Category: I read

If I could describe SCBWI’s (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’) annual international conference in one word, I’d call it:


But what can you expect from a group, 20,000+-strong, as they cap off their 40th year?

This was my first SCBWI-LA conference, and I only wish I’d stocked up on sleep beforehand. I was in for some serious inspiration.

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Arriving late on the night before the festivities, I was wired enough that of course I didn’t get a proper night’s rest. Of course!

The first day began with a wonderfully honest and engaging run-down of writing advice from Bruce Coville. His first tip? Marry rich.

I took to heart another piece of Bruce’s advice: “Scare yourself.” Take on projects that rattle your nerves. You’ll grow immensely. He followed that up with “Stop scaring yourself” – meaning, don’t talk yourself out of taking action. I believe every writer struggles with this at one point or another. This sort of self-sabotage paralyzes everyone who’s ever wanted to write… but just hasn’t yet. A story’s in there. Just put it down. And “Don’t be afraid to show your heart,” as Bruce put it. “Don’t be sentimental, just honest.”

The conference was full of honest voices, including authors Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, Libba Bray, Donna Jo Napoli, David Small, Gary Paulsen, and Nova Ren Suma, agents Marcia Wernick, Barry Goldblatt, Tina Wexler, Michael Bourret, and Tracey Adams, publishers Julie Strauss-Gabel, Alessandra Balzer, Jennifer Hunt, Allyn Johnston, Debra Dorfman, and Beverly Horowitz, plus the SCBWI’s own exec director Lin Oliver and its president Stephen Mooser.

More than one of my favorite authors shared that they’d started writing to escape a sour marriage. Writing had given other authors refuge from personal demons. For one, writing became therapy in lieu of mental health coverage. Author David Small, whose vocal cords and ability to speak had been severed for 10 years following a neck surgery, rather appropriately quoted Vargas in his rousing talk: “Life is a shitstorm. And when it begins to rain, the only umbrella we have is art.”

If you want to write, trust me (and everyone who’s done it before): The story won’t be good right away. If you don’t believe me, take it from Judy Blume, whose book Summer Sisters didn’t truly emerge until her 23rd draft. Twenty-three drafts. So just put the words down, to start. Writing’s a little like recovering from alcoholism. Take it one step at a time, and through some steady work, you’ll get stronger. You’ll show your best self. (Yes, I take liberties with metaphor.)

Here’s my favorite part of attending SCBWI-LA: Wherever I looked, I knew I’d find someone just like me, toiling away on that thing they love. That story they have to tell. If they’d made the trip to SCBWI-LA like me, that means they’re just as serious about telling it. And I find so much hope in that. Don’t you?

Boy Toy: Playful title, haunting read

Cover of "Boy Toy"

Barry Lyga‘s Boy Toy opens with a list devised by main character Josh Mendel.

Ten Things I Learned at the Age of Twelve:

1. The Black Plague was transmitted by fleas that were carried throughout Europe by rats.

2. If you first paralyze it, you can cut open a frog and watch its lungs continue to inflate and deflate.

3. There are seven forms of the verb to be: am, being, been, is, was, were, and are.

4. In order to divide fractions, you invert the divisor to arrive at the reciprocal, which is then multiplied by the dividend. (Mixed fractions must first be converted to improper fractions.)

5. In Salem, the witches weren’t burned at the stake – they were pressed to death under big rocks… or hanged.

6. Islam was founded in the year 610. It is the third of three world religions worshiping the same god.

7. Each point on a “coordinate plane” (created by the joining of an x-axis and a y-axis) can be described by an ordered pair of numbers.

8. “Monotheism” is a belief system centered on a single deity, while “polytheism” subscribes to belief in multiple deities.

9. The area of a circle can be determined by using the formula πr2, where r is the radius of the circle.

10. How to please a woman.

At first glance, the list seems almost tongue-in-cheek. But as soon as you know you’re about to launch into the story of one boy’s sexual abuse by his seventh-grade history teacher, your brow furrows. Your heart begins to sink.

For the most part, the story’s told through Josh’s eyes, five years after the incident in question. You start to piece it together from Josh’s harrowing “flickers,” little memories from months of abuse that tend to interrupt any given moment without warning. A clearer picture emerges from a number of sustained flashbacks, and the years since have given Josh a chance to reflect. But two inciting incidents drive the relationship back into his consciousness, almost to a breaking point: 1. Josh’s abuser is freed from prison early, and 2. After years of avoiding the classmate who brought his situation to light, he runs into her and must face his own wrongdoing.

Like any seventeen-year-old’s life, Boy Toy does have its light moments. These become essential in heavier stories like this, both to keep readers going with something to smile about, and to ensure the action and tension remain true to life.

For Josh, seventh grade and its aftermath turned into a battleground of control and manipulation – without his even realizing it. Afterwards, despite frequent visits with a psychologist, he continues his fight against others’ views of control. But alongside several surprising reactions to everyday events (some culminating in a sudden violent side), Josh begins to make painful decisions of his own. It’s not that Josh’s abuse forced him to grow up. It forced him to see how un-grown-up he’d really been, through it all.

This book will mean something unique and unforgettable to everyone who reads it.

Find Boy Toy on Indiebound and Amazon.

Love, grace, and justice: Marcelo in the Real World

Francisco X. Stork’s book Marcelo in the Real World begins just before main character Marcelo enters a summer internship for his father’s law firm. Sounds simple enough, right?

Marcelo has an autism-like condition that isolates him just enough to make him noticeable, yet he hesitates to call himself autistic. He doesn’t want to cheapen the term (or “Asperger’s Syndrome“) for those who suffer more extreme cases. This is just one example of Marcelo’s consideration and grace.

Marcelo’s father sets the plot (and tension) rolling by offering him a deal: he must experience one summer in the “real world” of his law firm before deciding which high school he’ll attend for senior year. And because the story comes from Marcelo’s POV, we’re in on every blood-boiling, stomach-fluttering moment.

He knows he’s different because he hears an internal sort of music – or rather, he feels the sensation of listening to music even when he’s not. His reactions are also unusually unemotional. He’s seventeen years old, but as he goes about the world, unsure of nearly every subtle social convention, he sometimes seems more akin to a seven-year-old. At other times, Marcelo’s struggle with black and white vs. gray leads him to make decisions that would send grown adults running for the hills.

As a reader, I sympathized with Marcelo on a questioning level – why does the world work the way it does? What makes people operate the way they do? The story even encourages this sort of thinking, and that’s a wonderful thing. Because Marcelo ponders just about everything in his real world, this book covers a lot of ground: beauty, desire, justice, envy, entitlement, love, loyalty. And in the best way, Marcelo’s story asks the reader to reconsider every one of these concepts.

For the first time in years, I found myself dog-earing pages while reading this book. I knew I’d want to share a few lines.

On pg. 146, I laughed because I know the feeling:

“My mental wiring simply cannot handle the voltage required to play the piano.”

On pg. 182, while talking with coworker Jasmine, Marcelo realizes what faith in people feels like:

“You look surprised. Didn’t you know I was smart?” She pretends to be angry.

Even though I know she is teasing me, I feel my face get red-hot. How can I tell her that I knew but I didn’t know – like seeing the sunset every evening but not seeing it.

On pg. 201, he perfectly describes a bad day:

“The world will always poke you in the chest with its index finger.”

On pg. 271, Marcelo’s trusted friend seems to read my mind on religion:

“‘Do you think that God cares one whit whether Aurora believes in Him? She doesn’t need to believe in God or even remember Him to do His work. Her belief is in her deeds, which is okay.'”

And on pg. 279, the same friend adds:

“‘That’s what faith is, isn’t it? Following the music when we don’t hear it.'”

For Marcelo, music, justice, and a desire to learn fuel his life. What keeps you connected to your real world?

Find Marcelo in the Real World on Indiebound and

Wow… Okay, first, I have to shout-out one of my favorite YA authors Jay Asher. See, Jay writes books you can’t put down. In fact, people might stop you on the street for reading Thirteen Reasons Why because they’re also HUGE fans (happened to me. Of course, that’s because I read while walking. Um, maybe I shouldn’t admit that.)

Not only that, Jay really gets social media. And when I say someone really gets it, I definitely DON’T mean they’re the loudest guy on the block or they’re only using it to talk to some elite, mysterious group of powerplayers. Nope, Jay coyly posted this on Facebook last night:

You should go check out the lastest issue of Entertainment Weekly. I haven’t seen it myself yet, but apparently it’s got some nice articles this week.

Right. So when I saw the post, only one friend of his had replied. She asked if it had something to do with a Kardashian. Jay had even “Liked” her comment, but didn’t leave any more clues. Now, I’ve never met Jay in person, but I had a feeling he was holding back. So I asked,

Does it include news about the TRW movie or TFOU?? C’mon, man!

[I was referring to Thirteen Reasons Why and Jay’s upcoming book, The Future of Us (which coincidentally follows a girl glimpsing her 2011 Facebook profile 15 years early, like a social media crystal ball), co-written with Carolyn Mackler.]

That’s when the details finally started spilling. This week’s Entertainment Weekly includes a story on Jay and his work! Facebook being Facebook, that same comment thread detoured to TV spots, donuts, and new mantras to “Own the Ridonculousness” before finally settling on a virtual group hug. See, we all love Jay’s work and we’re so excited for him. I, for one, don’t mind shouting out all his news – even if he doesn’t want to. :) And that might just be what social media’s all about.

In other news, my Pitchapalooza win at Printer’s Row Lit Fest was covered in Newcity Lit today!
(In case you missed it, here are all the gory details.)

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