Monday, January 22, 2018


I'm delighted to interview debut author Jen Petro-Roy about  P.S. I MISS YOU (Feiwel & Friends, March 2018), a heartbreaking―yet ultimately uplifting―epistolary novel about family, religion, and having the courage to be yourself.

In this compelling middle grade novel, Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters. Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend. Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

What as your initial inspiration for P.S. I MISS YOU?

Jen: My original inspiration was actually my local library's book sale. It's one of my favorite events of the year (and so dangerous for my wallet) and a few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Dear Mr. Henshaw, which I hadn't read since I was a kid. I loved how Beverly Cleary had written the book in letters and gave myself a challenge of doing the same. At the same time, I was dealing with some of the same questions Evie was with her religion, and Evie's sexuality revealed itself to me as I wrote. 

When you were shaping Evie's character, what did you see as her main quest?

Jen: I loved every step of writing P.S. I MISS YOU, especially the revisions, because that's when I got to go back and add more letters. I love Evie's voice and I love her journey of asserting herself and proclaiming that who she is is okay. That she doesn't need outside guidance or opinions to define her...something I still need to tell myself often!

Jen Potro-Roy
What considerations did you take into account as you portrayed Evie's questioning of her sexual orientation?

Jen: Since this isn't an Own Voices book in that area, I wanted to make sure that I got Evie's feelings and emotions correct as she discovered her sexual orientation. Obviously, I know that this process is different for everyone, but I drew upon the feelings of my best friend a lot, who also grew up in a heavily Catholic town with me. My very first beta reader also made sure that I wasn't relying upon any stereotypes or generalizations. Above all, I wanted to make sure that Evie's sexual orientation wasn't the most important thing about her. Evie is a girl who has a crush. She's a girl who's not sure about whether she's ready for a relationship. She's a girl starting to define herself away from her parents. She's also a lesbian. People are complicated and made of many things, and I hope P.S. I MISS YOU expresses that.

What "nods from the universe" did you receive that let you know that you were on the right track as you wrote P.S. I MISS YOU?

Jen: Generally, I'm someone who loves revising way more than first drafting. I love the initial spark of an idea and that rush of brainstorming, but I always get so frustrated when I hit that halfway point. For P.S. I MISS YOU, it was different. I wrote the first draft faster than I've ever written a book, and the words flowed so much more easily.

Now that the publication date is near, what are you most excited about?

Jen: I'm simply excited to have kids read my book. I hope it inspires them and makes them feel not alone. I hope they enjoy it and recommend it to friends. I hope you enjoy it, too!

Author Erin Dionne said this about P.S. I MISS YOU:  "Jen Petro-Roy has created a character with the potential to be as iconic as Judy Blume's Margaret."

That’s high praise! Congratulations to Jen; P.S. I MISS YOU will be on bookshelves in March 2018.

Chris Eboch on Write a Book to Save the World – or At Least Yourself #amwriting

In the last year (and a few months), many writers have posted blogs or articles about how they are feeling discouraged, sometimes too discouraged to write. It can be hard to see the value in writing fiction when the world is burning. Other writers face crises in their personal lives, or struggle with depression. Sometimes it's easy to find reasons not to write, and hard to find reasons why you should.

At our January SCBWI Shop Talk meeting in New Mexico, we discussed this issue. How can you feel motivated to write when times are tough? How can you dedicate time to writing when there are so many other important things to do? How can you keep believing that your writing has value, when you're not getting published?

In the Writer Unboxed post Write a Book, Save the World, Bryn Greenwood quotes people describing the book that saved them. For one it was a book that showed someone surviving the Holocaust, letting the reader know she too might survive her dismal life. Another mentioned the first time he read a book where being sensitive was shown as a good thing. For others it was the first time they saw a representation of someone like themselves

When writing for young readers, you never know what effect your book might have. It may be the novel that helps a child fall in love with reading. It could be the book that inspires them to be better, stronger, kinder. My favorite fan letter came from a young reader who said of The Well of Sacrifice, "It inspired me to never give up, just like Eveningstar."

Our books can show kindness and courage. They can help young readers explore different ways of living. They can act as mirrors and windows.

And they can offer escape. Never underestimate the value of escape. Many readers have gotten through terrible times, such as medical treatments or the loss of a family member, by escaping into books.

Saving Yourself

What about unpublished books? If you've never sold a manuscript and are losing hope that you might, you might find it that much harder to keep writing. But the books you write can still benefit you.If you only have to save one person to save humanity, then saving yourself counts,” Bryn says.

Anne Lamott notes that publication won't heal you – “But writing can.”

I am a full-time writer who needs to make an income, and I have deadlines, which means I have to sit down and write even when I don't feel like it. But most of that work is nonfiction educational publishing. I could give up on writing my own novels. Yet I know I feel better when I'm working on a personal project. It feeds my spirit in a way nothing else can.

If you can't write anything else, keep a journal. Not only will it give you a way to share your thoughts, but it will keep you in the habit of writing. When things improve, or when you're feeling stronger, that will make it easier to get back into writing stories.

So please, keep writing. For the world, for yourself. If you need more advice on how to survive the hard times, check out this article on “How to Stay Sane if Trump is Driving You Insane.”

Anne Lamott adds one more tip: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” It's okay to take a break once in a while.

For more thoughts on how to combine your writing and social justice, see my August post on Art and Activism.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 50 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs.

Chris’s writing craft books include Advanced Plotting and You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense involving outdoor adventures amidst Southwestern landscapes. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Kara LaReau and the Bland Sisters Are Anything But

I'll admit it. These books surprised me. I expected them to be good reads. I was there for the quirky humor and puns. I didn't know I'd be bowled over by their charm and emotional depth.

Isn't that a wonderful gift? If you're here, I assume you're a reader, possibly a writer. We plow through book after book every week, every month, and it's always a treat when one or two of them rise up and find a place in our lives long after we turn the last page.

The Bland Sisters have moved into my brain, and although book two only arrived last week, I'm ready to pre-order book three today.

Abandoned by their adventurer parents, the sisters live a small, isolated life in Dullsville. They get by by darning socks. They start each day with plain oatmeal and tepid tea. There's is a washed out existence in a gray landscape, until...

Until, in book one, they're kidnapped by an all-female band of pirates. Until, in book two, they're swept away on the Uncanny Express, a train with a mystery Christie would be proud of. Through it all, Jaundice and Kale navigate the dangers with a mild, budding enthusiasm. Just like their parents intended. Maybe?

Illustration by Jen Hill
Sisters Jaundice and Kale carry a hint of the Baudelaire children, a dash of Roald Dahl, and a weirder-than-life world fit for Pushing Daisies.

Let's Hear From the Author

Kara LaReau
You used to be an editor with Candlewick and Scholastic. Which side of the desk is easier? (This might be a trick question.)
Yes, I worked at Candlewick for about eight years, at Scholastic Press for about three years, and then I had my own freelance editing business. Editing and writing both have their challenges, but writing is really where my heart is, so that tends to make the job easier!

What was that transition like?
I had my first book published back in 2003, while I was still at Candlewick, so I was juggling both careers for a long time — though I tended to put editing (i.e. working on other people’s writing) first. It wasn’t until I had some health problems a few years back that I decided I needed to reprioritize. P.S. I’m fine now!

How does your editorial background inform your writing today?
I’m pretty good at figuring out where the problem areas are in my writing and articulating why they’re not working — good editors are a lot like good mechanics, in that way. And I know what goes on behind the scenes in publishing, so that informs my relationships with my publishers now, and some of the decisions I make as I prepare new work for submission.

I love the relationship between Jaundice and Kale. Are they twins? Which sister is older?
Thanks! Well, they certainly look and act like twins. This comes from my own relationship with my sister; we are three years apart, but many people have assumed we’re twins. The exact nature of Jaundice and Kale’s relationship is revealed in the third book, along with other secrets about their family — you’ll just have to wait to find out!

Illustration by Jen Hill
Jen Hill’s illustrations pair so nicely with your prose that I can’t imagine one without the other. Much like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (not a bad comparison). Did you have much (or any) interaction with her during the character design process?
I’ll take that comparison, and I’m sure Jen will, too! Though Jen and I are friends, we don’t interact directly while the book is being made — I review her character designs and sketches and send any art-related feedback to my editor, who relays them to Jen through the designer. The creative team at Abrams knows what they’re doing, and I respect their process. I think it’s a testament to Jen’s talent and proof that we are on the same wavelength that her art matches the Bland world in my mind, often from the get-go.

Despite the humor in these stories, there is an underlying thread of melancholy as the sisters navigate a world without parents. Did that darker side appear naturally or was it something you developed intentionally?
That element was always there, but I definitely worked to tease it out (with my editor’s help!) in all three books. Jaundice and Kale are inherently bland, but many of their habits and routines are merely distractions, or attempts to maintain some control over their lives, in the absence of their parents. The more we get to know them, the more this becomes clear. I think the story (and every story, really) is so much richer with that emotional resonance, and it balances out the absurdity of the Bland Sisters’ adventures.

Have you read Matt de la Peña’s recent essay on darkness in children’s books and Kate DiCamillo’s response? Maybe because those hit me so hard, I’m finding (or perhaps recognizing) a resonance to their thoughts within the Bland Sisters.
I have read Matt’s essay and Kate’s response, and what they’ve said rings true for me, in my work on The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters and my chapter books and picture books. I find that it’s usually adults who tell me something in my stories is “too dark” or “too scary.” When I read to kids, they’re nodding in acknowledgment, because they already sense (or have experience with) the darkness and uncertainty in the world. When we portray some of that reality in our stories, we’re saying, “Yes, I see and feel it too. You’re not alone. Let’s try to make some sense of it together.”

OMG, you worked with Kate DiCamillo. Can you please share a glorious Kate-nugget about that experience?
Yes, though it seems like a lifetime ago! I edited Kate’s early novels (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tiger Rising, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) and the first three books in her Mercy Watson series. Of course, I have many, many stories from that time, but one I tend to remember, especially now that I am focused on my own writing, is that whenever I sent her editorial notes, she would say, “I already baked the cake; now you want me to add eggs?!” I totally get that now, Kate!

What are you reading now?
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk, which I am loving. I grew up by the ocean, so any story about that life has my attention, but this one is so rich and poignant and mysterious, I can’t put it down.

What books are you looking forward to in 2018?
So many! The Wild Robot Escapes, the new (and final, sniff sniff!) Penderwicks story, the new Jasmine Toguchi and Dory Fantasmagory and Terrible Two books, Winterhouse, The Problim Children, Smart Cookie, The Truth as Told by Mason Butte…I could go on and on, and that’s just for middle grade and chapter books. Honestly, I don’t know when I’m going to have time to write this year!

Anything else you want to share?
I just reviewed the copyedits for the third and final (??) Bland Sisters adventure. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will tell you that it features 1. a tortoise named Paris, 2.  a very intimidating all-female motorcycle gang, and 3. a long-awaited family reunion!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I'm Stuck...In A Fight...In My Own Head! By Hilary Wagner

Yes, I'm talking about the old fight scene!

The pure mechanics of fight scenes mess with my head. I don't want to be over descriptive, taking away from the action. I don't want to be under descriptive, making it unclear what is actually happening in the fight. I don't want it to be bland, as in "Paul hit Peter in the face," (yeah, that's riveting literature) and I certainly don't want it to be too colorful, as in "Blood spurted from the cavernous wound like an angry volcano of gory wrath!" I am writing for children after all...though that's never really stopped me before. I digress....  

Long story short, if there is one place in a manuscript where I'm going to get stuck, it's a fight scene. I'm not an outliner, so I map every move out in my head as I go...which is probably the slowest way to write a fight scene. I'm a huge fan of boxing, so that's helpful, but even still, all the moves involved in a least a non-boring one can be pretty complicated. 

How do you handle your typical fight scene? 

For those of you who have a certain joy writing them or are the quintessential note takers before actually writing a fight scene, I'd love to hear your take. What's your process? How do you keep it interesting without going overboard? 

Give us your super ninja street cat fight gang warfare bad guy/good guy cage fight to the death action packed "king kong got nothing on me" wisdom!

(For kids books, of course, so maybe not quite to the death...well, maybe, depends on the book and sometimes our mood.)

Thanks! Hilary

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sprints and Marathons by Kell Andrews

To have a sustained writing career, you need to run both short and long distances. 



I'm thrilled to finally announce here that my next picture book, The Book Dragon, illustrated by Éva Chatelain, will be published in fall 2018 by Sterling Children's Books. I got the contract offer January 5. 

Are you thinking that this is moving awfully fast from contract offer to publication? Not really, since the contract offer was more than a year ago, January 5, 2017, and I wrote the story in the long-ago optimistic days of 2016. 

That's a long haul for a short book. 

Then again, publishing is always a long haul.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint." Or is it?

To the contrary, writing a picture book is a sprint. It takes a lot longer to write each word in a 500 page book, but it does not (with rare exceptions) take as long as a 50,000 one. Rewriting is another sprint, maybe the next heat, while writing the next story is another race entirely.

To have a career in picture books, you need to string those sprints together until they approach something like a marathon. Last year I drafted and polished six manuscripts, and I'm not even prolific. So far I'm sprinting again and again, with the results being an every-other-year publishing schedule. That's a lot of writing for each published manuscript.

Novels are marathons. Or are they?

Novels are marathon you can turn into sprints. Writing a novel is a daunting process. It takes months or even years. Staring down an empty page, putting your butt in that chair day after day -- it's intimidating.

It's a marathon that I personally need to break into sprints to make it manageable. Half-hour writing sprints, writing by act, even middle-distance events like NaNo can put manageable interim goals into place so you don't have to stare down that long, long distance from the blank page to "the end."

And when you're lucky enough to get a contract, you inevitably have a few more sprints ahead -- revisions often land back in the writer's inbox at the worst times, and with not enough time attached. 

It's always a long haul.

Yes, even for picture books, maybe even especially, since illustrated books tend to take longer from contract to publication. There's an excellent chance my Fall 2018 date will change into a Spring 2019 one.

That's OK. It gives me plenty of time fit in a half-dozen sprints, or even a full marathon.