Wednesday, January 30, 2013

YALSA Award Recap

Whew! That was fun, wasn't it? After getting the announcement time wrong (oh, it's AM not PM? Pacific time not eastern time???), I scrambled to find the link for the Youth Media Awards and only missed the first few minutes of the awards announcements.

This is the first time I actually watched the announcements live and holy cow were they fun. Nothing like a room full of grown-ups losing their minds after another grown-up says "[long dramatic pause] This is not my hat."

Of course, even my hefty Cybils reading load didn't ensure that I read all (or even most) of the YA book winners, but here are my thoughts on the books that I did read:

Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award (recognizing an African American author)

No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, honor book: This was a Cybils nominee, and I felt a little mixed. On the one hand, it's a truly amazing story about a man, Lewis Michaux, who builds a remarkable library in Harlem that becomes a sort of literary meeting place for African American thinkers and writers. It's told in an unusual way, a series of short vignettes from different perspectives over the course of Michaux's whole life. The result was that it felt at times like a very interesting Wikipedia article, skimming the surface of Michaux's life without getting in too deep, where I felt like a book concentrating on the most interesting and important years--the height of the bookstore's influence in the fifties and sixties--could have been more powerful. But it's a quick read and, like I said, a truly interesting story, so I'd certainly recommend it and was happy to see it get this honor.

Odyssey Award (recognizing audiobook production)
Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama, honor book: I am perhaps biased because Beth is a good friend, but when I saw her wonderful book up on the screen, I pretty much did back flips! Also, because I'm dumb, I chose that exact moment to go to the bathroom, and wandered back into the room just fast enough to see a flash of Beth's gorgeous cover (and have a heart attack). I haven't talked enough about Beth's book here on the blog, but for the record, it's a smart, well-done, well-researched romance/mystery/ghost story/historical/mermaid book (but not the kind of mermaids you're thinking of). It's like a mash-up of awesome, and I am so so thrilled that it got a little extra attention this week. I haven't listened to the audiobook, but hearing more about it, it sounds absolutely fantastic. Narrator Katherine Kellgreen researched all the book's different languages and dialects (contemporary, nineteenth century, mermaid-talk, Native American) to get them to sound just right.

Stonewall Book Award (for books relating to the LGBT experience)
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman, honor book: I also read this one for the Cybils, and it's another out-of-the-box pick. It's a series of poems told from multiple perspectives (including inanimate objects) about the murder of Matthew Shepard. I'm old enough to remember when this happened, but I thought it was interesting that this book was targeting kids who perhaps had never even heard of him. There's a good amount of information bookending the poems for readers who want to learn more, and it struck me as a book that would also have a lot of appeal for adults.

William C. Morris Award (for a debut YA book)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, honor book: I mentioned this one in my Top Ten Books of 2012 post, and for good reason--it's just an exceptionally well-written novel that deals with a hard subject with grace and intelligence. I really could see this book getting taught in high school classrooms and college lecture halls, and I think Danforth is a stunningly-gifted writer. That a debut showed such skill and talent is remarkable, and I'm sure she'll be a big name in the YA world for a long time.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, winner: I'll go back to my post last week, where I fully admit that I'm not a fan of fantasy, even as I can recognize that Seraphina is a well-written, smart little book. A lot of people were cheering this one on, and Hartman certainly has a lot of talent (also, I think it's great that the winner of a debut is also the first in a series--more please).

Michael L. Printz Award (for excellence in YA)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, honor book: No surprise here! Verity was on so many best-of lists and was just so damn good that it would have been a crime had it not ended up on the list somewhere. It was also the only book I was able to predict because (duh) everyone predicted it! Smart, well-written, entertaining, powerful--it has everything I'd look for (and more) in a great YA read.

Verity was also the only book on the list that I'd read. Aristotle and Dante, an honor book, had a remarkable day, winning the Belpre Award (for best book portraying the Latino culture) and a Stonewall Honor, and while it's been on my TBR list for a long, long time, I haven't gotten around to it just yet.

Dodger is another one I saw around but haven't read. It was a Cybils nominee, but other judges read it and, as I recall, thought it was well-done and charming. I've also never read a Terry Pratchett book before (I know!) so here's another to add to the list!

The White Bicycle sounds really interesting (also talk about dark horse!). It's the third book in a standalone series (so, I guess maybe companion book?) about a girl with Asperger's. It sounds ambitious and complex and also seriously unknown--it has only one review on Goodreads--but I'm guessing it'll get a lot more attention now.

And ditto In Darkness by Nick Lake, which won the Printz this year! I'm not sure if this one is technically SFF (based on the summary, it seems to have some fantasy flashes), but if it was fiction, it didn't even land on the Cybils nominees list. I have a request in at the library for this one, and I can't wait to read it. The room seemed to be stunned into silence for a second when it was announced, and I imagine the general response was whaaa? Which, I have to admit, is sort of great--I love when an unknown is able to blow away the competition. And it certainly makes for an exciting list and a great conversation!

Going back to my predictions on Monday, here were the five I thought had a chance at winning:
Code Name Verity
Never Fall Down
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Verity I got right, Cameron Post got a Morris nod, Seraphina won the Morris, and Moonbird got honors for best children's and YA nonfiction. The only book I picked that didn't win anything was Never Fall Down, which I have to admit surprised me, since it addresses a really fascinating topic in a very well-done way. 

All in all, I had a blast watching the ALAYMA ceremony. It's like book Oscars! Except cute librarian glasses and sensible shoes instead of fancy gowns and diamond necklaces. Congratulations to the winners, and I hope everyone has some great picks to add to their reading list!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Lat Minute Guesses for the Printz Award!

Hi guys! Today is a BONUS MONDAY POST in honor of the announcements of the Printz Award winner and honorees! I’ve been following the debate about potential Printz selections for months. I have absolutely no idea about what will end up on the list, but I thought it would be fun to take a guess about some likely contenders.

I wrote up a whole post before I realized that the announcements are RIGHT NOW. So, very quickly, here are my guesses:

Code Name Verity (feels like a lock)
Never Fall Down (one of the best of the Important Books)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (stunning dark horse)
Seraphina (I’m picking my blind spot here)
Moonbird (didn’t read, but I feel a nonfiction buzz and the Printz will need to recognize nonfiction someday)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Wrap Up: Rent-a-Dog Edition

She's pretty sure she's actually a lap dog
This week we finally got snow and sub-zero temperatures in Chicago, turning our apartment from "mostly cold" to "yeah, this is really seriously cold." Luckily, we were dog-sitting for the week, and so I had a warm pup to curl up and read with (and, um, nap with) during the day.

I've never owned a dog (although I was, for several years, a professional dog walker*), so it was fun to dip a toe into dog-ownership-waters, even though I suspect the husband was not as excited as I was (see above picture).

This week in blogging!

The Atlantic Wire put together a literary tour through historical YA, with stops from pre-history all the way up to the 80s

Listverse has a fun look at deleted chapters from famous books (although that Harry Potter one just sounds like bad fanfic)

Really fascinating article from Publishers Weekly with interviews of winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Awards on what happens after "the call"

The School Library Journal's Printz blog, Someday My Printz Will Come, has been speculating on potential winners all year and put together their top-five list

Anna and the French Kiss fans rejoice! Stephanie Perkins will release a deleted chapter from the book!

Over at her blog, agent Molly Jaffa is holding Open Question Day, so drop by if you have any questions about querying, writing, or publishing

One more thing

I hope you all have a great weekend! We're finally (finally!) not traveling this weekend and we're celebrating by attempting again to go see Les Mis. BUT I'm sort of more excited about this pan pizza recipe I found, which I'll be making before the movie (seriously. read the recipe and try not to salivate...). See you all Monday!

*Oh those cuh-razy college jobs. Other jobs that I've omitted from my resume: bartender, short-order cook, library book reshelver, dorm room cleaner, nanny, envelope stuffer, psychological test subject (not even kidding. Every time new research comes out of the Harvard Psychology Department, I'm like "Hey! I was in that experiment!" Skewing results since '04).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How I Built My Website and How You Can Build Your Own

This website launching Spring 1998!

Building a website is one of those things that I always knew I should be doing, like exercising regularly and eating my veggies. But for whatever reason, it always ended at the bottom of my To Do list.

Then a few weeks ago, my crit partner told me she was contacted by an agent who visited her website and wanted to know more about her.

"Hmm..." I thought, as "Build a Website" moved a few notches higher on the list.

A couple of weeks after that, she gets another email from another agent, asking to see more of her work after visiting her website. And that was it, I finally lit a fire under my butt and decided to start the strange and sometimes daunting process of getting my own website.

First, some website basics for the truly uninitiated (knowledgeable people, feel free to correct me in the comments). To have your very own website with, you need two things: someone to register your domain name (that's the "") and someone to host your files (getting the actual content from your computer to the Internet).

Step 1: Research
There are loads of different domain registrars and hosting companies out there, and they all offer different levels of service, accessibility, and value. Some hosting companies will also register domains, usually for free. Some will give you email accounts (so your email would be "").

This is the part that can be really overwhelming, because there are so many different options but the average person just wants something that looks nice and isn't too expensive. I checked out two Lifehacker posts, The Five Best Domain Name Registrars and The Five Best Web Hosting Companies, for some guidance.

I also solicited opinions from friends on Facebook. This led my awesome techie friend Doug to write me a whole epic poem of suggestions, the first of which I found extremely helpful: once you decide on a name to register, don't use any online tools to check if it's available until you plan on buying it. Doug says it's not uncommon for those names to disappear after people check them.

Step 2: More Research
Take some time to consider what your skills are and how much time you want to put into building your site. Do you take beautiful photos? Do you know html? Do you like design? Or do you want a company that offers gorgeous templates that you can plug into?

Also think about how you'd like the website to function. Will it just show your bio and query samples for your manuscripts? Do you want to include a blog? Will this be a personal or professional website?

Once you figure out what you want from a hosting company, it becomes much easier to narrow down which do and don't have the functions you're looking for. It can be tempting to just go with the cheapest or the easiest host, but make sure that the package you buy has all the features you'd like (as well as great customer service and good customer ratings).

Step 3: Decide
After lots of research, I decided to go with Squarespace to build my site. I heard about it on one of my favorite design blogs (good sign!) and several people had recommended it to me. When I checked them out, I was floored by their goooooorgeous templates. They had a smart, simple video that showed how their service worked--basically, they provide a template that you can customize to your heart's content--and I liked that they offered a two-week free trial and unparallelled customer service. I will say they are on the pricier end: $8/month for their cheapest plan (includes free domain registration), but I knew that the price included great service if I was unhappy with anything, something I found few hosting companies could match.*

Step 4: What goes into the website
For me, I knew I wanted a bio, summaries of the manuscripts I'd completed, contact information, and a link to this blog. Since it was also my website, I wanted to include miscellaneous projects I've done in the past that aren't quite related to writing but still things I enjoy (like my Christmas murals project or my senior thesis**).

I organized everything on a navigation bar that would be seen at the top of every page:

I love my beautiful old typewriter, so I decided to take some photos of the inner workings and use them to decorate my site. Here's my logo, which is also at the top of every page:

I'm definitely not a professional designer, but I do have a middling interest in design. I tried to keep my page as simple as possible, with the home page featuring short descriptions of the things I most wanted to highlight: my bio, my manuscripts, and the blog (each also got its own fancy typewriter image).

I wrote up all the content, giving each of my manuscripts its own separate page, and hit the publish button. There's not a lot on the website--mostly it just shows off my work--but the nice thing is Squarespace makes it easy to grow as I have more information to share. And in the end? I totally love it, and it's completely worth the investment to have a beautiful, professional, well-maintained website.

I hope this was a helpful push to getting your own website up and running! If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll try to help. And if you want to take a closer look at my website, you can check it out at

*I "tested out" their 24/7 customer service when I "couldn't figure out" how to "edit the page." I went with the instant chat offering and got quick, funny, helpful service--A+ all around.
**A look a confession as a more accurate historical archive in chronicling the social and cultural reaction to the rise of AIDS in the 80s and 90s, drawing on anonymous, taped confessionals culled by a telephone art project/hotline known as The Apology Line.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Writing Spaces: MLK Day

I ran this one last year, but it's such a great picture, it deserves an encore.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Top Ten Favorite Books of 2012

I have to admit, it pains me to put this list together. Only ten books?! After the agony that was the Cybils shortlist, how can I put myself through this again? But, somehow I managed to sift through the 136 books I read this year and pick out my absolute, most beloved, tip-top favorites.

10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews
 This was literally the first book I read for the Cybils, and when I finished it I said to the husband, "I think I just read the winner." Greg's story of a teen's first, terrifying, confusing brush with death and the the pains of adulthood left me stunned and touched. Although Greg isn't the friendliest of narrators--he's self-deprecating to a fault and admits he's a lazy underachiever--the bonds he forms with his intensely charismatic best friend, Earl, and Rachel, a young girl dying of cancer, reveal a young man's earnest stumblings towards honesty and integrity. 

9. Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai
 There haven't been many verse novels that have really touched me, but Inside Out and Back Again surprised me with the simplicity, humor, and emotion of its writing. Told from the perspective of a young Vietnamese girl who moves from Saigon to Alabama during the Vietnam war, the verse elegantly captures a child's blunt, straightforward understanding of the world, while hinting at the more mature thoughts beginning to emerge. This is one of the very few books this year that actually made me cry (and it made me laugh quite a bit, too).

8. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Emily M. Danforth
 What a quiet, wonderful, moving book. I read this one for the Cybils and had to admit that the slow, meandering plot would be a tough sell for "kid appeal," but personally, I was blown away. From the surface, it seems like the kind of story made for a moral: a young woman growing up in rural Montana with a conservative aunt eventually realizes she's a lesbian. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post has more in common with Carson McCuller's genre-defining coming-of-age novel Member of the Wedding than an after school special. What I loved about Cameron was the straightforward, unapologetic attitude she had for her own life, not so much questioning who she was but how she saw herself. And the writing is achingly lovely, wistful and sincere, so much that I can't wait to see what Emily M. Danforth comes up with next.

7. I Hunt Killers, Barry Lyga
This one was a ride. I loved, loved, loved Jazz's journey, trying to discover who he really was without his serial killer father's genes or looming influence. The constant examining and re-examining of his own identity is something that most teens can relate with, but for Jazz, the stakes are much higher: he might, just naturally, be a psychopath. When he tries to use his unique perspective for good--investigating a series of murders that mimic his dad's work--it's a stunning reminder of the power of our choices. And beyond the complex psychology, it was just a great read--suspenseful and thrilling, with an ending that left me (thankfully not literally) gutted, and anxiously waiting for the next in the series.

6. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
 You'll find Verity on a lot of "Best of" lists this year, and for good reason. A beautifully-written story about friendship, Verity takes what might be a gimmicky frame--the novel is largely in the form of a "confession" of a British spy captured by Nazis--and instead uses it to reveal the intelligence, grit, and resourcefulness of its main characters. Like a lot of the books on this list, Verity is a great read, with every page upping the tension and making me wonder (and worry) about the future of the narrator, but ultimately, this is a book about the power of friendship: selfless and sustaining.
5. Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins
 I was late to the Anna boat, which is a shame because this charming romance was a pleasure to read from the first page to the last. For all the "legendary" romances in YA literature, I always had a hard time believing the underlying sparks, mostly because characters seemed to go from body-worship to insta-love (and back again). Anna stood out in that I could see, all the way down to the bones, the real friendship behind Anna and Etienne's relationship. It reminded me, wonderfully, of the kind of butterflies I got when I first met the husband, the delightful discovery that you like this person and that the more you find out about them the more you like them. Far from superficial, Anna and Etienne's relationship goes through real ups and downs, and, at the same time, both of them grow and mature in ways outside of their romantic feelings. It's funny and charming and a "light" read, but it's more than that, too: a poignant picture of a young woman discovering love (and independence) for the first time.

4. Bitterblue, Kristen Cashore
Both Fire and Graceling, Kristen Cashore's earlier books, ended up on my Best of 2011 list, so it should come as no surprise that the conclusion to the Graceling books found a place on this year's list. Bitterblue presented a unique sort of challenge: a young queen, lacking the kind of magical abilities that set Fire and Katsa (the earlier book's main characters) apart, struggling to help her kingdom heal from the psychological scars inflicted by her father, the former king. But, unsurprisingly, Cashore met this challenge with grace and intelligence, as Bitterblue must figure out what makes a leader and how to best help people heal. While Bitterblue presents a more human, vulnerable character than her predecessors, she's also more relatable, relying not on magical abilities to save her but her own heart and mind. 

 3. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. Martin
I'm cheating a bit with this one, picking 5 books for my number 3 slot (consider them all tied). But if I was to list every one of George R. Martin's excellent novels individually, I'd have pretty much nothing left on my "Best of" list. I'm a fan of the HBO series, and despite my aversion to spoilers, I decided to read all the books over the summer. They're not perfect--I mean, you can only read so many lists of random hedge knights before you go crazy--but for moments that truly transported me to another world, I can think of nothing better. Those characters! Those amazing, surprising scenes! And ultimately, the deft and nuance Martin shows in sketching out his characters' emotional and psychological journeys.* It's brave and stunning to let beloved characters make horribly wrong decisions (and even braver to kill them off), and the result is that Martin's world feels even more human and real than most of the "realistic" fiction out there.

2. The Theory of Everything, J.J. Johnson
 My favorite! I can't even describe why I adored this little book so much, except that, like falling in love, sometimes it just comes out of nowhere. It's not the easiest story: teenager Sarah is still struggling with her best friend's accidental death and has grown morose, snappish, and snarky towards anyone who tries to help her. But there's such a earnest, raw display of emotion as Sarah questions the meaning of life in a world that's grown suddenly fragile. There's so much that I loved: Sarah's spot-on humor and voice, the varied friendships she develops and how each change her, the smart and quirky chapter drawings that help move the plot forward. This is a book I would have loved, passionately, as a teen, and it's the kind of book I want to push into kids' hands.

1. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
For the second year in a row, my favorite of the year is an adult novel, this time Junot Diaz's Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I'm not sure why I picked it up, but I'm glad I did. Weaving Dominican culture and pop-culture, Diaz presents a stunning portrait of a young man's life and background. It's not an easy read, shifting between multiple times and perspectives, but Diaz masterfully blends these varying stories into a single human experience. It's the kind of book that makes me exciting about reading and writing, a thoroughly original and unique piece of work that manages to inspire and break your heart in equal measure.

*Ben Wyatt gets it right: "He's telling human stories in a fantasy world!"

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Most Miserables Office I've Ever Seen

Happy Monday, everyone! Last Friday, I mentioned how over the moon excited the husband was to finally be going to see Les Mis (brief refresher: performed in the play, read the book, has seen the musical about a dozen times). Sadly, circumstances changed, and we weren't able to see it. He was so sad!

So, to cheer him up a little bit and remind him that we will see it soon, someday,* today's Writing Spaces features the man behind the Mis, Victor Hugo.

I love this office because, mauve wallpaper aside, he has a standing desk!!! As I type this, I'm currently leaning 60% of my weight against my own standing desk, and so I feel a special kinship with Hugo (Stars! They're just like us!).

Here's a drawing of him looking casual. Victor Hugo: rocking the standing desk since 1802.

*I tried to sneak some sort of cutesy Les Mis pun in there, but not being familiar with the musical, couldn't think of anything. Ed: Ugh, how did I miss "when tomorrow comes!"?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wrap Up: Pretty Typing Edition

This week, I decided to play around with my camera a little and took some super-up-close* photos of my beloved typewriter. This is one of my favorite pictures from the day, showing the inside of the typewriter and all the keys perfectly lined up.

Even though I don't use my typewriter much (don't want to run out the ribbon / those keys are hard to push), I like pulling it out every now and then to look at it and play with it.

It always boggles my mind how beautifully and precisely engineered typewriters are, that even though they're low-tech, my typewriter is probably one of the more complex pieces of machinery in my entire house.

On to this week's blog post wrap up!

Another great post on plotting and pacing from Mary Kole, this time about how to make sure your characters' past relationships and experiences grow and develop over the course of the novel

I've literally used this advice about five times already this week: Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels, on how to create suspense

My favorite monthly post! Vanessa DiGregorio posts her list of January YA releases

Some other Cybils judges have been breaking down their reading experience; here's Tanita Davis discussing what she read as a YA SF/F judge (also: she read 199 books! Makes me feel like a slouch)

Publishing Crawl asked writers about the lessons they learned in 2012 and what they hope for 2013. They also featured a day in the life of an author prepping for a book launch with Incarnate author Jodi Meadows, as well as a guest post by Penguin online marketer Rachel Geertsema on the ins and outs of social media and online marketing

For all you Divergent fans out there, some casting news on the series' upcoming movie adaptation

George R. R. Martin released a chapter from The Winds of Winter, the next book in the Song of Ice and Fire series!

Agent Molly Jaffa started a new blog for 2013, Between the Pages, and has already posted a great guide to how querying writers can use Twitter to get the attention of agents

Have a great weekend, everyone! I'm off tonight to up my Oscar-movie ratio (currently 1/9) by seeing Les Mis with the husband. Husband is a Les Mis fanatic, starred in the musical in high school (playing that mean cop guy**), saw the musical between 6-12 times,*** read the book (seriously! do you know anyone who's actually done that?), and has been talking about this movie literally since last Spring. I'm pretty sure I married a tween girl.


*I'm not a photography person, but there's a word for that, right? Macro? Micro? Whatever.
**No, I don't know his name and no, I'm not going to Google it.
***"How many times have you seen Les Mis?" I asked.
"Professionally? Like, not including high school productions?" he said.
"I don't know...maybe...ten to twelve times?" (I start laughing) "Why? Is that a lot?"
"Double digits?"
"Okay...maybe just...ten times. Eight. Or...more than six, at least." (pause as he thinks) "Are you going to put this whole exchange on your blog?"