A Post about Biggest Things

A couple months ago when I thought maybe, maybe if I tried really hard, I’d manage a couple blog posts a week leading up to launch time, I asked some friends what would make good topics, because I am notoriously bad at figuring out what kinds of things might be interesting to the reader who just happens to land here. Dylan Meconis said she’s always interested in what the biggest challenge of a given project is, which got me thinking and ultimately resulted in a very short list of “biggests” related to The Left-Handed Fate. Here it is.

Biggest challenge of the writing (thank you, Dylan!):

I think there were two.

20121127_191625The first was being detailed enough about the nautical elements of the story for it to pass muster with people who love boats and can spot inaccuracies but not so obsessive about nautical stuff that it pulls readers out of the story. I like to use fun vocabulary generally, so using the same tricks that allow you to confidently toss around uncommon and lengthy words in books for kids helped here. It was also really helpful to have one protagonist who isn’t a sailor and hasn’t gotten confident with terminology or architecture or really any of the practicalities of sailing. Any time I figure Max would need something explained or spelled out, I figure a reader will, too (and vice versa).

The second was making the War of 1812 accessible. I loved writing about this war because I think it’s relevant today for a lot of reasons, but if you’d asked me what it was really all about before I started researching I’d have had a hard time answering. It’s not one of the wars you learn much about in school, and it’s not easily reduced to a single memorable issue that sticks in the memory like the American Revolution, the Civil War, or World War 2. Plus, we didn’t win the War of 1812. We got trounced by Canada, fought to maybe a draw, and even the final treaty ignored one of the primary grievances we had with England. And while it was consequential for the United States, the War of 1812 was basically a spoiler conflict happening at the margins of the wars happening in Europe. It’s a fascinating moment, but it was hard to pin down without getting overly lecturey and expositional.

Biggest fear about the book:

9780544052703_hresThis one’s easy, and my friends and family already know the answer. I’m afraid people will be disappointed that The Left-Handed Fate isn’t like Greenglass House. Yes, it returns to Nagspeake, which was a total joy, but it isn’t cozy. It falls somewhere in the space between Greenglass House and The Boneshaker: a little more darkness than Milo’s story, a little more humor than Natalie’s. And there’s a hint of The Broken Lands in there, too, and not just because Liao is a character in both. Folks who’ve read all three of the earlier books (or five, if you count the Arcana companion books) know that Greenglass House is the outlier, but so many more people read Greenglass House than the others, it’s hard not to be worried.

But in the end, if there’s one thing I have learned as a bookseller, it’s that not all books are for all readers. Still, it’s hard to apply that to my own books, when of course I want everyone in the world to love them all, especially the new one that I love to an unreasonable degree–but that’s plainly unrealistic. So this book won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay. And anyway, there’s Ghosts of Greenglass House coming out next year, so that’s comforting, too.

Biggest research problem:

Working out the architecture of the actual vessel called the Left-Handed Fate. But initially I wanted the Fate to be a really oddball vessel that looked nothing like anything else on the water–for those who’ve read Patrick O’Brian, I was thinking a bit about the “carpenter’s mistake,” the HMS Polychrest, if the “innovations” that made the Polychrest so dysfunctional had actually worked. But as I wrote I realized that constructing a ship like that was really outside my capability if I wanted to keep the nautical elements of the book realistic.

LHFDrawingAugust2DarkerOnce I let go of that idea, I wanted the Fate to be a Baltimore-built clipper, which really became a thing just after the era of the book. So she became a topsail schooner that incorporated elements of some of the other types of vessels that influenced the builders of what would come to be called clippers. And really what kept messing with me was the lower deck layout. It took me so long to get around to nailing that down that Eliza Wheeler (whose patience is really one of the wonders of the world) had already begun drawing and both of us had to revise what we’d done to match the final layout.

Biggest hope for the book:

That it does well enough to justify returning to this era and these characters in another full-length novel. I think that’s always my biggest hope when a book comes out. I fall so deeply in love with the characters that I want to return to them again and again. Even though I’m supposed to be working on other things, ideas are already starting to swirl. I hope, I hope, I hope.

Partying, partying YEAH!*


Next week is the official launch of The Left-Handed Fate, and I couldn’t be more excited–unless, of course, you come out to celebrate with us!

There are two launch parties happening next week. If geographically convenient, please do come and hang out.

Tuesday, August 23 (LAUNCH DAY!!): McNally Jackson Books, 7pm

52 Prince Street (between Mulberry and Lafayette)

All ages are welcome; a story and some refreshments will be provided. Find additional details here. 

Thursday, August 25: Barnes and Noble Annapolis, 6pm

Annapolis Harbour Center, 2516 Solomon’s Island Road


Again, all ages are welcome. At least one of my high school teachers has RSVP’d that she’ll be present, if you’ve been hunting for blackmail material. Find additional details here. 

If you can’t make it but would like to join the festivities, there’s still time to order from one of the four special independent bookstores who have special gifts with preorders of The Left-Handed Fate. Find additional details here, but hurry, because quantities are limited.

*Nathan has played “Friday” several times at me in the past week in a not-very-covert attempt to game my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist to do ridiculous things and a probably not-unintended consequence of this is that I’ve had it stuck in my head since Sunday (which comes afterwaaaaarrrrrdd). I’ve also developed a terrible case of indecisiveness about whether I’d rather be kickin’ in the front seat or sittin’ in the back seat because STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT

Pre-Order THE LEFT-HANDED FATE, Get a Present from Me!

Well, we’re in the home stretch: just 24 days (as of July 30) until the launch of The Left-Handed Fate! And I hope like anything that you’re counting down the days, too.

9780805098006_FCSo, hey! Let’s talk about pre-orders. Some of you might know that I have strong feelings about the importance of independent bookstores. So for folks pre-ordering The Left-Handed Fate, if you pre-order from one of these bookmongers, I have a special gift for you. Actually, four special gifts, because each shop has something different. Order from any (or all!); they’re all happy to ship books anywhere in the country.

McNally Jackson Books, Soho, NYC

The first 40 customers to pre-order from McNally Jackson will receive a numbered and signed paperback copy of Bluecrowne from the original 200-copy printing funded by Kickstarter and printed in the store on the Espresso Book Machine. Bluecrowne, for those who don’t know, is the first adventure of Lucy Bluecrowne, one of the main characters of The Left-Handed Fate, in the city of Nagspeake. It’s a standalone story, as is LHF–you don’t have to read Bluecrowne first–but you’ll definitely have special insights and information if you do. Order here. 

Little Shop of Stories, Decatur, GA

LHFWithCopperplateThe first fifty customers to pre-order The Left-Handed Fate from Little Shop of Stories will receive a letter-sized print of an architectural drawing of the topsail schooner letter-of-marque vessel, the Left-Handed Fate. This is a drawing I made for my own reference while writing and revising the book, only I fancied it up for you with some walnut ink and nice paper and some charmingly wobbly copperplate. (Note: by the time you receive your copy, the copperplate might be less wobbly and amusing, but I had to put something here to get this page up.) Order here.

Porter Square Books, Boston, MA

20160730_081545Customers who pre-order from Porter Square will receive a signed (and personalized, if you choose) handmade cut-paper bookplate. This is a thing I should probably not have done because I’m really not to be trusted with a knife this sharp. Also I cannibalized a vintage trigonometry book to do it. BUT THAT BOOK HAD IT COMING. (Note: Colors may vary, because I made this one before I knew what color the inside pages were.) Order here.

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

20160730_082301Customers who pre-order from Oblong Books will receive a bookmark in the form of a prayer card for Saint Pontila of Nagspeake, Patron Saint of Messages Sent in Bottles (to be clear, she looks out for the messages, not the senders or receivers, so invoke her at your peril). Those of you who’ve read The Broken Lands will already know a little about my fascination with prayer cards, although they have a different significance in The Left-Handed Fate.  Order here.LHFplusStPontila

Coming soon: launch party information! But if you’re in the vicinity of NYC or Annapolis, MD, or plan to be at the end of August or need an excuse for a trip, mark your calendars!

NYC Launch: McNally Jackson Books, Tuesday, August 23 7pm. All ages welcome.

Annapolis Launch: Barnes and Noble Annapolis, Thursday, August 25, 6pm. All ages welcome.

FAQs: The Left-Handed Fate and Bluecrowne


9780805098006_FCAnd, predictably, I still keep forgetting to post here. On the other hand, I do have at least one good reason: I’m working like crazy to get The Illustrated Bluecrowne PDF ready for release before the LHF launch at the end of August. And since Bluecrowne is so closely related to The Left-Handed Fate (and since a forthcoming review actually refers to LHF as a sequel to Bluecrowne), I thought it would be good to talk a little about these two books and how they’re related.

Bluecrowne_Cover2Bluecrowne is part of an endeavor I call the Arcana Project, which is a series of short novels set in the same world as The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, Greenglass House, and The Left-Handed Fate—all of which are related to one degree or another, but all of which are stand-alone tales that can be read independently of the others. The Arcana books are meant to provide additional tales and, in some cases, show how certain books are related to others. I don’t publicize them heavily because I imagine them kind of like Easter eggs—if you find them, good for you! Enjoy. If not, no big deal. I had fun writing them. So far, there are two books, The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne. The Kairos Mechanism takes place after the events of The Boneshaker; Bluecrowne takes place before the events of The Left-Handed Fate. Here are some FAQs I get about how these books are all connected.

Q: I see that some of the characters in The Left-Handed Fate appear in an earlier book, Bluecrowne. Is The Left-Handed Fate a sequel? Do I need to read Bluecrowne first?

A: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO READ BLUECROWNE FIRST. The events of Bluecrowne take place first; however, both are truly standalone stories. (Bluecrowne is also the backstory of the building of Greenglass House, for instance, and explains the origins of two key clues to the mysteries Milo and Meddy solve, but I am completely certain that most people who read Greenglass House are entirely unaware of Bluecrowne‘s existence.) If you have (or do) read Bluecrowne before The Left-Handed Fate, hooray! You’ll definitely have insider information, including insight into Liao’s pyrotechnical gifts and the reason Lucy and her father aren’t excited to return to Nagspeake. But if you haven’t or choose not to read it, no big deal.

Q: Ok, cool. How do I get Bluecrowne if I want it?

A: You have three options.

  • You can get the ebook right now in the format of your choice from any of the usual ebook retailers. You’ll see that there are two versions, and one is more expensive than the other. The more expensive version is called the Kickstarter Edition, and it includes a bonus story from The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book (which you will know of if you’ve read Greenglass House).
  • You can get the paperback very rapidly (how fast depends on your shipping preferences) from McNally Jackson Books, where the books are printed using the Espresso Book Machine. If you want your copy signed or personalized, there is a field in the online order form where you can request that (note that I’m only there once a week, so signed copies might be delayed until I’m next in). Order here, or you can call the store directly to order by phone (212-274-1160). Bonus: on most Saturdays, if you call between 10 and 6, there’s a high probability I’ll be the one answering the phone! Hi!
  • You can read it free (or pay what you choose) starting sometime in August when The Illustrated Bluecrowne ebook is released. Right now I’m waiting for the last few pieces of original art from the young illustrators, but I expect to have it finished and available for download by mid-August or thereabouts. It’ll be a PDF, so it should work for you whatever kind of reader you use, and I’ll add a link here as soon as it’s ready. The art, by the way, is really outstanding. I can’t wait to share it with you. Preorder here.

Q: A free illustrated version? What’s that about?

A: As part of the Kickstarter-funded publication budget of the Arcana books, I included funds for a digital edition that would be illustrated by young reader artists and offered free or pay whatever, with the idea that I wanted the artists to be able to share their work at no cost to their friends and families. (Any money contributed by readers who do choose to pay goes into the pot for the next book’s illustrators.) The artists are between 11 and 21, and each used a style of his/her own choosing. It is, hands down, my favorite part of the project.

Q: I see the Bluecrowne paperback says “Arcana, Volume 2” on the spine. Do I have to read The Kairos Mechanism first? WHY IS THIS SO CONFUSING, KATE?

It was odd because they were strangers, and because they came in on foot. It was odd because of what they carried.

A: You do not need to read The Kairos Mechanism before Bluecrowne (although if you want to, you can follow all the same info above to get it in ebook or paperback (order the paperback here, and the free-or-pay-whatever illustrated version is here). Like Bluecrowne, it’s a standalone story, although it is definitely more closely tied to The Boneshaker. As for why it’s so confusing: I overcomplicate things. There. I said it. It’s just who I am.

Q: I’ve read the Arcana books and I was really hoping you’d have one coming out this year, but I haven’t heard anything. Are you doing another Arcana book?

A: Yes. Two more at least. But not this year. I have discovered to my shock that my ability to turn out three thousand words a day disappeared the day I had a kid. So here’s what’s coming down the pike: hopefully first, possibly as early as next fall, will be The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book. Additionally, I have an as-yet-untitled adventure featuring Sam and Jin from The Broken Lands. Kickstarter backers of Bluecrowne will get an advance peek and free digital copies, because this book arose from a short story I promised as a bonus reward during the Bluecrowne campaign that turned out not to be a short story at all.

Here’s hoping that clears up the relationship between Bluecrowne and The Left-Handed Fate. Any other questions you have, pop them into the comments!


A Few Things that are Lucky at Sea

I don’t know about you, but I need some happy thoughts right about now. So in the interests of good cheer and good fortune, here are some things likely to bring good luck to your blue-water voyage. Fair winds and following seas to you, friends.

A Partial List of Good Luck Stuff I Could Think of Off the Top of My Head

Albatrosses, if alive

Black-handled knives

Black cats

Scratching a backstay (part of the rigging)

Spitting, when intended to counteract bad omens or luck

The “bitter end” of a piece of rope

St. Elmo’s lights, if they’re ascending the masts (unless you’re a Chinese sailor, in which case the reverse is true)

St. Elmo’s lights, if there are two of them

Any object having proved itself to be a Good Luck Charm

Tossing the source of a specific piece of bad luck overboard

An Incomplete, Just-Off-the-Top-of-My-Head List of Things That Are Unlucky at Sea



Broken knives

White-handled knives

White cats

Albatrosses, if you killed them

Fridays, if you leave port on one

Wednesdays, for reasons I can’t remember

Anyone who’s left-handed


Talking about things like wind and weather out loud

Opening a chronometer

St. Elmo’s lights, if they’re moving down the masts (unless you’re a Chinese sailor, in which case the reverse is true)

Painting your hull certain colors

Anything suspicious not already known to be lucky


75 days to launch…

The Coundown to The Left-Handed Fate Begins!

Boy, oh boy. The last time I updated this site was far, far too long ago. But it’s time to dust things off and get to blogging, because as I’m writing this, we are a mere 81 days from Pub Day for The Left-Handed Fate. I have so much to tell you guys.

In the next not-quite-three-months, we’ll have loads of cool LHF-related trivia and a few contests and giveaways, so keep checking back. (I’ve made some promises to my publisher on this score, so between now and late August, anyway, I am actually going to have to follow through and actually write stuff here.) But for today, let’s talk origins.

Whenever I go to visit schools, and often when I’m at bookstores and libraries too, someone asks something along the lines of, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas, of course, come from all around, and I can give lots of different and equally true answers to this question. The way I usually answer it is to admit that a high percentage of my best ideas, the ones that spark whole new books or solve serious story problems, actually come from my husband.

Nathan is, thank God, not a writer. (Or at least, not yet, although I suspect he’s got at least one book in him that will eventually surface.) Therefore, rather than doing what I do and hoarding every idea he gets in a notebook, certain it will eventually be the missing piece to a story he’s had kicking around in his head for however long, he sends them to me. Most often he does this by sharing links to articles he knows I’ll enjoy or might find useful, but sometimes he’s less subtle. The Left-Handed Fate arose from one of those less-subtle times. Nathan badly wanted me to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, which he’d loved. I read the first one under duress, mostly to get him off my back. But that was all it took to get me addicted to the adventures of Captain John Aubrey of the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin, naturalist, ship’s doctor, and spy.

Guys, these books are so good. Seriously, so good. They’re exciting and funny and full of amazing dialogue and historical detail and the friendship of the two main characters, which begins with an almost-duel and continues through their adulthoods into middle age, is phenomenal. And did I mention they’re funny? They’re hilarious. (For the record, Nathan likes Horatio Hornblower better, but I never quite fell in love with him the way I fell in love with Jack and Stephen.)

At some point as I was devouring the twenty-book series for the first time (I’ve read the whole thing twice, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to read the last, unfinished book, 21), Nathan pointed out that since kids routinely went to sea at young ages at that point in history—and could even wind up actually commanding vessels, at least temporarily—a fighting ship during the Napoleonic Wars would be a perfect setting for a middle grade novel. I recall not being instantly excited by this idea, until suddenly I was. I can’t remember what the trigger was, but something clicked and I had the first inklings of what story I could maybe tell. And then it was off to the races.

I recently found the page of notes where I was working out the name of the ship at the heart of the book, which I was pretty sure was also going to wind up being the title. It was one of my first entry points to the story. I hadn’t worked out who the characters were or what was going to happen, but I had ideas about the ship. So perhaps this is where I’ll leave you today, with those first notes and the ship herself. Oh, and this link, where you can preorder signed copies from McNally Jackson Books.

Welcome to The Left-Handed Fate. I can’t wait to share her story with you.20160520_224846

In Which I Sneak onto a Very Important Panel by Organizing It (Please Come)!

Yes, folks, I get to talk upper middle-grade with Rebecca Stead, Mariko Tamaki, and Nancy Paulsen! I’m kind of dying of joy, in part because, as an author, bookseller, reader and mom, I am a HUGE, HUGE fan of these women, and in part because this is a conversation I want to have as often, and as loudly, as possible.

Last year, I was really fortunate to be able to take part in a panel discussion at last year’s NESCBWI conference with Laurel Snyder and Aaron Starmer on the subject of upper middle-grade fiction. We called the panel “The Blurry Space of Thirteen.” It was a phenomenal discussion, and I’ve been on the lookout ever since for another chance to dive back in. After all, before Greenglass House, all of my books fell squarely into this awkward upper middle-grade range. My next book is upper MG. Nearly every book in my head is upper MG.

Now, if you have visited this site before basically ever, you know that I’m terrible at updating it. In the last year, I’ve blogged exactly twice, and one of those posts was this one: Just One Reason Why THIS ONE SUMMER’s Caldecott Honor Matters a Lot. 

You can read the whole (excessively long) thing if you have time, but basically my thesis is, books for the set of readers who fall in the icky transitional space between kid and teen are hard to serve in the kids’ book world for Reasons (see post for specifics). But it’s critically important that we serve these kids–they’re going through some of the worst years of their lives, if my memory is to be trusted at all (and I had it better than most kids). To serve them, we have to understand that their needs sometimes include books that touch on subjects that can make adults uncomfortable, and as book creators, we have to acknowledge that those stories often don’t seem to fit comfortably in either traditional MG or in YA.

That post scratched the we-have-to-talk-about-upper-MG itch for a while. Then this spring, I got my hands on an advance copy of Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger, which lives squarely in the aforementioned blurry space,  alternating between middle-school and high-school POVs in its discussions of Things That Adults Are Uncomfortable Thinking About Kids Dealing With.  Cristin Stickles, through some magic that only she possesses, convinced the wonderful Nancy Paulsen, President and Publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books at Penguin Young Readers, to moderate our discussion, and NOW IT’S HAPPENING, GUYS! IT’S HAPPENING NEXT WEEK! I hope you’ll join us if you can. I truly believe this is an important conversation to have. All ages are welcome.

And now I leave you with the words of the wonderful Cristin Stickles, my partner-in-crime at McNally Jackson Books:

A great rule of thumb is to never trust someone who enjoyed middle school. It’s a miserable time for any halfway-decent human, that murky area between being a kid and a teenager, between Charlotte’s Web and The Outsiders, between elementary and high school.

The right books can be key to surviving this purgatory, but writing for the 11-14 year old set poses its a very unique set of hurdles. Join three authors who are up for the challenge in conversation about the not-so-wonder(ful) years and the books that can help kids get out (relatively) unscathed.

Join us, won’t you?

In Which I Update this Site with All the Greenglass News

Even before this year, I was a bad blogger. It’s not my thing to begin with, and then you add in a toddler, revisions, three works-in-progress, and making sure there are clean coffee cups in the house, and blogging really goes out the window. Seriously, if I have anything else to do, I do that first. And in the past couple of months, I have had a lot on my plate. But I really should’ve taken some time to post about at least some of it before now. So here’s my big news in brief:

In addition to being the winner of the Edgar Award for Juvenile Literature, long-listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, nominated for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and the Agatha Award for Best Children’s/Young Adult, and, oh yeah, hitting the New York Times Bestseller List, Greenglass House has been optioned for film by Paramount Pictures! 

Does this mean it’s definitely being made into a movie? No. But its chances are somewhat better than “vanishingly small,” which was my usual answer up until this week–the studio has to acquire the rights before they can greenlight the movie, although it is true that plenty of books are optioned that are never made into movies at all. So we have to just cross our fingers and wait. And before you ask, yes, if they do decide to make it, I hear they absolutely let the author of the source material cast the movie, so as soon as I decide who’s playing who I’ll let you know.

(You know that’s a joke, right? It’s not even close to true. It’s the opposite of true. It’s so not true it’s actually funny that I wrote it there.)

Here are some true things I can tell you. Firstly, I’m not adapting the screenplay. In my initial conversation with Ian Bryce, the producer, he was kind enough to ask if I wanted to be involved. I said yes, absolutely–except I didn’t want to adapt the screenplay, which I’m sure he was relieved to hear because what you really want in someone who’s going to adapt a novel into a film script is, well, someone who knows what they’re doing. Yes, I’ve written screenplays before. It’s in my bio. Here’s what my bio doesn’t say, but which I will freely admit to you here: I am not good at writing screenplays. For reals. I know my limitations, and I want this book to have the best possible shot at being the best possible movie. So a gent named Joe Ballarini is doing the adaptation, and I have every confidence that he’ll be awesome because of the second thing I can tell you, which is that I really loved what the producer, Ian, told me about what he wanted the movie to be, and this is the guy he picked to adapt the script that will anchor that movie. So hooray for Joe!

But to go back to the second thing, I really can’t emphasize enough how happy I was after talking with Ian about his vision for the movie. He hit all the points that you’d want to hear someone hit if you’ve read Greenglass House and had strong feelings about it. In fact, it was immediately and overwhelmingly clear that he himself had read the book and had strong feelings about it, and I think the best thing an author can hope for in someone who’s going to shepherd their work to a new phase of being is that that person is as passionate about it as the author is, and that you have the same vision for the story you’re telling.

When and if the project moves on to the next step, I’ll share what I can with you, but in the meantime, I’m long overdue for some celebrating, by which I mean a nap.

Your bad blogger pal,


Just One Reason Why THIS ONE SUMMER’s Caldecott Honor Matters A Lot

This year the Caldecott committee chose six honor books (and Milford Command Central favorite The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend for the medal HECK YEAH BEEKLE!!).

This year’s awards were Interesting, with a capital I, for many reasons. One of the big reasons, a huge surprise (and for some, a horror) of this year’s ALA announcements was the inclusion of This One Summer, a story of girls trying to navigate that awkward time when childhood fades and adolescence begins, as a Caldecott honoree.

Now, for those who stumbled here from Twitter or Facebook or whatever and might not know, I write middle grade fiction, and when not doing that, I’m a kids’ bookseller. I have a little bit of a specialty in picture books, due in part to my undying love for the form and in part to my almost 20-month-old son, Griffin, so I naturally have opinions on both the Newbery and the Caldecott, and from multiple points of view: author, bookseller, mom. But this one I have special feelings about–feelings strong enough to get me writing a blog post, which I haven’t done since, what, September or something?

Won’t somebody think of the children?

So first: the controversy, such as it is. This One Summer isn’t a picture book. It’s a graphic novel. And while it is intended for young readers, it’s not a book for young children–it touches on some fairly grownup themes. There seem to be some folks who are angered because This One Summer doesn’t fit the form, the demographic, or the subject parameters that seem to be called for in a book given the same honor that was bestowed on Anatole, If I Ran the Zoo, Madeline, and Blueberries for Sal.

I get it, people. It’s easy to be nostalgic about awards that have been around, it seems, since time immemorial. It’s easy to feel that there is a particular kind of book that deserves that kind of award, and to believe that the books that win it ought to evoke the same feelings, by and large, as the Caldecott winners of our childhoods. For something so unlike the rest to be chosen, a book that is so clearly more grown up and meant for an entirely different subset of readers, and a book that contains material guaranteed to make some adults twitchy on top of all that–of course that seems weird, if not actually inappropriate. For most adults, whether moms or dads or just nostalgic readers, the Caldecott means something very specific, something that belongs to the comforting world of little kids tucked in for one last story before bedtime. And yes, many of us in kidlit believe fervently that the ALA needs an award for graphic novels, but that’s neither here nor there.

Here’s my rebuttal, in two parts.

Part the first: we have to get over our “feelings” about what the Caldecott is for and read the actual rules.

If you go to the ALA’s Caldecott guidelines here on the Terms and Criteria page of the ALA/ALSC website, you find the following (emphases mine):

From the “Terms” section:

The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.

From the “Definitions” section:

  1. A “picture book for children” as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.
  2. A “picture book for children” is one for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered.
  3. “Distinguished” is defined as:
    1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    2. Marked by excellence in quality.
    3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    4. Individually distinct.

And from the “Criteria” section:

The only limitation to graphic form is that the form must be one which may be used in a picture book. The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound, film or computer program) for its enjoyment.

There’s more, of course, but by reading the actual rules that govern what is and is not eligible for a Caldecott Medal or Honor, we find that a graphic novel for any age would be squarely within bounds, and an illustrated work of any kind intended for a pre- or young teen audience is also squarely within bounds.

So if you have somehow formed an opinion that the Caldecott “ought” to be defined differently, I’m sorry, but it simply isn’t defined that way. Nobody changed or even bent the rules this year for This One Summer. The fact that books for older children aren’t honored as often doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be, if they are truly distinguished. The rules say unequivocally that they are to be considered. And isn’t that great? One of the most venerable awards out there is more inclusive than you thought. It recognizes that older kids also read visually and seek out visual storytelling experiences. I think that’s great. I think that’s incredibly important. More on that below.

Part the Second: Who’s thinking of the poor children that might accidentally pick this book up because it has a Caldecott sticker and be subjected to characters thinking and talking about things like (gasp) sex? 

Honestly, do you think booksellers and librarians are idiots and just because it has a Caldecott sticker we’re going to shelve This One Summer in with the picture books? No. It goes with the big kid books, and by big kid books, I mean the books we understand to be intended for kids in the 12 to 14 year-old range. (Where those books go is another issue, but let’s not get into that here.) Booksellers are not idiots, by and large; nor are librarians, teachers, or parents, generally speaking–nobody would pick This One Summer up and get confused about who it’s for. I mean, really. You cannot get confused. It is obviously not for six year olds. If you look at this book and think, wait, this looks like maybe it’s for older kids, maybe even teenagers, but it’s got a Caldecott sticker, so…I guess that means it is okay for my first grader…well then, respectfully, reader, you are at minimum having an idiot moment, and it’s not reasonable for the entire world to reconfigure itself so as to prevent anyone from ever doing a stupid thing during an idiot moment.

And that isn’t even to say it’s for all kids aged 12-14 or so, but it is for some of them, which gets into another sticky area, which is what I really want to talk about here. (I know, right? Talk about getting to the point way too late.)

Why it’s Really Important (to Me, Kate Milford, and Probably a Couple Other People) That This One Summer Won an Honor.

The sticky area I referred to just then is the question of whether you, dear horrified reader, think kids of this or any age ought to be reading books that acknowledge the presence in the world (and in their lives) of things that make you uncomfortable and wish they wouldn’t learn about until they were at least old enough to legally order a beer in a state that considers you a minor until age 35. Things like alcohol, for instance, or abuse, or sex, or violent death, or whatever. Fill in the blank with whatever you’re most upset by the idea of a thirteen year-old kid thinking about.

Do you believe books should be fundamentally positive and uplifting, improving children’s lives for a few stolen hours by removing them from reality and transporting them to a world where the dangers are few, the stakes low-to medium in height, love (if present at all) is chaste and fulfilled by a kiss on the cheek, the way forward is generally clear and uncomplicated, and good is guaranteed from page one to conquer all? Great. You have so many choices. Lots of kids would agree with you, and thank goodness there are so many wonderful books that can give them exactly that experience: a safe, soothing read. At age 38 I still have books I go to for this, and many of them are books I’ve been reading since age 10. But not everyone wants that from every book. Not every adult, and certainly not every kid.

Now, I and people much wiser than I, have written in other places about the importance of difficult and dark books for children–and for purposes of this post, let’s keep defining “children” the way the Caldecott does: up to about age 14. But here’s my thesis in brief: books give kids a chance to experience things they have questions or concerns about in a safe way, and in conditions they can choose to leave at any time, simply by closing the cover. You may not want to believe, as a parent, that your kids are experiencing or even thinking about things that make you uncomfortable, but the likelihood is that they are. Hopefully they’ll come talk to you if they have questions. I certainly hope my son will. But I also know not every kid does, despite the best intentions of his/her parents. Maybe they’ll talk to friends or older siblings, but maybe they’ll feel too awkward, in which case, thank goodness there are books that tell them they’re not alone in their questions and concerns and fears.

And guess what a really tough age for those kinds of questions and concerns and fears is? Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. This is why books for this age, and especially really wonderful, sensitive, occasionally challenging and uncomfortably realistic books, are critically important. Twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds might browse the middle grade section and find they want something that addresses the feelings and experiences they’re facing in their real lives a little better. Then they might go to the young adult section and browse and find they’re not quite there yet. Ages twelve to fourteen make up a really specific time in a kid’s life. It really is its own weird transition.

But guess what? It’s not only really hard to write a book with a kid in that transitional period, it’s incredibly hard to sell them. I think this is mostly because it’s really hard to know, as a publisher or bookseller, how to market them and where to shelve them. My second novel, The Broken Lands, suffered from this problem, but I was lucky and had an editor who bought it anyway and took a chance on the book finding its audience. I know plenty of authors, though, who either couldn’t sell books with protagonists in that 13-15 age range, or were asked/required to age them up or down to make the books more clearly MG or YA, and therefore easier to market.

But thirteen and fourteen and fifteen year old kids need books for them, too, and if they’re going to have them, we have to write them and publishers need to buy them. Bookstores and libraries need to make room for these transitional stories (although full disclosure: we tried a “tween” section at McNally Jackson for a year or so and it failed, largely, I think, due to the fact that no kid self-identifies as a tween because it sounds ridiculous, so it’s got to have a better name, whatever it is). And parents need to understand that difficult books–which stories for that age often are, because that age itself is difficult–may be uncomfortable, but may also be really important to young readers in their lives.

This One Summer is, in addition to being a truly distinguished book, a very brave one. Its protagonists are twelve (I think I’m right about that, but someone correct me if I’m mistaken), but reading about them is not at all the same experience as, for instance, reading about also-twelve Rosalind Penderwick. And this is good, because there is room and a need for both representations of twelve, since both kinds of twelve (and many others) exist in the real world. Maybe, hopefully, the Caldecott honor for This One Summer–an honor it absolutely deserves on the merits of its visual storytelling, which really is tremendous–will help us all embrace the importance of and need for books for stories like this, for readers of this age–that awkward 12-14 period. I hope so, anyway. 

*Edited to fix two typos and one instance of Rosalind/Rosamund character name confusion. -KM