Friday, April 20, 2018

Hidden Gems on My Bookshelf

Maybe some of you are like me.  You have fond memories of those days in elementary school when your teacher passed out the Scholastic Book Club Flyer.  Oh man, there was nothin' like it!  I poured over it, circling books I wanted, marking books I needed with a big fat star.  Then on the bus ride home, I thought about how much money I might have stashed in my sock drawer or how much change I might find in the junk drawer in the kitchen to add to whatever amount I'd be able squeeze out of my parents.

Then the painful part came when I had to make those final decisions, knowing that I most likely wouldn't have quite enough money to get every book on my wish list.

Some of those book club books became my very favorites.  And many of them I still have on my bookshelf.  They don't look shiny and new anymore like they did on that exciting day when my teacher would come in after lunch recess with that Scholastic book box in her hands. 

But it's these tattered, worn books that are my hidden gems.  The well-loved condition they are in is proof of their importance in my reading life growing up.  And now that I'm an author, and I look back at these beloved books, I realize that it's stories like these that, no doubt, built the foundation for my future life as a writer.  It makes me thankful for Scholastic Book Clubs, for my teachers who passed out the flyers every month and filled out the order forms, for my parents who dug deep in their purses and wallets to give me extra money for books, and for the authors who wrote the stories that, because I read them so much, became a part of me.
Maybe you have the same kinds of hidden gems on your bookshelves.  Or you have your own children who are busy buying and reading the books that will become their hidden gems.  Or you are a teacher or librarian guiding your students to enjoy books in such a way that they will consider them hidden gems.  Whatever the case may be, I hope my post today will remind all of us just how important these hidden gems can be.  For me, they created the foundation for becoming an author, but the real value of these hidden gems is that they create the foundation for different things in all of us.  And that foundation building begins when we provide young readers with a treasure trove of books so that they are able to discover, collect, and keep the ones that will become their hidden gems.

Happy Reading,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hidden Gems: Discovering Favorite Authors

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering through old bookstores, library sales, rummage sales. The old paperbacks and hardcovers call to me – what stories do they have to tell that I have not yet heard?

It’s true I often get recommendations of what book to read next, what’s selling hot, or what author might appeal to me. But it’s through these haphazard hobby searches that I’ve found some of my favorite hidden gems that are now on my bookshelves.

Maggie Stiefvater: A car-racing, dream-weaving, man-eating horse creator who also loves art, music, dogs and goats. What’s not to love about Maggie? She captured me with her novel, Shiver, that I stumbled across at a thrift store. But her grip was firmly around my heartstrings with The Scorpio Races. I read the novel every October (when the races are getting underway in the book). The world-building, vivid characters and heart-stopping race scenes make this one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Tawni O’Dell: I found a paperback copy of Back Roads at a college booksale in my early 20s. I read the book over the weekend, and quickly read her other works. Her novel, Fragile Beasts, is one of my favorites of all time. A tale about an elderly spitfire of a woman with a beloved retired riding bull; two orphaned teenage boys, a cat and an entirely eclectic sense of family throughout. I’ve read it no fewer than five times over the years.

Markus Zusak: I discovered an interest in World War II as a kid in junior high who read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. That novel has always stuck with me. Having two grandfathers who served in WWII, my interest has long since continued. The Book Thief presented itself to me as a ragged hardback at a scholarship sale for the high school. I’ve read the novel twice, and it still makes me cry. Zusak has become one of my favorite authors.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hidden Gems: Epiphany Moments

Whatever book I'm reading, whether it's the shortest picture book or a sweeping epic novel, I always read for a certain moment, when the main character learns something about herself or her world, some truth about the human condition that allows her to go forward and face whatever needs to be faced. Often called "epiphany moments," these contain the hidden gems I read to discover.

Now, sometimes the "hidden gem" truths laid bare by a story are not hidden enough: we are rightly wary of stories that seem too clearly bent on teaching a lesson, preaching a sermon, proclaiming a message or a moral. And sometimes the "hidden gem" truths are not gem-like enough: they are trite bits of commonsense wisdom and truth that, on closer look, are neither wise nor true.

But sometimes I'm given such a piercing insight from a story that it takes my breath away. I have to run to my trusty little notebook and jot it down to save forever.

Here are two of my favorites from books I've read recently:

"You can't run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be." - Jason Reynolds, Ghost

"You make your choices or the world makes them for you." Jennifer Bertman, The Unbreakable Code

This year's Newbery medal winner, Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly, is absolutely stuffed with observations like:

"Sometimes life calls on you even when you don't raise your hand." 

And this one:

"Of all the questions you ever ask yourself in life, never ask, 'What's the point?' It's the worst question in the world." 

Sometimes as an author I've been reluctant to spell out "the big idea" in a story too explicitly, too bluntly and baldly, preferring to leave this to readers to distill in their own way. But looking through this list of "hidden gem" truths I so treasure, I'm starting to think there's lasting value in presenting these excavated gems lucidly for our readers so their jewel-like brilliance can shine forth in all their brightness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

In Which the Gem Finds Itself, by Sarah Dooley

My work in progress is a story told from the point of view of a child who can't read. I keep catching myself allowing her to read with ease -- a flyer for a contest, a post online from a friend, store hours -- and with each convenience I rewrite from her, I find myself more and more in awe of this kid I know.

I teach in a pilot program for kids who, for one reason or another, were not finding their academic needs met in their public schools. These are the kids who, when enrolled in a class of 30, shrink to their most basic academic merits, or lack thereof. "That one can't sit still." "That one won't speak up." "That one can't read." Not that I think their teachers ever thought of them this way -- there are wonderful teachers out there in public school who do their very best by each of those thirty, class period after class period -- but when you're tasked with the safety and education of children by multiples of ten, you rely on conveniences. You give an instruction and the group responds. You write directions on the board and the children read them.

This kid, she made it all the way through second grade not reading. Not only that, she made it all the way through second grade with no one realizing she couldn't read. Each of those conveniences I snatch from my main character, each time I have to think of a work-around, another way for information to reach my kid's brain so she can pursue her dreams and adventures -- I'm struck by the realization that this kid made it through three years of public school finding those work-arounds so fluently and so unassumingly that she looked for all the world like a kid who just read the directions off the board.

The brilliance of that child, the exhausting work she undertook, every day, to compensate for the lack of what I took for granted till I tried taking it away from an imaginary kid -- and she spent those three years feeling like a failure. It is a crime that a kid so smart, so creative, so determined to fulfill her potential no matter the conveniences denied her, should ever feel anything less than brilliant.

Today, I teach a class of five. My five gems, no longer hidden in a group of thirty. Each comes to me to learn not just to work around the boulder sitting in their path but to bust it into pieces wherever possible. We learn ways to compensate, but we also learn the skills that have seemed unattainable, chipping away at that boulder skill after skill until it is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and then we polish it till it shines. We find our gems, and here is hers:

Oh, my heavens, but she can write.

She does not write with a pen, but the stories she tells are rich with characters who have challenges to face, characters who work around their weaknesses to discover immense strengths. Her stories are crafted with the care of someone who has had to pay extra attention to spoken language and therefore has a stunning grasp of the nuances therein.

I hope to hold her book one day in my hands. I'll read it aloud.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Book Recommendation: FREEPLAY

The blog theme this month is Hidden Gems, and the first thing to come to mind for me on that topic was this relatively little-known book—FREEPLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. 

Nachmanovitch himself is a musician by trade, but the principles he explores apply to the creative process in general. “Finding the heart’s voice,” he says, “…is the adventure at the core of this book.” For me, it’s been one of the most theoretically and practically useful things I’ve ever read — when I first encountered it fifteen years ago and then again last year, when I came back to it and found it just as useful, all over again. 

One of the things I most like about this book is the value Nachmanovitch places on different kinds of playfulness, as well as the openness that comes with that quality—as in, an openness to spontaneous moments of creation. He refers to improvisation as “intuition in action,” and encourages artists to remember that feeling from childhood, where the only point of a given activity is the activity itself. 

He also uses a travel analogy to talk about his subject when he says: 

“A walk, following your intuitive promptings, down the streets of a foreign city holds rewards far beyond a planned tour of the tried and tested. Such a walk is totally different from random drifting. Leaving your eyes and ears wide open, you allow your likes and dislikes, your conscious and unconscious desires and irritations, your irrational hunches, to guide you whenever there is a choice of turning right or left.  You cut a path through the city that is yours alone, which brings you face to face with surprises destined for you alone. You discover conversations and friendships, meetings with remarkable people. When you travel in this way you are free; there are no have-to’s and shoulds. You are structured at first only, perhaps, by the date of the plane departure. As the pattern of people and places unfolds, this trip, like an improvised piece of music, reveals its own inner structure and rhythm. Thus you set the stage for fateful encounters.”  

As writers and artists working for, with, and because of kids --- who are themselves experts at play, and whose sense of wonder is the gold standard -- we get the benefit of work that constantly reminds us to hold onto that quality. It’s one of the things that I love about what I do, and I’ve found no better reminder for it than in this dense (but worth it), fascinating, and thoughtful book. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hidden Treasures

This month, we at SMACK DAB are mining for hidden gems. We are digging for hidden treasures. Those are phrases, sentences, lines of creative beauty that seem to transcend the ordinary subject and verb construct to reveal the essence of what it means to be writer.

As you may know, I now teach for the Southern New Hampshire University MFA Online Creative Writing Program. This week we had a discussion on what does it mean to be a "professional" writer? Do you have to be published to call yourself a writer? Maybe it's not the published book that makes you a writer, but how you see the world. Maybe it's the connections you make as you explore this world. The language you use to explain those connections. The imagination that’s engaged to create this world, and all the characters who live within it, because you see beyond the ordinary and  the cursory. And in this creation, you discover what it means to be human. Not perfect. But human. With this in mind, o! I have found treasures indeed!

One hidden treasure I’ve found is teacher and author Bruce Black, who manages the wonderful Wordswimmer blog. His newest blog , This is How Writing Works, offers this wisdom: 

“You might think that writing starts with a blank sheet of paper, but it doesn't, not for me anyway, although that sheet of paper is foremost in my mind (not the paper itself so much as its blankness). I know, of course, that sheet of blank paper is waiting for my words to fill it, even though I’m not yet at my desk. But, even so, writing doesn't start with that blank sheet of paper.

It starts with fear.”

Another treasure is the incomparable Emma D. Dryden, and her blog , Our Stories, Ourselves, in which she offers Dumbledore wisdom on the stories we tell and the stories we live:

I appreciate and believe those who raise voices.
I appreciate this time to open eyes, open ears, open arms, and open heart.

Last week...this week...and the weeks after that, I will continue.
For this is what it means to live fully in the world.

((c) 2018 emma d dryden, drydenbks llc all rights reserved )

And speaking of a national treasure who is not so hidden, and in celebration of National Poetry Month, Lee Bennett Hopkins also celebrates his birthday with an amazing new collection: World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of all his anthology collections, this is – in my opinion – his most stunning, inspired by the Leonardo Da Vinci quote, "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen." As Lee explains on NPR, “… the whole book is really based on a form from the Greek called ekphrastic poetry, where poems are inspired by art. I assigned these varied paintings to 18 of the top children's poets in America who would then write their emotions toward the painting. Rather than describing the painting, it's what they feel.”

 The artists represented include Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer. A painted plaster fragment from Egypt 1390-1353 B.C inspired Irene Latham's "This Is the Hour.” An illustrated manuscript "Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" by al-Jazari inspired Naomi Shihab Nye’s “It’s All Magic.” Marilyn Singer’s “Paint Me”, inspired by Gustav Klimt's " Mada Primavesi, 1912-13," celebrates the painting’s defiant subject with the resolute phrase and title of the collection: “World, make way.”

In one of the more dramatic poems comes "Resistance," by Cynthia Cotten, inspired by The Horse Fair, painted by Rosa Bonheur.


He calls himself a handler,
this puny person
with his rope, his shouts,
his “I am your master”

Thinks he can subdue me,
stifle my spirit,
bend me
his will.

But no, I say,
I will not be broken,

Let others trot willingly
towards servitude,
towards mere

I choose life.
in the light of my
I will fight
until no fight

(©Cynthia Cotten 2018. All rights reserved)

The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur (French, Bordeaux 1822–1899 Thomery). Public Domain

What inspires you?

Bobbi Miller

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Hidden Gems: Advice from one Author to Another, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

One of my favorite children's literature blogs (besides Smack Dab in the Middle, of course!) is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations. Cyn's blog has a variety of features, including author interviews, guest posts, and new voices, but my favorite is the "Survivor" series, where Cyn interviews children's authors who have been in the business a long time. Arguably, it's even more challenging to maintain an active publishing career than it is to break into the field. Cyn asks authors to share what's kept them going, helped them thrive, and allowed them to continue to achieve publishing success.

I find a "hidden gem" of advice in every one of the "Survivor" interviews. Usually several. The authors are honest, forthright, funny, and inspiring. I learned that Cinda Williams Chima didn't publish her first novel until she was over fifty years old, but since then has published a book a year. That made me remember that whatever you aspire to do, it's never too late to start!

I also discovered that for K.L. Going, the reason she's continued to publish has been because of adaption. "Allowing myself to write in a broad array of genres has helped me to remain active as a writer," she said.

These gems came from Martine Leavitt: "I made choices at every juncture of my life that narrowed my options until the saying came true for me: I'm a writer because I can't do anything else." I love that she revealed that sentiment, because I feel the same! She also noted: "If I had been more self-promoting, I would have sold more books. On the other hand, if I'd been busy doing that, I may not have been at my writing notebook one quiet morning when the most important revelation of the book came." In our social media crazed environment, I appreciate reminders that the writing always should come first.

One of my favorite "Survivor" interviews was with Margaret Peterson Haddix.

 When asked what she would tell her beginning writer self, she answered: "That’s a little mind-blowing to contemplate. I think, though, that I’d give the same advice for a first book or a fortieth, or for any career in general. Do your best with what you can control, and let go of what you can’t. Of course you want your book to succeed, but understand that timing and luck can play a huge role; sometimes good books fail, and sometimes mediocre books succeed."

It's gratifying to hear reassuring advice like this from someone so prolific and successful.

And bits of inspiration, like this from David Lubar, makes me remember why I do what I do.

"We create things that have never been, but we do it in a universe a billion times larger than we can even imagine. On balance with that, as minuscule as we are, when we make a moment, a day, or a school year better for a young reader, or give an educator a tool to reach a student who thinks she hates reading, we loom larger than we can ever know."

Cyn, a successful author herself, is a huge supporter of fellow writers. Check out her blog here:

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of several middle grade novels. Her newest is Ethan Marcus Stands Up. The sequel, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, is coming this fall from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Find her online at