Saturday, October 20, 2018

Everybody's Had a Teacher Like "Old Hawk"

For this month's topic about favorite villains, I've decided to blog about a villain in one of my own middle grade books.  In my novel, Always, Abigail, the main character finds herself in a homeroom without her two best friends, which makes her first year of middle school seem somewhat doomed from the very beginning; but worse than that, her homeroom teacher is Miss Henrick aka "Old Hawk."

Here's an excerpt that will give you a glimpse of the "villain" she is:

Three Reasons She's Called "Hendrick-the-Horrible-Hundred-Year-Old Hawk"
1. She's horrible. You just have to know her; no explanation needed.
2. She's got to be at least one hundred years old by now.  (My mom had her when she was in sixth grade.)
3. She sees EVERYTHING that goes on - that's why she's called the Hawk.  She doesn't just have eyes in the back of her head.  She's got eyes in the hallway and on the playground.  No one knows how she does it.

Abigail goes on to describe her as the toughest, strictest teacher in the whole school.  But those are the very reasons Abigail's mom says that she'll come to appreciate Ms. Hendrick someday.

Old Hawk is one my favorite villains because I think everyone, young and old, can remember having a teacher like Old Hawk.  The difference between the young and old here is that usually as we grow into adulthood, we really do come to appreciate those teachers we had who seemed to be strict just for the sake of being strict.  As we mature, we realize all that strictness was there for a reason, and we end up appreciating them.  Why?  Because those strict, teachers, with those horrible nicknames, not only teach us things about math and reading and science, but they also teach us things about life.  Things that end up helping us to be better people than we would've have been had we not had them for a teacher.

So, this blog post is dedicated to those teachers.  The ones who may not have always been our favorite teacher while we were in their classes.  Ones who, maybe in some ways, were even seen as villains, but who, through their villainous strictness, taught us life lessons that just might make all the difference in the world.

Here's to all the Old Hawks we all know and, hopefully, have come to love,

Friday, October 19, 2018

Best Monsters and Villains and How it Inspires a Hero

It’s true. I enjoy a good villain.

Lord Voldemort. The Wicked Queen.


A haunted house.

The very best villains and monsters, in my opinion, are those that have a rich backstory. A thick history of what led them to their evil ways and devious deeds. Characteristics that make them human, sympathetic, even relatable.

With Lord Voldemort, we see a childhood of abandonment, abuse, loss and grief. The inability to fit in, make friends and identify with a family. These issues are paralleled in the series hero, Harry Potter. Despite the comparisons, the two make very different choices in life. Choices which result in building of character, love, compassion and family for one – and ultimate defeat for the other.

Loki also found himself at a crisis of identity when he realizes his father is not his biological father, his brother, not his biological brother. He feels inferior, and turns to anarchy to make up for his anger and hurt.

Haunted houses, like Hill House or the hotel in The Shining, are malevolent forces, basically mysteries that we cannot solve or even pinpoint. We only know they are working against our heroes in the story, that something terrible must have happened many years ago within those walls.

I think it is human nature to want to know what makes a person or entity go bad. What I write, especially in middle grade fiction, includes villains like crooks or misbehaving house-pets. A cat who feels mistreated and lashes out, a rat who has felt ostracized and unloved so he wreaks havoc, a pack of dogs who enjoy terrorizing the smaller of the food chain for fun and power. It is up to the heroes in my novels to deal and cope with these villains, not just in the opposing forces of animals they meet, but also that of general evil in the world. The events we cannot control. Sickness, job loss, changes in a community or in a family situation.

I think if readers, especially young readers, can see how a hero in a novel deals with wrongdoing and evil, they can apply it to their own lives. And, in turn, see how they themselves can be the hero in their own life. They may not all be Harry Potter, or Ace the Cat, but they are the main characters in their very own life story. If they see their favorite characters succeed, I think it inspires them to also aim for that goal. Stories have power. Stories have relation.

Stories are human.

Even monsters.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Antagonists as Protagonists by Claudia Mills

One very small moment in my third-grade year became a life-long touchstone for me.

I sang in our church's Crusader Choir, and a girl from another town named Claire Hatfield sat next to me each week at choir practice and shared my hymnal. One day, the thought suddenly popped into my head that while, to me, Claire Hatfield was just the girl who shared my hymnal in choir, to Claire Hatfield, I was just the girl who shared her hymnal in choir. In the same way that she was a bit player in the story of my life, I was a bit player in her life story, too.

The same is true, I've come to think, of protagonists and antagonists, both in fiction and in life. The antagonist in one character's story is the protagonist in the same story, told now from their point of view.

In my West Creek Middle School series, published much earlier in my career, each of the five books in the series features a different viewpoint character. And the two final books in the series - Alex Ryan, Stop That! and Makeovers by Marcia - star kids who weren't, well, so kind or empathetic to Ethan in Losers, Inc., or Julius in You're a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, or Lizzie, in Lizzie at Last. But when I gave Alex and Marcia their turn in the spotlight, I could see, for the first time, the hurts in their own hearts that led them to act as they had. I ended up loving them just as much as I had loved the characters they treated badly.

So many of the books that most broke my heart as a reader portray kids who act badly out of their own pain: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar, and the achingly beautiful Home from Far by Jean Little. Thanks to the artistic skill of Paterson, Sachar, and Little, the worse the characters act, the more we ache for them.

Down deep I don't believe in the existence of villains or monsters, at least not child villains or child monsters. Children can act thoughtlessly. Children can act cruelly. But inside each antagonistic child is a child who yearns to be the star of his or her own story. How fortunate we are as authors that these stories are given to us to tell.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Historical Fiction and All That Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff

Especially during these times when facts can be alternative and history can be revised, the ongoing argument on what is historical fiction, how and why it is relevant, and by extension why history is important, seems perplexing. As a writer, one of the most stinging rejections that I get too many times is that, despite an interesting plot and engaging characters, “historical fiction is a hard sell.”

History often carries the stigma of being dry and irrelevant, says Y.S. Lee (The Agency 1: Spy in the House, 2010), but “the freedom of fiction is one way of exploring a subject that may seem intimating or remote. After all, it’s a kind of fantasy, a parallel world in which people act with recognizable human impulses and ideals but abide by very different rules.”

The genre of historical fiction is very broad, one that Mary Burns (1995) labels a “hybrid and a shape-shifter,” combining history with fiction. Or, as Trevor Cairney (2009) suggests, historical fiction is where “literature meets history.” Avi, an award-winning master of the genre, offers that some historical fiction stays close to the known facts, while others are little more than costume drama. “Ultimately, what is most important is the story, and the characters.” Facts, according to Avi, do not make a story. “Believable people do…Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth less a stranger.”

Historical fiction defies easy explanation. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

Many condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, and consider the historical fiction genre a betrayal. Perhaps a better way to understand historical fiction is to take a lesson from The Doctor. Yes, that Doctor: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect…but actually, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

It seems to me the same thing can be said of historical fiction.

In historical fiction, setting is usually considered ‘historical’ if it is at fifty or more years in the past. As such, the author writes from research rather than personal experience. But as an old turnip, my personal history dates back to the years prior to Korean War. The Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Riders, the Bay of Pigs, the JFK Assassination, the Landing on the Moon, and the first Dr. Who episode are not some fixed points in history but a function of my experience. Yet, for these last generations, these are often just dates in a textbook. And the plot is a linear expression that begins on a certain date. The award-winning book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995), depicting the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing of 1963, is often listed as historical fiction. Yet I remember vividly watching the events unfold on my parents’ black and white television.

Still, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. It was illegal for women to be soldiers, and to vote. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, 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.

Some facts, such as dates of specific events, are fixed points in time. 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.

In other words, history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate.

Historical fiction introduces readers to different points of view. Writer Kathi Appelt offers that one of the most provocative books to achieve this goal is M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (2006). “It broke my stereotypical assumptions about the period and events of the time,” says Kathi. And in so doing, “it broke my heart.” Reading different perspectives can build a reader’s “emotional sensitivity.” As Amy von Heyking (Scholastic Canada) says, “their moral and social awareness grows as they consider reasons for people’s behavior in other times, other places or specific situations.” Such stories provide the “insider’s perspective,” allowing readers to reach a new, deeper understanding of the other’s experience.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, another master writer of historical fiction. 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.”

Defining the ‘historical’ in 'historical fiction' is a bit wobbly, depending upon the age of the critics and researchers can be unrelenting in their quest for accuracy. The process of writing historical fiction, like researching history itself, is neither straightforward nor a risk-free process. But I am reminded what Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough once said, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate…The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good. [But] there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”

As the Doctor tells her companions, and in so doing reminding everyone, through those doors...

“… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!” 

--Bobbi Miller

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Villains in Everyday Life, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

I've never been big on including traditional villains and monsters in my books. After all, I don't write fantasy, where many of these characters are a natural part of the stories. All of my novels are contemporary and realistic, set in present day.

I've had several readers email me when they're doing a book talk or project on one of my books, asking -- who's the antagonist in this story? I usually ask them who they think it is :)

Since our topic this month is on villains and monsters, that got me thinking, who are the antagonists in my stories? And the answer is that I like to weave my "villains" into occurrences and circumstances in the characters' everyday lives, so they're not obvious, but are very real, which is probably why it's a challenge for young readers to figure that out.

In my second novel, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, the antagonist is not a person, but a situation. The neighborhood cul de sac in which much of the story takes place has become detached and distant. A 5-year old character, Thomas, senses this, as he fights invisible "bad guys" in the circle of eight houses. The main character, Nina, starts doing some anonymous good deeds with the hope of bringing people back together. There's an older neighbor who's suspicious of all these unusual happenings and many readers think she's the antagonist, but she's really not. She's just a nervous ninny with a temperamental poodle.

In my first book, Calli Be Gold, the antagonist was the overwhelming pressure that parents can place on their kids to succeed in sports and activities. And in the novel I'm currently working on, the villain is the effects of climate change on a small lakeside Wisconsin town.

Things like that scare me more than Voldemort, even though he's one of the best villains ever written.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Ethan Marcus Stands Up, and Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. Her next middle grade novel will publish in May 2020. Visit for more info.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What Are We So Afraid Of? By Chris Tebbetts

I’m going to take a tangent to this month’s topic (Villains) and share an excerpt from a lecture of mine, where I look at the role of FEAR in the creative process. Read on… if you dare. :-)

Resistance to the creative process takes on a lot of forms, but if we’re boiling things down to their nature or essence, FEAR is a good one-word candidate, evidenced in part by how much has been written about it. Books like “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland; “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert; and “The Courage To Write” by Ralph Keyes have been highly illuminating for me, and represent the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what’s been written on this topic.

So…what are we writers so afraid of?  Plenty, as it turns out.

And thinking about all of that brought me around to thinking about the power of the WHAT IF question. WHAT IF is great for storytelling. What if a giant peach grew in my back yard?  What if deafness was a superpower? As it turns out, though, WHAT IF is also great for anxiety.  What if the elevator stops between floors? What if I need to get off the plane and I can’t?

I’m someone who has dealt with panic attacks on a number of occasions—especially in enclosed spaces—and it occurred to me a while back that my storyteller's tendency to ask WHAT IF also had an evil twin. As far as I’m concerned, the root of anxiety is all about projecting myself into an unknown – and as yet unrealized outcome.  

How do you scare an audience? For one thing, you include doubt about the outcome. How’s it all going to turn out? What’s going to happen? Will they get there in time? 

Likewise, a lot of writing fears – most of what’s in that previous image — turn on doubts about the outcome. What if they don’t like me? What if I can’t finish this story? What if I never publish again? To the extent that the key to anything is staying present in the moment, including writing, then fear about the unknown future is kryptonite.

On the other hand, as I continued to read on this topic, I found some good news, too. For instance, this idea:


I love this image. For me, it’s truest in the middle of the night. That’s when my career always seems to be crashing and burning around me in the most convincing way – probably because I’m a captive audience, lying there in bed, where darkness turns my vision inward while I try to get back to sleep. 

And maybe 3AM isn’t your problem. Some of you are captains of serotonin, I’m sure (and envious, too). But for the rest I encourage you to take a look at when you’re the most vulnerable to the lies you tell yourself. For me, it's taken some real effort to see those moments for what they are --- night time illusions that nearly always go away in the day, and usually because getting back to work is the perfect antidote. That awareness is no miracle pill, but it helps a lot.  

Lawrence Block wrote:  “Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. …. Fear and courage are like lightning and thunder: they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner.”

Here’s another take I like on the subject:


Says Toni Morrison: “When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information.” And in The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes says, “It’s important to distinguish between toxic and nutritious anxiety.” He refers to page fright, our version of stage fright, and the energy it can bring to the process.  

The difference, I think, is between putting fear into the story—using the present writing moment to capitalize on that energy, even if it makes me uncomfortable – and, on the other hand, dealing with those future-minded fears, the ones that are based in all kinds of stuff I can’t know or control.  

Anne Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, spoke about fear in a TED Talk radio hour podcast I heard.  She spoke about it as a natural, even necessary, companion on the way toward (in the case of her examples) enlightenment, but I’d extend that to the kind of truth-seeking we do in storytelling as well.  She spoke about Muhammed receiving the Koran—what she called the core mystical moment of Islam; and about Jesus on the cross in his last moments.  His final words, she says, were “Father why have thou forsaken me?” Muhammed, she said, “was held not by conviction but by doubt.” 

These were moments of trembling and fear, not elation or enlightenment, even though that’s exactly what these people, or characters, were on the cusp of. “Abolish all doubt,” she says, “and what’s left isn’t faith, but absolute heartless conviction.” The results, for us, might be a didactic or even soulless story.  In religion, it’s fundamentalism. I love that quote, and I love that it came, for me, from a somewhat unexpected place. 

And then lastly: 


Fear—the non-nutritious kind—is mundane.  In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explains it like this:  

“If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown. Well, so do I. So do we all. But there’s nothing particularly compelling about that. Do you see what I mean? You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown.” 

So, is there a bottom line here? I suppose for me, it would be this: Fear is part of the creative process. It’s also a shared (can we say universal?) element of making art in this world, and any time I spend hoping to avoid it completely is not time well spent. Rather, let me be aware of it, allow it to play its part in my writing process, and, above all, never let it stop me from forging bravely--or at least, semi-bravely--ahead. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Monsters and Villains by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Thinking about this month's topic - monsters and villains - took me on a trip to my childhood and the books I read. The books that have stayed with me because of the hero of the quest, but also because of the villain the hero had to encounter. In the days before Harry Potter and Voldemort, there were still plenty of scary characters in the pages of books.

My favorite monster was, and still is, Frankenstein.  Not only because he was scary to look at, but also because he was so much less a monster than the man who created him and the people who misunderstood him.  A classic tale that makes us consider the monster hidden in all of us.

As far a villains go, there are a few that sent delicious shivers down my spine as a kid. The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland with her gleeful willingness to chop the heads off little girls.

Another memorable rogue was Fagin from Oliver Twist.  An opportunist who found a way to exploit children under the guise of caring for them. He housed and fed them while society ignored them. If they had to pick pockets and become thieves, oh well, it was all part of life in Victorian London.

 While frightening to my childhood soul, these villains paled in comparison to the quintessential villain of all time: The Wicked Witch of the West in L Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Scary enough to shake the slippers off of any young girl, this character came to life in all her green-faced glory in the form of Margaret Hamilton in the classic movie.  Scary to look at, to listen to, and to be in the same room with.  

There's a villain to remember!     

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Name Names? Hmm.

By Jody Feldman

I’m a softie. In my perfect world, everyone would live allergy-free, amid blue skies and meadows, near mountains and oceans, with all the modern conveniences. We'd smile and scamper and frolic like the happy, little creatures and---
Okay, that makes for boring stories (and lives). Enter the villains.

My perfect villain doesn’t have a particular name. Take your pick: Cruella, Scar, Urusula, Maleficent, Gaston ... I could go on and on with Disney characters alone (most of which, of course, were borrowed from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and more). What makes these villains extra dastardly is the way they make us sprout an entire field of empathy for the main characters.

What good are Cruella without the Dalmations, Scar without Simba, Urusula without Arielle, Maleficent without Snow White, Gaston without Belle?

Unless the author/creator makes us feel, first, for the victim, then the villain is just an ugly being we malign on Twitter. The hunter, without the hunted, cannot exist.

Which is all a lot of musing to come to my point. I do not have a favorite villain. Then again, there was this guy from the old Batman series. I think I just liked his riddles.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? --- by Jane Kelley

I just finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The novella has become such a part of our culture that I felt I knew the story without having read it. (I confess that when I was a child, I mixed up the two characters. I believed that Mr. Hyde was the good fellow and Dr. Jekyll was the bad one, based purely on the sound of the names.)

But it is Mr. Hyde who is so terrible that everyone he encounters shrinks from him in horror.  He has no super powers. He has no arsenal of weapons. In fact, the murder we witness was committed with a walking stick. So then what makes him such a monster?

I'll quote from what Dr. Jekyll says about him in the novella. "All human beings are commingled out of good and evil: and Hyde alone in the ranks of mankind was pure evil."

Dr. Jekyll should know. He created Mr. Hyde. In a confessional letter which we finally get to read at the end of the novella, Jekyll explains that he had suffered from his struggles to subdue his worst traits. To avoid feeling guilty, he embarked on an experiment. He took a chemical that enabled him to separate into two men. Jekyll would be good. But Hyde would be unfettered by compassion or morality or any of our better traits.

Hyde does despicable things. (Which the author decides not to name.) Jekyll suffers some remorse for this. He is also frightened to discover that sometimes he transforms into Hyde even without using the chemicals. Jekyll tries to quit letting Hyde lose upon the world, but Jekyll can't. He finds it unbearable to be completely good. "I began to be tortured with throes and longings." And when he gave in to them, "My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring."

No good can come of this. For many moral reasons, but also because the chemical runs out. No more can be found. Jekyll writes his confession and finds the means to deliver it to his friend (and lawyer). Then he does not kill himself--and his monstrous creation. Instead, he takes the last draught and turns back in Hyde in hopes that Hyde, being hounded by justice, will commit suicide. Hyde does.

Many have tried to identify what inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to create these characters and this tale. Some hoped that the tale was meant to show the dangers of straying from the path of righteousness. Some have wondered what were Stevenson's own dark secrets. Why doesn't he describe Hyde's actions in the novella? Certainly most other writers would.

I haven't read the biographies. I know little of his life. But I believe that he was not just exploring the duality of human nature. I think he was fascinated by his own powers as creator.

Jekyll was good. Hyde was evil. But we can't forget that Jekyll created Hyde. And refused to destroy him. So I wonder who really was the monster?

In Graham Balfour's biography, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, he quotes Stevenson's wife.

"In the small hours of one morning, I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily, 'why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.' I had awakened him at the first transformation [from Jekyll into Hyde] scene."

Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Who is the Queen of Hearts? by Deborah Lytton

The villains that scared me the most when I was a young reader were the Wicked Witch of the West from THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum and the Queen of Hearts from ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll. I was impressed that Dorothy and Alice were brave enough to stand up to such frightening villains. I hoped if I were faced with such challenges, I might display the same courage.

As a writer, I see these characters differently. Now I understand that the antagonists are essential to the plot of the stories and the growth of the main characters. Without the Queen of Hearts, Alice would never become strong enough to find her way out of the rabbit hole. Without the Wicked Witch, Dorothy would never discover her own worth and find her own path home. The characters are used to reveal weaknesses in the heroines that they must overcome to succeed.

In my own realistic fiction writing, it is my goal to find the humanity in my contemporary villains so that readers can understand them. The heroine's worst trait can often be mirrored in the antagonist. It is only through the resolution of the relationship that the heroine can recognize herself in the eyes of the other character. Sometimes, the antagonist in the story can even be the heroine herself, for her own fears or insecurities might be standing in the way of her triumphant success. The conflicts that arise in the stories we write can come from a witch or a queen or even from the girl next door. As long as we find a way to keep the pressure on the main character, the conflict will work to propel the plot forward. So today, find the humanity in your villain. Seek to challenge your heroine. And write a story that readers will cherish for years to come.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Meet Samantha Rose, one of My Favorite Villains of 2018 Middle Grade Books

One of my favorite middle grade reads this year has been HOPE IN THE HOLLER by Lisa Lewis Tyre. You can read my review with some words from Lisa herself at Live Your Poem. Here's the summary of the book as provided by the publisher:

The poignant--and funny--story of a girl trying to be brave and find her place in the world after she's sent to live with scheming relatives.

Right before Wavie's mother died, she gave Wavie a list of instructions to help her find her way in life, including this one: Be brave, Wavie B! You got as much right to a good life as anybody, so find it! But little did Wavie's mom know that events would conspire to bring Wavie back to Conley Hollow, the Appalachian hometown her mother tried to leave behind. Now Wavie's back in the Holler--and in the clutches of her Aunt Samantha Rose. Life with the devilish Samantha Rose and her revolting cousin Hoyt is no picnic, but there's real pleasure in sleeping in her own mother's old bed, and making friends with the funny, easygoing kids her aunt calls the "neighborhood-no-accounts." With their help, Wavie just might be able to prevent her aunt from becoming her legal guardian, and find her courage and place in the world.

I love this book for many reasons -- and one of them is because of Wavie's Aunt Samantha Rose, who is so very easy to despise! Here's how Wavie describes her in the book:

"And Samantha Rose reminded me of rock candy, sugary sweet and hard enough to crack a molar. She threw around a lot of honeys and darlin's but they were always added on top of something bad.

'The toilet is clogged. How about trying your hand with a plunger, honey?'

'You'll be getting free meals at the school, so it'd help if you left the cereal for your uncle, darlin'.'"

One of Wavie's habits is to rearrange letters and make up new words. Here are some of the words she conjures out of "Samantha Rose:"
"I'd written TRASH, TORN, TEARS, RAN, MET, RANTS, MONSTER on my first night."

So, writers and readers: do yourself a favor and meet Samantha Rose! You'll be so glad you did. xo
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 the Birmingham Arts Journal

Monday, October 1, 2018

Smack Dab News

Michele Weber Hurwitz had a new deal announced last week in the Publisher's Weekly Children's Bookshelf newsletter. This will be her fifth middle grade novel.

Congrats to Michele!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sit, Stand, Walk...and Write!

They say sitting is the new smoking -- the new bad habit bringing negative health outcomes to a population of people (that’s us) who spend too much time in their chairs, usually staring at a screen, maybe with shoulders unconsciously hunched forward, and our spines out of alignment. 

For me, I started to notice it in the general stiffness of my hips. The decent flexibility I’d always enjoyed started to slip away from me, after several years of too-much-computer-time. It was nothing major, but at the same time, there was also nothing welcome about it, either. And it wasn't going to turn itself back....

So I got a walking desk. That was seven years ago, and while I wish I used it more often, it has, nonetheless, been a godsend. 

Given the amount of time I spend at the computer, I sprung for a Cadillac model -- aka, a Steelcase sit-to-walk station. It has a long tabletop for a desk, which allows room for my office chair and the treadmill to remain side by side all the time.  The desk itself goes up and down with the touch of a button, and I can easily transition from sitting, to standing, to walking whenever I like.  

At the same time, this is a no-Cadillac-necessary kind of thing. I have friends who have jury-rigged something similar for themselves just using a regular treadmill, a piece of plywood for a desk, and a laptop. The point, of course, is to get out of our office chairs and move -- and not just for an isolated workout, but in a sustained kind of way. Workouts are great, too, but studies have shown that there's no substitute for regularly getting out of the chair throughout the day. 

A lot of people are skeptical about the idea of walking and working at the same time, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a non-issue. Just to be sure, I went into the Steelcase showroom before I bought my unit, and they let me spend a couple of hours on a few different days, writing and testing out their floor model. That’s where I learned that keyboarding is no problem at all, especially at the pace I'm talking about -- 1.2 to 2.0 miles per hour. It's never been about burning calories, just about getting out of that perpetual-sitting position and onto my feet. If my task of the moment involves a lot of writing by hand, I’ll stay off the treadmill, but for everything else -- keyboarding, drafting, research, surfing online, and reading -- it's a surprisingly easy and seamless transition to walking.

Happy to answer any questions if you have them, below in the comments. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Field Trips Aren't Just For Kids!

By Charlotte Bennardo

When I was in school, I loved field trips (well, except if it was to a museum filled with stuffed, dead animals). Out of class for the day, no homework that night, you could sit with your friend and talk on the bus the whole way there. What was not to love?

Photo courtesy of Pexels

I still take field trips. For a while I chaperoned my sons' field trips and now that they're grown, I go on my own. As an author, I need to get a 'feel' for a place, or collect some information to write some stories. I have a time travel novel, and it opens up with a 15-year-old boy working as a blacksmith during King Arthur's time. So, where am I going to find a blacksmith to question? At the New York Renaissance Faire. It's almost like walking back several centuries when you look at some of the craftsmen and wares. The gentleman was dirtied with soot, had beefy arms from swinging his heavy hammer on the hot metal, and wore clothes that my young blacksmith might have worn; knitted 'stockings', a leather vest, and a muslin shirt. These details helped me describe my character in believable detail. (Alas, I forgot my cell and didn't get a pic... maybe next year.)

Another field trip is the Hacklebarney park. There are waterfalls and pristine woods (except for some picnic tables). I can see mushrooms and toadstools, hear deer picking their way through the fallen leaves, and put my hand in the icy stream. All these details, which are not in my backyard, help me to give my stories depth and make the reader feel like they are there, in the story.

One writer friend, Alison Ashley Formento, wrote These Bees Count! For her research, she visited and talked with the official White House beekeeper in Washington, D.C. (Betcha didn't know there was an official beekeeper- well neither did I!)

I wish I could travel to the space station to gather background research for my sci fi novel, but sadly, not yet. I did, however, travel to NYC to do research for the Sirenz books. When a novel takes place on actual city streets, you have to make sure you get the details right: is Central Park the next block over? Is this a one-way street? Am I in the Fashion District or Little Italy?

Even when I can't travel to places for research, like Rome where Blonde OPS takes place (really, I think the publisher should have sent me there...) I did a 'virtual' field trip. Using Google Earth, I could travel down the main thoroughfares or meander through side streets and alleys, seeing houses and businesses as they really are. This gives authenticity. It's embarrassing when a reader points out a mistake in your writing because they've been to the place and you've described it all wrong.

I think it's time for another field trip. I'll have to think of a place I'd like to go and make up the story when I get there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Believe me, you don't want 'em.

Because wherever I'm doing my writing, trust me--it's a mess. 

It's not just my office, either--which is a perpetual disaster zone. Wherever I'm working, if I've been there more than ten minutes, it is covered with:

* manuscript printouts--especially if I'm engaged in a rewrite
* a cup of coffee
*another cup of coffee, which I got when I couldn't find the first cup of coffee, which I later found under my chair
*a bowl for breakfast oatmeal
*a plate for my lunch sandwich
*a few random utensils (spoon, butter knife with mustard on it, etc.)
*a bottle of Vitamin Water and / or a Sonic cup
*dog hair
*more dog hair
*my phone
*my calendar
*the long-sleeved shirt I had on earlier over my T-shirt, but took off because it started to get hot
*a crumpled-up pair of socks, for the same reason
*my current knitting project, to work on during "think" spells
*a bill I'm contesting (why is it I'm ALWAYS having to contest a bill???)
*if I'm outside, a can of bug spray
*if I'm on the deck, my mosquito plant
*damp towels (because I guarantee I knocked the Sonic cup or my coffee over a couple of times)
*the mail
*still more dog hair
*spiral notebooks filled with to-do notes
*spiral notebooks for book ideas I get int he midst of the current WIP
*more pens
*pens I got when I couldn't find any of the other pens, which somehow migrated under the spiral notebooks
*my camera
*a couple of thesauruses (thesauri?), because I like them better than online synonym-finders
*my dog
*my dog's leash
*the socks I put on because it was starting to get cold again
*the long-sleeved shirt I put back on, for the same reason

It finally dawned on me that my workspaces are always cluttered because my mind is always cluttered. (Big surprise, eh?) I'm always thinking about ten things at once. But the thing is, the more I try to fight it, the tougher time I have. I'm better off letting my head ping around, writing twenty minutes and then bouncing to emails and then coming back to writing and then handling a phone call, etc. It sounds like working in a constant disaster zone. I'm sure that's how it looks. But it works. It's what's comfortable for me. 

That's the thing. Your workspace (and by extension, your work schedule) should be what's comfortable for you. Maybe that includes wearing your favorite knit hat. Or writing to show-tunes. Or writing every other day. Or writing in the early morning hours. Sometimes, I like to draft in front of the TV. The past several months (ahem, two years), I've also written while keeping several news feeds open on my computer. Maybe you need silence (I do when I'm revising or copyediting). Just be honest about what works. And remember: one writer's disaster zone is another's ah, this is just right.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Ultimate Imaginary Friend: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

 “She has a wonderful imagination.” That’s one of the most common adjectives used to describe a powerful imagination. But that’s vague. There are many kind of imaginations. By defining the kind of imagination you want, you can cultivate and develop it. 

Start by making your imagination a friend—the ultimate imaginary friend. Do you want her to be creative? Wacky? Wild? Is she red-haired and outgoing? Dark-eyed and dreamy? Will she make you laugh or sing?

What kind of adventures do you want to have with her? Would she take you to street fairs and open mike nights? Or cathedrals of forests? To strange islands over seas swimming with fantastic fish or cities you’ve never heard of before?

Grab you bus pass, your library card, and your flying shoes, and go! See what your imagination wants to become.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

An Author Field Trip, For Real

As a former teacher, I planned plenty of field trips - a nature walk in the arboretum, a visit to the zoo, or an afternoon spent at a health museum learning about the digestive system.  But on those trips, though they were fun, my role as the teacher was to be the one responsible.  For everyone.  Students, room parents, and bus drivers.  Yes, learning something was paramount; but, to be realistic, returning to school with the same number of students I had left with was absolutely the ONLY way the day would be a success.  :) That's a big responsibility, even on a good day when everything goes as planned, and as we know, life doesn't always go as planned.

That's why, when I become an author and planned field trips that were just for me, field trips took on a whole new meaning.  Responsible only for myself (and my husband if he happened to like whatever adventure I was going on), I got to head out into the world in search of first-hand knowledge and experiences that would help me be more inspired and authentic in my writing.

The trips I took to the Okefenokee Swamp for my most recent book, Elsie Mae Has Something to Say, are perfect examples of how amazing author field trips can be.  And though I wouldn't really want to be responsible for you, especially in a place like the Okefenokee Swamp, I wish everyone could visit this hidden-gem-of-a-place.  To give you a little taste of how amazing my trips to the swamp were, here are some photos:

The Okefenokee Swamp is in the southeastern part of the state of Georgia. There are three places where visitors can enter the swamp and experience its wonders.

The Okefenokee has plenty of adventure.
And it's for real!

Before the Okefenokee became a national wildlife refuge, settlers, called swampers, lived there. Some of the park volunteers grew up in and around the swamp. They happily shared tidbits and stories of the lives they lived as swampers.

Several swamper homesteads have been preserved so that visitors can see what swamper life was really like.

To me, the Okefenokee is a wonderful and mysterious place with a rich and unique history - the perfect setting for a story. My author field trips provided inspiration and firsthand experience about the Okefenokee and the swampers who lived there so that I could tell an authentic story.

Elsie Mae Has Something to Say is the story of how one girl, on the way to becoming a hero, finds out that even when you succeed in saving something for the good of all, there still might be a price everyone has to pay; and sometimes in the end, it might be hard to know if it was all worth it.

So if there's something you'd like to write about, or maybe just something you want to experience or know more about, plan a field trip of your own because field trips aren't just for kids.

Travel on,

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Where I Write

“You’re in my spot.”

 If anyone has tuned into the comedy, The Big Bang Theory, you’ve seen Sheldon and his obsession with his favorite spot.

I also have favorite spots. Especially when I write.

It has, actually, become a slight problem in the past. I once took to writing a novel on my sun porch. It was spring, and the afternoons were sunny and pleasantly warm. Perfectly fine in May, but by July when I was steadfast that I had to keep writing that novel on the sun porch, it was a scorching 98 degrees with zero breeze. Not to mention, I did not have a comfortable office chair, but instead a metal folding chair. You can imagine my comfort level as I pounded away on my laptop in determination.

There are other times I make a more solid choice of writing in a quiet office where I can control the temperature. If, however, I make the decision to have a cup of mint tea on a good writing day, you can bet I’ll be fixing mint tea for the duration of that manuscript.

Sidebar: I’m sick of mint tea.

Perhaps most steadfast in location is my cat, Boots. Boots has inspired my middle grade novels, about a curious cat-turned-detective. No matter where I am in the house, Boots has a cat tree. Or, as I like to call it when I’m working, his Perch of Judgement. He watches me diligently typing away, his elegant and bright green eyes drilling into me if I get stuck on a plot point or bit of dialogue.

He rarely offers advice.

I tend to be slightly high-strung and a person who sticks to routine. Maybe it’s stability, or maybe it’s even slightly superstitious when I’m writing that I apply those same principles.

At rare times, I’ll take myself out of the house to write at a coffeeshop. This can be dangerous as many of those delicious lattes are not only high in caffeine and price but also caloric value. No writer wants to vibrate the rest of the day, especially if they are already penning an intense plot.

I have learned little from where I write and what it means to my writing process outside of: Writer beware.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Best Writing Field Trip Ever

My best writing field trip wasn't the one that was the most fun when it happened, nor the one that produced the best published chapter as a result. It was the one that gave me the best material for school visits, from which I have squeezed out every droplet of benefit for many happy years.

It was the time my writer friend Leslie and I spent an afternoon together trying to explode a pickle.

As I was writing Fractions = Trouble! I knew the book would have a science-fair subplot.
I adore science fairs, and to date I have at least three published books where I managed to work one into the story. So off I trotted to my sons' former elementary school on the day of the science fair, notebook in hand, to record the funniest, weirdest, craziest science projects on display. I gave a squeal of joy at this one, where a fifth-grade boy set out to answer the question: "At what temperature does a pickle explode?"

I drafted the chapter where Wilson and his best friend Josh try- and fail - to explode the pickle and then shared it with my writing group. They loved the premise, but not the execution. They wanted more details involving the pickle: what did it look like? smell like? sound like? Alas, I had to confess I had no further details to offer, because I myself had never tried to explode a pickle. "Oh," they said. "You need to do that."

But. . . but . . .

"Come over to my house," Leslie offered. "We'll explode it there."

I bought a big jar of pickles and presented myself at Leslie's door.
We put pickle number one in the oven and cranked up the heat: 350 degrees, 400, 450, 500, and then finally 550 degrees, as hot as an oven could go. The pickle turned black. He began to smoke. When we finally rescued him, he weighed absolutely nothing, as all the water had evaporated out of him. He was a mere hollow pickle skeleton.

We put pickle number two in a pot of water and boiled him for an hour. He came out fresh as a daisy, not at all minding a pleasant soak in the pickle hot tub.

Then we put pickle number three in the microwave and set the timer for twenty minutes, during which time the pickle turned gray and pimply, lost all his moisture to evaporation. . . and shorted out the microwave, which ended up requiring a $200 repair.

But now I had my pickle details for the book! AND the favorite story, by far, of all I share during school assemblies. In fact, it was a kid in one assembly who gave me the line about the pickle hot tub, which has become the biggest laugh line in the program.

Here are the three pickles in all their glory.
So hooray for field trips - not only because they improve our writing, but because they can enrich our school visits, too.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

This Magnificent Madness!

One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien The Return of the King

Last time I wrote about my ongoing search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft.  In my ongoing quest, I returned to an old favorite, a steady, inspirational read by Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (Michael Wiese Productions, 1992)

While the book explores the monomyth, made famous by Joseph Campbell, and its impact in the storytelling process, Vogler expands the myth to include the writer herself. Every storyteller bends this archetypal pattern to her own purpose or the needs of her culture. That’s why the hero has a thousand faces, states Vogler. But at the heart of the story is always a journey.

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 

The hero’s journey, you may remember, is found in all sorts of storytelling, most especially in adolescent and young adult. The profound truth of adolescence is the separation from parent, the search for uniqueness and the triumphant integrating into wholeness – the return to being. You can see how this hero’s journey is mapped out in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

Writers go on a similar journey, states Vogler. In fact, as he states, “The hero’s journey and the writer’s journey are one and the same.”

Most writers I know received their call to adventure at a young age. George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer by the time he was five. Neil Gaiman also discovered his love of story at a young age, describing himself as “a feral child who was raised in libraries.” J.K. Rowling wrote her first story at age six, a book about a rabbit with measles. Raised by her grandparents, Lucy Maud Montgomery battled a debilitating sense of loneliness by creating imaginary friends, Katie Maurice and Lucy Gray, who lived in a fairy room behind a bookcase.

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 

Writing is certainly hard work, “a perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one soul.” It is a fearsome process, no matter how many books one has under their belts. Sue Grafton, author of the wildly popular Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series, once stated, “Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.” The mighty Stephen King noted, “I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing – that it won’t come up for me, or I won’t be able to finish it.” Even the mythic J.R.R. Tolkien said, as the first book of his iconic series was published, “It is written in my life-blood…I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.”

So why write, we ask ourselves? We go through all this agony!

Says Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world.”

Vogler shows that anyone – new as well as established writers – who sets out to write a story encounters all the trials and tribulations, joys and rewards of the hero’s journey.

A writer encounters her trickster, taking shape as computer problems, doctor appointments and time management issues, and other “enemies of the status quo that also bring perspective on the process.

A writer meets the grumpy threshold guardian in the form of our inner and relentless judgments of our work. The tension rises as we face the searing remarks of a reviewer, a copyeditor, an agent, or an editor. And finally, we cross the Rubicon. We are published. But the journey is just beginning, as we “fully enter the mysterious, exciting Special World” of a published writer. The ordeals become all the more exhausting as we face deadlines and revisions and constant rejections. As we build our platforms and speak – holy moly! – to readers. And our beloveds go out of print, and favorite editors retire, and the rise of the internet dragons.

Along the way, if we are lucky, we meet our sidekicks, our Dr. Watson, our Clara Oswald, our Hermione Granger.  Our Samwise Gamgee. Sometimes, we meet our Dumbledore or Gandolf wielding his magic purple crayon, the sage who gives advice, who tells us to keep going, just keep swimming. Don’t give up.

Take hope, states Vogler, “for writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural…We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended.”

“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers 

Happy journeys to you!

--Bobbi Miller 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Listening for great snippets of dialogue, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Our blog topic this month is about field trips; more specifically, where we like to write. But here's the deal: I write and revise at home. Routine and familiarity suit me and my work. I've found, through trial and error, that coffee shops are too loud and distracting, and have the inherent risk of hot beverage spills and muffin bits that get stuck in those temperamental laptop keys. Anywhere outdoors is always fraught with assorted dogs/bugs/humidity/sudden thunderstorms that crop up out of nowhere. Airports, hotel rooms, the lakeside cabin porch where I thought I would be able to concentrate - nope, not happening.

My cozy home office overlooking my backyard and filled with photos and inspiring sayings, my giant screen desktop computer, and space to spread out my piles of notes - now we're talking. And even better, it's exactly twenty-three steps to the kitchen pantry.

But! When it comes to dialogue, I emerge from my cocoon, go somewhere, and listen. Great snippets of dialogue can be overhead anywhere and everywhere, be it a restaurant, store, sporting event, or family get-together (those are usually a gold mine). More than one overheard gem has found its way into one of my books!

Here are some of the recent snippets I've overheard:

"No, not that. I told you. We're not looking for a bathtub."

"I sprinkled Wheat Thin crumbs on his car."

"This thing ran outta juice. They didn't charge it enough."

"Oh, you knew! You most certainly knew!"

"Did you feel safe there? I mean, like, here safe."

"Don't go anywhere, I'm getting the pineapple."

"They said to get zip-off pants. You know, the kind that zip off."

"She's not totally mean. She's just, like, partially totally mean."

I first learned of this simple but effective dialogue exercise while taking a summer course at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop years (and years) ago. The instructor asked us to sit for one hour in the open-air Ped Mall and jot down bits of conversation we heard from people passing by. Afterwards, we returned to class and wrote a scene with these bits of conversation. The results were hilarious and in some cases, made no sense, but all of the resulting scenes reflected how people really speak to each other. It was a lesson I never forgot.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, from Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Her newest, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, publishes on November 13. Visit her at