Sunday, June 30, 2013

Cordelia's Five "You Should Read These" Recently Published Middle Grade & Young Adult Books

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martins Griffin, $18.99)
Read this critically-acclaimed, intense love story about an unlikely pair of misfit teens in the 1980s who find each other on the school bus.

The Whole Stupid Way We Are by N. Griffin (Atheneum, $16.99)
Read this heartwrenching, beautifully-written story of a life-altering friendship in one intensely cold winter. (Look for our author interview with N. Griffin on the bookstore blog.)

The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour (Speak, $8.99)
Read this fun, energetic, coming-of-age road trip story about a less-than-talented girl band and their artistically talented boy friend, Colby.

Parched by Melanie Crowder (Harcourt, $15.99)
Read this lyrical, sparse book about a girl, boy and dog all struggling to survive in a land without water. (Look for our author interview with Melanie Crowder on the bookstore blog.)

Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Nancy Paulson Books, $16.99)
Read this sensitive portrayal of a girl with undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome who imagines herself as a superhero, and befriends a boy who has secrets of his own. (Look for our recent author interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann on the bookstore blog.)

Cordelia Jensen, June 2013

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Author Interview: Amy Ignatow

by Jennifer Sheffield

Hi, Amy! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I've loved following the adventures of Lydia and Julie through the five books currently making up the Popularity Papers, and I'm looking forward to the sixth!

What prompted you to write about kids in this age group? What do you learn from them as they change and grow?

Before writing for middle grade I was writing a weekly web comic for adults called "Ig City." The comic got the attention of my literary agent who suggested that middle grade might be a good fit for my work. I had never before considered it but found myself really drawn to writing for kids and the ideas began to flow. Writing Lydia and Julie has made me think back on when I was their age and I feel incredibly grateful that I was lucky enough to have made wonderful friends. True friendship is incredibly important at any age but good friends are especially vital when you begin to take those first wobbly baby steps towards independence.

I can tell you've put in lots of time researching these books, particularly The Rocky Road Trip, with all its detail and Papa Dad's "fun facts". What specific research was required for each book? What parts have you liked or disliked?

Thank you for noticing! My husband is a research junkie, and in 2010 we drove from Philly to Denver and back, stopping in different cities to do book events and visit old friends (see the archives of my blog if you want to hear about what happened to us in St. Louis...) Mark had a ball preparing for the trip and printed out Fun Facts for every state that we visited, and that along with other trips that we've taken really inspired The Rocky Road Trip. But I also love learning about Norwegian folklore and Eskrima and London and nearly anything and everything. My brain is crammed with esoteric trivia for future stories (and for my own amusement).

I love Julie's and Lydia's families (and the way they seem to be family to each other), and I want to offer my personal thanks for Julie's two dads. Daddy and Papa Dad are important characters in all of the books, and I really appreciate the fact that they're accepted as given and unremarkable by most of Julie's peers and by most of her extended family. How did you decide to include them in the books, and what kinds of responses do you get from readers? Did you find any resistance during the publishing process?

For the story to work I needed Julie to be the sort of kid who feels no pressing need to venture beyond the comfort of her family and her best friend, so it made sense for Julie to be the adopted only child of two gay men. As anyone who has been through the process knows, it's difficult and expensive to adopt. It's even more difficult for a gay couple to adopt, so you've got these two amazing dads who have worked very hard and moved to the burbs to give their kid a great life. Julie is the center of their world and they're incredibly protective of her. Conversely, Lydia and her sister Melody have been raised by a single working mom (their father isn't introduced until the fourth book when [MINI SPOILER!] it's discovered that he's not very kind). With a gothy teenage sister who attracts all the attention by simply being her pierced self, Lydia has to work to get noticed, and drags Julie into her ambitions. This sets them on their quest to understand "popularity."

Could I have achieved these distinct personalities with more "traditional" families? Maybe. But even before I worked out all the reasons why, having a gay couple and a single mom just made sense for the story. I'm happy to say that Amulet never once balked at my decision to give Julie two fathers, and most readers are more interested in Lydia's hair color than they are in Julie's dads. I get the occasional basic question, Why does Julie have two fathers? and the rare unpleasant email, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EXPLAIN THIS TO MY INNOCENT CHILD? but on the whole most people don't think it's that big a deal. Gay couples are moving to the suburbs and having children and barbeques and yard sales and holiday parties and trouble finding a good gutter repair service like everyone else.

The bio in the fifth book mentions you spent some time as a back-up singer in a rock band. How long were you in the band? How old were you then? How did this experience shape Lydia and Julie's Awesomely Awful band? What was the age range of your audiences?

I was in two bands in my twenties. One was not so much of a band as a goofy acapella act, and we used to do open mic nights and also open for other bands. Despite our unwillingness to learn how to play instruments or read music we were actually quite good and were once invited to be guests on a Top 40 morning show. For a few years we also sang backup for a wonderful band called Todd Young & His Rock Band, but slowly drifted away when things like marriage and kids happened. Now Todd's kids hang out with mine. Maybe one day they'll start a band?

But the Macrame Owls in The Awesomely Awful Melodies are more akin to the garage bands I used to see when I was in high school--some cute boys abusing their guitars and our eardrums.

I like Julie and Lydia's friend Jen, whom I'm drawn to partly because of her quiet randomness and partly because of her name. How do you choose your characters' names?

I'm quite lazy about choosing names. Usually, if a name doesn't magically come to me I'll scroll through my friends on Facebook for inspiration. But I've learned that I have to be careful with that--the character of Jonathan Cravens is named after a couple of people who are very dear to me. He was kind of a benign presence in the second book but by the end of the third book he turned into a bit of a weenie, and I had some apologizing to do.

I'm so glad that you like the Jen character. She represents those lovely weirdos who even at a young age genuinely don't give a hoot about the whole popularity game. We could all be a little more like Jen.

Because Julie is such an excellent artist, I generally assume that her pictures are (with some obvious exceptions) reasonably accurate. How does her drawing style differ from yours? Are there ways in which you feel she depicts herself differently from the way she depicts others?

I think that Julie is secretly self-conscious about the size of her nose. There's no way it's actually that large. As for the style, if I were drawing it as me instead of as an 11-year-old I'd never use Crayola markers and pencils to color them in. It's a lot more work than just using ink or a computer. I need a helper monkey just to sharpen pencils.

Please tell us about your creative process. Do you work on the writing and the drawing together as you go, or sequentially? Does the story creation happen more in one mode than the other? How do you plan the pages and presentation?

First, I write a very detailed outline. My editor reads it and either gives me notes or a go-ahead. Then I write a script describing the text and the illustrations for the first twenty or so pages and when I'm done I start sketching out each page. Then I ink, then I color, then I write more, and sketch, and ink, and color, and the book begins to form. Once I'm done with the writing and the sketching and the inking and the coloring I scan everything, use the computer to fix mistakes, and then my editor gets a hold of it. Then revisions, and more revisions, and copy-edits, and discussions about the cover, and the title page, and polishing everything until it meets with everyone's approval.

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

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

The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren, Ronia the Robber's Daughter, also by Astrid Lindgren, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt (which is definitely NOT a kid's book, but I was obsessed with it when I was a teenager) (still am, truth be told, with all three books)

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

Savvy, by Ingrid Law, is SO SO GOOD. Also Before You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. But in all honesty, most of what I read nowadays is stuff like But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton (which I love).

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

This is sort of a tricky question because I tend to pick up influences like a great big sponge. But if pressed I'd say Gnomes, by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet (talk about your research journal), Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut, and Miss Piggy's Guide to Life.

Thank you for joining us!

Amy Ignatow is the author and illustrator of The Popularity Papers series. She is a graduate of Moore College of Art and Design and can fold many origami cranes. Amy lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Mark, their daughter, Anya, and their cat, Mathilda, who is an unrepentant gnawer of colored pencils.

Look for The Popularity Papers book 6: Love and Other Fiascos, coming out this October!

On July 16th, come check out Cordelia's upcoming interview with Jessica Leader, author of Nice and Mean.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jen and Nif’s Five Books for Potty-Training

Toddler Micah's favorite thing besides trucks, animal noises, rhymes, and colorful pictures? Why, discussions of bodily functions, of course! Here are great books for anyone thinking about ever someday maybe possibly potty-training their toddler.

These first three kept Micah “on the pot” when we first introduced it, whether or not anything was happening:

Potty by Leslie Patricelli (Random House, $6.99)
The baby in the book is trying to figure out WHERE to go. (Micah loves the examination of what kitty and doggy do, since this harkens back to the memorable occasion when our neighbor's big Doberman pooped right in his vicinity.) Eventual success on the potty raises the glad cry, "Hooray! Undies!" -- a chant appropriate for many happy occasions.

Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi (Kane Miller, $13.99)
This examination of how and where various creatures poop is factual and funny without being overly cutesy. Pure genius if you aren't squeamish about the subject matter. Micah is endlessly fascinated.

Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel (Firefly, $7.95)
Comes in boy and girl versions. We edit our read to use the vocabulary our household uses. Micah reads it aloud to himself, "Hat? No. Milk bowl meow? No. Bird bath? No. Flower? No," and thinks this is hilarious (that's the bit where the kid tries to figure out what the potty is). We really like how it invokes the patience needed: "And sat and sat and sat and sat..." and that the inevitable misses are dealt with matter-of-factly.

And then:

Diaper-Free Before Three by Jill M. Lekovic (Three Rivers Press, $13.95)
Up until month 27, use of the potty was occasional and only rarely productive. Then Nif read this book, and suddenly we were off on a roller coaster ride of intensive potty training, with training pants and everything. And over the course of a month we’ve seen vast differences, both in Micah’s use of the potty itself and in his ability to control his bladder, even/particularly when sleeping!

Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith (Random House, $4.99)
Not directly related to potty use but instrumental in helping to understand what to do afterward. Little Mouse hurries to get ready to go play and explains in detail how to put on each article of clothing... even pointing out that the tag goes in the back! Micah loves it when we coax him to get dressed using lines from the book, and he’s learning to do more and more of the dressing by himself!

The Jennifers Sheffield and Woodfin, June 2013

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Author Interview: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

by Cordelia Jensen

Hi, Lyn! So happy to have you here with us today. I just LOVED reading your new book, Rogue. I could not put it down. Before we get started, here is a quick plot synopsis:

Kiara has a difficult time making -- and keeping -- friends. She has Asperger's syndrome, so relating to other people doesn't come naturally. Most of the time, she relies on Mr. Internet -- her go-to when the world doesn't make sense, which is often -- and her imagination, where she daydreams that she's Rogue, one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In the comics, Rogue hurts anyone she touches, but eventually learns to control her special power. Kiara hasn't discovered her own special power yet, but when Chad moves in across the street, she hopes that, for once, she'll be able to make friendship stick. She's even willing to keep Chad's horrible secret, if that's what it takes. But being a true friend is complicated, and it might be just the thing that leads her to her special power.

Kiara is such a memorable, likeable and empathetic character even though she makes plenty of mistakes during the course of the book. Did her character come to you before the plot?

Kiara’s character came to me long before the plot did. Of all the characters I’ve ever written, she is by far the most autobiographical, but until I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, now considered a high-functioning form of autism, I avoided writing characters of this kind. I didn’t want to remember the difficulties I experienced when I was younger, and to a great extent I had internalized the hostility and rejection I experienced from my peers. My diagnosis answered a lot of questions I’d had about why I never seemed to fit in and why I regularly became the target of bullies. After I got over the concern that someone like me, who had trouble understanding social situations and nonverbal cues, had no business writing fiction, I decided that I had to tell my side of the story.

Once I chose to write from the perspective of a young teenager on the autism spectrum who is trying to figure out the world and to find her place within it, I took incidents that happened to me at that age and turned them into a story. Rogue begins with such an incident. In seventh grade, I decided that if I wanted to be popular, I should sit at the table where the popular girls sat—that was all I needed to do. But the moment I set my tray down, one of the popular girls pushed my tray to the floor. Unlike Kiara, I didn’t then smash the tray into the girl’s face; I just stood in the middle of the cafeteria and cried while everyone else laughed at me. Kiara’s action was a kind of wish fulfillment for me, but the consequence is that she gets suspended from school for the rest of the year and is thus further isolated from her peers and farther away from her goal of having a friend.

The other major plot element that is based on my experience is Kiara’s initial naïve participation in, and ultimately her silence with respect to, Chad’s family business. When I first got my driver’s license, I unwittingly became a go-between between some popular kids at my school and a local drug dealer. I thought the popular kids had finally accepted me and I would be part of their crowd, but to my dismay found out they were only using me. I stopped driving them around, and they stopped being nice to me, but I still didn’t tell anyone about the drugs. I didn’t want to be a snitch and risk getting beaten up or worse. And my moral choice—do I do things that I know are wrong just so I can have friends?—became Kiara’s moral choice in the novel.

Kiara loves to research using Mr. Internet. How much research did you have to do for the book? For example, did you know anything about BMX biking or the X-Men before you started writing?

I knew about the X-Men, which came into being in the 1960s. I identified with them as mutants who didn’t fit into society but nonetheless had special powers that could save society. I was particularly interested in Professor Charles Xavier—Professor X—who uses a wheelchair and who is able to contribute with his mind, his leadership ability, and his dedication to the young misunderstood mutants (of whom I believed I was one). In the early days, there were few female X-Men, and I couldn’t really relate to them, so I moved on to other obsessions. I did know about the new characters that had been added to the X-Men, including Rogue, so when I started writing the novel, I turned to the Internet to learn more about this character who couldn’t touch or be touched, and about her close but often rocky relationship with Gambit, who comes from the same region that she does.

My inspiration to include BMX biking came from having watched a DVD, Wipeout, which I received as a review copy from the National Film Board of Canada several years ago. It’s a documentary about teens who film spectacular ski, bike, and skateboard wipeouts and the injuries that often result. While I used the Internet to research the stunts—I didn’t watch any wipeout videos because I didn’t want to encourage those young people to risk their lives for two and a half minutes of fame—I mainly based my knowledge of the culture presented in the Canadian documentary and on information from various seventh grade students over the years who built bike jumps and skateboard ramps and performed stunts. The suburb where I used to live also had a mountain bike trail that I rode regularly, and the trail surrounded some BMX jumps. Occasionally I’d see kids there and talk to them.

Without giving the ending away, did you know the book would end this way from the beginning or is that something you figured out later after drafting other endings?

I had a general idea of how the book would end—at least for Kiara—but the actual ending underwent numerous changes, mostly in the process of revision for my editor at Penguin, Nancy Paulsen. When she asked me to revise my original YA manuscript for an older middle grade readership, I had to simplify the ending and remove a plot thread that I liked but that may well have gone over the heads of middle grade readers.

Was the book always written in first person? Did you play around with third?

In the past, I have switched one novel from first person to third (my adult novel, Dirt Cheap) and another from third person to alternating point of view first person (my YA novel, Gringolandia). This time, however, I knew right away I wanted to tell the story in first person. The voice is very close to my own voice as a person on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and I wanted the voice to be as honest and unfiltered as possible.

Chad has a huge role in the book. Did you do any free writing to get to know his character better? You did a remarkable job of making him empathetic even though he can, at times, be so mean to Kiara.

I didn’t do any free writing for Chad, though about ten years ago I wrote a short story from the point of view of Antonio, the mountain bike-riding friend of Kiara’s older brother who becomes her protector. Chad is based in part on a neighbor boy I sometimes hung out with, and sometimes fought with, when I was around Kiara’s age, and in part on a boy I tutored in an after-school program, whose younger brother was a friend of my son’s. Both of those boys were widely seen as “bad” boys, but I saw things that were good in both of them.

Can you tell us a little about your current writing projects?

I wrote most of Rogue in my first year as a MFA student in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and in my second year I wrote about two-thirds of a YA novel for older readers, titled ANTS GO MARCHING, which became my creative thesis. ANTS GO MARCHING is about an academically gifted boy who is the only person from his hardscrabble mobile home park in the elite accelerated honors program at his suburban school. When a trio of well-to-do bullies attacks him following a verbal provocation, he sustains a severe concussion that leads to him flunking out of the program. The novel portrays his struggle to find a new place for himself, and to avoid the one he seems fated to occupy because of the circumstances of his birth. It’s a big book, one that my agent calls “brilliant but so dark.” Still, I think we need to face the darkness if we’re serious about ending it and bringing hope to young people in difficult situations.

I finished the manuscript of ANTS GO MARCHING when I was in Portugal last fall. After a false start with a middle grade manuscript that suffered from a passive protagonist, I’m now writing another middle grade novel inspired by two remarkable young people I met in Lisbon and a 65-year-old grandfather who was arrested for throwing rocks at police during an anti-austerity demonstration. I started the project, titled KRILL, as a short story for my Portuguese class this past semester, but my professor strongly suggested I continue writing it in English. I’ve sent a photo the first page of the story, along with her corrections, to give you an idea why.

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

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

Charlotte’s Web, by E. B White
The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

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

The Stamp Collector, by Jennifer Lanthier
The Vine Basket, by Josanne La Valley
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson
All of these surprised me because they’re books for younger readers (younger than YA) that don’t have happy endings.

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

A Step from Heaven, by An Na
Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork
These were the three novels that inspired me to reexamine the struggles I had growing up and to create my own novel from them.

Thank you so much for sharing your process with us. And for writing such a brave and honest book.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and the author of the young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/ Northwestern University Press, 2009), a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and an Américas Award Honor Book. Her new novel, Rogue (Penguin /Nancy Paulsen Books, May 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection, portrays an eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome and an X-Men obsession whose desire to befriend another outcast after being excluded from school leads her to some dangerous choices. For more information, visit Lyn’s website,

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to place a special order for ROGUE. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia at 551 Carpenter Lane. 

Look for Jen's upcoming interview of Amy Ignatow, coming June 25th!