Today I'm Grateful For Old-Fashioned Editors

In this fast-changing world of publishing, we hear about a future where writers will directly post content for digital downloading—no costly binding, no "middle-men," no meager 10-15% cut of a sale, no lengthy turnaround time until our next book is consumable.

Sounds great, right?

Not to me. Take TIGER BOY, for instance, coming in 2014 from Charlesbridge.

A year ago, I was in the doldrums of a newly-empty nest, wondering what to do now that I'd been fired as a Mommy. A mother-writer hyphenated vocation had been a good gig for years; how was I going to weather this transition? I had no creative sizzle, and when students asked the inevitable question during author visits—"Where do you get your ideas?"—my honest answer should have been: "No clue. Got nothing here."

That's when the phone rang. Yes, I got an old-school call. Not a text, not an e-mail, but an actual call on our landline.

I picked it up and grunted into the receiver, expecting a marketing robo-voice. Who else called that number these days?

"Mitali? This is Yo. How are you?" It was Yolanda LeRoy Scott, my Harvard-educated, drop-dead gorgeous editor at Charlesbridge. "I want to take you to lunch and talk about your next book."

"Okay, Yo, I'd like that." How am I going to tell her about my creative constipation? Get ready for the shortest working lunch ever, Mrs. Scott.

We met at Not Your Average Joe's in Watertown, right near Charlesbridge's offices, a mile or so from my house in the Boston area. "I'm stuck, Yo. I got nothing," I said, soaking up parmesan cheese and olive oil with freshly baked bread.

"Just throw out some topics for me. Is there anything you've always wanted to write about? Or a new genre you want to try?"

Yolanda passed me the bread bowl, and I helped myself to another chunk of carb comfort. "Well, there is something. I've always wanted to write a picture book, and I've been thinking about Bengal tigers—how beautiful they are." I didn't add that one of our sons' walls was covered with posters of the creatures, because that would imply I was mooning around his  room.

Her face lit up. "That sounds lovely. Send me a proposal."


"I know you can do this, Mitali. This is your story to tell. Now let's talk babies. Mine isn't sleeping all that well. Got any tips?"

I slipped easily into my role of seasoned veteran as we chatted about mothering for the rest of lunch.

Somehow I eked out a proposal, and then a picture book manuscript. Yo's editorial letter came quickly: "I love it, but as usual you've got the start of a short novel with great potential here, Mitali. It could be the perfect companion to RICKSHAW GIRL." The letter continued with a list of brilliant questions and suggestions.

I felt a sudden spark in my latent imagination. A character leaped to mind—a skinny brown boy, like hundreds I had seen in the villages of West Bengal. Years ago, my own father had been one of them. Immediately, I named him: Neil. He loved tigers.

Yesterday I sent Yolanda a second revision of TIGER BOY, the novel. Thanks to her insights, it's become a real story now, with plot, characters, theme, place. It's going to take another round or two of changes and honing before I like it, but my imagination needs the breathing room of our back-and-forth collaboration.

Here's my question: will the future be a world without small publishers like Charlesbridge who champion stories across borders, without editors like Yo who encourage and nurture broken-down mid-career writers, without the time a story needs between revisions to improve?

If so, I'm never going to make it.

Can we be proactive and keep the best from the old publishing model as we explore new ways to deliver content to consumers? One non-negotiable is the input of an excellent editor who doesn't work for me, but with me.

Thanks, Yo.  And thanks, Charlesbridge. Now on to the next story.

Primary Source Celebrates Global Education

I was delighted to be part of Primary Source's honorary committee at their annual Gala for Global Education, which took place at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts last Friday evening. For those who don't know about this organization and their exciting work with teachers, here's their "about us" statement:
Primary Source promotes history and humanities education by connecting educators to people and cultures throughout the world. In partnership with teachers, scholars, and the broader community, Primary Source provides learning opportunities and curriculum resources for K-12 educators. By introducing global content, Primary Source shapes the way teachers and students learn, so that their knowledge is deeper and their thinking is flexible and open to inquiry.
At the Gala, Director Julia de la Torre gave an inspiring talk about the value of exposing educators to the world through travel and books. During a recent Primary Source trip to rural China, she was struck by the fact that teachers never travel alone, but "always bring their students along with them."

Librarian Jennifer Hanson has pulled together an incredible collection of resources and curriculum guides, coordinates global reads of children's and YA literature, and spearheaded the Asian American Author video series.

President and Publisher Brent Farmer came to show how my friends at Charlesbridge Publishing are behind me.
Long-time Brookline teacher Marcy Prager and her husband Robert are firm believers in global education.
Power librarian couple Ryan (Assistant Director of the Newton Free Library) and Jennifer (Primary Source's Librarian) Hanson enjoyed the wonderful evening.
My husband is always proud of me, and the feeling is mutual.

Seven Dialogue Busters in Kid/YA Fiction

Last Saturday, I was honored to repeat a talk I gave on dialogue at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Spring Conference. Jo Knowles, Cindy Faughnan, Karen Day, Mark Peter Hughes and I were invited to be part of Encore 2012, a one-day reprise of some of the workshops at the conference.

My job was to help us spruce up our dialogue, and I reviewed seven problems I see often in my own first drafts, giving examples of the opposite by reading aloud excerpts from some of my favorite books. Here's a summary of the "dialogue busters," as I call them (I promised I'd post them here on my blog), and writers who exemplify the better way:
  1. Annoying Ascriptions (Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy). 
  2. Abounding Adverbs (Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).
  3. Badly-placed Beats. (Edward Eager's Half-Magic).
  4. Random Reactions (L.M. Montgomery's Jane of Lantern Hill).
  5. Pesky Pauses (Laurie Halse Anderson's Prom).
  6. Disturbing Dialect (Maud Hart Lovelace's Emily of Deep Valley).
  7. Irritating Information (Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins).
I left inspired by the other presenters and eager participants to dig into my own revision of Tiger Boy, coming in 2014 from Charlesbridge (revision due very, very soon).

P.S. For those who attended, here's my list of Kid/YA agents on twitter.

DEAR TEEN ME: Authors Write Letters To Our Teen Selves

I'm delighted to be a contributor to DEAR TEEN ME, an anthology of letters to the younger versions of many young adult authors. The book is edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson and is available this month from Zest books.  The blog tour to spread the word begins today, and 138 bloggers will chime in with their opinions about the book. Check out one of three trailers featuring the authors' words of wisdom (my Bollywood-esque head move is somewhere in there):

Malala: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

Malala Yousafzai
student, writer, freedom fighter
When I got up I was very happy knowing that I will go to school today. At school some girls were wearing uniform whereas others were in casual clothes. During assembly girls looked extremely happy and were hugging each other. After assembly the headmistress advised us to cover ourselves properly and wear the burqa because it is a condition put by the Taleban.
This entry is from the BBC Diary of Pakistani Schoolgirl, written by Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year old living in Swat, Pakistan. According to the BBC:
Private schools in Pakistan's troubled north-western Swat district have been ordered to close in a Taleban edict banning girls' education. Militants seeking to impose their austere interpretation of Sharia law have destroyed about 150 schools in the past year. Five more were blown up despite a government pledge to safeguard education, it was reported on Monday. A seventh grade schoolgirl from Swat chronicles how the ban has affected her and her classmates.
To my horror, I heard this morning that the Taleban tried to execute this brave writer. Would you join me in praying for Malala? Don't miss this short video to catch a glimpse of her courage:

For ideas about how to support writers like Malala, fighting for freedom with the power of words, visit Freedom to Write at PEN America.

Literary Lights For Children | Boston Public Library

Yesterday I was delighted to be one of four authors invited to attend the Associates of the Boston Public Library's 2012 Literary Lights For Children tea party. Each author (Kevin Hawkes, Christopher Paolini, Gary Schmidt, and myself) was introduced by a Boston middle schooler, and asked to speak about how we became readers and writers. My host was a dapper, delightful 8th-grader from Chelsea:

The Bates Reading Room in the Boston Public Library was packed (photo courtesy of Newton South High School's Denebola newspaper staff):

Host and emcee Gregory Maguire (WICKED) and his daughter were there to cheer us on:

I spoke second, and here's my introduction and talk, again courtesy of the Newton South High School Denebola newspaper staff (my bit starts about halfway through):

What a marvelous event, encouraging and uplifting, and in such a beautiful venue—a must-see if you visit Boston. Thanks to the Associates, to Charlesbridge (my publisher) for donating books, and to all who attended.