Thursday, August 25, 2016

MG Gets Real by Dianne K. Salerni

When Kerry O’Malley Cerra, author of Just a Drop of Water, was a teen, she was diagnosed with a hearing problem. She says:

“I tried desperately to hide from it and pretend it wasn’t true. I felt ashamed and insecure. I wish more than anything that I could have met another kid like me, or even read about one. It might have kept me from losing so much of my confidence. And yet, I didn’t discover a book with a character like me until CeCe Bellwrote El Deafo. By then, I was an adult with my own family and had burned a lot of bridges along the way because people simply confused my lack of being able to hear them with me being a snob. I should have admitted my problem. I should have been honest. I shouldn’t have been ashamed. But I was.”

This is one of the reasons that Kerry, along with authors Shannon Wiersbitzky, Shannon Hitchcock, Joyce Moyer Hostetter, and Kathleen Burkinshaw,  founded #MGGetsReal, an initiative to highlight middle grade books in which characters face tough, real life issues. Teachers, librarians, counselors, and parents should bookmark this expanding list of titles for use in classrooms, book clubs, and as recommendations for readers facing similar problems.

Kerry explained that they were looking for titles where the MC was facing a realistic problem, even if the book itself fell into a non-realistic genre. The problem itself needed to be a main theme in the book, not just a “sub, sub, sub plot to a larger story.” She also sought to include titles that were as new as possible.

Just a few of the real issues included on the #MGGetsReal list: abuse, adoption/foster care, alcohol and drugs, blended families, body image, bullying, civil rights/integration, death of a family member, depression and mental illness, discrimination/prejudices, illness, immigration, LBGTQ, learning disabilities, poverty, suicide, and war trauma.

Please check out the full #MGGetsReal list HERE, and share it with any teachers, librarians, and parents who might find it a useful resource. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Full-time, part-time, or no time, by Kell Andrews


Back in March, I resumed working full-time after a number of years working part-time. And yes, my writing output has suffered. In my day job I'm a content producer (which is the same thing as a writer, if a writer were allowed to write job descriptions). And it's hard to write during the day, come home to take care of my kids, and then write more. 

Most of my writing friends have day jobs -- it's a function of publishing economics. One of my well published friends holds onto her day job for security and reminds herself that Anthony Trollope was a full-time postmaster. If he could do it, so can she (and many others).

Even so, many of us dream of being full-time writers -- that writing cabin in the woods, or by a rocky shore. Long walks to gather thoughts wafting in the air, then long writing sessions with a laptop and a mug of coffee. Cats, definitely cats, unless dogs or the quiet of solitude.

But that's not how writing full-time usually feels. It feels like a job -- a very uncertain job, with pressure to perform effortlessly and no sure paycheck from year to year. And while it's hard to match a disciplined full-time writer for creative output, there's still plenty of time in a full-time writer's schedule for procrastination and anxious hand-wringing. It's not the life for everyone -- many writers need days with more edges to them. (Also steady paychecks and benefits. Some of us need those too.)

It's the edges -- those other things we do -- that shape our relationship with writing. A teacher who writes looks forward to summer for drafting (see Joanna Roddy's excellent post). A stay-at-home parent who writes looks forward to the school year for the time alone with a manuscript. A writer who works full-time at another job saves up vacation time for writing retreats, and a writer who writes full-time wants time away from computer.

The truth is that I wrote most of my first novel while working full-time when my oldest daughter was a baby. Somehow I fit writing in. I could do it now if I find a way.

The other truth is that when I worked part-time, my life was mostly child-shaped. And once my children were both in school and a I had a few hours when they were at school and I wasn't at my part-time job, I was productive as a writer only some of the time. Other times I wasted those precious hours -- not just on laundry and errands, but pure procrastination. Often I cloaked that procrastination as the administrative and water cooler aspects of being an author -- marketing, socializing, networking, writing things like this blog post. But that didn't put a manuscript on the page.

Writing can expand to fill the time available, even when that time is mere cracks between other responsibilities. Now I have cracks, not chasms, and I need to remember how to fill them with words. 

Full-time, part-time, no time? What's your schedule? What's your ideal? 



Thursday, August 18, 2016

Girls Growing Up In Middle Grade Fiction. Period.

Last year I was stuck on my MG about a girl, the star of an all-boys soccer team. During a writing exercise in which I was brainstorming what could have happened that she gets kicked out of her team, I made a list of things that happen at the age of twelve. The first thing on my list was: she gets her period. As soon as that thought formed, all the loose pieces of my story fell into place. Yes! She gets her period, and gets kicked out of her team, but since she's not the quitting kind, she joins another team, a girl's team.

[Sidenote on girls' quitting sports during puberty: Data from the most recent Always Confidence & Puberty Survey*, shows that by the end of puberty, half of girls surveyed (51 percent) will have quit sports. Olympian gold medalist and World Champion Alex Morgan has said, "At age thirteen one of my coaches told me that I wasn’t good enough. As a young girl just wanting to play and do my best, that was difficult to hear. It would have been easy for me to quit - but I wouldn’t be the confident person I am today if I had.” Here's a clip from the #LikeAGirl campaign that inspires me to do my best job as an author to empower kids, especially girls:


 

Besides the link between puberty and girls’ quitting sports, there’s a dark link between puberty and depression in girls. In The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine writes that in her studies of depression in women, “One day it struck [her] that male versus female depression rates didn’t start to diverge until females turned twelve or thirteen—the age girls start menstruating. It appeared that the chemical changes at puberty did something in the brain to trigger more depression in women” (2).

Talking about this link between depression and puberty, Karen Houppert, author of The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation, says, “The likelihood of severe depression doubles for girls in the year after the onset of menstruation… While the physical changes girls go through in puberty happen slowly, when they get their periods, they suddenly have a different body image."]

Eager to get my representation of this experience right, I turned to my trusted companions: books. To my utter disappointment I discovered that in middle grade we can write about pretty much anything, but puberty seems to be the last remaining taboo. Of course there's THE period book, Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Blume's novel has also been one of the most challenged books of all US literature. Judy Blume talks about Margaret, an early bloomer. Rita Williams-Garcia in No Laughter Here tackles not only the issue of puberty in a ten-year old girl, but also the reality of the Female Genital Mutilation that still cripples thousands of girls around the world, including the US.  In the author’s note, Rita Williams-Garcia writes that “every year, approximately two million girls undergo FGM... Although FGM is performed on young girls, materials written for young readers about this topic are scarce."
 What’s even worse, the books that are available are few and, like No Laughter Here, often go out of print. 

In my desire to serve my target audience better by striving to reflect the true experience of growing up in all aspects of the word, I committed myself to read as many books that talk about puberty as I could. My list isn't extensive, by all means. But here are some titles that have used this time in a girls life as an opportunity to create memorable characters and premises. 


Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume. Isn't this cover amazing? 



Twelve, by Lauren Myracle, which follows in Margaret's footsteps with a modern day twist



No Laughter Here, by Rita Williams-Garcia, featuring ten-year-old Akilah as she tries to deal with early puberty and her friend's secret 



Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings, by Helene Boudreau, in which a girl discovers she's a mermaid after she gets her first period. 


Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta, in which Evanjeline has the power to travel through dreams when she's on her period (a favorite, even though the series is definitely YA,)


Protector of the Small and Alanna, the First Adventure, both by Tamora Pierce. Keladry and Alanna deal with puberty as they try to become knights 




Period Pieces, by various authors, including Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Jane Kurtz, Uma Krishnaswami, and others. Each short story represents a girl dealing with her first period. The cultural diversity in this volume is just beautiful.



Children read to learn about the world, but ultimately, they read in order to learn about themselves, and to acquire the tools required to navigate life’s challenges. Books are the perfect medium through which children (not only girls, but boys too) can learn that menstruation and puberty aren’t gross or shameful topics relegated to whispered chats in a bathroom in junior high or even elementary school. When authors acknowledge this pivotal moment in life, they have the power to give voice and importance to an event that changes a girl forever. 
Not every middle grade book needs to address puberty, but the positive impact on children upon seeing menstruation realistically portrayed in fiction should be an incentive for all of us striving to reflect the true tween experience in our stories. 

Now it's your turn, my friends: Do you have any books to add to the list?






Monday, August 15, 2016

4 ways to handle seasons when you can't write by Joanna Roddy


I'm going back to teaching full-time in about three weeks. Much of what I'll be teaching is entirely new to me and I have all the flurry of curriculum planning, new job orientations, in-service programs, and moving into my new digs. Oh, and I have two young kids at home. Oh, and I'm a writer and my agent is expecting a revision from me soon.

I think we've all experienced this. We reach a season that is not forever, but we know that the writing has to go on the back burner. For me, it's this first semester back to teaching. I'd like to think there are some ways to navigate these seasons with as much grace as possible, so I thought I would share my current strategy with you.

1. Finish up your commitments. Reasonably.
Before the madness sets in, if you have some foreknowledge of it coming, do what you can to tie up what you're in the middle of. For me, that means setting aside the two WIPs I have going and just focusing on my monthly article commitments and my manuscript revision. There are still a few weeks before things blow up, so this feels manageable.

2. Keep writing, but lower your expectations.
I know I just said that there are seasons when we can't write, but the truth is, we always can. At least a little. It might be 10 minutes a day, or one evening a week, or one retreat weekend this quarter, or one hour each weekend, but take something for yourself. We need balance to keep our sanity and even if it's a tiny amount, it's still keeping you in touch with that vital creative part of yourself. For me, I'm going to write on Monday nights with my writing group during our regular meeting time. We're shifting into a new season of actually writing together, which seems heaven-sent. That's all I've got to give to my writing, but I'm going to give it fully.

3. Accept this season for what it is.
It isn't forever. Next semester my class-load will be half and I won't be creating curriculum from scratch. You don't have to kill yourself trying to do everything. Let your writing mind rest and remember that fields that lie fallow are primed for flourishing the next year. 

4. Keep a notebook with you for ideas.
It seems ideas always come when you just don't have the time for them. Don't reject them! Just tell each idea patiently that you will pay attention to it when you can give it the respect it deserves. Then quickly take a note so you don't forget it. When your crazy season is over, set aside some time to just sit with those notes and really think them over. See what still resonates.

Being a writer is not contingent on your output. Ebb and flow is part of the creative life, and sometimes a forced reality of circumstances. Don't let it discourage you. 


While I live out the frenzy of my coming semester, there's a secret, quiet place inside me that is beaming about having my own office to write in where I won't have to buy coffees endlessly or leave at closing time. I won't be using my new office that way yet. But it's there waiting for me on the other side of this semester. And this image of abundance sustains me in the season of scarcity: me at my office desk, a mug of tea steaming beside me, three walls of windows around me in the romantic old Tudor building where I teach, and my manuscript open in front of me with quiet hours ahead in which to do my work. 


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Noteworthy Historical Middle Grade Fiction of 2016

Last year my Project Mayhem posts were about new books I was excited to read, which I arranged according to release date. This year I'll be sharing new releases by genre. Today we'll talk about my favorite -- historical fiction. 
My love affair with historicals began with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books my dad read to me starting in Kindergarten and continued with titles I read on my own in elementary school, such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, No Promises in the Wind, and The Yearling. While I liked history class as a kid, I never felt smart enough to "get" everything we were supposed to learn. There was just too much to take in. But once a moment in history was transformed into a book, I could not only remember, I could make connections that felt real and meaningful. History came to life because these characters and their worlds were made accessible through story. 
Author Karen Cushman puts it this way:  
I think for readers historical fiction is important because it helps them to see beyond the boundaries of their own experience. It helps them to stretch and to see what life is like for others. This helps illustrate both how we are the same and how we are different, and can give readers more empathy. 
Here are a collection of boundary-stretching historicals broken into three sub-genres: historical adventure, books about WWII, and plain ol' straight up historical (I can make my own sub-genre, right?). I hope you enjoy! 
HISTORICAL ADVENTURE 
Audacity Jones to the Rescue — Kirby Larson (January 26) 
 Audacity Jones is an eleven-year-old orphan who aches for adventure, a challenge to break up the monotony of her life at Miss Maisie's School for Wayward Girls. Life as a wayward girl isn't so bad; Audie has the best of friends, a clever cat companion, and plenty of books to read. Still, she longs for some excitement, like the characters in the novels she so loves encounter.
So when the mysterious Commodore Crutchfield visits the school and whisks Audie off to Washington, DC, she knows she's in for the journey of a lifetime. But soon, it becomes clear that the Commodore has unsavory plans for Audie -- plans that involve the president of the United States and a sinister kidnapping plot. Before she knows it, Audie winds up in the White House kitchens, where she's determined to stop the Commodore dead in his tracks. Can Audie save the day before it's too late? 
The Eye of Midnight — Andrew Brumbach (March 8)
A cross between Indiana Jones and The DaVinci Code for kids, you won’t be able to put down this classic adventure set in 1920s New York City with an Arabian twist!
On a stormy May day in 1929, William and Maxine arrive on the doorstep of Battersea Manor to spend the summer with a grandfather they barely remember. Whatever the cousins expected, Colonel Battersea isn’t it. 
Soon after they settle in, Grandpa receives a cryptic telegram and promptly whisks the cousins off to New York City so that he can meet an unknown courier and collect a very important package. Before he can do so, however, Grandpa vanishes without a trace. 
When the cousins stumble upon Nura, a tenacious girl from Turkey, she promises to help them track down the parcel and rescue Colonel Battersea. But with cold-blooded gangsters and a secret society of assassins all clamoring for the same mysterious object, the children soon find themselves in a desperate struggle just to escape the city’s dark streets alive. 
An exquisitely written, gripping adventure, Andrew Brumbach’s debut novel is poised to become a contemporary classic.  
PLAIN OL' STRAIGHT UP HISTORICALS 
Sweet Home Alaska — Carole Estby Dagg (February 2)
This exciting pioneering story, based on actual events, introduces readers to a fascinating chapter in American history, when FDR set up a New Deal colony in Alaska to give loans and land to families struggling during the Great Depression.
Trip can’t wait to follow in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s footsteps . . . now she just has to convince her mom. It’s 1934, and times are tough for their family. To make a fresh start, Trip’s father signs up for President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project, uprooting them from Wisconsin to become pioneers in Alaska. Their new home is a bit of a shock—it’s a town still under construction in the middle of the wilderness, where the residents live in tents and share a community outhouse. But Trip’s not about to let first impressions get in the way of this grand adventure. Tackling its many unique challenges with her can-do attitude, she starts making things happen to make Alaska seem more like home. Soon, she and her family are able to start settling in and enjoying their new surroundings—everyone except her mother, that is. So, in order to stay, Trip hatches a plan to convince her that it’s a wonderful—and civilized—place to live . . . a plan that’s going to take all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise Trip can muster.
John Lincoln Clem: Civil War Drummer Boy (Based on a True Story) —E. F. Abbott (February 16)
Determined to fight for his country, Johnny sneaks onto a train filled with men from the 3rd Ohio Union Regiment. Taken in by the older soldiers, Johnny becomes a drummer boy, and later, takes up his own musket. As the war rages on, Johnny experiences the brutalities of battle as well as the rampant illness and gnawing hunger in between. But the most dangerous part of Johnny’s journey is yet to come.
Based on a True Story books are exciting historical fiction about real children who lived through extraordinary times in American History.
Making Friends with Billy Wong— Augusta Scattergood (August 30)   
 Azalea is not happy about being dropped off to look after Grandmother Clark. Even if she didn't care that much about meeting the new sixth graders in her Texas hometown, those strangers seem much preferable to the ones in Paris Junction. Talk about troubled Willis DeLoach or gossipy Melinda Bowman. Who needs friends like these!
And then there's Billy Wong, a Chinese-American boy who shows up to help in her grandmother's garden. Billy's great-aunt and uncle own the Lucky Foods grocery store, where days are long and some folks aren't friendly. For Azalea, whose family and experiences seem different from most everybody she knows, friendship has never been easy. Maybe this time, it will be.
Inspired by the true accounts of Chinese immigrants who lived in the American South during the civil rights era, these side by side stories--one in Azalea's prose, the other in Billy's poetic narrative--create a poignant novel and reminds us that friends can come to us in the most unexpected ways. 
Cloud and Wallfish — Anne Nesbet* (October 2016)
East Berlin, 1989
Slip behind the Iron Curtain into a world of smoke, secrets, and lies in this stunning novel where someone is always listening and nothing is as it seems.
Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. And he can’t even ask them why — not because of his Astonishing Stutter, but because asking questions is against the newly instated rules. (Rule Number Two: Don’t talk about serious things indoors, because Rule Number One: They will always be listening). As Noah—now "Jonah Brown"—and his parents head behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin, the rules and secrets begin to pile up so quickly that he can hardly keep track of the questions bubbling up inside him: Who, exactly, is listening — and why? When did his mother become fluent in so many languages? And what really happened to the parents of his only friend, Cloud-Claudia, the lonely girl who lives downstairs? In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.
BOOKS ABOUT WORLD WAR II 
Paper Wishes — Lois Sepahban (January 5)
Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family's life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It's 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her and her grandfather's dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat and gets as far as the mainland before she is caught and forced to abandon Yujiin. She and her grandfather are devastated, but Manami clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn't until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can reclaim the piece of herself that she left behind and accept all that has happened to her family.
Lizzie and the Lost Baby — Cheryl Blackford (January 12)
Cheryl Blackford's debut novel is set in England during World War II and told from the dual perspectives of ten-year-old Lizzie, a homesick girl evacuated from bomb-blitzed Hull to the remote Yorkshire valley, and Elijah, a local gypsy boy. When Lizzie discovers an abandoned baby, her dangerous friendship with Elijah is put to the test. Will Lizzie be able to find the baby's parents? And if she does, can she and Elijah remain friends in a world clouded by prejudice and fear?
The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle — Janet Fox (March 15)
“Keep calm and carry on.”  
That’s what Katherine Bateson’s father told her, and that’s what she’s trying to do:  when her father goes off to the war, when her mother sends Kat and her brother and sister away from London to escape the incessant bombing, even when the children arrive at Rookskill Castle, an ancient, crumbling manor on the misty Scottish highlands.
But it’s hard to keep calm in the strange castle that seems haunted by ghosts or worse.  What’s making those terrifying screeches and groans at night?  Why do the castle’s walls seem to have a mind of their own?  And why do people seem to mysteriously appear and disappear?
Kat believes she knows the answer: Lady Eleanor, who rules Rookskill Castle, is harboring a Nazi spy. But when her classmates begin to vanish, one by one, Kat must uncover the truth about what the castle actually harbors—and who Lady Eleanor really is—before it's too late.
What historical books are you looking forward to this year?

* A Project Mayhem author!