What I Love About Book Festivals

Why do I attend book festivals?

The most obvious answer seems: to sell books! But that’s not my reason. It’s for all those small moments, those connections with readers that will ripple out into a life in ways you will never know. Often the connections I make aren’t even about my books (though it’s nice when they are). This past weekend at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green, KY, it was talking Pokemon Go with a young reader who insisted I wear her Eevee ears.

The thing is, as a kid, I never ever said I wanted to be an author. I couldn’t imagine it as something I would do. Authors were some special breed of person, I’d decided, because I hadn’t ever met one. All I knew of my favorite authors was their pictures on the back flap, and those short paragraphs that said where they lived.

I attend book festivals (and do school visits and Skype visits) because I want kids to know that authors are just regular people. (Or weirdos! Sometimes that, too.) We aren’t typing away in some gilded castle. We’re that person in the park playing Pokemon Go because she needs to get out of the house after spending her day in a fictional world.

And yes, I will wear those Eevee ears.

Happy Opening Day!

Well, not going to lie. It was not a great opening day for my Red Sox. As Stephen King put it best a few minutes ago on Twitter, “The Red Sox snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” And yeah, that felt a little too familiar to how my Bearcats finished March Madness.

Thankfully in baseball there are 162 games in the regular season, so plenty of room to make up for that stinker.

In any case, I thought I’d post a round-up of my favorite baseball-themed middle grade novels, plus a few that I still need to read.

Play ball!

What are your favorite baseball books?

Someday this pain will be useful to you

It’s the title of a YA novel I read years ago, and also pretty much how I’ve been processing my emotions for the past 18-ish hours after watching my beloved Bearcats go up 22 points with just over ten minutes to go … only to lose in the most historic, heartbreaking fashion imaginable. As I lay in bed in the hours after, sleep was all but impossible. My mind kept jumping to all the tiny things that could have changed a fate that was now already set in stone. How had I gone from giggling over the players’ Instagram stories as they enjoyed Ruth’s Chris Steak House Saturday night to sobbing uncontrollably on the couch on Sunday evening? No. That couldn’t have happened. It must be a dream.

There are so many wonderful things about passionately following a sports team, but man, is it crushing when it ends. And more crushing when it was all in your hands and you let it slip away. Not that it was in *my* hands. But, if you follow sports, you know what I mean. How the them becomes we. The feeling of wanting it so badly for a team, and the heartbreak that comes when it all falls apart.

I keep thinking I’m starting to feel a little better about what happened. And then my mind jumps to the things I imagined that will never be and the hurt starts all over again. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in the players’ shoes last night, or even today. The hardest part is that in these matchups, a whole lot of people are left heartbroken in an instant. (Or if you’re on the winning side, feeling like you’re going to burst from spontaneous joy.) One team wins and the other loses. It’s black and white in the end. That’s sports. That’s fandom. It’s that spontaneous joy, though, that keeps us coming back for more, even after lows like this. And this is a low low, even for me.

This one’s going to hurt for a while. And I’ll be honest, as someone who’s only followed the Bearcats for the past 2 seasons, I know I don’t really know the half of it. But I imagine it’s something akin to being a Red Sox fan pre-2004. You feel like it will never happen. Not in your lifetime, at least. That your team (or in yesterday’s case, your city) is genuinely cursed. And you can quickly recount a litany of events that transpired against your team that has you convinced.

But it can change, of course. That’s where the magic is. I wanted it so badly for this group of  guys. For Gary Clark, for Jacob Evans III, for Kyle Washington. All of them. And for Mick, constantly underestimated Mick Cronin, the coach the rest of the country loves to hate but the coach we love anyway. I had a whole narrative, a whole fairytale ending to this season that I kept buried deep in my subconscious. I cautioned myself to take things one game at a time. Not to get ahead of myself when the South region of the bracket started opening up. But when you’re ahead by more than twenty points with a little over ten minutes to go YOU GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF. There is no way not to. And that makes it all the worse when suddenly nothing goes your way, when the wheels come off and the next thing you know, it’s over and you can’t believe what just happened and how fast.

And so I guess when the uncontrollable crying jags finally taper completely (hey, there may be no crying in baseball but this is basketball), I’ll come back to the lesson I learned from the 2004 Red Sox.

The magic can happen, even if it takes 86 years.

And when it happens, all those players from all those teams that felt this special– the names you want in the rafters, like Gary Clark — they come back and it’s a celebration of everything. Of what happened, and what didn’t and what almost did.

These kids got to cut down the nets. They won 31 games, their conference title, and the conference tournament. That’s not something many teams can say. They beat Wichita State in front of their crazy intense home crowd on senior day to win out the season after two excruciating losses that had this fan (and a lot of others) worried that maybe this team wasn’t for real.

I know they wanted more. We all did. And that’s why it hurts.

But someday it won’t.

March Madness & exciting book news

It’s been an exciting March in Cincinnati and it’s only about to get even more exciting now that March Madness begins this Thursday. As you may have heard if you follow college basketball, my beloved University of Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team is in the big dance and a #2 seed this year. !!!

Their first game is this Friday at 2 p.m. and you know I’m excited because, quite honestly, I don’t think I can get anything done this week besides eagerly anticipate this first game. I have tried, but, no. I don’t think it is possible. I actually woke up at 6 a.m. the day after springing forward because I was too excited to sleep any longer. (And look, I get grumpy when my cat wakes me up at 7 a.m. for breakfast. I am not a morning person.) This is how I have felt inside since Sunday:


Anyway . . . it turns out there is some other exciting news to share that doesn’t have to do with college basketball. 😉

  • The Distance to Home is going to be in the Scholastic Book Fair and Book Club starting in April!


  • It was also chosen for the Iowa Children’s Choice Award! In the case of this award, the nominations come directly from readers, so I’m thrilled to see that they enjoyed The Distance to Home enough to nominate it. Thank you, Iowa readers!

Using The Distance to Home in the Classroom

Last year, I connected via Skype with two schools that used The Distance to Home in a grade-wide capacity. I was delighted to interview the teachers who spearheaded this project in their respective middle schools, Angie Hull from Dublin, OH, and Tiffany Hathaway from Folsom, NJ.

JB: When I wrote this book, I always hoped it could be used in classrooms someday. How did you select The Distance to Home to be used in this way? What was it about the title that appealed to you, and that you thought would appeal to students?

Tiffany Hathaway (TH): I attended a workshop called “What’s New in Young Adult Literature” and learned about The Distance to Home. Our middle school team was looking for a title for our One Book initiative—students entering grades 6-8 read one book over the summer and we discuss the book in September. We were committed to choosing a book that had a strong female protagonist. We also felt the topic would appeal to a wide variety of readers. As an ELA teacher, I liked the play on words of the title with the double meaning of the word ‘home.’

Angie Hull (AH): When we consider read aloud books for our sixth graders, we have about 300 students to consider. We have to consider books that will hold interest, appeal to a large audience, and are somewhat new. We have students who read at least 100 books in a year [JB: Wow – 100 books!] and we want all students to get books read aloud that they have not read. So we pick books that students may not know about.

When I first read The Distance to Home, I knew it was a book that sixth graders would love. It is written in such a way that you just have to know more, which is the best part of a read aloud. When you stop a read aloud, my favorite moment is the groan that happens when the students realize they will have to wait a day for the next piece and in your book, I found myself doing that when I was forced to stop reading for whatever reason.

At the time, we were looking for a book that would be a good fit for the end of the year (hello, baseball). We were also looking for a book to:

  1. build further understanding of plot and the idea of unique plots
  2. review Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s fiction signposts
  3. understand how character’s change due to the plot.

Your book could not have been a better fit for our purpose. It held it all. How your book shifts from last summer to this summer creating a duel plot as you were there living those moments with the character. Furthermore, as the reader you saw intense character changes.

Overall, when our team chooses books, we think of our purpose, time of year, and books we have recently read.

JB: What are the activities that you used to complement the text? How did you come up with them?

AH: Considering our purpose of understanding plot and character change, we had students chart notes in their notebooks while reading. Then, we grouped students and had the groups create a plot diagram (or in this case a double plot diagram) based on their notes and understanding of the text. It was an amazing couple of days of discussion, processing, and really thinking about the author’s craft on how this book was created. It was also unique to see how they would design how the plots were happening.

TH: As a middle school team, we meet in the summer to brainstorm activities for our One Book initiative. We kicked off the book with an assembly in Ju

ne, playing some baseball trivia, introducing the novel, and having student readers read the first chapter. The reading was broken into parts with each student taking on a character and reading his/her parts of the chapter. We did a gallery walk of pictures of images that fit into the book. Students

were given two post-it notes and asked to reflect on two images that stood out to them; they were to explain how this image fit in the book and make a connection to the image. Some classes wrote continuations/alternative endings to the text. Others focused on the climax of the novel- choosing what they felt was the turning point, explaining why they felt this was a shift in the storyline, and locating text to support their ideas. In science, students studied reaction time and the science behind specific pitches in baseball. In math, teachers worked with batting averages. In personal/social development

and health, teachers dealt with the topic of loss.

JB: I’m so impressed with the range of cross-curricular connections you were able to make, Tiffany. It’s way beyond anything I could have imagined.

Now, I have to say, my favorite Skype visits are the ones with classes that have read my books. It’s so fascinating to see what the students take away from a text and what questions (and scenes from the book) linger with them. What was the response from students? Was their takeaway what you had anticipated, or were there surprises along the way?

TH: The response to the book was surprising. Students were very drawn in to the story and uncertainty along the way of how Haley died. We thought they would connect more with the sports aspect, and some did but most were very focused on the relationship between the sisters.

AH: Our students love the opportunity to ask questions and learn from authors. They also love the fact that I know you personally and that you are connected to Ohio. I know our Skype was huge last year as it was multiple classes coming together at once. We had it set up where students submitted questions to us first and we called up students based on what they asked so that all classes could be represented and that you weren’t getting completely off the topic questions. In my opinion, it went very smoothly – and hopefully we will be setting up another Skype with you this coming May.

JB: I would love that! I’m always impressed by the various entry points kids find into a story. One thing I remember from the thank you letters from the Dublin, OH students was how many of the kids commented on relating to Quinnen or Haley—they finished with a greater understanding of the challenge of being an older sibling, or, alternately, a younger sibling.

Thank you so much, Tiffany and Angie! None of what I do would be possible without hard-working and creative teachers like yourselves on the other end, fostering a love of reading and writing, and connecting students with the right books at the right time.

Real kids . . . what do they read?

Last week during my World Read-Aloud Day (WRAD) Skype visits with 4th-6th grade classrooms in New York, Illinois, Texas, Iowa, and Minnesota, I asked the students for reading recommendations. What books have they read and loved lately? Which books are their all-time faves? (I only wish we had more than 20 minutes to chat so I could have been able to hear why they loved these particular books.)

The answers were a mix of books that I too have loved, books I’m familiar with, and some that had completely escaped my radar. Uh-oh, TBR pile….

Here’s what they had to say:

  • Alex Rider / Stormbreaker series by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison
  • ReStart by Gordon Korman *multiple recommendations
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Ida B…and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan
  • Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce *multiple recommendations
  • Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio *multiple recommendations
  • Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock
  • Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  • Ungifted by Gordon Korman
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney *multiple recommendations
  • Pennies from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Deep, Dark, and Dangerous by Mary Downing Hahn
  • Paper Towns by John Green
  • The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
  • The Maze Runner series by James Dashner *multiple recommendations
  • Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly
  • Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs
  • Took by Mary Downing Hahn
  • The Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • The Lightning Thief by Percy Jackson *multiple recommendations
  • Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson
  • I Survive series
  • Baby-Sitters Club series
  • The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann
  • Harry Potter series
  • It by Stephen King (there’s always at least one kid who’s reading way up and proud of it!)
  • The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket
  • Children of Eden by Joey Graceffa
  • Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Funny Girl, ed. Betsy Bird
  • Wishtree by Katherine Applegate
  • Dogman by Dav Pilkey
  • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
  • Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart
  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  • Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
  • The Trials of Apollo by Rick Riordan

2017, a year in books

  • 1 book published in hardcover: 14 Hollow Road
  • 1 book printed in paperback: The Distance to Home
  • 2 new middle grade WIPs revised
  • 1 book blurbed (my first time being asked! I was so thrilled! It’s coming out in 2018.)
  • several picture books drafted (none exactly “finished”)
  • 207 books* read (208 if I can somehow manage to finish Masha Gessen’s monstrous 500-page The Future Is History today)
  • . . . including 46 books by marginalized voices
  • Favorite books read in 2017 that were published before 2017: Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington, All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
  • Favorite books read in 2017 that will be published in 2018: Love, Penelope by Joanne Rocklin, The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller, P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Ten Favorite Books Published in 2017:

  • The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
  • The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
  • The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez
  • Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
  • Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail
  • Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan
  • Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
  • The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
  • Being Fishkill by Ruth Lehrer
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

5 reading and writing goals for 2018:

  • Read more books from marginalized voices
  • Start a fun side project (maybe something where no one dies or is imperiled, Jenn!)
  • Read more adult books, graphic novels, and MG/YA that wasn’t published in the current year
  • Write by hand more
  • Finish at least one picture book draft

5 things I’m looking forward to in 2018:

  • Visiting more schools in-person and virtually
  • Book festivals!
  • Sharing some exciting news in April (a dream come true!)
  • Running more than 5 consecutive miles for the first time since the 2016 NYC Marathon
  • Bearcats in the Final Four and the Red Sox in the World Series (a girl can dream)
*I don’t keep track of picture books or easy readers, so this number includes graphic novels, chapter books, middle grade, YA, adult fic and non-fic, and audiobooks.

Holiday shopping help

I know, I know, there are already a gajillion guides out there about which books to buy as gifts this holiday season. But I can’t help myself! I read almost 200 books this year (192 as of today), not including picture books, and there’s something deeply satisfying about revisiting and culling them into my  very favorites for the year.

My reading taste has narrowed in recent years as I’ve discovered what I truly love: books that make me feel something. And cats. 😉


Notes from the revision cave

If you know me in real life, one thing you’ll notice right away is that I am neat. Tidy. It’s quite possible that I’ve been passed down the neat and tidy gene from my mother, at whose house you can feel extremely safe eating food that has been dropped on the floor for more than five seconds. But you know what is not neat, or tidy, or orderly even when you really, really, really wish it could be?


Man, writing is messy! And revision is even messier! I’m in the revision cave right now with two separate middle grade novels. And while I might make a logical, ordered list of the things that need work in my WIPs and try to tackle them one by one, the truth is that revision, well, it sort of looks more like this. (Can you read my scribbles? I mostly can, though I try to get them from the notebook into the computer on the same day in case I start to lose that ability.)

While my first drafts happen directly on the computer (in Scrivener) and I generally write chapters and scenes in order, revision is a totally different beast. More often than not, my revision epiphanies come when I am doing anything BUT writing. I’m out jogging in the rain and — blam — a piece of dialogue that’s perfect and solves a problem I know I need to handle just comes to me. Today, five separate small plot pieces/moments came to me during my five mile run. By the time I got back to my house, I was *this* close to having to create a mnemonic device to make sure I had them all memorized. I might have even told my cat to stop meowing as I literally ran inside to my notebook so I could get everything down before I forgot it all. (Sorry, Lilly!) Likewise, reading other middle grade novels also sends me running for my notebook. And the moments right before falling asleep are ripe for epiphanies. I’ve taken to leaving my notebook on the floor next to my bed just in case.

All of this is to say that creating too many rules for yourself or trying to force the way you work into someone else’s regimen . . . it’s just not worth it. If there’s one thing I’m coming around to, it’s that this messiness is okay. Even when I feel guilty for the right ideas not coming to me during my writing time, I know that my subconscious is at work, 24/7. And in the meantime, I just have to trust the process, in all its messy, glorious wonder.

And that’s a wrap

As of tomorrow, 14 Hollow Road will have been out for 8 weeks (!!!). It’s been super fun stopping by bookstores to sign copies, meeting readers at events, and hearing what real people (i.e. not my mom) think about the book.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Chatting with a father and daughter — both of them enthusiastic readers and library fans — at the Jacob Edwards Library (Southbridge, MA). It’s amazing to see what a difference it makes for kids to see their parents engaged in reading. A love of stories is certainly contagious and one of the things you do want to catch from your kid/parent!
  • Seeing my writer, book blogger, and librarian friends (and family!) at my Massachusetts launch party for 14 Hollow Road at Porter Square Books. I’ve missed them so much since leaving Boston for Cincinnati, and it was such a treat to have some face time even if it was just for the night. Huge thanks to fellow authors Victoria J. Coe, Josh Funk, Erin E. Moulton, Camille DeAngelis, and Emily Martin for trekking out on a surprisingly cool summer night. My only wish was to have MORE time with all of them.
  • Taking my nephew to the Brewster Bookstore. Family summer vacations on the Cape are about tradition, so it was a total delight to take my nephew (a rising 4th grader) back to this charming Cape Cod bookstore to select some books. Each year I give him a budget of $30 and he leaves with 4-5 paperbacks. This time around, he selected Louis Sachar’s Fuzzy Mud (his teacher read aloud from Holes last year and it was his favorite class read-aloud, along with How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor), Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach MeCircus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley, and Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart. He also really, really wanted his own copy of Holes, but ended up going with the newer Louis Sachar instead. But! Then we spotted a library book sale on the way home so, naturally, I had to introduce him to the wonder that is library book sales and LO AND BEHOLD he found a copy of Holes for twenty-five cents.
  • Back in early July at Nerd Camp I met Corrina Allen who hosts the fantastic middle grade book-oriented podcast, Books Between. She was reading 14 Hollow Road at the time and I was so antsy to hear what she thought of it. I loved hearing her thoughts about it in a recent episode (#29 – Cory Anne Haydu & Fantastic Friendship Books), especially  because she paired it with Bubbles by Abby Cooper. Abby and I have become good friends over the past few years and I’m such a fan of her work.
  • Speaking of podcasts, I was thrilled to hear sixth graders from Iowa discuss 14 Hollow Road on the podcast “Books R Us, which you can find on iTunes.
  • And finally . . . goat yoga [pictured above]. This has absolutely nothing to do with books but is exactly what it sounds like: yoga, outside, with goats wandering around. It was legitimately one of the most amusing hours of my life.

Hope you’re having a great summer!  – Jenn