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Friday, January 20, 2017

The Matchstick Castle Blog Tour (guest post)

The Matchstick Castle
by Keir Graff
January 10, 2017
G.P. Putnam’s BFYR
A wild and whimsical adventure story, perfect for fans of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Brian can think of a few places he’d rather spend his summer than with his aunt and uncle in Boring, Illinois. Jail, for example. Or an earplug factory. Anything would be better than doing summer school on a computer while his scientist dad is stationed at the South Pole.
Boring lives up to its name until Brian and his cousin Nora have a fight, get lost, and discover a huge, wooden house in the forest. With balconies, turrets, and windows seemingly stuck on at random, it looks ready to fall over in the next stiff breeze. To the madcap, eccentric family that lives inside, it’s not just a home—it’s a castle.
Suddenly, summer gets a lot more exciting. With their new friends, Brian and Nora tangle with giant wasps, sharp-tusked wild boars, and a crazed bureaucrat intent on bringing the dangerously dilapidated old house down with a wrecking ball.
This funny, fantastical story will resonate with any reader who’s ever wished a little adventure would find them.

“Fast-paced, anarchic fun for reluctant and avid readers alike.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This quirky novel is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie for the tweenage set. . . . For those who enjoy a bit of absurdist humor with their realism.”—School Library Journal

“A zippy, adventurous romp in the woods complete with fierce animals and buried treasure.”
—Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“A whimsical adventure with a large dose of humor? Yes, please! This story spoke to my inner child, who suffered too many boring summer vacations and longed to discover something magical and exciting in my own backyard.”—Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, New York Times bestselling author of Book Scavenger and The Unbreakable Code

“For boys and girls alike, this story sings.”—Blue Balliett, award-winning author of Chasing Vermeer

“A towering tale filled with astonishing action, amazing characters, and two very daring adventurers.”—David Lubar, author of the Monsterrific Tales series, the Weenies series, and Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie

Writing for Kids Isn’t Child’s Play
By Keir Graff
When I finished my first draft of my first middle-grade novel, I gave it to a friend who identified a fatal flaw before she even started reading.
“How old is your protagonist?” she asked.
I didn’t know—not exactly.
That friend, Ilene Cooper, the author of some 20 or 30-odd children’s books, gave me a warm but knowing smile and told me that was the first thing I needed to know about my character. After reading the book, she told me she thought it was good enough to be published, but only after I chose an age and addressed some other pressing issues.
I did the work and published the book, The Other Felix, to good reviews. Last week,  my second middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle, came out, and I’m busy working on a third. To say I’ve learned a lot since that first draft would be an understatement of epic proportion.
In my defense, I was an accidental children’s author. Before Felix, I had written four books for adults and, while I loved reading to my kids, it hadn’t occurred to me to write for that age group. But when my older son (actually named Felix) had a recurring nightmare (in which he was chased through the forest by monsters) with a surprising ending (he had a twin who showed him how to fight the monsters), I was struck by the brilliance of the scenario and started writing.
I planned a short story just for Felix but the writing was just so much fun I couldn’t stop until I had a whole book. Then, when I actually got to visit schools and read the published book to thousands of enthusiastic students—well, I was hooked. But how did I get better at writing for kids?
In some ways, the difference between writing for older and younger readers isn’t as great as it seems. Yes, when I write for the latter my sentences, chapters, and books are shorter. And while I’ve always prided myself on choosing words with great care, I am even more precise when writing middle-grade. But the biggest difference stems from Ilene’s first correction: the age of the characters. Everything flows from there. If your protagonist is 11 years old, then the things they care about—their emotions and aspirations—must be authentic to an 11-year-old.
Seems like child’s play, right? Well, I had another handicap: when I started writing middle-grade, both my sons were much younger than my protagonist. So I was relying on my own dim memories, observation of random kids, rereadings of classic middle-grade books, and guesswork.
Time passed between The Other Felix and The Matchstick Castle. The first book was dedicated to the real Felix, so the second book would be written in his little brother Cosmo’s honor. The editor who acquired Matchstick made a suggestion that resulted in my next big leap forward: try first person. I had always favored limited third-person for my narrative voice, but as I rewrote a few chapters where “he” became “I,” suddenly my book came fully to life and it was that much easier to get inside narrator Brian Brown’s head.
It helped that by now Felix had passed through the ages I was writing about, and Cosmo was nearly there, so now I had first-hand examples of how middle-graders thought and what they cared about. In fact, as the book comes out, Cosmo is 10 years old, pushing 11, which I think might just be the sweet spot for reading the book—it’s certainly the age I was trying to capture when I cast Cosmo van Dash as an 11-year-old, his cousin Nora as 12, and did my best to tell the story through their eyes.
There’s always more to learn, so for the book I’m writing now, I’m taking things one step further: Cosmo’s entire class will read the first draft before my editor even sees it. They’ll tell me what they like, what they don’t like as much, and what they think the characters would do at crucial junctures.
After all, if you want to know how a fifth-grader thinks, why not go to the source?

Keir Graff is the author of two middle-grade novels, including the The Matchstick Castle, published in January by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers and Listening Library. Since 2011, he has been cohost of Publishing Cocktails, an occasional literary gathering in Chicago. By day, he is the executive editor of Booklist. You can find him on Twitter (@KeirGraff), Facebook (Keir.Graff.Author), and at

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Spotlight & Giveaway: Post-High School Reality Quest by Meg Eden

Post-High School Reality Quest
(a text adventure for young-adult readers)
By Meg Eden
California Coldblood Books
Buffy is playing a game. However, the game is her life, and there are no instructions or cheat codes on how to win.
After graduating high school, a voice called “the text parser” emerges in Buffy’s head, narrating her life as a classic text adventure game. Buffy figures this is just a manifestation of her shy, awkward, nerdy nature—until the voice doesn’t go away, and instead begins to dominate her thoughts, telling her how to live her life. Though Buffy tries to beat the game, crash it, and even restart it, it becomes clear that this game is not something she can simply “shut off” or beat without the text parser’s help.
While the text parser tries to give Buffy advice on how “to win the game,” Buffy decides to pursue her own game-plan: start over, make new friends, and win her long-time crush Tristan’s heart. But even when Buffy gets the guy of her dreams, the game doesn’t stop. In fact, it gets worse than she could’ve ever imagined: her crumbling group of friends fall apart, her roommate turns against her, and Buffy finds herself trying to survive in a game built off her greatest nightmares.


Graduation: May 12th, 2009

You are in the cafeteria. There is a high school graduation happening. Mason, the valedictorian, is giving her farewell to the class. It takes a long time.

In your pocket, there is a letter. It’s crumpled and smeared from you reaching in and touching it so many times, to make sure it’s still there.
Exits are: out, back and stage.
Tristan was almost valedictorian. He was about .002 points away from it. And he makes sure to not let any of you forget. Not that you’d ever forget a single word he’s ever said.
You get up from your chair and go to the back of the room. There is a piano. You look longingly at it.
>Examine piano.
You go over the piano. You run your fingers over the keys but are too shy to actually play anything. That’s what everyone says about you: that you want to do something but never actually do it. That’s why you wear gothic Lolita dresses only at home, curl your hair once a month, and paint on the weekends. Anything else might be too much.
> Exit out.
You are now in the main hallway. It is very long. There are lots of doors.
You wonder if you hide in one of them long enough you can avoid growing up. Everyone says that after today, everything that you do actually matters. That every decision you make will invariably have consequences on your existence and wellbeing. The only consequences you’re used to are not saving before entering the water temple in Ocarina of Time, or using up your master ball before encountering Mewtwo in Pokemon Red.
Exits are: cafeteria, door, another door, bathroom, main office, and out.
> Door?
You go into one of the doors. It’s not very exciting.
You are now in the main hallway. It is very—
You go into the bathroom. There is an acidic smell you can’t quite place coming from the stalls. Sephora is in front of the mirror, fluffing her insignificant breasts. No one believes her birth name is actually Sephora but no one has any proof to say otherwise. She doesn’t look like a make-up model but you keep that kind of commentary to yourself.
Exits are: bathroom stall and out.
“You dying out there too?” Sephora asks, pressing her hands on her stomach. “It’s so humid in that small room.”
You nod. “Yeah, it’s really hot.” You feel sweat run through your hair, down your scalp.
“When there’s a whole twenty people graduating, you’d think it’d be shorter than this. But they still find a way to make us miserable.” Sephora reapplies a layer of lipstick. “And this uniform makes me look even fatter than usual. Ugh.”
You just graduated from a religious high school. You say religious, because as hard as it is for you to stomach the concept of a God, words like transubstantiation are even less comprehensible to you. And as much as your music class sings about concepts like grace, the signs posted on every door with commandments like: Skirts shorter than your finger tips are unacceptable and Earrings should be no larger than a nickel, have made you eager for the alleged freedom of college.
And not just freedom from rules, but freedom from people like Sephora, who are “your friends” only because of your small school population. Because everyone has to survive somehow, and it’s dangerous to go alone.
But you’ve survived, at least this far. Congratulations.
Sephora sighs, scratching at the dead skin on her cheek. “I can’t wait ‘til the sun comes out again. I mean, look at my skin! I need to tan again.”
Even if you hadn’t seen Sephora in size 00 bikinis before, one look at Sephora makes it clear that she has the Scottish pasty skin that never tans. Just like you. Besides your gender and your love of obscure video games, this is all you have in common with her.
“You know, now that summer’s coming, I’m thinking about trying something new, just for the kicks.” Sephora looks you in the eye. “I’m even thinking about going out with Tristan. Who knows. It might be fun! And I’ve been seeing him eye me…”  
You want to tell Sephora that she’s too stupid to date someone as brilliant as Tristan, that he has better taste than that, but you can’t seem to get the words out.
>Wrestle Sephora to the ground.
You wrestle the lipstick from her hands and scream “You whore!” and write mean things on the mirror. Then you stuff her head in the toilet and prevent this horrible story from actually happening.
And by that, you only daydream of wrestling Sephora to the ground.
If you had actually done that, you might’ve beaten the game in record time. Assuming life’s a game and you remembered to save more frequently.
>I don’t like this story.
I’m sorry. I don’t understand “I don’t like this story.” You think we get to choose our stories?

Meg Eden's work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, and Gargoyle. She teaches creative writing at places including University of Maryland, The Writer’s Center, and Anne Arundel Community College. She has four poetry chapbooks, and is a poetry editor for Wherewithal. When she’s not writing, she plays video games with her husband, namely Fire Emblem. She loves reading anything and everything she can get her hands on.  
Win an ARC of Post-High School Reality Quest + swag! Meg has generously offered up one ARC and swag for one winner
(US only, ends 1/27)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

When You're Feeling Sick Blog Tour (picture book review)

When You’re Feeling Sick
By Coy Bowles
Illustrated by Andy Elkerton
January 10, 2017
Doubleday BFYR

This laugh-out-loud picture book from Coy Bowles, guitarist for the Grammy Award–winning Zac Brown Band, will have sick kids feeling better in no time!
Sneezing? Coughing? Taking a sick day? Don’t worry, you’ll be feeling better soon thanks to this hilarious picture book from Coy Bowles, guitarist of the Grammy Award–winning Zac Brown Band. Full of encouraging—and super-silly—rhyming advice on how to face sick days with courage and a positive attitude, When You’re Feeling Sick is just what the doctor ordered! Comes with a sheet of stickers to bring a smile to every sick kid’s face.


Coy Bowles' When You're Feeling Sick is a clever, charming picture book that will have little readers laughing out loud and feeling better in a jiffy! 

With whimsical and sing-song silly, rhyming text, the story in When You're Feeling Sick seems to excitedly jump right off the page. Bowles uses age-appropriate and giggle-inducing humor to perfectly describe what it feels like to be sick and provides wonderfully wacky do's and don'ts to deal with the sick monsters.

I love the bright, engaging illustrations, that are full of splashes of color, very expressive faces, and a lot of diverse characters. 

Funny enough, as I type this review I, like the book's characters, am dealing with my own yucky sick monsters, but When You're Feeling Sick, with its Sickness Song and sickness monster face, have definitely made me feel better!

*I received an ARC of this book for review purposes

COY BOWLES plays guitar and organ and writes songs for the multiplatinum Zac Brown Band. They have won three Grammys and since 2009 have earned 55 award nominations from the Grammys, Academy of Country Music, American Music Awards, Country Music Association, and Country Music Television. Born in Thomaston, Georgia, Coy was raised on love, support, and the idea that he could do anything he put his heart and soul into. After earning a degree from Georgia State University’s Jazz Studies program, Coy formed the band Coy Bowles and the Fellowship. In 2006, they opened for the Zac Brown Band, and soon after Zac asked Coy to join his band full time. Coy’s first book, the self-published Amy Giggles: Laugh Out Loud, teaches kids to accept themselves as they are. Visit Coy at