WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson

There are a handful of moments in my life that have had a huge impact on me as a writer, and one of them involves this book.  It might not  sound like a very big deal, but it’s a tiny memory — a pebble in my pocket — that I turn over and over when I’m struggling with a project.

In January of 2008, I was attending my first Kindling Words retreat in Vermont,  and Laurie Halse Anderson was the leader of the author strand, which meant she gave three 90-minute presentations on craft over the course of the retreat — one each morning.  I was excited. I had read every one of Laurie’s books and had just finished sharing FEVER  1793 with my 7th graders as a whole class novel.  Laurie was — and is — one of those authors I want to be like when I grow up.  

So on the first morning of the retreat, I showed up at the ballroom early with my cup of tea, figuring I’d get a good seat and scribble notes for a while until the workshop started.  I was the only one there.  Except for Laurie.  She was sitting on the floor against a wall, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, poking away at her laptop and looking like she was about to pull her hair out.  I sat down really quietly and pretended to write and drink tea, but really I was watching her.  She never looked up until the room started to fill and she had to get ready for her talk.

She said a lot of things in that talk, but what I remember most is this:  "Chapter 20 is kicking my butt."

That’s what she’d been working on over in her corner.  Because she was working on it every spare minute, determined to get it just right.

And she did.

WINTERGIRLS was that book. 

Today is its official release day, and you can buy it at your favorite independent bookseller or find one through IndieBound. You should.  It’s an amazing, amazing story about eater disorders and teenagers and self-image and pain and forgiveness and healing.  Teens are going to love it and hold onto it tightly.

As for me?  I hold onto that picture of Laurie sitting on the floor with her laptop. Because that’s what a real writer looks like.  And if she can turn Chapter 20 into that kind of magic, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us too.

Virtual Author Visits: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, & the Awesome

There’s been a lot of online chatter lately about virtual author visits, and as someone who wears two hats, I’ve been paying special attention. Because I’m a middle school English teacher as well as an author, my ability to travel for school visits is somewhat limited, so I’ll be using Skype videoconferencing software to offer virtual visits to classrooms and book clubs when THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z is released in September.

I also love the idea of my own students having more opportunities to talk with authors, and today my 7th graders had a virtual visit with the amazing Laurie Halse Anderson. We read CHAINS this winter and were swept away, so the kids had lots of questions about how Laurie researched the novel and brought her characters to life. Laurie is planning to offer virtual visits for schools starting in the fall, and we were thrilled to be her guinea pigs. Our kids piled into the auditorium at 9:45 this morning and waited for my laptop to ring with Laurie’s 10am call on Skype.

And then there she was!

Laurie and I agreed to double team an online review of our virtual visit – I’m providing a teacher’s perspective, and she’s blogging about the experience from the author’s point of view over at halseanderson .  So here are my thoughts on virtual visits: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the awesome…

The Good:

~Laurie is not only an incredibly talented author but also a friendly, generous, down-to-earth person, and that came through on the big screen, too. Our 7th graders loved her before this visit; they love her more now.

~She gave answers that were just long enough but not too long. We had time for about 30 kids to ask questions in a 45-minute visit, and they were just thrilled. When the kids asked about her research, she held up her latest sources.

~Our plan to keep things organized worked. Students knew who was asking questions and when it was their turn. I gave each interviewer a rundown, along with an index card with the question her or she wrote.

Kids were on “standby” when the person before them on the list was talking with Laurie, and that kept things moving along.

~The setup for this virtual visit was pretty much painless.

~I brought in my laptop from home (a MacBook with a built-in camera), connected it to the projector in our auditorium, hooked the computer into the school network, and patched it into our sound system.

~Skype worked like it was supposed to work 95% of the time. (See “the Ugly” for the other 5%)

The Bad: (What we’d do differently next time)

~Sometimes, it was hard for our auditorium audience to hear the questions being asked. Our interviewers were facing Laurie on the laptop, rather than the other students. Next time we do a virtual author visit, I’ll remind the kids about the need to speak up, try to get a microphone set up, or perhaps ask if our author might be willing to repeat questions before answering.

The Ugly:

~Skype is wonderful and magical and free. It is also subject to the whims of all sorts of Internet bandwidth, firewall, and other technology issues that I don’t entirely understand. As a result, four or five times during our virtual visit, we simply lost the connection. Laurie’s face would freeze mid-sentence, and we had to hang up and call her back. Usually, that all happened within a few seconds, but once I had to quit Skype and re-launch the application before we could get our connection back, and that took an extra minute. Overall, the interruptions were annoying but manageable.

The Awesome:

~Kids who I never dreamed would stand and share a question were so excited to talk with Laurie. She treated each student like his or her question was the most important one in the world. I watched their faces as they listened. They glowed.

~My class was watching the ALA video-conference from Denver last month and cheered when Laurie was announced as the winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement. We cheered again today and loved that she could hear us this time!

~We also got to listen to Laurie read the first few pages of FORGE, the sequel to CHAINS, told from the point of view of Isabel’s friend, Curzon. It is so full of promise that I don’t know how I’m going to wait until 2010 to read the rest.

Thanks, Laurie, for such a wonderful morning with our kids!

If you want to read about another author/illustrator’s experience, Elizabeth Dulemba has an extensive blog post on her first virtual visit, too.

And finally….a to-do list for teachers who want to set up a Skype virtual author visit.

1. Download Skype at home and try it out with someone you know. Figure out how it works. It’s pretty simple, but you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable before you set up a visit.

2. Contact your technology coordinator to see if you can use Skype at school. Some will say yes. Some will say no. And some will wave magic wands and adjust bandwidth restrictions and unblock things so you can pull it off. Send them chocolate later.

3. Contact the author with whom you’d like to have a virtual visit. Find out about availability, technology needs, and fees. Also be aware that video chats aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so if an author says no thanks, respect that.

4. Once you’ve set up a date and time (morning may be best to avoid high usage Internet times), reserve the space where you’ll be having your virtual visit. Make sure the equipment you’ll need is available and working. If you’re not good with technology, enlist the help of a co-worker who is. Send that person chocolate later, too.

5. Make a plan for your virtual visit. How long will it last? (30-45 minutes seems to be perfect.) Who will ask questions? Where will they stand? Where do they go when they’re done? If you figure it out ahead of time, you won’t have to interrupt your visit to deal with questions.

6. Talk to your students about etiquette for a virtual author visit. In many ways, it’s just like having a guest speaker in your auditorium or classroom in person, and kids need to know that all the same rules about courteous behavior apply. It will also be important for them to know that technical issues are a possibility and that their quiet cooperation will help you get things fixed more quickly.

7. Test Skype at school. It doesn’t matter if you’ve tested it at home; things are different on school networks, and you don’t want to discover a problem when it’s time for your virtual visit.

8. On the day of your virtual visit, launch Skype and either call the author or wait for him/her to call you – whatever you agreed upon in advance. Know that there may be technical problems, but you’ll be able to fix them. You may want to have kids bring books for silent reading in case there’s an extended period of lost contact. Planning and flexibility (and a sense of humor!) will go a long way toward making your virtual author visit a great experience!

One more thing….

9. After your virtual visit, would you stop back here and let me know how it goes? I can’t wait to hear more about kids & authors coming together through technology!

best tracker

Congratulations, Laurie Halse Anderson!

The talented Laurie Halse Anderson (halseanderson ) just shared the news that her historical novel CHAINS has won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and I couldn’t be happier.  My 7th graders and I will be reading the final chapters tomorrow and Friday, and I was excited about that even before I heard today’s news.  CHAINS is about Isabel, a slave girl trapped in New York City and torn between Loyalists and Patriots as the Revolutionary War  ravages the city.  Yesterday, President Obama (I love writing that) gave us a brilliant connection to this chapter of American history when he quoted Thomas Paine’s "The Crisis" in his Inaugural Address.

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

Just days after Paine shared those words, General George Washington did what no one believed was possible — defeated the Hessians at Trenton after the famous river crossing immortalized in this painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

      George Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851 – Metropolitan Museum of Art

In my classroom this week, we’ll be talking about turning points and history and hope.  And we’re going to write letters through time, to tell Isabel and Curzon from CHAINS all about what happened in Washington, DC on a cold day in January, 2009.  We’ll let them know about Laurie’s award, too.  On both counts, I know they will be so very proud.

Powerful Stories

When I read, I read not only as a lover of story, but also as a writer and a teacher.  Some books really speak to the writer in me…the one who loves a beautifully turned phrase, a well-placed detail.  Some books speak to the teacher…the one who loves the historical details, believes in “the truth inside the lie,” as Stephen King described fiction, and takes frequent breaks from reading to fantasize about how much fun it will be to share the text with students.  And some books…well…some books speak to the story lover and carry her away on wings of words.

Once in a while, I read a truly unique book that speaks powerfully to all three.  In the past few weeks, I’ve read advance reader copies of two of those amazing books, both by writers named Anderson, coincidentally, and both about the choices faced by slaves during the American Revolution.

CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of Isabel, a slave trapped in New York City in the early days of the Revolution.  Sold to Loyalists when her former owner dies, she’s offered the chance to spy for the Patriots.  But does their talk of liberty really include her?  What about the British, who promise freedom to slaves who join their fight against the rebels? 

This book is impeccably researched in a way that not only convinced me I was getting “the real deal” as far as the historical details are concerned but also transported me straight back into the 18th century.  Some historical novels that have tackled this issue in the past  have made it overly simple, but CHAINS is different.  The historical context isn’t simplified, the Patriot cause isn’t glorified, and the characters are flawed, complex, and rich.  As a reader and as a teacher, I am in serious book-love, and I already have plans to use this novel in my 7th grade classroom next year.  CHAINS is a well-researched look at choices made by individuals during the Revolution, a coming-of-age story for a girl and a nation, and an absolute page-turner.  It’s everything that historical fiction ought to be.

While I read CHAINS in two days, it took me several weeks to get through M.T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME II: THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES.  Not because it wasn’t good.  It was amazing.  But it was a difficult book to read on a few levels.  M.T. Anderson is right up near the top on the list of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered, and his prose is dense.  The 18th century language of this series occasionally requires a dictionary.  More than that, though, Octavian’s story is difficult to read because it feels so, so raw. 

Like CHAINS, this book looks at the experience of slaves in the American Revolution through the eyes of an individual – in this case, Octavian Nothing, who grew up as the subject of scientific and philosophical experiments by a group of elite Boston men and in this latest volume, joins Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment to fight the Rebels.  Octavian’s life and his choices are based on the experiences of many slaves during this time period.  Anderson tells his story with a detachment that is somehow analytical and yet deeply personal and emotional all at once.  It’s an amazing, amazing book.   And I especially love the way it ends – with an author’s note that challenges us to consider not only the past but the present.

If you have any interest at all in American history, read both of these books when they come out this fall.  You’ll be transported by the masterful storytelling.  You’ll come away with a deeper sense of our history as a nation — for better or for worse. And you’ll be thinking abut Isabel and Octavian for a long, long time.

Blog Soup

Sometimes I try to make soup out of all the leftovers in the refrigerator.  Today’s post is blog soup — all the little notes I’ve been meaning to mention but haven’t had time. 

One of my favorite indies, Flying Pig Books in Shelburne, VT,  was nominated for the Lucille Micheels Pannell Award honoring bookstores that “excel at inspiring the interest of young people in books and reading.”  If you’ve ever been to see Josie & Elizabeth at Flying Pig, you know  their children’s section is fabulous, and they have a steady stream of guest authors (I’ll be there on April 5th!). The nomination is a well-earned honor!  (Congrats are also in order for winning stores, Books & Books of Coral Gables, FL and Wonderland Books of Rockford, IL. The descriptions of these stores make me want to visit them all.)
Laurie Halse Anderson (

) and her husband are training tirelessly for the Lake Placid Half Marathon.  They’re running with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training to raise money for cancer research.  Even if you only run when being chased, you can click here to contribute to their efforts.

I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting…and this Thursday, the Cybils Award Winners will be announced.  I served as a panelist for MG fiction, and I can’t wait to see what one of our eight finalists the judges choose.

Kerry Madden (

) is having a cool school picture contest on her blog, and she’s giving away signed copies of Jessie’s Mountain.  Here’s your opportunity to profit from that 3rd grade school photo where your collar was tucked in and your hair looked like devil horns.

Speaking of contests, don’t forget that I’m giving away a signed ARC of Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score.  Check out this post for the details. You have  until 6pm EST on Wednesday to enter.  The winner will be announced on Valentine’s Day.

And finally, have you checked out Nonfiction Mondays?  I love the idea of a blogging day devoted to nonfiction.  I missed today’s roundup, but I’ll be participating next Monday.  I hope you’ll stop by to check out my interview with Jim Murphy, award-winning author of fantastic non-fiction titles like The Great Fire, Blizzard,  An American Plague, and most recently, The Real Benedict Arnold.

“…all these books that were for me…”

If you write for young people, consider this LJ post a big, fat thank you note (virtual chocolates and ice cream, too). I just finished reading my 7th graders’ final exams. I ask them to write an essay reflecting on how they’ve grown as readers, writers, and human beings this year. Here’s a quote from K…

“In the beginning of the year, I didn’t like to read at all. But then my teacher showed me all these books that were for me, and I couldn’t stop reading.”

Books that were for her.  Written just for her.  Or at least it felt that way.  She went on to talk about Sonya Sones, Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Nancy Werlin — voices that spoke to her over the past ten months. 

And K wasn’t the only one who named names as she reflected on books that made a difference this year.  My kids talked about finding themselves in the characters of Pete Hautman, Janet Tashjian, Jack Gantos, Laurie Halse Anderson, Lisa Yee, Sharon Creech, Jerry Spinelli, Wendelin Van Draanen, David Lubar, Cynthia Kadohata, Mal Peet, and Walter Dean Myers.  They wrote about being challenged by M.T. Anderson, Richard Preston, and Markus Zusak.  They wrote fondly about escaping into the worlds of Margaret Peterson Haddix, Christopher Paolini, and JK Rowling.  And they reflected on walking a mile in someone else’s shoes as they read Gene Luen Yang, Cynthia Lord, Will Hobbs, Jennifer Roy, and Joseph Bruchac.

I write for kids.  I know that some days, it feels like you’re alone with your computer, and even your computer doesn’t  like you very much. So I thought I’d share K’s reflection on her year of reading.  We all need to realize when we write, we’re writing for someone important.  Someone like K, who’s waiting for a book that’s just for her, just for him.  

If you write for kids, that’s the work you’re doing every day.  You may never get to read the end-of-the-year essays, but you should know that you make a difference, and you’re appreciated.