Welcome Sara Zarr!

Funny things happen sometimes.  A few weeks ago, I received an email asking if I’d like to review Sara Zarr’s new book SWEETHEARTS.  Sure!  I loved STORY OF A GIRL, and well, there’s the whole pink cookie on the cover thing.  I loved the book and jumped at the chance to host a stop on Sara’s blog tour.  We emailed back and forth a few times but needed to wrap things up before last weekend because Sara and I were both going to be traveling.  When all was said and done, I sent Sara a link to my blog so she’d be able to see today’s interview.  She emailed back.  Turns out we were headed out of town for the same writing retreat, so we could have done the interview in person.  I got to spend a little time with Sara at the retreat, and she’s just the kind, funny, down-to-earth person I had imagined.  I love it when that happens. 

I teach 7th grade English Language Arts, and I was reading SWEETHEARTS during independent reading time with my kids one day.  One of my students stopped by my desk at the end of the period.  “Are you going to finish that today?  And can I borrow it?”  Becky devoured the book in a couple days and was excited to hear that Sara would be stopping by my blog.  She handed me a list of questions the next day, so this interview is our joint effort!

Welcome, Sara!  First, let’s talk about the new book.  What was the inspiration for this story, the spark that made you want to write about Jenna and Cameron?

I knew this boy in grade school, Mark. Like Cameron, he left a ring and a note in my lunch one day, and I remember sitting in the back of my friend’s mom’s car and discovering it and thinking, wow, there’s this person who likes me and thinks about me. Our relationship wasn’t like Cameron and Jenna’s, but for me it was like I carried around this secret—that someone cared about me and was on my side, and that meant a lot and stayed with me my whole life. Mark got back in touch when we were adults, and I started playing around with the “what if we’d known each other in high school?” question. The story went from there.

Often, authors will say that characters are made up of bits and pieces of people they know or people they’ve been.  Where did Jenna and Cameron come from?

Cameron was definitely inspired by Mark, though the details about his life and his family are a total fabrication. I didn’t know him between the ages of 8 and 30, so I had to imagine him as a teenager. Jennifer, before she became Jenna, draws some on my own life. I stole and used food the way she does, and I was one of the “poor kids” who always wore hand-me-downs and got the subsidized milk, though I was not as much of an outsider as Jennifer. Jenna as a teen is a lot different than I was; I do relate to her fear of being found out for who she really is, but I think everyone feels that deep down to some extent.

SWEETHEARTS seems like a perfect title for this book.  Did you know while you were writing what the title would be, or did you play around with different titles along the way? (And if you did, would you share some of them?)

The title actually came early on and I never had any other ideas. I remember emailing my agent and asking, “What do you think of SWEETHEARTS as a title?” He was lukewarm at first (he may deny it now, but I have the email evidence!). I always thought it was perfect, myself. I’ve never had a title come so easily.

I can’t imagine anyone has looked at SWEETHEARTS without commenting on the cover (and getting hungry!).  Is that what you envisioned for a cover when you wrote the book, or were you surprised?

I was completely surprised. I didn’t have any idea what to expect—I’m terrible with design stuff. When I first saw it, I thought it was so literal…a sweet heart. The more I looked at it—the bite out of the cookie, the crumbs, the starkness of the background and the childlike font of the title—the more I appreciated the genius of designer Alison Impey. It’s actually kind of a masterpiece!

Becky wants to know if there’s going to be another story about Jenna and Cameron (and when Molly finishes, she’s going to want to know, too).  Any plans for a sequel, or do you feel like their journey is over for now?

I have no plans for a sequel, though I’m always delighted when readers ask that question because it means the characters live on in their minds. People have also asked for a sequel to my first book, so maybe I should figure out a way for Deanna, Jenna, Cameron, Jason and Tommy to all meet up in some epic vampire fantasy…

Writers often talk about the pressure of a second book and wanting it to be better than the first.  Since your first novel, STORY OF A GIRL, was a National Book Award Finalist, do you feel like that created extra pressure for you?

Absolutely. Thankfully, SWEETHEARTS was done well ahead of the National Book Award stuff, but even before that I was suffering from a major case of Second Book Psychosis. It really wasn’t based in reality, just a crazy mental battle. Honestly, there was one day that involved me curled in a ball on the kitchen floor, crying and praying and figuring out how to break the news to my agent that everyone would soon discover that I was a total fraud.

Were there any parts of writing SWEETHEARTS that were a real struggle for you?

As you can imagine, it was hard to write the scenes in Cameron’s childhood home, with his dad. It made me sick to my stomach, literally. And I’ve read books in which so much worse happens to the characters…I don’t know how those authors do it. It was hard to balance making the situation menacing enough to be scarring, but still get them out before anything worse happened.

You recently sold your next two novels.  What can you tell us about those?

Not much! All I can say right now about the one I’m working on is that it involves a pastor’s daughter. I grew up in church and have always wanted to explore church life more directly in a novel. It’s too soon to talk about much else.

When and where do you most often like to write?

Whenever and wherever. My work habits aren’t anything to brag about–it’s always a struggle to get going. Every day I’m afraid. Every day I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. So I avoid it. Time and location don’t matter to me much, as long as I do the work.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy?

Get editorial letter. Cry. Rage. Cry. Complain. Freak out. Wonder how I’ve fooled so many for so long. Cry some more. When that stage is over, I like to have a printout of the manuscript and start a new Word document rather than edit on screen and cut and paste. Even if I end up typing the same pages over and over, there’s something about the physical act of typing that helps.

And last but not least… In honor of that delicious cover, what’s your favorite kind of cookie?

A big, soft, homemade chocolate chip cookie with no nuts.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Sara! 

SWEETHEARTS has an official February 1st release date but has already started showing up in bookstores.  Just look for that pink cookie on the cover.

Kindling Words

What do you get when you take 75 people who care passionately about writing, illustrating, and editing children’s books, put them together for four days, feed them a lot, and build a blazing fire on a cold January night?


I’m home from Kindling  Words, full of inspiration, ideas, new friendships, and rich desserts.  Homemade ice cream and pastries aside, this was an amazing weekend.

Laurie Halse Anderson‘s author strand on character and plot and Linda Sue Park‘s talk on scene as the bedrock for story were inspirational and immediately practical. When I sat down to write after each session, it felt like Laurie and Linda Sue were there over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “Remember, make him uncomfortable…” and “Do you really want all that internal monologue?”  (Linda-Sue-Over-My-Shoulder thought not, so I cut a lot of it.)

The retreat also left room for informal “white space” discussions, and I had the chance to connect with friends and meet so many amazing, talented writers, illustrators, and editors whose work I’ve admired for so long.

Jane Yolen and Linda Sue Park catching up in the lobby…

I was thrilled to see Rochester Book Festival pals Kathleen Blasi (left) and Sibby Falk (right), and just as excited to meet Cinda Williams Chima (center), who not only writes but sings beautifully, too.


…  Look who else I met!

That’s me on the left, next to Cheryl Klein, Elizabeth’s editor for A Curse Dark As Gold, which comes out in March.  I enjoyed chatting with Cheryl because we discussed weighty matters like books and whether chocolate or caramel sauce would be better on the brownie sundaes.

Here’s LJ pal Sarah Darer Littman (

) with Wendy Mass

…along with Laurie Halse Anderson, Linda Sue Park, and Gregory McGuire.

Patricia Thomas (left) celebrated her birthday at KW on Sunday.  That’s Michelle Edwards in the middle and Janni Lee Simner (

) on the right.  Janni’s stories about Iceland make me want to book a flight there immediately.

I also met Katie Davis for the first time and was in awe of her energy.  I’ve been called hyperactive.  Katie makes me look like I’m standing still.

And here’s Donna Freitas with Sara Zarr.  I emailed Sara back and forth a couple times this month because I’m hosting a stop on her blog tour, but it was just last week that we figured out we were both going to the same retreat.  It was fantastic to chat with her in person.

It might sound sappy to say it, but everyone was nice here.  And interesting.  And talented. Everyone.  I wish I had photos of each person whose path crossed mine over the past four days.  (If you’re a fellow retreater and I didn’t catch you before the blog-cam ran out of batteries, please know that I loved meeting you, too!)

Here’s a huge group shot from the Kindling Words Caravan at Phoenix Books.  More than 40 authors & illustrators signed books for kids and their families Thursday night.

Super thanks to Natacha, Renee, & Mike at Phoenix for taking on this enormous event!

I made one more cold and shaky attempt at a group photo during the actual retreat.  (Be gentle with the photography criticism. It was dark and I had climbed onto a big slippery rock.)

Here we are, all bundled up for the traditional KW bonfire.  There’s a longstanding tradition here that retreat-goers write down something on a piece of paper — something they need to let go of, or a wish — and then drop it into the flames. 

On the way to the fire, one author worried aloud about people putting them both in the same fire.  What if you wrote the title of your novel on the paper as a wish that it would sell, but the Universe thought you wanted it gone and erased your hard drive while you were off roasting marshmallows?  I suggested that the bad things would all filter quietly down into the ashes, while the good things were carried off on the smoke to the writing goddesses.  Maybe, she said.  Then she labeled her paper WISH, with an arrow pointing to it.  Just in case.

Here’s my wish on its way to the flames…

I won’t tell you what it said, but I’ll let you know at the end of 2008 if it came true. 

I’ll share some other wishes, though — staying in touch with the wonderful people I met this week and returning to fan the flames at Kindling Words again.  It was truly a magical gathering of wisdom, wishes, and words.

Two notes on a Tuesday

Two quick notes tonight  — one looking back and one looking forward.

Looking back… I loved being part of the Robert’s Snow: For Cancer’s Cure fundraiser for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute this holiday season.  In addition to posting interviews with some amazing illustrators to promote the snowflake auction, my students and I created our own snowflakes and sold them at school to raise additional funds.  I just put the check in the mailbox, and another $220 is on its way to help researchers work toward a cure. 

And looking forward… I’m off to Kindling Words this week and will be taking a break from blogging.  But be sure to check in on Monday!  Sara Zarr will be here for an interview about her new novel Sweethearts.  The official release date is February 1st, but it’s already shipping & showing up in stores.

We’ll chat about Sara’s writing process, revision strategies, new projects, and her favorite kind of cookie.  I hope you’ll stop by, too!


I’ve learned a new word…and fly it like a new kite.

                    ~Ralph Fletcher, Ordinary Things

Look,” she whispered, pointing to a tiny trail in the snow. It looked as if someone might have dragged a slender stick from one tree trunk to the next, about six feet away.  “This is very rare.  Someone from the subnivean zone surfaced this morning.”

Eight seventh graders and I hovered in a circle as Camille, our naturalist guide for a field trip to the Paul Smiths Visitors Interpretive Center, went on to describe the mouse tracks that stretched from tree to tree.  The kids loved how tiny the tracks were.  They loved the story of the mouse disappearing again after just a few feet.  They fell in love with the little guy, even though they never actually saw him. 

I fell in love with the word.  Subnivean.  It just sounds sneaky, doesn’t it?  The subnivean zone.  Who knew that there was a whole network of tunnels and rooms and caves under our snowshoes?  It’s a world inhabited by mice and shrews, moles and voles, and insects hiding out in our sub-zero North Country winters.  I imagine them all hatching conspiracies down there.  Subnivean. 

Of course, I immediately went home and googled it.  And look what I found.

An entire BOOK about the subnivean zone!  The author, Bernd Heinrich, teaches at the University of Vermont, too.

I bought Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival yesterday. I go back and and forth between devouring it — with its amazing outdoor stories and gorgeous sketches — and rationing it, stopping after each chapter so I don’t run out too soon.  I love great nature writing, and this book is one of the best I’ve read in this genre.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be hanging out in the subnivean zone.

A Home Run!

Linda Sue Park just hit another one out of the ballpark.

Watch for this book.  It’s due out from Clarion in March, and I predict It’s going to win awards.

Keeping Score is the very best kind of historical novel – one that first introduces kids to funny, dynamic characters they’ll love and then brings in historical elements that are so much more meaningful as they affect the lives of those characters.

Ten-year-old Maggie Fortini loves the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Loves them with a big, fat capital L.  When Jim, a pal at her dad’s firehouse, teaches her how to keep score, she finds a way to be an even better fan and believes she’s helping the team when she keeps track of every play.  But as Maggie cheers the Dodgers in the early 1950s, the Korean conflict rages overseas. The war that isn’t called a war comes crashing into Maggie’s life when her friend Jim is drafted and suddenly stops communicating with her.

Knowing Park’s work, knowing that she’s a Newbery Medalist, I expected this book to be fantastic. Still, there were some passages that took my breath away, some that made me cry, and some that made me feel like I’m missing out on something spiritual because I’m not much of a baseball fan.  Readers will feel like they’ve moved right into 1950s Brooklyn, especially when Park describes Maggie’s walk through her neighborhood on game day:

She would walk past the row of houses that looked just like hers, all built of dull brownish-yellow brick, one window downstairs, two windows up – to Pinky the butcher, or Mr. And Mrs. Floyd at the bakery, or the drugstore, and she wouldn’t miss a single pitch.  Everyone would have their radios on, the sound of the game trailing in and out of each doorway like a long thread that tied the whole neighborhood together.
Keeping Score does for the Korean War what Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars does for Vietnam – contextualizes it through a funny, poignant story of life on the home front, told from a young person’s point of view.

This is a perfect book for baseball fans, so Clarion’s plans to roll it out in time for the first pitch make perfect sense.  But you don’t have to be a baseball fan to love this one.  Like so many great kids’ books, baseball may be the hook, but there’s so much more here.  

Keeping Score
is full of colorful characters, like George at the firehouse, who shares his roast beef sandwiches with Maggie, her dad, who worries about crowd control, and her mom, who prays for the Dodgers while she knits.  It’s about baseball, but it’s also about family and friends and war.  Most, though, Keeping Score is about holding on to hope – something that old-time Dodgers fans knew all about.

PS – Thanks,

!  I loved this book almost as much as Maggie loves the Dodgers!

Educator Resources from LCMM

Thanks to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for featuring Spitfire in its January newsletter for educators!  

Click here if you’d like to sign up to receive the museum’s newsletter. It’s always full of great teaching ideas and resources for the classroom.

If you’re interested in Lake Champlain history or boat-building, LCMM is a fantastic resource.  The museum offers both field trips and outreach programs for kids in Vermont and New York, and the educators do a phenomenal job presenting the stories of the lake through active, hands-on activities.

The mother of all book-signings!

Meet  43 children’s authors & illustrators!

Kindling Words Caravan
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Phoenix Books
Essex, VT

I’ll be there signing copies of Spitfire, and I’m bursting at the seams over the company I’ll be keeping. 
Here are some hints…

Book Brawl

I love it when I book-talk a new selection for my classroom library and end up with a near-battle over who gets to sign it out first.  I know, I know, chaos is generally frowned upon in school, but I love to see kids ravenous about reading.  Here’s the book that caused the commotion this week…

Dee got there first, so she’s enjoying Lisa Schroeder’s debut novel in verse tonight, probably up late with a flashlight under the covers even as I type this review. 

I read I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME in one weepy sitting over the weekend and savored

‘s free verse poems that come together to tell a touching story of love, loss, and healing.  The book opens with the funeral of Ava’s boyfriend Jackson — a funeral for which she can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility, given what happened.  This isn’t a traditional tear-jerker, though — because Jackson comes back.  As a ghost.  And Ava finds herself pulled in two directions, forced to choose between the love she lost and the life she still has.

Lisa Schroeder’s poems are spare and beautiful — the kind of poems that paint an amazing picture and then hit hard in the last lines.  This book will have huge appeal for fans of other verse novels.  Kids who love Sonya Sones, especially, are in for a treat.  Like Sones, Schroeder takes a realistic look at teenagers. Simon & Schuster recommends this title for grades 9 and up. There are some very mild references to sex, but nothing, in my opinion, that would make the book inappropriate for a 7th or 8th grade reader who has read Sones’ work or other books that  deal with teen romance.

Ava and Jackson were so real to me during the hour I spent in their world,  I couldn’t help being swept up in their drama.  Part of me was glad I read this one at home, so I didn’t end up sobbing through sustained silent reading in front of twenty seventh graders.  But part of me thinks that would have been just fine, too.  Sometimes, an old-fashioned cry is a perfect reminder of  how transporting a great story can be.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie is  brilliant.  But you probably already knew that.

This week, I finally got to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Wow.  Just wow.

I won’t write a traditional review here, because plenty of other people have praised this book up and down, and there was that whole award thing, too….  What I do want to talk about is how this book impressed me by nailing some aspects of poverty that are rarely addressed in YA novels.

As a teacher in a small city school district, I know that about a third of my students are living in poverty, carrying with them each day the baggage that goes along with it.  We have breakfast programs and free lunch and a good library, and that helps.  Some.  What we can’t always do, no matter how hard we try, is provide that new way of thinking that Junior figured out in Alexie’s book – that moment when living in poverty becomes so unbearable that a person has to make the painful choice to leave.  In Junior’s case, it’s the decision to leave his reservation school to attend a more privileged white school in a nearby town.

There’s a scene in Part-Time Indian where Junior gives a lengthy and funny-but-true list of rules for fighting.  His rules.  The rules of the reservation.  Among them…

  • If somebody insults you, then you have to fight him.
  • If you think somebody is thinking about insulting you, then you have to fight him.
  • If somebody beats up your father or your mother, then you have to fight the son and/or daughter of the person who beat up your mother or father.

When Junior starts at the white school, one of the big guys insults him, and sure enough, Junior punches him.  He’s stunned when the guy doesn’t fight back but walks off with his posse, all of them staring at Junior as if he were a monster…

I was absolutely confused.

I had followed the rules of fighting.  I had behaved exactly the way I was supposed to behave.  But these white boys had ignored the rules.  In fact, they had followed a whole other set of mysterious rules where people apparently DID NOT GET INTO FISTFIGHTS.

“Wait,” I called after Roger.

“What do you want?” Roger asked.

“What are the rules?”

“What rules?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there red and mute like a stop sign.  Roger and his friends disappeared.

I felt like somebody had shoved me into a rocket ship and blasted me to a new planet.  I was a freaky alien and there was absolutely no way to get home.

The whole concept of different sets of rules is inherent to any study of the impact of poverty on learning.  Some of my middle school colleagues and I participated in a study group focused on that topic last year, using Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty.   It’s a fantastic book – one that should be required reading for anyone who works with kids in poverty, and especially for those of us who enjoyed more privileged middle class upbringings.  The rules are different.  Payne, like Sherman Alexie, does a great job demystifying this aspect of poverty and helping us to understand why it’s not so easy for Junior – or anyone – to just walk away.

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Jennifer Harris used to be that poor, chubby kid who sat alone in the cafeteria. Well, almost alone. There was Cameron Quick, another social outcast. Another kid living in poverty and living on the fringe of third grade society. He was her only friend and the only person who ever understood Jennifer Harris. And then he disappeared.

Years pass. Jennifer gets a new stepfather, a new house, a new school, a new name, a new life. She reinvents herself as Jenna Vaughn. Jenna Vaughn is one of the pretty, thin popular girls. She has friends and a hot boyfriend. But she also has a secret – a dark memory that ties her forever to Cameron Quick and to the old Jennifer Harris, who never really left. SWEETHEARTS is the story of Cameron’s return to Jennifer’s life and what happens when her two worlds meet.

As a National Book Award Finalist, Sara Zarr has a lot riding on this next novel, scheduled for release in February 2008. There will be inevitable comparisons to STORY OF A GIRL. Can this second book live up to that standard? Truth be told, I liked SWEETHEARTS even better. The characters in this novel absolutely shine, from the insecure third grade Jennifer and the third grade Cameron whose generosity and fierce loyalty made me want him for a friend, to the high school version of these kids, still haunted by their grade school selves. The minor characters shine, too. One of my favorites was Jenna’s stepfather, whose quiet support helps Jenna and her mother rebuild what was broken so many years ago.

Some character-driven novels sacrifice pace and tension, but that’s not the case with SWEETHEARTS. From the very first chapter, readers sense there’s a story from Jennifer’s childhood that’s not being told in its entirety. Zarr reveals that story in bits and pieces, snippets of memory and elegantly woven flashbacks throughout the book. All the while, the parts of the story left unspoken create powerful tension.

I read SWEETHEARTS in just a few sittings. When I was away from the book, I spent half my time thinking about the characters and hoping things would go well for them. They grow on you like that. Sara Zarr has written another fantastic novel –- one that celebrates the power of childhood friendships, loyalty, and inner strength. Like STORY OF A GIRL, Zarr’s new release is loaded with realistic characters, hope, and heart. The fabulous cookie cover art delivers on its promise – SWEETHEARTS an absolutely delicious read.