the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Mary E. Lambert and FAMILY GAME NIGHT AND OTHER CATASTROPHES!

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Nov 09, 2017 @ 08:11 AM

We're thrilled that Mary E. Lambert's middle grade novel Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes is out now from Scholastic. She stopped by to give us the scoop!

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Annabelle has a secret…a secret so big she won't allow friends within five miles of her home. Her mom collects things. Their house is overflowing with stuff. It gives Annabelle's sister nightmares, her brother spends as much time as he can at friends' houses, and her dad buries himself in his work.

So when a stack of newspapers falls on Annabelle's sister, it sparks a catastrophic fight between their parents—one that might tear them all apart—and Annabelle starts to think that things at home finally need to change.

Is it possible for her to clean up the family's mess? Or are they really, truly broken?

Welcome, Mary! Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent?

After graduation, one of my VCFA classmates, Linda Camacho, became an agent. She read my creative thesis, which was a contemporary middle grade novel, and offered to represent me. Linda put my manuscript into the hands of an editor at Scholastic. A few weeks later, I was teaching an eighth grade class when my cell phone rang. Usually, I silence my phone, but when I saw it was my agent, I answered it. Linda was calling to let me know that my book had sold! I started dancing, and so, of course, I had to explain to my students what was going on. They burst into applause when they heard my news.

Love these pics of your launch party!

Launch Party 1.jpgWhat nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

Finish a project.

Like many writers, I always have new ideas. New ideas are fresh and exciting and seem much better than whatever old idea I have in front of me. Other than attending VCFA, the best thing I ever did as a writer was forcing myself to complete a manuscript. I learned so much from the process of writing an entire novel from start to finish.

Launch Party 2.jpgWhat’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I wish I kept a record of this. I've Googled so many bizarre things for my writing. A few of the stranger things I've Googled include…

What color is spider blood?

What to do if a bear attacks you?

What does it feel like to get shot?

How to shoplift?

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts?

VCFA provided me with such a wonderful community of writers. It was the first time I felt I really had permission to take myself seriously as an author.

Since graduation, I have found a great group of middle grade and young adult writers in the Phoenix area. They have formed a truly supportive community of like-minded authors who promote and encourage one another.

I am also in a small critique group called The Charglings. We read one another's first drafts and give feedback. In addition to their valuable insight, meeting with The Charglings helps me stay productive. We meet every other week, which means I need to have fresh pages for them at least that often.

Launch Party 3.jpgWho were your advisors at VCFA?

I had such a fantastic experience with every single one of my advisors! I worked with Tom Birdseye my first semester, and he taught me to look for humor in my writing. Next I was paired with Shelley Tanaka who helped me gain confidence as a writer and taught me the questions I should ask myself about a work-in-progress. Martine Leavitt was my third semester advisor, and she taught me to really explore my characters' inner-lives and emotional development. In my final semester, my advisor was Sarah Ellis. She showed me how to revise, which is something I really struggled with before working with her.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

One of my favorite VCFA memories is when the Allies in Wonderland revealed our class name. My classmates turned our name reveal into a choreographed, interpretive dance, which corresponded to a video. We had elaborate costumes, and I had a ton of fun that day!

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Attending VCFA is a huge commitment in terms of money, time, and emotion. For me, it was worth every bit of it. I loved the residencies, the lectures, the friendships, and the walks into town. My advisors were amazing. I learned and grew as a writer, and so much of my success is because of my decision to attend this school.

Thanks so much for stopping by! Welcome to the world, Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes!

Author Photo.jpgWhen Mary E. Lambert was eight years old, her grandma told her that she should be a writer. Mary said, “No.” She thought she’d rather be a teacher. Mary started teaching middle school in 2006, but not long after that, she realized there was no avoiding one of her grandmother’s pronouncements. So she started writing novels. Mary lives in Tempe, Arizona where she spends her days explaining to students that five paragraph essays really do have five paragraphs. Most evenings she can be found writing in local coffee shops and consuming truly lamentable quantities of caffeine.

Mary is a member of the class of summer 2014, Allies in Wonderland. Visit her online at maryelambert.com, and find her on Twitter @MaryUncontrary.

Topics: Scholastic, middle grade, 2017 release, Mary E. Lambert

Jane Kurtz and PLANET JUPITER!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Nov 07, 2017 @ 07:11 AM

We're delighted that this orbit around the sun has brought a new middle grade novel from Jane Kurtz. It's Planet Jupiter!

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Everything has gone all wobbly for Jupiter. She comes from a spirited, loving family of buskers—musicians who move from place to place and make a living playing on street corners and at fairs—and she revels in her wandering life. But now her mother has rented an actual house (Jupiter prefers to live in their van) and she is pretty sure that her brother is deserting the family and their musical act just like her dad, the Prince of Adventure, did a while ago. To top it off, some cousin from Ethiopia who Jupiter never even knew existed is coming to live with them, and Jupiter is in charge of watching her. Seriously? Not fair!

Jupiter is not in the mood to appreciate her new house, hew new neighborhood, the bees and bridges of Portland, or her newly discovered cousin. How will she get back on the road, rid herself of the wobbles, and orbit the sun happily once again? Clearly what Jupiter needs is a Grand Plan…

Welcome, Jane Kurtz! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I was listening to an NPR program about young musicians when I heard an interview with a girl who was the spark for Jupiter—living an alternative kind of life centered around music and street performances. Although I didn’t grow up as a busker, I do sing with my sisters every week. And I first moved (from Portland to Ethiopia) when I was two years old. And I did recently discover soil and bees and bugs in a whole new way in Portland. So I immediately connected with the love of adventure/traveling vs. the pull to cultivate roots in a specific place.

Photo: Cousins in Jane's family meeting for the first time.

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What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?

I keep trying to write a simple plot line, so I re-read middle grade such as Because of Winn Dixie and Liar and Spy to see how other people do it. I love Sarah Plain and Tall for its lyrical sentences and character emotions that are not spelled out but vivid (and moving) on the page.

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

I’m constantly learning new craft skills. When I was revising Planet Jupiter, it was the concept of microtension (including the book The Fire in Fiction) that handed out some great advice about how to make the reader uneasy and curious.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

How (and why) to eat a bug.

What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book?

A cute and compelling guide to saving the bees and a mini cookbook about eating bugs.

Photo: Oxalis from Jane's Backyard Habitat, where she learns about roots and soil.

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How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?

I learn so much about the craft of writing fiction and creative nonfiction every single bingle residency. At this point, I like to have some work in progress open on my computer and force myself to practice—on the page—one thing I’m hearing from each lecture. Otherwise it’s too easy to nod and say “uh-huh, uh-huh” without actually getting the insight from my brain through my fingers and into my work.

Great idea! What is your favorite VCFA memory?

While I was part of the Bath, England residency, I was doing a final big revision of Planet Jupiter. The work we did together to mine our innards and our outer world added some details to my manuscript in a compelling and fresh way. I have a powerful memory of the day we all gathered something from outside—and created poems in invented language to describe them. Wow! What a blast of a sensory experience!

Bonus Bath pic: Here are Cate Berry, Jane Kurtz, and Margaret Mayo McGlynn. Jane says the three of them used to sing in 3-part harmony at residencies! It helped set the stage when she read from WIP Planet Jupiter.

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What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

The first time I had an intensive workshop with a published author, I read everything I could get my hands on that she had written, so that I could ask her specific questions about craft decisions in her picture books and novels. I’m always surprised that more VCFA students don’t take advantage of residency time to learn from their fellow writers who are faculty but still trying daily to solve craft problems in our own work.

Thanks so much for stopping by! Welcome to the universe, Planet Jupiter!

Jane Kurtz has taught at VCFA MFA in Children’s and YA Literature since 2006. She was born in Portland, Oregon, but grew up in Ethiopia and has written about the joy and pain of cultural connections in many different ways. She also helped start the nonprofit Ethiopia Reads and is using her volunteer time to develop local language ready-to-read books for Ethiopia—when she’s not teaching, writing, and cultivating her Backyard Habitat.

Visit Jane online at www.janekurtz.com and at janekurtz.wordpress.com. Learn about Jane and her sister Caroline's Open Hearts Big Dreams book project at http://openheartsbigdreams.org/book-project/.

Topics: middle grade, HarperCollins, Greenwillow, 2017 release, Jane Kurtz

Amy Sarig King and ME AND MARVIN GARDENS!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Oct 03, 2017 @ 07:10 AM

We're wild about Amy Sarig King's middle grade novel, Me and Marvin Gardens, out now from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic!

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He's the size of a dog—but he's not a dog.
He's got hooves like a pig, but claws like a wolf.  
He smiles. He listens to commands and stories.  
And he eats plastic. ONLY plastic.
Water bottles, jug lids, shopping bags.

Marvin is an entirely new kind of animal,
and only Obe knows about him.  
To keep him safe, Obe will have to face an enemy,
take some risks, be fearless, daring, and brave—
and tell some secrets that have been a long time coming.

In her most personal novel yet, Printz Honor Award winner Amy Sarig King reveals a boy-meets-animal story unlike any other, about a friendship that could actually save the world, and a kid finding the courage to share it.

Welcome, Amy!

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

I really love Obe, the main character, but he and Marvin gave me a hard time sometimes, so my favorite character to write was Putrid Annie. She’d tried to tell the story of my cornfield years ago for a younger audience and it didn’t work out. When she showed up in this manuscript, it was like meeting an old friend. We have a lot in common. She plays the cello and I did, too. She loves rocks—me too. And she’s been called Putrid…I’ve been called worse.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I wanted to write about an animal that ate plastic—only plastic—and how such an animal could help us solve the plastic pollution problem. Thing is, once I got to know Marvin, the animal, I realized that eating only plastic has its side effects. So both things ignited the book. The idea that something can be both good and not-so-good. The idea that there are two sides to every story, including the loss of a cornfield—and a childhood.

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Eight Rules for Writing Fiction.” I hand these to every student I’ve ever had at VCFA.  Never has anyone summed up everything I believe about writing in a half a page before. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’d say these two are tied for first place: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water” and “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts? Is Twitter your bastion of support?

I’ve been writing novels by myself for 25 years. I do share my final draft with my husband, but he’s the only reader of a book before I hand it to my agent and editors. I find this is the best way for me. I write in quiet, I edit in quiet, and then I slowly feel like the book is ready. If there is too much noise—even positive noise from others—I feel I can’t hear when the book is ready. So my support, as it’s been from the beginning when I was against-all-odds determined and even during my 15 years of rejection, has always been just me. I was an odd child, though, enjoying my own company and the company of books more than most things. (Excluding candy and mashed potatoes, but not at the same time.)

What's your writing superpower?

Revision. Revision is the sport. I aim for the gold in revision.

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

I have a 5x7 framed picture of Hawkeye Pierce on my desk—right here to my right, the first person I see, the way that some would put a picture of their spouse or children there. For me, it’s Hawkeye. He’s my humanist fictional boyfriend and also a stand-in mother.

How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?

VCFA has changed me as a writer. A lot of things do, but VCFA has had a profound effect on me. Before VCFA, if you’d have asked me if I would ever write a middle grade book, I’d have said no way. No way I could do that. A lot of people may think middle grade is “easier” the same way civilians thing picture books are “easiest” because they’re shorter. But I’d tried to write for younger audiences and I knew how hard it was. My students showed me that I could do this. They showed me how to do it well. I’m still trying to write a picture book, but I’m still failing. One day, though…one day it will happen.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

I enjoy so many aspects of VCFA, but I’d say now that summer 2017 residency is done, that my favorite memory is the one where I have a beard.

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What's special about the VCFA-WCYA program?

I don’t mince words about this. VCFA is the best WCYA program in the country. I think what makes it the best is the bar—the high bar. I’ve always had a high bar when it comes to reading and writing. I’m awfully picky about writing, which is probably a good thing, right? VCFA is special because the quality of student writing is very high. This allows already-great writers to stretch and grow and graduate from the program ready to publish quality books, as our alumni publication lists show. Beyond rigor, I’d say the sense of community is pretty amazing. No matter where I go in the U.S. to do an event, there are groups of VCFA alumni (and faculty) there to greet me. We are a small army, now. An army of support, positivity, and friendship.

A perfect description! The SPF Army!

Thanks so much for stopping by. Welcome, Me and Marvin Gardens!

Amy Sarig King, who also writes as A.S. King, grew up in the middle of a cornfield in southeastern Pennsylvania. She says, “The day the bulldozers came to dig up my field was the day I started to dream of having my own farm. If you’ve ever seen something beautiful and magical be replaced with something more convenient, then you know why this story took me thirty years to write.”

Amy has published many critically acclaimed young adult novels, including Please Ignore Vera Dietz, which won a Michael L. Printz Honor Award, and Ask the Passengers, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. After many years farming abroad, she now lives back in southeastern Pennsylvania, with her husband and children.

Visit her online at www.as-king.com.

Topics: Scholastic, middle grade, Arthur A. Levine Books, A. S. King, 2017 release, Amy Sarig King

William Alexander and A PROPERLY UNHAUNTED PLACE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Sep 28, 2017 @ 08:09 AM

We're spookily excited about William Alexander's middle grade novel, A Properly Unhaunted Place (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster)!

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Rosa Díaz has a very special talent. She comes from a family of librarians who specialize in ghost appeasement. So she can't understand why her mother has moved them to Ingot, the world's only unhaunted town. What are they supposed to do there, with no poltergeists to quiet and no specters to soothe? Frankly, Rosa doesn't think anyone should want to live in a place where the biggest attraction is a woefully inaccurate Renaissance Festival.

But Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot, working at the festival while his parents hold court. Jasper has never seen a ghost and can't imagine his unhaunted town any other way... until an angry apparition thunders into the fairgrounds and turns Ingot upside down. Jasper is astonished -- and Rosa is delighted.

Mist is building in the hills, and something otherworldly is about to be unleashed. Rosa will need all her ghost appeasement tools -- and a little help from Jasper -- to try to rein in the angry ghosts in this hilariously spooky adventure from National Book Award winner William Alexander.

Welcome, Will!

What was the spark that ignited this book?

One important spark was a conversation with my friend Rio. She taught Japanese at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design while I was there as an intro comp instructor. We got coffee between classes, geeked out about Doctor Who for a bit, and then started talking about ghosts.

"American ghost stories are so strange," she told me. "They're all about trying to make ghosts and monsters go away forever. Nice ghosts have to find their peaceful rest and then go away. Mean ghosts are cast out, banished, and go away. All ghosts must go away. All monsters must explode. Boom. So strange."

She went on to say that, back home, ghost stories just aren't like that. Not in her experience, anyway. If a house is haunted, try to avoid it. If your house is haunted, then learn how to live with that. Don't go in thinking you'll be able to unhaunt the place.

UnhauntedTree.jpgNow, this was just one casual chat between a first-gen Japanese-American and a second-gen Cuban-American, so who knows what it may or may not mean about either Japanese or American ghost stories in a comparative folklore sort of way. But it stuck in the back of my mind, and other things started to stick to it. Margaret Atwood said writers are like magpies. We hoard shiny things in hidden places. That conversation was shiny to me.

American ghost stories are strange. Why? Maybe because of the way we look at history. Maybe because we teach history as though it were over. But history is happening. We are still haunted by it. We need to be haunted by it. Virginia Hamilton said that "the past moves me and with me, although I remove myself from it."

All of this sounds weighty, which might be misleading because my book turned out to be a goofy, swashbuckling thing set in a Renaissance Festival. But the initial questions are still there. What kinds of ghost stories would we tell if the ghosts never went away completely?

Maybe this kind.

What books do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?

I don't think I can separate rich characters from delicious sentences. The rhythms and cadences of good prose harmonize perfectly with the voices of the characters. I get to know those characters by listening to what they have to say.

I'll pick just one recent fav that I loved for all three: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia. The sentences, characters, and tightly woven structure all delighted me, and I've never read better descriptions of music.

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

Trust your weird. Kelly Link gave that advice at the Clarion workshop. She also pointed out that "wyrd" meant "fate"--not so much in the sense of "exalted destiny," but in a much more pragmatic way. Trust that which is yours. Trust your own idiosyncratic combination of burdens and gifts.

That goes for books as well as authors, by the way. A story needs to trust its own weird.

Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

Current favorites include Zoe Keating and The Parlour Trick. I also choose a theme song for each protagonist, but I'm not allowed to tell you what those are.

UnhauntedLagoon.jpgWhat was it like watching the illustrations/cover come together?

Glorious. I've been surprised and delighted each time. The interior illustrations by Kelly Murphy are especially beautiful. It felt like writing a play and then watching the full production on opening night.

Most authors have painful stories about cover art. We have so little input or control over that process. Practically none. My first glimpse of my very first book cover was on Amazon.com. Somehow they never got around to showing it to me earlier. But I can't complain. Luckily I've loved every single cover so far.

How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?

During residencies I get to be a stealth student and soak up all the knowledge, wisdom, and enthusiasm. During each semester I get to be a teacher and a working writer at the same time, which is logistically remarkable. Describing aspects of the craft to my students also forces me to articulate those same aspects to myself. That's tremendously valuable.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

A kiss on the cheek from Rita after my very first lecture. She made me think that maybe this could be home.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Trust your weird.

Visit William Alexander online at willalex.net, and stop by his blog here. For more info on A Properly Unhaunted Place, check out its page. You can also visit the book's awesome illustrator, Kelly Murphy, at www.kelmurphy.com.

Topics: middle grade, Simon & Schuster, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2017 release, William Alexander

Martha BrockenBrough and LOVE, SANTA!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Sep 26, 2017 @ 08:09 AM

We're feeling festive today with the release of Martha Brockenbrough's Love, Santa (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine)!

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In a series of letters, a young girl writes to Santa to ask about the North Pole, Mrs. Claus, and of course, Christmas goodies. Year after year, Santa writes back, and a heartwarming relationship develops, until one year, the girl writes to her mother instead: Mom, are you Santa? Her mother responds to say that no, she is not Santa. Because Santa is bigger than any one person — we bring him out through kindness to one another and the power of imagination. This transformative tale spins a universal childhood experience into a story about love, giving, and the spirit of Christmas.

Welcome, Martha! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

This book came from a letter my daughter wrote to me asking for the truth about Santa. She’d hinted around the topic for a while, so I asked her if she really wanted to know. She was emphatic. My response was posted on a blog, and then published by The New York Times, then it became a Facebook and Pinterest sensation (and someone with a weak sense of irony plagiarized it and made it religious). I didn’t think it would be anything more than a blog post, because picture books are not blog posts. But then I came up with an idea for a series of letters exchanged over a period of years and the book came together.

CwSDIh3VEAAvao1.jpgDo you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I usually write in silence or if I’m in public, with headphones on. Sometimes people want to talk with you when you’re working in a cafe. One man even tapped my shoulder as I was working. I lifted my headphones. “Where’s a good place to park around here?” If my eyes were equipped with laser beams, he would be but a smoking cinder on the floor. What a question. Had he not already parked when he came in? Anyway, I don’t like to be distracted as I write, and music with words distracts me. I sometimes listen to classical music, and often write to an exceptionally talented young Lithuanian player’s debut accordion album. I mean, who doesn’t do that, right? But still. He’s amazing, and that music on reminds me that I am in work mode.

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts? Is Twitter your bastion of support?

I live in Seattle, where a great number of children’s writers and illustrators live. I’m not in a formal critique group, but do swap manuscripts with friends in town and elsewhere. My family members do read my books, but their feedback is of a different nature. The book they love best of mine, by the way, never made it past my last agent. I do plan to revise, but sometimes civilian readers see things the pros don’t, and vice versa. So, I prefer them as cheerleaders.

What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book?

I made Christmas ornaments for the book! They are beautiful and based on the cover illustration. My family has an annual tradition; each of my daughters chooses an ornament for the tree. We sometimes do this when we’re on vacation, and sometimes we make a night of it in downtown Seattle or one of our many quirky neighborhoods. We write a note about the process of the choice and the year, and tuck that and the ornament back into the box. Over the years, decorating the tree has become a slow process that feels like a gift of the memories of all those Christmases past, and I hope the recipients of this ornament remember the year they joined Santa’s team, and the transformation that represents.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Martha. And a merry welcome to Love, Santa!

Visit Martha Brockenbrough online at marthabrockenbrough.com.

Topics: picture book, Scholastic, middle grade, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2017 release, Martha Brockenbrough

Stephen Bramucci and THE DANGER GANG AND THE PIRATES OF BORNEO!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Aug 02, 2017 @ 08:08 AM

We are dangerously excited about Stephen Bramucci's new middle grade novel, The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo, illustrated by Arree Chung, out now from Bloomsbury!

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Ronald Zupan is a daring master adventurer! But he hasn’t actually gone on any grand adventures . . . YET! When his world-traveling parents are kidnapped on his 11th birthday, Ronald seizes the chance to prove himself with a dazzling, death-defying rescue operation. Teaming up with his trusty butler Jeeves, his quick-witted fencing nemesis Julianne Sato, and his pet cobra, Carter, Ronald sets course for the jungle of Borneo where his parents were last sighted. As their journey becomes more and more dangerous, can Ronald and his companions muster enough courage to see this adventure through?

Welcome, Stephen! Thanks for bringing us along on the adventure! So, tell us . . .

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

My favorite character to write in The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! was Ronald Zupan -- the narrator of the book. It was just so much fun to dive headfirst into his bluster, his swagger, and his hyperbole. Especially when he was wrong. I loved to see his ego get checked and, eventually, wanted to give him space to reevaluate ideas that he once seemed so sure of.

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

The title was the most difficult element to change in the book. The original title, Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo! made it past four advisors at VCFA. The book found an agent with that title and sold with that title. But ultimately, the title didn't reflect the contributions of the novel's other heroes. Changing it was prompted by my editor, but it was absolutely the right call. I had a hard time finding the phrase "the danger gang," but once I did it was locked in almost immediately.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

This book was actually born from those Old Spice commercials from 2010. I loved the hyperbole of the character. And that hyper-confident voice. Around this same time, the Most Interesting Man commercials were on the air and the actor bore a striking resemblance to my dad. I started to wonder what it would be like to be parented by the "Old Spice guy," or the "Most Interesting Man." I was fascinated by the pressure that would create for a character -- there would be a constant need to be impressive (something I've often felt, myself).


 Ha! What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

Neil Gaiman says something that I've heard a few times and will paraphrase: "If someone tells you something isn't working, they're almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong." In writing this book, I asked for a lot of input -- from friends, family, my partner, my writing group, and the VCFA community. In order to parse all that feedback, I had to believe that it all made the book better. I absolutely believe that, even though the eventual answers to the questions posed by beta readers had to be uncovered on my own.

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Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Alan Cumyn, Betsy Partridge, Uma Krishnaswami, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

It gave me a writing community, craft tools that I needed, and taught me how to edit a whole novel (which is a nut I just couldn't manage to crack on my own).

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

One night in my first term, Mary Winn Heider, Rachel Hylton, and I spent hours sliding around the ice rink on the field outside of Noble with our sneakers. We buzzed on ideas, shared big dreams, and got to know one another. Since then, the two of them have become two of my closest friends on earth. I think of them every month, when I make my loan payment -- it's well worth it for bringing them into my life.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

The Dystropians were an incredibly supportive class: Kind hearted, positive, and not overly competitive. It was just such an idyllic group to share stories with.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Go to focus on writing and let the industry stuff come later.

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Thanks for swinging by, Stephen! Ahoy, Danger Gang!

Stephen Bramucci is an award-winning travel writer and adventurer. He’s rowed down the Mekong Delta, crossed the Australian outback in a car powered by French fry oil, and explored ancient pirate islands in Madagascar. A lifelong animal lover, Stephen’s encounters with endangered species often come up in his classroom presentations. A portion of the author's proceeds from this book have been donated to orangutan research.

Visit him online at www.stephenbramucci.com, and follow him on Twitter @stevebram.

Topics: middle grade, Stephen Bramucci, 2017 release, Bloomsbury, Arree Chung

Jenn Bishop's 14 Hollow Road

Posted by Amanda West Lewis on Tue, Jun 13, 2017 @ 14:06 PM

We're here to celebrate today's release of Jenn Bishop's middle grade novel 14 Hollow Road.

14 Hollow Road

The night of the sixth-grade dance is supposed to be perfect for Maddie: she’ll wear her perfect new dress, hit the dance floor with her friends, and her crush, Avery, will ask her to dance. But as the first slow song starts to play, her plans crumble. Avery asks someone else to dance instead—and then the power goes out.

Huddled in the gym, Maddie and her friends are stunned to hear that a tornado has ripped through the other side of town, destroying both Maddie’s and Avery’s homes.

Kind neighbors open up their home to Maddie’s and Avery’s families, which both excites and horrifies Maddie. Sharing the same house . . . with Avery? For the entire summer? While it buys her some time to prove that Avery made the wrong choice at the dance, it also means he’ll be there to witness her morning breath and her annoying little brother.

At the dance, all she wanted was to be more grown-up. Now that she has no choice, is she really ready for it?

Jenn, this is a fabulous premise. Can you tell me where the story came from?

I’m an avid listener of This American Life and years ago remember listening to a very memorable episode about a tornado interrupting a prom in the heartland. One minute, you’re dancing the night away, experiencing this seminal life moment, and the next, everything changes. Fast forward several years to 2011, and an unlikely tornado crossed the street where I grew up, and where my parents still live. Thankfully they and their home were spared, but the experience lingered with me. What if there had been a dance that night, but for middle schoolers? The first 15-20 pages flew out of me as I imagined these events happening in a hometown like my own in rural Massachusetts. I brought those pages to my next-to-last workshop at VCFA, with A.S. King and Alan Cumyn. I loved using the first 15-20 pages of a new story idea as a workshop piece—it served as a great litmus test for whether or not the concept really had legs.

I remember that This American Life episode! How fabulous to take that idea and play through the "What ifs" scenarios. As you developed the story, who became your favorite characters to write, and why?

I had a lot of fun writing the middle school boy characters in this one, particularly Gregg, the boy in Maddie’s class who has a bit of a crush on her. There’s something about boys that age—I spent a lot of time around them as a teen librarian, serving grades 5 and up. They can be so self-assured at times, and usually with hilarious results. We see that with Gregg, but we also see the flip side with Avery, the object of Maddie’s crush, who she ends up living with for the summer. There’s a tender core to boys and their emotional experiences that I think our culture is uncomfortable around sometimes. On the outside, Avery tries to live up to the cultural standards, but in his downtime, he’s crumbling a bit under the pressure and struggling with his uncertain future, having lost his home in a tornado.

Your affection for that "tender core" is clearly an important motivating force in your creation of these endearing boys. Can you tell me what was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

This was the first project where I had to really reshape the entire middle of the book in revisions with my editor, which seemed scary at the time. Plotting still doesn’t always come easy to me, and my editor, rightly, pointed out that the friendship thread in 14 Hollow Road needed to build to a satisfying climax instead of just being filled with momentary tension. To rectify this, I ended up changing the relationship between the three girls (Maddie, her best friend Kiersten, and Gabby), so that Gabby was now the new girl who threatened Maddie’s longtime friendship with Kiersten. So now, not only was Gabby, in Maddie’s mind, going after the boy she liked, but she was also gunning for her best friend. I tend to struggle with seeing the way the parts of my book create a whole—I think that I’m often just too close to see it—so it was a good challenge to have to reframe a plot thread.

Clearly you are continuing to challenge yourself as a writer, and to keep learning. When we're at VCFA, we are encouraged to read like a writer. Tell me, when you are reading other authors, who do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?

Sentences: Lois Sepahban. Her debut last year, Paper Wishes, was so spare and lyrical and moving. For plot: Rebecca Stead. I’m in awe of When You Reach Me and Goodbye Stranger. And finally, character is a toughie. There are many writers who do character well, but one I keep coming back to is Elizabeth Strout.

On the subject of VCFA, you graduated in January 2014 as part of the M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s. Can you tell us what was special about your graduating class?

Can my answer be everything? My VCFA classmates are simply the best. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three years since graduation. I’ve had the chance to see many (most?) of them in the time that’s elapsed. What’s particularly impressive about our group is that we show up. We support each other, trekking across the country to celebrate each other’s launches and convening for writing retreats. I feel so fortunate to have met this amazing group of writers.

Lastly, what advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Try everything. That was the advice given to me by alums and it is something I adhered to as much as possible. Still, I wish I had spent a semester focused on picture books. You know there’s something in the water in Montpelier when just a few years out of the program I’m already crossing my fingers to someday come back and do the picture book semester. (Once I’ve paid off my VCFA loans, I tell my husband. Only then! Promise.)

Thanks so much Jenn. Congratulations on 14 Hollow Road!

 

Jenn Bishop

 

Jenn Bishop is also the author of The Distance to Home, a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book. After many years in Chicago and Boston, she now resides in Cincinnati, OH. http://www.jennbishop.com

14 Hollow Road is published by Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House.

 

 

 

Topics: middle grade, Random House, Knopf, 2017 release, Jenn Bishop, Alfred A. Knopf

Sarah Aronson and THE WORST FAIRY GODMOTHER EVER!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 30, 2017 @ 09:05 AM

It's the launch of Sarah Aronson's new chapter book/middle grade, The Wish List #1: The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (Scholastic)! We couldn't wish for anything more. Except a visit from Sarah herself!

COVER ART-1.jpgQ: What do you need to become a great fairy godmother?



  1. kindness

  2. determination

  3. gusto

  4. all of the above



Fairy-godmother-in-training Isabelle doesn't know what gusto is, but she's pretty sure she has what it takes to pass fairy godmother training with flying colors.



But then Isabelle is assigned a practice princess who is not a princess at all. Nora is just a normal girl -- a normal girl who doesn't believe in fairy godmothers, or wishes come true, or happily ever afters.



Isabelle has to change Nora's mind about magic and grant a wish for her. If she can't, Isabelle will flunk training and never become a great fairy godmother!

Welcome, Sarah! And I see two very special friends with you today -- the girlgoyles, straight out of your new book! (They don't say much, but look at those knowing smiles.) Thanks for being here, everyone.

Girlgoyle 1.jpgWho was your favorite character to write and why?

Sarah: I don’t like the “favorite” question!! (Neither does the girlgoyle!) Especially in this case. The truth is, I love all these characters. They were refreshing and fun to think about. A lot of them made me laugh. But they also touched my heart. I was a kid who never felt like I’d ever measure up. I had trouble focusing. I had great intentions, but not always the best delivery. In our world today, it is SO IMPORTANT to think about happiness! And doing good for others. This series has tapped into so many things that get me jazzed up.

Girlgoyles: (crickets) Girlgoyles are made of rock. They can’t talk.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Sarah: I’ve told this story before (as the girlgoyles can attest), but I think I can get away with it one more time.

For a long time, I referred to Isabelle’s story my “peach sorbet.” In other words, I worked on her story only when I was tired of thinking about my “important” project. It was my literary palate cleanser. I had no intention of ever showing it to anyone.

For better or for worse, I wanted to be a writer who grappled with tough topics. I went for it all—unlikeable characters, themes filled with conflicts, questionable morals, provocative endings. Although I found these books grueling to write, I told myself that the work was worth it—these characters and ideas were calling me. And up until 2014, I felt pretty good about it. I had a great agent. There were editors willing to read my next WIP. My family might have been confused about why I wrote such dark, sad books, but they supported me. 100%. I was not deterred by the mixed reception my last novel received.

That changed, when teaching at Highlights in Sept 2014, I got some bad news that had followed other bad news: the editor who loved my newest WIP (a story I had taken two years to write) could not get it past the acquisitions committee.

My agent and I agreed. It was time to put that story in the drawer.

Lucky for me, I was surrounded by friends. I also had the best kind of work to do—writers to counsel—writers who trusted me to help them work on their novels. It gave me some time to think about the advice I was offering them. More important, it gave me time to think about my process. This was what I realized: I was letting my intellect override my intuition. I was thinking too much about product. And my ego.

I also found myself talking about my peach sorbet. I remembered some sage advice my first editor and mentor, Deborah Brodie, once offered me. She said, “Eat dessert first. Write what makes you happy.” At the end of that retreat, I stood at the podium and read Isabelle’s story for the first time. I made them laugh. It felt great!

For the next six months, I gave myself a challenge: I was going to PLAY.

I was going to only play with ideas that made me happy, or in other words: books I had convinced myself I couldn’t/shouldn’t write: picture books, humor, essays, an adult novel, poetry, and most important, my peach sorbet: a chapter book about a very bad fairy godmother. I was going to write fast. I was not going to edit myself. I was going to put INTUITION over INTELLECT. I like to say: Think less. Smile more. I was going to access my subconscious with drawing and writing and listening to new music. If I liked an idea, I was going to try it. Bottom line: I was going to eat a lot of dessert.

Girlgoyle 2.jpgAmazing things began to happen.

As I played, I found a new voice. And confidence. And other things, too: I found that when I turned off my phone and walked without interruption, new ideas emerged. My memory map trick worked! Working with clay gave me time to think. Doodling—pencil to paper—gave me the answers to my questions.

(There is a lot of scientific evidence about the benefits of play. Studies show that when we play, we develop imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. All good things. Right?)

As Picasso once said: Every child is born an artist. The trick is remaining one as an adult.

When the challenge was over, I felt great. I loved writing and creating stories. Not too shabby, I had written two nonfiction picture books, an essay, the beginning of an adult novel, ten picture books, and what I hoped could be the first chapter book in a series. It’s the book that is launching today. I could not be happier!

Girlgoyles: If they could talk, they would tell you that they were the spark of inspiration. But they can’t. So they won’t.

That's a wonderful story that every writer should hear!

What's your writing superpower?

I can turn ANYTHING into a writing lesson. (Yes, I’m fun at cocktail parties.)

FullSizeRender 17.jpg

What do you hope you can do with this book?

I am going into the happily ever after wand making business! I’m launching a #BeAFairyGodmother campaign to encourage others to become fairy godmothers and fathers and make someone else happily ever after. As people send me pictures and posts, I will post them on my website!

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I made great friends. I found my first story. And voice. It is still my safe place—and magic happens for me every time I return. It is the place that ignited my writing journey. That’s why I started the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat!!! Every March! It’s my birthday present!

Did you hear that, folks? Make plans now to get on board the WNYPR!

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Another favorite question? You can’t be serious!

We think big!

I loved hanging out with Kellye Carter Crocker and Ed Briant, putting names of advisors into the magic hat! Or planning events with Tami Lewis Brown! Or dancing to "Play That Funky Music." I will never forget the first time Kathi read from The Underneath—when it was still a manuscript. Or Louise’s lecture on telling. I loved opening up all my letters—such exquisite gifts—and all different. They were motivating and exciting and I felt supported and full of energy. (I hope my students feel that way when they open my letters.) And I still reread them! I will always be grateful to Carolyn Coman for teaching me how to story board, to Ellen Levine, for re-igniting my inner feminist, and Norma Fox Mazer for pushing me to learn to write an outline.

head shot new 3.jpgWhat advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Let go of your expectations. PLAY. Experiment. Ignite your intuition—not just your intellect. Bring a travel mug for coffee. And a bottle of something nice for celebrations.

Thanks for stopping by! Welcome to the world, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever!

Sarah says, "I write books for kids of all ages and work with writers on books for kids of all ages. Basically, all day long I think about creativity and story, and I love it!" Visit her online at www.saraharonson.com.

Topics: Scholastic, middle grade, chapter book, 2017 release, Sarah Aronson

Caroline Carlson and THE WORLD'S GREATEST DETECTIVE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 16, 2017 @ 07:05 AM

What should you do if you're craving a twisty new whodunit? Elementary! Pick up Caroline Carlson's first middle grade mystery, The World's Greatest Detective, out now from HarperCollins!

World's Greatest Detective hc c.jpgCaroline Carlson, author of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series, returns with The World’s Greatest Detective, a story of crime, tricks, and hilarity for those who know that sometimes it takes a pair of junior sleuths to solve a slippery case.

Detectives’ Row is full of talented investigators, but Toby Montrose isn’t one of them. He’s only an assistant at his uncle’s detective agency, and he’s not sure he’s even very good at that. Toby’s friend Ivy is the best sleuth around—or at least she thinks so. They both see their chance to prove themselves when the famed Hugh Abernathy announces a contest to choose the World’s Greatest Detective. But when what was supposed to be a game turns into a real-life murder mystery, can Toby and Ivy crack the case?

Welcome, Caroline! I'm going to jump at the opportunity to pick your brain about this genre. What makes for a satisfying mystery story?

I’m a lifelong mystery reader, and I think the particular quality that most of my favorite mysteries share is a solution that’s both surprising and fair. When I reach the end of reading a mystery story, I want to guess the true solution to the mystery only a page or two before it’s revealed, and I don’t want to feel cheated. As a writer, it’s impossible to ensure that every reader has this experience—some will uncover the truth of the mystery long before you want them to, while others might not be able to guess it at all—but in The World's Greatest Detective, I tried to create a puzzle that was tricky enough to keep readers on their toes while also planting enough clues to give them a chance to solve the case on their own.

Of course, in addition to a great twisty plot, a satisfying mystery story has to have compelling characters, conflict and tension, high stakes, interesting settings, well-chosen turns of phrase, and all the other things that make any book stronger. My hope is that readers will enjoy spending time with the book even if they solve the mystery quickly or are reading it for a second or third time.

magnifying_glass_black_handle.jpgDo you approach writing mysteries differently than, say, your Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series?

I try to include a few surprising twists in all my books, so I guess you could say that they all have some elements of mystery, but the main difference in my writing process for The World's Greatest Detective was that I had to plot the whole book very carefully in advance. I usually do some plotting before I start to write, but for this book, I couldn’t play anything by ear, even the minor details: I had to know every character’s movements, motivations, backstory and alibi. I planned out the details of how the crime was committed, and then I planned out a few red herrings as well. I made lots of lists: lists of suspects, lists of clues, lists of mistakes and wrong turns my detectives would make on their way to uncovering the truth. It took a long time to write the first draft. The structure of the book didn’t change very much after I’d completed that first draft, either, because any small change I made could have affected the entire mystery plot!

Do you have any advice for writers who want to try their hand at a whodunit?

Read lots of mysteries and study their structure! If you notice a twist that an author does well, take notes about how she does it. And if you feel intimidated by the process of writing a mystery, remember that under the surface, a mystery novel is just like any other story about an interesting character facing a challenge he or she has to overcome. That challenge just might involve a little more murder than usual.

Poison_Vial_2.jpgWhat’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I had to learn a lot about cyanide for this book.  Did you know that when you die from cyanide poisoning, you might turn purple?

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I worked with Sharon Darrow, Julie Larios, Franny Billingsley, and Martine Leavitt. I wish I could keep sending them my writing in the mail every month!

I hear that. What is your favorite VCFA memory?

There are so many specific moments I loved, but one image that’s stuck with me over the years has been waking up in my Dewey dorm room during winter residencies and watching the smoke rising out of people’s chimneys, up out of Montpelier and past the mountains. I loved those peaceful moments at the beginning of each day; I always felt really lucky to be in such a beautiful place among so many wonderful writers and friends. Even when it was several degrees below zero!

Thanks so much for visiting the Launchpad, Caroline! We're glad you're on the case!

Caroline Carlson graduated from VCFA in July 2011 and is a proud member of the League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

Visit her online at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.

Topics: middle grade, Caroline Carlson, HarperCollins, 2017 release

Mary Atkinson and TILLIE HEART AND SOUL!

Posted by Adi Rule on Mon, May 08, 2017 @ 07:05 AM

We're celebrating heart and soul with Mary Atkinson, whose new middle grade novel Tillie Heart and Soul is out now from Maine Authors Publishing! Tillie's polishing a shiny new starred review from Kirkus, and Mary is here to chat!

tillit.jpegTen-year-old Tillie practices roller skating wherever she can—even in the old Franklin Piano Factory where she lives with her guardian Uncle Fred. She has to be in the Skate-a-thon with her friends Shanelle and Glory. Surely Mama wouldn’t miss it! But skating in the city is tough, three-way friendships are tricky, and the stupid rules in Mama’s rehab program could mess up all her plans.

Welcome, Mary! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Many, many (!) years ago I had an artist friend, Harvey Low Simons, who lived and worked in an old piano factory in Boston that had been converted into artists’ studios. Like Uncle Fred, Tillie’s guardian in the novel, he was also a single parent of a young daughter, Kerry. Kerry’s “room” was a loft Harvey had built for her. For years the image of Kerry reading and playing in her loft like a regular little kid while her dad created wild and amazing art stuck with me. Gradually, my imagination took over, as it does, and their situation morphed into Tillie Heart and Soul. Kerry wasn’t a roller skater. That spark came from my feeble attempts as an adult to learn to roller skate while my then 8-year-old daughter whizzed around me.

Harvey and Kerry don’t look anything like my characters, but here’s their picture from long ago.

HarveyKerry.jpgWhat's your writing superpower?

Persistence. Persistence in holding onto a spark of an idea for years, persistence in slogging through shitty first drafts and a gazillion revisions and critiques, persistence in believing in myself as a writer with self-doubt always knocking at the door, persistence in showing up to do the work. And trust in and respect for the artistic process.

That's a fantastic superpower! Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

This tile sums it up!

MagicisBelieving.jpgWho were your advisors at VCFA?

Rita Williams-Garcia, Deb Wiles, Marion Dane Bauer, David Gifaldi, and Kathi Appelt (picture book semester). Quite a line-up, eh?

Absolutely! How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

It got me in the habit of making writing time a priority in an already busy life. And reading! Reading and annotating all those books. (Rita W-G had us read 100 books the first semester!!!) I loved reading on the couch thinking, “I have to do this. It’s for school. Don’t bother me.”

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Leda Shubert doesn’t remember this moment, but she gave me permission to tell it. Sharon Darrow was giving an excellent, serious, heart-felt lecture on “going deeper” in our work. I was just beginning to get a grasp of what this meant when I heard Leda blurt out, “I can’t go any deeper. I’m on antidepressants!”

Ha! What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Stay away from the cookies.

If only we could. Thanks so much for visiting, Mary! Welcome to the world, Tillie Heart and Soul!

Mary Atkinson lives in Maine. She’s the author of Owl Girl. She graduated from VCFA with the Dedications in 2008. She loves old buildings and playing the piano. She wishes she knew how to roller skate.

Visit Mary online at www.maryatkinson.net and follow her on Facebook at maryatkinsonauthor and on Twitter @AtkinsonMary.

Topics: middle grade, 2017 release, Mary Atkinson, Maine Authors Publishing

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