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As a kid, I got an early start to reading. Not because I was some prodigy, I just wanted to do everything my big sister could. And anyway, I quickly discovered that I loved reading. Mom would send me to my room to clean it and find me hours later tucked in a messy corner with a book.
By the time I was picking my books out myself, a definite trend emerged. I loved The Book of Three. I was fascinated by A Wrinkle in Time. By the end of middle school, I’d read every single book in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. In early high school, I discovered Robin McKinley and never did fall out of love with her imagined worlds.
I think I was drawn to fantasy literature for a bunch of reasons. To escape? Sure. To have an adventure? Absolutely. Because dragons are super-cool? Yes. But also, the reality of everyday sexism hit middle-grade-me like a kick in the teeth. If you ask me, fantasy’s greatest power is its unique ability to expand our understanding of what’s possible. And I’m not just talking about portals and magicians and tesseracts.
If a writer is creative enough, those imagined worlds don’t need to share this world’s failings. Racism, sexism, homophobia—all of it can be transcended, or better yet, in the pages of a book, a reader can step into a world where they never even existed.
Or, speculative fiction can offer a razor-sharp critique of our society’s ills. The canon has a lot say about repression and bigotry, fascism and propaganda, bullies and the everyday kind of people who stand up to them. The Lighthouse between the Worldsis first and foremost a fast-paced adventure story with a good dose magic. But it also looks at the terrifying consequences of forfeiting independent thought. As much as it’s about hopping a portal between worlds, it’s also about the tension between isolationism and diverse coalitions—something we’re wrestling with today on a global scale.
I wish I could say that nothing got in the way of my love affair with fantasy lit. But that’s just not true. In those later high school years, in the doldrums of reading all those “important” required texts, I got the message that the stories I loved most weren’t worthwhile. I remember vividly one time when my lit teacher let us choose our own book for a report. And what did I pick? This long, boring book for adults about Aaron Burr. I hated that book the whole way through. So why did I pick it? Because I thought my history teacher would be impressed.
Before I knew it, I’d stopped reading fantasy. It wasn’t too much later that I’d stopped reading for fun altogether. How did that happen?
More and more, I see teachers online standing up for their students’ reading preferences, validating all kinds of readers and all sorts of texts, finding really creative ways to pair books to broaden learning, to build empathy, and to celebrate reading for reading’s sake. Educators are pushing back against practices that sap the joy out of reading. And every time I see that, I’m over here, fist-pumping, celebrating that those kids have a teacher like that in their corner.
Fast forward to my first year in college. I was in the University library attempting to study for a test on parasites. Yuck. I kept reading the same paragraph in my textbook over and over again, but remembering nothing, so I thought a change of location might help. What I discovered on the next floor up was a hip-high segment of bookshelves just for Children’s Literature. I remember sort of looking around, befuddled, like, what is this doing here with all the “important” books?
And then I spotted the spine of a book I’d know anywhere. It was The Hero and the Crownby Robin McKinley. I ditched my textbooks and spent the rest of the day joyfully immersed in that familiar story.
But there’s something special in it for me when I write a work of fantasy. It’s like I’m writing to that pre-teen me, right before she let herself be convinced that her favorite stories weren’t worthy. It’s like I’m reaching back through time to whisper in her ear: Look, this thing that brings you so much joy? Hold on tight. Don’t ever let it go.
Melanie Crowder is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including Audacity, Three Pennies, An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, A Nearer Moon and Parched, as well as the new middle grade duology The Lighthouse between the Worlds. The sequel,A Way between Worlds, releases Oct. 1 of this year.
Melanie’s books have been awarded the Jefferson Cup, the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, the SCBWI Crystal Kite, and the Bulletin Blue Ribbon; they have been recognized as a National Jewish Book Awards Finalist, Walden Award finalist, Colorado Book Awards Finalist, Junior Library Guild selection, YALSA Top Ten Books For Young Adults, ILA Notable Book for a Global Society, Parents’ Choice Silver Medal, BookBrowse Editor’s Choice, BookPage Top Pick, and The Washington Post Best Children’s Books for April. Her work has been listed as Best Books of the Year by Bank Street College, Kirkus Reviews, The Amelia Bloomer List, New York Public Library, Tablet Magazine, A Mighty Girl, and The Children’s Book Review.
The author lives under the big blue Colorado sky with a wife, two kids, and one good dog. Visit her online at www.melaniecrowder.com.
First off, Kim, thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to celebrate the release of Bone Hollow and to chat about the book. Before we get to the new book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?
Thanks! I’m so excited to be here. First off, can I just say that the whole MG Book Village crew is totally amazing! Second, a little about me. I’m a lover of weird, whimsical stories of all kinds. And dogs! My dog is definitely my best friend! 🙂 I’ve held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff at a women’s shelter, but my favorite job title is author. My first book, Skeleton Tree, came out in 2017, and I’m super excited for the release of Bone Hollow!
Okay, on to the book – Bone Hollow. Can you tell us a little about it?
As you can probably tell from the titles, Skeleton Tree and Bone Hollow share a similar aesthetic. They are set in the same world, but Bone Hollow is actually a stand-alone novel featuring a brand-new set of characters.
In Bone Hollow, readers will meet 12-year-old Gabe and his dog, Ollie. Gabe does his best to please his guardian, Miss Cleo, even if she does prefer her prize-winning chickens to him or his dog. When Miss Cleo’s favorite chicken gets stuck on the roof during a storm, Gabe knows he has no choice but to rescue it. It’s either that, or get kicked out of Miss Cleo’s house for good.
He climbs up, despite the wind, and the rain and the angry clouds that are just about screaming, Tornado!
Next thing Gabe knows, he’s falling.
He wakes up in a room full of tearful neighbors. It’s almost as if they think he’s dead. But Gabe’s not dead. He feels fine! So why do they insist on holding a funeral? And why does everyone scream in terror when Gabe shows up for his own candlelight vigil?
Scared and bewildered, Gabe flees with Ollie, the only creature who doesn’t tremble at the sight of him. When a mysterious girl named Wynne offers to let Gabe stay at her cozy house in a misty clearing, he gratefully accepts. Yet Wynne disappears from Bone Hollow for long stretches of time, and when a suspicious Gabe follows her, he makes a mind-blowing discovery. Wynne is Death and has been for over a century. Even more shocking . . . she’s convinced that Gabe is destined to replace her.
Your books tend to have spooky elements—all these bones and skeletons. Would you describe your books as scary?
I love, love scary stories! But I like to think of Skeleton Tree and Bone Hollow as spooky, rather than scary. They certainly have macabre elements, but they fit much more in the arena of magical realism or contemporary fantasy than horror. I love to sprinkle a little spookiness into heartfelt, sometimes sad, stories that focus on characters going through difficult times, but ultimately coming out with a renewed sense of hope in the end.
I do have a scary story coming out though, yay! Jonathan Maberry is editing a reboot of the Scary Stories franchise, called New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (set to release in 2020), and I am super excited to have a very scary short story in that collection called ‘Jingle Jangle.’
You helped launch Spooky Middle Grade, a “ghoulish group of middle grade authors that believe spooky books can be read all year long.” How did that all come about?
It was a dark and stormy night. Thirteen strangers arrived at a haunted mansion… Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite so dramatic. Basically, I stumbled upon a Facebook ‘support’ group that had just been created for spooky MG authors. I joined, we started talking, we all got really excited about spreading the joy of spooky stories, and the rest is history. My favorite part of the group is that we’ve found a meaningful way to connect with students through our free Skype visits, and I feel like we’re having a positive impact and hopefully inspiring a whole new generation of spooky writers.
Can you tell us about the multiple-person Skype visits the Spooky MG crew offers, and also how interested educators and librarians can set one up?
Absolutely! I have teamed up with, at last count, thirteen spooky middle grade authors to offer free Skype Q&As to schools across the country. We have done over fifty since November! The response has been tremendous. Each Skype visit features four spooky authors, and we answer students’ burning questions about writing, publishing, our pets. You name it. Bonus feature: if your students have leftover questions, we’ll answer those in a video on our new YouTube channel. To sign up for your free Skype (or Google Hangout), head over to https://spookymiddlegrade.com/free-skype-qa/.
Speaking of librarians – before you became a full-time writer, you were a children’s service manager for a public library system, right? Did that work inform or influence your work as an author in any way?
I was! I have been a children’s and/or teen librarian for most of the past ten years (when I wasn’t in the Peace Corps 🙂 ). My favorite part of being a librarian was actually leading programs for young people, because I got to do everything from science experiments, to Doctor Who parties, to Minecraft Club and on and on. It was the perfect outlet for my artsy side, and, of course, I also had the pleasure of connecting young people to great books. In terms of informing my work, being a librarian definitely helped me build a strong knowledge of children’s literature, and it also gave me the opportunity to see first-hand what gets kids excited about reading.
Before I let you go, let’s get back to the new book, and to a few of the questions I try to ask all our guests. What do you hope your readers – in particular the young ones – take away from Bone Hollow?
Mostly, I hope they enjoy traveling along with Gabe and Ollie as they enter the mysterious world of Bone Hollow. On a more serious note, I’m always wanting readers to come away with a new perspective on life or, in this case, death. Like with Skeleton Tree, I’ve tried to create an engaging fantasy world filled with humor, whimsy and many light touches, but I’m also wanting to explore darker topics to show that there can be light and beauty there as well. Loss is one of those things that even very young children encounter, often with the loss of a pet or grandparent, and one of my goals is to help young readers develop a framework for processing their feelings surrounding death that acknowledges the sadness, but also opens the door to hope.
Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add Bone Hollow to their classroom libraries?
I strive to always make myself available to teachers and librarians in any way I can. I love connecting with students and, if you have an idea for a way that we can collaborate, please, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Where can readers find more information about you and your work?
One final thing: to celebrate my book birthday, I’m having a BIG giveaway for teachers and librarians! To enter to win a classroom set of Skeleton Tree and 5 copies of Bone Hollow, head over to my Twitter account!
KIM VENTRELLA is the author of the middle grade novels Skeleton Tree (2017) and Bone Hollow (2019, Scholastic Press), and she is a contributor to the upcoming New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology (2020, HarperCollins). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Kim has held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff at a women’s shelter, but her favorite job title is author. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Find out more at https://kimventrella.com/ or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram: @KimVentrella.
Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love. I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a teacher of 21, a mom of two, and enjoying the last few hours of our Winter Break here in Central New York. We’ve had ice storms then sun and lots of time to read.
This is episode #69 and today I’m discussing four excellent middle grade novels that deal with grief and loss. And I’m also sharing with you a conversation I had with Laura Shovan about her latest book Takedown.
Book Talk – Four Novels About Loss and Hope
In this segment, I share with you a selection of books centered around a theme and discuss three things to love about each book. I happened to read these four books back-to-back without realizing how profoundly connected they were. They have completely different plots and one is even sci/fi / speculative fiction – but each novel features a main character who is dealing with loss in one form or another. In two of the novels, that loss is the death of a parent. And in two of the novels, that loss includes a parent dealing with mental illness and trauma themselves. A loss of another – a loss of what was once considered normal life. The books this week are: The Science of Breakable Things, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, The Simple Art of Flying, and The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise.
The Science of Breakable Things
The first book I want to share with you and one that I hope makes its way into your collection is Tae Keller’s debut novel The Science of Breakable Things. The lead in this story is 7th grader Natalie who’s life has been turned upside down as she and her father are learning how to navigate her mother’s depression – the “situation” as her dad calls it that has her mom holed up in her bedroom and not able to cook, work, or keep up any of the routines and traditions that had kept their family together. At the beginning of the school year, Natalie’s science teacher has challenged them all to use the power of the scientific method to explore a question that intrigues you and study it with all your heart. Well – the question that tugs at Natalie’s heart? How can I inspire my mother to break out of her depression? And along the way Natalie teams up with Twig (her exuberant best friend) and Dari (their new serious lab partner) to enter an egg-drop contest hoping to use the prize money for a scheme to jumpstart her mother out of her depression. Here are three things to love about Tae Keller’s The Science of Breakable Things:
How the story is laid out with the steps of the Scientific Method! Step One: Observe, Step Two: Question, Step Three: Investigative Research and so on. It’s a clever way to structure the story and have you predicting what those Results will be!
The illustrations and footnotes! Oh am I such a sucker for a good footnote – especially funny ones and this novel has over fifty of these little gems!
Natalie’s visits with her therapist, Dr. Doris – and Natalie’s resistance to falling for her “Therapist Tricks” and Natalie’s eventual shift to being more open with her. I think a lot of kids will be able relate to those begrudging trips to a counselor, and I hope some other children might see a glimpse into the help a therapist can offer.
There is so much more to this book than just those things – like Natalie’s relationship with her Korean grandmother and her growning interest in their shared culture and the break-down of her relationship with her friend Mikayala. Here is one of my favorite quotes – one that captures the blend of science and hope in this book. This is from a section right after Natalie, Twig, and Dari have been experimenting with magnets. “It’s funny how the cold magnets actually worked best. It’s like how perennial plants seem to die in the winter but really, they’re just waiting till everything is all right again. Maybe it’s not such a surprise that there’s strength in the cold. Maybe sometimes the strongest thing of all is knowing that one day you’ll be alright again, and waiting and waiting until you can come out into the sun.”
For kids who are waiting for those in their lives to come out into the sun, The Science of Breakable Things is a fabulous book to offer.
The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole
Our next book today is The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas – author of several picture books and the middle grade Confessions of an Imaginary Friend which I now must pick up immediately! The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is one of those books that I kept bumping into. I’d see it on display at the library, friends kept raving about it, it popped up on my “Related to Items You Viewed” on Amazon. It’s like it was stalking me. Like, in a nice, bookish way. The way where all the the forces of the universe seem to nudge you to read something. And well – the forces of the universe were right about this quirky, moving, wonderfully weird little book. It’s about eleven-year-old Stella Diaz whose father has recently died. Together they shared a love of science – and silly jokes. But remembering him after his death has become painful. In the first pages of the book, she decides to give NASA the only recording of her father’s laugh – to put on the Golden Record headed out on the Voyager spacecraft. Instead, a black hole follows her home and it becomes Stella’s pet – consuming everything it touches. And at first, Stella is happy to toss in those things that cause her annoyance (Brussel Sprouts) or cause her painful memories (like the recording of her father). And then the black hole devours her 5-year-old brother, Cosmo, and Stella has to venture inside that darkness to save him and confront all the other things she’d tossed inside. I loved this book – and here are three (of many!) reasons why:
It’s hilarious! Like – Stella names the black hole “Larry” – short for “Singularity” and the scenes with the smelly classroom hamster Stinky Stu. And the Dog With No Name. And all the things that Larry gets up to when he gets loose in the neighborhood! Yes – this novel is about loss and grief and there are times when you’re probably going to cry. But to me, that edge between laughing and tears is a powerful place. And this book does it so well.
The clever use of black and white pages – and Stella’s Captain Log documenting her journey in the black hole.
Lines like this one: “It’s like the stars in our constellations that we made,” you said. “Even if one star dies far, far away, its light is still visible, and the constellation it helped to make remains. A thing can be gone and still be your guide.”
The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is charming, gorgeously written – and funnier than you’d ever think. If you have kids who like science, who like funny books, who are up for something unique – then this is a novel they’ll love. And if you have a child learning how to grapple with their black hole – this might be the book they need.
The Simple Art of Flying
Another fantastic book that was just released this past week is The Simple Art of Flying by debut author Cory Leonardo. It’s about a young cherry-loving African Grey parrot, Alastair, who was born in the back room of a pet shop – along with his sister, Aggie. Alastair is…grumpy, suspicious, stubborn, and intensly loyal to his sister – and set on finding a way for them both to escape together to a land of blue skies and palm trees. But that dream gets a lot harder to pull off when each of them are adopted by two different people. Alastair ends up with an elderly but very active widow named Albertina Plopky who organizes “Polka with Pets” events and writes letters to her deceased husband. And Aggie is bought by 12-year-old-Fritz, an attentive, sweet, and serious boy who is dealing with his own loses. So here are three things to love about Cory Leonardo’s The Simple Art of Flying:
How this story is told from three different points of view and in three different formats which helps us triangulate what’s happening. Alastair’s sections are in prose and in poetry. He likes to chew on books with poetry being his favorite so has taken to creating his own versions of famous poems he’s read. Bertie’s sections are letters to her husband, Everett. And Fritz’s parts are a medical log.
Alastair’s poetry!!! And… the chapter with the goldfish was unexpected and…brilliant!
Bertie’s letter to Fritz at the end of the book – all about cherries and life and what to do on those days when it feels like everything is the pits.
Our final book this week is the latest from Dan Gemeinhart – who you may know from The Honest Truth, Good Dog, or Scar Island. His novels are perennial favorites in our class and guaranteed heart-tuggers – and The Remarkble Journey of Coyote Sunrise is, I think, my favorite of all. And that’s saying something – every one of his books are incredible! This story starts at a hot gas station where our main girl, called Coyote, walks in alone – and leaves with a watermelon slushie and a white and gray striped fluff of a kitten. A kitten she has to hide from her father – the man she only refers to as Rodeo. Five years ago Coyote’s mother and sisters were killed in an accident and since then she and her father have left behind their home, their memories (or any talk of them) and have been living in an old converted school bus traveling the country. And never ever looking back. But during Coyote’s weekly phone call to her grandmother back in Washington State, Coyote learns something that launches her on a secret mission to get the bus headed back home (without Rodeo realizing it!) so she can keep a promise. On her journey there are mishaps and new travelers joining them and more secrets revealed. There are so many reasons to love this book there’s no way to list them all, but here are three:
Coyote. This girl has so much charm and love and generosity wrapped around a core of pain and hurt. She’s gentle with her father – even when he doesn’t deserve it. She names her cat Ivan from The One and Only Ivan. She reminds me a bit of Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gables books. You just want to ber her friend.
Coyote’s friendship with Salvador – a boy who ends up on the bus with them with his mother. I love how they gently push each other in a better direction. And Coyote does something for Salvador that is one of the kindest, sweetest, gestures.
Rodeo. Here’s how Coyote describes him. “That man is hopeless. He is wild and broken and beautiful and hanging on by a thread, but it’s a heckuva thread and he’s holding it tight with both hands and his heart.”
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise was a book that shredded my heart and then somehow stitched it back together stonger than before. I think it’s Gemeinhart’s best yet.
Laura Shovan – Interview Outline
Our special guest this week is Laura Shovan – author of the novel in verse The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementaryand her most recent middle grade book –Takedown. This conversation actually took place last summer but due to some techinical difficulties on my end, it took me until now to bring it to you. But, it was worth the wait. Laura and I chat about the inspiration behind her novel, the world of girls’ wrestling, donuts, bullet journaling, among lots of other things. And don’t forget that when you are done reading the book and you want to hear Laura and I discuss the ending of Takedown, just wait until the end of the show after the credits and that bonus section will be waiting for you.
Take a listen…
Your new middle grade novel, Takedown, was just released this past June – can you tell us a bit about it?
I love books that immerse me in a subculture! Like Roller Girl, and the Irish dancing in Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish – I was so fascinated to learn about wrestling moves and the tournament process. I’ve heard you mention that your son wrestled and that close knowledge of the sport clearly comes through. When did you know you wanted to bring wrestling into a story and did you do any extra research to bring this story to life?
There were so many small moments in the book that highlight what a “boys’ club” the wrestling world is – all the trophies have boys at the top of them, all the refs at all the tournaments (including the girls wrestling tournament) are men – and even Mickey’s supportive coach uses gendered languages and calls the team “guys” and “boys.” At some point it occured to me… yes, this book is about wrestling, but maybe it might help kids see how male-focused other aspects of the world are?
One of the aspects that I really connect to was the Delgado family dynamics of Mickey and her older brothers Cody and Evan. And how their relationship with each other changed when the oldest, Evan, wasn’t around.
I’m coming to realize that dual perspective novels are some of my favorites. And you were masterful at those subtle time shifts to build that suspense! What was your process like to make Mickey’s voice distinct from Lev’s?
You deserve a donut for this amazing book! What’s your favorite?
So, as a fellow bullet journaler, did I see that you offer bullet journaling CLASSES?
Your Writing Life
How was writing Takedown different than writing The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary?
Your Reading Life
One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and librarians and parents inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books. Did you have a special teacher or librarian who helped foster your reading life as a child?
What were some of your most influential reads as a child?
What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?
Before you go – you posted a video of you calling your reps last year. I just want to say thank you for inspiring me to make those phone calls and to keep calling….
**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Laura and I discuss the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 52:38 mark.
Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org. And, if you have an extra minute this week, reviews on iTunes or Stitcher are much appreciated.
Books Between is a proud member of the Lady Pod Squad and the Education Podcast Network. This network features podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit edupodcastnetwork.com
Talk with you soon! Bye!
Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.
The MG Book Village has been fortunate enough to host a number of wonderful cover reveals in the year or so since we’ve launched. Today’s reveal, however, is extra special.
M.G. Velasco approached us about hosting his reveal a while back, but being the awesome, thoughtful person he is, insisted we hold off until he’d had a chance to share the cover art with his #KidsNeedMentors class, taught by 6th grade ELA teacher Ginger Schwartz — he wanted them to be the first ones to lay their eyes on it. (To learn more about the #KidsNeedMentors, click here and here.) Then M.G. had an even more awesome, thoughtful idea — to put the kids of his #KidsNeedMentors class in charge of his whole cover reveal interview! They’re his audience, his future readers — it makes more sense for them to be in charge of the questions than for me to be!
Below is a little more info about M.G.’s upcoming debut, Cardslinger, and below that the interview by Ms. Schwartz’s students, and below that the big reveal!
A dangerous quest, a lost treasure, and the card game that started it all.
It’s 1881, and a newfangled card game called Mythic is sweeping the nation. Twelve-year-old Jason “Shuffle” Jones doesn’t like it. He and his father created the game for themselves, before his father went missing. Mythic should have disappeared with him. But when Shuffle discovers a clue in a pack of Mythic cards, he sets out on a quest to find his dad. Along the way he clashes with a devious card swindler, an epic twister, and the ruthless bounty hunter Six-Plum Skylla and her gang. As he gets closer to the truth, will he turn tail or push all-in to become a real hero?”
. . .
Why did you decide to become a writer? What made you want to write books?
Ah, this answer can be a whole blog post in its own… But the short of it is: I write because my story ideas must go somewhere, and without that creative outlet, my head would go nuclear. But it’s more than a release, it’s pure joy. I get to play with words and craft them into a story, likely with explosions. The characters are mine, running wild in my world and getting into all sorts of mischief. The story is an extension of me, and every time one swirls in my head and leaks onto the page, it’s amazing.
Is it hard to be a writer?
Only if you don’t love it. Writing can be difficult and frustrating. It’s mostly done in solitude with nothing but the words in your head and the screen blinking at your face. Sometimes you can’t find the right words and the page remains blank. There are days when nothing seems to get done and you feel like you’ll never reach the end. There will be people who won’t love your characters and stories, and you’ll feel like such a loser. But with all that gloom, there’s always the good. The words will flow and it’ll feel great. People will “get” what you right, and that writer-reader connection is worth more than gold. In order to take the good with the bad, the easy with the difficult, you have to love writing, and then all the time and effort and difficulty will be worth it.
How did you get the idea for Cardslinger?
I wanted to write an adventure story about a kid who loves to play games. I was into a card game called Magic: The Gathering at the time, and that kind of game seemed perfect for the story. It became a Western because of its wild and free setting, but instead of gunfights at high noon, there are card game duels. Also, Homer’s The Odyssey played a big part in my idea, and classical mythology fit naturally with the time period. It was their Harry Potter of their day, maybe.
How long is the book?
Well, according to the ARC (Advance Reader Copy) pdf it is 58 chapters and 348 pages. It’s an epic read, but trust me, it’s worth it. 😉
Is there a sequel to Cardslinger?
In my head there is.
What would you write about in your free time?
Anything fun, typically something with explosions.
How long did it take for you to write Cardslinger?
For the first draft. Maybe three months. For the polished manuscript. Three years.
In Cardslinger, who is your favorite character and why?
Really? I have to chose a favorite? If I must, it has to be Shuffle. He’s a gamer. He uses his smarts instead of his fists to get out of a bad situation. He thinks about strategy and gaming. He loves his family and friends. He’s kinda funny, too.
What is your favorite book?
The one I’m currently reading. 😉 Of all time? I would say a Roald Dahl book, maybe James and the Giant Peach. Or his collection of hilariously, dark fairy tales and short stories: Revolting Rhymes.
Do you write in silence, or do you have background noise?
First drafts are usually done in silence. Revisions are done with music.
Do you write everyday?
Yes. Sometimes it’s only a hundred words. Sometimes two-thousand. If I’m not writing, I’m editing.
Who is your favorite author?
How do you plan your book?
I’ll come up with a character or a story. Then the plot, which I’ll draft in a three-act line graph of sorts. I’ll outline it, then come up with an early synopsis of the main story points. One of the biggest parts of planning a book is the character creation. All the characters need to be well-rounded and developed before they see the page. Their traits and flaws, likes/dislikes, family and friends, strengths and weaknesses need to be realized. Once I have a good cast of characters and a decent plot, I hash out a first draft, which will eventually be cut up, hammered, added-to, and molded into something, hopefully, you’ll read and enjoy.
Thank you, Ms. Schwartz and students, for the fun interview! It’s a joy to reflect on being an author.
And now, for the cover:
I would be remiss not to mention the wonderful illustrator who crafted the amazing cover art, Mónica Armiño. I love how ominous it is. The storm. The bandits coming out of the landscape. The Zeus cloud! She hit the details perfectly, with the color of the card backs, Atalanta’s braids and yellow scarf. And Katana, the black cat, is the best! If you love this cover, you can find other fantastic art by Ms. Armiño at www.monicaarmino.com.
And big thank you to Laura Westlund and Kim Morales and the design team at Carolrhoda/Lerner books. It couldn’t have come together so beautifully without y’all. Giddyup!
I’m an author, a reader, a counselor (in a school setting), and a mom. I learn so much by watching (and reading) the books my kids pick up. My two middle boys beeline it to anything with illustrations. Based on what I’m seeing in kidlit circles and school classrooms, they’re not alone. Graphic novels and illustrated novels have huge appeal amongst this generation of readers.
Interestingly, my oldest son was a new reader before this wave of graphic novels really surged. So as a middle grade reader, his book choices were often traditional text. I wondered if there was a way to write a novel with traditional text, but that incorporated a graphic novel thread. My hope was to increase appeal to additional readers.
My character, Blake, arose from this thought. He’s a unique learner, a bright student, talented artist, but a student for whom the traditional classroom environment is sometimes challenging. There are so many types of learners in today’s classrooms. I’m impressed by the skill I see in teachers who find a way to reach a variety of different learning styles. I wanted a forum to weave this skill into my storyline.
Having Blake illustrate his entries brings a new element to the storytelling process. The brilliant illustrator, Gina Perry, was able to convey a range of emotions and themes through her artwork. See below for an example.
The emotions speak volumes. I hope this additional modality of story sharing can reach more readers, and that some readers can use Blake’s storyline as a window (for some) and a mirror (for others).
I’m a huge fan of illustrations and their power on the reader. I sit in awe and wonder, because my pencil doesn’t do that. I’m indebted to the skill, time and heart that illustrator Gina Perry put into her work for this project. It’s . . . Frog-tastic! And she’s pretty Frog-tastic too!
Sarah Scheerger is a school-based counselor in Southern California, helping students figure out who they are, and who they want to be. Her middle grade debut, Operation Frog Effect (Penguin Random House) releases in February but is available for pre-order now. Keep an eye out for her new picture book, “Mitzvah Pizza” (Kar-Ben) which launches in April. In addition to MG and PB’s, Sarah also writes YA. To learn more, visit www.sarahlynnbooks.com.
Jarrett: A wise (and funny) person once said that “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” And so, today, on the book birthday of my new and hopefully humorous novel, Revenge of the EngiNerds, I thought it might be fun to ignore this sage advice and do some dissecting. Thank you, Kathie and Corrina, for bravely taking part in this ill-advised endeavor!
Kathie: I appreciate the opportunity to be part of the conversation, however ill-advised it may be!
Corrina: Oh my — LOL! A pleasure to be here!
Jarrett: Humor has always been important to me. In a way, it’s what got me hooked on books and reading in the first place. I still remember every book that my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Lombard, read aloud to our class — novels like The BFG and There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom — and some of my most vivid memories are of listening to him read aloud. Mr. Lombard chose a wide variety of books as read alouds, but all the books contained humor to some extent. And when he came to a humorous part, Mr. Lombard would laugh… and laugh and laugh and laugh. And he had one of those infectious sorts of laughs, and so sooner or later, the whole class was laughing along with him. For me, such experiences drove home just how joyful books could be, and also how reading could be a total blast, and how it could bring people together.
I’m curious: what are your relationships with books that might labeled humorous — as kids, as adults, as a librarian and a teacher?
Kathie: I don’t remember reading a lot of humorous books as a kid. I missed many of the classics by authors like Roald Dahl when I was growing up, and so I didn’t come to humorous books until I was an adult. I had a preconceived notion that funny books equaled potty humor, slapstick comedy, or miserable adults making life hard for children, and had little depth (yeah, I know it’s harsh and unjustified, but it’s what I thought). I just didn’t think funny books were “my thing”, but I challenged myself to read 10 of them last year to see if those stereotypes held up. Boy, was I wrong! There are some absolutely wonderful humorous books out there for young readers, full of depth and tackling real topics and issues in less serious ways. Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe was the first book that convinced me that yes, I actually had a funny bone, I just need to find the kind of books that tickled it.
I ALWAYS use funny books at preschool storytime, because I have no fear of being silly, and it helps to bring little ones of their shells.
Corrina: The humor reading that I did as a young child was mostly comic strips. I had all the Calvin & Hobbes collections, and when I visited my uncle’s house, I’d often snag all his Garfield and Far Side books and curl up in a corner reading while the adults talked (and talked…).
I never sought out what I considered “silly” books, but loved books like Superfudge that had a lot of heart and humor wrapped up in a realistic story. As a teacher, I love sharing a read aloud that will get my students (and myself!) laughing! We’ve read selections from Funny Girl, Fenway & Hattie, and picture books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.
Jarrett: As a book-creator and someone who works with kids, I also find that humor can be such a powerful tool both for getting kids reading and then keeping them reading.
Kathie: Books such as Captain Underpants or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are HUGELY popular in my library (and I can’t remember the last time I saw our copy of EngiNerds on the shelf because it’s constantly being checked out!). They are the most reread titles, and kids keep coming back to them over and over. Sometimes it’s the only books certain kids will pick up, and I tell parents to let them keep reading them. I also find humorous books are wonderful for dominant or developing readers, because they’re playful and don’t feel like as much “work” to read as some other book for kids who don’t yet love to read.
Corrina: Absolutely! Books with a lot of humor, especially graphic novels and those with a lot of illustrations like Dog Man or Frazzled are HUGE hits with my 5th graders. And I’ve found that kids will often read a funny book in between longer, more serious books as a “palate cleanser.” And for kids who are going through a tough time, humorous titles can offer a mental break.
Jarrett: Yes! Though at the same time, humor can be so much more than a momentary laugh. Humor is, I think, a lens — a whole way of looking at the world. And it’s the authors who have that humorous lens who I tend to gravitate toward, whose work I fall in love with. And this doesn’t mean their stories are lighthearted — far from it. I find that some of the funniest books are often the darkest and most severe. Geoff Rodkey’s upcoming We’re Not From Here is a great example. It’s premise — that Earth gets blown up and the majority of humans move to Mars, where they live (barely) on borrowed time as they search for a new permanent location elsewhere in the galaxy — is perhaps as dark and dire as it gets. But it’s hilarious.
Kathie: Sometimes, those serious topics need to be viewed through the lens of humor so that they’re not so intense, and can be more easily processed. Humor also injects hope into dark subjects. You address some serious topics in Revenge of the EngiNerds, such as feeling different from others and like you don’t belong, but the way in which you do so doesn’t feel judgmental or preachy, partly due to the tone.
Jarrett: Exactly! Humor is the HOPE tucked into darker, or even just more serious, subjects. In the EngiNerds books, I tackle some “bigger” issues surrounding friendship. If you care for someone, do their problems become your own? What do you do when a friend is set on doing something wrong? How do you navigate a disagreement that splits a group of friends? Can two people grow up without also growing apart?
I think these are all important, productive questions for kids to consider, both within the space of a book, regarding fictional characters, and also in their own lives. But there are kids out there who wouldn’t be game for such consideration and reflection without there being a hefty dose of humor involved. Though don’t get me wrong — I definitely don’t think of humor as the sugar that makes the medicine go down, or anything like that. I mostly write humor for humor’s sake, because I love it, and believe in it. Really, humor is the only way that I, as a writer, can approach bigger, tougher topics myself.
Corrina: We’re Not From Here is incredible! And some of the most loved books in my class are a mix of dark and light – like Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Restart, Ghost, or Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus.
Jarrett: I think the darkest situations actually contain the most comedic potential. Lots of creators know this, and use it to their advantage. Humor is the great leveler — it can quickly and effectively create common ground, and can reduce the distance we feel between ourselves and others. Think about it. Have you ever been in public, and something funny happens, and you share a laugh with a stranger? It creates a connection. A bond, however fleeting. After that shared laugh, you’re far more likely to strike up a conversation with them. You’re closer to them. Humor is disarming, both in real life and in books. It makes us — as people, as readers — open ourselves up a bit wider, feel comfortable being a little more vulnerable than before. If they’re smart, an author will hit you with something decidedly unhumorous after going for a laugh. You’ll feel it that much more. Jerry Spinelli is a master at this, and more recently, Dusti Bowling — and Corrina, I’m sure your students who are fans of Cactus will agree with that! Her books can be as hilarious as they are heartbreaking, and I think they’re heartbreaking in large part because she is so deft with her use of humor.
On another level, I think that searching for the humor (or lightness) among the darkness is a profoundly hopeful, important act — whether you do it as an author or just as a person in your everyday life.
And that, I think, is a pretty good note to close on. Thank you again, Kathie and Corrina, for joining me to talk about all this. I can’t think of a better way to spend my book birthday!
. . .
Jarrett, Kathie, and Corrina are administrators of the MG Book Village. You can learn more about them here.
One of the trickiest challenges writers face when beginning a new project is figuring out the main character’s voice. Will the narrative be told in first person or third? Past or present? How will the narrative sound? What will the tone be?
One technique writers can use is giving their narrator an audience: thinking through who their narrator is “talking to” and how that audience can shape the narrative in interesting ways. Veera Hiranandani uses this technique beautifully in her Newbery Honor winning novel The Night Diary, our February Middle Grade at Heart pick.
In The Night Diary, which is set in 1947, twelve-year-old Nisha, who is half-Hindu and half-Muslim, tells the story of what happens to her and her family after India splits in two, so that Hindus have to live in India and Muslims have to live in what has become Pakistan. Each night, Nisha writes in her diary, addressing each entry to her mother, who died giving birth to her and her twin brother. The choice to frame Nisha’s story as nightly diary-letters to her mother is effective for many reasons, and we’ll look at a few of those reasons here.
1.) The narrative structure leads to a very intimate tone that draws readers right in. Take a look at this passage in which Nisha directly addresses her mother:
But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you, and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.
Consider the vulnerability and urgency in this passage. It’s impossible not to love and understand Nisha because we get invited so deeply into her heart and mind. This intimate tone would be very difficult to achieve if Nisha’s mother were not her imagined audience. All of Nisha’s complicated, tender feelings toward her mother imbue the storytelling with such beautiful emotion.
2.) The narrative structure fits Nisha’s character and the novel’s themes. Nisha has a very hard time talking to most people. Her struggles with speaking up are an important element of her story. That means that the narrative structure doesn’t feel at all like a gimmick; it enhances the story’s plot and emotional arc, and it feels right. The fact that Nisha can be so articulate in her diary-letters makes it all the more devastating when she is unable to form the sentences she wants to say in the scenes she describes. We learn a lot about Nisha and what she needs when we see how relieved she is when she is able to write about her often traumatic experiences every night; we see how desperately she needs a certain type of connection and we long for her to get it.
3.) The diary format highlights the timeline of the book. Because Nisha is writing in dated entries, we see just how quickly huge changes are happening. Veera Hiranandani is also able to emphasize how traumatized Nisha is (but in a gentle way that is very appropriate for middle-grade readers) by showing that sometimes days pass and Nisha is unable to write because she needs time to begin to recover from horrific events.
We’d love to know what else you notice about the impact of this narrative structure as you read The Night Diary, and we’d love to know about any other books you love that use a diary or letter format effectively! Our newsletter about The Night Diary will go out on February 25th, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already, and our Twitter chat about the book will be on Tuesday, March 5th at 8pm EST. We hope you can join us.
Josh: I’m so excited about this—for so many reasons, including the reality that this is a conversation the three of us are always having, in one way or another: Why and how three people from such different professional backgrounds now find themselves on this journey together. There’s so much I want to know and share about why and how Rajani and Chris find themselves here. But we should probably begin with the most important thing: Our books. Rajani, wanna start us off?
Rajani: MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (out June 4, 2019) is a middle grade mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking shows in which eleven-year-old Mimi dreams of winning a celebrity chef-judged baking contest, meets a mysterious boy in the woods, and stirs up all sorts of trouble with her baking. Squabbling sisters, rhyming waitresses, and culinary saboteurs all play a role in the story. In the process of setting things right again, Mimi learns that in life as in baking, not everything can be sweet.
Chris, what about your upcoming novel? Can you tell us what it’s about?
Chris: Sure, my novel in verse, ALL OF ME (out June 11, 2019), is about middle schooler Ari Rosensweig who just wants to look in the mirror and not see a fat kid. Teased, bullied, and an outsider for most of his life, Ari is a geek who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games. He navigates the confusing worlds of his mother, a self-absorbed artist, and his father, a con man who disappears just as Ari prepares for his already-late Bar Mitzvah.
After a brutal bullying incident before summer break, Ari decides he’s had enough. He’s got to lose the weight before high school starts. With the family in turmoil, Ari’s mother moves the two of them out of San Francisco to fix up and open an old gallery at the beach. With the help of a few unexpected friends, Ari starts his quest to reinvent himself no matter what it takes, and when he begins the perfect Diet Revolution, everything changes.
Josh: Awesome. And as you both know, SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY (out March 5, 2019), is a middle grade sci-fi novel about a “public school spaceship” in the future that gets mysteriously attacked and catapulted across the galaxy. Aliens. Lasers. Spacey shenanigans. (The #MGBookVillage was kind enough to run my cover reveal here.)
Now to the conversation at hand: Why do we write middle grade? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts, Chris, given how personal your story seems: How did you come to middle grade? And how did you come to this story? Then what about you, Rajani? How “close to home” does your story hit?
Chris: Josh…it is really personal, and I think that is part of why I care so much about writing middle grade. Stories have always been a source of shelter and inspiration for me. I think I have been writing about this story since I started writing at all. Growing up for me was a combination of 1) a fairy-tale childhood growing up in an artist’s family in New York City and all kinds of other places, and 2) struggling with difficult family dynamics and the identity of being a Jewish kid, an overweight kid, constant diets, negative comments and teasing from family and friends. Honestly—I thought I was really happy—but people kept telling me I wasn’t.
For ALL OF ME, I needed to tell the story of a kid, Ari, who is told that it is wrong to be who he is—that it’s all his fault somehow—and how he works through that in a difficult but positive way. I think so many middle grade kids relate and even connect to feeling like an outsider because of their weight or their religion, their family dynamics, you name it. There are so many rites of passage happening at this age, and I wanted to tell an honest story about how childhood magic, innocence, identity, family challenges, and religion all mix together and what comes out the other side.
One last thing about how I came to this story: My own family. Seeing my own children grow up—their daily wonders, joys, triumphs and tragedies—they really do inspire.
Rajani: The spark for MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM came from one of my own childhood memories. My dad didn’t travel much for work, but when he did, he sometimes went away for a week or two. When he returned, I’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if the person who returned wasn’t really him, but an imposter who looked and spoke exactly like him (creepy, right?). I devised some “tests” to make sure it was my dad, and luckily, it always was. When I was brainstorming novel ideas, I wondered what it would be like if a girl noticed something odd about her dad…and she was right.
My husband had an imaginary friend when he was little. He spoke to him, played with him, read stories with him—everything. I started wondering about imaginary friends, and what might happen if someone “imaginary” turned out to be quite real. Given my love for Shakespeare in general and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, the next step wasn’t that big.
And, like Chris, so much of this story was inspired by my own children, about being a young person in a world filled with “experts” (some of whom are related to you), of dreaming big dreams but not knowing whether you have the talent or the brains or the grit to make it. And my children, like Mimi, have sometimes surprised themselves with their own brilliance, and with their big hearts and hours of work and refusal to give up even when all seems lost. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM speaks to kids (and adults) who have set lofty goals for themselves and wonder whether they can ever achieve them. Because the payoff is sweeter when the struggle has been hard.
Josh: First, you are both amazing. You know I think that already (we’re friends IRL, after all). But I can’t say it enough.
In a sense, mine is a lot less personal than either of your stories. I don’t conceive of SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY as much of a reflection of my own life. If I had any guiding light in writing it, it was: Make this fun. Make this the kind of thing you would have wanted to read when you were younger (and still do).
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t “personal.” I wrote a book that middle school Josh would have wanted to read. He knew well that feeling of being a lonely kid, huddled up with a story that took me far away. I found escape in all sorts of fantasy/sci-fi as a kid. I consumed every Star Wars novel they gave me and loved every page. And I’m overjoyed at the possibility that SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY might bring a few kids some of the same comfort and enjoyment.
Frankly, this whole endeavor is a bit of an escape for me. Like you, I have a professional life that is separate from publishing. There are links between my “writing life” and my “lawyer life,” sure, but they’re not always obvious. And I’d love to know more about the connections in your lives. How is your “doctor life” (Rajani) and your “professor life” (Chris) threaded into your writing life?
Put aside the years of training, the long hours, the many frustrations, and the need for support in both professions (although honestly, writing involves MUCH more rejection). Ultimately, both writing and the practice of medicine are about people— wonderful, horrible, pathetic, amazing people in all their imperfect glory. Both medicine and writing involve listening to others’ stories, and writing our own. For me, medicine and writing inform and amplify each other. And when one gets to be too much, I get to delve into the other, and it feels like a treat.
Chris: I have the privilege of working at San Diego City College, an urban, extremely diverse, Community College where I teach Creative Writing and direct the writing center. There are many connections between my job and my writing life—especially writing and publishing poetry. In many ways, it was my students who got me to the point of writing ALL OF ME. Every semester, I find my mostly working class students, veterans, transfer-minded students really drawn into narratives that connected and related to their lives, providing escape, but also giving new language to the more difficult aspects of life. Students always tell me they wished they had read books in High School and MIddle School that dealt with more serious issues head on. Every chance I get I try to connect them with books, graphic novels, poems, any story that might speak to them. Working with my students over the years has given me the courage to explore deeper issues in my own work. Not long ago, wrote what I considered to be a “risky” poem called “Heavy Water,” about an overweight boy feeling awkward and alone at the beach while other kids seemed so carefree. I got asked to read it a spoken word event. It was after the reading, when so many of them shared with me that they wanted to hear a story about a character dealing with these issues, that I had one of the first sparks for ALL OF ME!
So Josh, to be fair, and no complaints, and the work is hard. There is a lot of grading, committees, and the introvert in me struggles sometimes, but my job gives a lot of flexibility and room for creativity. But what about your profession as a lawyer? We have talked about the fact that you do A LOT of writing, but what connections do you make between your legal writing and your creative writing? And if nothing else, how do you find the time?
Josh: Great questions, Chris. I’ll work backwards: First, time. I tend to assume that all of us “day job” writers (as well as all writers, generally) are playing a zero sum game. It’s not that “something’s gotta give.” It’s that at any given moment, something is always giving. Priorities compete with one another. What helps me keep perspective are the positive implications for which I’m so grateful: That I have a good job. That I have a wonderful family. That I’m publishing a novel!
And yeah, while my legal writing and my creative writing efforts are very different, I’m also grateful that I get to spend so much of my time doing something I really, genuinely enjoy, no matter the context: Writing. Working out puzzles of language and argumentation. “Is that the right word?” “Does an em-dash belong here?” “Does this aside serve the narrative?” These are questions I get to ask myself in both worlds.
And you, Rajani? HOW DO YOU DO IT?! How do you balance the demands of your job and the pull of writing—and everything required to facilitate the success of both?
Rajani: Well, I could ask you both the same, right?
I think the real answer is…we all make choices every day about how we want to spend our time, and our priorities show through. For me, family comes first, but my children are older now and although they don’t need me less, they need less of my time, if that makes sense. They’ve got their own goals and projects, and they spend most of their time working on those. But I still treasure our meals together, and spend time planning trips or taking walks with them and just soaking up their presence. I also get more time alone with my husband, who is my biggest support in every part of my life. I also happen to love taking care of my patients, and even on the worst day at work, I feel like I have at least helped a few people.
But with writing…it’s not really a choice anymore for me. Characters and situations keep popping up in my head, and their voices can be really annoying if I don’t write them down! I can definitely get out of rhythm if I don’t work on a particular project (particularly a novel) for a while, but once I go through the exercise of “making” myself work on it, a little bit each day, I eventually get back in the groove.
All of this to say: How do I do it all? I don’t. I struggle and muddle through everything, just like everyone else. I show up and put in the work and try to enjoy the good times, and put my head down and deal with the difficult times. And through it all, I try to hold on to the incredible fact that in the end, I am writing things that will be read and enjoyed by children. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?
Kathie: I’d love to know how ARCs (advanced reader copies) work. Do you have a set number given to you for free? Are you able to make many changes between the ARC and finished copy?
Jarrett: Every publisher does things a little bit differently, but it seems there’s one thing that’s consistent across the industry — authors never get as many ARCs as they want! For both of my books so far, I’ve gotten just a couple, and then requested more and gotten a few more, and then begged for more and gotten a few more… Regarding changes — it depends, again, on the publisher, and on the timing of things for each individual process. For Revenge of the EngiNerds, I got my ARCs along with my final proofs, which I had a chance to make very minor changes to (basically just typos and inconsistencies). I think that timing is fairly typical, and is why ARCs always come with that “do not quote” warning on them.
How do you normally go about getting ARCs?
Kathie: I will occasionally ask an author for an ARC, and sometimes they reach out to me as well. I also belong to a Canadian ARC sharing group, #bookportage, so I get some that way. I use both NetGalley and Edelweiss+, which are sites that provide e-copies of ARCs to members (usually book reviewers, bloggers, librarians, booksellers). You can request the ARC in which you’re interested, wait for publisher approval, then download a copy onto a device. The advantage is there’s no cost, and with NetGalley, the more you read and review, the more you build your profile and it’s easier to get publisher approval. Some publishers will even auto-approve, which means you can automatically download their books. The disadvantage is the book selection is limited, and the formatting of eARCs can make them very difficult to read. I will read an eARC if I’m really anxious to get my hands on a book, but I do find they can affect my enjoyment of the book. An author may think there is limited interest in their book based on the eARC response, but it’s not a good indicator as I’m definitely not the only reviewer I know who feels this way. I still get declined for books on both sites, so it’s not a guarantee that a request will lead to an approval.
Jarrett: I’m glad you’re sharing all this, because I think it’s something that a lot of authors don’t know about it. I knew next to nothing about such sites when my first book came out, and I wish I had, as I could’ve pointed people requesting ARCs there. And I’ve seen some photos of improperly formatted eARCs — they can be really messy! Physical ARCs can have such problems too. For Revenge of the EngiNerds, I went through each of my ARCs and penned in edits. I know that might’ve taken readers out of the story a bit, but I couldn’t send those books out with errors in them.
On social media, I often talk about ARCs as “sneak peeks.” They’re sort of like attending a rehearsal before the big show. I know flawed formatting can affect your enjoyment of a book, but I wonder, do you generally approach reading an ARC differently? Does it feel different than cracking open an officially published hardcover? If so, how does that seep into your reading of it?
Kathie: Interesting questions! Yes, I would say that reading an ARC feels different. For instance, I read an ARC of The Land of Yesterday by K.A. Reynolds last year, and really enjoyed it, but the final copy had artwork and a beautiful dark blue font that wasn’t in the ARC. The finished copy of The Frame-Up by Wendy McLeod MacKnight has the gorgeous artwork photos at the front of the book, which adds SO much to the story when you can see these paintings that are coming to life. Little errors don’t bother me too much. If I have a choice, I’d prefer to read a hardcover over a paperback, so maybe that plays a role as well. So yes, the fact that ARCs are not a finished product is in my mind when I read them.
I frequently see authors asking for reviews of their books. Is there a place that’s best to leave reviews?
Jarrett: Anywhere other readers might see a review is a good place to leave one — Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Amazon and Goodreads are great because they’re up there permanently, for anyone to see. But someone will only usually find those reviews if they already know about the book and are on the book’s page looking for information about it.
Social media is more effective, I think, for introducing new readers to a book. I don’t think any one platform is better than the others — it depends on a person’s audience. I’m not super active on Facebook, for instance (though I’m trying to be better!), so if I were to write about a book on there, it probably wouldn’t get much traction. Sharing it on Twitter and Instagram will get more eyeballs on it. That being said, I almost always cross-post my reviews on ALL of these sites/platforms.
Where do you, as a librarian and a reader, learn about new books? Where do you go to learn more about books that you’ve already got on your radar? Do you like to know a lot about a book before you start reading? What about its author?
Kathie: I get many of my ideas for books to read from social media as well. I spend a lot of time researching what people are reading, checking out reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, and I have a document at work with release dates for new books in a series, or books that I know my patrons want. I will almost always check the ratings on Goodreads before I purchase a book, but recommendations from readers I trust can easily convince me to try something regardless of the reviews. I also have some authors whose books I’ll pick up regardless of what it’s about (such as Jonathan Auxier), but it’s important to me to support debut and Canadian middle grade authors, too.
OK, now can you please explain the magical 50 Amazon reviews thing to me?
Jarrett: Ha! Supposedly, once you have 50 reviews on Amazon, your book is assigned some better algorithm that gets it in front of more people. But I don’t really know if that’s true. I think a lot of authors embrace it and push for it because it’s a tangible goal, and easier to energize people to leave reviews with that goal in sight.
Kathie: Incidentally, I somehow got banned from writing Amazon reviews, so reviewers need to make sure they are following the review policies. Until I can straighten that out, the only place I’m posting them right now is Goodreads.
Jarrett: You shared this with me a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe it! Whoever (or whatever) is doing the banning over there at Amazon needs to get better at their job! The fact that YOU — an incredibly knowledgeable and thoughtful reader and reviewer — can’t share your thoughts but someone saying “This book looks stupid — 1 star” can is ABSURD!
But… I have to admit that it is sort of delightful thinking about YOU getting banned from something, Kathie! I like imagining you sipping from that mug of yours with the Michael Moore quote about librarians being subversive, quietly plotting the revolution. Maybe the robots over at Amazon are just on to you!
Kathie: Ha, ha, my secret controversial and revolutionary double life, so secret even I don’t know about it!
I often hear authors say that it’s uncomfortable to promote their own books, and they limit how often they talk about it. As a reader, I expect to hear an author discussing their work, and I probably follow them so I do hear about it. I know social media can feel like a big time commitment, but do you feel like your books have made more connections because of the investment you make in connecting with others?
Jarrett: Social media has been HUGE for me. It has opened doors that I wouldn’t have otherwise even known had existed! And in addition to being responsible for getting my books in front of more people and keeping me in the loop about upcoming opportunities and things like that, it has enriched my life in many other ways. I’ve made wonderful friends. I’ve found fantastic creators and their fantastic creations. It’s brought me all sorts of joy and inspiration.
I think all of this has to do with my not viewing my time on social media as “promotional,” as something I HAVE to do. Because, yeah — I’m uncomfortable promoting myself as well. I think the key is to be genuine, and to share your excitement about whatever you’re excited about. I talk about other people’s work a lot because I am sincerely excited about it. And I talk about my daughter because I am excited about her, too. When I share all these sides of myself, I think it’s more comfortable for me to ALSO share about my work. But the truth is that that’s only one part of me. I read as much as I draw and write. And some days, I sing silly songs with my daughter more than I do ANY of that.
I’ve heard some authors toss around ratios — like, post three times about someone else’s work for every time you post about your own. And if you need to view it like that in order to make sense of it, that’s obviously fine. But my best advice would be to just be yourself, and share ALL the sides of yourself that you are comfortable sharing. I really think you can sense authenticity. And if you want to view it in terms of promotion, every post or tweet you put out there into the world, whether it’s explicitly about your work or not, has your name on it, and is, in a way, promotional.
How has connecting with authors been for you on social media? What do you respond positively to? Is there one form or another of self-promotion that seems better than another?
Kathie: I love every part of connecting with authors on social media! I genuinely want to help get good books into the hands of other readers, and so I’m happy to spend time promoting authors and books. I recently asked the question on Twitter if authors wanted reviewers to approach them to request ARCs, and the response was a resounding yes. I think both reviewers and authors are nervous about approaching each other because of the imposter syndrome where we don’t feel “qualified” or “good enough” to reach out and ask for something, but both parties benefit from these interactions. I love hearing about the inspiration for a book, the process involved, and yes, I actually love hearing about kids and everyday life because it makes the author feel more approachable. I’d say don’t be afraid to share whatever you’re comfortable, but it doesn’t all have to be book-related. I’ve connected most with the authors who’ve shared their lives beyond their writing.
Wow, we covered a lot of ground in this post! I hope both readers and authors learn something from it, and it helps break down some of the barriers between them.
Jarrett: Agreed! Let’s do it again soon!
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Click here to read Kathie and Jarrett’s first conversation, “What Happens When You Don’t Enjoy A Book”