Monday, July 21, 2014

The Story of a Book

Wa-a-ay back in the late '90s, when I was in my third semester of the MFA in Writing for Children program at Vermont College (now Vermont College of Fine Arts), I'd been assigned the wonderful Graham "Sandy" Salisbury as my advisor and I needed a project.  One of my favorite books was (and still is) Sandy's beautiful Blue Skin of The Sea--besides the stories themselves, and the gorgeous writing, I was intrigued by the way he wrote the book:  a novel made up of short stories that could also stand alone.  

"Do you think I could do something like that?" I asked Sandy.

"Sure," he replied. 

And so the project was begun.  The  format I came up with was a bit different from what Sandy had done--rather than a story arc that would begin with the first story and end with the last, I decided on a sequence of stories with a common link.  That link was a stone house, a kind found almost exclusively in western and central New York, called a cobblestone house.  This one belongs to a friend of mine from high school and his wife.

 The round or egg-shaped stones on this kind of house are a veneer applied to a rubble wall, and they came either from fields that had been cleared for farming, or from the shore of Lake Ontario, where they'd been rounded by wave action.  The folks who built these houses were artists.  I could write a whole blog post about cobblestone houses.  But that's for another day.

I created a small town on the Erie Canal, inspired by the town of Lockport, where I grew up.  It took many, many tries to come up with a name for this place that wasn't a real one, but I finally hit on one I liked:  Port Rose.  The first story takes place in 1833, eight years after the canal opened, and is about a widower and his two daughters coming out to what was then the western frontier, and about how they acquired the house.  Each story after that comes forward about a generation, and the main character is a young person who lives in that house.  Eight stories, 164 years.

This book's gestation period was long--almost nine years--because, up until the story set during the Great Depression, most of my research was done in the local history room of the Lockport Public Library, and I only got back to Lockport once or twice a year.  But oh, the wonderful things I found there.  The city's newspapers are all on microfilm, back to the late 1800s.  I was able to read first-hand accounts of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, where President McKinley was shot, and day by day reports of his condition and finally, his death.  I read recountings by people who had come out here in the early days, of what it was like on the frontier, and about how the town grew.  There were gazetteers showing the city's businesses from year to year, and maps showing how the city grew.  

Much of the research for the later stories was done online--about the Great Depression, about the launch of Sputnik (do you know what television show debuted that same night?), and about the Blizzard of 1977.  I emailed experts with questions, and they were all so generous with their time and information.  I think I had more fun writing this book than any other I've written.

When it was finished, and revised, and revised again, it was sent out and, unfortunately, editors' responses were not as eager as I'd hoped.  Two that I'd worked with said almost the exact same thing:  "This is fascinating.  It's beautifully written.  And we wouldn't be able to sell enough copies to make it worth our while."  According to publishers, nobody wants short stories for upper-elementary-aged kids--which is strange, since teachers and librarians tell me they not only want them, they need them.  Go figure.   After a while, my agent told me he wasn't going to be able to sell this book, and it got put into a drawer.

Several years later, I mentioned on Facebook that I had this book, and I knew there was at least a regional market for it.  (I'd approached some regional presses about it, but they all said they didn't do children's books.)  A wise, much-published friend said he had tried doing a couple of books on Amazon's Create Space, just as an experiment, and suggested I give that a try.  I thought about this for a while and, despite the fact that I've railed against self-publishing for most of my career, I decided "what the heck."  I did have it professionally edited, and I did have a lovely cover done (and that's a whole story in itself).  I didn't like the templates Create Space provided, but it turns out you can find almost anything with Google--I was able to find out the margin settings for the size book I wanted to do, and then it was just a question of putting it all together.  And proofreading.  And proofreading again.

So, now it's a book--a book that will have its official launch this Thursday.  Will I ever see the money I invested in its creation?  Who knows?  A few people who have already read it have liked it, and they're picky readers.  I hope it will find an audience.  Would I go the Create Space route again?  I honestly don't know.  But I'm glad I did it with this book.

 Next time:  the cover story.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Farther Than I Could Have Imagined

Back in June, I received a Google alert.  I figured it was a review of my latest book, but when I checked, I had a pleasant surprise.  Somebody had made a video of a poem I had written a few years ago.

The poem is titled "Missing," and it appeared in Lee Bennett Hopkins' gorgeous book, America at War (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2008).  It's in the voice of a young person whose older brother is a soldier, away fighting during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

I was curious about this video, so I went to Youtube and watched it.  It was very well done, narrated by a young person, with vivid and emotional images.  I wanted to know who had made this video, but the only attribution was "ICT@SSIS,"  with the names Celine, Adrian, and Tsing Lin.

I mentioned this on Facebook, and soon had an email from Lee, saying he'd found another video for the same poem, with the same attribution.  I looked at it, and it seemed like one that had been made before the one I'd been alerted to.  The names given for this one were An, Andy, Victoria, and Chaz.  It appeared there was some sort of contest involved.

So now the search began.

I started with Google.  SSIS.  All I got was more videos.  Like the one for "Missing", they all seemed to be done by school students.  As luck would have it, one of those videos included a teacher's name.  Back to Google I went, and typed in SSIS+ the teacher's name.  Voila!  To my amazement, the students who had made this touching video were 8th graders at the Saigon South International School, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I went to the school's website, and saw there was a contact email address, and the name of the "head of school,"  which I assume is the principal, was given.  So I sent her an email, congratulating the kids and asking about the beginning, where the young voices are justifying why this poem should be going "to the next round."  The next day, I had two emails--one from the head of school, Ellen Stern, and one from Danielle Richert, the kids' Humanities and Social Studies teacher.  There had been an 8th grade Poetry Madness tournament, set up like the Poetry Madness tourney over on ThinkKidThink.  In her email, Danielle said, "We started out with 32 poems in 16 different poetry matches.  Students would read the poems, analyze them,  and then vote for which poem in each match should advance to the next round.  Once we reached the quarter-finals, students adopted one of the remaining eight poems.  In groups, they created a digital presentation with their visual and auditory interpretation, as well as their justification for why the poem should advance to the finals.  "Missing" made it to the final round!"

And for once, my timing was absolutely perfect.  It turns out that my email had arrived on the day of the "Moving On" graduating ceremony for the 8th grade students.  In her reply to me, Ms. Stern said "You won't believe how excited they were when I read your email to them!  They couldn't believe they were hearing from a real poet and that their work had made an impact on someone outside of school and family!"

Little did these kids know that I was as excited as they were.  I never imagined that a poem I wrote would be read more than halfway around the world.  I don't know how Ms. Richert found the poem in the first place--perhaps (I hope) she has a copy of Lee's book.   However she found it, I'm delighted that she did.  And it's so good to see that her kids are getting so involved with poetry.  They are an inspiration to kids all over the world. 

Incidentally, this is also a good example of how a poem can be interpreted in different ways by different readers.  These young video makers saw the ending of the poem quite differently than I did.  But that's okay.  That's poetry.

 Here are the two videos:

First, from An, Andy, Victoria, and Chaz: 

And from Celine, Adrian, and Tsing Lin:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Showing Some National Library Week Love

"You're on this earth to provide a service of some kind.  That's what the good Lord made you for..."

Those words are from Paddy Moloney, founder and leader of the Irish musical group The Chieftains.  If that's the case, then I guess my service is to share my stories and somehow touch people through them.

Some people find their service early on.  Others take longer.  For me, it was years, and I didn't find it on my own.  I had a lot of help along the way, and much of that help came from public libraries.


The first library I ever knew was in my hometown of Lockport, NY.  I come from a long line of voracious readers, and the love of the written word was passed along to me when I was very young.  I don't remember the first time I went to the library with my mother--a weekly trip there was just part of life, as important as the weekly trip to the grocery store.  The children's department was a single large room.  It's been renovated since then, and that room is now a program and story-time room, just part of the much larger children's department.  But even though it was just one room, to a girl with an active imagination, it held the world.  I read everything--fiction, biographies, non-fiction, poetry.  Every summer, I read far more than the number of books required to complete the summer reading program.  The librarian got used to seeing me there, and often recommended books to me.  I'll never forget the day I was allowed for the first time to go into the wood-paneled room that housed the books for junior and senior high school kids.  And there has to be a special place in heaven for the librarian who realized that, even though I was only thirteen, the borders of my literary world were becoming too confining, and let me go upstairs to the adult department, where I quickly discovered books like T.H.White's The Once and Future King, and the wonderful Gothic novels of Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and Phyllis Whitney.

In 1975, I married and moved away from Lockport.  In the ten years that followed, there were six moves.  Within days upon arrival in each new place, I found the public library and got a card.  In 1980, we landed in Clinton, NY.  We had a daughter by then and, following the example my mother had set for me, I began taking her to the library when she was just a few months old.  Even though it had been years since I'd abandoned children's books for adults', I quickly rediscovered and fell in love with them all over again.

The more children's books I read, the more strongly i began to feel that I'd like to give writing them a try, and I began a correspondence course in writing for young people.  Before i finished it, we moved to Ponca City, OK, where my daughter and I quickly became regular customers at the library.  The children's librarian became a friend; we had wonderful conversations about children's books, ones we remembered from our childhood and more recent ones.  I finished the correspondence course in Ponca, knowing I'd found my calling, but not knowing where to go from there.

 In 1985, we moved to the south suburbs of PIttsburgh.  A year later, author Patricia Harrison Easton began a children's writers' workshop at the Peters Township Library.  I went to the first meeting, and was a member until I moved away 18 years later.  In this group, I dared to share my very first attempts at writing.j  I honed critical and writing skills.  And I read--the "good stuff", books by the best children's writers, and the schlock, too.  And I learned from all of it.  I haunted the library, talking with the library staff in the children's department about books, asking questions, studying publishers' catalogs each season, and discovering The Horn Book, with its reviews and articles.

In 1997, I began a two-year graduate program which earned me an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College (now Vermont College of Fine Arts), in Montpelier, VT.  During those two years, I spent even more time at the library, taking out stacks of children's books and taking refuge when I needed quiet time to work--quiet time I couldn't always get at home.

My eighth book has just been published.  Its been a long journey, and one I hope still has miles to go.  I have spent more hours in libraries than I could ever hope to count, and inside of me I carry a piece of every one I've ever known.  They have helped me--in Paddy Moloney's words--to provide the service for which the good Lord made me.  To all of them--thank you.  I couldn't have done it without you.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a global blog tour, started in Australia, to showcase authors and illustrators and their current work.  I was tagged by the talented author/illustrator Jennifer O'Connell.  I'll answer some questions about my newest book, then pass the Q&A along to two authors who'll pick up the tour next week.

What is your Next Big Thing?   My Next Big Thing is my newest big thing:  

The Book Boat's In

(cover art by Frane Lessac)
Where did the idea for the book come from?  From a newspaper article written by Doug Farley, director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center, in Lockport, NY, about a floating library/bookstore that traveled the Erie Canal from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s.

What genre does your book fall under?  Picture book.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?
 Hmm.  That takes a bit of thought.  Okay, here goes:
      Jesse:  Jared Gilmore (Henry on Once Upon A Time)
      Mr. Edwards:  Richard Thomas
      Pa:  David Tennant  (Yes, I know he's Scottish, but he could have immigrated.  Besides, this is my fantasy casting.)
      Ma:  Drew Barrymore
      Mrs. Blake (at the general store):  Patricia Heaton

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  A boy finds a book he loves on a floating library/bookstore that travels the Erie Canal, and has just one week to earn the money to buy the book before the boat comes back on its last trip for the season.

Who published your book?  Holiday House.

How long did it take to write the first draft of the manuscript?  Probably about a month.

What other books within the genre would you compare your book to?  From the angle of a boy wanting something and how he gets it, perhaps Charlie Needs A Cloak (Tomie dePaola); from the historical angle, maybe Ox-Cart Man (Donald Hall).

Who or what inspired you to write this book?   I was fascinated by this early version of a bookmobile, and I remembered the first time I saved my money to buy a book I wanted.  

What else about the book might pique the reader's interest? The Erie Canal itself, and how it opened the way for westward expansion.

Thanks for stopping by!  You can learn more about me and my books at:

Now it's my turn to tag a couple of authors to pick the tour up next week, 18 April.  Be sure to check them out! 
       Lizann Flatt

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

One More Time

I think a two-year hiatus is long enough, don't you?  

Let's try this again.

Just as a bit of a catch-up--since my last entry here, I've had poems included in several books, including: 

Switching on the Moon: A Very First Book of Bedtime Poems, collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (2010)

Cynthia Cotten, Virginia childrens author, Switching on the Moon: A Very First Book of Bedtime Poems, collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters

Nasty Bugs: Poems Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Will Terry (2012)

Cynthia Cotten, Virginia childrens author, Nasty Bugs:  Poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins

The Poetry Friday Anthology: Poems for the School Year with Connections to the Common Core, selected by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong (2012)


The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School: Poems for the School Year with Connections to the Common Core, selected by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong (2013)

And--ta-da!--two days ago was the official birthday of my new picture book, The Book Boat's In, illustrated by Frane Lessac, published by Holiday House. 

It was inspired by a floating library/bookstore that traveled the Erie Canal from the mid-1830s until the mid-1850s.  It was so much fun to write, and the folks at Holiday House have been wonderful to work with.  I'm hoping this will be just the first of many books with them.

So--that brings us up to speed.  Onward from here.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

And now, for something completely different...

(Apologies to the Monty Python troupe for borrowing their line.)

It's been a while again since I've written anything here, due to some circumstances beyond my control and others that were certainly within that realm but I just didn't do it. So, to quote the old song, I'll just pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. And today's post isn't going to have anything to do with my life, or my writing--it's something written by somebody else, something I think is worth reading.

I didn't make it down to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear yesterday, but I did see it live on TV. I got a laugh from Sam Waterston's recitation of a Colbert poem, and from the "Peace Train"/"Crazy Train"/"Love Train" sing-off. But for me the best part was Stewart's closing speech. A transcript of it follows. Enjoy. Ponder.

Things here will get back to normal (whatever that is) next time.

Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Closing Remarks:

“I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.

But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate--just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe not more. The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker--and perhaps eczema.

And yet, with that being said, I feel good—strangely, calmly good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass shaped like a month old pumpkin and one eyeball.

So, why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is—on the brink of catastrophe—torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day!

The only place we don’t is here (gestures to the Capitol building behind him) or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here or on cable TV. Where we live our values and principles form the foundations that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do—often something that they do not want to do—but they do it--impossible things every day that are only made possible by the little reasonable compromises that we all make.

Look on the screen. This is where we are. This is who we are. (points to the Jumbotron screen which shows New York City traffic merging into a tunnel). These cars—that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car-a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it—the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay—you go and then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.

If you want to know why I’m here and want I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.

Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Old Home Week

Over the past ten or so years, I've been finding more and more inspiration in the area where I grew up, and where my family has been since the mid-19th Century--on the banks of the Erie Canal, in Western New York State. There's so much history there, so many stories just waiting to be discovered and told.

From Saturday, 7/24 through Friday 7/30, my hometown of Lockport will be celebrating Old Home Week. The last time this was done was in 1910. To quote the event's official website ( -- there are some fascinating articles under the heading of "news"): "The first Old Home Week took place in Lockport, NY, in 1910. In celebration of the 100 year anniversary of that celebration, we are pleased to bring it back in 2010. During the week of July 24-30, there will be countless events and festivities to celebrate Old Home Week. This week will be a great opportunity to come together and show our pride in the City and Town we call home."

From the looks of things, it's going to be quite a party, and I'm proud to say that I'm going to be part of it. On Tuesday, 7/27, from 2-4 p.m., I'll be signing books at the Market Street Art Center.If any readers out there are in the area, I hope you'll stop by.