Monday, October 20, 2014

Chick-Lit for Chicklets With Jen Malone's 'At Your Service'

Every writer has an interesting path to publication. For Jennifer Malone, author of At Your Service (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X, August 2014), a book contract came looking for her. And after proving she had plenty of writing chops for the first title, Jennifer landed five – count 'em five – more book deals, for both middle-grade and young adult fiction.

At Your Service is a fun read, telling the story of thirteen-year-old Chloe who works with her dad as a concierge at a fancy New York City hotel. She gets to enjoy plenty of perks with her job, but when a family of royals shows up, Chloe's patience and her hospitality are put to the test.

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Jennifer Malone: My situation is a bit unique (well, less so than anyone would think, but kind of a publishing secret) in that my editor actually commissioned me to write this story, and the inspiration came from her! She had read something else of mine and thought I had a good middle-grade voice that would work with this concept. Five or so authors were asked to submit sample pages, and I was thrilled when they chose mine, and even more thrilled when I was given carte blanche to develop the story idea beyond the premise and really take ownership of it!

Question: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JM: I hate that a lot of tweens who were big readers as younger kids start to drift away from reading for pleasure, as required reading texts get more intense and, frankly, less interesting to them (not that there aren’t some great classics out there and not that I don’t think a good foundation of classics is necessary, so don’t get me wrong!). But personally, I really want to write books that remind kids (and the occasional grown-up!) that reading can be pure, escapist fun. I like to think of my books as “chick-lit for chicklets.”

Question: What are you working on next?

JM: I’m co-writing a series with a good friend of mine, Gail Nall, called RSVP,  which follows four tween besties as they form a party-planning business on their tiny (and very quirky) North Carolina island. We pitched it to Simon and Schuster as Babysitters Club meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and the first one comes out next May. It’s been so much fun to write these girls – I cannot even tell you! After that I have two young adult titles forthcoming with HarperCollins.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Skila Brown Explores Guatemala's Wrenching Past in 'Caminar'

Debut author Skila Brown takes a hard look at politics and war with Caminar, a historical novel written in verse. The story is set in Guatemala in the 1980s. It's a coming-of-age story about a boy named Carols, who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war. Exploring violence and loss through individual poems from Carlos's perspective, it shows the confusion of being caught in a conflict that takes its toll on both young and old. Kirkus Reviews called it "a moving introduction to a subject seldom covered in fiction for youth."

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Skila Brown: I think I might write about things that greatly upset me. In the novel I’m revising now, people are dying from starvation. In Caminar, a boy suffers a devastating loss because of politics and war. Both stories began with my own interest in a subject. Caminar evolved from years of reading about Guatemala’s history and struggles and specifically about the internal conflict there that was especially violent during the 1980s.

I grappled with questions like, “How could I have been going to school and learning to read while kids like Carlos were dealing with something so much harder? How could my own government have contributed to this awfulness in the way that they did? How could this have gone on so close to where I live without me knowing anything about it?”

I think writing Carlos’s story was a way to help me sort out some of my angst and also hope that I’d be doing something about it — making sure this story was getting told.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

SB: The greatest achievement as a writer would be to know I’ve made someone think — think about the world in a different way, question the facts in front of them, empathize with a character in way that broadened the reader’s world. Even just to make one person think deeply would feel like a big accomplishment.

Q: What are you working on next?

SB: This week I’m working on revisions for my next novel in verse, due out in 2015. It’s about the perilous journey of the Donner Party in 1846. I also just saw the sketches for a picture book I have coming out in 2016. (They are amazing!) It’s a fun blend of poetry and non-fiction — all about sharks.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Matt London Blends Eco and Adventure with '8th Continent'

Debut novelist Matt London's The 8th Continent takes on one of the most curious yet fascinating yet stomach-churning eco-nightmares, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. An action-adventure series from Razorbill for readers 8 to 12 years old, The 8th Continent publishes Sept. 16. Two sequels are planned for 2015 in what Kirkus Reviews describes as "Fast-paced action, cool inventions and remarkable robots combine for an auspicious opener."

It tells the story of Evie and Rick Lane, siblings who try to avenge their father's arrest by the international police agency Winterpole. They take off in search of part of the formula that will convert the churning oceanic mess known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into an eighth continent. But they're up against their bullying classmate Vesuvia Piffle, whose aim is to build a giant pink continent of her own made of plastic. The two sides race around the world and to the bottom of the ocean in search of what they need to create their own brave new world.

Question: What inspired you to write The 8th Continent?

Matt London: So many things inspired The 8th Continent! When I was a kid, it was always the science fiction books that got me super excited to read. Maybe growing up in a family of scientists had something to do with it. Beyond my personal connections, I draw a lot of inspiration from real science. Universal translators, superstructures, terraforming, and advanced artificial intelligence are all technologies that feature prominently in The 8th Continent. And then there are seasteads, these artificial islands people are trying to build in international waters, so the owners can declare their seasteads countries, independent of any existing government! The heroes of my book, Rick and Evie, concoct a similar plan.

More than anything, what inspired me to tell this story was learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's scary to think that we are all contributing to these giant blankets of trash in our oceans, but there is plenty we can do to help.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

ML: First and foremost, I want to tell a good story. It's good to have lofty goals, but if you don't wallop 'em with an amazing tale filled with action, twists, and memorable characters, no one will stick around to receive your message. That said, pollution is a serious issue. Regardless of your politics or thoughts on climate science, there are things each of us can do to make the Earth a cleaner, healthier place. I want readers to finish The 8th Continent and realize there is stuff we can do to help. Science is cool. Saving the planet is cool. And hopefully they'll go to The 8th Continent website to learn more about it!

Q: Hey, there's an online game associated with the book! Can you tell us more about this?

ML: In The 8th Continent game, you get to play as Rick or Evie Lane, the two heroes of the book. You have to use your father's garbage morphers to stack trash in a fast-and-furious puzzle-y, action-y kind of way. If you stack fast enough, you can transform the garbage into a beautiful eighth continent. The art is gorgeous and the gameplay is a ton of fun. The game will be hosted first on Funbrain and then will live on the website.

It was really important to me to have an interactive component to The 8th Continent. As a professional game writer and designer, games are very close to my heart, and the elements that make a great game feature prominently in my writing. For example, the labyrinths Rick and Evie navigate, the items they have to gather, and the adversaries they have to face all draw inspiration from games. Classic adventure games like King's Quest and Sam & Max influenced the tone, while building games like Minecraft and Sim City influenced the world. Gamers will feel right at home in the universe of The 8th Continent. Reluctant readers, perhaps readers (like me) who sometimes neglect reading to play games, will love this book.

Q: What are you working on next?

ML: More 8th Continent! Book 2, Welcome to the Jungle, comes out in February, and Book 3, Born to Be Wild, next summer. I'm super busy continuing the adventures of the Lanes. The best part is, each book is bigger and wackier than the one before.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Poet Tamera Wissinger Is Back With 'This Old Band'

I don't focus enough on poetry with this blog, and that's something I am hoping to fix. Today I talk with Tamera Will Wissinger, who has a keen ear for rhyme and poetry. Her first book, Gone Fishing: A Novel In Verse (2013, Houghton Mifflin) was honored as a 2014 Best Children's Book of the Year and an ALSC 2014 Notable Children's Book. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell, it is a story about kids and their dad having a fishing day told through a variety of poetic forms and poetry techniques.

Back with a second rhyming book, This Old Band, which published last week with Sky Pony Press, Tamera puts a fun spin on a popular nursery rhyme while teaching the youngest readers about counting and noises. This one is hilariously illustrated by Matt Loveridge.

Question: What draws you to poetry and sharing it with children? Do you write in other forms and genres, or do you feel like you've found your niche with poetry for young readers?

Tamera Wissinger: Poetry through nursery rhymes and stories is the first type of storytelling that I loved when I was young. That led to a love of reading and then writing. I’ve always been intrigued about finding ways to share my own poetry with children who are beginning to explore language and stories. Rhythm and rhyme are an engaging way to do that. I do write in other forms and genres including traditional picture books and middle grade novels.

Q: Where did you get the idea for This Old Band? What was your ah-ha moment like?

TW: My initial ah-ha moment came after a trip to Wyoming and Montana with my husband and friends. I had visited the western United States before, and on this trip I carried my pen and paper with me, taking note of the rugged, intriguing places as we traveled through. I was particularly struck by the richness of character in the people, ranch life, the land, the wildlife. It was so different from my Midwest orientation that I wanted to try to capture that in a story for young readers. For a while, I struggled with a different picture book draft that didn’t quite work, so my second ah-ha moment came when I changed course and revised the manuscript to include this musical counting cowboy and cowgirl band, while keeping the setting and characters that were my initial influences.

Q: Can you talk about your creative process? Do you write in the wee-small hours of the morning, or late at night? Do you read your poems aloud and fret over every word? What's it like?

TW: My favorite time to write is in the morning, after breakfast and a workout. Of course writing isn’t always that tidy, so I’ll write whenever I have a chance. Sometimes that’s very early morning before or during breakfast and other times it’s late at night.

When I’m starting a project I just let the words come tumbling out in a sort of freethinking way I suppose – my first job is to simply capture the essence of the story or poem on paper or computer. I don’t worry about anything besides just grabbing the idea before it slips away. From there I begin to assess and structure.

Along the way as I’m working out details of story, characters, setting, pacing, if and how it will rhyme, I do read aloud – especially if it rhymes and has a strong rhythm pattern. It’s also useful to listen to someone else read my work aloud to me. I do consider every single word as part of my final edits. Some of the last questions I ask myself before submitting are, “Have I made this as strong as possible? Are there words in here that aren’t carrying their weight? What can be cut altogether, or traded for something more exciting or descriptive?”

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

TW: I hope that young readers are engaged and having fun while they’re reading and that they’ll want to come back to my books more than once. Maybe my hope is that they’ll feel a connection to the story, characters, setting, those with whom they’re reading. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Q: What are you working on next?

TW: Next up for me is a cumulative rhyming picture book called There Was an Old Lady Who Gobbled a Skink, set to release with Sky Pony Press in 2015. It is a perilous waterside story and a tribute to the traditional, Old Lady and Fly folktale. In my story the narrator worries, “Why would she think to gobble a skink? Perhaps she’ll sink!”

Friday, June 6, 2014

48 Hour Book Challenge Meets #WeNeedDiverseBooks


Hey, did you know the ninth annual 48 Hour Book Challenge is going on this very minute? The clock is ticking as you read this, so grab a stack o' books and get at it.

What is the 48 Hour Book Challenge, you ask? Here's how it works: chose your starting time within the weekend and read as much of the time as you want. The books are anything from middle-grade to YA to adult. And you can blog about it during that time too. Some people go without sleep and read the entire 48 hours. Others challenge themselves to be part of the 20 Hour Club. Just 12 hours makes you a participant and eligible for prizes – PRIZES! – so there's a pace for everyone. Visit the force behind this effort, MotherReader, for a clear rundown of the system.

And in solidarity of the cause of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, this year's challenge is dedicated to reading, sharing, and reviewing books that show diversity. So included here in this post are a few diverse children's books to add to the list.

Grace Lin said it best in a recent Publisher's Weekly article when she noted that multicultural books aren’t just for minorities. “If non-minority kids don’t get diverse books, they will grow up with only stereotypes” of people of color.

My debut middle-grade, Cupcake Cousins, is an attempt at bridging that gap. It features almost-10-year-old cousins who don't necessarily look the same – one African American, the other freckled – but share the same love of cooking. And the same desire to avoid the hideous pink flower-girl dresses their moms want them to wear for the aunt's upcoming wedding. It's a humorous cooking caper with plenty of kitchen disasters and wacky relatives, and the kids just happen to have a mixed race family.

Fellow Chicagoan and all-around good egg Crystal Chan has a terrific book that features a multicultural storyline. Titled Bird (Atheneum, 2014), it explores family secrets hidden from a mixed-race race girl named Jewel and her grieving family. Jewel's brother, Bird, died the day she was born. And all her life, she has been living in his shadow. Her parents say that it's Grandpa's fault, that he drew a malevolent spirit—a duppy—into their home.

Skila Brown's Caminar (Candlewick, 2014) is set in 1981 Guatemala. It tells the powerful story of a boy who must decide for himself what it means to be a man during a turbulent time of war. It's a novel in verse, and it was inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war.

N.H. Senzai's Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2014) tells the story of 12-year-old Ariana, whose comfortable life hits the skids when her cousin Laila arrives from Afghanistan. Laila is charming, with perfect manners, and before Ariana knows it, she's taken her best friend too. School Library Journal writes: "It is refreshing to see such a vastly multicultural cast in children's literature, and no character is portrayed as stereotypical or overly generalized. The glossary of terms in the back is also a nice touch. Recommended for any fan of multicultural literature or realistic fiction."

These are just a few books that feature diverse characters and authors. And that is the message behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which is rocking the children's book publishing industry. For those who need a bit of background, it burst onto the scene in late April when BookCon announced an all-white, all-male line-up of authors. In response, a group of children's authors joined forces with the shared mission to "promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process."

As an NPR article reports, a University of Wisconsin study revealed that less than 8 percent of children's books in 2013 were written by or about people of color at a time when almost half of American children come from a minority background. Walter Dean Myers wrote a powerful essay in The New York Times, asking "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?" And his son Christopher Myers wrote about "The Apartheid of Children's Literature" in the same issue.

From author Grace Lin's blog 
I believe a lot of good will come of this campaign. Already some initiatives are emerging.
  • Lee & Low Books/Tu Books is launching a second New Visions Award for a middle-grade or YA fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The award winner will receive a cash prize of $1,000 and a book contract with Lee & Low’s Tu Books imprint.
  • First Book has launched a $1 million campaign called The Stories for All Project. It's an initiative to provide books that "better reflect the rich and growing diversity of the population, including minorities, LGBT and special needs populations." They hope to promote multicultural books and authors, pledging to purchase 10,000 copies of multicultural titles to distribute to young readers from low-income families.
  • And according to author Ellen Oh, founder of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a first-ever Children’s Literature Diversity Festival is in the works. Plans are for it to be held in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2016. Festival details are still to come, but read more in the PW article: “This will be a celebration of diverse authors and authors who write diversely. A festival where every panel, every event will be to celebrate diversity in all of its glory.”

Friday, May 9, 2014

Loss, Redemption in Tracy Holczer's 'Secret Hum of a Daisy'

Tracy Holczer 's delicate and beautiful The Secret Hum of a Daisy (Putnam Juvenile, May 1, 2014) is her debut novel, but the way she handles themes of family and reconciliation is with the touch of a pro.

It is the story of Grace, age 12, who desperately wants a home all her own while her mother has the urge to keep moving. Just when Grace finds the courage to tell her mother how she really feels about always moving around and her desire for roots, her mother tragically drowns. Grace is forced to live with a grandmother she's doesn't even know. But when Grace discovers clues in a mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, she feels her mom might be showing her how finally to find her way home.

Question: Your book is about grieving and loss, but it's also about finding joy and love and our place in the world. Where did the idea for Grace and her grandmother and the bird art come from? What was your "ah-ha" moment when you decided to start writing your story?

Tracy Holczer: There really wasn’t one aha-moment, but more like a series of them. Grace came to me first. I had such a clear image of her sitting on the top step of a farmhouse porch that needed some repair. I had actually written a short story some time before with a child very similar to Grace, so when I saw this girl, the original short came into play.

That’s where Grandma was, and the idea that this girl had just lost her mom. The bird art evolved from an angel collection. Originally, Grace and Mama liked to pour over garage and yard sales looking for imperfect angels. Only the broken and misshapen would do. But then I wanted Mama to be more proactive and create, plus I had the origami in the story and so I needed the images to align a little better. Since they were already crazy about garage sales, the junk art just seemed like the right choice.

Q: What drew you into writing for children? Have you always been a writer? And have you always known middle-grade would be your home? Can you talk about your journey to publication?

TH: When I was a young child, I thought I wanted to be a writer. But in that same way you want to be an astronaut or a ballerina. It’s not a real job choice, it’s a dream. I loved writing and I loved books but when I was young, it took me awhile to figure out I was in charge of my own destiny and that if I really wanted it, I should work as hard as I could and hope for the best. When I had my third daughter and was able to quit my job, it was a wonderful, enriching hobby where I could attend conferences and workshops and do something that was all mine. When a writing teacher suggested I might try writing for kids, it was a natural fit.

Publication took a long time. I started writing for kids in 2002, and had been dabbling in other forms before that. I wrote a drawer book and then started working on Secret Hum around 2006. But family was my first priority so writing took a very long time. It also wasn’t the right time in my life to take on a career. But eventually, when my youngest was ten, I felt that might be a good time to dip my toe in the water and see if there was any interest. Figuring publication would be at least two years away from a deal, and who knows when/if a deal might happen, I felt that would be a good time to be working. And I was right.

Q: Your book is pasted with praise from some of the biggest stars of children's literature, with Richard Peck calling it "a lyric about love and loss," Patricia Reilly Giff saying it "will steal your heart," and Margarita Engle pronouncing it "poetic and tender." That's heady company! Do you just happen to hang around with Newbery medalists?

TH: Hahahaha! No! I wish. My fabulous editor, Stacey Barney, did that. She sent the book out and came back with this amazing praise. She surprised me with each one, and it was, and still is, very surreal.

Q: Grace is defiant yet so vulnerable, and she's trying to deal with weighty issues for a girl so young. What sort of reader are you hoping to reach with Secret Hum? What do you hope young readers take away from your story?

TH: I’m hoping to reach all readers, from 10 to 110. I think there is something in the story for everyone. Loss and redemption, hope and grief are so universal, that I wanted this book to be a salve for those who might have experienced these emotions. I have always loved a good cry and I cried all the way through writing about Grace. So although I never sat down to write a tear-jerker, I did sit down to write the kind of story I like to read, and I hope there are others out there, lots of others!, who have the same taste in books that I do.

Q: What will we see from you next?

TH: Another feisty girl named Samantha Rossi. The Natural History of Samantha Rossi is a story about 12-year old Sam who wants to be a scientist during a time when the door is just starting to open for girls with this sort of dream. Set during the Vietnam War, when Sam’s father comes home changed, she’s hopeful she can turn to her science books for the answer in how to turn him back. She comes from a great big Italian family, who, of course, have their own ideas about how to fix things. There are once in a lifetime friendships, daring expeditions, and lots and lots of meatballs. Sam will hit shelves in Summer 2016.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Crystal Chan's Own Experiences Influence Enchanting 'Bird'

Chicago children's author Crystal Chan knows what it's like to feel a little different. Growing up as a mixed-race kid in Wisconsin, she has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. With her beautifully written new middle-grade novel, Bird (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), Crystal mines her experiences to powerful effect. Bird was published in January and already has garnered a series of strong reviews. 

Bird tells the story of 12-year-old Jewel, who was born the same day that your brother died. As the only mixed-race family in her rural Iowa town, life is a bit lonely for Jewel. When a new boy arrives on the scene, Jewel is grateful to have finally found a friend. But the boy's presence has an unsettling effect on her family, especially since he is named John, the same name as her late brother. Suddenly the layers of her family's silence begin to unravel, and Jewel has to choose between her loyalty to them or to her newfound friend.

Question: You were a volunteer with SCBWI for years before you hit with Bird. Can you talk about your journey to publication – how long you were writing, what you were writing, how you went about finding an agent? Did you have previous manuscripts before you hit with Bird?

Crystal Chan: I started writing about five years ago, and I started writing middle-grade after trying and failing to write picture books – I was at a picture book writing workshop with Esther Hershenhorn, who pegged me as a novelist. I, however, wanted soooo badly to write picture books (I like pictures). Distraught, I participated in NanNoWriMo to prove her wrong, only to find out that yes, I could write 50,000 words in a month. So that put me on the novelist’s path.

I did have a previous manuscript – that was how I found my agent, Emily van Beek. I went to a writers’ conference and submitted my first 20 pages for a critique, and the reader, Kathi Appelt, loved my manuscript and wanted to read the whole thing! After that, she put me in touch with her agent and other agents she knew. So that’s how I met Emily.

As for Bird, fast forward about a year; I went to another writers’ workshop with Namrata Tripathi, who read the first 50 pages of my work in progress. When we went out with my finished, original manuscript, the editor said, "Thanks but no thanks on this manuscript – but I want to acquire the WIP I read: I can’t stop thinking about it." So we sold Bird as a first-draft partial, as a debut, which was a crazy process, let me tell you.

Q: You've talked about growing up in a mixed-race family in the Midwest, much like Jewel in Bird. What inspired your story? What was your "ah-ha" moment like when you realized you had this story on your hands? Can you talk about the writing of the book?

CC: I had just gone to a SCBWI conference, where Kathi Appelt was speaking, and she had just come out with her book at the time, Keeper, which is about a girl who thought her mother turned into a mermaid because her mother was lost at sea. Afterward, I was sick and home from work. I had also finished my first manuscript and was fretting that I might not have another idea for another novel. Ever. I was thinking about this for hours, and finally I got so sick of myself that I said, "Crystal, either you get up out of bed and write your next book, or you go to sleep because you’re sick. But you’re not going to lie in bed thinking about not writing your next book."

And then I started thinking more about Keeper, and how I loved that story. And I thought, "A girl who thinks her mother was a mermaid – that’s such a great idea – but what if… instead... there was a boy who thought he was a bird? What would he do?" And instantly I saw a small boy, about five years old, jumping off a cliff because he thought he could fly. Then the voice of the protagonist, Jewel’s voice, started speaking, and I got out of bed and wrote the first chapter.

Q: Bird weaves together a variety of threads – loss, grieving, hope, feeling like an outsider – along with magic realism and a sort of mysticism. What are some of the influences in your life that readers might see in your writing?

CC: Goodness – there’s so much of myself in Bird. Growing up mixed race in a white town in the '80s made me a pro at being an outsider (grins). So I was able to draw on a lot of my own personal experiences on not being understood, being overlooked. And I grew up Catholic. While my opinion on Catholicism varies from day to day, going to Catholic school as a kid really helped teach me the depth of symbolism and mysteries. And in a funny way, I draw on that upbringing when I consider symbolism and patterns, enigmas and character rituals, while crafting a novel.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your book? What do you hope to accomplish? 

CC: My goal for writing is to tell the truest story possible, no matter how uncomfortable that truth is for my characters – or for me! As for my readers, I hope kids will begin to understand that there are lots of different ways of viewing the world (as Jewel’s family members and best friend all have different perspectives), and that there are a lot of mysteries out there that grown-ups just can’t explain. Even though we like to think we can.

Q: What will we see from you next? 

CC: I’m working on a young adult novel that is very different – but you’ll have to wait a bit to hear about it.