Monday, September 30, 2013

Taking Leaps! (September Theme) by Christine Brodien-Jones

1.      Leaping into book festivals and fun author events
      My favorite way to connect with enthusiastic young readers!
      This September I took part in the awesome Warwick Children’s Book Festival at the elementary school in Warwick, NY.  Next I’ll be at the “Inside Story” event at the Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley MA, where traditionally-published authors and illustrators will share the "inside story" behind their recent publications.  

2.      Leaping into a new manuscript~
The scariest part of writing: that blank page in front of you!  I’m working on a new middle-grade thriller fantasy set in Galicia, Spain – which means diving into Galician mythology, studying the art of gargoyle-carving and delving into all things Spanish and medieval.      
3.      Leaping into the pages of a well-loved book~
        Providing I could have a dæmon of my own, I’d happily spend a day with Lyra Belacqua, the feisty heroine of The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. I’m willing to jump into the pages at any point: spying on the Jordan College scholars, traveling with the Gyptians on their narrow boat or journeying to the far north to confront witch clans and armored polar bears. Maybe Lyra would teach me how to read her mysterious alethiometer. How cool would that be?     

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Taking the Leap September Theme (Jen Cervantes)

So I know I’ve told you all about jumping into YA head first (and yes, it took a leap of faith too). That was a little over a year ago. On September 3, I sent the completed YA manuscript to my agent. There were times I didn’t think I’d finish. 
There were times I had no idea where the characters or the story were going. 
There were times I wanted to give up and start something new (because that’s so much more fun than the muddled middle). 
But this story, these characters grabbed me and didn’t let go. I admit I haven’t done any writing since I sent off the ms. But I’ve done lots of thinking, and mulling over new ideas.  Nothing has quite stuck yet. I think it’s because my heart is still buried in NORTH (tentative title). But this is the best part of the process for me—the part where I get to dream and imagine, knowing when inspiration strikes, I'll take the leap again.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Writing Myself by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

I'm jumping into September feeling a, and it's uncomfortable. I think of my public self as an author of fiction, but this month I have two nonfiction publications out, work in which I wrote I hate talking about myself, and in OPEN MIC: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, edited by Mitali Perkins, not only do I talk about myself, I talk about my teen self, which was as awkward as you might imagine. In Luke Reynolds' BREAK THESE RULES, I share an idea that has guided me since childhood days -- that in a world when we are often told to constantly speak up and shout out, there is a special value in listening, paying attention -- and *then* speaking up in the way most authentic for ourselves.

So it's a little weird, putting myself, not a character, "out there" like that, but I know it's good. I believe that good writing should involve discomfort. Letting one's world be shaken up a little. Developing a new perspective from exposure to new people, ideas, and things. From trying, and failing, and trying again.

So, I'm working on the next thing. It's a bit of a mess right now, and it's way uncomfortable. But writing autobiographically allowed me to reflect in ways that I already see have benefited my fiction.  And that's exciting.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Easing In by Laurie Calkhoven

I know the September theme is jumping in, but once again I am a contrarian.  It’s not that I’m not capable of big, bold moves—I’ve made them—but it’s not my normal modus operandi.  Even getting into a pool, it’s rare for me to take a leap into the deep end.  I ease in, standing on my tiptoes to keep the cold water off my stomach until the very last moment, and only then do I plunge in.

A lot of people were shocked when I quit my job to be a full-time writer (ten years ago now). I hadn’t yet sold my first novel, but being a writer without a day job was always a someday dream for me. I envisioned it, I planned for it, and I saved for it. I had enough money in the bank to get me through the first six months or so, and I did research into the kinds of freelance writing jobs that were available to writers. And so when I auditioned to ghostwrite a middle grade series for an entertainment company—and won—I made the leap.  At the time it felt like a big, bold move, but I was ready.  And when the project fell apart (a long story…), that bank account gave me the space I needed to start a healthy freelance career.

I’m the same way with new book ideas.  I don’t get an idea and start writing immediately.  That doesn’t work for me.  I have to lay the groundwork.  I do research.  I do lots and lots of mediations to learn about my characters and what they want. I brainstorm scene lists to get a general idea of the plot.  I need to know my opening scene and my final wrap up scene (even if they change down the road). Only then do I take the plunge.

I’m a believer in the phrase leap and the net will appear. But I also believe in meeting the universe half way. So I can be slow to get started, but once I do, I can’t be stopped.


We were removing a stump from our yard when my dog Jake shouted, "Okay, everybody back!  I'll show you how to dig!"  He then jumped straight into the hole and started digging away.

(We were all trying so hard not to laugh...Jake's so serious about his hole-making!)

...I love the way he just plunges right in, though.  Fearless, that boy is.  There's a lesson in that, I think...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Monthly Theme: Jumping Back in to Querying

Stephanie J. Blake

I started writing in 2006. THE MARBLE QUEEN sold in June 2010. The book came out in December 2012. I was unagented and had practically given up on it ever happening for me. I put all of my hopes and dreams on that one manuscript and it was hard work bringing it into the world. I've worked hard this year on promotion. It's been quite the ride!

I made so many mistakes that first time around. I was impatient. I was naïve and stubborn. Perhaps, I wasn't ready to make writing a priority.

For two years I've been working on something new. I am finally ready to find an agent. My query letter is polished. I'm making a list (and checking it twice). I've sent out a couple of queries.

Here's the pitch.

Meet Violet Betterton, an eleven-year old tomboy whose predictable life changes drastically after her father marries a not-so-wicked step-mother, and when a strange girl shows up and claims she’s an imaginary friend.

Jumping back in is scary. It feels like I'm starting from scratch in so many ways.

It's a good thing September is my favorite month! It's the perfect time to start over.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Smack Dab in the Classroom : by Dia Calhoun

I am pleased to offer the first in a series of posts exploring how to use middle grade books in your class or reading group. Over the next year, on the 23rd day of each month, I’ll offer my own ideas on this topic, as well as those of other authors, teachers, and librarians.

This week, I explore a way to get kids more involved with the story, using the example of my middle grade novel After the River the SunFirst, a brief synopsis:

City-boy Eckhart loves books and video games about King Arthur’s knights. After his parents drown in the Snake River, Eckhart must move to Eastern Washington to live on an orchard with his crusty Uncle Al. There Eckhart steps out of a video-game fantasy world of knights and monsters into a real-life quest for family, home, and courage.

Eckhart looks at challenges that come his way through the lenes of the knights he wishes to emulate, especially Sir Gawain. One example is this section where Uncle Al wants Eckhart to learn to drive the tractor, but Eckhart is scared of the enormous machine.

Eckhart stared at the tractor.
It was huge,
with two enormous wheels in back
and two smaller wheels in front.
Dials plastered the dashboard
liked goggling eyes.
Gear shifts sprouted upwards,
and hoses sprang out like tentacles.
It looked like a big green monster.
Eckhart didn’t want to get on it—
not one bit.
Then he thought of Sir Gawain.
What would Gawain do?
He had faced the Green Knight
and the monstrous giant Gormundus.
Wasn’t the tractor
really a kind of green Gormundus?

[Page 151]

Like the knights he admires, Eckhart is on several different quests throughout the novel. Discuss with your class or reading group Eckhart’s many quests. For each one, have students:

1. Name the quest.
2.  Identify the goal and why it’s important.
3.  Identify Eckhart’s method for achieving it.
4. Identify and discuss the ultimate resolution.

Be sure to include the following quests and go as far beyond this list as your class takes you: 

 The quest for home

 The quest to win the Green Knight video game

 The quest for courage

 The task of clearing the old orchard and, then replanting the new orchard

 The quest to atone for his parents’ deaths

Which other characters have quests (or goals)? Have the class name them and talk about how they go about achieving their goals.

For more ideas on how to use After the River the Sun in your classroom or reading group, find a complete, free classroom guide here:

Friday, September 20, 2013


I was lucky enough to get to read Bobbi Miller's BIG RIVER'S DAUGHTER recently.  I'm a sucker for a strong voice, and this book has that in spades.  It also has plenty of adventure and will make an instant history enthusiast out of any young reader.  Promise.  I'm delighted that Bobbi's here to tell us more about the book:

“Big River’s Daughter” is described as being “Huck Finn meets ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’” I’m really intrigued. Tell us more.

That was the pitch that my editor, Pam Glauber, used to sell the manuscript to the other editors and marketing at Holiday House. I love that description! Who doesn’t love Mark Twain? And in fact, I read through many of Twain’s works while working on this story to get a sense of river life.

“This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.” 

So says River Fillian as she begins to tell her story. My book is an historical American fantasy, a blend of the tall tale tradition that captures so much of the American identity, and a unique form of fantasy. Tall tales, epitomized in the exploits of Annie Christmas and Mike Fink (two important characters in River’s life),  were the means by which people dealt with their insecurities when faced with a new life on a new strange and alien land. These characters were larger than life for a reason: they could by sheer size and force of will take on the overwhelming challenges of life,  and win. Even their language was as wild and unabashed as the circumstance and landscape that created these characters.

River is the daughter of the  Mississippi River pirate king. When her father disappears after the horrific earthquake, her world is literally turned upside down. Rescued by Annie Christmas, River must face pirates and outlaws who hope to claim her father's territory.  Like Huck Finn on his great journey down the big muddy, River’s journey is a rough-and-tumble adventure as she searches to find her place on the Mississippi.

Annie Christmas is one of the original heroines in African American folklore. Her tales were a favorite of the Creoles (persons of mixed Spanish, French, and African ancestry) and the American blacks in pre-Civil War southern Louisiana and Mississippi River region. Annie Christmas not only defies the social order that defined  New Orleans of the time, she soon defies that social ordering on the big river to become a respected  keeler captain. An important symbol in her story is her pearl necklace. Each pearl, a symbol of her power,  is a tribute paid by one who challenged her authority and was bested.

The tall tale figure of Mike Fink also finds a place in River’s story. Based on a real person, he is notorious for his sense of humor and for his willingness to fight. Of course, the one person he could not best is Annie Christmas.

Just as it does in the tall tale tradition, the landscape itself is an important character in my story. After all, it was the near incomprehensible vastness, the extraordinary fertility and the natural peculiarities of the land that inspired the tall-talk grounded in humor of extravagance and exaggeration. River’s story takes place on the mighty Mississippi  River in a time when the big river was considered the edge of civilization, the frontier. The American frontier is the most significant event in American history. While everyone is familiar with the wild west and its hallmark character, the cowboy, the frontier began when the English colonial settled here in the early 17th century and ended when the last of the mainland territories became states in the early 20th century. The frontier is that archetypal symbol that designates the wild area beyond the edge of civilized life.  It’s that ‘other’ place where anything can happen.

Beyond that edge of civilization was a place full of outlaws and pirates. It was the hiding place of Jean Laffite and his brother Pierre. The Brothers Laffites plundered British and Spanish ships for anything they could sell, including slaves. At one point, they were the most powerful buccaneers of the Caribbean.

This was also an extraordinary time in American history. We were embroiled in the War of 1812. While the War of Independence set us free of British rule, the War of 1812, what some historians call the second war of independence, ultimately defined us as a force in world power. My story is grounded in many historical personalities, such as the Laffites, as well as events. In December 1811, a series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi  River basin. Three of these earthquakes would have measured at magnitude of 8.0 on the modern-day Richter scale. Six others would have measured between 7.0 and 7.5. The quakes were felt as far away as Canada. It shook so hard, it forced the Mississippi River to run backwards, changing the very landscape. It also sets into motion River’s story.

What was the inspiration? Any life experience involved here?

Well, my dad wasn’t a river pirate, and I never rode a keeler down the Mississippi (although I did take a Windjammer cruise on the oldest wooden ship still on the job). But you know, fiction is primarily an emotional exchange, one that carries certain kernels of emotional truth. An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, all stories are true. Not necessarily factual, but certainly true to what it means to be human.

I’ve long studied American folklore.  In fact, I earned my MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College, and was awarded honors with distinction for my Master of Arts in Children’s Literature degree from Simmons College in Boston, in which both times I studied the folklore process in children’s literature. Children’s literature at that time showcased the best storytellers of the genre, including Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin and Aaron Shepard, among many others.  Folklore was a stable in picturebook collections. Because of economic and technological changes, the market shifted dramatically. Writers had to find a way to adapt.  I moved to middle grade fiction. My studies in folklore grounded my own sense in voice. Of course, style and voice are related but they are not necessarily the same. A writer’s style includes those familiar devices as word choices, sentence structure, description, rhythm and so on. Rising out of these stylistic devices comes a writer's voice. You can say style without voice is hollow, but a voice without style is pretty darn bland!

I’m also an avid student of American history. David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate…We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed…If you don’t care about it –if you’ve inherited some great fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it – you’re going to lose it…” 

History is literature, McCullough says. And our history is full of amazing stories.

Our readers are always interested in the path each book takes to publication. Tell us about your own ups and downs.

Getting Big River’s Daughter followed a similar meandering as the big river itself. And it included torrential rains and raging riptides!

I graduated in 2001, armed with my second master’s degree and a four-book contract. As River would say, “Who-op!” But, as much as I knew about story, I knew nothing of the business of children’s publishing. And it is foremost, a business.

I signed on with the first agent who would help me with the multi-contracts. What I didn’t realize is that an agent/writer relationship is akin to marriage. While this agent helped seal the deal with the contracts, other issues arose. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out. I was referred to another agent, and more problems arose. It turned out that the contracts contained a couple of damaging clauses. According to this new agent, I couldn’t submit work elsewhere and she couldn’t renegotiate the clauses. The relationship ended, of course. Meanwhile, I went to Author’s Guild, learned what I had to in order to understand these clauses and then renegotiated the particular clauses myself.

My first two books came out in 2009, eight years after signing the contract. The third book came out in 2012, eleven years after signing the contract. The fourth contract, however, was cancelled. It turns out, all this is routine in the business of publishing. Thankfully, I had a strong circle of friends, in particular Eric Kimmel and Marion Dane Bauer, who understood that business side of things and shared their wisdom and support.

But there was yet another, stronger riptide of a lesson I had to steer through. Beginning in 2001, the children’s market was changing dramatically. The folklore picturebook market bottomed out. The very thing that I had studied for, loved, and wanted to define my career was no longer an option. What the heck do I do now? Eric said, write middle grade books.

The challenge became in combining all that I had learned and loved in folklore with this new format. For a while, it was a hit and miss. Of course, as hindsight reveals, I was actually refining my skills. Finally I had this manuscript. By now, I was unsure if it even fit in a market that no longer viewed folklore as relevant. Even historical fiction was having a hard time.

And that’s when I learned my greatest lesson. Here’s what happened:

I met Emma Dryden via Facebook, when she was describing her recent experience as a passenger on a Windjammer cruise – the very one I had gone on! I’ve known about Emma for decades: she’s legendary in the field. It turns out, she had just started her own business, drydenbks. I signed up, asking her a crucial question: do I still have a chance? Where do I fit in now?

And of course, Dumbledore that she is, she helped clarify my thinking and create a plan that would help me achieve my goals. A business plan!

And part of that plan included an introduction to agent Karen Grencik, who – it turns out – just started a new agency. And this time, I wasn’t shy about asking questions, even dumb ones. And I knew: she’s the one.

One month later, Karen sold Big River’s Daughter to Holiday House. Three months after that, she sold my second middle grade novel, Girls of Gettysburg, also to Holiday House. The big lesson I learned: Patience. Everything happens for a reason at the time they are supposed to happen.

I love writing middle grade novels, and I would never have discovered that if events hadn’t unfolded as they did. I love my agent, and I could not have met her sooner because she was busy elsewhere. And likewise, I love Emma Dryden, which I would never have met if not for that Windjammer cruise.

So as River plunges into the wilds of the frontier, taking on the Pirates Laffite and the extraordinary landscape of the mighty river herself, in a rough and tumble Big River’s Daughter, there is that truth of River’s journey: if one perseveres,  life can be full of possible imaginations.

For a wonderful educator’s guide on how to use Big River’s Daughter in the classroom, see:

For an interesting discussion on folklore in children’s literature, see the conversation between writers, editors and librarians at:

For more about voice, see the conversation between some of the best writers and editors in the business, including Eric Kimmel, Kathi Appelt, Cheryl Klein, Emma Dryden, Adam Gidwitz, Louise Hawes and others at:

Finally, for a conversation that explores why historical fiction is important, see:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

“If you do what you’ve always done . . . “ (September theme) by Claudia Mills

I have been writing and publishing books for young readers for a long time. I’ve published picture books, easy readers, chapter books, middle-grade novels. I’ve written books about girls. I’ve written books about boys. But despite these differences in form and focus, all the books are realistic, contemporary school/family stories that have a certain recognizable voice, style, and sensibility. They are easily identifiable as products of the same pen.

This year, for the first time, I’ve written a book that is different. It’s a time travel story: fantasy! The children go back to different periods of the past: history! There isn’t a single school scene anywhere in the book from start to finish. Instead, the children (and their dog) have action-packed adventures, saving the family store from robbery, fire, foreclosure, and Walmart (!). It’s completely unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Good thing. It’s always good to stretch and grow as writers, correct? To stretch and grow is by definition to go someplace you haven’t gone before, to venture into uncharted territory. I felt my plotting skills improve as I tackled this more action-driven story. I had the joy of doing research, gobbling up books on Indiana history from the Underground Railroad to the wild ride of John Dillinger. And of course I harbor the hope that this book, the book unlike any of my others, will be the book with reviews and sales unlike any of my others: my immortal classic! After all, as the adage goes, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

Bad thing. The book may be unpublishable. I may have spent a year of my life lavishing love on a project that will never attract any readers at all. Publishers value authors in part as a “brand” – they want the consistency that will lead readers who liked a book to seek a second book by that author and enjoy it for the same reasons they enjoyed the first. Put in less commercial terms, choreographer Twyla Tharp in her brilliant book The Creative Habit says that we all have our own “creative DNA” – “strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations. . . They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.” In writing this departure book, I may have lost sight of who I am as a writer.

The jury is still out on this one. The six other members of my writing group just read the manuscript. Four of them liked it, one saying it is my best book yet. One disliked it; one actually hated it. The one who hated it said (in addition to many valid criticisms about plot and characterization): “This book lacks all the features that make something a Claudia Mills book.” Hmm. By doing something other than what I’ve always done, I want to get more than I’ve always gotten, not less!

I think what I need to do now is put the manuscript away for a while. Let it sit. Let it simmer. When I return to it in a few months, with fresh eyes (and a less-invested ego), I may see how to blend old and new, how to do something radically different that still expresses my creative DNA and reflects my unique identity as a writer. Maybe I’ll figure out how to make this artistic leap without bounding off the trampoline altogether.