Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book Review: Cybils Finalist, The Cabinet of Wonders

The Cabinet of Wonders starts off with a gruesome scene in the prologue, but the rest of the book is full of vim and vigor, with a determinedly bright outlook. These adjectives describe the protagonist, Petra, equally well.

Spunky, unconventional girls are all over kidlit these days. None of them think of themselves as pretty, although most of them are dropdead
gorgeous and they just don't know the effect they have ton people. Many have to undertake grim tasks, risk their lives and everything they treasure to achieve a seemingly impossible goal. Many of them have boy best friends who may turn into romantic interests. These heroines act with great courage and make decisions out of classic values such as honor and justice.

So why is it that Petra's story doesn't feel trite or commonplace?

The answer comes down to a just-right combination of craft, story, heart, with some magic thrown in. Exactly what that combination is, well, that's what so many writers try to find out everyday.

Back to the book: Petra loves her father.

That fact drives the whole story. Her relationships with her pet spider, Astropil, and good friends, Tomik and Neel, are shown in great depth. Her motivations are clearly set out and easily relatable. The magic is fantastically imaginative. But it's her love for her father that pulses underneath all the actions and development of the book. That is why, when towards the end [spoiler alert] she blurts out the unthinkable "I hate you!" , my breath got caught in my throat.

Yes, when a story affects me this way, I am sold.

I do have a small number of nitpicky things with the book. I understand the reasons for each of them, but still wish somehow there are ways to solve those plot problems without the results sticking out quite so much.

[Spoiler alert again. You are under strict orders to read the following only after you've enjoyed the book!]

First off, the prologue bothered me. It didn't seem necessary to show Mikal Kronos being transported home. Starting the story with chapter 1 seems perfect. We get to meet Petra and her normal life before everything in her life turns upside down. But we need to know about the Jarek's horse, which is touched on in the prologue, so Petra can come home at the end.

Second nit-pick: when Petra started work at the castle, it seems strange that she would jeopardize her chance to stay at the castle, all because of the bad treatment--which she surely would have expected--she's received from the head cook. She's risked so much, she would have had to endure a lot more than what she did to sabotage her plans. Again, I realize she has to make her way to Iris's workshop and this was how she got there.

Third, just before Petra sees the heart of the clock, she suddenly recalls Tomik, whom she hasn't thought about for chapters. I had to stop to remember who Tomik is. Tomik is mentioned because Petra is about to unleash the spheres so we need a reminder of their existence. I wish Tomik was on her mind more often during her time in the castle, if only in the form of comparison with Neel.

These complaints, though, are very, very small.

[End: spoiler alert.]

This is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. Go read it.

ps I typically don't read much fantasy or sci-fi, but now the folks over at the Cybils are turning me on to the genre. Hunger Games, Graceling, and now Cabinet of Wonders. Grumble, grumble. Like I don't have enough books that I already want to read? I hope you guys are happy!

AN UPDATE: As I mull over this book's prologue, Nathan Bransford is offering an agent's perspective on the subject of prologues. Check it out.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


My focus on writing these days is on kidlit, which is why I was so surprised to find that a regular short story won first prize in a contest! It's the Pikes Peak Writers Fiction Contest: Paul Gillette Awards. Last year, my Middle Grade novel took second place in the children's category, which gave me the confidence to get more work out there. I am sure glad I did!

As a winner this year, I get to attend the Pikes Peak Conference coming up in late April for free, and I get to pitch to an agent/editor of my choice. Nathan Bransford will be there, so will Ginger Clark and Kirby Kim. Choices, choices, choices.

Last year's PPW conference was my first one. Had an interesting session reading my first page, out loud, in public, to an editor, who didn't say anything much after my reading except that she wouldn't request it if it had been submitted to her.

Nothing like being thrown in the fire right at the beginning!

But the rest of the conference went well. I met some fabulous people and had a great time in general. It's not too late to sign up!

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Who moved my line?

This past week, I've received a number of responses to my work which spark off all manner of interesting thoughts, ranging from what-if-I-change-this-scene to I-never-thought-about-it-that- way to huh,-really?

One person commented that a couple of my descriptions don't make sense. I was trying to avoid cliches and show familiar scenes in a fresh way but apparently, my efforts fall as flat as a pancake at the bottom of the stack. (Don't even bother commenting on this one.)

That got me thinking: the line the separates what works and what doesn't is not only fine, but undefined.

Unusual and fresh can easily become obscure;
colorful and quirky--too-clever and annoying

And don't forget one-man's-trash and beauty-lies-in-the-eyes and all the others cliches we hate but agree reluctantly.

So what are some of the areas whose boundaries are so fluid and ever-changing that give you grief when you write?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Go and be confident!

I was going to write some book reviews this week, but I've received some really good critiques of my book recently and need to revise before my enthusiasm wanes. Also, the week on hiatus seems to have recharged me and I am on a bit of a roll in my revision and definitely do not want to lose the momentum.

So instead of changing focus to write my book review, I'll leave you with the fortune I got a couple of weeks ago:

You are capable, competent, creative and careful.

Maybe this veers too closely toward Deep Thoughts territory but I see no harm in some self-affirmation.

Of course, you can always have a discussion amongst yourselves on the topic of:

Do self-affirmations actually work or are we just deluding ourselves?


Are alliterations annoying or affirming?


Monday, March 23, 2009

Harry Potter

That's who, or rather, the what: the book I haven't read till about a month ago.

And you call yourself a kidlit writer?

I know, I know. In my defense, however, it was the book I chose to bring to the hospital when I was in labor. My husband read parts of it to me before the pain got too much. So what if it was eight and a half years ago.

I figured Harry Potter had enough readers worldwide, it didn't need me. I went for the debuts and the quiet novels that didn't make it to the NY Times bestseller list: always rooting for the underdog. Also, I have this irrational reluctance to take part in any phenomenon huge enough to be known as a phenom. And you have to agree Harry is a phenom.
But when the Harvard kids decided to pick on Rowling, I read her speech and was very impressed.

Anyway, I plucked Sorcerer's Stone from my TBR pile (does yours topple over?) recently and had a great time. No question, she's an excellent writer; Imagination, control over her craft, heart: she has it all. How does one not like Hagrid or Ron? Or get a rush from the Quiddich game? Or wish for a pet owl or a special cloak?

Phenom status: well deserved.

Quite a few people, all of whom women my age, have urged me to read Twilight.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I'll be taking a week off from the blog during Spring Break to enjoy our beautiful weather with the fam but I'll be back next week with book reviews under the categories of:
  • How Could You Not Have Read It Till Now?
  • Cybils Finalist
  • Carl Hiassen Doesn't Disappoint
  • "Oldies" from the Nineties
  • Favorite Books For my Early Middle Grade Boy Reader.
See ya!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Letter G

Over at the Drift Record, Julie Larios wrote a post on the letter "P" in which she listed things she loves that begin with the letter. She sent me "G" so I can play as well. So here is my list:

Grandma: my 95-lb hero, who woke up every morning at 5 and spent her day doing work and serving others without complaints. Her selfless attitude was never a show, but quietly lived. Mother Teresa had the world's respect, but my Popo will also have my adoration.

Grin: grinning faces, others and our own, are the best antidote to feeling blue.

[parka by Jasmic; grinning girl by mia3 mom; miilo grinning by Liz Henry]

Guffaw: and if grinning isn't enough to express your boundless joy, go right ahead and guffaw!

: great with chicken and fish, and sett
les an unruly stomach

[ginger, onions and garlic by vieux bandit.
All pictures found on Flickf]

: I don't know many cultures whose food doesn't include it, as seasoning or aromatic.

grater: I don't usually like tools that are super specialized. I mean, why would I ne
ed a special asparagus steamer when I can steam just about anything in my wok? And what can't I cut with my knives and cutting board? But this little tool is great for grating cheese and zesting citrus fruits without getting the bitter white bits.

Genius: where would our lives be without Mozart and Picasso and Da Vinci?

: why are smart people considered uncool just because they don't have good tastes in clothing?

Gorgeous, gargantuan and ginormous: how can I not give in to the grandiosity of these superlative adjectives?

Gentleness: a mother cradling her baby, a man stroking the hair of his beloved, a young child holding the hand of his grandmother, a teacher's voice to soothe a student's disappointment: nothing melts me as easily as tenderness shown to another.

Gratitude: feeling sorry for myself? Grumpy? Grouchy? Misunderstood? Disrespected? Giving thanks is the best way to regain perspective.

And finally Grace, which needs no description.

Feel free to add your favorite things beginning with the letter G in the comments section. And if you wish to play, I'll send you a random letter.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Poetry Friday

For Poetry Friday today, I was going to link to a short poem by Harold Shapiro over at the Writers Almanac. But when I read today's selection, I decided it has to be the one for today. Maybe it's because I've experienced the event described here many times or because my fellow writer, Cheryl, wrote about her experience in this arena recently.

The Meaning of Life
by Nancy Fitzgerald

Here is an excerpt:

You must be quick, decisive,
controlled, and if you miss
you must forgive
her quickly and give yourself
to scrubbing up the mess.

Excellent way to meet life head on!

The Miss Rumphius Effect is hosting the Roundup this week.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Queries, queries, and yet more queires

I spent the last few months reworking my Middle Grade novel, changing not only the POV but also the central theme. It's been a slow-going, hair-pulling, occasionally
gut-wrenching experience.

[frustration by sara.atkins at Flikr Creative Commons]

The revision is on its way, so I thought I should work on a new query.

[Yikes! by photojenni at Flickr Creative Commons]

Isn't it funny how when your mind is on something
, you see it everywhere? Well, I discovered the QueryFail event on Twitter, in which agents and editors Twitter on queries they receive in real time, for all the twitter-following world to read. *shudder*

Lots of reaction. Lots and LOTS of reactions. Loud ones. Rude ones. Loudly rude ones. Read some over here at the comments section at agent Nathan Bransford's blog.

Or. Don't read any of it. Instead, if you're in the midst of writing your three-paragraph letter that tells all about your book while allowing your unique voice to shine through, you may want to read these instead:

Associate Editor and writer Jill Corcoran's compilation of agents' and editors' guides on how to write a query

The article on AgentQuery on How to Write a Query.

Time to revisit mine. ("Query: I command thee, gel! Be brilliant! Knock the socks off some agents!" Um. I need a magic wand. Anyone?)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Share a Story, Shape a Future

Day two of this event is hosted
by Sarah Mulhern at The Reading Zone. The subject today: choosing materials, for infants/toddlers to emerging readers to middle grader readers, fiction and non.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Book Recommendation

Learning the craft of writing has its downside: it is difficult to disengage my writer-brain when I read, especially kid lit. The characters are memorable; the setting is evocative; the language is lyrical: these are the thoughts that typically occupy my mind. Or the POV shifts are abrupt; I don't buy that change of heart; I can't believe there are so many stock characters in one book.

So it's with great pleasure when I found myself not thinking any of those thoughts recently, while reading Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and The Olympians, The Lightning Thief

Instead of marveling at the author's skill and talents, I just devoured the book. The thought that I had? Not what a great cast of characters or authentic dialogue or the back story is seamlessly woven into the plot. All I could think of, after finishing the book, was that why wasn't this book around when I was younger? THIS is the book I'd always wanted to read.

If ever there was even one reader who thinks that of my book (if and when it's published) I'd be on cloud nine and a half.

If you are passionate about literacy

Check out Share a Story-Shape a Future, an event that starts today. Librarians, parents, teachers and other interested parties will blog about different ways we can include books and reading in the daily lives of the young people in our lives.

topic is on raising readers, hosted by Terry Doherty @ Scrub-a-Dub-Tub

host: Terry Doherty @ Scrub-a-Dub-Tub

Share a Story-Shape a Future: It all Starts with Raising Readers - Terry Doherty

Finding Time at Home - Tricia Stohr-Hunt @ The Miss Rumphius Effect

Making Time in the Classroom for Read Alouds
- Sarah Mulhern @ The Reading Zone

Look for the Clues - Tips and Tricks to Uncover and Help a Remedial Reader - Sandra Stiles guest post on Scrub-a-Dub-Tub

It's Bigger than the Book: Building Strong Readers at any Age with a Daily Dose of Read Aloud, an Interview with Cathy Miller, The Literacy Ambassador®

Minding the Gap: Engaging Gifted Readers - Donalyn Miller @ The Book Whisperer

Book Giveaways - Check out our slideshow with the covers of books our hosts are giving away this week.

Check back everyday this week for more thoughts and tips.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Reward? Bribes? Motivation?

Not that long ago, I was a staunch idealist when it came to work and rewards. I believed that work worth doing, is worth doing on its own. I practice piano, exercise, treat people kindly because each of these is a worthwhile goal in itself.
Putting a carrot at the end somehow cheapens both the task and the person.

Predictably, piano students, including one highly successful psychology professor, would complain that I didn't offer tangible rewards for their practicing. Why couldn't I do like other piano teachers and gave gold stars and stickers?

I've mellowed in the last few years. It's an non-ideal world. It's okay to offer rewards at times, even to ourselves.

And boy, am I glad I've made that profession of slackened belief in the rewards system, because I'm salivating over a new bribe, I mean reward system, for myself.

I've had such a great time learning about children's poetry lately from my participation in the Poetry Friday Roundup, I have complied a list of all the poetry collections written or recommended by my Poetry Friday friends that I want to purchase.

So this is what I'll do: for every big task--say finish revising my first novel, or writing X number of scenes for my WIP--I will buy one of these books. Kinda like people who want to establish a workout schedule promising themselves spa treatments and cute running tops if they do a certain amount of exercise (hmmmm, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea...)

Help out the publishing industry, revive the economy, support my Poetry Friday friends, AND get some writing done: not bad, eh?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Poetry Friday

I read a quote this week that exhorts me to seek delight. (Thanks, Kelly!)

Even the sound of the word makes you think of joy and all things wonderful. And I dare you to say the word without feeling your facial muscles lift into a smile. It's a word whose sound and meaning are perfectly combined.

As I paid more attention to my daily comings and goings, I found I am blessed with many delights. I'm delighted to sit in my son's bed and stroke his back before he sleeps. I'm delighted to watch my daughter execute a powerful yet graceful Tae Kwon Do move. I'm delighted by the words I read.

[5 365 Afternoon Delight by spud. Flickr, Creative Commons.]

Another thing that delights me: children's poetry.

The Poetry Friday Roundup has been instrumental in exposing and teaching me about poetry, not to mention allowing me to "meet" real poets in this new world of blogosphere.

Naomi Shihab Nye is one of the first poets I discovered in the PF Roundup. Her book, Come WIth Me: Poems for A Journey (illustrated by Dan Yaccarino), is a collection of deceptively simple poems that create a longing for the things she describes. I don't know about you, but I want experience the quiet minute between two noisy ones, tucked under the wing of the day. (from her poem Come With Me) I wonder why I never thought about whether I would turn or pause at a street corner (When You Come To A Corner). And I most certainly want to be as tall as a riddle and as full as a shadow (Somebody's Story).

Douglas Florian, on the other hand, is someone whose work I knew before PF. I love the whimsy in his art and his words. We have lizards, frogs, and polliwogs and mammalabilia on our shelf at home.

Pick a page, any page, and you'll find something that tickles and delights: the ex-ibex, the gila monster and the glass frog disappearing into their environment (a tree and a composition book), a lynx who thinks it stynx that people wear fur. I have a special fondness of the bear who slumbears. When my daughter was an infant, I got to name her teddy bears. Their names are Patti Le Bear, Eleanor RigBear, and Beary Manilow.

Larios is a regular on Poetry Friday Roundup. Her Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (illustrated by Julie Paschkis) has been honored many times, most recently by being a finalist in the Cybils Awards . Each poem deals with a mythical creature found in folklore of different cultures, from Russia to Egypt to the Mekong River. With very few words, she captures the essential myth of each being, and manages to push us to rethink our understanding of these imaginary creatures. The mighty Sphinx who once asked impossible riddles is now silent, Gargoyle who flies when the bells ring. And what would you do if a sea serpeant, ship swallower, calls you friend and invites you to swim with it?

Go enjoy more poem to your hearts' delight at Anastasia Suen's Picture Book of the Day.

Those Creative types: album cover designers

Typical size of a Vinyl LP jacket: 12 x 12 inches
Typical size of a CD jewel case: 5.5 x 5.5 inches
Typical size of an thumbnail on the pages of iTune: 2 x 2 mm, if that

LP jackets offered artists a decent size canv
as for their artwork. That, together with the close connection between art and music, and it's no wonder even famous artists have been drawn to designing for album covers: Andy Warhol, for example. Cover album art, in fact, took on a life of its own and you can even find coffee table books on the worst/best/most famous album covers over the years.

But can you imagine the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band shrunk to the size of a CD jewel box?

All the details are lost. We're not even talking about an icon on the iTunes page.

What is a cover album artist to do? Lament? Tear out hair? Start a movement to change the music medium back to Vinyls? Throw his hands up and say he'll get his artistic fix by posting his album cover ideas on a blog?

I am sure some do. But those who need work and can keep an open mind adapt. If you look at the new designs, most of them take on the style of a logo so that they mae a statement as boldly as they can in their diminutive sizes.

E-books, self-publishing, people shifting online in their reading habits: what is a writer to do? Keep abreast of developments in the industry, confusing and chaotic though they may be. Stay open to new possibilities instead of mourning the death of something we know and understand and love. Adapt and survive.

And write, I guess.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Those creative types: Disney Imagineers and The Haunted Mansion

The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite attractions at Disney World. Its goofy spookiness is pure Disney and pure fun.

When you first step into the ride, you feel as if you're in an old-fashioned foyer. An ominous voice speaks and fun things happen and you can't quite believe your eyes or what your body is feeling. One of those things is that the room appears to stretch on top. It's a memorable event, but one that would not have existed had it not been for some space limitations.

Because of the way the original Disneyland had been set up, with train tracks surrounding the theme park area, new attractions could not expand outward easily. The only way the Imagineers (engineers everywhere else but if you work at Disney you get this cool title) could make Haunted Mansion work, was to take people underground via an elevator to an area outside of the one marked by the railway tracks. This has to be written into the experience, thus the seemingly stretching ceiling when it's actually the elevator lowering.

The effect that resulted from this limitation became such a hit that it was replicated in other Disney Parks that didn't have the same space limitation.

I've done my share of complaining about certain limitations placed on writers, but I also know that when I am given complete free reign: draw a picture of anything I wish, I freeze. Structure, rules: these are good things, because they focus our minds and force us to use our creativity within prescribed boundaries. Who knows, unexpected but excellent work can result.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Those creative types: Bourdain arranging flowers, Ikebana style

This week, I turn my attention to the thoughts and endeavors of creative people in the arts; composers, theme-park engineers, album cover designers sharing their thoughts about the creative process.

The idea came when I caught a snippet of Anthony Bourda
in's No Reservation on TV a few weeks ago. You may know Bourdain to be the macho, chain-smoking chef who travels around the world sampling foods and pontificating. (The man gets to cook, eat, and write for a living? How jealous am I?)

Anyway, in this episode, he is in Japan, (Kyoto, I think) and he is given a chance to try his hand at arranging flowers and plants, Ikebana style, a style that emphasizes not so much the prettiness of the flowers, but the organic forms and lines of all parts of the plants: stems and twigs as well as flowers; how each element interact with the others; and being mindful of the spaces created between the lines.

It tickled me to see this world-weary, no-nonsense guy stare at the stems placed in front of him, trying to figure out what to do. He is always so sure of his opinions and to see him hesitate in front of some humble cut plants is refreshing. His guide, an expert in Ikebana, encourages him to just pick things up and find out where each plant is "happy." Soon, we see Bourdain muttering about is it happy here? I think I'll put this here, and cut this, and is it happy?

I am not the mystic-prone type writer, I don't sit at the computer waiting for my characters to talk through me and show me what they're going to do each day. But I think there is also an element about a creative process that is outside our control. It may not be a bad idea, at times, to step back from our work, and figure out if it is "happy." This advice is an especially good one for control freaks like me.

I wish you: happy manuscripts.

[CherryBlossomFestival_Japantown_Ikebana_04142008_951by javier.blazquez
CherryBlossomFestival_Japantown_Ikebana_04142008_993by javier.blazquez
Both pictures found on Flickr, Creative Commons.]