Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Review #13: The One and Only Ivan

This month's Animal Fantasy Book Review features a new species: gorillas!  Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan was recommended to me, and I'm so very glad I picked it up.  Here's the blurb from the book's website:

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he's seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it's up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.
The One and Only Ivan is inspired by a true story about a gorilla who spent most of his life on display in a mall.  In Applegate's story, public outcry helps rescue Ivan and the other animals, but it's Ivan who sets the ball in motion.  The story is beautifully written and poignant, and leaves the reader thinking about wild animals in captivity long after the last page.  What I admired most about this story, though, is the range of emotion Applegate conveys and how she presents the world through Ivan's point of view.

The book is told from the title character's first person perspective.  Ivan's voice and thoughts are solidly "gorilla."  He starts out as a very simple narrator.  He's more interested in the here and now (and what tasty things there are to eat in it) than what was or what might be.  His art incorporates the banana peels at his feet and he wonders how Julia, the janitor's daughter, can draw things from her imagination.  What's remarkable is that the reader can actually see Ivan's simple nature on the page--literally.  The book is written in very small paragraphs, with large spaces between each.  Chapter numbers are non-existent (though there are "titles" at the top of some of the pages), and the book mimics the day-after-day-after-day feel of living in captivity.  Ivan would probably have continued on in his rut if Ruby, the baby elephant, didn't wind up in the cage next to him.  Her presence (and never-ending questions) causes him to remember his painful, buried past and think about the future.  It's a remarkable set-up: the reader sees the world through the eyes of Ivan, and in turn, Ivan begins to see the world through the eyes of Ruby.  And by seeing the world in a new way, Ivan decides he can change it in his own, gorilla way.  (Which I certainly won't spoil for you!)         

This gorilla-viewpoint may seem like it would be monotonous or humdrum as it reflects a life in captivity, but it's actually the opposite.  Ivan (and Applegate) say so much in saying so little.  Ivan's life may seem boring from his cage, but the cages around him are full of animals, too.  Ivan's thoughts and interactions with his neighbors brings so much emotion to the story.  One minute I was laughing; the next I was getting teary.  My favorite line in the book takes place when the animals are talking about where they came from, and the dog character declares, "Everyone has parents.  It's unavoidable."  (Which is hilarious on many levels!)  Making readers feel such a wide array of emotions is difficult to do as a writer, but incredibly important.  This skill sets apart "good" books from "great" ones.  If you want your own novel to fall into the "great" category, you should definitely study how Applegate tugs at her readers' heartstrings AND tickles their funny bones.

If you love books about zoo animals/primates/elephants/dogs, this book is certainly for you.  If you love books that make you laugh or cry, it's also for you.  In fact, if you're a person who doesn't even like animal fantasy stories, I still think this book is for you.  This is one of those rare books that I truly believe would appeal to any reader because it's simply a great story.  And of course, if you write animal fantasy, then you owe it to yourself to read this book.  (No excuses.  Get your tushy to a bookstore pronto!)

You can find out more about Ivan (the real and fictional one) at the book's website here:  And if you read it, do let me know.  I'd love to hear what you think!

Happy reading!

Note: Cover art and summary blurb are both from the book's official website, linked above.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

2012 NOSCBWI Conference Recap

I'm home from the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference, and all I can say is: Boy do they know how to put on a good event!  This was my fifth year attending, and their special tenth year anniversary conference.  Each year I've attended has been chock-full of pearls of wisdom and interesting publishing tidbits, and I'm pleased to say this year was no exception!

If you couldn't attend, shame on you!  But, I'm still happy to share my favorite pieces of advice from each keynote and breakout session.  :)

Keynote #1: Tina Wexler, "Navigating the Author/Agent Relationship"
Agent Tina Wexler got the conference started on Friday night with a fun--and informative--speech on the relationship between agents and their author/illustrator clients.  For all writers and illustrators still searching for an agent (like me!), she said to think about the qualities you like in your friends and business associates.  (Honesty?  Professionalism?  Encouragement?)  That list of attributes should help you find an agent you'd like to work AND who would work well with you.

Best Advice: Don't just find the agent who can sell your book.  Find the one who LOVES what you write.   

Keynote #2: Michelle Poploff, "Nuts & Bolts of the Acquisition & Revision Process"
Editor Michelle Poploff gave the first keynote address on Saturday morning.  She explained the acquisition and editorial processes, from the first time she reads the manuscript through when it's bound and ready for purchase.  It's a long process, but very rewarding in the end! 

Best Advice: At the end of the day, remember it's the STORY that's important!  (So write the best one you can!)

Breakout Session #1: Tina Wexler, "How To Know When It's Time to Query"
Agent Tina Wexler led the first breakout session I attended.  It's hard for writers to know when it's time to take the leap and send their manuscripts out into the world.  Tina gave us some tips and checklists to help determine if our work is ready.  She recommends stepping away from the manuscript for a while, getting opinions from trusted readers, and reading lots of published books.  She also told us to make sure the manuscript is as polished as possible in order to give it the best chance for success. 

Best Advice: Your manuscript is ready when YOU are ready and believe in your work. 

Breakout #2: Cinda Williams Chima, "Spellcasting: Building Believable Magical Worlds"
Cinda Williams Chima is one of my favorite Fantasy authors, and I never pass up the chance to hear her speak.  She led our group in a discussion on world-building.  Cinda recommends that writers really think about the aspects of the world they're creating--including medicines, animals, government systems, cultures, food, rules of magic, etc.  Don't overwhelm the reader with these details, but integrate them with your story so the reader becomes immersed in the world.

Best Advice: Writers must make the incredible credible.

Keynote #3: Chuck Sambuchino, "The State of Children's Publishing Today"
Editor/Author Chuck Sambuchino gave a keynote during lunch about the children's publishing industry.  He gave us some good tips for improving our chances of publishing success, including working on multiple projects (aka, "don't have all your eggs in one basket") and building your online platform.  He advised that while having a great manuscript is the most important thing, it certainly can't hurt to start building a following with your online presence, too!

Best Advice:  Know what you're getting into with traditional and self-publishing.  There are pros and cons to each, so do your research!

Keynote #4: Quinlan Lee, "Words & Numbers: An Agent's Role in the Publishing Process"
Agent Quinlan Lee gave the second lunch keynote.  She went over all the many tasks she does for her clients, and how it's her most important job to match the author with the editor who is most passionate about the manuscript.  She also gave some tips about how to snag an agent, including attending SCBWI conferences (check that one off the list!), doing careful research, and citing referrals if possible.  (So if J.K. Rowling critiqued your book and loved it, let agents know!)

Best Advice: Make your readers think, laugh, and want to keep turning that page!

Breakouts #3 & #4: Mara Purnhagen, "Crafting Your Query"
Author Mara Purnhagen led a special double-session presentation on writing query letters during the afternoon.  She went over the do's and don'ts of crafting a query, including formatting guidelines and common mistakes writers make.  She said to be succinct, but also to entice the agent/editor with your mini-synopsis so they'll want to read more.  Something interesting she noted is that many agents read queries on their iPhones and Blackberries during their commutes, therefore they might only see part of your query on their tiny screens.  As such, she recommended writers get straight to the point in their letters, so they don't waste precious space (or an agent's time!)

Best advice: Don't give up!  You may have to send dozens--or hundreds--of queries in order to find that "YES."  (But that one "YES" is worth every rejection!)  

Keynote #5: Whitney Leader-Picone: "Designing in the Digital Age"
Designer Whitney Leader-Picone gave the final keynote of the day.  She went over the many different types of electronic media used in children's publishing.  I'm not exactly "with it" when it comes to technology, so I really enjoyed hearing about the various formats and devices.  Whitney also showed us several apps that publishers are using to get kids reading, as well as enhancing some of their favorite books into new, interactive experiences.  Best of all, she told us that e-books aren't going to dethrone traditionally published books at all--they just give kids another way to enjoy stories!

Best Advice: Digital is fun, but print is NOT dead!

And that summarizes my experience at this year's Northern Ohio SCBWI Conference!  A big thanks to the organizers for putting on another fantastic event.  I can't wait to attend my sixth year in 2013!  :)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

10 Years of Happiness

Today is a special day for me.  It's the 10th Anniversary of when my husband and I officially started "dating."  You know, when we went from "going out" to "going out."

If you haven't guessed from the term "going out," I married my high school sweetheart!  It's weird to think I met the man I was going to marry when I was just sixteen.  A lot of people don't take high school romances seriously.  And I don't blame them; most don't last more than a few weeks.  But some relationships have that little something extra that makes them last past the one month mark--and then some!

My hubby and I ten years ago all spiffed up for Homecoming.

I don't write teen romance novels, but I can certainly appreciate them.  Just like real teenage romances, I think a lot of adults don't take the relationships in YA books seriously.  A girl and guy/werewolf/vampire/ninja/zombie/wizard fall desperately in love and think their relationship will last past Prom?   (Insert a mother's raised eyebrow here.)  Well I say, why not?  Sure, there's a good chance the werewolf will eat the girl/turn her into a werewolf/die tragically, but they could live Happily Ever After. 

Arguably, my hubby never fought a vampire coven or protected me from Dementors while we were dating in high school, but I like to think he would have if the opportunity presented itself.  (And yes, his Patronus would have been a ferret!)  I just ask people to remember the real-life YA love stories before scoffing at the written ones.

And to all of my teen blog readers--keep those eyes open!  You never know when that cute guy in Algebra will turn out to be your soul-mate!  (Or a ninja--that's even cooler than a soul-mate!)

Happy 10 Year (Dating) Anniversary, Hubby!      

Thursday, September 20, 2012

2013 N. Ohio SCBWI Calendar Contest

If you've been wondering what's been occupying my time recently, this is it!  The Northern Ohio SCBWI conference is this weekend, and I decided to enter this year's calendar contest again! 
The contest organizers gave us artists full rein this year, and we could draw whatever we wanted.  While I was considering the topic of children's writing and illustrating, this little jaguar cub popped into my head.  He's kicking back with a good novel--and naturally it's The Jungle Book.  It was fun imagining how a cub would react to Mowgli's adventure.  (Although, I imagine his favorite characters would be Bagheera and Shere Khan!)
Boy, have I learned a lot since last year's contest!  (You can see my 2012 entry here.)  It's encouraging to see how much I've improved as a digital artist over the past twelve months.  This entry was so much fun to do!  I tried some new things, like making my own jungle foliage brushes and experimenting with light sources.  I'm also feeling a bit more comfortable with painting backgrounds.  (They're not quite as intimidating as they used to be!)  Overall, I'm very happy with this piece and am optimistic that I will keep on improving!
I find out on Saturday if my entry will be in the 2013 calendar.  Wish me luck!  :)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Renaissance Festival Fun

With all the writing and illustration practice that's been occupying my time recently, I decided to take a little break for some Ohio Renaissance Festival fun!  Renaissance Festivals are a jolly good time for Fantasy writers and Fantasy lovers alike, and my festival troupe included my good writing buddy, my little sister, and her medieval-fanatic friend.
The Ohio Renaissance Festival takes place in Harveysburg, OH, at a permanent, recreated 16th century English village.  It's brimming with shops, shows, and Renaissance enthusiasts in every sort of costume imaginable.  We spent our day:
Eating ginormous turkey legs....
Huzzah for turkey legs!
Watching hilarious shows...
Men in tights are always funny!  :)
Trying on tails...
Apparently these are fashionable?
And watching jousting tournaments!
Knights + horses + collisions = awesome!
The joust is always my favorite part of the day, and this year's tournament featured knights from one of my favorite TV shows, "Full Metal Jousting."  I even got my picture taken with the knight I'd been rooting for during the TV finale!  
Sir Matthew was kind enough to pose for a picture with me!
After stuffing myself with turkey, cider, and cheesecake-on-a-stick; purchasing my share of Renaissance wares; and satisfying my craving for sports involving horses and pointy objects, I'm ready to get back to work again!  But it certainly is nice to take a break from the boring 21st century for a day!  :)