Tuesday, October 31, 2017

GUEST POST: "Insights Into Writing for Middle Grade Readers" by Cynthia Reeg

For me, writing middle grade (MG) novels always seemed a good fit. I remember vividly that time in fifth grade: two of my best friends had a falling out and I was caught in the middle. One of the friendships would survive. The other didn’t. It was a very eye-opening episode in my life. I had to decide on the qualities in a friend that were most important to me. I discovered that not everything or everyone was what it appeared to be. I was a child taking small steps into adulthood.

This time period for young readers—between lower elementary and teen years—is an important transitional period. A MG writer needs to keep these issues in mind.

Author Claire Fayers says, “It’s the age at which children are starting to gain a sense of independence and explore their own likes and dislikes. Books they love at this age often stay with them forever…” So true! I still remember the first MG book I read as a child that had such an impact on me: BLUE WILLOW by Doris Gates. It is a historical fiction story set during the Dust Bowl era—highlighting poverty, discrimination, and family ties.

As powerful as the message found in Ms. Gates’ MG book was for me, I was also drawn to comical adventure stories like HOMER PRICE by Robert McCloskey. Homer was always getting himself into a new pickle, and I loved to see how he found his way out.

Kids love to laugh. That’s one of the big reasons I enjoy writing MG stories. Author Bridgett Hodder says, “I write for this age group, because in some ways I'm still part of it!‬” I certainly second this statement. I can identify with the overall joy and adventure that life at this age usually means.

Although that’s not to say that things always come easily for MG readers or characters. Author Margaret Dilloway shared a statement from Shannon Messenger explaining that MG “is about finding your place in the world and YA is breaking free of that place you were assigned.” The transitional tugs between childhood and adulthood found in MG stories are what drive the plots, creating realistic tension and situations that –even in a fantasy realm—tween readers can relate to.

Author Patrick Samphire agrees that “MG is much more externally focused” while “YA is more internally focused.” And while that's true, MG characters still grapple with doing what's right or solving a dilemma.

An important component of MG writing means keeping the adults in the background, so—as Ms. Fayers says, “the kids can drive the story.” In my own MG writing, I love to anchor the stories with interesting adults—like evil Principal Snaggle or quirky teacher and swamp monster, Ms. Hagmire. But the kid characters are always front and center on stage. They make the decisions and take the actions that create the plot of the story.

Oftentimes the characters' inexperience shows during critical times. These times bring out their worst and best qualities. How the characters mold these qualities help determine how well they fare in their future encounters. MG readers are eager to see how these book friends approach life. The readers can learn from these literary failures and triumphs.

MG is the time of venturing outside of the family—but not too far. It’s a time of friendship and betrayal. It’s a time of laughter—corny, slapstick, gross, tongue-in-cheek. It’s a time of discovery—the wide world awaits with all its wonders and mysteries.

MG is a magical time, and perhaps that why I love to write for this age group. For I make magic—one word at a time.

I’m a curious librarian who ventured from behind the stacks to become a children’s author. Now I contend with monsters, mayhem, and odd assortments of characters—both real and imagined—on a daily basis. As an advocate for children’s literacy and supreme defender of reluctant readers everywhere, I manipulate words into wondrous kid-friendly creations to be enjoyed over and over again. As one of my poems attests, I’m always reaching for the stars. For more information, visit www.cynthiareeg.com.

In this tale of two monsters, seventh-grade troll Malcolm McNastee is on a mission to rid Uggarland of misfits, especially Frankenstein (Frank) Frightface Gordon. Much to Malcolm’s horror, Frank rescued Malcolm’s disgraced dad from exile. This unspeakable act could tarnish Malcolm’s true-blood troll reputation. On the other claw, Frank—a neat freak who’s never fit the normal monster mode—must quickly reform under a new Uggarland law. If he doesn’t, he could face exile—or worse. 

Malcolm decides to regain his good-monster standing by leading Frank and a band of misfits into the dangerous Shadowlands—where many enter and few emerge unscathed. Frank and Malcolm must brave the Shadowlands’ perils, realizing that even if they make it out alive, their lives will never be the same.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

7 Questions For: Author Katherine Applegate

Katherine Applegate was born in Michigan, a fact which allows her to pretend she is a hearty Midwesterner, even though she hates the cold. Katherine’s parents, a tolerant sort, allowed her to have many pets growing up, and she worked for a veterinarian in high school. She lived in Michigan, Illinois and Texas before graduating from The University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Aimlessness and a minor in Indecision.

Katherine worked as a plant waterer (killed them) and a cocktail waitress (spilled them) before realizing the world would be a safer place if she’d write books instead. Since then, she’s written over 150 books for children and young adults, many in collaboration with her husband, Michael Grant. Animorphs (Scholastic), their long-running series, sold over 35 million copies worldwide. They don’t collaborate much anymore, because they would like to remain married.

Katherine’s recent work includes a picture book, The Buffalo Storm (Clarion); an early chapter series, Roscoe Riley Rules (HarperCollins); YA thriller Eve and Adam (Feiwel andFriends / Macmillan), which she wrote with her husband, and Home of the Brave (Feiwel and Friends / Macmillan), which won the SCBWI 2008 Golden Kite Award for Best Fiction, the Bank Street 2008 Josette Frank Award, and was a SLJ Best Book of the Year.

In 2013, Katherine Applegate won the Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins) which she was inspired to write after reading about the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, the Shopping Mall Gorilla. The real Ivan lived alone in a tiny cage for twenty-seven years at a shopping mall before being moved to Zoo Atlanta, where he was a beloved celebrity. The One and Only Ivan has gone on to win numerous additional accolades including the Christopher Medal, an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, a nomination for the E.B. White Read Aloud Award as well as appearing in the coveted #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

She lives near San Francisco with her husband, two children, and an array of neurotic pets. You can follow her on Twitter, Goodreads, or visit her website.

Click here to read my review of Wishtree

And now Katherine Applegate faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I understand that cheating is openly condoned for this question, so allow me to fine-tune: my top three children’s books this week are

Charlotte's Web (E.B. White)
No One is Going to Nashville (Mavis Jukes)
Tuck Everlasting (Natalie Babbitt)

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

I aim for 2 hours a day writing and read as much as I can, whenever I can.

It’s so important to connect with work daily, if possible, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. I keep an article by Walter Mosley nearby to remind me of this. “Writing a novel is like gathering smoke,” he says. So true. http://www.nytimes.com/library/books/070300mosley-writing.html

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

Path? You mean there’s an actual path? I need to update my GPS.

I took the longest, most circuitous route imaginable. Degree in liberal arts/English. Too many years waitressing (badly). Ghostwriting endless books. Girls who love horses. Horses who love girls. Sweet Valley Twins (Jessica was the evil twin.) Disney Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Mickey Mouse (the usual suspects).

Finally, my husband and I got up the nerve to write our own series, Animorphs. After some more series, I started to write single titles with a beginning, middle, and end.

It was blissful.

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

Both. Talent and training help. But honestly, tenacity is every bit as important.

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

I adore rewriting. It’s like sculpting, with a keyboard instead of a chisel.

I hate the blank page. With a deep and abiding passion.

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)

Ask yourself why you want to be a writer. Is it because you love words and stories? Because you want to leave a legacy behind? Because you long to connect with others?

It’s important, I think, to separate the act of writing from the act of publishing. They are two different things, and require different skill sets.

In the end, if you’re meant to be a writer, you’ll find you can’t give it up, despite your best efforts.

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

Jane Goodall. I want to be her when I grow up.

If Jane’s unavailable, E.B. White would be delightful, I’m guessing. Like me, he was an introvert. We’d probably just sit in the barn and watch the pigs in silence.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Book of the Week: WISHTREE by Katherine Applegate

First Paragraph(s): It’s hard to talk to trees. We’re not big on chitchat. 
That’s not to say we can’t do amazing things, things you’ll probably never do. 
Cradle downy owlets. Steady flimsy tree forts. Photosynthesize. But talk to people? Not so much. 
And just try to get a tree to tell a good joke. 
Trees do talk to some folks, the ones we know we can trust. We talk to daredevil squirrels. We talk to hardworking worms. We talk to flashy butterflies and bashful moths. 
Birds? They’re delightful. Frogs? Grumpy, but good-hearted. Snakes? Terrible gossips. 
Trees? Never met a tree I didn’t like. 
Well, okay. There’s that sycamore down at the corner. Yakkity-yakkity-yak, that one. 
So do we ever talk to people? Actually talk, that most people-y of people skills? 
Good question. 
Trees have a rather complicated relationship with people, after all. One minute you’re hugging us. The next minute you’re turning us into tables and tongue depressors. 

What a treat we're in for this week, Esteemed Reader, as we'll have Katherine Applegate here on Wednesday to face the 7 Questions. Really? I hear you asking. The same month we've already had Kate DiCamillo!?! Could one blog truly be that amazingly awesome!?! One blog could, Esteemed Reader. One blog could:)

Actually, we've got quite the lineup of cool stuff heading our way: lots of big time literary agents and talented authors will be appearing here as will a few marketing experts. We've also got some killer guest posts lined up and I'm going to review a few more books (surely the high point of all our existences). I don't want to spoil by naming names (cough, cough, Lois Sachar!!! cough), but be sure and check back on a weekly basis to see who stops by.

Did you love The One and Only Ivan, Esteemed Reader? Of course, you did! Everybody did! It sold all the copies and won a Newbery and we're all looking forward to the movie. Grown-ups have wiped tears from their eyes while telling me of their love for that book. If I were Katherine Applegate (one day, Esteemed Reader, one day), I would probably drop the mic in a most epic fashion and never publish another book. So I think Applegate deserves a round of applause just for being brave enough to publish a follow up novel and now a second (if I were a betting man, I'd say there's likely to be a third).

So is Wishtree as good as The One and Only Ivan? Don't be a jerk, Esteemed Reader. Why would you even ask that? But yes, yes it is:)

Wishtree is a wonderful read that made me laugh many, many times before the end. There's all sorts of amazing craft technique on display that makes this a must-read for writers. More, this is the sort of book I would be happy to place in the hands of any reader with the proud glow of having found something you're really going to enjoy.

Here's what I like about Applegate (having never met her): she's a writer. She's not somebody who spent 20 years tinkering on one novel, published it to huge acclaim and success, and then spent another 20 years working on the follow-up. A search for her books brings up over 50 titles, and that's probably a conservative number. That's inspiring stuff, Esteemed Reader. While I'm playing the new Assassin's Creed Friday (killing pixels in Egypt y'all!), she's going to be writing another book. I'd guess if you gave Applegate no money, no Newberies (yep, that's how I'm doing the plural form), or any other swell perks, but you did promise readers, she'd keep writing.

Wishtree is very much a writer's book as the very premise feels like an imposed challenge; like maybe Applegate lost a bet or something:) If any other writer sent me a book for review in which the protagonist was a tree, I'd say "hard pass." In this case, I sought this book out because I genuinely wanted to see if Applegate could pull off a full novel written from the perspective of a tree (if any writer could, she could).

And Applegate openly acknowledges the problem from the start:

“I’m passive. I just sit here watching the world.”
“You’re a tree, Red. That’s kind of the job description.”

So how the heck is a tree supposed to be a proactive character? The answer, of course, is that Applegate personifies the tree and endows it (she makes a point to tell us this tree is sexless) with qualities real trees presumably do not have. Is that cheating? I don't know, I wasn't there to hear the parameters of the bet she lost:)

The premise of this story is that our tree can talk as can other animals, but they never talk to humans (usually), for their own safety and because it's the rule. It's not quite clear what the consequences of breaking this one rule are, but it's not good.

So let's talk about this tree:

Name’s Red, by the way. 
Maybe we’ve met? Oak tree near the elementary school? Big, but not too? Sweet shade in the summer, fine color in the fall? 
I am proud to say that I’m a northern red oak, also known as Quercus rubra. Red oaks are one of the most common trees in North America. In my neighborhood alone, hundreds upon hundreds of us are weaving our roots into the soil like knitters on a mission.

You might be surprised to learn that all red oaks are named Red. 
Likewise, all sugar maples are called Sugar. All junipers are called Juniper. And all boojum trees are called Boojum. 
That’s how it is in tree world. We don’t need names to tell one another apart. 
Imagine a classroom where every child is named Melvin. Imagine the poor teacher trying to take attendance each morning. 
It’s a good thing trees don’t go to school. 
Of course, there are exceptions to the name rule. Somewhere in Los Angeles there’s a palm tree who insists on being called Karma, but you know how Californians can be.

Applegate has a lot of fun with names in this book. Red has many animal friends who live in its hollows. All of them are personified as well, though their personalities and actions are shaped by their animal characteristics, as they would be. And their names are consistently hysterical.

There's a skunk named FreshBakedBread, raccoon babies named You, You, and You, an Opossum named HairySpiders, and on and on, because each species of animal has their own method for determining names:

Many crows opt for sounds they’re fond of making. (Crows are excellent mimics.) I’ve met crows named WindChime, EighteenWheeler, and GrouchyCabDriver, not to mention a few others that are not appropriate for polite company.

My favorite character by far is Red's best friend, a crow named Bongo. Bongo likes to untie the shoes of children so she can steel their lunches while they're retying them. She's also very fond of leaving large "deposits" on the heads of humans who mess with animals and trees.

Bongo is a ride-or-die bird that is an extremely active character to counterpoint Red's mostly passive nature (because even personified, a tree is still stationary). Bongo also routinely gives Red a hard time for playing into the wise old tree cliché :

“I really think you should all calm down,” I interrupted. “Let’s not buy trouble. One day at a time, my friends. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?” 
The mothers glared at me. I heard a great deal of sighing. 
“Too much Wise Old Tree?” I asked. 
“Too much Wise Old Tree,” Bongo confirmed, as everyone retreated into their homes in a huff. “They’re all a bit tense,” Bongo said. “Worried about your … your situation.” 
“I can see that.” 
“I’m worried, too,” Bongo said in an almost-whisper.
“I know,” I said gently. “But every cloud has a silver—” 
“Red,” Bongo interrupted. 
“There must be something I can do,” Bongo said. 
“You’re a good friend, Bongo. But sometimes all you can do is stand tall and reach deep.” 
“Sorry,” I said again.

I had a college professor once point out to me that the reason Celie works as a protagonist in The Color Purple, despite her passiveness for so much of the book (lots of bad stuff happens to her without her doing much in response for years) is because she's paired up with Shug Avery and Sophia, who are both so active and aggressive they carry much of the protagonist's responsibilities until Ceili is ready to go all Spielbergian table-pounding and become an active character very late in her story.

As you know, Esteemed Reader, I routinely offer blurbs to publishers free of charge. So if the folks at Feiwell and Friends are looking for something snappy to slap on the cover of Wishtree for future editions, I offer up this gem:

"Katherine Applegate has written The Color Purple of talking tree stories." --Middle Grade Ninja

I'm cracking myself up today, but it is genuinely important that Red is surrounded by so many animals that can act on her behalf. And these Book of the Week reviews are typically less about the book and more about what we writers can take away from the author's use of technique. Something we should absolutely take away from Wishtree is techniques in which to make a necessarily somewhat passive character active.

Another trick is to put the character in an interesting setting where interesting things will happen around the passive character. Out of all the trees Applegate could tell us a story about, she's chosen one that's planted where some action is naturally going to happen because Red is a wishtree, which I didn't even know was a thing until I read this book:

Every year on the first day of May, people come from all over town to adorn me with scraps of paper, tags, bits of fabric, snippets of yarn, and the occasional gym sock. Each offering represents a dream, a desire, a longing.

It’s an honor, all the hopes bestowed upon my tired old limbs. 
Although by the end of May Day, I look like someone dumped a huge basket of trash on top of me.

By virtue of human tradition, Red is in a position to interact with humans rather intimately. Red is also in a position where all of the human characters in the story are likely to converge at least twice a year, and you can bet that's going to be important right around the climax of the story.

Ultimately, a story about trees, animals, or any other nonhuman character is a story written for humans. And humans are interested in humans. It's just how we are. So an author can either endow her nonhuman characters with human characteristics and problems humans can relate to, or directly involve them in human affairs. Applegate does both.

The community of humans around Red is behaving strangely:

Other things happened. Someone threw raw eggs at the blue house. One afternoon, a car passed by, filled with angry men yelling angry things, things like “Muslims, get out!” Sometimes Samar would walk home trailed by children taunting her. 
I love people dearly. 
And yet. 
Two hundred and sixteen rings, and I still haven’t figured them out.

I'm sure other reviews will focus on this aspect on the novel, as they should, but this review is already long and I've got something else I want to talk about. Plus, although a certain racist reality television star is never directly mentioned, it's pretty clear some of the folks in this story voted for President "Many Sides" and that they're part of the rise of Death Eaters in America. Fair enough. Children are living through these dark days as surely as the rest of us. But I have a hard enough time reading the news on a daily basis, so I don't want to devote my discussion of a talking tree book to the last angry buzzing of white supremacist wasps before winter we're currently living through in the United States.

Here's what relevant for our discussion: the problem of racism is not solved in this story, but a solution is discussed. Although Red is passive through the first part of the story, before the end, our heroic tree does take action that impacts the story as a protagonist must in order to qualify as the protagonist.

I don't want to spoil the book, but if the conceit of Wishtree is that trees can talk, but as a rule don't, you can imagine what unthinkable thing Red might do before the tale's end. In fact, the rules of storytelling demand Red do this thing. Red has been around longer than its human counterparts and knows a few things about human nature worth listening to.

And don't let my mention of politics put you off. The focus of Wishtree is on the two lonely children who need friends despite the conflict of their parents and their country, as well as the animals who want to save Red from being cut down. These separate conflicts merge in a big finale that involves my favorite human character's reaction to animals working together of all time:

One of the tree cutters took off his helmet and scratched his head. “This just don’t happen,” he said to Dave. “Those animals oughta be eating each other.”
“It’s some kinda crazy critter miracle,” said another worker. He pulled out his smartphone. “This is going on Facebook.”

That's about going to do it, except for one other thing. Wishtree is absolutely a story about a tree and its family of animals pulling together to overcome adversity, which is classic middle grade territory. It's also about racism and other ism's that divide our communities and the ways individual humans can overcome this weakness.

But don't be fooled, Esteemed Reader. Wishtree is also an examination of mortality and the end of existence that awaits us all, which is an unusual treat in a middle grade story.

This is the kind of thing that's easier to chat about when it's happening to a tree, but remember, this is a tree with many human qualities. Don't be thrown off by the metaphor. We're not just discussing a tree that's scheduled to be chopped down:

I was in the midst of a conversation with Bongo, who had just pointed out to me that I was a year older. Two hundred and sixteen rings old, to be precise. 
“Another sproutday,” I said. “I still feel like a sapling.” 
“You don’t look a day over a hundred and fifty,” Bongo replied. “Best-looking tree on the block.”
“I’m really”—I paused for comic effect—“getting up there.”

I wondered, too, if I’d done enough for the world I loved. It was something I’d asked myself before. But impending death has a way of focusing your attention.

I didn’t want to leave the world I loved so much. I wanted to meet next spring’s owl nestlings. I wanted to praise the new maple sapling across the street when it blushed red as sunset. I wanted my roots to journey farther, my branches to reach higher. 
But that is how it is when you love life. And I could accept that if my time had come, it had come. After a life as fine as mine, who was I to complain?

The end of my story was coming. 
Well, it had been a beautiful story. How lucky was I to have seen a day like today?

It's sobering stuff, Esteemed Reader. Don't let anybody tell you this is just a talking tree story. And don't ever let anyone convince you that middle grade fiction can't be used to discuss the entire spectrum of the human experience.

Red never hints at an afterlife for trees or finds some other means of flinching. This is a stark look at the predicament we who are alive and know one day we won't be find ourselves in. Through Red, Applegate gives us a philosophical take on death that is perhaps useful to be read by non-tree entities.

And that's were we'll leave it for today, Esteemed Reader. Make sure you come back Wednesday when we'll have Katherine Applegate here, assuming she's not ticked that I speculated her hard-labored and much-loved novel is the result of a lost bet:) As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Wishtree:

Over the years, I’ve learned that botanists—those lucky souls who study the lives of plants all day—call some trees, such as hollies and willows, “dioecious,” which means they have separate male and female trees. 
Lots of other trees, like me, are called “monoecious.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that on the same plant you’ll find separate male and female flowers. 
It is also evidence that trees have far more interesting lives than you sometimes give us credit for.

In Stephen’s eyes, in the way he’d looked at Samar that afternoon, I saw something I’d seen many times before. 
A wish.

“Here’s an idea for you: Ideas are a bad idea,” said Bongo.

In the silence that followed, I felt as if the whole world was holding its breath. I’d broken the rule. Stephen and Samar still stared open-mouthed at me. They looked as rooted to the ground as I was.

One creature’s nastiness is another creature’s nibble.

Each cat was wearing an embarrassingly sparkly harness.

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Jennifer March Soloway

Jennifer March Soloway represents authors and illustrators of picture book, middle grade, and YA stories, and is actively building her list. Although she specializes in children’s literature, she also represents adult fiction, both literary and commercial, particularly crime, suspense and horror projects.

For picture books, she is drawn to a wide range of stories from silly to sweet, but she always appreciates a strong dose of humor and some kind of surprise at the end. When it comes to middle grade, she likes all kinds of genres, including adventures, mysteries, spooky-but-not-too-scary ghost stories, humor, realistic contemporary and fantasy.

YA is Jennifer’s sweet spot. She is a suspense junkie. She adores action-packed thrillers full of unexpected twists. Throw in a dash of romance, and she’s hooked! She’s a sucker for conspiracy plots where anyone might be a double agent, even the kid next door. She is a huge fan of psychological horror that blurs the lines between the real and the imagined. But as much as she loves a good thriller, she finds her favorite novels are literary stories about ordinary teens, especially those focused on family, relationships, sexuality, mental illness, or addiction. In such stories, she is particularly drawn to a close, confiding first-person narrative. Regardless of genre, she is actively seeking fresh new voices and perspectives underrepresented in literature.

That’s her wish list, but the truth is an author might have something she has never considered before, and it might be absolutely perfect for her. She is open to any good story that is well written with a strong, authentic voice. Surprise her!

Prior to joining ABLA, Jennifer worked in marketing and public relations in a variety of industries, including financial services, health care, and toys. She has an MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College, and was a fellow at the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto in 2012. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, their two sons, and an English bulldog.

Jennifer regularly presents at writing conferences all over the country, including the San Francisco Writers Conference, the Northern Colorado Writers Conference, and regional SCBWI conferences.

For her latest conference schedule, craft tips and more, follow Jennifer on Twitter at @marchsoloway.

And now Jennifer March Soloway faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

This question is always so very hard for me. I have wide-ranging taste, and there are so many good books, it's difficult to choose. So I'm just going to list three of my favorites I've read in the past year, starting with my most recent fave:

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

(I love YA.)

And my favorite picture book is Grace For President by Kelly DiPucchio, with illustrations by LeYuen Pham. (I choke up every time I turn to the last page.)

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

Again, so hard to choose! Here's my current favorites from the last few years (I have eclectic taste):

TV: Mr. Robot; People of Earth; and Insecure

Movies: The Big Sick; Embrace of the Serpent; and It Follows

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

First, I want to fall in love with someone's writing and/or illustrations, and then I speak to that writer/illustrator to see if we click editorially. I also look for open and easy communication. If my suggestions resonate and inspire a prospective client and we are able to talk freely, then chances are the two of us are a good fit.

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

I am open to any good story that is well written with strong, authentic voices of all kinds, but I'd love to find the following:

I am actively seeking MG, and I'm open to anything. I like boy and girl protagonists, adventure, spooky-but-not-too-scary ghost stories, puzzles, mysteries, funny contemporary stories, fantasy, etc.

Young adult is my sweet spot. I am always looking for a good psychological horror that blurs the lines between the real with the imagined. I love the question: Is it real or is it all in my head? Action-packed thrillers and mysteries, full of unexpected twists. I am also drawn to literary stories about ordinary people, especially those focused on family, relationships, sexuality, mental illness, or addiction.

For picture books, laugh-out-loud stories are my favorite. I like sweet picture books too, but I always appreciate a dose of humor.

That’s my wish list, but the truth is an author might have something I have never considered before, and it might be absolutely perfect for me. Please query me!

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

My favorite thing about agenting is the editorial process and helping writers elevate their work, but I also like many other aspects like writing pitches, working with editors, negotiating terms, thinking strategically about a client's career, and so on.

My least favorite thing is writing rejections.

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)

A bit of wisdom:

Writing stories is all about asking questions and solving problems—for better or worse—and there are so many directions a story can go. If something isn’t working, think about the other possible outcomes. You will discover exciting new possibilities through revision that you would have never found otherwise.

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

Also, a really hard question. Maybe Sherman Alexie. I just had the good fortune to see him on his recent book tour for his memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, and he was engaging and funny and heartbreakingly honest. I could have listened to him for hours. Plus, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of my favorite books.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

7 Questions For: Author Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo’s writing journey has truly been a remarkable one. She grew up in Florida and moved to Minnesota in her twenties, where homesickness and a bitter winter led her to write Because of Winn-Dixie — her first published novel, which became a runaway bestseller and snapped up a Newbery Honor. The Tiger Rising, her second novel, was also set in Florida, and went on to become a National Book Award Finalist. Since then, the best-selling author has explored settings as varied as a medieval castle, a magician’s theater, and the bustling streets of Memphis, while continuing to enjoy great success, winning two Newbery Medals and being named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

In her latest novel Raymie Nightingale, an instant New York Times #1 bestseller, she returns to her roots, once more setting the story in the Central Florida of her childhood. Like Raymie Clarke, the hero of this novel, Kate DiCamillo grew up in a small southern town in the seventies with a single mother, and she, too, entered a Little Miss contest and attempted to learn to twirl a baton. But while Raymie’s story is inspired by the author’s own life, Kate DiCamillo has transformed these seeds of truth into fiction — and in doing so, has captured a more universal truth.

No matter where her books are set, their themes of hope and belief amid impossible circumstances and their messages of shared humanity and connectedness have resonated with readers of all ages around the world. In her instant #1 New York Times bestseller The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, a haughty china rabbit undergoes a profound transformation after finding himself facedown on the ocean floor — lost, and waiting to be found. The Tale of Despereaux — the Newbery Medal–winning novel that later inspired an animated adventure from Universal Pictures — stars a tiny mouse with exceptionally large ears who is driven by love to become an unlikely hero. The Magician’s Elephant, an acclaimed and exquisitely paced fable, dares to ask the question, What if? And Kate DiCamillo’s second Newbery Medal winner, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, was released in 2013 to great acclaim, garnering five starred reviews and an instant spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Born in Philadelphia but raised in the South, Kate DiCamillo now lives in Minneapolis.

Click here to read my review of Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package.

And now Kate DiCamillo faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

You know I can't do this, right?  And you did say that I could cheat.  So, let's see— today my top three favorite middle grade novels  are:

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

Michael Bond's Paddington
And E.B. White's Charlotte's Web

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

Oooh, I like this question.  No one has ever asked this before.  Let's see.

Writing: about 14 hours.  Reading: about 30 hours.

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

I was working in a book warehouse and I said to a Candlewick rep: I love everything that Candlewick does but I can't get in the door because I don't have an agent and I've never been published.

And that Candlewick rep (bless her) said: if you get me a manuscript, I will get it to an editor.

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

Hmmmm.  This is tough.  I think it's probably a combination of the two.

But I have come to believe that what matters is how much you want to do the work.  What matters more than talent is the desire.  And the relentlessness, the refusing to give up.

I wanted to be a writer so much.  I refused to give up.

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

My favorite thing is that finished book.  The thrill of it never goes away.

And the least favorite?  You never know if you're doing it right. With each book, you have to learn how to write all over again.

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)

Read read read read read read read read.

Write.  And rewrite.  Rewrite.  Rewrite.  Rewrite.  Rewrite.

Don't despair.  Don't give up.

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

Katherine Paterson.  Because she is one of my favorite people on the planet, and I am a better human being in her company.

Monday, October 9, 2017


First Paragraph: Eugenia Lincoln was a practical person, a sensible person. She did not have time for poetry, geegaws, whoop-de-whoops, or frivolity.

I'm posting this on a Monday, Esteemed Reader, because I know that if you're a fan of middle grade fiction, you're a fan of Kate DiCamillo, and you've probably read all her books. But you haven't read this one (probably) because it doesn't come out until tomorrow. But I'm a big deal blogger (living the dream), and I've already read the newest Kate DiCamillo, so neener-neener.

Speaking of a big deal, something else I've read that you haven't: Kate DiCamillo's answers to the 7 Questions. Oh my god, you guys, oh my god, she's going to be here to face them on Wednesday and it's going to be hugely epic, so make sure you come back. By then, you'll have read Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package because I'm about to tell you how much I enjoyed this lighthearted romp that's written with a precision that makes it worthy of study.

I try to read widely to expose myself to a lot of authors and a lot of styles, which means I don't always get to go as deep into an author's catalog as I might like. Like any lover of middle grade, I love Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, and naturally I carved out time for Flora and Ulysses (who doesn't want to read about a super-heroic squirrel?). But then I got busy with another middle grade review for this blog and yadda, yadda, don't you judge me, Esteemed Reader, I doubt Kate DiCamillo has read three of my books...

Anyway, mores the pity, because there's a whole shared DiCamillo universe I've been missing out on. But I'll be catching up with a quickness. Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package is the fourth in the Tales from Deckawoo Drive series that is connected to the Mercy Watson series, which is also illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, who deserves his own separate review as his illustrations add so much to this story. Each book in the series tells the tale of a character from a group of related characters that pop into each other's books like the superheroes in Lisa Yee's Batgirl at Superhero High. This is a whole lot of fun and means almost every character introduced on Deckawoo Drive is fully realized enough to be the star of their own future story.

This is the story of Eugenia Lincoln (obviously) who is a very fun character indeed:

She had never been so frustrated in her life.
Actually, this was not true.
Eugenia spent a large portion of her life being frustrated. It was hard not to be frustrated. The world was just so... frustrating.

And also:

Eugenia Lincoln was very fond of lists.
They helped her think. Lists calmed her.
They made the world seem orderly and reasonable and manageable, even though the world was none of these things.

Eugenia Lincoln is an older woman, or so I assume from Chris Van Dusen's illustrations, and extremely curmudgeonly. She lives with her younger sister, Baby, and the two of them are about to...

You know what, let's go back to the first paragraph at the top of this review, because Kate DiCamillo does something quite extraordinary with the opening of this book that you can really only get away with in a middle grade work, which is one of the reasons I love this genre so much. Remember, this novel is aimed primarily at children 6-9 years old.

DiCamillo starts off this book by telling us exactly who our main character is and what her relationship is with her sister. Granted, most readers will have just completed the third book in this series, which is focused on Baby Lincoln, but still, this ordinarily something I'd harp on my critique partners for. But if the YA Cannibals wrote for a much earlier reader, I'd be dead wrong (happens a lot).

Pay attention to how DiCamillo shows us the truth of these characters through her word choice even as she's telling us the entire set up of the novel. Remember, that Eugenia would tell her sister these things shows us the sort of character she is and all the things Baby doesn't say shows us the character she is:

She believed in attending to the task at hand.
Eugenia Lincoln believed in Getting Things Done.
Baby Lincoln, Eugenia's younger sister, loved poetry, geegaws, and whoop-de-whoops of evey sort and variety.
She was especially fond of frivolity.
"We are diametrically opposed," said Eugenia to Baby. "You are woefully impractical. I am supremely practical."
"Yes, Sister," said Baby.
"You are soft, and I am sharpened to a very fine point, indeed," said Eugenia.
"Well, yes," said Baby. "That's true, I suppose."
"Suppose nothing," said Eugenia. "Believe me when I say that your head is in the clouds, and my feet are planted firmly on the terra firma."
"If you say so, Sister," said Baby.
"I say so," said Eugenia.
And that is how it as with Eugenia Lincoln and Baby Lincoln.
Until the day the unexpected package arrived.

Spoiler, the unexpected package is an accordion. Actually, this is a story that is mostly impervious to spoilers. The official description of the novel pretty much lays out the whole plot. The tagline is: "What will it take for a cynical older sister to realize she's a born accordion player—with music in her heart?" I mean, maybe there's a chance Eugenia won't learn to play the music of her heart, but I'd bet all the money in my wallet she will. 

This leaves us with one mystery:

"Miss Lincoln," said Frank. "Don't you want to know who sent you the accordion?"
Eugenia felt a small ping of uncertainty. It was the ping of the unknown, the unexplainable. Eugenia did not care for such pings.
"I do not want to know," said Eugenia.

I'm not going to tell you who sent the accordion as that remains a mystery to the end of the novel, but it's not a shocking reveal. I suspect most readers will know who the sender was before it's revealed because there's really only one character with motive, but it's a kind motive, and adds to the charm of this story.

You see, Esteemed Reader, this isn't one of your big time mysteries with lots of false leads, nor is is an overly-complex narrative. At 112 pages (many of which have pictures), it's short and sweet and it will put a smile on the reader's face, because that is its reason for being. This is a warm and safe sort of story filled with mostly pleasant happenings despite its curmudgeonly lead character. As a man who spends a lot of time in the realm of horror, I appreciate such a story where there's no chance of a sewer clown. No doubt younger readers, who face horrors of their own, will appreciate the respite as well.

We know Kate DiCamillo can tackle more complex stories and darker themes as we've seen her accomplish both, but this is a different sort of book, every bit as essential to a child's love of reading. A child could devour this story in an afternoon and still have more books available. They would laugh and smile and look forward to the next tale of Deckawoo Drive, which would mean the book accomplished fully its intended purpose. This is as noble a pursuit for an author as an epic tale, such as the one of Despereaux.

That pretty much concludes the review portion of this review: this book was good. I liked it. You will like it too.

Now, let's talk about technique, because there's a lot of it on display here. The thing to watch for is DiCamillo's economy of words. Remember, she's got 112 pages with sparse words and a lot of illustrations, so every sentence counts. She can't spend 800 words describing any one character and their backstory unless it's Eugenia, and even she doesn't get that many words of description in a row.

What DiCamillo does is pick out a few evocative details to suggest the full character. That effect combined with defining dialogue (no two characters speak the same way, however sparse the dialogue may be) creates multiple characters the reader can clearly see and identify with and look forward to revisiting in future tales. I'd also be curious to know what notes she gave to her illustrator, as he accomplishes a lot of the description, but certainly not all.

After receiving her accordion, Eugenia attempts to sell it to a man named Gaston LaTreaux, who instead insists on giving her accordion lessons. It's a running joke that he has on his person a business card for every conceivable occupation that comes up through the story. But witness how DiCamillo creates this man with three extremely distinct details:

Eugenia opened it and discovered a small, round man. The man was wearing a green velvet suit and a green velvet hat. The hat resembled a moldy mushroom.

The man smelled like lilacs and musty curtains and butter.

This third detail is even more expertly employed because not only does it tell us about Gaston, but it reveals a great deal about Eugenia's character as well:

The man had a large number of teeth. More teeth than the average person, it seemed. Eugenia felt it would be dangerous to trust such an excessively toothy person. But still, she had an accordion to sell. She couldn't afford to be overly particular.

And that's were we'll leave it for today, Esteemed Reader. Make sure you come back Wednesday when we'll have Kate DiCamillo here, and next week when we'll have another literary agent stop by to face the 7 Questions. It's a great time to be a ninja. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package:

Life was too annoying and unpredictable and pig-filled to be borne, sometimes.

She went into the living room and saw that the pig from next door had invited itself into the house and was now sitting on the couch and staring into space as if it were thinking, which it most certainly was not.

In the morning, Eugenia rose from her bed and went out to the kitchen and found that it was in severe disarray: chairs were overturned, crumbs were on the counter, unwashed plates were piled in the sink. There was an entire fruitcake in the center of the kitchen table. A fly was hovering over it, buzzing happily.

"Bah," said Eugenia to the sun.

What are you learning from the encyclopedia?" she said.
"This and that," said Frank. (this one you have to read the full book to appreciate, but it's pretty awesome when you're in the know)

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Janine Le

Janine Le joined the Sheldon Fogelman Agency in 2010 and has gained experience in all aspects of the business, with a focus on editorial, contracts, and foreign rights. She enjoys the balance of creative-minded and business-minded work and knew she had found her niche in the field when she interned at an agency and realized the agent is the author’s biggest advocate. Janine graduated from Bucknell Unversity with honors in English (Creative Writing) and completed NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute. She is accepting submissions for fiction and narrative nonfiction picture books through YA. She is particularly drawn to stories that have emotional resonance and complex characters and relationships. She also looks for innovative concepts, diverse perspectives, humor, fantastic elements, and concise but playful or poetic language. In illustrations, she is looking for fresh styles, expressive characters, and visual storytelling.

You can follow her on twitter or visit her pinterest page. She also recently participated in the 12x12 Challenge.

And now Janine Le faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

The Giver, Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Nothing can replace the books I loved as a child!)                                 

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

Movies- Say Anything, Zoolander, Life is Beautiful (Nothing can replace the movies I loved as a teen!)

TV- I like family comedies such as Modern Family, nerdy stuff like Human Planet, and reality shows such as Masterchef.

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

Talented, has something unique and interesting to share with the world, responsive to feedback, professional, a nice person in general.

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

I represent picture books through YA. I always look for plucky protagonists, emotional depth, and beautifully written yet easy-reading stories—pleasant reads that make a lasting impression. I’d like projects that are sensitive to the current hopes, dreams, and especially fears of young readers today.

I appreciate underrepresented voices and would especially like to see more mixed race characters and multicultural families, as well as families with adopted or foster children like in Kinda Like Brothers, but I don’t want the family makeup to be the center of the story. I’d love stories that transport readers to another time or place we might not be familiar with but should be.

I love A.S. King’s use of surrealism and would love to see someone who can use interesting devices to give the reader a fresh look at ordinary lives. I’m constantly amazed at how smart kids are and would love to see protagonists who can use their intelligence to draw readers in, like in The Thing About Jellyfish, Counting by 7s,and Out of my Mind.

Family and friends are very important to me and I’m interested in characters navigating relationships with friends and family that are special but not always easy. I’d like to see stories with characters juggling more adult responsibilities like working or helping out with siblings.

I enjoy magical realism but am not looking for high fantasy. I’m also a very active person who’s at various times been into running, cycling, climbing, and backpacking and now babywearing hiking, so characters who push themselves physically or have unusual hobbies that are vital parts of their lives might be up my alley. 

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

My favorite thing about being an agent is that our role is such an interesting blend of the creative and business side of publishing and that everything we do is for our clients’ benefit.

My least favorite is helping clients manage disappointment since I want everything to go perfectly for them and it doesn’t always go that way.   

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)

Seek out criticism and look for ways those readers’ concerns can help you strengthen your work. I’ve taken on clients because I was impressed with their revisions but have never taken on something because the author made a convincing argument why my concerns were invalid. (Trust me, it’s been tried!)

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

Lois Lowry. I appreciate her life experience and outlook.