Monday, May 28, 2018

Kids Need Books

While following activity on Book Twitter this spring, I saw the hashtag #KidsNeedBooks appearing more and more frequently. This movement, in a nutshell, came from a number of authors and educators trying to get books in the hands of kids to give them something to read during summer break.

When I was in elementary school, summer reading was one of the greatest things about the break. The local library had a program that tracked your reading throughout those months, with little prizes along the way and a party of sorts at the end. Even so many years later, I can clearly remember walking through that overpoweringly air-conditioned building and exploring the shelves each week, and the anticipation that would build with each title I would add to my growing “To Be Read” pile.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an experience widely shared by many of my own students. Too many of them don’t see summer break as a chance to dive into reading and fill their heads with new adventures, but instead a time that brings a lot of instability and insecurity into their daily lives. Wouldn’t it be great if all kids, from the ones who frequent the bookstores or libraries to the ones taking their summer break one day at a time, had at least one book they could escape into for part of their day?

As the last day of school gets closer for my students and me, I’m taking gradual steps to close down my classroom. In doing so I’m reminded how my classroom library is so much more extensive than what I have displayed on the limited space I have available for my bookshelves. I keep most of the library boxed up during much of the year, rotating the titles with each academic term to keep them fresh and keep the kids interested. As I see these boxes and boxes stuffed full with books — novels, nonfiction, picture books, graphic novels, hardcovers, paperbacks, even a few galleys, you name it — it occurs to me a lot of the books I’ve collected over the years aren’t living up to their potential being packed away.

I think I’m going to do something about that this year. In the spirit of the #KidsNeedBooks movement, which I would encourage everyone to learn about, I’m going to sort through the pile before packing them away for the year and make them available for my students. Book ownership really comes to pass when you read a book, but it’s a powerful thing at that age to be able to hold a book you love in your hands and know that copy is yours, and that you can re-read it as many times as you want.

One book can change how a kid might think about the world. The summer gives them plenty of time to do that thinking. Anyone interested in learning more about this movement should look up the hashtag, and see what kinds of exciting things have happened after a few people following through on a simple idea.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Summer Inspiration for Writers

The lazy days of summer are now upon us, complete with ice-cold lemonade and hours spent lounging in the hammock, reading for pleasure and writerly research, of course. No deadlines, no screaming children, no pressure or stress of any kind.

Well, we can always dream. Our summers are typically packed with ball games, lake trips, family activities, reunions. Tons of fun where we meet ourselves coming and going. On top of all this, we writers work other jobs. We raise our families. We volunteer in the community. We seek out adventure. We live. Because if all we did was hide in our writing holes and dream, we'd end up small-minded with nothing real to write about. Unless of course, we're Thoreau and are exploring philosophy.

Fortunately, the hectic moments of summer provide unique and energizing writing inspiration. Here's a few focus points to help you capture those fleeting moments when genius strikes (or can be finessed into existence with just the right touch):
  1. Relationships: In summer, we make extra time for friends and family. That means there's more opportunities for laughter, conflict, and exploring new ideas. Take note of the things that build connections in your relationships. What weakens them? How can laughter strengthen a relationship? When can it damage it? Are there people you interact with who tend to speak less than others? Or to dominate attention, either purposefully or by nature of their personality? Why? Are there simmering resentments that should be addressed or joys and gratitude that should be expressed? As you explore these issues, you will find your deepened understanding will enhance your relationships as well as your writing. 
  2. Emotions: Summer is often a time when we clean house, literally and figuratively. We shake off the dust and stillness of winter, throw off our coats, and seek out a little freedom. Consider how you feel in the transition time between winter doldrums and summer liberty. How does the hot sun on your skin or the cool wind through your hair make you feel? Are you emotionally affected by increased or decreased social interaction? What about your family and friends? What changes do you note in their moods? Do you see anyone becoming "hangry" when the BBQ is taking longer than expected (darn slow charcoal!)? How can you capture similar emotions in your writing? Take a few minutes at the end of the day and write a feeling, something you've felt that day or some emotion you've witnessed. How could your characters deal with feelings that push them a bit too far?
  3. Sensations: Summer is a wonderful time to contemplate and explore sensations. The weather has changed. We spend more time outside. What do you hear when you are out at the lake or on a morning run? Even sitting at home inside, the sounds can be different. Do you hear the drone of lawnmowers or the revving engines of motorcyclists? What about the birds chirping outside your window? Or the overpowering buzz of cicadas or songs of crickets? Depending on where you story takes place, some of these sounds may be absent or their could be other noises, like the call of children playing in the streets. Are the sounds in your stories sinister or commonplace? The tastes of summer again provide astonishing variety - the sweet tang of smoothies, the hot spices of salsa, or the flaky warmth of pastries at a bistro. Notice what stands out to you as the summer days pass, taking care to explore all five senses and incorporate them in your writing.
  4. Physical Movement: Summer is a time of movement. We hop on the bicycle a little more often or take wandering walks through the woods, dips in the pool, or hikes to and from various picnic places and ballfields. Being active makes our bodies feel different and, usually, work a little better. Note the soreness of your muscles as you become more active. Note the scrapes and bumps that we collect over the course of the summer. How long do they take to heal? How much does a sprain or a bruise actually limit activity? What does it feel like to ice a sore joint? How does it feel when our bodies are strong and healthy? All of these insights will making your writing more realistic and compelling to readers.
  5. Try Something New: This is some of the best advice writers can take. Try something new. Step out of your comfort zone and pick up a dance class. Or go parasailing. Or try walking across a fallen log. Opportunities to experience something new are all around us, if we are looking, and if we choose to be brave. They don't have to cost money or take a ton of time. It could be something as simple as cooking a new meal. Notice how you feel when trying new things. Nervous? Frustrated? Excited? How could this new experience fit into your current work-in-progress? If it doesn't, write a vignette or even a summary of what you did, how you felt, and what you thought. Then save it for later.
    Whatever your situation, summertime can be a springboard for your creativity. Enjoy!


Monday, May 21, 2018

Postcards From Venice, by Dee Romito

Top Ten Reasons To Read Postcards From Venice:

1. The postcard-perfect setting: Venice, Italy 

2. Skyler, the main character, who takes on a cool writing internship to blog about the city. 

3. Logan, a cute Australian intern 

4. Gelato (Yum!)

5. Gondola rides 

6. Pizza by the slice 

7. A seriously cool day trip to Verona to see Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet 

8. A ghost tour of a cursed Venetian house 

9. A mother and daughter cooking class, including make-your-own pasta and chocolate mousse 

10. Skyler’s postcards to her BFF, and her attempt to stay connected to what matters most

Postcards From Venice is on sale 5/29/2018.

Dee Romito is the author of The BFF Bucket List and No Place Like Home, as well as the coauthor of Best. Night. Ever.

Visit her website at

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve

If you’re familiar with the Tales from Alcatraz series by Gennifer Choldenko, her newest release, AL CAPONE THROW ME A CURVE will be a welcome continuation. If you aren’t familiar with the series, you should correct this very soon.

At the center of the action is Moose Flanagan, a young teenager on the verge of starting high school with dreams of making the baseball team. Moose’s father works in the corrections system so his family is one of several who live on Alcatraz Island. Moose’s parents have a lot to cope with from the politics of the island and the people who live there, trying to raise a family when everything is a ferry ride away, and caring for Moose’s older sister Natalie, unrecognized as affected by autism in the 1930s, when the story takes place.

Moose is a typical kid surrounded by an interesting cast of characters, both from his life tied to the prison and away from it, each operating with their own agenda — some of which are easier for him to read than others. He has a lot to responsibilities placed on him and difficult decisions to make as the story unfolds, all of which speak to the maturity of the character. His love of baseball is still front and center as one of his largest motivations throughout the book, keeping him solidly anchored as the kid that he is. Moose's relationship with Natalie is shown as both protective and loving. Knowing first-hand how acknowledging and accepting differences and valuing diversity have become important parts of character education in schools today, this relationship would be a wonderful example for kids to read about. 

The dialogue and Moose’s narration are refreshingly straightforward, sidestepping the contemporary affectations common in much of middle grade, which makes it all come across as even more genuine. The strong and measured descriptive language establish a sense of place in each location of the overall setting, making the reader feel they would recognize areas they may have never seen before. 

Without giving anything away, the events of the book all come together in the end with very high stakes for Moose and his family, in what will be a surprising challenge for a middle grade audience but completely realistic in the context, and skillfully written. AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE was the kind of book that pulled me forward to finish reading in a day, though I wish I’d allowed myself to spend more time with it. It’s a good thing there are three earlier books in the series I can always revisit! 

To help us celebrate the release of her new book, author Gennifer Choldenko agreed to answer some questions about the Tales of Alcatraz series and her other work!


Thanks for giving us the chance to ask you a few questions, Gennifer! To start with, I think you should know one of my students recently said AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS is the best book ever written. What's it been like spending so many years working with a series that has such widespread popularity?

The best book ever?  Wow, please tell your student thank you from me!  And thank you for inviting me to be a part of your blog. (Side note - I did pass on that thank you, and her jaw dropped open when I said it.)

One of my greatest pleasures is when a teacher brings me his or her highlighted, underlined, dogeared copy of Al Capone Does My Shirts. What an honor it is to sign those books!  And of course, I love getting letters from readers.  My favorite kid reader letters encourage me to keep writing.  “You are a good writer.  Me and my friends think you should write another book.”  Though my all-time favorite letter went like this:  “I tried to write to Roald Dahl but he was dead.  So, I had to write to you instead.”

I've read that AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE could be the last book of the series. How much of the series did you have planned from the beginning? Were you always hoping or intending the story would become a series, or did those plans evolve as opportunities and new ideas came along?

When I started work on Al Capone Does My Shirts I had been trying for six years to get a second book published.  I called myself a “one trick pony”, because it really looked like: Moonstruck: The True Story of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon was the only book I’d ever have published.  While I was researching and writing Al Capone Does My Shirts  I thought that this was a bigger idea than I could fit into one book.  But the idea of writing a series of unpublished books, seemed crazy, even for me.  After I’d been working on Al Capone Does My Shirts for a year, Penguin bought my first novel: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog.  But even then, a series seemed out of reach.  So, no I didn’t plan out the series.  I took it one book at a time. 

If AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE does turn out to be the final book of the series, how do you feel about bringing it to an end?

This series has definitely been a labor of love.  The books have been challenging to create, but I’ve gotten so much out of writing them.  I feel like all the books in the Tales from Alcatraz are a part of me I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of.   

I'm surprised (and impressed) that you've been able to sustain this series while writing so many other books as well. Has your writing process been the same regardless of the title, or was there anything different in the way you approached writing the Tales from Alcatraz books?

Every book comes to me in a different way and that changes my process.  Generally, though, research is involved.  For me, research is like putting Miracle-Gro on my ideas.  Since I live in the San Francisco Bay area, I have spent many many days on Alcatraz.  I’ve worked on the island.  I’ve read every book I can get my hands on.  I’ve interviewed dozens of people who were guards, prisoners and the sons and daughters of guards.  I am a member of the Alcatraz Alumni Association.  I’ve been to every Alcatraz Alumni Day on the island. 

One of the great privileges of writing these books has been the opportunity to do first-hand research.  When you write historical fiction, it is a luxury to be able to walk your setting and see buildings that are similar to the way they were in the timeframe you have chosen for your book.  That’s probably the biggest difference between my Alcatraz novels and my non-Alcatraz novels. 

I like writing other novels in between the series books because then I can come back to Alcatraz with the same excitement I had when I wrote the first book.  Having so much time elapse between books, isn’t a great marketing strategy.  But it is how I was able to make sure each book in the series was as compelling as Al Capone Does My Shirts.   

Finally, do you have any recent middle grade favorites you'd recommend people read (after they finish AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE, that is)?

I love: One Crazy Summer, Goodbye Stranger, Hello, Universe, The Hired Girl. I can’t wait to get my hands on: Bob and Ghost Boys. 

Thanks for your time, Gennifer! Good luck with the new book and the ones to follow!

Thank you! 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Treating Fiction as Sacred

I recently discovered the amazing podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and it has taught me about an entirely new possibility for interacting with fictional works, i.e. treating them as sacred.

So what does this mean? Essentially, it has to do with taking a text seriously in order to examine what rewards it has to offer. This doesn't mean that the text or the creator are considered in any way to be perfect, but rather it's more about applying a certain rigor and ritual to a text in order to enhance our understanding. The podcasters explain that a text is made sacred not by any inherent value, but by having a community of readers that treat it as such. How cool is that!

And if you're wondering whether or not you have to be religious in order to apply this practice, you absolutely do not. It has nothing to do with your individual religious beliefs, or lack thereof, but it has everything to do with carefully reading and considering a text in order to learn what hidden blessings the story can offer us.

Each episode, the podcasters give a close examination of a single chapter through a chosen theme, kicking off their conversation with a related story from their real lives. As they discuss, their goal is not to critique the text, but to take the text as written and to see what they can learn about that week's theme from the choices the characters make. They then apply a spiritual practice to a section of the chapter to see what other new understandings can be revealed.

This podcast has given me permission to talk about something that I've always known to be true: the fact that books like Harry Potter have had a profound impact on my life. I think too often, especially as readers and writers of middle grade fiction, we are told by society that the literature we love doesn't matter, that it can't be taken seriously or that it simply doesn't have any true literary merit because it was written for children. How wrong the critics are, and I think this podcast pushes the discussion even one further, not only saying that literature for children has merit, but also validating the idea that it can offer real benefits and blessings for our lives.

The challenge that I'm going to undertake after listening to this podcast is to go out and find other texts that I can treat as sacred and to see what I can learn from them. My challenge for you, if you haven't done so already, is to head on over to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and give this awesome podcast a listen.

At the end of each episode, the podcasters offer a blessing for one of the characters in the chapter they've just examined. At the end of this blog post, I would love to offer a blessing for the creators of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Vanessa, Casper and Ariana. Thank you for introducing me to a new way of interacting with my favorite stories. As a reader and a writer, your podcast has really helped me to more thoroughly understand the impact that stories can have on our lives. Thanks, and keep up the good work!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Book Review: See You on a Starry Night

Juliet has just moved to a beachside town with her newly separated mother and her moody older sister. When she meets their new neighbor, Emma, the girls form an instant bond. Emma's big family takes Juliet in, and the girls have fun together - starting when they throw bottles with secret messages into the sea. Then someone writes back to Juliet's message. An email arrives, inviting her to join the Starry Beach Club. All she has to do is make someone's wish come true.

So Juliet and Emma set off to help as many people as they can. It's fun! But as Juliet spends more and more time away from home, enjoying her new town and Emma's family more than her mom and sister, she starts feeling lost. It's been easy to find others to help. But maybe her star would shine a little brighter if she brought it closer to home.

About the author: Lisa Schroeder has written over a twenty books for kids and teens including the popular verse novels for teens I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and CHASING BROOKLYN. She's also the author of the middle grade novels IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES, MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, KEYS TO THE CITY and THE GIRL IN THE TOWER. Her books have been translated into foreign languages and have been selected for state reading lists. Lisa is a native Oregonian and lives with her family outside of Portland.

✩  ✩  ✩  ✩  ✩

My review: I loved many things about this book (beach setting! Van Gogh references! Juliet's love of tidy lists and messy art!), and I really liked the way a difficult family situation was balanced with a very sweet subplot. Personally, I found some of the characters too good to be true and some of the problems too easily solved – I wouldn’t have minded more conflict and bad decisions. Still, I definitely think middle grade readers will enjoy this very readable story and will relate to the realistic emotions the characters go through. Recommended.

Publication date: June 26, 2018
A review copy was provided by the author for an honest review.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Finding Your Voice

We all know it when we read it, but how much we enjoy it can also be a very subjective thing: 

The novel's voice.

When querying to get an agent, problem with voice is some of the most common feedback an author can receive:

Thank you for giving us a chance with this. I’m sorry to say I don’t think it’s one for me. While this has some nice points, when I take a on a new project I need to feel such a strong connection to the voice, I’m afraid I’m not quite there with this. Of course, it’s a really subjective business. Another agent may well feel differently. (an actual rejection letter I received in early 2014)

Thank you for sending me your query. I am sorry not to invite you to submit your work or to offer to represent you. The material just didn’t grab me, and you deserve an unequivocally enthusiastic agent as your advocate. (another actual rejection letter!)

Sometimes, authors' submissions get rejected because of the plot — for example, submitting a book in which the heroine falls in love with a vampire or a book discovers he's actually a wizard — most often it's not the book's plot, but the author's voice.

Other books, I pick then up and can't stop reading. And in many cases, that's not simply because of an excellent plot or a well-formed characters, it's because of the author's voice.

For example, I could read Erin Entrada Kelly all day long.  Her latest book, YOU GO FIRST, sang to me from the first paragraph onwards:

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockhard balanced an unopened Dr. Pepper upright on her hand and thought: This is what it feels like to hold my dad's heart.
Same as the Dr. Pepper.

Brilliant huh? Well, she is the most recent Newbery Medal winner, so no great surprise there.

How about Jason Reynold's fantastic voice in GHOST:

CHECK THIS OUT. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons . . . with his nose. Yeah. That's true. Not sure how he found out that was some kind of special talent, and I can't even imagine how much snot be in those balloons, but hey, it's a thing and Andrew's the best at it.

These authors and their characters do not sound remotely alike, but you know straight away that these are characters you want to get to know. And you can tell you are in the hands of experienced authors who make the cadence of their words a joy to read.

Easy for them, you think. How do I make my own voice better?

First of all, YOUR voice is your way of looking at the world. And while your characters' voices will change from book to book, once you mast voice, your readers will always have a sense that they are reading a book by an accomplished author with a point of view.

How can you improve your voice?


Sometimes I run into authors who don't read in their genre. Which a) I don't really get at all, since I assume that if you want to be a middle grade author you love middle grade books; and b) doesn't allow them the opportunity to learn from other authors.

My best advice is to read widely within your genre, with a special focus on award-winning or critically acclaimed books, and an equal dash of the popular.

Early on, I'd even copy a page out of a particular book, so I could get a sense of the cadence, or rhythm of the story. I highly recommend this, because it will help you with your writing immensely.


Everyone tells you to do this, but not everyone does this. It is critical. When you read your work out loud, you immediately find the awkward syntax, the boring bits, the unresolved nature of your writing. I also read drafts on my kindle. For some reason, seeing it in book form makes a tremendous difference to how I perceive my own work.


Early on, writers stumble around in the dark, unsure of how specific to be. Their work lacks thematic direction and that shows in their voice. The more you understand what it is you want your story to convey, and who you think in the story should convey it, the easier it will be to find your voice.


Yes, I know it's not polite to listen in on conversations, but if you're writing about eleven year old girls, you're going to want to get a handle on them. I've been known to wander the mall and pause now and then to listen to a bunch of kids talking. And though I remember my own kids at that age very well, I also rely on my friends' kids, too.

And finally:


In my latest book, I have a girl from 1915 who cannot sound like the kids from 2018. At the same time, there are things about being twelve or thirteen years old that will always be universal. The most important thing is to know who your characters are. What do they love, hate, worry about, are afraid of, and cherish? What motivates them? Are they shy or boisterous? Are they frustrated or happy-go-lucky. Your characters' personalities and the kind of story you are telling (see #3) will shape the right voice for your story.

In the end, it all comes down to writing with authenticity and clarity, and then writing and writing and writing in order to make your work as excellent as it can be. If you do all that, I promise: your writer's voice will strengthen!

Good Luck!