Saturday, September 18, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 134: Author Jessica Vitalis

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Jessica Vitalis and I chat about her debut novel, THE WOLF’S CURSE. And we have a detailed discussion about the six-figure, two-book deal her agent, Sara Crowe, negotiated for her. We also talk about how Erin Entrada Kelley fell in love with Jessica’s book and helped her secure that vital representation. And we chat about the time Jessica was visited by a ghost, how to write an omniscient narrator, researching to help with fantasy worldbuilding, and a lot of other great stuff you’re going to love hearing about.




Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer specializing in middle grade literature. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing, and scuba diving, but when she's at home she can usually be found recording book talks for Magic in the Middle and changing the batteries in her heated socks. Her debut novel, The Wolf's Curse, will be published September 21, 2021 by Greenwillow/HarperCollins with a second book to follow.






Shunned by his fearful village, a twelve-year-old apprentice embarks on a surprising quest to clear his name with a mythic—and dangerous—wolf following closely at his heels. Jessica Vitalis’s debut is a gorgeous, voice-driven literary fantasy about family, fate, and long-held traditions. The Wolf’s Curse will engross readers of The Girl Who Drank the Moon and A Wish in the Dark. Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he cried Wolf. The superstitious villagers believe the invisible Great White Wolf brings death. If Gauge can see the Wolf, then he must be in league with it. So instead of playing with friends in the streets or becoming his grandpapa’s partner in the carpentry shop, Gauge must go into hiding. He helps his grandpapa in secret and is allowed out of the house only under the cover of night. Then the Wolf comes for his grandpapa, and for the first time, Gauge is left all alone, with a bounty on his head and the Wolf at his heels. When a young feather collector named Roux offers Gauge assistance, he is eager for the help. But soon, the two orphans are forced to question everything they have ever believed about their town, about the Wolf, and about death itself. Narrated by the sly, crafty Wolf, Jessica Vitalis’s debut novel is a vivid and literary tale about family, friendship, belonging, and grief. The Wolf’s Curse will captivate readers of Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island and Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy. “I am obsessed with this story!” ~Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly



Saturday, September 11, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 133: Literary Agent Becky LeJeune

To watch new episodes as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.


Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Becky LeJeune and I chat about how she went from being a criminal justice major while working in a Walden Books to an editor and now a literary agent with the Bond Literary Agency. We talk about how she evaluates manuscripts, why you don’t want to convince an agent to represent a genre they’re not currently selling in, advice about finding comp titles, asking why the author is the best person to tell a particular story, our mutual love for horror and haunted houses, the type of writer behavior that might scare an agent, and so, so much more in a far-ranging discussion stuffed with valuable information.







Becky LeJeune met Sandra Bond at the Denver Publishing Institute when she was a student there in 2007. After DPI, she spent 2 years working as the managing editor for a cookbook imprint, and then 5 years as an acquisitions editor at The History Press before joining Sandra at BLA in 2014.


She is interested in adult and teen general fiction, horror, mystery/thriller, historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy,  and cookbooks.


Becky is open to queries through:

https://querymanager.com/becky_lejeune




BondLiteraryAgency.com


NoMoreGrumpyBookseller.blogspot.com

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 132: Author Sara Pennypacker

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Sara Pennypacker and I discuss tips for writing from the perspective of a fox in her long-anticipated sequel to the classic novel PAX, PAX: JOURNEY HOME. We chat about how she interviews animals and how she addresses darker subjects such as the full cost of war in children’s literature. We also talk about the novelization of SHARK TALE, how focusing on an injustice often leads to discovering a story’s theme, the critical role an author for children must play, the principal of oneness, the importance of remembering the story is boss, and so much more.






Sara Pennypacker was a painter before becoming a writer, and has two absolutely fabulous children who are now grown. She has written over twenty children's books including Pax (illustrated by Jon Klassen), Here In The Real World, the Clementine and Waylan series (both illustrated by Marla Frazee); Stuart's Cape and Stuart Goes to School (both illustrated by Martin Matje), Meet the Dullards, and others. Sara splits her time between Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Florida
 She divides her time between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Florida. You can visit her online at www.sarapennypacker.com.





From bestselling and award-winning author Sara Pennypacker comes the long-awaited sequel to Pax; this is a gorgeously crafted, utterly compelling novel about chosen families and the healing power of love.

It’s been a year since Peter and his pet fox, Pax, have seen each other. Once inseparable, they now lead very different lives.

Pax and his mate, Bristle, have welcomed a litter of kits they must protect in a dangerous world. Meanwhile Peter—newly orphaned after the war, racked with guilt and loneliness—leaves his adopted home with Vola to join the Water Warriors, a group of people determined to heal the land from the scars of the war.

When one of Pax's kits falls desperately ill, he turns to the one human he knows he can trust. And no matter how hard Peter tries to harden his broken heart, love keeps finding a way in. Now both boy and fox find themselves on journeys toward home, healing—and each other, once again.

As he did for Pax, Jon Klassen, New York Times bestseller, Caldecott medalist, and two-time Caldecott Honoree, has created stunning jacket and interior illustrations.


Thursday, September 2, 2021

GUEST POST: "Help! My Novel Falls Between Genres" by Lisa Williams Kline

Maybe you’ve written a novel about a thirteen or fourteen-year-old and you’ve been sending it out and getting responses from editors that your story “falls between genres.” What does that mean, and what can you do?

That happened to me, and here’s that story.

I enjoy writing for tweens, or thirteen or fourteen-year-olds, because this is the age when we wear our hearts on our sleeves, when every emotion feels so vivid. It’s a time when many young people are first navigating experiences on their own without the watchful eyes of their parents. Because of the intensity of the emotions, I’ve always loved writing about this age.

 

In marketing my books, though, I’ve found that this age is a tricky one in the publishing world. Middle grade books, aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds, can focus on the family and might feature friendships. YA books, aimed at fifteen-to-eighteen-year-olds, focus more on friendships, the world outside the family, and may include romances. Plus, characters can drive. What happens to the thirteen and fourteen-year-olds? What do they read?

 

Well, my books, I say. 

But not so fast. I had received some interest in one of my manuscripts, about an eighth grader’s first crush, but received no offers. One editor at a Big 4 publisher really liked it and asked for an R and R (revise and resubmit), but asked me to age up my character. One of the reasons she gave was that that Lizzy, my main character, dissected a fetal pig in eighth grade and she thought of that as high school curriculum. Other editors had some similar kinds of comments. I had the feeling that I was getting close but something was missing and I didn’t know what it was. I tried my hand at the R and R, but in the end, she still rejected the manuscript.

I finally figured out that there are pretty definitive divisions in the publishing world between “upper middle-grade” or “tween” and “YA,” and that my book was in a no-man’s-land between them. My book had some pretty mature themes, such as serious pranks played by some of the students during April Fool’s week, and themes around carrying flour babies, which was a unit in health class to encourage students to think hard about sexual exploration. Even though young people (in my opinion) are thinking about crushes and other more adult things at that time, the gatekeepers – the parents, librarians, and teachers – don’t want those topics in books for an upper middle-grade or tween audience that an eight or nine-year old (in the eight to twelve-year-old category for middle-grade) might be reading.

I get that.

Eventually, I did sell that book and it became One Week of You. I thought, “Aha! I’ve beaten the ‘falling between genres’ problem.” But no, I hadn’t.  One of the first things my editors asked me to do was to make Lizzy, my main character, older. In their offer letter, they said, “We’d like her to be sixteen.”  The reason they gave was simple – YA books sell better than tween books.

I was overwhelmed. I was quite tied to reality–Lizzy has to carry a flour baby for her health class and the model for my story had been my daughters’ eighth grade health classes. Both daughters had to carry five-pound bags of flour everywhere they went for a week during their health classes, to simulate what it might be like to have to care for a baby, and they had been thirteen and in middle school at the time. (The guys had to carry them, too, just in case you think the curriculum was sexist in addition to being kind of silly). At first I didn’t think I could do this. I felt that the maturity level of a sixteen-year-old is quite different from the maturity level of a thirteen-year-old.

But I agreed to try it. So, to do this revision, what did I do?

I had a pretty long talk with my editors. I compromised with them and we decided Lizzy would be fifteen, turning sixteen over the summer. (The book takes place in April). I found out this age is what’s called “young YA.” We decided she would be in ninth grade, but that she was fifteen because she had been held back before kindergarten because she had been a preemie and was very small for her age. I knew two girls who had been friends of my daughters who were a year older than their peers, so this felt authentic. And Lizzy feels self-conscious about this, about being small and being a preemie and being thought to be immature by many of her peers.

I left the science and health class scenes as they were, because they were now both believable curriculum for the ninth grade, freshman year of high school.

Transportation was an issue. In the original draft, I had Lizzy’s big brother taking her to school, picking her up and generally driving her around. Those driving scenes were key to their relationship and my story. I had to figure out a reason he’d still be doing this, if she was fifteen and should at least have taken drivers’ ed, so decided that she had been so busy with cheerleading and other extracurricular activities that she hadn’t had time to take it. I have a friend who corroborated that this has happened to quite a few of her daughter’s busy friends these days, so this felt authentic as well.

Then I went over the entire manuscript, page by page, mentally thinking of Lizzy as fifteen rather than thirteen. Sometimes I read the scenes out loud. A fifteen-year old would interact with her parents differently than a younger character, and also her friends. She would have more independence to use a cell phone, post on social media, and to go places with just her friends. Maturity levels run the gamut in high school, and, because Lizzy was small for her age, it felt all right to me for her to be on the “immature” side of fifteen.

In the end, over a period of several months, I transformed my manuscript from tween to YA. Because of the fairly mature subject matter in my book, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.

And so now Lizzy is fifteen, a freshman in high school, rather than an eighth grader. But she’s still Lizzy, the anxious and forgetful goody-two-shoes character I had originally imagined.  I think of her as a “young” freshman, fairly protected by her family life.

And the truth is, the thirteen and fourteen-year-olds often “read up.” Thirteen and fourteen-year-olds will still see themselves in the reading experience and get to imagine themselves as somewhere slightly further along their journey than they are. So Lizzy’s story is still one that they will enjoy, and my editors are happy that the audience for the book has been expanded.

(To learn more about the differences between genres, read this comprehensive article by an agent I respect named Marie Lamba called “The Key Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult.”https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult)






Lisa Williams Kline wanted to become a writer ever since second grade, when she wrote and illustrated "The Adventures of Little Horse and Little Lamb," on large-lined paper. A graduate of Duke University, she is now the author of ten books for young people, including Eleanor Hill, winner of the North Carolina Juvenile Literature Award, Princesses of Atlantis, Write Before Your Eyes, One Week of You, the novella One Week of the Heart, and the five-book Sisters in All Seasons series. Lisa lives with her veterinarian husband and a spoiled dog and a talented cat who can open doors (but doesn't close them behind him). Their daughters visit frequently with their dogs and as can be imagined they have a howling good time.









Lizzy has an unforgettable week during the summer before her freshman year of high school in this lighthearted prequel to Lisa Williams Kline’s One Week of You.


For fifteen-year-old Lizzy Winston, summer is the time to do what she loves most: hang with the people who know her best. But this year, summer science camp with her best friend Kelly turns out to bring more drama than she bargained for.

Kelly and Lizzy made a pact years before: they will never act like fools because of boys. They want to become doctors after all, and they don't have time to flirt. But this summer, Lizzy has her first crush and learns that your brain can’t always control your heart—and sometimes choosing one love means losing another.

Old friendships are put to the test as new ones bloom in this sweet novella that reminds us of how much one heart can grow in only a week.

“In One Week of You, Lisa Williams Kline perfectly channels the inner workings of the young adult mind, complete with every quivering ounce of angst, fear, and self-doubt.” -Frank Morelli, author of No Sad Songs


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 131: Author Chris Negron

To watch new episodes as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.


Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Chris Negron and I discuss how he became an author, how his Parkinson’s disease makes him a better writer, and his newest book, THE LAST SUPER CHEF. We wonder if writers ever actually retire and how learning alternate titles of great works might forever change them. We chat about choosing an audiobook narrator, the Atlanta writers club, UFO disclosure, episodic storytelling, politics in fiction, the importance of trusting your reader, and so much more.





Chris Negron is the author of Dan Unmasked, his debut novel released in July, 2020, and The Last Super Chef, coming July, 2021. Both contemporary middle grade novels are published by HarperCollins. KitLitExchange.com says Dan Unmasked “broke my heart” and “needs to be on every library shelf.” Chris grew up outside Buffalo, New York and attended Yale University. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, with one piece longlisted for the Top (Very) Short Fictions of 2016 by Wigleaf.com. If you spot him in the wild, it’s probably in a comic book shop, which also explains a large portion of Dan Unmasked‘s plot. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, and his writing is represented by Alyssa Jennette at Stonesong.





Family and food take center stage in this heartfelt middle grade story perfect for fans of John David Anderson and Antony John.

For as long as he can remember, Curtis Pith has been obsessed with becoming a chef like Lucas Taylor, host of Super Chef. And Curtis has a secret: Taylor is actually his long-absent father.

So when Taylor announces a kids-only season of Super Chef, Curtis finally sees his chance to meet his dad. But after Curtis wins a spot in the competition and arrives in New York to film the show, nothing goes as smoothly as he expected.

It’s all riding on the last challenge. If Curtis cooks his heart out like he knows he can, he just might go home with the top prize—and the truth.





Saturday, August 21, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 130: Literary Agent Marie Lamba

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Marie Lamba and I discuss her terrible experience with her own novel that led her to become an agent with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency for the past decade. We talk about the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing, each of us sharing our tales. We also chat about the pandemic’s effect on publishing (and its future effects), an agent’s average workday, a ghost-adjacent story, the importance of not allowing anything to kill your joy of writing, and so much more.









Marie Lamba (
www.marielamba.com) is author of the young adult novels What I Meant… (Random House), Over My Head and Drawnand of the picture books Green Green: A Community Gardening Story (Farrar Straus Giroux), and A Day So Gray (Clarion). Her articles appear in more than 100 publications, and she's a frequent contributor to Writer’s Digest.  Marie has worked as an editor, an award-winning public relations writer, a book publicist, and has taught classes on novel writing and on author promotion. 






Once you start to notice, colors and reasons for gratitude are everywhere, and that changes everything! Celebrate the hues and comforts of a cozy winter day as a discontented girl at first notices only dull grays and browns in a snowy landscape but is coaxed by her friend to look more closely. Soon she finds orange berries, blue water, purple shadows, and more. Warm friendship and a fresh way of seeing things transform a snow-covered landscape from bleak to beautiful!








Saturday, August 14, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 129: Author John David Anderson

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

John David Anderson and I talk about a little bit of everything in this far-ranging conversation between two Hoosier authors who like STAR WARS and Kurt Vonnegut. We chat about Anderson’s newest novel, STOWAWAY, as well as his classic, MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY. Also discussed: writing two novels a year, leaving your heart on the page, space pirates, communicating messages to young readers, the Grateful Dead, flying saucer disclosure potentially messing with our science fiction, the value of writing during a pandemic, mythological action figures, cloning authors in the future, and so much more.





John David Anderson is hardly ever called John David Anderson. He is called Dave by most people who know him, John by the IRS, and Mr. Anderson whenever he's inside the Matrix. He wishes he could go by J.D., but Salinger beat him to it. If he was a Star Wars character he would want to be a Jedi named Raith Starglider, but knows he would more likely be a used Bantha salesman named Bobba Twinklebeans.

A graduate of Indiana University and the University of Illinois where he majored in reading Moby Dick over and over, Dave "Twinklebeans" Anderson is now the author of several books for middle grade audiences, including Sidekicked, The Dungeoneers, Ms. Bixby's Last Day and Posted. The backs of his novels claim that he is "critically acclaimed." His son thinks he is the best writer that ever lived. His daughter thinks he's just alright. His Mom always seems to think he needs to eat more. This last bit is definitely not true.  

Dave believes in the power of books to enrich young people's lives and help them to ask (and answer) deep questions while simultaneously laughing so hard they snarf soda through their noses. When he eventually grows up he wants to be Indiana Jones. Till then, he wants to be a root beer connoisseur. He lives with his wife, two kids, and vast Lego collection in Indianapolis, Indiana.


When scientists discover a rare and mysterious mineral buried in the Earth’s crust, they have no idea that it just happens to be the most valuable substance in the entire universe. It’s not long before aliens show up to our little corner of the galaxy offering a promise of protection, some fabulous new technology, and entry into their intergalactic coalition—all in exchange for this precious resource. A material so precious that other alien forces are willing to start a war over it. A war that soon makes its way to Earth.

Leo knows this all too well. His mother was killed in one such attack, and soon after, his father, a Coalition scientist, decides it would be best for them to leave Earth behind. It’s on this expedition that their ship is attacked, Leo’s father is kidnapped, and Leo and his brother are stranded in the middle of space. The only chance they have is for Leo to stow away on a strange ship of mercenary space pirates bound for who knows where and beg the captain to help him find his father.

But the road is dangerous, and pirates, of course, only look out for themselves. Leo must decide who to trust as he tries to stay alive and save his family, even as he comes to understand that there aren’t many people—human or alien—that he can count on in this brave new universe.

 

Stowaway marks a new genre for Middle Grade mainstay John David Anderson, whose trademark sense of humor and strong talent for adventure, mixed with poignant emotion and strong character relationships, shine throughout this read. Dave has proven himself a beloved choice with middle graders and gatekeepers alike over the years, with realistic contemporary novels like Ms. Bixby’s Last Day and critically acclaimed, heartfelt, and imaginative fantasies like Granted.



JohnDavidAnderson.org

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 128: Author Kathleen Burkinshaw

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

To commemorate the 76th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Kathleen Burkinshaw and I discuss her novel, THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM. This is one of the most important conversations I’ve ever had and I’ll be thinking about it for the rest of my life. Parts of it broke my heart and may break yours as well. You will hear my most awkward, deflecting nervous laughter as this is the first time I’ve ever been moved to tears on the show. But this talk is also uplifting and will change the way you view writing. And we genuinely laugh a lot and there’s an excellent ghost story near the end, so it won’t be all solemn. Don’t miss this conversation and share it with everyone you know.

As promised, here’s a link to a YouTube video of “Who’s Minding the Nukes” from 60 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJdsIzjzVuA&t=1s 








Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author, the daughter of a Hiroshima survivor and resides in Charlotte, NC. She's a wife, mom, and owns a dog who thinks she's a kitchen ninja. In 2019 she spoke about her mother's experience in Hiroshima at the United Nations (NYC). This summer she spoke at UN worldwide virtual events as well as a Japanese American National Museum webinar with author Naomi Hirahara in honor of the 75th anniversary of atomic bombing.


Kathleen has been featured on PBS, local NPR stations, Asian American magazines/newspapers, both Japanese and English programs on NHK World Japan, as well as in 2 major Japanese newspapers. She has presented to middle/high schools around the world for the past 10 years. Writing gives her an outlet for her daily struggle with chronic pain from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy.

Her MG/YA historical fiction, THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM, is now a United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs Resource for Teachers and Students and has been used in classrooms around the world. The trade paperback came out in August 2020 (available wherever books are sold and through Scholastic WNDB Reading Club). THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM has been nominated for 2019 NC School Library Media Association YA book award,2019-2020 Volunteer State Book Award (Tennessee), 2018& 2016 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection, and Finalist for NC Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award, the 2018 Sakura Medal, Japan, and the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award(southeast region),
Represented by Anna Olswanger, Olswanger Literary.



Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and since the Japanese newspapers don't report lost battles, the Japanese people are not entirely certain of where Japan stands. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bombs hit Hiroshima, it's through Yuriko's twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.


This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture-something not done before. Based on author Kathleen Burkinshaw's mother's firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the "enemy" in any war is often not so different from ourselves.



Saturday, July 31, 2021

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 127: Author Alyson Gerber

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on SoundcloudStitcheritunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Alyson Gerber and I discuss how to talk about food and diet for teens and creating sympathetic parent characters in her newest YA novel, TAKING UP SPACE. We also chat about how her ADHD is helpful to her as an author, the benefits of a background in acting, her writing workday, how wearing a back brace as a teen helped prepare her for the pandemic, how she selected her audiobook narrator, a ghost named Mary, the attractiveness of armpit hair, and more.





Alyson Gerber is the author of the critically-acclaimed, own-voices novels Braced and Focused published by Scholastic. Her third novel Taking Up Space will be in stores on May 18, 2021. She has an MFA from The New School in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her family. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @AlysonGerber.

Braced, Focused, and , Taking Up Space are all Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections. Braced received three starred reviews and has been nominated for state book awards in Oklahoma, Indiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Dakota, and Georgia. Focused was picked as a best book of year by The Today Show, Kirkus Reviews, and A Mighty Girl and has been nominated for state book awards in Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Alyson’s latest novel, Taking Up Space, based on her experience with disordered eating, will be published on May 18, 2021. Taking Up Space will help readers recognize how much they matter and see that if something negative is taking up space in their minds, even if there isn’t a name for it, they should ask for help.


From beloved author Alyson Gerber comes another realistic contemporary novel perfect for fans of Judy Blume. 


Sarah loves basketball more than anything. Crushing it on the court makes her feel like she matters. And it's the only thing that helps her ignore how much it hurts when her mom forgets to feed her.

But lately Sarah can't even play basketball right. She's slower now and missing shots she should be able to make. Her body doesn't feel like it's her own anymore. She's worried that changing herself back to how she used to be is the only way she can take control over what's happening.

When Sarah's crush asks her to be partners in a cooking competition, she feels pulled in a million directions. She'll have to dig deep to stand up for what she needs at home, be honest with her best friends, and accept that she doesn't need to change to feel good about herself.

Booklist described Gerber's novels in starred reviews as both "highly empathetic" and "truly inspiring." Taking Up Space promises to be a realistic and compelling story about struggling with body image and learning that true self-esteem comes from within.





Wednesday, July 28, 2021

NINJA STUFF: It's Not an S: Zack Snyder's Justice League, the Nature of God, and the Persistence of Hope

Esteemed Audience, I haven't reviewed books here for a long time now and I only ever "reviewed" one movie, which was the prequel to this film, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (I loved it). 

And a second film review will not be necessary after I tell you Zack Snyder's Justice League is the greatest movie I have ever seen.

But this isn't a post about the movie. It's a bit about the January 6th insurrection and life "post" pandemic, but it's mostly about my experience of watching the movie and why it gives me hope for a better tomorrow.

And okay, there might be other movies almost as good (I liked Crawl a lot and Zack Snyder didn't include even one alligator in 4 hours!?!). And yes, of course The Dark Knight is still the best Batman movie (calm down), and Jaws is amazing, Us is brilliant, most of the stuff directed by the Cohen Brothers--there are a lot of great movies and picking favorites when we can enjoy them all is a little silly (and the basis for so, so much online content). 

But I never needed those movies the way I needed Zack Snyder's Justice League. I don't know if you've read about this whole global pandemic thing, but 2020 was a really dark year. Like, ya know, historically bad. And the four years before it were frequently agonizing.

For me, one of the many miserable milestones along the path of the United States' descent into madness was the original release of Justice League in 2017. Esteemed Audience, I'd been waiting my whole life to see that movie. I had all the Super Powers action figures as a child and multiple Christmases my poor father stayed up late putting together a Hall of Justice playset for my siblings and I. 



I've only watched part of Godzilla vs Kong. I made it to the first fight, but then I shut it off because I needed to do something. On a television at home, it didn't capture my imagination and the dialogue about why all the punchy/smashy was coming to be was nonsense (wait, there's a hollow earth in this universe!?!). Afterward, it occurred to me that that was probably the same reaction a lot of folks had to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (even the Ultimate Edition!). 

Fair enough. It's a big world and there are an amazing number of entertainment options. Follow your bliss, friends.

Godzilla's fun, but he was never my thing. Super Friends were my thing and Batman in particular. Because I'm the sort of person who likes to order the same dish I know I like at a restaurant every time I go there,  I sometimes wonder if... it's blasphemous to say it or even think it, but... if  some other character had been placed in such a prominent place in my life at so many important milestones, if... please forgive me...  I might've loved that character the same way I love Batman.

After all, a McDonalds cheeseburger expertly fills its corporately conceived role of reminding me how much I once loved Happy Meals with a toy, often a Batman toy, and the times I spent in the McPlayland while Grandma read her book. That cheeseburger isn't just empty calories, it reminds me of a time I felt loved and safe. 




Thankfully, I'm a unique and autonomous personality formed free of capitalism's influences and I love Batman purely because Batman is awesome

But Batman has been there for almost every transition of my life. I watched Adam West as a kid, blanket cape fastened around my neck. When I became an adolescent, Michael Keaton's dark and brooding Batman was there to really feel the darkness the way I really felt that darkness, man, because bullies are out there right now, and Batman and I have got to go to work. Batman and Robin came out the summer I made (but never finished) my own funny-if-you're-a-moody-teenager Batman movie, deciding Warner Brothers could use the help (still bought the Clooney and Silverstone action figures; still have them on a shelf staring down at me as I type this). 



I read The Dark Knight Returns in college and realized Batman had actually been sophisticated literature all along. I immediately bought a Frank Miller Batman action figure to add to my toy collection because I was a serious adult person with an affinity for valuable collectables. Batman Begins came out the summer my future wife and I started dating and I feigned disinterest until opening night, after she'd said she loved me. Then I moved all my Batman toys into our place:) We were engaged the year The Dark Knight came out and had our child the year Man of Steel released, a film that literally meditates on the significance of fatherhood (it taught me that, as a father, I should avoid tornadoes). 

I could tell you about the time I turned down a scholarship because of a lesson I learned on Smallville, or about how I got a speeding ticket listening to Danny Elfman's "Descent into Mystery" from the Batman soundtrack (no way I'm the first), but you get the idea. I expect to one day years from now take a daytrip from my nursing home in a new Batman T-shirt (bury me in it) to watch Batman Accepts Most of His Friends are Dead and Reflects on the Past. 

I watched a video review of Zack Snyder's Justice League by Ben Shapiro of all people and was amazed to find I agreed with him on almost every aspect of the film. Ben "Blade-was-not-enough-for-black-people" Shapiro is someone with whom I do not agree on almost everything else in life, but we both feel Zack Snyder's comic panel visuals and dramatic style are freaking amazing because Snyder's heroes feel like gods among us, not quipsters in costumes. And he said these things, Ben "Trayvon-Martin-had-it-coming" Shapiro! And I was all like, should I consider listening to more conservative media? Is there a common ground between the right and the left after all? 



And then Shapiro ended the video by complaining about Ta-Nehisi Coats writing a Superman reboot (which I'm pumped about) because America's not systemically racist. And then I remembered why I can't stand that guy. Ben Shapiro and I aren't going to be friends. Too bad. He'd made a wonderful piece of content about pop culture and then he had to ruin it by getting all political.

In 2016, a terrible man who never should've been able to rise to the position he held came to power. He had the support of the people with the money, even though he was transparently racist and sexist and continued to be so publicly unhindered by those appointed to positions with the power to stop him. They cheered him on to degrade and destroy and run wild, thinking only of preserving their own wealth and power and never of the greater good. 

Naturally, I'm referring to director Joss Whedon, who Warner Brother executives hired to "finish" Justice League after Zack Snyder left the project/was fired. It's only apparent to the rest of us how terrible a person Whedon was now when stories have come out from Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot and others, but the Warner people knew and rushed the crappy flick out anyway to hit their year-end bonuses

Seeing the things Whedon cut and the garbage he added leaves little doubt that his changes to Zack Snyder's film were,  as screenwriter Chris Terrio has said, an act of vandalism. He added multiple instances of objectifying Wonder Woman and cut her telling a little girl "you can be anything you want to be." And he practically cut Cyborg out of what is arguably his movie once all his scenes were restored. Certainly he's the heart of the story.



2017 was a hard year. All the years of the Trump presidency were hard years, but that initial outrage of the madness of that awful man in charge was still fresh. There was still the hope that his crimes might one day have consequences and that those who claimed to be moral would practice morality. The crushing, numbing despair that was to come hadn't yet fully set in.

I still believed too many Christians might've just made a mistake in endorsing Donald Trump. Now that they could see what a terrible President he was, logic would dictate that they withdraw their support and return to their previously proclaimed moral beliefs, right? All those hymns we sang and those verses we quoted in Sunday school, those meant something, right!?!

Some may read this post and think Robert Kent, author of The Book of David, hates Christians. And I mean, some are pretty bad, but no. I don't hate Christians. I love many of them. I just want them to act like who they're supposed to be.

During quarantine, I had entirely too much time to think and to reflect on past social interactions since I wasn't having many new ones. I thought a lot about so many of the kids I knew from Sunday school, some of whom went on to attend Bible college, and STILL celebrated the arrival of a false prophet. I've tried to figure out how "spiritual instruction" primed so many Christians to worship in the death cult of Trump's GOP. 



In 2017, I wrote this: I find myself continually thinking of Justice League's haunting opening credits montage of a dark world without hope (Superman) set against Sigrid's extra-sadness-inducing cover of "Everybody Knows." That scene was far too dark and far too real, particularly the shot of the homeless guy with the words "I tried" written on his collection box (get ready for the super friends, kids!!!). The scene made me uncomfortable in the theater because despite the Whedon CGI crapfest with quips that followed, that depressing vision of America in the credits felt right for 2017.

I don't know about you, Esteemed Audience, but I don't think I'm ever going back to who was before the pandemic or the Trump years. I've seen too much and had my heart too profoundly broken. The poorly-lit costumes of my heroes or Cavil's CGI-mangled upper lip weren't the worst things I saw that year, but the sadness of how badly that movie sucked didn't help either.

I won't recap the trauma of the Trump presidency except to remind Esteemed Reader that I was the father of a black child during it as SOME "Christians" cheered on his racism and sexism and deliberately holding events to murder his supporters since we know he told Bob Woodward he was aware of how deadly Covid-19 was the whole time he was spreading it at his rally's like Randall Flagg.

All of us, regardless of faith, were inundated with daily tweets and madness and the flaunting of clear criminal wrongdoing and constant lies and fear of what the mad king might do next, as well as the knowledge that he couldn't be stopped. 



And then he was.

I don't mean to celebrate prematurely. As the Delta variant and probably others are spreading because Trump's cultists won't get vaccinated or wear masks and can't be reasoned with or presented with facts, we can't really talk about ourselves as being in a post pandemic world. As Republican politicians continue to back Trump's election lies as a preface to dismantle voting rights and known traitors continue to walk around free from consequence, we're not in a post Trump world. 

But I witnessed a miracle, Esteemed Reader. A few, actually. I watched the January 6th insurrection as it happened, and it wasn't any tourist lovefest and damn to Hell every Republican who tries to gaslight us and tell us that we saw we did not see. I watched 9/11 live on television as well, and January 6th was scarier. 

There was no doubt in my mind that this was it. I knew I was about to see Mike Pence hung from the gallows next to the banner reading "Jesus Saves" and the execution of many other politicians, and then it would just be a question of could I get my family out of this country in time or was it already too late.

Esteemed Reader, after four years of the previously unimaginable and almost a year of living in fear of a plague, I watched the end of all things live on television.



And then the most unlikely event happened in reality, an event so implausible I'll never again be entirely sure reality is real. I could never write it in a book and I would never accept it as a satisfying ending in a story someone else wrote.

A man named Eugene Goodman, a man braver than I could ever be, literally pulled a Bugs Bunny on the insurrectionists. They were all, "which way did the politicians go," and he was all, "they went that a'way." A couple of shoves and he diverted those maniacs just before they reached the politicians they would've murdered--yes, they would've; they killed cops, and they wanted to kill more. If it was an episode of Quantum Leap, that's the wrong Sam Becket set right. 

That was a moment of divine intervention if I ever saw one.

 And just like that, God showed up.



I don't know what this means, exactly, but it means something. Reality is rigged, my friends. I don't understand the nature of God and I don't pretend to, but I know what I saw. It's not my first miracle as I've written about my past instances of witnessing God. 

On January 20th, 2021, I watched Joe Bidden and Kamala Harris be sworn in to restore some order to this chaos and to begin rebuilding from the ashes. I didn't believe it would happen until it was done and I cried through Kamala Harris' oath because the cultists didn't destroy us. They tried and they failed.

Of course, there's lots of work still to be done. But I saw God take control; not the racist, sexist, homophobic bully SOME "Christian" conservatives pretend to represent, but the real God. 

The Great I AM made Their divine presence known.

Additional evidence of reality not being quite as real as people think: On June 22, 2020 Joel Schumacher, forever unforgiven director of Batman & Robin died. Much of my intense adolescent hatred of Schumacher was no doubt fueled by the instilled homophobia of my "Christian" upbringing. Adult me loves too many gay friends to be swindled by divisive religious programing peddled by hucksters, but I still think Batman & Robin is the worst movie ever made. And on that VERY SAME DAY its director died, it was announced that Michael Keaton would play Batman again in the upcoming Flash movie. 

Teenage me just retroactively exploded at all his nerdiest dreams coming true in one 24-hour period. Adult me is suspicious. What the hell kind of lazy writers are in charge of this simulation? They're going to have to be more subtle if they expect me to take this reality seriously.



The stress of knowing we're surrounded by cultists hasn't gone away. But Mrs. Kent and I are vaccinated. We've been able to leave our homes and see family for the first time since Christmas 2019. And there haver been some other developments in my personal life that, while not as blatantly miraculous as the maneuver Eugene Goodman pulled or the return of Michael Keaton, have given me reason to hope.

Another miracle, of course, happened March 18, 2001. I went to bed at 6pm on March 17th so I could watch Zack Snyder's Justice League on HBO Max at 3:00 in the morning, the moment it released. Esteemed Audience, I have never in my life wanted to see a movie more.

I won't go through the saga of fans, including me, petitioning Warner Brothers to release the Snyder Cut for years. But it's something I never thought we'd see and certainly not all four hours of it with completed special effects and the soaring score of Junkie XL I've been listening to almost daily since because it's just so breathtakingly beautiful. 

I laughed, I cried, I cheered. I FELT something, the joy of my heroes returned to me and their story at last told the right way. I don't care that the slow motion coffee is gratuitous or that Martian Manhunter is shoehorned in, replacing Green Lantern and creating continuity issues (where the heck were you for two films, buddy?), and stepping all over Diane Lane's wonderful MARTHA!!! performance. 



I care that I believed Barry Allen could outrun time and his own self doubt. I care that Darkseid was terrifying and a threat even greater than Thanos. I care that Wonder Woman was a tomb-raiding warrior more awesome than anyone else on the team. I care that Cyborg's story and his relationships with his parents were deeply moving (and that my final draft of Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy was safely completed and free of the film's influence). I care that Lois Lane's grief was my grief and I cried when she saw Superman returned to her the way I cried when Joe Biden was sworn in and returned hope to us. I care that Batman found his faith once again and lead a team of superheroes the way I always knew he would.

I always believed in you, Batman, and in our darkest hour, against all odds, there you were once again. And you brought the Super Friends together.

I'm not going to convince everyone to love this movie the way I loved it (I've seen it 5 times so far and will definitely watch it more and that's 20 hours of my life well spent). But know that when Cyborg rose up to the challenge and told the mother boxes, "I'm not broken," I wept harder than I've ever wept at a film. Me neither, Cyborg. Me neither.

Esteemed Reader, we still have reason to hope. Miracles are still possible in this fallen world of false prophets. All is not lost, not yet.

The age of heroes may yet come again.