Friday, October 12, 2018

Garbage Island, by Fred Koehler

Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew) by Fred Koehler is the kind of book that feels like a throwback to earlier days of middle grade literature and alarmingly contemporary at the same time. Archibald (he prefers to go by “Archie”) is all exploration, creativity, and invention, the kind of character that any STEM student will recognize in themselves.

Archie is a shrew living on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which gives him a seemingly endless supply of resources to tinker with as he invents new objects meant to make the lives of those on the garbage patch a bit better. He shares the patch with a diverse collection of animals who have organized their different cultures and priorities into a workable truce under the leadership of their mayor, a mouse named Mr. Popli. While Archie’s strongest motivation for inventing is to be helpful, he commonly lets his enthusiasm get the better of him, which often leads to problems within this society. One day one of these moments leads to a chain of events that sets Archie and Mr. Popli off on an adventure at sea, one which could also have a lasting impact on the welfare of the citizens of Garbage Island and their home itself.

There were a number of things I enjoyed about this book. It was a lot of fun to read a story with animals for characters, and fully-realized characters at that. Each character or group had their own collection of traits and motivations working together to keep the story moving. The extensive world-building on display here was both amusing and disturbing — amusing because of the way Fred Koehler came up with imaginative ways to introduce everyday items as useful parts of the environment, but disturbing to realize that many of Archie’s abundant resources could likely be found out on the Garbage Patch in real life. The world-building didn’t stop with the physical though, but also permeated throughout the community the different animals had created together, to say nothing of their politics.

Fred Koehler won a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for his illustrations for ONE DAY. THE END. He is the author-illustrator of HOW TO CHEER UP DAD, which received three starred reviews, and he is the illustrator of THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT DRAGONS and PUPPY, PUPPY, PUPPY, and FLASHLIGHT NIGHT. He lives with his children in Lakeland, Florida.

Monday, October 8, 2018

After Zero, by Christina Collins

In After Zero, a debut middle grade by Christina Collins, twelve-year-old Elise finds it hard to utter more than a few words, especially when she is at school. At home, and with her best friend Mel, Elise is comfortable enough to speak freely. But at school, her anxiety takes over. Elise, formerly homeschooled, doesn’t know the “rules” about her new school, Green Pasture Middle. She’s never been in a classroom before, and every time she opens her mouth to speak, she accidentally spills secrets or says wrong answers. It’s easier not to talk. Elise carries a notebook full of tallies, each stroke marking a word spoken. Five tally marks isn’t bad. Two is pretty good. But zero? Zero is perfect. 

At home, things aren’t much easier. When she’s not teaching an online class, Elise’s mother is locked inside her bedroom.One night when Elise can’t sleep, she discovers her mother rummaging through a shed in their backyard. Later, Elise discovers bins full of teddy bears, photographs, and sympathy cards inside the shed—evidence that her father was killed in a car crash on the day she was born. From the cards, it appears that her two toddler brothers survived the crash. When Elise discovers a card from a grandmother she never met, she’s convinced her granny is raising her brothers.

Armed with her grandmother’s return address, Elise sets out to meet her granny and the family she’s always longed for. After a dangerous journey through a forest, Elise approaches a cliff where she sees two boys in wheelchairs, playing violins. A grandmother figure appears and tells Elise that she will be reunited with her brothers on her 13th birthday if she remains silent. If she doesn’t say a word, all her wishes will come true.

Elise, determined to remain quiet so she can be reunited with her brothers, falls further into what she calls her “bubble”. She is silent to the point where can’t even bring herself to cry out for help when school bullies lash out, both physically and verbally.
When Elise can’t tell the guidance counselor why she didn’t cry for help during the abuse, a beloved English teacher encourages Elise to write a letter detailing all that has happened to her in the past few months. In the letter, Elise shares that she saw her brothers and will be reunited with them if she remains silent until her 13th birthday. The school counselor shows the letter to Elise’s mother, who is befuddled because Elise’s toddler brothers died in the same car crash that killed Elise’s dad thirteen years ago. The counselor explains that Elise’s silence, a condition called selective mutism, often co-exists with other types of anxiety. Elise’s sleep deprivation caused hallucinations, making her “see” the brothers and grandmother she wanted to believe were still alive.
And now, for the happy ending...
An epilogue shows Elise two years later, after therapy, entering high school. The word “Quiet” still feels inked into her like a tattoo. But like the mysterious raven that follows her throughout the story, Elise is now ready to spread her wings and fly.
My review: Four stars. Selective mutism is a topic not covered in middle grade literature, and this book will be a helpful addition to the genre. Although the hallucination scene was a bit confusing for me as a reader of realistic fiction, the gripping, fast-paced plot left me rooting for Elise. I appreciated the recommended resources at the end of the book for kids who struggle with selective mutism.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Are Writing Conferences Worth It?

So, you’re an aspiring writer, and you’re considering going to a writing conference. Is it worth it? What should you keep in mind?

1. Do I need to attend conferences to become a professional writer?
No, you don’t. Conferences cost money, and sometimes you just don’t have it. What you do need is grit, a willingness to learn, a broad knowledge of the literature you’re trying to write and an awareness of how the industry works. It also helps to have a supportive group of fellow writers, who share your dreams, will give you constructive feedback on your work and will cry and/or celebrate with you when required. Attending a writing conference or joining a professional group, like SCBWI, can help with many, but not all of those things. If you are looking to learn more about the industry and to join a supportive community of writers, then attending a conference can be a great first step.

2. Will I get an agent or sell a book at a conference?
Maybe, but probably not. You are there to learn and make connections. Be open, ask questions and don’t be afraid to talk to the industry professionals attending the conference. They are regular people just like you. Learn how to give and receive feedback. Many conferences provide an opportunity for attendees to receive manuscript critiques from agents or editors. Don’t stress out. This is a learning opportunity. Make sure to listen and give yourself time to process any critiques before responding or dismissing feedback. Defending your work at first is totally natural, but try not to do it out loud, especially in your one-on-one with an editor or agent  Be open to making changes. Feedback that sounds wrong at first may end up enhancing your story if applied in the right way. Of course, the opposite remains true as well. Not every piece of advice that you receive from a critique partner or professional will improve your work. By joining a regular critique group, you can learn how to parse out which pieces of feedback to apply and which to ignore.

3. Will it be worth my time and money?
In my experience, yes. I always come away inspired and energized to work. I have made excellent friends through my affiliation with SCBWI, and I can’t imagine going on my writing journey without them. Plus, you will get to meet amazing people like these (goose not included):

To learn more about SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, visit or for the Oklahoma chapter.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Author Jonathan Rosen Discusses His New Book FROM SUNSET TILL SUNRISE!!

First, let me be clear: I am a HUGE fan of Jonathan Rosen's work!

If you haven't read his first book, NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES, go buy it right now and thank me later!

Now He's Back (You can't tell but I said that in a really creepy scary voice way) with a sequel: FROM SUNSET TILL SUNRISE!

The Description:

Devin Dexter and his cousin Tommy just saved the city of Gravesend from the menace of magical, malicious Cuddle Bunnies brought to life by the warlock, Herb. But there’s no rest for the wicked, as a new mysterious neighbor moves in across the street. At night. With a coffin. Tommy immediately jumps to conclusions as he thinks this can only mean one thing: Vampires.
Devin isn’t so quick to believe, as he is struck by the neighbor’s daughter, a girl his age. Even though Tommy points out that they have never seen her during the day. Yet when she invites him to a dance at her school—the Nosfer Academy of Talented Understudies—how can Devin say no? Tommy, though, realizes that this is an opportunity. After tackling a wizard last winter, surely they can protect Gravesend from some measly vampires, right?

The Interview with the author, the legend:

1.      Three words that describe FROM SUNSET TILL SUNRISE

Funny, Scary, Vampires . . . wait, did I mention funny? 

2.     The first paragraph of the book had me snorting out loud. What I need to know: Under what circumstances would vampires NOT be bad neighbours?

Hopefully, there were more laughs besides the first paragraph! 😊But, thank you!

I would say that maybe the Love at First Bite type of vampires might be fun to live near. Maybe Count Chocula, or the Count from Sesame Street, but they’d be the exception, not the rule. Still, overall there aren’t too many circumstances where vampires make decent neighbors. Herb was right, they definitely bring down property values.

3.     I was happy to see Herb back! Herb is the world’s biggest supplier of “Dad Jokes”! So my question is: Do your readers get those jokes, or are they more like Easter eggs for your adult readers, who find them hysterical? I snorted out loud when I read, “They’re like Martin and Lewis right around the breakup, not the reconciliation on the telethon.”!

Herb is my favorite character to write for! My kids love him. Herb does allow me to get things in for the adult readers. His pop culture references are decades out-of-date. There is a reason for it, but I’m saving that. I think his lines are funny for kids, but adults will get him on a different level. Also, I think it can’t hurt having kids go look up the cultural references that they’re not sure of. 

4.     One of my favourite lines in the book is the following: “A special on holy water? Why would anyone need so much holy water?” Clearly, only Tommy realizes that Gravesend is not like other places! Can you talk about the roles that Devin and Tommy play in your books?

I also love writing for Tommy! Devin is us. The reader. How we’d be reacting to these situations. Scared, curious, analyzing, and cautious. Reacting to the mayhem around him. Tommy is the one who serves as the other part of the reader. The part of us who says it’ll be all right. We can do this. He also serves as the reader’s thoughts. Giving a wink to the reader. Saying the things the reader is thinking about all the tropes in use. By this time, most readers are familiar with the tropes in horror. Inviting a vampire into the house. The ways to defeat a vampire. Tommy calls it out. He says what the reader is thinking. He’s letting the reader know, “We know that you know all these things, but here’s how we’re going to skew them.”

5.     How do you balance the funny and the scary? Because sometimes, this book can be a little scary?

I think when you write anything horror-related, you MUST have scary elements. It’s a disservice to the genre, otherwise. I’m a huge fan of the funny-horror genre, like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Gremlins, Fright Night, and even Nightmare on Elm Street. All those movies were funny, but they also had scary. The comedy is a release. When you think about some of the situations in horror, they’re absurd. Who runs upstairs when there’s a killer in the house? For the most part, horror protagonists lack common sense. So, I do like to call attention to that, but that doesn’t mean the situation itself isn’t still scary. The protagonists ARE facing terrible stakes. Death is possible. So, you have to have them dealing with the threat, while at the same time letting the audience know, we realize the hero did something they shouldn’t have, but now that they’re in this situation, let’s figure a way out and hope he’s learned his lesson. 

6.     Was it easier to write the sequel than the first book, or did you put extra pressure on yourself?

MUCH more difficult to write the sequel. First off, I had less time. Once Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies was getting close to pub date, we started discussing a sequel. They wanted something months later to prepare for the following year. So, I had literally half the time I did on the first book. 

Not to say that some things weren’t easier. We now have established characters, so it’s a little bit easier to introduce them into the story, since the reader already has some expectations of them from the first novel. But, as with any sequel, you can’t do what was already done. You have to raise the stakes. So, there was some pressure with all of that.

7.     There are lots of twists and turns in this story, and let’s face it: The grownups are a bit clueless. Do you always know exactly what’s going to happen before you write?

Kind of, but not always. I used to outline every single detail. And I know a lot of authors still advise that. But, now, I go in with a loose outline. I know the premise. I know basically how I want it to end, and the general direction of the story, but I give myself some leeway on how to get there. Sometimes, while I’m writing, something occurs to me that I hadn’t thought of beforehand, and now I’ve given myself the liberty to take the story in a new direction and explore it. Just as long as I still come back to my ending, or some form of it. 

8.     What are you working on now?

Well, my agent is shopping one now. A fun book, with magic and Jewish mythology, that means a lot to me. But, I’m also working on two different books at the same time. Both dealing with folklore and a little bit of Mexican mythology. In a humorous way, of course 😊

9.     These books beg to be a movie or a TV series! Any chance?

Thanks! I think so too! There’s always a chance, right? But, we had actually been approached for Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, but so far nothing. I hear that’s common, but would love to see it done. Especially, to see who they get for Herb. And besides, who doesn’t want to see marauding, murderous, stuffed bunnies hopping across the screen?

10.  This is your sophomore book. What surprised you the most about being a debut author versus a sophomore author?

The debut experience is a whirlwind. You have so much going on, that you don’t really get to stop and enjoy the moment. I mean, I definitely tried, but you’re worried about everything. You have no idea what you should be doing. Promoting yourself was also a constant worry. Is it too much? Too little?  There are so many things going on, which you’re not used to. 

Once it’s done, there’s almost a letdown. All that anticipation, and now it’s over. Still, there’s nothing like seeing your book in the stores and libraries. What surprised me with the second one, was the fact that I didn’t feel that much differently. I do feel validated that I’m now a published author, but many of the other worries are still there. I’m under the assumption that it’ll always be like that.

Thank you Jonathan and congrats on the new book!

And those of you who want a daily laugh, follow Jonathan on twitter. His handle is @HouseofRosen, because he's also a fashion designer in his spare time!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A Stop on the Blog Tour for SPOOKED! by Gail Jarrow

Sometimes when we spend so much thought and energy focused on all things fiction in middle grade literature, it can be easy to overlook the importance of quality non-fiction. Speaking as a teacher of middle grade readers, I can promise you the interest in non-fiction is healthy and thriving -- especially in reluctant readers.

I recently had the opportunity to read SPOOKED!, a new piece of engaging non-fiction by Gail Jarrow. SPOOKED! tells a well-researched story of the infamous “War of the Worlds” 1938 radio broadcast. I first became aware of this event when I was a young middle grader myself, watching the TV movie “The Night that Panicked America.” I was fascinated by the misunderstanding of how the whole event snowballed out of control back then, and was eager to read more about it. 

SPOOKED! didn’t disappoint. It thoroughly recounts the event, starting with how the theatrical roots of Orson Wells led him to radio and the adaptation of using the H.G. Wells novel as a radio play, set in what was then the modern day United States. Instead of just writing the book as a Wells biography, Gail Jarrow tells the reader about the other people involved as well, from the other performers and writers all the way to the people who worked in special effects and people in the general public who were caught up in the panic. The numerous references to the story being told and the way so much of the population reacted to it will probably bring a lot of young readers to the original novel. 

SPOOKED! doesn’t stop with the resolution of the radio play itself, but continues on to chronicle the aftermath. It provides dozens of anecdotal moments giving examples of how individuals were affected by the broadcast, and how the widespread reactions went as far as letters to newspapers and possible government intervention. The book ultimately stands as a strong example of why it’s so important to pay close attention to the details of the media, and how so many people can be taken in by false statements when they let that attention slip.

Gail Jarrow is the author of many popular nonfiction books, including Red Madness, Fatal Fever, and Bubonic Panic. Her books have received numerous starred reviews, awards, and distinctions, including Best Book awards from the New York Public Library, School Library Journal, the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Kirkus Reviews, and the National Science Teachers Association.

Monday, September 17, 2018

When you’re thrown a curve ball…

… you learn to catch it. Sounds pretty simple right? This coming from the girl who’s been nailed in the leg with a line drive and ended up in the hospital. Don’t worry too much this was years ago and it was just a contusion (a big scary word for a large bruise). But my leg turned pretty shades of blue, purple, red, yellow, and green and swelled up to twice its normal size. And I limped around for a solid week because my muscle would painfully tighten every time I put weight on it. And we won’t about how hard it was to put pants on.

So what does all this whining and pain have to do with writing—aside from the fact that we writers would prefer not to put on pants? About two months ago, I got thrown the mother of all curve balls in my writing career.

Things were going great. I’d landed an amazing agent, we were on our second round of edits, my manuscript was looking better than ever, and my writing was being pushed beyond what I thought possible. My agent sent me some thoughts, they seemed pretty straight forward and at the end of the email mentioned addressing these few items then some line edits and then we could go on sub. That magical “S” word. I was there. This was going to happen.

And then a week later I opened an email from my agent and my world came crumbling down. She was writing to inform me she’d taken another job in publishing and unfortunately couldn’t take her clients with her. My heart sank. What did this mean? What would it do to my career? Of course I was happy for my agent or former agent, but I couldn’t help but think how this would affect me.

After 6 months of seeing my path forward and working with an amazing agent who pushed me in ways I never imagined, I was suddenly Alice in Wonderland—lost in the dark, scary woods with a path that had suddenly been erased out from underneath my feet.

I was nowhere.

I’m sure some of you reading this are saying now hold on a minute… But at the time I was such a blubbering mess of tears and confusion that I was blind to any possibilities.

So I ask again, what do you do when you’re thrown a MASSIVE curve ball in your writing career?

Step 1: Get the heck out of the way.
Seriously, if you’re not equip to catch the ball then get out of the way. Sit down, take some time and deal with your emotions. Be sad, be angry, feel sorry for yourself. Do whatever you need to do even if that means putting writing, editing, etc. on the back burner. Take care of number 1 first.
Step 2: Call in the coach, team, and cheerleaders.
You didn’t get to this point in your writing career without a support system, and you aren’t without one now. Use them. Lean on them. Vent to them. And let them lift you up and help you find your new path. There’s one there, you’re probably blind to it, but they will help you find it.

Step 3: Step up to the plate.
When you’re ready, get back in the game. Start editing, write something new, brainstorm a new idea, outline etc. Find something that feels right and jump in. Sure the water is cold, the wind is blowing, and you might still be limping around, but you have to get up off the couch and rejoin the game.

Step 4: Take a swing.
Once you’ve got your bearings back, take that next step. Dive back into the query trenches, submit your work for publishing, take the plunge. Keep trying and don’t stop. Find that project your passionate about, put it out in the world and see what happens. Swing the bat until it connects.

Step 5: Run the bases.
Keep pushing forward. You might not make it to home plate yet, but you can’t get there if you don’t get on base. Perseverance. It’s what’s gotten you to this point and it will continue to carry you forward.

Revisit all steps as needed.

So where does this leave me in all of this? I’m somewhere between steps 4 and 5. It took some time to see that I was actually in a fairly fortunate position. I have an almost sub ready manuscript that’s never been seen by editors. I’m ready to go. Once I took some time to come to terms with my situation, I started my edits. And I generated a list of agents. I found new agents that hadn’t yet seen my manuscript and agents that expressed interest in the past that might want to see a heavily revised version.

With my newly revised, sub ready manuscript, I dove head first into the query trenches. Was it scary… OMG yes! I sat there for 30 minutes staring at the email I’d drafted before I could even hit the send button. I think this was in part because while the bruises were no longer visible, I still very much felt them. But once I did get up the courage to send that first query, each one after that became a little easier.

And when the rejections started to roll in, my heart sank a little. My pride hurt. Maybe this was a fluke. Maybe there was only one agent who liked my work. Imposter syndrome is real folks! But then came a request and some interest. So maybe I just need some more time. It took a solid almost ten years of writing and querying off and on to find my first agent, a second wouldn’t just happen overnight. Until then I wait, I write, and I keep moving forward.

Oh and I bought a glove… so I can actually catch that curve ball ;)