I’d like to introduce you to my Sea Monster…

This the cover proof for Sea Monster’s First Day, my picture book about a nervous sea monster’s first day in a new school…of fish.  It’s coming out with Chronicle in July, and my terrific editor Melissa just sent me the page proofs via FedEx…a fun surprise waiting when I got home from school!

Illustrator Andy Rash is the amazing talent (and sense of humor!) behind the artwork. That little orange backpack makes me smile every time I see it.

Like Costa Rica Rain…

One of the things I love most about traveling with my family is the way our shared experiences shape the way we see things, long after the trip is over.  Yesterday afternoon, it rained pretty hard here for a little while, just before my daughter and I had to go out to pick up my son at the high school.

"Wow," she said. "It’s like Costa Rica rain."

We both watched out the window for a minute, then said at almost the same time, "But not quite."   Because the rain in the jungle this August was so unique, so dependably spectacular and loud every afternoon at about four o’clock.

I love that our summer trip gave my daughter and me that secret, shared way of seeing a September downpour. It rained hard yesterday. 

Almost like Costa Rica rain. But not quite.

TOUCH BLUE and lobstering at Flying Pig Books

My daughter and I took an after-school ferry ride this afternoon to attend Cynthia Lord’s TOUCH BLUE event at Flying Pig Books. We both read and loved TOUCH BLUE so hearing Cindy speak about it was a real treat. We got to see old photos of the real Maine schoolhouse that inspired the story of TOUCH BLUE, in which families take in foster children to try and save their island school.

And Cindy had great props!  She brought her marked-up manuscript with line edits, some rubber duckies from RULES, sea glass, which plays a role in the book, and lobster banding things (Banders, perhaps? Is that what they’re called? Clearly I was not paying close enough attention…)

Flying Pig co-owner Elizabeth Bluemle took the lobstering practice a step further and started banding guests at the book event, including my daughter and author Linda Urban ( ).

I do not think poor Linda enjoyed being banded… (though she was laughing a second after I took this photo)

Yes, we had entirely too much fun.  And I have a shiny, signed copy of TOUCH BLUE to add to my classroom library tomorrow!

Dystopian World Building Worksheet: Part I

My revision letter and first line edits just arrived for EYE OF THE STORM, my upper-MG dystopian novel coming out with Walker/Bloomsbury in 2012.  I’ve been dying to get back to this book, but before I touch the manuscript to make a single change, I’m going to be writing many, many pages of world-building thoughts. While I did a lot of this during the planning process, I can already tell that this revision is going to be easier — and just plain better — if I take even more time to write explicitly about this world my character inhabits, its rules and challenges, and how it got to be the way it is.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, world-building is the process of coming up with all that information — the history, rules, and everyday realities of the world in which a fantasy or science fiction novel is set.  In historical fiction, we simply call this research, because the world already existed in a past time, and the writer’s job is to ferret out all the details about what it was like.  But when a story is set in an imaginary world or in the future, there’s no real-life past to explore.  It all has to be made up, but made up in a way that makes sense, in a way that the circumstances of the world are believable, given the history that created it, and in a way that’s logical, given the rules you’ve established for the world.

Even imaginary worlds need rules.  Consider Hogwarts. The incantation "Expelliarmus!" always results in an opponent being disarmed, if it’s done right. As readers, we wouldn’t be on board if a character used "Expelliarmus!" to disarm an enemy in one scene and then cried "DroppusWandus!" five pages later. Things need to be consistent.

So what do writers need to consider when creating a world?  I actually spent some time looking around online this week, hoping to find a magical worksheet that would guide me through everything I’d want to consider.  I found some excellent resources at the League of Extraordinary Writers blog, written by a group of debut dystopian writers.  I also liked this post, called "The Importance of Worldbuilding."  But despite searching all over online and even asking for resources on my beloved Twitter, I couldn’t come up with a world-builiding worksheet that felt like it would work for me.

So I made one.  It’s six pages long, and it explores just about every aspect of my future society that I could come up with.  Here’s how it starts:

Geographic Location ___________________________________________________

In the year _______________

In this dystopian society… (Write one sentence that expresses the heart of the story, the conflict as it relates to the dystopia.)

What current issue/problem is at the heart of this dystopia?  From what spark of our modern reality was this world born?

How does the setting of this story impact the main character?

I’m going to get back to writing now, but I’ll share more of this worksheet in the revision-days ahead, in case it’s helpful. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, watch for Part II in a few days.

Almost-Friday Five

1. Remember that book I’m writing for teachers? About how to get kids excited about revision using strategies shared by lots of authors who write for them?  It’s just about done!  I’m waiting on a few photos & quotes, and adding a couple more student work samples this week because my new 7th graders just did some fantastic revision work that was too good to leave out. But otherwise, it’s done & ready to go back to my editor at Stenhouse. This is very good timing because…

2. The fabulous MK, my editor at Walker/Bloomsbury, emailed the revision letter today for EYE OF THE STORM, my upper-MG dystopian tornado book that’s coming out in Spring 2012. The line edits should be arriving by UPS tomorrow!!  I’m always excited about editorial letters, but especially this one. I absolutely love this book, and to be honest, working on nonfiction for most of the summer has left  me with a real ache to start making things up again.

3. Did you want to enter the GoodReads drawing for an ARC of SUGAR AND ICE?  It runs through September 30th – a few more days to enter. And if you’ve read the ARC or want to add it to your to-read list, you can click here to do that, too.

4. The Author Spotlight interview I did with Mountain Lake PBS a few weeks ago is available online now. I talk about THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z and how my writing and teaching lives fit together.  I was a little intimidated when the producer told me that his other interviews had been with Katherine Paterson and Steven Kellogg.  (Warning: it’s kind of long, so probably only my mom will want to watch the whole thing) I’m Chapter 4, about 14 1/2 minutes in.

5. Speaking of Gianna Z, the book’s been out over a year now, but every so often, I come across a new review on a website or blog. This Gianna Z. review by a teen book blogger at has to be one of my all-time favorites. I love how strongly she identified with Gianna and that she took the time to write such a thoughtful review.

5.5 We had open house at my school tonight. In the half hour I had at home between school & the evening event, while I was making dinner for the kids, I whipped carefully removed a bowl of spaghetti sauce from the microwave. It splashed out of the bowl, across the stove, into the silverware drawer, onto the floor, and onto my skirt. I did not have time to change, so I just swiped at the mess on the floor and sort of shook off my skirt. Happily, the skirt was patterned with many bright colors, so I don’t think it showed. Much.  But if you were at open house tonight and smelled tomato sauce, that was probably me.

Eli the Good by Silas House

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 9.58.21 AMSo what’s to say about ELI THE GOOD?  I loved this book, despite a burst of bad attitude last week that made me impatient with its gorgeous descriptions for a day or so.  You can read more about that here, or not.

ELI THE GOOD is one of those stories where setting — place and especially time — takes center stage. The year is 1976 — a year I remember for our town’s bicentennial parade and because I spent most of it angry that I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike to the park alone.  Eli remembers it as the year things fell apart in his family — with a wild-spirited aunt who shows up with a secret, a mouthy, strong-willed sister who comes to blows with their mother, and a father who is trapped in his memories of Vietnam. It’s a beautiful, poignant book, full of the kinds of details that made me want to go back and reread passages.  There were many that I loved, but maybe this one most of all:

“Whole scenes of your life slip away forever if you don’t put them down in ink.”  ~Eli Book

I loved this book, though I haven’t had a chance to share it with students yet, and there’s one thing that makes me most curious as to how it will be received.  Even though Eli is ten years old the summer of 1976, he’s a grown man, narrating from years in the future as he narrates the book. In that sense, it feels more like an adult book sometimes than a title aimed at kids.  I’m curious to see how much students will connect with that older, wiser voice. Has anyone shared this title with tweens & teens yet?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Impatient Saturday: Books I’m Dying to Read

One of the dangers of having sometimes-access to advance reader copies of books is that it makes it extra-difficult to wait for anything that’s not out yet. And have you noticed there are some incredible books on the way for Fall 2010 and Spring 2011?  Here’s my current can’t-wait list:

Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger (Amulet)
Angleberger’s Strange Case of the Origami Yoda made me a fan.

The Popularity Papers Book Two: A Record of the Continued Transatlantic Discoveries of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang by Amy Ignatow (Amulet)
The first Popularity Papers book is so perfect for my girls who are Wimpy Kid fans I can hardly stand it. And so, so funny.

Sean Griswald’s Head
by Lindsey Leavitt (Bloomsbury)
Reading Lindsey’s blog, I know how funny she is, and this book sounds like a perfect mix of humor and heart.

Entice by Carrie Jones (Bloomsbury)
Third book in the NEED series. Need I say more?

Drought by Pam Bachorz (Egmont)
I loved her debut novel CANDOR, and this one sounds great, too.

Carmen by Walter Dean Myers (Egmont)
A YA retelling of the Bizet opera, set in Spanish Harlem. I’m sold.

The Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Penypacker (Hyperion)
Anything by the author of Clementine is automatically on my radar.

Invisible Inkling
by Emily Jenkins (Hyperion)
New series about a 4th grader and his invisible friend – love this idea!

Kick by Walter Dean Myers & Ross Workman (Harper Collins)
Really, you should just add anything that Myers writes to my wish-list.

Divergent by Veronica Roth (Harper Collins)
Dystopian romance. Sigh…. 

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander (Walden Pond Press)
Any book that promises to explore the “seedy underbelly of middle school” has me at hello.

Razorland by Ann Aguirre (Feiwel & Friends)
Even though I’m a cheerful, optimistic human being, I love my dystopian novels. This one’s set in postapocalyptic NYC.

Where She Went by Gayle Forman (Dutton)
Long-awaited sequel to If I Stay, which I loved.

Archie Comics: Betty and Veronica 
(Grosset & Dunlap)
A chapter book with Betty and Veronica? Be still my heart!  Archie comics were my favorite when I was a kid.

Stickman Odyssey
by Christopher Ford (Philomel)
Homer’s epic,,,with a stickman. Just try to resist that idea.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis (Razorbill)
More dystopian – this time, a cryogenically frozen teenager on a spaceship wakes up 50 years before scheduled landing

XVI by Julie Karr (Penguin)
Again, dystopian awesomeness.

Squish #1 Super Amoeba
by Matthew Holm & Jennifer Holm (Random House)
Graphic novel about an amoeba. I love it already.

Flip by Martyn Bedford (Random House)
Psychological thriller from Wendy Lamb Books.

A Million Miles from Boston by Karen Day (Random House)
The Maine Coast setting has me longing for this book and the smell of salt water.

Words in the Dust
by Trent Reidy (Arthur Levine Books)
A girl from Afghanistan must deal with change when American soldiers arrive in her village.

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell (Scholastic)
Murder mystery set in 1950s NYC, from the author of What i Saw and How I Lied.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver (Harper Collins)
Dystopian romance. Again, sigh.

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney (Little, Brown)
High school girl turns to her school’s underground justice system after a date rape.

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler (Knopf)
Historical ghost story set at boarding school that sounds amazing.

Grace by Elizabeth Scott (Dutton)
Dystopian character trained as a suicide bomber rebels and is on the run.

Starcrossed by Elizabeth Bunce (Arthur Levine Books)
From the Morris Award winning author of A Curse Dark as Gold

What am I missing? What upcoming titles are making you impatient?

Friday Five: Barbecue & Books

1. I’m thinking the leaves must be turning higher up in the mountains by now, right?  We’re hoping to climb Mt. Jo in the Adirondacks tomorrow  & then collapse at a picnic table here for some barbecued chicken and ribs. Good plan, no?

2. The official schedule is out for ALAN in Orlando this November, and I keep checking to make sure that’s really my name on there, in such amazing company.  I’m giving a breakout session with Jo Knowles, David Macinnis Gill, and Chris Crowe – can’t wait!

3. Plans are coming together for a SUGAR AND ICE launch party in a most fitting location — The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, right up the street from the Olympic Center where much of the story takes place. I’ll post more details later on, but for now, if you’re nearby and would like to save the date, mark the afternoon of December 11th on your calendar!

4. Daughter and I had our own private "best first pages" contest to choose our next read-aloud. We read the first two pages of three books tonight to decide which one felt best for right now. Here’s what she chose:

I read THE AMARANTH ENCHANTMENT a long time ago in manuscript form, but I’m excited to return to it. I know it’s changed,and reading the words of a talented writer like Julie Berry out loud always teaches me a thing or two about craft.
5. What else are we reading right now? 

Me: ELI THE GOOD by Silas House

The girl (9) THE RED PYRAMID by Rick Riordan

The boy (14) BLACK HOLE SUN by David Macinnis Gill…

The husband: My dystopian storm book, as a pdf on the iPad.  He’s promised to double-check all the weather details. It’s good to have a meteorologist in the house.

Hope you all have a great weekend!

Sometimes it’s not the book…it’s the reader.

I had an experience as a reader this week that got my teacher-brain thinking about books and kids, and why the right book at the right time is such a very important concept for us to keep in mind.

I’ve been reading this book…

…and loving it.  ELI THE GOOD by Silas House is a beautifully written story about a ten-year-old boy whose family is facing the challenges of change in 1976 — a father haunted by memories of Vietnam, a crazy aunt who’s appeared with a mysterious problem, and a teenage sister who’s pulling away from her parents.  This book captures 1976 — the year I remember the bicentennial parade marching down Pine Street, past the Fisher Price toy factory in the town where I grew up.  It’s full of those perfect details that make me want to put the book down for a second and just savor the words.

So this book surprised me yesterday when I suddenly didn’t like it any more. Not one bit.  I was at my desk at school, reading along with my students during our daily silent reading time after lunch, flipping pages and thinking about how annoyed I was with all the descriptions. These were the same sorts of descriptions I’d savored the day before. Something had changed.

But it wasn’t the book. It was me.  Yesterday was one of those particularly stressful days. Just about every free second I had, I’d spent on the phone or writing emails trying to resolve a problem with my son’s class schedule, and I was frustrated.  I was not in the mood for rich language or contemplative thoughts.  I was in the mood for a fast run around the track or a few good shots at a punching bag.  And I just didn’t like my book.

I know this has happened to my students before, and I know I’ve looked at them, bewildered, when they came to tell me they didn’t like their books any more. I remember saying, "But you were loving that book yesterday!"  And not thinking that maybe it was just something happening with that reader, that day, that had changed his or her outlook. Next time this happens, I might dig a little deeper to see what’s up, and perhaps offer up a second book for the kid to try out while keeping the first one, just in case he or she wants to give it another shot.

As for me?  The schedule issue is resolved, today was much more relaxed, the sun was out, and… I’m back to enjoying ELI THE GOOD. (It really is a great read, my bad attitude notwithstanding, and I’ll post more thoughts when I’m done.)

Gianna Z. sighting!

A few friends & teachers have also sent notes letting me know they’ve spotted (and ordered!) Gianna Z. in the September Scholastic ARROW book club flyer, but until one of my 6th grade colleagues stopped by my room with one this week, I hadn’t seen the actual flyer. Then my sister-in-law Linda, who teaches in Rochester, NY posted this photo to her Facebook page yesterday… 

I love that it’s in the "Real Kids Like You" section.  So often, kids who write to  me about Gianna tell me that’s why they like it – because she isn’t super-smart or super-eccentric like a lot of middle grade narrators… she just seems like a regular kid, like them.

And check out that magic marker circle!  Made my whole day…