alexandra alger


Archive for the month “July, 2016”

Harry Potter!

Harry Potter’s back! Behold the window display in my local independent bookstore for a midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.


A release party! Just like the good old days, when J.K. Rowling produced her seven Harry books ever year or so, starting in 1998 (stunning, given how long and complex the later books were). My bookstore, Bookcourt, has clearly been missing those years. “Costumes welcome!” the handwritten sign (so Mugglish) reads. “Butterbeer! Get sorted into your Hogwarts house! Make your own wand at Ollivander’s!”

I have to admit I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the news about a Harry Potter play opening in London. I’d gotten the Amazon emails, trumpeting my chance to pre-order the script. “Why would I want to read a play script,” I grumbled to myself. I’m as big a Harry fan as the next person—which is to say big—but this just seemed like a massive, cynical marketing ploy Why would Rowling write a play when she could write a novel? The play couldn’t be any good. Well. it’s rave review in today’s New York Times changed my mind about that. The review tried not to give too much away—in keeping with the level of secrecy that Rowling always insists on prelaunch, quite rightly—and I know just enough to know I’m going to have to buy this damn thing, a “rehearsal edition script,” whatever that is. After all, I won’t be getting over to London anytime soon. (The play is reportedly sold out until next May.) When’s that release party again?

I have fond memories of going to a midnight bookstore party for the seventh and last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My husband and I were in Hanover, N.H.,  spending the night before picking our son up from camp the next day. It was the night be before  would be released–and of course, we didn’t know the title then, we didn’t know anything. The Hanover book store was having a release party at midnight. We went with another couple, friends who were  picking up their son at the same camp. The bookstore was packed, of course. I remember being pushed backward by the crowd. I was resigned to waiting many hours before being able to buy a book, when all of a sudden our friends–tall and determined–pushed their way to the front of the line and bought a book for all of us. Heroes!  I remember reading late into to night, and having trouble rousing myself for the trip to camp. When we got there, our son took possession of the book, and for days afterward, I waited impatiently for him to go to sleep at night. There was no other time for me to read, except when he was in bed. My longing to get on with the book drove me to distraction. But we did end up sharing the book,  the three of us, Dan, my son and I. For some reason, it never occurred to us to buy more than one book. No, there was one, and it was precious.

How nice it would to have that feeling again! And maybe I will.






I participated in a four-day picture-book boot camp at the Highlights Foundation last weekend. Days later, I’m still sifting through my thoughts about the whole experience, what I learned, and what I had to relearn.

There were twenty of us, all author-illustrators save for four –five?–who were writers only. The whole weekend, I thought of myself as “just” a writer, a lesser person, frankly, than these extraordinary individuals who could tell a story both in words and pictures. Honestly, I’d never recognized how much work goes into the pictures alone.



The Highlights campus lies in bucolic northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles from the town of Honesdale,  home of the Highlights magazines for kids. Here’s the barn, where we met for meals and had many of our critique sessions. It really reminded me of the lodge of my summer camp, Green Cove, down in North Carolina. The food was much better, though. The food was astoundingly good. Everything was from a farmer’s market. Eggs  and sweet New Jersey blueberries at breakfast; homemade soups and salad and hearty breads at lunch; for some reason I’m blanking on the dinners, but they were delicious, too. And with all that,  because we are children’s writers, after all, we could have ice cream anytime we wanted. That’s right. Highlights has an ice-cream bar. With sprinkles. Two kinds. You’re searching for the Highlights schedule right now, aren’t you?


Most of us stayed in individual cabins like this. Simple inside, with two single beds, a dresser, a small desk, a mini fridge (with seltzer and sodas inside–a thoughtful touch). Here are three of our talented group–from left to right Merrill Rainey, Kristen Bannister and Sabina Hahn. I feel sure you’ll be seeing their names in print at some point soon. It’s a funny thing, how quickly  strangers can bond when they have a common goal. We were all there to polish a particular work, and we were all eager to share it with our own kind. We were members of a tribe coming together for the first time.


I worship the faculty–four noted author-illustrators,  Pat Cummings, Denise Fleming, Steve Light and Floyd Cooper. Here’s Steve in the Barn, talking about his career. My photo’s crummy, but note the fantastic ink illustration on the screen. Each one of them gave me something valuable to think about.

The crux of the weekend was a 15-minute meeting, for each of us, with a publishing trio: an editor, an agent and an art director. Of course, we were all incredibly nervous. And hopeful; a few of us had agents or books already out, but most (like me) were looking for their big break. I was pitching a biography that I thought was compelling, naturally.

It wasn’t for them. So be it. I did get some feedback I can run with,  having to do with digging more deeply into my character. That rang true to me, and that’s what I’m working on now.

Other boot-camp takeaways:

  1. Make a dummy for every revision. I mean writers–it’s obvious that author-illustrators need to make them. A dummy magically reveals where the story falters or where it needs more room–it’s astonishing. I knew this, and yet had managed to arrive at boot camp without a dummy for my manuscript. Denise Fleming, bless her, had a pile of ready-mades ones that she’d brought for us. ( I think she said she’d stitched them on a sewing machine. She’s amazing.) Once I’d put mine together, I saw all kinds of possibilities I hadn’t before.
  2. Make your writing irresistible to read out loud. Punch up the text. Shorten sentences, use lively verbs.  Cut out any “then”s. (This last was Floyd’s pet peeve, and for good reason. A “then” is usually a sign of flabby writing.)
  3. Stay true to your idea, and to your writing, but keep an eye on the realities of the marketplace. Some ideas aren’t going to lead to a book deal. Which leads to….
  4. It’s not you it’s me: Editors’s decisions are subjective. They like what they like, and sometimes they don’t want things for reasons that are entirely personal. As Pat put it, in her inimitable way, if you’re pitching a cat book to an editor who was mauled by a cat as a child, that editor isn’t going to want your book, no matter how good it is. Knowing this doesn’t prevent the sucker punch of rejection, but it’s something.

I know my group of boot campers is hard at work right now, using the ideas and inspiration from the weekend. A few are already starting to submit. One may well have a contract (I’m waiting for confirmation).  I salute this talented bunch!  In one or two year’s time, boot campers’ will have books on sale. Fingers crossed.





A Brooklyn Walk

I was walking home from the southern end of Hicks Street, where I’d taken my car for an inspection, when a bridge appeared in front of me–a metal pedestrian bridge that stretched over the busy four lanes of two-way traffic. In two decades of driving up and down Hicks, I’d never registered the existence of this bridge. Which is really strange, but there it was. Of course, I had to walk across it. Here’s the view north:


And to the east:



There’s nothing like a bridge for a new perspective. Walking on the other side of Hicks now, I passed a slim hardback book sitting on top of a garbage bin.



Will do, I thought. I picked up the book. I was fated to take it, wasn’t I? When I saw it was written by a Google engineer, I decided against it. I wasn’t going to assign Google the power of the universe. Enough already. But I admired the contrast of the vibrant blue against the battered wood. It’s a Brooklyn tradition, to leave books outside for others to take. Granted, most of the books are old, quirky or obscure titles that no one else wants either, but the impulse is nice, I’ve always thought.



Taking Sackett Street east, I passed this evocative painting hanging in a window and realized I knew the painter: Ken Rush, who taught art for many years at my children’s primary and middle school, Packer. What an oddly satisfying 10-minute walk, which began with something new and ended with a memory from the past.

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