Brenda’s original story, lively writing, Positive Mental Attitude and incredible open-mindedness marked her as The Real Thing; she soaked me up and wrung me out as if I were a sponge. I knew her moxie and PMA would help her keep the Faith and I was right: The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever collected around 70 rejections!
(Note: that particular Ragdale Workshop’s roster boasts three published children’s book creators (one an illustrator), two MFA in Writing for Children holders and two oh, so close pre-published writers.)
Brenda is the author of tween novels Julia’s Kitchen and Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire (both Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her newest book tells the story of Leon who’s hopelessly in love with Zoey Maloney. But the valentine he creates for her wants nothing to do with Leon’s mushy sentiments. The valentine thinks this holiday is all about candy, and he runs away rather than suffer the embarrassment of saying "I love you." As Leon follows the valentine through town, boys, girls, and teens join the chase and chime in on their perspectives of love until finally, the conflict comes to a heart-pounding, sweaty-palm conclusion in of all places – a candy shop.
Brenda’s website offers a free (totally adorable) downloadable activity kit to go along with the book.
Check out her invitation to join her in celebrating the book’s release by participating in a Random Act of Kindness and Love by February 14.
Finally, be sure to read how YOU can win your very own autographed copy of The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever in the Book Giveaway that follows the interview.
Enjoy and learn from one of our Children’s Book World’s Bests!
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What inspired you to sign up for my 2004 Spring Picture Book Workshop at Ragdale?I had written what I thought was a picture book manuscript that was receiving its share of rejections, so I knew I wanted someone with a great critical eye to tell me what I could do to revise it. I learned a ton from your workshop, and I ended up deciding that what I had written was not actually a picture book but rather a short story. It didn’t quite have that re-readability factor, and there weren’t enough different moments to illustrate. I could have revised it to try to make it more “picture booky,” but instead, I decided to send it to Ladybug magazine, and they bought it! That story, “A Cheer for Charlie,” was the first thing I ever published.
Do you recall any specific ways the class helped you?I remember you telling us to study a picture book thoroughly, not just the words and pictures, but also the end papers, the flap copy, everything. Since then, I always look at the Library of Congress description on the copyright page, I always check out the author and illustrator bios, I always read the flap copy, and I always take note of end papers. Not only do beautiful endpapers (as opposed to just a solid sheet of color) indicate that the publisher has put extra care into the book, but they also set the reader up for what’s inside. I have to say that I was so pleased with the end papers for The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever. The candy hearts set the perfect tone for what’s to come when you turn the page.
You eventually went on to publish, but first the middle grade novel, Julia’s Kitchen (FSG), which won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers , then Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinare (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Why and how did you move from writing picture books to writing middle grade fiction?The truth is, I always wanted to write children’s novels, but I thought that picture books would be easier. Silly me! I had this crazy fantasy that I’d whip out a few picture books, develop a relationship with an editor, and then easily write and sell novels. Not one part of that fantasy was accurate! First of all, writing picture books is way harder than writing novels (for me anyway), and even though I wrote this picture book before I wrote my novel, I wasn’t able to sell it until after I had sold two novels, and even then it wasn’t to the same editor. Second of all, no matter how many books I write and sell, it never gets any easier. But I have to admit, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the challenge.
The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever has remained in your heart despite years of rejection. What kept you on task and what kept you believing, in this story as well as in yourself as a picture book writer?Yes, I collected around 70 rejection letters over the course of five years for this book! The thing that kept me believing in this particular story was that I truly loved it, and I could imagine it finding a large audience. Right after college, I worked at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and I learned there the importance of Big Ideas – specifically how to recognize when you have one and when you don’t. I believed Yuckiest Stinkiest was a Big Idea, and I knew I just had to find the right editor to see it that way. Happily, Kathy Dawson ended up being that person! Meanwhile, two things kept me believing in myself as a writer while collecting all those rejection letters. First, I’m sort of insanely optimistic, and I saw each rejection as getting one step closer to acceptance. Second, I absolutely love to revise, and I used any and all personal comments on the rejection letters as fuel for my revision. Just about everything except the initial concept changed in those five years, and the story is so much richer, funnier, and heartfelt, thanks to rejection.
You’re not only a Student Success Story – you’re a Teacher Success Story! What insights that you gleaned from the learning process do you make sure you share with your learning writers?
When I was revising my first novel, Julia’s Kitchen, with my wonderful editor at FSG (Beverly Reingold), I learned the most important thing I’ve ever learned as a writer, and I try to pass that on to every student I have the privilege of coaching: Be authentic. It sounds simple, but it’s not. You’re making up a story. It’s pretend. But when a reader comes to it, it has to be 100% truthful, 100% believable. Every thought, every description, every action, every emotion, it all has to be real. So I tell my students (and myself) to imagine that you’re writing a true story. It’s a story that happened to a friend of yours, and you’re telling your best friend about it over coffee. If there are any places in the story where your best friend would say, “What? No way? I don’t believe you. That couldn’t have happened!” or, “That doesn’t make sense. What are you talking about?” then you are not being authentic, and you’ve got some revising to do. Even with a picture book like Yuckiest, Stinkiest, where a valentine comes to life, the emotions and actions need to be authentic. The valentine needs to act like a real person who is terrified of expressing emotions, and Leon needs to be a believable boy who wants nothing more than to share his love with the girl of his dreams.
How do you balance your full-time writing job with not only marketing and teaching but also mothering three adolescents?!I just make the commitment to do it. I try to write every day. Of course some days and weeks are harder to find the time than others, and I get frustrated when I don’t write as much as I want. But I remind myself that being a mom is my first priority, my first love, and such a privilege. In a minute, my kids will all be in college, so I might as well appreciate the chaos, laughter, and very full schedule in my life right now.
Can you describe your elation and sense of satisfaction when you first held the f & g’s (folded and gathered pages) of The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever?That was amazing, but the biggest thrill came before that when I saw a pdf of the whole book. I was blown away by Tedd Arnold’s hilarious and heartwarming illustrations. I’d been a fan of his since my kids were young and we had all fallen in love with his book, Parts. I could hardly believe he was illustrating my story! When I opened that pdf and saw his vibrant illustrations and Sunday-comic-style approach, tears sprung to my eyes because his art exceeded all my expectations, and I knew that the book would find the audience I had dreamed of all those years ago.
Book GiveawayWin an autographed copy of Brenda Ferber’s The Yuckiest, Stinkiest Best Valentine Ever! (Dial)
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You may enter the contest one of two ways:
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This contest is open only to followers who can provide a mailing address in the United States. Incomplete entries will be discarded. The entry deadline is 11 p.m. (CST) next Monday, January 21, 2013. We'll announce the winner on Wednesday, January 23. Good luck!