Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book Launch: The GIFTED Series by Marilyn Kaye

Nine Teenagers. Nine Secrets. An ordinary Middle School with a few extraordinary exceptions.

Today, I'm pleased to introduce Marilyn Kaye, author of the middle grade series GIFTED. The first two books in the series launched earlier this year, and they are a fun read, and truly teen-friendly.

Thank you for taking the time for an interview! Your new middle grade series, GIFTED, has an intriguing premise involving some supernatural elements. Would you like to elaborate?
The characters in this series might seem very ordinary on the surface, but through various means each has acquired an unusual talent -- telekinesis, mind-reading, an insight into the future, and various other inexplicable abilities. Unfortunately for them, none of these skills came with a guide or a manual, and the young people have to figure out how best to use their remarkable gifts.

Although you incorporate multiple viewpoints, you feature one character in each of the first two books. Do you continue this technique in the remaining books?
Yes; each book features one main character, and also includes the viewpoint of one other character. But all the characters move in and out of each book.

You obviously have a knack for getting into the heads of tween girls. How do you discover your characters? How have you picked up on contemporary teen issues?
Almost all my characters are based on an aspect of people I've known, and sometimes on aspects of myself. Then, I let them evolve in my imagination -- they take on characteristics that just seem to emerge naturally from their personalities and situations. As for contemporary teen issues -- so many of these issues have been around for as long as there's been adolescence. Their budding sexuality, their concerns about appearance, rebellion, peer pressure -- there are dreams, fears, and hopes that are common to this age. Of course, aspects of these concerns change with the times, and I try to keep up with contemporary concerns by staying in contact with young people.

Do you have a favorite character from the series?
I must admit to a particular fondness for Amanda. Superficially, she seems like the stereotype of a typical 'mean girl', but under the surface there's a complicated personality. I like the notion that a girl-you-love-to-hate may have reasons for being the way she is.

In addition to writing a number of successful series for teens, you’ve written single novels (one of which, PENELOPE, was made into a major motion picture.) How does writing series differ from writing single novels? Did you plot out the entire series, or did you plunge into your idea and then discover you had more to say?
When I'm writing a series, I want each book to stand on its own, so that readers don't feel required to read each book. But at the same time, there's an 'arc' to a series, and a theme that continues and grows. Each book tells a complete story, but not every possibility is explored. When I begin a series, I know where it's going to go, so in that sense I plan the entire series in advance. However, elements can emerge in the individual books that might make me change direction slightly. In a single novel, I'm very conscious of answering every question that might arise in the course of telling the story; in a series, some questions remain open.

Your output is amazing. How quickly do you work? How long does it take you to complete a novel?
I try to write every day, and when I'm not actually writing, I'm thinking about what I'm going to write. When I'm writing a series, I have to stay on a schedule, since the books come out at regular intervals. I try to complete each book within two months. A single novel, though, can take much longer.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself – your writing life, how you got started? What were your influences as a young reader?
I've been writing ever since I could string words together. And even before that, I was making up stories and telling them to anyone who would listen. As a child, I loved to read. Even though I was naturally social, I spent many happy hours alone in a library. My favorite authors as a child were Maud Hart Lovelace who wrote the 'Betsy-Tacy' books, and Noel Streatfeild, the English author of Ballet Shoes and many other wonderful books. My love for books like these propelled me into work as a children's librarian, and then as a professor of literature for children and teens. And it seemed only natural that eventually I would try my hand at writing books myself.

Do you have advice for beginning writers?
My only advice for writers is to write. Keep a journal, jot down your thoughts and feelings and experiences. With a little imagination, you'll find that ideas for stories can emerge from the most ordinary situations.

What is the timeline for the remaining books in the series? Are you working on anything to follow GIFTED?
I'm hoping that GIFTED books will continue so that each of the characters can have his or her own story, so I'm planning on at least nine books. I also have a single novel that's coming out in September, called DEMON CHICK. It's about a sixteen year old girl who discovers that she has a very strange and frightening destiny.

Where can readers learn more about you and your books?
I've got a website: It includes an email address so that readers can write me directly and ask any questions that aren't answered in the site. And there's a website for 'Gifted':

Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Launch: Lifting The Sky

I'd like to introduce you to an intriguing new title with a wonderful sense of place from author Mackie d'Arge titled LIFTING THE SKY.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, LIFTING THE SKY. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
While showing some kids how to feel their energy fields—and seeing how easily they picked it up—I thought, hmmm…I could do a story about this! And then quirky little Blue appeared out of the blue. It was as if I’d uncorked her and she just started chatting away. Blue sees what she calls ‘the lights’ around people and things. When her mom lands a job on an isolated, ramshackle ranch and she’s handed two bum calves to care for, Blue realizes she has a gift for healing. The story is about Blue’s exploration of this gift, her search for her long lost dad, and her relationship with a Native American boy who is also searching for something.

Setting is very important in your book. Would you care to elaborate?
Ever since I moved to the reservation 20 years ago I’ve been fascinated by certain places that are considered to be sacred. Some of these are near our ranch. The canyon with the petroglyphs where the Shoshones go for vision quests is one valley away. There is also a cave similar to the one in my story, although that one was partly inspired by a transforming dream I had years ago. And of course the Little People and Water Ghosts are real--just ask anyone who lives around here!
I was careful about how I wrote about these places. It was with huge relief and pleasure when the book was taken in by the Native American community. It is being used in the school at Fort Washakie as a teaching tool.

Can you describe your path to the publication of LIFTING THE SKY?
I was just lucky. A while back, a friend was going to the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and asked me to come along. I think I’d had too much wine because I said sure! But then I had to write something…. I’m an artist, and I’d only written once in a while in my sketch books. I came up with an autobiographical piece that got me picked up by the agent who read it. I continued on with that for a while but decided it was better as therapy than something I wanted to put out there. Fiction, I thought, would be a lot more fun! I didn’t want to disappoint my sweet agent, Charlotte Sheedy, so I figured I’d better get to work. Half-way through Blue’s story I sent the ms to her and it got picked up by the first editor she sent it to. The editor sent me five pages of notes. I followed her advice as best I could and got rid of one character but kept another, who’d appeared in the story as a ghost. That one I kept alive but sent off to Montana.

So I guess my advice for beginning writers would be to follow your passions, be a bit crazy, drink wine and write something full of feeling, and head for a good writers conference!

Can you tell us something about your personal life—inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?
I seem to take myself off to unusual places and end up living strangely different lives in each case. I was born in Panama and grew up all around the Mediterranean—Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Italy, and France. I’m an artist, and my studies were done in Florence and Paris. Afterward I lived in a village in southern France and on Crete and then in India. I didn’t come to live in the states until I was over 30. So although I write in this book about ranching, I was not born to it. I married a professor, came to Wyoming, and found an isolated ranch on the snowy side of a windblown mountain. Within a short time I was divorced with two young sons to bring up and a rundown ranch to try to make a living on. So believe me, I learned ranching the hard way.

In my book, Blue draws a picture of what she thinks of as her special place, and then she finds it. That actually happened to me, because I drew a picture of the ranch before I even came to Wyoming. The place had been deserted for 20 years, and the house in Blue’s story is the house on that ranch. I’ve used visualizing ever since I was a child, and the amazing places I find myself in come about because of it. I also work with healing touch and am fascinated by how sound, love, and intention can be used for healing.

I recently married my longtime partner, a Wyoming rancher. We’re both in love with this landscape and the people here on the rez.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?
I’m starting on another story and throwing it across the river to the Badlands.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about LIFTING THE SKY?
Yes! Please go to

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Launch: When The Whistle Blows

It's a true pleasure to introduce Fran Cannon Slayton, author of the debut (and already highly acclaimed!) novel WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS. I know that the novel has strong personal connections for you. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is a coming of age novel about Jimmy Cannon, who is growing up in the 1940s as the son of the foreman of the B&O Railroad in a small Appalachian town. The book tracks Jimmy’s yearly Halloween adventures between the ages of 12 and 18, as he discovers more and more about his crotchety father, who is a member of a secret society.

I hope you don’t mind me mentioning that I’m absolutely thrilled about the response the book is receiving so far! It has gotten a starred review in Kirkus, which calls WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS “an unassuming masterpiece,” and another starred review in School Library Journal, which says the book is “nostalgia done right.”

I was inspired to write WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS by my father’s adventures growing up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia. Dad really was the foreman’s son at the time when the steam engines were switching to diesel in the 1940s and early ‘50s. He used to tell me all kinds of fascinating stories when I was a kid about what it was like to grow up in Rowlesburg, and they became the inspiration for WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS.

Your main character is a tween/teen boy. Was it challenging for you to get inside his head?

Strange as it may seem, the voice was very natural for me to slip into. I am a card-carrying tomboy, which helped a great deal. And because I am fortunate to have my family roots deeply embedded in Rowlesburg, I am very familiar with the dialect from that part of West Virginia. It’s a part of me in a very real sense and is relatively easy for me to tap into.

That being said, Jimmy’s voice is not my own voice, so I had to be careful to stay within the boundaries of what a boy of Jimmy’ age would say and do. I also had to be conscious of the time period as well as the region when deciding what he would and would not say.

The setting is so crucial to WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS. Tell us a bit about that.

Rowlesburg, West Virginia is a real place, and a magical place for me. When I was very young my maternal grandfather owned a restaurant and bar on the banks of the Cheat River, and my early memories of it are like a dreamworld adventure – climbing down the tree roots to get to the river, wading out on the flat, slippery rocks, swimming, fishing, watching the water rush by . . . playing pool, going behind the lunch counter in the restaurant. It was so wild and different from my own home in suburban Virginia. I always loved going back to Rowlesburg to visit other relatives too, even after my grandparents sold the restaurant and moved to Kingwood when I was four or five years old. All during my childhood I loved listening to my father’s stories about the things that happened when he grew up there – when the town bustled and hummed with life and industry in the 1940s. I’ve always loved trying to picture what those days must have been like.

When I was writing WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS I had the chance to walk through the town with my father, asking him to show me the various houses in which he lived, asking him to tell me all the old stories again. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish.

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I started writing a book with a teen/tween protagonist just before I entered law school, which would be about 18 years ago. I hadn’t intended to write a book, but was more or less compelled by a story idea that came to me unbidden.

I worked on that story for about 13 years on and off, all through law school and my career as a prosecutor and then as a legal publisher. When I finally got serious about writing in 2004 I put the 100 pages I’d written of that book away because I didn’t want to be critiqued on something I’d spent 13 years of my life writing. It meant too much to me. So I started writing a story I always thought would be my second novel, which turned into WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS.

Can you describe your path to the publication of WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS?

It’s pretty much a Cinderella story. I received a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation’s week-long writers workshop at the Chautauqua Institute in New York in July 2006. There I met my editor, Patricia Lee Gauch of Philomel Books, who read my first 12 pages and loved them. I was thrilled! Then she asked to see the rest of my halfway-finished manuscript and, much to my delight, continued to love it! At that point Patti offered to continue to work with me as I finished the book, generously giving me her advice, interest and guidance. It was a lovely experience and provided terrific motivation for me to finish my novel. When I did, she made an offer and made my dreams come true!

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Tape yourself to your chair (glue is too messy) and write! But also write about what is interesting to you – NOT what you think might be commercially viable. The best writing generally comes from the heart – follow yours and it will increase your chances of writing in a way that moves others.

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

My personal life, huh?! I am a happy mom and wife, dog owner, only child of two wonderful parents, novice gardener, loud singer, occasional trumpet player, contemplator, meditator, mediator, exerciser, and finder of joy in little everyday things (most of the time, at least). I enjoy family, friends, good food, new experiences and traveling. I like to celebrate for almost any reason. Oh, and I also like to read. And write. And sleep.

My hopes for the future are that kids read and enjoy and take away something from my book. I hope to have the opportunity to do lots of school visits, because I really enjoy talking to kids about writing and reading and dreaming.

My plan is to keep writing for the rest of my life. I really enjoy it, and I can’t think of a career I am better suited to.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

Yes, I am writing a middle grade fantasy novel tentatively titled SHIP’S BOY, which is about a girl who wants to be a pirate. I’ve also got a couple of picture book ideas up my sleeve.

Do you have a website or blog where readers can learn more about you and WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS?

Yes! My website is and there you can also watch a video of me discussing some of the background about WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS. I also have a blog at and you can find me on Facebook at

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Craft Issue #6: Plot Points (Or, How to Twist Your Character)

In her craft book How To Write a Children’s Picture Book, Eve Heidi Bine-Stock creates a useful paradigm. It’s really not too different from the paradigm created by Syd Field for structuring the screenplay. She uses the term “plot twist” much the way Field uses the term “plot point.” What, exactly, do these authors mean, and how can children’s book writers use this information?

Bine-Stock defines the Plot Twist this way: “Something happens that serves as punctuation between Act I and Act II [and between Act II and Act III]. It is an action or event that spins the story off in a new direction. It is a turning point.” Field defines the Plot Point in nearly identical language: each plot point (there are 2, one at the end of each act) spins the action in a new direction.

Bine-Stock analyzes a large number of picture books using the storybook paradigm, and reveals how surprisingly similar (and symmetrical) they are in structure, and how important the plot twist/plot point is to that structure.

The idea of the plot twist/plot point is actually as old as Aristotle. At the end of each act in Aristotle’s paradigm, the character experiences a change in which his behavior leads to a reversal of values – for example, from positive to negative.

What does this mean for the children’s author? I think it’s most helpful to use a structured approach upon revision. Apply a 3-act structure to the first draft of your novel or picture book. Make sure that at the end of Act I the action of the story spins your character into a new, increasingly tense situation. In Where The Wild Things Are, Plot Twist 1 occurs when a forest grows in Max’s bedroom (positive to negative) and forces him to react (journey to the land of the Wild Things.) At the end of Act II another reversal spins your character into a new direction yet again. Plot Twist 2 in Where The Wild Things Are occurs when Max begins to miss home (negative to positive) and forces him to react (return home.)

Tension is the desired goal of any good writer. Plot twists serve to increase the tension, to, as it were, ratchet up the tension on your character.

Book Review: Red Butterfly

Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk Out of China Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk Out of China by Deborah Noyes

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a lovely, poetic picture book. From the quiet repetition (“In my father’s kingdom there are many splendors”) to the diction (“rustling in red silk, rustling”) to the gorgeous painterly illustrations, this book has it all. A wonderful story of longing and loss, and of one princess’s daring in trying to take with her memories of her home, this is a small masterpiece.

View all my reviews.