See You at Harry’s: A YA Must Read

See You at Harry’s has been on my radar and on my TBR list for a few months now, thanks to my Nerdy Book Club friends via Twitter. I had to wait a few weeks after buying it last month before I could read it, but it was totally worth the wait.

I have been a big fan of Jo Knowles for a while now and loved her novel Lessons from a Dead Girl. You can read all about it here.  As I read See You at Harry’s, I began wearing various hats: mother, young teenage girl, sister, and writer. I experienced a slew of emotions as I continued reading, sometimes stopping because I had to catch my breath and let my eyes rest—not from strain, but from tears and swelling.

I feared I would run out of tissues.

This book touched my heart in ways not many books do. Knowles has an incredible talent for writing, and for getting to the heart of things, for tapping into our emotions, grabbing them, and not letting go. Not even when the book is finished.

As a writer I always wonder how other writers craft scenes that tear your heart out, and I wondered this over and over as I read See You at Harry’s. I wondered how Knowles captured such raw emotion and handled it in such a genuine and delicate way. I marveled at how she handled such sensitive issues and captured the essence of this family, which could be anyone’s family really.

I want to be like Jo when I grow up. She’s freakin’ awesome.

Whatcha Reading?

So it looks like I’ve been neglecting you again. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about you, because I have. A lot actually. Please forgive me for not taking better care of you.

Well, I’ve been posting quite a bit on Facebook, Twitter, and my brand new writer/author page (also on Facebook) lately about some great books that I’ve recently read and/or have recently received in the mail and just started reading (or will be reading soon), and I thought I’d share them here as well.

What I’ve read in the last couple of weeks:

First up is John Green’s Looking for Alaska. This is John’s first published novel, and it is pretty damn amazing. John is also the author of the brilliant The Fault in Our Stars, which I read earlier this year.

Next up are a couple of short stories: Unstrung by Neal Shusterman and Ryann in the Sky by Jammie Kern. (Jammie NOT as in pa-jammies, but as in Jamie with an extra “m.”)

Unstrung is an interlude between Unwind (my favorite Shusterman book to date) and Unwholly (book two in the Unwind trilogy), which is due out August 28, 2012     *squeeeeee!!!!*

Ryann in the Sky is a cool modern spin on the myth of Orion and is part of a forthcoming anthology of short stories entitled Mythology High. Jammie has two additional short stories that will also be a part of this anthology, and I’m anxious to read them!

                        

What I’m reading now:

I’m juggling a few books right now: two for grad classes (The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskill) and two for fun. I’m reading Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford in anticipation of meeting him at the KATE (Kansas Association of Teachers of English) conference in October and Danny’s Mom by Elaine Wolf. Danny’s Mom isn’t due for release until November 1, 2012, so finding an advance reading copy in my mailbox earlier this week was a happy surprise. I’ll post a review later this fall.

                  

What I’ll be reading in the not so distant future:

Drum roll please……

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles! I’ve been so anxious to read this book, and my friend Kelly who lives in Indiana tells me I better have lots of tissues handy as I read. Don’t worry my friend, I do.

 

So, what are YOU reading?

Music: Even Characters Have Their Own Playlists

Last week over at Teachers Write! camp, one of our writing prompts involved using multimedia to help us with character development. The guest author supplying this prompt is Julie Kingsley, and one thing she suggested doing is choosing songs that reflect your character inside and outside—really find songs that represent the character.

The cool thing about this prompt was that I was already doing this, but this prompt really helped me see how doing things like this give our characters depth they may not have had before. It will also help readers connect to these characters in unique ways, which is great for establishing an audience.

I discovered that my main character, Lauren, has an eclectic taste in music, ranging from Taylor Swift style country to 80’s bands like AC/DC and The Cure, and John Hughes movie soundtracks (think Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller, and The Breakfast Club—NOT Uncle Buck).

Lauren also likes Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Etta James. She likes early U2 and The Smashing Pumpkins; she even insisted I download $9.90 worth of songs from Rotten Apples, The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits, which I did. (Lauren and her Muse are pretty of bossy, you see.)

I discovered she’s not crazy about Journey and Foreigner, and she hates 80’s hair bands, much to my chagrin. I’m not sure where I went wrong here…

BUT, she does love Adele, The Fray, Fleetwood Mac, and The B-52’s.

Whew! I’m not sure I could’ve taken it if she didn’t. Seriously.

I’ve since created a few playlists for Lauren and I listen to them as I work on this novel, and I’ve been amazed at how much easier it is to capture her and her story. I would encourage you to do the same. It really does make a difference!

I’ve yet to share any excerpts here, so I decided to share a short (and fairly unrevised) excerpt from my current work-in-progress, a young adult novel tentatively titled Closer to Nirvana. I think this excerpt does a decent job of illustrating how weaving in a character’s musical tastes can add to character development.

The longer I sit here thinking, the more pissed off I get. I slip in my earbuds and turn on my mp3 player. I never did see the sense in spending all that money on an iPod. I am so not an Apple girl. Nope. Just your average run of the mill mp3 player for me. Within seconds, the melodic sounds of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” fill my ears. I take some deep breaths and wait for that edgier guitar that comes in about half-way through the song. That’s how I’m feeling these days…edgy. And I hate it.

I sit with my eyes closed, listening to the music. Feeling the music. My body begins to relax, and the tension reducing sounds of 311’s covers of classic Cure and songs by Coldplay certainly do the trick. I’m feeling less irritated now, and I can’t help thinking of that adage about music soothing the savage beast. I can’t help snickering a little at that thought. God knows I’ve had some beastly moments lately.

I still can’t believe I bit my mom’s head off like that over something so stupid. I never do that. I mean never. I know she was only trying to help me get organized for school, and it was just a stinking comforter for crying out loud. And my apology was so lame. I’ve got to figure out a way to make it up to her.

I’ll figure it out. I will.

I open my eyes and notice the time. It’s lunchtime. My stomach grumbles on cue, so I decide to heat up some Spaghetti O’s in the microwave. I take a few bites and I’m surprised by the sweetness of the tomato sauce. Has it always been this sweet? I’m pondering this thought as a Taylor Swift tune shuffles in. Normally, I would welcome Taylor, but right now, I’m simply not in the mood for her or anything soft and gushy for that matter. It’s an easy fix. I skip that song and the next three. I stop skipping songs when I hear “Cherub Rock,” another Pumpkins tune. There is something calming about this music. It makes it easier for me to think somehow.

It’s still pretty rough, I know, so be gentle.  🙂

When a Book Grabs You and Doesn’t Let Go

As a teacher, I really look forward to two things in the summer: 1) getting to read A LOT, and 2) getting to write A LOT. Okay, so I actually look forward to more than just these two things during the summer (I do love not having to answer to the alarm clock most days).

I am a self-proclaimed bookaholic, which my husband and children will attest to, and I bought a book (Lessons from a Dead Girl) a few months ago that had been on my ever-growing To Be Read (TBR) list. I lost track of the book between taking it to school and bringing it back home again, so when I found it again a few days ago I was excited to finally be able to read it.

Here’s a quick review of Lessons from a Dead Girl, a damn fine book written by one of my Teachers Write! mentors, Jo Knowles.

From the book jacket:

Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.

Lessons from a Dead Girl focuses on Laine, and how she reconciles the death of Leah (her former best friend for life) and the guilt, hatred and shame she felt as a result. The friendship they shared was convoluted, unforgiving, and binding; bound by secrets fueled by years of abuse in various forms. Laine struggles to understand why Leah does the things that she does to her—why she abuses her and their friendship—over and over again. It isn’t until the night of the fatal accident that Laine learns the horrible truth behind the abuse. After the tragic accident that claims Leah’s life, Laine begins to piece everything together and discovers their story has two victims.

Jo Knowles wrote a difficult story, a story which clearly needed to be written. This story grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I had finished the very last word. I read this book in one sitting, which is something I hadn’t done since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I couldn’t stop reading. The characters of Laine and Leah were real and flawed and masterfully created. Knowles did an amazing job crafting Leah, and try as I might, I just couldn’t hate her. Instead, my heart broke for her. And for Laine. But most of all, for all the kids who have suffered in silence, bound by secrets.

Thanks, Jo, for writing a story that needed to be told and for giving me the inspiration to do the same.

It’s CAMP Time!!

I had the most fortunate accidental meeting of author Elaine Wolf on Facebook through a mutual friend (none other than Mr. Paul W. Hankins), that has resulted in a developing friendship of mutual respect and support. Elaine is the author of CAMP, a brand new YA novel which she graciously sent to me complete with autograph!! *insert SQUEEEE here*

Although I couldn’t get to reading CAMP right away, my daughter Keri snatched it up and read it in a matter of hours (she devours books almost as fast as I can get them into her hands) and loved it. I started reading it on Sunday and finished it last night in the wee hours of the morning. It was worth losing sleep over.

From the book jacket:

A coming-of-age novel about bullying, mothers and daughters, and the collateral damage of family secrets.

Every secret has a price.

For most girls, sleepaway camp is great fun. But for Amy Becker, it’s a nightmare. Amy, whose home life is in turmoil, is sent to Camp Takawanda for Girls for the first time as a teenager. Although Amy despises spending summers at home with her German-immigrant mother, who is unduly harsh with Amy’s autistic younger brother, Amy is less than thrilled about going away to camp. At Takawanda she is subjected to a humiliating “initiation” and to relentless bullying by the ringleader of the senior campers. As Amy struggles to stop the mean girls from tormenting her, she becomes more confident. But then her cousin reveals dark secrets about Amy’s mother’s past, setting in motion a tragic event that changes Amy and her family forever.

Camp is a compelling family drama that will resonate with a wide teenage readership. It will be a strong addition to recommended reading and summer reading lists, and it is appropriate for anti-bullying programs. Mostly, though, Camp is a mother-daughter story for mothers and daughters

Here are my thoughts:

The afore mentioned Mr. Paul W. Hankins says he thinks CAMP will be the “sleeper hit” of 2012, and I think he’s absolutely right about that. I hope word of this well written debut YA novel spreads very quickly so that multitudes of people read it and share it, particularly via social media. We all know the power of social media.

A couple of days ago, Elaine posted a picture on her Facebook of a display table her book was on at the Barnes and Noble where she was doing a book signing. One of the books on that table was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. After reading Elaine’s book, I see why both books were on the same table. I don’t want to give too much away from either book, but I will say I see a common thread among both books: huge secrets kept under the guise of protection that lead to devastating truths.  I also see a quite obvious pairing with Dear Bully: 70 Authors Share Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones.

The main focus of this story is how the narrator Amy Becker deals with despicable bully Rory at sleepaway camp (Camp Takawanda) and finds sanctuary in new friend and ally Erin. But the story runs much deeper than that. There is also the undercurrent of the classic mother/daughter struggle at play here, but with a twist: Amy’s mother is a German immigrant with a past too painful to share with her daughter, which drives a deep wedge between them. As I read the final chapters of CAMP, and the secrets revealed themselves, I thought of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which chronicles a similar mother/daughter struggle complicated by a secret past from another land.

Mother/daughter relationships are complicated (I have three lovely daughters, by the way) and beautiful and sometimes hard. I think this book can create and provide a path for more open communication between mothers and daughters. We mothers most likely have things in our pasts that we may not want to talk about with our daughters, which is probably an indication that we really should.

Two Kids, Some Gravity, and A Messenger

I didn’t realize how long it had been since I have talked YA lit and shared some thoughts on the matter. If you’ve been following along over the last couple of weeks, you know I’ve been talking up #TeachersWrite and have been pouring a lot into my writing. I’m still doing that writing thing (and loving it, btw), but I’m also still reading a lot of fabulous YA lit.

In case you’re wondering why I read so much YA lit (even while working on my own), I read it for three reasons: 1) because I LOVE it!! 2) to make good recommendations to my students, and 3) reading good YA lit helps me be a better writer of YA lit.

I finished two gems in the last week or so: The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner and I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak.

First up is The Pull of Gravity. I really love a good coming of age story, and this one fits the bill. I LOVE the two main characters: Nick Gardner (the narrator) and Jaycee Amato, who are very real and with whom readers will easily identify. Plus, its many references to Star Wars and Yoda will appeal to Star Wars fans, and I really dig the incorporation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (which makes it a great mentor text). *Good job, Gae!!*

Here’s a small excerpt and synopsis from Gae’s website:

“Nick? Yes or no? Are you in?”
I shake my head at how crazy it all is, but even as I do, I know.
“Jaycee, why are you even asking? Do I really have a choice?”
“No,” she smiles, “No choice at all.”

While Nick Gardner’s family is falling apart, his best friend, the Scoot, is dying from a freak disease. Enter Jaycee Amato, a quirky girl with Siberian-husky eyes and an odd affinity for Of Mice and Men. She’s made a seemingly-impossible promise to the Scoot, and wants Nick’s help to keep it.

Armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, the beauty of Steinbeck, and the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set off on a secret, whirlwind journey to find the father the Scoot has never known. When everything goes awry, will the pull of gravity be enough to keep them together?

And hey! Check out the book trailer!


The Pull of Gravity is a coming-of-age story about friendship, first love, and the true nature of family.

 

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak is quite different from his other AMAZING book The Book Thief. One thing that is similar, though, is Zusak’s ability to make words form sentences and phrases that I wish I’d written myself.

Meet Ed Kennedy—underage cabdriver, pathetic cardplayer, and useless at romance. He lives in a shack with his coffee-addicted dog, the Doorman, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first Ace arrives. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. . . .

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary), until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Book Trailer!!

Happy reading and I’ll catch ya later!

Get Off Your Butt and WRITE!!!!

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other. I’ve been a bit busy with the winding down the school year, my son’s high school  graduation, school events, etc. School is now out for me, so the spinning of my head has slown down a bit.  Here’s what’s on my mind right now, so let’s get to it. Shall we?

I was reading my new Twitter/Facebook friend Gae Polisner’s blog today when a realization whompped me upside the head: I dream of the day when I get invited to be a part of a book festival! Oh, wait! That will require me to finish my book and find an agent and get published and… *cue the Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away voice saying, ARRRGGGG!!!!*

Sheesh! That’s not a tall order or anything. It just means I’ll have to get off my butt (actually it means I’ll have to get off the Interwebs and TV) and focus, focus, FOCUS on FINISHING my book!

Here’s the deal: I started off really strong last summer and pounded out a good 12,000 or so words over the course of 2-3 weeks. That might sound impressive, and I guess it kinda is, but since then, I’ve only added another 3,000-4,000 words or so. You do the math. No matter how you add those words together, they don’t add up to a finished draft, much less a finished novel.

In my defense, I do have four kids, all of whom have been in school, I’m a teacher, wife, mother to two dogs, and a student. I am a very busy person. But still… I lament a great deal about not having enough hours in the day to do all the things I need to get done, when the truth is you make time for what’s important to you. I manage to find time to plan and grade my students’ work,  read all the amazing YA books I love (although that is truly a part of what writers do), and I ALWAYS find time to watch NCIS.  ALWAYS.  So…why can’t I find time to write? Why can’t I find time to finish this manuscript (wow! I’ve never referred to my novel as a manuscript before), which is very important to me?

Why indeed? What IS stopping me? I’m pretty sure it isn’t one single thing. No, I’m pretty sure it’s more like seventy-two  things. Mostly, though, I think it’s fear. Fear of success and fear of failure. Fear that I won’t be able to piece it all together because I’ll run out of words or I won’t be able to connect with the right agent/publisher/audience. I mean, who’s going to want to take  a risk on this Kansas girl no one has heard of?

Then I wonder if my YA writing idol Laurie Halse Anderson ever had similar worries. Or Neal Shusterman? Jay Asher? Gae Polisner? Suzanne Collins? You know her. She wrote those Hunger Games books. You know, the WILDLY successful Hunger Games books!! So. I guess it’s really possible that someone out there will someday be willing to take a chance on me and my manuscript. Once it’s finished, that is…

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