In Which I Solve a Maurice Sendak Mystery, by Mackenzi Lee

Below is a blog post by the author Mackenzi Lee, from August, 2013. I thought it was delightful, and asked Mackenzi to allow us to reprint it here. Lee has since had two YA novels published to great acclaim, including The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, which has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and Booklist, and which debuted at #8 on the New York Times Young Adult Hardcover list last week. I will include more about Lee and her books at the end of this post. For now, enjoy her 2013 post, which she wrote while she was working as an intern at the Friend magazine. 

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a detective.

I think every kid goes through this phase at one point, and I remember mine very distinctly. I read detective books. Played detective games1. Had a detective club2.

But I was never good at solving mysteries. Not even the really obvious ones that all my friends claimed they had figured out from page five. I combated this by mostly reading mystery books that were billed as unsolvable, like Westing Game and And Then There Were None, so I didn’t feel so stupid when I couldn’t figure them out.

I’ve always loved mysteries, but real life mysteries are not like books. The clues never appear as conveniently or fit together as neatly as they do in books. And mysteries, contrary to what Nancy Drew led me to believe, do not happen every day.

But this week, I got to solve a real-life mystery. And not just any mystery—a kid lit mystery!

The story of my kid lit mystery begins yesterday morning. I was very grumpy yesterday morning. The hard drive on my work computer died, and thus I couldn’t do any work for a while. The only non-computer assignment I had was one my editor had given me a few days ago: a man had called and asked us to find a song he thinks was maybe in the Friend sometime between now and forty-five years ago, and he didn’t know the title, just the first line3. Seriously. So my job was to go through old copies of the Friend from the sixties and find the song.

I was not looking forward to this job, so I grumpily pulled up a stool in our archives and started grumpily going through copy after copy after copy of vintage Friends.

And then I found this:

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The cover of the November 1969 issue. Continue Reading →

An interview with Jeff Zentner, AML YA Novel Award winner

An interview with Jeff Zentner, winner of the 2016 AML Young Adult Novel Award for his debut novel, The Serpent King. Jeff’s book shares the stories of three teenagers living in a small town in Tennessee who each, in their own way, look for escape from the constraints they see limiting them. It’s been widely praised in numerous starred reviews and was also awarded the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award for a debut YA novel. He came to writing books for young adults after a career in music, and his second book, Goodbye Days, was published earlier this year. His website (jeffzentnerbooks.com) has more on his books, hosts some of his music, and features one of the better FAQs on the Internet. Jeff is also an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Tennessee.

The interview was conducted by Jon Ostenson, an assistant professor in English Education at Brigham Young University.

Can you tell us more about what inspired the writing of The Serpent King? Why this book, this setting, these characters?

I wrote The Serpent King as I was transitioning over from being a musician. I based the concept of the book on two songs that I had written, that I thought had more of a story to them than I had told in the original songs. I chose this setting and these characters because they had been in my head for a long time, producing songs without my knowing it. Continue Reading →

Children’s Lit Corner: The Inevitability of Change

As a young mother, I would sometimes read a little book to my children about a boy and a girl who planted a packet of seeds in some carefully prepared soil. They watered the ground and removed weeds and let the sun shine on the earth. The seeds sprouted and grew and bloomed into beautiful flowers. Eventually the plants produced seeds of their own that the children collected and saved to plant the next year. The book ended with the suggestion that if the reader wanted to know what happened the next year, just read the book again, substituting the seeds the children had collected for the packet they used the first year. The book said that the boy and the girl would have grown older and would eventually grow up. And, said the last sentence in the book, eventually so will you. Continue Reading →

Children’s Lit Corner: The Inherent Loneliness of Existence

One day when I was nine or ten years old I was walking to school on a frosty morning. The water in the gutter had frozen into bright silver glass, etched with swirls and crystals. It was so satisfying to step onto those fragile surfaces and feel them crack and hear the delicate chime and tinkle as the ice splintered into glittering shards. Children should be allowed, even encouraged, to walk in the gutter on the way to school. Every step can be an adventure!

This particular morning I was crunching through that delicate lacework when I noticed a white paper, folded into the shape of a note, that had frozen into the ice. I have always, I think, been a treasure hunter, so when I saw the paper I reached down and lifted up the long thin pane of ice it was trapped inside. I dashed the whole thing to the ground and the splinter shivered into a thousand tiny shards, freeing the note. I shook the remaining ice off, grateful that it was still cold enough for the paper to be intact, not turned to mush in cold water. I stuffed the paper into my coat pocket and walked on to school.

On the warmer afternoon walk home, I put my hand in my pocket and found the paper. I took it out and looked at it. It was a note, folded into the kind of origami envelope we all made to pass notes back and forth during class. Do kids still do that now? I hope so! Anyway, my steps slowed and I finally stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as I read the note inside. Continue Reading →

Children’s Lit Corner—March, March, March

March, March, March, March! The repetition of this word, this action, this month, makes me think of one of my favorite Marches: Jo March. In 1868, shortly after the Civil War was over, Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson, was talking with a man who was a publisher of children’s stories. This man told Bronson that they were looking for a story for girls. Bronson told his daughter and asked her to write such a story. Louisa, who had been writing and writing for many years, didn’t think she could do it. She liked best to write “blood and thunder” stories full of drama and disaster and deeds of derring-do. But Bronson encouraged her and Louisa decided to challenge herself and write what she could. She wrote in her diary that she didn’t know how it would turn out. She didn’t really like little girls, and she didn’t even know any, except her sisters, but she figured she would just write about her life and the things she knew best, even though that regular life seemed very boring. What flowed from her pen eventually became Little Women, one of the most beloved stories of all time. “What a good joke on me,” Louisa wrote later. Continue Reading →

Children’s Lit Corner: The Fluent Imagination

The Fluent Imagination

     A couple of years ago I decided to learn another language. At first I just dabbled in it and learned a few words and phrases. Then as I learned a little more, I started to become, in stages, hungry, frustrated, intrigued, enchanted, and increasingly confident. Now, two and a half years after beginning, I find myself fluctuating between being hungry to learn more and happily becoming more and more confident. But I know I still have a very long way to go before I actually become fluent. I was thinking about this process of learning a language in relation to the way children develop their imagination. In this case, it is a lot more than just acquiring a good grasp of language. It involves figuring out how to think and make connections between the life within and the life outside of oneself. I believe that just as learning a new language is a long and hard and often rewarding and sometimes frustrating process, so too is learning to cultivate one’s imagination or to stimulate the imagination of a child.

400000000000000082294_s4Imagination is much more than just learning to use and apply language, and it is also not limited to fictional, “imaginary” things. The way I see it, developing an imagination depends on being exposed to many opportunities to think creatively. For example, in Beverly Cleary’s book Ramona the Brave, Ramona had to throw one of her shoes at a dog in order to get past him on the way to school. Of course her teacher was concerned when Ramona arrived with only one shoe, so she gave Ramona an old brown boot to wear to protect her foot. But, “Ramona did not want to wear an old brown boot, and she made up her mind she was not going to wear an old brown boot!” Now was the time for Ramona to think creatively and use her imagination. I think I know how she felt because I know the feeling of trying to solve a problem with the resources and raw materials at hand. I can almost feel Ramona’s brain cogs turning as she ponders the situation. “If only she had some heavy paper and a stapler, she could make a slipper, one that might even be strong enough to last until she reached home. She paid attention to number combinations in one part of her mind, while in that private place in the back of her mind she thought about a paper slipper and how she could make one if she only had a stapler.”

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2015 AML Awards Finalists #3: Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel

We are excited to announce the finalists in the third group of categories of 2015 Association for Mormon Letters awards, Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel. We previously announced Creative Non-Fiction and Religious Non-Fiction and Novel, Short Fiction Collection, and Short Fiction, and soon will announce Comics, Criticism, Drama, Film, Lyrics, Picture Book, and Poetry. The final awards will be announced and presented at the AML Conference on March 4 at BYU Hawaii. The finalist announcements include blurbs about each of the books and author biographies, usually provided by the publishers or authors.

Young Adult Novel

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Children’s Lit Corner: A Golden Thread of Hope

A Golden Thread of Hope

We are living in difficult times. I’m not going to rehash all the dangers and terrors and controversies that abound right now because these things are all too visible in the news and on the internet. Everywhere there are troubles. But life has always been this way. There may be an abundance of hard and terrible things around right now, but there have always been difficulties. The other day I was driving home after taking my cousin’s son up to his university dormitory in another town. It was a rather long drive and I really enjoy listening to an audio book during a drive. It helps the miles fly by. So I inserted a cd into the slot and heard the familiar opening words of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, . . . in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Dickens was writing in 1859 about the events of 1776 and afterwards. Now here we are in 2016, and even though Dickens’ words about the French Revolution and the time preceding it are more than 150 years old, still it is true that the period he described was no more filled with difficulties and hardships than our own times, 240 years later. We just can’t get away from the hard things of life. Continue Reading →

YA Corner: Reading by Moonlight

My friend has a freshly painted periwinkle blue home. It is a striking change of color after 20+ years of being a pleasant light tan. One of her teenaged sons had a “Eureka!” moment and felt an urgent sense to paint the exterior walls blue. To be sure, he may have caught some of his inspiration from his mother who had recently dipped brushes in several paint cans to beautify the bedrooms and bathrooms. At any rate, it was only a matter of days before the thought became a reality. In addition to the tall planks of periwinkle, there is now a front porch painted a deep red. And front steps painted alternating colors of the red and blue. The home looks charming and welcoming — perfectly matching the warmth of the delightful people who live inside. I say live “inside” the home but now with an eye-popping large front porch, it is as if there is a whole new outdoor room to claim as living space. In fact, the family now regularly spends evening time reading out on the porch. They bundle up in blankets if the evening is cool and unwind with conversation and books.

In less than a week this family will have one more thing to enjoy about their outdoor room: a Harvest Moon in the night sky. I am not a great whiz at astronomy, but that never stopped my enjoyment and wonder at the time of Harvest Moon. September 8-9 is the designated Harvest Moon night when a full moon is closest to the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. I tend to feel that the Harvest moon is bigger, brighter and more colorful than other full moons, and there are songs (who really can resist the Neil Young tune?), stories, and some scientific facts to back me up.

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YA Corner: Great Teachers, Great Words

In rural Lemhi County, fifth and sixth graders were taught together in the same classroom by the same teacher, Mr. Harris. In 1973, there might have been around twenty-five total fifth and sixth graders. The grades were segregated to two sides of the classroom. The grades had their own appropriate assignments for basic subjects, but some interchange existed, to the good of all. For example, the read-aloud, always held after lunch and always looked forward to with eagerness, was of course shared by all students.

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