Monday, December 29, 2014

Evaluating 2014 Goals

With the end of 2014 quickly approaching, this is the time of year I know many people like to look back at their goals for the year and see how they’ve done. The only problem is, I wrote mine in January on a scrap piece of paper, and only looked at them once between then and now. Thankfully I didn’t lose the paper! And while I know this was not a very effective use of my goals, as I glanced at them I realized there was another inherent problem. And maybe you can spot the issue.
  1. Help Others
  2. Write
  3. Edit
  4. Get an agent
  5. HAVE FUN!
Aside from the extra excited HAVE FUN!, most of those are admirable goals and also ones I managed to accomplish. I spent a lot of this year helping others by critiquing queries and manuscripts, and I also mentored many new hires as work. I didn’t write as much as I would have liked as I had a lot of life getting in the way this year, but I have written some new words. I’ve also edited A LOT. I went through several revisions with my YA Sci Fi/Thriller, and I’m now finally in the query trenches with it. And on the fun bit, I’ve had a lot of that this year; I got engaged, we went to Dragon Con, I watched many of my friends sign with agents and release new books and there was much celebration in between a lot of crazy.
So where is the problem? It’s with goal number 4. “Get an Agent”. It’s a great goal, but there’s an issue. That’s a goal that is a bit out of my control. Sure I can do things to support that goal, like writing a great book, editing the heck out of it, and actively staying in the query trenches, but at the end of the day, getting an agent involves some outside interest that I can’t control.

That’s something to consider when looking at your goals and what you’ve accomplished this year. Be mindful of the kind of goals you had. Recognize what you had control over and what you didn’t. And don’t beat yourself up for the things outside of your control. I know I’m not going to.
The end of the year is a time to celebrate accomplishments, and I’m sure we all did some seriously awesome stuff this year. So throw yourself a mini dance party or whatever kind of celebration you prefer and enjoy it. And next year when you set your goals, think about those which will be in your control and which won’t.

What goals did you accomplish this year? And what goals do you hope to accomplish next year?

Happy Holidays and see you in 2015!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Awesome Author Interview: Natalie Lloyd!

Here's a fun question: how in the world can you write a blog to post on the day after Christmas and expect anyone to pay attention or read any more than the first two lines? about by interviewing an awesome MG author about her extraordinary debut novel? You bet.
Looking back on 2015 – a truly stellar year for middle grade literature – one debut stands out for me as an especially original, fresh, scrumptious read. A SNICKER OF MAGIC, by Natalie Lloyd, is such a rare gem. What is it about? Well, everything – friendship, loss, love, magic, healing, grieving, home, forgiveness. Like the ice cream cone on the cover, A SNICKER OF MAGIC has got a delicious scoop of everything. The novel was an absolutely stunning debut – it got three starred reviews from professional publications, and deserved every one.
If you are a lover of middle grade fiction and somehow did not sink your teeth into A SNICKER OF MAGIC this year, do yourself a favor and make reading that book a New Year's resolution for 2015.
Natalie Lloyd graciously agreed to sit down during this busy, frantic time of year and give us the gift of an interview. It's one I'm sure you'll enjoy unwrapping!

DG: With your beautiful debut coming out, 2014 must have been quite a year for you! What were some of the favorite moments or experiences you got to unwrap this year?

NL: Thanks for such a kind compliment, and for inviting me to drop in on the blog! I’m so grateful for this year. It’s been scattered full of magical moments. It’s hard to narrow them down to a few, but connecting with readers (especially young readers) has been the sweetest experience for me. I’m amazed at the ways they take the story into their hearts. While I was Skyping with a group of students, one little girl told me she drew Oliver’s bird tattoo on her wrist when she needed to feel brave. Another reader told me that the story gave her confidence. I get emails and letters from students asking me if they can be the Beedle (YES!), or telling me they’ve decided to be the Beedle in their school. Rebecca Zarazan Dunn, the whimsical and magical children’s librarian at the Chattanooga Library, even started a Beedle Society with her readers. They all go around doing sweet, anonymous good deeds just like the Beedle in the Midnight Gulch. I’m blown away by all of that. Anytime readers take the time to write and tell me they enjoyed the book, I’m overwhelmed by that too.

I’m going to get a little bit more sappy, since we’re all daydreamers around here, and talk about my parents. Giving them a hardback copy of the book was a moment I’ll never forget. They always believed it would happen, even when I didn’t.

DG: Middle grade is a wonderful challenge to write. What for you are the best parts about writing for the middle grade audience, and what are the biggest challenges?

NL: I like writing characters who are brave and nerdy and still sensitive to magic in the world around them. I remember feeling vulnerable and shy and weird back in middle school (true confession: I still feel that way). But I was also less cynical. I think I was more likely to see hope fluttering at the edge of a situation. From a word-nerd perspective, I also love the voice and flow of language in middle grade novels. And truly, there is no group of readers I would rather write for. Middle grade students are smart and funny and kind.

As far as challenges, my goodness, there are so many for me! I’d kind of hoped that after A Snicker of Magic was published, I would have a better idea of how to patch a story together without going through a zillion drafts. But it takes many drafts for me to know my character’s voice, and to really find the heart of what my character wants.

DG: When you were a middle grade kiddo, what book would you have been most excited to find under the tree?

NL: I remember the year my parents gave me the Anne of Green Gables books. I have loved and adored them ever since. And I’ve always kept them on the shelf where I can see them. Those pastel spines are pretty crinkled with love now. I love visiting Green Gables.

DG: What recent book would you buy this year as a gift for a middle grade reader?

NL: I’m giving Jenni Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish to my 10 year old nephew for Christmas. It’s a unique, brainy novel that weaves the magic of science and the magic of family into this tale that sticks, sticks, sticks to your heart forever. It’s a snappy read, full of depth and heart. Cece Bell’s El Deafo is another book I plan on giving as a gift many times over. That’s a fitting way to describe El Deafo; it’s such a gift of a book. I’m also super excited for next year when I can start gifting The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart to readers.

DG: New Year's is coming up! If you had to recommend one "resolution" to an aspiring middle grade author to make 2015 a breakthrough writing year for them, what would it be?

NL: I’ve always done a dumpy job of keeping resolutions. But if I could offer up a few shiny bits of encouragement, little sparklers that I remind myself of often, they’d be: Take take the time to fill up your heart with whatever inspires you. When you’re with your family and friends, really be in the moment with them.

Set aside time to write - not to tweet or Facebook or read about publishing or read about writing. Get the whole mess of your words on a page and see what treasures you find there.
I’ve discovered it’s very healthy for me to limit my time online, or on social media, or even to take breaks from time to time.
Take care of yourself, physically and mentally.
And be brave, and put your heart back out there again. Most breakthrough moments seem to come after long, hard seasons of trying. And trying again. And then trying some more. The process of publishing can be so heartbreaking that it’s easy to forget what you love about writing. Remember that you have more stories inside you. And that you aren’t too old to be published. You haven’t missed your chance. Kick the inner-critic in the shins and write what you love. Keep writing. Don’t give up.

DG: Finally...what's on the frontier for you for 2015? Are you working on anything right now that you could tell us about?

NL: Thanks for asking! The paperback version of A Snicker of Magic will be out in 2015, which is exciting. I’m also revising my next novel, which will be out in Spring of 2016. I can’t say too much about it yet (not because I’m all cagey that way; I just end up changing a lot during revisions). But it’s a story about a brave girl, a singing ghost, a buried treasure and hot chocolate. I’ve had a blast writing it, and I can’t wait for readers to meet these new characters.

DG: Thanks so much, Natalie!

NL: Thank you for inviting me, Dan! And thank you for your beautiful book.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Gift of Reading

We start each morning in my class with a discussion question, giving the students a chance to warm into the beginning of the day. Since we’re nearing the end of the calendar year, a lot of the questions I’ve given them lately have been different types of reflections: The best day they had in 2014, games they learned or invented at recess, new friends they made...that sort of thing.

One day last week I asked them what had been the best book they’d read all year. Many of them listed off different titles from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. They’ve been popular reads in class, particularly with the English language learners who use the illustrations to assist them with unfamiliar text. When I ask what they like about their favorite Wimpy Kid books, they’ll usually say how funny they are, sometimes retelling favorite moments or describing favorite characters. And I totally get this. I love Wimpy Kid. Manny, in particular, slays me every time he appears on the page. For years I kept a sticker of the infamous cheese on my classroom phone to discourage kids from asking to make calls unless they really, really needed to. It’s hard to beat Wimpy Kid for big laughs.

But one little guy was insistent on telling us about a book he read from the “I Survived” series, set during World War II. With very little prompting, he launched into a mini-dissertation about the book like it was opened right in front of him instead of something he had read months earlier. I just sat there smiling and took in all of his excited description.

I think for kids, most books end up in one of two categories: The ones that keep them entertained, and the ones that give them something to think about. (I suppose this isn’t so different for adults.) I love seeing my students get caught up in a book. It becomes a companion, traveling with them throughout the day, tucked into whatever pile of binders or notebooks or folders they might need, always at the ready in case a stray minute of potential reading time ever presents itself. They’ll bring their books home with them at night and back to school the next morning. Sometimes they’ll go through them several times before moving on to something new, and come back to them after reading something else. It can reach a point where it’s fair to say they have relationships with the books they love.

A popular theme in middle grade fiction involves characters discovering some kind of portal or gateway that leads them away from their everyday struggles and into fantastical new worlds. I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for when kids lose themselves in books they love, and I think every kid deserves a chance to find their way into getting lost like that. As a send-off into winter break, my teaching partner and I will be passing out a December book club form we never sent home and letting each student choose any book from it they want, under a certain price range. (Don’t be too quick to tag us as generous; we’re only sacrificing some of the thousands of book club bonus points we have stored up to do this.) Our plan is to have the kids pick their books on the last day before break and make our orders right away, then have the new books waiting on the first day back in January. Hopefully this will lessen the sting of having to go back to school when break is over. I know it would for me.

I think anyone who would find their way to a blog about reading and writing is familiar with that feeling of opening a book you’ve been looking forward to and quickly losing yourself in the first few pages. Maybe it was something you were looking forward to reading, or maybe it just caught your attention and wound up eventually changing your life. There are so many kids out there waiting for their next chance -- or perhaps even their first chance -- to experience that. Hopefully some of those kids will wind up with new books to read in the coming weeks, and those books will lead them to others.

This is all the more reason for us keep up with the writing, folks. There are a lot of great stories out there for those middle graders to devour, but when they finish those they’ll be looking for more.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Taking Advantage Of The Holiday Lull

Based on my increasingly grown-up (that is, unreliable) perception of time, it seems like Thanksgiving here in the United States was sometime last week and the calendar switched over to December, like, yesterday, maybe? Of course, when I actually look at that calendar with the eyeballs connected to my nervous system as opposed to the ones my imagination prefers to use (you know, the internal ones that “see” things like flying glitter donkeys and armies of paper-clip soldiers controlled by vengeful wizards), I realize that we’re already 12 days into the last month of 2014.

In other words, the dread holidays are upon us. And the holidays? Well, they’re not exactly the most active time of the year for traditional publishing.

That’s not to say that everything related to making and publishing books comes to a screeching, unmovable halt. But when an industry already known for its glacial pace hits a stretch of weeks designated for awkward family gatherings and the sometimes regrettable office party, key decisions tend to get put off until we reach the New Year.

Luckily, as a middle grade writer, there are a few ways to take advantage of this temporary lull without losing your mind. Well, or any more of it.

  1. Time to reacquaint yourself with your target audience – Since most middle grade aged kids will have a decent block of days out of school this month, they’ll be busy searching for new and exciting ways to enrich their lives, further their education, and learn about the full, diverse world around them. At least, I’m sure they would if you could rip the video game controller form them.  Otherwise, they’ll sit around the house complaining of the interminable boredom in between going to the movies and hanging out with their friends at the mall or something. Kids still go to mall for prime loitering, right?  At any rate, whether you have some of your own kids at home or you have to figure out where they congregate these days, winter break is a key opportunity to observe them in their native habitats, to see what they do and how they interact. Because all that behavior is a gold mine of possibilities, possibilities that you can copy and use in a story.
  2. Read, read, read some more – I don’t know about you, but I don’t have nearly as much time to read as I’d like, especially with all the great, new MG stories that come out every week. Partly I don’t have enough time because I don’t make it amidst trying to finish my next writing project while working a day job, raising a family, and hoping to keep my wife from feeling completely ignored. But with the holiday spirit in the air, there may be no better time all year to ease up on the throttle a bit an settle in beside a warm fire with a mug of cocoa and one of those middle grade stories you’ve been meaning to read for weeks. Sip, snuggle, repeat.
  3. Researching gifts to find out what’s hot – When I was a kid, there were new toys, gadgets, and things to crave each and every year, and my siblings and I used to spend hours laying on the family room floor, leafing through the fall catalogs.  Nowadays, though, it’s pretty easy to get out of touch with whatever the kids are coveting on the playground. And you’d better believe being in touch matters. Sure, that Red Rider BB gun was perfect in its day, but unless you’re writing a historical MG, I wouldn’t expect too many kids to see the lure of it. So fire up a web browser and find out exactly what types of things have caught their collective eyes this season. Because even if you don’t ever specifically refer to the TurboBlaster Pump 2000, it will only help you and your stories to know that tons of kids got rapid-fire, pump-action foam bullet guns as a gift this year.
  4. Extra drafting/revision time – Okay, so talk of eavesdropping on the neighborhood kids and playing catch-up with your to-be-read list is all well and good, but let’s face it, you’ve got a half-finished book sitting on your computer. Part of you thinks it’s got more potential to become a steel trash can fire than an actual novel that real, pulse-having strangers might read someday. Well, there’s only one way to get it out of the steel drum, and that’s by putting in the extra work. So forget about the agents, editors, and, I don’t know, typesetters or whatever, out there in the vast world of publishing taking it easy for a week or two. The holidays have given you a few days of bonus time to polish up that manuscript, so you’d better snap to it.
  5. Getting back in touch with your inner kid – The stress of the holiday season can twist the large intestines of even the most organized and patient of adults into a Gordian pretzel knot, especially an adult like you, on pins and needles while waiting for an email or a call about your latest breathtaking work of middle grade genius. So instead of making yourself crazy, find something else to think about. Do something you enjoy. Anything. Build a snow fortress. Draw a picture. Make cookies. Eat cookies. All The Cookies! Whatever it is, pick something and go for it, 110%  Do it just for the love of that one thing. Because that’s how a kid would do it, and whenever you can get in touch with that kid still hidden deep inside under all the responsibilities and stress, you’re only going to make your middle grade voice that much stronger.
  6. Pie – Because pie don’t need no reason. If you ask me, I there’s never a bad time for pie. 

There are probably a million constructive ways to deal with the temporary lull in publishing that comes every holiday season. So if you find yourself frustrated and wondering how you’re ever going to make it to Jan. 2nd with even a pinch of your sanity intact, quit fretting, drop everything, and go have some fun instead.

Because at the end of the day, there’s probably no better time to get more in touch with the personality a middle grade writer needs to bring into their work than during this festive, fun, joyous few weeks of the year.  Why not take advantage of it?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book review: Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

Title: Golden Boy
Author: Tara Sullivan
Genre: MG Contemporary
Pages: 368
Publication date: 2013
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile

My rating: 4.5 spitwads / 5

There's not a kid on Earth who hasn't felt out of place. There's not a single child who hasn't gone through a day worrying if others are going to cast their little glances and whisper to their friends the one word that no one wants to be called.


We've all been there. Heck, I remember letting my hair grow out a little during the summer before sixth grade. Longer hair was cool. And I wanted to be cool. So I stepped on the bus for that first day of school, happily sporting the gigantic ball of brown fuzz I called a hairdo. Which is when the giggles and pointing and name-calling started. But there wasn't anything I could do. As far as I knew, we weren't allowed to go to the nurse for a bad hair day. So I suffered through seven and a half hours of class while my stomach collapsed into a black hole of humiliation.

But I digress.

Because hair is the least of thirteen-year-old Habo's problems. He's a white-skinned boy in a land where white skin is considered a curse. To the other kids in his Tanzanian school, he's a zeruzeru, a nothing. To his family, he's a liability. To local hunters, he's gold.

Habo is an albino. He can't spend time outside because the sun holds a special kind of anger for his easily-burned body. His father left as soon as he was born and his family is burdened with the task of finding ways to make enough money so they don't lose their house. But since Habo can't work in the fields like everyone else, they're forced to travel to Mwanza and live with their aunt.

The plan seems perfect. Except in Mwanza, albinos are hunted and butchered like animals. Their remains are sold as good luck charms to businesses and wealthy households. Even with that threat breathing down Habo's neck, his family can't go back to Arusha. Not when all that waits for them there is a life of starvation. Not even when one local hunter discovers where Habo lives. 

Habo has no choice. He flees his aunt's house, hoping to find a place where he can be safe, a place where his family can be rid of him and his curse, a place where he can finally find others like himself.

Naturally, I can't tell you much more than that because SPOILERS. 

But I can tell you that the story Sullivan has created here is drawn from her experiences working in Africa, trying to educate people on what albinism is and what it is not. I was shocked to learn that this is a real problem. Kids are getting murdered and dissected and sold and there are some regions where even the local police turn away their eyes while it happens.

I know, right?

Yikes. However, the heaviness of that reality forming the foundation of Golden Boy never casts a too-dark shadow over little Habo. Sullivan doesn't inject a whole lot of fluff and filler into this story. She allows Habo and his desire to be different drive his journey. It's one that's not without danger and risk and heartache, either. 

This is an amazing read. For children as well as adults. I learned so much travelling with Habo. I laughed with him. I cried with him. I was scared with him. I rejoiced with him. And even though he faces an enemy we've probably never had to face, we can still relate to his story. Because at its core, Golden Boy is a story of acceptance and tolerance.

And that's something everyone wants. That's something everyone needs.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankful Despite Doubt

Tis the season to think about all the things we're thankful for. But what about when things aren't so hot?

Sometimes the holidays become a time to realize how little we've achieved, especially when we're looking at others who have amazing things to be thankful for. People who have achieved the things we're just dreaming about.

Sure, we all try to be thankful. There's always something to be thankful for, but it can be tough not to be bitter when you're thankful for still breathing and the person next to you is thanking God for winning the lottery.

It's okay to feel that twinge, so long as you don't let it take over.

Us writers are often just living on faith. Faith that all our hard work won't be for nothing. Faith that we are good enough, or will become "good enough" with some more hard work. But we're not alone. Anyone with a dream not yet fulfilled is in this same boat. Hoping and praying and believing and... doubting.

The world is a scary place for those with dreams.

So there is one thing I'd like to share with all of my amazing dreamer friends (whether I know you or not).

Faith, and believing in yourself, isn't about knowing everything will be okay. It isn't about making a plan and expecting everything to fall into place. It's not about believing the dream will come easy, or without pain.

Faith is knowing that even if bad things happen (they will,) even when things don't turn out how we expect (they won't,) that some day, some how, some way, you will achieve your dream. You just have to keep moving forward.

Those with dreams will fail.

Those with faith with keep moving despite the failure.

Faith is getting up, dusting yourself off and moving forward even when you can't see where you're going.

Just as courage isn't the absence of fear, faith isn't the absence of doubt, and it certainly isn't the absence of failure.

The future is a scary blank page, and the only way to find out where it leads is to keep going.

That's all it takes. You don't have to be unfailingly positive. You just have to never, ever, give up.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Saying No No to NaNo

It's November, and every year I feel the pressure. No not the pressure of the impending holidays, but the pressure to write. November is National Novel Writing Month, a month where writers try to slam down 50,000 words in 30 days to finish the first draft of a novel. Only problem is, NaNo and I do not get along.
Do I feel the twinge and ache when I see people blasting their word counts on twitter and running sprints? Oh, heck yes! It honestly hurts to know others are writing lots of words, even full novels, when I'll be lucky if I write a few chapters this month. But you know what? It's okay for several reasons.

1. I can't write every day
NaNo relies on the fact that you average about 1700 words per day. That's a lot of words in one day. It's also a lot of time that I unfortunately don't always have. My day job sucks up eight plus hours a day, and when I get home I have to think about planning a wedding, selling two condos, and trying to buy a house. Now that sounds like a lot of excuses, but it's not. It's simply that I know my limits. I have a writing schedule that works for me, and it's not a sit down and write every day kind of schedule. I block off times a few days a week and that's when I write. And that's what works for me.
2. I can't fast draft
I write slow. Plain and simple. I'm lucky if I can have a 1000 word hour. Which means if I had to slam down 1700 words in a day, that would take me 2-3 hours. I do get faster the more I write, but I tend to be a fairly strict plotter. I need time to actually think about what I'm writing as I write it. So fast drafting is a skill I just don't have, but one that is almost a requirement for NaNo.

3. I need time to decompress
My brain often works a ton in the background. I need time in between writing sessions to let that happen. If I write every day, my subconscious doesn't have time to work through those plot issues that are bugging me and seemingly have no solution. For me to keep moving forward, I need space between my writing sessions.
4. I like to edit
I like relatively clean first drafts. I've grown up knowing good grammar, spelling, etc, and my brain is wired not to leave mistakes when I see them because I might miss them later. So I tend to make minor edits as I write. I also like to read my previous work before each writing session. This is a time where I get wrapped back into the story, but also a time I make changes to things that aren't quiet working. It's how I get into the mood of piece again, and how I find my flow. This is all part of my writing process. Neither of these things, though, is conducive for NaNo, an environment where you just have to ignore the mistakes and keep moving forward.

In the end, I know NaNo doesn't fit into my writing style and that's perfectly okay. I have a system and schedule that works for me and I go with it. Again I definitely feel the pain during this time of year, but I've tried NaNo and unfortunately it's just not for me. So if you're one of those people that does NaNo every year and succeeds, I bow to you. If you do NaNo just for the motivation to write and get words, even if it's not 50k, I bow to you as well. And if you're like me and NaNo just doesn't work, I bow to your strength to get words on the page despite the craziness that is writing in November. Whether NaNo works for you or not, just keep writing. We will all have shiny manuscripts one day.

Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? Why or why not?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Full Middle Grade Immersion!

I've spent the last two years completely, wonderfully underwater.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
I have been fully, breathlessly immersed in reading middle grade literature. And it has done wonders – absolute wonders – for my middle grade writing.
Let me explain.
I've had the exhausting honor these past couple years to serve on a state middle grade book award committee. It's a “kids' choice award,” so us adults on the committee don't pick the winner...we get to to choose the 12 nominees that the kids in our state will read and pick the winner from. So, in order to create a top-notch, well-balanced, fully-deserving list, we need to read. A LOT. According to my Goodreads stats, I've read 87 middle grade novels since January 1st of this year. I should easily crack 100 by New Year's. Whew.
But, honestly, I'm not sure I've ever done anything that has helped my middle grade writing more than serving on this committee. Going to conferences and reading blogs, we're always told: “Read your market! Read everything you can that is in your genre/age group so you get a feel for what's out there, for what sells, for what works and what doesn't.” And, as a kids librarian, I always thought I was doing that. I read 10-15 middle grade books a year, so I thought I kinda had it covered.
Man, was I wrong.
There is a world of difference between 10 books a year and 100.

Reading that many current middle grade books has really taken me to another level. I've been “forced” to read way beyond my normal selections, into genres and content I previously rarely touched. I've read books that I never would have picked up before – and been more than pleasantly surprised by a lot of them.
I've absorbed an almost constant stream of story and storytelling, and I've absorbed it in an active, thoughtful way: thinking about which stories sing and which don't, which will appeal the most to a kid audience, which books tell a story in a fresh and exciting way. It's funny – the more you read, the more real good storytelling jumps off the page. When you read 100 books, the exceptional ones don't blend in, they stand out from the crowd even more. That really gives you a chance as a writer to ask yourself, “Why does this one work so well? What did the author do that hit the sweet spot so perfectly? How exactly did the author pull that off?”
As I read, I think constantly about how the characters were developed, how the pacing is or isn't working, why a scene was so effective, or what felt flat in an ending. I've found some pitfalls to avoid, some methods to employ, and some heights to aspire to. It's been like taking an immersive course in story craft. It's been amazing.
So if I had to give one piece of advice to someone who is writing middle grade, I wouldn't just say “read your market.” We've all heard that. I'd say: “Pretend you're on an award committee.”
Seriously. Set an ambitious goal. Say, read an average of one middle grade book a week for a year. 52 middle grade books in 2015. And, to force yourself to read widely, I'd narrow your book pool: make sure all 52 of the books you read is a copyright 2014 or 2015.
It won't actually be that tough. Some middle grade books can be read entirely in an afternoon. Even some longer ones flow so well that you'll devour them in a weekend. You'll learn a ton. You'll get to be real friendly with your public librarian. And, hopefully, your local indie bookstore clerk. You'll get a real solid feel for what the market looks like right now, for what's moving and what's not.
And, if you're anything like me, once you come up for air and get your head above the middle grade water for a breath, you'll be even more eager to dive right back in again.
Because middle grade literature is a pool that's a blast to get immersed in.

The water's fine. Take a deep breath and jump on in.

Dan Gemeinhart is an author and teacher-librarian who lives smack dab in the middle of Washington State with his wife and three daughters. What passes for his website can be found at, and he can more frequently be found on Twitter. His contemporary adventure MG novel, THE HONEST TRUTH, will be out from Scholastic Press in January 2015.

Monday, November 17, 2014

WANTED: Middle Grade Online Communities

Happy Monday, everyone! Here's a little trivia for you: I'm one of those people you hate who love Mondays and wake up happy (way too happy, according my family). I spent this past weekend in Houston at the Houston Book Rave. I had a fabulous time, as always. Meeting readers and seeing my writing friends is priceless!

On to what I’m blogging about today… MGM received a great question from a follower:

“Why are there so few middle grade online writer communities (and so much less information in general)?”

That’s the middle-grade million-dollar-question! I have one legit answer and lots of hunches, so here we go.

The Legit Answer…
Several months prior to the release of my first middle-grade novel, I asked my agent (the effervescent Holly Root) about marketing for the first book in a series with Aladdin M!X (blog tours, book signings, release day events, etc.).  What she said makes sense, even if you don't like it. And, yes, I'm totally paraphrasing. Whatever she said was much more sparkly.

We (authors) try to market our books to our target audience (middle graders), but that's where we go wrong with middle grade fiction. It's unlikely that our target audience is trolling blogs, tweeting about their new favorite book, or checking Goodreads to see the next great book. And even if they are, they aren't holding the purse strings to buy books without a parent's involvement. 
Middle-grade readers get information about books from four different places: friends, parents, teachers, and librarians.  
That's who you have to reach online.
Makes perfect sense, right? But I've yet to find Middle Grade Marketing for Dummies, so I'm winging it. For me, the process is evolving, and I never quite feel like I'm where I need to be. You know what they call that? Frustrating!

I do believe, however, that Holly's answer explains why there's such little middle-grade online presence. 

My Hunches…

  • THE PAY OFF: Middle grade publishers don’t invest as much money as we'd like into marketing middle-grade fiction because it doesn't pay off. The general belief is that the best marketing comes from having the book on a Barnes & Noble (or other such brick & mortar booksellers) shelf. 
  • IT'S ALWAYS ABOUT MONEY: When's the last time you saw a middle-grade novel hit BIG? As in, Diary of a Wimpy Kid big. It's been a while. Too long, if you ask me. Publishers invest marketing dollars on books they think will give them the biggest return on their money. That book is rarely in the middle-grade section of the store. The bottom line: It's a business. And a cutthroat one at that. 
  • BLOGGERS: Some bloggers only review young adult novels. Some bloggers only review middle grade novels. And some bloggers offer both young adult and middle grade fiction reviews. There are more middle-grade bloggers out there than you think. The key is finding the bloggers who take their blog seriously and post regularly. The ones who do offer reviews on middle-grade novels are precious to authors. They're the link that often connects authors and their books to readers.
  • FOR WRITERS: There is virtually no online presence for writers of middle-grade fiction. And that's a tragedy because authors need each other. We learn from one another and sometimes need to connect with someone that just "gets it." It would be fabulous if someone would create the middle-grade version of Women's Fiction Writers' Association. Yes, I know all about SCBWI, but I'm thinking of something even more narrow than that... namely, middle-grade fiction. Maybe something like Middle-Grade Writers' Association. MGWA. Looks okay to me!
So... now that the million-dollar middle-grade question has (kind of) been answered, let's move on to the new one.

Who's going to start MGWA? 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Initial Musings From A Self Published Author

On September 17th, I quietly published the e-book version of The Beef Jerky Gang on Amazon. On October 14th, I updated the e-book with a new version and published the print version. That's when I started to tell the whole world.


So, I'm now a month in on this self-publishing adventure and I wanted to share some initial thoughts along with telling you about an awesome sale. First I'll answer some of my own questions.

1. So you're a month into your official first release, how's it been going?

Great! The thing is, I didn't expect much. I expected to sell to family and friends off the bat, and that's what it's been. Thankfully, I have a lot of family and friends, so the sales have been good. But the thing I'm really learning, is that fans have to be earned one by one. What I'm finding so far, is that when kids sit down and read the book, they really enjoy it and they're excited for the next one. That means the world to me.

So far, the majority of my sales have been print copies sold online. The next biggest group of sales have come from print copies sold at our local independent bookstore in Omaha (The Bookworm). The last group has been e-books sold on Amazon.

I need to run the occasional promotion, keep telling people about my book but more important than anything? I need to write the next book in the series and make it as great as I possibly can.

2. If kids love this story, why didn't you wait, show some patience and find a traditional home with this book through a large publishing company?

Great question. The truth? Well, the truth is that back in grade school, high school, and college, I was pretty good at stuff. And then I graduated and entered the big bad world.  And the being good at stuff pretty well stopped. I started as a teacher, but my heart was never fully into it and I wasn't very good at it. And then I left teaching sort of to "find myself". I bounced around trying to figure stuff out. I didn't. Finally, my wife and I switched roles. She returned to working full time, I started taking care of the kids and I began to write fiction. That was three years ago. I'm now a few months away from turning 40 and I need to get some stuff figured out. If that sounds a hint desperate, then I'm communicating clearly. I need some momentum. I need some wins on the board. In another life, I coached high school basketball, and in that parlance, I need some easy buckets. Thus, I didn't wait with The Beef Jerky Gang. I made a few inquiries, got no offers then decided, what the heck. Time to get busy living or get busy dying. I thought I would put out a high quality book and start to build my readership one by one. And someday, when I publish traditionally, I will already have a group of high quality books that I'm proud of. And more importantly, I'll have a few fans as well.

3) What's the most surprising comment you've heard about the book from someone who has read it?

A friend had the book at work and his boss asked him what it was. My friend explained and the boss went home that night and read the ebook. Came back the next day and told my friend the author was "a sick, sick dude" because? Because? Well, because in the book, boys sometimes wear girls synchronized swimming suits. That made me laugh. Still makes me laugh. Couple things. The book is written for 10-12 year olds more than it is written for 50-55 year olds. The whole problem of the book is that boys live in a world controlled by girls, a world where they sometimes have to wear pink swimsuits while they participate in synchronized swimming. The whole thing is meant to be silly and ridiculous...not sick and pervy. But you know what? That's the whole deal isn't it? We authors write the book and readers read it and create their own meaning. I can't fault a reader for what meaning they made, can I? Still makes me laugh though.

4) What's the favorite comment you've heard about the book from someone who has read the book?

It's a tie. In general, I love hearing from the boys who are reading it, reading it quickly, loving it and excited for the second one. But there was a particular comment that stood out. A sister of an old friend from college sent me a message. She loved, LOVED the section I had where I reference the Xyphoid Process. At it's heart, The Beef Jerky Gang is a silly, funny book and her liking that section made me realize...she gets it.

5) What's the best thing you did in publishing The Beef Jerky Gang?

I paid high quality professionals to help me produce the best book I possibly could. I'm not an illustrator, a cover designer, an editor nor a book formatter. I write. So instead of doing as much as I could by myself, I decided to invest in doing it the right way. The result is a beautiful book that kids love and I couldn't be more proud.

6) You mentioned someday wanting to publish traditionally, so what's your plan?

My plan right now is to build my own back list while pursuing a traditional publishing deal. The second book in The Beef Jerky Gang series will come out in April of 2015 and the third and final book in the series will be out by Christmas 2015. Meanwhile, I've got one more series of books I'm indie publishing. It's called The Math Inspectors and the first one will come out as an e-book in a week and as a print book in a few weeks.

Math Inspectors

Finally, I am working on a book about a treasure hunting boy named Curial Diggs which I am pitching though the traditional route. The key for me is to write as much as I can, improve as a writer each day, and then send my stuff out into the world. And hopefully, continue to earn fans one at a time.

Starting today and for the next six days, Amazon has dropped the price of The Beef Jerky Gang e-book down to $0.99.  If you've got kids in that 9-12 ranges (and particularly 10 and 11 year-old boys) then please consider giving The Beef Jerky Gang a try. Thanks so much!  Daniel Kenney


Monday, November 10, 2014

Connecting the Dots

When I’m starting the first draft of a new project, I tend get caught up in the world building. If I’ve reached a point where I know my settings so well they become almost tangible to me, I’ll usually start out with far more description than would ever be necessary. I just give in to the keyboard frenzy, convinced that each insignificant detail I add will be the perfect touch of color needed to make that whole world come to life, precisely the way I want the reader to imagine it.

Luckily I eventually remember that it’s more my job to just shut up and get the story rolling.

A creative writing professor of mine once compared effective descriptive writing to creating a connect-the-dots drawing, explaining how the writer only needs to provide a few sensory touchstones in description, allowing the reader to fill the spaces in between on their own and build whatever version of that world they’ll inhabit while engaged in the story.

A few years back I was working with an eleven-year-old student who showed some real aptitude for writing. She often fell victim to overdone descriptive passages much in the same way I did (and sometimes still do). I brought up the whole dot-to-dot idea with her once, to try and break her of the habit. Since she was one of those kids who was always neck-deep in extra-curricular activities that required traveling, I stayed in her wheelhouse and told her to visualize a hotel room.

“You walk in and you can hear the shower dripping,” I said. “Then you see a hole from a cigarette burn on the carpeting, and an old water stain on the wall just below the air conditioner. So what would you say about this room?”

She gave me a look of mild revulsion. “I’d say it’s a pretty crappy room.”

“How did you decide that so quickly?” I asked. “I only told you three things.” She thought about that, then I got to have one of those joyous teacher moments when you get to be there and see the wheels actually turn as the student begins to understand.

Handing over control of story elements you feel strongly about can be a hard thing about writing, but it’s essential to remember. No matter what you do to tell your story the best you can, it will eventually belong to the readers you wrote it for. Will their version be exactly the same as how you see it? Probably not. But do you think you, as a reader, have ever precisely realized an author’s vision as she or he intended? Not likely. But that’s okay. When kids get their hands on a dot-to-dot picture or a coloring sheet, they see it as just a starting point. They could bring that picture to life with a palette of vivid colors, or complete it with some fantastical background, or turn it into such a carefully crafted bit of art it simply demands your attention.

Kids read the same way they color. All you need to do is provide enough description to start them in the direction you’d like them to explore. After that, just give them room to find a pathway there all by themselves, and see where their discoveries take them.

Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo, Middle Grade, and You

I woke up last Saturday morning to the dire buzz of alarms sounding.

I’m not kidding. It was, literally, like, 6:30 AM on the morning after Halloween, and I had two kids to get to a soccer game in 35 degree weather. Even worse, no matter how much I begged, Siri wouldn’t let me go back to sleep and take the edge off the Snickers hangover I’d shamefully backed my way into after a few hours of trudging behind four Trick-Or-Treaters the night before.

It’s safe to say that Siri and I haven’t been on the best of terms this week.

The morning alarm wasn’t the only one going off, though. In my head, I could almost feel the thunderous peal of bells clanging, warning that, at the tone, the date will be November 1st.

To novelist types like me, it’s a date that looms large every year in the subconscious, demanding focus on one thing and one thing only: the firing of the Starter’s pistol on another NaNoWriMo.

You might remember that I mentioned NaNo before. If you didn’t, and aren’t familiar with it, you could be thinking to yourself, “Nana? NeNe? Nanoo? Is this someone’s delightfully spunky grandmother? No, wait, it’s a dance routine, right? Or some kind of alien greeting?”

If you’re thinking any of the above, let me help you out a little here.

NaNoWriMo is a word-whammed abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month.  It’s this wonderful exercise in masochism where someone (say, like me…or you) gets an idea for a novel and pushes aside all the nagging, gnawing voices of uncertainty and self-doubt in an effort to coax 50,000 words of that book into actually existence over the span of one (1) 30-day month. The month of November, to be precise.

Lots of people swear by NaNoWriMo. For others, the pressure and stress of having a mere 30 days to usher forth a story takes too much of a toll, hampering their creativity.  Especially with a major US holiday standing in the way like a 10-foot hurdle in front of an Olympic runner.

If you’re a MG writer, though, and a little extra pressure tends to brighten the fire under your backside as if Bugs Bunny himself was manning the bellows of your dinner cauldron, NaNo can be a great way to go from ‘aspiring to write a MG novel’ to ‘actually being a MG author’.

The most obvious aspect of the whole crazy endeavor that makes it perfect for MG-ers is, of course, word count.  No matter what lies you might tell yourself in the dark hours spent huddled over your manuscript, or how much flattery you might attempt in that candle-lit bathroom mirror, 50,000 words does not a novel make. At least, not for adult works of either the standard or “Young”  variants.

For a Middle Grade draft, though, 50,000 words is more often than not right at the sweet and tender center of the total word count bulls eye.

But word count is far from the only thing that makes NaNo helpful for producing a MG draft.  The compressed timeframe, too, can be quite an asset. Sure, it might make you feel a little bit like Alice’s White Rabbit—always late, always late for a very important, um, daily goal—but it also lends itself to the right “feel” for a Middle Grade story.  As the life and circumstances of the MG set are, very often, largely out of their control, channeling a sense of “rushing headlong towards adventure in a big, unexplored world with nothing but the soles of one’s Keds to use for brakes” into a story can be vital.

When it comes time for letters to hit the page, few things can help an author with deliver that tone as much as bearing the press of the steady march towards November 30th, knowing there’s nothing anyone can do to stall the month out for day or three, just to catch one’s breath.

And then, there are the revisions. NaNo has even more benefit for the MG writer there. Since the initial process is a chaoticc 30-day sprint to get something down on paper, the steaming pile of word leavings you’re stuck with at the end…well, let’s just say it’s not always quite ready for immediate release to the Newbery Committee. But learning how to accomplish things though trial and error is something that most Middle Grade readers are very, very familiar with.  For instance, while you’d think I would remember that while writing based on the number of times in my childhood I had to remake my bed due to the large, suspicious lump under the comforter, or the multitude of second-tries necessary to get my room clean to my mother’s Exacting Standards, it’s still a lesson that bears repeating even for me.

The point is, your NaNo novel is going to be a long way from perfect on November 30th, and you’re going to have to work at making it just right. Your characters, just like real kids, are likewise not going to be perfect. They’re going to make all kinds of mistakes, sometimes for reasons they don’t even understand (aka, the highly acclaimed “I don’t know why I did it” defense). The more often you’re reminded of that, the better the chance your MG characters stand to maybe become real to the kids you hope will one day experience you work.

Is NaNo easy? Having survived it twice now, I can say with certainty that it’s not. Is NaNo for everyone? Definitely not. Not anymore than purple socks and lime green shoes are for everyone.

But for some Middle Grade authors, purple and green go together just like peanut butter and chocolate.

And that just might make NaNoWriMo 2014 a good bet for you.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Dialogue It Out

When I get stuck during a scene I'm writing, it's usually in description or narration. And too many times I feel the need to force words (like during Nanowrimo, which I'm not doing this year) and end up with crap that needs cut or heavily revised. But then the voices get going inside my head, and I "dialogue it out".

That means exactly what it sounds like. I speed type (or write by hand) whatever I think is going on with the characters. Actually, I don't even try to think about it. I just try to be the characters and say what they want to say. Skipping dialogue tags, punctuation and quotation marks helps get me through quicker. Later on is the time for revision.

I do this dialogue it out trick at home, too, with my family. For example, I might say "Did you pick up those socks yet?" to which I'll be rewarded with some variation of ignorance or dismissive head nod or shake.

Then I kick in my dialogue trick and all of a sudden I hear "Yes, dear father. I picked up the socks, and the dirty underwear and put them in the pile of dirty laundry. Then, since I love you so much and really want to help out around the house, I called all the other kids together and we started washing a load of laundry, and then, we moved the clean clothes out of the dryer to sort and fold for you. So why don't you sit down at your desk with your computer and iPod and work on your new book while we take care of the laundry?"

So I sit down to write, and soon, another roadblock appears. "Hey, you guys, baby smells poopy. Can someone change her?" -crickets-

Time for the old dialogue trick- I squeeze my eyes closed, and soon everyone comes running to the rescue.

"Dad, we heard you call and came as fast as we could. I figured it was my turn, but everyone started arguing over who would change baby's diaper for you, so guess what? We are all going to help by not only changing her diaper, but by giving her a bath and taking turns reading to each other while she's in the bathroom. Will that be okay?"

I smile and nod, diving back into my work. Then, wouldn't you know it, time for supper.

"Hey!" I call. "Can someone get out the peanut butter and jelly?"

I wait, then call again, hoping. "Anyone hungry?"

Closing my eyes, I finally hear "Dad, please don't interrupt us while we are eating. We are playing the quiet game and want you to work on your book. Really. And besides, we already made supper after we gave the baby a bath. Oh, yeah, almost forgot - there will be leftover bacon, pancakes, and coffee for you when you need a break from writing. And just in case you forgot to post on your blog or whatever and need to stay up late again, we'll go ahead and put ourselves, and the baby, and the toddler to bed. We'll brush our teeth and go to the bathroom and pray without your help tonight, too. So, you just go ahead and work on your writing stuff. Okay? Goodnight, Dad. See you in the morning, with more hot coffee and fresh bacon and eggs!"

Dang, my kids are awesome. Seriously. And so are you.

Friday, October 31, 2014

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!! A tribute to one of my favorite MG horror series of all time..GOOSEBUMPS!


Did I scare you? You know I're shaking in your boots aren't you? Don't deny it! I strike fear into the hearts of many! Okay, I don't really but you know what really did used to scare the beejeezus (how do you spell that by the way..beejeesus? beejeezus? bee geee zoos?) out of me when I was a wee lad. A series of books called GOOSEBUMPS by the acclaimed author R.L Stine.

For this Halloween, I wanted to take a trip back in time, and think back to some of my favorite Goosebumps books that had me trembling under the sheets with a flashlight. Some of the books weren't even that scary, but some of them....oooooh boy. It was just wrong. Nightmares galore. not to mention that the GOOSEBUMPS title was always raised and bumpy...freaked me out too!

I don't know about you guys, but I was the type of kid that looked forward to Scholastic Book week more than any other week of the school year. Checking off the books I wanted to buy, mailing out the order form, and waiting patiently until FINALLY the boxes were delivered to all the students. Opening up that box, and getting my grabby hands on all those books was better than Christmas. And for me, Christmas was Halloween with the Goosebumps books. My wife and I seriously must have every Goosebumps book from the first two series. She was more obsessed with it than I was, but still we both have an extreme passion for the middle-grade horror.

So here we go, a list of my top five favorite GOOSEBUMPS books from the original series. Which were yours?


By far one of the CREEPIEST of Goosebumps covers. Yeah, something about a skeletal family having a BBQ didn't sit over well with me when I got the book. Say Cheese and Die was actually inspired by an old Twilight Zone episode, and ironically enough, I've learned that a lot of stories created by Stine were influenced by Serling's epic series.

The story revolves around a simple, old camera that is not what it seems. Every picture that develops from it comes out entirely wrong and basically foresees terrible things happening to the target of the picture. From car crashes, to fires, to breaking banisters, anyone whose picture is taken with this camera is DOOMED.

This one really holds a special place because it was one of the first ones I had ever read. From that moment, I was hooked.


Imagine donning a mask that attaches itself to your face? Yeah...not creepy at all. Especially when the mask starts changing the very person you are, and is slowly transforming you into a MONSTER. AGHHHH!!! I couldn't put on Halloween masks for years in fear that I wouldn't be able to pull it off.

And honestly, if I was a parent I would never let a kid wear that creepy arse mask. Just look at that thing!


Probably the most famous "series" of Goosebumps books are the MONSTER BLOOD ones. There's probably like twenty of 'em (I'm exaggerating), but these books were beyond creepy. Side note about the Goosebumps book. While insanely creepy at points, they are also pretty hilarious at others. After all, it's targeting a younger audience and you don't want to scare them too horribly. I've always found myself rolling in some of these Monster Blood books due to the absolute absurdity of what's going on.

Don't touch the Monster Blood - unless you feel like turning into one.


I hate dummies...I hate dolls...enough said. This book ruined me.


One day at Horrorland was an absolute classic. Monster themed rides, exploding cars, evil ticket takers. I always imagined Disney World turning into this sort of theme park one day, and the idea of a haunted amusement park fulfilled all my monster needs. It wasn't even the scariest of the bunch, but was definitely one of the ones I read through numerous times.

So.....which were YOUR favorite GOOSEBUMPS tales?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Tree Roper Guest Post

Thanks for giving me some space and voice on the blog! I’ve got some serious and some silly to share, so here goes.

First of all, the fun.
Hi. I’m Declan Parker. Twelve. Tree climber. Aaaand I’ve got one brother. Ethan. He’s younger than me and mostly a dork – but sometimes all right. Oh, and I was born with one eye, but so what?

Anyway, I guess I’m supposed to tell you something that’s not in the book, or whatever.  

Um, let’s see…Oh, I know! Dad says if you only use one arm when you climb trees, then that arm will grow longer than the other. Ha! I don’t believe him, but I think my brother Ethan does. Which is dumb, because Ethan is pretty smart, but mostly on the school side of smart, not on the “real-life” side of smart, if you know what I mean. And, anyway, you kind of need two arms to climb trees. Well, maybe not. But I bet it would be hard for a one-armed dude – or girl (there are some really good tree climbing girls!) – to climb really well. 

And, let me think, what else…oh, yeah! Climbing trees puts hair on your chest. That’s what my dad says. I’m still not sure about that. I guess I’ll have to wait and see. (Hmm, I kind of hope that’s not true, you know for the girl tree-climbers’ sakes, but, yeah, never mind that I said that. That was stupid.)

And…um...this is hard. Uh, I guess if you see my brother and he tells you that I’m afraid of spiders, he’s lying. I’m not afraid of anything. But I don’t like spiders. Which isn’t the same as being afraid of them, just so we’re clear on that.

I guess, finally, just try climbing trees – if you never have before – and have fun! Thanks! (Whew.)
Second of all, the serious.
Tree care is a dangerous occupation, but one my main character, Declan, and his father love. And although OPERATION TREE ROPER wasn’t meant to be solely about tree climbing, as I revised the book, I wanted to accurately convey the dangerous sides of climbing trees within the tree care industry. 

Not only do climbing arborists need to be careful to not injure themselves, they need to take precautions against harming persons in and near their work zone. They must be aware of any property below or nearby.

While I don’t want to delve into citing specific worker injury and death related statistics, I can tell you that while I worked as a full time arborist, I’d read shiver inducing injury and death reports in nearly every monthly professional journal I received.

It’s possible to enjoy time on the job climbing trees, but you’d better be paying attention to some safety guidelines or someone will get hurt – or something will get broken. 

Now, I’m careful, but even a careful climber can make mistakes. I’ve been shocked by secondary contact through tree branches coming into contact with a bare electrical transmission line, had my foot smashed between a swinging limb, and the tree trunk – breaking several bones – and one time, I actually cut my primary climbing line and would have fallen onto my back on a stone patio twenty feet below me if I hadn’t had a secondary tie in. 

In each one of those incidents, I made mistakes – sometimes multiple mistakes. I was lucky. Usually, mistakes in this profession are very unforgiving.

Here’s a few basic rules I tried to follow in order to help guard against accidents on my jobsites.
1.      Never cut when someone is underneath you.
2.      Tie off any branch that has a target underneath – or move the target. (A target is anything of value that could be damaged by falling debris. Birdbaths, tables, walls ,and fences are examples of common targets.)
3.      Check the area below and in the general vicinity of operations before each cut.
4.      When the area below (drop zone) is clear, communicate your intentions to workers below and wait for the all clear signal before proceeding.
5.      Only cut if you have two secure and separate tie–in locations.
6.      Work deliberately. (I did not say slowly. Deliberately and slowly are very different. Sometimes the safest operation is a quick and precise cut and drop.)

A couple other things, I tried to remember to take plenty of rest breaks to replenish my fluids and ward off cramping muscles. And, finally, I always tried to remember that not many people would get to see the views I could enjoy. So, the next time you climb a tree, soak in the view and appreciate your situation.

Be sure to check out Operation Tree Roper: An Eye Above available now!

Twelve-year-old Declan Parker was born with only one eye, but all he seems to have trouble seeing in proper perspective is himself. All he wants is for kids to see him as normal before he starts a new school in the fall. To that end, he sets out to make money helping with his dad’s tree care business.

Unfortunately, when his dad lands in the hospital after a climbing accident, Declan’s surgery hopes are wrecked. His only hope remains in a neighbor girl and her uncle, a wounded army veteran. Can they help him save his dad’s business, or will Declan’s once-courageous drive turn into total despair?