Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Ordinary Inspired Life

The inspiration for all my books has come from very ordinary, every day experiences.

The character of Ratchet was inspired by my knowledge of how to take apart and put together a small engine. 

My inspiration for Abigail came from my awkwardness during my own childhood.

The inspiration for Just Like Me came from my daughter's experience as an Asian adopted by an American family.

The inspiration to write a book set in the Okefenokee Swamp came from my own fascination with this mysterious place full of history and folklore.

The character of Samantha, who visits her grandma at a condo complex in Florida, came from my own summer experience of spending time at a similar place.

The early reader series I am currently working on is inspired by Ginger, our five-pound, 
Toy Cockapoo.

Finding ideas to write about is not magic. All it takes is paying attention to experiences, memories, and interesting people and places. And once you get into the habit of doing that, you'll realize there are amazing ideas around every ordinary twist and turn of your daily life.

Happy Reading & Writing,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Origin of Writing Ideas

I would like to think that ideas for novels arise from some fantastical, magical place. In stardust that makes its way to earth, from the roots of a dream in full slumber under a full moon, beneath an old stone bridge in the cold creek rushing by.

The truth is – ideas come from everywhere. For me, it’s often in the most common of places. And quite often, in inopportune places. The shower, for example, or during a family meal. During a midday nap. Or an outdoor jog. Times when I can’t easily or not-rudely reach for a pen or my phone to sketch down the idea. In which I profess to myself, “I’ll remember that idea even if I don’t write it down.”

Sometimes I don’t remember that idea if I don’t write it down.

Okay, most of the time I don’t remember that idea if I don’t write it down.

I suppose the good news is that ideas are renewable. They replenish as we live life and go about our most normal of days. Sometimes I think these are the best ideas – not the magical ones just above reach – but rather the ones that relate to everyday life and people.

To be a good writer, you also have to be many other things. You have to gain experience and meet new people and engage yourself in the world. Sometimes, out of your comfort zone. It’s how we bend and change and learn the world – and also learn ourselves. It is in these places that the best writing ideas come from, I think.

Simply living our lives.

The good news? That means we all have the chance to become a writer, and to stay a writer.

Just keep living.

Happy reading!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Writing is a lot like skating, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

This month, we're reflecting on how we get started on projects -- research, new books, revisions. This topic always makes me think of ice skating, which I did as a kid and teenager for many years. Often when I'm at my desk, hands on the keyboard, working on whatever I'm working on, I think back to those practice sessions on the ice. The enormous concentration it took, the many times I fell while learning a new skill, and the dedication it required. A lot like writing.

Actually, a lot like learning and attempting to master anything -- an instrument, a sport, an artistic pursuit.

Whenever I first glided onto the ice, there was always a little thrill that ran through me. I would think about how I was balanced on a 3/16 of an inch piece of metal, a fact which seemed to defy logic. Feeling the cool air on my face, holding out my arms, then pumping, picking up speed, finally circling the rink in a whoosh. It honestly took my breath away and I loved being out there.

I try to remember that feeling when I'm getting started on a writing project, because it's essential. That thrill and passion I had then for something I loved to do. Because there are times that ten-page edit letter can feel insurmountable to tackle, or I'm stuck on a difficult revision.

For my new middle grade novel releasing this spring, Hello from Renn Lake, the way I began drafting was not the way I ended up writing the story. I knew my first draft was missing thrill and passion -- that whoosh. Initially, the story was alternately narrated by two girls who weren't friends, one of whom had been an abandoned infant, and the focus was on the search for her origins.

But as I thought more, that wasn't exactly the story I wanted to tell. Abandonment was part of it, but I realized it wasn't about searching, but about the girl putting down roots in the place she was left. I wondered, as I started to feel that whoosh, what if we aren't able to find an answer to our deepest, most troubling question? How do we come to terms with that?

That moment led to a different story, including the girl's connection with the lake in the town, and her unwillingness to abandon it after it's closed due to a harmful algae bloom.

And I knew the lake needed to narrate the story as well as the girl.

I glided through the next draft, writing it in a few months. I'm so excited for this book to jump into the world on May 26. It's a definite whoosh.

Find Michele online at

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Whole Lotta Ideas

Where do ideas come from?  Everywhere. Friends, Family, Nature. Love. Music. History. Write what you love in a way that makes your readers understand why you love it. Make them fall in love with it, too.

This Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love in all its inspirational forms.

‘I should not dare to leave my friend’
--Emily Dickenson (1830 – 1886) Complete Poems. 1924

I should not dare to leave my friend,
Because—because if he should die
While I was gone—and I—too late—
Should reach the Heart that wanted me—

If I should disappoint the eyes
That hunted—hunted so—to see—
And could not bear to shut until
They ‘noticed’ me—they noticed me—

Here’s a view of the handwritten manuscript housed at the Houghton Library, the Emily Dickenson Archive.

Listen to David Sylvian sing a haunting version of the poem.

The Soote Season
--Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516-1547)

The soote season, that bud and blome furth bringes,
With grene hath clad the hill and eke the vale:
The nightingale with fethers new she singes:
The turtle to her make hath tolde her tale:
Somer is come, for euery spray nowe springes,
The hart hath hong his olde hed on the pale:
The buck in brake his winter cote he flinges:
The fishes flote with newe repaired scale.

One of the first sonnets written in English, this poem describes the coming of summer and the various ways in which a world previously in a sort of stasis or hibernation is now springing into life. (‘Soote’ in ‘Soote Season’ means ‘sweet’.) For the full poem, see here.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
-- E. E. Cummings  (1894-1962) From Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Listen to e.e. cummings recite his poem here.

For the musical version,  this video comes from Beauty and the Beast (1987), with the indomitable Ron Perlman reciting the poem to Lisa Angelle's song, The First Time I Loved Forever. 

What is your favorite inspiration?

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ideas Are Everywhere, by Chris Tebbetts

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from kids has always been, “Where do your ideas come from?”

I think part of this is because getting started can feel like an insurmountable obstacle for some young writing students (not to mention their adult counterparts!). On the one hand, kids have a kind of direct line to their own imaginations that I only wish I still had. But on the other hand, when it comes to translating that imagination into a written story, the process can be a bit mysterious, or even overwhelming. 

So I've put the question right into my author talk, and always cover this with the classes I visit. It starts with the question itself, of course.

And the first answer, I tell my students, is a relatively simple one for me. Where do my ideas come from?

As a writer, I tell them, I’m always on the lookout for ideas--and I always have my radar attuned to the things I see, the people I overhear, and the places I go. Because you never know when an idea is going to reach out and grab you, if you're paying attention.

Put another way, I tell them, I look for ideas in my…. 

And what do I mean by that?

Well, for starters, I think about things that have happened to me in the past, like that time when I was twelve, and my cousin and I got lost in Central Park. I've always thought that might make a good story--or part of one--someday. I think a lot about the things that happened to me when I was the same age as the characters I write about today, and try to mine those memories for material. 

Or maybe there's something I see in my present-day life that piques my curiosity. Like for instance, the day I was driving on a back country road, and saw this giant pink thing (which turned out to be a bean bag chair) just sitting there by itself….

When I see something like this, I tell students, I don't just wonder "What is it?" I think--What's the story here? How might this giant pink beanbag have landed in this spot? Or, what might happen next now that it has? 

And thirdly, I tell them, when I say I get ideas from my future, I’m also saying that I ask myself something that people (not just storytellers) ask themselves all the time.

What if? is the most basic building block we have, when it comes to creating stories. What if I were shrunk down to two inches tall? What if it were always dark on our planet? What if…what if…what if….? And the cool part of that is, it's the kind of thing we do naturally. The trick is to take note of the questions as they pass through our heads, and maybe even write them down for later, so that when it comes time to write a story, you already have a list of ideas that have come to you along the way. 

The point I try to make most of all is that ideas are available to us everywhere and all the time. Which isn't to say that writing--much less getting started--is easy to do. But it can be easier if we stop to notice and take stock of the mountain of potential material in our own lives, just waiting to be noticed. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Roosevelt Banks: Good-Kid-In-Training: New Book From Laurie Calkhoven

I’m delighted to feature a book from former Smack Dab member LAURIE CALKHOVEN who talks about her new novel ROOSEVELT BANKS, GOOD-KID-IN-TRAINING, published in January by Red Chair Press (distributed by Lerner).
Roosevelt Banks cover
When ten-year-old Roosevelt Banks discovers that his two best friends are planning a bike and camping trip, he wants more than anything to go along. There's just one problem―he doesn't have a bike. Roosevelt's parents agree to buy him a bike if he can manage to be good for two whole weeks. How can Roosevelt be good and be the same fun guy his friends want on the camping trip? Trying to be good leads to more trouble than expected―and to the discovery that being a good friend is more important than any bicycle.

1.His parents are American history professors, which explains the family’s penchant for presidential names. Roosevelt’s full name is Roosevelt Theodore Banks. His younger sister is Kennedy Johanna Banks, and their dog is named Millard Fillmore.
2. He writes and illustrates his own stories to express his emotions. When he finds out that his two best friends are going off on a bike/camping trip without him, his reaction is to write a story in which the two boys are almost eaten by a bear – that is until Roosevelt comes to the rescue.
3. Roosevelt is a big-hearted prankster. He wreaks havoc wherever he goes, but that comes from a desire to please his friends and make them laugh.

1.Most of the fun things there are to do in the world are exactly the same things that will get a kid into trouble. Not fair!
2. His desk chair isn’t on wheels and doesn’t swivel. It would be a lot more fun if it did. Just saying.
3. Lima beans, especially when paired with turkey meatloaf. Even Millard Fillmore won’t eat lima beans, and he eats socks (the dog, not the president).
Debbie Palen’s illustrations are a delight, and Kirkus praised the books for its broad humor and nuanced friendships.                   


Laurie Calkhoven has never swallowed a frog, knocked over a rabbit hutch, or sung too loud in music class, but she is the author of more than 50 books for young readers. Recent titles include the G.I. Dog series, and You Should Meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Writing Like a Racecar Driver by Jody Feldman

What do I know about the racecar scene? About as much as I learned from watching the very excellent movie, Ford vs. Ferrari. Don’t let the title nor any preconceived notions stop you from seeing it. This is not your basic driving/racing/hero/villain flick. It’s much more layered and nuanced, with excellent character profiles and sharp storytelling. And it’s based on a significant piece of racing history.

One other thing struck me about the story – and we are now segueing into our February theme, how we start. And that centers on racecar driver Ken Miles’s passion for his craft. Sure, he was a skilled driver; he could go faster than fast, but he could also pinpoint any issue and know exactly how to fix it by simply listening. Ken Miles didn’t just jump behind the steering wheel, ready to speed around the track again and again and again. What made him a legend was his vast knowledge and his depth of preparation.

Yes, you saw that metaphor coming from the distant horizon.

When I start the process of writing a new book – even though I tend to be a plunger – the plunge doesn’t happen until I have copious notes and ideas and diagrams and until I have a solid theme to guide my writing. I come to understand the characters deeply enough to know what kind of pizza they’d order, to know what embarrassing object they may have stashed and where they’re hiding it. I don’t take the time to go through a character questionnaire, but if you asked me anything about them, I could answer.

If my creative engines start revving prematurely (and I do tend to get overexcited about plotting) I hold myself back from writing until I know what the stakes are and how they relate to the theme. I need to know backstories on every character and how they play in to the plot. I need to know what the main character wants, why the MC wants it and what’s in the way of achieving that. Before a word goes down, I need to hear the MC narrating that first sentence to me. And when that first sentence hums like a finely tuned racecar, I’m off and running.
Maybe too fast.
But try and stop me.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

WHEN'S BREAKFAST? -- by Jane Kelley

My father grew up on a farm in Indiana. He insisted on eggs for breakfast and so the rest of us had to have them too. Mom cooked them different ways. But whether they were scrambled, soft boiled, or sunny side up, I couldn't eat them.

I was a reluctant riser. Each morning, by the time I dragged myself to the table, the hot breakfast was cold and unappealing. Mom yelled. I cried. I forced down a few bites before dashing to the school bus. Was it any wonder that I hated eggs?

But here's the thing. I don't really hate eggs. I love to eat them––just not for breakfast. I love breakfast––just not in the morning.

There's a lesson here for writers. Sometimes the moment may not be right for what we're serving.

Just the other day, I read a New York Times article about Claude McKay's novel Romance in Marseille. According to article, the novel contains themes like "queerness, the legacy of slavery, postcolonial African identity that are among those at the forefront of literature today." But those themes weren't acceptable then, so the novel didn't get published for 87 years.

That's decades! That's longer than I expect to live! (Although those mornings shoving yellow bits around my plate certainly felt like they lasted forever.)

So then how do we know if we should persist with a project? How can we predict the future? Well, we can't. There's a difference between serving up eggs and words. Whatever we write will keep––a month, a year, a decade––until we return to it as a wiser person and a better writer. And sometimes, as is true for my current project, the news can make it topical and solve a pesky little plot problem.

Do not despair. Do not give up. Just be prepared to be patient. Keep your eyes open for changes in the world and in yourself-–and for new things to be passionate about. That's important. You'll need to write something else while you're waiting for someone's appetite to awaken.

Monday, February 3, 2020


My latest book DICTIONARY FOR A BETTER WORLD: Poems, Quotes and Anecdotes by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illus. by Mehrdokht Amini, published by Lerner, will be available starting tomorrow Feb. 4. Yay!

"Forms range from the aubade to the villanelle, each explained in a brief caption. Latham and Water’s personal stories are plainspoken and relatable, and the suggested actions, accessible." - Publisher's Weekly, STARRED

"this inclusive, thought-provoking anthology offers a number of entry points for exploring concepts and issues related to identity, social justice, and making a difference." Recommended. - School Library Journal

"A creative and inspirational resource suitable for a broad range of ages and uses." - Kirkus

DICTIONARY Discussion Guide, created by Zestlan Simmons, 2019 Alabama Teacher of the Year

Q & A about DICTIONARY with Irene Latham & Charles Waters

Happy reading!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Smack Dab News

Review Issue Date: February 15, 2020
Online Publish Date: January 21, 2020
Pages: 275
Price ( Hardcover ): $17.99
Publication Date: April 7, 2020
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-939547-62-0
Category: Fiction

With his father missing in action in Vietnam, 11-year-old Jack faces a long, lonely summer at his grandparents' home. While the enthusiasm for life his younger sister, Katy, displays does much to lift his spirits, it's the companionship of his new friend, Jill, that makes all the difference. She's dealing with major problems of her own. Ever since their mother recently struck up a dysfunctional relationship with a manipulative man, Jill's brother, Cody, has turned into a severe bully. Jack and Jill, apparently white, become convinced that the wishes they make over a one-eyed fish they repeatedly catch have real power—but a badly worded wish can seemingly have devastating consequences. Jack's afraid to wish for his father's return from war for fear he might come home dead. Jill's tentative wishes to resolve Cody's nastiness only gradually reveal the true nature of the boy's problems and what the real solution involves. The tale is related in free verse, short lines and spare prose cascading narrowly down the pages, conveying a powerful message of bully management: "Bullies need our permission to / rule over us." This realization is enhanced by insight Jack's own dad provides through a boyhood diary, suggesting that even bullies might need friendship. Although it's set in the 1960s, the story reflects timeless issues that will resonate with modern readers. A fresh, inspiring exploration of a daunting issue. (Historical verse fiction. 9-12)

Just days shy of its release 12 years ago...
 The Gollywhopper Games is finally coming out in audio! The two others in the series will soon follow. Thanks, Recorded Books!