Monthly Archives: April 2009

King of the Screwups

You know what they say, “Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something.” What if your “thing”, your big talent, was screwing up over and over again? Meet Liam Geller, King of the Screwups. To be fair, Liam is good at lots of things, like knowing how to put together the perfect outfit, and having girls fall for him, and being Mr. Popularity without even working at it. Unfortunately, none of these things matters to his dad, the super-successful CEO of MoneyVision. He wants Liam to smarten up, stop his “delinquent” behaviour and start seriously thinking about his future. All of this comes to a crisis point when Liam crosses the line in a big way and gets caught in the act. He gets kicked out of the house and his father’s brother, a gay glam-rocker DJ, gives him a place to stay for a while. The place? A trailer in upstate New York. His new roommate? “Aunt” Pete. Liam decides this is exactly the opportunity he needs to become the son his father always wanted. He is going to be a huge nerd and make his father proud… or will he screw that up too?

K.L. Going succeeds brilliantly with King of the Screwups, offering readers pure satisfaction in this hilarious and charming portrait of imperfection. Liam’s story might seem like one you’ve read before, the “coming-of-age / stuck-in-a-small town” narrative that is built for both comic and heart-warming moments, but Going takes it all to a new level. A huge part of the strength of the story is Liam’s voice – he’s sharp, super-funny but still realistic, and self-deprecating. He’s not the only memorable character. “Aunt Pete” is a complete original, and the relationship between uncle and nephew is one of the most entertaining and heartwarming aspects of the novel. This novel offers more than great comedy. It takes a critical look at how parental expectations can damage a kid’s sense of identity and really mess up a family. I also think the book could inspire interesting conversation about definitions of masculinity and what it means to be popular. Bottom line? A book that makes you think and entertains on every page.

King of the Screwups reminded me of the best kind of quirky indie movie, where the character keeps struggling because he can’t get out of his own way, but then in the end, he realizes that his way of doing things has been the right way for him all along. Read King of the Screwups to find out how Liam stumbles his way to enlightenment.

(This post is cross-posted at GuysLitWire)

Class of 2k9 Interview: Cheryl Renée Herbsman


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.


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)

Winston Breen Puzzle Party

Eric Berlin has masterminded the coolest promotion for his new book, The Potato Chip Puzzles. It’s the sequel to his first mystery, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen. He has planned a “Puzzle Party” / blog tour, where puzzlers travel about the kidlitosphere, collecting and solving puzzles and then entering to win some awesome book prizes. Here’s Eric’s explanation of how it’s all going down:

Librarians! Teachers! Booksellers! Parents!

Winston loves to puzzle his friends and classmates, and now he’s got some puzzles for you! Solve the puzzles and submit your answers, and you can win…

– A signed copy of Winston Breen’s latest puzzling mystery, The Potato Chip Puzzles.

– Or the grand prize: Every single one of G.P. Putnam’s Sons Spring 2009 children’s and YA books, plus advance reading copies of numerous Fall 2009 books!

Every day from April 16th to April 22nd, there will be a new puzzle waiting for you on a different blog:

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

Go to every blog! Solve every puzzle! Submit your answers by the end of each day to Every day, one randomly drawn correct answer will win a signed copy of The Potato Chip Puzzles!

And save your answers — you’re going to need them to solve the final puzzle on April 22nd. One randomly drawn person who submits the right answer to that puzzle will win not only The Potato Chip Puzzles but over two dozen other books, courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons!

Get ready to start solving! The party begins April 16th!

Those are the basics. So hey… April 16th! That’s today! Head over to the first stop to find the first puzzle and get solving. I’ll see you here on April 18th when I’ll be hosting the party.



Cheryl Renée Herbsman’s debut YA novel, Breathing, is a seriously romantic summer story, that I think is bound to appeal to many lovestruck teens. Savannah Georgina Brown lives with her mama and her brother Dog (Dogwood for long) in a super small house in an “itty bitty town” on the Carolina coast. Her daddy off and disappeared soon after Savannah’s birth and from the day he left, Savannah has struggled with serious asthma attacks and her mama has had to work twice as hard to keep the family running right and to pay for Savannah’s medical care. Savannah is a really good girl. She’s smart. She loves to read. She keeps an eye on her brother without much complaining, even though he is completely annoying and she must be the only teenage girl in the country who has to share a bedroom with her younger brother. Life becomes a whole lot less ordinary when she meets the gorgeous and charming Jackson Channing, who makes Savannah feel something she hasn’t experienced before. Suddenly a true romance springs to life beyond the pages of Savannah’s beloved romance novels, and when the young couple faces separation, Savannah wonders how she will stand losing the one person who seems to help her breathe easier.

I like what Cheryl Herbsman’s book says about the delicate balance between family responsibility and following your own dreams. It takes Savannah quite a while to become sure enough in herself to take the first big step away from home and the safety of what she knows best. This inner-journey was conveyed believably and I imagine that readers will find much to connect with in the way Savannah grows into herself throughout the novel. I found the strong Southern dialect that Herbsman was working with took some getting used to, especially for somebody like me who has absolutely no experience hearing or reading that way of speaking. It was a bit jarring at first, but I did find it less so as I moved through the story, once I had read enough of it for it to seem more normal. The intensity of young love comes through well. You really get a sense of how Savannah and Jackson feel so much in such a short time, in a way that is difficult for adults to understand. I thought this was an interesting theme to highlight in the book. As a side note, Cheryl Renée Herbsman reveals in her author bio that she experienced falling in love as a teen and the subsequent challenge of a long-distance relationship. Her then boyfriend is now her husband of 20 years. Clearly, this is territory that she remembers, which helps her to communicate her characters’ feelings convincingly.

Visit Cheryl’s lovely website for lots more on her writing. She’ll be here tomorrow for an interview too!

Breathing is available April 16th from Viking.

Red Glass


I’ve been on quite the amazing book streak recently, and one of the highlights of the past weeks has certainly been Laura Resau’s magnificently nuanced and poetic novel, Red Glass. If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading this book, I’m very envious, because it swept me up completely and immediately turned me into a serious Laura Resau fan.

Sophie’s life changes forever after one phone call from a hospital. The call concerns a six-year-old Mexican boy who was found in the desert, dehydrated and alone, the only survivor of a group of people who were following a guide across the border to Arizona. Her family gets this phone call because the boy, Pablo, was carrying Sophie’s stepfather’s business card. Pablo comes to live with the family and it isn’t long before they cannot imagine their lives without him. Sophie calls him her Principito, or Little Prince, and she loves him with her whole heart. A year later, Sophie’s parents get in touch with Pablo’s relatives in Mexico and Sophie journeys to Pablo’s hometown, along with her Aunt Dika, Dika’s new boyfriend Mr. Lorenzo and his son Ángel, so that Pablo can decide where he wants to live permanently. This journey is difficult for Sophie for many reasons. Of course, she can’t stand the thought of losing Pablo. Beyond this, she has always been afraid of just about everything, from food poisoning to germs to cancer. She has no idea how this trip will test her strength and change her life.

I am a big fan of foreign films. My family teases me because for every good one I manage to rent / drag them to see, I end up picking about 5 sketchy and/or completely weirdo ones (they’ll never let me forget the “Monks playing soccer movie”). Still, I’ll take a great foreign film over Hollywood schlocky drama any day of the week. The reason? With a great foreign film, I almost always feel like I’ve witnessed another way of being in the world, vastly different from my life, that I might not ever have the chance to experience. I felt this way the whole time I was reading Red Glass. It made me think a lot about what people need to be happy, what makes communities work, and how shared experiences can reach across time and culture.

Red Glass offers Sophie’s inner journey and physical journey to readers in lyrical prose that you’ll find yourself rereading and remembering long after you’re finished reading. This is a story about how memory shapes identity, and how harshness and beauty are found so often side-by-side. Sophie learns how to trust, to take risks and how to let go. I read a review that compared Resau’s writing to Barbara Kingsolver’s books, and I thought that this comparison was right on. With both of these writers, readers experience a strong sense of place, attention to setting and the natural world, rich characters and a definite soulfulness in the story and quality of the writing. I am sure Red Glass would only keep revealing more of its richness upon rereading. I plan to do just that before next month, when it is a featured title all of May at readergirlz.

Red Glass is published by Delacorte.

Monday’s Zen Moment: Picture & Poem

In an effort to set aside a sliver of zen time in my Monday insanity, I’ve decided to start a new weekly feature here at Shelf Elf. I’m calling it “Zen Monday.” I’ll post a picture that I hope might inspire you – and me – to carve a minute or two of quiet out of our busy Mondays. I’m going to try to manage to write a poem too. Like today.



Little bird
on the bridge
perched at the edge
he takes in the day

– the sky
the water
the feet passing by –

and lifts his wings
to catch the air
where the wind
will take him


copyright K. Millar, 2009
please do not reprint without permission

(Photo by Auro. See it and lots more of her lovely stuff at Flickr.)

Elf Envy: Random Roundup

Outside my window there’s a perfect blue sky, sun, and lots of new tulips stretching their heads up in my neighbour’s  front garden. To boot, there are so many delightful things around the kidlitosphere this Easter Sunday. So grab your cup of coffee, or your Easter bunny (mine came from here because I am special) and hang out awhile:

There’s a lovely interview at 7-Imp of Jane Yolen and her photographer son, Jason Stemple. Their books of poetry & photographs are gifts to teachers everywhere.

You’ve got to read readergirlz diva Mitali Perkins’ recent article for SLJ, Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books”. So many important ideas, expressed with eloquence. This is powerful stuff Mitali.

Longstocking Jenny Han has a contest going on at her blog. It’s a haiku contest inspired by her upcoming novel, The Summer I Turned Pretty. So… feeling poetic? Head over to Jenny’s blog and leave your summer haiku in a comment, then mention the contest at your blog and you’re officially entered. You could win an ARC and a USB mixtape of music that inspired Jenny’s novel. Cool!

A little interview with the super-private E. Lockhart at SLJ in which she mentions the Cybils in the same breath as the Printz and National Book Awards.

Finally, you must wander over to Miss Erin’s just to check out her fresh new blog design and smile at her happy-making banner photo. Love it.

Cures for Heartbreak


Margo Rabb’s Cures for Heartbreak is one of readergirlz’s featured titles this month, on the theme of “hope,” and I couldn’t be happier in this choice because this is a remarkable, finely-crafted piece of writing that manages to still have tremendous accessibility and appeal for the teen audience. This said, everyone needs to read it. Everyone who has lost someone. Everyone who has as yet been spared the experience of losing a close family member. I reread Rabb’s book this week, because I had loved it so much the first time around and I wanted to review it here.

In Cures for Heartbreak, we meet 15-year-old Mia Pearlman, whose mother dies of melanoma a mere twelve days after being diagnosed. At the beginning of the novel, Mia remembers thinking that there is no way she believed she could go on if her mother died. Her mother dies, and Mia goes on. That’s what this book is about. It’s about how Mia discovers what going on with her life means. She feels this pull between wanting things to stay as close as they can to how things were before her mother’s death and wanting something new to start. This is the real tension in the story. We get to know her father and sister and see how the family experiences this huge loss in a story that manages to be heartbreaking, funny and full of hope.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in a post that when you read a lot of books, you reach a point when you can identify almost immediately writers with a true gift for language. There are writers who are born to write, as opposed to those who can write but perhaps don’t use words with a consistent and natural giftedness. Margo Rabb is one of those rare and gifted artists. Her prose never reads as forced or thin or jarring. The characters’ voices are spot on, like you’re overhearing a conversation in someone’s living room, bedroom or hospital room. You will find yourself imagining what might be the future lives of the characters in this novel because they seem like they could live in your neighbourhood, just down the street.

I believe that a number of the chapters in this book were published first as short stories, and I enjoyed the way that each chapter could be experienced and appreciated as a self-contained work. This said, the novel isn’t strictly episodic in structure, with giant jumps in time between chapters, but you can linger over each story as a lovely piece in and of itself, and each one feels like it has its own message for the reader about living with loss.

A huge part of what makes this book so satisfying is the fact that while the subject matter could become just horribly depressing, it never does. It’s sad, of course, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t read as authentic. Rabb has managed to offer readers a glimpse into the complexity of life after losing an immediate family member – how it’s devastating and confusing and sometimes bizarrely funny. I think this is such an important book for people to read if they haven’t experienced a profound loss, because it is the sort of real story that might help you to navigate your way when loss finds you.

There was quite a bit of buzz around this book when it first came out, because of the quality of the work and also related to the fact that it was sold as YA when Rabb hadn’t really planned it that way. If you’re interested in YA lit, who reads it, and who should read it, you might want to take a look at that discussion. Here is a link to an essay in the NY Times, by Margo Rabb: I’m YA and I’m OK, and a radio interview on the same subject. Super interesting. Super fine book. Read Cures for Heartbreak, and read Impulse by Ellen Hopkins, the featured title at readergirlz for April.