Saturday, June 18, 2016

Debut Authors Bash - LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S

Any time you ever get to read a Middle Grade book that finds a smart, funny way to talk about the Bechdel Test, you should read it. Now.

Lee Gjertsen Malone's book, THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S, also reveals, with great hilarity, the best way to steal garden gnomes.

Seriously. How could you be reading anything else right now?

I was thrilled to be able to chat with Lee about her debut novel:

What was the inspiration for your book? Did you go to an all-girls’ school?
Lee: I did not -- actually I went to a coed public school. My husband, however, went to an all boy’s high school that changed to be coed a few years after he graduated. We get mail from them sometimes -- fundraising appeals, and the like -- and it was after reading one of those that was talking about all the ways the school had changed, I began to get curious. Why would a school decide to go coed? And how would they know it would be successful? What if it wasn’t, and instead of being one of a few kids at a school that every year has more and more kids like you, things were going in the other direction? At the same time I had been thinking about a story with a strong, completely platonic boy-girl friendship at its core, and this failed coed school felt like the perfect setting.

As a kid, were you a prankster like Jeremy?
Lee: Not really. I was more “prankster-adjacent.” I knew a lot of kids who did pranks, but I wasn’t really involved in most of them. College, however, was a different story. My freshman year was full of pranks. It was a dorm-wide endeavor, and I still laugh thinking about some of them.

At its heart, THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S is about standing out/fitting in and learning to be comfortable in your own skin. Why do you think this is a theme that might resonate especially well with middle-grade readers?
Lee: This is a huge issue for middle grade readers!  One thing I remember vividly from that age is that push-pull between wanting to stand out and be perceived as interesting and cool but on my own terms. All too often the world decides why you stand out, which is not nearly as appealing. Jeremy doesn’t really want to fade into the shadows, what he wants is to be viewed as himself, not as just “the last boy.” There’s a huge difference there and it’s something that many kids struggle with well into high school and beyond.

What's the best thing your readers have told you about the book? Have any of the comments you've received surprised you?
Lee: Probably the one comment that I’ve gotten that surprises me the most is that I’ve had a few people assume I’m anti-public school, which I’m not -- I’m a proud graduate of the public school system and send my daughter to one as well. I’ve also had people -- grown up people -- say that it was unrealistic that the local public school in the book could be bad enough that Jeremy’s mom would do whatever she could to provide him with other options. That blew my mind, the idea that people could be completely unaware that there are struggling public schools in this country that are underfunded and oversubscribed, with high teacher turnover and burnout, and that some people do things like move towns, homeschool, or find a way to send their kids to private school to avoid them and it’s not just because they are biased or snobby or whatever.

I get that someone’s own local schools might be just fine but to encounter multiple people who were oblivious to the idea that’s not true for everyone was really eye-opening for me. It also gave me some insight into maybe why these struggling schools are not a bigger part of the national agenda. There are people who look around and only see good schools and are unaware of the larger issues facing public education in this country.

As for kid readers, my favorites have been the ones that come up with their own theories about why certain things happened in the book! Sometime their theories of the characters’ motivations are, truth be told, way better than mine. I’ve also had a few kids beg me to write a sequel -- and more than one insist that if I didn’t, they would do it for me! I love that kids want to see what happens next with these characters.

It's interesting to note that The Last Boy at St. Edith's started life as a YA book. How difficult was it to convert this to a middle-grade novel and why did you choose to do so?
Lee: I got some very, very good advice from someone I trusted and decided to run with it. But I knew that there was no way that the book could work if I couldn't make the word count work, since middle grade novels are much shorter than YA novels.

So…. I cut 35,000 words in a day and a half. Just slashed and burned, basically. (This is the part in my story where many of my fellow writers make an audible gasping noise)

What are some of the fundamental differences between the YA and the MG versions?
Lee: The biggest difference is that the romance subplot, and Jeremy’s love life in general, was a much bigger part of the YA novel. He has a crush in the MG book, and that character, Anna, was also in the YA version -- but as you might expect, it was a lot more fully developed. What surprises people is that there weren’t actually many more pranks in that version. Because of that, as the scale of the book changed, the pranks took on a bigger part of the plot. Which is probably good since those are most readers’ favorite parts!

Is there a scene that broke your heart to cut when you were going through the revision process?
Lee: Hoo boy. There were a few, but one that stands out in my mind was the scene that actually caused me to set the book in Western Mass. It took place at one of my favorite places in that part of the state, Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams. It’s just unbelievably beautiful, and the perfect setting for a budding romance. But since I cut so much of the romance, that scene had to go. I will use that setting again in something else, though, because I promised myself that when I cut it.

Any last words about LAST BOY AT ST EDITH'S?
Lee: Early on I encountered a few people who thought that some of the themes I explore in the book wouldn’t work for middle grade readers. I was lucky enough to find an agent and an editor who did not agree, and now that it’s out in the world, I’m getting to see readers engage with those themes and it’s incredibly gratifying. People sometimes forget how smart middle grade readers are, and how much they really do think about important things like identity and gender roles.

Thanks, Lee!

And of course, no Debut Author Bash blog post is complete without a 

Good Luck!!

Lee Gjertsen Malone is a Massachusetts transplant via Long Island, Brooklyn, and Ithaca, New York. As a journalist she’s written about everything from wedding planning to the banking crisis to how to build your own homemade camera satellite. Her interests include amateur cheese making, traveling, associating with animals, shushing people in movie theaters, kickboxing and blinking very rapidly for no reason. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, daughter and a rotating cast of pets.

Thursday, June 9, 2016


Laura wrote a beautiful book
About the last 5th grade class at Emerson Elementary, 
Upheaval in their lives and school.
Rhythm and verse tell 18 students' stories of change, loss, and 
Activism that opened their hearts and minds.

See what I did there? An Acrostic poem.
Not a great one, I know. But when you read THE LAST FIFTH GRADE AT EMERSON ELEMENTARY by Laura Shovan, you'll see how acrostics and other cool forms of poetry are handled by a pro.

I got a chance to interview Laura recently about her incredible debut, and I have to admit, I fangirled all over it. This book, ya'll, is AMAZEBALLS.

Without further ado, let's hear from Laura Shovan:

Q: What was the creative process that led you to write in verse?

Laura: Although I write both prose and poetry, poetry is my first love. I began writing poetic monologues when I was a college student at NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program. Many of the stand-alone poems I’ve had published in literary magazines and small presses are spoken in the voice of an invented character, rather than in my own voice. I like the challenge of creating a character with a distinctive point of view within the small space of a poem. 

Q: Your book was released toward the end of the school year, a time of change in students' lives as they transition from the daily routine of school to summer. One major theme of your book is also change. How do books like yours help children navigate change?

Laura: One of my favorite things about being in a debut author group is reading ARCs. Middle grade books are about being in the middle, that time when kids have one foot firmly in childhood, but are also dipping their toes into adolescence. Many of this year’s middle grade debuts are about coping with changes in the main character’s family (COUNTING THYME and A DISTANCE TO HOME), friendships (THE BFF BUCKET LIST and MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS), or the larger world (LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY).

I wanted to create a story where a group of children facing the same change -- moving up
from elementary to middle school -- handled their transition in different ways. On one level, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is about navigating that change. On another level, it’s about building empathy for people whose reaction to change is different than our own. The reader may be excited, like the character Rajesh Rao, about being more independent in middle school. Or she may be like Rachel Chieko Stein, reluctant to leave the elementary school that’s become a second home. Both points of view are valid.

Q: Are any of the characters in LAST FIFTH GRADE autobiographical?
Laura: None of the individual characters are autobiographical, but some of the narrative threads are. There was a boy named Doug Mancini in my elementary school class who lost a parent to cancer. My mother made me invite Doug to the movies. I was mortified, convinced that my whole class would think I’d asked Doug out. I would only go to the movies with him if my mom let me bring a female friend along. Poor Doug -- I hardly said a word to him that day.

Q: The theme of activism was wonderful - a coming of age of new voices standing up for what they believe in. Was that always part of the goal of this book or did it evolve as your story grew?

Laura: The social justice storyline was a late addition. I’d been working with the characters for over four years, but struggling with the plot. I put the manuscript away for several months, then decided to try an idea I’d been toying with: What if there was a proposal to tear down their school? It all came together when I changed Ms. Hill’s character from a fresh-out-of-college first year teacher to a veteran educator who’d been active during the Civil Rights movement.

(Inserting myself here - I loved the Mrs. Hill character. She is subtle and fabulous and the kids obviously love her.)

Q: My son, who loved this book, wants to know - you have 18 characters in this story. How did you keep them all separate in your head as you wrote them?

Laura: Each time I revised the novel, I worked on one character at a time. I gathered all of the poems for one voice, and rewrote only those poems. I also had worksheets for each character about their likes, dislikes, things they did for fun, which neighborhood they lived in, and who their friends in the class were.

Q: My son also wants to know - how did you learn about the Fibonacci poems? Those and the concrete poems were his favorites.

Laura: I learned about Fibonacci poems from the source! Children’s author Greg Pincus gets credit for inventing the form. He and I are both Poetry Friday bloggers, which is how I learned about Fibs. (Greg’s website:
I found a Fib I’d forgotten about. I hope your son likes this one -- the title is part of the poem, as you’ll see!

Counting the
syllables. It’s a
math sequence you can observe in
nature’s spirals: shells, hurricanes, even galaxies.

(By Newt Mathews)

Thank you Laura!

But there's more .... because no book interview is complete without the chance to WIN a book!!

Click HERE to enter.

Laura Shovan's debut novel is The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, a middle grade novel in verse (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House). She is an award-winning poet, editor of two poetry anthologies, and a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

#DVPit Update

Exciting Update to the #DVPit contest:

As many of you Twitter pitch contest veterans know, the retweet can be a terrific signal booster for your pitch.

For #DVPit, things will be a little different.

Retweets will be used only by a select cadre of EDITORS.

Cool, right?

Here's the deal:
Some editors will be part of the regular contest and will request along with the agents.

Other editors, however, want to participate but can't request or consider material from un-agented authors.

These folks will RETWEET pitches that really resonate with them in order to signal-boost the projects to the participating agents on the feed. 

A HEART (<3) means REQUEST.
RETWEET means support.
Please do not confuse a retweet for a request.

The editors who retweet are not requesting your material.  These editors don’t normally participate in these events because of their company rules, so let's respect that.

Only send your materials to the agents/editors that request specifically by <3.

Hachette Book Group            

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Announcing Diverse Voices Twitter Contest: #DVPit

I have some exciting news:

Fabulous agent Beth Phelan of the Bent Agency is holding a twitter pitch contest for diverse voices.

Time to polish those pitches and shine up your manuscript -- this could be it! The moment your baby catches dream agent's eye.

April 19 from 8:00AM EST until 8:00PM EST.

Please only tweet your pitches during that block of time.

#DVpit is a Twitter event created to showcase work about and especially by marginalized voices. This includes (but is not limited to): Native peoples and people of color; people living and/or born/raised in underrepresented cultures and countries; disabled persons; people with illness; people on marginalized ends of the socioeconomic, cultural and/or religious spectrum; people identifying as LGBTQIA+; and more.

Adults, YA, MG, PB, and Nonfiction.

  1. You may pitch more than one project at a time.        
  2. Please pitch no more than once per hour, per manuscript
  3. Pitch your completed, unpublished manuscripts.
  4. You may use the same pitch, or shake things up by using different pitches for the same project. 
Your pitch must fit the 140-character max, and must also include the hashtag #DVpit.         
Space is premium, but best to include category and/or genre hashtags.       

Please do not tweet the agents/editors directly!        
Agents/editors will <3 your pitch if they’d like to see material from you, so please don’t <3  other authors’ pitches. Please also do not retweet. To show support, you can always reply with compliments.
Each agent/editor will have their own preferences for receiving submissions, so if you get a <3 from someone, please refer to their Twitter feed to see what they ask for, and how you can contact them.
All of these agents/editors are invested in finding more marginalized voices.
If you're comfortable doing so, consider self-identifying in your query. Alternatively, your query can let agents know that the story and/or character(s) reflect your own experience.
This is also a good idea for the pitches -- if you have the space and the inclination.
If you see that multiple agents/editors from the same group have <3 your pitch, please contact them directly for their policy, or reach out to @beth_phelan. She will be happy to find out for you.
Keep in mind that many agents/editors will get sidetracked with their usual work or unexpected crises and may have to revisit the feed after the event is over. So don’t be surprised if you receive s after the period closes!


Please be sure to research any agent or publisher that <3 your pitch. There is no obligation to submit your work to anyone you don’t want to.


The Bent Agency            


  Entangled Publishing            
 *This person will visit the feed after the event has closed due to travel

Want help with your pitch?

A few (amazing) people have offered help with pitches for the marginalized writers participating in #DVpit.
Kayla Whaley (@PunkinOnWheels), client of mine, brilliant essayist, and @DisabilityInLit editor, can be reached at kayla.m.whaley [at] gmail [dot] com for pitch help. If you are as grateful for her help with this as I am, and looking for a way to support her, consider buying her a coffee!
Disabled authors writing YA/MG featuring a disabled MC can also reach out to Marieke Nijkamp (@mariekeyn) for pitch help! Message her through her website and while you’re there, just saying, you should totally check out THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS, her outstanding debut published by Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016. To sweeten the deal even more, literary agent Caitie Flum (@caitief) of Liza Dawson Associates is adding a bonus incentive here: she’ll critique the first 40 queries by writers whose pitches come through Marieke!
You can also reach out to the incredible Natasha Razi (who ALSO happens to be the winner of my Diverse Voices query contest, mind you) for pitch help at @swingingstorm. Marginalized authors who reach out on Twitter will receive her email address via DM.
Nita Tyndall (@NitaTyndall) is a @TheGayYA moderator, @DiverseBooks Social Media Coordinator, and repped by one of the wonderful agents participating in this event—Emily Keyes. LGBTQIA+ writers can contact Nita for pitch help through her website and express gratitude by buying her a coffee!
You can also get help from freelance editor and author coach Julie Sadler (@julie_francess), who has graciously offered free pitch and/or query help to participating disabled writers of YA, NA, fantasy, romance, and memoir. She’s also offering first-come-first-serve editing to any participating disabled writers who want a final polish on their manuscript ahead of #DVpit, for barter/pay-what-you-can. Contact her at sadler.julie [at] gmail [dot] com!
Participating writers, especially those writing gay male protagonists, can seek expert pitch and/or query help from Mark O’Brien (@mobrienbooks). Mark is a YA contemporary writer represented by the Bent Agency’s own Heather Flaherty, and he is also an editorial intern with Entangled Publishing. Worth noting that Mark is a #pitmad and Pitch Wars veteran, so he knows his stuff! Writers can contact him directly at markobrienbooks [at] gmail [dot] com.
Finally, please take Kristen Ciccarelli (@twocentsparrow) up on her offer to critique pitches and queries! Kristen is also represented by Heather Flaherty at the Bent Agency, and she specializes in YA (all genres) and women’s fiction. Fun facts: she was mentored by YA author Franny Billingsley and was Renee Ahdieh and Traci Chee’s mentee during this past fall’s Pitch Wars. You can contact Kristen through her website and you should bookmark this author anyway… She is one to watch!
These are great opportunities from people with invaluable experience! Take advantage of them! (But say thank you however you can.)
For more help with your pitch and etiquette questions, here are some links to read while you wait for #DVpit!
Look here for a post by the Bent Agency’s own Victoria Lowes (@torilowes) that includes some really great tips.
And another writers’ guide by agent participant Carly Watters (@carlywatters) of P.S. Literary can be found here with some illuminating examples.
Sadly, an account of why you should always research and NOT be afraid to decline sending material to anyone you’re uncomfortable sending to can be found here.
Now you must need a pick-me-up, right? Click here to find success stories through Brenda Drake’s incredible #pitmad.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016


During and after the frenzied Pitch Wars revision process, the mentees spent a lot of time getting to know each other. One question we asked the group was, "What is the inspiration for your manuscript?"

As I wait (!!) to hear back from agents reading the full and from agents I've queried, I decided to revisit the question. Partly for fun, and partly because this story means a lot to me and I want to make a note of its genesis.

My inspirations for SPOOKY JANE were:

The Child Ballads:
(The Unquiet Grave and to a smaller extent, Sweet William's Ghost)
I had always wanted to write a story based on one of the Child Ballads. SO I played around with ideas for The Unquiet Grave. I kept being drawn back to this particular stanza:

 You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
  But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
  Your time will not be long.

And then I discovered the Vaughan Williams arrangement of the poem.
And then the Joan Baez recording.

As I have always loved both artists, I believed it was a sign. The tunes haunted me for days; I had them on repeat on the iPhone. Ideas percolated. And finally Olivia spoke to me.

Personal Family Lore

Fictional Olivia is Grandmother Livvy, the first person to realize Althea has returned and that Ivy Jane has broken the cardinal family law -- never bring anything back from the dead, not even a lilac blossom.

Real life Olivia was my great aunt, younger sister to my grandmother. She's the inspiration for the Althea character. She too sat in a corner and on the front porch laughing maniacally. She too was heartbroken over the too-soon death of her father. She was said to be quite insane before she died, lost her mind from sadness and disappointment. Note: I never met my Aunt Olivia. She was dead before I came along. My mother, however, knew her and was the source of many stories.

So I began to think - what if we took my real aunt and turned her into a fictional character who actually tried to resurrect her dead father? (To my knowledge my real aunt never tried to do that). And what if she tried to kiss her dead father on the forehead but he begged her not to, because to do so might kill her? THIS IS THE CHILD BALLAD!! WOOHOOO!!

From this nugget of an idea came the rest, which parted dramatically from the Unquiet Grave and real life.

I imbued the family with the magical ability to revive life in growing things. I let Althea be partly successful in trying to revive her father, but in doing so, she unbalanced nature and awakened a storm of retribution that lasted for generations.

I set much of the most dramatic action in a snowstorm because I grew up in Minnesota and I love snow. (Yes, maybe I'm a little nuts too.)

Aaahhhh.. this is when it got REALLY FUN.

This also is when my book became much more fiction than real life. My real aunt died as an adult, and originally, I let Althea live into adulthood as well. But an editor and my amazing Pitch Wars mentor pointed out that as a main character in an MG book, she couldn't be a grownup. So I killed her off younger, same age as Ivy and Hunter. That allowed me much greater room to play with the connections between the three of them.

The real family lore that survived the creative process:
  • The song "Where Was Eva Sleeping?". My family really does sing this song at the end of every large family gathering as a way to wish each other safe passage.
  • My family really is musical and sings in harmony. Most of us play at least one if not more musical instruments.
  • My family really did watch the Dred Scott case closely. And when the decision was handed down, two of my ancestors escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad. The plan, as is told in our family oral history, was to get everyone there, but they were never able to do so. However, diligent retracing of our family tree from family members here in the US and in Canada allowed both branches of the tree to reunite back in the 1980's. We still hold semi-regular reunions. We really are so racially mixed that some of us are blue-eyed with straight hair, others tight curls with black hair, and everything in between.
  • The plug grass that grew in my grandmother's back yard really was thicker and more luxurious than the rest of the grass, and really did withstand drought and cold when the rest of the lawn died. My grandmother said there were plugs buried under the ground there.
  • My great grandfather's nickname really was Skip.
  • Olivia really was a twin; her twin died as an infant.

One last note: There was a real Aunt Althea. I want to be clear here, however, that she was the opposite of the Althea in the book. She was kind and sweet and lived into old age. I used her name because I love the name.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016


I'm SO excited to share this launch with you! Brenda Drake has done so much for our community: contests, critiques, giveaways galore. 
Want to give back to this incredibly generous woman? 
Buy the book! 
* or *  
Tweet your congratulations to @BrendaDrake, #LibraryJumpers

And now, without further ado.... 


Gia Kearns would rather fight with boys than kiss them. That is, until Arik, a leather-clad hottie in the Boston Athenaeum suddenly disappears. While examining the book of world libraries he abandoned, Gia unwittingly speaks the key that sucks her and her friends into a photograph and transports them into a Paris library, where Arik and his Sentinels—magical knights charged with protecting humans from the creatures traveling across the gateway books—rescue them from a demonic hound.

Jumping into some of the world’s most beautiful libraries would be a dream come true for Gia, if she weren’t busy resisting her heart or dodging an exiled wizard seeking revenge on both the Mystik and human worlds. Add a French flirt obsessed with Arik and a fling with a young wizard, and Gia must choose between her heart and her head, between Arik’s world and her own, before both are destroyed.

TOUCHING FATE: Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble


Brenda Drake grew up the youngest of three children, an Air Force brat, and the continual new kid at school. Her fondest memories growing up are of her eccentric, Irish grandmother’s animated tales, which gave her a strong love for storytelling.
So it was only fitting that she would choose to write stories with a bend toward the fantastical. When she’s not writing or hanging out with her family, she haunts libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops, or reads someplace quiet and not at all exotic (much to her disappointment).

Want to read but love the chance of winning a free copy of the book? Enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway!

And here's a little taste of the book right now because we JUST CAN'T WAIT...


We stepped into the Children’s Library and stopped in the center of the room. A massive light fixture designed to resemble the solar system dominated the ceiling. The hushed rumble of two male voices came from one of the reading nooks. I crossed the room, paused at the built-in aquarium, and inspected the fish. Afton halted beside me.

“This is great,” I whispered, not wanting to disturb whoever was in there with us. “Fish and books. What’s not to love?” Spotting a sign referencing classic books, I searched the shelves for my all-time favorite novel.

The male voices stopped and there was movement on the other side of the bookcase. I paused to listen, and when the voices started up again, I continued my hunt.

Warmth rushed over me when I found The Secret Garden. With its aged green cover, it was the same edition I remembered reading as a young girl. The illustrations inside were beautiful, and I just had to show them to Afton. Coming around the corner of the case, a little too fast for being in a library, I bumped into a guy dressed in leather biker gear. My book and notebook fell and slapped against the floor.

“Oh, I’m so sorry—” I lost all train of thought at the sight of him. He was gorgeous with tousled brown hair and dark eyes. Tall. He flashed me a crooked smile, a hint of dimples forming in his cheeks, before bending over and picking up my forgotten book.

He held the book out to me. “Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” He’d quoted a verse from The Secret Garden with a sexy accent that tickled my ears.

I stood there like an idiot, my heart pounding hard against my chest, unable to think of a response. The fact that he had read the book and could recite a line from it stunned me. And impressed me.

Say something. Anything.

“Good read there,” he said when it was obvious I wasn’t going to speak. He winked and nodded to a guy behind him before ambling off. When he reached the end of the row, he paused and glanced back at me, flashing me another killer smile, and then he disappeared around the bookcase.

Tingles rose in my stomach. He looked back at me. The guy following his Royal Hotness gave me a final appraisal before departing. His stringy blond hair hung over his large forehead. It looked like he hadn’t washed it in weeks, and there was probably an acne breeding ground under it. He grinned, and I broke eye contact with him, making for the nearest window.

Oh God, you’re so lame, Gia. You could have finished the quote or anything less tragic than not speaking at all. The response I would have said played in my head. With silver bells, and cockleshells, and marigolds all in a row. Why? Why hadn’t I said that?