Category Archives: children's book writing

Authors and readers of children’s books, including picture books, chapter books, middle-grade books and young adult.

The “MAD about MADhattan” tour kicks off at Radio City!

In anticipation of the May 2012 release of my middle-grade novel, MADHATTAN MYSTERY, I’m taking you all on a virtual tour of the many spectacular Big Apple sites that pop up in the book. So, grab your camera and a light snack, hop on the tour bus and LET’S GO!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS! It’s that “most wonderful time of the year”, so what better place to begin our tour of Manhattan than Radio City Music Hall? Located a block from the gigantic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, their trademark “Christmas Spectacular” features the high-kicking Rockettes and it’s a show—no, not just a show—an other-worldly experience unlike any other! Plenty of dazzling dance numbers, singing, costumes, and sets—plus, an onstage ice-skating rink, ballet dancing teddy bears, and a living nativity scene with live camels, donkeys, and sheep. And as if that weren’t enough, now they’re incorporating 3D effects, too. Yep, there’s actually a pair of 3D glasses attached to the programs. See?


You certainly can’t fault them for not keeping up with the times. Did you know that there are even small rechargeable microphones attached to the bottom of each of the Rockettes’ tap shoes?! SO COOL! (As a former tap dancer myself, I find this really fascinating.) I saw the show for about the fourth time last year with some friends visiting from Chicago and it knocked my socks off. (No wonder my ankles were freezing when we took that horse and buggy ride through Central Park.)

 Here are some more pix…















And here’s a snippet from Chapter 20 of MADHATTAN MYSTERY featuring Radio City. 


Entering the lobby was like stepping into a giant Donald Trump living room, provided Donald Trump liked lots of plush red and gold—and crowds. And the jaw-dropping grandiosity continued inside the theater itself. Lexi had never seen so many seats. They extended clear into the heavens, tier after tier, like a humongous wedding cake.

“Can you believe they were actually going to tear this down?” Aunt Roz said as the usher led them toward the stage, which was a glowing orange sunburst that was practically as big as the sun. “I haven’t been inside since the renovation. Melrose, have you ever been?”

“I saw the Christmas Spectacular once, back when I was, like, a fetus. Alls I remember is one of the camels in the livin’ nativity scene takin’ a dump onstage.”

That angel-of-silence thing was happening again—the fifth time that night, if you were counting, and Lexi was. Something was definitely strange with Melrose—well, stranger than usual. She had started off the evening glowing and now she was glowering, and Lexi couldn’t figure out why.

Check out Radio City’s website for more info on this beautiful and historic theatre. And be sure to stop back here for Tour Stop #2: Grand Central Terminal!

Cover Story

HERE IT IS! A sneak peek at the fantastic cover for my middle-grade novel coming out next spring for Walker/Bloomsbury. This is the version they’ll be using for the ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) and for the publisher’s catalogue. The final-final version may have a few more tweaks. Go ahead and click on it to make it bigger.

That’s Lexi McGill, the heroine, with her head sticking out the window.  (I’m hoping the artist can grab a virtual curling wand and add a few more curls to her hair for the final version.) Her little brother Kevin is sitting next to her in the baseball cap, looking a little freaked out. They’re from a small town called Cold Spring, so New York City is quite a jolt. The brunette with the wry expression and funky pigtails (with bluish streaks, if you look closely) is native New Yorker, Kim Ling Levine. Her parents own a brownstone on 73rd and West End Avenue which is  where Lexi and Kevin’s aunt lives and where the kids are staying–but I don’t want to give too much of the story away. Okay, only that it’s “dislike at first sight” for Lexi when she meets Kim Ling. “Like a left to right handshake, we just don’t fit.”  Can you recognize Grand Central in the background? It’s the famous railroad terminal, where several scenes in the book take place. In it, around it, and way, way, way below it.

Erwin Madrid is the incredibly talented artist who created this cover. I really like how it has a kind of 3D effect–and how the scenery almost looks like a photograph. Besides doing book covers, Erwin does animation drawings for DreamWorks and has worked on some of the Shrek and Madagascar movies. (You can sort of tell from the way he draws people. I can almost see them hopping around on the silver screen.) If you ask me, he’s kind of a genius when it comes to art–and apparently has the patience of a saint.

See, this is about the fourth version of the cover I’ve seen, and I’m sure there’ve been a ton more versions that my editor didn’t show me. (I probably would’ve driven her nuts, if she had. I’m very picky when it comes to art. Okay, I’m very picky about just about everything.) Just from the few versions I’ve seen, the angle of the buildings has changed completely, the scene has gone from night to day, the Chrysler Building was cut out, the letters have gone from yellow to red, the cab has gotten much bigger, and the direction of it has changed.  (Did you know things have to be moving from left to right on a cover, otherwise it looks weird?) I’m glad my publisher is just as picky as I am, ’cause now we’ve ended up with this drool-worthy cover!

The rest of the book is in typesetting right now, so it won’t be long before I get to see what it looks like in actual print–you know, the galleys. Three words: Hold. Me. Down.

Copyediting: What to Expect

After you’ve taken your manuscript through two or three rounds of initial edits with your editor, it will be passed along to a copyeditor, who examines each line of text with a fine-toothed comb. When you receive your manuscript back from them—coffee-stained and curling at the edges—it will be peppered with proofreader symbols along with corrections on typos, spacing, wording, grammar, that type of thing, written in one color (usually red pencil); and directions specifically for the typesetter about  font, design elements, etc. in another color (probably green). There will also be a slew of sticky-notes attached to the pages with questions for you regarding every detail of your manuscript imaginable. Daunting as it may seem, this is a good thing. We want to get it right, and these folks are the eagle-eye, nitpickers we need to zero in on the minutia we may have glossed over. You’ll get specific queries, such as: “Gyp is derived from the word gypsy and can be seen as a derogatory. Change to cheat?” “Kleenex is a TM and they insist on using Kleenex-brand-tissues. Substitute tissues instead?” “The ice cream is still  rock solid after a night in a powerless freezer? Revise or OK?” “They’ll also point out copyrighted material in your text—things like poems and song lyrics. For instance, I had just assumed that the song “Happy Birthday” was in the public domain, meaning, free. Wrong! You can only quote so many lines from it before your publisher would have to pay royalties. Who knew? There are ways to fudge it, though. Just use bits and pieces of the song—or substitute a few lyrics with “dum-dee-dums,” that sort of thing. Your publisher’s Legal Department will most likely be the final judge. 

For your changes, you’ll be asked to use a different color pencil from the copyeditor’s marks (I chose purple) and to write directly onto the manuscript. (Don’t even think about using an ink pen!) If you agree with a suggested change, you simply leave it as marked; if you disagree, you mark a dotted line under the words you want to keep and write STET in the margin, which means “let stand.” Now is also the best time to make your last major changes, adding or deleting copy, because after your book is typeset it gets difficult and expensive for the publisher to do so. This can take skill on your part. You have to use neat, teeny-tiny handwriting (or I should say hand-printing) to fit between the lines of text, and it must be done with the utmost of clarity. If I’m changing more than a word or two, I like to work out that specific section on my computer screen first and then transfer it into the manuscript, to avoid over-erasing and—heaven forbid!—holes in the paper. You’ll be advised, when adding more than a just few sentences, to type out the new text on a separate piece of paper, then clip it to the page. Heed this advice. 

Now, what about all those proofreader’s marks? I think it’s wise to have a list of them handy as you’re working through your edits to interpret what all the hieroglyphics mean—those little squiggles, symbols, carets, and lines. Most of these are intended for the typesetter, but you should be able to decipher them yourself so you can incorporate them when marking your changes. Little, Brown had provided me with an instructional booklet entitled “From Manuscript to Printed Book” which included a glossary of proofreader marks, but Walker/Bloomsbury didn’t. They’re easy enough to find online, though. Merriam-Webster’s site has a good one:

You’ll usually have a pretty short period of time in which to complete your copy edits and return them to your publisher—I had less than a week. So, it’s essential to work fast and work smart. Keep a pencil sharpener handy (the sharper the pencil point, the easier it is to write clearly in limited space). Resist the urge to work outdoors. If a thunderstorm or a mighty wind comes along, you could be in a heap of trouble—tons of work went into copyediting these pages and there’s no computer backup. As a safety net, I like to take notes on all the major changes I’ve made to the manuscript just in case there are follow-up questions. (And there are always follow-up questions.) This is an exciting time. After you’ve completed the copy editing process, your manuscript will be sent off to the typesetter. This means the galleys are right around the corner!

I’m melting…

It’s hotter than a witch’s bunyons here in NYC–and it’s supposed to get worse.  So, in honor of this relentless heatwave, I’ve decided to post a ranty little nonsense poem I wrote over a decade ago expressing my sweaty summer frustration.  (It’s healthy to get it all out, right?) Feel free to pour yourself a frosty tall glass of iced-tea, crank up the A.C. and have at it.

       IT’S HOT!          

It’s one of those sweltering, hot summer days.
Not a hint of a breeze and the sun is ablaze.

The sidewalk is smoking, the air is too thick,
I need gallons of water and ice cubes to lick.

The people out walking look sleepy and damp,
And the letter I’m mailing won’t stick to the stamp.

My sneakers are melting and stuck to my toes,
And my glasses are foggy and slide down my nose.

My clothes are all wrinkled and wet—nothing fits.
And Olympic-size sweat pools encircle my pits.

With no trace of spit, I can’t swallow or speak,
And I’d run for that bus, but I can’t—I’m too weak.

It’s too hard a choice to go left or go right,
My whole body’s expanding, my hair is too tight.

That pen in my pocket’s too heavy a load,
And I think I just saw a small pigeon explode.

Those men wearing suit jackets aggravate me,
’Cause they won’t take them off—IT’S ONE-HUNDRED-AND-THREE!

It’s only July, lots of summer to go.
I can’t wait to complain about blizzards and snow.

                                                                                                                                                             Copyright 2011 John J. Bonk

So, your editorial letter has arrived…now what?

Zippity-doo-dah! I’ve just completed Round Two of my edits for MADhattan Mystery and I owe myself a ridiculously decadent reward. Let’s see…there’s this $1,000 chocolate sundae topped with edible gold at a restaurant called Serendipity. But, no. I have to pay the rent.

Anyway, now that I have a minute to blog again, I thought I’d compare and share the two different approaches I took to my first two rounds of edits. The first I had several months to deliver; the second—just two weeks. Let’s visualize…


* The editorial letter arrives along with my annotated manuscript. I’m excited, exhilarated, and completely overwhelmed. I read the letter at least three times in a row and let it all wash over me without indulging in my immediate reactions. These can run the gamut from “Wow, what a brilliant idea!” to “You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding?” (Warning: initial reactions can be completely misleading.)

* With all this new info marinating my brain, I go to Staples and buy an assortment of colorful sticky tabs, extra-long rubber bands for securing loose manuscripts, and a funky little composition notebook. (Warning: totally unnecessary stuff like paperclips in the shape of treble clefs should probably be avoided while in this overenthusiastic state.)

* I read through my entire manuscript, identifying every page that has a handwritten remark from my editor with a pink sticky tab; and pages where I have new ideas or solutions with a blue sticky tab. I make corresponding notes in my notebook for easy referral and record all my ideas, no matter how wacky—I know they can turn out to be valuable later on. (Warning: Every “Ha!” from your editor will elicit a twinge of joy; every “Too abrupt” will bring a pang of deep disappointment.)

* I re-read the editorial letter for about the tenth time.

* I’m thinking it’d make sense to tackle all the small changes first, and then move onto the weightier stuff. But then again, if I end up cutting an entire section filled with the small changes, I’ve wasted a bunch of time. It’s a toss up. I ultimately decide on big stuff first.

* I re-read the editorial letter for the umpteenth time. (Warning: Even if a particular suggestion still seems questionable, give it a shot anyway and try to make it work. Amazing things can happen. Trust your gut—but trust your editor, too.)

* I start from the beginning of the novel and implement all the changes into the electronic version on my computer. As I’m working, new insights pop into my head, spunkier dialogue, etc. Little gifts! Some can immediately be added; others need more contemplating, so I’m constantly keeping notes.

* When I think I’ve got it in tip-top shape, I print out the entire manuscript. Yep, things really DO look different on actual paper than on a computer screen. Then I do a final read-through to see if all the changes I’ve made work as a whole; if they’re integrated smoothly—not lumpy and bumpy. I have my notebook handy and more sticky tabs just in case, but what I’m really striving for at this point is real-time reading speed. It should all play out like a movie. (Warning: You WILL stop a zillion times anyway and find a zillion more mistakes.)

* I make the final-final changes and send the revised novel off to my editor wondering, “Why the heck is it ten pages longer after I’d trimmed so much?” (Warning: You will immediately think of at least FIVE new ideas as soon as you press “send”. Write them all down in your funky little notebook for the next round of edits.)


* All of the above but with a few minor changes. I skip the trip to Staples. Instead of taking handwritten notes in a notebook, I type them into my computer instead. Much faster. This time I tackle the small stuff first, ’cause there are less major adjustments. And instead of printing out the entire manuscript, I do the final read-through on the computer screen, making changes as I go along.

* While waiting for the next round of edits, I dream of ridiculous things like $1,000 sundaes…and wonder what I’m going to do with all these treble-clef-shaped paperclips.

The In-Your-Face Calendar

There are so many story facts to juggle when writing a novel, it’s mind boggling! And they have a tendency to change a lot, so keeping track of them all is key. One way I avoid inconsistencies in my timeline is to keep an active CALENDAR indicating which chapters fall on which days and the major events that take place. I plaster it onto the door right next to my desk for quick reference and create separate little sheets for each day so that when facts change, I can simply replace one little sheet of paper instead of having to make a whole new calendar. This saves a lot of grief during the revision process, believe me! Lines like “Remember our fishing trip last Tuesday?” or “I can’t believe school starts in three days” or “The wedding is this Sunday, the ninth,” though accurate in your first draft, might get completely changed and rearranged by, say, version number five. Somehow in the writing process (for a thousand different reasons) the fishing trip was switched to a Wednesday, school starts in five days, not three, and the wedding was moved to the 12th. Keeping a calendar on your computer is also a good idea, especially if you do a lot of laptop-writing-on-the-go, but when writing at home, opt for a giant, handy-dandy calendar a glance away to prevent fits of hair-pulling frustration.

Calendars are also great holiday reminders, of course. Everyone remembers the biggies like Thanksgiving and Christmas, but what about the forgettables like Groundhog Day, say, or Flag Day? I managed to work in Friday, the 13th and Father’s Day into the storyline of the novel I’m currently working on, which might’ve been completely overlooked had it not been for the almighty calendar. Now, don’t get me started on moon phases…

Here’s a link to a great website where you can print out calendars and size them to your liking. A whiteboard calendar would probably work well, too, but it could get messy—or accidentally erased—and it’s not free.

Your Day Job and Why Not to Hate It

Sometimes my job-job gets me down. (“Job-job” meaning the job you have to have in order to survive, as opposed to the work you’d rather be doing, namely, your latest writing venture. Duh.) In my case, the job-job is transcription—you know, listening to sound files of interviews, speeches, focus groups, etc., and converting them into hardcopy via computer keyboard. I’m lucky enough to do it only part-time and to work out of my apartment, which makes it a heck of a lot more palatable, but still… Like I said, having to devote so many hours to it can occasionally give me the gloomy-dooms.

Recently, I had a little power surge when it occurred to me that if it weren’t for my job-job, I may not have become a writer at all. I remember one day when I was working in the office of our company on East 42nd Street… [CUE FLASHBACK MUSIC AND WAVY SCREEN] I was doing a transcription for a regular client called the Trumpet Club. I don’t know if they still exist. They used to do radio broadcasts of children’s book authors reading from their published works for classrooms. Some of it was fantastic, awe-inspiring stuff, but some of it was—well, honestly, I remember thinking, “Ugh. I think I can do better than that.” I was so overcome with this personal challenge that I began composing a poem on the way home from work that very day. “The Monster Inside Me” I think I’d called it. Anyway, that poem turned out to be the catalyst for many other poems, articles and short stories that would see the golden light of publication in several magazines—which led to a few writing classes—which led to a great critique group—which led to two published middle-grade novels and another one on the way. Thanks, Trumpet Club!

To this day, I’m always jotting things down as I transcribe for use in my writing. Interesting words, names, places, phrases, facts, expressions, dialects… In fact, the inspiration for my third novel came entirely from a transcription job I was working on in which there was a discussion about something called the “whispering gallery” in Grand Central Station. I had never even heard of it at the time, but it’s an unmarked area just outside the Oyster Bar Restaurant where a whisper in one corner can be heard clear as day in the opposite corner. (Very cool. Something to do with the curved ceilings.) I immediately thought, “What a great concept for a novel! What if someone who wasn’t aware of this phenomenon happened to be standing in the corner plotting out a crime with his cohort—and it was accidentally overheard by an innocent bystander?” That little nugget of a thought turned into my middle-grade novel, Boondoggle, which was recently acquired by Walker Books.

I know, I know—inspiration can come from anywhere, not only yelchy job-jobs. But if you happen to be stuck in one (and you probably are) do keep your eyes and ears open and your notepad ready. You can get more out of it than just a paycheck.

Happy Trailers…

Who doesn’t love a good book trailer? I’ve already begun planning mine, even though my next book, MADhattan Mystery (Bloomsbury/Walker Books), isn’t due out until Spring of 2012. The story centers around a mystery in Grand Central Station that takes the main characters on a wild goose chase all around Manhattan. Think of the book trailer possibilities! I’d love to go all Hollywood – hire actors, a special effects artist, John Williams to do the score, James Cameron to direct – maybe do it in 3D! (Ooh, I just got a little head rush.)

Realistically speaking, it’ll mostly be me with my Canon PowerShot begging favors from unsuspecting friends. I’ve already put a bug in the ear of my best friend, who does video projections for Broadway shows. Hopefully, he’ll find the time to work his magic for me. In lieu of a Christmas gift this year? Steve, if you’re listening… [QUICK ASIDE: In a newspaper montage that flashes onstage during Tony-Award-winner Memphis, he included a blurb that read, “Bonk’s book sells out!” It’s just filler and goes by much too quickly to make out what it says, but still… Maybe it’ll have a subliminal effect on all those theatergoers.] 

Anyway, back to book trailers. I’ve found that some of the simpler ones, if done well, can be more effective than the mega-produced variety. The official trailer for Because of Winn-Dixie, one of my favorite books, is just a series of still shots with captions and background music but it really works. Whereas the extended trailer for bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain, which is a high-quality video with professional voiceover, seems way too long and as a result, loses its impact. (It’s still a fantastic book though, and the dog in the trailer is adorable.)

So simple is probably the way to go. Although, now that I think of it, Blythe Danner (Gwyneth’s mom) would make the perfect Aunt Roz character for my trailer. Quirky. Sophisticated. Heart of gold. Moves back to NYC to resume her acting career after her husband cheats on her. We’d have to blow-dry Blythe’s hair straight to match the description in the book – I wonder if she’d work for scale. No, no, forget it. Simple pimple.



A Novel Approach

Flaubert once said, “Words, like hair, shine with combing” and I have to agree. (Not  that I  really know who Flaubert was. I’m guessing he ended up bald but accomplished.) Something that helped me whip my last novel into shiny, sellable shape was a little gem of a book called Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise by author/teacher Darcy Pattison. 

Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise Novels with Creative Writing Tips, Tools, and Strategies

It’s a paperback work-book filled with helpful tips that guides you through a thorough examination of your already finished novel. I mean, you’ll really strip it down to the studs and rebuild it into a much stronger piece. But be prepared to work your pencil off! Plot, character, language, setting, voice – you’re really going to delve.

One exercise that takes you out of the work-book is a technique called the Shrunken Manuscript where you print out your entire novel single-spaced in the tiniest font possible and lay it out across the floor to view it as a whole. (At first I thought, Yeah, right – that’s not gonna happen. But I followed through and it turned out to be fun and fruitful.) You use colored markers to highlight the strongest chapters so you can see the proportion of text in them compared with the weaker chapters. But that’s just for starters. According to Pattison, “You can use the Shrunken Manuscript to evaluate anything that you want to visualize across the novel: settings where two characters interact, the percentage of dialogue, places where you repeat a certain setting, places where the theme is made obvious, etc.” Very cool. Just make sure your kitty is locked in another room when you do this or things can get ugly.  

Another particularly enjoyable aspect of this book is that you’re encouraged – no, required to write all over the pages just like grade-school workbooks. Very hands on. Truth be told, I was always sneaking out my miniature-golf sized pencil and scribbling through exercises while I served on a Grand Jury (during downtime only, I swear – and there was plenty of downtime.) But since I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I did notice quite a few typos in this book – like, “I did done a good job of using active verbs…” Eesh. Come on, copyeditors. Other than that, they did done a good job!  

Check out Darcy’s blog, FICTION NOTES, at

Blogless in Manhattan

Whoa. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since last I blogged! I suppose it comes down to the fact that I only have so much time to devote to writing each day, thanks to my job-job. But it turns out those weekly paychecks are a necessity – my cat’s tummy-tuck isn’t gonna pay for itself. That’s her, Dinah Blue, in the photo across the top of the page, discretely hiding her midriff bulge behind the laptop. (“You’re beautiful as you are!” I keep telling her, but whaddya gonna do?) Ugh, I blame America’s Next Top Model and Heidi Montag.

Anyway – sorry, blog, but lately I’ve been pouring my words into a novel-in-progress entitled FRANKLIN DELANO, PLEASE COME HOME! It’s about a Southern boy who happens to have dyslexia (before anyone really knew what that was). There’s a barkless dog, a headless doll, a big explosion… Well, I don’t want to reveal too much at this point since I’m only halfway through the first draft and things have a tendency to change. How about a few random excerpts? I’m just gonna close my eyes and point…

Page 19: 

Here’s the thing about a foolproof plan. It depends on how foolish the two fools are who’re trying to carry it out. And I’d say anyone purposely messing with an evil dog murderess with a kitchen full of poison is plenty foolish. 

Page 39:

“You smell like dog,” he tells me right off.

“Well, you’re no bed of roses.”

“Don’t sass me, boy.”

I’m thinking, “You don’t sass me!” But instead I just say, “Yessir, Uncle Bo.” Then I whisper “Vine” to myself. Bovine means cow. Ha! It’s my own private joke and it makes putting up with him a hair easier.

Page 72:

The sign reads ALICE’S INFECTIONS & ICERY CREAM or something like that. I know my brain’s jumbling the letters, but the ICE CREAM part sticks out plain as day.

Page 109:

It’s not that I give up hope when the lunatic’s station wagon pulls up beside me a half a mile or so later. Don’t mind too much that I’m plum tuckered out and my feet are encrusted with shards of gravel; and the fact that I’m out in public in nothing but a dead boy’s pajamas barely crosses my mind.