Archive for April 2011

Cooking Up A Mother’s Wisdom for Future Generations

April 29, 2011

Cooking was not my mother’s passion, but, among other things, collecting cookbooks was. She had a wall of bookshelves in her kitchen filled with cookbooks. I wondered why, with all these recipes available, we ate the same things over and over again. Two well-worn cookbooks I chose to keep may be the answer. The Settlement Cook Book and Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book show wear and tear from years of use.

The book on the right was a Christmas gift given to my mother from my great-aunt two years before my mom and dad got married. It must have been a subtle hint that my mom needed to find a “way to a man’s heart” by learning how to cook first.

The book on the left had a different story to tell. The first thing I noticed was the Sacred Heart prayer fastened to the binder. I’m guessing that each time my mom opened that cookbook, she prayed that everything would turn out alright. She must have done a decent job because my mom and dad make it through sixty-four years together, and the rest of us are still kicking around.

On the first page of the cookbook, my mom had added a leaflet from the Milwaukee Health Department entitled “Food for Children From 2 to 7.” After reading it, it occurred to me the information provided might be the answer to our childhood obesity problems of today.

The leaflet begins by saying a child must depend on his parents to provide proper foods. Do you hear that Moms and Dads? Then it tells what and how much of the basic foods children need daily – foods like milk, vegetables (raw and cooked), fruit, whole grain cereal and bread, fish, meat, eggs, and lots of water!

Foods not to indulge in, but to eat sparingly include (Surprise! Surprise!) doughnuts, coffee cakes, rich desserts, fried food, sweets, soft drinks, and potato chips.

It also suggests that parents make sure their children get enough fresh air, have regular sleeping and eating times, play outside in the sun, and  guide their children toward acceptable behavior. I’m all for that.

The backside of the leaflet has meal plans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and reminds parents that “regular meals are a part of orderly living which leads to health and good behavior.” It concludes by saying “A child can build a sound body from day to day only if he gets the right food every day.”

I’ll admit some of the suggestions are amusing and out of date, but most are right on target. If today’s parents followed the advice on this leaflet, maybe our children would learn to make better eating choices as they grow, and we could begin to conquer the obesity epidemic that has consumed our society.  

Wisdom comes with age. This age-old leaflet is full of wisdom for families today.

Cooking may not have been my mother’s passion, but she knew what was best for us!


Thoughts on a Road Trip

April 26, 2011

We just got back from Florida after bumping along 1400 miles of roads in a Budget rental truck filled with family furniture and mementoes. We emptied my parents’ house of its contents, and it’s now ready to sell. There were tears as we closed the door for the last time, but I’ve learned a few things along the way.  

Parents don’t have to keep every card, letter, art project, picture, report card, toy, and clothing that belonged to their child. It is difficult enough when your parents pass away, and when the child has to go through all the belongings that have been left behind, it’s an overwhelming task.  

One of the most important things I’ve learned is: THOU SHALT NOT HOARD!

Here are a few other thoughts about Florida and our trip home.

Florida is hot! I will not be moving there anytime soon.

It’s a long drive between Florida and Wisconsin.

Clean restrooms are a luxury.

I’d rather fly than drive the distance.

After ten hours of driving, the sign for the whiskey distillery sounded like a great side trip.

Gas is expensive.

“GPS Madge” got very confused as we tried to avoid major accidents and roadwork.

An old fashioned map is a very handy thing to have.

Indiana is boring.

I’d rather fly than drive the distance.

Our roads are in desperate need of repair.

I’d rather fly than drive the distance.

We are home. The Budget truck is emptied and returned. I’m looking at the stacks of boxes and furniture in our garage – things I brought home from my parents’ house. What was it I said was the most important thing I’ve learned?


I’ve become my parents!!!

On the Road Again

April 12, 2011

What do all of these pictures have in common?

If you guessed moving, you’re partially correct. The time has come to finish emptying out my parents’ house and put it up for sale. An estate sale is in order. There’ll be blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s time to wrap everything up. As soon as that’s done, I’ll be bumping along the highway, carrying bits and pieces from my parents’ house to my house along with a whole load of memories of two wonderful people!

Humor Me, the blog, will take a short vacation. Check back here in two weeks (April 26) for more life, laughter, and literature.

An Interview with Stephen Fraser

April 8, 2011

There are agents and there are agents. Then there’s Stephen Fraser. He’s one super agent. Stephen Fraser is a literary agent with The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. He is a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont and has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature from Simmons College in Boston. He started his career with Highlights for Children and went on to work as an editor at Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins. Stephen represents a wide range of genres in both children’s and adult books. One of his clients is Margi Preus, the Newbery Honor winner of Heart of a Samurai.

Meet the man and the agency.

You’ve been an agent for six years. Can you tell me what makes The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency stand out among others?

Every agency is unique. We have just two agents – well, actually, now three. (We just added a new agent.)  But we are something like a boutique agency. There are agencies which are very much bigger. But small and mighty, we do everything. We have a foreign rights director who is very successful selling in all languages and we have solid contacts in Hollywood.  One unique quality is that we stick with writers throughout their careers and help their careers.

We had our first New York Times bestseller recently and our first Newbery Honor. Last year, we had a PEN award winner. For two years in a row, we had “Flying Start” authors profiled in Publishers Weekly. This is the agency’s tenth year anniversary!

Before becoming an agent, you were in the publishing industry for many years. Did your previous experience help you transition into becoming an agent, and what do you see as your strengths as an agent?

I guess that’s why some people are drawn to me as an agent. I have more of an editorial sensibility than someone whose background is marketing or sales. Also, having worked in all the various editorial areas — a children’s magazine, book clubs, paperbacks, and trade hardcovers – I already knew a lot of the publishers and what they were looking for. I have established some happy relationships with editors over the years. There was one agent I used to deal with as an editor who was so scary that I literally would run the other way when she called. My aim is to NOT be that kind of agent.

How do you go about meeting editors and establishing a good rapport with them?

Because I was in publishing for more than twenty years, I already have a relationship with a lot of fine editors. My job is to learn who the new editors are and to stay in touch with established editors who may move around. All this involves office visits, lunches, attending publishing events, and writers’ conferences. Someone called me “a true gentleman of the business.” This honestly means a lot to me.

Are there certain editors/publishing houses that are eager to see more from you?

Well, that is what one hopes. An agent should cultivate a certain cachet. One hopes that the response sounds something like: “Oh, Steve. He always has good projects.  I like hearing from him.” Of course, I can’t really control this. But the intent is to have projects with both artistic integrity and commercial appeal. And to present them with a certain grace – and also enthusiasm!

What genres do you represent, and do you prefer to see one over another?

I handle all genres: picture books and board books; chapter books; middle grade; young adult; both fiction and nonfiction. I adore picture books, even though they are having a hard time now, so I’ll never say no to a great picture book text. I have to say that I especially love middle grade. What I would like to see more of is chapter books (series).

Many writers are on a quest to find an agent. If you could have the perfect client, what characteristics would that client have?

Having an agent won’t make you a great writer.  It means you are one step closer to getting published. Some people have fine careers without agent at all. But an agent can be a wonderful support to a writer. He/she brings all the composite of years’ experience to bear on a writer’s career goals. And truly, an agent doesn’t care if you’ve been published before or not; it’s all about the writing.

Some writers are so used to selling books on their own, they don’t really relinquish the trust to an agent. And that can be a problem. The only client I had to let go was always saying, “My friends tell me this… my friends say this…” It became clear that this client’s friends were getting more support than I was.  A good client is respectful of my experience and my time.  Remember, an agent isn’t paid for what they do.  The only payment comes with the commission made through a sale or through royalties. So an agent gives of his/her own time, passion, energy, etc. Writers need to be appreciative.

What are some of your personal dos and don’ts for those writers trying to get an agent?

Special courier package deliveries and manuscripts offered on silver platters. This doesn’t work. Nor does special dark chocolate enclosed.  Well, maybe the chocolate…Seriously, it’s all about the writing. I like a simple query and sample writing. I like to know who someone is and how they see themselves developing as an artist.

How should potential clients contact you?

Either in person at a conference – I do several a year across the country – or via e-mail. I need to read a completed manuscript that I like. And I always ask to see at least one more piece. I need to know the writer has a career motive, not just one good book. For instance, I often ask, what kind of writing career do you see yourself having? What kinds of books do you want to write: only picture books? picture books and novels? only young adult? I don’t mind if someone wants to do more than one genre. In fact, I encourage it.

Can you explain how your author/agent relationship works?

My job is to get manuscripts to the right editors. Sometimes it happens quickly; sometimes it takes a bit longer.  I always let clients know when I have submitted a manuscript and when I hear back. Offers are always approved by the client, of course.  I am always glad to have a client bounce ideas off me. I don’t need to only see completed manuscripts. Some chapters are fine, a work in progress is fine.  My job sometimes becomes cheer-leader, minister, parent, therapist.  But I love it. And I love all my clients. I want them all to succeed.

How has publishing changed in the past few years – especially with the economic downturn? Does this make your job harder?

The only real change is I have noticed that publishers are more cautious. I have had an editor say to me, “Steve, a year ago I would have acquired this book.  The market is just too tough these days for this kind of book.” But honestly, we have had the two best years in our agency’s history. So, I can’t complain. We have had only a few books cancelled by publishers, a by-product of difficult times.

But, you can’t really take in the dismal picture. In the creative environment we all work and live in, there is no economic downturn. There is joy and potential. I have to pop up everyday ready to work with the expectation that I’ll sell a book. If I have to work harder, I will.  I guess the change is that greater patience is required. And, by the way, I see things improving already.

What are the best and worst parts of being an agent?

The hardest part for me is the money. I don’t really like talking about money. There is a right price for each project, based on the writer’s track record, the current market, the number of publishers interested, and the potential audience. The challenge is to hold firm but not be greedy. I guess another hard part is the waiting. Both for the agent and the client. Of course, it takes time for editors to read a novel and decide if it is right for him/her. Then, they have to do the paperwork and present the book at an acquisition meeting. Having worked at several big houses, I know how time-consuming and stressful this can be!

The best part is being able to call a writer and say, “We have an offer (or two) for your book.” The other joy is finding a new talent. A great new book, one that makes me want to sing and dance (and I do!)

What’s your best piece of advice for writers?

You become a professional writer the second you begin to act professionally. Have a truly humble assessment of your own ability and the integrity of your writing. Keep a record of where your manuscript has been sent and when you have followed up. (Don’t let more than a month go by without following up. If you don’t, it’s essentially like abandoning a child.)

If you have an agent, stay in touch every six weeks or so. When you have sold a book, make sure your dealings with editors and publishers are professional and courteous. I have seen a couple of authors sabotage their own careers by unseemly behavior.  Remember, it’s all about image. And publishers don’t forget bad behavior.

Is there something that you’d like to share that not many people know about you?

My degree is in Children’s Literature.  One of my professors was Gregory Maguire. Interestingly, when I was at HarperCollins, I edited a book of animal fairy tales that he wrote called Leaping Beauty.  We had fun working on that together. And it sold really well!

Stephen Fraser is a super agent. He’s well-respected in the business, and he’s supportive and upbeat when it comes to his clients. He’s what I would call a quiet kind of dynamite!   

This agent likes bow ties!

Stephen is always looking for new talent and someone who wants to develop a career. To contact Stephen, check the submission policy at

Tips and Tidbits from the SCBWI-Iowa Conference

April 5, 2011

Iowa knows how to do it. I’m talking about the SCBWI-Iowa Conference, which I attended this past weekend – “The Career of Dreams!” From Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon, the conference schedule was jam-packed. Attendees were awed and inspired by a group of talented presenters. Here are some tips and tidbits from the fabulous weekend.

Molly O’Neill, Associate Editor at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, spoke about book beginnings and characters.

Every story should “evoke something in us as readers and as people.” It should “stir up a reaction and make us feel something that connects us to the story.”

If you want to catch the eye of an editor, make sure you have a great story, great story telling, and memorable characters and voices.

For a memorable character, know your character through and through. “Stalk your character. Study your character from all angles.”

Candace Fleming, an award-winning picture book, middle grade, and nonfiction author and Eric Rohmann, an award-winning author and illustrator, gave a funny and informative presentation on the fundamentals of picture books.

From Candace Fleming:  A picture book has a “unique structure” – a basic framework with visual aspects and written aspects. The problem in the story should be in the first few sentences, and the most important page in a picture book is the last page. It should have a final twist or surprise – an “aha ending.”

From Eric Rohmann:  When writing a picture book, think visually. Everything written has to have a purpose. Be concise. When it comes to the ending of a picture book, “you have to earn the ending.” The “best endings solve the problem, but don’t end the story.”

Alli Brydon, an editor at Sterling Children’s Books, spoke on how to strengthen a manuscript and get it out of the slush pile.

When submitting a manuscript, know the publishing house. Be professional. Be unique. The elements editors are looking for are plot, theme, tone, setting, character, voice, and style. Your manuscript should have a solid story arc. Show that you’re committed to your craft.

Diane Muldrow, an Editorial Director at Golden Books/Random House and the editor of Little Golden Books, evoked memories of Golden Books from years past in her presentation about the history of Golden Books. As the editor for Little Golden Books, she still looks for the feel of those originals.

The fabulous Lin Oliver was also in Iowa this past weekend. She is the Executive Director of the SCBWI and one of its founders. She is also a children’s book author, writer-producer of family films, television series, and movies for children. How does she do it all? 

She talked about writing a book series and the elements involved in a book series and had some words of wisdom and “Morals of Success” to share with us.

Spread literacy.

Persist with belief in yourself.

Seek mentors.

Stay in touch with professionals who believe in you.

Stay actively engaged. All work breeds work.

Step into fear.

Do the work.

Gary D. Schmidt, an author of two Newbery Honor books and the Michael L. Printz honor award, gave a powerful speech.

He said, “Writers must engage with the world.” They must pay attention to the world and love both the beauty and tragedy of the world in order to come up with the right questions for their readers. Those questions will energize writers and be the ignition for their stories.

Stephen Fraser, a literary agent for The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, gave an inspiring talk and sent out positive vibes on how to win the publishing game.

“Dare to be quiet each day. Listen and let ideas fill you up.” Stephen reminded us that “a creative person can accomplish anything and a good book has a home.” *  

The organizers of the conference planned a full schedule. I wasn’t able to attend all of the sessions, but word had it that every session provided attendees with something valuable to take away with them. The weekend stirred our thoughts, encouraged us to keep at our writing, and motivated us to be the best that we can be!

* For more on Stephen Fraser and what he’s looking for as an agent, DON’T MISS an in-depth interview, Friday, on this blog!

Movin’ Right Along

April 1, 2011

It’s that time of year again. Iowa, here I come. Why, you ask? It’s the SCBWI-Iowa Conference, and it’s well worth the time and travel. “The Career of Dreams!” is right within my reach. I get to rub elbows with Alli Brydon, Michelle Bayuk, Wendy Delsol, Candace Fleming, Stephen Fraser, Diane Muldrow, Lin Oliver, Molly O’Neill, Mary Rockcastle, Eric Rohmann, and Gary D. Schmidt. Wow!

Last year a group of us traveled the roads to Bettendorf, Iowa. Plane, plane, plane, but when we got there, it was anything but plain. Along with the amazing conference, there was a sorority spring formal that weekend that kept us entertained, on our toes, and awake all night – but I digress. The conference convinced me that a return visit was a must.

So as the Muppet’s song says, we’re “movin’ right along in search of good times and good news, with good friends you can’t lose…”

No time to dawdle. It’s time to go. Check back on Tuesday for highlights from the conference followed by a very special interview on Friday. DON’T MISS IT!

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