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:

















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.



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.




Step #3:

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



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.




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.


Adventures in Author-land: The Dreaded Headshot

Family and friends close to me know that in the midst of the many, many (I kid) things I do well, there’s one area where I have a significant deficit.


It’s been that way for as long as I can recall. As a kid, I had my photogenic moments…



But they were few and far between. You will note I am holding back from posting any pictures of my teenage self. Yes, they are that bad. (Also, they are not on the computer from which I’m writing this blog post.)


As I became an adult, I discovered a way to work around the fact that I was not a fan of the camera: costumes! As long as I was dressed in a costume, I didn’t mind having my picture taken. In fact: I enjoyed it.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 6.07.25 PM

Yep, that’s me dressed as Dumbledore for my library’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows all-night lock-in back in 2007.

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Oh, and again, me, willingly wearing an astronaut costume to promote the library’s summer reading program. (The deranged expression was for the camera. I do not generally look like that. I promise.)

After wedding photos were achieved last summer, I thought I was home free. I didn’t need to have serious pictures taken ever again! For the rest of my life!

Until I sold my book. And realized I needed headshots.


I am happy to report from the other side that after much angst (and, okay, a lot of shopping for headshot ensembles), headshots were a surprisingly fun activity. Last Sunday, I traversed Fort Point with a local photographer, Kate L., who may or may not have taught me how to smize! It wouldn’t be a photo session with Jenn (slipping into third person here for a moment) if it didn’t involve at least one moment of goofiness.

One second, I was acting like a serious model-type…



And then the next thing I knew…




What’s that behind me?



jenn_033_smallOh yes! A horse! Of course, I got photobombed by a horse.

Though many of my friends advocated for the horse photobomb picture as my official author photo, in the end, I went with something a bit more professional.



Can’t Wait Until #FridayReads: A Book Review of Orbiting Jupiter

The world is not fair. People don’t (or hardly ever) get their just desserts. Where are the angels that are supposed to watch over us?

Orbiting Jupiter, Gary D. Schmidt’s latest young adult novel, is a slim book that packs a powerful punch. In the opening scene, sixth grader Jack, a good boy in a quiet rural Maine town, meets his foster brother Joseph, an eighth grader just released from a juvenile detention facility who almost killed his teacher. A lot of kids, upon learning that about a foster sibling, might keep their distance, but not Jack. He sees the way Rosie the cow acts around Joseph, and figures there’s got to be more to Joseph than that story. Jack sticks up for Joseph like a brother when other kids at the school hassle him and when teachers expect little from him. He’s ready to listen, and when Joseph finally shares his story–what’s behind the words and phrases he shouts out in his sleep at night–Jack learns how heartbreaking it is. His fourteen-year-old foster brother is a father to a baby girl named Jupiter, whose mother is deceased. He can’t see her because the mother’s family doesn’t want him to meet them, his father’s tangling up the situation trying to get money out of it (all for himself), and the machinations of the system aren’t geared toward giving Jason (a minor) any rights.

It’s not fair. But though no one’s looking out for Jason above, there are people looking out for him, down on earth. His foster brother, whom he calls “Jackie”, for one. And Jack’s parents, Joseph’s foster parents, who are doing everything they can in his interest to help him see his daughter.

But it’s hard. And like I said, the world is not fair.

There’s little else I can say about the plot without giving too much away. And that’s the last thing I want to do. But I will say that I wept — truly wept — at the end of this book. Gary D. Schmidt has complete control over this story, and especially over Jack’s voice. The telling is spare, but it serves the story so well. This is the kind of story that can be shared with all ages of readers (middle school and high school alike). It’s completely accessible for reluctant readers up through high school, and it’s the kind of book I would’ve shared with all of my teens in urban communities, who know, first-hand, how sometimes you just get dealt a raw deal.

What does it mean to be a family? A brother? This story asks, again and again.




Orbiting Jupiter comes out on November 3, 2015 from Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Diversity and Summer Reading Lists

This past week, the New York Times summer reading list was rightly called out for being 100% comprised of white authors. While I wonder if Maslin herself noticed this in creating the list (my hunch is she didn’t), the question it raised for me is: why was this esteemed paper’s “summer reading list” curated by just one person? When it comes to diversity in literature, I think the root of the problem is the history of certain folks being intentionally excluded from the table. We’re not there anymore, but the data about diversity in publishing doesn’t lie, and we still have a long way to go for the industry to accurately represent the makeup of the United States.

Now, I’d hate to think the way to resolve this problem is by forcing some kind of quota on the reviewer. Rather, it seems like it would make sense to have more voices contributing to the creation of such a list. The more diverse voices invited to contribute, the less likely any list is to be so focused. At the same time, more voices would also broaden the appeal. Out of all the titles being published this summer (or recently in print), none of the seventeen listed really inspired me. Okay, I guess on further thought, I’m a little curious about The Royal We, but still. One out of seventeen: not so great.

I’m just one person (and in truth, a straight, white female), but here are some of the books I’m looking forward to reading this summer (some newbies, some oldies, from middle grade to adult):
































































For a fantastic list of picture books middle grade, and YA books written or illustrated by authors and artists of color (African American, Asian America, Latino, and Native American), some of which include LGBTQIA protagonists or protagonists with disabilities, click here. Lyn Miller-Lachmann, a fellow writer and book reviewer (also the author of Surviving Santiago on my summer reading list), created this list along with several colleagues who are similarly passionate about diversity in children’s literature.

Names, names, names

Of the many things I have to do as part of creating an entirely fictional world, naming my characters is one of the trickiest parts. I don’t just mean the main character(s), but also all of the people in my main character’s world. Since I tend to write in first person, I’m in my character’s mind and body, and so I’m supposed to know the names of all the people she/he knows. This means I have to come up with a LOT of names!

I have a tendency to change names as I’m working through the story. (Thank goodness for the “find and replace” feature.) I wish I could say that all of my names are steeped in symbolism and significance, but the truth is, they aren’t. For me, it’s important that the names sound realistic for the time and place of the story, and also that they stand apart from each other– can’t have too many starting with the same letter.

As I’ve been working on my latest work-in-progress, a young adult novel set in a New England boarding school, I realized that my character (like I did in high school) knows nearly everyone in her school by name. What this meant was that all of those characters, even the ones that appear briefly, should have a name. So “that girl from my Chem class” had to become a real person. But how to come up with a ton of names without spending FOREVER creating and deciding on them? (Truth: I can easily spend an afternoon poring over name books and website of the top 100 first names for a particular birth year. It’s a super fun thing to get lost in and call “work,” but…. perhaps not the best use of time).

New solution!image2image1

My nephew’s commencement book! (He graduated over the weekend from UConn.) Over 100 pages of first, middle, and last names to mix and match. Who knew this thing had a purpose beyond graduation day (as we sat in the stadium watching a thousand young adults receive their diplomas)?


Here’s to hoping the next time I have to name a random and very minor character, I don’t spend two hours doing it.

Revision, or That Thing I Love to Hate

It’s undeniable. No matter how wonderful anything I wrote seems on the day I wrote it, a day later it’s lost its luster. A few days later? A month later? Hoo boy. I start to see it for what it is: something that needs work.

That’s where revision comes in. What I’ve discovered by talking to many other writers about their processes is that no two processes are alike. What I’ve discovered works for me, but even then, I’m not sure it’ll work for the next book. Each book is essentially its own beast that I must wrangle into submission. And then repeat.

That said, I still feel like I can learn from other people’s revision processes. For me, the niggling thing I hate about revision is that it’s not as quantifiable as first drafting. With a first draft, I can say: I wrote X many words today, therefore I am done. With revision, I guess I could say: I deleted X many word today, hurrah! Except… it doesn’t really have that same feeling of achievement.

Because I need some sense of accomplishment, and because I’m wading through a 150-300+ page word document day after day, it’s essential for me to break it down.

1. Hence the list! The list is very key to my revision process. It’s visually pleasing! I can cross things off! Aha, I have tackled you.

2. I can add things to the list as I go along and discover more things that need work.

3. But how do I even know what needs work?

4. Personally, I can’t revise until I have some distance from the manuscript. If we’re talking tiny line edit changes and tweaking words, I can do that the next day, but for big picture things, it needs to sit. Stephen King suggested putting your draft aside for at least a month upon writing “the end.” If it works for him, I decided it works for me.

5. And so far, so good. But what do I do in the month away from my book? What if I want to take a peek?

6. NO, Jenn. No. No peeks allowed. If you really want confirmation that what you wrote is brilliant, genius stuff, by all means, send it to your mother. And then find something else to keep you busy until a month is up.

7. When I’m gearing up for revision, or needing to take a break from it, I find it helpful to return to a couple writing books to get me in the right frame of mind. Some of my favorites are: Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight (soon to be released in a new edition), Kate Messner’s Real Revision, and John Truby’s The Anatomy of StoryIf I’m needing a real pick-me-up, then Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. And every couple years, Stephen King’s On Writing.

8. I also tend to read a lot for pleasure in the month after finishing a draft. And, okay, some Sims might happen, too (for a few days max!).

9. When I finally reopen the manuscript after a month or so has passed, I try to read it once through without doing anything to it. Just to remember the story and see what’s actually on the page. The next time I read it, I have a pad of paper next to me and I start a running list of all the things that need work. We’re talking macro level here (tiny sentence things and typos I’ll fix as I move through).

10. Then the list gets typed up. And printed out. And that’s when the accountability begins. As items on the list are tackled, they get crossed out. I tend to skip around the list for things that feel achievable in a given moment or day. Often, I tackle some of the smaller things first (something limited to one scene, for example) because honestly, IT FEELS SO GOOD TO CROSS THINGS OFF!

11. There are always those little pervasive things — the big picture stuff that really affect every little bit of the manuscript. Like, say I need to tone down one character. Or add a nuance to a relationship, in a way that doesn’t affect the plot or main story arc. I tend to save those for the end, as I make several passes through the manuscript, tweaking and tweaking.

12. The final stage of my revision is the one that I think a lot of other people do not do, but which is so essential to my process. I read my ENTIRE book out loud. (I am not looking forward to doing this with my 300+ page behemoth WIP, yet it must be done.) The reading aloud stage holds huge value for me. It’s how I catch accidental tense switches, typos, repetitive word choices, moments that unintentionally echo, etc. I also think it’s helped develop my ear for dialogue.

13. After I feel I’ve taken the book as far as I can, I share it with my beta readers — my critique buddies. Many of them have read several of my books now, and I hold their feedback in high esteem. It’s so essential to see what another person finds in your book that perhaps you didn’t intend to put in there. And sometimes discover genius things you did that you’d never give yourself credit for. Love, love, love my critique partners.

14. What comes next? I sift through the feedback from my critique partners. Some of what they say will jive with each other, so I know it’s stuff I need to work on. I start making a list (oh dear, another list!) and gear up for the next round of revision.

15. Repeat with critique partners, agent, and eventually editor…. and then voila! It’s done!

16. I’m sure I won’t be one of those writers marking up their now-published book with a pen before readings. Right?

17. We’ll see.