The Benefits of Critique

Last weekend I drove 2-1/2 hours to participate in a Agent/Editor Day with my New England SCBWI chapter. The day was focused on middle grade and young adult manuscripts, and we had the opportunity to share the first chapter of our novel with 2 different agents or editors. We received feedback from two agents/editors, as well as the other participants.

I had participated in SCBWI conferences before, but this was my first Agent/Editor Day. I shared the first chapter of the novel I am currently working on, called Modern Girls. I was nervous going into the day, a range of thoughts swirling through my head from “What if they hate it?” to “I hope they like the characters as much as I do.”

I was pleasantly surprised, and thoroughly enjoyed the insight of the two editors, Monica Perez from Charlesbridge and Stephanie Kasheta from Merit Press. They each asked different questions and challenged me in different areas. I felt buoyed by the positive reinforcement on my character development, learned what areas hold more opportunity for exploration, and what questions I still need to ask myself about my characters and their relationships. In addition, I enjoyed listening to all of the other stories shared – fantasy, science fiction, adventure, mystery, and animal stories. Such creativity all in one room!

I do know the power of critique- it’s one of the reasons I joined a critique group many years ago and still benefit from their wisdom (besides the best part – they are wonderful women and writers!). My critique group keeps me focused, encourages me to keep going through the hard work of writing and revising, and are partners with me on my journey to become a better writer. Joanna and Anne are invaluable to me, and I hope I am able to provide them with an ounce of the honest and beneficial feedback they give me every month.

What I learned last weekend was that we must always be searching for how to write more concisely, look at our characters a different way, and better express those ideas in our heads. We must steel ourselves to truly hear the feedback, digest it, and decide how (or not) to incorporate it into our work.

My critique partner Joanna introduced us to Lisa Crohn’s Story Genius, and I applied what I learned from it to completely rewrite the first chapter of my novel. It is that rewrite that I took to my critique group, and that rewrite that I took to the Agent/Editor Day. Being open to the feedback, whether it be from trusted critique partners, craft books, or industry strangers, will hopefully help me to write my best novel yet.

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Author Profile: Andrea Beaty

Today, we are taking a deeper dive into the world of author Andrea Beaty. Andrea writes board books, picture books, and middle grade novels and you may know her from some of her most famous books, Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect. She partnered with illustrator David Roberts on those two books, as well as a new book coming out (tomorrow!) called Ada Twist, Scientist.

Andrea’s books all feature characters with their own dreams, passions, and ideas. They see opportunities in the world around them, and it is fun to watch them express themselves. In several of her books, she uses rhyming prose with a dash of whimsy in order to make the flow work while playing with the details (my kids and I love that Madame Chapeau goes to Chez Snooty-Patoot every year for her birthday). In the other books where rhyming is not used, the prose still flows and is a joy to read out loud. My son said that When Giants Come to Play was like a poem.

Our favorite Andrea Beaty books are:
Rose Revere, EngineerHappy Birthday Madame Chapeau Iggy Peck, ArchitectWhen Giants Come to Play
Rosie Revere, Engineer is a part of our home library, and it is on frequent rotation. I enjoy the models Ms. Beaty’s story children provide for developing young minds – that even though you may be misunderstood or challenged in your ideas, you should stay true to who you are and be perserverant in your goals.

We had just finished reading Roald Dahl’s The BFG in our house when we read When Giants Come to Play, and it was a nice counterpoint to some of the hideous giants featured in The BFG.

Some other books from this author that I have not yet read: Dorko the Magnificient, Hide and Sheep, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies, and Secrets of the Cicada Summer. We’ll be adding them to our library queue soon!

What is your favorite Andrea Beaty book? Please share in the comments!

Schools Out! Summer Reading Challenge

School has been out for a few weeks now, and we are fully embracing all parts of summer: lots of swimming, bike riding, tree climbing, camping, and reading. My kids will read anywhere – on the couch, in a nice shady spot on the grass, or even up a tree!

While my son is an avid reader and my daughter is an excited emerging reader, I want to make sure their summer is full of adventures, creative stories, and high quality children’s literature. So I am giving them each a summer reading challenge. They each received a list of 20 books tailored to their ability, grade level, and favorite author/genres. If they read 10 books from their lists by the end of the summer, they get a toy or book.

So what’s on their lists?

Aidan

  1. Harry Potter – Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling
  2. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
  3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg
  4. The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart
  5. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Chris Grabstein
  6. Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things, Cynthia Vogt
  7. An Army of Frogs, Trevor Pryce
  8. The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo
  9. Homer Price, Robert McCloskey
  10. Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson
  11. Book of Scavenger, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
  12. Dragon Rider, Cornelia Funke
  13. The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, Kate Saunders
  14. The Zoo at the Edge of the World, Eric Kahn Gale
  15. The BFG, Roald Dahl
  16. A Long Way from Chicago, Richard Peck
  17. The Island of Dr. Libris, Chris Grabstein
  18. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
  19. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
  20. I Am Malala (Young Readers Edition), Malala Yousafzai

Elizabeth

  1. I Am a Rock, Jean Marzollo
  2. Hop on Pop, Dr. Seuss
  3. Cat the Cat Who is That? Mo Willems
  4. See Me Run, Paul Meisel
  5. Mitten, Lois M. Shaefer
  6. When I Get Bigger, Mercer Mayer
  7. Swimmy, Leo Lionni
  8. The Thank You Book (Elephant and Piggie), Mo Willems
  9. Can I Play Too? (Elephant and Piggie), Mo Willems
  10. Let’s Go For a Drive (Elephant and Piggie), Mo Willems
  11. I Will Take a Nap (Elephant and Piggie), Mo Willems
  12. Are You Ready to Play Outside? (Elephant and Piggie), Mo Willems
  13. A Big Guy Took My Ball (Elephant and Piggie), Mo Willems
  14. The Magic Rabbit, Annette LeBlanc Cate
  15. The Worst Helper Ever, Richard Scarry
  16. Pete the Cat: Pete at the Beach, James Dean
  17. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, Doreen Cronin
  18. Llama, Llama Time to Share, Anna Dewdney
  19. Oliver, Sid Hoff
  20. Finding Nemo: Best Dad in the Sea

Lots of fun things to read, and much for me to enjoy reading aloud and along with the kids.

What children’s books do you consider essential summer reading? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Love and Romance

I hope this post finds you all feeling loved on this Valentine’s Day weekend. Here in the Northeast, we are trying desperately to stay warm and snuggly with temperatures in the double digits below zero.

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So do you consider Valentine’s Day to be about romance, love, another attempt by businesses to get more of your money, or a reminder of how we should treat our loved ones all year long? Or a combination of these? As the holiday approached this year and I am knee deep in writing a middle grade novel where two girls discover dating, it made me think about the role of romance and love in children’s literature.

Let’s start with the idea that middle grade novels are about pre-teens testing their boundaries and beginning the journey of self-discovery. And teenagers are focused on breaking out of the system and forging their own paths. So with that logic, experiencing romance is a part of that self discovery. What do I like about the opposite (or same) gender? What do I expect from a relationship? How do I expect to be treated? What makes me happy? What tells me that I am valued, appreciated, and desired? How do I show affection? How do I make a connection with someone else? (As I write this list, it makes me think that romance and love is a work in progress for our whole lives.)

It would then follow that as teenagers (with some of these ideals formed) that they would begin to break out of what society expects. Perhaps they experiment with the content of their relationships, or they choose unconventional partners, or they choose to opt out of the whole “have to have a boyfriend/girlfriend” ideal.

And then to add complexity to the forming of their idea of what love is, we overlay their non-romantic relationships: mom, dad, siblings, extended family, and best friends. Sometimes these relationships are their example/non-example for how to form a relationship, or they use these non-romantic relationships as experiments for what might work in their romantic relationships.

So, despite certain trends to make literature more edgy (YA in particular), I think that a fuller exploration of how young people explore romance and love is much more interesting. And if done correctly and honestly, it will connect better with young readers’ internal experiences, regardless of the time in which the novel is written.

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

51YuPuZ0efLChains follows Isabel, a young slave, on her quest for freedom during the Revolutionary War. I admit it took me a few chapters to embrace the story, but once it picked up (or once I wasn’t distracted by life, really) I was entranced. Anderson made the American Revolution come alive through her attention to historical detail and skill at weaving believable fictitious characters and desires with historical events. I loved the characters–especially Isabel and her sister Ruth. Isabel is looking for freedom, and she’ll side with whomever she thinks might help her attain it. This wonderful middle grade novel would provide ample opportunities to talk about race, freedom, and our nation’s history.

Chains is the first book in Anderson’s Seeds of America Trilogy. The second book Forge received this review from Kirkus. Some readers might find it “one of the best novels they have ever read.” What a statement. I’m heading to the library today! The third installment in the trilogy, Ashes, has not yet been published (as far as I can tell).

For readers capable of appreciating mature topics such as PTSD or eating disorders, Anderson has a wealth of novels, including Wintergirls, Speak, and the recent The Impossible Knife of Memory. All amazing.

New Years Follow-up: Katie shared her goals and inspirational word for the new year in last week’s post. My word is courage. Now that I’ve finished my MFA (!) I need to take some risks. Whether it’s finishing the revision of my current work in progress or submitting said revision to agents, I’ll need to adopt an assertive attitude toward what comes next. Here’s to a courageous 2015!

Point of View

I am working on a new novel, and have been struggling with the appropriate point of view for my characters. There are two teenage girl protagonists, so I initially challenged myself to write it in a close third person. The problem is, close third does not feel close enough.

After much internal wrangling, many discussions with my critique group, and the opinions of some teachers/published authors, I have decided to try first person with alternating chapters. I have not ready many middle grade/young adult novels that successfully alternate between two distinct characters, especially of the same gender. A few books have been recommended to me, including Because of Mr. Terupt (multiple voices) and Gemini Bites.

Are there other books that you have read that you would recommend? 

Wish me luck! I’m off to rewrite the beginning, where hopefully I can make these two girls jump off the page.

Middle Grade Review: The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove

World building is no small task, and S.E. Grove raises the bar exponentially in her debut book, The Glass Sentence. The story follows thirteen-year-old Sophia Tims as she rushes to save her kidnapped uncle, Shadrack Elli, a renowned cartographer. But Sophia isn’t simply riding trains and sailing ships through a familiar world. Years prior, the Great Disruption altered time, leaving each continent in a different age, some countries a mixture of various eras in human history. And hot on Sophia’s tail are the very people who abducted her uncle!

Overall, I enjoyed The Glass Sentence. I cared about Sophia, a spunky, precocious, but ultimately lonely girl who barely blinks at the tasks ahead of her. Each chapter provided an unexpected twist, making it very difficult (for me anyway) to predict where the action of the story would take Sophia. This book required patience to read (and to write, I’m sure!), but I did find that each time I had a question about how the world worked or why a new character was introduced, Grove provided an answer or at least the suggestion of one. There were a lot of characters–at every turn Sophia ran into a new person, it seemed–and at times I wondered if there were too many to flesh each one out adequately. That said, as the story develops, each character fell into place. I had many “aha!” moments (and I did say them aloud) during the second half of the book, and I’m glad I didn’t put it down. This story is definitely one to stick with.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves new worlds with unexpected rules and lots of plot twists and characters. There’s a few scary people (the men with grappling hooks on the cover were creepy to me), and a few moments of very age-appropriate romance.

Don’t be surprised at the end, as I was. This is a series! One of my pet peeves is reading a book thinking it’s a stand-alone, only to discover that the story isn’t over. Nothing against series in general. I just like to know ahead of time. 🙂

I learned about this book from Indie Bound’s Indie Next List newsletter. I get the newsletters at my local independent bookstore, and find it them a great resource for new books. To check out their summer recommendations for kid lit (the fall link wasn’t available), find them here.

And here’s my plug for independent book sellers. I picked up my copy this summer at Powell’s City of Books, one of the largest independent new and used bookstores in the world. If you’re in Portland, Oregon, visiting Powell’s is a must! I never leave without a sizable stack of books. To buy The Glass Sentence from Powell’s (they ship), click here.

Hard Work, Persistence, and a Little Luck

I double checked the content, took a deep breath, and clicked Submit. The first 50 pages of my middle grade novel and a synopsis went whizzing off to the inbox of an agent.

As you regular readers will know, I am referring to my beloved first novel that I have labored over for the last two years (ugh- has it really been that long?). Through hard work, persistence, lots of herbal tea, and much support from my critique group it is finally ready.

So now what? It is out of my hands and hopefully an agent will fall in love with it. All I can do for the next 4 weeks (their typical response time) is cross my fingers, pray, and hope. Any good thoughts you can send my way would be much appreciated.

Now that I have finally finished the synopsis and submitted the novel, I have no more excuses for putting off writing new stories. Sure, I have another novel to revise but what I really need is a creative jumpstart. My journals are bursting with ideas – perhaps the next book is just waiting to be freed from the pages.

 

Caldecott and Newbery Winners announced

This past Monday, two of the premier awards for children’s books were announced: the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. The Caldecott is awarded annually for distinction in picture book illustration. The Newbery is awarded for distinction in children’s book writing. You can learn more on the American Library Association’s website.

This year’s winners include:

Caldecott Medal: This Is Not My Hat, illustrated and written by Jon Klassen

Caldecott Honors:

  • Creepy Carrots!, illustrated by Peter Brown, written by Aaron Reynolds
  • Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett
  • Green, illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
  • One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small, written by Toni Buzzeo
  • Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Mary Logue

Newbery Medal: The One and Only Ivan, written by Katherine Applegate

Newbery Honors:

Congratulations to all of the winners! Looks like this is an extra good year for Jon Klassen.

So my mission today was to venture into the smallish Barnes and Noble in my town with my daughter, and spend some time looking through the books listed above. The only two I have read previously are Extra Yarn, and One Cool Friend (which we own). Unfortunately, my bookstore had NONE of these award winners. Very disappointing. I could go on and on how our Barnes and Noble needs to move into the space vacated by Borders so that it can have a proper selection, cafe, and places to sit… but that could be a whole post in itself.

So I will have to share my impressions on these books at a later time. I can tell you that both Extra Yarn (a tale about a girl who finds a magic box of yarn and proceeds to knit sweaters for everyone and everything) and One Cool Friend (about a boy who sneaks a penguin home from the aquarium in his backpack) are lovely, and are made even more charming by their illustrations.

Tomorrow I’m off to the winter conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I should have much to tell when I get back. Have a great weekend!

NaNoWriMo… 2 Months Later

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was in November, and you may remember that the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during between November 1st and November 30th. I boldly (or insanely, depending on how you look at it) took on the challenge.

Since I typically write picture books and middle grade novels, I adapted the challenge for my needs. My goal was to write two middle grade novels in November, totaling 50,000 words.

So how did it go?

I finished the first draft of one brand new novel, about a brother and sister who discover a portal in their hall closet that takes them to 1983. It was quite fun to write, since the girl in the story is 10 years old, and I was 10 years old in 1983. (Go ahead, do the math. I dare you.) I really enjoyed adding in many references to 80’s hair band music, parachute pants, big hair, the Atari and other “new technology”. I’m sure some of it will end up being removed in revision, but I enjoyed it just the same.

So, one novel draft down. Check! Unfortunately, this first novel came in well under 25,000 words. So I wasn’t at the halfway point yet. Sigh.

This was when I decided to ignore the word count, and write until I was done. Good plan right? I began writing the second novel, a continuation of another novel I have in revision. In this draft, a 13-year old girl travels with her dad for two weeks as he completes his cross-country truck driving job, hoping to experience “the world,” and become a better writer.

I got a good start on this second novel, and then life got in the way: birthdays, Thanksgiving, family visits, etc… all wonderful things that ended up putting a halt on my writing progress.

So in the end, I did not meet the 50,000 word goal. And I’m okay with that. I now have 2 novels to revise, and one to finish writing the first draft. The draft is just bursting to get out of my head, so I just have to make the time to finish it.

Perhaps this will be the year of the novel for me. Wouldn’t it be a great year if I could start it in revision, and end it with an agent? Let’s cross our fingers.