Sunday, November 29, 2015

Jello Joy

I don't like jello.

So it might seem weird that I bought a cookbook the other day called The Joys of Jell-O. The recipes are fun. And by "fun," I mean bizarre and creepy, ranging from the expected jello molds plumped with canned fruit chunks:

to the more, let's say, unexpected veggie and seafood molds:

Vegetable Trio (made with spinach, carrots, cabbage
and chives, all firmed up in a tasty
lemon-lime jello. Serves 12.)

If you like the sound of that, you might also want to try the "Ring Around a Tuna." Which, as the name suggests, features a lovely glistening slab of jello circling round a glop of tuna.

The radish roses are a nice touch.
Don't you think?
As absurd and disgusting as these recipes sound, I am fascinated by them. The elaborate designs. The vibrant colors not found in nature. The non-nutritive aspect of the food. Can it be called food? Did any of this taste good or was it all an elaborate prank?

A few weeks ago the New York Times Magazine's cover story was "In Search of Lost Foods."

The article highlights some of the stranger recipes favored by home cooks in 1971. Loaves and molds and towers concocted by using hotdog chunks and canned everything, particularly olives, all encased in my fave, jello. It also attempts to answer the pressing question:


The answer, apparently, has something to do with a postwar obsession with all things convenient and modern and space-age-looking. While the Communists suffered eating beets and boiled potatoes, Americans chowed down happily on Party Sandwich Loaves and Cherry Berries on a Cloud.

I flipped through the article somewhat smugly, thinking that I'd take the boiled potatoes and beets over what appears to be meatloaf in the shape of a fish and frosted in day glo margarine.

The next week I was surprised when the magazine printed comments from readers who were upset about the story. Sample comment: Hey! That food was good!

One of them mocked the recipes of today. Just wait, the person said. The people of tomorrow will be mocking our obsession with kale.

For the record I am obsessed with kale.

I planted way too much in my garden this year and it's pretty much taken over and is still growing, despite the cold weather. So far I have been sauteing my kale, tossing it in salads and tucking it into soups.

Now I am wondering if it's time to tear open a package of lemon-lime jello...

Monday, November 16, 2015

Interview with Nancy Ohlin

I'm so pleased to welcome fellow YA Outside the Lines blogger Nancy Ohlin to On the Verge this month. Nancy's third YA novel Consent was just released last week, but I was lucky to have a sneak peek. The novel--which is about a teen music prodigy and her relationship with her teacher as it crosses the line into something physical-- is riveting and a little horrifying.

Jody: This book, Nancy, I've got to tell you: it pushed my buttons in a way that few books do. I think my reaction is a mixture of remembering vividly what it's like to be a teen--and feeling as if I knew everything about everything--but also, now, being the mom of a teen daughter and knowing keenly that kids this age don't know as much as they believe they do. And here's this guy--the teacher--taking advantage of that! Where did the spark of this story come from?

Nancy: I wanted to write a novel based on a (bad) personal experience.  But over time, the story did a 180 and morphed into a totally different book with totally different characters.

Jody: It's interesting when that happens-- a story taking off like that. Do you find that most of your work starts with something true?

Nancy: Not always. Every day I get sparks of inspiration from the most random things: someone I run into at the grocery store, a car passing by, a song on the radio. I actually have files and files of book ideas that I want to write up in the future.

Jody: Once you have your idea or two, what's your next step?

Nancy: I start with a central idea or a character.  Then I sit down with a notebook and write down a bunch of stuff—it’s a lot of brainstorming and free-associating, like, “she has a scar on her face!” or “he hates pizza!” or  “the Nile River!”  Also drawings and charts and maps and such.

Eventually, these crazy ramblings start to form the beginnings of an outline.  Then I outline.  Once I get into the first draft, though, I tend to wander away from the outline and lose myself in the weeds. This process is very me:  a marriage of chaos and order.

Jody: I like that, and I like that you seem to understand and accept your process. That's been one of the harder things for me, figuring out how I work, knowing when to push and when to let go. It's taken me years. Have you been at this for a long time?

Nancy: I actually started my writing career as a ghostwriter. An editor friend gave me my first big break and hired me to ghostwrite for a children’s mystery series.  That gig led to many others.  It took a while for me to write and publish my own original novels, though.

Jody: How many books have you ghostwritten?

Nancy: Something like eighty books.

Jody: Wow! That's amazing. I guess you would figure out your process after that kind of track record. When you started writing your original novels, was it easy to break in or did you still collect a few rejections along the way?

Nancy: Oh, I got rejections. That time is all one big blur, so I'm not sure how many. The acceptances, I definitely remember, because they involved much screaming and happy-sobbing on my part.

Jody: Switching gears a bit here, but what's your work schedule like? Do you try to write at a certain time each day? Write for a certain number of hours or complete a certain number of words?

Nancy: I like to write in the mornings, either at home or at the library or in a cafĂ© with some of my writer friends.  I try to stay off the Internet, but that’s not always easy.  If I hit a block—e.g., if I’ve been staring at my computer screen for half an hour—I make myself get up and do something else, like taking a walk or riding the exercise bike and watching old Scandal episodes.

When I’m on deadline (or multiple deadlines), I work anywhere from six to twelve hours a day. When I’m not, my ideal is four to six hours (or better yet, no hours and spending the entire day at a spa—but sadly, this rarely happens).

Jody: You sound like you're pretty busy.

Nancy: My schedule can be nuts. I’m a full-time writer, and I’m usually juggling several projects at the same time, like one or two (or more) original projects and one or two (or more) ghostwriting projects.

Jody: And then there's your day to day family life too, I'm assuming.

Nancy: Yes. I have a seven-year-old daughter. And four cats and a very senior bunny.  And a twenty-year-old son who goes to Juilliard and performs a lot, so if he has a concert or recital, even if it’s across the country, I drop everything to go hear him.  My husband is a law school professor (and an associate dean and an author and a frequent traveler), so running a household together can be a challenge.

Jody: It sounds like it. Any tips for balancing all of that?

Nancy: I’ve learned to let stuff slide.  My number-one priority is my family.  Then my health.  Then my work (although “work” sometimes creeps up to #1 or #2).  If on any given day I manage to write productively for a few hours, go to a yoga class, feed everyone, spend time with my daughter, spend time with my husband, and talk or text with my son, that’s a good day.  But to maintain this balance, I can’t always get to the dishes or the laundry or the house cleaning.  Or a shower. Sometimes, I eat popcorn for lunch because I’m on deadline and too exhausted to cook.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.  I know how fortunate I am to have what I have.

Jody: You mentioned before that you try to stay off social media when you're working, but you and I both know that we've got to be ON social media for promotional purposes. What's your take on that?

Nancy: I do what I can.  I’m on Facebook, I have a Twitter, I have a website.  I support my author friends and their books, and I’m very grateful when they do the same for me (thank you, Jody!).

Jody: No problem! That's one very nice thing about social media--meeting other writers in our community. But the self-promotion part has always felt a little icky to me...

Nancy: For me too. My friends often tell me that I’m “too Japanese.” This is a reference to my Japanese mom, who taught me to always be nice and polite and never brag or draw attention to myself.  This makes it super-hard for me to go out there on social media and be all “buy my amazing book!” or “check out this amazing review of my amazing book!”

I focus on the social aspect of social media. Also, I love going to literary festivals and conferences and meeting book people and fellow authors.  And I love meeting readers, both virtually and in real life.

Jody: What are you working on now?

Nancy: Oh, a bunch of stuff!  I have several original YA and MG projects simmering:  a mystery set in Alaska, a dystopian fantasy inspired by Chernobyl and Fukushima and Japanese folk tales, and another, equally dark fantasy about monsters.  I’m starting a new ghostwriting project that I’m really, really excited about.  I recently finished Book 6 of an early grade non-fiction series for Little Bee.

Jody: You sound like you have your hands full.

Nancy: I do. And something else fun: I'm sharing my passion for writing with my daughter. She loves to write and illustrate graphic novels, and I love helping her.  Her recent titles include Creatures are Popping Out! and Battle of the Universes.  She is definitely a future author.

Jody: Aw, that's great. I look forward to checking those books out in the future! Thanks, Nancy, so much, for chatting with me today.

Nancy: Thank you for having me here!

For more information on Nancy Ohlin:

To buy Consent
on Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Indie Bound

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Beyond "Issue" Books: Unpacking Mental Health Issues in MG and YA Fiction

Last week I was honored to be a part of a presentation with several other YA authors at the annual American Association of School Librarians conference in Columbus. Led by the lovely Natalie D. Richards, our group, which included Liz Coley and Kristina McBride, presented statistics on teen mental health and shared what everyone pretty much agreed were the "go to" books when it comes to mental health issues in fiction, but also introduced what we hoped would be a starting point for discussion on books that stretch the usual definition.

If you're the librarian at a school where you know you've got a student struggling with an eating disorder, the book that would likely come to mind is the brilliant and heart wrenching Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. We know how powerful and essential it is for kids to see themselves in books, to know they are not alone, to read about characters struggling and ultimately, triumphing.

A kid being bullied or suffering from depression might find himself or herself in a book like 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, a modern classic told between the points of view of a girl who's committed suicide and a boy who may or may not have been in a position to help her when she was alive.

We know that books like this--that deal with issues head on, without flinching-- are books we must have in our school libraries, and not only for the kids who are suffering--with eating disorders or depression or thoughts of suicide or a variety of other mental health issues-- but for their classmates and their friends and their siblings to gain a better understanding and empathy.

Mental health disorders are much more common in teens than any of us knew before we started researching for our presentation. According to the National Institute of Health, 46% of 13-18 year olds have suffered from any disorder--these include panic disorders, major depression, PTSD, ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and autism spectrum disorders.

Books, of course, can help, and we wanted to build a list of books-- what we call "issue" books, as well as books that feature characters dealing with a particular issue, but where the issue isn't the primary focus of the book.

Natalie started the discussion by talking about a child she knows who has ADD. She gave him one of the Joey Pigza books (this is a brilliant and hilarious series by Jack Gantos about a boy who has ADD.) But the child didn't connect.

Instead he devoured Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, the page-turning fantasy adventure series that features a boy who discovers his father is Poseidon. The main character also happens to have ADD.

Natalie realized that kids want to see themselves in books, but sometimes they also want to look away, escape for a while, or perhaps see a version of themselves being the hero.

The librarians in our audience had great ideas for books to include on our list. For the anorexic student who might not want to read about the issue head on, there's Dumplin by Julie Murphy about a self-proclaimed fat girl who doesn't have to lose weight to win the boy

or The Girl of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson, which stars a main character who grapples with a poor body image but ultimately discovers her own external and internal strengths.

The list we created--with much help from librarians-- is something we would like to continue to build. If you've got ideas for titles that deal with mental health issues-- or those that might skirt the edges but have another primary focus, feel free to let us know in the comments, and we'll add your recommendations.

Here's the list--so far.

And here's the write up of our presentation--for a bit more on what we're looking for--from the AASL blog.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Loner in the Garret

Sometimes the very thing you need comes your way the very moment you need it.

I've been in a weird flux-y place lately when it comes to my work, grappling with how to balance promotion and business-related stuff, teaching and mentoring, traveling and speaking--

--with writing and reading and chatting with other writers and playing around with silly-but somehow deadly serious Filling the Well kinds of activities like riding a bike and tearing pages out of magazines and painting bad pictures and playing the piano and doing yoga and walking around the neighborhood with no apparent destination in mind.

Sometimes it's hard to keep your feet on the path--to remember what drew you to writing in the first place and to find, again and again, the resolve to keep going in a business that can often feel less like a community and more like a competition.

We need a book about this.

A few days ago my writer friend Jenn Hubbard reached out to say that she'd just published a book and would I mind sharing it. I said yes before I even knew what it was (I love Jenn's novels, especially Try Not to Breathe, which I devoured a few years ago and found that the story-- a boy recovering from a suicide attempt/a girl seeking to understand why her father committed suicide-- has stayed with me in a way that very few stories do.)

Jenn's new book is not novel. It's a book for writers and when she started telling me about it--what led her to write it and the kinds of topics it covers-- I knew it was just the book I've been searching for.

It's called Loner in the Garret: A Writer's Companion.

Here's Jenn in her own words with more:

Even before my first book came out—during the heady pre-publication days, filled with equal parts anxiety and excitement—I noticed how much it helped me to have a community of writers who were in the same boat. We celebrated good news and commiserated over bad news; we shared tips and compared experiences.

Writing is difficult enough—fighting with the inner critic, searching for fresh ways to say things, shaping a story that will be both interesting and meaningful—even without the pressures of publication. Publication amplifies the fears and joys. The highs get higher, and the lows get lower, when other people’s reactions and expectations are involved.

I found that the most difficult part of being an author was not creating stories, difficult as that was. It was staying emotionally grounded. It was having the self-confidence to keep writing. It was not feeling alone and despairing in the face of adversity.

My writer friends and I spent a lot of time just encouraging one another. You will get that revision done. You will figure out where the story needs to start. That one review will not destroy your career. You will find another agent. Yes, I’ve had that horrible thing happen, too; you’re not the only one.

Yes, you are good enough.

I use inspirational guides in my daily life. Why not have one for writers, I thought? A book full of the kind of pep talks that my writer friends and I share. A book that could provide an encouraging spark at the beginning of a writing session. A book that could remind writers that they’re not alone.

And so Loner in the Garret: A Writer’s Companion was born.

Loner in the Garret: A Writer's Companion, by Jennifer R. Hubbard: Inspiration and encouragement for writers. Covering topics as varied as procrastination, the inner critic, fear, distractions, envy, rejection, joy, and playfulness, it charts the ups and downs of the writing life with honesty, gentle suggestions, and a dash of humor.

To buy on Amazon
To buy at Barnes & Noble
For more on Jennifer R. Hubbard see