One on one


Last weekend, I spent Saturday at the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus Conference. Do I even need to tell you it was AMAZING?

Of course it was. Not just did I get a wonderful hour with my mentor (Annie Berger of Sourcebooks), but a group discussion with nine other editors and authors: the Five-on-Five. And a panel discussion about the author-agent relationship, a success story speech by Sheela Chari, and…

A fantastic keynote by Ellen Oh of We Need Diverse Books! #WNDB is not just a hashtag, it’s a concrete force for good in the publishing world. Small successes lead to BIG changes.

And lunch. Let’s not forget lunch. Especially because I was lucky enough to sit next to Wendy Mass. (Excuse me while I fangirl.)

Silly me, I was so busy taking it all in and meeting new writing friends that I didn’t take any pictures. Not one. Sorry.

But if you’re interested, check out #RUCCL16 on Twitter and Facebook. I know more highly technologically evolved folks were snapping away.

I was surprised – though I shouldn’t have been – to meet folks from all over. Yes, most of us were from the NY/NJ area, but nowhere near all. And did you know that RUCCL members generously offer two scholarships each year in honor of Paula Danziger and Dorothy Markinko?

I wish this could be a “meatier” review, but the truth is, most of what I learned was personal, specific to my work, especially this most recent draft and query letter. (Thus the name One-on-One.)

Thank you to all the council members for volunteering their time and efforts to ensure a wonderful and rich opportunity for writers.

Writing friends, please, please, please do your writing self a favor and apply for next year’s conference. I just hope I’ll be accepted again so I can see you there.

Hmm, maybe I’ll be even luckier and get to become a mentor someday.



Words are the tools

Today at Yom Kippur services, the rabbi spoke about words.

“Words are the tools we use to create our world,” she said.*

As a writer, this struck home. Words are my everyday tools, and I can spend long minutes typing and deleting and looking up synonyms in a thesaurus, all to try and find the precise word that means what I want to say.

During the rest of the service as we prayed and meditated in atonement for our sins of the past year, it occurred to me that words are also our weapons. My tongue can be sharp, and without thinking, sometimes I cut those closest to me with it. For that, I atone and will do better in the coming year.

Too often we hurt people we do not and never will know with our words. It is so easy to say harsh, cruel, or demeaning things – particularly when we hide behind the screen of our computers or our phones. Especially this year, words are being used as weapons every day, knowingly and with hurtful intent.

“You don’t need to kill with a sword, the tongue can do equally a better job and police will not knock on your door” 
― Bangambiki HabyarimanaThe Great Pearl of Wisdom

The police may not knock on our doors, but that doesn’t make the injury any less.

Let our words be tools.

May you & yours be inscribed for good this year!


*I believe this was a quotation, but sadly, I don’t remember the attribution.

A good book?

One thing I won’t miss from my school library is the perpetual battle over what makes a good book. I do wish I’d had Adam Gidwitz’s recent New Yorker article to hand to parents and administrators, however. Gidwitz’s article is a beautiful examination of what, exactly, makes a children’s book good.

Using R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series as an example, Gidwitz makes the excellent point that selling over 350 million copies – please read that number in a Dr. Evil voice, ok? – just isn’t possible unless children themselves love and adore the books, devouring them like popcorn. He says no marketing push or movie tie-in can give a book those numbers, and he’s right.

I believe him because I’ve watched students descend upon that section of library shelves like a horde of locusts, class after class, year after year.

I’ve also had to convince concerned parents and faculty that reading those books – or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or graphic novels or the Rainbow Fairies or name your child’s favorite popular title – is OKAY.

Sigh. They’re reading, folks! All reading is good reading. (Great reading, now that’s another story.)

The article continues with an examination of the difference between a good book and lit-ra-cha. (Thank you, Laura Amy Schlitz, for that. Loved Splendors and Glooms!)

My personal opinion is that children should be reading. I don’t care if it’s a cereal box. If they’re reading something, it is SO much easier to get them to read other things. While I’m no longer a librarian, that philosophy guides my writing as well.

Like Adam Gidwitz, I just want to write something that some child somewhere will “clutch to their chest and say, ‘I love this book!’ “

Pruning away the deadwood

This past week I attended Kathy Temean’s wonderful writers’ retreat in Avalon, NJ. Held each fall, Kathy rents a house and handles all the logistics for a small group of writers and two agents to give each other feedback.

Between the brilliant sunshine and blue skies (at least at first) and the charming company, it was a writers’ dream. Sociability with other children’s writers, good food and wine, and in-depth discussions of each other’s work – who could ask for more?

I did. After a group critique and one by each agent during my session, I paid for a bonus critique by an agent who arrived for the second session.

It was brutal. Instead of the overview and discussion of larger story issues I’d come to expect, it was a sea of red ink washing over my first 35 pages. Line by line, word by word, the agent went over my work with me.

At first, I found myself upset – and I pride myself on being able to take constructive criticism. (And this was constructive criticism.) The sheer volume, though, was overwhelming at first.

But as we continued, and I began to ask questions of my own, we started to better understand each other. The agent thought my work was good – but could be even better.

As for me, I realized it was just like cutting back your rosebushes.

To get lusher blooms and healthier foliage, you have to prune the roses back ruthlessly. All that’s left is a mass of tough canes covered with sharp thorns.


Until next spring.

Then the roses burst forth with thick glossy green leaves and fat buds basking in the sun that open slowly into glorious blossoms.

So, dear agent, thank you for pruning my writing.

Here’s hoping I won’t have to wait till spring to see the results.


(Conservatory Garden at Central Park, New York City.)

The shape of a book

I just finished reading Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston.

Exit is a short book with a fresh and thought-provoking take on surviving rape. Her heroine Hermione Winters (named for Harry’s friend or possibly out of Greek mythology) is the golden girl, captain of the cheerleading squad, with a popular boyfriend. When Hermione is slipped a roofie on the last night of cheer camp, raped, and left in the lake, her life changes. She’s going to become “that girl.” Or will she?

Hermione’s search for herself while remembering nothing of what happened that night is wrenching and uplifting, in a stout and wry voice that we wish had belonged to us as teens.

Not only was it an excellent read, Johnston’s acknowledgements had a phrase that really made me think.

She thanks her friends and colleagues for helping her turn a “book shaped idea into a book.”

Think about that for a moment – a “book shaped idea.”

When does a story become a book?

Is it when it’s published – with cover art and an ISBN? That would be simplest.

Is it when it’s a complete manuscript, proof-read and copyedited, just waiting to be published? After all, nothing is really going to change at that point.

Is it when a first draft has been critiqued and polished and revised into a submission for agents and editors? A manuscript is more than a story.

Or is it when a vignette or a scene or two have become a full draft,  with a beginning, middle, and end?

I love Johnston’s concept of a book shaped idea. I love thinking of her original thoughts, her story, morphing and changing into the book I held in my hands, allowing me the pleasure of reading it.





What I read this summer

As I wrote way back in June, I’m not headed back to school this year. While I miss seeing my students and setting up displays of new books to share, I don’t miss being on the school schedule. (7:30 AM bus, anyone?)

It was a luxurious summer of settling into my new job and starting to shovel out the slush pile. Which was not only educational, but enjoyable. (Yes, I’m *that* crazy about reading.)

What else did I read? I caught up on some grown-up reading, enjoyed several new mysteries, and of course, treated myself to some kid lit.

  • The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich
  • Girl Parts by John Cusick
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • First and Then by Emma Mills  – Emma’s newest is almost out ! Watch for This Adventure Ends!
  • Falling into Place by Amy Zhang
  • Damage Done by Amanda Panitch
  • Forget-Me-Not Summer by Leila Howland
  • The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris

Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale is waiting on my bedside table for the perfect moment, and Betsy Bird’s Wild Things! has moved from the bookshelf to my bedside, too.

I’m thinking I need to read all of Erdrich’s Birchbark stories and dive into the pile of Candlewick advance copies I was so generously given. I meant to read so much more this summer, but much of my time was spent writing my second novel, which is finished and awaiting critique at Kathy Temean’s Avalon retreat.

Too many books, too little time. I never did get around to pruning my Goodreads to-read list. But that’s a good problem to have.

What did you love reading this summer?

School’s out

School’s out – and not just for the summer. After over twenty years as a librarian in special, public, and school libraries, I’m making a sea change.

I’ve loved being a librarian, most especially in public and school libraries. Nothing beats a child telling you that the book you helped them choose is the Best. Book. Ever! But in the prevailing educational climate, I found myself sailing against the wind and battling the tides too often. Not too mention, I’m not a teacher. Teachers are great! Librarians who are teachers are great!

But I’m not one of them. I’m just a librarian. I should say, I WAS just a librarian.

(Is being a librarian like being Jewish or Catholic? You no longer practice librarianship, but you still are one? And how come you never hear of lapsed Buddhists or Muslims or Baptists, even? Something to think about.)

As of yesterday, I am now … drum roll, please… the Assistant for the Dunham Literary Agency!🙂

I’m looking forward to learning even more about the business side of publishing. The seed was planted a couple summers ago at the NJSCBWI conference. I was chatting with new writing friends, a couple of whom were agented and published, when I mentioned that being an agent seemed  interesting. The new friends agreed, and someone said “You’d be a great agent!” whereupon another new friend said, “I’d be your client!”

I laughed and thanked them – that was quite a compliment coming from a published author – but demurred. I couldn’t do that, I thought. I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have the contacts.

But the seed was planted, and it grew. I kept thinking about it. What does an agent need to know? What people like to read. What makes a good book. Who might publish this book. How to negotiate contracts.

Huh. As a librarian, I know what people like to read. Part of the job is spending much of your time reading, reviews at least. (Nope, you don’t get paid to read all day.)

As a reader and a writer, I know what makes a good book. I’ve been reading since I was three years old, and I average a couple hundred books a year. I’ve only written one book, but I’m working on a second, and I take classes and work on my craft in many ways, from conferences to craft books to my critique group. I also spent much of the past year as an intern for an agency, reading manuscripts for a great kid lit agent. The slush pile is a great education in itself.

Who might publish a book? Well, no, I don’t have very many editorial contacts. But I’m willing to network and work on that. Plus submitting a book for sale to publishing houses is a lot like querying agents for submission. I’ve done that. And I can get better at it , especially with mentoring.

Surprisingly, I also know how to negotiate contracts because of my experience as a librarian. As a special librarian for corporations and government agencies, I managed budgets and vendors – my last budget as a library manager was just over a million dollars for a global consulting firm. Again, I’m willing to apply what skills I have and learn even more from the agents I work for.

So, school is out for me for the foreseeable future. (I won’t say for good. I’ve learned to never say never.) As I adjust to my new job and enjoy summer in the city, Z is for Zampetti will be on hiatus.

I’ll be back once I’ve figured out this new direction and an appropriate Twitter bio. (L is for Lapsed Librarian? Literary Agency Assistant.? Hmmm…)

Happy summer and when it’s time to go back to school – I won’t be. But I will be back here.🙂