Category Archives: Children’s Books

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Guest Blog: Louella Dizon San Juan: What I Learned When You do it Yourself

As promised, today I am thrilled to announce a guest post by my friend and fellow blogger, Louella Dizon San Juan.  Louella is an author/illustrator and playwright. Her staged and published dramatic work, as Louella Dizon, includes The Color Yellow: Memoirs of an Asian American at La Mama Etc., The Sweet Sound of Inner Light at The Public, and Till Voices Wake Us at the Soho Repertory Theater and, more recently, the Echo Theater in Dallas, TX. Louella’s work is featured in the collection, Contemporary Plays by Women of Color, edited by Kathy Perkins and Roberta Uno, and is archived at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the Roberta Uno Asian American Women Playwrights Scripts Collection, 1924-2002. The Crowded Kingdom is her first children’s novel and the first book in the children’s fantasy series of the same name featuring the girl heroines, Jada and Jinny.

As a working mother and businesswoman, Louella is an active advocate of empowering girls and women in math and science, and holds both a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Princeton University and a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from New York University. She lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, New York.

What I learned when you do it yourself:

Part I — The Self-Publishing Leap

Dear Louella,

Thank you for sharing The Crowded Kingdom with us.

It was not the sharing of the stories, nor the drawings, nor even the insights into my life, that was most difficult.

It was finding someone or some thing, some entity, to take a chance on me — more specifically, The Crowded Kingdom.  I kept a spreadsheet of literar210px-And_to_Think_That_I_Saw_It_on_Mulberry_Streety agent and publisher names:  address, status, contact information, and preferences.  I kept in mind that Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) was rejected 27 times; Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time rejected 26 times, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rejected by a dozen houses until the young daughter of the CEO at Bloomsbury persuaded him to accept the wizardly manuscript.  I kept typing “Query…” and pressing “Send.”

The responses started coming back.

Several came with requests to see more.  As time went on, the dialogue with the outside world began.

Dear Louella,

Thank you for sharing The Crowded Kingdom with us.

We found the story interesting.  I think it will make a fabulous 
illustrated chapter book. As much as I would love to work with you, 
and while I believe that your ideas might have market appeal, 
unfortunately...
I don't feel I'm quite the right agent.
I'm regretfully going to pass.
The novel is not in line with our current publishing goals.
We just don't have the resources right now to do it 
justice.

Best of luck with this project and all your endeavors.  
I really hope that you find a great publisher for this!

I began to get nervous around Query Number 26.  The dialogue had not changed.

But I had written and published before, and had seen the impact of my written word on stage.  I took to heart the feedback that this little fairy story was something different, something that grownups and kids could both like.  It seemed to delight my peers in writing workshops, and my teacher, who was a respected and beautifully accomplished writer.  And it delighted my children, my girls, my first and true audience.  Could it not delight other little girls and boys too?

And then my dear spouse gifted me with an iPad Mini for Christmas.

fred_wilma_flintstones_arguingMany a time my electronic gifts from my husband are the modern age equivalent of Fred Flintstone giving Wilma a bowling ball for her birthday:  something truly cool and useful for one human being — “something that I would use myself” — bestowed on another who is, at best, mystified.

But the iPad Mini opened my eyes to the beauty of the electronic book when I downloaded and read Gone Girl from cover to cover.  Of course, Gillian Flynn‘s acclaimed suspense writing stood on its own, independent of the media.  But I loved how the pages languorously turned at the flick of a finger; how I could bookmark pages with an electronic sticky or electronically jump back to a previous page as I easily as I could a real book.  It felt like reading a book when you looked past the flat plane of the screen.

I downloaded a sample of Alice in Wonderland for the iPad and loved it.  It promptealicescreen480x480d visions in my mind of being able to hyperlink and browse other fanciful things if this were that kind of children’s story.

So…

…as you know, I made the decision to self-publish The Crowded Kingdom as an e-book.  I felt that the chance to publish what I wanted, when I wanted, given the outlets now available today through Lulu, Smashwords, Amazon Createspace, Lightning Source and Vook  — among many other options — were too prominent a growth channel to ignore.  On the one hand, I couldn’t quit my job as primary breadwinner and devote one hundred percent to the production and marketing of my craft.  On the other hand, perhaps naively, I thought I had the focus and financial independence to leverage third-parties that could do it for me.

And I assumed that somehow, deep down inside, I had no expectations.

The reality was quite different.

Make sure to Follow Louella’s blog to read Part 2  – Making Contact.  And click here to buy The Crowded Kingdom.   Now out in paperback as well as e-book.

Connect with Louella Dizon San Juan

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Guest Blog on Magic and Fantastic

I’ve just had the honor of writing a guest post on my multitalented friend and fellow writer-blogger, Louella Dizon San Juan’s blog, Magic and Fantastic. Louella is one of the most multitalented people I know: working mother, businesswoman, playwright, author/illustrator and advocate for women and girls in math and science.  Louella recently published her first middle grade novel, The Crowded Kingdom, which my son and I loved!  (Available on Amazon).   

I was thrilled when Louella asked me to write a post for her guest series: Reboot: Start Up Your Life Again. Owning the Gift, my first guest blog, is about the life-changing moment when I realized that writing was no hobby, but part of my identity. 

Here’s a sneak peak:

Owning The Gift

“So you call yourself a writer?”

Am I a writer?

quill

Without a doubt, though it took me years to say it so emphatically.  Writing was always background music, my secret identity, like a private security blanket that accompanied me through my every incarnation.

CONTINUE READING

Boston’s Journey Back to Itself

images[1] (5)Just over a week after the Boston Marathon bombing, I learned about her.  I’ve been thinking about her ever since: Adrianne Haslet-Davis—the beautiful, young ballroom dancer who lost her foot to one of the blasts.   Her foot.   A dancer’s connection with the earth–the very foundation of her career.  Haslet-Davis may not be unique among Boston’s recent amputees; many were runners, people for whom athleticism and movement were part of their identity.   But she stands out for me.  As a former dancer, I know what the loss of a foot would mean.   According to the articles I’ve read, Haslet-Davis has bouts of sadness and rage in the face of her lost limb, but holds onto hope.  She is determined to some day get back to the dance studio, to make a comeback with the Viennese Waltz.  Haslet-Davis survives, believing in herself and her future, thanks to her faith in advanced medicine, science and technology.  I have no doubt that she will dance again.  But her reality has changed; she must adjust her physical identity accordingly.  She and the other amputees embody the mission faced by Boston itself: a journey back to its post-bombing future.

When disaster strikes—natural or manmade—it shakes up a community.  Things you’ve always trusted—that your neighbors are your neighbors, not hostile strangers; that law enforcement is sufficient to provide safety—gets shaken up.  Home is suddenly not home, not quite the place it once felt like.  The rules are changed; daily life takes more thought, simple movements are now belabored, shrouded in fear and mistrust.  I remember the weeks following nine-eleven, when the world felt different: so unsafe, so newly dark and uncertain.  I remember the days after Hurricane Sandy and—more personally for me—the period right after our house fire.  Our identity as a family had changed.

Just as Boston’s has now.  More than lives were lost in the bombing, more than limbs; something deeper and less tangible was taken.   The nation has mourned along with Boston, but now we must watch and cheer the town on as it clamors to its feet, purging what one Boylston Street business owner called “bad energy.”

I lived in Boston for a year, back in 1989-1990, as a member of Boston Ballet II, and though I was in rehearsal most of the time and made too little money to partake of what the city had to offer, I remember its character.  Old American beauty thrown up against a bare toughness that rivaled the bare toughness in sections of Brooklyn—only with pinker cheeks and flatter vowels.  There were the Public Gardens, evoking memories of history lessons as well as my favorite children’s books, from Make Way for Ducklings to Trumpet of the Swan.  A mere stone’s throw away was the “red light” district, disconcertingly close to where we performed Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet.  Like New York, it was a great walking town, with ethnicities and neighborhoods on display as you walked, as varied as those in my home town.  Like New York, but unlike it, too.  A little shorter, a little slower, a little less of a chameleon.  I haven’t been back since I left twenty years ago, but still I remember the Boston-ness of the town, how I knew I’d always be an outsider, but appreciated the fact of calling it home for that season.

Things are getting back to normal there, but because of the bombing, they will never quite be the same.  Like those who lost limbs—each of whom must now face different lives and find their own, new versions of “normal,” each day will be marked by the triumph of overcoming unimaginable loss.

Let the Querying Begin … Again

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy (patient and supportive) followers know: if I’m neglecting this blog, it’s because I’m letting my other writing take  center stage.   Still I wanted to update my home page because I have some exciting entries coming up, including a guest blog and hopefully an author interview.  Several of my fellow bloggers,  Louella Dizon San Juan and Robyn Oyeniyi have recently self-pubbed and I have to say I am so proud of them and very much in awe.  I’m also in the process of writing reviews for Amazon, which is a daunting task in itself!  For my part, I’ve decided to hold out for now and go the traditional route, which means all (well, much) is riding on one teeny weeny little document that can make or break me.  I mean, of course, my query letter.  A query letter is your calling card to agents (one of whom will hopefully rep your book one day, and go on to find you a deal with a publisher).   The most important part of your query is the plot summary, which you write to entice–just as the blurb on the back of your book will do for readers.   It should be grabby–not gimicky–intriguing enough for an agent to ask for pages, and–according to various sources at the many, many query letter writing, and pitch prep seminars I’ve attended-NO  MORE THAN TEN SENTENCES LONG.

Of course, your query letter is meaningless if your book isn’t done–really done.  I have learned this the hard way.   When I first wrote Birch Wood Doll, I struggled so much with the query letter; I just could not find a catchy way to summarize the plot in ten sentences.  I revised my letter over and over, never satisfied that I had correctly portrayed my book while making it sound interesting.  This, I have to say, was a red flag.  The reason I struggled with my query letter, the reason it sounded like a different book each time ai rewrote it, was that Birch Wood Doll, though I had gotten to the end, was not finished.  What was it even about?  It didn’t know.  I didn’t know.  Sure, it was a biracial jewish girl with an eating disorder, torn between two men, struggling with dual identity, unresolved about her career in ballet versus her academic life at University.  And her father is dead.  And her grandmother threatens to disown her.   And her friend falls off a building high on cocaine.  And there’s this guy who whittles her a doll made of birch and … Yikes.

So I took the book back, whittled away myself, figured out what I was trying to say and finally … no I didn’t get it published, but I was able to come up with a heck of a pitch. No fewer than five agents asked for partial or full manuscripts when I attended the Pitch Slam at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference.

Just for fun, here’s my “Before” pitch for Birch Wood, followed by the “after” letter that worked for agents.

BEFORE:

Birch Wood Doll (mainstream fiction, complete at 85,600 words), is the story of a biracial, bulimic ballerina’s search for self and true love.

Navigating two cultures, two divergent career paths, and two lovers, Amy, a biracial (black/white/Jewish) dancer, uses sex, cigarettes and starvation diets to cope with stress.  Forced by her wealthy grandmother to give up a ballet contract and attend Princeton University, Amy meets and falls for two men: smooth, sexy Jack, also biracial, quick with a love song and access to cocaine—and sweet, noble Kole, a white, rural-bred, wood-whittling, football player who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Over the next fourteen years, as her identity  unfolds in the context of the love triangle, Amy learns—with the help of a symbolic doll made of birch—to let go of the past, trust her instincts, and find her own way to self-respect, wholeness and love.

Set in the 1980s and 1990s, Amy’s story is inspired by my own experiences as a Jewish, biracial dancer who took a leave from Princeton to join the Cincinnati Ballet, as well as by my own eating disorder struggle and recovery.  Like Amy, I stopped dancing to become a clinical social worker and later hung out a shingle as a psychotherapist.

This wasn’t my first attempt at a pitch by any means (I’d be too embarrassed to share that) but, I think any agent who made it to the part about “over the next fourteen years …” probably checked out then.  Now here’s my after-pitch, the one that more or less worked.

Birch Wood Doll, set in the 1980s and 1990s, is the story of a young, biracial ballet dancer’s search for self and true love.  Amy loses half her racial identity at 10: she’s mixed but looks “any race,” her black father dies and her white mother’s family tries to erase his memory.  Amy grows up searching for ways to define herself.  At first it’s ballet; she’s a gifted dancer with a knack for self-starvation and a cool stone-face to rival Morticia Addams.  Then—convinced she can only find herself when she finds love—Amy turns to men.  When she’s forced to give up a ballet contract to attend Princeton, Amy falls for two male classmates who satisfy opposite needs.  Jack is biracial too; he helps Amy rediscover her “lost black childhood.”  Kole is a linebacker, generously proportioned, which gives Amy a nice break from her eating disordered mindset.  Through college and beyond, Amy holds her position at the center of the love triangle, certain that either man could be the soul-mate who resolves her conflicts and heals her pain.  The devastating, unexpected result of her choice will break Amy’s heart but ultimately teach her who she is and open the door to real adult love.

It turned out that none of the agents who went for my pitch wanted to represent Birch Wood Doll, but the book did wind up being a Nilsen Literary Prize finalist.  Based on feedback the Nilsen people gave me, I now believe that Birch Wood is one last sweeping revision away from being really, truly done.  I’ll get to it, but for now, I’m focused on my YA book, Second Company (formerly known as Twice the Dazzle) …

…which is, I now believe, really, truly done itself.  Of course, a few months ago, I believed it was done, though I had not in fact heard back from all my beta readers.  And because I couldn’t resist, because I just couldn’t wait—even though my query letter wasn’t perfect yet either–I queried a few agents.  No big deal, querying before you’re ready, except that you may be wasting an agent’s limited time, as well as wasting opportunities for yourself.  Those agents I queried before I was ready are agents that might be great for my book, but agents I can’t query again.  Nor can I get away with querying other agents in their agencies.  That’s considered bad form too.  But you live and learn, sometimes the same lesson a few times over before you get it.

The good news is that my beta readers liked Second Company a lot (some said Love!) AND were really great about giving me fine-tuning suggestions.  One more revision, another month of well-worth-it hard work.  (Another tightening of the query, too.)

Now my query letter is good; my book is the best it can be (I believe).  I have changed the title (on the advice of a well-published friend) as well as reordered my chapters, so it begins in the middle of the action, rather than with an emotionally introspective scene.  You can read my new, improved first chapter here.  So I am really ready.  I’m also strong enough to say, bring on the rejections, because they’re not personal, because everyone gets them, and all you really need is one solid, enthusiastic “Yes!”

Wish me luck.

The Reading!

I’m reblogging this from fellow writer, Louella Dizon San Juan. On her blog, Louella (also a close friend and former college roommate) shares the details, as well as some fun photographs of our reading at Dewey’s Candy in Brooklyn. It was such a delightful event, in such a sweet setting! I read, listened, met some fascinating people–including the author, Karen Heuler, and agent, Brooks Sherman of FinePrint Literary– and also shopped for my kids’ Valentine’s Day candy!

Magic and Fantastic

We literally had a “fantastic” time at our Sugarplums and Fairies reading event at Dewey’s Candy on Thursday night, Feb. 7th.

Dewey’s Candy owner Alison (Dewey) Oblonsky and I thought that the combination of candy and fairies would be a natural crowd-pleasing event, so we decided to throw that party in the first week of February, in time for Valentine’s Day and as a book launch and platform for a few author friends and I.

We had 2 rounds of readings from Karen Heuler, Lisa W. Rosenberg, and myself, with ample opportunity for attendees (walk-ins) to purchase candy during our Candy Prelude, Candy-mission, and Candy Wrap-up.

During our Candy-mission and Candy Wrap-up Q&A, over Perrier and Prosecco (courtesy of our host, Alison!), queries centered on topics like, “What served as the inspiration behind your story?” and “How do you feel about traditional publishing vs. self-publishing?”

Audience members of all ages…

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Back: a Book Revised, a Reading Upcoming

DSC00621It has been so long since I’ve posted here, so long since I’ve read or commented on the blogs I follow.  In my last post, I apologized in advance for what I knew would be a break, and my kind, supportive followers commented that there was no need to be sorry—that they understood. However, at this time, I think an explanation of what’s been going on might make for a good return post.

First, as I mentioned, I had restarted my therapy practice, which felt wonderful, returning to a part of me that I’d been away from long enough to really miss.  It was time; I was ready to work and focus on the lives of others.

Second, though I had technically written two books during my leave, both needed some work yet. Though Twice the Dazzle—a version of which I’d completed before the hurricane—was close, my concentration had been nil since the fire.  I was unable to write much more than a blog post and was unable to read much more than the New York Times.

But as December was nearing its midpoint, something began to lift.  Suddenly, I was able to sit with a book again (and read one I’d been meaning to get to for years: The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  Loved!)  I was also itching to return to my own book, which was so close to done.  It was time to finally use the feedback from my consultation with Arielle Eckstut and make it the very best it could be.

Step one was to minimize the priorities in my life.  The top was, is, and has to be my family.  I have two children and a husband who are still reeling in their assorted ways from this fire—a trauma for us all, no matter how you look at it.  Next—related to the first—is managing our lives in this temporary home, replacing and recreating what I can of our life.  Next is my work, rebuilding and reestablishing my therapy practice.  Writing came fourth and had to fight for its place at the table.  I knew that if I was going to get this thing done, I needed to focus.  That meant releasing myself from other commitments, as well as giving myself total permission to withdraw from the blogosphere, from Facebook and Twitter, and even—to a degree from email.

It was so freeing to do that, to trust my instincts and to devote myself to the few things that could not wait.  Thanks in no small part to the understanding support of my friends, family and, of course, my followers, I am happy to say that I have done what I set out to do and completed the revision.  The book is now getting a last onceover from my “team” of wonderful beta readers, and a serious proof-read.  This time around, I will not—mark my words—submit my manuscript prematurely.  (Yes, I am trying the traditional route at this point, not having the wherewithal to research self-publishing right now.)

That said, I do have exciting news: I am doing my first reading from Twice the Dazzle, my YA novel about twin teens in the ballet world—this very week!  My dear friend and former college roommate, Louella San Juan, has invited me to join her as she presents from her new book, The Crowded Kingdom, at Dewey’s Candy in DUMBO, this Thursday.  See Louella’s website for details.  I have also posted the press release on my new “EVENTS” page.

House Fire Chronicles: Saving Humpty Dumpty

November 11th, 2012:

Ventured into the house today—not all the way in, just a foot or two inside the front door, which stood wide open “airing the place out,” which, as I’ll explain in a moment, is a laughable impossibility.  The electricity is turned off in preparation for repairs to start, so the whole place is dark.  In this photograph, you can see all I saw.

I reached into the coat closet, which is still littered with our shoes, mostly mine:  about six pairs of soot-caked flipflops under the cover of all my soot-caked coats.  Now, I’ve been warned that even though a lot of our stuff looks “surprisingly okay,” it will never be usable again because of the persistent smoke odor.  It’s more than an odor, the fire inspector has explained (backed up by our former landscaper who—alarmingly—used to be an arson specialist).  According to these experts, all our stuff is so deeply penetrated by smoke, that the smoke has essentially changed the chemistry of each item so it is now actually part smoke.

There’s something very sci-fi about that but it seems to be true.  Yesterday, my husband brought a bin of Stuff-From-The-House over to the house we’re staying in.  He couldn’t bring it inside or our friends’ house would very quickly smell as if the fire had taken place here rather than there.

Jon told me to pick over the bin full of notebooks and school books, jewelry– mostly my daughter’s–and a few little chachkies, to see what might be usable.  A cloud of toxic dust rose into the air as I lifted the lid of the bin.  Gasping for breath, I rummaged, though it was clear that anything inside would need major rehabilitation before resuming its intended function.  But all my daughter’s beaded creations, acquisitions from Claire’s and friendship bracelets were in there, a memory attached to each.  If I could rescue just one trinket as a memento, I thought, just a pair of Zoe’s earrings; it would mean so much.  I gulped air as I hunted; the  soot and smoke smell from the bin’s contents was near asphyxiating.  Everything was thrown together and a uniform shade of dark grey, too, making it difficult to identify anything.  What I finally came away with were a pair of pink Eiffel Tower earrings from the Epcot Center.  So tiny, I thought, and so easy to clean.  Well, I scrubbed them for about fifteen minutes—black muck kept spewing from the diminutive crevices.  Each time I thought the earrings were clean, there was more.  Finally they sparkled.  Triumphantly, I presented them to Zoe.

“Do they smell?”  She asked, because even pre-fire, she was very sensitive to bad odors.

“I don’t think,” I said, not realizing that by this time I smelled just like the earrings and was past the point of noticing.

She smelled them herself.  “Yuck,” was the verdict.  She handed the earrings back.  I left them in the bathroom, but later returned to find that the whole place now smelled like an old man with a bad cigarette habit.  Just from those tiny earrings!  Into a Ziploc they went.

It occurred to me then that if these earrings couldn’t be salvaged, even after being cleaned to look like new, the job  of salvaging bigger stuff, of fumigating and reconstituting our home, is a bigger one than I’d thought.  Today I hauled my “go-to” every day boots  out of the coat closet, as well as my snow boots and (alas) only one of Zoe’s.  (I didn’t bother with Theo’s stuff because, number one: he’s not attached to any clothing and, number two: hand-me-downs have been raining down on him and on Jon since this happened; Theo has six pairs of snow boots now; Jon has five “pre-owned” new suits.)

I was so glad to get my boots out, even though I could see and smell that they’d function better as smokestacks now than garments.  But hey—they were black to begin with, right?  I’m putting them in a garbage bag and going to research online to see if there’s a fairy godmother for rescuing your favorite boots when they’ve been through a house fire.

What’s weird though, is how easy it is to get rid of the stuff that was just stuff.  From a whole toasted-up drawer of paraphernalia, to extract one special thing: a letter, a photograph, a rock with a tree painted on it and my son’s haphazard “THEO” crayoned on the bottom—and then to say: toss the rest without a single pang of regret.  We had so many things we didn’t need, I realize now.   This kind of reboot does nothing if not show you what really matters.

I have here (in a Ziploc) this one tiny composition book in which I recorded some sweet, early anecdotes about both children.  A treasure rescued.   It is worth more than all the wedding china that lies splintered all over my basement floor.  A sample:  Theo, aged two and a half—we were reading Mother Goose and had just gotten up to Humpty Dumpty:

“Hey, Mommy.  How come Humpty Dumpty gotta go up on that wall every time?”

Humpty just didn’t get cause and effect no matter how many times we read the book.  I’ll take this recorded memory over the good china any day.  I don’t really care how it smells either.