Friday, October 29, 2010

Embrace E-Books

JANICE:  The new world of reading is going to be okay. After all, we humans made the transition from scrolls and palm leaves. Yet there is a difference this time. With scrolls and palm leaves we gave them up for another tactile object — a bound book. I am not willing to give up books that I can feel, but I embrace another way to read as well. There is a time and place for both.

Two experiences lately warmed my heart to the new medium. Last month at a concert of baroque music I sat next to a woman reading Patti LuPone's memoir on a Kindle while we waited for the concert to begin. She was savoring the past and the future in a lovely way, and it gave me heart. We don't have to abandon the past to embrace the future.

A few days ago I was sitting in a dentist's chair fearing the possible pain. While the novocain took effect, my lovable (yes) dentist distracted me with his new iPad. He showed me one of the free books that came with it, Winnie the Pooh — in the original version illustrated by Ernest Shepard! The book that set me on the path of writing for children. I fell in love with e-readers and felt no pain.

— Illustration by Ernest Shepard from Winnie the Pooh

And now Anna Maria's Gift, my latest, is available as a bound book or an e-book. Read whichever one you please. Just read!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Picture Books vs. Chapter Books

Dear Parents,

Let's not give up picture books in favor of word books. Children need glorious images that go with printed words. Those images will make the words unforgettable. Ideally, we want to raise children who are both verbally and visually educated, and picture books do both. Here are some examples of why picture books are a vital way to learn about the world.

Do you want your child to be interested in Shakespeare? Then you need this book. Even parents will learn something.

How about Marco Polo and his journey? This book has lots of words with illustrations both new and ancient that you and your child will never forget.

And finally, I cannot resist our own picture book biography of Antonio Vivaldi. This book along with a CD of Vivaldi's music make the composer come to life.

Happy reading and looking,

Friday, September 10, 2010

Our Favorite Children's Books

JANICE:  These are books that I love to read over and over and that teach me how to write. You will notice that all are historical novels or adaptations of ancient tales, because that is what I love to write. The best way to learn how to write is to read what you want to write.

In Johnny Tremain Esther Forbes' characters leap off the page and into your life. Even the baby in the cradle and the horse Johnny rides have character. How does the author do it? By both showing and telling and by giving each one a backstory, including the baby and the horse. Johnny is an apprentice silversmith living in the home of his master with two other apprentices. In the opening scene the mistress of the house has called the boys to get up in the morning. Here is how Esther Forbes introduces him:
"Johnny Tremain was on his feet. He did not bother to answer his mistress. He turned to the fat, pale, almost white-haired boy still wallowing in bed.
'Hear that, Dove?'"
Already we know that Johnny is an energetic, bossy boy who knows his own worth.
As for backstory, Forbes lets Johnny tell his master's daughter after she says:
"'You never speak of your mother, Johnny. She hadn't been dead more'n a few weeks when you first came here.'"
There follows a heartfelt story of his mother and how he came to be an apprentice.

The Bronze Bow
has the most magnificent ending of any book, either for children or adults, that I have ever read. Daniel Bar Jamin wants only to rid Israel of the Romans to revenge the death of his parents and the resulting illness of his sister. His hatred consumes him and he joins an outlaw band. At that time there was a Rabbi in Capernaum teaching love. Daniel resists until Jesus heals his sister and opens his eyes. Much to Daniel's rage, she had fallen in love with a Roman soldier who was being sent back to Rome. Here, in part, is the final scene:
"(Daniel) flung himself out the doorway - and stopped.
Across the street the Roman soldier stood alone under the broiling sun.
Haltingly, Daniel walked, not after Jesus, but across the road, till he stood before the boy. He had to try twice before the words would come. "My sister will get well," he said, his voice harsh. "The fever has left her...I think she would want to say good-bye to you...Will you come into our house?"
Here is total character transformation. Thrilling!

Rosemary Sutcliff adapted The Iliad and The Odyssey, and, in my opinion, outdid Homer, with lots of help from the illustrator, Alan Lee, who is also an inspiration to Tom. Sutcliff is best known for her historical novels set in Roman Britain, notably Eagle of the Ninth, another favorite of mine. In all her writing she brings ancient times to full life.

TOM:  Mr. Popper's Penguins is my current favorite. I just read it for the first time because our son Karl is the storyboard artist for a film that starts shooting in October, starring Jim Carey as Mr. Popper and many penguins. W.C. Fields once said, "Never work with children or animals," but he didn't know Jim Carey! Here's Karl, meeting the talent.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

How Shakespeare's Arrow Pierced the Heart of a Comanche Boy

JANICE:  If you want to know how Shakespeare shot an arrow that pierced the heart of a young Comanche boy in Texas, then read Comanche Song (Eakin Press). This story was born out of our sons' love for finding arrowheads on my father's Blue Mountain Ranch in central Texas. Doing some research, I discovered that the Indians who once lived there were Penateka Comanches, the band involved in the Council House Massacre and the Battle of Plum Creek during 1840. Since these two clashes between Texans and Comanches had never been told from the Comanche point of view, I wanted to tell it through the eyes of Tsena, son of a peace chief who was killed in the massacre.

Here is Tom's beautiful cover.

My habit when looking for a good book is to read the first paragraph. Am I hooked or not? So here is the first paragraph of the novel:
"It was white man's year of 1840. Tsena ducked out of his lodge and stood looking across the ravine to the hills beyond. He could not know that it was also the year white man would change his life forever. No one in the village could know."
Are you hooked? I hope so. This book was chosen by the New York Public Library for its list of Best Books for the Teen Age.

Now about Shakespeare's arrow: When Tsena accompanies his father and other chiefs to a council with Texans in San Antonio, the negotiations turn violent. He is suddenly cast into white man's world where he learns about a new way of life and glimpses the power of the written word, especially Shakespeare's words. To learn more, visit your local library or our website:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Don't Toss Your Days to the Wind

JANICE:  Keep a journal. Tom and I both have journals. His is as much a sketch book  as a writing book. This entry he did while sitting in the Piazza de la Rotunda in Rome.

My journal is Italian leather with gold-edged pages. Elegant. For me a journal is private and close to my heart, not for publication like a blog. I don't write in it every day but at least once a week or when an event or thought demands expression. Occasionally I add photographs, copies of letters, Tom's sketches and book illustrations. And I always create a title page using an image. My current journal begins with an image from an ancient Greek vase because my work-in-progress, Ariadne's Choice, is based on the myth of the minotaur.

Once, in Venice, I lost my journal, the nightmare of any writer. I left it on a table in a restaurant where Tom and I had lunch. When we returned it was gone. Why would anyone steal a journal? We searched nearby canals, thinking maybe the person saw that the book was worthless and tossed it in the water. But no, we found nothing. To relieve my agony I bought a Venetian journal covered in marbled paper, and we spent the evening in the Piazzetta listening to music, watching a full moon rise over the Bacino, and writing in our journals. So, agony and ecstasy.

Two of my book characters keep journals as well. In Willow Creek Home (Book Two of A Texas Trilogy) Papa brings Mina a leather bound book from Fredericksburg, and she makes her first entry that very night. Sophie's War is a historical novel written as a journal. In that story Sophie loses her journal but finds it. Otherwise there would not be a book!

Thomas Jefferson said that writing in a journal "eases the mind." Margaret Mitchell and I say, if you don't keep a journal your days are gone with the wind. You will never remember the intensity of the moment. I only wish I had started journaling earlier, but it's never too late. Whether you are eight or eighty, start now.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Good and Bad Rejections

JANICE:  I had hoped my next entry would be about the joy of a book acceptance, but it was not to be. You may think that a published writer and illustrator don't get rejected. They do — again and again, and it does not get any easier to take. Writing and illustrating children's books is not a career for the faint-hearted.

Within a week's time Tom and I have received two rejections, one good and one bad, on two different projects. A bad rejection feels like a body blow. It tells you nothing except that your book "does not fit our list." By now I know what I need is a good night's sleep. In the morning I get up and send the manuscript or dummy out again. But if that rejection is the good kind, the kind that has a critique, it gives you hope, glorious hope. Again, I get a good night's sleep, get up, and this time go to work, revising with the guidelines of the critique.

That is what happened with our picture book biography, I, Vivaldi, which was submitted to some 150 publishers (hard to believe but true). We had other projects going on, so we were not waiting to hear, which is vital to maintaining optimism. Quite a few editors gave helpful suggestions and the book just got better and better until one magical day I stepped out of the shower and the telephone rang. Wrapped in a towel I answered and heard a voice say, "We love your book and want to publish it." In that moment all 150 rejections were forgotten, and work began anew with this result.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Destiny in a Children's Book

JANICE:  You may remember a line from the movie, "You've Got Mail." Meg Ryan, whose character owns a children's book store, says, "When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does." Think back, what book stands out in your life, whether you are a child or a grownup?

*** Illustration by Ernest Shepard from Winnie the Pooh *** 

For me it was Winnie the Pooh in the original version by A.A. Milne. When Daddy read it to me, he enjoyed it as much as I did. I think I realized then that you don't have to grow up. You can keep that child in your mind. And thus, I came to write children's books.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Connections Books Make

JANICE:  Wonderful connections happen with books. In planning the May 1st release party for Anna Maria's Gift at Book People, I knew we must have three things — a reading of Chapter 1, violin playing by a young girl, and Italian creme cake. Sweetish Hill provided the cake, and I did the reading of the chapter in which Anna Maria plays the violin for her papa on his deathbed. My friend, pianist and teacher Felicity Coltman, found our "Anna Maria" to play the violin. Her name is Gelsomina. We have become friends with the whole family. She calls us Miss Janice and Mister Tom, and I call her my angel. Here we are rehearsing as she plays the largo from Vivaldi's D Minor Concerto, just as Anna Maria does.
The performance was a touching success that brought tears to some eyes, including mine. Gelsomina played from her heart as if she were truly Anna Maria. And then we all recovered over Anna Maria's cake!

There is a bit of serendipity involved here. Our picture book, I, Vivaldi,  has recently been published in Korea. It happens that Gelsomina's mother and violin coach is Korean and her father is appropriately Italian. In thanks for her playing, Tom and I presented the family with this Korean edition as well as a copy of Anna Maria's Gift just for Gelsomina.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When Tom Is Not the Illustrator

JANICE:  How does it feel when someone not Tom is chosen to illustrate one of my books, namely Anna Maria's Gift? Heartbreaking at first and unsettling. After all, I cannot tell the illustrator what to do. But I can and did furnish research images of Venice as well as clothing and furnishings of Vivaldi's time. And I can and did make suggestions, some of which were taken, some not.

I wrote Robert Papp, the illustrator, a letter which had to go by way of the art editor. (For reasons of centralizing decisions, I did not have direct communication with him.) "Dear Robert, This is a new experience for me. No one outside my family has ever illustrated my books. but after looking at your artwork, I feel confident that it will be a good experience." My big disappointment was never getting an answer in his own words, even indirectly.

As in any production there were ups and downs, agreements and disputes, compromises and celebrations. An emotional roller coaster, but actually not so different than when Tom is the illustrator. It's just that I have direct contact and more influence with Tom. So it was frustrating at times. But in the end I fell in love with the vibrant girl on the cover. She looks just like the girl I imagined while writing the story. Tom and I have decided to adopt her!

TOM:  I appreciated the opportunity to comment on Robert's early interior sketches with my own sketches, and his response was heartwarming. And when I saw his cover illustration I was won over.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Love for Librarians

JANICE:  Librarians belong to the noblest, if not oldest, profession in the world. I know, because I am one even though not employed. But once a librarian, always a librarian.

TOM:  Librarians are and have always been the salvation of our culture. They deserve our support, including enhancing their libraries and building new ones." (I am an architect as well as illustrator!)

JANICE and TOM:  We have just returned from the Texas Library Association Conference in San Antonio where we signed I, Vivaldi and Anna Maria's Gift. Librarians pick up where writers and illustrators leave off. They connect the book to the reader, and for that we are grateful.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Visual Art of Writing

Sophie's Cabin

JANICE:  Do you make pictures in your mind when you read a good novel? So much so that you forget you are reading? That means the author made pictures in her mind when she wrote it. Visualization is the most potent technique I have ever discovered. It not only transports the reader, it transports the writer of fiction to some other place and time.

Here is a scene from my historical novel, Sophie's War. Sophie is the daughter of a German family living in Comfort, Texas, during the Civil War. Her father, like many German immigrants, is a Unionist living in a state that has left the Union. Since he makes his views widely known by drawing editorial cartoons for a San Antonio newspaper, he has received threats from Confederate ruffians. Sophie tries to persuade him to keep silent, but he refuses.

"After school I went straight upstairs. Papa sat at his drawing board with his back to me. When he is at work he neither sees nor hears anything else. I looked over his shoulder, and my heart sank. He was drawing a cartoon for the Zeitung about the death of General Johnston.
I stood behind him, scarcely breathing. This one was going to get him in trouble. I had to do something, and begging did not seem to work.
Suddenly, I knew I had to destroy the cartoon. The very thought made my heart pound.
Papa must have heard it, for he turned to look at me. I reached for the cartoon, snatched it from the drawing board, and stepped back. I tore it in half as he stared at me in disbelief."

To write this scene I visualized climbing the stairs to the half-story and standing behind Papa. Long before, I had found and photographed the log cabin where she would live. And I had drawn a plan of both floors, including placement of furniture. These were pinned up on the wall of my studio next to my writing desk. I also had pictures of characters gleaned from books, magazines, and photograph albums. And Tom had drawn a cartoon in the style of Thomas Nast, a Civil War cartoonist. When Sophie looks over Papa's shoulder, as I have looked over Tom's, I knew exactly what she was seeing. My heart leaped too.

It took time and much writing before I became conscious of visualizing, even though I was doing it. Now that I am aware of the technique, I use it constantly. If I get stuck, it is because I am not visualizing. I refuse to use the w.b. words because they sound like a terminal disease. Being stuck is not terminal. It is temporary, caused by a lack of information that enables me to visualize. Thus it is time to do more research.

There are many ways to collect images. The library with its carefully chosen books and helpful librarians is a first choice for me. Although I also research on the internet, mostly for images, my real love is the library where professionals, both editors and librarians, have screened the contents for reliability.

But libraries are not enough. Give yourself experiences related to your book. These are but a few of the experiences that helped me write and Tom illustrate my stories: Crossing the Pacific Ocean by freighter, visiting the small village in Germany where my ancestors lived, watching a house being moved, playing soccer with the boys in the square where Vivaldi's childhood home still stands, walking the beach at Indianola on a cold December day, observing Arabian horses at a stable, following the Comanche trail across Texas that led to the Battle of Plum Creek. Do whatever it takes to give you images and sounds and smells of the places in your story.

For Sophie's War I lived in Comfort for two weeks and returned at the various seasons to experience the change. There I found Sophie's cabin, roamed the land where it stood, watched sheep grazing in the meadow, the sun rise over Cypress Creek, listened to the wind sough in the liveoak branches, and felt myself becoming Sophie.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Where Do Ideas Come From?

JANICE:  Ideas come from everywhere - from research, newspapers, history, ruins of ancient civilizations, family stories, our experiences, travel, even from music. Our love of music by Antonio Vivaldi led us to research his life and write and illustrate I, Vivaldi. He was a priest who taught violin to girls at an orphanage called the Pietà in Venice. He also composed music for them to play and conducted their orchestra which became known all over Europe.

Those orphan girls who developed into fine musicians fascinated me. I began to wonder what it was like to live in the Pietà and be Vivaldi's student. So I wrote Anna Maria's Gift to find out. Anna Maria is a young girl who is sent to the Pietà after her father's death. All she has left of him is the violin he made for her, but it carries his soul within. When she plays her violin, she hears his voice. That idea came from researching the great violin maker, Antonio Stradivari, who liked to keep each violin in his bedroom for a month before varnishing it. He believed his soul entered the violin while he slept. And he should know!

From idea, to writing and rewriting, to editing, to published book can take a long time, even years. But at last Anna Maria's Gift  will be available on April 27, 2010. Please look for it!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

BIG THRILL: Our First Foreign Edition

JANICE:  Today a box arrived from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers with three copies of the new Korean edition of I, Vivaldi. I think Antonio would be as thrilled as we are. Thanks to the Korean publisher, Tomato House. Your edition is beautiful. May people in your country love Vivaldi and his music as much as we do. Now for the rest of the world!

TOM:  What a thrill to see my paintings embellished with Korean calligraphy.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Outside the Book

JANICE:  There are times when an author needs to get outside the book and into a school with her readers. What better place than Bradfield Elementary in Highland Park ISD? And what better grade than fourth? The amazing team of teachers used A Paradise Called Texas and the sequels, Willow Creek Home and Spirit of Iron in depth. In fact the children know my books better than I remember!

Fourth graders in Texas (and perhaps elsewhere) study techniques of writing. When I visit a classroom I am amazed at what they are learning and think I should go back to fourth grade. At Bradfield one assignment was to write a letter as if you were the main character, Mina, who immigrates to Texas in 1845. She is writing to her grandfather back in Germany. Here is what Jillian wrote in part, and I quote with her permission:
"Dear Opa,
Our new life in Texas is good, but some sad things occured. We have a wonderful log house and a beautiful garden. Also we made peace with the Indians and go to a nice school under some fine trees. Papa married a kind woman named Lisette because Mama died from a sickness called pneumonia. She said that she wanted to fly up to heaven with the seagulls, and I guess that her wish came true.
Jillian's letter made a lump in my throat just like when I wrote about Mama's dying. That scene is a favorite with readers. Why? Because it makes them feel an intense emotion. Isn't that one reason we read?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I, Papa Haydn: Picture Book in Progress

TOM:  This dummy drawing is for I, Papa Haydn, the book we are working on now. It shows young Joseph Haydn in Master Reuter's carriage as they arrive at St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Here Joseph will join the boys' choir.  I drew the scene from an old etching and my photos and sketches made during our visit to Vienna. Those little marks in the sky show where the text will go. The drawing will evolve into a full color illustration.

Our decision to write about the composer Franz Joseph Haydn came from reading that young Joseph sang in the choir for Antonio Vivaldi's funeral Mass. Since we had recently published I, Vivaldi, this connection between the two composers seemed magical. In fact, while researching Haydn we stayed in a small hotel in Vienna that happened to be across the street from the building where Vivaldi spent the last year of his life. We felt destined to write this book!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Research Adventure

JANICE:  Research takes you to places you would never go and connects you to people you would never know otherwise. It is a glorious adventure with a purpose.

Tom and I are currently working on a picture book biography titled I, Papa Haydn. Since we do not write about or illustrate a place we have not seen with our own eyes, we traveled to Austria and Hungary where the composer Franz Joseph Haydn lived.

On a cold, rainy, windy day in November we set out from Vienna by train to visit the country palace of Prince Esterhazy, Haydn's patron. We crossed the border into Hungary and stopped in the small village of Fertod. Alighting from the train, we seemed to be nowhere. There was no train station, only a hut by the tracks. Tom knocked on the door. A grim, bearded, man opened it a crack.

"Kastely?" I asked. (Castle or palace in Hungarian)

Out came an arm and pointed the direction. Though the palace was nowhere in sight, we started off down the long straight street bordered by shut-tight houses. No one was about, only dogs that barked at us.

At last we came to a center and a school and asked directions. Walking on to the edge of town we came upon the lonely palace, a Hungarian Versailles, walked through the wrought iron gate, across the vast entrance court, and up the central steps. The doors were locked. On a lower level we found a room with a ticket office and a sign that obviously said closed. The few tourists who had gathered there left. We stayed. I noticed a door slightly ajar. We opened it and began roaming the palace, not knowing how to find the room we had to see, the Music Salon. Doors were locked and Tom's new shoes were hurting, so I went on. A guard commanded me to leave.

"Mein Herr," (My husband) I pleaded in German and pointed upstairs. He threw up his arms, and I continued to explore. Finally a young man came bounding down a spiral staircase. I pulled out Tom's storyboard illustrations and pointed to the one of the Music Salon. He understood and brought the curator of the palace. She, along with the guard, took us to the glorious French salon.

After Tom took photographs, we hurried back to catch the last train to Vienna. Standing in the cold wind as daylight waned, we watched the man in the hut come out and manually lower the traffic gate for the approaching train. As we boarded, he smiled and waved. It was the only smile we received from the village. But we got what we wanted. The moral to this story is, never take no for an answer.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Little Yellow Tabs

TOM:  As illustrator of Janice's books, I am her love slave!
Our home studios are in two separate buildings, the big house and the little house, connected by a bridge across our wooded property. On days when I'm working downtown in my architectural office, Janice crosses the bridge, reviews the current sketch or illustration, and leaves her comments on little yellow tabs stuck around the edges — some praising, some not.
In an illustration of young Antonio Vivaldi playing his violin at home, I gave him a sad expression. His mother had just told him that God meant for him to be a priest, not a violinist, which was not what Antonio wanted to hear. As he tells it, "I stomped upstairs and played a fast piece that expressed the anger in my heart."
When I came home from the office the illustration had a yellow tab that said, "Angry not sad. Read the text, dummy! Love, Janice."
I did and the final illustration became one of our favorites in I, Vivaldi. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers also loved it and turned it into a poster for the book.