Me and the Pumpkin Queen

This is one of those books that sneaks up on you.  It caught me off guard.  Based on some positive reviews I’d read and the back cover blurb, I expected it to be cute. I thought I’d kind of like it.   I didn’t expect to be so swept up in Mildred’s quest to grow the perfect giant pumpkin that I was tempted to ignore my 7th period English class today.

But I was.

Marlane Kennedy captures the voice of a fifth grader who has settled into life with her dad after her mother’s death and explores the very real issues that face fifth grade girls – shopping for a first bra, getting ears pierced, and dealing with a bossy aunt.  I found hints of Judy Blume in the coming of age parts of this book and big servings of warm humor on just about every page. Add to that one huge issue – growing a HUGE pumpkin, and protecting it from bugs, fungus, drought, and tornadoes – and you have one amazing book. 

I was enchanted by the story and terribly intrigued by the process of growing a giant pumpkin.  I kind of want to try and grow one myself now. Mostly, though, I want to stand up and cheer for Mildred and for Marlane Kennedy.  ME AND THE PUMPKIN QUEEN is a little book with a giant-pumpkin sized heart.

Someone Named Eva

I’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction set in Nazi Europe, but SOMEONE NAMED EVA by Joan M. Wolf takes a look at a part of World War II that I never knew about.  Eva is really Milada – a young Czech girl who has blond hair and blue eyes that allow her to pass as a German.  The Nazis raid her village and steal her from her family; they take her name, her language, and her very identity in an attempt to remake her into one of them.  

This book is beautifully written, and I simply ached for Milada, renamed Eva, every time I turned a page.  Wolf writes with a sensitivity that allows us to understand how a young Czech girl could feel herself slipping into another identity.  

The characters in this historical novel seem painfully real, and the author’s extensive research, which took her to Czechoslovakia in search of her roots, is evident throughout the book. The author’s note explains how that research is woven into the novel, though it never feels like you’re being fed facts while you’re reading. No matter how much you’ve read about the Holocaust, you’ll come away with a new perspective.  Mostly, though, your heart will break for Milada.

Joan Wolf’s debut novel provides a unique perspective on a much-written-about chapter in world history. More than that, though, it provides readers with a heartbreaking and thought provoking journey through the human spirit – at its best and at its worst.  SOMEONE LIKE EVA is a poignant book about survival, redemption, holding on, and remembering who you are.

Cybils – Middle Grade Fiction

I am reading and reading and reading some more, and slowly, my stack of Middle Grade Fiction Cybils nominees is dwindling.  I’m a panelist for this year’s Children & Young Adult Bloggers Literature Awards, and I’m loving it, every page of the way.

It’s been an interesting process for lots of reasons, most of which relate to books and writing and learning how writers make different narrative structures work.   But you know what else has been interesting?  The nominated titles for which review copies haven’t been sent to panelists, including some from bigger publishers.  My publisher for Spitfire, which is tiny by most people’s standards, has sent out review copies every time I’ve made a request.  I guess I’m kind of surprised; I always thought bigger publishers were more liberal about this kind of thing, but maybe not.  Granted, a few of the missing titles have been available at my library, but since it just went through city budget cuts, a lot of them are missing, and I may or may not be able to get them through inter-library loan.  Anyway…just food for thought.

I’m going to start posting reviews of the Cybils nominees with these two understandings:

1. I’m only reviewing books I like.  As a teacher, I love matching kids with books, and I book-talk titles in my classroom all the time.  I don’t badmouth books, even if they aren’t my cup of tea.  I’m not interested in turning a kid away from a book he or she might enjoy, even though I didn’t.  The world would be a very boring place if everyone only read the books that I like.

2.  Just because I don’t review a book here doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.  I’m not going to review all the books I liked. I can’t.  I’d never get any writing done.

One more thing…  I’m glad I’m a panelist and not a judge. I can’t  imagine how they’re going to choose one winner from so many amazing novels.  It’s been a very good year for middle grade fiction.

Thankful Thursday

Three things today –

1. I finished the first draft of my chapter book last night.  It has messy hair and ripped sweatpants and warts, but it’s done, and that’s what revision is for.  Plus, parts of it are funny and sparkly.

2. This relates to #1.  I’m thankful for E, who lit a fire under me to finish.  If you ever really want to meet a writing goal, share your unfinished draft with a 6-year-old. I have heard “Do you have a chapter for me this morning?”  every day for the past three weeks.

3. I got a letter in the mail yesterday from a 5th grader named Olivia.  It’s one of those letters that is so perfect you want to keep it and frame it and be buried with it some day.  Here’s an excerpt:

I LOVED your book SPITFIRE!  I am not going to exaggerate the words I am about to say. And those words are, That was the BEST book I have EVER read!!!!!!!!!

You had beautiful word choices.  I LOVED the sentence fluency.  I like the way you set the mood and showed how the characters felt with the injured men and all of the emotional bits.  I like the way you switched Abigail (Adam) and Pascal in the chapters to show each of their emotions. I LOVED the epilogue for the same switching reason I just said.  And that they wrote to each other. Plus the part where they both saw honking geese.

Thank you, Olivia — and thanks to all the other Olivias out there, too — kids who love stories and words so much.  You are the reason I write.


 I just finished revising the last chapter in my MG historical novel CHAMPLAIN & THE SILENT ONE.

I have the rest of the week to wrap up Part II of my November goal — the first draft of my chapter book, which is within 1000 words of where it needs to be.  I see the light!

Anyone else need a cheer (or a gentle shove) for NaNoWriMo or JoNoWriMo goals? 

You can do it!
Three more days!
That Butt-in-Chair time
Really pays!

You can do it!
Write, write, write!
Reach that goal…
and… umm…
Chocolate you’ll bite!

(There are reasons that I write only prose and non-rhyming poems.  Good ones. Good luck anyway!)

Out of the mouths of ‘tweens…

At dinner tonight, I was describing a new project idea to my 11-year-old.  We’re talking a brand-new, just percolating grain of an idea…but I wanted to bounce it off my real live boy and see if the concept, at least, intrigued him.

I told him about the two main characters, how they somehow connect even though they’re from different social classes, how the male MC writes to a famous dead writer and his letters end up getting answered, how the female MC gets lost in the woods somehow and the male MC goes after her and gets in trouble himself somehow…and then she ends up saving him not only from the wilderness but from his former life, somehow.

J nodded and said with a straight face, “It sounds good.  You’re going to have to fix all those somehows, though…”

Isn’t that just the truth?  When I think about novels that I’ve read that didn’t quite work for me, it’s often because the “somehows” were never addressed.  I’m adding “Fix the Somehows” to my list of revision reminders right now.

Thankful because…

(This reminds me of a project I did in third grade.  When I finish typing, I will be getting out crayons to draw pictures of all these things on a paper plate…)

1. I am inching my way toward my JoNoWriMo goal. I think I’m going to make it!

2. My E is dancing in a production of The Nutcracker this weekend.  She is a bon-bon, which if you’ve ever met E,  you know is serious type-casting.  She is unbelievably, immeasurably excited.  Quote from her in the car on the way to dress rehearsal today:

I just can’t wait to dance in my costume because I’ve never danced in a costume, you know, well except for my Cinderella costume and my princess and fairy costumes and my other princess costume at home, but here I’ll be dancing in costume in public and in front of a big crowd and everything (do you think it will be a big crowd, Mom?) and I so can’t wait because it’s going to be so fun!

3. The library called to tell me my copy of The Wednesday Wars came in today!  I am on page 4 and already laughing.

4. I’ve had good writer news lately, and this makes writing even more fun than usual.

5. My parents are healthy and happy, even though they’re not with us this Thanksgiving.

6. I recently finished my last big book promotion trip of a busy fall, and I’m so happy to be hanging out on the big denim couch with my very patient and amazing family. These haven’t been big, famous national book tour things — just one or two day events around NY and Vermont.  But still.  It’s good to be home.

Have a warm, wonderful, Thanksgiving, everyone!

The ink isn’t dry yet, but…

I’ve accepted an offer of representation from Jennifer Laughran with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency!  Lots of you know her as

, and I can’t even begin to express how excited I am to have my manuscript in her hands.

I’ve been sitting on this for more than a week because I couldn’t quite believe it was real until the agency agreement came in the mail today.  I think I’m going to frame it.  I even like the letterhead.

I wanted to share the news in a friends post because…well…lots of you have offered lots of advice since I became an LJ person last spring.  I live in a pretty remote part of Northern NY.  There aren’t loads of writers here who get together for lattes every other Tuesday, and I’ve come to appreciate this community so much.   You’re one of the many reasons I’ll be giving thanks this week.

45 minutes at the Met

My trip to NYC last week for the NYS English Conference didn’t include much down time, but I did have a couple hours free Friday morning before I had catch my train back to Albany.  I have a weakness for art museums of all kinds, and if you’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you know it’s kind of the great grandmother of them all.  Friday morning, I was in desperate need of some exercise so I made deal with myself.  Go ahead and go to the Met, but you have to walk the 36 blocks to get there.

I left my pod at the Pod Hotel early so I could be there for the 9:30 opening. This is my pod…the whole entire thing. 

There’s none of the room that you can’t see, and I could stand in the middle and touch both walls.  Thus, this isn’t a great place for the claustrophobic, but it was clean, kind of hip, and very cheap by NYC standards, especially on a night when the Marriott’s conference rate was sold out and the best I could get there was $499/night.

With 45 minutes at the Met, I had a strategic game plan.  I wanted to see the Vermeer paintings that were part of the Rembrandt exhibit (sorry, no pictures allowed), and that took up most of my time.  I’ve had a fascination with Vermeer ever since I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Chasing Vermeer, and I had never seen a real Vermeer painting until now.  They are as enchanting and magical and light-filled as I had hoped. 

After the Dutch exhibit, I took a walk through the new Greek and Roman gallery that opened recently.

And then wandered through the Modern Art section on behalf of a Gianna, a character in my MG contemporary novel who LOVES Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. 

Okay…the truth is that I love them, too, which is probably one reason Gianna loves them.  We’re both mesmerized by the energy in the Pollock paintings.

And then I saw this on my way out…

When I stepped back, it looked like this…

Okay…who knew right away it was going to be a Chuck Close piece? This one is called Lucas.

I was almost late for my train because I decided to walk/jog back to the hotel to get my stuff and also had to stop to take a picture of this turkey in a storefront on 5th Avenue.

It is made entirely of forks, spoons, and knives.  How’s that for a Thanksgiving centerpiece?!  Happily, there was no line at checkout, and I made it to Penn Station on time, set up a nice writing spot on the train, and was able to bang out two more chapters of my WIP before pulling into Albany.