Not too late for great summer reading!

by Michelle McCann
Published on: August 8, 2012
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I’m a little depressed. I checked the calendar today and it looks like there are just 4 weeks left of summer. But I still have so many books to read! I am currently deciding which 15 young adult books to assign to my students this fall. Not an easy task, let me tell you. So many good new titles. So many good classics. Do I make them read some trashy hits, just so they know what teens are reading, or do I keep it highbrow?

Either way, I’m buried under a pile of “to-reads” this month. And just in time to make my life a little harder, out come some great lists to consider. The first is an awesome visual chart of dystopian hits created by the Kansas Library Association. If you’re looking for something to read after Hunger Games, this is the list for you:

The other is an NPR “100 Best-Ever Teen Books” list, according to the 75,000+ NPR listeners who responded to their poll. My guess, from the make-up of winners, is that most of the folks who voted were not teens (what teen would pick “Flowers for Algernon” for god’s sake?). But it’s a great list, nonetheless (John Green is on there five times!):

You have 27 days left of summer.

Time to get reading!

Dude, Where’s My Website?

by Michelle McCann
Published on: June 5, 2012
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So I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those writers who is being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. My first children’s book was published twelve years ago and I STILL don’t have a website (oh, the horror!). As many other similarly Luddite-minded authors are finding these days, my publisher is no longer content to let me ignore this important marketing opportunity and is forcing me to get on the bandwagon. That means a website, Facebook page and Twitter action ASAP! I have my summer to do list.

Fortunately, two of my most brilliant former students recently started a company, Whirlabout New Media (, that helps technophobe children’s book authors like myself launch ourselves and our books onto these new “platforms” (see how much I’m learning already).

Along those same lines, last week my Intro to Children’s Book Publishing students researched and presented author or book websites they either loved or hated. I found their discoveries both reassuring (I’m not the only one out there who doesn’t know how to do it yet) and inspiring. Children’s book writers and publishers are doing some very cool things to engage their fans and get kids excited about books.

This is by no means a definitive list—more a small sampling. But if you’d like to see some of the interesting things happening online, here are some good ones to check out.


PICTURE BOOKS: Picture book websites need to please two audiences: the kid fans and the adult readers/buyers. There should be lots of imagery, games and fun interactive stuff for the kids, as well as printable freebies for the adults (lesson plans, etc.).

This one is aimed more at adults—the teachers, librarians and parents who read her books aloud—but there is still plenty of fun stuff for kids and lots of visuals and personal info and photos.

This is a rare publisher-run website that is actually really fun and creative. Tons of games and activities for young Seuss fans to do.

Personally, I think this is the best picture book website out there. It has stuff for grown-ups (titled “Boring Grown-up Stuff”), as it should, but the entire website is totally kid friendly (kids don’t have to be able to read to navigate), chock full of humor, awesome pictures, and hysterical games. I can waste hours playing Elephant & Piggie Dance Party (go to Mo Willems-Pigeon Presents-Fun).

BEGINNING READERS: This age group is one that really likes to play games on the computer, so if you can create book-themed games that get them excited about reading, great! This is also a genre with lots of teacher interaction, so having free lesson plans and other stuff for the educators is a must. Here are three sites where publishers are doing it right:

MIDDLE GRADE: Middle grade websites are aimed more directly at the kids. You will notice that the popular ones have the look and feel of a movie trailer or video game (their competition).

This local Portland author’s book site proves you don’t have to be a mega-bestseller to have a kick-butt website. Listen for the theme song he wrote and recorded himself! Movie is in development—yah Dale!

Tons of fun stuff for kid fans—layers and layers for kids to explore.

Girl spy series. Very stylish and cool!

Another very visually appealing, chock-full-of-activities website.

This site is kind of the holy grail of interactive middle grade book-website synergy. This was the beginning and it’s still pretty darn impressive.


Young adult websites are all about getting personal. Teens want to get to know their favorite authors more intimately, their favorite characters more intimately, and they want to interact. And they want free stuff, of course! A good YA website will give them all that in a stylish package.

An innovative, inspiring website for an innovative, inspiring book. And check out author Jay Asher’s blog link—it’s a good one.

This YA darling does it all, with style. She’s got personal info and photos, contests, music, home-made cut-paper videos, foreign edition covers and more! Fans can spend hours here and many do.

A newbie to the YA bestseller world, Marissa did her own website and it’s awesome. Our favorite is  contest she has where fans have to answer questions about things only found on her website (encouraging fans to explore every nook and cranny). She also offers free Skype Q&As.

John is the Don Corleone of YA social media, the undisputed King (just Google “The Fault in Our Stars” social media promotion to find out more). His website is just the tip of the online iceberg that is his presence. But start there and check out his Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, etc. He is endlessly entertaining, whatever “platform” he is on.

YA Goes to the Oscars

by Michelle McCann
Published on: May 7, 2012
Comments: 2 Comments

While watching the Oscars a few months back, I noticed something strange: a large number of nominations were for movies based on children’s books, particularly young adult novels. I counted and it was a whopping 21 nominations this year: 1 for Tin Tin, 3 for Harry Potter, 6 for War Horse, and 11 for Hugo.

And then there is the staggering success of The Hunger Games movie. Best-ever opening weekend. Already surpassed grosses for all the Twilight movies combined. I went to my very first midnight opening and was amazed to see hundreds of grown people standing in line for 5 hours. For a movie. On a school night!

What is going on? Why are these movies suddenly so popular, with adults as well as kids? I think it is the same reasons YA novels are so popular right now, with adults as well as kids:

Today’s YA novels are incredibly well-written AND incredibly fun to read.

Soon after the Oscars I came across a great piece in the New York Times that eloquently expressed my feelings about why YA is sweeping the nation (and the Oscars). Lev Grossman, book critic for Time Magazine, wrote an op ed that’s title says it all: “Nothing’s Wrong with Strong Plot and Characters.” In the article he admits to being in a YA-only book group (another trend I’m noticing these days) and lays out some ways that today’s YA novels are different from adult literary fiction:

  1. YA novels tend toward strong voices and clear, clean prose. Adult literary fiction, by contrast, can be more focused on style: dense, descriptive prose, full of carefully observed detail, which calls attention to its own genius rather than urging the reader forward.
  2. YA novels focus on storytelling. Much of adult literary fiction, on the other hand, explores ways to break down storytelling, fragment it and make it non-linear. This kind of reading demands a lot of work from the reader.
  3. YA novels are rarely boring. They are written to grab your attention and hold it.

These are the same reasons I believe so many people, young and old, are flocking to see YA movies these days. The stories are great. The characters are great. The themes are meaningful. And they are not boring to watch.

Grossman ends his piece with a sentiment that pretty much sums up why I love reading YA so much (and by extension, going to YA movies as well):

“I’m not as young as I once was. At my age, I don’t have time to be bored.”

And for those of you who, like me, love seeing your favorite YA books up on the big screen, you are in luck. The floodgates are open and just about every YA hit I can think of is “in production.” Here’s a short list of what I found on IMDB:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Sept. 2012 (starring Logan Lerman from Percy Jackson, and Emma Watson from Harry Potter)

Uglies, Nov. 2012

Incarceron, 2013 (starring Taylor Lautner from Twilight)

The Giver, 2013 (starring Jeff Bridges)

Ender’s Game, 2013 (starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Abigail Breslin)

Forest of Hands and Teeth, 2013

Maze Runner, 2013

Divergent, 2015

The Fault in Our Stars (TBA)

Finding A Room of My Own

by Michelle McCann
Published on: March 7, 2012
Comments: 1 Comment

For months I’ve been struggling to find time to write in my working-mom-juggling life. I’ve tried writing at home, but there are too many interruptions and distractions. I’ve tried writing at a coffee shop, but I feel guilty if I stay more than a couple hours, which is about how long it takes my brain to get moving.

I have been intrigued by the strategy of fellow Scriva, Liz, who also has kids and a busy work-at-home life. She has a full writing day once a week, away from home. She begins her writing day with exercise (to clear her head and get into the writing mindset), then she walks to the library and writes on her laptop—undisturbed by phone calls, emails, children, husband—for eight hours!

Doesn’t that sound glorious!?!

Well it did to me, so I thought I should give it a try and see what happens. But I had a number of challenges to solve: what to do with my kids and where to do my writing.

First, I found a Boys and Girls Club in our neighborhood and discovered that for $5 a year my kids can take the bus from school to their facility. There they do their homework, play in the gym, read, whatever until my husband picks them up. My clearly sheltered kids were a bit horrified by this option when we took our tour (“Mom, it’s so loud and crazy!”), but they’re on week three now and so far they haven’t been stabbed or gotten lice. I keep reminding myself, “It’s good for them!”

Second challenge—where to write. Lucky Liz lives close to the downtown library with its wonderfully quiet Writer’s Room, so she can walk there and doesn’t have to pay for parking. Not an option for me, so I found a library close by that has street parking and plenty of tables to write at.

Challenges solved, I packed up my laptop and some snacks, and I headed off to write. My plan? To sit, butt-in-chair, and put words on the screen from noon (when they opened) until 8pm. The first trip was a learning experience. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Be thoughtful about your snacks. Within a few hours I craved something besides the gorp I’d brought, which of course distracted me, so I had to waste time walking to a store for new snacks.
  2. Don’t forget the coffee. After I drank the cup I’d come with, it was pretty much all I could think about. Yet another reason to stop writing—must go buy cups of coffee.
  3. Bring an iPod. While there were plenty of tables to sit at, none were empty. I was always sharing space with someone who was either watching TV on their laptop (why come to the library for that?) or playing a videogame. I was easily distracted by the soccer game or sitcom next door.
  4. Think about your butt. Those chairs at the library are unpadded. After a couple hours my butt cheeks were numb. Another excuse to get up and browse the library shelves instead of writing.

Yet even with the distractions, I was amazed at how much writing I got done in eight hours. The next week I went back armed with a grocery bag of snacks, thermos of coffee, butt pillow and iPod mix. Lo and behold, I got even more writing done.

It’s working!

And even though my kids grumble a bit about the two hours they spend at the Boys & Girls Club on Wednesdays, when I mentioned a new editing project I’ll be starting soon, they asked in worried tones, “You won’t have to work on Wednesdays, will you? How will you get your writing done?”

So if you, too, are having difficulty making the time and space to write, why not give it a try? Just don’t forget your butt pillow!

What I learned about publicity from John Green

by Michelle McCann
Published on: February 7, 2012
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Last Sunday I ungraciously fled our annual Scriva business meeting to join my students at the John and Hank Green “Tour de Nerdfighting” event. If you write children’s books, you are probably already familiar with bestselling YA author John Green (Waiting for Alaska, Will Grayson Will Grayson, The Fault in Our Stars). But unless you are a “geektastic” teen or twenty-something who spends too much time watching YouTube, you may not be familiar with the Nerdfighters phenom.

John and Hank (a musician) are “the Vlogbrothers.” Beginning in 2007, they have hosted a popular YouTube channel together, where they vlog back and forth to each other. Their vlogs sometimes involve the books and music they create, but mostly not. Their vlogs are some of the most popular on YouTube and their million-plus fans/community are known as “Nerdfighters” (check them out at

I went to their sold-out Portland event first and foremost, because I am a John Green fan: I love his books and think he is a unique voice in contemporary YA lit. Second, he is hysterical. Third, I am in awe of his ability to promote himself and his books without seeming to be promoting himself and his books. Even when driving around in this not-so-subtle tour bus!

But the biggest reason I went to see John is that we share one significant character trait: we both suffer from social anxiety. Unfortunately for me, it makes doing book events something I dread for months in advance. Thanks to fellow Scriva Ruth, I have two such events looming in March. I am filled with dread already. Here is what I worry about:

  1. I’m afraid no one will come.
  2. I’m afraid I will be boring.
  3. I’m afraid people WILL come and see how boring I am.

If John Green truly has social anxiety (as he claims), how can he possibly go on tour across the U.S. and “perform” in packed theaters full of strangers every night? Well, here is what I learned:

1. Stage lights help. The Bagdad Theater seats nearly 600 people and was so packed I had to sit in the aisle. But because of the lights John couldn’t see us so he claimed to be less nervous.

2. The audience was filled with his community. True to the Vlogbrothers’ slogan “Raising nerdy to the power of awesome,” the audience was full of… you guessed it, nerds. But not the embarrassed, shrinking-violets, stand-on-the-sidelines nerds of decades gone by. These millennial nerds were loud and proud. They wore their geekiness as a badge of honor. They screamed like it was George Clooney and Brad Pitt on stage. They loudly sang along to Hank’s songs about Harry Potter, physics, and lovelorn anglerfish. They freaked when John read this fan question “What would you do if zombies attacked you right now?” John and Hank have created a strong community, as John called it “a refuge for nerds.”

3. He didn’t try to be cool. John copped to his enormous stage fright right off the bat, causing the audience to root for him all the way through the show. He also stuck to doing things he was comfortable with. He talked about his inspiration for the book, read from it, answered fan questions. All pretty basic author event stuff (albeit the Q&A featured a machine that shocked whichever brother was left holding it when the time ran out, kind of like Hot Potato). Hank was the one who wore the tutu.

4. He brought a friend. It seemed easier to spread the burden of entertainment between two people. They supported each other onstage during their nervous moments, they each attracted their own fanbase to the event, and by alternating their “performances” they kept things moving along.

5. He was nice to everyone. I can’t tell you how many author events I’ve been to where I came away totally disillusioned. It’s surprising how many authors, even children’s book authors, can be rude and downright mean to their fans, not realizing (somehow) the permanent damage they are doing. Not John. Even though they still had to drive to Seattle after the Portland show, and even though John was suffering from pretty severe carpel tunnel syndrome, and even though there were 600+ eager fans waiting to meet him afterwards, John was kind and gracious to every person he met (my students were at the very end of the line and they confirmed it for me). He even looked me in the eye before signing my book. I left the event liking John even more than I had before and went right home and started reading The Fault in Our Stars. Mission accomplished, John.

So even though it is highly unlikely I will ever attract 600 screaming fans to the Bagdad to hear me talk about my books, I can incorporate some of what I learned from John into my own publicity:

* Be myself, don’t pretend to be cool.

* Do events with other authors.

* Invite my community for emotional support.

* Be nice to everyone who comes.

* Perhaps blind myself with some stage lights.

I can do that.

Days after returning home from the tour, Hank vlogged about how difficult it was to be on the road for 3 weeks and asked himself, “Why did we do it?” His answer was this:

“It’s vital to do things that are outside of your comfort zone… whether that’s volunteering in a homeless shelter or just going someplace you wouldn’t normally go, like somewhere where they line dance. Go somewhere where they line dance!”

So, it’s good for me to get outside my comfort zone. Doing promotional events is like eating spinach. Now if I could just work in some line dancing…

Need Some Inspiration? Read!

by Michelle McCann
Published on: January 7, 2012
Categories: Craft, Inspiration
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I teach a class at Portland State University called “Publishing for Middle Grade & Young Adults.” I can’t believe I get paid to teach it because it’s way too much fun to be work, really. I, and a small group of publishing grad students, read 18 middle grade and young adult titles in 10 weeks: old classics like Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, along with spanking brand new titles that are either massively critically acclaimed (therefore working for that adult audience/filter) or massively popular (therefore bypassing the critical adult filters). As we work our way through several feet of stories, we discuss what gives them staying power or makes them so damned popular. We pick apart the writing as we learn good editing practices, we pick apart the covers as we learn good design, and we pick apart the websites and marketing campaigns as we learn how to generate buzz and sales.

Useful to children’s book writers? Well, I think so. When I’m critiquing a manuscript and find a particular issue, I will often (if not always) recommend some great books and authors to check out who have wrestled with and possibly conquered the same challenge. YA sex scene not as hot as you want it? Check out Graceling or Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Want to write boy characters that really resonate with boy readers? Time for some Neal Schusterman. Wonder if your unlikeable narrator will turn readers off? Try Feed or anything by M.T. Anderson to see how it’s done.

Here are the books we read last term (2011) and what children’s book writers might glean from them:

1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Historical fiction that is still engaging to teens more than 50 years later. It’s also a good example of a narrator who is much younger than the intended audience, but still works.

2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)

Wonderful example of historical fiction that is not at all boring. Also a unique narrator to look at: Death. And the Grim Reaper is funny, even in a story set in Germany during WWII. How does Zusak do it?

3. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

It’s amazing how fun and creative his middle grade fantasy still reads. And what a main character! That Dorothy is a heroine for the ages.

4. The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi (2010)

Without Dorothy there would be no Eva Nine. This is a great example of a middle grade fantasy with a girl main character that BOYS still enjoy reading (hint: as my 10-year-old son explained, “She’s not a girly girl, Mom”). How DO you convince those finicky boys to read “girl” stories? Here’s a great example. The story has so many elements that boys are looking for: lots of action, short chapters, cool monsters, weapons and battles, spaceships… And a girl narrator. Ha!

5. The Candidates by Inara Scott

This is a local YA author who came to our class to talk about her very interesting publishing experience for her first two books. She was first published by Hyperion, but is now moving to an e-book publisher. We discussed the pros and cons of each experience.

6. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Why is this series so phenomenally popular? Especially with boys, when they hate Twilight? It’s another great example of a heroine who appeals to boys, and a storyline that contains romance but doesn’t turn off boy readers (50% of the potential audience, after all). Great action, and great example of a dystopian theme that resonates with teens right now.

7. Graceling by Kristin Cashore (2008)

Okay, I’m a sucker for fabulous heroines (still not enough of them in kid lit, if you ask me). And Katsa is my all-time favorite. Deadly assassin with a heart of gold. This is also a great book to read for writing sex scenes. The author has an excellent blog post on this topic as well.

8. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green& David Levithan (2011)

Thinking about co-writing a book with another author using alternating POVs? Can it be done? Check this one out. Green and Levithan, YA gods, go toe to toe. Also a great example of where lgbt YA lit is at right now. And funny as hell.

9. before I fall by Lauren Oliver (2010)

A heartbreaking, amazing bully story with an unlikeable narrator and a brilliant plot structure: it’s Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls.

10. Feed by M.T. Anderson (2002)

The granddaddy of dystopian YA, truly creepy future, and another unlikeable narrator. M.T. Anderson is also a great “boy book” author (quirky boys, that is) and has a truly unique author “voice.”

11. Unwind by Neal Schusterman (2007)

Schusterman is also a master of boy books, how to write palatable romance scenes for boys, and unnerving dystopian scenarios. Also fantastic website.

12. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2005)

I know there are a lot of haters out there, but you gotta read it. You can’t understand what’s happening now in YA if you don’t read Twilight. Plus, it has one of the best, hookiest first pages I’ve ever read. Ever. And funny, conflict-laden dialogue all the way through. And who can write a non-sex sex scene that gets the pulse pounding like Meyers? NO ONE!

13. I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (2010)

Okay, we read this one just to learn about James Frey’s “YA Factory” (which is how this book/movie was created). Disturbing, fascinating story in The Wall Street Journal. The book is a hack job, but boys LOVE is. Why? Action, action, action. Aliens. Weapons. Hot girls that want you. Lots of boy fantasies here.

14. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (1971)

The grandmother of the “drug novel.” You wouldn’t have Crank without Alice. Does it still hold up for today’s teens? Not really. But it’s still heavily banned, which means teens still seek it out. Also a good example of diary format. And some well-written drug trip descriptions. Not to mention a time trip to the good old seventies.

15. Crank by Ellen Hopkins (2004)

A drug novel writen in free verse? Could that ever work? Yes, and it could sell millions of copies and launch a YA brand. Hopkins is a masterful poet and each page is a tiny work of art.

16. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Book 1) by Art Spiegelman (1986)

Graphic novels are the fastest growing YA genre. This book is where it all started. With its publication and subsequent Pulitzer Prize (!), graphic novels finally started getting the literary recognition they deserved. Now they are winning all the literary awards. A novel about the Holocaust with cats as the Nazis and rats as the Jews? And it works beautifully! So much to learn from Spiegelman about panel layout and how to convey meaning and emotion through simple illustration.

17. Amulet (Book 1) by Kazu Kibuishi  (2008)

This is probably the most popular middle grade graphic novel series right now and it’s easy to see why. Another example of a female protagonist in a series that appeals strongly to boys. Like WondLa, it’s loaded with action, aliens, magic, weapons, monsters… everything those boys want. Plus a butt-kicking girl for the girl readers.

18. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Year 1) by J.K. Rowling (1998)

What can I say? Harry Potter changed everything in middle grade and YA literature. How they are written, how they are sold… everything. And why are they SO beloved by millions and millions of readers? I could write pages, but it’s worth rereading that first book to see how Rowling does dialogue, world building, chapter endings, and tension. She is a true master and worth studying.

To join or not to join, that is the question

by Michelle McCann
Published on: December 7, 2011
Comments: 2 Comments

Hi, I’m Scriva Michelle–the new girl. A few weeks ago I was officially inducted into the Viva Scrivas (a terrifying hazing from which I am unlikely to recover). It’s been a long, ambivalent road for me deciding whether or not to join this talented writing group. I work part-time and have young kids, so finding time to write has been a major struggle for me. THE major struggle. I’ve had a number of children’s books published, but I wrote them all before I had children. Ten years ago!

Once the kids arrived, I felt like if I was taking time away from them, paying someone else to watch them, I should be doing something that actually paid more than the cost of the childcare. My writing virtually stopped.

But my old writing partner, Scriva Liz, never gave up on me. During those non-writing years she continually reminded me that I can write, that I love to write and that I should get writing again. She is a persistent gal, that Liz.

In an effort at full disclosure, I’ve been thinking about why I resisted the pull of the critique group. Here are the fears that have kept me away until now:

1) I HAVE NO TIME. I will fill up the tiny amounts of time I have for writing with critiquing other people’s manuscripts (which is already what I do for paid work–I’m an editor). After all, critiquing is much easier and more fun, at least for me.

2) I HAVE NO TALENT. I will be discovered as a fraud, a non-writer. I will either not be able to actually write again (it has been nearly 10 years, after all), or the group will realize, once they read my first submission, that I actually suck.

Neither of these fears is unique. In fact, they are cliché writer fears. But there you have it: not only do I have no talent, I am also a cliché!

So why do it?  Why not write at home, alone, and never show it to anyone? Now that I’ve taken the leap, I’m seeing the positives:
1) I NEED A KICK IN THE ASS. What has happened in the past few months that I’ve been dipping my toes into the group to see how we fit is that I’ve actually been thinking about writing all the time. I’ve been listening to the similar struggles of other writers in the group and realizing that I’m not alone. Feeling the pressure to do it. And I’ve been writing. For the first time in 10 years.

2) I NEED DEADLINES. Meeting once a month forces me to at least sit down once a month and try to get some words on the page. If I don’t submit something to the group at some point it’s going to be embarrassing. So I have to work. Someone is waiting.

3) I NEED SUPPORT. I’m starting to realize that maybe the reason I stopped writing for 10 years is that I needed some support. Some cheerleaders encouraging me to skip the kids’ soccer games for once and choose to write instead. Some talented people to sit with as we all stare at the blank white page and painfully pull the words and the stories from our heads.

And I think it’s working. I went on my first writing retreat last June, and now, five months later, I have about half of a middle grade novel written and the rest outlined. I actually survived the first critique of my early chapters, and while the Scrivas have given me plenty to work on for revisions, nobody laughed me out of the room. Nobody said, “You suck! Who in the world ever suggested you could write for kids?” At least not out loud.

And yes, I do struggle to find time to write my own stuff AND read/critique the other writer’s manuscripts. But there are words on the page. Finally. And another deadline next week.

I’m in. Time to get writing.

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