Cybils Awards: MG Speculative Fiction

The winners of the Cybils Awards have been announced! If you haven’t heard yet, you must still be busy celebrating Valentine’s Day. The winner for the 2017 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Category is … WAIT!

First, what are the Cybils Awards? They are awards that recognize children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal.

Second, I had the pleasure of being a round two judge for this category and reading the seven amazing finalists. Let me tell you, choosing a winner was very difficult, but my fellow round two judges and I did. The winner is:

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Amazon

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis. Aventurine is a young dragon ready to explore the outside world, but her family thinks she’s too young to fly on her own. She’s determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. The human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, which transforms her into one, but results in her finding her passion. Chocolate! Now all she has to do is find an apprenticeship in a chocolate house in a human city. Easy, right?

This book hooked me by the first sentences. I can’t say I ever wondered what it felt like to be human. But then, my grandfather Grenat always said, “It’s safer not to talk to your food…” I loved the twist in this creative story about passion and what it means to find it: the main character starts as a dragon and turns into a human. It was a wonderful journey to take as Aventurine taught us if you want something, you have to work for it.

As I said, all of the finalists are fantastic. I have to share them with you.

Goodreads

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood. Chantel would much rather focus on magic than curtsying, which is why she often finds herself in trouble. When Miss Ellicott mysteriously disappears along with all the other sorceresses in the city, Chantel’s behavior becomes the least of her problems. Without magic protecting the city, it’s up to Chantel and her friends to save the Kingdom. In doing so, Chantel discovers a crossbow-wielding boy, a dragon, and a new, fiery magic that burns inside her—but can she find the sorceresses and transform Lightning Pass into the city it was meant to be?

Chantel has a problem with deportment, being shamefast and biddable, and I admit I may have the same problem. But that wasn’t all that hooked me. The characters are unique, the descriptions are detailed without losing the wonderful voice, and their adventure is full of tension. Plus magic and dragons? You can’t go wrong.

Goodreads

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh. Harper doesn’t trust her new home. It’s rumored to be haunted, but she’s not sure she believes it. It gives her a sense of déjà vu, but she can’t remember why. Until her younger brother starts acting strangely. Harper’s blocked out memories can explain her brother’s behavior and the strange happenings in the house. But will she remember it all in time?

Do you like to be scared? Well you’ve come to the right story. The mysteries of the house are just as spine tingling as the mysterious missing memories of Harper. Add to that are the descriptions of the spirit, William. Let’s just say I found myself looking over my shoulder for an evil ghost.

Goodreads

A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander. Rosa just moved to Ingot, the only ghost-free town in the world. She doesn’t understand how her mother—a librarian who specializes in ghost-appeasement—could

want to live in a place with no ghosts. She doesn’t understand why anyone would. Jasper has always lived in Ingot. He has never seen a ghost, and can’t imagine his un-haunted town any other way. Until an apparition thunders into the festival grounds and turns the quiet town upside down. Something otherworldly is about to be unleashed. Rosa will need her ghost appeasement tools and help from Jasper to rein in the angry spirits and restore peace to Ingot before it’s too late.

I loved the plot of this book. An unhaunted town is unheard of? Ghosts are normal? Cool! The characters, their jobs, even the setting in a renaissance festival were extremely well developed and fun ways to tell this story.

Goodreads

Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. It is Earth year 2213—but there is no Earth anymore. It was burned by the sun, which has mysteriously begun the process of going supernova. Humans fled to Mars, but only as a temporary solution while they planned a one-hundred-fifty-year journey to a permanent home. It’s the last day on Mars and Liam and Phoebe are going to be a few of the last humans to leave. Until they make profound discoveries about the nature of time and space, and find out that the human race is just one of many in our universe locked in a dangerous struggle for survival.

Normally I’m a feet planted on the Earth kind of reader, but I was intrigued by the humans’ life on Mars. The descriptions were so well done, I could almost feel the planet’s dust. This novel is full of tension, sabotage, and aliens, as well as a reality check on how we treat our planet.

Goodreads

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge. The underground city of Caverna has the world’s most skilled craftsmen who create wines that remove memories, cheeses that make you hallucinate, and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer. The people of Caverna are ordinary, except for one thing: their faces are blank. Expressions such as joy, despair, or fear must be learned and only Facesmiths can teach them. For a price. Then comes Neverfell, a girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying, she must wear a mask at all times. Her expressions are as varied and dynamic as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, except hers are entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous.

Once again I was struck by the creativity of this story. People not having expressions? Facesmiths having to teach them? All the while telling the story of the wealthy and poor. And at the heart of it all is a naive girl who influences both.

Goodreads

The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky. Miranda can’t believe she was chosen as one of six kids from around the world to train for the first ever mission to Mars. As soon as the official announcement is made, she begins receiving anonymous threatening message, and when the training base is attacked, it looks like Miranda is the intended target. Now the entire mission—and everyone’s lives—are at risk. And Miranda may be the only one who can save them.

This is a winner for science and space lovers. And inventors, people who love strong, independent female thinkers, and those who appreciate the importance of working as a team. Add tension and amazing descriptions and you’ve got it all!

You can find all of the 2017 nominated books here.

2017 Cybils Winners

2017 Cybils Finalists

2017 Cybils Nominations

All of these books can be found on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indi bookstores.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. She’s represented by Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency. You can find Halli on Twitter.

 

 

Windows & Mirrors: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Welcome to Windows & Mirrors where we feature books that provide us windows to lives outside our own and mirrors to our shared common human experiences.

Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King award winner Rita Williams Garcia’s Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is one of my favorite recent middle grade reads. Full of voice, the musicality and raw emotion of the blues, and complex family relationships, it’s a must read for any kidlit lover.

Clayton Byrd wants to play the blues harp (harmonica) with his grandfather Cool Papa and the Bluesman. But when life intervenes in the most tragic of ways, Clayton goes underground–literally into the New York City subway system–to learn some lessons about life, love, family, and the true meaning of the blues.

Still not convinced? The list of awards Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is as long as the subway trains he rides in:

  • National Book Award Finalist
  • Kirkus Best Books of 2017
  • Horn Book Best Books of 2017
  • Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2017
  • School Library Journal Best Books of 2017
  • NAACP Image Awards Nominee
  • Chicago Public Library Best Books
  • Boston Globe Best Books of 2017

Check out this trailer for Clayton Byrd to hear the author read an excerpt of this stunning book:

To celebrate Black History Month, we curated this list of great fiction by black authors that is available on audiobook through libro.fm. Click the image to check it out!

Libro.fm Audiobooks to Celebrate Black History Month


Also, if you’re going to read any blogs in February, you should check out The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days series. It’s fantastic with daily author interviews and book featuring black authors.

Rita Williams-Garcia  is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels for young adults and middle grade readers. Her most recent novel, Gone Crazy in Alabama ends the saga of the Gaither Sisters, who appear in One Crazy Summer and PS Be Eleven. Her novels have been recipients of numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award Finalists, Newbery Honor Book, Junior Library Guild, and the Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction. She served on faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children MFA Program and she resides in Queens, New York.

The Literary Couples We Love

Happy Valentine’s Day!

hush-naidoo (Unsplash)

The true origins of Valentine’s Day are unknown – in 496, it signified the start of spring. It was also believed Valentine was a person who gave love to the world. Similar to what we now know as Cupid? Whichever story is true, both represent joy and happiness.

At The Winged Pen, we help spread happiness by talking about our love of books and authors, but today, Valentine’s Day, we are celebrating our love of literary couples.

And a surprise! The authors who created the couples we have fallen in love with are here to share their own favorites. It’s DOUBLE LOVE!

Jessica: Alma and Evan from DREAM THINGS TRUE by Marie Marquardt. One of my favorite couples is Alma and Evan from DREAM THINGS TRUE. They come from different cultures and classes, but forge a meaningful connection while struggling with the very real issues facing undocumented immigrants.

Marie MarquardtMikey and Ellie from YOU AGAINST ME by Jenny Downham. In Young Adult, my favorite literary couple is Mikey & Ellie from the fabulous novel YOU AGAINST ME. Mikey and Ellie are classically star-crossed: when the story opens, we find that her brother, Tom, has been accused by his sister, Karyn, of rape. Needless to say, Mikey and Ellie’s relationship is complicated — but in all of the beautiful ways.

HalliSpencer and Hope from TAXONOMY OF LOVE by Rachael Allen. Spencer and Hope’s meeting was not love at first sight, at least not for Hope, but they did become fast friends. And it was a friendship that could not have happened if it wasn’t for their compassionate personalities. From the very beginning of their story, these friends suffered through bullying, relationships, sibling rivalry, and death. And through it all Spencer and Hope supported and understood each other, even if they did not always show it. What I loved so much about this literary couple was that their relationship was true, painful and joyous, just as most are in real life.

Rachael AllenVirginia and Tourmaline from DONE DIRT CHEAP by Sarah Lemon. I love reading stories with friendships that carry the emotional punch of a love story. I can think of so many favorite female friendship books, but my most recent favorite is DONE DIRT CHEAP. Especially because Virginia and Tourmaline aren’t often the kinds of girls who get to have star-crossed friendships, particularly Virginia, who I could see becoming a trope in a weaker writer’s hands. The fact that these girls are fierce and strong, the fact that they’re on opposite sides and they should be enemies – it only made me root for them that much more. I could talk about them all day, but I’ll leave you with my favorite quote: “We’re friends because when girls – women – are alone in this world, they’re easier to pick off”

Alex Martinez (Unsplash)

Rebecca: Jo and Mary Carlson, Jo and her Dad from GEORGIA PEACHES AND OTHER FORBIDDEN FRUIT by Jaye Robin Brown. One of my favorite themes in Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit is about how sometimes we hurt the people we love because we love them. So I’m cheating and choosing two couples from Brown’s novel as my favorite: Jo and Mary Carlson as well as Jo and her dad. Both Jo and her dad make decisions, poor though they are, out of love for the other person. Jo, rightly, doesn’t want to hold back Mary Carlson, and Jo’s father (rightly?) fears for his daughter’s safety. But both Jo and her dad vastly underestimate the hurt and betrayal of their choices. Neither shy away from the fallout or their parts in causing it because love means being fear-less and heart-full. This book fills me with hope and inspiration, and the last lines are a love letter to all readers: “I can’t know what the future holds for any of us. But what I do know is I’ll never again let my own fear hurt someone I love. Because love like this, it’s the only thing that really matters.”

Jaye Robin Brown: Grace and Luca from HOW TO MAKE A WISH by Ashley Herring Blake. Though I loved the girl/girl romance in HOW TO MAKE A WISH, it’s the friendship between Grace and Luca I’m going to highlight. In the book, Grace is dealing with a problematic mom. Bouncing between apartments, crazy business ventures, and always a different man, Grace’s mom often leaves Grace in the role of adult instead of child. Mostly Grace handles it, but on occasion things get the best of her. Enter best friend, Luca (and his awesome mom, Emmy). From the time they were children and Grace was left at home alone for a couple of days when her mom was out gallivanting, Luca has had her back. Now, as teens, Luca and Grace work together at LuMac’s, the family diner owned by Luca’s mom. When Grace’s mom secretly moves in with a new man while Grace is out of town, Luca is there to pick up the pieces. He’s the kind of bestie who understands the stress of her home life and just shows up, pizza fries in hand. He doesn’t ask prying questions or make judgements. He’s that kind of friend who’s simply there.  And to quote mutual friend Eva (and Grace’s love interest), “…Luca would commit legit murder for you and you’d do the same for him.” I loved their friendship. It was all the things—funny, biting, caring, loyal, honest— that make a relationship between two people work.

We would love to hear your favorite literary couples! Please put them in the comments below.

I could not write a post about love and romance without wishing my husband an early 25th year anniversary!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. She’s represented by Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency. You can find Halli on Twitter.

 

The Magic of Friendship

I’m working on revising one novel and pre-writing another, and one thing keeps coming up with both projects: friendship.

I have two teen daughters, and I can tell you that EVERYTHING revolves around friends. And I remember that from my own teenage years – friendships were all-consuming, intense, up and down, and central to my daily life.

So as I’ve worked on these two projects, it has been especially important to me to make sure that the friendships in my stories are as vivid and central to my characters’ lives as they are in the lives of the teens I know.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially if your story and its conflicts aren’t based on your main character’s relationship with his or her friends. How can you ensure that your character’s friendships always feel authentic, rich and real?

I recently attended a talk at my local SCBWI led by editor Abby Ranger. She called friendship a key entrance to your story. Whether you’re writing an epic fantasy set in a completely new world, or a contemporary set in a world that is familiar to nearly all of us, your character’s friendships give readers a view of the heart of your character and her journey.

And friendship is different than other relationships your character has in his life. For one, it’s completely voluntary – friends don’t have to love you like family does. And the relationship isn’t clouded by romantic feelings.

So friendship is important to get right in any story for middle grade or YA. But how?

Take a minute to think about your own friendships. What are they based on?

I have a few friends who have known me for more than 20 years. We share some things in common – kids in some cases, hobbies in others – but our primary bond is one of time and deep understanding. They know what skeletons I have in my closet, they remember when I was a vegetarian who refused to eat beans, and at least one of them was there to drive me home from work when I had a horrid case of the stomach flu.

I have other friendships that have grown from a common interest. My knitting friends know a bit about my life, but they are even more well versed in what yarn-based project I’ve got in my bag at the moment. And of course my Pennies know each and every up and down I have with my fiction writing.

Think about your character and his or her friends. How did they meet? What drew them together? How did they cross that threshold between acquaintances and friends? What keeps them coming back to each other?

What do they know about each other that other characters don’t know? What are their power dynamics – is one the bold go-getter, dragging the other along? Is there a protector and a protected?

As you sketch out this important relationship, consider these tips, loosely gathered from Abby Ranger’s fantastic talk (and with examples from Harry Potter, an epic fantasy series with friendship at its core), for creating authentic friendships that push your characters to grow over the course of the novel:

Lean into contrast/conflict. Friends don’t always get along, and they often grow in different directions at different times. Show those conflicts – big and small – and use them to challenge your main character’s inertia.

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: When Hermione and Ron begin to recognize their feelings for each other, they each approach those feelings in different ways. That conflict is amped up by the ball and the character of Viktor Krum and adds a great layer of complexity to the story.

Communication between friends often consists of their own language. Show that in both dialogue and in non-verbal communication. Our closest friends can often say a LOT with a tiny change in expression!

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: How many times do Ron and Harry crack each other up with just a glance?

There is an intimacy in details, so be specific. Use details to show your characters knowledge of each other and their expectations of their friends. HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: When Hermione explains Cho’s feelings of sadness, grief, guilt and confusion to Harry and Ron after Cedric’s death, she shows a relationship with Cho that we don’t see on the page, but that is clear from those few details she shares. And Harry’s and Ron’s responses show that they never expected such complexity from either Hermione or Cho.

Teen friendships have DRAMA. Emotions are bigger and more unwieldy when you’re a teenager, and most of the situations you face, you’re facing for the very first time. Let the drama out! And that drama can crop up in many different ways – does your character have to sacrifice something for his or her friend? How do your characters earn their relationship? Do they fight for it? Do they risk something – parental or societal disapproval, say – to keep the friendship?

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: Right at the beginning of the first book, Harry faces a choice between being friends with Draco (and joining ranks with the “right sort” of wizard) and being friends with Ron (the “wrong sort”). He chooses Ron. Later, the two friends together choose to befriend the unloved Hermione. Both times, Harry is risking his social capital for his friends – and that choice continues to create drama that resonates throughout the series.

Friendships, particularly groups of friends, have their own circuitry. How do your characters connect to each other in the world of your story? What are the layers of friendships, from inner circle, to outer ring? What role does each character play?

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: Harry, Ron and Hermione each have their own specific role to play in their trio. But they’re not an independent entity. They’re also influenced and influence Ginny and Neville and Fred and George and Luna. Their influence also spreads to enemies like Draco. The various connections between the characters come back over and over again throughout the series, and the picture that network forms is complex, dynamic and rich.

Friendship should have an arc throughout the book. Even if the friendship doesn’t supply the main core of conflict in your story, your character’s relationship with friends should still have some sort of beginning, middle and end related to the journey he or she takes in the book.

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: While the first book in the series is about Harry learning his true history and facing his greatest enemy for the first time, it is also about his journey from a lonely boy to a boy with friends. His friendships with Ron and Hermione wouldn’t be enough on their own to fuel a book about wizards, but they do give Harry a personal arc to go along with his hero arc, making him much more relatable in the process.

But perhaps the biggest clue that two (or more) characters are friends? Fun! Don’t be afraid to let your characters – even in the darkest and grittiest of dramas – have fun with their friends. That joy is the glue that has kept them together and that shows your reader the depth of your characters’ friendships.

Friendship is one of the most central relationships tweens and teens have. Whether you’re writing a space opera, a modern rom-com, a historical fantasy, or something else entirely, friendships are a great way to zero in on your novel’s heart.

 

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Windows & Mirrors: Betty Before X

Welcome to Windows & Mirrors where we feature books that provide us windows to lives outside our own and mirrors to our shared common human experiences.

 

 

Today we’re celebrating Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renée Watson!

Ilyasah Shabazz is the daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz. She’s the author of several books about her revolutionary family, including the critically-acclaimed adult memoir Growing Up X, a beautiful picture book about her father Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up To Become Malcolm X as well as a fictionalized middle-grade biography about him entitled X, a 2016 Coretta Scott King honor book. Now, she’s sharing the story of her mother who is just as inspiring as her father, both icons for the Civil Rights Movement.

Set in Detroit in 1945, Betty Before X is the heart-rendering fictionalized account of Betty Shabazz’s tween years. Betty struggled to understand problems with segregation and racial hostility in her community, and she had a very difficult home life due to her unloving mother. But Betty didn’t let those problems define her. She paid close attention to the positive role models in her community, which helped her develop admirable responses to hardship and injustice––forgiveness, gratitude, and a yearning to work for a better future. Those traits helped Betty bloom into the community leader and civil rights advocate who later married Malcom X.  This story of a girl learning self-acceptance and overcoming the feeling that she didn’t belong is sure to resonate with young readers. The short, vividly-detailed chapters make for fantastic historical fiction for ages 10+. We can’t think of a better story to highlight during Black History Month, and we’re happy to report that, though it just released in January, it’s already in its second printing!

Ilyasah Shabazz is just as fascinating as her iconic and amazing family. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Check out this interview with her to learn more about her and her important work.

To celebrate Black History Month, we curated this list of great fiction by black authors that is available on audiobook through libro.fm. Click the image to check it out!

Libro.fm Audiobooks to Celebrate Black History Month


Also, if you’re going to read any blogs in February, you should check out The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days series. It’s fantastic with daily author interviews and book featuring black authors.

 

Posted by Michelle Leonard.

Dear Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

I’ve been writing love letters to books that shaped me, as a person and as a writer, and for this month, it’s Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. I so enjoyed this book, a dreamy and beautiful retelling of the Snow Queen. What I want to talk about today, though, is how it influenced my writing.

I write contemporary fantasies, and love to come up with sumptuous settings and vast and daring adventures. When writing my first book, though, I kept getting feedback that readers weren’t connecting with the main character. I tried all the tricks for character development. I wrote questionnaires and character sketches galore. I composed backstory that would never see the light of day, and even drew pictures. Nothing.

When I met Ophelia, it finally clicked. The story is just the kind I like, with a heartbreak at its center, and an epic battle to save a beloved driving it on. But this character was so likeable. I devoured it for the story, but I studied it for the technique. How did she do that?

A few things, I decided. Done so quickly that they could easily be missed, but crucial in establishing character immediately. Consider the title of chapter one: “In Which Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.” That is followed swiftly by the first line: “Ophelia did not consider herself brave.” Right away we know both that Ophelia is going to have to do something very important, and that she is not going to be thrilled about it. That makes me curious, and it makes her seem self-effacing. I like that.

Ophelia’s reluctant bravery is a characteristic carried throughout the story. Every time that marvelous boy locked in the room asks Ophelia to do something, she says no. Then, grudgingly, she does it anyway, because she can’t just leave him locked in that room. She takes on incredibly scary tasks, but hems and haws and complains the whole time, which certainly seems relatable to me. I wouldn’t want to go walking through rooms of ghosts, either.

Foxlee also gives Ophelia a few idiosyncrasies that help us to see her more clearly, and that show us Ophelia’s fear without her having to remind us. Ophelia makes lists to distract herself. She tugs on her braid when she’s worried, and when she gets really scared, she has to take a puff of her inhaler. Isn’t that perfect?

I began to think anew about other characters I love. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys’ horrid treatment of Harry, and then one of the first things Harry does is free an unhappy snake from its cage. He is an underdog, and he wants to save other underdogs. In The Golden Compass, we see Lyra hide and eavesdrop, but ultimately come clean and risk punishment to protect her uncle. She is sneaky and has a strong sense of self-preservation, but also a redeeming moral code.

It isn’t merely about fleshing out character, I realized. Lists of their favorite ice cream flavors and the like weren’t helping, because they didn’t reveal what the reader needed to understand about the character for this story. Ophelia’s inhaler sure did, though. I now believe that the key to a good characterization is to understand the character’s defining quality that drives the story, then give a clear early example of it and a few tics or traits that show it throughout. For that understanding, I will always be grateful to Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.

Favorite quote:

Ophelia had never been prophesied before. It made her feel annoyed.

Kate Hillyer writes stories about brave girls who fight for what they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She currently serves as a Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

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Book Recommendation: Shadow Weaver

The shadows that surround us aren’t always as they seem…

Shadow Weaver, by MarcyKate Connolly, is a middle grade fantasy story of family, friends, belonging, and betrayal – all woven together with beautiful magic.

Goodreads

Emmeline has grown up with a gift. Since the time she was a baby she has been able to control shadows. And her only friend and companion is her own shadow, Dar.

Disaster strikes when a noble family visits their home and offers to take Emmeline away and cure her of magic. Desperate not to lose her shadows, she turns to Dar who proposes a deal: Dar will change the noble’s mind, if Emmeline will help her become flesh as she once was. Emmeline agrees but the next morning the man in charge is in a coma and all that the witness saw was a long shadow with no one nearby to cast it. Scared to face punishment, Emmeline and Dar run away.

With the noble’s guards on her trail, Emmeline’s only hope of clearing her name is to escape capture and perform the ritual that will set Dar free. But Emmeline’s not sure she can trust Dar anymore, and it’s hard to keep secrets from someone who can never leave your side. Goodreads

This novel is one of the most beautifully written stories I’ve ever read. The author spins and shapes her words as smoothly as Emmeline weaves shadows. Her descriptions make the shadows come alive and leap off the page. The plot is both heartwarming and heartbreaking as it weaves good and evil in unpredictable ways as Emmeline prepares to bring her best friend back to life and find where she belongs.

The story is filled with interesting characters, some with special abilities, who play a part in Emmeline’s growth and the larger plot. It’s an adventure we feel privileged to take.

Shadow Weaver can be found at all major bookstores including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores. For more information on MarcyKate Connolly, check out her website.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. Her middle grade science fiction novel is represented by Kathy Green of Kathryn Green Literary Agency. You can find Halli on Twitter.

Four on 400 December Contest Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

THE BOY WHO FELL SIDEWAYS (MG Adventure)

The later it got, the more unfair it seemed.

Why do they get to go? Why not me?

Graeme tossed and turned as the grandfather clock ticked away the early morning hours.

I’m far more fluent in Shianese than Keith, and I’m better than Patricia at… well… nothing really. But crossing an Edge has always been my dream!
A toe poked out from under his blankets. He kicked in frustration, leaving his entire leg goosebumping in the cold night air.

And now I’m wide awake. I won’t get any sleep, and I’ll be cross and dopey for my first day at stupid Maydales, and I’ll never make any friends, and…
He lay back and envisioned his favourite fantasy, the one his much-older siblings would soon experience. Crossing an Edge of the cube-shaped world, and being Sideways.

Sideways! Where he’d walk on walls like a fly and slide up a slope. His gravity from here at home would stick to him for some weeks, until he eventually regravified. But before then…! All the experiments he could try! He’d be a bit scared, no doubt. If he were to fall, his gravity would pull him along, shooting across the landscape like a crossbow bolt. Of course, that wasn’t very likely. The embassy city was safe and well-designed, equally accessible to Shian residents and Anglian visitors.

Suddenly, Graeme sat up. He had a plan. He’d been making it for weeks without admitting it. He got up, dressed, tiptoed to the front hall, and searched the piles of his sister’s luggage, carefully stacked for the early-morning wagon.

Am I really going to do this?

There it was. The largest of Patricia’s specimen cases. Eventually, she would pack it with fascinating flora and fauna samples. But for the outbound trip to Shian, empty. Nearly five feet long, sturdy, padded, and pierced with air holes. A label even marked it “Fragile,” so it wouldn’t end up at the bottom of a pile in the ship’s hold.

Graeme sucked in a deep breath, opened the case and climbed in. He took a final look around the house, so comfortable, the site of so many memories, and nearly lost his nerve. But then he saw his ugly little trunk, full of his new school uniform and his old, tired life; and he lay back and closed the lid.

Laurel: Wow! You’ve packed lots of story into a small space and a very clear kickoff to adventure. Tiny things: “Why do they get to go?” in the second line threw me out and doesn’t feel–to me–as original and gripping as the rest of the piece. Personally, I’d rather get to know Graeme a little more before I hear his voice directly. I don’t think the reader would miss that line if it were gone. I wasn’t positive that “no doubt” was right for Graeme’s voice but I don’t know him and you very clearly do. I love the Sideways concept and the idea that someone can be regravified. Well done! I wonder what’s going to happen next!

Kristi: This is fantastic! I was so sucked in to the story and I love it when a story gives me so much action, but also so many hints at what’s going on ALL without feeling rushed or info dumped. I did feel the change of POV wasn’t really working. Maybe if those parts where in italics? BUT, I would need a good reason for it– and I’d be willing to read a chapter like that as long as it was clear by chapter two why it’s written as such. The only other comment I have is, won’t his sister notice her case is heavy? Otherwise, I love this!

Gabrielle: This is such a unique concept, and I think you’ve got a good start. Kristi points out the changing POV and I agree–that’s jarring. I think you could stand to slow this way down and let us feel it with him more. He comes to his plan too fast. The alternative would be to have him in bed already knowing what he’s going to do, but going over it all in his head–thinking it through, feeling where he is now for the last time. I think this could work really well, with inherent tension as he’s lying in bed freaking out. You’ve got some telling still happening. Try focusing on the micro. It’s the details that will draw us in and avoid those pitfalls.. What are his specific memories as he’s saying goodbye? What will he miss?  You’re on the right track with lines like – goosebumping in the cold night air. I love the line about his old truck too. Give us more detail, and spin it out for us so we’re right there with Graeme and this will be a very memorable story!

Julie: You’ve given us a tantalizing glimpse of a pretty cool world (which feels fantasy/sci-fi to me, not just straight contemporary adventure) and I love the title. I agree with what the others have said about the POV change. I think you’re switching between internals and third person narration, but it’s pretty jarring, especially for the opening page. The theme of him frustrated over being left behind at Maydales as his older sister get to cross the Edge feels great for middle grade, as does the idea that he’d stow away. But it feels a little rushed, which is keeping us from FEELING Graeme’s frustration building up to the point that he stows away. As Gabby said, slowing down and giving us more sensory details will ground us in the world and in Graeme’s experiences.

Best of luck!

Middle Grade Fantasy: A Roundup of Modern Classics

Part of the fun of writing fiction is that you never know exactly what’s going to happen when you sit down at your desk. Still, I have generally leaned toward writing realistic, contemporary stories, and that’s what I’ve read for the last several years (to the exclusion of nearly everything else).

So when I started on my current work-in-progress, the last thing I expected was for it to be a fantasy, much less a fairy tale. But when my protagonist pricked her finger on a thorn from the stem of a rose (while sitting in a castle tower) on the very first page of my very first draft, I knew right away that I didn’t have a choice––I was about to plunge head first into a world of my own creation.

As I started to explore the genre, I realized the landscape had changed quite a bit since the days of THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, HARRY POTTER, and NARNIA. Needless to say, I had my reading cut out for me.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I’d been missing out on a whole slew of amazing stories and gorgeous writing. From THE PRINCESS ACADEMY to THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (and everything in between), the genre quickly captured my heart.

I figure I can’t be the only one who has neglected the fantasy realm as an adult, so I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve been exploring. Whether you are new to the genre or you are searching for holiday gifts, here is a sample of some of the “modern classics” I think you (and the kids in your life) will find well worth your time:

Happy Reading! (And if you have more fantastic MG fantasy to suggest, please share in the comments below.)

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

Jessica Vitalis is a middle grade author represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch. An active member of the literary community, Jessica volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor and with the We Need Diverse Books campaign. When she’s not pursuing her literary interests, Jessica can be found chasing her two precocious daughters around Ontario or eating copious amounts of chocolate.

Dear The Phantom Tollbooth

Oh, this strange, wonderful, wise book. Every month, I’m writing a love letter to a book that has shaped me, and this month, it’s The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

For those poor souls who haven’t yet read this classic, it’s the story of Milo, who comes home from school one day to find a tollbooth addressed to him. He drives his toy car through it and enters the magical Kingdom of Reason, where he discovers two warring kings, Azaz the Unabridged, who believes words matter more than numbers, and his brother, the Mathemagician, who is equally certain that numbers are more important than words. Milo embarks on a quest to reunite the kings and save the land by rescuing the twin sisters of the kings, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason, who have been exiled to the Castle in the Air. Joining him on the journey are Tock, a dog whose belly is a huge watch, and the Humbug, a gruff and self-important beetle.

The language is absurd and delicious. Juster excels at word play and puns, and each sentence can be unpacked for layers of meaning and added delight. Here are a few gems:

“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.”

“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”

You want to linger over each sentence, but Juster pulls you along with Milo and his crew to the next adventure, which is bound to be even more fantastic and silly than the last.

Hidden in amongst the bizarre and the playful, though, are some real nuggets of wisdom. For instance, Milo learns on his journey that one can easily jump to the island of Conclusions, but the only way out is a long, hard swim through the Sea of Knowledge.

When Milo finally makes it to the princesses, he laments, “[W]e would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

Princess Reason responds, “You must never feel badly about making mistakes…as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth to my nine-year-old. I was pleased to find that as an adult I felt the same delight I had as a child, luxuriating in Juster’s language. My son’s guffaws made clear that this book, now more than fifty years old, holds up well.

More surprising, though, was to realize how much the book had shaped me. The Phantom Tollbooth introduced me, a devoted rule-following kid, to the joys of a journey with lots of side trips and missteps, and to playing around with language just because it is fun to do so. It is a lesson I am still learning.

I also believe that it is due to The Phantom Tollbooth that I view the greatest and most moral of skills to be the fair and peaceful resolution of disputes. As a child, I wanted nothing so much as to be the lovely, kind, just, and intelligent princesses. I think I became a lawyer because of them.

I still feel a catch in my heart at their description: “They were dressed all in white and were beautiful beyond compare. One was grave and quiet, with a look of warm understanding in her eyes, and the other seemed gay and joyful.” Rhyme’s laugh was “as friendly as the mailman’s ring when you know there’s a letter for you.”

Wouldn’t you want to be them? Don’t you?

And while I know that I will never achieve their heights of calm wisdom and lighthearted reassurance, this book taught me that it is worthwhile to strive for those things. It taught me that reason and compassion can save almost anything.

Favorite Quote:

So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

Kate Hillyer loves reading aloud, mostly because of the guffaws. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls who fight for the things they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. You can find her online at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She also has a book blog, www.kidbooklist.com, and lucky dog, she gets to be a Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. 

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