The 14-Year-Old Middle Grade Protagonist

I came across Dianne K. Salerni’s  post about the “awkwardness” of having a fourteen-year-old main character in a novel for young people, and it struck a chord because, well, my main character is fourteen years old. Why is a fourteen-year-old protagonist troublesome? It boils down to an issue of category: there is middle grade (MG), for children ages 8 to 12 (or 10 to 14, on the upper end), and there is young adult (YA), for children/teens ages 12 to 18 (or 14 to 18, on the upper end). Additionally, children tend to like to read about characters a bit older than them. A book with a fourteen-year-old main character occupies an ambiguous position between MG and YA. Thirteen-year-old characters belong squarely in MG and fifteen-year-old characters in YA (I’m simplifying, of course, because the nature of the story and the book’s tone matter too), but fourteen-year-old characters? Unclear. The reason category matters is because bookstores have to shelve books somewhere. Ms. Salerni cites Barnes & Noble in particular and explains that she aged her main character down to thirteen from fourteen to make her novel unambiguously MG.

So, in Sparkers, Marah is fourteen. And for a long time, I actually considered my book YA. It wasn’t until I went on submission to publishers that I discovered it was being positioned as MG. I completely agreed with the reasoning, but I had to shift my conception of my novel a little bit. I’m actually happy Sparkers was declared MG because it inspired me to venture back into the children’s section of the library. I’ve since read many wonderful MG books I might not have read had my own book not been placed in that category.

Marah is fourteen for the very simple reason that I was fourteen when I started writing her story. (When I was younger, all my main characters were the same age as me.) Ms. Salerni brings up the fact that fourteen-year-olds (in the U.S.) are typically freshmen in high school, and high school students generally can’t be the protagonists of MG novels. When I began Sparkers, I was fourteen and in 9th grade, but I was still in middle school because of the way my school district split up the grades into buildings. Moreover, I had just come back from a semester in Paris, where the division of years was the same: I had been in 3ème, the fourth and final year of collège (middle school). The Ashari school system was directly inspired by my experiences in France, so of course Marah, despite being fourteen, is not yet in what we would call high school.

Like Ms. Salerni, I was asked on multiple occasions to change Marah’s age. Early on, I was advised to raise her age to fifteen because she sounded older than the text said she was. A little later, it was suggested that I reduce her age to thirteen because her story was that of someone younger. At this point, I threw up my hands and just made Marah fourteen again, like she’d been from the beginning.

Much later, my editor told me that Barnes & Noble (them again!) was concerned that Marah’s age made her too old for the store’s MG section. She asked how I’d feel about aging Marah down to thirteen. She gave me the option of keeping her age where it was, though, and that’s what I decided to do.

I find the desire to avoid fourteen-year-old characters a bit strange. I understand that fourteen straddles the boundary between MG and YA, but, after all, readers’ ages form a continuous distribution, so shouldn’t characters’ ages? If at some age children like to read about twelve-year-olds and at another age they like to read about sixteen-year-olds, there must be an age at which they like to read about fourteen-year-olds, right? It would be beyond weird if there simply were no fourteen-year-old protagonists in literature for young people.

In the end, I think it’s the individual character and their story, not their age, that determines a book’s categories. There are adult novels with child narrators. Penelope Lumley, the main character in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, is fourteen or fifteen, but those books are definitely young MG. If memory serves, the main character in The Miseducation of Cameron Post is fourteen for much of the book, but that novel is undoubtedly YA. So instead of considering fourteen a difficult age (in terms of categorization), maybe we should consider it a versatile age.

The 25th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention


The day after my Twin Cities launch party for Sparkers, I attended the 25th Annual Minnesota State Sacred Harp Convention. The timing of my trip home couldn’t have been better. The convention was held at The Landing, an outdoor museum that recreates a 19th century settlement on the Minnesota River. It’s very picturesque. There are charming preserved houses and buildings, vegetable gardens, apple trees, and a river overlook. We sang in the Town Hall.


The Town Hall

I was called to lead during the second session of the morning. The arranging committee member introduced me, saying, “We welcome Eleanor Glewwe back from Los Angeles, CA. Ask her about her new novel, out on Tuesday!” With that, it was in to the center of the square with me. I led 501 O’Leary, for rather specific reasons. It was composed in the year of my birth by Ted Mercer, a singer from Chicago who was at the convention. It’s named for the O’Leary family, who live in the Los Angeles area. Finally, I like the tune and the text, especially the lines “How will my heart endure / The terrors of that day” (I mean, it’s about Judgment Day, but I think you can sing those words about any day you’re feeling trepidatious about). Later, a singer came up to me and said how fitting it was that I’d led O’Leary, since I’d come to the convention from Los Angeles and since Ted Mercer was in the room. She said she loved it when she could figure out why a leader had chosen a particular song. Also, Ted Mercer came up to me and asked if I’d sung with the O’Learys (I have).


The Minnesota River

The singing was fantastic, and there were a number of illustrious figures in attendance, including Judy Hauff of Chicago, who basically wrote all my favorite songs in the book (perhaps it’d be more correct to say all four of her songs are among my favorites), and Mike Hinton of Texas, the current president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. I also got to hang out with a number of young singers I don’t see very often. And the setting was just so idyllic: blue sky, autumn sunshine, painted wooden houses with porches…


Since the arranging committee had told people to ask me about my book, well, they did. And this is where things got interesting. During one of the morning breaks, across the refreshments table (and what refreshments they were! Sparkling apple cider and basil-infused lemonade!), a woman asked me if I was “that science fiction writer”. Later, someone asked me if I was the one who’d written that book about “a woman who is a robot” (or something like that). I knew at once who they were mistaking me for. What they imagined was very flattering and very wrong.

There is a Sacred Harp singer from Missouri named Ann Leckie who wrote a science fiction novel called Ancillary Justice (the sequel, Ancillary Sword, came out yesterday). I read it earlier this year on the enthusiastic recommendation of a good friend, and I thought it was amazing. But you don’t have to take my word for it: Ancillary Justice won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Hugo Award (among other honors). In other words, Ann Leckie is a big deal.

I was tickled that other singers thought I was Ann Leckie, particularly because I had actually been hoping that Ann Leckie would be at the Minnesota convention. Missouri isn’t that far from Minnesota, and in fact there were other Missouri singers there. Moreover, Ms. Leckie was going to be at the Heartland Fall Forum (a regional trade show) in Minneapolis on October 1st, so she conceivably could have combined convention and author appearance in one trip. I had imagined accosting her at dinner on the grounds, reaching across a picnic table laden with kale salads and baked pasta dishes to shake her hand and asking her for her autograph. Alas, it was not to be.


The church

The convention was wonderful all the same. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first day, but I made it to the evening social in St. Paul, where there was more food, including a delicious bread pudding (in two versions, with and without raisins!). I overheard someone say they thought about bringing a kale salad but knew there would already be at least three, so they didn’t. More people asked me about my book. And I learned that there’s now a (small) Georgian choir in the Twin Cities!


Singers mingling–look closely for some nice beards

A last word about funny Sacred Harp texts: When singing 280 Westford, we came to this line that I always forget about until I sing it again. I have to struggle not to laugh every time. It’s this: “Blest Jesus, what delicious fare!” Whenever I get to those words, they sound to me like, “Jesus, yum!” (I know. You’re thinking of communion. That is not the context. At least, I don’t think so.) That line might be the most amusing one in the book, outside the temperance song, which is impossible to sing without laughing. But that’s a song for another day…

Sparkers Launch Party at Red Balloon

Today is the official publication day of Sparkers! It’s out in the world. It’s hard to believe this day has finally arrived, and yet today also feels like any other day. I’m grateful to everyone who has taught me, advised me, cheered me on, and kept me company along the way.

Last Friday, I had my launch party at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the children’s bookstore where I met Eoin Colfer when I was in middle school. During my volunteer year, I lived in the neighborhood and loved being able to walk to Red Balloon whenever I wanted. It was a dream come true to have the Sparkers release party there.

A lovely crowd came out to celebrate with me, including much of my extended family, several of my high school friends, parents and siblings of high school friends who have left the Twin Cities, some of my parents’ friends, my 7th and 12th grade English teachers, my 5th, 9th, and 11th grade French teacher (and her friends from France!), a bunch of church members, two of my Beth Shalom housemates, my former boss at the interfaith advocacy organization, a bunch of my former colleagues from the non-profit/advocacy world, and my cello teacher. I was touched by everyone’s support and enthusiasm.

And now, a few photos from the party…




Me with books!


Red Balloon ordered this gorgeous cake, complete with edible glitter and a frosting violin


Me talking (and note Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen’s The Dark!)

friends in the audience

Friends, teachers, coworkers!


Hoping I’ve developed a consistent signature…


I’ve perfected the “little grandmother” look. (Photo by Laura C.)

Thank you to the Red Balloon staff for hosting such a wonderful party for me and thank you to everyone who came!

Autumn At Last

Sparkers‘ publication date is less than one week away! If you live in the Twin Cities or nearby, you are most welcome to join me for my launch party at Red Balloon Bookshop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul this Friday (in two days!) at 6:30pm.

I left Los Angeles last Thursday at the tail end of a short but brutal heat wave, and I was eagerly anticipating experiencing some proper fall weather. I was in luck. Within half an hour of disembarking from my plane, I was speeding toward all the best that autumn in Minnesota has to offer. My brother and I were due to play an arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon for our cousin’s wedding in two days and had yet to rehearse together, so I was heading to his school for a quick practice session.

The charming town of Northfield, MN is home to two small liberal arts colleges (and a Malt-O-Meal factory). My childhood best friend attended Carleton College, and my brother studies at St. Olaf College (or Count Olaf College, as I like to call it). Because of all these connections, my family and our family friends had often visited these colleges in the fall and bought apple cider doughnuts at a farm along the road to Northfield. I, of course, was never around in the fall, and so despite having heard about these doughnuts many times, I had never tasted one. On this trip, I was determined to have one.

So before reaching St. Olaf, we stopped at Fireside Orchards. It was a glorious fall afternoon, sunny and warm, but not hot. At the edge of the parking lot, enormous pumpkins rested on the grass, and a stone’s throw away, rows of apple trees marched down the slope. Inside the shop were the famous apple cider doughnuts, as well as apple pie, apple cider, and bags of apples (SweeTangos, the first Honeycrisps, etc.). Not to mention jams, honey, maple syrup, homemade fudge, and cheese curds.


At Fireside Orchards, about to enjoy an apple cider doughnut

The doughnut was scrumptious.

The rest of the weekend was dominated by wedding preparations and festivities. Friends and relatives came from every corner of the country (California, Florida, New York City). Everyone in the family was hosting someone. My brother and I squeezed in more last minute rehearsals. The afternoon of the wedding was sunny and breezy. For the ceremony, my grandmother wore a cheongsam handmade for her in Hong Kong in the 1960s. My brother and I pulled off the processional without a hitch. A storm rolled in, and we all drove through the rain to the reception, which was held in a chalet at the foot of a (still green) ski slope. Before dinner, the sun broke through the clouds, and a double rainbow glowed in the sky.


Cousins of the groom and processional musicians

Last but not least, I may have missed the Glewwe reunion earlier this month, but my family saved me this genuine paper grocery bag from one of the Glewwe grocery stores in South St. Paul. Somebody found a box of them in their house. The first Glewwe grocery store was opened in 1905 by Henry Glewwe, the brother of my great-great-grandfather (or my grandfather’s great-uncle). He ultimately opened three stores, and the last Glewwe’s closed in 1986.


One Month to Go!

Sparkers comes out one month from today, and yesterday I received a copy of the finished book in the mail! You might be tired of seeing this cover by now, but this time that shimmery jacket is on an actual hardcover Sparkers and not a book on the history of English spelling. The cover of the book itself is a lovely midnight blue, and where the jacket spine has an eye, the book has a snowflake!




Well, okay, that is Spell It Out, disguised as Sparkers, on top.

Sparkers Jacket

I received a sample of the final dust jacket for Sparkers yesterday! Here it is being modeled by David Crystal’s Spell it Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling.



Sparkers ARC Giveaway #2

Sparkers comes out exactly three months from this past Monday, and in anticipation I’m giving away another ARC!


The little fig tree is not included.

To enter to win this advance copy, please leave a comment on this post mentioning one of the following:

1) A favorite childhood book of yours; or

2) A book you think is underrated; or

3) A book you’re excited to read but haven’t gotten around to yet

I’ll accept entries until next Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 at midnight Pacific Daylight Time. Once the entry period has ended, I’ll randomly choose one winner. If you win, I’ll contact you by e-mail to arrange for delivery. The giveaway is open internationally; if I can mail you the ARC, you can enter.

And now, I’ll answer all three of my own questions and even cheat by naming more than one book for each! A favorite childhood series would be The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I was half-indignant when I found out they were Christian allegory (according to some) since I’d taken them completely at face value. I also had no idea what Turkish delight was; I think I pictured it as something like caramels. Also, I just finished reading The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which are billed as adult Harry Potter. However, they feature a fantasy world from a children’s book series that turns out to be real, and the children’s books and the world itself are unmistakably inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia and Narnia, respectively. Where Narnia has Aslan, Fillory has a pair of rams.

For underrated books, I pick Murkmere and its companion Ambergate by British author Patricia Elliott. I have never seen these books mentioned anywhere, nor have I met anyone else who’s read them, but I found them at the library a year or two ago and checked them out. They’re utterly unique and wonderful. Very atmospheric. They’re set in, as far as I can tell, an alternate Cromwellian England, and there are strange touches of magic.

Finally, there are two middle grade books I’m dying to read. The Glass Sentence, by S. E. Grove, is set in an alternate world in which the Great Disruption of 1799 has thrown different regions of the world into different times. A mapmaker’s niece sets out to find her kidnapped uncle amidst political turmoil. Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell, features a girl who was found as a baby in a cello case floating in the English Channel after a shipwreck, so really, how could I not read it? Coincidentally, the protagonist of The Glass Sentence is named Sophia and that of Rooftoppers Sophie.

Please enter the giveaway, and feel free to spread the word! Good luck to all!

Many Waters

First off, a bit of exciting news: Sparkers received a starred review from Kirkus! You can read it over there. I’m very happy!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

It’s rained about a foot in Minnesota in the month of June, making it the state’s wettest June since 1874. It was quite the change going from parched Southern California to practically underwater Minnesota, where lately the first question people ask upon running into each other is, “Is your basement flooding?” Too often, alas, the answer is yes. Or if not your basement, then your in-laws’.

Last Saturday, I attended the Minnesota Peony Society’s annual picnic (for which I served as Dessert Competition Registrar). It was held in a park where the line between land and lake had blurred:


Mallards enjoying the swing set


Lake Cornelia Fishing Pier


A school of minnows on a walking path

Then, on Sunday, my family went to see Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. The falls are on Minnehaha Creek, which flows into the Mississippi River. The creek reached a record high level last week, so the falls promised to be an awesome sight.

Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls, on Minnehaha Creek

A kayaker went over these falls on purpose a few days ago for a stunt. I heard he broke his nose.


The creek itself is looking equally impressive these days. It’s not the time to go canoeing.


Raging Minnehaha Creek, just downstream of the falls

Me and the Falls

Me and Minnehaha Falls

Northern Spark 2014

I am on vacation in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I arrived just in time for Northern Spark 2014. This is an all-night arts festival I’ve attended with friends for the past two years (I mentioned the 2013 festival briefly in my 2013 recap post). The first year I went, it was in Minneapolis, and we spent most of our time around the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi. Last year, it was in St. Paul, in and around the Union Depot railroad station. This year, it was back in Minneapolis, and it coincided with the opening of the Green Line, the new light rail train that connects the Twin Cities’ downtowns. The light rail line was in the midst of construction the whole time I lived in Beth Shalom last year, and whenever I walked down University Avenue to go to the library or to grab a meatball bánh mì, I would see the as yet unused rails and the empty stations and regret the fact that I would be leaving before the trains started running. In celebration of the opening of the Green Line, all Twin Cities buses and trains were free this past weekend–a public transportation fan’s dream! 

Saturday was rainy and blustery, so I did not ride the Green Line to St. Paul as I’d hoped. Besides, we were hosting a garden party at home, which ended up being indoors due to the weather.


Some of my mother’s peonies

In the evening, as a thunderstorm rolled through, I took a (free!) bus to downtown Minneapolis and met some friends at the Convention Center for the opening ceremony of Northern Spark. After some taiko drumming and a welcome from Mayor Betsy Hodges, we headed to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Courtney Lewis, perform Kevin Puts’s Symphony No. 4. It was my first time in Orchestra Hall since it was renovated, and for the most part it didn’t look that different. It was also my first time hearing the Minnesota Orchestra since the lockout ended. The last time I heard these musicians perform live, they were playing independently as the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. And the last time I heard them at all was in October, in LA, when I listened to Minnesota Public Radio’s live stream of Osmo Vänskä‘s last concert as conductor of the orchestra. Now the lockout is over, and Osmo is back! So it was really meaningful to be back in that familiar hall hearing this orchestra again. The symphony was accompanied by a light show against the cubes embedded in the wall behind the stage. Some of it was rather pretty, but it felt a bit superfluous to me.

After the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance, we prowled around Orchestra Hall and the Convention Center seeing what else there was to see. There was a trebuchet out in the street hurling water balloons containing LED lights in soaring arcs over the pavement. There were some musicians playing unusual instruments (bowed banjo?) in the Convention Center arcade. We dashed through the rain to this seesaw that was supposed to do something light/sound-related, but it was hard to tell what it was doing, exactly, and we were getting wet.

Eventually, we rode the new Green Line a short ways to the East Bank of the University of Minnesota and ducked into the Weisman Art Museum. This is where I knew the local Sacred Harp singers were holding an all-night Northern Spark singing. The people I was with were very good sports about singing with me for most of the hour between midnight and 1 a.m., and it was rather fun to make my reappearance among the Twin Cities singers in the middle of a stormy night. We sang some tunes befitting the circumstances, like The Midnight Cry and Showers of Blessings.

From the Weisman, we hopped from one U building to the next. The Gossip Orchestra was pretty cool, and in Northrop Auditorium we experienced the Fruit Orchestra, in which you hold an alligator clip in one hand and hit pieces of fruit (a banana, a lemon, a lime) with the other to make music. The tomatoes and cherry were in somewhat bad shape by the time we got to the Fruit Orchestra. (It strikes me that there are a lot of orchestras in this post.) Also in Northrop was a slideshow, projected on the wall, of the outlines of all the lakes in Minnesota.

As it approached 2 a.m., we decided we’d had enough of running around in the rain and exploring Northern Spark in wet clothes. For our final adventure of the night, we crossed the Mississippi using this former railroad bridge that I hadn’t known existed (according to Wikipedia, it is Northern Pacific Bridge Number 9) as the wind blew rain in our faces and thunder rumbled overhead.

One last thing! For helping to fund Northern Spark this year, I received this bit of plastic, which, believe it or not, is called a sparker (as are people who attend Northern Spark, apparently–that makes me a Sparker!).


My sparker

Why is it called a sparker? Because it does this: