Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Soar with Reading: An Open Letter to Jet Blue

Literacy/kidlit folks: please take a minute to read, sign, and share this open letter to Jet Blue about their new Soar with Reading program.  This is a promising pilot program that aims to encourage literacy by placing book vending machines in low-income areas of Washington, DC. Sadly, the selection of books lacks diversity, and only four out of the initial selection of books reflect diverse authors or characters. Author Zetta Elliott, with help from the community, has researched and written an excellent letter to Jet Blue. Please read and sign the letter here, then share it with your networks.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ten year blogiversary!

Ten years ago today, I made my first blog post. It was a report on BookExpo America 2005, and it doesn't sound all that different from my most recent posts, although written in a slightly more formal voice. It's funny to think that Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince hadn't been released yet when I started blogging. It seems so long ago now.

I was inspired to start blogging by the fabulous Tasha Saecker, who now blogs at Waking Brain Cells. I had already been reviewing books on a website (the original Wands and Worlds, no longer online) that I created with my son. I followed and enjoyed Tasha's blog, and was intrigued by the blog format as a way to share reviews. I emailed her to ask about it, and she encouraged me to start.

Although I've always been an irregular blogger at best, I can say that blogging has had a huge impact on my life. Because of blogging, I've gotten involved in the Cybils and Kidlitcon, two things that I care deeply about. I've learned so much about books and what makes a good book, both from following other bloggers and from evaluating them for my own reviews. Perhaps most importantly, I've made friends with good people who care passionately about children's and YA books. So thank you to everyone who has been on this journey with me: you've inspired me, taught me, and been good friends.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Game of Thrones: "The Dance of Dragons" - SPOILERS

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Monday, June 01, 2015

BookExpo America 2015: Day 2

On Thursday, I attended the YA Editors' Buzz panel. I always enjoy these panels; it's interesting to hear the editors talking about the story behind the book. For example, Laura Chasen from St. Martin's Griffin talked about sitting down to read the manuscript of Dreams Things True by Marie Marquardt, and two hours later she was in the office saying, "We have to acquire this book!" Several of the other editors had similar stories. Christian Trimmer from Simon & Schuster said that the finished manuscript for The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch was amazing, but he told Daniel Kraus that it needed more heart. When he received the revision from Kraus, he was impressed with how much emotional depth Kraus had added to the story with subtle changes.

Two of the five buzz books were speculative fiction and both sounded intriguing. Nightfall by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski is about a land where day and night are each 14 years long, and three teens who are trapped on their island when everyone else evacuates at the beginning of night. Nightfall sounded deliciously scary! The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume 1: At the Edge of Empire by Daniel Kraus is about a teen who dies in 1896, only to be resurrected mysteriously. As he tries to understand what happened and why, he lives through 100 years of history.

 

This year, the Global Market Forum Guest of Honor was China. The China exhibit was beautifully designed, with information on the history of printing in China:





At the end of the day, a group of us bloggers met up at the Capstone booth, where Gwenda Bond was signing her new book, Lois Lane Fallout:


Gwenda and Pam Coughlan had to leave for other events, but Charlotte Taylor, Jackie Parker, Leila Roy, and I went out for drinks at Clyde Frasier's, which is apparently the closest bar to the Javits Center. (We asked a security guard.) The ceiling was covered with some kind of modern art sculpture; Charlotte asked, "Are they fish or are they suits?" After some consideration, we decided they were both. But at least the tableside guacamole was good! 

Friday, May 29, 2015

BookExpo America 2015: Day1

The main conference and exhibit halls for BEA 2015 started mid-day on Wednesday, and ran for half a day. This unusual late opening was convenient for travel, because I was able to drive up in the morning and save a day in the hotel. However, it gave an odd feel to the exhibit hall, almost as if it were a preview and not fully open for business. Although there were plenty of people in the hall, it seemed to me less crowded than usual, and the mood seemed subdued. It'll be interesting to see if things are different today, the first full day of the conference.

I spent most of the afternoon in meetings with publishers, talking about the Cybils Awards and Kidlitcon 2015, but I did find time to catch most of the Best in 2015 Fall Graphic Novels panel and the Marvel Presents: Star Wars panel.

The Best in 2015 Fall Graphic Novels panel

The graphic novel panel included Derf Backderf (Trashed), past Cybils Awards winner Ben Hatke (Little Robot), Jeremy Sorese (Curveball) and Maggie Thrash (Honor Girl). I was particularly interested in Ben Hatke's discussion about how working on a picture book in turn influenced his comics art style, and Little Robot looks adorable. Jeremy Sorese's Curveball sounds like a fascinating science fiction comic, and I'm glad I picked up a sample from the Nobrow booth.

The Marvel Presents: Star Wars panel

Marvel Editor Jordan White moderated the Star Wars panel, with writer Charles Soule and artist Alex Maleev. I've been a Star Wars fan since the original movie came out in 1977, (I was 13) and I was interested to learn about the new Star Wars comics coming out. Kanan: The Last Padawan tells the story of how Kanan from Star Wars: Rebels survived Order 66, and it's exciting to see Lando get his own comic series.

During the Q&A at the end of the panel, @MizCaramelVixen, creator of BlackComicsMonth.com, asked whether there would be an effort to increase diversity both within the Star Wars universe and among the creators. The panel's response to her very important question was disappointing. Editor Jordan White at least tried to address the question seriously, but Charles Soule basically dismissed the question by saying the Star Wars universe has always been diverse, and Alex Maleev asked whether it wasn't enough diversity to have a Bulgarian working on a comic about a black man (Lando). Both either missed the point or intentionally ignored it. Saying that the Star Wars universe is diverse is a smokescreen. Sure, there are many different species of beings, but all that CGI doesn't hide the fact that Lando has been, for a long time, the Star Wars universe's token person of color. And having a Bulgarian working on the comic does not address the very real need to have writers and artists of color working on the comics.

Much as I love Star Wars, how much more awesome would it be with a real diversity reflecting the glorious variety of people in our world? And one way to improve on that would be to employ more creators who represent that diversity in all its forms. (I do have hopes for The Force Awakens, and look forward to seeing John Boyega and Lupita Nyong'o, and I hope other diverse cast as well.)

After the exhibit halls closed, I headed to the Hudson Theatre in Times Square for a party and presentation about Brian Selznick's new book, The Marvels. The party started with wine and hors d'oeuvres, which wasn't as much fun as it sounds, because it mostly consisted of fighting through crowds and battling in Hunger Games-style death matches over trays of hors d'oeuvres. I've never enjoyed crowds, so I managed to get a glass of wine and then tried to stand out of the way in the corner until it was time for the presentation.

The presentation was worth it, though! Brian Selznick is a terrific speaker. He started with a video presentation of a series of art from the book. The art was incredibly beautiful, and the part of the story it told was so sad and moving that I wasn't the only one wiping my eyes at the end. Then he talked about the creation of the book, including spending time in London doing research at the Dennis Severs House, which was an inspiration for the book. He also showed his process of creating the art for the book, starting with tiny thumbnail sketches of each page which he then bound into a tiny book.

After the presentation, we all got copies of The Marvels ARC, which Selznick signed for us. They also gave us a surprise gift: an adorable tiny book of art similar to the one that Selznick had created as a mockup! The Marvels looks like an incredible book, and I look forward to reading it.

Storm in Times Square: Mother Nature upstages the neon

Monday, May 18, 2015

Game of Thrones: Thoughts about Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken (Spoilers)



Last night's episode was a real downer. My first reaction was, "Well, that was depressing," but as I think about and process it, I have some different thoughts. There will spoilers here, so if you haven't watched the episode yet, I recommend you leave now.

As a clarification, I've only read the first two books in A Song of Ice and Fire, so I can't discuss this episode in relation to the books. However, since the showrunners have made it clear that they aren't strictly following the books anymore, I don't think it's overly relevant.

I think the key to understanding this episode is the title, "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken." While of course that's the motto of House Martell, I think the producers are also telling us something. (And often the GoT episode titles seem to have more than one meaning.)

As I said to my husband immediately afterwards, "For an episode called Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, there sure were a lot of bowed, bent, and broken people." However, on further consideration, I'm not sure that's true.

Tyrion and Ser Jorah are captured by slavers. However, Tyrion works his magic with a little help from Ser Jorah in the right places, and the two of them are now headed where they wanted to go anyway. Jaime and Bronn end up captured, but Bronn takes it in stride with usual Bronn-ness: "You fight pretty good for a little girl." And I hope that Jaime learned his lesson from the last time he was a prisoner and won't lose another hand.

A quick aside on the sand snakes: I haven't got far enough in the books to read about the sand snakes, but I had heard about them, and as a former martial artists and a fan of women warriors, I was very much looking forward to seeing them. So far, though, I have to say I'm disappointed. Although it's clear they can fight, they've been pretty ineffective so far, and there's not even enough character development for me to tell them apart.

I think that Ser Loras and Queen Margaery fared the worst in this episode. You might say Sansa fared worst, but more on that in a minute. Lady Olenna will use her considerable personal and House resources do what she can (although it is somewhat worrisome that Cercei sent Mace off right before implementing this plot) and while Tommen may be the Most Ineffective King Ever, he's pretty besotted with Margaery, so maybe this will wake him up. However, I fear for Loras. As the show's token gay character, he's been treated pretty poorly by the showrunners.  I fear that Loras won't survive this, but even if he does, will the showrunners let him become, as the article I linked above says, “a knight and a son of House Tyrell, who happens to be gay" or will he continue to just be "the gay character"?

Finally, I want to talk about the most talked about scene of the episode: Ramsey Bolton's wedding night rape of Sansa. The scene was vile and repulsive, and like everyone else, I was hoping that Stannis would arrive in time to stop the travesty. Viscerally and emotionally I hate it. But on thinking about it, I don't believe that Sansa was as much a victim as she appeared to be. As awful as it was, Sansa made the choice to go through with this wedding.  While Littlefinger may be using her for his own ends, his talk with her about using the situation to regain her birthright seems to have resonated with her.

Remember that this isn't Sansa's first experience with a sadist. This is not the young Sansa with dreams of a fairy tale wedding. This is an older, wiser, more experienced Sansa who has survived Joffrey and Cercei and knows the worst that humans are capable of. This Sansa is a survivor. And thanks to Myranda's attempts at manipulation, she has some idea of what she's getting into. She has options - she knows she could have lit a candle at the top of the broken tower. But she chooses to go through with it for the sake of her birthright, her people, and hopefully for a chance to avenge her family. And Sansa knows as well as anyone that an unconsummated marriage can be annulled, so she endures the rape - with a witness even - to cement her place at Winterfell. When Sansa tells Myranda, "I'm Sansa Stark of Winterfell and you don't frighten me," I have to think that in her mind she was saying that to Ramsey as well. I hope that somewhere not to far down the road, Sansa will stick a dagger in Ramsey. I also think that alternating Sansa's scenes with Arya's was intentional. Even though their roads are very different, they are both in the process of becoming someone else.

Was the scene gratuitous and unnecessary? Maybe, I'm not sure. It does seem like GoT has a disturbing pattern of violence against women, but then GoT has plenty of disturbing violence overall, and yet I still watch it. I'm not sure if this scene was any worse than what the rest of Sansa's family has been subjected to, not to mention many other characters. You want to talk about horrifying? One of the most horrifying things to me was Theon's killing and burning the miller's sons as stand-ins for Bran and Rickon. Theon in turn was the victim of horrifying violence by Ramsey. It broke Theon, but I don't think that Ramsey will break Sansa in the same way.

Personally, I hate the prison that most women in Westeros are forced into. For most, with some notable exceptions, marriage is their only option, most likely a marriage not of their own choosing. As much as we hate Cersei, Queen of Manipulators, we also have to remember that as a young woman she was forced into marriage with Robert Baratheon. But although I hate it, it's also a reflection of the life that many, if not most, women throughout history have been forced to lead. Violence against women is a reality; should we pretend that it doesn't exist?

When we talk about strong female characters in books and movies, we're usually talking about women warriors or leaders of some type. But I think it takes a particular strength to endure rape, forced marriage, or other violences perpetrated against women and to survive, to live, and to move forward. In our outrage and our disgust, in characterizing Sansa merely as a victim, I fear that we are missing the point that Sansa Stark is one of the strongest characters on the show.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes

by Sabaa Tahir

Told in alternating stories of two main characters on opposite sides, An Ember in the Ashes is a suspenseful exploration of the effects of violence on both the conquered and the conquerors. Set in a Rome-like fantasy world, the Scholars are a subjugated people under the rule of the Martials. Laia is a Scholar living with her brother and grandparents. When her brother is arrested on suspicion of being a member of the resistance, and her grandparents are killed violently by Martial soldiers, Laia runs away in fear. To atone for her cowardice, Laia sets out to save her brother, and goes undercover as a slave to the cruel and sadistic commander of the elite military academy Blackcliff.

Elias is a student at Blackcliff, training to become a Mask, the most elite of Martial soldiers. Although he has lived most of his life as a student under the harsh discipline at Blackcliff, Elias still sees things differently than his peers because he spent the first six years of his life outside the Martial society. Elias is determined to escape the violent society and his role as an enforcer as soon as he graduates. Then a visit from the Augurs — the Martial's version of oracles — puts a difficult choice before Elias. But can he trust the prophecy, or is he being manipulated by the Augurs?

Sabaa Tahir was inspired to write An Ember in the Ashes during her time at the Washington Post's foreign desk, when she was exposed to horrifying stories of the effects of violence on people around the world. An Ember in the Ashes is an exciting dystopian story that shows how a violent society affects everyone, from the slaves to the highest levels. Even the resistance is divided by the question of whether they have an obligation to help those of their people in need, or whether such aid detracts from their mission of fighting back against the Martials.

I had some minor credibility problems, and the plot development was occasionally awkward. I thought that the addition of supernatural characters like djinn was an unnecessary device that muddies the waters. The augurs were fine and really drive the plot in many ways, but the djinn and other spirits made it start to feel like everything was thrown in, including the kitchen sink.

This isn't a subtle book: the message about the effects of violence is hammered pretty hard. However, as I write this in a Baltimore (and a nation) trying to figure out how to police our communities without unnecessary violence by police against the people they are supposed to protect, the message really resonates.

In spite of the minor issues, I found An Ember in the Ashes to be a thrilling and highly engaging plot-driven story with loads of teen appeal, especially for fans of dystopian fiction like the Hunger Games. I can understand why it's been optioned for film already.

Diversity

Elias is described as having golden-brown skin. The identity of Elias' father is unknown, but it's likely that his skin color came from his father, since his mother is described as having pale skin. Other than that, skin color doesn't seem to play a role, although one of the more despicable characters is also described as having dark skin. The Martial empire appears to be generally diverse, with various ethnicities of people coming from the different conquered nations, although it's not significant to the plot.

Although the empire appears to be fairly patriarchal, female characters play a significant role. Besides Laia, there's Helene, who is also a student at Blackcliff and Elias' best friend. Helen is one tough cookie, in some ways one of the toughest students there. In spite of that, though, she's mostly relegated to the traditional female support role, and a subplot about an attraction leaves her acting "like a girl." There's also the female commander of Blackcliff, and several minor female characters including a cook who used to be an explosives expert.

The author is a woman of color.


Who would like this book?

Anyone who enjoys a thrilling, suspenseful plot-driven story, particularly fans of The Hunger Games and other dystopian fiction. In keeping with the theme, An Ember in the Ashes is fairly dark and violent, so sensitive readers may want to take a pass.


Buy from Powells.com:


FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

So you want to write a children's book?

As a publisher, I subscribe to a lot of book publishing and marketing newsletters. Yesterday, I received the following email from two of those newsletters:
Ever wanted to write a children’s book?
If so, publishing your work as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle platform is a great way to go – and now is a great time to get started.
The children's e-book market is up 475% this year alone, which makes it one of the fastest-growing book categories on Amazon.
Plus, once you know a simple formula, children’s books are one of the easiest types of books to write.
To discover how to get started writing and publishing your own children’s e-books, join Steve Harrison for a free webinar this Wednesday, April 1. (link redacted)
Steve will be interviewing an author who wrote a silly little 26-page Kindle children’s book in less than seven days, which, more than two years later, still produces more than $1,000 in royalties each month!
The idea that anyone can write a children's book using a "simple formula" is offensive and misleading. Writing a good children's book is not easy, it's hard! It takes dedication, hard work and a willingness to educate yourself about children's writing.

A common misconception is that writing for children is easy, because the writing in children's books appears simple. But that simplicity is deceptive; it takes skill and experience to know how to write for children in a way that's appealing without talking down to them. Writing good children's books is harder than writing good adult books. That book your children beg you to read every night? It was probably the result of many rounds of edits trying to get exactly the right words and the right tone. Of course, good adult writers do the same thing, but they don't have to agonize over every word, every sentence the way children's writers do.

Simplicity is hard! Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most well-known and beloved children’s writers. The seemingly simple rhyming text of his stories has fooled many writers into thinking that it’s easy to write such books, but Geisel labored over each book, writing and rewriting, sometimes for a year or more.

Encouraging people to write a "silly little" children's book using a "simple formula" does no one a service, least of all the writers themselves. The marketing copy above leads people to believe that fame and riches are just around the corner and easy to achieve, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. There are thousands of new children's books published every year, probably even more than that when you count all the self-published books. Many of those will languish in obscurity, many others will sell a decent number of copies and sit solidly midlist, and very few will sell a large number of copies. I personally know many, many children's authors, both traditionally published and self-published, and very few are getting rich. (Actually, I don't think any of my author friends are rich. If you are, let's talk!)

If you want to write a children's book, great! I admire anyone who pours their heart, soul, time, and effort into writing a book. But don't do it in expectation of making money. Yes, you might get lucky like the author mentioned in the ad above, but that's the exception, not the rule, and unless you are very, very lucky you won't achieve that. There is no magic formula that guarantees success - believe me, if there were, the big publishers would be using it! If you're going to write for children, do it for love, not for money. For most authors I know, the letters they receive from children mean much more than the royalty check. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money from your writing, but if you go into it with that as your primary goal, there's a good chance that you're in for disappointment.

As a book blogger and Cybils Awards organizer/judge, I'm active in the children's book blogging community. Self-published books have developed a bad reputation in the community, and many bloggers now have review policies that exclude self- or indie published books. For years, I've advocated for indie publishing among my peers. Authors self-publish for many reasons, and self-publishing by itself is not an indicator of the level of quality. Self-publishing gives a voice to those who are disenfranchised by the traditional publishing industry. As one of the leaders of the Cybils Awards, I continually advocate to keep self-published books eligible and judged fairly and impartially. There are excellent self-published books, and a few have even been finalists or winners in the Cybils Awards.

But I sometimes feel that advocating for self-publishing is an uphill battle, when for every excellent book there are hundreds of others that are poorly done. People like Steve Harrison are making the situation worse by encouraging people to take the easy road, to produce more dreck that will further drag down the reputation of self-publishing. Not only that, but it misleads authors to believe that there is an easy road to success. There is no easy road that guarantees success! You might get lucky, but then, someone wins the Publishers Clearing House, too.

If you want to write a children's book, go for it! But rather than looking for easy formulas, take the time to learn what makes a good children's book. To start with, read a great many children's books. (If you have children, this isn't hard!) Read them critically, with an eye to what works well and what doesn't. (I've learned so much about children's books from nearly ten years of reviewing them for the blog, and nine years of being a Cybils judge). Read books about writing children's books. Take classes from reputable institutions or teachers. Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and your regional chapter of it. Attend writing conferences. Join or form a critique group. Check out any potential agents, publishers, promotional companies, contests, and more on the excellent Preditors and Editors.

One of my good friends, Anne Boles Levy, has her first book coming out in August, a YA fantasy published by independent publisher Sky Pony Press. For Anne, it's been at least a fifteen year journey: writing, editing, revising, and submitting the book. Anne works regularly with a critique group that includes multiple award-winning authors; I believe that the group has been working together since before any of them were published. During that fifteen years, in addition to writing Anne also invested a lot of time into things that helped her to be known in the children's book community: blogging, attending conferences, and even founding a children's book award. None of that guarantees any good reviews, of course, but it does mean that Anne has a better than average chance of getting bloggers to take a look at it. I haven't yet seen the book (although I can't wait!) but I assume that all the work she put into writing it has paid off in the form of an excellent book.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone needs to invest fifteen years. That's a lot of time to wait to achieve your dreams. But I am saying that true success does not come overnight in most cases, and if you want to succeed, you need dedication, perseverance, hard work, and a willingness to learn.

Don’t give in to the siren call of get-rich-quick schemes. Instead, invest your time and money in learning the craft and trade of children’s writing and publishing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: Smek for President

Smek for President

by Adam Rex

Science fiction for kids is rare enough; truly funny middle-grade science fiction is even rarer. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of one book in the hilarious middle-grade science fiction genre: The True Meaning of Smekday. Now that number has doubled, with the publication of a worthy sequel, Smek for President.

If you haven't read The True Meaning of Smekday, why not? Go forth and read it now! It's a great road-trip buddy comedy about a girl and an alien on the run from the evil alien overlords.

Beyond this point there will be spoilers for the first book.

In Smek for President, human leader Dan Landry has taken credit for defeating the Gorg. No one, human or Boov, knows that it was really Tip and J.Lo who discovered the Gorg's weakness and defeated them with hundreds of cloned cats. Tip is living an anonymous life trying to adjust to being a regular girl again. J.Lo is infamous on two worlds: he can't seem to stay out of trouble in their community on Earth, and to the Boov he's still the Squealer, who accidentally signaled the Gorg in the first place. Tip and J.Lo decide to take a trip to New Boovworld (formerly known as the moon Titan) to explain to Captain Smek what really happened and clear J.Lo's name.

Hilarious hijinks ensue, including a low-gravity chase that is every bit as awesome as you'd hope for a low-gravity chase to be, an escape into a garbage-pit, (with obligatory Star Wars reference) and a lonely bubble-billboard. There's more awesomeness that I can't say anything about without spoiling the book. There are several comic sections that extend the story throughout the book.

There's not much else I can say, except that this is a perfect middle-grade book, and fans of The True Meaning of Smekday will love it. Anyone who hasn't read The True Meaning of Smekday would be well served to read it first.

Diversity?

The protagonist Tip is mixed-race. She's also an awesome character that boys and girls of all races can identify with. (How many times am I allowed to say awesome in one review?) Here's a great post that discusses race, culture, colonialism, and diversity in the first book. The second book doesn't get into these issues so much, although it does take some pretty funny stabs at politics.

Buy from Powells.com:
FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2014 Andre Norton Award Nominees


The 2014 Nebula Award nominees have been announced, and with it the nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Nebula and Andre Norton awards are given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Two of the Andre Norton nominees were also Cybils Awards finalists: Salvage, by Alexandra Duncan, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, by A.S. King. As a Cybils judge, I read both books and they're both excellent, although very different, books. I've also read Love Is the Drug, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and loved that one as well.

Here's the full list of Andre Norton Award nominees:
  • Unmade, Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House) 
  • Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (Greenwillow) 
  • Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine) 
  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A.S. King (Little, Brown) 
  • Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (St. Martin’s Griffin) 
  • Greenglass House, Kate Milford (Clarion) 
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton (Candlewick)
The complete list of Nebula Award Nominees on the SFWA website.