Author Archives: JenGenn

What to Read When You Want to Write

Do you have a book in you? When people hear I am an author, they often want to tell me about their story ideas. I listen, and then as soon as I can I suggest they join the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There is no better group to understand the basics of writing, revising, submitting, and publishing.

SCBWI just had its huge annual conference in Los Angeles. I didn’t make it but I always pay attention. You can read what happened by searching the hashtag #LA15SCBWI or reading the official blog (which is where I gathered the following quotes).

If the conference is out of your budget, start local and small (there are chapters everywhere). Another way is to read the books by the authors who were invited to speak. These authors and their works are respected for a reason. Here are three middle grade authors to read:

crossoverKwame Alexander has written many books, and his latest, The Crossover, won the 2015 Newbery Medal and received five starred reviews. In this middle grade novel in verse, twins Josh and Jordan must come to grips with rivalry, growing up on and off the basketball court, and the health of their father, their coach.

Alexander led a rousing interactive speech that included this poem:

hustle dig/grind push/run fast/change pivot/chase pull/aim shoot/play hard/practice harder/work hardest!

Goose-GirlShannon Hale is the New York Times best-selling author of fifteen children’s and young adult novels, including the award-winning The Goose Girl. It’s a retelling of the classic Grimm tale in which Ani eventually uses her own special ability to speak to animals to find her way to her destiny.

Reading novels creates empathy, Hale said at SCBWI, and we are asking boys to live in a world that is 50 percent female while telling them not to read books about girls. We need to give books about girls to boys, and say, “I think you’ll like this book because it’s funny, etc.”

TheGreatGreeneHeistVarian Johnson is the author of The Great Greene Heist, an ALA Notable Children’s Book Selection, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and a Texas Library Association Lone Star Reading List selection. It’s the story of Jackson Greene, who has changed his ways, but when his nemesis runs for school president against his former best friend, he pulls together a crack team to make sure the election is done right.

I’ll let Johnson have the last word: If you want to write a children’s book, do it. As he said at SCBWI, “”It’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. But it doesn’t have to be impossible.”

Jennifer Gennari is the author of My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer, a 2013 ALA Rainbow List selection.

Blue Birds: Insights from Caroline Starr Rose

BlueBirds_CVCaroline Starr Rose is a former history teacher and author of the starred novel in verse, May B. Her new historical middle grade novel Blue Birds (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group USA, 2015) is set in 1587. It’s the honest and gripping story of Alis, one of the unwelcome English settlers on Roanoke Island. Kimi, a member of the Roanoke tribe, has lost both her father and her sister to violent attacks from the colonists. Despite language and mistrust, the two girls find friendship.

MUF: History clearly inspires you. When do you turn from research to story?

CSR: I am not an author who is oozing with plots and characters. Instead I start with an era or event that I want to explore, and I trust ideas will start to grow out of what I’m learning and from the “what if” questions I pose. I need to immerse myself in my study until I feel confident with the material. By the time I start thinking of story, it feels like a natural outgrowth of the history I’ve learned.

MUF: Alis is a brave girl, but also of her time, with chores and children to watch. And yet she is drawn outside of the protection of the settlement to the friend she has made. Tell me about building the tension Alis feels between the two worlds.

CSR: A large part of Alis stems from my exploration of my own experiences as a girl and teen. I moved back to the U.S. at the age of six, after three years in Saudi Arabia. I knew little about my own country or culture and was very much an outsider. My fifteenth year I spent on exchange in Australia. Again, when I came home, what was supposed to be familiar was actually foreign. I wanted to watch a similar tension grow in Alis, wanted her to be drawn into a new world but also come to see her own culture as an outsider might.

MUF: You really capture Alis’ joy in the natural world. I loved the wood carving and learning the word for blue bird, iachawanes. What was your inspiration?

CSR: Author Lucy Maud Montgomery was the inspiration behind Alis’s love of nature. Readers will know her as the author of the Anne Shirley and Emily Starr books. While both these characters deeply love nature, I would argue L.M. Montgomery was even more under its spell. (I’ve read her five-volume journal twice now and plan to do so every ten years. They’ve become a huge part of my writing and reading life.)

Iacháwanes was tricky. I wanted to find an animal indigenous to the Outer Banks that both girls might have encountered and that also had a known Algonquian counterpart. Because the Algonquian dialect the Roanoke and Croatoan spoke is now dead, there were a limited number of words to pick from. The eastern blue bird — iacháwanes — is actually the third bird I picked! When I found Governor John White’s beautiful watercolor (see here), I knew this was the bird my girls connected over.

MUF: You remain true to the terrible and violent history of what happened to both Native people and the white settlers but in a way that won’t frighten young readers. Did you struggle with that?

CSR: An unvarnished picture of history, one that doesn’t try to explain the ugly parts away, is always most impactful. I was worried some of these heartbreaking events might frighten young or especially sensitive readers, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t hide from what really happened. These young characters couldn’t, and I couldn’t do that to my readers, either. That said, I’m happy my publisher chose to label the book as “10 and up” rather than the typical middle grade 8-12.

MUF: There is a demand for diverse books, and yet it’s hard to write across cultures. How did you address describing the Roanoke experience?

CSR: Honestly, it was a very challenging, sometimes scary experience. I’m a non-Native author. I’ve written about two tribes that no longer exist, groups who left no written record and are the subject of very few reference materials. Have I gotten things wrong in some places? I’m almost positive I have. But I tried my very, very best to work with what I knew, as was absolutely my responsibility. It was also important to find a reader from the Lumbee tribe (possibly the modern-day descendants of the Croatoan) who was able to vet my work.

Ultimately, I had to trust my life experiences — I’ve been a girl, I know how profoundly friendship can shape a person — gave me a measure of authority to write about a character far different from me. Writing is a risky endeavor. There’s no room for playing it safe.

MUF: Verse expresses beautifully the connection between Alis and Kimi, especially when there are so few words they share in common. Why did you choose to write in verse?

CSR: I knew from the start this book would be in verse, partly because that’s what I’m comfortable with, partly because I find it such a great way to write historical fiction. Verse gives a reader immediate access to a character and her world. The extraneous is stripped away.

Once I realized the story needed to be told in both girls’ voices, verse added another layer of communication through stanza and line placement on the page. As the girls are drawn together, the words are, too. Verse is magical this way.

MUF: You have a picture book out soon too! Will you continue to write novels in verse?

CSR: Yes! Over in the Wetlands releases this July. Though my next historical novel, a story about the Klondike Gold Rush, is written in prose, I definitely will write verse again. I’m learning to listen to the best way a story can be told. Ideally I figure this out before I begin drafting!

What’s on Your Shelf

Sometimes a book is so delicious, borrowing it from the library isn’t enough. You want to own it – to reread it, to share it with children, friends, strangers (“Looking for a book about dragons? Have you read…?”). When I need the comfort of a hopeful story, I reread Sarah, Plain and Tall. And when I need adventure, I reread My Only May Amelia.

If you are an aspiring writer, books are essential. I don’t know any successful authors who aren’t voracious readers with groaning, overflowing bookshelves. And who hasn’t slipped away from a party to study the spines in the host’s home?

So today I give you a virtual snoop of my bookshelves, with a focus on middle-grade stories. I wandered around the house, up and down, snapping these shots.

An old favorite:

DragonSongDo you have a book that just takes you away? For me, that is Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey. Menolly, a talented musician, was misunderstood by her family, and makes friends with fire lizards. This story always had a dash of feminism that made me root for Menolly. And oh wonderful when she finds herself among people who love her and her “twiddlings.” 

A new one:

RhymeSchemerPublished this year, K.A. Holt’s novel in verse Rhyme Schemer is told from the point of view of a bully. Kevin picks fights, makes fun of the principal, and defaces pages in the library. It is the librarian who helps him turnaround. How? The found poetry is a clue, and the sweet way Kevin’s relationship with his brother improves feels so true.

Something sad:

OneForMurphysIf you need to cry for emotional release, just read Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys. This is the story of Carley, who is a foster child, struggling to bury her feelings toward her mom and stepfather. Mrs. Murphy is plain wonderful, and I dar you to read this without crying when Carley slowly learns to love and trust again.

Something funny:

TrueBlueThe True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Kathi Appelt’s National Book Award finalist, is full of giggle-worthy antics. With a poet’s ear for language, the words simply sing off the pages, and the escapades of Bingo and J’miah make this a delight. I have to say I love any book with pie in it!

What’s on your shelf?