Friday, August 28, 2009

Who says picture books have to be safe?

“Edgy” gets used so much to describe YA novels that the word has ceased to have any meaning for me. Not so with picture books, where “edge” is relatively rare.

I will admit to some intial trepidation about Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog. It was unquestionably funny, but would people also find it a little too . . . much? In the end, I just trusted that Andersen Press and Willis and Ross knew what they were doing. And, at least as imagefar as the Just One More Book podcast is concerned, they certainly did.

It’s very satisfying when any book can engender this much discussion—especially a picture book.

Here's the podcast:

Download this MP3 - (Right Click)


Thursday, August 27, 2009


One of the most satisfying things about working on single-title nonfiction is that you can encounter its components in real life. I had this experience quite literally when I heard Archaeologist Doug Owsley interview on public radio:

Doug and his work play a critical role in the story Sally Walker tells in her Written in Bone. Coming across a character from a book in real life is not an experience you get to have when you only work on novels.

On the other hand, working on single-title nonfiction like Sally’s engages the same part of my brain that novels do. These books feel like a window into a world, but instead of being a world of the imagination, it’s a world of carefully assembled facts. And just as a novelist can’t be a specialist when it comes to imagining her world, so too the nonfiction author must concern herself with every detail of the world she’s portraying.

Here’s what I mean: In the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Written in Bone succeed beautifully with readers and reviewers, while at the same time working with Sally on the manuscript and photos for her next book. It’s been a treat. Written in Bone literally and figuratively digs into colonial Jamestown, and between its covers you’ll find archaeology, anthropology, history, politics, sociology,crime, technology, and, of course, storytelling—all coming together to create a vivid picture of this world. It’s storytelling, not information transmittal.

Sally’s next book trades Maryland for Antarctica. It’s quite a shift in subject and scope, but Sally’s approach remains the same: finding all the facts she can, no matter where they might be, to give the most memorable impression of the place. And what a place. Antarctica is huge by every measure, and it would be easy to get bogged down in a single subject. For instance, a couple weeks ago, I got absolutely transfixed for a morning reading the final journals of Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who died on the way back from the South Pole almost a century ago (read these and you’ll never smirk at the British notion of keeping a stiff upper lip again). I’ve also spent a good deal of time in the last few weeks trying to get my head around  stratigraphy—the study of layers of material in geology—and the very idea of “ice that flows like honey.” The challenge for Sally is pulling all of these strands together—integrating those disparate facts—to tell the story of Antarctica. Let me tell you, so far, so good.

Integration. This is, I believe, the true pleasure of bookmaking and ultimately of book reading.

Monday, August 17, 2009


When something is described as enviable (in this case Steve Brezenoff’s prose) your next question is naturally, who’s doing the envying? Sara Zarr, that’s who.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

“Enjoy being a kid!” Really?

My strong feelings about the exploitation of teenage athletes are well documented. I think we are living through a transformative moment in our culture concerning sports and the cult of teenage amateurism. As I mentioned earlier, Jeremy Tyler, a teenage basketball star from  San Diego has opted to forego his final year of high school in order to play professionally in Israel (great novel plot there somewhere). This has elicited a lot of reaction, naturally. I think none is more notable or more sadly off base than Dick Vitale’s. If you are even slightly aware of college basketball, you know Dick Vitale. He’s the hyper-enthusiastic broadcaster and ex-coach who’s made “baby” a personal catchphrase. He’s synonymous with college basketball. He called the first college game ESPN ever broadcast 30 years ago (in an era where college ball players routinely stayed in school for several years). I believe that Vitale sincerely believes in college athletics and is well meaning, but when he writes this, he sounds unfortunately like a clueless, rich white guy:

What is it all coming down to? Now kids are leaving high school early to chase the dream of playing in the pros. It is all about instant gratification and getting the dollars. The problem is that these players lose out on a valuable, irreplaceable time in their lives. They miss out on being a kid!

I freely admit that I haven’t read anything about Jeremy Tyler’s situation. He may have a huge trust fund; he may be living on food stamps. It doesn’t matter. Who is Vitale to tell this young man that his next year in high school is “valuable and irreplaceable”? If Tyler were to blow out his knee in some meaningless game in his senior year, Vitale should be compelled to visit him at the hospital and say that to his face.  It is simply wrong and sanctimonious for anyone to condemn a teenager who chooses to take what is possibly his best shot at a significant income in the name of “being a kid,” especially when those people are already making money off of him. After all, blue-chip high school players are heavily scouted, from as early as sixth grade, and those scouts are compensated for their efforts.  High school tournaments attracts broadcasters and advertisers. If the athletes see any of that money, though, they risk their amateur status.

Vitale, to his credit, doesn’t support the NBA-NCAA rules that prevent athletes from going to the NBA out of high school, but he does point out that Tyler had committed to attending Louisville before he changed his mind and signed with the Israeli team. Louisville coach Rick Patino (presently embroiled in a sex and extortion scandal) makes over one million dollars a year plus endorsements to coach teenagers who are compensated with a theoretical education many of them don’t want or need. Nice work if you can get, and I don’t begrudge Patino, but anyone who draws a paycheck from the multibillion dollar “amateur” athletics industry should be ashamed to invoke “being a kid” as a reason not to take the money and run.


The Steel Pan Man of Harlem, Colin Bootman’s latest picture book is about to be out, and we couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out. He transported the pied piper to Harlem in a magical, captivating way. We just recently completed a trailer for the book, which you can see here and on YouTube.

The trailer has a couple of my favorite images from the book. First, this is a picture book unafraid to show some leg. First appearance of garters in a Carolrhoda picture book? I think so.


Then there’s this one below. I’ve never asked Colin, but this immediately struck me as an homage to The Godfather.



The Steel Pan Man of Harlem should be showing up in stores very soon.

Turning Pro Before Graduation

I maintain that this is going to be a very interesting story to watch over the next few years. First Brandon Jennings opts out of the NCAA, and now this kid is skipping his senior year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Making Rad Stuff

There are days when I feel like I should change my job title. Sometimes I feel like “bookmaker” better captures what we all do around here (pity about the other meaning of that term). With the roles of editors, agents, packagers, et. al. all so up in the air, it feels more honest to lay it all out, and declare our core expertise. And, boiled to essentials, that expertise is helping to make books we think people will like from manuscripts that authors write.

It will be abundantly clear to anyone who knows me that I like to use analogies to help explain to myself what I see around me. Cocktail parties helped me with social networking. Watches help me appreciate short books. Now, handmade bicycles. Here’s a custom-bicycle-frame builder in Portland explaining his craft.

There’s a lot about what he does that resonates with authorship (or illustratorship) for me. What I think is really resonant is the shout-out he gives to his graphic designer and his painter toward the end of the video. That’s where publishers come in. In an ideal world, this is how bookmaking and particularly cover design should work.

And, if you want to see why cover design is particularly on my mind, do check out |-1| author Steve Brezenoff’s blog.

Looks like my boss is thinking about process, too. Check out the Lerner blog.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

True to Your School

“When some loud braggart tries to put me down
And says his school is great,
I tell him right away,
Now what’s the matter buddy
Ain’t you heard of my school”
It’s number one in the state.

“So be true to your school now,
Just like you would to your girl or guy.
Be true to your school now
And let your colors fly.
Be true to your school.”

-Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Letter Jacket by Mistie B..It appears to be No Child Left Behind reporting season here in Minnesota. My ride in this morning featured a long public radio piece about how almost half of the schools in Minnesota aren’t making “AYP” (“adequate yearly progress”—a rather awkward phrase, but one I don’t doubt Love and Wilson could have worked into their song, had they written it forty years later). Schools that don’t make AYP are routinely described as “failing.”

School spirit plays a role to varying degrees in a lot of fiction for teenagers, but I have yet to see any reflection on or mention of what it means to go to a “failing” school. I imagine there must be a wide range of reactions, and I bet they’re all interesting.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nonfiction Monday (Brief)

This article in the Times captures a theme that appears in a lot of stories about about adolescents and society: teenagers’ uncomfortable status as not-quite children and not-quite adults. This state results in all sorts of compromises when it comes to social services, juvenile detention being one of the most troubling. “Juvie” is a common device in lots of teen fiction, but the reality is pretty striking stuff, especially in a time where state budgets are shrinking:

“We’re seeing more and more mentally ill kids who couldn’t find community programs that were intensive enough to treat them,” said Joseph Penn, a child psychiatrist at the Texas Youth Commission. “Jails and juvenile justice facilities are the new asylums.”

Perhaps no less troubling is the prevalence of pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness.

Juvenile prisons have been the caretaker of last resort for troubled children since the 1980s, but mental health experts say the system is in crisis, facing a soaring number of inmates reliant on multiple — and powerful — psychotropic drugs and a shortage of therapists.

I’m no expert, but my understanding is that adolescents are generally not well represented in studies of these drugs, so to have poorly tested drugs administered under less than ideal conditions is truly terrifying stuff—and sadly not fictional.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

RIP: John Hughes

John HughesThe filmmaker John Hughes died today. It’s probably fair to say that his movies laid the foundation for a lot of the great YA being written today. I can’t say anything on the subject that author Steve Brezenoff didn’t say better on his blog earlier today.

[…] As a writer of YA, I am constantly paying homage to, and occasionally ripping off, Mr. Hughes, and my guess is most writers of my generation, and those younger, have his work -- and the archetypal characters he favored -- constantly in their unconscious as they work. It would be impossible not to.

Check out Steve’s blog, watch a John Hughes movie, and then run down a hallway singing “I want to be an Air Force Ranger.” It’ll be fun, I promise.