Monthly Archives: November 2009

WBBT: Laini Taylor – Characters, Creativity & Clementine Pie


I am so, SO excited to be hosting Laini Taylor today for WBBT. *dancing elf* I am a giant, GIANT fan of Laini’s books, Blackbringer, Silksinger, and the National Book Award nominated, Lips Touch. Laini is one miraculously talented writer, and she’s an artist too. All of Laini’s novels have earned places on my “special shelf.” You know the shelf where you put the few books that you actually embraced once you finished reading them? Laini’s writing is that special. Laini blogs about her art and writing and other things besides at Grow Wings, and today she’s right here, chatting with me about creativity, her characters, and her pixie-faced baby daughter, Clementine Pie.

You might want to start off by reading my reviews of Laini’s books, just to get in the general spirit of celebration and excitement: my review of Blackbringer, my review of Silksinger, my review of Lips Touch. Good. Now we’re ready.

Welcome Laini!

In Silksinger, your latest novel in the Dreamdark collection, Whisper is a phenomenal character. She’s more than she seems. She’s a creative force. She’s bold when she needs to be. What do you most admire about her, and what was the first scene you imagined her in?

I dreamed up Whisper alongside Magpie and Poppy, before I even started writing Blackbringer. They were a trio, but I decided to save Whisper for another book—her own book. I knew that she would be a singer of flying carpets who [mild spoiler alert!] gets captured and held prisoner, and I knew she would be completely different than bold, brave Magpie. The first scene I imagined her in was in prison, though in the early conception, the power of her voice was even greater: she could whisper open passageways in solid rock. Which made it difficult to keep her prisoner, obviously. When writing magic, one must be careful not to give characters too much power, or there can be no tension! So, I scaled back Whisper’s power. (As for Magpie, she has to have a slow learning curve with her power, or else no villain would ever be a match for her.)


(Here’s a picture of the paper dolls I made that were the earliest incarnation of the characters, before I even thought of writing the books. Left to right: Poppy, Magpie, Whisper; I drew and oil-painted them, with multiple outfits, and turned them into fully articulated dolls. I was obsessed with them for months!)

Something I admire about Whisper is her tenacity. From the first chapter of the book she’s thrust completely outside of her sphere of experience, into a nightmare, really. It’s so overwhelming and terrifying she really just wants to give up and join her loved ones in the Moonlit Gardens, but she doesn’t. She musters her courage and she tries. And tries. And tries.

It’s not a bad metaphor for writing a book! Here’s a great quote:

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur

In your acknowledgements in Silksinger you reveal the rather serendipitous way you found the name for your spooky devil general Ethiag. How do you name your characters? Do you have different sources of inspiration of do the names just come? How is naming a character the same as / different from naming your own child?

Yes, the word verification function on blogs is kind of a pain when you’re commenting, but I have gleaned quite a few cool-sounding words from it. So far Ethiag is the only one to find its way into a story.

I love naming characters. When I was a kid this was my favorite part of writing, and often was as far as I got. Now, I have lists in various notebooks—weird names I hear in the news or see in film credits; made-up names; names from other cultures, including languages I’d never even heard of until I stumbled upon them doing research—like Tamazight, the Berber language spoken by a character in my current book). Dreamdark names mostly come from nature: birds, plants, etc. Some are nature words in other languages. Kipepeo is Swahili for butterfly, and briefly mentioned in Blackbringer, Bellatrix’s mother was the Ice Princess Fidrildi, which is Icelandic for butterfly. (Do they have butterflies in Iceland?)

As for baby names, that’s so much harder than character names! With characters, you know you can always do a search/replace and change their name at the slightest whim. With babies, it’s got to stick. Jim would probably tell you I wasn’t fun when it came to naming Clementine. He was always thinking up new names, and I was always shooting them down. By the time I went into labor we had two to choose between and it took us a couple of days in the hospital to finally settle on Clementine. It’s inspired by Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is also what inspired me to dye my hair, so I guess that movie made quite an impact on us. As for her middle name Pie, it’s in honor of Magpie, of course. We didn’t come up with that one until after she was born, when the other options we had in mind seemed suddenly not cute enough.

Lips Touch is a collection full of strong and complex female characters: Kizzy, Estella, Anamique, Esme, Mab and the Druj Queen. Who was the trickiest of these to create? Who would you especially like to write more stories about?

Each character presented their own challenges. Anamique was difficult because she doesn’t talk. It’s hard to give a character “voice” when they literally don’t speak! And the Druj Queen was tricky because she’s incredibly unsympathetic, but I still wanted the reader to care what happens to her. Kizzy was the character who came the most naturally, because I was sort of channeling (and exaggerating—slightly) my own long-ago teen angst and longing.

I could see continuing Kizzy’s story, because of the way it ends. I’m curious to know how readers take the ending: does it seem ambiguous, or do you have a pretty solid feeling of authorly intent there? What I was shooting for was ambiguity that leans in one particular direction, that is, where the reader comes away feeling, “This is probably what happens to Kizzy.” Still, I think there’s room to play there, and maybe some day I will pick it up and make Goblin Fruit the beginning of a novel. I’d like to see more of Kizzy, Cactus, and Evie, and certainly more of the goblins.

Anamique’s story feels complete to me so I don’t think I would revisit it, but I do hope some day to write a whole [unrelated] novel set in Raj-era India. I’m fascinated by that period, but I need to do a lot more reading and I need to travel in India before undertaking such a thing. Historical fiction is daunting; this was my first stab at it. What I’d really love is if someone could please invent a time machine just for writers of historical fiction. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?

As for Hatchling, I will certainly be writing more stories about the Druj. I have lots of ideas! Continue reading

WBBT: Pay attention to Beth Kephart



I am honoured to be able to treat all of you to my amazing recent chat with Beth Kephart, for the Winter Blast Blog Tour. In my opinion, Beth is one of the most gifted authors writing for young adults right now. Her books are richly poetic and I love every one of them. Lots. Read my reviews: of Undercover, House of Dance, Nothing but Ghosts, and the upcoming The Heart is Not a Size.

Welcome to Shelf Elf Beth!

You wrote a post at your blog recently about the huge popularity of series like Gossip Girl, The Luxe and The Clique, which you described as “write-by-numbers” books. I feel like your YA novels exist at the completely opposite end of the writing spectrum, with their richness of theme and immaculate poetic language – almost like antidotes to Gossip Girl. What’s it like to write books like yours when it seems like so much publicity and media pushes girls towards the write-by-number reads?

Oh, what a great question (and what a hard one, too). I was responding, in my blog, to the fascinating New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead titled “The Gossip Mill,” which featured Alloy, the entertainment packaging company behind the wildly popular series you mention here. I was wondering out loud whether I would have the skill to write such concoctions, and I was deciding, rather assuredly, that I would not. I write what I know how to write. I write the stories that interest me, the characters I understand, the scenes that are most alive and vivid, either in memory or in the imagination. My novels are about young people facing the big questions—identity, loss, secrets, anxieties—and it is difficult for books that dwell in those themes to gain traction against books that have been explicitly conceived and crafted for a well-researched market. My books are not advertised or toured; they must be discovered. My books are not off-the-chart sellers; I am in jeopardy, with each new book I write, of finally being told, You know, you are just not hitting the numbers; you are no longer an author we can support. (Indeed, I have been told that; miraculously I have been saved again and again by an editor willing to take a risk.) My writing life is full of uncertainty, therefore, but I know of no other way to work the page.

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people / hobbies) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

This young girl who became a character in Heart:


Dance, in all its beauty:


Chanticleer (the setting of Ghosts), and the young writers and readers who teach me:


Kids learning to see the world:


Dreams keep me alive:


Your books are, in my opinion, about how everyday life can be miraculous – full of mystery and beauty and sadness all at once. I think that Nothing but Ghosts is about this in so many ways. You write, “Beauty and sadness can both live in one place.” I think this is a huge truth contained in this novel. If you could identify other “truths” that readers might discover in Nothing But Ghosts and The Heart is Not a Size, what would they be?

The importance of being an authentic self. The power of honest conversation. The understanding that emerges from well-told stories. The danger of secrets. The power of friendship and love. Continue reading

WBBT: Meet Dani Noir, and debut author Nova Ren Suma



Aren’t you the lucky ones, that today, for another fab stop on the 2009 Winter Blog Blast Tour, you get to meet the lovely Nova Ren Suma, debut author of the 100% wonderful Dani Noir (which I loved, muchly: read review right now).

I’m so excited to have Nova here, because she is a cool gal and a wonderfully talented fresh new voice in kids’ books. Welcome Nova! Thanks for hanging out with me here today.

I read in another interview that your motto is “What if?” How does this motto influence you as a writer?

First, before I answer all these great questions, let me take a second to tell you how thrilled I am to be interviewed here on Shelf Elf. I’m so glad you enjoyed DANI NOIR!

Now on to the interview… When it comes to writing, I can’t help but keep the question “What if?” in the back of my mind. Even when I’ve outlined an entire novel and think I know exactly what I’m putting down in every chapter, I still can’t be sure if I’ll follow it when the time comes. My characters tend to do things I don’t expect, and I wouldn’t want to stop them. What if she says this? What if she’s hiding that in her pocket? What if he saw? What if…? There are so many ways a story could go, and it comes most alive for me when I keep my mind open to the possibilities. DANI NOIR definitely has a lot of these “What if?” moments.

I ended up asking myself this question in my writing career, too, back when I was struggling to get an agent for an adult novel. It was hard, I won’t lie, but when it wasn’t working out I thought, What if I tried something completely different? And that’s how DANI NOIR came to be. The irony is that writing for tweens and teens turns out to be the perfect fit for me, so maybe I should ask myself the “What if?” question way sooner and far more often.

At the outset of your book, film is an escape for Dani. Later it helps to inform how she sees people and the world and leads her to recognize what is interesting about her own life. Then she is able to step back into real life and in a way, start fresh. How do you experience film – as an escape, as a window to the world, a mirror to your own life…?

Watching a good film is one of my only true escapes. When a movie is on, you usually stay put and watch it all the way through—everything else falls away and you see and hear only what’s up there on screen. When I’m stressed, I want to slip into a movie for a while and forget what’s bothering me. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve been known to procrastinate up to the very edges of a deadline by taking a break to watch a movie.

I guess that’s why the movie theater is an escape route for Dani at the start of the story—it seemed so natural to send her there. Where else could she be so completely transported out of her boring small town where nothing ever happens (or so she thinks…) if not at the movies?

Name 3 films that have changed your life (and tell us why!)

Heathers: So in this cult classic, there’s a clique of three girls named Heather plus one lone Veronica who ends up taking them down. In school—I am not kidding—I did have three friends named Heather, and of course my name is Nova, so I didn’t really fit, but that was just a simple coincidence; “Heather” was a very popular name back then. Really, this movie taught me some meaningful lessons about being a misfit. I’ve learned that I’d rather NOT fit in than turn evil just to be part of the in-crowd. Actually, I don’t even want to be part of a perfectly sweet and non-evil in-crowd. I’d much rather be a Veronica.

Edward Scissorhands: (OK, someone really likes Winona Ryder.) I’ve always loved fairy tales—my favorites, as a kid, were “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Snow Queen”—and this movie brought to life a fantastical modern-day fairy tale in the midst of the suburbs. I love that kind of contrast. It’s movies like this that change me as a writer and inspire me to push boundaries, which is just what I’m doing in my next book.

Gilda: Clearly this movie changed my life because it’s what inspired DANI NOIR. I was floundering with the first chapter, not sure which direction the story should go in, when I saw Gilda, really saw it, for the first time. There was something about the moment when Gilda, played by the fabulous Rita Hayworth, first appears on screen that stopped me in my tracks—I remember standing in the middle of my living room, staring at the TV. All these emotions play across her face—an entire story in a few seconds. I was completely energized. Here’s that moment if you’re curious:

Describe Dani. What kind of girl is she?

Dani is thirteen. She’s got a little bit of an obsession with old black-and-white noir movies, and if she could be anyone in the universe she’d be a mysterious and glamorous femme fatale, like her favorite movie star Rita Hayworth. Only thing is… in real life, Dani’s no femme fatale. Not even close. She gets herself into messes and makes mistakes, says a whole lot of things she shouldn’t, and ends up grounded so she can’t even go out at night like any self-respecting femme fatale should. Dani’s trying hard to be someone she’s not, but in doing so she starts to figure out who she maybe really is. Continue reading

The Heart is Not a Size

heartThe Heart is Not a Size is a book that will make you want to go out in the world and do something that matters. It will take you into a community that you likely will never visit, and it will make you think about how much you have and what you really need. No surprise that the writer behind this inspiring and thought-provoking novel is Beth Kephart. It’s not released until March 2010, but you should put it on your TBR list right now. Books like this don’t come along every day.

The Heart is Not a Size was inspired by a trip Beth took a few years ago to a squatter’s village called Anapra, near Juarez, in Mexico. Like the characters in her novel, she went there with a church group of teens and adults, to build a community washroom. Her experiences led to this story. First, take a look at some photos Beth took in this short video, where she reads from the novel:

It’s a testament to the strength of Beth’s writing that her words brought to mind so much of what you see in those images – the openness of the children and their smiling faces, the dust everywhere, the shacks made of cast off materials. I’ve never been anywhere like Anapra, but I could imagine it through Beth’s words. The Heart is Not a Size is about a teen named Georgia, who convinces her best friend Riley to go on a trip to Anapra with an organization called Good Works to do community service. Georgia wants to go to Anapra to get perspective and to start believing in herself. Everyone thinks she’s a grounded, reliable sort of girl, and Georgia isn’t sure. She’s ready for something, but she isn’t even sure what that something is. So when she finds a flyer about Anapra she makes a choice and she wants Riley to come too. Riley is vulnerable in her own way, and the girls’ friendship is deep and complicated. When they get to Anapra, things that they used to be certain about start to change.

The Heart is Not a Size would stand up to rereading, so that you could feel you were getting everything out of it. It’s a quiet book that sneaks up on you. You’ll meet so many characters that are complex and present enough to make you imagine their whole life stories – even secondary characters who appear only briefly stand out more than many central characters in other novels, like Socorro, the little girl who hovers outside the compound where the visiting group is living. The novel is divided into two parts, which I think reflects the way Georgia’s experiences in Anapra have really changed her. There was her life before Anapra, and then after. This is a novel about the potential in people, and not just in the people who go to Anapra to do what they can to contribute to that community, but the potential and worth of the residents of Anapra as well. Almost at the end of her time in Anapra, Georgia thinks, “there was no measure for the people we were becoming, no limit to what we might become.” She sees the possibility of her own life and the lives of the people of Anapra too. The Heart is Not a Size is a novel worth thinking about. There is nothing moralizing about it. Rather, the characters experience first hand how life is messy and brutal and beautiful and the opposite of simple. Georgia doesn’t find easy answers in Anapra and we don’t get the sense that she finds just what she expected, but her experience gave her what she needed nonetheless. Give this book to a teen as a graduation gift. I wish I’d been able to read it when I was 18.

The Heart is Not a Size will be published by Harper Teen in March 2010.

Winter Blog Blast Tour 2009



So it’s finally here, the week I’ve been anticipating for… well… weeks! The annual Winter Blog Blast Tour begins today. What is the WBBT you ask? Only a week packed with some of the best interviews you’ll read in the kidlitosphere, with a whole lot of outstanding authors at many of my favourite blogs. Each day this week I’ll be posting the schedule with links to all of the interviews. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I’ll be hosting Nova Ren Suma, Beth Kephart and Laini Taylor. Wow – that’s some trio! Here’s what’s on today for the first day of the tour:

Jim Ottaviani at Chasing Ray
Courtney Sheinmel at Bildungsroman
Derek Landy at Finding Wonderland
Mary E. Pearson at Miss Erin
Megan Whalen Turner at Hip Writer Mama
Frances Hardinge at Fuse Number 8

Poetry Friday: Choose


Sometimes I use my feisty 1/2 Irish heritage as an excuse to choose quick temper over patience. I confess. More and more though, I’ve learned that choosing the high road, the open hand held out, leads to better things, and I think I’m starting to get pretty good at making this better choice. This week I had a few lessons in this. I’ve liked this poem for a long time.

Choose – by Carl Sandburg

The single clenched fist lifted and ready,
Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.
For we meet by one or the other.

(Poem from Poetry Foundation. Photo from stock.xchng)

I can hear sleigh bells in the distance? Can you? Check out these Christmas-y beauties


*The two winners of these books have been chosen and have been contact via email. Thanks for sharing your favourite holiday reads!*

Evidently, Scholastic is already very much in the Christmas spirit, because here I am, reviewing two new picture books for the upcoming holiday season. I’m also delighted to be giving away to two lucky readers, copies of both The Christmas Magic by Lauren Thompson with illustrations by Jon J. Muth, and The Nutcracker and the Mouse King adapted by Wren Maysen and illustrated by Gail de Marcken. Leave a comment on this post, naming your favourite holiday picture book ever (doesn’t have to be Christmas!). Be sure to include a contact email so that I can reach you.

If I had to make a list of my favourite illustrators for children, Jon J. Muth would be on it, for sure. I am such a fan of his light style, the delicacy of his watercolours and the sense of humour he infuses into so many of his illustrations. He’s an artist whose studio I would love to be able to visit. I find all of his books impressive and evocative, and The Christmas Magic is no exception. Here’s a short trailer, to give you a glimpse of the text and pictures:

The text is sweet and simple and made up of few words – allowing so much space for Muth’s illustrations to shine. I like the way this one already feels like a classic tale, and I also like that Thompson isn’t trying to do a single gimmicky thing. Her story is about the magic of the season, a magic that many readers know well. There aren’t dancing snowmen or talking toys or penguins wearing cute hats. This is a calm book, about Santa’s quiet preparations for his busiest night of the year. I can imagine reading this on Christmas Eve to my niece, who could use all the help she can get trying to keep the anticipation under control. I’m definitely passing this one on to my sister before December. Here’s just one of the beautiful pictures (note the adorable sleeping reindeer – I want one):


When I was a girl, one of my most-loved Christmas books was an edition of The Nutcracker. I can’t remember which one I had, but I read that book over and over again. The first Christmas I worked at the bookstore, I couldn’t believe the number of different versions of the story that were out there. I guess everyone has a favourite. I imagine that The Nutcracker and the Mouse King would satisfy most people looking for a traditional, straight-up presentation of the classic story. Marcken’s illustrations are detailed and the palette is bright and rich. There are several double-page spreads which will encourage readers to stop and take in all of the detail. Here’s one picture of little Marie:

Nutcracker and the Mouse King spread 1

I can see this version being quite popular with someone wanting to give a child a classic tale, in an edition that feels like a gift book. I’m more partial to the subdued tones and understated style of Lisbeth Zwerger’s version, but I think Marcken’s might have more child appeal.

Just leave a comment, sharing your favourite holiday picture book, if you’d like to have copies of these two titles. Winners will be contacted after December 1st. Open to US addresses only.


IceCover_LoResI’ve been reading a lot of cold books lately: First Light, some nonfiction global warming stuff and now Sarah Beth Durst’s latest, Ice. Does this mean I am ready for winter? Don’t think so. I am enjoying my 14 degrees today, thank you very much.

I had planned on saving Sarah’s book for the Christmas holiday, but I just couldn’t wait after reading Laini Taylor’s recent rave recommendation. So, with very high expectations, I started reading last week. The verdict? Yes Laini, I agree. This one is a winner, and it would indeed be perfect winter reading, especially if you happened to have a giant magical polar bear to snuggle up to.

Cassie Dasent has had an entirely unusual upbringing. She has grown up at an Arctic research station, where her father is a research scientist who studies polar bears. Add to this rare sort of home life the fact that Cassie’s mother has been gone from her life since Cassie was only a little girl. Cassie’s grandmother used to tell Cassie a fairy tale about her mother, saying that Cassie’s mother struck a bargain with the Polar Bear King and then was swept away to the ends of the earth and imprisoned in a troll castle. Cassie always thought that her grandmother’s story was just something exciting and entirely imaginary that her grandmother created for Cassie rather than telling the little girl the tragic truth that her mother had died. Turns out, granny wasn’t lying. The proof? On her 18th birthday, Cassie meets a talking polar bear, the Polar Bear King, and he agrees to rescue Cassie’s mother from the trolls on one condition. Cassie must marry him. Cassie agrees to the deal, and so begins an astonishing adventure as Cassie journeys to the Bear’s ice castle and eventually, across the Arctic and into the boreal forest, on a rescue mission of her own. Her life changes in ways that no fairy tale could have prepared her for.

If you’ve read and loved East by Edith Pattou or Jessica Day George’s Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow then absolutely, you’ll want to read this one. But I have to say, it’s different. It’s not just a straight up expansion or development of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon tale. Sarah’s novel feels entirely modern. The scientific aspect of the story, with the detailed evocation of life on a research station and Cassie’s interest in becoming a scientist who studies the polar bear population feels especially timely. I liked how this emphasis really made the magical element, when it arose, feel all the more fantastical. You could appreciate Cassie’s initial disbelief and then her ultimate wonder at the situation she found herself in, because she is very much situated in the “real world” at the outset. I imagine that Sarah did a lot of research about the experience of being a scientist in an arctic environment. The descriptions of the landscape, its brutal power and beauty, really shine in the narrative. The landscape is a character in the book, for sure. You can see why Cassie is in love with the Arctic. Another strength of the book is the creative explanation for the Polar Bear King’s animal form. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Sarah has come up with something pretty interesting to explain the bear’s ability to transform from animal to human. Cassie is as gutsy as they come, and her adventure is absolutely non-stop. This is a page-turner that goes way beyond the standard fairy-tale revisited. Full marks for a novel full of creativity, perfect evocation of setting, and an unexpected but entirely believable romance.

Ice is published by Simon and Schuster, Margaret K. McElderry Books

(and thanks to Sarah for sending me her copy to read!)

The Mealworm Diaries

mealwormI mightn’t have come across this title if it hadn’t ended up in a big box of books I’m reading right now for an awards committee I’ve joined. I’m happy that it found its way to me, because it’s a satisfying, well-written, not-very-long middle grade title that I’ll be happy to slide into my classroom library. The Mealworm Diaries is Anna Kerz’s debut novel and it is the story of Jeremy, a kid who  moves from rural Nova Scotia to Toronto, after a tragedy in his family. Here’s some of the jacket copy:

Mealworms are small creatures that live in dark secret places. Jeremy is a bit like that when he and his mother leave their home in rural Nova Scotia and go to live in Toronto. Not only does Jeremy have a secret that keeps him from enjoying his new life, he also has a science partner who is more annoying than sand in a bathing suit.

This is a school / friendship / family story, about a kid struggling to get his life back after a terrible loss. Not exactly new territory, but I will say that Kerz has worked the material respectably, creating a plot that really keeps moving, and establishing a thoroughly convincing school setting, with a strong dynamic between the student characters. Jeremy comes through as a fairly rounded character, but it’s Aaron, his highly unusual science partner and wannabe best friend, who leaps from the page. He is 99% annoying and 100% endearing. Just about everyone has known a kid a bit like Aaron. You know the type who says whatever he’s thinking and never stops moving for a second. Any teacher will recognize Aaron. The way that Kerz has conveyed this character indicates that she’s a new writer worth watching. In my view, the ending is way too tidy, too easy and “all’s well that ends well” to be fully satisfying. Still, as a whole, the novel certainly works and feels carefully constructed. For fans of Joey Pigza and Andrew Clements’ novels, The Mealworm Diaries will leave fans of realistic fiction feeling good and ready for whatever Kerz is working on next.

The Mealworm Diaries is published by Orca.