Guest Post: Katia Raina

Please welcome to the blog the awe-inspiring Katia Raina, who is here to talk about her young adult novel! Take it away, Katia!

I find myself at a thrilling turn of my life’s journey. Today, I am the debut author of Castle of Concrete, a young adult romance set in 1990s Russia, coming this June from Young Europe Books. Once a relentless journalist, now a goofy middle school English teacher, always a stubborn early morning writer, I am excited to share a bit of my story with you here on L. Marie’s blog.

My story starts across the ocean in a small Ukrainian city, then Siberia, then Moscow, Russia.

On the outside, I was a quiet Russian girl (photo at left), a shy one, an odd one. On the inside, I was Jewish, and proud, even though I knew early on it was not a thing to advertise. I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with dream worlds of romance, science fiction and fairy tales.

 

No matter the genre, it was easy to identify with outcasts and outsiders. I wondered what separated some people from others. I wondered why people did that—allowed some to belong, while pushing others away.

My story starts with lots of loneliness—lots of quiet, lots of missing of my dear mama, who was struggling to put her life together far away from me—as my grandmother did her best to raise me. Looking back, I recognize the quiet wasn’t always filled with loneliness. The quiet in which I grew up gave me the chance to look closely at the world and take note. It gave me lots and lots of space in which to dream and to wonder. Though I didn’t know it then, it seems so obvious now—it was this quiet that formed the writer I would become.

While I was growing up, my country, then called the Soviet Union, was crumbling under the Communist rule. Lots of resentment building, ready to burst out. Because my grandfather had left the country for the shiny America, we were considered to be in many ways a “traitor’s family.” This made things even harder for my mother, an aspiring journalist trying to get into a good university or land a solid job. Being Jewish didn’t help either.

I emigrated to the United States with my family just before I turned 16. That was when I knew I found my home at last, in this land of diversity and variety. As I grew up, became a journalist and started a family of my own, the memories and questions of childhood and adolescence rose back to the surface, and I began writing a romance novel about a shy Jewish girl in the last year of the collapsing Soviet Union, reuniting with her long-absent dissident mother and falling in love with a boy who may be an anti-Semite.

I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. I didn’t necessarily make a conscious decision to become an author for young adults, either. I just wrote the story that had been bursting to come out. Even so, it took me 15 years to get this story just right. Now I am overjoyed to share it with the world.

Many ask if Sonya Solovay, the protagonist of Castle of Concrete, is based on me, and if the story I wrote is based on real events of my childhood. It’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. While this story came onto the page straight from my soul, and while Sonya and I definitely have a lot in common, this story is fiction—bits of memory and reality intertwined so tightly with fancy and imagination, that at this point for me, it’s kind of impossible to tell the two apart. One thing about this story that is very real though, is my struggle as a teen to find my strength and my voice, and to learn to embrace all parts of me, including ones I understood so little about, such as my Jewish roots.

This is why I wrote Castle of Concrete, and this is what I hope readers take away from it. The inspiration to learn about the heritage and history that make them who they are. The courage to make their journey their own.

Castle of Concrete Synopsis: Set in the final year of Soviet Russia’s collapse, this stunning debut novel tells the story of Sonya, a timid Jewish girl reuniting with her once-dissident mother and falling in love with a mysterious muddy-eyed boy who may be an anti-Semite. All the while, Sonya’s mama is falling in love also⎯with shiny America, a land where differences seem to be celebrated. The place sounds amazing, but so far away. Will Sonya ever find her way there?

Bio
When she was a child, Katia Raina played at construction sites and believed in magic mirrors. She emigrated from Russia at the age of almost sixteen. A former journalist and currently a middle school English teacher in Washington, D.C., she has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her family just outside of D.C., and still believes in magic.

L. Marie here. I’ll be giving away a preorder of Castle of Concrete. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on February 25.

Looking for Katia? You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, her blog (The Magic Mirror), and Goodreads.

Author, childhood photo, and book cover courtesy of Katia Raina. Map from maps.nationmaster.com. . Russian fairy tale images, including the Palekh miniature, are from rbth.com and russian-crafts.com.

Do Something Different

      

   

     

If you saw the 2018 Sony Pictures production, Searching, starring John Cho and directed by Aneesh Chaganty (who also co-wrote the film with Sev Ohanian), you know it had an innovative approach to telling a story: using the screens of smartphones and computers. Let’s face it—a movie about a man searching for his missing daughter sounds pretty common right? (CoughcoughTakencoughcough) But with this film, the filmmakers subverted convention by telling the story a different way.

While this format might not be everyone’s

it is a unique way of telling a story.

Sometimes, you have to


to breathe new life into a genre.

I can’t help thinking of novels in verse or even epistolary novels (where a story is told through letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, emails, or even tweets). These formats are great ways to experience the beauty and variety of storytelling.

What is the most unusual format you’ve seen someone use to tell a story or to get a message across? What intrigued you about that format? How did it inspire you to try something different (if it did)? While you think about that, check this out. This is a wrapper from a Halls Breezers throat lozenge. I love that the company included a pep talk on each wrapper.

   

A great video on the production of Searching can be found here at the Lessons from the Screenplay YouTube channel. It has spoilers though.

Searching movie poster from flickeringmyth.com. Envelope gif from figuringitouted.blogspot.com. Cup of tea from worldartsme.com. Halls Breezers image from gethalls.com/breezers. Other photos and screenshots by L. Marie.

The World in Black and White

While researching for an article on the human eye and the reason why we perceive snow as white, I came across many discussions on how light helps us we see different wavelengths of colors (which is why certain objects look a certain color). But that set me to thinking about how black and white photography used to be the norm.

This is how my mind works. Welcome to the labyrinth. Hope you brought snacks.

So of course, once I was off on that train of thought, I was curious about when the first color photograph appeared. Wikipedia had the answer:

The first color photograph made by the three-color method suggested by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, taken in 1861 by Thomas Sutton. The subject is a colored ribbon, usually described as a tartan ribbon.

By James Clerk Maxwell (original photographic slides) ; scan by User:Janke. – Scanned from The Illustrated History of Colour Photography, Jack H. Coote, 1993. ISBN 0-86343-380-4., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1007375

From there I segued to black-and-white thinking and wound up stuck there. Did you know that there is a psychological term attached to this sort of thinking? Check it out:

Splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) . . . is a common defense mechanism. The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual’s actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground).

Statements like the following are examples:
• It’ll always be like that.
• They will never change.
• I am worthless.

Ever have thoughts like that? I have. 😔 These thoughts are often byproducts of discouragement and defeat. I’m grateful for wise people who gently point out when the needle of my mind is stuck in the groove of this sort of thinking.

I can’t help thinking of Morpheus, a character in The Matrix (played by Laurence Fishburne), who advised,

I can do that by changing the “record” in my mind:

• One bad circumstance doesn’t dictate that life will always be the way it currently is. After all, seasons change.
• Even the most set-in-his/her way person people can change.
• I am valuable and strong.

Ever fall into a rut thought-wise? What did you do to climb out?

Henry insisted on a black-and-white photo with his newfound friend, the Pusheen Cat, both of whom say that strength is their defining trait.

Olive is like, “The world is always black and white as far as I’m concerned. Just look at me.”

Matrix gif from uproxx.com. Tartan photo from Wikipedia. Other photos by L. Marie.

Armed and Dangerous

See this?

This is a sword. It might not look like it, but it is. I use it to slay the elements.

You hear that, Winter??? You’ve thrown what you got at me. Minus 11-degree temperatures with -20 windchill. Snow falling every day. Freezing rain on top of that some days. Days when I have to scrape snow and ice off the car sometimes two or three times a day. But you will not get me down! No, no, no! You. Will. Not. Break. Meeeeeeeeeeeee!

This is my fighter pack.

Yes, that is a cup from Starbucks. It is a hot mocha. Got my sword and my gloves. And my lemon loaf cake. And I’ve got books to keep me warm. (And soft blankets.)

   

See these? My babies! I call the one on the left Darth Vader. And the one on the right has a space helmet vibe. How apt that these are space heaters.

   

Don’t let this sunny day fool you. It got to ten above (-12 Celsius) that day and sixteen on Sunday. The forecast calls for more below zero weather with snow.

   

Ha ha, Winter! You think you’ll break me. Think again!

Life is like that sometimes, isn’t it? It hammers at you, crusts you over in disillusionment with its icy winds.

So I bought this the other day.

It may not look like much. But the title on the package says something to me. Not to the surface me, but to the bone-deep me that needs a good word every now and then. It reminds me to keep dreaming even through the crusty moments. Dream big dreams, girl. Not just dreams of warm, sunny days to avoid giving in to the winter blahs but dreams that say cold, dark days like this won’t last forever. That there’s something beyond those midnight blue-hued days where you’re kicking icicles off your car. Off your heart.

Yeah, I know. Sometimes the iceberg of life is way too much for your little boat. And my little pep talk, with its mixed metaphors, is only a tiny splotch of Sunshine Yellow paint on your Great Wall of Despair. I don’t want to make light of anyone else’s pain. This pep talk is really to remind me to keep going, even when I don’t want to.

So, Winter, you won’t have the last laugh! Not on my watch.

Oh yes, Winter. I’m armed and dangerous. Don’t mess with me.

Even Kitty has a found a friend during the cold days. Though I don’t think this poor cat knows what she’s gotten herself into.

Photos by L. Marie.

In the Meadow We Can Build a Snowman . . .

Or we can try. With the recent snowfall in my area (another six inches of goodness), I gave snowman building a shot. (See photos below. . . . What’s that? You’re having trouble seeing a white-on-white image? Perhaps I should title it White Cat in a Snowstorm.) But the snow was too powdery and refused to pack. According to an internet article by Karen Sassone, “The Physics of a Snowball,” the snow was too cold for snowman building. (Wrap your mind around that!)

   

Henry’s snowman is coming along much better. And small wonder. He’s a yeti. Snow is supposed to be his element. Though camouflage, sadly, is not. He thinks you can’t see him in this snow. Please humor him and say you can’t.

   

With such snowy days upon us here, my friend Sharon reminded me of the following poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, whose recent passing many of us mourn. Here’s a snippet of her poem. (You can find the whole poem here.)

First Snow

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.

Penny over at LifeontheCuffoff has a post with another of Mary Oliver’s poems here.

Even with a temperature drop down in the teens and below (Fahrenheit), sunny winter mornings still seem magical. Everything looks sharper.

  

Since I was curious about why that is so, I Googled and found an article entitled, “Cold winter nights offer clearer night skies.” Well, guess that says it all. But here is a quote from that article:

[C]old air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air can. Hence, on many nights in the summer, the warm moisture-laden atmosphere causes the sky to appear hazier. By day it is a milky, washed-out blue, which in winter becomes a richer, deeper and darker shade of blue.

So there you have it! Still, I can’t help feeling like I’m in a Van Gogh painting when I contemplate the winter clouds and breathe the crisp, cold air

Title based on “Winter Wonderland” lyrics by Richard B. Smith. Photos by L. Marie.

Cover Reveal: The Art of Breaking Things

With me on the blog today is my good friend, the awesome Laura Sibson, who is here for the cover release of her contemporary young adult novel, The Art of Breaking Things, which will be published by Viking.

First, loooooooooook! Take it in! Breathe in the beauty!

Here’s the synopsis:

In the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson and Sara Zarr, The Art of Breaking Things embraces the power of a single voice.

Skye has her sights set on partying her way through high school and then escaping to art school and not looking back.

But her party-first-ask-questions-later lifestyle starts to crumble when her mom rekindles her romance with the man who betrayed Skye’s trust and boundaries when he was supposed to be protecting her. She was too young to understand what was happening at the time, but now she doesn’t know whether to run as far away from him as possible or give up her dreams to save her little sister. The only problem is that no one knows what he did to her. How can she reveal the secret she’s guarded for so long? With the help of her best friend and the only boy she’s ever trusted, Skye might just find the courage she needs to let her art speak for her when she’s out of words.

Now, let’s talk to Laura!

El Space: For quick facts about yourself?
Laura: (1) I was raised in Maryland but moved to Pennsylvania for college and have lived in the Philadelphia area for most of my adult life. I love the Northeast, but I also love to travel. This past summer, my family took a trip to England and Scotland and we kayaked on Loch Ness! No sightings of Nessie, I’m sorry to say.
(2) I love being in nature. In fact, I have trouble settling down to write if I haven’t first gone for a run or taken my dog for a walk in the woods.
(3) I had a whole career in higher education before I started writing. I didn’t start writing until I was in my early 40s!
(4) I live in a 130-year-old stone Victorian house in an area of Philadelphia that reminds me of Hogsmeade. In fact, we had a popular and super-fun Harry Potter festival here until Warner Bros. sent a cease and desist letter. There is still a festival, but it’s not the same.

El Space: What was your path to publication?
Laura: Well, how long you got? In all seriousness, I think my path to publication is long, but aspiring novelists may want to know that my path isn’t all that unusual. As I said above, I didn’t start writing a novel until my early 40s. I had always been an avid reader and I’d wanted to write a novel, but it took a while until I finally found the courage to start.

After completing my first manuscript about two sisters who learn that they are witches and not obtaining an agent, I realized that I had a lot to learn about writing well. I attended VCFA’s program in Writing for Children and Young Adults—where I met you!—and while there completed a second novel about a girl whose mom dies and then she fights her uncle to remain in her house. I didn’t obtain an agent for that one either, but I got closer! I also got discouraged. I started writing a book just for me and my writer friends like you suggested I keep at it. Fast forward and it took almost fifty queries to land the agent who offered me representation. Brianne Johnson of Writers’ House was a great champion of my story and sold it in a few months. The book, The Art of Breaking Things, comes out on June 18! All and all, it took about ten years from when I first started writing to when I’ll have a book published.

El Space: Who is the cover designer? The artist?
Laura: The cover designer is Dana Li and the illustrator is Agata Wierzbicka. Dana also designed the cover for I Am Still Alive by Kate Marshall, which has just been optioned for a movie deal! Fun fact: I Am Still Alive was edited by my editor, Maggie Rosenthal! And Agata illustrated the striking cover of Courtney Summer’s latest novel, Sadie. I love how the design team worked together to create a look that is original and so inviting!

   

El Space: What elements make this a great cover for your novel?
Laura: In the novel, Skye has difficulty speaking the truth of what has happened to her. She comes off as self-reliant and fun-loving, but she’s also deeply wounded. Agata’s illustration beautifully captures that dynamic. The triangles flying off of Skye’s jacket show the reader the idea of things breaking, especially Skye herself and also hint at Skye’s artistic background. The title, along with the charcoal smudges on the cover, further cement that artistic sensibility—and the purple background color is just swoony.

The Art of Breaking Things will debut on June 18, 2019!

Check out the cover release at PenguinTeen.com.

Look for Laura at her website.

Author photo courtesy of Laura Sibson. Photo attribution: Rachael Balascak. Other covers from Goodreads.

Perfectly Plated

I watch a lot of YouTube videos (like the Tasty and BuzzFeed Channels) and Netflix shows (The Great British Baking Show) on cooking. You’d think I would be a culinary expert by now. Naw. I’m still just an average cook.

        

When I was a kid, my parents had insisted that I learn to cook. I don’t mean throwing a frozen dinner into the microwave or oven. I mean baking a chicken, preparing rice, sautéing onions, baking biscuits—that sort of thing.

For my friends in Europe, I mean this type of biscuit.

Not this.

But I’ve never been very innovative in the kitchen. Not like my sister-in-law, who loves to experiment. (I’m going somewhere with this. Don’t worry.)

Anyway, as I mentioned, I watch a lot of videos featuring culinary artists—people who went to school to master the art of food preparation. Other than the taste of a dish, nothing showcases a chef’s artistry like a well-plated meal. What do I mean by that?

According to an article entitled, “A Basic Guide to Food Presentation” at Webstaurantstore.com (click here for it):

People eat with their eyes, and creative and thoughtful plating enhances both the look and taste of your food. Focusing on presentation also allows chefs to showcase their creations and demonstrate to guests that they’re getting their money’s worth.

The article from which that quote came from has great tips on color and contrast, choosing the right plate, etc. That’s why you’ll sometimes see chocolate drizzled on a dessert plate, or your entrée artfully presented with the vegetables tucked up nicely. (Unlike what you see in the photo below.)

My usual idea of plating. Get your grub on, y’all.

  

The real deal done by experts

I love that chefs go the extra mile to make a dining experience special and to make food preparation an art form. While I’m unlikely to drizzle chocolate on a plate anytime soon (I’d much rather drizzle it in my mouth), I am inspired to go the extra mile in what I write.

I’m not sure what the literary equivalent of plating might be. Perhaps it starts with a resolve to write the best piece you can.

Speaking of resolutions, onto the winner of Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s novel Dirt Cheap, which was discussed in this guest post.

        

The winner, according to the lovely random number generator, is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Laura Bruno Lilly!

Congratulations, Laura! Please comment below to confirm!

Henry’s idea of plating—just candy in a bag, baby! (I hear you, Henry!)

Pillsbury biscuits from betterbatter.org. Tea biscuits from clipartkid.com. Tasty YouTube logo from YouTube. BuzzFeed logo from siliconangle.com. Great British Baking Show logo found at thats-normal.com. Plated desserts found on Pinterest. Other photos by L. Marie.