Category Archives: Class of 2k9

Class of 2k9 Author Interview: Lauren Bjorkman

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Lucky us! Class of 2k9er Lauren Bjorkman is hanging out at Shelf Elf today, celebrating her awesome debut, My Invented Life. Every minute of her book is a romp. Every minute of her book made me happy. Welcome Lauren!

If you had to sell My Invented Life to a potential teen reader in two sentences or less, what would you say?

Ack! I hate selling anything—trauma from trying to unload newspaper subscriptions in middle school. That said, here’s my attempt:

If you have a sister that drives you crazy, if you’ve ever dreamed of being on stage, if you enjoy cursing in Shakespearean, if you’ve ever kept a secret, read this book.

Tell us about your journey to publication and the moment you learned your book would become a book.

The first step was all about overcoming fear. What if I had nothing worthwhile to say? But after I finally dared to write and finish a novel, I was hooked. Still, it took a few years of tapping away on my computer, getting critique, and going to workshops to learn the craft. During that time, I submitted my first (yet unpublished) novel to editors.

Later, after writing a second novel, I moved onto querying agents. In the midst of preparing my submission, a happy event shortened the process. I took a novel writing course taught by an author and MFA instructor. He referred me to his agent based on the piece I brought to his workshop. And his agent wanted to represent me.

A few months later, Henry Holt offered on my book. I think I hyperventilated because the whole memory has a dream-like quality. After I hung up with my agent, I paced around my house, calling family and friends who’d supported me over the years (the ones who kept their questions as to why I kept writing after so many rejections themselves). Thankfully, we live in the era of cordless phones, or I would’ve tied myself up.

Best writing advice for aspiring authors: To thine ownself be true.
Best cure for writer’s block: Sit down and write anything, even if it’s tripe and entrails. Eventually something good will come out of you.
Best snack while writing: Things that go crunch—popcorn, nuts, tortilla chips, even carrots. And large doses of chocolate for when you’re feeling blue. I feel very sorry for writers who don’t like chocolate.

Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline? Are you a post-it person? Do you have any secret writing tricks that are “uniquely Lauren”?

Usually one idea keeps coming back to me—sort of like a haunting—and I go with it. After that, I begin to imagine my main character. I love to people watch, so the spark for my protagonist often starts with an incident I observe. In the case of Roz, the incident happened at a craft fair. A (very tall) young woman crossed the street to join a group. She danced, flung her arms around, talked animatedly, and then bounced away like an overgrown Labrador. After she left, some of her friends shook their heads and whispered, as if to say. “What was that?” Thus Roz—the one girl tornado—was born.

I’ve never successfully used an outline. This translates into beaucoup revising. Not that I haven’t tried outlining, but it sucks all the joy out of writing for me. As I get ideas for character and plot, I scribble them down on bits of paper I happen to have handy. Later, I transcribe my “notes” at the end of the manuscript. Recently, when I sent the second draft of my work-in-progress to my agent, I forgot to delete these notes. She wrote back, very puzzled about my “ending.” Oops. Continue reading

My Invented Life

inventedlifePart of the great fun and excitement in reading debut authors is that if you find a really good one, you feel filled up with happiness in thinking of all of the great reading that is in store for you down the road, as this writer keeps on writing. This is exactly my feeling about Lauren Bjorkman. Her first novel, My Invented Life, is a fantastic look at sisterhood, drama geeks, and the far-from-simple subject of sexual identity. Funny with depth = my idea of pure reading delight.

Roz and Eva have always been as close as sisters can be. They share interests and friends and secrets. Sometimes, they’ve shared boyfriends (though not at the same time). In fact, currently, Roz would be more than happy if Eva would hand over her guy, sexy skate god Bryan. Roz hasn’t ever minded much that Eva is the prettier sister, the more talented sister, the more popular sister. She loves Eva like crazy, and that’s why it’s driving her nuts that Eva seems to be shutting her out. When Roz gets the idea that Eva has fallen hard for her friend and cheerleading partner, Carmen, she tries to get Eva to come out, but it isn’t so simple. So Roz comes up with a crazy scheme hoping to inspire her sister to open up. She decides to pretend she’s lesbian, to try coming out just to see what happens and gauge the response of their group of friends. Needless to say, her plan gets a lot of attention, and far from making things easier, just ends up turning everything upside down. Toss into the mix all of the gender-bending action in their school production of As You Like It, and Roz can barely keep up with the general insanity. It turns out that her invented life is no easier to manage than her real life, but it sure makes her think about labels and trust and the course of true love.

There is a wild and crazy energy to this book, and Roz is at the heart of it all. Whether she’s skidding into dangerous territory with the sleazy-but-hot Bryan, or designing a new “femme lesbian” style for her starring role in “The Lesbian of Yolo Bluffs High”, or reading sentimental coming out stories online, she’s always going about 100 miles an hour. She springs off the page. She’s one of the most “alive” characters I’ve come across lately, like a gust of fresh air. You won’t always agree with her choices, but you can’t stop yourself from wishing she was your best friend in high school. Think of all the fun/trouble you’d have had.

Another great pleasure in My Invented Life is the cast of quirky secondary characters. Just when you think you’ve got each one figured out (“Oh yeah, there’s the nice guy love interest…” “OK, here’s the damaged but cool girlfriend…”) Bjorkman twists things around to show you a side of a character that you hadn’t predicted. Nobody is one dimensional (except maybe Bryan, “the sleazeball”). You know you’ve arrived at a whole different level of YA fiction when you find yourself imagining novels following the lives of several secondary characters.

If you’re feeling a little bit uncertain about the playful way in which Roz responds to her sister’s sexuality, I hear ya. At the beginning I was uneasy about Roz “pretending” to be a lesbian, just for the fun of it, treating coming out as a game, or as acting practice. But fear not! Bjorkman takes Roz from her prankish and somewhat disrespectful starting place towards real insights about the complexity of sexual identity. I was happy with the “all’s well that ends well” spirit of the ending, but perhaps there might be readers out there who feel it romanticizes the reality of teens who question their sexual identity. I’m curious to see what others say.

My Invented Life is a romp, but the issues it plays with are certainly worthy of discussion. I’ll be reading whatever Lauren Bjorkman writes next. (I’ll also be playing with the Elizabethan Curse Generator I found linked at her blog. Thanks Lauren!)

My Invented Life is published by Henry Holt tomorrow (September 29/2009).

Class of 2k9 Author Interview: Megan Crewe

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I‘m very happy to be hosting fellow Torontonian Megan Crewe today for an interview. Megan is the author of the YA paranormal novel Give Up the Ghost (check out my review). She’s also a Class of 2k9 member. Weclome Megan!

What inspires you?

Um, everything? :) Honestly, inspiration can come from anything—a conversation I overhear on the bus, a book I’m reading or a movie I just saw, an article in a newspaper or online, something I see out the window. But I find I’m most inspired by other stories, in all their forms.

Tell us about the moment you learned Give Up the Ghost would be published.

It wasn’t really one single moment—even the moment we got the first offer was drawn out because an editor told my agent he was going to offer a couple weeks before the offer actually came. And even once you have an offer you can’t assume anything until it’s negotiated and official! But that time period was filled with a lot of celebrating and many excited conversations with my husband and family and close friends, and waiting eagerly to be able to share the news more widely.

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

The most challenging part of writing Give Up the Ghost was the voice. It was the first novel I’d written in first person. I knew that telling it in Cass’s voice was the right thing to do, but it was difficult finding a balance between staying true to her personality and the way she perceived herself, and still revealing the vulnerabilities that made her sympathetic (even if she liked to pretend they didn’t exist).

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

I’m definitely an outliner. I never write a book without a scene-by-scene outline on index cards. It’s my way of “testing out” the book to make sure it’s ready to be written—because if I get stuck or bored just writing the outline, then the story idea’s not ready yet. But while I’m writing I’m still discovering all sorts of things about the characters and events that I didn’t think of while I was outlining, and I often make changes to the outline as I go to reflect important things I’ve figured out.

What books have you read that made you want to write for young people?

It wasn’t specific books I read so much as the experience of being a teenager. Books were so important to me at that age (not that they aren’t now, but the intensity isn’t quite the same), as a way to visit other worlds, to understand different perspectives, to consider new ideas, to figure out who I was. I love writing for readers who get so much out of books.

What is your favourite scene in Give Up the Ghost?

I can’t say too much about it because it’d be spoilery, but I’d have to say my favorite is the scene near the end when Cass finds Tim by the lake. It’s such an important moment for both of them.

Why do you think it’s so hard for Cass to “give up her ghosts”?

I think for Cass the ghosts (both literal and figurative) are her protection. As long as she believes her ghostly friends are all she needs, she doesn’t have to feel bad that her classmates shun her. As long as she focuses on what happened in the past, she doesn’t have to think about her problems in the present. The trouble is, of course, that she’s shutting herself off from a lot of good things, too. Continue reading

Author Interview: Class of 2k9 Joy Preble

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I’m pleased to welcome Class of 2k9 author Joy Preble to the blog for an interview today. Joy is on a whirlwind tour of the kidlitosphere, promoting her debut title, Dreaming Anastasia. Be sure to check out my review of her book, and comment on the review post for a chance to win a copy of Dreaming Anastasia. Welcome to Shelf Elf Joy!

If you had two sentences in which to sell Dreaming Anastasia to a teen reader, how would you describe your book?

Sixteen year old Anne bumps into handsome and mysterious Ethan and suddenly she’s got powers she doesn’t understand, a history altering mission she may not want, and a growing attraction to this blue-eyed stranger. Add in some determined bad guys, Baba Yaga the witch and Anastasia Romanov – not quite so dead, it seems – and much wackiness ensues.

Your novel is an amazingly complex story, with fairy tale/ fantasy/ historical/ contemporary elements all woven together. As I was reading, I wondered two things. First, how did you come up with such a creative, complicated genre-bending idea? Second what was your writing process? Did you do a lot of outlining to keep all the plot threads straight?

I really had to laugh at this question. Okay, I didn’t laugh. But the initial truth is that this is what comes of writing a debut novel. You don’t always know you’re doing something really spiffy like genre-bending. And then when you realize mid-way through that what you’ve done is attempt multiple genres with three alternating narrators in first person, you’re too far gone to go back! Even my agent at the time continued to re-define how she pitched the project. I think we were initially calling it urban fantasy until we decided that maybe it wasn’t really that, exactly. But it was definitely, in retrospect, kind of risky. Is this literary? Is it commercial? The good part was that I was such a novice that I didn’t know enough to be afraid! I just kept writing. The idea of Anne bumping into Ethan and getting super powers and being given the task of saving Anastasia came first. Which of course led to the alternate history aspects. The folkloric elements got woven in after that. Honestly, now I ask myself, what could I have been thinking? But that’s the beauty of the muse. Sometimes it just gives you a story and you have to brave enough to go for it. And yes, eventually, I did keep bullet point outlines and reams of notes, both handwritten and in the form of comments on Word documents. As you say, it was a lot to keep straight. I was also blessed with an amazing copy edit team at Sourcebooks who dug in fearlessly near the end to make sure that everything tracked. That part was also fun for me, because here is this group of people who’ve read your every word so obsessively that they can actually say, “You know, this contradicts something on page 15. You need to check it.”

What aspect of your novel are you most proud of?

That’s not a question anyone has asked me before, so thanks! I guess if I had to pick just one aspect, I’d say that I’m proud of creating more than one strong female character. I would say that’s a commonality in most of what I write – a consciousness that I want my female characters to meet the adversity of their situations with an inner-strength, even when they don’t know what the heck they’re doing. Anne may have no clue what to do with these powers she suddenly has, but she’s going to dig deep and try to figure it out. And I hope readers get that.

How much of a Russian history and culture buff were you prior to writing Dreaming Anastasia?

When I was about thirteen, I read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra, this great biography of the Romanovs and their assassination and the whole Rasputin thing. It was such a huge, tragic tale! My maternal grandmother was from Russia, so I suppose that factored into my interest as well. But once I’d dug into all that, I was hooked. In college, I read more actual Russian literature – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov. It was always so over the top dramatic. So much cold. So much suffering. So much vodka consumption! All those names and diminutives, like how Mikhail becomes Misha. I just ate it up. The fairy tale part came later, though, when I was writing Dreaming Anastasia. Collections of Russian fairy tales by Aleksandr Afanas’ev – it’s amazing stuff and very different from Grimm’s or Disney, obviously. Much less obviously moral. Much more eh, you didn’t expect that little sucker, did you?

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Dreaming Anastasia Review & Giveaway

dreaming*Note: Winners of Dreaming Anastasia have been selected and contacted. Thanks for your comments!*

Over the past year I’ve started reading many more YA titles, and the more I read, the more I recognize that creativity in YA land is hard to find, particularly when it comes to novels with female main characters. There are so many stories about essentially the same kind of girl, facing the same sort of problem, with the same types of friends, family issues etc. etc. etc. Yawn. This summer especially I was getting more and more irked by the cookie-cutter nature of some of the teen titles I read. Enter Joy Preble.

Joy is a Class of 2k9 author whose debut YA novel, Dreaming Anastasia, will satisfy any reader’s craving for a story will serious creativity. As I got caught up in the world of Joy’s story, I kept stopping and thinking, “Wow, this is one of the more inventive plots I’ve read in a while.” So, here goes. I’ll try to capture it all in a short teaser.

Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, survived the attack on her family, but she is trapped. Something saved her and for years she has been a prisoner. Her only escape comes through writing to her dead family and dreaming of the past. In present day Chicago, Anne Michaelson’s life is turning upside down. She’s been having terrifying dreams where she witnesses horrific events and sometimes feels as if she is someone else. Anne doesn’t share her nightmares with anyone until she meets Ethan, a mysterious stranger who offers Anne an outrageous and frightening explanation for what she’s been experiencing. Anne discovers she has powers that seem impossible.  She finds that she is linked to a place and a legendary family she never knew, and that it is her destiny to free the Russian princess.

There is real genre-bending (or genre-combining) going on in Dreaming Anastasia. It’s part historical fiction, with enough detail about the Romanovs to inspire readers’ curiosity and make fans of historical fiction feel at home. It’s also semi-fantastical, since Anne and Ethan and others have strong magical powers that they use for good and bad throughout the story. Preble works in the traditional Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch famous for eating up children with her iron teeth and for her strange hut that scrabbles around the forest on hen’s legs. Baba Yaga turns out to be one of the most unusual and captivating characters in the book, a witch with complex and unpredictable motivations. Finally, a lot of the story is entirely realistic, focusing on Anne’s day-to-day school and family life, standing in contrast to the fairy tale/fantasy/history elements interwoven throughout. I liked this combination very much because all of the different pieces really kept the pace of the narrative moving along rapidly. While I didn’t feel that any piece was significantly underdeveloped, as a historical fiction fan, I would have been happy to have more on Anastasia and her family’s past, but that’s really more of a personal preference than a flaw in the book. Continue reading

Give Up the Ghost

ghostDebut author and Class of 2k9 member Megan Crewe is all set to launch her YA paranormal novel, Give Up the Ghost in September. In fact, I’ll bet Megan could teach a seminar for new authors on how to promote a novel. She’s got lots of cool stuff happening right now as she prepares to send her story out there into the world. Take a look:

First, an amazingly cool giveaway where you can win great books (including Megan’s, of course), sitckers, bookmarks, a Chinese lantern, and ghost scents (that is such a creative idea – go Megan!). All you have to do is spill a secret by August 24th.

Fun widgets for your blog and website.

The Unofficial Soundtrack to the novel to get you in the ghostly mood.

A character quiz.

The trailer, made by Miss Megan herself. Impressive:

Megan is even cool enough to post seemingly simple instructions for how to make your own book trailer.

And finally, you’ve got one more day (till August 13th) to sign up to be a part of 1 ARC Tours for Give Up the Ghost. By signing up, you’ve put yourself on a waiting list to receive, read, review and pass on 1 ARC of Megan’s book. (Open only to readers in the U.S. Phooey!)

So now, I suppose we should get to the book itself, and why it’s worth reading.

Cass McKenna would rather hang out with ghosts than “breathers.” This is because she’s found ghosts won’t betray you the way living people can. A side benefit to keeping company with the dead is that ghosts can find out all of the dirty secrets that the cool kids try to hide. Cass takes these secrets and plots the best moment to expose them. This set up gives Cass power, but it also makes her unpopular and labels her a freak. No one can figure out how Cass knows what she knows. Until Tim. When Tim, VP of the student council and member of the cool crowd, figures out what Cass can do, he tries to convince her to help him contact his recently deceased mom. As she makes a connection with the living for the first time in a while, Cass is forced to rethink hiding with the ghosts.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the fact that a lot of the time, you won’t like Cass very much. Sure, she’s damaged and you recognize this and feel sorry for her, but she is prickly and vindictive and that makes it hard to feel wholly sympathetic towards her. I like a character that isn’t immediately likeable. The ghosts are well-developed characters too, especially Paige, Cass’s sister, and Norris, her best-ghost friend at school. You can understand why Cass finds it difficult to want to abandon their company for living and breathing peers. I liked the fact that you’ve got a character who isn’t freaked out by this strange ability, and in fact, finds it hard to let go of it. Crewe succeeds in offering readers a look at how loss changes people and can trap and isolate them, and how hard it is to come back to life after loss.

Give Up the Ghost is released in September, by Henry Holt. Megan Crewe will be here for an interview in the next few weeks.

When the Whistle Blows

whistleFran Cannon Slayton’s debut, When the Whistle Blows, has garnered a lot of critical attention, earning praise all over the book world including starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. It’s one of those books that you read and can’t quite believe is the author’s first novel. It’s a beauty. You need to read it not just because everyone else loves it. Read it because this is a story that will sneak up on you and leave you with the feeling that you’ve just read something that has all the makings of a classic.

When the Whistle Blows is the story of Jimmy Cannon, who lives in Rowlesburg, West Virginia. It’s the 1940s and the railroad is the lifeblood of the town, and it is also Jimmy’s passion. He is crazy about steam trains, and he dreams of working on the railroad just like his dad, who is the Baltimore and Ohio foreman. Jimmy’s dad doesn’t want his son to choose this life, because he predicts that the new diesel technology will cut railroad jobs dramatically. Yet Jimmy doesn’t want to walk away from the future he has always imagined.  The railroad is a part of his family and his identity. Each chapter in the novel is set on All Hallows’ Eve (Jimmy’s father’s birthday), between the years 1943-1949, so we watch Jimmy grow up from age 12 to 18. We follow Jimmy as he orchestrates pranks with his buddies, when he sneaks a look inside his father’s secret society, on the day of his high school football Championship game, and one night when he has a close encounter with a train.

This novel is a marvelous snapshot of small town boyhood in the 1940s. Fran Cannon Slayton really makes you understand the railroad and its huge significance to the people of Rowlesburg. Even though this novel is set long ago, it has real resonance in the current economic climate as lots of people struggle with letting go of livelihoods that they’ve known for decades. Really, just as much as this is a tremendously believable and rich coming of age story, it’s about change in a larger sense too. The change of a community and an entire society. Jimmy’s dad tells him, “Change comes Jimmy. It’ll thunder down the tracks towards you like an engine with the brakes gone out. And sometimes, there ain’t a dagburn thing you can do to stop it.” Jimmy learns what it means to face change and to make choices about whether to stand up against it, or to adapt and keep moving.

Woven into all of this is Jimmy’s complex relationship his father. Jimmy desperately wants to figure his dad out, but it takes him a long time to even begin to get to the bottom of his father’s mysterious past. I enjoyed the structure of Slayton’s book a great deal. Each chapter felt a bit like a self-contained short story, but they built upon each other and the overall effect was a richer appreciation of the characters and the family relationships. You really do get to watch Jimmy grow up, from an adventurous prankster / dreamer, into a young man who confronts loss and uncertainty for the first time. There’s romance, but it’s not of the lovey-dovey variety. It’s the romance of the railroad. You’ll feel it.

In When the Whistle Blows, there’s rule-breaking and humor, loss and family secrets, all explored and mingled together with such deftness and clean writing that readers will certainly recognize Fran Cannon Slayton as a new writer to watch.

When the Whistle Blows is published by Philomel, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group.

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

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Also Known as Harper

harper

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