Kim Ventrella – Author Interview

I’m so happy to be interviewing the delightful Kim Ventrella, today. Kim is an SCBWI Oklahoma region member I’m just getting to know, and I’ve been dying to ask her some in-depth questions. Like what’s behind her extensive skeleton collection? How much does her dog, Hera, actually help her writing process? And more importantly, what inspired her highly anticipated debut novel, SKELETON TREE, which comes out this month?

Let’s find out.

 

About Kim

Kim lives in Oklahoma City with her faithful furry companion, Hera. She moonlights as a children’s librarian when she’s not writing books, fighting crime, or killing houseplants. (I’m beginning to think her bio has been padded. That houseplants thing is a little far-fetched, if you ask me.)

She has been know to actually seek out places where skeletons dwell. To even pose for pictures with them, and dress them up in fancy hats and wigs. Some might call that weird, I call that amazing! How else would we get such an awesome-looking book?

 

Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Kim’s book:

SKELETON TREE by Kim Ventrella

Release Date: September 26, 2017

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy

BOOK AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER:
indieboundbn-24h-80amazon
Plot Summary:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize.

But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton…one that only children can see.

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird–Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates.

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)


 

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Your debut novel, SKELETON TREE, has such an intriguing premise, what sparked the idea for this story?

Kim Ventrella: I wondered what would happen if a boy discovered a finger bone growing in his backyard. The story evolved from there, becoming much more than I had anticipated.

VL: What a great beginning. I can’t wait to read where the story goes from there!

I absolutely love the book trailer for THE SKELETON TREE, what can you tell us about it? (You can view the book trailer below.)

KV: Artist Jerry Bennett and Filmmaker Zac Davis did an amazing job putting together the trailer. I had gone to see their award-winning short film, Even in Death, and after that I knew they would be perfect for the job. It captures just the right mix of wonder, spookiness and whimsy.

VL: You seem more than fascinated (dare we say obsessed?) with skeletons – I love following your hashtag #skeletonspotting, by the way – where did this deep interest in skeletons come from?

KV: I don’t know if it’s a deep interest (ha!), but I have always been fascinated with the macabre. Scary stories are a great way to confront monsters in a safe environment. Readers can learn from the character’s journey that it’s possible to overcome those spooky skeletons we all have in our closets.

VL: So true! Better to tackle them in the pages of fiction than in real life. (Checks closet for skeletons.)

Your story tackles the difficult subject of death, one not many adults are comfortable dealing with. Talk about why you thought it important to address this issue in a children’s book.

KV: My grandfather passed away suddenly not long before I started Skeleton Tree. I didn’t initially intend for it to be a book about death, but that was just how the story unfolded. It became a sort of canvas on which I could put forward my own vision of how Death could look, if we chose to experience it through a different lens.

I wanted to create a Death full of meaning, beauty, friendship and understanding. I strongly believe that books are one of the best ways for children to make sense of the world around them, to experience tough topics in a safe space, and that includes dealing with death.

VL: How beautiful. That’s quite an homage to your grandfather, too. I just love that.

What were some of your biggest fears as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

KV: I was very scared of ghosts in particular when I was a child, which is perhaps why I embraced the macabre. I used to have night terrors, night paralysis and visual disturbances (i.e. I very vividly ‘saw’ ghosts on several occasions as a child).

For me, reading scary stories has always been the equivalent of performing a big Riddikulus spell on those creepy real-life monsters. Seeing others triumph over evil, whether it’s watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or reading Roald Dahl, gives me confidence that I can also defeat the big baddies out there.

VL: Wow! Very in touch with your spooky side, even as a kid. Destined to write this genre! I love that seeing others conquer their fears in books gave you courage, too. Books are so powerful!

You discussed in a post recently that you like to begin writing a story by thinking about its emotional catharsis and working back from there. That’s almost like starting at the ending and working your way back to the beginning. I love this idea. Can you expand on this?

KV: My writing style has changed and continues to change a ton. I always used to write completely organically, with no plotting ahead of time, like with Skeleton Tree. Now that I have to send off proposals for stories before I start writing (for the most part), I’ve started thinking more strategically.

In the end, the important aspect of a story for me is what emotional impact readers will feel after they turn the last page. Has the book changed the way they see the world? Has the character’s journey taught them something about themselves?

Starting with that in mind can speed up the process, but it’s not always possible, because sometimes you can reach a more powerful conclusion if your destination is unplanned.

VL: Excellent advice, to focus on the emotional impact.

Your dog Hera features prominently in your Instagram posts, how does she factor into your writing process? (I have heard tale that you like to write in her dog bed.)

KV: Yes, I wrote Skeleton Tree sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. I now have an office chair, ha!, but my dog is still a big help. I even mention her in the acknowledgements of my book. She’s sweet, silly and scared of everything, but most of all she’s the perfect co-writer.

VL: Who were your childhood heroes/role models?

KV: I don’t know about role models, but I was obsessed with Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin. I also loved Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and his sidekick, Hastings. The Addams Family was another huge favorite, as were Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.

VL: What a wonderfully eclectic collection! I’m also a huge Agatha Christie fan! I read so many of her books when I was a kid.

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

KV: I love The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan. It’s a sad, happy, heartfelt story about a poet who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. It’s practically my life story.

VL: Beautiful cover. Thanks for recommending it. 🙂

And thank you so much for joining us, today, Kim! It’s been such a pleasure talking with you and getting to know you better!

 

The Trailer

And now for your viewing pleasure…

The official book trailer for Skeleton Tree!

Local talents Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis created this trailer for Kim. They both worked on the award-winning short film, Even in Death. Jerry is an amazing comic book artist and illustrator who’s done work for companies like Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Topps. Zac Davis is a filmmaker and program director for Invisible Layers productions, a pre-employment program for young adults on the autism spectrum with an interest in film, video production, or animation.

Enjoy the trailer!

 

Don’t forget to pre-order Kim’s book SKELETON TREE! It releases on September 26th!

 

indieboundbn-24h-80amazon

 

 

 

Learn more about Kim Ventrella here.

Follow Kim on Twitter here.

Follow Kim on Facebook here.

Follow Kim on Instagram here.

 

 

 

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Book Review – FROEHLICH’S LADDER by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon

I received this book from the beguiling Laura Stanfill. Not only is she a champion for independent books in her home state of Oregon, she’s the founder and publisher of her own independent publishing house, Forest Avenue Press, and she can wear a fancy hat like no one else I know.

 

I met her through our mutual love of books and blogs a few years ago, and I was lucky enough to read the very first book her house released. She’s been on a roll ever since. She thought I might enjoy this latest story and sent me a copy. So thoughtful!

FROEHLICH’S LADDER by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon

Published by: Forest Avenue Press

Release Date: August 9, 2016

Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy

amazonindieboundbn-24h-80

 

 

Plot Summary:

Froelich nurses a decades-old family grudge from his permanent perch atop a giant ladder in this nineteenth century madcap adventure novel. When he disappears suddenly, his nephew embarks on a rain-soaked adventure across the Pacific Northwest landscape to find him, accompanied by an ornery girl with a most unfortunate name. In their encounters with Confederate assassins, European expatriates, and a general store magnate, this fairytale twist on the American dream explores the conflicts between loyalty and ambition and our need for human connection, even at the highest rungs. (Plot summary from publisher’s website.)

This is such a unique and wonderful tale, a truly magical romp of a story. Although I found it hard to readily describe – it’s kind of a folk tale with tall tale leanings filled with the most fascinating cast of characters – I did thoroughly enjoy reading it.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

The brothers’ land (two plots arranged end-to-end) was adjacent to Boxboro – less of a town at the time than the notion of a town. The previous year, the United States Congress had passed the Donation Land Act. Harald and Froehlich, being of voting age and white (by accident of birth, and without conscious design), were entitled to three hundred twenty acres in Oregon Country, provided they make improvements to the land and remain for four years. At nineteen and eighteen years old, respectively, they received no greeting when they arrived, nor did anything but a handwritten mile marker signify their property.

 “A bog,” Forehlich noisily observed. “It reminds me of a bog, Harald, only without the charm. In California, at least it’s sunny. At least the people were civilized! Did you see that coot at the general store? His mouth looked like the back of your knee! Is it any wonder they’re giving away land? If a person were to come up to you and say, ‘Here, take my daughter – my pride and joy, a vision to see,’ would you think to yourself, ‘Oh, lucky day!’ Or would you think, ‘Let me see this daughter of yours.’ Maybe it’s not even his daughter, Harald, but a man dressed as a woman, lying in wait! And when I pay her a visit, with my chin shaved and my hair nicely parted, he jumps out from behind the wardrobe, strikes me over the head, and-“

“Enough, Froehlich!” Harald shouted, finally compelled to open his eyes. Staring down at his brother, he asked, “What are you trying to say?”

What am I trying to say?” The volume of Froehlich’s voice was enough to startle the birds. “I’m saying it’s abysmal here! I’m saying this has been a terrible mistake! No one should suffer such indignity, unless they’re being punished for a grave sin-which to my knowledge, I am not.”

“But I like it here,” Harald said. “I enjoy this weather.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Froehlich snapped. “Go live at the bottom of a well, if that’s your preference. I say California was superior in every way. Or New Orleans – I rather liked the Port of New Orleans. Let’s go back.”

This statement caused Harald’s jaw to swing open, as if on a great hinge. For a moment he was rendered speechless, his face all but frozen, except for a distressed vein that pulsed in his temple. Finally, when it appeared he might’ve been struck dumb, he offered a smile.

“Go back?” He chuckled.

“Yes – go back. What’s so amusing?”

“Walk all the way to the Fort Astoria? And how will you, with your feet in that condition?”

Froehlich folded his arms and scowled. He’d thought his limp was less noticeable, even as it had grown more and more pronounced. He felt it was cruel for Harald to make light of his affliction. After all, his brother stood head and shoulders above normal men and was strong as a locomotive.

“You’ll have to carry me, of course,” Froehlich said.

Harald threw his head back as his laughter turned to howls. The rain dappled his forehead and ran in rivulets down his cheeks.

“Carry you?” he gasped, when he was finally able to speak.

Froehlich, who was beginning to lose his patience, confirmed, “Yes – carry me. Don’t pretend for a second that I’m too heavy.”

“Of course you’re not too heavy – I could put a wagon on my back. But why carry you? Why should I leave? This is my home, now, Froehlich. The contract requires that we stay for four years.”

Now it was Froehlich’s turn to gape. The betrayal he felt stemmed less from what Harald wanted, and more from what he didn’t want. Harald, with his unique physical gifts, could’ve made a name for himself in Deutschland, when no such option had been available to Froehlich. His only chance at upward mobility had been to pursue his fortune, and that pursuit had led him to this wilderness.

“Come with me,” Froehlich said. “I want to show you something.”

Technically, they were standing on Froehlich’s land. Slogging to the middle of an empty pasture, where the drizzle had turned the ground to slurry, he spun around to face his brother.

“There,” Froehlich said, pointing at his feet. Rain was dripping down his brow and under his collar, not that he noticed anymore. “Look right there, and tell me what you see.”

“There?” Harald frowned. “All I see is mud.”

“It’s your grave,” Froehlich sneered. “Yours and mine, both – but you first, if rank stupidity has anything to do with it. We’ve traveled tens of thousands miles, Harald, and for what? The privilege of drowning while standing up? If that’s the case, I’d rather spend what time remains alone. Oregon Country is big enough that I don’t have to see your idiot face.”

Hobbling toward the wall of the trees, he paused to correct himself. “My home,” he said. “My land. You go and live someplace else.”

Things only get more unpleasant between the two brothers when a love-interest come into play leading to a full-on feud of ridiculous proportions until Froehlich banishes himself up a ladder, the fourth largest in the land, and refuses to come down. For years.

But don’t let the whimsical side of this story fool you. There is a darker, more haunting side explored as well. Almost all the characters suffer from one form of alienation or another and all struggle to find their place in this new world – longing for a sense of connection. Many of these struggles felt very relevant to today.

I really enjoyed the wild ride this story led me on. I think you will, too.

 

Learn more about Jamie Duclos-Yourdon here.

Follow Jamie on Twitter here.

 

Tracey Baptiste – Author Interview

I was introduced to Tracey Baptiste (pronounced buh TEEST) through a mutual writer friend who asked if I’d be interested in reading her book, THE JUMBIES, a few years ago. Of course I said yes, and that’s how I had the pleasure of reviewing Tracey’s first Middle Grade book, THE JUMBIES, on this blog.

I’m so excited to be talking with her, today, about her latest book in the series.

About Tracey

Tracey grew up with a love of Grimm’s fairy tales and has wanted to write since she was three years old. She was inspired to write for kids after reading Rosa Guy’s “The Friends”.

She worked as an elementary teacher before entering the world of publishing in the education market. She later moved into editing nonfiction books for kids. Now, as well as being an amazing author of books for kids, she is also a freelance editor for publishers and individual clients.

Tracey’s debut novel, ANGEL’S GRACE, a YA contemporary novel, was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by the NYC librarians.

Her first Middle Grade novel, THE JUMBIES, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a New York Public Libraries Staff Pick, one of Brightly’s Best Kids Books of 2015, a We Need Diverse Books “Must Read,” and named to Bank Street’s Best Books of 2016.

Tracey is a contributor to the outstanding blog The Brown Bookshelf that pushes awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing and illustrating for young readers. The American Library Association selected The Brown Bookshelf as a Great Website for Kids.

 

Before the interview, let’s learn more about Tracey’s latest book:

RISE OF THE JUMBIES by Tracey Baptiste

Release Date: September 19, 2017

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy

BOOK AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER:
indieboundbn-24h-80amazon
Plot Summary:

The sequel to the highly praised novel The Jumbies takes Corinne and her friends on another spine-tingling adventure under the sea.

Corinne LaMer defeated the wicked jumbie Severine months ago, but things haven’t exactly gone back to normal in her Caribbean island home. Everyone knows Corinne is half-jumbie, and many of her neighbors treat her with mistrust. When local children begin to go missing, snatched from the beach and vanishing into wells, suspicious eyes turn to Corinne.

To rescue the missing children and clear her own name, Corinne goes deep into the ocean to find Mama D’Leau, the dangerous jumbie who rules the sea. But Mama D’Leau’s help comes with a price. Corinne and her friends Dru, Bouki, and Malik must travel with mermaids across the ocean to the shores of Ghana to fetch a powerful object for Mama D’Leau. The only thing more perilous than Corinne’s adventures across the sea is the foe that waits for her back home.

With its action-packed storytelling, diverse characters, and inventive twists on Caribbean and West African mythology and fairy tales, Rise of the Jumbies will appeal to readers of A Snicker of Magic, A Tale Dark and Grimm, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.


This book has already garnered rave reviews:

Kirkus starred review

“A stirring and mystical tale sure to keep readers thinking past the final page.”

Booklist review

“Young readers are probably familiar with Greek myths, thanks to Rick Riordan, and other enduring European classics, so this series with twists on Caribbean (particularly Haitian and Trinidadian) and West African tales is a welcome change.”

School Library Journal starred review

“The novelty of the fantasy elements, the complex characters, and the superb world-building combine in a tale well worth reading, both as a sequel and a stand-alone . . . A stellar recommendation for fans of edgy fantasy such as Aaron Starmer’s ‘The Riverman Trilogy’ or Adam Gidwitz’s ‘A Tale Dark and Grimm’ series, and, of course, fans of the first book.”

I’m so excited to read this book! The first one was so wonderful, and looking at these reviews, I have high hopes for this next one.

 

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: I absolutely fell in love with THE JUMBIES, your first middle grade novel. From the fantastic cast of characters to that lush, vibrant setting, you make the Caribbean come alive. What made you want to tell this story?

Tracey Baptiste: I’d always wanted this story as a kid. I grew up on Grimm’s fairy tales, and wanted to see a jumbie story in an actual book, but there weren’t any.

I also wanted my children to know about jumbies. They knew a little, but got really interested when I started telling them about what I was writing. It was wonderful to pass on that bit of culture to them because they were so receptive.

VL: So wonderful that you’re passing on these stories.

I love the gorgeous mermaids on the cover for your next story, RISE OF THE JUMBIES. Does this give some hints about what’s in store for Corinne and her friends, what more can you tell us?

TB: Yes! The mermaids were actually the creatures that were the most compelling for me in this story because they lay out a very complicated statement that I wanted to make about enslaved people, forced assimilation, and losing/finding one’s culture.

It’s a difficult thing to try to discuss with children, so the mermaids were very helpful in bearing that out in the story. This is really separate from Corinne’s story. In the main story arc, the mermaids are there to transport Corinne and her friends on a quest.

 

 

VL: You spooked us into not wanting to go alone into the woods in your first book, looks like your next book might do the same for the ocean. Is this Jaws with a twist for kids?

TB: In the first one, most of the scary stuff happens on land, and in this one most of the scary stuff happens in the sea, but the fear factor comes almost entirely from jumbies. A shark appears, but only very briefly.

VL: Ha! Those jumbies are indeed more frightening than a shark! 

You pull no punches when putting your characters through difficult situations and having them face scary creatures, what’s the scariest nightmare you ever had as a kid?

TB: I had a recurring nightmare where I was running down a dark hallway with someone following me, but I was moving molasses-slow so I knew I would be caught. I always woke up before that happened, though.

VL: Yikes! I always hate when I can’t move fast enough in dreams. Good thing you woke up in time. 

THE JUMBIES series is a departure from your debut YA novel and your non-fiction writing, talk about the creative process for bringing these books to life. How was it different from your previous writing?

TB: My first novel, ANGEL’S GRACE, was really an exercise in seeing if I could finish an entire novel. I had tried and abandoned novels before, but I was determined to finish this one. Making it a mystery was a bit of a trick, because mysteries have a structure built in. You have to get to the “what/who/how” that closes the story.

Writing nonfiction is very different because it’s a matter of stringing together the available information into something that has appeal, but that doesn’t have bias. It’s like putting together a puzzle where you have to actively go out, find, and verify each of the pieces.

VL: Writing the second novel in a series is always a challenge, how was the process different/more difficult than the first? Did you write the first book as a series in mind?

TB: I had an idea for a second book when I wrote the first one, but it wasn’t bought as a series, so I didn’t give a lot of thought to what would come next. Then when they asked for a sequel, I struggled to make things fit, maintain the continuity of the story, and still up the ante. It was very, very difficult.

I tooled around with THE JUMBIES for about 9 years before I finally sold it, and I had 9 months to write RISE. Even coming up with the title was rough. It came down to the day before the sequel was announced, and we were still going back and forth on possible titles.

VL: I think good titles are so difficult. That really came down to the wire!

Corinne and her friends have many memorable, and scary, adventures while battling the Jumbies, what’s the most memorable adventure from your childhood? 

TB: The dad of one of my best friends was a captain of the MV Tobago, a ferry that went between Trinidad and Tobago, and one week he took us on board and we got to have some adventures in Tobago where we were pretty much by ourselves for a week. (Her dad was nearby, but we had a wide rein.) We were 14 and there were…some shenanigans…

VL: Hmm…sounds like a story’s in there somewhere. 🙂

What’s been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

TB: I loved THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, which rightly won the Newbery. It’s a modern classic fairy tale (my favorite) but also delves into the idea of people who create and maintain their own power through lies.

I was also very excited about TWO NAOMIS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, which is a sweet story in two voices about girls who are dealing with their parents dating each other, and being thrust into each other’s lives.

VL: I absolutely adore the cover of THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON! I put that on my must-read list just for that. I will definitely add TWO NAOMIS to that list, too.  

What would your dream assignment be? What would you most like to write about?  

TB: I have so many things floating around in my brain. I’d by happy if people would just allow me to keep writing and they would read it. But I’m most excited to write books that have a heavy science base. I quite like science and math, and I think it would be fun to come up with a story that gets geeky kids (like me when I was a kid) excited.

VL: Geeky is right up my alley! Sounds fun! 

Tell us what’s coming up next for you? What are you currently working on?

TB: I’m working on another nonfiction book that uncovers some parts of history that have been absent in our culture and in our educational offerings. (I’m still at heart, a teacher, so I can’t help thinking about what kids are doing in the classroom.)

There’s not much I can say about it now because I’ve only just begun researching, and the fun of researching is you never know what’s going to turn up.

VL: We will definitely keep an eye out for your future projects.

Thank you so much for joining us, today, Tracey. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you!

 

And remember, you can pre-order Tracey’s new book RISE OF THE JUMBIES. It releases on September 19th!

indieboundbn-24h-80amazon

 

 

 

 

Learn more about Tracey Baptiste here.

Follow Tracey on Facebook here.

Follow Tracey on Twitter here.

Follow the Brown Bookshelf blog here.

 

 

The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the summer session of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club.  We’re having one each quarter and instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’m reading a book for the first time right along with you.

This selection is from an author I’ve never read before – always exciting! I met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at the SCBWI LA conference last summer and have been looking forward to reading her book ever since. It’s a book well worth reading.

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

Published by: Arthur A Levine Books

Release Date: April 28, 2015

Genres: YA, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

indieboundamazonbn-24h-80

 

 

Plot Summary:

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.

Follow Martha on Twitter here.

Follow Martha on Facebook here.

Follow Martha on Tumblr here.

 

It’s hard enough being in love without immortal forces interfering or outright plotting against you, especially when you have no idea it’s even happening. Their subtle moves shape your life views and change small steps that might have made big changes in your life you’ll never know about. Such a fascinating premise for this story.

Here’s a look at the first chapter:

Chapter 1

Friday, February 13, 1920

     The figure in the fine gray suit materialized in the nursery and stood over the sleeping infant, inhaling the sweet, milky night air. He could have taken any form, really; a sparrow, a snowy owl, even a common housefly. Although, he often traveled the world on wings, for this work he always preferred a human guise.

     Standing beneath a leaded glass window, the visitor, who was known as Love, removed a small, pearl-headed pin from his tie and pricked his his finger. A bead of blood rose and caught the reflection of the slice of moon that hung low in the late winter sky. He bent over the cradle and slid his bleeding fingertip into the child’s mouth. The baby, a boy, tried to suckle, his forehead wrinkling, his small hands curling into fists.

    After a time, Love slipped his finger out of the boy’s mouth, satisfied that the blood had given the boy a steady heart. He replaced his pin and regarded the child. He removed a book from his pocket, scribbled a few lines, and tucked it away again. When he could stay no longer, he uttered two words, as softly as a prayer: “Have courage.”

———————————————————————

The next night, in a small green house across town, his opponent made her choice. In this house, there was no leaded glass in the windows. No gracious nursery, no wrought-iron crib. The child was a girl. A girl who slept in an apple crate – happily so, for she did not yet know of anything else.

     In the house’s other bedroom, the child’s grandmother slept lightly, listening from some ever-alert corner of her mind for the sounds that would indicate the child’s parents had returned home: the creak of a door, the whisper of voices, the careful pad of tiptoeing feet.

     The old woman would wait forever to hear those sounds again.

     Wearing a pair of soft leather gloves, Love’s opponent, known as Death, reached for the child, who woke and blinked sleepily at the unfamiliar face overhead. To Death’s relief, the baby did not cry. Instead, she looked at her with wonder. Death held a candle near so the child might have a better view. The baby blinked twice, smiled, and reached for the flame.

     Pleased, Death set the candle down, held the baby close to her chest, and walked to the uncovered window, which revealed a whitened world glowing beneath a silver flannel sky. She and the baby watched the snow fall together. At last, the child fell asleep in her arms.

     Death concentrated on her essential task, relieved when she at last felt the telltale pressure behind her eyes. After much effort, a single black tear gathered in her lashes. Death removed her glove with her teeth. It made hardly any noise as it hit the floor. With her index finger, Death lifted the tear.

     She held her fingertip over the baby’s clean, warm forehead. Slowly, carefully, she wrote directly on the child’s flesh a word that would be invisible. But this word would have power over the child, and later the woman she would become. It would teach her, shape her. Its letters, seven of them, gleamed in the candlelight.

     Someday.

     She whispered this into the baby’s ear:

     Someday, everyone you love will die. Everything you love will crumble to ruin. This is the price of life. This is the price of love. It is the only ending for every true story.

     The letters sank into the infant’s dusky skin and vanished as if they’d never been there at all.

    Death put the baby down, removed her other glove, and left the pair of them on the floor, where they would be discovered by the baby’s grandmother and mistaken for something else. The gloves would be the only things she would give the girl, though there was much she had taken already, and more she would take in the years to come.

———————————————————————

     For the next seventeen years, Love and Death watched their players. Watched and waited for the Game to begin.

 

I was hooked from the opening. And I found myself rooting for the two wee babes, who grew up to be very intriguing, complex characters, hoping they’d find a way to beat the odds and defy the influence of Love and Death and forge their own path.

How about you? Did this opening grab you from the start or did you need more to get invested in the story?

The Discussion:

Flora and Henry, our “players”, both have really big dreams that they are very determined to achieve. Flora wants to be the next Amelia Earhart, and even though she’d rather earn a living flying, without serious sponsorship money – rarely given to women, yet alone a colored woman – she must spend her evenings singing at Domino’s.  Henry loves the connection, the rhythm, of baseball and is good enough that he received a full scholarship to the all-boys preparatory academy, which could lead to a college scholarship and a bright future. If only he could keep his focus on his studies and off of music, his real love.

Things really get interesting when their worlds collide, and then Henry hears Flora sing for the first time.

Here’s the scene where Henry has convinced Ethan, his foster brother, to go with him to Flora’s nightclub, The Domino, on the pretext of writing a story  for Ethan’s father’s newspaper, about Flora, the girl pilot they met earlier that day:

   On the far side rose a stage flanked by red velvet curtains and pearly lights. Everything had seen better days, to be sure. But it was the biggest, brightest thing Henry could remember since before the Crash, and for a moment, he almost felt as if he were back in that old world, the one he’d lived in with his family before the influenza took his mother and sister, before his father…Henry stopped the thought in its tracks. Now wasn’t the time.

   A group of musicians stood on one side of the stage, and the drummer kicked off a new song. Center stage, stepping down a wide white staircase and curving handrails, was Flora, looking paradoxically the same and yet so different from the way she looked on the airstrip. She smiled as she walked, but it was clear she couldn’t care less about the audience clapping and hooting on the floor below. A spotlight pinned her in front of a nickel-plated microphone.

     “Something wrong?” Ethan said. “Don’t tell me you’ve come to your senses.”

     “It’s not that. I just -” Henry shook his head. “The singer.”

     “Not that it matters, but she’s not bad-looking out of that canvas getup,” Ethan said. “I’ll grant you that. Even if her dress looks like something that was in style twenty years ago.”

     Henry didn’t care about the dress. It looked fine to him. More than fine.

     Flora opened her mouth to sing and Henry swallowed hard. He’d never heard anything like her voice, which made him wish he had his bass in his hands, just so he could return the sounds, a mix of chocolate and cream, something he wanted to drink through his skin.

Once upon a time I dreamed

Of how my life would go…

     He recognized the song: “Walk Beside Me.” But her voice nailed him to the floor. It made him feel as though something had slipped under his skin and was easing everything nonessential straight from his bones.

     “Cigarette?” A blonde wearing a short red dress and a tray of Viceroys slung from a strap around her neck leaned in toward them, blocking Henry’s view.

On that day I saw you

It wasn’t love at first sight

But slowly, like a sunrise

You revealed your light

     Henry craned around her as Ethan waved the cigarette girl away. “Your kind always says no to mine,” she muttered as she left. The maître d’ approached holding menus.

     “Follow me, gentlemen,” he said. “It’s your lucky night, We have a table right up front by the dance floor.”

     Henry had heard “Walk Beside Me” many times on the wireless. But he had never heard it like this, slow and tender. And the accompanying music was nothing like the orderly, upright way the Ozzie Nelson Band played it. This was something unsettling here, something unpredictable, as if some set of rules, both written and unwritten, was being shattered like glass. The awareness of it dampened his forehead and made his blood sing, raising all the tiny hairs on his arms and the back of his neck.

     Flora moved on to the chorus.

I may have dreamed before you

Of how my life should be

The only thing I want now

Is for you to walk beside me

   Beneath her voice, a skinny young bass player plucked a steady rhythm, holding her on a sturdy web of notes. For some reason, Henry immediately hated the man, his mustache, his pompadour, his trim tuxedo, the way he looked at Flora as though she were a thing he owned. The music picked up a notch, taking Henry’s pulse with it as the song traveled back to the main melody, now with the full band. It was a conversation with a piano, a guitar, a saxophone, two trombones, and a pair of twins playing trumpets that turned the reflection of the chandeliers overhead into movable stars.

So Love’s player is on the hook, but will Death’s player forsake her goals and ambition for Henry?

As Henry visits the Domino almost every night, getting closer to Flora, neglecting his responsibilities and letting his grades suffer, putting his future college scholarships in jeopardy, we begin to see the effect the actions Love and Death have on each of the “players”. One side isn’t above shoving obstacles in the way to move the players in the direction that suits their outcome of the game even if that means causing them a great loss.

This is a beautiful story that will have you rooting for Henry and Flora (and maybe even against Love and Death) and have you thinking about the balance between love and self-sacrifice.

What wouldn’t you give up for love? Heavy question.

What did you think of the story?

 

Up next…

 Fall Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy

Published by: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Release Date: May 9, 2017

Genres: YA, Contemporary

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Plot Summary:

Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever.

Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family.

Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever.

The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected.

With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

Follow Julie on Twitter here.

Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

Follow Julie on Instagram here.

Follow Julie on YouTube here.

 

I’ve interviewed Ms. Murphy right here on this blog a few years ago and finally got to meet her in person during her Epic Reads tour for this book. Such a delightful person! While I’ve enjoyed reading her other books, like SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY and DUMPLIN’, she said this one took her the longest, and it’s because it’s a reflection of her inner self as much as DUMPLIN’ was a reflection of her outer self. Wow! Does that make me want to read it all the more!

We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in the fall. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!

SCBWI OK Spring Conference Recap Part II – Persistence, Professionalism, and Success in Action

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Welcome to Part II of this conference recap. View Part I here. As anyone who’s ever been to any conference or workshop knows the post-lunch slot is a demanding one. You are fighting afternoon sleepiness. You are fighting full-belly fatigue. Our next speaker was up to the challenge and did not disappoint. 2017-scbwi-spring-conference-flyer

 

SATURDAY AFTERNOON

Ally Carter returned to the podium to give a solo talk that all writers could definitely benefit from hearing.

0253_allycarterportraits_by_lizligon-150x150Ally Carter – Young Adult Author

Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the EMBASSY ROW, HEIST SOCIETY, and GALLAGHER GIRLS series, which together have sold more than two-million copies and have been published in more than twenty countries. She lives in Oklahoma, where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever.

Ally gave a fantastic talk entitled, “Dear Ally: A Letter for Baby Author Me”, where she discussed many of the mistakes she made as a beginning author. They were so insightful and encouraging.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Nothing sells backlist like frontlist.

Her first book sold about 5 copies, and yet she spent a LOT of time and money promoting that book. She learned the hard way that the best way to promote your last book is to write your next book. The first book in her Gallager Girls series didn’t hit the NY Times Bestsellers’ List, but the second one did. And once it did, the first one did too.

The type of book and the quality are the only things that authors can control. The rest of marketing that authors do may not effect sales very much.

Some people will tell you that making writer friends is going to be good for your career. They’re wrong. These friends are going to be good for your LIFE.

I have never heard a truer statement. My writer friends are the most important ones I have. They understand what it means to struggle with this creative life we have chosen and they support me through it all.

Twitter lies.

Nobody ever shares the bad news. You can’t judge your career based on the career of other people. You don’t really know how their careers are going and it doesn’t help you to worry about it.

There’s no one way to write a book.

You never learn how to write a book. You just learn how to write the book you’re writing right now. And every book will probably have a month where it gets hard.

She had so many other fantastic pearls of wisdom to share. I just loved her talk.

She closed with this:

What you do matters. If you make a kid feel happy for a little while, that’s a great thing.

Truly fantastic. Thank you, Ally.

Follow Ally on Twitter here. Follow Ally on Instagram here.

 

Our next speaker shared ways to add heart into our writing.

jill-santopoloJill Santopolo – Editorial Director with Philomel Books

Jill received a BA in English literature from Columbia University, an MFA in writing for children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a certificate in intellectual property law from NYU. As the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group, she has edited many New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors including Atia Abawi, Terry Border, Chelsea Clinton, Andrea Cremer, Lisa Graff, and Alex London. She’s the author of the Sparkle Spa series, the Alec Flint mysteries, the Follow Your Heart books, and the upcoming adult novel The Light We Lost. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.

Jill inspired us all with her talk entitled, “Getting to the Heart of the Matter”. A talk about emotion. She began by asking the purpose of art. To connect with readers/viewers by creating empathy, understanding, or a cathartic experience. In essence, some kind of connection.

In writing, to get that connection, we use “show don’t tell”.

Why? Because You feel it instead of see it.

Connection.

How? Sound, syntax, and word choice.

Jill gave many examples of how word choices and sentence structure effected a specific passage.

For example, shorter clipped sentences can convey anger or intensity.

Pauses have power.

Linking certain words to specific characters tell us how to feel about each character – ‘buzzy’ and ‘roared’ versus ‘lounged’ and ‘sippy’ give us very different feelings.

Like an artist uses brush strokes and color choices, a writer uses sentence length and word choice to create moods for evoking emotions.

 

Prior to the conference, Jill participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Jill hereFollow Jill on Twitter here.

 

The next speaker had much to discuss and much wisdom to impart for the pre-published among us.

lindacamachoLinda Camacho – Literary Agent with Prospect Agency

Linda joined Prospect Agency in 2015 after a decade in publishing. After graduating from Cornell University, Linda interned at Simon & Schuster and Writers House literary agency, and worked at Penguin and Random House before making the leap to agenting. She has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

Linda’s talk entitled, “Your Personal Hero’s Journey – Going from Pre-Published to Successfully Published” was full of fantastic advice. One of the main ideas was you need to get used to rejection.

“I get rejected with my clients.”

She went over some surprising facts about rejection from a Psychology Today article. Here are a few:

  • Rejection runs along the same pathways as physical pain.
  • Tylenol can reduce the pain of rejection.
  • Rejection temporarily lowers IQ.
  • Rejection does not respond to reason.

Fascinating, right?

Linda went on to show several examples of rejections from writers who went on to succeed. She said embrace rejection. It means you’re a real writer.

Today’s common rejection? “It’s not for me.”

This can happen even when there’s nothing wrong with your manuscript. You cannot control rejection.

There are things you CAN control:

  • Dump your excuses – “I don’t have the time”, “I’m not talented enough”, “I’m afraid of failure”, etc.
  • Write the book – Pick a routine, any routine.
  • Hold yourself accountable
  • Learn the business
  • Read. A Lot.
  • Get used to revising!
  • FIND A WRITING COMMUNITY – so key when faced with rejection and cloistered when working. The writerly brain is unique. We need some understanding.

She had so many other fantastic suggestions. Such a great talk!

Visit Linda’s agency site to view what she’s currently seeking and to observe her submission guidelines.

Prior to the conference, Linda participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Linda hereFollow Linda on Twitter here.

 

Our final speaker of the day asked us what we were willing to do to succeed.

2016-kristin-nelson-160x24072dpiKristen Nelson – President and Founding Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency

Kristen established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002 and over the last decade+ of her career has represented over thirty-five New York Times bestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers. Clients include Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Scott Reintgen, Gail Carriger, Stacey Lee, Marcia Wells, and Simone Elkeles. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin attempts to play golf & tennis. She also enjoys playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club), and can be found hiking in the mountains with her husband and their dog Chutney.

Kristen gave the final talk of the day entitled, “What Will Your Then and Now Story Be?” It was quite inspirational.

She started off with some background on how she started her literary agency by making a business plan and selling her house to fund it. She worked out of her much smaller new house for six months before closing her first deal.

She then asked, in pursuing our dream, “Do you want it badly enough to change?”

  • To allow yourself zero excuses?
  • To get rejected A LOT?
  • To reinvent yourself?
  • To change jobs to have more time to write?
  • To write the fifth novel when four novel didn’t launch your career?

She asked more tough questions and gave examples of authors who’d gone through each of these situations, and then went on to succeed.

Every author faces obstacles. On average, four is the magic number. That’s four manuscripts before you write the one that sells.

Visit Kristen’s agency site to view what she’s currently seeking and to observe her submission guidelines.

Prior to the conference, Kristen participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Kristen hereFollow Kristen on Twitter here.

 

BOOK SIGNING

Immediately following the end of the conference, there was a book signing for published authors and our speakers. (Code for time to buy more books!)

 

Great time to get my copy of Jennifer Latham’s new book DREAMLAND BRUNING signed. I attended her book release, but they sold out before I even arrived! (Not a bad problem to have, honestly.) Such a great turn out!

 

This is my fourth signed book by Ally Carter and I adore them all. She’s such a delight. (Even if she is an OSU fan!)

That’s a wrap for another outstanding spring conference. Thanks to everyone who made it possible and to all of our fantastic speakers! You were amazing and so inspiring.

 

 

SCBWI OK Spring Conference Recap Part I – Persistence, Professionalism, and Success in Action

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This year’s SCBWI Oklahoma Spring Conference set a high bar for future conferences. A month later and I’m still processing the wealth of information the speakers imparted. Here’s Part I of the brief recap!2017-scbwi-spring-conference-flyer

FRIDAY

This year’s conference began with something new, a warm up event on Friday evening. With three different options, I chose to attend the Friday Night Panel with Ally Carter, Matt Ringler, and Linda Camacho.

From left to right, our panel included NY Times bestselling author Ally Carter, Senior Editor at Scholastic Matt Ringler, and literary agent Linda Camacho of the Prospect Agency.

This fun and informative panel was asked everything from their views on professionalism to what keeps them reading a manuscript to what other agents and editors would say about them. Needless to say things got interesting!

Agent Linda Camacho addresses the crowd.

The three speakers held the attention of the packed room and started the conference off with great enthusiasm.

One of my favorite stories was from Ally Carter. When answering a question about professionalism, she commented that she was simply doing what her mother taught her when she wrote a thank you note to a very important book seller. She found out later that he actually kept it displayed. It was the only one he’d ever received from an author. A reminder that being thoughtful to everyone in this business can make a difference.

SATURDAY MORNING

Our first speaker of the day showed us the power and beauty of using fewer words to tell our stories.

katrinadamkoehler-2Katrina Damkoehler – Senior Designer with Random House Children’s Publishing

Katrina is currently a Senior Designer for the trade imprints of Random House Children’s Publishing, where she designs and art directs approximately 35 middle grade and picture book titles per year. She was previously Art Director at Amazon Children’s Publishing. Recent projects she art directed include the 2015 Geisel Award-winner “You Are Not Small” (Anna Kang/Christopher Weyant), “Grover Cleveland, Again” (Ken Burns/Gerald Kelley), and “This is My Book” (Mark Pett).

Katrina gave a talk entitled, “(Almost) Wordless Picture Books” where she gave examples of picture books that used few words to tell great stories. The (almost) wordless manuscripts may have as few as 50 words. With a limited word count, it’s helpful to have a road map. That’s why most wordless (or nearly wordless) manuscript submissions include illustration notes.

Here are some examples she shared:

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS LITTLE by LeUyen Pham

 

 

 

CINDER-EYED CATS by Eric Rohmann

 

 

HELLO HIPPO, GOODBYE BIRD by Kristyn Crow

 

 

She also walked us through the illustration process – from submitted manuscript to finished book – for EAT, SLEEP, POOP by Alexandra Penfold.

Beginning manuscript for EAT, SLEEP, POOP.

Finished product! Cover and first few pages of completed book for EAT, SLEEP, POOP.

One thing she emphasized about nearly wordless picture books is that emotional expressions of the characters need to be extremely clear. After all, the illustrations are doing a lot of heavy-lifting with the story-telling.

 

To learn more about Katrina, follow her on Twitter here.

Prior to the conference, Katrina participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Katrina here.

 

Next, a true power couple shared tips on how to write authentically for a YA audience.

0253_allycarterportraits_by_lizligon-150x150Ally Carter – Young Adult Author

Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the EMBASSY ROW, HEIST SOCIETY, and GALLAGHER GIRLS series, which together have sold more than two-million copies and have been published in more than twenty countries. She lives in Oklahoma, where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever.

2016-kristin-nelson-160x24072dpiKristen Nelson – President and Founding Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency

Kristen established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002 and over the last decade+ of her career has represented over thirty-five New York Times bestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers. Clients include Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Scott Reintgen, Gail Carriger, Stacey Lee, Marcia Wells, and Simone Elkeles. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin attempts to play golf & tennis. She also enjoys playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club), and can be found hiking in the mountains with her husband and their dog Chutney.

NY Times best-selling author (and Oklahoma native) Ally Carter joined her agent Kristen Nelson to give a presentation together entitled, “‘So You Want to Write YA…Start by Asking the Right Questions!”.

One of those right questions was instead of asking how to learn teen slang, you should ask if you have a voice that appeals to teens.

Slang comes and goes, and is often regionally specific. Besides dating your manuscript, it can end up alienating readers instead of connecting them with your story.

Another great question was instead of asking if you can just age your characters up or down to ‘make’ your book YA, you should ask yourself if you’re telling a true coming-of-age story that will resonate with teens.

It’s not enough to have characters the same age as your readers. Age doesn’t equal connection. You have to engage your teen readers with a story they can relate to.

And this one was my favorite:

Q:   Should I alter myself when writing for teens?

A:   Ally – “Yes, write smarter.”

Kristen – “I’ve never heard a teen say, ‘I felt obligated to keep reading’.”

Teens expect the writing to be great from page one and will put a book down the minute it stops delivering.

 

To learn more about this dynamic duo:

Follow Ally on Twitter here. Follow Ally on Instagram here.

Visit Kristen’s agency site to view what she’s currently seeking and to observe her submission guidelines.

Prior to the conference, Kristen participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Kristen hereFollow Kristen on Twitter here.

 

The final speaker of the morning dazzled us with his presentation and his wit.

mattringlerMatt Ringler – Senior Editor with Scholastic

Matt is a senior editor at Scholastic specializing in chapter book, middle grade, and YA fiction. He is the editor of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, the Game Changers series by Mike Lupica, the STAT series by Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Little Rhino series by Ryan Howard. His YA list includes the New York Times Bestseller Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky and It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm.

Matt Ringler imparting his words of wisdom to our SCBWI OK crowd.
Matt took a group picture of us and posted it on Twitter since we would be doing the same to him. Well played. Did I mention he has a great sense of humor?

Matt spoke about “Writing Success at Many Levels”. He started out by giving us some background on himself (started as an intern for the David Levithan – can you say fangirling?) and some mind-blowing Scholastic stats (like Scholastic publishes 1 out of every 3 books, and first experience most kids have buying their own books is through Scholastic Book Fairs).

Matt moved on to talking about writing, and specifically about not fighting your own writing process, even if it changes from one book to the next. You change as your experiences grow – you’re not the same writer you were a few years ago. It’s okay for your process to change. Embrace it.

Matt shared an insight into his selection process. When deciding what projects to take on, Matt said, “To work on a book, it’s a year. It’s committing to a relationship. If it doesn’t feel right for me, I’ll pass on it.”

That’s another reason to not take it personally when your manuscript is rejected because an agent or editor didn’t love it enough. That doesn’t mean your work isn’t good, just that their commitment level wasn’t right for the relationship to work. You want your book to succeed and you want someone to champion your book. That’s going to require a strong commitment to your story.

Matt went on to discuss the different kinds of success:

PERSONAL

FINANCIAL

CRITICAL

LONGEVITY

READERSHIP

PROMOTIONAL

All aspects of success can build on each other. Writing is hard! Don’t forget to celebrate the little steps of success along the way.

 

To learn more about Matt, follow him on Twitter here.

Matt will be our guest for #okscbwichat on Twitter August 22nd from 7-8pm CST! We hope you’ll join us!

 

BREAK

Break time means networking (read “socializing”) and taking selfies with my writing friends!

 

with Catren Lamb
with Brenda Maier
with Regina Garvie

 

 

 

 

 

 

with Gwendolyn Hooks and my thumb
with Tammi Sauer
with THE Jerry Bennett

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the best parts of writing conferences is connecting with my fellow writers (and the odd illustrator or two, Jerry). I love my tribe!

Stay tuned for Part II of the conference recap!

 

The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – SALT TO THE SEA

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the first discussion of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club of this year! We’ll have one each quarter and instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’ll be reading a book for the first time right along with you.

This first book is from an author with the most generous spirit and all the talent to make a reader lose themselves in any world she creates. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I read her debut novel BETWEEN SHADES OF GREY. I was lucky enough to hear her speak in person about her experience researching and then writing this story. It was gut-wrenching. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. She put all of that into her story, and let me tell you. It’s a book well worth reading.

So is her latest book. I won an advanced copy on Goodreads, which was awesome – free books, yay! (If you had my book habit you’d totally understand.) Even so, I would’ve bought this book myself if I hadn’t won it.

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

 

SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

Published by: Philomel

Release Date: February 2, 2016

Genres: YA, Historical Fiction

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Plot Summary:

In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Ruta Sepetys here.

Follow Ruta on Twitter here.

Follow Ruta on Facebook here.

This is such a fascinating tale that grips you right from the opening pages. Sepetys has a way of finding different angles to shed light on familiar periods of history in enlightening and intriguing ways.

Here’s a look at the first chapter:

joana

      Guilt is a hunter.

My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant

child.

It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.

      I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago, when I fled from Lithuania.

      Lithuania.

      I had left in 1941. What was happening at home? Were the dreadful things whispered in the streets true?

      We approached a mound on the side of the road. The small boy in front of me whimpered and pointed. He had joined us two days prior, just wandered out of the forest alone and quietly began following us.

     “Hello, little one. How old are you?” I had asked.

      “Six,” he replied.

      “Who are you traveling with?”

      He paused and dropped his head. “My Omi.”

      I turned toward the woods to see if his grandmother had emerged. “Where is your Omi now?” I asked.

      The wandering boy looked up at me, his pale eyes wide. “She didn’t wake up.”

      So the little boy traveled with us, often drifting just slightly ahead or behind. And now he stood, pointing to a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow.

      I waved the group onward and when everyone advanced I ran to the snow-covered heap. The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear. I dug through her iced pockets, but they had already been picked. In the lining of her jacket I found her identification papers. I stuffed them in my coat to pass on to the Red Cross and dragged her body off the road and into the field. She was dead, frozen solid, but the thought of tanks rolling over her was more than I could bear.

      I ran back to the road and our group. The wandering boy stood in the center of the path, snow falling all around him.

      “She didn’t wake up either?” he asked quietly.

      I shook my head and took his mittened hand in mine.

      And then we both heard it in the distance.

      Bang.

Don’t you just love the imagery of “a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow”? There are so many different ways she describes the winter weather, you feel it as you’re walking through the scene with the characters.

With this well-crafted story which not only creates vivid scenes that immerse you right into the bitter cold of Eastern Prussia in 1945, but shows you this world through the lives of four fascinating and complex characters, we not only get caught up in their struggles, but in the mystery that slowly draws them all together.

The Discussion:

The book is told from four points of view, each character with a different reason for fleeing from something. Three of them are crossing the open, dodging the Germans from one direction and the Soviets from another, trying to find safe passage out of the country on a ship, one doomed for tragedy. One is already on the ship, trying to avoid doing much of anything – hiding in plain sight.

Here’s the scene when the three crossing all come together for the first time:

florian

     Others had beaten us there. A teetering collection of weathered horse carts was tucked beyond the brush, a sober portrait of the trek toward freedom. I would have preferred an abandoned site, but knew I couldn’t continue. The Polish girl pulled at my sleeve.

     She stopped in the snow, staring at the possessions outside the barn, evaluating the contents and whom they might belong to. There was no evidence of military.

     “I think okay,” she said. We walked inside.

     A group of fifteen or twenty people sat huddled around a small fire. Their faces turned as I slipped in and stood near the door. Mothers, children, and elderly. All exhausted and broken. The Polish girl went straight to a vacant corner and sat down, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest. A young woman walked over to me.

     “Are you injured? I have medical training.”

     Her German was fluent, but not native. I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to speak to anyone.

     “Do you have any food to share?” she asked.

     What I had was no one’s business.

     “Does she have any food?” she asked, pointing to the Polish girl rocking in the corner. “Her eyes look a bit wild.”

     I spoke without looking at her. “She was in the forest. A Russian cornered her. She followed me here. She has a couple of potatoes. Now, leave me alone,” I said.

     The young woman winced at the mention of the Russian. She left my side and headed quickly toward the girl.

     I found a solitary spot away from the group and sat down. I lodged my pack against the barn wall and carefully reclined on it. It would be warmer if I sat near the fire with the others but I couldn’t risk it. No conversations.

     I ate a small piece of the sausage from the dead Russian and watched the young woman as she tried to speak with the girl from the forest. Others called out to her for help. She must have been a nurse. She looked a few years older than me. Pretty. Naturally pretty, the type that’s still attractive, even more so, when she’s filthy. Everyone in the barn was filthy. The stench of exertion, failed bladders, and most of all fear, stunk worse than any livestock. The nurse girl would have turned my head back in Königsberg.

     I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look at the pretty girl. I needed to be able to kill her, kill them all, if I had to. My body begged for sleep but my mind warned me not to trust these people. I felt a nudge at my feet and opened my eyes.

     “You didn’t mention she was Polish,” said the nurse. “And the Russian?” she asked.

     “He’s taken care of,” I told her. “I need to sleep.”

     She knelt down beside me. I could barely hear her.

     “What you need is to show me that wound you’re trying to hide.”

Once they all come together on the ill-fated ship, you know their troubles are far from over. Intense and fast-paced, Septeys keeps you turning the pages to the end to find out what each of these characters is hiding and how they will survive, if they will survive. I loved the unique take on such an important period of history, brought to life in a brilliant way. I hope you enjoyed reading it, too.

So…what’s next?

 Next Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

Published by: Scholastic

Release Date: April 28, 2015

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

indieboundamazonbn-24h-80

 

Plot Summary:

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.

Follow Martha on Twitter here.

Follow Martha on Facebook here.

Follow Martha on Tumblr here.

 

I met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at the SCBWI LA conference last summer and have been looking forward to reading this book ever since. I can’t wait to discuss it with you all next time!

We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in early summer. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!