Thursday, October 27, 2011

COSCBWI October Meeting: Choosing The "Best Of" Books

My goodness, this month is just flying by!  Our COSCBWI October meeting featured a great chat on how "The Best Of ___" books are chosen with librarian Claudia Fett.  Claudia works in the Upper Arlington school district and spends her days instilling a love of reading in kids.  Outside of the school day, she reads mountains of books to keep up with what's on the market and to help her decide what she should acquire for her library (and ultimately share with her students!)  With so many books out there--and more being added constantly--Claudia says she often relies on reviews and awards to help her choose what books to pick up.  Some of the reviewers and organizations Claudia recommended checking out include the Horn Book Magazine, NY Times Reviews, School Library Journal and any websites with starred reviews.  But how do books get chosen as the pick of the litter?
The "best" books are, of course, subjective to opinion.  But a fair assessment includes a panel of multiple readers who follow a list of criteria in order to bestow the title of "best" on a certain book.  Claudia has experimented with this process with her students, giving them the opportunity to determine their own "Best Books of 2011."  She compiled criteria from various committees and reviewers, creating a list her students could use when rating books.  The criteria varies from committee to committee and reviewer to reviewer, but most are generally objective observations including originality, readability, quality, and kid-appeal.
Claudia gave us a taste of being the book reviewer by handing out books and asking us to judge them based on the criteria her students used to evaluate picture books.  The criteria list included aspects such as, "Do the pictures match the words?" and "Do you want to read this again and again?"  I choose a humorous little book called, "The Runaway Wok" by Ying Chang Compestine.  In it, a poor boy buys an old, beat-up wok on Chinese New Year, unaware the wok is magical and will dupe the royal family into giving the less-fortunate one heck of a feast.  The illustrations were detailed, funny, and adorable--and who can resist a mischievously grinning wok?  I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars, rating it high in terms of art, content and originality, but lower in re-readability.  (It was a little dense, so I couldn't say I was raring to read every single word over and over again!)  It was interesting to evaluate the book with a list of criteria.  Usually, I can judge a book however I darn well please.  But with certain aspects chosen for me to look at, I felt I was forced to give a more objective review.  This activity was great for emphasizing how important specific criteria is for funneling subjective opinions into as-fair-as-possible judgments.  Criteria lists certainly make you focus more on what's on the page rather than what opinions and preferences/biases you already have in your head!
Because librarians are so intimate with books and children, it was wonderful to hear Claudia's input on the literary world.  Librarians are "in-the-know" for what books are missing from the market, too, and what books she's dying to have in her library.  Shhh...I'll spill the secret on what she'd like to see, but it's just between you and me, okay?  ;)  Claudia says that in her opinion, the market is in dire need of kid-friendly, non-fiction books on plants, amphibians, invertebrates, and unlikely friendships.  So, if you happen to feel like writing a book on sequoia trees or have a passion for newts and octopi, the time may be ripe for you to pounce on those publishers!
I hope to see you at our next meeting featuring the lovely author of East, Edith Pattou!  (And in case you've been wondering where I scampered off to the past week or so, well, let's just say I've been a little busy with a special project.  But I can show you what I've been up to in just a few more days!) 

Note: Cover art of The Runaway Wok is from Amazon.  You should check out the book--it's adorable AND makes you want to go get some Lo Mein!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Book Review #6: The WindSinger

This week's book review is Peggy Harkins' unique contemporary fantasy, The WindSinger.  You may remember that back in July, Harkins spoke to my local SCBWI chapter about her foray into self-publishing.  (You can read my meeting summary here.)  As I mentioned in that post, I was lucky enough to win a copy of The WindSinger signed by the delightful Peggy Harkins herself.  I was thrilled to discover the book can actually be categorized under my favorite genre of "animal fantasy" (at least in my opinion) and eager to see how a self-published book stacked up to those published by the bigger houses.
Here's the book blurb from Harkins' website:
James Braden was like any other twelve-year-old boy, except for one thing. He had a secret. A big one. As a young child, James had slipped away from a family outing and vanished into the forest. He reappeared three days later – alone but unharmed, and miles from where he was last seen. Where had he been? Who had helped him? James wouldn't say. He had promised to say nothing about meeting the WindSinger.

The WindSinger was a creature with the power to care for and heal all living things. She suspected she was the last of her kind. Because humans had exterminated many members of her species, she'd been taught to fear them. Yet, in the three days they spent together, she made a connection with James that would cross time and space.

Nine years after their first encounter, the WindSinger came back into James's life. This time it was she who needed help. Conscious of the debt he owed her, James willingly became her protector. But he didn't anticipate the dangers he'd face in returning to the forest with her. What happened there would leave him with an even bigger secret. And it would change his life forever.
The story is told primarily from two perspectives--James' and Z'Nia's--with a few chapters here and there from other side-characters' POV's.  Because Z'Nia is a Tazsmin--a bigfoot-like creature with the ability to communicate via mind-link--I think this totally counts as an animal fantasy.  What I particularly love is the way Harkins has Z'Nia "speak" and think.  You can tell Harkins put a lot of thought into her word choices, phrasing, and Z'Nia's general attitude.  She is mature in comparison to humans, but youthful within her own species.  There is also a distinctly non-human quality about her "speech" that is rather magical and allows the reader to see through to the very core of the Tazsmin society and beliefs.  It's enlightening to experience the world through Z'Nia's filter--and an enviable author-talent if you write animal fantasies!
The second thing I want to impress is how The WindSinger breaks all those stereotypes and misconceptions that self-published books are "lesser" books.  The publishing house Harkins chose, Author House, did a wonderful job across the board with her book.  Everything about The WindSinger looks professional, from the layout and editing to the paper quality and beautiful chapter title fonts.  (There are even whimsical little designs between the section breaks in the book.)  Harkins' self-designed cover is visually appealing, and in my opinion, looks just as enticing as any of the novels you'd find on a bookstore shelf.  Of course, as pretty as a book may be, it's the content that's important and I'm pleased to report that Harkins does not disappoint.  The plot and perspectives of The WindSinger are truly unique (and even better than some of the traditionally published books I've read!)  The plot is gripping, the characters are engaging, and the powerful themes are conveyed in a quiet, dignified way.  I'm very happy to say I didn't find a single "unprofessional" thing about The WindSinger during my reading experience.  :)

If you like books about self-discovery and seeing the world through another's eyes, then The WindSinger is definitely for you.  If you're thinking about jumping into the self-publishing pool, then you should certainly pick up this book to see what kind of product your own novel could be.  And though you can't find The WindSinger in stores (at least not yet!), you can buy it online from Harkins' website and  (It's even an easy-to-download e-book now, too!)  Despite all the misconceptions, self-publishing is no easy feat.  It takes a special kind of writer to brave the publishing world on her own and create an outstanding book from scratch--then somehow get that book into the hands of readers!  I am so happy I had the chance to read this book and pass my experience along to you.  I wish Harkins the best of luck with The WindSinger and hope she brings us many more great books in the years to come.
You can check out Harkins' website at: 
And if you pick up a copy of this awesome book, let me know!  I'd love to hear what you think.  Happy reading!
Note: Cover art and book blurb are both from Harkins' website.     

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Guest Post COSCBWI Sept. Meeting: Creating Websites & Online Presence

Today I have my very first guest post for your enjoyment!  I was feeling under the weather and missed September's COSCBWI monthly meeting, so my good friend, Andrea Hall, wrote up her reflections on the presentation to share with you all!  Andrea is our local chapter's Critique Coordinator and a hard-working, aspiring author who writes some pretty sweet manuscripts. :)  Here are her thoughts on websites and online presence for unpublished authors:

There seems to be an ongoing debate right now regarding aspiring authors needing a website.  Some say that it’s necessary, even if you haven’t published a thing.  Others claim you should spend the time on your actual writing, and worry about the ‘online presence’ later.  I tend to agree with the latter, but find myself agonizing over starting a website anyway.

At the September COSCBWI meeting, Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin weighed in on this very subject.  She is the author of the books My Name is Bilal, The Best Eid Ever, and A Party in Ramadan.  She struggles herself with the technology of building a website and actually hired someone else to create her's.  If you have the money to spend, she says it’s not a bad idea, but to make sure the person will be around to update as necessary.  Her best advice was to not be afraid of the process.  While it may seem scary now, it’ll be worth the agony and effort later.

The first step is to buy your domain name (i.e. your website address).  Several years ago, it was recommended that I buy mine.  I didn’t listen.  Now, I’m in a pickle as the web addresses I wanted to use are all taken.  I found this out by looking them all up at  It’s super simple.  You just type in what you want to use and it tells you whether or not it’s available.  Perhaps I should add something on the end, like andreahallauthor, andreahallbooks, etc., or I can take the route of the pseudonym.  I have a feeling if I pick a fake name, and down the road give an author signing, I would automatically use my birth name, though.  It makes for a tricky situation.

Assuming you have an easier time buying a domain name, the next step is to start designing your site.  There are several options that can help you do this, but before anything else happens, you should know what you want on your site.  How many pages should you have to begin?  Do you post your work in progress?  What should you have for contact information?

My advice: keep it simple.  Start out with a few core pages, such as an ‘About Me,’ ‘Contact Information,’ etc.  Check the websites of your favorite authors to see what features you like, as well as those you don’t.  Make your website representative of your personality, but don’t overdo it.  Remember your audience and keep it family-friendly.  Consider creating an email account that handles inquiries from your website only.  As for your current writing, if you post any, ensure that it is solid work.  You never know when agents or editors will come across it.

Also, be careful with any clip art or photos you post.  Most clip art is copyrighted and you don’t want a lawsuit for using it without permission.  The same is true with photos.  Make sure you have permission from the photographer, as well as anyone else that might appear in it.

Happy creating and I hope to visit your site soon!   -Andrea Hall

Big thanks to Andrea for her insights--and giving us all a lot to think about!  I want to add that you can use blogs to boost your online presence, too.  I also HIGHLY recommend following the advice to purchase your domain name NOW.  (I did and sleep much better at night knowing it's all mine.)  What do you think about aspiring authors and online presence?

You can learn more about Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin at:

Note: The cover art for The Best Eid Ever is respectfully from Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin's website.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

3rd Grade Kathryn Is Changed Forever

In case you hadn't heard, my all-time favorite movie, The Lion King, is being re-released today to inspire and delight a new generation.  As part of the release, Disney ran a special 3-D engagement of the film in theaters over the past two weeks.  I couldn't pass up this rare opportunity to see my favorite film on the big-screen and wasted no time getting myself to the theater with my Lion King-loving little sister.  When the lights went down and the "Circle of Life" started blaring, raising goosebumps all over me, I found myself transported to 1994 when 3rd Grade Kathryn stared up at the same film in complete awe.

I remember that moment vividly.  3rd Grade Kathryn was mesmerized from the opening title to the end credits, crying when Mufasa died, laughing at Zazu's lame jokes, and gaping open-mouthed when Simba triumphed in the end.  The movie captured my thoughts long after I left the theater and manifested itself in a large collection of Lion King plushies, clothes, toys and trading cards.  I saw the movie twice in the theater during the first run, watched it a bazillion times on VHS, and was able to recite most of the script from memory (and I probably still could!)  Once the story and characters grabbed hold of me, they just wouldn't let go.  I've never been affected by a movie in such a way before or since.

As an adult, I still love the movie as much as I ever did, but now I can put words to my appreciation.  Though it may sound silly, The Lion King is one of the three biggest influences that shaped my writing and, ultimately, my life.  (The Legend of Zelda video games and Harry Potter books claim the other points of my influence trifecta.)  So what's so great about The Lion King?  In my opinion, practically everything.  (Um, apart from Timon and Pumbaa.  I don't like fart jokes.)
Simba Sketch Day 12--he's happy, yet still sad...

What impresses me the most, is that Disney accomplishes something remarkable by taking an incredibly deep and dark plot and making it completely accessible to kids.  Over the years, I've learned that people normally fall into two Lion King camps and either loooove the movie or don't like it at all.  I can understand why people wouldn't; overall, it is not a happy movie.  This really hit home while I was drawing my "30 Simbas in 30 Days."  In the second half of the movie, adult Simba is rarely happy.  His expressions are riddled with pain, remorse, anger and uncertainty, and even when he does smile, his furrowed brow still reveals the turmoil within. 

Considering the plot is essentially Hamlet (minus all the boring parts) + lions, I suppose this darkness should be expected.  I've spent just a wee bit of time with Disney movies over the years and truly think The Lion King is the weightiest of them all (followed by The Fox and the Hound, Brother Bear and Mulan).  The sheer amount of heavy and not-so-PG topics Disney throws at kids in The Lion King is astounding: regicide; fratricide; identity-crisis; betrayal; self-loathing/guilt; usurpation; revenge; death; grieving; the afterlife; persecution; exile; and ultimately growing up and self-actualization.  I didn't know that's what I was being fed when I was little; I just knew the movie was powerful and so much bigger than myself.  If you think about it, these concepts are topics most parents would shield their children from, but the sugar-coating of cute, fuzzy lions makes it acceptable and easy for kids to digest.  Just think if Simba was an eight year old boy who grew up believing he killed his father while his uncle took over his kingdom.  Whether animated or acted out by real-people, I think the movie would have quickly left the realm of kid's films and entered PG-13 cinema.  Having these terrible things happen to animal characters, though, removes the audience just a degree, making the themes and concepts a little less scary to young minds and a lot more pallateable. 
Aww!  I have a puppy AND Lion King lunchbox

This combination of a mature, powerful story conveyed through animal characters simply amazes me and ignited my respect for animal fantasies.  Add in animation that is an artistic masterpiece and an achingly beautiful musical score, and I don't know what more you could ask for in a film.  Like the other legs of my influence trifecta, if I had never experienced The Lion King, I'm not sure I would have chosen to follow my writing path.  Even in 3rd grade as I watched the movie for the first time with a jumbo bucket of popcorn in hand, I knew deep down I wanted to do this.  (Heck, I'll be happy if my characters and stories are even a fraction as resonating!)  And though my love for The Lion King may make me sound a teensy bit crazy, I'm glad a new generation of kids will have the opportunity to experience this film and maybe find themselves in Simba's epic story, too. 

Now that you've had the chance to gaze into the inner-workings of my (slightly-insane) creative mind, are there any movies, books, games, or other works that have profoundly influenced your life?  

And in case you're wondering, "Hey!  Where are those 30 Simbas you promised?"  I am terribly sorry to disappoint.  I had to pause in the middle of the endeavor to work on my SCBWI calendar contest entry instead.  (At least I was still doing something artsy!)  But you can bet those remaining Simbas will be finished up and posted just as soon as I can!  :)

Note: Simba, The Lion King, and anything Disney-related in this post (including the poster artwork) is respectfully owned by Disney.