Bookish subscriptions

Now that I’ve caught up from BookExpo and NJ-SCBWI and the weird summer flu my husband gave me, I’m back in my chair, working hard.

One of the bennies of working for a literary agency is getting to attend events that my bosses can’t. One of those was a Lunch and Learn hosted by PJ Library during BookExpo.

Not familiar with PJ Library? Neither was I. I’d heard of them, but I didn’t know nearly enough about them. PJ Library is a philanthropic organization that sends FREE Jewish children’s books to families in the United States and around the world – every month.

That’s right. Every month, Jewish children – no matter their background, family make-up, knowledge, or observance – can receive free books after signing up with PJ Library. The original program is for children 6 months to 8 years old, and there is a follow-on program, PJ Our Way, which provides books to children 9-11 years old.

Pretty great! Of course, for us as writers, this means there is also a steady demand for books with Jewish themes, values, and stories. This is a very broad spectrum, inclusive of intermarried families too! (Jewish values? Think tikkun olam – making the world a better place OR tzedekah – charity.)

PJ Library sends out over 165,000 books each month. That’s a LOT of books.

You can read about how they choose books here. I was happy to learn that PJ Library is committed to working with agents to fulfill their consistent need for these stories – they have special incentives and a dedicated contact for agencies. (And the incentives go to THE AUTHOR.)

If you’ve a Jewish story you’re working on, keep PJ Library in mind as a possible submission. Remember, authors do not need to be Jewish themselves. (Though as with all diverse voices, #ownvoices are great.)  🙂

Another great service I noted at BookExpo was Owl Crate. Need a great gift for teens? (Or that YA librarian in your life?) Owl Crate is a subscription service (from 1-6 months) that ships a box containing a brand-spanking-new YA novel AND other bookish goodies – even author notes and such – right to your recipient’s door. (Or your door, as the case may be.) Each box is centered around a theme. July’s is WANDERLUST.

(They are also offering a middle grade service, Owl Crate JR. for readers ages 8-12. )

I’m thinking I’m all set for summer birthdays and my niece’s holiday present this year. Friends’ children get the single box, my niece gets a three-month or six-month bundle of reading fun. Less shopping for me, more reading for them. Yay! More time for my MG novel draft. 😉



Just a taste

Looking for a quick read before bed? Need a short story for a read-aloud for the end of Black History Month? Want a literary palate cleanser after the news of the day?

Look no further.


This YA compilation of short stories is quite a treat. All are historical fiction or historical fantasy – some written by big names in YA (for example, Marie Lu, Marissa Meyer, Elizabeth Wein) and some by names that should be bigger than they are (likewise, J. Anderson Coats, Leslye Walton, Lindsay Smith).

The author’s notes at the end of each story -explaining their choice of historical era ranging from pirates to Black Panthers- are a wonderful feature of the anthology. Chock-full of diverse and delightful heroines, the book can be gobbled or savored as you choose.

While many reviewers on Goodreads lamented the shortness of the stories, I thought they were just the right size. Like a great piece of chocolate – wonderful, but leaving you wanting just a little more.

Might just have to buy this one for my shelves so I can re-read my favorites!

Labelling books

Eileen & Jerry Spinelli wrote a wonderful book titled  Today I Will: a Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself. I bought it in Chautauqua during a Highlights Foundations Children’s Writers Workshop. I don’t look into it every day, but when I do it never fails to surprise me with a great piece of advice – usually, but not always, from a kids’ book. Today’s passage was even more thought-provoking than usual:

“October 26

To me, the labels that people gave each other – or themselves – were like invisible name tags. Once you started to ‘wear’ one, everyone was free to make assumptions about who you are.

More than a Label: Why What You Wear or Who You’re With Doesn’t Define Who You Are 

by Aisha Muharrar

So why do it? Why costume yourself like a this or a that and thereby invite everyone to assume you’re so much less than you really are?

I am not a label.

I am not a label.

I am not a label.”

Published in 2002, Muharrar’s book looks at the role of labels & cliques for teens, based on a survey that then teen-aged Muharrar performed while a member of “Teen People News.” It’s still relevant – perhaps even more so – today, given what’s happening in publishing and kidlit. #WNDB isn’t just a hashtag. (Thank goodness! 🙂 )

But it’s also relevant in our libraries: classroom, school, public, and even personal.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by the constant narrowing down of divisions in kid lit. PB, MG, YA… easy read or chapter book? … fiction vs. nonfiction … shelving series separately or with other fiction. Don’t get me started on shelving biography separately from Dewey call number 920.

Volunteers always want to pull out books. Make a shelf for princess books. Make a shelf for holiday books – no, not 394, that’s nonfiction, we want holiday picture books. Why are graphic novels shelved with nonfiction?

Sheesh. Sometimes separating books is a good thing. (Hello, Dewey subject headings and call numbers?) But more often, it creates a morass of shelving minutia that’s hard for new volunteers and new students to understand. That’s the surprise and delight of browsing: finding something you didn’t even know you wanted just because it happened to be by an author whose last name started with K when you were about to re-read one of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.

And separating books by reader age? Picture books are for everyone, but too many people regard them as only for very young children. Where does that leave the many “picture storybooks” of the past? There’s a clear line between most easy readers or beginning chapter books and middle grade books or YA, but what about the morass that faces the middle school reader or advanced MG reader? Please don’t tell me that now there’s upper MG. And forget about NA.

What happened to integrating all the fiction – assuming shelf heights and space allow – and letting kids discover books for themselves? Did libraries start following a bookstore model, or was it the other way ’round? Was it an outgrowth from the classroom and the now constant leveling of readers? (Stick to the five-finger rule, my friends! Works for all ages, not just kids.)

We make assumptions about books based on the labels they “wear,” just like we make assumptions about people. “That’s too hard for me.” “I don’t like fantasy.” “I want a princess book.” (You try giving a determined kindergartener a ‘real” fairy tale instead of name-your-Disney-Princess-here. Fun!)

I see it in the queries I read for the slush pile all the time. Yes, it’s important to know your audience. It’s important to know your genre. As a literary assistant, it’s very helpful – unless I read your pages and realize that you really don’t know what YA is.

As a writer, I don’t want labels to limit the audience for my book. As a lapsed librarian, I know some labels are necessary so readers can find the books they want. Maybe the folks who shelve their own books by color instead of by genre or alpha by author are on to something. I’m not that brave with my own bookshelves.

As a person, I agree with today’s passage. I am not a label. It’s the sum of the many labels I have worn and do wear that make me who I am.

Instead of dividing books or people – as labels do – let’s start adding.

The shape of a book

I just finished reading Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston.

Exit is a short book with a fresh and thought-provoking take on surviving rape. Her heroine Hermione Winters (named for Harry’s friend or possibly out of Greek mythology) is the golden girl, captain of the cheerleading squad, with a popular boyfriend. When Hermione is slipped a roofie on the last night of cheer camp, raped, and left in the lake, her life changes. She’s going to become “that girl.” Or will she?

Hermione’s search for herself while remembering nothing of what happened that night is wrenching and uplifting, in a stout and wry voice that we wish had belonged to us as teens.

Not only was it an excellent read, Johnston’s acknowledgements had a phrase that really made me think.

She thanks her friends and colleagues for helping her turn a “book shaped idea into a book.”

Think about that for a moment – a “book shaped idea.”

When does a story become a book?

Is it when it’s published – with cover art and an ISBN? That would be simplest.

Is it when it’s a complete manuscript, proof-read and copyedited, just waiting to be published? After all, nothing is really going to change at that point.

Is it when a first draft has been critiqued and polished and revised into a submission for agents and editors? A manuscript is more than a story.

Or is it when a vignette or a scene or two have become a full draft,  with a beginning, middle, and end?

I love Johnston’s concept of a book shaped idea. I love thinking of her original thoughts, her story, morphing and changing into the book I held in my hands, allowing me the pleasure of reading it.





NYC Reads


If you’re in need of a reading list for Pre-K through 12th grade, check out the wonderful lists at NYC Reads 365, compiled by a committee of school librarians (who else?) and reviewed by literacy specialists from the NYC DOE. The downloadable posters and bookmarks for each borough are pretty cool, too!



And if you’re a fan – and who isn’t? – the upcoming exhibit of Mo Willems’ art at The New-York Historical Society is not to be missed. No matter how many copies I buy for my library of the Pigeon, Elephant & Piggie, and Trixie books, they’re soon loved to death. And if you want a sure-fire read-aloud, We are In a Book! always gets laughs galore. (No matter how well the audience knows it.) Not to mention Mo is a really swell guy. Not only did he sign my daughter’s books, he posed for a photo so I could show her I’d really met him at the SCBWI NY conference some years back.


All of these thoughts on NYC reading got me thinking about my favorite NYC books. Besides Mo’s books. 🙂

In no particular order:

  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  • Harriet the Spy
  • When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy, and Goodbye Stranger
  • Bernard Waber’s Lyle books (The House on 88th Street begins the series)
  • Kay Thompson’s Eloise books
  • Gregor the Overlander
  • The Lightning Thief
  • Rita Garcia-Williams’ Gaither Sisters trilogy (the girls live in New York, even though much of the action is elsewhere)
  • Uptown
  • Blackout
  • All-of-a-Kind Family
  • Under the Egg
  • Tar Beach
  • Balloons Over Broadway
  • The Grimm Legacy
  • Sky Boys

And of course,

  • The Snowy Day
  • This Is New York

Did I miss any of your favorites? Leave a shout-out in the comments. 🙂

My Best Books 2015

It’s that time of year when everyone makes lists of their favorite books of 2015!

My favorites? (I have to list them in no particular order. It would be like ranking children. 😉 )

  • The Wrath and The Dawn
  • Dumplin’
  • Absolutely Truly
  • Sheila Turnage’s Tupelo Landing books
  • Ember in the Ashes
  • Written in the Stars
  • Bone Gap
  • Courage for Beginners
  • If Ever I Get Out of Here
  • A Time to Dance
  • Girls Like Us
  • Rain Reign
  • Hidden
  • The Jumbies
  • Crenshaw
  • Goodbye Stranger
  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here
  • Rita Garcia-Williams’ Gaither Sister trilogy

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have gingerbread men to make and e-books to load on my Kindle for my upcoming holiday travels. 🙂

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season and a wonderful New Year!

Neither MG nor YA

Sometimes you miss out on  amazing things. This week, McNally Jackson Books here in NYC had a panel I would have LOVED to have attended: “Middle School is Hell,” organized by Kate Milford, moderated by Connie Hsu of Roaring Brook Press, with Kate, Rebecca Stead, and Mariko Tamaki speaking.

Sorry, Wright, Cespedes, and Murphy – that was the lineup I wanted to see. (But if you’ve got World Series tix for Citi Field, you’re not using, I’m rooting for the Mets.  😉  Go, Amazin’s! )

Beyond the stellar lineup, I was intrigued by the topic: the hole in the market for books aimed at kids 12-14 years old. I see this every day in my library – even though my oldest students are 11, if that. Many of them are reading beyond their age and grade, but not so much as to read YA. And the ones that do read YA don’t always seem to enjoy it or comprehend it full, given their comments to me.

The panel agreed that 12-14 is an awkward age, but I think it goes beyond that.  The gap between 13 and 16 is much wider than the gap between, say, 6 and 9 – wider emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

Let’s face it, kids at this age are more sophisticated readers, and many of the books  for middle grade seem babyish or are too quickly finished. These kids want something they can sink their teeth into, and I found that Puffin Classics work really well for them. But there’s only so many classic books, and many of these kids want something modern. They want books that are more complex, with bigger issues, but they don’t necessarily want all the romance (never mind sex) of YA or its all too frequent navel-gazing. And many parents definitely don’t want their not-quite or just-barely teens reading about sex, drugs, violence and other content typically found in books targeting older teens.

I’ve experienced this myself, not just with my child and her reading, but with my writing. I deliberately targeted this age group with my fantasy, and I’ve gotten feedback that I needed to age my characters up “so it’ll work for YA” or change the emphasis on certain themes so “MG can relate more.”

Maybe we all need to loosen up a little and let the readers find the book. After all, many adults find Pullman impenetrable – but I know plenty of kids who love him.

Maybe publishing will become even more granular, with a new category aimed at 12-14. MS for middle school? YT for younger teens? NQYA? (Not Quite YA.)

What do you think?