Monday, November 24, 2014

World-Building in 1/12 Scale by Kell Andrews

I spent the day cleaning the house. This one:
Which is the same as this one:

That's me in the heart-shaped deely-boppers, behind my little sister. It was my 13th birthday, and that was my new dollhouse. Dollhouses weren't the coolest thing in eighth grade, but that didn't stop me. I liked to build worlds, even if I didn't know that's what I was doing. 

There were no Minecraft, no MMORPGs. Some kids had 12-sided die; I had an X-acto knife and embroidery floss. I used it to recreate my Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Witch of Blackbird Pond dreams (all historical periods mingled in a Mercer Museum fever dream.Here's one of the bedrooms, with a patchwork quilt, cross-stitched pillow, and miniature acrylic self-portrait.
In that painting, I was 14, and I was reading. Age 14 was more of a no man's land then than now, so the book was probably Charles Dickens or Charlotte Bronte. But reading and miniature making were sides of the same coin -- immersion and construction of imaginary worlds.

Writing, whether fantasy, history, or contemporary, requires building the world from the ground up -- and often from the ground down too. Whether a world is faithfully reproduced or entirely invented, the writer must construct it on the page.

I constructed my dollhouse out of scrap calico and wood. I populated it with costumed fur mice, which didn't seem ghoulish at the time but definitely were when I took them out of the non-archival storage of our garden shed. Generations of live mice had scurried through those open-sided walls. My mouse house had become real with time, like the Skin Horse in the Velveteen Rabbit. Like the stories I wrote and bound myself that turned into other stories, and still others that are real books and books-to-be.

So this weekend I cleaned out the mouse droppings and washed the linens. Salvaged broken furniture and paged through the mini newspapers and magazines I had made, complete with crime reports and cigarette ads. (The past was no paradise.)

And now the dollhouse belongs to my daughters to rebuild, redecorate, and repopulate with their own imaginations. I do have a few ideas for hardwood floors and curtains, and I may have time to squeeze them in between drafts. Worlds must be built.


What activities, seemingly unrelated to books, helped shape you as a writer or reader? 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

PM’s Holiday Shopping Guide: Books for Fantasy Lovers

Chris here: In honor of the holiday shopping season, I wanted to celebrate some of our Project Mayhem books – order a copy for your favorite middle grade reader, or for yourself! The links are to the author’s website or blog; if you want to buy, it might be faster to go to your favorite online retailer and paste in the name, or ask your local bookstore to order the book.

Today I’m starting with some fantasy novels that involve alternate worlds. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be listing books in the categories of Historical Fiction, Adventure Novels, and Fantasy (our world), Sci-Fi and Paranormal.

Hilary Wagner’s Nightshade Chronicles - Nightshade City: Book One: Deep beneath a modern metropolis lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of remarkable rats of superior intellect, ruled by decadent High Minister Killdeer and his vicious henchman Billycan, a former lab rat with a fondness for butchery. Three young orphan rats—brothers Vincent and Victor and a clever female named Clover—join forces with Billycan’s archenemy, Juniper, and his maverick band of rebel rats as they plot to overthrow their oppressors and create a new city—Nightshade City.

“Fast paced and full of intrigue. One fantasy lovers won’t want to miss.” – Kirkus Reviews

Also in the series:
The White Assassin
Lords of Trillium
Catacomb City

Dawn Lairamore’s Ivy’s Ever After: The kingdom of Ardendale has always locked its princesses in a white tower guarded by a dragon. It’s the only way to lure gallant young princes to the tiny, out-of-the-way kingdom to marry them. But Ivy is a princess who doesn’t care to be rescued, and Elridge a dragon afraid of being slain. Never mind that humans and dragons have loathed each other for centuries, it isn’t long before this feisty princess and rather undragonly dragon have fled the tower and set off on a perilous journey….

* “This is a fun and entertaining fairy-tale based fantasy with a nice balance of character development and action.” –School Library Journal (starred review)

A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2011

See also: Ivy and the Meanstalk

Marissa Burt’s Storybound: In our world, twelve-year-old Una Fairchild has always felt invisible. But all that changes when she stumbles upon a mysterious book buried deep in the basement of her school library, opens the cover, and suddenly finds herself transported to the magical land of Story. But Story is not a perfect fairy tale. Una’s new friend Peter warns her about the grave danger she could face if anyone discovers her true identity. The devious Tale Keeper watches her every move. And there are whispers of a deadly secret that seems to revolve around Una herself….

Storybound has been praised by Kirkus Reviews for its “richly imagined world” and by Publishers Weekly as “an appealing fantasy with strong writing and interesting characters.” 

See also: Story’s End

Chris Eboch’s The Genie’s Gift: Shy and timid Anise determines to find the Genie Shakayak and claim the Gift of Sweet Speech. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?

The Genie’s Gift is a lighthearted action novel set in the fifteenth-century Middle East, drawing on the mythology of The Arabian Nights.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift; a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


My first professional cover!
Before I jumped headfirst into the world of MG books, my life’s ambition was to draw comics. I was serious about it, too. I even went to grad school to pursue my masters in sequential art. At one point I worked as an intern in the Marvel Comics bullpen assisting editors. One morning, I was opening the Marvel office mail with my trusty X-acto knife, and without realizing, I accidentally sliced up a piece of original artwork, an illustration drawn by the #1 ranked artist in the industry at the time. The artwork was for the cover of an upcoming issue of X-Men, and thanks to me, it looked like Wolverine slashed it with his claws.
I was immediately overcome by a wide range of emotions.
While pondering the topic of covers for this entry, I thought back to that incident and I wondered what it must be like for an author, filled with the giddy anticipation of seeing their book cover for the very first time, opening a box of arcs (or an email file), only to be horrified by what they find inside. A disaster of a cover. It happens, and it's a nightmare most of us don't anticipate. Nobody wants to spend months or years of hard work carefully crafting a book only to have it represented on the shelf by an image that doesn't do it justice. Or an image that says the completely wrong things about the book’s content.
A cover's job is to attract eyes as it sits on a book store shelf, but it should also tell the reader something true and relevant about the story inside. People say not to judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest, that applies to just about everything except books. The reality is that a bad cover can hurt sales and a great cover can generate sales. And this holds especially true with Middle Grade books as children are weaned off of picture books where the pictures carry the primary narrative. Kids love a great cover, and great MG covers should be able to tell a story in and of itself. And why not? If someone can write a horror story on Twitter in 140 characters or less, then a picture which can paint a thousand words should be capable of doing the same. 

How involved is the writer in the cover design process? Going into my first book, I was clueless. I just knew that as an artist I wanted input. Ideally, an editor will ask an author questions early on to determine their vision, and at this point in the process it’s good to be as clear and descriptive as possible. What else can you do to make sure you get a cover you'll be proud of? If you’re an artistic person, you can share your vision in several ways. You can email photos of other covers that you think are particularly well done. You can also create a Pinterest page to capture the mood of your novel and share that with your editor and the design team. In my case, my editor was happy to look at some concept drawings I whipped up.

In the end, I loved the simple, in-your-face approach that the cover artist assigned to Frenzy took for the finished piece. It was the right choice. It says everything you need to know about the book in an eye-catching manner without giving too much away. 
Now, it could also be that none of your ideas are incorporated into the cover, and you should prepare yourself for that possibility. It really just depends on the vision your publisher and the marketing team have for your book. For The Murk, my suggestions to add a crane and to make the alligator’s eyes a glowing red made it into the finished design. 

Is there anything you can do if you’re vehemently opposed to your book’s cover art? Yes, there are steps you can take. If you’re truly not happy with the cover, first ask yourself why that is. Is it because the direction the art team took wasn't exactly what you envisioned or is it because you honestly feel the cover looks bad or misrepresents your story? If the former is true, you should know that it’s not the publisher’s job to give you exactly what you want. It’s their job to sell the book and sell as many copies as possible. The publisher has a lot at stake, too. They’re investing their time, energy and money, and the last thing they want is to let that investment go to waste because of a poorly executed cover. The cover is just as important to your publisher as it is to you. Show the cover to a few trustworthy bibliophiles and artistic friends. Show your agent. Get opinions. But if you still feel as though the cover is entirely wrong for your book then you should talk to your editor, preferably through your agent, if you have one. Keep in mind, it’s not enough to say, “I hate this cover.” You should be able to offer a list of suggestions to fix the problem. You may find that your publisher is open to implementing some of them. Just know that unless your contract says otherwise, in the end, your publisher has the final say. 

I'd love to hear other cover stories. What kind of reaction did you have upon seeing your book covers? What kind of input did you have in the process? What do you like the most about your cover art? What do you like the least? Is there anything that surprised you about the process? If you're still waiting to see your first cover, what kind of experience and results are you hoping for? 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

2014 Middle Grade Novels That Deal With Bullying + A Giveaway by Caroline Starr Rose

According to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety report from 2013, "about 28 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being bullied at school during the school year." Bullying can affect school attendance, physical well-being, and emotional health.

As a mother, a former teacher, and a children's author, I am so grateful for the writers who choose to take this difficult topic head on. Here are four books published in the last year that touch on bullying in some way. These aren't the simple "problem novels" of my childhood. Each contains layers of real complexity, allowing readers to experience the story alongside characters who are true to life and reside in a recognizable world.

ALWAYS, ABIGAIL -- Nancy Cavanaugh

Abigail and her two best friends are poised for a life of pom-poms and popularity. But not only does Abigail end up in a different homeroom, she doesn’t make the squad. Then everyone’s least favorite teacher pairs Abigail up with the school’s biggest outcast for a yearlong “Friendly Letter Assignment.” Abigail can hardly believe her bad luck. As her so-called best friends and potential for popularity seem to be slipping away, Abigail has to choose between the little bit of fame she has left or being a true friend.

ALWAYS, ABIGAIL is an epistolary novel whose entire story is told through a series of lists. What I found fascinating about it was how familiar these sixth graders interactions felt. There isn't one bully in this story. Several kids get that title, at times including Abigail herself.

Sourcebooks has developed a curriculum guide that talks about popularity, outcasts, friendship, and bullying.

JUST A DROP OF WATER -- Kerry O'Malley Cerra

Ever since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart—and outrun—the rival cross country team, Palmetto Ridge. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

Kerry O'Malley Cerra has managed to capture the confusion and fear that surrounded the early days of September 11, 2001 as well as actions of both kindness and biogtry. Kerry's website includes excellent resources, including the story behind the inspiration for the book as well as teacher resources.

EL DEAFO -- CeCe Bell

Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.

The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.

I loved this review of EL DEAFO by teacher Gary Anderson, specifically this observation: "EL DEAFO also includes a bully who is mean to Cece in a way that has nothing to do with her deafness." This story moves beyond what might be expected in a way that is both rich and satisfying.

Abrams has created this teacher's guide.

THE PAPER COWBOY -- Kristin Levine

Though he thinks of himself as a cowboy, Tommy is really a bully.  He’s always playing cruel jokes on classmates or stealing from the store. But Tommy has a reason: life at home is tough. His abusive mother isn’t well; in fact, she may be mentally ill, and his sister, Mary Lou, is in the hospital badly burned from doing a chore it was really Tommy’s turn to do. To make amends, Tommy takes over Mary Lou’s paper route. But the paper route also becomes the perfect way for Tommy to investigate his neighbors after stumbling across a copy of The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper.

Tommy is shocked to learn that one of his neighbors could be a communist, and soon fear of a communist in this tight-knit community takes hold of everyone when Tommy uses the paper to frame a storeowner, Mr. McKenzie. As Mr. McKenzie’s business slowly falls apart and Mary Lou doesn’t seem to get any better, Tommy’s mother’s abuse gets worse causing Tommy’s bullying to spiral out of control.

THE PAPER COWBOY, which debuts this month, has so far earned three starred reviews. Kirkus calls it "winningly authentic; Publishers Weekly says its "a thoughtful story about understanding and compassion, distinguished by complex characters"; and Booklist describes it as "sophisticated [and] powerful."

Editor Stacey Barney talks about her love for THE PAPER COWBOY here.

Do you have any other books that might fit on our list? Please add to the conversation!

I'm giving away an advance reader copy of THE PAPER COWBOY. To enter, simply leave a comment below. US residents only, please. The winner will be announced Friday, November 21.