Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Ninja Librarians series by Jen Swann Downey

When I saw this book series, I knew I had to feature it--I mean, who doesn't love a ninja librarian? The first book is called THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND, and the second book, THE SWORD IN THE STACKS, came out last June. Jen Downey will be talking kids’ books and intellectual freedom at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest on April 21-22nd (, and at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20th ( You can find out more on her website,

Dorrie Barnes had no idea an overdue library book would change her life. When Dorrie and her brother Marcus chase her pet mongoose into the janitor's closet of their local library, they accidentally fall through a passage into Petrarch's Library -the headquarters of a secret society of ninja librarians who have an important mission: protect those whose words have gotten them into trouble. Anywhere in the world and at any time in history.

Dorrie would love nothing more than to join the society. But when a traitor surfaces, she and her friends are the prime suspects. Can they clear their names before the only passage back to the twenty-first century closes forever?

Dorrie is eager to do well at her practicums, and prove her worth as an apprentice, but before she can choose between "Spears, Axes, and Cats: Throwing Objects with Precision and Flair” and "First and Last Aid: When No One Else Is Coming", mistakes made by Dorrie in the past cause trouble for the lybrarians.

The Foundation, once nearly destroyed by the Lybrariad, now has the means to rise from its ashes, and disappear reading and writing from the world. To make sure it succeeds, the Foundation sets in motion a dark plan to increase the power of a cruel figure from the fifteenth century.

To stop the Foundation, Dorrie, Marcus and Ebba will have to burglarize Aristotle, gather information among the suffragists and anti-suffragists of 1912 London, and risk their lives to wrest a powerful weapon out of the Foundation's hands - all while upholding the Lybrariad's first principle of protecting all writing, appreciated or despised. If they fail, reading and writing will only be the first things to disappear.

What do you love most about libraries? About librarians?

Well let’s start with the pure metamorphic magic of the situation! Libraries LOOK tame and demure, but that’s merely a clever disguise, twitched around the wild world of imagination and possibility.  What is a library but shelf upon shelf, aisle upon aisle of these largely unremarkable rectangular cuboids we call books? The physical ingredients are prosaic: some variant of ink and paper. Orderliness and findability, not artfulness, dictate their arrangement. But each book is an un-popped kernel of corn, a sleeping giant, a nuclear reactor with ingredients still in separate containers a pile of kindling arranged to become a flaming bonfire before the right eyes. Books defy their dimensions, containing vast emotional and physical landscapes, epic battles, hearts stretched to the breaking point, and fresh vistas at every towering mountain pass, and hellish gate. I have to love a place that can hold all that alchemical energy!

Another thing I love about libraries in their ideal form is that they can act as potent bulwarks against self-deception and limited perspective. A library encourages both imagination and humility. Humility is such an important counterweight to arrogance when the project is to develop knowledge. Without humility, the knowledge development process stalls.  In a library we have the chance to test our most cherished assumptions about the way the world works, or might best work through books that challenge our original points of view.  In librarians, we have people who privilege the availability of different viewpoints to the public, over the option to shape a collection according to that librarian’s favored opinions.

Speaking of alchemical energy, I love The Ninja Librarians series. Where did the concept come from, and what has been the most rewarding part of writing the series? 

Thank you! So glad you’re enjoying.  The concept had some of its roots in my view of librarians as quiet (and sometimes not so quiet!) heroes because of their role in ensuring and protecting free access to information, and a basic belief among many librarians that people need free access to and not protection from ideas.   The rewards have been numerous! I love history, and writing the books have so far given me an excuse and reason to focus on learning more about ancient Greece, medieval Timbuktu, and 1910s England. Even more lusciously, I’ve had a chance to roam historical archives in search of figures from past centuries such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Hypatia of Alexandria, whose recorded actions and attitudes indicate that IF the Lybrariad existed, they might have joined! The third wonderfully satisfying part of Ninja Librarian-ing has been the fun of creating the purely fantastical time-port headquarters of “Petrarch’s Library” with its sumptuous maze of interconnected rooms, and imagining the fun I would have had in it as a kid!

I would have had fun in it too! What is something you wished you'd known when you started your writing career? 

I wish I’d known that I wasn’t really ready to submit to agents when I did.  I got extremely lucky in that my agent was building her list at the time, and truly liked something about the voice in the manuscript, and was willing to help me develop it further, but I could have wasted a lot of agent queries with my half-baked manuscript. So, writers, take your time! When you are sure its really ready to send, that’s the time to put it into the hands of a trusted critique partner, and get another round of feedback, both from the critique partner and from your own self once you’ve been away from it for at least a few weeks.

I don’t know if the second thing I want to talk about is so much a matter of wishing that I’d “known” a particular thing as wishing that I’d been CAPABLE of doing a few things differently. For instance, I “knew” better than to get caught up in a fantasy that my first book (a fantasy! : ) would be an instant blockbuster success, but I indulged in it nonetheless. It made me very jittery in the six months following publication, and it was difficult to put it out of my head, and focus my energies on writing my next book. I wasted countless hours keeping tabs on Goodreads reviews and Amazon ratings, and scanning for new reviews…looking to the literary establishment for a version of writerly salvation — If the book became wildly popular, I’ll have “got there” and THEN I could relax, be productive, or some such nonsense. Understandable nonsense, but nonsense all the same.

So writers, attend to your writing. Do your writing in such a way that it continues to bring you joy, and allows you to PLAY, no matter where you are in terms of engaging in writing as a profession. It’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that on the brink of publication one is holding a lottery ticket, and that its very important to stare at the television in case your number is called. Fuggheduboudit!  Really. Try. With all your might. Once your book is out there. To. FUGGHEDUBOUDIT!  Instead, start a meaningful relationship with your next book’s characters and plot and place and point. Go THERE.

Sage advice for writers at all levels! What are some of your current projects?

In my office, I have three project piles on my desk, and a whole lot of index-card covered boards standing around like drunken soldiers. Two of the projects are MG novels (The 3rd Ninja Librarians book & a story about a kid who can’t make up her mind to save her life, until she has to save somebody else’s). The third project  is a YA about a sixteen-year girl in a fantastical past who is an excellent nanny and an even better thief. Just when she’s saved up enough money to abandon her uh... more lucrative ”trade” and enroll in the local University for Wannabe Scryers, her plans are dashed to dangerous pieces. The Queen’s Intelligence Service gives her a choice: Help the Perimeter Security Office solve a pressing mystery in the distant Witch Meadows that endangers all of Aaachenland, or be thrown to the council court-worms. She opts to live.  What she finds out in the Witch Meadows will challenge everything she thinks she knows about how scryence is practiced, and how the world works. If she survives, she might just become a powerful Scryer after all.

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017


I first saw Andrew Smith when he accepted the Printz Honor for GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE back in 2015, and I was immediately compelled by what he said about characters, and the importance of making them organic. At a recent conference, I also bought his book WINGER, another good example of his unique wit and voice.

Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the story of how he and his best friend , Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa.

To make matters worse, Austin's hormones are totally oblivious; they don't care that the world is in utter chaos: Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He's stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann. Ultimately, it's up to Austin to save the world and propagate the species in this sci-fright journey of survival, sex, and the complex realities of the human condition.

Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids in the Pacific Northwest. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.

With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.

Filled with hand-drawn info-graphics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.

According to your bio, you are a native-born Californian who spent most of your formative years traveling. What do you think we can learn from people who live in different places around the world?

I'm actually the son of an immigrant, and I was the first child in my family born in America. I don't think there has been anything that has educated or impacted me more than traveling and meeting people from unfamiliar places. In the same way that books help to develop empathy for those whose experiences don't overlap perfectly with our own, immersing yourself in the culture of new environments humanizes the world; it breaks down the desensitizing barriers that are consequential to experiences filtered through technologies.

Speaking of breaking down barriers, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE offers a clever blend of realistic problems within an world built on science fiction. In what ways do you think fiction can offer truth and/or show what truly matters?

The things that happen in GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE that are preposterous are completely enmeshed in the things that are true--love, self-doubt, wonder, the end of childhood, Austin's solipsism. Since fiction is not constrained to reiterating with precision a timeline of specific occurrences, we have the room to explore the innate truths that are universal parts of the human experience (and this is at the core of the essential questions Austin--the narrator/historian--constantly struggles with).

You have a masterful way of making narrators struggle, and I love that WINGER begins with Ryan's head in a toilet. What do you like the most about writing the beginnings of stories?

The beginning of the story--the first few lines--are so important to me because I want to condense into that moments-long experience of the reader who is just arriving on page one as much as I can about the mood, environment, characters, and conflict that will become the foundation architecture that build a bridge to the final page. I love beginnings, and spend a great deal of time and thought making sure (hopefully) I get them right.

You definitely have so far. What are some of your current projects?

I've turned in two novels to my agent and editor in the past year, so we'll see what happens with them. There are a few movie adaptations currently in various stages of development. I have a short story (called "Julian Breaks Every Rule") in an upcoming anthology published by Bloomsbury in July, called BECAUSE YOU LOVE TO HATE ME. The anthology is all about villains. It was a lot of fun. And at the moment, I am beginning work on a graphic novel with an artist friend in New Zealand.

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017


I first saw this book at the California Library Association (CLA) conference last fall, and was immediately intrigued by its premise. It's a unique story with an engaging voice sure to catch a diverse audience. Have a look:

When Vee Crawford-Wong’s history teacher assigns an essay on his family history, Vee knows he’s in trouble. His parents—Chinese-born dad and Texas-bred Mom—are mysteriously and stubbornly close-lipped about his ancestors. So, he makes it all up and turns in the assignment. And then everything falls apart.

After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined.

According to your website bio, you got an MFA from the University of San Francisco. What advice, if any, do you have for people interested in getting an MFA, and how did your MFA experience shape your writing?

For me, the MFA was a fantastic experience - it allowed me to immerse myself in a community of writers and "put my money where my mouth is," so to speak. I gave myself permission, for the first time, to really call myself a writer. The USF program has night classes, which was convenient, and also focuses on close craft analysis as much as on page production. I am a total nerd and absolutely loved it. To the MFA-seeker, I would say, "Do your homework!" There are tons of programs out there (low residency, M.A. programs, ones that give you teaching opportunities, etc.). The MFA put me on the right track to make writing a permanent part of my life, and I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have written this first novel without that help.

You've definitely crafted a beautiful story! I love Vee's voice in THE COUNTERFEIT TREE OF VEE CRAWFORD-WONG. What did you enjoy most about writing his journey?

I tend to be on the sarcastic side of sarcastic about most things, so it was fun to really let loose with that. I started the book with the idea that Vee would be incredibly average in all ways but quickly realized that he needed to be nerdy and sharp in order for it to be enjoyable to write - and in order to reach some of those insights I wanted him (and, by extension, the reader) to have. I do a lot of learning through my characters while I'm researching what they like. Vee is into archaeology and anthropology and Chinese culture, so I got to delve into all of that. And once, while watching a NOVA show on black holes and such, I turned to my husband and said, "Vee would absolutely love this!" He gave me a strange look, but hey, it was true! Being a fiction writer means I will never, ever be bored.

And your readers won't be either. In what ways do teenagers continually inspire you?

I love how unfiltered and how passionate young adults can be about, well, anything. Adults sometimes fall into ruts about who they are and what they can do. Young adults haven't carved out those deep neural pathways yet and are constantly reinventing themselves. I think our world would be a much better place if adults were able to do this better! Teenagers are also natural storytellers and I am consistently blown away by the quality and creativity of their writing. I am currently judging a creative writing contest for 6th-12th graders (feel free to check it out at and it fills me with optimism to read these sharp, lyrical, clever, sometimes heartbreaking stories. It also fills me with jealousy at times, but that's a good thing too.

What a wonderful way to encourage creativity! What are some of your current projects?

I'm revising (okay, actually rewriting for the second time) a novel about a girl who is addicted to a video game. I've invented the game, which makes me feel a bit like a science fiction writer or maybe a mad scientist, but the heart of the novel is really about why she's addicted - about the issues in her life that are driving her to want to escape and inhabit another persona. And because I don't write in a bubble - because there's so much going on in the world right now - it's also morphing into an homage to the power of women and family and female friendships. Also, my seven-year-old and I are brainstorming ideas for a book we want to write together. But usually, we come up with an amazing idea and then find out that someone has already written it. But we persist. That's what writers do!

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I met Jenny Lundquist at a few local events, and I immediately fell in love with Izzy Malone and her scrappy personality and spunk. This is a great book for any middle grader.

Izzy Malone isn’t your typical middle schooler. She wears camouflage combat boots, the stars are her only friends, and after a month she’s set a new record for the most trips to her principal’s office.

But Izzy’s life isn’t so charming these days. The kids at school think she’s a mouthy misfit, her musical prodigy sister gets all the attention at home, and no one takes Izzy’s determination to compete in her small town’s Great Pumpkin Race seriously.

When Izzy’s antics land her in hot water, her parents enroll her in Mrs. Whippie’s Earn Your Charm School. At first Izzy thinks it sounds stupid—her manners are just fine, thanks—but Mrs. Whippie’s first assignment proves intriguing. Tucked inside a letter is a shiny charm bracelet and instructions telling her she will “Earn Her Charm” by performing a series of tasks. For each task Izzy completes, she’ll receive a charm to place on her bracelet. “Complete them all,” the letter says, “and you will have earned a prize unlike any other.”

Soon Izzy’s adding charms to her bracelet. But when a task goes seriously awry and threatens to derail her mother’s budding political career, Izzy has her hands full proving she’s not an emerging juvenile delinquent. Add in some middle school mean girls, a giant pumpkin that could be the answer to all her problems, and discovering she might have a crush on the boy she accidentally punched in the face, and Izzy may just pull it all together and Earn Her Charm. And she’s about to find out the best kind of friends are just like stars: Bright and beautiful, appearing just when you need them, to shine a little bit of light on a dark night.

What is the most exciting thing going on in your life right now?
Hmm…I just finished working on our taxes, does that count? Just kidding! I would say the most exciting thing in my life right now is that I’m finally working on a middle grade book I’ve wanted to write for years. It’s too early to say whether it will actually ever be published or not, but it just feels good to plot out/write scenes for a book that’s been in my head for years. Outside of my writing life, my sons are turning 11 and 14 this year. Having a house with teens and tweens means every day is a new adventure!

Especially with that new dog you told me about! I love how unique Izzy is, especially her "Camohemian" look. How did Izzy come to you, and what do you want readers to take away from her story?
Izzy came to me in bits and pieces. When I first started writing this book, about a girl who was sent to charm school, my main character was actually named Evie, and she was very reserved, slightly quirky, and pretty shy. The book wasn’t working at all, though, and I finally realized it was because Evie as a character didn’t match the story. I needed a main character who was loud and sassy and spunky, and slowly, after that realization, I re-wrote the book and developed Izzy’s character. I think the main thing I’d like my readers to take away is that it’s okay to be who you are. You are unique and special just as you are.

Yes indeed! I also love the premise of your book SEEING CINDERELLA. Where did the "magic glasses" come from?
That idea actually came from something that happened when I was in middle school. One day at lunch one of the popular, cute boys approached me. I was certain he had (finally!!!) recognized my inner awesomeness, and was going to say something nice to me. Instead, he licked two of his fingers, reached out…and slid them down the lenses of my glasses. I was in shock. The world seemed blurry—literally, because his spit had settled onto my lenses and I couldn’t see out of them anymore. Then he just kept walking; he never said a word to me.  It was the single most mortifying thing that happened to me in middle school. When I recounted the incident years later at a party, I found myself saying something like, “I guess my glasses had magic powers—they repelled boys!” Then the writer in me thought…Wait, but what if my glasses really did have magic powers? Like…what if they could read people’s thoughts? I developed the idea that became the book Seeing Cinderella from there.

Ugh, that boy sounds awful, but I'm glad you found a way to turn that drab experience into magic! The second installment in Izzy's story is supposed to come out this coming December. Is there anything you can tell us about it yet?

I can, actually! The book has been moved up, so it will be coming out in September now. It’s titled: The Wondrous World of Violet Barnaby. It’s set in the same small town as Izzy’s story, with the same characters, but told from her friend Violet’s perspective. Violet is still grieving the death of her mother, especially now that her dad has just gotten remarried. Right as the holidays are approaching, Violet finds a letter that her mother wrote to her right before she died, including a Christmas Wish List—things her mother wanted Violet to do to enjoy the holidays again. Violet would like to ignore the holidays, but she wants to honor her mother’s wishes, so she enlists the help of The Charm Girls—her friends in her charm club, to help her accomplish everything on the list before Christmas.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

When I first saw this book as an ARC, I was immediately intrigued. Not only was the overall design of the book exquisite, but the writing was gorgeous, and the premise is one that grabs and doesn't let go. The game that Love and Death play is indeed a cruel one, especially when set during The Great Depression:

Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now... Henry and Flora.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured—a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget.

According to your website bio, you are a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What do you enjoy most about teaching others about writing?

I’ve taught writers of all ages, and in general, what I most like about teaching is being there for people in those moments of struggle and understanding. It’s deeply satisfying work, and it also requires that I think hard about what I’m teaching to make sure I understand it in many ways, so that I can teach people at all points in their learning.

I'm sure many people have benefited from your expertise! In THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, you explore young love in the Depression era. What about this book was the most fun to write, and what do you want readers to take away when they're finished?

I love the music of the era. The clothes. The courage people displayed when enduring all of the hardships of the time. My grandparents lived through the Depression and told me about it—about the fact that my grandmother would have lost her job if she didn’t hide their engagement, about the way my grandfather drew lines on a plywood floor to make it look like hardwood planks, the way they were careful with every penny that came in. I’ve always associated it with a time where small things and gestures mattered, and this is what fiction can beautifully reveal. I listened to music of the era, looked at old clothing, listened to ads, and also paid attention to the literature and music that Black people were creating during the time.

As far as what I want readers to take away, there is no one thing, really. I want them to have a meaningful emotional experience as they read the book. I want it to feel real on a deep and human level.

It already does, and I haven't even finished it yet! You also wrote a nonfiction book, ALEXANDER HAMILTON: REVOLUTIONARY. What did you find most fascinating about Hamilton's life, and what do you enjoy most about writing nonfiction?

There are lots of kinds of nonfiction, and this is a narrative biography—it’s meant to read as fiction, and Hamilton’s life lent itself so well to this approach. He dodged death so many times. He was brilliant. Romantic. Profoundly gifted. Deeply flawed. I loved the research of this … sifting through bits and artifacts until I felt as though I knew the man, and writing with all of this truth in mind was a thrill.

I'll bet. What are some of your current projects?

This year I have three books coming out: the Hamilton biography (September 5), a picture book called BACK TO SCHOOL WITH BIGFOOT (June), and another picture book called LOVE, SANTA, which is based on a series of letters my daughter and I wrote to each other. I’m also at work on another novel that combines music and fantasy and other elements I can’t stay away from in my fiction.

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