Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

So many cool friends. Here’s two:

My pal David Holt just put up his new web page and it’s like Disney World for fans of traditional music – you can spend an hour there, easily. (Actually, not like Disney World – much cheaper and more real.) One of the best parts is David’s documentation of his mentors – a blurb on a score of people who have influenced him – from Bessie Jones to Doc Watson and to a bunch of people I didn’t know but wish I did. David’s a great photographer, too, and the photos of these folks are as good as everything else. Check it out.

And Pete Reptile (aka Albert Bitterman) of the Reading Reptile bookstore in Kansas City, MO has a GREAT new book out called Fortune Cookies, illustrated by Chris Raschka.

You can look at it on online, but you can’t know how cool it is until you get to open up the fortune cookies inside – it’s like Pat the Bunny with a narrative line. Okay, better art, better story, but you know what I mean – tactile. Definitely not for e-books – you have to hold it. He doesn’t need my help – it’s out two weeks and already in the third printing, but it’s going to be around for awhile.

It all makes me wonder what I’ve been doing lately…


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About ten years ago, I gave a talk to a group of teachers about the connection between home and school. I had been hired to tell stories, but instead wrote a series of letters back and forth between a mom and the teachers her kid meets along the way. It was an imagining of how teachers and parents might communicate, based on my own experiences as a parent and my work in schools. Over the years, I’ve read it in various workshops and people have always liked it.

Still, that was all I did with it. It’s my tendency to finish one project and just move on.

This past summer, Debbie (wife, president of our huge corporation(?), and now publisher) decided it needed to be a book and that we would do it ourselves. We sent it out to a variety of people – writers, educators, parents – for review and made some changes. Our longtime designer, Alison Tolman-Rogers, helped with the design of the book. I drew a rough of the cover illustration and she did the final artwork and design. We got some quotes from people we thought would like it, including George Wood, a first-rate principal and educator, and Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy”, who worked with me years ago at NPR. Everyone liked it.

After a lot of research, we decided to publish initially with the self-publishing branch of Amazon. Debbie worked with them very closely, sending proofs back several times to make sure they got it right. Since then, we’ve found a printer that does a beautiful job at a better price, so we have our own copies from that printer, and Amazon sends out their copies if someone orders it from them. (more about, um, Amazon in another blog).

So now it’s out, and it feels like we’ve touched a nerve. It’s a small, simple book, and can be read in one sitting. There is an underlying philosophy, but it’s the story of the mom and the kid and the teachers that reaches people. We’re getting orders from principals who are buying it for their entire staffs, and I’ve been asked to speak at workshops and conferences about the book and how the relationship between home and school can be strengthened. Parents are buying it as Christmas presents for their kid’s teachers. I got an e-mail from a teacher friend who said before she wrote a note to the parent of a student in her class, she thought about the book and how to best approach the problem she faced.

I am not an expert on teacher-parent relationships, but instead, someone who has given thought to it and tried to find a way to talk about it. I seemed to have found a way for everyone to listen and talk to each other. My expertise, if I have one, is in imagining how things might be, and then getting people to tell stories. As I say in the book, it’s the decision to keep communicating that is the most important thing.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long” – it may take a long time for something to bear fruit. Some small thing I did a number of years ago has taken years to bear fruit, and I never would have dreamed it could still be alive.

And then, I should add, you can order it here.

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A. Bitterman - children's literature curmudgeon

My friend Pete Cowdin runs one of the best children’s book stores in the country, the Reading Reptile, in Kansas City. He’s smart and funny, and obviously a little weird, since he’s a big enough fool to run an independent bookstore (and for children no less) in these days of the uncertainty of marketing the printed word. I walk in that store and it’s like a liberated zone – things slightly askew, more like his family’s living room (which is very askew) than a business. Pete’s my go-to guy about good books for kids – he was onto Harry Potter before Scholastic picked it up, knew Lemony Snicket was going to be a big hit, and suggested Rick Riordan’s series to me years ago, long before anyone thought about making a movie about Percy Jackson.

Pete’s alter ego is a curmedgeon named A. Bitterman, and he looks at the world with a jaded eye. I recently got a piece from Pete (or Mr. Bitterman? Hard to tell sometimes…) about the future of bookstores and I asked him if I could put it up here. Long for a blog, but worth the read.

If you like it, or think about this stuff (I do), then there’s an interesting article in the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein, who started the Library of America series, on the future of books, Publishing: The Revolutionary Future.

DIGITAL BURN: the Remaking of the Independent Bookseller

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J.D. Salinger, YA Novelist

Through an inexplicable set of circumstances, this letter has fallen into my hands, and I think it only fair to share it with my friends.

February 6, 2010

Mr. Jerome D. Salinger
New York, NY

Dear Mr. Salinger,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, Catcher in the Rye, for consideration. We receive thousands of submissions, and apologize that it took fifty years to reach this point in our deliberations.

We love your writing, and think you show great promise. After a careful reading, our twenty-two year old intern has commented and we agree with her observations.

Perhaps you committed an oversight  in submitting your manuscript to the adult fiction department of Random Grouse. This is, quite clearly, a young adult (YA) novel, and should be considered by Random Grouse’s YA division, not the adult division. There is a current backlog there of seven years, but we think they are in a much better position to market your book. There is nothing to be ashamed of in having written a YA novel – the market is a good one, and we think that a book like yours will find a place on the shelves of many middle school libraries, and even a few high school collections. Many YA novelists have gone on to successful careers in the world of adult fiction, when they move on to a more mature subject. You will agree a pimply, callow high school boy is not the stuff that holds adult readers.

So, while we have to pass on your manuscript, we have forwarded your book to Delilah Scrum, a new editor (now a senior at Sarah Lawrence! Majoring in Communication!), at the YA division, and we certainly hope you hear from her.

With that said, I might note that we have several suggestions that might aid in the marketing of your book. Titles usually are chosen further down the line in the publishing process, but all of us believe that “Catcher in the Rye” is a rather obscure reference to a forgotten folk song; it will be hard to drum up excitement in the market. We suggest, “Don’t Be a Phony, Holden Caufield” as a possible replacement. It has the kind of snap young readers like.

Even though it is a YA novel, we think it might have a little more edge, too. Don’t forget, we’re competing with the new media! Underage drinking is one thing, but perhaps an estranged parent comes to him for help after some drug deal has gone awry  – that might add some interest! Does Holden have a distant cousin, a recent refugee from a war-torn country, engaged in the arms trade, that might show up pregnant on his doorstep?

And finally, we’re wondering if you have ever considered adding a vampire as a character. They’re hot right now!

Once again, we think you have a bright future as a writer for young adults. It is the one part of the market that seems to be expanding, and perhaps you should set your sights there.

Like, really.


Flora Lipid
Senior Associate Assistant Editorial Consultant
Random Grouse Publishers

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In Seattle and headed to Alaska, but a few thoughts before a more, um, considered post tomorrow or the next day.

Hyperbole Watch –
Okay I’m guilty of exaggerating in my last post – live performance isn’t dying. (Great comments from Ezra Idlett and Tim Erenata) But it’s definitely different.

I keep thinking of Dylan singing “Something’s happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

I’m Mr. Jones. You are too, and if you think you ain’t, you’re wrong. Live performance is transmuting , and it seems it will serve a different function – just as recorded music serves a different function than it did ten years ago. And if it takes place in living rooms or smaller venues, it will still go on – artists have to make art – a congenital problem that can not be corrected – and live performance is one way they do it.

Book Watch
Boy, I am Eric Booth’s book, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible (despite the very clunky title). Booth points out so many things that all artists should consider – underlying all of it is the idea that artists teaching their craft makes them better artists. One of his most compelling points for me is the notion that artists (musician are his major focus) need to give students experience in all aspects of the art – creating, performing, being an audience, and criticism. When someone has the experience of creating art, they’re going to understand an artist’s work more deeply. (And more likely to attend art events) Both performing and being an audience member are about being present in the moment and opening one’s self to life, and criticism means being able to put art in the context of other work – that deepens understanding too. Booth’s writing makes me rethink how I approach my work as a performer and teacher. More on that in another post.

Recording watch

And finally, last Saturday I had a sold out crowd in Indianapolis where I recorded my story of my love of Motown – “Build Me Up Buttercup”. I took a quick listen and I think I got it this time. Great audience singing! Pshew! Hopefully we’ll get it out this spring.


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Sometime in the early Nineties, I started to write a book about a kid and a bicycle. At the beginning, I had only a vague idea of what the story was, and an even vaguer idea of how to write a book. I got rid of the parents in the early chapters (first rule in children’s literature – get rid of the parents so the children can become the lead actors in their own lives). The mother died in a horrible accident involving an umbrella, a can opener, and an English muffin; the father disappeared in a hot air balloon. I inserted some mean people (Aunt Inga, who makes our hero sleep in the basement of her home). Following my mentors’ leads (Dickens and Dahl) I gave people compound names that reflected their personalities (Dickens had Thomas Gradgrind, I had Anthony Gritbun).

The book had promise. I sent it out and it got rejected. People said they did like it but not enough to publish it. (Hmm, maybe just being nice…) I rewrote it again. And again. I let it sit, neglected, for three or four years. I picked it up again and had friends read it and be as brutal as they could in their comments. I threw out characters, created new ones, rewrote the biographies and back stories of major characters. A couple of publishers nibbled.

Then, success, of a sort. Tim Wadham at the Maricopa County Library in Phoenix decided to publish it as a serial novel online. Simultaneously, Peachtree Publishers took it on.

The editors at Peachtree challenged every weak link in the plot. I had to rewrite again and again. Another year of rewrites. We changed the title from “Flyboy” to “The Amazing Flight of Darius Frobisher.”

Darius came out in 2006 – over ten years after I wrote the first draft. Fame and fortune? Not quite. Relief and a sense of accomplishment. Yes, those things.

It’s had a pretty good life. At shows, I regularly run into kids who say, “This is the best book I ever read.” Children are given to hyperbole, but hey, it works for me. A number of teachers have told me it’s their favorite read-aloud book to their classes.

This fall, two new milestones – it’s out in paperback, and it’s printed in Japanese. I got the Japanese edition in the mail the other day. It is drop dead beautiful. Who knew my name could be written in kanji? The text is beautiful, it’s a wonderful size, and it has a ribbon book marker in the spine. I wonder what “Anthony Gritbun” and “Colonel Crapper” sound like in Japanese.

Darius in Japanese!

Darius in Japanese!

And as far as a paperback edition, one of my joys is seeing a kid scrape together enough dollar bills and quarters to buy a book on their own. Paperbacks make it more possible.

I am not an incredibly patient person. I write something and I want it to be in a book or on a recording the next day. And I’m not as brilliant as I’d wish. It takes me a long time to figure things out. I guess if I were smarter, and more diligent, things would happen faster and I wouldn’t have to be patient. But my experience with art (and life) is that things take a very long time to come to fruition, they sometimes ,can’t be hurried and they usually don’t look like what you thought they were going to look like when you started.

But Darius is alive and kicking. One of the questions I get regularly from teachers and parents and children about the book is, “What happened to Darius? Where is his father? When is the next book coming out?” I’ve put all those things off. But after all these years, Darius is reappearing regularly in my thoughts, and I think I know what happens to him.

I just hope it doesn’t take another ten years.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long”. I take that to mean it lasts, but it takes a long time to make it. You just hope that the art you’re making gets a chance to live.

Oh, and by the way, I’d love it if you’d read the book. You don’t have to get the Japanese edition.

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I wrote my book, Night of the Spadefoot Toads, after being introduced to a local vernal pool by my friend Carol Entin. Vernal pools are ephemeral – there in the spring, and dried up and gone by the time the hot days of summer arrive. The very small vernal pool near my house is home to fairy shrimp (one inch long!) the Eastern spadefoot toad (endangered in our area) and also, probably, to wood frogs, though I haven’t found any there yet. Vernal pools are the only place these species can breed. Because of their size and their seeming unimportance, they are often destroyed by human’s development of land.

No vernal pools? No wood frogs, no fairy shrimp, no blue spotted salamanders, no spadefoots.

Vernal pools are kid-sized – I’ve found that when I talk about them, kids immediately know one in their area. In this way, children are much more aware of the geography of the land around their homes than most adults.

The small vernal pool near my home

The small vernal pool near my home

I was out at the pool this morning to see if there were tadpoles there, and sure enough, found masses of them – spadefoots, I think .

A spadefoot tadpole

A spadefoot tadpole from a vernal pool

I’ll talk more about the spadefoots another time, but wanted to put up this video about the absolutely amazing wood frog. Wood frogs are the first frogs we hear in the spring in the Northeast. They don’t hibernate in the winter, they just plain freeze up and stop breathing – no heart beat – nothing!

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