jeni and kayley

‘Sorta Like a Rock Star’ an Outstanding Example of First-Person Voice


“Sorta Like a Rock Star” shines for its voice—the almost-eternally upbeat, snappy dialogue of its 16-year-old narrator, Amber, when she’s at her highest points, and the grim, spare-no-feelings responses she hurls into the world when all that she has known crashes around her.

“I can’t keep living the way I used to live—swinging for the fences, believing that things are going to work out, that everything is worth fighting for, and that I am brave and strong enough to change my reality, because I’m not and I can’t,” Amber insists when those who love her fight to restore her hope.

During the SCBWI New York conference this past January, editor Alvina Ling of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers praised 'Sorta Like a Rock Star' as an outstanding example of first-person voice in YA lit.

"For me, (author Matthew Quick) just really nailed the voice of this girl," she said.

Amber Appleton is living in a school bus in the middle of winter with her mother and her dog in a creepy parking lot just outside town, struggling to stay warm—and to keep their homeless existence a secret from her teachers and her friends.

“The truth is that I don’t want anyone to know that I am living out of Hello Yellow—that my mom’s last boyfriend, A-hole Oliver, threw us the hell out of his apartment, and that my mom has to save up some dough before we can get four walls of our own,” Amber tells readers in “Sorta Like a Rock Star,” the award-winning debut YA novel by Matthew Quick.

Amber’s angry with her mother for the bad choices in men that got them into this mess, and for leaving Amber hungry and alone at night in a cold, empty school bus while she trolls the bars for men and gets her drink on. “She sucks at being a mom. Emphatically,” Amber says.

But Amber refuses to let the bad turns in her life break her spirit—or keep her from being a “rock star of hope.”

Outside school, she’s not a freak who wears clothes she stores in a compartment in a school bus and has to sniff to make sure they don’t stink too badly to wear.

Instead, she’s the girl who teaches the Korean Divas for Christ how to speak English and sing Motown.

She’s a goddess to the boys of The Fab Five, a group of misfits she’s protected and loved like brothers since they were in fifth grade together.

She’s a warrior of hope for the nursing home residents who gather in the dining hall to watch her battle Joan of Old, the self-proclaimed nihilist “who once faked a heart attack because she thought we were having too much fun at last year’s Christmas party.”

And she’s a hope spreader for her autistic friend, Ricky, and his mother, Donna, the high-powered attorney and single mother who pays Amber to keep an eye on Ricky after school, as well as for Private Jackson, the haiku-writing Vietnam war veteran who has cut himself off from the rest of the world.

But when something happens that tears Amber’s life apart and makes her doubt the goodness she’s always been able to find in the world, will Amber lose her optimism forever?

A Heartbreaking Story of Hope and Despair

In “Sorta Like a Rock Star,” Quick takes readers on an emotional journey that will make them laugh and cry—sometimes at the same time. It’s a book that will leave readers feeling breathless at the end of the journey—and rooting for this unlikely princess of optimism.

As much as Amber hates that her mother continually puts the men in her life above Amber until there is no one left to turn to, Amber also can’t help but love her. There are seven Amber-and-her-mom moments she plays in her head when she’s feeling down—“all documenting the mom I knew before she sorta gave up on life, before Oliver broke Mom’s spirit and got her drinking so heavily.”

And she basks in the love and pride that Donna, Ricky’s mother and the woman Amber would most like to be, has for her. “I see something in you that I like, and I know you are going to do something very special with your life … because it’s what you were born to do.”

Examples of Voice from "Sorta Like a Rock Star"

The following quotes from the book were among my favorite examples of why "Sorta Like a Rock Star" shines for its voice:

"I’m sure there are people who would let us crash at their houses, because the town of Childress is full of good-hearted dudes and dudettes. Word. But charity is for cripples and old people and mom is sure to come through one of these days. I still have Bobby Big Boy, and Mom still has her job driving Hello Yellow, all of our clothes and stuff fit in the two storage bins between the wheels, below the bus windows, so it’s all good in the hood."

"Bad things happen to pretty women who have daughters like me and can’t afford to do jack crap for ‘em, which makes said pretty women desperate for a Prince Charming—only Prince Charmings marry hot young chicks my age, or maybe a little older."

"Mom’s taste in men is akin to a crackhead’s taste in crack cocaine. Any old hit will do. And it sucks for all nearby loved ones (me) when mi madre is hitting the manpipe again, because she sorta loses her frickin’ mind—to put it bluntly."

On Bobby Big Boy, who wears a dapper plaid coat that Amber made for him in her life skills class: "He is a sexy mutt and the most dependable man I know."

"I want to tell Mom that I really don’t give a crap about living on a school bus, but that the world is beating me down and I feel like I’m battling everyone and no one is putting any fuel back into my tank and I’m not sure I’m going to make it to adulthood unscathed and still believing in hope because JC isn’t doing me any favors as of late and everything is so frickin’ messed up …"

What YA or MG novels do you love for their voice?
jeni and kayley

Celebrate Your Favorite Authors During Banned Books Week


Scan the 100 most frequently banned books lists for the past two decades and you’ll find a host of beloved children’s book and young adult authors: Judy Blume; J.K. Rowling; Chris Crutcher; Walter Dean Myers; Dav Pilkey; Lois Lowry, and more.

This week, the American Library Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, bookstores and more will celebrate our freedom to read with special events across the nation.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, consider reading a book by these frequently challenged young adult and children’s book authors.

Chris Crutcher. “Hard to believe the challenge and banning of books is still an issue in the new millennium,” award-winning young adult author Crutcher says on his blog. His books, which include “Whale Talk,” “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes,” “Deadline” and “Athletic Shorts,” have been challenged for the use of profanity, edgy themes, and frank discussions of sexuality and the impact of racism and violence. 

During a January conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Crutcher, a keynote speaker, told writers that he strives to tell stories of teen in tough situations with language that is authentic to the pain that they are going through.

“The language of grief is a pretty rough language, and we as writers have to write stories for teens in their native language or they won’t be believable,” he said during the conference.

On censorship, Crutcher said during the conference, “It’s a great fight, and I’ve still got a lot of adolescence in me, so I’m up for a good fight.”

Judy Blume. Five of Blume’s books made the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999” list: “Forever,” “Blubber,” “Deenie,” “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” and “Tiger Eyes,” which will soon be released as a movie. Her books have been challenged for their frank discussions of issues related to sexuality, religion, difficult family issues, and more.

“I felt only that I had to write the most honest books I could. It never occurred to me, at the time, that what I was writing about was controversial,” Blume says in an essay on censorship on her blog. In an interview with NPR, Blume said she believes what lies at the heart of censorship is “what we don't want our children to know, what we don't want to talk to our children about; and if they read it, they'll know it, or they'll question it." 

Laurie Halse Anderson. “Speak,” the story of a girl who must navigate high school for the first time the summer after being raped by a popular upperclassman, is often featured on summer reading lists for high school students. Actress Kristen Stewart, who played the main character of “Speak,” Melinda, in a Lifetime made-for-television movie based on the novel, says it is one of three books that changed her life.

But “Speak” was challenged in one Missouri school system because some adults believe it "glorifies drinking, cursing, and premarital sex," and "teaches principles contrary to the Bible."

“When ‘Speak’ was published, there was some whispering that this was not an appropriate topic for teens. I knew from my personal experience that it was,” Halse Anderson said in an interview with “School Library Journal.” Halse Anderson recently discussed this year’s Banned Books Week event on her blog.

Which authors will you celebrate this week?

I wrote a longer article on this topic for the Examiner.

Happy reading! Happy writing!
jeni and kayley

How ‘Vampirina Ballerina’ Is Helping My Would-Be Ballerina

“If you are going to be a ballerina, you have to do more than wear a tutu and dream about dancing,” the narrator of Anne Marie Pace’s new picture book, “Vampirina Ballerina,” tells readers. It’s a lesson Vampirina Ballerina is learns throughout the story—and one that my own daughter, Kayley, is learning this fall as well.

Like little Vampirina Ballerina, Kayley, who will turn 5 in a couple of weeks, has dreamed of learning ballet. For months, she has delighted in creating her own dance moves and showing them off during impromptu recitals in our family room. All she wanted for her birthday this year were dance lessons and a purple tutu (even if she has to wear a pink tutu for class).

And she only wanted to take ballet—not the combination hip hop-jazz-ballet class that the preschoolers take, but a class that would only focus on ballet. So we signed her up for Ballet I, for dancers ages 5-7, on Wednesday nights.

But ballet is hard, Kayley soon found out. It’s even harder when the other girls are older and more skilled than you are. And when I peeked through the paper-covered window that first night and saw her lip quiver as she practiced her steps, I worried that I’d made a mistake in not pushing the preschool class. I worried she’d hate ballet class before she’d even begun to learn to dance simply because she was overwhelmed by it.


And then I remembered the story of Vampirina Ballerina, which I’d read to her at least a dozen times before that first class.

I remembered how Vampirina struggled in her first classes—not just because the other dancers were scared of her fangs, her monster chauffeur, and her tendency to turn into a bat when she’s embarrassed, but also because the other dancers were better at ballet than she was.

But as Vampirina Ballerina learns to “plie, releve, and arabesque,” she also learns that just like her, the other dancers are struggling to do their best, too. “And a mistake here or there is not a reflection on your talent,” the narrator, in the voice of a wise ballet instructor, reminds Vampirina and readers who also may be learning dance for the first time.

By the time Vampirina Ballerina and her new friends are performing “Swan Lake,” with their steps depicted in long, fold-out pages, she has become “that rarest of creatures—a ballerina.”

So when Kayley and I returned home after that first class, I read ‘Vampirina Ballerina’ to her again. It’s a sweet, touching story of a would-be ballerina with a passion for dance and a tendency toward missteps that make it hard, at first, for her to fit in.

“The road to ballerinadom can be bumpy, but it doesn’t matter if you take one giant leap or many tiny steps, as long as you are moving toward your goal,” the narrator reminds Vampirina Ballerina and readers.

“See how much she had to practice?” I told Kayley as we read the story again. Together, we watched as Vampirina evolved from a misfit into an elegant ballerina with a style that is uniquely her own.

It made my daughter feel better to hear that story one more time and to know: Dancing is hard. But it gets easier with practice. And in the past few weeks, it has gotten easier for Kayley, too.

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She may take Ballet I again next year, unlike the other girls, who have taken dance before. But that’s okay—because she really likes it.

This endearing story will appeal to young ballerinas or girls who dream of dancing as well as those who have just begun school and know what it’s like to struggle to find one’s way.
jeni and kayley

Poetry Friday: Review, 'Love & Leftovers' by Sarah Tregay

"An Explanation," from 'Love & Leftovers' by Sarah Tregay

My mother
took two weeks off
back in June.

I asked her
(in July)
what we were doing.

I think she meant to say, "Vacationing,"
but she said, "Running away."

Which might have been okay,
even though I thought that
if I ever ran away,
I'd do it with
a certain emo-sensitive rocker boy
and not my mother.

“The worst part of this overextended summer vacation is leaving behind a perfectly good boyfriend with the deepest espresso-brown eyes a girl could get lost in,” 15-year-old Marcie confesses in Sarah Tregay’s novel “Love & Leftovers.”

Instead, Marcie finds herself on a road trip from her home in Boise, Idaho, to the cottage in New Hampshire where her mother’s family spent summers on the lake. They take off in her father’s cherished Mustang, “which Mom drove here to make him mad,” as Marcie processes the reason behind their escape: Her father is gay, he’s fallen in love, and her parents’ marriage is ending.

But what Marcie had hoped would be a temporary stay while her mother came to grips with the end of her marriage is turning into something more permanent.

Marcie is left to fend for herself: “My mother sleeps late almost every day because being asleep is better than being depressed.” She scrounges change from the coin holder in her father’s car and walks three miles to the Laundromat to wash her clothes. When Labor Day rolls around, she signs herself up for school.

Meanwhile, Marcie sorely misses her friends back at home, especially her boyfriend, Linus—a perfectly good boyfriend with the deepest espresso-brown eyes a girl could ever get lost in.” But the unraveling of her parents’ relationship, and the secrets her father kept from her mother, make her question whether she’s really in love with Linus.

She also worries that the fact that he’s never tried to do anything more than kiss her means they don’t have passion—and secretly wonders whether it’s a sign of something else, a sign that he’s gay.

When J.D., one of the hottest boys at school, begins to show an interest in her, Marcie lets herself escape in his arms—and pushes away the memories of the boy back at home who she hasn’t yet broken up with.

A Daydream-Worthy Novel

Written in verse, “Love & Leftovers” is Tregay’s debut novel. Award-winning young adult author Lauren Myracle describes “Love & Leftovers” as “the most delicious love story I’ve read in ages,” and this holds true in the sweetness of the scenes Marcie shares with Linus and the tantalizing explorations of lust between Marcie and J.D.

It’s a novel that allows young adults to consider their thoughts on love and relationships as Marcie navigates her own. “If my mom says women are not property, how come I want to belong to someone?” Marcy asks. And if she and Linus truly love each other, why don’t they have the kind of physical passion that seems to come so easily with J.D.?

More than anything, Marcie’s wish “is to fall cranium over Converse in dizzy daydream-worthy love,” she says.

In spite of what happened between her mother and father, Marcie finds that she can’t hate her father for turning their lives upside down. But she also is confused: How could her father change his mind about who he is and whom he loves most? “Would he tell me that it would’ve broken his heart to tell Mom the truth—so he chickened out and didn’t tell her?” she wonders.

“Love & Leftovers” is a sensitive exploration of relationships, family, and the bonds that hold us to one another.

jeni and kayley

Creating a Healthy Routine

"We are at our best with good and healthy routines."--Newbery Honor-winning author Gary D. Schmidt, SCBWI Los Angeles, via author Kimberly Sabatini

This quote really hit home for me, after a long and very full summer packed with travel baseball, travel for work, and travel with family. I saw 10 states this summer, more than any summer I can recall, and there were so many adventures we had as a family. But whatever semblance of a writing routine that I had before school ended fell by the wayside in June, July, and the first half of August. I read a great deal, but my word count was, well, stinky.

As of Monday, all three of my kids and my husband are back at school, the house is quiet, and the two days I've worked from home this week have felt a little like a vacation, because there isn't anyone but the dogs to make occasional demands of my time ("Walk, please." "We see you're eating lunch now. We'll have whatever you're having." "SQUIRREL! Outside! Now!"). And so now is the time to create a good and healthy routine for myself, one that includes time to write and revise, and that also includes basics like a hot shower before the kids wake up.

Each morning, I'm up at 4:30, when I can count on at least an hour to myself. I shower, get dressed, pack lunches, set out clothes for my preschoolers, and get breakfast ready. My husband and I tag team in getting the girls ready and their hair done while my teenage son prepares to leave with a friend for school (the joy of having a child who has friends who drive: I no longer have to take him to school). And by 7:30 every morning, it's just me and the dogs, and after a walk around the block with my Pug and my Westie, I turn on the laptop and open the manuscript I've been working on. I can get in a full hour of writing before I need to begin my full-time work for the day. And it is glorious.

This morning, author Mette Ivie Harrison--who has six kids who are extraordinarily busy, is a competitive triathlete, trains at least 32 hours a week, and still manages to write at least three to four hours a day--shared lots of practical tips on ways to find time to write via Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog: I especially liked her tip on rewarding children for giving you writing time, and on keeping kids involved in your success. I hope they're helpful for you, too.

What are you working on right now? What does your writing schedule look like?

Happy Wednesday! Happy writing!