Showing posts with label great books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label great books. Show all posts

Monday, September 25, 2017

Interview with Akemi Dawn Bowman, author of STARFISH



Today I have the immense privilege of participating in the blog tour for Akemi Dawn Bowman's luminously incredible debut novel, Starfish. Ever since I saw the cover reveal for this book, I've wanted to read it—it's truly one of the most beautifully captivating covers I've ever seen. And the book itself didn't disappoint; Bowman's language is so lyrical and rich, and her story so gripping and lovely, that I absolutely couldn't put it down and read it cover to cover in twenty-four hours (which happens much less than it did before I had a kid!). Starfish is hands-down one of my favorite reads of the year, and I am so excited to recommend this book right and left!

If you're a fan of contemporary young adult, you must add this.  (And make sure you read to the bottom—there's a giveaway involved!)

What's it about?

Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.

But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

From debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, heartbreaking story of identity, family, and the beauty that emerges when we embrace our true selves.

Interview with Akemi

1. What was your journey to publication like? Was Starfish the first book you tried to sell?

My journey was definitely long—it was years of consistent hard work, and refusing to give up. It took me four manuscripts to get an agent, and the fifth book I wrote (Starfish) was the one that got me a book deal. I’ve always been very stubborn, so when the agent rejections piled in with the first few manuscripts, I didn’t want to accept defeat. I just told myself I’d write a new book and try again. I did a lot of writing and re-writing, and coming up with new ideas when the old ones weren’t working. And eventually, it worked!

2. What was the seed of inspiration for Starfish? Did it start with a character, a plot, a scene, or something else completely?

Starfish is the book I needed most as a teen. It’s the book that would’ve helped me to feel “seen,” which is something I really struggled with when I was younger. It was very difficult to find books with characters that were experiencing similar things to me, particularly when it came to being biracial and living with social anxiety. And so I wrote this book hoping it would act as a mirror for the people who need it most today.

3. One of my favorite things about Starfish were the gorgeously lyrical descriptions of the artwork, and the way the pictures themselves tell a story throughout the book. Do you have a background in visual art?

Thank you so much! I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember, though I’m nowhere near as talented as Kiko. I took two years of ceramics in high school, and a year of painting too. I have a big set of Copic markers, and I occasionally like to get them out and draw a Pok√©mon or two. There’s something about Bulbasaur’s cute little face that relaxes me!

4. What Hogwarts houses would your characters belong in?

Kiko – Ravenclaw

Jamie – Gryffindor

Hiroshi – Hufflepuff

Kiko’s mom – Slytherin

Though, I’ve heard some readers think Jamie should be in Hufflepuff, so my guess isn’t set in stone. I could see him in either!

5. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Keep writing, and don’t give up. And toughen your heart a little bit because rejections don’t stop once you find an agent. You’ll get editor rejections. Your agent might reject your next manuscript. You’ll get negative reviews. Your book might not get promoted as much as others do. The list goes on and on. There can be a lot of heartbreak ahead, but also so much joy and excitement too. Just remember to celebrate every single win that comes your way—even if it’s as simple as finishing your revisions! Remember to be proud of your accomplishments, and don’t let outside noise keep you from writing your stories. You can’t control everything about your writing journey, but you can control when your next book gets finished. So stay focused, and write!

Giveaway!

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Defense Of Kidlit: Why "Harry Potter" Qualifies As Great Literature


Over the weekend, my college-age brother had a rousing discussion on his Facebook page responding to the question "is Harry Potter 'great literature?'" The bulk of the questions were from his fellow college students, dryly opining about how Harry Potter couldn't possibly be considered great literature because it wasn't as "intellectually stimulating" as Shakespeare. 

Needless to say, after 24 hours of reading those posts, my little kidlit-writing, Harry-Potter-loving self was getting kind of steamed.

Yesterday afternoon Mahon took Kate to run a bunch of errands. Background info: I've been sick, really sick, for two weeks, and done almost nothing but lay on the couch in that time. So the combination of sick + alone + stir-crazy and bored led to something that could be interpreted as foolish: I spent twenty minutes writing an 1100-word manifesto in response to that Facebook thread on why I'm willing to bet that Harry Potter will, in time, be remembered as a classic.

Here are the six points (all of the other titles alluded to were works, or authors, previously brought up in the discussion), plus one added for the purposes of this blog post because I didn't think of it till just now:

1) You cannot compare Harry Potter to Shakespeare or even to Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson. Those are ALL DIFFERENT CATEGORIES. Harry Potter is children's fiction; the others are all adult (and one is adult stage plays which is completely different also). The only sorts of classics to which you could reasonably compare Harry Potter would be things like ALICE IN WONDERLAND or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA; both considered classics just as much as THE SCARLET LETTER is considered a classic. Trying to be like "Harry Potter is no Bronte!" is like saying "Man, my sock really doesn't make a very tasty sandwich." Children's literature has different rules, goals, and things that make it great than adult fiction does. End of story. Even adult genre fiction (Sanderson, Jordan) are very different than children's genre fiction.

2) Classic literature wasn't "classic" when it was being published. In fact, most of the greats we read in English classes today were the pulp popular fiction of their day. Jane Austen? Read far and wide by people who were slightly embarrassed to admit they were reading books about a woman instead of "important literature." Shakespeare? Many of his contemporaries scorned him as an intellectual lightweight who just pandered to popular opinion. (And they thought that the things we recognize today as innovative were just stupid.) The ones who weren't in this category were, by and large, overlooked. In other words... people said the same things about most of our "classics" that people say today about Harry Potter.

3) JK Rowling is no slouch. Her "single mom rags to riches" image—which, by the way, is part of book marketing; people are more likely to read something by somebody with a fantastic Cinderella story than by a savvy classical scholar—aside, she was an extremely well-educated woman who'd been practicing writing for awhile when she finally got her big break. (On average in creative industries it takes, like, a decade to become "an overnight success.") The symbolism and classical scholarship in her books goes MILES deep. Few modern children's authors have such a subtle and masterful grasp on using symbolism and fine-detail-work as Rowling does. People rag on them for being long, but there are pretty much no wasted details in the series: think about how many "huh?" moments there were in the movies when they removed a bunch of the smaller, "unimportant" moments from the book. For an example of the kind of mind-blowing meanings hidden in microscopic details that I'm talking about, check out this link, which got shared during the Facebook conversation.

Also, few authors in any genre have as good a handle on long-form series; think of how many trilogies kind of fizzle out before they even get to the end, and yet Rowling managed to craft a behemoth of a series without a lot of dull, lagging spots, and with each book having its own strong story arc while playing perfectly to the arc of the series as a whole. The themes in Harry Potter are also incredibly deep as well—layers and layers of different themes that touch on some of the biggest questions literature can touch on (death, afterlife, loss, handling grief gracefully, friendship, imperfect people in positions of authority, the frailty of the wisest, prejudice, classism/racism, the supernal nature of good vs evil, etc). So I'd argue that Rowling did do a lot structurally that was meaningful—done in both a way, and to a degree, that most writers have not been able to pull off.

4) At the end of the day, people hate on both genre literature (ie, fantasy) and children's literature ALL THE TIME. In the children's lit world, we sit around and vent to each other about the incredibly rude things people say to us (like, "Oh, that's nice—do you think you'll ever write a REAL novel?"), because it's such a prevalent attitude in society. But make no mistake: just because a children's novel is more accessible and quicker to read than an adult novel doesn't mean that it's automatically less-than. There's a reason that children's novels tend to be the ones that many adults remember and speak of most vividly, and it isn't (as much as we English majors might sometimes like to think it is) because the general population is too stupid to comprehend HEART OF DARKNESS. It's because children's literature is a profound part of what shapes us and makes us who we are. Good children's books inform our opinions, our empathies, our deep thoughts. Good children's books are also universal in nature, tapping into deep themes and emotions from people all across the age spectrum, which is why adults often still gravitate towards YA and children's fiction plenty of the time. Just because something is written for children doesn't make it either childish or Not An Important Book. Likewise with genre fiction; just because something involves magic, or a funny best friend, or dragons, doesn't mean it can't also contain deep and important reflections on the human condition.

5) Even if all the above were not true... things can be great literature even if they're not replete with deep symbolism and statements on the nature of mankind. There are plenty of books that are considered classics today that are classic just because the author was very witty, or because she was terrific at creating characters, or because it was the kind of book that people just genuinely enjoyed reading. And particularly in children's fiction, great literature can take all forms; what makes it great is the two-pronged effect of resonance and endurance—i.e., how much it resonates with people, makes them question what they've believed or come to know themselves or the world better, and also whether it's a "passing fad" kind of book or a "stands the test of time" one. There are certain books that have had almost as much popularity as HP which I'm willing to bet won't be remembered as classics, because they lacked one or both of those elements. But, by the same token, I'm willing to bet that Harry Potter will be one that endures, in the vein of Lewis Carrol or C. S. Lewis or any other classic children's literature.

6) Things also don't have to be Great Literature to be worthwhile (though, as I said at length in my overly wordy essay above, I think HP falls into that category). Particularly with kidlit, not all books are going to have that resonance or endurance, and that's OK; at the end of the day, the sacred responsibility of children's literature is creating readers

7) In the English literature world, we sometimes fall into this false dichotomy—assuming that something cannot be both enjoyable and meaningful, that if we're not working rigorously to access a piece of literature, then that means that it, in turn, is not rigorously challenging us. Likewise, we often have a false dichotomy about other things that are "good for us", like vegetables: our culture is filled with this idea that vegetables are something that we have to suffer through in order to grow strong. Personally, I don't know about you, but I think vegetables are divine. Properly cooked, a bowl of green beans or steamed broccoli stands up there with dessert, as far as I'm concerned. The idea that healthy foods can't also taste good is patently false, and I think the same holds true for the idea that Meaningful Works of Literature can't also be accessible, enjoyable, or fun. Quite often, the works of fiction that have the most wide-reaching and transformative effect are also the most exciting—the kinds of books that we want to dive into and stay in, while simultaneously having our worldview challenged and our empathy deepened. Something can be both fun and important, both delicious and healthy. It's not a zero-sum game, where only the Really Smart People can access Great Literature. 

In fact, I'd say that the truly greatest works of literature are the ones that draw regular people into them, inspiring them to engage with a book even if they're not really the "reading type," while subtly challenging their worldview, their sense of self, and forcing them to reevaluate and recommit to a meaningful life. Great literature does all of this while also masterfully using literary techniques and creating the kind of narrative that lingers with readers for the rest of their lives. By all these metrics? I'd say Harry Potter succeeds very well, indeed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best New Reads of 2016!

2016, man. It's been a year, am I right? Like many of you, 2016 has put me through the ringer in more ways than one. But there's also been some exceptionally good things—chief among them, the number of really fantastic books I've read.

In the last year I've read a total of 87 books, 19 of which were unpublished books I read either as a critique partner or as a Pitch Wars mentor. (I've definitely never had a year with so much beta reading before! And I can't wait until those books are out in the world and I can share them with all of you.) Of the published books I tracked on Goodreads, a whopping 30 were five-star reads. I read very few books this year that I didn't totally love.

Here are my top 14 favorite new reads for 2016, because 14 was as close to 10 as I could make my list go, listed in mostly chronological order. The links in the post aren't affiliate links, because I've never made enough on my affiliate account for Amazon to actually give me the money, so I decided to go the easy route this year. ;)


1. Happiness for Beginners, Katherine Center

Adult fiction. Totally delightful, perfectly-paced, and life-affirming women's fiction that manages to be both sweet and thought-provoking.

2. The War that Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Middle grade fiction. This is one of this year's Newbery Honors, and I just adored it. I particularly loved that while it's a masterfully done historical fiction, the focus is on the character's personal story, not the historical setting. After I got past the really difficult beginning, I loved how hopeful and lovely the story managed to be, despite being about such grim topics.

3. The Thing About Jellyfish, Ali Benjamin

Middle grade fiction. There were a lot of books that really stuck with me this year, but The Thing About Jellyfish tops that list. Gorgeously written, sweet, and sad, it beautifully tackles a very real experience for middle schoolers. I also loved how it was strongly hinted that the main character was likely on the autistic spectrum, but the focus of the story wasn't on her neurodifference, and the way the story told was very inclusive.

4. Hour of the Bees, Lindsay Eager

Middle grade fiction. I was a little bit freaked out when I first saw the cover and synopsis for this book in the spring, because I'd just barely begun querying my own middle grade book about magic bees (which pretty quickly got an agent and sold to HarperCollins, hooray!). Once I read it, though, I was relieved to see it's very different than my own—and fell head over heels for Eager's lovely storytelling and the unique way that she intertwines fables and family history with her contemporary story.

5. Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo

Middle grade fiction. No, I have no idea how I went 15 years after its publication without reading this one, but I loved it. Short, sweet, and guaranteed to bring a smile.

6. Goodbye Stranger, Rebecca Stead

Middle grade fiction. Stead is one of my favorite authors of this year, and of the books I read (the other being the equally fantastic Liar and Spy), Goodbye Stranger is the one that's really lingered in my mind. I love how well it tackles some really hard topics in an utterly sensitive and age-appropriate manner. Stead's sparse and straightforward writing, and her compelling and unique characters, are completely hypnotic.

7. Eleven and Holding, Mary Penney

Middle grade fiction. This was an unexpected gem; Penney's debut novel is another that tackles tough subjects with grace and humor.

8. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Adult fiction. I'd heard mixed things about this one, and wasn't sure what to expect going in, but I ended up devouring almost the whole thing in one night and absolutely loving it. The ending was a little abrupt and unexpected, but I loved the rest of the book enough that I was able to get over that. Sweet and life-affirming.

9. The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, Dana Alison Levy

Middle grade fiction. I also read Levy's debut novel, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, but while that was also a five-star read, Rock Island edged it out just a bit for me. I read this the week before Christmas, and the grin-inducing storyline plus the warm, summery setting were just what my tired midwinter heart needed.

10. The Key to Extraordinary, Natalie Lloyd

Middle grade fiction. Lloyd's debut, A Snicker of Magic, was actually the first book I read in 2016, and while I also loved that one, The Key to Extraordinary was even better. I loved everything about this book—the setting, the characters, the theme, the folk music woven through it, and all the references to lavender-peach muffins, which I'm still going to try my hand at making one of these days!

11. Courage for Beginners, Karen Harrington

Middle grade fiction. This was an unexpected gem that I picked up off a library display shelf one day. It was such a unique story, and while some aspects of it were so stressful to read, the plucky, voicey narrator kept me turning pages at top speed. Courage for Beginners manages to be both funny and heartbreaking, which is a pretty winning combination in my book.

12. Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, Shari Green

Middle grade fiction. Green's verse is absolutely luminous, and her subject matter is sweet and sad, in all the best ways. It's also one of the best depictions I've read of a side character with cystic fibrosis!

13. Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton

Adult nonfiction. Let me level with you here. I didn't really expect to love Love Warrior nearly as much as I did. I definitely didn't expect to find it profoundly moving, the kind of book I wanted to buy and reread the second I'd closed the cover. The Momastery blog can be slightly hit-or-miss for me, and while I appreciate a lot of Glennon's insights, I figured this book couldn't live up to the hype. But for me, at least, it totally did. In addition to being an honest and unflinching memoir that avoids stepping too far into navel-gazing or coy I'm-a-disaster-but-I'm-so-cute territory, Love Warrior is also packed with incredibly thought-provoking musings on society's expectations for women and for relationships.

14. The Weight of Feathers, Anna-Marie McLemore

Young adult fiction. McLemore's debut is gorgeously written, evocative, and unique; I can't describe it in words that really do it justice. The magical realism is light and perfect, and the story is so rich with atmosphere you could cut it with a knife.

Runners-up (it was so hard bumping so many favorites into this category):

A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro

Conviction, Kelly Loy Gilbert

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

The Passion of Dolssa, Julie Berry

Okay For Now, Gary Schmidt

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, Karen Abbott

Southern Charmed, Melanie Jacobson

Friday, October 14, 2016

Interview: Shari Green, Author of ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES

Today I have the incredible privilege of sharing a chat with Shari Green, author of the debut middle grade novel-in-verse ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES. Thanks to an Amazon goof, I had the chance to read this a little bit early, and it was so good. Definitely one of my favorite reads of 2016! The verse is light and lovely, the setting is perfect, and the plot deals with major issues in a sensitive, gentle, and ultimately hopeful way. If you're a fan of Sharon Creech, you should definitely give ROOT BEER CANDY a try!

Here's Shari's summary of the book:

It will come to pass
that a stranger from the sea
will change
everything.

The locals in Felicity Bay shake their heads at the ice cream man’s prophecy. “Crazy old Jasper,” they say. But Bailey isn’t so sure. She’s found something special down at the beach: a driftwood mermaid, a gift washed up from a storm. Could she be the stranger from the sea who has come to change everything? Bailey hopes so. Because this summer, she could sure use a miracle.

Where did you get the inspiration for ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES?

I’d been thinking a lot about the extraordinary in the ordinary—Frederick Buechner said “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace”, and that quote had been tumbling around in my thoughts. Meanwhile, I knew I wanted to write a “beachy book” someday—something in which I could really indulge my love of the sea. And then a driftwood mermaid showed up in my imagination, and the pieces started coming together.

I'm a big fan of verse novels in general, and especially for a middle grade audience—somehow they seem to work so well with the struggles of that age group. What made you decide to write ROOT BEER CANDY in verse? Is this your first verse novel?
Yes, it’s my first verse novel…but it didn’t start out in verse. At first, I struggled to find Bailey’s voice—after a few false starts I finally tried it in verse, and there was Bailey! As I wrote, I realized other reasons to keep going in verse: I felt complete freedom to use imagery to weave the setting throughout the story, and the format allowed me to use white space to give readers room to ponder ambiguities and unanswered (unanswerable?) questions. Above all, verse just felt right for me and for Bailey’s story.

One of the things that really drew me to ROOT BEER CANDY was the inclusion of a side character who has cystic fibrosis, like I do. CF isn't something that comes up a lot in fiction; what made you want to write a character with CF?
I’m not really sure why Daniel appeared in my imagination the way he did. I haven’t met many people with CF. And yet, there was Daniel with his chest physio and his eleven-year-old version of a seize the day attitude, and I loved him. It meant I had a lot of research to do, though! I knew I wanted him to have an important role in the story, because, like all kids, children with chronic illness need to see themselves in books. They need characters they can connect with, that maybe help them feel not so alone in what they’re dealing with. I hoped Daniel might be that character for a child somewhere, someday.

I also appreciated how authentically and sensitively you handled the issue of Daniel's life expectancy as a result of his CF, something that is definitely the elephant in the room for most of us. I love that it's not a focus of the story, and that Daniel is allowed to be a regular kid, but that it's clear that it's something Daniel thinks about. What made you want to include this, specifically, in Daniel's storyline?
I think one thing I love about a lot of children’s literature is that it doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. So often kids are impacted by the hard truths of life, but adults whisper, censor, try to ignore those realities. This comes from a good heart, I think—from wanting to protect kids. But kids are smart and so very observant. They’re aware of the tough stuff, and they’re developing compassion for others and coping skills for themselves as they deal with it. Including the bit about Daniel’s life expectancy was a way of validating his experience, a way of saying your reality matters, your worries matter, the tough stuff you think about matters.

In your dayjob you work as a nurse (right?)—do you feel like that background helped you in writing authentically about CF and childhood illness?
Yes, I’m an LPN. My background probably helped somewhat by allowing me to be comfortable tackling the subject of chronic illness (and maybe especially the life-and-death aspect). However, most of my experience as a nurse has been on the surgical ward—not at all the place for childhood illness! Ultimately, I had to rely on research.

Since the beach is my #1 happy place (mine is the Outer Banks!), I love the setting for ROOT BEER CANDY. I know that you live near the coast and visit often. Is Felicity Bay based on a real beach town you love, or is it straight from your imagination?
Felicity Bay is completely fictional, but the island—Arbutus Island—was inspired by a real place: Gabriola Island, which is between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. I spent childhood summer holidays there, and have wonderful memories and a serious case of nostalgia.

I love the thoughtful but not heavy-handed exploration of religion and faith in ROOT BEER CANDY; I think you hit a perfect note and have a story that really will appeal to children of all (or no) faith traditions. What made you decide to include faith as such an integral part of the storyline?
I wanted to include faith partly because it felt like the most honest way for me to tell this particular story, and partly because it isn’t often addressed in books. Kids think about this stuff, just as adults do, so let’s talk about it! To get more personal for a moment, I’ll add that including a spiritual element was also very true to who I am—and maybe who we all are. Don’t we all hope for miracles sometimes? Don’t we long for things that help us keep hoping, keep believing that we’ll be okay, that life will turn out all right? For me, ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES felt like the right place to explore these ideas.

Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog, Cindy. And thanks for the great questions! Wishing you and your readers an abundance of everyday miracles…

Check out ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES on Amazon here