Friday, May 31, 2013

Five Books Marta Can't Wait to Read Now That The Semester Is Over!

I'm the new Events Coordinator here at Big Blue Marble, but I'm also a graduate student, working on an MFA in Creative Writing. I just finished my first semester during which, along with writing my own fiction, I read a bunch of great literature .... that someone else assigned to me. Now that the semester is over and I have a tiny bit of free time, I can't wait to read these books ... just because they look great!

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman (Ballantine Books, $28.00)
I mostly read fiction, but I absolutely loved Goodman's previous book, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showman, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York. Goodman has a remarkable and rare talent for both meticulous research -- as he told us when he read here recently, every single detail is true! -- and also fine, novelistic story-telling. Eighty Days promises to be a true story about a remarkable and daring young female journalist that reads like fiction. What could be bad? It's also getting fabulous reviews and is a New York Times National Best Seller.

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle (Algonquin Books, $24.95)
Not to be confused with the other Life After Life by Kate Atkins, which also looks terrific, this novel is the story of a group of residents, staff and neighbors of a retirement center whose relationships and lives "illuminate the possibilities of second chances, hope and rediscovering life right up to the very end" (from the flap copy). As a middle-aged woman launching into a new adventure as a fiction writer, I love stories like this!

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Knopf, $25.95)
This just came in and is on the Indie Bestsellers List. From the flap copy: "Told with urgency, intimacy and piercing emotion, this brilliant novel of passion and artistic fulfillment explores the intensity, thrill -- and the devastating cost -- of embracing an authentic life." OK, so maybe I would prefer to skip the "devastating cost," but the rest sounds right up my alley!

Benediction by Kent Haruf (Knopf, $25.95)
I've lived in Philadelphia for over twenty years, but I'm from a small Midwestern town, and I often write about small towns, people of faith, and the intimate lives of ordinary folks. This novel is set in the West, not the Midwest, but the rest of it rings familiar to me. I also loved Haruf's other novels, Plainsong and Eventide.

Are You my Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.95)
My wife Julie and I often joke that we've become such middle-aged moms that any minute now we're going to have our lesbian cards revoked! The fact that I have never once read anything by Alison Bechdel is just further evidence that the time is nigh. But our ten-year-old son Micah (yes, another staff child named Micah!) has lately introduced me to the wonders of graphic novels, and I figure this is a terrific place to start on my own grown-up journey into the genre.

Marta Rose, June 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Author Interview: Melanie Crowder

by Cordelia Jensen

Hi Melanie! We are honored to feature you here and to be a part of your blog tour. 

Hi Cordelia! Thanks for having me at the Big Blue Marble blog!

Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel PARCHED?

PARCHED is a middle grade novel about a boy (Musa), a girl (Sarel) and her dog (Nandi) struggling to survive in a dangerous and drought-scarred land.

PARCHED is told from 3 different points of view. For me, this worked very well as a way to create tension in your book.

Thank you!

As a reader, I so wanted these characters to tell their secrets to each other! Which characters voice came to you first? Which one was hardest to write? Easiest?

The first voice I heard was Sarel's, and hers was also the most difficult to write. She doesn’t say much; at the beginning of the story, she is crippled by grief and incapable of trusting anyone but Nandi. In my mind, Sarel’s story was wrought with tension, but I really struggled to bring her intense emotions to the page in a way that spoke to the reader while remaining true to the sparse quality of the prose.

Nandi’s world is immediate and stark; so her voice, naturally, is in present tense. I knew she was the only one wise enough and strong enough to describe the opening scene. Her chapters are sensory and visceral, and believe it or not, they were the easiest to write. Nothing but the absolute essentials could make it in.

I didn’t get to know Musa until several chapters into my first draft. I sensed that there was a boy, alone and hurt, waiting to be drawn into the story. But it took me awhile to discover who he was and how he had come to be in such a desperate place. Musa is so vulnerable, but he hasn’t quite lost that childlike openness and hope, so he provides the perfect counterpoint to Sarel’s stricken and shuttered state.

What is your writing process like? Do you write a whole draft and then revise or revise as you go? What about in the case of multiple narrators? Did you do a revision just for Sarel or Musa or Nandi or revise all at once?

Oh, I did so many different revisions in so many different ways! Yes, I did at least one revision where I focused exclusively on each character. But I did others to track emotions, or to trim the dialogue, I even did an entire revision to examine the passing of time as marked by changes in the weather, plant life, and the phases of the moon. Most often, however, I revised by adding exposition or emotion that the story needed, and then going over and over the passage to pare it down to the absolute essentials.

My writing process differs with different projects, but for PARCHED, I definitely revised as I went. So much of this story is about tone. The setting, the style of prose, the dialogue, the emotional accessibility—it all had to be sparse. It had to be, well, parched.

What kind of research did you do to create an authentic setting? Have you ever been to any place similar to the world of PARCHED?

I am flat-out amazed by how much research can go into a work of fiction. I spent hours upon hours combing through information on geology, flora and fauna, childhood trauma, etc. I have been to the desert, and I have lived through mild droughts, but I have never experienced anything like the setting of this story.

Can you tell us a little about your current projects?

After working for years on PARCHED, I needed time with a project that was more light-hearted. Right now I am working on another middle grade, a steampunky adventure. It is a terrific challenge and a lot of fun!

I know you are also an art teacher. Do your students influence you as you write? Do you think about them as your target audience as you write?

Without going into too much detail about my students’ private lives, let me just say that they absolutely inspire and influence me. I watch them experience hardships (things that would devastate most adults) with resilience and optimism and laughter. I don’t see them as my readers, but I use their strength as a model for my characters.

And now, for our regular "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were your 3 favorite books from childhood/teen years? 

MG: Can I say the entire RAMONA QUIMBY series?

2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you? 

HOLES by Louis Sacchar (great mix of commercial appeal & literary chops)
CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein (but not for the reasons you might be thinking)
TUESDAY by David Wiesner (Those frogs just make me laugh out loud!)

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work? 

PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS by Patricia Reilly Giff
HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate

Thanks so much for talking with us today, Melanie. And thanks for including us on your blog tour! We are so excited to be a part of promoting such a smart, lyrical book. 

Author of PARCHED (Harcourt Children's Books, 2013), Melanie Crowder holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her online at

Melanie's novel PARCHED comes out on June 4.  If you would like to order your copy of PARCHED, you can do so though us and receive a hand drawn bookplate by Melanie Crowder herself! Just for PARCHED, we are also offering shipment! So, you may order PARCHED from any location within the U.S.A. Just give us a call at (215) 844-1470 and we can do a credit card transaction over the phone. For locals, as always, you may call, email us at or stop by the store to place an order.  
On June 11th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia and the newly released Rogue.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Janet's Five Picks That Speak to the Obsessive in All of Us

The Art of Clean Up, Life Made Neat and Tidy by Ursus Wehrli (New Chronicle Books, $14.95)
This new arrival begs to sit on the coffee table of anyone who folds their underwear, makes a list of their lists, or arranges their closet according to color, or not. Ranging from crowded beach scenes to a bowl of fruit salad, Ursus Wehrli rearranges each scene in the tidiest manner possible. A book well worth the humorous glimpse into our own eccentricities.

The Naked Roommate by Harlem Cohen (Sourcebooks, $14.99) and its companion:
The Naked Roommate: For Parents Only by Harlem Cohen (Sourcebooks, $14.99)
Syndicated advice columnist Harlem Cohen combines his personal brand of humor to offer very frank and useful advice to anyone entering college and to the parent of anyone entering college. And for the obsessive parent, helpful reminders are provided, such as: You are hovering too much if you call all of your son's or daughter's professors to let them know that your child has a cold and may not be attending their class that day.

Oh, the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss (Random House, $17.99)
"Today is your day, You're off to great places, You're off and away." The obsessive rhymer who has provided classics for generations wrote this wonderful send off book for anyone bound for a new adventure.

Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (Bantam Books, $15.00)
For those obsessive thinkers who yearn for a pause this simply written book provides the steps to clear all the unnecessary clutter...breathe in...breathe out.

Janet Elfant, May 2013

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Grace's Five Most Exciting Books-to-Be-Movies

Although film adaptations are almost never as wonderful as the books they are based on, it is still pretty exciting to head to the movies and see your favorite characters on screen. Some of these movies are almost in theaters, and others are still in development, but whichever you see I must advise the book first!

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (Starscape, $5.99)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, $15.00)

The Giver by Lois Lowry (Laurel Leaf, $6.99)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Square Fish, $6.99)

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, $18.99)

Grace Gottschalk, May 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Marta's Five for the Fest! (Mt. Airy Kids' Literature Festival)

The Seventh Annual Mt. Airy Kids' Literary Festival will be held this year on May 17, 18, and 19th. Here are a few festival-related books you might run into at the bookstore while you are here!

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange (Scribner, $12.00)
In honor of the Youth Poetry Slam (Friday, May 17, at 6:00), I've chosen this iconic work from 1974 which has been described as a "dramatic prose poem" and a "choreopoem." It has been performed all over the world, including on Broadway, and was made into a motion picture by Tyler Perry. Sapphire, author of Push, writes, "If there are shoulders modern African-American women's literature stands upon they belong to Ntozake Shange...." This is an oldie-but-goodie that no doubt continues to inspire spoken word poets old and young!

The Flame in the Mist by Kit Grindstaff (Delacorte Press, $16.99)
Kit Grindstaff will be reading from her new novel, a fantasy-adventure for fans of Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass, at 12:15 on Sunday, May 19. You can read a fantastic interview with Kit here on the Big Blue Marble Blog.

Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99)
Ame Dyckman will be reading from Boy + Bot, as well as giving us a special sneak peak into her forthcoming book, Tea Party Rules, on Saturday, May 18 at 2:00. Not only that, but there will be robot crafts and giveaways!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, $10.99)
Maybe you're seven years old and you've only just started the Harry Potter series, maybe you're seventeen or forty-seven or seventy-seven years old and you've read them all so many times you've lost count .... and you're sooooo jealous of that seven-year-old who just got started! No matter what, if you love Harry Potter like Grace Gordon does, you don't want to miss her fun-filled workshop on Saturday, May 18, at 12:00. There will be Harry Potter themed snacks, wand making, and fun character games. Come in costume if you want!

Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics! by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost (First Second, $12.99)
I will be using this book in my Graphic Novel/Comic workshop on Saturday, May 18, at 3:00. It combines simple lessons in cartooning with a "rip-roaring story" about "an impatient knight, a cowardly horse, and a magical elf" who are "off to rescue a princess and slay a dragon ... and they're learning to make comics along the way!" I look forward to learning together on Saturday as we turn our own doodles into comics, or, for the more ambitious among us, start our very own graphic novels! This terrific how-to book comes with a companion activity book with lots of great ideas and room for your own comics.

Marta Rose, May 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013

Author Interview: Kit Grindstaff

by Jennifer Sheffield

Our second interview is a conversation with debut author Kit Grindstaff. She'll be reading here this coming Sunday, May 19, from her middle grade novel The Flame in the Mist, "a fantasy-adventure for fans of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass." Come join us at the seventh annual Mt. Airy Kids’ Literary Festival for Kit's lunchtime reading and book-themed refreshments!

Hi, Kit! Thank you for taking the time for this interview! It was very exciting reading your book, especially having read part of an earlier draft when you joined our writing group at the bookstore. I’m looking forward to your reading at the Kids' Literary Festival!

Thank you for the interview, Jen—and for inviting me to the store! I’m looking forward to reading at the “book lunch” too.

1) Some of your characters in the book are twins, or have family members who are. Do you have twins in your own family, or did this idea grow from someplace else?

I love that you asked this! Of all the blogger interviews I’ve done, nobody ever brought it up—strange, since as you know, it’s pretty pivotal.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of twins, without knowing why. People often mistook my older brother and me for twins, which I thought was neat. I dreamed of having twin baby brothers, and later on fantasized about having twins of my own when I grew up and became a mum (which never happened) (the mum bit, anyway…). It wasn’t until I was older that I learned my mother had a twin who was stillborn. This left her an only child, and to this day she says the loss of that twin has affected her deeply all through her life. So I believe that in some way I picked up this fascination from her and from the untold story of loneliness that she lived with.

However, I didn’t consciously set out to make twinship a theme in the book. So its importance in the story is example to me of the wonderful way that the subconscious can work its magic into what one writes, as if such untold stories are demanding expression—in this case, my mum’s lost twin needing to be laid to rest in some way.

2) Please tell me about some rats you’ve known. How did you come to choose rats for Jemma’s companions? How do their personalities complement each other? Also, how did they get their names?

Ha ha! Well there was this guy….Oh, wait. Not that kind of rat. Actually, I never knew any furry rats. Guinea pigs, yes—Pikelet, Muffin and Flump—but I always feared rats. Living in London and New York, you see plenty of the brown sewer kind lurking in the garbage or scurrying across your path at night. Eek. And ew.

So I initially chose rats for Jemma because a) there’d be rats in a castle (so it made sense) and b) I thought the “ew” factor would be fun for kids. Little did I know how I’d fall in love with them. By the end of draft one, I swear, my lifelong fear of rats had vanished.

Originally their names were Scurry and Flurry, and they were the regular brown variety. Then, as their powers of telepathy evolved in the story and their role grew stronger, their names began to feel too cute and rhyme-y. So I changed them to Noodle and Pie. No idea why—the names just felt right, and chimed well together. It wasn’t until a very late draft that their fur turned golden. Which of course was perfect, going along with golden Light and the missing sunshine.

3) How does landscape affect your writing/writing process? Your bio says you “grew up in the rolling countryside of England, which is curiously similar to Anglavia.” Does the Mist have its origins there as well? Does it evoke a particular memory? And did any of the writing of this book take place in similar surroundings?

England can be very misty, for sure! And the memory of damp foggy winters certainly played into the Mist. But actually, classic Brit literature was a bigger influence. I read an abridged version of Great Expectations when I was 8, and Dickens’s description of the misty marshes where Pip first meets Magwitch wormed deep into me. In other books too, fog seems ever present. But thankfully it’s all logged in my memory, so I didn’t need to be immersed in it to write it!

4) Which characters’ voices were the most difficult to write? Which came the most smoothly? Do you have particular strategies to help you along with this?

I suppose one of the most challenging was Jemma’s herself, as she has no dialect, no particular idiosyncrasies. The others’ voices on the whole were very clear in my head—almost as if the characters were speaking, and I was merely transcribing.

In terms of dialect, though, Rue’s was challenging to get onto the page. When it came to copy editing all sorts of questions arose, for example about why I was substituting “yer” for “your” or “you’re” in some places and not others. I was embarrassed to realize how horribly inconsistent I’d been! For some reason, the logic of her speech was tricky, and it took me days to figure out how make it cohesive.

5) I saw this question in another interview with you, and I want to reiterate it here: What is some of the best writing advice you’ve received, and how has it helped you in your writing?

Hmm, I wonder if I’ll give the same answers now? First thing that comes to mind is love what you write, and write what you love. The road contains lots of pitfalls and frustrations, and without the passion to carry you through, it would be too tough. And besides, why expend time and energy on something you only feel half hearted, or even three quarter hearted, about?

For technical advice, a workshop I took with Donald Maass taught me three things in particular that really stick with me. First, every scene should count: every paragraph and sentence, even, needs to serve the story. Second, the main character should be changed, however slightly, at the end of each scene: what has she or he learned? What’s different now than it was before the scene took place? Third, Maass talked about microtension. As well as the big picture conflict, and/or internal conflict, there should be tension in every paragraph—some emotional significance that ramps up the stakes at every turn.

The idea of microtension was immensely helpful in revising action scenes. For example, in Jemma’s fight with the Aukron, originally it was only action. After Maass’s workshop, I added in two fleeting thoughts: Jemma’s defense of Noodle, and how his imminent death fires her up; and then her thinking of all the things she’ll never see or experience if she dies right now. Those two small things suddenly gave the scene much more consequence for her, and I think strengthened it a lot.

6) You also have a professional career in songwriting. What kinds of music have you recorded, and what other kinds of music do you enjoy? Do the songwriting and the prose writing ever overlap?

Generally, I’ve written pop songs. Pop with different flavors: pop rock, pop folk, pop jazz. Pop r’n’b, not so much. French cafĂ© jazz—love!

To listen to, I’ve always loved classical music—Bach and Vivaldi are particular favorites for an optimistic hit first thing in the morning. Then there’s choral pieces (I once sang Handel’s Solomon in the university choir at Durham Catherdral in England—one of The Most Awesome Experiences ever!), Thomas Tallis, as well as chants, Tibetan bells, Christmas carols, Hindu chants, African choral. Some trance music, even. And Bhangra—a joyous way to get moving! The only genre I don’t love on the whole is rap—though there have been a few particular songs I’ve really liked.

As regards overlap, though both are “writing”, I don’t find there’s much connection between song writing and prose. The two are very different—3 minute story vs hundreds of pages of prose—and demand very different kinds of focus and creative process.

7) What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

Well, one begins with the letter ‘s’ and ends with the letter ‘l’ with a ‘q’ in the middle…The first draft is nearing completion, though there’s a tonnnnn of layering in to do yet. Other than that, I have two pet projects on the back burner, one told from two points of view across several centuries, the other from three points of view in a more futuristic England. And I often dream of writing a picture book someday. I have an idea, but as yet have no clue how to frame it.

And now, for our regular "3 for 3" book questions:

3 favorite books from childhood/teen years:

From childhood: The Famous Five (a series…sorry, can’t choose just one! They’re all an archetypal British blur), and Friday’s Tunnel, by John Verney.

From teens: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Getting into the classic and ghostly…Oh sorry, that’s 4. (I knew it was 4.)

3 books you've read recently that surprised you:

1. The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann. His prose style is delightful to me, the story both funny and tragic—and the fact that it was written by a 16/17 year old just adds to its “Whaaaa? Blown away!” factor.

2. Brianna on the Brink, by Nicole McInnes. I didn’t love the title, but Nicole and I both belong to The Lucky 13s, a group of authors who all have our books debuting this year, so I took the opportunity to read an ARC. The opening pages irritated me—Brianna’s voice was kind of glib—but the synopsis was intriguing enough me to read on, and I was so glad I did. Turned out I was missing the point of this glibness, which is part of Brianna’s defense system. A short book by most standards these days, but it packs an emotional punch. I really loved it.

3. The Fault in our Stars by John Green. I’d heard great things about it, and the book delivered. Only it was much better than I’d anticipated, and hit me way deeper.

3 books that influence/d your work:

1. The Golden Compass. I love Pullman’s world building, the steampunkish parallel Oxford he creates. I also love Lyra’s spunk. She definitely influenced my writing of Jemma.

2. Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. Not that the story bears any resemblance to The Flame in the Mist, but the beauty of Babbitt’s prose, especially in the prologue, is amazing—something to aspire to.

3. Last but not least, I still feel Dickens breathing through Jemma’s Anglavia! And since I’m writing a sequel—oh, there. I just said it. The ‘s’-word :-)

Thanks so much, Kit!

You’re welcome, Jen!

Kit Grindstaff was born near London and grew up in the rolling countryside of England. After a brush with pop stardom (under her maiden name, Hain) she moved to New York and embarked on her career as a pop song writer. Kit now lives with her husband in the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the SCBWI. The Flame in the Mist is her first novel. You can also find her at, and on Twitter: @kitgrindstaff.

On May 28th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Melanie Crowder, author of the debut middle grade novel Parched, as part of Melanie's upcoming blog tour!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Jen’s Five Books Not Just for Parents

Looking for last-minute mother's day gifts? Early father's day gifts? Random books for thoughtful readers? These are all books that I've loved reading, and I feel that the lens of parenthood through which I read them merely added to the richness of the experience.

Also, any parents who are reading should know about the seventh annual Mt. Airy Kids' Literary Festival we're hosting next weekend! Events for toddlers and teens and kids in between. Music and readings and workshops and crafts and a poetry slam. Come check it out!

NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Little, Brown, $14.99)
I keep telling people that everyone should read NurtureShock who has either had a child...or been a child. It’s a book of stories about research studies that turn much standard parenting wisdom upside down – or at least sideways. The writing is engaging, and topics range from infants to teenagers, from language development to lying, from sibling relationships to the importance of sleep. Go read it!!

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (Scribner, $37.50)
This is a huge, compelling book about identity and difference, focusing specifically on differences within individual families. Each chapter involves an identity -- such as deafness, musical prodigiousness, autism, or gender dissonance -- with which most of the parents interviewed had no experience until their child was born. At the heart of the writing is the question of whether each difference is something to be nurtured or cured/minimized, and how to strike a balance that nurtures the family as well as the broader community. Go read this too!

Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures by Amber Dusick (Harlequin, $16.95)
Okay, this is mostly for parents, but it’s pretty funny on its own. Based on the author’s blog of the same name, it features clumsy but endearing illustrations and stories told with sharp wit. Or overtired wit.

Half Baked: The Story of My Nerves, My Newborn, and How We Both Learned to Breathe by Alexa Stevenson (Running Press, $14.95)
A powerful memoir about what happens when you spend your life preparing for the wrong worst things. In this case, where the title refers both to a twin who wasn’t born and a twin who was born 15 weeks early, the author learns to transform both her anxiety and her “preparing” skills into advocacy that, in the end, saves her newborn daughter’s life.

Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All! edited by Harlyn Aizley (Beacon Press, $16.00)
What’s it like to be the nonbio mother in a lesbian relationship? So many possibilities! Nif and I both found the essays in this book really helpful to read before embarking on our own parenting adventure.

Jennifer Sheffield, May 2013