Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading

by Tommy Greenwald
illustrated by J. P. Coovert
Roaring Brook Press, July 5 2011
contemporary middle-grade
reviewed from ARC, courtesy of publisher
reviewed by Yahong Chi

Summary (from the back of the ARC):
Charlie Joe is proud to say that he's never read an entire book cover to cover. Sure he's glanced at the first and last chapters, and maybe even read the cover, but when it comes to reading what's in the middle, Charlie counts on his friend Timmy McGibney to do the reading for him in an exchange for an ice cream sandwich. Sounds easy enough, right? But what happens when Timmy's price goes up to three ice cream sandwiches? What's an industrious non-reader to do?

It's the voice that jumps out first thing, which is excellent since this is a "boy book" and also aimed at reluctant readers. (Oh, the irony...) Charlie Joe manages to come off as appealing despite his deviousness when it comes to reading -- or maybe because of it. There's ample attitude: "The tune I came up with is pretty catchy, but you can't hear it, because this is a book -- another problem with books by the way."

CJJ's family is refreshingly normal, and it's pleasing to see a protagonist who actually likes his siblings (his sister plays an important part in the story's plotline). The school friends, however, were a bit less distinctive, especially with commonplace names like Timmy, Jake, Katie and Hannah. They all have different roles, but the reader never is emotionally invested in any of them, only Charlie Joe. Surprisingly, Greenwald does an excellent job with the teachers ("Did being handsome give him [Mr. Dormer] the right to be so completely not funny?").

The plot could've come off as heavy-handed and message-laden, but thanks to Charlie Joe's narration, the topic of cliques, labels and peer pressure doesn't dominate the book -- his focus is still on getting out on reading. And the end result when his not-reading habits come back to bite him makes for a very good whole-circle, from end to beginning feel.

I have to quote a passage with the dogs, Moose and Coco,  here:
"We have no idea what you're doing, you've never done anything like this before, but we still love you, and we'll wait as long as it takes," their eyes would say, taking pity on me as I sat on my computer. "We know that one day you'll realize that it's summer, and that you should absolutely not be doing what you're doing. You should be outside playing with us."

They're absolutely right.
I think that captures exactly what dogs are like.

There'll be illustrations throughout the finished copy, and the few chapter illustrations in this ARC already tell me they're going to be adorable:

Oh, and the acknowledgements make for some entertaining reading too. :D

Pre-order this book on Amazon.

And check out an interview by Mike Winchell with the author here!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tell us about yourself and your summer goals (if any!)

It’s great Project Mayhem has so many readers and followers, and being the nosy writers we are, we’re curious about who you are. Sometimes I think blogging is unnatural for writers. Most of us are more interested in other people’s lives than we are in our own. If we weren’t, I’m not sure we’d spend so much time making up characters. The good part about blogging is it allows connections between people who would otherwise never meet. So please tell us a little about yourselves. I’ll give you a prompt you can follow if you like, otherwise, any info. would be great. I hope other Project Mayhemers jump in as well.

What state do you live in?
Favorite hobby?
Real life job?
Summer plans or goals?

Here’s mine:
What state do you live in? Ohio
Favorite hobby? Reading and gardening
Real life job? Writer, mom, kid chauffeur
Summer plans or goals? Road trip to Pennsylvania, catch up on reading, practice drawing (a long-term goal)

~ Dee Garretson

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Good "Boymanship" Awards

Okay, so I normally try to keep my personal blog and the PM blog separate, but I've had some recent conversations about the topic of what I call "boymanship" and I wanted to run it past everyone over here at PM. So, here goes:

I write "boy" books. Problem is, it seems to take a village to raise the consciousness of the boy sensibility in MG. A while back, I was involved in a great Twitter chat during #kidlitchat and we discussed boy books. I made a comment that I wished more MG books would accurately depict the way boys interact with one another. I went on to explain that the back-and-forth joking between boys, heavy on sarcastic razzing, is a sign of true friendship between boys, and those who don't understand this or want to paint a different picture are not being true to reality. Boys make fun of each other when they're friends (all in good fun), but the moment they need to have each other's backs they do. I equate this to the wartime bond soldiers have. It's a brotherly thing, and I don't see this truly represented in many MG books. Toward the end of the conversation I coined the term "boymanship" and I really think it fits. A perfect example is found in the following scene from the classic movie Stand By Me, and actually, in just about every scene in the movie.

This scene is true-to-life. These boys are the best of friends, but look at how they razz each other. And if you've seen the movie before, you know these kids are 100% "there" for each other (they have each other's backs). This is what I'd love to see more of in MG books of today. Please, give me "real" kids.

I have a great deal of experience with boymanship (heck, I'm a black belt). I am a teacher of junior high kids (for 12 years now), I was a boy once (shocker, I know), and I still see myself as a big kid at 37 years of age. So let me tell you: BOYS ARE LIKE THIS! And the point I made during that chat was the fact that if we can accurately capture this in MG boy books, it helps to educate boys about "boymanship" and also educates adults who've lost touch with this. I'm sick of seeing MG boy books that are treated like after-school specials (corny, cheesy, and just plain unrealistic).

Another movie that I feel accurately portrays the way boys interact with one another is the old 80's flick (dated, but still timely) My Bodyguard (trailer below). Clifford (the main character) and Linderman (his bodyguard) capture the true sense of boymanship in their friendship. And even though the bullies are nasty, their relationship is realistic as well (so is the evil streak they have as bullies). In all, kids are kids in this movie. Real kids. I highly recommend you check out this movie if you haven't seen it. 

Um, why do I find it necessary to refer to MOVIES and not books? Interesting question. Think about why that might be the case.

Okay, tell me, is there any book I might be overlooking that gets your good boymanship award?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Playing with Perspective

Not too far from where I live, a little two-lane road shoots away from town. There's not a lot out here except the occasional farmhouse and a cow or two. The only reason most people take this road is that, several miles out, it connects to a major highway. And it's because of my occasional jaunts to and from the highway that I know about the grassy little airstrip that makes its home out here. Often you'll see little planes parked in the grass. One of the hangers has a website address painted on the side in neat white letters. It's from this website I learn that the little planes are ultralights, and that the owner of the airstrip gives piloting lessons as well as introductory flights for the curious. I'm curious. I'm also scared of heights. So it takes me years to finally work up the nerve, this spring, to e-mail the owner to schedule a flight.

By the time I actually drive out to the airstrip a week later, I'm pretty nervous. Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?

I'm met by a pleasant middle-aged gentleman in a blue windbreaker. "Nice to meet you. I'm Ray," he says, shaking my hand. "I'll be taking you up in one of our planes today."

"I'm scared of heights," I blurt out.

Ray doesn't seem too concerned. "I take up a lot of people who are scared of heights. It's not so bad. It's different in a plane, even one as small as this."

And the plane is small. It doesn't have a door, just a large plexiglass window that stretches almost to the floor of the cockpit, right next to the passenger seat where yours truly will be sitting. This means I'll have a distressingly good view all the way down to the ground, far...far...far...below.

"We'll only be going up about a thousand feet today," says Ray.

I think he means this to be reassuring. But what I'm actually thinking is, ONE THOUSAND FEET!!! In a plane barely bigger than my car?!

I think about turning tail and running, but five minutes later I'm strapped into the tiny cockpit. We’re cruising down the grassy runway, and Ray's angled the plane so we can "take off with the wind." The nose of plane tilts upward, and we're up in the air.

"Is there something I can hold on to?" I ask through the radio headset.

"There a metal bar over your head," says Ray, as we climb higher. "But you won't need it. It's a very smooth ride."

He doesn't understand. I'm not worried about it being a bumpy ride. I'm a bundle of nerves, and I want something to hold on to for dear life.

Then I see the view.

"Do you want to steer the plane?" asks Ray.

"No!!!" But I do let go of the metal bar long enough to start snapping pictures with my camera. Because it’s really pretty. I knew there was farmland out here, of course, but I can see now that it stretches north all the way to the horizon. The ground is silver and marshy from all the recent rain. Ray dips the plane low along a tree-lined river, so we can look for wildlife.

"Is there much wildlife out here?" I ask.

"Oh sure," he says. "Deer, coyotes—look, there are some wild turkeys along the river bank!" (For the record, wild turkeys look about the size of pencil erasures from the air.)

"I had no idea any of this was out here," I say, a bit embarrassed. I've lived in the area a long time, but I guess I don't get out of town much.

"A lot of people don't," says Ray.

I know what he means. Most people probably never go beyond the little road to the highway. The view is completely different from up here.

A fresh perspective can make such a difference. Perhaps that’s why some of my favorite writing tips involve playing with perspective and shaking things up a bit. Here’s a few:

Write the Opposite of Your Ending—or Any Other Scene You’re Struggling With
Endings can be tough to write. So can significant or particularly emotional scenes. The next time you’re struggling with a scene, try writing the opposite of it. Want to give your story a happy ending where the hero and heroine defeat the villain and live happily ever after? Write an ending where the villain wins, the hero and heroine go their separate ways, and everyone ends up miserable. I’m not saying you should actually use this ending in your final manuscript, of course, but it’s a great writing exercise that gets the juices flowing and often stirs up inspiration for the right way to do the scene. Think of it as How Not to Write an Ending.

Write from a Different Point of View
Write that key scene you’ve been struggling with from the villain’s point of view instead of the hero’s, or from a secondary character’s point of view instead of the main character’s, etc. Again, you don’t actually have to use the scene you come up with. But you may be surprised at the insights it provides—how other characters view the main character or the situation, what various characters’ motivations are, etc. It can be a very eye-opening experience. You may even discover some things you didn’t know about your characters.

Write a Scene in which a Character Does the Uncharacteristic
I believe it’s Donald Maass who advises writers to think of something their character would never do—and then write a scene where the character does just that. He reports that many writers actually end up using such a scene in their final manuscripts. Just think of the possibilities—how desperate must the character be, how altered must their mindset have become, for them to be pushed into an action fundamentally unlike them. What a fabulous way to add tension and challenge to your character’s story!

Back at the grassy little airstrip, after Ray lands the plane, I have to admit I’ve had an enjoyable time, even with all my jitters.

“It’s good you came,” he says. “It’s good to push yourself to have new adventures from time to time.”

Have fun on your writing adventures today. Don’t be afraid to leave the road.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Birthday books!!

Hello everybody!!

Happy Friday!!

And happy birthday to me!!


This naturally segues (for me anyway!) into a discussion of book character birthdays. What birthdays do you remember-what were particularly memorable ones?

I remember Ramona's. And a birthday where a kid got a pony. (as a horse mad young girl I was in love with this book, heh). But why are all others escaping me?

When I was a kid, it seemed like I could begin again on my birthday. With my new cool (insert present here) I would save the world.

Have all those books gone? Is there a particular character's birthday that you remember?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Well Do You Know Your Character?

It took me several weeks and countless drafts to figure out who my main character is for a new story. When really, I could have made this a lot easier on myself. I realized I’m the type of girl who doesn’t plan, but writes as the ideas pop into my head and see where it takes me. Sometimes this works. It did for my book, Gossip. But not so much this time around.

The voice is harder to nail and even when my crit friend asked me a question about this character, I couldn’t answer. Because I didn’t know. And that’s when I realized what my problem was. I didn’t know my character. How can I expect her to face and solve problems if I didn’t even know how she was or supposed to react?

Then I remember the advice from my critique group. It is so important to have a crit group, people! Interview your character. Write out questions for your character and and interview her. Find out everything you need to know about her. And more. Get inside her head. Find out her insecurites, her fears, her dreams. Learn the simple things about her, such as her laugh, what she wants to be when she grows up, what qualities she looks for in a best friend. What does she look like? Make your MC real to you. And then, when you write about her, she’ll be just as real to your readers.

And your story will flow. You can anticipate how she will handle each situation. She’ll write the story for you. And at the end, it will be like saying goodbye to an old friend. Isn’t that so much better than struggling the whole through and trying to figure out your character page by page? For me, I’m glad I’m figuring this out now. For some of you, you probably already have or you do exercises to get this down. Or maybe some of you play it by ear and it just comes to you like it did with me and my first book.

But if you struggle at all with voice and wonder why, then maybe this could help. When you nail the voice of your character, you know it, because something just “clicks.” And to have the voice, you have to have a strong character.
How do you develop your MC?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Writers Help Write Now and Win a Query or Partial Critique from US!!

Win one of five critiques from one of our
middle-grade authors on Team Mayhem!
Hello Everyone! 

HELP WRITE NOW is a Writing Community Auction to benefit southern storm relief. Project Mayhem has donated 5 query or partial critiques up for bid now! The top 5 bidders will win! You'll be helping storm victims and getting something for yourself as well! Bidding ends tomorrow, so please bid NOW and help the cause by sharing this post!!!


Monday, May 16, 2011

This caller has a question

"Mom? Is this your phone or mine?"

I am currently reading an upper MG/lower YA adventure about a boy who's got to make his way across country on his lonesome due to a series of misadventures. He has a cell phone, and the (improbable) means by which the author manages to prevent his grandfather and parents from taking his calls is little short of hilarious. Then his phone's battery dies, and he doesn't have a charger.

Cell phones have complicated the way modern writers tell a story. Horror writers have it even worse. Who cares if Leatherface is chasing you through the woods when you can dial 911 in a jiff? Oh, darn. No service bars! Let terror commence.

As this handy means of communication becomes more affordable and available, I am seeing it more and more in the hands of the youngest generation.

MG writers, I'm wondering how young is TOO YOUNG to have a phone of your own? My 12-year-old cousin has one (and is fairly responsible with it). Is she the exception or the norm? Phone in, parents and adult busybodies!

—posted by Timothy Power

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hey, Potty Mouth, Think of the Wee Children!

So, I have no problem with people being themselves and swearing like sailors on their blogs. In fact, on a lot of occasions I think it's funny and even warranted. Recently I came across the blog of an aspiring middle-grade writer and his posts were let's just say full of four-letter words and racy comments.

My concern, if you're a regular blogger who writes for kids, is the swearing and/or suggestive post/remarks okay? I think if you're a YA writer (depending on what type of YA audience you're going for) it might be completely expectable. For example, if you're writing really edgy YA, it may be okay, even good, to have an edgy blog. But if you're strictly writing for middle-graders should you keep it free of the F-bomb, etc?

I've always kept my blog clean. Sure, I get mad. I've even been known to shout out a foul word here and there. My husband doesn't say I have the mouth of a truck driver for nothing, but on my blog I keep it clean. Kids and parents may visit it. In fact I know they visit it. As a parent, if I were considering a book for my middle-grader and I popped on the writers blog, there's a very good chance I'd not get the book if I saw something like...well...!#$%^&*(#$@!! all over the blog.

Oh, and don't forget, kids' agents and editors check out blogs all the time. Would this turn them off too?

What's your take? 

Happy Friday! Hilary

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Agent in Six Months! (or Eleven Years, but Who’s Counting?)

I’ve been writing for almost thirteen years but never consistently looked for an agent until 2009. Because an agent isn’t a necessity in the children's market, I figured submitting to an agent was an extra, unnecessary step. Instead, I sent queries and manuscripts directly to editors willing to take unsolicited submissions, always hoping the next editor would be The One.
In spring 2009, I won a contest at a local writing conference. At the last minute, I’d decided to send in my middle-grade historical novel-in-verse. It was my best work, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received alongside pieces meant for the adult market. My prize included a one-on-one with an editor who specialized in fantasy, sci-fi, and women’s fiction, a world apart from what I’d created. She took one look at my manuscript and asked, “Why don’t you have an agent yet?”
That’s when I started subbing in earnest, sending three to five queries at a time. I combed through blogs like Cynsations, Literary Rambles, and the Guide to Literary Agents, looking for any mention of agents taking on new clients. By May, I'd gotten my first full request. In June I got two more. In July another two. In September, yet another two.
By October, I’d had ten agents request fulls and two ask for partials. One agent liked my story, but felt some significant changes were necessary. I thought through her suggestions but took things in another direction, coming up with an entirely new, stronger ending. In the days I spent revising, two more agents requested fulls, bringing my total to twelve. I contacted the first agent, telling her I’d made changes to the story, though not long the lines she’d suggested. If she was still interested, I told her, I’d be happy to send it along, but I also wanted her to know two more agents were reading the newer version. She graciously told me she’d love to see the story if the other two agents passed. One did. One didn’t.
I found Michelle Humphrey on the Guide to Literary Agents blog and fell in love with her upbeat attitude about the publishing process (“Make rejection pie!” she said). She responded to my query the next day. A week and a half later, she emailed me, saying she’d read my manuscript in one sitting and wanted to talk to me about it as soon as possible. Less than two weeks after reading GLA’s post on Michelle, I had an agent. 
Not long after, I spent a morning reading through the submission records I’d kept over the years. Some information I’d had to fish out of other folders, but for the most part, I'd kept a pretty accurate (though low-tech and messy) list of manuscripts, submissions, editors, agents, and rejections.
Here's what the records showed:
11 years of writing (10 years of subbing)
11 manuscripts
211 rejections from editors (2 fulls and 1 partial requested)
12 contests/grants entered (1 win)
75 rejections from agents (12 fulls and 2 partials requested)
1 yes! (Thank you, Michelle)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Middle Grade Moms

Once upon a time, I might have questioned the validity of days like Mother's Day. Don't get me wrong, I'm thankful for my mom and think it's right and good to celebrate her. But you know the drill: the sappy almost-poetic Hallmark cards, the dilemma of what to buy, and the marketing efforts aimed at tugging on the volatile mixture of guilt and familial love. Sometimes it's hard to buy into it.

Of course, that foolish cynicism characterized my life before having three small children. Now Mother's Day just might be my favorite day of the year. Breakfast in bed - yes, please! Children whispering sweetness (so what if they're being prompted by daddy?) throughout the day. Time to do whatever I want. Oh, I'm sorry, has my gloating over yesterday completely sidetracked me from the intent of this post? Why, yes, it has. And, since Mother's Day is over, and I'm not The Queen anymore, I better get right to it.

You remembered your own mothers yesterday. Now let's talk about some of our favorite moms in middle-grade books. One of the great things about middle-grade is that the families are often present and a huge part of the main character's story. While you may find a suspiciously high number of orphaned protagonists, the parents that are depicted usually have some winning qualities.

Do share. Who gets your middle-grade Mom of the Year Award?

P.S. For me: Molly Weasley, hands down. Her family loves her, the Burrow is so homey, she puts up with the twins...AND she's part of a rebellious order? Go Molly!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Raise your hand if your library has a middle-grade section

*stands on tiptoes* *peers around room* None of you. Right?

Let me tell you: this is a SERIOUS oversight.

Recently I went to a meeting at my library revolving around the teen section. One member mentioned reading Tunnels (by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams) and said that despite it was a "children's book", he still enjoyed it.

Here I said as politely as I could: "Isn't middle-grade an age category too?"

Like, when did young adult become the only cool kids' category to read? There is a TON of hype for YA out there in the book blogosphere, and there are a gazillion YA book blogs. But why is middle-grade labelled "children's" and deemed immature to read? And why isn't there a middle-grade section?

Okay. *takes deep breath* I'll stop ranting. But seriously, I remember when it was revolutionary because teen books were getting their own section. Let's start the middle-grade revolution, okay?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Winner of The Hot List Giveaway

Congratulations to Jess for winning the autographed copy of The Hot List by Hillary Homzie! Jess, I sent you an e-mail regarding collecting your prize, but please e-mail me at if you didn't get my message.

And, again, a big thanks to author Hillary Homzie for giving us such a great interview!

-Dawn Lairamore

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Overcoming Writer’s Block – Making the Word Count

I hear rumors that some people do not ever suffer from writer’s block. I also hear rumors that some people actually don’t like chocolate. Hah! For those of us who do battle writer’s block, frequently or infrequently, I’d like to share some ideas. One of the hardest parts of writing and attempting to get published is the mind game involved, the game of winning over the gremlins in your brain who sow doubt at every step.

When someone first starts writing, a common cause of writer’s block can be the fear that you will fail or that what you write will be terrible. The mind tricks you into thinking it’s better not to try because you are setting yourself up for a downfall. How do you overcome that? I found it was not to have a goal to write a polished, worthy-to-be-published manuscript. Too much pressure! I just had a goal to finish something, no matter how bad it turned out. What a great feeling it was the very first time I typed ‘the end’. If you make that your goal, you can remind yourself no one ever has to read it and that might ease some of the fear. And once the first is done, then you can think about revising it, or move on to something else, but having finished will silence a few of those vicious gremlins.

 So once you have that goal to just finish, whether it’s your first or your tenth, how do you actually manage to get words down? I have several different methods. If I’m really struggling, I just write dialogue, because that’s the easiest part of the story for me to imagine. Sometimes I’ll switch to writing a few paragraphs describing the setting, even though I know I won’t use most of it in the final story. Other times I’ll just write a laundry list of the action, more like stage directions. The important part for me is to actually get real words on the screen, because I can’t revise without anything to work with.

 Another thing I do is to set realistic goals and force myself to keep them, by not allowing myself to do anything else until I'm done. I don’t write quickly, so a maximum word count goal for me is one thousand words a day. On days when I know I will have very little time to make a goal, I lower the word count, sometimes down to as little as 250 words. Once I start writing, I often go beyond that, but the feeling of meeting one goal helps me go back to it the next day. Those 250 words may just be a description of what a character is wearing, or what they like to eat, or a bit of backstory. I don’t care. They are words.

Some people swear by a program called Write or Die. This is a much more drastic method to force yourself to write. As I understand it, you basically have to keep writing without pauses or else your work will disappear. That’s too much pressure for me and doesn’t fit the way I write, but every person has to find their own method. Anyone else have tips to share?
~ Dee Garretson

Monday, May 2, 2011

Who HASN'T Been Rejected?

We've all been there at some point. Feeling like there are only rejections cluttering your inbox? Thinking that you will never get an agent? Never get published? The journey can be very frustrating.

But sometimes hearing about other authors rejections who turned into famous, accomplished authors can help us feel better.

Judy Blume. She "received nothing but rejections" for two years. Judy Blume stated, " I would go to sleep at night feeling that I'd never be published. But I'd wake up in the morning convinced I would be. Each time I sent a story or book off to a publisher, I would sit down and begin something new. I was learning more with each effort. I was determined. Determination and hard work are as important as talent."  Who hasn't felt like this, right?

Meg Cabot. Who hasn't read THE PRINCESS DIARIES? It slipped through the hands of 17 publishers before finally being accepted for publication.

Stephen King. He received dozens of rejections for his first novel, CARRIE. He even recevied a rejection from a publisher that stated, "We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell."

William Golding, author of LORD OF THE FLIES. This book was rejected 20 times. One rejection from a publisher said, "an absurd and uninteresting fantasy."

Anne Frank. 16 publishers rejected her! One publisher said, "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level." Another said the book was scarcely worth reading.  Really??

J.K. Rowling. So, the first Harry Potter book was rejected by DOZENS of publishers. Big ones, including Penguin, HarperCollins and Bloomsbury. Guess how the book finally became published? A CEO’s eight-year old daughter begged her father to print the book.

John Grisham. His first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by a dozen publishers and 16 agents before breaking into print and launching his best-selling career.

EE Cummings. His first work, The Enormous Room, was rejected by 15 publishers. He eventually self-published the book which went on to become considered a masterpiece of modern poetry. And get this--he dedicated the book to the 15 publishers who rejected him. Nice!

Now, doesn't this make you feel a little better?

"The best revenge is massive success." Frank Sinatra