Tuesday, December 11, 2018

(Not So) Simple Wish from Jody Feldman

All right, I’ll say it. Way too often I have these wonderfully grandiose ideas, but when it comes time to put fingers to keyboard, it's easier to follow a less magical path. The end result doesn’t match the vibrancy of my imagination.

I know I’m not alone.

And so my wish for writers is plain and simple: I wish for you the inspiration and dedication to put all the right words in the right order to write that story which matches the vision and voices in your head. Have a magical season!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Lump of Coal -- from Jane Kelley

This holiday season, I would like to give you all a lump of coal.

Wait! What? you say. How could anyone who's reading this blog and loves kids books possibly deserve a dirty black lump? Santa only gives coal to those who who have been naughty.

Coal's reputation has gotten even worse since Victorian England. In those days, poor children might actually have preferred to get a piece of fuel to provide a little bit more heat on a cold day. Now we shun it for being the dirtiest of fossil fuels. But I wondered, if I dug deeply enough, would that unwelcome gift have some redeeming qualities?

I searched the internet. I found recipes for lumps of "coal" made out of marshmallows and chocolate cookies. I found many different Santa-esque figures who came down chimneys to put presents in kids' shoes. (Italy had a witch named La Befana!) I found plastic lumps which could be sent as gags. And then I found what I hoped I would.

Send Coal will, for a very modest fee, ship a baseball-sized lump of actual coal to whomever you choose. Anonymously! You can include a message explaining your reasoning for this dubious gift, although they reserve the right to censor some sentiments for legal reasons.

The coal comes from Centralia, Pennsylvania. That town mined coal for over a century. But they had to stop when a vein of coal that ran beneath the town caught fire. It could not be extinguished. The underground heat, the toxic fumes, the sinkholes threatened the citizens who were moved to safety. The fire still burns, as evidenced by plumes of smoke which escape from the vents. Now Centralia is a ghost town, visited by tourists and the people who once lived there.
Discover Magazine's photo of smoke wafting past abandoned buildings
So, dear readers and writers, you are probably still wondering why I would give you each a lump of coal.

Because I hope that you will grasp whatever lump of life you have discovered. Examine it carefully. Don't take it at its most obvious value. I guarantee you will find a story in it.

Remember that it is the humble, lowly, despised lump of coal that can be turned into diamonds.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Gift I Would Give to Fellow Writers by Deborah Lytton

When I think about a gift I would give to fellow writers, many things come to mind: persistence, commitment, confidence, time, and of course, a red Moleskine notebook and Palomino Blackwing pencils. And yet there is one thing that surpasses all of this: inspiration. When a writer is inspired, the story flows smoothly and we are committed to the work so completely that finding the time becomes as simple as breathing. Being confident about the manuscript and persistent in submitting it to agents or editors happens without procrastination. It doesn't matter if our only writing supplies are a broken teal crayon and a wrinkled grocery store receipt because the words must be written. Most importantly, when we are inspired, we are confident about the work we have created. So this year, I hope you will be inspired to write the story in your heart, the one that only you can tell. Happy writing!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Dear Santa, All This Author Wants for Christmas Is...

... to give my readers HAPPY books.


Let me explain.

In September I visited a school in north rural Alabama. The 6th graders were wonderful, and a few of them wrote me letters, which I responded to. Then a few of those kids wrote me again via email. One message in particular really struck a chord:

Dear Irene Latham,

Thank you for writing me back! My name is [name removed] from Cotaco School. I am very excited about you putting my name in your idea file! If you do put my name in a book, could I be a zookeeper, please? I am a fan of your books, creations, and adventures. I am not online very much but if you do ever make a book with me in it please make it happy and not sad. I have issues with my parents they fight a lot and I am constantly moving houses it gets tiring and I just need some happiness in my life. Thank You


"I just need some happiness in my life."

YES. I want to write "happy" books for this kid, and all the kids like him. 

Working on it...
Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, Irene Latham is an Alabama author of many poetry, fiction and picture books, including Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters), which was named a Charlotte Huck Honor book and a Kirkus Best Book of 2018. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018


Congrats to Michele Weber Hurwitz, who celebrated a book birthday this week for Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark (S&S/Aladdin), her fourth middle grade novel. It's the sequel to last year's Ethan Marcus Stands Up.

Siblings Ethan and Erin Marcus are invited to attend a prestigious invention camp during winter break of seventh grade. The camp is run by the enigmatic, mysterious tech sensation Zak Canzeri, known to the world as "Z." Fidgety Ethan wants to finally create a working desk-evator (a device to allow kids to stand at their classroom desks) which he flubbed at the school Invention Day. Perfectionist Erin desperately wants to beat her archenemy Marlon Romanov, who thinks that girls aren't as good as boys at science. But at the camp, both Ethan and Erin question their abilities against a roomful of geniuses. On the last day, they team up with two new friends and think of a spectacular invention -- if there's enough time to create it and present to the judges! Narrated by five kids, the story allows readers to experience the same events from different perspectives.

CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? POEMS OF RACE MISTAKES AND FRIENDSHIP by Irene Latham and Charles Waters has been recognized as:

an NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor Book,

a 2018 Kirkus Reviews' Best Middle-Grade Book

and a 2019 NCTE Notable Poetry Book

Hopefully this recognition will get the book into more readers' hands and help #startaconversation.

Also, if you haven't heard the good news, Indie bookstores are thriving! The American Booksellers Association says that small, independent bookstores fell by about 40 percent during the mid-90s to 2009. Some have since recovered, and this year, sales are up more than 5 percent compared to a year ago! The "buy local" movement has been a driving force, says the ABA, and customers are increasingly spending in their neighborhood stores. So please continue to support your local bookstore this holiday season, and always.

Friday, November 30, 2018


The idea for Courageous wasn’t even mine.   An editor at Scholastic contacted me and said the idea for a middle grade book about the evacuation at Dunkirk had been approved in-house and that they were looking for a writer; might I be the one?  Since I had already done something similar with The Bicycle Spy—Scholastic had handed me the idea and I developed it into a successful  book—I knew that this was a way of working that challenged me, in a good way, so I was game to try it again.  I fleshed out the synopsis, wrote a few sample chapters and waited; in a few weeks, I was told that I had the job.
            I knew very little about what happened at Dunkirk before I started researching it, but what I found out intrigued me.  Rather than a military victory, Dunkirk was a retreat in which the real heroes were not soldiers, but brave British civilians who stepped in to save their boys—and a lot of other boys too.  I loved the idea of writing about ordinary people, like Aidan, Sally and the rest of the village, who risked life and limb to help the stranded troops.  In rowboats, fishing boats, and sailboats, armed with thermoses of tea and the occasional Union Jack, men and women crossed the English Channel and brought over 300,000 men to safety. It was a stirring, inspiring tale.
            Since the movie was in wide release while I was researching and writing the book, I naturally went to see it.  I’m not a fan of war movies, and I approached this one with a sense of dread mixed with grim obligation.  Of course I was going to see it, but that didn’t necessarily mean I would like it.  To my surprise, I liked it very much and found it a nuanced and unexpected treatment of the subject. 
            Courageous in no way resembles the film.  But it was through watching it that I was able to expand upon my own story, giving it both texture and heft.   For instance, watching several scenes that took place on the beach, I realized that the soldiers would have sand everywhere—in their boots, their uniforms, their hair, mouths and noses.  And that soldiers who survived the explosion of their ship and landed in the water, would end up covered in grease and oil.  Such small but telling details helped make me create characters and situations that seemed real.
            I was also able to inject my own beliefs about war into the story, and made it clear that while war may sometimes be necessary, it’s still a horrific experience for soldiers on both sides of the conflict.  I allowed George, Aidan’s enlisted older brother, to muse on what the death of a German soldier—a man even younger than he is—will mean to that boy’s parents, family and friends.   I took pride in conveying that in more than one scene, and developed the theme throughout the novel.
            Writing about what you know and love is one kind of pleasure; writing to extend the breadth and depth of your understanding and awareness is another, and I’m grateful that writing Courageous gave me that chance. 
Grab a copy of COURAGEOUS.
Keep up with Yona Zeldis McDonough.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thank a Vet!

By Charlotte Bennardo

November is Thank a Vet month. While we salute and appreciate our military vets, on Smack Dab we're thanking all those veteran writers who have helped shaped our writing. There are lots of famous writers whose work I enjoy reading, and even admire them. Some though, have a spark that catches my eye and my soul so much that they influence me, like a long distant mentor who doesn't know I exist.

Here are some of my faves:

Marshall Saunders. This Canadian author, a fierce advocate for animal rights, wrote under her middle name because in the late 1800s, female authors weren't popular. She wrote romance and children's books, and it was her book, Beautiful Joe, a story written from a dog's perspective that I love. Reading it as a young girl, I was fascinated how the dog was narrating a full novel. I thought it was amazing, I'd never read anything like it. It influenced my Evolution Revolution series which is told from the perspective of an inquisitive squirrel.

Anne Rice. This world renowned author showed me the beauty of all the history that surrounds characters and stories. It wasn't enough to show the initial historical setting, Anne wove it all through her stories, from ancient Egypt to the 1920s to modern day; and not just the history of one place, but around the world, through many cultures and beliefs and lifestyles. I strive to reproduce the richness that her novels evoke.

Sherrilyn Kenyon. Only in the last few years has Sherrilyn written middle grade novels, with her Chronicles of Nick series. Initially an adult writer specializing in vampire, Greek, and other mythologies, she spread out to middle grade and graphic novels. Her characters are complex, flawed, and magnetic. If asked to pick one favorite character, I simply couldn't.

Mary Janice Davidson. An adult writer, it was her Undead series that showed me how easy it was to write humor. When you can sit in a crowded bookstore and laugh silly over a book, not caring that people are watching, you know the humor is spot on. It was the natural humor of her adult books that made me venture into humor, both in my adult books and my children's. The premise is simple- over exaggeration and pairing two things that shouldn't be paired. This works for kids as well as adults.

Julie Garwood. A consummate and bestselling romance author, I learned dialogue from her books. Like a lot of people, I struggled with making dialogue sound real, making it flow naturally. Whether we're a kid or an adult, the way we speak is vastly different from the way we write. Always taught to write in complete sentences, we all take short cuts, use improper grammar and slang, and generally speak in ways that make English teachers everywhere cringe. Once I learned how to cut the dialogue down, I got better at writing it without struggling.

Dav Pilkey. Yep, Captain Underpants is one of my favorite books/series. It's potty humor and ridiculousness and plain fun. Reading it to my son, I had the hardest time trying to say the words without falling into a fit of giggles. The book fit so well with my boys at that age that I kind of wondered if Dav was a young kid. To keep that kind of freshness in your writing for your audience as you age is something I strive for.

Dr Suess. I generally don't write picture books, but the beloved How The Grinch Stole Christmas is written so perfectly; it incorporates rhyme, rhythm, a moral, silliness, impossibilities made real, and captures the attention of both adult and child. You're just not human if this story doesn't delight you.

The Disney Storybook. Featuring all the best known and loved fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and others, these books kept me so engrossed that my cousin once remarked, "Why do you have to read so much??" They are simply and concisely written, making them perfect for a middle grader to read on their own, or for younger ones to listen to. The stunning pictures added to the wonder.

You may notice that there aren't many current middle grade or young adult authors. There were few when I was growing up, so I had to take inspiration from writers of books for older readers. There are many current authors whose work is just as beautiful and inspiring, so take a look around. While they may not influence my writing, they satisfy my need for a good story.

Photo courtesy of Pexels, Inc.

Happy reading, and thanks, all you vet writers!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

On Not Acting (or Writing) Your Age

When I started thinking about which author I would write about for this month’s blog theme, my head was swimming. Should I focus on Beverly Cleary, who inspired me with her wonderfully funny books when I was a child? Judy Blume, who told the truth? Laura Ingalls Wilder, who made me feel as if I actually lived on the prairie? Arnold Lobel, whose delightfully weird Mouse Soup still cracks me up every time I read it?

But then I thought of an author whose books weren’t around when I was a child but who gave my daughters and me lots and lots of laughs: Barbara Park. For books that seem so simple, the Junie B. Jones series certainly taught me a lot about writing for kids. First of all, plot. Wow, could that woman keep a plot moving! There is never a point in any Junie B. book where your mind wanders or you’re not dying to turn the page to see what happens next. Second, audience analysis. Park knew what her readers would enjoy. Third, humor. How did she come up with all the crazy antics of our heroine? Taking a fish stick to school for show and tell on pet day? Genius!

But most of all, voice. The wonderful thing about Barbara Park is that I doubt most young readers who love Junie B. even know who Barbara Park is. Park, because of her amazing skill, is invisible. You really believe that a little girl named Junie B. Jones is telling you a story because the voice is so strong. You forget that an actual adult could be behind it.

As Junie B. once said, “Sometimes grown ups don’t act their right old age.” And thank goodness for all of us that Barbara Park didn’t write her “right old age,” either.