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Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Heroes and Geniuses

March is National Women’s History Month. So I thought since we’re also celebrating heroes at Stone Arch Books this month, I’d take this opportunity to talk a little bit about one of my heroes.

These days, it’s not hard to find a female children’s book editor. There are a few major metropolises where you can’t turn around without looking at one. But just a few decades ago, there weren’t many women editors in the business, and children’s books as a separate industry didn’t even exist. The people who first decided to focus on books specifically written for children have shaped the industry—and more personally, my career. And many of them were women.

One of the most famous is Ursula Nordstrom. An editor at Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, her list of authors and illustrators reads like a “Best-of-Children’s-Lit” list. When I started my first internship in book publishing, the editor who mentored me recommended the book Dear Genius, Leonard Marcus’s collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s editorial letters. I was especially touched by (and felt so much in common with her because of) the first letter in the collection: a frantic letter written to Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1937, apologizing for a “stupid mistake” that had appeared in a dummy of On the Banks of Plum Creek.

At the time I first discovered Ursula Nordstrom, I was a college senior commuting to New York City for my internship. On the train to and from Manhattan, I’d read Ursula’s letters to her authors (people like Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, E. B. White) and dream of the day I too would be a children’s book editor. So, in this month when we’re thinking about women and heroes, I’m thinking a lot about Ursula Nordstrom, grateful that she—and so many other women—paved the way for someone like me to achieve her childhood dream of reading books for kids all day long.

Beth Brezenoff
Senior Editor, SAB

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


If you haven’t heard already, Stone Arch Books recently sponsored a contest where students in grades 3 – 6 wrote an entry about someone they felt was a hero at their school. The contest ran thru February 28. Every morning as my computer powered up, I found myself excited to see if there were any entries. Day after day, I checked the mailbox and nothing was there. I wondered to myself “Was this a good contest? Would kids enter?” Then after 13 days of checking that empty mailbox, I received the first entry! It was from a seven-year-old named Emma and it was so sweet. “My Hero. My hero is Ms. Sortino because she will help us everyday. Her powers are: Mind reading, eyes in back of her head, knowing everybody's names in the universe, Super running. She has also got a side kick named Mr. Hagen the Asst. Principal. His power are: Flying, Super Strong, and X-ray vision.”

After that day, the entries came flooding in. I was amazed at how well kids could articulate the “super powers” of their everyday heroes. Most entries were written about teachers (especially gym teachers), librarians, principals, and custodians. But there were others written about the bravery of a fellow student battling leukemia, a best friend that stands up for herself and doesn’t succumb to peer pressure, a reading teacher that has helped a student progress from level M to level R, and a seeing-eye dog named Licorice that helps a student find her way. I wish I could share all of them with you. As it came time to pick the contest winner, I pored through the entries over and over again. How were we going to choose? We narrowed it down to 50, then to 15, then to 5 and then finally to our winner, Hakeem. Hakeem is a special ed student at the Nathanael Greene School in New York. He wrote an entry about his teacher Mr. Brown.

“My teacher Mr.Brown is visually impaired. That not what makes him a hero. It is because he takes public transportation everyday with Stanley his dog to school. That is why he is a true everyday superhero. In our class we had a project of being blindfolded and trying to find our way around the class it was hard for me. In our school it is hard. Being in special education, we learn to recognize our disabilities. Mr. Brown don't what to take access-a-ride to work being driven from his house to work. I feel sad he can't see the beautiful things around. That bothers me. To ride the train to East NY in Brooklyn is chaotic and not the safest even for people who do not have a disability. The travelling in the snow and ice with Stanley make him even more courageous. Mr. Brown is my pick for our school superhero. He could serve as a superhero for all.”

Thanks to Hakeem for sharing this with us and to all of the kids who recognized the heroes in their lives. (Who's the hero at your school? Share in the comments.)

Shannon Zigmund
Marketing Manager, Fiction
Capstone Publishers

Monday, March 9, 2009

Metal Grandmas, Super Hamsters, and Books

At eight years old, I decided that my pet hamster was a superhero. Peanut was able to escape from her cage by climbing the bars, paw over paw, like a furry little gymnast. It was an impressive feat in the eyes of a child, and superheroes need to be impressive.

Superheroes were on my mind in fourth grade, too. After my grandma’s double hip-replacement surgery, I thought she, like Wolverine, was a superhero with a metal skeleton. And I was right. My grandmother was a superhero — she overcame hardships with poise and a sense of humor. (My grandmother, metal hips and all, is still overcoming obstacles at the age of 92! How’s that for superhero-like resilience?)

The Man of Steel meets the man with a steel skeleton!

Today, I see my parents as superheroes. They raised three high-energy boys with grace and love while working 50-60 hours a week. Superheroes support and protect us, just like our role models do.

Are books superheroes too? I think so. Books whisk us away to faraway places to meet amazing people. They help us deal with hardships. They form young minds, giving us a wealth of imagination to draw from. At Stone Arch Books, we get it — books are superheroes, and we treat them as such.

Today’s kids find heroes in their lives too. Stay tuned: soon we’ll announce the winner of our Find a Hero contest!

Sean Tulien
Associate Editor

Monday, March 2, 2009

Giving Birth to Dragons

Where do dragons come from? Easy. From eggs. But where do ideas come from? Not so easy.
Last year, I wrote a series for Stone Arch called The Library of Doom, a dark, fantastical, monster-filled set where the hero is called The Librarian. The books were well-received, and I was encouraged to write another series for the same reader: a kid who struggled with vocabulary, most likely a boy, who was into pop culture, but was also probably embarrassed by not reading at-level.

So, I first thought about a sci-fi setting: two boys in the future who crash-land on an uncharted, unexplored, gigantic planet. This would give the boys lots of room to explore and encounter all kinds of aliens and adventure. I even wrote a few manuscripts along these lines, but they just sort of lay there on the page. Flat. There was no spark. I realized that a planet, no matter how huge, was still basically one setting. Just like the Library of Doom. Authors like to give themselves challenges, try out new tricks, and I wanted this series to be different from the Library: lots of heroes, lots of locations.

And that’s when it gets harder to explain. As I pictured that gigantic planet, I saw the image for the TV series Heroes, which is a view of the Earth from outer space. Heroes? Hmmm. What about a series where kids (rather than adults) all over the world discover that they are different from ordinary human beings? They don’t possess traditional super powers, they possess . . . what? And from some forgotten, rarely visited fissure of my brain, another image popped up: dragons. I’ve loved dragons ever since elementary school – the dragon Smaug from Tolkien’s The Hobbit; the legend of St. George; and, of course, the monstrous serpents of Greek mythology like the one killed by Apollo, or the Hydra with seven heads, or those terrible papier-mache creatures from the 60s sword-and-sandals flick The Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules (I was a mythology nut as a kid. In 5th grade, I even built an altar to Apollo!).

Somehow, both of those images collided and gave me the idea for Dragonblood. Six books came out last year, and I’m writing six more. And as I work on these new ones, something else has joined the mix. I can see how the young heroes coming to terms with their bizarre genetic gift of dragon blood (and wings and scales and talons), is not all that different from kids coming to terms with adolescence, becoming human, growing up. So these three ideas, brooding quietly in their neuron nest, decided to hatch and come twisting like a lizard’s tail from the corners of imagination and past history to become a book.

So where do ideas come from? Maybe the answer is eggs.

Michael Dahl
Editorial Director