Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A CHRISTMAS GOODNIGHT: An Editorial Love Story

Merry Christmas in September!
Today's the book birthday for A Christmas Goodnight!
Once upon a time, an author named Nola Buck wrote the text for a new Christmas picture book. It was so perfect that HarperCollins bought it right up, and then patiently waited to find the perfect illustrator to bring its warmth and wonder to life.

Once upon a time, an artist named Sarah Jane Wright had a dream, and a goal, and she was determined to get there.

And once upon a time, a newly-minted assistant editor (read: Yours Truly) told her then-boss that she thought perhaps there was lots of undiscovered illustrator talent to be found on a new-ish crafting website called Etsy. That boss had never heard of Etsy--it was only two years old back then, and it wasn't very well known yet--but she was a big fan of discovering talent in non-traditional places, so she was encouraging about the possibility. So the young editor spent lots of time paging through artwork on Etsy (and okay, if we're being totally honest here, also a fair bit of time getting distracted by pretty earrings in the process), but there was one artist whose work she kept coming back to, over and over, because it was clear that there were stories inside of the artwork, waiting to come alive. So one day in the fall of 2007, she sent that artist a note, asking if she'd ever thought about illustrating children's books. Happily, the artist replied that Yes! She had always wanted to illustrate children's books! A lot of emails followed. A lot of learning and growing happened, on both sides of the desk. Nearly two full years later, this delightful moment happened. And then, after a lot of work, this one. And then, finally, nearly four years to the day after that first email, today, finally, this moment arrived, full of joy, and thanks to all of you for sharing in it by reading this post. And kids' books aficionados, Sarah Jane Wright is an illustrator whose name you should remember, because she's just getting started, and our industry is lucky to have her in it! Each time Sarah Jane and I talk, she inspires me: with her strong sense of balance, with the faith and vision that guide her work and her growing, worldwide brand, and with the abiding joy she finds in the acts of creativity, mothering, and meaningful daily living--check out her blog and I know you'll enjoy "meeting" her, too.  

I could look at this illustration for hours and still not stop smiling!
(An important aside, especially to the still-aspiring: sometimes creative success stories tend to make it sound like everything happens magically, and overnight. It usually doesn't, as I think that the years between Sarah Jane's "discovery" and contract and now-finished book evidence: talent is most often simply a place of beginning, not an end unto itself.)

Adding Sarah Jane's debut artistic talent to a pitch-perfect text written by veteran author Nola Buck was a perfect bookmaking match, and that sort of established + beginner pairing is a long-standing practice in the children's book industry. From a marketing point of view, matching up a veteran and a newbie makes perfect sense: it brings an automatic audience to the beginner, since there are readers who will automatically seek out the established creator's next project, and, hopefully, it brings a new flair or style or dimension to the veteran's work, adding yet another layer to the appreciation that readers have for it. And one of the amazingly wonderful things about the kids' book world is how collaborative it is, and the way that nearly every author and illustrator, no matter how lauded, still remembers what it felt like to be just starting, and genuinely wants to help others succeed, so it's often the start of a friendship and sometimes a long-standing creative pairing, too.

For those of you who find publishing trivia interesting, Nola Buck is the pen name for long-time children's book editor Laura Godwin. (She also sometimes writes under her own name, too.) It's been both humbling and exciting to go through the bookmaking process alongside an author who has, herself, edited so many fantastic books into being. But before she ever wrote the text for A Christmas Goodnight, Laura/Nola was already the author of another perennial Christmas classic, Christmas in the Manger, a book that introduces the characters of the Nativity story in the simplest of ways, for the very youngest readers. Her text for A Christmas Goodnight is wonderful because it reintroduces the Christmas story for a slightly older reader (especially one who read/listened to Christmas in the Manger in previous years, but is now ready for a more advanced understanding of the holiday). The story has a wonderful circularity to it that you'll see reflected in Sarah's illustrations: it melds the familiar Nativity story with the holiday celebrations of a contemporary family, helping young readers see the connections between the long-ago Christmas story and their own lives. And it's such a sweet, memorable text (without being at all saccharine, which is a hard balance to achieve!) that for the past few years, I've found myself reciting it in my head all through the holiday season--over and over and over, which I think is perhaps one of the highest compliments I could pay to an author.

There's something about a picture book that makes the publishing process seem all the more profound and miraculous, maybe because picture books are the very first encounter that some readers will ever have with books and stories. Seeing this story emerge from the fingertips and keyboards and colored pencils of Laura and Sarah has been a treasure. In fact, it's hard to say which story I love more: the story-behind-the-story of this book's making, or the book itself! And I admit that I'm biased when I say that I think they've created a perfect  book that's just waiting to become a part of many families' holiday traditions, year after year, but hey--Publishers Weekly agrees! So if you're looking for a special Christmas gift to share with family and friends come December, put A Christmas Goodnight on your list to check out at your library or buy at your local bookstore. I think you'll find that it's the perfect holiday goodnight book for reading and sharing with those you love. (And don't worry, I'll remind you again when the holidays get closer, when there will be lots more Christmas Goodnight fun happening at Sarah's blog!)
Goodnight, goodnight to all!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On unicycles, basketball, and good storytelling

A few weeks ago, I was spending the day with some friends out on Governor's Island when we ran across something I had never even imagined existed. Here, I'll let you experience it as I did:

Hey, cool. Dudes on unicycles.
Wait a minute. Are they playing...basketball?? On unicycles?! 
Um, yeah, that's precisely what they're doing. Basketball. On unicycles.

Camera phone pictures don't quite do it justice, though. So here's some video (not my own) I found online, from the same day, and from two slightly different vantage points.

Amazing stuff, eh? (Can you imagine the core strength these guys must have?) 

And as unlikely as it seems, Unicycle Basketball perfectly illustrates a writing/craft concept I've been discussing lately with several authors and illustrators. There's no particular name for it, but basically: one trick of masterful writing and illustrating and storytelling is that it brings together things that totally don't seem like they have anything to do with each other at first, but by the story's end, they've been woven together so well that absolutely feel connected. 

Because the thing is: basketball being played by a bunch of guys on a Saturday afternoon? Honestly, I probably wouldn't have paid much attention. A bunch of grown men on unicycles? Ok, I would have paid a little more attention, but really just for a minute, for the novelty of it. But grown men on unicycles playing basketball? I watched, I snapped photos, I came home and googled "unicycle basketball" to discover that yes, in fact, it's a thing, and weeks later, I was still thinking about it enough to want to blog about it. Why?

Because it showed me something new. Because it connected two things I'd never dreamed could be connected, and in doing so, made my understanding of the world a little bigger, a little broader, a little more interesting. Watch those video clips. At first it's crazy, but by the end of the clip, it starts to seem totally normal, wholly believable, that they're playing basketball on unicycles, with crowds of supportive fans watching. Who would've thought it, and yet...it works. It totally works. 

Sometimes stories can be crafted in a way that's too linear, too obvious. If you put in only ingredients that have obvious links from the start, the resulting story can become easy to predict, to anticipate. There's a place for that kind of storytelling; don't get me wrong. In some stories, trying to bring in extra disconnected elements would ruin the rhythm entirely. But other times, those seemingly disconnected elements can ultimately add new layers that take a story to places that are more thought-provoking, more memorable, or just more fun. And if it's done right, by the story's end, you can't even separate which of the elements is the odd ingredient anymore, because they've been blended in a way that can't be undone without ruining the story as a whole. In other words, success!

Unicycle basketball WIN. 

Want some concrete examples? Off the top of my head, I'm tossing out Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (small avian creature + urban transportation + high-minded career ambition); The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (cooking + seasonal migration + incarceration); Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (friendship + fairytales + baseball); and The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen (death + romantic heartbreak + the catering industry). 

P.S. I'd love to hear examples--or further thoughts from all of you on Unicyle Basketball and its relationship to storytelling--in the comments section!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I dare you not to cry

Lovable protagonists.
Despicable antagonist.
Character, character, character! (And VOICE!)
Romance. Friendship.
Emotion-stirring events.
Far-reaching universality.
Precisely-chosen details that telegraph something far bigger than themselves.
An account that touches your perspective and adds to your own experience of living.

...in short, I think this might be one of the most perfect examples of storytelling I've ever seen:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book recommendation: THE NIGHT CIRCUS

Before I'm an editor, I'm a reader. Or I guess another way to phrase it would be, I'm an editor because I'm a reader. In any case, every now and then, you find a book that you just have to shout about to every other reader in the world, you know? And happily enough, I have a blog, which helps me to do precisely that, on occasion. :)

(In short: you should probably buy this book. Or you should go
beat everyone else at your library to checking it out. Hurry!) 
The Night Circus is a book that I fell head over heels in love with with as a reader a few months ago, when I got the lucky chance to grab an early copy. I've been telling people ever since that it's the best book I've read for adults in years, and I promise there's no hyperbole involved in that statement! I truly can't think of the last time I enjoyed a book as a reader as much as I did this one. Oh, and let me be clear, since I most often talk on this blog about books I've played some role in developing: I had *absolutely zero* part in making this book--I can take credit for none of its magic. But I applaud all those who did work on this book, especially its lovely author Erin Morgenstern, and her editor and agent, because they've brought to life a story that is positively bursting with magic. The Night Circus is a tale that's alive with wonder and possibility; it's a mesmerizing love story, and it's rich with sensory detail and fascinating characters (I haven't wanted to eat book food this bad since the first time I read the Narnia books and hungered to try Turkish delight). Best of all, it does one of the things I love most in a story: it creates a sense of place that feels so vivid and real and absolutely essential to the story's telling that the setting is practically becomes a character of its own.

Curious to know more? Here's the blurb from the jacket (and if you read it, come back and tell me if you enjoyed it as much as I did!):

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des RĂªves, and it is only open at night. 

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.