Why Verse? An Interview with Joy McCullough

I’m working on a new novel these days, and I very much want to write it in past tense, but it very much wants to be written in present tense. Nearly every time I get into a good writing zone with this book, my verbs slide right into present tense. Maybe my subconscious knows more than I do about what the book needs.

It’s so interesting to me how different stories come to writers in present tense or past tense, first person or third person, or even in more unusual formats, such as epistolary or verse. That’s why I enjoyed talking to A.B. Rutledge and Jen Petro-Roy last month about writing epistolary novels, and that’s why I’m so excited to talk to my friend and fellow debut author Joy McCullough about her forthcoming YA verse novel. 

Joy writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate.

Her debut novel, Blood Water Paint, is due out from Dutton Books for Young Readers on March 6, 2018. It’s based on the true story of the seventeenth-century painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, and it is a captivating, courageous, completely inspiring novel.

Here’s a bit more about Blood Water Paint, pulled from the publisher’s description:

Artemesia was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

It’s a special, special book. And as I read an advance copy, I was struck by how beautifully the verse format fit the story, especially because I knew Joy had written other books that were not in verse. Here’s what Joy had to say about the format of her stunning novel!

Laurie: Why did you choose to write Blood Water Paint in verse?

Joy: First I should say that I have never written poetry. Several years ago, I worked with Laura Shovan on her MG verse novel in Pitchwars, but when I selected her, I made clear that I knew NOTHING about verse. I was there to critique the story, characters, etc.

And then the next year in Pitchwars I selected Ellie Terry’s MG verse novel Forget Me Not. And a couple years later I picked another gorgeous YA verse novel, which hasn’t yet been published (but should be!). I found I really loved how verse cut right to heart of a story.

Finally, tentatively, I began a manuscript in partial verse. That book didn’t sell, but it got me my agent, and it built my confidence with verse. When I was trying to figure out what to work on next, one of the pitches I gave my agent was the idea to adapt a play I had written about Artemisia Gentileschi into a YA novel. He was super into it.

So—and now I start to actually answer your question—in part I felt like verse would be a good choice, because I was used to thinking of this story as a play. And plays are very bare bones. Everything is stripped away but dialogue.  Economy of language is SO important. There can’t be a single excess word. Verse is the same.

And also, this is an emotionally difficult story. Verse has a way of allowing the writer—and reader—straight into the emotional core. I think writing and reading this story in prose would be brutal. Things would have to be described that, in verse, don’t need to be spelled out. The reader gets there with just a nudge.

Laurie: That’s fascinating that you were so drawn to other writers’ verse novels well before you thought about trying the format yourself. And I see what you mean about verse being well-suited to a story that’s as raw and emotionally difficult as this one.

What do you think the verse format enabled you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

Joy: As I was saying above, verse allowed me to depict some really brutal things I wouldn’t depict in prose. It would be possible, but it would be a very different sort of novel, one I didn’t want to write.

I think the verse format makes this really difficult story more accessible for readers. It’s common for people to have a perception that verse is poetry and poetry is hard. But I think those people are mentally stuck analyzing dead white guy poetry in boring English classes. The rhythm, the economy of language, and the emotional core are all aspects of verse that I believe really appeal to young readers, especially.

Laurie: That’s a great point. Verse novels were often popular among students I taught for a lot of the reasons you name. What was the biggest challenge in using verse for this book?

Joy: I spent a lot of years working on Blood/Water/Paint, the play. So I knew the story and characters inside and out. I thought. But a play is all dialogue and action. It’s extremely external. The internal is up to the actors. And verse is extremely internal, and usually has minimal dialogue. So that was a huge shift for me. In a way it was wonderful. I thought I knew all there was to know about Artemisia. And suddenly I was looking at the story from inside her head in a very different way than I ever had before. But it was also a challenge, for sure.

That’s so interesting that on the one hand, both plays and verse novels have a “bare bones” quality, as you said, but then they are opposites in some ways, too.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Joy! Fans of verse novels (and/or fans of empowering, inventive, gorgeously written, feminist books) can preorder Blood Water Paint from IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. And I plan to be back later this month with a second “why verse?” interview with Cordelia Jensen!

Why Epistolary? Part 2: An Interview with Debut Author Jen Petro-Roy

You know that feeling when you’re reading a really good book, and you’re so desperate to know what’s going to happen that you hurry through the pages even though you also don’t want the story to be over?

That’s how I felt with Jen Petro-Roy’s middle-grade debut, P.S. I Miss You. The book is written as a series of letters from the charming and earnest Evie to her older sister Cilla, and the intimacy of that epistolary format contributed to making the book so impossible for me to put down.

I’m a sucker for a good epistolary novel…but I also recognize the challenges a writer encounters when structuring a novel as a series of letters, diary entries, or messages of another kind. Since Jen rocked the format, I was eager to interview her in this second installment of my “Why Epistolary?” series.

If you missed the first installment with A.B. Rutledge, definitely check that one out, too. But for now, meet Jen!

Jen Petro-Roy is a former teen librarian, an obsessive reader, and a trivia fanatic. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in Massachusetts.

And here’s the summary for Jen’s dazzling novel, which is due out March 6, 2018 from Feiwel and Friends:

Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters.

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

P.S. I MISS YOU by Jen Petro-Roy is a heartfelt middle grade novel dealing with faith, identity, and finding your way in difficult times.

It’s definitely heartfelt. And heartbreaking and heartwarming, too. Here’s what Jen had to say when I asked her about the format she chose!

Laurie: Why did you choose to write the novel as a series of letters from Evie to Cilla?

Jen: I’ve always loved epistolary novels–there’s something about the format that cuts straight to the heart of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling. In journals, texts, and letters, there’s no intermediary, no narrator to bring focus away from the thoughts and feelings that are so deeply held. I’ve played around with ideas before, but I didn’t get inspired for P.S. I Miss You until I re-read a book by one of my favorite childhood authors: Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary. I was amazed at how much Cleary conveyed in those letters, and my protagonist, Evie, and her journey toward self-discovery and negotiating family relationships, sprung from that form.

Laurie: You’re so right about the way the format gives the reader such intense, direct access to a protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. And I re-read Dear Mr. Henshaw as an adult, too, and I agree that we learn so much from those letters in a way that feels natural rather than clunky. That’s something you managed to pull off with Evie, as well.

What do you think the specific epistolary format enabled you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

Jen: As I mentioned, epistolary novels–in my book’s case, letters specifically–let you dive inside the mind of the letter writer. In her letters to her older sister, Cilla, Evie is honest about how she feels about Cilla’s pregnancy and the deep religious beliefs of her parents. Without that face-to-face interaction, letter writing lets Evie express more of her emotion, because there’s no face-to-face judgment, something that is a huge concern to her family otherwise. I love how the format let me play with varying chapter lengths, use cross-outs, and play with time, too.

Laurie: I love that the letters to Cilla end up functioning almost as diary entries because of the lack of face-to-face judgment, but at the same time there’s more urgency than there might be with diary entries since Evie wants so much for Cilla to respond, and that desire is so palpable in the book.

And that’s fun that you were able to be really playful in some ways even though, I’m sure, the format required you to be painstaking in other ways. Speaking of which, what was the biggest challenge in using the format you chose?

Jen: For me, the biggest challenge was making sure that the letters fit with the calendar. During revisions, I had to make sure that letters “arrived” in a time that made sense with the post office, and that the dates on the letters matched the seasons and other holidays and school events. That was rather headache-inducing, to be sure!

Yikes, that’s headache-inducing just thinking about that process! But I’m so glad you figured out all of those complicated logistics to bring Evie’s powerful story to life in this compelling way.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Jen! For fellow fans of epistolary novels, or heartfelt middle grade, funny middle grade, middle grade with LQBTQIA themes…I could go on…you can preorder P.S. I Miss You here, here, or here!

Why Epistolary? An Interview with Debut Author A. B. Rutledge

During the first year of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was working on a manuscript that wasn’t quite cooperating. The voice wasn’t quite interesting enough, and the story didn’t have quite enough urgency.

My advisor at the time, the brilliant author Franny Billingsley, suggested that I might be able to give the narrative more energy if I gave my main character an audience to address.

Some of my favorite books are told in an epistolary format, meaning that they are structured as a series of letters, emails, or other types of messages, so I was excited to turn my uncooperative manuscript into an epistolary novel. Sure enough, the voice came to life when I structured it as an extended letter…but the new structure brought with it a lot of challenges, too. There were certain things, for instance, that I needed the reader to know but wasn’t sure my character would really write in a letter. And sometimes the things I thought she would write didn’t really advance the story.

I recently got to read advance copies of two fabulous epistolary novels that are due out in 2018 and that absolutely rock the format—A.B. Rutledge’s Miles Away from You and Jen Petro-Roy’s P.S. I Miss You. Both of these books manage to be heartbreaking, hopeful, and hilarious, and I was eager to ask both authors about how their structures shaped their storytelling and how they navigated the tricky parts of the epistolary format.

Today I’m hosting A.B. to talk about her experience writing an unconventional kind of narrative, and I’ll be back next week to host Jen.

So, without further ado, meet A.B. Rutledge! A.B. is an optician from Southeast Missouri. She likes ’90s alternative music, dresses with pockets, and leaving Halloween decorations up all year long. When she’s not up at 3 a.m. scribbling out stories, you can find her in her art studio covered in paper scraps, paint, and cats.

Her incredible debut, Miles Away from You, is about a lovable, funny, grieving teen named Miles. Here’s the summary:

It’s been three years since Miles fell for Vivian, a talented and dazzling transgender girl. Eighteen months since a suicide attempt left Vivian on life support. Now Miles isn’t sure who he is without her, but knows it’s time to figure out how to say goodbye.

He books a solo trip to Iceland but then has a hard time leaving the refuge of his hotel room. After a little push from Oskar, a local who is equal parts endearing and aloof, Miles decides to honor Vivian’s life by photographing her treasured Doc Martens standing empty against the surreal landscapes. With each step he takes, Miles finds his heart healing–even as he must accept that Vivian, still in a coma, will never recover.

Told through a series of instant messages to Vivian, this quirky and completely fresh novel explores love, loss, and the drastic distances we sometimes have to travel in order to move on.

Sounds awesome, right? It truly is. And as I read it, I kept thinking that there was no way it could have been as awesome as it is without the format A.B. chose. Here’s what she had to say about that format!

Laurie: How did you choose to structure your book as a series of messages?

A.B.: I liked the idea of my main character spilling his guts out to someone who can’t see his messages or reply. In a way, what Miles is doing is just for himself, but at the same time he’s working out all his struggles by telling them to the person he loves most in the world. There’s a lot of intimacy in instant messaging conversations. Some of the truest things I’ve ever said have taken place in online spaces and I wanted to see if I could work with fiction that same way.

Laurie: I love that point about the intimacy of instant messaging, and that intimacy definitely infuses all of Miles’s messages. What do you think the specific format enabled you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

A.B.: I got to play with words a little more than I might have typically been allowed. We get to see Miles’s sense of humor in the way he bangs his hands on the keyboard to approximate the way Icelandic sounds to him. I also got to do some fun things with punctuation. I think it’s secretly every YA writer’s dream to get by with using three question marks in a row.

Laurie: Yes! It’s amazing how much you can reveal about a character just based on (occasionally unconventional) punctuation usage. And that playfulness with language and punctuation is a lot of what made Miles feel so real to me. What was the biggest challenge in using the format you chose?

A.B.: When I was doing edits with my agent, she asked me to describe Miles in the book and I had the hardest time figuring out how or why he’d describe himself to his own girlfriend, but I managed to pull it off by having him look at a painting they’d done together and later by having another character compare him to a celebrity. But I’ve always thought the interesting thing about epistolary works was that they don’t do a lot of character descriptions. You can picture Miles however you like. I promise I won’t mind.

Laurie: Very smart, sneaky workarounds in both cases. And I love that even the cover of your book invites readers to picture Miles however they want. (How gorgeous is this cover, by the way?)

I think it can also be a challenge to include other kinds of visual descriptions in epistolary novels if the person that the main character is addressing has already seen the places where scenes in the book take place. The fact that Miles is in Iceland—a place that is new to him and that Vivian never knew—seems to allow you to incorporate plenty of visual descriptions without them feeling clunky in the epistolary format.

Thanks so much, A.B. for chatting with me about your completely original novel. For fellow epistolary fans (or, really, fans of great storytelling in general), you can preorder the book on IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon!

The Problem of Parents in Middle Grade Fiction

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the portrayal of parents in middle grade novels. There are all sorts of challenges when it comes to creating parent characters in books for kids. For instance, how do you get the parents out of the way so that your middle-school-aged characters can get themselves into enough trouble that you have a story? How do you even refer to them if you’re writing in the third person (Mom? Mr. So-and-So? Patsy?)?

But I’m especially interested in the challenge of how to create nuanced, sympathetic parent characters in books that are told from a kid’s perspective…when, and I hope I’m not shocking anyone here…kids don’t always see their parents in nuanced, sympathetic ways.

Paterson’s article “People I Have Known” appears in this anthology, which is full of lovely, insightful speeches and essays.

In an article from 1987 called “People I Have Known,” the inimitable Katherine Paterson articulated this challenge, writing, “Often children will ask me about the parents in my books. ‘Why are they so mean?’ is a question I’ve gotten more than a few times about Jesse Aarons’s parents in the book Bridge to Terabithia. I use the occasion to try to help young readers understand point of view. All the parents in my stories are seen from their children’s point of view, and it has been my experience that children are very seldom fair in their judgments of their parents. I hope I’ve sent all my questioners home to take another, more objective look not only at my book, but at their own parents, most of whom, I dare say, are like the parents in Bridge to Terabithia, doing the best they can under trying circumstances.”

I love this quote because, well, it’s from Katherine Paterson, and she’s amazing, but also, I think it captures something amazing about the power of books.

Readers can be so completely inside a character’s mindset that they understand, empathize with, and even adopt that character’s impressions of other people and interactions. BUT books can also leave room for readers to see a bit beyond the point-of-view character’s perspective and take, as Paterson put it, a “more objective look.” Sometimes it might take a conversation with someone else (a teacher, a fellow reader, Katherine Paterson herself if you’re really lucky) to think about secondary characters more objectively, but sometimes readers will do that on their own.

As Paterson suggests, that more objective look can allow readers to recognize things the main character is not able to appreciate…and perhaps that experience of seeing through a character’s point of view and around the edges of it can allow a reader to broaden his or her own point of view and think about other people (possibly even parents!) in more compassionate ways.

But Paterson also makes it clear that, while a “wise reader” will recognize the limitations of her characters’ points of view, she would rather have readers accept their views as completely correct than weaken her stories to give other characters a better chance at being likable. It’s okay with her, in other words, if readers end up thinking of Jess Aarons’s parents as mean.

But what if you’re trying to write a book that won’t quite work if readers don’t sense that a character’s take on her parents (or other characters) is not the whole story?

That’s the case with Cordelia Jensen and my forthcoming middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the narrator of my sections of the book, Lauren, is so hurt, angry, and afraid that she misunderstands her parents’ motivations and sees them in a negative light that they don’t completely deserve.

When I worked on the book, I had to walk a fine line between maintaining the raw, intimate feel of Lauren’s point of view and offering clear signals that her parents are flawed but not terrible people who are, in Paterson’s words, “doing the best they can under trying circumstances.”

Even though I, as the adult creator of these people, could see around the edges of Lauren’s point of view and sympathize with her parents, it was very difficult for me to spot moments where I could show the nuances of their emotions and reactions. As I got into Lauren’s character, my blinders were just as narrowing as hers were.

I needed other readers who were not inside Lauren’s head to pay special attention to the portrayal of Lauren’s parents so that they could help me figure out out how to take “an objective look” at key moments with them. That helped me think about what Lauren would realistically notice about her parents’ emotional reactions and nonverbal behavior (and could therefore bring to readers’ attention) but not understand because of the limits of her point of view. (This is one thing I’ve learned recently, after having written and revised several books: if there’s a specific issue you are struggling with, it can be so helpful to have a beta reader read the whole book looking specifically for that one issue and nothing else.)

It’s a tricky business, portraying parents in a realistic way without breaking out of an authentic point of view or letting them take over the story, especially when it’s important to a book that parents don’t come across as just plain mean (though as Katherine Paterson suggests, sometimes that’s not important). I’d love to hear about some middle grade novels other people love that manage to hint at the trying circumstances parents are dealing with, even when the main character isn’t always conscious of the parents’ struggles!

A Love Letter to 2015-Me and Anyone Struggling to Attain Their Writing/Publishing Goals

Recently, I’ve been pondering what to say to writers I know who are struggling to get an agent, or who have an agent but have not yet gotten that elusive book deal.

It’s especially hard to say something that’s honest and encouraging but not condescending or minimizing when talking to a writer who has already worked very hard to improve her craft and is receiving complimentary passes (and I learned from my friend and co-author Cordelia Jensen to use the word “pass” rather than the word “rejection”). By “complimentary pass,” I mean a response in which an agent or editor praises specific things about a book but then says something like, “I just didn’t love it quite enough,” or, “I just didn’t connect in the way I’d hoped.”

This kind of pass is encouraging, because a professional in the publishing field sees much to like in what you’ve written, and that could very well mean the right agent or editor match is right around the corner. And these passes are completely understandable considering how much time, energy, and passion an agent or editor needs to put into a project to see it all the way through the publication process.

But these complimentary passes can also feel extremely disempowering, especially if you receive a lot of them.

Especially, especially if you receive a lot of them on more than one book, the way I did when I was on submission with three different books between the end of 2013 and the middle of 2016.

Recently on Twitter, two fellow 2018 debut authors, Joy McCullough and K.A. Reynolds, posted threads for people hoping to be chosen for PitchWars. They shared wisdom they’ve gained from their winding paths toward getting a book deal, and I really appreciated what they both said. Here’s Joy’s thread, and here’s Kristin’s. Their comments are inspiring and positive, and they also validate the disappointment and pain that it’s impossible not to feel if you have poured sacred parts of yourself into a book and you’re not getting the outcome you’ve been hoping for.

Their Tweets encouraged me to think about what I have to add to this conversation, after my own winding path. So here are the things I want to say to any writers who are facing disappointments as they work toward the goal of getting an agent or getting a book deal, and what I would go back and say to the very demoralized early-2015 Laurie if I could.

1.) It’s important to focus on what’s in your control, BUT it’s equally important to give yourself time and space to grieve for a project you love when things aren’t going the way you’d hoped.

“Write the next book!” countless writers will tell you, and that’s smart advice, absolutely. But the fact that I pushed on and focused on a new project rather than letting myself grieve for my first book that didn’t sell made it all the more devastating for me when my second book didn’t sell either. The sadness of giving up on that second book compounded all of the buried sadness I hadn’t really let myself feel after giving up on the first book, and I felt it extra hard.

Maybe that sounds melodramatic, the idea of grieving for a book if it doesn’t sell or get an agent, but I don’t think it is, and if you’ve written a book, I’m guessing you don’t, either! Not when you think about how much work and time and sacrifice and love goes into writing and revising a book.

You can let yourself feel disappointment when a book has a close call that doesn’t work out, too, even if it still has a shot at getting picked up by an agent or publisher. People say not to get your hopes up and not to have any expectations when you are querying or on submission, but I certainly don’t know how to do that. (Let me know if you’ve figured it out.) It’s disappointing to hear that someone loved your beloved story but not quite enough, or to know an editor wanted to buy your book but it didn’t get past all the hurdles a book needs to clear before an offer comes. It just is!

It’s also incredibly important to persevere and keep writing, if you really want to be a writer, but I think you can both honor the valid disappointment and persevere.

2.) Jealousy doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s natural to feel jealous of someone who has something you want and are working hard for. But you can acknowledge the jealousy the way you’d acknowledge that it’s kind of humid out today, without letting the feeling have too much power over you. And also know that other people who have what you want might be struggling, too, in equally legitimate ways. If they did get their agent or book deal relatively quickly and painlessly, their editing process might be really difficult, or they might struggle to write their next book, or they might struggle if their book doesn’t get the reception they’d hoped for. I’ve learned that this writing journey is hard for everyone who pursues it…though full of joy, too!

3.) If you do keep working and achieve what you want, the setbacks you’ve endured along the way will give you so much gratitude and perspective. There are still difficult moments once you have sold a book (and I’m sure there will be even more difficult moments once readers are actually reading my books, which is equal parts thrilling and terrifying, and as I continue to try to sell additional books). I don’t want to sound like I magically have everything figured out, but there is never a time when I forget how hard I worked to attain this goal of publication, and how proud and grateful I am. My gratitude and awareness of what an accomplishment it was to finally sell a book help me to maintain a sense of calm and perspective throughout these sometimes overwhelming new stages.

4.) Every book you work on is an important piece of your journey. If you do have to shelve a book, that doesn’t mean the project wasn’t valuable. Each book you work on helps you to hone specific aspects of your craft and grow into the writer who will write the book that will be the one to break through. Your own vulnerability and disappointment may help you to create a character like Lauren, from my debut novel Every Shiny Thing, who is vulnerable and sad and angry in a way I am usually not, and to write something more raw and powerful than you would have thought possible. I am certain that I could not have written Lauren’s intense point of view if I hadn’t been feeling a lot of helplessness and frustration and grief myself. Or you may sell a shelved book later if the market shifts or you decide to go back and revise again, or (and shh, 2015 me would not have been ready to hear this, so this part is only for the rest of you), you may end up incorporating characters and moments and themes that you love from a shelved book into new projects you’re even more excited about, instead of revisiting the shelved books later.

5.) You are resilient and brave and have already accomplished special things. Keep finding the joy in your work. Keep leaning on and supporting your writing community. Keep reveling in the magic of creating a book that no one but you could write, that captures something true and meaningful from your unique perspective. I’m rooting for you!

create magic

Trusting My Own (Uncertain but Exciting) Writing Process

Since I started writing fiction in 2008, I’ve written six full-length novel manuscripts, two of which will be published, but I still couldn’t tell you how, exactly, I write a book.

When I sit down in front of a blank document, ready to start a new project, I feel a mix of confident excitement (This could be the best thing I’ve ever written!) and slightly terrified wonder (How did I shape those other manuscripts into anything remotely book-like? How do I know I’ll be able to do it again?).

For every book I’ve finished, I’ve had epiphanies about my characters and plot that I didn’t see coming. Those epiphany moments are exciting…but they’re fragile. I can’t plan for them, so I can’t guarantee when, or even if, they’re going to happen.

I’m always on the lookout for helpful books and lectures about making the writing process more efficient and predictable. Earlier this year, after hearing enthusiastic praise from many fellow writers, I bought Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere), eager to see if it could help me streamline my drafting process.27833542

The book includes a lot of great ideas about questions you can ask yourself and backstory scenes you can write before you start a draft. The idea is that if you do all of this work ahead of time, you won’t waste time and effort on pages and pages that you later need to scrap, because you’ll already have a clear and compelling vision for a story that will be satisfying to a reader.

The process in the book seemed like a more structured, more front-loaded version of what I often end up doing when I write, and I had fun following Cron’s strategies for writing backstory scenes and making scene cards to plan out a plot.

A tiny voice in the back of my mind said, “Do you really want to make scene cards? You’ve never planned scenes in that much detail before, and you’ve still managed to write some books that turned out pretty well.” But I’ve also started writing some books that didn’t turn out pretty well—that didn’t turn out at all, because I had to abandon them partway through when things just didn’t gel. And it was kind of a relief, to follow someone else’s instructions rather than diving into the uncertainty of a first draft the way I usually do.

The problem was that after a while, I had to admit to myself that the scenes I was writing had lots of compelling story dynamics in theory, but I didn’t actually like them very much. They felt forced.

That doesn’t mean that Story Genius is not a helpful book or even that it won’t work for me in another way. I actually think it’s full of really smart ideas and great examples, and many of the exercises will probably be useful for me if I use them partway through a draft, or at the revision stage, which is how a friend of mine is using them. But some of the ideas might not work so well for me personally, and that’s okay. As I tried to adhere precisely to everything the book says, I realized something about my own, imperfect writing process, which is that I tend to start with a character’s voice and then figure out more about the story as I write the first several chapters.

There’s risk to that approach. Sometimes I don’t reach the epiphanies I’m hoping for. Sometimes the story doesn’t have a big enough hook to be marketable. But if I don’t begin with that vivid sense of what it sounds like to be inside a character’s head, I’m not all that excited about figuring out where the story goes.

The experience of trying out the techniques in Story Genius reminded me of when I started teaching and tried to implement other people’s classroom management strategies. They were good strategies that worked for other people, but other people had different strengths and challenges than I did. I wasn’t able to manage a classroom effectively until I figured out my strengths and challenges and then took bits and pieces from other teachers’ techniques and molded them into something that felt right for me. And even then, I had to change my approach a little bit for every class I taught, just as I will probably need to tweak my approach for every new project I write.

The full title of Story Genius suggests that the book’s methods can help writers to avoid wasting time (three years!) and work (327 pages) on a story that isn’t going anywhere. I only spent a few weeks and 30 pages or so on the idea I was exploring, but I don’t think I wasted any of that time or work even though those pages weren’t right.

Maybe I would have been wasting time if I’d kept pushing forward for too long after I realized that things weren’t working, but I’m beginning to believe that nothing is truly wasted when it comes to writing. As I used the Story Genius methods, I learned something important about my uncertain but exciting writing process, and, because I wasn’t feeling invested in the book idea I thought I should pursue, I got up the courage to try out something different, that’s more a shift from what I’ve been writing recently.

I’m only a couple of chapters into this new idea now, so I have no idea if the story will take hold or not, and I’m going with my old, uncertain process rather than trying to use Story Genius, at least for the time being. But I am hearing the character’s voice loud and clear, so for now, I’m happy.


Exciting news! This week, Cordelia Jensen and I got to share the beautiful, shiny cover for our co-authored middle grade novel Every Shiny Thing, which comes out next April! Jen at Pop! Goes the Reader hosted our cover reveal, complete with the book’s origin story, a description of the novel, and a chance to win an advance reader copy. There are still four days left before the winner will be chosen, so here’s the link to see the cover and enter the giveaway if you’d like!

Upper MG Books for Older Middle School Readers…and My New Book Deal!

Last Thursday, I wrote a guest post for a wonderful site called Project Mayhem about the importance of “gray area” novels: upper middle grade books that appeal to sixth to eighth graders and that people in the publishing world have sometimes been wary of, because they’re a bit too old for traditional middle grade but a bit too young for young adult. This is a topic I’ve tackled here on this blog from a slightly different vantage point in the past, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently, ever since my new, upper MG novel sold to my wonderful editor at Abrams/Amulet. If you’d like, you can read my guest post and find out more about my new book, and a few other excellent upper middle grade novels, here!

Teaching All American Boys: Resources for Addressing Sensitive Topics and Engaging Students

I love a lot of things about books, obviously. But one thing I especially love is the way a novel can provide an accessible, relatively safe entry point into a difficult topic.

This year, I added Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s acclaimed novel All American Boys to the eighth grade English curriculum at my school. Students were engaged in reading, discussing, and writing about the book, and they showed great maturity as we used it as a jumping-off point to talk about racism and police brutality. In this post, I’m going to share some of the resources that I used, as well as an excellent example of student work. My hope is that that these materials might be helpful to other educators who teach books that tackle tough topics, or who want students to complete engaging creative writing assignments that cultivate analytical close reading skills.


All American Boys is the story of two teens—Rashad, who is black, and Quinn, who is white—and their attempts to deal with an act of violence that leaves their community divided by racial tensions. Because the book has some mature content, I wrote a letter to families to offer them some context. I wanted my students’ families to know why I had selected this book and to be able to continue some of our class conversations. Here’s the letter we sent home.

Once families were informed, my next step was to prepare students to read the book. To do that, I drew upon the resources that the publisher, Simon and Schuster, has provided for the novel. It worked especially well to give students an opportunity to hear the two authors talk about their process of writing the book, both in their NPR interview and the brief video interviews that are included on the publisher’s site. We also had some pre-reading discussions about what students knew about the Black Lives Matter movement and instances of police brutality that have been in the news.

Then it was time to read. As we read the novel and discussed Rashad and Quinn’s experiences and realizations, students developed empathy for both characters and were able to break down how the characters responded to events in the book and where those responses came from. Moreover, we had concrete passages and characters to refer as we began to have bigger conversations about the issues raised in the novel.

Students were so caught up in the world of the book that they were eager to imagine the perspectives of vividly drawn secondary characters, so I gave them a creative writing assignment that asked them to write a chapter from the perspective of any character other than the two narrators.

Here’s the assignment-sheet I gave them, which includes a brainstorming guide to ensure that they were engaging with the novel in a thoughtful, analytical way. I also provided my own example, as I often do, so that students could get a sense of how they could write a new chapter that would be original and imaginative but would also fit into, and in some way extend, the existing story.

I was very pleased with the work students did on the creative writing assignment. They did a great job of pulling details from the book and then using their imagination and empathy to bring characters’ stories to life. Here is an example of one especially outstanding piece of student work by a very talented eighth grade writer named Hannah.

The Simon and Schuster page that’s dedicated to All American Boys includes a quote from Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely about why they wrote the book: “As a black man and a white man, both writers and educators, we came together to co-write a book about how systemic racism and police brutality affect the lives of young people in America, in order to create an important, unique, and honest work that would give young people and the people who educate them a tool for having these difficult but absolutely vital conversations.”

I am extremely grateful for books like this one, which provide such a valuable tool for me to start these kinds of conversations, both in the form of class discussions and in the form of writing assignments that ask students to speak back to and engage with novels. I hope some of my materials might be useful to others who want to spark these kinds of conversations, as well.

When “Finish What You’re Working On” Isn’t the Best Advice

 “Finish what you’re working on.” If you want to be a writer, that’s one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear, and it makes a lot of sense.

It’s fun to start a book, but it can be really hard to wade through the murky middle and make it to the other side. And you have to finish a draft before you can begin to revise it into something that shines. But I’ve recently learned that there are times when it’s better to put something aside for a while than to push through to the end just because you’re determined to finish.

At this time last year, I was working on a middle grade novel about a thirteen-year-old girl named Annabelle. I’ve been thinking about Annabelle’s story in some shape or form for several years now, and I’d been making good progress writing it…until I hit the midpoint scene and the story began to fall flat. Suddenly, writing Annabelle’s story was a struggle. I was writing boring scenes, and they weren’t leading me to anything more interesting.


Annabelle’s story is set in Gray Island, a fictional place off the Massachusetts coast, and she lives near beaches that look like this. On good days, writing her story feels like being transported here.

I am not a person who likes to give up, and I had promised myself that I would finish a draft by spring. So I kept going.

But then something happened, almost exactly a year ago. It was the Friday of my midwinter break from school, and I was weeding through a filing cabinet, attempting to get rid of old papers I didn’t need. I came across the evaluations that my four advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts had written after I worked with each of them. One of my advisors mentioned a story idea I’d told her about—one that I had come up with off-handedly, because she wanted to know what I might work on next, and had then completely forgotten about. But she wrote in my evaluation that she thought it had promise.

I sat down at my computer and wrote a first chapter for the forgotten story idea. It felt energizing and silly and fun. It felt so much better than working on Annabelle’s story, which wasn’t fair to Annabelle. I love her, and I desperately want to get her story right.

So I decided that I was going to take a break from Annabelle’s story and let myself play with the new idea. And then, several months later, I was ready to go back to Annabelle. With all that distance, I could see where the draft had gone off the rails, and I realized that one whole, exceptionally boring subplot could simply go away. I was very pleasantly surprised with how much I’d actually written and how much of it I actually liked, once I cut the stuff that didn’t belong.

After that, writing Annabelle’s story was fun again. Not fun every moment—sometimes it was overwhelming or confusing or frustrating. But it was mostly fun, and before too long, I finished. It was several months after I’d promised myself I would finish a draft, but that was okay, because it was a much better draft than I was ready to get to last spring. I revised the draft, then got feedback, then revised again, got feedback again, and revised some more. I just finished this third round of revision this week, and each step has taken me closer and closer to the heart of this manuscript.

And yesterday, on the Friday of this year’s midwinter break, I sat back down to play with the idea that gave me permission to take a break from Annabelle. I don’t have any set plans for when I’m going to finish that one, but I have some new perspective on it, now that I haven’t looked at it for a while. And it’s still pretty silly and energizing to work on.

My 2016 Reading Year in Review

Well, here we are at last, on the first day of 2017! 2016 was a year that included some major low points for sure but, for me personally, some very special high points, as well. It was a chaotic year with lots of new adjustments and responsibilities, but I just managed to meet my goal of reading 100 books (in addition to the ones I re-read along with my students and the countless wonderful picture books I’ve been reading these days). Of the 100 books I read in 2016, 48 were middle grade, 42 were young adult, and 10 were either adult fiction or nonfiction. Here are some of the highlights of my reading year:

Favorite new book to teach: I am lucky to teach at a school where I’m able to adapt the curricula to incorporate timely books and keep things fresh. I added All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to the eighth grade curriculum this year, and it was a terrific book to teach. We had important and lively conversations, and students were engaged and did some inspired creative writing at the end of the unit. I’ll try to post more about how I structured the unit soon, since I was so pleased with how students responded.

Favorite trends: I’m not sure if this is a general trend or just a trend in what I happen to read, but I loved reading a handful of co-authored books with two narrators (each written by one of the authors) in 2016. In addition to All American Boys, which I had initially read in 2015, I enjoyed Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, and The Pages Between Us by Lindsey Leavitt and Robin Mellom. Since Cordelia Jensen and I wrote a co-authored book with two narrators that will be published in 2018, it’s no real surprise that I’m a fan of this trend!

Somewhat strangely, I also read four books this year that feature characters returning home after a kidnapping: Tara Altebrando’s The Leaving, Jennifer Mathieu’s Afterward, Kim Savage’s After the Woods, and Robin Benway’s Emmy and Oliver (Emmy and Oliver was actually published in 2015 rather than 2016, but the others were published this past year). It feels sort of wrong to say that I am a fan of the kidnapping trend in YA…but these four books were among the most gripping page turners I picked up.

Another favorite trend (and I really, really hope this is one that continues) is that I’ve been reading more contemporary realistic middle grade books that feel geared toward ages 10-14 rather than ages 8-12. I love younger middle grade novels too, but there has been such a lack of books that feature characters who are in 7th-9th grade and that are geared toward 6th-8th grade readers. This is such a rich, complicated time, and I want more books that delve into those years in all their murky, exciting, in-between-ness!

Favorite older MG: Speaking of the trend toward older middle grade (hooray!), my favorite older middle grade titles this year were Natasha Friend’s Where You’ll Find Me and Jo Knowles’s Still a Work in Progress. These books are full of memorable characters, emotional moments, and realistic seventh and eighth grade social dynamics. These are the kind of middle grade books I feel great about being able to give to seventh and eighth grade students who feel like most middle grade novels are a little young for them. Another powerful middle grade novel that students in fifth grade all the way through eighth grade loved this year is Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin.

Favorite MGs that tackle tough issues: I’m also a fan of middle grade books that feel younger in their tone but tackle difficult issues in age-appropriate, gentle but honest ways. This year, I loved Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish for its treatment of addiction, Jenn Bishop’s The Distance to Home for its depiction of grief, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story for its exploration of the September 11th tragedy, Claire LeGrand’s Some Kind of Happiness for its portrayal of depression, and Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second for its look at a race-related act of violence.

Satisfying second or third books in a series: I’m sometimes reluctant to pick up a sequel or the second or third book in a series in case the follow ups don’t live up to the original, but I had great luck with sequels in 2016. I thought Varian Johnson’s To Catch a Cheat was just as smart and fun as The Great Greene Heist; I loved Leila Howland’s second Silver Sisters offering, The Brightest Stars of Summer, at least as much as last year’s charming Forget-Me-Not Summer; and Dianne K. Salerni’s The Morrigan’s Curse was every bit as exciting as the first two books in her fabulous Eighth Day Series. And actually, all three of these series also appeal to older middle school readers, too, so I am doubly happy about them!

Favorite YA contemporaries: Contemporary YA has been my favorite genre to read for years, and while I was more drawn to MG  than YA in 2016, I did find some contemporary YA novels I loved this year. I was a big fan of Emery Lord’s first two novels, but I thought her third book, When We Collided, was her best yet–so full of emotion and depth. I also could not put down Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things; I was so invested in the fun, mysterious romance. I adored Nicola Yoon’s ambitious, gorgeous The Sun Is Also a Star; in my opinion, that one absolutely lived up to its well-deserved buzz. I also loved the fun female-female romance in Jaye Robin Brown’s Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit and the own-voices depiction of a trans character in Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl.

Favorite books I wouldn’t have picked up on my own: As in 2015, my YA and MG book club once again encouraged me to read a beautiful historical MG that wasn’t on my radar: Louis Bayard’s impressive Lucky Strikes. I also read Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity for book research, thinking I would glean helpful information even if it wasn’t the most exciting read, but I found it absolutely fascinating and can’t stop talking about it.

Book I Can’t Wait for Others to Read in 2017: I’m excited for other people to read the very last book I read in 2016, Flying Lessons and Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh. It’s a wonderful, varied selection of diverse short stories that’s a must-have for school and classroom libraries, and it comes out in two days, on January 3rd, so you don’t have to wait long!

Wishing you all a happy new year full of good books and much joy (which are sometimes the same thing, in my view)! I’d love to hear about some of your 2016 reading highlights or books you can’t wait to read in 2017, too.

My New Reading Challenge: a Concrete First Step in Standing Up for Inclusivity

I like to keep track of the books I read on Goodreads, and for the last couple of years, when Goodreads has prompted me to join the Goodreads Reading Challenge, I’ve set the goal of reading 100 books throughout the course of the year. Then, periodically, I’ve noticed that I am a book or two ahead of schedule and felt pleased with myself—the way I used to feel as a kid when I got a good grade on a test that I was already pretty sure I’d done well on.

But as I’ve reflected on the election and some recent online conversations about harmful representation of marginalized groups in published and about-to-be-published books, I’ve realized that I need to make a major change to my Goodreads Challenge.

As a kid—as a white, privileged kid with access to lots and lots of books—it gave me so much comfort to read books in which I saw myself. I read books like Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson and Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly over and over because I recognized myself in those characters. It took me a long time to learn that I can’t compare my insides to other people’s outsides—just because other people seem happy and confident and completely at ease with things that cause me great anxiety doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling unsettled in their own way. But these novels invited me inside another person’s consciousness. They allowed me to compare my insides to someone else’s insides. These novels didn’t shy away from depicting characters’ flaws; these characters I loved and related to messed up a whole lot, but I still rooted for them and realized that they deserved good things. And as a kid who could be very hard on herself, it was immensely helpful for me to realize that, if I could love and forgive a character who messed up, then maybe I could love and forgive myself, too. Maybe I could realize that I deserved good things as well.

But I cannot even fathom how difficult it must be for readers who cannot see themselves in books in the way I have always been able to. It was relatively easy for me to feel like I could compare my insides to a character’s insides when our outsides weren’t all that different. Yes, I could (and still can) connect to characters who are not female or white or heterosexual, and reading books about characters who are unlike me in key ways has helped me to be a more empathetic person with a broader worldview. But when I was an adolescent and needed comfort, the books I returned to were books in which the main characters were like me in fundamental ways.

I also cannot fathom what it must be like to be part of a marginalized group of people who have not had this luxury of being able to see themselves easily in books, and then to see hurtful, stereotypical portrayals of people who are supposed to be like them. 

Last week, author Justina Ireland tweeted, “Set a goal to read at least one diverse book for every book by a white author you read. Don’t know of any books? Ask Twitter.”

I have always believed that we need diverse books so that all kids get to have the kinds of reading experiences that comforted me so much, but that I also took for granted because I didn’t have to work hard to seek them out. We need to support authors of color and authors who are part of the LGBTQIA community by buying and reading their books so that more diverse books continue to be published. I, as a teacher, need to read these books so that I can recommend them to students and recommend buying them for our school library.

But you know what? Even though I believe all of these things, even though I mean to be an ally, when I look at the 87 books I have read so far in 2016, I see that less than 20% of those books are by authors of color or authors who are part of other marginalized groups. My count might be slightly off because I don’t always know how authors identify and I counted conservatively, but one thing is for sure: when I glance at my Reading Challenge progress and see that I am a book ahead of my goal pace, I don’t feel that familiar, cozy self-satisfaction of getting a good grade. Instead, I feel like I need to put my money (literally) and my energy where my mouth is. I need to do a whole lot better.

So for the rest of 2016 and all of 2017, I pledge to do what Justina Ireland suggested. I pledge to read one book by an author of color or an author from another marginalized group for every book I read by a white, heterosexual author. 

I know that I need to do more than this in order to do my part to stand up against all forms of intolerance. But this is one concrete way I plan to start. Please join me, if you’d like, and please feel free to suggest books you think I should read. Thank you to the people in the young adult and middle grade community who are committed to speaking up about issues of harmful representation, or lack of representation. I know that it is not your job to educate me, but I am listening to you and learning from you, and I am grateful.

The Realism Spectrum

The seventh grade English curriculum at my school includes a lot of historical novels, and when I teach seventh grade English, I talk about how historical fiction falls somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from almost fully rooted in historical fact to almost fully fictional.

One book that falls on the mostly-rooted-in-fact end is Melanie Crowder’s lovely biographical verse novel, Audacity, which tells the story of labor activist Clara Lemlich. On the opposite, mostly fictional end is Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces, which is set soon after the Vietnam War; the premise of the story (a main character who was airlifted out of Vietnam and adopted by an American family) is rooted in historical fact, but all of the characters are fictionalized. Then there are books like A.B. Westrick’s Brotherhood and Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Seeds of America” trilogy, which fall somewhere in the middle. 

The eighth grade curriculum, on the other hand, mostly features contemporary young adult fiction and some classics. This fall, my eighth grade students have been discussing two contemporary novels: we recently finished reading Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys, and I’ve been reading Jake Gerhardt’s Me and Miranda Mulally as a read-aloud. As we geared up to read the end of All American Boys, we left off at the end of a chapter in which one character proposed reading a list of names at a protest.

I asked students to predict what those names would be, and they correctly guessed that the characters in the book would read a list of real-life people who have been victims of police brutality.

When I asked them why they felt so sure that the book would include names we would recognize even though it is fiction, one student said, “Yeah, but it’s on the realistic end of the fiction spectrum.”

This struck me as an interesting comment, because I had never really thought about a 25657130spectrum of realism in contemporary realistic fiction. In theory, all contemporary realistic novels would be pretty close to the realistic end of the fiction spectrum. But then I thought more about the distinction she was making and realized that she was absolutely right. All American Boys is very clearly grounded in reality. Unfortunately, the book’s inciting incident, in which an innocent black boy is brutally beaten by a white police officer, is reminiscent of many recent events. Moreover, the authors reference a real-life artist and cartoon, Aaron Douglas and the Family Circus cartoon, as influences on one of the main characters. This book is fiction, yes, but it is conspicuously set in the world in which we live.

Our class read-aloud, Me and Miranda Mullaly, is on the opposite end of this realistic spectrum. As we’ve been reading the book, students have often commented on how some of the scenes feel larger than life. The main characters at times read like caricatures, with their defining traits magnified for comedic effect. The book includes the characters’ responses to free-writing prompts in English class, and my students often point out that no one would really share personal details or insult their teacher and classmates in their free-writing assignments, the way characters in the book do.

25894020What’s interesting, though, is that when students laughingly say they can’t believe characters would write these things, they aren’t objecting to the way the book is written. They have even pointed out that it isn’t realistic that eighth graders would write emails to each other in 2016–they would text–but they don’t care all that much that characters in the novel email each other.

They have accepted that this book is on the over-the-top, not-so-realistic end of the contemporary realistic fiction spectrum. It’s not fantasy or magical realism–it just reads like real life with the volume turned all the way up. Because the students are entertained and the over-the-top tone is consistent, they are perfectly willing to accept content that they don’t find completely believable. On the other hand, I think they’d be much less willing to accept  an occasional hard-to-believe moment a in book that falls on the very realistic end of the realism spectrum.

My own books tend to fall on the very realistic side of this contemporary realism spectrum, but some of my favorite humorous novels, like Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury Brookfield books, fall closer to the not-so-realistic end. Someday soon, I want to try my hand at a funny book with a completely over-the-top tone. Maybe consciously thinking about this spectrum will help me!

Shiny, Happy News: My First Book Deal!

Almost three years ago, I got an agent. An agent I’d heard great things about, who requested my full manuscript seconds after I queried and then read my book in less than 24 hours. I’d worked on that book for two years, throughout the second year of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and then the year after I graduated. I loved that book, and since my big-time agent loved it, too, I couldn’t help thinking that this was it! Before too long I would be a published writer!

Except that didn’t happen.

I racked up a lot of complimentary passes and did a revision for an editor who also loved that book, but I didn’t get a publishing offer. The book just wasn’t different enough, I kept hearing. It didn’t have enough of a hook to set it apart.

I was disappointed, of course, but I had listened to the advice everyone gives—to work on something new while you’re on submission. I didn’t have to wallow in my disappointment for very long, because a little less than a year after that first book went out on submission, I had a new book that was ready to go.

This book was going to be the one! It was a book I’d started at the beginning of my first year at VCFA. I’d rewritten the first forty pages five times during my second semester, trying to get the story right, and now, a few years later, I finally had it. This book had a bigger hook, I thought, and a more unusual structure.

But this one racked up the kind passes, too.

I worked on two new stories while that second book was making the rounds. Cordelia Jensen, one of my classmates from VCFA and the talented author of the YA verse novel Skyscraping and another forthcoming YA verse novel, read the beginnings of those two new stories for me back in February of 2015. She then wrote me an email in which she said, “I have to say that in these two voices I hear less of your own personal voice which I think shows your evolution as a writer. Even though I ABSOLUTELY LOVE hearing your voice in the other books, I think I am seeing a stronger range right now, if that makes sense. And, for what it’s worth, maybe if these other books had sold quickly these two others wouldn’t be here at all. So, that’s my positive thinking this morning.”

Cordelia’s positive thinking stuck with me. I still believe in those first two books that went on submission. I’m still a little sad that they didn’t sell. They’re the kind of books I would have loved as a kid and teenager, and they explore issues that are important to me. There is a whole lot of me within them.

But Cordelia helped me realize that I was growing as a writer as I pushed past the kinds of voices and characters that came most naturally to me. This whole process was hard and full of disappointment, but maybe it was leading me somewhere wonderful.

And then a few months later, Cordelia said to me, “Hey, we should write a book together!” And a few days after that, she said, “I have an idea for our book. Do you think you could write this?”

I honestly wasn’t sure if I could. Her idea—for a middle grade novel that would have two alternating narrations, one in verse and one in prose—was much different from anything I’d ever written, and much sadder. Granted, in the course of our first conversation, all of my contributions served to make the book less and less sad, but still—this story was going to be a stretch for me. In fact, it was ironic that we decided to name the main character for my sections Lauren—a name so close to my own—when the character of Lauren is much less like the kid I was than any of the other main characters I have written. She is furious with her parents and she steals things, whereas anger makes me nervous, and, even as an adult, I am pretty terrified of doing anything wrong and getting in trouble.

But as we talked about the idea and fleshed it out, I saw a way in—a way to make Lauren someone I could connect to. I understood Lauren’s pain and her motivation. And it turns out that she does have some characteristics that I share—fierce love for her brother, loyalty to a friend, an earnest desire for things to be fair. And she goes to a Friends school that’s similar to the school where I teach, and she shares my students’ strong beliefs in the need for social justice.

Cordelia and I brainstormed a general story arc, and then we each sat down to write a chapter. And Lauren’s voice—so different from my own—poured out of me. Our agent, Sara Crowe, read our sample chapters and loved them, so we kept going. I’ve never had more fun writing anything. I would sit down and write entire chapters at a time!

laurie and cordelia

Me with my talented and inspiring co-author, Cordelia!

And now, this sad but hopeful middle grade book, EVERY SHINY THING—this book that reflects my evolution as a writer and might not exist if I had achieved my writing goals more quickly—has found a publishing home!

In EVERY SHINY THING, two seventh graders—Lauren, who comes from an affluent family, and Sierra, who is in foster care—team up to enact a Robin Hood scheme to right some societal wrongs, and learn lessons about justice, friendship, and family in the process. Maggie Lehrman, senior editor at Abrams/Amulet, loves the book and is going to help us make it the best it can be. I can’t wait to be able to share it with all of you in spring 2018!

My 2015 Reading Year in Review

It’s the last day of 2015, and I’m happily sitting here in my pajamas, with a clementine-clove candle burning, ignoring the pile of dishes in the sink and thinking back on the past year. I thought I’d give this long-neglected blog some attention with an end-of-year post on my year in reading.

This year I read 101 books (not including the ones I re-read along with my students as I taught them). I read 2 nonfiction books, 3 adult novels, 33 middle grade, and 63 young adult. Of the MG and YA novels, 15 were fantasy, sci-fi, or magical realism, and the rest were realistic; 6 were verse novels; 2 were graphic novels; 21 were 2015 (or early 2016) debuts; and 15 were written by Vermont College of Fine Arts alums. Next year, I may try to read a few more graphic novels and a few more adult ones, just to keep things varied. But overall, it was a great reading year, and here are some of my personal highlights.


Here’s me in a perfectly shaded reading spot on a beach in Puerto Rico in July, devouring The War that Saved My Life.

Favorite new books to teach: I’m always looking to keep the 7th and 8th grade reading lists fresh, so I’m excited when I discover books that fit the curriculum. This year, I loved teaching A.B. Westrick’s Brotherhood and Melanie Crowder’s Audacity. Both books are brilliantly researched historical fiction that my students learned from and enjoyed, and both led to wonderful discussions and exciting Google Hangouts with the authors.

Favorite “trend”: I’m not sure this is a trend, exactly, but I’ve read a handful of new books this year that have dual timelines and alternate between “now” and “then” storylines, and I’m a fan. Gina Ciocca’s Last Year’s Mistake and Jennifer Longo’s Up to This Pointe are two YA books that make great use of the past/present storylines, and Ali Benjamin’s The Thing about Jellyfish is a MG that does this beautifully.

Favorite younger YA/older MG: As you may know if you’ve read this blog, I have a major soft spot for books that are youngish YA or mature MG, because I teach 7th and 8th grade and feel like those are big reading years that are sometimes neglected in the market. My favorite YA books that hit this sweet spot this year were Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You, Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, Jennifer Mathieu’s Devoted, and Kathryn Holmes’s The Distance Between Lost and Found, and my favorite MG in this category was Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger.

Favorite ARCs I won: Through Twitter/Rafflecopter contests, I won two ARCs: Corey Ann Haydu’s Making Pretty and Marissa Burt’s A Sliver of Stardust. I’m not sure two books could be any more different–unflinching realistic YA and comforting MG fantasy–but I loved both of them, and winning them made me appreciate the writing community I have been building online.

Favorite books I might not have picked on my own: I’m in a YA/MG book club, and we’ve read some historical novels I don’t think I would have read on my own, because I tend to slant contemporary, but I adored The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Favorite reading experience: I really loved reading so many novels by fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts alums this year–especially alums I know well. My very favorite experience was reading an actual, official ARC of Cordelia Jensen’s Skyscraping, a beautiful book I got to read in many different forms over the years, and seeing my name in the acknowledgements.

Favorite author-meeting experience: We’ve done a lot of awesome author events at school over the past year, and they have all been highlights in their own right. But for me personally, a big high point was meeting Sarah Dessen, one of my first favorite authors from when I initially got into reading and writing YA, at Children’s Book World. She was lovely and inspiring, and I love having a signed copy of Saint Anything.

Books I can’t wait for others to read in 2016: I was really impressed with Cori McCarthy’s ambitious You Were Here. It weaves together first-person chapters, third-person chapters, graphic novel chapters, and graffiti chapters. I loved it, and I’ve never read anything quite like it. Another strikingly original forthcoming book is Karen Rivers’s The Girl in the Well Is Me. I’ve been a fan of Rivers’s unique storytelling since reading The Encyclopedia of Me a few years ago, and I found this book compelling, humorous, daring, and heartbreaking.

2015 wasn’t an easy year in many ways, but when it came to reading, it was pretty satisfying. I’m excited for an equally enjoyable reading year in 2016!

Read Alouds: Fall 2015

This past week, a service day and some standardized test taking interrupted our regular school schedule, so I didn’t get to teach my normal classes for a couple of days. When the schedule got back to normal, I wasn’t at all surprised by the question that many of my students asked: “Are we doing read aloud today? We haven’t done read aloud in forever!”

As I’ve explained on this blog before, one of my favorite parts of teaching middle school English is reading great books aloud to students. Read alouds happen in addition to the independent reading students are encouraged to do and the whole-class novels that students read for homework and write about for grades. They are for enjoyment and conversation only. Students can choose to write about read-aloud books as they write essays on their final exams at the end of the year, and many of them do, but other than that option, I never quiz students or grade them on their comprehension or recollection of details. And even students who don’t like to read on their own often beg for extra read aloud and complain if we run out of time before getting to the next chapter or skip read aloud when we don’t have class.

But it’s not easy to pick a perfect read-aloud book. I want something with crowd appeal, but that students might not necessarily select on their own. Something new, ideally, so that chances are, no one in my classes will have read it yet. Something that will lend itself to interesting, resonant discussions and encourage students to make inferences and predictions.

It’s especially challenging to find something right for my eighth grade students, because there aren’t a whole lot of books out there that feel just right for eighth graders…or at least not just right to read aloud to them. Most middle grade novels feel too young, and many young adult novels might be great for them to read on their own, but I wouldn’t be particularly comfortable reading them out loud to a group of students who would erupt into giggles any time I had to say a swear word or describe any kind of PG-13 content.

By August of this past summer, I’d read a whole lot of wonderful books, but nothing that felt quite right for my new seventh and eighth grade read alouds. If I were teaching younger kids, I would have seriously considered Kirsten Hubbard’s lovely and intense Watch the Sky, Cassie Beasley’s magical Circus Mirandus, Lauren Magaziner’s hilarious The Only Thing Worse than Witches, Corey Ann Haydu’s poignant Rules for Stealing Stars, or Heidi Schulz’s delightful Hook’s Revenge. If I hadn’t included it as a summer reading choice, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s beautifully written and compelling historical novel, The War that Saved My Life, would have been a contender. But I was still stuck.

Luckily, toward the end of August, as my remaining vacation time dwindled, I found two promising titles on NetGalley that were coming out in September, and both turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

For seventh grade, I settled on Ali Benjamin’s powerful novel The Thing about Jellyfish.24396876 I hadn’t heard about it before I found it on NetGalley, but clearly my students and I aren’t alone in thinking it’s excellent because it’s now a finalist for the National Book Award. The Thing About Jellyfish is a grief story: twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson has refused to engage in “small talk” since her estranged best friend, Franny, drowned in the ocean over the summer. Suzy has plenty of people who want to help her to heal—both of her parents, her brother, her therapist, her science teacher, and her lab partner—but Suzy shuts them out because she thinks she knows the one way she can make things better. When Suzy learns about the deadly Irukandji jellyfish, she believes she can prove that a jellyfish killed Franny, and then she won’t have to accept her mom’s unsettling “sometimes things just happen, so Franny drowned even though she was a great swimmer” explanation. The book is divided into sections based on the parts of the scientific method, and Ali Benjamin weaves in flashbacks that show different stages in Suzy and Franny’s friendship and lead the reader toward an understanding of what happened between the girls on the last day of sixth grade.

Suzy is an endearing narrator who insists on thinking rationally and scientifically about topics that defy logical explanation. My students like guessing what happened between Suzy and Franny, and, thanks to Benjamin’s nuanced portrayal of Suzy’s character, they like Suzy, root for her, and feel heartbroken for her while also finding her amusing and frustrating at times.

19104829For eighth grade, I chose Shelley Pearsall’s The Seventh Most Important Thing. The Seventh Most Important Thing is set in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. The main character, Arthur Owens, is said to be fourteen but in seventh grade; I wish he were in eighth grade since some of my students aren’t crazy about reading about characters who are in younger grades and since fourteen-year-olds tend to be in eighth grade, not seventh. But Arthur feels like an eighth grader, and I haven’t had any trouble getting students to buy into his story.

Like Suzy Swanson, Arthur is also grieving; Arthur’s father died a few months before the book begins. When his mother, who is angry with his father for throwing his life away, gets rid of all of his father’s things, Arthur sees the “Junk Man,” who picks through the neighborhood trash, wearing his father’s hat. Furious, Arthur throws a brick at the man and then ends up working for the man collecting seven strange, “important” things as his punishment. The Junk Man, James Hampton, is a real, fascinating historical figure, and I admire Shelley Pearsall’s creativity in bringing his story to life and imagining his connection to a vulnerable but resilient teenage boy. Students have enjoyed puzzling out the bizarre tasks the junk man asks Arthur to complete and attempting to decode his strange way of speaking. The book has terrific art and history tie-ins and an engaging cast of secondary characters.

I highly recommend both, whether you’re reading aloud or not!

Takeaways from Last Year’s Author Events

Now that school is about to start up again, I’m reflecting on the author events we did last year and what I learned from new things we tried. We had some exciting virtual and in-person visits, and my main takeaways from our events may be helpful for others, too, so here’s what I came up with.

Preparing and Being Flexible for Skype Visits


Google hangout with author A. B. Westrick

Last year, we were able to virtually visit with two of the authors whose books we had read as a class. After reading Everybody Sees the Ants, the eighth grade Skyped with A.S. King, and after reading Brotherhood, the seventh grade had a Google Hangout with A.B. Westrick. (Google Hangout seemed to work when there were challenges with Skype and provided a nearly identical experience, so if you’ve had Skype issues, that could be something to try.) In addition, different groups of students Skyped with Varian Johnson and Uma Krishnaswami, two authors I would have loved to host in person if they lived closer.

I’ve been organizing Skype visits for several years now, and my number 1 takeaway is that it pays to be both prepared and flexible. To prepare, it’s great to have students read something by the author. It’s especially great when the whole class has read one of the author’s books, but if that’s not possible, it also works to share the beginning of a book or even a short story or article by the author; when we talked with Varian Johnson, some but not all of the students had read The Great Greene Heist, but all of them were excited because they all read “Like Me,” his short story from the anthology Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, and “Where are all the black boys?“, a blog post he wrote back in 2013. 

It’s also helpful to have students brainstorm questions ahead of time. If you’re doing a Skype in an auditorium for a very large number of students, then it’s a good idea to plan out which students will ask which questions in what order. However, that’s not necessary when it’s a smaller group (although I find it’s best if I call on students so that the author doesn’t have to say, “Okay, you in the blue shirt. No, not you, him”).

After the students are prepared and the technology is set (it’s always great to have someone around for troubleshooting), it works well when the author knows what he or she will do if students run out of questions. Sometimes, Q and A will fill up the entire allotted time. When eighth graders talked to A.S. King, our time was up before the kids were out of questions. But when a group of students visited with Uma Krishnaswami, Uma offered to read a picture book at the end of the visit, and that was a big hit. If authors are comfortable with the technology, it’s a lot of fun when they have slides or documents to share in order to supplement the Q and A; A.B. Westrick started our Google Hangout with a PowerPoint that included some great photos, and Uma Krishnaswami shared her first edit letter for one of her books.

Thinking Outside the Box with a High School Visit

ilene 2

Awesome turnout for upper school lunch visit!

At the end of the year, we had the opportunity to host I.W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above. Ilene’s book is most appropriate for high school readers, and she has a very busy schedule. The only day she could come was at the end of May, close enough to final exams that high school teachers weren’t comfortable giving over class time for the visit. So we thought outside the box and planned a lunch time visit. To make sure stressed-out students would come, my colleague Maureen suggested that we provide pizza for students who signed up ahead of time. We also enlisted SAGA (the Sexuality and Gender Alliance) to help us spread the word. In the end, we had a great turnout and were glad we weren’t deterred even though the visit came at such a busy time. In general, it can be more difficult to plan high school visits than middle school ones because high school schedules are harder to interrupt, so I think lunch time visits with local authors can be a great option.

Managing Panel Discussions and Book Sales at Local Author Day

Our biggest event this year was a Local Author Day for the middle school. We hosted three authors–Paul Acampora, Lisa Graff, and Dianne Salerni–and we invited fourth graders, who are entering middle school this fall, to join us. Each of the authors visited with one middle school grade before lunch, and then they all had lunch with the writing and library clubs. After that, they participated in a panel discussion for the whole middle school and fourth grade, and finally, they signed books that students had purchased.


Local Author Day panel

All in all, it was a very successful event! The individual presentations were the biggest hit, with the authors offering some writing activities and making connections to each grade’s curriculum. Lunch and the panel were also great opportunities for students to hear from all three authors, and we sold a whole lot of books! We organize author visits in part to get kids excited about reading, and since each author had more than one MG book, there was something to appeal to almost every reader.

When a single author comes to visit, we tend to order their books from their publisher, because the publisher can usually offer a great discount. But for three authors with many different publishers, we partnered with a local bookstore. The bookstore provided books for us at a small discount, and we sold as many as we could and returned the books we were unable to sell. A few of the books sold out, and we had the authors sign bookplates and then ordered additional copies from the bookstore.

It went very well to partner with the local bookstore and have so many books available (seven choices total). We also shared this Local Author Day Book Order Form with both students and parents ahead of time, so many students ordered books ahead of time. If you are hosting authors for a visit (or if you are an author visiting schools), I would highly recommend supplying some kind of pre-order form.

However, a lot of students still wanted to buy books at the event, which was great, except that it got chaotic to make change for them and give other students the books they had already paid for so that they could wait in line to have them signed. Next time we do an event like this, I might want to have one station set up where someone has all of the unsold books and a cash box to make change, and then another station closer to the authors, with all of the pre-sold books to hand out.

Finally, during the panel, we had authors read very briefly (for just a few minutes) from one of their books, then I asked them some questions, and then we opened things up for audience Q and A. Students told me afterwards that they would have liked to hear the authors read for longer, and many more students had questions than we could get to. So even though I love going to events at which a moderator asks panelists questions (and even though I had consulted with students before asking questions), if we do this again, I might suggest that we have the authors read for longer, shorten the time the moderator asks questions, and leave more time for student questions. (Hmm…so minimize the part where I was talking, basically!)

All in all, we were able to connect students with some terrific, inspiring authors, and I’m looking forward to building on last year’s author events and making use of these takeaways! I hope they are helpful to others, as well.

On Writing and the Struggle to Keep Control

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a long time now because even during the summer, when I have glorious stretches of writing time, there are only so many words I can crank out in a day, and I’ve been hoarding them all for the manuscripts I’m writing.

Since I last posted, I finished and revised the young adult book I’ve been working on, and a friend and I jumped into a collaborative middle grade novel (which has been so much fun that I hesitate to say we’ve been “working on it” because it hasn’t felt like work at all), and I’ve played around with the beginning of another middle grade story I started last summer.

The past year has been draining and difficult for me in a lot of ways, and it has felt incredibly invigorating to have so much of this summer just to write—to sink into characters’ perspectives and explore ideas I care about and have some real control over the structure of a plot and the events that happen in a story. Control is something I’ve felt like I’m lacking in parts of my regular life, so it’s been pretty wonderful to have so much control over my schedule and writing this summer.

But the closer I get to having my new young adult novel ready to send to my agent, the more that sense of control starts to slip away because now I’m starting to think about what might happen if (and when, I hope) this book goes on submission to editors. Suddenly it seems like there are too many other YA books that share an element with my new book. Suddenly, even though this book seemed so different from my last two, I imagine getting rejections that are just like the ones I saw for my last two manuscripts.

Plus, after getting very encouraging, “this is so close to ready” feedback on the version of the book I sent to critique partners early in the summer, the response I got to the next version was thoughtful and useful for sure, but it didn’t feel quite as positive. And while I’m trying to take my time with this book to make sure it’s as strong as I can possibly make it, I’m having to be patient about so many things right now, and the idea that this manuscript might not be where I thought it was felt disheartening.

But then three things happened. First, on Monday night, I saw the movie version of Paper Towns. I’ve read Paper Towns at least five times, and for the past three years, my eighth grade students and I have discussed the book in depth and analyzed the shape of the main character’s hero’s journey. So I know the story very, very intimately. At first, I was happily struck by how much of the dialogue in the movie is replicated word for word from the book, but then as the movie went on, I began to notice story lines that had been cut, changed, or rearranged. Some of the elements that don’t appear in the movie are things I really like from the book, and occasionally I burst out with comments like, “This isn’t supposed to happen now!” or “She’s not supposed to go on the road trip!” But despite those moments of resistance, I thought the movie was great. Certain elements were emphasized and other ones were downplayed, but a book with a lot of internal narration can’t just get plopped right into movie form, and I think the the movie version absolutely captures the spirit of the book.

The second thing that happened is that on Tuesday, when I was having a rough morning for non-writing reasons, I was in my car in a parking lot after an appointment and trying to make an important phone call that I needed to focus on before I started driving, and a woman came up to rap on my window and tell me to please do whatever I was doing somewhere else because she had an appointment and needed my spot. So I pulled out of the parking lot, found a quiet residential neighborhood where it would be safe to stop on the side of the road, and burst into tears. That’s not strictly relevant, I guess, but I was trying so hard to do all the right things and be okay, and maybe sometimes we all just need to let go of the need to hold everything together and fall apart parked in front of a lovely house on a suburban street after somebody scolds us for hogging a parking spot. Or something.

And that release allowed me to be a bit more relaxed when I drove to a restaurant where I had lunch with a very wise writer friend who had read the most recent version of my manuscript and had a lot of extremely kind things to say about it but also some pretty major suggestions about switching the way the premise plays out, combining or changing some of the characters, and bringing in a couple of characters who have shaped the main character but didn’t show up in the action. Her suggestions involved completely rewriting the beginning of the book, which I had gotten extremely positive feedback on from my first round of critique partners and at a writing retreat in the spring. She was also suggesting I change one character, the protagonist’s sister, when that sister relationship was one of the things that all of the people who had read the novel so far liked the best.

But the thing is, as much as I like the sister and the beginning, I completely understood why making those changes could strengthen the overall novel. As with the movie version of Paper Towns, I may miss some elements of the first version I knew, but I can see how cutting or switching them will serve the end product.

And so, as I begin this revision, I feel confident that the changes I’m making will preserve (and maybe even amplify) the tone of the story. And I realize that I still am in charge of sorting through and incorporating other people’s suggestions, and while I can’t control whether there are other YA books that have something in common with this one or whether that will be a deal-breaker on submission, I can ensure that my story is as vibrant and fun and meaningful as I’m capable of making it. So I’m energized again, thankfully. And now I need to get back to work!

Relating to a book vs. liking it: A(nother) case against “girl books” and “boy books”

At the end of lunch a couple of weeks ago, a group of seventh grade students called me over to their table to tell me that they’d been talking about our read-aloud novel, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, which will come out this August, and they had a suggestion. On double period days, we should read aloud for twice as long as we do on regular days because they were so eager to find out what was going to happen.

“Except not today!” one of them said. “I have to go to the doctor and won’t be there, so you shouldn’t read aloud today at all!”

Then, during class that afternoon, I tried to stop after a particularly juicy chapter ending, and everyone begged me to keep going.

That’s exactly the way I want read alouds to go. I want students to be excited to talk about our read-aloud books and to look forward to the next chapter. And I’m especially happy that Goodbye Stranger has been so popular because at first I wasn’t sure whether or not I should use it.

9780375990984That’s not to say that I didn’t immediately fall in love with Goodbye Stranger, because as soon as I got to read an advance copy, I did. I adore the cast of well-developed characters and the poignant friend and family dynamics. I’ve used Rebecca Stead’s last two novels, When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, as read alouds in the past, and Goodbye Stranger includes a lot of the same features that made those other two books work so well to read aloud: beautiful writing, lovable characters, thought-provoking ideas, and a puzzle for readers to work out.

But When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy appealed equally to boys and girls, and when I first read Goodbye Stranger, I wondered whether boys would like it as much as girls would. A lot of the novel is about the changing friendship dynamics of three seventh grade girls–Bridge, Tab, and Emily–as Tab discovers feminism and Emily starts to get a whole lot of attention from an eighth grade boy, and I wondered if the novel would be as much of a whole-class crowd pleaser as I wanted it to be. When I stopped and thought about it, though, I realized that there was plenty in this novel that would engage the whole class; there’s a mystery high school character who slowly reveals why she is so upset that she’s skipping school on Valentine’s Day, there’s a boy who can’t understand why his grandfather left his grandmother and his whole family out of nowhere, there’s a girl trying to make sense of what it means that she survived a terrible accident even though medical professionals told her she shouldn’t have, and there’s some powerful exploration of the kind of peer pressure and bullying that can happen over texting and social media. It’s an excellent book, and I believed that it was worth sharing.

A week or so after we started Goodbye Stranger, author Shannon Hale wrote a powerful20708771 blog post called No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer. This post has rightfully received a whole lot of attention, so you may have seen it already. In the post, Hale describes her experience visiting a school where she presented to all of the elementary school students but only the girls from the middle school; middle school boys were not excused from their regular classes. One middle school boy who had loved one of her books got special permission to attend, but he was too embarrassed to come. And another elementary school boy wanted to wait until everybody else had left–even his teachers–before asking Hale if she had a copy of The Princess in Black, the book she had read from at the end of her presentation.

This school had sent a message to boys, loud and clear: they were not supposed to want to read books about girls, written by female authors.

Excluding boys from a female author’s presentation is an extreme example of a problem with the way we present reading options to boys and girls. But Hale also discusses subtler examples: “[W]hen giving books to boys, how often do we offer ones that have girls as protagonists? (Princesses even!) And if we do, do we qualify it: ‘Even though it’s about a girl, I think you’ll like it.’ Even though. We’re telling them subtly, if not explicitly, that books about girls aren’t for them. Even if a boy would never, ever like any book about any girl (highly unlikely) if we don’t at least offer some, we’re reinforcing the ideology.” She then points out that while lots of people might tell boys they’ll like The Hunger Games “even though” it’s about a girl, people probably wouldn’t tell girls they’ll enjoy the Harry Potter books “even though” Harry is a boy.

Reading that part of Hale’s post, I realized that I was guilty of some of that same thinking; I had questioned whether or not boys would like Goodbye Stranger since parts of it are about female friendship dynamics, but I probably wouldn’t have questioned whether or not girls would like a book about male friendship dynamics. And as Hale explains, that kind of thinking suggests that the male experience is somehow more universal and more important than the female one, and it contributes “[t]o a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn’t matter how the girl feels, what she wants […]. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.” Clearly, this is not the message anyone wants to send. It’s not fair to boys or to girls.

After reading Hale’s article, I was feeling relieved that I’d gone ahead and chosen Goodbye Stranger for our read aloud, but then we reached a scene in which two female characters, Tab and Em, have a disagreement. In the scene, Bridge, Tab, and Em, three of the book’s main characters, are in a convenience store, brainstorming ideas for their Halloween costumes, and an eighth grade boy named Patrick walks in with some of his friends. Patrick and Em have been texting each other increasingly daring photos of themselves, and Bridge and Tab don’t understand what Em is doing and think she should stop immediately. Patrick’s last photo was of his bedroom doorknob, and when Patrick walks over to the girls, Tab says, “Nice doorknob.” As soon as Patrick and his friends leave the store, Em gets angry with Tab.

When we finished reading that chapter, one student said he thought Em had overreacted when she got mad at Tab for mentioning the photo to Patrick. Other students immediately jumped to Em’s defense, explaining why she was so embarrassed by Tab’s comment and why Tab should have known better. As we debated the issue, it became clear that most of the boys in the class thought Em had overreacted and most of the girls in the class took her side. We talked about why that might be, and it came out that more of the girls in the class could relate to Em.

Prompted by that conversation, I shared Shannon Hale’s blog post with the class. The students were surprised to read about Hale’s experience, and as we talked about the article, one student’s comment really struck me: “Relating to a book and liking a book aren’t the same thing. I don’t need to relate to something to like it.” So even though some of the boys didn’t really relate to Em, that didn’t mean they weren’t as into the book, or that they were getting any less out of reading it.

And actually, that scene led the class to talk about some pretty important ideas: things like how much confidentiality we expect when we share a secret with a friend, and what happens when somebody thinks they’re teasing but they’ve still done something hurtful, and how it feels when we trust someone and then feel that they’ve betrayed our trust. It was a valuable conversation for everyone in the room, male or female, middle-school-aged or adult.

For me, that conversation emphasized that we do everyone a disservice when we assume that boys won’t enjoy or benefit from reading books that focus on female characters and are written by female authors. In a book as layered as Goodbye Stranger, different readers can find different aspects to connect to, and even if there are some elements that some readers don’t connect to, that doesn’t mean that the book isn’t for them. We need to trust that kids can select the books they want to read without confusing the matter by telling boys that certain assemblies aren’t for them, or by creating book covers that appeal to some potential readers but alienate others. And we need to trust that good books are good books, period.

Student-Author Interview 13: Robin Herrera

9781419710391_s3Back in the summer of 2010, I was just starting my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Robin Herrera was graduating. At Robin’s graduate reading, she read a funny, poignant excerpt from a novel about a girl named Star Mackie, and I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to read more about Star, so I was thrilled last year when Robin’s book came out and I finally could!

Hope Is a Ferris Wheel tells the story of Star, an unforgettable character who lives in a trailer park with her mom and her older sister Winter, writes hilarious vocabulary sentences that she doesn’t turn in to her somewhat clueless teacher, and says things like, “Heavenly donuts!” Star is determined to find real friends and convince everyone her layered haircut is not a mullet, and she starts a poetry club with an unlikely crew of members: two boys named Eddie and Langston, who are stuck in detention, and a sweet girl named Genny plus Genny’s grumpy brother Denny. When a couple of surprising revelations shake up Star’s view of her family, she turns to Emily Dickinson’s poetry to find a new kind of hope.

Sixth graders Emma, Mia, and Carly read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel and had some excellent questions for Robin.

First, here’s what the girls liked most about the book:

Carly: I really liked how the book always left me wondering, especially about
Winter. I also liked how Star learned to live with things not going her way, and I liked how she ranted about her life in her vocabulary sentences.

Mia: I liked how when Star thought something was going to be so good it turnedemma.mia.carly (1) copy out awful, and when she thought something was going to be awful it turned out to be good. I also liked how she learned from Winter that you can’t always get help from other people and sometimes you have to rely on yourself.

Emma: I liked the ending with the postcard and how it made me wonder what would happen next. It was funny how Star wanted to start a club because the club kept not being what she wanted, like she first wanted a trailer park club and then an Emily Dickinson club. I liked how the club ended up being a poetry club and Eddie helped her, and I liked when her teacher finally read her vocabulary sentences.

And here’s what they wondered about HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL and Robin’s writing process:

Carly: Was the book inspired by your childhood in any way?

Only a little bit. While I never lived in a trailer park, I did live in an area with a lot of trailers, and had a close friend who lived in a trailer—though not in a trailer park! Her family owned some land, and instead of a house, they had a trailer.

A few of the details, like Star shopping at thrift stores and her admiration of Winter, were definitely based on my childhood. My sister and I didn’t have a great relationship like Star and Winter have, though. We didn’t get along until we’d grown up.

Mia: How long did it take you to write the book? How long have you been writing?

It took me six months to write the first draft, and I spent about three and a half years revising the book over and over before my agent sold it. I’ve been writing for about ten years now, even though Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is the first book I ever finished writing!

Emma: Did you have your plot already planned out or did it come to you as you were writing?

I only had a few details of the plot planned. This book definitely did NOT have an outline, which I don’t normally like to do! I wrote the book in chunks and figured things out as I went, but it did make revising MUCH harder. I’m working on another book right now and I had a pretty detailed outline for it.

Mia and Carly: If you were to make a sequel, where would it start and what would be included? Or if the book had an epilogue what would be included?

Note: if you haven’t read HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL yet, you might want to skip over the second paragraph of Robin’s answer.

I do have an idea for a sequel, though I’m struggling to write it. It’s more of a companion, which is kind of like a sequel but usually just involves the same characters. The companion would follow Eddie immediately after the end of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, and his struggles with school, his life, and co-running the newly-minted Poetry Club. There would also be a lot of Langston. Star would be a more minor character. I’m hoping I’ll get it written someday!

I can tell you about Winter, if you’re curious. Around the time I finished the first draft of Hope, I found out my sister was pregnant with her first child. That kind of informed a lot of what I thought Winter would do, so in my mind Winter keeps her child, a boy, and moves out of the trailer into another trailer in Treasure Trailers. She’d keep up with school and eventually move out of the trailer park, too, and Star would be the world’s greatest babysitter.

Emma: Did you come up with the poems that Star, Eddie, Genny, and the others write? How did you come up with them?

I did! They were very fun to write.

I like poetry, but I really love writing it. The problem is, I write silly, funny poems. But it turned out that worked perfectly for this book!

Genny’s haikus are similar to the ones I wrote when I first learned about haikus. Star’s poems were very much keyed off of Emily Dickinson’s, filtered through her own innocence. Langston’s, of course, was very easy to write!

Carly: Why does Denny have such a problem with Star and Winter?

Why indeed? The short answer is that he’s kind of a stick in the mud. Very serious, very ordinary, and very resistant to change. He’s also very protective of his sister, and doesn’t want her becoming the “free spirit” kind of person she’s becoming. So since he doesn’t like people who are too different, he doesn’t like Winter. And since he doesn’t want his sister becoming too different, he doesn’t like Star, whom he thinks is pulling his sister in that direction.

And last but not least, the girls had a lot of questions about when Robin was in middle school!

Mia: Did you have to write vocabulary sentences as a kid and did you like them?

Yes I did! And I loved vocabulary sentences. I had a game I’d play with myself whenever we got a fresh batch of vocabulary words. Basically I’d try and “hide” the vocabulary word in the sentence, make it feel as natural as possible, so that if someone read the sentence, they wouldn’t be able to tell which word was the vocabulary word. So this resulted in some very long, rambling, or convoluted sentences, much like Star’s.

Emma: Did you ever not turn in vocabulary sentences or any other assignments?

There were assignments I didn’t turn in, though not purposefully, like Star. In 5th and 6th grade I was actually a very bad student and hardly turned anything in! My family was going through a pretty rough time, so I never got in trouble for it, really… but after the rough times, when I entered 7th grade, I did a complete 180 and started turning in all my work. Weird, huh?

Mia: Did you ever start a club?

No, although I was a “founding member” of a club in high school. We were called “The Movie Crew,” and we’d go see a movie every Friday, all through high school. The group grew in numbers, but always retained a core group of about four of us. We even had shirts and hats!

Carly: Star doesn’t like her teacher Mr. Savage and wishes Miss Fergusson were her teacher. Did you have any teachers like Mr. Savage or Miss Fergusson? Did you have any teachers that you didn’t like, or were there any teachers you wished you had but didn’t?

My 5th/6th grade teacher was very similar to Miss Fergusson. Her name was Ms. Lawson and she had that same tough but fair demeanor, underneath which she was very sweet and really cared about all her students.

I never had a teacher like Mr. Savage, but I did have some bad teachers. One of my teachers in high school I think judged me harshly because he’d had my sister. (She was normally a great student, but he had her when she was a senior, after she’d already gotten into her college of choice, so she often blew off his class.) I had another teacher who often said mean things—not about me, but about other races and cultures. He was old as dirt, so no one ever called him out on it, but now I wish I had. I also had a teacher in college who for some reason didn’t like me. I never figured out why, either.

Emma: Did you ever have a friend who had a sibling who didn’t like you, like Star has with Genny and Denny?

I can’t think of anyone, actually! But my sister hated all of my friends. Does that count?

Thanks so much for writing HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL and answering our questions, Robin! Oh, and if you’ve read Robin’s book (or if you want to, now that you’ve read this interview), you should check out Robin’s awesome blog posts that include her drawings for all of her characters! Here’s the one for Star, and she has posts with drawings of her other characters too: http://robinherrera.com/hope-is-a-ferris-wheel-star-mackie/