Wednesday, October 16, 2013

In Which Kirby Larson and "Story" Disagree

I am utterly thrilled to welcome my friend Kirby Larson to the blog today. As most (if not all) of you know, Kirby is a super-kind person and a super-brilliant author. To express my sincere thanks for this witty guest post, I am giving away one copy each of Kirby's most recent books:


(sequel to Kirby's Newbery Honor-winning book Hattie Big Sky)

To enter the giveaway, simply leave a comment below this post stating which book you'd like to win. Be sure to include your email so I can reach you. I'll announce the winners on Friday. 

And now, without further ado, heeeeere's Kirby!


Did you know that until about 1910, before bridges and train tubes, the only way to get to the Big Apple from most of the continental United States was via ferry? I didn’t either until I was digging around in history for my latest work-in-progress. Duh, Kirby: Manhattan Island! (Never pick me for your team if geography is involved).

Captivated by this notion, I mulled over old photos of the ferries, and the dashingly suited men and glorious hatted women riding them. My imagination had a field day. Just think of chugging across the North River (now Hudson River), all the while watching the Hoboken Terminal loom larger and larger into view.

I was so taken with this notion that, the next thing I knew, I wrote a ferry scene in my WIP. I even tapped into all the five senses! Gosh, it was fun.

Until Story tapped me on the shoulder, rubbing its head. “Excuse me,” it said. “I was traipsing along my arc at a pretty good clip and suddenly I crashed into this.” Story pointed at an inky block of text. The ferry section. “Do you know where in the heck it came from?”

I blushed, shrugged. “I might have an idea how it got there,” I said.

“You put there?” Story asked, rubbing a goose egg on its forehead. “Right in my way?”

“But it’s fascinating,” I said. “Think about it: People couldn’t reach one of the biggest cities in the world without crossing a river!”

“And?” Story pressed.

“Well, think of the color. The smell of the river. The chug of the ferry engine. The grime of the coal powered steam engines.” I tried not to sound too defensive. “It’s part of history. Facts are good.”

 “Okay. Sure. I’ll grant you that.” Story nodded. “Maybe I should’ve seen it coming. It’s not like this is the first time something like this has happened when you’re writing. But, to be perfectly honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out how this whole ferry scenario fits in.”   

I stared at the keyboard, pondering my reply. I glanced back up at the monitor and re-read the ferry scene. Story was right. Simply because this fact about ferry travel to New York City was fascinating, it wasn’t fair of me to shoehorn it in. To put it right in Story’s way. “Can I leave it, just for awhile longer?” I asked. I cringed at how whiny my voice sounded. “Maybe I can find a way to work it in so you won’t even know it’s there. This is only a first draft. Let me see what I can do.”

Long-suffering Story sighed. “I guess I don’t have any choice,” Story said. “Could you do me one favor though?”


“I could really use an aspirin.” Story rubbed its head again. “And maybe a helmet. I know how you are with those fascinating facts.”

This true story is brought to you by Kirby Larson, author of Hattie Big Sky, Hattie Ever After, The Fences Between Us, The Friendship Doll and Duke. Kirby is a founding member of the Just Say No to Expository Lumps Society. She may have once written an entire chapter about baking bread in a wood stove. (Thank goodness for critique groups and editors.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

I've been MIA because...

It feels like forever since I've been on Twitter or the blog or any form of social media. Email has been neglected. Housework has been neglected. Family has been neglected. Lately anything that doesn't involve staring at a laptop screen while simultaneously hearing voices in my head has been woefully neglected. Why?

Because I sold my second book.

I'm terribly excited, but also terribly terrified. I sold this novel, again to Michelle Poploff at Delacorte, on a single sample chapter and an outline on August 21. It will release early 2015. I have been working like mad to put together a readable draft--due on November 1.

Here is the one-sentence summary: A young white girl and her black best friend fight to protect their taboo interracial friendship amidst the KKK attacks and North Smithfield bombings of 1949 Alabama.

The book is tentatively titled STANDING TALL ON MULBERRY HILL. Like EVERY DAY AFTER, this story was also inspired by family events--though this time the inspiration arose from my maternal rather than paternal grandmother.

Why did I take so long to announce the sale?

Because as I said, I was (and am) terribly terrified--and terribly superstitious. I didn't want to jinx anything by opening my big mouth too soon. I first thought I would announce the sale once the contract arrived. Then I thought I would announce the sale once Random House had received the signed contract. Then I thought I would announce the sale once I had finished the first draft. (Are you sensing my fine skill at procrastination?)

All of the above have been achieved--by a couple of weeks. So why have I finally decided to announce the sale?

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some time with Michelle on Friday. She came into Birmingham as a faculty member for our regional SCBWI conference. Michael and I picked her up at the airport and took her on a mini-tour of Birmingham, showing her many of the historical sites that are relevant to this new story. She mentioned that she would discuss both EVERY DAY AFTER and my forthcoming book at the conference. I figured if she was going to talk publicly about the book then I was being overly analytical (and overly superstitious) about the announcement.

So I have officially announced. Finally. Fingers double and triple crossed all goes smoothly with this next book and, more importantly, that I can do the heavy subject matter justice.

Michelle and me standing in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. Directly behind us is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. In the background to the right is the 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed by a KKK bomb on September 15, 1963. To our left is a gorgeous memorial to the four girls. It is the work of Elizabeth McQueen and is called "Four Spirits". One girl is releasing doves in remembrance of two boys who were also murdered that same day--16 year-old Johnny Robinson and 13 year-old Virgil Ware. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

2013 SCBWI WIK Fall Conference Blog Tour: Michelle Poploff

I couldn’t be more pleased to host my brilliant editor Michelle Poploff on the blog for the 2013 Writing and Illustrating for Kids (WIK) Conference Blog Tour. Michelle is the Vice President and Executive Editor at Delacorte/Random House Children's Books, and I (along with fellow Southern Breezer Donny Bailey Seagraves) am proof positive that she truly does acquire manuscripts from conference submissions. Michelle bought my recently published historical middle grade EVERY DAY AFTER following an SCBWI conference I attended in Nashville in fall of 2011. She also acquired Donny’s wonderful middle grade novel GONE FROM THESE WOODS after the 2007 Southern Breeze Springmingle Conference in Atlanta.   

Here's a bit about Michelle:

In recent years Michelle has acquired manuscripts from attendees at several SCBWI conferences, and two of those debut books are being published this year (mine and Kit Grindstaff's THE FLAME IN THE MIST)

Among the many award winning books she has edited are the 2011 Newbery Award Winner MOON OVER MANIFEST, Newbery Honor Winner HATTIE BIG SKY, Coretta Scott King New Talent Award Winner BRENDAN BUCKLEY'S UNIVERSE ANDEVERYTHING IN IT, and 2012 Morris Debut Award Finalist PAPER COVERS ROCK. Michelle also works with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Stacey Jay, and many other talented writers. She is always on the lookout for top drawer manuscripts with a strong authorial voice in middle grade and YA fiction. 

Welcome, Michelle! Let’s dive right in. You’re a big supporter of the SCBWI and frequently seek out new talent at SCBWI conferences. In your opinion, what makes this organization so special?

The SCBWI is a terrific organization in that it brings together published & aspiring writers, editors, agents, illustrators and more while providing current news about the ever-changing publishing world.  It's a win-win situation for all concerned when publishers get the opportunity to visit state and regional chapters and interact with writers informally and for critique sessions. There's always the chance that we will make a connection that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. I'm always looking to acquire exceptional new writing talent, and the SCBWI conferences provide the potential for making that happen.

You will offer two sessions at the WIK conference this October. Your “Bring it on Birmingham” session will give attendees the chance to pitch their manuscripts on the spot. What makes a successful pitch?

Before a writer makes a verbal pitch, it's a good idea to practice out loud in front of others.  Try to be as succinct as possible, as if you are pitching your story in an elevator and have about 30 seconds to give the main idea.  It's important to include in the overview a sense of the main character, the time, place & setting, as if you're drawing a picture with your words.  At this conference, the writer will also be reading the first page of the manuscript, so I will be hoping to hear the voice of the character that's going to drive the story,  & captured by the sensory appeal of the surroundings. I want to be hooked by the writing in terms of conflict, intriguing details, or something that stands out about the character that will encourage me to keep turning the pages.

Your “The Write Place” workshop will expand on ways authors can mine personal memories and family history for the inspiration they need to write a unique story. You frequently acquire books that have been inspired by the author’s life or family history. In your opinion, what sets this type of book apart from the competition?

Obviously each family has its own unique background and history. I find there's so much heart and beauty in stories when there is a family connection even if it's just a small thread or not a particularly happy circumstance.  For me it's a sincere special ingredient that never feels forced due to the writer's personal connection even if it's generations later. But as in every book, no matter what the subject matter, it's all in the actual telling of the story.

If you’ll allow us a peek behind the doors of an imprint at a Big Six (or is it Big Five now that Random House and Penguin have merged?), what process do your post-conference submissions go through? Must they pass through a first reader or do they go straight to your desk? In general, how far into the evaluation do you get before you know if something is a good fit for you?

For purposes of post conference, the submissions are sent directly to me. I ask for a synopsis and the first 3 chapters to be sent by regular mail. If I'm intrigued, I'll ask to see the rest of the manuscript. I won't make a decision until I have read the manuscript in its entirety.

What are you looking for when evaluating a manuscript? What hooks you?

What hooks me is a combination plate of the character's voice, the details, the setting, the conflicts, and how the main characters grow and change as the story progresses.  There has to be something special that attracts me to the character, something that sort of says "join me on my journey."  I want to believe in the character, who will be flawed to be sure, but there needs to be an ingredient in the writing that pulls me along page by page and hopefully future readers will want to travel along as well. Unfortunately we can't bottle that ingredient as it varies from book to book.

And now, the question I’ve wanted to ask you for oh-so-long. You’ve received two calls notifying you that books you edited had been recognized by the Newbery committee: one call for Hattie Big Sky (2007 Newbery Honor) and the other for Moon Over Manifest (2011 Newbery Medal). Could you talk a bit about where you were and how you reacted when those calls came? Inquiring minds want to know! 

Sometimes I'm at the Midwinter ALA in the early morning when the committees call the publishers, but in the cases of Kirby Larson's HATTIE BIG SKY and Clare Vanderpool's MOON OVER MANIFEST I was in the office when my colleagues called shouting out the sensational news. There was plenty of cheering on both ends and I couldn't wait to call the authors and cheer some more. We watched the press conference online, but Kirby Larson had the incredible opportunity of being at the press conference when HATTIE BIG SKY was announced as the conference took place in her hometown of Seattle that year! Much more happened of course, flurries of emails, phone calls, and celebrations throughout the year.

And now for a Speed Round:

*Favorite book?

It's hard to name one overall favorite, but a standout is COLD SASSY TREE by Olive Ann Burns.

*Place you’ve always dreamt of visiting but haven’t been? 


*Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights?

Jane Eyre

*Chocolate or vanilla?


And that does it. Thank you so much for participating in the WIK blog tour, Michelle! It was such fun interviewing you, and I must give an emphatic “ditto!” to your responses on the last two Speed Round questions. See you in Birmingham come October!

Michelle is just one member of the impressive faculty lined up for this year’s conference on October 12th. WIK is a great place to get inspired, get tips on your craft, and learn about the business of children’s publishing. It’s also an opportunity to meet editors, agents, and an incredibly supportive network of working writers and artists. The Southern Breeze region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) hosts this wonderful annual conference. I hope you’ll make plans to attend!

To find out more or to register, visit

Want to meet other members of the conference faculty?  Follow the 2013 WIK Blog Tour:

Aug. 28            Author Matt de la Peña at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews
                         Editor Lou Anders at F.T. Bradley’s YA Sleuth

Aug. 29           Author Doraine Bennett at Jodi Wheeler-Toppen’s Once Upon a Science Book
                        Author Robyn Hood Black at Donny Seagraves’blog

Aug. 30            MFA program director Amanda Cockrell at ElizabethDulemba’s blog
                        Illustrator Prescott Hill at Gregory Christie’s G.A.S.

Aug. 31           Author Heather Montgomery at Claire Datnow’s Media Mint Publishing blog
                        Editor Michelle Poploff at Laura Golden’s Just Write

Sept. 3             Author Nancy Raines Day at Laurel Snyder’s blog
                        Author Jennifer Echols at Paula Puckett’s Random Thoughts from the Creative Path

Sept. 4             Editor Dianne Hamilton at Ramey Channell’s The Painted Possum
                        Author Janice Hardy at Tracey M. Cox’s A Writer’s Blog

Sept. 5             Author / illustrator Sarah Frances Hardy at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews
                        Agent Sally Apokedak at Cheryl Sloan Wray’s Writing with Cheryl

Sept. 6             Agent Jennifer Rofe at Cathy Hall’s blog
                        Author / illustrator Chris Rumble at Cyrus Webb Presents

Monday, July 22, 2013

Vacation Recap: Washington State

The family and I returned one week ago today from a wonderful trip to the Pacific Northwest--Washington state in particular. It was phenomenal. I loved it. My husband loved it. My boys loved it, and are already begging to go back. The weather was beautiful while we were there, though I have been assured by friends who reside there that this lovely weather is certainly the exception and not the rule over the course of a year. Still, we had an absolute blast! 

I know some of my friends (Hi, Niki!) will be traveling to Washington within the next year, so I thought I'd dedicate a blog post to sharing some of our photos. Enjoy! 

Day 1: Mt. Rainier National Park
A view of Mt. Rainier from about an hour away. It's huge! 
My 11-year-old admiring the view from inside the park.

A view of the Cascades from inside the park.

Day 2: Deception Pass & Whidbey Island

                                                    Deception Pass bridge from a scenic overlook. 

A view of an island with trees in the Puget Sound from Deception Pass State Park.
                                                   The boys enjoying the big waves at Deception Pass State Park.

Days 3 & 4: Olympic Peninsula
The charming Scandinavian town of Poulsbo on Bainbridge Island.

Beautiful, blue Crescent Lake in Olympic National Park.
This and the following pictures are from the Hall of Mosses trail in the Hoh Rainforest.

The next few photos are from La Push on the Pacific coast, home to the Quileute Nation.

Day 5: Lunch with the Larsons and a trip to Leavenworth

In Mukilteo, the boys were starstruck by Kirby Larson.

The Mukilteo Lighthouse, built in 1906.

Day 6: San Juan Island

I wanted to post a picture of the beautiful Friday Harbor here, but I can't find it. We went into the library there to see Every Day After on the shelf, but it was checked out! I was ecstatic. Somebody somewhere on the island--thousands of miles from my home--was reading Lizzie's story. The librarian was extremely kind and offered her congratulations. It was the coolest thing ever! 

In lieu of Friday Harbor, I'll present you with the island's lavender farm.

The following pictures are from Lime Kiln State Park. It is an awesome place for whale watching. We did see a pod of orcas from a distance on the ride over to the park, but none once we arrived. Still, it was one of my favorite places by far. I could live on this island. 
Michael overlooking the sound with the Olympic Mountains in the background.
The lighthouse with Vancouver Island visible in the background.

Then it was farewell...

Rainier from the air. Gorgeous.

If you haven't been to Washington, and aren't planning a trip there in the foreseeable future, I would encourage you to start saving and planning now. You won't regret it. Washington state is an embarrassment of riches as far as things to see and do. There are many more pictures I wish I could share, but this gives a good overview. If you ever travel to Washington, do let me know. I'd love to see your pictures. There were tons of places we didn't have time to visit. Thanks for letting me share! 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Experiences of a First-Time ALA Attendee: The Long Version (because there can be no short…)


Honestly, that is the only way I can begin. This past weekend was filled with such fun, and camaraderie, and laughter, and happy tears. I couldn’t have imagined it being any better.

Michael and I arrived in Chicago just after lunch on Friday, and by Friday evening we were sitting with the wonderful Kirby Larson and her husband sharing spinach and artichoke dip and great conversation. Kirby and I work with the same brilliant editor, Michelle Poploff, and I am honored to call her my friend.

On Saturday we took the shuttle bus over to McCormick Place and traversed through the exhibit halls. Here is a picture of Every Day After on the shelf in the Random House booth:

It wasn’t long before I started bumping into folks from Twitter and fellow authors. I teared up when I spotted Cynthia Alaniz amidst a sea of strangers. We gave each other a big hug, and my husband was kind enough to take a picture of us for posterity:

Next came the ever-so-clever author of RUMP and fellow Lucky 13, Liesl Shurtliff. She signed my sons’ copy of her book, and they were super-excited to receive it!

At 11:00 Beverly Horowitz, VP and Publisher at Delacorte Press/RHCB, took a break from the booth and chatted with my husband and me for nearly an hour. She is a brilliant and lovely person. If you haven’t, I encourage you to watch this YouTube video in which Beverly moderates a panel on “Writing Dangerously”. It lasts an hour and a half, but it is fascinating, and the participating authors are phenomenal. Here is the summary:

How do children's and young adult authors approach controversial subjects, challenge convention, and confront the psychological risks of the creative process? Moderator Beverly Horowitz joins authors Adam Gidwitz, Gary Golio, Nora Raleigh Baskin, and Rita Williams-Garcia for a discussion on censorship and the risks in breaking boundaries.

On Saturday evening we took a short cab ride with Alison Cherry, author of RED, to Elizabeth Fama’s house for a Nerdy Book Club party. (Thank you for hosting, Beth!) OMGsh, it was the best time ever! Here is a list of other attendees with links to their respective websites. I hope I didn’t forget anyone. If I did, it’s only because I didn’t see you come and go.

*Niki Ohs Barnes
*Donalyn Miller
*Brian Wyzlic
*Beth Shaum
*Laura Given
*Jennifer Reed
*Katherine Sokolowski
*Jen Vincent
*Kathy Burnette
*Colby Sharp
*Sherry Gick
*Margie Myers-Culver
*John Schumacher
*Elisabeth Dahl
*Liesl Shurtliff
*Amy Timberlake (whom I didn’t get to meet, but I heard the excited chatter when she arrived)
*Stephanie Kuehn
*Kirby Larson

I mean, come on! You can read that list of names and know how awesome this was. Incredible.

When Sunday rolled around, Michael and I decided to forgo the exhibit halls for a leisurely lunch and a stroll to Navy Pier. That left us plenty of time to get ready for the event that was truly on everyone’s minds: the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder Awards Banquet, aka the Oscars of children’s literature.

The evening was filled with fairytale magic. When you are in the room with Jon Klassen as he becomes choked up during his Caldecott acceptance speech, and Katherine Applegate as she is handed her Newbery Medal and immediately announces “I’m wearing this sucker to Target!”,

and THE Katherine Paterson as she eloquently (and at times humorously: “Rest perturbed spirit!”) accepts her Laura Ingalls Wilder Award,

you merely sit there in stunned silence. Unforgettable. This is one of those rare occasions when even words are not enough.

A few highlights:

*Riding the elevator down to the Newbery Banquet with none other than Gordon Korman. He is so nice.

*Running into fellow Lucky 13er Tim Federle, author of Better Nate Than Ever, at the Newbery Banquet and hearing him say “I love your dress!” It’s now official. The dress is a keeper.

*Attending the Random House cocktail party and standing in awe as Patricia MacLachlan passes by not six feet away from me.

*Realizing that one of the folks sitting at my Newbery Banquet table is Matt Phelan.

*Seeing Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, stroll past my table.

*Having Donalyn Miller introduce me to Teri Lesesne (aka Professor Nana), Ed Spicer, and Tom Angleberger all within ten minutes time.

My boys love their finger puppet Yoda, Tom!
Thank you!

*Meeting all the lovely people associated with the Nerdy Book Club and my fellow Lucky 13s. I miss my book-family all ready! <3

See you next year in Vegas? Here’s hoping.

Kirby stands on tippy-toes and I squat to get head-level.
Rather amusing.
See you soon, Kirby! <3

Monday, June 17, 2013

Many Heartfelt Thanks

The world of children’s books never ceases to amaze me. I am in awe of the talented authors and the beautiful books they produce. I deeply admire the teachers and librarians who work so hard to get those books into the hands of hungry readers. But perhaps most of all, I am daily humbled and astounded by the constant outpouring of generosity and kindness from these same individuals.

My debut middle grade novel EVERY DAY AFTER officially released into the world of readers last Tuesday. As I’m sure most authors are, I was filled with a mixture of anticipation, elation, and flat-out fear. There is no way for me to predict how my book will be received. I cannot begin to guess. For a self-admitted control freak, that is an unnerving thing to face. The only thing to do is let go, and that is hardest of all.

Though I can’t read tea leaves or look into a crystal ball, I can say one thing with absolute certainty: I love what I do. And I love the people I’ve had the honor of meeting since I started doing what I do. If everyone were as warm and open as those that make up the realm of kidlit, this world would be a far better place. 

I am extending a sincere, heartfelt ‘thank you’ to each and every person who made my Release Day, my entire Release Week, so insanely awesome. You made me smile, laugh, and cry (in a good way), and I am eternally grateful to you all.

Editor extraordinaire Michelle Poploff

Promo-partner and pub-sib Kit Grindstaff

Fellow writers of historical fiction at Corsets, Cutlasses,  & Candlesticks

My beloved Lucky 13s

All fellow Nerdies (aka The Nerdy Book Club)

Superstars-in-waiting Rebecca Behrens and...
2014 debut authors

Writers of beautiful reviews Mr. Colby Sharp...
Margie Myers-Culver...
...and Cynthia Alaniz.

Reigning Queen of HF and all-around lovely person Kirby Larson

Fellow Alabamian and friend Anita Saxena

Loyal supporter and fabulous person Barbara Ann Watson 

Long-time Twitter pal and friend Amie Borst and...

From the Mixed-Up Files blog