspection and reinvention for me, and right now I am enjoying a life without deadlines.”

We fans can surely wait patiently for Diane’s re-emergence and for the stories to come.

Illustrations from If Kids Ran the World © 2014 by Leo & Diane Dillon. Used with permission from The Blue Sky Press/Scholastic.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

Faster than Lightning: Snapshots of Jane Yolen

Jane & Bonnie by Robbie

A visit to see Jane in Scotland–photo by my son

Trying to describe Jane Yolen is more difficult than trying to describe water in its many forms and moods and storms and meanderings. I sat here with a blank page for a long time, wondering how to begin to talk about her; I have known her for so many years that it becomes difficult to stand at a distance and make objective observations.

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Cell phone photo…not clear, but I like the kiss.

I was introduced to Jane in 1985 at Harcourt, after I was hired by Maria Modugno as Editor in the Children’s Books Department of HBJ.  The first book I would edit of Jane’s was her Lullabye Songbook, with stunning illustrations by Chuck Mikolaycak.  But first I had to drive Jane to a speaking engagement. We talked in the car while I drove, and I learned that Jane always prepares; she puts a great deal of time into the talks she gives, and it is one reason why she is so effective.

As I published more and more books by Jane, I discovered that she was—and still is—the fastest writer I have ever encountered. Several times I pitched a picture-book idea to her at dinner and received a finished manuscript the next morning over breakfast. Once, many years ago, when I had labored for months editing Jane’s middle-grade novel called Wizard’s Hall (a story about a boy who is sent off to a school to become a wizard…sound familiar?), I mailed the edited ms. back to Jane with a sigh of relief to get it off my desk. I had spent a lot of time on it, and I was happy that it was now on her desk, so I wouldn’t have it on mine for a few months. Surprise! In less than a week the manuscript was back; chapters had been rewritten, scenes adjusted, characters developed, lines changed. She had taken the advice in the margins, but she had finished it at the speed of lightning. I smile at the memory.

One of the more interesting books I published early on was a picture book called Encounter at Harcourt. I had received a phone call from a well known children’s organization asking me if I had any poets in mind they could contact to write a poem celebrating Columbus’s discovery of America—for their 1992 program. I didn’t like the idea of encouraging children to think that nothing was in “America” until Columbus “discovered” it, so it was a short, polite conversation. I didn’t bring up my thoughts about the subject, but I did decide I wanted to publish a picture book in 1992 that would present the arrival of Columbus from the Arawak point of view. How did the people who lived in San Salvador see Columbus and his men and his ships when they arrived to “discover” them? I thought it would be interesting.

First I researched the Taino people and tried to find a native to write the book. To my dismay, the culture had vanished. So I asked Jane to consider it, and the result was Encounter, a book I was sure would be one of at least a dozen from that perspective. Oddly it was the only picture book from that point of view in 1992, and I still find that surprising all these years later.

After Jane had written the manuscript, the next difficult task was to find an illustrator who could create the powerful scenes we had in mind—and who could show the conflict through paintings. Jane was visiting me in Los Angeles, and we took a trip over to the children’s art gallery called Every Picture Tells a Story. Lois Sarkasian, the owner, gave us a tour through her flat files, and in them she brought our attention to a new illustrator, David Shannon, who was local and had just published his first children’s book: How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? by Julius Lester, published by Scholastic.

We were very enthusiastic about his pictures and talent, and he agreed to illustrate the book for us at Harcourt. At the time the book did not seem controversial to me—just, as I’ve said, a point of view I believed needed to be presented, and both Jane and Dave agreed with me.

It was our understanding that the locals did not wear clothes, so Dave created very simple clothing for them and added a note in the book explaining that he did this so teachers and librarians would feel more comfortable sharing the book with young readers. All very fair.

The reaction to Encounter was very positive, and when my son was in third grade, and I was volunteering by sorting papers in the back of Mrs. Fiske’s room, I was very surprised that she gathered the students and read Encounter aloud to them. She did it every year. And I believe it remains one of the only younger books from this perspective, which I still find hard to believe. Maybe I am wrong. I hope so.

At my launch party for the Blue Sky Press on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, one of my guests was Michael Dorris. This was at ALA in June 1992, so Encounter was still a new book. (I’d published it at Harcourt and then moved on to become Editorial Director of the Trade Book Group at Scholastic, starting Blue Sky in the fall of 1993.) Since Michael was Native American and had co-authored The Crown of Columbus for adults, I wondered what he thought of Encounter. He said he liked it, and he was very glad we had published the book, but his Native American children were constantly being pressured to talk about their dreams, as if Native Americans always dreamed the future, and he wasn’t thrilled about that part of the story. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was an issue, and at that point I couldn’t take it out, but I believe that was the only criticism I heard of the book, and it was said to me in a very mild, helpful way.

So Encounter was David Shannon’s second book for children, and I have been publishing his books ever since. Jane and I vividly remember that day at the gallery, pulling the paintings out of the flat files and feeling certain that he was the right illustrator.

Back when I worked for Harcourt and traveled a great deal of the time, I used to go stay with Jane often. I stayed in her lovely farmhouse, Phoenix Farm, in western Massachusetts, and I ended up publishing lots of writers and illustrators in her area. I met many of them through Jane, who was always encouraging new talent and pitching books to publishers with one of her new “finds” attached.

She sent Jane Dyer to Maria at HBJ with Jane’s wonderful Baby Bear’s Bedtime Book, and that was the beginning of a long and very close friendship between Jane Dyer and Maria Modugno that continues today. Maria has since been with several different publishing houses, including Little, Brown and HarperCollins, and I believe that Jane Dyer has published books with Maria at all of them.  I met Dennis Nolan through Jane and published their collaboration, Dove Isabeau, at HBJ. Barry Moser I met independently, but he collaborated with Jane for me on Sky Dogs; the stunning cover painting of that book hangs in my dining room where I see it every day. And I met Patty MacLachlan and her husband, Bob, before Patty published Sarah, Plain and Tall—which took Patty and me to a writer’s conference where we behaved like high school girls in our shared cabin after the day’s events. Six packs of beer and lots of cigarettes and a very, very late night of laughing. That was a few months after she won the Newbery Medal, and people started assuming she knew everything and was asked for marital advice and lots of other things that were not a part of her career.

Jane Yolen has mentored more people that I could even list here, and I think of her as the Mother of Children’s Books for that reason. Her generosity is staggering. She is strong as an eagle and a fighter by nature—she stands up for the best causes and never backs down—but she is also gentle and kind and is the first one to comfort you and put her arm around you and remind you that nobody is perfect. She also publishes with so many houses that she seems to have her finger on the pulse of what is happening in the book industry, which is also helpful and interesting. It’s a relief to know you aren’t the only one who is required, after a lifetime career of freedom, to now jump through hoops of fire and stand before committees of marketing people and make a case for a book that you know will be a shoo in. There you go. Jane says it is happening almost everywhere. We are all in cages, and we are probably all uncomfortable being inside of them….

Last summer I took my then-17-year-old son to Scotland where Jane lives in the summer. She has always had her husband, David Stemple, by her side, and it was strange to have him missing. Of course I flew east for the memorial service, but as Jane took us on a tour of the castles and highlands and the fishing villages, memories of David, and what David did and thought and saw, were all around us.

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Jane is small but she is very, very, very brave.

It was a precious trip to stay at her beautiful home, Wayside, and since my son was a serious water polo player, and St Andrews has a good water polo team, it was worth checking out and meeting the coach (who could not have been more friendly and more encouraging). But St Andrews is a place that is very unlike Santa Monica (huge understatement here!), and the cold, and rain, and distance from a city would have been a mistake.  We loved the colors of August in Scotland and took the train with Jane back to Edinburgh and played and explored there for two days while the Fringe Festival was going on.

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My son was little when I came up with the idea of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?, and Jane was the perfect person to write the book. I have already gone into some detail about how that book—and the eight that have followed—came into being, so I won’t write more about them tonight. What I will say is that Jane writes them with an uncanny sense of the things that matter most to children. I am guessing it is just her innate sense of young people more than it is all the time she spends with grandbabies (which is considerable, too).

We are finishing up How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe? for next March, and I have high hopes that the book will start a dialog among parents and children about more worrisome dangers than those I can print in that book. But it has been a great deal of fun to make them all, and I believe each one contributes something very special to children. They are fun and funny and lighthearted, but they also offer children help with an issue such as feeling mad, or feeling love, or going to school, or going to the doctor, and it’s a grand time to share all those dinosaur antics and mischief with a little one.

It’s late tonight, and I am getting sleepy. I wish I were at Wayside right now so I could take a bath in the especially long bathtub upstairs, walk down the hallway in my pajamas, and give Jane a good-night kiss.

I’ll do that from afar.

Thirty years of stories. And I can only take a snapshot here or there. That will have to be enough of a scrapbook for now…..

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Going to the printer on Monday: Leo & Diane Dillon’s IF KIDS RAN THE WORLD

Going to the printer on Monday: Leo & Diane Dillon's IF KIDS RAN THE WORLD

If peace begins with a smile, then children are our greatest hope for the future. All roads lead to kindness in this warm, uplifting celebration of generosity and love. A rainbow of children lend a helping hand to make our global village a happier place, where food, shelter, medicine, and education can be had by all. Leo Dillon was working with Diane on this, their final collaboration, when he died in May of 2012. If Kids Ran the World will be published by the Blue Sky Press on September 10, 2014. (Story about the fascinating road that led to this book will follow when I get a chance to take a breath!)

More Talented than a Hurricane: Rodman Philbrick

I met Rod Philbrick at the Edgar Awards. I attended with Kathryn Lasky, who had been nominated for a book I published at Harcourt. Kathy introduced us, and a few months later I found myself carrying an unlikely first children’s novel home from the New York office in my book bag.

It was Saturday, and I needed to get my car fixed. Back in those days I lived in my hometown of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, in the house I’d grown up in—after both my parents died suddenly and unexpectedly.

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     So I give the keys to my Honda Accord to my hometown mechanics on Finley Avenue, and they’re raising it high into the air as I sit down in a plastic chair and take the rubber band off Rod Philbrick’s manuscript. I’m not optimistic because Kathy has described it to me as a story about a dwarf and a giant, or something like that, but I am going to read it anyway.

I begin reading, and wild horses can’t drag me away from FREAK THE MIGHTY. When I get to page 11, I fish through the pages and find Rod’s phone number on the manuscript, and then I leave the mechanics to try to go find a pay phone. I finally find one at Ridge Pharmacy, and I put in my card. I am panic stricken. I need to talk to him immediately.

I get lucky because he answers. And I tell him this: I am reading your book and I have to publish it. I need for you to promise me you won’t submit it to anyone else.

He sounds a little startled, but he agrees.

And then I can relax, because no matter what, this has to be on my list.

FREAK THE MIGHTY required very little editing. Rod says he wrote it over a summer, and I believe him. He is honest and true and a beautiful human being.  The novel was based on real people, which makes it even more powerful to me—not just that a boy similar to Kevin existed, but the masterful way Rod has written about Kevin with such grace and dignity and respect. He has disguised the boy and his mom, both real, and he has made their battle and their victory timeless and unforgettable. I will read FREAK THE MIGHTY many, many times. And when the book has been out for twenty years and has sold more than three million copies without any major award, I will publish an anniversary edition with 32 pages of backmatter that are meaningful. By that I mean they are not just interesting facts; the material in the anniversary edition is pulled together, organized, and built to be a true contribution to the world of literature. We carve essays around letters to Rod from children. Some of them make me want to celebrate, while others bring tears to my eyes. And Rod tells about himself, and why he wrote the book, and what it has been like to get so many letters, and how hard it was to get published and to continue writing, despite many years of rejection. He is a remarkable person, and of course you can see that in all his fiction, but it shines in the essays of the 20th Anniversary Edition—so if you haven’t read them, you are in for a rare treat.

Freak the Mighty

This season, Spring 2014, I am publishing a different story, although Rod’s books always revolve around a central character of depth and substance who is put into an impossible situation. Rod says he had always wanted to write a story set in a hurricane, and I’m guessing that’s because he and his wife, Lynn (who died of cancer not long ago), have spent half of each year in Florida….hurricane country. After Katrina, it made sense to write about that one. So he did.

Originally titled HURRICANE ZANE, the novel is about a New Hampshire boy named Zane who lost his father before he was born. His racial background is mixed, with a blonde mother and an African-American father, but his mom has no ties to his dad’s family….until one day when she discovers Zane’s paternal great grandmother, Miss Trissy, through one of those ancestor-tracking websites. Zane’s mom sends him down to New Orleans to meet Miss Trissy—who didn’t know Zane existed—and Miss Trissy allows Zane to bring along his devoted mutt, Bandit.

Zane and the Hurricane

Timing is everything, and shortly after Zane and Bandit arrive, a hurricane named Katrina forms in the gulf. What follows is a page-turning, hold-onto-your-seat tale of survival—all based on fact. And as the editor, I had quite an education.

I signed the book up based on the idea, and I decided to stay away from any information about Katrina so I would have the fresh, blank-slate reaction of a young reader. I didn’t want any information or stories in my head to sway me about the hurricane, the behavior of the New Orleans residents, the reaction of the police and the government, or anything else. So when Rod sent along HURRICANE ZANE, my mind was open and unbiased.

In addition to the facts about Katrina—what happened at the Super Dome, the shocking statistics, the Ninth Ward, shootings on the bridge, no food or water or medical care for residents who did not have the means to leave New Orleans as the storm approached—Rod has woven an extremely powerful narrative about race and kindness and selfishness and cruelty, all seen through the eyes of a boy who is visiting. Zane’s observations, emotions, fears, and gratitude all ring true, and for me the characters and story are unforgettable.

I didn’t dive into research until I finished reading the manuscript a number of times. I did my first-pass edits on the characters and plot, not on the setting. And then, as I began searching for Katrina facts, the tsunami of information swamped me and threatened to overwhelm the book in my mind. How in the world did Rod know to sift through all the films, news articles, footage, statistics, and first-person accounts to even build a story? I watched all the documentaries, read all the nonfiction books I could find, and played with interactive maps that showed me how the hurricane approached, the timing, and which parts of New Orleans were affected and when. I learned the difference between a levee and a storm wall, and I learned how completely vulnerable the city was to complete flooding and destruction. I studied the ethnic charts and statistics about migration. I watched hours of testimonials by people who didn’t have cars or money to leave the city, and I came to see how the New Orleans government deliberately did not prepare to shelter citizens because they did not want poor people getting too comfortable. I learned about the migration of the poor away from New Orleans after the flood, and I was fascinated by learning how the financial aid was distributed or not distributed. I charted Zane’s journey from the Ninth Ward past the Super Dome and across the bridge to Algiers. All of Rod’s research was precise and accurate.

“How on Earth did you write this book?” I asked him. With so much information, I am still amazed he could manage to sew together a patchwork of people and events to create a reality that captures the corners and shadows of this horrific, historical event so vividly. I could smell it, taste it, and feel the heat. I was dripping with sweat, covered with mud, bitten by mosquitoes, and scared to death of gunshots in the night and snakes in the water.

“That’s one of the reasons it took me so long,” he explained. “So much has been written about it, and from so many points of view.” And of course he’d come at it the opposite way I’d approached the editing—he’d sifted through acres of reference material, found his own storytellers, and read the books and periodicals before he wrote it and mapped his way through the Katrina experience. I am still baffled that anyone could carve such a stunning book out of so much conflicting information—and make it seem effortless, as if the writer just had an adventure and then wrote it down.  Good fiction does feel effortless; I guess all good books do.

One of Rod’s points, when he was revising the manuscript, was that so many people experienced Katrina that there is not just one story but hundreds of thousands of stories, and this will continue to be the case as long as people live to tell them. Zane’s story is one of them, and at the end of the book, Rod suggests that others tell their stories, too. I like that.

Rod directed me to maps to include in the beginning of the book and also at the end. I wanted to see a clear map of New Orleans so I could get my bearings, and I also wanted to see the larger picture of the hurricane, because it affected so many additional places outside New Orleans.

I have been blessed to edit FREAK THE MIGHTY; THE FIRE PONY; MAX THE MIGHTY; THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE; REM WORLD; THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA; THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG; and now ZANE AND THE HURRICANE: A Katrina Story. (I think I’ve listed all of them—a small but very powerful list of novels!)

The Last Book in the Universe

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

The Young Man and the Sea

The Fire Pony

I do not understand how Rod writes, or how he is able to write so well, or where he gets his ideas, or how he manages to always make me love his main character so deeply and completely. And his books always have humor woven into them—wry wit that again holds my attention and gives even more depth to the tale. I cry every time I read FREAK THE MIGHTY, even after all these years. There is such courage in that book, and so much inspiration. I was very excited, when I moved from New Jersey to Santa Monica, that FREAK THE MIGHTY was on the Santa Monica Public School Summer Reading List.

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Seeing Rod accept a Newbery Honor for THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG was absolutely thrilling, and Lynn and I took lots of pictures. The three of us walked around Washington, D.C. and played tourists during ALA. I have a really nice photo of them in front of the White House.

 

I confess I was hoping THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA would be a Newbery Honor Book, and I heard that it had been discussed, for that is another astonishing story that, for me, took hold of my heart and imagination and never let go. But readers always seem to find Rod’s wonderful books, Newbery or not—and at last count, THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE had sold more than half a million copies, again without any major award. It’s just a great book, and word of mouth—word of teacher, word of librarian—keeps leading young readers to it.

Rod grew up in Maine and belongs to a very big family that settled there in the 1600s, so the Philbrick roots are deep. He knew he would become a writer at an early age, but as he wrote and tried to establish himself, he also worked as a carpenter, roofer, and longshoreman among his many jobs.  He is one of those rare writers who knew his calling and answered it with unceasing energy and dedication. Again, the 20th Anniversary Edition of FREAK THE MIGHTY tells a lot about the path that led him to finally get a book published, and how he managed to get through the rough times with the help of Lynn.

It is a thrill to meet a teacher or librarian or bookseller and to hand him/her a copy of a new novel by Rod Philbrick. It was very, very exciting for me to attend NCTE this past November in Boston and to pass out copies of the bound galley of ZANE AND THE HURRICANE. So far it has received three starred reviews, which is a wonderful affirmation of his accomplishment. I say that because no matter how much I love a book, and no matter how impressed I am with the fiction, there is just no way to know if others will share my enthusiasm.

It was a coincidence that ZANE AND THE HURRICANE was published ten years after Katrina, and I hope that anniversary will bring people to the book. Where does New Orleans stand now that ten years have passed? Does the devastation still haunt the city? How has it healed—or not healed? And what have we learned? Soon the book will be released in hardcover, and Rod will begin getting letters from young people with compliments and criticisms, and some of them will tell him true stories of their own about Katrina.  Maybe one of them will be from you?

 

(May 22, 2014: ZANE AND THE HURRICANE has been received with great enthusiasm, and the book has earned three starred reviews. Congratulations, Rod! Here is a photo from NCTE in Boston, where he read a few passages from the book.)

 

Rod Philbrick at NCTE 2013

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