Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Schools Scents

By Charlotte Bennardo

The most powerful memories of my younger school days is not friends (which I can no longer remember), or any one significant teacher (they came in high school), or even a subject I loved (I started school at four because I'm a November birthday and I struggled up to 7th seventh grade). What stirs the most memories are the smells of returning back to school.

Before computers there were pencils and notebooks. Before nylon backpacks there were school bags. Before there were glue sticks, there was Elmer's White School glue. Before there were copy machines, there were mimeographed ditto sheets. Before Nikes, there were new shoes and canvas gym sneaker. When I sit back with my eyes closed, I can smell those pencils, freshly sharpened, the pine wood shavings forest fragrant. School bags, which looked like little briefcases, had the plastic smell like new pool toys or bouncy balls. Elmer's glue, and even rubber cement had their unique scents; Elmer's had a milky quality and the rubber cement gave off a sharp, alcohol smell. When worksheets were passed out, every kid sniffed them, the ink odor not unpleasant, but strangely attractive. And new shoes! Whether leather or canvas, nothing smells like a new pair. A whiff of any of these scents catapults my mind back to those years, reminding me of both good and sad memories.

The last few times I've been in a school, whether doing a book event like nErDCamp Long Island, or back to school for one of my sons, none of those smells was present. Kind of made me a little sad, it smelled so sterile. Technology has no scent.

But at least there is always the joy of the smell of a new box of Crayola crayons...

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Saturday, August 25, 2018


Each fall, as new school years kick into gear, I’m flooded with feelings of new beginnings. Fresh starts. And how much I love, love, love the fresh start of a new project…

I’ll admit it: I’m a complete idea junkie. I live for those ah-ha! moments. To me, the beginning of a new project is the sweetest part. The middle is always the hardest—the most sluggish. I can sooo easily get distracted by a shiny new idea.

I started keeping idea journals. I had to. It was the only way I could stay on track. I found that if I just wrote down what was on my mind, I could put it aside and refocus on the project in hand.

But in the process, I realized just how invaluable those journals really are.

The thing is, I think that we have passing ideas all the time that would make great books. But we’re usually in the midst of driving to work or doing homework with our kids or a meeting or at the doctor’s office or, or, or…

And then, when we NEED the idea—when we’re looking a new file or a blank page in the face, it feels like great ideas are few and far between.

That’s not true. Like I said, we have ideas ALL THE TIME. But because they haven’t been recorded, we lose them.

Get a journal. I mean it. One of those cheap little wirebound pocket notebooks. Put it in your purse. Or your glove compartment. Or your laptop case. Get a regular-sized notebook and keep it in your desk drawer. Put another in the kitchen. Put one in the bathroom and one by your bed. Pepper your entire home and office space with the things. And write every single idea down.

By “idea,” I’m not just talking about BIG ideas. I don’t just mean over-arching ideas for what a novel will be. I mean passing thoughts. Fragments of ideas. Phrases that might make cool titles. Quick character ideas—maybe a name, or a personality quirk.

Because the thing is, ideas for books don’t just come all at once, fully formed. They come piecemeal. They’re what happens when about a hundred different weird thoughts, fragments all come together into a single cohesive picture.

When you need to start a new project—or you get stuck in a current WIP—gather up all those journals. Start poring through them. Pull out anything that might possibly help. You don’t even have to know why or how—you might just get kind of a tingle of interest. Pull it. Then look at all the pieces you’ve pulled. Brainstorm a connecting thread. You’ll find your next book. Or you’ll work your way out of the corner you’ve written yourself into. I guarantee.

One of the best part about the idea journal is that not only does it wind up saving you when you need it, it also strengthens your imagination. Before you know it, you’ll soon find that you’re an idea junkie, too!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Wrap Yourself in Quotes of Imagination: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

Fall rushes this way with its promise and flurry of new projects, new school year, and new hopes.

This time of year, my mother always took us shopping for new school clothes. What fun it was. In that spirit, here are some of my favorite quotes about imagination. Wrap them around yourself, as you would a new dress, as you venture into Fall.

"What is now proved was once only imagined." --William Blake

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” --Albert Einstein

Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.”  --Albert Einstein

“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” --Terry Pratchett

“Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.” --Philip Jose Farmer

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” --Lewis Carroll

"When I was little, I had an imaginary friend who wasn't allowed to play with me." --Dia Calhoun

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Before the Book: A Conversation with H. M. Bouwman

First, congratulations on your forthcoming book A Tear in the Ocean.   I love to check in with authors in the busy months leading up to publication. Tell me when it’s scheduled to be published?

January 22, 2019.

Let’s start with the burning question: What’s this new book about? 

In another world, a boy, Putnam, and a girl, Artie, run away from their homes and meet up with each other in a sailboat they both think they own—Putnam because he left some money on the beach when he took it, and Artie because she stole it first. By the time they argue about it, they’re far out at sea and stuck with each other. From there they head to the deep south, discover they’re being followed, have adventures, and realize something is terribly wrong with the world.
Meanwhile—or not meanwhile at all, since it happens a hundred years in the past—a girl named Rayel also runs away from home and heads for the deep south, where she experiences both astounding magic and tremendous loss.
Though they are a hundred years apart, these two stories come together (did I mention there’s magic involved?) and Artie, Putnam, and Rayel must save their world together.

I understand this new book is a companion to A Crack in the Sea.  I’m curious about the distinction for you between a companion and a sequel.  Will readers need to have read A Crack in the Sea to enter this book.  Is there a desired reading order? 

No, you don’t have to read one to read the other! A companion book is simply set in the same world as the first book—in this case, the second world of A Crack in the Sea, with the Islands and Raftworld.
            There isn’t a necessary reading order for the books, either. I want to say that you should read Crack in the Sea first, if possible, and then Tear in the Ocean. But that’s because that’s the order I wrote them. Readers don’t need to follow that order! It seems to me that companion novels simply benefit from rubbing against each other, like flint and steel—the order isn’t that significant. And in fact, reading them in a different order than the author wrote them might be really interesting.
            For those who have read Crack in the Sea, I’ll say this: there are some things you’ll know about Putnam that others will not…so try not to give things away! You’ll see a few characters from Crack in the new novel, too: Putnam, of course; and Jupiter makes a brief appearance. And there’s one other person I won’t name, because I’m wondering how many people will notice. Let me know if you find this last person.

You’ve mentioned that fairy tales influenced the book.  Were you attracted to the content or structure?  Or some other quality of fairy tales?   Were you a reader of fairy tales as a child? 

I love fairy tales, and yes, I read a lot of them as a child. We had a Jaro Hess print on our wall—The Land of Make-Believe (which is also on my website!) and my sisters and I used to trace the road with our index finger and talk about where we’d live in the painting…often after we were supposed to be in bed and asleep. I still have this print on my wall as an adult, and I stare at it often, daydreaming. It’s faded considerably over the years, but it’s still snug in the frame my grandfather made for it when he framed it for my mom and her siblings.
            I loved the content of fairy tales, the stories—the stories in that Hess painting and all the others, too—but as an adult I’ve come to appreciate the structure of fairy tales as well. More to the point, I like the feel of a fairy tale. When I write I’m not trying to replicate the structure in any regimented way; I’m just trying to recapture how fairy tales feel; and how, when we listen to them, we accept the magic as a matter of course and move forward from there.

How did the book evolve for you during the writing and revision process? 

The book started with a question from Crack in the Sea: if the ocean is sweet (as it is and as it has to be in Crack), then how did it get that way? Ultimately I didn’t exactly write that story, but that is where it started, with a question about how the world worked.
            I knew too that I wanted a story about transformation: the transformations caused by trauma as well the transformations that can happen with recovery. I was thinking about transformation in a very literal way, so I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses (…okay, mostly I read Ted Hughes’s gorgeous and shorter version of this very long work, but I also dabbled in several translations). Ovid’s epic poem is all about transformation: people turn into animals, into trees, into water—so many changes. And of course I re-read fairy tales about transformation. There are so many!
            After that it was really a matter of thinking about what really needed to transform in this book. Where were the big moments of change? And how would these changes manifest in the world of this book?
            (I’m sorry to be a bit vague here—I’m trying not to do any spoilers!)

The months leading up to a book release are incredibly busy with work that happens behind the scenes.  Could you talk a bit about what you’ll be doing in the next few months to prepare the book for publication? 

I’m a full-time college professor, so I’ll be teaching! Beyond that, I’ll be setting up school and library visits (…you can contact me through my website…) and arranging as much travel as I’m able to do while still teaching. And of course, I’m working on my next book. J

Books take a lot of time, and often those that share our worlds have to wait while we do the work.  I know you’ve written in the company of cats and kids and loyal writing pals.   Any stories from that process to share with fellow writers and readers? 

I’ve been really lucky in that while I’ve been writing, my kids have been reading and loving stories. I’ve read all my manuscripts aloud to them them while the books are still in draft form (usually right before I send them off to my agent). My kids are the kindest and most supportive readers you can imagine. I have critique partners, too—grownup amazing writer friends who read my work and give me honest and often difficult feedback that helps me revise—but having these two young people who love me and shower me with undiluted praise for my stories? That’s crucial. It’s magic.

I can’t wait to be in the audience for the release of this book.  Where can readers follow your news? 

You can find publication information on my website blog, which I update…quite infrequently, honestly. But I do list upcoming books and publication dates there: For more frequent updates and a cringe-worthy number of cat photos, you might check Facebook (Heather Bouwman) or Twitter (hmbouwman).

Sheila O'Connor is the author of five novels, including her most recent middle-grade novel, Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth 

Monday, August 20, 2018

School Supplies: Guilty Pleasure or Creative Inspiration?

Back-to-school time brings one of my favorite things into the limelight - School Supplies.  I loved them when I was a kid.  I loved them when I was a teacher.  And, even though I don't head back to school anymore, every fall I still love school supply season just as much as I always have.

I have one daughter who is still in high school, and though high schoolers don't need crayons and scissors and glue, I'm glad they need notebooks, folders, and planners because that means I still get to enjoy real back-to-school shopping for a few more years.  High schoolers are of course more than capable of shopping for their own school supplies, but even so, I eagerly volunteer to accompany my daughter as she peruses the back-to-school aisles of our favorite stores comparing prices, colors, and designs.  And while she chooses what she needs, I drool over all the things I want - bright-colored sticky notes in different shapes and sizes, cool accordion-style file folder pouches, and plastic packages full of pencils.  Oh how I love the pencils!  Those long, colorful, real-wood pencils with the brand new erasers that haven't erased even the faintest pencil mark.

Some people might think the purchasing I do of the unnecessary school supplies I drool over sounds like a guilty pleasure, which I guess is technically true since I usually don't really need any of the things I buy.  (I mean, you should see my office.)  But for me, I find that all these brand new, full-of-potential pencils, fancy file folders, and slick sticky notes somehow feed my creative soul.  The sticky notes make me want to mark up my current work-in-progress with all kinds of revisions and notes to myself.  The accordion-style file folder pouches make me want to organize new ideas I have for future projects.  And those pencils are just begging me to sharpen them up with the electric pencil sharpener in my office so that I can fill up a new spiral notebook with the details I have for that new character who's been stumbling around in my brain just waiting for me to give them life.

So, guilty pleasure?  Maybe.

Creative inspiration?  Definitely!

Happy Back-to-School Season to All!

Wishing everyone a year full of creative inspiration!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Most Asked Question

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Oh, how I wish I knew.

See if I knew, I could actually manage and manipulate my ideas. Not to mention control the plot bunnies that tend to run away with my works in progress.

I also wish I had a good answer. That I could say my ideas from the hollowed-out ancient oak tree in the middle of the woods where I grew up. Or maybe on the pads of feet of little gray kittens with eyes of two different colors. Perhaps from behind the trap door in the basement of my grandma’s old cottage on the Wisconsin River.

They don’t.

Most of them arrive scattered and half-formed. Typically in the form of a voice of an insistent main character with a story to tell. There is a sentence, or a half-formed paragraph, a misty plot with a vague ending.
I am the story teller.

It is my task to take the roughly-formed idea and actually turn it into something.

My ideas tend to range from the darker sides of growing up with a sassy young girl coming of age to lighter mysteries of stubborn cats with a gleam in their eyes and a passion for crime reporting. I’ve started a variety of manuscripts that had a lot to tell me to begin with, but aren’t quite ready to provide the ending. Sometimes it takes me years to finish these – the stories comes as they are ready to be told.

I’ve never been able to force my writing.

Which isn’t to say I don’t write on a regular basis or wait around for the perfect idea. There are days I don’t want to write, but do, and I feel better for it. There’s always something better that comes from writing versus not at all.

So where do my ideas come from?

Me. Simply stated, they are my dreams and my passions, my experiences, and those I’ve yet to encounter. They are who I was, and who I am, and who I will be. They are the people and pets I have met, those I want to meet, and those I hope I have yet to meet.

They are the volumes of stories I’ve always wanted to share. 

Happy reading!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Getting Ideas from . . . School

This month's blog theme is a double one: 1) where we get our ideas; and 2) heading back to school. For me, this combo is extra-perfect because where I get the vast majority of my book ideas is . . . school!

My specialty is writing school stories. I loved school as a child, and I want to share this love of school with kids through books that celebrate the school experience. So I tell the kids in the audience for my author visits that I come to their school as a spy, snooping around for book ideas. I always try to squeeze in time to walk up and down the halls, thrilled to see their completed projects on display, each one a possible story-sparker.

One school's bulletin board featured kids' essays answering the question, "How would you change the world?" BINGO! I hurried home and started writing How Oliver Olson Changed the World.
School readathons provided plenty of material for Kelsey Green, Reading Queen.
Shamelessly I borrow brilliant ideas from my own sons' elementary and middle-school teachers. An assignment to keep a diary in the persona of a Civil War-era character was the seed for The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish. The annual "biography tea" became Being Teddy Roosevelt.
One of the sweetest moments in my writing career came last year when a school in Virginia invited me to join them for the tenth anniversary of their biography tea, inspired by the biography tea in my book, which was inspired by the biography tea at my boys' elementary school here in Colorado. I loved so much that the brainchild of one amazing fifth-grade teacher in Boulder, Colorado, could have such fertile results, spanning thousands of miles and ten whole years, thanks to the power of real-life school to become transformed into story.

Hooray for school!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Summer is in Session!

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

-- Summer Sun by Robert Louis Stevenson

 Summer time! The perfect time for new adventures, new beginnings, and new things! Besides beginning my third term teaching MFA grad students and learning all this new techno-stuff, I continue to search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft. And to that end, let me tell you about a new discovery, Donald Maass’ book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next. The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters. If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Maass explores the emotional modes of writing, and demonstrates how to “how to use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones...

“Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.”

In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

With this in mind, Maass explores three primary paths that an author can use to create this emotional experience.

One. Report what characters are feeling, using language and images that evoke feeling. As we know, words can have multiple meanings. The denotative meaning is the explicit definition as listed in a dictionary. Childhood, for example, means the state of being a child. However, the emotional weight, or the expressiveness of language, comes from the connotative meaning. The connotation of the word impacts the tone and themes of the narrative. When Dorothy says "there's no place like home," she is referring to the emotional impact of her family. Because fiction is an emotional exchange, a writer chooses words to create a larger emotional impact. Maass calls this the inner mode, the telling of emotions.

Two. Imply the characters emotional – or inner – state through external action. Maass calls this the outer mode, the showing of emotions.

“Like billiard balls colliding … a character’s actions transfer an emotional impact to the reader, who feels it with equal force, and the reader caroms across the table.”

Three. Create an emotional dialogue between author and reader. Maass calls this the other mode, in which readers feel something that a character does not feel. The reader reacts, resists and sometimes succumbs, but “…she can never escape the churn and flow of her own feelings.”

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, a character does not always understand her behavior. This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect. What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.” A character’s confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.

Human beings are complex, messy, flimsy, brave, heroic, cowardly and courageous and infinitely interesting. Emotions skim the surface and run deep, creating conflict and contradictions in the character’s life. When an author masters this emotional connection in her writing, it becomes the difference between a reader simply reading the story, and experiencing the story.

Story – whether in prose or verse – can do things, Maass reminds us, that no other art form can. It engages the imagination on a deeper level. It can stir hearts and bring about change in a way that other art forms rarely achieve.

“Writing a novel is itself an emotional journey akin to falling in love, living together, hating each other, separating, reconciling, gaining perspective, accepting each other, and finally finding deep and abiding love. Writing fiction is like living…The emotional craft of fiction is a set of tools, yes, but more than anything it’s an instrument beyond the range of any book: the gracious gift of your own loving heart.”

Hope you are enjoying your summer!

Bobbi Miller

The importance of classroom libraries, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

"A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn't a flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way one became a reader." -- Nancie Atwell, esteemed educator and author

I read this quote in a post on Nerdy Book Club by an elementary school principal in Michigan, Jim Bailey, who has made it a priority to have well-stocked libraries in each and every classroom. As we're talking about going back to school this month on Smack Dab -- and the often-asked question authors get when we visit -- where do you get your ideas? -- it struck me how Bailey's idea for getting books into classrooms is nothing short of brilliant.

Bailey felt there was a direct link between classroom libraries and reading motivation, reading achievement, and reading engagement, so he went through his budget line by line and asked himself, "Is this program or resource better at raising student achievement than putting a book in a student's hand? If the answer was no, then I had just found money to support classroom libraries."

In fact, Bailey was able to find thousands of dollars in his budget by eliminating items such as purchasing the Accelerated Reader program and its prize incentives, as well as buying workbooks that he felt contained pages and pages of busy work. Then, at a staff training session prior to the first day of school, Bailey gave each teacher a $100 Barnes and Noble gift card to spend on books for their classroom (plus a $5 card for coffee), and the entire group took a field trip to B&N.

Several teachers cried, they were so excited, Bailey said, and many texted him photos of the books they were buying. He said that this decision completely changed the culture at his school. They have committed to reading -- real reading -- not comprehension quizzes or endless worksheets or scripted lessons. "We were showing what we truly valued with our time and money. Our students!" he said.

Every school should be so lucky to have a principal like Jim Bailey, but many don't even have programs to eliminate to find money for classroom libraries.

But as my mom always said -- Where there's a will, there's a way.

My local thrift shop has piles of gently used books, often for less than a dollar. There are similar book bargains nationwide at Goodwill stores. Bernie's Book Bank is a literacy initiative that distributes free new and used books to schools in need throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. And public libraries often have used book sales where books can be purchased at super low prices. With a little digging, free and low-cost books can be found!

I'd like to help two classrooms! If you are a middle grade teacher or know of one with a classroom in need of books, please leave a comment below. Two classrooms will be randomly chosen to each receive a copy of my newest middle grade novel, Ethan Marcus Stands Up. (U.S. addresses only.) Good luck!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, from Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, and Simon and Schuster/Aladdin. More on Michele at

Monday, August 13, 2018

What Do I Know To Be True? by Chris Tebbetts

When I think about the difference between the writer I am today and the writer I was in my own school days (he said, ham-handedly shoe horning his blog post into this month’s topic :-), I’d say that one of the big differences is my relationship to revision. Like a lot of the students I meet these days at author events and school visits, I used to want my my first drafts to also be my last drafts. I wanted to write the book report, or story, or whatever it was once through and be done with it. 

But of course, we all know that’s not how it works. Writing, as they say, is rewriting. And the cool thing about growing into my own adult relationship with that unavoidable truth, is that I’ve come to see how much easier, and even more fun, revision can be as compared to drafting, and to filling those blank pages with ideas, sentences, words…or anything at all! 

The thing I (truthfully) say to kids about revision is that, for me, it’s a bit like I’ve spent all this time creating my puzzle pieces (i.e., my first draft), and now I can really start to play with them—moving them around, rearranging things, and pulling everything into one big (hopefully) cohesive picture. I suppose I run the risk of being seen as a big geek by calling that “the fun part,” but hey, I’ll take it.  

There are, of course, endless tips and tricks to be shared in the topic of revision, but I’ll limit myself to just one here. It’s a question I ask myself all the time, once I have a first draft down and as I’m trying to figure out where to go next. 


This can apply to any aspect of the story I’m working on. What do I know to be true about this scene, this character, this narrative arc, this conflict…? The thing I like about it is that there's no way to not have an answer at any given moment. It’s an immediately achievable thing. And maybe it takes me all the way back to my very basics: I know that my character comes in at the beginning of the scene, and I know he leaves at the end. Period. Okay, well if that’s all I really know, even if that’s less than I wish I knew, it is an honest answer, and it’s a necessary next step in figuring out the rest. 

Or, say, What do I know to be true of my character? Maybe I haven’t figured out what’s motivating that sudden road trip of his. But I know he loves his car, and I know he’s fifteen pounds overweight.  Sometimes the details that don’t feel important in the first-drafting phase get mysteriously promoted by virtue of having shown up. They then find their way more deeply into the story by virtue of being true—if that’s what they ultimately are. True, as in, true to the character, true to the intention of the piece, true to the needs of the story. 

One more version of this can be the way I edit a scene or a chapter.  Instead of what do I know to be true…. What do I know to feel right as I read through what I have? Which sentences, which paragraphs are ringing authentically for me, or making me feel something, or just feel correct in whatever way? As an exercise, I’ll take a passage of text, cut everything else out (i.e., everything that’s not ringing true for me), and start rewriting from there. However disjointed the result is, it gives me a page, or a paragraph, or a sentence of honest bedrock from which to work. 

Sometimes, the idea in revision is to simply keep moving, keep writing, keep revising, until the answers begin to present themselves. And for me, this has been one way to make sure that happens. 

Happy rest of the summer to everyone! Current situation.... 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

I Dreamt I Had an Darlene Beck Jacobson

I am the kind of person who rarely remembers her dreams.  I can wake up after a great dream and try desperately to capture the threads before I get up, often to no avail. So, imagine my surprise, my astonishment, my luck to have a dream about my next book.

Back in May, I'd finished all my writing projects and had spend days wondering what I was going to write about next. No ideas popped into my head, everything I jotted down seemed lame or didn't interest me. Then one morning I woke up with a gift. A writing miracle for this sleeper with the fleeting dreams.

I had a title, a main character, the basic premise and the format for telling the story in my head as I opened my eyes. I also had dozens of words/chapter titles swimming into my thoughts to go along with this. Before I hit the shower, I raced for a notepad and scribbled down everything I'd been reciting over and over again so as not to forget. It wasn't until I filled two pages of a legal pad that I felt secure enough to wash my face and get on with the day. A day filled with excitement and gratitude, and a prayer of thanks.  

Writing ideas come from everywhere, and sometimes they are a gift already opened, waiting to be received.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Apologies from a Once-Wannabe Teacher

from Jody Feldman

Dear Jeff and Mike,

I owe you a decades-old apology for subjecting you to my teacher phase. You may not even remember. I was 9 years old to your 7 and 4 and, that summer, I had apparently become enamored with teaching. Either that, or I’d had enough of those endless summer days and was looking for some mental stimulation. Maybe I had come across an old homework sheet or maybe you had been building towers with our alphabet blocks. Whatever the spark, I was able to fill an hour or two by creating, if memory serves me, a lesson plan of workbook pages and blackboard exercises.

When I’d prepared as well as a 9 year old could, I sat you in front of me, trying to figure out how to get you to do the work. I’m sure you humored me for a few minutes before you got up to run around or until, in frustration, I uttered, “Class dismissed.” I realized you would not be learning from me that day. This may have been the first and last time I considering going into education.

And yet, peripherally, here I am, excited to start a new year of school visits. It’s different when you understand exactly what you have to offer all those kiddos. And it’s so much more fulfilling when you’ve developed a deep enthusiasm for talking about reading and writing, joy and frustration, rejections and successes, and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Oh, and about ideas and inspiration. My answer to that most-asked question, this picture.
Explanation is included in presentations.

Back to that day, all those years ago, when I abandoned my teacher aspirations forever, I didn’t stop to thank you for sending my career in another direction. While I may not have the mettle to be a day-in, day-out teacher, a favorite part of my career—second only to the creative high I get when I latch onto a new idea—is popping in to schools and spending the day talking and, yes, teaching. And this may never have happened if you’d stayed and humored me.

Your sister, Jody

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Just When I Thought I'd Graduated.....Jane Kelley

It's back to school for me.

I thought I had "graduated." Surely after writing for years and having many novels published, writing the next one should be easy. Or if not easy, then easier, right?

(Actually this is my daughter's college graduation.)

This isn't just because of a common misconception.

Writing a novel is messy because the creative process is incomprehensible. Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, I guarantee that your best writing will surprise you. If the reader marvels at how you came up with that fresh idea, then probably you do too.

Does that mean that we are forever doomed to being a new kid with lots to learn? Where's the bathroom? What are the teacher's pet peeves? Who's the bully? Who will be your friend?

Yes. Every novel presents its own challenges. Every novel requires you to learn how to write all over again. I remember, shortly after my first novel was published, being devastated when I heard Katherine Paterson say that. (Yes, KATHERINE PATERSON.)

Can't I learn from any of my mistakes? I've made so many. Aren't they good for something?

I sure hope so. Today, I stare at Draft Three of Version Two. My goal was to write a humor MG novel. Somehow or other it's become a gritty, poignant examination of what it means to dream. To be honest, I don't know what to do with it....except start over.

So it's back to school for me.

Actually a few lessons are still relevant.

1. Show up at your desk. There's no substitute for doing the work.

2. Lay down a foundation. Those beautifully surprising inspirations need to attach to a structure.

3. Have confidence. Students who are told they're smart do better at tests.

4. Find ways to have fun.

Yes I need to learn new things. But I know I can. Starting school again just means I have another chance.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Treasure Chest of Ideas by Deborah Lytton

I think of ideas as precious gems in the treasure chest of my imagination. My ideas come from different places. Some are from observations of real life and some are from my dreams. They come from thoughts of "what if" or "how." Perhaps they come from a place of powerful emotion like joy or pain. Other times, they are part of a message I want to share with readers.

My novel JANE IN BLOOM was inspired by an interview I watched on a news program years ago about children who felt invisible in families where another child needed more attention. I wanted to tell the story of a forgotten sister who was invisible to her family. I thought readers might relate to a character who needed to be seen and heard. The story grew from there. My newest series, RUBY STARR, was inspired by my daughter's request to write a funny story for her. She was in fifth grade at the time, so I started with a fifth grade student who loved reading and viewed the world through the pages in a book. I thought there might be readers who would see themselves in Ruby. The rest of the series came out of that character sketch.

If you find yourself running out of ideas, look into your own memories to see if there is an experience that could give rise to a story. Is there a dream you had for yourself when you were in elementary school or middle school that could be the center of a book? If this doesn't help, ask yourself what you would want to read if you were ten years old. Or where you would want to visit if only for one single night. You can even ask yourself "what if" questions to see if they create inspiration for you.

Your ideas are infinite. Trust in your imagination and keep writing!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Where Writing Ideas Come From, or, What I Did Over Summer Vacation

At school visits, I always kind of marvel over that question, "Where do you get your ideas?" For me, the world -- life -- is bursting with ideas! Finding them is not my problem; choosing -- and sticking to -- just one at a time is! But that's really a discussion for another day.

So today, for the curious, I'll share with you where some of the ideas have come from for some of my books, and also share with you some new ideas that have found me this summer.


coming Oct. 1 with
illus. by Thea Baker
1. BOOKS - Like most authors, I'm an avid reader. So many of my ideas come as a result of reading! My next release LOVE, AGNES: POSTCARDS FROM AN OCTOPUS was inspired by the adult memoir THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS by Sy Montgomery. It started in me an octopus obsession! And all of my
obsessions eventually wind up in my writing. Please note: if you want to broaden yourself as a writer (and person!), broaden your reading habits. Read things you wouldn't normally pick up: say, a mechanics magazine or a book about pig farming or 18th century medical techniques. Who knows what ideas will find you?

2. ART - There's no way around it: art inspires art. Which is why I visit art museums and attend concerts and see movies and attend plays and look at photographs online. My first middle grade novel was inspired the the Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Each year during National Poetry Month I present a poem a day on my blog in a series called ARTSPEAK!, each year on a different art them. (2018 was ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance.) Earlier this summer I visited The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection at Birmingham Museum of Art and was fascinated by these wood carvings of Bible stories. Who knows, maybe I will have a character in a new book who carves stories out
illus. by Anna Wadham
of wood! My book DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST was inspired by Greg du Toit's amazing photographs, which I saw when poking around National Geographic's website. And earlier this summer I took a pine needle basketmaking class AND a painting (sunflowers!) class. Ideas, ideas, ideas!

illus. by Sean Qualls
and Selina Alko
3. CURRENT EVENTS - I am not much of a newshound or TV person, but I do keep up with a little of what's going on in the world. Often this has inspired my books, like CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Poems of Race,
illus. by Mique Moriuchi
Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Quite a few of my forthcoming books are similarly inspired -- including WILD PEACE, which was just announced at Publisher's Weekly.

And it's not always big societal current events that captivate my imagination -- sometimes it's simpler, seasonal joys, like FRESH DELICIOUS, which celebrates the summer farmers' market. Take some time and think about how you're spending your time... what are your daily habits and pleasures? There may be a book idea in there!

4. HISTORY - Some of my books are inspired by my personal
illus. by Stephanie
history, like DON'T FEED THE BOY, which is set at a contemporary zoo and allowed me to draw upon my former aspirations to be a zoo vet and my time as a teen volunteer at the Birmingham Zoo.

Others are inspired by stories I uncover, like the forthcoming MEET MISS FANCY, which centers on a real-life elephant who lived in Birmingham from 1913-1934. I find these stories by reading and listening and visiting historical museums and attending historical programming.
coming January 2019
with illus. by John

This summer, as a way to get to know our new home (we moved this past December), we've visited 4 local historical museums. At the Ashville Museum and Archives, I came away with a calendar celebrating the county's bicentennial, and oh boy, was it packed with ideas just waiting to be fleshed out! I dog-eared quite a few pages for further investigation. You just never know what stories might be hiding in your own backyard.

Here's the thing: you can only be inspired if you lead an inspiring life -- which means you've got to get out in the world and live a life worth writing about. I promise, all the stories are right there waiting for you. Go!
Find out more about Irene Latham and her books at