Sunday, June 27, 2010

Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of over a dozen books for children. Uma's poems and short stories from pre-school to YA have been published in Highlights for Children and magazines of the Cricket group. Her books have been picked for CCBC Choices, Parent's Choice, IRA Notable Books for a Global Society and other honors. In addition to her writing and speaking, she reviews children's books for CLCD.

Her newest book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way!, is available from Tulika Books. I interviewed Uma recently in preparation for her blog tour.

Tell us about how Out of the Way! Out of the Way! came to be? How did the tree, the boy, and the road develop? How long was the process from idea to publication?

I've described the development of the story in some detail in my interviews with Through the Tollbooth: and Asia in the Heart: It has many layers, and came from many places. As for how long, I'm slow. This story, less than 500 words, got whittled down to its present shape over the course of five years or so. I looked up my files, and the first journal notes I have about it are from back in 2005.

Does having a multicultural, and lingual, audience change the “voice” of the story? Are you conscious of this as you write?

I was too conscious of it in earlier versions. I think in part that's why it took so long to find its form. If I were to do it over, I'd pay closer attention to where the story wanted to go, and I'd probably trust my own judgment more than I did in the beginning.

How and when did you get into writing? Could you tell us a bit about your educational and/or professional background?

I wrote and read at a ferocious pace when I was a child growing up in India, but it never occurred to me that I could be a writer. Honestly, I thought I'd have to be English and dead, as that pretty much described the writers I was reading. So when it was time to think about college and work I went in a very different direction. I have Master's degrees in Social Work and Rehabilitation Counseling, and I worked as a counselor for over ten years, and after that at the University of Maryland coordinating a grant program related to Special Education teacher training. And all that time, I'd volunteer to do all kinds of writing--grants, reports, journal articles, proposals. I cranked them all out, and I think I also learned to listen to people's stories. It was all good, and in hindsight it was all training for what I do now.

You are member of the Children’s Book Guild; do you belong to any other organizations or writing communities? What impact, if any, does this have on your writing?

I'm a member of SCBWI, and have been for years, ever since I first began writing seriously for the children's market. At that time, I also frequented the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The first class I took was with Judy Morris there. It was terrific--it felt as if I'd come home, to a place where people talked seriously about stories and young readers. And the Children's Book Guild of course was a gift to me when I was newly published and eager to connect with those whose work I knew and admired: Mary Downing Hahn, Lulu Delacre, and Susan Roth who is a dear friend now, were all so very kind and welcoming. At this time I'd have to say my primary writing community is the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I teach there, and the residencies in January and July feed my writing needs every bit as much as they support and inform students. There is no question that I'm driven to stretch as a writer because of my students and my fellow faculty at VCFA. More locally, I belong to a writing group in New Mexico: These women are dear to me as friends and as important, necessary critics of my work in progress. We've grown together as writers and human beings.

You were one of the first writers to mentor using the internet. How and when did that start?

I began offering classes on the Internet through in 1997. We were moving to New Mexico, and I felt I knew enough about the craft of writing that I had something to say to others who wanted to learn it. I'm very grateful to Mark Dalhby, who runs, for letting me float my first class online. And to all the students who took those classes over the 12 years I taught there. Everything I know about teaching, everything that allowed me to move on to VCFA, I learned from them. And here's a wonderful footnote. When I was hired at VCFA I knew I couldn't keep teaching online as well. There weren't enough hours in the day! I didn't want to just shut those classes down, either, so I was fortunate to find wonderful people (VCFA alums Sarah Aronson and Debby Edwardson) who have taken them over, transformed them, and made them their own work.

You have been reviewing for Children’s Literature for many years now, what role does this play in your own writing? Is it helpful to keep your finger on the pulse of children’s literature?

It's enormously helpful to both writing and teaching. I've told Marilyn [Courtot] that the best thing she can do for me as a writer is to send me a variety of books that push my reading beyond its customary limits. Reviewing challenges me to be thoughtful and generous and balanced about the books I read. That doesn't mean I end up liking all of them, but really, it's not even about whether I like them or not. Reviewing pushes me to judge a book not by what I would want it to be, but by the extent to which it seems to have realized its writer's intent. That in turn helps me to better recognize my own intent for work in progress.

Do you find it hard to read for pleasure?

Not at all. My secret addiction for which I try to set aside time in the summer, is the murder mystery. This week, in case you want to know, I'm reading The Feng Shui Detective by Nury Vittachi. Some years ago my local library shut down for a couple of weeks in the summer for a big move, and I was distraught. I think I went there just before they closed and cleaned out the mystery shelves in case I got stuck without a good read.

What books that you have reviewed have captured your attention lately?

Oh I would very much like to talk about two books, both of which I read on planes in the last few days, and both of which grabbed me in different ways.

One is Diane Stanley's Saving Sky. It's a near-future story set in northern New Mexico, with a premise that comes right out of our present-day world in which security and human rights are going head to head. Diane makes these perfect writing choices, pans the camera out in just the right way. I think I made the person next to me on the plane a little nervous, because I kept exclaiming in delight or apprehension as I read about young Sky, her choices and understandings about herself, her changing world, and the real danger her friend Kareem is in.

The other is a picture book, Coppernickel, the Invention by Wouter van Reek, a translation from the Dutch. I'm in love with translated books these days, you can imagine why. This one's got a really cool twist that makes you sit up and pay attention and wonder if you quite got what the story was about until that point. It's funny and ingenious, and then it segues from that into a lovely ending about friendship. But that little torque to the story is quite unusual, both visually and in terms of plot.

Is there anything you would go back and change in your career? Things you would do differently in hindsight?

I think I'd worry less and trust myself a bit more. Maybe listen more carefully, read those rejection letters with a more positive frame of mind. Recognize that this may be the only business in the world in which long, lasting friendships and professional relationships are built upon rejection.

Lastly, can you tell us about any future projects?

Happily. I have a middle grade novel due out next year from Atheneum. The title is still to be decided upon but it will be great, whatever it is. I can tell you that the story is about a star-struck pair of friends on opposite sides of the world from each other, united by a common obsession. There is a host of eccentric characters, as well as goats, monkeys, a flower that blooms only every twelve years, and chocolate. Oh, and there is dancing.

I should warn you that it also contains trees (one in particular) and a road. I just can't seem to shake those off.

Thank you Uma! This post marks the final day of the blog tour for Out of the Way Out of the Way! For other stops on the tour visit Uma's blog Writing with a Broken Tusk and for information about Uma's speaking engagements visit

Emily Griffin

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Brian Floca

Now that he has more than two dozen books to his credit, Brian spoke at the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC about how he got his start and his latest book Moonshot which won a Sibert Medal in 2009. He, like many of us, got his start purely by chance. Brain was at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) taking a class with David Macaulay. His teacher happened to be talking to Avi who had a new idea for a book and needed an illustrator, "Did Macaulay know any student who might be interested?" Yes, he did, and Avi and Brian became collaborators and the result was City of Light City of Dark which garnered a star in Publishers Weekly.
After that fortuitous and successful start Brian has never looked back. He told us that ever since early childhood in Texas that he had been encouraged to draw, especially by his mother who was a teacher. His father ran a soft drink bottling company and brought scrap paper home for him to draw on, so Brian always had a ready supply of materials. His fascination with vehicles showed up early and he had some slides to prove it. He drew other pictures including the characters that he saw on TV and would make his own books featuring characters like Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. He loved dinosaurs and his favorite book was The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs by Anthony Ravielli who ironically was really known for his golf illustrations not dinosaurs. Brain also loved books by Richard Scarry and Tolkien. In the latter, he was drawn to the maps and strategies that Tolkien presents to his readers. It appealed to that part of the brain that absorbs facts.

During his undergraduate years at Brown University, Brain created a comic strip. As an art major, he really loved telling stories through pictures and it wasn't until he went to RISD and started taking classes with great children's artists like David Macaulay that he found himself truly in his element. For him, discovering Harold and the Purple Crayon was an AHA! moment. As mentioned previously, when he met Avi, Brian did look at the manuscript, because at that time he was focused on midterms. Fortunately, thanks to David Macaulay, he was able to work on illustrations for the manuscript as a class project. His work with Avi did not end there as he then became the illustrator for the "Poppy" series.

As early as 1995 Brian was thinking about space program, and in particular the Apollo flights. He had a great job at the Office of Career services at Harvard where he worked part time answering phones and checking IDs. This left him time to read books about the Apollo missions and he spent time watching films, documentaries and just about anything he could find relating to the Apollo program. The program pulled at him - he found a sense of beauty, mystery and adventure about traveling into space. In essence, these astronauts were flying on a controlled bomb - going and doing things in a place where they had never been done before. He harkened back to Whitman's poem the Learn'd Astronomer. The mystical part really appealed to Brain and he signed up for an astronomy class. He summed up the Apollo program as "the best funded piece of performance art ever."

His interest finally became a book and in 2000, Brian wrote about Apollo 18. For those who may not remember that is the flight where they lost contact with Mission Control when they were the first to see the back of the Moon and then they showed the Earth on Christmas Day and read from Genesis in the Bible. His problem was that he had too much text. It was the same when he wrote Dinosaur at the Ends of the Earth which is really a picture book for older readers. He knew it was a problem, but really didn't take it into consideration in his book. Even though he had purchased a copy of a book detailing the exploits of the expedition, he did not include a reference in his source notes.

Luckily, his thesis advisor, another well known author illustrator, Emily McCully, worked with him and Brian began the process of narrowing down his text. He still had his great interest in the Apollo program and had a dream that he had missed the window for submitting a manuscript to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing. So he woke up and started doing more research. He offered an interesting bit of advice to nonfiction writers - after undertaking all the reading and research, wait five years and what you remember will be the main points worthy of inclusion in your book.

How does Brian work? He starts with his text, then scrawls and next builds sketches - really he has two different books - the drawings and the text. He has learned all about his subject matter and now he is ready to make a book. He sent a dummy of Moonshot to his editor and was given the green light to go ahead. Back Brian went into research - he wanted his artwork to be more original and to tell the story through his pictures that would be different that what previous author and illustrators had produced. Brian had everything from a Buzz Aldrin action figure on his shelf to trips to see Saturn rockets and the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). The latter is one strange ship. NASA had put photographs and information up on the Internet and there was an incredible wealth of information to draw upon. For Brian little things became important, like getting the shadows right by using models and looking at NASA photographs. The decision of where to land on the Moon and when was a big issue because you want the Sun at your back. It was also important to figure out the page turns in his 48 page book. Through his art, Brian was able to introduce information that never appeared in the text such as a picture of the astronauts families.

For him, the most complicated part of explaining the mission was the transitioning. How the rocket separates and reassembles. His editor said of this section "it just doesn't sing." Time for revisions. Finally, Moonshot was finished and Brian got the first page proofs - his dream had become reality. He finally produced a nonfiction book that does indeed sing. His favorite part of the book is the lift off sequence. The real challenge was developing the cover. He showed his audience at least twenty variations. Brian said that he really had to fight to keep the back cover the way he envisioned it. The cover tells the story of what the book is about, but the publishers want to use the back to promote other books. Brian wanted it to be an integral part of the story and he won that battle.

Although Brian has quenched his thirst to produce a book about the Apollo program, but he is blogging about the other missions. Last year at the request of Neal Porter, he and Jan Greenberg combined their talents on a book about Appalachian Spring - a Ballet for Martha. In this case the text was prepared by someone else, but he had to make the pacing decisions. His research included sitting in and watching the Martha Graham dancers and taking photographs for future reference. One very interesting fact for me was learning that the dance premiered at the Library of Congress in the Coolidge Auditorium. This book is due out in the fall of 2010.

In Moonshot, Brain's choice of media was ink and watercolor with the black in acrylic and the stars were created in guash on hot press watercolor paper. He remarked on the process among the trio (editor, graphic designer) and his comment was "I want the director to be a fan," which is a direct quote from Tom Hanks which Brain feels is also applicable to creating a book. He is able to listen to the art director and take advice as he feels appropriate, but the author/illustrator usually has the last word. For example, in Moonshot, it was keeping the back cover the way Brian wanted it.

Brian is still working hard on nonfiction books and his next one will be about steam locomotives - who did what and facts including information about the transcontinental railroad.

Marilyn Courtot
Publisher and Editor

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Themed Reviews: Father’s Day

Celebrated every third Sunday in June, Father’s Day was officially recognized by the United States government in 1972, under President Richard Nixon. Complementary to Mother’s Day, this holiday recognizes and celebrates fatherhood.

Father’s Day was thought up by a woman named Sonora Dodd in Spokane, Washington in 1909. Her father was a civil war veteran who raised her and her five siblings after her mother died in childbirth. Originally, there was a tradition of wearing roses to church: a red rose to honor a living father and a white rose to honor a deceased one. Today it is often celebrated with gifts (homemade and store bought) and by spending time together.

Father’s Day is an excellent opportunity to incorporate family reading. Browse through the following selections for stories to share with any fathers in your life.

The list of reviews can be found at:

For more information on Father’s Day visit:'s_Day

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Themed Reviews: World Cup

This summer all eyes will be on South Africa as they host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, an international soccer (football) tournament held every four years since 1930. This year marks the first time it has been held in an African nation.

Qualifying for the World Cup began back 2007 with 204 teams battling for thirty-two spots. From June 11th to July 11th watch these national teams compete for the title, beginning with the group stages, where the thirty-two teams are divided into groups of eight. The top two teams in each group then move on to the knockout stages, where sixteen teams work to advance to the quarters, semis, and then the final.

When you are watching the World Cup this summer you may see or hear about 1Goal, a partnership between FIFA and the Global Campaign for Education, that is "seizing the power of football to ensure that education for all is a lasting impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. By bringing together footballers and fans, charities and organizations around the world, together we can call on world leaders to make education a reality for 72 million children by 2015." ( Co-founder, Queen Rania of Jordan, author of The Sandwich Swap, hopes to have 30 million signatures by the end of the tournament to present to world leaders.

Though soccer does not have the same massive appeal in the US as it does worldwide the World Cup can still be a fun event to be apart of this summer. It can also be a "gateway" topic for children and teens—a way to get reluctant readers, or readers who tend to stick firmly to series sports novels, introduced to a variety of genres. Listed below are a number of books that are about, or incorporate, soccer, to share with your family or students.

The list of reviews can be found at:

For more information on the World Cup visit:

For articles on South Africa and the World Cup:

Friday, June 4, 2010

What Makes a Good Book (Part 5) by Marilyn Courtot

The following is the fifth part in a six part series written by CLCD President Marilyn Courtot. Aimed at reviewers and writers, we will be running a new part every month.

Types of Books


Ninety-nine percent of children’s book manuscripts are turned down because the author has nothing to say, the story is unclear or not pertinent to a child’s world, the plot is shopworn, characters are stereotyped, or overall the book is not balanced.

For a book to be in balance, it is important that all the components be right for the target age group and the story. In a picture book targeted to four-year-olds, the theme may be a power struggle with a parent in a story of a child’s refusal to eat vegetables. The same theme, in a book for eight to twelve-year-olds might develop a plot line relating to overeating or bulimia. Not eating vegetables could be a minor theme or plot line.

A really good book moves a reader emotionally. Pity, sorrow, joy, anger, and other emotions become vibrant. The emotional quality is critical because the world is complex, and often it is only on the emotional level where the lives of children and adults can intersect. The emotion must be effective and without sentimentality. The theme is where the search for emotional qualities starts.

In general, a picture book should have only one theme. Books for older children can have one or more themes or a theme and subthemes. When children read a book and subsequently are asked about the focus, the real test is what they remember or take away. For example, if the story is about a brother and sister who fight a lot-sibling rivalry is the theme. The theme is the ultimate truth that stays with the reader. The theme helps children make sense of the world, but it is not the same as a message or license for teaching and preaching. Books and reading are fun, and if children can learn something at the same time, so much the better.

Marilyn Courtot
Publisher and Editor