Girl Meets Squash: Pat Zietlow Miller Interview

I’m feeling very prescient. When I created this blog, I pictured it as a place to explore all kinds of literary friendship, but most especially those of the inter-species variety. While I did not specifically envision it as a place for discussion of the bond between a human child and well, a squash, I am delighted beyond measure that it is playing exactly that role. I also didn’t know that A) I’d find this picture online or B) be inexplicably charmed by it. But I digress. As I am always wont to do.

MeToday it is my great pleasure to welcome the fabulous Pat Zeitlow Miller to the blog. Her debut picture book, Sophie’s Squash, has been honored with no fewer than four starred reviews. FOUR! STARRED! REVIEWS!

You’ve taken interspecies friendship to a new dimension! Please tell us how you came to write about a girl who develops a close, personal relationship with a squash.

I owe it all to my youngest daughter, Sonia. When she was still small enough to sit in the front of the grocery cart while I shopped, she latched on to a butternut squash. When we got to the checkout, she was rocking it like a baby, and it was very obvious that particular squash was never going to be dinner.

CoverI took her friendship with that squash and made it more permanent and more intense, and Sophie and Bernice were born.

While Sonia liked her squash, she was never as attached to it as she was to her blue blanket and her stuffed pig. After her relationship with her squash ended, she did temporarily develop feelings for a bag of Gold Medal all-purpose flour, which she creatively named “Goldie.” I could sense disaster looming, so I ended that relationship before my living room was covered with flour. Not all love is meant to last.

Did you ever get attached to an inanimate object?

Not the same way that Sophie gets attached to Bernice, but I did have a little blue stuffed dog that I took along on a family trip to Michigan because, as I told my family, “He’s never seen it!” My parents still recall this fondly.

Are there any characters from books you read as a child that you think of as your friends? Any you wish had moved next door to childhood-you?

 I really liked Anne of Green Gables. She was a more adventurous child than I was, but I think she would have been a great next-door neighbor. I could have been Diana. I read the whole series several times, and liked learning about Anne and Gilbert’s children too.

And, when I read The Boxcar Children series, I identified with Violet. I think I would have gotten along very well with her. We were both quiet and bookish.

What can you tell us about your forthcoming books, Sharing the Bread and The Quickest Kid in Clarksville?

Sharing the Bread is a story about how an entire family works together to get a mouth-watering, old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner on the table. It’s got a lot of warmth and love and togetherness. And everyone cooks, from the youngest to the oldest. It’s coming out in fall of 2015 from Schwartz & Wade.

The Quickest Kid in Clarksville is about two girls who idolize Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph. They start out by competing to see who’s faster, but end up coming together to support each other and honor Wilma’s achievements. It’s coming out from Chronicle Books.

What are you working on now?                           

I have several picture books in process. One is an ode to rocks. Another features a duck and a detective, and the third is about a very young and very determined football fan. And I just wrote a first draft that could be about a boy or a bear. I’m still trying to decide.

Thanks so much for stopping by Pat! You can learn more about Pat Zietlow Miller by visiting her website.

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UMP cover reveal

Do you know what’s fun?

Watching video of baby elephants learning to walk? Yes.

Searching for the missing library copy of Eleanor and Park? Not so much.

(You’re good at this.)

Getting to share the cover of your 4/1/14 middle-grade release?

WINNER! We have a winner!

screaming at the ump coverHere it is, in all its glory.

Also fun: An interview with the great Pat Zietlow Miller about her talk-of-the-town debut, Sophie’s Squash.

If you look up squash, by the way, you’ll see that its pronunciation is listed as skwosh, which is all kinds of fun too, no?

Come back next week to meet Pat and learn how her picture-book character came to choose a skwosh as her best friend.

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Happy International Friendship Day!

This holiday snuck up on me. I didn’t get you ANYTHING. I am so sorry. I hear it’s a big holiday in Paraguay. A tiny bit less so in New Jersey.

I think I shall celebrate by going to the beach today (singing the “Stronger than the Storm” jingle), and with this illustration of my favorite picture-book friendship. (Please do not infer anything about what I might look like in a bathing suit from this.)

I have a good idea! I’ll also mention Natalie Lorenzi‘s site, Biblio Links, an incredible resource all teachers and librarians should be friends with (international or not). Check it out–it helps teachers and librarians do their most satisfying work–linking readers with the just-right-for-them books.

By incredible coincidence, today’s post is about Bogart and Vinnie. Actually, Natalie was the one who told me about International Friendship Day AND she was together enough to get today’s entry posted at the appropriate time.  Like I said…she’s all kinds of wonderful.

Enjoy this day!

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Celebrating Chick-O-Saurus Rex with Lenore Appelhans and Daniel Jennewein

chickosaurusI hope that when you think BUFFALO, you think Daniel Jennewein. I made his acquaintance when he illustrated his first book, Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? I also had the chance to meet his lovely writer wife, Lenore Appelhans, when Daniel and I made some bookstore appearances in support of that title. And now they’ve created a picture book together!!

In Chick-O-Saurus Rex, a bullied little chicken discovers his inner strength along with some surprising dinosaur ancestry.

It’s impossible not to ask a which-came-first question when your main character is a chicken, so here it is. Which came first, the idea of having a chicken using his ancestry to impress or was there a chicken character who needed backstory, which led you to the link between chickens and dinosaurs?

While we were visiting a friend, her daughter asked Daniel if he knew what the closest living relative to the T-Rex was.  After a few incorrect guesses, she told him it was the chicken.  When we thought about that fun scientific theory, we knew it would make a great picture book.

chick spreadHow do you two work together? Did Lenore write about a chick because Daniel’s birds are so appealing? Or did Daniel suggest a chicken might make a brilliant leading man?

Daniel does do great birds! But it really started with the chicken’s surprising ancestry. While brainstorming how to implement the idea, we hit upon the fact that the word “chicken” is often used to mean “scared” or “wimpy” and having Chick be excluded by the “mightier” animals on the farm naturally led us to the subject of bullying.

buffalo entry-1I want to protect your character, who finds himself in a world of bullies. What kidlit characters would be good friends for Chick-o-saurus Rex?

The first character that came to both of us is the Buffalo of course! He’s gentle, but he’s also big, and he would give those bullies a run for their money.

copy of DJLAWhat are you working on now? Any new projects together?

We are in fact putting the finishing touches on a new joint picture book that features cats and the pressure that kids have these days from all the competiveness that is out there. It’s very exaggerated humor, which Daniel draws so well!

I know you’ll be in the US with some bookstore appearances planned. Can you please share those dates, as well as other ways readers can connect with you and your work?

Yes! We’ll be in three locations:

Saturday, July 27th at Watermark Books in Wichita, KS at 11 am

Saturday, August 3rd at Hoorary for Books in Alexandria, VA at 3:30 pm (with Ann Bonwill and Erin Cabatingan)

Saturday, August 10th at Fundamentals Bookstore in Delaware, OH at 10 am

Daniel is of course happy to do a personalized illustration for each person in their book!

You can find us at our websites: and

Lenore is also on twitter @lenoreva

Many thanks to you both, and welcome to the world, Chick-O-Saurus Rex!

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Prepare Thyselves for Cuteness Overload

Oh, blog readers.

I try not to overwhelm. I seek to space out the cuteness over a period of days.

But it just didn’t work this time, and so you must brace thyselves for a one-two punch.

Edgar_front[1] (2)First up, the unspeakably adorable cover of my 2014 picture book, Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated to perfection by the great Priscilla Burris.

I did not overstate the cuteness, right? And if you could just see the spreads inside! The book’s not out until June, like almost a year away, but THE CUTENESS!!!!

And tomorrow, an interview on the very day of their picture book’s release with writer-illustrator, wife-husband team Lenore Appelhans and Daniel Jennewein. The book is called Chick-O-Saurus Rex and, as you may have guessed, it’s very, very cute.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow!

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Celebrating Interspecies Friendships

bogart and vinnie from bloomsburyI started this blog shortly after selling Bogart and Vinnie: A Completely Made-Up Story of True Friendship. Tricia Lawrence, associate agent at Erin Murphy Literary Agency and something of a social media guru, helped me come up with the theme: literary friendship. We both loved the way it could apply to writers’ and illustrators’ relationships to the books they work on as well as to the characters in books they adored. And of course, it served the theme of Bogart and Vinnie, too.

The friendship, such as it is, between Vinnie, the crazy-happy dog, and Bogart, the wants-to-be-left-alone rhinoceros, was itself inspired by the spate of nonfiction picture books about interspecies friendships that have been popping up for nearly a decade. For more about the strange evolution of my book, be sure to check out Debbie Ohi’s awesome blog later this month, where I’ll be talking about precisely that.

Hootie June 13

Hootie, the two-year-old
dog who wants a bunny

Here’s the funny thing, reader: the strong desire for an interspecies friendship has hit home. Hootie, who turned two this month, has been none-too-subtle about her desire for a wild bunny. Our neighborhood is overrun with them, so she has had many opportunities to share said desire. A generally well-behaved dog (if you overlook the facts that she barks too much and sometimes jumps on people), she is like a human two-year-old in her ability to forget everything she knows (walk next to person on other end of leash, do not take off madly after hopping animals) when confronted with the object of her desire.

I suspect such a friendship would be very brief. And likely end in blood and death. And it’s a lesson well worth thinking through that perhaps not all interspecies introductions end in incredibly photogenic friendships.

And so we ignore Hootie’s request and offer, instead, a tennis ball.

Bogart and Vinnie: A Completely Made-Up Story of True Friendship is officially out today. To celebrate, I’ve visited a number of great blogs. Keep an eye out for this month’s Bartography from author Chris Barton (and sign up to receive it, if you haven’t already).

There’s also a fun new column at The Children’s Book Review. And a Bogart and Vinnie giveaway.

Local friends, I’ll be doing a reading and signing at my adopted-hometown-store, Booktowne, in Manasquan, this Saturday, from 1-3.

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Infinity and Summer (and Curvy Spines)

There are two weeks of school left for the Vernick kids, and summer starts just on the other side. Each year, that first week after school ends—that delicious week of no alarm clocks and lazy mornings—summer feels infinite.

Also of an infinite nature: revision. It feels like it could go on forever. When I’m lucky enough to have a contract and a deadline, that’s the only time it has to stop. I’m working on a second round of post-contract revision on Screaming at the Ump (in addition to myriad pre-submission revisions). Once I finish this round, there will be little tweaks, I’m sure, but revision will no longer be infinite. It will be done.

Which is good, because I am far more comfortable with forces that have beginnings and endings. Infinity and limbo are a big part of my family’s life right now–we’re waiting for life-altering news, for finality, regarding employment, a much- much- much-desired writing project, a new book out on submission. We are all learning a lesson about waiting and patience, a lesson I’d like to smack in the face. Limbo in small doses—that I can handle. But it feels like the percentage of that which is unsettled right now is out of whack and way too high.

So here’s an ending for those of you reading the blog since the beginning. The curvy-spined girl-child, who lived 22 hours of each day in a brace for nearly two years, had a fantastic year-later visit with her orthopedist. Treatment, aka bracing, is considered successful if the degree of the patient’s angle does not advance beyond five additional degrees from the measurement at which she was first braced.

Not only did hers not advance—it somehow went down by two degrees (considered within the margin of error). There was much hooting. Hollering, too.

And though it felt infinite at the time, we faced an almost-ending of the scoliosis years with that visit. The girl child starts high school in the fall. And was told she’d need one last visit, right before leaving for college. Which, to a not-yet-freshman, seems like infinity.

But her mother suspects it’s really just about tomorrow, isn’t it?

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Malfunctioning Monsters: Tara Lazar Interview

You can feel the excitement, can’t you? It’s finally happening! Tomorrow! Tara Lazar’s The Monstore, illustrated by James Burks, finally hits shelves tomorrow! And Tara was kind enough to stop by for a quick chat about defective monsters, the power of chocolate moguls and carrier pigeons. Without further ado:
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Can you tell us how The Monstore came to be?
 The Monstore was a title for months before I did anything with it. Then I had to pitch an idea to an agent and I came up with a premise: “A boy wants to return the monster he bought because it doesn’t spook his little sister.” When I finally sat down to write the story and the boy swung back to the Monstore to complain, I figured the only thing the manager could say was, “Sorry. No returns, no exchanges.” I thought the consequences would then be hilarious if the kid couldn’t unload his malfunctioning monster. And I was right. The story sort of just spilled out after that!
Were you a big reader as a child? What were some of your favorites? Were there any characters you wished would move next door to be your new best friend?
 Yes, I loved to read, always. I adore almost everything by Roald Dahl, Judy Blume and William Steig. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my hands-down favorite, and the movie is also one of my favorites of all time. (Let me just say: I like Johnny Depp, but Gene Wilder will always be my Willy Wonka.) I didn’t have a character I wanted to live next door to, but I did want to live close to the Wonka Factory. I still do. I even have an outline of a chocolatier tale for a middle-grade novel, if I ever get around to writing it–except the Wonka-like entrepreneur is a villain! I mean, people with power often abuse it, and who could have more power than a chocolate mogul with unlimited access to the sweet stuff we all crave?
Is there any book you wish you’d written?
There’s a novel for adults I read recently and thought if I ever wrote a novel, it would be similar to this one: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.  The story is told from the point of view of an Aspberger child’s imaginary friend and it’s just brilliant. The friend, Budo, explains all the rules governing imaginary friends and how some of them look very unusual (because their owners typically forget to imagine them with eyebrows, for instance). Budo moves through two worlds–the real and the imaginary–and it turns out that he has to save his friend from a dangerous situation. I can’t say more because you just have to read it. The author, Matthew Dicks, is a fifth-grade teacher, and he has that eleven-year-old voice down pat. The story felt so real even though it was so fantastical, and that was an amazing feat to conquer. Loved, loved this book so much.
What are you working on now?
 I am terribly excited over several manuscripts I have brewing, including one that is rather longish for a picture book (900 words), yet it’s magical and sweeping and inspiring, so it just has to be that long. But truth be told, the past two months I’ve done little writing. I’m so busy preparing for the launch of The Monstore. There’s a chance it may not be in Barnes & Noble because of an ongoing dispute between the bookseller and my publisher, so I’ve been trying to get the word out in every way possible. Even via carrier pigeon. Although Mo Willem’s pigeon would probably be more effective.
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For anyone who doesn’t know, Tara is the person behind Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), which has helped many of us not only compile a 30-item list of picture book ideas each autumn but sell some of those developed-into-manuscript ideas as well! Be sure to check out her blog. And this great interview with the great John Schu.
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Thanks, Tara!
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chalk_muralOkay, the last time I blogged here it was January. So?

That so? reminds me of all the retorts of my childhood. While we neighborhood kids mostly played together, drew with chalk, played Red Light, Green Light 1-2-3 and Giant Steps, we did have our less sunny moments when we’d shout:

(the widely used) Get off my property!


Ew! That’s corroded! –used to describe anything disgusting.

And, my personal favorite: Ew, you’re corroded.

do not disturbThe rambling intro of this post notwithstanding, this was the first year I decided to try to act like a semi-disciplined writer. Sometimes just walking the walk can get you there, right? (This reminds easily-reminded me of my almost-successful college plan to trick a good friend into believing we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but I’ll save that for another day. Or no day.)

I came up with a good way to stick to the writing task at hand: an electric throw blanket. I’m not saying it’s magic or anything, but it is. The only time I use this blanket now is when I’m writing or revising in the chair in my bedroom. Because it was a cold winter and a long one (that seemed to start in October with the storm named Sandy), I got a lot done. A kind of magical amount for a not-accustomed-to-discipline writer like me.

The big news of the dormant-blog time period is that I sold my second novel, SCREAMING AT THE UMP. I started writing it shortly after parting ways with my first agent, many years ago. Though I wrote primarily picture books, it seemed most people found their agents with novels. So that’s what I decided to try and it worked! Erin Murphy signed me on the basis of an early draft of this very book. We subbed it years ago, had nothing even close to a nibble, and decided to put it in the drawer.

desk drawerI wasn’t too depressed, as I soon learned that WATER BALLOON, my first novel, needed years in a drawer before I was ready to revise it properly. Last year I decided it was time to give UMP a chance.

There were years—researching, writing, revising—that went into the years-ago draft, and then a massive revision late last year, under my magic blanket. Since then, it’s been fast. It sold in March and I’ve already seen its likely cover. (Very cool and excited to share as soon as I get the okay.) As someone accustomed to picture-book publishing, it’s just crazy, this swift pace.

And the best part is I already know how I work. So instead of starting from scratch when I get back to the writing board, there’s about half of a first draft of a new novel, NEVER HAPPENED, sitting in a drawer, hoping this time counts as its time in the drawer. Because a girl could get used to this publishing novels thing.

IMG_1313_peoniesSo? So now it’s late May and three days ago, the weather switched, overnight, from winter to summer. We used to have something called spring, but it’s a fading memory. Still, the May scent of peonies is delicately emanating from the oversized floppy flowers in our kitchen. The school year feels over even though the kids still have a month left (!). bogart and vinnie from bloomsburyAnd in three weeks, I’ll be celebrating the release of BOGART & VINNIE: A COMPLETELY MADE-UP STORY OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP, illustrated by the great Henry Cole, which I believe was the very reason I started this blog.

So? So, I imagine I’ll be posting a bit more.

Until then, friends, enjoy what passes for spring in your neck of the woods ….

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First Drafts and Winter

2013: My Year of Less Dysfunction

It occurred to me a few years ago that if I detest winter, and I DO, that means I’m detesting a quarter of my life. Just like a pig parade, that’s a terrible idea.

So I asked those who liked winter what they liked about it:

Cozy blankets.

Warm drinks on a chilly day.

Hunkering down at home.

I prefer mojitos poolside, but yeah, okay. If there has to be winter, blankets and warm slippers and chai lattes could probably help.

Meanwhile, in the writing side of my life, I finished up my second novel, the first draft of which was written years ago. And while I wait to hear from my agent about whether I need to keep working on it or if it’s ready to go, I started work on a new novel.

Healthy, right?

But I realized that I’ve been feeling kind of wintery about first drafts. I dread writing them. My favorite part of the novel process is probably the last 20 percent—the cleaning, refining, drawing subtle connections between related parts. I LOVE that work. But the stuff that comes before? Not so much.

I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or inane to be writing a first draft in winter. But with my determination to be NOT dysfunctionl as my guiding force, it’s going pretty well.

I think the key to all of this may be the fact that I changed where I write. My first two books were written in the kitchen of my house. And then my husband started working from home. And using the kitchen more frequently than you’d think a person could.

I moved upstairs. I cleaned my office. Cleared everything off my desk.

Yet where I find myself most writing days is sitting the big arm chair in my bedroom. This is the key: I sit beneath an electric throw blanket. I’m toasty. In fact, one day last week, after meeting my goal of writing a thousand words, I decided I’d rather write a second thousand than get up and exercise, which had been the next scheduled act in my planned not-dysfunctional day.

Next year, I’ll figure out adding a healthy attitude about exercise into the first-drafting and winter plan. For now, being toasty in the corner of my bedroom is working pretty well.

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