NCTE 2017: Where Books Are Better Than Candy
When I was a kid, my dad owned a convenience store. Every year he took me to a candy convention – a huge room filled with vendors all trying to sell the latest in pop rocks, plastic lips, frozen sodas, and gummies shaped like burgers. By the time we’d gone through every aisle, I had a bag bulging with things made solely of high fructose corn syrup, and my teeth hurt from so much sugar and chocolate.
It was every kid’s dream.
As a grownup, I found my own version of the candy convention: the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) annual conference. This is four days of workshops; mingling with educators, writers, and publishers; and attending book signings. And if you partake in the book signings, you not only get to meet your favorite authors, but they give you the books for free.
What the candy convention was for sugar lovers, the NCTE is for book lovers.
This November, as a debut author, my publisher invited me to do a book signing at the conference. It was an amazing and humbling experience – Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) and Chris Grabenstein (Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library) also had signings. And Nick Bruel (author of the Bad Kitty! series) stopped by my booth, where we chatted for a good thirty minutes. It was an honor to be included with such accomplished, successful authors. And exciting to see them! I stood in more than a few long lines to get books signed.
I was also glad to see so many educators, enthusiastic about books and the prospect of choosing curricula for their students. Everyone seemed to get so much out of this rich experience, and that’s wonderful – ultimately, it benefits the kids, and that’s what matters.
*My book, Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production, is JUMANJI meets GOONIES, a fast-paced adventure where board games come alive and winning your life depends on applying monster movie rules of survival. 13-year-old film-obsessed Lissa discovers a shape-shifting monster in her woods and decides to film the greatest horror movie of all time…until her little sister is kidnapped to the monster homeland of Down Below and she needs her star’s help to rescue her. You can find it on Amazon and online/in stores at Barnes and Noble.
Creating Future Writers: It Starts With Parents and Teachers
My writing career began when a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Story of Millstadt Consolidated School, encouraged my aspirations by choosing me to write a story to represent the fourth grade in a school-wide writing showcase. I still remember poring over that story, painstakingly creating my own cover, and reading it aloud for a camera mounted on a tripod (as the school compiled a tape of the selected students reading their works).
For me, being acknowledged as having writing talent was a defining moment of childhood. It also reinforces to me how important it is to encourage kids who want to write. What if there had been no Mrs. Story?
My debut novel, Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production, was published on September 20, and I was lucky enough to hold events at Cobb County (Georgia) libraries. One of these included a scary story writing contest at the Mountain View Branch. This blog post is a nod to the wonderful kids at Blackwell Elementary School who participated in the contest, as I was blown away by their creativity and effort.
While I am showcasing the three winners here, every story showed promise. Also, not a single story was similar to another! There was one about witches in Marietta; one about a magic, evil ring; one about a dream that might be real; one where an enchanted drum tempts two girls to give up more than they should; one about a sleepover, with a twist; one where a mythical creature decides to show itself; one about a prank-loving kid who gets a taste of his own medicine; one featuring a kid with a vampire for a new neighbor; and one with a haunted mansion and a cousin who meets an unfortunate end.
When choosing the three winners, I looked for effort and originality. I’m so pleased to share these three stories with the world! Drumroll, please. . .
In THIRD place, is Boston. I spoke with Boston during the Mountain View event. She was not only a very sweet, polite kid, but she was intelligent and interested in history. Her story – rather than including the “traditional” monsters like zombies and witches – used tragic or scary historical events (for instance, the Hindenburg, Titanic, and Trail of Tears). The result was a creative story called History Attack. You can read it here.
In SECOND place, is Ava. Her story stood out to me because, like Boston’s, it didn’t include traditional monsters. Rather, it was about a kid, Tommy, who doesn’t listen to his mother on Halloween and therefore puts himself in danger. I was really impressed that a kid would know how to write a “cautionary tale” so effectively (kids, a cautionary tale is a story with a point to it – here, the point was “listen to your mother!”). You can read Ava’s story here.
In FIRST place, is Finalee. Now, while I understand that this was a scary story contest, I have to say that I laughed multiple times while reading this one. It’s about two sisters who discover an abandoned dog, unchain it, and are then terrorized as it wreaks havoc on the neighborhood. Complete with illustrations and an “about the author,” it was clear how much work had gone into Finalee’s story. She was also one of the most enthusiastic kids at the event, asking a lot of questions about my road to publication and ecstatic to come in first. You can read her story here.
Parents and teachers, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to encourage our young writers. Parents, read to your children! And save and share their work. Mine did this for me, and it made a difference. As for teachers, keep an eye out for kids who love to write and read! Encourage them, and give them credit for effort and innovation. They will remember it forever, and it may affect their direction in life. Mrs. Story did this for me, and you have the power to do it for your students! (See below to see where it all began – for me, and for future author Finalee!).
*My book, Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production, is JUMANJI meets GOONIES, a fast-paced adventure where board games come alive and winning your life depends on applying monster movie rules of survival. 13-year-old film-obsessed Lissa discovers a shape-shifting monster in her woods and decides to film the greatest horror movie of all time…until her little sister is kidnapped to the monster homeland of Down Below and she needs her star’s help to rescue her. You can find it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Cobb County Kids Draw Monsterville!
I recently spoke to four different groups of kids who attended the programs at the Cobb County Public Library System; specifically, the Vinings, Mountain View, South Cobb, and Switzer locations. It was great to share my love of reading and writing with kids who were so enthusiastic, and I also got to tell them about my middle grade book, Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production:
The perfect Halloween read, Monsterville is Jumanji meets Goonies, a fast-paced adventure where board games come alive and winning your life depends on applying monster movie rules of survival. 13-year-old film-obsessed Lissa discovers a shape-shifting monster in her woods and decides to film the greatest horror movie of all time…until her little sister is kidnapped to the monster homeland of Down Below and she needs her star’s help to rescue her.
To get kids excited about Halloween, at the Vinings and Switzer locations we held monster drawing contests where the kids had the option of drawing monsters from Monsterville, or “other.”
Since I always loved the Rebus stories in Highlights magazine (where an image supplements a story by appearing above a noun), I created one of my own using the entries (with permission, of course!). Here is my own Rebus story, which is an excerpt from my book. This is the part where Lissa, my main character, first finds the game Monsterville in her basement:
But what was that at the bottom of the pile? It was a light-purple box, square and with black letters stenciled on the top. It was so dirty and dusty I couldn’t make out the words.
With my right hand, I rubbed away the filth. Monsterville. Then, beneath it: A Monster Around Every Corner. The lower left-hand corner contained black initials: L.B. Probably for “Lucy Black.”
I flipped the box, looking for a Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley logo, but there wasn’t one.
I heard water dripping in the corner again. I looked up and glanced around. Long shadows stretched across the floor, and I couldn’t see the far wall in the darkness.
Tucking Monsterville under my arm, I dashed across the concrete floor and pounded up the stairs.
“Find anything good?” Dad smiled innocently. He’d switched to a re-run of The Office.
“Just this.” I shook the box before dropping it onto the coffee table, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
Haylie scooted over with her Barbies. “I want to play.” She pried off the lid. “Neat!” She flattened the game board on the table and pulled out the little figurines.
Mom shut her laptop and put it on the coffee table. She rummaged for the game’s instructions and handed them to Dad. “You do the honors.”
“Put each monster in the proper habitat,” he read from a yellowed piece of paper. For example, the spiders in the hills,
the troll near the bridge,
the sandman in the desert,
the mummy by the pyramids,
the werewolf in the woods,
the zombies in the town,
the Lochness monster in the ocean,
the blob guarding the cliffs.”
Mom pursed her lips as Haylie placed each figurine in the right spot. “I don’t know about this. . . are you sure this game’s appropriate for Haylie?”
I leaned closer to inspect it. We had nothing to worry about. The monster figurines were too cartoonish to be scary. The blob looked like a ball of bright orange Jell-O with little nubs for arms. How was it supposed to grab you? “Looks fine to me,” I said.
“Okay. But if Haylie has nightmares tonight, we’re never playing this game again.”
“I’m never scared,” Haylie proclaimed, twirling one long blonde strand around her finger and reaching for the gingerbread man-shaped player pieces. “Can I be the blue boy?”
“Um, sure.” I was surprised that Haylie wanted to use the boy piece, since she loves anything glittery or pink or unicorny.
“Up to four players can play,” Dad continued from the instructions. “Take your place at the beginning of the board, under the bed. Each player chooses a separate trail and battles his own monsters to rescue the kidnapped princess.”
Also, following the discovery of Monsterville, Lissa encounters monsters living in her very own woods!
As it turns out, both monsters are really the same creature: a shape-shifting goblin named Blue who has escaped from the monster homeland of Down Below. But Lissa doesn’t know this at the time.
Blue as a swamp monster hungry for “brains:”
Blue as a Sasquatch that “moos!”
Thank you to all of our talented participants! And if anyone wants to check out Monsterville, buy it just in time for Halloween on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble.
My Southern Illinois School Tour!
To promote my debut middle grade novel, MONSTERVILLE: A LISSA BLACK PRODUCTION, I wanted to return to my roots in southern Illinois. After all, I wrote my book with my hometown (and a few others) in mind, and it was in my hometown of Millstadt where the wonderful teachers of Millstadt Consolidated School first encouraged me to be a writer. I wanted to come back to southern Illinois and make kids excited not just about my book, but about writing! (To that end, I used this presentation).
Here’s how my journey went:
First, I visited Red Bud Elementary for two days and spoke with the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh graders. Superintendent Jonathan Tallman and library specialist Pam Seals went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Here I am signing bookmarks for students, with a copy of SAVE THE CAT (one of the best writing books out there) to my left.
And here I am in front of Red Bud Elementary’s marquee. (Keep in mind that when I began this tour, I was only a little more than seventh months pregnant. You may notice some changes as you read along. . .).
Then, at Gardner Elementary in Waterloo, where I spoke to the fourth and fifth grades, Principal Dawn Ivers and Media Specialist Dave Ackerman were beyond on the ball in organizing my event! Check out what greeted me right at the school entrance.
It bears a bit of a resemblance to this outfit I’m considering buying for my baby on the way, don’t you think?
The kids in Waterloo were all so enthusiastic, well-behaved, and full of questions about reading. Hooray!
Then I went to Millstadt Consolidated School, where my love of reading and writing all began. The teachers here are two of the most wonderful, kindest teachers a child could encounter: Mrs. Martha Story and Mr. Kenneth Kinsella. Both are noted in the Acknowledgments of my book, and I was so touched they came to my assembly for fifth through eighth grades. . .
. . .And that they saw this: the students gave me a standing ovation. (This picture is blurry, but it’s the only one I have that shows them all beginning to stand).
THEN, Dan Kramer, a friend of mine from grade school who now teaches Art at the Okawville Junior/Senior (K12) High School, found me on Facebook and asked if I could come speak there. I was leaving to drive back home to Atlanta the next day, but clearly a pit stop was warranted! Dan and the Junior/Senior High School principal, Keith Senior, did a wonderful job setting up the event with (way) less than 24 hours of notice!
And here is the book signing they arranged!
After all of that – four schools and twelve presentations in less than a week, I am exhausted. However, I am so grateful to Red Bud Elementary, Gardner Elementary, Millstadt Consolidated School, and Okawville Junior/Senior High School for making me feel so welcome and for letting me share my love of reading and writing with such wonderful children. Thank you!
*My debut novel, MONSTERVILLE: A LISSA BLACK PRODUCTION, is JUMANJI meets GOONIES, a fast-paced adventure where board games come alive and winning your life depends on applying monster movie rules of survival. 13-year-old film-obsessed Lissa discovers a shape-shifting monster in her woods and decides to film the greatest horror movie of all time…until her little sister is kidnapped to the monster homeland of Down Below and she needs her star’s help to rescue her. Released in late September, you can find it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And kids, if you liked it, please review me on those websites! 🙂
Monsterville Returns to Its Roots
For the last few days, I have been speaking at local schools in southern Illinois – two days at Red Bud Elementary (fourth through seventh grades) and a day at Gardner Elementary in Waterloo (fourth and fifth grades).
Speaking at Red Bud, Millstadt (scheduled for Monday) and Waterloo was very important to me – I based Monsterville on those towns, and I wanted to return to its roots for my book tour.
I have to say, I was a little nervous. Even though I love public speaking (strange, I know), I was worried about the audience. I remember assemblies when I was a kid. I was bored a lot of the time. Being “talked at” for forty-five minutes is lame! Also, I was discussing my debut book, Monsterville. These kids were exactly my target age range, so what if they hated the book? If they fidgeted, and talked, and stared at me with glazed-over expressions, it wouldn’t be their fault – it would be mine.
Plus, they were so nice! Both schools made me feel completely welcome, so I wanted to keep their kids entertained. And check out the sign Waterloo made for me:
To deal with potential boredom, I used a trick – pictures! I put together a PowerPoint presentation that covered my road to getting published, genres of books and examples, and plenty of photos of the places I used as inspiration for setting. I was thrilled to see how interested the kids were, especially when I talked about the genres of books. (If kids liked a book I picked, they totally reacted! Also, I got to plug a few they might not have heard of otherwise). In Waterloo, I had a break in between the third and fourth sessions (that’s right – four sessions), and it was awesome to see kids searching for the books I recommended. (One kid grabbed Coraline, and another got Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library).
As someone who loves writing and reading so much, I hope the journey and advice I shared with these kids is something they’ll remember in a positive way. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and there are a lot of things I wish I’d known when I was in grade school, like to not be afraid to show people what you’ve written (which makes getting judged and reviewed now all the more terrifying!), that no one creates a masterpiece on the first try, and that the best way to deal with writer’s block is to read a book. I have learned that writing isn’t easy, but if you do the work and never give up, one day you might get to hold your published book in your hands!
Thank you, Red Bud Elementary and Gardner Elementary in Waterloo, for being so gracious and giving me such a wonderful audience! The kids couldn’t have been better. (And if any aspiring writers have more questions for me, they can visit me at Pumpkin Blossom Hill in Red Bud from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM on Saturday). Also, they can email me at email@example.com, and teachers can check out some fun film/Monsterville-themed English activities here.
Monsterville Lurches Into Stores Today!
After seven years of writing, two agents, four submissions of different books to publishers, and a year and a half from my publisher’s offer to release date (a relatively short time period for traditional publishing), my debut middle grade novel is now in stores and online everywhere!
Here is the short synopsis of Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production:
Monsterville is Jumanji meets Goonies, a fast-paced adventure where board games come alive and winning your life depends on applying monster movie rules of survival. 13-year-old film-obsessed Lissa discovers a shape-shifting monster in her woods and decides to film the greatest horror movie of all time. . . until her little sister is kidnapped to the monster homeland of Down Below and she needs her star’s help to rescue her.
I am so grateful to Skyhorse Publishing; my agent, Lauren Galit of the LKG Agency; and my editor, Alison Wiess, for everything they have done to make this happen!
In the next four weeks – ending on October 15th because my first child is expected on November 15th and I don’t want my super pregnant self to scare the children! – I will be making school appearance in southern Illinois (where the book is based) and hosting events at Atlanta-area libraries. I am so proud to share this journey, as I hope my absolute refusal to give up on something I’ve wanted so much, for so long, inspires other writers who may be struggling with the submission process.
This is not an industry for the faint of heart. You have to have faith that if you hang in there and develop your craft, you will be rewarded.
*Monsterville can be purchased on Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble,com, or on my publisher’s website.
My First ARC Giveaway!
Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production will be released on September 6, 2016, and I am doing my first giveaway! Or rather, Book Lovers Life is. (Such a lovely hostess!)
To read a synopsis of Monsterville and sign up to win a free advanced release copy, go here. Scroll down to the bottom for the giveaway.
Thanks and good luck.
Claire Fayers is Magical!
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reading Voyage to Magical North by Claire Fayers. Seriously folks, this book is bonkers. It is so funny, and magical, and it has piraña-like penguins. Because, after all, a voyage to someplace magical is never easy.
Voyage to Magical North, the first in a series, hits shelves from Henry Holt Company on July 5, 2016, and I’m thrilled that Claire let me interview her and ask her whatever I wanted. Hooray, power!
And without further adieu, Claire. . .
Sarah: If you had to name any one book (okay, I’ll give you three) that inspired Voyage to Magical North, what would it/they be?
Claire: When I was young, I loved stories of adventures and quests – everything from Jason and the Argonauts to Willard Price (Diving Adventure, Whale Adventure, African Adventure, you name it, he had an adventure for it.) The books had few girl characters, and if they did, the girls were usually chained to a rock awaiting rescue. So, naturally, I wanted to be a boy when I grew up because boys had all the adventures. The balance is shifting now, which is a good thing, because stories are for everyone so everyone should get the chance to be in them.
I’ve always had a liking for fantasy, which was always very heroic and serious, until I discovered Terry Pratchett and I learned that fantasy could be told with humour, and you can get away with poking fun at all sorts of things if you do it in a made-up world.
When I started writing Voyage to Magical North, I wanted to combine that sense of humour with the fun and excitement of the classic adventure stories I loved as a child. And still love, to be honest.
So: Greek myths; Willard Price; Terry Pratchett. Read one of each and you too can have a weird imagination like mine.
Sarah: What part of the book was the most fun to write?
Claire: The start of chapter four where we meet the Onion was the first bit I ever wrote. I didn’t have the faintest idea how it was going to fit into the story (or even what the story was going to be) but I loved the idea of an adventuresome pirate crew and all the exaggerated stories that grew up around them. It makes me really happy when people read that bit and laugh.
Sarah: At what point during writing did you want to throw your laptop out the window?
Claire: [While writing] Marfak West. He’s one of my favourite characters. He’s frighteningly clever, cuttingly sarcastic and ruthlessly unscrupulous. He has an evil plan, of course – every evil genius must have a plan, but for the life of me I couldn’t work out what it was.
For months, I wrote and rewrote, throwing away thousands of words in despair. “I am the author!” I raged. “You will do as I say.”
And Marfak West watched me with an infuriating smug grin and said, “You might want to rewrite the entire last quarter of your book. Let’s face it, my evil plan is far too clever for you to guess.”
I got there in the end, but I was sorely tempted to run my computer through with a cutlass. (It’s just as well I don’t own a cutlass.)
Sarah: If you ended up at the Magical North, what would you want to see?
Claire: Magical North is the third north pole, alongside geographical north and magnetic north. It’s a place so full of magic that anyone who stands there can see the whole world.
I would like to see where my cat went when he disappeared for three and a half weeks. It is the worst feeling to lose a pet and have no idea where they are or what has happened to them. He eventually came home, five o’clock in the morning and very thin and dirty, so I don’t think he enjoyed his adventures. We’ve put a radio tracker on his collar now so we can find him if he wanders again, but I’d love to know where he was for those weeks.
Sarah: What is your favorite place to write?
I have an office at home. It’s got a proper leather-topped desk which I bought with my first advance cheque, an old armchair covered in cat hair, and bookshelves everywhere. Best of all, it’s got a door that opens onto the back garden. In the summer when the weather is good (it doesn’t happen that often in Wales!) I like to leave the door open so the cats can wander in and out, chase insects and occasionally crash into my legs.
Sarah: What is the best book you’ve read this year?
Claire: You’ve caught me on an even-numbered year, which is good because on odd years I re-read The Count of Monte Cristo, and any question about books will have me rambling forever about revenge, lost love and convoluted plotting.
This year, though, it’s the year of the debut and here are three very funny middle grade books out soon. If you like Voyage to Magical North, you will love these.
Monsterville by Sarah Schauerte. I’m sure Sarah won’t mind me recommending her book. It’s got monsters and lots of movie references and it’s really funny.
Howard Wallace P.I. by Casey Lyall. Howard runs his own private detective business at school and has to solve a blackmail plot whilst dealing with school bullies, suspicious teachers and new girl, Ivy who wants to be his partner.
Ministry of Suits by Paul Gamble. Mystery, adventure, pirates, dinosaurs, unicorns and outrageously bad jokes as two kids join the Ministry of Strange, Unusual and Impossible Things.
Sarah: What do you hope kids get out of reading yours?
Claire: When I started writing Voyage I just wanted to write something fun. I hope I’ve done that, but during the writing all these ideas about stories kept creeping in. How we tell stories about ourselves and other people. We cast some people as heroes, others as villains and the stories can grow and take on a life of their own. But when we really take time to listen to someone’s story and try to understand it, that’s how friendships begin.
So, I hope you all have fun reading my book. I hope it makes you laugh now and then. And, when you’ve finished reading, I hope you’ll go out and make stories of your own.
That’s all, folks! If Voyage to Magical North sounds like your cup of tea, you can order it here. Kirkus Reviews recently gave Voyage to Magical North a starred review, and other praise and accolades will surely follow shortly.
Thanks for reading!
The Monsters Are Coming. . . My Cover Reveal!
I am thrilled to reveal the cover of my debut middle grade novel, Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production, forthcoming from Sky Pony Press in September of 2016. Without further ado, here it is, followed by the synopsis on the back flap!
Beware what lurks beneath your bed. . . . It could lead to a monstrous adventure.
Thirteen-year-old Lissa Black is anything but happy when her parents force her to move from New York City, the perfect home for an aspiring writer/director/actress, to Freeburg, Pennsylvania, nowhere capital of the world. There’s not much for Lissa to do there, except play Monsterville, a Candyland-esque quest to survive, which Lissa’s little sister, Haylie, has become obsessed with, and hang out with her new neighbor, Adam, who is intent to prove to her that Freeburg is a great place to live.
But even Lissa can’t call her new home totally boring when a trek into the woods lands her face-to-face with a sea monster looking for brains to eat and then a Sasquatch that moos! With Adam’s help, she discovers a monster secret . . . or maybe just a monster: a poor little goblin they name Blue, who’s fled the world Down Below, desperate to decide on his scary form.
And what do you do with a creature that can be literally anything? You make monster movies, of course! Lissa is convinced that Blue will be the secret to her big break. But when Haylie goes missing on Halloween, Lissa, Adam, and Blue must venture Down Below to stage a rescue—and face the real Monsterville, which is anything but a game.
Coming from Sky Pony Press in September of 2016, Monsterville is a fusion of The Boxtrolls, Jumanji, and Candyland, weaving together friendship, family, and monsters into a funny fantasy-horror brimming with heart from a great new middle grade voice. It both entertains and teaches middle school kids about film-making.