everything grows with love

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

Archive for Children’s Book Publishing

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)

USHER reads IF KIDS RAN THE WORLD by the Dillons’ Book to 2 million children

usher-scholastic-world-of-possible

Today the R&B superstar Usher graced Scholastic with his typical generosity and warm respect for people of all backgrounds. In an event to promote reading–called “Open a World of Possible”–Usher spoke to an auditorium of excited students and also read Leo & Diane Dillons’ If Kids Ran the World. It was the perfect message of love, peace, feeding the hungry, building homes for the homeless, giving medicine to the sick, and providing good schools and loving homes to all children–something Usher has been doing in his own very powerful and inspiring initiative: Usher’s New Look.

Here is a link to the event, a webcast that occurred today:

http://usherwebcast.scholastic.com/

And here’s an article from Vanity Fair, covering the event.

http://www.vanityfair.com/vf-hollywood/2014/11/usher-book-reading-tour:

We Watched Usher Read a Book to a Crowd of Screaming Children

“Kids, by the way, are what keep me young,” he said.

NOVEMBER 6, 2014 4:46 PM

BY STUART RAMSON/INVISION FOR SCHOLASTIC/AP IMAGES

 

 

 

 

 

Usher treated an excited, decidedly pro-reading crowd of schoolchildren to a reading and performance in New York on Thursday. The kids were packed into an auditorium at Scholastic’s Soho offices for a “BiggerThan Words” Web cast, which marked the launch of the book company’s “Open a World of Possible” campaign.

“You’re all Internet stars,” Scholastic’s Billy DiMichele told the audience, who was quite pleased to hear that “as many as 2 million people” were watching the live-stream of the proceedings.

“I read to escape the reality that I have in my day-to-day life,” Usher said after emerging to a frenetic reception, telling the audience that his favorite books include Green Eggs & Ham and the Winnie the Pooh series. Usher said that while his mother and other relatives would read to him, it was his first-grade teacher, Ms. Harris, who first showed him “how to use my imagination beyond what’s on the page.”

He then read If Kids Ran the World, by Leo and Diane Dillon, and performed a stripped-down version of “Without You.” Scholastic peppered the event with pre-taped video interviews with children who explained what they think “possible” means. One boy said he thinks “possible” is about making the unusual normal, “like, pigs flying, or fish out of water.” Another pint-size reader offered this rationale for why he liked books: “There is no limit. Like in a car, there’s a speed limit. But there’s no limit on reading, you can read forever, unless if you have to go to a birthday or something.” Indeed.

VF Hollywood caught up with the performer and father after the event, and asked if he was able to reconnect with Ms. Harris as an adult. “I’ve tried my hardest to reach out to family members who had a connection, because the school I actually attended was torn down,” he said. “Ridgedale was the name of the school.”

Usher offered an eclectic group when asked by a student member if he could name five people he would invite to a book club: “Morgan Freeman, because he has the coolest voice, Scarlett Johansson, and not just because she’s hot, SpongeBob, Oprah Winfrey, and my kids.”

“Kids, by the way, are what keep me young,” Usher told VF Hollywood. “One thing I will say about inner-city kids, is that a lot of what they say is, ‘When I have tough days, or I want to escape my reality, I go to reading.’ You might not realize it, but kids internalize things differently than we do . . . They’re just innocent, man. That’s what I keep in tact, and reading does that.”

Usher said he tries to read with his sons, ages five and six, as much as possible. “They’re now at the age where they want to participate,” he said. “It could be any of the library of books that we have in the house, but now it’s more about engaging them instead of just reading it to them. But sometimes they use that as an excuse to stay awake.”

“The imagination of my kids is pretty hard to keep up with,” he admitted. VF Hollywood asked if Usher thought he’d still be putting out music when the youngest elementary-school children in the crowd on Thursday grew up to attend high-school dances. “As long as I can make music, and as long as I have my voice, I’m going to continue to make it,” he said. “I could be any age.”

At 36, Usher is somewhat of a premature veteran (his self-titled debut studio album turned 20 years old this August). He recently kicked off his first tour in three years, though he’s doing so without a new album to promote. “When we finished rehearsing, we had an idea of what could happen,” Usher told us. “It’s kind of like you add water and stir—or milk, because it’s a little bit creamy. But it’s been a good trip back for me.”

“I was so happy that I didn’t have an album to promote, because this is really about talent,” he continued. “It’s about being able to communicate and connect through conversation. Maybe we talk about where inspiration came from, or an offbeat tribute, or a drum solo, or an ultimate soulful moment. All those things are what I wanted to introduce to my fans . . . every night is a different journey.”

“The reaction to ‘You Got It Bad,’ ‘Let It Burn,’ ‘Yeah,’ ‘D.J. Got Us Fallin’ in Love,’ and ‘Without You’ is just incredible, on a consistent basis,” he said. “I feel like I’m living in a golden moment, man.”

In hyping up the crowd for Usher’s arrival, DiMichele told the children that, if children actually did run the world, “I guarantee it would be a better place.” They screamed their agreement.

A Pen, a Princess, and a Lot of Rock Music: Snapshot of Robin McKinley

I met Robin McKinley a million years ago when we both had long hair and wore snakeskin cowboy boots. She was into “goth” and I was into “new music,” and she was writing The Outlaws of Sherwood, although I don’t know what the manuscript was called at that time. She simply referred to it as “Robin Hood.”

She came out to Santa Monica from Maine and stayed with my rock-musician husband and me for a while. In those days, we spent a lot of time hanging out at Skyline Recording Studio way up on Old Topanga Canyon Road, and I don’t recall what records Ira was working on back then, but there were parties with Bob Dylan and sessions with Joe Cocker and concerts where Ira played with all kinds of great rock musicians. We went to clubs and showcases and wore our outlandish clothes and crazy jewelry. She was the princess of goth. And of course Ira was writing and recording his own tunes, some with Britt Bacon and Carl Sealove and a lot of other talented people. Ira had a recording studio in our small home, so he was making music all the time, and Robin and I had a great time with all of it. Everything in my closet was either black or white, and I never combined the colors. One day I bought an unconventional sweater from a catalog–completely not my style. We were walking along Main Street after breakfast one morning, and she gave me a puzzled look. “You’re OK with that?” she asked. She pointed at my sweater. “Wearing pink?”

I fell head-over-heels in love with Robin’s books when I read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Unlike most people back then, I read Beauty afterward.  She wrote books I could not put down, and sometimes I didn’t get my night’s work finished because I was reading something new by Robin. And in those days it was rare for me to work fewer than 80 hours a week.

Every morning Robin would go into my home office and work on the book. It was a tiny room someone had attached onto our tiny home–very dark and crowded. She explained her writing ability by telling me that she had a crack in her skull, and the words and stories came in through that crack. Since then, I have heard other people explain their brilliant writing in a similar way, but that is how she described her writing process, which was very mysterious to me. It was a mystery to me that anyone could write that well.

I don’t know how old we were, except that I am in my 50s now, so we had to have been close to thirty, but not much older than that. She had achieved highly unusual success for someone her age, and it was troubling her. She told me she felt tremendous pressure, and I don’t know what that was like for her. She had written Beauty, and it had been a wildly successful novel that knocked the socks off fantasy readers. Her second book was a Newbery Honor, and her third book won the gold. I’m sure it must have been enormously exciting to have that level of affirmation, but on the other hand, that is pretty heady for a younger person.

And how do you follow that?

Everyone (and I include myself ) was on pins and needles, waiting for Robin’s next miraculous novel to sweep us off our feet. Robin’s editor at the time was the legendary Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow, who had also been Virginia Hamilton’s editor (along with Janet Schulman and Ann Beneduce) most of Virginia’s career.

I met Robin because a new illustrator friend, Katie Thamer Treherne, had surprised me by bringing me all the finished picture-book illustrations for The Light Princess by George MacDonald, which he had published in 1864. They were intricate, gorgeous, and highly detailed, but in order to publish Katie’s art as a picture book, the original manuscript by MacDonald had to be cut. I decided to ask a “master” fantasy writer to tackle the job of cutting/editing it–not revise it or re-tell it, but edit it for length.

My first choice was Robin, and she agreed to do it. Of course she respected the writer and did a beautiful job.  I didn’t think her involvement with the project stepped on anyone’s toes, but it allowed an engaging, delightful picture book to come into existence (Harcourt) and bring that forgotten, light-hearted story back to contemporary bookshelves.

Along the way, I got to know Robin. And I state for the record that I did not understand Robin, and I never have, and I never will.  I’m not sure it matters, except I do not want to present a misconception that we were best friends. Everyone is different, every writer is different, every relationship with a writer is different, and this is no exception. Still, she is a genius, and this is a small collection of essays about my experiences with brilliant writers…and that includes the mysterious, complicated, wildly talented and unpredictable Robin. There you go.

At any rate, if you have read a few of the essays in Everything Grows with Love, you have seen that in my life, the process of publishing books is very personal. I have very personal passions for people and their individual visions, and it is usually a familial kind of thing for whatever reasons. Most of the time that works out well–meaning better books–and sometimes it backfires or goes south or drifts away into distance as is true with close relationships in the lives of most people. As well, I’m not saying this is the way editors and publishers should approach bookmaking. They should approach it however it works for them. This is what works for me. It has been at least two decades since I gave a rat’s ass how anyone else makes a book. This is how make books, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.

Meanwhile, back at the Robin McKinley snapshot (smile–I think Robin would like that little outburst, being the rugged individual and the maverick she undoubtedly still is)….  Robin taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about writing and publishing, and it has been invaluable these twenty-five years since. Some days she would go into my little study and come out feeling she’d written good fiction. Other days she would come out feeling she’d written terrible fiction. But what she said about it was this: At the end of the book, I can’t tell which parts were good writing days and which were bad writing days.

I always urge writers (and myself) to keep everything, no matter how bad it may seem. Because how you feel about your writing on Monday may be extremely negative, but in fact it may be the best writing you’ve ever done. I guess that’s true about a lot of things in life, right? You wake up after an argument with your sister, and the work you try to do that day feels wrong and inefficient and lousy. In fact, it may be the best work you’ve ever done. Why should it be any different with writing?

Robin kept the good and the bad and kept on writing The Outlaws of Sherwood every morning. She said it was taking her a lot longer to write this book because she felt the public’s expectations were deafening–my words, not hers.

People have told me that it is easier, emotionally, to win a Caldecott or a Newbery Medal after publishing a lot of books so you are better prepared for the celebrity and sudden fame and high expectations. I have known a zillion winners of those awards, and like their work, they are each individuals and very different.  But in Robin’s case, I think those medals were wonderful, and she so deserved them, but it may have made the rest of her career more difficult and challenging. I don’t know.

Katie Thamer Treherne, who created the paintings that led me to Robin, married a man she’d met on a pilgrimage, and they moved back to his ancient family home in Sussex, England, where she is probably now the mother of several grown children who have children of their own. Robin married the celebrated writer Peter Dickinson and moved to England with him. The last time I saw her was at a New York party given for them by her agent at the time. Robin and I stayed in touch for a little while, and the last photograph she sent me from England was a picture of herself with a tractor, in a beautiful British rose garden. She told me she was happy and very proud of the flowers in the photo. And I had to smile to see that like her own Beauty, she had become a lover of roses, and I hoped she was cherished by a prince of her own.

I think of Robin tonight and the people we were back then, and how we had no idea of what was before us. It was a unique time, kicking around those recording studios and being in publishing yet rejecting the stuffy rules of the business. We took great pleasure in drop kicking as many rules as we could out of the park.

Snap your fingers, and flash, more than twenty-five years have passed. What was once an irresponsible night on the town is rapidly becoming a ghost of a memory, and you want to catch it on your laptop before it vanishes. You gave up your cowboy boots long ago and have become a woman with a grown child, a publisher overflowing with stories, and a gardener with roses of your own.

Ah, the rose…that ancient storytelling symbol. Its entrance and its exit–and the people who cross over during that magical, transformational moment–can alter your life forever….

Lois Ehlert: Growing Vegetable Soup

I am very new at my editorial job at Harcourt, located in San Diego, and I am in New York, making the rounds to meet people. One of the stops on my list is Kirchoff & Wohlberg, and we have a nice conversation while I look at portfolios. I am almost out the door when a young agent named Liza Pulitzer asks to show me one more thing. She comes back with a bright red dummy that has been made out of that sticky, neon-colored paper that has a really, really strong scent of adhesive.

On the center of the cover, boxed in red, is a tomato. The artist has done something with the colors–a slight contrast of the reds and greens, I’m guessing–that makes the cover seem to vibrate the way optical illusions sometimes do…the ones that make your eyes water. The book is called Growing Vegetable Soup, and the graphics are arresting. I love it.

The dummy is complete–an entire book, finished–and the writer/illustrator’s name is Lois Ehlert. I am told she lives in Milwaukee. I can see the book is going to have to be rearranged a bit, and some things will have to change, but I am enchanted. The bright colors, the bold, sunny graphics, the simple language…all of it speaks directly to my senses. A child and parent are going to plant a vegetable garden, and the artist walks us through the preparations, the care of the plants, and the harvest. Then it’s time to make vegetable soup! My entire childhood, my dad and I planted a vegetable garden every spring. Among other things, I was in charge of keeping the lines of seeds straight, but inevitably when the lettuce came up, the line zig-zagged in a crazy way, and it was a task to keep the rabbits out. I know I will have great fun with this book, and so will children and parents and teachers.

It is the second book I acquire for Harcourt, after Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, which is the first. Later I will find out that this lively little book has been rejected by something like eight different publishers, and that is a testament (like Harry Potter) to the fact that editors and publishers have wildly different taste in books. It’s legend now that a dozen or more editors rejected Harry Potter, but one, Barry Cunningham, liked it and published it. “No” is terribly discouraging, but it only takes one “yes”–and how critical it is that writers find editors and publishers who are passionately in love with that writer’s work. I am a writer, too, now, and I am currently learning this from the writer’s side of the desk…another story for another day.

I fly to Milwaukee to meet Lois Ehlert. She is warm and highly creative, and she is dressed like her book–in bright colors that are unexpected but add up to a feeling of energy and good spirit. It turns out she loves gardening, and this will lead to other books on the subject: Planting a Rainbow, which will follow Growing Vegetable Soup, and later, when my parents die, a book I will always connect to them, to the land where I grew up, and to my childhood filled with trees: Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf. That will be my last children’s book season before I leave to work at Scholastic. My friend and colleague (and former editorial assistant) Allyn Johnston will become Lois’s editor, and it is a match made in heaven for both of them.

But back to Growing Vegetable Soup. So Lois, I come to discover, goes around Milwaukee like a spy and secretly plants bulbs in the city. Then, in the spring, they pop up in their bright colors and surprise everyone. She is the Robin Hood of tulips and daffodils, as filled with promise, hope, and optimism as spring itself.

She is unusual in many ways, but it is extremely helpful that she cuts and pastes a complete dummy and sends it in that way. It’s a lot easier to work on the book having such a clear road map.  I get to see her studio, and the big sheets of blank paper where she is drawing the outlines for the finishes. She has an exhaustive collection of that sticky colored paper in every possible color, and she constantly experiments with how one color changes the dynamic of the color next to it as well as the entire page. I know it will be some trick to reproduce this complex level of collage, because the separator wraps the art around a huge metal drum to shoot it, and that creates shadows with collage. (Again, it was a long time ago, and we had many constraints–such as the size of the art itself–which do not exist in this digital age of PhotoShop and instant art reproduction. To get those neon colors that gave Lois’s books so much zing, we sometimes added fluorescent inks–which, I was told, would fade over time, although the basic color would not. I doubt if those inks are even legal now because of possible contaminated substances, a consideration that would not have even occurred to us back then.)

Throughout my career, I have had single books I call “trouble magnets” because if something can go wrong, it will go wrong with that particular book. Growing Vegetable Soup is something of a trouble magnet in-house in that weird and bizarre things happen with it. Nothing that involves Lois, but events that set my hair on end. For example. the designer pastes up type with uneven letter spacing and word spacing. We are not in the era of computer design; everything is cut and pasted on mechanicals by hand. Type is generated and purchased, and I guess that day the type machine went whango. The result is a set of mechanicals with some words jammed together and others floating along with too much space. We have decided to enter the modern era and send the book to print in South China rather than in the U.S. where we are doing all our other books, so the schedule moves up dramatically, and I am told I will have to live with this horrific type because there is not enough time to change it. I pitch an absolute fit that gets me sent down to Human Resources for a lecture on cooperation, but my fit is insistent enough that the spacing is corrected. Then, on the way from South China, a boat sinks, and an entire print run goes down with the ship. Can you believe it?

The response to Growing Vegetable Soup is immediate and very positive. Lois Ehlert’s sunny little book instantly sells out its modest first print run of ten thousand copies, and then it’s out of stock and backordered for what seems like forever.

It’s a sweet book to publish, with a very sweet author. Looking back (I haven’t worked at Harcourt for more than two decades), I’m guessing cumulative sales of that book must be in the millions. Which makes me smile. I have my own tattered first printing, and it was always one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Lois continues to write and illustrate books that delight children, and many years later, after I’ve moved to Scholastic, I still get to see her popularity in the book clubs and book fairs–which means thousands of teachers and children are celebrating Lois Ehlert every time the book box arrives in their classrooms.

Cover of "Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager...

Cover of Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager Books)

Growing Vegetable Soup. It makes me happy–and hungry–just thinking about it!

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