Friday, August 16, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 32: Editor Molly Cusick

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Molly Cusick and I discuss editing, both in her current role as an editor with Sourcebooks and as a successful literary agent for eight years. She walks us through her approach to revising a manuscript and eventually creating a novel with in-depth insights about each revision pass and editorial letter. She offers advice on how to keep plotting on track, how to tighten pacing, and so much more.

Click here to read Molly's original 7 Question interview back when she was literary agent Molly Jaffa.

Molly Cusick is an Editor at Sourcebooks in New York City, where she acquires Young Adult, Middle Grade, and picture book projects. Previously an agent for eight years, Molly represented authors including Julie Murphy (#1 New York Times bestselling author of DUMPLIN’), Natalie C. Parker (SEAFIRE), Troy Howell (WHALE IN A FISHBOWL), Jeramey Kraatz (the Space Runners series), Kayla Cagan (PIPER PERISH), and Paula Garner (STARWORLD). She works with all genres, prioritizing humor, heart, and immersive worlds.

Follow her on Twitter @molly_cusick

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 31: Literary Agent Jennifer Mattson

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Literary Agent Jennifer Mattson and I discus her career in publishing from her time as an editor with Dutton to her time as a professional book reviewer up to her last decade spent as an agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and a lot of other book-related jobs as well. We talk about specific habits of successful writers, how many books authors should be reading, and developing an author's voice. We also chat about hooking an agent's attention with a query and a writing sample, advice on how to find a literary agent, and so much more.

In the picture book arena, Jennifer is interested in authors, illustrators, and author-illustrators who bring a distinctive, well-developed point of view to their work. In longer fiction, her interests are wide-ranging, but she always has a soft spot for middle grade about resilient kids sorting out the messiness of life. In middle grade and YA both, her heart beats faster for richly imagined, mind-bending fantasies that depart from typical quests (portals entered by protagonists who fulfill prophecies don't tend to be for her). The most dogeared books in her childhood library tended to be fantasy adventures, survival stories, and sprawling, atmospheric tales with Dickensian twists and satisfying puzzles. She gravitates to all of the above, but contemporary realistic fiction can work for her too, especially if it's voice-driven and carefully structured. In all categories, she is especially delighted to see queries in her inbox from kid-lit creators underrepresented in mainstream publishing.

Fiction that Jennifer represents includes Katy Loutzenhiser’s contemporary-realistic YA debut, IF YOU’RE OUT THERE (Balzer and Bray/HarperCollins) and Kate Hannigan’s historical middle grade novel, THE DETECTIVE'S ASSISTANT (Little, Brown/Hachette), which won the 2016 Golden Kite Award for Middle Grade Fiction, received two starred reviews, was a Booklist Editor's Choice, and appeared on the 2016 Amelia Bloomer List. Picture books she represents include noted poet Linda Ashman's lyrical ode to the rhythms of the natural world, ALL WE KNOW (HarperCollins), and her nearly wordless celebration of optimism, RAIN! (Houghton/HMH); and Kim Norman's three Arctic Companion books that cleverly spin off favorite preschool songs, TEN ON THE SLED, IF IT’S SNOWY AND YOU KNOW IT, and SHE’LL BE COMIN’ UP THE MOUNTAIN (all Sterling). Artists she represents include Geisel Honor winning author-illustrator Paul Meisel, who has illustrated or written a total of more than 70 books for young readers; J.R. Krause, author-illustrator of DRAGON NIGHT (Putnam), an Indie Next selection; Rob Polivka, illustrator of GOD BLESS AMERICA (Hyperion) and co-author and illustrator of A DREAM OF FLIGHT: ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT’S RACE AROUND THE EIFFEL TOWER (FSG/Macmillan); and former Google doodler Katy Wu, illustrator of several picture book biographies, including Laurie Wallmark's GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE and HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE (both Sterling).

Prior to joining ABLA, Jennifer spent time as an editor at Dutton Children's Books and as a Books for Youth staff reviewer at Booklist magazine. Jennifer is based in Chicago and enjoys speaking at SCBWI and other writers' conferences in Chicagoland and farther afield. She is also in the midst of a personal mission to read through the oeuvre of Anthony Trollope. Follow her on Twitter (@jannmatt).

Saturday, August 3, 2019

A Middle Grade Ninja Clip Show

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It’s the first ever Middle Grade Ninja clips show, featuring snippets from each of the podcast’s first 30 episodes. This is the perfect place for new listeners to start.

New episodes are scheduled to return August 13th.

Until then, enjoy this compilation of clips from conversations with AUTHORS Laura Martin, Barabra Shoup, Jeff Norton, Darby Karchut, Susan Kaye Quinn, Jacqueline West, Daniel Kenney, Tommy Greenwald, Steven K Smith, Lamar Giles, Kathi Appelt, Padma Venkatraman, Jessica Lawson, Daniel José Older, Dustin Brady, Amber Smith, Marie Miranda Cruz,M.G. Hennessey, Debbie Dadey, LITERARY AGENTS John Cusick, Jennifer March Soloway, Holly Root, Elana Roth Parker, John Rudolph, Molly O'Neill, EDITORS Mary Kole, Amy Tipton, Alison S. Weiss, Diana M. Pho, and PUBLIC RELATIONS EXPERT Megan Beatie.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 30: Author Debbie Dadey

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Debbie Dadey and I discuss her nearly 30-year career publishing over 160 children's books, from her classic debut, VAMPIRES DON'T WEAR POLKA DOTS, to her newest series, MERMAID TALES. She shares how she and coauthor Marsha Thornton Jones agreed to collaborate on THE ADVENTURES OF THE BAILEY SCHOOL KIDS while working out, passing the story back and forth like a hot potato, which went on to sell over 34 million copies and became one of the top three bestselling series in Scholastic's history. She also provides many tips on how to write for children, advice on publishing contracts, critique groups, generating story ideas, creating compelling outlines, planning series, and so much more. This episode is packed with information every writer needs to hear and is not to be missed.

Debbie Dadey taught first grade before becoming a librarian. It was while teaching that she first realized how much she wanted to write a book for reluctant readers. Her first book, Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots, with fellow teacher Marcia Thornton Jones, was the result of a very bad day. In fact, Marcia and Debbie joked that if they were vampire teachers all the kids would pay attention to them! Since then, Debbie and Marcia have collaborated on more than 125 books with sales of over forty-seven million copies. Debbie has sold 166 books and is enjoying writing the Mermaid Tales series for Simon and Schuster. She has had a great time channeling her inner girl (and inner mermaid) with the adventures of Shelly, Echo, Kiki and Pearl. In each book, the mergirls deal with kid issues, as well as learning things about the ocean in school. Debbie grew up in Kentucky, but has lived all over the country with her family. She currently lives in Sevierville, TN with her husband and two dogs. She loves it when her three children visit and enjoys visiting schools all over the world. She hopes you'll like her on or visit

It’s MerGirl Shelly Siren’s first day at a new school, and she is nervous from the tip of her head to the end of her sparkling mermaid tail. How will she ever fit in at the prestigious Trident Academy? Everyone there is so smart and so pretty and so rich. At least she and her best friend, Echo, are in the same class, but so is Pearl, a spoiled know-it-all who only wants to make trouble for Shelly; Rocky, a MerBoy who loves to tease everyone; and Kiki, a shy MerGirl who’s new to Trident City.

At first Shelly and Echo have lots of fun: eating lunch together, trying to make grumpy Mr. Fangtooth smile, and joining after-school clubs. But when Shelly and Echo have an argument about their very first school assignment, Pearl gets involved and makes matters worse. Will Shelly and Echo fix their friendship?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 29: Author M.G. Hennessey

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M.G. Hennessey and I discuss her new middle grade novel THE ECHO PARK CASTAWAYS and her previous book, THE OTHER BOY, as well as the state of the American foster care system. Also, STAR WARS and flying saucers. M.G. shares her experience with multiple literary agents and gives a whole lot of excellent writing advice. And to top it off, I introduce a contest to give away three free books for those who subscribe to my YouTube channel before August 15, 2019:

M.G. Hennessey loves Star Wars, the San Francisco Giants, strawberry ice cream, and dancing. She mentors teens at the Lifeworks program/LA LGBT Center and volunteers as a CASA with L.A. foster kids. She's also the dean of Camp Transcend Family Camp, and an organizer of the  Gender Odyssey LA conference. A supporter of the Transgender Law Center, Gender Spectrum. and the Human Rights Campaign, she lives in Los Angeles with her family.  She/Her

From the author of The Other Boy comes a poignant and heartfelt novel that explores what it means to be a family. Perfect for fans of Counting by 7s.

Nevaeh, Vic, and Mara are veterans of the Los Angeles foster care system. For over a year they’ve been staying with Mrs. K in Echo Park. Vic spends most of his time living in a dream world, Mara barely speaks, and Nevaeh is forced to act as a back-up parent. Though their situation isn’t ideal, it’s still their best home yet.

Then Child Protective Services places Quentin in the house, and everything is turned upside down. Nevaeh really can’t handle watching over anyone else, especially a boy on the autism spectrum. Meanwhile, Quentin is having trouble adjusting and attempts to run away.

So when Vic realizes Quentin just wants to see his mom again, he plans an “epic quest” to reunite them. It could result in the foster siblings getting sent to different group homes. But isn’t family always worth the risk?

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Introducing YouTube Middle Grade Ninja Clips

Want to win a free copy of The Miraculous and read an interview with author Jess Redman? Of course you do! Head on over to Literary Rambles and treat yo self.

Esteemed Reader, I just did something for you. Now I need you to do something for me:) Don't worry, it's really easy and free.

All I'm asking is that you go to my YouTube Channel and subscribe for free.

That's it.

Now I know what you're thinking: Ninja, I already read your blog. Maybe I've read it for years. I even read a couple of your books. Maybe I'm subscribed to your free monthly newsletter. I haven't followed you on Twitter yet, but I'm gonna.

I appreciate your continued support, Esteemed Reader. I'm asking you to subscribe to my YouTube channel (and the podcast, wherever you get your podcasts) not for me, or rather, not just for me. I'm asking you to help grow this platform so that I can promote authors and reading to an ever wider audience.

Sure, I promote my books as well. Of course I do. In fact, I tend to error on the side of having folks think, "that man was a bit obnoxiously overzealous about his books," rather than think, "what a nice ninja fellow! I wonder if he's written anything?"

And I'm too slow a writer to fulfill Esteemed Reader's reading needs by myself. I need Esteemed Reader reading lots of books to ensure they're ready to keep reading when my next book finally comes out. Also, I genuinely believe with my full heart that the world is made better by more people reading and thinking.

So help me out and spread the word. If you know somebody in your life who likes books, tell them to check out this site and the podcast as well.

And I'm doing my part. I'm slowly breaking up the 1-2 hour podcast videos into shorter, easier-to-digest clips. I like the interviews I'm conducting to be long and recorded live because we learn so much more than we would in a shorter format. However, I don't want to intimidate folks who might otherwise be interested. So I'll be offering shorter clips in the hopes of tempting people to watch or listen to the full interviews.

Here's a taste of some of the clips available so far:

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 28: Editor Diana M. Pho

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Diana M. Pho and I chat about her career in publishing from her time as an international marketing assistant with Hachette to her eight years and counting as an editor with Tor Books. She walks me through the process of selecting a submission, building a presentation for it to convince her house to publish the book, and the process of actually editing and shaping the project. She also gives me some tidbits on what's happening with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series and its next installment. This is another wonderful episode packed with quality content and you'll want to listen to it at least twice.

Diana M. Pho is a two-time Hugo-nominated editor at Tor Books and Publishing, though she’s worked in the publishing industry under various hats for the past decade. She’s also an academic scholar, activist, performer, and general rabble-rouser elsewhere. Her talented list includes Robyn Bennis, Alex Bledsoe, P. Djeli Clark, Marie Cruz, Lara Elena Donnelly, Thoraiya Dyer, A. J. Hartley, Margaret Killjoy, Kari Maaren, and Prentis Rollins; she also works with the best-selling The Wheel of Time® series and George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards universe. Books she has edited have gone on to win the Thriller Award (Steeplejack, for Best YA), the Ditmar Award (Crossroads of Canopy, for Best Novel) and to become finalists for the Nebula, Lambda Literary Award, Shirley Jackson Award, and Andre Norton Award for Young Adult.

In the steampunk community, she is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk. She has published numerous articles on science fiction and its community. She has been interviewed for many media outlets about fandom, including CBS’s Inside Edition,, BBC America, the Travel Channel, HGTV, and the Science Channel.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 27: Author Marie Miranda Cruz

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Marie Miranda Cruz  and I talk about her journey to write and publish her first novel, EVERLASTING NORA, including how she got her literary agent and her experience working with editor Diana Pho and even how she got the initial idea that sparked her story. We chat about the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the impact it had on her as well as her deep commitment to diversity in children's literature. And we talk about communities and the importance of creating a strong community of writers in your life. This is another wonderful episode that's not to be missed.

Marie Miranda Cruz was born in the Philippines. She spent most of her formative years moving between her hometown, Cavite City, and several cities in the United States while her father served in the United States Navy. When her dad retired, she moved back to the Philippines where she completed both high school and college. The first holiday she experienced in the Philippines was All Saints Day. It was this experience that inspired her to write her first novel, EVERLASTING NORA.

Marie now lives in Los Angeles with her family and a tank of fighting fish. When she isn’t writing books for kids, she may be analyzing chromosomes in a genetics lab, reading a good book, or knitting ponchos and fingerless gloves.

An uplifting young reader debut about perseverance against all odds, Marie Miranda Cruz's debut Everlasting Nora follows the story of a young girl living in the real-life shantytown inside the Philippines’ Manila North Cemetery.

After a family tragedy results in the loss of both father and home, 12-year-old Nora lives with her mother in Manila’s North Cemetery, which is the largest shantytown of its kind in the Philippines today.

When her mother disappears mysteriously one day, Nora is left alone.

With help from her best friend Jojo and the support of his kindhearted grandmother, Nora embarks on a journey riddled with danger in order to find her mom. Along the way she also rediscovers the compassion of the human spirit, the resilience of her community, and everlasting hope in the most unexpected places.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 26: Author Amber Smith

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Author Amber Smith and I discuss her newest novel, SOMETHING LIKE GRAVITY. We talk about where she got her idea originally, her process for writing it, and the techniques she employed in telling her story. We also talk about her journey of writing and publishing her first novel, THE WAY I USED TO BE, from the frustrations of rewriting it to the joys of it becoming an award winning New York Times Bestseller. She shares her tips for writing a romantic story, for building suspense, and for writing about characters respectfully without exploiting them. WARNING: We briefly discuss sexual assault as depicted in Amber's books, so discretion should be exercised for younger members of Esteemed Audience.

Amber Smith is the New York Times bestselling author of the young adult novels, The Way I Used to Be, The Last to Let Go, and Something Like Gravity. Her debut, The Way I Used to Be (2016), was selected for the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List of Feminist Literature and Texas Library Association’s TAYSHAS List, it was named a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, and nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award in YA Fiction, Connecticut’s Nutmeg Book Award, and Indiana’s Eliot Rosewater Award. Her second novel, The Last to Let Go (2018), received starred reviews from Booklist and VOYA, and was named a most-anticipated book by B and N Teen Blog, Elite Daily, and Bookish. Her next novel, Something Like Gravity, will be released June 18th, 2019 from Simon and Schuster.

Amber grew up in Buffalo, New York and now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her partner and their ever-growing family of rescued dogs and cats. Fueled by a lifelong passion for the arts, story, and creative expression, Amber graduated from art school with a BFA in Painting and went on to earn her master’s degree in Art History. When she’s not writing she’s usually reading, but can also be found in her studio making art or freelancing as an art consultant. She has also written on the topics of art history and modern and contemporary art.

An advocate for increased awareness of gendered violence, including sexual assault and domestic or intimate partner abuse, as well as LGBTQ equality, she writes in the hope that her books can help to foster change and spark dialogue surrounding these issues.

For fans of Love, Simon and Eleanor and Park, a romantic and sweet novel about a transgender boy who falls in love for the first time—and how first love changes us all—from New York Times bestselling author Amber Smith.
Chris and Maia aren’t off to a great start.

A near-fatal car accident first brings them together, and their next encounters don’t fare much better. Chris’s good intentions backfire. Maia’s temper gets the best of her.
But they’re neighbors, at least for the summer, and despite their best efforts, they just can’t seem to stay away from each other.

The path forward isn’t easy. Chris has come out as transgender, but he’s still processing a frightening assault he survived the year before. Maia is grieving the loss of her older sister and trying to find her place in the world without her. Falling in love was the last thing on either of their minds.

But would it be so bad if it happened anyway?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 25: Literary Agent Molly O'Neill

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Molly O'Neill and I discuss her career in publishing from her start in marketing with Clarion Books to her time as an editor with Harper Collins to her current role as a literary agent with Root Literary. She shares the experience of discovering and editing DIVERGENT (and I reveal an embarrassing encounter I had with Veronica Roth). We talk about the relationship between authors and editors and how to keep it from going off kilter, the truth about rejection, and some practical tips for writing the dreaded synopsis. As a special bonus, we're treated to a live reading of ROBERT PATTINSON: ETERNALLY YOURS from one of its coauthors. This episode is packed with insight into the world of publishing and you'll want to listen to it multiple times through.

Molly O'Neill is a literary agent with Root Literary. For the past sixteen years, she has held various roles inside the publishing industry: previously, she was an Editor at Harper Collins Children's Books, where she acquired Veronica Roth's juggernaut Divergent series, among many other fantastic projects; the Head of Editorial at Storybird, a publishing/tech start-up; a member of the School and Library Marketing departments at both Harper Collins and Clarion Books; and an Agent at Waxman Leavell Literary Agency.

Molly loves the creative process and early-stage project development, is invigorated by business strategy and entrepreneurial thinking, and is fascinated by the intersections of art, commerce, creativity, and innovation. Molly is especially passionate about the people behind books, and takes pride in discovering and evangelizing talented authors and illustrators, expanding the global reach of their work, and finding new ways to build connections and community among creators, readers, stories, and their champions. She hunts for new talent and speaks about the importance of books for young people at a variety of conferences for writers, illustrators, and educators around the world each year, and is on the faculty of the Columbia Publishing Course, where she helps train new generations of publishing professionals.

Molly is an alum of Marquette University, an erstwhile Texan, and a current dweller of Brooklyn, NY. She is drawn to authors and artists who constantly challenge themselves, who are adept at communicating with their audiences, who are creative and flexible thinkers, and who have as much enthusiasm for their readers as for their own successes. Wit, strong writing, vivid settings, a passion for craft, or a well-timed reaction gif will always catch her eye.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 24: Author Dustin Brady

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Author Dustin Brady and I discuss his experiences publishing both independently and traditionally for the middle grade market. We talk at length about his series TRAPPED IN A VIDEO GAME and the LEILA AND NUGGET MYSTERIES. We do a deep dive on his extensive experience as an Amazon seller and their AMS marketing platform. He gives a lot of practical, no-nonsense advice about cover design, book description, and all aspects of creating a quality book that's marketable. We also talk about school visits and his love for reaching reluctant readers. This is an episode you'll want to listen to multiple times through (and take notes).

Dustin Brady writes funny, action-packed books for kids. Although he regularly gets locked out of his own accounts for forgetting passwords, Dustin still remembers the Super Mario Bros. 3 Game Genie code for infinite lives. It’s SLXPLOVS. Dustin lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, kids, and a small dog named Nugget.

Jesse Rigsby doesn’t even like video games. Yet, here he is with a blaster stuck to his arm, a man-sized praying mantis thing chasing him and…is that the Statue of Liberty taking off like a rocket ship? Something weird is going on, and Jesse had better figure out what it is fast, because he’s about to be trapped for good.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 23: Literary Agent John Rudolph

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Literary Agent John Rudolph and I discuss his career in publishing from his start as a reluctant reader in childhood to becoming an editor to his current role as a literary agent with Dystel, Goderich and Bourret LLC. He offers a ton of great advice about how to evaluate an agent and how to engage one professionally and demystifies the role of an agent. We chat about diversity in publishing, the indie publishing revolution, and so much more. This is another topnotch episode packed end-to-end with quality information to help authors improve their craft. Don't miss it!

Click here to see John Rudolph face the 7 Questions.

John Rudolph joined Dystel, Goderich and Bourret LLC in 2010 after twelve years as an acquiring children’s book editor. He began his career at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers as an Editorial Assistant and then moved to the G. P. Putnam’s Sons imprint of the Penguin Young Readers Group, where he eventually served as Executive Editor on a wide range of young adult, middle-grade, nonfiction, and picture book titles. He graduated from Amherst College with a double major in Classics and Music. While John’s list started out as mostly children’s books, it has evolved to the point where it is now half adult, half children’s authors —and he’s looking to maintain that balance. On the children’s side, John is keenly interested in middle-grade and young adult fiction and would love to find the next great picture book author/illustrator. For adults, he is actively looking for narrative nonfiction, especially in music, sports, history, popular science, “big think”, performing arts, health, business, memoir, military history, and humor. He is also interested in commercial fiction, but is very selective in what he takes on.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 22: Author Daniel José Older

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Daniel José Older and I chat about his bestselling young adult series SHADOWSHAPER CYPHER and his new middle grade series, DACTYL HILL SQUAD. And STAR WARS, of course, including what it was like to get to read the SOLO script early. Daniel José Older shares information about his process, marketing tips, and how to present an authentic version of yourself to the world. And his adorable dogs make cameo appearances. This conversation was an absolute treat and it's not to be missed.

Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Middle Grade historical fantasy series Dactyl Hill Squad, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, Star Wars: Last Shot, and the award winning Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher, which won the International Latino Book Award and was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers' Literature, the Andre Norton Award, the Locus, the Mythopoeic Award, and named one of Esquire's 80 Books Every Person Should Read. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at, on youtube and @djolder on twitter.

"An unforgettable historical, high-octane adventure." - Dav Pilkey, author/illustrator of the Dog Man series

Magdalys and the squad are flying south on pteroback. South to rescue her older brother. South to war.

The squad links up with the dino-mounted troops of the Louisiana Native Guard, an all-black regiment in the Union Army fighting to free their people. They're led by General Sheridan, surrounded by enemy forces in Tennessee and desperate for any edge to sway the tide of battle. Magdalys's burgeoning powers might be the Union's last hope. But she doesn't want to abandon the search for her brother. And she might not be the only one with a mysterious connection to dinosaurs.

With the Civil War raging around her and the Union on the brink of collapse, how can Magdalys choose between the army that needs her help to survive and the brother she risked everything to save?

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Book Review: The Usual Suspects by Maurice Broaddus

First Paragraph(s): Life is all about timing.
Once the homeroom bell rings at 8:15 a.m., there'll be a five-minute lag before students are marched to the auditorium to gather for morning assembly. Nehemiah Caldwell and I get there before any administration types do. We slide under the curtain beneath the stage and crawl over to the stereo cart.
This is going to be epic.
"You got it?" Nehemiah asks.
I pat my pocket. "Yeah. You got what you need?"
"I'm like a Boy Scout up in this mug."

Esteemed Reader, if you check in with the blog regularly, you know I don't really write reviews that often anymore (note, I'm calling them "reviews" these days and not my "book of the week"). I'm still reading just as much as I ever was, but the time to actually sit down and write a thing that requires greater focus than an email has become much harder to come by now that I'm living with a 5-year-old Little Ninja. 

If I can sit and concentrate for a period greater than an hour, which these reviews require, I really need to get my own books written. So know that my sitting down to write this review at all means I really love this book and I want people to know it exists. I may not review another book this year, but something as awesome as Maurice Broaddus' first middle grade novel doesn't come along every day.

Full disclosure: Maurice is a friend and one of the most amazing writers I know (and I know a lot of amazing writers). You can hear our first ever conversation in the video below when we were on an author panel together. I liked Maurice from the start. He's a horror author who also writes middle grade and science fiction and who also occasionally teaches at the Indiana Writers Center. And he gives me great advice most every time I see him.

Lots of great things have been happening for Maurice. He's currently featured in Kirkus, where he recently received a starred-review. He's got multiple books out now and has had some high-profile book deals, so we can look forward to more of his excellent writing in the near future. And he's appearing in lots of amazing venues. Wouldn't surprise me if one day Maurice is painted on a building in Indianapolis just like Kurt Vonnegut. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Sometimes publishing can seem random and unfair. Probably because it's often random and unfair:) But occasionally, the universe lines up and things work out for someone genuinely deserving. When that happens, it restores faith to see hard work and dedication rewarded.

And few are dedicated as Maurice Broaddus. I've seen him in writing mode and his laser focus is intimidating. Maurice is also a very gifted social organizer, which is a superpower in a writer:) He hosts multiple events to promote writers and writing in the Indianapolis area, including a conference that takes place partly in his home. Maurice believes deeply in the written word and in creating a community of Indiana writers. The world is a far better place because Maurice Broaddus is in it and he's the sort of writer I want to be when I grow up.

I can very much hear Maurice's voice in The Usual Suspects as his essence is all through it. I'm thrilled that this book now exists and that it comes from my beloved Hoosier state. Esteemed Reader, get yourself a copy of The Usual Suspects and prepare for a wonderful read. Request it from your librarians and if you're a teacher, get a copy for your classroom.

This book is a middle grade crime thriller that is always engaging and never pedantic, beginning with the crime itself. This is isn't the case of the missing school trophy or a cookie caper. Broaddus is writing about some real stuff: a gun has been found in a park near school where our heroes hang out with other kids and everyone's a suspect... except that mostly the teachers suspect Thelonius Mitchell and his friends because they're, wait for it, the usual suspects. To clear their name, Thelonius and his friends must discover the true culprit (it's probably Keyser Soze).

Like the best Elmore Leonard fiction, which the author makes clear in his notes he's emulating, The Usual Suspects is all about a classic crime set up populated by compelling characters, beginning with our main character, Thelonius Mitchell:

So I'm back in the principal's office once again. Due to "my escalating antics" I'm here a lot. Some teachers float the idea that I have oppositional defiant disorder (sometimes I think they just say that about kids who say no to whenever adults tell them to do something, in which case, I have a severe case of it, as does every middle schooler I know). Some keep trying to say that I have bipolar disorder (because my shnanigans are so over-the-top). None of them is a doctor and just wants to sweep me and my issues under the rug. Moms scheduled an exam for me to get tested, but with our insurance, it's over a month out. Until then, I have to spend the rest of the quarter in the Special Ed room.

Thelonius is clever and insightful. He's good at understanding relationship dynamics and how to manipulate them, yet he's far from a criminal mastermind:

Whenever I try to polish my voice like Pierce, I always sound like a con artist on the prowl. Adults grow suspicious and know I am up to something, but they have no proof and need to see whatever I am up to play out. I might as well be a thief sending a note daring the cops to stop me from robbing a joint.

Thelonius is our perspective character, naturally, as this is a story told in the first person present tense, but my favorite character is his friend, Nehemiah Caldwell. Nehemiah also has some issues, including a whole lot of pent up anger, but he made me smile in most every scene he's in. Everyone agrees that Nehemiah couldn't have been the one to leave the gun in the park because if he'd had a gun, he'd have waved it at everyone. Also, Nehemiah's distrust of Teddy Grahams might be my favorite character detail in the book:

Nehemiah bounces his Teddy Grahams package off my chest. He hates them because he "never trusts anything that smiles all the time."

There are a lot of excellent characters populating this story. We're not going to go through each of them one by one, but I would mention just a few more. We'll talk about Marcel in a moment, but first I want to talk about the teachers in this book. Thelonius knows better than to trust any of them, even Mr. Blackmon, who appears to be the most trustworthy. After all, T tells us, "Lying to adults is how we breathe."

But Thelonius does know how to work his teachers: Teachers are like people: if you annoy them, by the time you need something they'll automatically say no just to spite you. Do what they want or make their job easier, they are quick to reward you.

The teachers in this story aren't monolithic villains. In fact, Broaddus goes out of his way to show that in some ways, they're as trapped by the social system of control put in place as the boys are. But they do demonstrate villainous qualities on occasion:

Mrs. Horner rarely comes at things directly. She keeps things vague, saying that she doesn't want to limit our creativity. It's more likely that she wants us to accidentally tell on ourselves.

Mrs. Fitzerald has a swagger to her. A bit of a gangster vibe. She wanders the halls with a beaming smile, but she has a resting teacher face with her eyes narrow like unflinching lasers.

The teachers range from honestly trying to make a positive impact in their students' lives to completely disengaged (one of them is on her phone checking Facebook all day) to outright hostile toward the students and our heroes. Broaddus' observations about teachers are probably based on his years of experience working in education, and that honest look at teacher student dynamics is one of the strongest aspects of The Usual Suspects.

There's one other character readers are going to love and no review would be complete without mentioning her:

Her dad, a black dude, is a scientist who often visits her class to talk about his work. Her mom, a white lady, is the president of the PTA who also bakes a mean batch of brownies come school fund-raising season. If Marcel came from money, she never acted like it. Marcel always received straight A's. By all reports, she was the best-behaved kid in the class. But I know better. The quiet ones are the ones everyone really has to watch out for. You see, an obvious stickup thug might get a wallet or two. Put them in bankers' suits and they were robbing folks for millions on Wall Street.
Marcel was strictly Wall Street.

Marcel is a cool customer. I can't tell you a whole lot about her without spoiling some specific plot details, but readers are going to find her fascinating. And more interesting to me at this moment is the first two lines of her description, which are about her parents. To the best of my recollection, Marcel's mom is the first "white lady" in the story.

Not every character's race is specified, but most of the character's who's coloring is mentioned are described as having skin "the shade of sunbaked cinnamon," or "the color of rich sepia," or "the complexion of milk with a dab of butter in it." The effect of this is that "not white" becomes the readers' default assumption about which race each character is, a refreshing change of pace, especially for a middle grade novel coming out of Indiana (former home of the head of the Klan not nearly long enough ago).

The Usual Suspects isn't about race, exactly, but it's not not about race. Just like it's not strictly about kids with special needs, but it's not not about them: 

Moms explained what she has, something about being on the autism spectrum. I hear so many labels placed on me and my friends, I tune them out. 

On its surface, The Usual Suspects is a fun middle grade crime novel with memorable characters and a quality mystery to be solved. Esteemed Readers looking for a good story well told will absolutely find it here and will join me in hoping Maurice Broaddus publishes more middle grade novels right away. We need as many of them as we can get.

But The Usual Suspects is really about multiple intersecting social dynamics and how they can trap and label all of us, not just the kids perceived as troublemakers, but also their teachers, their parents, other children in the neighborhood, and so on. Because all of us have assumptions made about us based on the broad categories society has placed us in. All of us are suspect.

Do yourself a favor, Esteemed Reader, and get yourself a copy of The Usual Suspects. It's themes are universal and you will be captivated by Broaddus' style and structure and his ability to present authentic characters in relatable situations.

More, if there's a problem child in you life, they need to read this book. I wish this book had been around when I was an adolescent and automatically suspected of wrongdoing by some of my teachers (I wasn't always a fine, upstanding Ninja). I don't know that it would've necessarily changed much for me (young me was pretty committed to being troublesome), but sometimes it's enough to know that someone else understands the experience and can relate. 

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Usual Suspects:

I catch myself as my hand moves to my chest to protest my innocence. That kind of theatricality would be insulting to both of us.

That girl can't find a maternal bone in a cemetery of mothers.

"I'm better than his momma. I'm actually here." Moms lets that line sit in everyone's ear for a minute, like she wants it to travel the neighborhood, before she continues. 

Some still go on about the hottest Pokemon cards. They are so sixth grade.

Twon knocks over another chair like Superman casually tossing a tank.

One kid lingers by the pencil sharpener opposite from us. Marquees Neal. "Kutter" to (what few people he called) his friends. His hair is a crown of twists, nesting baby snakes poised to strike. His eyes seem perpetually narrowed, like jagged scars.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: 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. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019


I love all my published works, Esteemed Reader (you never get to read the ones I don't love), but Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is my favorite. I've never made a secret of that. It was a love story I wrote for my wife when we were younger and I've got a lot of pleasant memories tied up in the writing of that book. But I also just plain love the characters and the story and there are several jokes that always make me laugh.

That said, I think I love Banneker's second adventure as much as his first. They're different parts of the same story and I'm looking forward to completing Banneker's third adventure. I love this world and am always happy to check in on the residents of 221 Garrett Street.

I'm going to share with you some of my experiences writing the novel, and some of them will include SPOILERS, because this is an afterword, to be read AFTER you've read the book.

The nice thing about a sequel is that I don't have to spend as much time defining the characters and their universe. This means:

1. We can hit the ground running after a brief recap of the first book, which ended on a dramatic reveal (my favorite sort of ending). This second book opens with the momentum of our characters already in direct conflict with the villain.

2. I had some nifty plot ideas and suspense techniques that could only be done in a second book, and only with these particular characters. I don't know how many Banneker books I'll get to write before I'm done, but I'm not saving anything for later. I've tried to make the best use of all the toys at my disposal in the Latimer City universe.

3. Since we've previously been introduced, we can really get to know these characters this time around. Ellicott Skullworth is still our perspective character, but Banneker is much more the proper, front-and-center hero of this second book with his name in the title. Because he decided to terrorize Ellicott for much of the first installment, we didn't get to spend as much time with Banneker as I would've liked, though he's always been my favorite. His decision was also responsible for delaying the planned appearance of the alligator people from the first adventure to the second.

4. I can get up to some of my favorite tricks from the first book. There are plenty references to Mrs. Kent's childhood black history flashcards, just as there were in the first book, and plenty of references to Batman, though by far my favorite reference is to an obscure line from Jurassic Park (I always credit the stories I owe and, of course, the Formula Eighty Six is this world's version of a lysine contingency).

Stories are magical thingssometimes, they're also a lot of workbut sometimes ideas seem to magically find authors at just the right moment. Sometimes stories involve magic is going to more or less be the thesis of this afterword.

Therefore, I should clarify that "magic" is a word I may very well be substituting for "strange neurological processes occurring entirely within my mind that strike me as magical because I have only my own brain with which to interpret them." I may be making that substitution. Sure feels like magic.

It strikes me that it was during the campaign for Barrack Obama that I first began to imagine this story about an interracial family having adventures in a more hopeful comic-book universe. I started this second book shortly after I finished the first and the main plot points haven't varied much. However, I didn't seriously sit down to write Banneker 2 until after the "election" of Donald Trump.

For a while, I thought I might not write Banneker's second novel. In 2016, a wealthy egomaniac protagonist obsessed with what the media thinks about him struck me as significantly less funny than it had in 2014. And I hated that thought almost as much as I hated Mr. "Fine People On Both Sides." Maybe Donald Trump got to ruin America, but he didn't get to ruin my book or my love for Banneker.

I think I needed Banneker Bones more than he needed me this time around. The worst depression I ever suffered was probably in middle schoolthank God I don't have to go through adolescence againbut a very bad depression took hold of me after Trump took office and American death eaters came crawling out of the woodwork. Something else happened I don't feel at liberty to discuss, but it led me to spend quite a bit of my time researching autism spectrum disorder and becoming more depressed.

The long break between Banneker's adventures was a blessing in disguise (a magical blessing?), because I didn't yet know what I needed to know to write the second book. What I discovered in studying ASD is that both I and Mrs. Ninja are somewhere on the spectrum. Many of my painfully awkward social interactions throughout my childhood started to make more sense.

Banneker is sort of a cartoonish version of young me (if I'd been more Batman-esque, and I really, really wanted to be). I also identify strongly with Ellicott, though they're both of them their own thing and I see a version of myself in every character. I just see more of myself in these two boys.

The word "autism" doesn't appear in this book and that's intentional. The definition of ASD is an evolving one and I firmly believe that if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. But as I was doing my research on neurological divergences, it occurred to me that Banneker was most certainly not neurotypical. And he never had been.

It amazed me to realize something about my character I hadn't known when writing his book, but it was staring me right in the face years later. The mystery of how Banneker's mind works is what finally pulled me back into his world and out of my depression. 

Because it was time for me to return to Latimer City. Because I needed Banneker to give me hope. Because I needed to know neurologically divergent people can do anything they want. They can even be heroic detectives who do battle with alligator people. Of course they can.

My original desire in writing the first Banneker was (in part) to write about an interracial family and not have it not be a thing. In this second book, I'm writing about two such families and it's still not a thing. I want to do the same for neurological divergence. Yes, there are all sorts of different people in this world," I want Esteemed Reader to say, "but who cares about that. Get on with the alligator people chases and the over-the-top comedic adventures."

I hope Banneker's fans are pleased with his second adventure, but this was a book its author needed more than anyone. I have a lot of writer friends (I'm always looking to make more). A few of them talk money every time I see them, and that's cool (I like money). But if it's money we're  primarily after, why aren't we speculating on bonds instead of writing books? 

Personally, I get more excited about readers and finding more of them. The experience of this book in particular reminded me that the act of creation is its own reward. If Banneker Bones and the Alligator People was never read by anyone and never made any money, the act of creating it would still be one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.

Writing fulfills something vital in me; its compensation is considerable.

That said, Banneker 2 was a very hard book to write. Here's an entire post about how difficult I found its writing and editing to be. One Banneker Bones novel took me almost as much time to write as five volumes of The Book of David. Partly, that was because I was also plotting Banneker Bones 3, but mostly it was because I, a fellow who insists on calling himself a Middle Grade Ninja, was relearning how to write middle grade.

I've always thought All Together Now: A Zombie Story reads like a horror story written by a middle grade author because it was my follow-up to Banneker 1 and some other as-of-yet unpublished middle grade works. Banneker 2 reads a little like a middle grade book written by a horror author, as this description makes clear:

     Ellicott flew in the opposite direction, the headlights from his jetpack leading the way until they caught on the corpse of an animal laying on the cement walkway. The animal was too long dead for Ellicott to know what it had been.
     A rat perched atop it, the dead animal’s decayed eyeball lodged in its mouth. The rat tugged against the cords connecting the eye to its socket to break their hold the way Ellicott might've bitten a cherry from its stem. When the jetpack’s beams swept across it, the rat leapt into the river of sewage with a panicked squeak and swam away to enjoy the eyeball elsewhere.
     Ellicott swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and flew past the animal.

For the record, author Laura Martin tried to convince me to cut that selection. But a description like that one would've endeared a writer to my heart at age eleven, so it stayed in as did some other creepy stuff (children like to be scared as surely as adults do, which is one reason The Witches was my favorite book growing up).

I loves me a scary monster. I often joke that the way I decide whether what I'm writing middle grade or adult fiction is by the scariness of the story's monster. That's not entirely true as giant robot bees remain the monster that most scares me, but it's not not true. Alligator people are monsters I've been imagining/dreading since I was a child and Banneker's world is one of the only places I can play with them. Bonkers monsters benefit from a bonkers world to inhabit.

But we were discussing magic in writing and I find I encounter it the same when writing for adults as surely as when writing for a broader audience. If you're reading this afterword before reading the book, I'm operating under the assumption that you're either never going to read it or you don't mind spoilers, which is good, because here comes a huge spoiler:

I always knew I wanted to have a countdown to build suspense around the big death at the end of this story. I love plot puzzles, and few have so intrigued me as the one featured in the second season of Breaking Bad. Several episodes in that season open with black and white epilogues of strewn wreckage without context, most notably a one-eyed pink bear. The epilogues all come together and make sense only after the season finale. It's one of the finest story-telling devices I've ever seen deployed with expert precision and I've been looking for a place to re-purpose (steal) it ever since.

Banneker Bones 2 was the perfect spot for this as 1. The story has a dramatic ending worthy of being built up to with non-sequitur flash-forwards. 2. Much of Banneker's age-appropriate audience hasn't seen Breaking Bad, so this will be new to them and I'll appear smarter than I am:)

I knew going in that I was going to write flash-forwards of Banneker's smoldering clothing being recovered across Latimer City after a devastating explosion. I also knew that the date I was counting down to was Halloween, because you can't pick a more distinct date for a  middle grade monster story. Banneker is the best character I've written to use for this plot puzzle as he has the most distinct costume. Halloween is a good date. I patted myself on the back as it was a good plot device well deployed.

I was more than halfway through my first draft when it finally occurred to me that Ellicott should dress as Banneker for Halloween. It made sense as Ellicott doesn't have a costume otherwise and it's the perfect suspense accelerate, because if both Banneker and Ellicott are dressed alike, there's no way for the reader to know which of them gets blown up and has their clothes strewn about in the flash forwards. A second set of the same clothing also makes sense because Banneker has multiple sets of the same outfit and this also takes care of other nagging plot questions not otherwise addressed.

It is, I'm pleased (perhaps overly so) to say, the perfect plot device perfectly suited to this story and no other.

This is, for me, both the thrill of writing and the horror of functioning on my brain for all other activities:) Dressing Ellicott as Banneker to heighten suspense in the third act is very exciting. It's also a very obvious maneuver, but apparently not to me. You have nothing to go on but my word, Esteemed Reader, but I assure you, it never occurred to me to dress our heroes alike until I'd already written more than half the book and several flash forwards.

It really seems like the idea should have come whole formed as all its elements are clearly of apiece. But that's not what happened. It could be my subconscious mind had already outlined the story and my conscious mind needed to catch up. Or it could be the secret, invisible muse hadn't whispered the additional plot details in my ear until I needed to know them. Or it could just be that my mind plays tricks on me due to atypical wiring that allows me to complete an entire novel, but apparently not understand it beforehand (or always remember to pay my power bill, which is why Mrs. Kent is in charge of that).

What I'm saying, Esteemed Reader, is: that's weird, right? Maybe even a little magical. I honestly don't have much else to say on the subject. I'm both pleased to know I can trust my writer's mind to produce a story on blind faith and know that it will work when I'm finished, and horrified that I didn't put my puzzle together until shockingly late in the game.

And that's about it for this afterword, I think, except for two things: I really, really like Bob Dylan. If you also like Bob Dylan, you probably picked up on that while reading the book. For many years, I didn't cop to this fact because I hate how cliché it feels: oh, you're a writer type with a liberal arts degree in an interracial marriage who goes to farmers markets, has a mostly dormant cigarette habit, and you listen to Bob Dylan? Do you also like Tom Waits and Tori Amos and Kurt Vonnegut while wearing glasses with distinct writer-ly frames you walking cartoon character?

As a matter of fact, I do like those things. I'm going to be 40 this year and I don't care what others think so much anymore. I love Bob Dylan, I think his music is the right vibe for this story, and if that makes me a cliché, I'm at least a happy one:)

I also really love Batman (and hate the writing of Ayn Rand), which I've admitted to previously. But I think these two things are even more apparent in this second novel than they were in the first (Ayn the pug originally appeared in an early draft of book one). I'm still a Bob Kane fan (I wore all black the day he died), but I've had to reevaluate my admiration of the man since the many revelations of how integral Bill Finger actually was in the creation of my favorite fictional character have come to light since I wrote the first Banneker. Thinking about Kane screwing over his partner struck me as a perfect metaphor for this story and something I think more Batman fans should be aware of.

And that's it until the next book. I love this story and if you loved it too (you must've to have read this afterword), I love you also, Esteemed Reader. Thanks so much for allowing me to tell you my story. I hope you're interested in a third Banneker Bones adventure, because I sure am. Hopefully, we'll be talking about it here sooner rather than later.