Your First Chapter is a Promise to Your Reader: Great Opening Pages in Diverse YA, by Eric Smith)


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The fabulous #DVPit pitch contest for marginalized writers is back, and I’m excited to be hosting this fabulous guest post by agent/author/blogger extraordinaire to help kick it off! Eric’s words are better than my words, so I’m gonna let him take over now to discuss some examples of killer opening pages in diverse YA! (And thank you, of course, to Beth Phelan, mother of #DVPit, for putting this all together!)

Your First Chapter is a Promise to Your Reader: Great Opening Pages in Diverse YA

When it comes to pitch contests on the ol’ social media, and pitching / getting requests from agents in general, a lot of time you’re going to be asked for the first few pages of your manuscript. Maybe a couple of chapters. Hell, some agents are going to want you to paste those first pages in an email.

Chances are, if you’re a querying writer, you’ve already polished these opening pages to perfection, pouring over them again and again.

Which is great, but before I dig into talking about opening pages… make sure the rest of your manuscript is as polished as those early chapters.

Done? Okay. Let’s continue.

Now, everything I’m about to prattle on about here is subjective. Remember that, writers. When it comes to pitching agents and editors, sometimes it isn’t about how good your book is. Sometimes it’s about taste. What that particular agent or editor enjoys reading. So make sure you’re taking your time when doing your research, and don’t take it personally when something just doesn’t gel.

In my opinion though, a great set of first pages, a great first chapter, is one thing and one thing only.

A first chapter is a promise between a book and the reader.

Are you getting ready to read a fantasy novel and explore a lush, imagined world? Is this a contemporary YA, packed full of swoons? Are we going to be scared? Thrilled? Challenged? Those first pages tell your reader what they are in for, and promises them that they can look forward to more in the chapters ahead.

Don’t break your promise.

And no, an unreliable narrator isn’t an example of breaking a promise, friends. You can usually tell when a narrator is messing with you early on. And even if you can’t, you’re promising more than just a tricky storyteller. There’s the world. The people around your character. The tone. The voice. The stakes.

You should be able to establish that in the first chapter. And then, you should be able to keep your promise.

Let’s have a look at a few fantastic examples of diverse YA reads with kick ass opening pages.


Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina


“Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.”

A kid named Vanesa tells me this in the morning before school. She springs out with no warning and blocks my way, her textbook held at her chest like a shield…

I had a hard time finding an excerpt of Meg Medina’s extraordinary book anywhere to paste here, and I’m not about to type up the entire first page (because copyrights), but you can read the sample first chapter on Barnes & Noble here.

What you’ll find here, is that the opening to this book hits you with the conflict immediately. Not only that, you’re instantly hit with the tone of the book.

In these few pages, we learn who Piddy is. Her family. Why this Yaqui thinks of her the way she does. We meet some of her friends. The setting is immediately set, the stakes are immediately dished out, and readers are ready to keep going.

The takeaway? If you can, hit readers with the stakes right away.


The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig


It was the kind of August day that hinted at monsoons, and the year was 1774, though not for every much longer. I was in the crowded bazaar of a nearly historical version of Calcutta, where my father had abandoned me.

He hadn’t abandoned me for good—not yet. He’d only gone back to the ship to make ready for the next leg of the journey: twentieth-century New York City. It was at our final destination, however, where he hoped to unmake the mistakes of his past.

Mistakes like me, perhaps.

You can read the full excerpt over on HarperCollins’ official website, but right there, those first few paragraphs, sets the scene for Heidi Heilig’s fantasy novel so, so well.

Boom. In two paragraphs, we learn that we’re in a time travel novel. That we’re in some extraordinary circumstances. And that there is some serious family drama going on. As you read further into the first chapter, you understand immediately what’s at the heart of Heilig’s story… a father who wants to save his wife in the past, the result of which may wipe his daughter from existence.

The takeaway? Establish your genre right away. The world, a place where time travel exists, is presented instantly. And like Medina’s book, the stakes are right there.


The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee




Larkspur, Aromateur, 1698

MOST PEOPLE DON’T know that heartache smells like blueberries. It’s not the only scene, but it’s the main one, and if someone comes to us smelling like blueberry pie, Mother and I turn them away. The heartbroken need time to heal before we can work our magic.

You can read a whole sample of Stacey’s novel over on HarperCollins’ website, here.

There is just so much to digest from that single paragraph right there, but immediately, we know we’re in a world where smell and love are intertwined. In fact, at the end of the first chapter, she wraps it up with “love witches can’t fall in love” and explains the rest of that quote up top.

That if she falls in love, she’ll lose her gifts.

Right away, we know what’s at stake, and what we’re going to see through the novel. Magic. Potions. Elixirs. A challenging choice between one world and another. And if you haven’t read Lee’s beautiful book, let me tell you. She keeps that promise, friends.


Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova


Follow our voices, sister.

Tell us the secret of your death.

Resurrection Canto, Book of Cantos

The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.

Earlier that day, my mom hand warned me, pressing a long, red fingernail on the tip of my nose, “Alejandra, don’t go downstairs when the Circle arrives.”

You can read more of the first chapter over on Barnes & Noble’s website, here.

Right away, you know you’re in for something magical and dark when you step into Cordova’s world in Labyrinth Lost. The first few paragraphs sets the scene, and as the chapter moves forward, we see the brujas and brujos dancing to heavy music, as Alejandra’s deceased aunt seems to reanimate. She’s scolded for interrupting the ritual… and this is all within the first few pages. We are fully immersed, and totally gripped.

Zoraida wastes no time making her promise. And neither should you.


Now, I’ve only dished out four examples of awesome openings that make their promise immediately, with authors who throw you into their world quickly, dishing out stakes and characters right away.

What are some of YOUR favorite examples, readers? Share, and help your fellow query-ers.


against wallEric Smith is an author, blogger, and literary agent currently residing in Richmond. His books include The Geek’s Guide to Dating (Quirk, 2013) and the Inked duology (Bloomsbury). He’s the editor of the upcoming adoption-themed anthology, Welcome Home, due out with Flux in September. He can be found on Twitter at @ericsmithrocks. Learn more about his books and what he does via his website,


Librarian/Teacher Wishlists

Wanna help out schools and libraries in financial need? Here are the wishlists of teachers and/or librarians who could seriously use your help! (Wanna submit yours? Email it to me with your address or tweet it at me and email me your address!)

While these are Amazon wishlists, which means you can easily buy books and have them shipped directly, note that you can also just ship the actual books (or ARCs, where noted) – just click the link that you bought it somewhere else and follow the instructions. (You can email me for the address.) So, whether you’d like to make your donation with money or with hardcopies, you can easily do both this way! (ARCs okay too!) … (ARCs okay too!) (ARCs okay too!)…   

#AuthorLifeMonth Returns!


Hey, remember this?

It’s back, beginning February 1st!

2016 End of Year Book Survey


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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, thanks to the lovely Jamie of Perpetual Page Turner! I live for this Annual End of Year Survey, even though it hurts my soul to have to narrow down responses.

These are always a little weird for me to do because writing the preview posts for B&N means that I read a lot of books far in advance – my reading schedule isn’t like most other book bloggers’ – and being an author means I might’ve beta read books two years before they come out. So, I’m sticking to books that were published in 2016 and that I read in 2016 (except where noted)!

2016 Reading Stats

Number Of Books You Read: 185 (As of 12/9)
Number of Re-Reads: Ain’t nobody got time for that
Genre You Read The Most From: Contemporary YA

  1. Best Book You Read in 2016:

Clearly I am going to employ the breakdown option:

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

Weirdly, while I absolutely loved Six of Crows and The Wrath and the Dawn – like all-time top five fave fantasies loved – their sequels didn’t do anything for me. And I know they were good sequels; I think I’m just way more of a standalone person when it comes to fantasy. A thousand percent a case of It’s not you, it’s me, and I am very glad to see how alone I am on that front.

 3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?  

Cherry by Lindsey Rosin – not only was this a super fun read, but it wasn’t heteronormative! Which, in fairness, wasn’t a huge surprise when I read it because Christina told me it wasn’t, which is what shoved it to the top of my TBR, but still. I also don’t know what I was thinking going into Girl Mans Up, but I definitely didn’t think I was gonna love it, so that was a delightful surprise and I am very psyched about that Morris nom!

 4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?

I asked Twitter, and apparently it’s between Cherry by Lindsey Rosin, The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie, and This Song is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin.

 5. Best series you started in 2016? Best Sequel of 2016? Best Series Ender of 2016?

Series Started: YA: The Conqueror’s Saga; Romance: Five Boroughs by Santino Hassell and Cyberlove by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell

Sequel: The Long Game by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (YA) (and very much Map of Fates by Maggie Hall, which I read in 2015)

Companion: Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt (YA) and Love on the Ledge by Zoraida Cordova (NA)

Series Ender: The Ends of the World by Maggie Hall (Yeah, that’s a 2017, but so it goes)

 6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2016?

Santino Hassell

7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger – I am not remotely an Urban Fantasy person but I thought this was a lot of fun, full of great representation, and it has drink recipes!

 8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

I often read books in one shot so this is always hard for me to gauge, but I feel like I remember being really bitter at having to put down The Abyss Surrounds Us at work.

 9. Book You Read In 2016 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2016?


11. Most memorable character of 2016?

Lada from And I Darken by Kiersten White

 12. Most beautifully written book read in 2016?

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. Honestly, in any given year she writes a book, that book’s gonna be the answer. So to be fair, I’ll add another: The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter.

13. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2016?

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

 14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2016 to finally read? 

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by JC Lillis. That’s one of my favorite LGBTQIAP YAs of all time now and people were talking about its greatness for SO LONG, but I was too lazy to pick it up for NO GOOD REASON.

 15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2016?

 “On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”  (Kiersten White, And I Darken)

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2016?

Under Threat by Robin Stevenson (144 pp)
Crooked Kingdom
by Leigh Bardugo (536 pp)

 17. Book That Shocked You The Most

Never Missing, Never Found by Amanda Panitch. She is goooood at twisty psych thrillers.

18. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!)

Avery and [redacted] from It’s Not Me, It’s You

19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year

Frances and Aled from Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

20. Favorite Book You Read in 2016 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

21. Best Book You Read In 2015 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure:

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by JC Lillis, which thank God Becky Albertalli finally got me to read. Should also mentioned that I would never have picked up This Song is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin if not for Rachel G. telling me it had an ace MC.

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2016?

I feel like this should be easy, and yet? I’ll go with Stellan here, because I’d been firmly Team Jack in The Conspiracy of Us and then somehow Map of Fates turned me.

23. Best 2016 debut you read?

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow (Runner up: Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig)

24. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

I mean, Leigh Bardugo’s pretty unbeatable here, right? Ketterdam 4eva. (Runner up: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova)

25. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?

It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2016?

A World Without You by Beth Revis – full-on hysterical crying fit. Nina LaCour’s 2017 We Are Okay did the same. Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner was a slightly more human level of crying.

27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo

28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Well, I read it in…2014, maybe? But This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp 4eva.

29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2016?

I guess that would be When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore? I just do not see anyone who writes like her, and the representation and imagination and imagery in that book are all just stunning. I feel like “unique” should be something that works with format in a cool way, but this was the only book I could settle on that felt right.

30. Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?

Asking For it by Louise O’Neill, and no, it definitely doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.

1. New favorite book blog you discovered in 2016?

Queer Lit on my Mind, which isn’t exactly a book blog but it’s a (now-) friend’s Tumblr on which they post some of the most thoughtful and interesting reviews of LGBTQIAP books I’ve ever read.

2. Favorite review that you wrote in 2016?

Victimhood and Survival Get a New Perspective in E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued By a Bear (on B&N Teen Blog)

3. Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?

What We Aren’t Talking About When We Talk About Feminism in YA

4. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?

I vacillate on whether or not I’ll do it again, but I’m really, really proud of #AuthorLifeMonth and how many authors it brought out of their shells on Instagram, and especially how many people said things like “I’ve never realized how much I’ve accomplished before.” Those two things were exactly the point, and I love that it worked.

5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2016?

Starting LGBTQReads. The love that site received upon launch was wonderful, and it still gets so much interaction every day. The messages I get on Tumblr in particular are so freaking wonderful, and it’s been amazing to help people find the books they need and to be a source for authors to promote stuff they’d ordinarily have trouble finding a place to do so.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

The post introducing #AuthorLifeMonth!

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

I’m actually pleasantly surprised with the viewership on this blog, considering how infrequently I post on it these days. But I want more people to play Choices and interact with this interview!

9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

I haven’t even been to The Ripped Bodice yet (fingers crossed for February!) but it is EVERYTHING. They did host me for a Skype chat one month when they chose Out on Good Behavior for their book club and that was amazing ❤

10.  Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

Yep! Goodreads challenge was 175 books and I completed that, and goal was to finally set up LGBTQReads and I did that.


1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2016 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2017?

I really wanted to read The Reader by Traci Chee, Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, and Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana, and own all of them, so hopefully I’ll get to them early next year! Also still haven’t read Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak, which was my answer for this question last year, so that’s just embarrassing.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2017 (non-debut)?

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert. I freaking loved Pointe and this character is bi and Jewish, so, no-brainer!

3. 2017 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura. (Does Katherine Locke count as a debut despite having two Romances out already? Because if so, The Girl With the Red Balloon for the motherfluffin’ win.)

 4. Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2017?

Series Ending: The Savage Dawn by Melissa Grey
Sequel: Now I Rise by Kiersten White

5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2017?

Honestly? Focus on it less. Looking forward to my personal life taking far more precedence in 2017.

6. A 2017 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone:

Uhhh there are a lot of these, so I’ll just mention the five I’ve blurbed: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley, Whenever I’m With You by Lydia Sharp, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, and Geekerella by Ash Poston! (Yes, I know that’s a lot to blurb in one year but there was just no saying no to books I wanted to read that badly and then adored!)

That’s my year! How was yours?

Ten Books I’ve Added To My TBR Lately


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Happy Top Ten Tuesday, courtesy of the Broke and the Bookish! Today’s topic is completely self-explanatory, so, voila!

29331371Prom Queen Perfect by Clarisse David – because Sue compared it to Gossip Girl in this post and that’s really all I need to know

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovitch and Audrey Vernick – I don’t usually read MG but this one looks super cute, and I like to have books on hand about Real Things to recommend to my friends for their kids. Knowing a good MG to rec for kids of divorce seems like a good thing!

The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando – I still have to read The Leaving, but I’m a big enough fan of Altebrando’s other stuff that any of her contemp YA goes onto my TBR automatically

Birthday by Meredith Russo – I was such a fan of If I Was Your Girl, whatever Russo did next was obviously gonna be an instaread, even if it falls outside my category of preference

Certainly, Possibly, You by Lissa Reed – Really enjoyed the first book in this series, and bought this one about halfway through it. I’m writing this post over a week in advance and honestly I’ll probably have read this by the time it posts. (Update: yup)30199421

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – Oh come on

See All the Stars by Kit Frick – Kit’s always been an awesome supporter of YA, and her debut sounds seriously excellent

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert – This was obviously an auto-add seeing as Melissa is my fabulous editor at the B&N Teen Blog, but I’ve also heard this book is amaaaazing from her CPs, and knowing how many agents were vying for it and how quickly it sold…yeah, I’ve got good feelings

These Ruthless Deeds by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas – recently read and realllllly liked These Vicious Masks by this duo, so obviously I need the sequel!

By Your Side by Kasie West – insta-add, always

What have you recently added to your TBR?

Top T(w)en(ty) Books on My Fall TBR!


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Happy Top Ten Tuesday, courtesy of the Broke and the Bookish! Today’s topic is about our fall TBRs, and since mine is made of two different categories, I’m gonna share two different top ten lists. See, fall is a massive reading season for me, because I strictly observe all the Jewish holidays that fall within, which means in the month of October I’ll probably read what’ll average to a book a day. And so I’ve decided to use those days to read:

My Most Anticipated 2017 ARCs That I Already Own


2016s I Want to Read Before Year’s End

And so, here they are!

My Top Ten Most Anticipated 2017 ARCs That I Already Own

(which I start reading now for blogging purposes, since I generally do the Contemp and LGBTQIAP+ previews for B&N Teen Blog)

30201161The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu

Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Meg & Linus by Hanna Nowinski

Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

28245707Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

Looking for Group by Rory Harrison

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Aftercare Instructions by Bonnie Pipkin

Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos

2016s I Want to Read Before Year’s End

25203675The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

The Killer in Me by Margo Harrison

The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

23677341We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner

Bound By Blood and Sand by Becky Allen

What’s on your fall TBR?

Interview with Pixelberry Crew!



So, there’s a possibility you’ve heard me gush before about a few certain phone apps, namely High School Story, Hollywood U, and Choices (which has three “books,” each of which is its own kind of sub-game), because they’re frankly fantastic writing and ridiculously for the YA/NA crowd. Well, it turns out that one of the crew responsible for these games, all made by Pixelberry, is Andrew Shvartz, the Swanky 17 author of the awesome-sounding Royal BastardsShvartz is Pixelberry’s lead designer, and he, COO Kara Loo, and Choices head writer Max Doty were kind enough to answer some mildly obsessive questions for me about the games, the process of writing, and more!

I don’t want to spoil anything about any games but first of all, I have to ask: How dare you? 

Andrew: Muhahahahaha.

Kara: Well, despite Andrew’s first reaction, we’re not actually evil. But we are always trying to tell the best story, even if that means breaking some hearts along the way!

Let’s start with the basics: how did Pixelberry start, and where did the concepts for HS Story, Hollywood U, and Choices come from?

Andrew: Pixelberry was founded in 2008 by a small group of friends who’d been working together for a while, first at a mobile games company called Centerscore and then later at Electronic Arts. Our biggest game before Pixelberry was called Surviving High School, and it was an episodic interactive story for the YA audience, all about teen romance, friendships, drama, etc. It was actually really big for its time, one of the biggest original hits of the pre-smartphone era, and it ended up running for hundreds of episodes. It even had a crime-based spinoff, Cause of Death.

After we left EA and started Pixelberry, Surviving High School was kind of our guiding light. It showed us that there was a really big market that wasn’t being served, of mobile users who wanted story-based games, and in particular, stories that deviated from those represented in traditional gaming: stories about romance, focused on character, and frequently about women. At the time, sim games were really popular, so we decided to combine our existing experience making narrative games with a simulation design, which is how High School Story was born. Hollywood U was the logical extension of that, taking a lot of what we’d learned and applying it to a slightly older setting.

We considered a lot of different options for our next game, but Choices stood out right away. It was a way for us to get back to our roots in a lot of ways, to go back to episodic interactive narrative, and to really let our writing team, which I think is the best in the business, shine.

How did the writers for the games come on board?

Kara: Mostly people want to come work at Pixelberry because they’re passionate about stories and games. We have a really intense application process and interview system that I can’t talk too much about or it would ruin some of the things we do. We’re actually right now looking for awesome writers… if anyone’s interested in applying, there’s a link on our Careers page:

Bless you guys for the lack of heteronormativity in your games, especially in “The Freshman” in Choices, which really well balances inclusion without the pretense that everyone in the world views queer relationships exactly like straight ones. Please tell me we can expect this to keep up with future installments and games! And in general, how much is diversity a priority in the game creation?

img_5344Max: Representation and inclusivity are really important to us. In crafting “The Freshman,” we knew right away that we wanted players to at least have the option to date a woman, and we’re certainly interested in exploring that relationship further in sequel books.

To some extent the way our values inform our writing might lead to experimentation book to book. For example, in an upcoming story, we may let you switch POVs, inhabiting some characters that are straight, others that are gay, and others with a more fluid sexuality. Above all, it’s about staying true to the characters while striking the right balance in terms of giving players the freedom to roleplay and choose who they love.

Are any of the storylines, characters, or dialogue based on real people, other than the ones that are openly celeb-inspired?

Andrew: Sometimes we might take inspiration from current events, like when we had a storyline in HSS about the harassment of girl gamers. But we usually try to keep things original, and definitely try to present them in our way. It’s definitely something to be careful about; one time, I named a serial killer character after a friend of mine, and it still comes up as the top result when you search his name!

High School Story has so many different categories of kid, from the basic “jock” or “nerd” to the more specific “foodie” or “mountain climber.” How do the Pixelberry crew generally identify their own high school “types”?

Max: As you’d expect at a gaming company, we’re almost uniformly jocks…

…just kidding! Actually, there’s an incredible variety of “types” represented in our office, from pure nerds, to anime fans, school presidents, student journalists, artists, and more… and actually, yes, a couple of athletes too.

How do you prioritize future updates, and how much does reviewer feedback feed into them?

Andrew: This is a long and complicated process, because there are a million-and-one ideas on how to improve a game and only so much that can be done. We have a lot of meetings to figure this out, and we try to get feedback and ideas from everyone. Player feedback definitely plays a huge role in our decision-making process; we try to read all the reviews, and we regularly compile lists of the most commonly requested features, improvements, etc. One of our big goals is that every update has at least one thing that will make our players really happy, and their feedback is our best way to figure out what that will be.

Obviously, as a YA/NA author, I love that most of these games are all geared toward that same audience. What have been some things that are really important to you to include as part of writing for teens?

Max: I feel like there’s a bit of an attitude that writing “for teens” requires you to understand this alien species, the Post Millennial. Honestly, I don’t see teens as very different from adults, except they lack two resources fundamental to adulthood: life experience and freedom.

The former means that each experience is new and fresh. First love hasimg_5340 no context. By the time you’re onto Tenth Love, you know the drill a bit better and you can look out for certain pitfalls and red flags, but you’re also a bit more jaded, more guarded. I think The Freshman draws on the rawness of a young love story, with lots of unintentional drama and heightened emotion.
A lack of freedom (most teens are dependent on their parents for food and shelter and therefore must play by their parents’ rules) means that stories about oppressive power structures tend to resonate more with a teenage audience. I think that partly informs The Crown and the Flame—a teenager is more likely to respond to a story whose protagonist wants to destroy the existing power structure and reshape the world as she sees fit.

Choices has three games/books right now, one “contemp,” one “fantasy,” and one “thriller.” I know there are some novel-writers on the Pixelberry staff – does what you write for Choices correspond to what you write elsewhere, or is it a dip into something different for you?

Andrew: I personally write YA fantasy, which is funny because the Book I worked on in Choices is the crime thriller. Our writing team is really varied in terms of what they’ve worked on elsewhere.

Kara: I love writing fantasy, so it was really great to work on The Crown & The Flame, but I also love when what I’m working on for Choices pushes me in a direction that I wouldn’t normally go. Sometimes it’s really exhilarating to try a new genre or take a story in a direction you wouldn’t normally go and realize that you actually have a lot of fun writing it!

My favorite character in any of the games, which would surprise no one who’s read my first NA, is Professor Hunt of Hollywood U. Who are the faves among the Pixelberry crew?

Andrew: Heh! Hunt’s a big favorite all around. I’ve got a big soft spot for Nishan and Sakura in HSS, and I had a blast writing Dave Reyes in Choices.

Max: I love Bianca’s entourage in HWU. Shae and Lance are awesome, especially as you get to know them better and dig into the complexities of their backstories. In HSS, I love Kara, especially once you get into her relationship with Mia. I respond to characters that switch sides, I guess—either villains who become heroes or vice-versa. Those kinds of turns always interest me and make for complex characters.

Kara: I love writing Val Greaves in The Crown & The Flame. I love writing for characters that are a little meaner and will really just say what they’re thinking, even if it isn’t exactly tactful.

And, sorry, but I must ask: when can we expect to see more???

Andrew: All the time! We’ve got plans to add new chapters every week, and you might even see some brand new Books soon…

Kara: We know people are excited for more, so we’re writing as fast as we can! In fact, we better get back to that right now!

*looks up from where she’s obsessively refreshing Choices on her phone right now* Uhhh I mean thanks so much for letting me pick your glorious brains, and please keep up the awesome work!!

My Top Ten All-Time Favorite Fantasy YAs!


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Happy Top Ten Tuesday, courtesy of the Broke and the Bookish! This week asks bloggers to pick their top ten favorites from any particular genre, and since I’d never be able to pick my top ten contemp, I went with my second-fave genre, fantasy! So, behold, my top ten all-time fave YA fantasy novels/series/whatever, in no particular order:

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Young Elites by Marie Lu

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

And I Darken by Kiersten White

The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine

The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

If you have any recs for someone who loved all ten of the above books/series, feel free to drop them in the comments!

Interview with Literary Agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock!


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It’s been such a long time since I’ve interviewed a literary agent, so the opportunity to interview one as lovely as Jennifer is one I absolutely had to take! Check out her wisdom, scout her wishlist here, and above all, query her!

You acquire in such a wide variety of areas, from cookbooks to contemporary YA to law. What categories and genres feel the closest to your heart, and why?

I’m definitely a generalist! I’ve always read widely, and I think one of the joys of agenting is that you’re not constricted to a certain style or type of book. And it’s lovely to be able to send things out at the same time and not have to juggle editors—I’m going out in the next month or so with a women’s fiction, a YA, and a nonfiction project.

To answer your question, though, if I had to pick one category of my heart, it would have to be women’s fiction. I’ve been reading it for years; I devoured the Red Dress Ink imprint in the early 2000s. (Blogger’s Note: Me too!!) One of the reasons I read is to figure out who I am and what my place in the world is, and those are the books where I can most fully see myself. (And on a related note, I’d really like to find more diverse authors in this category so that a greater number of women can feel the same way.) But don’t stop sending me all the other good stuff, writers; I love it, too!

I never get to talk to anyone who works with cookbooks, but that was actually my first internship in publishing—the now-defunct (I think) little cookbook division at HarperCollins—so I have to ask about it. What kind of cuisine is your favorite to read about? To eat? To cook?

I think in the internet era, when we all just google “chicken goat cheese” or whatever we have in our fridges, a cookbook has to bring something extra to the table. (That was an unintentional pun that I’m intentionally leaving in place!) I really love cookbooks with a narrative component or themed cookbooks like Judith Jones’ THE PLEASURES OF COOKING FOR ONE, and my favorite sort of food books are memoirs with recipes like Molly Wizenberg’s A HOMEMADE LIFE.

On a trip to Italy once, my sister-in-law posed a question: if you could only eat either French food or Italian food for the rest of your life, which would you choose? I went French–I can’t live without my mother sauces and pommes frites. But I actually love to cook Italian food. The precision of baking is my favorite, but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so pasta is my savory equivalent. You know I like you if I bust out my gnocchi rolling board.

I actually have yet to sign a cookbook author—if you’re reading this, cookbook writers, query me!—but I DID just sign an amazingly fun project from writer Lauren Koshere (@LaurenKoshere) called PIE-WORTHY: How to Bake Smart in Love that guides you through what to bake at various stages in a relationship and includes recipes. I’m thrilled to be working with her on that.

You have such a wide variety of professional experience outside publishing, too. How do those experiences contribute to how you do your agenting job, and what you particularly want to see in work submitted?

If I’d just worked in a PR firm, too, I think I’d be fully equipped to be a literary agent! In all seriousness, though, while it’s by no means necessary to go to law school to be an agent, I do think that I have a stronger than average grasp on contracts, licensing, and copyright issues, which has been a huge help as I’ve gotten started. And working as a high school English teacher 1) improved my editorial skills and 2) gave me a firmer foundation in YA lit (another category I love so hard—I actually started a YA for adults book club in Austin!). This is very much a learn-as-you-go sort of job, but I do think that my other career starts gave me a solid foundation on which to build.

In terms of how it affects what I like to see, as a teacher talking to teens every day, I became very aware of the gulf between what teens want to read and what some adults want teens to read. I actually think most YA writers are aware of this and write for teens themselves, but it seems like a bigger issue in MG. With the law, honestly, that was largely a misstep for me, and more than anything the experience has made me connect more with stories about people who are struggling to find their way or opting for a less obvious path in life.

Obviously we’re all familiar with some serious agent-querier horror stories, but let’s talk the fiip side – what are some best practices you wish all queriers abided by?

First of all, let me just say that most queriers are lovely. And I can imagine how difficult it must be for writers! There are many agents out there who have talked in depth about queries, but here are the highlights:

– Do your research—An agent’s submission guidelines are the bare minimum. I love when writers respond to my #MSWL or note something I said on Twitter. (Non-book things are fair game! I got a query in response to my complaining about bridal showers; I LOVED that.)

– SELL your book to me—Don’t just summarize. Figure out what what makes your book special and what the most compelling way to convey that is. Comp titles are your friends if you use them right.

– Be responsive–If I ask for pages and you can’t send them within a couple days for some reason, that’s totally fine, but I appreciate you letting me know. I get excited to see things when I request! And definitely pay attention to the format agents ask to see your work in.

– Be polite–Obviously! This is a professional communication. I will say, though, that I don’t think you need to reply to a form query rejection.

– Query only when your manuscript is ready and only when you know you want an agent—If you know it needs more revision, do that first. If you think you might want to self-pub, make that decision first—or later, but I shouldn’t be involved in it.

– Set guidelines if you get an offer–It’s incredibly helpful when you tell me you got an offer and plan to respond to it by X date. If I really need more time, I can ask for it, but I always flounder a little when I get an email that says essentially, “I got an offer, so let me know…”

Those are the basics, but here are a few for extra credit:

– Don’t change the subject line when you send requested material–Many of us use Gmail-based email, and if you change the subject line to say requested or what not, it moves it out of the conversation. Then, particularly if you’ve started an entirely new email, I have to dig through my inbox for your query to refresh my memory before I read. Which brings me to:

– Paste your query into the front of the manuscript—Then I don’t have to go back to my inbox at all, and I’m happy when I start reading!

– Use small paragraphs in your query letter–They’re easier to digest when I’m reading many queries in one sitting, and if I understand your work easily, I’m more apt to like it.

You used to curate YA content for Riffle. If you were doing that right now, what recent books would you absolutely have to include?

So many things. For those of you who have never checked out Riffle, it allows you to make lists of books, and part of my job was to come up with themed lists of YA titles. I don’t think I ever got to do a dance-themed list, which is a particular obsession of mine, and there are so many goodies to put on that now: TINY PRETTY THINGS (dying to read the sequel that just came out), POINTE, THE WALLS AROUND US…just to name a few. I’d also love to do a football list—FIRST & THEN would definitely be on it, and THE LOVE THAT SPLIT THE WORLD gets bonus points because it could go on either of those two lists. And on a more serious note, I would definitely include a list on rape and sexual assault that would include, among others, ALL THE RAGE and EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR.

Anyone can see what you’re looking for right now on your site, but what’s something that you made you insta-request that you had no idea you were looking for until you saw it?

I requested a speculative fiction manuscript recently that I’m excited to read–I usually stick to the realistic world and leave speculative to my capable LDA colleagues who specialize in it. But this writer was responding to my MSWL request for books about happy couples, and the project just sounded fascinating. Though it’s important to follow agents’ guidelines, I think it’s also okay to take slight chances with queries particularly when responding to something an agent says she’s looking for. I’m really never unhappy about receiving a query; sometimes you truly don’t know until you see something.

Imagine you’ve just gotten a manuscript that looks amazing and you know you want to read it from start to finish. And whoa, you have an entire day free to do it! What’s your ideal reading setup? (Space, snacks, the works. Don’t skimp.)

Ah, the dream. When I really want to treat myself and focus in on a manuscript, I read in bed. I’m a little weird about my space division, and I normally make myself sit in a chair or at my desk if I’m working; bed is for sleeping only. But I have a very soft mattress and far more blankets than I need, so it’s very cozy.

I’d also change into what I call “play clothes”—not stuff you sleep in but not things you’d leave the house in on a normal day either; think, the ratty pair of sweatpants. Glasses, not contacts. Blinds open for the natural light. My “mellow” playlist in the background: Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, Carole King, etc.

Definitely an oversized mug of tea in my favorite grey TYPEWRITER mug in the morning with a Kind bar or some such—I don’t like to waste time on meal prep when I’m in deep reading mode. Chex Mix and cherry Coke Zero (almost impossible to find in NYC, but a girl can dream) as the day wears on; eventually I’d break down and order a pizza. This actually sounds delightful; I’m going to implement this plan as soon as these moving boxes are gone.

And finally, tell us the coolest thing you’ve experienced in bookworld since starting work in publishing. 

EVERYTHING; I love being an insider! One of the best things, though, is on the nonfiction side. Whenever I see someone doing something cool in the world, I can email them to introduce myself and ask if they want to talk about writing a book. Oftentimes, nothing comes of this, but the conversations I’ve had have all been fascinating. And it’s just such a luxury to have greater access to talented people.

One of my clients, Jessica Luther, is a prominent sports journalist, and when I was reading a proposal for a colleague a couple weeks ago, her client cited Jessica (not knowing she was a client of mine) in one of the chapters. It just tickled me to get confirmation that I’m working with someone who’s an influencer, whose work matters to other people. It’s wonderful to feel that, as an agent, I’m helping to put good and important things into the world.

Johnson-Blalock HeadshotJennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website:

Dahlia’s Book Club: August 2016

Welcome to Dahlia’s book club, wherein I rec four books in each of five categories every month and hope that you read them. If you do, and you leave a link to a review for at least one of them in the comments, you’ll be entered to win one of three prizes every month – one entry per book. If you read and review* one in each and every category, you automatically win. The last weekday of the month is your last day to submit a review, and the length of the review does not matter, but it must be posted to Goodreads and Amazon or to be eligible for a prize. Simple enough, right?

If a title’s in blue, it means I haven’t read it yet either – let’s do it together, shall we?

*To enter to win a prize, your review must be new. To be eligible for the Five Reviews Insta-prize, up to two of your reviews can be old, as long as they’re on Amazon.

If you’re loving something you’re reading from the list, please share on hashtag #DahlBC!

YA Published Before This Year

YA Published This Year

Out This Month+

+Anything in this category is still due by end of month for that month’s prize, but these books will continue to make you eligible for an entry for the next month. If you reviewed one of July’s books in this category, link in the comments to be eligible to win this month!

2016 Debut


As for the prizes:

  1. An ARC of We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen (US only)
  2. A paperback of Wake the Hollow by Gaby Triana (US only)
  3. The ebook of your choice by Courtney Milan
  4. The ebook of your choice by Alyssa Cole
  5. An ARC of Thicker Than Water by Kelly Fiore (US only)
  6. A paperback of Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton