Friday, October 29, 2010

Treats Only!

So The Big Hairy Dog and I were on our morning walk and wanted to share some of the most creative decorations in the neighborhood.

No sure which was scarier - this spider...

...or this one.

You see this lovely neighbor as you cross the bridge over the creek. Don't know that I'm coming this way in the dark.

These guys always do an amazing job - looks like an Egyptian theme this year..

Doctor Who?

These guys are insane! Can you see the size of this thing? Last year was a pirate ship and the year before was a castle. Always worth a look.

Okay, this is in my yard. But I really like 'em.


On this date: In 1929, the stock market crashed.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The LitChicks - EXTRAORDINARY by Nancy Werlin

The LitChicks are an every-Thursday feature with sisters Portia (age 13) and Liesl (age 14) taking turns recommending some of their favorite reads to the blog.

This week, Portia took pity on her high-schooler big sister and filled in with a recommendation I've been dying to get to because I've heard great things about it. Portia's pick this week:


A frantic phone call from my sister this morning made me aware that in the homework she was doing last night, she forgot to do her book review this week, and waking up at 5:30 this morning to get ready for school didn't do much for her distraction either, so I decided to answer her plea and a review this week. :)

EXTRAORDINARY is a recent novel; I think it came out in September! [September 7th to be exact.] The basic story line revolves around this girl named Phoebe. Phoebe is a Rothschild--her mom is extraordinary, and her family is wealthy. They are rich, and love Phoebe, and she loves her parents. But, Phoebe has a secret wish to be ordinary. She doesn't want people to look at her an only see a name. She is uncomfortable with herself, self-conscious, and in a group of friends she hardly likes when she meets Mallory. Mallory is different. She dresses weird and hardly talks to anyone. In a impulsive move, Phoebe decides to befriend her. Mallory and Phoebe eventually become as close as sisters--practically a part of each other’s families.

Then Phoebe meets Mallory's older brother, Ryland. Phoebe is automatically drawn to Ryland, and she has no idea why. She just feels so much better when she's around him, even if he does make comments about her weight and tell her to grow up. Ryland and Phoebe secretly meet up and talk until Mallory finds out. She is furious, yells horrible insults and Phoebe, and their lives separate. Phoebe feels so low, but at least she still has Ryland. Then her support system starts to disappear.....her mom goes into a coma, her dad never leaves her side, and Mallory...Mallory is gone. Phoebe turns to Ryland with no one else to go to, but he only cuts her down until she feels ordinary. One day she breaks down and says it.

Phoebe never realized how much strength she had, and what it meant to admit how she felt. She never knew the consequences, but she is sucked into a bigger problem than she ever realized involving her family tree and a whole other species.....of faeries.

An exciting read that makes you think of what it means to be extraordinary. :)

On this date: In 1965, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is completed.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How Do You Say That?

Omololu is not the last name I grew up with. In fact, it took me a little while to learn how to say it correctly. Want to hear me do it? Check out the pronunciation guide at Teaching Books. While you're there, check out Maggie Steifvater, Jon Scieszka and Rick Riordan among others - not only do you get to hear how their names are pronounced, but how they sound as well. Warning - you may find yourself spending a large amount of time here.

On this date: In 1904, the New York City subway opened.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Good Day

Today was a good day. You know how I said that the best thing about being a writer is that every day you might get the phone call that will change everything? Yeah. Today was a day like that.

In honor of the news, I was finally able to bust out the special package of Reece's that I bought in New York at the Hershey's store. What's so special about this package? Nothing at first.

Until you look closely at the size of the package.

That's right, a whole one pound of peanut butter and chocolaty goodness. Or is that chocolate and peanut buttery goodness? Um...there's a lot here. Want some?

Stay tuned to the blog for updates - I'll share my news as soon as I can!

On this date: In 1797, the first parachute jump is made.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The LitChicks - THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton

Yay for Portia who came through for us again this week with a great recommendation. This post made me laugh out loud, it was so true and such a wonderful 8th grade perspective on books and life. I didn't change a word.

Portia's Pick this Week:


School books are boring. I'll say it again. The books you read in school are usually about 90% pretty sleep-inducing! In my humble opinion. You start with Island of the Blue Dolphins in 5 grade.......moving to Tuck Everlasting in 6 grade, and The Pearl in 7 grade................Now, I'm not saying that all books are bad. The Skin I'm In was really quite nice! But I've always wondered if it was just the books they picked that were boring......(Oh why can't we read Harry Potter!!) or if it was just the way we dissected every little line that ruined it...(Can anyone tell me what the author means when she refers to the red house on the corner. Does it stand for her sense of independence? Or perhaps anger?) I mean, give me a break! I appreciate reading with different attitudes other than "I'm reading because it's interesting," but this hidden meaning grates on you after a while.

Last year, towards the end of 7th grade, we were given a choice of about 8 books that we could read in groups of 4. In our groups, we would do various work with conflicts in the book. I chose The Outsiders. I guess I could have gone with Catherine Called Birdy or The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, but I chose the gang book. And prayed it wouldn't be like....others..I've read. I was very surprised.

I started reading The Outsiders by assigned chapters at first. But then I really got into it. I went home and read and spent all class just reading--mastering the art of holding a book open under your desk and looking up at opportune moments. Being the sap that I am, when I got to the last few chapters, I got a bit emotional. I remember sitting in my chair in English, with a tissue clutched in my hand, just about bawling with tears dripping down my face. The person unnamed sitting across from me stared at me in disbelief and said pretty rudely, "Are you CRYING!!?!!?!?!? Whatchooo crying for? This book isn't sad at all! Geeez. Drama rama! I can't believe you're crying!!!" Oh well. This book makes you cry. That's just a fact of life.

I really liked this book. This was one of those books I like that really make you think about life. Liesl is a very beach read girl. She likes a lot of books, but chicky ones are her favorite, I think. I appreciate a beach read, but I like books that make me momentarily depressed--surprisingly. Ones that make me look at my life and think, "My problems aren't that bad," or "I should appreciate my friends more," or "What if.........[fill in the blank]" The Outsiders really made me look at my relationships with my siblings and friends and think about what kind of bonds I have with them. Looking at Ponyboy's relationships with his brothers and the back stories made me appreciate my family so much more.

S.E. Hinton described the characters with such felt you really knew them. And of course, you pick your favorites. Bad boy Dallas, shy Johnny, funny Two-Bit, light-hearted Soda, and adult Darry..... I think this book makes you look at loyalty differently. The author took friendships and city gang rivalries and made you think they weren't that bad. You were rooting for Ponyboy all along. Greasers vs. Socs.......You would never think about gangs like that. You look at thugs like real people and you see the truth behind why they are the way they are. I think that's something we could all use. Even though it's written in the 1960s....(not so long ago!!), this book is still able to be appreciated.

It's a school book, and I can actually see why. If an author wants to know what kind of books I like, The Outsiders is a good example. I like the way it was written, I like the dialogue, the ability to understand the characters better than they understand each other, the idea of a story with sibling relationships and friends. A book that makes you think about life.

On this date: In 1959, the Guggenheim museum opens in NYC.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Coloring Books

I've always loved walking into a book fair - my heart starts racing and my fingers itch to pick up all of the great titles. Because of this, I love helping out at the book fairs for my kids schools.

A few weeks back, I was helping the librarian unpack the book fair at the middle school. I'm talking titles with her, pulling out the YA books that I really loved and squeeing when I saw a book by an author that I 'know'.

In the middle of this, the librarian asked me to unpack the African American book box. No problem.

I grabbed the box and started to take out the titles. Problem.
Me: "Uh oh. They sent us the wrong box."
Librarian: "For what?"
Me: "The African American box. It's for elementary schools, not middle."
Librarian: (Sighs) "No. It's right. Every year the box for African American readers is full of picture books."

I was dumbfounded. The selection of 'regular' books was great - so many challenging and interesting YA books that I couldn't wait to whip out my checkbook. The selection in this box was clearly for kids averaging a third grade reading level. As I asked about the issue, a disturbing pattern began to emerge.

Turns out, our wonderful librarian has been struggling for years to get quality reading materials at the book fairs for kids of color. She showed me a string of emails to Scholastic trying to address the selection for multicultural kids, as well as the lack of any books with people of color on the cover in all of their promotional materials (see this list of 100 featured books on their website) . Not only does she have to special request books with multicultural characters (read: they are not sent to all schools automatically) but the boxes always contain material far too young for middle school readers.

Then I heard the kicker. She got involved after several of the middle-school girls gave her a letter complaining about the lack of books in the book fair with people who represented them. I repeat: middle school girls went out of their way to write a letter stating their views. If any of you know a middle school girl, you know what a big deal this must have been for them. They never do anything if they don't have to.

Our district is more sensitive than most to this issue. The middle school my son attends is 43% Hispanic, 23% African American, 14% Caucasian and 12% Asian. My 13 year old has brown skin, brown eyes and curly dark hair. He also gets straight As.

I know that there is a problem in publishing with a lack of quality YA books with characters of color. I also know that there are a lot of authors who are starting to correct that (Jacqueline Woodson, Justine Larabalestier, Mitali Perkins and Jaclyn Dolamore to name a few). I'm not sure why titles by these and other authors weren't included in the book fair, but I do know that more of an effort needs to be made to bring teens young adults books that reflect what they see in the mirror.

On this date: In 1965, the first draft cards were burned.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The LitChicks-Amigas: Fifteen Candles by Veronica Chambers

I thought high school had her beat, but Liesl came through for us today to recommend one of her favorite reads.

Liesl’s Pick this Week:

AMIGAS: FIFTEEN CANDLES by Veronica Chambers

To be 100% honest I picked this book off the shelf at the library because:

a). I thought that the girl on the front was pretty, and

b). I liked the cover girl’s heart-shaped sunglasses. not advised judgment was okay. This was a fun book!

A Latina girl named Alicia becomes a summer intern at city hall. She meets a fellow intern named Sarita who is stressing out about her quinceanera. Alicia loves quinces and offers to help. Alicia has a dream of starting a quince planning business and thinks that this would be a great start to the company and good publicity. She recruits the help of her friends , Jamie the hair and makeup artist, Carmen the fashion designer, and Gaz the musician, to help her. With all her enthusiasm and desire to make this the perfect quince, Alicia goes a little overboard and things get rocky. After lots of hard work, the quince turns out to be awesome and Sarita is so happy. A really good book if you like stories about friendship and fun and mild romance. I thought it was a fun read and would definitely recommend it!

On this date: In 1994, Pulp Fiction debuted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Club Visit - Balboa High School

(Yes, I took this photo this morning. The campus is just that pretty)

I've been spending a lot of time in high school lately and loving every minute of it. Today's visit was at the lunchtime book club at Balboa High School in San Francisco. I have to say that book clubs are my most favorite visits to do - sitting in a room while 20 people talk about my book? Yes, please.

The book club was wonderful and as befitting The City,very civilized with tea and homemade cookies. The teens were really attentive and interested (at least they faked it well) and had lots of great questions. We talked about Dirty Little Secrets and about young adult books in general. One of the best moments was chiming in as they picked the book for next month - Jay, you won, they're doing 13 Reasons Why.

As I was looking around the room, it hit me again how important engaged and energetic librarians are to the success of any school. Both Marla Bergman, the librarian from the Public Library, and Molly Lazarus, the school librarian at Balboa, make their time available to get kids interested in reading. The room was bustling the entire time with teens hanging out during their lunch hour, reading or discussing books. The displays were full of new titles, so many that I had a stack that I wanted to borrow by the end of the day (alas, my high school library card has long expired). The kids were excited about the books we were discussing and about choosing books they want to read next. It was fabulous and refreshing.

I thought about this all the more because I was missing my own turn as elementary school librarian today. Because of budget cuts, our district got rid of all elementary school librarians so the parents rallied together and we all take turns sitting at the desk checking books in and out for the kids. I put on my library hat on Tuesday afternoons (don't worry, another parent filled in for me - thanks Todd!). Because we sit in, the kids are able to check out two books every week - for many kids, the only books they have access to on a regular basis. But we don't do all of the other things great librarians do. We don't book talk new titles or look for new titles to buy. We don't put together reading groups so that kids can find books that they would like to read for fun. We're like the checkout people at the grocery store - I can wield a scanner and tell you what's overdue, but that's about it.

We need our great librarians back.

Thanks again to the great folks at Balboa High School who read Dirty Little Secrets and then let me come in and talk about it!

On this date: In 1998, student Matthew Shepard died in an anti-gay assault.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The LitChicks: HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown

The LitChicks are sisters Portia (13) and Liesl(14). They read anything and everything and take time out of their busy schedules to bring us their favorite book recommendations every Thursday.

Today, Portia has come by to give us her recommendation:

HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown

HATE LIST is one of those many novels I borrow from Cynthia that don't make it back to her house for many weeks. When I first borrowed it, Liesl took it to read, and she was taking.......FOREVER! So, I kept bugging her because I really wanted to read it! I would get all in her face, like, "Liesl! Are you reading it? Are you reading it? Are you reading it?" until she finally caved and gave it to me. However, once I got it, I barely read it. 15 minutes a day for RIP [the free reading program] at school is not enough time to finish a book in a reasonable amount of time, so I just took it home and sat down one night (okay, tonight) and just finished it!

However, this book was one of my favorite kinds of books! Ones that make you stop and think about life and count your lucky stars. Ones that make you want to go and hug all your friends right now! And make sure that your family loves each other and you're living in reality.

HATE LIST is a book about a girl, Valerie, whose boyfriend, Nick, randomly turns a gun on a crowded lunch room and starts shooting one day, killing more than 5 people and injuring many others. When the police find a notebook with a "Hate List" in it, people start to piece together that the victims shot were ones on the hate list, and that Valerie and Nick were behind it all. But Valerie is innocent. She never shot anyone, she never asked for anyone to be shot, for Nick to do anything, she never saw it coming....She never was serious that ever wanted anybody dead. But nobody can see the truth in what she says. They see somebody who hated them all who accidentally got shot and was mourning her boyfriend. They see somebody who should go away, who has no future or friends.

This book was about Valerie's journey through recovery. How she comes to terms with herself and the role she played in the shooting and the role she didn't play. How she came to terms with the Nick she knew and the Nick who killed people with hopes and dreams. I loved it. Everything about it. I thought it was beautifully written. I loved how you saw Valerie's point of view and you got all worked up in her defense. I liked how everything fell to pieces so beautifully, but not sloppily, and was reclaimed. I liked realizing that people are not what they seem, and that things affect people in unexpected or different ways. I also liked the news articles thrown in, too.

I think everyone should read HATE LIST. It will make you look differently at life. I think that's a good thing. I think we should all stop and think every once in a while.

On this date: In 1931, Bishop Desmond Tutu was born.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Know the Rules Before You Break Them

I'm involved in a great mentorship project right now as part of a Yahoo Group. In reading the messages between the mentees and the mentors I've seen a pattern begin to develop. I'm not sure if it's because we're writing YA, but a lot of us don't want to follow the rules. Maybe we're all 16 emotionally, and as my good friend Phillip was fond of saying in first grade - we don't need no stinkin' rules. Rules are for the lesser writer. Rules are for the people who have no imagination.

Rules are for the people who want to be published.

If you're writing for yourself and your friends, then never mind this post. Go crazy. Pull together a 500k word young adult contemporary with a talking dog as a main character.

There are some rules that unfortunately, new writers need to be aware of (and actually follow) if they are writing in the hopes of seeing the words on their laptop become a book someday. I'm going to gear this toward getting an agent because I firmly believe that you need to get an agent in order to write anything longer than picture books. Yeah, another stinkin' rule.

Some of my favorite rules include:

YA = Younger than 18. I hate to say this, but if you're writing about college students, you probably won't be able to sell it as YA. Yes, college is much easier to write - no pesky parents to worry about. But agents probably won't look at it. If you do manage to snag an agent with this manuscript, they're probably going to tell you to rewrite it as high school students before they'll send it out. Yes, I know that ALONG FOR THE RIDE by Sarah Dessen (one of my favorites) is set in the summer between high school and college. She's Sarah Dessen. You're not.

Keep it under 100k. We've all see the doorstops that pass as novels these days - 300 to 500 word (mostly paranormal) books that look like serious reading. Anything over 100k words is going to be a red flag for an agent. Save the big stuff for your second (or third) book.

Know your genre. Contemporary isn't fantasy isn't dystopian. Each genre is a separate being with it's own rules and regs. Study up and know what you're writing before you start submitting. If you're not sure, I suggest a few days spent perusing the posts over on the message boards at Verla Kay. A confused agent isn't likely to read very far.

Get a hook. Your gentle coming-of-age story about a girl who comes to terms with her parents divorce might be really well written, but you probably won't get an agent to read it. It's been done. Find something about your story that is amazing and original and will get the agent excited to read on. A rockus coming of age story about a girl who reacts to her parent's divorce by hooking up with a hot guy who turns out to be an alien sent to bring her back to the mothership? Much more likely to get pages requested. Oh, and make sure the hook comes early in the book. Like the first page.

No more backstory. The great thing about middle grade and young adult books is that they don't fool around. We don't want to see two pages on how the light is falling in the room as the sun sets over the dunes. We don't care. Get to the juicy stuff and make it quick. You might also want to rethink that prologue. Go ahead and write it if you must. Then delete it.

Get rid of the cliches. Does your book start with a dream? With a character looking in the mirror? Does she have a dangerous but attractive lab partner? Are one or more of the parents dead (okay, guilty as charged)? You need to brush up on your cliches because agents have seen them all. There are tons of great blog posts out there about the dreaded YA cliches - one of my favorites is by my pal Joelle Anthony (whose Restoring Harmony is a rockin' book).

The rules are a pain, but worth following, at least for your first book. I know of what I speak. Just ask me about the contemporary/romance/thriller set during freshman year of college I wrote. It's awesome. And unsold.

Agents get hundreds if not thousands of query and sample pages every month - don't give them a reason to reject you off the bat.

On this date: In 1990, Henry and June is the first NC-17 rated film.