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Publishing is a Journey, a guest post by Claire Andrews

Publishing a novel can be daunting, especially once you realize that writing the book isn’t even the hardest part. There are lots of comparisons between publishing and marathons, and they are pretty correct. The only sprint you’ll find might just actually be in completing the first draft, and that would best be done only when you’re on deadline. Otherwise, take your time and do it right, or you’ll be eating every word you typed up later.

My own publishing journey was definitely of the marathon variety. It felt endless, the goalpost a mere illusion at times. I’m not saying this to deter anyone, but I do feel that it should be said. The stories we often hear are of authors with big, quick success stories, the ones with agents and deals snapped up within months. This isn’t the case for 99% of authors, and it is definitely not my story. But I don’t want to bore you with the details of my slog to the finish line. For reference, here’s my own timeline:

  • First query sent for a (now) shelved project – Summer 2013
  • Finished DoS – Summer 2015
  • First DoS query sent – August 2015
  • Signed with first agent – Spring 2016
  • Left agent – Spring 2018
  • Revised DoS
  • New agent – Winter 2018
  • Went on submission – March 2019
  • Sold DoS – July 2019
  • PUBLICATION – June 2021

That’s EIGHT years to publication. I don’t know about all of you, but most marathons are shorter than eight years. Again, I’m not putting this on the internet to deter you. I am hoping to encourage you when the publishing slog feels eerily similar to Sisyphus and his boulder. Or, because my book is releasing soon, like Daphne’s seemingly endless quest to save Olympus from itself. Poor girl just can’t catch a break.

First things first, the place to start – once you’ve finished writing and revising your novel, of course – is to start drafting that query letter. I’m including my query letter below (which might be embarrassing someday) because it was, ultimately, successful.

Dear Amy,

Seventeen-year-old Daphne has spent her entire life honing her body into a weapon, her heart and mind into stone, to be accepted by the unyielding people of ancient Sparta. When the goddess Artemis holds Daphne’s brother for ransom, she must leave behind her family, friends and Sparta to travel across the dangerous and unforgiving world of ancient Greece. 

In return for her brother’s life, Daphne must find and return mysterious objects stolen from Mount Olympus. With each step of her journey she battles foes from the ancient myths of Greece alongside her guide, the enigmatic and flirtatious god Apollo, who has a secret agenda of his own. Her heart is torn between worry for her brother and a growing attraction to her companion, and her nights are haunted by a shadowy specter seeking to bring her mission to an untimely end. A mere pawn in the games of the gods, the true weight of Daphne’s task to restore the waning power of Olympus is revealed when she uncovers a plot to ignite war between Olympus and the world of men. 

A reimagining of the classic Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, OLYMPUS RISING is a 97,000 word Young Adult Historical Fantasy that explores female empowerment and acceptance, as well as Greek mythology and history. The first in a proposed trilogy, this novel will appeal to fans of Madeline Miller’s unique Greek retelling and determined, self-sufficient heroine in CIRCE, and to those who love the sweeping adventure and ancient folklore of Adrienne Young’s SKY IN THE DEEP. Based on your MS Wishlist, your interest in voice-driven and female-centric historic fiction, and I believe that this novel will pique your interest. 

I would like to be represented by Dystel Goderich & Bourret LLC because your agency strives for quality, has a stellar client list producing excellent literature, and promotes long fruitful careers. I am a graduate of the University of Alaska Southeast with a degree in Social Science, with an emphasis in history, archaeology and anthropology. Inspired by my research as an undergrad, I have sought to breathe new life in the forgotten women of ancient Greece. Below, please find the first 25 pages of my manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Claire Andrews

I had multiple offers because of this query letter, and I think that boils down to three things: a good pitch, doing my research, and following guidelines. What worked in my query letter? The fact that it underwent countless drafts, for starters. Have your friends and critique partners look it over, get opinions. Does it make them want to read the book? That’s the point if they do. If they don’t? Well, time to figure out why not. What else worked? My comps were relevant. I made sure to pick out books that had released recently and were also popular. This showed that I knew both the genre and the market, and that my book had the potential to cater to fans of those books. One thing I cannot stress enough, though, when writing your query: do your research! Make sure you research the agent your querying. How many pages will they want for their sample? What are some of the other books they like and represent? MSWL and Manuscript Wishlist are great sites for really learning what the agent likes and is hoping to read. It’s also important to research what the agent does NOT want. Some agents may be interested in fantasy, but don’t want to read historical fantasy and may only want to read paranormal. Some agents may want fantasy sometimes, but at the time of querying the agent may only be interested in non-fiction. I’d also like to point out the wee grammatical error in the query, which just goes to show that agents are more interested in the big picture things. Don’t stress if you’ve sent your query and realized you made a mistake.

Thus, querying becomes your first of many lessons in persistence. Even when on submission with your agent, there will be a lot of waiting by your phone and obsessively refreshing your phone. This business takes a lot of perseverance, and gumption. There will be times, even after you’ve sold your novel, that you’ll want to crawl under a rock because guess what’s next? More waiting.  But don’t turn away from the process and please don’t let this deter you. I want to read your story, and I know a lot of agents and editors out there want to as well! Just remember to tighten those laces and charge your phone, because you’ve got a long hill to climb and a long wait at the top. In Daughter of Sparta, Daphne is faced with a choice: return to Sparta or continue on her journey and do everything she can to return power to Olympus. There might be times when the finish line seems farther, but you’re a champion for even beginning the race.

Meet the author

Claire M. Andrews was raised in both Alaska and Scotland, but currently lives in Vermont; when not writing, she can usually be found outside swimming, skiing or hiking across the state’s famous green mountains. Daughter of Sparta is her debut novel. She is a 2014 graduate of the University of Alaska Southeast.

Social Media links:

About Daughter of Sparta

In this thrilling reimagining of ancient Greek mythology, a headstrong girl does whatever it takes to rise up and become the most powerful fighter her people have ever seen.

Seventeen-year-old Daphne has spent her entire life honing her body and mind into that of a warrior, hoping to be accepted by the unyielding people of ancient Sparta. But an unexpected encounter with the goddess Artemis—who holds Daphne’s brother’s fate in her hands—upends the life she’s worked so hard to build. Nine mysterious items have been stolen from Mount Olympus and if Daphne cannot find them, the gods’ waning powers will fade away, the mortal world will descend into chaos, and her brother’s life will be forfeit.

Guided by Artemis’s twin—the handsome and entirely-too-self-assured god Apollo—Daphne’s journey will take her from the labyrinth of the Minotaur to the riddle-spinning Sphinx of Thebes, team her up with mythological legends such as Theseus and Hippolyta of the Amazons, and pit her against the gods themselves.

A reinterpretation of the classic Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, Daughter of Sparta by debut author Claire Andrews turns the traditionally male-dominated mythology we know into a heart-pounding and empowering female-led adventure.

ISBN-13: 9780316540070
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Series: Daughter of Sparta Series #1
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Historical Fiction in the Making, a guest post by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you told me thirty years ago I’d be writing historical novels, I would have said you were crazy or mistaken.  Back in the 70s and 80s, you could count the number of YA novels on one hand with an African-American female lead.   I found myself in a jam when I needed a book to work with a group of high school girls I was mentoring for my sorority’s literacy program. I ended up using my homework for my master class with author/screenwriter Richard Price.

My mentees’ engagement with my pages told me I was sitting on a gold mine.  Don’t write about the past.  Keep it current. Keep it real.  Imagine my surprise and utter frustration after college when my gold mine of a manuscript didn’t pan out right away.  But at last, some seven years later, I sold the manuscript, titled BLUE TIGHTS.  I had soon after, met with a cluster of teenage girls at a public library in Long Island. They were eager to give their testimonies of being objectified by boys or men old enough to be their fathers and how important it was for them to read a novel about another girl navigating their world.  The girls made me promise to never write about what happened way back in time.  They didn’t have to make me promise.  I was there.

Who knew I’d break my word?  Fast forward some twenty years, and ONE CRAZY SUMMER, my most successful novel, is set in 1968.  Leap forward another ten years and I’m anticipating the release of A SITTING IN ST. JAMES, my historical—what? Yes, my historical novel set mainly in 1860, predicated upon what happened in the 17th century, and then the French and Haitian Revolutions. If I was going to break my resolve, I might as well go for broke.  But did I really break my word to my readers?  I’ve always known that I couldn’t talk about the issues of today without understanding how we got here.  There’s no better way to connect the dots between the past and the present than through historical fiction.

Every novel relies on some research.  A historical novel isn’t reliable without research and A SITTING IN ST. JAMES, demanded total immersion.  I came to this story as a complete outsider.  I was neither white, nor of French descent, nor Louisiana Creole.  To gain the confidence of my readers, I took a year off from writing to do nothing but research: dig, read, uncover, and lastly, vet!  Instead of researching while I wrote, I used the writing hiatus to hunker down in specific subjects: French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, Louisiana history, Louisiana Creole culture and language, sugar cane planting and production, West Point history and culture, mid-19th century portrait painting, among other subjects.

I filled up on mid-nineteenth century literature, to include French, Louisiana Creole and American readings.  I combed through archives of narratives of survivors of slavery for testimonies of freed people from Louisiana.  One gem I found helpful was a collection of Caribbean and Louisiana Creole proverbs from LacFadio Hearn’s GOMBO ZH’BES (green gumbo).  I could see the smirks, the humor, and attitudes of the people. I got a taste of their lives and daily concerns. 

That deep dive into the particulars not only gave my storytelling foundation, it showed me how my plotting could work with the details that I collected.  Here’s a small but important example:  Byron’s West Point lover would travel down to St. James from New York to spend summer furlough with him.  With the open architecture of a typical Creole styled plantation house, the two would never be quite alone.  Enters, research!  On a well-to-do Creole plantation, boys in their teens moved into their own separate apartment near the main house.   This solved the privacy issue. 

Visits to the plantations were invaluable.  At times I had to split myself into two: the empirical fact-gatherer on a mission to know how things worked; and the descendant of enslaved people who witnessed the cruel treatment of her ancestors.  I needed both to write the story, but at some point, the descendant had to step back and let the fact-gatherer get the details that she would later string into meaningful prose.

I spent hours pouring over photographs from the Internet and in books.  One of my favorites was of a woman’s salon—the room where she not only slept, and did her toilette (clean, groom& dress) , but also entertained company.  This one photograph practically painted Madame and laid out how she spent her days.  I mentally collected pieces to place in the salon for the novel.  A footstool near the bed, mosquito netting, a vanity, religious iconography, a hand carved trundle bed, and the rose Queen Anne chair.  One look at a prie dieu (a personal prayer bench) told me instantly that Thisbe, Madame’s personal servant would always knelt in Madame’s stead.

I’m not going to lie.  It was a lot!  When I needed a break from the words, I’d switch media and get crafty.  Scrapbooking a novel or making character sketches as collages can be therapeutic.  Collages let me see vital threads and themes through images when I step away from the writing.  Fun fact: Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong—a scrapbooking collage artist.  

Although the story follows the life of Madame Sylvie, the story’s timeline begins way before her birth, and extends beyond her lifetime.  I drafted historical and personal timelines to keep things in order and to help me avoid anachronism.  Timelines are neat!  They gave me insights into what my characters were aware of, and they kept me factually honest. 

Who would have thought a “keep it current” and a never “way back in time” writer would be seduced by the lure of history? You know you’re in deep when you continue to dig, long after you’ve answered your research questions.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Ferdinand Leyro

Rita Williams-Garcia’s Newbery Honor Book, One Crazy Summer, was a winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award, a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and a New York Times bestseller. The two sequels, P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama, were both Coretta Scott King Author Award winners and ALA Notable Children’s Books. Her novel Clayton Byrd Goes Underground was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the NAACP Image Award for Youth/Teen Literature. Rita is also the author of five other distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, a National Book Award finalist; No Laughter HereEvery Time a Rainbow Dies (a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book), Fast Talk on a Slow Track (all ALA Best Books for Young Adults); and Blue Tights. Her latest book is A Sitting in St. James. Rita Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, New York, with her husband and has two adult daughters. You can visit her online at www.ritawg.com.

About A Sitting in St. James

A tour-de-force from three-time National Book Award finalist Rita Williams-Garcia, this story of an antebellum plantation—and the enduring legacies of slavery upon every person who lives there—is essential reading for both teens and adults grappling with the long history of American racism.

1860, Louisiana. After serving as mistress of Le Petit Cottage for more than six decades, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has decided, in spite of her family’s objections, to sit for a portrait.

While Madame plots her last hurrah, stories that span generations—from the big house to out in the fields—of routine horrors, secrets buried as deep as the family fortune, and the tangled bonds of descendants and enslaved.

This astonishing novel from award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia about the interwoven lives of those bound to a plantation in antebellum America is an epic masterwork—empathetic, brutal, and entirely human.

ISBN-13: 9780062367297
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/25/2021
Age Range: 16+

On Korean Food: Filling My Stories with What I Love, a guest post by Sarah Suk

When writing Made in Korea, a young adult romcom about two teens selling Korean beauty products at school and going head to head to out-sell each other (and maybe falling in love along the way), I knew I wanted to include many elements of Korean culture throughout the story. K-beauty, of course, as well as family dynamics, K-pop, and — I’m smiling to myself just writing this — Korean food.

Korean food is my greatest comfort. If I had to choose one last meal before I died, it would be my mom’s kimchi sujebi, a spicy hand torn noodle soup that immediately makes me feel like I’m at home. There is nothing more peaceful to me than the smell of roasted goguma (sweet potato) and a pot of brewing boricha (barley tea). In university, I spent a semester studying abroad in Seoul and some of my happiest memories include visiting street food vendors and walking through different neighbourhoods, hoddeok and bungeobbang in hand, feeling completely and utterly content. That’s sweet pancake filled with brown sugar and cinnamon, and fish-shaped bread stuffed with red bean paste, respectively. AKA some of my favourite snacks of all time.

Made in Korea features just a few dishes I love. To name a few: pajeon (scallion pancake), doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew), and a brief mention of soondubu (spicy soft tofu stew). While the food serves more as details to the story rather than the main centerpiece of it, there is one item on the menu that does get more page time, more attention, and more sparklethan the rest. And that is the infamous Korean shaved ice dessert, bingsu.

The most common version of bingsu is patbingsu, red bean shaved ice, but these days there are many, many different kinds. Fruity bingsu layered with fresh strawberry slices or served in a carved-out honeydew, matcha bingsu topped with big scoops of green tea ice cream and sprinkled with bite sized mochi pieces, injeolmi bingsu that takes the classic Korean rice cake covered in powdered soybean and gives it a shaved ice twist… I mean, the genius just goes on.

I love bingsu so much that I once dreamed of becoming a bingsu blogger and traveling the world, eating and reviewing different kinds of shaved ice. That dream still lives somewhere in the back of my mind, just biding its time until the right moment. But for now, I keep the love alive by planting bingsu in my stories and gifting it to my characters. A little bit of writing advice: fill your stories with what you love.

Here’s the thing about food. It’s never really just about the food, is it? It’s also about what it carries. Culture, history, family traditions, childhood memories… Certain foods become intertwined with specific moments in life, like how I can never drink chai without thinking of the friend who introduced it to me at a tea party in her living room. Or how, whenever I eat churros, I’m reminded of that time at the amusement park when I saw a classmate who never smiled beaming for the first time with two churros in his hands, sharing them with his friends.

To share a meal with someone is to get a glimpse into their world. In a similar way, I’ve always loved reading about food in books because of what it showed me about the world within its pages. Sometimes I imagine my favourite characters pulling out a chair for me at their dinner table, smells wafting, mouths watering, and saying, “Take a seat. Here’s what we’re having.”

Meet the author

Sarah Suk (pronounced like soup with a K) lives in Vancouver, Canada where she writes stories and admires mountains. When she’s not writing, you can find her hanging out by the water, taking film photos, or eating a bowl of bingsu. Made in Korea is her first novel. You can visit her online at sarahsuk.com and on Twitter and Instagram @sarahaelisuk.

Website: https://www.sarahsuk.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sarahaelisuk

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sarahaelisuk/

About Made in Korea

Out May 18, 2021!

Frankly in Love meets Shark Tank in this feel-good romantic comedy about two entrepreneurial Korean American teens who butt heads—and maybe fall in love—while running competing Korean beauty businesses at their high school.

There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.

Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…

What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.

Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.

But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.

ISBN-13: 9781534474376
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 05/18/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

The Only List That Matters, a guest post by Francisco X. Stork

A lifetime ago, when I was a sophomore at Jesuit High School in El Paso, Brother Murphy, the school’s librarian, handed me a three-page, single-spaced list of books. I was sitting on one of the long oak tables at the end of the library, my usual place, when he placed the list next to me and said, “You need to read these if you ever want to be a writer of consequence.” He was gone before I could say anything. I don’t know how he found out I wanted to be a writer since that was a secret I guarded carefully. Maybe he figured it out by the type of books I was checking out: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings.

Brother Murphy was always kind but not given to give in to superfluous talk. He never mentioned the list again even when he saw that I was checking out books in the alphabetical order he had listed them. First Antigone then on to Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote. By the time I graduated, I was ten books away from Zorba the Greek, the last book on the list.

It was a very comprehensive list which included books that later surprised me by their inclusion. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra was there and so was Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, books which I couldn’t imagine Brother Murphy’s superiors in Rome ever approving. The more books I read, the more it seemed as if Brother Murphy had tailored the list to my specific author-soul specifications. Many years later, when I wrote about a young woman having a mental breakdown, I finally understood why Brother Murphy had included Franny & Zooey and not Catcher in the Rye. But to be honest, there were also a couple of books in there where I think Brother Murphy overestimated my abilities. One of these days, dear Brother, I will finally read James Joyce’s Ulysses all the way through.

What does it mean for a young aspiring writer to have a life-long lover of books take the care and time to create a reading list specifically for him? What happens to a boy full of self-doubt when a revered adult believes in the validity of his dream without diminishing the effort required to get there? The gift of that list was both an affirmation of my fledgling vocation as a writer and a challenge to be a writer “of consequence,” to write the kind of books that could be included in the list.

Fast forward some thirty years. I’m in the basement of my house staring at a shelf of books. Books that I haven’t opened since I started working as a lawyer some twenty years before. I am drowning in a depression caused by an overwhelming sense of time wasted, of talent dissipated of aspirations never realized. What happened to the high school sophomore who wanted to dedicate his life to writing? He thought he could go to law school, get a high-pressure job and write at night or on weekends. But the years went by and with each year came a deeper sadness, a longer distance from the young man’s fire.

Instinctively, I reach for one of the books on Brother Murphy’s list, one I have not opened since high school: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. There around page fifty is the list, wrinkled and smudged, folded four times. Most of the books have a checkmark next to them. A few have a checkmark and an asterisk. I take the book and the cell-like-room I call my office, also in the basement. I close the door, and I begin to write a story about a very smart young man growing up in the housing projects of El Paso.  I can almost feel Brother Murphy’s hand on my shoulder, his voice both gentle and firm: “Write something of consequence.”

I am sixty-eight years old now. On the Hook, the novel coming out in May 2021, is a re-visioning of the story I started writing in the basement of my house almost thirty years ago. It is my ninth novel. There are many lists where my books have never appeared. Lists of the books most sold in the past week or month or year, for example. Still, I am sure that Brother Murphy does not hold that against me. Over the years I have slowly come to understand what he meant by “a “writer of consequence” and it does involve having my books make it on to a list.

We all carry powerful invisible lists in our hearts. Sometimes we share those lists with others and sometimes we keep them secretly inside and guard them carefully for the warmth and meaning they give us. One of my dearest lists is of the characters from novels that are and will forever be real for me. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Raskalnikov, Aureliano Buendía, Frodo and Sam, Death in The Book Thief are just a few in the list. In my own private interpretation of Brother Murphy’s words, the consequence I aspire as a writer is to have my characters live and remain forever a source of life in the hearts of my readers.

I have another list that originated with Brother Murphy. It consists of the list of librarians who have been moved by my work and who have seen to it that my books are read by the young people who can most benefit from them. I don’t know all the names of the librarians on this very long list, but I would like to live long enough to thank each one of them. The men and women on this list give me standards to uphold and they remind me to write with consequence. They, in turn, carry in their hearts a list of the books that will help a young person live and grow. That’s the only list that matters.

Meet the author

Francisco X. Stork emigrated from Mexico at the age of nine with his mother and his adoptive father. He is the author of nine novels including: Marcelo in the Real World, recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which received the Elizabeth Walden Award, The Memory of Light, recipient of the Tomás Rivera Award, Disappeared, which received the Young Adult Award from the Texas Institute of Letters and was a Walter Dean Myers Award Honor Book and Illegal, recipient of the In the Margins Award and the Young Adult Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. On the Hook published in May of 2021 received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

Website: www.franciscostork.com

Facebook: Francisco Stork

Instagram:  Francisco_stork

Twitter: @StorkFrancisco

About On the Hook

“You know I’m coming. You’re dead already.”

Hector has always minded his own business, working hard to make his way to a better life someday. He’s the chess team champion, helps the family with his job at the grocery, and teaches his little sister to shoot hoops overhand.

Until Joey singles him out. Joey, whose older brother, Chavo, is head of the Discípulos gang, tells Hector that he’s going to kill him: maybe not today, or tomorrow, but someday. And Hector, frozen with fear, does nothing. From that day forward, Hector’s death is hanging over his head every time he leaves the house. He tries to fade into the shadows — to drop off Joey’s radar — to become no one.

But when a fight between Chavo and Hector’s brother Fili escalates, Hector is left with no choice but to take a stand.

The violent confrontation will take Hector places he never expected, including a reform school where he has to live side-by-side with his enemy, Joey. It’s up to Hector to choose whether he’s going to lose himself to revenge or get back to the hard work of living.

ISBN-13: 9781338692150
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 05/18/2021
Age Range: 12 Years

Where Stories Come From, a guest post by Jaye Robin Brown

It’s hard for me to believe that my fourth novel, THE KEY TO YOU AND ME, is releasing on April 20th. It seems like only a few weeks ago I was waking up before the dawn to get in an hour or so of writing before heading off to my job as a teacher, not yet agented and publishing a thing only in my daydreams. Those days are gone and now I write full-time but some things are unchanged. I still need to find the stories within me to put on the page.

This got me thinking about where these stories come from. How does an idea that starts as some shadowy notion become a fully-fledged novel? For me, each book’s inspiration and start has been a little different. But what they all have in common is a key element of internal exploration or some issue I’ve grappled with in my life.

In my first novel, NO PLACE TO FALL, I was exploring place and home. It was not only a look at the beauty and pitfalls of life in a small rural town, but also a love song to Appalachia. Though the South, in general, tends to get bad press, there are hierarchies within the South and Southern Appalachia gets, perhaps, the worst press of all. And though I didn’t grow up here, it became my chosen home. It’s a place where family ties go deep, secrets are held close, but people are loved right where they are. It’s also a place steeped in music. I wanted to share this in a novel that explores all of those things along with the beauty of the land.

My second book, GEORGIA PEACHES AND OTHER FORBIDDEN FRUIT, is an exploration of queerness and faith. As someone who is both queer and Southern, it was so important for me to write Jo and her journey. Though the book is a sweet romance, it’s also a look at the ways in which religion and queerness can exist hand-in-hand when people allow it.

At Pride in Boston in 2019 sporting sticker swag from my books

One reason why it took me into my 20s to come out was this Southern upbringing. One of the first questions people often ask is “where do you attend church?” And as a gay person, there’s always this underlying drumbeat of feeling somehow wrong or that you’re going to be struck down because of who you love. This book was the way I dealt with this for myself, along with being, I hope, a ray of light for teens who desire to have faith and an honest existence.

THE MEANING OF BIRDS, my third novel, is my most personal novel of the lot. It delves into loss, grief, and how we heal. In 2015, I lost my partner to cancer. I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to write again. But when I did, what came out was grief. But this story contained so much more, as stories often do. There’s a nod to my grandmother who loved watching birds, the lake house setting was inspired by a yearly retreat I do with several writer friends, and there are cameos of artist friends in some of the later scenes. Mostly though, this book is about the healing power of art and creativity. For years, as an art teacher, I watched the transformative nature of creation. And it turns out that this novel, heavy with my own emotional relationship to grief, provided a way for me to crawl forward and recapture my ability to weave words onto the page.

On my friend’s horse, Fonty

And now here we are, my fourth book, THE KEY TO YOU AND ME. After writing about religion and grief, I needed to write something lighter in tone. This book is about the joy of falling for someone and overcoming obstacles either put in our path or self-created. Though the main premise is the burgeoning romance between main characters—local girl, Kat, and visiting equestrian, Piper—I still found deeper issues I wanted to explore. With Piper, it’s unfounded fear. Though she’s confident riding horses, she’s been terrified to learn how to drive a vehicle. Having gone through my own great fear (mine did have to do with horses) I knew it was something I wanted to explore in fiction. I think there are these moments for all of us where something is overwhelming even if it’s something the rest of the world does easily. For Piper, it’s driving, and I loved being able to navigate her character through this.

With Kat, I wanted to delve into what it means to come out as queer in your own time frame. Kat knows she’s not straight. But she’s unsure how to classify her sexuality. Though plenty of people around her have questioned her, she’s still privately exploring and not ready to label herself. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, how once you’ve put on a certain label, people want to hold you to that. Or they won’t stop until you’ve chosen a label. And as a teenager, there needs to be room to explore and shift and try things on until you find the thing that suits you. And it’s really no one’s right but your own to name it.

But now I should come clean, none of these themes start out in an intentional way. More often, I hear a voice, or something on the news, or imagine a setting that sets the creative wheels in motion. But those trigger points are more like keys for unlocking the psyche. And as I write, themes develop for each book. I often don’t even know what they are until I get into my editorial draft and have another pair of eyes on the work. Then it’s like the proverbial light bulb going off and, “of course that’s what it’s about.”

With each novel, it becomes easier for me to point to the places where they intersect with my lived experience and exploratory thoughts and say “A-ha, so that’s where this story came from.”

Meet the author

Jaye Robin Brown, or JRo to her friends, has been many things in her life–jeweler, mediator, high school art teacher–but is now living the full-time writer life. She lives with her wife, dogs, cats, and horses in a sweet house in the NC woods where she hopes to live happily ever after. She is the author of NO PLACE TO FALL, WILL’S STORY, GEORGIA PEACHES AND OTHER FORBIDDEN FRUIT, THE MEANING OF BIRDS, and the forthcoming THE KEY TO YOU AND ME.

Her debut young adult novel, NO PLACE TO FALL, came out in the fall of 2014 from Harper Teen. It’s a love song to small town girls and mountain music. In April 2016, a companion novella, WILL’S STORY: A NO PLACE TO FALL NOVELLA, released from Epic Reads Impulse, a digital only imprint. GEORGIA PEACHES AND OTHER FORBIDDEN FRUIT, released August 30, 2016, also from Harper Teen, and is the story of Jo Gordon, the out lesbian daughter of a moderate evangelical minister. It’s a love story and a look at the sometimes conundrum of having faith and being queer. It was named to the ALA Rainbow List for 2017 as well as being a Kirkus Best Teen Book of 2017.  THE MEANING OF BIRDS, April 2019, is a story about loss, love, and the healing power of art. It was named a Lambda Literary Award Finalist in the Children’s/Young Adult Category. THE KEY TO YOU AND ME, releasing April 2021, is a dual POV romance between one girl chasing her dream while escaping a broken heart, and another girl trying to figure out her heart’s desire and what happens when they collide.

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/jayerobinbrown/

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/jayerobinbrown

Website – www.jayerobinbrown.com

Newsletter – https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/o9e0q5

About The Key to You and Me

A sweet and funny ownvoices LGBTQ+ romance perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Julie Murphy, from the critically acclaimed author of Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit!

Piper Kitts is spending the summer living with her grandmother, training at the barn of a former Olympic horseback rider, and trying to get over her ex-girlfriend. Much to Piper’s dismay, her grandmother is making her face her fear of driving by taking lessons from a girl in town.

Kat Pearson has always suspected that she likes girls but fears her North Carolina town is too small to color outside the lines. But when Piper’s grandmother hires Kat to give her driving lessons, everything changes.

Piper’s not sure if she’s ready to let go of her ex. Kat’s navigating uncharted territory with her new crush. With the summer running out, will they be able to unlock a future together?

ISBN-13: 9780062824585
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Being a Reckless, Glorious, Girl, a guest post by Ellen Hagan


It is March 2021. I am combing through my old journals – the ones that start in the fall of 1993 when I was fourteen years old and well on my way to being wild and more than a little bit reckless. I take a few down from the shelves and brace myself, because I remember who I was back then. 8th Grade Sucks one of the pages says, colored in with lime green and magenta crayons. I would almost believe it, if the page after wasn’t covered in Doritos dust and a series of: hahahahah’s, stick figure drawings and looped, lyrical script that tells me otherwise. Middle school was a constant back and forth of ache and junk food, rowdy laughter and doubled over in tears. I see it in every entry – a manic holding on of experiences, of heartbreak, new love and that first moment of freedom – when you realize you are your own person – wholly removed from your family. You have all the time in the world to become who you want to be, and to make all the mistakes and missteps along the way. I was just at the beginning of that road, just barely on the verge. I am both exhilarated and horrified, keep opening and closing each book. It is there in those early pages that I was becoming a documentarian, an artist – just at the start of writing it all down and crafting a life around me. I was building a roadmap – figuring out how to study the world, watch it close and take notes.

Poetry and lyrics spoke to me early. Growing up in Bardstown, Kentucky in the late 80’s and 90’s made me full of angst and fire. Energy and electricity. My mix tapes were loaded with Salt n’ Peppa, TLC, Shania Twain, Paula Abdul and Hole – a combination of hip-hop, country and grunge. I was complicated and scrambling to figure out who I was, how to fit in and how to carry the words that were looping through my mind. I wrote down the lines of my favorite songs and studied the way words could carry heart and meaning. My first poems were imitations and anthems – were trying to match the emotions of my favorite music. My freshman year, I found a book called: The Moon is Always Female by Marge Piercy. It was my first poetry collection and I dog eared almost every poem. All of them full of longing and wild, reckless women. I could suddenly see myself in those poems. See the way she wrote about the body, politics, the world around her. I wanted to make change with words – see if the poems could lift, sing, shake and move in my hands – trying to navigate my way at every turn.

I was seventeen years old when I made it into the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. It was a three-week summer program for artists around the state. Kelly Norman Ellis was my teacher that summer, and she transformed everything for me. An Affrilachian Poet (from the Affrilachian Poets – a group of writers of color living in the Appalachian region) who was raised in Mississippi, she taught me to love the South, where I come from and who I am. Showed me how to love all of my complicated and out of control ways. Be tender with myself. Offered up all the ways to honor the rolling hills, my Middle-Eastern roots, the size of my nose, my still changing body. How to love the drawl of the words: mamaw and papaw and y’all. Taught me to love my country roots and the sizzle of cornbread in the cast iron skillet. How to use words to ask questions, push back, organize, rally, rage, resist and most of all, love. I think so much about the mentors and teachers who helped me maneuver my way – to see the best path ahead and figure out how to get on it. Always thinking of the people who held me up, constantly trying to be like the artists I met in Kentucky – who held that land and those stories so close.

When I say poetry saved me, I do not mean it lightly. I mean that it became a salve for me. A way to look back and reflect on who I was – a way to grapple with my own identity and who I wanted to be. Poetry is a forever pin on the roadmap of my life. Dropping down on every moment and memory. A way to hold onto my first kiss on the dunes of the Jersey shore, car rides through the winding roads of the Bluegrass with the music turned up all the way and the windows down – wind rushing past me. Poems about moving to New York City and climbing the 65 steps to my first walk-up apartment in the East Village. They are legacy and ancestry. They hold my whole history and tell the stories to my daughters. We are documenting our lives in words. Holding them close.

When I am teaching young people how to see the world in poetry, I am asking them to love themselves. Their languages, traditions, their ancestry. Asking them to look to the brilliant poets around them: Aracelis Girmay, Vincent Toro, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Renée Watson, Elizabeth Acevedo – asking them to find the voices that speak to them. Hoping they will be tender with themselves and their families. Gather stories and histories. Honor who they are and where they come from – even if that is sometimes hard to hold. When we write poems, we can be vulnerable, soft, kind to our memories. And we can also be fiery and ferocious. Speak loud and unapologetic. We can be that mix tape, we can be that journal covered in anger and hearts drawn in red magic marker. We can make our own maps – become the journey. We can be our full, whole selves. That’s what poetry has always meant to me – has always done for me.

Meet the author

Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer, and educator. She is the co-author with Renée Watson of Watch Us Rise. Her poetry collections include Hemisphere and Crowned. Her work can be found in ESPN Magazine, She Walks in Beauty, and Southern Sin. Ellen is the Director of the Poetry & Theatre Departments at the DreamYard Project and directs their International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer’s Retreat at Adelphi University. Raised in Kentucky, she now lives in New York City with her family. www.ellenhagan.com | @ellenhagan | http://www.ellenhagan.com/blog

About Reckless, Glorious, Girl

(See Amanda’s review here.)

The co-author of Watch Us Rise pens a novel in verse about all the good and bad that comes with middle school, growing up girl, and the strength of family that gets you through it.

Beatrice Miller may have a granny’s name (her granny’s, to be more specific), but she adores her Mamaw and her mom, who give her every bit of wisdom and love they have. But the summer before seventh grade, Bea wants more than she has, aches for what she can’t have, and wonders what the future will bring. 

This novel in verse follows Beatrice through the ups and downs of friendships, puberty, and identity as she asks: Who am I? Who will I become? And will my outside ever match the way I feel on the inside?

A gorgeous, inter-generational story of Southern women and a girl’s path blossoming into her sense of self, Reckless, Glorious, Girl explores the important questions we all ask as we race toward growing up.

ISBN-13: 9781547604609
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 11 Years

Writing What Haunts You, a guest post by Anuradha Rajurkar and the Class of 2kBooks

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at,
what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
-Joan Didion

Often, the germ of an idea for a story materializes from themes that haunt us for years, though we may not realize it at first. Writing helps us explore our deepest fears, our burning questions, and can ultimately serve as the beating heart of our stories. My debut, AMERICAN BETIYA, for example, explores cultural conflict within our most intimate relationships—a theme that rose from having grown up in predominantly white spaces as the daughter of first-generation Asian immigrant parents. I was initially drawn to the idea of the many ways teens are often under close scrutiny, despite the fact that our identities at that stage are still very much under construction—and how these pressures can lead to escapism in various forms. But soon, my writing delved deep into issues that only later did I realize had haunted me for decades.

I asked my fellow Class of 2k Books authors to share what issues just wouldn’t let go, leading to the writing of their debuts. Their answers were as thoughtful and compelling as their novels…

Megan Freeman: I certainly never imagined that ALONE, my book about surviving in total isolation, would come out during a pandemic. Yikes. But the idea of being isolated from other people has always fascinated/haunted me. I love the movie CASTAWAY and I was fascinated by books like ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS and MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN and HATCHET. I used to think being in prison and forcibly kept away from my family would be the worst thing I could imagine, but then one day I thought about people who go into witness protection programs and can never see their friends or family ever again, and that seemed even worse. Clearly, my connections to loved ones are central to some sense of security, and the threat of losing that connection is rich fodder for my creative imagination. 

Sam Taylor: After grad school, I worked at a job with some people who turned out to be very corrupt. It was a really thorny situation; I often had no idea how to fix matters at work, or what was the right thing to do. I turned to writing in the evenings as a way to vent out my feelings. I needed a story that captured the dilemma of wanting to make situations better, but not knowing how to do that. I wanted to explore the struggle of every option coming with steep cost–because the right choice often doesn’t come without a price. I wanted to show unlikely allies coming together, as I experienced during my own situation. Most of all, I wanted to show my characters overcoming the seemingly impossible odds stacked against them.

Jessica S. Olson: It’s a funny thing, because I didn’t realize what it was that drove me to write this story until well after it was finished. All I knew was that I connected deeply to the Phantom character in the Phantom of the Opera, and I wanted to tell a version of his story and explore what could drive someone to such a dark, lonely place. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that the reason I’d been so passionate about his story was because I identified with him. I was born with a medical eye condition that affects my appearance, and I grew up being bullied and teased and treated as “other” because of it. There were many times when I wished I could hide from a world that felt very cruel–and so I saw myself in the Phantom. I understood how it felt to be ostracized for your appearance and how desperate the desire can sometimes be to be loved for the aspects of us that aren’t readily apparent at first glance. Telling a female Phantom’s story meant drawing on my own experiences, my own anger, my own hope, and asking the world to look beyond someone’s face when deciding whether they’re valid or whether they deserve love.

Xiran Jay Zhao: My book IRON WIDOW, a Pacific Rim meets THE HANDMAID’S TALE reimagining of the only female emperor in Chinese history, is basically 400 pages of female rage. Around the time I wrote it, I kept hearing about women’s rights backsliding in so many places. I also happened to be taking 4 university courses in different subjects ranging from political science to gerontology, yet all 4 had info on how women are disproportionately expected to take on certain burdens and responsibilities, yet get no proper credit or recognition for them. Work that is traditionally more female-dominated is consistently overlooked and undervalued compared to work that is traditionally more male-dominated. I wrote Iron Widow not only to vent my rage through the character of Zetian, but to explore the kind of societal pressures that force girls to doubt their own worth and accept this kind of thankless work.

Anuradha D. Rajurkar:

Judging from these thoughts from my fellow Class of 2kbooks authors, it seems that some of the most impactful stories are born from themes that have haunted our minds for years. Since high school, I personally was so affected by the idea that the way we see ourselves is often at odds with how others see us. For me, researching and writing AMERICAN BETIYA helped reveal the ways microaggressions, cultural fetishization, and racial gaslighting occur with regularity—even in our closest relationships. And because trust is foundational in these relationships, it’s easy to overlook their signs. Writing my debut helped me acknowledge the silences we’ve been taught to hold, and that our friendships, family and internal strength can line the path to our empowerment.

Don’t be afraid to write what haunts you. It might just be what sets you free.

Buy links and more

Order ALONE by Megan Freeman
Add ALONE to your Goodreads

Order WE ARE THE FIRE by Sam Taylor
Add WE ARE THE FIRE to your Goodreads

Order SING ME FORGOTTEN by Jessica S. Olson
Add SING ME FORGOTTEN to your Goodreads

Pre-order IRON WIDOW
Add IRON WIDOW to your Goodreads


Add AMERICAN BETIYA to your Goodreads

From Booklover to Storyteller: Have You Ever Wanted To Be An Author? a guest post by J. Elle

If you’re like me, when I was a teen, there was a vast difference between being obsessed with books and thinking I could actually write one. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I tried to pen a story and since, I’ve never looked back. I often wonder what life would have been like for me had I tried to pursue my love of storytelling sooner. 

The author as a teen

First, why hadn’t I? The answer is layered and a bit complicated, but the short of it is–I didn’t really think writing books could be an entire job; and the blips of moments when I’d suspend my disbelief and let myself imagine ‘what if’ a frequent stumbling block I’d hit was always: where would I even start? I love the epic worlds of fantasy adventure, finding magical worlds with spells, practicing those as a kid under my blanket at night, the made up creatures, the heart-throb romance… where do the ideas come from? It was all so daunting. How could I ever find something as cool and innovative as the books I’d read? I didn’t realize it then, but the answer was–by looking inside. 

I have this theory that stories live inside us, pulling at our subconscious, showing themselves to us  in bursts of creative inspiration. Everything from a TikTok skit to a bookstagram picture is a piece of a larger story, fueled by our individual imagination. And imagination is a funny thing. I like to imagine it akin to a bottomless well. When we dip our bucket down there, we pull out interesting things. And the more often we dip our bucket down there, we get better at angling the rope just right, filling the pail all the way up, bringing its contents to the surface with minor spills. And that’s how it worked for me. 

Wings of Ebony, my debut novel, centers around a character whose voice just popped in my head one day. She was vivid. I could see all her features, what she was wearing, the world that was around her. I could even feel the emotion she was grappling with–grief and feeling powerless. I put my fingers to the keyboard in that moment of clarity and let her tell me her story. Then, I revised and tidied it up for several (read: many) drafts and the result is what you have on shelves today. My next story, Park Row Magic Academy, about an inner-city magic school was another that came to me. That time, it was the plot that was quirky and cute and sounded like so much fun. I sat down to type and that story poured out of me in nine days. Nine. I’m still shook. It went through many rounds of revisions and you’ll be able to read that one as well in spring 2022! But understand I hadn’t truly realized there were stories tugging at me until I listened. I hadn’t realized writing was, well, my real life “magic,” in a sense. I just knew I loved all things books. So, reader, is there a story that lives inside you? Have you ever played with the idea of telling it, scratching its surface to see what you unearth? 

(I hope you’re nodding or if not, at least still reading. I’m convinced everyone is a storyteller, but even if you’re not and you just love books, there’s some valuable nuggets you can takeaway that I’ll tie together at the end for you. So, sit tight.) 

So, yes, you’ve toyed with the idea of writing. But the big question that stops you might be what stopped me back in 2018: Where does I start? With an idea? A vibe? A bunch of collaged aesthetics? Listening to inspiring music? Reading craft books? So, the answer is all of this. Or none of this. 

One of the coolest things about writing is that it’s not entirely formulaic. As an art form, it’s reliant on the creator to give it life, meaning, shape. So, start with an idea if you have one or a favorite song. Or peruse Pinterest and collage pictures until you feel inspired. Binge your favorite movies, books, shows. There is no right or wrong as long as you’re listening for that whisper of inspiration. That needling feeling that you might have a character or world or dilemma that could be fun to explore. 

Next, you sit down, and you write. Sure, there are ways to outline and research and prolong the writing process. But, at the beginning the biggest obstacle most writers face is just getting words on the page. And finishing a story. The story can be terrible, and no one may ever read it. But if you’ve ever ran a marathon or hiked a really tall peak or done anything that seemed really hard at first you’ll know what I mean when I say–it’s always harder the first time. Finishing your first story proves to yourself that you can do it. And that confidence is what will fuel you to keep going when you revise or start the next one. 

So that’s my challenge to you, reader. Find the story that’s calling to you and consider writing it down! You never know what could come of it. I certainly didn’t. And here we are, ha ha. So, your turn. Go figure out your story. I can’t wait to read it! 

For those of you that aren’t storytellers in the making–don’t miss the heart of what I’m saying here. And how it applies to you, too. Writing was my passion. So, my admonishment to you is unless you absolutely have to, don’t wait until you’re thirty-five to pursue the things you love. Dare to do it now, with the entire world ahead of you. There’s a magic in marrying what you love with what you do for work. Maybe that’s not writing for you, maybe it’s not even book related. But hold on to those things you enjoy, nourish the things that bring a smile to your lips just thinking about them. That just might be your magic! And the thing about tapping into your magic is it gives just as much to you as you give to it. 

Meet the author

Photo credit: Chris Spicks Photography

J.Elle is the author of the instant New York Times and Indie bestseller Wings of Ebony, a YA novel about a Black teen who must lean into her ancestor’s magic to protect her inner-city community from drugs, violence, and crime. Ms. Magazine calls it “the debut fantasy we need right now.” Elle is a former educator and first-generation college student with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a Master’s in Educational Administration and Human Development. When she’s not writing, Elle can be found mentoring aspiring writers, binging reality TV, loving on her three littles, or cooking up something true to her Louisiana roots. 

About Wings of Ebony

Instant New York Times bestseller!

In this riveting, keenly emotional debut fantasy, a Black teen from Houston has her world upended when she learns about her godly ancestry and must save both the human and god worlds. Perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Tomi Adeyemi, and The Hunger Games!

“Make a way out of no way” is just the way of life for Rue. But when her mother is shot dead on her doorstep, life for her and her younger sister changes forever. Rue’s taken from her neighborhood by the father she never knew, forced to leave her little sister behind, and whisked away to Ghizon—a hidden island of magic wielders.

Rue is the only half-god, half-human there, where leaders protect their magical powers at all costs and thrive on human suffering. Miserable and desperate to see her sister on the anniversary of their mother’s death, Rue breaks Ghizon’s sacred Do Not Leave Law and returns to Houston, only to discover that Black kids are being forced into crime and violence. And her sister, Tasha, is in danger of falling sway to the very forces that claimed their mother’s life.

Worse still, evidence mounts that the evil plaguing East Row is the same one that lurks in Ghizon—an evil that will stop at nothing until it has stolen everything from her and everyone she loves. Rue must embrace her true identity and wield the full magnitude of her ancestors’ power to save her neighborhood before the gods burn it to the ground.

ISBN-13: 9781534470675
Publisher: Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

The Made-up Parts Have the Most For-reals in Them, a guest post by Grant Farley

The house is a “tall-skinny” built in a slightly hilly area overlooking LA harbor, a hodgepodge neighborhood of houses built and rebuilt on half-lots first planned for beach combers and dock workers in the 1920’s. It is where my wife and our son and I have lived since he was born seventeen years ago, and it is where we are now, like you, hunkered down during this time of Covid. Within this house lurk mysterious triangles. This blog is about one such mystery. 

“It’s cool how the old man never butts into the tale, instead lets me tell it to the end. If there is an end. It takes a good listener to make a story whole, and he has a deep-down way of listening.”

The first point of the triangle: My writing space is an enclosed balcony off the back of the upper story. A roll-top desk and a shelf fill it. The desk was my father’s before me and my grandfather’s before him. Ink stains and coffee rings and scratches and a trace of airplane glue connect the three of us. A triangle, I suppose, but not the one for us now. I wrote Bones of a Saint from this desk. I still can’t free myself from R.J. whispering some tale in my ear, as though his voice has permeated this wood.

“My all-time most favorite tale was selling toes. Not my own, of course. I sold my brother Charley’s toes.”

Those were the first words he spoke for Bones of a Saint. Now I gaze over the top of the desk out to the harbor, a more industrial panorama than romantic vista, but the freighters and cranes remind me to stop gazing off at the ocean and get the hell back to work. At my back is the “guest bedroom.” Since there haven’t been guests for over a year, and my dresser has migrated here, stacks of notes and drafts teeter amid piles of clothes. The door is now closed, as is the door to our bedroom, but I can hear my wife’s full laugh from the second point of the triangle, drowning out even R.J.’s insistent whisper.

“Mr. Sanders, with his Canterbury Tales, he taught me about pilgrims that lived in a past that went back hundreds and hundreds of years. And Father Speckler, with his New Testament, he preached about a future that won’t come until forever and ever, amen. Neither way does any good now, against the Blackjacks. All I can do is live in the here and now.” 

The second point of the triangle: Our bedroom is now half-converted to her classroom, and even through two doors I hear her online students engaged in an animated discussion of a favorite novel. My wife is a high school English teacher. A very good teacher. Is it weird to say that part of why I fell in love with her was the way she throws herself into her teaching and her students? Her students used to call her Ms. Frizzle. I’m pretty sure it was a compliment. Most of the time. I fantasize about her teaching Bones of a Saint. When Covid struck, with little space in our house, we moved my dresser from our bedroom into “the guest room” and ordered a desk that we put together in our bedroom, and her classroom was born. At least she has a large window overlooking a hill with the sun streaming in the afternoon. Still, there have been many times when I have had to helplessly watch her cry from exhaustion or frustration or anger. Now I hear her call, “David!” That’s our son. He is in her class and must be in big trouble. “David, you get on this zoom, now!” Boy, is he in trouble. This brings us to the third part of our triangle.

“My scary stories are make-believe. They help my sibs escape the for-real scary. A whole flying saucer full of bloodsucking aliens is nothing compared to a single Blackjack.”

The third point of the triangle: Downstairs, directly below my alcove, lurks the dark reaches of David’s room. During Covid, it has evolved into more of a burrow. I dare not describe its depths. However, a beacon of hope rises in the form of two shiny trombones, secure on stands precisely parallel to one another rising out of that bleakness. Outwardly, since the Covid, he appears quite content with his world being reduced to a microcosm. Somewhere inside he must be hurting, but I can’t reach it. He is a senior, a band geek and an aspiring jazz “trom-boner.” He was proud of being chosen section leader for the low brass and looked forward to all the competitions, marching in the Rose Bowl Parade one last time, and performing in the All City Jazz Band at the Hollywood Bowl. He has been consumed with his college apps, mostly music auditions on YouTube and zoom interviews. Never once has he complained about his Covid situation. Well, maybe a flicker of worry, since his parents are ancient and there looms danger.  

Abuelita grabs a chair and sits down facing us and puts the glass on the window ledge and lets out this sigh like she’s too old and tired to put up with my mierda… Her tales are about funny people, the earth and the sky, animals that talk and even witches, what she calls brujas. Manny does his best squeezing them into English for me.”

“Sorry.” David has come upstairs and is talking through her door.  “I overslept.” All the kids whose faces must be on that zoom are his classmates, and I find myself on his side. Yes, be defiant. His footsteps echo down the stairwell, and I’m relieved my wife has let it drop, as I imagine him sheepishly signing on to the zoom amid a wall of faces. Is this oversleeping a small chink in his armor, or am I overthinking it? He is, after all, a world class sleeper. He has a list of books he likes, when pressed to read. But he doesn’t share his parents’ passion for reading. Still, he is that third point on the triangle, the student reader wedged between the writer and the teacher. He has read fragments of drafts from Bones. I imagine him opening the real book someday and reading the dedication.

“Father Speckler announced that there wouldn’t be no more Bible Story Time. Instead, we’d have Science Project Demonstrations. Trust a Jesuit to bust Bible Story Time for something like Science Project Demonstrations.”

So there you have the three points of one human triangle. Bones of a Saint is a tale of survival through story, with the countless triangles that implies. Survival as in, this tale just might postpone a boy’s death. Or this tale may lead to an old man’s redemption. And that story, why that story may help vanquish a hundred-year-old evil. During our time of Covid, rather than point out that tales are trivial compared to the travails of our times, the disease has done just the opposite. How many times have we come to the end of a zoom or a phone call, even one that’s mostly business, and especially if it’s one that involves sadness, and someone will ask, “Did you see The Queen’s Gambit on NETFLIX?” “Have you read The Nickle Boys yet?” “What’s your favorite audiobook lately?” “Can you believe what he just tweeted?” “You gotta look at this Youtube.” These may be different media, but they are all tales.  Imagine surviving the last year without any stories to sustain us, to connect us through myriad triangles.   

“There’s something clear and hard way deep inside the old man, like that creepy old body is just a shell he’ll toss away any time he feels like it. I sit back listening, wondering if he’ll die with the next word or just rattle on with his tale into forever.”

Join Grant Farley, in conversation with Michael Cart, for an engaging discussion on Bones of a Saint, writing, and YA literature this Friday, March 19 at 6 pm PST in a virtual event with Vroman’s Bookstore. Sign up here.

Meet the author

Grant Farley, born in North Hollywood CA, is a former teacher, full-time writer and lighthouse enthusiast. While writing and raising a family, he has also taught at a Santa Monica alternative school, a barrio junior high, and a Marine Science magnet in San Pedro. At this very moment you may spot him in his alcove overlooking Los Angeles Harbor, huddled over his grandfather’s roll top, a Springer Spaniel at his feet as he pounds away at his next writing project—a fantasy novel inspired by his love of Celtic lore, his cynicism of mystic triangles, and his experiences working in an antique light house. Bones of a Saint is his debut novel.


“A compelling, unforgettable reading experience that is brilliantly executed.” Booklist, Starred Review

“[A]n atmospheric read . . . Pulls you forward toward an ending that is like the sting of a scorpion.” —Newbery winner Jack Gantos

Set in Northern California in the late ’70s, this timeless coming-of-age story examines the nature of evil, the art of storytelling, and the possibility of redemption.

Fifteen-year-old RJ Armante has never known a life outside his deadend hometown of Arcangel, CA. The Blackjacks rule as they have for generations, luring the poorest kids into their monopoly on petty crime. For years, they’ve left RJ alone, but now they have a job for him: prey upon an old loner in town.

In spite of the danger, RJ begins to resist. He fights not only for himself, but for his younger brother, Charley, whose disability has always made RJ feel extra protective of him. For Roxanne, the girl he can’t reach, and the kids in his crew who have nothing to live for. Even for the old loner, who has secrets of his own. If RJ is to break from the Blackjacks’ hold, all of Arcangel must be free of its past.

ISBN-13: 9781641291170
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/16/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Questions, Anyone? a guest post by Neal Shusterman

When I have speaking engagements, even virtual ones, I like to do all questions-and-answers.  Sometimes it panics the more control-oriented administrators.  They’re terrified that their students will ask something inappropriate or won’t ask anything at all.  Never happens.  And even when someone in the audience asks something meant to rattle me, it doesn’t work—because I love thinking on my feet.

            Q: “How come so many people vomit in your book?”

             A: “Well, if you were going through what the characters go through, you’d hurl, too.” 

            Q: “How many licks does it take to get the center of a Tootsie Pop?”

            A: “Three.  And here’s why three is such an important number in storytelling…”

            Q: “Mr. Shusterman, what planet are you from?” 

            A: “A planet that your puny human telescopes have yet to discover.”

The thing about relating to an audience is that if you talk at them, they get this passive, glazed-over look.  They might engage, but only as a recipient, not as a participant.  I would rather get a slew of “What’s your favorite color” questions than spend an hour giving a lecture.  Invariably the questions I am asked are the things I would talk about anyway, but at least now the audience owns the answers.

A book is exactly the same.  Reading a book can be a passive experience or an active one.  An author can spoon-feed a story, a message, a moral—as if the author knows all the answers and has deigned to impart their wisdom to the masses.

Or an author can make the reader uncomfortable by offering questions with no easy answers.  Moral ambiguity; unintended consequences of our most noble actions; characters who face impossible choices but must decide anyway.  Because if you make the readers work for it, they will own the answers they find.

To me that is what writing is all about.  Not being afraid to ask hard questions.  Now don’t get me wrong—I am afraid.  In fact I’m terrified when I ask the hard questions, perseverating on all the things that can go wrong in the asking–especially now, when everyone on all sides of every issue is furious, and just looking for a reason to criticize.

And so what do I do?  Like an idiot, I throw into the raging inferno this Molotov cocktail called Game ChangerWhy would I write a book that peers into so many open wounds in society?  What would possess me to do such a thing, knowing that we’re all working our last nerve?

This might sound like a writerly BS answer, but it’s the truth:  I could not NOT write it.  Once the idea (and terror) took hold, I felt that I would be cheating if I didn’t write it. I would be a fraud, because I didn’t have the courage to tell the story that was screaming at me.  That is, after all, what I always tell students: I only write stories that scream at me and demand to be told.  So if I demanded that this story shut the hell up, I’d be a hypocrite.

Why was the story screaming?  That comes back to a question that I always get asked—more often from adults than from kids.  “What do you want readers to take away from your books?”  The answer to that is always the same.


If there’s one belief that infuses everything that I write, it’s that perspective is the only way we’ll ever come close to answering the hard questions.  The more angles from which we can view a problem, the more likely we’re going to have the epiphanies and find the inspiration we need to solve it.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect?  All about illusory superiority, self-awareness, and meta-cognition.  In a nutshell, the two titular social psychologists postulated and proved that the less of an expert you are, the more of an expert you believe you are.   In other words, ignorance fuels itself, and the only way to deprive it of an energy source is through greater and greater perspective. It’s an ironic truth: the more you realize you don’t know, the more you actually do.  

Game Changer is all about a character learning empathy and killing the fuel source of his own ignorance.  The story is told from the point of view of a fairly oblivious white male heterosexual teen—but in the course of the story, he’s going to have all his notions of the world, and of himself, challenged.  He’s going to have a crash course in racism, sexism, homophobia, and privilege through a series of alternate realities that give him perspectives he could never have otherwise experienced.

 Now, before you go saying, “Great, another straight-white-male-hero-who-saves-the-world story,” I want to make it clear that my goal was to do precisely the opposite.  This is a story about that all-too-familiar character learning that he’s not the hero he thought he was, and, in fact, the only reason the world needs saving is because of his own actions… and inaction.   He can’t fix everything.  The best he can possibly do is find a place to start.

I set out to model how to accept personal and social responsibility, even when it’s painful.  Accountability is not something that just happens.  You have to grow into it—and resistance to accountability can often happen because someone doesn’t know how to get there.

It is always my hope that my stories will reach those who need to read them and offer them perspective they didn’t know they were missing. They say you don’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  As a writer, I want to take that even further.  It’s more than just walking in someone’s shoes—it’s also understanding the reason for the journey.  I want to show readers what it means to be the road.

And if that leads to more questions than answers, then I’ve done my job! 

Meet the author

Photo credit: Gaby Gerster

Neal Shusterman is the New York Times best-selling author of over thirty novels for children, teens, and adults. He won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Challenger Deep-and his novel, Scythe, was a 2017 Michael L. Printz Honor book-and is in development with Universal Studios as a feature film. His novel, Unwind, has become part of the literary canon in many school districts across the country-and has won more than thirty domestic and international awards. He co-wrote his most recent novel, Dry, with his son Jarrod, and in addition to being on numerous award lists, Dry is currently in development with Paramount Pictures. His upcoming novel, Game Changer, is in development with Netflix as a TV series, and he is co-writing the pilot episode.

Shusterman has also received awards from organizations such as the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association, and has garnered a myriad of state and local awards across the country. His talents range from film directing, to writing music and stage plays, and has even tried his hand at creating games.

Shusterman has earned a reputation as a storyteller and dynamic speaker. As a speaker, he is in constant demand at schools and conferences. Degrees in both psychology and drama give him a unique approach to writing, and his novels always deal with topics that appeal to adults as well as teens, weaving true-to-life characters into sensitive and riveting issues, and binding it all together with a unique and entertaining sense of humor. Neal lives in California but spends much of his time travelling the world speaking and signing books for readers.

Website: http://www.storyman.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nealshusterman

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nealshusterman/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NealShusterman

About Game Changer

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…

This high-concept novel from the National Book Award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author of the Arc of a Scythe series tackles the most urgent themes of our time, making this a must-buy for readers who are starting to ask big questions about their own role in the universe.

ISBN-13: 9780061998676
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years