Monday, July 30, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Books of Elsewhere and Interview

I am so excited to blog this morning about The Books of Elsewhere series by New York Times Bestselling author Jacqueline West! 

I found the first book in this series, The Shadows, when it was announced as one of the Sasquatch Award Nominees for 2013. This award is put out by the Washington Library Media Association, and my son's class has a challenge each year for the students to read all the books on this list. I thought we would get started early this year and read a few over the summer. I think my son is quite glad I brought The Shadows home from the library for him, and he has continued with the other two books in the series, reading the third in less than a day! 

Summary: (from Old Ms. McMartin is definitely dead, and her crumbling Victorian mansion lies vacant. When eleven-year-old Olive and her dippy mathematician parents move in, Olive is right to think there's something odd about the place – not least the strange antique paintings hanging on its walls. But when she finds a pair of old glasses in a dusty drawer, Olive discovers the most peculiar thing yet: she can travel inside these paintings to Elsewhere, a place that's strangely quiet...and eerily familiar. Olive soon finds herself ensnared in a plan darker and more dangerous than she could have imagined, confronting a power that wants to be rid of her by any means necessary. It's up to her to save the house from the shadows, before the lights go out for good. 

Why it is MarvelousThis book is part adventure, part mystery and part ghost story, complete with the spooky old house. Even though the book takes place almost entirely in the house, there are lots of unique settings, from the many paintings Olive enters, to the basement and attic of the house itself. The story hidden in the paintings is a mix of the present and the past that brings in a mystery for Olive to solve. She is helped along by a trio of talking cats, that are as much a part of the house as the paintings themselves, but Olive must figure out whose side they are on before she can trust them. I love books that resonate with both boys and girls and this one does just that. Both my son (age 10) and daughter (age 8) have read and enjoyed this book, and I think most middle grade readers will too!

Interview with Jacqueline West! I was so happy Jacqueline was willing to answer a few questions for me. She recently had an excellent interview at Cracking the Cover so if you want even more information about her background and writing head over there. 

1. I heard your agent Chris Richman speak this year, and I remember two things... that he was mainly interested in MG and YA with a focus on boys and that his first couple deals as an agent went on to become New York Times Bestsellers. I didn't know about your books at the time, but I guess one of the deals he was talking about was for you and The Books of Elsewhere. Now that I look back at his bio, it also says he was interested in "books with unforgettable characters and fantasy that doesn't take itself too seriously." Between reading his wish list again and having heard him speak, I can see that he is a great agent for these books! Did you get other offers of representation and how did you know Chris was the right agent for you?

There was a pretty even mix of smart and stupid in my search for an agent. I had published many poems and short stories by that point, so I knew submission protocol. I slaved over my query letter. I researched agents and agencies very carefully, using guidebooks, websites, authors’ acknowledgements pages—everything I could find. And then I went about submitting my book in the shyest, most passive, self-deprecating-Midwestern-girl way.  

I never attended any conventions. I didn’t join any writing groups—SCBWI, CLN, or any of the other organizations that might have helped me. I didn’t have any personal or professional connections in the children’s publishing world. I also sent only a couple of query letters at a time, thinking that there was no point in rushing to be inundated with rejections, which I was sure was all I would get. As it turned out, there was some interest, and I got a couple of manuscript requests, but nothing ever quite panned out—until Chris found my letter.

At the time, Chris was a junior agent at a now-disbanded New York agency, and he picked me out of the slush pile. After he’d read the whole manuscript and we talked on the phone, I got the immediate sense that he really got my work. Because we were both new to this—I was a brand new writer, he was a brand new agent—I think we were especially open-minded, enthusiastic, and ready to take a chance on each other. As our careers have grown together, Chris has been the perfect advocate for my books. I got really, really lucky. It was the right book, at the right time, finding its way to the right people.

2. What has changed for you (personally and as an author) since your first book, The Books of Elsewhere, Volume I: The Shadows, made the New York Times Bestsellers list?

Mostly it’s meant that I get to have that little ‘A New York Times Bestseller!’ line on my books’ covers.  

It was thrilling, of course (and totally astonishing), to find out that The Shadows had made the list. The New York Times is still THE list; it’s a mark of success that people in and out of the book world recognize, so it’s often the first thing that gets mentioned when people talk about my work. In that way, it’s been a really nice bit of validation. 

But did that week on the list truly change things for me? I’m not sure. I try not to think about sales figures. Once a book is published, there is only so much that you, as the author, can do about its success. You can promote it creatively, and be a savvy social networker, and make lots of public appearances—and these are all valuable—but your real job is the writing. I try not to get tangled up in worrying about the books that are already published, because I can’t make people like them, or buy them, or review them in glowing terms. All I can do is keep writing, keep trying, and keep learning.

3. I see that there is a long list of awards for The Books of Elsewhere, Volume I: The Shadows. Do you actively pursue application for awards, and how important do you think they are in spreading the word about your work?

I’m extremely fortunate here, because I’ve got the Penguin Young Readers Group publicity and marketing teams on my side. If there is any applying to be done, they are the ones who take care of it. Other awards that I’ve won or been nominated for, like the Cybils, are completely reader/blogger driven, so they are out of the writers’ hands as well. In fact, I often find out that my work is up for an award long after the list has been announced, and other writers or readers are talking about it. (For example, I learned about the Sasquatch Award nomination thanks to your email, Julie!) 

As for how important they are in spreading the word about my work: Very. Some of the lists I’ve made, like the master list for the Texas Bluebonnet Award, or the nominees list for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers Award, are heavily promoted in schools and libraries, actively encourage kids to read and vote for their favorites, and have led to a big surge in readership in those areas. They are a wonderful, reader-centered way to spread the word, and I'm honored to have been included in so many of these programs.

4. Obviously The Books of Elsewhere have a strong appeal for both boys and girls. Did you make a conscious effort to write the books this way, and if so, how do you go about doing that? 

The Shadows was the first thing I had ever tried to write for young readers. When I started it, I had no real hopes of it being published; I just had a story that wouldn’t stop rattling around in my brain, and I wanted to see what would happen when I put in on paper. My only real goal, besides trying to finish the thing, was to write something that my brothers and I would have liked when we were kids. I’m the oldest of three, and I often read aloud to my younger brothers when we were all piled on the living room couch or wedged in the back seat of the car. We loved the Bunnicula series by James Howe, and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books, and we were utterly obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes. We liked stories that were funny and creepy at the same time, or that had odd, impossible magic happening in the real world. In that way, I guess I started writing The Books of Elsewhere with two very specific boys and one specific girl in mind. Now, knowing that my books are reaching other boys and girls who love creepy, funny, magical stories is wonderful. I hope some of them are reading my books aloud to each other, wedged in the backseats of their own families’ cars.

5.  The illustrations for The Books of Elsewhere are amazing! I was wondering if you could touch a bit on the process of (and how much involvement you had) finding the right artist for your books.

My illustrator, the brilliant Poly Bernatene, was selected by my publisher. (This seems to be the way it usually works, especially with newer authors.) As we were wrapping up revisions on The Shadows, my editor told me that Dial/Penguin had found an Argentinian artist who they thought would be the perfect illustrator for these books. I went straight to his website, checked out his portfolio, and started giggling ecstatically. You can see its beauties for yourself: 

Poly has illustrated dozens of books in all different styles, and I absolutely love the work he's done for The Books of Elsewhere. I get to see his sketches during the final editing stages, and if there are any little tweaks that need to be made, I can ask for them at this point (like 'Olive is supposed to be wearing shorts, not pants, in this scene,' etc.), but the changes I've wished for have been minor. Seeing his sketches for the first time can be almost eerie, because some of them come so close to the images I had in my own head that it feels like he's reading my mind...but of course he's just reading my book. Because he lives in Buenos Aires and speaks Spanish (and I live in Minnesota and don't), we haven't gotten to meet in person or communicate directly--but he understands my stories and settings and characters perfectly, and I'm so, so grateful.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (MMGM) was created by Shannon Messenger. To find other bloggers participating in MMGM go to her blog for a list of links.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Magic 8 Ball Meme

Thanks Kimberly at The Art of Infiltration for tagging me in this meme.
Rules for the Magic 8 Ball Meme:
1. Post the button and link to Jaycee deLorenzo (following would be nice, but not required).

2. Share an excerpt from your current WIP, perhaps something you're struggling with, are stuck on, or just can't "get right."

3. Ask a question about your excerpt. It can be something easy such as "What do you think?" or something more in-depth, such as "Can you suggest a better way to word such-and-such," or "How can I make the emotions in this scene more realistic?"

4. Tag 8 people. (I have chosen 4.) I picked these four bloggers because I would love to read an excerpt of their writing, if they are willing to share!

Heather at Random Interruptions
Sara at S.P. Bowers
Kristen at Don't Forget the Samovar
Ruth Donnelly at Readatouille

Here is an excerpt. Alex is my MC. She is age 9, in the third grade, and has just lost her diary. Her brother's name is Levi. My question is on voice. Does this come across as the voice of a nine-year-old girl?

Alex thought about what she had written in there so far this school year.  Her new teacher Mrs. Caffy was great, but she had a really big nose.  That was the first thing Alex had noticed about her on back-to-school night.  So it went in her diary. 

Emily Sparks had puked all over her desk the second week of school and Alex wrote about how gross that was.  Really, really gross! 

Alex also wrote about how sometimes she was upset with her family.  When Dad was too tired to play soccer in the backyard, and how sometimes Mom worked on her own artsy projects and didn’t include her.  And then there was Levi.  He got on her nerves tons, and that went in the diary too.

Of course there were also good things that she wrote about.  Like when Alex was the only one in her class who got all five bonus words right on their first spelling test.  Or when Lilly Mason, the most popular girl in 3rd grade, said she liked Alex’s new haircut.  But that’s what her mom said a diary is for.  When something is interesting or special enough to want to remember, you write it down.  Or if someone or something is bothering you, writing it down can make you feel better. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Inside Out & Back Again

This week I am highlighting Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. This is a 2012 Newbery Medal and 2011 National Book Award winner.

Summary: (book description from Amazon) No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.
This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.

Background: I first saw this book in the Scholastic Book Club flyer my son brought home from school. I thought the cover was sweet. Months later I saw this on the shelf at the library and grabbed it... I grab A LOT of books from the library. When I opened it at home I was surprised to see it was written in verse. I started reading but put it down, other books calling my attention. About a month later I picked it up again and read it in one afternoon.

Side note... Does anyone else think it would be the coolest thing ever to have a book (YOUR book) included in the Scholastic Book Club flyers? I think I would be in heaven... fun stuff!

Why it is Marvelous: This is the first book written in free verse that I have read. I wasn't sure what to expect and at first I thought the writing was just a bunch of sentences written in tall skinny columns. But as I read more, and thought more about the format, I realized how much impact each word of each sentence needed to have. At only 14,925 words there is no room for extra words. And I did feel the impact of the words, and the emotional turmoil of young HÀ's life turned upside down (or inside out) as well as that of the other members of her family. The author does a great job of showing the reader what it feels like to be uprooted from everything you know and love and thrown into a strange and unfamiliar environment. There is a lot of sadness in this book but there is a lot of hope... in the new life HÀ's family will build and in the kindness of a handful of people who reach out and help them.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (MMGM) was created by Shannon Messenger. To find other bloggers participating in MMGM go to her blog for a list of links.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

2,000 Words!

So my birthday was this week, and when my husband asked what I wanted, I quickly answered "time to myself to write." Secretly I wish for the same thing (time to myself - not necessarily to write) on Mothers' Day, but that would be wrong because without my kids I wouldn't be "mom" and get the chance to celebrate that day. So I do fun things with the kids. But my birthday is all about me, and that's what I asked for.

I would say I got five solid hours of writing in and completed about 2,100 words. I wasn't sure how much I was going to get done, because I don't write on any type of schedule or know my writing pace. Truthfully I was hoping for more (although there is still tonight) but at least now I know I will be done with my first draft in approximately 16 more hours of writing. I know the scenes I have left to write, and I know my ending. I think I'm in good shape.

My goal is to be finished with the first draft and any revisions by the end of summer so I can start looking for critique partners (I have one so far!) and exchanging manuscripts. I am really looking forward to the next steps in this process.

What have you accomplished lately... or hope to this summer? Motivate me! :-)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Doll People

My son just finished up 4th grade. He is in the gifted program where each teacher has a very large bookshelf filled with great selections for the kids to take home whenever they wish. One of my favorite things to do this past school year was to browse that bookshelf to get ideas for my own reading! One day I was in the classroom with my daughter and we started talking about her reading level with the teacher. My daughter just finished 2nd grade but reads above her grade level. The teacher had a whole set of The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, on hand and she let us take one home. She said this is a book she has her reluctant (girl) readers tackle and after reading it I can see why. This book is tons of fun! My daughter and I read most of this book together, but she read ahead on her own several times when she just had to find out what happened before I had time to sit down with her again!

Summary: (from - Review) - Annabelle Doll is 8 years old--and has been for over 100 years. Nothing much has changed in the dollhouse during that time, except for the fact that 45 years ago, Annabelle's Auntie Sarah disappeared from the dollhouse without a trace. After all this time, restless Annabelle is becoming more and more curious about her aunt's fate. And when she discovers Auntie Sarah's old diary, she becomes positively driven. Her cautious family tries to discourage her, but Annabelle won't be stopped, even though she risks Permanent Doll State, in which she could turn into a regular, nonliving doll. And when the "Real Pink Plastic" Funcraft family moves in next door, the Doll family's world is turned upside down--in more ways than one!

Why it is Marvelous: This book is all about good, clean, adventurous fun! I love the imaginative world these authors have created and the wonderful illustrations (by Brian Selznick of The Invention of Hugo Cabret) that bring it to life. The details of doll life provide a lot of humorous situations that keep the overall feel of this book light-hearted. The pace is moved along by the mystery of Auntie Sarah's disappearance, and Annabelle Doll's and her new friend Tiffany's determination to find her. Throw in a pesky house cat that must be avoided at all costs, until the end where he might be their only saving grace, and you have a captivating adventure that I found hard to put down!

There are three books in this series: The Doll People (2003), The Meanest Doll in the World (2005), and The Runaway Dolls (2008). Their popularity continues through today as they are still well stocked at Barnes and Noble, ready for the next young (or old) reader to fall in love. 

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (MMGM) was created by Shannon Messenger. To find other bloggers participating in MMGM go to her blog for a list of links.

Friday, July 13, 2012

What I Learned from Filipino Soaps

I recently spent some time at my in-laws' house and got to watch a few of the soaps on TFC (The Filipino Channel) with my mother-in-law paraphrasing them for me. One of the main differences between American and Filipino soaps is that after about six months the Filipino soap will end and a new story begins. And let me tell you, they have some crazy stories unfolding on TFC!
  1. In this story a 10-year-old boy has just woken up from 30 years in a cryonic sleep. He wakes up to find his fortune, along with almost everyone he loves gone. He tracks down his playmate (a girl he had a mock wedding with) who is now a single mother and tries to court her, but of course he is still a child and she is in her late thirties! When I left the boy was back in the hospital as they were not sure he was completely cured of a rare disease, which was the initial reason for the cryonic sleep.
  2. A woman holds her adult daughter hostage and threatens to throw her off the top of a building. But the daughter is actually her sister's biological daughter. Years before the two sisters had babies at the same time and when the woman kills someone her sister is blamed and goes to jail. The woman takes care of both babies but there is an accident and her own baby dies. She tells her sister that the sister's baby died and then keeps her sister's baby to raise as her own. There are more crazy things going on in this one that I just couldn't keep straight.
As I am typing this I realize that I have no comparison on the crazy part because I have never watched American soaps. So maybe ours are even crazier! But I was also thinking that my mother-in-law L.O.V.E.S. these shows so maybe a little crazy thrown in my own stories wouldn't be such a bad thing. I think the key in writing realistic fiction is to find a balance where there are some fantastical elements (to keep the story interesting and dramatic) but not so much that they push it over to fantasy.

What do you think? If you write realistic fiction, how do you keep the story crazy interesting while maintaining believability. How do you keep it real?