Happy 15th Birthday, Pippin! Love, Holly.

It’s hard to believe that Pippin is celebrating its fifteenth birthday this year.

I left HarperCollins, where I was an Executive Editor, in March of 1998, was married a few weeks later, and a couple of weeks after that, I opened the doors at Pippin, from our apartment on East 19th Street. I dreamed about the day when my Pippin answering machine (remember those?) might actually have messages on it. Emails were just becoming the norm too, and the suspense of dialing in to AOL from my IBM Thinkpad to see if anyone had news, or possibly even an offer, was real.

I studied NEGOTIATE TO WIN on a nightly basis, and everything went as well as one could hope, by turns exhilarating and terrifying. About a year later, our first child was born, and she was a beauty, but she was loud. While the babysitter tended to her during the day in the living room, I held meetings in the bedroom, with classical music playing in case the baby cried (who can stand to hear their babies crying?). I remember many an author and artist, among them Harry Bliss, Pascal Lemaitre, and Jef Kaminsky, sitting on the edge of my red comforter, while I sat at the drafting table that was my desk. Nobody minded, because we all were working on projects we loved, without an acquisitions board. We were gambling on our own taste, and it felt so liberating!

By the time Baby Charlotte turned one, working out of the bedroom was increasingly challenging, and Pippin moved to East 38th street—we spent a wonderful decade there. That’s where we began to receive our first royalty statements, as the projects we had sold became real books. Watching our original library grow was inspiring, and our client list began to grow too. But always, the reason for bringing on new authors and artists remained steady—we had to fall in love with the work first, and that holds true to this day.

I thought I’d share some highlights and lowlights from the past decade and a half . . .

~The decision to call the company Pippin, in honor of the first book I had edited by myself, ZEKE PIPPIN by William Steig. It only took a minute, because I was the only one casting a vote.

~The generosity of Bill Steig’s offering to make our logo, dressing Zeke in a business suit because as he so eloquently said, “you are going to do business, right? I’ll give him a tie and a desk.” That’s Bill—no bullshit.

~ Fred Marcellino’s gift of designing our stationery—we’ll never change that stationery, for it’s a living reminder of those two Pippin heros, Fred and Bill, who are no longer here.

~Making the first deal, for Sally Cook’s GOODNIGHT PILLOWFIGHT, and learning the hard way that editors like to know when it’s a multiple submission.


~Hiring the first assistant—he could do no wrong because at once, somebody else was making copies . . .

~Writing to Kate DiCamillo and getting an answer, a GREAT answer, that being YES!

~The 2001 Caldecott Medal, a Caldecott Honor, and a Newbery Honor all in the same year—thank you David Small, Doreen Cronin & Betsy Lewin, and Kate DiCamillo.

~Signing on Peter H. Reynolds, on the basis of how he drew a teacup (he loves tea).

~Finding out the hard way (again) that it’s a bad idea to accept an advance payment on paperback publication—because there might not be a paperback.

~Making a deal for my big sister Alison’s #1 New York Times Bestseller SOMEDAY, paired with Peter H. Reynolds, after it was turned down more than a dozen times.

~Finding out the hard way (yes, again!) that when you order the “film” for a picture book that’s gone out-of-print, it comes in an eight-foot tall canister.

~Advising Kate McMullan to get more ‘tude and lay it all on that garbage truck book, I STINK! (She had more ‘tude than she ever knew.)

Despereaux Taxi

~From our 38th Street office window, watching the taxis go by with Universal’s ad for DESPEREAUX, our first film, on top. Sometimes it pays to be on the mezzanine floor.

~Auctioning David Small’s graphic memoir STITCHES, our first adult trade book.

~Publishing my own first book, under pen name Hallie Durand—now I’ve seen the publishing world as an Editor, an Agent, and an Author . . . need I say more?

~Going digital with our contracts, and admiring the way Elena negotiated the sale of our empty filing cabinets on Craig’s List. She’s tough.

~A 2013 Caldecott Honor for David Small’s ONE COOL FRIEND and the 2013 Newbery Medal for THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate, the award dinner being the very night after Elena Mechlin’s wedding to Greg Giovinazzo. We both showed up.

~Those last six weeks on East 38th Street, Julie Just at the conference table with her headphones on (to block out noise), Elena and I unable to make eye contact because of the boxes, and all of us getting on really well despite the discomfort—I think it was Mr. Jones, my fifth grade teacher, who said, “There is no ‘I’ in team.” He’s right.

~And finally, our glorious move to the new headquarters at 110 West 40th, Suite 1704, no more headsets and no more boxes—we made it!

Happy, happy birthday Pippin!
Posted by elena at 01:09 PM Link to this post

A small consolation for the end of summer is the end of summer's required reading. At my house, just shy of Labor Day, we can almost declare victory. We have found and lost and found our school's list, and the kitchen magnets holding up the list, for the last time. There were the books attempted that fell by the wayside, snubbed as “boring,” or “too babyish.” The mysterious titles that for whatever reason didn’t seem inviting. And then somewhere along the way, the ones that became fast favorites and could be enthusiastically checked off.

My children, 10 and 15, tore through John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, Joan M. Wolf’s Someone Named Eva, and Francisco Jimenez’ The Circuit. Plus, in not-required reading, Wonder; Teenagers: An American History; Chiggers (a graphic novel); various mysteries involving cupcakes; and a biography of Betty Crocker.

True, as of August 30th, at least one mandatory book was not quite at the halfway point: uh oh. But I try not to get involved. My only rule, recently adopted, is that you can't stay up until midnight the night before school starts to finish your book. That's because you've done this every single year up until now, so this year is going to be different. Definitely.

But enough about my kids’ reading—what about mine?

My own summer list is much more important, at least to me. I’m a literary agent, and not only that, I’m an agent here at Pippin. I read for a living. What does a person like me, who is panning for nuggets of literary gold on a daily basis, choose for hammock reading? What could possibly meet my expectations? Every Memorial Day I envision an ideal book, a novel or hefty tome that will be transporting and unforgettable as I attempt to balance it while embedded in damp, stretchy rope. It better be something really good.

Alas, there was no actual hammock this year—and I hate to admit that I mostly read e-books, so there was no balancing act either. It’s kind of strange to have nothing visible to show for my efforts, no pages stained with salt, sand, rosé zinfandel…. Even so, I'm pleased with my choices. I succeeded in polishing off two long novels and some shorter books, devouring the big stuff in the concentrated two- and three-hour gulps that are the true hallmark of summer reading. I caromed through the shorties:The School of Good and Evil (a new YA); Skellig; The Virgin Suicides; Dream Gardens, a book about formal gardens; and a book on nutrition (no idea where that one is). The bigger books, in ambition more than poundage, were Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings.

I dove into American Gods during this summer’s hottest weeks, which was pretty perfect, since much of it takes place on sub-zero midwestern prairies and frozen lakes. If I imagine the elevator pitch for this book, it might begin: The gods have all been forgotten, and they are angry. There is so much more to this epic noir roadtrip, filled with con-men, Norse gods in cheap suits, and attractions like the Largest Carousel in the World (in Wisconsin), but I'm not even going to try to tell you.

The Interestings is another kind of American epic, weaving in and out of years from roughly 1974 to the present. If you were around in the 70s, you will love the details (“Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific” shampoo!). But to me it’s New York in the 1980s and 90s that is so beautifully captured it's almost eerie, when everyone in the newly prosperous city begins to seem coated with a “moneyed gleam, as if they'd been licked all over by the same magical dog." Such a smart, funny, and moving book: definitely hammock-worthy.

The end of summer was devoted to some favorite children’s books, in my childhood home in Washington, D.C. Sadly, my old bookshelf is the best place to find most of them these days. I'll pick just two here: The Sugar Mouse Cake, by Gene Zion and illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham, and The Black Sheep, by Jean Merrill and illustrated by Ronni Solbert.

I can attest that these books stand up to a hundred re-readings, so it’s hard to understand how they can have gone out of print. Beats me. Gene Zion is best known for Harry the Dirty Dog—also illustrated by Graham—and who doesn’t love Harry? But I say their Sugar Mouse Cake is right up there with it.

It tells the story of Tom, a lowly dishwasher in the Royal Kitchens who dreams of being a pastry chef. When he bakes the finest cake in the kingdom for a contest, mean rivals nearly make him miss his chance to win, until his talented dancing mouse Tina saves the day.

The happy resolution of this story is irresistible. I hope someday it will be back on bookstore shelves, and I see it has its own Facebook page, so I guess that's a start.

tom and mouse

The Black Sheep is a tragi-comic eco-fable about an island of madly sweater-knitting sheep, published in 1969. The sheep put great store in dressing for success, even if that means they work nonstop knitting sweaters to keep warm, since they sheared off all their wool.

black sheep

The black sheep, meanwhile, cares only about growing flower gardens, which turns him into an outlaw. Despite its many funny details, like the math word problems as the ewes knit and purl themselves to distraction, the sight of the black sheep walled off alone behind boulders always gives me a chill.

Jean Merrill is remembered for her brilliant novel The Pushcart War, about which a New York Times reviewer wrote, “It’s rare to find a book for young people with both a point of view and a sense of the ridiculous.” That could go for The Black Sheep as well.

Happy Labor Day. It's back to school and office. If you had told my 14-year-old, summer-lazy self, stretched out on the couch eating Whip ‘n Chill pudding and reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, that I would someday get to read novels for work, I would never have believed it. But that’s what I’m doing now, here at 110 West 40th Street—minus the Whip 'n Chill. Amazing.

Posted by elena at 10:08 AM Link to this post

You love an assignment. Why wouldn't you? So much easier than tromping around the lakes trying to sift through the zillion ideas that come floating up out of your scattered brain. If you worked for someone else who was always dumping unasked-for-projects on your desk, maybe you'd hate them, but such is not the case.

"It's your lucky day," said someone close to you during a phone conversation a couple of years ago. "I have an assignment for you."

Oooh! Goody!

"Yup, I know how you love an assignment," said the someone. "And here it is: a powdered doughnut*."

A powdered doughnut! Fabulous!

"Right?? It's the perfect story," said the someone, who could hear your happiness over the phone. "Don't say I never gave you anything."

This is just exactly the kind of assignment you most love. A single phrase. A single image. A single line from a song. A powdered doughnut: who could ask for anything more?

You immediately set to work. Work begins by picturing the doughnuts you have known: powdered, yes, but what about jelly--your favorite when you were tiny--and glazed, raised yeast and classic cake? Chocolate-covered Bismarcks, as they are known in the midwest, or Boston Creme, as they are known in the Northeast? Custard-filled. Apple fritters. Doughnuts with sprinkles, as they are known everywhere but upstate New York, and jimmies, as they are known nowhere but upstate New York.

And the granddaddy of them all: Persians, as they were sold at both Hemstrought Bakery in Utica, New York or in the back of Trumy's in Mapledale, New York. Nothing compares to a Persian. Oh, you miss Persians.

But you digress.

Doughnuts, we have gathered you here today to discuss the fate of one of your brethren: the powdered.

You write all kinds of books. You most like writing novels and you least like writing picture books. These two reasons--the most-like and the least-like, are probably why you focus on both novels and picture books. The ends of the like spectrum. The extremes.

"Like" isn't the right word, though. "Challenged by" is more accurate. Novels are hard, and they take you a long time because you never know what they're really about before you begin. That means you have to write, say, 900 pages before you start whittling and shaping what ends up to be, say, 220 pages. You have to create the granite before you can begin to chip it away to reveal the sculpture waiting inside.

But you love writing novels because they take so long. You can wander and meander and not have any idea where you're going but it doesn't matter. You're open to serendipity. Take me wherever you're going, novel, you think, I'm just along for the ride. As long as you manage a couple thousands words a day, that's good enough.

Picture books, ugh. They're the other end of the length spectrum, because they're usually no more than 300-400 words, and they are so very hard for you. Trying to get one right is like capturing a firefly inside a jar and hoping it doesn't die before you can figure out why it's all lit up like that. (That analogy makes no sense and yet somehow it does make sense, to you anyway.)

The love and the hate, that's what you like. That's what challenges you. The safe middle, oh no. Perish the thought.

Again you digress. Back to the powdered doughnut.

This was one of those rare, so rare, so horribly rare, books that just kind of wrote itself. The Sheriff! His deputy! And their mission: to bring a dozen doughnuts safely home!

Writing it made you laugh the whole way through. You sent it off to the someone who'd given you the assignment in the first place.

"I knew you'd love this assignment," she said, and then she started cackling in that semi-maniacal way she has. "Good job."

"Off it went to a fabulous editor--thanks, Nancy Conescu, for your smarts and your humor--and then to a fabulous illustrator, who came up with all those fabulous illustrations--thanks, Isabel Roxas, you little genius you---that made you laugh all over again. Fabulosity all around.

At some point in the whole process, you and the editor and the illustrator all sat around a restaurant talking about doughnuts and laughing. Here's hoping that The Case of the Missing Donut makes you laugh, too, along with some little kid you love.

*Doughnut became donut when I crowd-sourced the spelling on Facebook; the vast majority came down firmly on the side of donut. (Apologies to all the traditionalists out there. It hurt me too.)

Posted by elena at 12:08 PM Link to this post

In Harry Allard and James Marshall's wonderful series of picture books, "The Stupids," Mr. and Mrs. Stupid and their children, Buster and Petunia constantly upset the apple cart with their alternate reality. Mr. Stupid wears his socks on his ears, Mrs. Stupid uses the cat for a hat and the kids tend to respond to every backwards action with an awestruck, "Wow!"

Not surprisingly, these books have landed on the ALA's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, supposedly because they encourage children to be disobedient, and also for celebrating low self-esteem.

While I tend to roll my eyes at these claims, I think that it all has less to do with the content of the books themselves, which is over-the-top silly, and everything to do with the word: stupid.

In fact, in the very first book, The Stupids Step Out, there's a point in which the whole family is looking into a mirror.

"Look at those funny-looking people in the window," {Mr. Stupid} said to his family.
"Yes, they certainly are stupid looking." said Mrs. Stupid.
"Don't stare at them, children. It's impolite."

When I was growing up, "stupid" was the big, fat s-word. I was told never to call anyone or anything stupid. It was the ultimate put-down, as if being or acting stupid meant that there was something terribly wrong with you, something that couldn't be helped. And to use that word as a descriptor or a label was explicitly cruel.

Even now, all these years later, it's harder for me to say that something is stupid than it is for me to call it f**ked up.

In fact, when I was writing Keeper, my editor suggested that I let Keeper use that same s-word. Ack! Could I put it into the mouth of my young hero? At the end of the day, I did, but true confession: it still makes me a little queasy.

But now I have a new book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, and guess what? There is nary a mention of stupid, at least not that I recall. So, why all this angst?

One February morning, while sitting at my desk and wondering how in the world I was going to meet my June 1st deadline for my next manuscript, I received an email from Cynthia Leitich Smith. It had only a single sentence: "I think you should write something funny." She signed it with love. My first reaction was Huh? Why funny? What was significant about funny? And furthermore, could I even write something funny? Besides, who takes funny seriously?

I mean, hadn't I worked my tookus off to be taken seriously? I sent Cyn a quick reply, explaining that funny wasn't in my repertoire.

In less than a blink she replied that I most certainly could be funny. Hadn't I written the "Bubba and Beau" books? Well, okay, those were funny . . . I guess. But their humor wasn't roll-on-the-floor, laugh out loud, silly sorts of funny. Besides, was that what Cyn was calling for? Alas, what did funny even mean?

The thing is, when you have a person in your life who garners your deepest respect like Cyn garners mine, her messages carry some weight. They're not to be overlooked or discarded, not lightly at any rate. She clearly wasn't trying to jerk my chains. She was serious.

"Write something funny."

I opened a new file, wrote about seven or eight pages, and completely froze. As it turns out, funny is hard. It doesn't roll off the tongue for me, doesn't come naturally. I'd never make it as a stand-up comedian. But even worse--and here's the big thing--the dividing line between funny and stupid is very, very thin.

The question I was suddenly forced to ask was: will this story seem stupid? And the bigger question, the one underlying that one was: will I look stupid if I write it? What would happen to all that serious stuff that I had worked so hard to achieve? Would it all be diminished by a funny story?

In our society, I think we're threatened by silliness, by wit, by humour. No one wants to be on the receiving end of a joke or a taunt. We're embarrassed when we laugh at an off=color remark, and we're uncomfortable with a tart poke in the eye. Certainly no one, including moi, wants to look, you guessed it: STUPID.

Ouch! There it was, my fragile, whiny ego, wailing away, not wanting to be humiliated, especially by a word that came with so much baggage. The s-word.

Who knew that funny required so much gnashing of teeth? I took a deep breath. In the space between my last novel and the task in front of me, I had had to confront a number of personal issues, including a close scare with my health and also the loss of our family's beloved country house to a blazing, all-consuming fire. It had been a difficult couple of years. I felt worn down by it.

What Cynthia could see, and what I finally realized as I embarked upon Scouts, was that humor was what I needed. I had plenty of serious in my life. Now I needed funny. I also needed to get over myself. And in the light of all this, stupid seemed insignificant.

I can't say whether or not my readers will find my raccoon brothers and their quest for the Sugar Man funny or stupid--that's not my call to make. But I can say that the writing of their tale gave me the kind of light-hearted joy that I had forgotten about. It reminded me of laughter and silliness and how important those are in the course of a life. And at the end of it, my sincerest hope is that the only thing left on the last page will be a quote from Buster and Petunia: "Wow!"

And if there is a smile to go along with it, please give at least some of the credit to Cynthia and her huge and knowing heart. May we all be blessed with such a wise and loving friend--the kind who tells you something true even when you may not be ready to hear it. Listen anyways. 

Posted by elena at 03:07 PM Link to this post

I have a confession, and it's a bit embarrassing only because I'd like to believe I'm pretty astute when it comes to cutting edge...well, cutting edge everything. I'm the guy who tries to know it all about whatever's awesome, and one thing that I've always kept my finger on is blogging and the effect it has on pop culture. I follow a series of fashion blogs, art blogs, music blogs, news blogs, even bicycle blogs, subscribing for daily updates, scrolling through comments and often contributing my own to the muck. A true blogophile. But it never crossed my mind that there are YA book bloggers, jotting about the latest stories to hit stands for teens.

Well, sometimes the best education comes in the form of barbecue chicken skewers, silver dollar crab cakes, and fancy apple brie crustini. Oh, and a room full of bloggers in a swanky event space, complete with bathroom attendant and black-tie, silver-tray waiters interrupting every single conversation to offer another finger's worth of paradise.

The event was the Simonteen Blogger Preview Party. What was I doing there? I was one of the authors being "previewed" which sounds really cool (and it was) but when I sat in the green room (did I mention there was a green room? There was totally a green room) I started thinking about the bloggers I know in other arenas. For instance, if a reputable fashion blogger says she hates a sweater, guess what? That sweater becomes an instant sale item right before it's sent to Ross. And if a famous music blogger gives you a rating of one out of five stars, you can kiss that dream concert at Madison Square Garden goodbye, and get comfortable with being an opening act for an opening act at a dive bar in the Lower East Side. So as I sat there nibbling on some kind of quiche, I thought to myself, what if these bloggers — these YA book reviewers, with thousands of readers, hate my work? What if their sweet demeanors and delightful faces are all masking drooling jackal-mouthed snarls waiting to eat me alive? What if this is all fun and games for them, fodder for internet bullying and teenage trolling? Oh no. Oh NO!

"Ladies and gentlemen, I now introduce to you, Jason Reynolds.

I walked slowly into the spotlight and took a seat across from the host who was prepared to interview me for twenty minutes while the bloggers sat, ready to tweet and blog and "socially mediate." Ready to make me, or break me.

The first question. "So, Jason, I know this is a tricky way to start, but if you could sum up what your book, When I Was the Greatest is about, what would you say?"

Talk about pressure!

I looked out at the crowd, surveying the faces, some friendly, some curious, some absolute stone. I licked my lips, swallowed hard, and took a deep breath (in that order.) Then, knowing that the fate of my first book, my debut novel, the biggest accomplishment in my life thus far, was in the hands of about forty book reviewers, I opened my mouth, and spoke.

(Okay, so it really wasn't this ominous. As a matter of fact, it wasn't ominous at all. These bloggers were amazing and I had a fantastic time! But, I really was floored and a bit blind-sided by the fact that bloggers in the YA book world hold just as much weight as bloggers everywhere else. I'm not sure why I didn't assume this to be the case, especially since I am a YA writer and I know how awesome this whole world is. Maybe I've just been too busy reading fashion and music blogs. Yikes. Lesson learned.)

Jason Blog

Posted by elena at 03:06 PM Link to this post

TWO SPECKLED EGGS is a picture book that I wrote after stumbling across some wonderful old family photos. (My mother was a photographer, and really did document just about every moment of my childhood--excellent fodder for story ideas!) Much of TWO SPECKLED EGGS springs directly from these photos that my mom took at my seventh birthday party:

speckled eggs1

Look at our spiffy outfits!! I am the one in the pink and white plaid dress.

I can name every girl in this photo except for one--Mystery Girl. Who is she? Did I invite her, or did my mom? Did she have a good time? Did she fit in? How did I feel about her being there? I remember feeling worried about whom to invite to my party. What if one guest didn't fit?

Here is another photo from the same party:

speckled eggs2

Girls gone wild! (Except for the ones required to sit on the bench with their hands in their laps--Whoa.)

I remember being not quite sure how I fit in either, at my very own birthday party. It seemed like everyone was having fun but me. This was a tiny lonely birthday party feeling. I bet many a birthday kid feels that, even if just for a brief moment.

speckled eggs sketch

Birthday parties are such loaded occasions.

Who hasn't experienced having the thrill of the imagined birthday party trampled by the disappointment of the actual birthday party? The games get wrecked. The party room is ransacked. The cake is rejected. The friends are bossy, overbearing, sugar-crazed, needy. Someone throws up. Someone needs stitches. The cat's tail is pulled. The new doll is ripped.

Okay, I exaggerate. But you know what I mean.

Sometimes, however, the whole experience is redeemed by something small and wonderful--a moment of discovery, a new friendship, the sharing of a treat. And that is why we keep having birthday parties, year after year.

I wish I knew who Mystery Girl was--I bet she could have become a really great friend, but something tells me she moved out of town before that could happen. I am not sure what games we played, what gifts I received, or what cake I had, although I do know my favorite then was Angel Food Cake with Lemon Glaze. (And I know I loved my outfit.) I don't even know how I felt about everything by the end of the party. Maybe that's why I wrote TWO SPECKLED EGGS--so that I could find out how I might have resolved my own ambivalence about birthday parties, and gotten past that tiny lonely birthday party feeling.

*TWO SPECKLED EGGS will be published by Candlewick Press, Spring 2014.

Posted by elena at 11:05 AM Link to this post

This story, I'm Here, was inspired by Matthew, son of my friend, Denise Resnik. He was diagnosed with autism when he was very young, and it has been a challenging journey for him, and for his family too. Denise saw her son being misunderstood and not included with other children. He was low-verbal - so being able to ask to join and be part of the group rarely happened. I wrote a story inspired by Matthew - about a boy who wished to be part of the world around him, but gave signals in creative ways. An enlightened child reached out to him. It is my hope that my book inspires the reader to do the same - to be aware of who needs us and to reach out and be there for them.

Much of my journey has been thinking, drawing and writing about the journey - about how to navigate our true potential despite the challenges. Perhaps a seed was planted when I was a boy of twelve.

I rode my bicycle to the nearby farm who allowed a camp for special needs children to set up during the summer along the river. They were in need of volunteers, and I soon found myself with a group of six children. It only took a day to realize that I could not expect them all to be doing the same activity, at the same time, in the same way. Each was different, with a different challenge. One tiny girl in my group was deaf. I had been talking to her, and I learned she did not hear me. I had to find a different way. Every child deserves this kind of understanding. They flourish when we take the time to connect in whatever way allows a connection to happen. Whether through art, a hug, a nod, sign language, or just a smile - every child needs a connection to another human being. Those connections can make a world of difference to that child.

I'm Here ends with a quote that fits perfectly: "To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world."

I'm Here
Posted by elena at 05:04 PM Link to this post
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