Monday, October 25, 2010


A BIG welcome to Tamara Ellis Smith who is completely and utterly awesome!

I met Tam at Erin Murphy’s retreat out in Portland, Oregon a year and a half ago. I liked her immediately and more and more as the week went on. No question that she is a gifted writer but also a super great human being—wicked nice. The real deal. (and the BEST tattoos ever!) The only thing that I’d change about her is her geography—too far away for lunch dates!

Tam’s middle grade novel, MARBLE BOYS, won an Honorable Mention in the 2008 PEN New England Discovery Awards and was runner up for the 2008 SCBWI Works-In-Progress grant. I’ve heard an excerpt of this and it’s beautiful. Visual. I still have images from it in my head after all this time. I know in my heart of hearts that Erin, our over-the-top awesome agent, will find a lucky editor for it soon! And, I’ll be one of the first to celebrate!!!

Tam also has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College—a top program in the country! God! I can hardly get my socks mated! Clearly, this girl is in for BIG things! ;-)

Welcome, Tam!

Kathy Appelt

By Tamara Ellis Smith

Anyone who has been in a room with Kathi Appelt for more than a few minutes has probably heard her utter her famous words “Write like your fingers are on fire!” She lives this. She is passionate, full of energy, and the words that pour out of her heart and mind are piping, steaming hot!

I was lucky enough to have Kathi as my second semester advisor when I was a graduate student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College for the Arts. At that point, I had been in school for one semester—long enough to know that this was exactly what I was meant to do with my life and that I had no idea how to do make it actually happen. It was a mucky, murky time. I was in it, for sure, but I was kicking up a lot of debris and I couldn’t see very clearly.

Kathi nurtured me that semester in so many different ways.

She nurtured my craft: I was working on a novel for the first time (I had only ever written picture books before that) and she gave me permission to finish a whole draft. She urged me to do it, asked me to let go and let it flow out of me. Feel what that felt like. She nurtured my soul: She created a real community from the five of us students who had her as an advisor that semester. She asked us to connect, to talk to each other, and support each other as we all dug deep to do our work. And she nurtured my heart: Kathi and I talked over email—probably over twenty hours all told—about the craft of writing…but also about raising children, managing writer’s block, and balancing family and work.

Craft. Soul. Heart. Kathi held and lifted each one of them.

She taught me how to embrace it all—to open my arms wide and gather it up, to weave it all together, to let it organically be what it wants to be. In essence, Kathi got me to stand still. To let all of the pieces touch me, and float around me, and finally settle to the ground. Like standing still in a stream, and allowing the mucky, murky water to settle until it is clear. This feels intuitively right to me, but I don’t think I would have trusted that way of being if Kathi hadn’t guided me there.

Kathi writes like her fingers are on fire, but I believe that she also writes—and lives—like this. By embracing it all, by staying quiet and still in the cool water, by weaving all of the pieces together. You can see it in her work. And you can feel it when she teaches.

I am eternally grateful that Kathi is in my life—my mentor, my moon sister, my friend.

Thanks SO much, Tam! We so much enjoyed hearing about this fantastic mentor of yours—none other than Kathi Appelt! I hope to meet her in person some time soon…

Monday, October 18, 2010


A BIG welcome to Ann Haywood Leal--the author of two MG books, entitled, ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER and the recently released, FINDERS KEEPERS PLACE. I first met Ann at a class in Fairfield. I was immediately drawn to her warm personality, as well as her tremendous writing talent! And let me tell you--She's one darn funny lady, too!

I am grateful that she has taken the time to do a piece for Mentor Mondays. I hope you find it as touching as I did!

Ann Haywood Leal:

As far as mentors are concerned, I could name so many people. To me, a mentor not only passes on some of their wisdom and knowledge, but they also give you something extra that becomes a part of who you are.

The wonderful Patricia Reilly Giff is definitely someone who has done that for me (and for so many others!). Pat is so generous with her time and with her advice for new writers. Whether it's a celebration or just a problem about which I need to kvetch, Pat always has the time to listen. All the way back to when I was figuring out what a query letter was, Pat has always had time and patience for me.

And without a doubt, my mom filled the mentoring role in my life. Books and reading were always so important to her, and she shared them with me in such a way that made me love words, too. No matter how busy she was, she always stopped what she was doing and took the time to read my stories. I loved when she wrote comments in the margins! Sometimes now when I'm writing, I'll imagine what her comments would be. My deepest regret is that she died before she could see my first book on the shelf at the library.

When I had my book party at The Dinosaur's Paw Bookstore, I told Pat Giff how much I wished my mom could see it all. Pat said, "She knows, Ann. She knows."

Thanks so much, Ann! This was so touching and a wonderful addition to Mentor Mondays!

Monday, October 11, 2010


Welcome to the second installment of MENTOR MONDAYS!!

This week, we’ll hear from YA author, Conrad Wesselhoeft. I had the opportunity to hear a bit of his novel, ADIOS NIRVANA, while it was in the works. You want to talk about “voice?” This is it! I was pulled in immediately and have been looking forward to its release ever since.

The book sits here on my desk, but I’m afraid to open it. I have revisions of my own to do that are due to my editor. I’m afraid if I open Conrad’s book, I won’t be able to put it down! When my revisions are submitted, though, you know what I’ll be doing!


From Booklist:

In the wake of his twin brother’s death, Jonathan, a former star student, is facing the possibility of repeating his junior year. The only things standing between him and failure are his devoted best friends, an understanding principal named Gupti, and his English teacher. The assignments that will ensure his promotion? Attend class every day, help an 88-year-old WWII veteran write his memoir, and perform Gupti’s favorite song, “Crossing the River Styx,” at graduation. Wesselhoeft offers a psychologically complex debut that will intrigue heavy-metal aficionados and drama junkies alike. Peopled with the elderly and infirm, crazy parents, caring educators, and poignant teens trying desperately to overcome death’s pull, it mixes real and fictional musicians and historical events to create a moving picture of struggling adolescents and the adults who reach out with helping hands. Darker and more complex than Jordan Sonnenblick’s thematically similar Notes from the Midnight Driver (2006), Adios, Nirvana targets an audience of YAs who rarely see themselves in print. Grades 8-12. --Frances Bradburn

Indie Bound Description:

When you piss off a bridge into a snowstorm, it feels like you’re connecting with eternal things. Paying homage to something or someone. But who? The Druids? Walt Whitman?
No, I pay homage to one person only, my brother, my twin.

In life. In death.

Since the death of his brother, Jonathan’s been losing his grip on reality. Last year’s Best Young Poet and gifted guitarist is now Taft High School’s resident tortured artist, when he bothers to show up. He's on track to repeat eleventh grade, but his English teacher, his principal, and his crew of Thicks (who refuse to be seniors without him) won’t sit back and let him fail.


Not only is Conrad a genius writer, but a super great guy as well. I’m thrilled that he has agreed to participate in my Mentor Mondays Series and look forward to seeing many more books from him down the road.

And away we go! Welcome, Conrad!

The Wisdom of Scott O’Dell
By Conrad Wesselhoeft

Scott O’Dell was my friend and mentor. That’s a tall statement considering that I met him only once. But that day changed my life.

I was a young staffer at the New York Times, harboring a secret ambition: to write novels. But how? Writing a novel seemed far out of my depth. However, writing a feature story about a novelist might be a stroke in the right direction. So I set up an interview, hopped a train at Grand Central, and headed north to Westchester County, New York.

Who was Scott O’Dell? Probably the most acclaimed young-adult author of his generation. He had written nearly two dozen books—including the classic “Island of the Blue Dolphins”—and garnered a barrel of prizes: the Newbery Medal (for “Dolphins”); three Newbery Honor Awards; and the Hans Christian Andersen Award for a body of work.

Scott greeted me at the station. Now 85, he looked time-chiseled and fit, with a shock of white hair, barrel chest, and deep tan. We climbed into his big car, and he peeled for his home on Long Pond. He seemed to enjoy speed.

The interview was supposed to last about two hours, but it filled the morning and lapped into the afternoon. We broke for a late lunch.

“Enough about me,” he said, over seafood chowder. “What about you? What do you want to do with your life?”

I stammered out the true contents of my gut: “I want to write novels.”“Well, then, write them.”

“But I don’t have time. I don’t know how.”

He planted a hand on the table and leaned close. His blue eyes sparked. “Now listen—listen!”

I did listen. Here’s what Scott O’Dell taught me:

Writing is about starting. Start simply, even if it amounts to no more than 15 minutes a day. Open an empty notebook and on page one write: “I want to write a book about . . .” Then write: “I want the main character to be . . .” It’s okay to write in fragments. It’s okay to use weak verbs. Just write. Spill all of your ideas into that notebook. On about day five, or seventeen, or fifty-five, something will happen. A light will turn on. You will see the way.

Writing is about finishing. He liked to quote Anthony Trollope, the English novelist: “The most important thing a writer should have is a piece of sticking plaster with which to fasten his pants to a chair.”

Writing is about reading. Soak up all the great books you can. He loved Willa Cather’s spare, lyrical prose style, singling out her novel, “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

Writing is humble. Let your forebears guide you. He followed Hemingway’s advice: Stop your day’s work at a point where you know what is going to happen next. That way, you’ll never get stuck.

Writing for young readers has a special reward. Scott told me that before he discovered young audiences, he had only a tentative commitment to the craft of writing. Now it was strong. “The only reason I write,” he said, “is to say something. I’ve forsaken adults because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.”

Before driving me back to the train station, Scott took me out on his deck and pointed to a grove of trees across Long Pond. During the Revolutionary War, a teenage girl had sought refuge from the Redcoats in a cave hidden by the grove. For years, she had drawn on her wits and fortitude to survive. After learning this bit of local history, Scott had crafted one of his best novels, “Sarah Bishop.” His message was simple. Good stories are everywhere. You don’t have to look far. Open your eyes.

We corresponded for a few years, and he kindly critiqued my awkward early efforts at YA fiction. Years later, I read that he had been working on his last novel, “My Name is Not Angelica,” in his hospital bed, just days before his death at age 91.Scott taught me many things about writing, but one stands out—that writing is about perseverance.

Never give up.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The LAUNCH of MENTOR MONDAYS! (And the crowd went wild!)


I am thrilled to announce the launch of my new series, MENTOR MONDAYS! Every Monday, I will post a piece by a professional in the wonderful world of kid lit (editors, agents, and authors) who have been kind enough to share their stories with me. I have been humbled by the generosity of these folks and am in awe of the list itself! Such incredibly accomplished, talented, and giving people. Without people like this—who share their talent and expertise, who advocate for children and good literature in a world that seems more and more about “screen time,” (She says, checking her Facebook! ;-) where would we be?

And, where would we be without mentors? The people who take us aboard and show us the ropes. Often, however, a mentor is dear friend as well. Someone who lights something inside you that you didn't know was there. Gives you the road map to where you're headed.

I had planned to start this series with an author, but decided that I should begin with the person that launched my career—officially, anyway!

My first post is from literary agent, Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. I’ve had a few people tell me they’ve heard that she’s a “dream agent.” As her client, I’m here to tell you that the rumors are true.

I did a ridiculous amount of research on agents and, when I was done with my ranked list, she was at the top. I drove five hours one way to meet her at a big book signing by several of her clients. The first time I set my eyes on her, she was scooping ice cream for a bunch of kids. She had an easy smile and, as the day progressed, I could tell that her clients adored her. We chatted (I had to stop mid-sentence to apologize for stumbling over my words) and left that day with an ache in my gut, thinking that it probably wouldn’t work out. I mean who signs with their first choice anyway?

Although Erin and I are of similar age, I consider her to be one of my mentors. I have learned a ton from her about the business of children’s lit and the craft of writing. I’ve learned that you can know someone for two years and feel like you’ve known them forever. I’ve learned what I’m truly capable of. I’ve learned that dreams come true.

~~So, . Here is Erin’s Mentor Story:

When I was a very newbie editor, back in (mmphmm), I was so fortunate to know Marlene Blessing through a regional publishing association. My boss, the person who had hired me into publishing in the first place, had passed away quite suddenly, and boy, was I in need of a mentor!

Marlene took me under her wing from afar, and we'd see each other now and then at conferences. She is really the one who empowered me as an editor: She demonstrated to me that the editor's vision for shaping a list and the individual projects on it is critical, and that without vision, a list just doesn't coalesce. She also helped me talk through author relationships and navigating the politics within a publishing house, and encouraged me to follow my instincts and to honor and value my authors as partners in the creative process and as friends--all lessons that served me well as both editor and as a literary agent.

I'm so glad you asked me this question, Lynda; I'd lost touch with Marlene over the years and this prompted me to look her up, to reach out anew, and to find that she is now editorial director at Interweave Books, and before that was overseeing some of Interweave's craft magazines--so I'm certain she's been instrumental in bringing together some things that I have loved in my off-time as a knitter and crafter!=

Thanks so much, Erin!