PSA: The Virginia Children’s Book Festival is Fabulous

This past weekend, the third annual Virginia Children’s Book Festival took place on Longwood University campus in Farmville, VA. I’m not affiliated with the festival except as a gleeful, starstruck visitor, but let me tell you: it is the best. They bring in some real rock stars of the writing and illustrating world for panel discussions, presentations, workshops, signings, and more. The local schools know what a great event this is: thousands of schoolkids of all ages are bused in, some from schools more than two hours away.

Oh, and did I mention the part where it’s all free?

A few things I got to do at the festival:

  • Listen to Matt de la Peña talk about how he went from reluctant reader to author and Neal Shusterman explain how he develops book series

author Matt de la Peña

author Neal Shusterman

  • Attend a lively, funny panel discussion wherein Rita Williams-Garcia told the story of how she missed the call announcing her third Coretta Scott King award, then waxed enthusiastic about using money made by her books to finally buy a new refrigerator
  • See author/illustrator John Rocco’s fantastic presentation on how he makes book covers like the ones he did for the Percy Jackson series
  • Listen to Tim Tingle tell the story – accompanied by music! – of his picture book Crossing Bok Chitto

author Tim Tingle

  • Watch a panel of fantastic authors talk about civil rights in children’s literature, with the event being held in the historic R.R. Moton museum

panel of authors

  • Hear Neal Shusterman and Christy Marx – who created the show Jem and wrote for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, and more – discuss writing for TV shows and video games
  • Learn about how one writes a Choose Your Own Adventure book from Anson Montgomery, whose late father was a founder of the series

Despite all the classes of schoolkids who get bused in, there are absolutely opportunities for one-on-one conversations with the authors and illustrators. They’ll sign your book, take a photo with you, answer questions, smile patiently while you fangirl at them . . . it’s great. If you get the chance to check out this festival, go for it. You’ll be glad you did.

Plus, It Gets You Out of the House!

Here’s a cool thing to do: go to author readings. Your public library or your local bookstore might have them, and they’re usually free. It’s heartening for the author, even if you don’t buy their book; it boosts the library’s attendance statistics, if it’s at a library; and you get to be read to like a kid and entertained. And, if you’re a writer who’s aiming at publication, you can snag yourself some interesting and useful information.

(Also, for writers scoping out these events, it’s fun to feel like you’re undercover. Taking notes is a lot cooler when you’re “gathering intel” than when you’re “attending math class”.)

Two days ago, I went to just such an author talk, and I learned all kinds of things! The author, Ralph Hardy, has written a novel that retells the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ dog, Argos.

cover of the book Argos

(FYI: I had never met this author, and have no connection to him, except that I think he’s a member of the same SCBWI chapter I am. This post isn’t some kind of sneaky advertising, just my observations.)

The audience was almost half kids under fourteen (at my estimate), which is the book’s target audience. (And, incidentally, will be the target audience for MY dog-centric middle-grade book, so I was especially interested to see how this reading would go.) Then there was the author, a person sitting at a table with copies of the book for sale, and a library staff member to help run the program.

First off, I took notes on how the reading was organized. Here they are, along with some conclusions I drew:

  • It started at 4:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. If your target audience is mostly kids, make sure they’ll be out of school when you do your reading!
  • The author started by introducing himself and his book. He quizzed the kids about Greek mythology (they were GOOD, presumably courtesy of Rick Riordan). He then gave a quick, lively summary of the Trojan War. Know your audience, and know how much background to give them about the book.
  • Next up, Mr. Hardy briefly introduced, then read, two short chapters (the first one and a later one). His introduction included general setup facts for the novel, such as “All the animals can talk to each other, but not to humans.” When reading, he would pause to engage the kids in the audience (“Who knows what a ‘stag’ is?”). Consider not reading for too long. Pick short sections with dramatic endings.
  • He showed us a blown-up version of the cover and talked about getting an international call from the illustrator, who asked, “What does the dog look like?” His answer: “Big, and black, and wolfish, with a white shield on his chest.” He was enthusiastic about the cover. (I would be, too!) Visuals are great. So is enthusiasm!
  • He mentioned that the book can potentially tie in with The Odyssey, which kids in North Carolina are required to read in ninth grade. Again, know your target audience.
  • All of this had taken about twenty minutes. He spent the rest of the event – maybe another twenty-five minutes – doing Q&A.

The kids were engaged and interested, if slightly squirmy, which is to be expected for kids that age who just got out of school. But they were very keen on the Q&A. This afforded me another useful learning opportunity: what are some of the questions that middle-school-aged kids might ask an author?

Well, here are the questions they asked. (Unless otherwise noted, these were all asked by kids.)

  1. How long did it take you to write it?
  2. Why did you want to write the book?
  3. Was Argos really a dog in The Odyssey?
  4. Are you going to make a sequel?
  5. What is your writing schedule like? (Asked by an adult – not me!)
  6. What are your other books [that he had mentioned] about? (Also asked by an adult.)
  7. What was your favorite book as a kid?
  8. Do you prefer Greek or Roman mythology?
  9. Have you ever made a comic? (He had mentioned in response to Question 7, that he loved comics.)
  10. [Clarification question about one of the other books he had mentioned]
  11. Do you have any desire to write for adults? (Asked by an adult.)
  12. Have you written books under any other name?

1, 2, 4, and 7 are variations on questions that I’ve heard authors say they get asked all the time. But it was neat to hear some of the author-specific questions, like 3 and 8.

The audience seemed quite interested in concrete details about publishing. Then again, Mr. Hardy had some pretty interesting ones to share (“There were three rounds of edits. The last one was one sentence: ‘Put it in present tense.'”). They also liked fun personal stories, like how the author did a reading at his hometown library, and his ninety-five-year-old kindergarten teacher attended.

A couple of things that interested me perhaps more than the non-writers in the audience:

  • The book is 83,000 words. It’s always been acceptable for fantasy to go longer than other genres, but I still feel like the accepted length for MG has gone up in recent years. Thanks, J.K. Rowling!
  • He writes every weekday morning, aiming for between 500 and 1500 words per day.
  • He regrets publishing an earlier book under the name R.K. Hardy. He did it because people advised him that it was wise to obscure your gender to avoid alienating certain readers. Now, though, he sees it as a mistake because people who search his name don’t find all of his books.

See? Just a few of the fascinating things you can learn at an author talk. If you’ve been to any good ones, I’d love to hear about it!

Let There Be Light!

Two more of my No Flying No Tights reviews have just gone live on the site, and one is about a volume of Pokémon manga! (Specifically, Pokémon the Movie: Hoopa and the Clash of Ages.) Topical! Sort of! The other is about the first volume of a bright, poppy new magical-girl series called Zodiac Starforce.

(I’ve got a lot of reviews up on No Flying No Tights by now! If you’re interested, you can see them all here.)

I’ve spent some time lately thinking about an often-overlooked little element of description: lighting. In contemporary realism, lighting can generally be ignored unless it’s unusual. If you don’t describe it, readers will assume that it’s whatever lighting is typical for the situation in their experience: florescent lights in a classroom, for example. Which is generally fine.

But when you get into fantasy (or historical fiction set in a time before electricity is common), you start to have to ask yourself, “How can my characters see right now?”

If they’re outside and it’s daytime, the answer is pretty obvious. And if they’re outside at night, writers usually remember that their characters need a torch or a lantern or a helpfully bright moon in order to see. But what about indoors? Windows might be small and/or scarce, depending on your setting – is glass expensive? – and all the windows in the world won’t provide much light if it’s overcast or, you know, night. Besides, most buildings of any size have at least some interior rooms with no windows at all. What do your characters use to see?

photo credit: Macedonia-Sveti Pantelejmon Monastry-Candles and wishes!! via photopin (license)

Popular choices in fantasy include lanterns, chandeliers, torches, braziers, magical light sources, and the evergreen favorite, candles. You also get a certain amount of light from fireplaces, though they won’t light a room much on their own. Each of these has its own pros and cons to consider. (Bonus: these can provide opportunities to further develop your characters and your world!) Among them:

  • Most of these items – and their fuel, if applicable – cost money. Can your character afford a lantern? Is she conservative about using candles?
  • Candles can be smoky and, depending on what they’re made of, smelly. A poor character may be stuck with stinky tallow candles, while a rich one may have perfumed beeswax candles. Similarly, other flame-based light sources can produce scent, smoky or otherwise. You can throw herbs into a fireplace or brazier.
  • The angle of the light will be different depending on how the source is held or mounted. A light source held low will throw shadows differently from one held high.
  • Most of these cast warm, yellowish light. (Magical light sources, of course, being a possible exception.) The color of the lighting can really set the mood for a scene. Firelight might make a room seem cozy . . . or hellish. It all depends on how you describe it.
  • How much light is cast? A single candle may not illuminate a whole room. Giving the character only a limited pool of light in which she can see shrinks the focus and forces her to discover one part of the room at a time.
  • Some of these light sources are unreliable. Candles sputter and go out. Oil lanterns run out of fuel. Magical light sources may require energy to maintain.
  • The risk of fire spreading is real. Keep it in mind.

Historically, people who could afford it often maximized their light by including mirrors and other reflective surfaces in interior rooms. A candle next to a mirror is MUCH brighter than a candle by itself.

I don’t write science fiction, but there must be a whole other set of possibilities and considerations there. What’s the lighting like on a spaceship? What do aliens use for light on their home world?

A Picture is Worth SOME Number of Words, Anyway

You know what’s always a good time? Worldbuilding. I like researching what would make sense in a certain situation, and I like brainstorming things that would be cool, and it’s satisfying to find the place where the two fit together.

In this instance, I have a population of elves, some of whom are about to appear in the novel I’m working on. I realized I wasn’t sure what they should look like exactly. I know what the elves of my fantasy world look like in general terms, but like humans, they vary in traits like build, skin tone, and hair and eye color. For these elves, I wanted to choose traits that would logically evolve in their home environment, a chain of equatorial, volcanic islands. I also wanted them to have a look that evokes fire/ash/smoke, since they are particularly attuned to fire magic.

So, I drew up a couple of possible color schemes:

fire elf

The first image rather un-subtly suggests fire, with its red-orange overtones. The second image reflects one of the skin tone/hair color combinations found among the humans living on the nearby mainland. The third image is grayer to be reminiscent of ash. The fourth takes into account that these are equatorial islands, so the elves should perhaps be quite dark-skinned. I gave the skin a slightly grayish cast to evoke charcoal and smoke.

Then, some research! The mainland closest to these islands is loosely based, geographically, on India. Turns out the real India actually has an island with an active volcano. It’s called Barren Island (gosh, wonder why?), and it’s in the Andaman and Nicobar island chain. These islands don’t straddle the equator, but they’re not too far off.

(The following is Internet research, and I can’t guarantee its accuracy. I would DEFINITELY do further research if I were actually writing about the Andamanese people. In this instance, however, I am just trying to determine what people living on an island chain like theirs might plausibly evolve to look like.)

The Andamanese people are comprised of multiple tribes with different languages and cultures, but have some physical characteristics in common. They are typically short and slender, with very dark skin.

The elves of my fantasy world are already short and slender, so that works out nicely. Otherwise, my research nudged me toward the elf design on the far right, the darkest one.

I take this also as an opportunity to subvert some fantasy tropes. These will be very dark-skinned people with red, yellow, or orange eyes (see again: fire imagery). When these traits appear in fantasy, the characters who have them are often sinister, and sometimes outright monsters. (Which has pretty terrible implications vis-a-vis perceptions of dark-skinned people.) These elves are neither sinister nor monstrous, but are generally seen as refined and creative. They are known for their fire magic and their main export, high-end glassware.

Now, I can get back to actual writing, knowing that I’ll be better able to describe these elves when they appear. Huzzah!

The Name Game

Most writers will have heard the phrase “cast of thousands.” Sometimes it’s positive, describing a richly populated world that feels like it has all the human variation of real life. Sometimes it’s a criticism of an overpopulated, confusing story that seems to have more characters than it needs. We’re often told to simplify – combine characters, don’t give unnecessary characters too much description or page time, don’t name people if their names aren’t important.

There are places to streamline things and keep your character count low. Query letters, for instance. But in other places, it makes sense to name names, even if a character is unimportant to the overall plot.

In real life, we know a lot of people’s names, and we use them to think about those people. Or if we don’t know names, we use descriptions or our feelings about the people. It might be simplest and most straightforward to describe someone as “a classmate,” but who thinks in terms like that? It’s not “a classmate asked me for a pencil,” it’s “Ashley asked me for a pencil.” Maybe “Ashley Green” if you don’t know her that well and feel a bit more formal. If you don’t know her name, it might be “the girl with all the eyeliner” or “a kid from the volleyball team.” “Classmate” or “another student” is accurate, but feels like a weird way to describe a specific person you encounter regularly. See also “coworker,” “teammate,” and other people whose names you’d likely know.

I think writers sometimes fear the “name soup” problem – that there will be too many characters’ names, and readers won’t know which ones to pay attention to. Which, again, is a concern in query letters, where you have limited space. Because the plot summary in a query may be just a few sentences, it’s hard to give important characters the emphasis and weight that lets readers know that these are the ones to remember.

In a novel, though, readers can handle having name-drops that they aren’t expected to keep in mind forever, because this happens in real life all the time. Servers introduce themselves at restaurants; you meet people at a conference who you’ll never see again; you hear a researcher’s name in a news story. Do you remember all those names? Probably not. Does it confuse or bother you to hear them? Probably not.

We often use people’s names when we’re talking about them in real life, too. It’s generally much more realistic to say “Michael and I went to the skate park” rather than “A friend and I went to the skate park,” especially if the listener also knows Michael.

Because this is me here, let’s have some examples of skillful name-dropping from Harry Potter!

  1. Remember Mr. and Mrs. Mason? If not, don’t feel bad. They’re “a rich builder and his wife” who have dinner at the Dursley house at the beginning of Book Two. They only matter in that their visit is occasion for Harry to be forced into hiding, at which point Dobby arrives, ruins the dinner party, and gets Harry in trouble. But given that the Dursleys put a lot of planning into this dinner, it would be weird if Rowling had decided to avoid ever using the Masons’ names just because they don’t have any continued importance to the plot.
  2. The use of characters’ names can be delightfully sneaky when it’s casual enough that you forget it until later. When Harry meets Cedric Diggory and his father, Mr. Diggory mentions the Lovegoods to Arthur Weasley. It sounds natural – two adults discussing mutual friends or acquaintances Harry doesn’t know – and most readers probably forget it quickly, as Harry seems to. Then we meet Luna Lovegood in the next book. Lovegood. Now why does that sound familiar . . . ?
  3. Many of Harry’s classmates never do anything of great importance in the books, but we feel we know them because their names pop up every so often. This makes a lot of sense: Hogwarts isn’t that big a school, and Harry would know the other kids in his year, and some of the ones older and younger than himself. They’re present in his everyday life, and we get a feel for that through dozens of tiny moments that aren’t individually important: Lavender Brown answering a question in class, Pansy Parkinson complaining about Hagrid, Dean and Seamus interrupting a sensitive conversation between Harry and his closer friends. Bonus: it doesn’t feel like the character came out of nowhere when one of them DOES do something notable, such as start dating Ron.

You can overdo it with names, of course. Too many can be a kind of infodump: the writer has put so much work into building her world and developing every character in it that she doesn’t want to leave any out even when including them doesn’t feel natural. For instance, in reality, a character who is on a soccer team would likely say, “When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there,” rather than, “When I got to practice, Sarah, Natasha, Alice, Lauren, Karina, Jamini, Melissa, Tenesha, Maya, and Emily were already there.” If the book is written in a conversational style, you might pull off naming the whole team in a more intentional way: “When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there. What you have to know about the Mountain Goats is that only half of us are any good. Specifically, Natasha, Lauren, Karina, Alice, and Jamini, who were running drills when I arrived. Maya’s parents make her play, but she hates it. Tenesha only joined the team to support Maya. I convinced Sarah, Melissa, and Emily to join with me, and I’m only playing until I figure out who murdered the team’s last coach.”

Rather than write a proper conclusion, I leave you with this masterpiece:

“Tis But a Flesh Wound!”

I just finished reading a nifty YA novel! There was a lot to like, but I had a few minor issues with the writing. On the plus side, reading a novel with problems lets you see the mechanics of story better, sometimes, than a reading a novel where it all comes together wonderfully. When everything in a story works, you don’t see the parts, just the glorious whole. But when there’s a glitch somewhere, you can often see what went wrong, and that tells you something about what to do and not do in your own writing.

In this particular instance, I noticed an issue I’ve often seen before: the author seems to forget things that have happened to the protagonist and should be continuing to affect him. Physical things, like injuries or being wet or dirty. The first-person protagonist of this novel gets hurt a lot, and unless his injuries have plot significance, they seem to fade very quickly from his awareness. Not only that, other characters don’t comment on them. It’s as if they never happened.

Here are a few things the protagonist does during one particularly eventful day in the book, when most of the climactic action takes place. In order of occurrence, he:

  • gets thrown against walls by super-strong evil robots (several times)
  • throws up
  • burns his hand on hot machinery
  • is hurled across a twenty-foot-wide chasm onto a rock ledge, where he lands “chin first” and scrapes up the whole front of his body
  • hikes through the woods in the rain
  • gets swept down a frigidly cold river
  • slips in blood and gets it on himself
  • runs, runs, runs from the scary robots
  • gets tied up so tightly he can hardly breathe and hung upside-down over a burning room

There’s probably more I’m forgetting. Oh, also, by the end of all this, it’s evening, and he hasn’t eaten or drunk anything all day.

The author does a good job remembering that our hero is wet after his dip in the river, and the burned hand comes up later when he’s thinking of his love interest, who he was helping when he got burned. Other than that, though, he doesn’t act like a guy who’s been battered and shredded and exhausted. Nor do other characters look at him and go “DID YOU GET RUN OVER BY A LAWNMOWER OMG.”

Young, healthy people, like our sixteen-year-old protagonist, heal pretty quickly, but this is all in one day. And yes, for most of that day, he’d be running on adrenaline and maybe not noticing his pain, injuries, bloodied appearance, etc. But he’d notice it later, and other people would notice it when they looked at him. When a writer isn’t consistent on this stuff, it’s hard to stay immersed in the protagonist’s point of view. It creates an empathy gap.

But take heart! I bring you an editing tool to help make sure that when your characters get hurt, they stay hurt! (Or wet, or dirty, or paint-spattered, or whatever.) Right up until they logically shouldn’t be hurt anymore!

human outline 1

This image is available for free download here, along with some other templates of the human body. I recommend you just take it off of this post, though, as I cleaned up the lines a bit from the original.

Got a character who’s about to have a rough day? Why not print one of these handy outlines and draw on it to give yourself a visual reminder of what’s happened to her? (The body shape won’t match every character, of course – even without accounting for those who aren’t human – but it’s a start.) You can use it to keep track of the character’s appearance (“You’re covered in mud!”). You can also make note of injuries that might not be visible, but should still affect the character. For instance, if she’s wrenched her shoulder badly, you might shade it in red to remind you that she’s going to keep feeling that awhile, especially if she tries to climb or throw something with that arm.

Have you run into this in your reading (or your writing)?

What I’ve Been Reading in 2015

Well, I have finished buying a ton of books as holiday gifts for friends and family – can I just say thanks to my pals who are having kids for giving me an excuse to buy Mo Willems books?

it's a tiger
And also this piece of silly cuteness.

In other news, I finished my diversity reading list for 2015. Huzzah! I posted the list in a previous entry, with some descriptions of the books, so I won’t rehash it too much now. I’ll just note a few of my favorites.

girl from the well
The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
Creepy and creative ghost story with a fascinating mythological background. Plus, I love that the narrator is the ghost – and that she manages to be sympathetic, righteous, and scary like whoah.

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
This beautiful book made me care so hard about its protagonist! I have been recommending it like a broken record.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Topical, important, and highly readable. You start reading to find out what really happened on the day that a white man shot a black teen boy dead; you keep reading to find out where the boy’s family and community will go from here.

100 sideways miles
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
I hadn’t read any Andrew Smith, and I’ll have to pick up some more. Weird, wacky, clever, and surprisingly good-hearted. Since the protagonist has epilepsy but the author doesn’t, I went looking for reviews by readers with epilepsy. I was happy to find this one at Disability in Kidlit, which offers a mostly-positive reaction to the portrayal of the condition. Nice!

And what the heck, here are some diverse books I read and loved in 2015 that weren’t on my to-read list:

the shadow hero
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
A fascinating reboot of the first Chinese-American superhero. Great plot with doses of hilarious humor (and some tearjerker stuff, too). Some of the original comics are reproduced at the end of the book.

fake id
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
Smart, well-paced thriller about a teen in the Witness Protection Program. He’s trying to stay out of trouble at his new school, but he has to know whether his best friend there really committed suicide or was murdered.

Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
I listened to audiobooks of both of these and loved them. Historical fiction with action, drama, and characters you can really root for.

el deafo
El Deafo by CeCe Bell
Incredible graphic novel by a deaf woman about her childhood. Funny, yet informative.

the rest of us just
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
The big, impossible stuff happens to some people. They fall in love with vampires; they get powers; they save the world. The other people, they’re just trying to make the best of their far-more-ordinary existences, even when that supernatural stuff spills over and messes up their plans. After all, they just live here.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
This graphic novel is THE FUNNEST, y’all.

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
I saw Kwame Alexander speak at the Virginia Children’s Book Festival this year (which was, by the way, phenomenal). He’s an awesome poet, and that comes through big time in this book. The excitement of the basketball games comes through well, too, and I’m not even a sports person.

carry on
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Did you read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell? If yes, then read Carry On. If no, then still read Carry On, but possibly read Fangirl first. Though if you’re a Harry Potter fan and you like the idea of a novel that’s basically a clever twist on Harry/Draco fanfic, then by all means dive directly into Carry On with no passing of Go or collecting of two hundred dollars.

What did you read and love this year?

Now Read THIS!

I love it when my day job as a librarian intersects with my interests as a writer. Which is often. For example, yesterday my library did a staff development program on readers’ advisory.

Readers’ advisory – helping a person find books to read – is pretty much the best. It’s a fun challenge to find out what books a person will enjoy, and it feels like a big win to find someone the perfect book.

When librarians do readers’ advisory, we tend to be thinking about what we call “appeal factors.” These are the different reasons why a person could like a book. For example, Alex might like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books because of the mythology, while Beth might like them because they’re funny. If I can find that out, then I’ll recommend different books to those two patrons.

Finding out can require some sneakiness, though. “Why did you like that book?” can be a tough and confusing question to answer, and can make people freeze up. If, on the other hand, you encourage a reader to talk about some books she liked, you’ll often hear, “It was so exciting, I read it really fast!” or “It was hilarious” or “It has all these creepy monsters that are really cool.”

At our readers’ advisory training, we talked mostly about four types of appeal factors:

1. Pacing

2. Characterization (includes character development, size of the cast, point of view, whether characters are likeable, and whether the same characters can be followed through a series)

3. Story (incorporating genre)

4. Frame (includes setting and tone)

Just the other day, someone told me that she usually loves thrillers, but couldn’t finish Gone Girl because the pace was too slow for her. A different person told me that she couldn’t stand that same book because she didn’t find any of the characters likable. Different people care about different appeal factors. And, of course, what they want can vary with their mood.

Unsponsored plug: If you have access to NoveList (your public library might!), then you can search books by appeal factor. That might be something like “nostalgic and bittersweet” (falls under Frame), “leisurely paced,” “large cast of characters,” or “intricately plotted.” It’s a pretty fun tool to play around with.

Thinking about appeal factors for your own stories can help you come up with good comparison titles if, say, you’re querying agents or publishers. It can also give you useful ways to describe your stories in general. Plus, it might help you find your next book-soulmate!

Book Expo America!

You guys you guys you guys!

This year, for the first time, I got to attend Book Expo America. This was located in New York City, a place of which I am distinctly nervous*, but I was still beyond psyched to travel there for this magical event.

Book Expo America, for those who may not know, is a giant convention put on by publishers. Attending it are librarians, booksellers, book reviewers and bloggers, and other people with the power to buy and/or promote books. Oh, and authors. Over six hundred of those this year alone! There are panels on various book-related topics, booths run by publishers, and autographing sessions by authors. The entire time, free books – both advance reader copies (ARCs) and finished books – are basically being shoved at you.

(Also, there’s candy.)

BEA 2015 was held in the Javits Center, which is a space so vast that I can only measure it in terms of how many Costcos would fit inside. (Maybe five?) The whole thing, inside and out, was plastered with giant advertisements for books. I appreciated that. It made me feel catered to.

Look at the STAIRS!

I was there for all three days of the conference, and I had an incredible time. A few highlights:

1. Met Todd Strasser. Todd Strasser has written over one hundred books for kids and teens, many of them dealing with tough topics like homelessness and school shootings. I was there to gush over a middle grade book he wrote called Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School, which is about a boy who accidentally switches bodies with his dog. Which was followed, of course, by the unforgettable classic Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School Again. I read both of these multiple times as a kid. And now I have a signed copy of his upcoming book, The Beast of Cretacea.

2. Met Louis Sachar, whose Wayside School books I loved as a kid. Got a signed copy of his upcoming book Fuzzy Mud.

3. Met A.S. King and told her how much I (and my mom, and my mom’s book group) loved Everybody Sees the Ants! Also, got a signed copy of her book I Crawl Through It.

4. I got to meet Anne Ursu and congratulate her on the excellent review of her book The Real Boy I’d read on the site Disability in Kidlit. I was touched by how thrilled she was about the review. And I got a signed copy of The Real Boy!

5. Libba Bray and Barry Lyga did a hilarious interview/banter session at the Librarians’ Lounge. Libba Bray answered an interview question in song. This area was librarians-only, and the crowd was really small, so we got up close and personal with these awesome authors. (And, you know, got signed copies of their upcoming books, After the Red Rain and Lair of Dreams.)

I think the woman in the middle was their publicist. She was a good sport.

6. Saw a panel on comedy that included Dave Barry. I LOVED his books as a kid. I still can’t believe this happened:

7. MET KATHERINE FREAKING APPLEGATE YOU GUYS YOU GUYS. Okay, so the Animorphs series was basically my entire life when I was a tween. My friends and I bonded over it and competed over who could get the new book first. I didn’t even know the word “fanart,” but I was drawing Andalites. My dad made me an Animorphs birthday cake, but on the cover it had me morphing into a cat instead of Rachel, and the author said “K.A. Applecake” instead of “Applegate” because it was an apple spice cake and, you know, dad jokes. I had Animorphs dreams. If I was going to wash a bug down the sink or something, even now I might first warn it aloud that if it is an Animorph, this is its last chance to transform and save itself.** And at BEA, I got to MEET KATHERINE APPLEGATE.

I was there so early that I was first in line. That was an achievement. This is the face of a girl whose dreams are coming true.

She was SO NICE, you guys! And she gave me a signed copy of her upcoming book, Crenshaw! Which I’d finished by the end of the day, and it was beautiful!

8. Met author Shannon Hale! And, in case I still have to say it, got an autographed book: The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party, which is lots of fun.

9. Met R.L. Stine, whose Goosebumps books were VERY IMPORTANT to me as a kid. It must be weird to be R.L. Stine at an event like this. It’s all grinning adults coming up to you saying, “You gave me nightmares for years!”

That’s him in the red lanyard.
10. While waiting in line to meet Felicia Day (because life is so much cooler than I’d realized it could be), I spotted a couple of cool-looking ladies. This was nothing extraordinary, as BEA was full of amazing people, which meant a lot of great conversations while waiting in lines. But I’d noticed that one of these ladies had on a shirt that I know is sold by Forever Young Adult, which is my favorite YA book review site. I asked if they were with FYA, and they said yes! I fangirled a bit, telling them that I’ve ordered books for our library (um, and myself) based on their reviews, and that their funny recaps got me watching both Pretty Little Liars and The 100. Confirmed that they will be recapping the Shadowhunters miniseries once it starts. Yay! We exchanged cards, and I had another person in line take our picture. In the green is FYA reviewer Jennie; in the blue, with the shirt I recognized, is reviewer Mandy C.

More coolness: they posted their BEA recap today, and I got a shout-out!

11. Oh yeah, and I did briefly meet Felicia Day. Who was super-nice. Got a preview of her upcoming memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet – Almost. I’ve read the preview already, and it’s witty and fun.

12. And I met Meg Cabot, which was exciting mostly in that she told me she is continuing the Heather Wells series, which I love and had thought was over. But I also got a signed ARC of Royal Wedding.

Whew! I left BEA with forty books. If I’d been indiscriminately grabbing, I could have bagged many more, but all forty of these genuinely interest me. Which is good, because they represent, according to my bathroom scale, thirty-three pounds of books, which is a lot to lug from NYC to Massachusetts. But if amazing memories could be measured in pounds . . . well, it’s a good thing they can’t, actually. A really good thing.

BEA’s in Chicago next year. I’m already like, “Try and stop me from going, world. Just try it!”

(Though next year I may not have a job that’s willing to not only pay me to be at BEA, but cover my travel and hotel costs. I love my library.)




*Because I have this notion that New Yorkers all want to murder you and also spit on you, like some kind of bloodthirsty archerfish.

**This rarely comes up, as I take bugs outside and release them like a huge softy.

The Tough Choices

Y’all. There are, like, a bajillion books out there. In fact, there are probably a solid bajillion books out there that I would really like to read, or that you would really like to read. So how do we choose which ones we actually do read? And – a question of particular interest to authors – how do we choose which ones we buy?

I got thinking about this because of author Delilah Dawson’s post about authors’ social media marketing techniques that don’t work. (She followed this with a post about ones that she feels do work, and various other people responded with posts of their own.) This made me wonder: how do people choose what books to actually purchase?

I admit it: these days, I don’t buy a lot of books for myself personally. My budget’s tight, and also I work for a library system that can get me anything I want in a couple of days flat. (I’m so spoiled. How will I ever be able to leave? *clings to CLAMS system*) I do buy books for other people as presents. These are usually either books I’ve read and loved, books with massive buzz that sound like they’d fit the giftee perfectly, or sometimes books recommended by the employees of my local independent bookstore or by the lovely reference librarian at my own library.

However. Outside of all that, I still spend approximately $500 a month on YA books. That’s because I’m a Teen Services librarian for a very-well-funded public library. So I thought my rationale for that buying might be of some interest.

First of all, I read a LOT of YA book review sites and blogs. Probably my favorites are Forever Young Adult, Diversity in YA, and the periodic diverse book lists posted by author Malinda Lo. I also use No Flying No Tights, among other sites, for graphic novels. When I’m not sure whether to order a book or not, I sometimes check out its reviews on Goodreads, though I know to take most individual reviews there with a grain of salt.

A big part of the library buying is basic rather than discretionary. That is, demand dictates that I MUST buy these things before buying stuff that just sounds neat. Is there a new Sarah Dessen coming out? A new John Green? Something with Maggie Stiefvater’s or Cassandra Clare’s name on it? A new Raina Telgemeier graphic novel? And then there are series to keep up-to-date.

You know you want some of this. Let’s be real: we all want some of this.

My library is part of CLAMS, a system with about three dozen libraries which, as I mention above, can do quick and easy interlibrary loans. This means that every library will not collect every series, even if they’re popular. For example, my library doesn’t carry the Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard, because there are fifteen of them (not counting prequels, sidequels, whatever) and our patrons can easily order them from another library. But we do carry The Lying Game series by Sara Shepard, while some other libraries in CLAMS don’t. This leads some libraries to unofficially specialize in certain types of books. Mine, for example, has a lot of superhero graphic novels in the YA collection, and a pretty decent YA audiobook selection. But there are lots of popular things we don’t have, like all fifty million volumes of Naruto. Another library has those. We cover the gaps in each other’s collections. (Though, of course, we all have, say, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, because NOT OPTIONAL.)

On the other hand, my library is located in a summer resort town. We make it easy for vacationers to get library cards and check out materials. This means that we don’t want to rely too hard on other libraries having popular books, because in summer, we’ll get lots of people who want to pick something up that day, making interlibrary loan unhelpful. So we have to balance that.

To make sure I don’t miss a big upcoming book release, I regularly go through the long long list of all the YA books that will become available via our ordering system, Ingram, in the next few months or year. That is a LOT of books. Ingram is fairly thorough in terms of what books are included, but it doesn’t give much of a summary of each book, so I turn again to book review sites.

I order each year’s Printz winner, and usually the honor books, too, if we don’t already have them. And I tend to buy books that aren’t in CLAMS if patrons request them (recent examples include the Horatio Lyle series by Catherine Webb).

If there seems to be a gap in our nonfiction collection, I’ll look for books on that topic specifically. I order anything that looks half-decent if it has Minecraft in the title, and same with guides to drawing manga. My library is also the only one in CLAMS with an up-to-date collection of Dungeons & Dragons manuals, which are very popular.

After I’ve ordered what I think our patrons will demand, then I get to pick lesser-known books that look high-quality and/or fun and/or important. (When I say “important,” I usually mean books that feature underrepresented views or situations.) While patron demand requires me to order every new Ally Carter book, my own knowledge of their greatness requires me to order every new Sara Farizan book. (Not dissing Ally Carter. Just saying she’s popular like whoa.) Ditto Brandon Sanderson’s YA books, A.S. King, Lamar Giles, and oodles more.


If you haven’t yet crammed every word of this book eagerly into your brain, then you are not living your best life.

I discovered A.S. King through recommendations on the Young Adult Library Services listserv. I heard about Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson from a coworker. I heard Sara Farizan interviewed about If You Could Be Mine on NPR. I discovered Brandy Colbert through a review of Pointe on Forever Young Adult, and now consider her books must-haves for the collection. (Is that new one ready yeeeet?) Honestly, if a book gets a great review on Forever Young Adult and no one else in CLAMS has it, I’ll order it on the spot.

So I guess in this instance, Delilah Dawson is right: Twitter and Facebook are not motivating me to buy books for the library. They don’t hurt, but it’s mostly reviews from people I respect and word-of-mouth that makes me order a book when I don’t already know it will be wildly popular with our patrons.

What makes you buy a book, or how do you learn about books you then go on to buy?