Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson

August 13, 2010

I’m always looking for books that have magic, mischief and some mayhem. When I came across The Familiars, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, I was intrigued:

“Running fast to save his life, Aldwyn ducks into an unusual pet store. Moments later Jack, a young wizard in training, comes in to choose a magical animal to be his familiar. Aldwyn’s always been clever. But magical? Jack thinks so—and Aldwyn is happy to play along.”

Magical animals?
A wizard in training?
Count me in!
The downside? The book isn’t out until September 7th, 2010.

The upside? The authors came to Once Upon A Book to write a guest post! (Thank you, guys!)

September 7th is slowly approaching, but in the meantime, check out what these authors have to say about their experience – er, lack of experience – with rejection letters.


Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters
Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, authors of The Familiars

We’ve all heard how every author has a box of a thousand rejection letters, from publishers, agents, and literary magazines. Many even have the sealed envelopes with the words “Return to Sender” boldly stamped across it. But sitting on our shelf in our office, there’s no box of rejection letters. You know why? Because in Hollywood, when you’re a screenwriter, you don’t even get the courtesy of a rejection letter. They just never bother writing back. You send your script out to production companies, agents, and managers, and 99 percent of the time you simply never hear back. And occasionally, when you do, it’s to hear that they don’t accept unsolicited material.

In a sense, we envy the author who can save up their memories of struggle and have a wonderful paper trail of those who didn’t believe in them for when they become “overnight” successes. We instead are left with a series of undocumented failures. But no matter how many times you hear the phrase, “it all happened so fast,” or “it was the FIRST thing I ever wrote,” take it from us, it never is. So we always tell people to keep their fingers to the keyboard and their pens filled with ink, and to keep writing like we did, until the right person reads the right thing at the right time. It happened for us and it will happen for you.

You can learn more about The Familiars at www.thefamiliars.com. Tell us about your best rejection letters via email at thefamiliarsbook@gmail.com or on our blog at thefamiliars.blogspot.com.


ADAM JAY EPSTEIN spent his childhood in Great Neck, New York, while ANDREW JACOBSON grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the two met in a parking garage out in Los Angeles. They have been writing for film and television together ever since. The Familiars  is their first book.

One day, Adam asked Andrew, “Are you familiar with what a familiar is?” And from that simple question, Vastia was born, a fantastical world filled with the authors’ shared love of animals and magic. They wrote every word, sentence, and page together, sitting opposite each other.

Adam Jay Epstein lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jane, their daughters, Penny and Olive, and a black-and-white alley cat who hangs out in their backyard. Andrew Jacobson lives with his wife, Ashley, and their dog, Elvis, four traffic lights away.

THE FAMILIARS will be produced for film by Sam Raimi and Sony Animation.

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Naruto volume 1, by Masashi Kishimoto

July 15, 2010

Rating: 5/5

You’re probably thinking: “You’re kidding me. She’s reviewing Naruto volume 1?! I know I’m quite late to jump on this particular bandwagon, though it was suggested to me about 5 years ago. Honestly, I should listen to my students when they tell me to read some of these titles! (Except for Death Note…that’s not a manga I would recommend to anyone K-12. Period.)

Naruto never attracted my attention, despite the hordes of students eating them up and begging for more. Now, however, I’m trying to catch up to the latest volumes and avoiding any fans so they don’t spoil the story for me. So, what’s to like about Naruto?

First, if you’ve been under a rock, self-imposed or otherwise, here’s the skinny: this is the story of a young ninja in training whose body was sacrificed to save his village from a 9-tailed demon fox, now imprisoned inside him. For the longest time he was the village reject without knowing why. When he discovers the secret locked in his body, his story truly begins. It’s one of exploring, creating, testing, and transforming the bonds that we form with others.

In the first volume, when we meet Naruto for the first time, he is the cocky class clown who can’t do anything right. It’s time for him to take his final exam, for the third time, so he can graduate from ninja school, earn his leaf headband, and continue his training. However, he fails a fourth time. Dejected and desperate, he is easily tricked into stealing one of the village’s most dangerous scrolls. Now the whole village is after him but all he wants is to learn what’s in the scroll so he can graduate.

I’ve met many teachers who have some reservations about this series, such as the violence and the occasional skirting of adult themes, but I believe the pros outweigh the cons. To be fair, here are some of the cons of this manga:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: The way an entire village sacrifices the life of a baby by imprisoning a demon inside and then shunning said child, is quite horrible.
  • Violence: 12-year-olds are trained in the ninja ways and once they graduate they are expected to take on missions and risk their lives for the village. The fight scenes are lengthy and many characters get beaten to within an inch of their lives (and in later volumes they die).
  • Adult themes: Part of Naruto’s pranks includes a transformation into a sexy, naked blonde to unnerve his teachers and peers. Little poof of clouds are the only objects standing in the way of full frontal nudity.
  • The main character disregards rules and authority.

These are valid points, but to dwell on simplistic ideas of violence and what is or is not “appropriate” would be to completely miss the point in Naruto. Compared to most of what passes for entertainment in television these days, this series is quite mild and it actually has a lot to offer. Here’s how:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: this is a controversial topic that can open the door to a lot of discussion in the classroom. For example, we could compare what happens in the story to the way soldiers sacrifice their lives for their country and the way they sacrifice the lives of others for the same reason. No longer so clear-cut, is it?
  • Violence: There are many types of violence in life and bullying is one of them, to which children are no strangers. In the beginning of this series there is a lot of bullying of Naruto by peers and adults. This could open the door to conversations on how to address bullying in school.
  • Adult themes: Some of these inappropriate scenes are brought on by Naruto’s yearning to be acknowledged. This could begin an insightful discussion on what people are willing to do for others to pay attention to them and why. Kids can easily relate to Naruto’s feelings. He desperately wants to belong and make friends, so he resorts to becoming the trickster and become the center of attention.
  • Disregard for authority and rules: This is very prevalent in schools and can open the door to discussions concerning respect  and the meaning behind having and following rules.
  • Perseverance: Naruto lacks talent, intelligence and common sense, as he’s reminded constantly, yet he defies all odds  with hard work, perseverance and big heart. Children can discuss if this idea of working hard to achieve one’s dreams is realistic. Indeed, Naruto provides many examples where he apparently fails despite how hard he tries. But, does he really “lose”?
  • Bonds: Naruto does not have a family, but he begins to make one for himself through bonds with instructors and peers. Students can discuss the importance of forming bonds with others and different types of families extant.
  • Acceptance: This term is quite different from “tolerance”, which is so popular yet implies that there is something negative we have to put up with. Naruto, in having experienced hardship, pain, segregation and loneliness has developed empathy for others, which allows him to give people the benefit of the doubt and see beyond the surface.  This facilitates discussion about differences and how they inform our lives.
  • Growth: This is what keeps me going back to Naruto. From the first volume we witness his growth as a ninja, as a friend, and as a human being. It’s this growth that encourages inquiry and sends a clear message: It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and continue to move forward.

Is Naruto worth the read? Should we tap into this story in the classroom? It’s my hope that you will pick up the first volume and decide for yourself. It gets two thumbs up from me!

Topics in this series (so far) include: persevering, sacrifice, friendship, family, humanity, freedom, independence, choice, justice, survival, community, oppression…


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Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

June 30, 2010

Rating: 5/5

This is the second book in Suzanne Collin’s trilogy of the Hunger Games and it’s just as good, if not better than the first book. Check out a previous post if  you’re not familiar with the storyline. 

I an amazing twist of events, there are more survivors than previously expected, much to the embarrassment of the Capitol. Katniss’ year as the champion does little to settle her nerves, since she knows the Capitol is watching her every step. When the time comes again to pick this year’s “tributes”, a nasty surprise awaits all of the champions of recent years, as they must go back to fight for their lives. This time they are up against the best of the best. Behind the scenes, the districts are furious that their champions are in danger once more and keep a close eye on Katniss in particular. Will she be the one to set off the events that lead to a new rebellion? Who will survive this year’s Hunger Games?

I thoroughly enjoyed the transformation that takes place in this second book. In response to the Capitol’s new demands and cruel machinations, Katniss’ plight continues to unravel everyone’s beliefs about the system. The people of the capitol stir in discomfort; the districts begin to shake off their fear. The tension mounts with the turn of every page… 

I won’t say much else because I do not want to ruin the experience for those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to read this book.  😉

Questions: I like that this book makes you think and, better yet, it encourages you to ask very difficult questions that have no easy answer/s. One question that is still prevalent is: what does it mean to be human?

Other questions up for discussion could be:

  • How can one idea change the world?
  • In the story, the mockingjay becomes a symbol of freedom. What other objects or symbols do you know of that people have given specific meaning to? Why are symbols important to humans?
  • How do our experiences help shape our ideas of what it means to be human?

Topics in this book include: humanity, sacrifice, change, transformation, symbolism, ideas, rebellion, freedom, independence, justice, friendship, survival, community, family, politics, love, oppression, social classes…

Do pick up this book and ask yourself: what does it mean to be human?__________________________________________________________

The third book, Mockingjay, will be released August 24, 2010. I can’t wait!


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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

June 25, 2010

Rating: 5/5

Welcome! You have arrived at yet another blog entry of a reviewer who absolutely loves this book.

For those of us who are not surrounded and immersed in children’s and young adult literature 24/7, The Hunger Games is a story set in a post-apocalyptic world, once known as North America, where twelve districts must send two young tributes, (read: sacrifices), to participate in the annual, televised Hunger Games, where they must fight to the death as a reminder that rebellion is not tolerated. Only one can survive.

The good

I could write pages on what I like about this story, but I’ll spare you and mention only a couple of points.

First, the main character is complex, flawed, and oh-so likeable. Her name is Katniss and I found that sometimes I loved her, other times I was wary of her, and I could not stop rooting for her. She is cold, calculating and willing to risk everything to survive. You can’t help but wondering if she has risked too much…

Second, the world in which she is raised presents two very different, plausible sides: the impoverished, oppressed and broken districts, and the exceedingly rich, bloodthirsty, fashion-obsessed population of the Capitol. When the two sides meet through The Hunger Games, is it better to win or lose? Which is which? Death or life? 

The bad (?) – you decide

The book does have quite a few violent scenes. In fact, the whole premise of 12-17-year-olds killing each other for the viewers’ pleasure is in itself disturbing.  However, this could open the door to meaningful discussions around questions such as: what does it mean to be human? If you were chosen to participate in the games, would you choose to take a life? How does the government use the media to show the violence? What parts do you think are not televised to the districts and why? 

Topics in this book include: friendship, survival, community, family, politics, humanity, love, self/image, poverty, oppression, social classes, alcoholism…

If you have not yet read this book, I highly recommend it. It will keep you thinking and wondering long after you have finished the last page. The best part is that it’s a trilogy! (#2 Catching Fire and #3 Mockingjay)


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The Library, by Sarah Stewart, Ill. David Small

June 23, 2010


Rating: ?/5

“Elizabeth Brown
Entered the world
Dropping straight down from the sky.

Elizabeth Brown
Entered the world
Skinny, nearsighted, and shy.”

So begins the tale of Elizabeth Brown, a girl whose life revolved around books.

When I first picked up this colorful picture book, I was excited about both the premise and David Small’s fantastic illustrations. A woman who dedicated her life to books finds she has too many and makes a decision that benefits the town she resides.

Cute story, right? Well, I have very mixed feelings about this book. I’ve loved to read since I was a little girl and would ignore my dolls and sneak some reading at night when I was supposed to be sleeping – just like the character in this story. But as much as I love reading, there is life outside the page.

This character reads in school, at home, while cleaning, while exercising and in every possible situation you can imagine. This ends up being pretty hilarious because it’s so silly. However…

“Elizabeth Brown
Preferred a book
To going on a date.

While friends went out
And danced till dawn,
She stayed up reading late.”

While I can imagine some readers thinking, “This is hilarious!”, I can also imagine others shivering: “I never want to be like that!” She misses out on a lot of life experiences because all she wants to do is read.

In all fairness, the book does allude to friends borrowing books, Elizabeth tutoring to pay her bills and moving in with a friend after she made a decision about her books. I’m just not sure if this is enough to balance this story.

Have you read this book? What do you think? Is this a funny and endearing story of a bibliophile, or is this a stereotypical and disappointing tale of unhealthy obsession?

I’m leaning towards “disappointing”, even as the bibliophile in me is screaming “how could you say that?!”


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Children’s literature and media: An interview with Annie Fox

June 10, 2010

As I wrote in a previous post, I am presenting today, along with colleague Brian Trutschel, at the Children’s Literature Association’s conference in Michigan: Children’s Literature and Media, which “seeks to illuminate the broader electronic children’s culture within which children’s literature exists and thus highlight the multivalent, dialectical relationship between literature and other media written for younger readers, viewers, and consumers.”

As part of our presentation, “Beyond Electronic Media: Dynamically Engaging Young Readers in Multi‐modal Environments”, I approached author Annie Fox for an interview on her thoughts on children’s literature and media. To my delight, she agreed! Without further ado, here is the interview.

About Annie: Annie is an educator, award-winning author, and online adviser for teens and parents. She helps teens through Q&A, events at schools, and books like her Middle School Confidential™ series.

1. What are some differences between the books you read as a little girl and teenager and the ones being published now?

I started reading when I was 4 and my first afterschool job  was shelving books at the public library. I was in heaven! As a teen I read adult fiction, biography, plays, history, etc. If there was a genre of YA book back then, I wasn’t aware of it. When I was much younger I read Dr. Seuss , Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh and lots of international fairy tales. In 4th and 5th grade I loved Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse! LOL! Today’s picture books for younger kids are often more focused on the art than the story. Gorgeous, inventive visuals  with mostly weak stories. As if the art alone sells the book. Well, I guess it does, but that’s a huge missed opportunity. Think about what brings kids back to a certain book again and again; it’s the characters and a story that’s really about something… it’s not the pictures! As for today’s YA fiction… I read a lot of it and I LOVE the realism, the humor, and the focus on social and emotional aspect of being a tween/teen. Cherry Ames never had self-esteem or friendship issues! Today’s YA fiction really helps kids understand themselves better so they can navigate middle and high school more effectively.

2. Do you feel electronic media has affected the way children engage with reading? If so, how?

Electronic media affects the way kids think and communicate. While I adore books, I’m not a purist who believes that the relationship between author and reader is somehow sullied if a book is read on Kindle at the mall vs. reading a leather bound volume beside a cozy fire. The connection between writer and reader happens in the mind of the reader… makes no difference whether you’re on your laptop, iPhone or the Rosetta Stone. The thing I’ve noticed (and I’m certainly not the only one) is that many kids seem to be less able to focus on anything for a long time… like reading “a whole book” in whatever form simply because they are so accustomed to being interrupted by IMs and texts. Maybe whole novels should be written in tweets!

3. Do you think electronic books and media will replace the traditional book? Why?

I hope not, because there will always be the inevitable power outage and dead battery that keep you from reading when you really want to! But if you’ve got a book with paper pages and the light of day (or a candle) you’re always good to go. I also love looking at books lining shelves in libraries, book stores, here at home. The sight of book spines never fails to  give me pause as I admire the creativity and diligence of all the authors who persevered through the process and got their book finished and published! Seeing the books also stimulates my imagination as I think about how much more there is for me to learn about. A bunch of downloaded files doesn’t offer the same inspiration to me. But hey, I was born in the 20th century, so maybe a better prognosticator would be a 21st century teen.  

4. How do you think your experiences with technology have affected the way you write books for children?

My husband David and I got into computer software design for kids in 1977. Our first client was Children’s Television Workshop. I’ve spent years designing and scripting all kinds of computer games and interactive entertainment experiences. I’ve also been on the receiving end of email from tweens, teens and parents from around the world since 1997. Because of the technology that links me and the kids I am privy to the experiences that inform their growing up. In other words, I know what they want to know so I use that awareness in my writing… which is why kids love my books. They “ring true” because we’ve been having these conversations via email for so many years. “Know your reader” is the prime objective for all writers. Thanks to technology, I know mine.

5. Do you think children are engaged with and/or benefit most from linear or non-linear (hypertext, for example) literature and why?

I’ve done a lot of game designs that require non-linear story lines. They’re much trickier to write well (for obvious reasons) but I love the “choose your own path” aspect to interactive fiction. That’s what life’s about, isn’t it? At any juncture you’ve always got options. How you analyze a situation and determine your next best move based on what you’ve learned from past mistakes and successes… making appropriate and responsible choices is part of what it means to grow up healthy.

6. In your latest books, The Middle School Confidential series, the pages are written partly in graphic novel style and designed to look like a magazine. What made you decide to write the books in this  manner?

I had experimented with webdramas (serial stories with various characters whose relationships and plot points intersect) and LOVED it! I wanted to use a fictional universe to help tweens better understand themselves and their relationships with friends/family… I love graphic novels and had a vision of a book that was a hybrid : part graphic novel with middle school age characters and part smart-talk life skills. I’m very grateful that my publisher Free Spirit was keen on the idea and that they chose my illustrator, Matt Kindt who does his own amazing graphic novels. As a result, the Middle School Confidential series works on so many levels. Kids LOVE  the books! 
7. What are some ways you use electronic media to reach your audience?

Email, blogging, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, games, multi—media presentations to live audiences. I do it all.

8. How do you feel this way of connecting with your audience has enriched or hindered your work?

It’s all only made me a more informed and compassionate YA writer.

9. Do you have any recommendations for educators on how electronic media can be used to reach children and foster a love of reading?

Foster intelligent use of the Internet by providing strong guidelines and by making net research part of every  classroom assignment. Reading is reading… don’t get  hung up on whether it’s a book on Kindle or a “traditional” book. When writing speaks to the individual child, he/she will gobble it up and ask for more.

10. Do you have any tips for parents on fostering a love of reading for their kids in today’s electronic world?

Read to your kids. Let them see you reading! Go to the library together! Take books on CD on car trips (have each family member vote on what the selected books will be)  and have everyone listen to the same story at the same time (so you can talk about it!) Read book reviews. Ask children’s and YA librarians for recommended reads. Take your kids  to see visiting authors on tour.

Thank you for the interview, Annie! For more information about Annie Fox, her books and projects, check out the following links:

Annie Fox’ page
On Facebook
On Twitter
Want to know what’s happening at the Children’s Literature Association’s conference this week? 
Check out the “official” hashtag on Twitter: #chla10.

I’m Tweeting the conference as much as I can as well, so feel free to follow me: @pm_rodriguez
If you’re on Facebook, you can also join the CHLA unofficial page.

Have fun with children’s lit!


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CHLA conference and author interview

June 6, 2010

It’s time for another conference!

The Children’s Literature Association is hosting their annual conference this week in Michigan:  Children’s Literature and Media. Here is the description, taken from their site: 

Many texts from various media now constitute children’s culture: novels, picture books, and poetry as well as video games, text messages, Facebook, television shows, and films. It is important that we expand our understanding of these child-oriented cultural forms and media platforms. Doing so expands the way we define and analyze children’s culture and, hopefully, provides new critical tools by which to understand children’s books. This conference, the 37th Annual Children’s Literature Association Conference, therefore seeks to illuminate the broader electronic children’s culture within which children’s literature exists and thus highlight the multivalent, dialectical relationship between literature and other media written for younger readers, viewers, and consumers.”

I’ll be tweeting the conference. The “official” hashtag is #chla10.
If you’re interested, feel free to follow me: @pm_rodriguez

Shameless self-promotion –> And if you’re attending, come join us, Thursday, June 10th, concurrent session 5: Prisca Rodriguez and Brian Trutschel, University of Florida: “Beyond Electronic Media: Dynamically Engaging Young Readers in Multi‐modal Environments”. 🙂

Author interview –>Finally, as part of the presentation, the fabulous Annie Fox agreed to an interview on her thoughts as to how electronic media has affected  the way children engage with reading and how it has impacted her as a reader/author. She also talks about choices she made about the format of her Middle School Confidential series. It’s an interview you don’t want to miss! (It will be available on the blog this Thursday, June 10th)

I hope you join the conversation in the blog and on Twitter. If you’re on Facebook, you can also join the CHLA unofficial page.

Have fun with children’s lit!


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