The Grading System
A.....this means it's pretty darn good. A book we'd recommend to just about everyone we know.
B.....better than most. Not exactly Shakespeare for kids, though, if you get our drift.
C.....mediocre. Like the color beige, it didn't stand out.
D.....we didn't like it. There were more bad aspects than good ones.
F.....it reeked of badness. We read it over and over when we are in dire need of hysterical laughter.
F-.....We're pretty sure Dante had a circle of hell for the people who wrote these...and a lower circle for those who published them.
Monday, June 29, 2009
--John Paul II, Letter to Artists
Friday, June 26, 2009
(Read our original review at: http://thechildrensbookreporter.blogspot.com/2009/06/reporters-review-year-swallows-came.html)
The most enjoyable parts were working with my agent, Jennifer Rofe, and my then editor, Brenda Bowen. I had a lot of fun going through their comments and the copy edits. I kept thinking how fortunate I was to work with such great people and how they helped me to make it the best story it could be.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
"How many truly dramatic moments have you experienced?"
The answer (pretty uniform through my class): "Um...two? Wait, maybe three... No: one, I guess?"
Which elucidates an important point: while true-to-life stories often make the best books, writers need to be selective about which scenes and moments (and how long of a time-span) they choose to represent.True-to-life and actual life are not the same things.
There is a big difference between the scope of plot in a fantasy novel and a contemporary fiction novel--but the fantasy writers often have the easier job, or so it would seem... Hmmm...things are getting slow: look! a giant, presumed-dead mythical creature just appeared and tried to bite my head off!
Only one problem: that's not real plot. It is action, and gives the allusion of movement and progression, but does it really further the character's story? In a perfectly crafted plot (or so I believe), every moment of action should be working double- or triple-time: yes, it should provide action and entertainment, but it should also further the main character's development and preferably be a result (whether direct or indirect) of the character's choices. Lastly, it should be truly dramatic. It should be a moment worthy of being written because it thrusts the reader into the situation, makes you question what you would do there, pulls at your heartstrings, intrigues your intellect, makes you relive the moment in your dreams and daydreams for hours or days or weeks afterward.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Overall Grade: A
Groovy Robinson knows exactly what she wants: to go to cooking school; wear a tall, oval chef’s hat; learn the exact amount of time to cool a cake before frosting it; make lemon zest fall from her grater like confetti. And another thing: to keep her family together—even if her superstitious mother claims that the zodiac signs predict unavoidable failure. But when her father is arrested, her mother admits to turning him in, and Groovy discovers that his crime is gambling away her inheritance, all her dreams seem to crumble at once. It takes some sturdy friends, a handful of insight, and many trays of chocolate-covered strawberries to help Groovy along her path to understanding, forgiveness, and moving ahead.
Kathryn Fitzmaurice is a brilliant writer with a unique, but comfortable voice which practically propels you into her characters’ lives and fortunes. Every character, and every scene, is true-to-life and completely tangible, and the descriptions and metaphors of daily life are stunning. Once you begin reading Groovy’s story, I defy you to ever forget her.
Literary Quality: A
Plot: B+ (As a character novel, it is light on plot, but nicely constructed)
Descriptive Ability: A+
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A
Possibly objectionable topics*: broken families, superstition, gambling (However, these serious issues are dealt with in a subtle, graceful way, reminiscent of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie…they are serious, but not oppressive.)
Monday, June 22, 2009
-C. S. Lewis
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Believe it or not, I have a system. When I start any, and I mean any, new book, I will always read it at least half-way through, whether I find that difficult or not. Some great books just take a while to get started (for example, last year's A Curse Dark as Gold, reviewed here:http://thechildrensbookreporter.blogspot.com/2008/06/reporters-review-curse-dark-as-gold-by.html) and are worth the wait.
But, sad as it is (since many of these books are fair, to give them credit), I simply don't have time to read every book that comes out if it can't hold my interest. There are so many wonderful books being released that I want to turn my attention to them and give them the recognition they deserve. Even a "B" review here means the book was great in one aspect: it was interesting and entertaining, and should be lauded for being so...which is why I'm addressing this issue now.
I don't really enjoy writing negative reviews, quite frankly. Maybe in the future I'll actually review a book I wasn't impressed with...but, to be honest, that will probably only happen if the book is getting recognition it doesn't deserve and is truly poorly crafted--enough to really annoy me. I'm sure we can all think of a couple that fit that category...but I try to avoid them.
For now, though, enjoy the optimism. And enjoy reading these books numbered among the outstanding few!
Friday, June 19, 2009
The soldiers your parent serves with care about you, too, and they love it when you send your parent pictures and drawings and great stories about your life at home. All the ordinary stuff you do is like treasure to people far away, so send them lots of letters and play piano over the phone and send videos of the school play and tell about your cool science project. Everybody will be glad you did!
The hard part about the publishing process is how long everything takes. Even with an agent, it takes time to sell a manuscript. Once you have a publisher it takes months and often more than a year to get on the schedule and through the revision process. Once that hurdle is cleared it may take many more months to design the cover, copy edit, print and ship the books. Once your book is in stores, it’s months before you know whether or not you are making sales. It’s not that I wish things would speed up exactly. I’m glad my editor is committed to making sure I have enough time to write the strongest book I can. The cover and book design took a while, but the result is gorgeous! It’s just hard to wait.
It helps greatly that the one vocation supports the other. I’m a better writer for having a house full of children. I have insight into childhood I would not have if I were just recalling my own experiences. My teaching and volunteer work puts me in regular contact with children beyond the immediate circle of my family. Children are also very motivating. I have to be purposeful about setting aside a time and place for writing, so it motivates me to get work accomplished when I have writing time.
I also find the writing helps the mothering. Because I’m immersed in children’s books I’ve read most of the books my children love, and we have an easy avenue to talk about what is important to them. Literature at its best is an invitation to a conversation, and I love it that books are a way for my children and me to connect.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Overall Grade: A
Lucinda is the daughter of wealthy aristocrats, but when they die in a tragic carriage accident, Lucinda is taken in my her uncle-by-marriage and his cruel wife, the owners of a struggling goldsmithy. When Uncle dies, Lucinda is thrown out onto the streets—but fate brings her to the home of a kind, but mysterious woman reputed to be a witch…and it turns out to be Lucinda’s childhood home, as well. Throw in a charming thief, a down-to-earth prince, an immortal villain, and a magical stone that they all seem to be after—and you have the key ingredients for one of the most exciting Cinderella stories you’ll ever read.
The Amaranth Enchantment is gripping and fast-paced as well as romantic. Julie Berry is a master of thinking outside the box, turning a wonderful, but dog-eared, fairy tale into an original novel. Her plot was very clever, though at times the pacing of the events was slightly jarring. There are a few unbelievable moments at the dénouement—but they provide such a satisfying ending that they likely won’t bother anyone. On the whole, a very enjoyable, and highly recommended, read.
Literary Quality: A-
Plot: B+ (While the actual plot was brilliant, the way it was pieced together was occasionally sudden and, as a result, slightly confusing)
Descriptive Ability: A+
Believability of Characters: A
Believability of Situations: B
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+
Possibly objectionable topics*: child neglect/abuse, mild swears, some blood and violence
Monday, June 15, 2009
Friday, June 12, 2009
CBR: I've promised never to ask the ever-annoying question: "How did you get the idea for this story?", but there is another I just have to ask even though you probably get it all the time... In your research for FAT CAT, did you personally submit yourself to Cat's diet and lifestyle to see what it would be like?
RB: Oh yes, oh yes. And sometimes that was great—giving up all the processed food felt SO good for my body—but sometimes it was awful—giving up all the processed food felt SO sad for my little tongue. Face it, in real life there are definitely times when you need some tortilla chips and salsa and a few (or a dozen) cookies--book deadlines come to mind. I don’t know how other writers write without the proper dosage of salt, fat, and sugar. But overall, writing FAT CAT—and really, doing all the research for it ahead of time and during it—ended up convincing me to make a huge, lifelong change to the basics of my diet. I ended up where Cat does in the book, which was a big surprise to me, because that’s not at all where I thought we were headed when I first started writing it. That’s what I love about writing books: I end up changing myself as often as I end up changing my characters.
CBR: On a related note, did you actually come up with any of the great recipes Cat develops (which, incidentally, made my own meals while I was reading look like plastic in comparison!)? Any you'd be willing to share with us?
RB: I did try a whole bunch of fancy combinations, all using basic, unprocessed foods like whole grains and beans and veggies and such. I cooked a lot as I worked on the book, because I wanted Cat to be able to experiment with foods, and it’s hard for me to write that if I haven’t lived it. But I’ve found that what I keep coming back to now, post-writing, are the simplest of meals: roasted potatoes with salt and pepper, big honking salads, fresh homemade bread, oatmeal and bananas for breakfast. Pretty exotic, huh?
CBR: One of my favorite things about your story is the element of relationships that you developed and the amazing job you did developing true-to-life, lovable characters. Did people you know inspire the characters of Cat's friends and family?
RB: I love that question! Because I’m sure a lot of writers can tell you that they love slipping in family members and friends—it’s so sweet to be able to spend the day with fictional characters based on people you already love. Cat’s best friend, Amanda, is named after my niece and has a lot of her qualities. But the friendship itself is based on my own friendship with the same best friend I’ve had since I was a sophomore in high school. I’ve always felt that amount of unconditional support from her that Amanda and Cat give to each other. I HATE snarky girlfriends, and it was such a pleasure to write a relationship that felt warm and accepting and true. As for some of the other characters, I’ve given a lot of them names of my friends and family members, and based a lot of them on people I know. It’s always fun to have those people read the book and see if they’re able to pick themselves out!
CBR: A question for those of us out here who pray to be writers someday... FAT CAT was your second book; was it more or less difficult to write than your first?
RB: I’m so glad you asked this. Because I’m one of those classic cases where I spent YEARS—so many years—writing and rewriting the same first book. I’d send it off, have it rejected, rewrite it, send it off again—so much time given to that one book, because I thought that’s all I could ever write. Then I went to a writing conference where the speakers talked about writing multiple books every year—and making a good living as a writer. Until then, I didn’t realize you could even write more than one book a year—that certainly hadn’t been my experience. So I came home all fired up to try it—to see how quickly I could write another book. I sat down and wrote one in 5 weeks. Then took a little break and wrote another one in 6 weeks. They weren’t great art—they never sold—but they did teach me that (1) I have more than one story to tell, and (2) I’m able to start and finish books. Maybe this sounds simple, but that was THE hugest breakthrough I’d ever had. It completely built my confidence that once I begin a book, I can actually finish it—and finish it within a reasonable time (rather than after years and years). This is all a long way of saying that every time you write a book, it gets easier in some ways because you’ve just built up your confidence again with the previous one. Each book has its own fresh challenges, of course, but it’s fun to try to grow your skills with each book, and to know that when you begin, you’ll be able to work through to the finish. You’ve proven to yourself that you can do that. And then when you are finished, you’ll have yet another novel to send out there into the world! It may or may not be the one that gets published, but that’s okay, because you’re going to go write the next one, and that may be the one that begins your career. You’re not hanging everything on just that one novel you keep writing and rewriting.
CBR: Are there any new projects you're working on that we can hope to see soon?
RB: FAT CAT comes out this October, then I just finished writing my new novel, which I’m hoping will be out in spring of 2011. It all seems too far away. Let’s not speak of it yet!
CBR: Lastly, are there any questions you always wish you'd be asked that you'd like to have a shot at here? :)
RB: Yes, as a matter of fact: “What would you like the aspiring writers out there to know?”
1. There is room for all of us, and if you have stories to tell, please tell them. Don’t give up!
2. Be kind to your fellow writers, both aspiring and established. Don’t give in to snark. Remember that there are actual human beings behind the books you’re reading, and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. You may not understand that until you’re on the other end of a mean review or a comment, but trust me, there is such a thing as Writer’s Karma.
3. Read a lot. You’d be surprised by how much you can learn from reading how other people do it.
CBR: Thank you so much, Robin! We can't wait to see your book on the shelves.
RB: Thank you for this interview! What fun!
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Reality check: authors are real people. Really cool people, granted, but quite approachable and, indeed, mortal and tangible. They’re not abnormal, they’re not weird, and they’re not gods on earth. Their creativity and perseverance certainly makes them worthy of our admiration, but the truth is they really don’t want to be isolated from society simply because their name is in print.
There a couple ways to get over this problem… First of all, we highly recommend seeking out and attending book signings and presentations by your favorite authors. It is a great way to see just how real and likable many authors are—and a good chance for them to meet admiring, but not crazy/worshipping, fans. Did you know that Gail Carson Levine is really cute…and really short? Or that Linda Sue Park loves babies? Or that Jeanne DuPrau is very sweet and shy? Or that Norton Juster used to get picked on in the Navy because he was drawing dragons and castles everywhere? All true—all memories we will keep forever of the chances we had to meet these gifted people.
But meeting an author in person isn’t always possible… so we are happy to announce that we are about to begin a new tradition on this blog: author interviews! Our inaugural interview will be with the delightful Robin Brande, author of the upcoming novel FAT CAT. So stay tuned to meet some cool real people…even if it’s not in the real world…
And a couple addendums…
To readers: please feel free to share your favorite author stories here!
To authors: We always love to hear from you, whether in response to a review or just to comment and say hi. And if you’d like us to review your book and/or feature you in a future author interview, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. (We have a particular soft spot for debut authors, as well, so don’t be shy. :)
Overall Grade: A
Jane Taylor can remember the day, when she was only four, that her life changed: her medium mother seemingly contacted a spirit “from beyond”; her family was caught in a freak earthquake caused by the odd and genius scientist Nikola Tesla; and her mother decides to move her family of five daughters to the little town of Spirit Vale, New York, inhabited entirely by those hoping to make their living through the new fad of spiritualism. For the next twelve years, Jane’s life is stuck in this surreal setting, until she runs away with her older sister Mimi to interview the great Tesla for a journalism contest. The trip is life-altering, to say the least: Jane meets her hero,Tesla; she falls in love with his handsome assistant; and Mimi runs away to be the companion of Ninette Aubart, the beautiful and wealthy mistress of Benjamin Guggenheim, wealthy business magnate. Once introduced into this new world, the Taylor sisters follow on a path that leads their whole family, and many of those they love, to face their lives, and possible death, on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
Distant Waves is a very enjoyable read, skillfully blending elements of historical fiction, romance and fantasy almost seamlessly. Suzanne Weyn did a laudable job connecting the reader to the various characters and their dilemmas; the character changes were always tied so closely to the ever-moving plot that it was impossible to lose interest in their lives for even a second. Only on reflection after finishing did we realize that a few situations and character decisions were fairly unbelievable—the story is so engrossing that they won’t be bothersome to any but the most analytical and critical (which, we fully admit, we probably are). Especially considering how many Titanic stories are out there, this novel was refreshing and original—and surprisingly uplifting—so don’t be afraid to pick this up even if you, like us, dread the tragic ending.
Literary Quality: A
Descriptive Ability: A
Believability of Characters: B
Believability of Situations: B
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+
Possibly objectionable topics*: many attempts (mostly fake but a couple real) to contact the dead through “spiritualism”; a couple in an adulterous relationship