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

On connecting with classrooms and the R-word

One of the really fun parts of getting closer and closer to publication has been connecting more with classrooms. This January and February, I’ve had the pleasure of Skyping with classes in Washington state, Ohio, and Texas. The first visit was with a class of 5th graders who had listened to The Distance To Home as a class read-aloud. Their teacher was a colleague of mine from the ALA Best Fiction Committee, and I’d mailed him an ARC of the book. I loved answering their questions about the inspiration behind the book, sports (we had to talk about baseball!), and Haley’s death.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 9.01.06 PMOne thing that came up in both that chat and the chats I had with classrooms who hadn’t yet read my book, as part of World Read-aloud Day this week, was revision. (Oh, and my cat! If at all possible, she likes to work her way into these Skype visits.) But back to revision! Teachers and students alike really wanted to know how much revision goes into a published book.

My answer:

(Were they ready for it?)

A LOT.

Of course, I told them about how there were more drafts of The Distance To Home than I could count. And that my first published book was actually the fourth full-length book I had written. And how a lot of re-writing isn’t fixing words and sentences (that fun comes later), but re-envisioning the whole story. I think it boggled their minds. I know it does for mine some days.

As I was watching Colby Sharp share his thoughts about TDTH, I was struck by how much he enjoyed the timeline — how the chapters alternate between “last summer” and “this summer.” Guess what? That aspect of the book: not really there so much in the first draft. Or the second. In fact, it was my agent, Katie Grimm, who suggested that instead of just a few chapters set in the past, I should actually have half of the book set in the past.

Oh.

That was a pretty big revision. But, the more I thought about it, I could see how it would work. It took some re-tooling. And outlining. Imagining and drafting scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor a few months later. But eventually we got there.

The truth about revision is that you need to think outside of what you have on the page. Often there’s a way to enhance your story that you wouldn’t necessarily think of on your own. That’s where critique partners and agents and editors come in. At some point in the process, you lose yourself in the story. You can’t quite see what you’ve created. Can’t separate what you think you wrote (the story in your head) from what you actually set down on the page. Only someone else can do that.

There’s no magic number with revision. I wish I could say, oh yes, once you revise it 5 times, it will be done! But it doesn’t work like that. Not for me, not for any writer I know. You just keep at it, trust the process, and at some point, it starts to all make sense. The story coheres in a way it didn’t before, the disparate parts becoming a whole.

The things I told the kids in the classroom this week, well, I needed to hear them too. As I continue to revise what will be my second published book, 14 Hollow Road, I’m reminded that revision isn’t easy. It’s hard work. But it’s worthwhile in the end. I wouldn’t want that first version of The Distance To Home to go out into the world. But the version I revised and revised and revised some more? That one I’m proud of.

ALA Youth Media Awards predictions

Tomorrow morning at 8 AM, librarians, authors, publishing folks–really, all variants of book nerds will be tuning in to the ALA Youth Media Awards. I am no exception. Honestly, as fun as everything at ALA Midwinter was yesterday, I think my favorite part will always be Monday morning. There’s a palpable energy in the room when they announce the winners. Gasps! Cheers! Shrieks of joy! (And again, this is usually the librarians that love these books. They aren’t even winning anything!) Love it, love it, love it. Bah! LOVE IT!

Okay, so as I read picture books and MG and YA novels this year — as well as lots of blog posts and reviews about them — in the back of my head, I’ve been working on my  list. Now, these aren’t the books I would necessarily want to win (though there is often an overlap) but this is who I think will win. Having served on the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults committee, I know what it’s like to intensely discuss books with librarians. Everything really comes down to the makeup of the committee and how the discussions go down — as well as how a book holds up over multiple re-reads. We’ll never know what happened behind the closed doors of those committee meetings. Oh, but the thrill of it. Okay, okay, time for the predictions.

Printz

Winner: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Honor: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes, Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Caldecott

Winner: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, illus. Christian Robinson

Honor: Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick, illus. Sophie Blackall; Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley, The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski

Newbery

Winner: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Honor: Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia, Echo by Pam Munoz, Goodbye Stranger  by Rebecca Stead

 

Will any of these win? Who will actually win? I don’t know! But I will definitely be tuning in bright and early (not an early riser here) on Monday morning to find out.

Out today, the unforgettable and timely MG historical, Paper Wishes

As a 9-12 year old, I couldn’t read enough historical fiction set during World War II. I’m not sure what it was about that era, or if maybe there was just a ton of historical fiction output during my formative years set during WWII, but it became a time period that fascinated me, as heartbreaking and challenging as it must have been for so many at the time. Publishing moves through cycles and it seems that historical fiction is not so trendy these days, as I feel like I see fewer and fewer historical fiction books in the New Books section at the bookstore. It’s a shame because these books are so necessary if we wish to learn from history. They help us better understand where we came from, and how those events have shaped today.

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban begins with a girl and her dog Yujiin and her grandfather. Born on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington state, Manami knows only her peaceful, rural, seaside home, where she lives with her parents and grandfather, her two older siblings off to college in the Midwest. But everything changes one day at school. Whispered rumors. And returning home to learn from her parents, with little explanation, that she and her family have no choice but to leave. Along with all of the other Japanese-Americans, they are sent to the mainland and then further inland, to an internment camp, where they are housed in barracks and regarded with suspicion. In the process, Manami is forcibly parted with Yujiin, who she was supposed to leave behind, but who she sneaks along for the journey. The other parting is Manami’s choice. In the moment and the days that follow, she loses her voice.

Sepahban’s spare, poetic, and economical prose is perfectly suited to this story and this age group. Chapter breaks mark each month as time marches on in the internment camp, where everything is parched and Manami, quieted. Her heartbreak over the loss of Yujiin is palpable, and will move many readers, child and adult alike, but its her eventual recovery that got the tears to spill over for me.

Paper Wishes couldn’t be more timely or necessary, with a current presidential candidate boasting an unforgivable and deep misunderstanding of Executive Order 9066. My nephew, himself Japanese-American and close in age to Manami, was questioning me the other day about good guys and bad guys, asking for confirmation that “bad guys” aren’t real . . . they’re just in the movies. I didn’t know how to answer — the question was so big and I’m not his parent — but I told him, “real bad guys usually don’t look like the ones in the movies.”

Already the recipient of three starred reviews, Paper Wishes has been lauded with so much love, but I have to give it a little more. You can’t say this about every book, and of course, it depends a bit on the reader, but this book is *important*. I can’t think of a better choice for classroom read-alouds. Many, many children will learn and experience so much from this book, without ever feeling like they are being taught.

Paper Wishes is out today from FSG and available wherever books are sold. 

Bounding to a bookstore near you starting tomorrow . . .

Out of this world. No, really!

Debut author Monica Tesler, who just so happens to be a friend of mine and a wonderful earthling, takes us beyond the Earth’s atmosphere in the adventure-filled first book of a new series.

Twelve-year-old Jasper is the first from his family to be a cadet in the Earth Force. Bred especially for this role as a “Bounder,” Jasper and his new peers — all of them neurodiverse — have special capabilities that need to be honed in training. Along with his podmates — some friends, some frenemies, and of course, one weirdo for good measure — Jasper is tested in a variety of ways, far, far away from home. But when they stumble on something they never expected to see, they start to wonder if everything they’ve been told about the EarthBound Space Academy is actually true.

Tesler’s book reminds me a lot of Rick Riordan’s successful series. I loved the camaraderie (and mostly friendly competition) between pod mates and the other pods. Likewise, I appreciated the inventive world-building. I spend so much time immersed in highly realistic stories, it was such a treat to step into a book that took place in a different world. That said, as someone who doesn’t typically read much sci-fi, I’m always looking for a way to root myself in the story. Here, I found it with the relationships between the friends. I was super intrigued by Mira from the start, and appreciated seeing Jasper and his friends come to a different understanding with her over the course of the book.

You can snag it at your local indie, or from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and wherever else books are sold. Supposedly, new books officially go on sale on Tuesday, but this one has been spotted in the wild at many bookstores this weekend, so, just saying. 😉

As 2015 turns into 2016

2015: what. a. year.

As we get toward the end of the year, I end up reflecting a lot on the year that came before. And oof, was 2015 kind of a doozy. In with a bang, out with a whimper right? Sounds sort of fitting as I write this post with less than a half dozen hours to spare before midnight, knowing that with my lovely post-Christmas cold I won’t be staying up until midnight. Whimper, indeed (or maybe more of a whine, actually.)

2015 started off with a couple tough things: the loss of my cat sister, the loss of my debut book contract, all amidst an epically snowy winter in Boston that basically made it impossible to do anything or go anywhere for almost two months. (Oh, and living in fear that the roof over my office would collapse under several feet of snow.) But those hard moments gave way to some of the best times of the year and some truly life-changing moments.. Finding out that my book was going to find a new, wonderful home after all! (And my new publisher buying a second book, which I’m revising now). Trips to France, NYC, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, the California desert, and Washington state. Meeting Judy Blume (!!!) and Hanya Yanagihara. Seeing the most-excellent Broadway bound musical Waitress. Welcoming two new nephews to the family. Setting a personal record for the half marathon. Riding my first Ferris wheel! Getting to know so many brilliant, funny, hilarious, and kind middle grade and YA writers, also debuting in 2016. It’s been quite a year.

And finally, it’s almost here — the much-awaited 2016, when my book actually goes out into the real world! In the darkest days of last year’s crazy snow-covered winter, it was hard to believe it would ever be 2016.

Somehow, managed to get here in one piece. Phew.

2015: a year in books

It’s been my tradition since my first year as a public librarian to note my ten favorite books read in the given year. In 2015, I read 149 books (150 if I can manage to finish Jesse Andrews’s The Haters — we’ll see as I still have half the book to read and Jurassic World competing for my attention).

In no particular order, these are my favorites. Some middle grade, some YA–even some grown-up books!

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Holiday gifts for readers and writers

It’s that time of the year again. Best of 2015 lists. All of the sale emails (seriously, like at least fifty a day). Too much egg nog. Yup, the holidays are around the corner, and the shopping has begun! As usual, I’m planning on buying plenty of books for the kiddos and adults on my list. Here are some of my favorites from this year, and some other gift suggestions for readers and writers alike.

For the youngest readers

Ever since I read it, I’ve been a proselytizer for Jessixa Bagley’s beautiful picture book Boats for PapaI sneakily visit it in the bookstore every time. And yes, I also get a little teary-eyed. That said, from all reports, this book is not making children cry, just their parents.

Other favorites from this year that I’ll be gifting to the “small humans” in my life include Sidewalk Flowers and Last Stop on Market Street.

For my fellow middle grade fans, both young and old, four of my favorites: fantastical, historical fiction, and two contemporaries. (Note that only one of these books is tremendously sad!)

 

For the teen in your life, my four favorite for this year are all debut contemporaries (minus Jensen’s Skyscraping, though I still struggle with the idea of the 1990s as historical fiction — but that’s dating myself!)

Estelle Laure’s This Raging Light comes out later this month, but I had the chance to read an ARC earlier this year. It is gorgeously-written, deeply felt, and hopeful. Becky Albertalli’s debut is brilliant and funny and completely un-put-down-able. You’ll want to hug this book when you finish it. Kelly Loy Gilbert’s book is an unflinching, gripping, and powerful story about family and baseball (two of my favorite things). And finally, Cordelia Jensen’s verse novel is a pitch-perfect coming age ripped from the time when I did.

 

For the grown-ups, my runaway favorite books read this year. (Note: both of these books are tremendously sad. I guess that’s sort of my jam: I’m the tremendously sad book lover.)

 

 

For the reader or writer in your life, some of my favorite bookish things from around the web:

Kate Spade pencil pouch

Sparky Reading print

Frog and Toad Are Friends shirt. (Note: why is this not available in adult sizes?!?!)

 

Anne of Green Gables tote bag from Litographs

The prettiest pencils ever, from Rifle Paper Company

Okay, who am I kidding? I want all of these things. Happy shopping!

On gratitude

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches (ahem, where did fall go? how is it almost winter already?), I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. 2015 has been quite a year, and with 2016 right around the corner (finally!), I have a lot to be thankful for. My three page long acknowledgments passage in my debut novel doesn’t even come close to encapsulating my gratitude.

Something tells me this blog post won’t either, but I’ll give it a try.

  • I’m grateful for the people who’ve surrounded me with love and comfort and superb listening skills: my husband, friends, and family who’ve been on this long journey with me for years and are finally seeing it come to fruition.
  • It’s been a year of ups and downs. More ups than downs in the end, but man, perspective is everything. When I found out in January that my book was canceled, I didn’t know how things would turn out. I didn’t know if my book would ever see the light of day. Even though I had nothing to with what happened, I felt guilty, like I’d let people down. My agent. And especially my friends and family who’d finally been able to attach a date to this thing I’d been working on for years. Having that whisked away just sucked, plain and simple. Of course, everything collapsing in the depths of Boston’s epic worst winter ever didn’t make things any easier. Thankfully, my story had a happy ending–truly the happiest. I’m so grateful for my agent and editor–and my best friend for saying that the best way to resolve my pity party was to come to France with her and her family. Indeed, it was!
  • On those short and dark (but somehow never-ending) February days, I told myself (and my husband) so many times: I just want to be published. I don’t care if Kirkus hates it. Or if it sells only a hundred copies. I just want it to be real again.
  • Fast forward nine months, and I’ve found myself (of course) wanting the moon for my book and getting carried away as I see other people’s starred reviews and shiny promotional material and feel very  . . . overwhelmed. I’m trying really hard — this’ll probably be a New Year’s resolution — to remember back to when all I wanted was for my book to be out in the world. It’s still happening in 2016. I got what I wanted. Be grateful, Jenn. Deep breath. I am. I have so much for which to be grateful.
  • I’m thankful for all the amazing authors (the experienced and the loads of newbies) I’ve met this past year, especially the Sweet Sixteens. It’s so nice not to feel alone in this bewildering and awesome experience. I’ve made so many friends and read so many fantastic 2016 titles. Next year is going to be ah-mazing.
  • I’m grateful for my VCFA buds, who keep me real and grounded in the craft of writing, the one piece I do have control over.
  • I’m nervous and excited and grateful, yes, that too, that 2016 is just a few calendar page turns away.
  • As always, I am grateful for chocolate, especially

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ARC Review: My Seventh Grade Life in Tights

Seventh grader Dillon is a bench rider on the football team. But he’s okay with that. The thing is, the football team is his dad’s dream for him. It’s not his. What Dillon really wants, though, is to be a dancer. A real one. Right now, he’s a dancer . . . if doing his ninja freestyle in his best friend’s basement counts. Along with two of his closest friends, Dillon is part of Dizzee Freekz. With crush Kassie leading the Dizzee Freakz, they’re pitted against the traditional dance studio Dance-Splosion, which Kassie turned against after her own bad experience.

But when Dillon enters a contest to win a Dance-Splosion scholarship, everything changes. He gets one of the snobbiest girls (basically Kassie’s nemesis) to help him train and he discovers something that seems to go against everything Kassie told him about dance. Could part of what makes dance so great, and so beautiful be the rules and the tradition? His friends want him to slay the audition, and then turn around and tell the Dance-Splosion folks he doesn’t even want their scholarship anyway . . . but what if he does want it? And even more, what if he’s actually becoming a better dancer with instruction?

Brooks Benjamin‘s debut novel has so much spunk and heart. Dillon is a charismatic narrator to whom readers will instantly relate. (I honestly spent a bit too much time reading aloud from the book to my husband because so many of the lines had me laughing out loud.) I love the way Benjamin explores aspects of dance culture that are sort of fraught right now. As a fan of So You Think You Can Dance, I’ve watched as the show has grappled over the past couple seasons with the disconnect between traditional dance (which is often quite pricy/exclusive to participate in) and the more accessible hip-hop and street styles. With all of the popularity of dance-themed movies and TV shows, I have no doubt that this book will find a large audience with upper elementary aged kids and middle schoolers. The fact that the author is a school teacher should not come as a surprise to readers. This book feels incredibly attuned the experiences of middle school kids today. 

I’m going to pull a Mary Murphy and put both Dillon AND this book on the hot tamale train.

My Seventh Grade Life in Tights (Delacorte Press / Random House) will be in a bookstore/library near you starting April 12, 2016.

Add it to Goodreads now so you don’t forget!