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Highly Recommended

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At long last (the delay: I had to make my way back to my office shelves and all of their wonderful books, old and new), here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of first lines from published works and why they pull the reader in so well.

PB

On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.

This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.

Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.

So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.

On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.

This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?

MG

Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.

Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.

This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test, but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

YA

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these lines has been raising. They’re intense and urgent.

They took me in my nightgown.

This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.

There you have some of my favorite first lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

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Whether you buy these books for others or for yourself, here are my favorites from the last four or five months in picture books, middle grade, and young adult. I’ll also recommend my favorite writing resources! Happy holidays, and make sure to support your local independent bookstore with these purchases. By voting for indies with your book-buying dollar, you’re supporting the industry that you want to be a part of. You’re also supporting those hard-working booksellers who could one day be hand selling and building buzz for your work. It’s never too early to start making smart buying choices!

Picture Books

CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS
by Peter Brown
Picture book (40 pages), Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0316015486

This delightful author/illustrator book is so cute that I want to squeeze the hell out of it and make it go “Squeak!” (You’ll get it if you read the book.) The premise is frightfully clever and Brown really comes into his sense of humor with a cohesive, delightful idea. The bear works perfectly with the woodsy textures and colors of the art and, well, basically, I’m in love with the whole thing. So whether you buy this for some kid (I guess) or yourself, it’s a treat that will have you smiling from ear to ear!

THE BOSS BABY
by Marla Frazee
Picture book (40 pages), Beach Lane Books, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1442401679

Now, I don’t know if y’all have heard, but I am obsessed with this book. It takes a universal experience — new baby — and puts an irresistible spin on it. With gentle humor, this will get an appreciative nod from all new parents (or maybe that’s just them nodding off to sleep from getting pushed around by their brand new boss, er, baby). Do you have any pregnant or new parent friends or relatives? Bam! I just did your holiday/shower/congratulations present shopping for you.

SWIM! SWIM!
by Lerch
Picture book (32 pages), Scholastic Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0545094191

This one is a bit of an oddball choice and it’s from the summer but I first heard about it this fall so, whatever, it’s going in my holiday guide. Because this is my holiday guide and I do what I want. :) Just looking at this, you may not imagine that this fish’s cartoony mug would inspire unexpected sympathy and love. That’s where you’re wrong. Lerch (alias for author/illustrator James Proimos) weaves a fishy tale of loneliness, despair, a hungry cat, and, finally, friendship. It is lovely and much deeper than you’d think by looking at the goofy, simple art style (which, by the way, is fantastic).

BINK AND GOLLIE
by Kate DiCamillo and Allison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile
Early reader (96 pages), Candlewick Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0763632663

Kidlit heavyweights DiCamillo and McGhee team up with Fucile (LET’S DO NOTHING) to create, I think, the most refreshing, surprising, and downright hilarious book of the year for younger readers (and me!). Bink and Gollie are characters that you get immediately, from your gut to your heart. They star in three vignettes that echo one another and are about sisters, love, and those quirks that we can’t help but adore (sometimes begrudgingly) in those closest to us. This type of voice — and you’ll see what I mean when you read it — isn’t for beginning writers. It’s something to aspire to and dream about. In fact, this whole book seems deceptively simple. But there is brilliance at work here. I won’t say any more, lest I deprive you of the sheer joy of reading BINK AND GOLLIE for the first time.

GUYKU: A YEAR OF HAIKU FOR BOYS
by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Picture book (48 pages), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0547240039

This book is haiku:
Seemingly simple and then…
An epiphany.

Not only do I love that this is a picture book of haiku for the four seasons, I love that it’s for boys. The charming illustrations here — done with a unifying accent color for each of the four times of year — are full of boys playing and getting into trouble. And yet, in every verse, on every page, there is the wonder, the stillness, that only great haiku can capture. Some verses are really funny and down to earth. Others, downright poetic. Without giving too much away, here is one of my favorites, from summer:

With the ember end
Of my long marshmallow stick,
I draw on the dark.

IT’S A BOOK
by Lane Smith
Picture book (32 pages), Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1596436060

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve added a lot of concept books to my list. What’s a concept book? Well, like THE BOSS BABY and GUYKU, IT’S A BOOK isn’t really narrative-driven or character-driven. Instead, it takes an idea and runs with it to make a great statement or collection. Writers: this is a tough row to hoe. Marla Frazee and Lane Smith can do it. If you’re a debut writer, I wouldn’t follow the example of these books, I would just appreciate them for what they are. That said, I think IT’S A BOOK is a perfect comment on the digital revolution in publishing and the world at large! Get it for your blogger friends. (Ahem, ahem…)

BEAVER IS LOST
by Elisha Cooper
Picture book (40 pages), Schwartz & Wade, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0375857652

This one also came out over the summer, but I love it so much that I want you to buy it for everyone you know this holiday season. It is truly a treasure. While SWIM! SWIM!, above, reaches emotional heights with some rather funny art, this story achieves the same effect with gorgeous art and few words (four, in fact). As opposed to the concept books on this list, this is very much a narrative-driven picture book by a very talented visual storyteller.

Middle Grade

CLARA LEE AND THE APPLE PIE DREAM
by Jenny Han, illustrated by Julia Kuo
Chapter book (160 pages), Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011.
ISBN: 978-0316070386

Okay, so this book comes out in a few weeks, and it’s not really middle grade, it’s more of a chapter book, but I sure did enjoy it! The art is charming and works really well with Jenny Han’s voice, which I became smitten with in MG books like SHUG and teen reads like THE SUMMER I TURNED PRETTY. If you’re new to chapter books or unsure of the genre, please do check this one out. It’s full of humor and heart and just right for this in-between age group!

SUGAR AND ICE
by Kate Messner
Middle grade (288 pages), Walker Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0802720818

Kate Messner is a MG rock star. She has a smart, literary voice that manages to blend emotional resonance and great, unique plots. Messner is a client of my colleague, Jenn Laughran, and has a long career ahead of her. For all of those writers aspiring to the MG shelves, this latest installment and her previous MG, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, should be at the top of your “To Read” list. SUGAR AND ICE has a frosty, seasonal setting, too, so it’s perfect for cozying up with, as long as you have a cup of cocoa on hand.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM
by Adam Gidwitz
Middle grade (192 pages), Dutton, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0525423348

This is an example of what’s possible with MG, and how dark and funny you can really get. Adam Gidwitz certainly knows his Brothers Grimm, and he’s not afraid to take unsuspecting readers on a twisty and, at times, hilarious-even-though-you’re-totally-grossed-out look at the “fairy tales” we all think we know. And the scenes of carnage are described with such…well…good cheer! Just perfect for the holidays! For all those writers who have very active narrative voices — where the narrator is part of the tale, a la Lemony Snicket — this should be an especially exciting read. I devoured this book in one sitting and loved the voice.

PLAIN KATE
by Erin Bow
Middle grade/YA (336 pages), Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0545166645

A lot of people say that PLAIN KATE is YA, but I think this skews more toward MG. Even though there are very dark elements to this story (and poignantly so, not like the rollicking darkness of GRIMM, above), I think this type of fantasy adventure is more at home on MG shelves. Either way, MG or YA, PLAIN KATE is one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous books I’ve read all year. As you may know, I, uh, read a lot in my line of work. With most books, I’m sad to say, I tend to skim and hurry, anxious to get on to the next book in my teetering “To Read” pile. With this one, I savored each page, anxious, again, but for a very different reason: I didn’t want it to end. Erin Bow’s prose is breathtaking. Sublime. There’s a word choice on every page that made me sit back and pause. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Young Adult

THE THINGS A BROTHER KNOWS
by Dana Reinhardt
Young adult (256 pages), Wendy Lamb Books, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0375844553

This book is, to sound like a cheap action movie reviewer, an “emotional tour de force.” While I can’t find the right words to describe Levi and Boaz’s fractured, fragile brotherly relationship after Boaz returns from war, we’re all lucky that Dana Reinhardt has fared a little better and written a whole book of not only words, but thoughts, images, and vitally important scenes on the subject. Reinhardt probes this relationship without once flinching…she portrays a sobering, lonely truth that could be happening in houses all across the country as veterans return to their families.

THE MOCKINGBIRDS
by Daisy Whitney
Young adult (352 pages), Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0316090537

Daisy Whitney tackles the difficult subject of date rape and its aftermath with courage and an intellectual rigor that is refreshing to see on the YA shelves. What I loved about this book is that Whitney, as a writer, didn’t take the easy way out. What would’ve been the easy plot? Girl wakes up bleary-eyed and realizes that she’s been raped. For MOCKINGBIRDS, that’s just the first chapter. Then Whitney takes off to explore a whole other story that’s there. What happens to Alex is only the beginning to a story that explores justice, truth, and empowerment in a very interesting way. A well-written, meaty read, and an inspiration for YA writers to think past the obvious plot.

GIRL, STOLEN
by April Henry
Young adult (224 pages), Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0805090055

I’m a huge fan of April Henry’s writing. In this gripping, thrilling YA, she takes on a challenge that most writers would easily shy away from: her narrator is a blind girl. What does that mean? It means that there’s some masterful, unexpected description in this book. What else? It’s really easy to ratchet up the stakes and tension. What happens to our dear blind girl? Does she enjoy a nice sit, safe on a couch somewhere? Bad news: she’s kidnapped. Worse yet: she’s sick. And did I mention she’s blind? Reading GIRL, STOLEN is like a three-hour-long anxiety attack, and I loved every minute of it. Read this for a very elegant lesson in pacing and tension…and to see how a writer fares when her powers of visual description are taken away.

THE REPLACEMENT
by Brenna Yovanoff
Young adult (352 pages), Razorbill, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1595143372

When you pick up THE REPLACEMENT, you won’t get the usual faerie/changeling story that you’ve gotten used to elsewhere on YA shelves. What I especially loved about this well-written, dark debut is its atmospheric quality. Can’t you tell from the Edward Scissorhands/Tim Burton-inspired cover? From word choice to descriptions to imagery and plot, Yovanoff weaves a cohesive, eerie, engrossing read. This has the whiff of dystopian about it, but not in the way that’s already becoming boring in the marketplace. This is a unique, fresh take, and I will remember certain twisted, macabre scenes from this book for a very long time to come. Plus, the cover rocks. :) (I’m easily amused by shiny objects…)

Books that I also loved but that are buzzed about enough elsewhere: THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger, CONFESSIONS OF THE SULLIVAN SISTERS by Natalie Standiford (I adore her voice, as always!), and ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins (Yes, it is as delightful and smart and romantic as everyone says it is, go read it right now!).

Writing Resources

Earlier this year I wrote up reviews for SPILLING INK and WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULTS. If you haven’t given yourself the gift of both of these, what are you waiting for?! I’ll also recommend two writing books that are a must for every writer’s shelf. These two are not new, by any means. But they are the books I’ve been recommending for years. If you don’t have these, you owe it to yourself this holiday season to correct that mistake

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL
by Donald Maass
Writer’s Digest Books, 2002.
ISBN: 978-1582971827

Hands down, one of the best fiction craft books I’ve ever read. In fact, I read and reread this about every six months to make sure I’m being as comprehensive as possible in my revision notes to clients. Each time I read it, I am reminded of important novel-writing elements, and I never fail to learn something new or see something in a new way. If you haven’t read this yet, that’s okay. I forgive you, and I hope you can forgive yourself. Don’t just buy this for yourself, buy it for everyone in your critique group or writing workshop. Then use it to guide revision or shape your thinking about any new projects in your pipeline. You’re welcome!

BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE
by Anne Lamott
Anchor Books, 1995.
ISBN: 978-0385480017

I know I won’t be blowing anyone’s mind when I say that writers sometimes have issues. Jealousy, insecurity, blocks, procrastination, rejection angst…it can get pretty ugly at the keyboard sometimes. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or like I’ve lost perspective, I like to sit with BIRD BY BIRD for a while. Anne Lamott has a nearly hypnotic writing style — warm, wise, filled with gentle faith that never preaches or hits you over the head (Much like a good picture book text! I digress…). These personal essays, musings, and reflections, as the tag line says, “on writing and life” are a joy to read, especially after you’ve pushed yourself too hard or gone through a particularly difficult period in your writing journey. While, on a craft level, there’s nothing revolutionary here, it’s still worth a read. And it’s highly inspirational. A great gift for any aspiring writer.

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Whew! I hope you like these recommendations, as this is probably the longest and most time-consuming article I’ve ever written for the blog. What can I say, though? There’s a lot to love out there! For the purposes of this post, I’ve either purchased all of these books or received advance review copies for free from the publishers. Happy holidays, dear readers, and happy shopping!

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screen-shot-2010-09-01-at-74143-amTo keep up with my other book review this week (and since book reviews are much easier to write when you’re trying to leave for vacation and make sure the blog is all stocked up with posts!), here is another book review, this time of WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULT by literary agent Regina Brooks.

This is, quite frankly, the book I wish I’d written. It covers everything from character to plotting to getting published.

The scope of this book is much larger, so there’s not as much deep focus on the writing craft itself, but you do gain really valuable insights from the publishing world, as Regina contacted editors all across the children’s books spectrum to contribute thoughts and mini-essays on the topics at hand. So not only do you get to hear her take on it, but you get to hear how editors talk and think on the subject, too.

I think Regina’s advice on plotting is definitely worth a read. Since she’s an agent, she takes a more commercial bent in giving writing tips. And this book is specifically geared to people writing for the young adult market, so all of her writing advice squares well with the quirks needs of teen readers and of YA publishing.

I’ve been meaning to crow from the rooftops about this book for a while, and I’m glad to finally be starting up my non-fiction reviews, as this one definitely deserves a shout out. It’s a quick read, with writing advice and even a few prompts to get you thinking. And it comes from an agent, so all of the tips are geared in a direction that will make your YA fiction more saleable. This is a solid resource, especially great if you’re diving into YA and want an overview, but meaty enough where YA veterans will also find depth and new perspectives.

If you’re planning on seeking it out, it was published by Sourcebooks in 2009. The ISBN # is: 978-1402226618.

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review_spilling_inkNow, if you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know that I used to do book reviews, and that I still occasionally recommend books to my readers.

Reviewing fiction is tricky for me these days. As my clients’ books get closer and closer to publication, I’d like to use this space to feature their work, since I’m deeply invested in their success. And so I hesitate to highlight the work of other authors unless I have a great reason to. That makes sense, right? Also, while I never made it a practice to rip books apart (If you’re just going to snark, why bother writing a review? Snark is all about showing off, not about communicating anything to your reader…), I don’t feel like I can be totally objective anymore. What if I have lukewarm praise for a book…and then want to work with that book’s editor? Oops. So I’ve been out of the fiction review game for a while and will stay out, unless I have something to recommend that I’m crazy about and that has a great lesson for writers in it.

However, enough writers have been asking me for book recommendations on the craft of writing that I thought I’d dive back into the review pool a little bit and recommend non-fiction.

On my bookshelves, I have fiction, picture books, graphic novels, and then a whole shelf of books about writing, both inspirational and informational. I think a shelf like this is essential to any writer or publishing professional. Not only do you want to read great writing, you want to read great things that smart people have said about creating great writing. So I’ll start writing recommendations for these types of books, since they’re so important. SPILLING INK by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter (with illustrations by Matt Phelan) is the newest book on my writing non-fiction shelf, and I absolutely love it.

You may be thinking, “Illustrations, eh?” Yes. This book is actually geared toward kids and teens who want to write. It’s touted as “A Young Writer’s Handbook.” But since we know that stuff geared toward kids and teens is just as rich and complex — and almost always more fun — than stuff geared toward adults, this book is a must read for writers of any age group.

Anne and Ellen gloss over a lot of the really nitty-gritty writing stuff, like POV definitions and fancy pants MFA terminology, but they really do strike at the heart of character and plot. And, best of all, they are personal counselor and mentor and cheerleader, rolled into one. Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter are widely published and beloved children’s book authors, both of them, and they pepper these pages with their own experiences, both uplifting and disappointing. It feels like they’ve opened up their hearts and their writing salon to aspiring writers, and they’re sharing the best and the most challenging of what they’ve learned on their writing journey.

The style of the book is warm and encouraging and effortlessly candid. I read it in one sitting and wished I had a crate of these to give away and to send out to all of my  novel-writing clients. Not that my clients need a How To manual, but I’m convinced that every writer, no matter what level, will glean something from this charming book, even if it is the refreshing feeling of two new writing friends, Anne and Ellen, rooting for you from behind this bright yellow cover.

Check it out today and stock, or start, your own writer’s bookshelf. If you’re seeking it out, the publisher is Flash Point/Roaring Brook, it came out in March, 2010, and the ISBN # is: 978-1596435148.

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Today, the Revision-o-Rama series of posts draws to a gentle close. I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas and the food for thought has been fruitful for you. Of course, I will keep posting about revision topics on the blog and, of course, you will keep revising into the new year (right?). Now it’s time for me to take a breather, reset back to my “regular programming” and give you all a few ideas for how to proceed from here, as well as recommend some books on revision that I’ve read and found helpful in my study on the subject.

I have to say that the biggest revision weapon in a writer’s toolkit is… other readers. It’s that simple. Writing is most definitely not a solitary pursuit, at least it shouldn’t be. With writing, the following thing tends to happen: the more we write, the more we revise, the more we muck around in the same material over and over, the more blind we grow to it. The most obvious example is missing typos. Our eyes just tend to gloss over the words if we read them too much. Or we know our manuscript has problems but we leave them in because a) we love that part, b) we’re too lazy to really fix it, c) we’re waiting for someone to call us on it, d) we figure that’s what an editor is for.

No, no. As editors tighten their belts and only take on the most polished projects, it has become even more important to revise to perfection before you even seek an agent. (Who will then tell you to — you guessed it! — revise yet again, if they’re the kind of agent who places a  lot of emphasis on editorial work, which I do.) So, since you’re effectively blind to your own work, you have to bring in qualified readers as soon as you’re feeling strong enough to hear their feedback.

Join a critique group if you’re not in one already… there are plenty of writers on message boards and various websites who are just dying to get together and are maybe too shy to ask. Whether you do one online and email manuscripts back and forth or whether you find a group in your area through a writing or arts center, the Internet, Craigslist, etc., make sure the group you’ve got is quality. If they don’t write kidlit, they should at least respect it and want to learn more about it from you. If they’re not published, their work should at least be damn close. The best groups have at least one published or agented writer in the mix. Strive to join those that feel slightly more advanced than your level, so that you can really trust and enjoy their expert advice.

The other great thing about a critique group is that you learn a whole lot about writing just by looking at someone else’s work. If you see a mistake or something that jumps out at you in another manuscript, and you get good about analyzing what works and what doesn’ t — guess what? — soon you’ll be turning that same sharp and critical eye on your own work. (It usually takes a while to translate… anyone can be a critic but actually implementing the same advice toward oneself is the real challenge.)

Even if it’s not a traditional critique group with regular meetings, you should at least hook up with one or two writing friends or take a writing class. Maybe you can make some bonds that’ll extend past the last day. Or go to local or national conferences. There are plenty of writers there that you can befriend and keep in touch with. But the key is getting eyes on your manuscript, and getting eyes that know what they’re talking about (now that, my friends, is a mixed metaphor). Teach yourself to hear their wisdom but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll also discard a lot, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the more feedback you get on a manuscript, the more it’ll inspire you, the more it’ll spark your own imagination and the stronger it will be.

If you want to do more independent study on writing and revision in general, I can recommend the following books on revision, specifically, and the writing process in general:

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
REVISION AND SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass
STORY by Robert McKee
THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST by David Morrell
ON WRITING by Stephen King
FINDING YOUR WRITER’S VOICE by Thaisa Frank
NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM by Chris Baty
FINDING YOUR VOICE by Les Edgerton
TIME TO WRITE by Kelly L. Stone

Books on grammar and punctuation:

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES: THE ZERO TOLERANCE APPROACH TO PUNCTUATION by Lynne Truss (hilarious!)
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (stylish!)

Books on writing for children:

DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM ed. by Leonard S. Marcus (highly recommended!)
THE SPYING HEART by Katherine Paterson
THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN by Nancy Lamb

Books on reading:

READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose

Finally, Maggie Stiefvater did this on her blog with great success, so I just wanted to open it up to you all in case anyone is looking for a critique buddy. You can use the comments for this post as a personal ad to find fellow writers who might be looking for the same. Maybe talk briefly about what you write (What age group is it for? What genre is it? Is it complete?) and what you’re looking for, and we’ll see if we can’t match anybody up so you guys can go off and work together.

As for me, I’m going to take January 1st off, again and drink in the last little bit of holiday time before publishing comes back in earnest (as will I) on January 4th.

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I read a lot of books in my line of work. Most of them are unpublished, sure, but I still have to make time to keep up with the market. I read tons of ARCs (Advance Reader or Review Copies, sent by publishers to reviewers, bookstores and librarians before the book’s release date… I get them through bookseller friends or at industry events) and already-published books. I used to do a lot more in terms of book reviews on here, but now I think I’ll put together lists of my recent favorites a few times a year. In the spirit of Christmas, here’s a quick and dirty last-minute Holiday Gift Guide with recommendations for some things I’ve read lately and loved.

Support the industry you want to work in by buying two copies of each of these… one for the favorite teen in your life and one as research for yourself, the writer!

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flashburnoutcoverFLASH BURNOUT
by L.K. Madigan
Young Adult (336 pages). Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0547194899

For Readers: You don’t need lil’ old me to recommend this book to you. It is a PW Flying Start, a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award and beloved by everyone. But I will anyway, because it is just that good. You will love Blake’s voice. The main character manages to be hilarious and poignant from one moment to the next, a feat that’s not easy to pull off. Author L.K. Madigan has crafted a story where you’ll be frequently put-off by Blake and his choices, but you’ll be rooting for him anyway, all while laughing your ass off. There are some sexual situations, so this might be a good fit for the older teen set.

For Writers: This is what I mean when I say “voice.” A lot of you are still confused on that subject, or you want to see it in action. Just read this.

buckfeverBUCK FEVER
by Cynthia Chapman Willis
Middle Grade (240 pages). Feiwel & Friends, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0312382971

For Readers: I feel like I have to include BUCK FEVER here because I don’t usually cover a lot of MG and I don’t usually cover a lot of boy MG especially. This book features an unlikely hero, a boy who isn’t one of those self-conscious nerd geniuses like the character in FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE (Read my review). He’s sensitive and shy and genuinely wants to make a difference in his world and to belong to his family, neither of which he’s been able to do very well so far. A sensitively-written novel that’ll appeal to both girls and boys, this MG pits its hero against a really big moral choice… and, in my opinion, that’s the heart and essence of middle-grade right there.

For Writers: If you’re writing more literary or more old-fashioned middle-grade, pick up BUCK FEVER because it puts to bed the myth that these kinds of books have to be slow and boring. There’s a lot going on and the pacing moves briskly. There’s also a great mix here of internal conflict, of the main character and his struggles to define himself and to live up to his father’s expectations, and external conflict, with a local hunting family and the deer that he’s supposed to kill. Yes, it’s a hunting book, and that will turn some people off, but it’s still worth a study.

timothydragonTIMOTHY AND THE DRAGON’S GATE
by Adrienne Kress
Middle Grade (368 pages). Weinstein Books, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1602861091

For Readers: Hilarious hijinks ensue in Adrienne Kress’ second book. Middle-grade readers who want just the right touch of whimsy and don’t want to dip their feet into wizards and dragons will love the author’s unique take on fantasy/adventure. This will appeal to both boys and girls — a rare feat — and will leave readers clamoring for more. Good thing they’ll find it in Kress’ debut ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN, which shares characters and plot with the follow-up. Well worth a read!

For Writers: This is another example of great voice. Kress’ work is a study in the self-conscious narrator. What do I mean by that? It’s a narrator who is very much a part of the story him- or herself. They break the fourth wall, make asides to the reader and otherwise participate. The narrator’s voice colors everything. Kress’ books are also great middle-grade adventure novels with pirates, theatre, quirks galore. They’re over-the-top and they’re romps but there’s also some serious craftsmanship going on. This style worked very well for Lemony Snicket and, if you want another hidden gem example, definitely pick up TIMOTHY.

goodbyerobotHOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT
by Natalie Standiford
Young Adult (288 pages). Scholastic Press, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0545107082

For Readers: I have made no secret of my burning love for this book. It slays me. If I had read it in my incarnation as a geeky, profoundly introspective 15- or 16-year-old, it would’ve changed my life. I think it has pretty much done that anyway. This book is truly for those special readers: the observers, the quirk-ridden, the deep thinkers, the lonely hearts, the painfully awkward. And that’s an amazing thing. I think this simultaneously heart-warming and heartbreaking story is one that will reach out of the pages and grab its readers, never to let them go.

For Writers: “Quirky” is such a cheap word now. Too many people think they have what it takes to write a truly quirky character and instead they emerge with a mish-mash of incomprehensible traits that don’t make a fleshed-out person. Natalie Standiford has created characters who are almost too real. Their interests, their passions, their needs are achingly authentic. They are truly quirky, without being cute or contrived about it. And they don’t harp on their quirks or their loneliness, like most other characters do. I don’t know exactly what lesson a writer can take from this book. I’ve taken so many, over several rereadings, that I really do urge you all to just read it and discover it for yourself.

gothgirlGOTH GIRL RISING
by Barry Lyga
Young Adult (400 pages). Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0547076645

For Readers: Kyra won’t be for everyone, but those who read her and resonate with her will carry her voice and her story for a very long time. Lyga’s angsty, fully-formed character has been waiting for a chance to tell her story and I can’t imagine a better one to showcase her side of things. Despite some very difficult and emotional moments throughout, the ending resonates will a rare, well-earned hope.

For Writers: Barry Lyga is a guy. But he writes an edgy teen girl with all the skill and conviction in the world. Many writers ask me if it’s okay to step so far outside yourself to find a character’s voice. Guy writers, especially, worry that they won’t get credibility writing from a girl’s POV. And I think that’s a valid concern, especially for men writing a first-person woman (I think women writing from a guy’s POV have it slightly easier in terms of criticism, as did L.K. Madigan in FLASH BURNOUT, above, but that’s another bucket of fish). If you are finding your current first-person protagonist is a stretch for you, pick up GOTH GIRL RISING and see how seamlessly the writer a) maintains the writing voice he’s well-known for, and b) slips on a whole new skin.

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And for the love of goats, go buy these at your local independent bookstore or online at IndieBound.org.

For other books that I have loved this year, click on the “Highly Recommended” tag in my blog sidebar. You’ll see things I’ve reviewed and loved from earlier.

Disclosures: This list includes friends as well as ABLit clients. Books have either been purchased by me, obtained at BEA, passed along from friends, or sent to me by the author in ARC form.

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I recently read Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009) back to back. Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah — who revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without — so challenging and so delicious. In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Two such similar books — that question truth and reality and how easily these things can be manipulated in a reader’s experience of fiction — coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and YA is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for YA — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

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There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from rhyming picture books right now. One reason for this, as I see it, is that picture books in general are evolving. They’re being acquired by younger editors, they’re being purchased by cooler parents, they’re becoming modern and… if I dare say… maybe even hip. Not all picture books, of course, because lists and houses have room for the traditional, beautiful picture book reminiscent of the good old days of yore. But there’s definitely been innovation, and that’s crucial to remember when you sit down to write yours.

Rhyming picture books — especially those written in rhyming couplets — take us back to more traditional picture book legacy. That’s not bad, per se, but with all the new styles and ideas hitting the shelves, the more traditional is becoming a more difficult sell. Here are some other reasons rhyming picture books are becoming less attractive to some agents and editors:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone can write brilliant rhyme. And, in this market, it has to be brilliant, fresh, unique, imaginative, unexpected… No lazy or conventional rhyme will cut it.
  3. There also has to be a reason for the rhyme. Too many times, I feel like a manuscript’s rhyme is forced or dictates the story… that the author is making decisions based on which words would fit into their scheme, not based on which words would make the best possible storytelling sense.

If you’re considering writing a rhyming picture book, ask yourself this question: Why does it need to rhyme? If you answer: “Because that’s how a picture book goes” or “Because that reminds me of the books I read as a kid/to my children/to my grandchildren,” then that might not be reason enough.

One of the most compelling reasons to rhyme, in my opinion, is if you are an author who relishes playing with the language. It’s also a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story. I read a book a little while ago that blew my mind with its dizzying, sprawling, complicated rhyme. If there was no rhyme in this book, there’d be no book! If you’re up to the challenge of writing truly astounding rhyming picture books in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.

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by Maggie Stiefvater
Young Adult, 400 pages.
Scholastic Press (2009)
ISBN: 978-0545123266

“Once bitten, twice shy” does not apply to Grace. Ever since an amber-eyed wolf rescued her from his pack, she has been combing the woods for him, reveling in his silent gaze every winter.

What Grace doesn’t know is that her wolf has a name, Sam, and a human body, but only after the temperature rises past a certain degree. She also doesn’t know much she will love him. Or that this year is his last as a human before the cold wins out and he becomes a wolf forever.

Can their love thaw him for good? Better yet, how could Grace have survived her own wolf bite without turning were? Does that mean there’s a cure?

Edward who? SHIVER is poised to usher in the Age of Werewolf and dominate the glut of vampire and faerie books on the shelves. The only difference between this novel and some of the paranormal romance out there is that it’s actually good. Well-written, haunting, imagined so well and so completely that the world, the love, the wolves, and Grace’s self-deprecating and funny voice are all achingly real.

Maggie Stiefvater (author of LAMENT and the upcoming BALLAD) delivers a love story full of obsession, danger, high stakes and simple, nuzzle-your-face-in-the-hollows-of-his-neck bliss. That’s pretty much the epitome of how any great romance feels, and she captures all angles, from the stupid fights to the hope, against, in this case, some pretty long odds, that love is enough to overcome any obstacles.

And, unlike some romances out there, the two characters aren’t drawn together by inexplicable invisible magnets. There is a very real and visceral explanation for Grace and Sam’s love, and it dovetails with the rest of the book both emotionally and plot-wise, which is so refreshing.

Overall, a well-written, raw and powerful love story that just so happens to have tons of fierce werewolf action and mythology. Seriously: what more could you possibly ask for?

SHIVER officially comes out August 1st but lots of stores and Amazon are selling it early. Here are some links: Shop Indie Bookstores, Amazon.

For Readers: Read it. Now. Before all your friends start talking about it and you feel left out. There’s something here for everyone. Paranormal action, heart-melting romance, high school drama. It’ll take a couple hours to get through and you won’t be able to stop. For me, that’s the mark of an excellent story.

For Writers: SHIVER will take paranormal romance to a more serious and realistic level. Some of the specimens out there now have been following some old cliche that throws two unlikely but insanely hot partners together and goodness forbid anything wrench them apart, even if they have very little in common. This convention goes out the window here. The characters have great motivation to be together, the love between them feels very real (both the good and the bad of it) and they take the notion of sacrifice to an entirely new level. If you’re writing teen or paranormal romance, just know that the bar has been raised, and then go buy the book that’s raising it.

This novel is also written in very compelling alternating POV chapters, so if you’re working with two or more narrators, especially if one is a guy and one is a girl, check it out and see how Maggie does it. It really is very well-crafted.

Disclosure: Maggie is an ABLit client.

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by Rebecca Stead
Middle Grade, 208 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737425

“There are days when everything changes, and this was one of those days.”

Miranda thinks she has her life as a latchkey kid figured out: her frazzled mom is dating Richard, Sal is her best friend, the crazy man in the street sleeps under the mailbox, the spare key is tucked into the fire hose.

Then a series of mysterious letters, written by someone who knows the future, shake up her world and things begin to change.

A WRINKLE IN TIME is lauded in the acknowledgments for WHEN YOU REACH ME and that is no accident. L’Engle’s classic has influenced this book thematically and plot-wise. Both books, you see, happen to feature time travel.

At first, that really surprised me about WHEN YOU REACH ME. Rebecca Stead has created a very convincing real world full of authentic, idiosyncratic characters, spare description and witty, engaging writing. The extra twist of time travel was unexpected but fascinating. By the time the climax comes together — with two of the same person, one from the present, one from the future, colliding in a gripping scene — I was riveted.

Best of all, this book reminds me of LOVE, AUBREY (Read my review), my favorite middle grade book of the year. Surprise, surprise, both are from Wendy Lamb’s imprint. Bravo! WHEN YOU REACH ME adds another quiet, unassuming but completely engaging and heartfelt book to an already amazing list.

WHEN YOU REACH ME came out July 14th. Here are links if you want to buy: Shop Indie Bookstores, Amazon.

For Readers: This book will be a hit with smart kids, teens and (cough cough) kidlit-lovin’ adults. It is a blazing-fast read. No joke, I polished it off in, like, three minutes and wanted to read it again. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, Stead has paid her tribute to L’Engle and, at the same time, has created an emotional, intelligent and intricate story that could easily become its own modern classic.

For Writers: WHEN YOU REACH ME is a perfect example of my favorite “genre.” I put that in quotes lest all the MFA and PhD students in the world  jump down my throat, for it isn’t really a genre, per se, but a term from literary criticism. For me, though, “magical realism” is the only way to describe this book. Magical realism is our world with a twist, a little magical quirk, like time travel. The people are like us, the world is our own and easily recognizable, but something is a little off and the characters must react to it.

For me, that term aptly fills the gray area between genres like sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal (that usually feature a world not quite our own) and what you’d call “contemporary” or “literary” fiction (that feature no crazy anything). If it isn’t a genre you’ve tried writing, then do. It is so much fun and such a treat (as long as you’re clear when you set the rules of the magic and stick to them, of course).

Also, I’m pretty much a stickler about the use of the 2nd person in fiction (more on this later) but Stead has used it here to great effect and as a surefire way to keep tension and stakes sky high. Definitely check it out to learn more about that.

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