Friday, August 3, 2018

How to Ask an Author a Question: Q&A's and Panels


You’re at an author event or a conference panel, listening to an author speak. They’re funny, smart, compassionate, interesting. You feel a connection. You’ve read their book, or you plan to. The panel opens up for audience questions. You’d like to ask one, because there’s so much you’d like to know, and more, because you’d like to have a human interaction with this person with whom you’ve had, or will have, a literary interaction.

What should you ask them?

The mind goes blank.

It does for me, and I’m an author, for Pete’s sake. In that moment, I want to give the author the small gift of my genuine interest in what they think, and I hope they’ll return to me the gift of a genuine answer. But what to ask?

photo by Tom Rivers, OrleansHub.com
It’s a little bit of a love thing. And Love, as we know, is not always close companion to Brain. Not when it’s put on the spot, and others are watching.

What should you ask an author? What kinds of questions do authors want to be asked?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but that won’t stop me from sharing my firehose of opinions on the subject. But along the way, let’s also look at major league author questioning: moderating panels.


Moderating an Author Panel: What Authors Wish All Moderators Knew

Panel moderators, those intrepid souls, MUST ask authors questions. Several in succession, before a public audience, in real time, without embarrassing themselves.

Dear moderators—We love you. Truly. Panel authors are grateful for the opportunity to present their books to new audiences. We’re indebted to moderators for giving us that chance. Always.

Why Panels, Anyway? Authors accept invitations to speak, often gratis, leave their kids, hire sitters and dogwalkers, travel—often at their own expense, chew through precious vacation time, and do otherwise difficult things to present their latest book to new readers. The publicity behind the conference, and the speaking opportunities, are what accomplish that objective. Thus an ideal panel gives authors the best chance to present their new books to new readers in an interesting, engaging way. Anything else that comes of it (meeting new people, having fun conversations, yummy food, scenery) is welcome but secondary. Without the promotional bang for the buck, most of us would rather stay home and work on our books.
 
The general public comes to panels because they like books, they like reading, they want to learn about new books, and they think that authors are interesting people. They’re curious and hope to get inside the mind of an author to understand how and why they write. They’re fans of one of the authors on the panel. There’s a bit of a mystique, maybe, surrounding the author’s work, and some audience members hope to learn how to become authors themselves. So, a panel will be successful for its audience if it gives them the chance to learn interesting things about new books and about the people who create them.

Too often, panels fall short on both counts.

photo by Bill Greene, Boston Globe
Moderators reading books: It may be a lot to ask of a moderator, to read all the books the panel will discuss, though they usually are fairly bookish types – teachers, librarians, writers, booksellers. Let’s consider this, then, a plea. Please read our books. At least read a few chapters. We’re taking days out of our lives to be there. We’re missing the winter concert or Junior’s eighth grade graduation. (True story.) We hope it will be worth it. Moderators who’ve read the books will organically ask interesting questions that lead to better discussion. When moderators don’t know our books, questions can only be generic.

Sometimes moderators step in at the eleventh hour because someone cancelled or dropped a ball. In that case, reading three or four books just isn’t possible. But reading even a portion of them, even a first chapter, or a first few pages, still helps convey a feel for character, setting, situation, and tone.

Then what? The moderator has read the book. (Or hasn’t.) What should they ask?

Generic Questions: The questions we hear most often go something like this:
  1. Where do you get your ideas?
  2. Tell us your writing schedule.  
  3. Do you write on a computer or by hand?
  4.  Do you have quirky writing habits? Routines?
  5. What time of day do you write?
  6. How do you balance writing with family/work/etc?
  7. Who designs the cover; do you get to choose?
  8. How did you find your agent / sell your book / find a publisher?
  9. Do you use outlines? Or do you plan your stories in advance, or see what comes to you?

These questions turn the discussion into either a How-to-Publish conversation, or a When-to-Write session, or some sort of therapy session about work/life balance. That’s definitely not what we came to talk about (and not what we paid a sitter for). As for the quirks, we’re not exhibits in a zoo with fascinating daily feeding/sleeping/mating schedules; we’re people who make books, so let’s talk about the books. We only get 45 minutes; let’s devote every one of them to books.

The Same Panel As Every Other Panel: Generic questions turn Any Author into Every Author, and every panel into The Same Panel As Every Other Panel. What a missed opportunity! Authors, in theory, think interesting creative thoughts, or do interesting research, and then write books about it. That’s the glittering gem each author brought with them: all that they – and only they – learned or discovered in the process of making this one specific book. It stinks to leave a panel or signing not having had a chance to share it.

The Perils of Process: Panels quickly devolve into the Same Panel as Every Other Panel because these are chiefly process questions (when do you write, what do you write on, how long do you write each day, etc), they elicit a sort of unintended (or superabundant!) narcissism. Why, yes, I am a fascinating subject! Let me tell you how often I sharpen my pencils, because naturally, you’re dying to know! And there goes the hour, and all the audience has gotten is self-importance from the panelists. If the questions are unflinchingly about the books, everyone will be better fed.

My Dream Question Wishlist: Here are the kinds of questions I wish people would ask me, aside from the kinds of questions that arise naturally from a reading of the book:
  1. Tell us about the journey that led to you writing this book.  
  2. Tell us about one of the people at the center of this book, and what makes them interesting. 
  3. Why does this book (or this subject) matter to you? Why was it worth spending a year (or five, etc.) of your life on it? 
  4. What do you love about this book? What makes this book special to you? Is there a part that makes you cry? Makes you laugh? Is there a part you’re secretly most proud of? What is it? 
  5. Tell us about any literary influences that went into this work, OR, tell us what other books this book joins in conversation. 
  6. Who else should love this book? Describe the reader who ought to know about this title. 
  7. What do you hope this book can impart to its readers?   
  8. How did your work on this book change you?

Paradoxically, these questions about my books will help you get to know me better, too. We learn more about people when they talk about work they love than when they talk about themselves. (Snoozer!) Besides, when we talk about ourselves we’re untrustworthy witnesses, but when we talk about our expertise, something of value comes through.

Developing questions that elicit the most interesting, meaty discussions is by no means an obvious or intuitive process. It takes skill and agility for a moderator to keep turning the conversation back to the books. Even authors can need redirection in that way. But that’s what does the most for everyone involved.

Now, again, just to be clear, I’m always glad to be on any panel, anywhere (well, preferably if there’s an audience), and I don’t fault anyone for asking any question. A sincere question is always welcome. Audience members don’t know how many times I’ve already been asked about jacket art. Each time is the first time for them. Any question asked by a young audience member becomes Priority A1, and I’ll answer with my utmost seriousness and respect. I hope I give all questions that same courtesy.

With practice, moderators and book lovers can learn to ask questions that elicit an author’s meaningful expertise and heartfelt opinions. This is the Brain + Heart input that you’ll remember long after the panel ends. We’ll remember it, too, along with the warmth of your kindness when you greet us in the signing line. Knock on wood, we’ll also remember a happy bookseller loving what the panel did for today’s, and tomorrow’s, sales.

Appendix: Other Pleas for Panel Moderators

I couldn’t help listing a few other items in my Dream Moderator How-To Guide.

Introducing the author: When searching for bio details, please don’t just go with Wikipedia. I see that all the time. Don’t just google a bio and go with the one you find online from a conference from four years ago. A stale bio omits the most important information about recent titles and recent accolades. Ask the author in advance to provide their most current bio, and start with that. In a perfect world, bolster that with how you feel about the author’s work. (If it’s positive! J)

Accolades: The author can’t toot their own horn and list their own achievements. It’s nauseating and unbecoming. But we do still need those details shared. So please, do make sure to mention awards and accolades in the introduction. For better and for worse, people sit up and pay attention when they hear “bestseller” or “award-winning” or “debut” or “shortlisted for…” So in order to make the audience more interested in hearing what we have to say, we need the moderator to toot our horns for us. I often see panels where the introductions are omitted altogether, or done in a cursory way (“John Doe is the author of Cool Title, Jane Smith is the author of Another Cool Title”), or done carelessly, as though it’s just an embarrassing obligation that the moderator is anxious to put behind them. We need those introducing us to prime the pump and let the audience know, Here is someone worth hearing. It makes us look good and it makes you look good (look at the luminaries you managed to attract!).

Balance: Oftentimes one author on a panel is much better known than the others. Be careful not to lob most of the questions at that person. Audience questions, when one author is a big name, are likely to go solely to the big name. A moderator ought to run interference to prevent lopsidedness. Otherwise it’s a Q&A with Bigshot, as though he/she were doing a lone signing, with three embarrassed sidekicks wishing they could slink away and disappear. Or feeling the need to barge in so as to be heard. Having the audience submit questions in writing, for the moderator to select, rather than passing around the microphone, may help, though admittedly that can be logistically complicated.

Join the Conversation

Authors: What would you add to the Dream Question Wishlist? What other Panel Pitfalls do you wish could be avoided? Moderators: What questions do you find most effective? What’s the hardest part about steering a panel conversation? How could authors make the job easier for you?










Sunday, July 29, 2018

I've finished a novel. What do I do next to get an agent? -- Questions from the Inbox.

Aspiring writers often email me seeking advice on their journey to publication. I decided I ought to share the advice I give on my blog so that others might see it as well.

Today's question goes something like this:

I've just finished my novel. What should I do before submitting it to an agent? Should I hire a professional proofreader to edit it? Also, do you have advice for me on how to find an agent? Any tips on writing a good query letter?

Disclaimer: I only submitted to one agent, and she offered me representation. We're still together, and very happily so, at least from my perspective. (I can only speak for myself.) We're still crazy after all these years. :) So my advice on finding an agent comes more from years in this industry than from personal experience. It also comes from from countless conversations with other writers, and with many agents I'm fortunate to call friends. Each might have their own unique twist on these questions, so I make no claim of providing the last, definitive word on the subject. My advice, such as it is, is below, and I think it's pretty sound. It's free, at any rate. Here's my letter in response to those questions.

Dear Aspiring Writer, 

Thanks for reaching out to me. Congratulations on finishing your novel!

To your first question about hiring a proofreader, I guess it depends on how cleanly you write, but really, I don’t think proofreading is what’s needed next. Proofreading suggests to my mind a cleanup of spelling, commas, accidental word choices, and the occasional run-on. That’s not what should come next, and it’s not even what an agent will really care about. Agents are entirely looking for original voices, strong characters, and compelling storytelling. If that’s not there, perfect spelling and grammar won’t help you; if voice/character/story are strong, bad spelling and grammar won’t be a serious issue. (All the same, it’s good to write cleanly if you can, as it looks somewhat sophomoric to have a manuscript that’s studded with errors.)

The kind of feedback you need next is smart editorial feedback. If you don't have a professional editor at a national trade publisher in your back pocket, the next best thing is to get a critique from a skilled, experienced reader/writer/critiquer. Feedback from a strong critical reader who reads a great deal and can articulate for you what’s working and not working in your draft is an essential next step in the process of moving toward publication. I’m pretty sure that no one’s first novel, in its virgin state, is ready to be shopped around. Librarians, teachers, and serious, committed aspiring writers are all good sources of critique. Someone with a creative writing MFA will be experienced in the process of giving expert critiques. I strongly urge you to take this step next. Perhaps you can trade critiques, and offer them constructive feedback on their work in progress. That process will teach you more than you might imagine about how to spot the weaknesses in a working manuscript.

To your other questions, how do you find an agent? And do I have insights on query letters?

Query letters: I’m mystified by how these are treated as some sort of holy grail. Keep it incredibly short, sweet, and to the point. “Dear Agent, I’m writing to see if you would be interested in reading my _genre_ novel/picture book/etc for _age group_ readers. Combining the humor of _funny book_ with the twists and turns of _exciting book_ [make your own best comparisons], the book tells the story of _character_, an _age_ year old boy/girl with _quirky/special trait/power_ who lives in a _setting_ and faces _problem_ in her pursuit of _goal._ I’ve enclosed the first two chapters, coming in at _page count_ pages. The finished novel is _words long._ [New paragraph.] I work in _my career and/or industry_ and I hold a degree in _relevant major field_ from _school_. My interest in _subject matter_ stems from my _personal experience with subject matter_ [I breed llamas or whatever]. I can be reached at _my contact info_. Warmly, My Name.”

If, in the process of writing the query letter, you think of  clever ways to inject humor and personality into the writing of the letter, great, but err on the side of keeping it light and straightforward. Just the facts, ma’am. Short, sweet, and to the point. If your pitch is remotely interesting, the agent will start reading the first page or two. They’ll know in a hurry of they want to go on. If they sense strong voice, character, and/or story, they’ll continue, and if they like what they see, they’ll ask for more.

As for what agents to query, research agents at literary agencies specializing in the kind of stuff you write. Your best option is to pick your dozen favorite books published in recent years and check the acknowledgements section to figure out who represented those books. That’s likely to be your best starting point as a submission list.


I hope this helps! Best of luck to you. Definitely find a good critical reader, or two, or seven. This process takes time. I imagine you’re probably eager to submit sooner rather than later. We all are. But do take the time to obtain and consider smart feedback on overall story and structure elements. You’ll be glad you did. 

Cheers, Julie Berry

Friday, July 20, 2018

A Phone Call, Bathrooms, A Celebration, and Lies: The Passion of Dolssa and its ALA Printz Honor


Well. This is embarrassing. This is a blog post I wanted to write a year ago, about the The Passion of Dolssa receiving an ALA Printz Honor, a year and change ago.

In my defense, the reason it’s taken me this long to write it is that in the middle of the ALA summer conference, I moved. MOVED. As in, I put the last box in the shipping container in Boston, swept and locked my empty house for the last time, zipped my suitcase, went to the airport, flew to Chicago, put a nice dress on for the Printz ceremony, and another dress for the dinner, and then flew from there to LA to see my new home for the first time. After racing around setting up the new house, I embarked on an epic summer and fall of Very Much Travel, lecturing and speaking all over the place, which was super fun but fairly hectic. In airports and on airplanes, and in any spaces I could find in between, I feverishly read and researched my next YA novel, Lovely War (more on that very soon). The crazy wound down by Thanksgiving. From Black Friday onward until, oh, two weeks ago, I pretty much locked myself in my office and wrote like a madwoman. I wrote a couple of other books, too, in between there, and I’ll talk more about those down the road. But, It Has Been A Year, and then some.
Printz winners & honorees pose with committee members.

Now it’s July, and Lovely War has gone into copyediting, which means that, for the most part, it’s done. So NOW I can revisit summer 2017’s ALA conference in Chicago, and the whirlwind six months between getting The Phone Call and walking up onto that stage and praying for all I’m worth that I wouldn’t trip. (Because fancy heels are essential for rare moments like these, even if they did leave me with a Dolssa Blister afterwards. Not kidding.)  

The Phone Call was pretty awesome. This moment may never strike again in my life, so it’s worth reliving in some detail.

Enough people had said they thought Dolssa could be a Printz contender that I couldn’t pretend not to hope that maybe, maybe I might get a call. I try not to hope where awards are concerned, because that way madness lies, and there’s just no telling what book will ever win anything, but I’m nowhere near Zen enough not to have wiggled and worried and wondered.
With teacher/blogger Karyn Silverman @ Penguin booth

I was sure, though, that if a call were coming, it would come in the evening. I spent that Sunday afternoon at church, teaching my hilarious Sunday School class of 10-yo whip-smarties, with the ringer of my phone turned off. Class ended, and I escorted the kids to the larger room for singing time. At this moment, I surreptitiously sneaked a peek at my phone, to see if my husband, then living in LA, had sent me his usual Sunday “good morning” text. (Time zone difference.)  

There was no message from Phil yet, but there was a text message from a writer friend, whom I’ll call “Writer Friend.” It read, “Did you get a call yet?”

Oh, Writer Friend, I thought, don’t say that! It’s hard enough to stay sane as it is!

Only then did I see that underneath her text was a notice of two missed phone calls from Chicago.

I blinked. I gulped. My eyes popped. My stomach flopped. We just don’t have the right clichés for a moment like this.

I am not proud of what I did next. I was in church, for heaven’s sake, with the Sunday School children. I told them, “I need to go to the bathroom.”

Maybe it wasn’t quite a lie. I probably could’ve gone to the bathroom. I probably should’ve gone to the bathroom. What I did instead was slip out the door, go outside to the parking lot, dial the missed number, and then say, to the answering Hello-er, “This is Julie Berry. I just missed a call from this number,” in what I hoped was a relaxed, professional voice, as if I wasn’t bursting right out of my own skin like a baked potato.
Being, um, Neal's Angels? I take no responsibility for this. L to R: me, Louise O'Neill, Nicola Yoon. Recumbent: Neal Shusterman. 

The Hello-er put me on speaker, and told me that she was from the ALA Printz committee, and they were all present and delighted to let me know that The Passion of Dolssa had won a Printz Honor.

I’m not sure what I managed to say next.

The rest of the call was brief. On speaker phone, they cheered and applauded. They were eager, they said, to meet me at the summer conference. Congratulations, they said. Thank you thank you I can’t believe it oh my goodness thank you, I said.
With Kendra Levin, my editor at Viking.

And then I called Phil. That was, I think, the very best part of all. He was as joyful as if the award were his; more so, I believe. His delight in the Printz Honor meant more to me than my own.

Next, I texted my editor and my agent, something I would NEVER do on a weekend, and asked if, you know, they could maybe spare me a few minutes for a quick conversation. Those were fun calls, too.

Let us pray, for the sake of my immortal soul, that after that I did visit the ladies’ room. I really can’t remember.


I had to keep the secret from the kids for the rest of the day. If they noticed Mom being extra bouncy and cheerful, they never mentioned it.

The announcement was made the following morning, and the resulting flood of congratulations was a Facebook birthday times a million. In the following days, cards, flowers, and treats showed up at my door. The kindness of the kidlit community and of my dear friends is pretty spectacular. I really didn’t know what to do with it all. My cheeks hurt from smiling.

My bathroom renovation project.
The next six months were a blur of normal life, mom stuff, writing, listing my home for sale (sniff!), renovating its bathroom (glurg), selling it (whew), packing (gaaaah), and moving (ugh). But then I went straight to Chicago, which became, for me, a temporary fairyland. I met authors I’ve admired for ages. Rode in an elevator with Sarah Jessica Parker, and I was so chill, I said nothing. Ate fabulous Russian food and deep-dish pizza and posed for selfies with Phil beside The Bean (the Cloud Gate sculpture). And when the time was right, I put on those dresses and heels, smiled a lot, and gave lots of hugs, hoping I wasn’t sweating as much as I feared I was.
Phil and me at The Bean (Cloud Gate sculpture)

It was an honor and a thrill to be on the same panel as Representative John Lewis. We’d met earlier that year at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival party and ceremony, so now we’re practically BFFs. He’s as humble and genuine as anyone you could ever hope to meet. In the wacky world we inhabit, I’m grateful for heroes and leaders like him. It was wonderful to meet the other honorees: Nicola Yoon, Neal Shusterman, and Louise O'Neill. Any jitters I'd felt vanished once we started chatting on the panel. 

Nicola Yoon, me, John Lewis, Felicia Frazier & Nate Powell
One thing I don’t think I fully anticipated in Chicago was the enthusiastic welcome from the Printz Award committee. This was no cool, detached panel of people who made a decision and then gone home to floss their teeth. These were librarians who cared so desperately about young adult literature that they were willing to devote a year of their lives to reading and discussing hundreds of books. By the time they’d made their selections, I think they thought of the selected books, and by extension, their authors, as dear friends. I loved meeting them. One conversation, in particular, I’ll remember always, with a librarian telling me, in earnest, heartfelt tones, how much she loved Dolssa, and thanking me (thanking me?) for writing it. I never quite know what to say when I’m thanked for doing what I desperately wanted to do anyway. But I know how it feels when your heart sings with love for a particular and precious book. It’s humbling and almost perplexing to feel that a book I’m written might offer the same gift to another reader.


(Incidentally, I’m sure that the committee members DO floss their teeth. But they love books first. It’s the order that matters.)
This was waiting for me at my new home in LA. Good kids! 

It was a heady time. A thrilling year. An honor beyond comprehension. I’m grateful to have had this moment. There’s always an abundance of worthy contenders, and there’s almost no way to predict what way things will go. Another committee might easily have made other selections. But I knew I had worked harder on The Passion of Dolssa than on any other book to date, with my editor’s tenacious help, and to have that effort acknowledged felt pretty swell. Another year and another book may be just as effortful and worthy, and yet I won’t win, and so it goes.  

I was once the nerdy, slightly snobbish kid in school who made sure to read all the books with shiny ALA stickers on them. A sticker of my own is pretty great, and well worth a blister. Not going to lie about that, even if I might occasionally lie about the bathroom.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Emperor's Ostrich, now in paperback!



I’m thrilled to announce that The Emperor’s Ostrich comes out in paperback today. This novel has been so much fun to share with readers and students. The ridiculously goofy characters always make me smile, and the cow-ostrich romance never gets old for me. How could it? The course of Moo Love never did run smooth.

It’s been a blast sharing Ostrich in school visits, because it actually originated from a workshop I conducted with Mindess Elementary School in Ashland, Massachusetts, where a brainstorming exercise led to randomly chosen words, which we combined to create story ideas. As I’ve repeated that workshop around the country, sharing Ostrich with students, it’s been fun to prove that brainstorming and play aren’t ‘pretend writing.’ They’re the real deal. That’s where ideas come from.

The paperback edition, published by Square Fish, an imprint of Macmillan, features bonus content including an author Q&A, and the first chapter of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. More Julie Berry goofiness.


My two favorite reviews for this book call it “silly and elegant at the same time,” and “a Five Snort read.” I’m so proud. I hope you snort your way through it too. Here's a review from book vlogger Matthew Sciarappa that cracked me up:



And here, of course, is the trailer, featuring art by the brilliant Liz Starin:


Don’t bury your head in the sand! Order The Emperor’s Ostrich at your local Indie bookstore.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, by Deborah Heiligman

I’ve just – only just—finished reading Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman. This was urged upon me by Anita Silvey, whose recommendations one should never overlook, speaking on the power of children’s and teen nonfiction to an audience at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. I had just recently met Deborah Heiligman, briefly, at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, and her warmth and sincerity leaped across the room. Her masterful work, a lovingly constructed narrative pieced together from the copious correspondence the Van Goghs share, does the same.

I’ve always loved Vincent Van Gogh (but who doesn’t?), but I knew only the most superficial things about him. Dutch, painted in southern France (a favorite place of mine), mentally ill, cut off his ear, committed suicide. Somewhere I’d picked up the notion that he was a bit of a randy, carousing fellow, but I’m not sure where – it may have been an episode of Dr. Who. (See the starry Tardis, below.) 

Heiligman writes, in her author’s note, that when she first learned about Theo, on a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, she wrote the following in her notebook: “What does everyone remember about him? The ear, killing himself. And some paintings, of course. But what about his religion and his decision to become a painter so he could leave the world a souvenir?” She goes on to say, “And then I wrote: ‘Story of brothers. (And sister-in-law.)’” (page 425).

Theo Van Gogh
What do we always try to tell young people in our books? That to know a person, to really observe a life, is to peel away stereotypes, prejudices, gossip and slander, and get to the heart of earnest desires, foolish errors, hopes and sorrows. We preach that we cannot judge another until we really understand them. The secret, of course, is that whom we understand, we hesitate to judge; whom we understand, we love; whom we love, we ache and yearn for.

I’ve spent the last few days riveted by Vincent and Theo, weeping at the sorrows they bore together, but weeping more at the beauty of their bond. Theirs is a complex affection, sometimes turbulent, but always loyal, and boundless in mutual compassion. Theo’s devotion to Vincent, his support (financial and emotional), his unwavering belief in his brother’s potential are an indictment in my own soul of the sister I am not, the wife I am not, the mother I am not. (But this is not about me, so I’ll set my penchant for confession aside.) I never knew about Theo at all, and because I didn’t, I didn’t know about Vincent at all.

Those superficial labels I had acquired somewhere along the way (messed-up, suicidal, rowdy) gave me no information about the fervor with which Vincent approached art and life, and the agonies and ecstasies with which he experienced both. If life is a radio signal, the receiver that was Vincent multiplied wave amplitudes. Both joy and sorrow seem almost to have been too much for him. He poured it onto canvas after canvas, and we are the beneficiaries. Canvas after canvas, paint tube after paint tube, meal and rent and doctor’s bill, were gifts to him (and therefore, the lucky world), given by Theo.  

There’s so much more I’d like to say, about how Heiligman’s work has revealed the warmth and generosity of Vincent’s heart, his eagerness for connection, and his sweetness toward his friends and family (even when they hardly knew what to do with him). I’m moved and rebuked by the purity of Theo’s affection, by how quick he was to forgive and set offenses aside for the sake of intimate childhood and brotherly love, how patient he was with trials Vincent could not control. Not resentfully, not dutifully, but wholeheartedly. Engrossed as I was in the Van Goghs’ story, I couldn’t help connecting thread after thread of it to my own life – to my experiences with siblings and as a mother to four brothers; to my experiences observing acute mental illness in all its terrifying force, and chronic mental illness in its eroding relentlessness. I’m grateful to live in an age where there’s so much more we can do to help sufferers, though there’s far more to be done. I can’t help comparing the urgency and passion of Vincent’s approach to his art to my own relationship with my writing. I doubt Vincent ever got bored with his WIP, griped about his deadline, loitered around on CNN for a while, then paid a thirteenth visit to His Friend the Fridge.

Vincent and Theo will scoop up awards, and it should. The book itself is a thing of beauty, organized like an art gallery, decorated throughout with Vincent’s art, featuring color plates and a trove of back-matter scrupulously annotating sources and providing further context.  I’m urging it upon my own sisters (artists themselves) and on anyone who will listen.  This is compelling, moving, heart-expanding read. 

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman was published April 18, 2017 by Godwin Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Sons. Also available as an audiobook from Dreamscape Media

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Presenting THE EMPEROR'S OSTRICH (and a groovy trailer!)

The first creative writing workshops I ever conducted took place at Mindess Elementary School in Ashland, Massachusetts. The students were my guinea pigs. The workshop, now called “Let’s Make a Story,” begins with a brainstorming exercise where we fill a large bubble with oodles of words. Next, we each pick three at random and combine them into a situation. From that situation we choose a main character, secondaries, a setting, an antagonist, and so on, until a pretty detailed story plan is complete and ready to be written. 


I’ve done this presentation hundreds of times since. Each time, the recipe is the same, and each time, the magic is new and the idea fresh.

art by Liz Starin
On a subsequent workshop visit to Mindess on March 15, 2012, the three words I selected from the board were “emperor,” “ostrich,” and “ghoul.” To prove to the kids about silly they had permission to be, I decided the main character of this concoction would be a dairy maid named Begonia, who was searching for her lost cow. Why not? I was so tickled by the idea that I came home and wrote a story beginning. Other deadlines, however, claimed priority, and so the idea floated in my Dropbox cloud for years.

Until now. On June 13, 2017, Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children's Books will release The Emperor’s Ostrich, my next middle grade title novel. To celebrate, I’ve produced a book trailer. Children's illustrator Liz Starin provided the artwork, which I love. Making these trailers is just too much fun, and I will devote a subsequent post to talking about the process of making it, and the amazing talents that made it shine, but for now, voilà:


I’m excited to waddle this little ostrich adventure story out to schoolkids, because it gives me an opportunity to say, “See? This workshop stuff we’re doing isn’t just pretend writing. It’s the real deal. This is where ideas come from. It worked for me. Why not you?”

Jayne Entwistle at work
There’s also to be an audiobook, published by Penguin Random House Audio, voiced by the brilliant, the mellifluous, the one-and-only Jayne Entwistle. I love her. Listen to an excerpt here!

Check the events page on my website for a list of launch events as they unfold. Some of these will be in the early fall, to coincide with back-to-school.  
Liz Starin's self-portrait
I’ve had so much fun chasing Begonia, her cow, the emperor, his ostrich, and the rest of this motley crew around the countryside of the empire of Camellion, and so glad that that workshop on the Ides of March, 2012, led to such fertile territory. If you’d like me to lead this workshop for yourschool, library, or book club, just give a squawk! It might just point me toward my next big idea.

The Emperor's Ostrich releases June 13, 2017. Find a copy at your local Indie Bookstore | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Powell's | Amazon.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Grown-Ups, Nonsense, and Imagination: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

(A post for fifth graders, and for fifth graders at heart, with writing prompts. First posted to a school blog.)

Greetings, Fowler Fifth Graders – can I call you FFG for short? – and welcome to our book blog, where we’ll be discussing the titles you’re reading in school. I’m excited to dive in. Let’s look at The Little Prince

Who was your favorite character in the story? I fell completely in love with … drumroll please … its narrator.

Did you think I was going to say the little prince himself? Oh, I like him just fine. But I adore the narrator. Note that I didn’t say Antoine de Saint-Exupéry himself. I said the narrator – the nameless fictional character who crashed his plane in the desert and met the little prince. Is he Antoine himself? Nope. This isn’t an autobiography.

I love the narrator because he’s sly and witty, always poking fun without being mean, and he takes quirky things seriously, or pretends to. (I’m thinking of the danger posed to planets by baobabs. Hysterical!) He’s an adult who refuses to be a “grown-up,” who has never left behind the warmth, trust, openness, and imagination of childhood. Or at any rate, that’s how he sees children, and he sees “grown-ups” as the complete opposite.

The Little Prince – the book, I mean – is a scathing argument against the nonsense believed by “sophisticated” grown-ups in modern society. I think the narrator would say, if asked, that society itself is nonsense. (By the way, “scathing” means boiling hot, so hot it’ll burn you. But it’s a juicier word than “boiling” or “burning.” “Sophisticated” is a fancy way of saying, well, “fancy,” or perhaps, “cultured, refined, elegant, smart, educated.” It goes hand-in-hand with “society.”)

I believe the narrator hands us the theme and main idea of his tale on a silver platter on pages 2 and 3.

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.
I have spent lots of time with grown-ups. I have seen them at close range … which hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.

Through the little prince’s travels, we learn many things about grown-ups. According to the narrator:
  • They have no imagination. (Boa constrictor drawings.) 
  • They won’t believe someone’s discoveries if they’re not wearing the right type of clothes. (The Turkish astronomer.) This is also a way of saying that grown-ups distrust people from different cultures.
  • They won’t believe information that doesn’t include numbers. (Asteroid B-612.)
  • They are obsessed with what’s “serious.” (The narrator’s jammed bolt and hammer.)
  • They care about rank –who’s in charge and who’s not. (The king and his “subject.”)
  • They are petty and self-centered, and want to be flattered. (The vain man and his “admirer.”)
  • They are gloomy, sad, and self-destructive. (The drunkard.)
  • They are so busy, and so obsessed with business (“busy-ness”) that they overlook beauty and truth. They care more about what they own than what makes it special. (The businessman.)
  • They mindlessly follow orders, even senseless ones, wasting their lives away. (The lamplighter.)
  • They only believe what’s written down, and prefer learning from books to going out and seeing what’s actually there. (The geographer.)
  • They’re always in a hurry, without ever knowing what they’re looking for. (The railway switchman.)
  • They’d rather buy something to save time than take their time enjoying an experience. (The salesclerk.) 

My goodness! Is there any hope for grown-ups, then, if even part of what the narrator believes is true? I just had a terrible thought. Am I a grown-up? I get older each year, it’s true, but I don’t want to be anything like these grown-ups.

The Little Prince was published in 1943, so probably written in, say, 1941 or 1942. You probably know what was going on then: World War Two. Though the war included significant fighting in the Pacific, World War Two devastated Europe. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French pilot who flew military missions for France during the war. Hitler’s Germany occupied France – meaning France was under the control of Germany, and German soldiers were stationed throughout the country – from 1940 to 1944.  600,000 French people – soldiers and civilians – died from combat, bombings, and other war crimes. Worldwide, the numbers vary (uh-oh! Am I a grown-up obsessed with numbers?) but anywhere from 50,000,000 to 80,000,000 people died from war causes. Fifty to eighty million.

The causes of the war could fill thousands of pages, but I’m pretty sure Saint-Exupéry’s narrator saw it rather simply, like this: Vain, petty, selfish men, obsessed with power and rank and money, wanted to rule over everything. Like the story’s king, they persuaded people to obey them and become subjects, partly by making them hate and fear cultures that weren’t their own. Like the lamplighter, people mindlessly obeyed orders, even self-destructive ones. Many were so busy and tired from making a living, and in such a hurry doing it, that they lost sight of what’s beautiful and true in the world, so they failed to stop what was happening. Under these conditions, dictators rose, nations invaded nations, the world was sucked into a vicious war, and millions of people died.

Not just died in the long-ago past, but were dying, right in Saint-Exupéry’s beloved France, as he wrote this story.

This, I believe, is how the narrator saw things. Is it any wonder he had lost his faith in grown-ups?

Can we blame him for thinking that if the men in charge were less concerned with power, rank, money, and admiration, and that if others hadn’t mindlessly obeyed their evil plans, the world might not be at war? Can we blame him for believing that if grown-ups were more open to imagination, and to smelling the perfume of a flower that’s right in front of them, and to trusting the essential things that are invisible to the eyes but seen by the heart (oh, how I love that fox!), that maybe his world could have been at peace?

There may come times in your life, as there have in mine, where the busy-ness of work, and the pressure to make money – we must eat, after all – and the desire to fit in and be admired so that we can succeed, crowd out the quiet, invisible things that matter most, like hope and belief in what’s good and simple, kind and true. Like the grown-ups in the story, we can forget who we once were, and what our imaginations taught us when we were young. Thank goodness for children’s stories, which keep hope and imagination alive forever. Perhaps that’s their most sacred job. It’s why I have never stopped reading them, and why I have devoted my life to writing them.

The Little Prince – the book – breaks my heart, in the best way. Perhaps the saddest line in the entire story is at the very beginning of chapter two, on page three. “So I lived all alone, without anyone I could really talk to, until I had to make a crash landing in the Sahara Desert …” In that wide world of grown-ups, our nameless narrator had never found a friend. But the little prince, who loved a flower and tamed a fox and searched the cosmos for friendship, became his true friend. Then, saddest of all, he was gone, but not gone forever, because the stars are always there, like bells ringing. And even though the narrator can’t see his friend, he loves him, which is the essential thing, invisible to the eyes but seen by the heart, and—who knows?—perhaps felt, millions of miles away, by a boy watering a flower, and protecting it from a sheep, among the stars.

Writing Prompts
  1. Imagine you are Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but living today, instead of in the 1940’s. Send the little prince on a voyage to asteroids where he would meet grown-ups who represent problems we see in the world today. What would their bad habits look like now? I’ll bet cell phones, Facebook, selfies, and TV shows would have something to do with the nonsense. Can you write the short scenes where your little prince meets these modern rascals?
  2. What’s an essential thing in your life that’s deeply true, but invisible to the eyes? Maybe it’s the love you feel for someone in your family, or the closeness you share with a friend. Maybe it’s a memory, or the way something beautiful, like art or music, makes you feel. Can you write a short scene from a moment in your life that shows the reality and truth of your precious, invisible thing? (It’s okay if you need tissues!)
  3. Remember that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote this during a horrific war. I’ll bet it was comforting to him. Using our imaginations is often a comforting way to escape harsh realities in our present world. When I need comfort, I often reach for the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Is there any place you like to escape to for comfort, in stories or in your imagination? Can you write the beginning of a story set in that world? 
This post originally appeared on the Fowler Middle School book blog. 
© 2017 Julie Berry www.julieberrybooks.com