When Penguin Random House puts out a monstrous heap of pretty galleys at ALA Midwinter, you know they’re not kidding around. One of the books I was most psyched to grab back in late January was Cassie Beasley’s debut. (Admission: Cassie graduated from VCFA the semester before me and I was completely blown away by her reading, so I had an inkling this book was going to be special.)
Circus Mirandus grabbed me from the very first page; Cassie Beasley has complete control over this story, which expertly unfolded from the very first instant. From his deathbed, Micah’s grandpa Ephraim makes a dying wish: for the Lightbender he’d met years ago at Circus Mirandus to return and grant him his wish. But what is his wish, readers will wonder, just as I had.
Moving effortlessly between past and present, we come to know Ephraim when he was a young boy like Micah, and how he stumbled upon Circus Mirandus with a fish providing him admission. In the present, we see Micah, struggling with a great-aunt who couldn’t care less about him as he beloved grandfather’s health fails, and finding a friend in his classmate Jenny, a well-meaning know-it-all, who struggles to believe in magic. That is, until Circus Mirandus comes to town, again, and both Micah and Jenny are drawn into its magic, intent on saving Ephraim.
Cassie Beasley’s story reads like an instant classic, which, trust me, is pretty rare these days. Circus Mirandus will leave you believing in magic, and in the power of family and love and friendship. I can’t wait for June, when this book will reach a much, much wider audience.
My ten favorite gals from across the span of children’s and YA literature, in no particular order, who are all invited to my imaginary literary Galentine’s Day brunch:
1. Ruby Oliver (from E. Lockhart’s fabulous Ruby Oliver quartet)
2. Alice McKinley from PRN’s (I am probably the only person who refers to Phyllis Reynolds Naylor as PRN, but I digress…) Alice series. Still can’t believe it’s over, so of course, Alice is invited to my Galentine’s Day brunch.
3. Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery’s classic series. (It is really hard to tell her she can’t bring Gilbert Blythe, but… this is Galentine’s Day. He can come over any other time.)
4. Calpurnia Tate. (Perhaps she will tell me about the new Calpurnia Tate book coming out in August because I cannot wait!!!!)
5. Mia Thermopolis. (If Mia doesn’t pay for the brunch, she will not be invited to the next one. And yeah, I said it, Mia.)
6. Frances the Badger. (Frances is sort of an outlier for this brunch, but whatevs. She offered to bring jam and swore on her life she wouldn’t sing the creepy egg song, so she can still come.)
7. Francie Nolan. (Note to self: do not wear your A Tree Grows in Brooklyn t-shirt to brunch with Francie. It’s like wearing a Sonic Youth shirt to a Sonic Youth concert, which, okay, Kim Gordon recently did, but you are not Kim Gordon and cannot pull it off.)
8. Hermione Granger. (No explanation needed!)
9. Jessica Darling from Megan McCafferty’s series. (It might get dicey if we talk recent 5k times and she is faster than me, so I guess that should not be on my table topics cards.)
10. Anastasia Krupnik. I cannot wait to tell her that Warby Parker is putting her glasses back in style.
***For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of Galentine’s Day or need a refresher course:
What better time to recap a wonderful ALA Midwinter conference than while sitting in my hotel bed? Thanks to the latest blizzard, which librarians and publishing folks got to experience in Chicago before it traveled onward to Boston, I am spending an extra 36-ish hours in the Windy City. Better to be in a fancy old hotel than the airport, though, right?
Chicago definitely lived up to its nickname yesterday, as I trekked out in the 40 m.p.h. whiteout conditions in search of some Super Bowl snacks with my intrepid friends. (It turns out people who regularly visit the South Pole are just the teeniest bit better at managing inclement weather than wimpy writers named Jenn.) But while watching the flakes swirl around from the 14th floor was pretty awesome, I’m not sure it counts as a highlight of ALA.
Which brings us to… the actual highlights!
1. On Saturday afternoon, I met one of my all-time favorite YA authors, Meg Cabot. Now, the Princess Diaries books were a huge contributing factor to my love of YA, as they were some of the first modern-era YA books I read, via a junior high student I tutored while in college. I’m such a sucker for any book (or movie) featuring the awkward princess Mia Thermopolis, so meeting Meg Cabot was extremely high on my ALA to-do list. Luckily, even though the line was quite long by the time I got there, it only took half an hour until I got to meet her. She was every bit as delightful as one would expect, and I managed to not be totally flustered. I told her that Michael Moscowitz was my first and most enduring book boyfriend. (Completely true.) And I may or may not have worn the special Princess Diaries paper crown from the signing when I began reading my ARC of Royal Wedding, even though it was sized for a ten-year-old’s head.
2. When Charlesbridge invited me to appear on an ALA Buzz panel to discuss debut children’s books, I jumped at the chance. As a once-and-future debut author, I have so much love for debut books. Some of my favorites every year are debut titles. For 2014, Nest and The Meaning of Maggie were among my very favorite middle grade novels and both are by authors publishing for the very first time. Along with Charlesbridge editor Julie Bliven and the Boston Public Library’s Head of Children’s Laura Koenig, I really enjoyed discussing ways that librarians (and booksellers, and really anyone) can promote and discover debut voices. I left with a growing list of other debut titles to check out. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, I’m looking at you!
3. The surprise theme of every trip to Chicago (a place I called home for eight years) lately is reconnecting with old friends. Prior to ALA, I trekked out to the Homewood Public Library, where I began my library career. It was so wonderful to spend time chatting with my former coworkers, who were so supportive of my book and so eager to have me come to the library when it comes out. I was reminded by one of them that even Chris Pratt lived in a van in Hawaii before he made it, so if this is my “living in a van like Chris Pratt” moment, well, I’ll take it. At the conference itself, I caught up with a couple of fellow Best Fiction for Young Adults committee alums, and also kept just missing a few other friends.
4. How have I gotten this far without mentioning the books? Oh man, THE BOOKS. In total denial, before I left, I told my husband I would come home with a couple books. More like a couple bags of books. Oops. It’s a slippery slope at ALA. You start searching out a few specific titles, but then you talk to someone from sales and marketing who has all these suggestions (many of them debuts) and before you know it, you have forty pounds of ARCs and three tote bags and a page of Origami Yoda stickers and you remember your 7 year old nephew might like some books too, and, and, and… yeah. I’m a tidy person, but I think I am also technically a book hoarder.
5. Though I did not make it to the convention center for the ALA Youth Media Awards at 8 AM, I watched the pre-game show with Betsy Bird, and the awards, and the post-game breakdown. All I can say right now is WOW. Any surprises were surprises that made me just more psyched about ALA. All of the love for fantastic diverse titles was so well-deserved. I’ve been raving about The Crossover to anyone and everyone for the past month or so since I read it, but I never said out-loud how much I wanted it to win, out of fear that I’d jinx it. This book is going to be so beloved by kids. It has everything I love in a middle grade book: verse, heart, readability, voice, characters that feel achingly real, tears, sports, siblings… GAH! I could go on and on. Just–happy. So happy that this book got the recognition it did. And happy for all the other authors and books I love that were recognized, like El Deafo and Viva Frida and I’ll Give You The Sun. Now if I could actually read all the books I want to read!
In preparation for my trip to ALA Midwinter this weekend, and in the midst of a snow day in Boston, I’ve been thinking about my Newbery and Printz predictions (Caldecotts, too, although I’m not as obsessive on that end). Every year since my first as a children’s librarian in 2006, I’ve put together a list of the titles I think will get recognized.
Now, to be very clear, these are not necessarily the titles I want to win, so much as the titles I think will win. Over the years, I’ve noticed some trends in the lists, and I like to think I have some idea how libraries on a book committees tend to think, having served on several myself. The thing about awards committees is that they are always very contingent on the individual personalities involved. A committee with a different makeup will likely create a very different list. The general public consensus may gravitate towards one title but that does not mean it will win the biggest awards there are for children’s literature in America. (Remember, Charlotte’s Web failed to win the Newbery the year it came out.) At the end of the day, it all comes down to the vote! (And then, of course, the big reveal, at the ALA Youth Media Awards, which everyone can livestream here.
Right, right, right. . . the predictions!
The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
Draw by Raul Colon
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales
Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illus. Jon Klassen
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
The Riverman by Aaron Starmer
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
Poisoned Apples by Christine Hepperman
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn
(Also, a caveat: I have not necessarily read all of these titles. But I have read most of them!)
Can’t wait for Monday to find out who the real winners are. There are always some surprises that leave me scratching my head. . . and then immediately inter-library-loaning that book!
Every year for as long as I can remember, I’ve written down ten resolutions sometime during New Year’s Eve day. I don’t usually share or post them publicly. Instead, they live in my journals and planners. I’d be lying if they were something that I thought about consciously after the first couple days of the months; they’re usually the kinds of big picture things I’m always trying to improve about myself that I’m well aware I need to work on. (Yep, “floss more” is nearly always on the list.)
But every now and then, I get super specific. For example, last year I said I wanted to break 24 minutes in a 5k and sign up for a marathon. Those ones haunted me once I got past the winter months where how much I ran was dictated by how much snow and ice lurked on the sidewalks in my neighborhood. These resolutions seemed completely in my control and discrete. In March, I signed up for the Chicago Marathon lottery, and in April, I finally broke 24 minutes, on a nice flat 5k course. I wish I could say that the resolution alone was my motivation, but in the age of social media specific to everything, that wasn’t exactly the case. My husband and I have become obsessed with tracking our race times on Athlinks. So, just like I am obsessed with tracking everything I read on GoodReads, I am similarly obsessed with beating my personal records for various distances, proof that getting older does not mean getting slower.
Which brings me to GoodReads. Since 2010, I have tracked all of my reading using the popular social networking site. Since that year, though, my reading has continually declined from 311 books read (in 2010) down to a mere 111 in 2014.
I know, I know. The librarian in me still thinks:
But the writer in me is considering a different approach. Last year was the first year I was able to decide what I read in several years (2 years of service on the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults committee, plus 2 years of being a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts), and I so enjoyed being able to read what I wanted. That said, I found myself feeling a little burnt out on reading. Maybe it was the critical lens I’d picked up at school that I couldn’t quite let go, or maybe reading burn out is a real thing. All I know is this year, my reading resolution is to read for enjoyment and learning. To feel free to set a book aside if I’m not feeling it, instead of dragging myself through it just because I want to check of the “done” box on GoodReads.
My other reading resolution is to read more diverse books. I’ve been following the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign since it began and full-heartedly support it. As a librarian, I worked in several communities with such a strong need for diverse books and not enough published books that really met that need. But I think it’s also fair to say that as an upper-middle-class white woman, I wasn’t doing my best job at reading diverse books. I could do better, and in 2015, I hope I will.
So there they are: my reading resolutions for 2015:
Though the year hasn’t come to a close, we’ve certainly reached that time of the year where EVERYONE HAS A LIST ABOUT SOMETHING! The best books of 2014, the best albums of 2014, best films, best actors, etc. etc. Well, as a nerdy librarian, I must admit I craft my own such list every year. Ever since my first year as a teen librarian (2009), I have kept track of everything I read, using everything from the back of my planner to LibraryThing to GoodReads, always organized by year.
When I was a member of the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Committee, I read an obscene amount of books. (Or an amazing amount of books, if you want to think of it that way.) For those two years, I read more than 250 books per year. Um, that is insane. I also did pretty much nothing else besides read. (That’s what happens when you read that many books and they are not picture books, but ever-growing-in-girth YA novels.)
Since my time on the BFYA committee, I’ve been trying to focus my reading more on quality than quantity. I still read over 100 books a year, but not as many over 100 (106 for this year, as of today), and definitely not more than 150. (For the record, I do not count picture books; that would be too time-consuming given how long it takes to read them.)
Okay, stop rambling, Jenn, get to that list….
Best plane read of the year:
Isla and the Happily Ever after by Stephanie Perkins
Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn
Best tug-at-your-heart-strings middle grade:
Nest by Esther Ehrlich
Most incredible voice in a novel:
I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson
Best read everybody already knows about:
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
Favorite graphic novel:
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Favorite middle grade (unqualified):
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Favorite oldie but goodie:
A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin
Favorite book I read aloud in the car to my nephew:
The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
Favorite book that captured everything about being a teenager, by a brilliant voice lost too soon:
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Favorite adult fiction:
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Favorite early chapter book:
Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Only book I read this year that made the NYTimes top 100 (and top 10) books:
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
Best book I read that isn’t coming out until 2015:
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Lists of favorite books are always so subjective, and every year I finish with a towering TBR stack, never mind an ever-growing TBR list. So, tell me, what did I miss?
Before I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA, I didn’t have a writing community. I had friends who were willing to read my drafts, some of whom wrote, others that wanted to be helpful, but they didn’t exactly constitute a community. Or did they? What is a community, exactly?
When I ask Google (I mean, consult my handy dictionary) for a definition of “community,” this is what I get:
1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
That definition captures what I was looking for and what I had created by the time I left graduated from VCFA. The writers I met in Vermont didn’t exactly come from the same place. If anything, they came from ALL OVER THE PLACE. My classmates came from Hawaii, Connecticut, Utah, Arizona, and beyond–they were scattered across the country. But they did have a few characteristics in common: they loved children’s books and they wrote children’s books. They didn’t ask if someday I was going to write a “real book.” (Though, like me, they were asked that question by others!) Like me, they regularly read more children’s books than adult book every year. They cared about the Newbery awards as much–or more than–the Oscars. They read The Horn Book. They valued, deeply valued, the craft of writing for ages 0-18. Every bit as much as I did.
The sense of fellowship came naturally with this group, especially with my graduating class at VCFA. (VCFA is very class-centric. I graduated in January ’14 with the M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s. We’re also really into naming our classes; it’s one of our many traditions.) Those two years of graduate school bonded us as we further developed our interests. Whether we chose to focus on picture books or middle grade or young adult or poetry, we stayed close because we were all approaching these interests with the same level of intensity, the same seriousness of study.
Almost a year after graduation, I’ve found that the bonds only continue to grow. My graduating class from VCFA has vowed to organize annual retreats, the first of which led me to Park City, Utah, this past September. For five days, we talked craft, discussed books and movies, cooked dinner for each other, entertained guest writers, and oh yes–that other thing we do–we wrote. It was in Park City, at our very own writing retreat, that I had major breakthroughs about a new project, a YA novel, that I was just beginning. I left invigorated, refreshed, but most of all, happy and exhausted in a way I hadn’t quite felt since middle school sleepovers. Now, that’s community.
Hundreds to thousands of miles don’t stop us from being a community. Not at all. While there are days when I realize I have spent way too much time on Facebook or texting or Twitter, I realize that I have an legitimate excuse. I’m staying in touch with my writer friends.
VCFA probably won’t be my only writing community–I’m always interested in meeting writers that live nearby, and I’m starting to connect with other members of the Sweet Sixteens. But it’ll always be the first place I found my people, where I felt at home.
It’s fairly common for books to have titles drawn from a phrase somewhere in the book. I personally struggle to find titles for what I’m working on, always secretly hoping the right phrase will crop up later and work as a the perfect title. But while there are some phrases that make great titles, there others that make pretty terrible titles.
So, here at my eight terrible titles, chosen at random from my book:
1. I’ll Tell Him
2. Over the Plan
3. We Gotta Get Food Now
4. So White and Clean
5. A’s in Art
6. Folks This Summer
7. He Brought Flowers
8. Empty and Wrong
Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d buy a book called We Gotta Get Food Now. Empty and Wrong sounds a little too depressing though.
Now, I’m going to tag some of my author friends to share their #8TerribleTitles. Here’s how it works: open your manuscript, scroll for a bit without looking and stop. Pull out whatever phrase your cursor is on. Do this 8 times and then share your list. Even non-writers can play – just grab the nearest book, pull out random phrases as alternate titles, and tag some friends to pass it on. Who knows, maybe you’ll stumble across a great title!
It’s hard to tell when this story begins. Was it in college, when I first started writing fiction, which was heavily (and I do mean heavily) drawn from my own life? Or was it a few years later, when I realized that in order to really tell a story, I need to let any fictionalized realities go and start from scratch with a blank page and people I only met in my head?
I first started querying back in 2009 — 2009! — with the first YA book I ever wrote, which grew out of my creative thesis from undergrad. Should I have queried this book? Okay, in hindsight probably no, but I did, and in the process learned a lot about querying. I learned what agents were interested in, I learned how to write a query letter, I sort of maybe learned how to write a synopsis (still not sure I have that down pat), and I read a bajillion writing blogs.
After a lot of full requests (and a lot of full rejections), I shelved that book and NaNoWriMo-ed a new YA novel in 2009, which I then revised and eventually queried in 2010-2011. I felt like I was back on the merry-go-round, as I again got a bunch of full requests but still, no agent.
I was close — receiving personalized responses from several agents — but still something was missing, and without a writing community, I didn’t know how to close the gap myself. That’s when I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts, which I attended from winter 2012 to winter 2014. In those two years, I learned so much about the craft of writing, all the while working on three different novels, one MG, one YA, and one that couldn’t decide if it was MG or YA.
While I was still at VCFA, I started querying my third book, this time: a middle grade novel (which I wrote during the program), the very first I’d ever written. I started sending out queries right before Christmas 2012. Like the previous times, I was getting full requests and a variety of responses (but no offers), so I kept chugging along, researching agents in my free time and adding their info to my ever-growing spreadsheet. For each book I queried, I kept a detailed spreadsheet with agent names, agency, materials sent, date queried, date requested, and response. Having all of this data available was super useful for me, as it helped me see the big picture and have all the information I could possibly need, not knowing how long this journey was going to take.
In April, a couple months after I’d sent her a query, I received a full request from the agent who would ultimately become my agent. But I didn’t know this then! I sent off the full and kept on querying because, well, I was basically a querying machine at this point. I was determined that this time, it was going to happen, and as each rejection came through, out went another query. Having read so many writer blog posts about how many queries it sometimes took to find an agent (especially with a more literary story), I was not afraid to rack up more rejections!
And then, the week before my wedding, I received an intriguing email from an agent who’d had my full for a few months, Katie Grimm. She acknowledged that quite a bit of time had passed since she requested the book, and she was… oh boy, she was saying lots of nice things about my book. But also talking about revisions. That sounded fine. More and more agents are editorial these days and that was to be expected. She wanted to talk on the phone the next week. The week of my wedding. Um, yikes! And right after the wedding, I was going to head off to Costa Rica for my honeymoon!
But Monday, right before I left for Costa Rica. That could work. There was a flurry of emails and it was set. Monday. If it wasn’t for that whole wedding thing, I would have been freaking out, but luckily the wedding had all of my attention. Alas, on Monday, Katie was sick and didn’t go into work, so the phone call was pushed back to when I returned from my honeymoon, right around the Fourth of July, when publishing basically shuts down. And then, oh yes, residency at VCFA was lined up next. Finally, that was over and Katie and I finally, finally, finally connected on the phone. We talked about her ideas for revisions, I learned more about the agency, etc. etc. I’m pretty sure I drank a few glasses of water out of nerves. And somewhere in all of that, it happened. She offered!!!!
I gave the other agents that had my full manuscript a week to respond, but in the end, it really wasn’t a contest, and on August 2, 2013, I signed the agency agreement with Don Congdon Associates.
I may or may not have also told people I was one step closer to becoming BFFs with David Sedaris (who is also repped by DCA). Still waiting on that….
So how long did it take? Well, from very first query ever sent to signing an agency contract: about four years. But for this project (what will be my debut middle grade novel): about eight months.
The biggest lesson from all of this? Be patient. And always, always, always, keep writing the next book. Because you really don’t know how many it’s going to take, and you always have more stories in you.
I can’t be the first writer to compare writing a book for training to and running a marathon, but as of last week, I can at least say I’m qualified to write about it. It’s been a week and a day since I ran the Chicago Marathon, my first marathon (and probably not my last). The soreness is gone, I can walk like a human again, and I’m down a few toenails, but the memories are a strong as ever.
It’s hard to describe what it felt like to round the corner onto Columbus Dr and see that the finish line was in sight, but maybe it’s fair to say that it felt a little like sitting on the beach at Watch Hill, and seeing my agent’s name on my cell phone (she only calls with good news). The end was in sight, or sort of. Because of course, I soon learned that selling the book was one of the many steps toward seeing that book in print, toward holding it in my arms like a baby and sniffing it. (No I haven’t been able to do this yet, but heck yeah, I plan to.)
The thing about writing a book and running a marathon is that anyone can do it, but only some of us ever do. It takes training and persistence and grit and time, always time. There are things you can control (lacing your sneakers and going out there whether you feel like it or not, getting your butt in the chair day after day) and things you can’t (the weather on race day, the cover your book eventually gets, who is assigned to review it). At the end of the day, all you can do is put in your best work, your best effort and put your faith behind that.
As I toed the start line (okay, as I stood in my place in the middle of corral F wondering if I should’ve stopped by the porta potties), I couldn’t help but ponder this one piece of wisdom that Bart Yasso shared at the previous day’s shakeout run. Run the mile you’re in. Well, duh. Pretty hard to run the mile you already ran. Or the mile ahead of you. But of course he was right, so completely right. It’s so easy to look back–at failures, mistakes, the things we wished we could change–and so easy too, to look forward, to gaze into the future trying to figure anything out. It’s hard to stay in the moment. And it’s that way with writing, too. I’m always fighting that inclination to go back, fix the work from the previous day, previous week. Or to jump ahead. To get so lost in all the things I still have to do for the piece that I’m simply overwhelmed.
Run the mile you’re in. That was my mantra for the race. As the crowds cheering us on and the thousands of runners around me distracted, made me forget the pace I had practiced, in all those long solo runs, running around and around a nearby pond, I came back to that one line. Run the mile you’re in. It’s that way with writing too. Write the sentence you’re in. The paragraph. The page. The scene. The chapter. That’s all you can do. All you have control over. That blank page in front of you. Everything else falls away as you focus in.
As I’ve spent the last week sitting on my butt (I mean, recovering), I’ve been trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned from marathon training to writing. Putting in the time. Accepting the results. Not every run is perfect. The first mile can be rough, but that doesn’t mean you won’t end up cruising, flying on that third mile, or as I surprised myself to find sometimes, that thirteenth or seventeenth mile. Same goes for writing. A tough start to the session can yield amazing gems, words you didn’t know were in you, revelations in a scene you couldn’t have anticipated before planting that butt in that chair.