Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Light and Round Project Picks for August

Welcome to the (now monthly) roundup of the Light and Round Project! I'm squeaking this one in the last gasps of August. Phew!

If this is your first time hearing about the Light and Round Project and you want to know more, visit this post for a full explanation or click on "Light and Round Project" under my header.

I'm now gathering recommendations for September's list! Please email suggestions (and links to your reviews if you have them) to me at fromthemixedupfiles (at) gmail (dot) com. These would be books geared for teenagers that you think the average person would consider not too violent, dark, or edgy.

Here are the August recommendations:

A la Carte by Tanita Davis, recommended by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Assistant Professor at Wayne State University. "Seventeen-year-old Lainey dreams of becoming a world famous chef one day and maybe even having her own cooking show. (Do you know how many African American female chefs there aren’t? And how many vegetarian chefs have their own shows? The field is wide open for stardom!) But when her best friend—and secret crush—suddenly leaves town, Lainey finds herself alone in the kitchen. With a little help from Saint Julia (Child, of course), Lainey finds solace in her cooking as she comes to terms with the past and begins a new recipe for the future.”

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, recommended by Judith Ridge, Western Sydney Young People's Literature Officer. “Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris - until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he's taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home.”

As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynn Rae Perkins, recommended by Monica Edinger of Educating Alice. “It’s summer vacation and 15-year-old Ry is on a train headed west to archaeology camp while his parents sail the Caribbean in their boat and his grandfather keeps an eye on the dogs in their new home. Or not. For as the story begins, Ry, having walked away from the stalled train to make a quick cellphone call, watches as it leaves without him — stranding him in the “strange eroded hills” of Montana and on a whole new path.”

Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins, recommended by Monica Edinger of Educating Alice. “As the title and caption imply, this story reads like a series of intersecting vignettes--all focused on 14-year-old Debbie and her friends as they leave childhood behind.”

Dash and Lily's Book of Dares
by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, recommended by Judith Ridge, Western Sydney Young People's Literature Officer. “ ‘I’ve left some clues for you. If you want them, turn the page. If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.’ So begins the latest whirlwind romance from the New York Times bestselling authors of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept its dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York?”

Flipped by Wendelin Van Draneen, recommended by Jen Simms. "The first time she saw him, she flipped. The first time he saw her, he ran. That was the second grade, but not much has changed by the seventh. She says: 'My Bryce. Still walking around with my first kiss.' He says: 'It’s been six years of strategic avoidance and social discomfort.' But in the eighth grade everything gets turned upside down. And just as he’s thinking there’s more to her than meets the eye, she’s thinking that he’s not quite all he seemed."

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. (My recommendation.) "All Ida Mae Jones wants to do is fly. Her daddy was a pilot, and years after his death she feels closest to him when she's in the air. But as a young black woman in 1940s Louisiana, she knows the sky is off limits to her, until America enters World War II, and the Army forms the WASP - Women Airforce Service Pilots. Ida has a chance to fulfill her dream if she's willing to use her light skin to pass as a white girl. She wants to fly more than anything, but Ida soon learns that denying one's self and family is a heavy burden, and ultimately it's not what you do but who you are that's most important."

48 Shades of Brown by Nick Earls, recommended by Judith Ridge, Western Sydney Young People's Literature Officer. “Australian teenager Dan Bancroft had a choice to make: go to Geneva with his parents for a year, or move into a house with his bass-playing aunt Jacq and her friend Naomi. He chose Jacq’s place, and his life will never be the same. This action-packed and laugh-out-loud-funny novel navigates Dan’s chaotic world of calculus, roommates, birds, and love.”

Gender Blender by Blake Nelson, recommended by Sharon Levin. Sharon is well known for giving booktalks to young readers and notes that this is her “cheat” booktalk. She says, “With everything else I use my own words, for Gender Blender, I only need to use the jacket copy and the kids are instantly interested.” Bet you’re curious about that jacket copy now, right? All right, here you go: “Emma: Wants Jeff Matthews to notice her. Hates sexist boys. Wonders when she’ll get her period. Tom: Must avoid looking like a wuss. Must deal with his blended family. Must get a chance with Kelly A. Then something freaky happens: Emma and Tom switch bodies. And until they can find a remedy: Emma: Can’t believe she has a . . . thingie. Hates mean girls. Finds out secondhand that her period has arrived. Tom: Must learn to put on a bra. Must deal with an overachieving family. Must not be alone with Jeff Matthews.”

Heist Society by Ally Carter, recommended by Julie Dahlhauser, librarian at Haywood High School.  “It's deliciously escapist, with beautiful, rich, clever people and gorgeous locales. There are villains and peril and adventures, but it's all so much fun. Sort of Ocean's Eleven for teens.”

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen, recommended by Sharon Levin. “Paulsen accounts for his 13th year ‘of wonderful madness’ when he and his friends tried to shoot a waterfall in a barrel, break the world record for speed on skis, hang glide with an Army surplus parachute, and perform other daredevilish stunts. Readers will be drawn to the term "extreme sports" but the story is more accurately one generation's version of homemade fun in the days following the Korean War when ‘radio was king’ and the great outdoors served as the playground.”

Lost Years of Merlin series by T. A. Barron, recommended by Elizabeth Varadan. "There has never been a magic like Merlin’s, and T. A. Barron reveals how the legend was born in his adventure-loving five-book epic featuring the heroic young wizard and his unforgettable band."

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork, recommended by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Assistant Professor at Wayne State University. "A love story and legal drama that received five starred reviews and multiple honors. . . . Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside.”

Sequins, Secrets, and Silver Linings by Sophia Bennett, recommended by Trisha of The YA YA YAs. "If you’re looking for something light and fun, substantial enough that it won’t be quickly forgotten or feel disposable without being heavy, and is simply a huge pleasure to read, I highly recommend this. It’s the closest thing to Steve Kluger's My Most Excellent Year that I’ve read since My Most Excellent Year."

Stuff by Jeremy Strong. “Stuff is the nickname of our hero, Simon (because he knows a lot of weird stuff). Stuff's parents have split up, and his dad has brought back a new step-mum (the Sherry Trifle), a step-sister (the awful Natasha) and a radical feminist rabbit called Pankhurst (she only attacks men - spooky). In Stuff's own words, here is how he tries (and fails) to run away from home. How he tries to get off with the beautiful Sky, and dump girlfriend Delfine (without being beaten up by her psycho brother). In fact, how to get through life as a teenage boy.

Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson. (My recommendation.) "Scarlett Martin has grown up in a most unusual way. Her family owns the Hopewell, a small hotel in the heart of New York City. Her nineteen-year-old brother, Spencer, is an out of work actor facing a family deadline to get his career in order. Eighteen-year-old Lola has the delicate looks of a model, the practical nature of a nurse, and a wealthy society boyfriend. Eleven-year-old Marlene is the family terror with a tragic past. When the Martins turn fifteen, they are each expected to take over the care of a suite in the once elegant, now shabby Art Deco hotel. For Scarlett's fifteenth birthday, she gets both a room called the Empire Suite, and a permanent guest named Mrs. Amberson. Scarlett doesn't quite know what to make of this C-list starlet, world traveler, and aspiring autobiographer who wants to take over her life. And when she meets Eric, an astonishingly gorgeous actor who has just moved to the city, her summer takes a second unexpected turn."

Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O'Roark Dowell, recommended by Trisha of The YA YA YAs. "When Janie was nine, she thought it would be fun to live on a farm and raise goats, and told her parents so. Of all ideas for her parents to take seriously, why did it have to be this? Okay, the goat farm was fun for a couple of years. Until Janie started high school and the goats became a huge source of embarrassment. There was the hay in her hair incident, the rash on her legs, and, most recently, the goat poop on her shoe that stunk up the entire school bus. All Janie wants now is to be normal."

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, recommended by Janice Del Negro. “Still makes me laugh out loud, even after repeated readings.” From the publisher: “A nightmarish danger threatens from the other side of reality . . . Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, young witch-to-be Tiffany Aching must defend her home against the monsters of Fairyland. Luckily she has some very unusual help: the local Nac Mac Feegle—aka the Wee Free Men—a clan of fierce, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding, six-inch-high blue men. Together they must face headless horsemen, ferocious grimhounds, terrifying dreams come true, and ultimately the sinister Queen of the Elves herself. . . ."

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Peek at the Creative Space of Linda Ashman

I'm happy to welcome part two of the duo behind No Dogs Allowed! and one of my personal favorite picture book writers, Linda Ashman. Linda is the author of numerous critically acclaimed picture books including Babies on the Go, To the Beach, M is for Mischief, Creaky Old House, Stella Unleashed, When I Was King, and many more.

Her most recent title, No Dogs Allowed!, was published this month (Kristin Sorra, the illustrator, shared her workspace with us last week). Kirkus Reviews said, "Ashman's concept is both sophisticated and delightful." No Dogs Allowed! is a nearly wordless picture book. You may be wondering how one writes a nearly wordless picture book and if so, you're in luck! Linda has shared the story behind creating this book here.

I had the pleasure of taking a weekend-long master class with Linda Ashman recently. Not only was the weekend inspiring and left me with a brain full of practical tips for writing picture books, but we heard a preview of another of Linda's soon-to-be published books, Samantha on a Roll. This is a fun, delightful story of a young girl determined to try out her new roller skates. Samantha on a Roll will be published in October in addition to Linda's third 2011 picture book release, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Colorado.

To learn more about Linda Ashman, visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

My office is a small room at the back of our 1919 bungalow in Denver, with windows on three sides overlooking the garden. There's a desk, sofa, bookcase, and a couple of tables. I've got a vintage poster and framed illustrations from old picture books on the walls and, often, a dog sprawled out on the floor. (That's Sammy in the picture.)

I like to move around, though. Probably my favorite place to work is our breakfast room, where I can spread everything out on the table. Plus it's closer to the coffee.

Other times, when I need a change of scenery, I like to work in the dining room. I don't normally have roses on the table, though that would be nice. These were a gift from our neighbor.

When I really need a change of pace, I go to the Peet's Coffee shop not far from my home. My son Jackson and I just biked over there today, in fact. Here he is, reading.

Describe a typical workday.

During the summer when Jackson's home from school, there's no such thing. I work in fits and starts on whatever is most pressing. During the school year, though, my work hours are more consistent. The alarm goes off at 5:40 am, and after the morning off-to-school hubbub subsides, I get started. I'm not the kind of person who writes every day, and I'm not a good multitasker. So if I'm working on a story, I'll spend most of the day on that, to the exclusion of everything else. Once the story's done, I take care of all the things I neglected when I was writing--catching up on emails, preparing for workshops, doing administrative stuff, reviewing sketches, updating my website, etc. And, most days, I get some sort of exercise--either riding the stationary bicycle or going for a walk.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1. My books. We have bookshelves in other rooms of the house, but I keep a very limited selection of favorites here. Many are about living thoughtfully, simply and/or sanely in a crazy world, by people I consider very wise: Thomas Moore, Karen Armstrong, Sue Monk Kidd, Carl Jung, Robert Benson, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others. Some are favorite writing books, like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. And then there are books my parents had that I loved as a kid, like the 1943 editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with the very dark and brooding engravings by Fritz Eichenberg (so spooky and romantic!), or the Illustrated Treasury of Children's Literature, published in 1955, filled with stories, poems, and gorgeous illustrations from the early 1900s.

2. Framed photos of my husband, son, and other family members. Great reminders of the things that really matter (and especially comforting on the days when there's disappointing publishing news).

3. The windows. First, because of the beautiful woodwork, which my husband painstakingly stripped (it was pink when we moved in). And, second, because I love being able to look out at the garden which, really, is my favorite place to work.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I like to begin each work day by reading at random from one of the inspirational books on my bookcase. I confess this really is more of an aspiration than a ritual, but on the days I do it, I feel much more centered and productive.

What do you listen to while you work? 

Dogs barking, including our own Sammy and Stella. Lawn mowers. Leaf blowers. Birds. Cars. The occasional siren. Construction. But no music--too distracting.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Black coffee and a sweet of some sort, preferably a muffin, scone, or chocolate chip cookies.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Coffee and sugar help. That, and knowing that I have a very small window of work time each day while Jackson's at school.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

I always start with a pen and paper, but once I've scribbled down some ideas, I switch to my laptop. I do most of my writing on the computer, but then print a bazillion drafts so I can revise on paper.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I've got file folders full of story ideas, usually just a line or two scribbled on a scrap of paper, that I pull out when I'm starting something new. Most of the time I know how the story begins, and have some idea of how it ends, but I'm never quite sure how I'm going to get there. Since I typically write in verse, one of the first things I need to figure out is the rhythm and rhyme pattern, because that often shapes the direction of the story.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

My husband Jack. We're good at being quiet together, and he's an honest (but gentle) critic. Plus he makes excellent muffins and chocolate chip cookies.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Fifteen years ago, soon after I started writing, I heard Karen Cushman speak at the SCBWI national conference in Los Angeles, where we lived at the time. I'm not sure if she offered any particular writing advice, but I found her personal story incredibly inspiring. She was around 50, with two master's degrees, when she started writing, and had won a Newbery or two by the time I heard her speak. Since I was 35, with a couple of careers (and a recently-completed master's degree) behind me, it was really reassuring to hear that it wasn't too late to start over.

Around the same time, I received the best nuts-and-bolts advice for picture book writers, which I've shared many times. Get a bunch of really good picture books from the library, preferably recent ones. Type the words into the computer, noting page breaks as you go. Do a word count. This is an excellent way to see how few words there are in picture books, and to get a sense of structure, pacing, and language. I still do this exercise and still find it really valuable.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Peek at the Creative Space of Kristin Sorra

Joining us today for Creative Spaces is illustrator Kristin Sorra. Kristin is the illustrator of numerous books including Groundhog Weather School (written by Joan Holub), King o' the Cats (written by Aaron Shepard), the "Friends with Disabilities" series (My Friend has Down Syndrome, My Friend has Autism, written by Amanda Doering Tourville), and the early reader chapter books Waltur Paints Himself Into a Corner and Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke (written by Barbara Gregorich).

Her latest book, out in stores this week, is No Dogs Allowed!, written by Linda Ashman. From the publisher:

Welcome to Alberto's restaurant. . . unless you're a dog, a cat, a bunny, or ANYTHING with fur, feathers, or scales!
The entertainment escalates in this nearly wordless picture book as more and more people arrive with a surprising selection of pets.  Alberto turns them all away--only to see the crowd discover a friendlier alternative in the festive street. Will Alberto find a way to win them back?
Publisher's Weekly wrote, "Sorra (King o' the Cats) captures the city's sophistication, as well as the contrast between the smartly dressed children and their wacky pets. . . . Elegant storytelling fun comes with the extra satisfaction that derives from having to use visual clues to figure out what's happened."

To learn more about Kristin Sorra visit her website or her blog. And now let's take a peek inside her creative space!

Describe your workspace.

I guess you could say it's pretty eclectic. I've been living here for just over a year so I guess you could also say it's a work in progress! My space takes up half of the large living room area of the apartment which I share with my husband, baby daughter, and our dog. I also occupy an extra room for painting, sewing, and sculpting. I fill my workspaces with illustrations I like, paintings, and fun tchotchkes for inspiration. I keep flat files, some modern mid-century pieces as well as antiques that house my materials. I like the homey, tactile feel of my space. Of course, in the middle of it all are my computers, scanner, and printers.

Describe a typical workday.

I'm a new mom, so my work routine is broken up throughout the day, when I have time to myself. Basically that means I'm up by 6:30 and for most of the morning I'm tending to my 7 month old daughter, having breakfast and checking email until her morning nap at around 9. Depending on how much work I have gotten done the night before, during her first long nap I'll nap myself or get a good amount of work done. Same goes for her afternoon nap. But the bulk of my work happens in the evening, around 6:30 or 7, when she's down for the night. I'm lucky she's an excellent sleeper! During the day I'm outside walking around our quaint little neighborhood doing errands with the dog and baby in tow.

What media do you use and which is your favorite? 

I use Photoshop with a Wacom tablet and pen to illustrate. Sketches are done by hand still, though sometimes I will sketch directly in Photoshop. It's an amazing program that allows me to do some pretty cool things with my work in a short amount of time, but I have to say I do prefer hand painting. I used to use oils regularly but found it difficult to make short deadlines with it. So I discovered a way to recreate my oil painting in Photoshop. I've learned to embrace the digital medium and it's many advantages, but I do miss getting messy!

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1) A little sculpted penguin a friend of mine made for me on my birthday in my "likeness"—she has a black ponytail—and my logo on her shirt. My friend is a professional comic artist who taught me how to sculpt. I'm still a novice but he got me hooked. My husband surprised me with it on my birthday one year. It was truly something special and unique.

2) A copy of The Little Prince, a gift from my 6th grade classmates that was given to me after my remission from leukemia (and yes, well, that's another story which clearly had a happy ending). Inside it's filled with welcome back greetings from all of them. It reminds me of how strong I can be and how art has always been there for me for comfort, and how I've always been encouraged to create by family, friends, and peers alike.

3) My mid-century Goodform industrial work chair, because I have to sit in it sometimes for hours at a time, and while it creaks, it feels substantial and comfy.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I can't really say that I do now. If I'm just starting a project or am stuck with a piece, I like to gather inspiration from blogs or books or whatever will help me get the creative juices flowing. For the most part, though, it's just open up the file and "paint" away. When I painted by hand, I used to have a whole painting prep ritual I enjoyed.

Kristin's printed work.

 What do you listen to while you work?

Depends on my mood. I'll listen to talk radio like Howard on Sirius/XM or Alexis and Jennifer and like to laugh or just zone out with a good interview or conversation. Audiobooks are also terrific and so are my trusty iTunes.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Coffee, water, an apple and/or popcorn, coffee.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

A deadline.

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

I find composing the piece so it's visually interesting a challenge, and that's basically the planning stage, the most important stage. I like to distort perspective and try to find interesting shapes in common objects, creating off-kilter compositions. It requires lots of problem solving when doing it well. I find that if the initial sketch composition isn't working, the final piece will suffer.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

My husband. He's also an artist and we actually used to share a space when we had a comic book coloring business. Now we pursue very different disciplines but we are each other's best fan and critic.

What is the best piece of illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

Two things stand out equally for me. Though I'll say number one is most important, I think the second is important enough to share.

1) Draw, draw, draw.

2) Never get emotionally attached to your work. It frees you to see it more objectively and to grow creatively. That being said, I like to keep old pieces around that remind me of personal, creative milestones.