Saturday, September 11, 2021

2021 Pitch Wars Wish List!

(For a plain text version of this post without GIFs and images, click here.)

Image description: Two white women with brown hair, 
Cindy Baldwin and Amanda Rawson Hill, pose together
wearing watermelon-patterned sunglasses.

Welcome to the wish list for #TeamMascaraTracks! 

(That’s Amanda Rawson Hill and Cindy Baldwin.) Sit down and draw up a chair. We've got chocolate, funny homeschool anecdotes, and—of course—a bookshelf chock full of crying books.

First off, a little about us:

Amanda Rawson Hill: I grew up in Southwest Wyoming with a library right out my back gate. I was one of those “gifted” kids. Smart, overachiever, played a couple instruments, speech and debate. You know the type. I never dreamed of being a writer until after I had kids! I got my degree in Chemistry and now live in Central California with my husband and four kids. I’m the author of the middle grade novel The Three Rules of Everyday Magic (Boyds Mill/Kane) and the picture book You’ll Find Me (Magination Press), with more MGs and PBs to come in 2022 and 2023.

Cindy Baldwin: As a kid, my favorite things to do were either explore the woods behind my North Carolina home, dreaming of fairies and hidden castles, or curl up with a book to read stories that filled my imagination with wonder and magic.
These days, I live in Portland, Oregon with my husband and daughter. I’m disabled and chronically ill, and I write a lot about the importance of authentic and respectful representation of disability in kidlit; my own books also all touch on disability in different ways. I’m also the critically acclaimed author of middle grade novels Where the Watermelons Grow, Beginners Welcome, and The Stars of Whistling Ridge (all with HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books). 
We met back in Pitch Wars 2015, where we were both mentees. In the six years since we met, we have:
  • Signed with the same agent
  • Both had debut books published in the same year
  • Published 5 books between us—and written a LOT more!
  • Had one baby (Amanda)
  • Been on international TV (Cindy)
  • Taught a bunch of classes at writing conferences
  • Homeschooled our kids
  • Shared a whole lot of tears, laughter, and commiseration
These days, we’re child-raising, book-writing, fast-talking, emotion-loving BFFs. We don’t shy away from total sincerity and talking about feelings. We love big and we love hard. Cindy is Anne Shirley. (She once really did end up stranded in a river, clinging to bridge pilings, and had to be rescued. It's a long story.) Amanda is Leslie Knope. Together, we head up #TeamMascaraTracks! 
Image description: A GIF of Leslie Knope, a white woman with blonde hair
wearing a blazer, saying something excitedly. The caption reads “Are you ready?”

As mentors, we are hands-on and editorial. We love helping our mentees dig deep into their stories, and aren’t afraid to ask for big revisions—but we are also very hands-on and always willing to help break a big task down. We love taking on work that’s imperfect, but has a strong heart, and helping the author to really make the story shine. We are not the people to submit to if you aren’t ready to get your hands dirty and make big changes if that’s what the story calls for! However, we promise we’ll be there every step along the way.
Our past mentees include stellar authors like Kit Rosewater (The Derby Daredevils series), Remy Lai (Pie in the Sky), and Cory Leonardo (The Simple Art of Flying). Almost all of our past mentees have gone on to sign with agents and get book deals (including authors Karen S. Chow and Stacy Nockowitz, who will both debut in 2022!). 
While we can't promise requests, agents, or book deals, we can promise care, attention, and endless cheerleading. We’ve become close friends with our past mentees, and still regularly keep in touch. We’ve advised our mentees through not only revisions and the Pitch Wars agent round, but also things like:
  • Deciding between multiple agent offers
  • Navigating agent breakups
  • Dealing with querying beyond the contest
  • Handling nerves while on submission
  • Navigating the debut experience, “second book syndrome,” and other ups and downs of a publishing career
  • Learning how to use Twitter GIFs (come on—it’s an important PW skill!)
If that sounds like what you are looking for in a mentor, then let’s go on to what you really want to know!
Image description: A GIF of Michael from the Good Place, a white man with white hair
and black-framed glasses wearing a grey suit, reading a strip of ticker tape.
The caption reads “Okay, here we go.”

Our Wish List
Our favorite genres are MG contemporary, Magical Realism (both true magical realism—which comes from traditionally marginalized communities and is aware of the Latinx traditions from which it draws—and literary contemporary with elements of magic), and 20th-century historical

Within those genres we are particularly looking for stories usually labeled, quiet, character driven, heartfelt, and literary

We’re not the best mentors for a book whose focus could be described as “comedic and quirky.” We love books that incorporate humor—but we’re after FLORA AND ULYSSES, not DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. We love stories that revolved around big, hard, real-world problems.

If somebody has ever said, “Wow, isn’t that a little heavy for MG?”—we want it. If somebody has ever said, “This is really sad!"—we want it. We want to feel something. We want to bawl our eyes out. We want to see beautiful, powerful prose or poetry. We want books that exemplify the Madeleine L’Engle quote “If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” We want books that tackle tough subjects in a hopeful and life-affirming way. We want big philosophical ideas handled with the grace, wisdom and innocence of this age group.

We are not interested in sci fi or fantasy, and likely won’t read excerpts that are sent to us in those genres. If you’re not sure whether your manuscript would be considered “fantasy” or “contemporary with magical elements,” feel free to Tweet us! Our list of comp titles, below, will also help clarify what we’re looking for.

When it comes to historical fiction, we are NOT the right mentors for stories where the history or world-building plays a larger role than the character’s arc. If you have the next THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, please send it our way! But if you write historical fiction in which the period details are as important as the character arc, we’re probably not the right mentors for it.

Some things we especially love to see:
  • Diverse characters and plots, particularly written by authors with lived experience of the race, religion, sexuality, or disability they’re writing about
  • Characters influenced by faith but not in a faith-based story
  • Homeschooling or other unique life paths
  • Unique structures and formats (including letters, verse, and graphic novels)
  • Chronic illness and disability written by disabled authors
  • Verse! (We realize we said that above, but please. We're nuts for verse! Send us your verse!)
  • Bittersweet endings
  • Anything involving the ocean
  • Strong, vibrant settings
  • Science incorporated in a beautiful, meaningful way
  • Books that incorporate current events, particularly those that focus on the often-untold stories of marginalized people, written by authors with lived experience (IE: we want your stories about living through climate change disasters with a disability; your stories about immigration and the refugee experience; your stories about LGBT kids grappling with the legislative attacks of the last few years, etc)
  • Books set in countries that don't get as much MG screentime (please, send us the next AMAL UNBOUND!)
If any of these could be a comp title…grabby hands!
Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown
The Vanderbeekers series by Karina Yan Glaser
Up For Air and other books by Laurie Morrison
From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Janae Marks
Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
What Stars Are Made Of by Sarah Allen
When Stars Are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson
Front Desk, Kelly Yang
Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, Anna Meriano
Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed
The Night Diary, Veera Hiranandani
Anything by Kate Dicamillo, Sharon Draper, Lynda Mulally Hunt, or Sharon Creech
Paper Wishes, Lois Sepahban
The Key to Extraordinary or A Snicker of Magic, Natalie Lloyd
The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Amina's Voice, Hena Kahn
Forget Me Not, Ellie Terry
Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, Shari Green
Echo, Pam Muñoz Ryan

And, of course, reading our books will give you a good idea of what we love in middle grade!

Things We Probably Don’t Want
  • Animal protagonists
  • Sports stories (There are other mentors LOOKING for this. We just don’t love it. Sorry.)
  • Historical fiction from earlier than the 1900s.
  • Anything more plot-driven than character-driven.
  • Anything that could be described with the word "adventure," especially combined with "fantasy." Unless your character's adventure is lived out largely in their own head (a la Bridge to Terabithia or Some Kind of Happiness—SEND US THOSE!), we are just not the best mentors for that! Really, if your query contains words like epic, journey, battle, quest…you should probably not send it to us.

What Will Really Draw Us In?

Voice and beautiful writing are probably the number one thing that draws us to a manuscript—though a great hook doesn't hurt. We can help you change everything else… but the voice reigns supreme.

If you’ve read through this and think we’re your kindred spirits, send your MG our way! We can’t wait to read your work. Putting it out there is such an act of courage and vulnerability. We promise to treat your entry with the respect and love that creativity deserves. We feel so honored by every person who decides to share their story with us. We are excited to meet you and your characters.

Image description: A GIF of Diana Barry (a white girl with curly black hair, 
wearing a blue pinafore) and Anne Shirley (a red-headed white girl wearing a grey apron)
holding hands and smiling as they walk toward the camera.

Pitch Wars 2021 Middle Grade Mentors' Wish Lists
  1. Tracy Badua
  2. Eric Bell
  3. Julie Artz
  4. Shannon A. Thompson and Sandra Proudman
  5. George Jreije and LQ Nguyen
  6. Darlene P. Campos
  7. Rebecca Petruck
  8. Graci Kim and Karah Sutton
  9. Shakirah Bourne
  10. Kim Long and Jennifer L. Brown
  11. Adrianna Cuevas and Sarah Kapit
  12. Sylvia Liu
  13. Cindy Baldwin and Amanda Rawson Hill
  14. Erin Teagan
  15. A.J. Sass and Nicole Melleby

Click here to view all Pitch Wars 2021 Mentors' Wish Lists. To view the wish lists by genre, visit this link.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

And The Winner Is...

 WHEW! That was quite the pumpkin show-down, folks. We had some of the highest voting we've ever recorded this year. Y'all really know how to get the vote out! (...and hopefully not just for pumpkins.)

Now, every year before we start carving, I predict the winner based purely on concept. I'm almost NEVER correct—so much so that it's become a running joke in our family. But this year, I was 100% on the money, because I just knew that the idea of 2020 represented as a literally flaming dumpster fire was going to be something that resonated deep down in peoples' souls. 

That's right—the landslide winner of the 14th Annual Baldwin Pumpkin Carving Contest, capturing a 87-51 victory, is... 

Pumpkin B, the 2020 Dumpster Fire!

And even though it means that the LITERAL HOURS I spent agonizing over the layering on my own pumpkin did not net me the victory, I'm genuinely pleased to say that the brilliant mind (and hands) behind Pumpkin B is the man himself, Mahon Baldwin. Those of you who've followed our contest for a long time will probably remember that Mahon has almost NEVER won, despite carving some true masterpieces. When he told me the idea he had for the dumpster fire pumpkin earlier this month, I immediately said, "Oh, that's definitely going to win." I admit, my Zoom-o-Lantern turned out so much better than I'd imagined that I thought it might give Mahon's creation more of a run for its money... but in the end, the visceral pleasure at seeing 2020 represented with flaming trash spoke to the most people, and I can hardly fault anyone for that!

Thanks, everyone, for voting. As always, you've helped make this one of the best weeks in the Baldwin family calendar! See you next year! (And I can even say that without wanting to die inside, because oh man. The professional grade tools we got this year? THOSE. THINGS. ARE MAGIC.)

Monday, October 26, 2020

Cast Your Votes In The 14th Annual Baldwin Pumpkin Carving

(Nope, you can't vote for the cute middle pumpkin, no matter how much you may want to.)

2020 has been quite the year, amirite? I don't know about you, but over the last few weeks, I've felt the intensity of these last ten months building toward a stressful climax, a vote that will determine my family's happiness for the coming days...

The 14th Annual Baldwin Pumpkin Carving Contest! 

This is the oldest tradition in the Baldwin family, begun back before Mahon and I were even dating, on the fateful night that he invited me to meet his family and promised me he could carve a better pumpkin than I could (as if!), the very night I fell the first little bit in love with him. And while every year after carving pumpkins I think NEVER AGAIN, I somehow always come around to it by the next October. In fact, this year I'm even excited already for next year, because this year we FINALLY, finally got a set of REAL, PROFESSIONAL GRADE carving tools, and boy oh boy. Those things are MAGIC. (Way, way better than the year we tried a Dremel, which is something we still don't talk about. It was so bad, y'all.)

This year, our theme was obvious: no less a theme than "Year 2020." How, exactly, could we encapsulate the unbelievability of 2020? You'll have to read on to see!

As always, all descriptions are written by me, and all photos are a joint effort between us both. Because of the nature of the pumpkins presented, the depictions aren't completely equal—you'll notice that Pumpkin A has a video in addition to photos, because it quite literally shines best when you can see it in action.

This years rules, as in previous years, are:

1. Just ONE vote per person... no cheating! You can vote via the poll at the bottom of the post, or in the traditional way, through comments. Because the poll only allows a person to vote once, if you'd like to submit multiple votes for multiple family members, I recommend either doing them all in the comments or else doing one via the poll and the rest via comments. If you don't have a Google or OpenID account and so you're voting anonymously, make sure to sign your vote. Unsigned anonymous votes may be deleted. 

You can also cast a vote on Instagram or Facebook, as long as you keep it to the official pumpkin carving contest thread on those platforms (it gets too hard chasing votes across multiple threads).

2. DO NOT reveal who carved which pumpkin! If you suspect that you may know which pumpkin was carved by whom, DO NOT share that information in the comments. Any comment that tries to spill the carver's identities will be quickly deleted. (Also, we really DON'T recommend attempting to guess whose pumpkin is whose. In the past, guessers have tried to swing the vote for one person or another, and guessed wrong, with disastrous [but hilarious] results. So really, just vote for which pumpkin you actually like better and leave it at that, okay???)

3. Get all your friends and family to cast their votes too! Share on social media! Bug your co-workers!

First up! Pumpkin A:

There have been a number of changes that have come to typify the year 2020... but what has become more iconic than the now-ubiquitous Zoom chat? In the last six months, we've carried out conferences, happy hours, church meetings, play dates, weddings, and even babysitting via video conference software. Zoom has become part of our cultural context, our punchlines... and now, our pumpkins. With this design, Carver A has chosen to depict 2020 as a cheery chat between gregarious G. Ourd and his bff, tea aficionado Jackie Lantern. While G. and Jackie may be unable to meet up in person due to their diligent social distancing, they're grateful for the chance for a little Zoom-o-Lantern time to keep their spirits up and their hearts full. Carver A spent untold hours perfecting the shading in this pumpkin—a true labor of love.

Next up, Pumpkin B:

Double, double, toil and trouble, dumpster burn, pandemic bubble! Shakespeare's witches have nothing on this hook-nosed hag crafted by Carver B; she cackles merrily while stirring the literal dumpster fire that is the year 2020. While Carver B has also used careful shading techniques to attire their witch, they have ventured this year into far more flamboyant realms of artistry as well, creating a genuine kerosene flame in their gourdian dumpster. (Note, also, the careful safety preparations made for this exhibit, including a fire extinguisher held at the ready.) After all, there can truly be no image that more fully sums up this year than that of a raging, crackling pile of burning refuse, egged on by a creature whose heart is blacker than the gown she wears. (Make sure to watch the attached video to see the true splendor of Pumpkin B in action.)

And now, without further ado, cast your vote!

Voting will close around 9pm Pacific Time on Saturday, October 31st.

But we're not done yet! Seven-year-old Kitty joined her parents in this year's carving, and while she is not eligible to participate in the contest yet and any votes for her pumpkin will be ignored, we couldn't help but show you the fantastic pumpkin she designed and carved (mostly by herself)! We love it. A fierce kitty designed by a fierce Kitty; what could be more fitting?

Monday, August 10, 2020

Chapter Books To Read Aloud With 3-6 Year Olds

Back when my daughter (now 7) was three, my husband and I hit a point where we were DESPERATE to start reading longer books aloud to her at bedtime, purely to gain a reprieve from being forced to read the same books every. Single. Night. (Her favorites were Rudyard Kipling's Rikki Tikki Tavi and Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss, which were both LONG!)

Since then, although we still read plenty of picture books together, we've transitioned completely to longer books for bedtime reads. Over the last four and a half years, we've read a lot of early chapter books and younger middle grade books, and since I frequently get asked for recommendations for this age group, I thought I'd compile a post with some of our favorite read-alouds, along with suggested ages! Every kid, of course, is different, and your mileage may vary as far as what your child's interests are and what stories keep their attention. I didn't include popular read-alouds like the Harry Potter series, or other longer middle grade fiction, because we've found that in our family my daughter was only ready for longer, more complex narratives like those around age six. The books on this list are ideal for those transitional years (ages 3-6, roughly), where kid and parent are ready for something more than picture books, but not quite ready to visit Hogwarts or Narnia.

The age ranges I've specified here are for the youngest ages the books would likely appeal to. Of course, they're great for bigger kids too—and some of these are ones we've read multiple times as my daughter has grown!

A couple of pointers before we dive into the reading list:

  • Chapter books are not that important for literacy at such a young age, so if your kid isn't ready for them, don't force it! Picture books are the foundational building block of literacy skills for young kids, because connection words and pictures is HUGE in a young brain's development.
  • If your kid doesn't seem like they're paying attention, don't worry! My daughter often played while we read or listened to audiobooks (and still does). Sometimes I'd SWEAR she was not listening at all, only to have her say something later that made it clear she'd been paying much better attention than I'd thought.
  • Don't force yourself through a book that isn't fun for everyone involved! There were a few books that we started as a family, got halfway through, and just mutually decided this isn't working for us and ditched. There are too many awesome books in the world to worry about the ones you don't love.
  • There is something about the way a child's brain develops that makes it so that kids are not naturally able to sequence stories in the same way an adult can. (I could write a whole post on this. I find it fascinating.) My daughter taught herself to read at 4.5, but even as an early and very precocious reader, there was a big delay in her ability to read longer books and her desire to do so. What I realized, to my surprise, was that she did not see a long book as a contiguous story. She saw every chapter or scene as something that stood alone, and because of that, she didn't feel that urgent NEED to get back to a book she was reading until she was around six and a half. This dynamic is less prominent in read alouds, because as a parent you can help your child make the connections between different events in a story, but don't be surprised if your kid seems totally cool just stopping a book in the middle or doesn't seem as intrigued by the mystery at a book's heart. It doesn't meant they don't enjoy it—it just means their brains are processing it differently than yours!

The Clementine series (ages 3+) by Sara Pennypacker: This and Anna Hibiscus (below) are tied for my very favorite chapter book serieses of all time. (Fun fact: In publishing, "chapter books" doesn't mean just any book with chapters—it refers specifically to early chapter books, the age category that bridges the gap between early readers and middle grade books. Chapter books are shorter than middle grade, and typically heavily illustrated.) Clementine is absolutely hysterical, and Pennypacker's grasp of kid thoughts is pure comedic gold. Plus, Clementine will prove a kindred spirit for any kid who has troubles at school—although a diagnosis is never given, I suspect that the character has ADHD, and she spends a lot of time visiting with the sympathetic-but-exhausted principal of her school. The first book is called Clementine.

The Anna Hibiscus series (ages 3+) by Atinuke: These books are tied with Clementine for my all-time favorite chapter book series. Atinuke, a Nigerian storyteller, weaves a series of interconnected stories about Anna Hibiscus, a charming little girl who lives in an extended family compound in Africa. (The country is never specified, but I suspect based on some of the details and the author's nationality that it is Nigeria.) The books are laugh-out-loud funny—Anna has younger twin brothers named Double and Trouble who are always a riot—but also does a phenomenal job at introducing difficult subjects in a gentle, age-appropriate manner. Years after first reading, we still use examples from Anna's stories to have discussions about big topics like grief or acting out. The only catch with this series is that it's from a smaller press and some of the volumes weren't in my library; I found them online for a reasonable price and ended up buying them all, and it's been a heartily worthwhile investment. The first book is called Anna Hibiscus.

The Sam series (ages 3+) by Lois Lowry: This is another you won't be able to get through without laughing! (Especially when you read Attaboy, Sam!) A classic chapter book series that follows Sam Krupnik from birth until preschool. I've read these multiple times and always enjoyed it! These do have slightly longer chapters, so you may have to split chapters between reading sessions. The first book is called All About Sam.

Everything Winnie-the-Pooh (age 3+) by A. A. Milne: My daughter was hardcore obsessed with Pooh from about 2.5-4 and listened to the casted audio recording of the complete stories dozens of times. They're fun to read aloud, but in this case, it's also totally worth hunting down that casted audio, which is phenomenal. (Also, Eeyore sounds strangely like Alan Rickman's Snape, which is weird but totally works.)

The Diary of an Ice Princess series (age 3+) by Christina Soontornvat: This is a newer chapter book series that appeals perfectly to fans of princess, magic, and cute animals! My daughter devoured these after she'd already learned to read, but they'd make great read-alouds for fantasy-inclined little ones too.

The Yasmin series (ages 3+) by Saadia Faruqi: This is a beloved family favorite! These are released both as early readers, and as chapter books with 4 of the early reader stories in each volume. Yasmin is fantastic, and her adventures are so much fun to follow. (AND the books often have corresponding activities at the end!) The illustrations in this are vibrant and honestly some of my favorite in kidlit, and I also love Yasmin's strong, supportive family.

The Princess in Black series (ages 3+) by Shannon and Dean Hale: These are zany, highly illustrated chapter books with short chapters, funny/easy-to-follow plots, and fantastic illustrations, which makes them perfect for kids who are little and just making the transition to longer read-alouds.

Anything by Dick King-Smith (ages 4+)! Especially Babe, The Water Horse, and A Mouse Called Wolf. We read these when my daughter was about four and she seriously could not get enough of them. She was spellbound through all the descriptions of village life and sheepdog training and what have you. Also, thanks to these books and the next suggestion, I once came upon her at age four putting her stuffed animals through an obstacle course—she proudly announced, "Look, Mama, I'm playing sheepdog trials!"

The Jasmine Toguchi series (ages 4+) by Debbie Michiko Florence: Jasmine loves to learn new things, and doesn't want to be bound by the limits others have set her! She's a great, spunky heroine readers can root for, and the books also provide some really fun peeks into cultural traditions for Jasmine's Japanese-American family.

Best-Loved Children's Stories (ages 4+) by James Herriot: This one is a solid win for animal-loving kids! It also has lovely, full-color illustrations, which are always a plus.

Big Foot and Little Foot (age 4+) by Ellen Potter: This one comes with a caveat; skip it if your kids don't handle spooky suspense well. These are some of the most charming chapter books I've ever read, but each book does have a period of time where the main characters are certain a terrifying monster is stalking them. In the end, each "monster" turns out to be a harmless and heartwarming misunderstanding, but my daughter didn't do well with the suspense and we had to stop reading the series. Nonetheless, I always recommend them for kids who do okay with spookiness, because they're just so cute!

The Two Dogs in a Trench Coat series (4+) by Julie Falatko: This series is absolutely absurd, zany, hilarious fun. Literally about two dogs in a trench coat who miss their boy so much they dress up and go to school as one student name Salty, these are laugh-out-loud reads for sure! The complete ridiculousness of the fact that nobody ever notices or suspects that Salty is, in fact, two dogs in a trench coat is what makes this series pure awesomeness.

The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes (4+) by Peter Brown: We listened to The Wild Robot on audiobook during a family road trip when my daughter was 4, and we were all completely spellbound. This is such a unique story, really like nothing else I've ever read. The depth of emotion, compassion, and thought-provoking moral questions make this one of those perfect reads for families with mixed ages. The exciting story is enough to capture the youngest kids' attention, while the nuance and philosophy give adults plenty to ponder.

The My Father's Dragon series (4+) by Ruth Stiles Gannett: I'm including this one largely because it is the #1 recommendation I found for chapter books to read aloud to little kids, back when I was searching. We did read all three books as a family when my daughter was about four, and enjoyed them. However, I confess that they're not my absolute favorites to read aloud; they're fun, but I felt like they didn't hold my family's attention as much as others. Your mileage, of course, may vary—since it's clearly a beloved favorite of many read-aloud families!

Charlotte's Web (5+) by E. B. White: I had actually, amazingly enough, never read this until I read it to my daughter when she was 4 or 5. I ended up being so sad that I'd missed such a wonderful book as a kid—except also happy that I got to experience it for the first time as an adult!

The Vanderbeekrs series (5+) by Karina Yan Glaser: These charming novels are reminiscent of classics like The Saturdays or All-of-a-Kind Family, but they spotlight a biracial family living in Harlem and include a beautiful array of diversity. These are some of our all-time favorite read-alouds, and now that my daughter is older she's reread them all herself multiple times. There was a solid year in there where all of her dolls were named after Vanderbeeker siblings. We're BIG fans in this house! (I actually think the third book in the series, The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, was our all-time favorite family read aloud.)

Dragons in a Bag and The Dragon Thief (5+) by Zeta Elliott: These are short reads and might appeal to younger kids as well, but some of the worldbuilding is a little complex and might be harder for small ones to follow. But this duology is a delightful lower middle grade pair about a conscientious, rule-following boy who accidentally gets sucked into a magical adventure involving misplaced dragons, time travel, other worlds, talking animals, and other mischief! Although we didn't read this one until my daughter was older, I think she'd have loved it a few years ago, as well.

The Pacy Lin series (5+) by Grace Lin: This series, which begins with Year of the Dog, was one we all really enjoyed reading when my daughter was about 5.5. The stories are loosely autobiographical, and Pacy's adventures and anecdotes are absolutely delightful. This series has strong appeal to kids who love slice-of-life books that are interspersed with stories from family members, somewhat similar to the format of the Little House books. (*whispers* but better!) I will never forget, nor stop being delighted by, the story about Pacy's dad practicing his golf serve in the hallway before their carpet is replaced.

The Ramona series (5+) by Beverly Cleary: This is a classic, and was one of our daughter's favorite for many years (especially on audiobook—she's listened to the entire 20-hour audio collection more than 10 times!) This one has longer chapters, so it's a bit better for the kids five and up, and just know you may have to pause in the middle of chapters as you read.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A Playlist for Beginners Welcome!

My second middle grade novel, Beginners Welcome, hits shelves in just a few short weeks. It's about an eleven-year-old girl named Annie Lee, who's struggling to find healing after her beloved daddy unexpectedly dies. Writing Beginners Welcome was an especially fun process, because I got to draw on one of my favorite things in the world: my own musical background.

Music has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started taking piano lessons pretty young, and when I was ten I picked up a cousin's violin and taught myself how to play "Minuet in G" in a few minutes—proving to my reluctant mom that yes, I DID need violin lessons. I studied violin seriously all through middle school and high school; in fact, at one point, I planned to be an orchestra teacher! Over the years, I've taught violin, tutored piano, composed music (I even had one composition place at the state level in a competition!), and been an orchestra assistant. In high school, I even got to conduct a local children's orchestra while they played a piece I'd written myself. It was a really cool experience!

In Beginners Welcome, music is the thread that connects Annie Lee to her daddy, even after he's gone. It's also the thing that helps give her the courage and strength to begin moving on after his death. Annie Lee meets an elderly pianist at the local mall, and through piano lessons with him, she starts to open her heart up to others once more.

Because music is such a big part of the book, I had to make a playlist for it—of course! Many of these songs are ones that I listened to as I worked on the book. Although I don't listen to music WHILE I'm actually writing, I'll often listen to it while I'm thinking about the book, outlining, or planning, to help get me in the right mindset. A lot of the songs on this playlist—like the John Denver ones or "Carolina in my Mind," by James Taylor—are songs that are directly mentioned in the book. (One of them happens to be Annie Lee's daddy's favorite song in the world, and the song she's named after... you might be able to figure out which!)

Other songs are the kind of dreamy, improvisational piano pieces that I imagined Ray the pianist playing during his improv sessions at Brightleaf Square Mall. There's a few on there, too, that are passionate, emotional pieces from the classical repertoire, the kinds I imagine Annie Lee and her daddy listening to together.

The final song on the playlist, "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen, was actually part of the inspiration for the story. In fact, the very first title Beginners Welcome had was How The Light Gets In, after a line in that song. I love the chorus of that one, and how it emphasizes the fact that beauty—and light—come from brokenness, rather than perfection. That's a message that Ray delivers to Annie Lee as she struggles through her piano lessons, and it's one that I hope readers take away from Beginners Welcome, too.

I hope that you enjoy this playlist as much I enjoyed putting it together!

(In addition to the embedded player above, you can access the playlist here.)

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Beginners Welcome pre-order giveaway!

Everything included in the pre-order giveaway!
(Note that some giveaway tiers may not receive all items pictured.)

One of my favorite things that I did to celebrate the release of Where the Watermelons Grow was holding a pre-order giveaway, so I knew that I wanted to do the same with Beginners Welcome! I see pre-order giveaways as such a wonderful way to thank YOU, my readers, for your support and enthusiasm for my books. Even heading into the publication of book two, it's absolutely mind-boggling to me to realize that real people out in the world have read, loved, and shared my books. This giveaway is a way to say thank you to each of you for your support!

Unlike the giveaway for Watermelons, the Beginners Welcome pre-order giveaway does not include entries for a grand prize. Instead, I've tried to make sure that each entrant will get something a little bigger and more special than the swag I offered with Watermelons. This time, I'm also offering a couple of different entry tiers, which I'm really excited about!

Something completely new included with this giveaway is a digital download of both sheet music and a recording of an original piano composition that I wrote to coordinate with the book. In Beginners Welcome, Annie Lee is entranced by elderly pianist Ray Owens and his skill for improvisational composition—something that I drew from my own life and my own love for piano songwriting! I'm really excited to share the digital downloads for the sheet music and recording for this song, and hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have.

What you'll get for pre-ordering BEGINNERS WELCOME through retailers other than Annie Bloom's

Here's what you can expect to receive if you enter this giveaway:

—Pre-orders through most retailers: Digital download of sheet music and recording for "Beginners Welcome" song; a signed bookplate; a BEGINNERS WELCOME bookmark; and a BEGINNERS WELCOME sticker.

—Pre-orders through Digital download of sheet music and recording for "Beginners Welcome" song; a signed bookplate; a BEGINNERS WELCOME bookmark; a BEGINNERS WELCOME sticker; and a music-themed elastic charm bookmark (colors and charm styles may vary, and not all elastic colors are shown in the photo).

If you pre-order through, you'll receive a music-themed elastic
charm bookmark in addition to the rest of the swag!

—Library order requests or holds (Only eligible through 2/11/2020): Digital download of sheet music and recording for "Beginners Welcome" song; a BEGINNERS WELCOME bookmark; and a BEGINNERS WELCOME sticker.

—If you are a teacher or librarian who pre-orders the book to share with your classroom: Bookmarks and stickers for one classroom's worth of students; a signed bookplate; and a personalized letter from me to your class. (Note that I can only send swag for one classroom's worth of students, even if you teach multiple sections.)

The giveaway will be open from now until one week after the book's release, closing on 2/18/2020. Mailed swag and digital downloads may or may not be sent until after the giveaway period closes.

To enter, follow this link to the Google form where I'll be collecting information! Also, please don't hesitate to enter if you've pre-ordered Beginners Welcome—everyone is eligible for this giveaway, even my friends and family. ;) Help me show my gratitude for your support!

Monday, November 4, 2019

I love sharing your friendship. I don't want to share your germs.

How I dress for church in the fall/winter
months to try to stay cold-free

For many years, I've shared a post about the importance of staying home when you're sick as soon as the first autumn colds start to circulate. As a cystic fibrosis patient, my immune system is compromised, and I have a tendency to pick up any viruses within a hundred-mile radius—at least, that's what it often feels like! Not only am I more likely to get colds and other illnesses in the first place, but those illnesses are nearly always much, much worse for me than for a regular person. What may be a case of the sniffles for you typically turns into a lung infection for me, nearly always requiring antibiotics and frequently requiring a hospitalization or course of home IV antibiotic therapy.

And don't even get me started on more serious viruses, like influenza, which can be a literal death sentence for CF patients. In 2007, while I was engaged, I caught the flu; I was almost immediately hospitalized, and ended up going into the hospital something like 7 times over the next 18 months. It took me at least that long, if not longer, to feel like I was back on my feet health-wise.

Every winter, I personally know far too many people with CF who die—and quite often, the infection that leads to their decline is caused by a cold, influenza, or other virus. And death is only the most dramatic result. Every winter, I also see far too many friends spending months in the hospital, enduring cycle after cycle of body-destroying extra-strength antibiotics, and, like me, finding themselves unable to engage with life at all because their strength is so totally zapped by dealing with persistent infections.

CF patients aren't the only population at risk, either. Cancer patients, transplant recipients, and medically fragile children and adults all can have life-threatening reactions to a virus that, for you, manifests as an annoying case of sniffles.

Every year when I blog about this, I get push back in two primary ways: from people with kids who are sick all the time, and from people who don't have the option of taking sick leave from work. I get that, I really do. I've been that parent before - there have been times where Kate was sick over and over for months in a row. And I understand, also, that there are lots of jobs where a worker is penalized or let go for missing work, regardless of the excuse.

In light of those issues, here are some things that you can do to mitigate the effect of your illnesses.

1. If you can stay home, do so. Postpone the shopping trip. Get takeout instead of eating at a restaurant. Stay home from church—truly. Church is one of the big danger zones for me, because people have a tendency to come regardless of how they feel. Really truly, you can nearly always find someone to fill in if you have something to do, and those of us with compromised immune systems will thank you. If you really cannot get out of a responsibility and must go sick, see #2 and #3.

2. Be honest. If you're going to a gathering where you know that someone with a compromised immune system (or a baby) will be, let them know how you're feeling. Describe your symptoms and let them tell you what they feel comfortable with. Work out a plan you both feel okay with.

3. Wear a cheap mask. You can get inexpensive disposable surgical masks at any drug store. Did you know that wearing a standard paper mask won't actually protect the wearer from viruses? That's why I don't wear one when I'm out during cold and flu season (I actually buy pricey fitted masks to help me stay safe in the winter, but that's not an option everyone has). However, what those paper masks do very well is protecting the people around you from your germs while you're wearing it. If you have to go out while you're still symptomatic, consider wearing one. Also, use hand sanitizer, wash hands frequently, try not to sit close to anyone else, and make sure to cover a cough.

4. Learn to tell the difference between allergies and a cold. If you or your kid has a stuffy or runny nose that isn't going away after several weeks but has never been accompanied by a fever, body aches, or a cough, it's probably allergies... But if that runny nose just started, give it at least a few days before deciding it isn't a cold. Contrary to popular wisdom, a clear runny nose is no safer than a green one, and it actually usually comes at the point when a cold is most contagious (ie the beginning).

Remember how Smoky the Bear said "only you can prevent forest fires"? The same might be said in this case: only you have the power to help make public spaces a safe place for those of us with compromised immune systems to be!