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In Our Own Words

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

I get asked a lot about how difficult it was to write Personal Effects from the first person POV of a seventeen-year-old male.  I answer the question by talking about avoiding generalizations, by knowing your individual character, by knowing that we are all more alike than different, and that this seventeen-year-old male I know very well, etc. But the truth is, there was one aspect of writing Matt that I’ve been surprised, and saddened, to find was easier than my current project.

You see, Matt had a ready language for thinking about and relating to his body, and his body’s desires. Hard-on. Standing at attention. Dick. It felt easy and natural to go there in Matt’s POV. And few readers have commented critically about those words in the book, about the fact that Matt does react physically and respond physically to desire.

But my current project is from the first person POV of a girl. A queer girl. And I’ve discovered, to my frustration and anger, that it’s actually much more difficult to talk about her body, and her body’s desires, in ways that feel natural to her character (and her love interest’s character) and that feel readily accessible to the landscape of YA readers.

When I found myself stuck and looking for the words, I started pulling books off my bookshelves and scanning for the romantic scenes I remembered from prior readings (much like when I was an adolescent reader). I was shocked to find a complete lack of language for the female anatomy in all but one of the books I checked, and none at all during an intimate scene. Despite effective and appropriately done intimate scenes, none of these books actually used specific words to refer to the female anatomy below the waist. Almost none of them refer to the obvious reactions these female characters would be having to the scene, and none while the character was actually in the moment. Not one mention of words like slick and wet. No mentions of scent or taste.  And yes, it is YA, and there is a tendency to vague out the details and fade to black. But then there is Matt, and I found not one scene with the female-centric equivalent of Matt’s dick and hard-on. If our YA male characters are allowed their experiences of desire, it seems wrong that our female characters are not afforded that same personhood, the same standard.

So I am left with the quandary, as I write, later as I revise, when my characters are touching each other, what words will they use as they navigate the lines of desire and consent? What language will they use to talk about how it feels to be touched? What language will my character use in her own head as she is experiencing what it is like to touch and be touched?

We don’t filter ourselves in our heads. Matt didn’t. And I don’t think Bex would, or should, either.

But we live in a culture so uncomfortable with female desire and female anatomy that some think Anne Frank’s reactions to her own changing body as recorded in her diary are unsuitable for 7th or 8th grade students. (See, here and here). [Update!]  And others want to discipline a science teacher for, at least in part, using the word vagina in a high school science class while discussing human reproduction. (See, here).  So that we are clear, using the word vagina in a high school science class on human reproduction requires parental warning and a chance to opt your child out. And 7th and 8th graders learning about the holocaust is fine, but reading a reference to a girl’s thoughts on her own body, on her vagina, is inappropriate.

As a culture, we avoid the word vagina. We also lack the wide array of neutral and inoffensive slang terms that have been constructed for the male anatomy. Those slang terms we do have are a minefield of negativity and too often used against us as slurs. So, we avoid any specific language at all. We talk about “down there” or me or her, as if that is sufficient. As if we are the sum of our parts, or our parts defy discussion. And by avoiding specific, non-shameful words for our own bodies, we are complicit in the continued shaming of the female body.

Every human cis female, from birth, has a vagina. A clitoris. Labia. Her vulva will change over time, but it is there, from birth. From puberty on her body will indicate arousal in specific, organic ways. In beautiful ways. Our natural reactions are not shameful. Neither are our bodies.

I don’t know where my book will end up. I don’t even know if there will be romantic scenes in the final version. And if there are, what words Bex will use. I will try very hard not to judge her, not to filter her, to allow her to have the same freedom of expression and existence as Matt.

But as I write it I realize just how far we have to go before women and girls will truly exist in this world with the same levels of confidence and self-possession and freedom as men and boys.

When the body you are born with is so shameful as to even lack terminology –- when it is that-which-can-not-be-named – we have a very, very long way to go.

Poison is Here!

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

In 2007, when I was just starting to think about writing a YA novel, with maybe the farfetched hope of someday being a published author, a moment of generosity and friendship changed my life for the better. My writing life and my non-writing life.

I had met Bridget Zinn, but we were not yet friends. When Bridget heard I was starting to write a YA novel she invited me to join the novel writing group she was in with fellow SCBWI-WI writers. I still have her email inviting me to join – and when I re-read it earlier tonight I was again struck by Bridget’s ability to make even very scary things sound like happy, soon-to-be-fun opportunities.  I was terrified of committing to such a serious step toward being a writer, and I was even more anxious about sharing my fledgling writing. But Bridget’s invitation left little room for my doubts and fears, and I accepted. The members of that novel writing group have become important, supportive writing friends.

As is often the case in critique groups, Bridget and I were writing very different books. I was working on Personal Effects, and much of the story really bummed Bridget out. She wasn’t shy about telling me so. There were many sad faces in the margins of Bridget’s critiques, and she often asked why Matt’s father in particular had to be so mean. Even so, Bridget’s critiques were full of thoughtful and insightful comments and suggestions. She forced me to ask tough questions about my story and her critiques helped me improve as a writer.

Bridget was working on Poison. I still remember reading the first bit of Poison, a draft of her first chapter, main character Kyra scaling the side of a house, her potions at the ready. This world Bridget had created, this strong female potioner and her quest to save the kingdom, even if it meant she had to kill her best friend the princess to do so, intrigued and amused me. It was a story full of quirks and twists and turns. And laughter. I laughed many times while critiquing it, for all the right reasons. The first time I encountered Rosie, the pig who would aid Kyra in her search for the princess, I actually had to put the submission down, wrap my head around a magical search pig, and then continue. I still smile, remembering Bridget’s very earnest explanations, including pantomimes, of several plot points involving Rosie.

Bridget and I were on parallel publishing paths, with her about eight months ahead of me in signing with an agent and then landing her book deal. After Bridget moved to Portland, we continued to critique for each other and support each other through email and phone. After Bridget was diagnosed with cancer and in between treatments when she felt well enough to work (and even sometimes when she didn’t), we would talk revisions or sticky plot points or about the publishing process outside the writing. Even when she was too sick to work, she would ask about me, and about Personal Effects, and offer insights, support and suggestions. She remained positive and determined, even when talking about her frustrations.

We would have been Apocalypsies together, as both Poison and Personal Effects were scheduled to be 2012 debuts. It would have been the perfect way to debut, together. But in 2011 Bridget lost her battle with cancer. So, today, I celebrate with, and for, Bridget.

Poison officially debuts today. I am thrilled it is finally here, and hope those missing Bridget today will channel any sadness into celebration – preferably with multiple kinds of cake as Bridget would have wanted.

Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction—which means she’s the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom’s future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend.

But, for the first time ever, her poisoned dart…misses.

Now a fugitive instead of a hero, Kyra is caught in a game of hide-and-seek with the king’s army and her potioner ex-boyfriend, Hal. At least she’s not alone. She’s armed with her vital potions, a too-cute pig, and Fred, the charming adventurer she can’t stop thinking about. Kyra is determined to get herself a second chance (at murder), but will she be able to find and defeat the princess before Hal and the army find her?

Kyra is not your typical murderer, and she’s certainly no damsel-in-distress—she’s the lovable and quick-witted hero of this romantic novel that has all the right ingredients to make teen girls swoon.


Bridget was maybe the most positive, sunny person I have ever known, and I see so much of her in the finished pages of Poison. I can’t wait for readers to fall in love with Bridget’s world, with Kyra and Rosie and Fred, with the adventures and twists and turns of Poison.

Bridget’s friendship was a gift to me. And her book is a gift for readers hungry for light-hearted adventure and a smart girl who trusts her instincts  – and a magical pig  – in a quest to do what she believes to be right.

Kirkus called Poison “a frothy confection of a fairy tale . . . Good silly fun—a refreshing antidote to a genre overflowing with grit and gloom.”

You can purchase a copy of Poison, for yourself or a young reader in your life, at the usual places, including:

Barnes & Noble
iTunes Bookstore
Powell’s Books

If you’re on Goodreads, add Poison to your shelf!

There are a number of online and in person celebrations being planned to continue to spread our love and celebration for Bridget and Poison. You can learn the latest events and news at Bridget’s website. You can also follow more stops in the Poison blog tour, join in a live video chat release celebration, Tuesday, March 12, 8:30 pm EDT, or help spread the word on Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter (hashtag #Poison).

Bridget’s last tweet before she died was “Sunshine and a brand new book. Perfect.” Today may not be sunny where you are, but I hope you are warmed by Bridget’s story and that you find a brand new book to brighten your day.



Thursday, January 31st, 2013

It has been a wonderful week and a half for Personal Effects.

I received word last week that Personal Effects has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2013, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council. The list will be published in the NCSS magazine in May. I’ll add a link to the 2013 list when it becomes available online, but the lists for 2000-2012 are available here.

Monday morning I awoke to the news that Personal Effects was selected for The 2013 Rainbow List (a joint project of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table and the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association).  I have eagerly anticipated the Rainbow List every year, and seeing Personal Effects included this year with so many of my favorite 2012 books was thrilling!

And today brought more good news. Personal Effects was selected for YALSA’s 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults list, again, among so many of my favorite books of 2012, and the audio book was named a 2013 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Top Ten (Thank you, to the supremely-talented Nick Podehl, who infused Personal Effects with audio-book life)!

Seeing Personal Effects be published, seeing it reach readers and inspire blog posts and emails, has been an amazing ride. This recognition is the icing on the cake.

Thank you to my Upstart Crow, Candlewick and Brilliance Audio families! Hip-hip hooray!




Blogging At The Pirate Tree!

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

I’m thrilled to announce I’ll be blogging once a month over at The Pirate Tree, a collective of children’s and young adult writers interested in literature for youth and social justice issues. My first post is up today, a review of the fantastic Ask The Passengers, by A.S. King.

I’m also deep into the drafting process on my next book, and I hope to be able to share more about it in the near future. So, watch this space for my usual sporadic posts of news, events and random observations.

Happy 2013!


The YAmazing Race with MGnificent Prizes (Fall Edition)

Sunday, October 21st, 2012


The Race is done! Thank you to those who raced, and good luck to all who entered!

Check the Apocalypsies Blog for the announcement of prize pack winners. Winner of the audio book will be announced here tonight! 


Welcome to the Personal Effects stop on the YAmazing Race with MGnificent prizes!

Below you will find all the information you need to answer the Personal Effects quiz question at the end of this leg of the YAmazing Race. (A hard copy of Personal Effects will be in one of the prize packs!). PLUS, you can enter a bonus contest right here for an audio book of Personal Effects!

(If you landed here by accident, go to the kickoff post at The Apocalypsies Blog, read the complete rules, and start the race from the beginning. There are four legs in the Race. You don’t need to complete all four legs to be eligible to win a prize pack, but you do need to complete all the hops in each leg to be able to enter to win the prize pack for that leg. Confused? Go to the start and read the complete instructions there.)

Now, on to the race!

by E. M. Kokie (Candlewick Press, September 2012)
From Goodreads:

After his older brother dies in Iraq, Matt makes a discovery that rocks his beliefs about strength, bravery, and honor in this page-turning debut.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, Matt feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. T.J.’s gone, but Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on his brother’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. But as Matt searches for answers about T.J.’s death, he faces a shocking revelation about T.J.’s life that suggests he may not have known T.J. as well as he thought. What he learns challenges him to stand up to his father, honor his brother’s memory, and take charge of his own life. With compassion, humor, and a compelling narrative voice, E. M. Kokie explores grief, social mores, and self-discovery in a provocative first novel.

And here’s the latest review (A Star!): “In an outstanding debut, Kokie tackles the tumultuous aftermath of a soldier’s death, as seen through the eyes of a sibling left behind. . . . Through raw moments and strikingly mature characterizations, Kokie explores loss, personal relationships, and the burden of preconceptions.” - Starred Review, Publishers Weekly (Read the full review)

Got all that? Feeling lucky? Want a HINT? (Of course you do: take a second look at the cover).

Now, BEFORE YOU MOVE ON, you can enter to win an audiobook of Personal Effects right here!
It’s easy!  Just leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered to win!*

(* Race Prize Pack Winners will be posted on the Apocalypsies Blog as soon as possible after the close of the Race.  The winner of the Personal Effects audiobook will be announced here as soon as possible after the close of the Race.  If you want to be notified by email, twitter, FaceBook, etc., leave your contact info in your comment.)

Ready to move on?  Then go to Kathleen Peacock’s website, the next stop on this leg of the Race!

Good luck, and happy racing!

Note: The YAmazing Race will run from Monday, October 22nd at approximately noon EST through Monday, October 29th at noon EST.

PS:  It has been a crazy, amazing time since Personal Effects launched. I hope to do a great big launch round up post soon, as soon as I catch my breath. But in the meantime, thank you to everyone who has helped make this such an amazing time. And special thanks to those who have reader Personal Effects, and especially those who have taken the time to write and post a review. I greatly appreciate all of your support.