Friday, May 26, 2017

Book review: YA fantasy books with strong girls

Welcome to Part 3 of my book review series featuring speculative literature books with strong girl protagonists. In previous installments, I listed books for younger middle grade readers (ages 8-10) and middle grade readers (10-12). This post emphasizes readers 12-16, moving into the young adult category.

(By the way, my age recommendations are based on my judgement of thematic appropriateness, rather than on reader comprehension. Younger readers may be able to read older books, but parents and teachers might want to check out the books first.)

On to the books!

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

This book has been raking in awards, nominations, and glowing reviews for good reason. Set in a school for unique students who don't fit anywhere else, this book explores what happens after children are cast out of Fairyland.

Of course, there are as many different fairylands as there are doorways (rabbit hole, anyone?). Seventeen-year-old Nancy was recently cast out of an Underworld, where she learned the power of extreme stillness as she served the Lord of the Dead. Now the noise and chaos of 21st century life is overwhelming. Sent to Miss West's special school, Nancy and the other students (and teachers) learn to relate to one another based on their alternate reality (and its degree of Logic, Nonsense, or Absurdity) with the hope of reconciling to the "real" world--or finding their doorway back.

When a gruesome murder shatters the school's calm, Nancy--the newest student--and her fellow Underworld friends are under suspicion. They must work together, using their various paranormal skills, to solve the mystery, clear their names, and save the school from further violence.

I loved this book's tone, from the perspective of a quiet, moody, intense teenage girl who's weird even among the weirdest kids. Her friends (and nemeses) are equally memorable characters from diverse backgrounds (although most of them are white). Of particular note is a clever, magnetic transgender student who befriends Nancy and becomes a love interest. Although I would have preferred more ambiguity in the final pages, I definitely recommend this book for anyone drawn to the spooky and strange.

Very excited to see that a sequel is due in June 2017!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Kidlit writers: Sale on writing tools!

For the next 4 days (May 16 - 19), Writing Blueprints by the folks behind Children's Book Insider (as well as a 1-year membership to Children's Book Insider) are ON SALE to celebrate their 27th anniversary!

Here's all the stuff on sale through
  • Picture Book Blueprint 
  • Easy Reader Upgrade
  • Picture Book Blueprint / Easy Reader Upgrade Bundle
  • Chapter Book Blueprint  
  • Self-Publishing Blueprint  
  • One Year Membership to Children's Book Insider

I tried the Chapter Book Blueprint, and I loved it. I was taking a gamble, but it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for as I approached writing my first chapter book.

Through a series of worksheets and accompanying videos, writers are led through an intuitive process to build characters, plot points, conflict...and then to deepen each aspect. Once you're ready to start your first draft, you have an outline (which can also be used to create your hook and synopsis). And when you complete a draft, there are worksheets and videos for troubleshooting and self-editing until your manuscript is polished and ready to submit. (There are even suggestions for submitting!)

As a bonus, a private Facebook group offers connection to the creators of the Blueprints, as well as critique groups with other users. It's been great to meet writers journeying along the same path, to read what folks are working on, and to receive detailed feedback on my own work. I've been really impressed by the quality of other members' writing and the generosity of their critiques. Here's hoping we'll develop long-term writing friendships!

So this is a plug for a product that I purchased on my own and really found useful. It's basically a self-guided class that offers the basics for crafting a solid manuscript. Are there other ways to write? Of course. But because you can download and keep the worksheets, you can use them in whatever order you like for as many projects as you want.

Check out the introductory video, and take advantage of the sale! Use THIS LINK for the sale prices.

Chapter Book Blueprint VIP Power Bundle | Writing Blueprints.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Book review: Middle Grade fantasy books with strong girls

Here's part II of my new series reviewing speculative fiction books for kids that feature strong female characters. Last week, I introduced books for younger middle grade readers (ages 8-10). This week, it's all about the tweens. Check back; I plan to update this list regularly, particularly with more culturally diverse authors and protagonists.

Middle Grade Ages 10-12
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This Newbery-medal winning novel blew me away. This exciting adventure begins with a village, shrouded in despair, that must leave its youngest baby in the forest for a witch in order to ensure another year of survival. Of course, one mother does not give her child willingly, setting off a chain of events within the village. When we meet the witch, and the baby she collects, delightful surprises involving moon-magic, a tiny dragon, and a poetic swamp monster propel events toward an inevitable reunion/conflict between the village and those who would try to control its people.

The language, the surprising plot, and the engaging characters entranced me. I loved the witch who is considered a healer in one town and evil in another; the village elder with the vicious heart of a tiger; the apprentice witch who doesn't know her own power; and the gentle, creative male "hero" who is rescued by the women that form the core of this story.

Subtly subversive, beautifully written, and deeply engaging--I cried!--this is an amazing book. It does have elements that sensitive readers might find disturbing (the willingness to sacrifice babies, and the gentle death of a beloved character). But I would recommend this book highly for kids and adults.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Book review: Younger fantasy books with strong girls

I love a good fantasy (or speculative fiction). Transport me to another realm and I don't wanna come back. Well, unless it's a dystopian world. Then where we are now doesn't look so bad. Usually.

So imagine my delight in finding a batch of recent fantasy books for kids featuring strong female leads. I plan to keep adding to this list, particularly with more culturally diverse authors and protagonists. I've organized them by general reader age appropriateness, and plan to include more posts for different ages. Keep checking back!

Younger Middle Grade (ages 8-10)

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls series by Holly Grant
Book I and Book II: The Dastardly Deed

This funny, imaginative mystery series begins with a funeral and goes downhill from there. After a bunch of strange occurances, Anastasia is forced to move in with her creepy aunties in their weird Victorian house. Once there, she becomes a very curious Cinderella, forced to serve her aunts in squalid conditions with a foreboding sense of something really bad about to happen.

The faux-Victorian setting and mixture of goofiness and existential dread echoes A Series of Unfortunate Events. When this intrepid prisoner turns to investigation, she discovers mystical friends and clues to the truth that will set her free in a most unexpected way.

In Book 2, The Dastardly Deed, Anastasia travels with her newfound relatives to an underground ice palace, just one part of a world of magic and fascinating people. Another mystery requires sleuthing, which brings her closer to finding the truth about her family.

Although the creativity and surprises are abundant, I preferred Book 1's semi-realistic setting and humor (or maybe it's just the Goth in me). The world-building in both books is engrossing, and the humor and mysteries keep readers guessing. Best of all, Anastasia is a smart, creative, delightfully imperfect guide that readers will enjoy following anywhere.

Looking forward to Book 3: The Witch's Glass this summer!

Check next week's post for a Middle Grade recommendation!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Book review: Sisters of the Revolution

Sometimes I forget how fulfilling it can be to read explicitly feminist writing.

So I have been enjoying the heck out of Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.

Speculative fiction is a catch-all phrase for science fiction, fantasy, and other harder-to-classify writing with a fabulist "what-if" slant. What if employees were encouraged to conform to corporate culture through biological additions, as in Eileen Gunn's "Stable Strategies for Middle Management"? What if there was "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet" as in Vandana Singh's story?

This book encompasses an excellent selection of stories from the 1960s to now by a diverse group of writers, both well-known--Angela Carter, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr. (really Alice Bradley Sheldon)--and up-and-coming--Nnedi Okorafor, Rachel Swirsky.

Although this collection is definitely for adults, I was excited to see a couple of my favorite kidlit authors, Catherynne Valente and Kelly Barnhill, represented. I was also thrilled to discover writers like Nalo Hopkinson and Hiromi Goto.

Some of the stories are familiar, like "The Screwfly Solution" and "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," but these are woven artfully among others arranged so that stories "speak" to one another across time and space. I loved the combination of styles: a journalist's "report" ("The Forbidden Words of Margaret A." by L. Timmel Duchamp) horror, surrealism, sci-fi (Elisabeth Vonarburg's great reimagining of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), sword-and-sorcery, fairy tales, and more.

The strains of feminism are diverse too, with varying degrees of satire, uplifting hear-me-roar grrl power, and horror-filled dystopian warnings. These stories represent women of different cultures, ages, sexual orientations--even species. Each selection is delightful reading and a thoughtful commentary on women's roles in society. These are stick-to-you stories. I know that Susan Palwick's "Gestella," about a werewolf in love, will haunt me.

Highly recommend this book, and I can't wait to dig further into the oeuvre of many of these writers.

Special shout-out to publisher PM Press, an amazing, socially conscious publishing organization out of Oakland. Looking forward to exploring their collection further, too!