Why Kid Lit?

Sometimes I get asked, ‘why write kid lit?’ The short answer is probably ‘why not?’ The long answer is a little more complex…

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My 10th birthday cake – perfect for a book lover

This week I renewed my annual membership to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international non-profit organization for authors and illustrators producing work for children and teens. I joined the SCBWI in 2013, just after we moved to the USA. I began writing ‘for real’ a year before that, and knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write stories for young people.

I consider myself primarily a middle grade* and YA* author. Occasionally I write short stories that fall under ‘adult fiction’, too, like my tale In Plain Sight, in the Aliens – The Truth Is Coming anthology, or Fool’s Quest, in Journeys. Sometimes it’s fun to write about certain themes without stopping to think ‘would I let my kids read this?’ (The answer is probably yes – I’m pretty liberal when it comes to reading. I tend to be of the ‘if you’re interested and think you can handle it, go ahead’ school of parenting.) When it comes to novels, however, all my work so far has been within the realm of kid lit.

I moved from England to Brazil when I was eight, brand new set of Narnia books in my hand luggage as my going away gift. With no handy English-language bookstores or libraries in those pre-ebook and pre-Amazon times, I slowly built my own shelf collection, which I read obsessively over and over in my preteen years. My little personal library had plenty of classic children’s authors like Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as the ubiquitous Enid Blyton books all us 70s British kids devoured.

In my teens, I explored my parents’ bookshelves, reading other classics like Bradbury, Austen, Asimov, Brontë, and Tolkien, besides my mother’s large collection of Agatha Christie novels. But I always had time for my childhood favorites, and there was nothing quite like the beauty of those kid lit lovelies. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “one day I’ll do this too.”

A good children’s story has a streamlined elegance to it, very different from the longer, more intricate plot lines that adult novels by necessity demand. The sheer beauty of something like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web is a gift that endures. What makes children’s books so special? Perhaps it’s due to the limits on word count/novel size, forcing authors to pare their stories down to the absolute essence. Or maybe the target readership (especially in the case of middle grade fiction) demands not a simplification (children have proved over and over again to be able to handle far more complexity than we give them credit for), but a directness that brings writers very quickly to the core of a tale.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always loved kid lit in all its shapes and forms. Young people today have a tremendous amount of choice in reading matter, with hundreds (probably more like thousands) of new books published each year. It’s an exciting and invigorating field to work in, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

*A loose definition: Middle Grade – fiction for 8-12 year olds/ Young Adult (YA) – fiction for teens.

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From the 2017 New England SCBWI conference

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

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This one is special. This one is really special. It’s been on my mind since I read it a while back, and honestly? I can’t stop shouting about it. With a second tale in the Wayward Children universe about to hit the bookstores, this is the perfect moment to catch up on this fantastic award-winning novella by Seanan McGuire.

So, what’s so great about Every Heart a Doorway? To start with, the premise is fabulous (especially for those of us who grew up reading Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland, and all the other portal fantasies out there): what happens to the children who find the gateways from our world into other places when their part in the story is over? When the book ends, and these children go tumbling back to their own world, what then?

That not all these world-hopping travellers would be happy to return makes a lot of sense. That many of them might feel lost, estranged in the world they were born to, their stories dismissed as flights of fancy or hallucinations of a troubled mind, is a leap of logic. For the lucky ones among them, this might mean an invitation to study at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children – outwardly a school dedicated to rehabilitating troubled teens, but in fact a safe haven for travellers like Miss West herself, who long for nothing more than to return to the strange lands they journeyed to.

New girl Nancy is one of these children who have returned. She’s not happy about it, but at least in Eleanor West’s school she’s surrounded by others who understand her yearning for the magical land she lost. But when tragedy strikes shortly after Nancy’s arrival, she and her fellow students have to face the length and depth a person would go to in order to get to their deepest desire.

Every Heart a Doorway is a beautifully layered tale. We have, at surface level, a murder mystery set in a school. We have Nancy’s story, of trying and failing to fit in. And then we have wider ripples that touch many of her fellow students: the struggle to hold onto a newly acquired identity that does not match the neat little box that family and society has attempted to fit them into.

This is the heart of the novella – identity. Finding out who you truly are, despite what those you grew up with might say, and learning to reshape yourself and the world around you to fit this new identity, even if those who are supposed to love you best refuse to accept it. The child who would rather be a scientist than a princess; the assexual child who keeps getting pressured to date; the child who refuses the serious, responsible role she’s given; the transgender child. All those who keep getting forced into the wrong skin, so to speak, until they travel to a different world and have a chance to find out who they really want to be.

This is a truly lovely story of discovery, and refusal to submit, and the search for acceptance. It’s dark and unsettling at times, but that’s as should be, and it’s definitely going on my list of favorites. I can’t wait for the next book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones!

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones will be released by Tor.com on June 13th, 2017.

Have Book, Will Read #14

After a ridiculously long hiatus, I’m back with more mini reviews. Have Book, Will Read has been on hold for way too long, and I figured it was time to dust it off and let it out of the dark, dismal e-basement its been hiding in. I’ve read a lot of great fiction since my last book update, and here are a few of the highlights.

Recent Reads: A little bit of this, a little bit of that… A little bit of everything, really.

First off, something I don’t read a lot of nowadays, though I’ve definitely read my share in the past: romance. Suzanne Jackson’s The Beguiler is a fantasy story, set in a world and time reminiscent of our Regency period. Told in Jackson’s clean and elegant prose, this is the tale of Rebecca Vasteer, a young witch living in a society that has outlawed witchcraft. On the run from both the town marshals and the feared Rangers, Rebecca is saved by a Witch Trader with reasons of his own to stay out of the Rangers’ way.

This isn’t a light and summery love story. Jackson’s world is rich and dark, filled with tales of witch magic and the brutal Ranger skills that aim to contain that power. The story is deliciously unpredictable – every time you think you have the plot figured out, it twists away once again, keeping you guessing every step of the way.

I finally got around to reading the last book in Jo Zebedee’s terrific Inheritance Trilogy. The third and last volume, Abendau’s Legacy, does a great job of tying up Kare Varnon’s epic story in a wonderfully realistic manner that’s neither too neat nor too pretty. This is the final confrontation in a war that has lasted since before Kare’s birth, and what a ride it is!

As always, one of Zebedee’s strong points is that she does a great job of showing us the consequences of her characters’ actions, crafting tales with just enough of a dark underbelly to please both ‘grimdark’ fans and those who like a lighter touch to their space opera.

I’d read the first two volumes of Claudia Gray’s YA Firebird series last year, and been blown away by this exciting tale of multiverse hopping and true love. The concluding book, A Million Worlds With You, hits the ground running after the cliffhanger she left us with in Ten Thousand Skies Above You.

Marguerite Caine and her allies across the multiverse have to stop the Triad Corporation before thousands of worlds are doomed to annihilation. But Marguerite is faced with additional challenges: an evil doppelganger from an alternate dimension, intent on her destruction; and the battle to keep her beloved Paul from completely falling apart after his soul was splintered and put together again.

An interesting – and challenging – read was Nik Abnett’s Savant. The first few pages are hard going: Abnett throws us straight into the deep end in her world, and its highly specific language and terms. But once I settled into her tale, I found I was fascinated by this story of love and devotion at a time where everything is highly compartmentalized, institutionalized, and methodical.

Savant is set in a future version of Earth where a living mind mesh cloaks the planet, defending it from alien invasion. When one of the ‘Actives’ that maintains the shield is compromised, global government races to stabilize the system. This is not an easy story, but it’s definitely one well-worth reading. You can read my SFF World interview with the author here.

For fantasy lovers in search of something a little more traditional, Exile by Martin Owton is a good bet. This first book in the Nandor Tales introduces young master swordsman Aron of Darien, an exile without a homeland, and with an oath of revenge to fulfill. Aron gets sidetracked into a quest to rescue the heir of Nandor, and soon finds himself in the thick of another land’s problems.

Duels, daring rescues, subterfuge, magic, and the (lovely but distracting) temptation of love. In Exile, Owton delivers a nicely polished tale, with all the classic elements that fans of epic fantasy will enjoy. The second volume, Nandor, is already out, and I look forward to continuing the story.

I need to mention a non-SFF ARC I read recently. Out in June 2017, Carrie Firestone’s The Unlikelies is a contemporary YA with a lovely, feel-good, summer vibe to it. This is the story of a group of high school kids who become friends at a Rotary Club ‘Home Grown Heroes’ lunch, and decide to put their summer vacation to good use with a series of ninja-style anonymous good deeds.

Firestone’s novel deals skillfully with some pretty dark themes (bullying, heroin addiction), balancing them out with friendship, romance, and some incredibly funny moments. Her snappy dialogue shines throughout, as do her diverse and lovely characters.

Now Reading: Guts and Glory.

I’m currently in the middle of Snake Eyes, by Hillary Monahan. Part of the Gods and Monsters series by Abaddon Books, this is the story of Tanis, a lamia who gets tangled in a war between her own kind and the vengeful Gorgons. I was a little reluctant about this one at first, as I know of Monahan’s reputation as a horror writer, and I don’t really do horror. But – dark, bloody, and foul-mouthed as it is – this is more of an urban fantasy, and I’m finding it hard to put down. The pacing is relentless, and Monahan’s descriptions and dialogue have me straight out laughing aloud at times.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve also been dipping in and out of Journeys, a fantasy anthology by Woodbridge Press that has one of my own stories in it. With a stellar line-up of authors, this is a great read for fantasy fans – and not just because I’m in it. There’s a bit of everything, to please all tastes, and it’s been interesting seeing what directions my fellow authors have chosen to take.

To Read: There’s magic afoot…

I currently have a ridiculously long to-read list – and that’s just considering what’s already loaded on my Kindle, or sitting in paperback or hardback on my bookshelf. So here are just a couple that I can’t wait to start.

I’m a huge fan of Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus novels, and the last one left Alex in a really dark place. I’m part excited for and part dreading the new volume, Bound, because Jacka is a master at making his characters suffer. If you love urban fantasy, and haven’t tried Jacka, please do!

Another urban fantasy novel I recently picked up is the latest in Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series, Magic For Nothing. So far, McGuire has introduced us to Verity and her brother Alex. Now it’s time to meet the youngest Price sibling, Antimony. Ever since Book 3 in the series, when we switched from Verity’s story to Alex, I’ve been hoping for a closer look at the infamous ‘baby’ of the bunch, so I was delighted when I found out who the protagonist of Book 6 was going to be.

A quick shout out to Rick Riordan, whose latest novel, The Dark Prophecy (Trials of Apollo, Book 2), recently landed in the bookstores. I’m a absolute fan of Riordan’s work, and my kids know that their mother always gets first dibs on any new novel. I’m sorry, did you say ‘It’s a kids book’? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my unapologetic fangirling.

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I’ll get there, eventually!

NESCBWI 17: Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio

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This past weekend, April 21-23, some 700 kid lit authors, illustrators, and industry professionals got together in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the yearly Spring Conference of the New England region of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), which this year was named Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio.

This was my second time at this event, and it has definitely established itself as one of my favorite places to be. Not just because of the interesting panels, workshops, and keynote presentations, but because it tends to be a friendly, laid-back sort of thing, where everyone chats to everyone else, and new friends are made all the time. There is always lots of catching up to do with writer buddies I usually only see on social media, and time flies by all too quickly!

So, what were my highlights for 2017? To start with, this was my first time at a SCBWI event as a published author. I loved seeing Heart Blade up on the big screen with all the other attendee’s work, and it was great spotting it in the con bookstore.

This year, I attended several workshops on social media and marketing. Jess Keating encouraged us to brainstorm our platform with adjectives and images to get a feel for ourselves, and for the tone we want to set on social media. She urged us to think about who we are, rather than who we think we should be, and to remember: ‘you are the expert at being you’. Anika Denise suggested that an author platform is a stage where you connect with your audience, and reminded us that author platforms aren’t built in a day, nor should building them eclipse putting time and effort into the actual writing. For those who were unsure what to blog or tweet about, she suggested mining your book’s content for underlying themes you can dig into. Allison Moore showed us examples off her own Twitter feed, and reminded us (as did everyone lecturing about social media) that promoting your own book has to be something done in small and sporadic doses. To top it all off, Jen Malone gave us great tips on public speaking, and told us that “speakers who are real, honest and can share their passion have the greatest impact on their audience.”

One of my favorite workshops this year was Dana Meachen Rau on injecting characters with emotion, something I find my plot-focused brain often struggles with. She reminded us that plot elements are great, but without emotion, who cares? The plot provides the external story arc, but emotion provides the internal story arc, and becomes the engine that moves your character forward. When a reader reads a book, they go on the same emotional journey as the character, and it is this shared experience that makes a story unforgettable.

For a fun learning experience, Friday night brought Pitchapalooza, the now-traditional event hosted by The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Names were drawn, and contenders got to pitch their story for a minute, on the clock. Then a panel of agents and editors critiqued each attempt, explaining in a positive manner what worked, and what didn’t.

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The crowd at Pitchapalooza

There were three amazing keynote talks, by authors Barry Lyga and Jane Yolen, and author/illustrator Melissa Sweet, who had the prettiest PowerPoint presentation I’ve ever seen. Jane urged us to “listen to the work, not the fears”, a sentiment I think all writers can relate to on the dark days. On the writing the rainbow panel, Kevin Lewis reminded the audience that we should always endeavor to create environments in our work that ‘are as diverse as the world we live in.’

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Jane Yolen inspires us over breakfast

I headed home on Sunday happy and exhausted, bearing pages and pages of notes, a pile of business cards and bookmarks from people I want to keep in touch with, and a ton of fresh inspiration to give my work a much-needed boost. Thank you to all the hard-working volunteers at the NESCBWI for putting together a great event, and see you next year!

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Relaxing on Sunday evening with peppermint tea and Melissa Sweet’s biography of E.B. White

Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes

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Oh, hey! It’s another character naming post! (And here’s one I made earlier… *gestures like chef on cooking show*)

This time, it’s about naming difficulties I ran into while working on Heart Blade.

Changing a name after a first draft is done is always tricky. A new name can change a character in unexpected ways. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Here are three naming hurdles I came up against while revising my novel for my publisher.

1) Sometimes the character shifts and outgrows a name. Take Alex, who first emerged from my odd little writer brain as Brother Jerome. Jerome was originally supposed to be a sort of Old Master type character. The name was perfect at the time. He’s a vampire, almost 1000 years old, and he used to be a knight in the Crusades. But Jerome insisted on, well, not being Jerome. He’s perpetually eighteen years old, ruggedly handsome in a shaggy blond, broad-shouldered-from-sword-work sort of way. He’s covered in tattoos. And despite being an honest-to-goodness monk (though ‘recently’ ordained, I should add – only a couple of hundred years ago!), his penchant for wearing jeans, black tees, and an old pair of converse sneakers under his robes were a dead giveaway that I had the wrong name.

I renamed him Alexander of York and the poor guy got a whole new lease of immortal life.

2) Sometimes a character is too close to another writer’s character with the same name. I had this problem with Rose, née Lila. I have big plans for Rose in book 2! She’s a little edgy, and a little angry, with a lot of abandonment issues to work through. Her original name was Lila, which I loved. But then a couple of my critique partners had a Lyla in a co-authored story, and after a while their Lyla began bleeding into my Lila. They’re very different characters, but there are also a few similarities, and the name just stopped working. I needed my Lila to be 100% mine. So I ditched the name. It took me forever to find a new name I liked, one that showed her as she is in Heart Blade, but could be changed slightly by Rose herself to suit who she starts to become in book 2. I won’t tell you what she renames herself – you’ll have to wait for Night Blade for that. But I’m happy with Rose, and I’m glad she’s made the name her own.

3) Sometimes everyone just hates the name you pick! My main guy, Ash, was originally called Jimmy. It made sense to me: his full name in that first version was James Arthur Deacon III, after his father and grandfather. Jimmy matched the sweetness inside him. But although – interestingly enough – the guys who beta read the story for me were fine with the name, it got a resounding NO from all my female readers. This one took me a long while to puzzle out. I still wanted the family legacy thing to go on: Ash/Jimmy carries a pretty hefty family burden on his shoulders. So I decided to keep James Deacon and change his middle name. The men in his family would all have the same first and last names, but different middle names. The catch: it had to be a bible name. Ash’s family is descended from angels and they have an important role in policing the preternatural community. I went through a gazillion naming websites before I hit on Asher, a beautiful Old Testament name that just sounded right. (Kudos to my daughter, who suggested it in the first place.) I tried it out on a few female friends and relatives and everyone agreed it was a keeper. Jimmy was out – Ash was in.

I love the three new names, and can’t imagine my characters being anything else now. And the time I spent agonizing over the changes meant time spent thinking deeply about who those characters were and what really made them tick. That’s the light at the end of that particular tunnel: once you find the right shiny new name, you’ll feel you know your character even better than you did before.

May all your character naming problems be easy to solve! And now (because how could I not!), the gentle reminder that maybe get a second opinion if you’re in doubt. Courtesy of Friends and the inimitable Phoebe Buffay.

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Read For Pixels 2017 – International Women’s Day Edition

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The Pixel Project’s ‘Read For Pixels’ (International Women’s Day Edition) is still going strong. The non-profit has reached its initial target of U$5,000 in donations, and they are hoping to hit their stretch goal of U$10,000.

The Pixel Project gathers funds and raises awareness to help end violence against women around the world. Their twice-yearly Read For Pixels campaign has online hangouts with top authors, as well as books and other prizes that you can claim as ‘perks’ with your donation.

My novel Heart Blade is in one of the donation bundles, along with 1st Edition hardcovers from bestselling YA Fantasy authors Kimberly Derting (The Taking) and Alyson Noel (Unrivalled). Last time I checked, there was only one of these bundles left! There are many other donation perks, though, like books by Kendare Blake and Karen Rose.

Check out the campaign page here.

Also, keep an eye out for the Gaming For Pixels Spring Slam 2017, a 48-hour gaming marathon fundraiser to take place on April 7th-9th. More information here.

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