Tag Archive for Tony Abbott

One Question, Five Authors #7: “How does a book begin for you?”

Welcome to “One Question,” the world’s laziest interview series. In today’s edition, we’re interested in origin stories — or the origins of story — those interstices of time between books. An author casts about, open-minded and perhaps a little lost, wondering what in the world that next book might be. And then, hmmm, like a fish nibbling on a line . . . something appears.

My thanks to Matt Tavares, Tony Abbott, Keely Hutton, Greg Neri, and Aimee Reid for their contributions.

Matt Tavares

Every book is different, but I’ll tell you how Red & Lulu got started — with a suggestion from my editor, Katie Cunningham, in late 2011 that I do a book about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I loved the idea, and began working on a nonfiction manuscript about the tree. I envisioned a book along the lines of those great David Macaulay books (Castle, Cathedral…), where I would show how they find the tree, how they chop it down, get it to the city, decorate it, etc. I spent a while working on that, and submitted a manuscript to Candlewick. They told me they liked it, but felt like it needed more of a story. My editor suggested I add some characters.
Meanwhile, I had this whole other idea about cardinals. I often noticed cardinals in my yard, and was struck by how whenever I saw a male cardinal, if I looked around a bit, the female cardinal was usually nearby. I wondered what would happen if they ever became separated. I felt like there could be a story there.
At some point, those two completely separate ideas became one, and my nonfiction story about the Rockefeller Christmas tree became a fictional story about two cardinals who become separated.
So, long story short: It was my editor’s idea.

Tony Abbott

Different motives begin a new book for me. Denis Ever After began when I read a single word in the newspaper. It was “Toms.” I don’t recall now whether it was a piece about Toms toothpaste, or some other reference, but the idea of their being two “Toms” in the same family — brothers — started me thinking about twins. Almost immediately after birth the first boy, already named Tom, succumbed, so when the second came out, and lived, they named him Tom, as a sort of remembrance. Thus . . . Toms. The story changed leagues from that, but that’s how it began. Origins are one of the most pleasurable parts of writing for me. The whole universe of story seems capable of being encompassed in a new novel. This new story will be about love, dreams, oak tables, stars, dust, shoes, the rings of Saturn, hot chocolate, and the Gulag. Only when the pages pile up do its contours shrink and define. So. No shoes, no prison camp, and more joy than first imagined. Anyway, a way of saying reality seeps in. In my new novel, The Great Jeff, coming in March, it was the chance “sighting” of a character from a book published a dozen years ago. I’ve written about this before, but it’s probably true of all writers (and, they hope, their readers), that characters live beyond the book in some place and time, and that a story written about them is by no means all that that character is. So I saw a boy in a library, alone, reading, and I was convinced that this boy was Jeff, from Firegirl (2006). He’d reappeared, and I had to write about him. That’s how it happened. I hope it happens again. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that these people we seem to create are, once born, living on and on.

Keely Hutton

I never know when inspiration for my next book will strike, but I’m always on the lookout for subjects that spark my imagination. The spark for my upcoming middle grade novel, Secret Soldiers, started with some confusion while I binge-watched the BBC show “Peaky Blinders” two years ago. The main character, Tommy Shelby, runs his family’s criminal organization in 1919 England and suffers from PTSD due to his time as a soldier in WW1. My editor and I agreed that my next book should be in the same vein as my debut novel Soldier Boy, so I’d been researching wars and child soldiers. I hadn’t found anything that really grabbed my attention until I watched Tommy Shelby’s flashbacks, which showed him fighting in tunnels. I kept asking my husband, “Why are they underground?” After my third such query, my exasperated husband kindly suggested I Google it, so I did. A quick search revealed that thousands of sappers and miners tunneled beneath the battlefields of the Great War to undermine the enemy’s position and break the brutal stalemate of trench warfare. Fascinated, I researched whether any child soldiers fought in WW1 and was shocked to discover that over a quarter of a million underage British boys lied about their ages to join the war. When I learned that many of those young soldiers were used as beasts of burden on and under the battlefields, I knew I had found my next story and began researching and writing Secret Soldiers.

Greg Neri

My cousin the horse thief. Who would’ve thought? When I was growing up, I went to Texas once to stay on my uncle’s ranch. He had thirteen kids. Ten of them boys — strapping ranch hands and school wrestlers who liked to surprise-attack each other in the middle of the night out in the bunkhouse their dad built for them in the fields. To be a girl in that family, you had to be tough and willing to stand up for yourself. I could see that in my cousin Gail straight off the bat. She didn’t take no guff, and she could dish it out just as hard as her brothers — maybe harder. But inside, she was thoughtful and caring, and she loved horses. I had met Gail Ruffu only once when I was younger. Thirty-some years later, at a Christmas party at my parents’ house in California, I met her again. In the intervening years, I had occasionally heard tales of her exploits. The Texas part of the family, like the state of Texas itself, was always bigger than life. When I asked what she’d been up to lately, she paused and pulled me aside. “I’m a wanted woman, ya know,” she said. For the next hour and a half, she told me a whopper of a story of how she stole a thoroughbred on Christmas Eve and became the first person in 150 years to be charged with Grand Theft Horse — a case that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. When she was finished, I sat there, floored. My first thought was that would make a great book. So I wrote it.

 

Aimee Reid

One ordinary night, I was tucking my then 2-1/2-year-old daughter into bed. As usual, she asked what our schedule was for the next day. No matter how simple our plans—visiting the library, dropping in to playgroup, or simply playing at home—she always delighted in looking forward to them. After I shared my thoughts about what we would do together, she wiggled her whole body in delight and said, “When I grow up and you grow down . . . .” She proceeded to list the everyday activities we would do together if our roles were reversed.

Zing! Her words flew like a spark to my imagination. This is a story, I thought. Not long afterward, Mama’s Day with Little Gray was born (Random House). It is the tale of a small elephant who dreams of growing big enough to take care of his mama just as she has cared for him.

That story began by listening to my daughter. Sometimes, words for a story will surprise me and start running through my head. For an upcoming book, All the Earth (Penguin Random House, spring 2020), my brain fed me the first line of a lyrical text. Zing! Those words became a rhymed picture book about animal babies being cared for by their parents.

Ideas can come from anywhere. What the best book ideas have in common for me is that spark of recognition. Zing! Then I know: this is a story I am meant to write and share with the world.

Stay Home, Please. Don’t Celebrate Children’s Book Day at “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, NY, 9/25

Just stay home. Please.

Find something else to do.

Each year I do this event, which features more than 60 amazing children’s book authors and illustrators, and it’s always such a disappointment. For starters, check out some of the people who’ll be there, and you’ll understand why I’m so bummed:

Tony Abbott, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Nick Bruel, Bryan Collier, Katie Davis, Bruce Degen, Jean Craighead George, Charise Mericle Harper, Susan Jeffers, Peter Lerangis, Gail Carson Levine, Carolyn MacCullough, Rafe Martin, Wendy Mass, Matthew McElligott, Helen Perelman, Wendell Minor, Gloria Pinkney, Lizzy Rockwell, Todd Strasser, Mark Teague, Jean Van Leeuwen, Eric Velasquez, Sarah Weeks, Ed Young, and more.

Why so down-in-the-dumps you ask? Because I never get to talk to any of them. I never get a chance to meet the new (to me!) people, like Will Moses (Mary and Her Little Lamb), Lena Roy (Edges), Daniel Kirk (Library Mouse), Peter Brown (You Will Be My Friend!) . . .

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. . . and Jerry Davis (Little Chicken’s Big Day). Who are these people? Might they become my new best pals? Um, not likely! Because they are sitting at tables forty feet away, surrounded by happy children, shopping grandparents, and strong-armed educators, hauling bags of books like Sherpa guides.

Best I can do is throw rocks at ’em.

And, oh, hey, look over there, it’s Jean Craighead George. She’s only a freakin’ legend. I can’t throw rocks at Jean Craighead George. She’ll throw them back — and her arm is a bazooka.

Oh,  wait.  Here’s old friends like Mark Teague and Helen Perelman and Peter Lerangis. Can I talk to any of them? Can we hang out? Maybe shoot the breeze? Commiserate?

Nooooooo. I’m too busy signing books, meeting young readers, gabbing with families, prostrating myself before the cheerful & smiling hordes.

Writing is a solitary business, folks. And it’s frustrating for me to sit there at gorgeous Sunnyside . . .

. . . just feet away from my peerless peers, and never have a free minute to chat with them.

So my dream is for just one year, nobody comes. No book sales, no signings, no musicians, no storytellers, no-bah-dee. Just us authors, finally (finally!) enjoying a few moments when we can hang out and complain about the crappy jobs our publishers do with publicity and marketing. It’s how we bond. We bitch and moan about Kindles.

So this coming Sunday, clean the garage, watch football, wax the car. But if you insist on coming . . . click here for full details.

As always, blue skies are personally guaranteed. It never rains on my parade.

Celebrate Children’s Book Day @ Washington Irving’s “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, NY: 9/19

You should know that children’s book impresarios Susan Brandes and Beth Vetare-Civitello have put together another spectacular lineup of authors and illustrators for this year’s (13th annual?) Children’s Book Festival.

With more than 50 authors/illustrators on hand, the list is too excruciatingly long to include everyone. So I’ll only name my favorites:

JAMES PRELLER!

Well, it looks like we’ve run out of time. Sunnyside is a gorgeous location, with historic buildings nestled in beside the mighty Hudson . . .

What’s that? Hold on. I just got a text . . .

Tony Abbott: WTF??!!

Anyway, as I was saying . . .

Eric Velasquez: Punk!

Charise Mericle Harper: When I see you there, I will throw a CUPCAKE in your face!

Jean Craighead George: Die, die, die!

Rebecca Stead: How would you like to have a Newbery Medal shoved up your . . .

Whoa, whoa, people, CALM DOWN! Obviously, some of these “artists” — and I’m using the term loosely — have ego issues. Touchy, touchy. Seriously, I don’t even know these people. And I don’t want to know them! But, okay, here’s a few other names before I get into any more trouble (but believe me, I’m pretty confident I can handle Jean Craighead George in a tussle, if it’s a fair fight and she doesn’t carry a crude knife fashioned out of tree bark and a plastic spork; and as far as Ms. Stead’s “offer,” that may be as close as I’ll ever get):

Nora Raleigh Baskin * Judy Blundell * Katie Davis * Jules Feiffer * Susan Jeffers * Peter Lerangis * Gail Carson Levine * Wendy Mass * Wendell Minor * Jerry Pinkney * Peter Sis * Hudson Talbott * Ed Young * James Howe * Michael Rex * Nick Bruel * Bruce Degan * Diane Goode * and many, many more, including JAMES FREAKING PRELLER!

I’m also glad to see that my friend, Matthew McElligott, will be attending this year. His new book, Even Monsters Need Haircuts, looks pretty great.

Maybe I’ll offer him a ride . . . if he pays for gas.

And tolls.

Show time: 12:00 – 4:30.

Oh, yeah, one more thing. I’ll do something that these other children’s authors and illustrators are afraid to do. That’s right: I am personally guaranteeing a beautiful day. Blue skies, warm sun, good times. Trust me on this, people.  It’s my personal promise to you.

This year, I mean it.

So come on out and bring lots of money bring the kids!

Click here for full details, directions, etc.


Come to Children’s Book Day @ Washington Irving’s “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, NY: 9/27

When I was a kid, I used to watch professional wrestling on television. This was before it went big time, before Hulk Hogan and the massive popularity of the WWF and big events on pay-per-view cable. I watched during the era of Bruno Sammartino, Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski, The Sheik, Ivan Koloff, Pedro Morales, Haystacks Calhoun, and other charismatic brawlers of yesteryear.

One of the events that I found mind-blowing — and happily recreated with friends on rowdy afternoons — was called a “battle royal.” While rules varied from match to match, essentially they would shoehorn about twenty wrestlers into a ring and the last man standing was declared the winner. They eliminated a wrestler either by pin or by hurling him over the ropes and out of the ring.

Like thus:

Good times, good times.

And that’s exactly what you’re likely to see at the 12th Annual Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, New York, a veritable battle royal of sixty children’s book authors and illustrators. There will be petty jealousy, eye pokes, mule kicks, and plenty of blood (that’s right, I’m looking at you, Jean Craighead George).

This year the tag team of Susan Brandes and Beth Vetare-Civitello has put together a spectacular day-long festival for young readers, families, and friends. It’s a happy event in a beautiful location, and I encourage you to make the trip — meet authors and illustrators, get books signed, spend too much money, listen to music, watch performances, stroll the historic grounds . . .

. . . or simply fulfill your blood lust.

Come see Tony Abbott’s superkick . . . Katie Davis’s flying lariat takedown . . . Ed Young’s sleeper hold . . . Wendy Mass and her devastating forearm shiver . . . or the classic “El Kabong” as executed by Mark Teague.

Here’s some more illustrious names you’ll find in the ring: Pam Allyn, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Judy Blundell, Nick Bruel, Alyssa Satin Capucilli, Bruce Degen, Jules Feiffer, Dan Greenburg, James Howe, Susan Jeffers, Peter Lerangis,  Gail Carson Levine, Rafe Martin, Jean Marzollo, Barbara McClintock, Lloyd Moss, Bernard Most, Jerry Pinkney, Marisabina Russo, Peter Sis, Rebecca Stead, Todd Strasser, Eric Velasquez — and many more. Holy wow.

I’ll be there, too.

The date is Sunday, September 27th, from 11:00 – 5:00. For directions, click here.

Fan Mail Wednesday #56

Sometimes fan mail comes from unexpected places . . . and says just the things you long to hear.

Hello Mr. Preller,

I am a full time dad for 3 young boys, Isaiah (8), Luke (7), Noah (3). Your books have been a staple for our bedtime reading time. I’ve found myself reading on after I hear the 3 stooges snoring away. I genuinely appreciate your style and content. My 8 year old is usually the one to discuss possible outcomes and facts about the stories the next day. In a time when innocence, manners and values seem to escape our kids media, I admire Jigsaw Jones for the stories that make us think and still hold to some old school innocence.

If you’re ever down around Newport News, Virginia, let me know. Our Elementary school may be interested in your appearance next year.

Sincerely,
Kevin

I replied:

Kevin,

Thanks for that great letter. As much as my books are intended for children, I always wonder about the parents out there. After all, I identify with both perspectives, much in the way I see myself in both Jigsaw and his father, Mr. Jones. Like you, I’ve spent many, many hours reading to my children. I know what it’s like to read on after they’ve fallen asleep; I know how it feels when we discover a wonderful, worthwhile story to share. And, yes, I’ve read poorly-written books and cringed at TV shows and movies with inappropriate language.

In our house, words like “dumb” and “stupid” and “fat” are considered bad words — language that my children are not allowed to use. I never expected that I’d become a conservative parent (as I am one heck of a cool guy, believe me!), but in this regard my wife and I are mindful of setting limits for our children. It’s so disappointing to encounter those same words, and more significantly, the attitudes that inform those words, in popular media. When I started this series, I decided that my readers were young, and that there was time enough for them to encounter those things . . . elsewhere. So thank you for noticing. And while I strive to avoid obvious messages, writ large — I gag at the Berenstain Bears, for example — I am fully aware that values are imbedded in every story we tell. The way characters interact, the way I might describe someone’s appearance, or how I depict a dinner scene. I’m proud of Jigsaw’s friendship with Mila, the respect and caring they show for each other.

You know what TV show I really came to admire? This is almost embarrassing, and might even surprise you . . .

. . . but, yep, Full House. I know, I know. How uncool is that? But the more I saw it, the more comfortable I became with allowing my children to watch it. Those characters were genuinely decent. They were a family — Jesse and Joey, D.J., Stephanie, Danny and Michelle — all doing the best they could, struggling with everyday problems: Joey has to change his first diaper . . . Stephanie is afraid of going to kindergarten . . . D.J. struggles with music lessons . . . and a frozen turkey threatens to ruin Thanksgiving! A little bland? Um, yes. But also realistic and reassuring for young kids. It’s not easy to pull that off, week after a week, in a culture that celebrates all things “edgy.” Fortunately, there are many, many great children’s books that are age-appropriate. There’s no end to the good things available to you and your family — and to me and mine.

As for being down in Newport News, I don’t have anything planned. Since I live outside of Albany, New York, a trip like that would require the coordinated efforts of a school district, where I would have the opportunity to visit schools for 3-4 consecutive days. There’s travel, hotel arrangements, basic economics to consider. That said, it’s been done before. I’m always happy to discuss the possibilities with any school that shows interest.

Have a great summer — and thanks again for bringing my books into your home, and sharing them with your children. I consider it an honor and a responsibility.

My best to Isaiah, Luke, and Noah!

JP

ADDENDUM: I just discovered that author Tony Abbott, a fine writer and a deep thinker and a friend, took on this topic of “responsibility” over at his blog. Check that out by clicking here.