Thursday, September 3, 2015

Bear Claws by Robert Lee Murphy (reviewed by Paul Greci)

I had the pleasure of reading an Advance Reader Copy of Bear Claws (Book Two in the Iron Horse Chronicles), by Robert Lee Murphy. See my post here about Eagle Talons, Book One of the Iron Horse Chronicles.

In Bear Claws, Murphy continues the well-developed storyline he created in Eagle Talons about the challenges of the Union Pacific Railroad’s march across the Rocky Mountain West.

From the back cover:

Will Braddock, fifteen years old, continues as a hunter for his uncle’s survey team, as the transcontinental railroad builds across Wyoming in 1868. Will strengthens his friendship with Lone Eagle, after the mixed-blood Cheyenne’s father, Bullfrog Charlie Munro, is killed by a grizzly. Will continues to confront Paddy O’Hannigan, whose vendetta to kill Will, his uncle, and the former black slave Homer Garcon, grows more sinister. Paddy is determined to get even with those who caused the death of his own father. Will remains fascinated with feisty Jenny McNabb, who cooks at her father’s Wells Fargo stagecoach station. Jenny is also fearful of Paddy, because he tried to kill the year before. When Will accompanies his uncle to California, he befriends Chung Huang, a Chinese youth working on the Central Pacific. Will and Chung can’t stop Paddy from stealing Nitroglycerin, with which he intends to blow up presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant’s train on the general’s campaign trip into Wyoming. Surveying the route of the railroad is completed, and the survey teams are disbanded. Rather than lose his employment with the Union Pacific, Will accepts an assignment to guide a German aristocrat, who holds a big investment in the railroad, on a hunting expedition through Wyoming’s mountains. Will saves the German Count from a bear attack, but is badly mauled himself. While recovering from bear claw wounds, Will must step in to help Elspeth McNabb, Jenny’s sister, escape Paddy’s clutches.

The story chugs along like a locomotive under full steam. Murphy does a great job of creating a multi-dimensional villain in the character Paddy O’Hannigan. Even though the reader roots for Will Braddock throughout, one cannot help feeling some empathy for Paddy as he navigates life under his corrupt Godfather’s thumb while trying to provide from afar for his mother and sister.

Bear Claws published by Five Star Publishing, an imprint of Gale is scheduled to be available in libraries, on-line, and in bookstores on November 18, 2015. Until then, you can read sample chapters on the author's website.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Do kids books have to be about kids? by Joanna Roddy

All hail Flavia!

Flavia de Luce, that is. I just discovered Alan Bradley's delightful mystery series with Flavia de Luce as the 11-year-old chemistry obsessed sleuth. She's equal turns precocious, mischievous, cheeky, brilliant, and spirited:

"I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did. 'All hail Flavia! Flavia forever!' I shouted as Gladys [her bicycle] and I sped through the Mulford Gates, at top speed…"

I adore this character. And I'm mesmerized by Bradley's skill at creating a completely believable 11-year-old as the first-person narrator and protagonist of an adult mystery novel.

The advent of child protagonists in adult fiction has become rather standard lately, I realize. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, THE KITE RUNNER, THE GOLDFINCH, LIFE OF PI, THE LOVELY BONES, to name a few. Yet, the idea of it fascinates me, especially with first-person narration. If it's all told from the child's perspective, one could argue, isn't it a children's story? If the protag is well-realized, then the story belongs to a child, fictional though he or she may be. Seems to me the publishing industry classifies novels as "adult" based on vocabulary and mature content, which is understandable, but it can sometimes seem arbitrary.

Consider the fact that Bradley's first Flavia novel, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, won an armful of trophies for adult fiction, including the Agatha and Macavity, but also found itself on several lists of Best Young Adult Fiction. It was nominated for the Young Reader's Choice Awards and for the Alex Award, which honors "books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18."

In addition to the broad appeal of adult books with young protagonist, adults read plenty of straightforward children's fiction too. Just think of many widely read literary classics intended for a children's audience, albeit upper-level readers: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, LORD OF THE FLIES, LITTLE WOMEN, MY NAME IS ASHER LEV. And then there are commercially popular MG/YA books: THE HUNGER GAMES, THE GIVER, ENDER'S GAME, HARRY POTTER and the endless argument about the rise of adult YA readers. (You might recall this controversial article.)

This leads me to wonder: Does it go both ways? Are there books for children with adult protagonists? Are children's writers afforded the same creative license by traditional publishing and readers? And let me be clear: I'm talking strictly about protagonists, the primary character perspective of a novel. Of course there are many sympathetic adult characters throughout children's literature, or adult characters who have select chapters written from their perspective. But are there any books with an adult for the primary protagonist?

I can think of a few titles from earlier eras with adult protags: ROBINSON CRUSOE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, etc., though I do wonder how many young people these days actually read these novels. And there are young reader classics with quirky adult protagonists, like MRS. PIGGLE WIGGLE, MR. POPPERS PENGUINS, and MARY POPPINS, though none are told from the first person. But I'm hard-pressed to think of recent examples. It seems that the industry thinks if a book is for a child, the protagonist's age should match the reader's. Hence the 14-year-old protag dilemma.Diana Wynne Jones says, "…they [children's protagonists] usually have to be strong, dynamic characters…people that children will follow willingly into the action. For this reason, it was thought at one time that the main characters always had to be children. This turns out not to be true…as long as someone in the story is likable, understandable or a lovable rogue..."“At one time,” eh? I’m not sure that the era of requiring child main characters for children’s books has past.Jones does capture the essence that would be necessary for an adult protagonist: "a lovable rogue," an outsider, someone who doesn’t understand or at least doesn’t follow the unspoken grown-up rules that are often inscrutable to children.

A major exception to the "no adults allowed" rule can be found in animal and fantasy literature. Consider the REDWALL series, where ages aren't mentioned, but the woodland creature protagonists are warriors, monastic apprentices, and in other adult roles. And in THE HOBBIT, which Tolkien wrote for his children as a precurser the more adult LOTR series, Bilbo is an adult, but he’s also something of an ingénue so that he's able to enter the adventure in much the same way the reader does, discovering a new frontier.

But all told, adult protags are hard to find in children’s lit. Perhaps it's easier for an adult to envision themselves young again, granted the freedom to return to the complexities of growing up with the wisdom and experience of adulthood than it is for a child to understand an adult world from an adult perspective. 

Whether or not we're allowed adult protagonists, it's clear that children's books do as much heavy-lifting in the serious subjects department as an adult book can. Children's books often tackle difficult issues in a uniquely insightful way. I'm fond of what Madeleine L'Engle once said about her work: "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

The notion that the reader's age should roughly match the main character's seems narrow to me. A sixteen-year-old can lead a middle-grade adventure and the eleven-year-old reader isn't going to have a problem with it if the story is good, the character rings true, and the subject-matter appeals. Precocious kids read a wider range than their own market demographic anyway. To let the right character with the right skill-set arise organically to meet the challenges of a middle-grade, or young adult, or adult fiction story, regardless of that character's age seems to me to be the logical path. (Flavia, QED.) Adult fiction seems to accept that. Why pigeon-hole kids lit?

"Horcruxes" by Mary GrandPre

Shouldn't we get to know and learn from across generations? Perhaps these false dichotomies and boundaries between ages are why so many of us reach adulthood and are surprised to discover that we're fundamentally the same person as our childhood selves, just with more responsibilities and experiences. Just as adult readers enjoy the chance to live vicariously through a child’s discovery and freedom, so children need proxies in the grown-up world, guides into adventure and discovery in places inaccessible to them. I would be interested to see what would be created if the unspoken "kids POV for kids lit" rule wasn't there.

Have you seen any adult protagonists in kids lit lately? Do you think there ought to be? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

SCHOOL VISITS ROCK! by James Mihaley

One of the best ways to promote an MG novel is through a school visit.  This gives you direct access to your target audience.  Let’s face it, unlike their older siblings, most 9-12 years olds don’t spend all day on the internet blogging.  Personally I think this is a blessing.  Thank god they still want to build a tree fort. However, it does create adversity for writers who are trying to reach out directly to younger kids.  A school visit solves that problem.  I believe that the author presentation itself should be viewed as a work of art, just like your novel.

Authors make a big mistake when they don’t approach a school visit creatively.  We must bring imagination to this aspect of the publishing journey.  How can we make our author presentations unforgettable?  More importantly, how can we make them fun and engaging for a bunch of fourth graders? 

I was part of a week long event last winter in Santa Barbara that included myself, three other authors and thousands of kids from half a dozen schools.  One of the authors wrote a wonderful book about wolves.  However, her author presentation was a bit dry and too cerebral.  The kids listened but they weren’t enthralled.  One of the others writers involved in the event suggested that she should teach the kids how to howl like a wolf during the presentation and actually hold a howling contest at the end.  She took the suggestion and the kids had a blast.  So did she.  To her credit, she demonstrated great flexibility.  Not all best selling authors would be willing to accept feedback but she understood the ultimate truth that we never stop learning.

Back in May I participated in a book signing at a book fair that was comprised of ten authors, half of whom were self-published.  The self-published authors told me that they were having huge success getting into schools.  All of them were being extremely proactive, which is the key.  It doesn’t matter who is publishing your book, you need to reach out to schools and let them know what you’re doing!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE END of an EDITOR'S ERA by Eden Unger Bowditch

When an author works with an editor, the two form a very precious bond. It can be contentious and it maddening, but the two come together for a common cause- to create the best manuscript possible. It is a marriage, to be sure, and the offspring is a book. But what happens when things change and an editor leaves for different pastures.

After two Young Inventors Guild books, my editor, Harrison Demchick, left my publisher to work independently. His group, The Writer’s Ally ( helps new and established authors hone their work. It’s been great for him and terrifying for me. When I heard the news, the first thing I thought was- How am I ever going to finish the third book??? I had come to rely on Harrison for everything Young Inventors Guild-ish. He is the only one who knows the secret history. He is the only one who knows what will happen. He and I together wrote the screenplays for the first two books. Who could ever be there for me in the same way?

The answer is no one. No one will fill the shoes of the editor I have had from the beginning. His work habits had become mine. He’d send missive with detailed pros and cons that would then be reflected in the text. I’d cry. Then I’d read through the comments again and see the wisdom in his words. This was how it had worked. I was at a loss.

My publisher was very kind and hired Harrison as a consultant. A consultant is not quite the same as an editor. Things would be different. There would not be the copious notes in the manuscript, but there would be editorial comments. With many a deep breath, I decided to face the future. Two weeks after sending him the manuscript, I received the familiar and ever-massive letter. As always, I cried. Then, Harrison and I discussed various edits. The challenge was addressing the text on my own, without his in-text comments. This was hard, but once I acclimated to the new regime, I was able to reread and check off the edits that made sense to me. It was an excellent first draft review and now I am deep into the second draft. And I feel that there is a light at the end of this Harrison-less tunnel. And I anticipate comments from the new editor to be compelling and helpful.

So I have learned a lesson. Yes, an author and an editor must work together. But an author must write the book and make changes and edits. Editors may come and go. Hopefully, an attentive and caring editor will always be on hand. An author must understand that an editor is more of a mentor/helper than a true partner because, in the end, the book is ours.

- Eden Unger Bowditch

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Hugos and Kidlit, by Matthew MacNish

Disclaimer: this is a deeply personal post for me, and it may be my last at Project Mayhem for some time, as I take a hiatus to reevaluate what my goals for and role in publishing will be for the foreseeable future. Heavy news, for my five fans, I know, but I am nothing if not honest.

From the jump, let's make a few things clear: I LOVE books. I love STORY, and I enjoy it in many formats, be they books, video games, roleplaying games, film, television, or whatever, but I ESPECIALLY LOVE BOOKS. I have ever since my father, may he rest in peace, read The Lord of Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien aloud to me and my sisters when we were but knee high to a hobbit.

Books convey story to reader in a way that no other medium for storytelling can. A novel, at its best, is essentially, at least to my mind, the absolute cosmic joining of two disparate consciousnesses into a singular experience. Not every writer can write every book, and every reader experiences each book in a way that is absolutely unique to their lives and scope of memory.

This is the beauty of the printed word, especially when applied to fiction in the form commonly known as a novel, but certainly eqaully importantly when it comes to short stories, novellas, vignettes, flash fiction, and ... what's that other category? There's something between a novella and a novel, right? Or between a short shorty and a novella?

I ask because I don't remember, but also because form and function and how they are awarded is rather heavily covered in the news at the moment.

In case you live under a rock, the Hugo Awards, SF/F's most historic and prestigious award (compare to the Printz, the Newberry, and the Caldecott when it comes to Kidlit) have recently been under siege. What happens next is critically important, not only to publishing, but especially to the fandom that awaits its whims.

Why am I writing about this on a MG blog?

That's a great question. Kidlit has historically been ... excluded from the Hugo awards, which I don't necessarily take huge exception to, personally, because those awards and WorldCon have a particular history which in general is not exclusionary, but I still do wonder what all of this means ... for all of us ... fans and authors, and aspiring writers ... and I have to say I have personally experienced the awkward and embarrassing feeling of being treated like an outsider at WorldCon, and I don't know if it was intentional, and I tend to think it wasn't, but at the same time, who knows?

At the risk of getting too deep into the vernacular, I don't personally care for the puppy's tactics, be they Sad or Rabid, but I do at times find myself wondering whether fandom, or the Hugos, or WorldCon, are as accepting as I would like them to be.

We have certainly seen SF/F become more accepting of women and people of color and LGBTQIA stories of late, and that is a good thing if you ask me, but I do wonder whether it will ever be a little more inclusive when it comes to Children's Literature. Paolo Bacigalupi, for example, won a Hugo for his adult novel The Windup Girl in 2010, but he also writes award winning fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade readers, none of which has a category to even be considered on the Hugo ballots.

Do we need to change that? I don't know. I'm new enough to serious SF/F fandom and WorldCon that I don't know that it's my place to say, but I will say this: after the puppy slates this year, both Sad and Rabid, more fans voted on the Hugo awards than ever have before, and that, I think, is good for all of us.

. . .

If you'd like to learn more about what happened at the Hugos, here are some articles, but note that this whole situation is highly political, and I am providing these links to allow access to both sides of the argument, not necessarily because I agree with everything they say.

The 2015 Awards

The Mary Sue reacts

Breitbart has a differing perspective

NPR is generally neutral, as usual

And makes an interesting point