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.
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:
The Red Sox are saluting Don Orsillo right now and I feel like my dog just died.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 this 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.
The further I get from working on The Distance To Home, the easier I find it to read books dealing with grief. For a while, as I was still writing and revising, I didn’t want the way other people dealt with the subject to cloud my vision for my story. Anyway. I’m glad to be past that now, as I’ve had the chance to read two fantastic (and quite different) middle grade novels dealing with grief — the other being Ali Benjamin’s much-buzzed-about Sept ’15 debut, The Thing About Jellyfish.
Onto Jen Maschari‘s The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price!
Twelve-year-old Charlie Price hasn’t yet found a way to equalize the equation after his mother’s death to cancer. He’s busy with Mathletes and he has friends at school and belongs to a grief support group, but there’s an aching hole in his life at home. Mom. When his sister Imogen starts acting a bit peculiar — weirdly reminding him a bit of how his friend Frank behaved, after his grandmother’s death and right before his own mysterious disappearance — Charlie doesn’t know what to think. But everything changes when Imogen tells him something that just can’t, can’t, be true: she’s found a trap-door in her bedroom that leads to another world. This world is nearly identical to the world she and Charlie and everyone else inhabit. The one difference: Mom is still alive.
What happens to Charlie on the other side calls to mind classic books like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. There’s something off about this parallel world, but at the same time, Charlie is drawn to it because, well, there’s Mom. His mom. Eager to do all the things he’s always remembered. With him and Imogen. How can he say no to that, even if his gut tells him it’s too good to be true?
Maschari’s debut novel will have readers eagerly racing through the pages, their hearts tugged by Charlie’s love for his mother, and their minds full of worry for Charlie and Imogen. Maschari’s story is poignant without ever becoming saccharine. A powerful exploration of grief, memory, and family. I’m so excited for young readers to connect with this story in 2016!
The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jen Maschari(HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray)will be in a bookstore/library near you starting February 23, 2016.
It’s been a busy summer — trying to read ALL of the books, while also writing some of the books, and doing all of the summer things (beach, Walden Pond, drinking all of the Del’s lemonade I can get my hands on) — but I’m happy to share some news about The Distance To Home.
One: I have a pub date! Hooray!!! It’s June 28, 2016. Smack dab in the middle of baseball season, so pretty much perfect timing.
Two: Come October 19th, I will be revealing my cover over on Pop Goes The Reader. I’ve seen a peek of the cover and I love it. I mean, I might be a little biased, as it is my debut book after all — my little book baby (competing for my affection with my fur child) — but still. I can’t wait to share it. But I must. Two more months, people!
When you’re just starting out as a writer contemplating your book going out into the world — querying agents, on submission to editors — there’s this one thing that you fear above all others.
OMG, [insert published book here] is just like my book!
Trust me, before the actual worst thing that could happen happened to me, I was one of the people who worried about stuff like this. While it’s not like my debut tells the most unique story in the world (girl’s sister dies–read a few, um, dozens of books with that plot before), I felt that there were some other elements that put a new spin on it. For one, The Distance To Home was as much a story about baseball as it was a story about grieving a sibling. It was also about changing relationships with a parent following a death in the family.
And then this summer, this book came out:
I’ll admit, there was a tiny part of me that was afraid to check it out from the library and read it. But, my curiosity and book hoarding tendencies got the best of me, and I took the plunge.
Before I even started reading the book, I could start counting out the similarities on my fingers.
1. The word “home” in the title? Check.
2. Main character loses older sibling of the same gender? Check.
3. Main character plays Little League baseball? Check.
4. Tag line of “Can the game they all love eventually bring them back together, safe at home?”: Yikes! And check.
5. Author’s favorite baseball team mentioned in the acknowledgments? Check.
::Cue calming breaths::
With nothing to lose at this point (besides my sanity), I opened up Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s book and started reading. The deeper I got into the story, the more I stopped seeing the things that were the same, and started paying attention to all the differences. For one, The Way Home Looks Now is a historical novel, set in the 1960s when girls playing Little League baseball was new. Also, as Chinese Americans, Peter Lee (a boy protagonist! phew!) and his father, who in an uncharacteristic move offers to coach his Little League team, face racism in ways that my protagonist, Quinnen, and her family, do not. Peter and his deceased older brother Nelson have a shared bond in the playing of baseball that Quinnen and her older sister Haley never did. The touchstone real baseball event in The Way Home Looks Now is the Little League World Series and the dominating performance of Taiwan’s team, where in my book, the real baseball comes in the form of the local (and fictional) minor league team, the Tri-City Bandits.
In innumerable ways, the two stories with similar one-line premises diverge greatly. Now, in retrospect, this should not be surprising. Depending on who you ask, there’s a static number of basic plots out there in the world. (Some say seven, others nine, etc.) We’re all telling the same root stories, but it’s the details that make all the difference. The distinct characters and settings, the way a writer infuses a story with his or her lived experience in the world, the language choices the writer makes, the structure, etc.
When I finished the book — and uh, had something in my eye — I did more than breath a sigh of relief. I actually got kind of excited. As a children’s librarian, I constantly had kids finishing a book and coming to me begging for me to figure out what they should read next. Often, I’d show them a book that had some similar elements, but there were many times when they really wanted to read something a lot closer to the premise of the book they had just finished. It turns out, it’s not the worst thing for your book to have similarities with another book.
Come next summer, as actual kids out there start reading my book, I’ll be pretty happy to put together a bibliography — once a librarian, always a librarian — of what kids who enjoyed my book could read next. And The Way Home Looks Now will be at the top of the list.