Posted by: Katie B | June 21, 2013

Batch #4: More from the VCFA Faculty


The awesome, diverse list of great reads from the VCFA faculty continues.  My latest conquests, which I’d recommend without a doubt:

The Secret Life of Owen Skye by Alan Cumyn.  Middle Grade.  Despite the fact that this book was written for a 10-year-old boy, this not-quite-ten-year-old writer was caught howling at not just one – or two – but many a scene.  Humor, adventure, mystery, and intrigue:  this book has it all.  Just good, plain, innocent fun.  I’d highly recommend it to any middle grade reader.

Losing It by Alan Cumyn. Adult Fiction. I chose this book because the different points of view caught my interest, even though the novel isn’t technically a children’s book – and therefore not a strict part of my reading curriculum.  It didn’t disappoint, although the disconcerting part to me personally was my natural tendency to relate to the aging woman with the onset of Alzheimer’s – more so than the character closer to my true age.

Ask The Passengers by A.S. King. Young Adult. This is a top-pick, hands down.  Dealing, once again, with issues never discussed when I was a teen, the main character struggles with her sexuality, her identity, and her sense of place in the world. The book reinforces the idea that life, and big life decisions, mostly dwell in the gray, undefined zone. Our best chance at resolution is to follow our hearts and hope that our sense of self can guide us along.

Everybody Sees The Ants by A.S. King.  Young Adult.  This book is originality-plus while dealing with a sensitive topic that has become very common in today’s vocabulary: bullying. While weaving the tale of a broken family’s hunt for their MIA-POW grandfather into the horrific circumstances of a bullied teen, the author keeps the subject matter fresh and infuses an element of suspended-disbelief. Definitely a book for the mature reader.

Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams – Garcia. Young Adult. I really like this book.  It’s for the more mature YA audience, those who are ready to read about teen pregnancy and sex.  But the voice, the characters, and the way the story of “redemption” is told had me hooked the whole way through.

Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia. Young Adult. You don’t realize that this book is opening your eyes to the problem of teen violence in the school system until the very last chapter. It subtly builds the story of the contributors to the problem (victim, aggressor, and enabler) without you realizing the full direction the story is taking. When it does, you have a definite ah-ha moment.

No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia. Upper Middle Grade – Young Adult. I believe this book was written for middle grade, but the subject matter is so sensitive, it might not be suitable for all readers. The topic is Female Circumcision, an issue which I firmly believe should be discussed, in order that it be abolished.  But while the author handles the situation gently, it is still very hard to read about.

Posted by: Katie B | June 17, 2013

Some other good reads…because the list never ends!


I’ve spent a lot of time reading and reviewing books by current VCFA faculty members.  During that time, I stumbled across some great books not by current VCFA faculty; although, in full-disclosure, some of these authors were past VCFA faculty members.  I just couldn’t get enough!  Oh – and some weren’t related to VCFA at all.  They were just great on their own!

Books I Like A Lot:

The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley.  Middle Grade.  This book resonated with me more than Franny’s first book, Well Wished, which won a lot of accolades. It was an interesting twist on fantasy, focusing on seal maidens, a tale I wasn’t familiar with.  It was also set in an ancient time – something that generally appeals to me.  I’d recommend it to any reader.

Chime by Franny Billingsley.  Young Adult.  I spent the first several chapters of this book very confused, but so intrigued by the main character’s voice and unusual circumstances, that I had to continue. Eventually, I caught on, and really enjoyed exploring this  realistically fantastical world in which the characters lived.  Different from other magic / fantasy books, this story is based upon the real myths of early 1800’s British country-folk, which lent it a grounding dose of realism.

We Were Here by Matt de la Pena.  Young Adult.  I didn’t expect this book to be so deep.  Mostly because of the voice, which was teen-male-latino-slangish and flawlessly executed throughout the entire novel.  The ‘meaning of life’ themes that the main character contemplates in his journey from juvenile delinquency to redemption were spot on without being too heavy-handed.  I enjoyed being almost tricked into stopping and ‘thinking about things’, something I don’t do often enough.

Books I Enjoyed (but could put down to go to sleep):

Well Wished by Franny Billingsley.  Middle Grade. This was a well-written first book which won a lot of deserved attention when it came out.  It’s a very unusual tale set in the past with a  twist of fantasy.  The subject matter of soul swapping is a little unnerving for me – it’s a personal thing – so I didn’t love it as much as her other stories.  But it was still good!

Books I’m Glad I Tried (but may not read again):

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  Adult Non-Fiction.  As a way to branch out and after multiple suggestions from various sources, my book club agreed to read this lengthy non-fiction.  What’s most striking is the way in which the author writes the book.  Her almost detached style allows anyone to read it, even someone not typically into war stories.  We could all learn from the protagonist’s strength of character, and what he endured.


Grapes without Wrath

Now that my children are through the read-to-me stage, I rarely check picture books out from the library.  I wished I’d known about some of these while I was still in that bedtime routine.  In particular, I wish I’d been more aware of this collection of non-fiction picture books.  This sampling from the VCFA staff was fascinating – and I learned a lot.  They would have been much more interesting to read than some of the mindless books I was forced into reciting!  If you’re still in the reading aloud stage, profit from my experience!  Branch out while you still can!

Instead of reviewing each book, as I typically do for novels, I’ve simply listed these picture books out by Non-Fiction / Fiction category.  There are too many to review each one!  Just know that whichever one you choose, you won’t be disappointed!

Non-Fiction Picture Books

Through The Tempest Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein by Sharon Darrow

Django, World’s Greatest Guitarist by Bonnie Christensen

I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen

The Daring Nellie Bly, America’s Star Reporter by Bonnie Christensen

Mummies: the Newest, Coolest & Creepiest From Around the World by Shelley Tanaka

Amelia Earhart, The Legend of the Lost Aviator by Shelley Tanaka

Discovering the Iceman by Shelley Tanaka

Fictional Picture Books

Remembering Grandpa by Uma Krishnaswami

The Happiest Tree, A Yoga Story by Uma Krishnaswami

The Closet Ghosts by Uma Krishnaswami

Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami

Posted by: Katie B | June 7, 2013

Batch #1: Know Your VCFA Faculty


In my last post, I set up a challenge to read books by each of the VCFA faculty members teaching in the July ’13 residency.  I have reviewed so many books at this point, I can’t possible list them all in one post.  Instead, I’ll be submitting them in batches.  While it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, I was still so awed by the variety of style and content and by the extraordinary writing in this collection.  Every single book was unique, distinctive, and gripping in its own way.  Try some.  You’ll be amazed, too!

Books I Like A Lot:

If It Doesn’t Kill You by Margaret Bechard.  Young Adult. I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again: I wish we had books that addressed social issues such as this one when we were growing up.  We simply didn’t talk about them; they were taboo.  And we all suffered because of it. In this story, the football star father of a football playing freshman in high school (whose grandfather was a winning football coach) comes out to his wife and child that he’s gay, that he can’t live the lie anymore, and he leaves to go live with his partner. Interesting, no?

Hanging On To Max by Margaret Bechard.  Young Adult.  Here’s another fresh, invoking tale. A 17-year-old teenage father files for custody of his son when the 17-year-old mother decides to put him up for adoption.  Different from all the sensationalized TV dramas surrounding teen parents, this book explores just how hard it is to be a new parent and to juggle all the responsibilities – especially when you’re still a kid yourself.

The Kings Are Already Here by Garret Freymann-Weyr.  Young Adult.  Juxtaposing the world of chess masters and serious ballerinas is not something I would have ever considered.  Yet, this fascinating book about the sacrifices and joys of extreme commitment to excellence had me flipping pages.  While the characters involved were in their upper teens, the decisions they struggle with are relevant at any age.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt. Young Adult.  The stylized, almost simplistic, language used in this story immediately sets the tone of an adult, twisted version of an old-fashioned fairy tale.  The cursed girl, the town witch, who falls in love with Lord Death.  Fabulous.  I’m always fascinated by writing styles which transport you into another time, primarily because they are incredibly hard to pull off.  When they look easily done, as this one is, you know just how much work went into it.

Pearls: A Faerie Strand by Louise Hawes.  Young Adult.  This title is a little deceiving as this book isn’t so much a Faerie book as a collection of retold fairy tales, and it’s fabulous.  The author takes several classics, including Cinderella and Snow White, and retells them from different perspectives, like from the point of view of Prince Charming or Erin the dwarf.  What results are beautiful tales, freshly unique, with subtle references to the familiar storyline.  Oh, and her writing style and word choice – exceptional.

Kendra by Coe Booth.  Young Adult.  Hands down, what sets Coe Booth’s novels apart is the voice of her characters and the realistic, sometimes sloppy and mistake-filled way they handle what life has offered them.   The main characters in Kendra, as in Tyrell, are teenaged kids from the Bronx who come from poverty and broken homes.  Their vernacular is authentic without being distracting – a perfect setting.  The circumstances they find themselves in remind you that for all the ways our lives may be different, in some ways, we are all dealing with the same issues.

Naming Maya by Uma Krishnaswami.  Middle Grade.  Any book that takes place in a different country is immediately fascinating to me, especially when it’s a country I will most likely never get to see (in this case, India).  The main character is struggling with her relationship with her parents after their divorce, a relatable theme among middle grade readers.  What makes this book unique is the multi-cultural backstory, although the conflicts introduced are universal.

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami.  Middle Grade.  Another all-time favorite middle grade book that I’d recommend to anyone without hesitation.  No pet peeves; relatable, appropriate conflicts; upbeat, humorous writing – this book has it all!  And it’s set in another country, which makes it all the more fascinating.

Attack of the Mutant Underwear by Tom Birdseye.  Middle Grade.  So fun.  What can I say?  I’d easily recommend this book to any middle grade boy or girl.  It has none of my pet peeves (dead parents, dying parents, bad language, inappropriate social references) and had a nice moral gently woven into the story.

The Several Lives of Orphan Jack by Sarah Ellis.  Middle Grade.  Another great book for both middle grade boys and girls.  The story is light, funny, has an interesting theme, and the playful language slips in new vocabulary in a way that any level reader can understand.

Rex Zero and The End of the World by Tim Wynne-Jones.  Middle Grade.  For anyone looking for fun, light, boy-centric middle grade fiction that is not fantasy, this book is for you.  The storyline is cute and believable even in its unbelievable moments.  I liked that it captured that summer-break spirit of adventure with a nice dose of kid-like make-believe.

Some of the Kinder Planets by Tim Wynne-Jones.  Middle Grade.  I’ve stumbled across several compilations of short stories for young readers, and after reading this collection, I’m hooked.  What a perfect bedtime read!  Each night a different story – that you start and finish before you have to turn out the light!  With this grouping in particular, I’m noticing a freedom that I don’t always see in novels.  The themes are a little different, a little quirky.  Maybe because the author can explore an idea which interests them without having to blow it out into 150 pages?  Whatever the reason, we’re luckier for it.

Books I Enjoyed (but could put down to go to sleep):

Storm Mountain by Tom Birdseye.  Middle Grade.  This was an incredibly well-written, fast-paced, adventure book about extreme mountain climbing.  The only reason in didn’t make it into my “top-picks” list is that I have a queasy-stomach thing when it comes to people dealing with life-and-death situations on a mountain.  But, for anyone into mountaineering, this is a great book.

The Maestro by Tim Wynne-Jones.  Middle Grade.  This is another really well-written book that missed my “top-picks” list simple because the topic unsettled me a little.  Set in the wilder parts of Canada, this book appeals to anyone fascinated by life in the “outback”.  The main character comes from an abusive household, which is what distanced me from the tale.  Although, he does make his way in the end.

Posted by: Katie B | April 30, 2013

Getting to Know the VCFA Faculty

A recent graduate of the VCFA MFA program recommended that I read something by each of the faculty members prior to arriving on campus.  Since each student becomes paired with a faculty mentor for a semester, and as a new student, your aren’t familiar with any of the faculty on a personal level, it’s a good idea if you research each faculty member’s style before arriving.  In this way, you have a head start on creating the partnership which will be the best fit for your style.  Truth is, I’d been planning on executing this self-inflicted homework before she mentioned it to me.  But it’s always helpful to get a kick in the pants.

As a result – I have a new suggested reading list to share with everyone!  Below are all the faculty and visiting authors slated to attend next semester, and the books I hope to read by them.  As always, I love company!  Take a look at the titles and let me know your thoughts.  As I read them, I’ll be posting my responses as well.  Happy reading!


New Visiting Faculty

Garret Freymann-Weyr – My Heartbeat

A.S. (Amy) King – Ask The Passengers, Everybody Sees the Ants


Returning Faculty

Kathi Appelt – the Underneath, Keeper

Margaret Bechard – My Mom Married the Principal, If It Doesn’t Kill You, Hanging on to Max

Tom Birdseye – Storm Mountain

Coe Booth – Tyrell, Kendra

Bonnie Christensen – Woodie Guthrie: Poet of the People

Alan Cumyn – Tilt, the Secret Life of Owen Skye

Sharon Darrow  – Trash, The Painters of Lexieville

Sarah Ellis – The Several Lives of Orphan Jack

Susan Fletcher – Dargon’s Milk

Louise Hawes – Waiting for Christopher, Black Pearls

Amanda Jenkins – Breaking Boxes, Damage, Repossessed, Night Road

Mark Karlins – Music Over Manhattan

Uma Krishnaswami – Monsoon, Waking Maya

Martine Leavitt  – Keturah and Lord Death

Betsy Partridge – Dogtag Summer

Mary Quattlebaum – Grover G. Graham & Me

Shelley Tanaka – I Was There

Rita Williams-Garcia – One Crazy Summer

Tim Wynne-Jones – Rex Zero, Some of the Kinder Planets, The Maestro


Visiting Writers and Author / Illustrators

Leonard Marcus – Dear Genius: Minders of Make Believe

Don Tate  – It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Taylor Started to Draw

Graham Salisbury – Night of the Howling Dogs, Lord of the Deep


photo 1

Charleston in Spring

In July, I’ll travel up to Vermont (car loaded with a glut of shoes and clothes and books and more shoes – the majority of which I will never use) to begin my first semester in the Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program.  My concentration – Writing for Children and Young Adult – of course!  With a slight sense of panic, I’ve been reading the recommended “preparatory” texts, so that when I arrive, I’ll be able to jump right back into the world of literati.  (No matter that it has been twenty years since I’ve written a critical paper, with the exception of the critical work I scrapped together as part of my application.  No worry about that at all.)

The prescribed list is comprised of VCFA’s esteemed faculty’s suggested reading.  In truth, there must have been dozens of books on the list.  With only two months before I leave, I decided to narrow the list down to a good cross-section of books on the craft of writing from several different perspectives.  In case you are looking for some new, inspiring reads on how to improve your writing and your creative spirit overall, or if you simply want to join me in my return to the world of academic reading, I’m sharing my abbreviated list with you.  As I make my way through the books, I will, as usual, be offering up my opinions on the content covered in each volume. If you read them, feel free to share your opinions as well!

Happy Studying!

The Books:

What’s Your Story: A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner

Writing Books for Young People by James Cross Giblin

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp

Freshman Forty

One of my writing partners, Christine Duval, published her first eBook through Kindle Publishing this past month.  Right now, ePublishing is an interesting option open to all authors, but deciding if / when it’s right for you can be daunting.  I interviewed Christine on her ePublishing experience, and whether or not she feels it’s a success.

 Me:  Christine, congratulations on the publication of your first eBook on Kindle, Freshman Forty.  It must be really exciting!

 Christine: Thanks! I am thrilled. It’s a dream come true.

 Me:  I know you originally pursued publication of your book with a traditional, brick & mortar publisher.  What made you change your mind and try the electronic venue?

 Christine:  It was a number of factors but mainly it came down to two things: timing and the confidence that the book was done and ready to be put out there. I had been reading so much about this “new” genre called New Adult fiction, which is geared to readers aged 18-25. My book is about a pregnant college freshman. I was sending it out to traditional publishers and actually getting the good kind of no’s. They were reading it; they were considering it carefully for their lists; they were sending me long letters with the reasons why they opted to pass on the manuscript. No one ever said anything to imply they didn’t think it was well-written or unpolished; really it came down to it not being right for the list they were putting together. So I thought, do I keep doing this and wait possibly years to get this published, or do I jump on the ebook bandwagon now with all these wonderful New Adult authors who are self-publishing and finding huge success? I decided to go for it.

 Me:  What steps did you have to go through to get your book ready for Kindle publishing?  For those of us who haven’t done it yet, it seems a little overwhelming.

 Christine:  It is a process but it’s not too painful. Although I could have done this entirely for free, on my own, I opted to invest a little money (not much, though) into creating something that could compete with the ebooks that were being put out there by major publishing houses. I paid for a royalty-free, model-released stock image from Getty Images and had a friend who knew what he was doing design the cover for me. I sent the manuscript through two copy edits with a professional copyeditor who was very affordable and very thorough. Then, I paid to have it professionally formatted by a company in the UK who did such a wonderful job to make sure it could be navigated by chapter and by section on
all Kindle devices and that all the margins lined up. They converted it to .Mobi for me, which is the format required for Amazon and then I uploaded it.  It took twelve hours to go “live” after that. When I got word it had been published, I had to pinch myself!

 Me:  Now here’s the heavy question:  how are sales?  One concern I have is over how you make your book stand out against all the other millions of eBooks out there.  Have you found a market for your book?

 Christine:  Slow and steady. So far I’ve made everything back that I put into it and then some in terms of royalties. In 2 ½ weeks on the market, I’ve had 555 downloads and 8 people have “borrowed” it. I put it into a Kindle Select Promotion that allows certain Kindle owners to borrow it in the Kindle library.  It seemed like another good marketing opportunity. I set up a Goodreads Author page and solicited several book bloggers to review it for free. There are many out there that do this in exchange for a free copy. It’s generated some nice reviews and so far 76 people who I don’t know have added it to their “to be read” list. I also was added to the recommended reading list on New Adult Alley after I emailed them. They run a popular blog for readers of New Adult fiction.  Lastly, today, Lifestyle Expert and TV Host Megan Meany made it one of her Must Haves on her website, which I’m hoping will generate even more buzz about it. I read that fifteen minutes a day of arm-chair marketing is all that is needed to get your ebook noticed, as long as it is done strategically. I think you need to be willing to participate in promotions and utilize social media to spread the word. The occasional plug by a family member doesn’t hurt either. My son’s third grade teacher emailed me the other day that she had downloaded it and read it over the weekend after my son told her about it. Now she’s told a bunch of teachers who are emailing me that they’re reading it now. Hey, whatever works! I’ll take it!

 Me:  Thanks for taking time to share your experiences with us!  Freshman Forty is available on Amazon, where it has been getting great reviews.  I recommend everyone to check it out!

 Christine:  Thanks so much for the opportunity! I appreciate it!!

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