Day 26 – That Winter (Luisa Plaja)

luisaYou’ll often hear me say something like this: “I started reading teen fiction before I was a teenager and I never really stopped.”

And it’s true – more or less. But there was a blip in my reading life, and that was when I first travelled from Britain to the suburbs of Boston, USA. It was a big career change and an odd kind of culture shock (partly inspiring my first novel, Split by a Kiss). And somewhere along the pond-crossing, reading slipped way down in my priorities.

Then one snowy winter’s day, I discovered the local public library. It was massive and majestic from the outside, calm and crammed with great books on the inside. Best of all, it had incredible opening hours – late evenings, Sundays – it was as if it had been designed with my long working hours in mind. Oh, and it was warm. Coming from a place where ‘winter’ generally means ‘a bit more rain’, I was over-optimistically dressed (“surely it won’t be *that* cold”) and so I’m not ashamed to admit that, for me, the library seemed like a useful place to defrost. And then I wandered into… the YA room.

It was huge and it had everything. Magazines, CDs, box set DVDs, audio books, and thousands of paperbacks by authors I’d never heard of, despite being a longtime YA fiction fan. I picked up several great books, including a book called That Summer by ‘new author’ Sarah Dessen. Within seconds of opening it, my passion for YA fiction had been re-lit. In That Summer, I found a main character who was an ordinary teenage girl, adjusting to the kinds of changes that many girls of her age face. I was immediately struck by the gentle introspection of the narrative. I loved the focus on relationships and Haven’s struggle to cope with a feeling of loss of control over life.

It drew me right in, and I was back in the land of YA for good. Now I’m back in Britain, too, and happy to see Sarah Dessen’s books gaining popularity here. That Summer will be released by Puffin in July, and I can’t wait to see it in UK bookshops and libraries. Sarah Dessen might even find new fans in readers escaping from a bit of rain…

I’d like to thank Sarah Dessen for her heart-warming books, and wish her a very happy birthday!

Luisa Plaja is an UK author who’s newest release is  Extreme Kissing.  You can find her website by clicking on the link.

Tomorrow – Sarah Ockler, author of 20 Boy Summer.

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Day 25 – Connection (Michelle Zink)

michellezinkAs a writer of YA novels, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon; while I feel unusual compared to the people I meet in my every day life, I connect on a gut level with almost every other YA writer I meet. The only conclusion I can draw is that we share some kind of commonality. Something that makes us think about the same things. Something that makes youth more real and vivid for us than it is for many adults. Otherwise, how could we spend our professional lives so immersed in characters whose daily experiences seem so far removed from those of our adulthood?

Yet, we do, and in our midst there are those who recall it all with such emotion and such truth that we not only remember, but we feel it all over again.

Sarah Dessen is one of those writers.

From the moment I picked up my first Dessen novel, That Summer, I was captivated. I was captivated by the characters so meaningfully drawn that even something as seemingly simple as a girl who feels too tall, who feels lost in the life that adolescence has thrown her, felt painful and raw and somehow so… close.

When I read This Lullaby, I felt the pain of a young girl trying too hard to shield herself from life’s pain – and in the process shielded herself from its beauty, too. It reminded me that there are no guarantees. That no matter how old we get, standing at the edge of a cliff is still scary. And exhilarating. But that somehow, in that moment when you are standing at the edge with the wind in your hair, you wouldn’t trade it for anything.

And on and on it goes. Sarah’s work always leaves me with a profound sense of promise. Somehow, seeing everything through the eyes of her imperfectly perfect characters makes me remember all the joy and heartache and loss and love and euphoria that is life.

Not just teenage life, but my life, too.

Her writing is a reminder that it is never too late to stand on the edge of that cliff with the sky stretched out in front of you. To stand there and cry or scream or laugh into the wind.

And it’s a reminder that, even for me – a thirty-nine-year-old mother of four – it’s never too late to jump, either.

Michelle Zink’s debut novel, Prophecy of the Sisters, will be released in August of this year.  She has both a website and blog that you should swing by.

Tomorrow – Luise Plaja, author of Split by a Kiss.

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Day 24 – Patience is a Virtue (Jennifer Jabaley)

jjI’ve been a long time fan of Sarah Dessen’s books and of her blog. When I was writing my young adult novel, I reread several of Sarah’s books to see what made them work so well. And, while several things of course contribute to her success, one thing that I kept revisiting was that in her writing, Sarah is so patient. She allows the characters to develop slowly through daily life (just like true friendships evolve) and she lets the plot unfold naturally, inch by inch. This is in such contrast to my personality and writing style where I am like an eager, panting puppy wanting to jump at the first opportunity to spill the beans. My editor would kindly say, “Let’s s-l-o-w things down. It doesn’t have to be winter just yet, let’s hang around autumn a little more.” Ah, it’s so easy for Sarah to be so controlled!

The thing is, with calculated, patient writing, the payoff is so much bigger. If you have to wait ten chapters for the couple to kiss, the kiss is that much more exciting than if they collide inside the first twenty pages. And I think this calculated patience must be intrinsic to Sarah for I’ve seen it done on her blog as well.

I’ll never forget the day I was sitting at my desk, casually reading one of her blog entries when at the bottom there was a little aside. Oh by the way, go to this link. When the link pulled up, there was a picture of Sarah, visibly pregnant, maybe six months along. Six months along and she managed not to blab to her fans???? Please, my two best friends were standing outside my bathroom door while I peed on the stick. I showed my baby girl her first birthday gifts before her party. I have no calculated control. I’m the panting puppy! Oh, how I admire Sarah for her patience in both her writing and, I suspect, in her life.

Jennifer Jabaley’s Lipstick Apology is released later this year. Jennifer also has great website and blog that you can check out.

Tomorrow – Michelle Zink, author of The Prophecy of the Sisters.

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Day 23 – Gatecrasher (Emily Gale)

emgalephotoIt’s unusual for me to be late for anything. I arrive almost everywhere at least 40 minutes early – meetings, dates…back in the late nineteenth century when people still asked me on dates… But I have to confess to crashing the Sarah Dessen party when it’s already in full swing. Look, you lot are already at the singing-’round-the-ole-piano stage! Fortunately for me it looks like it’s going to be kicking (do people still say that? I don’t get out much) for many years to come, so I’ll just sidle in here and join the celebration. 

Another thing you should know is that I have a deep fear of spoilers, which has two consequences here: 1. I will be spending much of the party sticking my fingers in my ears and singing lalalalala because I want to discover the whole of Dessen’s bibliography for myself; 2. I’m only going to talk about the excellence of the very first chapter of one of Dessens’ books: The Truth About Forever. Surely I can’t write an entire blog post about just one chapter, you say! But sweet Macy Queen gives us so much to think about. 

The magic of this first chapter is its subtlety and its faithfulness to character and story.  Some authors will use their first chapter like a stale baguette to hit you over the head with, terrified that if they don’t hit you hard enough, you won’t listen. They of little faith – you want to stick around, you didn’t need the beating! You need to look back at that first chapter, when the story is over, and think how true to the book it was.  

If Dessen had wanted to shock you into sticking with the book, she’d have opened with Macy’s dad lying in the road having his heart pumped, and with Macy’s shock and desperation and the whole tragic mess of it bursting into an ordinary morning. But that’s not what Macy is capable of at this point, and it’s not what the story is about. Macy lost something profound that morning – not just her dad (as if that weren’t enough) but her ability to make sense of the world. Dessen knows that that’s where the book has to start – not with Macy’s gut feelings about life and death and loss but with the seemingly unfeeling Jason, to whom she has latched on.  

Jason doesn’t do emotion – he does lists and cold, hard facts. She asks him what Macbeth is about and he writes: Murder, Power, Marriage, Revenge, Prophecy, Politics. It’s there in black and white. And here is the strong but subtle set-up for the story, in Macy’s words: “All I’d wanted for so long was for someone to explain everything that had happened to me in this same way. To label it neatly on a page: this leads to this leads to this. I knew, deep down, it was more complicated than that, but, watching Jason, I was hopeful. He took the mess that was Macbeth and fixed it, and I had to wonder if he might, in some small way, be able to do the same for me. So I moved myself closer to him, and I’d been there ever since.” 

Dessen lets us know very early on that Macy is in for a big journey – and that’s good; we need to know that; we’re even allowed at this point to be sure that she’s going to be okay in the end, because the important question is how she gets from damaged, rigid Macy to “End of the Story Macy”. She’s immediately accessible, because Dessen allows us to see small hints that Macy is under Jason’s wing not because she is of the same mindset but because of her circumstances. Once he is gone, the possibilities are exciting. Any approval of Jason goes hurtling out of the window when Macy says goodbye to him at the airport and tells him she’ll miss him. “It’s only eight weeks,” he replies – seeya, Jason. 

As soon as Jason is packed off at the airport, Macy peeks a tiny way out of her shell. Her description of life as ‘the girl who saw her father die’ – the way that it follows her around, a label she can’t shake – seems entirely real. I know it not from experiencing what Macy has been through but having watched a dear friend lose her father. Here’s a confession: I did not know what to say to my friend. I thought if I couldn’t find the perfect words, my job would be to omit saying the wrong words, and so inevitably I ended up saying not much at all. How stupid, but perhaps how universal – as if our creeping around the subject, or giving The Face could do anything but alienate the bereaved. I’m ashamed of it, and I was desperate to see who Macy would meet and what she’d experience that would enable her to come out of her silent depression. 

Dessen is clever not to end the chapter on that note, and it gives us a clear sign that she is not a doom-and-gloom writer but one who believes in hope – not unrealistic, saccharine hope, but in lights at the end of tunnels; in the pleasure of reading a story that contains sadness, thoughtfulness, but ultimately the possibility of joy. When Macy confesses – and it does feel like a confession, knowing what we already do about how she is in public, so as readers we are privileged – about the EZ boxes, she shows us a bit of the life that was in her dad, and which carries on in her. Things are not as they should be, but we’re going to move forward – we’re going to open that EZ box. How could anyone resist that? 
 

Emily Gale’s debut YA novel is forthcoming from Chicken House. You can also check out her blog at http://mummywrites.blogspot.com.

Tomorrow – Jennifer Jabley, author of soon to be released Lipstick Apology.

Day 22 – How to Heal (Kristi)

StorySirenLinkButtonI was so excited when Adele asked me to participate in the Sarah Dessen celebration… (even though it took me a year to reply to her email and send her my post… because I am the worst person to respond timely to an email! sorry!) but I’m super excited to be participating because I love Sarah Dessen!

Sarah was one of the first “teen issue” YA author, that I’d ever read. Sure I’d read some fantasy YA authors, but Sarah was the first author I took a chance on to read something “real” and then after that it was an addiction. Does that woman not have a way with words! Needless to say Sarah is one of the big reasons that I enjoy reading YA.

Back in January, I did a post about some of the books that have had an effect on me as a reader. Books that have made me feel better as a person, books that have reminded me what’s important in life. My post was entitled The Truth About Me: Why I read YA. The Truth About Me… The Truth About Forever… could there be a connection! Anyway, I used Sarah’s novel Dreamland as an example of how books can help heal, or ultimately how books helped me heal. Here’s the excerpt from that post:

“Books can help heal. Dreamland by Sarah Dessen was a book I wish I didn’t relate to. I had a crush on, we’ll call him Dick, since the eighth grade. We sort of ran around in the same social circle, but I never saw him out of school, because I was very antisocial, this is where the shyness comes into play. Lucky me, our sophomore year, Dick and I became an item. It wasn’t bad at first. Actually it was a lot of fun. I had my first kiss among other things, but when drugs came into the picture our Junior year, I saw Dick gradually start to change. He wouldn’t call for months, and I wouldn’t see him except briefly at school. Unless of course, I wore something he thought was inappropriate or I said something that he didn’t approve of, then he’d be sure to find me. It’s easy to judge someone, and say why didn’t you just break up with him, but I was afraid. Our senior year is when everything went down. We had the same guidance counselor, I happened to help out in the office in my study hall, because I went to church with the office secretary. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who noticed a change in Dick, and she (our guidance counselor) was worried about me. I went shopping with some friends one weekend, Dicks cousins actually. But one of the friends (cousins) was a guy and on Monday my friend (Dick’s cousin) got his nose broken by Dick. That’s when everyone put two and two together and I got out. I have the best parents in the world, so don’t think they didn’t care enough to talk to me and ask me about my life. It’s not hard to hide things when you want to, and it’s easy to act like everything is okay. But ultimately, to look on the bright side of things, I think that made me a stronger person today.”

If you’ve ever read Dreamland, or if you haven’t it’s about an abusive relationship in high school and it also deals with drugs. Although my story had a different ending, the similarities were scary. I understood exactly what Caitlin was going through and how she felt. It was the “that could have been me” that really made an impact. It’s a story I’ll never forget, and not only because I’ve lived it. So, thank you Sarah for helping me heal.

I can’t say enough good things about her as an author. I always recommend Sarah’s books and she has secured a position in my all time favorite authors list. She rocks my socks off!

Here is the link to my Why I read YA post… if you want to link it.. you don’t have to. http://www.thestorysiren.com/2009/01/truth-about-me-why-i-read-ya.html

Kristi is one of my favourite people that I have met in the blogosphere this year. If you’d like to check our more of her great reviews, interviews and issue posts then check it out here.

Tomorrow – Emily Gale, debut YA author who’s novel is forthcoming from Chicken House.

Day 21 – What Would Sarah Dessen Do? (Holly Cupala)

hollyDorothy Parker, American author and poet (1893 – 1967), once said, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Of course, if you want to be a writer, you don’t know this going into it. You have no idea your first draft will be the most appalling thing you’ve ever written, or that there is any possibility for it to ever get better.

You read books by your favorite authors—Laurie Halse Anderson, Sara Zarr, Rachel Cohn, and yes, Sarah Dessen—and your misery only deepens. How can your story, which has spiraled into too many characters, a plot that can only be improved with a sharp pair of scissors, and a miasma of senseless internal dialogue, ever hope to reach such heights?

You imagine these authors waking up with huge smiles on their faces as their subconscious minds dictate the next work. They can eat chocolate without guilt and even find time to shower and occasionally exercise. They couldn’t possibly suffer from isolation, horrendously bad writing, or the paralysis of self-doubt. Could they?

I had fallen into this particular pit of despair when writing the first draft of my first novel (which I’ve since decided is one of the hardest things a person can willfully do), when Sarah Dessen saved me—completely unbeknownst to her. She wrote a blog back then, “Writing the novel (or, falling in love, sort of)”, in which she said this:

Eventually, though, you hit that last third, and things go south, big time. This always seems to happen to me in January or February, which just makes it worse. Suddenly, there’s just too much: too many characters, too many subplots, too many words. You still have miles to go, which is bad enough, but to make matters worse you already hate everyone and everything in your story. You can’t believe you ever began this, you must have been demented, and now you’re going to have to throw the whole thing out and start over, the very thought of which makes your brain hurt, as if it is about to explode.

Uh-oh. But then she said this:

You just have to get there, to that dark, dark spot, to start climbing towards the light again. And if you’re lucky–and by this point, you deserve some luck, right?–once you start, the pace picks up and things start falling into place. The first part of that last hundred pages is agony. But the second can be magical, as you race towards the finish, almost giddy with relief. Suddenly, you remember everything you loved about this book at the beginning, how much you care about your characters, how cool that metaphor really is. It’s like only by going through the very worst with a book–or a person, to keep up the analogy–can you get to the best.

Was it possible that our experience was universal, and that she had already charted a way out?

Through, baby. The only way out is through.

And strangely, I found it comforting to know that this amazing author, who has written about shame and love and heartache and everything important in the whole scheme of things, faced doubt and conquered it and wrote through the bad stuff to come out the other side with meaningful, beautiful words.

I just finished the first draft of my second novel, and she’s right—I did forget the messy, frustrating joy of it. Well, I remembered the joy, and that the darkness was part of the light. Though truthfully, the self-doubt was more of a whisper this time than a debilitating roar. I found myself going back to Sarah’s post and being encouraged again that at heart, this author who I admire and have never met, and I have so much in common.

Holly Cupala is a young adult author and readergirlz diva whose first novel, A Light That Never Goes Out, will be released in 2010.  You can find her website here and her blog here.

Tomorrow – Kristi from The Story Siren.

Day 20 – Sarah Dessen & Readergirlz

Sarah Dessen and readergirlz

Readergirlz was thrilled to feature Sarah Dessen, her beautiful novel, Just Listen, and sneak preview Lock and Key in March 2008 for our theme, TRUTH. All of the readergirlz divas have admired Sarah’s writing and the way she captures the imaginations of her readers.

Here are a few of the responses we had from Sarah’s live chat with our members:

“I want to say, simply, that Sarah Dessen is a librarian’s dream. Her books are all so incredible in so many different ways. They speak to so many different people on many levels. And best of all, I love to read them, too. Though I am more of the age of the adults in the stories, I get so much from each story. I love to discuss and share Sarah’s books with my students.” – LibraryWomanKathy

“Hey Miss Sarah, First of all, I love your books! My favorite one is “The Truth about Forever”. I think you’re an amazing writer, and your characters are totally cool, and you can relate so much to them.” – ~♥Nikki♥~

“Thanks so much for coming to talk to everyone, and I’m totally planning on getting Lock and Key for my birthday.” – ~Katie

“Sarah, your video is so great! It was fun to see you, the setting for your works, and hear your voice. And great heels, btw. :~) “ – rgz diva Lorie Ann Grover

“I actually named one of my daughters after a character in Someone Like You, Halley, although I spelled it different, Hallie. I wanted to name my other daughter Scarlett as well but that didn’t end up happening.” – Breanna <3’s you

“Sarah, I LOVED Lock and Key! I liked that you wrote about a girl who isn’t tempted by materialistic stuff but hungry for love. And a boy, who unlike unforgettable, terrifying Rogerson in Dreamland, isn’t defined by the mistakes of his father. I liked that you included a couple of African-American characters in this book, a pair of close cousins.” – author & rgz talent scout Mitali Perkins

“The Truth About Forever left me with a giant, uncontainably happy feeling at the end… it is sort of my favorite, but each book is special to me.” – Vanessa

Hey Sarah! Just wanted to say you’re my favorite author. Your plot lines are things that can actually happen in a girls life, but the way you express the situations just sticks to anyone who’s read your work. You don’t tell your readers what’s going on, you show them. I’ve lent many of your books that I own to so many of my friends and they’ve loved them too. I love writing and hope I can connect with people like you do.” – Cate.

my friend is currently reading this lullaby , but, so far the truth about forever has been her favorite. i love the truth about forever and this lullaby and ive read all the sarah dessen books =D“ – jessica.

“I love your blog post about writing the novel “Falling in love (sort of).” I’ve read it in times of novel crisis, and it cheered me up to know there is hope in sight through the crisis!” – rgz diva Holly Cupala …and so many more.

And who could forget the Barry Manilow concert where Sarah was headed that night!

To read the rest of Sarah’s live chat, click here.

We were honored to host her at readergirlz and wish her a very happy birthday!

~the readergirlz divas,

Tomorrow – Holly Cupala, author of 2010 release, A Light That Never Goes Out.

Day 19 – Inspiration (Justina Chen)

justinaImagine being a new author and being invited to NCTE in Nashville to speak in a session along with Sarah Dessen.  The Sarah Dessen.  The one who makes teens and librarians swoon.  The one whose books are overwhelmingly popular.  The one whose words have been put on film.  The one who stole my heart with THIS LULLABY. 

There I am, so absolutely nervous, I crashed another session right before mine with Sarah to calm down.  There, I encountered the amazing Professor Nana who gave a fabulous talk about reluctant teen readers along with two of her cohorts.  In that moment, the idea for readergirlz was born:  the idea for creating an online book community where teens could gather and chat directly with their favorite authors…like Sarah.

When a new idea percolates in my head, I have no room for things like being nervous!  So I walked into my NCTE session, filled to capacity.  Let’s face it, all the teachers were there for Sarah, not for me!  I think we all started chanting “Hate Spinnerbait” when she walked in, her long hair fluttering and an enormous smile on her face.  I had brought her a box of my favorite chocolates–dark caramel dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with smoked sea salt from Fran’s, which later have become President Obama’s favorite chocolates. Sarah grinned at me…and then blogged about them.

My dream came true when I launched readergirlz with my co-founders Janet Lee Carey, Dia Calhoun, and Lorie Ann Grover.  And then months and months later, we had the privilege of hosting Sarah Dessen on readergirlz. 

Justina Chen  is the author of North of Beautiful and co-founder of the online community, readergirlz. 

Tomorrow – readergirlz

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Day 18 – Southern Style (Cheryl Renee Herbsman)

cheryl-3When I first decided to try my hand at contemporary YA, I went to my local library and asked the children’s/teen librarian for suggestions of who to read. I was thinking about writing a Southern character, so asked for recommendations of other Southern writers. She introduced me to Sarah Dessen. The first book of hers I read was Keeping the Moon. After that I read every Sarah Dessen I could get my hands on. I was totally taken by the stories and characters she crafts. I loved how the supporting characters had their own personalities and lives and seemed like real people.

When my own contemporary YA was written, I queried a total of eight agents. One of them was Sarah Dessen’s agent, Leigh Feldman. And to my extreme delight, she offered to represent me and got me a book deal with Viking, the same publishing house that publishes Sarah Dessen. This felt like such a gift to me. And I feel so lucky to be with a group that sets the bar high and expects the best of their writers.

It was a lot of work to bring my debut novel, BREATHING, to the world. But at every step along the way I was inspired by the work of Sarah Dessen. She writes stories we can all relate to, stories that are satisfying, fun, and healing. That’s an achievement any writer would be proud of. Thank you to Sarah for inspiring me and for sharing her stories with us all!

Cheryl Renée Herbsman’s debut novel, Breathing, made it’s splash on the YA scene this month. You can find out more by dropping by her website.

Tomorrow – Justina Chen Headley, author of  North of Beautiful.

Day 17 – The Ah-ha Moment (Hannah)

Happy-birthday-sarahHaving agreed to participate in this wonderful celebration that Adele is organising, I sat down to write … and didn’t know what to say. This despite the fact that I think Sarah Dessen is one of the best young adult authors out there. I didn’t even know what my theme should be. Family, friends, relationships, interesting plots, beautiful writing, Sarah’s books have it all. This makes it very difficult to choose a single topic to talk about. So I’ve just picked a small thing that made me think when I was reading Just Listen.

Annabel has to tell.

The main thing that struck me as I read Just Listen was the difference in the sisters. Kirsten is the vocal one, Whitney is the quiet one. Annabel explains to Owen how she can tell when something is wrong with each of them, but doesn’t mention that they don’t know when she has a problem. Instead, she tells him that he’d have to ask her sisters to find out how they know about her. Which in fact turns out to be true as Whitney shares later;

That was her role, always, as the youngest. She was the one who told.’

In other words, Annabel has to tell. This made me realise how precarious their relationship was, that her family only knew something was wrong with Annabel because she told them. Because when something really bad happens, people find it hard to talk about it and so in Annabel’s case, no-one will know. It’s an incredible act of bravery, to have to sit down and tell someone something.

It also makes me wonder which I am most like. How do people know when there’s something wrong with me? How do I know when there’s something wrong with my friends? A lot of times, I can tell something is wrong by how they act, and I’ll ask if they’re ok, then just try to be normal and wait for it to come out.

I used to email my best friend every day. I mean really, really long emails where we would just talk rubbish. Even though we saw each other every day. This was originally to waste time in sixth form when we had a break but it got a lot more important when she dropped out and started a job. For the first time in years we didn’t see each other every day but we did still email. And in that time, she had a big problem.

The way I found out was, she emailed me checking my address still worked (of course it did, we’d been emailing every day at the time) and telling me that there was something she needed to tell me. Then of course I emailed back concerned and (I hope) encouraging, asking about the problem. This seems to be how we ask for help when people have no way of knowing. We hint at a problem and wait for the other person to ask for more details. Because no-one likes having to admit that they need help, they wait for someone to offer first.

There are plenty of other reasons that I love the character Annabel, but this is a big one. Telling someone something that they don’t want to hear is hard, especially if the other people have no idea anything’s wrong. If I was Annabel, even after I’d decided to tell my family, I wouldn’t have sat down and told them. I’d have acted as if something was wrong and then waited for them to ask me. I didn’t realise this until I read the book.

So thank you Sarah for giving us such wonderful characters to relate to and for putting so much thought and time into each book. Have a good birthday!

Hannah is one of the lovely British bloggers I have had the pleasure of getting to know this year.  She has a smashing blog called About Books that you should definitely check out!  (And yes, that is the awesomely headless  Hannah in the photo.)

Tomorrow – Cheryl Renee Herbsman, author of Breathing.

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