Monday, July 14, 2014

But, it's about a fish!

I read that when Kate DiCamillo got the call that she'd won the 2014 Newbery Medal for her middle grade novel, Flora and Ulysses, she cried; and said jokingly through her tears, "But, it's about a squirrel!"

I know how she felt. Well. . . sort of. This was maybe not quite on the level of a Newbery Medal, but for me, as a writer and mom, it was a huge honor to receive the email telling me my story was chosen to be a part of Listen To Your Mother.

And a similar phrase went through my mind. But, it's about a fish, I thought. They want me to read my story about a dead goldfish? To borrow my castmate Daphnee Renfrow's word. . . Really?

I'd watched several of the videos of last year's perfomers in cities across the country. These women wrote raw and from the heart. They wrote about losing their mothers, losing their children, illness, addiction, heartbreak, redemption. Powerful stuff.

I had tried, after seeing their brilliant performances, to write about my mom, gone not quite three years to cancer. My mother: a beautiful, intelligent woman, who stepped into the role of "Grammie" to my three daughters with the same grace, strength and humor she'd shown raising me. I couldn't do it. She's a part of me, and everything I write, but to write and read aloud a piece about her and what she meant to me—and deliver it to a crowded auditorium of people? I wasn't ready.

The only requirements for a Listen To Your Mother essay are that your piece be original, not yet published, and on the theme of motherhood. You needn't be a mom to participate, but your piece must reflect something to do with motherhood.

So, I wrote a funny little story about a pet fish. Because that's the essence of my journey through motherhood: the follies. Moments big and small. I hoped it wouldn't seem too silly or insignificant.

On the night of the show, I stood on stage with a group of fabulous women who, in a very short time, became friends, bonded by the Listen To Your Mother experience. And I told my story.

I realized that it wasn't insignificant. It was authentic. People seemed to like it. I was proud of myself, and of the whole cast. I'd shown my two older daughters that I was funny—and brave.

I didn't write an essay about my mother, but I did something I know she'd be proud of. And for now, that's enough.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Is it worth it?

Any writer who has been through the launch of a new book will tell you, the process can be all-consuming. Sometimes it feels as though it's impossible to write, and market your writing, at the same time. Whether you're a well-known author on book tour with a top tier release, or a newly published writer managing the logistics of marketing mostly on your own, it takes tremendous effort and energy to send a new book out into the world.

For my first two picture books, I didn't really do much for the launches. Both times I had small children at home—for the second book I was pregnant and my mom was very sick—so, beyond a book signing at my local bookstore attended by mostly close friends and family, the books went into the world quietly, despite some lovely reviews.

This time around is different. While I still have little kids at home, the youngest of whom is only three, I am a more experienced parent, far better at juggling work tasks and mom tasks. And with the help of my publicist at Penguin, and the incomparable marketing guru Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, I have a plan. A full-fledged marketing plan complete with  book trailer, blog tour, giveaways, story hour kits, a social media campaign, launch party, holiday tie-ins... heck, I even started my own hashtag (#BakingDay).

I explained this to a family member recently, who very candidly (and not unkindly) asked, "Do you think it's worth it?" Translated, this person was asking, will all the work and investment amount to significantly more book sales? And the honest answer to that question is, "I don't know yet." I believe it will. But I can't say for sure until the book is out there and our promotions get rolling. And even then, some books pick up steam over time vs. having breakthrough sales out of the gate.

The question made me ponder the small miracle of getting a book published—one picture book's path to publication. Books have hurdles (many!) before they reach store and library shelves. First, you, author-person, must get an inspired idea. That idea then needs to morph to paper in first draft form. You re-read it, revise it, put it aside and re-read and revise again (multiple times). Perhaps at this point, you share it with your critique group. You absorb their feedback and revise again.

Then, if you have an agent and feel it's in good shape to share, you send it along. (You wait, wait, wait.) Your agent likes it! (Huzzah!) She sends it to a handful of editors. (You wait, wait, wait some more.) An editor likes it! (Huzzah, again!) But hold on, the editor must take it to an editorial meeting.

And here's where it really gets perilous.

Your little manuscript is read aloud and discussed at a roundtable of editors, editorial assistants, art directors, marketing executives and sales folks. (Eeeps!) If the group doesn't like it, or it's too similar to something they've already acquired, it gets passed over.

(Insert more waiting, here.) They like it! Eureka!

Think your story is home free? Not necessarily. It then goes to an acquisitions meeting (yet more waiting) where the final vote is made to acquire your book and offer you a contract. (Shoo.)

The good news is, books surmount these hurdles every day at publishing houses all over the world. But it's still a miraculous moment when someone offers to publish your story.

Think of all the hard work your little book did to get here!

That's what I've been doing as I approach the launch of Baking Day At Grandma's. It's like a baby—my book baby—and I want to give it the very best chance to thrive in the marketplace, and all the love and support it deserves.

So, is it worth it?


Friday, May 30, 2014

Blog Tour - My Writing Process

Today, I join the blog tour where writers answer questions about their process. I was invited by my friend and colleague, author Betsy Devany. Betsy's debut picture book is forthcoming from Christy Ottaviano Books at Henry Holt in 2016. Read Betsy's wonderful post on her writing process here.

What am I working on?
Right now, I'm revising two picture book manuscripts: one about an unconventional chicken, the other about a middle child who celebrates all the reasons why (contrary to popular opinion) middle is the best. I'm also in the first draft stages of a middle grade fantasy novel involving a boardwalk, magic and time-travel, as well as a contemporary piece about a young biracial girl. So, I'm all over the map as far as what I'm working on—and I like it that way.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I'd say my picture books have a classic feel. I'm especially fond of bouncy read-alouds and frequently collaborate with my husband, Christopher Denise, an artist whose influences include Ernest Shepard, NC Wyeth, Edmund Dulac and Beatrix Potter—so I'd like to think our books have a timelessness that readers respond to. Baking Day At Grandma's, our forthcoming picture book, very much fits that description. We try to create inviting worlds readers want to jump right intowhether it's a cozy bear cabin in the woods, a bustling kitchen full of pigs, or the softly lit bedroom of a little girl and her imaginary yellow elephant.

From Baking Day At Grandma's (Philomel, 2014)
Copyright, 2014 Christopher Denise

I'm also deeply interested in writing books with diverse main characters. It was very important to me that Bella, in Bella And Stella Come Home, look like our children, who are multi-ethnic. 

From Bella and Stella Come Home (Philomel, 2010)
Copyright, 2010 Christopher Denise

Why do I write what I do?
I suppose I'm drawn to what I loved as a child. Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss had a hold on my heart and still do. When I read them today, it's my mother's voice I hear in my head. She was a brilliant reader. Her inflection drew me in. Our nightly ritual of reading books together honed my ear for rhythm, rhyme and dialogueall of which come fairly naturally to me as a writer. 

How does my individual writing process work?
I have three children ages 3, 9 and 12, and I work as an events-planner for my local bookstore, so my writing time is very limited, and very precious. I try—not always successfully—to write at least five days a week. I realized a few years ago that it's helpful for me to have several projects brewing, particularly on the picture book side. Picture books are extremely hard to write well, and out of hundreds of ideas, only a few will rise to the top. So, I spend a great deal of time exploring them. I often have as many as ten to fifteen picture book drafts in various stages of development. This helps keep things fresh and interesting, and increases my chances of hitting on an idea that will resonate with my agent, with editors, and with readers.

Novel-writing, on the other hand, requires a singular focus—which is probably why it has been such a slow process for me. I'm more accustomed to writing and revising as I go, and I've had to retrain my brain to get the messy first draft down without constantly stopping to edit. I'm learning to be brave, and quiet my inner perfectionist. I often begin without an outline and write a scene or two as a manner of finding my way into the piece. Then I back up and create a rough summary or synopsis, so that I can see the plot and story arc more clearly, and can jump ahead if I get stuck. 

And now, I shall pass the torch to two lovely and talented authors: Kim Savage and Mary Jane Begin.

Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning author and illustrator and an instructor at Her books include My Little Pony: Under The Sparkling Sea, (Little, Brown 2013) Little Mouse's Painting, Before I Go to Sleep, A Mouse Told His Mother, retellings of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and Willow Buds, tales inspired by Wind in the Willows. In addition to writing, illustrating and teaching Foundations of Color for, Mary Jane is a professor of illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. She lives near the sparkling waters of Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island, with her family. To learn more about Mary Jane's books, illustration, workshops and courses, visit her website.

Kim Savage writes YA Psychological Thrillers. Her debut novel AFTER THE WOODS comes out in 2015 with Farrar, Straus and Giroux/MacMillan. She is currently at work on her second novel for FSG, and is represented by Sara Crowe. Kim lives in a town west of Boston with her wickedly funny husband and their three children, each of whom beg to appear in one of her books. They shouldn’t. Find Kim at

Take it away, Mary Jane and Kim! I look forward to reading about your writing process next week.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Spring Planting

An Unremarkable Square of Dirt
by Anika Denise (Copyright, 2014)

The first days in my garden remind me of my mother. On Mother's Day, we'd plant the flower bed at the front of her house--a small, unremarkable square of dirt just to the right of her front door; but to us, it seemed a grand garden. It was the first place she'd lived after moving out of New York, and it had a flower bed that needed flowers.

Busy hands allow my mind to wander. As I sift through soil with my fingers, I remember a conversation we had when I was seven years old. "Mom, what will I be when I grow up? Will I be a mom with lots of kids, or a lady who goes to work every day like you?" I asked. "I think you'll do it all," was her answer.

I wish she'd told me it would not be always be a perfect balance.

I pull weeds from between the iris bulbs and listen to the sound of my breathing. Now my thoughts travel back to when my first daughter was born, red-faced and howling, tiny fists clenched. I remember how she didn't stop crying for three months. And how tired I was. I remember how often I fell short of doing it all.

I rake the bed, evening the soil, and part a tiny space to place the plant.

I am wiser now, after child number three. I know that all is a fantasy, and it's okay to settle for some.

I wonder, Am I doing a good job? Does she think I'm a good mom?

And then I remember the unremarkable square of dirt by my mother's front door, and how now, in this moment, there is a flower bed that needs flowers.

I'll be joining a cast of thirteen remarkable women this Saturday, May 10th, at the RISD Auditorium for Listen To Your Mother, Providence. Tickets for the show can be purchased online here.  If you are in the area, I hope you'll come.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Conference Diary: SCBWI Winter 2014

Last weekend, I attended my first SCBWI national conference with my talented author-illustrator pal, Mary Jane Begin.

It was a whirlwind of fun, inspiration, fabulous meals and networking—and it's taken me three days to gather myself to post about it. I've been looking at photos, reading over notes, filing through the many business cards I picked up along the way, and letting it all sink in.

Although I'm not exactly a newbie to publishing—and Mary Jane is a veteran with many books and awards to her name—neither of us had been to the New York conference before, for a variety of reasons, including deadlines, kids, writing and teaching.

So, we were excited. I couldn't wait to be in New York to meet some of the children's book folks I'd been chatting with for The Little Crooked Cottage and on Twitter, and to spend an entire weekend focused on all things kidlit.

I knew that I had the perfect partner for the trip in Mary Jane. She's whip-smart, game for anything, never gets rattled and loves to laugh. She also has a more esoteric quality I like to call flow. She's a magnet for positive people and serendipitous moments. And she loves dark chocolate. That's my kind of travel-buddy.

Skipping through Grand Central

When we arrived at Grand Central, we spotted a few familiar faces right away and immediately felt the energy of the conference. There's something visceral about being with your creative tribe, and I felt it the moment we walked into the hotel lobby.

Of course, our first priority upon arrival was food. We went in search of a sushi restaurant about twenty blocks from the hotel. Friday afternoon was chilly and drizzly, but that didn't dampen our spirits or our desire to walk the city, so we set out on foot. A few paces before our destination, we spotted a charming little restaurant on the corner, and remarked on how cozy it looked.

Tiny trattoria tucked in beneath the Queensboro Bridge

This was fortunate, because the sushi spot we'd chosen didn't open for another two hours. Whoopsie! That's the thing about New York—when one restaurant door closes, another adorable one with tall windows and little twinkling lights opens. We sat and enjoyed a delicious meal, and raised a glass to the great weekend ahead. 

Happy MJ with vino. Saluté!
Dining under the twinkly lights

Jane and I were not faculty or part of the illustration portfolios, so we weren't able to attend the Friday evening VIP cocktail party; however, after entertaining brief giggle-worthy notions about various ways to crash the festivities, we settled on the lounge upstairs, which had a stunning floor-to-ceiling view of 42nd street towards Park Avenue.

View of 42nd and Park

Fortunately, not long later, some VIP's came to us; including, to my delight, my editor at Harper Children's, Nancy Inteli. Nancy recently acquired my new picture book, Monster Trucks! (Summer, 2016). It was lovely to be able to meet Nancy person and give her a thank you hug!

Nancy Inteli, Editorial Director,  Harper Collins Children's Books 
Hangin' with the fabulous and talented  Carlyn Beccia!

After a fun night and another great meal at The Smith Midtown...

Two words: creamed kale. Heaven.
You can't tell in this pic,
 but we're doing the happy food dance.

...and a brief stop here... we called it a night.

Saturday morning, we were up and at 'em early (miraculously).

Badges, notebooks, coffee: check! (Ok, we look a little sleepy. )

All the presentations for the weekend followed the theme of Seven Essentials. Jack Gantos (Newbery award-winner for Dead End In Norvelt) was up first with a keynote titled, "How everything I learned about fiction and nonfiction in picture books, poetry, short stories, novellas, or, angst, dialog, a hundred drafts, and good luck all end up in the crown jewel of literature: THE NOVEL."

That title speaks to Jack's electric personality. He's all spitfire and energy and humor and talent. He spoke about finding habits that work for you, content and structure, focused rewrites, connecting the dots with theme, and adding emotional depth to your stories.

Beyond his very helpful pointers, I think what came through was his passion and commitment to telling stories in all forms, as well as a joy an irreverence one can't help but love.

It was a fabulous kick-off to the keynotes.

After a morning of enlightening discussions, including a fascinating panel on The Future of Authorship, and breakout sessions in the afternoon, Mary Jane and I decided to seek a little inspiration outside the conference halls and head over to the NYPL to see Leonard Marcus's exhibit at the New York Public Library: The ABC of it: Why Children's Books Matter.

The weather had turned springlike in Manhattan and as much as we were enjoying the talks, we needed some air—and some art. Library Way, which cuts directly to the front entrance of the NYPL, is paved with quotes from literature. I snapped a few shots of my favorites.

The exhibit itself was similarly paved in riches. Expertly curated and gloriously designed, it was the perfect end-note on a roundly inspiring day.

We arrived back to the hotel feeling glad we hadn't missed the opportunity to see the exhibit, but barely able to catch our breath before the cocktail party—which was a blur of fun connections, old friends and new faces.

It was great to meet Ame Dyckman (Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning author of Tea Party Rules) and Drew Daywalt (New York Times bestselling author of The Day The Crayons Quit) in person, after becoming friends in the Twitterverse, and featuring them both on The Little Crooked Cottage.

Ame Dyckman, Drew Daywalt and moi. 

Another unexpected treat was bumping into talented YA author, KM Walton. I met Kate years ago, before her first novel published, at the home of good friends. Since then, Kate has published two novels: Cracked (2012) and Empty (2013), with another title, The Lies We Tell, forthcoming in 2015. It was lovely to be able to reconnect after cheering Kate's successes from afar. Keep an eye on KM Walton. She's one to watch.
Striking a pose with KM Walton

But my favorite moment of all came on Sunday. Kate Messner delivered the best, I mean it, the best speech I have ever heard at an SCBWI event. Her keynote on The Spectacular Power of Failure was inspiring, moving and full of hope.

Who among us hasn't faced the fear of failure in our work? Kate encouraged us to take a moment to celebrate each of our successes, large and small, instead of automatically moving the bar before we've had the chance to appreciate our accomplishments.

She turned the entire notion of failure on its ear by putting it in perspective. "You can't have brave without scared," she said quoting Linda Urban's novel Hound Dog True. We learn from failing, and reevaluating and trying again."

She encouraged us all to "live our creative lives bravely," and to do the same by our characters. "Let them be flawed, let them fail, and let them survive."

Kate ended the speech by reading a poem.

What Happened to Your Book Today
by Kate Messner (Copyright 2011)
I don't have a photo to share of this moment because a.) I was blubbering and wiping my nose, and b.) I was on my feet, clapping and joining in the standing ovation that Kate received for her uplifting, heartfelt and encouraging words.

I looked to my left, at my friend Jane who was teary-eyed and clapping, too, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing.

This is why we do what we do. Kate summed it up beautifully.

Even without all the rest—which was magical—that one reminder was worth the trip.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ideas beget ideas. . .

When my first child was a baby, I remember the pediatrician saying to me that I should not be afraid of letting her take a long nap. Like any new mom, I worried about keeping her on a schedule. Eat, play, sleep, repeat was the conventional wisdom of the day. But sometimes she slept right through the next feeding time. Should I wake her up? What if she sleeps so long that she doesn't sleep at night?

Then the doctor said something to me that really helped: "Sleep begets sleep."

And he was right. On the days she took long luxurious naps, she tended to sleep through the night.

As I embarked on my first PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), I realized that creativity works much  the same way. The more energy I put towards it, the more it flows. Ideas beget ideas! I should know this. I should believe this. But somehow, I sort of... didn't.

On day 1, it felt forced, like I had to try a little too hard to squeeze out one measly, puny idea. My inner worry-wart piped right up. If the first idea is this hard, how will I possibly come up with twenty-nine more?!? 

But then something I wrote in my notebook sparked the seed of another idea, and then I had two or three more after that. And the next day I was reaching for that notebook all day long. Eureka! This works.

Sure, not every idea is a keeper. Most aren't. But so what?  Even if they are just roundabout, mixed up ways to a decent idea, then they are worthy.


I guess I never really realized it, but until now, I sort of believed in the Magic Muse. Somedays she shines her light on you, other days--not so much. The knowledge that I have the ability to turn on the tap of ideas and get it flowing is empowering. (And a relief.)

So thank you, Tara Lazar! And thank you to all of you PiBoIdMo-ers who are scribbling and blogging and cheering each other on. Inspiration begets inspiration! And you guys are super-inspiring.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Ode to Procrastination

Monday looms,
worry blooms,
deep within my chest.

Too much work,
deadlines lurk,
words ignored, protest.

Tuesday dawns
stretches, yawns,
promises success.

Laundry calls,
writing stalls,
must clean up this mess.

Wednesday waits,
doubt abates,
ready to create!

Cell phone bleeps,
meeting… eeps!
twenty minutes late!

Thursday’s here,
dear, oh, dear…
only one day more.

Cupboard’s bare,
do I care?
(Better hit the store.)

Friday’s free,
words and me
waiting to set sail!

First, a snack,
hurry back,
think I hear the mail...

by Anika Denise