Tuesday, October 16, 2018

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Quressa Robinson

Quressa Robinson joined the Nelson Literary Agency in 2017 after working at a previous agency and as an editor for five years. She is originally from San Francisco, but has been living in New York City for over a decade. As a New York based agent, she is eager to build her MG, YA, and Adult lists. When not curled on her couch reading, she plays video games, enjoys too much TV–mostly Sailor Moon and Harry Potter (Slytherin!), eats delicious things, drinks champagne, hangs out with her very clever husband, and adds another “dramatic” color to her lipstick collection. Quressa is also a member of the 2017-2019 WNDB Walter Grant Committee and holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction from Columbia University.

In her own words: I’ve been an avid reader as long as I can remember. My oldest grudge stems from third grade, when the librarian’s daughter beat me out of a first-place gold medal in the summer reading challenge by two books. I was robbed! Needless to say, my competitiveness and love for books are a great match for my chosen profession. Despite originally wanting to become a pediatrician, and then a biochemist, I quickly discovered that math was my greatest nemesis and that there was an industry I could join completely devoted to books. Thus began my journey into publishing, first by getting an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia, and then by spending five years as an editor, mostly at a Big Five publisher. I joined NLA in September 2017 after spending close to a year at another agency.

I’m originally from San Francisco, but have been living in New York City for over a decade. I’m a West Coast New Yorker! I still say hella! As a New York based agent, I’m eager to build my MG, YA, and Adult lists. When I find a great book I get very invested. I fall in love. The characters begin to feel real and familiar. The story becomes a treasured member of my family (and library). It owns my heart. I have very eclectic tastes and represent a wide range of genres. I am most drawn to literary voices in commercial packages, wonderfully realized characters, untold stories from underrepresented communities, immersive world building, and complex narrative approaches/plots. Also, I am most drawn to character-driven stories and love strong voice as well. I am a huge romantic and don’t mind romance subplots outside of the romance genre.
Give me stories that will make me geek out. If you can make me have an epic fangirl squee—have stories featuring fairies and warrior princesses with afros and rainbow dreads or envision winter elves inspired by an Asian or Latinx culture—then we are definitely a match. I’m also looking for stories with best friends like Molly and Issa on Insecure, enemies to lovers, coming-of-age stories, The Breakfast Club with a twist, family drama, witches (!), and alpha heroes paired with witty heroines. If you have bold, fresh, or quirky stories, they will be right up my alley. I’m also looking for stories that feel timeless and timely, despite the current climate or when they were originally written. I’m a huge re-reader. Or give me something I didn’t know I desperately needed. Above all, give me stories I can become deeply passionate about.
For more information on what I’m looking for, check out our submission guidelines, visit me at Publishers Marketplace, check out my #MSWL, and follow me @qnrisawesome.
And now Quressa Robinson faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

This is always a tough one. I read so much that it can be hard to have favorites. I think THE PALADIN by CJ Cherryh and THE GIVER by Lois Lowry are both books in my formative years that changed the way I looked at writing and reading. I didn’t realize that SFF could be literary and so thought provoking and complex until I read THE GIVER and I didn’t know that women could enact revenge or become sword masters until THE PALADIN.

More recently I’ve enjoyed A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness. I’ve read it a bunch of times and can never get enough of how well she combines, romance, history, research, and paranormal elements.

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

Another tough one. I love THE PRINCESS BRIDE and THE NEVERENDING STORY. I think I have a type! I lean into the fantastic for books and screen. As a twist, SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL is my favorite John Hughes film, but he has so many great gems that most of them are in my top ten.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

All my clients are pretty easy going, which helps since I’m pretty type A. But generally I’m looking for authors who are prolific, easily adaptable, and hard-working.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I’m on the hunt for more adult SFF. I do lean more toward fantasy than sci-fi, but that means when a sci-fi is right up my alley I know it’s special.

I also would love to see more MG in all genres (except mystery). I’d especially love to see some witch school action or an epic fantasy with strong series potential.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

I like that I have the freedom to pursue projects simply because I’m passionate about them. When it’s the right fit I get to offer rep.

The hardest thing is having to close a submission because a project isn’t going to sell. It’s a tough convo to have with a client.

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 take it personally! This is a tough industry and it’s full of rejection at every step, and at every stage. It’s often a business decision and has nothing to do with the writer themselves or their level of talent.

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

Oh wow. That’s hard. Maybe Jane Austen or James Baldwin? Mary Shelley would be on the list as well. I think they are all immensely talented and were ahead of their time. I’m sure anyone of them would be great conversationalists.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

7 Questions For: Author M.T. Anderson

M.T. Anderson is the author of the Pals in Peril series; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which won the National Book Award; The Game of Sunken Places; Burger Wuss; Thirsty; and Feed, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Young Adults. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Visit him at MT-Anderson.com.

Click here to read my review of  The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge.

And now M.T. Anderson faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Now that's unfair. How can I play favorites? For the sake of saying something, I'll go with Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, Nabokov's Pale Fire, and Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

But I honestly think it's too bad we think so much in terms of "best" and "favorite." Books have different uses for us at different times in our lives (and even at different times of the day!). There are some nights when I'm lying in bed with the rain falling outside, and it's cozy inside, and I want it to feel like I'm on vacation, and so the thing that moves me most is a book of "true" local ghost stories. But in the light of day, those same stories might seem trivial. Books are like people: we should make an effort to love as many of them as possible.

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

It depends on the week! A lot of the time, I'm traveling. That wasn't something I was expecting as an author.

When I'm in the midst of working hard on a novel, I'll probably spend about three or four hours a day writing. But that doesn't reflect the time when, for example, when I'm jogging before I write. That's when some of the most important work actually gets done: thinking through the plot, imagining things from the characters' points of view, just getting myself into the mood of the scene I'm supposed to be writing that day.

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

I got a job at a publishing company -- my publisher, Candlewick Press! I was twenty-two, and I spent the next couple of years in their photocopy room. Then one day I handed my novel Thirsty to an editor there -- and it was accepted!

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

I definitely believe that writing can be taught. You need a teacher who can tell you which instincts to trust, a teacher who will encourage you to write like yourself, and not what you think you should be writing like.

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

I love that feeling of satisfaction when you come up with a phrase that perfectly catches the emotion you want to produce, and suddenly, you feel like you've really conveyed something about how the world feels.

My least favorite thing is all the need for self-promotion these days. I'm from New England, and we are not a people who enjoy self-promotion.

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)

Alternate working on two things, to give yourself long rests from each one between drafts. Give yourself time to forget the project a little -- a couple of months even. You'll come back to it able to see around problems that seemed insurmountable.

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

Herodotus. The guy had been everywhere and seen everything. Or he hadn't been everywhere but was really good at lying. Either way, that would be a fascinating lunch.

Except I'm really not that into Greek food.

Monday, October 8, 2018


First Paragraph(s): From the Desk of Lord Ysoret Clivers The Royal Order of the Clean Hand Realm of Elfland
My Dear Friend,
You'll never believe who I shot out of a crossbow today. Old Weedy Spurge from school--"the Weed."
We shot him into the dark heart of the kingdom of the goblins around noon.
Funny thing. I hadn't given the Weed a thought for ages and ages. At school, he was a bit of a drip. You remember. Shrimpy little chap. Arms wobbly like kelp. Fishy sort of face. Terrible at the joust. Awful at hunting, too. Always getting bit by the elf-hounds. Frightened all the time. He walked around with his head hunched down on that scrawny little neck like he was about to be punched. Absolutely weedy, and named "Spurge," which is a weed. Hence, just called "the Weed," as you remember. And I didn't think about him for thirty years.
Well, imagine my gobsmacked surprise when one of the king's ministers told me they needed a historian to visit the goblin court of Ghorg the Evil One. Gave me a list to chose from. And there was his name, three down: Brangwain Spurge.

I've got a fun one for you this week, Esteemed Reader. Did you know "Esteemed Reader" would be a dire insult in goblin culture? It totally would. A compliment would be to address you as "Despised Illiterate." Boom. I'm totally woke to goblin life and I'm going to hit you with some mad knowledge this post. 

M.T. Anderson will be here on Wednesday to face The 7 Questions and you know that's going to be awesome, so make sure you come back for that. I was a big fan of his YA dystopian novel, Feed, and when I first read the description of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, I was expecting something similar, but with fantasy elements.

That's not what this book is, at all, and it's a pleasure to discover a skilled writer capable of successfully telling a very different type of story while still making it feel like an M.T. Anderson novel. My favorite writers excel in multiple genres and I hope to do so one day myself (but first I'd have to excel in a single genre, ha, ha--see, goblin compliments to myself cause I'm woke).

This is one book where I'd recommend reading the paper edition rather an ebook, which is what I did, and the ARC formatting was not well done. I assume the official ebook is better put together, but really, you're going to want to hold this one in your hands. The wonderful illustrations by Eugene Yelchin do a lot of the storytelling, so much so that this is in part a graphic novel.

For that reason, I'm going to include a few snippets of Mr. Yelchin's work as well as Mr. Anderson's prose throughout this review to give you a full sense of the book:

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a very funny comic novel that has some political overtones, but nothing too heavy handed. And there's no direct one-to-one parallels, so don't bother trying to figure out which shelled goblin without a soul or a shred of patriotism is a metaphorical stand-in for Mitch McConnell. 

I don't know about you, Despised Illiterate, but I've had enough of politics recently (although, make sure you're registered to vote as we need everybody who likes books and thinking to vote this November). I'd prefer to focus on the issues of Elf V. Goblin: Dawn of Spurge-st. And that's mostly what Anderson does.

Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian who's catapulted into goblin territory (probably less hassle than plane travel) to stay for a time with goblin archivist Werfel. Their hope is to improve relations between the long warring species, despite the fact that they both have pointed ears (it's a recurring joke in the book). Improving relations is their official story, anyway. More on that momentarily.

The two do their best to accommodate each other, but naturally the scholarly fellows see the world very differently:

"Why do you think it is of goblin make, if it was under the palace of the elves?"
"We think it must be from a thousand years ago when the forests were ruled by your people, before you yielded them up to us."
Werfel murmured, "Before they were taken from us, yes."
Spurge nodded. "Yes, before you lost them in fair battle."

Much of the comedy through the first act comes from Werfel showing off bits of goblin culture, with which Spurge is largely unimpressed:

I'll try to show him that goblins can be fun! Werfel thought, so during a furious thunderstom he took Spurge out on the streets to watch the children jumping from rooftop to rooftop with their elaborate metal wands, tying to catch lightning bolts.

Magister Spurge did no seem much more pleased by the solemn Museum of Eminent Skins. He did not take any interest in the discarded skins of famous goblin heroes and actors, despite all of the interesting dioramas. At the end of the tour, he did not even want to pet the Slough of Vertigrin the Wise for good luck.

During my favorite sequence, Werfel takes Spurge to a goblin opera which plays for more than twenty hours. Around hour six, Spurge sneaks off and I've been thinking about this next passage of Werfel trying to find the elf since I first read it: 

He crouched over the privy and looked down. Someone could easily crawl out the hole and jump down into the street below. Spurge must be off spying.
He stuck his head through the hole and and peered up and down the alley. At the far end of the street, there were signs for various posh businesses: an optician, a doctor, a kitchenware boutique, a maker of ladies' fine opera gloves. But no sign of anyone. 
He was furious. Spurge had betrayed his trust. When he looked up from the toilet, shifting on his knees, he saw a wealthy goblin woman draped in strings of pearls glaring at him.
"Just vomiting, madam," he apologized. "That shrieking harpy who's playing Blulinda really should not be singing a solo role." He stood up and, with dignity, left the privy.

So, do the goblin's just yell "look out below" before doing their business to the street beneath? Do the goblins below have umbrellas, or do they just accept the downpour as part of the price of living in the city? I have so many questions about goblin toilets. I've been wondering about the practicality of living in a world with such toilets for a couple weeks now. I keep thinking I'm done contemplating such juvenile matters, and then questions come creeping back into my brain at odd moments.

Alas, Spuge is a pawn in a larger game. He's been tasked with bringing a gift to the goblin king. Unbeknownst to him, the gift is actually a brilliantly described MacGuffin:

As you know, the gift we sent, the carved gemstone, is not simply an artifact of ye olden days. It is also a death-dealing device. Didn't used to be. It was just a pretty gemstone when they dug it up in Your Majesty's wading pool. But before we sent it, our crack team of wizards imbued it with the power, when activated, to open a hole in the world and destroy everything around it out of time and space and into--well, I don't know, Your Maj, because I was never frightfully good at science, but, you know, the Great Nothing or some such. Get some wizards to explain it.

Incidentally, the fellow providing this exposition as well as the exposition in the opening paragraph and throughout the book is Ysoret Clivers, Lord Spymaster, Earl of Lunesse, Order of the Clean Hand. His letters to the king are quite amusing as he and the king start out as best buds who golf together and their relationship deteriorates drastically due to Spurge's antics and unknowing failures to destroy the goblin's leader. 

This is a fun way to deliver exposition and the interplay between Ysoret and the elfin king who begins chopping off his fingers with each failure to give him a truly clean hand reminded me of the--going to date myself here--bickering PA anouncers in the movie Airplane! If you recall the tone of that comedy, or perhaps the tone of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, that's sort of treat you're in for with The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge.

This is an absurd comedy. Laughs are the top priority and they are abundant. But if you're hoping to be convinced of a believable world of goblins and elves, this isn't that story. Me, I always loved R.A. Salvatore's The Dark Elf trilogy for that sort of nerdy fun. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a different sort of nerdy fun. 

Not only is the interplay of these narrating letters between Ysoret and the king amusing on its own, it's thematically relevant. Without spoiling, our odd couple of elf and goblin are about to learn an important lesson that applies to both their kingdoms and our own as well:

"You cannot trust the wealthy and powerful."
"I thought I would be useful," wept Spurge. "I thought I could be different than I was. I thought I could be one of them."
"You were useful," said Werfel. "Buy just because you're useful to the wealthy doesn't mean they'll reward you. It just means they'll use you."

But this isn't a book about messages and politics so much as it's a book about the fun of learning the outlandish rules of a made-up world. M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin want to show their readers a good time, and in this aim they are successful.

I particluarly loved Werfel's pet, Skardebek, or Becky for short, who screeches at night. But what is Becky:

It was just Skardebek, rubbing his cheek with her tentacles.

The icthyod mewled.

Skardebek screeched and darted forward to bite the intruder. Werfel reached up and grabbed her tail just in time. 

Werfel was still busy trying to hold Skardebek back as she flapped and struggled.

Trying to imagine how Skardebek functions is fun, and that's what this book is. Just a whole lot of fun. Treat yourself, Despised Illiterate, and laugh out loud at this buddy comedy that never takes itself too seriously.

And don't miss author M.T. Anderso's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Assassination of Branwain Spurge:

Skardebek fluttered softly around the room's rafters like an unsettled thought.

"You'll never hear interesting stories if you don't ask questions. And there are interesting stories everywhere. Even the most boring person has one interesting story."

"You cannot simply bang on the door of an elfin emissary while he does his business! For the elves, all aspects of life are an art. Even on the toilet, they think of nothing but beauty and elegance. Knocking on the door would be like hurling a fry-pan at a great artist painting a masterpiece of a sunset on distant hills."

"There is no reason to keep sitting here like a couple of grapefruits rotted to the shelf."

The vast plain was hairy with dead grasses.

The towering figure roared: a creature so large that a man could have bathed in the soupy spittle of its mouth and sat curled up in the chambers of its heart.

"I have so many... so many secrets I could tell Ghohg. About the kingdom of the elves. And the Order of the Clean Hand. do you know of the Order? Top secret, of course, but I know it all."
"You're disgusting," said Regibald. "Willing to sell out your own country just to save your life."
This irritated Spurge. "As it happens," he snapped, "I was going to lie to you anyway."

It seemed unfair that his one chance at being alive should end so stupidly.

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. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

GUEST POST: "Be Like Michelangelo" by Darby Karchut

As part of the Mentor Program of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrations ( https://rmc.scbwi.org/mentor-program/ ), I’ve had the straight up delight of working one-on-one with aspiring writers on their manuscripts. The six-month long program is a flurry of reading and talking and emailing and editing and revising and laughing and groaning and reading some more. I thought I’d offer some of the tips I shared with my SCBWI protégées.

  • Character: Get this right and the rest will follow. In my opinion, character is the heart and soul of story telling. Kids and teens fall in love with characters, not plots nor settings nor themes. Kevin Hearne, author of the Iron Druid Chronicles, once said, “People don’t dress up for cons or Halloween as your plot. They dress up as your characters.” And, by the way, when writing kid lit, especially with your first book, too few characters are better than too many characters.

  • Dialogue: Most kids and teens talk in short bursts, not long explanations (unless they’re Hermione). They often interrupt others, which is a great way to keep the tension building, especially if one speaker is desperate to impart information, and he/she keeps getting stopped. Also, kids and teens mispronounce words or use the wrong word. Let ‘em mess up when they speak.

  • World-building: If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, think about including the eight elements, or universals, found in every human culture. Those elements are: language, history, social groups, government, religion, economy, arts and crafts, and daily life (food, clothing, shelter). Even if you’re creating an entirely new fantastical world, by embedding these eight elements, it gives your story extra intensity and reality. And, no, you don’t need to go into depth on every element. Take economy, for example. Just a mention or two of how your character obtains what he/she needs (trade and barter, jobs, a trust fund, etc.) scattered throughout your story will suffice. History is my favorite element to work with, because it can explain so many whys and hows. Anyway, play around with these elements—see what you can come up with. 

  • Read Aloud: When it comes time to edit, try reading your manuscript aloud. This is a powerful tool to help refine your sentence structures, catch awkward dialogue, and find over-used words. Trust me on it. I’m the person who discovered her protagonist “turned” about 2,847 times in a single manuscript. Sheesh. The hours it takes to do this will be well worth it. It takes me about ten days to two weeks to read a 60,000 word manuscript, mainly because my voice gives out. But you might fly through quicker depending on the toughness of your throat.

  • Manuscript Length for Middle Grade: Word count is not a hard and fast rule, but with your first book, try to stay somewhat close to industry standards. And, yeah, you’ll see different numbers depending on the source, but these are pretty accurate. Your mileage may vary:
           Contemporary Middle Grade:            25,000-60,000            Sweet spot: 30,000-45,000

           Fantasy/Sci Fi Middle Grade:            35,000-75,000            Sweet spot: 45,000-65,000

  • Middle Grade Middle School: Here’s the latest break-down of age/genre per the publishing world. Take these numbers with a huge grain of salt:
                  Picture books                   Infants/early readers
                  Chapter books                  6 - 8 year olds            
                  Middle Grade books        9 - 12 year olds
                  Tween books                   12 -14 year olds         
                  Young Adult books         14 and older  

  • Current State of the Kid Lit World:  The tectonic shift toward more and authentic diversity (and diversity within diversity) in both books and authors is a desperately needed evolution. It’s not a trend or the genre de jour. While there’s been some intense discussions on social media around diversity in books (#wndb) and who is telling the story (#ownvoices), it is much needed conversation for the good of the Cause. The Cause being that “…the literature of this country should reflect the children of this country.”

Want to know something crazy? I still find myself going back to these tips all the time. Each new book is an opportunity to learn how much I don’t know about story telling, which is a Very Good Thing. I hope I never arrive at the I-know-it-all stage. No, I want to be like Michelangelo, who at the age of 87, declared: Ancora imparo. “I am still learning.”

May we all.

Darby Karchut is a multi-award winning author, dreamer, and compulsive dawn greeter.  A proud native of New Mexico, she now lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where she runs in blizzards and bikes in lightning storms. When not dodging death by Colorado, Darby is busy at her writing desk. Her books include the best selling middle grade series: THE ADVENTURES OF FINN MacCULLEN. Best thing ever: her YA debut novel, GRIFFIN RISING, has been optioned for film. Her latest book, DEL TORO MOON, releases October 2 from Owl Hollow Press. Visit the author at www.darbykarchut.com

“Ride hard, swing hard, and take out as many of those creepy critters as you can.”

Twelve year old Matt Del Toro is the greenest greenhorn in his family’s centuries-old business: riding down and destroying wolf-like monsters, known as skinners. Now, with those creatures multiplying, both in number and ferocity, Matt must saddle up and match his father’s skills at monster whacking. Odds of doing that? Yeah, about a trillion to one. Because Matt’s father is the legendary Javier Del Toro—hunter, scholar, and a true caballero: a gentleman of the horse.

Luckily, Matt has twelve hundred pounds of backup in his best friend—El Cid, an Andalusian war stallion with the ability of human speech, more fighting savvy than a medieval knight, and a heart as big and steadfast as the Rocky Mountains.

Serious horse power.

Those skinners don’t stand a chance. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

7 Questions For: Author T.R. Simon

T. R. Simon is the co-author, with Victoria Bond, of the 2011 John Steptoe New Talent Author Award winner Zora and Me. She is also the co-author, with Richard Simon, of Oskar and the Eight Blessings, illustrated by Mark Siegel and winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature.

T. R. Simon lives in Westchester County, New York.

And now T.R. Simon faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Song Yet Sung by  James McBride

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

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

I spend a great deal of time reading and some time writing, unless I'm in the middle of a project. Then I generally write at least 6 hours a day 6 days a week.

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

I wanted to write books for my daughter, ones she could read while she was young as well as share later when she has her own children. I always wanted to be the child of writers (I am not) and in the spirit of giving our children what we ourselves want, I became a writer for my daughter. To this end I wrote with publication in mind. I'm lucky to know publishing professionals, so the actual process of finding an agent was probably easier for me than for most aspiring writers.

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

Writers are taught. Some people have a great ear for language, a great eye for detail, and/or an innate sense of story timing. But even with these gifts, the structure of story must be learned and the craft of writing must be honed, refined, and continually tested, retested, and improved upon. If nothing else, you're constantly learning as a person and that learning, that experience, and wisdom you are accruing is something you must continually bring to bear in your writing.

My students love to start the semester by telling me that some folks are just naturally gifted writers. By the end of the semester their writing and storytelling has generally improved and they are usually less wedded to the idea that writing is a gift from the heavens. Becoming a writer requires hard work and practice, just like becoming a professional athlete, a lawyer, doctor, or an astronaut. And the real truth about writing is  that there is always room for improvement. Your mind is the classroom and the canvas, and the world is your teacher, so class is always in session and the chance of getting better is always there!

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

My favorite thing about writing is closing my laptop at the end of a writing shift. Seriously. Writing is hard-- it requires absolute concentration, a keen psychological eye, patience, and a willingness to sit with difficult feelings and ideas. My husband (also a writer) calls writing a zen cauldron, and I agree with him. The process is rarely comfortable, but what you gain from the practice is life changing and makes life worth living.

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)

Every book you read is a teacher. Every story you hear is a teacher. Every experience and feeling you have is a teacher. The great beauty of being a writer is that you are also a lifelong learner. You are a student of anything and everything in the world. It also gives you the courage, as well as a good excuse, to chat with random strangers and ask deeply probing questions. Zora Neale Hurston said, "No, I do not weep at the world-- I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife." I love that quote because it bears testimony to the fact that life is hard, but that the creation of art is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to deal with that hardship productively, to survive. And not just survive, but to make whatever life gives you a glorious journey of intellectual discovery.

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

Toni Morrison. Her fiction is beyond compare, but so is her non-fiction. She is probably the most brilliant thinker living on race and meaning. Everything she writes comes from a place of deep understanding and profound insight. Her books are bottomless, her interviews are bottomless, I can only imagine what it's like to actually be able to ask her questions, to have her explain how she came to certain conclusions, how she found the seed for characters like Pilot, Son, Sethe.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Book of the Week: ZORA AND ME: THE CURSED GROUND by T. R. Simon

First Paragraph(s): There are two kinds of memory. One is the ordinary kind, rooted in things that happened, people you knew, and places you went. I remember my father this way: laughing, picking me up, singing lullabies in his gentle bass. I see him swinging my mother in a half circle, the hem of her blue skirt flying up to show the rough white thread she used for mending, like a bed of stars along a ridge.
The second kind of memory is rooted in the things you live with, the land you live on, the history of where you belong. You tend not to notice it, much less think about it, but it seeps into you, grows its long roots down into the richest soil of your living mind. Because most of us pay this second kind of memory no mind, the people who do talk about it seem to us superstitious or even crazy. But they aren't. The power of that memory is equal to any of the memories we make ourselves, because it represents our collective being, the soul of a place.
After losing my father, after nursing myself to sleep nights on end with glimpses of the past with him, I was well enough acquainted with the first kind of memory. But by twelve I was still too young to pay much mind to the memories held by the town we lived in, by Eatonville itself. 
That all changed the night we found Mr. Polk, his blood soaking into the earth. When I look back on that time I wonder how it had never occurred to me that Eatonville, America's first incorporated colored town, might have a history that stretched back beyond its name and my twelve years. How could I have thought our town began with Teddy, Zora, and me, that it had just opened into the infinite present of our young lives? Turned out we were living out Eatonville's history as blindly as pawns in a century-old chess game. We were no more new or free than the land itself, but like all young people, we confused our youth with beginning and our experience with knowledge. It wasn't until that night--when we heard the town mute speak to the town conjure woman--that Zora and I began to forge a real connection with the land, a connection that let us know ourselves through a past we hadn't lived but was inside us all the same.'

Take note of the length of the passage above, Esteemed Reader. I had to retype the whole thing (so any copy-editing errors in the passages are mine). You better believe I'm not working my fingers that hard without a reason. I believe that opening as presented is a thesis, or at least a preliminary argument for the book to follow. More on that in a moment.

I've been ninja-ing for a while, and if this is your first visit to the blog, where've you been? I've been here this whole time waiting for you. Sorry, Esteemed Reader, I lost my train of thought because some of you ticked me off by not reading my other reviews, but what I meant to say was  I've read a lot of middle grade books over the years, and I don't think I've read anything quite like this week's book before.

However this book should be classified, I like it. A lot. And you will too. If you don't want to be spoiled going in, put this review aside and go buy your copy. If you're not yet convinced, continue reading.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is not quite a young adult novel, but it's definitely upper-age middle grade. Alas, there just isn't a kid-friendly way to discuss slavery without pretending slavery was something less horrible than what it was (don't do this, even if you're writing a text book in a church in Texas). 

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is not quite a historical accounting, even though it's drawn from historical events and features a fictionalized version of a Zora Neale Hurston. It's more of a story than an essay, but the book definitely has a formal message. It's a sequel, but I don't think you need to have read the first book to enjoy this one.

T. R. Simon catches up quickly:

I was staying with Zora's family for the week while my mama tended her employer's sick baby over in Lake Maitland. After Daddy died, there was just me and Mama. I was an only child. Alone with Mama I might have felt lonely in the world, but I had Zora, my best friend, my secret keeper, and my talisman against sorrow. From the time I was old enough to have a conversation, Mama always liked to tell how my three-year-old self toddled over to Zora, who was squirming and fussing one pew away from us in her father's church, grabbed her hand, and didn't let go for the next hour. Zora took a long look at me, tried once to shake me loose, then settled right down to the idea of us being joined. Zora's mother liked to say that after I took a hold of Zora, Sunday morning service once again became a place of worship and peace for her. I don't remember that at all. In fact, my own first memory of Zora has the roles reversed: instead of me grabbing her, she's grabbing me and pulling me with her as she scrambles after a lizard that turns out to be a baby diamondback rattler. My screams brought our parents running, and Zora was praised for saving me. Only, I knew there would have been no need to save me if she hadn't taken hold of me in the first place. But I never held the scrapes against Zora. She made life in a town no bigger than a teacup feel like it held the whole world. 

Our narrator is Carrie Brown, who is a sort of Watson to young Zora's Sherlock Holmes, or, if you prefer (and I do), her Ellicott Skullworth to Zora's Banneker Bones. Incidentally, I wondered about the aptness of comparing these two young black girls to two older white men (Watson and Sherlock, not Ellicott and Banneker), but after I wrote this, I watched the video below in which the author makes the same comparison, so we're good:). 

Zora and Carrie are on a new case, and it's a fun one (from a mystery writer's perspective). Someone has stabbed the local mute man who can't say what happened. The middle grade mystery doesn't open with a body, but there'll be bodies before it's done. Further intriguing, the mute man is able to whisper something to the town conjure woman.

Note how Simon is able to tell us so much about Carrie and Zora's relationship and their motivations in this simple exchange:

The secret Mr. Polk shared with Old Lady Bronson didn't excite me; it frightened me. "Honestly, Zora, maybe it ain't for us to know. Maybe there's some secrets folks just ought to keep."
She looked at me incredulously. "Carrie Brown, you can't be serious. How on earth are we gonna suck the marrow out of life if we just sit by and let questions stroll down our street without inviting them in for a glass of lemonade? Mama always says, 'Ain't no one ever got dumber trying to answer a question.' And I intend to answer all life's questions.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground starts out rather tame-ish in 1903 in the town of Eatonville where all the inhabitants are black and doing as well as can be expected in America in 1903. But of course, white folks are at the edge of town conspiring to mess it all up because of course they are. And this is a book that gives us a very specific, and, sigh, accurate view of many white folks at the time (#notallgreatgrandmas):

There's nothing white folks won't do when colored folks have something they want.

No matter how clear our town borders seemed to me, they could be disregarded at any moment by white men who sought to hurt us.

Uneasy whites always bring black death.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground  isn't going to be a favorite read of our Trump-supporting relatives, but they're not really readers anyway. This is a book for reasonable, thinking folks who can appreciate facts for what they are and an honest discussion of them. If that's not you, go ahead and watch your Fox News.

White people reading this book will be made uncomfortable, even the ones who listen to NPR and voted for Obama twice:) Good. This is uncomfortable stuff and should not be read easily. 

If you're a teacher considering not reading this book to your class because some of your students are a different race than you and you don't want things to get awkward, quit being a coward. Read this book aloud. Now. Don't wait until February--this is American history all year round. Awkward discussions need to be had, so fight through it.

Getting back to the book, you'll remember this town has a conjure woman. This is one of my most favorite character introductions of ever:

A shadow fell across the doorway. We looked up to see Old Lady Bronson. She was wrapped in a dark-gray shawl, her giant black cowhide bag hung against her right hip. With soldier boots that stopped below her knees and the still-dissipating smoke rising around her, the town conjure  woman looked every bit the part of a witch. The steel-gray hair I'd only ever seen her wear in a in a single tight braid down her back blew wild behind her, gleaming with droplets of rain. Her freckled skin glowed in the lamplight. Silhouetted against the lightning-filled sky, Old Lady Bronson looked electrified.

There's a lot more to Old Lady Bronson than first meets the eye, but I can't tell you much without spoiling. She's an extremely interesting character and I'd like to read a book that was just about her without any children detectives, but that wouldn't be very middle grade:) She's wisely employed here as someone who may or may not have the ability to curse things, which might come up in a book subtitled "The Cursed Ground."

And she's extremely useful as a plot device, again in ways I shouldn't reveal. But authors, take note at the way T.R. Simon deploys Old Lady Bronson to provide necessary exposition rather than flat out telling us how old these girls are:

I always tell folks that twelve is a changeling year, and it looks like you starting to have some sense with your twelve years.

Carrie has developed feelings for Teddy, a friend of her and Zora's, and there's some other drama in the present tense of the story, but we're not going to bother with that. Because just when the reader is settling in for a familiar middle grade read about our young detectives solving a mystery, Simon pulls the rug out from beneath them by flashing back to 1855 to discuss the adventure of two other girls, Lucia and Prisca.

They might almost be Carrie and Zora in another life, save for one crucial difference. Though the girls start as equal, when they move to America, the darker-skinned Lucia is designated a slave and worked to the bone, while Prisca remains free. And the telling of their story is brutal and unflinching:

I was terrified of what Prisca's tears could bring.
And so I shushed her, apologizing gently until her tears slowed.
In that moment I learned to be a slave even with Prisca. To bottle up my feelings and my fears so that she did not unleash the force of her own power, a power she herself barely understood. The power to be a whole person, her whole self, while I was now forced to exist as a fraction of a human being, a slave with no rights to my own self. What Prisca did not understand, but that I now did, was that the past meant nothing.
She answered me in a ferocious whisper. "Out there you're a slave, but in here we are as we always have been. In here, nothing has changed!"
The first year Prisca often pulled me into her bed during the night and wept onto my shoulder. I did not weep with her. I lay still, the flesh and blood doll she turned to when her loneliness became too hard to bear.

Prisca was defending me--not because I was a person and should not be sold, but because I was her property and could not be taken from her.

There are worse passages to follow, but I won't share them all. Lucia is whipped and beaten and subjugated and endures all manner of things that are unpleasant, but which children growing up in Trump country need to be made aware actually happened.

 Know, children, just what sort of awfulness that man intends when he says he wants to "make America great again." Know the history his "fine people" marching in Charlottesville would have us repeat.

There is violence in this novel, but it's mostly the emotional kind. And even though there's at least one death that's a bit more graphic than what I'm accustomed to in middle grade fiction, Simon is mindful to explain these complex adult subjects in a manner that's easier to digest for younger readers, without altering the truth of what she's discussing:

Zora's brow creased. "What a horrible choice: freedom for yourself or slavery with the folks you love."
Teddy shook his head and said, "Seems like no matter what you chose, running or staying, you must have had a broken heard your whole life."

As I said, that opening passage at the top of this review reads like the thesis of an academic argument as much as the opening of a middle grade novel, and I dig that so hard. Crank up your Bob Dylan, fellow English majors, and let's discuss the meaning of "The Cursed Ground." Oh, sure, there's a conjure woman, but the curse of this particular patch of American soil has far less to do with magic than the action of our ancestors. 

Much of the tension of this story comes from learning how the story of 1855 connects to the story of 1903, which of course it does, brilliantly. Without spoiling, one character late in the novel tells us, "Slavery is over, but tonight you saw how it still haunts us."

Once the reader understands that this book is as much an essay as it is a story, they can fully appreciate the closing arguments:

Zora was right: history wasn't just something you read in a book. It was everything your life stood on. We who thought we were free from the past were still living it out.

Mr. Ambrose rubbed his forehead. "Because slavery isn't far enough in our past yet," he answered. "What we're facing now is the unfinished business of slavery."
"When will it be finished?" Zora demanded.
"That's what I want to know," I added.
"I don't know, girls. White folks have a disease A disease that started with slavery. We taught ourselves to see colored folks as inferior so we could enslave them. And now we have a need to keep seeing them as inferior. White folks have become dependent on feeling superior to the colored race; no matter how low we fall, we can tell ourselves that the colored man is always lower."
"Do you think that, too?" Zora asked.
Mr. Ambrose took a full minute to respond. "It would be a lie to say I didn't. Every white man I know has the seed of race hate planted and rooted in him by the time he's reached his fifth year. This country is founded on it, and not even a civil war could uproot it. The only way to fight that hate is to consciously decide every day to choose against the hate we've been taught."

Thankfully, in 2008, Barrack Obama was elected president and racism was over forever in the United States and white police never again shot an unarmed black man and evil white people never repeatedly flashed white power hand symbols behind a would-be rapist supreme court nominee put forward by the most evil political party our nation has ever seen.

The past is still very much with us, Esteemed Reader, as we are all living on cursed ground. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is an important book that should be made available in every classroom across this country as a primer for American children to learn about this political mess they're inheriting. Don't miss this extraordinary novel.

And don't miss author T.R. Simon's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Zora and Me:The Cursed Ground:

A last flicker of lightning lit up his face, making invisible all the wrinkles of age for a fraction of a second and revealing the face of a troubled boy.

"You know how my mind works--once a question starts a fire inside me, I have to answer it, no matter how bad I get burned. There ain't no pain more painful than the pleasure I get from the light of truth."

For the first two weeks, when the two of us were alone, I allowed myself the fantasy that things between us were as they had been, that we still could enjoy each other's company in a time and place without slavery. It was a useless fantasy and a dangerous one. The present was a hell with no escape, and the past could change nothing about that.

Across his shoulder was slung the rifle he always carried, pressed tight against his lean frame like a second spine. 

House wasn't quite the right word. It was more like a shipwreck in the shape of a house.

The gun made the house feel like a cage set with a trap.

I burned with fear, sorrow, humiliation, and helplessness. And not one of Prisca's tears could extinguish that fire.

Zora elbowed me. She loved the way folks whose speech was plain as gray wool in normal times liked to trot out their biggest words on special occasions, as if they had been saving them up and didn't want to waste them on everyday things. We agreed that her father was king of the fifty-cent words, but there were a lot of dukes and earls and counts in the kingdom of Eatonville, too!

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. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

GUEST POST: "Mac's Sports Report" by Kyle Jackson

The first thing you need to know about Jolly Fish Press’new middle grade series, Mac’s Sports Report,is that it’s all about sports. The four books are loaded with action-packed athletic drama. Concussion Comeback is a football book. Sideline Pressure is a basketball story. Racket Rumors takes place on the tennis court. Back on Track takes place—you guessed it—on the track.

The second thing you need to know about Mac’s Sports Report is that it’s not just for people who play sports. It’s for people who like to watch and read and talk about them.

The hero of the stories is Stuart “Mac” McKenzie, who is both a great athlete and an excellent middle school sports reporter. Each book has Mac following—and writing about—different athletes at his school. These athletes deal with conflict on and off the court. If you’ve ever wanted to work for ESPN, these books are for you.

There are many other things worth knowing about Mac. He’s a brother, a son, a friend, and a teammate. He’s brave and smart and competitive. Did I mention he’s a great athlete? Probably, but it’s worth repeating. Mac can flat-out ball. He’s the best shooter on his basketball team and probably in the whole league.

One other thing worth knowing about Mac is that he uses a wheelchair. This detail is not treated in the books as a big deal because, well, why would it be? It doesn’t prevent Mac from being a good brother, or reporter, or—honestly, I can’t say this enough—a jock. (Mac’s the Steph Curry of his basketball team.)

But then again, it was important that his chair isn’t treated as an afterthought. After all, it affects Mac’s life more than the color of his eyes or hair. To ignore the wheelchair completely would be to ignore Mac’s lived reality. It would be to render Mac’s life in some ways invisible. Yes, he’s the best basketball player in the school. But that doesn’t mean he plays on the school team. He plays on a district team with other middle schoolers who use wheelchairs. His games are as jam-packed with fast breaks, deep three-pointers,epic comebacks, and buzzer beaters as the games he covers as a reporter.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mac’s Sports Report isn’t about Mac’s wheelchair. But it is about Mac, an intrepid kid who doesn’t let anything—threatening parents, angry coaches, mysterious players, or his wheelchair—get in the way of a good story.

All four books in the Mac’s Sports Report series released September 1 with Jolly Fish Press, and are available in paperback and library bound hardcover, and as Ebooks.

Kyle Jackson loves to watch, play, and report on sports, just like Mac.

North Star Editions:
Purchasing information:


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Meg Medina

Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction.

Her most recent young adult novel, Burn Baby Burn, has earned numerous distinctions including being long listed for the 2016 National Book Award and shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize. She is the 2016 recipient of the Pura Belpré honor medal for her picture book, Mango, Abuela and Me, and the 2014 Pura Belpré Award winner for her young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your As*, which was also the winner of the 2013 CYBILS Fiction award and the International Latino Book Award. Meg also earned the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal for her picture book Tía Isa Wants a Car.

Meg’s other books are The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind , a 2012 Bank Street Best Book and CBI Recommended Read in the UK; and Milagros: Girl from Away. Her newest middle grade novel is Merci Suárez Changes Gears (Candlewick Press, 2018).

Meg’s work examines how cultures intersect, as seen through the eyes of young people. She brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls.

In March 2014, she was recognized as one of the CNN 10 Visionary Women in America. In November 2014, she was named one of Latino Stories Top Ten Latino Authors to Watch.  In 2017, she was named, along with Gigi Amateau, to the Southerners of the Year list by Southern Living Magazine.

When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

Meg discusses all her books on National Public Radio. Click here for Meg on NPR’s Virginia Currents.

Click here to read my review of Merci Suárez Changes Gears.

And now Meg Medina faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Oh boy, this changes all the time as I read new books by exciting new authors.

For craft:  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

For voice: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia

For all around impact on me as a person:  Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and The House of Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

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

It fluctuates, of course, but words are at the center of how I move through the world pretty much all day long. I read the paper and have coffee every morning in my quiet kitchen for about 30 minutes, and I end the day by reading in bed every night for about an hour – unless the book is fabulous and then I read until I physically can’t do it anymore.

In my daytime hours I am writing, writing, writing.  Sometimes it’s up to four hours of composing a new work or editing it. Sometimes it’s writing answers to Q and A requests or writing a blog post for my own site or someone else’s. At times, I’m reviewing work for different publications. It’s all about words and books, though.

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

The short answer is yearning and a sudden, reckless decision. It took me a long time to decide to take the risk and try to write a novel. I lacked the courage to try my hand at a career that felt so difficult to break into.  I’d been a teacher, and later, a freelance journalist where I wrote for magazines and   newspapers. The last job I had was writing press releases and printed materials for a school that served kids with learning disabilities.All were terrific jobs, but none of that felt exactly right.

So, on my 40th birthday, I stood up and quit my job at that school, deciding that my career in writing was now or never. Luckily it worked out for me. I wrote the novel for about a year, and then searched for an agent with my copy of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Chidlren’s Literary Markets, a process that took about six months. After that, I began publishing books pretty regularly.

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

I think it depends what you mean by writers.  I think we can absolutely teach people to be competent writers who can get their thoughts on a page in a way that’s engaging and memorable. But writing with a capital W, the writing of books that become part of the children’s canon and that move readers for generations….that I think does take a special kind of person who comes with certain gifts or leanings.  It’s someone with not only the eye for detail and the ability to turn phrases, but also a person who has the heart for understanding people at their best and worst.

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

My favorite thing is when the characters that have been living inside of me start to feel real not just for me, but for readers. The feeling of connection is so powerful.

My least favorite thing is all the self-doubt that happens as you’re drafting, all those days when you’re sure you can’t do it, when you’re positive that you’re a hack, that this will be your worst book ever.

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)

Great writing has swing; it’s intuitive and springs from your emotional truths more than from your technical skills. So, yes, spend as much time as you can reading the very best books and studying them to improve your craft. But don’t forget to invest just as much time going inside your own memories and mining your own experiences to rediscover who you were as a kid and what that kid from long ago has to say about growing up now. Say things the way you truly feel them.

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

I’d want to have lunch with Sandra Cisneros.  So many of us Latinx writers are, in fact, standing on her shoulders. She named us in her writing. She drew our families as we were in our beauty and despair. She pointed the way on how to make our bicultural lives visible in books and in doing so opened the door for so many of us who followed. And for that gift I am forever grateful to her.