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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Need for Strong Female Characters: Guest Post by Sherel Ott

Today I'm pleased to be handing the blog over to Sherel Ott, author of Princess Janai and the Warrior Maidens of Quinu: The Cities of Tonga and Tongia.

Here's Sherel, with a post on strong female characters. Be sure to check out the links and giveaway at the bottom of the post!

I have four nieces, who at the time that I decided to write Princess Janai and the Warrior Maidens of Quinu: The Cities of Tonga and Topngia were between the ages of four and nine.  As an avid collector of animation movies, I had noticed that there were not a lot of positive, strong women of color on the big screen or in a book for them to identify with in a positive way and dream to be just like that person.

I found it offensive that women of color were portrayed and valued for their physical assets, dancing skills or trying to scheme their way up the ladder as if they did not have a mind or the ability to make it to the top on their own.  I also had noticed that a lot of the female heroine characters were timid, needing direction, guidance and rescuing. I wanted to show the girls and women, in general, that they don’t need to be like that if they can believe in themselves. Society has devalued women and made them devalue themselves so much that they believe that in order to be whole or fulfilled, they have to be part of a couple and that they are weak otherwise.  I wanted women and girls to see themselves as being capable of handling any situation on their own.

I decided to write this book for the middle-school aged/tween genre because it is during this time that girls AND boys formulate who they are and learn to either value or devalue themselves based on the information or feedback that they get from the other people they interact with.

I think we should start when they are young to help teach girls to love themselves and see themselves for who they are and not depend on someone else to tell them or validate them on how beautiful or popular they are or if they’re smart or dumb. Because of things like this, society has put labels on people and try to make them fit into certain category. When we don’t fit into any particular category that they deem appropriate, they then try to make them fit by attacking their character, making them doubt themselves, having them compare themselves to others (whom they say are beautiful, smart and socially acceptable) instead of letting them be their own unique, individual self. This is how we cause a lot of identity issues and self-esteem problems with girls and boys.

Each book in the series will highlight different problems/issues that girls will go through growing up, helping them to navigate some of the pitfalls.  I don’t expect to reach all the girls, but I do hope to reach quite a few girls and instill in them the value of their own self-worth.  I want girls and women to know that yes we may be the fairer and “weaker” sex, but that does not mean that we are weak; that we can be strong of mind and character and that yes with training, we can be strong of body as well. Women can be cunning, industrious and inventive just like men.  We can stand on our own, support ourselves and our families if need be. Women are just as POWERFUL as men.

Even though my books are for girls, because of the issues and problems that the characters will be facing in the book, it will be good for guys as well.  The problems and issues will not solely be narrowed to just female situations, but can be broad enough to be issues that boys can identify with as well. They too will go through some of these same problems with possibly a different variation and this will help them to be able to identify with some of the situations and problems in their own live and help them to grow and solve them and provide them with different coping skills as opposed to aggression and anger.

About Princess Janai and the Warrior Maidens of Quinu: The Cities of Tonga and Tongia

All Janai wants is to be just like everyone else. Being the Princess and having to try out for the Warrior Maidens is just part of her problems. She has the present Warrior leader unhappy with the fact that she is trying out, because that means her time is almost up and she enjoys her “status” too much to give it up without a fight. Not to mention someone just froze two of her guards into living statues with the fabled Mist Flowers of Tonga. Now she and a small group of warriors must travel to a forbidden city and obtain the antidote before the two guards are lost forever…all in 24 hours. Is she capable? Will she make it in time?

About Sherel Ott

An eclectic collector of animation movies, Sherel Ott is a writer of fantasy and romance stories. One day while watching an animated movie, she noticed that there weren’t a lot of movies or books with girls of color in leading roles…as heroines, adventurers or with strong moral characters and wondered… Where were the influential leaders, doctors, lawyers or royalty of color? Why weren’t there any strong black female characters where a girl of color could be proud of her skin color and the type of person representing and say … “I want to be like her!” Wanting something more for her own nieces to look up to and strive to emulate, other than what girls of color were currently being portrayed as or should settle for is how her book initially took form. She wanted to show that there are black princesses, warriors, adventurers of all walks of life. That she should be and can be recognized for what she does and who her true self is, not be prejudged by what color her skin was.

As a fan of all fantasy, magical, mystical, celestial and other worldly creatures, Sherel began reading sci-fi/fantasy stories at a young age.

"I have always been a sci-fi and fantasy type of person. I always felt as a child that I belonged in those types of worlds rather than here. Reading them had always been my way of escaping from my shyness as a child." Sherel Ott. She had started collecting fairies of all types and now has a mini collection of collectible faery ornament to decorate her Christmas tree every year.

Sherel creates her stories first by writing them out and then typing them on the computer. She feels she gets her inspiration greatest when she writes and from nature itself. She strives to present her stories in a way that anyone can relate and identify with no matter how old or young...with a little fun, a little action/adventure, yet with a hidden message. Writing since the age of 14, her first published book--Adventures of Princess Janai and the Warrior Maidens of Quinu: The Cities of Tonga and Tongia -- brings a story of strong African American females. It's an adventure series particularly geared towards girls, although boys will also find it an enjoyable read.

When Sherel is not writing, she is working as a full-time Family Nurse Practitioner and has been so for the past 17 years. She presently resides in Felton, DE.
Social Links:
Webpage: http://www.sherelott.com/                
Facebook:  Sherel Ott Author    
Twitter:  @SherelOttAuthor

Where to Purchase: Amazon

Radio Appearance (information via Sherel's marketing staff): Please join us tomorrow, August 13th, for a live online interview with Sherel and Literary Diva, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/diva29 at 1:00p.m. EDT. If you miss the interview, it will be available later in the day on Literary Diva’s site and Sherel’s.

Other Blog Stops on the Tour: Check where Sherel is each day on her ten day tour by clicking here: http://www.sherelott.com/virtual-book-blog-tour-schedule/.
1st Prize: $50 Amazon.com gift certificate and signed copy of Princess Janai and the Warrior Maidens of Quinu: The Cities of Tonga and Tongia

2nd Prize: $25 Amazon.com gift certificate and signed copy of Princess Janai and the Warrior Maidens of Quinu: The Cities of Tonga and Tongia

3rd Prize: $10 Amazon.com gift certificate and signed copy of Princess Janai and the Warrior Maidens of Quinu: The Cities of Tonga and Tongia
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Giveaway via Facebook (click link)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Decatur Book Festival, Here I Come!

Hi All!

What are you doing over Labor Day weekend this year? How about a trip to Decatur, Georgia for some literary delights? With categories ranging from fiction to journalism, food & cooking to feminism, the Decatur Book Festival will have authors and literature in attendance for every reader.

I'll be on the Children's Stage, which will also host lots of folks you've heard of~ Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks series), Ingrid Law (Savvy, Scumble, and the upcoming Switch), Adam Gidwitz (Dark and Grimm series), Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone series, Chasing Secrets), Rodman Philbrick (The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg and Freak the Mighty), and lots more! (full children's author list HERE)


One month from today, on Sunday, September 6th, I'll be on the Children's Stage with MEG CABOT (!!!), author of The Princess Diaries and many other books. I just read her new MG Princess Diaries spinoff, From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess and loved it. Here's some information about our session:

Happily Ever After
Children's Stage at Decatur Recreation Center presented by Decatur Education Foundation

Sunday, 3:45-4:15

Sometimes, life takes unexpected twists and turns! Meg Cabot (From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess) and Jessica Lawson (Nooks and Crannies) weave tales of ordinary girls finding extraordinary adventure!

Session Link: https://www.decaturbookfestival.com/sessions/view/5571c5c729b076a6559ad505

Full Children's Stage Schedule:https://www.decaturbookfestival.com/sessions/index/venue:555f31f4171201f16269c735

Festival Website: https://www.decaturbookfestival.com/

Hope to see you there!

Friday, June 19, 2015


Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There's no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again.
Crenshaw is a cat. He's large, he's outspoken, and he's imaginary. He has come back into Jackson's life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?
CRENSHAW is Katherine Applegate's follow-up to her Newbery Medal winner, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. I was lucky enough to read an ARC. It took me just two reading sessions, which is unusual for me (I only have time for personal reading at night, and by then it's hard for me to stay awake long).
I'm still processing all of my feelings about this story, but please know that this is a gorgeous, heartbreaking book that made me smile, and cry, and hope. It is the very best kind of MG book, and I hope it reaches as many readers as possible. It's an important book to share. It comes out on September 22 of this year, and I hope you read it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

NOOKS & CRANNIES release day!

It's release day for Nooks & Crannies!

Tabitha Crum is a girl with a big imagination and a love for mystery novels, though her parents think her only talent is being a nuisance. She doesn't have a friend in the world, except her pet mouse, Pemberley, with whom she shares her dingy attic bedroom.

Then, on the heels of a rather devastating announcement made by her mother and father, Tabitha receives a mysterious invitation to the country estate of the wealthy but reclusive Countess of Windermere, whose mansion is rumored to be haunted. There, she finds herself among five other children, none of them sure why they've been summoned. But soon, a very big secret will be revealed— a secret that will change their lives forever and put Tabitha’s investigative skills to the test.

I owe a huge thanks to lit agent Tina Wexler, editor Kristin Ostby, all the folks at Simon & Schuster, cover artist & illustrator Natalie Andrewson, and, of course my beloved critique partners (looking at you Joy, Tara, Becky, and Ann!).

I'll be around the blogosphere this month, doing some giveaways:

June 2: Leandra Wallace's blog

June 5: LitPick on Facebook

June 12: Julia Tomiak's blog

June 17: Literary Rambles (I'm interviewing my agent Tina Wexler and she's giving away a query critique!)

June 18: Project Middle Grade Mayhem

If you don't happen to win, hey, feel free to buy my book! Or ask for it at your local library! There will also be an audiobook out at the end of the month, via Dreamscape. We've sold rights in Germany and France, so those versions should be available at some point as well, if you happen to speak German or French.

If you want more information to decide whether or not this book might be be your cup of tea, you can check out reviews in Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus.

Oh! Also out today are three books that I'm dying to read, so check these out as well:


That's all from me~ have a happy June!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Nooks & Crannies: One-Month-Until-Release ARC Giveaway!!!

Hi All!

My second book, Nooks & Crannies, comes out on June 2nd and I'll be doing a few giveaways next month on various blogs, but wanted to offer up one of the early copies here. It was pitched to Simon & Schuster as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue. The cover and interior illustrations were done by the very talented Natalie Andrewson.

Here's a summary:

Tabitha Crum is a girl with a big imagination and a love for mystery novels, though her parents think her only talent is being a nuisance. She doesn't have a friend in the world, except her pet mouse, Pemberley, with whom she shares her dingy attic bedroom.
Then, on the heels of a rather devastating announcement made by her mother and father, Tabitha receives a mysterious invitation to the country estate of the wealthy but reclusive Countess of Windermere, whose mansion is rumored to be haunted. There, she finds herself among five other children, none of them sure why they've been summoned. But soon, a very big secret will be revealed— a secret that will change their lives forever and put Tabitha’s investigative skills to the test.

So if you don't want to wait a month to find out what sort of secrets are revealed at Hollingsworth Hall, just leave a comment below to be entered in the giveaway. I'll pick a winner via Random.org on Sunday, May 10th. UPDATE: The winner is Tania del Rio! Congrats Tania! I'll try to get in touch via Twitter and you can let me know an address to ship the ARC to :)

Here are snippets from early reviews:

"Packed with the delicious elements—hidden passages, unexplained noises, suspicious servants—of a traditional British mystery, Lawson’s story will keep readers engagingly puzzled throughout its multilayered twists and tangles... Well thought-out and deftly executed, Lawson’s novel will appeal to a wide audience." -Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW                  

"Original, engaging, and funny.... The writing is beautiful, expertly capturing all the suspense, hope, and love in the story.... A delightful gem that will fly off the shelves."
— School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW                  

"This loving homage to classic mysteries... offers a compelling puzzle, vividly drawn characters, and a clever and capable young detective" -ALA Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

"In the grand tradition of Roald Dahl. . . . A plucky amateur detective, secret passages, exaggerated characters, concealed identities, and dastardly villains equal a swell mystery."            
— Kirkus Reviews

Have a wonderful week!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Happy Anniversary! Kick Drum Heart

Today is the anniversary of my marriage~ in honor of my hubby, may I present an incredibly cheesy, lovey-dovey video that somebody put together on YouTube. 

So, no, that's not me and hubby in the video. Nor do we have a dog. Unfortunately. I would like a dog one of these days. Maybe as an anniversary gift. Chris? Are you reading this? Because this one's for you (and also, that dog idea is a good one for a couple of years from now. Feel free to use it. I'll act surprised J.)

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!
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:)


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.