When a question from a kid hits up against the truth

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in the SE-YA Book Festival in Murfreesboro, TN (home of Middle Tennessee State, which just won their March Madness game last night — woot woot!). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the festival, first off, it’s the best. On the first day, students from area schools are shuttled in on buses. The whole festival is just for them! Panels and signings and hanging out on a college campus! So. Cool. The second day of the festival is free and open to the public.

During the question and anScreen Shot 2017-03-17 at 12.31.00 PMswer part of one of the panels on the first day, a brave boy stood up and asked a question to the effect of, how do you respond when someone tells you that you won’t succeed?

I can’t recall my full answer to him, but part of it was this:

spite is a powerful motivator

Maybe that wasn’t the kindest answer, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least partially the truth. After all, it’s human nature to want to prove someone wrong. We’ve all heard those voices. For some, they come from our parents, who’d prefer for us to have forged an “easier” path. Or our peers. Sometimes they come out of jealousy or envy, someone who’s tricked into believing it’s about talent when, really, it’s just a bunch of hard work. Maybe they come when you bravely put something of yourself out into the world, and the world says, no thanks.

Maybe the person who’s telling you that you won’t succeed, maybe some days it’s you.

And while spite is indeed a powerful motivator (writers have elephantine memories, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who can’t quickly recall the name of a person who’d told them they’d never succeed as a writer), there is still a kinder answer, which is this:

Surround yourself by people who build you up. Join a writer’s group so that you have other people who “get” it. Attend readings to hear of the hardships other writers have faced in their journeys. That friend who’s willing to listen as you talk over a part of your story that’s just not working? Call them when you’re stuck.

And that voice that you use with a friend who’s in pain? Don’t be afraid to use it on yourself.

Spring is coming, I can feel it.

While there may be snow in other parts of the country, it sure feels like spring in Cincinnati. It’s warm enough to wear only a light jacket, the grass is green from all of the rain we’ve had lately, and the leaves on the tree outside my office are starting to open up.

Okay, who are we kidding — it really feels like spring because BASEBALL IS ON TV AGAIN! Yup, it’s spring training and this baseball fan is very, very excited about a new season with the Boston Red Sox. I’ll admit I’ve actually not been paying attention to them quite as much as I usually am because in Cincinnati we have another team to obsess over (and no, not the Reds) . . . the Bearcats! The University of Cincinnati men’s basketball team, a.k.a. the Bearcats, is having an incredible season and they’re headed for March Madness!

via GIPHY

Yup, even Mr. Bearcat himself (probably not the official name of our mascot, but it’s what I call him) is losing his mind with excitement. There are a few other things I’m excited about this spring:

  1. Heading down to Murfreesboro, TN, at the end of this week for the SE-YA book festival!
  2. On May 16, The Distance to Home will be released in paperback by Yearling (an imprint of Penguin Random House).
  3. Early this afternoon, I typed the words “the end” on the final page of my newest project, a stand-alone middle grade novel. Stephen King said he puts his drafts aside for an entire month after finishing them, so I just marked my calendar for April 6, which is when I can next look at this project. Until then, on to other things!
  4. By which I mean . . . ALL OF THE BOOKS. No, but seriously. There are a LOT of books I am very excited to read in the next month or so. Here’s just a smattering of them:

cilla lee jenkins family game night lincoln psalm clayton thugsomedayeareokaytocatch

5. Exploring more of Cincinnati. This new city of mine is seriously beautiful and I have a feeling it’s going to be truly stunning come spring.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 2.45.59 PM

(pictured is Ault Park, which is running distance from my house)

Holiday shopping help

You can probably guess that one of my favorite things to gift around the holiday season is books! So many books. Stuck on what to get for your father/brother/nephew/cousin, etc? Here are just a few ideas, selected from among the–as of tonight’s count– 143 books I’ve read this year.

For the littlest kiddos in your lifebestfrintsSo silly and full of great word-play. Also: those colors!

 

nanettesbaguette

Mo Willems does it again. This one is too much fun to read aloud. I may have read it to my cat.

 

journey

A moving and significant book about an immigrant family’s journey.

 

leavemealone

For that kid (or hey, maybe that adult) who’s at her wit’s end.

 

preaching

A beautiful look at Congressman (and one of my personal heroes) John Lewis’s childhood.

 

For the elementary school set:

wolfhollow

Unforgettable historical fiction that’s surprisingly gripping. A Newbery contender for sure.

 

frazzled

For the Wimpy Kid lover who’s caught up on the series and looking for something new to read. (So fun and true to middle school.)

 

ghost

Probably my favorite book of the entire year. For the sports fan looking for something with heart.


bixbyA tearjerker if there ever was one!

 

detective

So glad I snagged a paperback of this 2015 book at NerdCampMI. Delightful MG historical adventure.

 

dorydory

You can never have too much Dory in your life. My 3rd grader nephew loves this series, but probably not more than I do. Abby Hanlon gets inside the imagination of an early elementary school student like no other. These books are just brilliant.

(Now, I can’t choose just one book by my fellow Sweet Sixteens debut middle grade authors, so here are all of ’em!)
mg-debuts-3-web-normal-single mg-debuts-2-web-normal-single-1 flyer1-web-wide-single-1

flyer4-page-001

For the teens:

 

stilllife

Another unforgettable, rich novel by the inimitable A.S. King.

 

wheniwasthegreatest

Yeah, yeah, my second Jason Reynolds book on the list. (I read four of his books this year, now that I think about that, so consider me caught up.) This one’s available in paperback and a great choice. I think I have a new favorite author!

 

girlbluecoat

As a kid, I was all over WWII historical fiction, but the market got a little saturated since then and since The Book Thief, it’s been a while since I’ve read a truly engaging WWII novel. Until this one!

 

entertitlehere

Most unforgettable narrator of the year, hands-down! Recommending this to anyone going through the college admissions process (parents, teens, teachers). Or anyone who still has battle wounds from the journey.

 

hollowplaces

A gorgeous YA mystery from a new literary voice. Bonus points for New England setting!

For the former kids and teens — ahem, adults!

eligible

Pride and Prejudice? Updated and set in my new home city of Cincinnati?! What’s not to love? (Well, maybe Darcy if he really does eat that much Skyline Chili.)

 

hillbilly

This one has appeared on so many reading lists post-election. I’m a sucker for narrative non-fiction, especially those that combine a personal story with hard data in an very readable way.

For every human you know (little tykes can read it later; these books are timeless):

marchboxset

I read all three of these in anticipation of the National Book Award ceremony and could not put them down. Such an important work, and gorgeously packaged in this box set. If I were going to get the same gift for everyone in my family, it would be this.

“You are capable of more than you think.”

They say in marathons, it helps to have a mantra. Something you can repeat in your head, return to when the going gets tough. This Sunday (i.e. in three days, ::gulp::) I will run the New York City Marathon. I’ve only one run marathon before, the Chicago Marathon in 2014, and something tells me it’s a little like childbirth. Your hormones and your brain work to trick you into doing it again.

nanowrimoThe day before the Chicago Marathon, I went on a shake-out run with some the running world’s biggest rockstars, and before the three miler, they shared with us plebes their tips. The one that stuck with me was about the mantra. I hadn’t given that much thought before, but I figured, well, if Deena Kastor says you should have one, I guess I’ll come up with something. I went with a classic for that race. Run the mile you’re in. When at mile ten, I started freaking out at the idea that I wasn’t even halfway done, I came back to that line. Run the mile you’re in. It quieted the crazy-talk that was creeping into my head. Just run the mile you’re in, Jenn. Sounds simple, but it helped. That’s all a marathon is, after all. One mile after another after another. If you take each one at a time, it’s almost manageable. Run the mile you’re in.

The mantra carried me through that race. Helped me sneak just under my goal of completing the marathon in four hours. But the truth is, it did more than that. It spoke to more than running. It spoke to my writing. The thing is, when you look at a big task like writing a novel . . . it’s pretty easy to freak out. No way can I write that many pages, that many words. But if you break it down into pieces  —  one page at a time, fifteen hundred words a day, revising one chapter at a time — you will get through it. Run the mile you’re in.

After a marathon, a lot of runners remark that they feel sort of depressed. This big thing they’d worked toward for so long is over. Now what? I wanted to avoid those feelings this time around, so I decided to embark on another epic challenge. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. By the end of the month, my goal is to have a first draft of a new project. Fifty thousand words, more or less. Eeeek, right? While I’ve participated in years past, it’s been a while since I’ve written quite so much in a compressed time period. The whole thing makes me a little nervy, but also a little . . . excited. A lot like the marathon.

Which brings me to my mantra for this year’s big race, one I hope to apply to my writing as much as to this Sunday’s run. You are capable of more than you think. I’d be lying to you if I said the training for this year’s marathon was easy. In the midst of training runs, I was traveling to promote The Distance to Home, moving across the country, and dealing with a range of nagging injuries. There were many Sunday mornings when the alarm went off and about the last thing on earth I wanted to do was get out of bed and go run for two to three hours. I’d get out there on the path as my legs woke up. The first few miles were always, always the hardest. And then something happened. Nearly every time. It got better. I discovered something about myself that I needed to discover, that was applicable in many more areas of my life than just running. I was capable of more than I thought. And I kept going, even when it didn’t get easier. Even when the last few miles were all-over leg pain and involved some walking breaks. I didn’t give up.

I don’t know how Sunday’s race will go, to be honest. While I’d love to best last marathon’s time, I have a feeling that’s probably out of reach. That the crowds will be too big for me to get going at my normal pace. That my hip flexor and my hamstring may not be in the mood for all of the 26.2 miles. But I hope that I remembered what I learned this summer about myself.

We are all capable of more than we think. In writing, in running, in so many things. Surrounded by fifty thousand people this Sunday, running through all five boroughs of New York City, that’ll be the line I cling to when the going gets tough. And it will. It’s a marathon, after all.

Fall update

Just realized it’s been more than two months since I last posted. A lot can happen in two months, but the last two months have been particularly exciting. With developments like . . screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-8-12-07-pm.

  1. Moving to Cincinnati! Having only been to Cincinnati for a couple days in June, this was a pretty big adjustment. We’re unpacked (if you don’t look in the attic — don’t peek in the attic!) and getting settled into our new home. Despite the fact that we ostensibly moved from the suburbs to the city, it feels a little bit like we moved from the city to the country. From my spot on the deck (a great reading spot, once I figure out how to get the mosquitos to stop munching on my legs), I can hear chickens clucking in my neighbor’s yard and follow the goings-on of the three deer and groundhog that visit our yard regularly.
  2. It turns out that when your book comes out in the summer, your summer will go by in a blur. I had so much fun reconnecting with my former librarian colleagues, visiting as a real live author the library where I worked as a teenager (pretty crazy!) as well as the library where I screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-8-12-26-pmheld my first professional library job, and meeting booksellers. I also got to see one of the 7th graders from my first teen librarian job as a college graduate at one of my readings! Whoa! How cool!
  3. Training to run this year’s NYC Marathon in November. So far, so good. (As long as no one’s tallying how many toenails I have, that is.) I’m fortunate to have a wide variety of gorgeous running spots in Cincinnati, like Lunken Airport, pictured, around which I have run 16 miles. Oof.
  4. The Baltimore Book Festival. I had so much fun playing Whose Book is it Anyway? with Baltimore area kids and fellow debut authors Brooks Benjamin, Bridget Hodder, Laura Shovan, & Erin Tscreen-shot-2016-09-28-at-8-13-24-pmeagan. Also pictured, our delightful game show host, Matthew Winner of All the Wonders
  5. Pokemon Go. So, my eight-year-old nephew got me hooked on this game while we were on vacation in Cape Cod and now I can’t stop. Gotta catch ’em all, right? Well, let’s just say I caught a ton of Magikarp in Baltimore. And hatched some eggs.
  6. The Red Sox! Are going! To the playoffs!

via GIPHY

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-8-11-47-pm7. Getting acquainted with my new public library. (Hint: it’s fantastic and I am already driving up their circulation stats.)

8. Gearing up for the cover reveal of my second middle grade novel, 14 Hollow Road, which will come out in June 2017 with Alfred A. Knopf. Can’t wait to share more info about it with you next week! (Pssst. Kidliterati will be hosting the reveal.)

 

Getting nerdy in Michigan

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to participate in nErDCamp. Located in Parma, MI, and hosted by Colby Sharp and his wife Alaina, nErDCamp is an unconference — two jam-packed days of teachers and librarians, authors and illustrators, learning from and teaching each other. It was unlike anything I’d ever been to before — and in the best of ways.

Day One (Monday)

It kicked off with the Nerd Run 5k (how many conferences have their own road/trail race, right?), in which I came in second foScreen Shot 2016-07-15 at 3.42.04 PMr the ladies (and received a most awesome Nerd Run 5k pint glass as an award). The pancake breakfast was next, but I missed out on that as I dashed back to my hotel to shower. The keynote included brief 5-8 minute speeches from a range of speakers, many of which brought tears to my eyes. They were by turn empowering and poignant and deeply meaningful. Following were three break-out sessions. I’ve always been a fan of hearing picture book illustrators talk about their process, and learned so much from the discussion with Deborah Freedman, Lauren Castillo, and Greg Pizzoli. Next up, I attended a session with Gae Polisner and Nora Raleigh Baskin, about their two 9/11 books and the research involved in them. And finally, I got to watch as Raina Telgemeier helped turn an audience member’s true life story into a comic. (So! Cool!)

Next up was, for me at least, one of the most exciting parts of the conference. Yes, it was hot and hectic in the crowded high school cafeteria, but it was also simply amazing to meet in-person soooo many of the educators I’ve connected with over Twitter the past several months in-person. SO. MANY. SELFIES!pjimage

After the signing was the Nerdy Dinner / Nerdy Party, where I got to hang out with fellow authors Abby Cooper, Melanie Conklin, Josh Funk, Jen Malone, Gail Nall, and the lovely Jess Keating, who I hadn’t met before. And of course: teachers & librarians!

Day Two (Tuesday)

Day two involved a lot of firsts for this author. I participated in my first panel/group session led by Jenni Holm and Josh Funk, where authors shared their writing mistakes with educators so that students can understand how messy the writing process is. I also recorded a future podcast for the Nerdy Book Cast. Little did I know, that was the calScreen Shot 2016-07-15 at 3.47.31 PMm before the storm! Literally. At 5 pm, hundreds of kids from surrounding communities participating in Nerd Camp Jr. flooded into the school. I had the pleasure of teaching three classes of enthusiastic 5th graders. I told them we were cooking people, which got some gigglesScreen Shot 2016-07-15 at 3.46.46 PM. Together and then individually we cooked up characters from scratch. I was so impressed with their unique creations — and also reminded of how pumped up 5th graders get about a good thunderstorm. Yep, we lost power briefly in our classroom, leading to some excited yelping and chair twirling! It was thrilling to sign books and bookmarks for a bunch of actual kids. (Yes, it’s starting to settle in, at two weeks past pub date, that The Distance To Home really is out in the world.)

All in all, it made for a most magical and nerdy two days. Another nerd may have spotted me dancing to my car under a rainbow and posted it to Twitter.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 3.46.04 PM

The ten best things about 6/28/16

For more than a year, I’ve had that date on my calendar: 6/28/16, the pub date of my first book. At first, time crept slowly toward it. Then, in the last month or so, time sped up. It was moving too fast! I wanted to press pause and savor it.

Now, I’m on the other side, two days past my launch date. My out of town guests have all flown back home and the quiet has taken over my apartment once again. (I also may have slept from 10 pm – 8:30 a.m.. last night.)

I thought it’d be fun to share the ten best things about my launch day, in no particular order.

  1. Celebrating with my family. In addition to my parents and my brother, I also had aunts, uncles, cousins, second-cousins, and my nephew to share in the day. It was a pretty amazing experience to look out into the audience at Porter Square Books and see them as I read aloud from The Distance To Home from a real, published book for the very first time.

2. The Distance To Home trended on Twitter! Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.23.26 AM

3. The flowers! I felt so loved to receive gorgeous flower arrangements from friends and family near and far. The final time he stopped by, the florist asked, What’s going on here? So I told him about my book, to which he replied, “Now I’ve met someone famous.” Hardly, but I didn’t want to bursIMG_9685t his bubble.

4. Porter Square Books sold out of copies! I felt so in-demand.

5. Celebrating with my writer buds from my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s — where would I be without them?picwithMFAbudsandKai

 

 

 

6. Caaaake. My husband wondered if maybe I was crazy to offer three kinds of cake (baseball cake pops, sheet cake, and cupcakes). He joked that Quinnen would approve for sure (and Casey!) but that we’d end up with a fridge full of leftovers. Well, ha! He underestimated the crowd and their appetite for cake!IMG_9693

7. Getting the local Sweet 16s gang together again!

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.56.37 AM

8. I asked folks in attendance to sign my copy of The Distance To Home. So many sweets notes in there, but I think this one has to be my favorite. Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 12.04.23 PM

9.  All the love on FB, Twitter, email, etc. from friends and family far-flung. I felt so loved. And overwhelmed! I hope I responded to every single message. I sure tried to!

10. And last but not least, my biggest dream came true.  Mike Napoli, the former Red Sox first baseman from 2013 – 2015 retweeted about my book. (There miiiiight be a character in The Distance To Home named after him.) Day. Made.Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.14.04 AM

Hopes, dreams, and fanciful wishes

We’re one week away from the publication of The Distance To Home, and part of me wishes I could press pause. After months of feeling like time was crawling, now it’s speeding past me. I want to savor this experience, but it’s slipping through my fingers. The truth though, I guess, is that the debut experience doesn’t stop when the book publishes. In truth, that’s where it starts! And like that, it’s sort of like birth and weddings, those big days in our lives that are only just the beginning.

Earlier this year, when June felt so, so far away, I sat down and drafted some of my hopes and wishes for The Distance To Home. Maybe that sounds a little cheesy, but what I hoped at the time was that the act would keep me grounded . . . or at the very least give me some perspective. What I could see happening after the book sale was the shift of expectations. For the longest time, the dream was to get an agent, then for the book to sell. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in things I couldn’t control (like sales and reviews), but at the same time, it didn’t feel honest or true to the experience to not at least have dreams for the book.

As I look over the list now, I’m surprised at the things that have already happened (for The Distance To Home to be named a Junior Library Guild selection, for “fan mail”), and how many are yet to come (to sell my option book, book school visits). I’m also finding it useful to remind myself of the goals I set out for myself:

  • to enjoy & savor the experience — be mindful
  • to not obsess over Goodreads or Amazon
  • to not waste mental space w/ envy
  • to do nice things for other writers without expecting anything in return
  • to nurture writing friendships

It’s amazing to me how naturally some of them came, while others are still a daily (or hourly) struggle — I’m side-eyeing you, Goodreads and Amazon!

My biggest hope and dream for The Distance To Home now? Okay, this is pretty unlikely given how many books there are in bookstores to choose from, but for my book to somehow, magically, be one of the books President Obama selects on his annual summer bookstore trip. A girl can dream, right? (I mean, he is a baseball fan.)

It’s all happening

What nobody tells you about publishing (or maybe it’s what everyone tells you, hehe) is that there’s a lot of waiting. But now that we’re just three months away from The Distance To Home hitting bookshelves, it’s starting to feel . . .  well, real. Reviews are coming out (in both this month’s Kirkus and School Library Journal) as well as other assorted news. It’s also available for request on NetGalley and continuing to make the rounds through several ARC tours (#bookjourney).

JLG_sealI was thrilled to learn a few weeks ago that The Distance To Home has been named a Junior Library Guild selection! As a former librarian, this honor means a lot to me, and I am so happy to know that my book will be making its way into so many schools and libraries thanks to this selection.

In non-publishing news, something extra special and long-awaited is happening next week. Yup, OPENING DAY! While I’ve enjoyed tuning in to the occasional spring training game, it’s just not the same as regular season baseball, when all the games count. Come Monday afternoon at 4:10 p.m., I can guarantee that my television will be tuned to NESN and I’ll be glued to David Price’s first official start for the Boston Red Sox. I’m really, really hoping for the Red Sox to pull themselves out of the basement this year and get back to playing great baseball. I’ve got some serious concerns about our starting pitching beyond David Price (should Rick Porcello still be a major league pitcher? will Clay Buccholz stay healthy? can Joe Kelly keep up his spring training excellence?), but I believe in the youth of our team. My prediction: this is going to be a huge (yuuuuuge?) year for Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts and (fingers-crossed on this last one) Jackie Bradley, Jr.. Hoping the boys can put together a great season for Big Papi’s finale.

(Fort Myers , FL, 02/17/16) Boston Red Sox starting pitcher David Price warms up during Spring Training at JetBlue Park  on Wednesday,  February  17, 2016.  Staff photo by Matt Stone

Book Review: The Maypop Kidnapping by C. M. Surrisi

Quinnie Boyd’s teacher, Ms. Stillford, has gone missing and Quinnie is convinced it’s a kidnapping. Mom is Maiden Rock’s town sheriff (and the postal worker and the realtor — it’s that kind of small town) and quite possibly the more reasonable of the two of them. Mom’s pretty sure Ms. Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 9.57.30 AMStillford left of her own volition, even though she doesn’t yet have an explanation for it. But Quinnie’s just not so sure. Breaking in to Ms. Stillford’s place in search of answers is just the beginning of this delightful middle grade whodunit. Has Ms. Stillford skipped out of town? Or could she be just under their nose? And if so, who nabbed her?

C. M. Surrisi has a knack for storytelling. Quinnie, her crush Ben, and her new maybe friend Ella are a delight, and Maiden Rock? Well, let’s just say I’m seriously disappointed that Maiden Rock is only a fictional coastal Maine community. Otherwise, I’d be pulling a Stillford and driving up to Maine for some lobster fries. (In case you thought that was a spoiler alert, it isn’t. She also is not stuck in a waiting line for those hard-to-get L.L. Bean boots either.)

Readers should be pleased to know there’s at least one more Quinnie Boyd book in the works! Until then, I guess I’ll just have to dream about lobster fries and try my hardest to not be super skeptical of everyone I see. You can never be too suspicious!

available now wherever books are sold