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Interview: Courtney Sheinmel

November 16th, 2009 (07:10 am)
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Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: The Prisoner score music

Welcome to the 2009 Winter Blog Blast Tour! (You may ask yourself, "What's a WBBT?" Click here for the answer.) I'm happy to help kick off this year's events with this interview, in which Courtney Sheinmel considers character names, middle school memories, and cheese, as well as more serious matters, such as AIDS awareness and the effect of divorce on children.

I started things off by talking about her newest book, the positively wonderful novel Positively, which I highly recommend.

Your second novel, Positively, is about a young girl who is HIV-positive, having acquired it from her mother during the pregnancy. The story was inspired, in part, by your involvement with The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which we talked about in our previous interview. When writing Positively, you were no doubt drawing on past experiences and people you've known, some of whom have lost their battles... It must have been a difficult story to write.

Oh yes, writing POSITIVELY was extremely difficult. The narrator, Emmy, has to face life as an HIV-positive teen, and as a motherless daughter. I had some very emotional conversations with kids I know, who have experienced both of those things.

But more than that, sometimes I felt like I didn't have a right to tell the story. After all, my mom is alive and well; I can see her and speak to her whenever I want. And I'm HIV-negative, and don't have to take pills several times a day. I wanted to do right by Emmy, and I didn't want to offend anyone who was living with HIV. One night I had dinner with Elizabeth Glaser's son, Jake. He has been HIV-positive since birth, and when he was ten years old, he lost his mom to AIDS. I told him that I was really scared and that I felt like a fraud. He encouraged me to keep going. He said he believed in me, and believed I could tell the right story. I will always be grateful to him for that.

How did you select the name for your lead character, Emerson, better known as Emmy?

Sometimes I name characters after people I know, but in real life, I don't know anyone named Emerson. It was important to me to give her a name that wasn't attached to any of my friends or family members. I love androgynous names for girls, so I was thinking about Dylan or Blake. My agent suggested I give her a more feminine name, and I was quite pleased with myself when I thought of Emerson, because of the nickname "Emmy." I gave her the middle name Louise, so her dad could call her "Emmy Lou."

I wish I had a meaningful, poetic answer to why her name is Emerson – like it was inspired by a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. The truth is that I just really love the name, and I think it suits her: it is beautiful, complicated, and unique, and to me Emerson is all of those things.

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Drop by Courtney's website and blog.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2008)
Family: Courtney Sheinmel
Hope: Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Stella Batts Needs a New Name by Courtney Sheinmel, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell

Visit all of today's tour stops:
Jim Ottaviani at Chasing Ray
Courtney Sheinmel at Bildungsroman
Derek Landy at Finding Wonderland
Mary E. Pearson at Miss Erin
Megan Whalen Turner at HipWriterMama
Frances Hardinge at Fuse #8

Here's the Bildungsroman schedule for WBBT 2009:
Monday, November 16th: Courtney Sheinmel
Tuesday, November 17th: Laurie Faria Stolarz
Wednesday, November 18th: Jacqui Robbins
Thursday, November 19th: Thomas Randall
Friday, November 20th: Joan Holub

View the full schedule for WBBT 2009.

Little Willow [userpic]

Positively by Courtney Sheinmel

November 16th, 2009 (07:00 am)
thirsty

Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: The Prisoner score music

Emerson is HIV-positive, having acquired it from her mother during the pregnancy. When she was eight, her parents got divorced. Emmy stayed with her mom, and the two became extremely close. Five years later, shortly after she finishes seventh grade and turns thirteen, Emmy's world turns upside down. Her mom passes away from AIDS. Emmy has to go live with her father and stepmother, who are expecting a child. With only the best of intentions, they send Emmy to Camp Positive, a summer camp for young girls who are HIV-positive.

Emmy is reluctant to attend Camp Positive. She doesn't want to be constantly reminded of what's in her blood, what killed her mother - the only thing her mother ever gave her that neither of them would have wanted for her or anyone else. Then she realizes that she's surrounded by people who get it. Unlike her best friend at home, Nicole, the kids at camp understand what it's like to have to take pills every day and to have blood drawn and tested and checked on a regular basis. They know what it's like to be cautious, and to be scared. At the same time, they aren't always frozen by fear. They can laugh, and have fun, and eat junk food, and be kids. They can have a life that doesn't wholly revolve around their illnesses or their worries. They can have hope and happiness. Without meaning to, she starts to enjoy camp. Without realizing it, she starts to enjoy life again. She makes new friends. She reaches out. She learns how to be brave.

Emmy's story isn't just about being sick, but about being well. It isn't just about losing a mother, but loving and remembering her, always. This is a camp story, a summer story, a survivor's story, and a daughter's story all wrapped up in one.

Courtney Sheinmel's second novel, Positively, is as thought-provoking and memorable as her first, My So-Called Family. Both accurately capture the voices of young teens as they try to navigate their ways through the world, creating their own paths even as they discover the legacies created by their parents. Both novels are pitch-perfect for their target audience of early teens.

Positively answers questions about AIDS and HIV truthfully and gracefully, without ever being racy or disrespectful. As Courtney was moved to get involved with The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation after reading a magazine article when she herself was a teenager, may this novel move readers to become likewise educated and involved.

Note: Though Emerson and the other characters in Positively are fictious, the story was inspired, in part, by the author's involvement with The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. You can learn more about the Foundation and the inspiration for this novel in my interviews with Courtney in 2008 and 2009.

Favorite passages:

I could hear the ordinary, everyday sounds - wheels against pavement, wind rustling the leaves in the trees. A car drove by, like it was any other day. Why was everything still moving? I felt like everything should have stopped. How was I still breathing? I sucked in my breath and held it to see if it was possible to make time stop, but I could still feel my hear beating in my chest and I let my breath out clowly. - Page 3

...Mom had bought a bunch of books she wanted me to read -- books she wanted me to read now, and books for adults that she wanted me to have later on. [...] I imagined her bringing the stack of books to the counter to pay. The cashier wouldn't have known the reason Mom was buying them. She would've just taken Mom's money and put the books in a bag. - Pages 30-31

I wonder how far away something has to be before you can't see it anymore. What's the exact distance that is the difference between seeing it and having it disappear? - Page 154

How long can fingerprints stay on something before they fade away? - Page 204

What to read next: If you enjoyed Positively, you should pick up The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando, another touching story following a teenage girl through her first summer without her mother. (Note that Pursuit is for a slightly older audience, as the main character, Betsy, is an incoming senior in high school.) You should also get Courtney Sheinmel's wonderful debut novel, My So-Called Family, as noted above.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2009)
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2008)
Book Review: My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Stella Batts Needs a New Name by Courtney Sheinmel, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell
Family: Courtney Sheinmel
Hope: Courtney Sheinmel

Little Willow [userpic]

My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel

October 21st, 2008 (06:33 am)
content

Current Mood: content
Current Song: Father Goose score music

Ever since she was little, Leah's known where she came from: her mother and a donor from Lyons Reproductive Services. She enjoyed life as an only child and didn't mind having a single parent. When her mother got married, Leah gained a stepfather - and later, a little half-brother - who loved her unconditionally. Though very content with her home life, Leah's always had questions about her biological father, questions her mother can't answer. She doesn't know his name, only knows that he was Donor 730, and that her mother selected him based on certain attributes listed in his profile at the clinic.

Shortly after her family moves to a new town, Leah befriends classmates at her new school. That fresh start, along with the family tree assignment given to her little brother, prompts Leah to once again wonder if her donor had any more children. Thanks to an online match system - which she keeps secret from her mom - Leah finds other kids who were fathered by Donor 730. She quickly bonds with a girl her age named Samantha. She is comforted and contented by meeting her half-siblings. She doesn't search for them in an effort to upset her mother, but rather to find what she feels is a missing piece of herself, her history.

I really liked the fact that Leah loved and valued her mother, her stepfather, and her half-brother. She was grateful for her family and never pushed them away. She was frustrated and confused at times, but she was never mean nor difficult on purpose. Instead of having a rebellion or acting out, she truly had a search, something she wanted and needed to do for herself. When she bends the rules, and again when secrets are revealed, she apologizes and she tells the truth.

Sheinmel's young characters sound and act their age. Dialogue between them rings true, as do Leah's thoughts. Each of Leah's new friends - Avery, Brenna and Callie, and, later, her half-sister Samantha - has her own personality and family. Even Avery's college-bound brother Chase factors into the story, as Leah watches him interact with his sister, his father, and his girlfriend, Lizzie. I really enjoyed Leah's stream-of-consciousness narration. She felt so real, so honest. I was utterly delighted by her younger brother. Carefree five-year-old Charlie says the sweetest, smartest things, a combination of intelligence and imagination.

My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel gets my recommendation - and my appreciation. This is a great story about family values and valuing your family. This notable debut has earned a spot on my Best Books of 2008 list.

My favorite quotes from the book include:

Sometimes you know you're about to change you life with just one movement, like the last time I turned off my light in my bedroom at the pink house, or when I saw Mom slip a ring on Simon's finger on their wedding day. That's how I felt when I clicked the link to "Lyon's Sibling Registry." I moved the mouse so the cursor was over the words and I pressed my finger down. - Page 46

Now that I had a secret, I was noticing the secrets everywhere. I couldn't tell anyone what Mom was writing about, and Chase didn't want to talk about Lizzie. Now I wasn't allowed to tell Brenna and Callie about apple picking, and I didn't want to tell Avery what I was starting to think about Chase. My stomach hurt from eating so many apples and from all of the secrets. - Page 98

I wondered what would happen if I just opened my mouth and screamed. Right there in the middle of class. It would be so easy to do. No one was stopping me. I wondered what it would sound like. I don't think I've ever just opened my mouth and screamed like that. [ . . . ] Instead I just sat there with my lips pressed together. - Page 139

"No family is 'normal,'" Samantha said. - Page 181

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2009)
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2008)
Book Review: Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Stella Batts Needs a New Name by Courtney Sheinmel, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell
Family: Courtney Sheinmel
Hope: Courtney Sheinmel

Read my SparkNotes Literature feature article: The Most Promising October Releases for Teens.

Little Willow [userpic]

SparkNotes: The Most Promising October Releases for Teens

October 7th, 2008 (07:37 am)
pleased

Current Mood: pleased
Current Song: I Can Do Better That That from The Last Five Years as sung by Lauren Kennedy

As the leaves turn from green to brown, I find myself sitting outside, near the trees, and turning the pages of books. I've declared four new YA books to be The Most Promising October Releases for Teens:

Paper Towns by John Green
How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier
Soulless by Christopher Golden
My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel

This piece was a feature article for SparkNotes Literature online. For additional information on the books I've featured in this article, click each title for a full-length review!

The members of My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel are Leah, her mother, her stepfather, and her half-brother, then expand to include Leah's other half-siblings. Leah's father was a donor from Lyons Reproductive Services, a fact her mother shared with her when she was little. Years later, her mom got married, then had a little boy, and the four settled into a happy home life. Though content with her family, Leah can't help but wonder if her donor parent had other kids. Without telling her mom, Leah uses an online match system and locates four more children, all around her age, fathered by Donor 730. Leah contacts one of them, a girl named Samantha, and the sisters secretly keep in touch. Samantha says it best: "No family is 'normal.'" This book celebrates the modern family without shame, without dysfunction or exaggerated angst. Sheinmel's characters are vibrant and good-natured, exchanging dialogue which rings true and is suitable to their ages. The book is narrated in an almost stream-of-consciousness style by Leah, and many scenes are stolen by her younger brother Charlie, an inquisitive little guy who is both smart and silly.

John Green's highly anticipated third release, Paper Towns, delivers on its promise. Quentin, commonly called Q, lives next door to a girl who stole his heart at a very young age. As little kids, they painted the town red on their bicycles, but now they are in high school and no longer close. Then Margo shows up unexpectedly at Q's window one night, just weeks before graduation, and asks him to help her with a few things. He goes with her almost without question, not knowing she'll soon leave him with nothing but questions. That night, the two once again paint the town red, exacting fairly harmless revenge on Margo's unfaithful boyfriend and others. Their night of pranks fill Q with happiness. The next day, Margo disappears. Her parents are unconcerned, more exasperated than worried, as Margo's gone on flights of fancy before. Now that she's eighteen, legally an adult, they wash their hands of her. Q, unable to discount her so easily, thinks she wants to be found. He seeks meaning in items she left behind. Woody Gunthrie, Walt Whitman, and maps all come into play. Q's friends, irrepressible and goofy, try to distract him, but eventually aid his search. Inhabitants and supporters of Paper Towns are encouraged to read As Simple as Snow by Gregory Galloway, another haunting story about the disappearance of a defiant young woman, likewise narrated by the boy who adored her. Also try Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, in which two incoming college freshmen set out on a cross-country bike trip, but only one arrives at school.

For something a little lighter, learn How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier. In her first comedic fantasy, Larbalestier has created a fun world that's an amalgamation of America and Australia, a place that's a lot like our world except for the fact that many people are believed to have fairies that grant them unusual bits of luck. Teenaged Charlotte (Charlie) feels cursed by her gift: the ability to always get a good parking spot. She's not even old enough to drive! What she wouldn't give for a clothes shopping fairy, or, better still, an all-the-boys-like-you-fairy. Wouldn't you know it? The most popular girl in school has that one. When she and Charlie team up, crazy things happen. Humor comes not only from their attempts to ditch or swap their fairies, but also from Charlie's notes at the start of the chapters (hours spent in detention, demerits earned) and the general lighthearted tone of the book.

Zombies are turning up on the shelves in high numbers right now, and Soulless by Christopher Golden is the best of the batch. While most of the recent living dead stories are satires or dark comedies, Soulless is an action-packed thrill ride from start to finish. A televised séance with three world-renown mediums was supposed to allow people one last moment with their dearly departed loved ones. Instead of merely contacting the dead, the mediums somehow unwillingly cause them to rise. The dead crawl out of their graves, fearless, heartless, and soulless. They head home and destroy anyone who comes in their way. The book's unlikely heroes include a pop star, two college students, a gang member, and the daughter of one of the famed mediums, with stories told in turn as their paths cross and uncross on this disastrous day. The stakes are raised with every turn of the page. Tense, nail-biting, and well-executed, Soulless is a blockbuster film packed in between two covers.

So there you have it. Families, missing girls, zombies, and fairies, all waiting to find a new home on your bookshelf. Check 'em out!

Little Willow [userpic]

Interview: Debbie Reed Fischer

August 14th, 2008 (06:50 pm)
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Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: TCM commercial music

As an educator (named Teacher of the Year her first year!), a modeling agent, a writer, and a mother, it's safe to say that Debbie Reed Fischer has had a direct effect on others.  Her debut novel for teens, Braless in Wonderland, followed a young woman into the topsy-turvy world of modeling. Her second YA novel, Swimming with the Sharks (due out in September), considers the reasons why teen girls might become emotional bullies - and why students aware of the taunting might opt to fit in than speak up. I spoke to Debbie at length about the pursuit of fame, the pursuit of popularity, and the pursuit of publishing.

Allee
and I share a love of Alice in Wonderland. Which came first, your character's personality or her name?

First, let me say hi and thanks for having me. It’s an honor to be here.

My books are character-driven, so her personality definitely came first. Her name is a shout-out to both Lewis Carroll’s Alice as well as my close friend Allee, who is a booker at a modeling agency in Miami.  

Allee is a self-declared feminist who pursues modeling to earn money for her future, for college, with little to no interest in fame and flashy objects. It's known from the start of the book that she makes a name for herself, but without giving away the ending of the book, do you feel that future success would spoil her? What might she do for a living ten years from now?

I think Allee is by nature a sensible, disciplined and cautious person (nothing like me - eek), so I really don’t think making a name for herself in the modeling industry, or any industry for that matter, would spoil her. Plus, since she’s been accepted into an excellent college, the road to achieving her long-term goals will always be open. The question is, should every young adult with a great educational opportunity race down the academic road right away . . . or take some time for personal growth and new experiences beforehand?

As far as where she’ll be in ten years, who knows where any of us will be in ten years? Quick story: I took a year off before college and went to Israel to travel and work on a kibbutz (a cooperative farm). There were a few university courses I took as well, but really, it was about adventure and figuring out who I was. There was another teen there, picking melons with me on the kibbutz, and years later, he became CNN’s top white house correspondent, David Shuster. I would never have guessed where he would end up when he was picking melons with me and a bunch of other college-bound kids taking a year off (by the way, David was extremely quiet back then, almost mute, and now he’s an Emmy-award-winning broadcaster; it is beyond ironic).The point is, new experiences don’t present limitations; they present opportunities. Allee comes to see modeling as a way to explore a new side of herself, rather than just a means to make money for Yale.  
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Visit Debbie's website.

I reviewed Braless in Wonderland and Swimming with the Sharks for SparkLife, the SparkNotes book blog.

Check out my related booklist: But I Don't Want to Be Famous!

Also, someone remind me to make a cheerleading-themed booklist.

Little Willow [userpic]

Booklist: Class of 2k8

August 14th, 2008 (06:38 am)
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Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: Just Some Guy by Anthony Rapp

Looking up to its big brothers and sisters of the Class of 2k7, here comes the Class of 2k8! 2k8 is made up of 28 debut authors whose juvenile or teen novels hit the shelves in 2008.

In June 2008, the Class of 2k8 interviewed various book reviewers, including me. Thank you for including me!

And now, for the list of 2k8 releases...Collapse )

Visit their website and blog.

Little Willow [userpic]

Interview: Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

August 3rd, 2008 (08:32 pm)
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Current Mood: okay
Current Song: TCM commercial music

A trip to a national park made Kristin O'Donnell Tubb consider how things were for families living in the Appalachians in the 1930s. Further research moved Kristin to write Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different, a novel for kids and the young-at-heart, which will be published in October. Travel back in time with us.

Though Autumn is your own creation, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is real. Tell me about the true events which inspired your book.

I grew up in East Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I've visited the park dozens of times. But during a tour of Cades Cove in 2002, I realized, "This tiny cabin I'm standing in was once someone's home. What if my home became a national park? Would thousands of people tour it, and 75 years later, marvel at its small size and lack of 'functionality?'" So I did a little research, and soon uncovered the fascinating history of Cades Cove. Read more...Collapse )

Say howdy to Kristin at her website and blog.

Little Willow [userpic]

Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head by Nancy Viau

August 3rd, 2008 (08:16 pm)
thirsty

Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: TCM commercial music

Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head - and she likes it that way! Ten-year-old Samantha loves collecting things and making lists. Her most cherished collection includes all kinds of rocks. Given the chance, she will talk your ear off about rocks - or about clouds, or caves, or any number of science-related topics. This outgoing fourth-grader is a chatterbox whose mouth sometimes gets her into trouble and whose brain races a million miles a minute. She's aware of this, as evidenced by this quote:

I know that my mouth sometimes has a mind of its own. Words spill out like lava from a volcano. A loud volcano. And my body follows my mouth. These things just happen. I can't help it. Well, most of the time I can't help it.

Sam, the younger of two daughters, is trying really hard to remember her dad, who died when she was little. Throughout the course of the story, Sam finds herself in all sorts of cool places: a cave with her classmates, on stage at a talent show, and in the Grand Canyon with her big sister and her mom - their first big vacation since her dad died.

Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head by Nancy Viau is fun and funny. I'm sure young readers will dig Samantha, especially those who like the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker. Recommended for ages 7 to 12.

Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head by Nancy Viau comes out in September.

Related Posts: Interview: Nancy Viau interview, Booklist: Class of 2k8, Booklist: Ramona Readalikes

Little Willow [userpic]

Interview: Nancy Viau

August 3rd, 2008 (07:52 pm)
thirsty

Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: TCM commercial music

I'm going on a posting spree today and have a bunch of author interviews lined up.

First up is Nancy Viau, whose forthcoming juvenile novel Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head is fun and funny. (Read my full-length book review.) Let's find out what inspired Nancy to carve out this story.

Samantha Hansen is a different kind of rock star, and I dig her. Do you share her interest in rocks, in science, or in list-making?

Yes to all three! When I was young, my family and I traveled along the East Coast quite a bit, and I loved to peer out that station wagon window and watch the geography change. My dad would point out interesting sights during the day, and we'd name the constellations at night. Once we got home, Mom took me to the library so I could find out more. As I went through college, I was drawn to science courses like Earth Science, Ecology, Astronomy, and Oceanography. (Keep me far away from Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, please!) It wasn't until later, when I ventured out West, that I really fell in love with rocks. I just couldn't get over how different the land looked there - not only different in terms of each little rock, but different because of the sheer size of everything: the mountains, canyons, plateaus, etc.

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Visit Nancy's website and LiveJournal.

Little Willow [userpic]

Interview: Courtney Sheinmel

July 11th, 2008 (02:12 pm)
thirsty

Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: Operation Petticoat score music

In her debut novel, My So-Called Family, Courtney Sheinmel realistically captures the thoughts and feelings of a young girl who has always known of her origins: her mother went to a reproductive clinic, selected a donor based on a profile, and had a child. Though she's always loved her family - which now consists of a stepfather and little half-brother in addition to her mother - Leah decides to secretly seek out her extended family. (Read my full-length book review.)

In my recent exchanges with Courtney, we've talked about our favorite stories as well as stories about ourselves. In this interview, we discuss the importance of truth and acceptance, and celebrate all kinds of families.

First of all, please tell me how to pronounce your last name properly.

I have one of those last names that is hard to spell, and people are never quite sure how to say it. It's pronounced Shine Mell. My father tells me it means "pretty flower," but I don't know if I believe him.

Speaking of names, in your novel, your main character doesn't know her father's name at all. She only knows that he was Donor 730, and that her mother selected him based on certain attributes listed in his profile at the clinic. Did you select the donor number randomly or...?

730 is my sister's birthday, so that's why I picked the number.

Leah wants to meet her half-siblings, but she does not attempt to find her father. Was that due to her young age, state laws, and sealed records, or was a conscious effort on behalf of both author and character - that Leah didn't want to or need to find him?

The idea for My So-Called Family came partly from a segment on the Today Show. Matt Lauer interviewed a bunch of mothers who had had kids by the same donor, and had connected on the Donor Sibling Registry - a real-life website that allows kids of the same donor father to sign up and connect with each other. It's my understanding that the identities of the donors themselves are never revealed – the kids know their donors simply by number. I think it would be a violation of privacy for the donor names to be disclosed.

As for Leah, I imagine that she and her donor siblings would love to know the identity of their donor father -- I just don't know that they would ever legally have access to that information.

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Drop by Courtney's website and blog.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2009)
Book Review: My So-Called Life by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Stella Batts Needs a New Name by Courtney Sheinmel, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell
Family: Courtney Sheinmel
Hope: Courtney Sheinmel

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