Friday, November 29, 2013


Would you go to a book signing if the author handed out free cookies?  I would.  I’d drive an hour for free cookies. I’d endure sleet, snow, possibly a tornado, as long as it was off in the distance.  When a friend of mine told me she went to a book signing for a mystery writer and the author handed out homemade cookies to everyone in the bookstore, I was deeply impressed by the author’s promotional savvy, along with her obvious baking skills.  This novelist could make a mean chocolate chip cookie and she used her strengths.  She merged them.  It dawned on me that in order to promote a book you must be just as creative as you would be when writing a story.  But it’s a different kind of creativity.  You must tap into your other strengths and passions.  It doesn’t matter what you don’t do well.  (I’m not the world’s greatest Facebook contributor.)  But what do you excel at?  For me, along with writing children’s books, I take a lot of dance classes, jazz and hip hop.  I’ve developed a knack for moving like a robot.  So I began to create a new persona for myself that kids might get a kick out of.  James Mihaley, the world’s first robot author.  I called myself The JimBot!

Here's an image of me feeding a deer created by a brilliant artist named Austin Jones.

Here’s a baby photo.

All this began because someone told me about a writer who baked cookies.  It’s amazing what a good cookie can do to you.  

Here’s a photo of me with my mother.

I live in Los Angeles, have some friends in the film business and decided to make a movie about it.  Is ‘You Can’t Have My Planet But Take My Brother, Please’ the first book in history written by a robot?  Is Macmillan secretly hiring robots to write MG novels? This is not a thirty second trailer but an actual six-minute short film.   It was directed by one of the guys who edited Elysium, the Matt Damon Sci-Fi thriller that just came out.  Some of the best footage in our little movie was shot by a cameraman who worked on ‘Breaking Bad’.  We made the film for $1.98 but because there were so many talented people involved it’s quite remarkable.

Here’s the link below for JIMBOT, THE MOVIE on YouTube.  I hope you enjoy it!  God bless cookies.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

SUPPORT AND AWARDS: The Sustainable Arts Foundation awards writers and artists who have kids by Eden Unger Bowditch

Ever have a deadline from your publisher but your child is cutting a tooth and you’ve been up all night? Ever have an idea you must get down before you forget it but your kids need wiping right now… so you forget? For any of us out there, balancing a family and a career as an artist (writer, illustrator, painter, sculptor…) is a challenge. As students, before families, the balance was different. Yes, we had classes, but there were far fewer conflicts preventing us from focusing on our art. When there were no greater responsibilities than being in class and we could be all about living life on the edge, staying up all night writing or painting, hanging out with like-minded artists, being spontaneous and engaged. But with families and children, there is much more to life than making art that doesn’t include fingerpaints.

When The Atomic Weight of Secrets… came out, I was living with my family in Cairo, in a revolution, in graduate school, and raising three children. It was a challenge. It was then that I discovered The Sustainable Arts Foundation.

The Sustainable Arts Foundation is an organization that provides awards for artists and writers who are trying to balance family and art. They offer two awards- one for established artists and one for new artists. I was honoured with an ‘award of promise’ when my first book came out. Since then, they have been incredibly supportive, staying in touch and continuing to be available. The organization, too, offers the opportunity for former participants to help as jury to new applicants. The Sustainable Arts Foundation is truly there to help make the arts a living thing.

You can see what they do here: Sustainable Arts Foundation

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

C.S. Lewis and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, by: Marissa Burt

I'm writing this post on Friday, November 22, which marks fifty years after C.S. Lewis' death.  In the Anglican tradition, today is his feast day, and tonight some friends and I will gather around soup and cider to read aloud favorite passages from his books.  My selections come mostly from his space trilogy and non-fiction books, but I love hearing what captures other readers' imagination.  Inevitably, Lewis' well known middle-grade series, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, will feature prominently.

If you haven't joined Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy on their fantastical adventures, it's time you did.  A tromp through Narnia feels almost a rite of passage for children, and I have yet to meet a reader - child or adult - who, upon completion of the books, didn't wonder wistfully whether they might stumble across a portal to adventure in an otherworld.  So I thought to put up today's post and invite you, Mayhem readers, to comment about your experience with Narnia as a middle-grade reader.  Do you remember your reaction?  What about teachers and librarians?  Do you think today's readers are still drawn to the magic of Narnia?

And for the writers among us, I thought to share some of Lewis' no-nonsense writing advice found in his LETTERS TO CHILDREN.  (If you haven't read this slim volume, it's great fun, as it includes reprints of his replies to fan letters, some of which include illustrations).  Someone must have asked him for writing tips, and he responds:

"What really matters is: -

1.  Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.

2.  Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one.  Don't implement promises, but keep them.

3.  Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do.  If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."

4.  In writing.  Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing.  I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified.  Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description.  You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers "Please will you do my job for me."

5.  Don't use words too big for the subject.  Don't say "infinitely" when you mean" very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."

Much more has and could be said about Lewis and his contribution to literature, but for now I'll conclude by expressing my gratitude, because his writing has nourished my imagination and spirit in profound ways.  Cheers.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Percy Jackson is probably the most famous dyslexic character in middle grade fiction, inspired by Rick Riordan’s own dyslexic son. Wanting to engage his son with books and capitalize on his interest in Greek myths, Riordan created a world in which dyslexia was not a disability—it was a side effect of being a demigod. What's more, the things that are a hindrance in the classroom become some of Percy’s most valuable assets when battling hydras and Titans.

Seeing characters like Percy and his demigod friends turn their challenges into real advantages as they save the world is incredibly powerful for other kids with similar struggles. But not all kids are epic fantasy types, and Percy Jackson isn’t the only dyslexic in middle grade. I wanted to highlight a few of my favorites.

CLOSE TO FAMOUS – This beautiful contemporary novel introduced me to Newbery Honor winner Joan Bauer, and now I’m itching to get my hands on everything she’s ever written. Her protagonist Foster can barely read, but she’s a whiz in the kitchen. When she and her mother flee an abusive boyfriend and land in a quirky small town, Foster’s baking skills help her make friends. Her seriously delicious treats even help her befriend a reclusive Hollywood movie star, who helps Harper learn to read while Harper teaches her a thing or two as well.

MAY B – Written by Project Mayhem contributor Caroline Starr Rose, MAY B is a verse novel about May, who struggles to teach herself to read while trapped alone by a blizzard on the American frontier. Caroline, whose own nephew is dyslexic, has received very moving feedback from readers who felt the book spoke directly to them. One said, “It was as if she were writing right into the places of my heart where those accusations of being careless and not good enough had settled. And she whispered that like May, I could overcome. I could hope for the good things even when they are hard. Thank you, Caroline. Thank you, May.”

ELEVEN – Written by Newbery Honor-winning author Patricia Reilly Giff, ELEVEN is an engrossing mystery about Sam, an eleven year old with dyslexia who must make friends with a new girl so she can help him solve the mystery of his own abduction. This book beautifully balances a story about friendship and family with a suspenseful mystery.

The HANK ZIPZER series – Written by Henry Winkler (that’s right, the Fonz), along with SCBWI executive director Lin Oliver, this lower middle grade series features a character based on Winkler himself as a boy growing up with dyslexia. Winkler says, “When I was growing up in New York City, no one knew what dyslexia was. I was called stupid and lazy…I spent most of my time covering up the fact that reading, writing, spelling, math, science—actually, every subject but lunch—was really, really difficult for me.” There are seventeen books in this funny, fast-paced series.

MY NAME IS BRAIN BRIAN – This straight-forward contemporary novel is written by dyslexic author Jeanne Betancourt, who points out on her website that Gustav Flaubert, W.B. Yeats, Hans Christian Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Agatha Christie were all dyslexic. Of all the books listed, this book deals the most directly with the issue, showing the journey of a boy’s diagnosis with dyslexia. Betancourt also writes a chapter book series called PONY PALS, which features a dyslexic main character.

We’re all about middle grade here at Project Mayhem, but I would also like to give honorable mention to the brilliant young adult novel MAGGOT MOON by UK author Sally Gardner, who is dyslexic herself, and the poignant and wonderful picture books THANK YOU, MR. FALKER and THE ART OF MISS CHEW, which both show Patricia Polacco’s journey through dyslexia as a child.

Do you know of other great middle grade books that feature characters with dyslexia? Or books that show some other perceived disability in a new light? I’d love to hear about them!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Hooking the hard-to-hook: Part Two

Last month I did a post on using The Bluford Series as a way to connect with struggling and reluctant readers. Another great resource I’ve utilized over the years to hook the hard-to-hook is Orca Soundings published by Orca Book Publishers.

Orca Soundings is a collection of about fifty high interest novels written between the second and fifth grade level. There are mystery, romance, adventure, survival and contemporary stories.

When I taught junior high and high school, these books were part of my classroom library. My struggling readers were attracted by the covers and the manageable length of the stories. Some of my students went on to read higher level trade books after getting their start with Orca Soundings.

Orca Soundings has received positive reviews from the big reviewers:

"Soundings...use simple vocabulary and short sentences combined with lots of authentic dialogue and engrossing subject matter, making them ideal for high-interest, low-reading-level collections. The authors are not afraid of controversial language or material, which is in large part the secret of the series' appeal. Open endings lend to discussion and further exploration. These little novels with their colorful covers are sure to be a hit."VOYA

"With their Dr. Phil talk-show themes, angst-driven protagonists, and short texts, these slick novels will appeal to reluctant readers who want fast-paced escapist reads." - School Library Journal

"[The Soundings have] interesting and fast paced plots...At a reading level of grade 4 or lower and generally being just over a hundred pages in length, these books will have students feeling a lot less intimidated than if they were given The Grapes of Wrath." - Dwayne Jeffery, Reaching Reluctant Readers (aka Books for Boys)” in The Alan Review 

It’s another great resource to have when trying to hook the hard-to-hook.

Have you read any Orca Soundings books? What other books have you used when trying to hook the hard-to-hook?

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Recurring events: when to tell and when to show, by Yahong Chi

As a reviewer, I often get offered choices of books to review by my review editor, and often these are themed books which my editor knows I have a bit of expertise in. As a result, I identify certain trends in these novels since they follow similar structures. One such area is horseback riding: I've been a rider for seven years, and so my editor offers me first go at the equestrian-themed books for review. Inevitably in these novels, our protagonist will either attend a horse show, participate in a lesson or go hacking (a trail ride). Sometimes, these events happen multiple times.

Now, if the author described every single one of these occurrences, the repetition would just about kill any momentum the story had been building up to that point. Unless the events all have massive emotional potential to develop throughout, reading about the same actions would become tiresome and flavourless.

Therefore, it's an important author decision to choose which events deserve to be fully shown and which should be summarized in context. A good rule of thumb is to open with an important, well-developed event to ground the reader in the rituals and routines that go into the specific event. For example, in an equestrian novel, the story could open with a show jumping sequence that takes the reader along with the protagonist as she goes from warm-up with her horse to walking the course to entering the ring to the actual jumping to her finish and emotional reflection on her performance. Later on, future jumping shows need not be shown in their entirety because the reader is aware of how the expected routine should go.

This holds true for most, if not all, types of recurring events: soccer games, book club meetings, coding competitions. Even school can become too repetitive—if you're constantly using math class to show your protagonist's struggles in school, go to extra lengths to make sure these classes aren't too similar in structure and have enough variation in terms of character motivation, conflict and emotion so as to avoid being repetitive.

Does that mean later events aren't as important? Not at all. What you're doing then is establishing the consequences of the event. Even though you didn't show the event in real-time, it still happened, and thus you'll be dealing with the physical (e.g. exhausted, wobbly-legged) and emotional (e.g. euphoric, dejected) outcomes. It's only the actual happenings that are summarized; you'll still be taking your character through the physical and emotional ramifications, like dominoes. (Susan Dennard over at Publishing Crawl has a great post on the domino effect!)

And for an ending with good punch, a fully-developed scene featuring an event similar to the beginning's works wonderfully. Not only is this excellent story-telling symmetry, it also provides you with the opportunity to bring your characters' growth and development arcs to a wholesome close, starting with the simple contrast between your beginning and your ending. With a well-crafted ending that resonates with your story's beginning, you'll be that much closer to creating that fulfilling sense of closure that marks a truly good book.

What do you think? What guidelines do you follow when it comes to recurring events?


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hey Writer, What Are Your Strengths?

The other day at my critique group, one of my writer friends brought in an article published in The Rumpus by poet David Biespiel. It's a long article, but worth the time. After all, it's titled "Follow Your Strengths, Manage Your Weaknesses and Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys." FULL TEXT HERE.

Broadly summarizing, David Biespel argues that in workshops and critique groups we tend to focus on trying to improve each other's weaknesses, in the process paying hardly any attention to each other's strengths (I mean, they're strengths, so they're working, right?), and end up by reinforcing our writer's negative self-talk. As an example, he tells the story of his son's report card. His son came home with 3 As, 1 B, 1 D,and an F. As Biespel puts it "Which grades do you suppose we discussed for an hour? Of course! We talked about how to bring his weak grades up to the strong grades, the A’s. We talked about his need for improvement. We talked about: you can do better if you work harder. We talked about how to make his weakest results equal to his strongest results. We did not talk about the A’s except to say, don’t let them slip." (As the father of a high school junior, I totally empathize, Mr. Biespel.)

Biespel goes on to give many examples, including the example of himself, of people who fixated on trying to improve their weaknesses to the ultimate detriment of their strengths. What we really all should be doing is working on making our strengths even stronger which will, Biespel argues, help us to manage our weaknesses. Here's Biespel again:

You’ve got strengths and you’ve got weaknesses. What I want to say to you is, follow the strengths and manage the weaknesses. Better yet, get assistance with your weaknesses, but for your strengths…make that the study of your life. 
For example, you’re not good at dialogue. Be like the shoemaker who is great at making shoes but not great at marketing or collecting bills. He hires a salesman, a marketing person. You should “hire” a dialogue guy. Better yet, befriend one! Show him your piece and say, “don’t worry about the plot or the imagery. I’m good at that already.” Just read for dialogue. Help me manage that. Help me fix that. So I can invest more of my time developing my talent for plot and description (which I love doing and enjoy more!)—and less time focused on a weakness that, in the end, risks making me feel bad about my writing, and perhaps not writing at all.

One of the exercises Biespel asks each writer to do is list his or her strengths. "I want to ask you to consider your talents as a writer, honestly, without self-deprecation or self-hatred. But with clear assessment. In a moment I want you to scribble down two of your strengths as a writer and two of your weaknesses."

My critique group is planning to do this exercise next time we meet. It will be interesting seeing if people's self-assessments agree with the assessment of the group. If you are struggling with self-confidence in your writing--and my contention is that each of us struggles with self-doubt at some stage or another--I recommend reading David Biespel's article and doing the exercise above. Manage your weaknesses, but above all follow your strengths!

David Biespel
David Biespel is a poet and the founder of the Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon.

Monday, November 18, 2013

First Page and Cover Analysis of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, by Matthew MacNish

Technically, the title of this book is actually The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which is a great, if somewhat long title, but just wouldn't fit as a post title.

Anyway, today I would like to take a look at the fascinating cover and first page of a very interesting middle grade novel. The cover, with the original illustration by Ana Juan, is gorgeous enough in its own right, but as a writer, it's the blurbs that really struck me when I first picked up this book.

The front cover is blurbed by Neil Gaiman, and that, of course, is impressive enough, but turn the book over, and you'll see none other than Tamora Pierce and Holly Black recommending the tale inside. But it doesn't stop there. Crack the book open, and take a peek at the inside jacket flap, and you'll see yet another blurb touting the originality of this story, this one from none other than Peter S. Beagle, who in case you don't recall, wrote this little book called The Last Unicorn.

So anyway, I guess needless to say, my point is that as covers go, I was definitely impressed the moment this book showed up at my house (I won it and its sequel on Facebook, from Liz Szabla, who is the editor at Feiwel and Friends who published the book). With a title as inventive as this book has, I'm not sure it needed so many great blurbs to sell me on its story, but it couldn't have hurt, right?

Now, let's talk about the first page:

Beginning with another lovely drawing, the first chapter is titled Exeunt on a Leopard. What a great title, right? Sure, I had to look the word Exeunt up, but once I knew it was a stage direction, I was in love. From there, we have the chapter sub-title/heading: In Which a Girl Named September Is Spirited Off by Means of a Leopard, Learns the Rules of Fairyland, and Solves a Puzzle.

Well, as you can imagine, from there on out, I was in. I'm actually still reading this novel, and while I'll admit it can be occasionally a bit heavy handed in its verbosity, it's a fantastic tale, filled with some of the most inventive characters and imaginative circumstances I've ever encountered in a book. Certainly highly recommended, in case the cover, blurbs, and first page weren't enough to pique your interest.

Have you heard of this book? If not, how much of a role do covers and blurbs and such play in your decision to read a particular book?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Books and Rivers

"Swift or smooth, broad as the Hudson or narrow enough to scrape your gunwales, every river is a world of its own, unique in pattern and personality. Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road."
~ Bob Marshall

Click to view

The same is true for books. Every book we read is unique, full of its own story and people and worlds. Picture books, chapter books, 700 page books... they all create a new place for the reader to explore.

I cry every time I read Pink & Say or Faithful Elephants, two picture books that pack the painful punch of reality as well as any novel. I think I've been scarred for life by James Patterson's Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas, yet I recommend it to everyone I know - it's beautiful and powerful and oh-so-heart-wrenching.

Without fail, Rick Riordan can make me spit my coffee. And I still laugh when I think of his line about Grover "hauling goat tail" - ha ha ha!

Now, imagine Bob Marshall's quote like this:
Swift or smooth, broad as the Hudson or narrow enough to scrape your gunwales, every book is a world of its own, unique in pattern and personality. Each page of a book will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.

Each book is a river. Enjoy the ride!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Whose Story Is It Anyway? Keeping The Kids In The Spotlight

            Middle-grade readers, whether they realize it or not, approach their books, their stories, like a 1920’s speakeasy.
            Knock, knock.
            A small panel slides open at the four-foot level.
            “What’s the password?”
            “Wedgie underwear fart soda skateboard.”
            The door swings open and the middle-grade reader is ushered inside.
            “Were you followed?”
            “No. No, I don’t think so.”
            “No adults?”
            “I didn’t see any…”
            Children read fiction to escape both from the perceived doldrums of their everyday lives and from the shackles of parent and teacher restraint. The last thing they want interfering in their fictional escape is the intrusion of another gatekeeper, at least not in the sense of anyone in anyway driving the story.
            Gasp, why I never…

            It’s true. My 10-year-old is already negotiating ages for certain video game and movie privileges. We’re currently scheduling tentative talks for five years from now. He can’t wait to be an adult so that he can make his own decisions.
            Children don’t like to be told what to do in real life and certainly not in their fiction. Children want to read about other children in the role of the protagonist, as the hero. In this sense they can both relate, and inject themselves into the story.
            Roald Dahl said that children were “engaged in a battle with a world of adults who were constantly telling them what to do.”
            In other words, the middle-grade writer is best served by removing adults from the story as much as possible or, at the very least, removing them from any possible beneficial role. But that’s not realistic…what business does a bunch of fourth or fifth graders have running around town fighting mutant zombie robot clowns without parental supervision? It’s fiction. It’s a story. Mutant zombie robot clowns.
            And while yes, we need adults in the story, particularly in the role of antagonist, foil, or secondary, supporting character (and Dahl did some fabulously hysterical satires of adults, a post I intend to pursue later), we have an obligation to make sure they do not try and steer the ship. This is not their story. This is the middle-grade protagonist’s story.

So, who is the biggest culprit? The biggest threat to taking over the story? Parents. Parents get in the way and muddle everything up. Parents want to be all, “Oh, look at me, I’m rational and logical and I know how to stop these mutant zombie robot clowns.”
            Dude, no you don’t. First of all, you don’t even believe the kids. Second of all, you refuse to let them smear themselves in butter (something mutant zombie robot clowns are allergic to) because it will drip on the carpet and smear on the walls. And third of all, your answer is not to sneak into their secret lair and destroy the gummy brain, but to call the police. Problem solved, right? NO! The police chief is their leader. Thanks, Dad. Your logical, responsible approach just doomed us all to robot zombie servitude. Let the kids handle this…

            So, what do we do with the parents? Remove them from the picture, either through deadly or creative means.
            This is nothing new. Perhaps the trick now is not in their actual removal, but how creatively and/or quickly you can do it. Clear the stage for the middle-grade protagonist(s).

            In The Witches, Roald Dahl wastes no time in removing the parents. He strikes them from the story in the first chapter (page 13 to be exact).
            “…while my father and mother and I were driving in icy weather just north of Oslo, that our car skidded off the road and went tumbling down into a rocky ravine. My parents were killed.”

            In James and the Giant Peach, Dahl tells us that James is orphaned after an errant, and angry, rhinoceros gobbles his parents up. Ok, that’s creative…

            In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire children are orphaned on page eight:
            “Your parents … have perished in a terrible fire.”
             And as if that were not clear enough, Mr. Poe continues:
            “They perished,” Mr. Poe said, “in a fire that destroyed the entire house. I’m very, very sorry to tell you this, my dears.”
            To make it painfully clear, and to remove any doubt that the Baudelaire children are indeed on their own, Snicket writes:
            “Perished,” Mr. Poe said, “means killed.”
            Not only does this put the orphans on the road to being the heroes of their own adventure, but it also creates the wonderfully awful antagonist, Count Olaf.

            And if car accidents and fires were not enough, Neil Gaiman, in The Graveyard Book, sets hand to purpose with the first line:
            “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
            On page five, we read, “The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.”
            Bod’s parents are gone and he finds himself the focus of the story. If a Newbery Award-winning author says it’s ok to kill off the parents, it certainly is worth considering this practice as allowable, acceptable even.

            Ultimately, whether you choose to subject your fictional parents to auto accident, errant rhino, fire, knife, or other method of removal from the immediate picture, one things is certain: adults must not stand in the way of the child protagonist, nor be allowed to solve their problems.
            Now go write those middle-grade stories. Give your protagonists the stage without being stepped on by adults.

            Otherwise we’re just mutant zombie robot clown bait.