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HarperI met Ann this summer at the SCBWI Summer Conference. We started chatting and I really liked her, even before it clicked that she was the fabulous writer that my friend Jolie had been telling us about. I loved Also Known as Harper, and it’s always great to know that authors are just as lovely as their books.

WT: Tell us about your novel, Also Known as Harper.
AHL:  Harper Lee Morgan is an aspiring poet, which isn’t surprising, seeing as how she’s named after her mama’s favorite writer, Harper Lee. And life is giving her a lot to write about just now. Daddy up and walked out, leaving them broke. Then Harper’s family gets evicted.
With Mama scrambling to find work, Harper has to skip school to care for her little brother, Hemingway. Their lives have been turned upside down, which Harper could just about handle—if it wasn’t for the writing contest at school. She wants nothing more than to get up on that stage and read her poems out loud . . .it is about perseverance, with some hope and humor mixed in.

WT: Where did the idea come from, and how was your road to publication?

AHL:  I volunteer at my local soup kitchen with my family. Harper isn’t based on any one child in the meal center, but more on a feeling I got when I saw the children standing there in line with their parents. I wondered what their lives might actually be like.

I’d love to say, my road to publication, was smooth, without any forks, but I’ve been writing stories since I was about four years old and I have a whole room full of rejection letters! I just kept writing and trying to make my manuscripts the best they could be. I joined SCBWI and tried to listen carefully to comments made in manuscript critiques and workshops. After a while, I started to get some “good” rejection letters with personal notes jotted on them. A couple of years ago, I read an interview with an agent that really caught my eye. I had just finished the manuscript of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER, and I sent him a couple of chapters. He made some suggestions and when I did some revisions and sent it back to him, he offered to represent me.

WT:How different was your final draft from your first draft? Any big changes?

AHL: Hmmm…that’s a difficult question! The idea stayed the same, for the most part, but I’m very lucky to have a very hands-on agent and a wonderful editor. They are both incredibly good at coaxing more out of me!


WT:  Why was it important for you for Harper to write poetry?

AHL:  I think it is easy for a child in a situation like Harper’s to feel invisible. Writing poetry was a way for Harper to feel “heard” and worthwhile.

WT:  You deal with serious themes of homelessness, alcoholism, abandonment- how have readers responded?

AHL: I am a teacher and I think the most difficult response for me to take came from a student who was in a temporary housing facility. One of the other teachers bought her a copy of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER. The little girl came into my classroom to ask me to sign the book and said, “Harper’s life is my life.” I had to turn away for a second and pretend like I was busy with something on my computer, because I didn’t want her to see me cry! She was standing there with such a strong, wise look. It was hard to see that in her eyes.

WT:  What have you done for promotion- online and/or in-person?

AHL:  I have really enjoyed doing blog interviews and bookstore and school visits. A few weeks ago, I went to the library in Auburn, Washington, where I got my first library card. I thought I was going to talk to a teen writing group, but a whole bunch of other people started walking in: my first grade teacher, my third grade teacher, the principal of my elementary school, my middle school English teacher….it was pretty overwhelming! IMG_2013

WT: That’s so cool! What are you working on now?

AHL:  I have another middle-grade novel coming out (also with Henry Holt/Macmillan) next year. It is called SEARCHING FOR EZEKIEL and is about two young girls, dealing with a mother who I hope will bring out conflicting emotions in the reader…

WT:  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

AHL: I LOVE to read. I always have! I also like to run and do karate. My fourteen-year-old daughter and I just took our second degree black belt tests together!

IMG_1654WT: How do you stay in touch with the writing community (e.g. critique group, SCBWI, social media, etc.)?

AHL:  I love SCBWI; their conferences and workshops have been invaluable to me. I am a member of two critique groups, and I don’t know what I’d do without them! One of the critique groups has three other members and we have been together for over six years. I also am on Facebook, I just joined Twitter and I have a blog (www.annhaywoodleal.blogspot.com).

Ann's critique group

Ann's critique group

WT:  What have you enjoyed reading recently?

I loved THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett and just finished CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins.

Thanks, Ann!

I met Grace Lin lastwtmmtm_coverjpg spring when she was a keynote speaker at our spring conference. She’s sweet and sharp, and she always finds a way to create books in her own unique way. Her newest book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a middle grade novel based on Chinese folk tales with full color illustrations. From the wonderful story, to the beautiful artwork and even the lush feel of the paper, it’s truly a gem.

WT: Tell us about your novel, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.”

GL: My publisher has dubbed “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” as an Asian “Wizard of Oz,” which, while I am honored it is compared to a great classic that I love, is not really what I had in mind when I wrote it. The story follows a young girl named Minli who, inspired by her father’s stories, goes on an enchanted adventure to find the Old Man of the Moon to change her family’s fortune. On the way, she hears various stories from all the people/creatures that she meets and the stories slowly weave a lesson (but not in a didactic way!) about the secret of happiness. The book is a mixture of Chinese folktales and my imagination and values; it’s both ancient and modern, Asian and American.

A noteworthy thing about the novel is that there are full color illustrations scattered throughout the book. The whole book was actually printed in full color–great pains were taken with the design and production. I truly hope that everyone who reads it feels that the book is a thing of beauty aesthetically as well as story-wise!

minliWT: What made you want to create this book?

GL: I grew up in Upstate NY, the only Asian (except for my sisters) in my school. Because of this, my childhood was always tinged with a strange sense of identity. Was I Chinese? Taiwanese? American? Most of the time I simply ignored my race.

But my mother regretted that I knew and had so little interest in our cultural heritage. So, one day she put about half a dozen Chinese folktale and fairytale books on the shelve for me to read. Which (always unable to resist the lure of a new book) I did.

At first disappointed. Used to lush illustrations and descriptions, the Asian books were plainly translated with an occasional simple b/w line drawings and seemed an inadequate comparison. However, slowly I discovered the stories had a magic and I began to imagine details of my own, tinged with Asian-American sensibilities. When I grew older and was able to travel Hong Kong, Taiwan and China–the stories came alive.

And “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” came into existence. An homage to the folktales and fairy tales I read in my youth, it is a mixture of Asian fairytales and North American classics. Not a traditional retelling of stories from either cultures it is, as I said above, a mix– like me, Asian-American.

Grace_templeWT: The format is so rich and unique. How was developing this book different from your previous novels?

GL: The was very different from my other novels as it was a fantasy, not first person narrative and less episodic than “The Year of the Dog” and “The Year of the Rat.” But I definitely needed to write those first, to gain confidence in my writing ability, before writing “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.”

I tend to write in kind of a haphazard way. I plan the start and end in my head, write the first couple of chapters and then write brief chapter summaries for the rest of the book. For “The Year of…” books, those chapter summaries were pretty much on base. For “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” the story just went off on its own tangent.

It was really important for me for all the stories to tie together, because of the red thread theme– was how everything is connected. So, this book was a very consuming process. I was constantly thinking of how to link stories– writing notes on scrap pieces of paper at the gym, post it notes all over my house, notesbook scrawls at lunch. This was the first book that I’ve written where it was impossible to work on anything else at the same time. I’m glad the story found its way back to my ending.

Also, my research for this book was much more lavish! I traveled to China to really soak up the atmosphere and landscape for my setting. I don’t think I will get to do that again.

WT: How different was your final draft from your first draft? Were the themes consistent? Any surprises?

GL: Well, the first draft was about half the length of the final. Many authors have a hard time cutting–seems like most write great volumes and cut down. For me it’s the opposite. I tend to write incredibly spare and have to go back and “thicken” it up.

The biggest change was adding the second story of Minli’s parents and their experience while Minli was away. My first draft was solely Minli’s journey and it was my editor who felt that I should include Ma & Ba’s experiences too. I kind of balked when she first told me that, but then I tried it and realized it made the story much better!

WT: I always love to hear when other writers write sparely and add more as they revise, instead of whittling down. I’m the same way, but so much revision advice starts with cutting down your word count. I felt like I must not be doing it right until I just accepted that my process was different.

You attended the Rhode Island School of Design, but I read that you write the story before creating the art. How important is it for you to combine the two?

GL: It’s been very important for me to have both the pictures and the words work together. To me, both are equally important. The difference is in a picturebook, the pictures are there to help the readers understand the words and in a novel, the words are there to help readers understand the pictures.

WT: Do you feel there is a growing acceptance of illustrations in children’s novels?

fruitful_mtGL: I hope so. You see it a lot more nowadays, like in Kate Dicamillo’s novels and Sharon Creech’s “Castle Corona.” I think the illustrations add so much to experience of reading. To me, they are perfect—they give a glimpse of visualization into the world you are reading, but not so much that you aren’t left with anything to imagine. Also, they make the experience of owning and holding a book feel that much more special—turning the page and seeing a full color illustration is almost like discovering a jewel and the book itself feels like a little treasure.

I hope these days, in the age of technology with browsers and kindles, these kind of illustrated books will be even more cherished. With so much doom and gloom about the future of publishing, to create books that are not cheap throw-aways, but are beautiful objects to enjoy is something to consider.

WT: Great point! What are you working on now?

GL: My next book will be “Ling and Ting.” It is an early reader (which is a format I have been wanted to try for a while) about Chinese-American twins. It is almost the reverse theme of the “Year of the Dog;” using twins, I am trying to show how even when people look the same they can be different.

After that I have a picture book on the Moon Festival and a picture book set in Beijing. In the meantime, I have started preliminary drafts for a novel that has the same characters of my past novels “The Year of the Dog” and the “Year of the Rat.”

I have no plans on writing a sequel to “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” but I do have ideas for companion. My little dream is to have a trilogy of folktale-inspired fantasies, and then I’ll move on to something else (hopefully).

WT: What do you like to do when you’re not making books?

GL: Well, I lead a pretty boring life. Other than book-related things, I like baking cupcakes, decorating cupcakes and eating cupcakes. Oh, and biking (to burn off the cupcakes).

WT: You blog as part of the Blue Rose Girls, as well as your own blog, Gracenotes. How much of an impact does blogging have on your writing life, if any?

GL: When I first started blogging, I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil and I really needed outlets. Blogging was one of those outlets. Now that my life is peaceful, I blog almost out of habit. I think blogging was good for my writing, it was practice for expressing myself in words and sometimes it is the only writing I do in a day. I don’t think it takes away from my writing of novels, not yet anyway!

WT:  What have you enjoyed reading recently?

GL: I’ve been listening to a lot of audio books lately, as I’ve been painting my new picturebook. I’ve been alternating between old classic and new releases. I just finished Edward Eager’s “Half Magic” and I’ve got “Al Capone Shines My Shoes” by Gennifer Choldenko next. For my eager to read pile, I have “Any Which Wall” by Laurel Snyder (which I heard is an homage to Edward Eager, so I’m all primed and ready) and Sid Fleischman’s “The Dream Stealer.”

WT: Thanks for the suggestions, Grace, and thanks for a great interview!

The winner of the signed copy of The Year the Swallows Came Early selected at random is…. 045

Celia!

Congrats, Celia! That’s my middle name, but I wasn’t biased at all. The selection process was as random as it can get. I mean, there was a pet involved. Send me your address and I’ll send you Kathryn’s lovely book. If you didn’t win, feel free to run out to your nearest bookstore and pick it up, because it’s lovely. Thanks for commenting, everybody!

Distracting consolation activity:

Cheese or font?

Stay tuned…tomorrow there will be another author interview!

What a week! My son started first grade at a new school, SCBWI Western Washington kicked off a new season, my in-laws are visiting, and I accepted a little challenge to finish this draft of my manuscript by Halloween. Oof.

My question about middle grade authors really struck a nerve with people. Some readers speculated that YA authors blog more for teen readers- but I’m talking about support in the writing community. I’ve been paying extra attention to the YA and MG blogs I read, and the comments seem to be from the others in the kid lit community- not kids or teens (with exceptions like Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray). YA authors are online talking to each other, promoting each other, supporting each other, and building buzz in a way that middle grade authors just don’t.

So, can we take up the challenge? I think we can! We can definitely do better. If anybody has any ideas, shout ‘em out- or send me an email at kcb at kimberlycbaker dot com. Let’s get organized!

I’m continuing my middle grade author interview series on Wednesday with someone who definitely has her own take on creating a middle grade novel- with beautiful results. You have until tonight for a chance to win a signed copy of Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s The Year the Swallows Came Early by commenting here.

Speaking of interviews and awesome middle grade writers- Kirby Larson interviews Trenton Lee Stewart on her blog. He has a new book in the Mysterious Benedict Society series coming out next month. Yippee!

A good list of graphic novels for the K-4 crowd, via @lauriethompson.

Robin Mellom is rereading Judy Blume’s books, and sharing her impressions in the Great Judy Blume Experiment.

A long list of books with characters of color, via @brownbookshelf.

A house swap resource for creative folk only.

FSG editor (and middle grade author!) Lisa Graff will be on our faculty for the SCBWI WWA conference in April. Betsy at Fuse #8 posted a video Lisa made this morning…and I think we’re going to get along just fine.  And Lisa, if this apprenticeship doesn’t work out, I bet we can find you a Washington cow to milk when you visit in April.

One more video, but it’s a doozy.

Insert a metaphor here, or just enjoy the facial expressions.

I’m so excited to present the first in a new series of  author interviews. Kathryn Fitzmaurice agreed to answer a few questions, AND she’s graciously offered a signed copy of The Year the Swallows Came Early! Just leave a comment below by September 14 and I’ll pick someone at random to win!

WT: Tell us about your novel, The Year the Swallows Came Early. The Year the Swallows Came Early

KF: The book is about an eleven year old girl named Eleanor “Groovy” Robinson who dreams of attending cooking school one day.  Only she discovers that someone close to her has taken away something very important that may keep her from ever going.  She has to decide if she can forgive the failings of someone she loves, and accept him for who he is, rather than who she wants him to be.  But it’s also about how she keeps working to achieve her dreams despite the obstacles that are put in her way.

WT: How did you get the idea, and how long was it between your first spark and publication?

KF: It took almost exactly three years from when I wrote my first sentence to receiving the offer from HarperCollins.  Then it took another 16 months after the offer for the book to be on bookshelves.

The idea for the book had been stirring since the summer I turned 13, when my mother sent me to New York City to visit my grandmother, who was a science fiction author.  My grandmother led a very eclectic lifestyle.  I remember we never did anything until late afternoon, and then we stayed up until 2 or 3am.  Sometimes, we went to dinner as late as 11pm.  When we returned, she’d sit down to write until very early in the morning.  She told me she did this because the middle of the night was when people said and did things they normally wouldn’t.  She had a collection of porcelain owls, because they were creatures of the night.  She studied paranormal events.  She discussed things like inner motivations and secret desires.  She helped me to write my very first story that summer, and stayed up all night typing it so I could have a real story like she had.  At thirteen, it was my first real writing lesson.

Chrysalis of Death

She worked very hard that summer revising a novel entitled Chrysalis of Death.  And one day, we met her literary agent for lunch, and after listening to them discuss how my grandmother could make her characters into whomever she wanted, I decided that someday, I’d like to be a writer, too.  So after I told her this, my grandmother proceeded to send me books about writing techniques, books by classic authors, and literary essays for every birthday and Christmas holiday after.   In most of these books, she would write inside the cover, “K: Write what you know. “  One of my favorite books she sent to me when I was deep into a teenage poetry writing stage was a volume of poetry by Emily Dickinson.  Inside this book she wrote: “Emily Dickinson is a revered poet. Perhaps the same can be said of K.H. someday. Love, Grandma Eleanor. “

When she passed away, she left me a big box with all of her unfinished manuscripts in it, which have been a tremendous inspiration to me.

So because of all of the encouragement she gave me and to honor her, I decided that when I sat down to write my own novel many years later, that I would name my main character after her and give her a grandmother very much like my own.  In fact, because I remember her revising Chrysalis of Death the summer I visited, I decided to include it in The Year the Swallows Came Early.  So on page 148, my main character and her best friend find this manuscript along with a few of her others stories.  I included her book inside my book.

She never got to read even the first draft of my novel.  But I did send it to her agent, Phyllis Westberg, four years ago, who is still alive and working in NYC.  After reading it, my Ms. Westberg made the comment that she thought my grandmother would have been very happy.

WT: How different was your final draft from your first draft? Were the themes consistent? Any surprises?

KF: As far as themes go, the final draft was very similar to the first draft.  But the format, the chapter orders, the way things were laid out; those all changed quite a bit over the course of three years.  There was one good surprise. I had changed the title of the book probably twenty times while I was writing it, but Brenda Bowen, who was the editor who bought it, asked if we could change the title to The Year the Swallows Came Early, which was the exact working title I had used while writing it.  So even though I had used many different tiles over three years, (mostly because I couldn’t decide on what I wanted) we went back to my first one.  I suppose some things are meant to be.

WT: I noticed you were at the SCBWI Summer Conference. What was the highlight for you?

KF: It was either Richard Peck’s speech, or Sherman Alexie’s speech.  Both made me tear up and want to be a better writer.  And actually, while I was listening to Richard Peck, I was so inspired by him that the idea for my newest title came to me about half way through his talk.

WT: I read that you’re working on a companion book for The Year the Swallows Came Early. Anything you can tell us about it?

KF: Yes, thank you for asking.  The companion book is about one of the other characters in Swallows, named Frankie.  It’s written from his point of view, which took some getting used to.  I had to separate from Eleanor, which was where I’d been for three years, and get into Frankie’s head.  I think it took me a good six months before I was able to think about him without thinking of how Eleanor saw the world.

WT: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

KF: I enjoy walking my dog, Holly, and I spend a lot of time on the pool deck watching my two boys play water polo, or at swim meets.  I also like to think up first lines as I see things happen around me.  And, I’m kind of a neat freak.  I like to clean out things.  Give me an unorganized pantry or garage, and a trash can, and I’m happy.

WT: How has your teaching experience impacted your writing?

KF: Every day we had twenty minutes of uninterrupted silent reading right after lunch.  I think back a lot to the books my students chose to read over and over.  They are the same books I love today.  Honestly, I hope someday I can write one of those books that kids wait in line to check out from the school library, or use their lunch money to buy at book fairs.  That is a well written book.

WT: How do you stay in touch with the writing community (e.g. critique group, SCBWI,  social media, etc.)?

KF: I attend many writing conferences each year and am part of a terrific critique group which meets once or twice a month.  I also twitter and facebook, like many other writers do.  I am also a part of two fantastic author’s networks. The Class of 2k9, and AuthorsNow.

WT: What have you enjoyed reading recently?

KF: I just finished two great books: Kate DiCamillo’s new one, The Magician’s Elephant, and The Help, by Kathryn Stockett,   I also just re-read Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana.

Kathryn FitzmauriceWT: Any writing/revision tips you’d like to share?

KF: I am no expert; I have a lot to learn myself.  But I suppose I would encourage writers to join a critique group because it’s a very good way to get honest feedback that helps you see what you’re missing.  Sometimes I learn more about my writing by critiquing their writing because I can be objective with someone else’s work, and so it helps me to be more open to receive criticism from others.  Like everyone else, I enjoy hearing positive comments about my work, but it’s the criticism that helps me grow while I’m writing my first drafts.  I can open my book to most any page and see a line that one of my critique group members wrote or revised.  I can see whole paragraphs and chapters that were inspired by a question one of them asked.  I’m so thankful they cared enough to push me.

Thanks, Kathryn! Pick up a copy of The Year the Swallows Came Early at your local bookseller, and find more of Kathryn on her blog or website.

Don’t forget to comment for a chance to win a free, signed copy!

Thanks for reading!

I think YA is well represented in the blogosphere. Lots of YA authors blog, and YA  releases generally get a lot of online buzz .  Picture books and middle-grade don’t seem to have as strong of an online presence (in my opinion, anyway). Why is that?Do you agree?

I like to post about general kid lit stuff and random things that interest me, but I’m going to try and have more of a focus on middle-grade fiction as well.

How, you ask?

Weekly author interviews and giveaways, I say!

I’ve asked a few of my favorite middle-grade authors with recent or upcoming releases to consent to be interviewed- and they’ve obliged! So, stay tuned for the first installment next week.

Meanwhile…

CuppaJolie has a contest for bravery on her blog.

Are you in Seattle? Consider a preview screening of Where the Wild Things Are with a Q&A with Dave Eggers to benefit 826 Seattle.

Mitali Perkins wrote an insightful note to young immigrants here.

Darcy Pattison has declared Random Acts of Publicity week starting on September 7. Promote some books!

Intriguing illustrator alert! Marie Desbons has illustrated French picture books, but we need some of that loveliness over here, no? Thanks to Decor8 for the link.

Have a great holiday weekend!

I write stories for kids while volunteering as the Assistant Regional Advisor and Conference Coordinator for the western Washington chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

I live in Seattle with my family and a small zoo of animals. I drink copious amounts of coffee and assign complicated life stories to passing strangers. I'm currently working on a middle grade novel.

There's a wee bit more on my website. You can also follow me on twitter.

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