Q & A

Questions Readers Ask

Why do you write for children?

I was a voracious reader as a child and still remember the constant wonder and magic of discovering new worlds, new books and new authors. I decided then I would be a writer, and write the kinds of books I loved reading.

Where do you get your ideas?

I think ideas are like used bottles and cans. You don’t notice them unless you’re looking for them, but if you are looking for them, you’ll see them everywhere. Many ideas go into each book, and I encounter them in things I see, people I meet, books I read, and even watching TV.

Which of your books is your favorite?

I’d like to say that I love them all the same, like a father speaks of his children, but the truth is that Mamba Point has a special place in my heart because it is quasi-autobiographical and helped reconnect me to a part of my past and a group of people that were important to me.

Is anyone in your books based on a real person?

I’ve never intentionally created a human character that was based on a real person, but there are bits and pieces of real people in all of my books.

There is one character in Mudville that’s taken completely from real life, though, and that’s Yogi. Anyone who knew my cat Maxx will recognize him right away. Maxx passed away while I was writing the book, so I gave him a minor but important part in my novel.

I also based the character and literary works of Maxwell Bailey (in The Tanglewood Terror) loosely on the real author H.P. Lovecraft.

Will there be a sequel to Mudville? Will there be any more Topps League books?

The answer to both questions is “no,” but I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on all of those books, so I’ll always write about baseball. It’s a great game with limitless possibilities for storytellers.

If you’re looking for more great middle-grade books about baseball I’d recommend Dan Gutman, Josh Berk, and John H. Ritter.

Who are your favorite writers?

I have a lot of favorite writers, and too many to list them all, but I guess my biggest influences are the ones I loved as a kid. These are three of my favorite writers when I was 10-12 years old. They wrote the kinds of books that made me sure I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

Beverly Cleary was the indisputable queen of middle-grade books when I was a kid, and as an adult I’ve returned to these books with new appreciation for her ability to craft page-turning books about everyday kid experiences. I am especially fond of the Ramona series, which I wrote a series of posts about.

Daniel Pinkwater writes strange but lovely books about giant chickens, fat guys from space, and reptilian jazz combo bands. My favorites are Lizard Music, and Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars.

Betsy Byars has written dozens of books. Some are sad and some are funny, but I think all are memorable. A couple of my favorites are The Cartoonist and The Midnight Fox.

Do you have any pets?

My wife and I love animals. Right now we have five cats. If we had our way, we’d have cats, dogs, rabbits, hedgehogs, and hamsters… and a family of otters living in the back yard.

Did you ever play baseball?

The only baseball I ever played was in vacant lots and empty parking lots, and I haven’t done that in 25 years. The vacant lot where I played the most is in Grand Forks, North Dakota just off Washington Avenue. A home run was any ball hit past the railroad tracks. I never hit one. About the only way I ever got on base was by chopping the ball. It’s easy to do on a hard surface, like there was in that lot. Just whack the ball into the ground and give it a good bounce.

I found out later that Roger Maris played baseball on the same vacant lot thirty years or so before I did. I bet he hit a few past the tracks!

Have you ever seen a black mamba in real life?

I saw two black mambas when I lived in Africa. One was from a safe distance, and I mainly remember how excited and upset everyone was by it. A gardener butchered it right in front of us, in a scene similar to one in the first chapter of Mamba Point. The second one went right by me, even passing over the foot of a friend of mine. It happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to be frightened. Years later a friend told me, “you were looking at that thing with such awe, I thought you were going to pick it up!” Maybe there is more Linus Tuttle in me than I thought.

The Millennium Falcon doesn’t have wings.

That’s not really a question, but the answer is here.

Questions Writers Ask

What advice to you have for people who want to get published.

See this post.

What specific advice do you have about getting a children’s book published?

One thing I can’t emphasize enough is that children’s books are not a lighter, easier occupation than writing books for adults. You have to immerse yourself in this world: read a lot of current and classic children’s books, get to know other children’s book authors, and hone your craft.

I highly recommend joining the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or at least joining their free online discussion board. One key reason for joining either of these communities is that you can participate in a critique group—getting feedback on your own work is important, and so is learning to read with a critical eye. I have not used Critique Circle, an online critique community, but have heard it’s good.

Some terrific blogs that you should follow are Editorial AnonymousUpstart Crow Literary AgencyNathan BransfordJennifer Laughran and Kidlit.com. All of those are run by agents and editors who field questions from readers about the workings of the industry. (Note: a couple of those blogs are now inactive, but the past content is still available and valuable).

Do you have an agent?

I do have an agent, and she welcomes submissions if they fit her needs. Find out more here or here, and pay close attention to her interests and submission guidelines.

Are you a full time writer?

I am not, and know few authors who make a living at what they do, though some bolster their writing income by doing a lot of school visits, going to writer’s conferences, etc. Because of the economic realities of writing and my disinclination to become George Clooney’s character in Up In the Air, I am not likely to ever become a full time writer… however, I’m lucky enough to have a day job at one of the literary nexus of the Twin Cities.

How do you write with a day job and a family?

Please see this blog post.

Can you read part of my manuscript or coach me through a submission letter?

Please see the critique services provided by The Loft Literary Center where I work. I specialize in chapter books as a manuscript reviewer, but you will find a range of former editors and experienced writers to give you feedback on anything from a picture book to young adult manuscript.

Can you put in a good word with your agent or editor?

Nope. Wouldn’t do much good anyway. Despite popular belief this business is about manuscripts, not about connections or secret handshakes.

Can you express all of your hard-learned lessons about writing in a single proverb?

Success is the growth of a tree, and not the flight of a goose.

As a question of your own