Booklist Editor/Children’s Book Author Chats over his Morning Coffee

I was seeking out Booklist media editor Sue-Ellen Beauregard at the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans when I ran into Booklist Online editor, Keir Graff, instead, and we started chatting. In addition to his role at Booklist, Keir is a writer and a father of two boys. It so happened that Keir’s first book for children, The Other Felix, was just about to be published by Roaring Brook Press. After speaking to Keir, I sprinted over to the Macmillan Booth where I cited a long friendship with Keir to get my hands on the book!

Now, The Other Felix is published and may even be living on the shelves of your library. Maggie M. of The Smithtown Library just gave it a rave review at the CLASC New Book Forum, and the book was given a Mock Newbery Honor by the students at Waukazoo Elementary in Michigan. I visited Keir in the Booklist booth in Dallas last week and, this time, the Macmillan booth was conveniently located across the aisle!

I wanted to share with all of you what has been a lovely experience getting to know Keir, and he has kindly answered a few questions over his morning cup of coffee at his desk in Chicago. Read on to learn more about Keir and his work as a Booklist editor and children’s book author. 

AO: So what is it you do at Booklist?

KG: I’m the editor of Booklist Online. For some reason, I often find it hard to describe what I do all day, but my main responsibility is making Booklist reviews and articles available via a wide variety of electronic formats. I oversee everything from our website to our blogs and e-newsletters to our social media channels. Fortunately, I have a lot more help than I used to, so I don’t have to do it all myself! I write reviews, too–but only of adult books.

AO: What made you decide to write a children’s book?

KG: It was a complete accident. I had published a number of books for grown-ups and, while I’ve always loved reading with two sons, I had no plans to write for kids. Frankly, it seemed too difficult. But then a few years ago my older son, Felix, began having nightmares in which he was chased through a forest by monsters. I offered all the usual grown-up bromides (“Dreams aren’t real, son; the monsters can’t hurt you”) but nothing I said helped. He knew the dreams weren’t real, but they were still scary. Then, one night, the dream changed: he met a boy who looked just like him, had the same name, and knew how to fight monsters. His nightmares stopped and I had a good idea for a story.

I planned to write a short story just for Felix and his little brother, Cosmo. But the concept was so intriguing that I couldn’t stop writing. A few months later, I had a draft of a short novel. I showed it to my friend and colleague, Ilene Cooper, who said she thought I might have something. After a couple more drafts, Roaring Brook Press offered me a two-book deal.

AO: Felix has some pretty intense dreams. Do you remember your dreams?

KG: I do. I love nothing more than sleeping deeply and waking up confused, still half in dreamland. When I visit schools, I usually tell the kids about my most recent dream, hoping they’ll use their own dreams as creative inspiration. Before one school visit I had a particularly intense dream that I was in a plane full of scientists, flying through a hurricane to gather data. We had just emerged into the eye of the storm, above sunlit water and below blue sky–and were just about to fly into an angry wall of clouds–when I woke up. I was so disappointed.

AO: Did being a dad yourself give you insight into writing about Felix’s dad?

KG: I don’t think I could have written about being a father until I became a father myself–and I hope I’m a better dad than Felix’s dad in the story! But I definitely gave him some traits that I’m afraid I possess, even if I exaggerated them. Mr. Schwartzwalder means well but is distant and self-absorbed, not as good a listener as he could be. Felix really has to solve his own problems. It’s good for kids to solve their own problems, of course, but it’s better if they’re doing it because their parents are encouraging them, not ignoring them.

AO: What can we look forward to next?

KG: I’m working with my editor, the wonderful Kate Jacobs, on my second middle-grade novel. It’s called The Matchstick Castle (at least for now) and should be out in the fall of 2013. If The Other Felix is kind of a quiet character study (at least, in between monster attacks!) then The Matchstick Castle is wild, zany, and (hopefully) funny. It’s about a kid sentenced to the most boring summer vacation imaginable–until he meets an eccentric family living in a dangerously dilapidated house in the woods. I had a ton of fun writing with it and I hope kids have half as much fun reading it.

AO: I’m sure it will be funny, considering what I’ve read from you on your blog. What’s this business about asking books like Fight Club for advice?!

KG: I wanted to add a new feature to the Booklist Online e-newsletter, REaD ALERT–I had always wanted to do an advice column of some sort for Booklist, but I couldn’t decide on the format. (It’s a lot harder than it looks!) Then, just before deadline, I had an idea that people would ask books for advice, not me; hence, “Ask a Book.” In the first one, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club answers a point of silly etiquette. And, next week, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road tells you how to keep your soufflé from falling. 

AO: Tell us something about Neal Porter he doesn’t want us to know!

KG: Boy, I wish I could. I’ve met him several times and have tremendous admiration for him, but we haven’t worked together. Ilene knows him much better. The whole Roaring Brook crew is amazing, though–and they have the awards to show for it!

AO: They sure do. Thanks, Keir, for taking the time to “chat” with us Suffolk County librarians! We wish you the best!

New to Amagansett, Not New to Children’s Books

Jeanne McDermott is the new children’s and young adult librarian at the Amagansett Free Library. Jeanne is a graduate of the School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College and comes to librarianship from the children’s publishing world. Recently she has held an internship with the Brooklyn Public Library assisting with grant projects and conducting Saturday Story Time. If you’ve been a frequent attendee of the CLASC New Book Forums, you might remember when Jeanne visited as a special guest to discuss new books from Farrar Strauss & Giroux back in 2001. When FS&G merged with Macmillan in January of 2009, Jeanne became the Director of Marketing for children’s books.

Jeanne recently enjoyed the role reversal she experienced as she attended SLJ’s Day of Dialog for the first time as a librarian. She used to chuckle at the librarians who nabbed books in the exhibit hall by the bag full. “Now I’m one of those librarians!” she laughs, holding up her heavy bag.

Jeanne is putting the galleys she grabbed to good use. She’s starting a Read it and Rant it program for teens in Amagansett. Teens will have first crack at the galleys and an opportunity to write a review. Children are also reviewing library books. Dante, a library regular, has written a review of The Odious Ogre by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, and Pigs to the Rescue by John Himmelman.  These reviews are posted on the end caps of the book shelves and on the sunny windowsill near the library hermit crab (who tweets, by the way.)

Next time you are passing through Amagansett, be sure to stop and say hello to Jeanne. If you’d like to learn more about Jeanne’s background in publishing, read the Publishers Weekly interview with Jeanne on her last day at Macmillan after 25 years in the children’s publishing industry!