Category Archives: Class of 2k9

Class of 2k9 Interview: Fran Cannon Slayton

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I’m happy to introduce Fran Cannon Slayton, author of When the Whistle Blows, and Class of 2k9 member. Her novel tells the story of Jimmy Cannon, a teenage boy growing up in Rowelsburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. His whole town depends on the railroad, and his dad is the foreman. Jimmy dreams of a life working on the railroad too, but times are changing, and things don’t turn out as he expects. Fran’s book has been getting lots of attention, and she’s here for an interview today. Read on to learn lots more about her wonderful book, what she finds inspiring, and some excellent writing advice too. Welcome Fran! Happy launch day!

Tell us more about how you blended fact, hints of family history and fiction in this book. What was this process like?

My father’s stories had been cooking inside me for a very long time – since my childhood. They were true stories, but because I had not been there – because I had not participated in them – I had to imagine them. The moment you begin imagining, fact starts merging with fiction and wonderful things can happen! Moreover, I had first hand knowledge of the town because of my many, many trips there over the course of my lifetime – so my imagining of the facts was relatively easy to ground in a concrete reality that I had actually experienced.

Many of the individual chapters are based on nuggets of actual fact – things that my dad had either experienced or had heard about when he was growing up. My job was not only to convey those stories in an engaging way, but also to create an overarching story that tied them all together. It was this overarching story that really gave me the opportunity to interweave things that hadn’t actually been a part of the real stories – things like The Society.

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I think there’s a real romance about trains, and Jimmy obviously feels this too when he’s growing up. What do you think? What fascinates you about trains?

There is definitely a romance about trains! I trained up and back to BEA this year and felt it again. There is something about seeing the countryside or cityscape move by while dining on a real tablecloth with real cloth napkins that is a throwback to another era – when plastic and cell phones didn’t exist, when people took their time getting from one place to another.

I recently had the wonderful experience of getting to ride in the cab of a real working steam engine. Truly, the entire cab was a work of art. Wood ceilings; deep green and black paint; sturdy iron fixtures; a massive, glowing firebox. It was crafted – not assembled. And the fireman, brakeman and engineer were engaged in work that was as much art as it was knowledge and brawn. There were no computers to rely on to tell you what to do – you had to know. Your life depended on it.

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Your novel really tempts the reader to imagine Jimmy in the future. Where did you see him going next?

If I ever meet you in person I’ll tell you my dad’s chosen path after the diesels came. But I’d like to leave it to the reader’s imagination as to what the fictional Jimmy decides to do.

What appealed to you about structuring the book the way you did, with every chapter taking place on All Hallows’ Eve over a period of 6 years?

As a child, my father told me many stories about his boyhood growing up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. After I wrote the first chapter of When the Whistle Blows I happened to pick up Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize winning Thomas and Beulah, which is a group of poems loosely based on the lives of her grandparents. The poems each reflect individual stories, but the grouping of the poems together also create an overarching story that is greater than the sum of its parts.

After reading just a portion of Dove’s book something clicked inside me. I knew I wanted to do something similar using short stories instead of poems.

While my editor and I talked about the possibility of structuring When the Whistle Blows in a more “regular” format, with days following each other consecutively, I never felt that form was right for this story. Separating the stories by a year allowed me to show more convincingly events that take a long period of time to happen – time for a son to grow in understanding, for a father’s health to decline, for a town to die. Continue reading

Class of 2k9 Interview: Ann Haywood Leal

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It is my pleasure to welcome another amazing Class of 2k9 writer to Shelf Elf, Ann Haywood Leal. Ann’s book, Also Known as Harper is released today, and in celebration, her publisher has kindly offered 5 copies to give away to Shelf Elf readers. Yay Henry Holt! So… say something nice to Ann in a comment below, and I will draw 5 lucky winners. You will love this book. Read about how much I loved it here. Welcome to Shelf Elf Ann! Happy Release Day!

Tell us about the moment you learned Harper’s story would be published.

It was definitely surreal. My agent called me and said he’d had some interest, so he thought there might be an auction. I can remember going over the phone conversation in my head, thinking I must not have heard him right! When we got the formal offer from Henry Holt, I think I was actually shaking. Like with the phone conversation, I had to keep reading the e-mail over and over for it to register in my brain. I’d been waiting for this moment since I was about eleven, so I was ecstatic!

Where did this story come from?

For the past few years, I have volunteered at my local soup kitchen. When I agreed to volunteer, I had a completely different picture in my mind than what I actually saw when I got there. I thought I’d see grubby bum-in-the-alley type people. But what I saw were regular old men and women—and lots of families. It was before the economy took such a plunge, and a lot of these people had jobs and were hard workers, but were unable to make enough to make ends meet. The children I come across in my job as an elementary teacher have distinct advantages. But the kids who come into the soup kitchen are so grateful if you save them a special dessert. They are so humble. I guess you could say that Harper’s story came from the feeling I got from being around these children.

Describe your writing process. Are you an outliner, or do you discover your story and your characters as you are writing?

I’m not a big outliner, unless I’m revising—then I take a ton of notes in the margins of my manuscript, and all over my editorial letter. With the first draft I usually start with a character or an unusual setting. Once I have that, the story seems to materialize. When I was first starting to write Also Known as Harper, I was out for a run, and I passed a vacant lot. All that was left of the home was an old, crumbling swimming pool, partially filled with dirty rainwater. My family and I were driving by later that day, and I made my husband stop so I could take a picture of it. I was so intrigued by the look of it, all by itself in the vacant lot, and it ended up in the book.

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Lots of people with full-time jobs fantasize about writing a book. You actually did it! How do you manage to balance teaching and writing?

I have written stories pretty much all my life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a story brewing on paper or starting in my head. I think because of that, I’ve always made time to write. I take my journal and/or my laptop pretty much wherever I go. That way, if I end up with an unexpected chunk of time, I can write. I get up pretty early and I try to write for an hour or two before I go to school, then, again right after school. I’ve had to get creative at times. I’ve written on the floor in the hallway outside my daughter’s violin lesson, on an old wooden church pew while I was waiting for her religious education class, and in the car at the soccer field. The other day I was at the hardware store with my husband. We were waiting for some paint to be mixed and I sat down on a lawn furniture display chair and wrote!IMG_2458

Continue reading

Also Known as Harper

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Harper Lee Morgan wants to be a poet. Actually, she’s already a poet. She just wants to have a chance to share her poems onstage, at her school’s poetry contest. She writes about her experiences, and she has had a lot of pretty difficult ones in her young life. Her Daddy walked out on her family soon after her little baby sister died. Now her Mama has to work even harder to provide for Harper and her brother Hemingway. It seems like things couldn’t be much worse, but then the family gets evicted from their house. Harper ends up having to stay home from school to care for Hemingway, right at the time when she wants to be there most, to get her poems all perfect for the poetry contest. Feeling stuck and forced into circumstances no one would choose, Harper discovers a lot about responsibility, creativity and the secret places beauty can live.

I loved this book, from start to finish. Debut author, Ann Haywood Leal, is a writer worth watching. Her novel addresses challenging real world issues (homelessness and poverty) in a way that is entirely understandable for children, without shying away too much from how scary the situation is for this family. Kids will grasp the desperate circumstances of Harper’s family, and no doubt be interested in seeing how this girl copes in such an unimaginable situation for most children. You’ll fall for this character, for the way she is an ordinary child and yet sometimes sees the world with a kind of wisdom and forbearance beyond her years. I enjoyed the way that Harper’s poems were scattered throughout the narrative. I’ve read numerous children’s books with main characters who are aspiring poets, and I think that Leal did a fantastic job creating poetry that could indeed have been written by a child. The poems read very believably – never overly refined and seemingly too adult in tone and style. There are several memorable secondary characters as well, particularly Dorothy, an older woman Harper meets early in the story and who has secrets that Harper does not discover until much later. Leal has a way with words that seems graceful and natural, never forced. She tells the story simply but with real care.

Also Known as Harper has much to offer readers in its themes and would make an outstanding choice for literature circles in the classroom or book club discussions. I’m imagining conversations about hope and the way people judge each other. This narrative has a lot to say about compassion, feeling compassion for others even while you’re in a situation that deserves compassion as well. I was reminded of Waiting for Normal, although I thought Harper was a more believable character than Addie in Waiting for Normal, because while Harper was optimistic and hopeful, her strength was tempered by frustration and sadness too. I plan to recommend Also Known as Harper to many, and I will be looking out for Ann Haywood Leal’s next books. Ann will be here soon for an interview, and I’ll hopefully be giving away a few copies of her book when she visits.

Also Known as Harper is published by Henry Holt.

Other reviews:

A Patchwork of Books
Mrs. Magoo Reads

Shrinking Violet

violet3In her debut YA novel, Shrinking Violet, Class of 2k9er Danielle Joseph introduces us to Teresa Adams, an ordinary girl who hides a lot behind her super-shy exterior. Tere may be the shyest girl in her school, but she’s also an aspiring DJ who dreams of finding her place at the microphone of Miami’s hottest radio station, The SLAM. Tere’s stepfather just happens to own the station, so when a slot opens up at SLAM, Tere finds her way from mock broadcasting in her bedroom, into the spotlight at a real radio station. Soon Tere is leading a double life; shy-girl by day and sexy Sweet T radio hostess at night. It looks like she’s going to be able to keep the secret going until a SLAM songwriting contest gets launched, and the prize is a prom date with the mysterious Sweet T. Will Tere step away from her shrinking violet status and showcase the talent she’s been hiding all along? Hmmm… not telling! Grab a copy of this sweet story and find out for yourself.

There’s a lot of appeal in this book. First, I was attracted by the premise. I always like reading about a teen who wants to do something a little bit different with her life. I imagine that Tere’s passion for radio might inspire readers to consider that career path too. It was fun to grab a glimpse inside the workings of a radio station. Danielle Joseph worked as an intern at a bunch of radio stations in Boston, so she knows of what she writes. Tere is a lovely, ordinary girl, who worries a bit about her appearance, doesn’t get along so well with her hyper-critical mother, and struggles tremendously with shyness. It’s refreshing to read about such a realistic character. She isn’t in love with a vampire. She isn’t able to communicate with dead people. Her parents don’t own half of Manhattan. She’s a girl that so many teen readers will relate to immediately. That Tere is interesting and ordinary, speaks to Joseph’s strength with characterization. I believed completely in Tere, and felt invested in her journey towards greater confidence.

Shrinking Violet comes with a set of discussion questions, and I think the book will lead to great chat about finding what makes you happy, stepping out of your comfort zone and discovering confidence. I’m imagining a book party with a lot of good tunes and girl talk. This one is fun and real and it gets inside your head, like a good song you listen to over and over.

Shrinking Violet is published by MTV Books.

Class of 2k9 Author Interview: S. Terrell French

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Spring is obviously the season for debut authors. I’ve been lucky to host several of Class of 2k9 members recently here at the blog. Today, S. Terrell French, author of Operation Redwood, is here to tell us lots about her passion for writing, and for environmental activism. Her novel is the perfect book to celebrate Earth Day. Welcome!

What inspires you? (In addition to redwood forests, of course!)

In writing Operation Redwood, I was inspired by the voices of my own kids and their friends – their humor and curiosity and one-upsmanship. As I did more research on redwoods for the book, I was also inspired by the young people who put so much on the line in defending the old-growth redwoods during the battle over the Headwaters Forest in the 1990s.

Tell us a bit about your process for writing Operation Redwood. What came first, the story or the characters?

Operation Redwood began with an image in my mind of a boy who finds himself alone in an office and discovers an e-mail from a faraway girl, an e-mail that takes him into a new, unfamiliar world. The scene where he discovers the e-mail played like a movie in my mind and became the opening chapters of the book. I always saw the main character, Julian Carter-Li, as a rather reserved, watchful boy who is drawn into a series of adventures that he isn’t quite prepared for and doesn’t anticipate. His best friend, Danny Lopez, evolved from listening to my son’s hilarious and good-hearted friends. And I knew Robin, the girl who sends the e-mail that begins Julian’s journey to the redwoods, would be a passionate and smart (and a bit of a know-it-all) and care deeply about the land she’s grown up on.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first novel?

The most challenging aspect was having the hubris to believe I could write a book that had a chance of being published. Sometimes I’d walk into a book store or library and see all the fabulous new hardcovers and be completely daunted.

Did writing Operation Redwood mean many visits to the redwood forest? What research was involved?

I had been to the redwoods many times over the years, from Santa Cruz up to Redwood National Park in the northernmost corner of California. For background research on Robin’s home, Huckleberry Ranch, my family spent a few days on a wonderful ranch in Mendocino County with a couple who lived off the land and worked to protect and regenerate their redwoods. In addition, I did quite a bit of research on redwood ecology and history, the movement to protect the Headwaters Forest in the late 1990s, and Julia Butterfly Hill, the activist who inspires the kids in the book. Although these non-fiction elements are background for Julian’s adventures, I wanted to make sure they were accurate.

So many kids grow up in urban areas. How do you think they can become inspired to become environmentalists?

San Francisco is very urban, and yet the kids I know here are very knowledgeable about and interested in environmental issues. I do think a chance to experience some wildness helps children connect with nature. Many schools are able to bring kids on field trips to parks, farms, or forests in the area (like Julian, who has visited the redwoods at nearby Muir Woods on a school trip). And of course, city kids can visit recycling plants, study their water system, and visit the dump to see what happens to the trash that’s thrown away. They can also study birds, insects and small animals in their parks or backyards. Continue reading

Operation Redwood

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S. Terrell French’s debut Middle Grade novel, Operation Redwood, is an eco-adventure story that delighted me from start to finish. French combines spunky characters, authentic kid friendships and environmental activism to create a story that is exciting, heart-warming and inspiring.

Julian Carter-Li is living with his high-powered uncle while his photographer mom travels the globe. He doesn’t like this arrangement much, because his aunt and uncle are pretty unpleasant and make it obvious that they don’t really want Julian around. When Julian happens to read a very angry email sent to his Uncle Sibley from a girl who accuses Sibley of planning to destroy a stand of redwoods, he ends up getting pulled into a fight to save the forest. Along the way, Julian learns a lot about the magic of the redwoods, life in the country, friendship and family ties.

I always admire a writer who can create an MG novel that will surely appeal to both boys and girls. S. Terrell French has achieved this in Operation Redwood, as the novel offers well-drawn male and female characters and the adventure element whips along with plenty of risk and duplicity and kid-ingenuity, sure to attract all readers. MG novels with convincing characters and a non-stop story don’t happen everyday. More often it seems that you end up with more of one than the other. Not so here. I guess that’s what produces the feeling you’ve got by the end of Operation Redwood that you’ve read something substantial and lasting, and certainly a book you want to pass on to every kid you know.

I loved this story’s freshness, it felt especially “now” with its environmental emphasis, and I think there is something in the confident, savvy nature of the kids that young readers will recognize. Naturally, the story is packed with potential links for educators, and I imagine that it would make a smashing read aloud in the classroom. Kids need more books that demonstrate how they have the power to change the natural world for the better. For wannabe activists, tree-huggers, and all middle grade readers, Operation Redwood comes very highly recommended.

Operation Redwood is published by Amulet, an imprint of Harry N. Abrams.

Class of 2k9 Interview: Cheryl Renée Herbsman

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Debut novelist and Class of 2k9 member, Cheryl Renée Herbsman joins me today to discuss her YA novel, Breathing. Set on the Carolina coast, it tells the story of Savannah, who longs for romance to find its way to her one summer. It’s about young love and having the courage to embrace life’s adventures.

Welcome Cheryl!

What inspires you? (People / Places / Music / Art …)

…people who live in a soulful way, beautiful places in nature that are calm, quiet, and rich, music that comes from the heart, art that has movement and life hidden within it.

Describe your writing process.

I usually write while my kids are at school. I light candles and sometimes incense to set the time apart from the rest of the day. Then I sit on my bed with my laptop or sometimes pen and paper and listen. I try my best to avoid thinking up what is supposed to happen or what would make sense. Instead, I try to listen to what wants to be written and try to avoid critiquing it. Revisions come later. If I let that part of my brain get its foot in the door, I lose the flow.

What’s your cure for writer’s block?

Getting my inner critic out of the way. Usually if I’m blocked it’s because the thinking/critiquing side is taking too strong a role. If I can get that part to step aside and let me have a little time to be, the writing usually finds its way.

Tell us about the moment you learned you were going to become a published author.

Well, there was a lot of screaming involved. I warned my kids before I started screaming so they wouldn’t think something bad had happened. I was like, “I’m really happy and so I’m going to scream now.” And then proceeded to shriek, while they looked on, amused.

What surprised you most about publishing your first novel?

Lots of things surprised me. I think the most surprising was how long the process takes and how many people are involved. It’s really a major undertaking for a publishing house.

What was the most challenging thing to get right in Breathing?

The timeline was most difficult. The story takes place in one summer and it was challenging to make sure the timing of everything made sense. In particular, the issue was the program in the mountains that Savannah applies for. In the first draft, she didn’t find out about it until much later in the story, which made the steps she had to go through to apply too compressed. So pulling back the initial idea of it to right at the beginning of the story, and then spreading the steps through the story, worked better.

How are you and Savannah similar?

Well, we are both hopeful romantics and dreamers. I also did very well in school and tried too hard to be responsible as a kid.

Speaking of romance… here’s a picture Cheryl sent that shows her as a teen on the beach with her first love, Oded, who turned out to be her true love. She and her husband are celebrating 20 years of marriage.

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Savannah is quite the bookworm. What books did you read as a teen?

I read a lot. As a teen I particularly liked long books, the kind of sagas that went across generations. I liked reading romance and also Marion Zimmer Bradley, Paulo Coelho, and the spiritual fiction of Richard Bach. But I would read almost anything.

If you could be an invisible observer in a room full of teen readers, what are some of the things you hope they might say in their conversation about your book?

I hope they would like the story and the characters and that they would get why I included the dialect. But mostly I hope they’d feel inspired by the idea that love can be real and dreams can come true.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story that takes place at summer camp that is about friendship and self-discovery, and of course, romance :)

Thanks so much Cheryl for taking the time to answer these questions!

(Breathing is published by Viking)