PEARL by Jo Knowles

I finished reading an advance copy of this YA novel on an airplane heading home from IRA, quietly wiping tears from the corners of my eyes and hoping the lady next to me wouldn’t notice. If she did, though, it would have been okay… I’d just have to tell her about PEARL.

Its author, Jo Knowles, is someone I’m lucky enough to count as a friend. She’s one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met, and I loved her first two books, so I wasn’t surprised when this one crept quietly up and swept me away, too.  This book keeps its secrets close to its heart, so I’m going to tell you only what I can without giving them away.

Pearl Collatti has lived a pretty mundane life with her mom and grandfather, Gus.  She hangs out with her best friend Henry and watches Days of Our Lives with his mom. But when Gus dies, family secrets fly like milkweed fluff in the wind, and everything is different – Pearl’s relationship with her mother, her friendship with Henry, and her image of the grandfather she thought she knew.

PEARL is so many things… it’s part family drama, part romance, and part mystery. It’s peopled with characters so rich, so beautifully imperfect, that it’s hard to believe they’re not real.   It’s a book about the cost of keeping secrets, trouble that turns beautiful, and painful truths that make room for love. It is a book that believes in love, too…even after years have passed.  This is one I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time – and a book that I think will be an amazing choice for teen book clubs and literature circles when it comes out this summer.

Where to Find Me (and my books!)

I have some appearances, talks, and signings this month. If you’re going to be in any of these same places, please stop by & say hello!

First stop, the Hudson Children’s Book Festival this Saturday from 10-4!

I’ll be signing copies of all of my books, including the newly released MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book and a special sneak-preview-release of my first picture book, SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY.

From Monday to Wednesday, I’ll be in Orlando for the International Reading Association Convention. Here’s my speaking/signing schedule:

Monday:   4-5 pm Signing MARTY MCGUIRE – Scholastic Booth #840

Tuesday:  9-10 am Stenhouse Publishers Booth #701 to sign bookplates for my first book for educators, REAL REVISION: AUTHORS’ STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS.

I have to say…this book was just SO much fun to write. It’s about teaching the revision process using tested author strategies, and it includes revision stories, tips, and tricks from more than three dozen of my favorite authors. (In all honestly, I learned so much doing interviews for this book; I’m hoping it’ll be a great resource for writers as well as teachers!)  REAL REVISION is due out at the end of May, and Stenhouse is offering both signed book plates and a 20% discount for conference pre-orders.

Tuesday: 11 – 12 Engaging Readers K-5 Author Panel with Gail Carson Levine, Ethan Long, Laurie Friedman, and Kristin Venuti Clark. Room W312

Tuesday: 12-15-1:15 Signing SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY – Chronicle Books Booth #815

Tuesday: 2-3 Signing SUGAR AND ICE at Walker/Bloomsbury Booth #1127

Tuesday: 3-4 Signing at Anderson’s Bookstore Booth

Wednesday: 9-11:45 am – Author Workshop: Get Plugged into Reading! Innovative Web 2.0 Strategies You Can Use to Connect Readers to Literature Online with Lindsey Leavitt, Cynthea Liu, and Gbemi Rhuday-Perkovich. Convention Center – West Building, Room 206B.

(I’m excited about this one… it’ll include a LIVE Skype author visit with third graders at librarian John Schu’s school in Naperville, Illinois. If you love kids’ books and you don’t know Mr. Schu, you’re missing out. He’s @MrSchuReads on Twitter, and he’s a great promoter of reading not only for his own students but online, too. Mr. Schu was just named one of Library Journal’s “Movers & Shakers” and was on the cover of this month’s SLJ.

Go, Mr. Schu!

After the technology & literacy workshop, it’s off to an afternoon school visit, on to the airport…and then home to finish up the school year…and think about summer events!

Share your 3rd Grade Memory! (and win a signed copy of MARTY McGUIRE!)

MARTY MCGUIRE, the first title in my new chapter book series with Scholastic, came out last weekend…and to celebrate, I thought I’d hold a fun little contest. Marty is a third grader who loves catching frogs and crayfish and getting muddy, so when they make her be the princess in the school play, she must learn to improvise to make the part her own.  You can learn more about Marty here.

So… isn’t that at the heart of third grade? Improvising? Trying out new things (and winging it when something unexpected happens?)  I’d love it if some of you would share a memory of third grade — it can be happy or funny, embarrassing or traumatic…something vivid that you remember as part of that year. I’ll be giving away THREE signed hardcovers — one here on my blog (you can comment on WordPress or LJ – either is fine), one on Twitter, and one on Facebook.  To enter, just do any or all of the following (and YES…you can enter more than once!)

  • Share your third grade story on your own blog or Facebook wall, along with the MARTY MCGUIRE cover if you’d like. (Then come back here and leave a link in the comments to let me know where to find it!)
  • Click here to find and “Like” MARTY MCGUIRE on Facebook and share your third grade memory on the book page wall.
  • Share your third grade memory on Twitter with the hashtag #martymcguire
  • I’d also love it if you’d suggest the MARTY MCGUIRE Facebook page to any of your FB friends who are teachers, librarians, or parents who might want to hear about a new chapter book series for fans of Clementine and Ramona.  If you do that, just come back here to leave a comment and let me know and I’ll toss your name in the hat again!
  • Tell your favorite librarian about Marty. (Again…just come back & leave a comment to let me know – honor system!)

On May 15th (let’s say 9pm EST is the deadline) I’ll draw the winners & announce on my blog.  And don’t worry…if you already have a copy of MARTY MCGUIRE by then, you can choose any one of my other books for your prize (including REAL REVISION, my new revision book for teachers, or SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY, which doesn’t come out until later on!)

Can’t wait to hear those third grade memories!

And the rain came down…

It’s been a remarkable spring for weather, not only in the tornado-ravaged South, but also here in Northern New York, where Lake Champlain is at its highest level ever…and expected to rise more as the rain continues tonight and tomorrow.

Sunday was May 1st, release day for MARTY MCGUIRE, the first in my new chapter book series with Scholastic, so we took a drive to visit a couple bookstores (there are signed copies of MARTY at Flying Pig Books in Shelburne and the South Burlington Barnes & Noble now) and take a look at some of the worst flooding from the high lake level.  It was higher than I’d imagined.

This is what Burlington’s King Street Ferry Dock looked like on Sunday.

For a little perspective…here’s a photo of me with the statue of Champ, our legendary lake monster two summers ago.

Here’s what the same sculpture looked like on Sunday…

Sending good thoughts (and dry wishes) to all those who are fighting flood waters & wet basements tonight – and especially to those trying to rebuild their lives after the tornado outbreak in the South.

Thank you, SCBWI Writers & Illustrators!

I got an exciting email late yesterday afternoon from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. “We’ve been trying to call you for several hours, but you’re not answering your home phone,” it said. “So we’re resorting to email to tell you that SUGAR AND ICE won the 2011 Crystal Kite Award!”

(I was out picking up kids from school & playing tennis with my daughter yesterday… and when my agent called last May to tell me that THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. had won the E.B. White Read Aloud Award, I almost didn’t answer my cell phone because I was in the kitchen in my swimsuit, making dinner and dripping all over the floor because I’d just gotten in from a swim in the lake. I’m pretty sure this officially makes me the worst award-news recipient ever.)

All kidding aside, I want to say a HUGE thank you to SCBWI and its amazing members, especially in NY.  I feel incredibly honored because this award comes from my fellow writers & illustrators, and I’m truly overwhelmed to be  in such great company with winners & finalists from all the regions. You can see the full list of Crystal Kite Awards here. Congrats to all!

When Life Imitates Art: Tornado Outbreak & EYE OF THE STORM

My heart is aching this week for people who have been affected by the devastating outbreak of tornadoes. They’ve hit hardest in the South, but other parts of the country have seen tornado warnings as well — New York and New England…where tornadoes aren’t often an issue.

I’ve gotten more than one email this week from writer friends who have read EYE OF THE STORM, my Spring 2012 novel with Walker/Bloomsbury that deals with a future world where tornadoes are stronger and more widespread than they are now. “Did you know this was going to happen?” they want to know.  I didn’t… but this spring weather has been more than a little eerie to me, given the research I did for EYE OF THE STORM and all that I learned about the power these storms can unleash.

Last September, I traveled to Norman, Oklahoma to research this book at the National Severe Storms Laboratory and to interview notable meteorologist and storm photographer Dr. Howard Bluestein.

We talked about what might cause the kind of upswing in severe storms that happens in my novel, which is even much worse than what we’ve been seeing this week. His thoughts will be part of the discussion guide in the book’s back matter.  Here’s a sampling, where Bluestein discusses how scientists try to predict what changes in climate might mean for our future in terms of severe storms:

If we know what the environmental conditions are that can lead to tornadic thunderstorms, then what people have done is you can take a climate model and integrate it into the future to see whether or not those conditions will be more prevalent than they are right now.  So we know what the conditions are. We know that they happen frequently here in this part of the country in the springtime.  If you look at a climate model, it may turn out that these conditions are prevalent over a greater part of the country – maybe a smaller part of the country – maybe a slightly different time of year… these things are all possible.

Advance reader galleys of EYE OF THE STORM should be available before too long, and I’ve already been in touch with my editor about making some available to help raise funds for Red Cross disaster relief in Alabama.  For now…here are some tornado links that might be helpful in your classrooms or just interesting to read.

Why Suddenly So Many Tornadoes? An explanation from AccuWeather

A collection of last week’s storm photos from storm chaser and photographer Steve Miller

Latest on the outbreak from MSNBC

More tornado websites from the EYE OF THE STORM Discussion Guide.

How Tornadoes Work: A nice overview from “How Stuff Works”

Tornadoes: From the Weather Channel’s Storm Encyclopedia

National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center: See the storms the NWS is watching today!

National Geographic – Nature’s Fury feature on tornadoes

FEMA for Kids: The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s tornado site

Tornadoes…Nature’s Most Violent Storms from the NOAA Severe Storms Laboratory

If you know of other great online resources about tornadoes, I’d love to hear about them in comments. I’ll share more about a possible fund raiser/ARC giveaway when I have news.

Friday Five in Photos-Inspiration for Writing My Next Book

I’ve been working on my next novel for Walker/Bloomsbury, WAKE UP MISSING.  It’s a science-gone-wrong novel, set in the Everglades, and while I’m in this early drafting stage, I’ve been looking back at my photos a lot for inspiration for the setting. Here are five photos that helped tonight:

This is an early-morning swamp photograph, when all the spider webs were heavy with dew. I tried to spend time in the swamp during all different times of day, so I could get a sense for what it would be like for my characters through the book and so I could best use those different times-of-day details to reflect the mood of the various scenes. I really loved this early morning quiet.

I also love listening to the sounds of a place I’m going to be writing about. From this barren branch high above the boardwalk, this red-shouldered hawk screamed at me for a good three or four minutes. “DAAAAANGER…..DAAAAAAAANGER…”

This is a strangler fig, a parasitic plant that quite literally hugs its host tree to death. Hello,  metaphor.

These last two aren’t Everglades photos and don’t really have anything to do with my research; they’re just fun.

My family spent a morning at Barefoot Beach north of Naples, which is not only a lovely beach but also a gopher tortoise sanctuary. It said so on a sign right by the entrance gate, and just as we paid our parking fee, along came a tortoise as if to prove the point that it really was a sanctuary.

These signs near the beach walkway puzzled us a bit.

Is the sign meant to discourage well-meaning people who might want to, say, capture a land tortoise and take it swimming?  Or is it intended to remind the land tortoises that they don’t swim, lest they get excited on a hot day and go running ambling into the Gulf of Mexico, only to say, “Oh darn! Bob, I forgot that we’re land tortoises!  If only there’d been a sign to remind us about that whole swimming problem…”

Those last two photos aside, I’m always amazed by how much a few photographs can help bring me back to not only the sights but also the sounds and smells of places I’ve visited for research.  I’m curious…if you write, do you like to use photographs for inspiration?  How do they help?

Everglades Research

I spent last week in south Florida, doing some research for my next book with Walker/Bloomsbury, which is set in the Everglades. It’s too early in the writing process for me to blog much about the story, but I can tell you that like EYE OF THE STORM (2012), it’s a science-gone-wrong novel. And I can share a few photos from my time in the swamp…

This last photo is from the last light of our night kayaking trip up Halfway Creek, in the Big Cypress National Preserve. One of the scenes in my new book takes place deep in the swamp at night, and for me, there’s no better inspiration than being in the right place…at the right time.

My daughter  and I joined a guide for this four-hour paddle, which started as the sun was setting and ended well after dark, with lightning flashing many miles away in the distance and alligator eyes glowing in our headlamps just a few feet away. Photos can’t really do the experience justice, but I’m hoping words will be able to later on, when my characters experience this setting under very different circumstances.

My kids have accused me of setting books in places like the Everglades just so I can spend more time in really cool places. I have to admit…I’m guilty as charged. But can you blame me, when “work” looks like this?

Thankful Thursday: Boatloads of Bookish News!

Lots for me to be thankful for today…as both a writer and a reader. First the writer…

MARTY MCGUIRE comes out in just over two weeks, and that means reviews are starting to come in (eeek!). Happily, they’ve been of the delightful sort so far!

Messner gets all the details of third grade right: the social chasm between the girls who want to be like the older kids and the ones who are still little girls, the Mad Minutes for memorizing arithmetic facts, the silly classroom-control devices teachers use and the energy students of this age put into projects like class plays. Floca’s black-and-white sketches are filled with movement and emotion and are frequent enough to help new chapter-book readers keep up with this longer text. Believable and endearing characters in a realistic elementary-school setting will be just the thing for fans of Clementine and Ramona.

~from the Kirkus Review. Read the full review here.

And Scholastic Audio just sent me a great review of Cassandra Morris’s work on the audio book version of Marty!

Morris is terrific at portraying the characters — snooty girls, chummy boys, and patient adults — and her depiction of Marty’s transformation is especially elegant. Morris has the nuances and personalities of kids down pat as she shares subtle lessons about friendship and self-discovery with humor and grace.

~from the AudioFile Review

I love the way the narration turned out (I had listened to some audition audio files and was so happy when they got Cassandra for the job!) Scholastic Audio also gave me the go-ahead to share a sample of the audio book! Just click here to listen to the first eight minutes or so…

On to Kate-the-Reader now…and I’m thankful for two AMAZING books I read this week:

As much as I loved PENNY DREADFUL, I think this is my favorite Laurel Snyder book yet. Heartbreaking, hopeful, and full of magic, it’s the story of a girl whose life changes when the lights go out and her parents have one last argument before her mother loads the kids into the car and drives out of the state. When they land at her grandmother’s house in Georgia, Rebecca has to deal not only with her parents’ separation but also the angst of a sudden move, switching schools, and then…a magical breadbox that backfires? My heart ached for Rebecca, trying to navigate the stormy waters of a newly broken family while taking care of her little brother and dealing with questions of her own about who she wants to be at her new school. BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX is hard to explain – yes, it’s about a magic breadbox and divorce and seagulls and Bruce Springsteen and friends – but it’s one of those books that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Middle grade readers – especially those who have been through a parental separation – are going to read this one, love it, and hold it close for a good long time. (Due out this fall from Random House)

This book is totally different from BREADBOX and I loved it just as much, in a totally different way.

First a confession, though: I wasn’t much of a non-fiction reader growing up. I loved being swept up in stories. I loved the mystery, the drama, the tension of a great novel, whether it took place in a fantasy world or a town that felt just like mine. And when I thought about non-fiction, I generally thought of things like my junior high school social studies book, which was….fine, I guess…and even occasionally interesting, but certainly not something I’d read for fun.

But lately, I’ve turned into something of a non-fiction fanatic. The reason? Narrative non-fiction gems like those in the Scientists in the Field series. My love of this series started with Loree Griffin Burns’s TRACKING TRASH and THE HIVE DETECTIVES, and most recently, I devoured KAKAPO RESCUE: SAVING THE WORLD’S STRANGEST PARROT in a single breathless sitting.

This is the story of a small group of scientists, rangers, and volunteers on a life-or-death mission to save a species from extinction. When the book starts, there are fewer than ninety endangered Kakapos alive on a tiny, rugged island off mainland New Zealand. Fewer than ninety! And that means every bird, every egg, and every chick is beyond precious. Reading about the steps these scientists and volunteers take to keep them alive – and bring new birds into the world safely – is as thrilling and compelling as any novel I’ve ever read. Truly, this book has everything, joy and triumph and tragedy – even a funny, stalking, lovesick male parrot with an identity crisis. Highly recommended. (Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

So…your turn now.  Spring Break is next week, and I could use some book recommendations.  What are you thankful to have read recently??

Poetry Out of Nowhere: National Poetry Month Flash Mob!

So a few weeks ago, I had this idea.  What if my 7th grade English students staged a flash mob poetry event at the food court of our local mall?  I kind of fell in love with this idea, even though I had no idea how to plan such a thing.  I was pretty sure the school and mall would never approve it anyway, so I figured, “Why not ask?”

So I asked.

And everybody said yes.

And my students fell in love with the idea, too, and said a huge YES! PLEEAAASE?!  And so we figured out together how to pull it off.

We chose Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells” for both its music and because it has four stanzas — one for each of my four ELA classes to prepare.  We assigned parts — some solo and some choral.  We practiced in the classroom, in the cafeteria (until I thought the front office ladies were going to run screaming from the building with their hands over their ears) and in the parking lot one day when it was nice out. Yesterday, we staged a practice run-through in the cafeteria during lunch (to get used to getting funny looks).  And today… was the real deal.

We had five undercover adults helping — two chaperones, two bell-ringers, and one posing as a mall official chucking a fit over the poetry…until she joins in and it turns out she’s part of the plot.  And we had sixty kids, all set loose in the mall food court with half an hour to order pizza and burgers and eat lunch before the clock struck 11:45.  At that time, they knew they needed to watch for a woman to pull something unusual from her knitting bag as she walked by Taco Bell…and that would start the whole thing rolling.  Watch what happened!