Monday, November 17, 2014

4-H Inspires Rebecca Petruck's 'Steering Toward Normal'

Rebecca Petruck's Steering Toward Normal (Abrams, 2014) is a must-read. Not only has it been an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices selection, a Spring Kids Indie Next List title, and an ABC Best Books for Children, Vanity Fair's Hollywood dubbed it a "book we'd like to see made into a film," made the L.A. Times' Summer Books Preview, but the Christian Science Monitor named it one of 25 Best New Middle Grade Novels. Phew! Not bad for a debut effort!

And she has one of the best covers ever!

Steering Toward Normal tells the story of Diggy, who has big plans for his eighth-grade year. He's ready to compete in the Minnesota State Fair, has a 4-H girl in his sights, and has conspired with Pop for April Fool's Day. But when his classmate's mother dies, a secret is revealed: Pop is this boy's father, too. Now Diggy has to figure out what family really means.

So what does this Minnesota girl (currently living in North Carolina) as well as former 4-H'er have to say about the writing life?

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Rebecca Petruck: Steering Toward Normal began as a very different short story inspired by a photograph of two boys posed as if they were tough, but whose adolescent bodies betrayed their innocence. Though they were about the same age, I came to think of them as brothers and started wondering how that might have happened and what that would mean for them.

That story was only meant to be a writing exercise for a class during my MFA program. My planned thesis was about a teen girl in Idaho figuring out how to respect a mom who had always been passive in her marriage. (Also, there were potatoes.) But those two boys kept niggling at me, and I had set the story in a place I knew (Minnesota). The book kept growing around me without me trying!

It took me a while to find my way to the steers, though. I started with dairy cows (all that milk to deal with!) then fancy chickens (fun but too frou-frou for Diggy and Wayne), and finally stumbled on show steers. I fell for the competitors I interviewed. They all were very sincere in saying it’s better not to get too attached to the steers, while being very clearly attached to their steers. It was like meeting Diggy and Wayne in real life.

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

RP: I want to write stories for all those decent, ordinary kids out there trying to cope with a crazy world, so they know it’s okay to not understand what’s going on and to make mistakes even when they’re doing their best. I remember being perplexed by decisions my parents made, partly because many were bad decisions, yet I had to live with the consequences.

In Steering Toward Normal, several bad decisions made by adults lead to a total shakeup of Diggy’s world, so he clings even harder to a decision he had made for himself: to win Grand Champion Steer at the Minnesota State Fair. It saves him, though not in the way he expected.

Steers are only and ever beef cattle, so the thing about raising them is there is always an end date—they are sold to the packer for slaughter. Approaching a situation like this, year after year, and learning how to cope with the heartbreak is what has prepared Diggy to cope with his current difficult situation. He doesn’t realize it, of course, and there are times when he wants to give up. But raising steers has taught him how to keep his heart open, despite the inevitable pain, and that ends up being the gift he shares and that saves his family.

I think that’s part of what growing up is: learning to keep our hearts open in an imperfect world.

Q: What are you working on next?

RP: Will Nolan Eats Bugs is inspired by a National Geographic article about the nutritional value of eating insects. Since then, entomophagy has been spotlighted in other media outlets and become something of a niche foodie trend.

The idea of insects as an everyday part of our regular foodstuffs fascinates me. I was well into work on the project before I realized I was again writing a novel with a major element centered on food production! Steering Toward Normal features beef cattle. Bugs features a class presentation gone wrong when Will “serves” insects for snacks. The problem for me of course is that I’ll have to eat insects to ensure veracity in the WIP. I hope my next book involves chocolate!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gayle Rosengren Taps Family Lore for 'What the Moon Said'

Gayle Rosengren knows her way around books. A former children's and young adult librarian, a reference librarian, as well as copyeditor – for the American Girl books, no less – she's got storytelling down. 

Her lovely debut middle-grade novel What the Moon Said (Putnam, February 2014) tells the story of 10-year-old Esther, who knows how to avoid bad luck: toss salt over your left shoulder, never button your shirt crooked, and avoid black cats. But none of those tricks can stave off the hardships that come with the Great Depression. Esther's father is out of work, and her family is forced to leave their home in Chicago and resettle to a Wisconsin farm. Think outhouses, no electricity, hard-scrabble living. But as Booklist writes, "Esther’s positive attitude offers a fine model for readers of this engaging historical fiction."

Question: What inspired you to write your book? 

Gayle Rosengren: I was inspired by stories my mother told me about her childhood, especially because many of them took place on a farm. I was a horse-crazy city kid who always dreamed of living in the country with my own horse, dogs, cats, cows, etc., not to mention babbling brooks, woods, and big green spaces to run wild in. This made my mom's stories especially wonderful to me, even though many of them included things like outhouses and extreme temperatures and lo-o-o-ng walks to school. But even more inspirational was the fact that my mom and I were very close, and my grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood, so it often felt like I had two mothers – one very soft, and the other rather prickly but both very protective of me. What the Moon Said was my way of celebrating both of them for teaching me most – if not all – of what I know about love.

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

GR: We didn't have much in the way of money when I was a girl, so school and public libraries were godsends. I could check out a stack of novels – reading material for a week or 
two – and not pay a penny. I read horse books and dog books, mysteries and survival stories, historical and contemporary fiction, never realizing that I wasn't just being entertained, I was being informed. I learned about families and places much different from my own. I learned things I probably never would have learned otherwise (I still know what to do for a poisonous snake bite, thanks to a Trixie Belden mystery). And identifying with the characters in fiction helped to make me a more empathetic person.
Books made me more aware of the differences between people but even more importantly of the things we all have in common, no matter where we live or what our circumstances. We all have people and things in our lives that are dear to us, and we all are confronted with problems large and small on a regular basis. We have to make choices. And we have to live with the results of those choices.

Reading fiction gave me vicarious life experience to add to my far more limited personal experience. And I loved reading so much – having all those great adventures, making all those fictional friends – that it seemed the most natural thing in the world to want to create stories for future young readers.   Finally, by turning new readers into book lovers at this age, they will almost certainly be life-long readers. What book-lover can resist the temptation to be a part of this chain?  Not I.

Q: What are you working on next? 

GR: My next book is coming out in August of 2015, also from G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin Young Readers. It's called Cold War on Maplewood Street, and it takes place during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. While my first book grew out of my mother's experiences, this one came purely from my own.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a terrifying week for people all around the world. Yet many people under the age of 50 know little if anything about it. They have no idea how close the world came to nuclear war in that showdown between Russia and the United States. But this was an important time in our history, and I think it needs to be remembered. My book tells the story through the eyes of a young girl whose beloved brother Sam has recently joined the Navy, and she is afraid that his battleship is among those standing between Cuba and the Russian ships. It's a story about family and fear and friendship, but most of all about one girl's coming of age while confronting an uncertain future.

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.”