Tag Archive for Ellen Miles

This Week’s Greatest Things (yes, plural!) Ever

You know those annoying, pestering people who have to share everything? Every great experience they ever had, they want you to have. They are constantly pressing books into your hands, making you stop to look at some stupid lake, insisting that you try a specific dish at a new restaurant, or listen to a song rightthisverysecond, or keep hounding you about a movie you absolutely have to see.

Confession: I’m one of those people. So here’s a round-up of some of the things I needed to share.

* My oldest boy, Nick, age 16, is a huge fan of The Office. We watched the wedding episode together last week. In it, Dwight wears his Three Wolf Moon T-shirt.

The shirt has become a cultural phenomenon, so as a surprise I bought it for Nick. And for a brief few moments, I became the coolest dad on the block (it’s a short block). As I type this, the shirt is currently #2 in clothing sales on Amazon, with 1,508 mostly hysterical reviews.

* At Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside, I sat next to author Charise Mericle Harper. She writes the Grace books. I got a really good feeling about her; she seemed real, not the least bit phony. I think we both have eight-year-old daughters. I’m charmed by her website (added to my blog roll), the creativity and humor. Her blend of hand-lettered text and illustration reminds me of Lynda Barry — and that’s a huge compliment. Anyway: Please read this about a bookstore signing gone bad, then good! It’s freakingfantastic.

* Last night, members of Monty Python celebrated their 40th anniversary. Have you ever asked yourself: Self, what are the 20 Greatest Monty Python skits ever filmed? Here’s a contender:

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* I recently discovered the joys of Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Inky Girl blog (aptly subtitled: “Daily Diversions for Writers”). For your convenience and mine, I’ve posted the link under “Random Pleasures” on my blog roll. Debbie does many things well, but one of my favorite features is her “Comics for Writers” series.

* It takes a certain kind of typography nut/cheese freak to enjoy this site. Link sent to me by my old pal, Ellen Miles.

* Imagine that you lived in a movie. Who would be the most fearsome movie teacher of all? This site proposes 13 strong candidates. Can you think of any others?

* Lastly, I’m very excited because I just bought two tickets to see one of my all-time musical heroes, the great Ray Davies, “rock’s most literate songwriter.” I’ve never sat down to try to figure out  my list of Top 100 Songs of All-Time, and I probably shouldn’t, but I have to believe this tune would be near the top:

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A couple of other easy picks would be “To Live Is To Fly” by Townes Van Zant, “Girl from the North Country” by Bob Dylan (which Liam Clancy performs beautifully, here — with such depth of emotion, regret, loss: I need you to hear it and love it rightthisverysecond ) . . . and, hey, wait a minute! You can’t trick me into this impossible task. My brain would explode.

My Mitzy Kafka Story

In my interview with Ellen Miles, we traded a few war stories from the trenches, odd jobs we’ve done over the years as “writers for hire.” I mentioned a pen name I twice used, Mitzy Kafka. Someone remarked on it in the comments section, so I felt old Mitzy deserved her moment in the screenglow of the blogosphere.

First, that name come from a variety of sources. One, I remembered the old picture book, Tell Me a Mitzi by Lore Segal, a title that always struck me as unaccountably funny. As for Kafka, I was and remain a fan of his work, and somehow the surreal oddness of Franz Kafka’s stories connected in my mind to the surreal oddness of my assignment: To write a picture book featuring the Norfin Trolls. Thus, Mitzy Kafka climbed from her chrysalis, fluttered her soggy wings, and emerged to enjoy a brief but resplendent existence.

I was given a catalog produced by The Troll Company and told to get cracking. The catalog included, of course, lots of pictures of trolls in various outfits. The golfer, the tourist, the farmer, the pirate, the wizard, etc.

My job was to make up a story. After that, a team of photographers — the talented duo of Mary and Joe Van Blerck — would pose the dolls, build artistic sets, and photograph the scenes for the book. It’s pretty amazing what they accomplished, actually. Quite skilled. Never met ’em.

The first book was Too Many Trolls. The main challenge was to come up with an idea that allowed for lots and lots of cute trolls. I remembered the classic Marx Brothers “stateroom” scene (considered by some as the funniest sequence ever filmed) from the movie, A Night at the Opera, where everyone crowds into a small room with hilarious results.

That was it! So I told the story of Hanna, who was visiting Aunt Inger and Uncle Hans (I lifted these names directly from the catalog). Remembering my lessons from the Whole Language pedagogy, I added a recurring phrase, “Shhh, baby is sleeping,” and was on my way.

One by one, groups of visitors appear to threaten the quiet: one golfer (his ball sails through an open window), two neighbors whose TV is broken, three peppy cheerleaders, and so on, until ten plane crash survivors (!) show up (cheerful, but in need of a phone) and Hanna has had enough. “Sixty Norfin Trolls! There are too many trolls in this house! I’m sorry, but everybody has to leave. Baby needs peace and quiet!”

They all depart, loudly, and peace is at last restored. Baby has managed to sleep through the trollish tumult. But on the last page, you guessed it, baby cries, “Goo-goo-goo-GAHHH!”

A classic work of literature, long out of print.

I share that story because, hey, it was a good book for what it was. I’ve read far worse in hardcover. So I cashed my check and could still look at myself in the mirror. Best of all, no trolls were harmed during the making of the book, despite the plane crash. I guess when Ellen and I joked about our past work, I needed to make the point that we were professional, we did our best, plied our craft, and the end results — to the extent that we had any control over things — left us restlessly satisfied, if unfulfilled.

I feel like some people view “the writer’s life” as some sort of edifying, ethereal experience — as if we were special people, uniquely gifted — and I’m here to say that for much of my (cough, cough) career, I’ve been like a carpenter trying to earn a living. Too Many Trolls, and jobs like it, helped pay the mortgage. And in the meantime, you keep hammering away. This past year I had two hardcover books named by the New York Public Library in its 2008 list, “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.” A huge honor.

Mitzy Kafka would have been proud.

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.

Golden Doodle Follow-Up

If you noticed the comments section under my post about My Dog Daisy, you know that I heard from my friend, Ellen Miles, who writes “The Puppy Place” series.

Here’s the cover for Noodle, the book that features a Golden Doodle pup. Ellen does such a nice job with this series. The stories are sweet and pure, perfect for young readers who love dogs. By the way, breeders have also successfully mixed Poodles with Labs, and more humorously, Cocker Spaniels, called Spoodles or Cockapoos.

I know my Maggie, a well-read second-grader, will love this book!

Ellen wrote to me:

I had a great time writing Noodle because I set it in winter (my favorite season), at the beautiful little lake near where I live. There’s a little action in it, and a little suspense. Lizzie and her family are having a winter picnic at the lake when Lizzie spots a little puppy that has fallen through the ice. How will she help rescue him? And how will she figure out who his owners are? – or, does she even really want to? Lizzie falls hard for this cute, funny little pup.

New Website: Ellen Miles

Everybody, move over. My friend, Ellen Miles, the author of “The Puppy Place” series and “Taylor-Made Tales,” has just joined the blogosphere. Her new site is brilliant — fresh, alive, and very kid-friendly (just like Ellen!). Please take a moment to check it out. Ellen is especially interested in hearing from her readers. Her site even has games!

My second-grade daughter, Maggie, has read and enjoyed many of Ellen’s books. As she should, because Ellen does a remarkable job. If you know a dog-lover, be sure to check out Ellen’s “Puppy Place” books.

I met Ellen long ago, in 1985 I think, when we both worked at Scholastic. I was a junior copywriter working on the SeeSaw Book Club, living in Brooklyn and making $12,500 a year, while Ellen was an editorial assistant working under Jean Feiwel. We’ve been friends ever since, quietly and not-so-quietly rooting for each other from the sidelines. Ellen is a great woman, awesomely cool, and a talented writer who has dedicated her adult life to children’s books. She’s already accomplished great things, and I’m certain that the best is yet to come.