Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meet Author Marlene Targ Brill!

My guest today is Marlene Targ Brill, an award-winning, Chicago-born-and-raised author of 67 books for all age readers. Marlene's latest releases include Michelle Obama: From Chicago's South Side to the White House (Lerner Publications, 2009) and five titles in the Decades of the Twentieth Century in America series (Lerner Publications, 2010).

I met Marlene in the spring of 2007 at the Young Authors Conference at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. For more information about Marlene and her many wonderful books, visit her web site at:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Marlene: I always liked writing and fared pretty well with writing assignments in school.  But I never took the idea of writing for a living seriously until I was creating materials for my students in special education classes.  I began teaching during the dark ages of special education, so teachers like me made most of the classroom materials. I found I liked the creative process, and I kept coming up with ideas for books I thought I'd like to write for my students and other readers.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Marlene: A long-time friend, who was a psychologist, actually inspired me to write.  We both loved writing and drawing, so each week we met one evening a week to do just that--draw and write.  After a few weeks of getting together ,we decided to produce a children's story that would empower children with disabilities and educate readers who were able-bodied.  Just as our project, More Alike Than Different, was ready to send to publishers, however, my friend died.  Her death made me more determined than ever to get our story published.  I was able to find a publisher that offered to produce our story on audiotape, if I would write three more stories to complete a kit.  I was hooked on writing after that. 

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Marlene: Encouragement is a double-edged sword.  My path to publishing is filled with many wonderful people who inspired and aided me, like my psychologist friend.  I learned the business of writing and how to edit, index, and write for all types of freelance projects from professionals in Chicago Women in Publishing.  I gained invaluable writing skills and perspective from the couple critique groups I joined over the last umpteen years, where I met talented colleagues who have become friends and coworkers.  I had some insightful editors who guided my writing and gave me tips to improve my craft.  And now, groups like Off-Campus Writers Workshop and Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators offer continuing support to me and their other members.
Reverse experiences motivated me, too.  When I began writing, too many people told me how hard it was to get published.  Some said that I wasn't a trained writer (true), and I'd be competing against others who were (also true).  The more negatives I heard, however, the more stubborn I became.  I read tons of children's books to dissect what I liked about the writing.  I read all the Newbery winners to see what books others valued.  I wrote and rewrote.  And I remembered the children's book I read as a child called The Carrot Seed, where a boy finds a carrot seed and everyone tells him a carrot will never grow from that seed.  After much patience and tending persistence, the boy grows a large carrot that requires a wheelbarrow to transport it.  And I have published 67 books.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.
Marlene: Even though I live in Wilmette now, I always think of myself as a Chicagoan first.  I am Chicago-born and raised.  I was born in the same building where Daniel Pinkwater lived.  Interestingly, three of the five kids who lived there then have become published authors.  So I tell people who want to write books to knock on the door at 551 Roscoe and ask to drink the water.

Because of the strong connection to Chicago, my writing interests have turned more local the longer I write.  I find it fun to be able to walk the streets my characters/subjects have walked and research Chicago stories where they happened.  I first experienced the joys of researching locally with Diary of a Drummer Boy, the story of a Waukegan, Illinois, Civil War hero.  More recently, I found it easier to make contacts and interview people for my two Obama biographies (Barack Obama: President for a New Era; Michelle Obama: From Chicago's South Side to the White House).

Q: You wrote the first edition of your Barack Obama biography before he became a huge star on the national stage. Can you tell us a little about when and why you wrote the biography, and what the initial response was from publishers?
Marlene: I had been hearing about Obama from local political folks I respected, but I had little knowledge of him personally until I read his autobiography.  I found his story growing up in two cultures and striving to succeed despite family/economic roadblocks compelling.  I thought he and his multicultural upbringing would provide a good role model for young readers--and that was before he was elected to Congress.

After I saw the national response to his speech at the Democratic National Convention, I knew he was somehow special.  I proposed a children's bio about him to my publisher, but they declined at first, saying it was too early.  Then, a couple months later I got a call saying a contract for an Obama bio was in the mail, and they wanted the manuscript ASAP.  I proposed a biography about Michelle Obama early in the presidential election process.  That, too, was tabled until after the election.  Once Barack Obama won, the contract for Michelle arrived in the mail.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing your biography of Michelle Obama? What was difficult?

Marlene: The easiest thing about writing the Michelle Obama biography was the fact that her upbringing was local for me.  I knew about devotion to Chicago neighborhoods and the jostling between northsiders and southsiders.  I had similar experiences in Chicago schools to those classes Michelle took.  I felt totally at home walking the streets where she lived and the halls of schools were she learned.

The most difficult part of writing about Michelle was the fact that the Obama inner circle refused to cooperate with any biographies about her or Barack, even though Barack thanked me for my first effort about him.  But being a Chicagoan helped here, too.  I discovered organizations that helped me locate former teachers and classmates to interview, and I tracked down other helpful sources of information.  I could use my years as a Chicago Board of Education teacher as entry to the schools and my local status to connect with interviewees.

Q: Of the people or characters mentioned in your books, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Marlene: Whoa!  That's like asking someone to choose among their children. I guess one person I'd like to have met is Marshall 'Major" Taylor, the Lance Armstrong of 1900.  Taylor won races as a preteen against grown men, and he attained world bicycle racing status during a time when bicycles were the prized mode of transportation and bicycle racing a world-class event.  But Taylor, who was black, tried to advance when Jim Crow laws reigned, especially in the South.  Yet, he faced the putdowns and unfair laws with grace and honor.  He is my idea of what an athlete should be, someone with impecible character and love for his sport.

Q: What are you working on right now? Where are you in the process?

Marlene: I'm in the research stage for two stories.  Both involve happenings in the 1910s. Guess I'm stuck in the 1910s for now, especially after writing America in the 1910s, a Lerner decade series. My historical fiction always involves a real child and a real happening in their life.  I'm selecting my main character now.

Q:  You have a historical fiction title coming out next summer about the Hart, Schaffner & Marx strike in 1910 that led to 40,000 workers closing down the men's textile industry in Chicago and Milwaukee.  Can you tell us a little about that?
Marlene: Annie Walks Out is about the girl who started the strike: my sister-in-law's aunt, Hannah (Annie) Shapiro.  I learned about her a few years ago but didn't think I had enough story to tell.  Then I started researching the strike and confirmed Annie's key role in it.  I couldn't believe my good fortune to be able to write about a sort-of relative who led a major event.

Annie's descendants helped me with family details and settings I never could have discovered without their help.  For example, although Annie's family lived with other Russian immigrant families on Chicago's poorer West Side, I learned the Shapiros had a bathroom in their apartment, while most families on a floor or in a building shared bathrooms.  This small detail told me that the family had enough money to live comfortably.  Annie Walks Out is a primary-grade historical fiction story that is currently in the illustration phase.  I can't wait to see the pictures.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Marlene: Thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts. I would just add that writing books has given me experiences unlike any other profession.  The people I've met while researching have broadened my prospectives on life and what really is important.  And speaking at schools and libraries and to professional groups keeps me connected with readers and the joys of reading and writing.  What a great profession we have!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Meet Author Margaret McMullan!

My guest today is Margaret McMullan, award-winning author of the novels When Warhol Was Still Alive (1994), In My Mother's House (St. Martin's Press, November 2003), How I Found the Strong (Houghton Mifflin, April 2004), When I Crossed No-Bob (Houghton Mifflin, November 2007), and Cashay (Houghton Mifflin, April 2009).

The main character in Cashay lives in what's left of Chicago's Cabrini Green projects. Reviewers describe Cashay as a "beautifully written, touching and powerful story you won't be able to put down" ... "both gritty, and inspirational" ... a "poignant coming of age story."

Margaret's essays and short stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including Glamour, the Chicago Tribune, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is currently a board member of the New Harmony Project and a professor of English at the University of Evansville, in Evansville, Indiana, where she's working on a collection of stories and a new young adult novel for Houghton Mifflin due out in 2010.

For more information about Margaret McMullan, visit her web site: .

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Margaret: I had a wonderful high school teacher named Alva Lowey. She was from Alabama and I was from Mississippi, and we connected there in Lake Forest, a northern suburb of Chicago. She gave these great assignments and she typed out all of her responses and comments. She was an older lady and she was very professional. She submitted my short story “Bees” to a contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine. It won. I got a gold pen and Mrs. Lowey’s approval. I was hooked.

Q: Please describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Margaret: When I was about 16 years old, my great grandmother asked my mother to come to Washington, D.C. because she knew she was dying. She was 105 years old and she lived in a lovely home for older women. My mother asked me to come with her – to help. We spent a week at my great grandmother’s bedside. It made a huge impression, and later I wrote a short story called “Duet” based on that experience. Then I wrote the novel based on that story – the novel is called In My Mother’s House.

So many people inspire me. Each project has a person behind it. My friend dying of AIDS inspired me to write When Warhol Was Still Alive. My grandmother’s stories inspired me to write How I Found the Strong. A 15 year old girl who asked me to write about her, inspired me to write Cashay. I could go on and on.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Margaret: Jim Whitehead and Bill Harrison were my mentors, teachers, guides, and friends in graduate school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Now my husband, Pat O’Connor, plays the biggest role in my life!

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Margaret: I went to high school at Lake Forest High School and my mother, sister, and I did volunteer work at Holy Family Church in Chicago all during the 1970’s. My parents still live in Lake Forest and my sister and her family live in Chicago. We visit about once a month.

Q: What was easy about writing Cashay? What was difficult?

Margaret: Researching Cabrini Green and the stock market and Chicago was fascinating work and that helped get me into Cashay’s voice.  The hard part was putting her through such difficulties.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Cashay, please choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Margaret: I feel I’ve met all of them because I’ve spent so much time with them. There is a lot of me in Cashay. There is a lot of my sister in Allison. I suppose I would want to be with Cashay and stay with her for a long time.

Q: People assume that research is required to write nonfiction, but many don't think about how important research can be when writing fiction. What sort of research did you do when you were writing Cashay?

Margaret: I hung around urban high schools (with permission, of course) and listened listened listened. I bought rap music, ate twizzlers and pink snow balls, read 5th grade math books, and bundled up against the cold and walked around Cabrini Green. I visited the Chicago museums and took notes at the Museum of Science and Industry. For three days I went into work and shadowed my sister who is a stockbroker. I interviewed my African American students about their hair habits and more. They asked me about mine too. I LOVE the research that goes into writing a novel. I learn so much.

Q: Your latest novel, Sources of Light, will be published in April 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. What would you like us to know about that book?

Margaret: Here’s the way the jacket flap reads: "It's 1962, a year after the death of Sam's father--he was a war hero--and Sam and her mother must move, along with their very liberal views, to Jackson, Mississippi, her father's conservative hometown. Needless to say, they don't quite fit in.

People like the McLemores fear that Sam, her mother, and her mother's artist friend, Perry, are in the South to "agitate" and to shake up the dividing lines between black and white and blur it all to grey. As racial injustices ensue--sit-ins and run-ins with secret white supremacists--Sam learns to focus with her camera lens to bring forth the social injustice out of the darkness and into the light."

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Margaret: I think you and other authors know the key to keeping on: Read read and read some more and then ask yourself if you have your own story or stories to add. Be curious about EVERYTHING. You never know where your next big idea will come from.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meet Sheila Glazov!

Today's guest is Sheila Glazov, award-winning author and internationally known personality type expert, professional speaker and educator. She is the author of What Color Is Your Brain? A Fun and Fascinating Approach to Understanding Yourself and Others; Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift (a version of What Color Is Your Brain? written for children ages 4-12); and Purr fect Pals: A Kid, A Cat and Diabetes© (a picture book written for children ages 2-12 and their families who live with diabetes). 

Reviewers describe What Color Is Your Brain? as: "a fast reading, easy to follow and fascinating examination of human personality". . . "accessible to a wide audience." Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift has been praised for its ability to help children "gain insight into creative writing ideas, personality types, and self-esteem."

For more information about Sheila, her books, and her presentations, visit her web site at: and her blog at:

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Sheila: I was raised in River Forest, which is a suburb of Chicago. My husband and I have lived and raised our family in the Chicagoland area, except for a few years in New Jersey and California.

Q: You once taught elementary school, high school, and college. What motivated you to transition from teacher to professional speaker, author, and creativity coach?

Sheila: My “Orange Brain” enjoys variety and change. Teaching children and adults of all ages and presenting a patchwork of classes energizes me and expands my opportunities for learning and sharing a stimulating assortment of curricula.

Q: What inspired you to develop the color code you use in What Color is Your Brain?

Sheila: I developed WCIYB as an introduction for my strategic planning and creative problem solving workshops. I wanted to create a non-judgmental environment that eliminated criticism. A tone of intolerance often veiled the room. Co-workers and managers only seemed to endure or put up with one another. Because of my teaching background and understanding of learning styles and personality types, I knew I could develop a practical and easy method to create a more harmonious and productive environment; one that would enhance workshop attendees' appreciation and approval for each other’s ideas, attributes and abilities.

Q: Can you share a brief explanation of what the four colors mean?

Sheila: The “Brain Color concept” is an explanation of an individual’s behavior and feelings; however, it is not an excuse for an individual’s inappropriate behavior.

Everyone is a “Brainbow” blending of their “Brain Colors.” “Yellow Brain” decision makers are responsible, disciplined and like to give orders. In the workplace, they are prepared, committed and accurate. They are esteemed when working in an organized environment where they know what is expected of them and can complete tasks on time. When misunderstood, they can become opinionated worriers. Dealing with disorganization frustrates them, making them judgmental and obstinate; and they are often viewed by others as controlling and bureaucratic. They are productive in the workplace if their loyalty, dependability and strong sense of right and wrong is acknowledged.

“Blue Brain” communicators value creativity and make decisions intuitively. In the workplace, these nurturers are inspirational and friendly.  They are esteemed when their environment promotes trust, harmony and flexibility. When misunderstood, they can easily become discouraged and emotional. Dealing with a lack of cooperation frustrates them and causes others to regard them as overly idealistic, sensitive and touchy-feely. They are creative in the workplace if their enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and integrity is acknowledged.

“Green Brain” problem solvers value knowledge and research. They make decisions only when they have gathered and analyzed all pertinent data.  In the workplace, they consider work as their play and are mentally focused nonconformists. They are esteemed when their environment promotes fairness and provides technology. When misunderstood, they can become withdrawn and indecisive. They are frustrated by incompetency, making them intolerant and non-communicative and they are perceived by others as intimidating and lacking in people skills. They are efficient in the workplace if their intellect, competency and curiosity is acknowledged.

“Orange Brain” change agents value results. These resourceful trouble shooters make decisions spontaneously.  They are esteemed when they can enjoy freedom and competition, but don’t have to follow someone else’s rules. They are intolerant of boredom and repetition. When misunderstood, they can become rude and will physically leave the premises. Too much structure frustrates them, which can trigger their disobedience and emotional explosions. Often they are considered impulsive and too fun-loving. They thrive in the workplace if their generosity, idea generation and multi- tasking is acknowledged.

Q: What was relatively easy about writing What Color Is Your Brain?

Sheila: Working with my clients, publisher, editor and the marketing director was easy and encouraging.

Q: What was difficult?

Sheila: Using my “Yellow Brain” to gather and organize all the “Brain Color” data, stories and research for more than 15 years was the most challenging part of writing the book. However, utilizing my strategic planning workshop storyboards made organizing the copious amount of material and keeping deadlines manageable.

Q: Your book, Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift, is the “fairy-tale” version of What Color Is Your Brain? written for children ages 4-12. Can you share some of the challenges of presenting this material for children?

Sheila: The only challenge was using my “Green Brain” to revise my ideas into a sequential storyline. Writing Princess Shayna was similar to writing a love letter. The book has been described as “a rainbow of love for differences.” It was a “love gift” I was privileged to write and share with a multitude of children, families and teachers. I’m looking forward to completing the sequel.

Q: What are some of the creative writing ideas children can find in Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift? Could this approach be used by adult writers?

Sheila: Both children and adults have used the creative writing idea of “Brain Color” character and setting development. Creating multifaceted characters and settings adds dimension, texture, substance, conflict and harmony to their work. Utilizing storyboards to write, organize, revise and formulate a story also is visually dynamic, efficient and effective.   

Q: I have to ask: What color is Chicago's brain?

Sheila: Chicago is a “Brainbow,” a blending, similar to a rainbow, where each color is significant, not completely definitive, but unified. Chicago’s “Yellow Brain” is the unquestionable pride individuals feel for the city. The “Blue Brain” is the friendly and helpful attitude of the city’s residents. The “Green Brain” is represented by the abundance of knowledge seekers and providers in the schools, universities, colleges and libraries within the city. Last, but not least, is the “Orange Brain” entrepreneurial spirit of the Chicagoland business community. 

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Sheila: Yes, thank you for asking. I am committed to offering comfort, encouragement and education to the children and adults who deal with the never-ending challenges of diabetes. I am also dedicated to raising funds for and creating a greater awareness about diabetes. I have first-hand knowledge and experience with the serious challenges diabetes creates. Our eldest son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 24 years ago, when he was 15 years old. My father, had Type 2 diabetes for several years before he passed away from heart disease, which was complicated by his diabetes. Even our family cat developed Type 1 diabetes when he was 13 years old and lived to be 18 years old. Purr-fect Pals: A Kid, A Cat and Diabetes and Princess Shayna’s Invisible Visible Gift include characters who must deal with the “highs” and “lows” of diabetes. What Color Is Your Brain? includes practical information to help individuals improve their understanding about themselves and others, which leads to a healthier lifestyle. I allocate 10% of the royalties from the sale of all my books to JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation).