New Digital Short: AMY ABBOT IS HAVING A PARTY

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I was flattered when Fierce Ink Press approached me to write a piece for their Fierce Shorts program. Featuring powerful work by Jo Treggiari, Susin Nielsen and Alice Kuipers, the Fierce Shorts program is a response to the It Gets Better movement in which YA authors write a short, digital piece about an experience they had in high school.  A portion of the proceeds is donated to a charity of the author’s choice.

Nonfiction is a tricky business. As vividly as some memories stick with you, there will always be details that need to be re-imagined. The events in Amy Abbot is Having a Party really happened. The characters are people I knew. But while I remember certain cutting comments and well-timed compliments word for word, most of the dialogue is an approximation of conversations I had.

I love reading memoir. I love the humour and the outrageous stories in Cathy Gildiner’s trilogy of memoirs, Too Close to the Falls, After the Falls, and Coming Ashore. I love the heart and charm of legit teenager Maya Van Wagenen’s Popular. I will read any food memoir. Some of my favourites include Tender at the Bone, A Homemade Life  My Berlin Kitchen. But I never once considered writing it myself until Fierce Ink came knocking.

Like most people I have a bag of anecdotes I can rummage around in and pull out something apropos as needed. The time I climbed through an open window of an abandoned house as a kid, a result of reading a lot of Nancy Drew. The time I convinced my grade eight teacher to allow me to hand in chapters of a novel instead of my English assignments.  These anecdotes are short, pithy gems polished from years of telling. They may be true stories but they have a distancing effect. They represent how I want to be perceived. Like fiction, they are a smokescreen that I can project upon.

That wasn’t going to cut it this time around.

The truth? My high school experience was very vanilla. Not even French vanilla, but no-name vanilla. I was a good student. I was a joiner. When I wasn’t at school or band practise or in the student council office I was working at my part-time job. No boys, no alcohol, no drugs, no real drama to speak of. I didn’t relate to teenage struggles presented to me in fiction or movies because I never really felt like one. I went from feeling thirteen to thirty-five. Now tween angst I can do. My tween years are as clear to me as the images on my fancy hi-def TV, which is why I tend to write middle grade.

This is not to say that I didn’t have my share of teen angst, as my journals and some truly terrible poetry demonstrate. But my shade of conflict felt pale in comparison to the struggles of so many others. Then I thought about all those thirteen-going-on-thirty-five year old teens out there who maybe don’t see themselves in YA. By writing about myself, I am also writing for them.

So this is my story, a little slice of my life back in 1999 in Woodstock, Ontario. Britney Spears had just burst onto the scene and everyone watched Survivor. I was considering taking kick boxing, which was all the rage thanks to Billy Blanks and Tae-bo.  Maybe you will see a bit of yourself in this story, or recognize a friend or family member. Or maybe you’ll simply be entertained, which is fine with me.  For each download a percentage of the proceeds will go to Girls Rock Camp Toronto, one of my favourite organizations.

You can purchase Amy Abbot is Having a Party at Kobo, iTunes or Amazon.ca

Feeling Halloweenish: 4 Spooky Books

It’s my favourite time of year! Pumpkins, black cats everywhere, clever costumes, and amazing ghost stories. What’s not to love about Halloween? Here is a round-up of some spooky, atmospheric and down-right terrifying books perfect for those of us who wait all year for October:

The Swallow by Charis Cotter

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If you’ve read Summer Days, Starry Nights you know I love the sixties. This period in Toronto is evocatively portrayed in this moody, unsettling ghost story by Canadian author Charis Cotter. The atmosphere reminded me of Janet Lunn’s old-school storey Double Spell, peopled with well-rounded Kit Pearson-esque characters.It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. The stuffy, cloying house was particularly vivid, as was Polly’s large, rambunctious extended family. I will say that as an avid reader of ghost stories, this was a refreshing take on the genre. It is just as much a friendship story between two lonely girls as it is a spooky read.  Cotter captures the anxieties and frustrations of tweens very well.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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This collection of graphic (as in illustrated) short stories was pitch perfect. Emily Carroll is an acclaimed Canadian cartoonist/illustrator and I fully expected her art to be stunning. What I did not expect was her superb pacing and knack for telling really, REALLY scary stories. Definitely not the faint of heart, this collection is about the dark side of humanity as much as it is about ghosts, monsters, and ghouls. Her stories feel classic, like Poe or Irving, but they are original contributions to a tricky to navigate canon. This is definitely a book I will return to every October.

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

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This collection of poems based on fairy tales isn’t strictly Halloweenish, but it does suit the creepy, atmospheric October vibe. One of my favourite poetry collections is Transformations by Anne Sexton, which also retells fairy tales. Poisoned Apples is distinctly modern, with references to selfies, social media, etc, but witches and curses and classic fairytale tropes abound in this thought-provoking collection. Heppermann weaves in reflections on female teenage sexuality, empowerment, consent, and body image, with a number of startling images revolving around eating disorders. Poetry can have a particularly strong impact of teenagers, and with the word feminism being bandied about in the media these days, this collection provides an intimate space for personal reflection. Personal favourites include: Nature Lesson, Red-handed, and Transformation.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

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I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Auxier (another Canadian! Why are we so good at scary?) has a gorgeous command of language and he practically paints the story of two Irish orphans working in the world’s creepiest house with his words. This book lends itself well to reading aloud but can be equally enjoyed curled up in a chair with a mug of something warm. Like all good ghost stories, there are questions of life and death, right or wrong, and love, above all else, reigns supreme. A classic in the making.

What are your Halloween favourites?

YA to the Rescue: On Therese Casgrain & A Mad, Wicked Folly

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This disturbing piece of news about the Harper government erasing Canadian feminist and women’s rights activist Therese Casgrain’s name from an award (not to mention that her image was also removed from the $50 bill in 2012) made me feel many things. Angry, obviously. But also disappointed, uneasy, and incredulous. It’s easy to take the enormous achievements of Therese Casgrain and The Famous Five  for granted. This shameful debacle made me think of one of the best books about the struggles of the suffragette movement (also one of my favourite books of 2014): A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller.

Vicky is kicked out of her fancy French school when word of her posing nude gets round to the staff. She returns to London only to find her parents less than sympathetic. She is given an ultimatum: marry well, therefore erasing her scandalous past, or move to a remote town and become a spinster. What Vicky really wants is to be an artist, but the only way she can possibly pursue these dreams is to compromise by marrying the not-so-awful Edmund. But then a few choice encounters with members of the suffragette movement and a poor (but charming) police officer have Vicky second guessing everything.

I am a big Downton Abbey fan. Sybil is by far my favourite Crawley. What’s not to like about her progressive attitude, rebellious fashion choices (those harem pants!), or willingness to get her hands dirty in the name of helping others? There’s a lot of Sybil in the protagonist of this decadent historical YA novel, Vicky. She doesn’t start off as a suffragette, rather she becomes involved in their movement after a series of encounters with various individuals. Although she has strong feelings on women artists, she doesn’t immediately make the connection to the parallel political struggle. This felt true to a head-strong, self-centred (in a good way) teenage heroine. I liked this progression. It was well-paced and felt natural.

The supporting cast is excellent. There are no straight-up villains. Thought at many times I wanted to slap certain characters, Waller sheds light on their motivations and the result is nuanced, believable characters. If we want teenagers to be passionate about history and the struggles of our ancestors, there is no better way than to present them in an accessible, engaging, yet accurate manner. The book includes a fascinating historical note that outlines just how vicious the struggle became. Fans of detailed historical fiction and readers who are looking for an accurate portrayal of what women went through to get the vote will love this rich, compelling story.

A Mad, Wicked Folly is available in hard cover now from Penguin Canada.

What To Read This Summer- YA Edition

The May long weekend has come and gone, my patio furniture is out, it seems that summer is finally, FINALLY just around the corner! Here are some great YA reads for those summer days, starry nights (*cough* shameless plug)*:

We Were Liars

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I have been a big fan of E. Lockhart for many, many years. Her books are funny, smart, and sharply written. We Were Liars is a dizzying fever-dream of a book that weaves in and out of reality. The ending will make you flip back to the beginning just to see how she pulled it off. I read this one in two hours and was instantly sorry that I had not taken the time to savour it- but I dare you to try and read it slowly!

 

Unspeakable

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You can totally judge this book by it’s gorgeous cover- Unspeakable is a rich, beautiful love story that begins in the midst of one of the greatest maritime tragedies. No, not THAT one- the sinking of the Empress of Ireland claimed more lives than the Titanic disaster in May, 1914. One hundred years later Caroline Pignat has crafted a gorgeous tribute to the victims and survivors of this tragedy, told through the eyes of a young stewardess. This book is just as much about Ellie coming into her own as a young woman as it is about her love for Jim.

 

This One Summer

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If you’ve ever spent time at a cottage you will recognize some part of your experience in this beautifully-crafted graphic novel. The Tamaki cousins return with a book altogether different in tone from Skim, but just as human and unforgettable. Your heart will ache along with Rose’s as she realizes her crush isn’t all she wants him to be and cheer for Windy (great name!) as she blows through the book with her sunny optimism. I want This One Summer wallpaper so I can forever live inside this book.

 

Open Road Summer

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If you have ever sung along to Taylor Swift (and who hasn’t?) you will want to pick this one up. A road trip story about Reagan, a girl who’s been heading down the wrong road who switches gears to spend the summer on her best friend’s tour bus as she heads out on her first tour. It’s fun to read a story from the perspective of a reformed ‘bad’ girl, particularly one who is BFFs with the motivated, talented and squeaky clean Lilah Montgomery (think Swifty circa Fifteen). This is a great, subtly empowering story about the importance of friends that has a fun, backstage pass vibe.

 

Conversion

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I love witch books, particularly  a well-researched and absorbing psychological thriller from a bona fide Salem Scholar like Katherine Howe. A strange affliction is spreading through the population at a prestigious private girl’s school, one that medical science is having trouble explaining. Could it be related to the afflictions that turned the village of Salem to cry witchcraft in the 1700s? Is history repeating itself? A fascinating look at the pressures we put on our girls, the power of peer pressure and suggestion, with just a hint of X-Files.

 

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

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Slipping into a Jenny Han book is like putting on your fave slippers and curling up in a cozy chair with a big mug of tea…iced, if it’s summer and you’re at a cottage. She gets the every-girl vibe just right. I expected this to be a YA version of the classic Alanis Morissette song Unsent, but it’s actually quite a sweet story about the differences between our perceptions and the actualities of love and romance. For those of you who are following the #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversation, Jenny Han has always been an expert and including diversity in her narratives, and this one is no exception.

 

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*I have written not once, but TWICE about summer…which I guess makes me an expert? Days That End in Y starts with fireworks and ends in a wedding and Summer Days, Starry Nights is my middle-grade homage (read: no sex or abortions) to Dirty Dancing.

Happy (summer) reading!

 

 

 

 

YA Gets a 1950s Make-Over: Popular Review

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Holy stars did I love this book! Fifteen year old (yes, 15!) Maya Van Wagenen is smart, funny, achingly honest and a total star. In grade 8 she decided to follow the advice of a 1950s style guide, BETTY CORNELL’S TEEN-AGE POPULARITY GUIDE (which is also being republished by Dutton at the same time, GREAT kitschy spot illustrations and all) in an attempt to become more popular. The results are a warm and truthful look at what it’s like to feel invisible, go on a diet, play with fashion, overcome shyness, deal with boys, try new things, and just put yourself out there in general. Basically, what it’s like to be a girl on the cusp of teenhood. I wish I had read this when I was in grade 8. I’m thrilled I read it in my 30s.

This book is a fantastic read for girls heading into high school, that time when you contemplate who you are and whether or not you should reinvent yourself. Don’t let the fashion and beauty angle dissuade you if that is not your thing. Yes, there are hilarious sections on what sort of jewelry (pearls, obvi) and clothes (so much nylon) you should wear, makeup tips (light lipstick, leave your eyes alone) diet and exercise suggestions (actually pretty reasonable), but it also talks about the importance of being kind, saying thank you, overcoming shyness, and being yourself. Above all else the book is about Maya finding her confidence in a non-threatening, totally relate-able way. What girl DOESN’T need that?

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It’s also a fantastic book for an adult audience. People who like inspirational/aspirational memoirs such as THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, enjoy 1950s kitsch, or love a coming of age story will eat this one up. I loved how supportive and loving her family was, I enjoyed her anecdotes about sitting with a different group at lunch everyday, and most of all, I just wanted more of Maya. Trust me, this is going to be big. The movie rights have been snatched up and Maya will be everywhere soon. This is one up and coming teenager you’ll be happy to cheer for.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek will be available in hardcover next week from Penguin Canada

Why Aren’t You Reading Nina LaCour?

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I love discovering new writers. There is something exciting about falling in love with a book by a an author you know little about and then telling everyone you know about said writer. My new current obsession is Nina LaCour. I had heard wonderful things about this contemporary YA writer but only recently did I get around to reading her first novel, Hold Still, and now I am a dedicated fangirl.

In a nutshell, Hold Still is the story of how Caitlin learns to deal her best friend Ingrid’s shocking suicide.  It is also a story about making new friends, finding your voice artistically, allowing yourself to be loved, and learning that adults are people, too. LaCour’s narrative voice is smart but believable. Caitlin is an angry young woman and it is hard to watch her take her grief out on the wrong people. Ultimately she makes her own peace with Ingrid’s loss, and not in a way that feels too tidy or unrealistic. For those people who are dealing with grief, I hope they are surrounded with the kind of loving and influential people that Caitlin has around her.

More than Caitlin’s grief and transformation, what I take from this novel is the sense of place LaCour creates. There are so many interesting and vivid places in the book, including a derelict, condemned movie theatre, a veritable haunted house full of memories that Ingrid and Caitlin made together. The theatre plays an important role in both Caitlin’s artistic evolution and her final goodbye to Ingrid. I also longed to hang out in the tree house Caitlin builds in her backyard and get soup in the noodle place she and Dylan escape to at lunch. LaCour creates images that will not easily be forgotten.

Hold Still reminded me of Jandy Nelson’s perfect The Sky is Everywhere and Matthew Quick’s searing Sorta Like a Rock Star in terms of character, imagery and layered examinations of grief. If you’ve been following this blog you know I can give no higher praise than these two comp titles. Fans of sophisticated and emotionally resonant YA fiction will appreciate LaCour’s insight and style.

Sometimes, when falling in love with a book, you get a sense that the writer is also an awesome person. So it follows that LaCour is one cool chick who is deeply involved with bringing her book to the screen with a team of intrepid artists and filmmakers making use of social media and kickstarter to bring her vision to life.

Expect big things from LaCour.

I am off to binge on The Disenchantments.

Hold Still is available now in paperback from Penguin Canada.

Read, Write, Blog: 2013 in Review

WHAT I PUBLISHED

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Not one, but TWO new novels! Bringing my series about Benji and Clarissa to a close in DAYS THAT END IN Y was bittersweet. I love this review in CM Magazine because above all else I aim to be authentic, and if the mother of a teenage daughter who happens to be a middle school librarian says I succeeded, than I am a happy girl. I  still think about those crazy kids and what they might get up to in high school. I feel like Benji would be a big Lorde fan and that Clarissa would have many opinions on Miley Cyrus.

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SUMMER DAYS, STARRY NIGHTS came out a few months later and I was thrilled with the fantastic response it received, including pieces in The National Post, The Toronto Star, and on such great blogs as CanLit for Little Canadians and Fabbity Fab Book Reviews. This is my love letter to summer and the 1960s and on my snowy walk home from the bus stop I often imagine sitting lakeside with Reenie at Sandy Shores. Plus the launch party held at 3030 was my favourite night of the year!

WHAT I WROTE

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Some of my blogging highlights include the fantastic discussion generated by my spring post, YA Is Too Late: Gay Characters in Middle Grade Fiction. I got some great recommendations from this post, and I will continue to seek out titles for an update in 2014. Rounding up the idiosyncrasies shared by kidlit lovers everywhere in You Probably Work in Children’s Books If…  was a labor of love and celebration of our quirky community. I also ruminated on the oft-discussed niche genre of New Adult, listed my Top Ten Under-Sung Series, and started the CAIRN writing retreat, which will be returning in 2014.

WHAT I READ

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The thought of recapping everything I read is daunting, but here are some highlights: I wept over the  Montmaray journals, gushed over the latest Kiki Strike, had my faith in whimsy restored by Rooftoppers, found my spirit animal in the form of a book in Jane, The Fox, and Me, and fell in love with middle grade all over again with The Apothecary. If (like me) you enjoy a visual list, feel free to browse my Read Shelf over at the Fifty Book Pledge. I stand by all of these books. This list is missing a few unpublished titles (the hazards of working in publishing include reading books that are sometimes YEARS away from publication), but it’s fairly accurate. I’m aiming to get to 115 by December 31st!

What am I looking forward to in 2014? I want to read more books set in remote areas (real or imagined). I want more chapter books with spot illustrations. I want to read fantastic YA that doesn’t revolve around a love story. I’d like my magic to be subtle,and my characters strong. More than anything I want to read WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart. Thank you for joining me in a year of reading and writing- I hope you’ll join me in 2014!