Monday, September 25, 2017


I’ll be honest. At first, I wasn’t much of a fan. In fact, in the beginning, this particular professor drove me crazy. 

His name was Dr. B., and I had him for Intro to Literary Criticism. First semester of my sophomore year of college. 

And the first paper I wrote for him, I got a big fat “C.” 

I was not used to “C”s in any class really—especially not English. But I visited him in his office. We discussed the paper. I rewrote it. 

I improved. I got a “B” on the rewrite.

I wrote another paper.


The guy, in a word, was tough. Unrelentingly.

I went back to his office. I discussed. I rewrote.

I'll admit it—I cussed a lot, too.

And then, after a few weeks, things really started to click. I started to understand what he was asking me to do. I wrote a feminist paper on The Scarlet Letter, and the first draft of it made him cock his head and say, “I never thought about that before.”

On the final version of that paper, he wrote, “This is a dandy of an essay.” 

I had that thing on the fridge till it crumbled off.

In short, I worked my tail off for Dr. B. I came away with my precious “A” for the course. But I came away with far more than that. I came away with a solid feeling for what literary criticism was. I came away with—get this—loving teachers who were tough. Because, as I found out, there was nothing quite so satisfying as meeting their high expectations. 

I took three more courses with Dr. B.—undergrad and grad level. While I was still in school, I wound up getting a short critical piece on a Howard Nemerov poem published in The Explicator, which I was sure to share with him. 

He asked for a copy to keep. When I handed it to him, he told me, “I’m going to get to point to a big published work someday and say, ‘She was in my class.’” 

I was on cloud nine.

It took several years after leaving college to sell my first novel. When I did, I immediately thought of Dr. B. But when I looked him up, I was saddened to learn that he had passed away just a few months earlier.

The thing is, though, the more time passes and the more I find myself having to rise to new challenges and forge ahead, I think of what I learned from Dr. B., and I know that the truth of the matter is, I'm the one who gets to say, “I was in his class.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Fear of Imagination: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

“You have an overactive imagination.” 

This is a judgment people with less imagination make on those with more imagination—usually adults to children. Here is what these adults are really saying:

I don’t understand your imagination. I can’t contain it. Having so much imagination is not normal. So STOP! Squash your imagination. Turn it off. Because it FRIGHTENS me.

In our over-rational world, an abundant imagination is not only considered to be of little value, but also considered to be dangerous.

Children hearing such messages can become frightened of their own imaginations. This fills me with sadness, and a sense of waste. We think the problems of our world will be solved solely by technology. By the exercise of our rational minds. Look around! Can you honestly say that our single-minded reliance on one function of our brain hasn’t led us to the brink of social and ecological disaster?

We need imagination so desperately now. We need it in abundance, streaming out from us like stars to create paths forward we cannot yet see. We need to encourage imagination, not only in children, but in everyone. So turn on imagination everywhere you find it. Fan it into a flame.

But the most important thing we need to do is look into ourselves and ask: Why does imagination frighten me? Why do the imaginations of children frighten me? And more pointedly, how does my own imagination frighten me?

Then we will have a place to begin.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Read Aloud - A Favorite for Everyone

So who remembers coming in from lunch recess all hot and sweaty, getting a nice long drink at the water fountain, and then putting your head down on your desk in anticipation of the next chapter of the class read aloud?  This is the setting of some of my fondest book memories.  Not only was it a wonderful and relaxing way to transition into whatever we happened to be doing in class later that afternoon, but it was such an amazing way to experience a story.  Whether it was one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or Island of the Blue Dolphins, I still remember closing my eyes and picturing what was happening in the story as my teacher read aloud. 

Those are my childhood read aloud memories, but I also have teacher read aloud memories.  When I got my first teaching job, one of the things I looked forward to most was the opportunity to pass along that read aloud experience to my students.  Choosing what books I would read to my classes was great fun for me.  And I have to confess, there may have been more than a few times during my thirteen years of teaching third grade that my read aloud time went a little longer than it should have.  But what is a teacher to do when her students beg her to read just one more chapter?  😏   Having the entire class experience the same story at the same time was such a pleasure to watch.

Now that I'm an author, I have a third kind of read aloud experience.  It's when teachers tell me how much they enjoy reading one of my books as a read aloud.  I never dreamed when I was that sweaty-haired kid listening to my teacher read to the class that I would one day write a book that kids would listen to at read aloud time, and I never imagined when I was a teacher reading my favorite books to my students that I would one day have teachers tell me that they read my book to their students.  It's really one of the greatest compliments I get as an author.

So, why write about read alouds during "back-to-school" time?  It's a great time to reminisce with those who have their own great read aloud memories.  And it's a perfect time to remind teachers just what an impact classroom read aloud time can make in a student's life.  There are so many ways to enjoy books, and I think classroom read alouds can be one of the very best!

Happy Reading Aloud,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh

A few of my read aloud favorites

Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Nancy is the award-winning author of This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, Always, Abigail, Just Like Me, and Elsie Mae Has Something to Say.  Nancy is a former elementary and middle school teacher as well as a school librarian.  One of her favorite parts of writing for children is being able to say, “I’m working” when reading middle grade novels.  Nancy enjoys visiting schools and sharing her love of writing with students.  She also enjoys sharing her expertise about writing and children’s literature with teachers and librarians.  Besides reading and writing, Nancy loves eating pizza in her hometown of Chicago.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Introducing Author A.M. Bostwick

I am so excited to be a part of this lovely blog! Middle Grade literature includes some of the earliest stories that drew me into books as a child, and inspired my love of writing. I’m looking forward to celebrating it here on Smack Dab in the Middle with all of these other amazing authors! I’d like to use my first post to introduce myself.

September for me always marks a new beginning. Perhaps it goes back to those late summer, early fall days with the start of school. Fresh sharp pencils, crisp clean paper and breaking the spines on new books. Each year, I try to mark out my map for the next 12 months of writing. Whether I’m editing, querying or writing, there never seems to be enough time in a day. And the months that follow are never as neat as I’ve outlined them on paper. Life as an author tends to have a lot of plot twists!

Later this year, I hope to continue to writing in my Middle Grade series, Ace the Cat. Ace is a mystery-solving feline. The books are told from his point of view – all on four legs. In my debut of The Great Cat Nap with Cornerstone Press (University of Wisconsin) in 2013, Ace investigates a cat-napping. The novel went on to earn the Wisconsin Council for Writers Tofte-Wright Children’s Literature Award in 2014.

I followed up in The Clawed Monet with Torque Press in 2016. Ace is sent on a new case to solve the mystery of a destroyed painting at the local art museum.

In my third Ace the Cat novel, I have a rough outline yet no clear direction of where it’s going to end. I’m typically a chronic plotter – not a pantser, as they say. I prefer to at least see where my headlights are going in the dark, but I must admit, this novel isn’t cooperating!

I also have one Young Adult novel in print, Break the Spell, which arrived on shelves in 2015. I continue to write Young Adult as well as Middle Grade. I’m constantly inspired by other authors, such as the ones on this blog, who have pursed their art for so many years and continue to break boundaries and push the limits in literature. I’ve met so many other great writers, aspiring and published, as well as incredible teachers, librarians, young readers and parents. It’s an ever-changing world in publishing, and I’m always thrilled to be a part of the web that connects us via the written word.

Besides being a writer and bookworm, I am a cat and nature lover. I live in the Northwoods of Wisconsin where I adore the changing of every season. I also am a firm believer that chocolate helps me write more proficiently. Luckily, I like to walk in the woods no matter the weather.

Thanks for reading and I can’t wait to get to know you all better!
You can find me at, and @bostwickam.

My novels:


Monday, September 18, 2017

The Writing Lesson I Never Forgot: Write with Kindness

During my entire long career as a writer, I took only one creative writing course, during my junior year in high school. At the time I found it a somewhat painful experience because the teacher committed an unpardonable sin: he preferred my one-year-younger sister to me. Not that we were in the same class, or that he ever showed partiality in any overt or biased way. But I knew the two of them had a special closeness; he remains her favorite teacher, and I suspect she remains his favorite student, to this day. And, in that terrible way siblings can have of willfully claiming a part of the universe as their own, and shutting its doors against the other one, I was the writer, not her! I was the one he should have loved best.

But there's more. One of our assignments was to write a character sketch, and with the new-found cynicism of a sixteen-year-old, I wrote about our parents. I "saw through" them, documenting their disappointed dreams, timidity that blighted their lives, annoying eccentricities, even their middle-brow literary tastes (Readers Digest). I was proud of the piece, for how I had observed them so carefully and recorded my observations with such unflinching honesty. I expected that it would blow my teacher away. (Finally, he'd see how much better a writer I was than my sister).

He didn't like it.

He said it was impressively written in many ways, but that it wasn't kind.

The comment burned its way into my heart. I felt I had been judged negatively not only as a writer, but as a person. I actually gave up writing for a decade or so, focusing on the academic study of philosophy (many of the world's great philosophers weren't particularly kind).

But now I think that comment he gave me was so wise, so true, so totally right. It's not enough to see "through" our characters. We need to see "into" them. We need to understand not only how they are, but why they are this way. Clever observation needs to be deepened by compassionate understanding. Now I write about even my most flawed characters (who are usually my protagonists) with a kind of desperate love.

Decades later, when I read these words by Brenda Ueland in her wonderful 1938 manual, If You Want to Write, I finally realized exactly what Mr. Jaeger had been trying to tell me: "I have come to think that the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person."

Mr. Jaeger made me both.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Introducing Bobbi Miller

I’m so excited to be joining the Smack Dab in the Middle! With a background in American folklore, I write historical fiction middle grade, focusing on forgotten characters (usually girls, who are not represented enough) and events (because I think as a nation, we are historically illiterate and have forgotten our own story) that helped build the American landscape. I like the challenge of writing historical fiction.

History is literature, David McCullough says. The artistic nature of historical fiction presents several challenges, especially in books for children. Events must be “winnowed and sifted”, as Sheila Egoff explains, in order to create forward movement that leads to a resolution. Authors choose between which details to include, and exclude, and this choice is wholly dependent upon the character’s goal. More important, resolution rarely happens in history. The same with happy endings. Because of the culling process, critics often claim that historical fiction is inherently biased.

Yet, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact (all puns intended), some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. No history is without its bias. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

One hundred fifty one years ago, twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field.

As I was researching another book, I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863. It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following this Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I decided I was going to write her story.

Some facts, such as dates of specific events, are fixed. We know, for example, that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1 to July 3, in 1863. The interpretations of what happened over those three days remains a favorite in historical fiction. My interpretation of the battle, in Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, August 2014), featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.

The literary process that defines historical fiction allows readers to connect emotionally to historical figures and events. It introduces readers to different points of view. As Tarry Lindquist (1995) said, historical fiction “puts people back into history.” While textbooks tend to underscore coverage, this lacks depth, and as a result, “individuals—no matter how famous or important—are reduced to a few sentences…Good historical fiction presents individuals as they are, neither good nor bad.”

Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life, according to Karen Cushman. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

Historical fiction makes the facts matter to the reader. If I didn’t get the facts right, creating characters true to their time and place, the readers won’t care about the facts. For me, the only way to discover this emotional truth was to walk the battlefield of Gettysburg, and witness that landscape where my characters lived over one hundred and fifty years ago. Besides extensive reading, including scholarly pieces, diaries and journals , eyewitness accounts, military reports, I traveled to Gettysburg four times, walking the battlefield and talking to re-enactors and the park rangers.

History is story. And our history is full of amazing stories. That’s why I write historical fiction.

What's your favorite historical fiction?

Thank you for stopping by!

Bobbi Miller

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Introducing Michele Weber Hurwitz

I'm so excited to be joining Smack Dab in the Middle. I've enjoyed reading the blog for years and I'm thrilled to be a contributor now! I'll be posting on the 14th of each month.

I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was in fifth grade. That's about the time all big decisions are made, right? I wrote my first book that year -- The Chair That Knew How to Dance -- and it was one of the winners in a school contest. The prize? Reading my story to kindergartners. I still remember their excited five-year old faces as I turned each page, and it was right then and there that I realized this writing and reading thing was a pretty cool deal.

Oddly enough, my PE teacher at the time, Mr. Phillips, taught me an invaluable lesson about perseverance, and the experience stayed with me during years of writing rejections. Trampolines were still allowed in gym class back then and I was having a rough time mastering a flip. During one attempt, I knocked my knees into my face and got a bloody nose. Before Mr. Phillips let me go to the nurse, he insisted I try one more flip, telling me that if I didn't, I'd never get on the trampoline again. And that was the time I did it.

In college, I majored in journalism, then worked in public relations and wrote a newspaper column and magazine articles. The urge to write a book (not with crayon and construction paper) came when I was in book clubs with my two daughters. I fell in love with middle grade, perhaps even more so as an adult than as a preteen.

I'm the author of three middle grade novels (soon to be four). Calli Be Gold was published in 2011 by Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. It was nominated for state reading awards in Illinois and Minnesota, and named a starred Best Book by the Bank Street College of Education. The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, published by Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books in 2014, was nominated for state reading awards in Florida, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. It was a selection for several Girl Scout troop book clubs and has been a popular summer read in many school districts in conjunction with kindness and community service projects.

My newest release (this month!) is Ethan Marcus Stands Up. Narrated by five seventh-graders, it's the story of one fidgety kid who decides to take a stand against sitting by inventing his own solution to stop his constant squiggling in class. There's a sequel coming in fall 2018 -- Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark.

In addition to my two daughters, Rachel and Cassie, I have a son, Sam. They're all young adults now so I can't stalk them as much for ideas and dialogue like I did when they were younger :) I live in the Chicago area with my kids and husband, a CPA, which is helpful because math and numbers are my kryptonite. I walk every day -- it's essential to my writing process -- and I'm pretty fanatical about ice cream and chocolate chip cookies. And broccoli, when necessary. I'm an awful cook (except for banana bread) and have a terrible sense of direction (except in malls). I love to travel! This summer I went to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. I can't wait to share my posts with you! Visit me at

Michele's books:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Leaving Room For the Reader

Is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, do, does, did, may, might, must, can, could, shall, will, should, would, be, being, been.

You will have to take my word for it that I wrote that list from memory. Those are the twenty-three helping verbs in the English language. They also represent the one and only thing my freshman high school English teacher, Mrs. Corbin, made us memorize that year.

I honestly don’t know why that was the sole memorization task she gave us, but my point here is really about everything else that happened while we weren’t learning prescribed information by rote. Instead, we spent a lot of time in that classroom figuring things out for ourselves, in what I’d call the best possible way.

Vocabulary lists started with small group work, where we’d come up with our own definitions before anyone cracked a dictionary. Creative writing assignments gave us free rein over our story ideas before Mrs. Corbin ever lowered the boom on mechanics and structure. There was an inherent trust in her teaching, an implicit message that we brought something of value to the table, and that learning was a collaborative process.

It’s an idea I try to do justice to in my writing, as well. One of the tricky parts of creating middle grade fiction, for me, is in knowing how much information to give the reader, and how much they can (and should) figure out for themselves. Part of my job is to invite readers in as participants, not just observers. It’s up to me to trust them to fill in some of the gaps, using the power of their own imaginations.

The question is, what do I need on the page and what can I leave out? Which details are important enough to include? Which ones will readers willingly, even naturally, provide for themselves?

Beats me. It’s an art, not a science, and every reader is different. What might be implicit to one kid will feel like a frustrating lack of information to another. I’ll never get it 100% right because there’s no such thing. But I can work hard to ask myself the right questions as I'm drafting and revising. Do I need this detail? Have I already communicated it in some other way? Does it function as a story element, or is it merely decoration? 

If some aspect of the setting or a character's physicality is germane (think Camp Green Lake in Holes; think Harry Potter’s scar), I’ll put it in. But if I’m unsure, my default is toward the “less is more” side of the fence.

Voltaire said the best way to be boring is to leave nothing out. Einstein said that everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler. Those seem like a couple of good guideposts to me. Most of all, though, I go by my own taste, intuition, and gut feeling, with an eye on leaving the right amount of room inside the story for both of us—by which I mean the reader and me. It’s so much more fun that way.

I'd love to hear recommendations from any of you, in the comments section. What books do you think do this well? Which stories have that X factor that allows them to draw you (or readers you know) irresistibly inside? (I'll start: James and the Giant Peach; Out of the Dust; When You Reach Me.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It only Takes One Teacher: by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Mr. Costa, my fifth grade teacher, was a short, round man with glasses and a very serious disposition.  He believed in hard work and LOTS of homework.  We usually got something to do in every subject each night – except weekends. Mr. Costa was strict and took no nonsense.  Still, we’d sometimes catch him falling asleep during a movie or silent reading.   He was older than most of the other teachers.  I think we “wore him out” on occasion.
As strict and "old school" as Mr. C appeared, he was instrumental in leading me up a path that completely changed my life. Mr. C was the teacher who told mom during a conference that “Your daughter is college material.  She’s smart and should plan on going to college.  She’ll have a good future if she does.”
I grew up in an area that was blue collar and low income.  Not many people were college graduates and not many even attended college.  So, having him say that made Mom feel great, and made me realize I might be able to do what he said.  His confidence in my abilities and untapped potential gave me an early push toward a future I hadn’t thought about until then.  I thought about it often after that.  Never underestimate the influence one teacher can have on a student’s future.
Future college graduate and children's author.  Thank you Mr. Costa!