Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review and Interview with Danielle Davis, Author of Zinnia and the Bees, and a BOOK GIVEAWAY!

I am thrilled to review Danielle Davis' debut middle grade novel, Zinnia and The Bees today!

I got a chance to read an ARC of this book and adored it!

The Story:

Talk about having a lousy day. While Zinnia's seventh grade classmates are celebrating the last day of school, she's cooped up in the vice principal's office, serving detention. Her offense? Yarn bombing a statue of the school mascot. And when Zinnia rushes home to commiserate with her older brother, Adam, who also happens to be her best friend, she's devastated to discover that he's left home with no explanation. Just when it looks like Zinnia's day can't possibly get any worse, a colony of frantic honeybees mistakes her hair for a hive and lands on her head! Told from the alternating perspectives of Zinnia a humorous young loner and knitter and an unintentionally comical hive of honeybees, this quirky, heartfelt novel will strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt alone, betrayed, or misunderstood as it explores the challenges that come with learning to trust yourself and the often messy process of discovering the true meaning to home.

My review of the book:

I loved the book so much I read it in one sitting. Zinnia is having a terrible summer. Her beloved older brother Adam left home in the night to get away from their overbearing mother (whom Zinnia refers to using her formal name Dr. Flossdrop, she's on the outs with her best friends, her mom's just rescued the creepiest dog, and a strange boy has moved in next door. Oh yeah, and bees have nested in her head! A wonderful story about dealing with unresolved pain and fear, and learning to trust, this book, beautifully written by Danielle Davis, is sure to be beloved by all middle graders who read Zinnia's story. A true delight!

The Interview:

Q1. One of the rawest things about the book is Zinnia’s brother, Adam, taking off. We don’t often see a sibling doing that in MG fiction. Can you speak about sibling bonds in MG fiction?

I think in middle grade fiction, siblings can often be found on the sidelines as main characters navigate their way in the world outside the home, in friendships and new experiences. But I’ve read some wonderful books recently in which sibling relationships are key, providing both conflict and, ultimately, connection and heart. In Karuna Riazi’s The Gauntlet, Farah’s little brother provides the impetus for Farah to play a dangerous game in order to save him. In Elana K. Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat (though more of a chapter book), Bat’s older sister serves as both antagonist and ally and adds realism to the story. And Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest, Hello, Universe, has one character whose little sister is a constant part of her world, her partner, with all the nuance that entails. And in her earlier book, The Land of Forgotten Girls, Soledad is also an older sibling, looking out for her little sister in the midst of a very difficult situation.

In terms of story mechanics for my book, Adam, Zinnia’s best friend and older brother, leaves her high and dry because I needed Zinnia to be reeling and feel like everything was out of her control. The bees arriving on her head after Adam departs are almost a metaphor for that out of control feeling (and what it can feel like for many kids as they navigate the sometimes itchy, new, uncomfortable, and out-of-control process of growing up).

Adam striking out on his own independent journey feels to Zinnia like she’s lost him forever. But in the end, the sibling bond changing doesn’t equal its permanent loss. It stretches and flexes in order to allow for growth.

Q2. Another brilliant thing about the book is that Zinnia isn’t always easy to get along with and struggles with friendships. Did you decide early on that was Zinnia was experiencing would also be experienced by the bees?

This book was seven or eight years on and off in the making, so it’s hard for me to remember the origin of my decisions, but I checked some of my oldest drafts and the bees’ narrations were in fact there since the beginning! At the time, Colony Collapse Disorder and the bee disappearance were in the news a lot. I’d also heard a story of industrial bees, which is a real thing. Beekeepers travel with bees that are used to pollinate fruit and vegetables all over the country. Amazing, right? I was drawn to the idea of personifying a fictional group of them who are looking for something more in life, a home and a lifestyle like the bees who roam on their own. And I hoped the bees had potential as the collective character I envisioned—communal, overly dramatic, existential, and hilarious without meaning to be. (I really love those bees!)

I think in terms of Zinnia and the honeybees having a parallel experience, that’s something that developed naturally. The bees are literally stuck, searching for a home and without much hope of finding a new one (and blaming poor Bee 641 for scouting such an improper hive on Zinnia’s head!). At the same time, Zinnia feels stuck with the bees and is searching for her own home in a more figurative sense. She’s looking to feel at home with herself and others, and to trust herself as well as the people in her life.

Q3. A theme that really resonated with me in the book was that of control. Zinnia’s mom, Dr. Flossdrop (brilliant name BTW!) tries to control her world by marching through it in an almost mechanical, demanding way, Zinnia almost recreates the same thing by not sharing that a hive of bees is nesting in her hair. I love when kids discover that their parents are also fallible - how did you know just how far to take your characters before they would have been cartoon-ish?

I am an admirer or fairy tales, as well as fiction that has strangeness or a little bit of magic. Aimee Bender is one of my favorite writers, for example. I was introduced to her work (she’s an L.A. writer) when I worked as a teacher’s assistant at a nearby community college, and her stories were a big influence when I started writing. Shaun Tan’s picture books have also been hugely influential. So, I really like elements of the bizarre in stories while simultaneously trying to portray real, true emotions. I guess I wanted to write a story that was whimsical and a bit larger than life but felt relatable too. And the same goes for the characters that populate it who are, yes, pretty zany, especially the supporting characters. There’s birdwatching Birch, France-obsessed, baker Aunt Mildred, and neighbor and ergonomic coach Lou. And also useful Dr. Flossdrop who presents perfectly on track to everyone else, but who, we come to find out, feels fairly lost herself. One of the joys of middle grade is having fun while creating—so I had a lot of fun dreaming up these characters! And I’ve always seen the story as an animated film in my head, so that might’ve had something to do with the zany factor as well.

Q4. What’s next??

I’m currently working on a chapter book, and I have some picture book projects too. And I’m soon to return to another middle grade manuscript that I’ve been away from for a few years to see if it still feels tangible for me after all this time.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you about Zinnia and the Bees on Middle Grade Minded!

Where to find Danielle:

At her website
on Twitter

The Giveaway!

Capstone Publishing has graciously offered to give away a copy of Zinnia and the Bees! Leave a message below, between now and Friday, sharing your own experience with bees!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, July 28, 2017

Most Common Query Flaws I See as a Pitch Wars Mentor

If you don’t know what Pitch Wars is, you probably should! It’s a contest that hooks querying authors up with established authors and editors to help their books become “publishing” ready. Read more about it here:

My job? First, I get emailed a bunch of submissions from people who are interested in me as mentor. They come in very much like a query to an agent. Query, and first chapter. I read through all my submissions and am allowed to choose ONE to mentor. The amount of submissions vary year to year, category to category and mentor to mentor but so far I’ve averaged around 80 submissions. That’s 80 query and chapters to read through in a couple weeks, and that’s not including the full manuscripts I’ll request. And honestly? The hardest part is choosing only one.

No, not kidding. I’m convinced that the quality that comes in through Pitch Wars is higher than the average slush pile (not that I can compare, I’ve never peeked inside and agents inbox but I’ve heard stories!)

So how can you stack the deck? How do you make sure your query is on my list of "Yesses!"? How I pick my "THE ONE!" is honestly pretty personal, just whichever story I connect with for whatever reason. But you can do a lot of things to make sure you're at least one of the stories I agonize over not picking. So here are some of the most common issues I see in my submissions. You may noticed they go a bit beyond the basics, because, like I said, the qaulity in Pitch Wars is pretty high!

1) Confusing query

Some books are easier to pitch than others, that’s a simple truth. I’ve written books nearly impossible to write a great query for and others that just flow from my little typing fingers like honey. To you, as the author, it all makes sense. You know this story in and out—but I don’t. Sometimes it’s really hard to take a step back and look at it through fresh eyes to see the gaps in logic. It probably makes perfect sense in the book, but in this tiny one page summary… it doesn’t. The solution? Other people need to read your query and not just your critique partners. You need fresh eyes, someone who knows nothing about your book (also, preferably other writers. Non-writers just don’t quite understand what is expected out of a query) that can point out places they get confused. 

2) The story is missing the “why?”

 I’ve noticed this a lot, I remember tweeting about it as I read my submissions last year. Most of you understand that you need “stakes” in your query, but stakes aren’t quite so powerful if we don’t understand why _______will happen if your character doesn’t ______. How does it connect? One big one is, why YOUR CHARACTER needs to be the one to do it. What are his personal stakes in this? Why was he chosen? Why not someone else? If there are 100 people out also trying to save the world, well, if your character fails, someone else may succeed. That sucks out the tension.

3) Confusing first pages

One part of this are pages that don’t fit the query. This can get tricky with multiple POV books but if your query hooked me, I want to start reading that story, not a different one. Make sure they feel connected. Another part is trying too hard to hook with high intensity but not grounding the reader. It’s VERY important that we understand the surroundings, characters and their immediate goals right away. 

4) Overlooking character

Plot vs Character is an old debate and personally, I’m hooked by great ideas. I love concepts. What ifs. Something new and exciting! But if I don’t care about the people involved in those great ideas? It’s all for not. I won’t keep reading. Personally, I don’t think plot and character should be fighting each other, they should be working together. You need BOTH. Personal stakes are just as important as external stakes. 

5) Pages that require the query to make sense

Something is stated in the query then it’s just assumed we’ll know that in the pages. Your pages must stand alone. Don’t look at them like a pair, look at them individually. Will my pages hook a reader if they haven’t read the query? Will my query hook a reader without knowing anything about the story? The story is the important part, the query is just a tool used to convince people to read your story.

6) Not showing us what’s special

This is honestly the number one reason a query goes in my no folder. There have been millions of books published. There are thousands upon thousands of books being queried right now. If your book doesn’t stand out, if you don’t show me something, anything new, for me to latch onto, it’ll get buried alive. It won’t stand out on a book shelf, the same way it won’t stand out in the slush pile. Often, we find trends in our queries. Not publishing trends, just things that for whatever reason, several people decided to write at once. You’ll hear mentors talking about these, “A lot of red heads in my queries this year.” “Wow, that’s the fourth friendly ghost story I’ve seen so far”. Those things don’t mean the kiss of death. One of those friendly ghost stories might be AWESOME because it has something super unique about it that the others don’t. It might be an *amazing* voice or writing style that flows with the story (my very first mentee was like that. About a girl who sees a boy’s spirit. Not overly unique. But her setting and voice and atmosphere was THROUGH THE ROOF and I couldn’t get it out of my head). But not everyone has that kind of writing style (I don’t) so you find another way. A twist, a unique setting, an unexpected tone. 

So think about this, just assume, for arguments sake, that there are several other books being entered into Pitch Wars with a similar story as yours. How will yours stand out? You wrote a mystery with a whodunit, why will I choose yours over the other 5? You wrote a romance. Why is yours the one I’ll remember over the others? No, you don’t need to add in Cyclopes clowns to make me remember you. Make it something real. Something engaging. Something that gets my mind spinning through the possibilities. What will engage and hook one mentor will be different for another, so don’t worry about that. Not everyone will love your work. Just make sure, somehow, it stands out. Show me what is special about your story. Show me how your future publisher will market you. 

If you can stand out, explain the story in a way I can understand, include compelling emotions in your characters,  with decent writing and it all fits into my wishlist, you'll very likely find yourself in my (much too long, I'm sure) want pile!

This year, I'm mentoring YA with the lovely Rebecca Sky, you can find out more about the submissions we're hoping to receive here:

Good luck Pitch Warriors!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: The World's Greatest Adventure Machine by Frank L. Cole

Trevor (the troublemaker), Devin (the internet star), Cameron (the genius), and Nika (the reserved) just won the Castleton's contest to be the first to ride the World's Greatest Adventure Machine, a new, state-of-the-art roller coaster. As the adventure unfolds, the four winners begin to suspect there's more to their fellow participants than meets the eye. And if trusting their fellow riders isn't enough, the ride seems to have a mind of it's own, putting Trevor, Devin, Cameron, and Nika on an wild and twisted adventure they couldn't imagine in their wildest dreams. But as they embark on their journey it seems the adventure machine has other plans for them and if they aren't careful they might never get off the ride.

The thing that stood out for me the most in this story were the characters. Each were unique and fun to follow in their own right. And as the reader learned more about them, it was easier to fall deeper and deeper into their story. It was fun to see what would come up in the adventure next and watch how the characters would react and affect how the story unfolded. It was also incredibly endearing to watch the characters get to know themselves better through interacting with each other through their experiences on the ride.

This story also had many great, entertaining, and unexpected moments. It kept the reader guessing about the characters and the plot as things progressed. It was almost impossible to predict what would come up next on the ride but was fun to experience it as the characters did.

This is an exciting story that middle grade readers will get lost in and love to follow Trevor, Devin, Cameron, and Nika through their adventure. There's humor, danger, and twists and turns to keep any young reader engaged from beginning to end. I recommend this for any Middle Grade reader looking for a fun adventure.

*ARC generously provided by Penguin Random House Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath

When I was a kid, my favorite books and movies were often stories about characters bored with their ordinary lives who were suddenly pulled into adventuring through exciting and potentially dangerous worlds they hadn’t known existed. The characters had to learn how to navigate these new worlds as the story went on, even as they pressed forward to solve whatever problems had dragged them there in the first place.

The book HYACINTH AND THE SECRETS BENEATH, by Jacob Sager Weinstein, reminded me a lot of those stories. Boiled down to its core, this book is a chase that only momentarily lets up long enough to let another part of the chase begin. It’s told in first person by a strong main character with a healthy dose of snark in her voice, and an even greater willingness to roll with all of the strange things happening around her.

Hyacinth is the type of girl who confronts the problems and changes that happen in her life, preparing herself for what may come by learning as much as she can. Someone in her family is an unreliable DIY worker? She teaches herself plumbing basics in case she has to fix things. She and her mother are relocating from America to live with her aunt in London? She reads about her new city to familiarize herself with its extensive history. 

The problem is that after settling in at her aunt’s home, she quickly learns that almost everything she thought she knew about the city and its extensive history is completely wrong. There’s an enormous separate world filled with magic in the sewers just beneath London that drives and connects the fate of the city above. When Hyacinth learns she has unwittingly put the entire city in danger, she’s guided into this world to both try and repair her mistakes and rescue her kidnapped mother. She meets up with a collection of strange creatures and even stranger people throughout her adventure, many of them being not what they first seem. 

The mystery that begins the adventure starts in the first pages of the book and continues relentlessly to the very end. I've seen too many students in the past few years abandon books because they weren't captured by the story in the very first pages. This would be a good book to match with readers looking for something imaginative and exciting that hits the ground running.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Using Music to Spark Your Muse

Stuck staring at a blank page (or screen)? Feel like life has squeezed the creativity out of you? 

Believe it or not, the answer is in your iphone. Or wherever you store your favorite tunes. Music is a fab tool for overcoming writers block and fueling your imagination. 

Research shows that when people listen to music (especially songs they enjoy), their creativity and problem-solving abilities increase. Music can enhance abstract thinking and allow listeners to enter a mind-wandering mode, which is known to promote creative thought.

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Listen to a wide variety of genres

This trick takes your brain down new, exciting pathways. Branch out from your standard playlist and try out a song that might usually make you cringe. If that cringe-worthy feeling is enough to send shudders down your spine, just think of the emotion it could elicit in your readers. 

You may also find yourself enjoying a whole new style of music, once you give it a chance. Use the new lyrics and beats as springboards for your imagination. Study the style and ask yourself why it works. What about this song made it good enough to be played on the radio? Studying the rhythms and ideas of a wide variety of music can help generate ideas in your own work. 

Use music as a writing prompt

This is a fun way to stir up those creative juices. Choose a song at random from your playlist (or alternatively, turn on the radio!). Think of one of your main characters. Then listen to a 10-30 second clip of the song, with that character in mind.

See what new images, conflicts, and inspiration arise when you link the character to the feelings or words of the song. Then do a timed free write. Why timed? Because pressure can really stimulate your imagination. But if pressure shuts you down, turn the timer off. Either way, you’ll have plenty to write about.

Play inspiring tracks in the background while you write

Inspiring doesn't necessarily mean uplifting. Instead, choose music that reflects the rhythm of the scene you are trying to write or that elicits the same emotion you intend to evoke. 

For instance, the soundtrack from Pirates of the Caribbean is great to listen to when you’re writing fight scenes. It’s quick-paced, intense, and laced with a sense of danger. On the other hand, Taylor Swift’s Love Story might inspire just the right emotions for a tender-sweet romance.

Do you listen to music when you write or use it for writing prompts? If so, share some of your fave writing tunes below!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Best. Night. Ever. ARC Giveaway

  Top Seven Reasons To Read Best. Night. Ever. (On sale 8/15/17) :
1. Seven points of view and seven (yes, seven!) authors:  (Rachele Alpine, Ronni Arno, Alison Cherry, Stephanie Faris,
Jen Malone, Gail Nall, and Dee Romito)

2. A soapy plan to sabotage the Heart Grenade teen band


 3. A quacking, locker room duck parade and a wild-goose-slash-duck chase

4. An adventurous ride on a lawnmower known as “The Munchinator”


5. A creek that’s colder than an iceberg mixed with a Popsicle mixed with the look Mom gives when you threaten to slam the bedroom door in the middle of one of her lectures.

6. Third grade twins who own a forty-seven-thousand-button remote, but no curling iron.

7. A guy who makes a HUGE mistake—saying yes to two girls. (Spoiler alert: He may or may not turn into a frozen, sputtering, multicolored glitter statue.)

For a chance to win an ARC of this epic middle school adventure, leave a comment and your email below. A winner will be drawn at random.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Interview with Alexandra Ott + Giveaway

I recently got the opportunity to speak with the amazing Alexandra Ott about her debut middle grade novel, RULES FOR THIEVES. It's the story of twelve-year-old Alli Rosco, an orphan who's forced to join a legendary band of thieves in order to try and save herself from a deadly curse. And, in honor of her new release, I'll be giving away a free copy of the book!!!

Rules for Thieves is a story about curses, thieves and life-or-death adventure, so…is it based on real life?

Alli’s story is entirely fictional. After all, I’m not a magically cursed member of a secret band of thieves in real life . . . as far as anyone knows. ;)

What drew you to writing for middle grade readers?

I loved reading middle fiction as a kid (and still do). It’s so fun, and full of adventure as well as heart. It was middle grade fiction that really made me fall in love with reading when I was younger. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for RULES FOR THIEVES came from—thinking about the stories I loved as a kid and how I might write one of my own.

What has been the most surprising part of becoming a real-life big time author?

The most surprising thing about being published, for me, is how much time I have to spend doing things other than writing. I always used to imagine being an author would mean spending all day typing at my keyboard, but I do lots of other things too. Some of them are boring business-related tasks, but others are fun--like this interview, for instance!

What advice would you give to young people interested in writing?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Love what you write. Don’t give up.

Bonus: Please tell me more about your canine overlord.

My canine overlord is a nine-year-old Lhasa Apso named Penny. She likes to assist with my writing process by sitting underneath my desk and giving me sad looks when I spend too much time paying attention to the computer instead of her. She’s fluffy and adorable, so she knows I can’t resist. :)

Thanks so much Alexandra for stopping by!!! And now for the contest!

If you'd like to enter to win a copy of Alexandra's amazing book, RULES FOR THIEVES, please respond to the following question in the comments by 7/15. What rule do you most enjoy breaking? Good luck!

More About Alexandra Ott

Alexandra Ott holds a B.A. in English from the University of Tulsa. She currently lives in Oklahoma with her tiny canine overlord. Rules for Thieves is her debut novel. Visit her online at and on Twitter @Alexandra_Ott.