Tag Archives: middle-grade

Try Something New

I don’t remember exactly when I met Erin Teagan, but I know it was through SCBWI‘s Mid-Atlantic chapter—either the annual fall conference or the novel revision retreat. It might’ve been as many as ten years ago, so in 2015 when I heard Erin’s debut novel had sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I did a happy dance!

The Friendship Experiment is a heart-felt middle-grade novel about a 6th grader who loves science and could use some help in the friendship department. It hit shelves in late 2016, and this month I caught up with Erin to ask about her writing process.

A.B. Westrick: Congratulations, Erin! And welcome to my blog.

Erin Teagan: Thank you, Anne!

ABW: I want to start by asking about you. Your bio says you’re a former research scientist. How much of you is present in your protagonist, Maddie, and how much of Maddie is pure fiction? Tell us a little about your process in crafting this delightful character.

ET: The idea of Maddie came to me when I was working for a biologics company and I took my mug to the dishwasher and found that a scientist had posted a very official and detailed standard operating procedure on how to use this everyday appliance. I immediately thought about this scientist’s life. Did he write SOPs and put them on his appliances at home? Did his kids have an SOP taped to their bathroom mirror to help them brush their teeth? This is how Maddie came to me.

ABW: Hahaha. Makes me think about the little notes I post at my house. But mine aren’t SOPs! They’re more like labels on leftovers so I don’t leave them to rot in the fridge. But back to Maddie. Say more about crafting her…

ET: When I was Maddie’s age, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t even realize how fun and cool science could be until I went to high school and met a real scientist and spent a day with her on the job. Maddie’s love of science and exploring and discovering things is a quality I wish I had when I was a kid.

ABW: What about Von Willebrand disease, the blood disorder that plays a role in this story? How did you come to write about that?

ET: Full disclosure, I am terrified of blood and have a tendency to pass out when faced with anything gruesome. It runs in my family! I did not share this in my interview at the National Institutes of Health when I applied and ultimately got a job as a researcher in their hematology lab.

ABW: You’re like that British sitcom doctor—Doc Martin—who turns green when he has to draw blood.

ET: Yes! And I ended up working with blood for ten months. I was researching Von Willebrand Disease, a fairly unknown blood disease, but quite prominent. I worked for a scientist who was also a doctor and in her research, she was trying to find a better way to diagnose patients. I thought about how difficult it would be to be a middle school girl with a bleeding disorder. I mean, as if dealing with middle school isn’t enough! I wanted to write a book for that girl.

ABW: Nice. And even though her disease was significant to the story, I’m glad you didn’t open with a bloody scene. (That would have set a totally different tone!) I’d love to hear how/why you decided to begin with the estate sale. In early drafts, was that scene always your opener, or did you experiment with other possible openings?

ET: I love estate sales. You can learn so much about a person by what they’re trying to get rid of. And how cool to see what an eccentric scientist might be selling! I pretty much had the estate sale as the opening scene from the beginning, although for the longest time, it was for a professor from the university and not Maddie’s grandfather. The storyline with the grandfather passing didn’t emerge until my fourth or fifth or seventeenth draft. And it was the storyline that really pulled everything together for me.

ABW: Oh, definitely. The Grandpa bits are crucial to the story. How interesting that he didn’t emerge until late in the process.

ET: Yes, and also, the toughest scenes for me to write were his scenes. I could tear up just thinking about him! Especially the bus scene—don’t even get me started. Letting Maddie feel the loss of Grandpa was the hardest part for me to write.

ABW: If his scenes were the toughest to write, what about the scenes where Maddie makes a mess of her friendships? Mid-way through, I was feeling pretty sorry for her. How hard was it for you to make things hard for Maddie?

ET: Oh man, it was so hard! Poor Maddie! I wanted to protect her from making the kind of mistakes that were making her life difficult. She is so stubborn. And clueless. But the great thing about being the author of her story is I knew she had to made these mistakes to grow as a friend.

ABW: Yes, so true. Now somewhere, I read that your initial title was Standard Operating Procedures. How did the title get changed to The Friendship Experiment?

ET: When I signed with HMH, they let me know they wanted a title that was more accessible to kids. We threw a lot of ideas out and ultimately my editor’s amazing assistant came up with The Friendship Experiment. And we all loved it.

ABW: It’s a great title. And I loved reading the Author’s Note where you thanked your writing group. How does your group work? How do you support and encourage one another? How long did it take you to write The Friendship Experiment, and how involved was your group in your process?

ET: Oh, I adore my writing group. I feel so lucky to have them. There are six of us and we’ve met just about every Thursday night since 2005. I think our group works well because for one, everyone is dedicated to their writing no matter where they are in their careers, and secondly, we don’t require any preparation before our meetings. If you want something critiqued, you bring it with you, and we take a few minutes to read and make comments.  

We always do NaNoWriMo together and The Friendship Experiment was my 2011 project. I wrote the first, terrible draft in a month, then spent the next two years rewriting and making sense of the story. My writers group was very involved in this process. I could bring the most obscure, not-sure-I-even-knew-what-I-was-asking kind of question about plot, and they could zero in on my problem and tell me how to fix it. They are amazing that way.

ABW: They are amazing! (I know everyone in your group.)

Got any final tidbits of advice for aspiring novelists?

ET: My advice to aspiring novelists is to try something new if you are in a slump. If you’re an outliner, try being a pantser for your next idea. If you’ve been working on the same project for ten years, put it aside and start something new. I made the greatest leaps in my writing when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. Also, go to conferences and retreats—you will meet many supportive and kind authors (like Anne Westrick!).  

ABW: Thank you so much for talking about your process, Erin, and all the best with your next book!

Readers: you can learn more about Erin Teagan on her website and find her on Twitter.

Tapping into childhood memories

One day when I was about eight years old and a friend’s mom was driving the carpool, she drove off without me. Her name was Mrs. Collevecchio.

I was at the swim club a few miles from home, and I remember seeing her station wagon pull into the lot. Within a few seconds, her car was beside our little crowd, and our group had piled in, and she was heading back out, and for some reason—had I forgotten my towel and run back for it?—I don’t remember, but I didn’t climb into the car, and Mrs. Collevecchio didn’t notice my absence.

To this day, I can see the back of that station wagon rolling away, see the dust in its wake, the matted grass and weedy gravel of the lot. With the memory comes a tight feeling in my gut. I wanted to yell, Wait!, but the thought of yelling brought shame, so I didn’t. There were other parents picking up and dropping off kids, and there was a teenager at the gate checking people in, and I couldn’t stand the thought of them or anyone staring at me.

I might have waved. Maybe I jumped up and down, maybe once. Then I froze. Mrs. Collevecchio had left me behind.  Continue reading

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley on Craft

Last week, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley won the Newbery Honor Award for her middle grade novel, The War that Saved my Life, and just this week she’s learned that it’s hitting the New York Times bestseller list. The book was also a co-winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, and the audio version won the Odyssey. Wow. Congratulations, Kim!

Kim and I “met” online after she blurbed Brotherhood (her lovely words appear on my book jacket and on the Brotherhood page of my website), and I was thrilled when she agreed to carve out time for this blog interview.



A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kim! I loved reading The War that Saved my Life, and wanted to ask for your reflections on the craft of writing.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: So glad to appear on your blog! Thank you for asking.

ABW: Let’s get right to the heart of The War that Saved my Life. Set in England at the start of WWII, it’s the story of ten year-old Ada, who was born with a clubfoot and whose abusive mother has tried to keep her hidden. As world events compel Ada out into the world, she must struggle both to understand all that she’s missed and to heal from the trauma of abuse. My first question is: how did you go about crafting Ada’s voice, so British and so real? Continue reading

Author Wendy Wan-Long Shang Talks Craft

What a joy to feature Wendy Wan-Long Shang on my blog today! Wendy is the author of the award-winning novel The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, and tomorrow (April 28th) her second book for young readers, The Way Home Looks Now, comes out from Scholastic. Welcome, Wendy!

A.B. Westrick: This is a fabulous book—not only beautifully written, but so compelling. At times it’s sad, at other times funny, and more than once surprising (but no spoilers here!). Let’s talk about the beginning. I’m interested in the way you chose to start the story, or as I like to think of it, the place where you invite readers to enter in.

We meet the protagonist, Peter Lee, as he arrives home to find something very wrong with his mother, but it’s a wrongness he’s come to expect. Readers don’t understand at first, and we’re curious, and by the end of chapter three, we get it: there’s been a death in the family. My question for you is this: was this opening always your opening? How did you come to settle on this particular scene for chapter one?

Wendy Wan-Long Shang: I had to go to my drafts folder for this one, and I’m so glad you asked because I had forgotten about some of my early drafts until now. In my earliest attempt, I tried to work completely chronologically, so that the death happens in “real time.” What I discovered, though, was that I wasn’t getting quickly enough to the heart of what I wanted to talk about—how Peter’s relationship with his father changes.

In Chapter One, Peter and his sister are locked out of the house, even though his mother is inside. I developed this opening because I wanted it to serve as a sketch of Peter’s situationhe is literally shut out of his mother’s life, and he wants very much to re-connect with her, while at the same time wanting to protect his sister from getting hurt.

ABW: Nice. In the book, I really liked the way you showed his concern for both his sister and his mom. Early-on, I thought the book would be about grief, and while that theme is certainly a significant element, this story isn’t really about grief. It’s about baseball!

You reference baseball wisdom in almost every chapter, and it adds tremendous depth to the story. Can you talk a little about your decision to write a baseball book? Which came first for you—the baseball or the death in the family? Or let me ask it this way: what did you set out to write when you began this book, and how close is this final version to your early imaginings?

WendyShangWWS: Baseball definitely came first. I was inspired by an incident that happened when my father was coaching my brother’s baseball team, and I’d always wanted to write about it. In my mind the beginning of the book was about this incident; but of course, during the writing process, the truth came out. What I really wanted to write about was how this event changed my perception of my father.

ABW: Well, my perception of the father character completely changed in the course of reading the book. Well done! Much of this story is about relationships (within families and between friends and teammates), with a significant focus on father-son expectations. Where do you get your insights into family dynamics? How much comes from your own childhood? From your current family?

WWS: I am fascinated by father-son relationships, having two sons of my own and being a witness to many relationships around me. It seems like there are many intense feelings, but not always so many ways of communicating them. Even though the book is written from Peter’s point of view, I had a very clear idea of what Peter’s dad was trying to accomplish in every scene, even if Peter wasn’t aware of it.

ABW: You’ve nailed the dialogue, and I wonder what advice you might offer for aspiring writers who struggle to make their characters’ interactions ring true?

WWS: My advice to young writers (that I myself still struggle to follow) is to remember the dialogue belongs first to the character and then to the story. Be wary of having your character speak only for the purpose of advancing the story, if it does not serve the character’s own desire and personality.

ABW: I’m also wondering if your process is anything like mine: I tend to write lots of scenes that never make it into the finished story. What about you? What scenes were the earliest that you wrote, and did those early scenes make it into the finished book, or fall away during the revision process?

WWS: I think of myself as a writer who usually doesn’t cut a lot of scenes. When I’m working with my editor, Lisa Sandell, she usually asks me to add scenes. However, looking at my earliest draft, scenes were definitely cut! Here’s a little scene that, again, I had completely forgotten about (and, as a fellow baseball fan, I thought you’d appreciate!), where Peter shows his love of baseball by writing a poem about baseball for school.

      “I’ve titled it, Pitcher.” I cleared my throat.
                   I think that I shall never see
                   A call as beautiful as
                   STRIKE THREE!
      I waited for a beat. No one laughed. Rats.
      “Whaddya think?” I grinned, overly large.
      Mom smiled at me. “It’s like that tree poem, isn’t it? By Joyce Kilmer?”
      “Well, yeah, except it’s not about trees.” This was not the direction I wanted this discussion to go in: poetry analysis.
      “You could make it about birds,” said Elaine. I didn’t say anything, but I thought, yeah, if you’re a bird brain.
      “It’s pretty good, Peter. Though you might want to make it longer, you know, if you want to make sure you want a good grade,” said Nelson.
      I thought a minute. “How about, And nothing makes me so depressed, as a fast ball hit with zest.”
      This got me some smiles.
      “Or…a home run hit due…west,” said Mom.
      “A ball struck by a big pest,” said Elaine, pointing her finger in the air.
      “A line drive made well-addressed,” said Nelson, like a baseball announcer.
      “This boy with baseball is obsessed,” said Mom, wiping her eyes. “And he’s infecting all of us.” 

ABW: I do love baseball, and I love this scene! Sorry that you had to cut it, but at the same time, I think it’s helpful for readers to see that sometimes even really good (and entertaining) scenes do get cut. This is great.

Let’s talk some more about revision. How many drafts did you write before you showed the manuscript to your agent or editor, and once Scholastic bought it, did your editor want significant revisions? All in all, how long did it take to write The Way Home Looks Now?

WWS: Judging from the date stamp on my earliest draft, it took me about two years to write The Way Home Looks Now. I don’t really work in numbers of whole drafts per se, because I write slowly. I tend to work a chapter until I’m happy with it, and then I move on, so an individual chapter might get re-written several times. I did show about 50 pages to a few readers early on, because I was experimenting with verb tense. Once I had a completed draft, I got more reader feedback and made changes.

For Home, I was very fortunate to work once again with Lisa Sandell, my editor from my first book. It’s very nice to have that level of familiarity while editing, so it felt more like a conversation than anything else.

ABW: When (in your writing process) did this title come to you? Was it your choice, or Scholastic’s?

WWS: I always had it in the back of my mind that  I wanted some play on how the home plate looks like a house drawn by a child. It took a few tries to get it right, but I feel very lucky that Scholastic liked the name, too!

ABW: Well, I think the title is perfect. And the book is a fabulous read. The protagonist is a boy, but I wouldn’t call this a “boy book.” It’s got great cross-gender appeal. Thank you for penning such a great story, and for giving me the opportunity to interview you here.

Readers: if you’d like to meet Wendy Shang, she’ll be speaking on a panel (free and open to the public) and signing books in Richmond, VA, on Saturday, June 20th:

Inspiration to Ink:
Writing and Illustrating for Children

Saturday, June 20, 2015
1:00 – 4:30 p.m.
Richmond Public Library
101 E. Franklin Street, Richmond, VA

Sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators in partnership with Richmond Public Library

Writing a Novel in Verse

Listen to these lines from the first page of Caminar, Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse:

Our village sat in the folded-between,
in that spot where you pinch something sacred,

to keep it still.

Our mountain stood guard at our backs.
We slept at night in its bed.

This book mesmerized me. Its lyrical beauty quickly transported me to the jungles of Guatemala with its owls and soccer-playing children and military men looking for older brothers, old enough for signing papers, and one day…

Soldiers Set Up Camp
That year before the rains began, they came
in jeeps, with tents for sleep,
set up camp outside our village.

I couldn’t put it down. I loved Carlos, the young protagonist of this story, and I just had to get inside Skila Brown’s head to hear about her process in writing a novel in verse. I wanted to glean tips for tackling this art form.

A.B. Westrick: Skila, thank you so much for doing this blog interview. Carlos’s story captivated me from page one, and stayed with me long after I finished reading. I find the idea of writing a novel in verse to be daunting. Can you tell me which of the poems you wrote first? What part of Carlos’s story became your starting point, and how did the story evolve during the course of writing?

Skila Brown: Anne, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog! The first poem that came to me was “Guerilla Rain.” The poems that ended up following that one in the book came next. Often I would write 3-5 poems in a spurt, and on the next day, I’d write verses that would appear in an entirely different section of the book. Writing out of order is fun and frustrating—in equal parts. But Carlos’s story, for me, started with the arrival of the guerillas. I knew this was about a boy whose village got targeted simply because the rebels had passed through.

ABW: There’s a lot of white space in Caminar, and each poem packs a punch, encouraging readers to imagine villages and villagers, paths through jungles and cornfields, wide-eyed owls, a boy translating between Spanish and the local dialect, etc. You left a lot to the imagination of the reader (which is great). I wondered about the process of choosing what images to put into the book and what images to leave out. Would you reflect a little on that, and especially on what you left out and why?

SB: There were many images I wrote about and later removed from the story, because I just felt they were too violent. For example, I had a conversation where Miguel described to Carlos a scene where a woman came to kiss the feet of her dead husband when a nearby soldier slashed a machete against her back. She lived. But the baby strapped to her back did not.

When I first started writing the story, I wasn’t sure of the age range of the reader. Once I realized that Carlos’s story was really a coming of age story, I wanted the novel to be accessible to younger readers. I felt like it was really an upper middle grade story, and I wanted to make sure that nothing in its pages would be too hard for an eleven year old to digest.

I think poetry is a great tool for talking about hard topics exactly because it leaves the reader some space to interpret as s/he will. We can linger over a poem and insert our own images into the white space that surrounds it, calling upon the emotional experience we have to connect us to the story. Or we can read it quickly, get the facts of what happened, and move on. And that, I think, opens up the story to a broader audience.

ABW: Tell me about your revision process. How many times did you write these poems?

SB: This varied from poem to poem. My process for this book (and the novel in verse that I just finished) was to write a draft of a poem in a notebook by hand. Usually I’d concentrate on content only in that draft, although sometimes the poem would come to me as a poem—maybe a particular sound element I wanted to play with or the form I wanted it to have on the page. Days later, or whenever I felt like it, I’d give it another read and see what I thought. Sometimes I wasn’t ready to act on it, but other times I’d read it a few times and begin to see where the poem was, rewriting it into another draft. Sometimes that only took one step. Other times I’d play with a poem 3 or 4 or 5 more times before I’d settle on something that felt concrete. When I got to that point, I’d type it into the computer.

I kept doing that until I had about 60% of the poems finished and I could start to see the shape of the story. Then I printed them off and spread them out on the floor and saw what was missing, what holes I needed to fill. Once I had a complete draft, I began the story revision, but even in that stage, I was still revising and tweaking poems line by line, word by word. Some poems seemed to scream out Done at a certain point and others always felt like I could keep playing with them to make things better—or at least different. It’s hard to know when to stop!

ABW: I think the ending of Caminar is great, and I don’t want this interview to be a spoiler, but could you talk a bit about that ending? When you started writing the book, did you know that you wanted to end it that way?

SB: I knew early on that Carlos was going to have a choice to make at the end of the book, and I knew what I wanted his choice to be. But I didn’t plan on the soldiers making another appearance in the book. A friend and early reader said to me, “Skila. You are protecting him. This ending needs more action. You need to bring the soldiers back.” And she was right.

ABW: I love your blog post about Carlos’s mama making tortillas, so I’m including the video you linked to. This is great!

ABW: Novels in verse are really popular right now. Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for writers who want to tackle this form? How much of a background in poetry does a writer need in order to feel confident writing a novel in verse? Before you wrote Caminar would you have used the word “poet” to describe yourself?

SB: I’ve been writing poems since I was seven, but I’ve never been brave enough to call myself a poet. Even now, it makes me squirm to do so. But I think that’s part of the problem that you’re hinting at here. Most of us are a little afraid of poetry. It feels intimidating—like we need a license to do it.

My advice for anyone thinking about writing a verse novel is to go read a giant stack of them. Then jump in and give it a try. I don’t think verse is the best tool for telling every story. But for some stories, it can be a powerful narration.

ABW: I love the cover design! I know that authors often don’t get much say in their books’ covers, and I was wondering how that process went for you. Did Candlewick offer you a choice of cover designs (and if yes, what sorts of design(s) did you turn down in favor of this one)?

SB: No one loves this cover more than I do. I honestly want to blow this up to giant-size and hang it over my mantel. It’s truly stunning and like nothing I had envisioned for the cover. Matt Roeser is the creative genius at Candlewick who gets credit for that. Early on I saw two possible covers—this one and a completely different one that used a photograph of a mountain. Honestly the second one was just as I had pictured it in my mind and there were things I liked about both covers when I was asked to weigh in.

Everyone at Candlewick wants to involve authors as much as possible on every part of the process. (It’s such a great house!) I offered up my thoughts about each, but said I had complete faith in whichever they chose, because they are the experts on that and not me. Initially I think they went with the other cover. And I tried to forget about those beautiful greens and leaves. But a month later they were back to the current cover. (I was secretly very, very pleased.)

ABW: Thank you so much for taking time to reflect on your process in writing Caminar.

SB: I love thinking about my writing process, so this chat was loads of fun!

For more information about Skila Brown, and to read an Educator’s Guide to Caminar, check out her website.

Exquisitely crafted poems are the basis of an unusually fine verse novel…”
–Horn Book, starred review

“…a much-needed addition to Latin American-themed middle grade fiction.”
–School Library Journal, starred review

Skila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana. Caminar is her first novel.

Organic writing

Last week I popped Katherine Applegate‘s middle-grade novel in verse, Home of the Brave, into my car’s CD player, and found myself mesmerized by the writing.  It was so good, I had to get the book in print so that I could read—not just listen—and savor her choice of words.

Applegate’s protagonist is a Sudanese boy who struggles to adjust to life in America.  Rather than using descriptive language common to Americans, Applegate infuses the novel with a Sudanese sensibility.  The boy’s observations include:

  • a cloth…soft as new grass after a good rain
  • pleading eyes that shine at you like river rocks in the sun
  • [an optimist] finds sun when the sky is dark
  • snowflakes tap at the window like stubborn mosquitoes.

Such organic writing!  These images grow out of the character and his experiences.

An author’s job is to create a fictional world and—with words alone—invite and compel a reader to slip into it.  The more organic the writing, the easier and faster the slip-slide happens…