Behind the Scenes: My Experience as a Cybils Judge

This winter, I was able to serve as a judge for the Cybils, an award for children’s and young adult authors and illustrators. Established by bloggers, the Cybils recognize work that combines literary merit with popular appeal.

I’d been following the Cybils for a few years, and knew that it was a well-respected award. I’m a book blogger, too, at Kid Book List, and when I saw the call for judges, I thought I’d give it a try. I hoped it would be a good opportunity to discover some great books and meet new people in the kid lit community.

It was both of those in spades. I was chosen to be a second-round judge in the Poetry category. Lucky me! I am a big fan of novels in verse and kid poetry anthologies.

Anyone can nominate books for consideration in any of the categories; the only requirements are that they have been published in the United States or Canada in the year under consideration. Each Cybils category has first round readers who go through all of the nominated books. They narrow the nominations to a group of five to seven finalists for the second-round readers, who then choose a winner.

That’s where the fun began for me. We had a fantastic and incredibly diverse set of finalists in the Poetry category, which made our task both exciting and difficult. Our finalists were:

BOOKED by Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander, a middle grade novel in verse about a soccer-obsessed boy whose parents are separating;

FRESH DELICIOUS, written by Irene Latham and illustrated by Mique Moriuchi, an upbeat and colorful poetry anthology for the preschool and early elementary set, celebrating the joys of the farmer’s market;

GARVEY’S CHOICE by Nikki Grimes, a spare and lovely middle grade novel in verse told from the perspective of an overweight boy who struggles to win his athletic father’s approval;

GUESS WHO, HAIKU, written by Deanna Caswell and illustrated by Bob Shea, an adorable picture book in poem form centered on a barnyard;

THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY by Laura Shovan, a middle grade novel in verse told from a remarkable eighteen perspectives and in an array of poetic forms, about the last year of a school that will be torn down;

TO STAY ALIVE: MARY ANN GRAVES AND THE TRAGIC STORY OF THE DONNER PARTY by Skila Brown, a young adult historical in gorgeous and unflinching verse;

WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES: POEMS FOR ALL SEASONS, written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Julie Morstad, a beautiful anthology for early elementary readers that celebrates the garden through the seasons.

Once the finalists were in, we got to work. First we gathered the books from the library (or our bookshelves!), and a few that we couldn’t get in time were sent from the publisher. Our reading load was lighter than the first round’s, and I was able to get it done in the time we needed without too much trouble.

The great sweep of books in this category made it challenging to compare them, but after some email discussion, we decided that Laura Shovan’s THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY was “the most appealing in its diversity, its capturing of the emotional lives of children on the brink of adolescence, and its poetic acrobatics.” See here for our write-up about why we chose it, and to read about the winners in all of the categories.

You can find out more about the Cybils here. If you’re interested in nominating a book, the deadline is generally in October. And if you want to apply to be a judge, the application is due in September. Follow the Cybils account on Twitter to make sure not to miss any announcements.

I’m so glad I was able to participate in the Cybils process. I discovered some fantastic books, analyzed what makes for a successful book of poetry for children, and met other dedicated readers of poetry and novels in verse.

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer who spends her lunch hours reading poetry. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. You can also find her on her websiteTwitter, and Instagram

Bullet Journals for Writers

Life has gotten really full. There are emails to answer, phone calls to make, and have you signed the kids up for summer camp yet? Enter the bullet journal. It’s basically a notebook into which you pour all of your appointments, tasks, plans, goals, lists, musings, and memories. And once you have it written down, you’ve captured it. That little thing that you’re afraid you’ll forget? You can let it go, because it’s in the book.

Bullet journals are completely customizable. You set it up exactly as you need to for your own quirky mind and habits. If you need two pages for a single day, go for it. If you want to see an entire month at a time, in vertical list form, it’s all you. You need a special column for your mom’s doctor appointments? No problem.

Bullet journals are especially appealing for writers, because they involve all the things writers love—paper, pens, stickers, penmanship, obsessing over minutia. The downside is that the journal can be time-consuming to establish and maintain, especially if you fall deep into the rabbit hole of perfecting the pages. DO NOT OBSESS OVER HOW PRETTY THE PAGES ARE.[1]

Here is a rough overview of how to get started (for the full story, see the video here).

The Book

First, you need to pick a notebook. Here’s my preferred bullet journal. It has thick numbered pages, two ribbon bookmarks, a pocket in back, and isn’t it so lovely? I am devoted to mine, but I must admit that a multiple-notebook binder like this one has some appeal, as you could choose to have one notebook for appointments, another for sketches, or your work in progress, or your many lists. You can also go for something cheap and easy to start and see if you like it, and there are websites where you can have a custom journal set up for you, if you don’t like filling in the pages yourself.

The Index

What bullet journalers call an index is really a table of contents,[2] and it’s crucial. This part really blew my mind. How many notebooks have I filled in my life? And why did it never occur to me to include a table of contents? I now use them for all of my notebooks. For instance, if I’m going to a writing conference, I’ll use one notebook for my class notes, follow-ups, and critique notes, and leave a few blank pages at the front for my table of contents. Then, three months later when I’m trying to remember Wendy Mass’s incredible talk on blueprinting your novel, I pull out my New England SCBWI Conference journal and flip right to the correct page. So satisfying.

The Schedule

It takes a little while to perfect your system. I have monthly and weekly calendars, all in the front half of the book, and the back half blank for my lists. My advice is to look around at the endless bullet journal boards for ideas, and try a few things out before you commit to filling in an entire year’s schedule.

The Lists

This is where the bullet journals really shine. You can use your blank pages for all the things that you need to pour out of your brain, and you can also use them for inspiration, to help you reach your goals, and to amuse you. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few types of lists that are particularly useful for writers.

Productivity

There are a million ways to track your productivity through a list. I do a little chart in the corner of my weekly calendar where I track writing days, as well as exercise and overall steps toward world domination. Specific pages for word count, scenes or chapters written or edited, pomodori completed, or blog posts written, can also be useful, as can a submissions tracker or chart of your various works in progress. It is so satisfying to fill in those little boxes, let me tell you.

Brainstorming

Corral your ideas for stories, snippets of dialogue overheard (I can’t be the only one eavesdropping during field trips), character traits or habits, inspiring books or movies, found images and metaphors, and great names.

Work in Progress

I actually do this in a separate notebook (with a table of contents!), but you can do it in your bullet journal, if you’d rather have it handy. I include my outline, themes and story questions, titles, character sketches, scene planning, and anything else that strikes me. Some other ideas that might be fun are sketching out your dream cover, or drafting a dedication and acknowledgements page for your work in progress.

Reading

If you’re like me, you have a towering to be read pile and are constantly encountering more books that you want to add. You can track what you’re reading or want to read, as well as your impressions as you’re reading, and reviews written.

Fun

Make some room for delight, as well. Consider including a spot for words you love,[3] writing prompts, six-word stories, doodles, and inspiring quotes. I have my favorite poems, for easy perusing when I’m in the mood.

Good luck! In the comments, I’d love to hear how you use your bullet journal, or your ideas for lists that writers would appreciate.

For more inspiration on productivity, check out Richelle’s post on Writing Goals, and we have a fantastic start to your to-be-read craft books list here.

Katharine Manning may never master calligraphy, but she makes a darn good cake. She is a middle grade writer and mom who lives in Washington, DC, home of the uber-productive. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files…Of Middle Grade Authors and is thrilled to be a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and Instagram.

 

[1] Please note that I am currently trying to learn calligraphy so I can make my pages prettier. I am terrible at calligraphy.

[2] Don’t mind me, just obsessing over minutia.

[3] Isn’t “hush” wonderful? I love that word.

Author Interview–Julie Leung

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We are thrilled to have on the blog today Julie Leung, a debut author whose middle grade novel releases on October 4th. MICE OF THE ROUNDTABLE: A TAIL OF CAMELOT is an epic new middle grade series in the tradition of Redwall and Poppy, based on Arthurian legend and told from the perspective of Camelot’s most humble creatures: mice. Young mouse Calib Christopher dreams of becoming a Knight of the Round Table. For generations, his family has led the mice who live just out of sight of the humans, defending Camelot from enemies both big and small. But when Calib and his friend Cecily discover that a new threat is gathering—one that could catch even the Two-Leggers unaware—it is up to them to unmask the real enemy, unite their forces, and save the castle they all call home. The book has received positive reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal!

“A winning new adventure featuring a stalwart warrior mouse, heroic knights, and magical Camelot.” (Kirkus) “Leung employs classic language, with regal terms to re-create the timeless feel of Camelot.” (School Library Journal)

What drew you to this story for a retelling?

I grew up on a steady diet of the Redwall series. I checked out every book from the library and savored every feast scene and battle. And like most fans of fantasy fiction, my first taste of it came from tales of King Arthur and his knights. So when Paper Lantern Lit approached me with the project for Mice of the Round Table, I knew this was the perfect fit for me.  

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of retelling a story?

My favorite thing about writing an Arthurian retelling is that I can bake in references and literary Easter eggs that will hopefully pay off when the reader continues to explore the legends in their own right. On the flip side, I have to ensure that my story arc follows the trajectory that everyone expects—for the most part at least, I like to throw in some surprises. 😉

How much research did you do?

My research was twofold. I did a lot of digging into Arthurian legends themselves. But I quickly found that the versions we have come to know as canon have also been modified and tweaked through the ages. Different authors left in their own details and flourishes which I found fascinating.

I also refreshed myself on a lot of “rodent-as-hero” stories like Poppy, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and other classic tales. One of my biggest challenges was to correctly scale mice in a world built by humans.

What are some details you included to evoke the time period?

I tried to place the story in a timeless and familiar fairytale setting. That meant excising any words or terminology that sounded too modern and paying attention to the descriptions food and clothing to make sure they felt grounded within historical reason.

Why do you write middle grade?

The books that truly turned me into an insatiable reader for life were read when I was 8-12 years old. I wanted to write for this age because I could incorporate a sense of innocent wonder and adventure but at the same time introduce more complex themes.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid? 

Ozma of Oz by Frank L. Baum

How about a favorite middle grade that you’ve discovered as an adult?

I read the Tale of Despereaux for a college class and have been craving soup ever since.

What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write like you’re running out of time, adapted from the Hamilton musical. To keep myself focused on the goal of finishing a manuscript, I cultivate this sense of urgency in the back of mine: No one can tell your stories but yourself, and you owe it to your stories to see them to realization.   

julie-leung

JULIE LEUNG was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, though it may be more accurate to say she grew up in Oz and came of age in Middle-earth.

By day, she is a senior marketing manager for Random House’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Del Rey Books. She is also the mother of FictionToFashion.com, where she interprets her favorite books into outfits.

In her free time, she enjoys furtively sniffing books at used bookstores and winning at obscure board games. Her favorite mode of transportation is the library.

You may accost her in the following formatsTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.

Katharine Manning has a soft spot in her heart for mouse stories, dating back to third grade when she first read about Ralph and his motorcycle. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls, friendship, and occasionally, magic. She blogs here and at The Mixed-Up Files, and is thrilled to be a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can see her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List, and can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter and Instagram

Summer Road Trip Read Alouds

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It’s summer road trip season, and in our family, that means I’m on the lookout for great books for reading out loud. That’s our favorite way to while away the hours speeding down the highways and back roads.

Not all books are great for reading aloud. To me, the key is that the plot has to be relatively straightforward (in case someone zones out for a bit, looking for the world’s largest ball of twine) and it has to move at a good clip (to keep the interest of those who might otherwise start kicking their sisters). Bonus points if it’s exciting, funny, and has silly names.

Here are some we’ve loved recently.

princess bride

The Princess Bride: If you’ve seen the movie, the book, which reads almost verbatim, will crack you right up. Everyone has his or her own favorite lines. In our family, the surest way to make someone laugh is to say, “Anybody want a peanut?” This is one of the rare instances in which I would recommend seeing the movie first, because the fantastic actors and settings make the book come to life as you’re reading.

snow treasure

Snow Treasure: This was one of my wife’s favorite books as a kid, but I’d never heard of it. It’s the fascinating true story of Norwegian children who smuggled $12 million in gold out of their country on sleds after the Nazi occupation in WWII began. We were all on the edges of our seats to find out what happened, and I especially love the kid power message here.

tumtum

TumTum and Nutmeg: These are fantastic for younger kids, who may not be able to follow a longer plot yet. It’s a series of long-ish short stories starring a fussy husband and doting wife mouse couple and their trouble-causing, pompous best friend, General Marchmouse. The stories are entertaining, but not too scary, and everyone is polite and trying to be good. It definitely has fun-to-say names.

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Harry Potter: To me, these are the quintessential read alouds. My wife and I actually read these to each other before we had kids, even over the phone when we were long distance. The stories are gripping, and get better as the series progresses. It has the best names of any books out there. Hufflepuff! Dumbledore! Rowena Ravenclaw! Plus you get to try out fun British-isms like “snogging” and “bloody.” You really can’t get better than this.

wizard of oz

The Wizard of Oz: Another one where the fantastic book gets overshadowed by the movie, I like this for a road trip because it’s the story of a journey and trying to get home. The books (there are five of them) read more like a series of connected short stories, so it’s also nice for bedtime stories, or where you can’t read it all at once.

fortunately the milk

Fortunately, the Milk: So silly and funny. A dad goes out for milk, takes too long getting home, and comes back to tell the kids the fantastic tale of where he’s been. It’s a quick read, and will have you all howling with laughter.

Okay, your turn! I’ve got a looong road trip coming up at the end of this month. What do you recommend? What have you loved?

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer who is working on her British accent. You can see more of her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter

Why You Need to Try Writing Prompts

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I’ve never really been one for writing prompts. Like everyone else, I am busy, and so have always felt the writing time I had needed to be as productive as humanly possible. If I wasn’t adding to my word count, I was wasting time. It will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been writing for a while that I got pretty burned out by that strategy. The joy of writing was gone, and without that, there was no point.

This summer, I’m giving myself the opportunity to play with my writing. My commitment is not to a number of words or chapters or books finished, but rather that every morning, first thing, I will write for fifteen uninterrupted minutes. It is Morning Pages, basically. I journal, write, brainstorm new works, or even draw.

Inspired by a class I took with Jo Knowles, I’ve also been trying writing prompts. I am amazed at the way they spark creativity and deepen my prose. They’re great practice, in the way that a sprints workout can goose your running program. Best of all for my purposes, they’re fun. I’ve been having a ball.

There are different kinds of prompts. Some are designed to inspire you into a new story, like this list or this one. Others can help you flesh out your work in progress, like this one on character development and this one on setting. For plot, I love the ideas in this article. Jen Malone also suggests writing a synopsis of your story and asking writing partners to come up with twenty “what if” questions based on it (e.g., “What if the best friend is a boy instead of girl?” or “What if she never finds the necklace?”).

Of course, because this is my summer of decadence, I prefer the prompts that are not designed to help me with a new or existing work. I like that ones that are just about fun and practice, like this calendar of 365 writing prompts, and this list from Writer Magazine. Prompts don’t have to be some formal thing, either; as suggested in this Lee & Low post, a good prompt might be a headline, a passage you highlighted in a book, or what you see outside. Another idea is to do flash fiction, where you give yourself five random words and have to write a 100-word story using those words. Janet Reid often has contests like this on her blog, but you don’t have to wait for her to post one, or to share your work if you do use her prompts. Finally, Kate Messner hosts a wonderful summer writing camp. It’s aimed at teachers and librarians, but anyone can play along. She has an impressive roster of writers lined up to provide lessons, and every Monday, Jo Knowles (the very same!) will give a writing prompt.

You can peruse these lists and choose a prompt that appeals to you. Consider, however, picking one at random, or purposely choosing one that feels difficult. In this TED Talk, Tim Harford discusses the power of discomfort to unlock creativity. Composer and music producer Brian Eno uses a deck of cards with different prompts, like “Everyone switch instruments,” or “Make a sudden, destructive, and unpredictable noise. Incorporate it.” Musicians with whom he is working have to pick a card and must try the prompt it contains.

The musicians hate it. Phil Collins threw beer cans, apparently. The work that comes out of these experiments, though, is often creative and new. When Eno instead used a list of prompts posted on the wall and let the musicians choose, the work was not as exciting. He believes that the random selection of an uncomfortable prompt—the struggle with something difficult—is what leads to creative breakthroughs. His work, with musicians from U2 to Coldplay to David Bowie, appears to hold that up. If you want to try Brian Eno’s cards, you can pick one here. Some are specific to music, but some work for writers, too.

Ready to dive in? Here is a challenge for you, inspired by the contests of the sharkly Janet Reid. Write a 100-word story that contains the following words: girl, orange, piano, pitcher, mulberry. There are no winners or losers in this, it’s just for fun, but if you’d like to post your story in the comments, I’d love to read it!

Katharine Manning has written two middle grade novels–a contemporary fantasy about a girl who saves unicorns and a contemporary on what happens when a new girl upends a girls’ soccer team. You can see her recommendations for middle grade readers at www.kidbooklist.com, and you can find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter. She also recently discovered Instagram and would appreciate any tips you have on the care and feeding of it.