Monthly Archives: December 2016

Goals for 2017

Fireworks.

Photo by flickr user Maurice

Looking back on 2016, it’s hard for me to say it was a good year. The election and the months leading up to it were trying, and the aftermath has been even more trying. But a few good things did happen for me. In 2016 I:

  1. Finished revising a book and queried it.
  2. Got a job as a teen librarian.
  3. Had several thought-provoking discussions about diversity and representation in the kidlit world.
  4. Joined the We Need Diverse Books Librarian Squad.
  5. Read and recommended a lot of great books.
  6. Did my first round of school visits — and was surprised and delighted to find I love school visits.
  7. Moved closer to my workplace.
  8. Learned a lot from giving feedback to and receiving feedback from critique partners.
  9. Tightened my prose by writing flash fiction.
  10. Started writing an #ownvoices book.

I didn’t accomplish everything I would’ve liked to accomplish in 2016, but I’m happy with this list. And, because I like setting goals, here are some things I’d like to do next year:

  1. Complete and query at least one new project.
  2. Read more MG books.
  3. Read more #ownvoices books.
  4. Continue learning. Always.
  5. Increase circulation of teen books at my library.
  6. Practice self-care, paying more attention to both my physical and mental health.
  7. Write something that scares me.
  8. Keep a close eye on what’s happening in our country, and speak out against threats to democracy and freedom of the press.
  9. Learn to cook at least one new dish.
  10. Take risks.

How did 2016 go for you? Do you have any goals/resolutions for the coming year?

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How Characters Enhance Story

Two of the books I’m reading now have got me thinking a lot about characterization, what works for me, and what doesn’t. I’m a character-driven reader; I’ll follow a story with the thinnest of plots if it has characters and a voice I can get behind. But even the most intricate plots and fascinating fantasy worlds can be vastly improved upon by well-developed characters.

For example, one book I’m reading has a whimsical fantasy setting and an intriguing plot, but I’m really struggling with some of the characters. (Note, I don’t post the titles of books I critique on this blog unless the book contains problematic content, such as cultural appropriation, harmful stereotypes, misrepresentation, etc. If a book just didn’t work for me, I don’t like to call the author out.) The romance at the center of this book is a forbidden love — the main character is being courted by the king, but she has feelings for someone else. I’m fine with the main character not being attracted to the king, but I feel this book would be much stronger if the king were a character who readers saw as someone people could be attracted to. As it is, the king feels like someone we’re meant to laugh at and dismiss. (And side note, I’m more than half-way through the book and have seen him do zero ruling/governing. A monster has attacked and killed some of his subjects, yet all he seems to worry about is writing bad poetry to woo our main character.) This story would benefit so much from having the king be an attractive prospect for more reasons than the vague “but he’s the king” all of the secondary characters keep repeating. The main character doesn’t have to love the king, but the king should be someone we could reasonably see a different person falling in love with.

Six of Crows.On the other hand, for an example of characters done really well, I highly recommend Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. This fantasy heist is told by an ensemble cast who all have their own reasons for wanting to pull off this job. Each has their own history, their own motivations, their own relationships with and opinions about the other members of their team. The characters’ backstories are all so fascinating, I feel like each of them could have their own book that takes place before Six of Crows, and I would read every one of those books.

Having characters this rich allows them to drive the plot in really interesting ways. Readers aren’t simply left wondering whether our heroes will pull this off; they’re also left wondering which of our heroes will get the outcome they want. The crew may all be trying to get something, but they want it for different reasons, and they don’t agree on what they should do with it. The characters bring their own tension and complexity that both enhance and drive the story.

What have I learned from all this? Don’t be lazy in your characterization. Remember, every character has their own story, whether it’s the story you’re telling or not. Your main character’s best friend has their own interests, their own motivations, and their own way of looking at the world. Your antagonist is the hero of their story. Fully-developed characters can enrich your story in so many ways.

Have you read anything with really great characters lately?

Make Good Art

Make Good Art.2016 has been a tough year. The last few weeks have been exceptionally rough for me, for my friends, for my colleagues, and for several of the teens I work with. But we’re getting through it.

For me, art helps me through the times when it feels like the world is burning. I listen to music, make music, read good books, and, above all, I write. I write to escape. I write to explore new ideas, to share my thoughts, to discover myself. I write because it feels like I’m doing something positive, even if some days that “something positive” is just getting out of bed instead of giving up. Like Neil Gaiman suggested in his 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts, making good art gets artists through the good times and the bad.

Make Good Art.These days, my focus is on making good art. I’m in the early stages of writing an #ownvoices book about a Jewish band geek, because the more I see neo-Nazis in positions of power, the more important my Jewish heritage feels to me. I’m writing a marching band story because I’ve always wanted to write one, because marching band was such a big part of my identity in high school and college. I’m writing because I’ve fallen in love with this story, and I’m surrounded by so much hate that doing something I love is a breath of fresh air.

The only downside to this is that working to make good art is taking up my blogging time. If you’re a long-time reader, you’ve probably noticed my posts getting shorter lately. I’ll try to keep blogging weekly, but please bear with me if I disappear for a bit.

And in the meantime, go out there and make good art. The world needs our stories, our paintings, our songs and dances and plays. Whatever your medium, go push the boundaries and make something amazing. Then come back here and share it with me.

My Picks for the 2016 Morris Award

I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the YMAs (Youth Media Awards), announced at ALA Midwinter, are my favorite awards ceremony. Last year I shared my own picks for the William C. Morris Award for debut YA fiction. This year, I’m listing my five finalists as well as two honorable mentions. I try to read a lot of debut authors, but when I was scrolling through my Goodreads for this year, I didn’t see as many new authors as I remembered. (Some were new to me, but they weren’t 2016 debut authors.) So, if you have any books I missed, please share them in the comments!

The Serpent King.The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
I’ve raved about this book plenty in previous posts. The gorgeous writing, the complex characters and their relationships, and the honest portrayals of grief and depression all make this book a win for me. I shared it with students when I visited the local high schools, and several of them checked it out or bought their own copies. I usually like to spread the love with my award picks, but I also really want this to win the Printz Award. In fact, if I could only choose one, I’d rather see it win a Printz.

In case you missed it, here’s the summary from Amazon:
Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life — at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.

The only antidote to all this venom is his friendship with fellow outcasts Travis and Lydia. But as they are starting their senior year, Dill feels the coils of his future tightening around him. Dill’s only escapes are his music and his secret feelings for Lydia — neither of which he is brave enough to share. Graduation feels more like an ending to Dill than a beginning. But even before then, he must cope with another ending — one that will rock his life to the core.

Debut novelist Jeff Zentner provides an unblinking and at times comic view of the hard realities of growing up in the Bible belt, and an intimate look at the struggles to find one’s true self in the wreckage of the past.

If I Was Your Girl.If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
A beautiful #ownvoices story about a trans girl navigating a new school, friendships, and love. I was fully invested in this story as I read it, and hope to see more from Meredith Russo.

Here’s the summary from Amazon:
A big-hearted, groundbreaking novel about being seen for who you really are, and a love story you can’t help but root for

Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Symptoms of Being Human.Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
I’m ashamed to admit, when first considering titles for this list, I hesitated to choose two books with trans main characters, because I wanted a wider representation of experiences. But then I realized that’s ridiculous; if there is room on a book list for three cisgendered main characters, why not two trans characters? Good books are good books, and I devoured Symptoms of Being Human, reading it in a day on my phone’s tiny screen during breaks at work and staying up late to finish it.

The summary from Amazon:

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. But Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in über-conservative Orange County, the pressure — media and otherwise — is building up in Riley’s life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s really like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school — even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast — the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. And Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created — a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in — or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

From debut author Jeff Garvin comes a powerful and uplifting portrait of a modern teen struggling with high school, relationships, and what it means to be a person.

The Way I Used to Be. The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith
This book reminded me of Speak, for a 2016 audience. This is a tough read; main character Eden spirals into self-destructive and sometimes dangerous behaviors as she struggles to come to terms with being sexually assaulted by her brother’s best friend. Though raw, the book rings true; I know people like Eden, and I could see myself reacting the way she does in some situations.

The summary from Amazon:

Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.

What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved — who she once loved — she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.

Told in four parts — freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year — this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.

Rani Patel in Full Effect.Rani Patel in Full Effect by Sonia Patel
Another raw look at sexual assault with a character who makes dangerous decisions. Rani is both strong and fragile, a character different from many I’ve seen before, and one I instantly cared about. I loved the way her relationship with her mother is portrayed throughout the book, and I also liked the glimpses of Moloka’i and Gujarati culture.

The summary from Amazon:
Almost seventeen, Rani Patel appears to be a kick-ass Indian girl breaking cultural norms as a hip-hop performer in full effect. But in truth, she’s a nerdy flat-chested nobody who lives with her Gujarati immigrant parents on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, isolated from her high school peers by the unsettling norms of Indian culture where “husband is God.” Her parents’ traditionally arranged marriage is a sham. Her dad turns to her for all his needs — even the intimate ones. When Rani catches him two-timing with a woman barely older than herself, she feels like a widow and, like widows in India are often made to do, she shaves off her hair. Her sexy bald head and hard-driving rhyming skills attract the attention of Mark, the hot older customer who frequents her parents’ store and is closer in age to her dad than to her. Mark makes the moves on her and Rani goes with it. He leads Rani into 4eva Flowin’, an underground hip hop crew — and into other things she’s never done. Rani ignores the red flags. Her naive choices look like they will undo her but ultimately give her the chance to discover her strengths and restore the things she thought she’d lost, including her mother.

Honorable mentions:
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
I really enjoyed this book, which I pitch to teens as “time-traveling pirates.” I love the diverse cast, the complicated relationship between Nix and her father, and the glimpses of other times and cultures. However, the lines between history and mythology blur in ways that could be problematic. Reviewer Joséphine at Word Revel describes some inaccuracies between Nix’s Chinese-Hawaiian cultural heritage and what would be true to history — inaccuracies which I as a white reader didn’t notice. So, while I enjoyed the story on its own, I’m not comfortable picking a book that could have potentially-harmful cultural inaccuracies for an award.

Draw the Line by Laurent Lint
I really liked this book, which has main character Adrian’s drawings woven in between the text. The art enriches the story, about a gay teen in a conservative town who is extremely trouble by a hate crime he witnesses. I liked the characters, the romance, and the hero/villain imagery (Adrian creates the superhero Graphite for his webcomics). I would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a coming out story with an artistic spin.

What are your favorite books, debut or otherwise, of 2016?