It’s All Happening

I got on a magical ride back in 2003 with my friend and the co-creator of Tyme, Ruth Virkus.  The ride was called Let’s Write A Fairy-Tale Series.

The first nine years of the ride were slow. Sometimes surprising. Often delightful. Usually difficult. But always

s

l

o

w.

In 2012, the ride got faster. Acquisitions. Revisions. Line edits. Copy edits. First pass pages.

And then the little car rounded a bend and started to climb a steep, clickety track. I’m sitting in it now, pitched back, staring up, listening to the  click click click click click

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GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL moved up from being a Summer 2015 title to being a Spring 2015 title. What I thought would be a July (or something) release date is now April 28. APRIL 28.

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My editor, the indefatigable Cheryl Klein, sent me the beautiful jacket copy that she wrote for the book (the text that will appear on the cover, the inside flaps, and the back of the book jacket). Suddenly I was able to see lots of small pieces all together in one place: her words, other authors’ encouraging blurbs, the ISBN, my bio, and little shocking realities like $17.99 US / $20.99 CAN, reminding me that oh, yes, this has all been fun and games, hasn’t it, but the idea here is that now this book needs to sell.

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Also listed on the jacket copy is the name of the artist who is illustrating the cover of GROUNDED: Iacopo Bruno.  The cover is not final yet, but as soon as I saw Iacopo Bruno’s name, any lingering cover-anxiety I might have had vanished forever. Because, in case you’re not familiar with this man’s work, his jackets are total show-stoppers.

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My friend Melissa Anelli sent me a Google Hangout chat with a link in it. Unsuspecting, I followed the link. Oh God.  GROUNDED is on Amazon.  I called my mother. She preordered a copy. Sale #1.

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The Scholastic Spring 2015 Online Preview went live yesterday.  In Middle Grade, at 11:59, Cheryl speaks about GROUNDED with the love and confidence that she has shown throughout this entire process. Even since way back in 2004, when she gave my very early first draft some tough love and told me she wanted to see it when it was rewritten. (Also, in this preview, you can catch a very quick glimpse of the not-yet-final book cover. It’s sensational.)

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I don’t know. I can never predict what the next surprise will be. But for the next five months, I know the surprises will just keep coming, making everything realer and realer, closer and closer, and then – and THEN –

click. 

Really. Everything.

“Many writers have to teach in order to put bread on the table. But I have no doubt teaching sucks away the creative juices and slows production. ‘Doomed proposition’ is too strong, but it’s hard, Jessica. Even when you have the time, it’s hard to find the old N-R-G.”
-Stephen King, interview in The Atlantic

One of the many things I admire about Stephen King is that he remembers what his life was like before he was successful, and he doesn’t sugar coat it.

Making time for writing is hard.  It is so hard.  It is hardest when the weekend comes, and the teaching is “done” for two days, so it feels like life should open up a bit and give me room for writing, but it doesn’t.  There is still so much, so much, so bloody awful much to do that by the time the doing is all done and the boy is asleep and the laptop is finally open, the old N-R-G is gone.

When I got my book contract, I was so happy – and I still am. Ecstatic. But I also sat down and looked hard at the pressing deadlines, and what they would mean when balanced against my teaching job and my son and the sundry daily responsibilities of being alive, and I wondered How on earth? My husband said, “I’ll do everything. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure that you can write.” And I admit that I thought, Really? Everything? 

Here are the things my husband did this weekend.

  • Grocery shopping
  • Took out the trash, recycling, and compost
  • Changed the cat litter
  • Swept the floors
  • Fixed the broken bed frame
  • Went to the hardware store for more planks to support the box spring
  • Put away every puzzle and toy in the house about five times
  • Cleaned the dishes
  • Cleaned the kitchen
  • Did the laundry
  • Bathed the boy
And here are the things I did this weekend:
  • Revised 60 pages
I’d be dead in the water without him. It really would be a doomed proposition. But I’m lucky enough to have someone by my side who thinks that what I’m doing matters, and who is willing to do everything else so that I can have this chance.

Thank you, honey. I love you. 

Calling All Hours

If there’s anyone out there who feels bored and would like to give me some of their extra time, please send it post haste.

Don’t you wish it worked like that?

I remember boredom.  I remember being in grade school and, after several weeks of summer, feeling bored.  And I’d say, “I’m bored,” and my mother would say “Boredom comes from within,” in this theatrically wise voice, like she was dispensing prophecies in a carnival tent.

Man, I have a great mom.  She was right about all the things.

Here’s the statistical time breakdown for the past week.  Don’t worry, this is highly mathematical and accurate, in that I am making it up as I go.

TIME USAGE:

90% – Sick child
75% – Teaching, prepping for teaching, meetings for teaching, substitute teaching plans
50% – Dead car battery resulting from broken auto lock mechanism, and oh guess what a rotator belt or some other kind of special belt, who knows, you’re not a mechanic so you can’t fight this anyway, needs replacing. So there, budget.
40% – Dealing with the bills that are starting to roll in from the surgery, which is even more fun than you would think!
30% – Trying and totally failing to provide any meaningful support to younger sister who is about to have her first child (about 2 weeks to go!)
20% – Carving unnecessarily elaborate pumpkin, then abandoning other two pumpkins to the ants.
5% – Futile attempts to make house unfilthy

0.0000001% – Writing

The thing is, the writing’s going great.  I’m about 75% of the way through this revision, and I believe it’s a big, strong step in the right direction. But I can’t get near it at the moment – there’s too much in play.  Sure, you say, but you have time to write this blog post.  You could be writing your book.  True, I reply, but let me paint you a picture.  As I write this post, sick child (whose fever just broke and so is now acting like nothing bad ever happened) is putting stickers on my feet, Cars is playing in the background, there is stale apple juice all over the left side of me, and I think the cats are doing something weird because there is a smell. In a few minutes we need to go pick up husband, who has no car because of dead battery/broken belt thing. I can write under these circumstances, but what am I really going to get?  This blog post.

So it’s not a writing week. Okay. Sometimes, time can’t be made, or squeezed, or borrowed, or stolen.  Sometimes, you just gotta let it go.  Cue Frozen soundtrack.

One thing.

There’s only one thing I’m sure of, where writing is concerned, and it’s this:

The fear that what I’m writing is terrible will always come, sometimes in short bouts, sometimes in long ones.  But it never lasts forever.  And it goes away more quickly if I just keep working.  Work is the shortest road out of that fear.

Happy

I’m finishing up my first week back at school.  I’m tired and sore from surgery, and I’m discombobulated from missing the beginning of the year, but it hardly matters.  I’ve been happy every day.  So I’m just going to take a moment to celebrate being back in my classroom.

I got to see my amazing colleagues again, and they’ve been so supportive and genuinely helpful, picking up the things I drop and getting me up to speed on everything I missed while I was gone.

I got to see my amazing students again too.  There’s little in life that’s more awesome than a kid happily shouting your name and then running up and tackling you with a hug.  Maybe there’s nothing in life that’s more awesome than that, actually.

I met my new students, who have been patient with me as I learn their names and figure out all the new campus protocols I missed during the first two weeks.

One of my students’ mothers brought me a cluster of vibrant flowers in a Mason jar.  One of my former students (now a big fancy high schooler) had also heard about my health issues, and brought me a bouquet of bright red gerbera daisies. And one of my now 8th-graders wrote me a very sweet Get-Well card.  The love is everywhere.

Also, I put out a bunch of my new books and my book check-out clipboard, and my students seized every single new book on the shelf.  I’m so excited that they’re excited about the expansion of the classroom library!  They’ll be looking for fresh meat soon… I guess that means I need to plow through my to-read pile and bring in more books!

I’m just so grateful for all of it.  Glad as I am that it’s almost the weekend, I can’t help looking forward to Monday.

Two Years Ago Yesterday

Two years ago yesterday, I started blogging about the experience of working to become a published author.  Now, in less than a year, my first book will be published.  It’s been through all the edits, and I just sent my first-pass pages back in.

Working on the second book is now my creative focus.  This is something I never understood before getting into the groove of publishing – the second book (in a series, anyway) in no way responds to audience feedback from the first book.  The second book is already turned in, revised, and line edited before the first book even hits shelves.  In fact, the second book is a huge gift in that way – I’m so deep into revising it and solving its problems that there’s not much headspace left to worry about the first book.  GROUNDED is out of my hands, and soon it will belong to readers, and that is beautiful and exhilarating and terrifying – and not really my business.  My business is writing.  That’s the part I can control – sort of, anyway.

I’m struggling to revise a scene right now; everything I do with it seems to fall flat or make it worse than it was the first time, but it can’t stay as it was because it’s inconsistent with the rest of the revision.  Frustrating.  But if I’ve learned anything in the past couple of years it’s that this scene will work itself out if I keep showing up to the keyboard.

And that’s how it is, two years later.  Pretty much the same stuff.  Writing is coming along.  Motherhood is good – my almost four-year-old son is sitting next to me right now playing a video game, and we’re about to read a slew of books.  Teaching is the only thing that’s a little different this year, because although the school year has started, I’m not there.  I haven’t gone back to work yet, and I won’t for another week or so, because I’m recovering from surgery (I’m fine now).  It’s slow going and requires me to be very patient with myself and the world (not my strong suit).  However, the good things about this recovery period are that 1) it’s given me extra time with my kiddo, 2) it’s given me more time to write, and 3) I’ve begun to make a dent in my towering to-read pile – in the past couple of weeks I’ve read FLIPPED, MONSTER, THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL, MIRACLE’S BOYS, NERVE, and THE GREAT GREENE HEIST, and now I’m in the middle of COUNTING BY 7S.  I’ve enjoyed them all, and I may write some of them up soon, in separate blog posts. My to-read pile is still intimidatingly huge, but I don’t think that’s ever going to change.  Here’s a picture.

(And this is just the MG/YA pile, the adult books are languishing on a shelf and I really need to pick one up soon – I think I’ll go for LIFE AFTER LIFE.)

Well, this post has been a bit meandering, but that’s okay.  Here’s to the new year of blogging and recovering and writing and teaching and mothering, not in that order.  And since I’ve set a goal for myself each year of this blog, here’s one for 2014-2015:

No matter what happens this year, no matter what the reviews say, no matter how the sales begin, I will be joyful. This is an extraordinary year in which I get to realize a dream.  I’m choosing in advance to be grateful for every second of it.

Five Reasons To Read It #13: THE GREAT GREENE HEIST

I very much enjoyed hearing Varian Johnson speak at LeakyCon, so I went out and bought one of his books – and I loved it.  The newest addition to my classroom library is:

Five Reasons to Read It #13

THE GREAT GREENE HEIST
By Varian Johnson
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2014

Here are five reasons to read it:

  1. Check out this cast. 
    Jacket art by Kali Ciesmier
    Jacket design by Nina Goffi

    The jacket alone sold me, because where I teach, this is what a classroom actually looks like. I’m on a mission this year to make my classroom library more truly diverse than ever, and part of what that means to me is that I want lots of books with protagonists of color that don’t exist solely to examine racial issues. Yes, books that deeply examine particular cultural experiences or mores and/or the realities of racism are critical. But my black, Mexican, Samoan, and Vietnamese kids (to name just a few) aren’t experiencing their early teens solely in terms of race, just like my white kids aren’t. They’re all just kids doing kid stuff, and they deserve to see that reflected in the books on my shelves. (There are brief moments that glance at discrimination, and they’re handled with appropriate snark – I very much enjoyed that the protagonist used the administrative assistant’s racist attitude to his advantage.)

  2. Jackson Greene is instantly likable.  He jumps off the page.  His trademark red tie and No. 2 pencil, his casual confidence with peers and authority figures alike, and his infamous talent for pranks and capers make him a character I would have had a huge fictional crush on, in middle school. Plus, he likes a girl in glasses who can beat him at basketball.
  3. Gaby de la Cruz is another instant charmer.  Her hoop skills, impossible but undeniable crush on Jackson (and his on her), combined with her self-possessed savvy as she navigates the shark-infested waters of the race for Student Council President make her the girl I wish I could have been in middle school.  
  4. It’s a caper.  A caper!  Who doesn’t love a good caper?  It moves fast, rotating swiftly among POVs and locations.  There are unbreakable locks and souped-up cell phones, code names and laptops and hiding in the custodial closet. 
  5. The whole heist squad was delightful – great banter, excellent real-kid dialogue, and some true belly laughs.  The story would make a great ensemble flick, I think – the middle-grade Ocean’s Eleven. Dang, now I really want to see it.  
Overall, this book is great fun, and I anticipate that it will never sit on the shelf for long.  It’ll be in constant rotation once the kids start recommending it to each other, because it’s a high-interest story that will be enjoyed by voracious and reluctant readers alike. Middle-school teachers, this is one to have handy!

Writing in One Layer on EMU’s Debuts

In my last post, I mentioned wanting to reflect further on LeakyCon’s Q&A session with Kazu Kibuishi, who said something that really stayed with me.  Here’s a bit from my post about it, which is over on EMU’s Debuts:
~*~
In Photoshop, you can build a complex image using layers.  Layers are images that are stacked on top of each other like cellophane, with individual elements of the design or illustration existing on individual layers.

Background
Here’s a background layer.
BackgroundCircle
Here’s a yellow circle layer on top.
BackgroundCircleRed
I am awesome at this.

Images are stacked in this way so that they can be easily separated into manageable segments. This allows an artist to remove or make changes to various pieces of the work without having to recreate the entire thing.  That red squiggle needs to be orange?  Great.  Select the layer with the squiggle, change the color, and everything else can stay as is.  Easy peasy.

The more complex and layered an image, the more segmented it is. That’s great for small changes, but not for big sweeping ones. In order to make holistic changes to the work, the artist has to go in and edit each individual layer.

Hold up.  This is a writing blog, right?  Why am I talking about Photoshop?

A few weeks ago, at LeakyCon, I had the pleasure of being in the room for a Q&A with Kazu Kibuishi, the writer/artist behind the AMULET graphic novel series and the cover illustrator of the 15th-Anniversary editions of the American Harry Potter books.  He is a stellar talent.  While showing us several drafts of his cover illustration for CHAMBER OF SECRETS, he mentioned that he had drafted those images in one layer.

Click here to read the rest on EMU’s Debuts!

LeakyCon! My Lit-Track Experience

This summer, I went to my first LeakyCon.  It’s ridiculous that this was my first one, for two reasons: 1) My friend and fellow crazy person Melissa Anelli runs the con; 2) I am a giant Harry Potter nerd.

So yes, I went to the con for friendship and fun.  But I was also there to do a little recon.  Next summer, GROUNDED will be published.  If I’m lucky, I might then get a chance to speak at some sort of conference, or take part in an author panel.  LeakyCon has an amazing Lit Track program, run by authors Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman, and I thought hey, why don’t I go to Leaky this year and watch and listen as they and all the other fabulous authors do their thing?  Maybe I’ll learn something about what to do when and if it’s my turn.

I have NO experience with conferences. Like, at all. So I went to some panels and observed how the authors responded to questions.

Here’s how my Lit Track experience went down:

The Lit Track/Fanfic Coffee Hour
I got off to a good start, drinking coffee and listening to authors read their fanfic.  Yeah, that’s right. Real Authors Write Fanfic.  I need that on a T-shirt.  Anyway, my favorite was the work of Amber Benson, who wrote a Portal-inspired fanfic from the POV of the companion cube.  Amazing.  Hilarious. Inappropriate.  I wish I had a copy to show my husband.  Hey, Amber, if you read this…

Diversity In YA
Here, I got to listen to Laurie Halse Anderson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Varian Johnson, and Malinda Lo talk with editor Cheryl Klein about the importance of diversity in YA lit.  This is an issue I care deeply about, and I found all of these authors to be extremely bright and compelling. I wished my students could have been in the room with me. Laurie Halse Anderson spoke about the process of disillusionment she experienced when she finally started researching her American heroes and discovered how flawed and how racist they were. Malinda Lo talked about how she didn’t get to read fiction that represented her experience when she was a teen, because there just wasn’t any – and so, when she went to write her Cinderella story, she found herself writing a straight white girl’s story, and not her own. Only when she wrote her own, in a way that spoke to her, was that work (ASH) published. I also appreciated that there was some discussion about how frustrating it is that in a world of fiction that’s already very white and male, fantasy fiction has traditionally been even whiter and maler. The panel concluded with a call to action, as the authors encouraged the young people in the room to bring diverse books to the attention of their adult gatekeepers – parents, librarians, and teachers – and to ask for more literature of that kind to be represented around them.

I Made You. You’re Perfect.
Gayle Forman, Lev Grossman, Lauren Myracle, Stephanie Perkins, and Rainbow Rowell talked about writing romance.  One of the most interesting and informative moments came when a young woman stood up to challenge the speakers a bit.  She noted that the panel was “hyper-straight” and asked whether the authors planned to address a wider spectrum of romantic and sexual experiences. Especially having just come from the Diversity in YA panel, I was really excited that a young woman in a room full of star authors felt empowered to state her feelings and ask for what she wanted (the authors responded by talking about gay and bisexual characters they’ve written or are writing).

Toward the end, someone asked “How do you deal with writing teen romance when you know the characters are just going to grow out of it?”  The answers to this question were wonderful.  Rainbow Rowell talked about how, in ELEANOR & PARK, she was careful not to give her characters an “ending” – because they’re teenagers.  So instead of telling the audience what happens to them, or whether they break up eventually, etc., she allowed them to have that wide-open beginning.  Stephanie Perkins, who fell in love at 17 and ended up marrying that person, shared her own personal romantic history and talked about the depth of feeling – the real, adult depth of feeling – that teens are fully capable of, and that must be honored in their stories.  It was lovely.

I Love Trash
Amber Benson, Lev Grossman, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Lauren Myracle, Stephanie Perkins, and Rainbow Rowell showed up to discuss the concept of “trashy” novels.  What is trash? Why do we assign that label to certain things?  What I absolutely loved was that none of these authors was willing to assign the label “trashy” to anything at all.  When pressed to make an exception, I believe it was Lauren Myracle who said “I have personal exceptions, but I try not to force them on other people.”  I liked that.  It reminded me of one of my favorite monologues from one of my favorite films, All About Eve: “The theater’s for everybody – you included, but not exclusively – so don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your theater, but it’s theater for somebody, somewhere.”

The panel became an exploration of how books labeled “trashy” are often called so because of marketing and placement, or cultural judgement of women and teenage girls and their interests.  Authors talked about how frustrating it is when books by women, often intended for an audience of girls and including some element of romance, are treated as though they are less important.  It reminded me a little of the discussion that went on during Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip experiment.

YA Jeopardy
The authors already mentioned above, along with John Green, put themselves at the mercy of several hundred fans who came to watch them compete in a Maureen Johnson-moderated game of YA Jeopardy. The categories spanned fandoms, genres, and mediums, and the authors were really good sports about not knowing a lot of the answers. They had to keep it light.  Be self deprecating.  Allow themselves to look silly and be wrong.  The fans didn’t love them any less for it – in fact, they adored it.  I howled with laughter through a whole lot of their answers myself.

I Was A Teenage Author
All the authors mentioned above, plus Holly Black, Kazu Kibuishi, and Scott Westerfeld, read aloud from their juvenilia. Like YA Jeopardy, this required courage and the willingness to self deprecate, but on a much more personal and exposed level – these authors dug out their teenage attempts at writerhood and read them out to the crowd, letting their fans hear how they once stumbled and proving that they haven’t always been the superstar writers they are today.  This was a wonderful event, rife with hilarity.  My absolute favorite was Holly Black, who read some of the best bad poetry I’ve ever heard.  She was in fits of laughter and tears reading it, and so were the rest of us. And you know what?  I bet a lot of young people in that room who want to be writers but think they’re not good enough got a whole lot of encouragement from hearing their heroes read their terrible early work out loud.  We all gotta start somewhere.

A Q&A With Kazu Kibuishi
This man, who writes and illustrates the AMULET graphic novel series and illustrated the new American Harry Potter covers and box set, is an incredible artist and a reflective thinker.  Particularly enlightening for me was hearing him talk about working in one layer – but I’m going to explore that idea in another blog post. Suffice it to say that he was very inspiring, and I’m glad I was in the room for this one.

Alas, there ends my Lit Track recap.  There were lots of other great panels I would have liked to visit, like Worldbuilding and The War Against YA.  Instead, I had an even cooler opportunity: the chance to sit down for three gorgeous hours of face-to-face conversation with my brilliant editor, Cheryl Klein (who, as it turns out, loves my second manuscript – you know, the one I was so worried about?) about what to address in the revision of book #2. Immediately afterward, I went to the Esther Earl Rockin’ Charity Ball (and for a fairy-tale writer like me, there’s pretty much no cooler way to end a conversation with your editor than to glance at the clock and say “We’d better get dressed, or we’ll be late to the ball!”)

Oh, and also!  I had the delightful opportunity to go full-on gamer geek when Melissa asked me to participate in the Opening Ceremonies as the voice of GLaDOS, of Portal fame.  Here’s the filk I wrote with my husband and recorded for the event.

So, will I go to LeakyCon next year?  Or GeekyCon, as it’s now called?

You bet I will.  It was well worth the investment, both from a personal and a professional perspective. Plus, I walked away with a pair of Golden Snitch earrings and this awesome shirt.

Anywhere you can learn so much and get geeky to that extent is a place worth going.

Long Live Leaky and Geeky.

VROOM!

The waiting part of publishing goes on for so long that an author can be lulled into the sense that her book will never actually be published.

First come writing, revising, submission, and rejection, all of which take forever.  Then there’s the will-they-or-won’t-they? dance with a potential editor and the acquisitions process.  Successfully land a book contract, and more revisions follow.  Then line edits.  Then copy edits.  It’s been over a year since my first book sold, and the e-mails from my editor, while ever timely, have been few and far between, relaxed and mysterious, giving me the sense that while there are deadlines, there’s no real rush.

Then I turned in my copy edits. Overnight, publication went from theoretical and distant to real and impending, and the curves started coming at me faster. My editor is in touch much more often.  Here are a few of the things that have happened:

1) Dedication and Acknowledgments!  Technically, this happened during copy edits.  You know how you dream about giving your Oscar speech, wherein you thank all the people who helped you get where you are today?  Yeah, this is the part where you get to DO that.  It feels pretty fantastic.

2) Blurbs!  Blurbs are those quotes you see on books, where an established author or other celebrity has decided to back the work by saying something like “Genius… Intricately plotted… If you only read one book this year about meat thermometers, make it this one.” Seeing blurbs about your own work, let me tell you, is very heady stuff.  They’re little jewels of solid proof that authors you admire believe your work is praiseworthy – to the point where they’re willing to praise it in public.  Some authors have to go after their own blurbs; in my case, my editor and agent have made the requests for me.  I told them which authors I’d love to have in my corner, and the responses I’ve gotten back have been amazingly kind and generous.  Short version: blurbs are AWESOME. I might have memorized mine.  Really.

3) ISBN!  You know, that wonderful number that identifies a book? I have one now.  HOLLA!

4)  Library of Congress! GROUNDED is now catalogued there. I’m on the record, y’all.

5) 1st Pass Pages!  This part is so exciting. It’s a PDF that comes from the typesetter’s, and it shows what the final, copy-edited book will look like on the inside.  Font, style, layout, title page, imprint logo, chapter headings, dedication and acknowledgments… Opening the PDF was one of those magic moments, right up there with finding out that Scholastic wanted to buy the book in the first place.  Seeing my book turned into a BOOK… and not just any book, but a beautiful book, printed in beautiful font… I can’t even be articulate about it.  I’m borrowing a Britishism, because it’s better than anything I’ve got: I’m gobsmacked.  I open the PDF a couple of times a day, to make sure it’s still real.  And it is.  And it’s BEAUTIFUL. Everyone working on GROUNDED is so talented and skilled and lovely.  I’m grateful beyond words.

So that’s the kind of month it’s been.  Crazy awesome, and everythinghappeningfast.  Stay tuned for jacket art!  I haven’t seen so much as a glimpse of it yet, and I’m CAPSLOCK LEVEL EXCITED.  Now that I’ve seen the inside of GROUNDED I’m waiting with bated breath to find out what the outside will be.  I thought I’d be very nervous about the cover, but instead, I’m just psyched.  I have complete faith that the Scholastic team that has been nothing but amazing will continue to stun me with their utter brilliance. I CAN’T WAIT.

But you know what? I don’t mind waiting.  I’ve got lots of practice.  I should appreciate every little bit of waiting I get now, because there’s not very much of it left.  Summer 2015 will be here before I know it.

Vroom, vroom, VROOM…

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