Monday, May 21, 2018

Postcards From Venice, by Dee Romito


Top Ten Reasons To Read Postcards From Venice:


1. The postcard-perfect setting: Venice, Italy 

2. Skyler, the main character, who takes on a cool writing internship to blog about the city. 

3. Logan, a cute Australian intern 

4. Gelato (Yum!)

5. Gondola rides 

6. Pizza by the slice 

7. A seriously cool day trip to Verona to see Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet 

8. A ghost tour of a cursed Venetian house 

9. A mother and daughter cooking class, including make-your-own pasta and chocolate mousse 


10. Skyler’s postcards to her BFF, and her attempt to stay connected to what matters most

Postcards From Venice is on sale 5/29/2018.

Dee Romito is the author of The BFF Bucket List and No Place Like Home, as well as the coauthor of Best. Night. Ever.

Visit her website at DeeRomito.com




Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve

If you’re familiar with the Tales from Alcatraz series by Gennifer Choldenko, her newest release, AL CAPONE THROW ME A CURVE will be a welcome continuation. If you aren’t familiar with the series, you should correct this very soon.



At the center of the action is Moose Flanagan, a young teenager on the verge of starting high school with dreams of making the baseball team. Moose’s father works in the corrections system so his family is one of several who live on Alcatraz Island. Moose’s parents have a lot to cope with from the politics of the island and the people who live there, trying to raise a family when everything is a ferry ride away, and caring for Moose’s older sister Natalie, unrecognized as affected by autism in the 1930s, when the story takes place.

Moose is a typical kid surrounded by an interesting cast of characters, both from his life tied to the prison and away from it, each operating with their own agenda — some of which are easier for him to read than others. He has a lot to responsibilities placed on him and difficult decisions to make as the story unfolds, all of which speak to the maturity of the character. His love of baseball is still front and center as one of his largest motivations throughout the book, keeping him solidly anchored as the kid that he is. Moose's relationship with Natalie is shown as both protective and loving. Knowing first-hand how acknowledging and accepting differences and valuing diversity have become important parts of character education in schools today, this relationship would be a wonderful example for kids to read about. 

The dialogue and Moose’s narration are refreshingly straightforward, sidestepping the contemporary affectations common in much of middle grade, which makes it all come across as even more genuine. The strong and measured descriptive language establish a sense of place in each location of the overall setting, making the reader feel they would recognize areas they may have never seen before. 

Without giving anything away, the events of the book all come together in the end with very high stakes for Moose and his family, in what will be a surprising challenge for a middle grade audience but completely realistic in the context, and skillfully written. AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE was the kind of book that pulled me forward to finish reading in a day, though I wish I’d allowed myself to spend more time with it. It’s a good thing there are three earlier books in the series I can always revisit! 

To help us celebrate the release of her new book, author Gennifer Choldenko agreed to answer some questions about the Tales of Alcatraz series and her other work!

**********

Thanks for giving us the chance to ask you a few questions, Gennifer! To start with, I think you should know one of my students recently said AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS is the best book ever written. What's it been like spending so many years working with a series that has such widespread popularity?

The best book ever?  Wow, please tell your student thank you from me!  And thank you for inviting me to be a part of your blog. (Side note - I did pass on that thank you, and her jaw dropped open when I said it.)

One of my greatest pleasures is when a teacher brings me his or her highlighted, underlined, dogeared copy of Al Capone Does My Shirts. What an honor it is to sign those books!  And of course, I love getting letters from readers.  My favorite kid reader letters encourage me to keep writing.  “You are a good writer.  Me and my friends think you should write another book.”  Though my all-time favorite letter went like this:  “I tried to write to Roald Dahl but he was dead.  So, I had to write to you instead.”

I've read that AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE could be the last book of the series. How much of the series did you have planned from the beginning? Were you always hoping or intending the story would become a series, or did those plans evolve as opportunities and new ideas came along?

When I started work on Al Capone Does My Shirts I had been trying for six years to get a second book published.  I called myself a “one trick pony”, because it really looked like: Moonstruck: The True Story of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon was the only book I’d ever have published.  While I was researching and writing Al Capone Does My Shirts  I thought that this was a bigger idea than I could fit into one book.  But the idea of writing a series of unpublished books, seemed crazy, even for me.  After I’d been working on Al Capone Does My Shirts for a year, Penguin bought my first novel: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog.  But even then, a series seemed out of reach.  So, no I didn’t plan out the series.  I took it one book at a time. 

If AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE does turn out to be the final book of the series, how do you feel about bringing it to an end?

This series has definitely been a labor of love.  The books have been challenging to create, but I’ve gotten so much out of writing them.  I feel like all the books in the Tales from Alcatraz are a part of me I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of.   

I'm surprised (and impressed) that you've been able to sustain this series while writing so many other books as well. Has your writing process been the same regardless of the title, or was there anything different in the way you approached writing the Tales from Alcatraz books?

Every book comes to me in a different way and that changes my process.  Generally, though, research is involved.  For me, research is like putting Miracle-Gro on my ideas.  Since I live in the San Francisco Bay area, I have spent many many days on Alcatraz.  I’ve worked on the island.  I’ve read every book I can get my hands on.  I’ve interviewed dozens of people who were guards, prisoners and the sons and daughters of guards.  I am a member of the Alcatraz Alumni Association.  I’ve been to every Alcatraz Alumni Day on the island. 

One of the great privileges of writing these books has been the opportunity to do first-hand research.  When you write historical fiction, it is a luxury to be able to walk your setting and see buildings that are similar to the way they were in the timeframe you have chosen for your book.  That’s probably the biggest difference between my Alcatraz novels and my non-Alcatraz novels. 

I like writing other novels in between the series books because then I can come back to Alcatraz with the same excitement I had when I wrote the first book.  Having so much time elapse between books, isn’t a great marketing strategy.  But it is how I was able to make sure each book in the series was as compelling as Al Capone Does My Shirts.   

Finally, do you have any recent middle grade favorites you'd recommend people read (after they finish AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE, that is)?

I love: One Crazy Summer, Goodbye Stranger, Hello, Universe, The Hired Girl. I can’t wait to get my hands on: Bob and Ghost Boys. 

Thanks for your time, Gennifer! Good luck with the new book and the ones to follow!

Thank you! 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Treating Fiction as Sacred

I recently discovered the amazing podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and it has taught me about an entirely new possibility for interacting with fictional works, i.e. treating them as sacred.

So what does this mean? Essentially, it has to do with taking a text seriously in order to examine what rewards it has to offer. This doesn't mean that the text or the creator are considered in any way to be perfect, but rather it's more about applying a certain rigor and ritual to a text in order to enhance our understanding. The podcasters explain that a text is made sacred not by any inherent value, but by having a community of readers that treat it as such. How cool is that!

And if you're wondering whether or not you have to be religious in order to apply this practice, you absolutely do not. It has nothing to do with your individual religious beliefs, or lack thereof, but it has everything to do with carefully reading and considering a text in order to learn what hidden blessings the story can offer us.

Each episode, the podcasters give a close examination of a single chapter through a chosen theme, kicking off their conversation with a related story from their real lives. As they discuss, their goal is not to critique the text, but to take the text as written and to see what they can learn about that week's theme from the choices the characters make. They then apply a spiritual practice to a section of the chapter to see what other new understandings can be revealed.

This podcast has given me permission to talk about something that I've always known to be true: the fact that books like Harry Potter have had a profound impact on my life. I think too often, especially as readers and writers of middle grade fiction, we are told by society that the literature we love doesn't matter, that it can't be taken seriously or that it simply doesn't have any true literary merit because it was written for children. How wrong the critics are, and I think this podcast pushes the discussion even one further, not only saying that literature for children has merit, but also validating the idea that it can offer real benefits and blessings for our lives.

The challenge that I'm going to undertake after listening to this podcast is to go out and find other texts that I can treat as sacred and to see what I can learn from them. My challenge for you, if you haven't done so already, is to head on over to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and give this awesome podcast a listen.

At the end of each episode, the podcasters offer a blessing for one of the characters in the chapter they've just examined. At the end of this blog post, I would love to offer a blessing for the creators of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Vanessa, Casper and Ariana. Thank you for introducing me to a new way of interacting with my favorite stories. As a reader and a writer, your podcast has really helped me to more thoroughly understand the impact that stories can have on our lives. Thanks, and keep up the good work!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Book Review: See You on a Starry Night


Juliet has just moved to a beachside town with her newly separated mother and her moody older sister. When she meets their new neighbor, Emma, the girls form an instant bond. Emma's big family takes Juliet in, and the girls have fun together - starting when they throw bottles with secret messages into the sea. Then someone writes back to Juliet's message. An email arrives, inviting her to join the Starry Beach Club. All she has to do is make someone's wish come true.

So Juliet and Emma set off to help as many people as they can. It's fun! But as Juliet spends more and more time away from home, enjoying her new town and Emma's family more than her mom and sister, she starts feeling lost. It's been easy to find others to help. But maybe her star would shine a little brighter if she brought it closer to home.



About the author: Lisa Schroeder has written over a twenty books for kids and teens including the popular verse novels for teens I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and CHASING BROOKLYN. She's also the author of the middle grade novels IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES, MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, KEYS TO THE CITY and THE GIRL IN THE TOWER. Her books have been translated into foreign languages and have been selected for state reading lists. Lisa is a native Oregonian and lives with her family outside of Portland.

✩  ✩  ✩  ✩  ✩

My review: I loved many things about this book (beach setting! Van Gogh references! Juliet's love of tidy lists and messy art!), and I really liked the way a difficult family situation was balanced with a very sweet subplot. Personally, I found some of the characters too good to be true and some of the problems too easily solved – I wouldn’t have minded more conflict and bad decisions. Still, I definitely think middle grade readers will enjoy this very readable story and will relate to the realistic emotions the characters go through. Recommended.

Publication date: June 26, 2018
A review copy was provided by the author for an honest review.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Finding Your Voice



We all know it when we read it, but how much we enjoy it can also be a very subjective thing: 


The novel's voice.


When querying to get an agent, problem with voice is some of the most common feedback an author can receive:


Thank you for giving us a chance with this. I’m sorry to say I don’t think it’s one for me. While this has some nice points, when I take a on a new project I need to feel such a strong connection to the voice, I’m afraid I’m not quite there with this. Of course, it’s a really subjective business. Another agent may well feel differently. (an actual rejection letter I received in early 2014)


Thank you for sending me your query. I am sorry not to invite you to submit your work or to offer to represent you. The material just didn’t grab me, and you deserve an unequivocally enthusiastic agent as your advocate. (another actual rejection letter!)

Sometimes, authors' submissions get rejected because of the plot — for example, submitting a book in which the heroine falls in love with a vampire or a book discovers he's actually a wizard — most often it's not the book's plot, but the author's voice.

Other books, I pick then up and can't stop reading. And in many cases, that's not simply because of an excellent plot or a well-formed characters, it's because of the author's voice.

For example, I could read Erin Entrada Kelly all day long.  Her latest book, YOU GO FIRST, sang to me from the first paragraph onwards:



Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockhard balanced an unopened Dr. Pepper upright on her hand and thought: This is what it feels like to hold my dad's heart.
Same as the Dr. Pepper.

Brilliant huh? Well, she is the most recent Newbery Medal winner, so no great surprise there.

How about Jason Reynold's fantastic voice in GHOST:


CHECK THIS OUT. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons . . . with his nose. Yeah. That's true. Not sure how he found out that was some kind of special talent, and I can't even imagine how much snot be in those balloons, but hey, it's a thing and Andrew's the best at it.


These authors and their characters do not sound remotely alike, but you know straight away that these are characters you want to get to know. And you can tell you are in the hands of experienced authors who make the cadence of their words a joy to read.


Easy for them, you think. How do I make my own voice better?

First of all, YOUR voice is your way of looking at the world. And while your characters' voices will change from book to book, once you mast voice, your readers will always have a sense that they are reading a book by an accomplished author with a point of view.


How can you improve your voice?


1. READ VORACIOUSLY





Sometimes I run into authors who don't read in their genre. Which a) I don't really get at all, since I assume that if you want to be a middle grade author you love middle grade books; and b) doesn't allow them the opportunity to learn from other authors.

My best advice is to read widely within your genre, with a special focus on award-winning or critically acclaimed books, and an equal dash of the popular.

Early on, I'd even copy a page out of a particular book, so I could get a sense of the cadence, or rhythm of the story. I highly recommend this, because it will help you with your writing immensely.


2. READ YOUR WORK ALOUD





Everyone tells you to do this, but not everyone does this. It is critical. When you read your work out loud, you immediately find the awkward syntax, the boring bits, the unresolved nature of your writing. I also read drafts on my kindle. For some reason, seeing it in book form makes a tremendous difference to how I perceive my own work.

3. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY





Early on, writers stumble around in the dark, unsure of how specific to be. Their work lacks thematic direction and that shows in their voice. The more you understand what it is you want your story to convey, and who you think in the story should convey it, the easier it will be to find your voice.


4. EAVESDROP!


Yes, I know it's not polite to listen in on conversations, but if you're writing about eleven year old girls, you're going to want to get a handle on them. I've been known to wander the mall and pause now and then to listen to a bunch of kids talking. And though I remember my own kids at that age very well, I also rely on my friends' kids, too.




And finally:

5. KNOW WHO YOUR CHARACTERS ARE





In my latest book, I have a girl from 1915 who cannot sound like the kids from 2018. At the same time, there are things about being twelve or thirteen years old that will always be universal. The most important thing is to know who your characters are. What do they love, hate, worry about, are afraid of, and cherish? What motivates them? Are they shy or boisterous? Are they frustrated or happy-go-lucky. Your characters' personalities and the kind of story you are telling (see #3) will shape the right voice for your story.

In the end, it all comes down to writing with authenticity and clarity, and then writing and writing and writing in order to make your work as excellent as it can be. If you do all that, I promise: your writer's voice will strengthen!

Good Luck!







Monday, April 30, 2018

Working Edits with an Agent

You got an agent. Awesome! Now what? You go on sub right?
 
Well not exactly. Sometimes your manuscript is in great shape and it's ready to go on sub, but more often than not, your agent will have notes for you and things they want you to work on before you go on submission to editors. This is especially true if you've selected an editorial agent.

How do edits for an agent differ from editing notes you might get from a beta reader or a critique partner?
 
In a lot of ways the notes might be very similar. But in other ways, your agent may hone in on changes to your manuscript with an eye on what might make it more marketable. This is something your readers may or may not be able to help you with depending on how well they know the market.
 
What if you don't agree with the notes your agent give you?
 
Just like with your critique partners just because the give you notes doesn't mean you're required to incorporate them. Do make makes the most sense for your manuscript. But if you choose to not take a piece of advice, it might be good to consider why and have an honest discussion with your agent about your decision and why you made it.
 
You might even get some notes you've seen before and though your addressed. My agent asked for more worldbuilding, after I did an R&R for her with a primary focus on worldbuilding. My knee jerk reaction was wait, I just added 6,000 words of mostly worldbuilding, how could this manuscript possibly need more. I sat and stewed on it a bit and then asked my agent some clarifying questions. Turns out she was looking for something a little different than what I was originally interpreting the comment as. So it's important to take some time and level set your notes and make sure you and your agent are on the same page.
 
Overall it's important to remember you and your agent are a team. Work together on your edits and check in to make sure the direction if something that will work for the manuscript and make it stronger. You've got another person in your writing corner make sure you use them effectively.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Advice For Those Starting Out

Not long ago I had an exchange with a writer in the very first steps of trying to get her work published. It occurred to me that those of us who've been writing longer know things about the process that she, and other early writers like her, maybe haven't learned yet. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of things that seem important for writers to know while trying to get their worked published someday. Hopefully it will help someone out!

*Tell the story you want to tell. You are going to be spending a lot of time with and a lot of energy on making your manuscript into the best version of itself, so make sure you’ve found something worthy of that investment. Don’t worry about chase publishing trends. By the time something is popular on the book shelves, the next trend is probably already developing behind the scenes.

*Revision is where most of the work is done. Getting your manuscript to be the best it can be means going back to work on it several times over, even after you think it’s finished. That work is going to be a living document right up until there are copies sitting on store shelves waiting for your autograph. Don’t shortchange yourself, or your manuscript, on revision. Give it the time and effort needed to become what it can be.

*Find critique partners who understand what you are trying to accomplish in your writing. Finding voices you respect and trust is valuable. Objective feedback will help you see things about your manuscript you likely wouldn't have noticed on your own. Be open to what these people have to say.

*When you feel confident that you’re ready to submit, craft and proofread your query letters, but don’t go too far down the rabbit hole in overthinking them. Queries are meant to be introductory business letters. Keep them straightforward and professional.

*Do your research before you start querying. Be sure the agents you approach are currently accepting queries and represent the kind of project you’re offering. Be open to whatever possibilities come your way. When you reach that happy day that someone offers to represent you, make sure you feel comfortable about that prospective relationship and the way your new agent works.

*Be polite and respectful in all of your interactions. The writing is the art, and it’s easy to get caught up in the passion you feel about your work. Once you enter the realm of publishing, however, it becomes about business. If you hope to work as a professional someday, treat it all that way.

*Agents don’t charge to read manuscripts. If they say they do, you should probably avoid them.

*Patience and persistence aren’t just virtues, they’re necessary to your survival as a writer. At least some part of the process is going to take much longer than you want. There’s nothing your frustration can do to hurry things along.

*Everyone who has ever published a book, or even tried to, has had a different experience. It’s pointless to compare yourself to other writers and what they’ve done; in fact, getting caught up in that mindset can become toxic. Each writer will have a unique publishing experience. Your path is yours and yours alone. If seeing your work published is in your future, it will happen when all of the right moments converge.

So that’s what I’ve got. Did I miss anything? Go ahead and comment below if you have more advice to share!