Posted in Lists, Reading

10 MG & YA Books I Haven’t Read But Love to Look At

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But it’s really hard not to when the cover artists do such an amazing job. Here are ten middle grade & young adult novels that keep catching my eye at the bookstore. I can’t wait to find out if they’re as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside.

Quick Note: It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be to find the artists and illustrators behind some of these gorgeous books. Often their names don’t appear on the copyright page, which I find odd. Instead they’re on the back flap of the jacket. But that’s not something you can usually find online, so I had to make a couple of trips back to the bookstore (okay, twist my arm) to get all the info I needed for this post. These artists deserve to be known. They’re work is outstanding. So don’t just look at the book covers. Take time to check out their websites too. ]

#1:

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Title: The Night Parade
Author: Kathryn Tanquary
Cover Illustration: Alexander Jansson

I love everything about this cover: the gorgeous pink-purple tree, the swirly blues and greens, the adorably creepy creatures, the lanterns… everything. I could look at this picture all day.

#2:

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Title: Wishing Day
Author: Lauren Myracle
Jacket Art: Julie McLaughlin

Another tree and more swirly purples and greens! What can I say? I’m a tree-loving, swirly color kind of girl. I love the birds and moon and stars in this picture too. Julie McLaughlin also illustrated The Girl in the Well is Me, which is a great book inside and out.

#3:

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Title: The Firefly Code
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Jacket IllustrationsManuel Sumberac

Ok, so obviously I’m into silhouettes, in addition to the colors purple and green. I love this cover because it’s so alive, full of adventure. Plus, the kids on bikes bring to mind the kids in Stranger Things, and anything that reminds me of that show is a good thing.

#4:

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Title: A Clatter of Jars
Author: Lisa Graff
Jacket Art: Fernando Juarez

I like the contrasts in this cover — the far away houses and close-up frog, the whimsical quality mixed with something just a little bit ominous, as we see below the surface of the water and notice the broken leg of the character in the background. There’s a lot to take in here. And of course, some greens and purples.

#5:

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Title: Fish in a Tree
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Cover Design & LetteringKristin Logsdon

Sometimes the simplest covers are the ones that catch my eye. The brightly-colored, boxy letters and very literal image (a fish, in a tree) on this book have made me pick it up multiple times.

#6:

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Title: Wolf Hollow
Author: Lauren Wolk
Hand LetteringSarah J. Coleman
Silhouette & Watercolor: Tony Sahara

And… we’re back to silhouettes and trees. 🙂 Admittedly, I didn’t realize how many things these middle grade covers had in common until I started describing them. Still, I would never say they look the same. Each is unique. I love the rich golden glow of this one and the way the tree trunks are made up of words.

#7:

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Title: The Last Leaves Falling
Author: Sarah Benwell
Cover ArtistYuko Shimizu

I guess on this cover, we’re in the tree. I love the perspective of this illustration. The birds, the leaves, the transparency of the orange box around the title, the character looking up at us, and his shadow… it’s all so evocative. And a little bit heartbreaking.

#8:

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Title: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Nivan
Hand-Lettering & Illustrations: Sarah Watts

This one mainly appeals to me because I love sticky notes. 🙂 But there’s more to it than that. I like how it has depth (I totally want to reach out and smooth down that one yellow corner) and I love how friendly and whimsical the lettering is. (Yes, lettering can be friendly.) The colors and style of this cover just relay a sense of peace and serenity. It’s caught my eye on multiple occasions.

#9:

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Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Cover Illustration of Landscape and SkyMark Brabant
Hand-lettering and Illustrations in Sky: Sarah J. Coleman

I love the lettering and the symbols and the teal color of the sky, and of course the old red truck in the corner. Just perfect. This book has actually been on my reading list for a while now. It was the cover that first grabbed me, but hearing Benjamin Alire Sáenz give the keynote speech at this year’s Writers’ League of Texas conference definitely made me want to hear more of what he has to say. Plus, when you can’t see the whole cover for all the awards the book has won… that’s a pretty good sign.

#10:

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Title: Shutter
Author: Courtney Alameda
Cover Art: Khita Knight

Did you really think this list would be complete without at least one horror novel? Come on. I love this creepy cover. The eyes of the shadow/smoke monster bore into my soul in the best way.

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Which book covers catch YOUR eye?

Posted in Life, Lists

6 Tricks Pet Owners Will Love

I’m not talking about sit, stay, and roll over. These tricks will save you time, money, and sanity.

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Our Story:

In 2010, my husband and I got married. We formed a blended family. He came to the relationship with two cats, and so did I. Our cats were pretty old.* We loved them all.** But we knew, realistically, that they wouldn’t be with us for much longer.***

* We only THOUGHT our cats were old. It turns out, they were just middle-aged.
** I loved them all. My husband loved two and a half of them.
*** We were wrong. So wrong.

For our one year anniversary, we got a puppy.

Six years have passed. We’re still married. We still have our dog and all four of our cats. The oldest cat is 17 and a half. The youngest is 14. The dog is 5.

In case you’re not keeping up with the math, that’s 2 cats + 2 cats = 4 cats + 1 dog = 5 pets = 5 pet mouths (requiring feeding, often prone to vomiting), 5 pet butts (doing what pet butts do best), 10 pet ears (for ignoring our verbal commands), 20 pet legs (perfect for tracking mud, clawing furniture, and being sat upon by unwary humans), and 1,000,000,000,000 pet hairs (to be spread in every space, container, nook, cranny, appliance, and orifice, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for 6 years****).

**** and counting.

How to Stay Married in a House Full of Pets

We live in a house with four indoor cats and one mostly-indoor, sixty-pound dog. It’s like a zoo but with fewer cages and more chaos. The lolling tongues and wagging tails and cute cat naps and furry snuggles definitely help, but cleaning up after these adorable creatures is exhausting, and maintaining a living space that’s suitable for both the animals and their human companions can be a challenge.

Here are a few things that have helped us preserve a moderate level of sanity.

Level 1: BASIC

Trick #1: The marinade is the key.

Problem: Cat toys are expensive and the allure wears off too quickly.
Solution: Marinate in catnip.

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There’s no need to buy new cat toys when all the good smells wear off the old ones. Just buy a bag of catnip and marinate the old toys in it. The longer they’re in there, the better, so I keep one or two toys in the catnip at all times and periodically switch them out.

Catnip toys keep cats happy. Happy cats are less likely to knock random objects off your desk.*****

***** not actually proven

Trick #2: This weapon will be called… the FURMINATOR.

Problem: HAIR and lots of it
Solution: The FURMINATOR

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These grooming tools are not cheap, but they actually work. Five minutes of brushing your cat or dog with this brush and you’ll remove so much hair and undercoat you won’t believe it. It truly does reduce shedding and hairballs.

We have this one for the dog and this one for the cats.

The only catch is, you actually have to USE it, which I sometimes forget to do.

Level 2: ADVANCED

Trick #3: A Litter Box Fit for a King

Problem: Litter everywhere and/or outside-of-box peeing
Solution: Large plastic storage bins

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No, I don’t know why my cat sometimes puts his stuffed toy in the litter box. That’s an issue for another blog post.

Some of our cats won’t use the enclosed litter boxes with the lids, and those can be a pain to clean anyway. But if we remove the lid, the cats kick litter EVERYWHERE or do that annoying thing where they hang their butt over the edge to pee. So we bought tall plastic storage bins and cut “doors” in them instead. These are our litter boxes.

They’re not the prettiest things in the world, but… it’s not like we show them off to people anyway. (Until now.) The high sides keep the litter in, but they’re still easy to clean because of the open top. Plus, they’re cheaper than most litter boxes and easy to replace.

Trick #4: What Lies Beneath

Problem: Hair, drool, and that all-encompassing DOG STINK on your furniture
Solution: Treat your dog like a baby.

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We let our dog get on the furniture, in moderation, meaning we gave him one section of the couch (the largest section, for some reason) and some space on the bed in my office. When he was a puppy, simply putting down a towel or blanket for him to lay on was sufficient to keep the cushions and bedding underneath clean. But now that he’s a full-grown, sixty-pound, hairy, smelly DOG (who we love) one thin layer between him and the furniture isn’t enough. His stink seeps in, especially when he licks himself or chews on his toys or drools because we’re eating pizza and won’t give him any.

I got tired of washing the quilt and the couch cushion covers over and over, so I looked for a better solution, and I found one: crib pads.

For just $10-$20 you can buy a thin, washable, waterproof pad to go between your dog blanket and your couch or bed. It works SO WELL. Now Uno can shed and drool and chew all he wants, and the moisture and odor won’t reach the furniture. To make the space suitable for human use, I just have to remove the blanket and pad. Er… and the dog.

Note: Our cat has also thrown up on the dog’s couch cushion, and the blanket/crib pad combo kept that from reaching the upholstery too.

Level 3: EXTREME MEASURES

Trick #5: Location, Location, Location

Problem: One cat terrorizes the rest of the household.
Solution: Move cat to his own apartment.

Gink, in a sink.
Gink, in a sink.

I have a 17-and-a-half-year-old black cat named Gink who I got when he was just a baby. I love him very, very much. He’s very, very special.

He’s also a recovering holy terror.

Gink has mellowed out a lot in his senior years. If you met him today, you might not believe that he used to terrorize friends, family members, vets, pet sitters, and dogs. But he did, and he was quite good at it.

When we formed our family of 7 (cat, cat, cat, cat, dog, human, human) in 2011, things were a bit rocky, and most of the blame was aimed at Gink. He terrorized one of the other cats, he showed aggression toward the dog, and he peed everywhere. Things were rough.

I could list all the (many) things we tried that failed to remedy the situation, but instead I’ll skip to the end. Eventually, through trial and error, research, and a well-timed episode of My Cat From Hell (Season 4, Episode 3: “Penny Hates Puck”), we figured out the truth: Gink doesn’t want roommates. He doesn’t want other cats hanging around, flaunting their catness in his face. He doesn’t want a dog following him around. (Seriously. Gink used to get mad just because Uno was walking behind him.) And he really, REALLY doesn’t want to share a litter box.

The solution was unavoidable. Gink needed to move to his own place.

So we got him an apartment. In our house. Gink now lives in our master bedroom & bathroom suite. The rest of the pets live in the rest of the house. We, the humans, inhabit both sides. We keep the door between the two areas closed at all times. Gink has his own litter box, his own food and water bowls, his own toys, his own bed.

If this seems like an extreme measure, it is. But it works. EVERYONE is happier. It’s amazing how much more relaxed our other pets are now that Gink isn’t around to traumatize them, and I don’t have to constantly clean up cat pee. Plus, Gink is happier too. He loves having his own space. He lives like a king.

That’s not to say he doesn’t sometimes try to get out. Once in a while, he scoots past me into the rest of the house. When that happens, the other cats freeze, and I tiptoe after my escaped panther until I can safely scoop him up and return him to his abode, usually with much hissing. Then I close the door and everyone breathes a sigh of relief once more.

I will say it again. Gink is special.

Trick #6: Deny everything.

Problem: Guests.
Solution: Lie.

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Zora, cleaning her feet where I normally eat breakfast.

Despite all your preparations, there will still come a time when you have guests over and one of your pets decides to:

A) Steal a slice of cheese off the kitchen counter
B) Take a bath on the dining room table
C) Hack up a hairball on the living room rug
D) Eat a corner of the curtain
E) Sharpen their claws on a leather purse
F) All of the above

When that happens, your best line of defense is denial. Look your beloved pet in the eye and say, “What the heck do you think you’re doing? You’ve never done anything like this before! Stop it! Stop it right now!” Ignore the fact that your pet is gazing back at you, confused and bewildered, wondering why something which was perfectly fine yesterday is causing you such stress today. Later, when the guests leave, you can give your pet a treat and apologize and tell him he’s a very good boy.

* * *

If you have any pet tricks you’d like to share… Oops—gotta go. I hear the song of the hairball.

Posted in Lists, Writing

10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience

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A couple of years ago, during my week of 10 Writing Tips in 5 Days, I wrote a post called “Join the Club” about becoming a member of writing organizations and attending events and going to conferences. At the time, I was talking to myself as much as anyone else, because I was still a newbie at the whole networking thing and I needed that push to get involved.

Luckily, I took my own advice and got out there, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve grown more as a writer, learned more about the publishing business, and met so many more people than I ever could have by staying in front of my computer. Now that I have a few conferences under my belt, I want to share my…

Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience

#1: Plan Ahead.

Personally, I love planning. Anything that involves a new notebook and different colored pens and schedules (ooo, schedules!) gets me all in a tizzy. But even if you’re not a super-nerd like me, it’s still a good idea to make some plans before you go.

Why bother? There are a few reasons. First, break-out sessions sometimes fill up. Hopefully you’ll be able to get into the ones you really care about, but if you don’t, you should have a back-up plan. Also, sometimes there just isn’t time to do the planning once you arrive. This Saturday I attended the SCBWI Austin conference, and it was ten hours of jam-packed inspiration. There were short breaks between events, but I spent them talking to people, asking questions, perusing the book store, or eating cake. (I highly recommend attending conferences where they serve cake.) I could have used my time to read through all the presenter bios and panel discussion options, but I’m glad I didn’t have to. Reading the info online beforehand meant time for more networking, more shopping, and more cake.

#2: Wear comfortable shoes.

Every time I prepare for a conference, I get out this really cute pair of heels that I own but rarely wear, put them on with my conference outfit, stare at myself in the mirror, and smile. Then I put them back in the closet and get out my flats. You’re going to be on your feet a LOT. Be good to yourself. Also, bring a sweater.

#3: Bring Business Cards.

Things I’ve learned about business cards:

  • They come in handy, especially for people like me who have difficult-to-spell names. It’s a lot easier to just hand over a card than to try to spell out my email address in a noisy room.
  • Think about what you want on them. I don’t have my full address on my cards, but I did recently add “Austin, TX” because I found that when I was out of the state, people connected to my hometown. As I’ve mentioned before, Austin is a thriving literary community. When people find out I’m from here, they mention the Texas Teen Book Festival or ask questions about the Writers’ League of Texas or start conversations about SXSW. I realized that having my city on my card is another way of connecting with people.
  • Here’s a cool trick I learned at my very first conference: Carry your business cards in your badge holder and you’ll never have to fumble around in your purse or pockets again.

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#4: Reconnect with old friends.

The best thing about going back to conferences a second time is reconnecting with people you haven’t seen since the last event. Facebook is great for staying in touch, but there’s nothing like LOL-ing (L-ingOL?) in real life, so make the time to track down old friends and catch up.

#5: Make new connections.

It feels great to have friends by your side at a conference, but don’t spend all your time with them. Move around, change seats, venture off alone. Remember how you got those friends in the first place and introduce yourself to new people so that your support system con continue to grow.

#6: Take good notes.

When the conference first begins, it will be tempting to think, “I’ll remember this… how could I forget it? It’s so inspiring/useful/timely! But what you don’t realize is that you have several more hours and/or days of inspiration and advice ahead of you. You won’t remember everything. Take notes. I err on the side of excess. I’ve always been the kind of person who learns best by writing (writing things down commits them to memory thereby making the actual notes both moot and essential), so I fill many pages with writing when I’m at a conference. It’s okay though, because one of my favorite things to do is to go back through those notes later. Good notes let you relive the experience, which is like getting inspired all over again. Also, some will disagree with me here, but my advice is to ditch the computer. Bring something lightweight and easy to carry around all day.

Me taking notes at the 2016 SCBWI Austin conference - Photo by Sam Bond,  sambondphotography.com
Me taking notes at the 2016 SCBWI Austin conference – Photo by Sam Bond, sambondphotography.com

#7. Step outside your comfort zone.

Hopefully the conferences you attend will offer lots opportunities for learning in your field/genre, but even if they do, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. I write middle grade books, poetry, short stories, and horror, so these are the topics I’m drawn to. But I’ve attended panels and presentations on nonfiction, memoir, and romance, and came away from all of them with valuable information and ideas. It’s good to view the writing life from a different perspective. Plus, you never know when you might be inspired to write in a new genre.

#8. Just step outside.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone can be, well… uncomfortable. Meeting new people and talking about your work and being bombarded by information can be overwhelming. For some, simply attending the conference takes an act of courage. So be good to yourself and take a short break when you need it. If you’re staying at the hotel where the conference is taking place, retreat to your room for five minutes of alone time. If you don’t have the sanctuary of a hotel room, go outside. Step out into the sunshine or rain or night breeze. It only takes a few deep breaths to rejuvenate you for another round of extroversion.

#9. Follow up.

All those great notes you take won’t do you any good if you ignore them when you get home, so be sure to go back through and follow-up with the people you met and the ideas you jotted down. I usually end up with a long list of people to thank, people to connect with on social media, books to read, websites to visit, and writing ideas to implement. I recommend waiting a day or two before jumping in to these lists, but no longer than a week. You want the information to still be fresh on your mind.

#10. Be fearless.

Many writers are introverts who would prefer to stay home in their yoga pants and never venture out into the big scary world of conferences and networking, but if you make the leap, you’ll learn that writing conferences are filled with people just like you! This is your tribe. Embrace it. Talk to people, ask questions, be the best version of yourself. And when it comes to meeting agents and editors, remember that they are people too. Not just people. Book-loving, writer-loving people. They want to meet you just as much as you want to meet them. You can do it. Get out there.

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Got a conference tip to add to this list? Share it in the comments!