Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Box of Books!

Hello! It's a new book!

What’s better than this?

It’s a box of books, landing on my doorstep.

It’s fresh from the printer, so the books have that not-quite-dried-ink scent. 


What’s more, the books are free. 

Or at least they’re a hard-won & much appreciated provision of the author contract.

And like all books, they always look better in print than they do in the author’s wildest dreams.


Smells good.

Looks good.

And it’s free. 

Is there anything better than this?

Behold the comp copies of
World War I: An Interactive Adventure (Capstone Press)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Who is this man and what does he have to do with my newest book?

Story ideas come from all kinds of places. Recently the folks at Children’s Literature Network asked me to write a piece about my latest picture bookRiding to Washington (Sleeping Bear Press). The source of inspiration for that book was clear: I grew up hearing family stories about my father’s 1963 ride to Washington, D.C., to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Family stories and mementoes also inspired my newest book: World War I: An Interactive Adventure (Capstone). For this You-Choose book (in which readers choose a character and then have to choose that character’s next move), I had at least one clear source of inspiration in family stories.

My great uncle, Francis Dana Coman, served as an ambulance driver during World War I. He’s the direct inspiration for the story of Frank, a young American college student who wants to sign up with the American Field Service, a Paris-based group of Americans who volunteered to work with the French Army transporting wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals. AFS volunteers drove Model T’s fitted out to carry the wounded on stretchers. They faced danger in the form of stray mortar shells exploding, poison gas drifting from the battlefield, and trying to drive at night with the headlights off in a war zone.

Here’s one of the mementoes Uncle Dana brought back: a pre-printed postcard to be used by injured French and Belgian soldiers writing home. A quick translation reads:

Cross out the phrases that don’t apply. Add nothing more, aside from the date and your signature, or this card will be destroyed.
I’m fine.
I got a letter from you recently OR a long time ago.
I am wounded lightly OR pretty seriously.
I am a little OR pretty seriously ill.
I have been evacuated.
I am in a hospital.

It’s a real-life You-Choose adventure—one I’m relieved my great uncle never experienced first-hand. He survived the war, studied medicine, and went on to be the doctor on Rear-Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic Expedition of 1928-30, and president of the American Polar Society. (That explains the furry outfit above.)

Uncle Dana died on February 28, 1952, well before I was even born, but as with all great characters, he lives on in stories.

PHOTO CREDITS: Thank you to the Ohio State University Libraries Richard E. Byrd Papers, where I found Uncle Dana’s portrait. The French postcard is part of my collection.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Happy New Book Day!

The UPS truck approaches.

A man drops a package on the doorstep.

I’m thinking: More bike parts for my husband? That second-hand book about a dog I ordered?

But then I see it…A pile of paper, a book before it’s a book.

Printed pages, cut and folded. Sandwiched one inside the other to make a rough approximation of something I’ve been imagining for years.

We writers carry countless ideas around in our imaginations. Only some of those ideas take shape on paper. Fewer still are published.

So when that package of folded and gathered printed sheets arrives—and with it the hope that a bound book will soon follow—it’s a very special day.

Happy new book day!

I’m looking forward to seeing bound and jacketed copies of Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices sometime in March. But for now, the folded sheets will do.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My Batting Average Just Took a Nose-Dive

This morning the American Library Association announced the winners of the 2011 Youth Media Awards. So starting tomorrow, I’ll be discussing the winners (and losers) with students at the middle school where I work. Every year ahead of the award announcements, I make my own predictions (see previous posts). This year my batting average for selecting winners took a nose-dive…

Still, I see this as a positive: Now I’ve got a load of new titles to add to my “to-read” list.

Initial reactions? After the announcement of two (Did you hear the audience gasp when the presenter said there would be ONLY TWO?) honor titles, I was sure that the winner of the Newbery Award would be Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. When I talked about this title with students, it got a mixed response. But when I talked about it with other writers and avid readers of middle-grade fiction, it was uniformly praised.

That said, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, the actual winner of this year’s gold, is going to be much easier to booktalk with students. And the book trailer indicates the book (now at the top of my “to-read” list) has wide appeal, for both boys and girls.

While I haven’t heard of one honor title, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, I did predict that Inside Out & Back Again, an immigrant story by Thanhha Lai, had the perfect amount of empty space on its cover for a silver Newbery medal.

This year, it’s my only prediction that came true. I’m thrilled for this first-time author and I’m eager to pass this book on to students.

One other winner I’m really excited about: Larry Dane Brimner’s Sibert-Medal-Honor-Winner, Black & White. I picked up F&Gs at AASL because A) the design looked great B) the subject matter (Civil Rights) appealed to me and C) it’s a book edited by Carolyn Yoder, the editor of my next book Hope & Tears: Ellis Island Voices (due from Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills Press in March 2012).

Congratulations to Mr. Brimner, Ms. Yoder, and all the staff at Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills on this beautiful, note-worthy, award-winning book!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Final Award Predictions

Like many of you, I will be chained to my computer early Monday morning. At 7:45 Central Time or shortly thereafter.

Fortunately for me, my children with already be off on their school buses. And having gone through the process of getting them to the bus should be enough to pry open my eyes. 

Coffee helps.

What’s really going to help is the palpable suspense that always precedes announcement of the American Library Association’s youth media awards. This year, I’ve talked as always with the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at my school about the four top awards: Caldecott, Newbery, Printz, and Sibert. I’ve even given them my personal faves or “picks.”

So what’s the final word from my middle schoolers? Based on their reactions, Brian Selznick with be getting an early morning phone call for either a Caldecott or a Newbery or both. They loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and those who have read our sole copy of Wonderstruck love it too.

They’re ready to get on a waiting list to read the copies I’ll be ordering of Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (the localire connection doesn’t hurt) and Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai—two of my other Newbery picks.

Eighth grade boys are intrigued by A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, one of my two picks for the Printz. And the girls are not too shy to ask when they can check out my other choice: Big Crunch by Pete Hautman—“You know, Ms. Swain, that one about the romance.”

How They Croaked, by Georgia Bragg, also has a large fan-base, even though I don’t yet have a copy ready to check out. This might bode well for a Sibert award, except that kid-appeal hasn’t always added up to silver or gold medals in the past.

The only book not listed above that should surely get attention is Bluefish by Pat Schmatz. I haven’t yet found a successful way to “booktalk” this book to my middle schoolers, and yet I still have such a vivid picture in my mind of the characters. If staying power is any indicator, this book might find its way to a shiny medal.

Can’t wait till Monday…Can you?

PS: Although I risk putting a "date stamp" on my forehead, I should say that the two books in the photo are the very first Caldecott winners I received: The Snowy Day (1963) and Where the Wild Things Are (1964). 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Annoyed, Ignored, Enjoyed: The True Story of TRUE (…SORT OF)

Katherine Hannigan’s novel True (…sort of) really annoyed me at first. It’s the story of Delly, a girl who gets into all kinds of trouble. That’s not what annoyed me. Instead it’s the fact that Delly constantly makes up words.

Those who’ve read this blog before know that I’m not above trying to create a word out of whole cloth. (See localire.) However, I’ve only tried to make up one word in the past fifty years. Delly’s book comes with its own “Dellydictionary” of invented words. Too cute. Too coy. Too annoying.

I tried banishing True (…sort of) to the bottom of my “books to read” pile. It was easy enough to ignore the book for awhile. True (…sort of) doesn’t exactly demand to be read. It’s not a suspenseful thrill-ride that’s going to pull readers along in spite of themselves.

Although Delly is loud and troublesome, the novel is actually pretty quiet. If you’ve ever submitted a manuscript to an editor or agent and gotten it back, rejected, with the comment “It’s just too quiet,” then you know that this five letter word normally spells death to a story.

However, for all its quietness True (…sort of) was powerfully insistent, even while it sat on the bottom of a pile of books. Whenever I happened to look at the cover, I heard a question: “How many times over the last few years has a girl at the middle school where I work pulled Ida B off the shelf and confided—‘This is my favorite book!!!’?”

You don’t get that many 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to confide in a wizened library lady unless you’ve written one heck of a good book. So I knew Katherine Hannigan had to have hit a home run one with Ida B.

Was True (…sort of) another great book, once the reader got past dellylicious, chizzlehead, and bawlgram?

YES. Because the book kept asking me politely to read it, I finished it—and loved it. It may not be my favorite book of 2011, but it’s one I can recommend to lovers of Ida B. It’s even one that I can hand to readers not quite ready for the darkness of A Monster Calls (my pick for the Printz award) but ready for a story that successfully balances fun with realistic pain and suffering.

Monday, January 16, 2012

To celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I'm sharing a link to the fabulous website of the CHILDREN'S LITERATURE NETWORK and offering a free book...

If you are the first person to email me the answer to the following question (answer to be found at the CLN website), I'll send you a signed copy of my picture book RIDING TO WASHINGTON, beautifully illustrated by David Geister.

And the question is: Where did I find the inspiration for RIDING TO WASHINGTON?

Hint: You need only read the first two words of my article for BOOKSCOPE at CLN. But I hope you 'll read the whole story.

Have a great holiday, dedicated to a great man.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Mostly (Unsettling) True Story of Jack

I usually love one-room schools. For Book Links magazine, back in March 2005, I wrote an annotated bibliography of books taking place in one-roomers. While publicizing my Depression-era middle-grade novel Chig and the Second Spread, I did a tour of one-room schoolhouses, reading and signing the book—and snapping photos (like this one of the Marshall Center School in Cedar Falls, IA)—along the way.

For me, country schools evoke warm and cozy feelings. So it was a bit of a jolt to read Kelly Barnhill’s middle-grade novel The Mostly True Story of Jack. It’s set in small-town Iowa, and there’s on old country school on a rise at the edge of town, just as you’ll find all over Iowa. But children who go into this school never come out again.

Their souls are stolen and all memory of them among the living quickly fades away. It’s a deeply unsettling concept, this soul-sucking Iowa one-room school. And Barnhill does a good job of keeping the reader guessing and building suspense.

But will I add Jack to my list of favorite books in one-room school settings? Probably not. The story was a little too strange, too amorphous, and too unsettling to recommend to the students at my middle school.

However, Barnhill is a talented writer. She kept me turning the pages, and I’m no fan of magical realism. Not only that, she managed to show me how there might be a soul-sucking school in Iowa and how a boy named Jack could be brave enough to go down to the roots of the town’s awful magic and set those lost souls free.

FYI, If you remember my earlier post (Jan. 6, 2012) on localires, you'll know that The Mostly True Story of Jack, is part of a good localire diet, if one lives in the Twin Cities. And it's mostly tasty.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How is "Bluefish" like "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"?

Well, really, they’re not very much alike at all—even though I’d love to see Bluefish as a movie with songs by Leonard Cohen. However, both the middle-grade novel by Wisconsin author Pat Schmatz and the 1971 movie by Robert Altman make excellent use of the “telling detail.”

For those of you who don’t belong to a writing critique group, the “telling detail” is the incident or detail that, while small in itself, gives readers volumes of insight into a character. 

In McCabe & Mrs. Miller when the two main characters first meet in a rough frontier town, Mrs. Miller sits down and eats some fried eggs.

Sounds pretty mundane, right? But on camera, Mrs. Miller (as played by Julie Christie) carries her hunger in every fiber of her body. She eats much as a wolf might eat after weeks of poor kills. In the dim lamplight, she guards her plate while McCabe wordlessly watches her devour every last scrap.

Fast-forward to the Midwest in the early 2000s. Travis is new at school. He faces the usual dilemma of no one to sit with at lunch and decides to go for the corner, facing the wall. Not long into his solitary tray-full, Travis is joined by Vida (“My public calls me Velveeta.”).

Schmatz presents the telling details this way:

She tore open a packet of ketchup and drew a smiley face on her burger. Then she opened a mustard and added yellow eyebrows and a mustache.
‘So what’s your story?’ she asked.

By the time we get to dessert, we know Velveeta: 

"You going to eat that cookie?" She reached across to Travis’s tray and took his cookie and held it up in the air, a hostage.

Many pages later, when we see Velveeta ignoring her government-sponsored free & reduced lunch, we know she’s hit rock-bottom. Travis, a true friend, gives her sadness the room it needs: 

[He] followed, careful not to crowd her. She threw her whole lunch in the trash. Her pizza lay upside down on top of the other garbage.

That’s a telling detail—and in this case, it was just enough to make me cry. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Of Frindles and Localires

Who wasn’t wanted to create a new word—especially after reading Andrew Clements’s novel Frindle? If you’re not familiar with the book, here’s the concept: a boy decides to try to create a new word for a familiar object, mostly just to annoy his teacher (although it goes deeper than that by the end of the book). He enlists his friends in an effort to get everyone in his town to call pens (the ubiquitous ballpoint) frindles. And it works. Simply by force of effort—always asking for frindles at the office supply store, for example—he gets his whole town using a new word.

One reason this middle-grade novel is so appealing is that is seems, just possibly, plausible. Really, couldn’t any kid turn a lowly pen into a frindle? Recently, I went out on a limb with my own creation: the localire.

What’s a localire? Well, if a locavore is someone who tries to eat foods produced in the local area, then a localire is someone who tries to read locally written books. (Lire, from French, looked way better than leer, from Spanish…And I don’t know Latin.)

The last few years have been great for YA and middle grade books written in my area—the Minnesota-Wisconsin nexus. I wanted to share the news at my middle school library. So during recent visits with seventh and eighth graders, I talked first about frindles. Then I moved on to locavores. (After all, it was the 2007 Oxford University Press Word of the Year, having been coined by four women in the San Francisco Bay area two years prior.) From locavores it was an easy jump to localires.

And then all I had to do was pull out some recent titles:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (Western Wisconsin)
Bluefish by Pat Schmatz (Central Wisconsin, but Minneapolis before that)
Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell (suburbs)
Unforgettable by Loretta Ellsworth (suburbs)
The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman (living “bi-coastally” in Wisconsin and Minnesota)
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (Minneapolis)
Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor (suburbs)
The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo (Minneapolis)
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt (St. Paul)
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Duluth)
El Lector by William Durbin (Boundary Waters Canoe Area)

If I’d spread my localire radius into Iowa, I could have brought out True (…sort of) by Katherine Hannigan. You get the idea.

A person in the Minnesota-Western Wisconsin area could be a localire, reading locally written fiction for years, and never be intellectually malnourished. Yum!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Six different reasons to recommend INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN

It’s rare that I read a book and immediately know how to recommend it to multiple readers. Whether it wins a Newbery or not (and it should get a silver medal at least), Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is one of those rare books.

Here are just the top six reasons to recommend this first novel about a young girl and her family fleeing their native Vietnam for Alabama during the Vietnam War:

1.     It’s a novel in verse that is an easier-than-usual read for kids who have a hard time getting into books with big, uninterrupted blocks of type.

2.     It’s about a war, so I can recommend it to my “we only read books about wars, weapons, or cars” library customers. (Wonder if I’m talking about sixth-grade boys? Well, you’re a good guesser.)

3.     It’s a moving story written from an outsider’s perspective. “White hair on a pink boy. / Honey hair with orange ribbons on see-through skin. / Hair with barrettes in all colors on bronze head. / I’m the only/ straight black hair / on olive skin.”

4.     And yet, it touches on universal experiences and themes, like classroom humiliation: “So this is / what dumb / feels like. / I hate, hate, hate it.”

5.     It’s historical fiction, yet it’s also a real story. As the author says, “Much of what happened to Hà, the main character in Inside Out & Back Again, also happened to me.” While “historical fiction” is usually a turn-off, “real-life” is a draw. That, plus “really well-written,” should help build a waiting list for this one at my library once I put in my post-Newbery and Printz announcement book order in late January.

6.     It’s the story of a journey. People like me, who get geeked out about immigration (my next book is Hope & Tears: Ellis Island Voices), will respond to the immigration story that lies at the heart of Inside Out & Back Again. History teachers will like it too. The reading teacher at my school, who annually pulls together a pile of “journey” books for seventh graders to read, will be thrilled to have this story to add.

So will any reader who’s ever traveled far.