Tough Topics, Great Books

When life’s tough topics come into our homes, we search for answers in many places.  How many worries have been Googled in the lonely hours of a long, dark night?  We also turn to friends, family, acquaintances – anyone who may have had experience with this “thing,” this unwelcome guest that is spread out in the spare bedroom and looks to be staying awhile.

When we’re facing a life challenge, books can often be a particular comfort, especially for children. Books give us a chance to examine our problem through the safety of someone else’s eyes.  How did they feel? How did they react?  There is also such healing power in the message you are not alone.

Cynthia Lord is a Newbery Honor author who embraces big topics, and weaves them into charming stories for middle grade readers.



Her latest book, HALF A CHANCE (Scholastic Press, 2014), uses the idyllic premise of spending a summer on a lake in New Hampshire as a backdrop for exploring how dementia can affect a whole family.

From Goodreads:

When Lucy’s family moves to an old house on a lake, Lucy tries to see her new home through her camera’s lens, as her father has taught her — he’s a famous photographer, away on a shoot. Will her photos ever meet his high standards? When she discovers that he’s judging a photo contest, Lucy decides to enter anonymously. She wants to find out if her eye for photography is really special — or only good enough.

As she seeks out subjects for her photos, Lucy gets to know Nate, the boy next door. But slowly the camera reveals what Nate doesn’t want to see: his grandmother’s memory is slipping away, and with it much of what he cherishes about his summers on the lake. This summer, Nate will learn about the power of art to show truth. And Lucy will learn how beauty can change lives . . . including her own”

HALF A CHANCE is a good resource for kids who are struggling to understand the confusing and sometimes scary topic of dementia.  However, the story also celebrates the simple joys of summer lake living.  I think this book will bring a lot of comfort to many families.

You may recognize Cynthia Lord’s name because of her 2007 Newbery Honor Book, RULES (Scholastic Press, 2006).  If you missed this one, be sure to check it out.


From Goodreads:

Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She’s spent years trying to teach David the rules-from “a peach is not a funny-looking apple” to “keep your pants on in public”-in order to stop his embarrassing behaviors. But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a paraplegic boy, and Kristi, the next-door friend she’s always wished for, it’s her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?”

The characters in RULES push through challenges on a daily basis.  My favorite character is Jason, who communicates by pointing at word cards in a book he balances on the tray of his wheelchair.  As Catherine gets to know Jason, she helps him expand what he is able to say by making word cards for him that go beyond stock phrases like “sad” to things like “stinks a big one!!”


Catherine helps her younger brother navigate the world, and helps Jason express himself.  But of course she learns just as much, if not more, from them.

The real grace of the way Cynthia Lord writes is that she is able to take daunting, life changing challenges and remind readers that in every situation, there are things to celebrate and give thanks for.  Put these two on your “to be read” pile!

I won my copy of HALF A CHANCE thanks to Debbi Michiko Florence at DEBtastic Reads.  Thanks also to Cynthia Lord, who signed it over to the students at Hebron Avenue School, where it will have a permanent home.


Twitter 100

A few months ago, kidlit writer Michelle Cusolito ran an online auction to benefit people in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan.  I offered a basic Twitter tutorial as an auction item, and will be meeting with the winning bidder this weekend!  In preparation for that, I put together a primer on how to get started on Twitter.  I call it “Twitter 100,” as it’s too basic to be even called “Twitter 101.”

It occurred to me that other people who have always wanted to learn more about Twitter may find these notes helpful, as well.  I am in no way an expert, but if you are a complete newbie and are toying with joining Twitter, I hope that some of this advice might be useful to you.

And so without further ado, I offer you…TWITTER 100:


What even is Twitter?

Twitter is a free online social networking service that allows users to send and read short (140 character) text messages called “tweets.”

Wait, what are Tweets?

“Tweets” are short messages, 140 characters or less, that you “post” like you would a Facebook post.  People who are “following you” will see what you tweet, and you will see the tweets of people you follow.

Here is an example of a tweet (and an example of me trying to be clever):

The picky reader’s book choice from the library basket: THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu.  C’mon, Anne, Mama needs an engaged reader!  Hopes high.

Tweets from anyone you are following scroll by on your computer screen in a continuous “feed.”  I will talk about how to keep up with this (or not!) in a moment.

How do I start?

 Start by going to On the screen, follow the directions under the heading, “New to Twitter? Sign Up.”  You will need an email and a password (your choice). After that, you simply follow the directions as Twitter leads you through setting up your account.

Your Twitter “handle” will begin with the “@” sign.  Your Twitter name can be different than your own. For example, you could be “@QueenOfTheUniverse” on Twitter if you’d like. Actually that’s probably already taken.  But you get the idea.  If you are an author looking to connect professionally, I suggest just using your straight up name, like this: @NancyTandon.  You want it to be easy for people to find you.

 What should I include in my profile?

It might be helpful to play around on Twitter for a while and see what other people have in their profiles.  Some of them are quite clever!  A profile is your way of saying, ‘this is who I am,’ and will likely help you connect to like-minded people.  Since I use Twitter for most of my ‘professional’ networking, my profile says a lot about what kinds of things I write, and a little about me as a person. Here’s my example:

“Picture book, middle grade, and cathartic memoir writer, speech/language pathologist, mom, and wife.  So many books, so little time…”

Keep it short.

Also, definitely add a profile picture!  It doesn’t need to be fancy, just make sure you add one.  Otherwise, your profile picture will be an egg, which really isn’t good for anyone’s self-esteem, is it?

Don't be an egghead.

Don’t be an egghead.


How do I get followers?

The best way to get followers is to follow people yourself. Look for people you know in real life to get you started. In the search bar, type in a person’s name, or their “Twitter handle” if you know it. When their profile appears, click on the “follow” button.

Who should I follow?

You can follow anyone! President Obama? Yes! Agents? Editors? Yes, yes! It’s all a matter of what you’d like to see, and whom you’d like to connect with. In this way, Twitter is different from other social networking sights where someone must agree to let you see their posts.  (On Twitter, people you follow may not follow you back, but that’s okay, as long as what they say is interesting to you).

How do I keep my Twitter feed from getting overwhelming?

Once you start following people, you will begin to see a continuous “feed” of tweets on your screen. Naturally, the more people you follow, the more tweets you will see.

It is important to remember: you don’t have to read it all! Twitter is a fluid, “of the moment” way of communicating.  Also, you can easily create “lists” to categorize people you are following. Next to the blue “following” button on someone’s profile, there is a “down arrow.”  Click on that, and you will see a choice to “add or create lists.”

For example, I have a list called “kidlit writers.”  When I follow someone who writes kidlit, I add them to that list. Then, if I am feeling like I need inspiration or just want to connect specifically with people in that realm, I can pull up that list (this will be a button on your own profile page – “lists”) and read what’s being tweeted.

There are other ways to keep track of what is going on on Twitter, things like “Tweet Deck,” that I haven’t figured out yet.  (That would be for Twitter 101).

Also, you don’t want your time on Twitter to be a distraction from your real life and real work.  I usually spend from zero to 30 minutes a day looking at Twitter.  The average is about 10 minutes, and I always feel energized by the little clips and quips I read.  It’s not supposed to overwhelm you!

What should I tweet about?

Anything! Sometimes I comment on what book I’m reading, or post links to writing contests.  It can be anything.  I use Twitter mostly in a ‘professional’ way but I always get responses when I say something more personal (i.e. comment about being frustrated with kids, etc.).  You can also “re-tweet” interesting tweets you read by simply clicking the symbol that looks like the recycling symbol, (but with two arrows instead of three.) This will send someone else’s tweet to the people who are following you.  It is a great way of broadening connections.

Often tweets will contain a link to a blog post, article, or other longer piece of interest.  You can simply highlight the URL of the item you want to link (the thing in the box at the top of the computer screen), then copy it (Command + C), and paste it (Command + V) into your tweet.  Sometimes, pasting a link will put you over your 140-character limit.  Thankfully, someone clever figured out a way to shorten those links.

How do I shorten a web address (link) so that it fits in my tweet?

The sight I like to use for this purpose is called First, start by highlighting the web address of the article or blog post you want to share. Then (as above) copy it by typing Command + C.

Now, open a new tab on your computer, and enter the address Once on bitly, you will see at the very top of the page a rectangle that says “paste a link to shorten it.” So, you paste your copied address here.  (Command + V). Then you click on the orange tab that says “Shorten.”

What happens is that you now have a shortened version of a link that will send readers to the content you wanted to share.  And now it’s time to put it back into your tweet.  You will notice that the orange “shorten” button is now a blue button that says “copy.”  So, click on that.

Then, go back to your twitter page, and paste the new link into your tweet. Hooray! You did it!



What is a “hashtag”?

The # (hashtag) symbol on Twitter basically identifies a “topic of conversation.” For example, adding #amwriting to a tweet would let people know your tweet is related to something about the writing process, e.g.:

 Ugh! I just can’t get my latest revision to flow! #amwriting

You can search for “topics of conversation” in the search bar by entering # (followed by whatever you’re interested in.)  Some great ones to look at specific to writing are:

#MSWL (“Manuscript Wish List” – posted by agents.  Hello, gold.)



#Ask Editor




What are some other ways to connect with people?

1. You can “favorite” a tweet by clicking on the “star” icon under a tweet. This is akin to “liking” something on Facebook. It lets the author of the tweet know you agree or like what they’re saying.  I also tend to “favorite” tweets about books I’d like to read, so I don’t forget the title.  On your home (profile) page you can easily see tweets you have favorited (by clicking on the ‘favorites’ tab).

2. You can reply directly to a tweet by hitting the ‘reply’ icon. This will start a ‘conversation’ between you and the tweeter.

3. You can DM (Direct Message) someone on Twitter by clicking on the same “down arrow” that you use to create lists. There is an option that says, “send a direct message.”  This will be seen by that one person only, not all your followers.

You can also do this by starting a tweet with someone’s handle, for example:

       @NancyTandon – enough already, my brain is full.

This tweet, however, would be seen by anyone who follows both you and the @person.  If you want to mention someone and have everyone see it, put a period before their name, like this:

  . @NancyTandon – enough already, my brain is full.

Or you can simple ‘embed’ someone’s name in your tweet.  For example:

Thanks @NancyTandon for thoroughly confusing me with all this Twitter mumbo-jumbo!

The person you mention will be notified that they were “mentioned in a tweet,” and a connection is made.

4. Chats. Sometimes there are specific “chats” that occur on Twitter that you can follow along with and/or participate in.  It’s not a formal thing, you don’t have to “belong” to a group to participate in a “chat.” For example, on Tuesdays at 9:00 PM there is something called, “#kidlitchat.”  It can be very fun to pour a glass of wine, open Twitter, type #kidlitchat into the search bar, and follow along with what people are talking about that week.  Usually there is a moderator who offers a starting topic or question. If you want to participate, you simply write a comment as a tweet, and end with #kidlitchat.  The other people will see it in their feed if they are following that ‘hashtag.’ Clear as mud?  Just let it flow over you for a while, you will get the hang of it!!

Some common Twitter abbreviations:

RT = Retweet.  This is used when you share someone else’s tweet that you thought would be interesting to your followers.

MT = “Modified tweet.”  You are sharing something someone else tweeted, but you’re adding a little bit of info yourself.

ICYMI = in case you missed it

If you find yourself confused by something on Twitter, just Google your question, e.g. “What does RT mean on Twitter?”  Guaranteed someone else has asked before you (probably me).


With all this said, I must point out that Twitter is not for everyone. If you play around with it for a while and realize you are not enjoying yourself, stop!  No need to add to your already full plate. Maybe there is some other social media platform that is better suited to you.  (Or none at all!).  It’s okay!!

But if you love one-liners, and connecting with like-minded people, and sharing ideas, and being inspired, and learning new things, and you don’t mind “putting yourself out there” a little bit, Twitter just might be the perfect fit for you!

Happy Tweeting!





ANNE FRANK’S CHESTNUT TREE; Interview with Children’s Author, Jane Kohuth

jane in tea room

Today I’m pleased to introduce you to author Jane Kohuth, who graciously answered my questions about her writing life.  But first, a big congratulations to  Jane on the release of her fourth book, ANNE FRANK’S CHESTNUT TREE.  Random House generously shared a copy with me so that I could pass it along to one of you! Winner will be chosen at random from among followers of this blog (thanks for following!).


From the author’s website:


Hidden away in their Secret Annex in Amsterdam during World War II, Anne Frank and her family could not breathe fresh air or walk under the blue sky for years. But through an attic window, Anne could see the branches of a tall chestnut tree. This small glimpse of nature gave Anne hope and courage. It inspired her writing, which in turn has inspired the whole world.

JANE SAYS This book has been the biggest writing challenge I’ve faced so far. How could I tell Anne Frank’s story for the youngest of independent readers? How could I honestly depict Anne Frank’s sadness, fear, and hope? For me, Anne’s devotion to nature, and in particular to the chestnut tree that grew outside the Secret Annex, was a way to delve into her story that I hadn’t seen before. I hope that I have done justice to Anne’s ideas and beliefs and that I’ve presented them in a way that is both truthful and accessible to young readers.
I’m very impressed by the way that Jane was able to sculpt this heavy topic into something young kids could process.  I think it’s never too early to teach kids the power of hope!  Here’s what Jane has to say about being a reader and a writer:
NT: What was the first ‘favorite’ book you can remember?

JK: There is a “famous” story in my family about my preschool entrance interview (I was two-and-a-half at the time). My mother took me to meet the principal, and I introduced myself as Frances and my baby sister as Gloria. I was pretending, at the time, to be Frances the badger from the classic books by Russell Hoban. So the Frances books are the first favorites I remember (Bread and Jam for Frances in particular) and are still favorites of mine now. They are so true to children’s emotions and dilemmas at that age. They are quite a bit longer than most picture books published now, and yet generations of children have enjoyed them. I think we underestimate children’s ability to concentrate on longer stories these days.

NT: What’s your go-to genre when reading for pleasure now?
JK: I don’t have just one! I read across genres and age groups. I read children’s books for professional reasons, of course, to see what’s being published and to learn from the best, but I also read them because I love them. I read more fiction than non-fiction, though I have become a big fan of non-fiction picture books. I read board books through Young Adult literature, and I love realistic fiction, historical fiction, as well as some fantasy and science fiction. For my grown-up pleasure reading, I gravitate to literary fiction (favorites include Atonement by Ian McEwan, A History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood), and I like certain science fiction as well, in particular books by Connie Willis. I try to keep learning about my craft and about things that interest me, so I also read books about literature and writing, as well as non-fiction on topics that fascinate me.
NT:  Did you feel that things got “easier” after your first book was published in terms of finding publishing homes for the books that followed?  Is it like dominos, or does each book have to fight for its place in the world?
JK: It did get a little easier for a while after I received my first book contract. I had an agency interested in representing me at the time, and getting the contract was what it took for them to sign me. I then sold two more books fairly quickly. But even in a few short years, it seems like the publishing world has gotten ever more skittish about investing in writers who aren’t bestsellers out of the gate. Selling picture book texts, which is my area, is especially hard. And even when books come out, each one is definitely still fighting for its place. It would be lovely to reach the point where name recognition helps sell one’s new books, but I’m not there yet!
NT:  Now that you have gorgeous books to promote, what is your take on balancing time spent between marketing and writing new things?
JK:  Balance is hard. I wish I had some insightful advice for other writers dealing with this. My situation is a little different from some, because I also battle a chronic illness, which keeps me from having the kind of regular schedule I’d like, but in some ways I think it’s not so different from people who are trying to balance writing, marketing, and raising kids, for instance. What I’ve found is that I have to focus on marketing and publicity efforts around the time my books come out, and put new writing on hold for a bit. Writers are mostly on their own these days when it comes to promotion, so there’s pressure (internal at least) to do all you can for your books. I’ve tried to reach out online and in store and school visits. For my last book, the picture book Duck Sock Hop, I did dozens of sock hops and other school visits (with more still to come). That takes a lot of energy. I’ve also just started doing visits via Skype, which I think may be a great way to reach out to teachers outside my region and get them familiar with my books. On the bright side, meeting kids and seeing them interact with my books is very rewarding and helpful for me as a writer, and when I do get back to writing, I tend to be very eager, because I’ve been missing it!
NT:   You have a degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. (Wow, and cool!).  How has that influenced your writing life? Specifically, did your time in divinity school play a part in your desire to write your new book, ANNE FRANK’S CHESTNUT TREE?
JK:  Going to Harvard Divinity, where I got a master’s degree in theological studies (I wasn’t studying to be a minister or rabbi like many of the students) grew out of my undergraduate exploration of gender and religion in my writing. As an undergraduate at Brandeis, I majored in English and Creative Writing and also completed programs Women’s Studies and Jewish Studies. At the time I wrote primarily poetry, and I was exploring themes that I thought would benefit from further education in religion. My advisor recommended I reply to Harvard Divinity, for which I am grateful. I don’t know if I will ever have another intellectual experience so stimulating. Though my published children’s books have not dealt particularly with what I studied there, my education informs my worldview and how I approach my themes. I hope that I will be able one day to publish a book or books for young people that tackle the fascinating role that religion plays in our construction of gender. And my degree did play a role in my coming to write Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree.  Random House was looking for someone to write a book about Anne Frank for their Step Into Reading series and asked me to do it in part because of my background in Jewish history. I think that my background also drew me to Anne’s philosophy about nature and suffering, which plays a big role in the book.
NT:  Can you tell us a little bit about the interplay between your blog and your author website?  How did that transition happen, and would you encourage pre-published authors to carve out a little bit of cyber-space for themselves (i.e. in the form of a blog) before they have a need for an ‘author website’?
JK:  I created my blog at the same time I created my website. It was and is specifically intended to feed into the News and Events section of my website, so people don’t have to go to two different places to know what’s going on with me! I never intended it to be a daily or weekly blog, mainly because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. Instead, I wanted a place to let people know about new books, events I was planning, and to occasionally post about other topics that visitors to my website might find interesting.
      Before my first book came out I attended workshops about online marketing and tried to learn as much as I could, and found that people overwhelmingly recommended establishing an online presence even before publication and certainly afterward. Most people in the field seem to recommend that authors engage quite a lot online, and I might benefit from having a more regular blog and Twitter presence, but it comes down to priorities for me. I don’t have a particular knack for marketing or social networking, and so I think my time is better spent writing the best books I can. I don’t know that I have anything really good to say on a regular blog, but I do think I may have some great books in me! That said, I am on Facebook and Twitter ( (@janekohuth), as well as Goodreads, so please do connect!  I invite everyone to visit my website (, from which you can link to my other social media profiles and find out more about me and my books. I also do school visits and writing workshops, so if you’re a teacher, librarian,  or parent and that interests you, please visit the Author Visits section of my site.
      If you are pre-published, I’d say it would be a good idea to start reading other author blogs, checking out their websites, and following industry news. Read the Horn Book. Get Publishers Weekly’s free Children’s Bookshelf newsletter. Follow other people on Facebook and Twitter and chime in sometimes. If you think you have a niche that others would be interested in, or if you want the practice, or if you enjoy it, by all means blog!

NT:  Thanks, Jane, for your thoughtful responses.  Some of Jane’s earlier publications include DUCKS GO VROOM (Random House, 2011) and DUCK SOCK HOP (Dial, 2012), and ESTIE THE MENSCH (Random House 2011).  If you haven’t seen them, check them out!


You can now order books signed and personalized by Jane through independent bookstore Wellesley Books! They will ship the books anywhere in the United States.  Click here to order.

You can find out more about Jane and her books all over the internet, including:

Her Blog:  Jane Says

Her Author website:  The Book Tree

Some other fun places:  Cynthia Leitich Smith, Picture Book Reviews, 5 Minutes for Books, and The Jewish Women’s Archive.

Happy reading!

Meet Author/Illustrator Hazel Mitchell: A KidLit Pearl!

A hearty welcome today to Hazel Mitchell, an award-winning author/illustrator with several new books to celebrate, including:

ONE WORD PEARL (Mackinac Island/Charlesbridge Publishing Fall 2013, Written by Nicole Groeneweg).

Hazel has graciously taken time from her busy schedule to answer some of my questions about the world of KidLit.  But first, some more about PEARL:

One Word Pearl Cover

From the publisher:

*Pearl loves words. All kinds of words. Words make up songs, stories, poems . . . and what does a lover of words do? She collects them, of course!

But one day, most of Pearl’s words are blown away, leaving her only a few which she keeps safely in her treasure chest. After that day, she uses each word carefully—one at a time, until she has no words left. When her teacher asks her questions at school, she doesn’t answer. When her friend wants to know what she has for lunch, she can’t respond. What will Pearl do without her precious words? Will she ever find them?

One Word Pearl explores the power of words to transform, inspire, and cultivate imagination. This whimsical story is the winner of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Children’s Book Competition in the Picture Book category.*

One Word Pearl Interior 5

Click here to watch the darling trailer for ONE WORD PEARL.  See below for details on winning your own copy!

Here’s a little background on Hazel, from her website:

Hazel Mitchell Photo

*Hazel Mitchell is an award winning illustrator. From an early age she drew on every thing she could get her hands on and still can’t be left safely alone with a pencil. Her most recent books include One Word Pearl1,2,3 by the SeaHow to Talk to an Autistic Kid (Foreword Reviews Gold Medal winner and Finalist in ‘Books for a Better Life’), Hidden New Jersey and the All-Star Cheerleaders series by Anastasia Suen. Originally from Yorkshire, England, she now lives and works from her studio in Central Maine, USA. She still misses fish and chips and mushy peas, but is learning to love lobster. She has a dog, a cat, two horses and several snow shovels. You can see more of her work at or find her on Facebook and all those online places!*

Here’s what Hazel had to say about her work and her career as an author/illustrator:

Nancy:  A lot of people think that authors need to find their own illustrators in order to publish a picture book, which of course is not the case.  However, I’m curious – have you ever known an author personally before you were asked to illustrate their work?
One Word Pearl 9
Hazel: All the trade books I’ve published have been with authors I didn’t know. The editor/art director chose the illustrator. People entering, or beginning to write, don’t usually get this disconnect, but I think it’s how it should be. The illustrator is hired to do a job and bring their vision to a project. It’s hard if you get too much input from the author, or very specific directions, because your own ideas take a back seat. I can understand how hard it is for an author sometimes, they’ve lived with their characters for so long! I’ve done self publishing projects in the past where I’ve worked closely with an author on their vision. To me that’s a different kind of illustrating, more of an ‘artist for hire project’ in which you expect to follow tighter guidelines. But in general, working with an author on a project isn’t easy. That’s why we have art directors! 
Nancy: Your drawings of children are delightful.  Do you have kids in your own life you model them after? Where is your favorite place for people watching?
One Word Pearl Interior 4
Hazel: Thank you! When I began my career in illustration I always thought I’d be illustrating animals, with minimal children. It’s been quite the reverse! I have learned to embrace drawing children, although it’s been a steep learning curve. The looser the drawing the better, is how it works for me. I do not have children, and my step children are grown. I usually do research on the specific type of child for a project. Youtube is a great source of reference for studying children! And if you pause them, it’s even easier!! Mostly I draw from imagination. My favorite place for people watching .. sitting in a Parisian Cafe with an excellent cup of coffee, a croissant and a sketch pad!!
Nancy: You moved from the UK to Maine.  Both are beautiful places, but do you ever long for hot, crispy summer days?
One Word Pearl Interior 3
Hazel: Believe me, Maine has plenty of hot summer days! And humid ones too. I lived in South Carolina when I moved from the UK, it was hellishly hot and I was glad to move North. (I’m a celt at heart.)
Nancy:  What kinds of things do you like to write? Are illustrations swirling in your head whenever you write?
One Word Pearl Interior 6
Hazel: Writing and visuals are mixed up together for me. I have several projects on the go from picture books to a middle grade novel. I do find, that even when working on a picture book, the words are very important. I’ll write descriptions of what I see before I draw them, but at the same time the images are jumping in my head. If I’m writing straight prose, there’s a movie playing in my mind.
Nancy: About how long is the creative process – from the time you take on a project (like ONE WORD PEARL) until you are holding the finished book in your hands?
Process character Character design
Hazel: One Word Pearl was a fast turnaround, about 3 months from receiving the manuscript. There isn’t much time for pondering. The book was in stores 7 months later. Of course it was in editing before I received it. I would love a nice, leisurely project!!
Nancy: If you could go back in time, is there any particular children’s book you would have loved to have illustrated?
One Word Pearl Interior 1
Hazel: That’s hard. When you think of the classics you love, they’re so set in stone, why would you change them? I think I am very attracted to chapter books, and I would have loved to illustrate something like Peter Pan.  (Nancy’s note: I can see Peter Pan wanting to peek in the window in the above picture).
Nancy: Here’s one that my writer friends and I wonder about: Which came first, the blog or the author page? Do you think  it’s smart to get a blog rolling when you are pre-published, and then just link to an author page when there is something to promote?  I’d love to know your thoughts since you have both (and both are so perfectly aligned visually!).
Hazel:  I started my blog first. I stayed off social networks for a while, but now I use everything in tandem. Which reminds me … I need to update my blog! 
You can find Hazel online at:
twitter:  @thewackybrit
BOOK GIVEAWAY! Hazel has generously offered a copy of ONE WORD PEARL to one lucky reader.  Just enter your favorite word in the comments below, and I’ll put your name in the hat!  If you’re not the gambling type, ONE WORD PEARL is available at your local indie bookstore.  Just click here!
Happy Reading.
Update 9/30/13:  Congratulations to the winner of a copy of ONE WORD PEARL, Michele Manning!  Thanks for playing.  By the way, my favorite word is fresh.  I especially like it in the context of fresh sheets, fresh piece of paper, and my all time favorite, fresh pot of coffee. 

The Life of a Book

Happy “Paperback Birthday” to ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  The hard cover version has had a wonderful year, and I wish its paperback little sister even more success!

Turning “soft” is part of the natural life-cycle of a book, but it is only a small portion of its Life.  We all have favorite stories that have wormed their way into our hearts, and influence our daily lives through conversation, quotes, or contemplations.  How an audience reacts to a story, and what they take from it and keep for themselves, is something no author can predict.

Pardon today’s reblog, then, about one small moment in the Life of ONE FOR THE MURPHYS, after it left the author’s desk.  We write stories for many reasons, but in the end, we hope that someone will read them and connect to what we’ve written.  I hope this particular copy reached its intended audience!  Read on, Macduff:

Book Bravo: One For the Murphys

POSTED ON MAY 17, 2012 BY 


We’ve all been there.  You can tell the moment you answer the door that this person is there to sell you something.  Usually magazines.  Sometimes new windows.  Or the deal of a lifetime on a lawn care system.  Almost always, I’m pretty militant about sending them on their way.  I don’t even open the door, just shout a hearty, “NOT INTERESTED, THANK YOU!” and watch them fumble with their pamphlets as I move back into the safety of my house.
But today was different.  For one thing, I was outside, weeding.  Nowhere to hide.  For another thing, the woman who approached me (for the record, yes – she was selling magazines) started with her life story instead of her sales pitch.  Or maybe that was her sales pitch.  Who knows.  But whatever it was, today was different.

“I never thought I’d be going door to door,” she told me, after introducing herself.  She said she was in a job training program through a nationwide organization (that much, I later confirmed, was legit).
“I’m working hard to finish this program and prove to the state that I am stable enough to get my kids back.”  Uh-huh, okay, what are you selling, and how much is it going to cost me? Still, there was something in her eyes.  She looked so tired.  I stood up, brushed off my knees, and moved toward her.  Maybe her story was real, maybe not.  Without a door to shut between us, I figured the least I could do was make eye contact with her.

Then she seemed to deviate from her script.  She told me she had recently been hospitalized after being beaten by her long-time boyfriend.  She kicks herself for not listening to her 12-year-old daughter who begged her to leave him.  And she was working hard to get her life in order so that she could get her kids out of the foster care system, where they’d been ever since the beating.

This is where the hairs on my arms and neck stood up.  Sadly, I know this is not an uncommon story. However, the particular familiarity of it was freaking me out.  I felt like one of the characters in Lynda Mulally Hunt’s newly published One For the Murphys (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books) was standing in my driveway and talking to me.
Here is an overview of the story (From Barnes and Noble, One For the Murphys):
“A moving debut novel about a foster child learning to open her heart to a family’s love.  Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she’s blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong—until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She’s not really a Murphy, but the gifts they’ve given her have opened up a new future.”

So yeah, my hair stood on end.  The book moved me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it’s story and message.  In the story, Carley learns that you can lean on good people to help you in a bad situation.  Something about the similarity between Mullaly Hunt’s tale and the one this woman was sharing with me made me listen to her, instead of brushing her off.  Maybe I’m a schmuck.  But just in case, when I went inside for my checkbook, I also picked up a signed copy of the book I had gotten at a recent Wellesley Books event.  I gave it to the woman, and wrote her daughter’s name inside.  When I explained the premise of the book, the woman said she couldn’t imagine how her daughter would feel reading it, knowing she is not alone.

        Then she said, “I wish I had had a book like this, when I was young.  My brothers went to Gramma’s, but I was too little, and went to foster care.”  How would her life have been different if she’d had Gilly Hopkins (from Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins) as a childhood companion?
        So maybe I’m a shmuck.  Or maybe there is a little girl out there who is hurting, scared, and confused, and will be able to read One for the Murphys and know she is not alone, and that good, caring people do exist, and sometimes they are all you need to get by.
        Well done to Lynda Mulally Hunt for the perfectly paced writing in this fantastic novel.  The characters are real, flawed, and quirky, just like you and me.  I highly recommend this book for girls age 9-13, or anyone who loves a good hero story.  You will be enlightened and enriched.

Escaping Your Comfort Zone

I love the padded walls of my comfort zone.  When I leave it, it is usually with a lot of kicking and screaming and fanfare.  Sometimes nausea.  Funny, then, how much I absolutely love encouraging other people get out of theirs.  You should have seen my boundless confidence as I goaded my friend and fellow writer Michele Manning to take advantage of the “open mic” forum at a recent conference.  I kept thinking, she’s got this, she’s got this, she’s going to be great!  Easy for me to say, all I had to do was sit in the audience and cheer like crazy.

IMG_1522     But she did have it! She rocked the mic.  AND, after her reading, a person in the audience came up to express how much the words had meant to her.  Success!  There was something so magical in the moment, because even though Michele looks so cool, calm, and collected in this picture, I think inside she was feeling more like this:
This is me out of my comfort zone, freaking out on a kiddie roller coaster.

This is me out of my comfort zone, freaking out on a kiddie roller coaster.

     It’s rare and exhilarating to witness the actual moment when someone steps outside the box to carpe diem.  But watching and doing are two different things!  If you’re like me, you loooove to stay in the box, enveloped in a thick, cozy blanket of calm.  It’s nice there.  Of course you want to stay!  But hidden away, you’ll never have the chance to let your true talent rise.
     Long ago, I heard the “analogy of the coral reef”.  On a reef, the lee (calm) side is white, hard, and lifeless.  But the side of the reef that bears all the pounding waves is constantly changing, and teeming with diverse life and vibrant colors.
Isn't change pretty?

Isn’t change pretty?

It’s nice to rest on the quiet side sometimes, but don’t forget how great it can be out where the waves crash over you, where you experience real change and growth.  Spend enough time out of the box, and you just might begin to:
I’m grateful for the people in my life who keep pushing me to do more, try more, and be more.  If you ever need a cheerleader, send me a note.  I’ll be ready with my pom-poms!
Many great stories come from the idea of a character struggling to get out of their own comfort zones so that they can grow and change.  One that I recently enjoyed, which is written for the Middle Grade crowd but can be enjoyed by any age, is A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT by Linda Urban.  Warning:  you may experience “Neil Diamond song stuck in your head-itis” after reading.  Check it out!

Putting on Your Oxygen Mask

We all know the familiar refrain: “In the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first.”  As parents, or caregivers of any kind, we’re often reminded of this adage and encouraged to take time for ourselves; to pay attention to our own needs, so that we can have energy for the long haul.

If you’re reading this and nodding along in agreement, pat yourself on the back!  But when was the last time you really, really, took some time for yourself?  I thought I had been doing a pretty good job of grabbing for that mask.  I had graduated from trips to the store on Saturdays (without kids!) to overnights and even occasional hurried weekends away with friends, or my sister, or my husband (again, no kids!).

But never have I taken such an extreme hit of direct oxygen as I did recently at When Words Count Retreat in Rochester, VT.  Four days.  Three nights.  Nothing to do but write, eat, sleep, and enjoy the company of other writers.  For real.  No hitch.

I'm Writing. Please do not disturb.

I’m Writing. Please do not disturb.  A.k.a.: I’m dreaming.  Pinch me.

There were several wonderful things about this place that deserve to be gushed about.  Each morning I woke to the smell of someone else cooking breakfast.  Each noon, a gentle bell would call to tell me lunch had been prepared.  Each evening, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres preceded gourmet sit-down meals which I enjoyed with my fellow writers (almost all were children’s authors – thank you, providence!) as well as the gracious and welcoming hosts of the retreat, Steve Eisner and Jon Reisfeld.  After dinner we shared our work, fireside, during hash sessions in the Gertrude Stein salon.

My use of the word ‘gourmet’ is not hyperbole.

The loose structure of the days allowed for generous, decadent chunks of time to write.  And to be alone.  Alone.  My thoughts.  My sleep.  My walks down the lane.  My views of the triumphant Green Mountains, struggling to grasp spring.  Me! Me, me, me, me, MINE ALL MINE!  I was a self-centered toddler, and I didn’t have to share a single thing.  It was amazing and liberating. I was grateful and thankful.


I don’t take lightly all the work that was being done back at home so I could experience this bliss. In fact, I’m kind of proud of the fact that it took three grown people, (plus a neighbor with a house key) to cover for me in my absence.  And I’m grateful for the warm home life I’ve returned to.  It’s just so much easier to appreciate all I have now that I’m breathing deeply and clearly again.  As life sneaks back in and starts to tap away at the heavenly shell that WWC Retreat coated me in, I’ll be so glad that I took the oxygen when I could get it.

Now, what have YOU done for YOU lately??

For more information on the When Words Count Retreat experience, click the highlighted link above.  If you are a writer, run, do not walk, to your calendar and start dreaming about and planning a trip here!

Stinky Writing (and by stinky, I mean powerful!)

“The timing of the electrical failure seemed dramatic and perfectly correct, as if the lights had said, “You have no need for sight. Listen.” -Ann Patchett, BEL CANTO.

“You’re obsessed with reading,” commented my daughter recently.  True.  I’ve been following a particularly rich breadcrumb path left by reviewers and bloggers and friends, which has led me to some great works.  I’ve begun acting a little like an addict:  keeping a hidden stash for backup, making sure I always have some with me, constantly thinking about my next score.

While I’m reading something that delights me, I try to focus on the exact what that makes the writing so engaging.  What has been rising to the surface for me is the power of a good description.

Of the five senses, I think most writers (myself included) focus mostly on sight and sound.  Think ‘streaks of dusky gray and white bleaching the blue sky’, or, ‘the loud clanging of the bell broke the hush of the early dawn.’

I think that’s why it’s always so pleasing to come across a really great description of smell or taste or touch.  If you’re writing today, I encourage you to close your eyes and smell, feel, and taste what your character is experiencing.  Here are a few talented examples to whet your appetite:

“She smelled like rotten flower vase water”- Jo Knowles, PEARL. (Seriously, smell some.  Your nose hairs will burn).

[A raisin roll]:  “That stretchy softness, warm to the teeth, black fruit off mountain vines popping like music.” – Anneli Rufus, White on White Lunch for When No One Is Looking, from ALONE IN THE KITCHEN WITH AN EGGPLANT, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.

“…dig down in with your fingers and tear it loose.” -Lois Lenski, COTTON IN MY SACK.

Breathe deeply, pick up a book, and enjoy!

Meet Author Ellen Booraem!

What a treat I have for you today, book lovers!  Allow me to introduce you to Ellen Booraem, and her wonderful (second) novel, Small Persons with Wings (they hate to be called fairies), from Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011.

My interest in middle grade fiction (loosely translated:  stories for kids in grades 3-6 , or ages 9-11) often has me pilfering books off of my daughter’s nightstand.   This book cover grabbed my interest immediately, and so did the story, which I read in two sittings.

Here’s what it’s about (from the author’s fantastic website,

“Thirteen-year-old Mellie Turpin once declared to her kindergarten class that she had a fairy living in her bedroom. But before she could bring him in for show-and-tell, he disappeared. Years later, she is still trying to live it down, taunted mercilessly by classmates who call her “Fairy Fat.”  Her imagination got her into this.  She’s determined to keep it turned off.  When her parents inherit an inn and the family moves to a new town, Mellie sees a chance to finally leave all that fairy nonsense behind. Little does she know that the inn is overrun with…you guessed it.  Oh brother. There’s no such thing as fairies, she keeps telling herself. And if there were, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. Right?”

What Ms. Booraem has created here is basically the opposite of a cloyingly sweet fairy story.  It does have wonderful elements of magical realism, but these fairies aren’t delicate.  In fact, they are quite a rowdy bunch.  Ellen graciously agreed to be interviewed about this story and her writing career.  Read on!

Nancy:  How did your writing career begin?

Ellen:  I got my first writing job a year after I graduated from college—in fact, it was at my college, which hired me to write and edit alumnae publications. I produced publications for colleges and corporations over the next ten years, then moved to Maine and started in as a reporter and editor for weekly newspapers. My last job—arts and special sections editor for the county weekly—was really my dream job, but I quit it at age 52 to write my first novel, The Unnameables. It was nuts—I’d written fiction on the side in my 20s and 30s, but for at least ten years I’d done nothing but my job. I’m incredibly lucky that it worked out.

Nancy:  In the beginning of Small Persons With Wings, Mellie Turpin discovers she has a Small Person (a fairy – but they hate to be called fairies) living with her.  Are Mellie’s experiences based on events in your own life?  Did you ever have an imaginary friend?

Ellen:  My imaginary friend was an alligator, useful mostly so I could berate people for stepping on him. Later on, though, my friend and I pretended that fairies lived in my front wall, and we decorated their houses with great care. One draft of SPWW described that wall as the Parvi’s home before they arrived in Mellie’s basement, but I ended up cutting that out.

Mellie is a lot like me, except that I was skinny rather than plump. I was an only child more comfortable with adults than kids, and I did experience some bullying, although nothing as horrible as what Mellie’s classmates did to her.

Nancy:  The fairies (sorry, SPWW) in your story are far from Disney-esque.  I love how irreverent they are!  I’ve never read about fairies having a penchant for bourbon before.  How did you come up with the idea for this particular set of Parvi Pennati?

Ellen:  After I quit my newspaper job, I replaced the newsroom camaraderie with an online private forum of Harry Potter fans. We did some silly role-playing, and I made up this hapless, overdressed fairy who lived in a pub chandelier. I loved her so much that I decided to write a book about her. The first image in my head was this poor disheveled lady sleeping in her chandelier with a nip bottle of bourbon beside her, surrounded by this decrepit pub. I started asking questions: Why is she alone in such an awful place? Why’s she such a mess? Why the bourbon? The book grew from the answers, some of which I found in Charlemagne legend.  I modeled their culture on 18th century France because I wanted them to be as foppish as possible.

(NT:  What a fun way for a story to be born.  And I just adore the word foppish!)

Nancy:  Mellie is the target of some bullying from her classmates.  This has been an age-old problem.

a) Why do you think it’s so much more prominent in our news now?

Ellen:  Seems to me everything gets more scrutiny nowadays, thanks to the electronic media and the internet. Where bullying is concerned, that’s all to the good. Incidents that used to be known only to a small group are now in everybody’s news feeds, and sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say. The most important message to kids is to tell an adult what’s going on—I never did, and I think the girls who bullied me would have gotten some attention and some help if I had.

 b)  Does your work with the Brooklin Youth Corps (a summertime self-esteem program for teenagers) specifically target anti-bullying topics?  Can you tell us more about the BYCorps in general?

Ellen: The BYC isn’t specifically targeted to bullying, although of course we’ve occasionally had to deal with it. My little town, Brooklin, had a problem with youthful vandalism in 1996, and it turned out the kids were on their own while their parents worked—they had nothing constructive to do all day. So the selectmen got a Community Development Block Grant to start the BYC. It’s run by a steering committee that I chair, with a hired coordinator in the summer. The program matches teens with homeowners who need chores done, transports and supervises them, and teaches them basic job skills like being on time, talking to a stranger, making eye contact, etc. We also tend a vegetable garden planted by school kids and sell the summertime harvest at a farmer’s market. The fall harvest goes into the school lunch program.

(NT:  Fun fact – Ellen lives and writes in the same small town in Maine where E.B. White lived when he wrote Charlotte’s Web).

Nancy:  Mellie is also obsessed with art history, Edgar Degas in particular.  Did you ever think about putting a “photo spread” in the book?  Or, would copyright red-tape have prohibited it? 

Ellen:  I did suggest including photos in the book, but my editor preferred that I put that stuff on my web site. So I did. (It’s here.) I suspect we would have had copyright problems with museums if we’d tried to publish some of the art. I got the web site photos from Wikipedia’s creative commons, so I guess I’m okay.

Nancy:  What kinds of books did you enjoy reading as a child?

Ellen:  I liked mysteries and fantasies, mostly. I loved Greek myths, anything that offered a supernatural explanation for everyday objects and events. My all-time favorite book was The Daughters of the Stars by Mary Crary, an obscure novel published in England in 1939. The premise is that the heavens are run by a bureaucracy in which women hold most of the power, although sometimes only behind the scenes.  The heroines are a ten(ish)-year-old girl and her mother,  who is luminary of two continents and therefore very influential. They have adventures traveling across the sky and under the sea, and are quite capable of taking care of themselves.

(NT:  I’m going to have to check that one out!)

Nancy:  What role, if any, has a critique group or partner played in your writing process?

Ellen:  I’ve been in a small, local critique group for seven or eight years, and it’s been hugely important. Not all the members are kidlit writers, or even fiction writers, but the feedback and the moral support have been a godsend.

Nancy:  Can you describe the process of finding the right agent for you?

Ellen:  I happen to live in an area that’s rife with creative types, so I pretty much used contacts. I think I sent only one cold query letter.  I was rejected, I think, three times. Then an acquaintance sent my book to his agent at Janklow & Nesbit in New York, and the agent passed it along to Kate Schafer, a colleague of his who was just starting out as an agent after several years spent handling foreign rights. I was very lucky: Kate took me on, and I stayed with her when she left to start her own agency. She eventually got married (she’s now Kate Schafer Testerman) and moved to Denver—the distance has proved to be no problem at all, thanks to email and the internet. Her agency is ktliterary.

Nancy:  What are you working on now?  

Ellen:  A third book, TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, is due out next August, again with Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers. One of the main characters is a banshee, so it’s essentially about death even though it’s funny. We’ll see how that goes over. I’m in the early stages of another book about a boy in the future who finds a junction between his world and an alternate past.  Nobody his age knows how to read, and he meets a girl from the alternate 17th century who is desperately trying to learn.  An alchemical pamphlet from her world endangers them both.

(NT:  Sounds exciting! Can’t wait to read both!)

Nancy: Do you have any advice for other writers?

Ellen: The advice I wish I’d followed decades ago: No matter how busy you are, sit down and write a little every day, even if it’s just for half an hour. A page a day ends up as 365 pages when a year is out, and that’s a lot better than the nothing you’ve written if you keep not doing it.

(NT:  Oooh, well put!)


Thank you, Ellen, for your time and your insights.  I hope you will all check out Small Persons with Wings, and that you (and your kids) enjoy it as much as I did.

Happy Reading!

Galvanized Nails and the Perfect Sentence

     In the drawer of my nightstand, I keep a notebook where I write sentences.  Not my own, but sentences other people have written.  Sometimes the writing I am reading is so good, I feel the need to copy it down, so I can ruminate on it later, and recapture some of the joy I felt when reading it for the first time.

In his book, How to Write and Sentence (and How to Read One), New York Times columnist Stanley Fish says, “I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, for sentences that make you say, ‘Isn’t that something?’ or ‘What a sentence!'”

A friend in my book club once asked, “What makes this book so much better than [the last one we read]?”

“It’s the sentences,” I replied.  I believe it is the carefully crafted building blocks, the ones that sing in our brains, that make a novel memorable.

That kind of careful attention to detail can lift any art or craft into something special. This summer, my brother came for a visit and built us a shed.  But, being a talented craftsman, the project turned into so much more than ‘just a shed.’  How did he elevate the lowly backyard storage area into a thing of beauty?

Nail by galvanized nail (I learned that you need to use galvanized nails on outdoor projects, as they don’t rust)….

…beam by beam….

…and line by clean line.

By paying attention to the small details, and lovingly and artfully combining them, you can end up with a shed like this:

Instead of this:

Now, my brother will be among the first to tell you that there were many “first drafts” in his design career that never made it out of his work room (or shouldn’t have).  I’m thinking in particular of a chopping block (which I still love) and a blanket box (which my sister still loves) that he would not want to see pictures of published here.  But without those early “mistakes,” he wouldn’t have learned and honed his craft and been able to eventually build me something as gorgeous as this:

It can be much the same with writing.  Most writers I know have files filled with pieces that make us say, “ugh!  I wrote that??” and that (luckily) will never see the light of day.  But we need those pieces, those ugly sheds.  We all know that to get better at anything, you need to practice.  If you are reading this blog, you are helping me in this effort – thanks!  By practicing the process of revision, I’m working on taking out the “rusty nails” in my writing and replacing them with sentences that are shiny and galvanized.

I’m hoping that one day, I can put a bunch of little carefully crafted details together and create something beautiful.  Maybe I will even write something that will make someone say, “Wow! What a sentence!”