Wednesday, May 30, 2012

May Theme - Parents & Writing by Christine Brodien-Jones

Neither of my parents went to college, but they were super-enthusiastic when it came to my literary efforts.  They encouraged my writing in different ways.  And, thanks to them, books played a big part in my life.

I remember my dad and I sprawled out on the living-room floor while he read the Sunday funnies out loud.  Peanuts was his favorite.  It was my favorite, too.    He was always reading books to me: Peter Pan (I wanted to be Wendy), Hans Christian Andersen (The Wild Swans made me wish I had 11 brothers), Uncle Wiggily's Adventures, a book from his childhood about an elderly rabbit with whimsical friends.  There were always books in the house, because the library was a two-minute walk around the corner and my librarian Aunt Hazel (my dad's sister) sent me books for birthdays and Christmas, classics like Heidi and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

My mom liked to buy me Little Golden Books whenever we went to the A&P.  I spent most of my pocket money on comic books - Superman, Little Lulu and best of all the Classics Illustrated.  After I'd read them all countless times, she'd help me organize comic book sales on our front porch - that way I could make money to buy new comics!  She was my first agent, too, sending my stories to Jack and Jill and other children's magazines, in hopes of getting them published.

My parents always encouraged me - they were confident that one day I'd be published - and although they're gone now, it seems to me they left behind a special legacy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

May Theme: So many parents

Stephanie J. Blake

Writing about my parents for this month's theme will be tough. See, I have two moms--a biological mother and a stepmother. From age five until I left home at 18, I lived with my dad and stepmom. Growing up without my mother around was weird and confusing.

My stepmom was a special education teacher--a devoted teacher, but not a great mother figure--not very nurturing. Because of a nasty divorce, a custody battle, and because of my biological mother's absence in my life, our blended family was not without many issues. We moved a lot. I was a loner. I was a skinny dork. I was also a big reader. My stepmom always made sure I was surrounded by books. She encouraged me to read. Still, I resented her presence in my life.

My real mom who had me when she was 17 seemed to live her life like it was a book--a steamy romance novel. She seemed so glamorous, (she was very beautiful), but I didn't really know her very well. We only had visitation a few times a year. She lived all over the U.S., getting married and divorced, traveling, always having adventures with new men (we call it "drama," these days).

I became somewhat of a (ahem) difficult teenager. I was always breaking the rules, testing my parental units. I rebelled at every turn. I made horrible choices in boyfriends. I neglected my studies. I wrote poetry. I had a lot of angst. My dad was my high school principal for crying out loud! I ran away for four days when I was sixteen--in search of my mother who was living in Florida at the time.
I hated my parents--all of them! I couldn't wait to get out of there.

Fast my 20's, my mother and I finally lived in the same state, and I got to know her better. In my 30's, we became best friends. Now, she's in her 60's, and she's got both mental and health problems. She has tremendous guilt over leaving. It will affect her for the rest of her life.

I forgive her. Now that I'm a wise 40-something, I have realized I am really a motherless child. And it's OKAY. Not everyone grew up with the perfect mother.

So why am I telling you all of this?

My childhood has affected me as a writer.

In my book, THE MARBLE QUEEN, my main character has a very difficult mother. In early versions of the story, the mother was borderline abusive, but of course that wasn't going to work.

In my work in progress, my main character's mother is dead and she gets a new stepmother who is also her 5th grade teacher. (These experiences come from my real life as my stepmom was my 2nd grade teacher).

In a YA verse novel that I've written (and really hope gets out into the world), the main character's mother abandoned her to become a waitress in Vegas. The MC deals with the abandonment by attaching herself to the wrong guy and getting pregnant.

Seems I can't write about sunshine-y moms.

The other day, my stepmother and I were chatting about my difficulties growing up. We laughed about some of the things I put them through. She said she was proud of me. That meant the whole world.

You know what? She's been my "real" mother for some 37 years, and I never realized it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

May Theme: A Grand Adventure begins by Dia Calhoun

I can't think about my parents right now, even though that is our theme this month. All I can think about is that I am, right this moment, at the beginning of my Grand Adventure to Italy. I left Seattle yesterday, and stopped over in New York to meet my wonderful editor Ariel Colletti at Atheneum. This evening we feasted on Chinese food and sushi and wine and wonderful conversation.

So I can't think about my parents right now.

Tomorrow I am flying to Milan for three weeks in Italy. For two weeks of the trip, I will be on my own--no tour.  My trip has been long in the planning stages and was almost derailed several times--in February by tearing ligaments in my foot and ankle (still have to wear sensible shoes) and then in April by a traveling companion who flaked out on me. But I am going! And Eva, the heroine from my new book Eva of the Farm, is going with me as my imaginary travelling companion. I will be posting blogs about Eva's and my experiences in Italy on my personal blog:

So I can't think about parents right now.

On my way here I heard a Ted talk by a spoken word poet--her first name was Sarah, I didn't catch her last name. She said we take all that we are with us--as in a backpack--when we move forward into new adventures. So much of what I am taking with me on the Grand Adventure--especially my imagination and wonder--came to me from my parents.

Even when I am not thinking about my parents, they are always with me as I venture into the wondrous unknown.

I am always thinking about my parents.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Heated Conversations with Water Fountains (May Theme) by Holly Schindler

In honor of this month's parental theme, I’ve decided to share the mother of all plans.  Yes, oh, yes, I had it all worked out.  I was twelve, and it was the summer before junior high, and this was it—this was going to be the moment in which I won Mom over, got her to see things from my (admittedly, completely blurry) point of view.

First, a bit of backstory:

I was nine years old when the worst, most tragic event of all time came crashing down upon my slender little third-grader shoulders.

I could no longer read the chalkboard.

It happened suddenly, actually—I came back from spring break to find that my desk had been moved by well-meaning floor-sweeping janitors from the front row to the back.  And the daily handwriting assignment, which our teacher put up on the board for us to copy each morning, was a complete and total blur.  I couldn’t see.  Period.

My first glasses were fairly strong (for 20/200 vision).  And—I hated them.  Talking hate here.  Hate.  The fact that it was 1986 didn’t help, either.  Remember glasses of the ‘80’s?  The enormity!  The hideousness!  Uuuugh!

And it officially began: the battle with my mom for contacts. 

I didn’t just want contacts.  I lusted after them, especially as my eyes grew progressively worse.  By the time I was headed for junior high, my prescription was creeping up toward a -5.00 (20/500 vision), and there was no way I could just take my glasses off at that point and navigate the majority of my days without them, haul them out of a backpack pocket to read the board once I got to class.  Not if I didn’t want to start having long, heated conversations with hallway water fountains, anyway.

So, the summer before seventh grade, I came up with my infinitely brilliant plan:  I would get the ugliest pair of 1980’s glasses I could find.  I mean, ugly.  Proof:
I just knew what would happen: when we picked up the glasses, and Mom saw how awful I looked, her eyes would widen in sheer horror.  She’d insist we exchange the glasses for contacts immediately, if not sooner.
Yeah.  Didn’t work.  As my seventh grade picture up there reveals.

Sure, I did get my contacts—the summer before high school, actually.  And I wore them until I gleefully pitched the lenses and all the unending vials of cleaning solution in the trash shortly after my thirtieth birthday.  In the end, the things that are important to us as teens are never the things that are important to us as adults.  This Mother’s Day, as my own mom and I laughed at this—and other—horribly failed grand schemes, I was also reminded that my young characters should always have plans of their own that are obviously doomed, that provide a bit of comic relief, and that show them stumbling and learning and laughing all along their life’s journey.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Read Aloud (May Theme) - Alan Gratz

One of my earliest memories is of my dad reading to me. Before my bed time, my dad would call me in to my parents' room and we would sit on their bed and he would read me the next chapter of Treasure Island. It's kind of a magical memory for me, both because it happened when I was so young, and because I don't remember dad ever reading any other book out loud to me.

When I became a parent myself, I wanted to recreate that magical memory with my own daughter. I had read picture books to her for years, but starting our first chapter book together was a big deal. And what better book, I reasoned, than the very same Treasure Island that had so captivated me as a child? After considerable build-up ("It's a pirate adventure! With parrots and buried treasure! You're going to love it!") I pulled my daughter up next to me on my bed and started to read aloud to her as my father had.

And the book was terrible. I mean, it's a classic, and it's a great piece of our literary past, and it pretty much defined the way we still think of pirates more than two centuries later...but it was written in 1883, and it has all the problems of a book written in 1883. The dialogue is written in vernacular and is almost impossible to understand, it takes a long time for the story to really get going, and it's overwritten in that way of Victorian literature. In short, it's old. And while the "classics versus contemporary novels" debate is one best saved for another time, in this particular case, the story went over with an audible THUMP. It was a disaster.

After one particularly painful chapter, I turned to my daughter and asked, "So what do you think?" She answered, "I love it!" I was stunned. "Do you know what's happening?" I asked her. I'd barely been able to keep up myself. She looked sheepish and admitted that she didn't really know what was going on. "But I don't want you to stop reading," she told me.

And there it was. Finally I understood the magic behind my dad calling me up on the big bed to read aloud to me. It didn't matter what book I was reading to her. What mattered most was that I was reading with her, and sharing that special time. Come to think of it, it wasn't the story of Treasure Island I remembered most, it was my dad taking time to read a book with me. Any book.

"Tell you what," I told my daughter. "Let's stop reading this one and read something else together instead. Run to your bookshelf and find Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. You're going to love it..."

Happy Mother's Day and Father's Day to all the read-alouders out there!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Parenting and Writing (May Theme) - Stephanie Burgis

Parenting is one of those issues in life that suddenly takes on completely different angles when you start doing it yourself. It was a shock, when I had my baby, to find myself suddenly a "mom", expected to be ever-nurturing, ever-compassionate, ever-strong. When you have a child, you stop being just a person - in a lot of ways, socially, you also become a construct: The Mom (or: The Dad, which has its own intimidating set of cultural ideals).

When I studied American Women's History in college, I remember my professor, with a wry quirk to her mouth, writing the phrase: "It's all Mom's fault" on the chalkboard, as she discussed the rise of that psychological approach. There can be a real sense of betrayal for a child (even a grown-up child) whenever we see a mother who has done something that isn't objectively right (or in other words, the way moms are supposed to behave).

I think the years of MG fiction are the years when many kids first start really noticing the ways their moms are failing to live up to that cultural standard. I know that my friends and I were vocal in those years whenever we noticed our moms' failures.

Well. Now I'm a mom, and guess what? I fail to live up to that cultural standard every. single. DAY.

I love my son more than anyone or anything else in the world. I would sacrifice anything - or, to be brutally honest, anyone, including myself - for his welfare. And yet: I lose my temper, I say things I shouldn't, I fail in a thousand different ways to be the ideal mom I'm "supposed" to be.

I balance my own novel-writing with my freelance writing work, all while he's at preschool, for just two and a half hours a day. I fail at that, too, a lot. I feel like I can never do well enough at either job (and having a chronic illness just makes the situation harder). This week is just one example.

I was going to spend this whole week working on my WIP and nothing else. I have a break in my freelance schedule. I was going to get SO MUCH done this week, while my son was at school! Unfortunately, my son woke up sick with an ear infection Monday morning, and as of today, he still isn't well enough to go back to school yet. I've lost three of my five writing days so far. I was so worried about his health the first day, I didn't even care about that part.

Then he started feeling better - not well, but better, so that my worries eased and I knew he'd feel better with just a bit more time - and at that point, my WIP started wailing in my ear, reminding me that this was supposed to be its big week, my big chance to get a huge chunk written.

It's not enough to make me regret prioritizing my son - nothing could ever be enough for that - but it's more than enough to make me crazy with frustration as I watch my scarce writing days slip away through my fingers. And at the same time, I feel intense guilt about FEELING frustrated, when, as a mom, I should care about NOTHING but my son's illness. Because if I were a true mom, a great mom, I wouldn't even feel that frustration in this situation, would I? My entire mind would have no room for anything but the childcare I'm doing!

So the fact that I feel this frustration...well, inside, where I've internalized every social rule of motherhood, I feel like I'm doubly failing now - failing as a writer AND failing as a mom for the fact that I'm minding that first failure.

Guess what's getting me through this tough period? My own mom. She may be in a different country from me now, but not only is she wonderfully reassuring over Skype and on visits, but every time I look back on my memories of her from childhood, they give me strength.

I'm inspired every single time I think of how she started a whole new career fresh in her mid-thirties - starting from undergraduate work and progressing all the way through a doctorate, while balancing parenthood of three children AND a dayjob. She was the same age as me when she started that process - and yes, it took her longer than it would have if she'd been in her twenties and childless - but guess what? Not only did she get there in the end, she rose to incredible heights of achievement. She has done amazing things in her field, reached great heights and earned incredible professional respect.

Even if I'm moving slower on my own career than I want to be, partly due to the fact that I'm a parent...well, starting later, and having to move slower because of parenthood, didn't stop my mom in the long run, did it? And not only am I incredibly proud of her for her achievements, but I know - because she's poured her own confidence and pride into me my whole life, telling me over and over again that she believes in me - that I can do it, too, even if it takes me longer than I think it should, even if I'm not writing a thousand words of my own novels every single day.

In my own series of books, my heroine, Kat, starts out in Kat, Incorrigible by simply resenting her stepmother for all the things she's done wrong, all the ways in which she's failed Kat and her sisters. By the end of the novel, though, she's finally starting to see that her stepmother isn't just the 2-dimensional "wicked stepmother" Kat wanted her to be - Stepmama's genuinely trying to do what's right, even if her stepchildren profoundly disagree with her about what is right for them.

The relationship arc between Kat and her stepmother - and between Kat and her loving but deeply imperfect father - doesn't close until the end of Book 3, Stolen Magic. But there's one crucial moment in the second book, Renegade Magic, when Kat has a serious shift in perspective. She and her stepmother have far too many dissimilarities to ever easily understand each other - but they may be able at least to accept each other.

I'm fighting to accept my own imperfect motherhood.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Parents (May Theme) of a Fictional Sort by Bob Krech

I was going to write about my parents this month. They are nice people and they surely influenced me as a reader and writer. But, to be honest, they are not quite as exciting as some other parents I've come across––in children's books! Here are five of my favorites.

1. Matilda by Roald Dahl. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are two of the nastiest, but most entertaining parents ever. Somehow they conceived the honest, intelligent, clever Matilda. And in the end (spoiler alert!) she gets the best single mom ever, Miss Honey!  One of my fave books of all time too.

2. Weird Parents by Audrey Wood. The title kind of says it all, but what a blast being their kid, even though they are eccentric as all get out. The boy is embarrassed, until he realizes how really wonderful his crazy parents are. A fun picture book that lets us parents know it's okay to be a little weird.  

3. Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban. All of the Frances books include Frances the badger's incredibly wise and warm parents. Frances is not an easy one to deal with, but her parents do it with style, grace and love. I am always amazed upon re-reading, how deep and well-written these seemingly simple stories are.

4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend. Very British. And very funny! Adrian's parents, George and Pauline, though extremely simple, vain, and materialistic have somehow raised a 13 year old intellectual conservative. This series of books follows Adrian and his parents over the course of some thirty years of politics, world events, love and everyday life in modern day, middle class England.

5. In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd. Jean Shepherd's tales of growing up in 1930's Indiana are nostalgic, funny, poignant, and a rollicking read. Featured in many of his short stories is his Dad, a cantankerous character referred to always as "My Old Man." If you don't know Shepherd from his books, you may know him as the creator and narrator of A Christmas Story, which is based on a conglomeration of some of the stories from this book.

These are the ones that jumped to mind for me. What are some of yours?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nature and Nurture (May theme: Parents)

My mother was the one who read to my brother and sister and me; who suggested books when I ran out of something to read; whose huge collection of favorites, carefully preserved from her childhood, guided and still guide my taste. My father largely stayed out of this part of our lives, sitting across the living room with a scientific journal or a thick history book whose tiny type and lack of illustrations didn’t tempt me away from the—to me—much more attractive novels my mother left temptingly within reach.

But on long car trips (my father hated to drive, and anything over thirty minutes was considered “long”), carsickness kept me from reading, and in those days there was very little on the radio for kids to listen to. When the boredom-induced bickering got out of control, my father would demand absolute silence, and once we had obeyed, he would launch into a story.

"What happened next, Dad?"
There were several recurring serials. One favorite chronicled the adventures of Doris the Delightful Dolphin and her boyfriend Robert (pronounced in the French way, for some reason). Our Sheltie, Socks, apparently had a relative named Shoes, the world’s worst sheepdog, constantly tricked by his archenemy, Hubert the Hostile Huron (I pictured Hubert as a long-legged waterbird, perhaps a Great Blue Huron?). We learned that we had a family ghost named Twig Ericson. Inot and Nad were two filthy monkeys who ate fleas off each other (when my cousin Toni, who had a boyfriend named Dan, reversed the monkeys’ names, I don’t know if she was insulted or amused).

He could go on for what seemed like hours, always wrapping up just as we pulled into our grandmother’s driveway or the beach where we were spending our vacation.

A generation later, he told his grandchildren about Doris and Socks and Twig, but when one of his grown children stopped by to listen, something froze in him and the story fell apart. Once, we tried to record a story, but he sat there unable to come up with anything. And then those characters died with him.

How much of our personalities do we inherit from our parents? I like to think my storytelling gene came from my dad.

Friday, May 11, 2012

One Spark ... Jody Feldman's Take on the May Theme

The question came again yesterday as it does in one form or another in at least 90% of my school visits and interviews. “Why are there puzzles in your book?” Or “how do you write them?” Or “did you write them yourself?”

The answer to question #3 ... yes.
The answer to question #2 ... we’ll tackle that answer another month.
The answer to question #1 ... I blame my mom.

I was raised on puzzles. Many Saturday afternoons, especially in winter when I was not brave enough to go outside and face the subzero windchills, I would crawl up next to my mom who loved to work crossword puzzles, worked them nearly daily. There I learned that olio – odds and ends fans – was different than oleo one spreads on toast, that alee was toward the sheltered side and that tar wasn’t only something to put on a roof or road, sailor.

Because she limited herself to crossword puzzles, that gave me reason to explore alternate-type puzzles that remained unsolved in some of her books. She had no clue that any of this would have such an effect on my life. Neither did I.

So when I visit schools, I also like to add that you never know exactly when the next idea may be planted, where a spark may come from, where your influences begin. They could spring from a dandelion seed blowing in the breeze. Or from the stranger who coughs in your ear. Or from a kid who missed the bus. Or they could come from your mom who sat there with a page of squares and a sharpened pencil.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

May Theme: The Bonds of Reading by John Claude Bemis

Last weekend my four-year old daughter Rose and I visited my parents in Oriental, NC.  On the ride down, I asked Rose what she was looking forward to doing with them.  She rattled off a long list—going down to the pier, walking their dog Mandy, doing sewing projects—and finally she said, “And reading of course.”

Of course!  A visit with her grandmother would never be complete without many sessions snuggled up together on the hammock reading Shel Silverstein, The Berenstain Bears, or The Littles.  Reading together has been a family tradition, one my parents began with me when I was little and one that my wife and I continue around our house.  As a rabid book-lover and author, it makes me light-headed with joy when my daughter says, “Let’s read.”  I love to see the spellbound look on her face when my wife or I read a bed-time book to her.

Time spent reading together I believe is some of the most important time for kids and parents.  It’s a time for explaining the world, exploring the mysteries of human behavior, or discussing how to best solve a problem.  Books connect young readers with the wider world beyond their everyday experience.  But more importantly, books connect kids with their parents.  Reading forges deep bonds between parents and children.  Books really do bring us together in ways electronic media never can.

With Mother’s Day coming up this weekend, I want to give a special thank you to the two most important mothers in my life: my mom who instilled a love of reading in me and my wife who is helping make our daughter into a more curious, creative, and compassion person…as well as one serious book lover.

If you want a chance to win an advance copy of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, give a special shout-out of thanks to an important mom in your life or make any comment here under my post by Thurs, May 10th.  The winner will be selected at random on Friday morning and announced here on Smack Dab as well as on my website  To be considered you must be a follower of Smack Dab in the Middle and a resident of the United States or Canada.

Monday, May 7, 2012

May Theme: Seasoned in Stories (Naomi Kinsman)

Just last week, a foreign question popped into my mind: Will I someday grow too old to tell stories for children? I am, after all, going to turn 35 this month. Almost as quickly as the question showed up, the answer nearly bowled me over. No way! Some things are as deeply ingrained as breathing and walking and laughing.

Even before I took my first step, maybe even before my first laugh, my parents seasoned me in stories. Stories with whimsy in them, and endless possibilities, and young people who faced grave challenges and found moments of hope. And the minute my parents closed the covers on those books, they took me on walks and bike rides and camping trips where we wove the abandoned shoes and hungry ducks and over-roasted marshmallows into stories of our own. My parents knew the magical questions: "What if..." and "What happens next?"

I have a million things for which to thank my parents. But one of the biggest is that they taught me the importance of story. In all the moments of doubt in my writing career so far––and believe me, there have been many––I've never once doubted that telling stories about young people is important. Of course, young people need excellent books, no one argues this. More importantly, stories about young people are about a time of intense change, of learning and growing up and becoming who we're meant to be. For me, this process of facing challenges, of remaining open to change, of continuing to grow into who I'm becoming hasn't ended at 21 or 30. When I write stories about young people, I write about my own questions. I read an awful lot of books with young protagonists, too. I learn from these young characters, from their willingness to stay open, even when change is difficult, from their ability to step into the "what if..." questions.

So will I grow too old? Not as long as I stay open to change, as long as I'm willing to lay on a grassy hill, stare up at the clouds and see the pictures that drift across the blue canvas of sky, as long as I notice the strange footprint in the sand and ask: "What happened next?"

Saturday, May 5, 2012

May Theme: The Power of Parents (Trudi Trueit)

It is a testament to my parents' wit and wisdom and they did not panic the day I introduced them to my new best friend. I was about three years old when I asked them to warmly welcome my pal, Squawky, who, as it turned out, was nothing more than a figment of my imagination (in the photo, I am in glasses with my big sis, Lori).

They accepted him/it/vaporous cloud with quiet nods and gracious tones. Although, later my mom confessed she did casually bring up the subject with our family doctor at my next check-up and was assured that an invisible friend is a normal part of childhood development (my mom says Doc told her it demonstrated high cognitive function and creativity, but I think he just told her that so she’d worry less when her daughter swapped jellybeans with thin air).

For the next few weeks, Squawky and I went everywhere and did everything together. We had deep conversations over cheeseburgers at McDonald’s. We danced in the backyard to music only we could hear. We read books. Well, my mom and dad read the books aloud. Squawky and I listened intently.

I can’t remember a time when reading wasn’t a part of my life. If one of my parents wasn’t reading to me before bed, I was reading to them, myself, or my brother or sister. The library was my favorite place to go in the world. Reading sparked my imagination to create stories of my own, and the day my kindergarten teacher put a crayon in my hand there was no stopping me.

Along with a love of the written word, my parents gave me one more gift that has served me well - the gift of trying. When I was young, almost everything I wanted to try, from the ukulele to sewing to cake decorating, they let me take a whack at. When I found something I loved to do, like writing, they didn’t tell me I couldn’t or shouldn’t or wouldn’t. And with nobody telling me I couldn’t or shouldn’t or wouldn’t, I simply did. I wrote. I wrote plays in the fourth-grade. I wrote newspaper articles for my hometown newspaper in the eighth grade. I wrote debate speeches in high school. I wrote (and reported) TV news as an adult. And, as you can see, I am still writing.

Parents tend to play a key role in my middle grade books, because I know how much Mom and Dad's encouragement shaped me. But in fiction, it's conflict, not support, that spurs the protagonist to action. In my novel, Julep O'Toole: Miss Independent, Julep and her mom tussle at every turn, fighting about clothes, make-up, cell phones, etc. It was important to me not to put the burden on the parent to solve the problem. I wanted Julep to find a creative way to connect with her mother. And she does! Instead of talking, which always seemed to end in an argument, Julep gives her mom a friendship journal. They pass the journal between them, expressing the things on paper they cannot seem to say face to face.

In my forthcoming book, Stealing Popular (Aladdin MIX, Sept., 2012), the main character's mother has all but abandoned her daughter for a career as a travel writer. Twelve-year-old Coco Sherwood is a budding artist and ends up spilling out most of her troubles to an old portrait she drew of her mom many years ago. Given the way I'd been raised, writing one particular scene was difficult for me. Her world falling apart, a desperate Coco calls her mother, who is on the road again. Coco is eager to hear her mom's advice, but her mom is quick to brush her off. As usual, she has no time to talk. It's a pivotal moment for Coco. Hanging up, she realizes her mom has made a choice, and it doesn't include participating in Coco's life. Sitting on the edge of her bed in the middle of the night, the phone still in her hand, Coco thinks ...

"My mother wasn't going to call me back. Not tomorrow her time. Or my time. Or any time. Some gripping experience like zip-lining across a giant canyon or cooking octopus with a world-class chef would come up and she would 'forget.' In a week or so, she might send me a text. And in six months I would get something nice in the mail. The text would be short and unapologetic. The something nice would be unique and completely wrong for me. What was I thinking? I shouldn't have called her."

Writing that, I cried for Coco. I cried for all that didn't she have and for all that I did have.

Parents have so much power. To lift you up. Or bring you down. To open the world up to you. Or to close it off.

I am so grateful to my parents for instilling in me the joy of reading, for nurturing my passion for writing, and for giving me the gift of trying. More than anything, I am grateful to have had in abundance the one thing every child wants from their mom and dad. Love. Pure love.

Here they are: my parents, Dean and Shirley Strain. They just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Still happy. Still in love. Still inspiring their daughter.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

Love, Trudi
    (and Squawky)

Friday, May 4, 2012

On Writing Inspirational Work for Kids (Zondervan Guest Post)

Naomi Kinsman, a regular blogger here at Smack Dab, is a Zondervan author (Zondervan is an inspirational imprint of HarperCollins).  Some of Naomi's pub siblings have kindly joined us today, to discuss what they consider to be the most challenging and / or rewarding part of writing inspirational material for kids.


 When I wrote Summer of the Wolves, I wasn’t trying to be didactic or inspirational. I was just trying to tell a story. On a trip with a friend to a ranch in western North Carolina, I became fascinated with some hybrid wolf dogs, especially one wolf who was terrified of people. I also saw a family with two daughters, one of whom seemed as shy and miserable as the wolf. My heart went out to her. I decided to make up a story combining the wolves and the family.

What engages me most as a writer is a character’s inner conflict; that is, what is the right thing to do in this situation? And do I have the courage to do it? Writing about characters’ inner conflicts gives me a chance to explore some of my own questions about how we live our lives. I think that many writers write, not because they have the answers to life’s big questions, but because they struggle with them. And maybe readers identify because they struggle too.

I grow to love my characters and want them to find love, either from parents, friends, partners, or God. I believe that God loves us and that love is the most powerful force in our world. One of the questions I often ask myself is, how can we learn to live together on this earth and love each other?  And that's the question that my characters struggle within the Sisters in All Seasons series.

If my writing inspires or uplifts others, I’m very happy to learn that. But I don’t set out to be inspiring or didactic. I just try to tell an engaging story, and explore some of my own questions in the process. 

For this type of series the challenge of writing inspirational was particularly difficult. Hoping for a broad audience, I mainly sought to show that faith is a part of Linus and Ophelia's life. So it's really just organic to who they are and not particularly a theme. The rewarding part is just writing for kids in general. I've been enjoying the writing of this series so much. Giving kids positive exposure to great literature is a reward in and of itself. While there's fantasy and adventure in Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I love the fact that readers will be introduced to interesting characters and hopefully, one day when they're assigned the work in a literature class they'll approach it with a positive feeling.


Being real. That’s the big challenge of writing for kids. Real enough to avoid getting shallow or trite with the story. Real enough to relate to middle grade readers in a deeper way.  Real enough to create characters and situations readers fully relate to.  And to do it in a way that totally grips readers. 

The rewarding part is twofold.  The reward is in the writing.  Creating characters I truly care about, and a story that moves me to laugh and cry.  And the reward is in the reactions.  When readers gush about how much they loved the book—that goes way beyond whatever advance I got for writing it.  

A recent Code of Silence reader glared at me in a teasing way. She was almost done with the book—but didn’t want it to end. She put her hands on her hips and told me to get busy on the sequel. Okay, I admit it ... that’s rewarding.

Thanks so much for stopping by Smack Dab, guys!

Thursday, May 3, 2012


One of the wonderful things about writing for the middle grade audience is the opportunity it provides to explore parent-child relationships. Parents matter a great deal at ages 8 -12, and while a good story requires an independent hero, those parents are there, in the background, informing all of that hero’s opinions and decisions. Even absent parents (of which there are an abundance in middle grade literature) have a strong influence. So it is with great joy that I have embraced the challenge in my own writing. And of course I bring my own particular life experiences to that task.

I had the great fortune of being born to a set of loving parents whose priority was most definitely “the children.” I was loved and read to and nurtured and encouraged in my every endeavor. In fact, my first pieces of writing were actually love poems – to my mother. So it really should come as no surprise that my first novel LEAVING GEE’S BEND is also, at its most basic, a love poem to my mother. It’s about a girl who loves her mama more than anything. She sets out on a grand adventure to save her mother’s life (sick parent=absent parent), and along the way becomes more independent, more of her own person. But Mama is with her always, whispering words of wisdom into her ear. Daddy is there too, but not as powerful a force as Mama.

Things are different in DON’T FEED THE BOY. Whit’s parents are zoo people, passionate about what they do, and they didn’t exactly plan to have a baby. Whit feels this keenly, even though his parents are caring. He feels especially estranged from his mother who is the zoo director and often distracted by her work with exotic animals. Whit feels like he comes last, and it affects his outlook and his journey. The story revolves around this tension between parent and child as Whit tried to find his own place in the world, not the place his parents have set for him. It’s the beginning of the process we all go through as we separate and become our own unique selves.

So, for me, as a writer of middle grade fiction, parental characters are a great tool. I use them to shape my hero and her story. Parents are the main source of motivation for my main characters, and often the primary source of conflict.

Just like in real life.  

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Don't Feed the Boy by Irene Latham

Don't Feed the Boy

by Irene Latham

Giveaway ends June 12, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May theme: Family

If you start a book, do you almost always finish it? Even if you aren't in love with it? My mom is like that. In contrast, I'm the kind of reader who must be grabbed bigtime within about a dozen pages or I set a book aside and move on to a new one. I mean to get back to that first book--I really do. But I rarely crack it open again.

Do you read literary books? The Oprah Book Club kind of books? My mom does. I read YA novels, chapter books, picture books, and nonfiction.

We may not have the same taste in books or the same reading styles or attention spans. But my mom is the reason I'm a reader. And by extension, she's probably at least part of the reason I'm a writer.

She led by example, incorporating books into our daily lives when we were kids. She read. So I read. She went to the library and took us with her, so going to the library became a natural thing for me to do as an adult. She read to us at night: Stuart Little, Eloise, Mary Poppins, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

Our May theme here at Smack Dab in the Middle is "Family." My mom is absolutely the first person who popped into my head when I thought of family + books. Did a member of your family encourage you to read (or not to read) when you were young? Who was it, and how did they influence you?

Joan Holub is the co-author
of the
Goddess Girls series
with Suzanne Williams,
and the author of Zero the Hero.