Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Interview With Debut Picture Book Author Jamie A. Swenson

Lucky 13 author Jamie A. Swenson's debut picture book, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Farrar, Strauss & Giroux BYR, arrives today, May 28, 2013! Congratulations, Jamie!

About BOOM, BOOM! BOOM! (from FSG):


One rainy night, in the midst of a storm,

A brave little boy is cozy and warm.

He’s all snuggled up, safe in his room—

When “ARROOO” howls dog, “is there room?”

Of course there’s room—and all is well—

Until . . . 


What happens when too many friends start to squish in?

That’s when the fun is sure to begin!

 Even the youngest of readers are invited to count along as each of the family pets seeks refuge from the thunder and lightning in this lively and adorable picture book about bedtime, fears, and friendship.

What reviewers are saying:

"A good...good-night picture book." - Kirkus Reviews

"Told in rhyme and including thunderous sound effects, this would be a reassuring bedtime story on a dark and stormy night." - Booklist

Interview with Jamie A. Swenson, debut author of BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

1. The premise of BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! – a courageous young boy comforting his dog and various other animals during a storm – sounds like a great buddy story and a sweet way to help children overcome nighttime storm worries. Can you describe how the idea for your story came about?

The story behind the story is what my father-in-law likes to call a "true life adventure" story. It was a dark and stormy night. I was snuggled in my bed with a book when BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Before I knew it, my entire family - two daughters, cat, dog, husband, various stuffed animals -- were all huddled together in my not-big-enough bed to wait out the storm. We talked and sang and had a pretty good time -- and when the storm ended everyone headed back to their own spots - leaving me free to run to my keyboard and write the first few lines of BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Of course, I took creative liberty and changed the story so we would have a brave young boy, many frightened animal friends -- and of course -- the bossy big sister! I hope kids have fun with the book as they brave through noisy thunderstorms (which can be scary for kids and animals, too!).

2. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?

I knew the voice for the story from the very moment the idea came to me -- and I knew the refrain -- flash, crash, boom boom boom! -- but it took many, many revisions to get the story into its current version. At one point mom, dad, granny -- and I think a rat -- all jumped into that bed! For many reasons, this did not work! The only part that is exactly the same from the first version is that the child is brave and the dog jumps in first (as that is what really happened in MY real-life story) -- otherwise, I played and had a lot of fun trying to get this story just so!

3. Once your editor became involved, did the story change, or is the story in the book similar to the one you first submitted?

There were not any changes made to this manuscript from the time I sent it to FS&G to the text that is in the real book -- but, as I said earlier, the text went through many changes before I started submitting it to editors. I had many talented writer friends read it aloud to me and help me hear the words and the rhythm of the story (including my dear Tamera Will Wissinger) -- there comes a point when you are so close to your story that you cannot hear it any longer -- and you can make anything work. It's important to have friends who are willing to read your work to you so you can hear another person's voice reading the text.

4. Can you describe how you felt when you first saw David Walker’s charming illustrations?

The very best part of being a picture book author is seeing the artwork for the first time. It's Christmas, every birthday, and the Fourth of July all at once. Every time I see the art, I find a new favorite illustration. I am especially fond of the cat (who looks remarkably like my dear cat, Jack), and of Fred the bear. I have to say my favorite illustrations show the little boy happy, safe, and reading with Fred. Still, the reptile hug illustration makes me smile ear-to-ear -- just like the text did when I wrote it: "Snake coiled up -- a bit too snug! Seven squished folks in a reptile hug."

5. What is the best part of writing picture books for young readers?

I have been fortunate to work as a librarian/early literacy storyteller for over 12 years now -- and the very best part about writing books for kids is sharing that book with kids. My library is so good to me -- we are having a book birthday party to celebrate Boom! Boom! Boom!'s release -- and I hope many of my storytime friends will be there to celebrate with me -- after all -- I wrote this book with them in mind!

6. What is the most difficult part of writing for this age reader?

Twos, threes, fours -- and even fives -- are not designed to sit still for very long. They are meant to interact with their world -- and anyone who writes for this age group should keep that in mind. They don't want flowery descriptions - they want to SEE the flowery thing and touch it and hold it and maybe taste it! Writing for the youngest group does not mean you cannot use wonderful words such as: "Three burrowed under all comfy-cozy" - it just means you better choose the words wisely. Make the words you use count. Invite the child into your text - either by intentionally giving them a role: FLASH CRASH BOOM BOOM BOOM (onomatopoeia works wonders with this age group) or by using words that are simply fun to listen to: "With five this bed is tip-flip-flopping!

Another thing to keep in mind when writing for the little folks is that a big person is more than likely going to be reading the text aloud. Make it fun for that person. Give the adult room to play, too. Be creative! Have fun!

7. You are also a children’s librarian. How has that helped you in your writing? Is there any downside?

Being a children's librarian/early literacy storyteller has exposed me to thousands (probably more) fabulous picture book texts. When I use a book with a group - I get to see how the kids react to certain aspects of the text and illustration. I've been doing storytime for over a decade now -- and I feel like the rhythm and flow of picture book text are within me now: the language, pacing, page turn - pause for effect. All of this helps and hinders me. I think of a new story! Hooray! Oh, but isn't that similar to XYZ? I am constantly comparing my text to fabulous books -- and that can be highly motivating -- or highly intimidating! Sometimes I just have to block out the books and give myself room to tell a story with my voice. There is probably a story already in existence for almost every scenario -- so the key is -- figuring out how to tell that story in a slant/unique way. And that is challenging for any writer -- not just me! I may be a bit more sensitive to it is all -- being in my line of work!

8. Can you tell us what you’re working on now, and what’s up next for you?

I am currently working on a new early chapter book. It combines some historical settings with some interesting characters who I am just getting to know. I'm still in the dreaming/researching mode for this story -- but so far -- it's been a lot of fun and I've already learned some new facts about the revolutionary war. I don't think that there is ever a time that I'm not jotting down new phrases that hit me - words that I like the sound of - sentences I'd like to read aloud. There are scrapes of paper all over my workspace, kitchen, living room, and bedroom ... with little bits of prose that might sprout and grow into a picture book or something even longer!

9. Is there one question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself. One question that has not been asked of me yet is: When did I decide to become a writer?

There are a quite a few important people who played a role in my journey so far whom I would like to thank. First of all - my mother read to me and my brothers every day. She made a point of taking us to the library every week and letting us pick out our own books. As I grew, I was surrounded by people who loved books and reading -- my great aunts (The Joyce Girls) were constantly sending good books home with me. They sent me my first set of Anne of Green Gables -- my favorite books to this day. Plus, my Aunt Kay was a writer too -- she wrote short stories and novels -- and while she never had a book published -- she let me see that people in our family could be writers. And then there were my librarians: Cathy, Beth, and Kathy. Cathy Norris, my librarian when I was a child, taught me to love picture books. Beth Murray taught me to act out stories and make them more fun as I retold them. And Kathy Kennedy-Tapp was a real-live writer. She wrote novels that were published when I was a teen. From the moment I told her I thought I would like to be a writer - she supported me. She was another person who let me know it was possible for someone like me to grow up and be a writer. Since that time, there have been so many people who have helped me, supported in me, believed in me, and taught me -- that there is no way I could list each and every one. Still, I must say, my husband, Jon, is the person who supports me as a writer every single day. When I said I wanted to write books, he said, "Cool." When I told him I wanted to go to school and get my M.F.A. in writing, he said, "Absolutely - do it!" And when I told him I sold my first book, he said, "Of course you did. Now go write another.

I can't imagine being more blessed or having a career that better suits me -- and if not for the amazing people in my life -- I might not have followed this dream. Thank you for asking!


Jamie A. Swenson is the author of newly released BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!, pictures by David Walker (FSG), and the forthcoming BIG RIG, pictures by Ned Young (Disney/Hyperion, February 4, 2014), and IF YOU WERE A DOG, pictures by Chris Raschka (FSG). Online, you can connect with Jamie through her Website, Facebook, or Goodreads. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! is available wherever good books are sold, including through this FSG link.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Writing for the Market... NOT

Last month, after the advance reader copies of my novel, Brotherhood, had been circulating for a bit, my editor emailed to say she’d gotten this feedback: the word “damn” appeared so many times that some school librarians might choose not to carry the book; teachers might not add it to reading lists.

Oops! This was serious stuff! Way back in 2011, in my very first conversation with my editor, she’d said that my book belonged in the “school library market” – a market I’d never heard of. Oh, sure, I’ve heard of school libraries. I just didn’t know that publishers viewed them as a particular market. In my mind, books for young readers fell into these categories: picture books, early readers, middle grade, and young adult. Done. What did I know about selling books? Nada.

Well, it turns out that because mine is set during Reconstruction, and because there are few (if any) books for young readers set during that time, Brotherhood has the potential to bring social studies textbooks to life. My editor wanted to market it to middle school readers and up, and because some middle schools include the fifth grade, the book had to be suitable for a fifth grade reader.

In the revision stage, I thought I'd already walked a tightrope between age appropriateness, historical accuracy and modern sensibilities. I’d removed words that were more offensive than “damn,” particularly words spoken by the bad-boy-big-brother character (who is 17). And now, here I was, in the eleventh hour, removing “damn” everywhere except instances when a character had to call it like it was: damn Yankees!

Truth to tell, I didn’t mind making these changes. I love the editing and revision stage of writing. But when I completed these final revisions on Brotherhood (set for release this September) and refocused on my current work-in-progress  new characters, new setting  for a few days my writing wasn’t flowing. I was trying to please the school library market! Trying to write what I thought teachers would want. And it was killing the story. I had to step away. Had to take a deep breath. Had to listen to my protagonist again. I asked him to pour out his heart to me, and he cried, “No one will want to read my story!”

I’m writing his story, anyway, but hanging over me is the fear that my editor won’t want this next book because she won’t think it’s right for the school library market.

But I'm letting go of the market. I have to. While I’m writing, I can’t care what others might think. Instead, I'm digging deeply into the truth of this character, even if the truth isn’t pretty. It’s too early for me to say what this next book will be about, mainly because I’m still trying to figure that out. But I can say that it doesn’t fall into a neat school library category. I don’t know if it will be considered middle grade or young adult or even publishable. Right now I’m trying to get to the end of the first draft in order to see what I’ve got. And later, much later, if the manuscript happens to find a home, at that time I’ll worry about revisions to make it suitable for the market my editor thinks is best. What do I know about selling books? Very little. My focus is on writing them. Of course, once my book comes out, and in the weeks pre-release, I'll do everything I can think of (within budget) to find readers, but right now in the first-draft stage of a new novel, the last thing on my mind is the market.    


A. B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood, coming from Viking Children's Books in September. Set in 1867 Richmond, Virginia, it's the story of a fourteen year-old boy who sneaks off for reading lessons from Rachel, a freed slave, at her school for African-American children. By night he runs with a brotherhood, newly-formed to protect Confederate widows like his mom. As the true murderous intentions of the group, now known as the Ku Klux Klan, are revealed, he finds himself trapped between old loyalties and what he knows is right. You can read more at ABWestrick.com, on Facebook, and at Goodreads, and follow her on Twitter.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Kidlit Authors for Oklahoma Disaster Relief

This past Monday, a massive tornado hit the city of Moore in Oklahoma. It demolished 2 elementary schools, killing innocent children. A total of 24 people died, but many more lost their homes and all of their possessions.

The Lucky 13s have joined forces with the Friday the Thirteeners and the Enchanted Inkpot to help those  affected by the Oklahoma tornado. To that end, we are offering up a humongous extravaganza of a giveaway. Kidlit Authors for Oklahoma is starting today and will run for 2 weeks. Enter for your chance to win 1 of 5 book prize bundles and a chance to win a critique from our many wonderful authors.

To enter, all you have to do is donate $10 to the Red Cross fund at this link. That will earn you one entry. Each subsequent $10 donation is an additional entry. Once you've made your donation, please forward your Red Cross email receipt to kidlitauthors2013@yahoo.com and enter yourself into the drawing. You may enter once a day! Deadline is June 7th, 2013. Due to the size of these prizes we must limit this to US addresses only. However, the critiqes are open to everyone internationally! Thank you in advance for your support.

Lucky 13s YA Reader Prize Bundle 1:

Emma Pass - signed copy of her book ACID and signed postcards.

Justina Ireland - signed copy of VEGEANCE BOUND and an ARC of PROMISE OF SHADOWS (when she receives them this summer) 

Rachele Alpine - signed ARC of CANARY and swag

Ashley Elston - signed copy of THE RULES FOR DISAPPEARING and some swag

Jenn Stark - signed copy of MAID OF SECRETS and buttons

Amy Christine Parker - signed copy of GATED (when it's released)

Kate Karyus Quinn - signed copy of ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE and swag

Chelsea Pitcher - signed copy of THE S-WORD

Lenore Appelhans - signed copy of LEVEL 2 with Annotations!!

Susan Laidlaw - signed copy of AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE

Cat Winters - signed copy of IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS

Sarah Skilton - signed copy of BRUISED

Erin Richards - signed copy of VIGILANTE NIGHTS

Lucky 13s YA Reader Prize Bundle 2:

Maruene Goo - signed ARC of SINCE YOU ASKED

Liz Fichera - signed copy of HOOKED

Jennifer Salvato Doktorski - signed copy of HOW MY SUMMER WENT UP IN FLAMES and swag

Kelly Fiore - TASTE TEST charm bracelet

Laurie Boyle Cromptom - signed copy of BLAZE

Lindsey Scheibe - signed copy of RIPTIDE

Mindee Arnett - signed copy of THE NIGHTMARE AFFAIR

Lydia Kang - signed copy of CONTROL

Jess Verdi - signed copy of MY LIFE AFTER NOW

Lindsay Ribar - signed copy of THE ART OF WISHING

Debra Driza - signed copy of MILA 2.0

Erica Lorraine - signed copy of USES FOR BOYS

Emma Trevayne - signed copy of CODA

Lucky 13s MG Reader Prize Bundle:


Kit Grindstaff - signed copy of THE FLAME IN THE MIST and swag pack

Elisabeth Dahl - signed copy of GENIE WISHES and swag

Tamera Will Wissinger - signed copy of GONE FISHING: A NOVEL IN VERSE

Peggy Eddleman - signed ARC of SKY JUMPERS

Liesl Shurtliff - signed copy of RUMP

Laura Golden - signed copy of EVERY DAY AFTER and swag

Melanie Crowder - signed copy of PARCHED

A. B. Westrick - signed copy of BROTHERHOOD

Ink Pot Bundle:

Patricia Hoover - signed copy of SOLSTICE

Dawn Metcalf - signed ARC of INDELIBLE

Anne Nesbet - signed copies of CABINET OF EARTHS and BOX OF GARGOYLES

Cindy Pon - signed copies of Silver Phoenix, Fury of the Phoenix, and Diverse Energies

Leah Cypess - signed copies of Mistwood and Nightspell

Erin Cashman - signed copy of The Exceptionals

Friday the 13ers Bundle:

Shannon Messenger - signed copies of KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES and LET THE SKY FALL

Kasie West - signed copy of PIVOT POINT

JR Johannson - signed copy of INSOMNIA

Erin Bowman - signed copy of TAKEN

Ellen Oh - signed copy of PROPHECY

Elsie Chapman - signed copy of DUALED

Natalie Whipple - signed copy of TRANSPARENT

Kristin Bailey - signed copy of LEGACY OF THE CLOCKWORK KEY


Kara Taylor - 3 chapter and query critique

Liz Fichera - Query Critique

Brandy Colbert - 3 chapter critique

Chelsea Pitcher - 2 chapter critique

Sara Polsky - 3 chapter and query critique

Lisa Gail Green - 10 page critique

Kelly Fiore - Query Critique

Liesl Shurtliff - 3 chapter and query critique

Kit Grindstaff - YA or MG 2 chapter critique

April Tucholke - Query critique

Alexandra Duncan - 50 page critique

Mindee Arnett - 5 page and query critique

Christy Farley - 3 chapter and query critique

Natalie Whipple - 10 page critique

Renee Collins - Query and 10 page critique

Lenore Appelhans - 1 chapter critique of a YA MS

Erica Lorraine - Query or 1 chapter critique of a YA MS

L.R. Giles - Query and 10 page critique

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cover Scoop: Charm & Strange and other thoughts

my charm & strange
I signed up to write this post about the evolution of my book's cover months and months ago. Since then, the cover of my book has changed, as book covers are wont to do, and I've probably said everything I could say about the new cover over on the YA Highway in this post. But in a few words: I love it. I love that it's different. I love that it captures the tone and energy of the story, in all its mysterious strangeness. I love that it stands out.

But in the wake of the recent, and important, coverflip conversations, I've been trying to think about the cover in other ways, too. Coverflip, as you probably all remember, was the experiment called for by author Maureen Johnson, who wanted people to imagine what covers of popular books might look like if the gender of the author were different. Both she and Trish Doller noted that even when the content of the book features a male character, books by female authors are frequently given more "feminine" covers. Clearly there is nothing inherently wrong with "feminine" covers, many of the examples are beautiful and appealing and sell well, but Johnson's point was that, living in the biased culture that we do, these books are viewed as "less important" when packaged in a "feminine" way, as opposed to their male counterpart's more "serious" covers. That's a critique on the pervasiveness of our sexist social bias, not on the aesthetic of book covers.

Kelly Jensen at Stacked then wrote an interesting followup where she noted a number of debut female YA authors who write male-narrated books and who use their initials, instead of their full (female) names. There's tradition in this (J.K. Rowling!), and I totally understand why authors make this choice (I also understand that authors may use their initials for many different personal reasons, so the assumption definitely should not be made that the choice is always about gender). In truth, I never set out to buck this tradition: I just didn't think about it at all. So somehow along the way, I ended up with a gender neutral/boyish cover on my boy-narrated book that has my female name right on the cover.

What does this all mean? I have no idea. Maybe it means guys won't read my book? I don't think that's really true. Or if is, it's probably not because of my name.

However, I've done some very non-scientific digging around and I've found that I'm not alone. There are a few other debut 2013 YA authors with boy-narrated books and female author names and more masculine/gender-neutral covers. I've included a few here. I'm sure I've left some out. But maybe tradition is changing? I don't know. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Stephanie Kuehn is a graduate student living in Northern California. Her debut young adult novel CHARM & STRANGE will be published in June by St. Martin’s Press and Egmont UK.

You can connect with Stephanie on twitter or her website. She also blogs for YA Highway.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Debut Dabbles Vlog with J.R. Johansson

I've been vlogging quite a bit the last few weeks and have been trying out a new series on what happens in the life of a debut author during the few weeks before the launch of their first book.

Today I'm posting the check in for 2.5 weeks out, because that's where I'm at...and I'm choosing not to panic about it. Do not make me change my mind...

So here is my debut author report from 2.5 weeks out. It includes discussing getting my author copies and a sneak peek at a special giveaway I'm getting ready for my upcoming launch party!

Aiming books = much harder than one might think...

So that's what I'm doing. What are you dabbling in this week? :)


J.R. Johansson loves reading, playing board games and sitting in her hot tub. Her dream is that someday she can do all three at the same time. She is a YA thriller author published with Flux and FSG/Macmillan. She's represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Her debut novel, INSOMNIA, is due to be released in June 10, 2013. You can find her on twittergoodreads, her website, or her personal blog.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

10 Questions with Polly Holyoke, author of THE NEPTUNE PROJECT

with Karen Harrington

Author Polly Holyoke is celebrating the release of her marvelous middle-grade debut, THE NEPTUNE PROJECT today! This terrific new novel has been praised by Kirkus as a "suspenseful undersea dystopia."

The story asks the question: What if you had to give up everyone you ever loved to live in the sea, forever?

The Neptune Project is set in a future where the seas are rising and wars and famines wrack the surface world. Nere Hanson and her teen companions are shocked to learn that they have been genetically altered by their desperate parents to live in the sea. Protected by her loyal dolphins, shy Nere leads the rest on a perilous journey to her father’s new colony. Fighting off government divers, sharks and giant squid, can Nere and her companions learn to trust each other before their dangerous new world destroys them?

I've been friends with Polly for a little while, but I wanted to get to know her better so we recently sat down over coffee and I tossed out a few questions. (Because I love James Lipton's Inside The Actors' Studio final 10 question format on Bravo, I took those questions and modified them for writers.) 
Polly at her first signing and talk on
May 18th.

KH: What is your favorite book?

Polly: This is an impossible question, but for today I’ll answer THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley.  The magical desert world she creates is amazing, and I love her story of a young woman who discovers the hero inside herself.

KH: What is your favorite word?

Polly: “Serendipitous.” I like both this word’s sound and its meaning. When something nice and special just happens, that’s wonderful.

KH: What is your least favorite word?

Polly: “Slut.” It sounds ugly, and it is ugly, judgmental kind of word.

KH: What was the moment/experience in your life that made you KNOW you wanted to write?

Polly: The first year after I earned my teaching certificate, I was a substitute. The days I didn’t get called in to work, I started to write a fantasy novel, just for fun. I was hooked from the very first chapter because I found it so exciting to create a world and the characters who lived in it. As they write, authors get to live their characters’ adventures. I LOVE the scene in the movie Romancing the Stone where Kathleen Turner’s author character makes herself cry as she finishes the last scene in her novel.  I’ve often made myself cry and laugh as I write. Either this means I’m creating a truly vivid story, or I need psychological treatment.

KH: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?

Polly: Keep your butt in the chair and only reread the last page you wrote when you sit down to start writing again.

KH: What writing tool can you not live without?

Polly: I’m afraid I’ve become totally dependent on my computer.

KH: What turns you on creatively?

Polly: Chocolate… and stories about quiet kids who are thrown into impossible situations and find out they are brave and capable.

KH: What turns you off?

Polly: Answering phone calls and urgent emails.

KH: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Polly: I’d love to be a radio talk show host on NPR. That would give me an excuse to read all the time and meet fascinating new people. Wait, I’m an author, which means I already have a good excuse to read all the time and meet fascinating people!

KH: What profession would you NOT like to do?

Polly: I would NOT like to be a dentist. I do not think people’s teeth or gum diseases are the least bit interesting (my apologies to my own dentist who happens to be one of the nicest guys and best dads in the world.)
Polly's remote controlled shark hovered
about during her first signing. 


Learn all about THE NEPTUNE PROJECT and more on Polly Holyoke's website. 

Other places to find Polly: 

At home with her SIX pets. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

MEANWHILE...MIDDLE-GRADE: How We Deal With Issues In Our MG Books!

It's another Meanwhile...Middle-Grade Monday! There's a big divide in terms of what content is okay in MG vs. YA books, but middle-graders still have to deal with tough issues. They're not immune to situations that include violence, strong language, or even sex. However, the way these issues are handled in MG books often requires a different scope than in YA books. Here are some examples of the issues in our MG books and how the authors approached them for their intended audience.  

For my characters, there is more of a "suggestion" of things happening.  For example, my main character Ratchet has somewhat of a crush on Hunter, but nothing physical or romantic happens between them.  They become friends, which is really what Ratchet is longing for.  In the wholesome world of middle grade, I think characters becoming friends, with the "hint" that there might be more to it, is satisfying enough for the reader.

PARCHED is told in three voices: Sarel, a young girl, Musa, a young boy, and Nandi, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. The story opens with violence--the kind of violence that I couldn't show in real time from the perspective of a child narrator. I needed a buffer so that my audience could experience the scene from a distance. I didn't even have to think about how to handle this--the scene just naturally belonged in Nandi's voice. She could show the events in a sensory way that obscured details while giving voice to the emotional tenor of the scene.

According to Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft: “Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction. . . in literature only trouble is interesting.” And in my middle grade story in poems, GONE FISHING, this is true. The main character, Sam, has to deal with two relatively common, yet complex, issues: a seriously frustrating sibling rivalry, and facing defeat in a sport in which he longs to excel – fishing. Sam handles both in a way that isn’t entirely upstanding, but that is funny and appropriate for this age reader – he curses his sister for messing with his fishing tackle box and he wishes she would disappear when she’s too noisy on the boat. And he’s ready to chuck fishing altogether when he fails to catch even one fish. Humor also plays an important role in how Sam is able to overcome his obstacles, and in the end, it all works out for Sam (and his sister), although not necessarily in the way that a reader might expect. Regardless of the outcome, my hope is that readers will identify with some part of Sam’s frustrations and cheer for him as he navigates through the turbulent waters of his family dynamics to attempt achieving his deepest desire.

In the course of GENIE WISHES, which runs from the start to the end of fifth grade, Genie Haddock Kunkle weathers the loss of her longtime best friend to the boy-crazy, makeup-wearing new girl; her first "health class"; the growing cliquishness among her classmates; and some low-key bullying, both in person and online--all while she's serving as the elected class blogger, assigned to write on the school's assigned theme of Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams. Despite the drama swirling around her at times, Genie herself stays relatively grounded, remaining fairly confident about her own course and instincts.

The issues in the book--puberty, social stratification, etc.--are issues that fifth graders can't help but face, so I wanted to address them. Judy Blume's books--ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET especially--were funny and illuminating and reassuring for me when I was a MG-age reader, and I always wanted to read more books like hers. So, many years later, I decided to write one. Some kids at the younger end of the MG range (eight- and nine-year-olds) might not be ready for this book, while others will. But fourth, fifth, and sixth graders will really get it, I think.

In The Flame in the Mist, main character Jemma faces terrible evil caused by the Agromond rulers: child abductions, misery, Mist and more. But to me, the point of writing about such darkness is not for its own sake, but to show its transformation and defeat. 

So Jemma’s journey, though harrowing, is balanced with the levity, light and love that eventually win through. Her supporting cast includes her magical (and cute) pet rats, Noodle and Pie, with their wisdom; her friend and crush Digby, with his irreverent wit; supernatural Beings who come to Jemma’s aid; her no-nonsense nurse, Marsh; her real parents, guiding her from afar; and a beautiful character whose entire life has been in service to her mission. Their dedication and loyalty, as well as Jemma’s courage and powers for Good, make her story, ultimately, a hopeful one.

I believe these positive elements can inspire young readers to identify with similar qualities in themselves, giving them a kind of inner map for navigating their own, sometimes difficult, worlds.

For the most part, Rump is a pretty light and humorous read, but there are moments that are more serious and deal with difficult things, such as bullying, and the death of a loved one. Bullying is an issue with most kids at some point, whether they're on the giving or receiving end, so I felt this played naturally into the story in a way that was completely appropriate for the age. Death is always a difficult topic, but I also feel it's important that we don't shy away from it because, sad as it can be, it's inevitable. We all have to come to grips with the reality that everyone eventually dies, so the death that occurs in Rump is a sad and emotional event, but in the end there are elements of hope surrounding that death, a feeling that loved ones can still be with us in certain ways, and endings can also be beginnings. 

MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT is a pretty lighthearted book, and my character Hilary's quest to become a pirate is funny and fantastical, but the emotional core of the book is serious, and I've tried to make it as true to life as possible. Hilary is told by her parents (and by her whole society, in fact) that she can't pursue her lifelong dream, but she refuses to let anyone stop her from doing what she loves. At the same time, however, she desperately wants to make her parents proud. I think most readers will be able to identify with those conflicting emotions, even if they haven't spent much time sailing the High Seas, and I hope readers will see their own gumption and determination reflected in Hilary's story.

In SKY JUMPERS, bandits invade and take my main character’s town hostage. Middle grade kids don’t have to worry about bandits invading, but really, the bandits are bullies— something that middle grade kids very much have to worry about. Sometimes it’s bullies at their school, and sometimes it’s even adults who do the bullying. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to someone (especially if it’s multiple someones, or someone who has a lot more power than you). My main character stands up to them in a very foolhardy way to begin with, which is a natural reaction when kids see someone they care about being bullied. But in the end, it’s the fact that she figures out what her strengths are, and uses those strengths to her advantage that truly makes a difference. It’s the same thing for all kids— they have a multitude of untapped strengths, and have more of an ability to make a difference than they realize.

In THE NEPTUNE PROJECT, my characters actually have to face death three times in the course of the story, and I knew I had to be careful in each of those scenes. I tried not to linger too long on the moment the characters died or be too graphic about their injuries. My heroine's name is Nere, and her mother sacrifices herself to make sure that Nere escapes safely into the sea. Her mother's death does haunt Nere, but I don't allow Nere to dwell on her death quite the way I would in a YA story.
I'm thrilled that KIRKUS seemed to think I "muted" the death and violence in my novel "appropriately" and I think that's the perfect verb in this situation. Sometimes for middle grade readers you do have to mute the harshness more than you would for a young adult audience.

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

Because GOLDEN BOY is based on a real human rights abuse happening in the world right now, to tell the story I had to be true to a certain level of violence. However, to make it middle-grade-appropriate, I did make some very specific choices. Graphic human violence happens “off-screen,” and I skipped the sexual aspects of the superstition that leads to the abuse of people with albinism entirely.
That said, many reviewers, including Kirkus and the Junior Library
Guild, have "aged up" GOLDEN BOY, listing it for an age range from
12-17 due to the seriousness of its subject matter.

THE PATH OF NAMES is middle grade fantasy set in a summer camp.  So I immediately faced the question:   how should I (as a middle grade author) represent the bad language and obsession with sex that are typical of the summer camp experience in the years around puberty? 
I dealt with those issues by largely sticking with the point of view of a thirteen year old girl.  At that age, (in my recollection, anyway) while there’s a lot of talk about girlfriends and boyfriends, it’s mostly just talk.  So while the main character has to deal with an unwelcome crush and some talk that she doesn’t like, it’s all pretty peripheral to her main interests.  As for the bad language, perhaps the most fantastical part of this fantasy novel, is that the thirteen-year-olds don’t curse more.  There is some violence in THE PATH OF NAMES, but it’s more implied than explicit, and it didn’t trigger the editorial alarm bells in the same way that curses and mentions of sex did.

The characters in BROTHERHOOD deal with some tough issues (bullying, racial prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan). For the book to be suitable for middle-grade readers, I had to tone down the violence and limit the offensive language. But the story really isn't about the violence! It's about a boy finding a place where he thinks he belongs, only to discover that this group--this brotherhood--is bad news. He pledges allegiance to them, and when they start doing things he knows are wrong, he's stuck. He can't make them stop and can't get out. So he handles it as best he can. BROTHERHOOD is set in the defeated South after the American Civil War, and although the bullying at that time was extreme, bullying happens in every generation (Klan chapters still exist today), so the core issues remain relevant, whether you're a middle grade reader or an adult.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Necessity of Fresh Eyes & Critique Partners

by Mindy McGinnis

I'm giving in to the idea of self-sufficiency.

Yes, I know I can buy my own pickles cheaply. Yes, it does make my kitchen hot and steamy when I'm canning. Yes, sometimes things go wrong and shit explodes everywhere and you end up with welts. But I'm still very into the idea of making my own food, and its not because I want everything organic or that I'm afraid of chemicals and preservatives.

It's because I want to look smug when the end of civilization comes and I'm doing alright. If you want to learn more about my survival strategies, check out my vlog over at the Friday the Thirteeners blog today. Hint: it involves jelly beans.

Recently I decided it was time to expand from vegetables and canning into an herb garden. I had a nice spot picked out in the side yard and was waiting to borrow my mother's tiller to make the dream a reality, when ugly necessity reared its head.

I have a stone path following the fence around my pond. The area immediately to the left of the path has been a weedy, troublesome problem for three years, mostly because the rocks themselves sat there for a good long while and encouraged all kinds of weed growth and simultaneously discouraged mower blades.

So I got the tiller, and prioritized. The weeds were an eyesore, a shoulder-height testament to my inabilities as a lawn owner. The combined energies of my wrath, a mower and a Mantis took the smirk off their little green faces, but by then I had realized that I didn't have any grass seed and wouldn't have time to get any until the weeds had recouped and mounted their second assault. Meanwhile, my herbs were setting on the back porch, drooping dejectedly as they waited for their home away from Lowe's.

I got all pouty, drank some ice tea, and my mom came over to see how the herb garden was coming. I told her all my problems - the feisty weeds, the depressed herbs, the unbroken lawn waiting to become a garden, my lack of grass seed. She looked at me and said:

"So why don't you just put your herb garden in the ground you tilled up instead of grass?"

And the clouds parted, the Hallelujah Chorus played, and I saw all the advantages: I could harvest my herbs from my little stone path, I had much easier access to water than in the side yard, converting that ground to garden meant less mowing around the steeply sloped banks of the pond, and... (BONUS) it was already tilled, I wouldn't have to buy grass seed, and my herbs would be happy.

The only addition my mom had was, "Well, duh."

I needed mom's fresh eyes to alert me to the lack of common sense I was displaying, and sometimes we need that in writing too. As writers, we'll have our heart set on certain actions, dialogue, even events, that simply aren't what's best for the story itself in the big picture.

We need our beta readers and crit buddies to say to us, "Hey, why not try this?"

And, if they tack on, "Well, duh," try to remember you love them for a reason.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 24, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13The Lucky 13s & The League of Extraordinary Writers. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.