Monday, June 29, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: NIGHTBIRD by Alice Hoffman

NIGHTBIRD by Alice Hoffman (Wendy Lamb Books, March 2015)

What It's About (from Alice Hoffman's website): Twig lives in Sidwell, where people whisper that fairy tales are real. After all, her town is rumored to hide a monster. And two hundred years ago, a witch placed a curse on Twig’s family that was meant to last forever. But this summer, everything will change when the red moon rises. It’s time to break the spell.


Opening Lines: "You can't believe everything you hear, not even in Sidwell, Massachusetts, where every person is said to tell the truth and the apples are so sweet  people come from as far as New York City during the apple festival. There are rumors that a mysterious creature lives in our town..."


Why I liked it:

I've realized I'm a big fan of stories that are set in our world but in which something is just a little off kilter. I mean, a witch's curse leading to a boy with wings: delicious.

Hoffman does a great job of weaving the past into her narrative, and if you're ever concerned about how to introduce backstory effectively, I recommend you look at Nightbird.

Finally, I love the way Twig, the MC, goes from being an unhappy, invisible girl to finding the value of friendship through having true friends. The character of Julia is instrumental in this--and I adored Julia's fierce spirit. Favorite lines from her: "I don't really care what people think anymore," Julia confided. "I make up my own mind." She grinned. "I'm from Brooklyn."

Hooray for all the Julias in this world!

About the Author (abridged from her website): Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing.  She currently lives in Boston.

Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford. Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has published a total of twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults.

Website  Facebook


Monday, June 15, 2015

Big Cover Reveal for LANDFALL by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez


Isn't this a great cover? It is Book One of Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's THE GUARDIAN HERD SERIES--and today I also have the pleasure of revealing the cover for Book 3: LANDFALL.

But before we get to that, Jennifer has given me permission to reprint the interview she did on her blog with the cover artist, David McClellan. Here it is:

Please enjoy my inspiring and informative interview with the Guardian Herd book series cover artist and illustrator, David McClellan. Not only will you get a "behind-the-scenes" peek at what goes into making a book cover, but you'll also learn tips for making your own amazing art!

1)      At what age did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I knew from a pretty early age. It was probably around 4th or 5th grade, when I realized that becoming a professional basketball player was out of the question. I guess it was really in college, when I chose to major in illustration, that I actually solidified the decision. 

2)      What is your favorite medium for expression and has it evolved over the years?

In high school it was Prismacolor pencils. Then, in college I did most of my illustration assignments in acrylic paint because the fast drying time meant I could get the assignments done on time. After college I got introduced to digital painting and never went back to the acrylics again. Everything that I was trying to achieve with the acrylics worked so much better with the digital media. So now all of my illustration work is done in Photoshop. But I do try to keep one foot in the door of traditional painting, so I do a lot of studies in oils to keep my skills up.


3)      How did you turn your passion for art into a career?


Basically, it’s been about getting an education and then continuing to learn my whole life. I studied illustration in college, so I learned some good fundamental principles about drawing and painting, as well as communicating ideas through images. And I learned about being a professional and meeting deadlines and keeping clients happy. After college, I knew that illustration jobs would be inconsistent so I got a job as an artist at Disney Interactive Studios, a video game developer, which has been great because that has meant working with many other talented artists as a team and learning from them. And of course, working with 3D software is a different animal than 2D art, but much of it overlaps in terms of what you need to know. I’ve basically had to learn how to be a landscape painter, except that the landscapes are virtual 3D worlds. So I think the knowledge and skills I’ve gained as a video game environment artist have helped my illustration career and vice versa.   

4)      How did you become the cover artist for The Guardian Herd series? 

The art director at Harper Collins had hired me before, but on a completely different kind of subject matter. As she considered me for this job, she asked if I was any good at painting animals and asked for some examples, and I told her that I was okay, but that I was probably weakest at horses. Of course, horses were exactly what she needed. And she agreed with me that my horses were not my best work, but for some reason she took a chance on me anyway. I immediately went and got some books on horse anatomy and started trying to figure it out. In hindsight, I think I was probably equally bad at drawing all animals. It’s just that horses are animals that humans are really familiar with, and have such specific proportions and musculature, that people can always tell when artists get them wrong. If you draw a dog wrong, you can just say it’s a different kind of dog.

5)      Please describe your process, from conception to delivery, for creating a Guardian Herd book cover. 

The art director gives me a description of what they want to see on the cover as far as characters and what kind of setting they want. Then I do several sketches to try and turn all those elements into a composition, taking into account where the title and author’s name will be. Those first sketches are usually so rough that no one else would understand them. Lately I have been doing those kind of sketches on my phone. I then pick out a few that have the most potential and make more finished sketches of those ideas to send to the art director.  She will then review the sketches with the editor and author (you!) and then either ask for changes or give the go ahead on the one that they like best. Then I will do color studies and work out the big picture before rendering any details.  I will have to do research and gather reference materials, in this case, lots of pictures of horses and wings. I have used toy horses for reference too since the photos usually don't have the right kind of lighting.  So sometimes I set up the toy horse with some makeshift paper wings to help me figure out what the shadows need to do. Then, from that point on, it’s just a lot of hours of painting time to refine and finish it off.


6)      Your perspectives on the covers are dramatic! Can you give readers any tips on how to draw interesting pictures?

As far as perspective goes, on both of these Guardian Herd covers so far I have dropped the horizon line lower so it feels like you are looking up at Star which makes him feel more heroic. There are so many potential answers to the question of how to make interesting pictures. Coming up with an interesting idea that is worth the time spent creating it is certainly crucial. Doing several rough sketches to get at the best possible idea helps. Making your image clear and legible helps. For example, it helps to have a clear focal point that is the most important thing in your picture and then have all the other elements complement rather than compete with that main focal point. I believe that contrast is a big key to making things interesting. Our brains naturally look for contrast to make sense of things. And not just contrast of light and dark but just about everything you can think of has an opposite that you can use to set it apart and make it stand out. Of course, not everything should stand out. Only the important things. But if you want something to feel light, surround it with some dark. If you want something to feel big, put something small next to it. Try to keep variety in your shapes and not make everything too similar or monotonous.

7)    Do you have any specific tips/advice on how to draw horses and feathers?

Well, start by getting the best reference materials you can get. You may not be able to see all that you need to understand in a photo of a horse, so a book on horse anatomy or a diagram of the muscles of the horse can be helpful. With feathers, it seems to be a little like drawing fingers or hair. If you are drawing a hand, it works best to mass in the fingers as a group first before trying to depict each individual finger. And with hair, it’s the same thing. You draw the mass of hair and then define only as many strands of hair as you need to in order to show that it’s hair and no more. With the feathers, start with the shape of the wing as a solid mass with the structure of the bones underneath in mind, and then add the feather detail on top of that foundation. And remember that you don’t have to define each feather with equal importance. Pick a few main ones to be the ones that tell the story.

8)      How important has the computer become in the world of art? 

It’s extremely important. And along with computers I would list smart phones and tablets and any electronic device that can be used to either create art, or view it. But the thing to remember is that the hardware and the software are just tools. The music is not in the violin. It has to come from the musician. So a software expert with no artistic training probably won’t create something as beautiful as a good artist with little software training might be able to. So I always tell people to use the software to express their designs rather than to let the software dictate the design.

9)      Can you recommend any software programs that budding artists might want to learn?

I really only work in Photoshop for my illustration work, although I sketch in the Sketchbook Pro app on my phone. I have messed around with the Brushes and Art Rage apps on my iPad. I think the kids probably know better than I do what the cool new painting apps are. I always recommend that kids get really good with real pencils and paints before getting into digital art because I think that foundation really helps.

10) Parting thoughts from David
I just want to say thanks Jennifer, and that I have really enjoyed doing the illustrations for the Guardian Herd series, and I’m excited for the next book! I hope that the fans of the books enjoy the illustrations and feel like they do justice to the characters. I look forward to seeing some cool fan art soon!

About the Artist
David McClellan grew up near Portland, Oregon and then studied illustration at Brigham Young University in Utah. In addition to illustrating books he works as an artist for Disney Interactive Studios, where they make the video game, Disney Infinity. He still lives in Utah with his wife and four boys. 
You can see more of his work at mcclellanart.com and @mcclellan_art on Instagram.

Please visit the author’s website to see the amazing fan art created by readers of the Guardian Herd book series.


Cover for Book 2: STORMBOUND

And now for the big reveal. Here's the official book blurb for LANDFALL:


It has been many moons since Star received his starfire power. He has gone from being born a dud—unable to fly and shunned by the five herds of Anok, including his own—to becoming a strong yearling, ready to lead his own herd as an over-stallion. But now he will face his toughest challenge yet. Nightwing the Destroyer, Star’s eternal rival, is amassing an army to destroy him and all of Anok. The only way for Star to defeat him is to learn how to fight like a warrior—without using his starfire. For if he uses his power, even to heal, Nightwing will know where to find him. As the threat of war looms over Star’s head, he can’t help but wonder if the current peace among the united pegasi is strong enough to defeat the powerful Destroyer once and for all.With increasingly difficult challenges and brand-new areas of Anok to explore, Jennifer Lynn Alvarez will thrill readers with this epic and exhilarating third installment of the Guardian Herd series.

I love the light in this one, and the way it melds with the green of the forest. Jennifer Lynn Alvarez has offered a prize package for one lucky winner. Here are the details: Guardian Herd Swag Prize Package—a Guardian Herd tote bag; a series poster for Book #3, LANDFALL; and a sheet of character trading cards. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing. (US,UK, and Canada only, please.)

Guardian Herd Tote Bag for one lucky winner!




More Information about Jennifer:

You can find lots more information about Jennifer Lynn Alvarez on her WEBSITE. She's also on Twitter @JenniferDiaries

Her books can be found on IndieBound, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Writer's Voice 2015: Query and First 250 of... The Friday Night Fright Club

Holy Moly!  Alerted this morning by a tweet from the great Krista Van Dolzer, I entered The Writer's Voice, and the bot picked me. Now, if it would just pick me some winning lottery numbers, I could retire from this malarkey and make my home in the Canary Islands. (The Don, by the way, is all over this. He thinks I've won The Eurovision Song Contest. I'm not disabusing him--as long as I don't have to wear sequins.)

Here we go:

Query


Dear Ms. Awesome-Agent,

Twelve-year-old Nita Adams desperately wants to see a ghost. After all, she’s president of the Friday Night Fright Club and an expert in all things paranormal—and she needs her friends to focus more on phantoms than on sports and boys. (As if boys could ever compete with banshees or bhoots—Indian ghosts with backward facing feet!)

To make matters worse, there’s trouble with the new girl in school. Destiny claims to be a REAL summoner, and she appears to be taking over Nita’s friends’ minds. Nita rises to Destiny’s challenge, and the race to see who can summon a spirit is on. Ouija boards, spell books, magical lockets, and sneaking into “haunted” houses are all part of the duel.

However, as Nita discovers, some spirits should definitely remain unsummoned. That's because the spirit she unleashes has mayhem and murder on his mind. And if Nita can’t stop him, someone close to her may very well end up dead.

THE FRIDAY NIGHT FRIGHT CLUB is a middle grade ghost story, complete at 45,000 words. I like to think of it as being a bit like Heather Vogel Frederick's Mother-Daughter Book Club series--if the only books the girls ever wanted to read were GoosebumpsI'm querying you specifically because (xyz etc.)

I belong to the SCBWI, and am active in children's literature circles, managing the group blog Project Mayhem: The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. For the past three years, I have also judged middle grade fiction for the Cybils’ awards. Originally from England, I now live in Portland, Oregon.
Thank you for your time and consideration,

Michael Gettel-Gilmartin


First 250:

The skull gleamed in the dim light of the battery-powered votive candles. Wisps of fog snaked through its empty eye sockets, and its yellowing teeth grinned as it faced one bedroom wall and then another. For a moment, it trembled in Nita’s Adams’ hand. Then it swooped down and smacked the seventh-grade social studies textbook lying beneath it.
Nita shook the skull a couple more times, for good measure. “I, the Mistress of Graves, call this meeting of the Friday Night Fright Club to order,” she said, in her spookiest voice.
As if on cue, the wind roared through the fir trees in the ravine behind Nita’s neighborhood. Rain tap-tap-tapped against her bedroom window. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the tapping was the sound of a ghost, desperate to return to a previous life? Nita would race to the window and let the lost spirit in.
She had to admit it: October in Oregon was totally her favorite month. Tonight, in honor of Halloween—only a couple of weeks away—she was doing everything in her power to amp up the fear factor. It seemed to be working—at least with one of her best friends. Brenny, wide-eyed, looked completely spooked. Now, to complete the mission and terrify Maddie…
Nita positioned the plastic skull in front of her and flung her arms wide. Vapor from the fog machine on her dresser swirled around all three of them. They looked like wraiths.
“I have two words for you,” Nita said. “Bloody Mary.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MIDNIGHT BLUE by Pauline Fisk

Midnight Blue by Pauline Fisk (Bloomsbury 2003--first published in 1990)

It's been all-go in Mafioso land, what with the eldest mini-maf graduating from high school in less than two weeks; middle mini-maf having just completed a middle school run of The Sound of Music; and mini mini-maf still in mourning because of the Portland Trailblazers defeat in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Also, as my one reader pointed out last week, I am in the midst of querying--having parted ways with my agent in early January. The Don has told me his cousin Alfonso is available and only takes 50% of any deals made, but I'm holding out for better terms (and an agent who actually reads!)

Those of you who know me well, know that I have somewhat of a morbid streak. This manifests especially when an author dies. Immediately after reading their obituary, I want to read all their books--even, nay especially--if I've never heard of them before.

This is what happened with MIDNIGHT BLUE, the absolutely stunning novel by Pauline Fisk, an English author who died in January. Her obituary in The Guardian described her as an author "with a strong sense of place and a rare gift for blending the natural with the supernatural in ways that made the latter seem entirely credible."

Now, I am also a writer who loves to blend the natural with the supernatural. My books are set in modern times, but there's always something a little "off" in the world--objects that allow one to time travel, or ghosts. So I knew I had to read Midnight Blue right away (or at least right after I finished Moby Dick  for my book group.) I wasn't disappointed.


What It's About: 

Bonnie, a girl torn between the harsh reality of her mother's weaknesses and her grandmother's strong will escapes her home one day by sneaking into her neighbor's hot air balloon. But instead of flying into the clouds and back down, she lands in another world, something like her own, but both kinder and somehow much more terrifying. She's not sure if she can ever leave this nearly parallel world and return to her own. And if she did, she isn't sure she'll be able to bring back with her the sense of warmth and love she has grown to cherish. Amazingly, she does both.

Opening Lines:
"It began as it always did with sweet, solitary notes of music that called to her from somewhere beyond the sky, a single piper's cry that reached down for her and scooped her over the roof tops and streets, office blocks and electric pylons, railway stations, shops and parks."

Why I Loved It:
As I mentioned above, Fisk's world is a recognizable one, but one that is suffused with magic. Her writing is lyrical, and her sense of place is extraordinary. Here she is, describing the hill in which Bonnie has landed with her balloon:
"The holly grove was ancient. The trees were twisted and dark, their branches tortuous. They formed a dense, gnarled ring with a large grass-and-moss clearing in the centre. You slipped into that ring and it was as if you'd entered another world....Long strands of fleece hung like listless washing on a line. Last dots of pink foxglove wilted in their shade."

There is also great suspense, because the people who inhabit this parallel world are people who Bonnie recognizes. Dad is like her neighbor, Michael; Mum is like her own mother, Maybelle; and Arabella is like Bonnie herself. Into this world comes the figure whom Bonnie fears most, her domineering grandmother, whom she calls "Grandbag." This new manifestation of Grandbag--Grandmother Marvell--has a magic mirror which can suck out a person's soul and leave them as a husk, a weird approximation of themselves. The novel ventures into dark places--literally!--as Bonnie and her friend, Jim, the shadow boy, try and outwit Grandmother Marvell and rescue Arabella from a horrible fate in the mirror.

This novel will stay with me for a very long time, and I look forward to reading more of Pauline Fisk's work.

About The Author:
Pauline Fisk was born in London in 1948, and moved to Shropshire with her husband, David Davies, in 1972. She wrote 11 books for children, including Midnight Blue and Sabrina Fludde (2002), often considered her most ambitious work. As she said of herself: “My whole life has been spent trying to bring together real life and the world of fantasy, in particular by finding new and interesting ways of expressing a sense of the magical in my writing. Ever since I was five years old, hunting down fairies in the back alley behind my parents’ house, a sense of more to life than meets the eye has been part of who I am. When I was a child, life was one big fairytale. That was how I felt. But how to get into that fairytale?”

Pauline Fisk had three daughters and two sons. She died on January 25th, 2015.



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Over at Project Mayhem today, featuring Tara Dairman's THE STARS OF SUMMER

Blog Tour button designed by Kristin Rae
I've been neglecting Middle Grade Mafioso horribly--mainly because I'm currently querying agents as well as cracking the whip as blog manager over at Project Mayhem.

Speaking of which, Project Mayhem is last stop on Tara Dairman's The Stars of Summer Blog Tour. 

As I say in my review, it's hard to get a grizzled old Middle Grade Mafioso to laugh. (Tears are a different story. I'm getting much more lachrymose in my old age, when I think of the vicissitudes of life.) But reading The Stars of Summer, I laughed a lot. Knowing, as I do, how much kids this age are into cooking shows, I'm betting that Tara has another hit on her hands.

If you're so inclined today, hop on over to the Project to say Hi! 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

GIVEAWAY of Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) Prize Pack

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) is the second installment in Liz Pichon’s series for middle-grade readers. Tom Gates is a best-selling phenomenon in the UK and kids on this side of the pond will love him too.



Tom Gates #2: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff)
by Liz Pichon
#TomGates
9780763674748 – On Sale May 12th, 2015

What It's About: No school for two whole weeks! Now Tom has plenty of time for the good stuff, like finding new ways (so many!) to annoy his big sister, Delia. Or watching TV and eating caramel candy. Or most important, band practice for DOGZOMBIES in his best friend Derek’s garage (while not encouraging Derek’s ’60s-music-crazed dad). All that stands between this band and rock greatness is, well, a song (besides “Delia’s a Weirdo”). And finding a drummer. And landing a gig. Will Tom let a killer toothache and pesky overdue homework get in his way?



Prize pack includes:
One galley of Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) by Liz Pichon
One Tom Gates bookmark
One Tom Gates tote bag

Book page on Candlewick
Tom Gates activity kit

Follow Liz Pichon on Twitter
Follow Candlewick on Twitter
Subscribe to Candlewick on YouTube

Leave a comment and you'll be entered in the prize pack giveaway. (US/Canada readers only, please.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD by Varsha Bajaj

ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD by Varsha Bajaj (Albert Whitman and Company, March 2014)

What It's About (from Goodreads): What thirteen-year-old Abby wants most is to meet her father. She just never imagined he would be a huge film star--in Bollywood! Now she's traveling to Mumbai to get to know her famous father. Abby is overwhelmed by the culture clash, the pressures of being the daughter of India's most famous celebrity, and the burden of keeping her identity a secret. But as she learns to navigate her new surroundings, she just might discover where she really belongs.

Opening Lines: "The one thing I want in my life...? Hmm.
Miss Cooper needs to know that? Really?
My eyes dart from Zoey on my right to Priya diagonally across from me to the clock directly above Miss Cooper's head. Three minutes to the bell. Unlike me, my friends are scribbling furiously."

What I Loved About It:

Varsha Bajaj got the MG voice just right. Abby is a likable character, with friends. The novel moves swiftly (Abby has an allergic reaction in the first chapter, which rapidly raises questions about whether her father--whom she's never met--might also have a similar allergy) and soon Abby is on her way to India, where her father is a huge Bollywood star. There, culture shock awaits as she experiences Mumbai as "both a city of dreams and of extreme poverty."

Quite unusually for middle grade, there really aren't any antagonistic adults either. Abby is greeted and welcomed in India by her grandmother, her father, and the servants of the house. Her father's girlfriend, a famous actress, is also kind to her. Essentially, Abby's only enemy is herself, as she goes through very relatable emotions about her relationship with her dad and whether he wants to accept her publicly or not.

There is also a very sweet (and completely MG!) romance between Abby and Shaan--an Indian-American boy who is also visiting family in India.

I also think the cover is delightful!

N.B. ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD was a middle grade finalist for the 2014 Cybils award.

I contacted Varsha Bajaj, and am thrilled that she graciously agreed to answer the Mafioso questions. Here goes:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) authors): Kate D’Camillo, Gary Schmidt, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt are some of my favorites.

2) What's on your nightstand now?
Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Stitching Snow by RC Lewis, The Truth about Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh, and All Four Stars by Tara Daiman.

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.
I loved writing the scene where Abby and Shaan go for a ride in the rickshaw. I love rickshaw rides myself. They are bumpy and I love the way rickshaws are decorated. Each one has an over the top unique style. Rickshaws have a roof but no doors and that to me is a bit crazy.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....
Putting my feet up and reading a book all afternoon. I have a hot cup of chai and possibly chips to munch on while I read. (MGM: I agree--that sounds delightful!)

5) My favorite breakfast is...
Toasted bagel with butter, or scrambled eggs on an English muffin and if I am splurging and it is available a dosa.

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?
I have to choose one? I want to see the world but I would especially love to visit Italy. (MGM: The Don gives you his seal of approval, Varsha!)

About the Author: 
Originally from Mumbai, India, Varsha Bajaj came to the United States in 1986 as a graduate student. As she says in her website bio: "After a dozen intermediate years in which I got a Masters degree, worked as a Counselor, got married, had two children and became a citizen, I started writing. It was 1999, two years after my daughter was born; my son was five and I had fallen in love with the picture book." Prior to Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood, Varsha published two picture books: How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (2004) and T is For Taj Mahal: An India Alphabet (2011). She is represented by Jill Corcoran at the Jill Corcoran Literary Agency.

Varsha Bajaj's website  Twitter

Thanks for stopping by today! Ciao!