Monthly Archives: April 2009

Author Interview: K.L. Going

kingkelnewCheck out the coolness today! K.L. Going, fab author of some of my favourite books ever (Garden of Eve, Saint Iggy, Fat Kid Rules the World) is here, right now, to chat about her new book, King of the Screwups (which also rocks, just to keep the theme going). Let’s get this interview started!

What’s your favourite thing about the writing process?

The idea phase is definitely my favorite part. I love when I get hooked into something and I’m so excited about it. There’s so much raw potential when you’re first thinking up the story. Once you get going you have to accommodate things like structure and page count, but when it’s an idea it’s still pure.

What drives you crazy about the writing process?

For me, it’s the stuff that comes afterwards (which isn’t really part of the writing process, but is definitely part of the publishing process) that drives me crazy. Waiting for reviews. Trying to market yourself and your work. Moving from introvert to extrovert whether you want to or not!

What inspired King of the Screwups? What inspires you in general?

I’m inspired by all sorts of things. Sometimes it’s a song or a book that catches my interest. For King of the Screwups it was a single photograph of Liam Gallagher from the band Oasis. He’d just trashed a hotel room and he was standing in the middle of this HUGE mess, yet he managed to look entirely innocent, as if he had no idea how the mess had happened. I loved the photo and the way it made me wonder about his character. He inspired my main character, who is definitely a loveable screwup, so I named him Liam.

Best writing advice you’ve given / received:

Live a good life. Our most authentic writing comes from our experiences, so go out there and experience as much as you can.

Do you have any writing rituals?

No. I wish I had more structure, but I tend to write as the spirit moves me. Lately, I try to start my day by updating my Twitter site and Facebook, just to get my brain and fingers warmed up, but after that it’s hit or miss. Some days I get a lot done and other days… nothing.

Liam struggles with staying true to his talents and his natural identity. Have you ever felt pressure to change something about yourself because others didn’t understand and judged you?

I think we all experience this to some degree when we’re teenagers (unless we’re incredibly self confident at an early age). I always wanted to fit in and often downplayed some of my more nerdy aspects. For example, I’ve always loved astronomy and had a geeky affinity for UFO stories and the like, but I never admitted these in front of my friends. As I’ve gotten older, I’m much less ashamed to admit my inner geek! Continue reading


Here Lies Arthur

arthurIf you’ve read one Philip Reeve book, you’ve probably read all of Philip Reeve’s books, because he’s the sort of writer whose stories make you want to head out and read everything he’s ever done. So it should please his fans that his latest offering, Here Lies Arthur is a gutsy, wholly original revamp of the traditional Arthurian legend.

Readers will recognize Myrddin (Merlin), Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), Bedwyr (Lancelot), Peredur (Perceval) and of course, Arthur, but there is a lot that’s different in this retelling. Myrddin the bard takes centre stage as the brains behind Arthur’s brawn and lust for power. In fact, Reeve presents Myrrdin as a myth-maker, as the storyteller who manipulates events to portray Arthur, who is fairly unimpressive in reality, as a remarkable leader. The narrator is Gwyna, an orphan slave-girl taken in by Mryddin to work as his assistant. At Myrrdin’s side, Gwyna ends up learning a great deal about politics, deception and gullibility.

This book will make you think. It will make you consider the power of one person to “spin” an event to suit whatever purpose or plan they might wish. In this way, Reeve has created a novel with an instant connection to the present. This old, old story feels suddenly modern and easy to relate to current figures and events, to the media and celebrity.

Those who hold the original Arthurian characters very close to their hearts might not want to read this version, because I think it will change forever how you think about the story. It will make you wonder and ask questions.  Here Lies Arthur is about blood and betrayal, loss and love and trickery. Very highly recommended.

Poetry Friday: Issa’s Cherry Blossoms

Around this time of year there’s this part of me that aches a little bit for the house where I grew up, which my mom sold several summers ago. Right about now everything will be starting to bloom. The lilacs all along the roadside will be coming out in a few weeks and it will be glorious and fragrant. I used to wander down the concession in the spring when I was a kid with a pair of scissors in one hand, and come back home again with my arms full of flowers. I could barely believe that they just grew on the side of the road and they didn’t really belong to anyone. It made me think the world was wonderful, to make something so beautiful just because, not for anyone in particular.

This haiku made me remember those days and wish I could go back again.

in my old home
which I forsook, the cherries
are in bloom
– Issa

(photo © Michael Jastremski for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike)


The best part of my day was coming home and finding an ARC of this:


I am one very lucky elf.

Thank you ARC gods! Something just moved to the tippy top of the TBR pile.

Class of 2k9 Author Interview: S. Terrell French


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


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.

Monday’s Zen Moment: Picture + Poem


On this, my second “Zen Monday,” I’m offering a picture and a poem to invite you to take a few minutes away from working / planning / doing.


Someone left the gate open
and went ahead
along the grassy path into
the misty day.

There it is,
an invitation
to follow or else
to walk away
taking the mystery
with you.

(Copyright K. Millar, please do not reprint without permission)

(Photo attribution: ARendle)

Author Interview: Eric Berlin


As promised, here is my interview with author and puzzler Eric Berlin. He’s just released The Potato Chip Puzzles, a follow-up to his first novel about puzzle-expert, Winston Breen. Before I get to the interview, I am happy to announce the winner of yesterday’s puzzle contest, posted here at Shelf Elf. The winner receives a signed copy of The Potato Chip Puzzles. Your prize will be sent to you via Eric.

THE WINNER IS… Laura Jewell! Congrats Laura!

Read on to discover why puzzles matter and learn Eric’s best puzzle memory ever.

Welcome Eric! So, why do puzzles matter?

Well, they do and they don’t. I’m a total puzzle addict, so don’t get me wrong, but I’m not about to equate crosswords and sudoku to the applied sciences. What they are, first and foremost, is fun. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, especially when I’m talking to kids.

However, secretly, I think puzzles matter a great deal. And that’s because everything is a puzzle when you really think about it. I got through my years of math by pretending all those algebra problems were puzzles. Every single day, people who couldn’t possibly care less about puzzles go to their offices… and solve puzzles. How can I treat this patient? How can I improve my company? Where am I supposed to put all these boxes? We’re all constantly faced with challenges that require fast, flexible, logical thinking. Puzzles help prepare your brain for everything else it has to deal with.

How has solving and creating puzzles changed your life?

My love of puzzles led me to discover the National Puzzlers’ League, the nation’s oldest organization of puzzle-lovin’ folks. For certain people, it takes about fifteen seconds of hanging out at an NPL convention before you look around say, “Wow, I am home. I’m going to be friends with these people for the rest of my life.” I am one of those people.

What’s your favourite type of puzzle to solve, and to create?

I love to solve “puzzle hunts,” very much like what I’m presenting this week with Winston’s Puzzle Party. Multiple, varied puzzles, each with its own answer… and then all answers tie together in some way to give you a final, winning solution. I love solving these by myself, and I love solving them with teams of friends. I travel quite a bit each year to puzzle events of just this kind.

And I like creating puzzle hunts, too. Winston’s Puzzle Party was a lot of fun to put together. I’ve created events for the passionate puzzlers at Will Shortz’s annual crossword tournament (you can even buy that one, if you’re so inclined), and I’ve created events for high school students who didn’t care all that much about puzzles but wound up having a lot of fun. I’m starting to explore doing hunts for younger kids now, so if you’re a school or library and want to do a puzzle event for your kids, contact me.

What’s your biggest tip for novice puzzlers with short attention spans?

Don’t worry if you can’t solve something to its completion. Nobody’s watching you, nobody’s judging you. Do the puzzles you enjoy, do them for as long as you want, and don’t worry about what anybody else thinks. I’ve got stacks of half-completed logic puzzles around my house, because I’m not great at logic puzzles even though I enjoy attempting them. I’d rather start afresh with a new one than sit there trying to figure out where I’ve made a mistake.

Your best puzzle memory:

Oh, there are so many. But let’s go with this one: At a puzzle event I created for my local high school, I turned the entire science wing into a sort of “wordplay maze.” I wrote a number of words on each blackboard, and solvers had to go from room to room, looking for particular words. They’d have to anagram them or performing some other feat of wordplay, which would then lead to the next word they had to find.

It was chaos. We had over a hundred kids participating in the event, and at one point I think they were all working simultaneously on this one puzzle. Kids were running around like crazy trying to find the right words. Time and again, I watched kids trying to find a particular word look right at the word they needed and go zooming past it, because they were moving too fast to think properly.

In the middle of all this insanity, there was a team of three girls. They had pulled a number of chairs together and were sitting quietly. They had gone from room to room, writing down the words on each blackboard. That done, they were able to sit calmly while everybody else was running around like a bunch of lunatics. They solved the puzzle in about five minutes—most teams took half an hour or more. I was proud of them like they were my own kids.

Thanks for the interview Eric! Good to know that half-finished puzzles are allowed after all!

Puzzling with Eric Berlin and Winston Breen

Puzzle folk have always intimidated me. They’re smart. Sometimes scary smart. You know, the type who does the weekend crossword every Saturday in your local coffee spot while you’re looking at the Style section of the newspaper? When I worked at the bookstore, there was this older customer who came in pretty frequently and over time, tried to turn me into a crossword puzzle person. She was so sweet and patient and was obviously a true puzzle afficianado. I tried not to let her down. I read some books about cryptic crosswords. I worked at it. Let’s just say I’m not a natural. I do remember feeling this awesome rush when I would actually get one of the words after an embarrassing length of time. It was exhausting.

Today I offer a special puzzle-related treat. Eric Berlin, puzzle-master, author and super-smart guy, has written a second book in his series about Winston Breen, mystery-solver and puzzle-addict. The first book, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, was met with great reviews. The sequel, The Potato Chip Puzzles (Putnam, May 2009)  is every bit as ingenious and entertaining as its predecessor, and is sure to be intellectually-stimulating for puzzlers everywhere.

Eric has put together a “Puzzle Party” to celebrate the upcoming release. Here’s how it works. Each day he’s posting a puzzle at a blog (my blog today!) and you have the chance to solve it. When you solve it, send your answer to At the end of each day of the party, one randomly drawn correct answer with receive a signed copy of The Potato Chip Puzzles. Cool, yes? You’ll want to save your answers along the way because they will help you to solve the final puzzle on April 22nd. The randomly drawn winner of that last puzzle will be super lucky and receive more than 2 dozen titles from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Wow! Here’s the schedule:

April 16th: A Patchwork of Books
April 17th: Fuse #8
April 18th: Shelf Elf (HERE!! NOW!! TODAY!!)
April 19th: Books Together
April 20th: Bookshelves of Doom
April 21st: Chicken Spaghetti
April 22nd: Oz and Ends

If you have a question about the rules, chances are it is answered here. Who knows? Perhaps I will find renewed inspiration and turn into a smarty-pants puzzler after all.

So, here is the link to today’s puzzle:’s Puzzle Party – 3 – Treasure Hunt.pdf

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting an interview with Eric about his love of all things puzzley, and I will also announce the winner of today’s particular puzzle contest.

Get to work!