Check This Out: Kinda Like Brothers

Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with wonderful authors. That’s definitely the case today as I talk with the marvelous Coe Booth, who today will discuss her latest book, a wonderful middle grade novel (her first)—Kinda Like Brothers, published by Scholastic Press.

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Coe is represented by Jodi Reamer at Writers House. Here is a synopsis of Kinda Like Brothers:

Jarrett doesn’t trust Kevon. But he’s got to share a room with him anyway.

It was one thing when Jarrett’s mom took care of foster babies who needed help. But this time it’s different. This time the baby who needs help has an older brother—a kid Jarrett’s age named Kevon.

Everyone thinks Jarrett and Kevon should be friends—but that’s not gonna happen. Not when Kevon’s acting like he’s better than Jarrett—and not when Jarrett finds out Kevon’s keeping some major secrets.

Jarrett doesn’t think it’s fair that he has to share his room, his friends, and his life with some stranger. He’s gotta do something about it—but what?

Cool, huh? Let’s talk to Coe!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Coe: (1) I’m seriously afraid of moths (and all kinds of creepy flying bugs!) (2) I’m a vegetarian, but I enjoy letting my characters eat meat. (3) I have a somewhat unhealthy addiction to fountain pens and pretty notebooks. I have more notebooks than I could possibly use in my lifetime! (4) I go on at least one week-long meditation retreat every year—a silent retreat where reading, writing, and even talking are not allowed.

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El Space: Awesome! You’re well known for young adult novels like (Tyrell, Kendra, Bronxwood). What inspired you to write a middle grade novel?

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Coe: When I was really young, I hated reading. I loved writing my own stories, but I didn’t like reading books because I couldn’t relate to any of them. That all changed in fourth grade when my teacher gave me a copy of one of Judy Blume’s novels and I discovered that books could actually be fun. Ever since then, I recognized the power that middle grade books can have, and I’ve always wanted to write for that age group. My hope is that I can write something that can grab kids who don’t like to read and possibly change the way they think about books, too.

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El Space: Kids in blended families will relate to Jarrett and Kevon. How has your background prepared you to write their story?
Coe: Several years ago, I worked as a child protective caseworker, investigating child abuse cases. Sometimes I would have to remove kids from their homes and place them in foster care. Working with foster families is what sparked the idea for Kinda Like Brothers. I was always curious what being a foster family was like for the biological children in the home, the ones who had to adapt to kids coming and going from their lives over and over again. Jarrett is one of those kids. He’s used to the foster babies because his mom has been taking them in ever since he can remember. But when Mom takes in Kevon, who is a year older than Jarrett, this is a little more than he can handle!

El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Coe: With all my books, I struggle the most with characterization and voice. This book was no exception. I spent so much time writing and writing, and then I got to the point where I felt like I knew who Jarrett was and what he sounded like. Unfortunately, everything I had written up to that point wasn’t really the story I wanted to tell, so I ended up deleting the whole thing and starting all over again. That was really, really hard. But in the end I’m glad I let go of what wasn’t working so I could make room for what was.

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El Space: What do you hope readers will take away after reading your book?
Coe: There are so many foster families, and so many kids living in foster care. I hope I’m giving readers a little insight into a world they may not have thought about. But more importantly, of course, I hope readers fall in love with Jarrett and Kevon, and enjoy the story of how these two boys become (kinda like) brothers!

El Space: You’re on the faculty at VCFA. Yay! You usually have to give advice to students. Lately many people have addressed the need for more diversity in books. What advice do you have for aspiring writers on this topic?
Coe: Diversity is one of those things that’s easier said than done. Achieving diversity in the world of children’s books is a complex matter. It is so challenging getting these books written, published, and placed into the hands of children, and attention needs to be placed on each of these stages. As writers, we don’t have to force diversity into our novels. All we can do is make sure our writing reflects the world in its entirety and diversity would be accomplished in a natural way.

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El Space: What’s some of the best advice you’ve received about writing?
Coe: You don’t have to know where you’re going to get started. Just sit down and write.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Coe: Right now, I’m working on another YA novel. I’m still in the thinking-on-paper stage, so I’m not really sure what it’s about yet, but it’s fun discovering what this novel wants to be.

Coe, thanks so much for stopping by! You’re welcome anytime! And thanks to everyone else who took time out to join us. I’m giving away a copy of Kinda Like Brothers. Anyone who comments will be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced Wednesday, October 8.

Can’t wait for that? If you have to have Kinda Like Brothers right now, you can find it here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Powell’s

Looking for Coe? Check out her website and Twitter.

Flags image from diversity.uno.edu. Judy Blume cover from Goodreads. Fountain pen from eBay.

Check This Out: Infinity and Me

Like poetry? Today on the blog is the clever and prolific Kate Hosford. I was first introduced to Kate at VCFA through her wonderful poetry.

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Kate is represented by Tracey Adams and is here to talk about her latest picture book, Infinity and Me, a New York Times best illustrated book for 2012, published by Carolrhoda Books.

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Kate also wrote Big Bouffant and Big Birthday. Thanks to a generous donor, TWO of you will win a copy of Infinity and Me. That’s right. Two! But first, let’s talk to Kate!

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El Space: Please share four quick facts about yourself.
Kate: I grew up in Vermont, I love to eat octopus, I often cry when I hear children sing, and I’m fascinated by Iceland.

El Space: What inspired you to write Infinity and Me? Please tell us how you and the illustrator, Gabi Swiatkowska, came to create this book. How unusual is it for an author/illustrator team to approach a publisher as a team?
Kate: When my two sons were little, I noticed that they enjoyed talking about infinity. Usually the conversation would center on whether it was possible to write down the biggest number or find the edge of the universe. When my search for picture books on this topic proved unsuccessful, I decided to try writing one myself. I tried many different formats, including rhyme, which really didn’t work.

I finally decided to structure the story around a girl who goes on a quest to find the meaning of infinity. This format appealed to me, because it would allow children to see that there are many different ways to imagine this concept—dare I say an infinite number of ways?

Before I decided to write for children, I had worked as an illustrator. Gabi Swiatkowska and I had been in an illustrator’s group together, and had become friends. When I wrote the story, I already had Gabi in mind as the illustrator, because I knew that her ethereal style would be perfectly suited to this topic. As soon as I had a working draft, I sent it to Gabi, asking her if she would be willing to illustrate it. A few weeks later, a beautiful little dummy arrived in the mail, and I knew that we had something exciting to shop around.

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Gabi’s sketch

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Gabi’s final art

However, it took years to sell. While editors were interested in the book, many publishers felt that the topic was too abstract for young children. Knowing this, I spent a some time assembling quotations from young children about infinity, which are now on my website, but most publishers remained unconvinced.

I will always be grateful to Lerner for having faith that children could handle this subject matter. The book has been received well both by children and adults, which has been really gratifying.

I think it’s quite unusual to approach a publisher as an author/illustrator team, and in general not advisable, since editors view choosing an illustrator as an important part of their job. I think it worked in this case, because Gabi was already an established illustrator, and without the sketches, this manuscript probably would have seemed too esoteric even to editors who were open to this topic.

El Space: At VCFA, you were known for your poetry. What are the challenges to working in rhyme for a young audience?
Kate: One challenge is finding rhymes that sound so natural that the reader can simply concentrate on the content of the poem. Forced rhymes, created by inverted sentence structure or simply by choosing the wrong word, end up jumping out at all readers. In these instances, the artifice of the poem is exposed, and the reader sees the poet straining to make the rhyme work.

In the case of young readers, the choice of rhymes is further limited by vocabulary that is appropriate for the age level. I’m all for introducing new vocabulary words to children through poetry, but there can’t be so many new words that they struggle to understand the poem.

30119El Space: Which authors inspire you?
Kate: I will not mention mentors from Vermont College of Fine Arts, because there are so many of them. In terms of other writers: Shel Silverstein for his whimsical nature and the surprising twists that he puts in his poems, Marilyn Singer’s for her technical prowess, and her amazing invention of the reverso poem, and Dr. Seuss, who is still so fresh and modern today.

For middle grade, I am inspired by Lois Lowry’s versatility, especially when I consider that she is the author of both The Giver and The Willoughbys. I’m also inspired by Louise Fitzhugh and Judy Blume for being brave enough to write their groundbreaking books.

1629601I’m interested in the work of E. Lockhart/Emily Jenkins for her ability to write for every age level, and for giving the world one of my all-time favorite YA novels, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks. I also love the work of Carolyn Mackler and Rachel Cohn.

At the moment, I’m very interested in humorous novels, especially the Diary of Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, and the Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison. I think humor is so difficult to get right, and I have great admiration for those who can do it.

El Space: How do you think picture books have changed in the last ten years?
Kate: In the last decade, picture books have started to skew younger. However, there have still been plenty of successful picture books that are aimed at an older audience. This is probably most true for non-fiction, which seems to be a bourgeoning market, but it is also true for fiction.

There are picture books in traditional storybook format that have done very well, like Library Lion, written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. There are also cerebral picture books like those of David Weisner and Shaun Tan, which are aimed at an older audience. Whether or not one considers The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck to be picture books, the success of these books by Brian Selznick proves that older children can be entranced by sophisticated stories that incorporate a good deal of visual narrative.

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El Space: What writing advice helped you turn an important corner in your writing?
Kate: I have learned to pay attention to the voices in my head. For instance, if a story comes to me in rhyme, then I should probably try it first in rhyme. This may sound obvious, but with my first picture book, Big Bouffant, I had only one couplet going through my head in the beginning: “All I really want is a big bouffant, a big bouffant, is all I really want.” But instead of writing the story in rhyme, I spent the next five years trying to write it in prose. It was only when I returned to rhyme that the story worked. Of course, my initial “voices” may not always be the ones that work, but it probably makes sense to explore them first.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Kate: I recently sold a poetry collection called Poems from a Circus Chef, and a picture book called The Perfect Cup of Tea. Both books will be coming out from Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing, in 2015. I’m really excited about Poems from a Circus Chef, because it is my first poetry collection. Presently, I am experimenting with different poetic forms so that I will have lots of different options for each poem when I start working with my editor. I’m also very excited about The Perfect Cup of Tea, because I will get to collaborate again with Gabi Swiatkowska. Other than that, I am trying to write a novel about a homeschooled Icelandic rock star.

Great talking with you, Kate!

Looking for Kate? Check out her website, Facebook, and Twitter. Gabi’s website is here. Infinity and Me is available here:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Powell’s Books
Indiebound

Two of you will win Infinity and Me. Wondering how? Just comment below!

Kate’s covers from her website. Other covers from Goodreads.

A Writer’s Process (12b)

Nora_Carpenter_photo_2I’m back, talking with awesome and multitalented Nora Carpenter about young adult fiction. And you’re here too. That’s awesome as well. If you haven’t checked out the first part of the interview, you can click here and do so. Nora’s young adult novel is A Beautiful Kind of Crazy. Are we ready? Then, let’s go!

wocLOGO_OrangeEl Space: In an article at WriteOnCon, Kelly Jensen mentioned three elements to a good realistic young adult novel: world building, authentic characters, and dialogue. In fact she stated:

World-building is not solely about where a book is set, though. It also means developing a dynamic and fluid world within your story.

Would you agree about the necessity of the three elements? How did you go about “developing a dynamic and fluid world” in your book?
Nora: I 100% agree that a character’s “world” encompasses not just his outer environment, but also his inner world—in other words, the people with whom he comes into contact, his relationships with those people, how those people’s worldviews are a result of their environment, and how they impact the protagonist, etc.

Lego-people-lego-8853733-2560-1718Once we get past setting—okay, we’re in a boarding school . . . or at a homeless shelter . . . or in a large city—those places have to feel real. Ultimately, it’s the characters that populate those places that make the worlds come alive. They have to talk, think, and act like people who would be in those settings in real life. And out-of-place characters have to be explained.

I’m from a small, rural town. Like, really small and really rural. I graduated with 60 kids, and we drove an hour across windy roads to get to the mall. Kids from other schools in West Virginia made fun of us for being hillbillies! Anyway, I’ve always been interested in how people act and why, and I have very clear memories of high school. My parents still live where I grew up. So, in some ways I relied a lot on experience and memory in building Cay’s inner world. Her town is peppered with people of different mindsets—a lot of them conservative, but not all, because a small town where everyone is über conservative is not realistic, either. But they all have explanations for why they think/act they way they do. And those are the people who are influencing Cay, which helps explain what’s going on in her head.

I love Jensen’s point about real people not being consistent. It’s so true. Of course, you don’t want a character being wildly inconsistent, but small inconsistencies reflect real life and make characters come alive. In A Beautiful Kind of Crazy for example, Cay’s dad cares a lot about his kids, and Cay respects him a lot. But he doesn’t have the best relationship with Cay’s sister, Skye, because their personalities are so different. Like a real person, he’s not intrinsically bad, but he sometimes behaves in ways that bother Cay and so cause tension.

lego peoplePretty much every character in the book is flawed in some way. I love flawed characters, because everyone—EVERYONE—in real life has flaws. And I am really interested in the idea of trying to be a “decent person,” while at the same time discovering that “decency” is often subjective and even fluid. And what happens when you think you’re a pretty good person, but then you do something shameful, or something you think might be shameful, and does it matter if no one knows it was you? And what if it’s something that an apology won’t fix? I think most people struggle with these questions at some point, and they are ideas that A Beautiful Kind of Crazy explores.

143555El Space: Some writers have talked about the lack of contemporary realistic YA fiction. In an article at Entertainment Weekly.com about the movie adaptation of Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume, writer Hillary Busis stated

I realized something else about her [the main character of Tiger Eyes] essential ordinariness: In a modern YA landscape glutted with fantastical dystopias, supernatural romances, brand-name-soaked glamoramas, and hyperbolic tragedy, what makes this heroine remarkable is the fact that she’s not very remarkable at all.

Busis goes on to state:

Trends, of course, are cyclical. I have no doubt that someday soon, the tides could change, ushering in a new wave of regular kid lit that replaces the Katnisses and Trises with characters who are less flashy but no less fascinating.

A Publishing Perspectives article by Dennis Abrams quoted from the Busis article. Yet many commenters took issue with the pronouncement of a lack of “regular kid lit.” How would you respond?
200px-Hunger_gamesNora: There is definitely great realistic fiction out there, but usually it’s the life-or-death fantasy stories like The Hunger Games that are in the public consciousness because of big movie deals. And let’s face it: stories like that are exciting. They are fast-paced, provide a great escape from a stressful world, and, because of the pace, can be emotionally exhilarating. I love a good fantasy novel with complex, interesting characters to go along with the exciting plot. I can tear through those things! I think young readers especially like stories like that because they imagine themselves as the protagonists. Middle and high school can be tough, so who doesn’t want to fantasize about what it would be like to save the world?

I’m not going to say that one genre is more important than the other, because I think we need all types of books because there are all types of readers. But realistic fiction is extremely important, not only to provide relatable characters in situations similar to readers’, but also to provide relatable characters in very different situations. Entering into a world of poverty or wealth or depression or anything different from their own circumstance can be enlightening and encouraging for young readers. Similarly, recognizing that characters have problems similar to theirs—and reading about how characters deal with them, or don’t—can be so healing for kids.

At the end of the day, no matter what the genre, I think a middle grade or young adult book is successful if it connects with a reader, if it makes her think without offering answers or preaching, and if it provides even a glimmer of hope.

Thanks, Nora, for hanging out on the blog yesterday and today!

Got questions for Nora? You know what to do. . . . While you ponder what questions to ask, I’ll leave you with this question from LOL Cats:

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Book covers from Goodreads. Lego people photos from fanpop.com and a-jenterprises.com.

A Writer’s Process 9(a)

A funny thing happened on the way to the blog today—if you recognize that well-known setup to a joke, you’ll have an idea of the subject of today’s discussion: humor in writing. With me today and tomorrow is the awesome and splendiferous Shelby Rosiak, whose blog My Year with The Mouse just might be your cup of tea.

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Shelby laughing after a friend’s daughter cheated at pin the tail on the donkey

If you haven’t visited Shelby’s blog, click on the blog name above, and witness Shelby valiant visiting many wonderful places at Disneyland and reporting on them, thereby making us wish we were her. Alas, MYWTM is on a hiatus now while Shelby gathers her wits and tries to find at least two shoes that match.

Give yourself a gold star if you can guess where I met Shelby. CoughcoughVCFAcoughcough. Now grab your rubber chicken, bonk yourself over the head, and join us!***

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El Space: Let’s start with four quick facts about yourself, for those who haven’t sat in Noble Lounge on campus reading books about Scaredy Squirrel with you like I have.
Shelby: (1) When I was thirteen years old, I was on a TV game show. I lost, but got a VCR as a “parting gift.” (2) I have been to twelve countries including China, where my family adopted our now two-year-old daughter, Violet. Our four-year-old son Theo came with us—it was a real adventure. (3) I live near Disneyland and can see the fireworks from my back porch. It’s pretty much awesome, because who DOESN’T want to see Disneyland fireworks from their back porch? (4) I used to be a technical writer for the world’s largest computer company. I much prefer creative writing.

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El Space: Love the Disneyland fireworks! And I’m glad you love creative writing, since that brought you to that place I coughed about earlier. Who are the authors who most influence you?
225px-JudyBlume2009(cropped)Shelby: I think influence is a funny word because, to me, it implies that I’ve changed my work based on their writing. I can’t think of anyone like that, but I have been inspired by a number of amazing writers. I cried when I met Judy Blume [left]. I’m not kidding. She must have thought I was a total whackadoodle, but she was so sweet and gracious about it. As a young person, I was very inspired by writers who wrote strong female characters—Cynthia Voigt, Katherine Paterson, Jean Craighead George, Scott O’Dell. And you didn’t ask this question, but the three authors I wish I’d had a chance to meet before they died? Madeleine L’Engle, Maurice Sendak, and Roald Dahl.

220px-Dave-barry-post-hunt-2011El Space: I wish I could have met them as well. Now, everyone who knows you knows you’re hilarious. In a recent PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown, Dave Barry, considered one of the funniest writers in America, said this:

[W]hen I’m writing columns, it’s—all I’m thinking about is jokes, joke, joke, joke, setup, punch line, joke, joke, joke. And I really don’t care where it goes. I don’t have a point the [sic] make. . . . With a novel, you have to have a story. It’s much more important to have it matter to the reader what happens to people, and it has to make sense and end in a way that is satisfying.

What are your thoughts on humor and your writing? How do you make it satisfying as Dave Barry suggested?
Shelby: This is a great quote. Articles, and nowadays blogs, are perfect for short one-liners—off-the-cuff jokes for an easy laugh. Novels present a different challenge, but also a real opportunity for the humor writer, because you can establish something humorous, like an inside joke between the author and the reader, and refer back to it as an ongoing aspect of the novel and it can become funnier and funnier as you go. You can also start building humor with the narrative, with establishing a small joke and growing with it.

Think of the song, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” This old lady swallows a fly—that’s funny, but we also sing “perhaps she’ll die” at the end of each verse. Then the old lady swallows a series of animals, each funnier than the last (a dog? Seriously?). And at the end she swallows a horse, which is funny in and of itself, but then you get the HUGE payoff with “She died, of course.” By building the humor, you get a much bigger payoff than you would with a one-liner. And that kind of payoff in and of itself is very satisfying.

And that’s something that you can do with longer fiction that is more difficult with shorter fiction. I think the big difference is thinking long term in the humor, in addition to one-liners. Making it satisfying means tying it all back to story, because it’s always about story. The humor needs to serve the story, otherwise it doesn’t belong there.

The big drawback of being a humor writer, however, is having to cut funny lines. I’ll write something I think is absolutely hysterical, and my feedback says it has to go because it doesn’t serve the story. It’s hard to cut lines when you think, But that’s hilarious!! But it needs to be done. It always comes back to story. Always.

And we’ve run out of time for today. But tune in tomorrow and we’ll talk more with Shelby about humor. Don’t forget to bring your rubber chicken. In the meantime, if you have questions for Shelby about her process or want to share a tip about humor writing, please do!

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***Glad you made it to this footnote. Um, you don’t really have to hit yourself on the head with a rubber chicken, since we’re not talking about the physical humor you see in movies. I just wanted to see if you would do it. 🙂

Rubber chicken from spirithalloween.com. Disneyland fireworks photo by Kevin Hogan. Judy Blume and Dave Barry photos from Wikipedia.