Check This Out: Big Rig

With me on the blog today is the amazing and gracious Louise Hawes, author extraordinaire and member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts! She’s here to discuss her recently released middle grade novel, Big, Rig, published by Peachtree. I love this book, so I’m thrilled to have Louise here! Louise is represented by Ginger Knowlton.

El Space: Louise, what inspired this story? This might sound weird, but as I read your book, I thought of Route 66—the iconic route discussed in the first Cars movie, though that route is not a focal point of this book. Cars made me nostalgic. I had a strong sense of nostalgia as I read Big Rig, the trucking industry being so iconic. Back in the day, when my family traveled, we stopped at truck stops.
Louise: Honestly? What inspired Big Rig is the same thing that inspires all my books—a character. I never start with a story, you see, or even a premise or idea. It’s always a beating heart, a voice, that grabs me. Of course, Hazel, my 11-year old protagonist grabbed me harder than most and held on longer, too. She insisted on having her way as we hit the road together. She made it clear that she’s highly allergic to those two words, THE END. And even though my inner writing teacher tried to tell her about turning points and resolution, she just wasn’t buying it; she didn’t ever want to our story to end. She got her way, as folks will see when they read the book!

At Louise’s book launch—McIntyre’s Fine Books in Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, NC.

And that’s funny about Route 66. I wanted the book’s flyleaves to feature the major U.S. truck routes in a double spread. I never won that battle, but we did get road signs as chapter titles! Oh, and I wore a route 66 tie to the book launch!

Photo by Karen Pullen

El Space: How did you research this book?
Louise: Very unwillingly! At first, when Hazel popped into my mind and told me she and her dad had been traveling across the country for seven years in an eighteen-wheeler, I said to myself, and to her, “NO WAY! I know nothing about trucks, and I don’t want to know even the slightest thing about them.” But of course, after she popped into my mind, Hazel burrowed into my heart. And three years later? I know a LOT about trucks. I’ve researched trucks and the trucking industry. I’ve interviewed dozens of drivers, put plenty of miles in on big rigs. As a passenger. No, I’ve never driven one; at 100 pounds and 5 feet, I wouldn’t trust myself in the driver’s seat. I reached out to organizations like Trucker Buddy, who pair up individual drivers with classrooms; and Women in Trucking, who work with organizations like the Girl Scouts to publicize the fact that there are lots of women active in, and crucial to, the industry.

El Space: Hazel/Hazmat is a great character. She felt like an old soul—a marvelous blend of the past and the present. So confident and engaging. What was your process for finding her voice?
Louise: As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t find Hazel, she found me. But as with any character that inspires one of my books, I needed to trust her before I could begin an actual draft. I have a notebook of free writes (in the form of first-person letters from her to me); that notebook was full of her voice, cover to cover, before I ever wrote a single page of the novel.

   

Canine book reviewers: (Left) Jenn Bailey’s pooch, Ollie. Jenn is a VCFA grad and author. Photo by Jenn Bailey (Right) Bella, the canine co-author of “BEAGLES AND BOOKS,” a blog by Laura Mossa, an Elementary School Reading Specialist. Photo by Laura Mossa.

El Space: You have such wonderful characters. Even Hazel’s mother’s ashes (not much of a spoiler, since you learn that on the first page) is a character with weight in the book. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Louise: What a great question! I think the toughest moments to write were the ones where I needed to stay inside Hazel, and not give myself up to feeling sorry for her, which she never does for herself. The moments when she’s talking to her mom, or afraid of growing up, or angry at her dad—during all those times, she’s just right there in the moment, never feeling “poor me,” or “life sucks.” She’s just bringing her whole self to every experience, knowing better than most of us, that it will give way to a new one before we can truly catch hold.

The feline reviewer is an assistant to a Twitter follower and middle school teacher, Kate McCue-Day. Photo by Kate McCue-Day

El Space: What do you hope your readers will take away after reading Big Rig?
Louise: Besides the fact that a good story doesn’t need a beginning, middle, and end? I guess I’d like readers to undergo the same change-of-mind I did about truckers and trucking. Drivers and their rigs are crucial to all of us—to the economy, to the culture, to our whole way of life. And yet we pretty much forget about them, once we grow past the age of 6 or 7 and stop asking them to pump their air brakes when we drive by. We forget about automation and the driverless trucks that may well be destroying and brutalizing a whole way of life. That’s a thread that winds through the entire book, and I’d hope folks pay attention.

El Space: What inspires you these days?
Louise: Being outside, plain and simple. I need fresh air, and water in the form of the sea, or a lake, or a rainstorm. I need the bull frog in my pond with whom I engage in daily ten-minute dialogues. I need to see how relentlessly beautiful the world is, how it keeps going with or without us. I need something bigger than myself or my day. And nature gives me that.

El Space: What writing advice do you always share with your students and anyone else who’s asking?
Louise: The same advice I’ve been giving ever since I set myself free from slaving over every word via free writes. My first drafts are still like other folks’ second or third passes, and that’s because I can’t leave a word or a sentence alone until I hear it ring true. But with free writing, the loose, free times I spend with my characters, I can relax into them, get out of me. Which is why, behind every chapter I write, painstakingly, laboriously, there is a poem or a free write that came first. So, whenever myself or one of my students has a writing problem that’s stumping us, I advise taking it to our characters. To let it go, turn it over. That doesn’t mean I won’t edit or revise those free writes, or advise my students to do the same. But it does mean that what’s at the start, the heart of our work is something unhampered and flowing, something free.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Louise: I’m working on two things right now—one is a project I started a long time ago and am only finishing this year. It’s YA historical fiction, and the protagonist is Salomé, the biblical character who supposedly performed the dance of the seven veils and won the head of John the Baptist. The other project is a new novel for adults. The character who won me over there is a failed playwright who’s fallen in love with a dead poet. See? There’s just no telling with me, who’ll come out of nowhere and sweep me up and away!

Thank you, Louise, for being my guest!
Looking for Louise? Look here: Website, Twitter, VCFA, Facebook, Instagram
Looking for Big Rig? Look no further than Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Amazon.
Comment below to be entered into a drawing from which one of you will receive a copy of Big Rig! Winner to hopefully be announced next week!

Other books by Louise:

    

Book launch and author photos courtesy of Louise Hawes. Tree photo by L. Marie. Other book covers from Goodreads and Louise Hawes.

Check This Out: Coming Up Short

With me on the blog today is the fabulous Laurie Morrison, who is here to talk about her latest middle grade novel, Coming Up Short, released on June 21 by Abrams. Cover art by Mike Burdick and design by Deena Fleming. Laurie is represented by Sara Crowe. (Click on Abrams above to be taken to the synopsis.)

El Space: Now that you’ve got four published novels, if you could go back in time to before you knew Every Shiny Thing would be published, what would you say to yourself then to encourage yourself?
Laurie: That’s a great question. As you know, it took a while (and a handful of shelved manuscripts) before Every Shiny Thing sold, and there were times when I felt disheartened because I was pouring so much time and work into writing books that didn’t get published. Looking back from my current vantage point, I would try to reassure my former self that none of that work was wasted. All those early projects helped me hone my craft and develop a whole repository of ideas and characters that have found their way into books that did get published. So I would urge myself to trust my own process and have faith that as long as I am writing stories I love—stories that no one but me could write in quite the same way—then I am doing everything I can to make my dream of becoming a published writer come true, and my work has value whether it ends up in bookstores or not.

El Space: I love that! Great answer! What inspired you to write this novel? Why was it important for you to tell this story?
Laurie: After writing Up for Air, which features a competitive swimmer, I was eager to write another sports story. There are so many compelling dynamics to explore when it comes to sports, and I was so moved by readers’ responses to Up for Air that I wanted to offer a follow-up that people who loved that novel would be excited about. This time, I wanted to write about softball—a sport I played growing up—and I wanted to focus on pressure and performance anxiety because I was a kid who loved sports but didn’t respond well to the intensity that comes along with sports once you reach a certain level. I also really wanted to write about a kid who feels pressure to be perfect and responsible for her parents’ happiness; those are other pressures that I’ve dealt with and seen my former middle school students grapple with, but I hadn’t seen them explored much in middle grade fiction and I think they’re important to delve into.

El Space: What characteristics of yours does Bea share? How is she different from you?
Laurie: Bea has some of my perfectionism, and she and I both feel responsible for things that aren’t really our responsibility and we’re hard on herself when we make mistakes. But she’s a whole lot tougher and feistier than I am, and she’s a much better softball player than I was!

El Space: What inspires you these days—books, podcasts—whatever?
Laurie: Two middle grade novels that have inspired me a lot are Erin Entrada Kelly’s Those Kids from Fawn Creek and Tae Keller’s Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone. They’re the kinds of books I want to read once for enjoyment and then again to analyze and learn from them. I recently binge-listened to Hayley Chewins and Lindsay Eager’s Story of the Book podcast and found their conversations about craft to be extremely inspiring and illuminating, and I’m also really inspired by the picture books and chapter books my young kids are devouring. We’ve been reading a lot of Princess in Black books recently, and it’s been such a joy to see how that series builds and to notice which aspects delight my kids the most.

 

El Space: As an author, what other formats do you think you’d like to try—graphic novels, screenplays, etc.? What would you stay away from?
Laurie: I’ve always wanted to write a book that’s entirely epistolary, and I’d also like to write a short story or two as well as a novel that’s really funny. There’s some humor in all my books, but I’d like to try something where the humor is central. I keep waiting for all the books I read with my kids to rub off on me because I’d love to try writing for a younger audience, whether that’s a picture book or chapter book, at some point, but so far I feel most drawn toward writing for an upper middle grade audience. Maybe someday I’ll try another age category, but I’m happy in this niche for now. I don’t think I’d ever try to write a graphic novel script—though I love graphic novels—because I’m not very visual or concise, so I don’t think that format would play to my strengths at all!

 

Two epistolary novels

El Space: What will you work on next?
Laurie: I have another realistic upper middle grade novel in the works that hasn’t been announced yet, but I’m excited about it. For now, I’ll just say that it features academic overachiever rivals, distance running, the summer between eighth and ninth grade, and more of a romance than any of my other books to date.

How awesome to have Laurie on the blog! If you’re looking for her, you will find her on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

To find Coming Up Short, check out Children’s Book World, Indiebound, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. And check out Laurie’s other books.

  

Comment below to be entered into a drawing for a signed copy of Comng Up Shorr. Winner to be announced sometime next week..

Author photo courtesy of Laurie Morrison. Author photo credit: Laura Billingham. Books covers from Goodreads.

Check This Out—The Debut of Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs

Awhile back I featured the cover for Saint Ivy by the awesome Laurie Morrison. But Saint Ivy, published by Abrams, has now debuted, so here is Laurie back on the blog. Wooooooot! Though I have already given away a copy of this book, one of you will be given another copy. But first, let’s talk to Laurie. Oh, before I forget, Laurie is represented by Sara Crowe.

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El Space: This book started as a proposal. What was that process like? How much of the book did you submit with your proposal? How long did writing the rest of the book then take?
Laurie: My agent and I submitted about 50 pages plus a very detailed synopsis for the proposal. I had almost a year to finish the initial draft after it sold, and that felt like a lot of lead time. . . but I ended up needing every bit of it! Despite my detailed synopsis, I got pretty stuck on the second half of the book. It was stressful to know the book was under contract when I wasn’t sure if I’d ever achieve my vision for it, but now I’m grateful that my deadline forced me to keep going because I’m glad this book exists!

Book-Proposal-Template

El Space: How is Ivy like you? Different than you?
Laurie: Ivy is a whole lot like me. Her family situation is different than mine was and I was a little sportier and more focused on academics at her age than she is, but I’ve gone through some similar “what makes me special” soul-searching at different points, and I really, really relate to all the ways she struggles to be as kind to herself as she is to other people.

El Space: You taught middle grade for years. What do you think some of your former students would say about Ivy and her friends?
Laurie: That’s a great question. As a teacher, I was struck by the pressure many of my students felt to have a “thing”—one main talent or interest that made them stand out. And I saw that sometimes they felt like middle school was “too late” to pursue a new sport or hobby since there were other people who had already been doing it for so long, or there was this expectation that you “should” pursue the things that you excel at or have been doing forever, regardless of how much you enjoy them. I also noticed the pressure many girls felt to be nice and good all the time. Those pressures are a LOT for kids to manage, and I explored all of them in some way in this book. So I hope my former students would relate to what Ivy and her friends go through and would say that Ivy’s experiences helped them reflect on some of their own.

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El Space: How do you think your book can help kids who are still processing the pandemic and its life-altering effects?
Laurie: At its core, Saint Ivy is a book about self-compassion. During the pandemic, kids have had to manage incredibly difficult stuff. There are a lot of “good,” cooperative, considerate kids who are struggling right now but don’t think they deserve to dwell on their tough feelings because other people have things worse. This is a story about embracing the complicated, messy emotions we sometimes push away or think we’re not “entitled to.” I hope Ivy’s journey toward being kinder to herself helps kids figure out how they can be kinder to themselves, and I hope it encourages kids to open up and ask for help when they need it.

El Space: As I mentioned to another of our classmates, not counting VCFA authors since there are too many great ones, which author or authors inspire(s) you? Why?
Laurie: There are still so many! I’ll start with two who directly impacted Saint Ivy. Brigit Young writes nuanced, character-driven page turners, and her debut, Worth a Thousand Words, gave me the idea to turn Ivy’s story into a mystery. Melissa Sarno writes beautiful, lyrical, “lean” (a.k.a. short) middle grade novels, and I’ve come to rely on her as a reader because she’s so good at identifying the places in my work where I’ve overwritten and need to pare back. But I could go on and on! Erin Entrada Kelly, Lisa Graff, Tae Keller, Paula Chase, Barbara Dee—there are so many incredible, inspiring authors writing middle grade right now.

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El Space: What will you work on next?
Laurie: I’m about to start line edits for my next upper middle grade novel Coming Up Short, which is coming out next spring. It’s the story of a thirteen-year-old softball star named Bea who self-destructs on the field during the biggest game of her life after a very public scandal involving her dad. She goes away to Gray Island (the setting from my last book Up for Air!) to visit her estranged aunt and attend a softball camp where she’s determined to fix her throw to first base and, hopefully, her family. I’m excited to share more about that one soon!

Thank you, Laurie, for being my guest!

Looking for Laurie? Check out her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

Looking for Saint Ivy? Check out Barnes and Noble, Bookshop, Indiebound, and Children’s Book World, Amazon, and your local bookstore, where you can also find these amazing books by Laurie:

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You can also return here next week to see who has been chosen to be receive a free copy of Saint Ivy! Comment below to be entered in the drawing.

Author photo and Ivy cover courtesy of the author. Other book covers from Goodreads. Book proposal image from somewhere online. Pressure image from JoyReactor.com.

Check This Out: The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy

Please join me in welcoming back to the blog the one-and-only Mary Winn Heider. Woot woot!. Mary Winn is here to talk about her latest middle grade novel, The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy, which was published by Little, Brown and Company on March 16.

Jacket Pic MWH     Losers1

Cover designed by Sammy Yuen

Lest you think this is a novel about space exploration (some of you might be thinking of The  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams), click here to read the synopsis. At the end of the interview, I will discuss how you can receive a copy of The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy. Now, let’s get to gabbing with Mary Winn. (P.S. If you are wondering about the extra space between the questions and the answers, I have no idea how to fix it! If you do, please let me know in the comments.)

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?

Mary Winn: I live in Chicago.

I got an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with you!

I started the pandemic with one aloe plant and now I have eleven. They keep having babies.

I’ve played the flute, the French horn, the bagpipes, and the ukulele (but never the tuba)!

El Space: Please walk us through the inspiration for The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy. Why CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)? Why the tuba?

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Mary Winn: This book was a real puzzle. A lot of the pieces fell into place in sort of non-linear ways, and the CTE element is one of those. I wrote a scene that became the seed for the story, and that took place on a football field—but it still took me a while to understand how football actually figured into the story. When I eventually realized that a football player was going to figure prominently in the story, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience write about players without including CTE—and in that moment, I suddenly understood the source of the grief that had been an undercurrent in the story all along.

The tuba was a lot simpler! After years and years of band, I’ve had a lot of time to consider which instruments are the funniest and which ones are the saddest, and in my weathered old opinion, I believe that the tuba has the ability to be both funny and sad better than a lot of your other typical school band instruments (the bassoon as well, which also has a brief cameo). So despite it being an instrument I’d never played, it was the clear choice

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El Space: Without giving any spoilers, what was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Mary Winn: I’d say the grief component. I was grieving some of my own losses as I wrote it, and there were periods when it was really hard to want to spend time in the story. I discovered that by outlining and giving myself more structure, it wasn’t as impossible—it felt safer, in a way. Still, there were long stretches of time where I felt incredibly disconnected from the story, and those were tough to wrangle with.

El Space: Which character’s perspective seemed the easiest for you to slip into? The most difficult?

Mary Winn: Winston’s perspective was the easiest! Like him, I can be very dramatic in my internal life, and like him, I love playing instruments, but am not particularly good at them. Louise was more difficult, because she’s a hard scientist, and as much as I love dabbling in science, I have never been as serious about it as she is.

El Space: What did writing this novel help you discover about yourself as an author?

Mary Winn: The discovery that outlining could give me bumpers for my bumper car—but not inhibit my exploration of the story—was huge. And since this is my second novel, it was fascinating to discover that my relationship to my own books isn’t necessarily the same from book to book. This one was a lot more complicated.

El Space: Not counting VCFA authors, because there are too many great ones, what author(s) inspire(s) you?

Mary Winn: Oooooh SUCH a tricky question! EVEN not counting VCFA folks, I will inevitably feel like I’ve left off about a thousand writers who were incredibly influential to me. I’m going to take this in a few different directions—the following writers inspire me with their gorgeous writing, but they’ve also influenced me in an additional authorly dimension. Dhonielle Clayton is one of the hardest, smartest working writers out there—and she took the time to help me out in a big way at my first conference when I was a bumbling newb.

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Her generosity in a moment when she was the absolute biggest cheese in the room is something I’ll never forget and that I’ll spend the rest of my career trying to pay forward to other new-to-it, deer-in-the-headlight writers. I’m so, so excited about her upcoming Marvellers series. Mel Beatty, who wrote Heartseeker and the sequel Riverbound, is the queen of dialogue that absolutely crackles, and she worldbuilds like nobody’s business. But she’s also a bookseller, and has a sixth sense about what books to recommend for people—the joy she puts into the world by intuiting what people are ready for is a whole super power. And finally Chad Sell, whose books—Cardboard Kingdom, Doodleville—are so beautiful and full of heart. He’s a genius at building narrative arcs. We’re working on a project together right now, and my process has been so radically improved by the experience of learning his process.

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El Space: What will you work on next?

Mary Winn: The project with Chad is a series based on an idea he had. I’m writing and he’s illustrating—and it’s just a blast. We started about two weeks before the first lockdown, so we’ve been meeting over Zoom, and those meetings have been the highlight of this last year. Working with him has turned out to be such a joy—it feels like together we make one bigger, smarter, funnier brain.

El Space: Thank you for being my guest!

Mary Winn: Thank you, thank you for having me!!!

Looking for The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy? Look at Bookshop, Indiebound, and Barnes & Noble.

Looking for Mary Winn? Then head to her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

But one of you will look up one day to discover a free copy of The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy handed right to you. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced some time next week!

Tuba from clipart.com. Author photo by Popio Stumpf. Book cover photo by L. Marie. Cover designed by Sammy Yuen. Other book covers from Goodreads.

The Gift of Story


When I was a kid, I learned to value stories. My parents read books to me at bedtime, which made me want to read stories for myself. Many of the stories they read were fairy tales or fantastical adventures written by Dr Seuss. As soon as I learned to read, I read just about everything—fiction and nonfiction. I had (and still have) an insatiable curiosity for the stories of others. Sharing stories is the main reason why I love to give books away.

  

I love being taken on an adventure through the pages of a book. So many aspects of life are stressful these days, so I value more and more the stories I read and the characters I grow to care about. My favorite time of day is the time I can spend with a book, watching the workaday world fade away beyond the edges of the pages in front of me.

So without further ado, here are the winners of the books for the Christmas giveaways, which were announced in this post and this one:

The winner of Love, God, and Mexican Pastries is Nancy Hatch!

The winner of Up for Air is Laura Bruno Lilly!


The winner of The Art of Breaking Things Is Nicki!


The winner of A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity is Marian!

Winners, please comment below to confirm. Happy reading! And thank you to all who commented!

Christmas giveaway image from thefrontporchgourmet. Book stack from blogs.mtu.edu. Books covers (with the exception of those being given away) from Goodreads.

Deck the Halls for 2019

Back when I was in grad school (VCFA), each new class had the assignment of choosing a class name. Usually these names had something to do with books or writing. My class chose the Secret Gardeners based on the book The Secret Garden.

With that being said, this is the second of two holiday season book giveaways (the first described in this post), this time featuring three more awesome Secret Gardener classmates: Laurie Morrison, Laura Sibson, and Nicole Valentine, all of whom stopped by for a brief chat today. Though they appeared on the blog here, here, and here to discuss their novels, and copies were given away before, another copy of each book will be given away this time. ’Tis the season!

 

 

   

Click here for the synopsis for Up for Air.
Click here for the synopsis for The Art of Breaking Things.
Click here for the synopsis for A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity.

El Space: What’s the best Christmas gift you received when you were a kid? Why was it special for you?

Laurie: The best Christmas gift I ever got was kittens! When I was eight or nine, my parents brought home two tiny, adorable kittens. My brothers and I were completely surprised. We had no idea our parents were even considering getting pets even though we had asked. We loved figuring out names for them—we went with Christmas and Mistletoe and called them Chrissy and Missy for short—and holding them. One of them disappeared on Christmas Day, and it turned out she was hiding in a tiny space between a piece of furniture and the wall. So that was an adventure! But it was just such a joy to have such a surprise and to feel grown up and responsible as I helped take care of them.

Laura: I have a photo from my sixth Christmas. In it, I am seated on a brand new bike while wearing a fancy bathrobe fit for a princess. I also have a huge grin on my face. This Christmas photo perfectly captures the two sides of me—the girl excited for her first two-wheel bike and the girl who daydreamed about magic and medieval kingdoms.

Nicole: I couldn’t tell you how old I was, but there was one Christmas where my best friend and I thought it would be excellent fun to sneak around our houses and find the hidden presents before the big day. And it was fun! It was the closest thing to a real live treasure hunt a kid could have in 1980-something. However, it soon became painfully obvious to us both that when Christmas morning came we wouldn’t be surprised. I stayed silent and told my parents nothing, but with each passing day I became more disappointed in myself. And then, on Christmas morning there was one extra present under the tree that I had not seen before. It was a small child’s sewing kit and it wasn’t something that I had even asked for, but right then it seemed like the greatest gift in the whole world. The tag said To Nicole, Love Santa in some very familiar cursive handwriting. I still don’t know if my mother saw the telltale signs of our snooping, but I am forever thankful for that sewing kit.

Thank you, Laurie, Laura, and Nicole for stopping by!

What’s the best gift (holiday or otherwise) you received when you were a kid? Comment below to be entered in the drawing. There will be three winners for this giveaway. Each winner will receive one of the above books. Winners of both giveaways to be announced on December 20, 2019.

Henry is pleased with his tree decorating. But the snowman, who is a stickler for correct spelling, thinks an adjustment needs to be made.

Christmas giveaway image from thefrontporchgourmet. Author photos and covers courtesy of the authors. The Secret Garden cover from Goodreads. Fairy tale castle from clipartpanda. Kittens from the SF SPCA. Sewing kit from dreamstime. Other photo by L. Marie.

Cover Reveal: A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity

I love cover reveals, especially the ones in which I get to participate. The marvelous Nicole Valentine, whom you remember from this guest post, is back with the cover of her middle grade science fiction novel, A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity (Carolrhoda Books/Lerner) due out October 1. Nicole is represented by Linda Epstein.

Take a good look. Drink in the greatness.

Now, let’s talk to Nicole.

El Space: For quick facts about yourself?
Nicole: I love falconry and want to train my own hawk or falcon someday.
I am a technologist and author, but I also used to design cross stitch samplers! They were from the vantage point of famous classic characters in classic literature.
I also knit and I used to be the Chief Technology Officer of a site called Craftopia.com which was great because I got free yarn.
All our family pets have literary names, Merlin, Arthur, Tink, and Pickwick.

El Space: Oh man! Wish I could get free yarn! Now, let’s talk about that cover. It is fabulous! So colorful! I also loved your first cover reveal at MG Book Village. How long did it take you to write this debut novel? What made you stick with this story?
Nicole: It’s so hard to say how long it took. I’ve been writing this novel on and off for years and the novel has changed many times. The first seed of the idea came to me when I was just a teenager. I didn’t start writing it in earnest till I went to VCFA where I met you! Almost all of the stories I have came to me when I was younger or are built on ideas from the past. Everyone should hold on to their journals!

A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity is about a very practical, science-loving boy who discovers all the women in his family can time travel. I have been fascinated with time travel since I was a child and this story explores not just the adventurous side of being able to travel in time, but all the emotional and moral conflicts that would arise. I describe it as A Time Traveler’s Wife meets Tuck Everlasting. While there is plenty of page-turning adventure inside, it is also a heartfelt story about family and loss.

   

El Space: What expectations, if any, did you have about the cover? What elements did you hope to see? Who is responsible for the cover design and illustration?
Nicole: I was hoping that the artist would not give the main characters a certain look that would color the reader’s perception. I know when I was a kid I liked to picture the characters for myself. I was thrilled when this was the route that Alice Brereton took. She also goes by the name Pickled Alice. I’ve yet to meet her, but I’d love to thank her.

El Space: What was your response to seeing the cover for the first time?
Nicole: I was thrilled at how it jumped off the page and hopefully it will jump off the shelves come October too! It captures the magic and the mystery of the book really well.

You can pre-order A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity now from Indiebound, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. But one of you will receive a pre-order of the book just for commenting. Winner to be announced on April 2 (rather than April 1, lest you think this is an April Fools Day prank). (I will not have a post next week, by the way.)

The official book synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Finn is used to people in his family disappearing. His twin sister, Faith, drowned when they were three years old. A few months ago, his mom abandoned him and his dad with no explanation. He clings to the concrete facts in his physics books and to his best friend, Gabi to cope with his sadness. But when his grandmother tells him the family secret: that all the women in their family are Travelers, he realizes he has to put his trust in something bigger than logic to save his Mom.

Looking for Nicole? You can find her at her website, steaMG.org, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity book cover and author photo courtesy of Nicole Valentine. Other covers from Goodreads. Hawk from dreamstime.com.

A Tale of Three Trees

As promised, today I will reveal the winners of Halfway to Happily Ever After by Sarah Aronson and Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. See this post and this one if you’re completely confused by that statement.

     

     

Before I get to that, in honor of the first day of summer, here is a photo (the one on the left) of three trees I pass every day. Okay, yeah. You can only see the the trunk of the tree at the far right. So, the photo at the right shows the tree you couldn’t really see in the left photo (though some of the foliage in the left photo belongs to that tree). Yeah. I know. The knot holes give it a creepy look. So, let’s call it Creepy Tree. Despite its appearance, squirrels and birds by the score are drawn to it and to the one across the street from it. The latter tree seems like a happy tree, with its fuller access to the sun’s rays.

 

Happy Tree. Even the branches seem like a smile.

The tree in the foreground of the picture on the left (same tree in the photo at the right) reminds me of a brush, so its nickname is—you guessed it—Brush. Brush is a haven for birds. I’ve seen cardinals dart into it from time to time, though they usually live in one of the larger evergreen trees nearby.

   

Brush has reached a lovely height.

Brush is a place that many birds visit, but don’t live in. Sort of like a Starbucks or a library—a place they go to hang out in or work. But Creepy Tree and Happy Tree are the homes squirrels and birds return to after a hard day’s work.

Creepy Tree is less creepy from this side of the street (the Happy Tree side).

What makes some trees more habitable than others? It takes a squirrel or a bird to know best, since trees are their domain. But as I asked myself that question, I couldn’t help thinking about stories—places we find ourselves inhabiting, even if the settings are completely made up.

There are some stories we visit. We might read them once and move on. But there are stories we call home—the ones that draw us back to their pages again and again. We become citizens of their well-drawn worlds, and gladly tread their well-worn paths.

In what story worlds are you a citizen?

Speaking of well-drawn worlds, time for the book giveaways. Thanks to the random number generator, the winner of Halfway to Happily Ever After is

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Nancy Hatch!

The winner of Every Shiny Thing is

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Marian!

Congrats to the winners! You know the drill. Please comment below to confirm.

Author photos and book covers courtesy of the authors. Tree photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Every Shiny Thing

Today on the blog, you will find not one, but two of my incredible VCFA classmates: the marvelous Cordelia Jensen (left) and the awesome Laurie Morrison. They are here to discuss their middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing, which was published by Abrams in April. Click here to read the novel’s synopsis.

   

Cordelia and Laurie are represented by Sara Crowe. After the interview, I’ll tell you about a giveaway of their novel.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Laurie: 1. I used to be able to hula hoop for hours on end, doing all kinds of fancy tricks. 2. I ran three marathons before hurting my knee while training for a fourth. 3. I think chocolate chip cookies are pretty much the world’s most perfect food. 4. I have a brother who can play the piano by ear, like Ryan can in Every Shiny Thing.

Cordelia: 1. I was a certified scuba diver in high school. 2. I was a camp counselor for eleven summers. 3. When I turned 39, I got my first cavity, my first dog died, and I broke my first bone. It was like I turned 9 not 39! 4. I have boy girl twins who are 12, now we all read the same books!

El Space: How did your premise—two middle graders who come up with what has been described as an ill-advised Robin Hood scheme to raise money for people in need—come about?
Laurie and Cordelia: We started with a vision for our two characters and the relationship they would form, and we thought it would be compelling if Lauren developed a compulsion to shoplift and Sierra felt like she had to cover for her. But Laurie, who wrote Lauren’s point of view, is terrified of breaking rules and couldn’t fathom why Lauren would shoplift until she thought of the middle school students she taught and how passionate many of them were about social justice. We thought: what if Lauren is angry about the inequality she sees in the world around her and wants to do something to make the world a fairer place, sort of like Robin Hood…but then she gets carried away and her well-intentioned scheme spirals out of control?

El Space: The book was written in prose and poetry. What was your process for writing? What was your favorite thing about working together?
Laurie and Cordelia: Laurie wrote Lauren’s sections in prose and Cordelia wrote Sierra’s sections in verse. We had a big brainstorming session before we began writing, during which we figured out the midpoint and ending, and once we had written a little more than half of the book, we met again to plan a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of the story so it wouldn’t run away from us. But for the most part, we just went back and forth in a Google doc, one of us writing a chapter, then the other building off that chapter to write the next one, and so on. We both found the process incredibly energizing because we could bounce ideas off each other and improvise with each other as we went. And it was pretty great to get immediate feedback on the sections we wrote so we knew right away what was working and what wasn’t. And we gave each other lots of compliments as we went, which was also very fun and validating!

El Space: Talk to us about your main characters—Sierra and Lauren. How are they different than or similar to middle grade you? What advice would high school you give to Sierra and Lauren about surviving middle school? Why is this important?
Laurie: I was conscientious and loyal, like Lauren is, and I had brothers I felt somewhat protective of. I cared about injustice, but not as single-mindedly as Lauren does. And I was a rule-follower, so I never would have stolen! I think high school me would have been overwhelmed by the misguided intensity of Lauren’s Robin Hood plan. There were a couple of times when I was in high school when I really wanted to help a friend but realized I was not equipped to figure out how to do that, so I went to a trusted adult—the guidance counselor at my school—to ask for advice. High school me would have gone to the guidance counselor to work out a plan to help Lauren, and I likely would have tried to help her talk to someone she trusted, like her Aunt Jill or her teacher, Mr. Ellis. I would have advised her that there are times when things get intense and hard enough that you may need adult reinforcements and sometimes you may want to turn to adults other than your parents, and that’s just fine.

Cordelia: I was definitely a caretaker like Sierra is, which is part of the reason I wanted to write this book. I would tell Sierra (1) you are safe now, let yourself trust in your new environment and the people who are caring for you (2) if you feel overwhelmed in a relationship, seek help and support. Dare yourself to ask for help even if it feels impossible. Feeling like you are the only person who can help someone can become an addiction itself.

El Space: Social justice is a big theme in society and in your book. What do you hope kids will take away from your book?
Laurie and Cordelia: The School Library Journal review of Every Shiny Thing says the novel may encourage some readers to examine their privilege, which we were thrilled to see because we definitely like the idea that the book would make readers stop to think about things in the world that aren’t fair and things they can do—without resorting to illegal measures like Lauren does—to make a difference.

In addition, if kids are struggling with an addicted parent, we hope they will see that there are resources out there that can offer help.

El Space: Please tell us how your passion for writing books for kids developed.
Laurie: I only began writing fiction after I began teaching middle school. There was something about my students’ passion, humor, creativity, and honesty that inspired me deeply. I also went through a lot of big life changes when I was in middle school and high school, and I very vividly remember what it felt like to be that age and deal with big revelations and relationship shifts. I feel a lot of empathy for my middle school and early high school self and am moved to explore some of the intense feelings I had at those ages.

Cordelia: I have always been a writer and even concentrated in Creative Writing at Kenyon College as an undergrad. However, I began writing for kids after working with them. Besides having an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I have an M.Ed in School Counseling. I worked as a counselor in my twenties and was also a camp counselor for a long time (see fun fact). Once I became pregnant with my own kids, I was drawn to write stories and poems for the kids I had worked with for so long. I felt I had a lot more to say to kids and teens than to adults.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Laurie: I’m finishing up edits on my next middle grade novel, Up for Air, which is a summer story about competitive swimming, self-esteem, fitting in, and standing out that will come out next spring, and I’m working on a couple of other projects that are in much earlier stages.

Cordelia: I’ve been working on a picture book, a MG novel, and a YA—all in verse!

Thank you, Cordelia and Laurie, for being my guests!

Looking for Cordelia and Laurie? You can find them at these locations.

Laurie Morrison: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Cordelia Jensen: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Every Shiny Thing is available at a bookstore near you and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound.

If you’re a teacher and need resources to teach about the topics in Every Shiny Thing, click here.

One of you will be given a copy of this book simply because you commented. Check back on June 21 to discover the winner. 

Having read Every Shiny Thing, Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron are inspired to do something to help others in need.
What would you do?

Cordelia Jensen author photo by Marietta Pathy Allen. Laurie Morrison author photo by Laura Billingham. Hula hoop from keywordsuggest.org. Scuba gear from ladyasatramp.blogspot.com. Social justice image from stephenandmary.org.au. Google docs image from heavy.com. Robin Hood image from freepins.com. Middle school image from sites.google.com. Shopkins Shoppie dolls—Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron—by Moose Toys. Photo by L. Marie.

Making Friends with Failure: Guest Post by Sarah Aronson

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, today on the blog is a guest post written by the marvelous Sarah Aronson, author of the Wish List series, published by Scholastic, and other books. (Check out her website for a list of her books.) If you have read this blog in the last year or so, you will remember Sarah from this post and this one. And now, take it away Sarah!

If you know me in real life, you know I love a good graduation speech. This is partly because I grew up in academia, so I’ve heard a lot of them.

Two favorites were John Irving reading a work-in-progress, and Millicent Fenwick’s message to the Rutgers College Class of 1983: Be careful who you marry. (Great advice that was largely unappreciated.)

 

But mostly, like many writers and artists, I love a great perseverance story—a story that details someone overcoming years of rejection and failure and self-loathing, to finally get a lucky break and succeed.

This year, my favorite message of perseverance comes from Abby Wambach at Barnard College. (Note: she was the inspiration for Parker in Beyond Lucky—so in general—I’m a BIG FAN!)

   

She said,

Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a hard concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright—and they end up wasting it. Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.

You can read the whole speech here.

I like how she puts this. Failure is a gift. Not something to fear. That’s because when we fail, we learn. We make connections. We grow. And thus, we should feel good about it. We should celebrate our failures. We don’t have to feel alone. And yet, we need to talk about it all the time.

Social media is packed with threads on perseverance and the struggle to succeed. Most of these messages are pragmatic. And hopeful. Successful creators offer the struggling artist hope: if you keep failing, someday, you will succeed.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written many times about my writing journey, my tangle (or perhaps tango) with failure and success. I have shared the moments when I hit rock bottom, when I promised myself I would find another path. I have shared how I challenged myself to write without expectations—to write for writing’s sake alone.

But this is what I’ve come to understand. When I was failing, talking on and on about how hard it was, I already knew what success felt like. The truth is, most people who write about failure only talk about it after they have succeeded. I rarely see anything about written about failure, while the failing is happening.

This was one of the reasons I wrote The Wish List series. In The Wish List, Isabelle seems to always be on the brink of failure. She does not like to study—because she has some learning issues. She has a hard time concentrating. Just in case that’s not hard enough, she has a high-performing sister. She is the daughter of the biggest failure of all, the worst fairy godmother ever.

  

Because of these books, I have spoken to lots of kids about kindness, determination, gusto, and failure. I’ve told them about my childhood failures (I came late to reading), and about the many drafts I always need to get the stories right. I tell them about the manuscripts that line my desk drawers. About what it feels like to hear no. To not know if YES is ever going to happen.

I will never forget the young reader who waited until everyone else was gone to ask me, “What if I’m not good at anything?”

She came to mind as I read Abby’s motivating speech. I opened up a discussion about failure on Facebook, in preparation for a session on Making Friends with Failure at nErDcamp Kansas.

Very quickly a few things became clear: Failure is not so easy in the present tense. Many of us need to experience a period of mourning—some time to get beyond it. (So if that’s you, don’t feel bad!) More important, fear of failure holds us back. It can keep us from taking risks that would pay off! It keeps us from envisioning greatness—from striving for more.

Although many acknowledged failure and its usefulness, many writers were privately grateful that they did not begin their journeys in this age of social media, where all of us are inundated with distractions that can make us all feel low, worthless, and overlooked.

This is what scares me: in a life surrounded by stories of success, many of us are feeling anxiety. And sadness. We feel out of control. Not safe. We don’t celebrate the process as much as we should.

In Kansas, I shared this feedback. Then I asked the teachers how they approach failure with their students. Right away, I was filled with hope.

Compassionate teachers talked about responding to failure by specifically and meaningfully talking about what went right.

They talked about using humor to quash sadness, but at the same time, knowing that everyone is different. Sometimes, humor doesn’t work. Sometimes we simply need to feel it.

And of course, we talked about the power of community—about how much better we feel about risk taking when we feel supported and safe. Creativity—and great books are born—when TRYING is celebrated—when it is actually rewarded.

Dear writers,
Can we do that?
Can we use humor? Can we embrace sadness? Can we set measurable goals and celebrate them? Can we help each other feel safe?
Can we make friends with failure?

This is what I work to foster in my Highlights retreats and classes at writers.com. I set out to lower the bar, to let writers take risks. I want them to fail gloriously. Because when we do, in fact, only when we do, we succeed.

In those failures, we see seeds. Seeds and glimmers of what will be a foundation for a better draft. A deeper story. A more authentic character.

Take it from Teddy Roosevelt.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Writers, get into the arena. Be curious. Make trouble. Strive for what you want, but along the way, don’t cower, because failure is part of the process. You have to get used to it. If we stick together, we can all embrace it.

L. Marie here. Sarah just released the third book in her Wish List series, Halfway to Happily Ever After.


Book four of the series will debut on January 29, 2019. By the way, a picture book by Sarah, Just like Rube Goldberg, will debut on March 12, 2019.

I’ll be giving away a copy of Halfway to Happily Ever After to a commenter. The winner will be revealed on June 21.

Wish list book covers courtesy of Sarah Aronson. Beyond Lucky cover from Goodreads. Abby Wambach photo from gossipbucket.com. Teddie Roosevelt photo from commons.wikimedia.org. John Irving photo from sites.google.com. Millicent Fenwick photo from greatthoughtstreasury.com. Failure sign from teachertoolkit.me. Failure cartoon from clipartpanda.com. Other failure image from hownottodosocialwork.wordpress.com. Risk-Failure image from brucecoaching.com. Man in egg image from stevenaichison.co.uk. Success-failure image from livingwithtrust.com.