Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: Chapter Swap

Late last summer, Brian Sargent proposed a question to our group: Anyone interested in drafting or revising a project using a chapter swap? We started with five members but soon there were three -- Brian, Ella Schwartz, and Jean Giardina.

The rules were simple. The first rule of chapter swap was don’t talk about chapter swap.

*is handed note*

Sorry, wrong rule. The rules were: email one chapter to the group on Monday, everyone reads and provides feedback by Friday, repeat until your book is done.

We named ourselves the Swapperz and have hung together through the ups and downs of the last nine months. Here’s our story:

Describe Your Project and Why You Wanted to Try a Chapter Swap

Jean: I had an idea and an outline for an X-Files-inspired middle grade contemporary. What I needed was accountability. I draft slowly and a weekly due date seemed like a sensible approach. After all, it’s only one chapter per week. How hard could it be, right? (Spoiler: it’s very hard.)

Brian: My project is about everything. Or at least it has been about everything at one point or another. And that’s why I wanted to do the swap. I could not pin this manuscript down to one cohesive idea. I knew if I was submitting the chapters to other dynomite* writers, I’d have to commit to one idea. And it worked!

Ella: I had a completed first draft of a soldier book I’d written for NaNoWriMo two years ago which was in desperate need of some attention. Vomiting all the words is easy for me but revisions are painful. I needed a kick in the butt to sit down every single week and chip away at this book one chapter at a time.

*Please do not correct me. If you believe dynomite is actually spelled any other way, you are wrong and your penance is to watch more Good Times.

How Similar are Your Stories and Writing Styles?

Jean: Not similar at all and I think that is one of our group’s greatest strengths. What we do have in common is a similar critiquing style. Our feedback to each other is very direct and honest, but filled with humor. 

Brian: One of the biggest challenges for me is that we have a YA/NA romance-ish book in the mix, and I have absolutely zero experience with those. But it has explosions, too. Sometimes I think Ella puts in the explosions just for me. Thank you, Ella!

Ella: I totally do, Brian! Every time I write a scene where guns are fired or grenades are thrown I think to myself, “this will make up for the kissing scene I tossed Brian last week.” Then I throw an extra grenade, just for good measure. But Jean is right, our books are so vastly different and I think that’s what makes our group so special. Jean is writing a fun alien book that takes place in the country, and being a city girl, I love all the images of pickup trucks, wheat fields, and bicycles zipping down dirt paths. I’ve started using the word ‘hankering’ in my everyday vernacular.

What Is the Biggest Challenge?

Jean: The swap forces me to get over attempted perfectionism in my first draft. Typos? Plot detours? They are all there in their fetid glory. Some weeks, I write a chapter and press send without much time to consider my work. I feel like I am shoveling garbage directly into Brian’s and Ella’s inboxes. But the world keeps spinning and their feedback is just the encouragement I need to move forward.

Brian: For the record, Jean has never shoveled garbage into my inbox. For me, the biggest challenge was finding the right partners. I’ve written in isolation for a long time because every writing group I’d ever joined before had been way too positive. I needed to find writers I could trust to tell me when something wasn’t working. Lucky for me, I did.

Ella: My biggest challenge was getting over my insecurities and hitting the send button. The first couple of weeks I was TERRIFIED that Jean and Brian would throw me out of the Swapperz saying my writing was just too awful, or they weren’t interested in my story. I’m pretty sure I sent the group a long disclaimer when we started this journey which said something like, “I have this book which probably sucks and you probably have no interest so if you don’t want to read it won’t hurt my feelings.”

What Is the Biggest Surprise?

Jean: The weekly feedback is more important than I ever imagined. It is instant course correction. One week, I wrote a chapter and both Brian and Ella came back with the same feedback: “No way.” And they were right. For the next week, I rewrote that chapter from scratch. It’s as if they shot a flare just as I was about to drive my plot off of a cliff.

Brian: I’ll share a similar story. About three chapters into my project, Jean sent me feedback that said something like, “I can’t wait until the next chapter! I can tell you’re about to reveal something really big!” But I wasn’t. Not even close. My big reveal was still many chapters away. Many boring chapters away. But I knew she was right. It was time for a big reveal. And so I cut a huge section of my book out and changed the pace dramatically. That’s the joy of instant feedback.

Jean: The technical term for what I wanted to see from Brian is called the Chapter 3 Poop Fan. We Swapperz are a classy bunch.

Ella: What Jean and Brian said! The instant feedback has been so important. But I’ll add another surprise: The friendship that has grown between the three of us. When you’re swapping every week you’re choosing to trust your writing partners and with that trust builds friendship. Brian and Jean have become dear friends. I don’t know where I’d be without them. Look, sometimes life gets in the way of writing. The three of us had a tough winter with sick kids, family tragedies, and snow mountains. When life got tough, we leaned on each other.

Has the Swap Changed Your Writing Process?

Brian: Absolutely. It made me commit to an idea and see it through. Instead of turning around and rewriting the beginning every time I hit a roadblock, the swap forced me to push through the challenge and get to the next chapter, even if sometimes I had to ask my readers to simply pretend I’d fixed something when I hadn’t. Yet.

Ella: Yes! The accountability forced me to make writing part of my weekly schedule. I try to write a little everyday now. I’ve also become a better writer. Jean has helped me eliminate (most) of the pesky filter words from my writing.

Jean: Completely! The swap has made me a more confident writer because I know that I have two amazing people in my corner. And when I don't deliver my words on time, I can count on harassing emails.

What Are the Positives or Negatives of a Chapter Swap?

Brian: By their very nature, chapter swaps are small picture critiques, and it’s possible to write perfect chapter after perfect chapter, but still not have a great book. Big picture items can sometimes be overlooked in crafting the individual chapters.

Ella: That’s a good point, Brian. We’re always so focused on reviewing a single chapter that sometimes we don’t pay attention to the big picture.

Jean: There can certainly be a forest and trees issue when working on projects chapter by chapter. But I think we’ve countered that with the friendship and trust part. On several occasions, a chapter critique has turned into long email chains about brainstorming solutions to big picture problems. Once, I even used math to make my point (my apologies again, Ella).

How Invested Are You in Your Writing Partners’ Work?

Ella: So invested! I think about Jean's and Brian’s characters all the time! I’ll be sitting at the soccer field and all of a sudden have an idea for their stories and I need to shoot off an immediate email. Their stories aren’t my own babies, but I sort of feel like the favorite aunt.

Brian: It’s funny because in a way, Jean and Ella have become my surrogate writers. With a few keystrokes, they are able to fix stuff that has been bothering me for months. I can only hope I’ve done the same for them. Every week or so, one of us will write a long email that begins “Feel free to ignore me, but…” and then go nuts outlining awesome ideas for the other writers to react to. They don’t make a dedication page big enough for the thanks I owe them.

Jean: 100% agree! I'm so committed that I named two of my kids after Ella's characters (this will be my official story when she is on book tour).

Readers: Any experience with a chapter swap? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.


Brian, Ella, and Jean

Monday, May 25, 2015

Hop Aboard for ... THE HEIST OF THE CENTURY!

What is it about trains that captures the imagination? Stepping into the passenger car as the horn blasts its final warning. The sea of people from all colors and backgrounds, confined together for a prolonged period. The tremendous range of sights as the countryside whizzes by.

And of course the best part . . .



An entire book set on a single train seems like it might get boring, but that's not the case when the train is several miles long. The Boundless is a cross-section of humanity, ranging from the first-class snootfest cars near the engine, all the way to the dingy colonist cars by the caboose.

When our young hero, Will, steps off of first-class to explore, an attack forces him to flee and hide. As the Boundless sounds its horn, Will barely chases down the caboose and clings on for dear life. The only things standing in his way back to his father are miles of train cars ... and a ravenous beast, a cabal of brakemen trying to kill him, an evil swamp hag with psychic powers, and a carnival ringmaster attempting to pull off the world's most dangerous robbery.

No problem. If you want a thrill-a-minute read, that is.


Don't fret, adults pooh-poohing middle-grade literature! THE BOUNDLESS is an engrossing read so I wouldn't skip it, but THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY has the same feel to it -- with an adult bent. One part Ocean's Eleven, one part James Bond, and one part Charles Dickens, Crichton spins a tale that must be finished once you start.

Four separate keys that must be stolen and copied? Check. A catlike agility required to move through, around, and over a speeding train? Check. Bait and switch scams? In spades. And at end, a mammoth payday inside a supposedly impenetrable safe.

Supposedly, being the key word. It's the theft of the century, and it cannot be missed. 

Train-ing day is here!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Reaching Readers: Through Sports and Humor with Timothy Tocher

Timothy Tocher is the author of several short stories, novels, and nonfiction books for middle grade and young adult readers, including Chief Sunrise, John McGraw, and Me, which was named a 2005 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. His short story “Sgt. Monday of the Enchanted Kingdom Police” won the 2003 Magazine Merit Award for Fiction granted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Most recently, the 2015 February issue of Cricket Magazine featured his short story "Captain Monday of the Forest Rangers," a fun fractured fairy tale about a hard-boiled policeman living in fairyland. In this post, Timothy shares with Kidliterati the various ways he reaches his readers.

Your books share sports, and baseball in particular, as a common theme. Which readers do these books reach, and what are they connecting to the most?

TT: My goal is to demonstrate to sports-oriented readers that the excitement and enjoyment of athletics can be found on the printed page. It is almost as much fun to read a well-written story as it is to score a key basket or deliver a game winning hit.

Male middle grade and young adult readers are often considered difficult to reach. What are your thoughts about this and how have you been successful in doing this?

TT: Humor and fast-paced stories appeal to all readers, but especially males. Some boys prefer to read small amounts in a single session.My nonfiction book Odd Ball: Hilarious, Unusual, and Bizarre Baseball Moments is designed to fill that need. Using black and white comic strips, each anecdote is a single page long.
In what ways has publishing short stories influenced your connection to readers?
TT: I enjoy writing short stories, and it allows me access to varied markets. Contributing to middle grade anthologies like Newfangled Fairy Tales and Girls to the Rescue (#6 and #7) led to Bruce Lanky at Meadowbrook Press publishing my first two novels. My work in Cricket Magazine has generated fan letters from as far away as Singapore. Short stories also enable me to reach adult readers. I’ve been published in the Saturday Evening Post, Chronogram (2008 fiction contest winner), and in baseball magazines such as Elysian Fields Quarterly and Spitball.

Sample 1920s Baseball Glove
Your calendar is filled with appearances at book festivals. How do you reach readers at these events?

TT: Book festivals are a great venue for meeting readers, teachers, and fellow book lovers. Children’s books have enticing covers and kids can see at a glance whether or not they are interested in the type of book I write. My historical, baseball novels take place around 1920, and I bring a replica of the most popular fielder’s glove of the era. Compared with a modern mitt, it looks like a small, inexpertly made toy. If the ball didn’t land in the pocket, you weren’t catching it.

You were a teacher formerly. Please tell us about your approach to doing author school visits and how you keep the entire class engaged.

TT: Interactive presentations work best. I provide Readers’ Theater scripts for excerpts from my novels and fairy tale parodies. Most of my poems are short enough for individuals to read them aloud. The youngest children act out the poems while I read them. My audiences enjoy singing along to parodies of well-known songs.

Tell us about the humorous poems on your website that teachers request permission to use in their classrooms.

TT: The one line that never fails to get a laugh is from a Christmas poem I wrote called “Help Wanted.” The premise is that Santa needs new reindeer since the original team is ready to be put out to pasture. The line “Prancer’s sick of staring at Dancer’s big behind,” gets them every time. There’s a great bulletin board based on the poem at a site called Creative Lesson Cafe. Another class created a video of the poem and posted it at for sing-alongs.

As a sneak preview for our readers, can you share with us about any upcoming projects?

TT: Come say hello to me at the Millbrook Literary Festival on May 30th. This free event features more than 50 authors with presentations for all ages.

Thanks so much, Timothy, for such a fun and interesting conversation. We can’t wait until your next book and short story come out! Click here to find out more about Timothy Tocher’s books and activities.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Happy Release Day, Jen and Gail!

It's a party and You're Invited!

The Kidliterati are excited to celebrate
Jen Malone and Gail Nall's co-writing debut.

Four best friends start a party-planning business in this fresh, funny tween novel from the authors of At Your Service and Breaking the Ice. Twelve-year-old Sadie loves helping  her mom with her wedding planning business, and with Sadie's mad organizational skills, she's a natural! That's why it's so devastating when her mother "fires" her after a Little Mermaid-themed wedding goes awry.

Enter Sadie's best friends: sporty Vi, ace student Lauren, and boy-crazy Becca. The girls decide that in order to get Sadie's mom to reconsider, they have to make her see how amazing Sadie is at party planning. Except no one's gonna hire a twelve-year-old to plan a wedding. A birthday party, though? Definite possibility.

Before long, RSVP--your one-stop shop for the most creative parties in town--is born. Of course, Sadie can't wait to prove herself to her mom, but the other girls also have their reasons for enlisting: Vi has her eye on the perfect gift for her hardworking dad, and Becca's all aflush at the thought of connecting with Ryan, the new Irish cutie in town. And though Lauren thinks she's too busy with summer studies to "officially" join, she's willing to help out in any way she can.

But in this particular party-planning business, nothing goes according to plan! Sadie's mom is a perpetual no-show, Vi's archrival is dead set on ruining her summer, Becca can't seem to get Ryan to glance in her direction, and Lauren keeps choosing studying over her friends. Is the girls' friendship strong enough to survive a business? Or does RSVP spell the end of these BFFs?

Grab your copy here:

Congrats, Jen and Gail!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: The Post Where Jen and Gail Discuss Pleather Pants

*Not Gail. *Or Jen.
You never forget your first and that will definitely be the case with the launch of my debut middle grade At Your Service last summer. But what I failed to take into account is that there are always new firsts to look forward to and celebrate. You’re Invited, which comes out tomorrow, is both Gail and my second books, but our first time writing together. The process has been crazy fun (and crazy crazy), and you can read more about our process here. But for today we thought we’d keep it fun by interviewing each other about, well, us.

Here goes:

So, Gail, what was your favorite part of co-writing You’re Invited with me? 

Gail: Making each other laugh! Thinking up something to try to top what you'd written in the chapter before was the best part. Second maybe to reading your comments on what I'd written. Oh, and reading your new chapters! It was like Christmas that lasted for a really, really long time. And our three-person phone calls with Amy (our editor). What am I talking about? I loved it all! Did you?

Jen: Yup. Much more than I thought I would*, for all the reasons you just listed. I felt like I was writing my chapters for you as opposed to having some vague image of a someday reader in mind as I typed. I giggled out loud when I wrote lines I thought would make you laugh.  *I mean, I didn’t have low expectations, I just didn’t have any expectations because I couldn’t quite picture how co-writing a book with someone would work. 

Me neither! So, what was your least favorite?

Gail: How fast you write! Hahaha! And actually, that was a good thing because it kept me on my toes. I tend to procrastinate when I'm writing alone, and knowing that you were waiting kept me moving along. Okay, your turn…

Jen: The funny thing is that I was only writing fast because I was terrified of being the one holding up the timeline. Left to my own devices, I’m really lazy. I’m pretty sure I invented binge-watching… I would say my least favorite was falling behind on Game of Thrones. Just kidding. It was probably how long copy edits take when two people need to weigh in on every sign-off. But that’s just being nit-picky.

Okay, Gail, here’s where I put you on the spot: what is your favorite scene in the book?

Gail: The Dread Pirate scene, hands-down. It makes me laugh, every single time. I feel like we should get matching costumes, complete with stuffed parrot, and wear them to an event some time and talk like Becca. People would come that, right?

Jen: Um… yes? Yes! Of course the two of us in pleather pants would be a draw? Or perhaps a vine that goes viral, one or the other. I loved that you picked a scene I wrote because my favorite is a scene you wrote. Well, actually a slew of scenes that feature the funniest characters of all time, Bubby (Lauren’s crazy—and desperate to be hip—grandmother). I think I literally rubbed my hands together in anticipation any time she made an appearance on the page.

Which of our characters would you want with you in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?

Gail: Hmmm... I'm going with Lauren, because while I'm freaking out, I feel like she'd find a way to outsmart them. You?

Jen: Easy peasy. Bubby. Did I mention I love Bubby. She’d kill me with laughter way before the zombies got to me. I’d rather go out that way any day!

Zombies, pleather pants, and pirate talk- I'd sat this has been a successful interview! We'd love for you to celebrate You're Invited's release with us this week. Check back for more fun!

Four best friends start a party-planning business in this fresh, funny tween novel from the authors of At Your Service and Breaking the Ice.

Twelve-year-old Sadie loves helping her mom with her wedding planning business, and with Sadie’s mad organizational skills, she’s a natural! That’s why it’s so devastating when her mother “fires” her after a Little Mermaid–themed wedding goes awry.

Enter Sadie’s best friends: sporty Vi, ace student Lauren, and boy-crazy Becca. The girls decide that in order to get Sadie’s mom to reconsider, they have to make her see how amazing Sadie is at party planning. Except no one’s gonna hire a twelve-year-old to plan a wedding. A birthday party, though? Definite possibility.

Before long, RSVP—your one-stop shop for the most creative parties in town—is born. Of course, Sadie can’t wait to prove herself to her mom, but the other girls also have their reasons for enlisting: Vi has her eye on the perfect gift for her hardworking dad, and Becca’s all aflush at the thought of connecting with Ryan, the new Irish cutie in town. And though Lauren thinks she’s too busy with summer studies to “officially” join, she’s willing to help out in any way she can.

But in this particular party-planning business, nothing goes according to plan! Sadie’s mom is a perpetual no-show, Vi’s archrival is dead set on ruining her summer, Becca can’t seem to get Ryan to glance in her direction, and Lauren keeps choosing studying over her friends. Is the girls’ friendship strong enough to survive a business? Or does RSVP spell the end of these BFFs?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

K10: My Teacher Is an Alien

The Kidliterati Ten is an interview series with young readers. We ask them about a favorite book and hope that you enjoy their answers.

This week, please welcome Mehandis!

Tell us a little about yourself: what is your first name, how old are you, and what is your favorite ice cream flavor?

My name is Mehandis, I'm eight years old and I love Superman ice cream! 

What book did you read and why did you choose it?

I chose MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN by Bruce Coville. I chose it because there's an alien on the cover. 

Can you describe this book in one word?


What was your favorite part of the story?

I liked the end when the alien got to go into space with one of the school kids.

If you had a problem similar to the main character's problem, what would you do?

If my teacher was an alien, I'd leave school and take all the children and adults somewhere safe. Then when the aliens invade, we'd attack them.

What would you say to your best friend to convince them to read this book?

It has aliens and it's really interesting!

What do you think about the book's cover?

The alien-teacher looks scary. The teacher is peeling off his face and it looks disgusting. It made me want to read it. 

Would you want to read another book about these characters? Why or why not?

It depends. If the next book also had a cool cover, I'd read it.

Can you name another book that reminds you of this one?

ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN by Donald J. Sobol. Except this book has aliens. 

If you could ask the author one question about this book, what would it be?

Why didn't the aliens and the humans attack each other?

Thanks, Mehandis!

The blurb:

"Sixty Grade is just... out of this world."

Susan Simmons can tell that her new substitute teacher is really weird. But she doesn't know how weird until she catches him peeling off his face -- and realizes Mr. Smith is really an alien!

At first no one will believe her -- except Peter Thompson, the class brain. When Peter and Susan discover Mr. Smith's horrible plans for their classmates, they know they have to act fast. Only they can get rid of their extraterrestrial visitor -- and save the rest of the sixth grade class from a fate worse than math tests!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

BeastkeeperBeastkeeper by Cat Hellisen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first, Sarah didn’t see the magic, then she was surrounded by it.

Sarah’s family moved a lot, until the day her mother walked out on the family. Then her father left her with a bitter grandmother she never knew. Beasts, talking birds, self-cleaning castles and freezing forests became her new life. Feeling alone, Sarah discovered not only that magic was real, but that she was the third generation of a family cursed. Her grandfather and father both became beasts when their feelings of true love were not returned. Sarah set out to discover how to break that curse before it happens to her, but no one seemed willing to help.

The cover instantly drew me in. The silhouetted castle reminded me of the fairy tale retellings by Adam Gidwitz, such as A Tale Dark and Grimm. Beastkeeper is a twist on a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. The idea is nice because it puts a girl in the role of a beast.

The prose were simply beautiful. I loved how the start of the book worked beastly and magical descriptions into mundane events and objects, wonderfully foreshadowing the magic that was to come. Lines painted pictures in my head, such as, “The words fell out onto the table and flew away like dandelion seeds, never reaching him.”

The second half of the book moved a little fast and some things were not fully explained. However, it didn’t take away from the story that was told. For example, while details about Sarah falling in love were light, it didn’t matter because her concern for her family felt more important.

I would recommend this book to those that enjoy fairy tale retellings and fanciful prose, scattered with imagery.

View all my reviews


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