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.

image2 (1)

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!

ARC Review: The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price

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.

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

Some news . . .

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!

 

The worst thing that could happen, or… maybe not?

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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uh-oh.

 

 

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.

ARC Review: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary

How much can change in one school year? For the eighteen kids in Ms. Hill’s fifth-grade class, the answer is: a lot. Knowing that their school, Emerson Elementary, is slated to be torn down at the end of the year to make way for a supermarket, the class is instructed to write poems for a time capsule. With these poems, representing a variety of poetry forms, these fictional kids pour out their hearts in confessions that are at points heartbreaking, at others, comical, but moving and honest throughout. Their struggles are diverse: divorce, a parent going overseas in the army, a sick grandparent, mean girls, financial hardship–and their joys, equally so: being the object of a crush, finding a new friend, having your opinions heard, and so much more. And then there’s Ms. Hill, your ordinary teacher nearing retirement… or maybe not? Is there more to Ms. Hill than meets the eye? I loved seeing how Ms. Hill’s past plays into these kids’ present.

As these eighteen kids contend with their own issues in the midst of putting up a last-ditch fight for their beloved elementary school, they do a lot of growing up and learning in the process. This book is every bit as delightful and specific as its cover, which features the eighteen students whose poems we read. Shovan excels at creating distinct voices and situations for these characters. In books with two or more characters, sometimes it’s easy to have a favorite one, or feel like you want to skip past some of the stories, but in this case, there was not one story thread that bored me. All of these kids felt so genuine and real. The language in the poems is so spot-on for this age group that at times, I felt like I was reading a poetry collection from a local fifth grade–there was that much honesty in the representation. It’s very clear that Shovan knows her audience, and I can’t wait to see this book in the hands of many, many, many kid readers. It’d also be a fantastic choice to use in the classroom; the extensive back matter provides many jumping-off points for lesson-building.

 

I can’t wait to read whatever Laura Shovan dreams up next!

 

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan (Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) will be in a bookstore/library near you starting April 12, 2016.

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

 

Random acts of booknerdiness

About a month ago, I heard about #mgbookbomb through fellow Sweet 16er Brooks Benjamin and marked my calendar for July 11th. Now, I’m all for giving out books. If you know me well, you will know that I am often trying to foist free books upon you. (Yes, we have too many and seem to get more and more each month. Oops!)

The steps are pretty easy, and there’s lots of time left today if you want to participate. Even more if you’re  a West Coaster.

Step #1:

Print one of these fliers.


image2

 

Step #2:

Choose a middle grade book to give away.

I’ll admit I had many to choose between. In an ideal world, I’d be giving away a copy of my book or ARC, but I don’t have either yet. (Checks calendar.) Actually, next year I can give away a copy of my book. Coolness. Anyway. Any middle grade book will do, but preferably one with an eye-catching cover. One that’s just DYING to be picked up and read.

image1

 

 

Step #3:

Put the flier in the book. (You can see I have chosen an especially pretty book.)

image3

 

Step #4:

Find a location that middle grade readers frequent.

Now, At first I thought I’d swing by the playground at the bottom of the hill near the track where I run, but then I realized most of those kids are too little and also, since it’s 90+ degrees outside, the playground was deserted. But!! I was going to visit my library anyway. As I approached it, I started scoping out a place to leave the book. Front lawn? Picnic tables? And then I saw the PERFECT SPOT. The bike rack! There were several kid-sized bikes there, plus the book would really stand out.

image4

 

 

Step #5:

Spend all day imagining what happens next.

I mean, I’m a writer after all. Imagining is practically my job.

 

Friday Reads: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

When Katherine Rundell’s second novel won the Boston Globe Horn Book award, I immediately requested it from my local library. I think of myself as someone who reads a fair amount of the best-reviewed middle grade and young adult novels published every year, and yet somehow, I had totally missed this one. The moment it came into the library, it jumped to the top of my TBR pile. And thank goodness for that. I was so charmed by this story, which has that insta-classic feel that is, honestly, pretty hard to pull off these days.

Will (short for Wilhemina) is a wild one, which is perfectly fitting, given that she’s grown up on a farm in Zimbabwe. She’s prone to trekking out into the wild for days at a time, completely happy with dirt under her fingernails, being friends with monkeys, and totally game for bareback horseriding. But life takes an unexpected twist when her father falls prey to the same fate as her mother, years ago, and Will finds herself an orphan. Without a say in the matter, she’s sent off to London, a most unsuitable habitat for a girl who knows only Africa and the world of the outdoors. It’s winter, and she’s expected to conform to the standards of her boarding school, her fellow students all dressed the same, and essentially giving her snobbish looks down their stuck-up noses. Will has her mind bent on escape, but who will help her? And can she really get away with her wild ways in London?

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms is such a deserving title for the award it received. It’s imaginative and deeply felt, with exquisite attention to the setting. The author grew up in Zimbabwe, and you can tell that she knows what she’s writing about. Reading this book was an immersive experience: it’s the kind of book you want to gulp. Yes, it follows a familiar form: orphaned girl sent away to boarding school, but that’s merely a framework. Will is such a specific girl, one that readers are bound to fall in love with. (In fact, I’m sure they already have! I forget: I’m late to the game on this one.)

I’m knowing what book I’m adding to my TBR pile next: Rundell’s debut, Rooftoppers.

Interview with Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, author of Book Scavenger

Via the Sweet Sixteens, I had the chance to interview 2015 debut middle grade author, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. I also count myself lucky, because as part of this interview, I got my greedy little hands on an advanced reader’s copy of Book ScavengerIt’s out in the wild now, and man, are readers in for a treat. If you like bookish adventures, solving ciphers, San Francisco, and mysteries, this book is for you!

You can read my interview with Jennifer here.