Five Shiny Things on a Friday

1.  A final copy of SUGAR AND ICE arrived in the mail today! 

It is even prettier than the ARC – I just love the care that the Bloomsbury/Walker designers take – even under the jacket.

SUGAR AND ICE, for those who may be new to the blog, is my December 2010 figure skating novel.  My agent, Jennifer Laughran, did a blog interview today where she gave a description of the book that I love:

"SUGAR AND ICE by Kate Messner–Kate just nails the middle school voice–probably because she is a 7th grade teacher. SUGAR is about a small-town ice skating girl who gets scouted by a charismatic Russian coach, plucked from obscurity and thrown into the uber-competitive world of "mean girls on ice." I tend to love "star is born" type stories, "outsider" stories, and funny realistic middle grade too. 🙂

2. In addition to being a cheerleader for my book, Jennifer is doing a Q and A session that’s a great resource for anyone interested in agents – you can read the rest of her interview here.

3. I spent yesterday in New York City and Long Island, meeting with the publicity team for my MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series coming in May and my editor at Scholastic, and giving a speech to the Nassau Reading Council.  It was an amazing day all around…one that will get its just due in its own blog post when I upload all my photos.  But for now…the Scholastic receptionist:

Okay…it was actually the woman behind Clifford at the desk who helped me, but he made me smile.

4. Earlier this week, Fuse #8 blogger/librarian Betsy Bird posted this review of Kathryn Erskine’s MOCKINGBIRDwhich led me to post this responsewhich led Betsy to post this response to my response.  The end result was a lively conversion with a whole lot of commenters talking about the role of research in fiction, reader and reviewer expectations, voice in writing, and other things. If you read the original posts, you may want to stop by again and check out the comments, which are both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

5. My husband’s celebrating a birthday soon, so we enjoyed a quick overnight in Montreal last weekend. Our last stop on the way  home is always the bakery at Atwater Market for croissants and eclairs for the kids, and on Sunday, the market was decked out in its autumn best.

Hope everyone has a colorful weekend and a Happy Halloween!

best tracker

When the Story is Personal: How much should authors share?

Librarian blogger Betsy Bird (Fuse #8 at SLJ) reviewed National Book Award finalist MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine this week, and I found myself pondering one paragraph of her review in particular:

The Asperger’s I do not question because that is tricky territory. I do not have a child with Asperger’s and Ms. Erskine does. However, this raises a fairly interesting point in and of itself. When Cynthia Lord wrote the Newbery Honor winning book Rules she made her narrator not an autistic boy, but rather his put upon older sister. This was remarkably clever of her. Then, when you get to the end of the book, the reader finds out via the bookflap that the author has an autistic son of her own. The book is therefore lent a kind of authenticity through this admission. As I read Mockingbird however, I found myself wondering if the author had any personal connection or knowledge of Asperger’s that could lend the book similar authenticity. I read the bookflap and the Author’s Note and came up with nothing. Nada. It was only through the grapevine that I heard the rumor that Ms. Erskine has a daughter of her own with Asperger’s. Now why on earth would the book wish to hide this fact? By the time I reached the end I wanted to believe that the writer had some knowledge of the subject, but instead of including a list of useful sources, or even a website kids can check, the Author’s Note speaks instead about the Virginia Tech shootings. A harrowing incident to be sure, but why avoid mentioning that someone you love has a connection to your main character? It made for a very strange gap. (Read the full review here.)

I love Betsy’s Fuse #8 blog and read it regularly, but I find myself wondering about this expectation…that an author share the details when a story is inspired by personal events in his or her life. I read both MOCKINGBIRD and OUT OF MY MIND, and I do remember thinking that each author must have a personal connection to someone like her main character. I didn’t necessarily expect to turn to the back of the book and read all about it, though.

Maybe it’s my role as an author who’s also a parent that makes me view this differently than some other readers. A whole bunch of things in my books are inspired by my own kids…Zig’s fascination with electricity and gadgets in THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. MARTY MCGUIRE’S propensity to fall into ponds when she’s catching frogs. Claire’s love of figure skating in SUGAR AND ICE.

When I wrote the author bio for the jacket of SUGAR AND ICE, I mentioned that I’m a fan of competitive skating and that I volunteer with the Skating Club of the Adirondacks. The jacket flap doesn’t mention my daughter, who is the actual skater in our house, though the Kirkus reviewer mistakenly assumed I was the mother of a competitive skater. Should I have talked about why she’s chosen to participate in her local skating show but forego the more intense world of competition? To me, those felt like her issues. While I realize that I give up a certain level of privacy by writing for publication, she hasn’t made that choice. And in this situation, we’re just talking about a hobby – not a disability that shapes every day of her life.

I heard Cynthia Lord give a talk once about her choice to write a book that deals with autism, knowing that her family’s story would never be just their story again. Is it a fair expectation? Can an author who has a child with a disability choose to write about a character with that same disability without being expected to talk about his or her own family at conferences and award speeches, in authors’ notes and on jacket flaps?

I understand the argument; as a reader, I love knowing the story-behind-the-story. But some stories belong to whole families. Can an author write a book about a character like Draper’s Melody or Erskine’s Caitlin without mentioning the personal connection? And if the author does choose to share that information, should it change the way the book is judged? If a character doesn’t work for you when you’re reading the book but you later learn the author’s personal story, should that change anything? Or should the text stand on its own, regardless of the author’s connection to the main character’s disability? 

My New “Not-an-Office” Writing Room

For years, my husband and I have shared an office that is also shared with a treadmill, keyboard, and sometimes violin and saxophone.  It has no door, and while it’s a fine place to answer a few emails or do tax stuff, it’s not conducive to writing when there’s a house full of people.

In the past, when I’ve needed to get writing done on weekends, I’ve packed up and headed to our local coffee shop.  They’re extremely writer-friendly and make a mean latte, but this summer, we decided it would really be great if I had a place to work at home.  After a bunch of planning and a few weeks of work by our awesome contractor/handyman person, I ended up with this.

It’s a perfect writing room, for a few reasons. 

1. You can’t get here from the house without going outside.  It is separate — its own space — so when I’m here, I’m officially "not home."  The first week, my husband couldn’t resist the temptation to come to the window and make faces, but since then, it’s worked out beautifully.

2. There’s no internet. Truth be told, I didn’t plan this, but the wireless doesn’t make it this far, and that’s fine.  I run upstairs for a minute if I really need to do some quick research. But otherwise, the lack of connectivity helps me focus.

3. It’s quiet (triple-insulated!) with a big desk that overlooks Lake Champlain.

4. There are bookshelves.

Bookshelves make me happy.  I’ve started filling these with a few research books, but mostly, this is where I’m keeping books that are important to me — friends’ books and the books that made me want to be a writer. Having great books in the room inspires me, even if I’m not going to read them while I’m working.

5. The new room is free from office things; there are no in-boxes, mail, tax stuff, scanners, printers, marketing plans, old manuscripts, contracts, royalty statements, school visit paperwork, etc. etc.  It’s free of pretty much everything, in fact. When I come to write, I bring my laptop, current manuscript & planning pages if it’s a revision, and tea. That’s all.

I’ve spent some time here lately, working on revisions for EYE OF THE STORM that are due by Thanksgiving, and I’m appreciating it more every day. I still write and revise in all my usual places — the kitchen table after the kids are in bed at night, in the bleachers at my daughter’s skating practice, but it’s also been amazing to have a quiet place to work at home.  Not an office…. a writing room.

An Author Visit with Annie Barrows!

Thanks to the always-awesome Flying Pig Bookstore, the 3rd and 4th graders in my school district had an amazing author visit with Annie Barrows this afternoon. She’s the author of Chronicle’s IVY AND BEAN series as well as THE MAGIC HALF with Bloomsbury, all of which are big-time favorites in the Messner house. We hosted the visit at the middle school where I teach, since we have a large auditorium that could fit the kids from both elementary schools, and I had a chance to sit in on her reading!

Annie read from her latest IVY AND BEAN adventure, IVY AND BEAN: WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA? I loved watching kids giggle as the girls tried out a brilliant if somewhat misguided science experiment. Then it was off to the library office to sign books. And sign more books… And more…

Then we sent Annie on her way for a late-afternoon event at Flying Pig. And look what she was driving!

It’s an Ivy-and-Bean-Mobile!

Thanks, Annie, and Chronicle, and Flying Pig Books, for a great author visit today!

What happens to our middle school readers?

One of my former students, a freshman now, came to visit last week.  She had lots to say about high school, most of it positive, but when I asked her what she’s reading these days, she shrugged. "I don’t have time to read with all the homework. We got assigned Of Mice and Men for English, but I only read part of it," she admitted.  "I got a good grade on the test, though."

Two years ago, she was one of my readers…one of the kids who passed books around with her friends. One of the kids who finished a book every few days and came into my classroom asking "What else do you have for me?"  She hasn’t read any books this year.

"Do you want to borrow a really good book?" I asked her.

"That’s okay," she said. "I won’t have time to read it, seriously."

I nodded.  "I’m giving you one anyway."  I reached behind my desk, where I had my copy of this…

Lucy Christopher’s STOLEN isn’t on my classroom bookshelves because as much as I love it, I feel like it’s just a little old for most of my 7th graders right now.  But I knew it would be perfect for my former student.  I gave a quick book-talk… I told her how much I loved this book…how a girl is kidnapped from an airport when she’s about to leave on vacation with her family, how the kidnapper, who is very good looking, drugs her coffee and she wakes up in the Australian Outback, a captive. I told her how beautiful the writing is, and how troubled I was when I found myself empathizing with the kidnapper, just as the main character seemed to be falling for him, too.

"Just take it," I told her, "and keep it until a vacation or something when you have time. It’s okay."

She left, headed home to work on math homework, and I went home, too, a little sad.

On Saturday morning, this note was in my in-box:

OMG, so i started the book you gave me last night at 7pm and COULDN’T put it down! so i finished it at like 3 in the morning, because like if i didn’t finish it, i wouldn’t have been able to sleep. at all. this was such an amazing book!  so, thank you so much for getting me back into reading… 🙂

It made my whole weekend.

But it also made me a little melancholy, wishing there were more freedom for our high school kids to choose the right book at the right time. Is Of Mice and Men the best choice because it’s Steinbeck?  Because it’s considered a classic?  And is there room to talk about student choice in higher level English classes?  I hope so.  Christopher’s STOLEN isn’t a light, fluffy read. It’s full of SAT words.  It’s sophisticated, intense, and thought provoking.  And besides that, she actually read it.

Thank you, Natick Fit Girls!

I had a terrific Skype author visit this weekend with a particularly active group of young women — the Natick Fit Girls.  It’s a crew of 4th and 5th grade girls who read and discuss a book while they train together for a 5K race. Their coach contacted me a few months ago after she selected The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. as their book for this fall.  Gianna Z. is a runner herself, so it was a perfect choice.  The kids were energetic, bright, and lots of fun during our Friday evening Skype chat!

While I might not normally dress in jeans and a t-shirt for an author chat, this was a special shirt…the team sent me one of their signature bright green Natick Fit Girls T-shirts, so I couldn’t resist wearing it for our virtual visit!

This is one of the things I just love about Skype chats. I had already had dinner with my own family and was able to chat with this great group from my kitchen table while they were piled in their coach’s living room. 

We talked about Gianna and the choices she makes throughout the book.  They wanted to know what happened to Gianna after the book ended. (I told them that readers get to decide that!)  We talked about their race and my running, which I admitted has been a little sporadic because I’ve been staying up too late revising my next book.  But they inspired me.  Girls, you’ll be happy to know that I got out and ran 2.6 miles in my neighborhood this afternoon before I got back to that marked-up manuscript I showed you!

Thanks, Natick Fit Girls and Coach Colleen, for a terrific Skype visit.  Keep running and reading!

Sugar and Ice Kirkus Review (and another happy-dance!)

Messner’s real-life experience as the mother of a competitive skater * is evident in her skillful portrayal of the sport’s demands. The story follows Claire through eight months of intensive training that leaves her little
time for family, friends and relaxation. Claire’s self-doubt and inner turmoil over whether to continue with the Silver Blades after her scholarship ends is both realistic and sensitively depicted. The solidarity among some of the skaters is nicely contrasted with the mind games and meanness of others. The addition of a light romance and the satisfying conclusion will appeal to those who have skating fantasies of their own.                    

~from the Kirkus review

*Actually, the reviewer got this part half right. My daughter figure skates – but not competitively…unless you count when she wants to race with me during public skating at our local rink. Then she’s very competitive.

Thankful Thursday – Revision and The Quiet of the Woods

My thankfulness this week comes in black and white…

…because I’ve been working on two big revision projects.  This is a couple pages from EYE OF THE STORM. They…err…need just a bit of work.  But revision is my favorite part of the writing process, so as messy as this looks, it’s great fun.

I’m also reviewing edits on my revision book for teachers.  It’s called REAL REVISION: AUTHORS’ STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS, and it will be available this spring, sooner than I’d thought.  (They are quick over there at Stenhouse!)

And amid all that black and white, I’m thankful for this…

The colors of fall in Northern NY.  It’s been a busy one for my family, so we’ve been making it a point to take walks in the woods on weekends.  It’s kind of amazing, how peaceful talking together and just…breathing fresh air together can make everyone. 

Hope your weekend is wonderful and full of color, too!

Brian Floca’s MOONSHOT winner!

Last week, I was pretty much bubbling over with excitement when I was able to share the news that the incredibly talented Brian Floca will be illustrating my MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series with Scholastic. Thanks to all those who commented and entered the drawing for a signed copy of his book MOONSHOT.  

The winner was chosen by an extremely magical process…drawn not out of a hat, but a crock pot.

I may have mentioned that I am now the proud owner of a crock pot. (This is not as exciting as having Brian illustrate, but it’s still exciting.  It made chicken and potatoes while I was teaching today.)  So I put all the names in the stoneware from the crock pot and had my son take a break from writing code for his latest iPhone application to choose a winner.


 …a signed copy of MOONSHOT is headed your way!  Congrats – and thanks again to everyone for all the good wishes. I hope to have a cover to share very soon – MARTY MCGUIRE is a simultaneous hardcover/paperback/audiobook release from Scholastic on May 1st!