Book Reviews and More

Hi! This blog is for my classes at Texas Woman's University.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Musings on Bluebonnets

One of my goals this summer was to read all of the books on the Texas Bluebonnet list. These books are chosen by the Texas Library Association and geared toward Grades 3-6. At the end of the school year, the kids are encouraged to vote for their favorite book from the list.

I’ve always felt like the range from Grade 3 - Grade 6 was pretty significant in terms of reading material. For example, what an 8-year-old wants to read versus a 12-year-old can really vary, especially when it comes to reading level and comprehension. The list usually tries to include something for all ages within that range, from older picture books to longer novels.

As I discovered with my 2 X 2 challenge, taste is subjective when it comes to Bluebonnet books. While I eagerly read some of the books, others really were a struggle for me to finish. It definitely made me sympathetic to kids who have to read all the Bluebonnet books at school to earn a prize or reward. It is really an accomplishment!

As a writer, I realized I was learning just as much (if not more) from the books that I didn’t like as the books that I liked. I started to ask myself, “Why isn’t this book holding my interest?”

For me, I realized the answer had to do with character. In some of the books, I really didn’t care for the main character of the story. The reasons varied as to why I didn’t like them: sometimes it was an annoying personality quirk, other times the character seemed bland, sometimes it seemed the author was trying too hard to make the character unique and they turned out unrealistic, other times I just found the character mean-spirited and had a hard time rooting for them.  In several of the novels, I found the minor characters much more engaging than the main one. What I discovered was that if I didn’t like the main character, I didn’t really care what happened in the book. Not to sound harsh, but in order to justify spending time reading the story, I wanted to be engaged in the characters and anxious to find out what happens next. I didn’t want to simply be turning the pages and skimming the chapters just so I could check the book off my list.

I realize, of course, that I am not the target audience for these books. So perhaps these characters may not appeal to me, but would appeal to children. I’m hoping to get some feedback from kids who’ve read these books to see how they enjoyed them. But as an author, the experiment reiterated an important lesson - you’ve got to make the reader really care about your characters. They may not always agree with the characters or like everything they do, but the reader does need to be invested and curious about what happens to them. Then that translates to caring about the twists and turns of the plot, and how that in turn affects the characters.

As I look on my own middle grade novel (which I’d love to see on a Bluebonnet list someday!), it has helped me take a look at each of my characters from a different perspective. Obviously, I, as the author, think each of my characters are unique and wonderful. But is that translating on the page? Will my readers be as invested in the story as I am? Have I made my readers care? It’s definitely something to keep working on, and it’s another example of why reading is so informative and important to writing. So read and write on!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Summer Challenge Check-in #13

Hi everyone,

We're approaching the end of our summer challenge. Only one more week to go until Labor Day and the recognized "end of summer." Of course, school has already started here in Texas and it will feel like summer until October, but we look forward to Labor Day nonetheless! It makes us feel like Autumn will get here eventually.

I've got four more Bluebonnet books to read and am working on finishing my first draft of my middle grade novel by Monday. Plus I started back at graduate school this week as well. So it will definitely be a busy, but hopefully productive, week!

Good luck with all of your endeavors this week,

Thursday, August 21, 2014

When the Well Runs Dry

What do we do when our passion for our project starts to fizzle? When none of our words seem particularly brilliant, funny, profound, or even the slightest bit entertaining. When we just feel like we are going through the motions?

Well, I think there are two sides to this dilemma. One is the fact that despite our efforts, our writing (especially in the first draft stage) is not necessarily going to blow us away. That’s why they are only first drafts. So sometimes we do have to just go through the motions - just so we can get to that point where we can write “The End” at the bottom of the page. Of course, writers know in our hearts that when we write those treasured words “The End” on a first draft, it really is only the beginning.

The second aspect to this dilemma is that maybe our well really has run a bit dry. I think our creative enthusiasm is linked to what is going on in our world. While I don't believe you should wait until the "perfect" time to write (rarely will that happen), I do think that our exterior life can definitely impact our interior one. When you are feeling uninspired and run-down, maybe it’s time to stop and reflect. Is life particularly stressful right now? Are there extenuating family circumstances that are monopolizing your thoughts? Are you getting sleep? Exercise? Water? Are you getting any of those things on a regular basis? When was the last time you went in for a check-up? Have your overcommitted to other activities or organizations that are requiring an overabundance of time and energy? Or even just a lot of seemingly little jobs that quickly add up in their time demands? Are you surrounded by clutter? Have stacks of paper and to-do lists piled up, offering little hope of ever reaching the bottom and seeing your kitchen counters again?

If you’re anything like me, you’re exhausted just reading this list. And if you’re anything like me - you may see yourself in quite of few (or all!) of these questions and scenarios. Now imagine how all of that can impact your creative energy (or any kind of energy for that matter - your job energy, parenting energy, spouse energy, etc.). No wonder we can struggle to feel passionate about our projects!

So what can we do? Tackling all of these issues at once is most likely going to stress us out even more. Maybe start with one, relatively simple area first. If the mess of the house leading to stress, then ask yourself if you can afford to get someone to come in and help clean - even just once a month. Haven’t exercised in a while? Maybe commit to walking the block (even better taking the dog too) three times a week or just ten minute a day. Drowning in clutter? Spend 15 minutes a day decluttering a section (or try for inspiration). Pair up with a friend to challenge yourself in a particular area, such as both trying to drink 8-10 glasses of water a day. (Hi Carol - I'm finishing water number 9 as I write this!) You get the idea.

Maybe by tackling some of these exterior distractions, we can refocus on our interior creativity. For more ideas on how to overcome writer fatigue - I highly recommend writer Kristi Holl’s Writer’s First Aid blog at Somehow Kristi always seems to know exactly what I’m struggling with, and, better yet, she has wonderful suggestions on how to tackle the issues. I also highly recommend her books Writer’s First Aid and More Writer’s First Aid.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not in this alone. As far as I can tell, all writers struggle at times. You just need to try and remember to stop and replenish your own well and then keep moving forward to that treasured “The End” (aka “The Beginning”). I'm cheering for you!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Summer Challenge Check-in #12

Hello everyone!

  It's our 12th week of the challenge - hard to believe! I hope that everyone is happy with the progress they've made so far this summer. I'm grateful for the challenge or I might not have made any progress this summer. We've been so blessed with such a fun-filled summer of activities, I have definitely had to make an effort to fit my writing in. I'm still working toward my goal of finishing my manuscript by Labor Day and still reading those Bluebonnet books.

  Keep up the good work!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thoughts on Picture Books

As I mentioned Monday, I recently finished reading all the picture books on the 2 X 2 reading list. I am currently working on several picture book manuscripts, so for me, it is especially interesting to see what type of books are being published.

I read a lot of picture books. With my son, we usually average about two a day, so the numbers pile up pretty quickly. While we re-read quite a few of his favorites, we are also frequent library patrons, so we often try out new picture books as well as the classics.

We often hear from editors and agents that taste is subjective - that what doesn’t appeal to one person may be just the right thing for another. In fact, that’s just what was mentioned in my most recent rejection letter.  After reading so many picture books this summer, I have to say that seems to be very true.

In looking for picture book patterns, there is definitely a trend toward shorter picture books. There is often a lot more snarky humor now than in picture books from the past. But overall, the range in styles, subjects, and complexity is still quite broad. Right when you think they aren’t making any more quiet bedtime books - you find a new one. Editors and agents may tell you they don’t want ABC books, and then one appears on all the recommended reading lists. Authors are told to keep their word count fewer than 500 words, and then a 1500 word picture book is released to rave reviews.

What’s a struggling author to do with all of these mixed messages? It is helpful to try and pay attention to the patterns, especially in the competitive market of picture books. Perhaps though, it is more helpful to work on the craft of writing to help your picture book stand out. The better of a writer you become, the less you will need all those extra words, and the easier it will be to cut down your word count. The more you expose yourself to all different types of stories, the richer you can make your own story. The more you experiment with strategies like different points of view, rhythmic patterns, lyrical writing, and unique voice, the stronger your manuscript will become. Picture books may seem simple on the surface, but they require the same elements of a good story as a longer work. So let’s keep honing our craft to create beautiful, fun picture books. The market for a broad range of stories is still out there, and even more importantly, there are children (and parents) waiting for your contribution to it. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Summer Challenge Check-In #11

Hi everyone!

  I hope that this has been a great week. I'm excited to say I accomplished 1/3 of my Summer Challenge goals this week. I have finished all of the books on the  2 X 2 reading list (for ages two to grade two). They were especially fun because I got to enjoy them with my son.

  I'm still working on finishing the Bluebonnet books by Labor Day and my writing goals. I've decided to set myself a deadline of finishing the first draft of my current middle grade novel by the end of the challenge. The former journalist in me works best on deadlines - so that should be some good motivation.

  Keep reading and writing!
  Take care, McCourt

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gratitude for my Writing Community

We are two months into our summer accountability challenge, and I personally am really enjoying it. In addition to the accountability factor (which is incredibly helpful), I’m having a lot of fun getting to know my fellow writers better. It is great to hear about their challenges, their adventures, and the ups and downs that go along with their writing process.

I have been a member of SCBWI for more than 6 years now. I’m still working toward my goal of publication but even though I haven’t been published yet, I can honestly say I don’t feel like my time has been wasted. I have met so many wonderful, encouraging people - so many that I consider my friends. The conferences I’ve attended have not only been beneficial to my writing, but great experiences all around. I’ve met authors that I’ve enjoyed since childhood, and newer ones that I am in awe of their talent. As a true book nerd, just being in the same room with all those authors is truly inspirational and a whole lot of fun!

Writing is by its nature a solitary pursuit. It seems like it should be a lonely one as well. But honestly, I feel like I have more friends since I began writing - and even better, they share my interests! SCBWI is often referred to as a “tribe,” and it is definitely an apt description. It is truly a blessing to have such an encouraging group of people supporting my dreams. Thank you all!

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” - Leo Tolstoy

“To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.” - Winston Churchill

“All we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” -Charles Kingsley

Some great conference moments with author Gary Schmidt

With author Henry Winkler (aka the Fonz)

Monday, August 4, 2014

August SCBWI Houston Book Reports

Hello everyone!

First I want to say thanks so much for Blue Willow Bookshop's Cathy Berner's informative report on some really great books from 2013-2014 at this month's meeting. We are lucky to have such knowledgeable people in our Houston book community.

If you haven't been to Blue Willow Bookshop - I highly recommend them! They offer such great programs and service. It's worth the trip! Check them out at

Here's Cathy's list for this year's meeting:
Picture Books:
  President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett & Chris Van Dusen
  Take Me to Your BBQ by Kathy Duval & Adam McCauley
  Locomotive by Brian Floca
  I Am Otter by Sam Garton
  All Different Now: Juneteeth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson & E.B. Lewis
  The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santant

Middle Grade Novels:
  Loki's Wolves by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr
  Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
  Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
  The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer
  The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

Young Adult Novels:
  Half Bad by Sally Green
  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan
  Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Upcoming Books:
  Picture Book: Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea & Lane Smith
  Middle Grade: Following Flora by Natasha Farrant
  Young Adult: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin
                          Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

What a great list! I now know what will be on my bedside table after I finish all the Bluebonnet books.

Here's my selections for this month:

How to Lose a Lemur by Frann Preston-Gannon (PB)
Norman, Speak! by Caroline Adderson & Qin Leng (PB)
The Expeditioners by S.S. Taylor & Katherine Roy (MG/YA)

Happy Reading!

Summer Challenge Check-in #10

Hello all,

  I hope that everyone is having a great week. It's hard to believe that August is here. All of my writing this week was focused on my term paper for my Library Management class. If you have any questions about Bookmobiles, I'm your girl!

  I also requested all of the Texas Bluebonnet books and 2 X 2 Reading list books that I haven't gotten to yet from the library, so I should be working my way through the rest of those this month. So far, I've read half of the Bluebonnet list (10 out of 20 books) and 16 out of 20 of the 2 X 2 list.

  Hope everyone is making lots of progress on their reading and writing challenges!
  Take care, McCourt