Student-Author Interview 05: Tara Altebrando

When I was a kid, I loved books that felt real. Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson were two of my favorites because I could completely relate to the main characters. Tara Altebrando’s middle grade debut The Battle of Darcy Lane is just the kind of book I adored most back then because of the sensitive, realistic portrayal of twelve-year-old girls and their dynamics with each other, boys, and their families. Don’t get me wrong—I still loved this book as an adult—but I was especially excited to share it with three sixth grade girls because I could picture my sixth-grade-self sympathizing with the main character, Julia, and cheering her on throughout the story.

18079892In The Battle of Darcy Lane, Julia is looking forward to a summer of fun with her best friend Taylor, but a new girl named Alyssa moves to her neighborhood, introduces Julia and Taylor to a ball game called Russia, and criticizes everything Julia does. Pretty soon Taylor and Alyssa are acting like best friends, and Julia has to fight to be included. There is change everywhere Julia looks, so she throws all of her energy into the one thing she might be able to control: a giant Russia showdown where she’s determined to beat Alyssa once and for all.

Three sixth grade girls, Izzy, Nyeema, and Alex, read The Battle of Darcy Lane and had some questions for Tara about the book.

izzy nyeema alex.darcy lane

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

Alex: I liked all the drama, because it felt really realistic. I liked when Julia saw her crush Peter with Alyssa and freaked out. I thought Julia and Peter were a cute couple.

Nyeema: I liked the Russia throw-down. I liked how we got to see Alyssa’s mom get so frustrated. It was funny but it also showed that Alyssa’s mom cares more about her daughter winning than about her daughter, which was sad.

Izzy: What stands out to me is how Alyssa sort of steals Taylor because it reminds me of things that really happen in middle school.

And now for some questions about THE BATTLE OF DARCY LANE!

Izzy: Will you write any more books about middle schoolers? How is it different to write books about middle school students versus older teenagers?

I’m really enjoying the experience of writing for middle schoolers so yes, I’m going to do it again. When I write for older teenagers, there is typically some kind of romance at the forefront of the story and it’s nice to be freed from that for a while. I remember my middle-school years as ones of big dreams and messy friendships and longing, before all the insanity of puberty and, eventually, dating, started, and I think there’s a lot of great material to work with in there.

Alex: How did you come up with the characters’ names?

I struggle with this! I usually end up going to the Social Security website, where they list popular baby names for each year. I read through the lists until I find a name that feels right for each character.

Nyeema: Will you write a sequel about what happens after? If not, what are you working on now?

I have so many ideas for different books that the notion of sequels has never appealed to me that much. I think I left Julia in a good spot and readers can imagine what the next few days and even years will be like for her. So I’m working on my next middle-grade novel, which is called My Life in Dioramas, and is about a girl who copes with moving out of her childhood home by making shoebox dioramas of her life there. She’s also secretly trying to sabotage the sale of the house.

Alex: How did you decide to include the game of Russia? Have you tried to play it and have you gotten all the way up to 13? We think it seems hard!

It is hard! But there was a time when I was great at it. It came through hours and hours and hours of practice. Would you believe when I shopped this book around to publishers it was called Russia? I thought that having that intense game in the book was a neat way to sort of highlight how friendship often feels like a competition. It really shouldn’t! And I don’t think it does when you get older, but in middle school totally.

Nyeema: Which character is which on the cover? I think it’s: Julia, Alyssa, then Taylor. Is that right?

Julia’s by the porch for sure. But Taylor’s the one in the middle. She’s described in the book as having super-blonde hair. Or wait, hmmn. Did that get edited out? I’m not sure! 🙂

And finally, some questions about when Tara was in middle school:

Alex: Did you have friend drama or play Russia when you were in middle school?

Yes and yes. Big time. The book is inspired by my own sort of toxic friendship triangle when I was twelve, and yes, we played Russia all the time. There was a never a big Russia showdown, but I definitely experienced a lot of what Julia’s experiencing.

Nyeema: Did you have a phone when you were in middle school?

I went to middle school a very, very long time ago. We didn’t even have cordless phones at home, and my parents didn’t let me have my own extension in my room until I was in high school. That must sound crazy to middle schoolers now! It sounds sort of crazy even to me and I was there.

Thank you, Tara, for answering these questions! We’re glad to hear you’ll be writing more middle grade novels!


Book cover from Goodreads. Photo of Tara by Peter Lutjen, from 

Student-Author Interview 04: Trent Reedy

Welcome back for the fourth installment of the Student-Author Interview series! This time, I’m excited to feature Trent Reedy, a fellow VCFA alum and a prolific author who writes brilliantly across genres. Trent was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard and served in Afghanistan. Trent’s first published novel is Words in the Dust, a powerful middle grade story that honors Zulaikha, a girl he met during his time in Afghanistan. He then wrote a second middle grade novel, Stealing Air, before making his young adult debut with Divided We Fall, an action-packed novel that kicks off a thrilling trilogy and takes place in the US in the near future.

18114594In Divided We Fall, seventeen-year-old Danny has no idea what he’s getting into when he joins the National Guard. Danny is looking forward to spending his senior year playing football and hanging out with his girlfriend, but he finds himself in the middle of a major conflict that ultimately sets the stage for a second US civil war.

Three 8th grade boys—Saras, Jake, and Jacob—read Divided We Fall and had some questions for Trent about how he came to write this thought-provoking book.

boys with DWFFirst, here’s what the students liked most about DIVIDED WE FALL with some commentary from Trent interspersed: 

Jake: I really like all of the action. It felt like I was there right with Danny, especially during the fighting. I also like how Trent incorporates blurbs from the news throughout the book. The blurbs give a good idea of what’s going on in the big picture and show the conflict among American citizens. I thought those blurbs were really unique—I’ve never read a book that had something like that.

Trent: Thank you for your kind words.  I’m glad you enjoyed Divided We Fall.  As I write this, I’m also hard at work on book two in the trilogy called Burning Nation.  This book should be out in early 2015.

The blurbs you mention are what I call “media noise” sections.  I think they come in handy getting a very big national story across to the reader even though the story is told from the point of view of Danny who doesn’t care about big national stories that much.

Saras: I liked that there were so many feelings in the book but they often weren’t stated right away—you had to figure out how Danny was feeling rather than being told. I also liked that Danny had conflicted ideas and didn’t know what he should do so often, and I liked the Facebook-like posts that are incorporated and how you could see how many stars people’s comments got.

Trent: Saras, you bring up a good point about Danny’s conflicted ideas.  From the very beginning of my work on Divided We Fall I was determined to make a story in which not only the main character would be conflicted, but where the reader would also be a bit unsure of the right or wrong answers in several of the difficult situations.  I hope I’ve portrayed a fairly complicated scenario that readers will enjoy puzzling out for themselves.

Jacob: What I liked best is how everybody in the community has conflicted ideas, but people still come together and Danny’s friends have his back, even when they are shocked about what’s going on and might disagree with him. It’s interesting to see who is backing him and who isn’t in the blurbs and news stories, too.

Trent: You bring up a great point, Jacob.  I wanted Danny to have a rock solid group of friends.  I remember really enjoying that sense of loyalty, and a family-like friendship among many of the characters in the Harry Potter series, and I wanted to bring that sense of friendship to my own series.  I wish I had been blessed with such a great close group like that when I was growing up, but I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with all Danny must deal with.

Now for some questions about the book and Trent’s writing process:

Jake: How did you come up with the idea for this particular book? It seems like there are lots of things you could have written about involving the army, so what made you choose to set your story in the near future and have the country be on the verge of civil war?

Trent: Jake, I wish I had a good answer to your question.  The idea for Divided We Fall slammed into my head one day while I was driving.  Usually, I have to kick an idea around in my mind for a long time, maybe for years before I start writing.  But one day I just thought about a teenage Guardsman assigned to pull guard duty on the state line between Washington and Idaho.  For the next several hours, I could think of nothing else but circumstances that would make that state line standoff happen.  That very day when I returned home, I started writing the first lines of the book.  That almost never happens for me.  As I said, most of the time, an idea has to hang around in my brain for a very long time before I start writing.

But I also wanted to write about a country on the verge of civil war because I’m troubled by a lot of the things I read about in the news.  It seems like America is divided more now than it has been at any other time in my life, so it has been good exploring those concepts through the course of my work on the trilogy.

Saras: Why did you choose to set the book in Idaho?

Trent: I set the book in Idaho because, in general, Idaho is a fiercely independent-minded state.  It is a state where many people are passionate about preserving their rights to own and carry firearms.  More importantly, to make this story work, I needed a state where the geography provides some natural defenses against invasion.  Idaho has some beautiful and rugged mountain terrain.  I knew this would be important when my fictional Idaho National Guard set up its blockade to keep federal soldiers out.  So I chose Idaho for several reasons, but the most important one was the state’s geography and topography.

Saras: If you wanted to write about a soldier, why did you choose to write about a high school student and not an adult?

Trent: I wrote about a high school student, first, because I find the growing up years to be the most interesting.  Adults are boring!  Also, there is this idea that young people are supposed to be mostly at peace, going to school, having fun with their friends, and all that.  So putting this young person Danny Wright into the middle of this huge near-war feels even more jarring than it would have, I think, had I made the story about an adult soldier.

Jacob: Did you think of memories from your time in Afghanistan while you were writing this book and did your memories help you write this book?

Trent: Jacob, I have been home from my time in the war for about ten years now, and honestly, not one day passes when I do not think about it.  I’m trying to move on, to leave the war behind, but it’s been really tough.  Certainly my military experiences helped writing this book.  I hope my knowledge of weapons systems and military culture come through in Divided We Fall.  Also, during my time in the war, I spent a lot of time on guard duty.  I tried to convey what that felt like when I put Danny on guard duty.

Jake: Do you like football, and if not, why did you make Danny a football player in the book?

Trent: I have a complicated relationship with sports.  I was terrible at football in high school, but I do enjoy watching a good football game now and then.  I put it in the book because I wanted to establish Danny is pretty tough.  Also, as I said, football is pretty exciting, and anything can happen on any given play.  It has a lot of potential for drama, which is what you want in a book.

Jacob: What can you tell us about the next two books in the trilogy?

Trent: The next two books are intense!  I’m closing in on finishing Book 2, called Burning Nation.  As you may have guessed it is all about a civil war, and the characters don’t get through it without serious cost.  The third book will be called The Last Full Measure.  I have a lot more work to do on that book, but it is going to bring the whole story to a surprising end.

Saras, Jacob, and Jake: Who is your favorite author? Are there any authors or books that have especially influenced this trilogy?

Trent: Wow.  This question is very hard to answer.  Who is my favorite author?  Maybe Katherine Paterson because her books are amazing and really helped me out when I needed help.  Katherine is a wonderful person.  I read most of the YA dystopian books to prepare for writing Divided We Fall.  I enjoyed The Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, and books like that.  I read those books to see how other writers dealt with a society that was holding on after the systems and rules that we now live by had collapsed.

Jacob: Was your decision to join the National Guard anything like Danny’s? It seemed like he joined because he wanted to be like his father and he thought being in the National Guard would help him with other things, like his mechanic job and football training. Did you also join because you thought being in the National Guard would help you do other things, or did you mostly want to be a soldier?

Trent: I joined the Iowa Army National Guard because my father was working hard and helping to pay for my college tuition.  I wanted my dad to be able to keep more of his money, so I joined the Guard to pay for my school myself.  Actually, I never dreamed I’d be a soldier before I wanted the tuition money.  I’d always wanted to be a writer.  That’s what it has all been about.  It turned out my time as a soldier helped both with college and writing.

And finally, some questions about when Trent was in 8th grade:

Jake: Was it your plan to join the National Guard back in 8th grade?

Trent: I did not plan to join the National Guard until after my second year of college.  When I was in 8th grade, I wanted to be a writer.

Saras: Did you plan on being a writer when you were in 8th grade?

Trent: I wanted to be a writer since I wrote this one fun short story when I was in the fourth grade.  Writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do.  It is the best job in the world!

Jacob: If not, what did you plan to do? (Or if so, what else did you think you might do?)

Trent: There was never really anything else I wanted to do besides writing.  I earned a teaching license, and was very involved in the rigorous demands of teaching high school English for four years, but during that time I was always working on my fiction or attending writing school at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  For many many years now, it’s been all about the books.

Thank you!!

Thank YOU, Trent, for these thoughtful and fascinating responses! We’re looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!

Reading Aloud in a Middle School English Classroom

The other day, I read Joe McGee’s powerful blog post about being the kind of hero who doesn’t need a cape: the kind of understated hero who reads books aloud to kids. I recommend reading the post in its entirety, but in one part of it, Joe describes reading to one of his three sons: “I sit at the bedside of my middle-schooler and read him a couple of pages of the Percy Jackson books he’s devouring. No, he doesn’t need me to read them to him (he tears through the books), but he just likes the experience of hearing my voice; of sharing a few minutes with me.”

As a middle school English teacher, I read aloud to my students, too, even though, like Joe’s middle-school-aged son, they can certainly read on their own. Reading to a classroom full of students is different than a quiet, pre-bedtime, father-son moment, obviously, but my students and I also enjoy the experience Joe describes: of sharing some time together in which we are all immersed in the same story. They know that I won’t give them reading quizzes or make them write essays about the books I read aloud, and it takes a long time for us to make it through a read-aloud novel, since I only read a little bit (between five and fifteen minutes) at a time. As a result, our read-aloud time allows us to savor a story in a way that most of us don’t have time to do when we are reading on our own.

In addition to the fact that my students enjoy read alouds (there is often cheering when I announce that we’re starting or finishing class with a read aloud, which makes me feel at least a tiny bit heroic), it’s useful for many of my students to hear how an experienced reader reads a text. I make sure to emphasize important words, I speak differently for different characters, and I pause to re-read a sentence if I don’t get the inflection quite right: all things that students can do inside their heads when they’re reading silently for better comprehension and more enjoyment. Reading aloud lets us appreciate the way a well-told story sounds, which can help students develop an ear for voice, that elusive but important trait that distinguishes wonderful writing.

But reading aloud does include some challenges. Sometimes it feels like one more thing to balance when I’m already trying to fit in a whole lot. The fact that it takes a long time to get through a read-aloud book also brings up two tricky issues: we’re not going to move on to another one for a while, which can be a bummer if a student isn’t into a book we’re reading aloud, and sometimes students get impatient and want to know what happens (which I can understand), so they get a copy of the book and finish it on their own. That can mean that they’re less engaged while we’re reading as a class, or that they give away plot developments to their classmates. I’ve been feeling discouraged by these challenges lately, but Joe’s blog post reminded me to stop and think about the tangible and intangible benefits of reading aloud.

When I choose read alouds, I do my best to think of books that will appeal to a range of students. Occasionally I offer different options and let students vote, but I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, because students whose first choice book doesn’t get chosen tend to take a little while to warm up to the class choice. Verse novels can be great for reading aloud, because they tend to include fewer words than prose novels and we can get through them more quickly. Books that have a mystery element and invite students to make lots of predictions also work well (although then if students can’t resist finishing the book on their own, they can’t participate in some of the conversations), and funny books are often a hit. Here are some of the books I’ve used, specifically with 6th and 7th grade classes.

222458Rules, by Cynthia Lord: This was the first read aloud I ever used. Looking back, I’m surprised I chose it because only girls tend to check it out from the classroom library, but the class loved it and it led to great conversations, so that’s a point in favor of good books just being good books, not “girl books” or “boy books.”

1835150Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate: A funny and poignant verse novel.

0-545-08092-4All the Broken Pieces, by Ann E. Burg: Another poignant verse novel.

17308183When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead: Both of these books have a great voice, a vivid setting, and a puzzle element for readers to put together.

324377Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay: A hilarious book with a lovable cast of characters, and the first book in a series.

17286690Capture the Flag and Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner: Both suspenseful and action-packed, with lots of opportunities for readers to make inferences and varied casts of characters.

556136The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: Schmidt’s funny, emotion-packed writing really lends itself to being read aloud.

17349153Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson: At first I thought this delightful and humorous pirate adventure novel might feel too young for my sixth grade students (even though I, as an adult, adored it), but we’re reading it aloud now. It turns out, once again, that good books are good books, so I didn’t need to worry. Also, I let students take turns reading the fun letters, articles, signs, and excerpts that appear at the beginning or end of chapters, and they seem to love that.

What are some books you like to read aloud? I’d love to get suggestions from teachers, librarians, or parents about other books that work especially well.



Student-Author Interview 03: Lisa Graff

I’m so excited to bring you the next installment of the Student-Author Interview Series! This time, three delightful sixth graders and two delightful seventh graders have interviewed the similarly delightful Lisa Graff, who has even shared some special bonus content with us! Poli, Sophia, Sydney, Dasha, and MaryElizabeth all read Lisa’s charming novel A Tangle of Knots, which is set in a slightly magical world where people have special Talents. It features an orphan girl named Cady with a Talent for baking people’s perfect cakes; a powder blue suitcase; a lost luggage emporium; and so much more. If you haven’t read it yet, it comes highly recommended (both by me and by these enthusiastic students)!

First, here’s what they love most about A TANGLE OF KNOTS: 

Sydney: What I really liked were the Talents and how almost everyone had a special sophia.poli.syd copyone.

Poli: I liked that at first everything was a bit confusing and then at the end it all fell together. I liked Cady the best because she was sweet and gave off a “main character” vibe.

Sophia: I liked how it was from all of the different character’s perspectives.

Dasha: I liked that Cady’s Talent was making perfect cakes. It’s so random and happy. I also like the old man with the knot-tying Talent. I liked how at the beginning it was about this guy who seemed like he had a bright future, and then he ended up being the villain. I also like ME.Dasha copyhow the bad guy used his favorite Talent of floating all the time.

MaryElizabeth: I liked how everything came together and the diversity of people’s Talents—how they were all random, like spitting and knot tying. I liked the cleverness of the story and the happy tone. I really liked the character of Toby.

Now, here’s what they wanted to know about the book:

Poli: If you lived in that world, what would your Talent be?

I could only wish it would be a tasty Talent, like Cady’s Talent for cake-baking. But more likely I’d end up with something boring but practical, like closet-organizing (already a specialty of mine—at least it comes in handy!).

MaryElizabeth: What would be your perfect cake? Also, how old were you when you first started baking cakes? Was your first cake a disaster, or did it turn out well?

My perfect cake would definitely be a lemon layer cake. I have a recipe for one with black tea frosting, and it takes forever to make, but it is worth the effort. (This may say that I, too, am sweet and sour and a lot of work, but I’m fine with that!)

Here's seven-year-old Lisa, helping with her birthday layer cake!

Here’s seven-year-old Lisa, helping with her birthday layer cake!

I probably first got the baking bug when I was seven years old. In my family we have a tradition where, when a child turns seven, he or she has an enormous party with all the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and there is a seven layer cake, where every layer is a different color. No one seems to know where this tradition originated, but my family has been doing it for as long as anyone can remember, and it is a lot of fun. 

When I first started baking on my own, I definitely had a lot of disasters. Even trying out recipes for A Tangle of Knots, I made several cakes that didn’t work out at all, so obviously those recipes didn’t end up in the book! Baking can be a challenge, but I think that’s what I enjoy about it.

Dasha and Sophia: How did you come up with all of the Talents that seem so random? And how did you come up with the other random details, like the powder blue suitcase, ice cubes, and peanut butter?

A page from Lisa's brainstorming notebook.

A page from Lisa’s brainstorming notebook.

All of the Talents and details really just came from brainstorming. I kept a notebook when I was first working on this book, before I even wrote down a single word of the story, and I scribbled down every single idea I had about what might go in the story (whether I thought it was a particularly good idea or not).

notes 2

More from Lisa’s notebook.

I went through the notebook several times and crossed out ideas I didn’t like anymore, and added new ones in the margins, and asked questions about the ones that stuck, and then tried to answer them. I filled up an entire notebook this way—and that was before I even began to outline! This was definitely a change from the typical way I write. Usually I like to dive headfirst into a novel before I have any idea of what is going to happen, and learn about the characters and their stories by writing through them. But I knew that in this book, which I wanted to be so full of intricate, connecting details, I was going to have to decide on the majority of things before I started writing. It was a big challenge for me.

Poli: How did you come up with the characters’ names?

notes 3

Lisa’s name brainstorm. What fun to see the other name contenders that didn’t get picked!

This came from brainstorming too. It’s interesting to me to look back at my notebook, because I can see that most of the characters’ names I decided on right away, but a few of them, like Miss Mallory, had very different names (Delania Crisp? What was I thinking??)

I should also say that in my original outline, and for the first several drafts, there were two big characters that I eventually ended up cutting out of the story completely. The first was a fourth Asher sibling (Asher Arnold Asher IV), who had a Talent for playing baseball but desperately wanted to play the oboe instead, and a janitor (named “Mr. Epsilon” in my notes, but later called Juan), who had a Talent for fixing U-bend pipes, and was meant to be a love interest for Miss Mallory. What became apparent pretty quickly, though, was that I was simply dealing with too many characters and storylines, so these ones got cut—and I could tell they didn’t need to be there, because once I removed them, I didn’t miss them at all.

MaryElizabeth: What would you tell people who say they don’t have any Talents? What advice would you give them?

This was something I wanted to talk about in my book. I think there are plenty of us who feel like we’ll never be the best in the world at anything—and that’s perfectly fine, in my opinion. You don’t need to be the best in the world at anything to be a good person, or interesting, and being good at something doesn’t mean you’ll even necessarily enjoy doing that thing. Part of the reason I think I love writing so much is that I never felt like it came particularly easily to me—it was always something I had to work at, and because of that it still feels so satisfying when I hit upon an idea or sentence that I’m particularly proud of. So I guess my best advice, if you feel you are a person with no special Talents, is to find what you love, regardless of how amazing you are at it, and do it with gusto.

Sydney: What inspired you to write this book?

Several years ago I watched a television special about the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where they buy unclaimed luggage from airports and bus depots and then sell the contents to the public. I thought this was the coolest, craziest thing I’d ever heard of, and I knew that I wanted to one day set a book in such a place. That idea rolled around in my brain for about three years, until I finally figured out the key to unlocking the story that should go with it—I’d had an image of a girl, opening a suitcase, searching for something inside, but all of a sudden I realized that the story would be so much better if there was something inside the suitcase searching for her. The story all fell into place around that one idea.

Sophia: How long did it take you to write the book?

Oddly enough, this was one of my quickest books that I’ve written to date. I spent three months brainstorming and outlining, then probably three months writing the rough draft, and then another two or three revising. Usually my books take anywhere from one year to two.


Dasha: How did the cover come to be?

The cover, which I absolutely love, was all the brainchild of the designer and editor at my publishing house. They came up with the general idea for it, and then suggested a few illustrators whose work they thought might be a good fit for it (I got to weigh in at this stage and help pick the artist). I think the process was fairly simple for this book—sometimes these things can be pretty painful!

And last but not least, here’s what the girls wanted to know about Lisa in middle school:

MaryElizabeth: What was your favorite subject?

In middle school my favorite subjects were art and chorus. I really liked science too (and I still do!). I enjoyed reading a lot, but I never felt like I was a particularly amazing writer when I was a kid.

Sydney: Do you remember anything you wrote when you were in middle school, and if you do can you tell us about it? Have you ever taken an idea you had in middle school and turned it into a book, or would you?

I wrote for fun a little bit when I was in middle school, but I didn’t start taking it more seriously until I joined my school’s writing club my freshman year of high school. When I was in middle school I thought it was lots of fun to write fake diaries from fictional characters’ points of view, and to illustrate them. That might be the thing I wrote the most of. I’ve never turned one of my childhood ideas into a book so far, but I have a picture book that’s been rolling around in my brain since I was fourteen—maybe one of these days I will finally figure out how to make it work!

Dasha: What was your favorite book?2657

My all-time favorite book is actually one I first read in middle school: To Kill a Mockingbird. I also really loved The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. And I was obsessed with the Baby-Sitters Club books when I was in middle school too. I must’ve owned about sixty of them! I couldn’t get enough.

Sophia: What did you want to be when you grew up? When did you start wanting to be a writer—was it before middle school or after?

I decided I was going to be a pediatrician when I was four years old (no joke!), and I still thought that’s what I was going to do until my freshman year of college, when I realized I enjoyed writing more than anything else. It was very hard for me to let go of that childhood dream, because it was the thing I’d wanted to do for so long, but in the end I knew that there was another dream I hadn’t really considered before, which was going to make me even happier. Once I made the decision to pursue writing, I never once regretted it.

Thank you, Lisa, for answering our questions and sharing your adorable photo and fascinating notebook pages with us! We can’t wait until your next novel, ABSOLUTELY ALMOST, comes out in June!

Cover Images from Goodreads.

An Inspiring Author Visit with Eliot Schrefer

It’s a logistical challenge to coordinate an author visit. Especially if the author is coming in from out of town and presenting to multiple groups. And especially especially when there’s a snow day on the originally scheduled date. So it’s really saying something that Eliot Schrefer’s author visit on February 20th was worth the logistical challenges and then some!

Eliot is the author of the National Book Award Finalist novel Endangered, which tells theEliot story of a fourteen-year-old girl trying to survive in war-time Congo with an orphaned bonobo, and the brand new novel Threatened, among other books. He charmed and inspired middle school students, high school students, and teachers as he presented about human-ape relationships and his research trip to Congo for Endangered. He also talked more informally about his writing process with the eighth grade.

I loved hearing about Eliot’s adventures in Congo, and I also appreciated the humble, unintimidating way he described his life as a writer. I thought it was especially interesting to hear about how he came up with the idea for Endangered. He began researching bonobos because of a pair of Bonobo brand pants, and when it came time to write the novel, he started off with the situation for the story in mind. He knew he’d tell the story of a teenager trying to take care of a bonobo during a time of violence and political unrest, and from there, he figured out what kind of character would fit the situation best.

It was also interesting to hear him talk about drafting versus revision (he doesn’t let himself look back above the cursor as he drafts and keeps moving forward, and he spends much longer revising a first draft than writing it) and about getting into the writing zone. One of the eighth grade students asked him if he feels like he’s really writing from a character’s perspective when he sits down to write, and he said that sometimes he gets into a flow state, in which the story comes to him easily from a character’s perspective, but sometimes he has to sit down and write even when he isn’t in that kind of zone.

My own writing process is different from Eliot’s in some ways: I tend to start a story with a character or a feeling instead of a situation, and I tend to go back to earlier parts of a story a lot as I’m getting a draft together rather than pushing onward without looking back. But the tone of Eliot’s talks made it clear that there isn’t just one way to do things: what’s important is to realize that writing, or any other kind of art, is going to take a whole lot of effort and discipline, and then to figure out what works best for each of us.

Oh, and in addition to all of those great takeaways from the visit? Bonobos are extraordinarily cute. Seriously. Look them up on YouTube. In the larger assemblies, the whole audience was enchanted each time Eliot showed a video clip of bonobos. Eliot is writing a quartet of YA novels about young people and their relationships with each of the four great apes: bonobos in Endangered, chimpanzees in Threatened, and then orangutans and gorillas in his next two books. As I looked out at the audience of students and teachers, all smiling and laughing as they watched these emotionally expressive, absolutely endearing apes, I realized that there is something fundamentally fascinating and resonant about these creatures Eliot has chosen to write about.

And so maybe that’s the biggest takeaway of all: that the best stories deal with subject matter that is in some way fascinating and resonant. That’s not to say that we should all go out and write about apes–I think Eliot has that under control. But I think we should all be on the lookout for potential topics that speak to us and might speak to others. We should all be on the lookout for our own “bonobos,” and we should be aware that the initial seed of inspiration could come from something as simple as a pair of pants.

Student-Author Interview 02: K.A. Barson

Welcome back for the second installment of the Student-Author Interview Series! This 9c5d2f301dfd09933880134e3ed29b36time, four terrific seventh grade readers are interviewing one terrific author: K.A. (Kelly) Barson. Kelly’s debut, the funny and poignant contemporary YA novel 45 Pounds (More or Less), tells the story of sixteen-year-old Ann Galardi, who resolves to lose 45 pounds in two and a half months so that she can fit into a bridesmaid dress that won’t humiliate her when her aunt gets married at the end of the summer. Like last time, the student interviewers will share their favorite things about Kelly’s book, then they’ll ask Kelly some questions about the book, and finally they’ll ask her some questions about when she was in middle school. We hope you enjoy the interview!

First, what the students especially love about 45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS):

Sophia: I really loved how Ann thought of a goal to work towards. I liked the style of the book and that it’s realistic but shows something that’s not everybody’s reality. I liked Ann’s relationship with Jon, and it felt true when other girls were really mean to Ann. Sometimes people do things that they think are a joke, but they’re really mean.

Rachel: I love how relatable it is even if you don’t have 45 pounds to lose—it’s about parents and siblings and friends and things you can relate to.

Lili May: I agree that it’s relatable, and I also like how you can see how Ann changes, and how she changes who she’s friends with and meets some new people she really likes. I like how in her quest to teach her little sister Libby to be healthy and not freak out about eating she teaches herself that’s how you should live.

Breanna: I really like the little brother and sister, Justice and Liberty. Their names are cute and I liked how Libby was worried about food. Regina also was the perfect name for Ann’s mom’s awful mother-in-law!

Now for some questions about the book and about Kelly’s writing process:

13424250Rachel and Breanna: Did you struggle with weight since Ann’s character does and you write about it in such a believable way in the first person? Or if not, did you feel some of the same feelings that Ann has or go through any of the scenarios in the book? 

Yes and yes. I’ve struggled with weight all of my life. Like Ann, I always worried about what people were thinking. When I was younger I wasn’t as big as I felt I was, but because that’s how I thought about myself I made it come true even more. The battle with weight is often more of a mental battle than a physical one. That is true for Ann, her mother, as well as for me and my mother. My mom is a good mom—as is Ann’s; she just has her own struggles in her own head.

Breanna and Lili May: Are any of Ann’s family members based on anyone real? We especially want to know about Gram, because we love Gram and want to know if there’s a real Gram out there. Also Ann’s dad, because he’s so hurtful, and Regina, because she’s so horrible!

Kind of. Gram is a combination of my grandmother, my mother as a grandmother, and me as a grandmother. My grandma used to call people fat ass. She wasn’t trying to be mean, but it felt like it sometimes because that’s not a nice thing to say. She also used to speak her mind. I spent a lot of time with her growing up. She’s passed away now, and I miss her a lot. I loved writing this because it was like she was with me. My mom used to smoke a lot, so that part came from her. (She doesn’t smoke anymore.) She also speaks her mind. I like to wear bright colors and sometimes dress a little weird. Like my grandma and mom, I also don’t hold back on how I feel. All of us will fight for everyone to get along and love our kids and grandkids fiercely.

Ann’s dad is not based on anyone particular. He’s just a guy who gets caught up in his own day-to-day life and Ann just isn’t there every day. I think he loves her in his own way. He’s just selfish.

Regina is based on someone I know, but I can’t tell you who it is because she has no idea it’s her. You see, when someone is that judgmental and self-absorbed they don’t see the meanness even when it’s staring them in the face. They usually only see how people treat them wrongly. That’s true with Regina as well as the real-life “Regina.” 

Breanna: How did you choose the characters’ names, especially Liberty and Justice?

Ann comes from an earlier version of the story where she had a screen name of Ann_Onymous. She used that because she felt invisible. But that part of the story was updated and eliminated. I kept her name though because it felt weird to change it.

I’ve always liked the name Libby. Since Mike is a politician, I was brainstorming names that sounded patriotic. Liberty and Justice fit. Plus, I thought they were cute names, and kind of funny, too.

Regina is Latin for queen—the obvious choice.

The Knees started out as a coincidence. I loved the name Raynee, so I chose that to be the friend. Then I noticed that I’d called the other girl Courtney. I jumped on the similarity and added Tiffany and Melanie.

Rachel: Who would you say is the biggest antagonist in the book?

In my opinion, the biggest antagonist is Ann. I know that sounds weird because she’s the protagonist, but the biggest obstacles she had to overcome were her own misconceptions about herself and how others saw her. Yes, there were obstacles with other people—especially Courtney, but overall, those people were reacting from their own selfishness and issues. The biggest battle is within Ann’s own head.

Lili May: Is contemporary realistic fiction your favorite genre to write, and if so, why?

I love writing contemporary realistic fiction because those are the stories that speak to me. I like watching contemporary movies and reading that genre too. (I love John Green and Rainbow Rowell.) However, I also like writing historical fiction. I love history and stories from the past, but more than the facts, I like the people of history. I love that even though times and circumstances change, people are always people.

Rachel: How do you stay on track with your writing?

I don’t. Ha! Deadlines. If someone like my editor or agent gives me a deadline, I do whatever I can to meet it. Sometimes I write just because I need to know what happens to these characters that I think about all the time. I don’t write every day, even though I probably should. I tend to write in sprints and then rest before I sprint into the next story.

Sophia: How did you choose to end the book where you did rather than showing the rest of Ann’s aunt’s wedding and more of what happens with Ann and Jon? Will you make a sequel? I hope you do! (Note: this one includes spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet you might want to scroll past this answer for now!)

I ended it where I did because Ann had transformed. Just like in real life, she didn’t totally change, but her mindset and attitudes had changed. How she saw herself and how she saw Courtney and her mom had all changed. She understood that everyone has his or her own stories and issues and that she could only do something about her own. She was on the right track. And we found out that Jon really does like her! Readers can infer that they will start dating after the wedding. And that everything is finally working out for her.

As for a sequel, there isn’t one planned. HOWEVER, Ann and Raynee make cameo appearances in my next book that is due out summer 2015. It’s about a high school cosmetology student who thinks she has her whole life planned out, until it all falls apart. It takes place in the same city—a fictionalized version of my own town, so some of the same places and people are in it.

And finally, some questions about when Kelly was in middle school:

Lili May: Did you want to be a writer when you were in middle school?

I knew I liked writing when I was in middle school. But I didn’t think it was a real job. I thought of it like being a movie star or professional basketball player—sure, some people do it, but only really talented or lucky people can really do it for a living. And I never thought I was that talented or lucky. I’d always imagined myself as a teacher. I still like teaching and have taught grades 3-12 and now teach college writing. Now I know that I can teach AND write. And that it’s not all about luck and talent. It’s more about hard work and doing what you love.

Breanna: Was English your best subject?

Yes! I loved diagramming sentences and dissecting sentences as I read literature. But I also liked algebra and history. Science? Not so much.

Sophia: Did you have any hard writing assignments at school? Was there anything about writing that was a challenge for you then?

I’ve never liked answering essay questions where the teacher was looking for something specific. They always felt artificial to me, and I usually got frustrated trying to figure out what he or she wanted. I preferred to be able to talk about the stories and hear what other people noticed. I also preferred to create my own stories.

I also didn’t usually want to read something if a teacher assigned it. I was stubborn and bratty that way. I wanted to pick out my own books. I’ve gone back now and read most of the books I refused to read in middle school and high school. I like most of them and can see why the teachers picked them, but I still like to pick out my own books.

Thanks so much for reading 45 POUNDS and for taking the time to interview me! You all are awesome! Write on…

Thank YOU, Kelly, for writing 45 POUNDS and for answering our questions! We can’t wait for your next book!

girls with 45 pounds

Author photo from (photo credit: Hal Folk). Book cover image from Goodreads.

Student-Author Interview 01: Amy Rose Capetta

I don’t know about you, but I love reading author interviews. I also love giving my students opportunities to interact with real-life authors. So I figured, why not bring these two things together and have students interview authors here on my blog! Welcome to ARCAuthorPhotoLake-200x300the first installment of this student-author interview series, featuring Amy Rose Capetta. Amy Rose is the author of Entangled, an awesome sci-fi adventure story about a girl named Cade who finds out that she’s entangled at a sub-atomic level with a guy she’s never met and has to travel through space to try to save him.

In this and other author interviews I feature here, my students will share what they liked most about the author’s book, ask questions about the book, and ask questions about what the author was like in middle school. Got it? Okay then! Let’s get started.

First, here’s what some of my middle school students love about Entangled:

Mary G.: I really like the way Amy Rose writes. I think it’s dreamy, surreal, and awesome. The way she writes sounds like the setting she’s writing about somehow. It fits. I also like that even though this book is in third-person, the narration sounds like Cade. I loved that at the beginning things are kind of confusing.  I love when books are confusing at first and you have to keep reading to figure things out!

Casey: I also liked that I had to figure things out at the beginning. When I got further on, after Xan was introduced, I liked the action and the adventure that started from there.

Mary D.: I liked how the events weren’t all happy, and I liked the ending, because it wasn’t just happy, but it wasn’t depressing. It was bittersweet.

17165987Now for some questions about Entangled and writing!

Madeline: I see on the first page that Cade wears lots of black and sometimes can’t stand other people. Do you wear black and are you antisocial, too? Or are you more like another character than like Cade?

Antisocial? Oh, yeah. I was a hundred different shades of antisocial. No black in my wardrobe, though! I loved bright colors. My original daydream of Cade (way before I knew anything about the plot,) was about a punk rock girl on a faraway desert planet. Black is traditional for punk and actually smart to wear in hot weather, so when Cade started getting dressed and all of her clothes were black, I went with it.

I wouldn’t say I’m outgoing now, but like Cade, I found a way to connect with people. A lot of what she goes through is a (big, adventurous, sci-fi) version of what I went through at seventeen.

But overall, the character I’m most like is Ayumi—nerdy to the core, buried in her notebooks, doing her own thing.

Quinn: How did you create the world that’s in this book?

The process of creating the world in the book was different from what I’m used to. Before, if a story I wanted to write took place in a fantasy or sci-fi world, I would keep notebooks (like Ayumi!) and make maps of places that didn’t exist. The process of creating that other place could take months. I did all of that for Entangled, but after I started. I let the universe of the story evolve as I wrote. When I had a draft, I went back and made sure it all worked—and I hadn’t changed the names of the planets halfway through.

Mary D.: How much time per day do you spend writing, and how long did it take to write this book?

I get in a good four-to-five hour stretch of writing every day, even when I have other work to do. Whenever I can, I’ll add a second session, which can be shorter, or longer if I’m almost at a deadline! It took me four months to write the first draft of Entangled, and another three to revise it. That was all before an editor bought it, and then there were more revisions, and copyedits. The process of writing Entangled, from start to finish, took eleven months.

Dasha: Do you procrastinate?

I used to procrastinate a lot more than I do now. But I also used to sit still for longer. Now, if I need a break, I’ll take one—get lunch, go for a walk, finally get out of my pajamas. (If people knew how much time writers spend in their pajamas, they would be horrified. Or jealous! Depending on how much you like pajamas.) But I’ve decided that when I’m in writing mode, I have to keep my words on the screen. It allows me to get deeper into the story, and that’s when a lot of the best stuff happens—the surprises, the character development, the humor—basically, the parts I can’t plan.

Casey: How and when did you get into writing?

I got into writing early. I had a third grade teacher who loved all things fantasy. I always loved to write, but combining it with the love of adventure and other worlds is what really made an impact. I had a hard time focusing on the “real world”—and I still do. I think that most adults narrow things down too much. The world is a lot stranger than we think it is. That’s why I love science! It’s a great reminder of that, and a great source to steal ideas for stories.

Mary G.: You say at one point that Cade has light brown skin, so I imagined her being biracial, but then on the cover she looks white. How did you imagine her looking? Does the girl on the cover look like the Cade you imagined?

That is a fantastic question. I could go on and on and on about this subject, but here’s the short answer:

In the future that I imagined, over 1,000 years from now, pretty much everyone is what we would now consider biracial (or, really, multiracial.) Leaving Earth in small numbers, and being lumped together as an undesirable group by nonhuman species, had a big effect on the humans. The remaining population is scattered, so there’s still a lot of genetic variation.

When I imagined the human characters, I wanted to make it clear we weren’t in an all-white future. (Which would be creepy and make no sense.) The publisher was totally on board with a cover that featured Cade’s light brown skin tone, but the original cover didn’t look very sci-fi or futuristic, so the blue was added. The thing that I’ve always liked about the girl in the picture is that her features read as somewhat Asian to me, and with a brown skin tone and a mix of Caucasian and Asian features, she would be a multiracial Cade, like I imagined. Is the Cade on the cover a little different than the Cade in my head? Sure. But I’ve always liked the idea that we can all have different but valid images of a character. The Cade in my head is probably different from the Cade in yours, too, and that’s sort of cool.

Dasha: Did you get ideas or inspiration from other authors or books? If so, which ones?

Definitely! I am always inspired by other books and authors. In this case, I read a lot of sci-fi when I was a teenager, but about 98% of it felt like it was written by male authors, about male characters, for male readers. I wanted to write a space epic that didn’t read like there should be a No Girls Allowed sign stapled to it.

Now for some questions about Amy Rose in middle school:

Dasha: What was your favorite class and your favorite book?

I loved science classes. I can still recite a lot of the periodic table and draw a mean Punnett square.

My favorite books around that time were the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, which starts with The Golden Compass. I was waiting for the third book to come out, and I read the first two over and over and over…Books in a trilogy didn’t come out a year apart from each other then! More like five.

Casey: Was there a writing or literature club in your middle school, and if there was were you in it?

There was no writing or literature club in my middle school. Do you have that? I would have loved it. In middle school I did start writing my first long stories. They were hand-written in multiple composition notebooks, then typed and shared with my best friend. He was amazing and actually read them. (Did I mention they were long? Really long. Like, longer than Entangled.) It was pretty great to send him a copy of a published book, and say thank you.

Mary D.: What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a writer. I was so single-minded. (I guess I still am.) And I was so lucky to be surrounded by supportive people who didn’t tell me that it was impossible.

Madeline: What was your favorite dessert then, and what is it now?

So hard to pick! I have a monstrous sweet tooth. I even worked as a baker for a while.

Then: strawberry shortcake

Now: dark chocolate, all the time, everywhere, with anything, on top of anything

Thanks for being our first guest, Amy Rose! students with Entangled

If you haven’t already, definitely check out Entangled, and then you can look forward to the upcoming sequel, Unmade!

Photo of Amy Rose from, photo credit: Cori McCarthy. Book cover image from

How “Hooky” Is Your Hook?

During my first semester of graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was working on a novel about a very anxious girl beginning her freshman year at a very intense prep school. I really loved this anxious girl, and I really loved her science-obsessed best friend and her kind, stressed-out dad and the adorable, math-genius boy who had a crush on her. But…well…not a whole heck of a lot happened in the novel draft. And it definitely didn’t have a catchy premise I could sum up in a sentence.

When I started my second semester of grad school, my new advisor told me there were a lot of wonderful things about this character, her voice, and her world, but what I had written didn’t yet qualify as a story. That was a little bit hard to take. I mean, lots of things qualify as stories. An off-the-cuff monologue about some silly thing that happened on the subway ride to work could get categorized as a story. But my novel-in-progress couldn’t?

My new advisor helped me identify a true inciting incident that would happen early on in a new draft and shake up this poor anxious girl’s world. We realized that everything I had written so far was like a prequel. The true story should begin a full year later.

Determining where to start the book was a great first step. But my advisor also encouraged me to raise the intensity of the set up. “What if the girl’s overachieving brother died when they were young and that’s why getting perfect grades and being the perfect daughter is so important to her?” she suggested. “Or what if at the end it becomes clear that she’s been hospitalized for an eating disorder?”

I wanted to take my advisor’s advice (she is indisputably brilliant), and I certainly wanted to improve my book. But I really didn’t want to give this girl a dead brother or an eating disorder. That was partly because I didn’t envision this book being a grief novel or a novel about body image issues. It was also partly because I haven’t had to deal with an eating disorder or the death of someone very young and close to me, so I didn’t think I could write that kind of story authentically.

Eventually, after I’d started the story over a few times and it still wasn’t working, my advisor said something that sparked an epiphany. She explained that readers tend to expect that the main character in a novel will be going through something bigger than what they themselves have been through. If you don’t give the main character something significant to work against, readers might not feel as invested in his or her journey. I didn’t have to use the dead brother or eating disorder idea—she wasn’t saying I had to choose one of those. But I couldn’t just rely on character and voice, even now that I was starting the story closer to an inciting incident. I had to figure out how to give my character a more specific, significant obstacle to work against.

A couple of years later, when I was ready to send out queries for a book I’d started my third semester (I put the one from first and second semester aside for a good long break), I began to read a lot of agent interviews and blogs. This Publisher’s Weekly article “New Trends in YA: The Agents’ Perspective” suggests that a strong contemporary realistic submission has two key things: “a strong voice and a good hook.” Suzie Townsend shared a similar recipe for hooking an agent in this great blog post (which happens to reference one of my favorite books, Saving Francesca). She explains: “Voice + Character + Set up = Hooked!”

I think the “hook” or “set up” agents describe is similar to what my second-semester advisor was talking about when she encouraged me to start my novel-in-progress in the right place and develop specific, significant obstacles. But I still wonder: how can a writer be sure that her hook is hooky enough? Especially a writer like me, who loves character and voice first and a dramatic story second?

In the same blog post, Suzie Townsend offers a helpful explanation of a hook. She says that starting in the right place is crucial, and she adds, “Great first lines are a definite plus and a set up that can be summed up in a concise sentence or two (this is also called a logline) is even better.”

Beyond this, different people seem to have different opinions about what makes a hook hooky enough, which certainly isn’t earth-shattering news, since reading tastes are subjective. I’m probably not ever going to be the kind of writer whose books have really dark and edgy or glamorous-splashy hooks. That’s not to say that I have anything against dark and edgy or glamorous-splashy books! That just isn’t my style. When I was querying agents, I would read successful query examples and lament over how many of the books that had landed agents had hookier hooks than mine did. Now that I have an agent and my book is on submission, I like to read Publisher’s Marketplace sales reports and worry that the books that are selling all sound more dramatic than mine.

This is probably not a wise thing to do. What I probably should do is try to make sure that my stories start in the right place and have specific, significant obstacles and a set up that can be described concisely. I can also be on the look out for books that fit my sensibilities and have strong hooks, so that I can learn from the work of other authors. Some contemporary realistic books I’ve read (and loved) recently that feel like my kind of book and have especially effective set ups include Corey Ann Haydu’s OCD Love Story, Sara Polsky’s This Is How I Find Her, and Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando’s Roomies. And I can push myself to expand my ideas of what kinds of set ups I could pull off authentically, by finding ways to connect the experiences I’ve had with the experiences I’m imagining for a character.

That sounds much wiser, doesn’t it? I’d also love to hear about any other effectively hooky books you’ve read recently or any thoughts on what a hook is and what makes one strong!

Integrity…the Second Definition

As part of the middle school advisory program at my school this year, we’ve been focusing on the theme of integrity. From the start, most of my advisees already understood the first definition that’s listed in a print or online dictionary when you look up the word integrity; they already knew that having integrity means being honest and showing strong moral principles.

But they weren’t as familiar with the definition that appears second. They didn’t know, until we looked up the word together, that integrity also means “the state of being whole and undivided.” So after we spent some time grappling with the first definition of integrity as we debated the honest, moral thing to do in different scenarios, we moved on to the second definition.

According to a piece by Connecticut Friends School on the Friends Journal website, having integrity means letting your inner life match your outer life. Living with integrity means honoring your passions and talents and sharing them with others. Inspired by these ideas, I asked my advisees to take turns teaching the group about something that is important to them: something that makes them who they are, but that the rest of us might not know about.

So far, we’ve learned French and Mandarin words from students who speak those languages at home. One student used diagrams and a YouTube video to show us how she navigates a slalom course. One took us outside on a very cold day and taught us how to throw and catch a lacrosse ball. One brought in Saudi food to share with us, and one taught us a hip-hop dance (which none of the rest of us could really do…but we all tried!).


Here, some of us are attempting the dance…

At this point in the school year, I know all of my advisees pretty well. But this activity has reminded me that there are plenty of things I don’t know about them. They have full lives outside of school—lives that are sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating, sometimes energizing and sometimes draining. It’s been really wonderful to find out more about their varied interests and areas of expertise.

This activity also has implications for fiction writing. I think it’s a helpful exercise for writers to ask themselves what their characters might teach a group of classmates if they were asked to share an interest with the group. Lissy, the main character in my YA manuscript REBOUND, came to life when I discovered her passion for baking (which is definitely the interest she would share with a group of classmates). As soon as I made her a baker, her voice became more distinctive and she became more likable, because she turns into the best, most confident version of herself when she bakes.

On the other hand, it also might be telling if a character does not have a clearly defined passion. In the YA project that I’m working on now, the main character has a very clear goal that she’s fixated on, but it’s not an internally driven passion—it’s an externally driven obsession. Recently, I realized that if she were one of my advisees and I asked her to share one of her interests with the group, she wouldn’t know what to share.  I could picture her listening to other people’s presentations and beating herself up because she doesn’t have a true passion. And in fact, it’s important to her character and her journey that she doesn’t yet have an interest that makes her feel whole and accomplished when the book begins.

As you can probably tell, I’ve found it really interesting to think about what it means for me, my students, and the fictional characters I read and write about to live with, or in pursuit of, this version of integrity. I hope it might be helpful for you to think about that, too!

Exceeding My Expectations: A Great Author Visit at a Hectic Time

Last Friday morning as I was having breakfast before school, I read this blog post entitled “The Paradoxical Extremes of Middle Grade Students: A Holiday Memory,” and I teared up a bit. In the post, Braden Bell, a choir director and author, describes his experience with a talented but silly group of eighth graders and the lovely, unexpected gift they gave him at a winter concert. It’s a touching post that you should definitely read, and Bell’s story captures the most frustrating and wonderful part of my job as a middle school teacher: the way middle school students can be goofy and rambunctious one moment and then amazingly thoughtful, mature, and—as Bell puts it—magnificent the next.

When I read that blog post on Friday morning, I didn’t realize that I would get to experience a similar kind of moment, when students would surprise me with their compassion and interest, at school that very day. You see, it had been a long week for me and for the sixth and seventh grade students. They’d had a big day on Wednesday, when they’d presented major social studies projects during the day and again in the evening, and the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break are always hectic with concerts and assemblies and general excitement.

My friend, author Lyn Miller-Lachmann, was visiting my sixth and seventh grade classes on Friday, and I was nervous. We’d scheduled the visit for that day because Lyn was already going to be in the Philadelphia area for a bookstore event in the evening, but now it seemed like really bad timing. The sixth and seventh graders were tired and preoccupied. When I’d read them the first four chapters of Lyn’s middle-grade novel Rogue the day before and reminded them about the visit, they hadn’t seemed very enthusiastic. None of them had told me that they were coming to the optional Q and A I’d arranged during lunch, even when I said there would be candy. I wanted the students to be invested and energetic so that they’d really get something out of Lyn’s visit. I wanted Lyn to have a good experience at my school. I wanted to feel like the time and energy I’d put into planning the visit had been worth it. But as I headed to school on Friday, I thought I might be disappointed.

When the sixth graders came in a little late from P.E., cutting short the already brief time they had with Lyn, I was discouraged. But then, sure enough, they participated in the discussion Lyn led and did a really nice job with her writing activity. That was a relief…but the seventh graders were the ones who’d seemed especially exhausted. And there was still that lunchtime session. What if nobody showed up?

Sixth graders working on Lyn's writing activity.

Sixth graders working on Lyn’s writing activity.

And then something wonderful happened. The first class of seventh graders came in—this group of students who had barely reacted when I’d read them the first chapters of Rogue the day before—and one student put her hand up immediately to ask Lyn a question. After Lyn answered it, more students raised their hands. One student informed Lyn that he’d read the whole book the night before and that it’s awesome before asking her some great questions about which parts of the book are based on her own experiences. Lyn could barely even get to the writing activity because so many students wanted to ask questions and tell her about their experiences.

Seventh graders eager to participate!

Seventh graders eager to participate!

I had to cut things off with that class so that Lyn and I could go down to the cafeteria to get lunch, and when we came back up to my classroom with our food, there were already a few students there. Phew, I thought. This is a respectable turnout. This is actually going okay. Then more students came in, so we pulled over another table, and then even more came in, so we added more chairs. Eventually, we had to start another table because we couldn’t fit everyone around the first two. And, okay, the students were eager to accept the candy I offered, but they were also eager to talk to Lyn!

One tricky thing about teaching is that the outcomes often don’t feel like they match my input. There are times when I put a lot of work into planning a lesson or a field trip that feels like it flops, and that can be demoralizing. But last Friday reminded me that I don’t always know what students are getting out of what I am offering them. Sometimes they might seem checked out when they are actually very much checked in. And it’s worth it to try to give them experiences that I think will be meaningful because sometimes, they will throw themselves in and take more out of those experiences than I could have hoped.

Planning Ahead

On Monday night, my fiancé and I went to see The Day of the Doctor, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, at a movie theater nearby. On our way home, we ended up talking about a question that’s come up several times before: How far ahead do the Doctor Who writers plan? When each new Doctor has been introduced, how precisely have the upcoming story lines been plotted out?

13-FEMK-338_-DrWho_Theaterflyer-Alt1Mike has a hunch that the writers plan out most developments pretty far ahead of time, but I’m not so sure. Yes, the stories are complicated and “timey-wimey,” so it makes sense that some plans would certainly have to be laid out in advance. But my writing experience leads me to believe that the best-laid plans don’t always pan out. Plus, the kind of fun, creative storytelling that makes Doctor Who enjoyable seems to result from a balance of flexibility and structure that’s heavy on the flexibility.

I’m no Steven Moffat, but one of the biggest writing lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that I can’t plan my stories too carefully. This has been a difficult lesson for me to accept, because I love to plan ahead. Uncertainty stresses me out. Slowly but surely, though, I am beginning to trust that uncertainty is a crucial part of the writing process.

I still think it’s helpful to have some idea of where I’m going. In both of the manuscripts I’ve worked on recently, I’ve spent some time early on figuring out a crossroads scene—a scene near the end of the book in which the external and internal story arcs cross and the main character must make an irrevocable choice—and that’s been hugely helpful. (Caroline Carlson, a talented writer, lovely person, and fellow VCFA alumna describes the crossroads scene in more detail in her post on how she plans a story, here.)

Then, to give myself what my VCFA advisor Shelley Tanaka called another “goalpost” to 417097write toward, I’ve figured out one or two other pivotal scenes, too. In my YA manuscript Rebound, I found it helpful to think about the story in three acts, and I drew upon a section of Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children called “The Throughline as Lifeline” to plan a pivotal scene. Lamb explains, “Somewhere at the closing of the second act of a screenplay, or the end of the middle of the book, the character’s conscious desire breaks down. […] This breakdown exposes a deeper motivation that propels the character forward, a motivation he was originally unaware of” (63). In Rebound, I knew what would happen in this end-of-the-middle scene, in which my character would give up on her conscious desire. (Well, I basically knew. I had to change the location and circumstances when I substantially revised my first draft and rewrote most of the second half of the novel from scratch, but the basic event stayed the same.)

In the manuscript I’ve been plugging away at this fall, I couldn’t come up with an end-of-the-middle scene in which the protagonist’s conscious desire breaks down, so I drew upon one of Martha Alderson’s ideas from The Plot Whisperer and figured out a pivotal midpoint scene instead. Alderson posits that the midpoint of a novel should be the second major turning point, or the second energetic marker. At this point in the story, Alderson explains in this blog post, “Something happens to force the protagonist’s willing and conscious commitment to the successful completion of her goal.” This month, I made it to the midpoint scene, and now I’m going to give the book a little bit of room to breathe before I read back over the first half and come up with my next goalpost to aim for.

But as helpful as it is to have planned out a scene that I can write towards, I continue to be struck by how many details and plot lines I never could have come up with ahead of time. In Rebound, the two things that people who have read the book consistently seem most enthusiastic about are things that surprised me when I figured them out. In my new project, I wrote one seemingly unimportant line of narration, in which the main character compares a school year to a pregnancy because both last for nine months, and when I read that over, something clicked. I decided to see what would happen if I made the protagonist’s mom pregnant and let her write her whole story as an extended letter to the miracle baby, and suddenly the project felt a lot more exciting.

So how far ahead do the Doctor Who writers plan? I have no idea, and judging by the number of hardcore Whovians out there, I’m sure many other people can make a more educated guess about that question than I can. But in my own writing, I’m glad I’m gradually learning the lesson to plan strategically, but plan out less than I think I should.

Safe Spaces

L. Marie invited me to write a guest post for her blog series on space, so I reflected on safe spaces, both real and fictional. Check out my guest post, the rest of the space series, and all of the other terrific stuff on L. Marie’s inspiring, entertaining blog!

Safe Spaces

“Why are we allowed to read this…?”

Pretty soon, I’ll post the final installment of my series on engagingly fallible first-person narrators, but in the wake of Banned Books Week last week, I wanted to post something else while it’s fresh in my mind.

After A.S. King visited my school last spring and gave three amazing presentations to grades 7-9, several students read one or more of her books. The other eighth grade English teacher and I love her novel Everybody Sees the Ants and wanted to capitalize on students’ excitement after the visit. We got permission to teach Everybody Sees the Ants in eighth grade English this year, and we just started the book at the end of last week.

Students are very enthusiastic about reading the book, but a couple of interesting comments from students have gotten me thinking. Yesterday, an eighth grader who is not in my class told me that she really likes Everybody Sees the Ants so far “even though it’s kind of inappropriate.” When I pressed her on what she meant by “inappropriate,” she referred to some curse words early in the novel. And then one student in my class came in today and asked, “Why are we allowed to read this when there are some curse words and stuff in it, but we get in trouble for swearing and we’re not allowed to play songs with curse words at school dances?”

That’s not an easy question to answer, but I think it’s an important one to address. So I ended up dropping part of the lesson I had planned today and asking the student to pose his question to the class. Here’s what my eighth grade students came up with:

  • Audience matters. Dances include 6th-8th graders, but our English class only includes 8th graders.

  • What you read is different from what you say. It’s not okay to direct curse words at other people, but when you’re reading a fictional story that includes curse words, that’s not the same as directing those words at other people, and that doesn’t encourage you to direct curse words at other people.

  • Most middle schoolers have seen and heard “worse” than what’s included in edgy YA novels.

  • The topic/message/theme matters. Some songs have negative messages that are demeaning to women, for example, but YA books usually have positive messages.

  • Language should match content. Certain stories are going to need curse words in order to be realistic. A.S. King couldn’t have believably written about Nader McMillan, the bully character in Everybody Sees the Ants, without including some swearing.

  • Context matters. You can’t take the curse words in a novel out of context; you need to look at why they’re there.

  • It’s different to read a book in English class, when the teacher has some control because he/she has read the book before assigning it and can lead discussions, than to play a song at a dance, because teachers wouldn’t have time to listen to each song beforehand and decide if each one is okay or not.

What do you think? Anything you’d add to my students’ list of reasons why they are allowed to read a book like Everybody Sees the Ants (or John Green’s Paper Towns or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, both of which they’ll read later this year) when they aren’t allowed to use or play songs with curse words in other situations? Any other thoughts on the challenges of giving books with mature content or language to adolescent readers?

Also, my eighth grade students were primed for this discussion because last week, in honor of Banned Books Week, they read this article about Rainbow Rowell’s novel Eleanor and Park, which was challenged by a group of parents in Minnesota, and this report from the Parents’ Action League that was behind the challenge. I highly recommend checking out both links.

And, um…don’t get used to me updating this blog daily. I’m not sure what got into me, posting two days in a row! But I’ll soon get back to my every-other-week-ish schedule.

Swearing and Drinking in YA Novels

When one of my wonderful writer friends recently read the revised version of my YA novel-in-progress, she had a lot of insightful things to say.  Most of her comments helped me problem-solve small places in the novel where something wasn’t quite working so that I can finish making the book as strong as it can be.  But two of her marginal comments especially got me thinking, not just about my work-in-progress but about young adult literature more generally.

In one place, she circled a curse word and asked if it was the only place in the book where my main character swore (it wasn’t exactly, but it was stronger than words she’d used other times).  And in another place, she noted that the main character never drinks throughout the novel, which might make her seem kind of young.  My friend wasn’t suggesting that I should haphazardly throw in a handful of curse words and some teenage drinking; she was simply making an observation so that I could reflect on how I want the character and novel to come across.  But it’s true that the absence of swearing and drinking might be conspicuous, especially for readers who read a lot of contemporary realistic YA and have developed certain expectations for the genre.

First I had to think about why I hadn’t included cursing and drinking.  The cursing part was pretty simple.  The main character in my novel is a fairly innocent 16-year-old, and curse words wouldn’t fit her voice, unless she was trying to impress someone by talking tougher.   I toned down the one word that had stood out and moved on.


Marissa and Summer from The O.C.

The teen drinking thing was a little more complicated.  Because I teach middle school students, I am aware of how many 11-13 year olds read young adult novels instead of or in addition to middle grade books.  While I believe that kids and teens generally do a great job of choosing books they’re ready for, I sometimes worry about how drinking (and drinking and driving) is normalized if there is alcohol in everything that adolescents watch and read.  When teen alcohol use feels authentic to a character and is important to a character’s journey, I have no objections to it, but I don’t like the idea of having characters pound beers or swig cocktails for no particular reason.

I also didn’t drink when I was a teenager, so drinking doesn’t immediately come to mind as part of the universal teen experience for me.  Although when I really think about it, the fact that I chose not to drink in high school really didn’t mean that alcohol wasn’t part of my teen life—I had some fear and discomfort around alcohol that impacted what I did and who I hung out with and would probably come into play if somebody were going to turn teen-me into a character in a YA novel.

After some reflection, I decided that I think it’s important that there are books out there that will appeal to middle school students who are advanced readers and ready to read about teenage experiences, but maybe not quite ready for all of the content in some YA books.  I imagine my tween/teen self and some of my students reading my work, and that probably does influence which characters I choose to focus on and which stories I want to tell.  But on the other hand, I can’t just say, “Well, I don’t want my main character to drink because I don’t want young readers to get the idea that everybody drinks in high school.”  I need to be true to the characters I’ve created.

So I spent some time thinking about how the main character in my novel would feel about alcohol, and then I needed to determine whether there were any places in the story where she would be likely to have a drink.  I knew she wouldn’t be a big drinker—she’s pretty cautious and likes to be in control—but I also knew that she would have drank a little bit at parties with her ex-boyfriend, because she wanted very badly to fit into his world, and she would probably test out drinking some of her dad’s alcohol at a certain point in the story (her dad’s job is actually related to alcohol) when she is annoyed with him and trying to become a more daring person.  When I tried bringing her dad’s vodka into a particular scene, it added to the tension and awkwardness and felt like the right choice.

It was a helpful exercise for me to think consciously about the role that swearing and alcohol should or should not play in my YA novel, so I invite you to think about how drinking/swearing/sex/etc. come across in your own writing or in the books you’ve read.  How do you decide whether or not to include these things, and have you been struck by books you’ve read that include gratuitous curse words or references to partying or that steer clear of these references entirely?  Do you think about your intended audience as you write or wonder about the appropriate audience for books you read?  And have you ever felt that your affection for and desire to protect young readers is at odds with your ability to tell or recommend a good story?

Choosing the Novel

I thought I would finish revising my novel-in-progress a while ago now.  But the last couple of months of the school year included two multiple-day school trips to chaperone, a few weddings and a bunch of other special events to attend, and hours and hours of grading.  Then, two days after my last meeting at school, during an amazingly fun and special weekend away, Mike and I got engaged and soon began looking at places to get married next June.

So summer was here and it was time to get back to writing—I’d promised myself I would—but instead I was visiting wedding venues, going to doctors’ appointments I didn’t have time for during the school year, seeing people I hadn’t spent much time with lately, and completing my scuba certification dives.  Lots of fun, lots of excitement, but still not much writing.

When I lamented the fact that I’d wanted to finish this revision by July 10th  (a self-imposed deadline I’d already pushed back from May 1st, June 1st, and then July 1st) and now I wasn’t sure I’d be able to, Mike said something that made me stop and think.

He said, “Sometimes, you have to choose your book.”

He was right, of course.  I often struggle to choose my book over other things now that I’ve finished my MFA program and no longer have deadlines that somebody else set for me.  It can feel selfish and antisocial to prioritize writing.  It can feel scary to commit to something I’m not always sure I’m all that good at.  And slogging through revisions usually isn’t as rewarding as working with students, or as fun as meeting up with friends, or as entertaining as watching Doctor Who on the couch, or as exciting as looking up wedding stuff online.

But if I never choose my book over other things, then how can I expect to make progress with it?  How can I beat myself up about not finishing my novel when I consistently let it fall to the bottom of my priority list?

So for the past week, I have chosen my novel.  I opted to stay home and work rather than going away for the Fourth of July weekend.  I sat my butt in a chair, turned off the internet, and wrote for two hours at a time, at least a couple of times a day.  By Sunday night, I had finished my revision, and yesterday I sent it off to a couple of generous first readers.  But finishing that revision took making a conscious choice and a sacrifice.

When I was a kid and went to Sunday School at a Presbyterian Church, a Sunday School teacher once told my class that we had a choice in everything we did, even showing up at Sunday School.  (I’m not sure if this statement was linked to a Bible story we were discussing or if people were misbehaving and the teacher was trying to convince everybody that deep down they wanted to be there or what.)  Most people in the class were very vocal in their disagreement.  They insisted that they didn’t choose to do their homework, or to go to school every day, or to come to church on the weekend.  They had to!

“You always have a choice,” the teacher repeated.

“Well, maybe,” some kids reasoned.  “But if we chose not to do our homework we’d fail and get held back, and if we never went to school we’d be breaking the law, and if we refused to come to Sunday School we’d be in major trouble with our parents.”

“Those are still choices,” the teacher maintained.

Looking back, I see that the teacher was right, in a literal sense.  But as there were back then, there are still plenty of choices that really aren’t on the table for discussion.  I don’t feel like I’m making a choice, for example, when I turn in my grades and comments when they’re due at school.

The tricky thing, though, is that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that we’re making choices all the time.  It’s easy to begin to feel like there just isn’t time for writing (or exercising or dating or sleeping enough or whatever it is) without recognizing all of the moments when we make choices that prioritize other things.  We’re not going to be willing or able to reconsider many of those choices.  But we might need to think twice about some of them.

I’m not going to choose writing every time.  I’m often going to choose my relationships or my teaching job, and I’m okay with that.  But it seems like a manageable goal to choose my writing some of the time, so I am going to try to be brave enough and self-aware enough to do just that.

The Challenge of Being Present, with Eyes Wide Open

Yesterday, I met my friend Miriam for happy hour.  Afterward, we walked up the street together toward my apartment and the theater where she was going to see a play.  We’d shared a half-priced individual pizza as an appetizer, and I was holding a to-go box with the leftovers inside.

In front of us, there was a guy asking people for money and food.  He wasn’t sitting or standing still, making requests as people passed, and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.  He was walking alongside an older man, who was moving slowly and leaning on his umbrella.

As we overtook them, the guy switched his attention from the old man to us.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Sorry,” we mumbled, walking faster.

“Will you just listen to me before you walk away?”  His voice was loud.  Exasperated.  Vaguely threatening.

“We’re in a rush, sorry,” I told him.  “She’s on her way to a play.”

He matched our quicker steps and leaned in toward us.

“I’m not even asking for money,” he said.  “I’m starving.  I’m asking for some food.”

I looked at the box in my hand.  I didn’t need those extra two slices the way he probably did.  I was meeting another friend for dinner in an hour and had a fridge full of food at home.  Plus, if I gave him the pizza, he’d leave us alone.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the box toward him.  “You can have this.  It’s pizza.”

“Is it really?” He did let us go then.  But he turned back toward the old man.  “You see?” he said.  “At least someone cares.”

That wasn’t really fair, I thought.  I didn’t give him the pizza because I cared more than someone else.  I gave it to him because I had it right there in my hand, and because I was a little bit scared, and because I wanted to be able to walk away.

And then we heard a thunk.  Like cardboard connecting with pavement.  I thought it was the pizza box hitting the ground.  I thought the older man had had enough of this guy following him down the street and now taunting him.  I thought he’d knocked the pizza box out of the guy’s hand.

Miriam and I both turned.  It hadn’t been the pizza box.

The older man was on the ground, his umbrella lying next to him.  The other guy, still holding the box, was stepping backwards as he asked if the man was all right.

Two other images rushed into my brain.  A woman, probably in her seventies, on the ground in Reading Terminal Market last week after she slipped on a wet patch between a cheese shop and a produce place.  And my grandfather, stumbling and falling in the stone courtyard outside my brother’s high school graduation twelve years ago.

“Do you think that guy bumped into him?” Miriam asked.

The older man was starting to stand.  Other people were asking him if he was okay, too, and he nodded or said yes—did something to convey the affirmative—but I don’t remember what.  Less than 24 hours later now, I don’t know what his voice sounded like and I can’t picture his features.

Miriam and I turned around and continued heading up the street.

When I got back home, I felt sad and antsy, so I called my fiancé, Mike.  We talked about other things—happy things—and then I told him what had just happened.  As I said it out loud, it blurred into a story instead of an experience.  The exactness of it was already pixelating.  The two men’s faces were hazy.  I held onto some of the dialogue, and I knew what I had been thinking, but I’d already lost access to my gut-level feelings.  When I wrote out the scene just now, I fell into telling rather than showing when I tried to describe the guy’s voice (loud, exasperated, threatening) and my own emotional state (a little bit scared) because those details weren’t clear enough for me to show.

“That’s just wrenching at every angle,” Mike said when I was done telling him the story yesterday.

And it was.  I hadn’t let myself be fully present in the moment and I’d been content to let the details go fuzzy because I’d found the experience troubling and gut-wrenching on so many levels.

But in his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler quotes Akira Kurosawa, who said, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”  A good writer (or visual artist or actor or whatever) can’t avert her eyes to things that feel too uncomfortable.  Or, on the other hand, too thrilling.

Two years ago, as I began my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I worked with Mary Quattlebaum, who required that I freewrite, even just for five or ten minutes, every day.  Sometimes I freewrote about character dynamics or plot ideas in the novel I was just beginning, or I wrote about things that made me anxious.  But sometimes I captured little scenes that had provoked an emotional reaction in me, like the one I tried to write above.  Because I wrote these snippets every night, I got better at keeping my eyes open and staying aware of my feelings during the day.  As I wrote the beginning of the first draft of my novel-in-progress, I drew upon those freewrites a lot.  My novel has a first-person narrator, so it was helpful to realize what I noticed, thought, and did during emotional moments so that I could keep her reactions realistic. I think I need to get back to freewriting a little bit every day again, to re-train myself to keep my eyes and other senses open, and to give myself more material to draw upon as I try to finish revising my novel.

I’ve been struck lately by how distractible I am when I sit down with my manuscript open on the computer—how easily I give into the impulse to check email or Facebook or to Google something I suddenly wonder about.

If I can get myself back to a place where I can really be present for moments, both positive and negative, both in life and in the last chapters of this novel, then maybe I’ll make some real progress toward finishing this revision.

Crafting Likable Characters Who Make Mistakes (with Lessons from Lyn Miller-Lachmann)

My seventh grade students recently finished reading Riot by Walter Dean Myers, which is set in New York City during the draft riots of 1863.  Because the students had studied immigration and visited the Tenement Museum and New York Historical Society during a trip to New York, they were familiar with the setting of Riot, understood the tensions between Irish immigrants and black people, and even recognized some of the photographs in the appendix at the end of the book as things we had seen during our trip.

My students and I appreciated the way Myers brings a historical situation to life in a 6450024compelling way by focusing on a (fictional) family who find themselves in an especially difficult situation: the Johnsons are a biracial family—half-black, half-Irish—so when poor Irish people, who can’t afford to pay $300 to get out of being drafted, begin to riot because of their fear that black people will take their jobs if the North wins the war, the Johnsons’ light-skinned teenage daughter, Claire, feels that the two sides of her identity cannot possibly fit together and no longer understands who she is.

Students enjoyed the book and were engaged throughout the unit.  However, they had one interesting reaction: they were annoyed with Claire.  “She whines a lot,” some of them pointed out.  “It’s annoying.”  “She puts herself in danger for no reason,” others added. “Nobody would even know she was half black if she didn’t insist on telling them all.  She’s bringing all this drama on herself!”

It wasn’t a bad thing that they reacted this way to Claire.  We were able to talk about why the circumstances would have shaken Claire so deeply, and we noted that people don’t always react rationally when they are upset.  But I was struck by how definite and unified they were in their response, especially since I’ve been noticing similar responses in  reviews of various young adult books on Goodreads and Amazon.  Recently, I’ve read a bunch of reviews of different books in which the reviewer comments on being “annoyed” or “bothered” by a character when that character makes mistakes or shows questionable judgment.

I get a bit discouraged by these reviews.  I am the kind of reader who cringes when a character makes a bad decision, so, as a writer, I have to force myself to let my characters mess up and then learn from their mistakes.  But sometimes it seems like writers are stuck in a no-win situation.  There isn’t enough tension or action if characters don’t make mistakes, but then readers get annoyed with them when they do!

I asked my students if there were any main characters from books we’d read together who hadn’t annoyed them, and they gave me three: none of them had been annoyed by Matt Pin in Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces, Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, or Curzon in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Forge.

I started thinking about what these three likable, un-annoying narrator-protagonists had in common.  They all certainly make mistakes.  But they don’t engage in much introspection, and they are active characters with clear desires.

images-2Meanwhile, the same day I talked about character likability with my seventh grade students, I finished reading my friend and VCFA classmate Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s wonderful middle grade novel, RogueRogue tells the story of Kiara, a girl with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, an obsession with the X-Men, and a desperate desire for a friend.  Lyn wrote an insightful guest post on fellow VCFA alum Melanie Fishbane’s blog about the challenge of making Kiara a likable narrator.

I can see how narrator likability would have posed a challenge in Rogue.  After all, Kiara is a girl who feels unliked by many of the people around her.  Lyn wrote about two strategies she used to encourage readers to sympathize with Kiara: she included secondary characters who like Kiara, and she gave Kiara “a strong desire” to “pursue […] against all odds.”

Lyn does a great job of developing secondary characters whose affection for Kiara builds Kiara’s likability.  In addition to the two characters Lyn mentions in her blog post, a six-year-old neighbor and an elderly woman, there is also a charismatic older teen whose acceptance of Kiara encourages readers to accept her.  In addition, Lyn also uses secondary characters who are unkind to Kiara to make readers relate to and feel protective of her.  Lyn makes especially effective use of a flashback during which Kiara heard one of her brothers speculate on what’s wrong with her and what might have caused her “mutations.”  This scene elicits great sympathy for Kiara, and readers can relate to the experience of hearing someone close to them say something hurtful (especially middle school readers, many of whom often worry about what others are saying about them).

Also, as Lyn notes, Kiara’s strong desire, to find a friend and to discover her own “special power,” plays a major role in making her likable. Kiara ends up discovering a talent for making videos, and her video talent reveals a confident, competent part of her character.  Furthermore, her desire for friends is so poignant and so consistent that readers will understand her motivation when she makes a few misguided decisions rather than feeling annoyed.

I think these two strategies worked beautifully in Rogue.  Lyn made me love Kiara, worry about her, and admire her, all at once. (Plus, I already passed the book on to a 7th grader, who has recommended it to others and didn’t have any “annoying character” complaints.)  I learned a lot from Lyn’s novel and blog post, as well as from my students’ reactions to characters that have annoyed them.  As I finish up revisions on my current novel-in-progress and then return to another writing project, which features a rather prickly and occasionally bratty narrator, I’ll keep these lessons from Lyn and my students in mind.

Highlights from A.S. King’s Author Visit

The past week has been a busy one for me.  On Saturday night, I returned from the 8th grade class trip to New Mexico, where we visited ruins and living pueblos, ate delicious New Mexican food, and saw breathtaking sights.  And the day before we left, the inspiring and entertaining A.S. King came for a thoroughly successful school visit!

I organized the visit earlier this spring, and since that time, A.S. (Amy) King has won an L.A. Times book award for Ask the Passengers and joined the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I got my MFA.  She was an energetic, engaging presenter who gave students some excellent advice about writing and life. There’s no way I could capture all of the highlights of her presentations, but I’ll share a couple here.

Amy with 8th grade students.

Amy with 8th grade students.

The teacher side of me especially appreciated the way Amy told students that their middle and high school experiences won’t define them.  She didn’t minimize their current challenges and successes at all, but she told them that they get to choose which people and moments they let into the “personal suitcases” they carry around with them, and she emphasized the importance of how they respond to setbacks, rather than the setbacks themselves.  She also urged them to journal about the experiences that have shaped them and tap into their own emotions, so that they won’t hide anything from themselves, and so that they can use those emotions in their writing and other creative endeavors.

imagesAs a writer, I especially enjoyed Amy’s discussion of her writing process.  She explained that she doesn’t tend to write with a strict outline, and she told the story of how surprised she was when she was writing Please Ignore Vera Dietz and realized that Vera had a bottle of vodka under the driver’s seat in her car.  When Vera reached down for something, Amy genuinely didn’t know what she would find there.  At first, it was perplexing to her that practical Vera would drink while driving, but then it became Amy’s job to tell the story of why this practical girl would have a vodka bottle under her seat.  I love that idea; that if a character does something that doesn’t fit with the writer’s vision of him or her, maybe that seeming contradiction becomes the seed of a compelling story.

Amy also explained that in Everybody Sees the Ants, she initially included a house fire, images-1which forced her protagonist, Lucky Linderman, to leave his ruined home and spend the summer in Tempe, Arizona.  She ultimately realized the fire didn’t work, but if she hadn’t let herself go where the story took her and write that fire, Lucky might not have journeyed to Tempe.  The fire got cut, but it got Lucky where he needed to go for the story to take off.

Usually, when a writer talks about “listening to characters” and “letting them drive the story,” I get the same feeling I’ve had on the few occasions I’ve gone to yoga classes, when everyone around me is breathing deeply, relaxed, and in the moment, but I can’t shut off my brain.  I feel anxious and a little inadequate.  Why won’t my characters whisper their stories in my ear?  Sometimes I’ve thought they might be talking to me, but half the time when I’ve tried to sit back and let them tell me their story, I’ve written flabby, meandering scenes that go on and on without any forward progress. So when people talk about staying open to what their characters want the story to be, I usually begin to worry that I’m approaching this writing thing all wrong.

But I didn’t get that anxious feeling during A.S. King’s presentations.  Maybe that’s because she was so warm and funny.  Or maybe it’s because she wasn’t saying that there isn’t any place for strategizing and cutting in the writing process.  In fact, her description of her writing process matched up with a lecture that Tim Wynne-Jones gave at Vermont College before I was a student there, about how writers should embrace their inner geniuses.  I’ve listened to a recording of the lecture, and Tim urges writers to look for interesting seeds that they have subconsciously planted in early drafts, and then decide which seeds they might develop.

I don’t think this approach means that everything that your “genius” subconscious plants in a draft is going to work.  In my current work-in-progress, I planted some hints that the main character might become a runner, so I tried to cultivate a running subplot, but it just clogged things up without adding anything valuable.  But I also subconsciously mentioned baking and pastries in an early draft of the beginning, and one of my VCFA advisors, Mary Quattlebaum, helped me to realize that my main character might have a passion for baking.  While the running idea flopped, my story started to come together after I embraced the idea of my protagonist as a baker.

A.S. King didn’t downplay what hard work writing is, and she gave students (and me) the sense that writing, or any creative pursuit, involves a balance of openness and strategizing, embracing and cutting.  She was a hit with 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students, and current VCFA students will be in for a real treat when they get to hear her lecture this summer!

Excited about E-Books: An Author Visit from Andrea J. Buchanan

Most writers I know are a little bit wary about e-books.  Some duck their heads and smile apologetically when they admit that they kind of like the Kindle they broke down and bought.  Many seem worried about what electronic publishing means for independent bookstores and the future of the book as we know it.  Not Andi Buchanan.


Andi speaking with the seventh grade.

Andi is the mother of one of my eighth grade students and the author of a wide variety of books.  She first published a book of personal essays called Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, which sounds like just the kind of smart, honest, and funny exploration of motherhood that all of you moms would want to check out.   Then she edited three other essay collections about motherhood before diving in to writing for kids.  She co-authored four Daring Book for Girls books, and then most recently, she came out with a paranormal young adult novel called Gift.

Sounds impressive enough already, I know.  But I haven’t gotten to the part about e-books.  Gift first came out as an e-book, with a print edition following, and Andi thought about all of the capabilities of iPads and Kindle Fires as she wrote the story.  So the e-book includes some amazing features, such as letters that creepily appear on the pages and then fade, and a video link to a boy performing music from the book.  There’s also a short graphic novel at the end.  Oh, and there’s a Minecraft map of the world from the book that readers can play online.

Yesterday, Andi came to give a presentation and Q and A session for the seventh grade and then the library and reading clubs.  She talked openly about her writing process, her career, and how she developed the e-book options for Gift. I was especially inspired by her openness to technology.  Rather than worrying about the rise of e-books and clinging to nostalgia for the days when a book was just a book, Andi is eager to consider how e-book options can enable her to tell a more exciting story, and she is willing to collaborate with other professionals and pay attention to what engages kids.

And thanks to her author visit, I learned a valuable lesson: that if you want to get a room full of middle school students excited, you should mention Minecraft.  I suppose now I have to figure out what Minecraft is.

Middle School Girl Culture Mini-Course

Now that I’ve made it through the first week back from spring break, I’m finally getting around to writing about something that happened just before vacation: a two-day “Middle School Girl Culture” mini-course that included a successful Skype visit and other fun events.


Skyping with Jess.

My friend and colleague Maureen and I led a course for fifteen sixth, seventh, and eighth grade girls.  One of the highlights of the mini-course was a discussion of Jessica Leader’s book Nice and Mean followed by a Skype visit with Jess.  I am gradually refining my process for Skype visits, and I thought this one went especially well.  I always have students brainstorm questions beforehand, but this time we made sure that we had a varied list of questions, and then we set ourselves up so that we could go down the line and ask the questions in a logical order.  We were able to proceed more efficiently since I didn’t have to call on people this way.  We also came up with some back-up questions; in case Jess happened to answer someone’s question in her response to another question, there were some fallback options.  Jess was articulate and good-humored as she answered the girls’ questions about the characters from Nice and Mean, her writing process, and her own middle school experience.

One of the photos we examined from Lauren Greenfield's Girl Culture collection.

One of the photos we examined from Lauren Greenfield’s “Girl Culture” collection.

During the mini-course, we also looked together at a handful of photographs from Lauren Greenfield’s powerful “Girl Culture” photo collection, and we went through some case studies that explored dilemmas related to social media sites.  These case studies came from the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School.  Facilitators from Swarthmore College’s psychology department led an empowering Strength and Resilience workshop that helped the girls identify their strengths, and we watched some of Rachel Simmons’s BFF 2.0 videos, which are aimed to “help girls deal with the new friendship challenges posed by technology.”  Finally, the girls made their own BFF 2.0 videos, in which they explored and gave advice for navigating the issues of group texts, TBH (to be honest) and ratings posts on Facebook, and online gossiping.

We also made time to venture out to the Comcast Center and Reading Terminal for our lunches, and we fit in a trip to Rita’s for free water ice in honor of the first day of spring (despite the fact that we were all wearing our winter coats).  It was a great two days, and I enjoyed exploring the issues that affect middle school girls today with a group of open and thoughtful young women!