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!

ARC Review: The Last Boy at St. Edith’s

Girls, girls, girls. No matter where he turns, Jeremy Miner is surrounded by them. At home, it’s mom and his two sisters. And then all day at school it’s . . . well, everyone. St. Edith’s Academy, a former all-girls school, made an effort to go co-ed, but there’s been a lot of attrition among their boy population and before Jeremy knows it, he’s the last one. The absolute last male student at St. Edith’s Academy. Yikes. Jeremy’s determined to do something about this situation, and he finds his solution in an unlikely place: a series of escalating pranks that he commits along with one of his best female (well, duh) friends at St. Edith’s, the spunky filmmaker Claudia. But as he seemingly gets closer to earning an expulsion from his school, Jeremy starts to second-guess his plan. Is the problem really St. Edith’s? Or could this place be where he really belongs?

As the survivor of an all-girls education (okay, just high school, but still, that was intense!), I totally related to Jeremy. Being immersed in a sea of girls is not always easy. Sometimes, you just miss having close friends of both genders!

Debut author Lee Gjertsen Malone’s novel is just plain fun. Jeremy is such a winsome protagonist, and I totally fell for his group of girl friends at St. Edith’s. Jeremy’s cluelessness about his friend/neighbor Emily’s crush on him was entirely realistic, and will especially ring true to middle school readers. (It was also heartbreakingly real for all us girls out there that totally found ourselves in Emily’s shoes at that age. ::Raises hand.::) There’s so much that Malone gets right about this fraught age, where the last thing you want is to be the one kid who stands out.

The Last Boy at St. Edith’s (Aladdin/ Simon & Schuster) will be in a bookstore/library near you starting February 23, 2016.

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

Everything I Love About Baseball I Learned From Watching Don Orsillo

This past Sunday marked a sad day for Red Sox Nation (yes, Red Sox fans have themselves a “nation”, we’re just that annoying). Don Orsillo, the beloved play-by-play guy for NESN, which airs the Red Sox games, called his last game.

The news that Orsillo’s contract would not be renewed broke in late August, in a season in which Red Sox fans had very few positives to cling to. Our team was in last place for the second year in a row, Koji was lost for the season, Dustin injured, our starting pitchers were abysmal, the new highly paid guys stunk, and our manager, John Farrell, was diagnosed with cancer. Losing Don Orsillo, who’s been calling these games for fifteen years, was just too much for us to bear.

The thing is: when things aren’t going well, there’s always one reason to keep following the Red Sox. That reason is Remy and Orsillo. They’re a unit. A team. Baseball is a slow game; there’s just no getting around that fact. But when you have two guys that feel like family — well, a more entertaining version of family — along for the ride each game, there’s something about it that feels like home. That’s the reason that when I was living in Chicago, there was no way I wasn’t going to fork over the money each month for the privilege of watching those NESN games. MLB gameday and the radio were no substitutes. I had to have my Don and Jerry.

There was something beautiful and simple about their chemistry. You couldn’t fake it. These were two grown men that just enjoyed each other’s company. (It should go without saying that their love of the game of baeball was deeply apparent.) There were other things they loved, of course, and if you watched nearly every game each season as I did, you knew and celebrated their quirks. Their unabashed love of Joseph Abboud (you’d think he was Gianni Versace based on how obsessed they were with him). Don’s love of cooking, particularly Italian (he liked to call himself “Donatangelo”). Jerry’s habit of just sitting in hotel lobbies staring at the wall when on road trips. The pizza incident. These were two men that loved, absolutely loved, coming to work every day. This was the job Don Orsillo, a New England native and lifelong Red Sox fan, had dreamed of. And he had it. He’d gotten there. It’s the kind of job you have for the rest of your life, that so many other announcers have had for as long as they’ve wanted it.

And they took it away from him.

Clearly, there were politics behind this decision that fans will never be privy to, but the fact that Red Sox fans were so upset with this decision (the kind of upset that doesn’t go away after a few days) says a lot about how much we’ve loved and appreciated Don Orsillo.

In my second middle grade novel with Knopf, which is set in Massachusetts, two of the characters tune into NESN, the game providing the backdrop for what one of them thinks might possibly maybe be a date (that’s middle grade for you). I wrote in some improvised dialogue from the game — a player’s home run — and attributed the announcing to Orsillo. Though I’ve revised the players’ names a few times, I never thought I’d have to take out Orsillo’s. That’s the thing about baseball, about all team sports, really. The teams change, but there’s some thread of continuity that keeps you with the same team, year after year after year. After a winter away, come spring, I can’t wait for spring training, and then the actual baseball season to begin. Nothing signals the coming summer quite like hearing Don’s voice on my TV. Mounds of snow might be piled outside, but if Don’s voice was on my TV, it meant the snow would melt. That baseball would be here soon. And yet, for accuracy’s sake, his name must now get edited out of my book, replaced with the name of someone I hardly know.

Of course, Don Orsillo’s baseball journey is far from over. He’s nationally renowned and got scooped up for a job in San Diego, where I’m sure he’ll grow legions of fans (and enjoy a year-round tan). But there’s that feeling, that catch in my throat now as I watch his final game (I DVR-ed it, since I was out of town), that things will never be the same. For us. For him.

Another Red Sox fan said it best on Twitter this past Sunday:

  Me too, Jared. Me too.

 

 

ARC Review: Counting Thyme

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a sucker for any book that’ll give me the feels. My debut is, admittedly, a tearjerker, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I was drawn to another middle grade tearjerker, Melanie Conklin‘s debut Counting Thyme.

Eleven-year-old Thyme Owens has just left her beloved home (and grandmother, and best friend) behind in San Diego, and moved to the Big Apple. But her eyes aren’t starry with dreams of Broadway and everything else that New York City has to offer; Thyme is here for a different reason. Her younger brother Val (short for Valerian) has been accepted to be part of a drug trial to treat his neuroblastoma, a nerve cancer.

Thyme doesn’t know how long they’ll be staying in NYC, but she has her eyes set on a quick return. The two things she most wants pull her in opposite directions. Val getting better, and a return home; can she have them both? In a way, she thinks she can. The thing is, Mom’s been giving her little slips of paper for “time” — free passes for a half hour, an hour, etc. — for her to do whatever she wants, a counterbalance for how much of her family’s time is consumed by care for Val. Thyme collects all these slips in a glass jar, hoping beyond hope that she can amass enough “time” to go back to San Diego. To go back home.

Meanwhile, a life in New York city beckons. There’s a new school. New potential friends. A cute boy in class. A crotchety downstairs neighbor with a cockatoo. Ravioli — ahem, Mrs. Ravelli. The school play, The Wizard of Oz, and being in the sound crew with said cute boy.

Is Thyme just biding her time? Or could she possibly find a new life here in New York City?

I boarded my cross-country flight this morning with one goal. I was going to read Counting Thyme on this flight and it was going to help me pass the time! Oh, did it. As I sniffled my way through the flight — eventually I had to ask a flight attendant for some napkins to use in lieu of tissues — I became so deeply concerned with Thyme’s family, especially Thyme and Val. My heart ached for Thyme as she so often put herself second in caring for her little brother. Conklin does an amazing job of authentically portraying Thyme’s whole world, from her NYC apartment building life to the middle school experience to her sometimes fraught relationship with her older sister Cori (short for Coriander). This family felt so real for me, which of course is what led to the sniffling.

Thyme is self-deprecating and funny, sometimes brave, sometime shy and awkward, but full of love and hope and fear. The fear of losing Val, of Val ending up in the hospital, of his body resisting the trial — all of that is always there, always simmering beneath the surface. Though Thyme keeps her real reason for being in NYC a secret from her peers at school, she can never keep the truth far from her own mind. This book imparted on me such a strong sense of the impact a child’s cancer can have on every member of the family, and of the varying personal reactions to this experience.

Highly, highly recommended!

Counting Thyme (G.P. Putnam’s Sons / Penguin Random House) will be in a bookstore/library near you starting April 12, 2016.

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

Middle grade research, or How I overcame my fear of heights/amusement park rides

The great thing about writing middle grade fiction is that you can draw from a deep well of memory. Your own, your friends’, your children’s (okay, I don’t have kids yet, but say, my nephew’s life experiences), etc. Even when I’m writing from the point of view of characters that I don’t have a ton of similarities with on the surface, I’m always amazed by how, the deeper I probe, the more I find our commonalities.

Still, there are some parts of a story that you just need that actual life experience. There’s no substitute. And so when I saw the Ferris Wheel looming over us at the Woodstock Fair a few weekends ago, I knew I needed to take the plunge.

Yes, I am over the age of thirty and I have never in my life been on a Ferris Wheel. I know! I wish I had a good explanation why I haven’t been on one. (Though my mother’s words of warning, as I told her of my intention– “those things are so rickety, Jenn . . .– miiiiiight be a clue.)

As a kid, I was pretty prone to dizziness. The “spinny” rides didn’t sit so well with me. I felt dizzy even after the merry-go-round. And, okay, I was a little anxious and high-strung as a kid. But I still rode the roller coasters! The old wooden ones AND the newer ones that went upside down. (Peer pressure. Had to think I was looking cool, even if I, um, wasn’t.) I’ll admit, my favorite ride was always the flume boat. Boring, I know.image1 (1)

ANYWAY! Back to the Woodstock Fair! Labor Day weekend! In my next middle grade novel with Knopf, due out in summer 2017, a traveling fair comes to the town where all the action is set, and in a pretty meaningful scene, the main character, Maddie, rides the Ferris Wheel with her crush, Avery. Now, when I initially wrote the scene, I figured, eh, I’ve seen a Ferris Wheel. I know how it works. I’ve got this covered. But having just experienced my first book go through copyedits, I started getting wary. What if I got important Ferris Wheel details wrong?! Better ride that thing to make sure.

So, that’s what led to me taking my first trip on the Ferris Wheel in the name of research. I’ll admit, the view from the top (and the middle) was pretty awesome. Like my main character, I had a strong desire to keep my eyes closed and just wait for the whole thing to be over. But, like my main character, I was riding the Ferris Wheel with a boy I liked — okay, my husband. So, I guess the view wasn’t so bad.image3 (1)

In the end, I discovered that I had some definite things wrong with my Ferris Wheel scene. For starters, not having ridden a Ferris Wheel before, I realized I’d based the sensations on my (actually quite terrifying) recent first trip on a ski lift last fall. Legs were dangling. People were sitting next to each other. Um, it turns out that is decidedly not how a Ferris Wheel is set up! People sit across from each other in little gondolas. Also, for the smaller Ferris Wheels that travel to local carnivals, you don’t just go around once. You go around a few times kind of fast, and then they start letting people off, so you stop a lot. Oh, and that time when you stop at the top is definitely the most anxious moment of the Ferris Wheel ride . . . especially if you are me.

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Overall, I’m really glad I took the plunge. As Avery reminded Maddie, your chances of dying in an amusement park accident are exceedingly rare. Also, the Ferris Wheel is definitely best enjoyed with your eyes open.

Now, my best friend’s dad offered me a trip up in his plane to view the path of the EF3 tornado that hit my hometown in 2011, which inspired my 2017 middle grade novel. (Note: I refuse to fly on small planes.) We’ll see if I take him up on that offer. I’m not making any promises, though, I bet it would be pretty amazing to see the lingering tornado damage from that vantage point.

ARC Review: Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

Sometimes you read a book, and you’re surprised by how much it mirrors your life in unexpected ways. In Lindsay Eagar’s Hour of the Bees, I felt an immediate kinship with twelve-year-old Carolina (pronounced “Caro-leeen-a”), who goes by Carol. Instead of spending the summer before junior high with her friends in Albuquerque, she’s stuck in the New Mexico desert, with her mom, dad, little brother Lu, and half-sister Alta . . . and Serge — no, wait — Grandpa Serge, who she’s meeting for the very first time.

Serge is suffering from dementia, and given that he’ll soon no longer be safe on his own, in the ranch that he built, on the land where he raises sheep, they’re selling his house and moving him to the city, to a fancy old folks home. It’s up to Carol and her family to sift through Serge’s stuff, all while keeping an eye on him, even though Serge is dead-set on never leaving. All of it would be weird enough — new “old people” to hang out with, new place — but on top if it, there’s the bees. The thing is, there shouldn’t be bees out in this desert. It hasn’t seen rain in a hundred years. But the bees are always buzzing around Carol. And then there’s the closet in Serge’s old bedroom, the one he never sleeps in. Behind the door is the droning of hundred of them. But only Carol hears it.

Eagar’s debut has that feeling of an instant classic. Beautiful (yet accessible for the age audience) language, an unforgettable and evocative setting, magical realism, a story within a story, and character struggles that any reader can relate to. Whether it’s Carol’s complicated relationship with her teenage sister, Alta, or her shifting allegiance to her grandfather, there’s just so much that rings true about this book. In particular, what rang true to me right now are all the pieces having to do with leaving a home behind. Though we didn’t have to move my grandparents out of their home, right now we’re going through with emptying and selling it–the house they built themselves and lived in for over fifty years. It’s steeped with memories, and though I was never privy to stories as magical and epic as those that Serge told to Carolina, there’s still that raw feeling in the back of my throat of being not ready to say goodbye. Not ready to see someone else inhabit that space, and yet knowing our days with it as ours are numbered.

I’ll admit, this was one of the books that I’ve been antsy to read for a while ever since I heard about it. I think this book will find a wonderful home with loads of readers — and be explored in many a classroom in the upcoming years.

Hour of the Bees (Candlewick Press) will be in a bookstore/library near you starting March 8, 2016.

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

ARC Review: Fenway and Hattie

As a pet owner (or parent to a fur child, if you will), there’s a small amount of time each day that I spend pondering my cat. I wonder what goes on in her little head — what’s that internal narrative as I pet her or put down her food dish. When she suddenly decides she wants to be petted or curls up next to me, what’s she thinking? I know I’m not alone in wishing I could get inside her mind. If only I could peek in on her furry little thoughts.

Okay, okay, my musing is actually leading somewhere! Victoria J. Coe‘s debut middle grade novel, Fenway and Hattie, does exactly what I wish I could do, except for a spirited Jack Russell terrier named Fenway (instead of my cat). Fenway is facing some big changes in his furry little life, all of which Coe captures through Fenway’s distinct POV. Yep, all of this book is written as if we are in Fenway’s mind. An impressive feat, mind you –Jack Russell terriers are quite excitable!

Along with his family — ahem, the Food Lady, Fetch Man, and his short human, Hattie — Fenway makes a move from the big city to the suburbs. Of course, Fenway never explicitly states that he moves. The reader will intuit the real actions of the story through the lens of Fenway. For many young readers, this may be one of the first times they’re reading a book where they have to do some of the legwork. The thing is, they’ll have a leg up on Fenway most of the time, and this advantage only adds to the fun of reading this book. At times, it’s heartbreaking experiencing the gap between how Fenway understands what’s going on, and we readers, as humans, can comprehend of the situation.Whether it’s the impending move that takes Fenway by surprise, Hattie’s friendship with the girl next door, or the discovery of a game humans play with a baseball that is not (oh the horrors!) fetch, we’re limited to Fenway’s perspective. Fenway fears he’s losing Hattie — as the dogs in the Dog Park next door (i.e. his neighbors) have warned will happen — and my heart ached for him as he dealt with thlilly with the bookis prospect.

I’m so excited for this book to come out next winter. From my experience as a children’s librarian, I see this book really connecting with a lot of kids. It sure connected with me. And hey, my cat even sort of liked it. It’s hard to tell. If only I could peek into her brain . . .

Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe (G. P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Random House) will be in a bookstore/library near you starting February 9, 2016.

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