Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Meet Jen K. Blom

Please welcome Jen K. Blom, another animal lover, whose debut middle grade novel POSSUM SUMMER (Holiday House/Spring 2011) sounds adorable. And you can win a copy! Details for the giveaway below, but first, here's a little about Possum Summer:

Eleven-year-old P (short for Princess, a name she loathes) longs for a pet, but her father insists that all animals on their Oklahoma farm must earn their keep. While he's away on combat duty, P tries to turn his cattle dog into her pet—with disastrous results. Then P rescues an orphaned opossum that she names Ike. She hand-feeds the beguiling critter, smuggles him into school, and teaches him to follow her everywhere. But when her father is reported injured, P knows that before he is shipped home, she must betray Ike's trust and force him to survive in the wild.

"A heartwarming, vibrant story. It's a book that middle graders will want to read." --Bill Wallace, author of A Dog Called Kitty

Jen - tell us a little about how you got your start as a writer. What made you focus on middle grade fiction? What was the inspiration for Possum Summer?

Possum Summer's inspiration came from my own childhood, in a way. I got my pet possum the exact same way that P got hers, and the story stuck with me all these years. I tried writing YA, and I tried fantasy, but in the end I ended up being good at the main genre that I love most: middle grade. It's the best time to be a reader! Middle Grade books can change kid's lives - I know quite a few of them helped me through when I was that age!

I understand that you’ve lived lots of different places. Can you shed some light on that? Are you a traveler, or an adventurer? How does this inspire your writing?

I have lived in many different places! Let's see. Born in Oklahoma, went to Kentucky to work at the Kentucky Horse Park, out to California to professionally show dogs (and traveled up and down the western seaboard doing that - as high up as Washington and as low as Mexico!) and then moved to the east coast and showed my Azawakh everywhere there. Oh, and I lived in Darwin and Sydney, Australia (when I was about 20) and now I live in Berlin, Germany (since about ten years now! amazing!) I once read that a person couldn't be considered a writer until they'd lived a little, and I think I've lived enough now for a few lifetimes. So when I finally started Possum Summer, I knew this one was 'the one.' (And luckily, I was right!) All those experiences, all those emotions, everything at some point changes your writing. I am an adventurer, most definitely. My two favorite writers (excluding Wilson Rawls, who is AWESOME) are Ernest Hemingway and T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). I'd like to think I follow in their adventurous footsteps.

What is your writing process? Do you outline first, or are you a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants?)

You know, I've always been a pantser, but with this latest manuscript (as well as an upcoming one) I plotted with an outline. I find that it helps and it hurts, the outlining method. Little things often come to me as I write, things that tie together only at the end when I read through it and I say "OH! That's why that happened!" (ha!) I mourn that aspect of writing to an outline, but I try to keep the outline as general as possible so those little darlings can work their way through.

Tell us a little about your writing journey. How long did it take you to complete POSSUM SUMMER? How long did it take before your book was accepted for publication?

My writing journey was angsty and emotional. But whose isn't, right? I've been writing since I was seven, but only seriously started when I moved to Germany. I was lonely and sad, and missing everything I knew how to do. (Can we say culture shock?) Thanks to my husband, who kindly but firmly said "No, dear, you cannot write Fantasy. Get over it." I started the idea for Possum Summer. It flew out inside two months, and I revised for quite some time. I landed an agent in three days (she is the BEST) and then we went on sub. All in all, I think it took about two years for the entire thing. I can say this: Revise and revise and revise. And if your gut tells you you are not being true to the story, listen to it. There's no rule that every story needs a happy ending. And also? Do Not Give Up. And find an agent that doesn't either.

I noticed on your website, Jen, that you have two hairless cats. I have heard of these, but never actually been around them. Is this a special breed, and other than no hair, are they different than regular cats? Do they still like to be petted? Don’t you miss the soft fur?

I do! I have two Sphynx cats, who are our comic relief (when paired against my 1 year old daughter) You'd be surprised - Sphynx are their own individual breed, and the mutation of hairlessness occurs naturally in the wild, so they have ancestors in Canada and Mexico. The main difference with these guys is their personality. You've never had another cat like these...they are in whatever you're doing, they read your emotions and they are just the sweetest fellows imaginable. Being a horselover, you've often petted a horse's nose, right? WELL, imagine an entire purring little body that feels like that (shaved) nose. And warm, like a bag of hot water. They are tremendous creatures.

I know that you also love horses, Jen, and like me, you follow horseracing closely. Tell us a little about this.

I love horses. I grew up on horse books, had an appy when I was younger (and was loaned out by my dad to farmers that couldn't handle their horses - a month or two of Jen Riding (tm) and they were as calm as lambs!) and went to the Kentucky Horse Park to get an equine management degree (before they offered it in university). Somehow or other I saw a polo game there, and was hooked. I finished university at the University of Oklahoma (SOONERS!) and played polo there as well as groomed for the most famous woman polo player in the sport, Sunny Hale, who is a-maz-ing and wonderful. I got into dressage, jumping, cross country and even a little bit of sales horses in Kentucky, so I'm an all-rounder. But I love me some racehorses, as I believe most all of them are perfect for something else other than racing when they're finished. There are a number of wonderful horse sanctuaries and adoption sites where you could save one of these guys. Let me know if you need links! (The moment we live in the US you can be assured I'll be getting us a couple!)

And finally, from one animal lover to another, what’s your favorite animal?

Oh. Pretty much the horse. Yep, the horse, hands down. Altho raccoons and Sphynx cats come in closely after. :-D

Jen – are you working on anything else? Any new projects or books coming out you’d like to share?

Well *actually*, Linda, I can break the news here!

Jen K Blom's THE SPOTTED PONY, about a girl from Virginia visiting her estranged father and his feedlot in Texas for the first time ever - learning just how fleeting real affection and friendship can be when she falls in love with the wrong horse sold to Julie Amper at Holiday House books by the Stringer Literary Agency.

Wow. Wow! Exciting! So your next book will be a Horse Book. (My favorite kind) *sigh* Congratulations!! Thank you so much for stopping by, Jen, and letting us get to know you. To learn more about Jen, visit her website http://www.jenkblom.com/

Want to read POSSUM SUMMER? We have one copy to GIVEAWAY.

All you have to do to enter is:

  • Leave a comment below about why you'd like to win POSSUM SUMMER. (I love animals, sounds like a great read, anything simple like that.)

  • Follow this blog for an extra chance to win (applies to current followers also.)

  • Repost or retweet this contest for an extra chance to win (and let me know.)

Contest runs through midnight Pacific Time, April 15th, 2011. Book shipped to US addresses only. Good Luck, Everyone!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Crocus Tale

Spring comes late in the Pacific Northwest. The purple crocus wait patiently . . .

amidst hailstorms and gloom. You can almost imagine their conversations.
Is it time yet? Is it time?

I think so. The sun is out today, if only for a bit.

Yes. Yes! The sun is out!

Let's Bloom! In fact . . .

Let's have a Blooming Party!!!

Crocus make me smile. How about you?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Waiting on Swallows

March 21st. Is it Spring yet? I'll know it's Spring when my swallows arrive.

The violet green swallows are the first to arrive, somewhere near the end of March. They spend the winter far to the south, in Central or South America, and it's truly a miracle of nature that they make the long journey north every year. And they come back to the same place!

How do I know this? My neighbor (who lives down the road a bit) and I keep track of "our" swallows. Her large family group is already here. They arrived a few days ago, swooping over her vast array of nesting boxes - checking out the real estate for swallow houses and places to raise their babies.

"My" swallows always come a few days later, where they nest under the eaves in our shop and in the swallow houses we tacked up for them. I believe it's the same family group, although they must lose members along the way, and add new ones with the babies that are born each year. How amazing is it that they teach the new ones where to go year after year?

I keep a journal of when they arrive each year. Last year they came on March 23rd.

A little later, the barn swallows, with their churring little trills and squeaks will arrive to build their mud nests in the eaves of our barn and raise their little ones.

But for now, I await the violet greens, with their lovely twirps and chirps and loop-de-loops in the air. Will it be today? Come on, Swallows!

Do you have swallows nesting where you live?

Do you know when they arrive?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cone of Shame

You met our wonderful dog, Homer, in a recent post right here. A big yellow lab with a heart of gold that we rescued from a shelter.

Recently, Homer had a huge benign tumor removed, which required lots of stitches and a two week recovery period. After the anesthesia wore off, he came home from the veterinarian wearing the dreaded Cone of Shame.

This is a plastic cone to keep him from bothering his fresh incision and possibly ripping out his stitches. You can see how thrilled he is about it:

I felt plenty sorry for him, but understood why he needed to wear it. Shortly thereafter, one of my friends posted on facebook (Thank you, Tammy) about a soft cone that did the same thing. Calling around to several pet stores, I found one!

Homer still wasn't too excited about wearing it, but at least it's a bit more comfortable.

Especially when he lays his little head down to sleep.

The brand that we found is called The Comfy Cone, and I think you can purchase them online, also. If your pet ever needs to go through an ordeal like this, I thought you might like to know about this option.

Homer got his stitches out two days ago, and he's feeling like a young pup again, thank you.

Has your pet ever worn the Cone of Shame?

Did you know about this softer option?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Not the Literary Type

My husband is not the literary type. He doesn't read me poetry or offer feedback on my manuscripts. No, he's a typical "guy's guy," who'd rather be fixing a tractor than discussing literature.

But he does like to read, although we have very different reading tastes. For me, it's often a book about animals. For him, it's either a tractor repair manual or a book about World War II.

But I recently read an amazing, gut-punching novel by Patricia McCormick called SOLD.

Here is a short blurb from Goodreads:

Lakshmi is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small hut on a mountain in Nepal. Though she is desperately poor, her life is full of simple pleasures, like playing hopscotch with her best friend from school, and having her mother brush her hair by the light of an oil lamp. But when the harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away all that remains of the family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather says she must leave home and take a job to support her family.

He introduces her to a glamorous stranger who tells her she will find her a job as a maid in the city. Glad to be able to help, Lakshmi journeys to India and arrives at “Happiness House” full of hope. But she soon learns the unthinkable truth: she has been sold into prostitution.

Written in spare and evocative vignettes, this powerful novel renders a world that is as unimaginable as it is real, and a girl who not only survives but triumphs.

SOLD was a National Book Award Finalist in 2006, and when I noticed the author had a new book about the Iraq war, I ordered it from the library, thinking my husband might like to read it.

He did, and stayed up until midnight finishing PURPLE HEART.

When Private Matt Duffy wakes up in an army hospital in Iraq, he's honored with a Purple Heart. But he doesn't feel like a hero.

I was glad I found my husband something he enjoyed, but after I read the first few pages, I decided against it. Not for me, I thought. I don't like war books. "Keep reading," he told me, and I did. And 25 pages more into the book, I could not put it down. The soldier in this book is eighteen years old. A kid not far removed in age from the middle grade characters in the books that I write and normally read. But oh so far ahead in what he's living through.

Patricia McCormick is an amazing author - one that I admire immensely for her ability to pull you right into a story and make you care - even if it's about a subject you'd normally shy away from.

And this is the very first book that my husband and I have both read, talked about, and enjoyed. That right there, folks, is pretty amazing.

So tell me:

Have you read any of Patricia McCormick's books?

Do you have the same reading tastes as your friend/partner/significant other?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Meet Lois Szymanski

Lois Szymanski is the author of 18 books for young readers including the Charming Ponies series with HarperCollins, the Gettysburg Ghost Gang, co-authored with Shelley Sykes, Out of the Sea, (a nonfiction book about Chincoteague Ponies) and The True Story of Sea Feather, recently released by Schiffer Books. Szymanski is inspired by the people and ponies she loves.

Lois – how did you get your start as a writer? What made you decide to write for children?

Books were everything to me when I was a child. They were my escape from the real world, my therapy. In college I took a creative writing class and was first published when my professor encouraged me to send a poem I’d written to a literary contest that published winners in an anthology. It would be many years before I believed in myself enough to attempt to publish again.

My husband loved the stories I made up for my kids and encouraged me to “Submit something somewhere, anywhere!” I first became published by magazines, including Highlights for Children, U*S*Kids, Turtle Magazine and many others before I had finally enough confidence to try writing a book. It took me some time to find my way, but now you can’t hold me back!

I know you are a fellow animal lover, and many of your books are about animals. Can you tell us about some of those? How has your background with animals influenced your writing?

I grew up reading horse books and pretending those ponies were my own. Marguerite Henry was my greatest influence. One year my husband surprised me with a trip to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. The ponies were everything I’d ever imagined and more. When I started plotting my first book for children I knew two things. It would deal with real issues and it would be a Chincoteague pony book.
My nephew had just been murdered and I was having trouble dealing with the loss. It was so senseless. I used that emotion to create a character dealing with the death of his dad. When his mom sends him to Chincoteague to live with an aunt while she gets things in order, he witnesses the birth of a foal and eventually bonds with him. Following the colt on the island, nurturing a new friendship and creating a bait business are the factors that work together to become healing influences in his life.
Lois, you and I share a love for the books of Marguerite Henry, and especially Misty of Chincoteague. You’ve also had some experience with actual Chincoteague ponies. How has that affected your life and your work?

Marguerite Henry has been a huge influence over the years. My most prized possession is a letter she wrote to me after my first book was released. It hangs on my wall, my encouragement on the rough days! Our own Chincoteague pony, Sea Feather has been the character that keeps giving. Raising him with my daughters, training, riding him, laughing at his personality quirks and loving him are constant sources of inspiration.

I know you are involved with a charitable organization called The Feather Fund. Can you enlighten us a little?

After that initial trip to Chincoteague 28 years ago we continued to vacation there annually. Each year my children asked for a pony. Of course, we always said no! One year they saved $500. They had a new determination, but Chincoteague ponies at Pony Penning sell for much more than that.

The auction was almost over when we were approached by a woman. A fireman had told her they’d been outbid again and again. She wanted to help them buy a pony. My husband would not take money from a stranger and continued to decline her offer. Then she took her hat off. Her hair was just coming in. She said, “I’m going to tell you a story.”

The woman, Carollynn Suplee said she had survived a tricky surgery for a brain tumor. She said she was cancer free. “When you get a gift in life you should always give something back,” she said. “I came here to buy a pony for a child.” My husband continued to shake his head, but the woman continued.

“It is supposed to be your children,” she said. She told us how, when she was awaiting surgery she found feathers everywhere she went, even in odd places where one wouldn’t expect to find a feather. “I thought God was trying to tell me something,” she said. One day she stepped up to a bible on a pedestal at a tourist spot and it was open to Psalm 91:vs 4, which says “the Lord will cover you with feathers and protect you.” She said she knew then that she would be okay.

“When the fireman pointed your daughters out to me a sea gull feather drifted past his finger,” she said, “and now that we are over here look at your daughter’s shirt.” My daughter had worn an Indian shirt with feathers on it!

The crowd around us started to chant, “Let her buy it!” and so we did.

My children purchased a pony that we thought was a bay pony with white socks. The firemen selling him in the ring held the tiny foal around his neck. After we purchased him we saw he had one white pinto marking on his neck, in the shape of a feather! It had been covered by the firemen’s hands. It was surreal!

For eight years Carollynn survived the cancer and she returned to the island annually to purchase foals for children or foals to turn back on the island. When her cancer came back in 2003 her husband, Ed and I got together to start a 503c charity called The Feather Fund. Since 2004 we have helped 20 children purchase Chincoteague pony foals and each one has an amazing story about how that pony has made a difference in their lives. http://www.featherfund.org/
Wow, that is truly an amazing story. Tell us about your writing process, Lois. How long does it take you to finish a novel? When you get an idea, do you work from an outline, or just start writing and see where it takes you?

My first novel took a year to write. Most of my novels take between six months to a year, depending on how well I know my character. Sometimes it takes awhile to work out who my character is, but once I have a handle on that I can really roll with it.

Before I begin I always know the main conflict, the climactic scene and the end. Occasionally I use an outline. I used an outline for my nonfiction book on the Chincoteague ponies. I recently wrote a YA murder mystery. About five chapters into it I knew I needed to do an outline. There were too many intricate twists with aspects I had to allude to early on. So, I guess whether or not I outline depends on what I am writing.

Lois, you have published with both large publishers and small. Can you explain some of the differences in working with each?

Large publishers definitely offer larger advances and they sell more copies. They are a great source of immediate money. But I find that larger presses usually put a book out of print after X amount of years.

Small presses give small advances and sometimes no advance, but they keep the book in print forever. Their royalty rates are usually the same as a large publisher. I consider those books my retirement fund. After I am old and gray I will still be getting checks every six months for the sales of those books. The more books I sell to them the bigger the retirement fund!

I should mention that I find you can trust most large publishing houses, but not all small presses. If you go with a small press make sure they have years of success behind them. Find out if they work with known distributors and talk to other authors who are with them. One small press I’ve sold books to is one of the biggest regrets of my life. I won’t name names but almost every author with them will tell you how (unbelievably) small their checks are and how unreliable they are with keeping books in stock and living up to what they promise. So the key to choosing a small press is to learn as much as possible about them before signing on that dotted line.

You have some other unusual hobbies and interests, too, Lois. Care to talk about those?

I am on a paranormal investigation team and I enjoy that very much. My interest in the paranormal began when my husband and I moved into an old farmhouse years ago. We did not know that it had a history of tenants leaving because of odd events. A ghost definitely resided there! The paranormal team did not come until years later. I met some of the people I work with on the team when researching for the Gettysburg Ghost Gang series. There is nothing more exciting than spending an evening in a place purported to be haunted, deciding there’s nothing there, and then downloading pictures and tapes and finding odd figures in the photos or hearing EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) on tape!

Letterboxing is fun, too. It’s my exercise plan, since it usually involves a hike. Letterboxing started in the 1800s in England. Back then, there was a secret book of clues passed around. Now, you can go to http://www.atlasquest.com/ or http://www.letterboxing.org/ and find clues to boxes in your own neighborhood. Letterboxes are hidden all over the world. Inside, there is always a stamp and a journal. You carry a personal stamp and your own journal. When you find the box you stamp your journal with the box stamp and record your find and then use your personal stamp to stamp the journal in the box, adding your trail name, hometown and date so the letterbox planter has a record of who has visited.

I hear you have a brand new book out. Tell us about that one.
The True Story of Sea Feather is the story of how we got our pony, the first pony purchased by cancer survivor, Carollynn Suplee. The book has color photos of the real pony. Even though it is written in the format of a middle grade novel, I think Carollynn’s story would inspire anyone! But then, I am biased!

Are you working on any new books or projects we should know about?

I’m currently working on two books, a middle grade paranormal mystery and a coffee table type book about the herds of Chincoteague. This one is unique in that it will identify by name many of the herd favorites and share some of their stories, like the time firemen were rounding up ponies and penning them on Assateague as they always do days before the annual swim. One of the horses - the stallion Miracle Man - saw the saltwater cowboys on the island and he knew what was going on. It’s an annual event and he is a smart boy with a good memory. He decided to skip the pen on Assateague where all the other stallions would attempt to steal his mares. He looked at the cowboys and headed for the bay, swimming his herd across to Chincoteague and parading them down Main Street to the pens on the carnival grounds- four days early! A researcher and a photographer are doing this book with me. I also have a rhyming picture book called Wild Colt under contract and forthcoming.

Okay, final question, from one animal lover to another – what’s your favorite animal?

Do you really need to ask?! LOL! Chincoteague Ponies first, and then all horses top my list. But, dogs run a very close second. My Shetland Sheepdog Ryley is my constant companion and my best friend. Incidentally, his real name is Solomon’s Rylant. The Solomon part comes from his background, but the Rylant part comes from one of my favorite children’s authors, Cynthia Rylant.

Wow! Thanks so much for stopping by, Lois!

For a chance to win a copy of The True Story of Sea Feather:
Leave a comment below.
Extra chances for reposting or retweeting this interview (let me know) and for new and old blog followers.

Contest runs through midnight, March 15, 2011 Pacific Time, when one random winner will be chosen - US addresses only. Good Luck, Everyone!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We have a winner!

Congratulations to Book Maven, the winner of Bobbie Pyron's excellent story A DOG'S WAY HOME. This book will now go in a reading library for 4th/5th graders - so lots of kids will get to read it. How cool is that?

And a big Thank You to everyone who entered! (Book Maven, if you'll send your address to linda (at) lindabenson (dot) net I'll get the book out to you straight away.)

But stay tuned right here.

We have another giveaway coming up - and an interview with Lois Szymanski, author of eighteen books for young readers, who will tell us about her involvement with Chincoteague Ponies, with a chance to win her brand new book called THE TRUE STORY OF SEA FEATHER.

Soon! Soon! Soon!