Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gotta love those banned books!

It's Banned Books Week! The American Library Association (ALA) is a good place to start if you're interested in finding out titles of some of the books that have been banned over the years.

Alice Pope has posted some good links on the CWIM Blog as well. I looked at Amazon's list of banned books for children and discovered I've read more of them than not. I love it! My all-time favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, is on the list, as well as other favorites. Where would I be without the Narnia books or the Little House on the Prairie series?

Do you have a favorite banned book on the list?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ogres Are Like Onions...

I haven't written much these past two weeks. My new job (yay!) involves co-teaching algebra, and assisting students taking virtual geometry and calculus classes. I love it, but my evenings have been full of numbers.

Lots of numbers. And then more numbers.

If Math were a guy, we'd be dating. He might even be meeting my parents.

Which is why it's lovely to play with words again.

Rachelle Gardner had a great post about proactive or re-active characters. I realized that in the beginning of the novel I'm working on, it's easy for me to let my MC fall into a reactive position. (No surprise to the Slushies- we've discussed this.) Now, part of that is because the story begins with my MC trapped in a completely new life. It can be hard to be active when your world's been upended. Sometimes, there's a period when you're just trying to get your bearings.

However, I think I've found a way to think about internal action. edittorrent had a great post on the layers of a character, using astrology as an example. I don't know diddly about astrology, but the idea is that each person has three aspects to them.

There's the sun sign, which represents their "core personality" and basic traits. I concentrate most often on this part of a character.

But then comes the interesting stuff. The ... (I'm looking back at the post- you really should read it.)

.... rising sign. This is what others notice about your character- first, second impressions. It also includes the persona your character wants others to see.

Then, finally, there's the ... (yes, I'm looking again)

... moon sign. This is what your character hides from others. It's what s/he doesn't want others to see. Doesn't mean it's bad, just something your character is embarrassed about. It's what makes your character blush or run for the hills.

Isn't that great? It really gave me another way to continue to wrap my brain around my characters.

And, bringing this back to active characters...

It gives me a way to keep my MC active. Even in a completely disorienting situation- when there isn't much physical action that can be taken- there can always be the tension between what she wants others to see and what she's afraid they'll discover- what even she is afraid to discover.

That sort of thing can make even the most basic conversation pop.

So what do you think? Do you like this way of looking at characters? What are some things that your characters are trying to project? What are they trying to hide? (I think that hiding part is my favorite.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book Review: The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate

Donna St. Cyr, author of The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate, sent us a copy of her book to review. This is our first ever book review on the blog.

The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate is a middle grade fantasy. It reminded me of Bruce Coville or The Spiderwick Chronicles because it begins with ordinary kids in our non-fantasy world. Robert Montasio is just trying to get through the day without getting into trouble, and without having to deal with his annoying little sister Janine. When Robert finds a mysterious bottle of Madame Gorgonzola’s Effervescent Elixer on the school bus, he’s curious, but the trouble really begins when Janine drinks it all. Robert, attempting to avoid more trouble with his overworked single mom, tries to hide this fact from her. But soon Janine begins shrinking, and it’s clear that something must be done to save her. It turns out the elixir is only a small part of the secret world of the Cheese Syndicate. What’s more, the members of the Cheese Syndicate seem to know what happened to Robert’s long lost dad. The only way Robert can save Janine is to find the Mystic Cheese of Eliki. Using only a field guide and an assortment of cheeses as weapons against the monsters of the fantasy world they have entered, Robert and Janine search for the rare lost cheese.

This story is fast paced, with very real stakes in an unreal setting. St.Cyr has created a unique world which draws on both classical mythology and tongue-in-cheek cheese jokes to make it adventurous and silly. Readers may recall better than Robert the rhymes he’s been given to help him, such as “the manticore flees at the smell of limburger cheese.” St. Cyr introduces lot of mythical characters in a short time, so younger readers may have some trouble keeping track of them all.

Robert’s uncertainty in his own abilities and desire to both do the right thing and stay out of trouble are universal. The sibling relationship between Robert and Janine is spot-on, as she alternately annoys him and helps him. His irritation with her becomes funny, especially when she is so tiny she is just a bossy voice coming from his pocket. Kids will enjoy the gross-out humor complete with stinky smells.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Remember over the summer when I was co-leading the girls' book group at the library? Our video of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is finally finished and up on YouTube. It's my first attempt at directing and filming. I can't take credit for the editing, and the actors speak for themselves. I know I'm biased, but I think they did a great job with only two meetings of an hour and a half each to write a script as a group and put the whole thing together.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Interview with Donna St. Cyr

Today the Slushbusters welcome Donna St. Cyr, author of the middle grade novel The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate. We’ll be posting a review of Donna’s book later this week. Meanwhile, for more information and a synopsis, visit Donna’s website.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? In what ways were the people in your life supportive of that?

I think the seed for writing was planted by my English teacher when I was a junior in high school. She often commented on my essays and stories, encouraging me to write more. That seed remained dormant for many years while I pursued life – marriage, children, and career. During those years I often thought about writing, but that was all I did. When I turned 40 I realized that if that dream was to become a reality I’d have to take some action. So, I took a writing course to help hone my craft and began the journey.

I didn’t tell anyone but my husband what I was doing until I actually sold something to a magazine. He was supportive from the beginning, often taking the children away so I could concentrate when I had a particular deadline. When I did sell my first magazine article, I was so excited I showed it to everyone at school. I was a school librarian at the time. My friends there were and continue to be a great support to me in my efforts.

A supportive group of friends is so important. What books from your childhood have you read and reread? Have you seen them differently sharing them with children or reading them as an adult?

The two series of books I’ve read multiple times are the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Their worlds are real to me and every time I enter them, I see something new. I believe classic literature is like that for anyone. It speaks to the child at one level and again to the adult at another – or many other – levels. In the case of these particular series, there is a Christian spirituality that underlies the fantasy worlds which is quite subtle (more so for Tolkien than Lewis) but it is there, waiting to be discovered when the reader is ready to see it. When I share them with children, I simply share the wonderful stories.

The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate involves a lot of silliness and absurdity that is apparent to the reader, but not always to the characters. Was it hard to figure out a way to preserve that and keep the story believable?

Funny you should ask that. The cheese story does require a great suspension of belief and it is goofy and absurd in quite a few places. The story kind of wrote itself once I got started. I don’t know that I intended to write a humorous story but it came out that way, partly because of the outrageous situations in which the characters found themselves. It’s been my experience working with children, especially with boys, that many of them love stories that run at a quick pace and are filled with adventure. For those particular readers craving action adventure stories, suspension of belief is usually a secondary concern. So, I don’t think I consciously stopped during the story to ask myself “Is this believable?” Rather, I asked myself whether my scenarios worked well in the incredibly unbelievable world I created. After all, there couldn’t possibly be a shadow world consisting of people made of cheese (and evil villains from various mythological traditions) hiding at the edge of your consciousness, could there?

I don’t know, there might be! I could be interested in visiting a shadow world where there’s a lot of good cheese. As you worked on your book, did you ever get feedback from children? If so, was it helpful?

My chief number one advisor was my youngest son. He read everything I wrote and gave me a great deal of feedback. He let me know when he thought something wasn’t working, gave me good advice on my character development, and was my first reviewer of the finished product. At the time he was squarely in the middle of my target audience age, a voracious reader, and a big fantasy fan, so I was happy to take his opinions. Now he wants some of the royalties!

What parts of your process do you work on alone and for what parts do you rely on the help of others, the community of writers? Can you talk a bit about the balance between the solitary writer's life and the social interaction that keeps us energized?

I develop my storylines and write the first drafts alone. After that, I run everything through my critique group. We line edit first drafts, then move on to editing the big picture – which is much more difficult. I could not have made the story a saleable product without their help. I cannot say enough about having your own “committee” to help you iron out the kinks in your manuscript.

The larger writing community is also incredibly important for support. From early support issues like “Where should I send this manuscript?” to later issues on marketing and promotion, reaching out to writers across the internet has been very helpful. There are not many children’s writers close to where I live, so I am grateful for the opportunity to share ideas with others across the country. The Class of 2k9 marketing group has been INVALUABLE. I would not have survived this launch process without them.

I will say, however, that the writer has to stand guard of his or her writing time because the social interaction with other writers develops a life of its own – and if you are a person with limited time to devote to the writing process, it is very easy to spend that time talking about writing to your friends rather than actually producing new work.

You've written shorter pieces in both fiction and nonfiction. The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate is middle grade fantasy. Is there another genre you would you like to attempt?

Yes. I’m working on a historical fiction novel. It is a topic dear to me because I come from French Acadian ancestry. It is a story that follows a young Acadian girl from the Grand Derangement – or Great Expulsion – of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755 to her eventual settlement in Louisiana some ten years later. It is a difficult story to tell – as there is very little that is positive in this particular piece of history – and it is difficult to write because I feel compelled to be as accurate as possible (and written records are pretty scant).

Of all the possible readers in the world, who would you most want to hear had read your book and loved it?

Any child, really. If one child reads my book and loves it, then it will have been a success. As far as adult readers go, my major professor from my graduate program in Library Science. She was an expert in children’s literature and taught me to love it. If she gave me the stamp of approval, I would be most gratified.

I imagine the goal of many authors is to write the book that is some child’s favorite. Is there any interview question you've been hoping someone would ask you, but no one has? What is it, and what is the answer?

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Answer: A veterinarian – I guess plans change.

I guess they do! Thanks for taking the time to visit with us.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Conference for Kidlit Bloggers

I just got word about The Annual KidLitosphere Conference in Washington, DC. Held in October, this conference is specifically targeted to help bloggers who focus on children's and young adult literature.

Their website has a ton of links to author blogs, children's literature review blogs, and miscellaneous kidlit related blogs, including several that I have followed for some time. There's some good stuff out there, so check it out!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How big is your world?

I think the world is shrinking. All our communications, social networks, professional and personal networks keep bumping into each other. Especially in our relatively small community, and when you factor in the children's literature folks. Twice in the past two days I've had a "small world" connection between people I know from the library and people I know from the kidlit world.

I can't be specific about either one, because they're both events-in-the-planning-stages that have very little to do with me. In both cases, someone from the library needed an author for a program and asked me about it. The first one had an author in mind whom I already know. The second asked me to suggest someone, and when I did, it was a person he knew but hadn't thought of.

I find this heartening. First, because it means that the authors and the library are connecting with each other, which is important. Second, because I am fascinated by the connections between people, and the whole six degrees of separation thing. I still love it that Alison and I discovered we had a mutual friend when I received e-vites to Alison's New Year's Eve party and our friend's New Year's Day open house, and I saw each of their names on the other invitation. Until then I had no idea they knew each other.

At what point in human history did people became more strangers than not? I mean, it wasn't long ago that most people knew everyone in their community, either by sight or by name or family. If a stranger came to town, people knew it. As time went on, there were more and more strangers. It's gotten to a point where, when you walk down the street or into a store, you're more likely to not know most of the people, if anyone, you see. Thousands of strangers come and go, and no one even notices. When did that happen?

So here's where I get to the writing portion of this musing: I've read great stories where characters who appear to have nothing to do with one another at the beginning actually have a history together. I've read stories that focus tightly on a small group of people who all clearly know one another. Then, occasionally, I read stories that seem to have a cast of thousands, and I wonder how the author made this clear without boring the heck out of us.

How do you deal with all the strangers in your stories? Do you bother to write in extras whose only job is to make your world feel populated? Or do you stick to the characters who have speaking roles?

Monday, September 14, 2009

I'm a bum

This is my I-should-write-something-but-haven't-the-time-to-be-original post. Like Newton, I'll stand on the shoulders of giants. Or at least other bloggers.

I've mentioned edittorrent before. They had a great post recently on resolving your story, and about how it's so important to tie that resolution to some action that your main character takes. As I work on my revising my own story, I'm trying to shape it with this sort of resolution as my endpoint.


Ooooh! As an hour or two later add-on, do any of you have insights into crafting good endings? What do you like? Dislike? I'd love to know.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Did you notice

the Book Blogger Appreciation Week widget over there on the right? It's voting time. Assuming you're reading some book blogs, as well as writing blogs, you may want to head over there and put your two cents in. You can link to their home page with the widget, or use this link to get directly to voting. Scroll down to the bottom of the ballot to see the complete shortlist of nominees and the links to their blogs.

If you aren't already following some of these blogs, the nominees are a great resource for finding new ones. If you're a writer, you are most likely a reader. Book bloggers can help you stay on top of what's good and what's being published, even if you don't have time to read it all. And really, who does? I'm constantly overwhelmed by my "want to read" list, and because I work at the library, the list grows every day. I can't tell you how many people return a book and tell me I have to read it, or ask if I've read a particular book they're considering. I could read all day, every day, and still never catch up!

Whoa, sorry about the tangent. Anyway, as we all know, there's strength in numbers. Your blogging community is sifting through the books for you, choosing which ones are worth your valuable time. The best way to repay them is through recognition.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Interview with author Edie Hemingway

“Like the best of children’s literature, Edith Hemingway’s Road To Tater Hill is timeless. The deep and universal emotions of pain and loss that her memorable, fully-realized characters share are as true today as they were in the story’s 1963 setting. Hemingway skillfully evokes the healing bonds of family and friendship in this sensitive, gracefully written tale—one that is sure to engage readers of any age.”--Joyce McDonald, award-winning author of Devil on My Heels, Shades of Simon Gray, and Swallowing Stones.

“Drawing on the author’s childhood roots, the heart of this first novel is the sense of place, described in simple lyrical words: the soaring mountains and the valley rippling outward “in waves and waves of fading blue,” like one of Grandma’s patchwork quilts. True to Annie’s viewpoint, the particulars tell a universal drama of childhood grief, complete in all its sadness, anger, loneliness, and healing.”--Booklist

I was the lucky Slushbuster who volunteered to interview Edie Hemingway, the 2k9 author of Road to Tater Hill. I was hesitant about volunteering, but my Slushbuster friends assured me that the authors were nice and that I would have fun. They were right! I began the process by doing some research. I started with the class of 2k9 web site, was then led to Edie’s personal website, and finally to a blog Edie contributes to. The more I read the more interested I became in the person who is Edie Hemingway. My research stirred up questions in me about Edie’s personal life, her writing, and her book. I sent her a bunch of these questions and asked her to pick her favorite eight to answer. When I got the answers back and read them, I was thrilled to discover a person who not only wrote a book that I want to read, but who also has feelings and life experience that connect with my own and who I would like call a friend.

1. Do you have a favorite book that is tied to a specific memory and can you share it?

I have so many favorite books that it’s hard to pick just one, but if I go back to my childhood, two books that jump right out for me are Calico Captive and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, both by Elizabeth George Speare. I read both of them the summer my baby sister was born prematurely and died, so, of course, I had to have my character Annie Winters read them, too. I guess I will always associate them with that summer, but, more than that, they instilled in me a love for historical fiction. Being able to travel to a different place in time and actually live that time period right along with the main character was an exciting thing for me, and I discovered that means of escape during that difficult summer. In my mind, even after I had finished a book, I went right along living the life of my favorite character as I imagined it would continue—that is, until I met another character whose life I wanted to live. It’s a great way to never get bored!

2. I read that you based your story on a memoir that you wrote about when your baby sister died. I was wondering if you could share something about your experience.

Years ago in a writing class, I had an assignment to write about a childhood experience that evoked strong emotion. The result was a 10-page essay about the experience of losing my longed-for little sister (I would have been just as happy with a little brother!). My mother had 4 miscarriages, so you can imagine how our family anticipated the birth of this baby when we thought everything was going smoothly with the pregnancy. I used this essay in one of the residency workshops during my MFA program at Spalding University, not really knowing what I’d ever do with it. The workshop leader and my fellow students urged me to turn it into a novel because of the strong emotional core of my story. At first I had a hard time separating myself from the main character, but my faculty mentor for that semester (Susan Campbell Bartoletti) suggested I switch from first person to third person as a way to step back and allow Annie to become a character in her own right. What great advice! Suddenly it was much easier to move into fiction and turn Tater Hill into a better story.

However, in my last round of revisions with my editor, she was urging me to dig a little deeper into the emotional color of the indoor scenes. That’s when I had one of those “aha” moments, and realized I needed to go back to first person. By then Annie was a strong fictional character, so I didn’t have that separation problem. Writing the novel was a cathartic experience for me, and I like to think of it more as a story of healing, rather than grieving.

3. I read that you live in a log cabin. I saw pictures of you climbing big rocks near your house and the picture of the dulcimer hanging on your wall. I am intrigued by these pictures of your life. Can you tell us a little bit about your life and how you ended up in a log cabin?

My husband and I live in a 1930s log cabin, Misty Hill Lodge, built from chestnut logs from the property before the blight. Even more amazing are the doors, which were salvaged from a steamship ferry that was part of the Chesapeake Bay Company from 1907 until 1930. Each door still has the original skeleton key with a leather tag inscribed with the room number and “S.S. City of Atlanta,” the name of the ferry. About 11 years ago, we were looking for a smaller house with more property. Misty Hill Lodge was the first place we looked, and we were hooked. It wasn’t just the cabin that drew us in, but also the 6-acre property, which includes 400 feet of rock cliffs across the top of Braddock Mountain near Frederick, Maryland. We have several trails up to the rocks, where I often go to write in my journal. Part of the instant attraction was the rustic, relaxed feel of the house with its huge open great room and massive fireplace, and part was the similarity of the property to the North Carolina mountains where I spent all of my childhood summers.

We did have to make some changes, since the house was only 1200 square feet and had no closets—only hooks on the bedroom walls for hanging clothes. The previous owners had used it for a weekend getaway. We have since built a master bedroom addition and have renovated the kitchen. We do love sharing our home with friends and family, and I teach monthly writing workshops here. It’s a perfect writers’ retreat!

4. How did you meet your husband? What is something that you really liked about him?

I met my husband, Doug, in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, which is also the area where my novel takes place. Believe it or not, my husband was my brother’s roommate, and we started out as good friends. We were both members of the hiking club, so we did a lot of outdoor activities, including rock climbing and spelunking, and just enjoying the mountainous surroundings. I think what I liked best about him then (and now) is that he didn’t talk too much, but when he did talk, he had something worthwhile to say.
Doug is the first and closest critiquer of my writing. Whenever I finish a chapter of whatever I’m working on, I read it aloud to him first, and I can count on him to be honest and give sound advice.

5. Whose advice has been the most helpful or brought the most change to your work?

This is a difficult question because I’ve had a number of people who give me very good feedback and advice. Two friends in particular, both of whom graduated from the Spalding MFA program in writing for children, are my most regular critiquers. One lives in Florida and the other in Michigan, so we send each other our work electronically and try to get together once a year for a weeklong retreat at the Floridian friend’s condo in Key Largo. (Not a bad place for a writing retreat!) They both are able to point things out that I’ve missed and have given me wonderful encouragement. I try to do the same for them.

I guess the thing that has brought the biggest change, or improvement, in my work has been to complete the brief residency MFA in Writing for Children at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Even though I had two co-authored published novels before I earned my MFA, I feel as if my writing has improved by leaps and bounds since then. The other change has been since I started teaching creative writing. Putting together a lesson plan or trying to explain an element of the craft of writing forces me to take a longer, closer look at my own work.

6. What does your daily writing life look like? Describe the discipline/routine.

Ha! Right now my daily writing routine consists primarily of book promotion activities. The expectation for what the author will do to promote a new book has changed drastically since my first co-authored book came out nearly 13 years ago! I’m finding it much more overwhelming than I expected, and I’m having trouble getting back to working on a new book. When I am in the writing mode, I work best in the mornings. If I’m on a roll, I don’t stop, but keep going so I won’t lose the flow. I do, however, like to stop writing for the day when I still have something more to write. That serves as kind of a hook (like the end of an exciting chapter) to draw me back into writing the next day. I also work best with a deadline. If I have too much open time and space, I tend to get distracted easily.

7. What is one of your favorite parts of your book? Why do you like it
so much and how did it come to be?

My favorite part of my book is the reclusive mountain woman, Miss Eliza McGee. Her character, including her mysterious background, is the only truly fictional aspect of the story, so I had complete freedom with her. I also am drawn to her sage advice in Chapter 12 (which I won’t explain too fully because I don’t want to give away the story). She says, “Reading and dreaming is what gave me the freedom to burst beyond those thick walls. It gave me the freedom to fly.” I didn’t really plan Miss Eliza’s character. She became so real to me during the writing of the book, that I followed her lead.

8. Of all the possible readers in the world, who would you most like to hear had read your book and loved it?

It’s hard to think of a specific person that I’d like to hear had read and loved my book, but it would be fun to know that some respected and revered authors, like Katherine Paterson or even Elizabeth George Speare (who is gone now) had picked it up to read. I think what I’d like more than anything is to know that it touched a child’s life enough for her to go on “living” Annie’s life in her mind the way I lived my favorite characters’ lives when I was 10, 11, or 12. I’ve had lots of feedback from adult readers, but not yet from child readers, so that’s what has me most nervous as Road to Tater Hill goes out into the world.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The difference between written and said: an experiment in humor

Last night at my book discussion group, the adult one, I said something funny. Thinking about it later, I wondered if it would have been funny on the page. I'd like your opinion, because I don't think everything that is funny in person is funny when it is written or retold. Hence the expression, "I guess you had to be there." Spoiler alert: we were discussing the Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and the conversation involves the ending of the book.

Book club friend: "I wanted a different ending. I wanted the dogs to save Edgar at the end. For once, I wanted the Disney ending."

Me: "So you wanted the dogs to save Edgar and then start singing?"

Group: Uproarious laughter.

OK, readers, did you laugh? Why or why not? In the moment I said it, my response was completely spontaneous. I didn't have time to try to be funny, and I was kind of surprised when everyone laughed, to the point that I felt myself blushing. Which then brings me to the question of, if something written is funny, is it because we haven't analyzed and edited it to death?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

And the winner is...

Robin! If you' send your mailing address to me at michellebe@embarqmail.com, I'll drop the Moleskine in the mail for you.

Thanks to everyone who participated! We hope to continue to get to know you better through your future comments and your own blogs.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

In honor of the new kids, our first giveaway

We've noticed a bunch of new followers in the past couple of weeks. Welcome to the group. Although participation is not required, we look forward to hearing what you have to say!

To encourage the spirit of writing that is the reason we're all here, I'm giving away a moleskine notebook. Writers should always carry notebooks, right?

To enter the drawing, leave a comment on this post before 6pm EDT on Wednesday. A winner will be chosen at random. This is the perfect opportunity for all the new kids to step up and introduce themselves. Where are you from? What are you writing? What else do you love to do?