Friday, May 25, 2018

NINJA STUFF: A School Shooting Happened Here, In My Town

Fair warning, Esteemed Reader, I'm emotional today because I've just picked up Little Ninja after his school went on lock down following a school shooting.

I don't want to be writing this. I want that amazing interview with my hero Louis Sachar to be the top post at Middle Grade Ninja for as long as possible because it was a really big deal for me to get and you should read his interview if you haven't already.

It's inspiring stuff and the proper subject of a blog about reading and writing middle grade novels. But I live in the United States, so it was just a matter of time until a school shooting happened here, yes, even in a nice little Indiana suburb where we bought our house originally for the great schools.

They're still great schools. One angry young man with a gun doesn't change that. And truth be told, there was a time in my life when I might've been that angry young man. More on that momentarily, but first, let me tell you about my morning:

I had my coffee and read a good chunk of Float by my friend Laura Martin, who will be here soon to discuss her amazing new novel. I adore and admire Laura's writing, so the day started off right. I woke up Little Ninja, who wasn't feeling morning just yet, so I held him and let him sleep in my lap and read some more of Laura's book because cuddles from my four-year-old and a good book are the best thing in the world.

If this had been our last morning together, I'd know my boy knew I loved him. So I'd have that to hold onto as I spiraled into whatever Dr. Lois Creed Pet Semmetary madness awaits those poor fathers who lose their children. I can't imagine... but today, I'm forced to, and I tell you I'd never be okay again. Not ever.

Eventually, Little Ninja was awake enough to eat some toast, put on a long-sleeved shirt (he won't do short sleeves, despite a temperature of 75) and brush his teeth. We went outside to wait for the school bus. And he wanted a hug because he's only four and hugs from his dad are still wanted. The day may come when he's too old for all that, but I'm putting that day off for as long as I can. My son's love has given my life a greater significance than I ever expected it to have.

I wished the bus driver and the attendant a happy Memorial Day weekend and they wished me the same and it was all smiles and normality because this is small-ish town Indiana and we Hoosiers are generally happy folk who like each other. I've visited your big cities and lived in Chicago and that's fine if you're into that sort of thing, but I like knowing my neighbors and who's minding Little Ninja when I'm not--and that's ONLY during the couple hours a day he goes to early education, the two, almost three hours a day I'm not watching him. I trust the bus driver and attendant as well as Little Ninja's extraordinary teachers and the administrators at his school because I've met with all of them multiple times and determined them to be trustworthy.

The moment the bus left, I started on my usual morning walk during which I brainstormed some brilliant ideas for revisions to my newest novel, Banneker Bones and the Alligator People, which will be available this Halloween if nobody shoots me first. Banneker Bones is my favorite character and I was smiling and listening to The Dark Knight soundtrack, which always puts me in a Banneker mood, because all was right with the world, just another Friday morning, no reason to get excited, though there was one here among us who felt that life was but a joke.

I was nearly home, could in fact see my house in the distance, just as I'd thought of the perfect super hilarious thing for Ellicott Skullworth to say to Banneker Bones, when my phone buzzed with a notification: "Shots have been reported at Noblesville schools. Police are on site and all schools are on lock down."

And there it is. That's all it takes for the whole world to turn upside down and for nothing to ever be the same again. Never for one minute think that your phone can't buzz with the same message.

Less than 30 minutes ago, I was the content father of a four-year-old. Am I still?

Oh my God, oh sweet Jesus, I know I wrote The Book of David and said a whole lot of mean and blasphemous things about organized religion, but please God, I take it all back, I'm sorry, Jesus, don't do this to me, don't do this to my wife, don't do this to Little Ninja's grandparents, please, Lord, I know I'm an American and I didn't protest for gun control because I was busy trying to make ends meet and I didn't take the threat serious, and I should've called my senators and congressmen, but I figured they don't care about me anyway and I had enough problems without worrying about the Washington swamp, but if You're real, if You were ever real, Lord, if any of the religion I learned in my youth ever meant anything, please don't do this,  I'm not home yet, God, You still have time to take it back, You can still make it okay, I know you can, don't do this, God, please, I beg you with my whole heart and soul and everything I ever had or ever will have, don't do this, I'll make it up to You, God, I swear I will, just don't take my son from me, I can't live without him, Lord, don't do this, Lord, please don't...

I ran all the way home.

I got online to read the news.

God didn't let my baby be murdered today. Or there is no God and I got lucky. I don't know. Maybe it's the Indiana in me, but I needed God to be real today and today She was.

When I read the news, I saw the shooter had already been apprehended. And it was the middle school, not the elementary school that had been attacked. So my baby was probably okay... probably.

It's Little Ninja's first full year of school. And he loves it. His teacher is truly one of the best human beings I've ever met. Hands down, Mrs. Sarah Dodson is a better person than I am. She has infinite patience and limitless love for her students. Every parent-teacher conference we've had, she's expressed love for my son and for her job and if it were up to me who Noblesville, Indiana built our next statue of, it would be her. My son has some special needs that have worried me a whole lot, and Little Ninja has made so much progress under her tutelage. I tagged along on a field trip on a rainy October day to a pumpkin patch and I personally witnessed her muddy and exhausted, but still filled with enthusiasm for her students. When I think of the great teachers of the world, I will always think of Mrs. Dodson.

Today, I saw Mrs. Dodson cry. Who would do that to so wonderful a woman? Who would make her hurt? What unjust, cruel, uncaring God would look down from Her heaven and allow that to happen?

I won't pretend to remember everything that happened this morning. It's all a blur of panic, but I remember thinking, please, Lord, make that son of b***h Marco Rubio hurt. Let Ayn Rand sycophant Paul Ryan feel this pain (and please, let hell be real so there's a place for him to burn in after this life). Twist Mitch McConnell's turtle guts with the evil he's allowed to befall the people he was supposed to be watching out for. These are bad men, Lord, and enemies of the American people who sold their souls to the NRA and let innocent children be murdered so they could collect campaign contributions. They are worms crawling bare-bellied in the dirt and beneath my contempt.

I know this. Every American who reads the news knows this.

And you go straight to hell, Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who came to Noblesville to offer your empty thoughts and prayers when we know you accepted $2,896,732 in contributions from the NRA. You give up every cent of blood money you've taken and dedicate the rest of your life to making this right and maybe we Hoosiers can forgive you. Until then, go f**k yourself.

I thought of all this today, and of the political tweets I've sent and the occasional FB posts I've made, but all that makes no difference when there's a shooter in your community. I haven't attended any political protests recently (I can't get a sitter for Black Panther, let alone a protest march).

All that political rhetoric, all that wasted energy raging about what crooked officials are doing hundreds of miles from here in Washington means exactly f**k all when it's your child's school that's on lock down from a shooter and you get that call in the middle of your morning when you're supposed to be focused on writing a lovely children's story and imagining a better world.

Mrs. Dodson called me as I was watching for Little Ninja's school bus to tell me the bus wasn't coming because someone had texted a threat to the bus drivers. If I'd stayed home today, if the bus had brought Little Ninja to me as usual, this incident might've just been another school shooting on the news. I would've still been terrified, but one step removed. Instead, I had to go to the school in person.

Here's what I experienced and what you can look forward to happening to you WHEN, not IF, this happens in your town at your kid's school:

I arrived at the same elementary school I've been to dozens of times and turned into the wrong entrance despite being 100% sober because I was not in the right frame of mind. I still didn't believe my son was okay until I held him in my arms and even then knowing what could've happened, what maybe even did happen in another reality before God took pity on me and made it right, what might happen next time... I turned around, getting honked at by a passing driver, and then went into the correct entrance.

At the front door was a regular dude in a police uniform. Not an Avenger, not a member of the Justice League, just a dude like me if I were brave enough to put on that uniform. He assured the parents ahead of me that the victims of the shooting were probably going to survive, but he didn't know for sure. Of course he didn't. How could he? His job was to ensure the distraught parents arriving weren't packing heat and that's more than I did for my community today.

I went inside and showed my driver's license, but the people in the front office know me. I'm not an absentee parent, so they smiled and said, "Hello, Mr. Kent," and called Mrs. Dodson to bring Little Ninja to me. While I waited in the front office, another little girl of approximately six was brought to her mother. "Why are all the parents picking up the kids?" she asked. Her mother thought up a lie and she thought it up quick: "They must all be going to the lake for Memorial Day weekend as well."

No judgement here. If Little Ninja had asked, I'd have lied as well, and I admire the way this woman maintained a smile despite the tears in the eyes of the other adults present.

The next little girl who came into the administrator's office wasn't so charmingly gullible. She was in the fourth or fifth grade and if it hadn't been for her, I think I could've maintained, honestly. But this little girl saw her mother and burst into tears and I won't ever forget it as long as I live. She knew the danger she was in. She'd seen through the bulls**t and knew anyone could come to her school and kill her anytime and it was sheer luck it hadn't happened today.

And her mother was trying so hard to be a strong parent, to tell her that yes, Santa is real, and you can grow up to be anything you want even though the American economy is rigged against you, and of course you were never in any real danger. But she couldn't. Of course she couldn't. She burst into tears and embraced her child.

And I cried. God**nit, Esteemed Reader, I don't cry. Not ever. I've cried maybe three times in my whole adult life because big strong Hoosier men don't cry outside of when I'm watching a movie and it's cool to tear up a little when Spider-man tells Iron Man "I don't want to go," but I cried at real life today.

I'm crying as I type this, because I never thought I'd see something like that in little old Noblesville, Indiana. Because that nasty, awful stuff only happens on TV. It doesn't happen here where I live. That little girl knew she wasn't safe, hadn't ever been safe, not really, and I don't know how she'll ever feel safe in school again. And her mother couldn't maintain. Of course, she couldn't. I couldn't either. I doubt I'll ever forget today, but I know that little girl and her mother won't forget it.

They embraced and wept because they live in the United States where this happens all the time. Her child wasn't safe, my child isn't safe, and neither is yours. Politicians will stand back and let our children die so long as their campaigns are funded. Never think they won't.

It was at that moment that Mrs. Dodson arrived with Little Ninja. Probably she would've maintained. Mrs. Dodson is tough and I have infinite respect for her. But she saw that little girl and her mother and she saw me looking away and being all I'm-not-crying-you're-crying, because there are innocent children in this office and I'm not going to bawl in front of them.

Mrs. Dodson cried then and I cried. Maybe it's not appropriate to hug your kid's early education teacher. God knows I've never done it before, nor would I have under any other circumstances. We hugged and we cried and I said, "I'm so sorry this happened."

And she said, "He was safe. He was always safe."

Oh, Mrs. Dodson, how I wish that were so. And I don't doubt for a single second that you'd take a bullet for any of your students if it came to it and I love you for it, but my boy was NEVER safe in an American school. Not for one minute. It's his first full year of school and today I briefly thought somebody killed him just for wanting to learn.

Esteemed Reader, your children aren't safe either. Not in the United States.

And that's where I should leave it. I don't know how we fix this. I'm not that smart. We can write to our senators, but I don't have $2,896,732 to offer them unless y'all buy a whole lot more of my books, and politicians don't give a sh*t about average people. We know this. They think they're better than us and they're wrong, but I've seen the members of my fellow populace, and I get it.

Here's something else I know: I almost took a gun to school in the seventh grade. My father had a pistol in his closet he thought I didn't know about, but I did. And I put it in my backpack. I put it back where I got it before my bus came and my father never knew it was temporarily missing.

It's hard for me to accurately remember what went through my mind. Seventh grade was over 25 years ago now (don't they go by in a blink).

But I remember I was angry. Of course I was. Adolescence is hard, much harder than I care to recall. I had terrible acne and despite the title of this blog, I've never been ninja-like. I was chubby then and I'm chubby now, I've just learned that life is short and you can still find someone to love you despite chubbiness.

But seventh grade seemed like forever while it was happening; like it was all the time that ever was or was ever going to be, and my fellow seventh graders were as mean-spirited as I was. Everyday, I got picked on, and not just by the other kids, but by the teachers as well, and you bet I fantasized about making them pay.

Some of their scorn I brought on myself, not that I could see it then, being too young to know I was a jerk. I'd repeat just about any phase of my life, but Jesus save me, not middle school. If I should die a long, painful death, at least I won't be in middle school. Probably that's why in the one YA novel I've written, I made most of the adolescents zombies:)

Ironically, and here's something that's been messing with me today, I wrote a novel in the seventh grade called James' Demon about my temptation as well as my very real fear, even in 1993, that one of my classmates might shoot me. That book won't ever be published (pretty sure it sucked), but I suppose I'll reread it tonight because here's what haunts me: the main character, James MaGinty, was haunted by a demon the way David Walters is haunted by Sexy Jesus in The Book of David, and that demon eventually convinces James to take a gun to school and shoot a bunch of his classmates.

What school you ask? Well, that's what messing with me. Back when I was growing up in Lebanon, Indiana, I aspired to live in the wealthier town of Noblesville, so that's where I set my tale. Again, I'm not publishing the book, so you'll just have to take my word for it, but I told you the truth on everything else, and there's no reason for me to bring this up other than that it's really screwing with my head.

Probably it's just a coincidence. If I'd moved farther from the town where I grew up, my kid would've been endangered at another school in another town (this is America, after all). And yet, here we are. My kid faced a school shooting threat during his first full year of school in the same town a character in my first attempt at a horror novel shot up. Surely it's a coincidence, but I'm going to go ahead and file this in my evidence that reality is a simulation:)

I don't know, Esteemed Reader. I'm wrung out. It's been a long day and my heart has been broken. The school I send my one and only child to everyday was threatened and I can't ever put Little Ninja on a bus again without wondering if I'm sending a lamb to the slaughter. I doubt any Hoosier parent here in my town will ever take that for granted again.

What I do know is that we can't live like this. Don't kid yourself that this can't happen where you live. That's what I thought. America is a land of violence and violence will find you, even in the quiet town of Noblesville, Indiana. Even where you live.

I don't know what the solution is. Honestly. I think sensible gun control laws are a damn fine start and I think politicians not bought and paid for by the gun lobby would be an even better one. But I had access to a gun when I was in middle school, despite my father's being a responsible gun owner. I didn't shoot the place up. I wrote a novel instead.

I do know that the United States has an epidemic of gun violence and it seems unrealistic to hope all potential school shooters are also aspiring novelists. And I know that if I'd had no access to guns, I would've never even come close. And the young man today, who's name I won't publicize, couldn't have shot squat if his access to a gun had been restricted.

But alas, our government is bought and paid for, and guns remain plentiful. I assure you, for every school shooting that happens, there are ten, twenty, maybe a hundred or a thousand or more that don't happen. And if we take access to guns out of the equation, maybe we can drop that number.

This isn't something that just happens elsewhere. It happened here. It will happen where you live. Unless we get serious as a nation and do something to prevent it. Heck, I'd even be okay with fewer school shootings. It would be a good start and fewer dead kids, though not perfect, would be better.

I pray we do that, Esteemed Reader. I pray you don't ever feel the way I do today. And I'm going to do more than think and pray. I'm going to speak out. And I'm going to vote.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Louis Sachar

Newbery Award–winning author Louis Sachar is the creator of the entertaining Marvin Redpost books as well as the much-loved There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, winner of 17 child-voted state awards.

Louis Sachar’s book Holes, winner of the 1999 Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, is also an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Quick Pick, an ALA Notable Book, and was made into a major motion picture.

After graduating high school, Sachar attended Antioch College for a semester before transferring to University of California, Berkeley, during which time he began helping at an elementary school in return for college credit. Sachar later recalled,

“I thought it over and decided it was a pretty good deal. College credits, no homework, no term papers, no tests, all I had to do was help out in a second/third grade class at Hillside Elementary School. Besides helping out in a classroom, I also became the Noontime Supervisor, or 'Louis the Yard Teacher' as I was known to the kids. It became my favorite college class, and a life changing experience.”

Sachar graduated from UC Berkeley in 1976 with a degree in Economics, and began working on Sideways Stories From Wayside School, a children's book set at an elementary school with supernatural elements. Although the book's students were named after children from Hillside and there is a presumably autobiographical character named "Louis the Yard Teacher," Sachar has said that he draws very little from personal experience, explaining that " personal experiences are kind of boring. I have to make up what I put in my books."

Sachar wrote the book at night over the course of nine months, during which he worked during the day in a Connecticut sweater warehouse. After being fired from the warehouse, Sachar decided to go to law school, around which time Sideways Stories From Wayside School was accepted for publication. The book was released in 1978; though it was not widely distributed and subsequently did not sell very well, Sachar began to accumulate a fan base among young readers.[6] Sachar graduated from University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1980 and did part-time legal work while continuing to write children's books. By 1989, his books were selling well enough that Sachar was able to begin writing full-time.

Sachar married Carla Askew, an elementary school counselor, in 1985. They live in Austin, Texas, and have a daughter, Sherre, born January 19, 1987. Sachar has mentioned both his wife and daughter in his books; Carla was the inspiration for the counselor in There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom (1988), and Stanley's lawyer in Holes.

When asked about whether he thought children have changed over the years, Sachar responded: "I've actually been writing since 1976, and my first book is still in print and doing very well. ... I don't think kids have changed."

Click here to read my review of Fuzzy Mud

Click here to read my review of Holes.

And now Louis Sachar faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

The Unconsoled -- Kazuo Ishaguro
East of Eden  -- John Steinbeck
Clockers  -- Richard Price.

If I answered this at a different time or day, I probably would have chosen three others.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

Maybe ten hours writing. Some weeks very little reading. Others, quite a bit.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

During my last year of college, for an easy 3 units, I signed up to be a teacher's aide at a nearby elementary school.  It turned out to be my favorite class.  I loved being with the kids.  When I graduated, I decided to try writing a book about the kids I knew there.  That became Sideways Stories From Wayside School.

I mailed the manuscript to ten different publishers. One accepted it.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I think writers mostly teach themselves. It takes a lot of perseverance and a love of literature. I suppose writers are born with certain qualities that, if exposed to good writing, would choose to pursue it for themselves.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

The freedom to let a story take me places I never expected; the way characters become real to me.

Least favorite thing?  The isolation. I have worked on plays and a movie, and I enjoyed the collaboration with other talented people. I don't have that when writing novels.  Yes, I enjoy working with an editor but it's not the same thing.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Don't expect too much from yourself. The first draft is always awful. The fun part is after the first draft is written, when you begin the process of turning it into something. My second drafts are also awful.  It's not until I get to the third or fourth draft of a book that I start to think it might be good.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Kazuo Ishaguro.  He's always been one of my favorite writers, and I am thrilled that he just won the Nobel Prize.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Book of the Week: FUZZY MUD by Louis Sachar

First Paragraph(s): Woodridge Academy, a private school in Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania, had once been the home of William Heath, after whom the town had been named. Nearly three hundred students now attended school in the four-story, black-and-brown stone building where William Heath had lived from 1891 to 1917, with only his wife and three daughters. 
Tamaya Dhilwaddi’s fifth-grade classroom on the fourth floor had been the youngest daughter’s bedroom. The kindergarten area had once been the stables. 
The lunchroom used to be a grand ballroom, where elegantly dressed couples had sipped champagne and danced to a live orchestra. Crystal chandeliers still hung from the ceiling, but these days the room permanently smelled of stale macaroni and cheese. Two hundred and eighty-nine kids, ages five to fourteen, crammed their mouths with Cheetos, made jokes about boogers, spilled milk, and shrieked for no apparent reason. 
Tamaya didn’t shriek, but she did gasp very quietly as she covered her mouth with her hand.

This is going to be huge week at the blog, Esteemed Reader. We've talked about my love for the writing of Louis Sachar before, of course (if you love middle grade fiction, but you don't love Louis Sachar, you don't love middle grade fiction), but this week Louis Sachar talks back! The author of Holes, Sideways Stories from Westside School, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, and many, many other classic middle grade works, not to mention the winner of a Newberry, a National Book Award, and many many others, the man, the myth, the legend, Louis Sachar will be here to face the 7 Questions on Wednesday.

When you're the man, the myth, and the legend, I imagine you can do just about anything you want within some thin threshold of reason. If. Mr. Sachar wanted to do a middle grade version of The Human Centipede, I'm sure somebody, somewhere would publish it and market it and sell the movie rights. I'd definitely want to read it:)

Fuzzy Mud is not a new version of Westside School or a Holes-ish adventure. This is a separate, new thing. Fans of Sachar will recognize some familiar elements inherent in the voice of the author we love, but one of the things I most admire about Louis Sachar is his diverse body of work. He's done a lot of different types of stories and books and left behind classics in multiple genres. If the returning reader drops any preconceived expectations about the book they're going to read and gives Mr. Sachar the trust he's earned, they're going to find a powerful book that moves the reader in a new way than Sachar has moved us previously.

It could be because I've been obsessing over the works of Kurt Vonnegut the last couple years, but in trying to classify the genre of Fuzzy Mud, I found myself thinking of it as being similar to an essay-ish novel like God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Both Vonnegut's and Sachar's novels have characters that interest us and a story that moves us, and yet the focus of both works is more the arguments of the author regarding society. Vonnegut's books opens, "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees." Fuzzy Mud's leading character is, appropriately, some fuzzy mud:

Her mind barely registered it at first, but the more she gazed at the odd-looking mud, the more it drew her attention. 
The mud was dark and tar-like. Just above the surface, almost as if it were suspended in midair, there was a fuzzy yellowish-brown scum. 
Something else struck her as strange about the fuzzy mud, although it took her a moment to realize what it was. There were no leaves on top of the mud. Leaves had fallen everywhere else. They completely surrounded the mud puddle, right up to its edges, but for some reason, no leaves had landed on top of it.

There are some charming child-aged middle grade characters we'll get to in a moment, but the story of every character in this novel revolves around the fuzzy mud. And somewhere between a third and a half of this book is devoted to the perspective of adult characters. We'll be in the heads of parents and teachers before Sachar finishes, and most notably, we'll read large sections of transcripts from senate hearings:

In February of the following year, three months after Tamaya went back into the woods to search for Chad, the Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment held a new set of hearings. These hearings were not secret. By this time the entire world knew about SunRay Farm, Biolene, and the disaster that had occurred in Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania.

These transcripts serve a number of purposes, most chiefly among them is as a vehicle for the exposition our child protagonists have no way of knowing. Through the transcripts, we're going to learn the origins of the fuzzy mud and why it's such an environmental disaster. Sachar also has some assertions he wants to make about the corporate culture and legal loopholes that allow for the creation of the fuzzy mud.

Again, this is a novel about the sort of society that allows for Fuzzy Mud just as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is about the sort of society that allows for income stratification (perhaps it's a mercy Mr. Vonnegut didn't live to see the ongoing collapse of the United States due to trends he was discussing in 1965). To the best of my knowledge, the sort of mud Sachar is discussing is fictional, but it's plausibly imagined enough that I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was real.

Certainly, environmental disasters are real and the factors that create them are very real. To this day, I won't buy BP gas and I'm still furious that everyone involved in their spills hasn't been thrown in jail--but of course, we all know that neither justice nor the law apply to people above a certain income bracket (note the Koch brothers still walking around free and buying up politicians despite the many deaths their political meddling has caused). But let's not go down those dark tracts of discussion about how broken our reality is. Instead, let's focus on Sachar's fictional reality and his brilliance.

Exposition and theme expounding aren't the only use for these sections of the book devoted to transcripts. Sachar also expertly uses them to foreshadow coming events and to masterfully build suspense around the pending fate of our characters:

Thousands of people were infected. Five people had already died—the one found in the woods, and then four more who were infected later. 
Senator Foote: All because of one little girl? 
Dr. Peter Smythe: One week after Tamaya Dhilwaddi went into the woods, more than five hundred people showed signs of the rash, including many of her classmates. But it would be wrong to assume that it was caused by Tamaya. The invading organisms had simply overwhelmed the environment.

That passage probably makes a much greater impact when you know that Tamaya Dhilwaddi is our main protagonist. And what a wonderful protagonist she is. She's thoughtful, she's considerate, and she's caring, all of which are characteristics that are about to get her in a whole bunch of trouble. She's not just innocent, she's actively kind and compassionate, even toward a bully she should hate.

Too bad she's going to be poisoned by the story's real leading character.

But before that, note the expertise with which Sachar uses another character as a means to describe Tamaya's appearance, which is of interest. Note how he simultaneously describes her character, which is of importance:

Summer was the prettiest of Tamaya’s friends, with straw-colored hair and sky-blue eyes. Tamaya figured that was probably the reason the boys were talking to them in the first place. Boys were always acting silly around Summer.
Tamaya had dark eyes and dark hair that hung only halfway down her neck. It used to be a lot longer, but three days before school started, while she was still in Philadelphia with her dad, she made the drastic decision to chop it off. Her dad took her to a very posh hair salon that he probably couldn’t afford. As soon as she got it cut, she was filled with regret, but when she got back to Heath Cliff, her friends all told her how mature and sophisticated she looked.

See what he did there? We now know that Tamaya has dark eyes and dark hair. More important, we know that Tamaya cares what her friends think of her, that she's aware of boys but not boy crazy, and she's concerned about her father's finances beyond her own appearance.

Actually, there's a sub theme of money's scarcity to Fuzzy Mud, the way there is to a great deal of books written now in our time of the aforementioned pending economic collapse. The adults in this story are all struggling to provide a diminishing lifestyle for their families in a time of stagnant wages, which is a contributing factor to why there isn't more supervision to prevent the tragedy that occurs when Tamaya comes across that fabled fuzzy mud.

It's not a coincidence that our tale is set at a private school that none of the parents seem to be able to afford. Tamaya's most pressing concern is her school sweater, which she cannot afford to replace. Her friend, seventh grader Marshal, who is definitely not her boyfriend (it's a whole thing), has his own economic anxiety at home:

He’d gotten in trouble for coming home so late from school. He was supposed to have looked after the twins, and when he hadn’t shown, his dad had had to leave work early. 
“The only way we can afford to keep you at Woodridge is for everyone to do their part,” his father had reminded him. 

One of the questions Sachar raises is why there's no one to look out for the three children who are about to be exposed to mud.  Where are all the parents? And not just in a condescending way that made me go, screw you, Sachar, being a parent is hard, especially when you don't have that sweet Shia-Labeouf-stared-in-the-movie-version-of-my-book money:) 

Although, there is just a little of that. Consider this line by a school administrator during a mandatory evacuation:

“No, we need you to personally pick up your daughter. Your babysitter’s name is not in our files."

This is balanced, however, with a depiction of more caring parents who want to be there for their children and can't be. Sachar isn't making any definitive judgement other than that children need parents (anybody disagreeing with that premise?) and without them they're vulnerable. See how he is more sympathetic toward Tamaya's home life:

Her mother set down the pizza, kissed Tamaya on the cheek, and said, “Help yourself. I just need to answer this one email.” 
The pizza box smelled of onions. Tamaya had to pick off a few strays before putting a slice on her plate. She had to do it all left-handed, so as not to get any of the restorative hand cream on her food.
One email turned into six, but that was fine with Tamaya. The more her mother was wrapped up in work, the fewer questions Tamaya would have to answer. 
Her mother had made a salad as she’d read through her emails. She rarely did only one thing at a time.

I think even young readers who's parents are divorced, likely causing some sort of personal feelings in them toward a parent or two, will be sympathetic to the fact that Tamaya's mom gots to make dat papah. Nonetheless, all personal judgement aside, the fact remains that Tamaya is neither eating a delicious home cooked meal nor having to explain why she's put restorative hand cream on the rash she got after touching the fuzzy mud.

Because her mother is engrossed in work, she misses the rash that's going to threaten her daughter's life. Because she has a meeting scheduled the next morning, they schedule an appointment with the family doctor after school rather than before. Whatever the confluence of circumstances that led to it, Tamaya does not have the adult intervention she needs to prevent her rash from getting much, much worse.

Again, the leading character in this story is a patch of fuzzy mud, and the circumstances that lead not only to its creation, but to the exposure of children to it. It's sobering stuff, even as there's a lot of Sachar's usual humor throughout.

And there's more to this novel than we have time to discuss as this review is already running long. So we won't really discuss how Sachar shows us Tamaya's faith in God without beating us over the head with it. She prays and her faith leads her to do some heroic things, but I wouldn't put Fuzzy Mud in the religion section.  Atheists will enjoy this book as surely as people of faith because the focus is mud, not God.

We won't talk about Marshall and his complicated feelings about himself and Tamaya, but we will make just a little time to discuss Chad before we call it a day. Chad's a bully, and you know I love a good bully. He threatens Tamaya, but when he's afflicted by the same fuzzy mud, she sees past his gruff exterior to his sympathetic under-pinnings.

We'd go into that in more detail if we had time, but we don't, and what I really want you to know about Chad is that he's ultimately not so very bad. He has a couple speeches that are not unlike Judd Nelson's "No, Dad, what about you!?!" speeches in The Breakfast Club, but for the middle grade audience. Here's how birthdays are celebrated at Chad's house:

“No one cooked me lasagna,” Chad said. “No one did anything. You want to know what my dad said? ‘Why should we celebrate the day you were born?’ ”

This isn't a story about Chad's redemption. As I've said, it's a story about mud. But Chad's being sympathetic is crucial because the reader needs to see him as Tamaya sees him. Tamaya's biggest act is the saving of Chad because she believes he's worth saving. She's right, of course, but how can Sachar show us for sure? A number of ways, actually, but he does need to show us.

We need more than just Chad's word that his home life is the sort of toxic environment that breads an angry young bully. And because this is a book that occasionally dives into the perspective of adults, Sachar is able to provide third-party verification while still keeping his word count low:

But she knew the type of boy Chad was. Whatever had happened to him, wherever he was, she hadn’t thought it had anything to do with the rest of the school. Not that she hadn’t been concerned about him. She had been very concerned. She just hadn’t taken his disappearance as a danger sign for the other students. 
She remembered when Chad and his mother first came to her office. His mother wrote out a check for the tuition, handed it to her, and then, right in front of Chad declared, “He’s your problem now.”

And that's going to do it. Fuzzy Mud is a first rate environmental thriller that will both keep you on the edge of your seat as well as make you think. Obviously, we need to know no more than that this is a story by middle grade master Loius Sachar to know its worth reading. Don't miss this book and don't miss Louis Sachar's interview on Wednesday.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Fuzzy Mud:

Tamaya had sat quietly with her hand raised, but then someone else had shouted out, “I want Lincoln,” and then someone else had claimed Washington. Ms. Filbert had assigned those presidents to the shouters, even though she had just told the class, “Sit quietly and wait until I call on you.” 
It was Ms. Filbert who had suggested Calvin Coolidge to Tamaya when it had finally been her turn. “He was a lot like you, Tamaya,” she had said. “They called him Silent Cal because he was known for being quiet.” 
Ms. Filbert had said “being quiet” as though it were some sort of abnormal behavior. You’re the one who just told everyone to sit quietly, Tamaya had thought.

“Rashes are gross,” Monica agreed. “Tell them you stabbed yourself with a pencil!” said Hope. “That’s gross too,” Tamaya pointed out. “But it’s the kind of gross that boys like,” said Monica.

“Chaaaad!” she shouted.
She didn’t have a very loud or strong voice. Ms. Filbert was constantly trying to get her to pro-ject. “You have a lot of good ideas, Tamaya. You need to speak with authority.” Whenever it was her turn to read aloud in class, everyone always complained that they couldn’t hear. And out on the playground, sometimes she’d shout at Monica or Hope, and they wouldn’t hear her, even though they were just on the other side of the dodgeball circle. 
She tried again, this time putting extra oomph behind it. “Chaa—aad!” 
The extra oomph just made her voice crack.

His face was a mass of blisters, crusted with pus and dried blood, and so badly swollen, she could hardly see his eyes.

Within hours of the children’s rescue, everyone who had been involved in the search began showing signs of the rash: redness, small bumps, a tingling sensation. By the next morning, many of these bumps had turned into blisters, and people awoke to find a mysterious powder the color of their skin on their bedsheets. As it turned out, the powder was their skin, or what was left of it after the mutated ergonyms ate “the good parts.”

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

7 Questions For: Dream Gardens Podcast Host Jody Lee Mott

Esteemed Reader, you know I love podcasts and audiobooks and I firmly believe that if you're doing dishes or working out or any number of other activities that prevent you from actually sitting down and reading a thing, you can still be taking in useful information to improve you as both a writer and a human being. Dream Gardens is one of my new favorites and I would definitely classify it as "useful." 

I've listened to every episode and I'm a guest this week as Jody and I discuss my favorite middle grade novel, The Witches by Roald Dahl. You can hear the full episode here or below at the bottom of this interview.

Here's an official description of the show: Dream Gardens is a twice monthly audio podcast interview with writers, teachers, librarians, or anyone who share a love of children’s books. In each podcast, I’ll talk to my guests about their favorite children’s book: old favorites and new discoveries; books they shared with students, their own children, or other adults who love to read; stories that have made them laugh, cry, and wonder; words that still speak to them no matter how many times they have read them.

Jody Lee Mott is a former teacher, doting husband and father, intermittently successful cook, would-be writer of and all around geek for great kids’ books. After years of futile resistance, he is engaging at last in the digital world to share his own passion for those stories written specifically for children, but which are really for anyone who still opens the pages of a book with a sense of wonder and joy.

And now Jody Lee Mott faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite children's books?

1. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo – Not just my favorite children’s book but one of my favorite books period. Here you have a passive, prickly and self-centered china rabbit who bounces from one group of characters to another, never quite finishing their own stories, and whose big climax has Edward sitting on a shelf, collecting dust and brooding. None of it should work, but of course it all does because Kate diCamillo is just that good. A wonderful and moving book that's really about what it means to be a human being.

2. The Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, Wings) by Terry Pratchett – a terrific set of books in their own right, but they were also my introduction to the fictional worlds of Mr. Pratchett, including his Discworld novels. What’s marvelous about them is how even though they are “children’s books,” they are just are smart and hilarious and insightful as any of his adult books. As it should be.

3. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire – the first book I remember checking out of the library, and I remember it because I checked it out at least a hundred times. The stories and the illustrations fascinated me, and scared me a little too. And though I did have to return it when the due date came around, it was the first book I felt like I owned. A very special feeling I’ve never gotten over.

Question Six: What attracted you to podcasting?

Along with being a podcaster, I am an aspiring children’s book writer, and in the past few years I’d been considering a way to increase my online profile. But it was while listening to various podcasts like Grammar Girl and Brain Burps that the idea first struck me that podcasting might be fun to do, and that I might be good at it.  There was something about the performative aspects of the podcast that appealed to me as well, like the poems I read at the beginning of the podcast and my role as interviewer, while my introverted nature appreciated that I would be heard but not seen (which is why I doubt I will ever add a video component to Dream Gardens).

Question Five: What are you most hoping listeners will take away from the Dream Gardens podcast?

Two things: One, that there is a wide variety of kids’ books out there, past and present, that are worth looking into. Part of the joy of doing this, for me, is not only re-reading old favorites but having the chance to read books I either had meant to read but hadn’t got around to or to read books I might never have heard of otherwise. If nothing else, I hope the podcasts introduce new books to new readers (and any book is new, no matter how old, if it hasn’t been read yet).

And second, that children’s books are works of art worthy of serious discussion as much as any other book.  Yes, their primary audience is children, but that does not mean there is less craft involved, or that they lack depth or complexity. Children’s books, like kids themselves at times, are too often under-estimated.

Question Four: Has hosting a podcast about children's books changed your view of children's books? What have you learned from your experiences thus far?

I’m not sure it changed so much as confirmed my view that the books we read as kids shape us as readers, and sometimes even affect the paths of our careers, making us teachers or librarians or writers or even podcasters.

What I've also learned is that people who are passionate about kids’ books want to share that with others. When I first started out, I wasn’t sure if anyone would agree to do this. I mean, why should they? I was just a guy no one knew who said he had this podcast no one had heard of.  And after a year and a half of doing this, it still surprises me when people say yes, but I am grateful they do.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about hosting the Dream Gardens podcast? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite part of hosting is just listening to what others have to say about their favorite books. I have always felt that my role was secondary to just letting others talk about how a particular book has engaged them. And I think the enthusiasm for that book does come through in that conversation.

My least favorite part is the initial invitations I send out asking people to participate in the podcast. As I’ve mentioned, I’m an introvert, and asking complete strangers to join me in a chat goes against all my normal instincts. It is something I have to fight against every single time I do it, and I still cringe a little when I click send.

Question Two: What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own podcast or otherwise build an online following for their creative work?

My biggest advice is to do the research before you get started. Listen to other podcasts, both to see what is out there and to get an idea of how to format your own. Then research all the pieces involved in getting started and keeping it going--and there are a lot of pieces. Sure, there are ways to get started quickly, but they usually involve giving up some control of either your podcast or its distribution. If you want to do it right, take the time to do it right. Once I decided I wanted to do a podcast, I took nearly a year of figuring things out and getting the right equipment (tip: a high-quality microphone and headphones are essential) before I posted my first podcast.  As for other online ventures, I think the same advice holds true—do your research first.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Robert Louis Stevenson, because he was such a good writer (I’ve always thought The Master of Ballantrae was pretty much a perfect book), a wide traveler, and an all-around interesting human being, and because I know he would have so many stories to tell I could just sit back and listen and eat my lunch.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko is best known for her Tales from Alcatraz series, which has sold more than 2 million copies. Book #1: Al Capone Does My Shirts was a Newbery Honor Book and the recipient of twenty other awards. Book #4: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is due out in 2018. BookPage said of her most recent novel, Chasing Secrets: “Choldenko’s ability to research obscure yet intriguing topics is uncanny, and as she did with the popular Al Capone trilogy she turns a tough topic into a high interest read … a compelling work of historical fiction.” Gennifer lives with her loyal husband and naughty dog in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In her own words: There’s a Lego in my bum which fits with the Lego in my chair and when I sit down to write, I hear the satisfying snap of the two pieces fitting together. I love words, dictionaries, thesauruses, sharp pencils, the smell of book ink and the delicious art of carving out sentences on clean white paper. I love to slip into another person’s skin and feel what it’s like to live another life. I love when characters come to me out of nowhere and make me cry so hard my mascara runs or laugh until my stomach hurts. I love the crazy fun and infinite possibility of storytelling.

What prepared me for a life of writing fiction? Though I have a BA from Brandeis University in English and American Literature and a BFA in illustration from Rhode Island School of Design, the true answer is probably genes. I come from a long line of Irish storytellers on my father’s side and theatre people on my mother’s. I always knew I loved to write, but it took me a long time to summon the courage to chase the dream. I finally went for it when I realized I would prefer to be a failure at something I wanted to do, then a success at something I didn’t. 

While I was pretending I wasn’t a writer, trying to be a nice person with a nice quiet job somewhere, I sold lingerie, lipstick and lamp shades. I wrote junk mail. I taught visually and hearing-impaired kids horseback riding. I held a prestigious job in rubbish removal and I worked in a factory wearing a paper gown while wielding a large mallet on small serving packages of ketchup. 

One Third Nerd, my funniest novel yet, is due out in January 2019. My most famous novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts, garnered 20 awards, one of which was the Newbery Honor. The Tales of Alcatraz series has sold more than 2 million copies. What will probably be the last book in the series: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is the best of the fifteen books I’ve written so far. 

I am a fitness fanatic; a book-obsessed, tennis-playing woman who thinks like a twelve-year-old. If I ever get the good fortune to meet you, offer me coffee and I will be your friend for life.

And now Gennifer Choldenko faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Charlotte’s Web, Holes, All the Light We Cannot See

(In my view, All the Light We Cannot See is YA.)

In the competition for top fourth book: El Deafo, A Little Princess, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Harriet the Spy, The Book Thief, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

The last six months, I’ve been writing seven days a week, which I really enjoy. On weekend days, I generally write for two hours; during the week, four to five hours.  Sometimes I read during my writing time. Today, I spent less time writing because my ideas for my newest book feel thin.  I haven’t done a good enough job researching.  So I worked on finding the information I need.

As for reading for pure pleasure: two hours.  I read during breakfast and lunch.  I am a huge fan of audio books.  I “read with my ears” while I walk the dog, do errands, clean the house and drive. Right now, I’m listening to Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

I’ve always loved to write.  For seven years, I made a living writing advertising.  But then writing advertising started to make me hate myself.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I tried writing fiction for adults, but I found that boring.  Who cares about adults?  After a few wrong turns, I finally figured out what energized me was writing for kids.  I am twelve on the inside and I care passionately about things that other twelve-year-olds care about.  

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

There are three intrinsicqualities that have to come together to make a writer: talent, personality andambition.  My brother is a talented writer, but he’s such a people person he can’t handle the alone time.  My daughter is immensely talented but she hates how subjective the writing process is.  She prefers math and science, where the answers are clear.

Once you have talent, a writerly personality and ambition, then you need to figure out how to build your skill set. And that is a lifelong endeavor.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

Wow, I have so many favorite things.  I love the endorphin high I get when a new idea pops in my head.  I love when a scene comes to me and I can’t type fast enough to get it all down.  I love revising.  (My license plate?  REWRITZ.)  I love when my characters talk to me and I become so involved in their stories that I don’t want to leave my fictional world.  Really there’s no part of writing I don’t like, but there is a part of the writing business I dislike.  I’m terrified when a book launches.  It feels like I’ve sent my kindergarten age child out on the streets to fend for herself.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

1.Don’t beat up your muse.  Be grateful for every gift she gives.

2. Revel in the process.  It isn’t about getting through it or getting it over with.

3. Every year ask yourself what part of your writing skill set needs work.  Then strategize how to up your game.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why??

Frank L. Baum and JK Rowling.  I don’t think Frank L. Baum is the best writer, but his imagination was incredible.  He fired off every cylinder.  J.K. Rowling is both a terrific writer and she is intensely imaginative.  What would Frank and Joanne order?  What would they say to each other?  I would love to hear them discuss how their ideas came to them. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Book of the Week: AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE by Gennifer Choldenko

First Paragraph(s): Even when you live on a prison island with crafty criminals plotting ways to knock you off, summer is the best time of the year.
No tests. No homework. No getting up early to catch the ferry. No teachers who think you flunked a few grades because you happen to be kind of big for thirteen and a half.
Summer is freedom. Not for the prisoners, of course. But for us kids who live on Alcatraz Island. 

Gennifer Choldenko will be here  Wednesday to face The 7 Questions, so mark it on your calendar and find your way back here. Today, we're going to discuss her newest middle grade novel; why I loved it and you will too.

I know I'm always picking a new favorite opening, Esteemed Reader, but the opening of Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is definitely near the top of Middle Grade Ninja's List of Fantastic Openings Made of Win Because They're Everything You Want in a Book's Opening, or MGNLFOMWBTEYWBO for short.

Let's break it down. First, Choldenko hooks us with the setting. To be fair, Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is the fourth book in a beloved series, so presumably many readers will already be familiar with the setting. Choldenko is reminding them of the dangers of Alcatraz and enticing first time readers, of which there will always be some who obstinately skip the first three books (***waves***). Second, she expertly sets the story's tone  by simultaneously re-establishing our main character since this is a first-person narrative. She tells us what summer means for Moose, and shows he's a bit cheeky with that swipe at the prisoners who won't be having a summer of freedom.

Two other things that win my heart right away are, one, every chapter is dated so there's never any question about when we are; it's Tuesday, May 26, 1936. If I had my way, every historical work would do this. Two, she finds a way right up front in the second paragraph to tell us our protagonist is thirteen and a half. 

Game, set, and match. All the essential exposition we need to know up front is seamlessly conveyed with a juicy hook set both in tone and in setting. If you're a returning reader, welcome back. Make yourself comfortable, newcomers, you're in the hands of a storyteller who knows what's she's doing. 

Obviously, there's more exposition needed. But exposition for exposition's sake is boring, especially since lots of readers already know this stuff. Observe how Choldenko slows down just enough to catch up the newbies and remind folks who've slept since the last book what the situation of our heroes is:

"Uh-oh! Uh-oh" My older sister, Natalie, mutters like a character on a kids' radio program. Her blond-brown head is bent forward as she counts toothpicks in a row. She's tall, like my mom and me, but she holds herself in a way that makes her look younger and smaller than she is.
My father's hand hovers over Natalie's toothpicks. "Okay if I take one?"
Natalie hands him the last one in line.
We moved up here from Santa Monica a year and a half ago so Nat could go to a school called the Esther P. Marinoff, which helps kids whose brains aren't wired like everyone else's. My parents sacrificed a lot for her to go to that school. We all did.
My father was an electrician in Santa Monica, but he had a hard time finding a job up here. It's almost impossible to get work right now on account of the Depression. I don't understand exactly what the Depression is except it has to do with the banks collapsing and people not having money. Anyhow, the only job my father could get was as a guard and an electrician in the prison. Everybody likes him here, though, so he got promoted to assistant wardn.
Since Nat's been at the Esther P. Marinoff, she's learned how to have a conversation--not just echo what you say. She still has a hard time looking people in the eye, but she has been trying really hard. Now we're helping her make friends.

Choldenko's not just giving us a quick recap, but establishing one of the major conflicts of the novel. There's a bunch of stuff about baseball, one baseball in particular signed by Babe Ruth and another historical figure I won't spoil except to say that his name is in the title:) And all of that is just fine and young readers in particular will enjoy those aspects of the story. But at its heart, this is a story about the family of an autistic child.

Seems like there's been a recurring theme of autism in the books we've been discussing this year, doesn't it, Esteemed Reader? That's not an accident.

But the word 'autism' is never once mentioned in this book until the author's note because this story takes place eight years before autism was first diagnosed. Part of the tragedy of this tale is that our characters don't understand what's happening with Natalie or why she never snaps out of it. There aren't any resources to assist them or even educate them as to what they can expect or how they can help.

If this detail doesn't break your heart, Esteemed Reader, I suspect there's nothing in your chest to be broken:

Things have always been screwy around Natalie's birthday. Every year Mom pretends Natalie is turning ten again, instead of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or, this year, seventeen. Mom wants Nat to be younger so she has more time to catch up with the other kids.

Choldenko doesn't shy away from showing the frustration both for Natalie and her family:

"No little girl dress. No." She spins faster.
My mother marches to Nat's closet and picks the pink dress off the hanger. She unbuttons it, walks back to the kitchen, and shoves it in Natalie's spinning face. "Take that dress off, now. It makes you look--"
Natalie hugs herself.
"Natalie, now!" my mother shouts. It's awful when my mother loses control. Then it seems like there are two Natalies.
"No now! No now!" Natalie knocks a vase off the shelf. It falls with a thud. A glass bowl crashes, splintering into pieces. She bangs her head against the wall, bites at her wrists, kicks the books off the shelf, and then collapses in a heap in the middle of the broken shards.

My mother is shaking hard. She stands next to Natalie, unable to move.

Natalie isn't just the autistic girl. She's a character as fully flushed out as the non-autistic ones. She has things she wants and needs. She knows how old she is and she wants to grow up and she wouldn't mind being kissed.

But this isn't her series. Our character is Moose, our narrator through three previous books. And being Natalie's brother isn't always easy:

When I get back to my apartment, my mother and Natalie are already gone. Under the saltshaker I find a note.
Moose, four more days to go! Love, Mom
I can't help smiling at this. I didn't realize she knew I was counting the last days of school. I like when my mom acts like my mom. Sometimes it seems like all she thinks about is Natalie.

This book is dedicated "to every kid who has a sibling with autism," a position that brings plenty of difficulty as Choldenko knows only too well. She reveals in the author's note that her own sister was autistic and so she brings to these books that, again, are also about Al Capone and Alcatraz, a lifetime's worth of research born of experience. And it shows.

There is no element of the story we experience outside of Moose's perspective and it's his frustration we feel most keenly. Moose wants to play baseball with the high school team, even if he's got to sneak them items to prove he's an acquaintance of Al Capone (it's a whole thing that a 'review' less focused on the treatment of autism would probably spend more time on). Although, I did get a chuckle at how difficult a prospect it would be for Moose to get a selfie with Al Capone in 1936, even if Alcatraz prison weren't a factor.

When Moose is forced to take Natalie with him as he auditions for the baseball team, she's legitimately inappropriate, particularly for the more chaste era she's living in. Because autism isn't a known thing, the other kids don't understand. Moose doesn't entirely understand and you can feel his pain and frustration:

"Who's she kissing?" Beck asks.
"Got to be Passerini," Dewey snorts. "All the girls love him."
The guys laugh.
My cheeks turn burning hot. I jump up and dash to the bleachers. "Natalie, stop doing that!" I growl.
"Passerini! Passerini!" Beck calls.
"Go on, Pass... kiss her," Dewey hoots.
"He, Pass. She wants you, Pass!" Dewey, Beck, and Scout are all laughing.
"Stop it, Natalie!" I hiss.
She stops smacking, but her lips are puckered like they;'re frozen there. Her arms cover her ears blocking me out.
I grab her arm. I know she hates this, but I can't stop myself. "Don't do that with your lips!" My breath is hot in her face.
Natalie wraps her arms more tightly around her head, covering her face with her elbows. She doubles over, rolls up into the footrest of the bleachers.
"They're making fun of you. Don't you see?"
But the more I talk, the tighter Natalie pulls inside herself.
I glance back at the guys. They aren't laughing anymore. They're staring. Even Scout.
"Get out of here!" I shout, rushing at them.

There also a lot of touching moments in this story, which I'm not going to share because I don't want to spoil them. And there's a somewhat villainous woman who takes particular interest in Natalie for her own nefarious purposes. Bea gives Natalie some grown up dresses and a more mature haircut, helping her escape her mother's intentions of keeping her forever ten, which is good. Unfortunately, Bea also places Natalie in harm's way.

Although Choldenko doesn't go out of her way to show us the full brutality of the time period, she doesn't shy away from it either (without every straying too far from Middle Grade country). Being dishonest about the realities of 1936 would be cheat. We're told of grown men so hungry they lick the street where children's ice cream has been spilled. And I shook my head in disbelief at how an incident involving children and a gun was resolved.

There's plenty of sexism to go around, both avert and less so, and not softened just because the reader presumably has more progressive thoughts than the characters (always assuming the reader isn't named 'Pence'). Even our likable protagonist says some things that wouldn't fly today, such as "It's prison, not a women's club." No doubt, readers will bristle at some of the realities of the time, but Choldenko isn't writing about a fantastical past or an alternate history. That baseball signed by the Babe and Capone was real and so were outdated social norms, unfortunately.

And that's where we'll leave it. Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is a very entertaining read that made me wipe my eyes several times before it was done and laugh out loud as well. 

Before we'll call it a review, I want to share one more of Choldnko's pro tips for writers. Here's a memorable way to describe a character's appearance in a first-person narrative without looking in a mirror:

As soon as my feet hit the wooden planks, the dock officer, a man they call the Nose, comes over. The Nose got his name because he smelled convicts' moonshine hidden in a fire extinguisher.
He's the same size I am--almost six feet--with the same brownish-blondish hair and brown eyes. Everybody says I look like him.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Al Capone Throws Me a Curve:

My stomach is mixed up, like it can't decide if I ate too much or I'm hungry.

My head nods like a traitor.

I don't see how Alcatraz is going to get us on the high school team. But if anyone can wangle a way on, it's Scout. He can charm a tree stump. He can befriend a highway divider. He can convince a pen to become a pencil for the day.

I've just turned away when I hear her voice, thin as chicken broth.

Worst inning I've ever seen.
Back in the field, Dewey fumbles a pop fly. Passerini walks two players. Beck trips and falls on his face. He spits out a mouthful of dirt.
They're way better than this. Sometimes slumps are like a bad case of chicken pox. The pain has to run its course. You can't just snap your fingers and have it go away.

Piper laughs in my face. I've never known anyone to enjoy my pain as much as she does.

I keep waving until the ferry is small enough to fit in my pocket. And then I let her go.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Survey Of Cannibals

Sorry to have been away, Esteemed Reader. I've been bogged down by finishing my newest book and teaching my first fiction workshop, which has been a wonderful experience, but has taken away from my usual blogging time. I'll be back to regular posting soon, but today I have something fun to share with you.

One of my best friends, Jody Sparks, recently surveyed my beloved critique group, the YA Cannibals. If a book can be said to be an author's child, these folks are the co-parents to each of my babies (even if they won't admit to helping out with The Book of David, they're thanked in the back).

If there's one thing I've been trying to impress upon my workshop class, it's that they need writer friends to support and critique them. To my delight, my students are doing that for each other.  It's with them in mind that I offer up this collection of my favorite writers because they're my writing family. If you don't have writer friends like this in your life, go find some.

Alexander, Shannon Lee

Shannon Lee Alexander is the author of Love and Other Unknown Variables and Life After Juliet. She's a wife and mother (of two kids and one yellow terrier named Harriet Potter). She is passionate about coffee, books, and cancer research. She spent most of her time in high school hiding out in the theater with the drammies and techies. Math still makes her break out in a sweat. She currently lives in Indianapolis with her family.

Find her at

Sign up for Shannon's newsletter at

Click here to see her face The 7 Questions.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I like to read craft books. Some are helpful and some I don’t finish because they are doing more harm to my psyche and process than good. I also listen carefully to critiques, trying to understand how I can improve my writing (not just one particular book) from comments. I’d love to take more classes, have even considered an MFA in writing just for the ability to go back to class, but haven’t pursued that yet. Some of that is financial and some is time commitment. Some of it is fear.

I also mark up my favorite books, so I can easily go back and find bits that spoke to me and try to figure out why. What was the author doing here that really spoke to me? Can I make improvements to do the same or is this specific to a person/type of writing? As you can see, I ask myself a lot of questions when I read! :)

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

Agent Laura Rennert telling me the stakes weren’t high enough for Charlie Hanson changed my writing life. That was my first big critique/rejection. I’m glad I listened and made changes. I still struggle with raising the stakes! But at least I know that’s a hurdle for me and go into any story prepared to meet it.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

I feel like maybe I’m waiting on this still. I don’t know that I’ve had a breakthrough. Sounds awesome though. Sign me up for sure.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

If I’m improving, I think it’s in very small and almost unnoticeable ways. I know I must be getting better at this whole thing, but it’s not in some dramatic way. Instead, it’s more like I doubt myself less. Or my instincts for telling the story are more closely aligning with the ways people enjoy hearing stories (so while I’m still not a plotter, my stories ramble less and move forward more). And I think my characters are becoming more diverse and rich in texture and development. Again, all of this is small stuff, like grains of sand, but it’ll build up over time.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Jody—characters I fall in love with

Sarah—characters I want to simultaneously strangle and protect

Lisa—give me your skill for using everyday words so beautifully

Rob—intricate plots with lots of moving pieces

Josh—willing to reinvent his own worlds

Laura—hook, line, and sinker! Laura’s ideas for story hooks dazzle me.

August—characters that contain entire worlds within themselves (I’m still reeling in the best sort of way from reading his last submission!)

Fipps, Lisa

I am an avid reader and just finished writing a YA novel in verse and am working to get it published. I have been the Director of Marketing and Community Engagement at a public library since 2011, after transitioning from a 19-year career in journalism in Indiana and Texas.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I read. A lot. Three books a week, on average. I read for the good details -- word choices, verbs -- and bad details -- tropes, convenient characters. If I'm struggling or just want to improve an element of my writing, I seek out classes (Chautauqua and three times at Highlights), conferences, and craft books. I find classes/workshops are costly and time-consuming, BUT the biggest changes in my writing have come from them.

At conferences, because I've been in SCBWI for 18 years now, I usually learn less but get radically inspired. Critique groups are, for me, crucial. I know Linda Sue Park doesn't use one. She hates people trying to tell her what her book should be because then she gets lost in their ideas for her work. That's what you have to be mindful of.

I also just love to play, play, play with words. Having been in journalism and on deadlines for 20 years, I know how to sit down and write pretty clean copy grammatically on the first draft. That's very helpful. It allows me to spend more time experimenting. I also write fairly fast because of my previous career. What slows me down is word choice. I can get bogged down for hours looking for one, perfect word. I won't let a poem go if there are word choices I don't love.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough? 

That's a hard one. I guess the best criticism was actuallysomething that was most encouraging to me. It was from Stephen Roxburgh during the Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop in Chautauqua. He's honest. Brutally so. I was terrified. He saw a story I have since shelved that will be my third novel.

We were sitting at a park bench on the corner of South and Park (LOL), and he said, "This is damn brilliant." I literally almost vomited. Yes, he said there was all kinds of work to be done (and I’ve since changed it from prose to free verse to create more work), but he said the emotion and power I can get from words and the pictures I create were brilliant. I was just at the stage of deciding IF I could become a YA author or if I was only cut out to be a journalist for the rest of my life. So those words were life-changing and dream-affirming.

Then when Sonya Sones, whom I adore, liked my work, I thought, "Okay. I'm a poet." So those aren't necessarily criticisms, but they were, for me, essential. Without them, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to pursue writing YA novels. But Patti Gauch's words of "go there," so simple, so true, so needed in good writing, stays in my head. It makes me take chances.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had. 

I'd say at the Masters in Voice Workshop at Highlights with Patti Gauch in 2016. Studying how other authors "go there," was essential for me. At Chautauqua in 2009, Patti had said, "push, push, push." I did from then on. But I didn't "go there," until 2016. Those two words say to me, go to where you are afraid to go. Say words you're afraid to use. Rip open the heart -- mine and the reader's.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves. 

I can usually tell if my writing’s improving based onif I am truly happy with a poem. I am my own worst critic. When I'm revising and willing to scroll past a poem, or I re-read it just for pleasure, I know I've done well. I also know I've done well if my fellow YA Cannibals "get it."

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Rob - I try to imagine what he's going to find wrong with it because he will always call out something that doesn't ring true.

Josh - He's great with action details.

Shannon - She's wonderful with word choice and actions not true to a character.

Virginia - She's the detailer of the group, catching every little comma.

Auggie - He keeps me outside of boxes, freeing me to write. He's also tough, but funny, making me notice my errors more.

Sarah - She's great at talking out plots.

Laura - I'm not used to her style yet. Sorry.

Jody - She sees the whole picture and the dovetails and asks, what if?

Kent, Rob(ert)

Robert Kent is the author of the horror novels The Book of David and All Together Now: A Zombie Story, and the novellas Pizza Delivery and All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story.

Under the name Rob Kent, he writes middle grade novels such as Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees and the upcoming Banneker Bones and the Alligator People.

Rob(ert) Kent holds degrees in Literature and Creative Writing from Indiana University and owns over 900 Batman action figures. He lives with his family in Indianapolis where he teaches courses at the Indiana Writers Center and is hard at work on his next book.

Click here to see him face the 7 Questions, which he also wrote.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I’ve tried a little bit of everything, which is what I recommend writers do early in their career. You can’t know whether or not something is effective for you unless you give it a shot. I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how I write and what works for me at this stage, but no one’s a monolith and I occasionally try new things to keep writing fresh.

At this stage, I only do writing exercises if I’m at a conference and it would be rude not to. If I’m going to sit down and do the work of writing, I want a shot at selling what I wrote later. I absolutely attend classes when I can, with the caveat that I always read something the instructor wrote ahead of time to make sure I consider them worth listening to. I’m always shocked at the number of students who pay money to attend a class taught by me without first having read one of my books.

As for craft books, I read stacks of them when I was younger. Now I tend to read more about book marketing. I find the best teachers of craft to be other people's books. But I keep the audiobooks for Story by Robert McKee and On Writing by Stephen King handy and listen to them at least once a year. And I never miss an interview or guest post at

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

That's a tough one because I've been given a lot of great criticism. One thing that comes to mind was not a criticism of craft, but a criticism of my behavior outside of writing. When I was brand new to writing, I wanted to tell everyone how excited I was to be writing... at length. I would raise my hand at every opportunity in class and sometimes I would talk over other students because I was just so excited and, also, annoying.

My mentor, the great writer Will Allison, told me to talk less and listen more. He told me I was a good writer and that anyone who read what I wrote would know that, so there was no need to tell them in advance. And while I was talking, I was missing a lot of opportunities to hear important lessons other writers had to share. Also, other writers are more willing to give you a hand when you're not an obnoxious egomaniac.

Now when I have over-talkers in my classes, I give them the same advice. But I get it. Most of us have been that guy and learning to not be that guy is a very necessary step toward maturing as a writer. When I meet an older writer who's still that guy, I'm embarrassed for them. If I had my way, I'd make a law that ever new writer be required to watch Barton Fink, which illustrates this common behavior and its pitfalls beautifully.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

I've had many and expect to have more. What's the point in continuing to write if I don't expect to continue to grow and improve? I can't think of any one moment where I was suddenly struck by glowing insight that made a foggy world clear. Unfortunately, most craft improvement doesn't work that way. It's a gradual process of improvement over time that presents as a cumulative effect rather than a moment of pure insight.

But since that's unsatisfying, I'll share an anecdote:)

I had a writing instructor insist that I start a horror story at the first instance of violence, because the class agreed that the first five pages of the story was too slow and things didn't get interesting until the killer was threatening the protagonist. After that, the class was unanimous that the story was scary. I argued those first five pages were where we got to know the character so we would care about him when it mattered. But the instructor was a big deal author, so I cut those five pages.

When I submitted the story to a new workshop, no one found it scary. They didn't care about the character, so they didn't care what happened to him. I realized the big deal author, while not entirely wrong, hadn't been entirely right either. That's when it hit me that no one knows how to write perfectly all the time. We're all figuring this out as we go and doing the best we can.

I rewrote the five pages to three pages and opened with a promise of the violence to come, thus hooking the reader and keeping them hooked because they cared about the protagonist. That version of the story got published.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

I like each new book better than the previous, whatever the author's opinion of his own work does for you:) I have to believe my next book will be my best every time because it's  necessary to my finishing my next book (nobody's motivated to write their second-best book).

Even though, if I'm honest, I don't ever expect to top Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, which I wrote eight books ago. But with every new project, even sequels to previous projects, I try to push myself to do something I haven't done before. You can't make all readers happy all the time, so I try to make me happy. And why not? It's my name on the cover.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

This is a difficult question, partly because the other cannibals will read my answer, and partly because I depend on every cannibal for multiple aspects of craft. My critique partners are extremely talented. I also don't want to repeat the answers of the other Cannibals being surveyed. But if I must pick one aspect for each of them and only one:

Josh - Is great at sentence structure. I typically make all of Josh's changes because the man knows how to diagram a sentence. Often, I feel silly for not seeing the simpler version of a sentence that was hiding in my overwritten word pile.

Lisa - Is our resident poet and wordsmith. She always lets me know when I'm overusing the same word or phrase. She can also be counted on to select a better, more precise word than whatever low hanging-fruit I've reached for.

Shannon - Is especially good at catching little details, even when they involve a bit of research on her part. She has more than once saved me from embarrassing myself by finding factual inaccuracies in my stories.

Virginia - Is wonderful for moral support. She leaves smiley faces throughout my manuscripts, which lets me know what's working. This is crucial as constructive feedback is best tempered with positivity.

Auggie - Is great at pointing out potentially offensive aspects in my writing. I may argue that something I've written wasn't considered sexist or otherwise terrible when I was growing up, but that means nothing to Auggie with his younger read on things. Guess what, Grandpa Ninja? Times change and it's no longer cool to describe your characters as 'crying like a girl' even though your dear old gym teacher used that exact phrase at least 20 times per class. Just because society is sometimes accepting of a phrase doesn't mean it's acceptable.

Sarah - Is especially good at letting me know when I've gone too far, as I frequently do. Whether I'm too offensive for a YA audience or too blasphemous for a religious audience, Sarah lets me know when I've crossed the line. Though I rarely cross all the way back to the other side, I'll at least retract some:)

Jody - Is very good at making sure my story is comprehensible. She never fails to zero in on something I haven't clearly explained, or something that's likely to be confusing.

Laura - Is amazing at big picture/concept stuff. I would love to write a dinosaurs-in-Indiana story, but Laura already beat me to it. She's got some unpublished stuff I also wish I'd written, but now I can't. Sometimes I completely agree with suggestions Laura makes to re-frame the novels of others, and sometimes she comes up with an idea that's far better than what I had. Usually, I want to read Laura's version of someone else's novel.

Martin, Laura

Laura Martin believes in chasing dreams, and she brought that philosophy to her classroom for six years as a seventh-grade English teacher. She is the author of the Edge of Extinction series. When she isn’t writing stories about dinosaurs and underground civilizations, she can be found in the Indianapolis area with her dashing husband Josh, her two adorable kids London and Lincoln, and two opinionated bulldogs. You can visit her online at

Her latest, Float, releases on May 29th.

Click here to see her face The 7 Questions.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I actually do work on craft. I did that A LOT leading up to getting a book published. I was a creative writing major, and I took an awesome community writing class which provided me with my first ever writing group, but since being published (and having kids…which happened pretty much simultaneously) I haven’t worked on craft as much as I’d like to.

What’s been most beneficial for me has been working with my editor on my books. The more I’ve revised, the easier it has become to spot my own personal weaknesses and improve them.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

The best criticism I ever got was from my writing professor at Butler University. He basically told me to just get over myself and write a good book, and if I could do that, the publishing thing would happen for me. And he was right!

He also told me that I needed to write another book while I was getting rejections for my first book. It gave me the distance from the first book to see what utter garbage it really was. A lot of times we get so wrapped up in our own writing we can’t see the good from the garbage without a little help.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

My one big break-through was about making a novel exciting for young readers. I call it my frying pan-fire break-though. If your character just got out of the frying pan, it’s high time you threw them into the fire and vise versa. I did that a lot in my Edge of Extinction books…as soon as my characters were feeling safe, I made sure something showed up that made that feeling go away.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

My writing improves when I can get it in front of someone else, be that an editor or a writing group. I love hearing what people think of my writing. Creativity (for me at least) can’t happen in a bubble.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

This one is hard since I’m still new to the group, but here it goes!

Shannon—She really paints a wonderful picture with her writing. I FEEL like I’m sitting there watching her characters because she sets the stage so well.

Sarah—Her writing is so fun because she’s effortlessly funny. Even when she’s writing something serious, she makes me laugh.

Lisa—I will never be a poetry writer…but if I was, I’d like to write like Lisa. She makes you feel with five words what it takes me fifty…

Rob—He has really nailed the middle grade voice, something I feel I still struggle with. (note, Laura has not read Pizza Delivery--MG Ninja)

Josh—SORRY! I haven’t read anything of Josh’s yet!

August—He writes fabulous and unique descriptions and somehow manages to capture his character’s voices just by the way he describes them.

Jodi—She creates the best characters. They are unique and quirky and believable all at the same time.

Prokopy, Josh

Josh Prokopy is a stay-at-home dad with a love for young adult action adventure and mysteries set in exotic locales.  When not writing or looking after the house and kids, he loves to practice martial arts and brew great beer.  You can find his in-depth reviews of dozens of YA action adventure novels, good and bad, at

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

In the past I have read books on craft, taken online classes, and, of course, gone to conferences.  And early on I definitely got a lot out of that.  Before my first conference, I thought I’d written an amazing book (Just send it out right now.  They’d be crazy not to publish it.).  Within the first two sessions I knew how wrong I was.

But these days, most of what I do in terms of craft is just writing, getting those gut wrenching Cannibal critiques, and critiquing stuff for others.  That last one is huge, because I read so much differently and more carefully when I critique, and it’s a great opportunity to learn about writing in a way that just doesn’t happen when you’re reading for fun.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

The best criticism I ever got was actually from my first Cannibal’s critique when I learned that many of the actions and reactions my characters were having where not actually in character.  I was writing for convenience and for fitting into the plot as outlined – but what my characters were doing just didn’t fit with who they were.  The advice was to go back and really assess each action my characters were taking, to think about who they were and whether or not this was actually something they would do.  I have no doubt that my characters still do things for the convenience of my plot, but I try much harder now to root that out.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

Not sure I can really identify any single break through.  It’s been more of a steady progression.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

Well, I suppose I always feel like each draft I write is better than the last one. But ultimately, the only way to really gauge improvement is to show that work to a group of people who aren’t afraid to tear it up.  That has its down sides, and after a harsh critique it can be incredibly hard to motivate and get back to writing – sometimes it requires an extended break.  But no matter how crappy the critiques make me feel, the end result is inevitably a much better manuscript.  Of course, to get that kind of outcome you have to show your work to other writers, to people who aren’t afraid to tear it up and will say more than, “that’s great” or make a few grammatical corrections.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Rob – Creates incredibly compelling story lines.  Even if the characters are sometimes reprehensible, you can’t stop reading.

Shannon – She’s capable of huge emotional depth.

Lisa – Gorgeous use of language.  She can create rich emotional scenes with very few words.

Jody – Amazing character development.  It’s so easy to fall inside her characters’ heads.

Laura – Does a fantastic job with plotting.  Her stories are wonderfully paced and a joy to read.

Sparks, Jody

Jody Sparks Mugele was born and raised a Hoosier but spent some time in Tennessee, California, and Michigan before returning home 2011. She’s been married to her husband for twenty years. Jody has two kids, but sometimes others wander in and stay for a while. She used to do marketing writing, but now focuses on fiction. She’s also on the board of the Indianapolis chapter of PFLAG.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I do all those things, but find classes most useful. Once, I read a child psychology book because I needed it to develop an adult character who was a child psychologist, and that book actually turned out to be one of the more informing books on the craft writing for children. It really opened my eyes to specific developmental milestones I'd never thought of exploring.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

The best criticism I ever got was from Andrew Karre. I'd built a hero character who, at the end of the book, was discharged from the Navy dishonorably. Andrew challenged me to think about the current pulse and temperature of America (early 2000s, just after 9-11), and to ask myself how salable I thought the book would be. I was pretty sure I couldn't write the book without the dishonorable discharge, but I wanted to try.

I ended making enormous revisions and completely changing the course of the character's future with the Navy. And the story still worked. I felt like I was still being true to the heart of the book, which was about sacrifice. I realized I could write against my natural instincts and against some of my own values (I'm not anti-military, just for the record) to create a more marketable book. I still haven't sold it, but it is the book that helped me land my first agent.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

My last breakthrough was with voice. I'd worked on it at Highlights. The next critique I received, all the smiley faces and compliments were directly related to work I'd done at that workshop. Nice to see the class had paid off. But it's not like I took the class because I felt I was struggling with voice. I just took it because it sounded really good. The best part is that I can take what I learned there and apply it to future manuscripts. Sometimes with craft work it's very hard to see the gains. But in this case, I could be deliberate in how I applied what I learned.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

Besides small break throughs like the one above, I've had one giant improvement that I've noticed. A couple years ago, I stopped writing "safe" books, which for me are contemporary YA books that are mostly hetero white middle class love-and-suffering stories.

But then I had this idea that was so funny to me that I wanted to write it just because it just seemed so fun. I said yes to everything including non-white characters, non-hetero characters, nudity, gender non-conforming characters, and a school setting that broke all the norms of a typical high school.

I pushed myself to write through fear and discomfort and the nice clear boundaries of a contemporary setting. It showed me a lot about discovering universal truths as well as empathy. That book is so far the best book I've written. I'm staying on this playground for as long as I can.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Shannon—Her prose is like a walking into a bakery on a cold day. Just mmmmmmmmm.

Sarah—Action. No matter what her characters are doing, I'm into it. I want to know what happens next.

Lisa—Imagery and emotion. So efficient with language!

Rob—His plot puzzles satisfy! When there's a gun on the mantle in the first scene, that baby will go off in chapter three. The ending of his zombie novel is one of my favorite endings of a book in all of ever!

Josh—World building. No details left behind here. I want his stories as movies so I can SEE them.

Laura—Still learning Laura's writing, but I love the efficiency of her dialog. You get to know a lot about a character from their word choices. And she infers tone somehow, which is amazing!

August—Character building. He's so imaginative! He writes Stargirls and Tiny Coopers and Viking God Balders and Don Quixotes.

Not available for survey: Sarah J. Schmidt. Click here to see her face The 7 Questions.