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jennibrownJennifer Brown is a  two-time winner of the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition and a humor columnist. And yet the premise of her debut young adult novel Hate List (Fall 2009, Little, Brown BFYR), the aftermath of a school shooting as told by the shooter’s girlfriend, sounds very serious.

Jennifer, how did writing humor prepare you for a YA novel? Or are the two styles just separate parts of your personality? (Hmm…are you a Gemini?)

No, not Gemini, but I can still blame the stars: the stubborn Taurus in me won’t let an idea go once it’s popped into my head. We May babies are just bold that way. Or if that Taurus theory isn’t working for you, I can blame the real stars. Paris…? Britney…? Tom Cruise…?

If I’m going to go all serious writer on you, I’ll talk about the “fine line between comedy and tragedy” and point out that most of my humor-writing friends (including myself) are actually really serious people. That when we rant or crack a joke, we’re really digging at and pointing out the things in life that bother us (in real life this would translate to nervous, uncomfortable, misplaced laughter that would make us look a little on the creepy side and make it so we’re not invited to parties very often… not even family parties… uh… not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…) and we tend to do a lot of sitting around and brooding about All That’s Horrible in the World.

But the truth is… I just wrote the story that wanted to be written, regardless of the genre. Writing Hate List was no different experience than writing humor — come up with an idea and run with it. Keep running, even past the Doubt Days and the Days When I Just Give Up — and do it barefacedly and fearlessly.

When you write humor for a living, you get used to criticism. A joke, by definition, has to have a target, which means every time you sit down to write, you stand a pretty good chance of ticking someone off and getting a letter that begins, “Dear Hack Loser, You ruined my life…”. I think this “toughening up” was helpful for me, in that I wasn’t afraid to go out of genre with Hate List and write something that felt so different.

All of that aside… for me there is a real element of hope in Hate List as well. And we humor writers are nothing if not masters of silver linings.

All writers have those Doubt Days. How do you personally work through them to reach your silver lining? What was your toughest moment of doubt? And what was your most recent silver lining?

Probably what makes me push through more than anything is the support I receive from people who’re really important in my life. My agent, Cori Deyoe, is really great at making me feel like I can do anything. I always know I can try new things and have fun and Cori will support it or will tell me when something I’ve tried doesn’t really work (and will do it in a way that keeps me from chucking the laptop through a window and breaking all my pencils in half). My editor at LB, T.S. Ferguson, is also super-supportive of my work. Also, my husband, Scott, never stops supporting and believing in me. My kids, my friends… I want to keep pushing through those days because I want to prove them all right, that I can do this.

I would probably say my toughest moment of doubt was my very first in-person agent pitch ever. She listened to me, was very quiet for a moment, then blew her nose and said, “I can’t imagine anyone who would buy this book.” She proceeded to tell me that I’d never sell a book with my “Midwest voice.” I came home from the conference, cried my eyes out, and shelved the book. It took me a while to get back up and start working on the next one.

There’ve been other tough moments. When a reader responds to a column, not only telling me I stink as a writer, but also questioning my mothering skills or saying I’m a basically bad person, it’s tough. Hard to pick yourself up after that. But deadlines and editors you don’t want to let down help in that process a lot.

ketchupHonestly, though, I can’t imagine ever truly giving up. I can’t imagine a day without writing. It’s just that ingrained in me. The idea of giving it all up is scarier to me than facing those tough days. Believe it or not, this is where my kids are important to my sticking to it — writing is a release and keeps me from noticing when there’s a Crayola mural on the wall or a loose hamster or ketchup on the ceiling (seriously, how do they get food on the ceiling?!). 

My most recent silver lining happened this morning when I opened my email. A humor writer whose blog I just adore (The Suburban Jungle) wrote to tell me she enjoyed my column this week. Made me feel great. When people reach out and tell me that I’ve written something that made them smile or touched them in some way… that’s really all the silver lining I need.

As a mother-writer myself, I find it difficult to find time to write. How do you schedule your days? How do you make time for your writing? How long has the ketchup been on the ceiling?

I’m always careful to define myself as a mom first and a writer second. That way, there’s never any confusion in my mind about prioritizing. And that’s all it really is, juggling being both mom and writer, a matter of prioritizing. Somehow I was blessed by being born with both amazing organizational skills and an ability to be really flexible. Some people call it an annoying combination of anal-retentiveness and air-headedness, but I think “organized” and “flexible” sounds a lot more resume-friendly.

So I let the kids’ schedules really dictate mine. I work around theirs. And I always understand that my working hours may not look the same from day to day, or might not even look the same at 4:00PM as I thought they would when I woke up at 6:00AM. As long as I understand those two things — that my schedule is not mine to make and it may change on me at any moment — I’m not often frustrated by lack of writing time.

Of course, it means I have to be prepared to work always. I might have to stay up till midnight, or later, to work on a chapter, and I might have to get up at 5:00AM. Because of this, there really isn’t a “typical” writing day for me. There also, typically, isn’t such thing as a “day off” for me (even on vacation I’m checking emails on my cell phone during the boring parts of Splash Mountain).

It also helps that I don’t tend to care about things like ketchup on the ceiling so much. In fact, now that I look at it, I think it may have started out as yogurt. 

So how long have you been writing for children? What was the spark that started you on this particular path?

This is really my first attempt at writing for young adults. I’ve always believed that writers should follow their story rather than their genre. In other words, write the story that wants to be written (passion being far more interesting on the page than specialization). If it turns out you fail because it’s not a genre you can do well… you fail. So what? You’ve learned, at least, right?

Because of that, I never had a thought, “I think I’ll try writing a young adult book. Maybe… about a school shooting…” Instead, I followed the story, which popped into my head in the shower one day, like most of my writing ideas do (Oh, how I wish they’d invent a waterproof laptop!). I kind of “knew” in the back of my mind that what I was writing was a young adult story, but I wasn’t thinking about that while writing it. It wasn’t until Hate List was finished that I fully understood what genre I’d been writing in.

crayolaartdesk1I always get my best ideas in the shower, too. Someone once recommended a tile pencil/china marker to me. And I’ve read good things about the Crayola Floating Art Desk, too. (If you like to write in rainbow.)

Can you tell us about the submission process for Hate List? How did you land your agent?

I love to talk about this, because my agent actually found me in the dreaded Slush Pile! You know, the pile of submissions they tell you it’s IMPOSSIBLE to be noticed in? It’s not impossible and I’m proof. I submitted to 3 Seas blindly and it was almost a year later that I got an email from Cori, asking to see a full manuscript for my book. She called me the day after Thanksgiving to tell me she wanted to sign me.

It seems like the submission process for Hate List was lightning-fast. I sent Cori the manuscript and within a few days she was getting really good bites on it from some big publishers. It went to auction and within just a few weeks was sold to Little, Brown. It was very whirlwind, and I wish I’d written some of it down because I don’t remember the details too well now. I only remember her calling me and saying, “So how does it feel to be a published author?” I was in my car and it felt a lot like I was going to wreck into the side of a Mr. Goodcents. When she called to tell me about the “final deal,” I was on my hands and knees, scouring the shower floor. So much for glamor.

Wow, your story comes full circle. It began with an idea in the shower and ended with cleaning the shower. I’m sure all my blog readers are going to be squeaky clean from now on!


I’m curious, what happened to that first book pitch you shelved?

That first book, a women’s fiction book, is still shelved. I check in every so often and my main character is still despondently devouring tubs of Chunky Monkey and watching Dr. Phil episodes in a pair of ripped sweats and a dirty T-shirt. She’s not ready to come back out yet, poor thing. I really should explain to her that harsh criticism and rejection is part of the business.


Now that we know your character’s weakness for chocolate chunks in banana ice cream, what about you? How do you like your chocolate?

In a Cherry Mash!

Jennifer, this has been a fun interview. Thanks for talking with me. Love to have you back when Hate List is released! Good luck!



twitterFor laughs, follow Jennifer Brown 




Toni De Palma’s debut YA novel Under the Banyan Tree is a New Voices Pick by the Association of Booksellers for Children. She joins me today to talk about her journey to publication. 

First, a little about Banyan:

Irena’s not sure where she’s headed when she runs away—she just wants to leave the trailer she used to share with her mama and daddy far behind. But when she stumbles upon the Banyan Tree motel, something tells her it’s exactly where she’s meant to be. The elderly owner generously welcomes Irena, and the Banyan soon begins to feel like home. But trouble follows Irena wherever she goes, and the Banyan is no different: a mysterious guest, money problems, and secrets from her past soon threaten the stability of her new life. This moving story distills life’s joys and pains, and uncovers just what it really means to be a family.

Toni, your website bio says that you have always dreamed of being a writer, and you’ve accomplished so much with your first book. Can you tell us where Irena’s amazing story began?

The book was a very organic process. I don’t usually work with an outline and even when I jot down notes, I always tend to stray. The idea for Under the Banyan Tree came to me in my first semester of my M.F.A. program at Vermont College. Though I didn’t know it consciously at the time, Irena’s story reflected where I was emotionally in my life. As a young mother, who had given up her job to stay home and be a full time mom, I was feeling a little lost. No job to me meant no identity, no place in the world. I had begun writing, taking classes and submitting, but I didn’t honestly believe I was good enough to be a writer. When my son was five, I read about the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and I knew it was something I just had to do even though it would mean a lot of sacrifice. It might sound weird, but looking back I feel as if the Universe was compelling me to take on the challenge. So like my character, Irena, I sort of ran away (not to Key West, but to Vermont) and I embarked on a personal journey that taught me so much about myself.

After the M.F.A. program, how did you continue on your path to becoming an author? How did you balance motherhood and writing?

Balance? (Laugh, laugh.) What’s that? I’ll be honest. Every day is a struggle. Or come to think of it, maybe it’s not. I’m starting to think that, at least for me, there is a certain amount of normalcy to this ebb and flow, of those periods when I write a lot and those periods when I don’t, times when I rather be cooking or doing laundry and times when all I want to do is sit and write.  

First drafts are always killers for me. I circle my computer like a vulture waiting, waiting. I much rather be revising, especially when I’ve had a great meeting with my writer’s group and they’ve given me feedback that’s stirred up my juices. I also seem to have cycles (maybe it has to do with the amount of serotonin in my system). I seem to write more in the Spring and Summer and drift off when it gets cold and all I want to do is snuggle under a blanket (I read a lot more during those times).  I recently heard John Grisham say that he writes from April to Thanksgiving — a book a year. When I heard him say that, I felt validated.

I think the really cool thing for writers is that they learn what works best for them and to not judge themselves too harshly.

How long did you work on Under the Banyan Tree? How did you go about submitting it?

I worked on Banyan for two years and revised it about eight times (including the revisions I did with my editor). I was really fortunate with how Banyan played out. I submitted it to a few publishers who declined it and then met Margery Cuyler at the Rutgers One-On-One conference. Margery is the editor at Marshall Cavendish Children’s and she read Banyan, liked it, but didn’t feel it was quite right for her list. Margery suggested I send it to Regina Griffin at Holiday House. Margery knew Holiday House because she had been editor-in-chief there. Regina ended up liking it and offered me a contract.

What was it like to get “the call” from Regina Griffin?

I actually got “the call” from an assistant in her office, a nice girl who seemed genuinely delighted for me.  I was happy too, but nervous about what would be expected of me next. 

And what was expected of you next?

Well, a lot more waiting for one thing. From the time I received that first phone call to the time my book was published, close to three years had passed. The revision process was worth the wait though. Regina sent me an extensive editorial letter commenting on broader issues and she marked up the manuscript identifying smaller things I might want to consider. Regina did not make specific suggestions, but rather posed wonderful questions that made me see even more possibilities for my characters’ development as well as some plot points that I had never considered. Working with her made the manuscript better, deeper and I hope more satisfying for the reader.

After such a long (and rewarding) revision process, I’m sure you were thrilled once the book hit the shelves. How satisfying was it to hold the finished copy in your hands? What has surprised you most about being a published author? Is it everything you imagined it to be?

While it was wonderful to hold my book in my hand, it didn’t measure up to the very intimate, very personal moment that occurred when I wrote the last line and knew in my heart that I had brought my character to the finish line of her journey. I’m pretty emotional, so I cried, a great cathartic, super satisfying kind of YES! cry.

As for the post-publishing experience, that has been quite interesting and unexpected. I am fortunate that one of the local seventh grade teachers is using my book as part of her curriculum. After the kids read my book, I go in and do a presentation, then give the kids a chance to ask me questions. I’m always amazed at how the kids interpret the book and make it their own. Some kids get pretty incensed and emotional about the story, sometimes taking a character’s side. To elicit that kind of emotion, even though quite unintended is really cool for me because it makes me feel I’ve done my job. That same teacher has also used my book as a springboard to discuss a whole host of other topics such as the ecology of the Everglades (part of the story takes place there), the dangers of hitchhiking, Ernest Hemingway, and of course, banyan trees.

Toni, I sense that you feel it’s important to savor and enjoy each part of the creative process—it’s more about the journey than the destination. Would you agree? What other words of wisdom do you have for aspiring writers? And what can we expect next from you?

When I first started writing I must admit it was all about my ego and wanting to be a “famous” writer (this makes sense because J.K. Rowling had just hit the scene and her rags to riches story really captivated me). But the more I write and the more I see how my writing has helped me to have certain experiences, I view it as a both an intellectual challenge and a tool that is here to grow me both personally and spiritually.

Advice?  Of course writing a book involves a great deal of skill that a person becomes better and better at each day with practice. Being part of a writer’s group has also been wonderful and reading, reading, reading.  But the practice of writing is not limited to sitting down and hammering away at a keyboard. It involves trying to understand your world, staying curious and asking lots of questions not only with your head, but with your heart. My best writing comes when I’m feeling charged up over something and I just want to understand it.  

Since writing Under the Banyan Tree, I’ve written a variety of other things that are now seeking a home: another contemporary YA novel, a historical fiction Middle Grade, as well as a Fantasy Middle Grade. Obviously, I like experimenting and playing with different genres. I’m also looking for an agent.

Toni, this has been a wonderful interview. You’ve helped me realize that I need to have peace and patience with the creative process.


Tara, thanks so much for this opportunity and the great conversation. Writing is sort of like that, a great conversation you have with your reader.


One final question. I promised to slip chocolate into my interviews, so what’s your favorite kind of chocolate candy?


Funny you’re asking about candy. From the age of five to eleven, I lived over a candy store in Brooklyn and I loved each and every sweet piece. Still do!


WOW! You lived above a candy store? That’s every kid’s dream come true! Have you ever written a story based on that experience?


Not yet, but who knows where my mind will wander…


Toni is generously giving away an autographed hardcover copy of Under the Banyan Tree. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered into the drawing.


Blog or Twitter about Toni’s interview, link back here and you’ll get TWO additional entries. Just let me know about the mentions in the comments field.


Good luck! I’ll draw a winner one week from today.

Thank you, Toni!


You might already know that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is my favorite children’s book. So I went in search of The Golden Ticket today.

But does anyone see something wrong with this Golden Ticket?

While you ponder that question, let me kick off Love a Kidlit Author Month with a few golden words from Dutton Executive Managing Editor Steve Meltzer.

Mr. Meltzer penned an article in the latest edition of Sprouts, the magazine of the NJ-SCBWI. The title says it all: “Market Your Book Without the Book.”

Common sense tells us not to market a book until you actually have a book to publish. I say that is no longer true. When you are selling a book these days you have to sell yourself as well. It is up to you to do the job. Publishers like people who know how to market…

…Web video technology and social networking are the author’s friend. There is so much you can do these days for so very little. So get out and market yourself.

If you don’t subscribe to Sprouts, I highly suggest it! Each issue contains useful industry tips from editors and agents.

Figured out the mistake on the Golden Ticket yet?

Remember, every comment you make this month counts towards an entry for the gift certificate (but only one comment per blog post). If you blog or Twitter about Love a KidLit Author month and link here, it counts as an extra entry, just let me know about it!

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