Morrissey and graveyards: guest post by Rachael Hanel

photo of author Rachael Hanel

Photo by Nicole Helget

I met Rachael Hanel way back when–like WAY back when–when I was new to Mankato and she was new to my husband’s forensics team.  As soon as I met her, I thought, “This woman is a force to be reckoned with” (Rachael has no idea I thought that).  After she left the team, we didn’t have contact for many years–we were both busy doing our thing, which for her included journalism and an MA, and for me included a Ph.D. and a kid.  Then, in 2004, we were brought together as part of the same writing group, and I thought, “Wow, this woman is even more powerful!”  That statement has been proven true a zillion times over the last nine years, and her new memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, is proof positive of her tenacity, her spirit, and her ability to tell a really fantastic story.  I’ve learned so much from her!  I’m glad she’s here today.

I asked her to guest post about her musical muse (who also appears in BMUC), and why he matters to her.  I love her reasoning.


One of the many pleasures I got from reading Kirstin’s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children was the many mentions of music. Not only is BMUC a great story, but it also offers that little “extra” bonus for music fans. I’d imagine many of her readers latch onto and identify with the great songs Gabe plays during his radio show.

For this guest post, I thought a natural topic would be the writer’s use of music. My book, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, does not mention any music per se. Well, there are references to the piano and organ, but my family did not listen to popular music. We didn’t have anything against it: we were just more TV and talk radio people, with the CBS Evening News and WCCO-AM broadcasting into our southern Minnesota house in the 1970s and 1980s.

It wasn’t until I was in high school in the early 1990s that I entered the world of pop music. My best friend, Heather, and I listened regularly to KJ104 out of Minneapolis, which was an alternative music station. Through KJ and MTV’s 120 Minutes, I discovered Morrissey.

My book doesn’t even mention Morrissey, but I consider him an influence upon my writing nonetheless. If you don’t know much about Morrissey, music critics like to refer to him as the “pope of mope.” I disagree with that statement because I think it’s a surface proclamation, but that can be saved for another blog post. Morrissey—a member of The Smiths in the 1980s and who later launched a successful solo career—is known for singing about misery, heartbreak, and rejection. From him we get song titles such as “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “The Last of the Gang to Die,” and lyrics such as “My one true love is under the ground” and “Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” What people see as dark and mopey, I see as based in reality.

It makes sense that I latched onto Morrissey’s music in 1993 and haven’t looked back since. My attraction to him wasn’t conscious—I didn’t think, “Wow, I love how much he sings about death.” But for a girl who grew up in cemeteries, whose dad was a gravedigger, who wandered graveyards and wondered about the people buried there, Morrissey’s music is a natural fit.

It took me 13 years to write my memoir. Morrissey was a constant companion during that time. I can’t help but to think that his musical sensibilities filtered into my writing. His lyrics settled into me, soaked through my skin, became an integral part of me.

I wanted to use these lines from The Smiths’ “Cemetry Gates” as an epigraph for my book, but Warner Bros. denied permission. (Boo, hiss!). I can’t think of anything better that perfectly captures the spirit of my book:

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones

All those people, all those lives

Where are they now?

With loves, and hates

And passions just like mine

They were born

And then they lived

And then they died

It seems so unfair

I want to cry  

* * *

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, is now available from the University of Minnesota Press.

Rachael Hanel blogs at Find more information at her website,

Posted in books, epic-ness, literary greats, music, readers, writing community | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Guest blog post: Shelley Tougas on shifts between genres

photo of author Shelley Tougas

The smart, hilarious, wise Shelley Tougas


Friends, you need to make the acquaintance of Shelley Tougas.  She is wonderful in many ways, also very wise, and she writes in many genres, which contributes to her wiseness.  She is also the award-winning author of Little Rock Girl (when you see the photo, you’ll know who I mean) and Birmingham 1963 (same link as above), plus several other nonfiction texts.  Check out her thoughts about transitioning between genres, specifically edgy YA and middle grade.  Wise, I tell you.


Thanks, Kirstin, for the invitation to guest blog about leaping from writing for young adults to writing for middle grade kids.

The age of characters – as well as the readers – isn’t the only difference between YA adult and MG. Edgy is the four-letter word. The YA market has room for edgy books. MG is far more complicated.

I’ve written both genres, but so far, I’ve only published middle grade books. When editors read my YA novel, Unbecoming Grace, this was a typical response: Loved the book, but it’s too dark. One of the editors who called Unbecoming Grace too edgy was a panelist at a childrens book conference. During the panel, I raised my hand and asked how she felt about edgy, dark YA novels. She said, “Bring it on!”

So I brought it on. Apparently I brought it on too hard. Over and over, I heard it: Too edgy, too dark. Too dark, too edgy.

Now I’m writing for the middle grade market. I’ve published two MG nonfiction books involving the civil rights movement, Little Rock Girl and Birmingham 1963. The official level of interest for these books is grades 5-9. Civil rights obviously is a topic with plenty of darkness. While the editor didn’t want overly horrific descriptions, she wanted kids to understand it was horrific treatment. I think the books accomplish that goal.

Editors and librarians don’t expect – or want – MG to be a bunch of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Tween readers have diverse lives and a solid sense of the world’s problems. They like stories with characters facing real challenges. They have friends facing real challenges.

But the exploration of those issues requires a lighter touch. My new (still unpublished) MG novel deals with single parents, prison, kids in trouble, and poverty. There’s a lot of humor, though, and the issues are sketched instead of fully drawn. Bad things happen in the book, but, if you think about it like a movie, they mostly happen off screen. The scenes played candidly in the novel are the characters’ reaction and their journey.

Every rule has its exceptions. I’m certain readers could identify many MG novels with edgy characters and dark stories. Bridge to Terabithia deals with death. Coraline gave my daughter nightmares—for weeks. I just stared reading When You Reach Me. The first pages, and the marketing copy, suggest it’s a dark plot. Just how dark? I’m about to find out.

The point, I think, is to respect the age group and not burden it. For those middle-grade kids, the world is smaller while their minds are wide open. Write your story without limitations. Then go back through it with your finger on the delete key.

Posted in adolescence, audience, readers | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #12: joy

a gold record

BEAUTIFUL MUSIC hits it big!

See this gold record?  It’s BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN and my Sisters In Ink (my writing group) gave it to me.  Know what I felt when I opened this gift?  Pure joy.


british fans outside a book store with HP 7

See those Harry Potter fans?  That’s joy they’re holding in their hands.  Nothing else you could call it.

Maybe it’s cheesy to say, but writing is joyous to me, as are the people that come with writing (imaginary ones, librarians, readers, colleagues, etc., see also the rest of the 12 Gifts).  It’s my own way to make magic.  Yeah, it’s hard, and the book biz is hard, but it’s still my ideal job, and it’s exciting and new every day.  If I had a better descriptor than “joyous,” I’d use it, but I don’t.  Joy is the bedrock of all 12 Gifts, and joy needs to be celebrated.

Happy holidays, friends. Thanks for doing your part to help me enjoy the 12 Gifts of YA.  What makes *you* joyous? Leave one last comment for a chance to win some books–I’ve got a lot to share. Winners, you will hear from me!

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 11 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #11: solitude

photo of a lake, with dandelion seeds

Big Stone Lake, standing in SD and looking at MN

Welcome to the final gifts of the 12 Gifts of YA!

Writing is an activity that can happen anywhere, right?  At coffee shops (absolutely), writers’ retreats (I like those too), and kitchen tables (sure thing)—all those times are great, because the activity around me makes my book active, too.   Want to know what’s *really* fantastic?  Lighting a candle, shutting the door, turning on the music, and not seeing anyone for six hours at a time.  I love the solitude that writing gets me.  I’m really not alone, because all my imaginary people are there, but sometimes they’re the best company of all.   And they’re easier to shush (sometimes) than living, breathing people.

When I’m alone, sometimes I imagine myself walking around with my characters while they go places.  Sometimes I shout with Morgan on her hillside.  Sometimes I just close my eyes.  After the events in Newtown, CT on Friday, I have been spending my solitude sending healing, peace, and love to all involved with the Sandy Hook violence.

And if you ever doubt the power of books, check this fact from a CNN report:  “Janet Vollmer, a kindergarten teacher, locked her classroom doors, covered the windows and read a story to her 19 students to keep them calm.”   What else had even a chance of holding their attention until they could get to safety?  Such quick thinking on her part.

How are you and solitude?  Do you get along?  Let us know.  And please take a moment and send some healing thoughts toward all affected by Friday’s shooting.

(photo by the talented Adri Lobitz, who has her mother’s photographic eye)

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | Leave a comment

The 12 Gifts of YA, #10: stories


photo of Jake and Elwood Blues

Jake and Elwood Blues, the Sausage Kings of Chicago
(oops, that’s another favorite story)
(but I’m sure that sign isn’t an accident)

OK, raise your hand if you like stories.  See?  All of you.

I became an English major  because I liked to read (a fiscally irresponsible/dumb reason to choose a major). I haven’t made a lot of cash at it, but I get to read stories and teach stories as part of my JOB.  How fantastic is that?  Stories are my JOB.  And now I get to write them.  It’s kind of like winning the nerd lottery.

I have come to believe that humans need stories like we need water.  Think about how we surround ourselves with them, on every kind of device and screen (and some of us still love a paper page).  And, of course, some of them we cherish over others—we read/watch/listen to them over and over again. I secretly think that’s why I write:  I want my book to be someone else’s cherished story.  I want someone to think, “this book kicks ass.  I need this story in my life forever.”

See that story up there?  I discovered that film in high school, with my first friend (my brother) and his buddy, and I haven’t let go of it yet.  Why is The Blues Brothers one of my cherished stories?  1) It’s full of music; 2) it’s hilarious and random; 3) it was a gift from my bro.  I’ll love it until I die.

How about you?  What stories are gifts to you?

Come back next week for the final two gifts of the series!

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 2 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #9: book spotting


a book on a shelf

SKY on the shelf!

There are probably writers who get tired of seeing their book(s) in the wild, but that’s not me.  When it happens, it’s a giant surprise, partly because my books had smaller publishing runs so there aren’t that many around, and partly because it’s just surprising!  There’s a crazy sense of accomplishment that goes with it (for me), a “holy crap, I did that!” feeling.  It’s a huge, huge gift.

When I write a book, I don’t think about the reality of what will happen to it.  But once a book is launched, it *goes* somewhere, onto a shelf or into a book bag, and this fact is both disconcerting and beautiful.  When you send that last draft to your editor, your work is no longer yours.  Your words join up with the book peeps’ work and the product begins to live and breathe and do things all by itself.  Very weird.  So when you see that book in the wild, it’s slightly freaky.  You know it, but you don’t.  And you don’t know what adventures it’s had–or will have.

Book spotting in a library is a doubly huge gift. That photo came from Mankato West High School, where my kid goes to school.  If anybody ever takes it off the shelf, I pray they don’t know him, because he will flip his lid if someone says “Hey, I read your mom’s book, and it had sex in it!” He wouldn’t speak to me for a month.  Maybe longer.  And while that might sound like a good thing once in a while, it would suck after about 3 hours.

Do you engage in book spotting for your favorite authors (or for yourself)?  Tell us about it!

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 2 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #8: Pandora

the four horsemen of the apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—
producing writerly angst since biblical times

When you’re a grown-up, you understand emotions differently than you do when you’re 15 (which is a good thing, lord knows).  But you have to hang out with the Four Horsemen of the Teenage Apocalypse as often as you can if you want to write a believable novel.  Who are those Horsemen?  Anger, Sadness, Anxiety, and Love.  If your protagonist is a teenager, the Horsemen must ride along with every single move your character makes.  (Let’s call the Four Horsemen a bonus gift of the 12 Gifts–they’re a pretty good present, too.)

There’s one trick with the Four Horsemen: you have to find a way to get back to your *own* apocalypse-bringers, not anybody else’s.  You need a method to find them.  Know what mine is?  Music, of course (for more on this idea, all you need is this, but you could also read this, too).  Specifically, it’s listening to this man:

photo of phil collins

The 80s version of Phil Collins

My Phil Collins Pandora station gets things galloping every time.  Phil is crossed with every sort of 80s pop I can think of (Thompson Twins, Eurythmics, Van Halen), and my teenage years come flooding out of my computer speakers whenever I click it on.  Thank god for that, because (despite my last post), some days my teenage version of those Four Horsemen are far, far away.  So thank you, internet gods, for Pandora.  I need it.

How about you?  How do you get your Horsemen moving?

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 4 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #7: Teen Life 2.0

wyatt and gary build a girl

Wyatt and Gary build a girl


I have no desire to grow up.  None.  On some days, I think growing up is bogus bullshit, to put it bluntly.  This is another reason why it’s a gift to write about teenagers—I get to be young, if only when I’m working on a book.  It’s a chance to forget about bills, work, supper, all the crap you don’t have when you’re a youngster.  You get to be in the moment, which is the greatest gift of all.  So yeah—I love being a teenager, and I love having a *reason* to be a teenager (“why yes, I *do* need these supplies to build a bomb-thrower for a treehouse.  It’s research for a book.”).

What also rocks is the funding.  If people are going to make me have a job, by god I’m going to use that $ to support my teenage life.  Research trips to the Black Hills?  Sure thing.  A car whenever you want it, and no curfew when you have to bring it back?  Yes, ma’am.  John Hughes films?  Any time I want (FERRIS BUELLER #1, WEIRD SCIENCE #2 (see above), and BREAKFAST CLUB #3).  Plus there are fewer pimples and (marginally) less boyfriend angst, since the boyfriend’s been around 22 years.

This is not to say I could be a teenager forever: my grown-up life is pretty rad, and a huge chunk of people I love now were not in my life as a teenager.  But still—gimme angsty blissful unawareness any time.  What a stress-reliever!

Do you wish for your teenage world?  Let me know, so you can win some books!

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 2 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #6: book peeps

publicity folks at flux

Welcome to a new week of the 12 Gifts!

I seriously cannot rave enough about the people at Flux–I have been *so* privileged to work with them.  My editor is amazing (he’s also an award-winning writer), my cover designer is amazing  (an artist in her own right, and if you want to see other versions of BEAUTIFUL MUSIC covers, look here, and check out all the other covers of your favorite YA books!), my copy editors are amazing, my publicity folks are amazing, on and on . . . it’s  a writer’s dream.  I am extra-blessed to be in the same state with them, because I get to know them in person!  See those folks up there?  That’s the Flux/Llewellyn publicity team in their goofy mode (with me joining right in, of course).  I know them all by name, and I have hugged them.  We have hung out.  Not many people can say that about the people at their publishing house.

All of my Flux love aside, I think book peeps as a whole are pretty dang great.  Again, I can’t name all my favorite book peeps because the post would be too long (though I always give a shout-out to my agent Amy Tipton, cuz she is badass). From bloggers to editors to agents to publishers, the book world is a great place to mingle and learn stuff (and we can’t forget organizational book friends, like SCBWI folks, or MnSCBWI folks, or CLN and TLN folks).   Besides that, writers wouldn’t get very far without book peeps.  All our novels would languish inside our computers, wishing to be set free.  The book peeps make it happen.  Thank you, book peeps.

Thoughts from you about the people who make the books we love so much?  Leave a comment, so you might win some of those beautiful books!

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 4 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #5: librarians

Jason Puckett's librarian tattoo

(Photo credit goes to Jason Puckett.  What a badass tattoo!  But of course you can be a badass librarian without any ink.)

Meeting and hanging out with librarians has to be one of *the best* gifts of a YA life.  I don’t think I could love librarians any harder if I tried.   A librarian is a superhero, a search engine, and a kind soul, all wrapped into a smart and interesting person.  Plus, librarians make writers feel like rock stars in a way nobody else can.  It’s the best feeling in the world, to know that a librarian likes your book.

I could thank librarians forever–so many have been kind to my books–but I really want to thank the librarians who’ve slipped a copy of a YA novel (anybody’s novel) to a kid and said, “Read this.  I think you’ll like it,” knowing full well the kid will devour it and maybe even keep it, and the librarian will gladly pay to have it replaced.  Librarians are the people who KNOW:  they know what kid can use which book, and they can *see* that kid, even when s/he’s invisible to everyone else around him.  They know how to comfort people with good stories, and they set up love affairs better than the best matchmaker around.  YA literature wouldn’t be the force it is without them.

Happy holidays, librarians!  You rock, and I owe you.  Like a lot.  (And want to win some books, librarians and librarian friends?  Post a comment!)

(and DON’T FORGET TO BID at YA for NJ–win cool stuff and support the Community Food Bank of New Jersey!  Kidlit peeps = they are as badass as librarians.)


Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 4 Comments