Favorite Reads of 2017

Ah! New year, new books!

New reading challenges, new debuts releasing, exciting sequels we’ve been waiting FOREVER for, all to add to our ever-growing beloved TBR piles.

What’s a reader to dive into first?

Before we get too caught up in all the shiny new books coming out this year, or just in case you’re looking for some great reads to help you survive until that to-die-for sequel FINALLY arrives, here are some of my favorites from last year, in no particular order.

THE YOUNG ELITES Series by Marie Lu

 

 

 

 

I’ve been dying to read this series ever since I met Marie Lu last summer and received my signed copy of the first book. I absolutely loved her LEGENDS series and couldn’t wait for more. She didn’t disappoint! Adelina is such a fascinating, complex character, and a baddie you’ll love to route for. I thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through her for awhile. The complex relationships that don’t all turn out the way you think they will (or dare I say, hope they will?) add so many delicious layers to this wonderful series. I couldn’t read fast enough! And those gorgeous covers, ah! Love them.

Plot summary for THE YOUNG ELITES:

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

Learn more about Marie Lu here.

Follow Marie on Twitter here.

Follow Marie on Facebook here.

Follow Marie on Instagram here.

 

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

browngirldreaming-4medals-3001I don’t think any more awards could fit on the cover of this book. Still, I was struck by the title. I was transported by the imagery and moved by the emotions they evoked. Beautiful book.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, I always felt halfway home in each place. In these poems, I share what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.

It also reflects the joy of finding my voice through writing stories, despite the fact that I struggled with reading as a child. My love of stories inspired and stayed with me, creating the first sparks of the writer I was to become.

WHERE IT TAKES PLACE:

Columbus, Ohio, Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York

WHERE I WROTE IT:

In all of those places but mostly in Brooklyn.

WHY I WROTE IT:

I wanted to understand who my mom was before she was my mother and I wanted to understand exactly how I became a writer. So I started researching my life, asking relatives and talking to friends – and mostly, just letting myself remember. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Jacqueline Woodson here.

Follow Jacqueline on Twitter here.

Follow Jacqueline on Facebook here.

 

DUMPLIN’ by Julie Murphy

Loved everything about this book! Willowdean is amazing and I wish I’d had her confidence when I was younger. Face what scares you head on and throw in a dance number! Honestly, what’s not to love? Cue “Jolene” on repeat.

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American-beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all. (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.

 

SIX OF CROWS Duology by Leigh Bardugo

 

 

 

 

I enjoyed Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy and I was thrilled to return to her Grishaverse in this new storyline. The characters were exciting and so dynamic. I loved the Kaz/Inej relationship – so different, so touching and painfully strained. Great adventure tale that I ripped through in record time. And did I mention the gorgeous design? Red and black pages. And those covers! I’m a sucker for great design.

It inspired me to reread the original Grisha series. I’m sure I’ll reread these stories again soon.

Plot summary for SIX OF CROWS:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Learn more about Leigh Bardugo here.

Follow Leigh on Twitter here.

Follow Leigh on Tumblr here.

Follow Leigh on Facebook here.

 

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

I  met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at last year’s SCBWI LA summer conference where I got her book signed and I’ve been dying to read this ever since. It did not disappoint. I absolutely loved the premise and her characters were just divine. Loved it so much, I did a full post on it. Read full discussion here.

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.

 

BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

My SCBWI OK group read this for their monthly book club. Although I couldn’t attend, I still wanted to read along. Wow. What a fascinating story! I loved the way she used magical realism – so well done. I loved the idea of a town full of gaps where people could just disappear, slip through.

The twist of the main character was so interesting, I didn’t see it coming. Loved it.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Laura Ruby here.

Follow Laura on Twitter here.

Follow Laura on Facebook here.

Follow Laura on Tumblr here.

 

THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

I read this ahead of the SCBWI LA summer conference because Nova Ren Suma was one of the speakers. WOW! This book! So amazing! It was surreal and dark and twisty in the best ways.

And Her breakout session on Unreliable Narrators? Outstanding! I can’t wait to get to my manuscript with a certain unreliable character, now. Huge fan for life!

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?

In prose that sings from line to line, Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence, and of what happens when one is mistaken for the other. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Nova Ren Suma here.

Follow Nova on Twitter here.

Follow Nova on Facebook here.

Follow Nova on Tumblr here.

Follow Nova on Instagram here.

 

I CRAWL THROUGH IT by A.S. King

So fantastic. A unique experience – like walking into a Dali painting and being able to speak the language of the inhabitants.

Fabulous King at her best.

Four accomplished teenagers are on the verge of explosion. The anxieties they face at every turn have nearly pushed them to the point of surrender: senseless high-stakes testing, the lingering damage of trauma, the buried grief and guilt of tragic loss. They are desperate to cope—but no one is listening.

So they will lie. They will split in two. They will turn inside out. They will build an invisible helicopter to fly themselves far away from the pressure…but nothing releases the pressure. Because, as they discover, the only way to truly escape their world is to fly right into it.

The genius of acclaimed author A.S. King reaches new heights in this groundbreaking work of surrealist fiction; it will mesmerize readers with its deeply affecting exploration of how we crawl through traumatic experience—and find the way out. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about A.S. King here.

Follow A.S. King on Twitter here.

Follow A.S. King on Facebook here.

Follow A.S. King on Instagram here.

 

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander

Nothing but net. So good! Couldn’t put it down until I reached the end. I picked up this book while in LA at the SCBWI Summer conference and had the pleasure of hearing Kwame Alexander recite some of his poetry. He makes it come alive and breathe like a living thing. It’s amazing. This book read just like that.

“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander (He Said, She Said 2013).

Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Kwame Alexander here.

Follow Kwame on Facebook here.

Follow Kwame on Twitter here.

Follow Kwame on Instagram here.

 

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE (#1), THE WAR I FINALLY WON (#2) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

 

 

 

Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and just so touching. I’ve always wanted to know more about the kids who were evacuated during the war. Ada, what a kid after my own heart – fantastic character! This is the perfect story for that. Loved this book! And the sequel!

Plot summary of THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE:

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

Learn more about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley here.

Follow Kimberly on Twitter here.

 

DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

Fantastic storytelling. Absolutely loved it! As a Tulsan, also appreciated this part of our history being told so thoughtfully.

Some bodies won’t stay buried. Some stories need to be told.

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past, the present, and herself.

One hundred years earlier, a single violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Jennifer Latham here.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter here.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook here.

 

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

Brilliant. Powerful storytelling.

One of my favorite reads this year by far. Absolutely loved Starr and her whole family. Such wonderful characters.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

 

Learn more about Angie Thomas here.

Follow Angie on Facebook here.

Follow Angie on Twitter here.

Follow Angie on Instagram here.

 

What were YOUR favorite reads of 2017?

What are you looking forward to reading this year?

Gaye Sanders and the Survivor Tree – Author Interview

Gaye Sanders is one of the local talents from our SCBWI OK group whose debut picture book, THE SURVIVOR TREE, is coming out this week. I’m delighted she’s stopped by to talk with us about it.

 

About Gaye

Gaye has been teaching elementary children for over 30 years and is currently a fourth-grade teacher in Mustang, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City.

She is an active member of the Oklahoma Region of SCBWI and will assume the monumental role of Assistant Regional Advisor this coming December. We’re excited to have you on board!

Gaye was in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 people, 19 of whom were children under the age of six. Every year she makes sure to share the historic story of the Oklahoma City bombing with her students.

 

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

THE SURVIVOR TREE by Gaye Sanders illustrated by Pamela Behrend

Release Date: November 1, 2017

Publisher: Roadrunner Press

Genres: Picture Book, Historical Fiction

 

BOOK AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER: amazon

BOOK SOON AVAILABLE:

indieboundbn-24h-80
*A portion of all books sales will go to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in downtown Oklahoma City.

Plot Summary:

A family plants an American elm on the Oklahoma prairie just as the city is taking root—and the little tree grows as Oklahoma City grows until 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the day America fell silent at the hands of one of its own.

As rubble from the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is cleared, the charred tree—its branches tattered and filled with evidence—faces calls that it be cut down. The only obstacle: a few people who marvel that, like them, it is still there at all.

The next spring when the first new leaf appears proving the tree is alive, word spreads like a prairie wildfire through the city and the world. And the tree, now a beacon of hope and strength, is given a new name: The Survivor Tree. (Plot summary from author’s website.)


 

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this book?

Gaye Sanders: When you are a writer, you rotate between writing, editing, and revising. But you are also, at all times, thinking about what your next story will be.

Many times, we choose the story we are writing. We may get a spark of an idea, and work to develop it into a full story. But sometimes, in those rare moments, a story finds us.

Almost four years ago, on a visit to New York City, my sister and I got to experience the 9-11 Memorial. During our visit to the gift shop, I discovered a book about the 9-11 Survivor Tree. Until that moment, I had not realized they had a survivor tree.

Their tree has a much different story than ours. It was recovered from some of the rubble and replanted, nursed back to health and transplanted to the grounds when the memorial was finished.

I decided to buy that book, and then find the book about our Survivor Tree. I came home and began to look for one, and that was when I discovered there wasn’t one.

There needed to be. That idea sat on my heart for a couple of years. The seed of the idea planted itself there, and wouldn’t go away. And, I knew that a story had found me. A story that needed to be told.

VL: How fascinating! From one survivor tree to another. Love it!

This is a very emotional story still for many Oklahomans, did you find this a difficult thing to translate into a picture book format?

Illustration by Pamela Behrend from the book THE SURVIVOR TREE

GS: I think that turning it into a picture book softened the subject matter. There were a lot of hard details that have been omitted, because they simply aren’t appropriate for the age group. But through the entire story of the tree, the bombing, and the healing afterwards, the theme is love conquers hate and hope can bring you through even the darkest times. Along with the promise that we will never forget.

VL: You tell this story from the perspective of the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, located on the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombing, what were the benefits/challenges to using a tree as your main character?

GS: Writing a book about this subject for children presented its own set of challenges. The story needs to be told, but in a more delicate manner, so as not to scare them about our world. I wrote my first version in third person, but it didn’t have the heart I wanted it to.

As writers, we often gain inspiration for our works from other books or pieces of literature. I reread The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And even though that book is set in third person, that’s when it hit me. The tree needed to tell this story.

When I changed the point of view, I knew it was the right thing to do.

VL: Ah! THE GIVING TREE! Another tree giving your story inspiration. Let’s hear it for the trees!

You were able to visit the Memorial archives for your research, what was that experience like?

GS: The Oklahoma City National Memorial was more than helpful in allowing my research. I was honored to spend an entire day in the archives, going through photos, evidence lists, FBI notes, and more. It was a crucial part of the research. But, you can’t research something like this without feeling it from the very depths of your soul.

I lived here when this awful travesty occurred, I knew people who lost family members, and I knew others who survived.  So, needless to say, I have shed more than my share of tears through this journey.

VL: Tell us about your writing journey. How did you begin to write books for children?

GS: I began thinking about writing for children over ten years ago. Having been around children’s literature basically my entire life, I thought I knew all I needed to know to write my own books.

I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing, or how the publishing industry works.

It wasn’t until I joined SCBWI that I learned enough to really begin writing. It has been such a great journey, and I would not be where I am today without this amazing organization. And tribe. I have made lifelong friends, and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

VL: Woohoo! Yay, SCBWI! Best thing I ever did for my writing, too. 

Tell us something about your childhood. As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into?

GS: I was one of those kids who really didn’t get in trouble much. Probably the biggest trouble was staying out too long on my bicycle.

Until I was a Senior in High School. I got my first “licks” with two months of high school left to go, because two of my friends and I told our bookkeeping teacher we were going to the library, when all along we were planning to go get cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria.

Yep. Got caught and got paddled.

VL: Oh, no! First time out and caught!

What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?

GS: I grew up in a small, sheltered town. Probably the scariest thing was when my older sister, a friend of mine, and I were all at home alone one night, and heard a tap on the window. It was a peeping Tom! In Fritch, America!

The scariest moment in my childhood was probably the assassination of President Kennedy. I’ll never forget the moment they broke in on “As the World Turns” (I wasn’t in school yet) and Walter Cronkite announced that the President had been shot. The world stopped. And even though I was only five, I knew that our world had changed overnight.

VL: Wow. That was life-changing. Even at five.

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

GS: That’s such a hard question, and there’s no way I can narrow it down to one. So, here are my top three of the year:

Dreamland Burning, by Jennifer Latham

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

And, believe it or not, I had never read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton before this year.

Every one of these touched me deeply, and were un-put-downable.

VL: Absolutely loved THE CROSSOVER. So, so good!  Of course, I blazed through THE OUTSIDERS when I read it a long time ago. Wouldn’t mind reading it again. The 50th anniversary edition just came out! I’m just now starting to read Jen Latham’s book. I’ve been so looking forward to it!

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

GS: I am currently in the trenches of Pitch Wars. For those of you who don’t know what that is, go to www.pitchwars.org. It’s a fabulous process, where you submit to be matched with a mentor. You work with them for two months to get your manuscript ready for the agent round. My current WIP is called HURRICANE HARPER. It’s a contemporary fiction, middle grade set in coastal Mississippi.

In the editing lulls for Pitch Wars, I’ve started outlining my next one. It has a title right now of “1972”. It’s historical fiction with an alternate set of events, set in Washington D.C. Let’s just say it has something to do with a certain wiretapping activity that occurred that year.

And, I have a couple of ideas for picture books to follow up The Survivor Tree. They both have a connection to things that are tied to the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

VL: That all sounds fascinating! And good luck with Pitch Wars, Gaye! We’ll be routing for you!

Thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

 

Book Launch

For those who are interested and who live within traveling distance, Gaye is having a book launch for THE SURVIVOR TREE on Saturday, November 4th, from 1-3pm at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. The event will be held under the Survivor Tree, weather permitting. The book launch will move inside the foyer of the museum store in the event of inclement weather.

Illustration by Pamela Behrend from the book THE SURVIVOR TREE

 

Learn more about Gaye Sanders here.

Follow Gaye on Twitter here.

Follow Gaye on Facebook here.

Follow Gaye on Instagram here.

 

 

 

The Highly Anticipated OK SCBWI Spring Conference Recap – PART 2

SCBWI OK Banner

Welcome to Part 2 of our fantastic Oklahoma SCBWI Spring Conference recap!

Beginning from where we left off in Part 1, we broke for lunch where each table enjoyed the company of a conference speaker or a published author, allowing all of our attendees to have an opportunity to ask their industry questions in a more relaxed setting.

After lunch, we heard from our second literary agent of the day.

rachel-orrRachel Orr, Literary Agent with the Prospect Agency, gave a two-part talk beginning with, “Main Conflict: The Spark That Fires Up a Manuscript” and ending with, “A Conversation with an Agent & Author” where local author Jennifer Latham joined her to discuss their working relationship and her journey to publishing.

Many problems Rachel sees in novels revolve around conflict:

  • Some writers are afraid to give their characters flaws. They want to keep them as nice as possible; to avoid any conflict. This equates with boring.
  • Some writers have scenes that can fall into any order – when this happens, it makes her wonder about the strength of the story. It’s much better to have things build upon each other.
  • Another problem is when writers use a character as a vehicle to talk about a topic of interest or when they place conflict on a character unnaturally.

“Everything starts with character.” If you know your character well, conflict will follow.

Other problems Rachel notes involve the structure of the manuscript itself.

Conflicts may be introduced, but then they are resolved too quickly. “Instead of plot slopes, you have moguls.” This is a flat-lining approach. In picture books, this can be the day-in-the-life stories with no conflict.

Literary novels tend to be character-driven. Manuscripts like these with problems, nothing happens in the story. Even though your novel may be character-based, it still needs movement; conflict.

Conversely, plot-driven novels with very clear end goals still need some kind of change to take place in the character.

“Make your characters uncomfortable.”

For the second part of her talk, she invited Jennifer to join her and they discussed their professional relationship.OK SCBWI Spring 5

 

Rachel began by saying her approach to revision/editing is to point out the issues in a manuscript and let the author solve them. “This is what I think needs to be changed, you figure out how to change it.” This type of direction is important for her as an agent and Jennifer is very good at doing this.

Jennifer’s first project received many rejections. She said, “Four rejections is a starting point.” She also learned from her rejections. “Every editor who gave me feedback told me something useful.” It was like her own MFA program. But after so many rejections, She and Rachel decided it was time to shelve that first manuscript.

Jennifer stated, “I deserve to be represented by someone who believes in my writing, not just one project.”

Rachel did believe in her and helped Jennifer navigate her way through a few missteps until SCARLETT UNDERCOVER, her debut novel, was born. Jennifer’s book is scheduled to be released May 19, 2015.

 

Our next speaker talked to us about picture books.

JulieBliven

 

Julie Bliven, Editor with Charlesbridge Publishing gave a fascinating and informative talk entitled, “Elements of a Successful Picture Book”.

 

The top two elements are:

  1. Beginning
  2. Narrative Voice

BEGINNINGS

Why Beginnings Matter: “A successful picture book beginning knows its ending.”

Problems she sees with beginnings are too much description and too much back story.

3 TYPES OF PICTURE BOOK BEGINNINGS:

  1. The introduction is about character experience – has personal and immediate conflict. Examples include I WANT MY HAT BACK, ZEN SHORTS, and LITTLE PIG JOINS THE BAND
  2. The introduction recounts person, place or event. Examples include GRANDPA GREEN, ELLINGTON, and BALLET FOR MARTHA
  3. The introduction has an instrumental setting – something really important.  Examples include THE CURIOUS GARDEN, IMOGENE’S LAST STAND, and EXTRA YARN.

NARRATIVE VOICE

What contributes to voice?

  • Distinctive language
  • Author’s attitude
  • Clear structure
  • Illuminating metaphors
  • Definitions in context
  • Use of quotations
  • Awareness of audience
  • Sense of story
  • Character
  • Remarkable facts
  • Connections/juxtapositions
  • Humor
  • ResearchBalloons over Broadway

In BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY by Melissa Sweet, the author’s voice shows through distinctive language by her use alliteration and simile.

Think about word choice. Circle all adjectives and verbs and consider if they can be replaced with something more descriptive or active.The Wall

Peter Sis shows an example of voice through clear structure in THE WALL when he shows two world views in juxtaposition; his own personal view versus the global world view.Day Glo Brothers

We find a good example of voice through definitions in context within the pages of THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS by Chris Barton and Tony Persiani.

Awareness of audience is shown in FEATHERS by Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen by understanding how different aged readers experience picture books. The main storyline used similes for beginning readers like this: “Feathers can dig holes like a backhoe”. Then the second layer of text for slightly older readers included more detailed facts.Feathers page spread

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our final speaker of the day gave us tips on tightening those first pages.

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Alyson Heller, Editor with Aladdin Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) enlightened us with some great ideas for improving our beginnings with her talk entitled “Put a Spark in Your First Pages/Chapters”.

Opening Line

This is your book’s handshake, the opening to your reader. It should be assertive and strong.

  • Asks a questions (not always in a literal sense)
  • Sets the mood/directs the reader to what you want them to experience.
  • Sets up voice of a character.
  • Can throw out a surprise.

Books with great opening lines: DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth, CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White, MATILDA by Roald Dahl, and WINGER by Andrew Smith.

AVOID GENERIC!

“It was a day that changed my life.”

How?

Did you get a new dog? Meet a best friend? Fall in love? Witness the Zombie Apocalypse?

Define it better than in that generic, non-specific way.

First Chapter

  • Should involve the main protagonist. The reader needs to care. This means your character has to be sympathetic, doesn’t mean likable.
  • Have a sense of drama/conflict  – do you have internal as well as external conflicts? Make sure to introduce the opponent. Is your protagonist proactive? They should not just be reacting to events.
  • Tone – set through dialogue, pacing, and voice.

Book Recommendations: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, SEEING CINDERELLA by Jenny Lundquist, BUCK’s TOOTH by Diane Kredensor, EXTRAORDINARY WARREN SAVES THE DAY by Sarah Dillard.

Make your first chapter like the perfect skirt; “long enough to cover the essentials, but short enough to keep it interesting.”

 

OK SCBWI Spring 6
Our speakers (from left to right) Rachel Orr, Alyson Heller, Laura Biagi, Julie Bliven, Kristine Brogno, and Erica Finkel

Our conference closed with a Q & A Panel with our speakers that was fantastic. What an amazing group of ladies!

 

I did manage to buy a few books from some of our published members. We’ve had quite a growth in this area. At this rate, we may need to add another table to the book store soon.

Some of our published members holding their books.
Some of our published members holding their books, looking very professional.
…and one for fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of our rising stars, Hannah Harrison, signing my book.
One of our rising stars, Hannah Harrison, signing my copy of REMY AND LULU.

 

And I almost forgot to mention the part of the day where I nearly lost my mind. During announcements, when our new Regional Advisor, Helen Newton, announced that for our Fall Retreat in October, LINDA URBAN WILL BE SPEAKING!!!

If you haven’t read A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT or THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING, you must get yourself to a bookstore immediately. And once you’ve read her work, you will be compelled to come to our Fall Retreat. So I’ll see you there.

 

 

Jennifer Latham – Author Interview

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Continuing our celebration of phenomenal local talent plucked from the branches of our SCBWI Oklahoma family tree comes debut author Jennifer Latham. Her first novel, SCARLETT UNDERCOVER, comes out this spring on May 19, 2015, and I for one am thrilled. I met Jen a few years ago at a local Tulsa schmooze and immediately took to her. I’ve had the privilege of getting a sneak peek at some of her manuscripts for critique sessions and I love the way she writes fully developed characters and scenes that evoke a mood. I’m so glad she was able to take time out of her hectic schedule and stop by to answer some probing questions.

First, a little bit about her upcoming novel.

The BookScarlett Undercover

SCARLETT UNDERCOVER by Jennifer Latham

Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Release Date: May 19, 2015

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Mystery

When 15-year-old Muslim-American detective Scarlett agrees to investigate a local teen’s suicide, she figures she’s in for an easy case and a quick buck. But it doesn’t take long for that suicide to start looking a lot like murder, and for cults, ancient artifacts, and a very private billionaire to figure into things. To save the scared little girl who hires her, Scarlett has to face her family’s brave past, her own future, and maybe even a jinni or two. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

So many things to love about that! I am a sucker for a great detective novel. And throw in a great female character and I’m pushing people out of the way to grab it off the shelf. (Well, maybe, kindly nudging them, and at the same time pointing out what fab book I’m reaching for.)

Let’s hear some details about how this creation came into being, shall we?

Jen LathamFBThe Interview

Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this book?

Jennifer Latham: Honestly, I’m not sure there was any one particular inspiration – it’s more like my brain spent a long time gathering bits and pieces and then, when I started playing around with actual words on a page, they collided and made a book. Some of those bits and pieces were: a little girl playing in a giant sandbox at the state fair with her biker-dude grandfather (they became Scarlett and Manny); my obsession with hardboiled detective stories; my disappointment over all the vitriol aimed at Muslim-Americans; the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy; and the sudden rash of jinn sightings across the country.

 Well, OK…I made that last one up.

VL: Ha! you had me worried for a moment. It sounds like Scarlett was a great conglomeration that came together at just the right time, with just the right ingredients.

I love the idea of a young female detective and Scarlett sound like my kind of sassy; tell us more about her.

JL: This seemed like such an easy question when I first saw it. Then I realized it is so not. Because, corny as this may sounds, talking about Scarlett is like talking about my kids. I mean, to me, she’s amazing. Brave. Imperfect. Generous. Stubborn. Kind. Short-tempered. Strong. And entirely capable of being a complete pain in the ass. But I have no clue how other people are going to see her. My one great hope is that she’ll be more to readers than just a smart aleck, or a black, or a Muslim. I want them to see her for what she is: a complex teenage girl

 

VL: In essence, she’s feels very real to you. I’m sure this will translate to your readers. 

How much research did you have to do to create an authentic character of such a diverse background?

JL: A lot. I’ve worked really hard to be accurate and respectful when it comes to Islam, Middle Eastern folklore, and religious texts. I even hired a Muslim PhD student in English Lit to consult on the manuscript. There were some tricky issues to navigate; as I mentioned, Scarlett is complex. She’s not a “perfect” Muslim. But when she’s doing things that a more devout Muslim wouldn’t, I’ve done my best to point the discrepancy out.

VL: Fantastic! Extensive research for something like this is so vital. I’m thrilled that this book will add to the much-needed diversity landscape H2cWxknS_400x400in our literary world. I also love that although her Muslim heritage and her struggle with it is part of her, and it does come into play, but it’s not the main focus of the story. The mystery is the focus.

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned during this process to get your first book to publication?

JL: How long everything in traditional publishing takes. And that there is nothing – nothing — you can do to change it.

VL: Amen to that!

Thinking back to your childhood heroes /role models when you were a kid, who were they? What drew you to them? What powers/abilities did they have that you wished you could have? Do you still feel that way about them now?

JL: True confession: most of my heroes were authors. Their power was that they could tell stories that people wanted to read. And I feel even more like that now. My favorite writers are rock stars.

VL: Mine, too! I’d stand out in the rain to see an author I love, probably not for my favorite bands – priorities!

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start pursuing that seriously?

JL: I always knew, I was just afraid to really try. So I worked a lot of strange jobs after college. Then went to grad school (I’m half a dissertation short of being a PhD in Psychology) Then had babies. But when my older daughter turned three and it still felt like she was brand new, I realized how fast babies grow up. That was ten years ago. And it’s when I started drafting my first (still unsold) manuscript.

VL: Tell me about your most memorable adventure you had with your friends outside of school.

JL: Hmm…there was the time Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which used the tesseract to transport me across space. And the time that mean girl at school dumped a bucket of pig blood on me at prom…
Oh wait. That’s right. I didn’t actually have a lot of friends. My best adventures were the ones I lived through books.

 

VL: Ha! That sounds eerily familiar.

What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?

JL: I don’t think anything was really scary. Hard, yes. But not scary. The really bad stuff has happened to me as a grown-up.

VL: My teen-aged daughter would agree that becoming an adult IS the scariest thing.

Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?

 

JL: So here’s where I’ve lived: NYC; San Francisco: West Point, NY; Augusta, Georgia; Buffalo, NY, Philadelphia; Madrid; Rhode Island (4 different towns); and Tulsa, OK. Honestly, Tulsa wins. Maybe its because I’ve been here longer than anywhere else. Or maybe it’s because this place refuses to be defined, and manages to both frustrate and surprise me (in good ways) every day. Someone once told me, “It’s a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit.” And that kind of fits.

VL: That is some serious globe-trotting. I’ve never thought of Tulsa like that before, and yet, I totally see it.

In your bio, you mentioned that you’ve had some really weird jobs, tell us about the worst job you ever had while going to school?

 

JL: This is a tie. Both jobs came after I’d graduated from college. The first was cleaning up in a virology lab at Brown University. It wasn’t so much the work (though autoclaving test tubes is a joy, let me tell you) as the nasty woman I worked for. I thought the job would give me an inside track if I decided to apply to the med school there. It didn’t. And I didn’t apply, either.

The second was working for this nutball guy who ran an interior decorating business. I literally spent days peeling stickers off the backs of carpet samples and gluing new ones on. See, he didn’t want customers to be able to find the same carpet at other stores, so he changed the product info. Again, it wasn’t so much the actual work as it was the way he treated me. No matter how menial the job, people who work hard deserve respect. And neither of those two crazy bosses gave me that.

VL: Bored to tears and no respect? Sounds like my idea of hell on Earth!

What are you currently working on?

JL: Well, I’ve been fiddling around with a second Scarlett mystery, and a historical fiction story set in Tulsa. I’ve also finished about 1/3 of a noir mystery for older young adults that’s kind of The Black Dahlia meets Oklahoma!

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

JL: I loved GOING BOVINE, by Libba Bray. And MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTLEPIECE by Annabel Pitcher. But those are just the first two that popped into my head. There are so many amazing books out there. It blows me away.

VL: GOING BOVINE was fantastic! (Of course, I love anything Libba Bray writes.) I will have to add the other to my must check out list. Always looking for interesting titles.

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

JL: Not a clue. I guess I’ll just keep writing until I figure that out.  🙂

VL: Jennifer, thank you for so much for joining us and sharing your story with us, today. I wish you well with your debut of SCARLETT UNDERCOVER and look forward to its release date this spring.

Learn more about Jennifer Latham here.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter here.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook here.

Follow Jennifer on Tumblr here.

You can preorder SCARLETT UNDERCOVER here:

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