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 www.jacquelinewest.com) 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 Marvelous: This 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: http://www.polybernatene.com/
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.