Category Archives: Writing


Well, I ding dang did it! I finally finished the book I’ve been working on for longer than HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL. Time will tell whether it’ll be published or not, but hey, finishing is half the battle! Also, I think it’s a darn good book.

I will say that if it gets published, the acknowledgments are gonna have to be their own entire chapter.


Filed under My Books, Personal, Work In Progress, Writing

Latin@s in Kidlit Guest Post

Today I’ve got a guest post up at Latin@s in Kidlit! I talk about my grandmother, Patty “Lola” Nova, and share a couple of the stories she used to tell me as a child. Head on over to read more!

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An inspirational NaNoWriMo Post

I have some open tabs on my computer right now, both regarding the town of Melmond, which I needed to research for my current WIP, that YA novel I’m always yammering about. But I thought I’d take a quick break and talk about NaNoWriMo for a bit.

Back in 2005, after I’d been in college for a year, I decided to give NaNoWriMo a try. Though I’d heard about it many times before, this was the first year I was going to attempt it. (The lead-up to this was that I’d read a bunch of novels over the past year, most of them children’s and young adult, while waiting for the next Harry Potter book to come out. Reading those books made me realize that I wanted to be a writer.)

I wasn’t cocky. I didn’t know if I’d actually succeed. I DID think I was a really brilliant writer, though, and that I’d probably only need to do one draft of my book before I needed to sell it. (This is terrible thinking and no one should think this.) The book I ended up writing was an adult novel. Down the line this novel would eventually lead me to Star Mackie and Hope Is a Ferris Wheel—that’s right! This was the Sixth-Grade Delinquents book.

I did not win. I got about… 25-30 thousand words in before November was up, though in my defense, November is a terrible month to have to write a novel, especially if you’re a student. Anyway, I failed, but those 30,000 words were my first 30,000 words on the way to being a writer. And I didn’t give up on my book, which, at 30,000 words, was not even CLOSE to being done. I mean, I did finish the first part. One part of four. Four parts total.

(I eventually calculated that, had I finished that novel, it would have been around 130,000 words. Before I finally stopped writing it, I reached 102,759 words.)

A little too much to handle for my first NaNoWriMo.

After that, I took it easy. I didn’t enter NaNo again while I was in school. Actually, that’s a lie. I think I tried it again my final year of grad school and failed. I got about 12,000 words in on that novel, a legit YA.

It was the year AFTER that, then, I think, that I finally won National Novel Writing Month. I did the bulk of my writing on this book, an older-MG/younger-YA, in the final week of November that year, and won with about thirty minutes to spare. Kind of terrifying.

Sadly, that novel I wrote was TERRIBLE! I shelved it, and didn’t look at it until last week, when I was reminded of NaNoWriMo again. I was surprised to find that the book started out pretty well before dissolving into meaningless drivel about three-quarters of the way through. I began thinking, “Maybe I can fix this,” instead of, “I want to light my laptop on fire.”

Anyway, if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you the best of luck! I am again attempting to use the month to finish my WIP, hence the Melmond tabs. I’ve got high hopes this year.

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The Margin Project and Margin Notes

At some point before, during, or after reading this post, you should check out Jen Malone’s THE MARGIN PROJECT. Jen is the author of AT YOUR SERVICE, a fun and bubbly MG I’m greatly enjoying right now!

Anyway, a few weeks ago I received an ARC of my book with tons of awesome margin notes from the fine authors at OneFour KidLit! These were awesome and made my day/week/life, so I wanted to share some of the least spoiler-y ones:

The Trailer Park Club

Mixed reactions to THE TRAILER PARK CLUB’s name


photo 9



photo 8

Ha ha ha, no one likes Denny


photo 7

I hadn’t really noticed, but Star is kind of obsessed with making sure the minutes are taken


photo 6

I’m so proud of that burn. Glad someone acknowledged it.


photo 5

Good to know that eating fingernails elicits a universally disgusted response


photo 4

This IS a nod to Alan’s lecture! I snuck this VCFA reference in at the last minute.


photo 3

Ha ha ha, no one likes Mr. Savage either


photo 2

People REALLY don’t like Mr. Savage. At what point can I admit he was based on me and not get eaten alive?


photo 1

SO GOOD. This made me laugh out loud for a solid minute.


I hope you had as much fun reading those as I did!

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Hope Is a Ferris Wheel – The Lost Characters

Happy Monday! I debated posting this on Saturday, and then figured that if you’re anything like me, you are scrambling to get errands done on the weekend and don’t have time for the Internet.

Today I’m posting about the lost characters of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel – the characters that got CUT.

Erin Delligatti

Erin holding cat

Erin was the most important character to get cut. In the first and second drafts of the book, Erin was another fifth-grader at Pepperwood Elementary who lived in Treasure Trailers and who was Star’s next-lot neighbor, as you can see in this sweet, sweet map. (Big version HERE)

Treasure Trailers Map

You can also see where Gloria’s, Mrs. O’Grady’s, and the tinfoil man’s trailers are! Plus, the owner’s shack. This map isn’t up-to-date as there’s now a storage area behind the owner’s shack where Star’s mom keeps some important things in a storage shed. Anyway, back to Erin.

I actually liked Erin’s story quite a bit! It was established at the beginning of the story that Star and Erin had been friends over the summer, but when school started and Star said she lived at Treasure Trailers, Erin stopped talking to her. Because Erin was hiding the fact that she lived at Treasure Trailers, knowing it was something she’d be teased for. Star spent a lot of that first draft missing Erin’s company and trying to win her back as a friend, but in the end, Erin just wasn’t secure enough to be Star’s friend. (And then, from the curtains, came Genny! Heeeey!)

Erin also hung out at the dump a lot, as she was planning to build a robot out of junk for the science fair, and she also took care of Treasure Trailers’ resident stray mama cat, Queen Elizabeth, and her kittens, whom Erin had named after planets. The idea was that Erin was a really nice person, but not a good friend to Star.

Erin head

Unfortunately, her story detracted a lot from the story I was trying to tell, which was the story of Star and Genny’s friendship. Why should I write Star spending time wishing Erin was her friend when I could do that with Genny? Erin had to go. And when Erin went, so did her fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Keyes. (DUN DUN DUNNNNN… that’s why Mr. Keyes isn’t in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel!)

So, Erin doesn’t live in the trailer park anymore. She’s still in Mr. Keyes’ class, and her family lives in a tiny run-down house not too far from Pepperwood. But she and Star don’t interact at all. At least until… SIXTH GRADE!

Nichole “Nicky” Konicke

I almost snuck Nicky into the final draft of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, but my editor saw right through my attempts and said, “Why is this random character here at the end?” So I cut her, YET AGAIN.


In the first draft, when Star first goes to detention, she meets a group of kids she dubs the Detention Junkies. Eddie was one of them, and Nicky was another. Nicky’s story was that she never really tried in school, and thus got detention a lot. Miss Fergusson, through sheer force of will (and kindness), was able to turn Nicky around. Towards the end, she stopped going to detention, which made Star wonder why she was still in detention.

Nicky got cut at the same time as Erin, because it was more important to me to have Eddie in the story, and she and Eddie were kind of crowding each other. In between draft 1 and my last draft, I changed Nicky’s character considerably.

Nicky age chart

Here’s an age chart on new Nicky, showing her in Kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 5th grade. I gave her a sense of style, made her wealthier, and streamlined her design. New Nicky was set to join Star’s club at the end of the book, because of spoiler-y reasons, so I won’t go there now. But you can ask me in person after you’ve read the book! Also, if I ever write a sequel to Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, Nicky will definitely be in it.

But Erin won’t. Sorry!

Couple more things about Nicky:

  • In the Sixth Grade Delinquents story, Nicky was the “wildcard” of the class. No one knew if she was good or bad, and even Eddie kind of stayed away from her.
  • Nicky wears fancy and colorful cowboy boots.
  • This wasn’t originally the case, but Nicky has a huge crush on Eddie. She’s always trying to impress him.
  • In sixth grade, she no longer has her braid.
  • She’s very mildly based off this tough-as-nails fifth-grader I taught at one of my school jobs. A girl who could pound anyone into the pavement, but was also conscientious of her clothing and style.

Amanda Parker

Okay, Amanda was hardly even important to the plot, but she’s pretty cool, and I wanted to post a bit about her.

Amanda first

When I describe Amanda to you, she might sound a lot like Nicky, but the fundamental difference between Amanda and Nicky is that Amanda does what she does out of malice, while Nicky does it out of indifference.

Amanda was in the first two drafts, I think, along with Nicky and Erin. (Draft 3 was like a massacre.) She was another one of the Detention Junkies, and her crime was plastering everyone at Bloody Knuckles behind the dumpster during recess. At Pepperwood, Amanda was the Bloody Knuckles Champion. (Her teacher was also Mr. Keyes.)

Amanda colored

Amanda’s definitely not a nice person AT ALL. She’s downright cruel. She has a superiority complex that makes her think she’s better than everyone else, so she treats them accordingly. (Which is why she has no friends.)

So, no, Amanda didn’t add anything to the story, and so she was cut. BUT.


Remember, if you have to cut characters, you can always tell yourself you’re saving them for the sequel! 🙂


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Hope Is a Ferris Wheel – Teachers and Students

Considering the fact that I was busy plotting the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story, I don’t think you’ll be at all shocked at this map of Pepperwood Elementary, with all the teacher/room assignments, that I drew about five or six years ago.

Pepperwood Map

Big version is HERE if you’re interested. Clicking on the big version, you’ll be able to make out the names of every single teacher at Pepperwood Elementary. I’m stretching credibility a bit here, because honestly, this is too many teachers for a lot of California schools. Pepperwood has a pretty big student population, though. Over 400. So it’s not completely unreasonable.

Anyway, this map will tell you how meticulous I was in making this school feel like a real place. The only thing to note on this map is that Miss Minh, the 6th grade teacher over in the portable, isn’t a teacher during the events of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel. When Star is in 6th grade, Miss Minh joins the staff as a student teacher, then joins the staff full-time the year after that. (Miss Minh is not Star’s 6th grade teacher, though. Ms. Davenporte is.)

Okay, enough about teachers you don’t care about! Here’s some teachers you actually might care about if you’ve read the book.


From left to right: Miss Fergusson, Mr. Savage, Mr. Keyes. The three fifth-grade teachers of Pepperwood Elementary. I like these three a lot. If you’ve read the book, you know that Mr. Savage is kind of a jerk, and that Miss Fergusson is stern but sweet, and you have no idea who Mr. Keyes is. More about him later.

Mr. Savage was the only choice for Star’s teacher. Why? Because I knew they would clash, and when you’re not sure about the plot of your story, it’s sometimes a good idea to just put your main character in a terrible situation. The fact of the matter was, Miss Fergusson is Star’s ideal teacher, and Star is Miss Fergusson’s ideal student, so there’s no conflict there. Mr. Keyes is laid-back, having taught kids for over thirty years, and he knows when he needs to be tough on kids, so he wouldn’t be tough on Star, since, like Eddie says, she’s not really a bad kid.

But Mr. Savage is a new-ish teacher. He’s full of raw idealism and he’s a little terrified that his class will someday get the better of him. At the first sign of delinquency, he would turn on Star like that. (Imagine me snapping my fingers.)

Sometimes people ask whether the characters in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel are based off anyone I know. The kids aren’t, but the teachers are.

Fergusson first

Miss Fergusson is based off my own fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Lawson. Like Miss Fergusson, Ms. Lawson was caring and strict. She cared about every one of her students and did her best by every single one of them. (Above is the first drawing I ever did of her, sometime in 2006, maybe.)

Mr. Keyes is based off a teacher I worked with in Oakland, Mr. James. (The kids called him by his first name.) Mr. James was an art teacher and an artist who encouraged his students – even the ones who weren’t good at or interested in art. He was funny and lively, and the kids loved him, because they knew he loved them, too. Even when he had to discipline them.

Mr. Savage… is based off me. I was only an after-school teacher for 6 years, which, in teaching, is a tiny fraction of experience. Suffice to say, I made a lot of mistakes as a teacher. Sometimes, like Mr. Savage, I put on this “tough teacher” mask instead of being myself. Luckily, Mr. Savage works with a couple of experienced teachers, both of whom don’t mind guiding him in a better direction. (I worked with lots of awesome teachers, too, and I like to think they rubbed off on me.)

Anyway, Mr. Keyes doesn’t appear in the book because, well, he just got cut. His character was extraneous, and Star doesn’t interact with any of his students anyway.

Along with teachers, there are a couple of students mentioned in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel. I could give lots of info-dump on Maggie, Meg, and Chelsea, but I forgot to scan their stuff in. So all you get is Delilah and Jared.

Delilah Lilac Manning

Delilah was originally a much more involved character. She was actually kind of the villain in the story! But a lot of Delilah’s stuff was given to Denny, and Delilah quietly slipped into the background to occasionally give biting comments and be a jerk.

There was a part in the first draft where Star threw a basketball in Delilah’s face for making fun of another trailer park resident, but of course that all got cut/repurposed. But I liked that scene, because it led to Star going to the principal’s office and Winter coming down to pick her up, pretending to be Carly.

Jared Barrel

I think what happened with Jared (who never actually had a bigger part – he’s always been a small fry) was that I had all these traits from the old Denny (timid, mild, meek, soft-spoken, etc.) and I needed to give them to someone else. So I picked Jared. There’s not a whole lot revealed about Jared, but Jared is one of Eddie’s unfortunate victims. So not only is he timid and quiet, he also lashes out at others, like Star. (Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t remember if he actually lashes out at Star in the book. He is the boy who asks if he can join her club and then laughs in her face, though.)

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Hope Is a Ferris Wheel – Eddie and Langston

Eddie is actually my favorite character in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, and even in the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story. My favorite characters are the ones who are very contrary. The basis of Eddie’s character is that he’s a “bad” kid who is slowly realizing that he doesn’t have to be a bad kid.

I won’t give away too much of Eddie’s backstory, but if you’ve read the book you know that he thinks he’s stupid, because that’s what people have been telling him for a long time. DESPITE the fact that he has a bunch of poems memorized, and DESPITE the fact that he’s reading a thousand-page novel to himself in his free time.

Eddie first

Here is the earliest picture I have of Eddie, who predates every other character in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel except for maybe Miss Fergusson. In the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story, Eddie was the top delinquent. He’s the one no one else would dare challenge, because he’d been beating up other kids since like, the second grade. But Eddie wasn’t a dumb bully, he was a smart bully, and he’d already figured out how to play sixth grade.

Denny and Eddie sixth grade

This is a picture of Eddie and Denny in sixth grade. They were part of a group, and I won’t say anything else in case I ever end up writing that story. 🙂 But you can see here how smug Eddie looks, like he’s got everything figured out. Which he does.

Eddie glasses reading

But fifth-grade Eddie is a lot less confident and much more insecure about his intelligence. (If you’ve read the book – you’re right, Eddie doesn’t wear glasses. He gets them right around Thanksgiving, right after Hope Is a Ferris Wheel ends.) (Oh, and yeah, his last name is Valentine, which is never mentioned in the book since he’s not in Star’s class.) Also, you can see that, since that first picture, his hair has expanded quite a bit, and that I got a lot better at drawing it.


So, Eddie’s tough and a bully. And a major reason of why he’s a tough bully is Langston.

Langstons early

Langston is not in the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story at all, because at that point he wouldn’t be a sixth-grader anymore and wouldn’t go to the same school. But in the story, there were a lot of rumors about him. The administration of Pepperwood Elementary sees Langston as the ringleader and Eddie as the sidekick, even though it’s actually the other way around. But Langston and Eddie do feed off of each other. Langston likes being a bully, making fun of other people, feeling like he’s in charge of things, even if it’s just his own thing he’s in charge of.

Above are early pictures of Langston looking a lot meaner than he actually is. I gave Langston a mohawk because I’d taught some kids with mohawks, and I noticed a couple things about these kids that I wanted to convey in Langston’s characters.

Kids with mohawks:

  • Got them because their parents or parent were convinced that their kid having a mohawk would look cool and make them stand out
  • Were wisecracking and troublemaking, but also charming, with a soft side
  • Usually only had it once and then let it grow out

Langston head

Langston’s a good foil for Eddie. Eddie is perceived as stupid but is actually very smart, while Langston is perceived as stupid and is actually stupid. But it doesn’t bother him the way it bothers Eddie. Langston’s also very cocky where Eddie is insecure. Langston is pretty easy-going while Eddie has a short temper and tends to be angry and hold grudges. And even though Eddie’s smarter than Langston is, Eddie’s the one who was held back in first grade, not Langston, and Langston holds that over Eddie’s head quite a bit.

Still, they’re best friends. They live in the same neighborhood and, despite being a grade apart, are always together. The thing that binds them is that they’ve been branded delinquents from an early age. But again, despite what everyone thinks, Langston is the one who follows Eddie, not the other way around. (Eddie’s also older than Langston by about a month.)

And in case you’re wondering, Langston’s last name is McNeilly, which again isn’t in the book since he’s not in Star’s class.


I drew the above image around the time Langston started being more involved with the plot. And also when Star would wear a ponytail to disguise her mullet. And I guess wore fancy zip-up boots? Oh, wait. I remember why I drew those boots on her – because Langston was already wearing combat-esque boots and I thought it would seem odd if they were both wearing them.

Okay then!

Oh, and one more little tidbit: Langston didn’t have a name until I think draft 2. The kids in the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story referred to him as “Firestarter” for reasons I won’t get into. And then he didn’t have a last name until draft 3.

Now that I think about it, Langston might predate Eddie. The idea of a kid called Firestarter has been in my mind for a long time.


Filed under Art, Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, My Books, Writing

Hope Is A Ferris Wheel – The Libras

Denny and Genny Libra are, after Star and her family, probably the most important characters in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel. The story, after all, started as a way for me to explain how Star and Genny became best friends, basically. But first, a little about how they came to be!

Denny early design

I actually laughed when I found this old Denny drawing. This, I’m pretty sure, must be the first drawing of Denny I ever did. I left my notes there so you could read them. From the beginning, there was a pretty heavy emphasis on his eyes. The first version of Denny was a timid, shy boy who didn’t say much. (And he was a sixth-grader in the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story.)

Shortly after drawing this doodle, I named him Denny. While walking to the store one day in my hometown of Eureka, California, trying to come up with a good last name for him, I thought up the name “Libra.” It sounded pretty good. Denny Libra. I knew I’d remember it!

I didn’t. I forgot it as soon as I got home and didn’t remember it for several months. So, writers: ALWAYS WRITE STUFF DOWN.

Denny long hair

Not too long after naming Denny, I got Star. The two seemed like a hilarious pair: Star, loud and flashy, Denny, quiet and mousy. They were natural-born enemies. Oddly enough, Denny’s “theme song” was “Jenny, You’re Barely Alive” by Rilo Kiley. Something about the way it sounded matched Denny’s personality pretty well at that point. While listening to that song one day and thinking about Denny, I decided he should totally have a sister named Jenny.

Except… I couldn’t figure out why Denny’s parents would name him something a little weird like Denny and then slap the very common name Jenny on his sister.

So I changed it to Genny. I didn’t want her to be Gennifer, though, so I made her full name Geneva. Geneva and Denny are two names I can believe that two kids in the same family can have. (Names are important! Always think about names and whether they fit together!) The only thing I didn’t like was that Geneva Libra doesn’t have quite the awesome ring to it that Denny Libra has. BUT I figured maybe that’s part of the reason why Genny likes to be called Genny instead of Geneva.

Also, c’mon. It’s hilarious to have a brother and sister named Denny and Genny. There’s a good line I had in one of the previous drafts where Eddie refers to them as “The Wonder Twins” and Star just says, “They’re not twins.” I can’t explain why I think that’s funny. It just is.

Denny fullGenny full

Here’s the first picture I ever drew of the two of them together. (They were on opposite sides of the page, though, so I scanned them separately.) Denny was still a bit timid at this point, but you can tell that Genny’s personality has always been upbeat. But they’re both lanky, it’s just that Genny hides it better, and they have the same face shape. I always meant for them to look like a brother and sister. (I also think, at this stage, that I wanted Denny to look like a kid whose mom still dressed him, while Genny was a kid who dressed herself. I later dropped that.)

Denny thoughtful

Denny glare

These two Dennys were probably drawn about a year apart. In that time, I began actually writing Hope Is a Ferris Wheel and mean Denny took over, pushing timid Denny off a cliff. Mean Denny is more fun to write than timid Denny anyway. All the insults he shoots at Star aren’t things he actually believes, they’re things he thinks would bother her. So he’s not really the jerk he seems to be. Still, Denny and Star aren’t and probably never will be friends.

Genny OLD

Genny, on the other hand…

Man, look at that hair. This is an extremely old picture of Genny, a picture where I was trying to capture what she might look like during 4th grade. (Because, like every other character in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, Genny started out as a side character in the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story. As a fifth-grader, of course.)

Genny nice

Genny’s two main characteristics, to contrast her brother, were “nice” and “talkative.” In the first two drafts of the book, Genny was sick with a disease I never bothered to look up. It didn’t really fit in the story and felt too trivial, so I dropped it. I also changed my mind about a later plot point – in the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story, Genny died a little over halfway into the school year. I never figured out what she died of, only that she died, and that Star and Denny never spoke again afterwards.

It was kind of a bummer of a storyline. I dropped it for reasons I won’t get into now, but if I ever write a sequel to Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, I’ll be able to explain.

Genny tattoos

I’m pretty sure it was draft 5 where Genny got her signature tattoos. She and Denny didn’t actually have standout personalities for a long time (aside from being nice and mean, respectively), so I spent some time on their characters. Denny didn’t actually change much, but I gave him some family issues and he seemed to stand out a bit more. Genny got tattoos, probably because I’d worked with kids who slathered themselves with rub-on tattoos and thought that was interesting.

But every time I draw Genny with her tattoos, I only get halfway down her arms because I’m lazy. They’re supposed to go all the way down to her wrists. And she’s probably got a couple on her legs.

One thing that never gets mentioned about Genny is that she loves to draw. There was a scene in some early drafts in which Star goes to the Libra house and sees Genny’s room, which is kind of messy and filled with fantasy novels. I imagine Genny draws her own fantasy lands in her spare time. Even though it never made it into the story, it informed a bit of her character for me.

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Hope Is a Ferris Wheel – Star’s Family

Today I’ll talk about Star’s family, which includes her mother, Carly (short for Carlotta), her sister, Winter, and her pseudo-godmother, Gloria.

Winter, Carly, Gloria

Here’s a fairly recent picture of the three of them (from left to right: Winter, Carly, Gloria). I was really excited, by the way, that a recent review of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel referred to Winter as “goth,” even though I didn’t use that term once in the book. (“Goth” is a term I hardly ever hear anymore, so I decided to leave it out and avoid possible confusion.) But yes, Winter is goth. She dyes her hair black and wears black clothing and combat boots.

Carly is sensible. She’s flaky, but sensible. She dresses as professionally as she can because she often has to deal with food bank people or welfare people and she doesn’t want them assuming she’s flaky, even if she is. Carly takes pride in her role as a mother and she assumes she’s a great one because, despite being impoverished, she provides everything her children need.

Gloria is like a fun aunt. Winter’s too old to be amused by Gloria anymore, but Star is still the right age for it. Gloria does her own thing, mostly. She works at a salon, having recently graduated from beauty school. She’s sloppier about her appearance than Carly is, but proud of her credentials. She thinks she’s the world’s expert on hair despite giving Star a mullet.

Carly and Gloria are kind of a reference to me and my childhood/current best friend, Tessa. Tessa also had a child when she was 19, and I am the weird pseudo-aunt that her child will probably find unamusing in a few years. Gloria’s love of donuts is a reference to my sweet tooth, but Carly isn’t a whole lot like Tessa, except that they both wear glasses.

Alright, back to Winter.

Winter OLD

This is, I think, the first picture of Winter. She was a bit more bubbly at first, and instead of having dyed black hair, she had dyed blonde hair. (She wasn’t goth yet, obviously.) I was basing Winter a bit off my older sister, who I’ve always thought of as way cooler than me. When I was Star’s age, my sister had the coolest clothes and was super smart, and everyone in the family thought she’d be a writer because her English grades were ridiculously high. The notoriously tough Shakespeare teacher at my high school said that she was one of his favorite students and that she wrote amazing essays.

(She’s in a geology-related field now. WHO KNEW?)

So I based Winter off that. Amazing writer, but on the morbid side. Totally cool, but also a teenager and therefore pretty contrary regarding her mother. (My sister had a rebellious phase, but she stayed a good student and was always nice to our mom.)

Winter and Allie

So, I ditched blonde-Winter pretty early on. Here she is with a character not worth mentioning until you’ve read the book. Her hair became curly/tangly and she became a lot rougher around the edges. I don’t remember when I decided she’d go to an alternative school due to being expelled from her old school, but it was definitely before I started writing the first draft. Winter was also originally kind of mean to Star, but when I started writing it didn’t work out, wasn’t going anywhere. Once I made their sisterly relationship a positive one, the writing came easier.

Sometimes, you gotta switch characterizations at the last minute!

Winter Harper

A post-it doodle of Winter from 2008. I had an internship at a publishing house, where one of my tasks involved using a system that took a long time to load things. So while I waited for stuff to load, I banged out lots of doodles on tiny post-it notes. I think Winter’s look really took shape during that time.

Winter glasses

In I think draft 5 of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, Winter wore giant sunglasses as a way to hide her emotions from her family. That only lasted one draft. (I think she might put them on once in the book.)

Winter color

This is the quintessential Winter. And it’s like, a thirty-second doodle. So there you go. I’ve reached the point where I can capture her in thirty seconds. HUZZAH

Carly ages

Carly is a different story. In fact, it wasn’t until about draft 3 that I actually knew what she looked like. (She was always just “vague mother figure yelling in the trailer” before that.) Between drafts 3 and 4, I started wondering a bit more about her past, so I drew this quick reference sheet for myself of Carly when she had Winter (age 19), when she had Star (age 25), and in the current storyline (35/36). You can see that at age 19 Carly was a bit more lively. After she had Winter she got that “professional” look so she could get benefits more easily.

carly mackie

Carly’s story is a bit tragic and not at all like Tessa’s. Carly was in community college when she became pregnant with Winter, and she had to drop out to take care of her, which was disappointing because Carly was the first in her family to go to college. Her family also kicked her out when she got pregnant, so she moved in with Gloria until she saved enough money to live on her own. (They all lived in the same trailer park, which made things awkward.) Star followed five years later, and Carly was never quite able to get back into school.

Carly has a history of staying in jobs for less than a year. In a previous draft I explored this more: Carly’s a bit restless. It’s just her personality. She doesn’t do well doing the same thing for a long period of time. So she’s reached a point in her life where she’s had so many jobs that nobody really wants to hire her. Thus, she has a hard time finding a job. She’s not on unemployment because she always quits her jobs and is never actually fired from them.

As for Gloria, well, I don’t draw her much, but I imagine she looks like me if I had a degree from beauty school and actually did my hair and wore makeup. Her last name is never mentioned in the book, but it’s Sanchez.

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Hope Is a Ferris Wheel – Star Mackie

I’ve got two full weeks until the release of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, so I decided to do some process posts. There’ll be one every weekday!

So, the way I write a story is that first I draw out the characters. I draw them until they’re very clear in my mind, because when they are, they start to interact with their environment and tell me (indirectly) about their stories. These drawings usually start as classroom doodles. Things I doodle during a lecture or what have you.

(Now that I’m not in school, I do a lot of doodling on my iPad while watching TV. Closest I can get.)

So, I’m starting with STAR, the main character of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel.

Star was actually not the first character I had for this story – Eddie and Denny came before her. But they weren’t doing much until Star came around.

Star first

The girl on the right is the very first drawing of Star I ever did. (You can see some java notes on the far right of the notebook paper; I drew this during a computer science class. I’m almost positive it was early 2007, but it could have been late 2006.) She started out a bit older, as you can see, but when I did the drawing on the left immediately after I made her a bit younger and that seemed to fit her.

You can see a small star right by Star’s head in the drawing on the left. I believe I made that star so I would remember to figure out something with her later, but looking over my notes at the end of the day, I decided that “Star” was a good name for her.

Now, what in the world was I thinking with her hair? I have no idea. But I do know that, looking at the picture later, I said to myself, “In the drawing, that looks kind of cool, but in real life that would totally be a mullet.” (I was thinking a flashy David Bowie type mullet.)

I decided to go with that. A young girl with a mullet. Named Star.

That’s where it all started.

Star color second

I guess Star’s mullet is midnight blue because of this drawing. My original idea for Star (and here, she’s a sixth-grader, not a fifth-grader), was that she was a somewhat-streetwise trailer park denizen who knew a lot about things like make-up and hair products, and who tried to act more mature than she was, even though she was still a child and very naive. (Hence the eyeliner and the high heels.)

And yeah, she was a sixth-grader. I originally put her in this story I was working on about a sixth-grade class of kids, who were known as the “bad class.” Star was a side character who would brag about her life and how cool she was, not realizing that it wasn’t actually cool to live in a trailer park.

I also had this character named Denny, a timid, nervous kind of kid, who I’d drawn and named right before Star. So naturally, they became connected. I thought it’d be funny if they were enemies, and then I had to figure out WHY they were enemies, so I decided that Star was friends with his sister and was constantly over at their house, driving Denny crazy. (More about Denny and his transformation from timid to glaring in another post.)

Star Grin

The more I drew Star, the more I got to understand her mullet and the way it worked. For a while, it was kind of curly. And though I often imagined her in skirts, she sometimes made appearances in straight-legged jeans.

Star and Genny fifth grade

One day in 2008, during a lecture in my History of Latinas/os in 20th Century California class (as you can tell from the terms “chicano” and “gentrification” up there), I drew this picture of Star and Genny. I liked the way Star looked like she’d achieved something great, so I added the caption at the bottom, which eventually became the working title of the book. I made Star a 5th grader here because I’d made her hair a little different, but then I thought it could be a good “origin story” for this side character. The two things I’d need to cover in the “origin story” were:

1. How Star and Genny met and became friends

2. How Star ended up being placed in the “bad class”

So, I started working on that. In my head, not on paper. I decided early on that, despite my love of YA, this would be a story for children. (Like the children I was working with at the time as part of my work-study job.)

Star boots

In my sketchbook, I drew a page devoted to Star Mackie: Queen of Fifth Grade, deciding which characters from the aforementioned Sixth-Grade Delinquents story would make appearances. Genny and Denny, obviously, would need to be there, and I also decided to put Eddie in. There were some other characters on the page who either didn’t make it in or did and were cut later. (I’ll cover those characters in a different post.)

Star and Winter

Star had always had a sister. She was a vague figure in Star’s life until I started doing Star Mackie: Queen of Fifth Grade, and then she became a full-blown character. More on her later. For now I’ll just say that Star’s sister, Winter, became an extremely important part of the book. In fact, there was a vague side-plot in the Sixth-Grade Delinquents story regarding Winter that I moved into Star’s origin story. But you have to read the book in order to know what it is. 🙂 Anyway, note in this picture that Star is wearing high heels and that they are too big for her feet. That’s because they’re Winter’s. (And Winter is wearing the combat boots that Star now wears in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel.)

Star incensed

Eventually Star’s mullet became a bit more streamlined, which is what happens when you draw a character over and over again. She was in combat boots full time now, too, due to a comment I received from my would-be editor, Tamar, about the high heels making Star feel too mature. There was an entire plot thread of Star wearing high heels and gradually moving to Winter’s combat boots, so I decided to nix that and just put her in the combat boots from the beginning. Made some things a lot easier.

Star Skull Janes

Here’s a somewhat more recent picture of Star. I haven’t drawn her a whole lot since getting the book deal, sadly! I was also experimenting with some different footwear for her (these are called “Skull Mary Janes” in my notes), though that never panned out. You can now make out the separate layers in her hair and see how it can be viewed as a mullet. As far as I’m concerned, it’s totally a mullet and Star is in denial about it, but some readers have stayed adamant that it’s a “layered cut” and totally not a mullet even, and that’s a valid interpretation. I think there are a lot of people walking around with mullets who are in denial. Own your mullet! They’re actually pretty cool. 🙂

So, there you have it! Star Mackie was created SEVEN DANG YEARS AGO. And now her little origin story is out in the world.

It just goes to show you to keep your eye on those side characters. They’ll sprout their own stories when you least expect it.


Filed under Art, Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, My Books, Writing

Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, Growing Up Poor, and Class Issues

I saw the great CBC Diversity post, “Dumpster Diving: An Observation on Class in Children’s Books,” and decided to share a few things about Hope Is a Ferris Wheel.

Class issues aren’t necessarily at the center of Hope. Star (the main character) and her family are poor. Her mother doesn’t have a job, they live in a small trailer, and they’re on food stamps. (Except it’s a food card instead of stamps. I don’t think California uses stamps anymore.) I gave Star’s family these traits because I was poor growing up, too. And while I wasn’t as poor as Star, I wanted to portray what it’s like to live at the poverty line, and how it isn’t entirely hopeless, or desperate, or completely terrible. I mean, it sucks being poor, but people learn how to be poor. They deal with it. I wanted to write that kind of a family, one who was comfortable being poor, though a bit of money might solve some of their problems.

I didn’t base Star’s home life entirely on my own. I used the experiences of other poor friends of mine, which is why Star’s mother doesn’t have a job. (My mother worked two jobs as far back as I can remember.) Some of my friends’ parents didn’t have jobs, but they still had money, either from welfare, unemployment, or a family friend. Star’s mom is on welfare, and the family friend Gloria, who is employed as a hairdresser, provides some luxuries like donuts and movie rentals.

Star’s family isn’t starving. Their food card provides them with enough food, and Star is eligible for the free lunch program at her school. (Winter, her sister, is as well.) They have health insurance through the state, but they don’t have dental insurance. All their clothes come from thrift stores or department store clearance racks. Some of this isn’t stated in the book, but it stayed in my mind as I wrote. It stayed in the background.

Star’s poverty is the background of her life, just like it was the background of my life. But it isn’t an issue for her. Star does deal with a lot more bullying and prejudice than I did – I dealt with virtually none until I went to college. Mostly, though, Star is teased for her mullet and the fact that she lives in a trailer park, and not necessarily because she’s poor.

That’s how it was in my life. I was never teased for being poor, but some of the things I was teased about were a direct result of being poor. My clothes, for example, which were hardly ever in fashion. I mean, I like to think I made it work, but I don’t think I did. Or my extreme love of ketchup. (I still get made fun of for that!)

I still remember the time in high school, during an honors English class, when we were talking about To Kill A Mockingbird. We had just finished reading the chapter in which Scout invites her classmate home to eat lunch with her and he douses his lunch in molasses – ruining it, in Scout’s view. Our teacher asked us if we knew why the boy had done that, and nobody had an answer. “Think about it,” he said. “Anyone here ever put a lot of salt on something? Soy sauce? Ketchup?”

Ketchup! My hand shot up in the air. I loved ketchup on practically everything.

Pointing at me, the teacher announced, “Yes! That’s something poor people do to mask the taste of bad food!”

Although I was embarrassed at the time, it didn’t occur to me until years later that my teacher had basically announced to the entire class that I was poor. Probably because I didn’t often think of myself that way. Like Star, I thought of myself as a kid. (Or, in that case, a teenager.) My family had been through some rough times, but what family hadn’t? Being poor didn’t negatively affect my life, except that I couldn’t afford a lot of things and often skipped lunch to save my lunch money so I could go see movies with my friends.

Some people still tease me about the time I ate a bagel out of the trash, though they conveniently leave out the part where the bagel was still in a ziploc bag. And hey, it was a perfectly good bagel. I had listened to some girl despair over the fact that her mother had packed her a bagel for snack, and then watched as she threw the entire thing, bag and all, into the trash. It wasn’t like I had to dig through the trash to get it. And besides, in that moment, I could only think of one thing: I hadn’t had breakfast, and there was a perfectly good bagel right at the top of the trash can.*

Anyway, I’m getting off track.

I didn’t just write Star as poor because I was poor. I wrote her that way because there was a distinct lack of impoverished children in the books I read. Which was weird, considering that I, along with my two best friends, grew up poor. And it was weird, considering how many poor kids I worked with while I was an after-school teacher. It seemed to me, in the small town where I grew up, that a lot of people were poor. A lot of them were poorer than we were. It seemed so foreign to me to read about all these kids in houses with yards and fences and a second or third story.

So, one of my ultimate hopes for this novel is that it will ring true for some poor kids reading it. And another hope of mine is that it won’t ring true for some poor kids reading it, and that they will grow up to write their own version of growing up poor, for me to read.

Or something.

In the meantime, here’s some books I love with poor protagonists (both MG and YA):

  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (YA) (Eleanor has the typical miserable poor existence, but that isn’t the main problem of the novel.)
  • The Land by Mildred D. Taylor (MG/YA) (Work hard and you won’t be poor anymore! Just kidding. The only reason Paul-Edward is poor is because he’s saving up to buy SOME LAND, but this still counts!)
  • The Revenant by Sonia Gensler (YA) (Girl runs away from poor family to teach at Navajo boarding school, class issues between her and the wealthy Navajo mean girl gang are subtle and don’t drive the story)
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (MG) (Poor family front and center.)
  • Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan (MG) (Naomi lives in a trailer park too! And her life with her grandmother is pretty ideal aside from their lack of money.)
  • With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo (MG) (Family is poor because they’re traveling religious folk. Big, happy, poor family.)
  • Tyrell by Coe Booth (YA) (Saddest ending ever. But Tyrell’s struggles to get out of the roach-infested hotel his family is forced to live in are so immediate and gripping.)
  • When Pigs Fly by June Rae Wood (MG/YA) (Family becomes poor, moves into weird old house. They have that weirdness that my family (and other poor families I knew) had.)

* You’re still allowed to make fun of me for eating a bagel out of the trash if you are one of my very good friends. Even if you aren’t, you can still make fun of me.


(This is x-posted to my tumblr.)

EDIT 1/13/14: Stacy on tumblr reminded me that THE REVENANT takes place in a Cherokee boarding school, not a Navajo boarding school. Sorry for getting it wrong and for any confusion I caused.


Filed under Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, My Books, Personal, Writing

Interview with Michelle Schusterman, author of I HEART BAND!

Today I am pleased as punch (or a similarly over-sweetened beverage) to host this interview with Michelle Schusterman! Michelle is the author of the upcoming I Heart Band series, which is everything a band geek could want in a middle grade series. Being a former band geek myself (trombone, 8 years), I knew that I simply HAD to interview Michelle about the books.

I Heart Band

First things first: How long were you in band, and what instrument did you play?

I started band in third grade. After an excruciating few weeks torturing squeals out of an innocent clarinet, I switched to percussion. I was in band through middle school and high school, including all the marching band/drumline madness. I ended up majoring in music education in college. That meant more marching band, as well as steel band, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban ensembles, women’s chorus, and methods classes on woodwind, brass, and string instruments, as well as piano. After that, I was a band director for four years.

So the short answer: I’m a lifelong band geek. 🙂

I’ve always wanted to write a book about my experiences taking band from 4th-12th grade, but could never quite think of a good story. Michelle, what was the inspiration for Holly’s story? Did you want to tell a band story, or was it something else?

Fun fact: I HEART BAND is actually a commissioned series! An editor at Penguin had an idea for a story about middle school band geeks and contacted my agent asking if she had any authors who might be a good fit. I had a phone call with the editor (Jordan Hamessley), and we discovered we both grew up in Texas. Jordan played French horn in middle and high school band and was, in her words, “a HUGE band geek.” We ended up chatting about state marching band contest and other competitions we’d both experienced–it was kind of surreal! She wanted a story about a talented French horn player named Holly who gets some competition from a new girl, who’s not only a great horn player too, but becomes close with Holly’s best friend. She gave me some notes, I wrote an outline, and we took it from there!

So that’s why Holly plays French horn! I was wondering, since the French horn is usually not the instrument people think of when they think of band. Usually it’s a trumpet or a flute. How did you pick everyone else’s instruments? Was that another conversation with your editor?

Yup! She’s a mini-Jordan. 🙂 Well, we knew Natasha (Holly’s rival) had to play French horn, too. I’m pretty sure Jordan also wanted Julia, Holly’s best friend, to play clarinet. We tried to have the main cast of characters represent a variety of sections – there’s a candy-loving sax player, a gossipy flautist, and a trumpet player Holly has a pretty big crush on. Her friend Owen is in the French horn section, too – he loves sci-fi, could totally be a professional comic book artist, and is my favorite character. (Don’t tell the others!)

Friends, Fugues, and Fortune Cookies

Ha! Owen is totally my favorite character, too, and I loved how real the other kids felt. They all reminded me of someone I knew in band. Did you draw a lot on real-life incidents when writing? Because I’m pretty sure we had several ant invasions in my band room, too!

SO many real-life incidents! The ant invasion was one of them. My first year teaching, the head band director told all the beginner classes this story about a clarinet student of hers who never cleaned her instrument properly…until one day, when she found maggots in her mouthpiece. I have no idea if that story was true or not, but it definitely encouraged kids to clean their instruments!

There’s bits and pieces of my own band experiences throughout the whole series. Book two includes a fundraiser bake sale – I can’t even count how many of those I’ve done. In book three, the kids take a trip to New Orleans, only to have their bus break down in the middle of nowhere – a variation on my senior band trip, when our buses were caught in a snowstorm in the Rocky Mountains! (Which, of course, only made the trip more epic.)

Honestly, every scene brought back tons of memories of rehearsals, football games, performance anxiety, the thrill of winning a competition, the anxiety of auditioning for all-region band (which was the bane of my musical existence back then)…it was unbelievably fun to be able to relive all of that while working on these books.

I’m legitimately having band flashbacks right now. Although our bus never broke down and we usually sold candy bars instead of holding bake sales. Still, I can’t wait to dive back into the series when it comes out next year. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit more about books 2 and 3? (And maybe even 4?)

Candy bars, poinsettias, car washes…I think I’ve probably done every school fundraiser known to man!

Book two (FRIENDS, FUGUES, AND FORTUNE COOKIES) comes out January 9th, along with book one! Holly tries to help the brass section win the band’s bake sale fundraiser competition while dealing with scary all-region tryouts and the prospect of asking someone to the winter dance. Book three (SLEEPOVERS, SOLOS, AND SHEET MUSIC) is out May 15th. This one’s all about band trip drama–fights, breakups, and new crushes develop while Holly and her friends are in New Orleans. Book four (CRUSHES, CODAS, AND CORSAGES) is out in the fall. Holly prepares for a huge band competition, the district’s science fair, the spring dance…and her possible-maybe new crush on a certain comic book artist!

Sleepovers, Solos, and Sheet Music

That makes me ridiculously happy! I’m so excited to have all four (and maybe more?) glitter-tastic books on my shelf next year. I have a few quick “this-or-that” questions for any and all band nerds who might be reading this (answer however you see fit!):

Treble or Bass? Bass!

Football games or Basketball games? Basketball. (After my Texas high school/college experience, I’ve had enough football for a lifetime.)

Tuba or Euphonium? Tuba!

Bass Clarinet or Oboe? Bass clarinet! (When I try to play the oboe, I feel like my head is going to explode.)

Timpani or Snare? Snare! (That’s what I played in high school drumline.)

Crescendo or Pianissimo? Pianissimo! (Never underestimate the power of super-soft!)

There you have it: crescendo sucks! (Just kidding!) 

And I encourage everyone – former band geek or not – to check out Michelle’s wonderful books. Seriously, I have been waiting years for a great band geek story, and I’m so glad to have finally found it! Even if it did remind me of how gross spit valves are. And besides that – awesome covers! (Plus, they have glitter! Everyone at work knows I’m a sucker for glitter.)


Filed under Book Recs, Books, Interview, Writing

Nanowrimo Update #2: Slacker Edition

I put off posting an update on my dismal, thankfully unofficial NaNoWriMo progress. I’m sure I’ve written a lot of words, but I’ve been deleting them over and over again. What do you do when you get to chapter two and everything starts falling apart?

1. Have an awesome writing buddy. (Mine is my friend Elysia, who was also one of the first readers of HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL. Elysia writes in practically every genre save for non-fiction and is incredibly insightful about writing in general.)

2. Keep bashing your head against the wall. With breaks, of course, because if you bash your head against the wall forever, then you’ll just end up killing yourself. But I’ve prided myself in writing every ding-dang day this week, even if it wasn’t productive at all and I ended up deleting those thousand or so words the very next day.

3. Have a playlist! To almost quote Madonna, “Music makes the plotlines come together.”

I’m not very good at giving advice, and I haven’t even crawled out of my chapter 2 hole yet, but I think these three points are pretty solid. I’ll let you know next week if they actually worked.


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Nanowrimo Progress Report: Week 1

I’m so glad I’m doing this unofficially.


CHAPTERS I HOPED TO HAVE COMPLETED: 2 (I’m setting the bar pretty low, and I still tripped over it)

TIMES I HAD TO STOP WRITING TO RESEARCH SOMETHING: 1 (This is practically my all-time lowest record)

RESEARCH WAS: Were LARPers around in 1990?

ANSWER: Yes (thank goodness!)



GOAL FOR NEXT WEEK: Get to chapter three, Robin!

WORDS TO LIVE BY: “Writing is like stabbing yourself in the face with a spoon.”

Alright. Back to writing.

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I’m not officially doing Nanowrimo this year, but I figured I would use the opportunity to get as far into my WIP as possible. I have an outline, and a rewritten first chapter (that needs to be rewritten again), and I made this amazing* mock-up to inspire me:

paper moon

I’ve officially done Nanowrimo a few times before, and only once did it result in a finished, 50,000-word book. The book sucked. And since I technically never deleted it from my hard drive, the book continues to suck. However, I’m really glad to have finished that piece of crap!


*not actually amazing at all


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