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Second Star to the Right

I’ve been absolutely loving London. So far the weather has been great (there, I just jinxed it!), and I’m dickenswalking everywhere. Our neighborhood, Clerkenwell, is a trove of literary locations, especially ones related to Charles Dickens. Dickens lived nearby and memorialized the area in several of his books.

We went outside our little piece of the city this weekend to 100_8788Kensington Gardens. It’s a big park in the center of the city, with beautiful fountains and ponds, grassy areas, birds of all types, restaurants, a museum, even a palace. But to me, Kensington Gardens has always meant birdsone thing: a book I remember having read obsessively when I was 8 or 9 called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. For a long time I thought it was the actual novel Peter Pan.  Everyone knows Peter Pan, either the book or one of the five movie versions (with two more coming this year). But what about Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens? Was it the same book? Did it even exist?

It turns out that the author, J.M. Barrie, introduced the character of Peter Pan in a book for adults called The Little White Bird, published in 1902. Two years later, he wrote a stage play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. It was a great hit, and a publisher peter panconvinced Barrie to take several chapters of The Little White Bird and publish them in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. It wasn’t until 1911 that Barrie expanded the tale and published Peter and Wendy, which later became Peter Pan.*

peterpanThere are others besides me who know that early version, though — here’s the statue of Peter Pan, located right in the middle of Kensington Gardens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*I’m not 100 percent sure I’ve ever read the actual novel Peter Pan. I’ll get right on that…

 

 

 

Off to the Land of the Hedgehog

I’m going to London!Ben Ben Bus London

Not for a vacation — I’m going to live there for five months while my husband teaches in his university’s London program. We’ll be staying in an apartment near the center of the city. I am SO LUCKY!

Since Baker’s Magic will be published in the UK with Curious Fox Books at the same time it’s hedgehog_wall_calendarpublished in the US (February — mark your calendars), I have a British publicist, and I’ll be able to meet her. She has amazing ideas for publicizing the book (some of them include baked goods, I love her already!), and I’ll tell you how they work out.

My husband’s course is on World War I, so we’ll be taking trips to battlefields, trenches,  and war museums. But I plan to balance that grimness with pilgrimages to kidlit sites. There are so many great children’s books set in London! Here are some of my favorites (I mean favourites):

  • The Magician’s Nephewabearcalledpaddington
  • A  Bear Called Paddington
  • Peter Pan
  • Mary Poppins
  • A Little Princess
  • The Phoenix and the Carpet

What children’s books set in London do you love?

mary poppins

Write, Bake, Revise

The last month has been all about the edits for Baker’s Magihedgehog-typingc. Happily, my editor and I seem to see eye-to-eye, and I found her suggestions helpful and clear.

 

I sent off the revised manuscript yesterday, and today my editor emailed me to say all was good.

 

HOORAY!

 

Now the manuscript will be set in ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) for distribution to reviewers — and maybe, if there are extras, for a giveaway or two. Watch this space!

 

I also saw a preliminary version of the cover art, and I love it. There will be a few tweaks, and then…well, watch this space!

hedgehog bakingAnd as for the baking…well, I don’t want to give too much away. So all I can say is — watch this space!

Perfect Post-It

It’s always a little nerve-wracking for me to give a school presentation. (That is an understatement, but I won’t tell you how much of one.) I wonder: Will I be entertaining? Informative? Fun? Will I tell the students something that makes an impact? Those kids are the readers who matter, and I don’t want to leave them yawning. Or confused. Or permanently turned off reading and heading toward a life of darkness, despair, and criminality.

But a couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation in a school, and one of the students took notes on a post-it. As I left, she handed it to me.

 

post-it1

 

On the other side it said:

post-it20002

Maybe next time I won’t be quite so nervous.

 

News!

Remember way back when I pressed “Send” and hurled a manuscript off into the world? That was a while ago. In publishing, the wheels grind exceedingly slow. But now…

…the book is under contract! And I can finally tell you a little more about it. Below is the official announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace:

February 26, 2015
Children’s: Middle grade Diane Zahler’s BAKER’S MAGIC, in which a young baker’s apprentice must save a kingdom (with a little help from a blacksmith’s son, a lonely princess, a pocket hedgehog, a rowdy band of tulip pirates and some magical sweet-rolls), to Beth Brezenoff at Capstone, with Krissy Mohn editing, by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

 I love the description, and I’m thrilled to be working with Capstone. HOORAY!

And here, just because I’m so happy, is a pocket hedgehog for you:

pocket hedgehog

 

 

KidLit Bonanza

Everyone likes a best-of list, right? So when I heard about an exhibit of “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature,” getImageI had to go. Yesterday, despite a little blizzard, we made our way down to the venerable Grolier Club in Manhattan to view this small, wonderful, free exhibit.

I’d never been to the Grolier Club before.  It was formed in 1884 by a group of Gilded Age bibliophiles obsessed with books and the graphic arts. It’s on East 60th Street, in a building that is probably lovely when not completely surrounded by scaffolding. Inside, there’s lots of dark wood and a large, high-ceilinged exhibition room lined with cases labeled by theme:  Fairy Tales & Fables, Nursery Rhymes, Faith, Learning, Poetry, Girls and Boys, Animals, Fantasy (this got two cases), Adventure, Novelties, and Toys. 

struuwel
Struuwelpeter, 1848

We got there just as the curator started a tour with a group of well-heeled Upper Eastsiders (and I mean this literally: I spent several minutes staring longingly at their gorgeous and very expensive boots before the tour began). The curator explained that the books, printed between 1600 and 2000, were chosen by their fame, though she didn’t go into detail about how “fame” was calculated. We got a clue, though, when she described how the place for the hundredth book was a toss-up between Mary Poppins and Pippi Longstocking; it went to Mary Poppins because the movie version had made that book better-known and more recognizable to the public. There’s been some blowback over the choices; that’s inevitable. And I was disappointed that some of my favorites were missing. But 100 is a pretty limited number, and the ones they did include were generally fascinating — mostly first editions, with original artwork. Many of the stories behind them were equally intriguing, at least to a kidlit nerd. (I wasn’t familiar with Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter, about a boy who, when he won’t stop sucking his thumb, has the offending digit chopped off by the ur-Edward Scissorhands. And I never knew that Where the Wild Things Are was originally intended to be about horses and called Where the Wild Horses Are. )

I took pictures like crazy with my ancient, faltering Kodak, and I apologize for their quality (the light was very low due to the fragility of many of the books). But you have until February 7 to see the exhibit yourselves, and it’s more than worthwhile.

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Cinderella, 1919, with Arthur Rackham silhouettes
100_8024
East of the Sun West of the Moon, 1914, illustrations by Kay Nielson
getImage
William Blake, Songs of Innocence, 1789
100_8036
from Madeleine, Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939
100_8026
Rebuses

 

100_8027
We all know this one. 1936
100_8033
One of my all-time favorites. 1902
100_8031
But I was never lucky enough to have the game.
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I kept this volume (1930) — and just about all the others — in a box in my parents’ attic until somehow the whole box disappeared.

 

100_8032
Maurice Sendak’s gift to Ursula Nordstrom
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1932
100_8041
This was Dodgson’s own copy of Alice — his markings (always in purple) are in the margin. The edition was withdrawn because he and Tenniel did not like the quality of the illustrations.

 

Quiet! Writer at Work

It’s been quiet on the blog for a while.

between books
(This is actually the sign for a fabulous bookstore in Claymont, Delaware)

 

I’m between books.

 

For the first time since 2009, I don’t have a book in the works. It’s a weird, unsettled feeling.

 

It’s not that I’m not writing! My hands still ache from typing at the end of the day. I’m churning out textbook materials at a furious rate, now that the industry has picked up a bit. I’m writing Common Core readers’ guides for trade publishers. And I’m working on something completely new and different that’s both exciting and unnerving for me.

 

RollercoasterStill, I miss that rollercoaster of ms-to-bound-book. The elation of acceptance. The despair of the editorial letter (four single-spaced pages of criticism? How could there be THAT MUCH wrong with it?). The nerve-wracking fascination of seeing a story change with every revision, becoming more and more itself. The pleasure of a manuscript copyedited by someone who notices that the truffle-hunting pig is the wrong gender. The elation of the first cover viewing. The pure joy of a box full of bound books. The anxiety of the days leading up to publication (the reviews! the reviews!). It’s a wild magnification of emotion, and without it, things are…calmer. Flatter. Quieter.

 

listening2But the upside is, that calm is a place where I can write. Its flatness allows me to create my own imagined hills and valleys. In its silence, I can hear my characters’ words — and even, if I listen closely enough, their thoughts.

Dumbing Down; Or, You Get What You Pay For

txtbks.10I love writing children’s books.

LOVE IT.

But almost no one who writes children’s books makes a living at it. Unless your initials are JKR, you’re probably going to have to supplement your income. That’s just how it is. I’m incredibly lucky that my “day job” is writing — or at least I considered myself incredibly lucky until pretty recently.

 

I write textbook lessons, mostly in ELA (English Language Arts) for kindergarten through twelfth grade. When I started out, decades ago, there weren’t a whole lot of us. We were good at what we did. We knew the difference between a gerund and a participle. Wetxtbks.9 knew where commas did and did not belong. We knew that Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” was really not appropriate to quote at a commencement. We could define and identify a theme. We could write, on demand, a 250-word essay on penguins, a one-act play set in outer space, a rhyming poem in iambic tetrameter, and a magazine article about earthquakes, along with the composition lessons teaching those forms  — all in the same week. We got our assignments directly from editors at publishing houses, and though our names didn’t appear in the textbooks, we were paid relatively well for work that was, for the most part, enjoyable. And it was IMPORTANT.

 

We wrote the materials that educators used to teach your children to read and write.

txtbks.3

 

In the late 80s and early 90s, the economy suffered a downturn. Educational publishing companies laid off a lot of editors. Many of those editors opened what they called “development houses” and what we called “packaging companies.” Now the packagers got the assignments from the publishers and called us to do the writing. We did the same work, but our pay was cut because of the packager’s overhead — by a quarter to a half.

 

Some of these packagers weren’t very good at what they did. Many went bust — often without paying their writers what we were owed. Educational publishing continued to downsize, with mergers of companies adding to the number of out-of-work editors. Many of them became writers, and some of them were not very good at what they did. There were fewer textbooks being published and more writers to do the work. The result was that our pay was cut still more.

 

TextbookCostsThen came the crash of 2008. Publishers lowered the amount they paid packagers, and packagers passed the pay cut on to us. Now we were making about a third of what we had made twenty years before — for the same amount of work. When the economy started to recover, our pay didn’t. Publishers and packagers had realized they could get the work for less, and they had no reason to change. It didn’t seem to matter to them that a lot of the writing they were getting was inferior, because many of the writers who had started out in the business had given up or found other career paths. So now, at a time when the entire industry is undergoing enormous changes with the implementation of the Common Core, many of the people who could best write the materials urgently needed for a new curriculum have disappeared. Those who have stuck with it are faced with the task of writing two or three times as much as they used to, just to pay the bills.

 

In the last two years, I’ve been on a number of projects that have all had the same trajectory. I get a call from a packager asking if I’m available. I ask about the project and the pay, get an answer that’s feasible (barely). I sign on.

 

The project is delayed — sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. Having signed on,txtbks.8 I often turn down other jobs. I scramble for work to fill the gap.

 

The project starts up. Half the writers have dropped out. They are replaced by second-choice writers. The end date hasn’t changed, so we have to write the same amount but twice as fast.

 

The project is halted. It must be rethought. A couple of weeks go by. The packager calls — the work has changed radically and now we can only get half the page rate we were originally promised. The end date, of course, is still the same.

 

When I can, I quit these projects. When I can’t, I have to do my best to deliver as skillful a job as possible, at half the price in half the time. And I do it, because I take pride in my writing. And because textbooks are IMPORTANT.

 

txtbks.7But the next time you hear horror stories about educational materials that are badly written or full of errors, you don’t have to wonder what happened. The bottom line has replaced any desire for a job well done. The confusion in planning and implementing these projects results in a product that is rushed and poorly developed. Writers are a dime a dozen — almost literally. We aren’t valued, and our work is no longer as valuable.  In the scramble to make a buck, educational publishing seems to have forgotten the one thing that really matters:

 

We write the materials that educators use to teach your children to read and write.