Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Talk: Reviews by Young Readers

Today in BookTalk: Reviews by Young Readers, I’m thrilled to have Benji Davis with us to talk about Michael Scott’s Middle Grade novel The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. Welcome, Benji!  

My name is Benji Davis and I’m ten years old. I do martial arts, and I’m almost to black belt.  I really liked The Hunger Games and the Septimus Heap books, too. I also like tubing on the lake, wake surfing, running, animals, legos and playing video games. Some of my favorite lego creations are vehicles for my ugly dolls.  

                                            Benji's Lego Creation

Review - The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2007)

This is a magical story with good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are the Dark Elders, who are humans or mythical creatures. The good guys are Josh and his twin sister Sophie, and Nicholas Flamel. Nicholas has been alive for a long, long time. He’s kept alive by a magical potion written in the Book of Abraham, but the bad guys have stolen the book. The good guys want to save Nicholas’s wife who’s been stolen by the Dark Elders, and get the Book of Abraham so Nicholas can live.

I think this was a really good book because it has a lot of action going on. You get into the book quickly, it doesn’t have a slow start. The characters were good and the book had a big cliffhanger so I can’t wait to read the next one.

Thanks, Benji!! And now a few Q&A. Here we go!


What do you look for in a book? What grabs your attention?
BD: If it starts the story quick with action. I like cliffhangers at the ends of chapters, those keep me reading more.

Do you like reading about characters that are older than you? If so, why?
BD: It doesn't really matter.

At what point when you start reading a book, do you decide you're going to finish it or shelve it?
BD: I've never stopped reading a book.

Do you have a favorite reading place? Or time?
BD: I like to read on my green couch, but it doesn't matter what time.

Do you have a favorite library? Do you think libraries are important for kids and adults today? Why or why not?
BD: We don't go to the library very much, my mom has lots of books and I like going to bookstores. Libraries are important because if you don't have much money, you can still get a book. You just have to pay for the library card and you can get as many as you want! (we have to pay for ours because we aren't in the city.) When I was younger my mom took me to the library all the time to check out picture books and I do check out books from my school library, too.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Author Interview Sarah Aronson & Giveaway

Sarah Aronson holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  She is also the co-founder and organizer of the Novel Retreat at Vermont College and a regular contributor to the craft blog Through the Tollbooth.

In 2002, she published a retelling The Princess and the Pea:  A Very Short Pop-up (Simon & Schuster) and her Young Adult Novel Head Case (Roaring Brook Press, 2007) was a 2008 Quick Pick for Reluctant readers.  She lives in Hanover, NH with her husband and son and looks forward to visits from her daughter, step-son and step-daughter when they get breaks from their college and military schedules.

When she’s not writing you can find her cooking in the kitchen, dipping her toes in Quechee Gorge and watching football on Sunday’s.  Today, I’m honored that she’s here to talk to us about her new Middle Grade novel  Beyond Lucky (Dial Books) which in my opinion is beyond incredible.  Welcome, Sarah!!

When and why did you decide to become a writer? If you weren’t a writer, what career might you have chosen?

My writing life began in 2000, when I decided to “retire” from my job as a physical therapist. Up until then, I had worked in a variety of clinical settings, and I’d probably still be doing that if I hadn’t moved to Hanover, NH. In Hanover, after teaching a spinning class (the biking kind), someone dared me to try writing. Since I was nursing a sore back, I thought, “Why not?” Since I had kids and I read to them a lot, I started with picture books.  

What was the inspiration behind Beyond Lucky? Did the characters or plot come first?

My first goal was to write a book about a quirky town full of quirky people—a middle grade Garp. But I quickly found out, I was no John Irving! At the time, my son, Elliot, was playing rec soccer. (He was a daisy picker—not really into it.) It gave me time to check out the soccer community. Let’s just say: I had LOTS of material to work with!

What was the timeline it took you to finish the novel? What were the biggest challenges along the way?

I put this book away for a LONG time. When I returned to it, I changed everything: including the POV and many of the events.  Interesting, what I think really made this book come alive were the Presidents. My son, Elliot (the daisy picker), LOVES studying the Presidents. One day, he was in a really bad mood. I looked at his reading material. He was reading about Gerald Ford. I thought this was so funny, I made Ari a  Presidential fanatic, too. After that, something clicked.  But perhaps the BIGGEST challenge was Mac. He had to be realistic and likeable. 

Your protagonist Ari is a thirteen-year-old boy. Was it difficult to find his voice and make him authentic? To make him quirky and relatable to readers? Can you talk about your character development process?

I am a bit superstitious. And as I said above, the Presidents definitely helped. While I was working on this book, my stepson, Ed, was serving in the US Army. He got through Ranger Training and then was deployed to Afghanistan. (He is home and safe now!) So I KNEW Ari’s and his family’s fear for Sam. 

Did you know the obstacles that were going to stand in Ari’s way when you began the novel or did they develop through the revision process? There’s a balance of inner and outer conflict, yes?

For a while, Sam was a dead sister. For a while, Parker was a boy.  There used to be an entire mayoral race. Being willing to re-imagine my characters and plot helped me find the best story possible. It may not be the fastest method, but there’s nothing worse than sticking with things that aren’t upping the tension.

Many writers talk about the problem with a sagging middle, this isn’t the case in your novel. How did you decide which scenes to cut? Completely rewrite? Or just scale back? Did you look at each individual chapter? The novel as a whole?

The story board is my best friend.

I make a box for EACH scene. I write down the main action and main emotion. If the actions are “to be” actions, I re-imagine. (So he can’t just change his mind or worry.) If the emotions are too similar, I go back to work. I even draw pictures of the scene. That really helps me see if I am missing something.

This may seem labor intensive, but if a chapter is not working, I revise it in a wider lens POV. So I can see what my character does not see. It hasn’t failed me yet!

Your dialog in the story is realistic, moves the story forward and reveals character? Why do you think some writers struggle with dialog? How do you keep your dialog real?

Dialog is a funny thing. It can’t be too natural—as Tim Wynne-Jones told me, it has to be what the character would have said if they’d had twenty extra seconds to prepare the reply. But it can’t be TOO purposeful. (Banish the info dump!!!) I LOVE writing dialog because I love reading it. As a kid, I hated reading, and I’d always jump to the places with white space. I also read a lot of plays. When I read a sagging bit of dialog, I suspect that the writer isn’t trusting the reader entirely.

As you’re also an instructor for children’s writers through Writers on the Net (I highly recommend Sarah as I’ve taken one of her classes!), can you talk about your decision to teach and how you strike a balance between your writing and mentoring? Do you learn just as much from your students as they learn from you?

I learn SO MUCH teaching classes. I LOVE talking about craft. And I think that most writers become better writers when they are actively reading and critiquing as well as writing.  I definitely benefit from the balance. The community is so supportive. Right now, I’m wrapping up a whole novel class. The writers in this group have inspired me all summer. It is humbling for me to help them develop their novels. (I think there are only a few spaces left for the Manuscript Review Class this September!!)

What do you think is the hardest thing for young writers to develop: consistency, perseverance, patience and/or skills? What advice can you pass on to them?

Perseverance and a willingness to fail. I wrote about this on the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors blog.  When people hear that I followed Cynthia Leitich Smith’s lead and deleted this entire manuscript (Yes I did), they gasp. But for me, it was liberating. (and scary) I knew I had some good ideas, but I didn’t want to hold onto the wrong words.

What are you working on now? Any projects in the desk drawer that you’ll be dusting off and revisiting?

I am ALMOST done with a YA novel called BELIEVE. Next I am going to plunge into a companion novel for Beyond Lucky, from Parker’s POV. I have two half-finished YA’s waiting their turn.

Can you name one craft book you return to when you’re stuck or need inspiration and why?

One? You’re killing me!
Right now, my go-to craft book is Donald Maass’ THE FIRE IN FICTION.

Tell us 3 things you can’t live without.

Bikram Yoga
My fabulous family
Cut and paste (I would never have been a writer without WORD.)

Tell us 3 things you wish were never invented.

Partisan Politics
Penalty kicks to end a championship

Beyond Lucky's Book Trailer!!!


There are three copies of Sarah's Beyond Lucky to be won!!! Are you feeling lucky? Sure, you are!! Enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Beyond Lucky. Comment on this post and supply your email address (format: carmen at carmenoliver dot com). Deadline is Aug 5th, 2011. Giveaway is open to US and Canada readers. Author-sponsored. Good luck!

Thanks, Sarah!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Talk: Reviews by Young Readers

Today I’m excited to launch a new series called BookTalk: Reviews by Young Readers. Join me on Wednesdays and each week we’ll have a new young reader weighing in on what they’ve been reading and their thoughts. We’ll be reviewing chapter books and middle grade and young adult novels. Here’s another opportunity to hear what our readers like and dislike and why.

To kick off BookTalk, I’m thrilled to have ten-year-old Analise Flatt, an avid reader and budding book publicist, with us to review two books. Welcome, Analise! 

Review - The movie book tie-in Judy Moody & the Poop Picnic by Jamie Michalak (Candelwick Press, 2011) which was inspired by the Judy Moody Books by Megan McDonald 

This is a very exciting book! You never know what’s going to happen next. My favorite part of the story was when Aunt Opal, Judy Moody and her brother, Stink, lost the map to the cemetery so they got lost and ended up at this old amusement park. Judy ate her sandwich that had Big Foot poop on the back because she didn’t see it. I hope you get to experience the fun of reading this book.

Review -  The movie book tie-in Judy Moody & the Thrill Points Race by Jamie Michalak (Candelwick Press, 2011) which was based on the Judy Moody books by Megan McDonald 

In this book, it tells you about all the exciting things Judy Moody did to earn thrill points over the summer, such as: trying to tightrope walk, riding on a roller coaster, and going to a scary movie. My favorite part was when Frank threw up on Judy. I hope you get to read this book too!

Thanks, Analise!! And now for a little Q&A. Here we go!


What drew you to the Judy Moody books? Was the release of the movie Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer a motivating factor?

AF: I saw a Judy Moody book at my school library. I thought I should try reading it so I did. I liked it so I started reading the series and now I love the Judy Moody books. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I really want to and will this summer sometime.

Who is your favorite character in the series and why?

AF: Probably Stink because he’s crazy, annoying, creative and like my brother.
What other books would you recommend that are similar to the Judy Moody books?

AF: I would recommend Junie B. Jones and Ramona & Beezus series because they are all girls who get into trouble and they have adventures doing it. 


How do you choose a book? Is it the cover art that catches your interest? A recommendation from a friend? A character? The jacket flap summary?

AF: I usually choose a book by its title and cover art and I will look at the back of the book’s summary.

Why do you like to read?

AF: Because reading takes you into a whole new world.
Do you have a favorite book you like to re-read? Why is it your favorite?

AF: I have a lot of books I like but I would re-read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books a lot of times. I like them because they’re funny and the weird things that happen to Greg.

Do you go to the library? If so, what do you like about the library? Are libraries important to kids? Why?

AF: I love to go to the library! I like the library because there’s all these books to pick from. I think the library is very important to kids because you don’t have to pay for every book you get like at a bookstore. And, it’s a fun thing to go do.


Marika Flatt, owner of the publicity firm PR by the Book, sat down with Megan McDonald while in New York attending BookExpo America. Check out PR by the Book’s blog to see Marika's interview “Author of Bestselling Judy Moody Series dishes on Gearing up for Movie Release.”

To read more books in the Judy Moody series by Megan McDonald, click on Judy Moody.    

Monday, July 18, 2011

Author Interview Tricia Springstubb & Giveaway

Tricia Springstubb has been writing for over thirty years. She lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio with her husband and two funny cats, Habibi and Billy. She has three grown daughters and she’s an active SCBWI member. As a matter of fact, she’ll be giving two workshops this September at the Northern Ohio SCBWI Conference. She writes in the mornings then bikes or swims afterword to think about what comes next.  I’m thrilled she agreed to stop by and let us have a peek into her writing life.

Last year, she released What Happened on Fox Street, (Balzer & Bray, 2010) which we’ll talk about in part I of our interview and Part II of our interview will follow on August 15 and coincide close to the release of Mo Wren Lost and Found (Balzer & Bray, Aug 23, 2011), the follow-up to What Happened on Fox Street.  Welcome, Tricia.

Why and when did you decide to be a writer? Can you also take us back a few years and share your path to publication?

Long before I discovered I was a writer, I knew I was a reader.  As a child I never paid any attention to who wrote the stories I loved—I’m not even sure I understood that a human hand was involved.  For me books just sprang up, perfect and astonishing as a mushroom after the rain.  I’m a self-taught writer.  I learned much of what I know through osmosis; all those words, sentences and paragraphs I read seeped inside me.  Many years later, when I tried to tell my own stories, I had a pretty good sense of how to go about it, though I still learn with every book I write.

I’ve always written for both adults and kids, and this is how I got my very first novel published: I’d had a short story in Redbook, and my by-line said I also wrote for children.  A young editor from Little, Brown called me up, said she’d liked my story, and asked it I had anything full length.  I told her wow, yes---and began to write it the minute I hung up.  It was luck supreme—she was a dream editor, generous and patient and wise.  She saw me through many fumbles and mistakes and launched my career. 

What was the inspiration behind What Happened on Fox Street? Did the plot or characters come first?

Fox Street began with a real incident here on Cleveland’s west side.  Some developers, with the support of the mayor, made a bid to buy a small, blue collar neighborhood and replaced it with high-end condos and retail.  This neighborhood was on the edge of a glorious metropark.  To the surprise of the developers but no one else, the residents fought back.  I followed the battle in the media, and recognized a terrific David and Goliath story.  Because I love my own neighborhood so much, it was easy to put myself in the shoes of a child living there.

But the book was hard to write—Lord knows how many times I revised it. I couldn’t find the true heart of the story.  Meanwhile, I was working in an urban public library where every day I saw children shouldering responsibilities beyond their years.  They were so resilient, so heroic!  Thinking about their lives led me to Mo, and once I had her, the writing took off. 

After reading What Happened on Fox Street (which I LOVED), I really felt like I lived on Fox Street with Mo (protagonist) and her family, how do you go about creating a strong sense of place in your stories?

My family lives on a wonderful street—our three girls grew up here, running from yard to yard, walking to school.  Their greatest nightmare would have been moving away.  I wanted to write a story where the setting was so real and vivid it was a character in itself.  It was so much fun to see old Fox Street through Mo’s eyes, so that weeds growing out of a dilapidated gutter show how much Mother Nature loves a house, and a beer bottle collection becomes a thing of beauty.  The sense of place grew out of love’s ability to transform anything, and that permeates the story. 

There’s a wonderful cast of characters to support Mo Wren, can you talk a little about how you developed the secondary characters, each one is authentic and distinct? Through the story, we learn what they want and how it ties into the overall plot. Did this occur through outlining or evolve through the revision process? And what do you find most challenging, writing the first draft or revising?

Oh those Baggott boys!  I’m going to miss them so much.  Don’t we all know mayhem experts like them?  The only minor character who’s based on a real person is Mrs. Petrone.  When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a small town where all us women got our hair cut in a neighbor’s kitchen.  It was the social center. I named my character after one of my favorite children’s librarians here in Cleveland--she was a first reader of Fox Street. 

Once a book is finished, it’s almost impossible for me to say how certain parts came to be, but I can assure you I never outline, much as I wish I could.  Instead I give myself permission to write sprawling, really ghastly first drafts, and then the revising begins.

I love to revise.  Crafting plot is torture for me.  Torture!  Once I have a plot that works (more or less), I go back and find all the nuances and connections I missed while I was banging my head on the desk.  I get to make everything richer, smoother, funnier, and I fine tune the voice.  I work a lot on language, which I really enjoy.  I call it crawling inside the Cave of Revision.  

Mo Wren believes a fox lives on Fox street but no one has seen a fox on Fox street, where did this idea stream from? And when did you know how important it would become to Mo and who “it” truly represented?

Everyone asks me where the fox came from—if only I could say.  She was one of those gifts a writer receives now and then.  When I was working on the book, I’d never seen a real fox.  I watched videos so I could describe her!  After the book was finished, but before it was sold, my husband and I were driving through the Adirondacks at night, when he suddenly cried, “What’s that?”  And we got a glimpse of a beautiful creature disappearing into the woods.  Another gift.

There’s a secret in What Happened on Fox Street, how important are secrets in stories? Did you have to do a lot of brainstorming to figure out what the secret would be in this story? Or did you know from the inception of the book?

The secret was there all along, though at first it was too obvious.  My editor told me that everyone in her office figured it out right away.  So I had to make it more secret-y.  And then I had to figure out why it had stayed a secret all those years, up until the summer of the story.  I do think every good story has at least one secret.  Right now I’m working on a new middle grade novel that has lots of them.

In the coming weeks, Austin SCBWI is hosting a critique workshop, do you belong to a critique group? If so, how important is that to your writing? 

I belong to a critique group and love it immensely.  Writing is such a solitary business!  We all need support, at least one other person with whom we exchange work, and whose opinions we trust.  My group just keeps getting better and better—in the last couple of years we’ve all had substantial success, and I’m sure that’s at least partly due to the motivation we give one another, as well as the critiques. Cleveland has a small-town, we’re-all-in-this-together feel—writers reach out to one another. 

Tell us 3 things you can’t live without.

Books, it goes without saying.  Otherwise, I couldn’t live without coffee, phone calls from my daughters, natural light, my library card, my husband’s sense of humor, e-mail, my girlfriends, good bread—wait, is that more than three?  I have always been greedy.

Tell us 3 things you wish were never invented.

Now that’s a good one!  I guess it’s not inventions that bother me so much as the way we sometimes treat one another.  I could surely do without closed-mindedness, bullying, and revenge.   

Thanks, Tricia!!!!


Enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of What Happened on Fox Street. Comment on this post and supply your email address (format: carmen at carmenoliver dot com). Deadline is July 29th, 2011. Giveaway is open to U.S. - Canada readers. Author-sponsored. Good luck!

In case you happened to miss Tricia's picture book No Mistake, it was a runner-up in the Hunger Mountain 2009 Katherine Patterson contest for YA and Children's Writing, just click on No Mistake to read her entry.

Don't forget to come back and see us for Part II of our interview on August 15th, 2011 when Tricia and I talk about Mo Wren: Lost and Found.  

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Contests are great for so many reasons! It forces you to put your work out there especially if you're a beginner and shy. Make a little money. Possibly win a publishing contract. Build confidence. Get feedback. Work to a deadline. 

I'm thrilled today as my student entered her first writing contest and placed as a finalist. She entered the Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers sponsored by the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The contest was judged by New York Times best selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith. So another reason why I'm bursting with pride is knowing that my student's work stood up to not only the competition but was judged by one of the best Young Adult and Children's authors in the business.   

We worked for eight weeks to polish her manuscript and meet the deadline. Actually the deadline was extended once which allowed her to revise further, always an added bonus. She wrote a new piece for this contest, a short story. Another reason why it's excellent to enter contests because many times it requires you to write something new and, in my student's case, she wrote in a different genre, too.

So today I want to raise a mug of hot cocoa, topped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles, in her honor. I always knew she was a talented author. Now I think she knows it, too!

Keep writing everyone and don't forget to enter a few of your own contests. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Austin SCBWI Critique Workshop

You've just typed the last line in your novel. Now what? You know you should let it sit awhile before you gaze at your brilliance. But you can't. You pick it up and decide that it's ready to send out. Children everywhere should have your story on their shelves. Editors and publishing houses will fight over your work. You can see the headlines in the newspapers now "Cat Fight Over Debut Novelist."

Actually I guess that could happen. But highly unlikely. More likely you'll see something like this:

Dear author,

We regret to inform you that we are passing on your book, WHO DUN IT. 
We feel it is our duty to tell you that you should not give up your day job. If you have any other skills other than writing -- follow them. Because your chance of becoming a children's author is slim. Less than slim. Actually "Slim" just left the building screaming into the night right after reading your manuscript. No really, he did.
Take my advice, don't write another word.
Best of luck as anything other than a children's author.
Top-Dog Editor 
All joking aside, you might not receive a letter quite like the one above, but if no one has looked at your work and offered you some constructive feedback, you're apt to quickly find your mail box stuffed with rejections.
So before you slip your manuscript into that brown envelope and send it via FEDEX,  share it with another writer. Ask them for a critique. What's that? Well, if you don't know the answer to that question than you need to be at our critique workshop, Beyond the Basics: Applying and Analyzing Constructive Criticism and it will be led by Top-Dog instructors, Austin's own Texas Sweethearts and Scoundrels.

Art work by illustrator Erik Kuntz

And to get you even more excited about the leadership you'll receive at this workshop, check out a recent interview by Donna Bowman Bratton with PJ Hoover (Texas Sweetheart) and Meredith Davis, and don't miss her other blog posts on critiquing with authors, Emily Kristin Anderson and Lindsey Lane and Samantha Clark, Shelley Ann Jackson and Cynthia Levinson .

See you on July 30th with the Texas Sweethearts! Register today at Austin SCBWI.