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Daniel Salmieri

Secret Pizza Party! (or How to Write the Best Kids' Book)

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Daniel Salmieri

Daniel Salmieri

Secret Pizza Party is one of the most popular books in my house, and certainly THE most popular book involving crafty raccoons trying to get their paws on deliciously cheesy slices. If you don't have the book, and you know a kid who loves reading, I can't endorse it enough. (Their previous book Dragons Love Tacos is also very high on our list.) This week, author Adam Rubin was kind enough to answer some of my questions, while illustrator Dan Salmieri sent over some early sketches. If you're interested in what it's like to be a children's author, how to avoid creative fatigue, or if you just want to hear about the day-to-day of some truly wonderful minds, this interview should help. 

***

ADAM RUBIN: I feel so lucky to make my living as an author. I spent ten years busting my butt in the creative department of various ad agencies and I only just quit my day job five months ago. Since then, my life has changed completely. I get invited to visit schools and book stores all around the country. It's so crazy. The other day, I walked out on stage in front of 600 kids who knew my work by heart. They were screaming out lines from the book and just generally going insane. It's hard to believe that words I peck out on a laptop in my apartment wind up swirling around the brains of hilarious little kids and creating these really beautiful family bonding moments for people I've never met. It's surreal. Writing can be such an isolating exercise. It's a revelation to meet fans in person and see how the books have become this incredible shared experience.

Daniel Salmieri

I don't often feel like a celebrity but when I randomly bumped into NYC pizza expert Scott Weiner at Pizza Suprema, he had a very emotional reaction. "Oh my god! Oh my god! Secret Pizza Party!!!" he screamed. The whole restaurant stopped to stare, wondering who the hell I was. Needless to say, Scott is a passionate guy. I had gotten him a copy of Secret Pizza Party through a mutual friend and he was nice enough to share the book with his fans on Twitter. I've found that food love creates a strong bond for people. Scott and I had never met before that day but he hugged me like a brother and it made me so happy. It's a fun way to connect. We get emails from restaurants saying how they keep our books out on the counter. My buddy even spotted Dragons Love Tacos at a taco stand in Japan! Dan and I recently sent a copy to the Fat Jew (@thefatjewish). He's been posting a lot about the need to create a taco emoji and we fully support his campaign. 

I never planned to become a children's author. I had a good career as an ad creative. I was working ten hours a day, flying around the country, cramming for pitch meetings, staying late into the night, spending weeks away on production. It was exciting but it could be frustrating I probably only produced one project a year that I was actually proud of. Flash back nine years and I'm sitting at my desk at Leo Burnett in Chicago writing story boards for a Happy Meal commercial. I get an email from my college friend Corey introducing me to a talented young illustrator he knew from high school. Dan and I exchanged portfolios and we hit it off immediately. He wanted to draw picture books and I wanted to work with him so I wrote a story called Those Darn Squirrels and sent it over. Dan had already been hired for a scholastic project based on the strength of his student work and that opened some doors for meetings with other publishers. He brought my manuscript, along with some  great sketches he had made, into a meeting with an editor at Clarion and they offered to buy the book. Not the typical story of breaking into the book business. When Those Darn Squirrels came out, the response was tremendous. We got all these starred reviews and won a Borders Original Voices award. Since then we've done five other books. I was building my advertising career the whole time, writing the stories at night. It was a really satisfying and fun creative outlet but I never imagined it could become my full-time job. Then, when Dragons Love Tacos came out, it was a huge hit. After 52 weeks on the best-seller list, our publisher offered us a multi-book deal and I decided it was time to leave my office life behind.

The protagonist of Secret Pizza Party is a raccoon because it seemed like the perfect combination of cute and cunning. They are adorably fuzzy with big fluffy tails but they also have that bandit mask and those grabby little hands. I wanted an animal that the reader could root for but that the other characters in the book might not like as much. Maybe all raccoons are similarly misunderstood rascals.

For some kids, Dan and I have become unofficial experts on what foods animals like. We often get asked if Dragons like pizza or nachos or strawberry cupcakes. Another common question is whether I personally enjoy spicy salsa. The answer is yes. In fact, the spicier the better. I recently had some habanero salsa that was so hot it made me sweat. Good stuff.

Daniel Salmieri

For me the creative process is more of a mindset than a timeframe. I try to stay curious and playful in general and it helps me to discover new ways of looking at things. I'll experiment with something fun that might seem totally purposeless at the time or indulge some random boondoggle on a whim. Inspiration seems to occur more naturally that way. Something will pop into my head that I find appealing and I write it down then forget about it. I like to have multiple projects going on at once. When I get tired of one, I move on to another or dive into my notebook to see what kind of random crap is written in there. When I go back to an idea without consciously thinking about it for a while, I feel refreshed and invigorated to develop it more. Sometimes I find that I have a whole bunch of new stuff to add that was ruminating in the back of my mind somehow. That said, sometimes I'm on deadline. I find a combination of early rising, strong coffee and walking breaks helps me get the best writing done with the minimal amount of consternation.

My favorite books from childhood are Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer. Modern classics I love are The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith and The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. I find a lot of inspiration in pop-up books like ABC3D by Marion Bataille, Bruno Munari's work for children, and a lot of obscure European picture books I get sent by friends. Growing up I used to love reading the Klutz Book of Kids Shenanigans, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side.

Daniel Salmieri

A lot of parents tell me they like our books because the tone is different from a lot of the other stuff they read. I've heard it described as "conspiratorial" and I like that. It's like the older brother who lets you in on a secret but doesn't actually know what he's talking about. The narrator often plays a part in the story and is kind of in cahoots with the reader. There are lots of different people reading picture books: kids, parents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, younger siblings, teachers, booksellers, librarians, celebrities, airplane pilots and popcorn scientists. It's actually a much wider audience than you might expect. I try not to get distracted by what who will like. When I write, I write something I will like. Something that makes me laugh. Dan is often my first reader and if he laughs at a draft, I know I'm onto something. We really try to do something interesting with each project. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a picture book and we know there are people out there who will be forced to read them six thousand times. We aspire to make something that's great. Not just "great for kids."

My pizza consumption has definitely increased since moving to New York. No offense to Chicago but deep dish is just lasagna in disguise. The last really good pizza party I attended was actually thrown by Scott Weiner and the guys from The New York Pizza Project at the City Reliquary in Brookyln. There was even a guy dressed in a giant pizza costume.

My favorite pizzeria is actually in St. Louis. Don't freak out. There are tons of delicious pizzas in New York but this little spot in Missouri has a special place in my heart. It's called La Pizza and I worked as a delivery guy there while I was in school at Wash U down the street. It's run by some guys from the east coast and the pies and calzones are all expertly made with quality ingredients. You'll find a lot of homesick New Yorkers there with smiles on their faces.

Daniel Salmieri

One of my favorite things is when people throw parties based on the stories. They'll dress up as the characters and make special cakes or build life size replicas of illustrations from the book. It makes me so happy. There are some really creative and talented parents out there.

Our next book is called Robo-Sauce and it comes out October 20th. It's the story of a magic potion that turns squishy little humans into giant awesome robots. Eventually, everything in the story gets turned into robots. There's even a secret shiny metal dust jacket that folds out from inside and turns the whole book into a robot. Spoiler alert. The responses so far have been super exciting. Our publisher really took a chance on making something that's never been done before. The production/design process has been intense but I'm so happy with how everything turned out. There's all this crazy neon ink and Dan really outdid himself with the illustrations. It's ridiculous and surprising and I'm probably overhyping it now so I'm gonna stop.

To get your hands on Dragons Love Tacos, Secret Pizza Party, or any of Adam and Dan's other books, be sure to click here.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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12 Fantastic Facts About A Wrinkle in Time
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Madeleine L’Engle’s acclaimed science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has been delighting readers since its 1962 release. Whether you’ve never had the chance to read this timeless tale or haven’t picked it up in a while, here are some facts that are sure to get you in the mood for a literary journey through the universe—not to mention its upcoming big-screen adaptation.

1. THE AUTHOR’S PERSISTENCE PAID OFF.

She’s a revered writer today, but Madeleine L’Engle’s early literary career was rocky. She nearly gave up on writing on her 40th birthday. L’Engle stuck with it, though, and on a 10-week cross-country camping trip she found herself inspired to begin writing A Wrinkle in Time.

2. EINSTEIN SPARKED L'ENGLE'S INTEREST IN QUANTUM PHYSICS AND TESSERACTS.

L’Engle was never a strong math student, but as an adult she found herself drawn to concepts of cosmology and non-linear time after picking up a book about Albert Einstein. L’Engle adamantly believed that any theory of writing is also a theory of cosmology because “one cannot discuss structure in writing without discussing structure in all life." The idea that religion, science, and magic are different aspects of a single reality and should not be thought of as conflicting is a recurring theme in her work.

3. L’ENGLE BASED THE PROTAGONIST ON HERSELF.

L’Engle often compared her young heroine, Meg Murry, to her childhood self—gangly, awkward, and a poor student. Like many young girls, both Meg and L’Engle were dissatisfied with their looks and felt their appearances were homely, unkempt, and in a constant state of disarray.

4. IT WAS REJECTED BY MORE THAN TWO DOZEN PUBLISHERS.

L’Engle weathered 26 rejections before Farrar, Straus & Giroux finally took a chance on A Wrinkle in Time. Many publishers were nervous about acquiring the novel because it was too difficult to categorize. Was it written for children or adults? Was the genre science fiction or fantasy?

5. L’ENGLE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO CATEGORIZE THE BOOK, EITHER.

To compound publishers’ worries, L’Engle famously rejected these arbitrary categories and insisted that her writing was for anyone, regardless of age. She believed that children could often understand concepts that would baffle adults, due to their childlike ability to use their imaginations with the unknown.

6. MEG MURRY WAS ONE OF SCIENCE FICTION'S FIRST GREAT FEMALE PROTAGONISTS ...

… and that scared publishers even more. L’Engle believed that the relatively uncommon choice of a young heroine contributed to her struggles getting the book in stores since men and boys dominated science fiction.

Nevertheless, the author stood by her heroine and consistently promoted acceptance of one’s unique traits and personality. When A Wrinkle in Time won the 1963 Newbury Award, L’Engle used her acceptance speech to decry forces working for the standardization of mankind, or, as she so eloquently put it, “making muffins of us, muffins like every other muffin in the muffin tin.” L’Engle’s commitment to individualism contributed to the very future of science fiction. Without her we may never have met The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen or Divergent’s Tris Prior.

7. THE MURKY GENRE HELPED MAKE THE BOOK A SUCCESS.

Once A Wrinkle in Time hit bookstores, its slippery categorization stopped being a drawback. The book was smart enough for adults without losing sight of the storytelling elements kids love. A glowing 1963 review in The Milwaukee Sentinel captured this sentiment: “A sort of space age Alice in Wonderland, Miss L’Engle’s book combines a warm story of family life with science fiction and a most convincing case for nonconformity. Adults who still enjoy Alice will find it delightful reading along with their youngsters.”

8. THE BOOK IS ACTUALLY THE FIRST OF A SERIES.

Although the other four novels are not as well known as A Wrinkle in Time, the “Time Quintet” is a favorite of science fiction fans. The series, written over a period of nearly 30 years, follows the Murry family’s continuing battle over evil forces.

9. IT IS ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY BANNED BOOKS OF ALL TIME.

Oddly enough, A Wrinkle in Time has been accused of being both too religious and anti-Christian. L’Engle’s particular brand of liberal Christianity was deeply rooted in universal salvation, a view that some critics have claimed “denigrates organized Christianity and promotes an occultic world view.” There have also been objections to the use of Jesus Christ’s name alongside figures like Buddha, Shakespeare, and Gandhi. Detractors feel that grouping these names together trivializes Christ’s divine nature.

10. L’ENGLE LEARNED TO SEE THE UPSIDE OF THIS CONTROVERSY.

The author revealed how she felt about all this sniping in a 2001 interview with The New York Times. She brushed it aside, saying, “It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it. Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, 'Ah, the hell with it.' It's great publicity, really.''

11. THE SCIENCE FICTION HAS INSPIRED SCIENCE FACTS.

American astronaut Janice Voss once told L’Engle that A Wrinkle in Time inspired her career path. When Voss asked if she could bring a copy of the novel into space, L’Engle jokingly asked why she couldn’t go, too.

Inspiring astronauts wasn’t L’Engle’s only out-of-this-world achievement. In 2013 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) honored the writer’s memory by naming a crater on Mercury’s south pole “L’Engle.”

12. A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE ADAPTATION WILL HIT THEATERS IN 2018.

Although L’Engle was famously skeptical of film adaptations of the novel, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay (13th; Selma) is bringing a star-filled version of the book to the big screen next year. Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, and Zach Galifianakis are among the film's stars. It's due in theaters on March 9, 2018.

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