For Christmas, Teddie, the much adored leader of my critique group, The Skyway Writers, gave each member a beautiful, red-beaded bracelet. Now, I wear it every time I write. It makes me feel connected to my talented peers as I sit at my lonely desk, trying to find the right words to tell a story only I can tell. I love starting the year with a positive new tradition.
I announced at the end of last month that I planned to steer this blog in a new direction. My focus will be encouraging teen readers, writers and artists. There's no better way to start than by celebrating great books. This week, one of my favorite authors, Kate DiCamillo, won the John Newbery award for the second time with her latest book, Flora and Ulysses. Have you read it? I haven't and I'm eager to get my hands on it. I've loved all her other books so I know what to expect. That's the thing about favorite authors. They don't disappoint.
And this brings me to my first 2014 resolution: to read five more books from the Newbery Award list and five books from the Michael L. Printz Award list. The American Library Association, who hands out many esteemed book awards, is a fantastic place to find lists of books you'll really really really want to read. No really. They're great books by great authors. Authors you'll be sorry you don't know if you don't read their books, like John Green, M.T. Anderson and Melina Marchetta. What titles would you choose if you had to choose just five? I think I'll start with Dodger by Terry Pratchett, a Printz 2013 winner. Pratchett is one of my husband's favorite authors. And from the Newbery list, I'll choose The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. As soon as I've read them, I'll let you know what I think. If you read any Printz or Newbery books and you want to share your reaction, I'd love you to post a comment here.
My second resolution for 2014 is to draw. Art used to be a natural part of my days. But since writing took over my brain, my sketchbooks and pencils sit lonely on a shelf. So every blog post, I'll share new art, even if it's something I'm tempted to hide under the bed. We're our own worst critics, artists and writers. And the more we judge our work, the less we grow. The self critic is a nasty little imp. It's mantra is "You're work isn't good enough." And if you listen to the imp, it will talk you right out of your artistic hopes and dreams.
So don't listen. Kick that imp into a trash can and jam the lid down. Drown out the imps' screams with music and create your best work today, right this very minute.
In honor of Kathy Appelt's The Underneath which features a dog who lives under a trailer, I drew my dogs who spend a good part of the winter under blankets on the couch. That's Hobbit, the Jack Russell, in the top corner. And yes, he always looks mad about something. Or worried. It's hard to tell which and either way, Ella, the Catahoula, knows to steer clear of him.
Since November slipped by in silence on this blog, I'm posting twice in December. As holiday shoppers race towards the Frenzy Zone, better known as Last-Minute-Shopping-and-No-Idea-What-To-Get, I'd like to recommend more middle grade and young adult books (see previous post for other recommendations). And although it's mighty tempting to order online, I encourage visiting local bookstores, especially the independent type. They're quiet retreats from the hustle and bustle.
Here are some of my favorite middle grade reads this year:
1) Okay for Now
or anything by Gary Scmidt
2) Hound Dog True
by Linda Urban
3) The One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate
4) The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail
by Richard Peck
And for young adult readers:
5) The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
by Franny Billingsley
by Neal Shusterman
8) Raven Boys
by Maggie Stiefvater
9) Hope Was Here
by Joan Bauer
No doubt, there were many more books I could add if only I had written them down. Alas, I did not. And that, my friends, will be the start of my New Year's resolutions. I just received a tidy little notebook and pen set from my critique partner and it will be the perfect spot to jot favorite books. In fact, I've never kept track of the books I've read so maybe I'll list them all. See what happens when you tend to your blog. You start with a Christmas post and end up looking forward to the new year!
Until now, this blog has focused on what I'm learning as a writer. But there are many excellent authors blogging about the craft and at some point I asked myself, what use are my words? So next month, I plan to steer this blog towards young adult readers, writers and artists, hoping in some small way to encourage their efforts. Thank you to those who have followed my posts so far, especially those who took the time to comment. I hope you'll continue to stop in and pass on this link to teen readers, writers and artists.
I wish you a holiday steeped in love and a 2014 that makes your heart sing.
"Jessie has a choice to make
Wondering 'bout which road to take
Jessie has a choice to make
Will Jessie Pearl be a lonely girl?"
So reads a stanza from the ballad gifted to fourteen-year-old Jessie by her sister. Shannon Hitchcock's
debut novel, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl
, set in 1922, rural North
Carolina presents a feisty, young heroine facing adult challenges. Jessie Pearl dreams of going to teacher's college, a dream she shared with her late mother. Jessie's sisters are all married and settled. They tease that Jessie will be wed by seventeen to her beau, J.T.
But Jessie holds tight to her dream. Then her sister dies from tuberculosis after giving birth to a son. Jessie quits school to care for her nephew, cook and clean for her family. As the year passes, her affection for J.T. grows and Jessie wonders, even if she finds a way to finish her basic education, could she leave her family and J.T. for teacher's college?
The ballad her sister wrote is unfinished and Jessie isn't sure how it will end. Despite the odds, will she achieve her dream? It's worth reading the book to find out. Shannon Hitchcock's southern roots shine in this book. If she appears in your area, don't miss her reading this gem with her fabulous Carolina drawl.
For the next few months, maybe longer, I'll be posting once a month and I celebrate the freedom to do this because . . . I don't have a book to promote! That's right. There are some positives to not having a book deal. At a local SCBWI
event, writing coach, Joyce Sweeney
, encouraged us nonpubs to embrace this time. Published authors in the room shared knowing glances and smirked. They remember their prebook days with fondness: no agent and publisher prodding you to do backflips and handstands to sell your book; no full calender of signings and school visits; no mad scramble to lure readers on blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Joyce offered many sage morsels that day. I sat in a back corner, womanning the sign-in table, and though Joyce couldn't see me, twice her words struck like a bullet. First, she talked of focusing on your sweet spot as a writer. She said often new childrens' writers explore every avenue from picture book to young adult and that's helpful if you use it to find your strengths. Then, it's time to concentrate. If it's PBs, start cranking out stories like a factory. If it's middle grade or YA, write short stories and work your way up to novels.
I've been writing for four and a half years and I've juggled PBs, MG and YA for almost the entire journey. I've always felt that my voice is better suited to MG and YA but the artist inside urged me to try PBs. I've been blessed to belong to the best PB group (in my biased opinion) in Florida, Rob Sanders'
PB&J, Picture Books and Java. They are my writing family. Perhaps my attachment clouded my reasoning because from the beginning, I've heard: "Your voice is too old for PBs" (my words not there's. They were always much kinder.) So, Joyce's advice hit the target. I needed to quit struggling with PBs and focus on my novels for older children. A small part of me rejoiced, the sensible writer who fought the artist for my attention. A large part of me silently wailed at my inevitable resignation from PB&J.
As I recovered from that shock, Joyce addressed branding and how not focusing on one genre can affect new writers. She cited a writer who had a pending deal on a MG novel. The interested agent (or editor, I can't remember which) Googled the writer and up pops a website featuring the author's self-illustrated PBs. The agent wasn't interested in representing PBs so she turned the novel down. Joyce continued, saying agents and publishers want to see an author committed to building devoted readership by producing consistent books. OUCH! I slunk down in my chair, feeling as if a path had cleared from Joyce to my seat and all eyes targeted me. My website is all over the place. I tried to focus it on writing but . . . well, look at it; there's a giant, clothed rabbit hosting the home page! And even though there's only one portfolio page, the art is what viewers notice. No one ever comments on the writing. So, guess who will be revamping their website? One day, I hope to have agents and publishers Googling my name and when they do, I want to be ready. Until then, I'm enjoying my freedom. Today, I don't have to worry about branding or book promoting. The Bible says there's a time for every season. Rejoice fellow nonpubs! This is our season of learning to write the best book we can.
Since, I'm only posting once a month, I'm throwing everything I've got here. If you're in Florida, Tennessee or Missouri, please watch for events promoting Rob Sanders' debut PB, Cowboy Christmas
. The launch party is Saturday, Nov. 3 at Inkwood Books
in Tampa and you don't want to miss it. Rob's hired cowboy strummers and there's sure to be tasty refreshments.
Happy Halloween everyone. Wishing you treats, no naughty tricks!
A few weeks back, I attended a workshop where Dr. Joan Kaywell, professor of English Education at the University of South Florida, talked about one of her passions, The Hipple Collection
of young adult literature at USF. Ted Hipple championed the preservation of YA literature and he couldn't have imprinted his cause on a more valiant supporter than Dr. Kaywell. In 2002, she donated 333 YA books to Special Collections at the USF library, establishing the Hipple Collection in honor of her mentor, Ted Hipple. She works tirelessly to grow and promote the collection. Today, it shelters 2500 titles and includes signed first editions, author's manuscripts and notes. The Hipple Collection's mission is to "provide access to outstanding young adult literature published after 1970 that speaks to the social, emotional, and cultural challenges of adolescence."
Dr. Kaywell brought some of those signed first editions to the workshop I attended. I held S.E. Hinton's Outsiders
in my hands, touched her signature inside the covers. We were also privileged to witness debut author, Shannon Hitchcock
, hand off manuscripts for her novel, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl
(release date, 2013) to Dr. Kaywell.
The paper will be stored in specially designed, archival boxes. I imagine it's a relief to most writers to have someone care about those mounds of paper that precede the book. Even though most writing is done on the computer these days, pre-publication, printed versions exist and what does an author do with it? Stuff it in a dark corner where it's discovered years later when they move on. Dr. Kaywell relentlessly pursues authors for their manuscripts and they give them to her. Why not? Her devotion to teen literature is undisputable. She radiates enthusiasm for its power to change young lives. It warms my heart to know there are people like her who care so much about the life of books.
When I attended Julianna Baggott's workshop at Eckerd College's Writer's in Paradise Conference
two years ago, Fox 2000 had bought the film rights to Pure
, the first book in Julianna's YA dystopian trilogy. The book sold shortly after and I'm excited to announce it's here!
I was familiar with Julianna's middle grade novels, The Anybodies
series and The Prince of Fenway Park
. I loved her intricate plots, quirky settings, odd characters and sense of humor, dark and rich like the best chocolate. Julianna's equally delightful in person; insightful, witty and passionate about writing. So I wasn't surprised by the powerful opening in her first novel for young adults. Pure
is a vivid depiction of a post apocalyptic world. Protaganist, Pressia bears the scars of the bombings that destroyed civilization. She's lived most of her life among the ruins but carries early memories of a better past and wonders if the the unmarked people who dwell in The Dome are living that way still. Now, Pressia's about to turn sixteen, a dangerous milestone, one she's hoping she'll survive.
Congratulations to Julianna for this riveting new work. Go to Pure
to read the book's opening and be sure to watch the trailer. Then tell me the girl with a doll's head for a hand doesn't intrique you.