The Frog Catchers

We spent last night camping in the Adirondacks, and since I like to focus on the positive things in life, I didn’t actually take photos of the two inches of water in our tent this morning.  (I am pretty sure the air mattresses were floating.) Instead, I’ll tell you about the s’mores and the three ponds we visited on our hike.  We spent the afternoon at our favorite mountain swimming hole, Copperas Pond, diving into the clear water, standing on the rocks while tiny fish bumped into our toes, drying off in the sun, and then diving in all over again.

And the frog-catching was outstanding!

E must have caught at least two dozen frogs at various stages of their tadpole-to-frog transformations.  Some of them had fully formed legs and tails.  She released them all…which is more than I can say for this other frog-catcher.

We were wading in shallow water when my son stepped onto the log and said, "Hey!  A snake!"  and then "Whoa!! It just caught a frog!"  We watched for almost a minute while the snake maneuvered the frog off of the log, into the water, and then into what we assume was its den in the rocks at the edge of the pond.

It disappeared, presumably to have dinner, and then it was time for us to do the same.  I’m pretty sure that our hamburgers and veggie burgers, though not quite as fresh, were both tastier and easier to come by.

The Boats, the BIG waves, the Books & the Bees

Be warned. This is one of those rambling, little-bit-of-everything posts.

First the boats… which were a theme of the League of Vermont Writers summer picnic at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum last weekend.  The League invited me to be one of two speakers for the event, and we had a great time talking about research for both historical fiction and for more contemporary pieces.  I was so glad I stayed to hear poet Daniel Lusk speak after lunch, too.

He was charming and read from his latest work-in-progress, a collection of poems inspired by what’s under the surface of Lake Champlain, from fish to shipwrecks, to our elusive lake monster, Champ.  And for those of you planning to attend the Burlington Book Festival this fall, take note… Daniel will be reading from his work at Burlington’s Waterfront Theatre on September 27th.  He wasn’t sure what time yet, but if you check the festival website, I’m sure they’ll have a schedule posted before long. 

In other news this week, my husband and I have spent a fair amount of time rescuing our dock pieces from waves as Lake Champlain’s water level continues to rise with all our summer rain. 

I think naked docks look funny, don’t you?

After we finished lugging all the pieces around, I plopped down on the sun porch and devoured my ARC of this book in a single day.

Don’t miss this one when it comes out in October.  L.K. Madigan‘s FLASH BURNOUT has one of the best teen boy voices in any book I’ve ever read.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times the dialogue made me laugh out loud.  So, so perfect and funny.  But not fluffy either – this book has a way of being hysterically funny and deeply profound all at once, and it tackles some tough issues.  I loved it and was sad when I finished.  Up next on my reading list (and saving me from too much pouting) is THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, which I’ve heard great things about, too.

I haven’t had much reading time today yet because I spent the afternoon at the public library in Alburg, Vermont for a presentation about my second Lake Champlain historical novel, CHAMPLAIN AND THE SILENT ONE.  No matter how many presentations I give, I’m always moved by a welcome like this. 

Those balloons have had me smiling all day.  And I loved the group of people who came out for this event, a mix of all ages, including a high school freshman who just had her own poem about the Holocaust published.  It was fun to talk about writing with her and her sister!

My other big highlight of the week was a research appointment to help me write a new scene in SUGAR ON SNOW, my middle grade ice skating novel that’s coming out with Walker Books in 2010.  The main character’s friend takes care of the bees in her family’s apple orchard, and I’ve decided to set the new scene there.  (If you read the book later on, you will see why – it just fits the mood of the conversation perfectly.)  So yesterday, in 87-degree weather, I met up with a delightful area beekeeper (thank you, Dave!), zipped myself into a borrowed beekeeper’s outfit, and got to work watching and listening to 100,000 honeybees and learning how to care for them.

It’s probably good that you can’t see in the photo how sweaty I was.  Despite the heat, it was a fantastic afternoon, and I learned some amazing things about honeybees, some of which are perfect for the new scene and some of which are fascinating but don’t belong in my book, and so I’ll just quietly enjoy those.  For those of you who write & research, it’s a challenge, isn’t it?  Knowing what has to be left out, even when it’s information you love? 

The Alburg Library was my last author event until Labor Day weekend, when we’re throwing a launch party for THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z.  More on that soon, but for now, know that you’re invited to Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, VT on Saturday, September 5th at 11:00.  Nonna’s famous funeral cookies from the book will make their debut, too!

For now…it’s back to the revision, with some camping, family visits, and general summer frolicking sprinkled in, too.  I hope you’ve had a terrific July!

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

If you’re anything like me, you’ve already heard about a million great recommendations for Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME, and that can be a bit of a double-edged sword.  The great reviews made me really, REALLY want to read the book, but they also set up what I worried might be unrealistic expectations.  Could it really be THAT amazing?

It could.  And it is.

These young characters, growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are reminiscent of Judy Blume’s families in TALES OF FOURTH GRADE NOTHING and the FUDGE series. They’re authentic, multi-faceted, funny, and real.  Their story of friendship and first crushes and first jobs would have been enough to win me over. But then the letter comes. When main character Miranda reads it, she she learns that a mysterious someone says he or she is coming to save her friend’s life, and the story evolves from a coming of age tale into a mystery/science fiction, genre-bending marvel. At the heart of WHEN YOU REACH ME is a thread about time travel — the possibilities, the what-if and the how-might-we, and the sheer wonder of believing.  When I finished, I wanted to pick it up immediately and start reading all over again.

This is going to be the first book that I share with my middle school students as a read-aloud in the fall. I absolutely, positively can’t wait.

Editing to add: I loaned my copy of WHEN YOU REACH ME to

 , who has also posted a recommendation today. Hers is longer and way more detailed because she is like that and also makes fancy little place cards when you go to her house for dinner.  You can read her thoughts here.

Knowing your Secondary Characters

So I’m knee-deep in my revision of SUGAR ON SNOW right now.  I’m sitting on the sun porch with my coffee and a nice breeze from the lake, merrily checking off all the little revision jobs my editor asked me to consider in her editorial letter.  I’ve been moving right along, which is a good thing because the publication date for this book is likely being moved up to Fall 2010.  And I’ve been getting lots done this week and feeling good about the revision.  But I’ve just come to a screeching halt.  Because editor MK says:

Claire’s Mom – I wanted to see more of her. Claire spends a lot of time away from home, but I think the addition of a scene between them would help us get a better idea of who Claire is and where she comes from…..  What does her mother really think of all the skating?  What would her mom say about how Claire has changed?

And so I started adding a new scene with Claire and her mom together in the kitchen of their farmhouse.  They are sewing sequins onto Claire’s skating dress, and Claire’s mom looks at her and says….

I don’t know.

Because I’ve just realized that I don’t know Claire’s mom the way I need to know her to make this scene real.  I know the "Mom-of-the-moment" and how she spends her days, but I’m not entirely sure who Mom used to be. That feels important now, before I can move forward.

So I’ll be here on page 109 for a while.  I thought I’d do a little thinking-aloud on the blog, for process fans. Here are the questions I’m considering:

Right now, Mom’s whole life seems to be Claire and the boys and the maple farm. Who was she before?  When she was 16, before she met Claire’s dad, what did she want to be when she grew up?

She loves the maple farm, loves the work her family does there.  Why?

What does Mom think about while Claire is skating in Lake Placid?  What are her worries?  What is she hoping for Claire?

What was Mom’s relationship with her own parents like?

What makes Mom feel talented and special? What used to make her feel that way when she was a teenager?

Did Mom have a dream she didn’t get to follow or chose not to follow? 

What changes has Mom noticed in Claire since she started training in Lake Placid?

Mom is a listener, but Claire hasn’t had time to talk much about all this.  What has Mom heard from her? And what is she wondering about?

Where did Mom learn how to sew?  (And does Claire already know, or is Mom teaching her during this conversation, too?)

Time to shut down the laptop for a bit… This part of the process is a pen and notebook thing for me. 

What about you?  What are your favorite strategies for making secondary characters ring true?

How They Got Here: 2009 Debut Author Cynthea Liu

This post is part of a year-long series of blog interviews I’ll be hosting with my fellow 2009 Debut Authors, called "How They Got Here."  

It should be an especially helpful series for teens who write, teachers, and anyone who wants to write for kids.  2009 debut authors will be dropping by to talk about how their writing in school shaped the authors they are today, what teachers can do to make a difference, how they revise, and how they found their agents and editors.  (You’ll even be able to read some successful query letters!)  If you know a teacher or two who might be interested, please share the link!

Today… Cynthea Liu

A photo from ALA: That’s Cynthea Liu on the right, along with her fellow debut author Cindy Pon (SILVER PHOENIX) on the left!

Twelve-year-old Paris Pan’s life is a mess. She’s just moved to a tiny town in Nowheresville, Oklahoma; her family life is a comical disaster; her new friends are more like frenemies; and the boy she has a crush on is a dork. Things couldn’t possibly get worse, until she discovers that a girl mysteriously died years ago while taking a seventh-grade rite of passage–the Dare– right near Paris’s new house. So when Paris starts hearing strange noises coming from the creepy run-down shed in her backyard, she thinks they could be a message from the ghost of a girl. But while she has no plans to make contact with the great beyond, her two new friends have other thoughts. Everyone who’s anyone takes the Dare, and now it’s Paris’s turn.

Welcome, Cynthea! Tell us about the first thing you ever wrote that made you think maybe you were a writer.

One of the first things was my first query letter, but if I go back even further, really, the first thing I DREW when I was in college (sketches of animals), later became the impetus for my full children’s book novel.  A novel that barely got subbed and is now sitting quietly on my hard drive, waiting for me to come back to it again when I’m ready. 

Unlike a lot of writers, I never thought I’d be one when I was younger. Seriously, if you had asked me in high school or junior high, I would have rolled my eyes and said, "WHY WOULD I EVER WANT TO DO THAT?!"

Even when teachers and college professors encouraged me to pursue it, I just laughed them off. I had no idea that what I wrote was actually readable and interesting to people. I just thought, "well, that’s how I talk. That’s not real writing."

Now I know, that being authentic – expressing yourself as a "real" person is exactly how writing should work. Why hadn’t someone said that to me earlier? I could have fifteen novels under my belt by now. 🙂

What books did you love when you were a kid?

I was a freak for animal stories. Talking animals, nontalking animals, animals that played instruments, animals that saved lives, animals that got lost, animals, animals, animals!
I gobbled them all up. And of course, I had to have an animal in PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE. Go, the dog, is one of my favorite characters.

Is there a particular teacher or librarian who was a mentor for you in your reading and writing life?

Yes, my algebra teacher. Yes, my ALGEBRA teacher left a lasting memory for me about books. I had complained to her one day that I couldn’t find anything to read anymore. I’d read it all. She said, "Well, have you tried some adult books?" She handed me my first DEAN KOONTZ book. Which I LOVED. Of course, now she’d probably be jailed for giving me an adult book, complete with a racy scene, to read. But man, thank you, Mrs. M for saving my reading life when I was in 8th grade.

Moving on to the here and now, most writers admit that making time to write can sometimes be a challenge.  When and where do you write?   Do you have any special rituals?  

These days, I’ve been extremely swamped with my book launches BUT when I do write, it is heaven. I’ve got my Diet Dr. Pepper at my side, my laptop, and my critique partner, the fabulous Tammi Sauer, at the ready, online. I work for at least four straight hours, either laughing my head off or banging my head against the computer. It’s such great fun. And I mean that!

Your favorite strategy for revision?

My strategy for revision these days is to keep going back to the beginning and rereading it as I build each new chapter. This helps me check story flow and work out any kinks before I end up with a huge plot disaster on my hands. Nothing worse than a huge plot disaster.

Best advice for young writers?

BELIEVE that you can do it. START NOW. You’re a hot commodity. Publishers LOVE young writers. When you’re old like me, no one cares. But your YOUNG and cool and so talented. So get crackin’ on that book! Nancy Fan was 12 or 13 when she got her first book published. Christopher Paolini was 15 when he started his book Eragon. 

YOUR AGE IS A PLUS in the book publishing industry. So stop worrying about how long it’ll be before you are 5 feet tall or when you’ll get your driver’s license. You can get a book written and published NOW. That’s definitely cooler than getting behind the wheel so you can cart your younger sister around.

What’s special about your novel?

PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE is actually my first novel. I started it before THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA so it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. There is so much of me and my family experiences in the book, that I feel like the book is actually a "part" of me. So don’t rest a pop can on it or anything. Let’s show some respect for the Pans!

What were the best and worst parts of writing it?

The best parts of the book are the most difficult parts of the book to write. I try very hard to strike an emotional chord with the reader, and doing that is no easy task. So if you ever feel yourself getting scared, laughing out loud, getting angrey, tearing up even, that scene right there was one of the hardest parts to write.

How did you find your agent and/or editor?

Finding an agent and an editor was like courting this cute guy who has no idea what you look like or what your personality is like. All you can do is hand him your book and hope THAT does the trick. Fortunately for me, I nabbed my agent fairly early in my writing process but getting an editor to fall in love was not as quick. I had to give the editors several different versions of my book before they fell for my wiley ways. Hard work, man!

And here’s Cynthea’s successful pitch for PARIS PAN:

Twelve-year-old Paris Pan has moved to a small town where she has a real shot at making friends. But that friendship comes at a price. She must take The Dare, something that killed a girl on the very property she now resides. To make matters worse, Paris must play basketball against her will, eradicate a crush on the least desirable boy in sixth grade, and cope with a family crisis that was possibly caused by a chili dog.

Thanks for sharing your journey, Cynthea!

You can read more about Cynthea at her website, and of course, you can ask for PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE at your local independent bookseller.  You can also order it through one of my favorite indies, Flying Pig Bookstore (they ship!), or find an indie near you by checking out IndieBound!

Making the Leap: Time to Change Manuscripts

My plan all summer long has been to get as far as I can on my new middle grade mystery and then set it aside when my editorial letter arrived for SUGAR ON SNOW, the figure skating novel that will be my second book with Walker Books for Young Readers.  I knew I’d need to make the switch this week, but it didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. 

My editor actually emailed me the editorial letter on Monday with a note saying that line edits would arrive on Tuesday.  I  wanted both before I started revising, so I was going to work one last morning on the middle grade mystery before the UPS guy arrived.  But when I sat down at my computer yesterday, I realized that something had happened — a switch had flipped from right to left in my brain Monday night when I read that emailed editorial letter.  It had transported me out of the world of the middle grade mystery, out of the world of stolen treasures and busy city airports and back to the maple farms and ice skating rinks of SUGAR ON SNOW.  I actually went and stood out front for a little while, willing the UPS guy to come early.  But he didn’t.

So I went for a long run instead.  About a mile from my house, there’s a community college in a big old building at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Champlain.  It is a very big hill, one that I hadn’t tackled on my morning run in well over a year, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way to the top without stopping.  But somehow, trying seemed like a good idea yesterday.  All through the run, I thought about the issues that my editor had raised in her letter, the scenes she’d asked me to consider adding.  I came up with a perfect setting for one of those scenes, a conversation between my main character and her best friend from home.  And before I knew it, the ground leveled, and I was at the top of the hill.  I’d made it.  Because I kept my head down and kept moving, one step at a time.  Not a bad lesson at all to begin a revision day.

I stretched against the stone wall overlooking the lake, ran home, did some yoga on the deck, jumped into the lake in my running clothes, dried off, and picked the girl up from her art camp for lunch.  I was picking Japanese beetles off the aster plants out front when the UPS guy pulled up in his big brown truck. 

And I was ready for him.

Last night, during E’s skating lesson, I sat in the chilly sound booth and made my to-do list, marking the manuscript with ideas next to my editor’s comments, sticking Post-It notes where I could add those scenes she’d requested (I do love my Post-It notes), and making a list of little bits of research that I need to do.  Today, I’ll start on page one.  I promise a process-post later on for those who enjoy nitty-gritty revision details. But mostly…I’ll just be keeping my head down for the next few weeks, taking it one step at a time.

BUG BOY by Eric Luper: Not Your Mother’s Historical Fiction

Eric Luper’s historical YA novel BUG BOY comes out on Tuesday, and I can’t resist a little book celebration for one of my critique pals. If you know  , then you know he’s one of the nicest, funniest guys you’ll ever meet.  If you’ve read his first YA novel, BIG SLICK, you know he can spin a timely, fast-paced gambling story like nobody’s business.  Now there’s BUG BOY – a gambling story from days gone by that shows his talent for writing historical fiction as juicy and fast-paced as anything set in modern times.

This is a book that’s going to make teen boys fall in love with historical fiction without ever knowing what hit them. Set in 1934 Saratoga, BUG BOY is about an apprentice jockey who finds himself living the high life when his big opportunity comes knocking. But secrets from his past, pressure from a race course thug, and the attention of a beautiful young woman from the other side of the fence make his life more complicated than he could have imagined.   One teacher note: BUG BOY is probably best for older middle school and high school students, since the realistic portrayal of rough track life includes some language and sexual situations. Actually, I’m betting that a bunch of adult readers are going to discover and love this book, too – it has incredible crossover appeal, especially for horse racing and history fans. If you need it right this very second (and you probably do) click here to buy it from an indie bookstore near you!

Fascinating, gritty, and full of tension, BUG BOY is a sure win
. Congrats, Eric!

All I want to do is read.

How can I possibly pick up the house and do laundry and answer email with all these staring at me?

ALA Chicago – Day Four

Heading to the airport later this morning, but first, here are a few more photos from ALA and Chicago.

Yesterday started bright and early on the ALA exhibit floor, where I ran into   , whose debut YA novel ASH is on the way from Little Brown. It’s a re-telling of Cinderella with a twist — the main character falls in love not with the prince but with the King’s huntress.  I read an ARC of Malinda’s book a few weeks ago, and it’s beautifully written. Don’t miss it when it comes out in September!

That’s Malinda on the left, me on the right.  I do not know why my hair looks like I’ve just touched one of those electricity-static ball things. 

We saw Elizabeth Bluemle’s soon-to-be-released picture book HOW DO YOU WOKKA WOKKA at the Candlewick booth, and the good folks there were kind enough to stand by while we read the whole thing out loud together, doing little wokka dances. 

This book, written in verse, is great fun, with inventive language that you can’t resist reading out loud. Rumor is that Elizabeth is planning a block party at Flying Pig Bookstore for its August release, too.

After lunch, we visited the Field Museum of Chicago, where the Real Pirates exhibit was sold out, unfortunately, but we did get to see Sue, the museum’s T-Rex fossil.

Then it was back to Hyde Park for the Harry Potter Exhibition at the Museum of Science & Industry.

The Harry Potter Exhibition includes more than 200 artifacts and costumes from the movies, as well as an opportunity to walk through Hagrid’s hut, try your hand at Quidditch, and repot a mandrake.  Cameras weren’t allowed, and I understand why.  Seeing too much of this exhibit ahead of time would spoil the thrill of turning a corner and seeing a favorite moment from the series.  Some of what I heard from my kids:

"Look, Mom!  It’s the Marauder’s Map!"


"You’re supposed to have headphones on when you pull that mandrake."

"There are death eaters up here in the next room!"

"I could stay here forever."

If you’re a Harry Potter fan and you have a chance to see this show, make it a point to do so; it’s really that spectacular. Chicago is the only scheduled city right now, but the website says more will be added soon.

That’s all for today – it’s time to have breakfast & get to the airport.  More on ALA, including some book giveaways, when I get home.

P.S. I am watching my daughter pack her suitcase as I type.  The books all went in first, and she is now staring, perplexed, at the large pile of clothing on the floor that didn’t fit. At least she has her priorities straight.

ALA Chicago – Day Three

I really meant to blog every night, but last night, after a full day on the exhibit floor, a trip up the Sears Tower, and then the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder Banquet, all I could do last night was climb the stairs to our room, take off my pointy shoes (how do some of you wear those every day?), and fall into bed after an amazing, amazing day.

It started with a moment I’ve been waiting for 28 years.

I met Judy Blume. JUDY BLUME!!!!!! Her signing was right before mine, so my daughter and I were the first ones in line. She and Beverly Cleary were my first favorite authors, and I remember reading FUDGE and ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MARGARET in the beanbag chair in my closet wondering what Judy Blume must be like. She is beautiful and delightful and kind, and I just about cried when I met her. Her books made me want to be an author, so having the opportunity to tell her so and say thank you was something I will never forget.

Then it was time for me to sign advance copies of THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z at the Walker/Bloomsbury Booth. My husband and kids acted as loyal members of the paparazzi and took lots of photographs.

Here’s the whole Bloomsbury/Walker crew!

Bloomsbury Editorial Director Michelle Nagler, me, Walker Publisher Emily Easton, School & Library Outreach Goddesses Katie Fee & Beth Eller

Thanks so much to everyone at Walker/Bloomsbury and to all the librarians and all my LJ friends who stopped by to say hello. It was great meeting so many people who work with kids & books every day, and seeing friends like , , , , , ,

made me feel so much more relaxed.

After my signing, we walked the exhibit floor for a while. Everywhere I looked, there were people whose work I’ve admired for years.

Pam Munoz Ryan signing with Brian Selznick

After we mailed a box of books home (they have a Post Office right there in the exhibits hall!), we headed out for some sightseeing.

The Sears Tower has a new attraction — the Airwalk, where you can step out onto a glass platform that hangs out over the edge of the skyscraper. The bottom is glass, too, so it feels like you’re just hovering there, 103 stories up.

By late afternoon, it was time to head to the Book Cart Drill Team Championships, which were as entertaining as Betsy Bird promised me they’d be. Here’s the team from Des Moines in action.

Then it was off to the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder Banquet, which was held downtown at the Sheraton, too far from the convention center to walk. Due to a bizarre series of events which included some poor planning on my part and hour-long waits for shuttle buses, I ended up paying $10 for a ride to the banquet in this.

The driver  (I’m convinced he was sent by the literary gods to keep me from missing my first ALA banquet) appeared in the convention center lobby offering rides to those of us stranded at the back of the cab line, so ten of us made quick friends with one another and piled into the limo.

At the hotel, I found Betsy Bird (Fuse #8) who had offered to let me join her table when we met at my writers’ retreat a few weeks ago. How fabulous is her outfit?!

She shared some of her literary tattoos. I ended up with Marla Frazee’s A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER on my left arm.

The banquet itself was unforgettable. The winners’ speeches moved and inspired me. I’d try to recap, but I know I wouldn’t do them justice, so you should probably just listen when they’re shared online.

  also did a great writeup of Neil Gaiman’s speech on her blog.

After the banquet, you could stand in a receiving line to congratulate everyone.

At one point, someone ducked in front of Betsy to talk to Neil Gaiman, and I thought, "Hey! That guy’s cutting the line!" …until I saw that it was Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie can cut in front of me any day.

Today, we’re headed back to the exhibit hall for the morning. Then I’m meeting a friend for lunch & aiming for a two-museum afternoon before we head home tomorrow.