Tuesday, June 19, 2018

7 Questions For: Public Relations Expert Joshua Redlich

Josh Redlich is a Publicist for Random House Children's Books, where he works with authors like Mary Pope Osborne, Louis Sachar, Jay Kristoff, Gennifer Choldenko and Marisha Pessl to promote their works. He formerly worked at Sterling Publishing on titles ranging from children's picture books to adult nonfiction.

Josh is also the Chair of the Young to Publishing Group (YPG) and Co-Chair of the Publisher's Publicity Association (PPA) planning committees.

And Now Joshua Redlich faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

This is NOT an easy question. I have a lot more than three. But if I had to choose . . . well, I’d probably cheat and give three series instead.

1. Harry Potter by . . . what’s her name again?
2. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
3. The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

(And the Oz books and His Dark Materials and Mistborn and The Chronicles of Narnia and Red Rising and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Phantom Tollbooth and The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine and The Inquisitor’s Tale and The Night Circus and Uprooted . . .)

Question Six: Could you give us your take on a strategy to market one of your three favorite books if it were being published this year?

For a book I love as much as these, I would probably do a special media mailing of some sort, way in advance of the book’s release. I’d include nice packaging, and maybe an author letter and some sort of book-related swag to make it stand out from all the other book mail they receive each day and really drive home that this is a book worth their attention. I’d also try to arrange a lot of in-person meetings with media personnel so I can tell them about the book face-to-face.

Question Five: What are the typical services you provide and what results can an author reasonably expect?

As a publicist, my job is twofold: media outreach (which includes drafting press materials, sending out ARC and finished book mailings to media personnel, and extensive follow up in pursuit of book reviews and features) and events (which includes everything from a launch event and local school visits to national tours and festival and con appearances).

As for results? That’s a tricky question. In truth, an author can’t really expect anything. Those in media who handle book coverage receive far more books a day than they are able to feature, so there’s never a guarantee that a particular book will be featured, and probably a much larger chance that it won’t be.

Question Four: What sort of author and/or project(s) would you most like to work with?

I’m a total fantasy nerd (if my list of “three’ favorites didn’t give that away), and that’s what I love to work on, too. But I can get behind just about any children’s books (YA in particular), and I enjoy working on graphic novels, too.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about what you do? What is your least favorite thing?

There is A LOT I love about my job, not least of which is that I get to talk about books all day. I get to spread the word about books I love and help them find readers, which will never stop being exciting. And I get to work with a host of really incredible authors, like Mary Pope Osborne, whose Magic Tree House series I read when I was 6, and Rachel Hartman, whose Seraphina is another favorite of mine.

My least favorite thing about my job? It starts at 9am… 

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

Build your social presence. We live in a digital world, and the best way to reach the parents, children, teachers, librarians, and other potential book buyers is to go where they are—online! Maintaining an active social media account is time consuming, but it is definitely worthwhile. Twitter is my preferred social platform, though illustrators should definitely be on Instagram, as well. Google can probably provide better tips on how to grow your social presence that I can, but I would recommend engaging with other members of the literary world (authors, book bloggers, etc.) and sharing their news as well as your own. You won’t get followers by only talking about your own book.

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

J.K. Rowling. I would not be in children’s book publishing today if it wasn’t for her and Harry Potter. (But don’t ask me what I’d say to her. I’d probably just stare open-mouthed, drool a little, and then ask her to sign my Harry Potter yarmulke, which I wore just about every day from age 13 to 22.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

GUEST POST: “Why Picture Books Aren’t Just for Elementary School Kids” by Salvo Lavis and James Munn

We write children’s picture books about an elementary school-aged boy and his marvelous pet weasel. Often we are asked—understandably so—for what age groups our fun little episodes are intended. The answer: children between four and ten years old and the adults who read with them. But the deeper truth: anyone and everyone.

Humans love a good story and are not always picky about the source. In the pursuit of meaningful entertainment, boundaries between story formats rarely seem to matter. Storytelling method becomes secondary if the story is strong and the characters speak to the audience. And, if done right, a picture book can have the similar effect as a comic or graphic novel--both of which are widely read by readers of chapter books. 

Also, it certainly helps to be funny. In Wild Wild Weasel, our second adventure in the World of the Weasel book series, the boy imagines all sorts of things he can train his pet weasel to do, from chauffeuring the boy around to shampooing the boy’s hair. Laughter knows no age.

In addition, it helps to include words that the child may not know but will come to learn and use in later years. “Pandemonium” and “rambunctious” may not roll trippingly off the tongue of the average first grader, but in Once Upon a Weasel, our first book, we wanted to include words that would be fun for the parent to say to the child and also make the child curious about their meaning.

And it helps to create a complex story where new details are revealed with each reading. In Wild Wild Weasel, some visuals may very well escape notice upon first glance—a pigeon holding a diploma in its beak, a bunny stuck in window blinds, an astounded fish lifting itself onto the edge of its bowl to get a better look at the action. (And, as you read all of our books, look for one particular little girl who simply cannot seem to stay awake.)

Middle-grade readers then have an opportunity to laugh, learn, teach, and discover. We think that’s golden, and we hear from plenty of young people who agree!

All of these things we have been learning since we first decided to write kids stories. And we continue to check ourselves to make sure that the story is trim and that every word tells. Our first drafts always contain too many words, which is often the case for any writing project. But for picture books especially, each word is carefully considered. By the time illustrator Dave Leonard gets to work it becomes clear that many of our story points come across better in illustration. Thus begins another round of culling words. (We always knew a picture was worth a thousand words, but that old idiom was never so profoundly felt until we began creating picture books.) Sometimes we describe too much, or grip the reader’s hand too tightly as we lead them down an obvious road, or try to make things overtly Meaningful with a capital M. The end product, we hope, is a balance between showing and telling.

Indeed, we are learning. Trust the reader and let them discover things on their own. If they don’t grasp everything at first, they will when they reread the book years later. And they’ll feel good about the discovery.

In the end, we as a creative team don’t really have the middle-school student or the adult or even the four-year-old in mind when we write. To us, the age of the reader is immaterial. After all, adults go to see animated films geared toward the younger set. Why shouldn't tweens and teens read picture books? We simply tell a story that entertains us. Then we hope that people of all ages like it—you too!

Salvo Lavis is a writer and producer who has worked in digital, video, print, and radio. He established the online brand for indie film distributor Cohen Media Group, where he directed social media Oscar campaigns for the Academy Award-nominated films Timbuktu and Mustang. He has also produced content for Disney.com, Yahoo! Entertainment, and Live Nation. His personal interests include math, science, and design. Salvo is from Houston and lives in Los Angeles, California.

James Munn is a freelance writer, film historian and former editor at Architectural Digest. In addition, he and his friends Salvo Lavis and Dave Leonard have created the World of the Weasel series of children’s books, which includes the titles Once Upon a Weasel and Wild Wild Weasel. He is the author of This Is No Dream: Making Rosemary’s Baby and recently edited Autobiography of a Magazine: 1920 – 2010, an illustrated history of Architectural Digest by former editor-in-chief Paige Rense. James grew up in rural Nebraska and currently lives in Hollywood, California.

Connect with Salvo Lavis and James Munn:

WORLD OF THE WEASELpresents picture books about a young boy and his pet weasel who injects excitement into the boy’s quiet life and helps stimulate his imagination. Published by Spitball Studio, the series currently has two books available with more to follow. There’s also handmade plush dolls as well as fun t-shirts for adults and kids.

Wild Wild Weasel                                                               
ISBN: 978-0-9977982-2-7

Once Upon a Weasel
ISBN: 978-0-9977982-0-3

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Middle Grade Ninja TV 01: Author Laura Martin

Esteemed Reader, prepare to be transformed into an Esteemed Viewer! I'm jumping into the deep end and taking Middle Grade Ninja into a new medium.

Here is the first ever episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV. If y'all like it and some other folks want to be guests, we'll probably do some more episodes in the near future.

Laura Martin, my friend and author of The Edge of Extinction series discusses her newest middle grade novel, Float. She also shares intimate details into her writing process and her writer's journey thus far and provides unique insight to inspire authors at all stages in their career. Our discussion of the edited "skinny dipping" scene from Float alone is well worth your time. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this discussion between two middle grade authors about writing, publishing, and life.

Don't miss Laura's excellent guest post "The Art of the Middle School Presentation." 

And make sure you see her face the 7 Questions.

And now, enjoy the inaugural episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV:

From the critically acclaimed author of the Edge of Extinction series comes this fast-paced, action-packed, and heartfelt adventure about a group of kids with uncontrollable abilities, perfect for fans of Gordon Korman, Lisa McMann, and Dan Gutman!

Emerson can float…he just can’t do it very well.

His uncontrollable floating is his RISK factor, which means that he deals with Reoccurring Incidents of the Strange Kind. The last place Emerson wants to be is at a government-mandated summer camp for RISK kids like him, so he’s shocked when he actually starts having fun at camp—and he even makes some new friends.

But it’s not all canoeing and capture the flag at Camp Outlier. The summer of fun takes a serious turn when Emerson and his friends discover that one of their own is hiding a deadly secret that puts all of their lives in danger.

It’s up to the Red Maple boys to save themselves—and everyone like them.

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

Her latest, Float, released on May 29th.

Friday, May 25, 2018

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

Fair warning, Esteemed Reader, I'm going to use just a bit of adult language in this post. I'm emotional today because I've just picked up Little Ninja after his school went on lock down following a shooting.

I don't want to be writing this. I want that amazing interview with my hero Louis Sachar, author of Holes, Sideways Stories From Wayside School, and other classics,  to be the top post at Middle Grade Ninja for as long as possible because it was a really big deal for me to get and you should read his interview if you haven't already. It's inspiring stuff and the proper subject of a blog about reading and writing middle grade novels.

But I live in the United States, so it was just a matter of time until a school shooting happened here, yes, even in a nice little Indiana suburb where we bought our house originally for the great schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ran all the way home.

I got online to read the news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's hard for me to accurately remember what went through my mind. Seventh grade was over 25 years ago now (Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't know the young man, but I'd be real surprised to learn he was a pure monster from birth until he picked up those handguns. I'd be real surprised to learn he had no good qualities and no one ever loved him ever.

I'm not a monster. Adolescence is a hard and confusing time of raging emotions and if you never had a dark moment in your youth, that's great for you, but most of us had one or two. Kids are allowed to think dumb thoughts. Around that time, I also courted racism as a philosophy (white guy in a small town, remember). Yet, I've shared my life with a black woman for 13 years and Banneker Bones is a biracial boy just like my kid.

Children should be allowed to be wrong and explore dark thoughts. It's part of growing up. Our job as parents is to keep them safe and restrict their access to weapons so they don't hurt themselves or others before they reach adulthood.

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Louis Sachar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read my review of Fuzzy Mud

Click here to read my review of Holes.

And now Louis Sachar faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

Book of the Week: FUZZY MUD by Louis Sachar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

7 Questions For: Dream Gardens Podcast Host Jody Lee Mott

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

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

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

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

And now Jody Lee Mott faces the 7 Questions:

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

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

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

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

Question Six: What attracted you to podcasting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Gennifer Choldenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now Gennifer Choldenko faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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