Friday, January 18, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja TV 07: Author Jacqueline West

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.

The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

NYT Bestselling author Jacqueline West and I discuss her career in publishing as well as her approach to writing and her background as a performer and English teacher. She shares many tips for how to write successfully and gives recommended resources for aspiring authors. I also read a small selection from Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees.

Click here to see Jacqueline West face the 7 Questions.








Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT-bestselling middle grade series The Books of Elsewhere, the YA novel Dreamers Often Lie, and the new middle grade fantasy The Collectors.

She is also the author of two poetry collections, Cherma and Candle and Pins: Poems on Superstitions, and her poetry and short fiction appear in a variety of publications.

She lives in Red Wing, Minnesota, with her family.







Eliza loves hunting ghosts--too bad she's spending the summer helping her scientist mother study weird plants instead. But when a mysterious plant goes missing, things in the plant shop go from strange to downright spooky. Is Eliza digging in dangerous ground?

"West’s tale, decorated with Aly’s eerie, cartoon art, is well worth reading on its own—the writing manual takes it to a whole other level." 

- Kirkus, starred review





Friday, January 11, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja TV 06: Author Susan Kaye Quinn

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air live, go to YouTube and subscribe.

The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.


Author and indie publishing expert Susan Kaye Quinn and I discuss her career in publishing as well as her approach to writing and editing. She shares many tips for how to be successful as an indie author. You'll want to revisit this episode a few times and take notes because Susan has more knowledge than could ever be packed into a single episode.

Click here to see Susan Kaye Quinn face the 7 Questions.











Susan Kaye Quinn is a rocket scientist turned speculative fiction author who now uses her PhD to invent cool stuff in books. She writes young adult science fiction, with side trips into adult future-noir and  sweet royal romance. Her bestselling novels and short stories have been optioned for Virtual Reality, translated into German, and featured in several anthologies.
Susan grew up in California, got a bunch of engineering degrees (Aerospace, Mechanical, and Environmental), and worked everywhere from NASA to NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research). She has designed aircraft engines, studied global warming, and held elected office (as a school board member). Now that she writes novels, her business card says “Author and Rocket Scientist,” but she spends most of her time inventing her stories, petting her cats, and rescuing her Roomba from evil socks.
Susan writes full-time from the Chicago suburbs with her three boys, two cats, and one husband. She is a member of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and is represented by Sarah Hershmann at Hershmann Rights Management.


Warrior faery princes can be very stubborn. Especially when they possess your body. Fourteen-year-old Finn just wants to keep his little sister out of Child Protective Services—an epic challenge with their parentally-missing-in-action dad moving them to England, near the famous Stonehenge rocks.
Warrior faery Prince Zaneyr just wants to escape his father’s reckless plan to repair the Rift—a catastrophe that ripped the faery realm from Earth 4,000 years ago and set it adrift in an alternate, timeless dimension.
When Zaneyr tricks Finn into swapping places, Finn becomes bodiless soul stuck in the Otherworld, fighting spriggans with sharp teeth and rival faery Houses. Back on Earth, Zaneyr uses Finn’s body to fight off his father’s seekers and keep the king’s greatest weapon—himself—out of his hands. Between them, they have two souls and only one body… and both worlds to save before the dimensional window between them slams shut.
Faery Swap is an action and druid-magic filled portal fantasy, told by both a runaway faery prince and the boy he’s tricked into taking his place. This Prince and the Pauper meets Warrior Faeries tale is suitable for all ages.
Includes four interior illustrations.
Fantastic Irish and American accents in this fun warrior faery fantasy!


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Five (2018)

Well, the years start coming and they don't stop coming and I'm so old that I still quote Smashmouth. That song has graced our eardrums for 20 years this year and Shrek has graced our eyeballs for 18 years. Do you remember which theater you were in when you first saw that movie? Yeah? Are you thinking about it? That was 18 years ago.

Anyway, happy New Year, Esteemed Reader. Let's get on with this year-in review nonsense so that, God willing, 20 years from now I can wax philosophical about where I was when I wrote this post, and think to myself, Smashmouth is still a dumb name for a band and I never really liked Shrek (popular culture and I don't always agree), but "All Star" was a catchy tune and I wish I'd thought about weightier issues in my squandered life (do you guys remember Chumbawamba?).

2018 was a year that, when I look back on the years that really aged me, will stand out. 2018 is responsible for more than its fair share of my emerging wrinkles. I had an unusually difficult writing year. My summer got particularly rough, but then a couple things happened that made me go, oh yeah, there is a God (probably) and reality is sometimes wonky, so it's best to be optimistic and not worry so much.



The Blog in 2018

We had lots of great guests at the blog this year. We had some oh-my-gosh-she's-so-famous-and-she's-here authors stop by and some keep-your-eyes-on-him-because-he's-doing-great-things authors as well and I remain eternally grateful to both types of authors for making the time for me and Esteemed Reader. I've never met an author I didn't admire at least a little and Middle Grade Ninja remains one of the best things I've ever done because it's put me in contact with so many of them.

We also had some excellent literary agents and public relations experts visit and I hope we'll have more in 2019. I feel every interview posted here makes me smarter for having read it. And I'm thrilled by the many high quality guest posts so many talented authors and publishing professionals have shared with us.

I read a bunch of amazing books this year, some of which I reviewed here, many more which I didn't. I've said this is the greatest time in history to be a writer, but it's also the greatest time to be a reader. There are wonderful books being produced all around us and most anyone can find a way to access an endless supply. 2018 was, relative to all (known) preceding human history, an amazing time to be alive.

In May, I was invited to be a guest on my first ever podcast interview. In June, I recorded the first episode of my own podcast with author Laura Martin, although it didn't become an actual podcast until early December.

A podcast/YouTube show is something I've thought about doing for years, but haven't because it's a scary prospect. In listening to one of my many favorite podcasts, I heard a sociologist (can't remember which one) explain that a fear of being in front of a crowd makes perfect evolutionary sense. For much of (known) human history, if you were at the front of the tribe, you might be about to be executed.

And as you'll hear, I'm a far better writer than a speaker. I prefer the time to carefully choose my words rather than vomiting up a word salad on the fly. Also, until this year, I haven't really had the time to record any kind of show. But my friends, the authors Laura Martin and Barbara Shoup were willing to be my first guests and I'll be forever grateful to them as they could each easily host their own show and helped me get over my initial nerves.

Lo and behold, once I got over my fear of appearing in front of all the internet, I really enjoyed the conversations we had. Talking with talented people is both illuminating and fun. Maybe the show will continue to resonate with viewers and listeners. Maybe it won't. But for sure I'll be a better writer for having had such insightful chats with people smarter than I am.

I don't know what the future of the podcast will be, but I'm overjoyed with the great guests I've interviewed so far and looking forward to talking with the amazing guests already scheduled to appear in 2019. I'm still a little nervous at just how many folks are watching and listening, but I've gotten used to strangers reading my books (God bless them) and I suppose I'll get used to strangers listening to me talk as well.

So please subscribe to my channel on YouTube or follow the podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunes, and Google Play or just keep an eye on the blog for future installments. If you wanted to like, subscribe, and leave a review, that would be extremely helpful and appreciated. This is going to be a lot of fun and there's more ninja-ing ahead.




My Favorite Media in 2018

As you know, I don't pick favorite books. I love them all. Also, every year I bump into more authors in the real world and I like getting along with them:)

I'm seeing fewer movies and television programs every year because life is short and I feel like movie trailers are frequently better than the flicks. I didn't see A Star is Born, but that sure was a great movie trailer:)

My favorite movie of 2018 was hands-down Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. The flicks I also really loved this year were A Quiet Place (I've been debating the merits of the film's final shot for months), Vice (such an angry movie about events that SHOULD make us angry), Halloween (how I'd missed a truly fun slasher flick), and Ready Player One (welcome back into my heart, Mr. Spielberg). And like everyone else in the world, I loved Avengers: Infinity War and  Black Panther. I also really enjoyed The Meg, which was exactly the movie I wanted it to be.

But honestly, the best experience I had in all of non-book media this year was Red Dead Redemption 2. The hype was real. It was exciting, funny, and heartbreaking. There are moments from that game I'm going to remember forever. I think Benjamin Byron Davis should win all the acting awards for his portrayal of Dutch Van der Linde. And how lovely it was to see John Marston again after all these years.

Marvel's Spider-Man and Far Cry 5 were each incredible experiences as well and both came as surprises to me. I'd never played a Far Cry game before (I checked out the others, but 5 is the best by far) and Spider-Man games have been mostly disappointing since the previous high point of Spider-Man 2. If taking the time to play these games means I ultimately write fewer books in this life, I'm okay with that (fair trade).

Also wonderful, but in a different way, were Assassin's Creed: Odyssey and Just Cause 4, neither of which I've completely finished, but I will eventually. They're the perfect games to play a bit at a time while listening to an audiobook after a long day of reading and writing and parenting.


(this scene made me misty-eyed)


Living with Politics in 2018

There are too many political scandals from 2018 to attempt recounting them all here or to properly express my outrage at kids in cages or the rest of it, and most of you Esteemed Readers live here in the US of A, so you already know. I really only want to write about how politics have impacted me this year. Trump is an anxiety machine.

When the history of this time is written, I'm confident the current Republican party will be remembered as villains. What might not be remembered is the daily strain of living through our national nightmare. The worst periods of depression I felt this year were due in large part to being confounded that this illegitimate "presidency" has been allowed to proceed, largely unimpeded. It's been a source of constant stress to watch my country collapsing tweet by tweet.

I remember where I was on 9/11. I watched on TV as the second plane struck the second tower in real time, horrified with the rest of the country, and I won't ever forget it. Similarly, I'll remember where I was the first time I saw Donald Trump's press conference in Hellsinki and the President of the United States sided with Putin over America.

The experience of watching that press conference must be what it's like to see a flying saucer (alas, I still haven't seen one). The pentagon admitted it's been studying flying saucers just last year and the evidence that they're in our skies and that the government is hushing up their existence is overwhelming. Most of us know the flying saucers are probably real, while pushing the information from our minds as it's not a practical concern for day to day living. It's still got to be a shock to actually see one. And afterward, you can't ever un-see it.

Similarly, we've known Trump was dishonest and acting strangely in regard to Russia since the election (Hillary credibly accused him of being Putin's puppet in the debates). But to actually see Trump's treason in real time, to realize beyond the shadow of a doubt that a traitor is in our oval office... there aren't sufficient words for that shock. If this had happened in any story outside of a comic book, I would've laughed at the absurdity of it, and yet that moment has now happened within our history.

After the Helsinki conference, I genuinely felt hopeless for a time. How do you believe in anything after seeing this monstrous "president" betray us? Actual presidents are legitimately-ish elected.  We're living under the occupation of an installed Russian asset and no one is stopping him and at least some Republicans are in on it!?! I can't breathe, I can'tI need to sit down.

But I voted in the midterms and so did a historic number of other Americans and we got our blue wave. Will it be enough? I don't know. But I'm cautiously optimistic that Donald Trump will not serve out his term and that we may see some real reform in our politics as a result of this catastrophic presidency.

Fingers crossed...

UPDATE: After this posted, Elizabeth Warren announced her plans to (probably) run for president in 2020, and this fills me with hope. I've been a fan of hers for years and I've read all her books. I don't need any primaries, I don't need any debates; she's been my number one choice for president for at least a decade. Assuming she runs, I will actively campaign for Elizabeth Warren as there is no better person to lead our needed political revolution.



Dark Times in 2018

Politics wasn't the only thing bumming me out this year. In May, my son's school had an early release due to a shooting in our district that really freaked me out. I don't want to recount the experience again, but I wrote a post about it on the day if you're curious to know what I'm like when I'm simultaneously heartbroken and terrified. I've since read several social media posts from friends of mine throughout the country who had similar experiences because America is a place where school shootings happen regularly and we can't get gun control because our politicians are bought and our politics are broken (happy New Year!).

I'm not going to share everything that happened to me and my family this summer, but know that there were many horrifying things that happened and plenty of reasons to despair. I'm happy to (and unable not to) pour my heart into my books and offer them up to the world. But despite running this blog and now popping up on YouTube and itunes and elsewhere, I'm actually a private person. I'm not interested in living my actual life in public, just my artistic one.

Because I'm not going to share, we'll move on, except for this: just when things looked bleakest for me and my family, they improbably turned around at literally the last moment they could. Since I'm not offering details (maybe in a few years), you'll have to take my word for it: this was the metaphorical equivalent of that helicopter crashing through the tunnel in the first Mission Impossible movie, its whirling blades only just barely managing not to slice Tom Cruise's throat open by centimeters (dunh duhn duhn da da dunh dunh!).

Perhaps I've said too much? If only I'd been more vague. In any case, things at the Kent household have turned around dramatically and I'm very happy with how well things are going now (and not taking it for granted). The experience has left me once again questioning the nature of my reality as such events are wont to do. I imagine Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt has spent many hours in a temple someplace contemplating the nature of his existence as well.





Being a Writer in 2018

I did lose some writing time this year to life and I fell behind a little, but not much. I wrote far more days this year than not. I read a whole bunch of excellent books and some others that offered me important lessons on how not to write a book:) Time spent reading is never regretted.

I critiqued multiple manuscripts and led my first five-week fiction workshop for students who paid money to attend it. And then I led two more, and I'll be leading another workshop in 2019 (still time to sign up). I learned more about being a writer in 2018 by teaching writers, and that's been a really satisfying thing to have done. I've now received multiple books from former students who are out there making their contributions to our literary conversation and that makes me feel I'm doing some good with my time in the world.

And yet I didn't publish a single book in 2018, even though I planned to. Sigh. See, what had happened was... Writing books is hard, man, especially middle grade books.

I've actually written the equivalent of three books in 2018. Unfortunately, they were mostly different versions of Banneker Bones and the Alligator People. I don't know why I ever thought it would be easy. Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is the most difficult book I've ever written (and my favorite). OF COURSE, its sequel is similarly challenging.

I had a version of the novel ready to go for its planned publication date of Halloween. It was a very good version and I loved it. But my critique group had some ideas about how it could be better. And that's why I have a critique group in addition to early readers and multiple editors. Their suggestions required some significant restructuring I couldn't complete in time, so I had to make a difficult decision to disappoint Banneker's fans and delay publication.

I hate disappointing Esteemed Reader, but I also couldn't live with knowing there was a better version of the book I could've given them and didn't because I ran out of time. Part of the appeal of indie publishing is that I set the rules (sometimes). These books of mine aren't just widgets to me. They're Horcruxes as a bit of my soul goes into each one. 

An even better Banneker Bones and the Alligator People will be released in 2019. I've taken advantage of the delay to complete a good chunk of Banneker's third adventure, hopefully to be published sometime before 2070. I've also worked on some YA horror stories I'll be sharing more details about soonish.



Being an Author in 2018

Despite not publishing a book, I feel I did a pretty good job of being an author this yearnot that I don't plan to do better next year (I always do). I taught several classes, was interviewed in several excellent venues, and was invited to speak at lots of places that weren't my own podcast. I got some lovely emails from Esteemed Readers that meant quite a lot to me who like what I'm doing, and some who were promised Banneker Bones 2 and were perturbed they didn't get it (it's coming, I swear!).

I was invited to guest post for Indiana Humanities, which was pretty awesome, and I attended my first MoCon. I'm looking forward to going back every year as Maurice Broadus knows how to put on a great writers conference (you should come, Esteemed Reader).

Sometimes in the stress of day to day life, it's easy to lose track of the fact that most of my dreams have come true. Sure, I could be doing better, I could always be doing better, and the day I don't feel that way is probably the day I should quit. But I almost lost everything this year (vague to the last), and I appreciate everything I have all the more because of it.

I've got a loving family, an honest-to-God readership (fans, even), the respect of my peers, and now my own podcast/TV show, not to mention a PS4. There are generations of royal families who haven't lived lives as good as mine (with my air conditioning and my indoor plumbing and my dental care). In 2018, I was reminded to be grateful for every moment of this weird, wonderful life.

In 2019, I'm planning to work even harder and make even more of my dreams come true because why not? Who knows how long any of us has got left in this life? I plan to make the most of all the great opportunities I've got and to play Far Cry New Dawn!

Here's hoping you do the same, Esteemed Reader. Let's blast off this year and live our best lives!


(Tom Cruise doesn't want to hear your excuses or your "laws of physics")

Thursday, December 13, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Elana K. Arnold


Elana K Arnold writes books for and about children and teens. She holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing/Fiction from the University of California, Davis where she has taught Creative Writing and Adolescent Literature. Her most recent YA novel, What Girls are Made Of, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her middle grade novel, A Boy Called Bat, is a 2018 Global Read Aloud selection and a Junior Library Guild Selection.

A parent and educator living in Huntington Beach, California, Elana is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and writers’ conferences. Currently, Elana is the caretaker of seven pets, only three of which have fur.

Click here to read my review of A Boy Called Bat.

And now Elana K Arnold faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?


Ahh, this is a mean question. This is like asking which are my top three favorite pets. I will pick three books, but don’t tell the others.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh


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


I write 15-20 hours per week; I read about 10 hours per week (and wish that number was greater!). I spend another 10-15 hours per week doing “business-y” stuff like writing emails, communicating with editors, planning school visits. And I spend countless hours wandering in my brain, dreaming, considering my works in progress and ideas for future books.


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


I was a voracious reader growing up, and I began writing stories of my own at a fairly young age. I went to graduate school to pursue fiction writing, but the experience drained me, and after I graduated, I didn’t write for a long time. Instead, I returned to my childhood love of reading everything.

When I returned to writing, I did so from a different place—rather than trying to write “literature,” as had been my goal as a graduate student, I just wanted to tell a good story, all the way to the end. I finished the manuscript of my first novel, SACRED, in 2010, and with it, I found an agent and then my first publisher, Random House. I have been actively writing and publishing ever since.


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

For me, both. I loved reading so much that the only thing that could be better, I thought, would be to create my own stories. And it was wonderful, until I allowed myself to believe that only a very narrow definition of “good writing” mattered, a false belief often perpetuated in writing programs.
Then, I was frozen and full.of doubt. I think writers can be taught, but I also think they can be “un-taught,” and it’s incredibly important that teachers leave space for writers to grow.


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


Telling a story is a way for me to live another life, and it’s a way for me to share my questions about being human as well as my core beliefs. I love this about writing. I suppose a “least favorite” thing has more to do with the business of writing than the art or craft—the wheels of publishing move so desperately slowly!


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)

Here’s a brief list:

Practice finishing things. Beginnings are usually more fun, but a story needs a middle and an end. Don’t worry about length—just get to the end.

Read widely, and by people who have different lived experiences than yours.

Stay curious. An artist’s job is to notice what’s happening and deeply care.

Consider getting a pet. Maybe several.


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

Today, I’d say Nora Ephron, because I appreciate the way she plumbs the depths of her personal stories to find humor. If you ask me tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll have a different name. There are so many authors I admire!







Monday, December 10, 2018

Book Review: A BOY CALLED BAT by Elana K Arnold

First Paragraph(s): Bixby Alexander Tam stared into the refrigerator, trying to decide what to eat. He knew that the longer he took, the more energy he was wasting, and Bixby Alexander Tam did not like to waste energy. But he also didn’t like to eat leftovers, or cheese that had to be sliced, or any of the yogurt flavors in the fridge. 
“Bat, close the refrigerator door!” yelled his sister, Janie, from the kitchen table, where she sat cutting out pictures from a pile of old magazines. Janie, he was sure, had eaten all the lemon and vanilla yogurts. And she knew he only liked the creamy ones, not the fruit-on-the-bottom kind. 
“Bat” was what almost everyone called Bixby Alexander Tam, for a couple of reasons: first, because the initials of his name—B, A, and T—spelled Bat. 
But there were maybe other reasons. Bat’s sensitive hearing, for one. He didn’t like loud sounds. What was so unusual about that? And if Janie’s old earmuffs happened to make an outstanding muffling device, was it that funny if he liked to wear them? 
There was also the way he sometimes flapped his hands, when he was nervous or excited or thinking about something interesting. Some of the kids at school seemed to think that was hilarious. And, of course, bats have wings, which they flap. 
So, between the initials and the earmuffs and the hand flapping, the nickname had stuck. 
And, truthfully, Bat didn’t mind. Animals were his very favorite thing. Better even than vanilla yogurt.

Esteemed Reader, I don't know if I can fully express to you just how truly and deeply I love this book. I know, I know, I love every book I review and I tell you to read all of them. Well, honestly I do love most of them and you should read them.

I'm not apologizing for liking too many books. I haven't run this free blog about middle grade fiction for all these years because I don't love middle grade books. Speaking of which, this blog has now spawned a YouTube channel and a podcast, which you should totally check out. I'm super excited about it.

Esteemed Reader, I really, really, REALLY love A Boy Called Bat. I love it so much I've read it multiple times this year and cried most every time. I'll try to make it through this review without crying, but I probably won't. Some books find you when you most need to read them, and this book found me. 

If Elana K Arnold ever came on my podcast, I expect my questions for her would be mostly, "Why are you so awesome?" and "How did you write the exact book my heart most needed?" and "Magic writer lady, I love you." After that, I imagine, would follow a period of extremely tense and awkward silence. So perhaps it's better that Elana K Arnold will be here to provide written answers for the 7 Questions on Thursday:)

And that will be it for 2018. I can't top an interview with Elana K Arnold, so we may as well call it a year. And then January 1st I'll do my usual year in retrospect post and we'll have some fabulous new guests on the podcast/TV show thingee, some swell guest posts, and I'll even publish some new middle grade books. It will be good times.

And that's it's. You can skip the review part of this if you want and just go buy your copy of the book. What follows is mostly gushing for one of my most favorite things.

As the first paragraph of A Boy Called Bat makes clear, Bixby Alexander Tam is not a neurotypical protagonist. During my discussion with Mary Kole, she was adamant that the key to hooking a middle grade reader is providing an interesting character. I can't think of a better example of this principal in action than in the book's opening above. 

Some will say this is a book about autism, and certainly it's a good book to prompt a discussion about autism. I would say this is a book about love (as in I LOVE it so much), but more on that momentarily. Without question, this is a book that should be read aloud in every classroom in the country as it's an excellent guide to understand the neuro-diverse people living among us

It is said that if you've met someone with autism, you've met one person with autism, as the spectrum is vast. I have no doubt some of you reading this and some of us writing it are somewhere on the spectrum.

Bat isn't just a kid with autism, he's Bat, and by the end of Arnold's story, you will love him because he's the one and only Bat, not the autistic kid. Although, undeniably, Bat sees the world differently than other children and is particularly bad at picking up on social ques that are obvious to everyone else:

Mr. Grayson came over. He was wearing his bright-orange tennis shoes today. Bat liked it when he wore those shoes. It was like he was wearing suns on his feet. 
“What’s the problem, friends?” he asked. 
“Bat embarrassed Lucca,” Israel said, really loudly, making Bat wish he had his earmuffs. They were in his backpack, on his back. 
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to embarrass her, did you, Bat?” asked Mr. Grayson. There were sixteen eyelets on each of his shoes, Bat counted. Eight on the left side, eight on the right side. That made thirty-two eyelets. 
“Bat, can you look up at my face?” Mr. Grayson asked. Bat shook his head. Thirty-two eyelets. His own shoes had half as many. Sixteen eyelets, four on each side of each shoe. 
Mr. Grayson sighed. “Okay, Bat, go sit at your table.” 
Bat wondered if anyone in the class had more eyelets in their shoes than Mr. Grayson. He kept his eyes on shoes as he walked through the classroom. Nope. No one did.

Perhaps the greatest feat Elana K Arnold pulls off in A Boy Called Bat, and she pulls off several, is that she creates in Bat a character who is completely believable and empathetic in every way. Bat does some things during the course of the story that are annoying and obnoxious and it's not hard to understand why the people surrounding Bat become impatient with him.

But for all that, the reader will see the world from Bat's perspective and understand his side of things. We will root for Bat and want to see how he handles usually simple situations with his unusually complicated mind. We will look forward to future stories in this series.  

Arnold's book is an incredible exercise in empathy that works so very well in part because its plot is deceptively simple. But don't let Arnold's mastery of craft fool you. This story only seems simple because it's so impeccably well constructed that its reading is effortless, but I'm certain its creation was anything but. I'd love to know how many drafts Arnold went through to nail every aspect of this story, and she does have to nail them all to give her readers the emotional payoff she's building toward.

A Boy Called Bat is a love story, one that works on multiple levels. But at it's simplest, most basic level, this is the story of a boy and his love for a skunk:

“Is she okay?” Janie asked. 
“I wish I could say she is,” Mom answered. “I wasn’t able to save the mother, or the other baby kits. Only this one lived. I was able to check the mother for diseases, though, and luckily she wasn’t sick, which is a good sign the kit isn’t sick, either.” 
“That’s awesome,” Bat said. 
“Bat!” said Janie, loud and sharp. The kit twitched and shifted, scared by Janie’s voice. “How can you say it’s awesome? The mom died! The other babies died!” 
Bat didn’t mean that it was awesome that the other skunks had died. Of course that wasn’t awesome. He’d meant that it was awesome that this kit had lived. 
But it wasn’t worth it to try to explain to Janie what he’d meant. She usually misunderstood Bat. Most everyone did. 
“Can I?” Bat reached out for the kit, wanting so badly to hold him that his fingers twitched. 
“We can’t keep him,” Mom warned. “There’s a wild animal rescue center that we can give him to in about a month, but they’re too busy to take him just yet. So we can help him get bigger and stronger before we hand him over to the experts. They’ll raise him until he’s ready to be released into the wild, when he’s about five months old.” Then she passed the tiny kit, wrapped in towels, into Bat’s arms.

You'd have to be made of stone not to root for a lonely boy who finds love for a skunk. And we see Bat come to life and get motivated by this new love as surely as any protagonist in a more traditional love story. He researches skunks, emails a leading skunk expert, and schemes to convince his mother to allow him to keep Thor, the skunk kit, forever.

There's plenty of opposition for Bat to overcome, the most chief obstacle being his own neuro-diverse self. Can he stay focused on the baby skunk long term or will he forget his pet and add a burden to his single mother veterinarian mom who already has her hands full with the sometimes challenging rearing of Bat himself. Bat never wavers in his conviction that he should be the one to take of Thor, but those around him have understandable concerns.

The plot itself will not surprise any regular middle grade readers, but that's not the point. In my fiction workshops, I've taught that the secret to a good story is either a complex plot with a relatable character, or a simple plot with a complex character. A Boy Called Bat is an excellent example of the later.

But this is a book that works on multiple levels and though Bat and Thor are always front and center, Arnold deftly creates a slew of three-dimensional characters surrounding them, each personally impacted by Bat's growth as a person capable of expressing love. The character who most moved me was not Bat, but Bat's mother, who has a wonderful moment at the end of the story I won't spoil, but I could hardly read it because my vision was so clouded by tears of happiness for her and for Bat.

Although Arnold never flat out states the significance of Bat's connection to Thor, she hints that some of it is wrapped up in his feelings regarding his parents divorce--for it's his weekends at his father's apartment that take him away from his beloved skunk. And there's a boy in Thor's class who might like to be Bat's friend. Bat might not be ready to be a friend... although if he can feel deeply for a skunk, maybe anything is possible.

A Boy Called Bat is a book about love, the characters who love Bat and make his dream possible. But more, it's about the people Bat loves, even if he doesn't express that love conventionally:

Bat loved braiding Janie’s hair, even though he usually wasn’t very good at hand things. He liked the feeling of the damp, heavy hair; he liked organizing it into a series of smaller, neatly contained braids; he liked feeling close to Janie like this, by helping her and touching her, without having to have a big conversation that might turn into a fight. 
Getting along with people was hard for Bat. Figuring out what they meant when they said something, or when they made certain faces at him . . . People were complicated. But braiding was easy.

If I made the laws of the world, I'd insist a copy of A Boy Called Bat be made available in every pediatrician's office. Parents who's children have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum need to read this book. Siblings of such children and their classmates need to read this book. Really, everyone needs to read this book, and I so glad it was available for me to read when I needed it.

A Boy Called Bat is a modern classic and should be read by everyone. Do not miss this story and keep tissues close at hand as you read it. I love it so much and I'm so happy to share it with you, Esteemed Reader.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from A Boy Called Bat:

“Hi, Bat,” Israel said. “Do you think it’ll rain?” 
“Maybe,” said Bat. “Well, eventually, yes, but today, maybe.”

“Be careful, sport,” said Dad, which was a dumb thing to say because the hot chocolate was already spilled and being careful now wouldn’t unspill it.

Her hair was damp from the shower, and she was wearing her favorite pajamas, the ones with all the unicorns. Each unicorn was doing something different; one rocked out with a guitar, another was reading a book, another wore a chef’s hat and was flipping eggs in a pan. The only thing they had in common was that they were all unicorns. 
“Janie, did you know that a herd of unicorns is called a blessing?” Bat asked. 
“Yes, Bat, of course I know that. Every time I wear these pajamas you tell me that.” 
“I didn’t know if you remembered,” Bat said.

As Thor had his breakfast, the sky turned violet and pink, then orangey red. The tree’s trunk lightened from black to brown and its leaves transformed to green. The first birds called louder, waking up their friends, and they became a chorus of song.

The Sugar Shack was an exceptional candy store. It had bins full of M&M’s separated into colors, so if you wanted exactly eleven greens and eleven blues, but no yellows, reds, or oranges (as Bat did), you could get exactly that.






STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

GUEST POST: "Why I Don’t Write Middle Grade" by B.A. Williamson


I love middle grade books. I have since before there was a difference between YA and MG, back when I picked up The Giver, devoured it in one weekend, and simply called it a book. But whenever anyone asks me why I write middle grade, I have a very simple answer:

I don’t.

Picture this: You’ve made it, you’re a published author, congratulations. You’re at your local Barnes and Noble, standing in front of a table covered with copies of your book (because, of course, you should never be behind the table.) Thirty identical covers gleam at you, creating a swath of your own personal color palette. You have a stack of bookmarks in hand, ready to strike up a conversation with anyone who walks in that door.

And here comes an anyone: an adult, with no child in tow. You make your pitch, they seem interested, but they ask you that dreaded question: “What age is this for?”

Of course, the real question is, “Guess the age of the kid I’m thinking of.” Guess correctly, and you’ve just made a sale. Guess wrong, and off they go to look at coffee table books about Sinatra.

I have some flippant answers I like to use: “Well, how old are you?”, or “From kids age 1 to 92.” (Not really--Gwendolyn Gray is not for toddlers.)

But usually I say something like this: “It’s kind of a book for everyone. I don’t write kids stories—I just write good stories, and they’ve got kids in them. I know that 12-year old’s like it a lot, but I’ve found teenagers who love it, and third graders, and plenty of adults. It’s for anyone who likes good stories about kids having adventures with monsters and airship pirates and super-boring schools.”

See, I never sat down to write a middle-grade novel. I just wanted to write a Brent novel. (That puts the B in B.A.) And to anyone who knows me, this is an absolute Brent novel, from ADHD children whose imaginations come to life, to a cheeky classical literary tone, to skydiving ninja-pirates who fight clockwork robots. I stopped just short of adding a TARDIS and a luck dragon.

I wrote a story about everything I love, and I love books, and I was a kid who loved books, and I wanted to write about a kid who loved books because that was me and that’s what I know and that’s what I wanted to put out into the world.

I didn’t write a story for twelve-year-old’s. I wrote a story about twelve-year-old’s, and they seem to really like it. And so do people who were twelve once, or are going to be twelve someday. But it’s also a story about friendship, loss, love, magic, and most importantly, imagination.

At the risk of being controversial, I think sometimes we coddle our readers. We dumb it down too much. There’s plenty in my story that only my older readers are picking up on, but I wanted to write a book that everyone could read, so there’s no sex, there’s no swearing, the violence is kept pretty mild, and there’s only a tiny bit of grog-swilling.

Don’t pigeon hole yourself by the constraints of a label. The best middle-grade books out there are the ones that break out of that box—when was the last time you heard Harry Potter or Percy Jackson referred to as “middle grade?” They are, but in a way that transcends the label, because they’re just good stories.

So by now it sounds like I’m hating on middle grade, on a site about middle grade, and let me say that is absolutely not the case. I’m saying that middle grade is at its best when authors find the heart of the story they want to tell, and stick to it. When they take their reader seriously, and give them serious things to think about.

I really wanted The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray to feel important. I wanted it to matter. I wanted it to have weight. And one way to do that was to make sure that there were realistic consequences for the character’s actions.

Travelling to other worlds? That would spin your head! Losing your home? That’s not the sort of thing you get over after one or two chapters. And if someone dies, right in front of you, that’s a significant trauma for a twelve-year-old to witness, and it would stick with them, probably for the rest of their life. Keeping those things in mind makes your characters feel like real people. It makes your imaginary story about shadow monsters and steampunk cities feel like real worlds, where the stakes are real and the lives are real and the consequences are real.

Another reason to keep the MG label on the outside, rather than the inside? The kids. Kids know when they’re being pandered to. And writing middle-grade stories accurately, with really authentic middle-grade characters can be… cringe inducing. I’ve had some drafts where Gwendolyn did things that didn’t make sense, or came across as self-centered and petty and awkward, and I thought, yes, well, have you ever been in a middle-school cafeteria? It’s full of awkward, cringe-inducing self-involved kids! Instead of ultra-realism, show the kind of preteens that kids wish they were, but with the kind of struggles they already have.

That’s when you can show the magic of this particular age group. They’re just starting to realize that there’s a whole world around them, full of other people with their own thoughts and feelings. They learn that the things they do matter. There’s a whole new version of themselves that they haven’t met yet, and they’re just learning how to shape themselves into that person.

There’s an aspect of romance in my book. This has been an incredibly polarizing element among reviewers. I’m told that kids this age shouldn’t be acting like that, or that it isn’t middle-grade appropriate. But the middle schoolers I work with are just certainly noticing each other, and it is constantly on their mind. When I read the book to my students, and ask them whether I should cut that out, the answer is always a resounding No, you have to keep it! I tried to capture all the adorable awkward puppy-love of that first crush age, and the love of these two characters is what gets my students crying at the end. The adults who view this through the lens of their kids think, gross, my kid isn’t ready for that sort of thing. But the ones who remember being a kid themselves find that it resonates with the hormonal mess we all were at that age.

So start with a great story. Write some great characters. If those characters are interesting, and go on marvelous adventures, kids will want to read it. And if those characters are interesting, and go on marvelous adventures, and just happen to be kids, everyone else will read it too. And when it’s all said and done, you can put that middle grade label on the cover and know that you’ve written an amazing story that shows why middle grade is one of the genres that matters most. These are the books that help shape who these kids are, and who they’ll grow up to be. All you have to do is flip through the pages of Gwendolyn Gray to see all the things I’ve loved before, all my formative influences, and most of them came from middle-school. If you don’t talk down to your audience, don’t patronize them, but give them a story with real characters that strike the heart, with real stakes and real messages, then you’ll have an outstanding book that people will love, and yes, that will include lots of middle schoolers.




B. A. Williamson is the overly caffeinated writer of The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray. When not doing battle with the demons in the typewriter, he can be found wandering Indianapolis with his family, singing in a tuxedo, or taming middle-schoolers. He is a recipient of the Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. Please direct all complaints and your darkest secrets to @BAWrites on social media, or visit gwendolyngray.com








THE MARVELOUS ADVENTURES OF GWENDOLYN GRAY
Part fantasy, part dystopian, part steampunk, and all imagination, The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray follows dreamer Gwendolyn as she evades thought police, enters a whimsical world, befriends explorers and pirates, and fights the evil threatening to erase everything she loves.

Gwendolyn Gray faces an overwhelming battle every day: keeping her imagination under control. It’s a struggle for a dreamer like Gwendolyn, in a city of identical gray skyscrapers, clouds that never clear, and grown-ups who never understand.

But when her daydreams come alive and run amok in The City, the struggle to control them becomes as real as the furry creatures infesting her bedroom. Worse yet, she’s drawn the attention of the Faceless Gentlemen, who want to preserve order in The City by erasing Gwendolyn and her troublesome creations.

With the help of two explorers from another world, Gwendolyn escapes and finds herself in a land of clockwork inventions and colorful creations. Now Gwendolyn must harness her powers and, with a gang of airship pirates, stop the Faceless Gentlemen from destroying the new world she loves and the home that never wanted her—before every world becomes gray and dull.



Monday, December 3, 2018

Middle Grade Ninja TV 05: Editor Mary Kole

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.


The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Editor and former literary agent Mary Kole and I discuss her career in publishing and her approach to editing. She shares many tips for how to create memorable characters, how to improve a story's pacing, how best to market a book, and all sorts of other invaluable advice for writers. You'll want to revisit this episode a few times and take notes as it's packed with great content. And do not forget to check out KidLit.com, MaryKole.com, and purchase your copy of Mary's excellent book on craft, Writing Irresistible Kidlit.

As promised in the show, here is the text of the kind rejection I recieved from Mary back in 2010: "Thank you so much for the opportunity to read BANNEKER BONES. Unfortunately, this is a pass for me. The writing here is good and the premise is fun and interesting but I'm having a hard time imagining how to pitch or sell this in today's market. The voice just isn't 100% there for me, and it really has to shine for me to take something on. You've obviously a very skilled writer and I know I'll be kicking myself, but I'm not connecting to the material enough to be the best advocate for it in the marketplace, and you deserve nothing less. I'm sure another agent will feel differently and I look forward to reading about your many successes. You're plugged in and getting there, I can tell, but you're not quite there yet."

Makes sure you check out Mary's original interview when she faced the 7 Questions.

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






Mary Kole worked as a literary agent for Andrea Brown Literary Agency in California and as senior literary manager for Movable Type in New York before leaving agenting behind to become a full-time book editor. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco and has worked with authors at all stages of development and expertise.
Although Mary Kole specializes in children’s literature (she is the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit from Writer’s Digest Books), she offers independent manuscript consulting and editing for all genres through Mary Kole Editorial. Her services range from phone consultations and manuscript brainstorming sessions to full manuscript edit and review. She leads webinars on the craft of writing for Writer’s Digest and speaks regularly at conferences nationwide.




Writing for young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) audiences isn't just "kid's stuff" anymore--it's kidlit! The YA and MG book markets are healthier and more robust than ever, and that means the competition is fiercer, too. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, literary agent Mary Kole shares her expertise on writing novels for young adult and middle grade readers and teaches you how to:
  • Recognize the differences between middle grade and young adult audiences and how it impacts your writing.
  • Tailor your manuscript's tone, length, and content to your readership.
  • Avoid common mistakes and cliches that are prevalent in YA and MG fiction, in respect to characters, story ideas, plot structure and more.
  • Develop themes and ideas in your novel that will strike emotional chords.
Mary Kole's candid commentary and insightful observations, as well as a collection of book excerpts and personal insights from bestselling authors and editors who specialize in the children's book market, are invaluable tools for your kidlit career.
If you want the skills, techniques, and know-how you need to craft memorable stories for teens and tweens, Writing Irresistible Kidlit can give them to you.