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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Writing Middle Grade vs. Young Adult: Interview & Giveaway With Author Robert Kent

I got to know author Robert Kent by reading his popular blog, Middle Grade Ninja (click HERE to read his most recent post, On Heartbreak and Diversity in Traditional Publishing). I read his YA zombie novel, All Together Now, was thoroughly impressed, and interviewed him about it HERE.

When I learned that he would be publishing a middle grade novel, I knew I'd want to read it because A) MG books are what my reading heart beats for the most, and B) I was curious about how an author who writes mainly adult and young adult horror would transition to crafting stories for a middle grade audience. I knew Robert's skill level as a writer, and had a feeling he would nail his MG book. 


He did.

Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees takes everything Robert excels at in his books for older audiences--witty writing, fast-paced plots, big questions about humanity, and heart--and plants it firmly into middle grade soil. Three-dimensional characters, great world-building, and a super-imaginative/cool plot make this a great read for you or the young reader in your life. And the book got an amazing promotional blurb from RICHARD ADAMS, author of Watership Down. Yes, wow indeed.

Robert was kind enough to answer a few questions for me on the differences between writing for MG audiences and older readers. *I'm giving away an eBook of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. Just leave a comment on this post to enter. I'll pick a winner via Random.org next Wednesday evening and will update this post. UPDATE: The winner is Dianne K. Salerni! Congrats, Dianne!
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How do differences in the ages of MG/YA protagonists impact your approach with characterization? Let's start with Banneker Bones.

Hi Jessica! Thanks for having me back at your blog. You always ask me the most interesting questions. Last time I was here, I said that I try to let the character come from the story and then, once I'm writing it, the story from the character. That's no different for middle grade. In fact, Banneker Bones hijacked my story and made me throw out most of my plans.

The story for Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees was always going to be about Ellicott Skullworth, brilliant, but lonely eleven-year-old, being invited to Latimer City to live with his world famous cousin, Banneker Bones. Once there, I figured the boys would solve a mystery and Ellicott would find a place to belong as Robin to Banneker's Batman. But because I believe in letting my characters make their own decisions whenever possible, I read along with the reader as Banneker attacked Ellicott with a security robot, locked him in a pit, and tortured him in lots of other ways all because Banneker didn't want to share his room.

It's really inconvenient when the hero of your series stops acting like a hero. But ultimately, letting Banneker make his own decision about the sort of character he wanted to be made for a richer story than if I'd forced him to conform robotically to my outline.

And it helps that the tone of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is comedic. When you're going for laughs, characters can be more flexible. For example, Dr. Gregory House, on whom Banneker is partly based and who was himself based on Sherlock Holmes, was a nasty fellow, but was also somehow still the hero of his show for 8 seasons, mostly because he was funny. I didn't set out to make Banneker Bones a jerk, he just was one and I had to find a way to build my story around him so he was still the hero. But Banneker made me laugh more when I let him do things his way and hopefully the reader feels the same.



How did your writing/character approach differ with your books for older audiences, like All Together Now (ATN) and All Right Now? 

Although they were published in a different order, I wrote Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees first and at one point All Together Now was going to be Banneker Bones 3, which in retrospect was a terrible idea. The ending I wanted for ATN wouldn't have worked out in Banneker's world and ultimately I wanted to tell a more adult story with convincing violence, so I switched from middle grade to young adult.

I still knew I wanted to look at the zombie apocalypse from a younger perspective and if I do write another ATN sequel (I'm on the fence), I might include an 11-year-old protagonist with the understanding that the book would still be for older readers. In ATN, Ricky Genero has to be a romantic. The plot demands it from him. The entire story hinges on a protagonist willing to risk his life traveling across the zombie apocalypse to find a cure for his infected brother, and you don't do that unless you're a romantic.

Because Ricky is 15, I tried to show his romanticism in his descriptions of every other female character he encounters (ATN is told in the first person), which made me laugh, as Ricky never met a girl he didn't love.  He's also terribly bitter about his mother's affair and channels his feelings about his parent's divorce into anger against her, because he has a romantic view of morality. Ricky is also obsessed with death, most notably his own, which is understandable in his circumstances.

Supposing I had found a way to tone ATN's violence down to levels acceptable for middle grade (where's the fun in that?) and Ricky were instead 11, the plot would still demand he be a romantic. Instead of talking about the pretty girls, he'd fixate on the adults left in the world as surrogate parents. He might not understand his mom's affair, and so he'd more likely be questing in search of his mother as well as a cure for his brother. Instead of anger, or rather, predominately anger, he'd feel loss for his broken family. He'd still be obsessed with death, but I think he'd avoid talking about it and he certainly wouldn't acknowledge his own death as a possibility.


The situation, the zombie apocalypse, wouldn't change, but the plot would change dramatically because the choices each version of the character would make would be different.

In All Right Now, the protagonist is an adult and a new father, so he's far less fatalistic about his situation and far more practical in the way he deals with things. He's not worried about whether zombies can be cured, so much as can they be kept away from his infant son. I would never try to tell ARN in a first-person journal because Richard wouldn't have Ricky's time to write it. He has a baby to worry about.

Whatever age group you're writing for, I still recommend first figuring out what the set up of your story demands from your character, then allow the character to make your plot decisions for you. If you figure you out what's important to your character, which changes depending on their age, and show them working toward a goal, they'll show you who they are.  

What, if any, are some advantages of writing for a younger audience?

If I'm honest, I write middle grade for love as I make more money writing horror, which I also write for love:) Really, the only reason to write anything is for love.

I've found middle grade to be more challenging to market because younger readers are more difficult to reach without a support system of librarians and teachers most independent authors lack.


The advantage, however, is that a young fan is more likely to sing your praise than an older fan. Many older fans have been kind enough to share my stories on social media and write me to let me know I kept them up late, as though that wasn't what they were hoping for when they bought a horror story.


Younger fans, however, tell everyone about Banneker Bones with an enthusiasm older fans haven't matched. None of my older fans have sent me pictures of themselves dressed up as my characters or illustrations of gadgetry they think Banneker Bones should use in his next adventure.

And statistically, I would argue a writer has a better shot at reaching a wider readership with stories targeted to a younger audience. All adult readers will have first been child readers, but not all child reader will be adult readers. Less morbid, a story for children has a shot at snagging a reader when they're a child and later, when they're reading for their own children. A writer who captures fans when they're young may also be able to later sell them horror stories when they're old enough for them:)


What, if any, are some limitations (aka what “society” might deem as MG no-nos) that you encountered when writing for a middle grade audience?

I don't suppose I come off in the best light if I keep talking about my love of violence, but if I were truly worried about that, I wouldn't have published Pizza DeliveryGiant robot bees are wonderful monsters and a part of me wishes I could bring them into an adult story to really show the destruction they could cause.  However, the plausibility of giant robot bees, or lack thereof, is better suited to a story for younger readers, who are used to irrational stories about giant peaches and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other things difficult to pull off in a realistic story for adults. Therefore, if I have a plausible monster, it goes in a horror story, and if I have one no one's going to actually believe in, I pit it against Banneker Bones:) I'm bumping into the same issues with alligator people in book 2.

That being said, I didn't leave any essential content out of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees just because I'm targeting younger readers. The bees still stab one character with a stinger and badly murder another, even if it's "off-screen." After a nasty fight, Ellicott catches his parents kissing in the morning, implying they've had a good evening of making up.  I think the worst thing a writer can do is think of their story as being just for kids, as adults will read them as well and I always try to keep my older readers in mind.


Is there any additional advice you might offer a YA or Adult author who’s looking to start writing middle grade fiction?

It's a cliché, but there's a reason for it: read everything you can and when you can't read, listen to audiobooks. I started the first draft of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees at the same time I started my blog, www.middlegradeninja.com, where I review middle grade books and interview authors. That's not a coincidence. I wanted to be an expert on middle grade fiction before I published a middle grade book.

I've read more books about zombies than I ever cared to, but it would've been irresponsible to publish All Together Now without first knowing what stories zombie fans had already read (and movies and television shows they'd seen). It also helped to know what did and did not work in other zombie stories.  The best way to avoid making a mistake is to watch someone else make it first.


If a writer is on the fence about what age group their story should target, I'll say this: if I had an idea for a middle grade story that could also work as young adult, I'd probably bump it up to young adult where it would also snag some adult readers and be easier to market. But I have a one-year-old and I want to share my stories with him, so I foresee a lot of middle grade in my future for at least the next decade.


What are you working on now?
Next up is Banneker Bones' second adventure and a serialized horror novel for adults about a haunted house. I'm excited about both projects and they're different enough from each other that I can switch between them easily. That way, whenever I get blocked on one, I can work on the other without losing writing time. I wasted a lot of time waiting for inspiration before I figured that trick out:)

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Robert, thank you so much for your time! Again, leave a comment to win a copy of Robert's middle grade novel Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees.


Fifth grader Ellicott Skullworth has always felt out of place at public school and now he's tested into the Archimedes Program at Latimer University. While in Latimer City, he’ll be living with his world famous and insane(ly) brilliant cousin, Banneker Bones, the eleven-year-old inventor of robots. The only problem: Banneker doesn't want to share his room. And he's got an army of robots to make Ellicott miserable until he goes home.

When the boys are ambushed by robot bees as big as cars, Ellicott's only friend is carried off and held for ransom. To rescue him, Ellicott has no choice but to partner with his maniacal cousin. Ellicott doesn't know what's worse: facing a hive of giant robot bees or spending more time with Banneker Bones.

BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES features original illustrations by Adam Smith. It's a humorous, science fiction adventure for readers of all ages written in the spirit of a comic book.

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LINKS!

ROBERT KENT'S BLOG

ROBERT KENT ON TWITTER


ROBERT KENT ON FACEBOOK


BUY BANNEKER BONES ON AMAZON



Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Love & Giveaway: Becky Wallace's THE STORYSPINNER

Tomorrow, March 3rd, is a very special day for a very special lady. My dear friend Becky Wallace has written a gorgeous, intriguing, thrilling YA Fantasy called The Storyspinner. I was lucky enough to read early drafts of this book and cannot wait to get my hands on the hardcover. I preordered 2 copies and will be giving one away. Just leave a comment and consider yourself entered! I'll choose a winner via Random.org and will update this post one week from today.
UPDATE: Random.org chose comment #6, which means Natalie Aguirre has won the hardcover of The Storyspinner! Congratulations, Natalie~ I know you'll enjoy it! Please email me with the address where you'd like the book sent.

BOOK SUMMARY

Drama and danger abound in this fantasy realm where dukes play a game for the throne, magical warriors race to find the missing heir, and romance blossoms where it is least expected.

In a world where dukes plot their way to the throne, a Performer’s life can get tricky. And in Johanna Von Arlo’s case, it can be fatal. Expelled from her troupe after her father’s death, Johanna is forced to work for the handsome Lord Rafael DeSilva. Too bad they don’t get along. But while Johanna’s father’s death was deemed an accident, the Keepers aren’t so sure.

The Keepers, a race of people with magical abilities, are on a quest to find the princess—the same princess who is supposed to be dead and whose throne the dukes are fighting over. But they aren’t the only ones looking for her. And in the wake of their search, murdered girls keep turning up—girls who look exactly like the princess, and exactly like Johanna.

With dukes, Keepers, and a killer all after the princess, Johanna finds herself caught up in political machinations for the throne, threats on her life, and an unexpected romance that could change everything.

PRAISE FOR THE STORYSPINNER

“This tale of murder, kidnapping, and magic held me from start to finish!”
~Tamora Pierce, NYT Bestselling author of The Will of the Empress, The Circle of Magic, and The Circle Opens quartets

“Becky Wallace couples a classic romance with cut-throat political intrigue and wraps it in a detailed and enthralling magical world. I can’t wait for the sequel.”
~Cinda Williams Chima, NYT Bestselling author of The Heir Trilogy and The Seven Realms series

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


In second grade, Becky Wallace had to sit in the corner because she refused to write anything except princess stories and fairy tales (and because she talked too much). Her time in isolation gave her plenty of opportunities to dream up the fantasy worlds she’s been dabbling with ever since. She was lucky enough to find her own real-life Prince Charming. They have four munchkins and live in happy little town near Houston, Texas.

Becky's WEBSITE
Becky on TWITTER


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Writing Craft: Joy McCullough-Carranza on BLOOD/WATER/PAINT and plays vs. novels

Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography

I am lucky to be blessed with wonderful critique partners. The women in my writing life are supportive, hilarious, well-read, and fiercely intelligent. Because of that, I wasn't a bit surprised when Joy McCullough-Carranza told me that the play she'd let me read a version of years ago (the play of her heart!) was going to be produced in Seattle. Joy writes middle grade and young adult fiction as well (she is repped by the fabulous agent Sara Crowe), but plays are where she got her start.

Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography
Many of my blog readers are writers of novels. As such, unless we get a movie deal along with a book deal, there is little chance of us ever seeing our characters come to life in person. For a writer, seeing your story unfold in front of your eyes has got to be magical. Joy has been kind enough to answer a few questions about that magic and about the creation process behind it.

ABOUT THE PLAY

BLOOD/WATER/PAINT is an unflinching retelling of the true story of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter whose story unfolds through interactions with the women featured in her most famous paintings and the process of teaching her daughter to paint, and culminates in her fierce battle to rise above the most devastating event in her life and fight for justice despite horrific consequences.
*Photos scattered throughout this post may look like paintings, but they are all beautiful press photos created by Joe Iano*

Ana Maria Campoy, Alex Highsmith, Evelyn DeHais. Joe Iano Photography
What is the creation process and revision process for your plays, and how does that differ from how you create children’s novels?

I wrote plays for fifteen years before I switched to fiction, and when I did, I was overwhelmed by the sheer word count of novels. A full-length play is much shorter than even a middle grade manuscript—my play that’s being produced is under 12,000 words, for example. (It runs about an hour and a half, so even a three-hour monster of a play is only around 25K.) So the sheer word count of a novel was overwhelming and I needed to outline at least a few chapters at a time and think in terms of manageable steps to keep myself moving forward when writing fiction.

With plays, I don’t outline, and I definitely don’t think in terms of word count. (I had to check that word count of my play.) I do a lot of interweaving time periods and storylines in my plays, and it’s a kind of instinctual, rhythmic thing that I don’t think I could plan. Playwrights are more aware of page count, with the general rule that 1 page = 1 minute of stage time. But otherwise, the creative process is similar, even if the craft itself is quite different. And both share those lovely cycles of excitement, doubt, self-loathing, hope, etc. (And lots of rejections!)

Daniel Christensen & Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography
Once I have a draft of a play that I feel really solid about—the point at which I would send a draft of a novel to you for critique, lovely CP—I usually get a group of actor friends together to read it aloud for me. Hearing it aloud teaches me things (I do read my novels aloud by myself, but that’s more for a micro-level polishing pass, whereas this early read of a play gets at bigger issues), and getting feedback from smart actors is hugely helpful. (I should say that having a play draft read aloud by anything less than wonderful, professional actors may not be all that helpful and in fact may be harmful. Teaching playwriting in high schools, I’ve heard really wonderful scenes sound absolutely terrible in the voices of untrained actors. And I suppose the reverse of that is true—I know some actors who can make even scenes that aren’t quite working sound great.)

What elements of your fiction writing are most influenced by your background as a playwright? And vice-versa, please.

I find dialogue super easy, and I’ve been told the voice in my fiction is strong, probably because even in third person, I sort of think of fiction as one giant monologue. My fiction is extremely spare in its description, since playwrights get to leave all that visual stuff to the director and designers, unless it’s super relevant to the plot.

Alex Highsmith and Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography
As for fiction influencing my playwriting, I can’t really say, since I haven’t written a brand new play since I started focusing on fiction. (The play being produced now pre-dates my fiction writing.) I am in the early stages of developing a new play, and I find myself thinking in terms of many more characters and settings than I should for a play, which is not like a novel in its ability to go to every setting and show every single relevant character who might intersect with the story.

Out with it: which is a more enjoyable process for you, writing novels or writing plays?

This is a really serious toss-up. For the last few years that I’ve been focused on fiction writing, I’ve thought it had to be the winner, for the obvious reason that I get to live in my Ravenclaw sweats and never leave my house. (Also, in all seriousness, the amazing community I’ve found among kid-lit writers puts some serious points in this column.)

But right now I’m in rehearsal for a play—and I should note that having a play in production is distinct from the process of sitting home and writing the play, but still—and I am reminded of how unparalleled the collaborative aspect of theater is.
Joy watching rehearsals: Joe Iano Photography
No one writes my plays for me, or even suggests what I should write. But when a playwright sits in a room and watches directors and actors work together through the scenes, there is so much to mine there. You can see when something just isn’t working, and whether it’s the fault of the script or not. Actors and directors talk about the characters and their backgrounds and their motivations and you get to steal from them and act like you totally meant that all along. And that’s to say nothing of what designers bring to the process. I’m not the tiniest bit visual (even though I’ve written a play about a painter) and it boggles the mind to see the emails between the designers and director go back and forth, trying to nail down exactly what the easel would look like in Baroque Italy, etc.

Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography
So…it’s hard to say. I haven’t sold a novel yet. When I have, it may be an easier comparison. Right now I’ve only had the experience of seeing my writing fully realized with plays, so I suppose my first love gets the win (for now).

Again, I'm so thrilled about BLOOD/WATER/PAINT and hope that if you live in the Seattle area, you'll be able to go see it!

SHOW LOCATION: Theatre Off Jackson
DATES & TIMES: February 20th – March 14th 2015

Thu-Sat @ 8pm, &  Monday, March 9th @ 8pm 

(Free Preview Thurs Feb 19th)



LINKS:
PLAYWRIGHT SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW

JOY'S PLAYWRIGHT BIO:
Joy McCullough-Carranza is a Seattle playwright with a degree in theater from Northwestern University, where she won the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Award for her play fifty cents in the dark. Other plays include After Midnight, Home/LandChasing MonarchsHiding Hannah, Blood/Water/Paint, Trapped, Mud Angel, and Watching for Wolves, and have been developed and produced in New York, Seattle, San Diego, and Chicago, at Manhattan Theatre Source, ACT Theatre, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Mirror Stage Company, Live Girls, the Mae West Fest, 14/48, Seattle Dramatists, Stage Left Theatre, New Village Arts, Lamb’s Players Theatre, and Northwestern University.  She has twice been a finalist for the Actors Theater of Louisville’s Heideman Award.

MORE PRESS PHOTOS:


Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography

Daniel Christensen & Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography

Alex Highsmith and Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography

Ana Maria Campoy, Daniel Christensen, Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography

Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography

Annette Toutonghi and Evelyn DeHais: Joe Iano Photography










Monday, November 3, 2014

The Perfect Gift: Softies by Heather Campbell



Holiday decorations are already flooding stores, which means it's open season on thinking of gifts for our loved ones. When I discovered that my new friend (and fellow Kindergarten mom) Heather Campbell was opening an Etsy shop called Augustine & Isobel to sell her softies, I immediately asked if I could do a blog post on these precious ladies/gentlemen/creatures.

All the softies are special and the custom-made option allows your child to be their own designer (seriously, check out the custom-made softie/sketch below).

I know you started creating softies with your son. Please tell us how you went from making the first one to selling them on your wonderful Etsy shop.

I had been hoping for some time to open an Etsy shop. I knew I wanted to sell softies, but I felt there wasn’t anything that distinguished me from other sellers. I’m a big fangirl when it comes to other softie artists, and what I’ve learned is that each has their own niche. I really wanted to come up with something unique that set me apart—something that other artists didn’t offer.

I carry around a journal that I use to scribble ideas as they come to me, and while we were on vacation, my then four-year-old son took it and started drawing his own “dolls” for me to make. I loved the exuberance and freedom of his drawings—mine are often too controlled and too self-conscious. I knew immediately that I wanted to sew his dolls. I asked him for permission to sew the ones we made, and then I began to think about the possibilities of offering this service to other parents wanting to bring their kids’ drawings to life.

What makes softies a great gift for children (eh-hem blog readers, with the holidays coming up, nothing says “You’re special to me!” like a one-of-a-kind gift for the children in your life)?

It has been so exciting for my son to see his drawings in 3D. He’s been the designer—I’m just a collaborator. I think it’s really powerful for a child to see his or her imagination leap off the page like that.

I think these dolls would make the PERFECT reading/cuddle buddy. What ages do you recommend softies for?

Softies are wonderful for people of all ages! I have a commission right now to make one for an adult. I can make them very sturdy for kiddos to snuggle and child-safe for little ones who like to chew on their toys, but there’s also an artistic quality to them, and adults can enjoy them as well. 

Tell us about the custom-made option on your Etsy shop.
Custom-made doll from child's drawing

I started making dolls for friends’ children, and I would very specifically choose eye color and hair color for each child. I like the idea of a child being able to specifically choose a doll that has the same hair color/skin color/eye color as they do or as maybe a favorite storybook character does.

When I sew a doll based on a child’s drawing, I can incorporate colors from the drawing, or if the drawing is in black and white, I can use the child’s favorite color.

How do you find the time to brainstorm/design/create softies as a busy mom and editor?

Because of my love for stories, these ideas are always flitting around the edge of my brain—I just need to sketch them before I lose them. I find myself doodling at church, in the car, or while I’m waiting for the pediatrician.

As far as construction goes, once I’ve drafted a pattern and cut the fabric, I just sew in bits and pieces while my kids play or do their own craft projects. It’s really fun during the winter, because I’ll set them up with homemade play dough or a pile of markers, and we work on our projects together. When I get close to a deadline, I put in some late hours after the kids are in bed. But the good news is I love these projects, so it’s not like work at all.

LINKS:

HEATHER'S BIO:
Heather Campbell is a stay-at-home-mom/freelance writer and editor/softie artist. She lives in Palmer Lake, Colorado, a quirky small town northwest of Colorado Springs. Heather has a Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature, and was a children’s & teen librarian for six years. She's been writing YA book reviews for School Library Journal for ten years, and seven years ago she began doing freelance editing of nonfiction books. Her Etsy shop, Augustine & Isobel, has been featured in Stuffed Magazine.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Novels as Picture Books: Hans Brinker, by Bruce Coville and Laurel Long

Hans Brinker, Retold by Bruce Coville, Illustrated by Laurel Long

I have long been a fan of Bruce Coville. His books are full of imagination, wonder, fun, humor, suspense, magic, and characters that readers can relate to. I'm also a huge fan of my public library system. My daughters and I are at one (or both) of our local branches 3-5 times a week and we always load up on two things:

1. Nonfiction picture books relating to animals/insects (my 5-year-old gravitates toward the hairless creatures: Komodo dragons, dung beetles, spiders, sharks, fleas, etc. I once said, "How about something with a little bit of fur?" and she picked the muskrat book) 

2. Picture books

I was beyond delighted to discover this 2007 retelling of Hans Brinker because a) the cover and illustrations are absolutely enchanting and b) I read the novel (by Mary Mapes Dodge, first published in 1865) as a young girl and upon our return home, found my copy:


For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here's a short summary:

Set against a backdrop of Holland's frozen canals in a winter wonderland, the year's most exciting event in a little Dutch village is about to take place. But will Hans Brinker and his sister Gretel, with their hand-carved wooden skates, be able to compete against their well-trained young friends who own fine steel blades?

The novel is full of Dutch historical and cultural information and was a bestseller upon publication. By today's standards, young Hans might be seen as too good to be true (as noted by Mr. Coville in his Author's Note). We tend to like our characters multi-layered and a bit more flawed than the almost-perfectly virtuous Hans. But I would argue that the heart of Hans Brinker remains something that even the cynical among us can't deny is pretty darn nice~ the heart of the book tells us that children like Hans~ sturdy, loyal, kind, good~ do indeed exist and have traits that all of us, even the most flawed, can take something useful from. 

I had a wonderful sense of nostalgia while reading this picture book to my girls. It's not easy to condense a novel's essence and capture plot points in a way that honors the original and doesn't confuse those unfamiliar with the story, but Bruce Coville's retelling of Hans Brinker does all of that. His Author's Note at the end of the book is fantastic as well, making excellent observations about the original book's meaning and Hans's place in the world of literary characters.

Laurel Long's illustrations are magical. There's nothing more I can say.

Have you read any exceptional novel-to-picture-book retellings? Please let me know in the comments!

I'll leave you with a few images from the book and encourage you to either buy it and add it to your home collection permanently or check it out from your local library.






Author's Note



Back of the book




Friday, September 26, 2014

An Upcoming Middle Grade Book You Don't Want To Miss: The Troubles of Johnny Cannon (review & giveaway)

It’s hard to create a unique character and plot these days. People might say, “Oh, a boarding school? You’re stealing from Harry Potter!” or “That character with a beloved dog is straight out of Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Because of Winn Dixie!” Well, folks, I’ve found an original voice that nobody can deny is something unique and fresh. Welcome to the world, Mr. Johnny Cannon!

The Troubles of Johnny Cannon by Isaiah Campbell will be released on October 14 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Here's a summary:

Johnny Cannon’s got problems. Money is scarce. Martha Macker, the girl he likes, barely knows he’s alive. His best friend Willie is pretty great, but he also happens to be a black kid—which is not exactly acceptable in Cullman, Alabama. His big brother Tommy went to war and vanished. His Pa may be committing treason in their backyard. And just when it seems like things couldn’t get worse, an old family friend—or maybe enemy—appears and shakes everything up. How’s a kid like Johnny supposed to get himself and his family out of a mess that’s stickier than molasses and twice as tangled as a spiderweb?

What we want more than anything as readers is to feel like we’re in the capable hands of a storyteller—to be swept into another world naturally and vividly. Campbell has the gift of a natural storyteller and a main character with a voice that caused Newbery medalist Richard Peck to describe The Troubles of Johnny Cannon like this: 

"A boy with a highly original voice winces his way into the bewildering world of adults during a neglected moment in American history."

Campbell’s characters are flawed, which is where the authenticity comes in. He’s also not afraid to address the more shameful parts of our past because these things are our past and by addressing them, young readers will get an important reminder of historical injustices and maybe even internally compare them to the injustices that they still see around them in today’s world. It’s not easy to read about things like racism, but I would argue that the most difficult scenes to read in a book are often the ones that stay with us—that touch us deeply and leave a mark.



One of the most amazing things to me is that Campbell manages to develop deep and sensitive subject matter while he weaves a rollicking tale with twists, turns, friendship, and troubles galore. Holy excitement, Batman! This novel’s got it all. I won’t spoil the incredible ending, but I’ll tell you this—Johnny Cannon is a legend in the making. There’s already a sequel scheduled to come out next year, so you better hurry up and buy the first one now!




I believe in this book so much that I’m going to pre-order a copy for one lucky person leaving a comment. I’ll announce a winner on Friday, October 3.UPDATE: The winner is Linda Baie!


Any favorite character voices among books you've read? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pumpkins: The Novel of the Gardening World (and the latest book from a favorite MG author~ w/ giveaway!)

Pumpkin patch on 9-14-14
Pumpkins are one of those plants (technically fruits) that you have to wait for. They sprout fairly quickly, which gives you something to get excited about, but the process seems to drag on forever. Pumpkins, which are already available for plucking from enormous cardboard boxes outside of my local grocery store, are a lesson in patience.

My daughter and I planted the pumpkins in this photo months ago and have watched the vines grow, been delighted by the appearance of tiny yellow balls, thinned away certain plants to let the others grow better, and now we're just watching them get bigger. We're waiting. It's no use trying to hurry them along~ they'll get done when they get done.

Sound familiar? Novel writing can be a lengthy and exhausting process. Moments of excitement are followed by slogging through paragraphs that attempt to move the plot forward~ paragraphs that you know will need to be cut eventually, but at the time aid in helping you get to where you need to be in the story. Extra vines, if you will. And paragraphs of brilliance, little golden gems that delight the writer, are sometimes just disguising themselves as the same thing. Darlings that will need to be pruned for the greater good of the patch.

The pumpkins shown above would benefit from another 30 days of growth, but I'm not sure they'll get it. Unfortunately I live in a place where this sort of thing happens quite early (see other photo): SNOW.
My front porch, 09-12-14
These very short glimpses of winter threaten to shut down the entire pumpkin operation. You can cover the patch with canvas tarps, you can invest in snow-proof electric blankets to keep them cozy until Colorado changes its seasonal mindset the following day, or you can move to a more produce-friendly state. I didn't do any of those things when the snow hit last Friday, but the pumpkins seem to have survived all on their own. Tough little guys. They must really want to finish growing and get carved up as jack-o-lanterns.

In closing, don't let a few unexpected storms ruin your novels, er, pumpkins (see, now I'm getting them confused and to be fair, short stories and picture books can take just as long to "bear fruit," but my writing experience is mainly with children's novels). A growing novel is a hungry, stubborn, tough little thing, so don't give up on it.

Random fact from this fun picture book we picked up from the library: The Maxima pumpkin variety can gain as much as 5 POUNDS A DAY.


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OKAY, GIVEAWAY TIME! *UPDATE: The winner is Julia Tomiak! Congratulations, Julia! Shoot me an email with your address and I'll ship it to you :)


One of my favorite middle grade authors is Stuart Gibbs. He's written the The Last Musketeer series (The Last Musketeer, Traitor's Chase, and Double Cross), the Spy School series (Spy School, Spy Camp), and the Fun Jungle series (Belly Up, Poached). I happened to get my hands on an advanced copy of his latest, SPACE CASE (which will be released tomorrow), and absolutely loved it.

It's an adventurous murder mystery with an amazing setting (Moon Base Alpha!), always-stellar Gibbs humor, and a full cast of characters/suspects. I want to pass it along to a lucky reader so just leave a comment and consider yourself entered in the giveaway. The pages have only been touched once and it's a shiny, like-brand-new copy :) *UPDATE: Winner is Julia Tomiak

Book Description:
Like his fellow lunarnauts—otherwise known as Moonies—living on Moon Base Alpha, twelve-year-old Dashiell Gibson is famous the world over for being one of the first humans to live on the moon.

And he’s bored out of his mind. Kids aren’t allowed on the lunar surface, meaning they’re trapped inside the tiny moon base with next to nothing to occupy their time—and the only other kid Dash’s age spends all his time hooked into virtual reality games.

Then Moon Base Alpha’s top scientist turns up dead. Dash senses there’s foul play afoot, but no one believes him. Everyone agrees Dr. Holtz went onto the lunar surface without his helmet properly affixed, simple as that. But Dr. Holtz was on the verge of an important new discovery, Dash finds out, and it’s a secret that could change everything for the Moonies—a secret someone just might kill to keep...