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

The 10 Best and Worst* Things About Nerd Camp *;)


  • 1. Connecting in-person with online friends! So the truth is, most of the authors I know (myself included) kind of spend a lot of time on Twitter. It’s not just because we’re wasting time (okay, sometimes it is). Twitter is where so many good conversations are. When your author friends are far-flung, it’s the place to keep in touch. It’s also a great space to connect with educators. In truth, I’d be lying if I said a day went by when I didn’t check Twitter. It was so wonderful to meet in-person a ton of people I’d Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 9.01.43 AMpreviously only chatted with online — from many of the fantastic educators that are parts of #bookjourney, #bookvoyage, #bookexpedition and beyond, to author friends like Mike Grosso and Elaine Vickers and Abby Cooper and Carter Higgins.
  • 2. Leaving inspired. One of my key takeaways from Nerd Camp this year was that sometimes the person who needs to take the leap of faith is you. I have some ideas about how to connect Cincy-area children’s book people (educators, authors, booksellers) and this fall I’m going to get to work.
  • 3. Fantastic break-out sessions on day one. There was so much to take away from Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s excellent session, “Stories for All,” about so-called “boy” books and “girl” books. I’ve been trying to unpack some of my own experiences, after one year of being a female author attending conferences and book festivals, and this gave me so much to chew on. (Also, there are still so many of Shannon Hale’s books that I have to read!) In Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne’s session, I learned a new word: bibliothecary and, oh yeah, continued to grow my TBR.
  • 4. Learning from fellow authors. On day two, I loved hearing about Caroline Starr Rose’s writing process, especially because she writes historical fiction. I’ve been really enjoying reading historical fiction lately but have always felt so intimidated about how to approach it as a writer. Where do you even start? She talked about how she takes 4-6 months to read exclusively about a setting/time period, allowing herself to ask questions and see where that leads her in terms of what the story could be. I always assumed you had to have an idea and then research! Mind. Blown.
  • 5. Learning from teachers. In day two, I sat in on two great teacher-led sessions. The first was on how to motivate readers without rewards. (I feel so guilty for my years as a public librarian using rewards — books, but still — to entice kids to participate in our summer reading program.) The second was on Little Free Libraries, a topic close to my heart since we finally put up a little free library in our front yard just a month ago. I’m excited to put a guestbook in our little free library and create a FB page for it.
  • 6. The kids at Nerd Camp Junior. Just like last year, these kids blew my mind with their creativity. Our activity this year was Mystery Box. The sixth graders in my sessions reached into the Mystery Box (dun, dun, dun) to discover which random item would inspire them with new story ideas. They Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 8.58.49 AMgenerated SUCH exciting ideas. It felt like I was sitting in at a Hollywood pitch session. And because I had fifth graders last year, I got to catch up with several of the same kids, now as sixth graders! It was so cool to see their love of stories grow.


  • 7. You will cry. Every time, the Opening Talks at Nerd Camp get me. These seven minute talks, from a variety of educators and authors, always get me going, and this time was no exception. Stacey Reidmiller’s (@literacybigkids online) gave me all the feels and it was only downhill from there. I wish every teacher (and parent) in the country could see these speeches, particularly Tracey Baptiste and Chad Everett’s.
  • 8. Your TBR pile will grow and grow and grow as you attend inspiring sessions and meet authors whose books you haven’t read! (And, remember we’re nerdy book people. Our TBRs are already out of control.)
  • 9. That niggling feeling that there’s someone you missed connecting with. It was so delightfully chaotic that I know I missed people. It was truly impossible to spend as much time as I wanted to with all the people there. ::sniffles::


  • 10. Nerd Camp isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 8.59.08 AM

14 Hollow Road — now out in the world!

This one’s for the kids.14 Hollow Road_jkt_3p.indd
The ones who feel insecure about where they stand in friendships.
The ones who feel awkward around their crushes.
The ones who find solace in the companionship of a beloved pet.
The ones who are excited and a little bit terrified about moving on to junior high/middle school and growing up.
This one’s for them.
And starting today, it’s no longer mine. It’s theirs.

14 Hollow Road Book Parties!

To celebrate the launch of 14 Hollow Road, there will be two launch image1 (14)parties:

  • Tuesday, June 13th (the day the book is released) at Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore in Cincinnati, OH, at 6:30 PM

At each event there will be delicious local treats, a brief reading, Q&A, and a book signing. The bookstores should have plenty of copies of 14 Hollow Road hardcovers and The Distance to Home  paperbacks available for purchase, but it never hurts to pre-order or reserve a copy by phone.

Both events are free and open to the public, so feel free to bring friends/spread the word. Hope to see you there!


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!


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)