Archive for November 30, 2008

James Preller Interviews . . . Author Ellen Miles

I’ve been cleaning and vacuuming all day because we’re having a special guest. Ellen Miles has spent her adult career involved in children’s books in some capacity, as an editor, an advocate, and a writer. Ellen has recently enjoyed rising popularity with her “Puppy Place” series for Scholastic. But more than any of those credentials, Ellen is here because she’s my friend.

And look, that’s her walking up the front path.

Ellen, it’s so nice of you to stop by.

Thanks for having me. I truly appreciate this opportunity to procrastinate in a brand-new way.

Do you remember when we first met, back around 85-86, when we both worked at Scholastic? Craig Walker was there, throwing punchlines at people like Phoebe Yeh, Brenda Bowen, Holly Kowitt, and Jan Carr. I was a junior copywriter and . . . you were in mailroom, right?

I was the junior elevator operator. Actually I was the editor of the TAB book club, which is for middle school kids. My job was to figure out which thirty or so items to offer each month, ranging from serious fiction to posters of kittens in sunglasses.

Did you get to write those clever phrases on the posters, like, “Hang In There!” Or my current favorite, “Cattitude!”

No, that task went to the editorial assistants. I wish I got the royalties for “Hang In There!”

I hate to say this, but they even made it into a book about “inspirational art of the 1970s.”

In that job, I also got to edit some original fiction. One of the best parts (aside from the lifelong friends I made there) was that I got to read People magazine at my desk, since part of my job was to be on top of current trends.

What did you learn as an editor that helps you as a writer today?

That editors are not the enemy. I love the editing process. I’ve always seen editors as equivalent to coaches for athletes — an editor is just someone who helps a writer be and do her best. I also learned a lot about the basic craft of writing.

Okay, sure. But if editors aren’t the enemy . . . then who is?

I don’t know about you, but I’m my own worst enemy.

You seem to have found a true home in the wilds of Vermont.

I love Vermont with all my heart and it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. As a kid I spent all my summers here and I think I always knew I’d end up here when I was a grownup. Not that I’m a grownup yet.

Vermont is incredibly beautiful, has a low population thanks to its long winters (which I love, both the winters and the population that is), and feels like an island of progressive sanity in a world gone awry. It’s no surprise that Vermont was the first state to come in for Obama on election night, and that it gave Obama the highest percentage of votes of any states save D.C. and Hawaii. Living in Vermont, it’s easy to be green, non-materialistic, local, and all that other good stuff that other people are just catching on to.

I am your basic NPR-listening, granola-crunching, Subaru-driving, compost-making, do-gooder liberal, so I fit right in here. I was enough of a city girl to resist Birkenstocks for many years, and while I have finally capitulated to those I still vow to never wear a denim jumper over a turtleneck.

Hold on, you’re not one of those hippies I read about who threw their Birkenstocks at Karl Rove’s car?

Did you know that Vermont was the only state Bush never visited during his time in office? Maybe it’s because if he did show up we planned to prosecute him for war crimes.

Back to your fabulous career before this becomes too much like “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” It seems like “The Puppy Place” series is doing really well. Tell us about it.

The series is about a family who fosters puppies, and each book is centered on a different puppy. The books are sweet, easy to read, and crammed with doggie love and doggie info. They always have a happy ending (as the tagline says, “Where every puppy finds a home”), and there’s no dark stuff unless you include the occasional housetraining “mistake.”

Hey, poop happens.

Exactly. The series came about when our old friend, Craig Walker, knowing that I loved dogs and knew a lot about them, suggested I write some books about puppies. “Something where we can slap a big picture of a cute puppy on the cover,” is what I remember him saying.

Yes, I can hear Craig saying exactly that.

There are now thirteen Puppy Place titles in print with at least five more coming down the pike, and I’ve sold more than a million copies in the US, the UK, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Kids and dogs have a strong mutual attraction, and young readers seem to love these books.

I’ve talked to other series writers about this. I guess we all have a little bit of an ugly step-sister kind of experience. On one hand, the books are bought and read and loved. But at the same time, they are critically ignored, never reviewed, seemingly unread by the “people who matter.”

Sometimes I like the freedom and anonymity of not being reviewed. It seems that the world of literary children’s literature and YA is a feverish contest for awards and reviews and recognition, and I sometimes wonder whether people are writing for kids or for the adults on the awards committees. I’m definitely writing for kids – and frankly I’m also writing to pay the mortgage. It’s hard to imagine having the luxury of writing anything I wanted, without worrying whether a publisher would publish it or readers would buy it. Maybe someday I’ll have that luxury and it’ll be interesting to see what I produce.

I hear you about the mortgage. I wrote two books about Norfin Trolls under the name Mitzy Kafka. I worked as a ghostwriter. I wrote an unauthorized biography of “The Rock.” I wrote a picture book adaptation of the direct-to-video classic, “Slappy and the Stinkers!” There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t write. I wrote four books based on an unpopular toy — a toy “craze” that never got crazy — under the name, Izzy Bonkers. Let’s see Jean Craighead George top that!

I can top that: I once wrote some books based on video games. Then there’s the crowning glory of my writing-for-hire ouevre, my novelization of that classic film, Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas! Many of my friends still think my coolest gig ever was writing Scooby-Doo books.

I used a pen name for a lot of my work-for-hire jobs, but sometimes I forgot to do that, so if you Google me certain books come up that make me feel like I’m walking around with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe.

That’s so great, Ellen. I’ve done about half-a-dozen rescue jobs, where a manuscript was so bad it was beyond editing, so they sent it to me for a torched-earth rewrite. Hey, I just remembered another one: I did a picture book adaptation of the second Pee-Wee Herman movie, “Big Top Pee Wee.” You know, the one Tim Burton didn’t make.

I once wrote about how to choose a dog dish, for a pet website.

You enjoy getting fan mail, don’t you?

I love it. It’s the best part of the job. Kids send me pictures of themselves and their dogs. They decorate their letters with drawings. They tell me that my books ROCK!!!! and that I’m the best author ever, they give me ideas for future plots, they tell me about books they’re writing. I have my favorites hanging on my study wall and I read them over and over. The bottom line about series writing vs. literary writing is that whether or not my books have lasting merit, they do get kids excited about reading, and to me that’s the best possible outcome. Nothing compares to the thrill of getting a letter from a kid who says, “PS, Before I read your books I never liked to read. Thanks for making reading more fun,” or from a parent who writes to say “Thank you for making our daughter into an independent reader.”

I have to say, Ellen, you strike me as really happy these days.

I am happy. I love where I live, and I have a great job, a terrific boyfriend, and wonderful friends and family.

You, um, have a boyfriend? Don’t tell me he’s one of those hulking lumberjack types they’ve got running around in the mountains up there?

No, he’s more of a SNAG, you know, a Sensitive New-Age Guy. Drives a Volvo, communicates well, cooks, vacuums, does the grocery shopping. Not that he’s a total sissy. He’s built all his own houses and he’s out chainsawing right now.

So tell me, Ellen. Just between us. Is there a part of you that wants a big hardcover book, where some reviewer like Lisa Von Drasek from The New York Times takes you seriously as an artist?

I would definitely like to develop as a writer and I’m curious about what I might be capable of, but no, I have never felt a deep urge to be a Critically Acclaimed Writer. I’m not one of those who always wanted to be a writer, and who has a passionate need to tell my story to the world. I fell into writing sideways. It’s the best job I can imagine and I’m good at my craft, and for now that’s enough. That said, of course I’m working on a middle grade novel on the side, though I have no expectations for where it might go or if I’ll even ever finish it. It’s really just an experiment and a way to learn more about writing. I’m in a writer’s group with two writer friends, and their support and encouragement and guidance is a wonderful thing.

Hey, I loved that photo you sent. You look so content and relaxed to be sitting with that small group of kids. Where was that taken?

That was a party given by a fantastic reading-mentoring program I’m involved with, called Everybody Wins. The Vermont chapter honored me this year with an award for my contribution to children’s literacy. They threw a happy, chaotic kids’ party during the day and had a gala Book Bash for adults in the evening, at which I (yikes!) had to make a speech. I’ve mentored three girls over the years and have shanghaied my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, and several friends into becoming mentors as well. The program is elegant in its simplicity — all you do is go to the elementary school on your lunch hour and read with a kid for forty-five minutes — and yet it has an amazing impact on the kids and on the mentors as well.

I’ve participated in a similar program here. (Of course, nobody threw me a fancy gala.) It’s neat when you see some of those kids again, five, ten years down the line. You spy each other across a room and, it’s hard to describe, but you both know you had that time together. And they know you were there – you cared enough to show up every week — and nothing can take that connection away.

One of my former mentees, who I first met when she was in third grade, is now in eighth. We’re still friends and always will be. She came to my gala. (So sad that you’ve never had a gala.)

Believe me, Ellen. It is enough — more than enough — that you’ve had one. And now I see we’re out of time. Please keep this handsome set of carving knives as a parting gift!

Thanks, Jimmy! It was fun.

Wait, almost forgot the Lightning Round! Favorite books?

Ellen Tebbits, Beverly Cleary; War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.


Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan; On Green Dolphin Street, Miles Davis; Something New, The Beatles (the first record I ever owned).


The Last Waltz, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, Amarcord. I know, none of these books, movies or albums were created within the last twenty years. I’m a fogey, what can I say?

Type of Dog?

I’d say Labs. Or any kind of puppy.

Ten Best Christmas Movies

As the author of the Jigsaw Jones series, I’ve been told by more than one editor that I am “so Jigsaw.” And I suppose that’s reasonably true. But I also identify with Jigsaw’s father. He is, like me, a list-maker. (By the way, Nick Hornby nailed that particular aspect of maleness in his book, High Fidelity — that atavistic urge to build fires, hunt, and make lists.) The scene below was inspired by interactions with my own children. At this time of year, we seem to always make a list to plan “The Christmas Movies We’ve Got to See.”

The scene below, which contains said list, comes early in Jigsaw Jones Super Special #4: The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery, soon after Jigsaw’s father has despaired over the empty materialism of the holidays. He has just insisted, over protests, that the family remain together to decorate the tree. This book is, by the way, one of my favorites in the series. Jigsaw tackles the ultimate mystery, the big man in the red suit, in a way that I hope is satisfying (and not disillusioning) for readers of all persuasions.

“But I have plans . . .” Hillary protested.

“You heard your father, Hill,” my mother said. “We’re going to do something nice together — or else.”

For a while there, I worried that “or else” was going to win. But once we got started, we had fun. Even Hillary. Grams baked sugar cookies. Billy brought down his guitar and played rockin’ versions of Christmas tunes. Then my mom pulled out the DVD of A Charlies Brown Christmas.

“Ah, a classic,” my father beamed. “My favorite Christmas show ever.”

After we watched it, we started talking about all of our favorite Christmas shows.

“Let’s make a list,” my father suggested.

“Oh, your father and his lists,” my mother groaned, laughing.

“Hey,” he protested. “I love lists!”

“So let’s do it,” I said.

We got to work on a list of the Ten Best Christmas Shows in the History of the World. Then we promised to watch every single one this year. Here’s our list:

A Charlie Brown Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (original version, duh)

A Christmas Story

The Polar Express

The Santa Clause


Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Miracle on 34th Street

Home Alone

A Christmas Carol

“Pretty good,” Grams said, looking over the list when we finished. “But you have to add It’s a Wonderful Life.”

That’s when I got a phone call from Sally Ann Simms. It sounded important. “I have a case for you,” she said. “Are you still doing detective work over Christmas?”

“You bet,” I replied. “A good detective is always on the job. For a dollar a day, I make problems go away.”

We arranged to meet the next day. I hung up the phone and rushed back to the discussion. “You can’t scratch Elf off the list,” I exclaimed. “He pours maple syrup on his spaghetti!”

NOTE: Okay, what do you make of that list? Did I miss any? Do you hate any that were included? My hands-down favorite is A Christmas Story, though there are definitely language issues that need to be addressed before viewing, and may not be suitable for every family. And for what it’s worth, I really, really detest Frosty the Snowman. I just want that guy to melt. Lastly: It just occurred to me that Santa himself is the ultimate list-maker! (Though, if the articles I’ve read are true, The Lord Almighty may lay claim to that crown on Judgment Day.)

So, Santa, I don’t know if you keep up with the children’s literature blogs or not, but if you do, please know, I’ve been awfully nice! But don’t worry about gifts just yet. I’ll send a list.

In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Happy Thanksgiving

Not sure what I’ll accomplish this week, blog-wise. So I think we’ll see a few days of light posting, if anything. But we’ll come back strong at the end of the weekend with a terrific interview with author Ellen Miles.

As a family, every year we try to do some kind of community “work” on Thanksgiving, something simple to remind ourselves of the greater world outside. It feels right. Then we eat like wild dogs. Have a great holiday — and thanks for stopping by.

In the meantime, 74 seconds of light-hearted nonsense:

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Writers on Writing: Five Quick Quotes

True story: I just found this three-page list of typed quotes on the bottom of my t-shirt drawer. I figure it dates back seven years, from when I was working with my son’s third-grade classroom — and at which point I learned, not coincidentally, that I knew nothing about how to teach writing.

All I had in my bag of tricks was encourage, encourage, encourage.

Anyway, these quotes come mostly from interviews I enjoyed, but also possibly from the supporting research I did. I’ll parcel them out over time in spoonfuls, five per blog entry:

Writing is very difficult and gives me a great deal of pleasure, partly because it is so difficult.” — Maurice Sendak.

“If you work hard on something, and think about it very deeply, new ideas sort of bubble to the surface. I find that while rewriting — even just retyping a page — new things come in that I hadn’t thought about before. Rewriting is important. I don’t think you are finished after only one or two drafts. Rewriting is not only polishing sentences; it is also a process of searching for new things to improve your story.” — Bernard Waber.

“I revise and revise and revise. I’m so picky. Yonder took me seven years to write. That book meant a lot to me. I wanted it to be perfect.” — Tony Johnston.

“Writing a story is like going down a path in the woods. You follow the path. You don’t worry about getting lost. You just go.” — Jan Brett.

“You never want to write about a perfect person. Look at Ramona Quimby. She’s not perfect — but it’s the failings that remind us of ourselves. That’s what builds character.” — Patricia Reilly Giff.

Obama’s Use of Complete Sentences Stirs Controversy

I liked this short piece, written by Andy Borowitz and published by The Huffington Post online, “Obama’s Use of Complete Sentences Stirs Controversy.”

It reads in part:

In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.

Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama’s appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday witnessed the president-elect’s unorthodox verbal tic, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.

But Mr. Obama’s decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.

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You fool me, you can’t get fooled again.