I’m so thrilled to show you the cover of Unusual Chickens, by the fabulous Katie Kath and the amazing folks at Knopf Books for Young Readers! Can’t wait to see it on the book next spring!!!
What am I currently working on?
I am wrapping up copy edits on my middle grade novel Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, coming March 2015 from Knopf (and I can’t wait for you to read it!)
I’m also playing with a number of other ideas — everything from spies with magical disguises to goats, sauerkraut, and tap dancing. (Don’t ask me yet how that all fits together.) I wrote a normal chicken who’d had a spell cast on it for one test bit, but other than that, not a bawk bawk bawk!
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Unusual Chickens has a taste of magical realism’s sense that magic is happening in a world we recognize, but it’s a dryer, funnier tone that’s a bit more straightforward than Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Summer of the Mariposas, Louis Sachar’s Holes, or Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (all books I love!). It’s more about Sophie and her chickens and less about their part in the broader tapestry of history and their landscape.
Unusual Chickens differs from most middle grade fantasy because Sophie is half-Latina, half-white, lives on a farm in Northern California, and her struggles involve protecting chickens with superpowers, grieving for her grandmother, and making a place for herself in the small town she moves to, not dragons or wizards.
Why do I write what I write?
I’m always interested in seeing things differently, in what happens at the edges. When my first chickens came home, I couldn’t resist wondering what if… I adore books written in letters, so it didn’t surprise me when the chickens showed up in one. And as a former children’s librarian, it shocks and saddens me that there are still kids who rarely see themselves in fun and funny books and as heroes in stories with magic, so it was a great honor when Sophie showed up and shared her story with me. I’ve loved books with magic all my life, and I love adding to that picture in ways I haven’t seen before; my books always have at least a little magic.
How does my individual writing process work?
Oh, what a messy, inefficient process mine is! I usually start with a character who shows up, and with one or more interesting what ifs… I start researching anything I need to know a little more about (chickens, 4-H clubs, how superheroes describe superpowers, typewriters, poultry shows, what you would say to close a letter to your grandmother in Spanish) and then I follow the character around until I have a clear sense of who this person is, how they tell their story, and why they’re telling me all this.What does this person want, and why can’t they take care of it in a page or two? Around this time, I check in with my agent to see what she thinks, because the idea is much more malleable at this stage. If it can be tweaked into something that might be sellable, I keep working on it. If not right now, I set it aside for a while.
Once my agent is on board with an idea, I cobble together a skeleton book from all this with a lot of notes like [something goes here] and [fill this in later] and [why do chickens eat grit anyway?]. I usually write the beginning first, but after that I often write whatever scene interests me and sort out the order later. I use a writing program called Scrivener that makes this a little easier. (I’m not affiliated with Scrivener, it just works well for me.) Then I do more thinking and research, take a lot of long quiet walks, and write more scenes to make a draft or two, trying to fill in the gaps I can see with just enough detail to give you a sense of being there, and not so much you get bored. These early drafts don’t even look like a book, let alone the final book — they jump around and have huge holes and make little sense.
After that, I have to let it sit for a while, until I can see which words are on the page and which are still in my head somewhere. I start editing and filling more things in. I find the beginning goes fairly quickly, the middle is endless, and the end is also endless until suddenly it’s over. This part takes a long, long time, and all my writer friends know to sympathize and then tell me to keep working.
Then, I ask readers and writers to weigh in. If I am writing someone who is more like other writers than like me, I try to find at least a couple of other writers who have more in common with that character than I do, and see if they will help me fill in the gaps or correct the errors that they see. I don’t have a critique group, but I know a number of writers who are willing to swap drafts and give feedback. If I’m asking for help from someone, I suggest a trade — giving feedback takes a lot of time, and I like to be respectful of their writing time too. Often, I hear that I haven’t included enough detail on the page, so most of my edits tend to be filling in more gaps or correcting continuity issues that pop up when I move things around. And eventually it becomes a book, much to my surprise!
Tagged for next week:
Linda Johns is the author of Hannah West in the Belltown Towers and three other books in the Hannah West Mystery series (Penguin/Puffin), and close to 30 other books, primarily for the education and library market. She’s a librarian for Seattle Public Library (her day job). She’s currently working on a story set on the International Space Station.
Holly Bodger is the author of 5 TO 1, coming from Knopf in May 2015.
Since you’ve already heard a lot about the unusual (magic) chickens in my novel, let me tell you a little bit about the farm girl that’s trying to protect them.
Sophie is twelve years old, and she just moved to her great-uncle’s farm from Los Angeles. She’s shy, brave, and not quite sure how this whole farm thing works, but she always does what needs to be done, no matter what it takes. Sophie misses living near her Mexican-American mom’s family, and she particularly misses her abuelita, who died not too long ago. She also wishes she’d known Great-Uncle Jim, her white dad’s uncle who left them the farm, and she writes to him and to her abuelita, telling them about her new life — especially when Jim’s magical chickens show up.
Sophie is a brown girl who happens to be having magical adventures. Although Sophie’s main struggles are about protecting her new chickens, not about being mixed-race, she certainly notices how people treat her, and compared to LA, Sophie feels like she sticks out as a brown girl in her new community.
As a white writer who worries about the lack of diversity in children’s books, having a protagonist like Sophie come along was a pretty big decision. Could I write her the way she deserved to be written, or would I get everything wrong? I hadn’t published anything before — would it be harder to find representation for a book with a Latina protagonist,or harder to sell it? Could I allow my own worries to push brave Sophie’s story back down and leave it unwritten? What kind of writer would that make me?
I decided to give it a try, and to do my best. I used tips from Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (absolutely recommended — so many practical suggestions!). I also asked for help from Latino/a writers and readers for things I hadn’t experienced or didn’t know.
My agent fell in love with Sophie and her chickens, agreed that Sophie’s heritage is a key part of her and was not to be changed, and offered representation. Yay, Mandy Hubbard of D4EO, who believes all kids need to see themselves in books!!
My editor agreed with us, and considered Sophie’s heritage a selling point when she bought the book. Throughout all the edits, Sophie’s heritage remained intact (and the amazing copy editors checked cultural details as well, to be sure things were as correct as we could get them). She asked for my opinion on artwork, and agreed that Sophie, her mom, and Gregory the postman would all be visibly people of color whenever they appeared. The artist they’ve chosen is doing amazing work, and I’m so excited. (Yay, Katie Kath, who gets Sophie just right!) Yay, Nancy Siscoe, the copy editors, and the art department of Knopf, who believe that people buy books about mixed-race Latina girls and their adventures!
I am trying to tell Sophie’s story as well as I can, but it is just one of many stories. While you wait for Sophie’s book, please consider trying some of my favorite reads about other Latino and Latina kids!
Just A Minute and Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales – picture books by one of my favorite illustrators (who also illustrated Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez — on my list to read!) Read them, and then make a lucha mask or a Señor Calavera puppet!
Pickle by Kim Baker – The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School — such a funny middle grade story about Ben Diaz and his super-secret practical jokester friends!
The Tía Lola stories by Julia Alvarez — warm, funny middle grade reads about Miguel and his family.
Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall — a young adult retelling of the Odyssey, or, what happens when five Mexican-American sisters find a dead man’s body in the Rio Grande and decide to take it to his family in Mexico.
And please let me know your favorite diverse reads of any kind!
I am so terribly excited to let you all know that my magic chickens book will be published by Knopf Children’s in Spring of 2015, and that I’m so honored and delighted to be working with editor Nancy Siscoe, whose work I’ve admired for years. Thank you so very much for finding the chickens their perfect home, Mandy!
As usual, Sophie says it best:
Remember all those letters I wrote you and Great-Uncle Jim, after you died and we moved to the farm, about everything that happened with my chickens? Someone wants to make a book out of them!
They say they’ll call it fiction, so no one comes looking for my chickens. They want to know if I have any pictures of them.
It’s a strange feeling, to think we’ll be in a book. And some of those things I wrote were private. I wasn’t too sure at first.
But what if some other kid gets chickens like mine? They’ll need all the help they can get. I go to the library every week, and there aren’t many books about chickens with superpowers.
I think I would like those kids to know my story.
Te extraño ,
P.S. I’m going to draw them a picture. No one will believe it’s fiction if I send them a photo.
P.P.S. Those circles mean Henrietta is lifting that tomato with her mind. That’s how they do it in comics.
P.P.P.S. I know she should be tipping her head to stare at the tomato, but that’s really hard to draw. I tried it, and it looked like her eyeball fell out because of all the circles.
(That makes me laugh Every. Single. Time.)
Here you see the backsides of two of my chickens fluffed up inside their nest boxes. Ada, on the left, is a Blue Copper Marans; she’s inquisitive, and she’s named after Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. Marie, on the right, is a Black Copper Marans; she’s curious, and she’s named after Marie Curie, the physicist and chemist who worked on radioactivity. Right now, Ada and Marie are broody; this means all they want to do is sit on eggs. (For more about broodiness, see this fabulous HenCam post, including a picture of broody Buff Orpington Topaz masquerading as Henzilla! I love her chicken photography.)
These days, I have been:
- Trying to sneak the eggs out from under Marie and Ada before they go bad
- Sniffling and sneezing with seasonal allergies (need more spicy food to clear these sinuses out!)
- Reading lots (Freakling by Lana Krumwiede, Of Giants and Ice by Shelby Bach, Poison by Bridget Zinn, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, The Sasquatch Escape by Suzanne Selfors, Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder)
- Traveling to Madison, WI for WisCon, and getting to spend time with wonderful writers like Caroline Stevermer and E. M. Kokie
- Attempting to eat my weight in Thai Iced Tea popsicles (it’s been above 70 F in Seattle — stifling!)
So, in most-exciting-news-ever, I am now represented by Mandy Hubbard of D4EO Literary Agency. I met Mandy at the SCBWI Western Washington conference, where I’d signed up for the Roundtable Critiques. I was assigned to Mandy’s table and had a chance to read the first bit of my middle grade novel in letters to dead people, about Sophie and the magical chickens she inherits when she moves to her great-uncle’s farm.
Mandy (who has two cows herself and clearly needs some chickens) seemed intrigued. I really appreciated her comments on my book and the other novels being presented. So, I followed up with a query.
I queried other agents. Mandy requested the full. I made some tweaks and sent it. Then, I got an email: Mandy loved it. She wanted to find time to talk.
Suddenly things started moving fast. I was following up on submissions and notifying agents, collecting questions that were important to me, and having conversations I’d barely dreamed of. It’s so strange, how 8+ years of learning to write novels and 2 years of writing this book suddenly crunch down into a week of intensity. It’s terrifying, too, knowing you’re basing the next phase of your writing life on a few emails and conversations, however in depth they are. I really do recommend asking a lot of questions when you’re talking to agents!
When I talked to Mandy, it was clear she loved the book and middle grade novels in general for the same reasons I do. Farm Girl is not an easy book to describe, yet she immediately got it, down through all the levels I hoped were there. She valued the things that were most important to me about it, and she had visions for where it could go.She offered representation, and after careful thought (and a million questions), I accepted.
People say persistence is important, and it is. But I would also like to say that without all the writers and readers and generally great folks who have helped me and believed in me and my ideas, I couldn’t have sustained that persistence.
So, thanks to all of you for helping me make it here now.
- Relaxing at nearby Guemes Island (the rainy Northwest at its most beautiful!) after drooling over NotMartha’s adventures for so long.
- Getting ready for my trip to Madison, WI for WisCon.
- Chasing the broody chicken out of the nest box. (She wants to sit on All the Eggs, All the Time.)
- Starting over with Couch to 5K on the treadmill (see: rain) and thinking about the links between exercise to brain activity.
- Eating steel-cut oatmeal with frozen blueberries (but the blueberries don’t stay frozen — they cook, see).
- Reading lots (Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann, Eat Vegan Before 6:00 by Mark Bittman, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, listening to Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo, read by Simon Russell Beale)
- Getting ready to start writing the next book. (So far, it has a girl with no magic, an angry tomte, and a problematic mother. I hope it grows more cool stuff soon.)
- Trying to think up uses for all the chickens’ eggs (but still giving many away)
- Enjoying the intense greens of Seattle spring, despite the rain
- Sending jewelry to neat places all over the country
- Preparing for the EDGE Professional Development program for Literary Artists’ final presentation (come see us read!)
- Reading lots (Unraveling Isobel by Eileen Cook, Croak by Gina Damico, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers, One Year in Coal Harbor by Polly Horvath, draft manuscripts for several writers)
- Finishing revisions on my current novel
- Getting ready to query agents (eek!)
- Looking forward to the SCBWI Western Washington Conference — say hello if you see me there!
Today I learned from the folks at BeTheMatch.org (I’m on the National Bone Marrow Registry) that I have a rare HLA type. This is the thing you want to match up well between patient and donor for a circulating blood cell or marrow donation. It’s a lot more particular than blood type, and it’s closely related to your ancestry, ethnicity, and heritage.
As a person who generally considers herself Irish-American, I was pretty surprised. (Trust me, there’s a lot of Irish-Americans out there.) I did my home cheek swab and joined up more out of support for a local leukemia patient than because I thought they’d need me. Apparently, I was wrong. I may not be needed very often, but if I am, I’m likely to be one of a very few matches
I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the what-ifs right now. Personally, I know I’m fine with donating if I can help someone save their life. But what if I hadn’t happened to see that poster? I look at the articles about patients for whom there is no match yet in the entire registry, and I sure wish I’d joined sooner.
Want to know more, or considering your own cheek swab? BeTheMatch.org for facts, myths, medical guidelines, etc.
- Getting ready for revisions on the magical chickens book (thanks, early readers! get ready, next readers!)
- Learning lots from Artist Trust’s EDGE Professional Development program for Literary Artists (hi, folks!)
- Hoping you’ll come see our final reading on April 14th at Elliott Bay Books
- Working on critiques for several authors and really enjoying their works in progress
- Playing Counterfeit Monkey by Emily Short (a word geek’s favorite thing) (I love her interactive fiction!)
- Still hoping to write my own interactive fiction game someday
- Preparing for taxes
- Donating blood
- Wishing I could take more naps
- Rereading Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath (a favorite) and looking forward to One Year in Coal Harbor (the sequel — hoorah!)
- Signing up for SCWI Western Washington‘s regional conference in April — hope to see you there!
- Wishing I could go to some of the Women Fly! events at the Museum of Flight‘s celebration of Women’s History Month
- Appreciating the unusual/complex/amazing scent of Tokyomilk / Dark lotion: Bulletproof (smoked tea, coconut milk, crushed cedar, ebony woods)
- So proud to be part of the assistance raised by this year’s Con Or Bust auction