Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fan Mail, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

One of the best parts of my writerly life is receiving fan mail. I don't know an author who wouldn't agree! All those terrible first drafts, the hours of agonizing over the perfect sentences, the nine-page letter from your editor with suggestions of what you need to "fix," and the not-so-hot review -- all those fade into the background when you get a letter from a young reader that simply says: I loved your book!

Here are a few snippets from some of my all-time favorite fan letters:

"I read your book when I had been in a reading slump for a long time and your book sparked my love of reading again."

"Your book is my favorite book I have read in my entire life. I am 13 years old and I have read a lot of books."

"Please, please, please make a sequel. I know at my school, at least 20 people would read it."

"You were able to change me as a person with your writing."

"Write on. I can't wait to read more. When will your next book be out?"

Despite going to events and conferences, school visits and coffee shops, so much of writing is solitary. It's just your fingers and your brain getting those words on the page. It's hard, and there are many challenging days the fingers and the brain just aren't working. There are good days too, when that perfect sentence materializes on the page. And there are great days when I open up my email and see a subject line like this: "From Your Biggest Fan."

Thank you readers, for taking the time to send us writers some love. We appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up (Aladdin Books 2017), The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014), and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Catch up with her at

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


by Chris Tebbetts

Hi all! I'm going off topic this month, as part of my participation in the #Kidlitwomen initiative some of you may already know about. A Facebook page by the same name (Kidlitwomen) is using March, Women's History Month, as a launch for their initiative, focusing on solutions to issues of gender inequity within the Kidlit industry. If you'd like to join in, know more, and/or want to read other postings related to this subject from the many industry professionals participating, head over to Kidlitwomen on Facebook and check it out. 


As I’ve been thinking about what I can contribute to the conversation on gender equity in the Kidlit industry as a male ally, I keep circling back to the work I did as a marriage equality activist some years ago. Between 1995 and 2009, I was as involved as I’ve ever been on a single issue, working at the grassroots, state, and (to a small degree) national level, including a stint as the Chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force. And while I’m not suggesting that same sex marriage and gender equity in the workplace are direct equivalents, I do see some parallels, in their mutual focus on creating equality, and also, perhaps, in some of what we found to be constructive on the marriage front. In the name of brevity, I’ll stick to three examples.

In the run up to marriage equality in this country, the stories people came forward to tell from their own lives—for example, about being denied hospital visitation with a sick spouse; the complication of second parent adoption in some areas; and yes, the psychic toll of being seen as unequal in the eyes of the law—were at the core of our eventual success. Likewise, the #metoo movement has been immeasurably amplified by women who have been brave enough to share their own stories. 

Within the #Kidlitwomen community, where we have a particular appreciation for the power of story, many of you have already drawn clear and compelling lines between the relative abstraction of the issues at hand and the places where those issues play out in very human terms. If my own experience is any indication, I’d say keep it up! In the end, it can be the most important tool we have when it comes to changing minds, changing hearts, and ultimately, changing the industry. 

Honestly, I’m a bit hesitant to name this one, in this context. While I can relate to the inescapability of identity-based issues—I live every day as a gay man in a homophobic world—I also live under the cover of my own white maleness, which is where the analogy to living as a woman in a sexist world, or living as a person of color in a  racist world falls short. So with that caveat in mind, I do believe that it can be constructive to individually cut ourselves a break when the 24/7 of living with—and fighting against—inequality grows particularly heavy. 

I saw Roxane Gay speak at the Antioch Writers Workshop a few years ago, and during her Q&A, there was a question from a young African American woman about confronting (and sometimes not confronting) racism from behind the cash register where she worked. To my surprise, Gay’s response began with something to the effect of, Listen, you’ve got to make a living. Cut yourself a break. As she went on, it came clear that her advice wasn’t about pretending these infractions don’t exist, but it was an invitation to look at what we’re each doing in the aggregate, and at what  we do accomplish alongside what we don’t, especially in the face of the very natural fatigue that comes from any ongoing fight for equality. If nothing else, it’s a strategy for the long run, allowing ourselves to recharge, and to show up again, and again, and again, when and where we can.

A big part of my optimism during the marriage equality movement came from what I experienced as the one-way door of public opinion on that issue. Along the way, I heard about some countless number of people changing their minds, from being against marriage equality to being in favor of it. By contrast, I never heard a single story about anyone going in the other direction—from supporting equality to standing against it. That’s not to say that it never happened, but at a statistical level, it was insignificant, at best. 

And again, I’m not suggesting a direct parallel here to the issues on the #Kidlitwomen radar. The current political climate can certainly be counted as a backslide for women’s issues in this country, in more ways than one. For that matter, progress in areas of social justice rarely come without some kind of reinvigorated resistance from the opposing side. I lived in Vermont for years without witnessing any of the homophobic rhetoric that became (temporarily) commonplace during the marriage debate. So yes, it’s never a straight line toward the future. But with all of that said, I remain optimistic about the idea that bringing truth to light; sharing stories from the trenches; and, in the aggregate, creating a national dialogue—one that plays out around dinner tables, in the workplace, online, and at the policy level—can only help accelerate the kinds of changes we’re all hoping to see. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Got Teacher Guides? Let's Share Them. by Darlene Beck Jacobson

 In keeping with our theme of kindness and supporting one another as children's book authors, I am posting this month about a new series on my personal blog.  I am starting a feature for teachers looking for good books to use as part of the curriculum. If you have books with curriculum guides, teacher activity sheets and the like, I would love to feature you in a future post.  Send me your information in an email and we can set up a post date. You provide me a short description of how the book/s can be used in classes, target age group, and links to the teacher materials. I'd like to feature EVERYONE...all of us have so many wonderful titles that get overlooked and this is one way to make them more visible.  Here is a link the Curriculum Guide and other teacher materials for my MG Historical WHEELS OF CHANGE:

Supporting each other is one of the best ways I know to spread kindness in the Kid Lit Community.  This blog does that everyday. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Remembering Generosity

by Jody Feldman

It didn’t matter that I paid for it or that she, as author/instructor, had taken on the responsibility of teaching us how to write for kids. Every week, for 8 weeks, she showed up in the basement classroom, her husband/co-author in tow. He would be carrying a mountain of books that she would use to illustrate a point. He would take a seat in the back; and yet, he was a presence, too. As for her, she commanded the room with such assurance that you might have mistaken it for a certain haughtiness, but it wasn’t. This was, perhaps, the clearest depiction of confidence I may have ever seen.

Was she truly that self-assured? She had published only a few books at the time, but that didn’t matter either. What did is that she strengthened my writing forever. The course started with the very basics—margins, fonts, type size—then morphed into opening paragraphs, point of view, dialogue, precise word choice, and more.

No matter how tiring my day had been, her energy kept me sharp. I can still hear her reading sections of her books to underscore a point. Or explaining why she made certain choices in her stories. Or showing us how Jerry Pinkney took her words and brought them to life with his illustrations. Or Rachel Isadora. It was important that her illustrator received as much credit as she did.

She could have gone home each of those nights, only to forget us until the next session, but she expected us—probably two dozen of us—to turn in assignments that she would carefully and thoughtfully critique for every person every week.

For me, outside class, the rejections were coming, snail mail, in waves. But it was her care and encouragement that made me know this dream of being an author would happen. I’m not certain I would have persisted without her.

Several years back, I had an all-too-brief opportunity to thank Pat McKissack for the impact she had on my writing career. I’m just sorry I never got the chance to sit down and tell her everything I’ve written above. But maybe, trying to pay it forward myself, I’ve found a way.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

KINDNESS by Jane Kelley

Let's face it--writing is a lonely business. So I'm really grateful for any chance to connect with other writers.

For the past nine years, I've been a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This international organization offers support and advice--and plenty of opportunities for writers and illustrators to join in workshops, critique groups, and conferences.
The Wisconsin Chapter of SCBWI asked me to mentor a pre-published writer. I chose Maria Parrott-Ryan because I admired her project, her professionalism, and her talent. I read her middle-grade novel and gave her feedback. We've met a few times for wide-ranging discussions. Some might think that I'm being kind to her. But guess what? She's being MUCH kinder to me!

Maria listens to me. As any parent knows, it's really gratifying when someone is willing to learn from your experience. After I tell Maria about the things I wish I had done differently in my career, she might take my advice. (Unlike my actual daughter who, while not exactly an eye-roller, can still be a little condescending just because she texts with both thumbs and I slowly use one finger.)

Maria is enthusiastic. I'm not jaded about writing, but I'm grateful to be reminded of what a miracle it is to be able to create characters and worlds. Maria is like someone who has just fallen in love. Compared to her, I'm an old married woman. That steady stability enables me to do my work. BUT  it's important to appreciate the gift of what we do. To see the world of writing and publishing with fresh eyes. To feel that heart-ponding excitement at the process of sending our books out into the world where people will read them.

Maria read my books--and talked intelligently about them to me. That is really kind. I have family members who haven't read anything I've written--although I guess it's possible that they're being kind by not complaining about what they read.

So thank you, Maria, for all you are doing for me.

Oh--she also bought me lunch!

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Kindness of Writers by Deborah Lytton: March Theme

This post is written with thanks to all of the writers that have shown me kindnesses over the years. From the first writer who read my manuscript and graciously offered to send it to her agent to the countless writer friends who have posted blog interviews and Q&As when I was promoting books (and even when I wasn't), the writers who have given me such good advice about social media and school visits, the writers who have welcomed me at book events, and the writers who have read rewrites and partials and shared thoughts and ideas with me, I am so grateful to you.

I have found children's literature writers to be the most supportive and welcoming group of professionals I have ever worked with. My fellow writers encourage each other with snaps of published books on the shelves of their local indie bookstore and like and comment on social media posts about recent successes. They can always be counted on for a supportive phone call or email when a manuscript doesn't sell and they regularly buy each other's books. Writers urge one another to continue writing despite rejections or lackluster sales. The kindness that writers show to one another is a gift that we can all give to one another. It makes us more than individuals pursuing common careers, it makes us a community. Today, let's all reach out to one writer friend who needs a little kindness. If you have ideas for other things we can do to help one another, please share them! Happy writing:)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Be Nice to Writers

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was BE NICE TO SPIDERS by Margaret Bloy Graham. The story is about a spider named Helen who goes to live at the zoo, and soon she's got the place bug-free, and the animals are all clean and happy – until the Zookeeper orders the place cleared of spiderwebs. 

Helen takes refuge in the Camel House, where the camels stay blessedly bug-free, but the rest of the zoo falls to the bugs. 

The whole point is – let a spider do the work she's meant to do. Yes, it may be a little messy sometimes, but it's important work.

Same goes for writers. If you can do one thing for us, it's give us the space – and time -- to do our work. My husband, who has 25+ years now living with a writer is brilliant at this: whenever I get grumpy, he just says, “go write.” He knows I NEED to write. 

Just like Helen the little spider, it's the work I'm meant to do. It's not always easy or convenient to be married to be, or to share parenting with me, or a home. But it's important work. Just ask Helen. And Charlotte. And any other writer.

In addition to my husband, SO MANY writers and readers have been kind to me, in a multitude of ways! My home is full of given treasures related to my books– I'm so grateful! But, you know, it doesn't have to be a grand gesture to make a writer feel loved and valued and ready to tackle the next sentence, the next page. 

Here are some things you can do:

1. Leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

2. Write a note to a writer to let them know you liked the book.

3. Tell a friend or a librarian or a bookseller about a friend's book.

4. Write a blog post.

5. Recommend a writer as a speaker at a conference or book festival.

6. Give friend's book as a gift.

7. Listen to friend ramble about new project.

8. Be a beta reader.

9. Invite writer to go out and do fun things that may eventually inspire other books (and in the meantime gets writers away from the desk).

10. Chocolate. You can't go wrong with chocolate... at least for THIS writer. :)
Irene Latham is an Alabama author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books for children and adults, including Leaving Gee's Bend, 2011 ALLA Children's Book of the Year and Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she also serves as poetry editor for Birmingham Arts Journal.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Writerly Love By Ann Haywood Leal

The woman was at the very end of the trail, trimming the tangled ivy from the fence behind her house.  She was blocking the path, but as soon as she struck up a conversation, I was happy I had stopped.  Only weeks into her retirement, she was struggling to figure out what to do with her time.   She loved books and stories, and told me about two of her favorite authors who had lived just up the trail, just steps from her house.  Some of the stories she had weren't on her bookshelves.  They were waiting around inside her head, but had never made themselves out onto paper.  I wish I'd had the wisdom of Ursula Le Guin at my fingertips as a stood next to a tangle of clipped ivy.  
At the risk of sounding like a Nike ad, I told her to "just do it".  Just a paragraph.  Don't worry about what your words look like, or even if you can't read your own handwriting.  Get the words onto the paper.  Natalie Goldberg says, "Write down who you were, who you are, and what you want to remember."  I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Goldberg, because if you write down who you were and who you are, you have just created a character's journey of growing and changing in a story.  

I am going to keep jogging on that path until I see the ivy trimmer again.  Because I want her to tell me she's done it.  She's written some words.  She's a writer.  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Generosity and Kindness of Authors

So I know the theme for this month is "Short," but it's already March tomorrow! March's theme is "Acts of writerly kindness," and I am currently in awe of how generous and kind writers are. I decided to start an auction to try to raise funds for author Paul Mosier's family. His daughter Harmony has a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma, and their insurance isn't paying for her current treatment. Inspired by other auctions I've seen in the kidlit world, I decided to start one for Paul's daughter, not knowing what to expect as far as donations are concerned.

Well, I have been overwhelmed by donations from authors. It seems everyone wants to help out when they see a fellow author in need. I am completely humbled and grateful to be a part of this amazing writing community. The generosity and kindness of writers is a huge part of what has made my own publishing journey such a wonderful and memorable experience.

If you'd like to bid on an item for our auction, you may find the information on my website. Thank you so much for all the love and support!

Sunday, February 25, 2018


I've been thinking about brevity and writing a lot...I've had some really great recent Twitter conversations regarding the topic, but really, the seeds were planted in '15, the first year I indie (self) pubbed anything. It was also the year I released "Come December," which remains my bestselling independently-released work to date.

It is also a short story.

To be fair, it's an adult work, and it was released at just the right time (on Thanksgiving weekend, right when everyone was hungry for holiday reads), etc. But I still think there's something to short, concise works.

Those playing devil's advocate might point to frantic modern lifestyles as a reason why we have no patience for long, sprawling novels. But is that really true? Or have novels gotten increasingly longer? When was the last time you heard of an author releasing a wildly popular novella? (POBBY AND DINGAN is the last I can personally remember, and that was--gulp--18 years ago.) And yet, I can point to several classics that are short: OF MICE AND MEN and ANIMAL FARM, for example, hover around 30K. THE GREAT GATSBY and FARENHEIT 451 are both around 50K. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA is around 27K. (By comparison, my MG novel THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, released in '14, also clocks in around 47K. A work for children is now the equivalent in length of so many adult classics.)

What's happening? Have writers lost their ability to kill all their darlings?

I'm not sure I have an answer yet. Or if there's really an answer to be had. Instead, what I can do is work on sharpening my own scissors. I've consistently been working with shorter pieces--last year's ALL ROADS and CHRISTMAS AT RUBY'S (also adult works) hovered at around 150 and 100 pages respectively. I've been working on making my MG work shorter as well.

In fact, I've got an MG superhero story about to release that focuses on concise storytelling (under 10K). It also uses a character I invented when I was eight--a hero whose superpower is kindness. (Something we need today more than ever.) I even incorporated my original drawing of Super Susan into the cover:

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPER SUSAN will release as soon as I approve the proof. To be notified of its availability, please sign up for my MG Reads Newsletter: 

Thanks in advance for your interest!

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Bottomless Bubbling Cauldron of Imagination by Dia Calhoun

Every writer/artist knows the pleasure of the Creative Rush. I love the exuberance that comes in the “ah-ha” moment when your imagination sparks an insight or revelation that enhances the work. These moments always feel “just right.” And intoxicating (and addictive).

I’d never heard a psychological explanation of this Creative Rush that truly resonated with me. Then I read a chapter in Jungian psychologist, Erich Neumann’s book The Origin and History of Consciousness.

Neumann discusses “libido” (think general psychic energy here rather than the limited Freudian notion of libido as primarily sexual) in relation to the creative process. The italics below are mine.

“Whereas in an illness the activation of the unconscious content by an afflux of libido manifests itself in the form of disturbances, symptoms, and so forth, and in the creative individual this content spontaneously combines with consciousness and expresses itself in creativity, the act of conscious realization consists in the ego deliberately leading the mind and the free libido at its disposal towards the focus of fascination. The libido activating the unconscious system as its emotional component, and the libido of the recognizing and realizing ego system, flow together in the act of recognition into a single stream. This confluence is perceived by the ego as pleasurable, and this is so in any genuine realization, in any new recognition or discovery, and again whenever a complex is broken down or an unconscious content assimilated. It is immaterial whether the fascinating content is consciously realized as an image, a dream, fantasy, and idea, a “hunch,” or a projection. The assimilation of unconscious contents, in whatever form, leads not only to an enrichment of the conscious material but also to an enrichment of libido, which makes itself felt subjectively, as excitement, the vivacity, and a joy that sometimes borders on intoxication; and, objectively, as a heightening interest, a broadened and intensified capacity for work, mental alertness, etc.

In the process of realizing and assimilating an unconscious content, the ego makes a “descent,” from the conscious standpoint, into the depths, in or order to raise up the “treasure.” 

(p343 The Origin and History of Consciousness)

 Neumann goes on to explain why the “Creative Rush,” brings up ever more ideas, linking, linking, ever linking.

“…Simultaneously with the alteration and enrichment of consciousness, the splitting up of the content leads very frequently, if not always, to an activation of the unconscious as well. We may explain the mechanism as follows: a certain proportion of the liberated libido cannot be absorbed by consciousness and flows off into the unconscious, where it “libidinizes” associated groups of complexes or archetypal contents. These contents are then brought up by association and are produced as random ideas etc. –in so far as they appear at all—or else a new unconscious constellation is effected. The combination of this new constellation with the original activity of realization is what constitutes the continuity of all creative work, essential elements of which are always prepared in advance by the unconscious, and are then elaborated and enriched before being produced.
“The continuity of these processes is manifest not only in creativity but in all dream series, visions, and fantasies where we always find an inner consistency, web of associations deposited around one or more nuclei, is though around a center.
(p344 The Origin and History of Consciousness)

This brilliantly explains why many writers declare that a large part of their job is just showing up. Half my work happens if I just show up and keep writing day by day. Creative work begets more creative work in the  Bottomless Bubbling Cauldron of Imagination. Imagination fuels more imagination.

This is why all the sages advise the artist to simply begin, and say that the most powerful act is simply beginning. Your conscious mind may not know where you are going, but your unconscious mind does. So the next time you are stuck, my creative friends, be comforted, you are in good hands. (And keep showing up to work.) Because your conscious mind is mere steam, arising from the bigger, grander, vaster part of yourself below—the Bottomless Bubbling Cauldron of Imagination.

P.S. For artists, I highly recommend Erich Neumann's Art and the Creative Unconscious. It is more targeted to the creative process than The Origin and History of Consciousness.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Few of My Favorite Short Books

So I'll start this post with a confession - I'm a slow reader.  Growing up, this always bothered me.  I remember in elementary school when my classmates were able to finish books so much more quickly than I could.  It made me feel as if I was not a good reader.  Now that I'm all grown up, I have embraced this "slowness" in myself.  I tell school groups that being a slow reader doesn't mean I'm not a good reader, just means I'm slower.  I may not read as many books as my peers, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy the ones I read to the fullest.

I think because I'm a slow reader, I've often been drawn to short books.  So for this month's post, I'd like to highlight three of my favorites.

The first is The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.  It's an oldie but goodie, and its theme of class bullying lends itself to a lot of self reflection and dialogue regarding this topic.  It's such a simple story, but Estes draws readers in and leaves them feeling the emotion of, not only the character who is bullied, but also those who have been the bullies and those who have been bystanders.  Amazing that a book published in 1944 is still so relevant today.

What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer is another short book I love.  Writing in free verse poetry, Mazer is able to tell an entire story with so few words, and I am in awe.  The plot is compelling and the emotions of the characters are so authentic and believable.  Every single word packs a punch.

The last short book that is a favorite of mine is The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.  The figurative language and symbolism in this book makes a wonderful story incredibly powerful.  DiCamillo draws readers into the characters' lives making it an emotional read which stays with readers long after they've finished the book.

So take heart all you slow readers out there, great stories can come in very short books!  And even all you fast readers, take a break from your big, long novels, and pick up one of these amazing short books for a quick read you'll most certainly enjoy!

Happy Reading,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Monday, February 19, 2018

Keeping it short

It used to be my writing was short, concise, to the point. With as much impact as possible, in as little space as possible. Such is the job of a newspaper reporter.

Most of my life, I’d dreamed about writing a novel. I looked at library shelves and bookstores with longing to see my own name on the spine of a paperback. My initial attempts at writing a novel, however, proved difficult. Plotting, characterization, dialogue, world-building, all take a different approach than, say, the 800-word, 3-column local county board budget meeting. So my first tries were frustratingly short.

I had to change my frame of mind.

It wasn’t until I was able to reacquaint myself with the prose of writing and creation that I found myself able to unravel an entire middle grade novel. Once I had the first few down, the reverse occurred. I couldn’t write short. A good friend of mine constantly wows me with her short stories. She’s written them most of her life and has some noteworthy publication accolades to her name. The Sun. Strange Horizons. Daily Science Fiction. I also wanted to write short stories – mostly as a breather in between novels. A place for my ideas that didn’t have entire plot behind them to flourish. Somewhere I could put the characters in my head who had a voice that would not be silenced.

The trick, for me, I’ve discovered is always knowing when to turn the car around. Otherwise, I’d end up barreling towards Novel-ville versus putting on the brakes at Short Story Land. So before I start short stories, I ask myself: What is the main character’s motivation? What stands in their way? What is the climax? When does all seem lost? How does it end? If I stick to these mile markers, I've found I can finally keep it short.

My short stories can be found here (Page 151) and here (Page 110) in Black Fox Literary.

Happy reading!

AM Bostwick

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Shortest of Short: Haiku! by Claudia Mills

I love writing middle-grade books for kids. And I love writing poetry. So if I can have kids in my books writing poetry, it's double the bliss for me. As we are celebrating "all things short" here on this blog in this short month, I'm giving a shout-out to the shortest poems of all: haiku.

In my recent middle-grade novel, The Trouble with Friends, the third book in my Nora Notebooks series, the kids in Nora’s class are writing haiku for a poetry unit. In one chapter I gave myself the treat of writing a haiku for each kid that expressed his or her character.

Emma dotes on her cat, Precious Cupcake, so I gave Emma a cat-loving haiku:

My cat is the best.
White, soft, fluffy, blue eyes. tail.
She is the cutest!

Critter-loving Amy is disappointed that her mom won't let her get a pet snake. So she wrote:

When I'm a mom some-
day, my kids can have ten snakes
and I'll say "Hooray!"

Class dancer Tamara shared her love of dance in her  haiku "Hip Hop":

When I start to dance
My feet have their own ideas.
My body follows.

Ant-loving Nora writes her haiku about ants, of course:

The ant is smaller
Than the cracker crumb. But she
Carries it so far.

And poetry-hating Mason wrote this one:

How I Feel about Poetry 

No no no no no
No no no no no no no
No no no no no.

In addition to my own self-indulgent pleasure in writing poems for my child characters, I've also found having some little "round up" exercise like this a satisfyingly simple way to show character. If each kid has to come up with, say, a word problem for math class, or a persuasive essay topic for language arts, or choose a character to impersonate in an Oregon Trail reenactment, how can each character's choice be mobilized to reveal his or her character? 

Now I'm off to meet the challenge I've given myself of writing a poem a day for each of the 28 days in February!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Child of Mine

Beau, Grandbaby

In lieu of recent events, you’ll forgive me if, instead of writing about short stories, I offer this short poem instead.

A Child of Mine


I will lend you, for a little time,
A child of mine, He said.
For you to love the while he lives,
And mourn for when he's dead.
It may be six or seven years,
Or twenty-two or three.
But will you, till I call him back,
Take care of him for Me?

For all the joys Thy child shall bring,
The risk of grief we'll run.
We'll shelter him with tenderness,
We'll love him while we may,
And for the happiness we've known,
Forever grateful stay.
But should the angels call for him,
Much sooner than we've planned.
We'll brave the bitter grief that comes,
And try to understand.

-- Edgar Albert Guest (1881 – 1959) 
This poem was first Published in a newspaper circa 1930, and reprinted in "Living The Years" 1949 publ. Chicago, Reilly & Lee Co. For the full poem, see here

Guest was a popular poet in the first half of the 20th century, often called the People’s Poet. He wrote over 11,000 poems, syndicated in over 300 newspapers and 20 book collections.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

As Simple As Possible (But No Simpler), by Chris Tebbetts

As someone who writes a lot of middle grade material that is meant to be fast-reading and narratively compact, this month’s blog theme has gotten me thinking about what goes into the economy that I try to bring to my writing.

One of my guiding principles echoes the famous Einstein quote, that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” For me, that means keeping my prose as clean and focused as I can, while also making sure that I don’t overdo it with the economy. I don’t want to be stingy with my storytelling. Rather, I want my stories to be dense and flavorful, and I want everything I include to be there for a reason. To that end, here are three things I watch out for:

1) REDUNDANCIES. This can be deceptively tricky. Some repetitions and unnecessary passages are obvious when I read through a draft, but others can take a while to uncover. Consider this line and see if you can spot the redundancy:

“Burton was asleep on the bed, his closed eyes twitching lightly and his arms wrapped around a pillow."

Do I need to mention the closed eyes of a sleeping character? I would say probably not. And then, how about a line like this:

“What happened next changed everything.”

That might be a perfectly good setup, depending on the context. On the other hand, am I just telling my readers something that I’m about to show them, anyway?

Those are just two smallish examples, but I find that the more deeply I read in the revision phase, the more redundancy I tend to find.

2) TOO MUCH OFF-CAMERA TIME. For the style I write in (and, I would say, for middle grade in general), it’s important to keep the story moving along, and to keep things happening on-camera, so to speak.

Off-camera moments, as I think of them, include anything outside the events of the scene itself: description, internal monologue, narration, flashback, reflection. These are all important ingredients, but I try to keep my proportions weighted heavily toward the on-camera side of things. My own rule of thumb is that I only allow myself one or two off-camera passages per scene or chapter. That doesn’t include descriptive phrases or momentary asides, but it does include any multi-sentence diversion from what’s happening in the here and now of the story.

3) STARTING A SCENE OR STORY AT THE RIGHT MOMENT (AKA, AS LATE AS POSSIBLE). One of the most common mistakes I see in student manuscripts is over-long beginnings. It’s not uncommon for me to point out to another writer that their drafted story doesn’t actually begin until page three, or chapter two, or whatnot. This is often the result of the author working through her own discovery process, which can mean putting down a lot of ultimately expendable exposition as she drafts through. When I write, I try to bear in mind the slippery difference between what I need to know in order to tell the story, and what my readers need to know in order to enjoy it.

It’s the same thing with scenes. Do you ever notice on t.v. how often characters skip the “hello…how are you” and “goodbye…see you later” parts of their conversations? When you notice, it can seem unrealistic, but overall, the story moves more gracefully along when the storyteller lets go of those ultimately static moments. Take a look at a few scenes you’ve written and ask yourself: where does this scene really begin? And, while you’re at it, where does it really end?

As a caveat, let me add that none of this is about hard and fast rules. Context, style, and the individual needs of a given story all need to be taken into account. But I do find that deeply combing my manuscript for expendable material can really pay off. Bit by bit, it may not seem like much, but in the aggregate, it can add up to a significantly smoother, more engaging reading experience for your audience—and a better book for you.

I’m sure there are more examples I could offer, but…well, you know… I have to keep this brief.

Happy reading, and happy writing!

Short and Sweet Sentences, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Happy Valentine's Day! In honor of this sweet holiday, I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite writing topics -- the power of short sentences. I LOVE short sentences and use them in my writing often. Sentences that have just a few words can pack a powerful, emotional punch. I'm a fan of one-word sentences too, especially when they follow a longer sentence. That creates a nice rhythm and variation in the text. Here are some heart-stopping examples.

In the middle of because of mr. terupt by Rob Buyea, there are several short, powerful sentences. It's at the point when Mr. Terupt has been hit with the snowball and the kids are reacting and sharing their feelings. The sentences are simple, heartfelt, and real, such as Peter saying, "I didn't know Mr. T was going to be right there. I didn't want to hurt anyone." And Anna: "Please let my teacher be okay." I love the way they're structured in the book too, with each narrator's sentence on one page. That format makes the sentences even more dramatic.

Flora & Ulysses is another one of my favorites because of Kate DiCamillo's ability to convey emotion with humor, surprise, and short sentence "zingers" that can make you laugh, cry, or both.

Here's an example:

"Have you lost your mind?" said Mrs. Tickham.
Flora ignored her.
She breathed into the squirrel's mouth. She pushed down on his small chest.
She started to count."

I adore the lyrical rhythm of these few sentences, and the alternating longer/shorter word length.

DiCamillo also periodically uses one word sentences, one right after the other, such as: "Capacious. Random. Heart. Universe. Flora felt dizzy."

I have to mention The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate since it is perhaps my favorite middle grade book. Just the opening sentences alone -- "I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It's not as easy as it looks." -- grab onto my heart and don't let go for the entire story.

 This amazing book is filled with so many short, emotional sentences that make you stop reading, sit back, and just say, wow. I'm talking about:

"I don't know why. I never know the why of humans."

"I pause, and then I say it. 'It's a cage.'"

"I can't let Ruby be another One and Only."

I used a lot of short sentences in my middle grade novel, The Summer I Saved the 65 Days.

The opening lines are:

"It starts with Mrs. Chung.
And flowers.

Later in the book, in a particularly poignant part, I describe the action in brief, almost choppy sentences, which matches the mood of that scene, as the family is trying to come back together after a period of distance and misunderstanding. Here's an excerpt:

"Scrambled eggs. Burnt pancakes. Slightly expired orange juice, which Dad says is still drinkable. Strawberries on the rims. The four of us at the kitchen table. Small talk. A joke. Dad cutting pancakes like he used to cut spaghetti. Not perfect. A little rusty. But still a family."

Wishing you lots of short and sweet writing, and of course, tons of chocolate today!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of several middle grade novels. Her newest will publish this coming fall from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Find out more at