Read All the Newbery Medal Books, March 2016 Update

We’re into March of 2016 and I feel like I’m finally starting to tackle my “read all the Newbery Medal Books” project. I was stalled at the beginning of the year because I wanted to finish Ulysses. While that book is an excellent but very long read. Then in the process of researching the biology of the Sargasso Sea, as well as the migration of eels and monarchs, I stumbled across an amazing book of Rachel Caron’s writing called Lost Woods.

If you’re interested at all in nature, science writing, or the power of the written word to influence public policy, I highly recommend this book. There are passages in there that are still relevant today, even though they were written half a century ago.

But then I finally started those Newbery Medal books I’ve been collecting! So far this month I read King of the Wind, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and I’m almost finished with Julie of the Wolves.

I enjoyed King of the Wind for its sensory details and historical and cultural information. I started with this book because I am working on an animal story myself and because I’ve read Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and have fond memories of that book.

I knew I’d love Julie of the Wolves because I loved Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. I recently re-read that book last year and still love the idea of leaving civilization for the wilderness and living off the land and in tune with the natural world. I don’t think it’s quite the lifestyle for me, but I love the escapism offered by these books. Julie of the Wolves offers even more as she lives in the tundra. It’s a world so foreign made so real by Craighead George.

Picking up The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an emotional moment for me. This book represents some tough coming of age experiences for me. Like a lot of kids, I struggled in my sixth grade year. I went to a small school and unfortunately my sixth grade teacher was the mom of a girl in my class with whom I didn’t quite get along with at the time. We had been friends in second grade, but by sixth we weren’t. Anyway, for some reason or another I was put in the lowest reading group that year. Me! I wasn’t good at a lot of things in middle school, but I was really, really good at reading. I have no memory of what book my group read, but I know the highest reading group read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was very bitter about this unfair grouping. I held a grudge against this teacher and this book. Now that I’m 40, I decided it was time to read this book and move on with my life!! I did enjoy it and now I want to visit the town of Wethersfield in Connecticut.

newbery books

I miss the Book It program! (But books are their own reward.)

More Newbery Award books to come!

Wanted: Favorite New Recipes for Picky Eaters

Looking for some favorite new recipes for picky eaters in your house? Each of my kids can be picky eaters at one time or another. But even when they are picky, I can usually rely on three solid and healthy meals or snacks that each one will devour without question.

I like to make food fun but also encourage my kids to try new things without making it too elaborate. I don’t like to hide healthy foods in less healthy foods, because that undermines their trust in me.

Monster salad, picky eatersMonster salad –  this one’s easy. Grab your favorite collection of salad ingredients. Add in some new ones that have an interesting appearance and set them out on the counter or table. For a picky eater bonus, take your child shopping and let them pick out a fruit or vegetable that neither of you know and try something new together! Invite your child to make a monster face using their ingredients! Then find some fun monster eating weapons like tiny forks or toothpicks. If you can handle a little mess, allow the picky eater to use their hands so they can get familiar with the texture of the food first.
picky eatersPizza on a stick – this is a classic kids’ favorite deconstructed and represented in a new way. Help kids understand that familiar foods are made up of basic ingredients. For this recipe you can even grow the tomato and basil and get your picky eater involved in cooking and cutting and chopping. Start with some thin crust bread that resembles pizza dough. Slide it on a stick (eating things without a plate can make old foods more interesting) and then slide on tomatoes, cheese and a basil leaf. What other pizza toppings can you and your child add? Let your picky eater get creative and choose fun things for you both to try.

Dylan glasses eating, picky eatersPineapple with cinnamon – this sweet treat was introduced to us by Argentinian friends. I love how it encourages kids to combine two known flavors and try them out together. This dish is also a great way for picky eaters to try foods at different temperatures and think about how it changes the flavor. To serve it warm, grill the pineapple then sprinkle with cinnamon. Serving the pineapple cold or even room temperature will appeal to different taste buds. What other spices might taste good sprinkled on pineapple?

Don’t forget to keep track of your favorite new recipes for picky eaters in a copy of My Food Notebook and make mealtimes more fun with Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids.

Is the Problem Bad Reading or Bad Writing?

reader symbol bad writing or bad reading

Is this innocent reader to blame?

Let’s say you’re reading a book and the author makes a reference to something and you just don’t get it. It could be a phrase, a symbol, a name. Whatever it is, it doesn’t make sense to you. Some readers might feel confused and give the book a bad review. Some readers might just skip over parts they don’t get, finish the book or story, and go on with their lives. Some intrepid readers might do a little research online to try and understand what they read. I think the worst scenario is the reader who doesn’t even know they didn’t get some understand some reference, finishes the story and says, “huh? didn’t make sense” and then leaves a bad review.

Is the problem bad writing or bad reading? Is it the writer’s fault? When is it the reader’s fault?

Binge Watching

I’ve been watching a lot of The Good Wife lately. Yes, I’ve been binge watching. But this is a darn good show. First, I love the focus on female characters. Second, the story line is strong and compelling. Third, it also explores a lot of psychology and motivation of people. Many episodes also explore the concept of blame and responsibility.

(See, binge watching can be good for writers!)

I think it would be really cool to have a courtroom style drama to explore whether bad writing or bad reading is to blame when certain parts of a story are not understood.

“You Honor, the book didn’t make any sense. No writer can expect a reader to understand the phrase Plumtree’s potted meat.”

“Objection, your honor! Any well-read reader knows that a home without is incomplete!”

[the above is excerpted from my not-yet-written one-act stage play in which James Joyce is charged with obstruction of instruction.]

Yes, I’ve been reading Ulysses and learning a massive amount from his densely symbolic writing. Let me just say it’s been quite an education. But seriously, Ulysses is an excellent example.

I don’t have the grounding in the daily life of early twentieth century Dublin to get all of his references, just as much as I didn’t get all of the references in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or those short stories by David Foster Wallace.

Is it really Joyce’s fault if I don’t quite get all of the things he has to say in his really excellent, moving, comical, intellectual, insightful story?

Is it bad writing or bad reading? I think in Joyce’s case, it’s not bad writing.

The condom and the burka

(Here we come to another interesting question. Do symbols really have meaning once they leave the hands of the writer? Once a writer puts a symbol in the story, they are leaving the symbol open to the interpretation of the reader. As a reader, I can imbue those symbols with something that matters to me and that something could be quite different from what the writer intended. I did this recently at my critique group where I applied a much deeper meaning to a condom and a burka than my fellow writer had intended. This is a longer discussion.)

pyramid reader symbol bad writing or bad writing

Fraught with symbolism

Bad Writing or Bad Reading?

But back to the main question. Let’s say it’s important to the story, When is a failure to understand a reference a problem with the reader’s background, or with the writer’s writing?

At a recent critique group, we faced a problem I often hear when reading someone’s work and we have the chance to question the author.

I used the name “Selene” as the name a Moon base, used the phrase “star sailor” to describe a Greek astronaut, and had a character make a claim to another character that “we are all made out of stars.”

More than one person didn’t get my references and suggested I take them out of the story. But my story is about a child celebrating Christmas in his home on the Moon. Is it my fault as a writer that they didn’t get my carefully chosen words and phrases? And if it is writer error, how can I address that?

This story about Christmas on the Moon is intended for kids and it’s meant to be a short story. I have word limits, and I think adding in things like “the moon base was named Selene because that’s the name of the Roman moon goddess and NASA has a history of naming their space projects after mythological deities” is a bit awkward for story flow.

How else do readers figure out symbols and meanings when they aren’t in English Literature classes writing papers? Maybe they won’t get it. But if they don’t get it, then they might not enjoy my story as much. But is that my problem? It could be, if it gets bad reviews or if people feel I’m a terrible writer because of it.

Maybe it’s question of finding the right audience. But wow does that feel like a gamble.

(P.S. – I just asked my husband about this and he said, “it’s your fault.” Then he said, “know your audience!”)

(P.P.S. – Then he just made a huge claim that not every symbol needs to be gotten! Then I countered that it feels so disheartening to think people would read my story and miss out on some of my favorite little symbols. And he said, “Some will, some won’t. Those that do get it will enjoy a happy accident, a little serendipity.” So I said, “it’s not serendipity when I put it there on purpose.” And he said, “touche.”)

Now what do you say?

SCBWI Western PA Fall Conference

SCBWI Promising Writers!

SCBWI Promising Writers!

In November 2015 I attended my third fall conference hosted by SCBWI Western PA. I felt very excited for this conference, mostly because I felt very prepared. It’s nice to be past the novice stage and to be heading to an event with clear goals and specific things I wanted to learn. For instance, Valentine’s Day and Halloween are big book selling times.

(If children’s writing isn’t your thing, here’s some advice about going to a science writer’s conference from my friend Beth Skwarecki. )

As always the conference organizers did an amazing job. We were at the Hyatt Airport and there was an intensive the night before the main day of sessions on Saturday. I decided to stay the night on Friday so I could skip any traffic snarls and get to my volunteer station early. The rooms at the hotel are expensive, and I had missed the discount rate period, but luckily I had enough points (thanks to stays at the Hyatt in NYC for the SCBWI Winter conference!!) and got the room for free.

I helped at registration and greeted many of my writing friends. My favorite presentation was by Ariel Richardson from Chronicle Books. She covered novelty picture books and wow was my imagination sparked. I also particularly enjoyed the presentation by Susan Hawk who went into great detail on the agent/client relationship. She answered some tough questions about what happens once an agent likes your work.

The food at the conference was excellent and the rooms were fine, but I wasn’t thrilled that we didn’t have wireless internet access. I feel like conference attendees should get the code.

SCBWI Promising Writer

One special moment at the conference was when Ariel told me she had selected my story, Mission Compostable!, as her favorite. This meant I was honored with eight other writers as a Promising Writer. We received a coupon for a discount off a future WPA SCBWI event. In addition to her kind words, Ariel also offered some very generous advice and guidance on revising and submitting my manuscript.

It was really thrilling to be chosen as a Promising Writer. As we stood in front of the conference attendees, I looked at the people to my left and right and realized I was in a very special group of talented people! I promised myself again to keep working on my craft.

The networking and education that I get at these conferences is really so valuable, but like many conferences there never seems to be enough time for critique or discussion. And there is always so much to learn!

This year, I’m hoping to get to an SCBWI Conference in Cleveland in late summer and possibly the LA SCBWI Conference in August. Stay tuned!

What conferences do you attend? What is some good advice you’ve gotten at a conference?

Reading Newbery Award Books

So I’m going to try and read as many Newbery Award books as possible this year! What is the Newbery? It is an award given to children’s literature by the American Library Association. Here’s the blurb from the website:

“The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

The website also has a list of books that have won, but it’s a pdf and not very handy for online use and checking things off.

After a bit of searching, I found a Buzzfeed quiz (of course) that allows you to see how many winners you’ve read. I’ve read a paltry 16 out of 93. That makes me feel so unread. On the plus side, though, I’ve read a fair share of Honors books, so that’s a good point in my favor.

17% of Newbery Award Books

Only 17% of Newbery Award Books

It looks like I’ll turn to Goodreads to ‘collect them all.’ There’s a good list there that shares both winners and honor books, dates of publication, and records for me when I’ve read something so I don’t have to worry about duplication.

On a side note, I’ll be working hard to only get these books from only the library and not buying them. If I must, I’ll try and buy them from used book dealers if I can’t get them from the library. If I’m going to read a lot of books then I might as well do it on a budget.

Right now, my favorite Newbery Award Book might be When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery). It’s based on Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet). Who knows what new favorite I will discover as I read through this huge list?

How many Newbery Award books have you read?

New healthy food activity book for kids!

Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an activity book that helped kids eat healthy foods? Parenting can get so stressful. We want the best for our kids, but we can’t control everything we do. We can’t force feed them healthy food! Remember the old saying, you get more flies with honey than vinegar? When I do talks at parenting workshops and at schools, I always encourage people to add some fun to the dinner time!

That’s why I created Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids! This new electronic activity book is designed to change dinnertime from a food fight into a fun event. There are lots of ways to make healthy eating fun. This new book that I’ve created makes it easy for parents to encourage their kids to try new foods in a friendly, not scary, way. In this activity book, I share some silly jokes, interesting facts, easy activities and even some of our favorite fresh food recipes.

Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids is available as a pdf and includes six unique activities. Once you buy the activity book for only 5.99, you can print out as many sheets and copies as you need. Use the sheets and re-use the sheets.

My kids have tried the jokes and challenges in this activity book and find them to be fun, too, but I’d love to hear what your kids think. Which are their favorites? Did they try a new food or devour their first Monster Salad?

How do you make eating fresh food fun and healthy? Share your ideas and they might end up in the second edition of Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids!

Make a Picture Book Draft

I’ve been trying to make a picture book draft once a month, every month, this year. I’m a member of Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 and the focus on productivity and creativity – the art of creating – has been really useful. I know I can come up with an idea once a month and it doesn’t take long to make a picture book draft. These drafts are typically less than 1000 words so it doesn’t take more than an hour to sketch out the first version.

The drafts that seem to work, that could possibly morph into a story for a children’s magazine or perhaps something to bring to critique group and then later to a writer’s intensive at a conference get revised.

As part of the revision process and to test the strength of the story I’ll make a dummy. A dummy is a more detailed draft of the picture book story, laid out with illustrations. Dummies help you see if there are page turning moments, if each set of words can be illustrated, if your story is droning on or getting repetitive.

I’ll also bring my drafts to children to read and critique. My kids are used to being honest about what they like and what they don’t. My kids are also used to seeing picture book drafts that don’t have pictures. But other children aren’t. That’s another good reason to make a dummy.

Make a Picture Book Draft

When you make a picture book draft or dummy, you are working on storyboarding. I have experimented with three different ways of making picture book dummies and storyboarding my tales.

The first is very visual, a traditional storyboard approach. I used this format a lot when planning out the text and illustrations for Dinosaur Boogie.

make a picture book draft

Just needs a story.

 

The second way is a bit more traditional. The instructions come from Ann Whitford Paul’s book Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication. She advises you take four pieces of paper and cut them into quarters. Staple them together and you have the pages you need to lay the text and illustrations for a traditional 32 page picture book.

Make a picture book draft

Long and short stories.

Following Whitford Paul’s advice I created books of different sizes and orientations to accommodate different amounts of text. But I innovated a little with this method and used scrap paper. Yes, that means I can’t write directly on these pages, but I can write text on post-it notes and move them around inside the book pages easily. I can also scribble something on a post-it regarding illustration and move that around, too, and experiment with a little bit of graphic design. Do I want the text above the art? Below? Around the side?

Which leads me to my third method that I use to make a picture book draft or dummy: InDesign. I’m no expert, but I can get around in InDesign. So I will create a document with lots of pages, put my text in and then search on Google for free images. I’m not going to use these images for a profit so I could probably use images that aren’t free, but I like to keep things honest. Then I print out a simple version of an illustrated dummy. These are the versions I take into my favorite test classrooms and try out on kids that aren’t mine.

picture book draft

Ready to read.

Not too shabby! And I find bringing illustrated dummies to classrooms helps me get a sense of the kids’ real reaction to story instead of them being confused about where the pictures are. And they love learning the phrase “picture book dummy.”

So how do you go about making a picture book draft or dummy? Do you have a favorite method? Are you hi-tech or old school?

What Books Made You Cry?

What books made you cry when you read them? For my oldest son, I think the first book that made him cry was the story of Ivan, a gorilla kept in a cage at a mall. In this book, it was the death – and treatment after death – of Ivan’s one friend that brought my son to tears.

My oldest often has a little trouble expressing his emotions, especially when he’s upset. But when characters he loves die, he really feels this deeply. I remember when he was watching the old school Transformers and he got to the part when Optimus Prime died. My husband and I were outside doing yard work when we heard him screaming and crying. He rushed outside, tears streaming down his face, telling us Optimus was dead. It was a horrible, beautiful moment. When I was his age, I specifically remembering crying my eyeballs out thanks to two books about the death of animals, specifically dogs.

The first is Sasha, My Friend. This book is so old it’s no longer being printed so you’ll have to get your hands on a used copy. But it’s a wonderful book and I cried for good reasons.

The second book I can specifically remember crying while reading was A Dog Called Kitty. Both this story and Sasha, My Friend involve the main character building a friendship and then losing the friend. I know that’s kind of a spoiler, but I already told you these books made me cry, so you can’t be too surprised.

Right now I’m reading a biography of Barack Obama to my youngest who is in Kindergarten. It’s his choice of book, I didn’t tell him what to read. His older brothers devour chapter books so he wants to read them to and he picked this one. We just finished the part where Barack visits his father’s grave in Kenya and cries. I noticed my son wiping his eyes and looking away. He felt so deeply for Barack he couldn’t help himself from crying. I think this is quite possibly the first time my youngest cried during a book.

As you know, I’m writing books for children (and adults who like to read children’s books). Some of the best advice I received about telling a good story is to work hard to make readers burst into laughter as well as to tears.

Most of the adult books I read today explore the horrible things happening in the world, but I really believe the books that made you cry as a child explored the simplest emotions of love, friendship, loneliness and loss. I can’t think of a book for adults I’ve read that’s made me cry as hard as Sasha and Kitty tore my heart apart. But I do remember losing it during the movies District 9 and Hero. I’m not sure Hero counts though, because I was pregnant at the time and full of hormones.

I have a book planned out in which the main character, someone I hope readers will not like very much at the beginning then grow to love, dies. This sounds horrible, but I hope some readers will cry when as they read my (future) book. It’s not being mean, it’s a hope that I can someday write a character so real, so meaningful, so worth caring for and loving, that I touch readers in their heart.

What books made you cry, as a child or adult reader?

Brain Food: SCBWI and SWPFSP

summer reading with kids

Food for Thought

 

I hate being hungry. I can’t concentrate and I’m really grouchy. Imagine if you were a kid who was hungry all summer.  But here in Pittsburgh, that’s not an imaginary thing. It’s real. In fact, there are more than 45,000 children in Allegheny County that are considered to be food insecure, and 73,500 children are eligible for free or reduced-rate school lunches or breakfasts.

So when Chris from the Southwest PA Food Security Partnership approached me and my friend Kathy about helping more kids take advantage of the summer food programs in our area, both of us said YES.

Kathy and I had tables next to each other at the 2015 Farm to Table conference, but we’re also both members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Chris loved the activities we were offering for children that centered around healthy eating but also had a literary and storytelling component. We met in early summer 2015 and he asked us if we could come to summer food sites and provide fun activities for the kids. He hoped that by advertising visits from local authors kids would be more interested in attending. Kathy and I loved the idea and both realized this was a chance to interact with children (something kids’ authors love) and a chance to feed their minds and their bodies.

But we like to think big. So Kathy and I invited all the members of SCWBI Western PA to join us. We had 14 volunteers sign up and they conducted over 10 visits in Allegheny, Somerset and Cambria counties. SCBWI volunteers read books, played games, and told stories while children enjoyed healthy, free meals.

I took my youngest son with me to two of my visits to my old home library, Carnegie Library Woods Run. I used to walk to that library with my young children and we spent many happy afternoons in the children’s section. When my son and I visited in August we found a welcoming staff and adorable kids with incredible imaginations.

For my visit, I brought copies of my book The Bumpy, Grumpy Road to share with the kids. I wanted give them something, a small gift to spark their imaginations. They gave me gifts, too, because in addition to reading stories we played StoryCubes and made up our own stories. And these kids were AMAZING! The little girl in the photo above and another little boy came up with an incredible tale about a boy who had the shadow of a beetle and a beetle who had the shadow of a boy. They traveled together to a castle where they discovered human king…but a beetle queen. You’ll have to use your imagination to find out what happens next.

We definitely plan to continue this partnership next summer so if you’re a local Pittsburgh author or illustrator get in touch and help us feed imaginations while kids get fed.

Celebrate and Self-Publish a Book

I’m so excited to announce my new kids ebook will be released Oct 2, 2015! It’s called Dinosaur Boogie and it is a fun picture book designed to get young readers moving like mosasaurs and grooving like gigantosaurs. This project to self-publish a book was truly a collaborative effort so read on to find out about my talented illustrator, my mind-reading designer, and the cool features I utilized when creating my ebook.

self-publish a book

All the cool dinos dance!

This is my third children’s book. If you’ve ever wanted to try and self-publish a book, children’s or otherwise, get in touch and let’s talk about your idea. I can offer great suggestions on how to formulate a vision of your finished product and guide you through the steps to make your idea a reality.

Sketching the Idea

Even though the book has around 100 words of main text and some brief back matter, I’ve been working on the text for Dinosaur Boogie for quite a long time. I wrote the first draft in 2013. If you read that first draft now it wouldn’t sound anything like the finished product. For one thing, the song I had in mind is completely different now and the word count is a lot lower.

With that first draft in hand I went illustrator hunting. I know from experience that to self-publish a book doesn’t mean subjecting people to my awful artistic attempts. Early in 2014, I found an amazing illustrator thanks to writer’s group networking. If you haven’t visited Felix Eddy‘s website, you must! At this point in the project, my vision was to create a simple print book. Then it morphed into an app that would include a song and active dancing dinosaurs. I explored partnerships with local musicians and app developers, but I couldn’t get a license to use my original song idea. The cost and time required to turn this into an app was more than I could invest.

I shelved the project for a bit, but it gnawed at me. It felt lodged in my creative gullet and when Amazon launched it’s Kindle Kids Book Creator software in 2015, I felt like this was a way to bring my dancing dino story to life and free my brain up to move on with other projects.

While I had gorgeous full color illustrations and a sparkly new revised text, I knew I would only do an OK job with final layout and design. So I called up my friends at Word Association Publishers, where I edit manuscripts, and was paired with a creative and talented graphic designer named Gina. She whipped my collection of words and Felix’s art into a cohesive and colorful layout that I love.

New Tech Helps Prehistoric Text

With my brand-new pdf file in my virtual hands, I headed over to learn about Kindle Kids Book Creator. There was a small learning curve, but nothing a few googled questions didn’t answer. Soon I had my file uploaded and I learned how to add the very interesting pop-up text feature. I always hoped readers would dance as they read my story, but this feature made it possible for me to add prompts into the pop-ups that encourage kids to feel the fossil beat.

After a few more software downloads and updates, I previewed my book and sent it off to Amazon’s digital library. You can pre-order a copy of Dinosaur Boogie now!

After I Self-Publish a Book, Things Happen

So many times the successful completion and implementation of one project or idea helps me pour full energy into other projects and this was no exception. After Dinosaur Boogie hatched, I found myself highly motivated to complete some other outstanding creative projects. Early in September I made the final revisions on my middle grade contemporary novel manuscript and send it out to a handful of select agents. Later on that same week, I completed four non-fiction queries that had been languishing on my computer. Now they are winging their way off to editors.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch and talk about your children’s book idea! It’s not as difficult to self-publish a book as it may seem.

So now my new ebook is ready and waiting to be devoured by readers. I’m so excited I could ROAR!