Tuesday, August 14, 2018

WISHTREE and THE LAST (ENDLING) by Katherine Applegate

I first became a fan of Katherine Applegate when I was a Youth Services Selector and a colleague recommended The One and Only Ivan. For those unfamiliar, it is a poignant story told from the point of view of a gorilla who was in captivity for 27 years. Ivan was also real (as in an actual gorilla), but Katherine Applegate, in his narrative, made him even more so.

I've been a fan of hers ever since. I first met her at the launch for WISHTREE, another story which involves a subtle yet unique perspective. At the event, I told her how I'd been reading The One and Only Ivan with one of my high school students (a reluctant reader). I managed to get it signed for her:

Here's some more information about WISHTREE:

Red is an oak tree who is many rings old. Red is the neighborhood "wishtree"—people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them to Red's branches. Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red's hollows, this "wishtree" watches over the neighborhood.

You might say Red has seen it all. Until a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, and Red's experiences as a wishtree are more important than ever.

Katherine Applegate also has a new Middle Grade series, the first of which debuted in May:

Byx is the youngest member of her dairne pack. Believed to possess remarkable abilities, her mythical doglike species has been hunted to near extinction in the war-torn kingdom of Nedarra.

After her pack is hunted down and killed, Byx fears she may be the last of her species. The Endling. So Byx sets out to find safe haven, and to see if the legends of other hidden dairnes are true.

Along the way, she meets new allies—both animals and humans alike—who each have their own motivations for joining her quest. And although they begin as strangers, they become their own kind of family—one that will ultimately uncover a secret that may threaten every creature in their world.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer, and what books influenced you growing up?

I always tell kids I became a writer in 4th grade, when I wrote my first story. It was about a pig named Alice. (Even then, I was writing about animals!) After all, you don’t have to be published to be a writer. You just have to tell a good story.

But I took a LONG time to even think about trying to get published. I was in my late thirties before it began to seem like a possibility. I started out as a ghostwriter for packaged series like SWEET VALLEY TWINS and slowly gained confidence after many, many books.

I was quite a reluctant reader when I was young, a fact that seems to both surprise and encourage students. It wasn’t until I found my “best friend” book — the book that seemed to have been written just for me — that I began to see what all the fuss was about. (That book was CHARLOTTE’S WEB. And it’s still my favorite book.)

Charlotte's Web is one of my favorites too. Your book WISHTREE is a beautiful, nuanced story about a neighborhood tree and how it touches the lives of the people around it. Was there anything that surprised you about Red's story as you wrote it?

Thanks for your kind words. WISHTREE was truly a labor of love. I wrote it during the throes of the election, frustrated by all the vitriol and the “othering” of entire groups of people.

I started WISHTREE assuming that Red would be the main focus of the story, but soon realized that a whole community—raccoons, opossums, owls, skunks, a wily crow, and a kind young man — had to be part of the solution. And of course, that echoes the theme of the tale: that we are stronger when we work together as “welcomers.”

Such a wonderful, necessary theme. Published in 2012, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is still finding its way into the hearts and minds of readers. What is it about Ivan and his story that you think resonates most with people?

I think the fact that the novel was inspired by a true story intrigues young readers.  And the character himself is easy for them to relate to: they worry about Ivan’s vulnerability and appreciate his efforts to help a friend.

I love writing for middle grade students because they care about fairness and kindness. They’re becoming aware of the world around them, beginning to define what it means to be a good citizen and loyal friend.

Indeed. What are some of your current projects?

In May I published the first novel in a new middle grade trilogy, ENDLING. It’s about one of the last members of a doglike species and her search for more of her own kind. I’m working on the rewrites for Book #2, and have outlined Book #3.

This spring I also published SOMETIMES YOU FLY, a picture book illustrated by the inimitable Jennifer Black Reinhardt. It’s about trying and failing and learning and growing, which makes it perfect, I think, for graduations and birthdays and milestones.

I’m also at work on a new middle grade single title, but it’s too soon to talk about it!

BookPassage ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound

BookPassage ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound

BookPassage ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Indiebound

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

P.S. I MISS YOU by Jen Petro-Roy

I met Jen Petro-Roy at this year's Bay Area Book Festival, and P.S. I MISS YOU is a beautiful Middle Grade story about the importance of finding your authentic self.

Eleven-year-old Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. But when her parents forbid her to even speak to Cilla, she starts sending letters. Evie writes letters about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

As she becomes better friends with June, Evie begins to question her sexual orientation. She can only imagine what might happen if her parents found out who she really is. She could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn't writing back.

According to the "About" page on your website, you've worked as a children's librarian and as a teacher. In what ways, if any, did these careers contribute to your life as an author?

The one thing I have found throughout my careers is that I can't escape from books! I definitely believe that all of the work I've done is connected to and builds upon the others. I loved working as a children's and teen librarian--getting to order and recommend books, plan programs, and interact with patrons was so wonderful. It was also great because I could spend time with the age group I was writing about to get a sense of how my readers really act "in the wild."

What great experience! I love how P.S. I MISS YOU confronts the damage a strict upbringing can do to someone's sense of identity. What do you hope readers gain from Evie's story?

One of the things I try to get across in all of my books is that it is okay to be who you are. When those around you, whether parents or friends or family members or even "society", determine that you should act in a certain way or be someone other than you truly are, it can truly affect your life and self-esteem. In P.S. I Miss You, Evie's parents aren't evil, but they do cling tightly to beliefs and standards that ultimately prove harmful to both them and their daughters. Through Evie's journey, she realizes that she doesn't have to act and believe the way others do to be happy, and I so hope that my readers know that the same goes for them. The world may be a certain way, but you can be who you are.

Definitely a way to show readers that they can be authentic, not only within themselves, but in their everyday lives. In your upcoming books, GOOD ENOUGH, and YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH, you explore issues related to body image and self-esteem. What do you think is most important for young people to know about these issues?

Body image concerns and eating disorders aren't just for girls. Even though Good Enough does feature a female protagonist, it's so important for readers to know that disordered eating can affect anyone--regardless of gender, age, sexuality, skin color, or socioeconomic background. It's hard to feel okay with who you are and what you look like in this appearance and accomplishment-based society, but recovery is possible. You can get through your struggles and learn to accept--even love--your body. You are worth it and you are wonderful.

So true--and helpful to remember. What are some of your current projects?

Advanced copies of Good Enough and You are Enough are starting to make their way out into the world (both will be released on February 19, 2019), and I'm hard at work on my next middle grade, which involves friend drama, swimming, and a girl struggling with an anxiety disorder.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Release Feature: HERETICS ANONYMOUS by Katie Henry

I recently featured Katie Henry's HERETICS ANONYMOUS, and I'm happy to announce that it released into the world today:

Michael is an atheist. So as he walks through the doors at St. Clare’s—a strict Catholic school—sporting a plaid tie, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow nonbeliever at that. Only this girl, Lucy, is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.

But Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism. After an incident in theology class, Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies. When Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom, or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.

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This post can also be viewed here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

THE TRAITOR'S GAME and RESISTANCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I've been lucky to feature Jennifer A. Nielsen here, and here. While I love her Middle Grade books, her new YA series, starting with THE TRAITOR'S GAME, gives readers a equally thrilling setting with two intriguing protagonists. She also has another historical fiction book coming out at the end of August, called RESISTANCE.

Nothing is as it seems in the kingdom of Antora. Kestra Dallisor has spent three years in exile in the Lava Fields, but that won't stop her from being drawn back into her father's palace politics. He's the right hand man of the cruel king, Lord Endrick, which makes Kestra a valuable bargaining chip. A group of rebels knows this all too well - and they snatch Kestra from her carriage as she reluctantly travels home.The kidnappers want her to retrieve the lost Olden Blade, the only object that can destroy the immortal king, but Kestra is not the obedient captive they expected. Simon, one of her kidnappers, will have his hands full as Kestra tries to foil their plot, by force, cunning, or any means necessary. As motives shift and secrets emerge, both will have to decide what - and who - it is they're fighting for.

Chaya Lindner is a teenager living in Nazi-occupied Poland. Simply being Jewish places her in danger of being killed or sent to the camps. After her little sister is taken away, her younger brother disappears, and her parents all but give up hope, Chaya is determined to make a difference. Using forged papers and her fair features, Chaya becomes a courier and travels between the Jewish ghettos of Poland, smuggling food, papers, and even people.

Soon Chaya joins a resistance cell that runs raids on the Nazis' supplies. But after a mission goes terribly wrong, Chaya's network shatters. She is alone and unsure of where to go, until Esther, a member of her cell, finds her and delivers a message that chills Chaya to her core, and sends her on a journey toward an even larger uprising in the works -- in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Though the Jewish resistance never had much of a chance against the Nazis, they were determined to save as many lives as possible, and to live -- or die -- with honor.

In our last interview, you said, "We all have families, and while some might struggle more than others, we tend to want the best for everyone in our family circle." In what ways have family struggles made it into the stories you write, and what, if anything, do you hope readers glean from them?

Family seems to play a role in everything I write because I think it’s such a universal connector. In THE TRAITOR’S GAME, the central character, Kestra Dallisor, has one of the hardest family situations I’ve created, one in which some family members might not want the best for her. In my forthcoming RESISTANCE, a holocaust-era historical, Chaya Lindner has what I consider to be the most tragic of family circumstances, Even so, these two young women are both deeply affected and motivated by their desires for love within the family bonds.

Completely understandable. THE TRAITOR'S GAME is one of your first forays into young adult books--at least on the published side of things. How did you know this story was YA instead of middle grade, and was there anything that surprised you as you wrote it?

I knew that THE TRAITOR’S GAME would have to be young adult because the relationship between Kestra and Simon (one of the rebels in her land) was going to be so intense - and it only continues to intensify as the series progresses. Certainly there is a romantic element to that intensity, but there is also their individual roles and goals within the story which are not always compatible.

There are always surprises with each book I write - my characters will always have secrets that I discover along the way, but I didn’t realize how stubborn Simon is as a character - it makes him very challenging to write because he gets an idea and fiercely holds on to it, regardless of outside opinions. Sometimes that’s a good thing because it keeps him focused, but sometimes it creates enormous problems for him too. I also discovered a few surprises along the way about Kestra. She has an inner strength I deeply admire, one which propels her to do something beyond her reach simply because she trusts herself to figure it out along the way.

What she does in the first chapter certainly proves that! Speaking of which, you write some of the best beginnings I've ever read. What, in your opinion, are the necessary parts of an effective story beginning?

Thank you! I generally begin my stories mid-action, and usually with the character in a bind. This creates immediate tension and shows the character in motion. So when we first meet Kestra in THE TRAITOR’S GAME, she is quietly returning home after two years in exile. No one should know where she is and yet the road is blocked by members of the rebellion. Beginning with the first chapter, the reader understands that someone must have betrayed Kestra, they get to see how Kestra responds to the danger, and they are thrust very quickly into the main conflict of the story.

Which I love. If you could tell your younger writer self one thing, what would it be and why?

I was always a writer, but it took me a long time to understand that becoming an author was an option for me. I had such high respect for those who created the books I loved that it never occurred to me they might be real people living real lives who simply made the choice to pursue this career. I would tell my younger self to write for more than a hobby, to take every class available, and to read my favorite novels like they were textbooks on how to write. I would tell my younger self that amazing things are ahead, if only I will just believe it’s possible, and then sit down and write.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

ASH PRINCESS by Laura Sebastian

I first saw Laura Sebastian on a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival, and once I saw the cover for ASH PRINCESS, and heard her talk about the premise, I had to feature it:

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia's family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess--a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner.

For ten years Theo has been a captive in her own palace. She's endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside.

Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hope of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword.

And power isn't always won on the battlefield.

For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.

According to your website bio, you initially moved to New York City with the idea of settling elsewhere. What inspired you to stay, and what do you love most about the city? 

 Growing up in a small town in the south, the idea of living in New York City was terrifying to me—it was the polar opposite of everything I knew. At the same time, it also had an allure because it was so different. I thought I would stay for a year to see what it was like and get it out of my system, then end up somewhere in between the two extremes. But somehow, NYC just became home to me. The high-energy bustle that I thought would overwhelm me became exactly the environment I function best in.

High energy environments are the best! ASH PRINCESS has one of the best prologues I've ever read. How did you know this story needed a prologue, and in what ways, if any, did the story's beginning shape itself over time?

I think prologues get a bad rep because a lot of times they just aren’t necessary. They provide too much backstory, usually featuring characters the reader doesn’t know or care about. It was important to me that if I was going to have a prologue, I had to keep it short and impactful, to introduce readers to the brutality of the world they were entering and put them in Theo’s head from the first page, showing exactly what had built her.

It's beautifully crafted, and it's no surprise that ASH PRINCESS also became a NYT Bestseller. Where were you when you heard the news, and what was your initial reaction?

 I was out in LA, on the tail end of some events, relaxing and visiting friends. Some other NYC friends happened to be around too (Kidlit Wondertwins Jeffrey and Jeremy West), so we were hanging out, grabbing coffee. I was honestly not expecting it so when my editor called I was totally shellshocked. After that, it’s a blur of celebratory phone calls and champagne!

Sounds perfect! What are some of your current projects?

 I’m finishing up the ASH PRINCESS series! The sequel, LADY SMOKE, is out on April 2nd, and the last book will be out about a year after that. I’m also horrible at sitting still so I’ve got a handful of other projects in the works that I can’t talk too much about yet, but hopefully I’ll get to share some more details soon.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018


I found the cover of HERETICS ANONYMOUS on Twitter. This is an excellent book with an amazing premise, releasing on August 7:

Michael is an atheist. So as he walks through the doors at St. Clare’s—a strict Catholic school—sporting a plaid tie, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow nonbeliever at that. Only this girl, Lucy, is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.

But Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism. After an incident in theology class, Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies. When Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom, or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.

Though you spent your teen years in Northern California, you decided to stay on the east coast after college. What do you love most about where you currently live?

I've lived on the island of Manhattan for the last ten years, with a brief stint in Dublin, Ireland halfway through. I had just turned eighteen when I moved here, so this has been my home for my entire adult life. What I love most about New York City is the sheer breadth of opportunities in such a small geographic area. And not just the big things, like Broadway and the Met, but wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants and book readings in tiny bookstore basements. You have access to just about anything you could possibly want. Except personal space. And good avocados.

As a Californian, I'm not sure how I would deal with the avocado situation. And personal space is definitely necessary! HERETICS ANONYMOUS offers a humorous take on unlikely rebels. How did you know this needed to be a lighthearted story?

I've always written comedies. It started out as a tactical move, when I was writing plays. When you're sitting in a dark theater, the only cues you have about whether an audience is enjoying themselves is laughter or audible sobbing. I went with laughter, and that's the tone I'm most comfortable with now. Also, stories about religion tend to be very heavy. That makes sense, of course--faith (and lack of faith) is deeply meaningful to people, and it's easy to hurt someone's feelings. But I wanted to write a story where faith was funny, but no one was being made fun of. I hope I succeeded.

I'm always glad for a humorous tone--especially in what I read. You also write plays. How is this different from writing novels, and what do you like most about each medium?

I love how many people are involved in the creation of a play. And of course, many people are involved in the creation of a book, too, but theater has an extra focus on creative collaboration. There are so many times while writing a book where I come to a setting description or a detail about someone's clothes, and I think, "Oh, whatever, the set designer or costumer will deal with that." But oh wait, no, they won't, because this is fiction and all those things are my job now. The very first drafts of my books are about 90% characters talking to each other, 8% interior monologue, and 2% description. It's a struggle.

In plays, everything about your characters has to be expressed through dialogue. If you need the audience to know something, it has to be spoken out loud or conveyed through subtext. One important thing I learned while getting my playwriting degree is that no one ever tells the whole truth, not even fictional people. I love writing dialogue and I love figuring out how to tell the audience what they need to know, even if the character doesn't know it. But something I love about fiction is that you're expected to give your protagonist an internal monologue. You can show what's happening in someone's head and dig deep into their thought process. It adds a layer of depth to a character you might not get in theater, simply because that's how the medium works.

I love that! What are some of your current projects?

My second YA book (another contemporary stand-alone) is releasing from HarperCollins in Summer 2019. I can't say much about it yet, but I can tell you I've been working on it like there's tomorrow.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Release Feature: HULLMETAL GIRLS by Emily Skrutskie

Back in May, I featured Emily Skrutskie, and she talked about HULLMETAL GIRLS, which just released today into the world!

Aisha Un-Haad would do anything for her family. When her brother contracts a plague, she knows her janitor's salary isn't enough to fund his treatment. So she volunteers to become a Scela, a mechanically enhanced soldier sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet, the collective of starships they call home. If Aisha can survive the harrowing modifications and earn an elite place in the Scela ranks, she may be able to save her brother.

Key Tanaka awakens in a Scela body with only hazy memories of her life before. She knows she's from the privileged end of the Fleet, but she has no recollection of why she chose to give up a life of luxury to become a hulking cyborg soldier. If she can make it through the training, she might have a shot at recovering her missing past.

In a unit of new recruits vying for top placement, Aisha's and Key's paths collide, and the two must learn to work together--a tall order for girls from opposite ends of the Fleet. But a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintain unity.

With violence brewing and dark secrets surfacing, Aisha and Key find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.

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