The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – RAMONA BLUE

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the winter session of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club.  We’re wrapping up the year with a fantastic book. Each session this year, instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’ve been reading a book for the first time right along with you.

This is the third book I’ve read from Julie Murphy, and it may be my new favorite. Even though I’ve interviewed her before on this blog, I’ve never actually met her in person until this summer when she was doing an Epic Reads tour. And what a treat! As much as I loved her second book DUMPLIN’, which she said was all about her outer self, I couldn’t wait to read RAMONA BLUE once she described it as being all about her inner self. She also said this is what made RAMONA BLUE her most difficult book to write thus far. I can tell you, the effort she put into it was totally worth it!

Current 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 absolutely loved the way this story depicted how Ramona struggled and came to terms with her discovery of feelings for both guys and girls, even when it went against what others in her life wanted.

Here’s a look at the first chapter:

 

This is a memory I want to keep forever: Grace standing at the stove of her parents’ rental cottage in one of her dad’s oversize T-shirts as she makes us a can of SpaghettiOs. Her mom already cleaned out the fridge and cabinets, throwing away anything with an expiration date.

     “Almost ready,” says Grace as she stirs the pasta around with a wooden spoon.

     “I should probably leave soon,” I tell her. I hate prolonged goodbyes. They’re as bad as tearing a Band-Aid off one arm hair at a time.

     “Don’t pretend like you have somewhere to be right now. Besides, you should eat before you go.” Grace is like her mom in  that way. Every time we’ve left the house over the last month, her mom has tried to unload some kind of food on us, like we were taking a long journey and would need rations. “Don’t make me eat these SpaghettiOs by myself.”

     “Okay,” I say. “The thought of that is actually pretty pitiful.”

     She takes the pot from the stove and drops an oven mitt on the kitchen table before setting it down in front of me. Scooting in close, she winds her legs between mine and hands me a wooden spoon. We’re both white, but my legs are permanently tanned from life on the coast (though a little hairy, because shaving is the actual worst), while Grace’s normally ivory skin is splotchy and irritated from all the overexposure to the sun. And then there are her feet.

     I grin.

     “What?” she asks, tilting her head. Her raven waves brush against her shoulders. She’s obsessed with straightening her hair, but even the mention of humidity makes her ends curl. “Don’t look at my feet.” She kicks me in the shin. “You’re looking at my feet.”

      I swallow a spoonful of pasta. “I like your feet.” They’re flat and wide and much too big for her body. And for some reason I find this totally adorable. “They’re like hobbit feet.”

     “My feet are not hairy,” she insists.

     I almost come back at her with some dumb quip, but the clock behind her melts into focus, and I remember.

     Grace is leaving me. I knew she would leave me from the first moment we met on the beach as I handed out happy-hour flyers for Boucher’s. She lay spread out on a beach chair in a black swimsuit with the sides cut out and a towel over her feet. I remember wishing I knew her well enough to know why she was hiding her feet.

     This is our last meal together. In less than an hour, her mom, dad, and brother will all wake up and pack whatever else remains from their summer in Eulogy into the back of their station wagon, and they’ll head home to their normal lives, leaving a hole in mine.

 

Who knew eating SpaghettiOs steamy? What a great opening. My heart broke a little for Ramona Blue as she said goodbye to her summer love. But the wait was short before a new love interest arrived and things got complicated in a very interesting way.

The Discussion:

Murphy paints a very vivid picture of the setting, Eulogy, Mississippi, as well as Ramona’s domestic life and her connection to her sister, Hattie. Ramona’s sense of domestic responsibility drive a lot of her life decisions.

Here’s an excellent scene that gives you a great feel for this:

 

     I began to outgrow this place somewhere around the summer before ninth grade. I’d always been tall, but that last growth spurt tipped me over from tall to too tall. The ceilings of our trailer stretch as high as seven feet, which means my six-foot-three frame requires that I duck through doorways and contort my body to fit beneath the showered in the bathroom.

     Inside my room, I rest my bike against my dresser, and just as I’m about to flip on the lights, I notice a lump lying in my bed.

     “Scoot over,” I whisper, tiptoeing across the floor.

     Hattie, my older sister by two years, obliges, but barely. “Tyler is a furnace,” she mumbles.

     I slide into bed behind her. Always the little sister, but forever the big spoon.

     We used to fit so perfectly into this twin bed, because like Dad always said: the Leroux sisters were in the business of growing north to south, and never east to west. But that’s no longer the case. Hattie’s belly is growing every day. I knew she was pregnant almost as soon as she did. So did Dad. We don’t waste time with secrets in our house.

     “Make him go home,” I tell her.

     “Your feet are so cold,” she says as she presses her calves against my toes. “Tommy wants to know if you can come into work early.”

     “Grace left.”

     She turns to face me, her belly pressed against mine. It’s not big. Not yet. In fact, to anyone else it’s not even noticeable. But I know every bit of her so well that I can feel the difference there in her abdomen. Or maybe I just think I can. Whipping an arm around me, she pulls me close to her and whispers, “I’m so sorry, Ramona.”

     My lips tremble.

     “Hey, now,” she says. “I know you can’t see this far ahead right now, but there will be other girls.”

     I shake my head, tears staining the pillow we share.  “It’s not like she died or something,” I say. “And we’re going to keep talking. Or at least she said she wanted to.”

     “Grace was great, okay? I’m not saying she wasn’t.” Hattie isn’t Grace’s biggest fan — she never has trusted outsiders — but I appreciate her pretending. “But you’re gonna get out of here after graduation and meet tons of people and maybe figure out there are lots of great girls.”

     Maybe a few months ago, Hattie would have been right. Up until recently, the two of us had plans to get out of Eulogy together after graduation. Not big college plans. But small plans to wait tables or maybe even work retail and create a new life all our own in a place like New Orleans or maybe even Texas. A place without the tiny little trailer we’ve called home for too long now.

     But then Hattie went and got pregnant, and even though neither of us have said so out loud, I know those plans have changed.

     Tyler is here for now, but I can’t imagine he’s anything more than temporary. My plans were never extraordinary to begin with, and now that Hattie has my niece or my nephew incubating inside of her, they’re even less important. Hattie’s my sister. She’s my sister forever.

     “And I can’t kick Tyler out, by the way,” she adds.

     I shake my head. “Yeah, you can. Just tell him to go home.”

     “This is sort of his home now.”

     I prop myself up on my elbow and open my mouth, waiting for the words to pour out. But I’m too shocked. And horrified.

     She loops a loose piece of hair behind my ear, trying to act like this is no big deal. “Dad said he could move in,” she whispers.

     There are so many things I want to tell her in this moment. Our house is too small. Tyler is temporary. There will be even less room when the baby comes. I don’t need another body in this house to tell me that it’s too small and we’ve all outgrown this place. And yet I feel like I’m the only one of us who sees it. I’m the only one wondering where to go from  here.

And then things get really interesting when an old friend comes back to town. Ramona hasn’t seen Freddie since they were little kids playing on the beach together. Now, he’s back for good.

     In front of his house, he hops off the back of my bike and pulls me to him for a hug. My chin fits snugly in the crook of his shoulder. Hugging at this height can be so awkward, but nothing about our embrace makes me feel like I’m bumbling.

     In sophomore chemistry, Mr. Culver told us the most important thing to take away from his class was that the world isn’t made up of isolated incidents. Knowing the elements was important, but even more relevant was knowing how they changed when combined with others. And that’s what I’m most terrified of right now — how Freddie and I will change when combined with others.

     I watch as he sneaks around the side of his house into the backyard.

     I have some time to kill before my paper route, so I go home to change my clothes. Hattie is spread out in my bed with a limb touching each corner, and the bathroom smells like puke –from Tyler, I assume. Even though it might be nice to crash on the couch for a little bit, I can’t get out of here fast enough. The whole process of being in my house feels like I’m creeping against the wall of a narrow, smelly hallway. Nothing about it says home right now.

     As I’m walking my bike out of the trailer park, my phone buzzes.

     GRACE: How can I be this lonely when I’m surrounded by people? I miss you.

     Normally this sentiment would feel all too familiar, but tonight I didn’t feel lonely. Not at all.

     Some days are worse than others, I finally type. I miss you, too.

Ramona’s feelings slowly change toward Freddie from familiar comfort friendship to deeper feelings that leave her confused and conflicted. Watching her navigate them and find her own path is well worth the read. Fantastic characters all the way through. Absolutely loved this book!

What did you think of the story?

 

Up next…
New books for the new year! We’ll discuss debut novels all year long!
Sound fun? If so, join me.
Here’s the first title, and man, what a debut it was!

FIRST RELAXED AND GROOVY BOOK CLUB PIC OF 2018

CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber

Published by: Flatiron Books

Release Date: January 31, 2017

Genres: YA, Fantasy

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Plot Summary:

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . beware of getting swept too far away.

 

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

Happy reading!

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2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of the conference highlights. To catch up on previous posts, you can view Part 1 and Part 2 before continuing.

DAY THREE

The final day always comes too quickly, and yet is still somehow packed with a ton of literary goodness. We started off the day with the Picture Book Panel (which included our very own SCBWI Oklahoma star PB author Tammi Sauer!) and ended with an inspirational send off by the amazing Laurie Halse Anderson followed by the always fun autograph party.

Did I mention that there was dessert with Judy Blume in the middle? Crazy, I know! What a fabulous day!

PICTURE BOOK PANEL

PANEL DISCUSSION WITH RAÚL COLÓN, LEUYEN PHAM, JAVAKA STEPTOE, AND TAMMI SAUER. (MODERATED BY LAURENT LINN)

Laurent Linn led this awesome discussion about picture books. He had each panelist introduce themselves first before the questions began.

Leuyen Pham — She’s worked on about 90 picture books and she said picture books are the closest you can come to whispering in a child’s ear. The search for characters is always a lot of fun for her. She does background and research on the characters before starting. There’s an emotional move from line drawing to art – analytical turns off to the imaginative.

Javaka Steptoe — He said he’s not just trying to create art, but an experience. He’s trying to feel what the character is feeling when he’s creating. He thinks back to when he was a child, when he was drawing, making noises, to create that moment on the paper, the experience.

“I don’t want to just draw a picture.”

When he uses found objects, he’s using things that have had a life. That brings a richness. It’s there, it’s alive. For kids, when they see something they identify – like, wow, I have that in my house – it’s a bridge.

He’s always thinking, “How can I bring you into my world?”

Learn the details of a moment; it’s about the subtleties and how it creates the big picture.

Tammi Sauer — (Tammi may have received a giant shout-out of ‘OOGA!’ from her Oklahoma SCBWI fan club when she was introduced. Maybe.)

 

She then flawlessly went on with her stellar presentation and gave her three favorite writing tips for creating relatable characters readers will care about. Make sure to follow her ARF formula:

A – Active

R- Relatable

F- Flawed

Raúl Colón — For his latest picture book,  his editor told him that the pictures were telling the story. She told him to get rid of the words. That’s how DRAW! become a wordless picture book.

When beginning a new manuscript, he starts with sketches. Vision of pictures have to come to him as he’s reading or he won’t be interested in working on it. He plays music while working, He gets lost in the work, especially while doing the final art.

Question #1: What’s the first step in a new creation?

Tammi Sauer — Come up with a fresh idea. Celebrate the weird. Ideas are everywhere. Your job is to capture them.

Raúl Colón — I agree. I was inspired by an exhibit I came across.

Leuyen Pham — My first step is hard. Every book is a reinvention of myself. I freak out. I have to leave my studio. Take a sketchbook and just start sketching. While actually working, I can’t look at others’ work.

Javaka Steptoe — I agree with what everyone just said. You have to find some idea that sustains you. Ideas can come from anywhere. From life. You shouldn’t force a story. It should be fluid. I think about the background materials – asphalt for Swan Lake, wood for Jimi Hendrix.

It looks effortless, but it takes lots and lots of work to get there.

Question #2: Picture books can seem simple. When you have something to say, how do you balance this?

Raúl Colón — In the book ALWAYS MY DAD (by Sharon Dennis Wyeth) a story about divorce, it could’ve been tricky, but we made it as joyful as possible by showing all the things they could do together – focused on hope.

Leuyen Pham — I tend to stay away from stories like that. My approach tends to be more subtle. I’ll find a way to work them into the pictures. For example, two lesbian mothers pictured that are not mentioned in the story.

Her favorite writers are those generous enough to let some words go.

Tammi Sauer — I try to keep the 4 year-old version of my son in mind. Something kids connect with, something with humor. He would either give two thumbs up or say, ‘Wow, that’s a dud’.

Keep it subtle – don’t beat people over the head with a message.

Javaka Steptoe — The story is the most important thing. If it’s not a page-turner, take it out. The writer can show you the road, the illustrator can show you the beauty of the road.

Question #3: What is your purpose?

Tammi Sauer — Something kids can connect with – humor and heart.

Raúl Colón — Something they don’t see every day.

Leuyen Pham — Making another one of me. Feeling an intimacy with a book that will touch that kid.

Javaka Steptoe — I just want to talk with people. Write children’s books like a letter we send back out into the world and we keep going.

 

STEPHANIE GARBER SHARES SAGE ADVICE

 

 

 

 

 

Stephanie Garber, who already gave an outstanding breakout session, now dazzled the entire conference with her keynote address. She shared some sage advice she’s learned along her journey as a writer thus far.

 

The story of her overnight success took seven year. Seven years and five novels. Yes, it wasn’t until the fifth complete novel she wrote that she started to see positive responses to her writing from queries. That fifth book is the one that landed her the agent. And the sixth book was the one that finally sold – CARAVAL.

There was a lot of doubt and questioning of life choices before that book sold, so what helped her keep going and get through that sixth book?

Stephanie said these things were key to her success:

  • Write the book you’re brutally obsessed with — After all, your readers won’t feel something you don’t. (Please don’t write a book that’s safe.)
  • Deal with the things you’re afraid of — (She wanted to get an agent, but she didn’t want to go to a conference to get one – she was terrified of conferences.) There’s something very powerful about confronting fears and it’s better to do it before you’re published. Make your mistakes now. Besides, once you publish, things don’t get easier.
  • Let Go — Great things come from letting go. A manuscript can be salvaged, and it can be good to persevere. But it can also be a good thing to let go of ideas. It’s dangerous to latch on to the idea that you know everything. There’s always something to learn, especially about craft or the industry.
  • Read Widely –Don’t just read, read deeply. Make a personal list of what inspires you. What books do you want to emulate? (Your Cannon) Write the kind of books you want to read.

 

GOLDEN KITE LUNCHEON

The Golden Kite Luncheon and Awards Presentation was beset by a wee bit of a crisis this year when by some twist of fate, the kitchen only prepared place settings (and meals) for half the number needed. Our group was lucky enough to acquire a table, and reparations were made to those who didn’t, but they sadly missed out on a fabulous conversation between Lin Oliver and Judy Blume that took place during dessert.

Stephanie, part of our Oklahoma group, at our table at the luncheon.
Yes, that is a salad on my plate, but my eyes are already on that dessert…
Lin and Judy in conversation.

For most of the conversation, I sat there mesmerized. Judy cast us all under her spell, as she is prone to do. I do remember that Judy talked about how writing saved her life, literally. And how it changed her life. Lin asked her if she’s retired from writing. Judy said that she’s written everything she’s wanted to say, “But there’s this one little thing…”

That got the whole room very excited!

Now that she’s (semi) retired from writing, she’s still surrounded by books at Books and Books, the independent bookstore in Key West she and her husband George have opened. She also invited everyone to come visit – but maybe not all at once.

She also talked about how much an organization like SCBWI would have meant to her when she was a young writer, which is why she is such a big supporter of it now, and why she’s on the board.

One quote I came away with was when she was talking about determination – “You can have all the talent in the world, and if you’re not determined, you’re going to let something stop you from doing it.”

*Sigh*

How much do we love Judy Blume?

 

BREAKOUT SESSION – KWAME ALEXANDER AND ARIELLE ECKSTUT TALK ABOUT THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THINGS

Kwame Alexander and his agent, Arielle Eckstut, gave a fascinating talk discussing business tips.

Kwame and Arielle were wonderful and shared so many fantastic ideas. My absolute favorite thing that Kwame said was that a big part of his success was starting local. Embracing local bookstores and developing relationships with local owners long before you’re published should be a priority.

He was also very creative when it came to marketing. He once had 50 friends call a bookstore and ask for his book before he called them himself to ask if they’d like for him do a signing there. SMART!

He also called anybody he knew connected with morning radio shows and read poems on the air. (And I can only guess how effective that must have been, because when you hear him read his poetry, it is really something.)

Always have a plan that has reach – stretch goals. Constantly create opportunities.

Remember, you are the main driver of your book’s publicity.

So many great things, I could have listened to them spout off ideas for another hour or two.

 

CLOSING TIME – FINAL KEYNOTE LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laurie Halse Anderson greeted us and gave a special shout out to any introverts who were present (no small task!). She acknowledged how difficult it was to carry the bubble of love, the place of acceptance and understanding, we’d created in our conference back home with us after the conference ends.

She gave us a few secrets to help carry this feeling home:

  • “You are the boss of your brain, and your brain is the boss of your emotional state.” She’s done the research. She then suggested we take a cue from the country of Denmark and embrace the idea of “hygge”. A warm, pleasant, and comfortable atmosphere. Void of annoyance or distraction, at total ease.  
  • Get Started! You have to give yourself permission to suck. Revision is about clarifying. If you can just get started with your suckage, doing your art makes you feel better! 
  • Creating books for children is a tremendous privilege and responsibility. We create for the luckiest audience who will ever live.

Choose to make messy art whenever you can.

It was a wonderful way to send us off. What a fantastic conference!

 

AUTOGRAPH PARTY 

I may have gone a little overboard with buying books, but I actually showed some restraint and stopped myself way before I had to buy a second suitcase. I may not enjoy the mad dash and waiting in long lines takes to get all of these treasures signed – honestly, it’s the closet thing I come to experiencing Black Friday, and I barely survived it – but dinner with friends is at the end. And along the way, I do get to meet and thank these authors who have written books I enjoy. Worth the suffering of crowds and long lines? I think so.

The books I bought at the conference, and then lugged around the ballroom to get signed.

 

The dynamic Vanessa Brantley Newton, who also illustrated our own Tammi Sauer’s book, MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM – I forgot to bring my copy with me (and it was sold out at the book store).
Our darling Tammi Sauer was so busy with her faculty duties that we barely saw her! I did meet up with her a time or two. Once in passing here…
…and once when I had her FINALLY sign my copy of her book CARING FOR YOUR LION. I had to bring it all the way from Oklahoma with me because we kept missing each other (or I’d forget to bring it with me when I’d see her). Mission Accomplished!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kwame Alexander was just as charming as could be. I absolutely loved THE CROSSOVER as I knew I would.

 

The wonderful and ever-so-sparkly Alex Gino signed books earlier in the conference. I was so happy I was able to meet Alex and get my copy of GEORGE signed. What a fabulous book!

INTENSIVES

For the first time ever, I was able to attend the Intensive workshops following the conference on Monday – so worth it!

Morning Intensive was SCENE: THE BUILDING-BLOCK OF FICTION with Linda Sue Park where we explored working in scenes rather than chapters. It was fascinating and very helpful.
The Scene Intensives Class! Don’t we look inspired?

 

Afternoon Intensive was TIP SHEETS with Arianne Lewin. I learned how much I didn’t know about this invaluable marketing tool and then I  learned how to use it.

 

FINAL GOODBYES

After all the workshops were over, our group had our final meal together and the staggering flights back home began. Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to LA…until next year!

Eating the best Greek food. What a great way to end the weekend.

 

Catren and Brenda taking in the sights.

 

Heading home! Bye LA!

Hope you’ve enjoyed the highlights of the summer conference! I thoroughly enjoyed attending!