Wednesday, September 16, 2020

What's in a name? By Michele Weber Hurwitz

What's in a name? Short answer: A lot. 

Authors have been known to obsess over what to name their characters. And for good reason. A name should be memorable, fit the age of the character and the overall setting and time frame of the story, and perhaps even reinforce the character's qualities.

Readers can get an instant impression of a character just from his or her name. Think of Spike or Priscilla or Ethel. What do you feel when hearing those names? Whether your immediate judgement turns out to be true or not, most of us start getting an idea for the kind of person they might be. Names can evoke a generation, like Madison or Sheldon. They can have a regional flavor, like Beauregard, or even be a nickname, like Turtle in Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm. And a name can give us a personal point of reference, too. The name Beth will always make me think of my next door neighbor and first friend.

Authors use different techniques to come up with original, meaningful, and creative names for their characters. I once heard Margaret Peterson Haddix say that often, when she's writing, a name just comes to her, but she also uses baby name websites when she's stuck, which is something I've done too.

Here are some of my favorite middle grade character names:

Stanley Yelnats, Holes -- Who can resist that clever backwards twist?

India Opal Buloni, Because of Winn-Dixie -- I love the flow, the three names, and how the last name sounds like bologna!

Beezus and Ramona, Ramona series -- How could anyone not adore a character named Beezus?

Moose Flanagan, Al Capone Does My Shirts -- I think every kid wants to know more about a character named Moose.

Wahoo Cray, Mickey Cray, and Tuna Gordon, Chomp -- Wahoo and Tuna? I'm in.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, One Crazy Summer -- The best sister names ever.

Pippi Longstocking -- My fave all-time character name. I instantly recall those sticking-out red braids!

There are some character names that were so perfect, they've become ingrained in our culture, such as Atticus Finch, Jay Gatsby, Ebenezer Scrooge, Hannibal Lecter, Hester Prynne, Holden Caulfield, and Scarlett O'Hara. Can you imagine these characters with any other name?

So when dreaming up names for your characters, choose wisely. Yours may become the next Romeo and Juliet!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of five middle grade novels from Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Visit her online at

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

No More Surprises

Grumpy Cat, From Grumpy 

I have to admit, I'm all surprised out. Sometimes, I enjoy the routines just to get me through. At least for the moment, as I continue teaching online courses, learning new programs with way too many buttons. I continue writing. I continue reading.

As I tell my neighbors when I go for walks, and they ask me how I'm doing.

"Well, I got out of bed this morning. Sometimes, that's enough."

Here's a cute little ditty I found on PoemHunter that reflects No More Surprises!

Kitty, kitty, come in the door

And I will give you cream.

If you bring a fresh caught mouse,

I will surely scream!

-- Bruce Larkin

Alice in Wonderland

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Books and Their Content in Surprising Places by Darlene Beck Jacobson


As authors we might sometimes wonder if anyone other than friends and loved ones read what we write. With so many books out there in the world, does anyone care about the scribbles of us unrecognized and little-known authors?

I got a really nice reminder that we never know what impact our writing will have. The State of New York has purchased licensing rights to use excerpts from my first book of historical fiction WHEELS OF CHANGE, on their state tests for students. 

Remember back to those tests and passages we often read for comprehension back when we were in school? It is humbling and thrilling to think that something I've written will be seen by thousands of kids. Even if it is just for tests that many kids dread. Maybe one kid, or teacher, or classroom will find the passage intriguing enough to want to read the entire book.


So, whatever you do...don't stop writing. We never know what kind of impact our stories may have for the future.

Friday, September 11, 2020

A CHALLENGE: Issued by Jody Feldman

This was my grandfather.
People loved him for his stories.
Other people. 
Not necessarily the adults in our family.

“We've heard that a million times, Dad.”
“Not again, Harry!”
“You know what's a really good story?” said the person who would change the subject. Except...

We kids didn't necessarily know the stories. At one time or another, my grandfather would reference the one about the bananas or the peach pie or the record albums. For years, the details of those stories would remain a mystery to my. Then my parents died and it came time to pack up their house. Among their possessions were two cassette tapes.

Unbeknownst to me, my dad and my aunt had arranged for my grandfather to meet with a woman who recorded personal histories. She asked questions about my grandfather's life, and he answered in such detail with so many great stories that the 90-minute session was over too soon. 

I was left with so many questions. Was he scared on the ship that brought him to America? On the haywagon before that? What was it like seeing his father, for the first time, when they were reunited in America? How did he and my grandmother meet? What did they eat all those years when they were trying to make ends meet?

I could go on for hours with the questions I have. Perhaps the biggest one concerns my other grandfather who came to this country, alone, speaking no English, and who adopted the last name of a dentist aboard, the man who had taken him under his wing. Why did he do that? What was their relationship like? What was his last name before that?

The point is, we don't ask enough questions. And it's not just questions to our grandparents.

When I was talking to my mother-in-law the other week, she recounted a story about how her  roommate dealt with the stress of college. Surprisingly, neither of her children heard that before. 

So my CHALLENGE to you is this:
There's gold in these stories if only we take the initiative to mine it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

TRAIL BLAZE BETTY -- by Jane Kelley

A drawing by a student from St. Mary's in Richmond Center, WI.

Many people's favorite character in my middle-grade novel Nature Girl is a cranky old lady with gnarly legs, shorts with too many pockets, and a goofy orange sun hat. 

Why do readers of all ages love Trail Blaze Betty? 

It's true, she is admirable. She's hiked the Appalachian Trail many times. And even though those days are over, she still takes care of a section of the Trail, and provides brownies and encouragement for hungry hikers. 

She does get to shout at some juvenile delinquents. "Don't tell me who to yell at. I yell at anybody I want. Especially people who throw trash everywhere and don't respect the Trail or themselves." 

Trail Blaze Betty's appeal is about more than the brownies and the outspokenness. She serves as a guardian angel. When she meets Megan, she realizes that Megan has embarked upon a dangerous journey. Most adults would stop Megan. But guardian angels know that it's important for us to keep going. Even when we don't know what we're getting into. And we don't have nearly enough food or water or any of the appropriate gear. And we haven't learned the skills. But like a good guardian angel, Trail Blaze Betty follows Megan as she makes that important journey almost all by herself.

Trail Blaze Betty also needs Megan. She has the energy and naïveté that enable her to begin this impractical journey in the first place. If she knew what she was getting into, she wouldn't have attempted it. It is Megan and all the young hikers who will keep the Trail alive. 

I often say that I put Trail Blaze Betty in what would be my first published novel to encourage myself. As we all continue on our creative journeys, we need guardian angels to yell at the people who would throw trash on our trail. To keep an eye out for us when we stray from our path. To provide treats and encouragement. 

I still quote her to myself. The only way to fail is to quit. 

(Of course, it's also possible people like her just for that goofy orange hat.)