For Writers

Interview with Hillary Homzie, author of The Hot List

Welcome! We’re excited to celebrate the book release of one of our very own members—Hillary Homzie’s The Hot List published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X launched March 8!

Spring is the perfect pub date for The Hot List because the weather is starting to heat up and that means summer is around the corner. We think this book is so fun (secret lists, crushes, crazy boys named Squid, and a bet) and will resonate so strongly with tweens (cafeteria real estate changes, bff heartbreak and maybe some healing), that we’re recommending it as a beach bring-along. Booklist said that The Hot Listcaptures the angst of young teen friendships and fragile identities.”

We caught up with Hillary for an interview and a bonus—a giveaway of a signed copy of The Hot List! Leave a comment to be entered! The winner will be announced Tuesday, April 19.

From the jacket flap:

Sophie Fanuchi and Maddie Chen have always been BFFs. Then Maddie starts hanging out with Nia Tate—CEO of the popular girls (a.k.a. the “pops”) and daughter of Sophie’s father’s new girlfriend. Soon it seems like Nia has replaced Sophie in the bestie category—and Sophie can feel Maddie slipping away.

As Sophie and Maddie’s friendship continues to unravel, Sophie impulsively makes a bet with Nia. The Mission? Get Squid Rodriguez, perhaps the geekiest, un-Hot-List-worthy boy at Travis, on the list in one month. Can Sophie turn this nottie into a hottie and win back her friendship with Maddie?

Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files, Hillary! Why did you decide to make this story for middle grade readers?

A couple of years ago, a sixth grader told me about a mysterious hot list, as in a list of all the hottest kids in the sixth grade, that was kept up in the girl’s bathroom. Somehow the students knew about the list and managed to secretly maintain it, even when the custodial staff would wipe it away. I felt like, yes, I can grow that situation into a book, if I can figure out why a girl would start a Hot List. I wanted there to be a deeper reason than because she was thinking about who’s cute in seventh grade. And I discovered it was because Sophie, my protagonist, felt as if she needed to do something cool and exciting in order to reel in her best friend Maddie, who was drifting away and beginning to explore new friendships.

Can you share an excerpt from the book that gives us a flavor of your character’s voice? How did you find your character’s voice?

in the pit of my stomach I knew it was bad. Like wearing-pajamas-to-class-to-start-a-new-fashion-trend bad. I mean, what was I thinking?—announcing to the world who was hot and who wasn’t. That might have been text-bloggy material for someone like Nia and her crew, but I should’ve known better—those lists were meant to be secret. Instead, I ignored the flip-floppy, squeezy-icky feeling inside and kept on writing. “Guard the door,” I whispered to Maddie. At least I had the sense to be paranoid about someone catching me. What I should’ve been paying attention to who was about to be leaving my life for good.

I found Sophie’s voice by interviewing her and asking her questions. I let her speak for herself. When I tried to impose a voice it didn’t work. At one point, I tried to make her more of a fashionista. A little more attitude-y. But that wasn’t Sophie. She’s smart, athletic, but doesn’t like to be the center of attention, which becomes a real problem.

Why did you choose the setting of your story?

In my last book for tween girls, THINGS ARE GONNA GET UGLY (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X, 2009), I set the novel in Menlo Park, CA because that’s where I lived when I was 13, the same age as Taffeta Smith, my protagonist. In THE HOT LIST, I wanted to set the novel some place different but some place that I had a connection to. I was born in Denver, so I decided I would find a town in Colorado. At first, I was going to set THE HOT LIST in Denver but I decided that Sophie wasn’t an urban dweller. I looked around Denver and, ultimately, decided on Boulder because it was a college town. I grew up in Charlotesville, Va., another college town and it felt familiar to me.

Who is the editor of this book? How many rounds of revision did you make? What was the most illuminating part of the revision process for you?

I was double lucky as I had an editing duo–Liesa Abrams, Executive Editor, Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X Books and Alyson Heller, assistant editor, Simon & Schuster/ Aladdin M!X. There was one major revision, for which I’m grateful. I had gone a little off course, giving too much play to a secondary character, Squid. Okay, a lot off course. Liesa and Alyson steered me back to a shore. I refocused on the friendship between Sophie and Maddie as the emotional core of the novel. It’s a much better book because of that. After my big revision, they asked only for small line changes, which made my day. Week. Okay, maybe a year. The most illuminating part of the revision process for me was to remember that a book is ultimately about a character and her relationships. That having a cool hook/premise is not enough. We need to care about the protagonist’s emotional journey, even when the book is intended to be a fun, yet resonant romp.

Was there a teacher or librarian in your childhood who inspired or empowered you to be a writer?

Two actually. My second grade teacher Mrs. McCrone wrote a letter to me. And in that letter, she said, “You are a writer.” I had always been an avid reader, but from that moment on, I thought of myself as a writer. Then when my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Casey, wrote in my middle school yearbook that I was a future writer.  Well, after that the author bug wouldn’t let go. I definitely blame Mrs. McCrone and Mrs. Casey for encouraging me.

Thank you, Hillary, and we know you’re having a wonderful Book Release Month!

Readers, we hope you enjoyed the interview!

If you’d like to a chance to win a copy of Hillary’s new book, make sure you post in the comments section. Tweets and Facebook and Blog posts earn you more entries. The winner will be announced Tuesday!

Hillary has been celebrating the launch of her newest book FOR SEVERAL WEEKS and today she’s taking the party here so leave questions; she’ll answer, and let’s have some fun!

There’s a HUGE list mania party happening at Hillary’s blog, too. If you want a chance to win a fabulous prize package, go to her blog and leave a comment!

And for those who want to see more, here’s the very fun book trailer.


Don’t forget to check out The Hot List at IndieBound or your favorite bookstore.

Enjoy Hillary’s great website, which is also full of helpful writer advice, and don’t forget to check out her school visit page so you can learn how Hillary can visit your school!

Hillary Homzie is the author of the tween novels, The Hot List (S&S 2011) and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (S&S 2009), as well as the comedic chapter book series Alien Clones From Outer Space (S&S), which is being made into an animated television series.  During the summers, Hillary teaches in the graduate program in children’s writing at Hollins University. She’s a master teacher and loves to visit schools and speak at conferences, libraries and festivals. A former sketch comedy performer in NYC, Hillary currently lives with her family in Northern California.


The Great Wall of Lucy Wu Interview and Giveaway!!

Today we are celebrating the release of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, the debut novel of Mixed-Up File member Wendy Shang.  Lucy Wu thinks she’s about to have the perfect year, with the imminent departure of her annoying big sister from their shared bedroom and the prospects of an excellent basketball season.  When her father announces that a long-lost aunt from China is coming to visit (and that Lucy needs to go to Chinese school), Lucy thinks her “perfect” year is ruined, but discovers that she can create something better instead.

Susan Carpenter of the Los Angeles Times wrote in her review, “A delightful story about assimilation and family dynamics, “The Great Wall of Lucy Wu” is sure to appeal to young readers struggling with issues of self-identity, whatever their heritage.”

Tell us a little about your title.  What is the “great wall” of Lucy Wu?

The title came from a line in the book – a friend suggested I use it.  When Lucy finds out that she has to share her room with her great-aunt, she decides to divide the room in half.  But the real wall in the book is Lucy’s initial refusal to let herself get close to her great-aunt.

How long did you work on the book?

I worked on the book for almost two years.  I developed several chapters in a writer’s workshop, but then on my own, I fumbled around a bit.  Around that time, I received a Work-in-Progress grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and it really motivated me. In addition to giving me a boost of confidence, I realized I had been acting as though I wasn’t planning to finish the book, and I had to change my attitude.  I set a deadline, and really pushed myself to meet it.

Is there any particular aspect to writing that you enjoyed in particular?

Oh yes – more than one.  When I started writing the book, I was a stay-at-home mom with three kids under the age of 6.  It was an intense time, from a motherhood perspective.  Writing gave me an outlet for being my own person again.  And when I joined a critique group, it was like finding my tribe.

Writing The Great Wall of Lucy Wu also gave me a chance to talk to my own parents about our family history and draw out their experiences.  I hope this book encourages readers to find out their own family stories and ask lots of questions.

Can you talk a little about the Chinese proverbs you use in the book?

After college, I lived in Taiwan for several months, and as part of studying Chinese, I learned some Chinese idioms.  As I was writing the book, I thought it might be fun to employ some Chinese idioms in the story.  My favorite one was called the old man lost his horse, which says that events that appear to be good luck or bad luck are often quite the opposite.  For a first-time writer, this device was a great way to help structure the story.  When things started looking too bad (or good) for Lucy, I knew it was time to switch things up!

Now, we understand that you’re a fan of the Bravo show, Inside the Actor’s Studio?

Yee-e-s?  (Begins patting hair, looks around for host James Lipton.)

Would you like to take the Inside the Actor’s Studio famous questionnaire, middle-grade style?

Oh yes!  Bring it on!

What is your favorite word in a middle grade book?

I recently read Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and she is a master of beautiful and unusual words and phrases.  She used the word “dovecote,” which has been stuck in my head ever since.  It’s the long O sounds joined together, plus the idea of a building just for doves and pigeons.  Try it out one day when your brain needs a tickle.  Dovecote, dovecote, dovecote.

What is your least favorite word in a middle grade book?

The word “worthless” just came to mind.  I don’t associate this word with any particular book, but I think it goes against the middle-grade ethos of showing children that their lives and the lives of those around them, in whatever condition, are precious and meaningful.

What turns you on in a middle grade book?

I’m such a sucker for a terrific ending, and conversely, an otherwise great book with a so-so ending is a terrible disappointment.  Al Capone Does My Shirts has one of my favorite endings, I think – it’s so pitch perfect and satisfying.  I wrote the ending to The Great Wall of Lucy Wu when I was maybe 60-70% through the manuscript – it just came to me one day, and I wrote it down before I could forget it.

What turns you off in a middle grade book?

I don’t like it when children are “surprise” adopted at the end of a book or movie.  I have been a Court-Appointed Special Advocate on behalf of children in the foster care system, and that is not how it works.  Children have a voice in the process.

What sound or noise do you love in a middle grade book?

I love it when characters have time to slow down and pay attention to the sounds around them.  I think children are in such a hurry these days (including my own).  There’s a scene where Lucy can hear the sounds of a basketball practice before she can see the practice itself, and I wrote it to show how fully engaged Lucy feels when she is near a basketball court.

What sound or noise do you hate in a middle grade book?

Screeching brakes.  I’m a mom – please, no car accidents!

What is your favorite curse word in a middle grade book?

Of course, swearing is always a little dicey in middle grade books. (See this great Mixed-Up Files entry by Brian Kell on swearing in middle-grade books here.)  Go over the line and you might end up in YA!  I’ll give Lenore Look props for making Shakespearean-style swearing popular in her adorable Alvin Ho books.  Bootless toad-spotted bladder!

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

You wouldn’t know it to look at my house, but I love the *idea* of being a professional organizer.  I think it’s the equipment – I love any kind of bag or box with compartments, slots and pockets.

What profession would you not like to do?

I would not like to be one of those people who denies health insurance coverage to sick people.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

How about a sequel?

Thanks, Wendy!  And now, for a chance to win an ARC of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, please leave a comment below by answering your favorite Inside the Actor’s Studio (middle-grade style!) question.  Bonus entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter (please mention each link in a new comment).  The lucky winner will be announced on Thursday! If you want to learn more about The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, the blog tour continues to National Book Award winner Kathy Erskine’s blog tomorrow in two parts (here and here), and then the blog of the fabulous Madelyn Rosenberg on Thursday.

Psst… Pass it on! The Power of Word of Mouth and MG Books

Just the other day I was enjoying a delightful scoop of ice cream at a breezy cafe here in Barbados when I saw something that made me shudder and nearly drop my cone on the tile floor…

A Silly Bandz.

I have to admit, I was sure (ahem, hoped), I’d left this fad far behind when my family departed the States last summer. (Now, just in case you’ve been living under a rock the last year, Silly Bandz are those annoyingly cute little rubber band bracelets shaped like guitars, unicorns, French fries, your Aunt Gertrude.) What is amazing about these things is that without one lick of advertising, they’ve become an international craze — creeping up the arms of elementary, middle and even high-schoolers, wrapping themselves around vacuum cleaner brushes, hiding themselves in couch cushions, terrorizing teachers and essentially threatening world domination. Pretty soon we won’t be able to see our children anymore. They will just be walking wads of silicone.

Scary, huh?

So now that you’re stuck hiding in the corner, you may wonder what on earth some innocuous palm-tree shaped bracelet on the arm of a ‘tween in Bim has to do with MG books? (And if maybe poor Jan needs to spend a little less time in the sun.)

Well, just take a look at this nifty little graph that charts book awareness by generation, courtesy of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab and the Publishing Trends newsletter:

Yep, more than any other generation, kids rely on word of mouth to learn about books.

Now, let’s take a look again at our friend the Silly Bandz. No Super Bowl commercials. No flashing displays in the front of Toys R’ Us. Hannah Montana doesn’t hawk them. Still, I dare you to find a kid who doesn’t know what they are. And lest you think this is just a phenomena of the internet age, to all those readers above the age of thirty I have two words:

Remember Mikey?

Yes, Mikey was that kid from the Life cereal commercials. The one who would eat anything (or was it nothing — I don’t remember?). Doesn’t matter, because Mikey’s next meal was a fateful combination of Pop Rocks and soda. And if you happened to be a kid on the playground in 1981, you know precisely what happened next.

He exploded.

Now, although this rumor has been proven untrue (Mikey allegedly lives in New York, where he is said to be, of all things, an advertising executive), I have yet to meet anyone my age who wasn’t utterly convinced of his horrifying demise back when they were eleven. No matter if they came from California, Minnesota, Mars — we all heard exactly the same story. And, mind you, this was back in the day when we relied on tin can and string for communication. Yet somehow, this rumor traveled far and wide enough that the makers of Pop Rocks actually took out full-page newspaper ads to proclaim the undisputed safety of crackling sugar crystals. Dentists worldwide recoiled.

So while the method and speed at which information travels may have changed, one thing hasn’t — the power of the Kid Network. And if we want our words to reach the broadest audience, it’s best to understand this elusive beast known as word of mouth and how it relates to children’s books.

(Now excuse me while I switch from my writer’s hat to my old PR and Marketing one, aka any excuse to post a picture of Jon Hamm…)

Anyway, back in business school we learned all about the Four Ps of marketing (product, price, placement, promotion). Here, I present Jan’s Four Bs of book marketing:

Be Knowledgeable

It’s a well-documented fact that the Kid Network operates on its own frequency. Need proof? Just ask an eight-year-old boy to explain Pokemon to you. After countless hours listening to my own son detail the difference between a Pikachu and a Raichu, I’ve become convinced that a synapse in the brain disconnects some time after age fourteen, rendering such distinctions incomprehensible.

But as children’s book writers, readers and promoters, it’s our job to reattach that synapse. We have to know what makes our audience tick. Not only must we remember what it was like to be a kid — we need to understand what kids are like today. How do they talk to each other? What are their dreams, hopes, fears? What are the books they read — and re-read and read yet again? What do they want to read more of? Some great ideas here on the Files about getting in touch with your inner kid and observing real-life specimens in action.

Be Connected

In his fascinating book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell details how trends spread much like epidemics. A key group in this process are the “connectors” — those influential people who know everyone. A prime example, Gladwell posits — Paul Revere. Every school kid knows of Revere and his midnight ride through the streets of Boston. What they don’t know is that another man made a similar ride. That’s because Revere’s call to arms was more successful — due in large part, Gladwell says, to the fact he was well-connected and knew exactly which doors to rattle to elicit the most support.

For the professional writer and book-lover, there are ample opportunities out there to get connected — blogs, Twitter, Facebook, the Blueboards, school visits, Skype chats, conferences. The KidLit community is an amazing one (which, admittedly, I am still finding my own way around). Now this doesn’t mean just go out and Tweet endlessly about what you ate for breakfast or slap up a web page and call it a day. It’s about getting to know other people in the community — making connections, cheering on your fellow authors, sharing information, giving back to your readers. Find your niche. Just don’t be a shill. Be genuine. Be respectful. Be interested and interesting. Your reach will grow naturally.

Be Patient

Overnight successes very rarely happen overnight. And so it is with word of mouth. Agent Kristin Nelson posted a very interesting discussion on her blog about client Ally Carter’s rise to the New York Times bestseller list… a mere TWO YEARS after her book debuted. And there’s probably not a writer alive that doesn’t know the story of Harry Potter’s multiple rejections, discovery by the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s chairman, modest advance and first print run… and well, we all know what happened next. While word of mouth no doubt drove sales of the books, that buzz couldn’t have happened without the last, most important B of all:

Be Unique… aka Find Your Inner Unicorn

Rubber band bracelets have been around forever… heck, I had an armful of them a la Madonna back in 1984. But it took one guy to look at a bracelet and say, “hmmm… what if that thing turned into a unicorn when you took it off?” … and a new trend was born. There are also countless tales of orphans who save the world, good guys who battle evil, kids navigating boarding school… yet, J.K. Rowling created magic when she introduced a certain boy wizard with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead.

So, what is your inner unicorn? What makes your character, your story, you special? If you can’t name it, go back to the drawing board. And no, I don’t think this means your main character needs to fly or have a dragon as a sidekick. Look at the Wimpy Kid series. Greg Heffley is a regular kid… who wraps himself in toilet paper when he gets chilled at the pool. I don’t know a single nine-year-old who doesn’t find that hysterical.

The key is that every story, every character, every word that resonates with readers ultimately has that special something — that extra spark that makes an old story new, a tired idea fresh.

And maybe — just maybe — becomes the Next Big Thing.

Jan Gangsei is a former journalist, PR and communications specialist who would love to create the next big thing (although she’d be happy just making kids laugh with her books). She’d love to hear your ideas on writing and promoting children’s literature. And if you have any suggestions for disentangling a Silly Bandz from the vacuum, she’s all ears.