Anna Shinoda

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Stories for All: Girl Books for Boys?

Twitter tells me this is “Stories for All” week, so I thought it appropriate to share something that I’ve been thinking about since last December.

For the holidays, I always buy the kids in my life books.  I go to my local independent book store (usually Children’s Book World or Book Soup – both have a fantastic staff and great selection) and pick my favorites selections.  I have a running list so I don’t buy anyone the same book twice, and I have read every single book I gift.  It is one of my favorite parts of the season.

Last December, I was standing in the YA section wondering what to get an eighteen year old boy.  I was stumped.  In the past year I had read lots of books that girls would enjoy, but not many that I knew a heterosexual eighteen year old male might find interesting.  There was one novel he’d probably love. Historical fiction involving spies and pilots during World War II, full of narrative tension and action.  But, I sighed, both main characters were females, so he probably wouldn’t like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

I was standing in the book store about to make a mistake.  I was going to walk away from an excellent selection based on the gender of the main characters.  I thought about my own book, Learning Not to Drown.  I wondered Read more…

Die Mitte Von Allem

Die Mitte Von Allem cover

On January 20th, Die Mitte Von Allemthe German translation of Learning Not to Drown was released.   Me being classic me has been trying to think of what to write for my blog post about it for a little over two weeks.  (Now you know why it took me ten years to write a novel.)

Every time I tried writing this post, one consistent thought came to mind:  It’s weird having a book translated into a language I can’t read.  It’s completely and totally bizarre.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad weird.  I’m thrilled.  But it’s still strange.

So how did this translation come about?  Last May my editor at Atheneum emailed me the news that they had made my first foreign sale to Magellan in Germany.  This fall, while on a visit to Berlin, I met with my publisher and my publicist.  I found out that the title would be Die Mitte Von Allem (The Middle of Everything) and was shown this beautiful cover – which, by the way, I love.  It could not be more different from the original, but it feels right.  It feels like Clare’s story is behind that cover.  As strange as it is to have it translated into words I can’t understand, it blows my mind that Clare and Luke and Peter… and Skeleton… are now living in another language.  Thanks Magellan, translator Petra Koob Pawis, and all the German readers choosing to spend some time with the Tovin family.

Forever Stuck Between Love and Fear: The Inspiration Behind Learning Not to Drown

“What inspired you to write Learning Not to Drown?” is the first question I’m asked in interviews.

I sometimes say that the United States incarcerates more of their population than any other country in the world.  Or that we spend a million dollars each year to incarcerate the residents of a single city block.  I might note the war on drugs has done very little to keep people from doing drugs and has contributed to the over-crowding of our prisons.  I could talk about the 3.2% of the US population-  almost 2 million citizens of my country– that are either incarcerated or on probation.

But the real reason I wrote a about a girl who has a brother in prison is because my brother is in prison.

A long time before the book came out, I was already thinking about how I might answer the “what inspired you” question.  Even writing this blog post has taken me months and several drafts to figure out what I want to say.  And although I was (and still am) nervous about admitting the truth, I decided that it is better that it come from me than someone finding it and feeling like they’ve found buried treasure.

So when I’m, asked, I am honest… and then most of the interviewers get all sidetracked.  They want to know how much of the story is me and how much is fiction. I tell them that if I wanted to, I would have written a memoir, but I decided to write a work of fiction out of respect for my family. I talk about how writing is like making a smoothie. How my husband and I go out to the garden and pick some kale and grind it up, then we add bananas, yogurt, strawberries, peaches and blueberries. How it all becomes part of the mix and it is impossible to separate the kale – the me – from the other stuff – the research and imagination. But unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. The moment I say I have a brother in prison, like my protagonist Clare, the most interviewers have already concluded that Clare’s story and mine are one in the same, intertwined, names have been changed to protect the innocent.

And they are wrong.

Yes, having a brother in prison made me the first resource for researching this book.  But when I started looking outside my own story, I wasn’t just researching to write a book. I found myself searching to understand who “we” are – the families out there like mine, who struggle to fake perceived “normal” while hiding our actual “normal.

In high school I never talked about having a brother in prison.  He was quite a bit older than I was, and being the youngest of seven kids, it was easy for my oldest siblings to blend into each other in my friend’s eyes.  It was easier for me, most days, to forget where he was, the only reminder that I had that seventh brother was the last picture taken before he was locked up that hung in my dad’s photography studio, right in line next to the rest of our family.  That, and the letters, or the collect phone calls.  No matter how much I tried to pretend or forget, the truth was always waiting for me.

While researching, I found no shortages of documentaries and journalists covering problems with our current prison system.  And I was amazed how people on message boards or chat rooms spilled their feelings behind the comfort of their keyboards, the protection of anonymity.  The thing that surprised me the most?  The openness my own family and friends showed when I told them about Learning Not To Drown, and the stories they told about themselves, about their incarcerated loved one.

There were stumbling blocks along the way.  In my research, I dug up new information on my own brother  – something that I didn’t know before… facts that threw me into a depression so deep and so wide I didn’t know if I could find my way to the surface.  But with the help of a good therapist and by helping Clare come to terms with her own situation, I eventually did.  Just weeks before the release of the book, I found out more information.  Which brought me to another realization: most families don’t know the whole truth.  We will never know the whole truth.

There are approximately two million people in the US correctional system today.  My book is about their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunt, uncles, cousins, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and friends.  It is for the ones who live in the greyest area of all – where crime and punishment isn’t as cut and dry as good guys and bad guys.

Learning Not to Drown isn’t about me, it is about the families, the friends, the lovers, the children. The ones left at home. The ones forever stuck. Stuck between believing the people we love and believing the victims. Stuck between hope and reality. Stuck between love and fear. All the while, hoping to find a way to refuse to let the sunlight be stolen from our lives.

Behind the Cover: The Incredible Photography of Kelia Anne MacCluskey


2p_learning_jkt-version-21.jpgBehind every cover is not just the story written by the author, but also one of how the visual representation of that book came to be.  This is the story of how Learning Not to Drown ended up with its incredible cover.

EDWIN USHIRO To Counter Imponderability

EDWIN USHIRO To Counter Imponderability

You might be surprised to hear that most authors get little to no say in what their covers look like.  Since I can be really pickycontrolling, hands-on, I wanted to give my suggestions on what I’d like to see.  I also am very aware that I don’t know anything about what makes a good cover for a book and the professionals Atheneum/Simon & Schuster definitely do, so I timidly asked my editor if I could give them a small list of some artists that I thought would represent my work well.  My editor told me that YA books usually have photos on the front, but, decided to give an illustration a chance.  It turns out that Edwin Ushiro was on both my list and theirs.  He painted a beautiful swimmer inspired by Clare, surrounded by water both dark and light, tumultuous and calm.  I immediately hung his painting in my office across from my desk, where I could easily be inspired by Edwin’s art. But, early testing of the cover came back with some tough results – most people thought the book was mid-grade, not YA.

Michael McCartney at Simon and Schuster got to work on designing another cover for Learning Not to Drown while I continued to work on edits… and continued to have stress nightmares about my cover.

When the final jacket came to me, I fell in love.

Although the photo was taken years before my book was completed, it looked like it had been created just for Learning Not to Drown.  I instantly looked up the photographer – Kelia Anne MacCluskey –  and almost passed out when I discovered that she took the photo WHEN SHE WAS ONLY SIXTEEN.

I haven’t been able to meet her yet in person, but I was able to connect with her via email and do an interview. After finding out more about Kelia, I was even more impressed – not only is she the photographer (at that time largely self-taught), but she also was the model, AND she taught herself how to use photoshop through online tutorials and experimentation.  She is a true artist, and I look forward to see much more of her work in the future.

AS: I love that the photo looks almost like a painting.  Can you tell me a little about the process from taking the photo to manipulating it?

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Read the First 6 Chapters of LEARNING NOT TO DROWN Now!

Hello!  I woke up to the news from my publisher that we are going to share a little taste of LEARNING NOT TO DROWN with you!  An exclusive excerpt is living here:


If you want a chance to win a finished copy of my debut, LEARNING NOT TO DROWN, you can head on over to Goodreads  to enter this giveaway!

Book Club Message

To everyone who has participated in Book Club: Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed reading along with you and hearing your opinions during our discussions.  I loved being exposed to new authors – thanks to those of you who suggested books and voted – and I hope you liked the selections I picked out as well.

In case you missed it: at our last meeting, I announced that I would no longer be able to host our book club. With Learning Not to Drown being released soon, trying to finish my next book, and spending time with my family, I have run out of spare hours.

Thank you again for making book club great!  

Photos, Doubt, and Bobby Hundreds

I am an author.  I represent myself through words, through stories.  I am not a model.  I am not an actress.  When you turn a camera on me, I’m most likely to make a funny face, or at the very least, smile.  In fact, I can probably count my posed, serious photos on one hand.

And yet, as an author I have written a serious novel on a somber topic, and when my publisher asked for a picture to represent me, and my novel, I needed to take a serious photo.  The hair was flat ironed, the make-up was applied, the dress was put on.  I did it all myself, and second guessed it the whole way.

A candid picture captures a moment, but a portrait is set up to make a moment.  We all try to look our best in a portrait.

And what if our best isn’t good enough?

Isn’t pretty enough?

Isn’t skinny enough?

Isn’t perfect?

I found myself on a trail I liked to hike, feeling like an asshole because I was wearing a dress and heels instead of my familiar Nikes and running shorts and tank top, pressured to take a photo that I know will represent me in a way I’ve never been before: as a published author.  It all seemed so far out of my comfort zone – except behind the lens was my friend Bobby, and next to him was my husband and we were chatting like we would any afternoon.

It morphed from a photo shoot into a hang out, and I paused often from the smiling and laughing and swatting at the thousands of gnats on the trail that had taken to surrounding the three of us.  I paused to think about my book, to think about Clare and Luke as Bobby snapped pictures.

As expected, Bobby’s work was beautiful and we had several shots to choose from.  He did what he does best – tell a story.  A little about me, a little about my book.  The mood is right, a mix of hope and sorrow, captured in lighting, focus, and composition.

His work is perfect, but I’ve been raised to pick apart my flaws.  Always seeing the beauty in others, struggling to see in myself that perfection is in the imperfection.

The photos sat on my desktop for months, shared only with my publicist for the Atheneum catalog, while a pancake I decorated with whipped cream, chocolate chips and marshmallows continued to be my visual representation on twitter.

And they sat, and I waited.  For the right moment, I guess, the moment when I was ready.  Being ready might mean that the book is coming out soon and I don’t have an option.  Being ready might mean that I’m tired of having a pancake represent my face.  Being ready might mean that I need to stop worrying about being judged, because the scrutiny my picture gets will not matter to me as much as the scrutiny my book will get.   It’s a good warm up.  So here they are.

Anna Shinoda photo by Bobby Kim 1

Anna Shinoda Photo by Bobby Kim 3

Anna Shinoda photo by Bobby Kim 2

Next Book Club: The Lord of Opium

We started book club this year with one of my all time favorites: Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, so I am especially excited to dig into our next book club selection: The Lord of Opium. We finally get to find out what happens next for Matt as he takes the place of El Patrón as the leader of Opium. After our book club discussion about The House of the Scorpion, I can’t wait to hear what you all think about the sequel. Hope you’ll join me on Monday, January 13 at 1pm PST in my ustream channel.

College, Sunset Strip, and Meeting Mike

Sunset Strip will always feel like college.  Living in Long Beach, it was only about a thirty minute drive away, and my friends and I often went there to see bands up close in tightly packed, sweaty venues that held no more than two or three hundred people.  I was in a sorority in college.  The one I joined was known for “letting anyone in” meaning, we didn’t judge girls by their race, weight or sexual orientation.  We weren’t your stereotypical sorority, so while others that fit that bill may have been busy doing whatever they do, my sisters and I were piling in our cars and going to the Whiskey or Roxy or Billboard Live or Troubadour or Coconut Teaser to see bands we loved and to support our friends in their musical endeavors.  It was at a party at Brad and Phoenix’s apartment after a Xero show that my friend from Long Beach State, Mark Wakefield, introduced me to the rapper in his band.

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Out With the Old and In with the…Same?

Happy 2013!

Now that the clock has struck midnight in California, I am toasting in the New Year with my family (thank you word press for the ability to write this early and publish it just after midnight on January 1)  and I will (probably) be heading straight to bed, because tomorrow when I wake up, it will be January 1, 2013 and… well, not much will have changed, really.  Sure, it’ll be 2013, but no matter how late I stay out tonight, I’ll still have to wake up with my children, I’ll still have an unfinished manuscript that I began in September, my novel “Learning Not To Drown” will still be in the final editing process, my inbox will still be full of unanswered emails and my closet will most surely still be a mess… and I certainly will be putting off finishing any projects for at least another day, since New Year’s Day is a holiday.  Never mind all of the New Year’s resolutions spewed over drinks on New Years Eve, I can’t possibly start on anything productive for another day because it’s a holiday for crying out loud.

So Happy New Year!   Enjoy your holiday and friends and family.  Be safe out there.  And make a New Years resolution that will enrich your life in some way – one that’s do-able, one that you can connect with for the whole year.  Don’t vow to lose x amount of pounds or go to the gym five days a week, or any other loads of bull shit that you can’t possibly keep up with.  Resolutions that have served me well in the past were short reminders: have compassion, trust those that deserve your trust, say no to drama, say yes to fun… and for this year… my resolution is “don’t over think everything”.  I’m hoping that little sentence will get me making some decisions faster.  AND I can save imagining every possible scenario for that novel I started back in September.

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