Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Poetry and Pandemic

by Charlotte Bennardo

As our blog indicates, we're supposed to be celebrating National Poetry Month. But... we're all preoccupied with the pandemic of Covid-19. Actually, these two situations pair well:

You could read books of poetry while waiting out the pandemic. It would pass the time and maybe you'll discover new poets whose work you love.

Or, you could write your own poetry, which may help you sort emotions and release some stress.

In my house, we chose to do the later: poetry on our refrigerator. Anyone passing by can mix and match little magnetic words.

I'm sure reading the above has you thinking, "that sounds kind of insulting..." (It says: When women have ideas the sky screams, the world collapses, the sea burns) Yep. In a house of all males, everything turns into an insult or playful dig. It's the only way my sons will enjoy poetry- by making it a funny insult. I'm good with that, because I can give as good as I get:

(Women can no longer love men when their words [are] not poetry).

We've been going back and forth, but there are not enough nouns, adjectives, and verbs (and I don't care what ANYONE says, adverbs are necessary). So, after two weeks, the boys lost interest.

But maybe if I made up more words, wrote them on cut up index cards and used double-sided tape or glue to affix them onto those magnets from dentists, lawn care & other companies that are probably sitting in a junk drawer, instead of simple sentences, I might have enough words to do stanzas or even epics in verse. The words simple enough to make, or you can order magnetic poetry tiles and get the family involved. Who doesn't love a good insult? (and it's writing made fun!)

Hoping you all are well and stay well-


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Real, Live Poets

When most middle grade kids think of poets, they picture...
someone like this. (That's Percy Bysshe Shelley, btw--a pretty cool dude, though he probably doesn't look very exciting to tweens.)

That's why, when I was a middle grade teacher, I loved introducing students to the work of living poets. I once had a class read an entire collection by Billy Collins, and guess what? They loved it! They couldn't believe that poetry could be funny and of-the-moment and conversational. Their idea of poetry had always been something to the tune of, "Art thou a flower, o thou flower?" Or assorted other odes to nature. Not knocking a good ode to nature, but other subjects have been covered since the Romantic period.

And wouldn't you know it? Smack Dabber Irene Latham is a real, live poet! And she's amazing! And she does school visits! She once visited my classroom and dazzled the kids. They hung on her every word. If nothing else, I can confidently say that my students are fully aware that poetry is alive and well.
I'd encourage parents and teachers to make plans now to book a real, live poet such as Irene for a school visit next year.

Happy Poetry Month!

Ginger Rue is the author of the Aleca Zamm series from Aladdin and the Tig Ripley series from Sleeping Bear.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Unblocking the (Writer's) Blocks, by Chris Tebbetts

Here’s my tiny contribution to the lapse in creative focus that so many of us seem to be experiencing at this time: a few thoughts on how to creatively unblock when the writing just won’t flow. 

- Don't take it too seriously.  There's a fine line between "blocked" and "I don't feel like doing this right now."  One of the tough things about writing is doing it when you don't feel like doing it.  In that way, for me, it's like any other job, and some days I write good stuff, and some days, I write terrible stuff -- but I make a goal of  showing up, either way.  

- Write a scene you are really clear about in the story -- something with a lot of energy to it. Even if it's a really bad first draft, and even if you end up throwing out that version later, it will help get you started, and into the story.  

- Give yourself a certain amount of time—5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever—and start writing your story.  It doesn't matter how bad it is. Just keep writing until the time is up.  Whenever I do this, I ALWAYS come up with at least one little thing that I like and can use.   

- Try the above idea when you FIRST wake up, when your mind is clear and you haven't started your day. See what comes out then.

- Do something that is related to your story, but isn't necessarily about drafting the story itself.  For example(s):

Make a list of things you know for sure have to happen in your story.  Then write as much as you know about each of those items. It can be in a list, or paragraph form.  What is the setting? Who is there? What happens in that moment/scene?  What has changed by the end of that moment/scene? (I find things like making lists, and brainstorming, can be a great way to stay productive, especially when coherent prose seems to be out of my reach at the moment.) 

Write a journal entry as one of your characters--something you just make up as you go along, without any need for it to be good or bad.  

Write a dialogue between two or more characters -- just the spoken words, like a script.  Put them in a setting and/or a situation, and just start writing.  Again, it doesn't have to be something that winds up in your finished story, but it can help you explore and figure out their relationship, the way they relate to each other, etc.  

Do some research. Make it easy, but productive -- like googling for news stories that might relate to your story’s subject; or looking for images to illustrate your ideas in progress; or reading up on some part of the story that fascinates you (or conversely, some aspect of the story you know the least about).  For me, casual research like this almost always sparks some new story idea.

- Lastly, as a bit of a tangent, here’s a link to the webinar I recently offered through the Highlights Foundation on the subject of Visual Outlining. That’s something I’ve blogged about on this site before, but this video is a kind of hands-on re-visitation of that topic, and also, for me, includes several techniques that I find useful when drafting that manuscript, or moving that story a bit further along feels out of reach. 

And here’s to a productive Spring-into-Summer, wherever you may find yourself hunkered down! 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Secret Poetry Writing (Holly Schindler)

When I was in high school, I kept a journal. It was the only successful journal I ever managed. Usually, I get a few entries in, and completely lose interest. But this journal, I wrote in nearly every single day.

And every entry was a poem.

I think that journal was so good for me, in so many ways. In the first place, it kept me writing even when I didn't have a bigger project going on. It made me reach for metaphorical ways to describe what had happened to me that day. And because it was a journal, it was never meant to be seen by anyone. Which meant that I felt free to play and experiment.

And, as we all know, play is instrumental to good writing.

If you're looking for a way to stretch your creative muscles and document this strange time in history--and our lives!--I highly recommend trying a poetry journal.

Things to remember:

*Poetry is powerful largely because an emotion (rather than a character) is the star.
*Poetry can strive to turn the mundane into something unique.
*Poetry is short and punchy--two lines? No problem.
*Poetic forms are easily found online. Experiment! Free verse is cool, but why not a villanelle or cinquain?
*Poetry relies on the experimental. Be gutsy!
*Poetry is what you make of it.

Innovate. Document. Create.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Imagination in the Time of Coronavirus: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

Separated from your usual activities--school, work, social life--now is the time to get close to your imagination. Imagination loves introversion, rambling, reflection, and quiet. In our busy lives, we usually keep imagination much farther than six feet away. But now you can hold your imagination in your arms. You can run with it, hand in hand. Have have lunch with it. You can see where it leads you now that you have time to spend with it. No social distancing needed!

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote the famous novel Love in the Time of Cholera.  Maybe someone will write Imagination in the Time of Novel Coronavirus. For that matter--write a coronavirus novel.

Ask what your imagination been telling you all these years. Now you have time to listen.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

NEW MG: Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully

Today, Smack Dab bloggers Holly Schindler and Darlene Beck Jacobson discuss Darlene's latest release, Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully - 

HS: Give us the elevator pitch.

DBJ: This novel in verse crystallizes a boy's worries about his father, who is MIA in Vietnam, and how his family, new best-friend, and a bully unexpectedly help him find the courage to do the right thing, not just the easy thing. 

HS: Why the novel in verse? Did you know from the get-go you’d do a novel-in-verse? Or as you wrote, did it become apparent it needed to be?

DBJ: The main character – JACK – spoke to me in a stream-of-consciousness style, no frills just raw and bare emotions and thoughts spilled onto the page as he told me his story. Free verse seemed the perfect format for that.

HS: You’ve written historical fiction before. This time, though, the “historical” is a lot closer to all of us adult writers! How did the drafting of two books compare, in terms of making a bygone time feel real to young readers?

DBJ: The first book – WHEELS OF CHANGE – involved a lot of research online and to historical sites to get the feel of the 1908 Washington, DC setting. WISHES is set in 1964, which required me to channel my own childhood.  Recalling the era I grew up in came easy. I think that’s why the writing and revision was easier as well. Many of the things I enjoyed as an eleven year old are in the story.

HS: Poetry seems so intimidating to so many adults! Do you think the same is true of younger kids? Or do you feel that they connect easier to poetry? How so?

DBJ: I think people might be intimidated about some of the “rules” of poetic forms. The free verse format is looser and allows for a freer structure and arrangement of words and phrases on the page. Once you accept that poetry and verse doesn’t have to rhyme, but needs rhythm, it’s fun to try. The various forms of figurative language help provide that rhythm. I think kids are open to that.

HS: Full disclosure: you and I bounced some ideas back and forth a bit as you were in the revision mode. I actually love the revision process, but some writers prefer the first draft. How about you? What’s your favorite part?

DBJ: I love when the idea springs fresh from the imagination and there’s a strong voice to propel it forward. A voice like Jacks, which never wavered or quieted, until I got the story right. That was a first for me. Usually I have an idea, concept, basic storyline, that I fill in with characters and details. For me, that is a much harder format to sustain through a first draft. Give me a character with a strong and determined voice and I’ll run with it. It makes everything from first draft to revisions so much easier.

HS: What does poetry allow you to do that prose can’t—and vice versa? What did you find liberating about a novel-in-verse? What did you find confining?

DBJ: The novel-in-verse format really gets to the heart of the matter. It allows the characters to bring conflict/worries/problems out into the open without a lot of scene setting and back story. Dialogue doesn’t have to be in quotes, and words are laid out in unusual ways on the page. For me that was liberating, rather than confining.

HS: What’s next?

SBJ: I am in the early stages of a middle grade contemporary novel in verse.

HS: Favorite passage / poem from WISHES?

DBJ: There were a few, but this one really resonated with me, and I think it would with kids as well:

When I was Katy’s age, I used to be
afraid of the dark.
Shadows on the wall from cars passing by,
flashing headlights
sounds of the night
made me bury my face under the covers.

I imagined all the scary things I couldn’t see,
waiting to get me
if I wasn’t watchful. One night,
I woke up crying after a nightmare,
screaming for the monsters to go away.

Mom and Dad rushed into the room. Dad pulled
me onto his lap, rocking me
until I stopped crying.
He asked me where
the scary places were. As I pointed out each one,
he pointed a flashlight beam on it.
This is what it looks like
in the light, he said. No matter how many times
we turn off the light, it doesn’t change. He
handed the light to me and
told me to shine it wherever I thought
the scary things were. I moved the beam in all
the corners
under the bed
inside the closet
behind the door
flicking it on and off until I was satisfied.

Then Dad said,
remember in the dark what you learn in the light.

The dark doesn’t scare me anymore,
but sometimes,
times like this,
it makes me sad.

Thanks for having me on the blog Holly. I really enjoyed talking about WISHES, DARES AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY and hope readers did as well.

Darlene Beck Jacobson is a former teacher and speech therapist who has loved writing since she was a girl.  She is also a lover of history and can often be found mining dusty closets and drawers in search of skeletons from her past. She enjoys adding these bits of her ancestry to stories such as her award-winning middle grade historical novel WHEELS OF CHANGE (Creston 2014) and WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY (Creston 2020).
                Darlene lives and writes her stories in New Jersey with her family and a house full of dust bunnies. She’s caught many fish, but has never asked one to grant her a wish. She’s a firm believer in wishes coming true, so she tries to be careful what she wishes for.
                Her blog features recipes, activities, crafts, articles on nature, book reviews, and interviews with children’s book authors and illustrators.
Twitter: @DBeckJacobson

ISBN: 978-1-939547-62-0

Some reviews:
Uniquely original and with an important underlying social message for children ages 8-12, "Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully" is especially and unreservedly recommended for elementary school, middle school, and community library General Fiction collections.   

To see previous post in tour: APRIL 7 (BOOK BIRTHDAY)

Win a copy of the book:



Monday, April 20, 2020

What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer

For poetry month, I thought I'd highlight one of my all-time favorite books - What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer.
What I Believe is the story of a girl named Vicki whose father loses his job. As a result, her family's life changes dramatically, and she finds herself having to handle a whole new set of circumstances. But when her jobless dad ends up finally walking out on the family, Vicki's situation takes an even more dramatic turn, and she is faced with a dilemma in which making the right choice seems nearly impossible.

I love this book because the voice of each character is so authentic, and the story itself holds conflict and tension that is, on the surface, very simple; and yet, on an emotional level, deeply layered and heartfelt.

The reason I'm highlighting What I Believe this month in my post is because the entire story is told through poetry. Mazer's use of this device to tell this story is absolutely amazing! With very few words, arranged in such a creative way, she cuts to the heart of Vicki's story, and readers are treated to a front row seat. In one word, it's remarkable. In my opinion, the book is a perfect example of the power of poetry.

Happy April!
Happy Poetry Month!
Happy Reading & Writing!
Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Perks of Isolation

Isolation has always fascinated me in both books and films. What happens when people are taken from their normal or typical routine and forced to face the limits of being alone? 

The Shining. The Haunting of Hill House. Hatchet. The Island of the Blue Dolphins. My Side of the Mountain. Whisper of Death.

These were all some of my favorite books and stories growing up, and even now. The fright and panic is real - but the character that tends to pull through in so many, to not only persevere but to actually thrive - is what is remarkable and keeps me turning the pages. 

We have become versions of some of these characters in this strange new world. Writers perhaps, better than most, know what it’s like to have a day-to-day life working in the in-home office. The kids in the background, the dog scratching at the door or a cat across the keyboard, the phone ringing or TV too loud. We have to work around it without going bananas. 

This time it’s different, though. It’s scary. There’s a ravaging illness that is threatening us and those we love. It is harder. It is difficult to focus and some days, to find the light. 

Still, I believe we will all find that light. By taking are of ourselves, and each other. By not pushing too hard and letting ourselves reflect and read and check in and rest. I deeply hope for the best in that we all find our true, shining character and pull through for ourselves and for each other, even those we have never met or will meet. If we can see in literature how a flawed person takes themselves through isolation, perhaps we, too, can see ourselves doing it, too. 

I think its especially important for young readers, who have yet to experience an event of this magnitude, even in a safe or shorter environment. 

While not middle grade, my first young adult novel, Break the Spell, focused on isolation. I wanted to see what would happen when two troubled teenagers were finally left with nothing but to face the adversities they’d been avoiding for so, so long when they become locked up in the old high school over a long holiday weekend. There are points it brings out their worst, and times it brings out their best. There are times they make cookies or roller-skate down a hallway or simply read and talk. 

I hope, like, at the end of Break the Spell, we all emerge together into the light, ready for a new world. Maybe even a new us. 

Happy Reading!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Q&A with Michele Weber Hurwitz on Hello from Renn Lake

Smack Dab in the Middle blogger Michele Weber Hurwitz can't wait for her new middle grade novel, HELLO FROM RENN LAKE (Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books), to dive into the world on May 26. It's a story of community, youth activism, and fighting for the things you love as 12-year old Annalise Oliver tries to save the lake in her small Wisconsin town after it's closed due to a harmful algal bloom. We asked Michele ten questions about this hopeful and impactful book.

Q: How did you come up with the idea? What was your inspiration?

A: My book ideas always start out as loose threads that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, but then they weave together in my mind. I was inspired by the kids who've been protesting and speaking out on the climate crisis, and harmful algal blooms that have been increasing in all bodies of water. I love lakes, and the entire lake culture, and was saddened to learn that many are not healthy. I also had been thinking about themes of abandonment and roots, both of which ended up as part of Annalise's and Renn Lake's story arcs.

Q: Did you do a lot of research?

A: Yes! Even though this is fiction, my editor and I wanted to make the events as factual and accurate as possible. I researched harmful algal blooms (HABs) online and also worked with extremely helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health. I included an informational section in the back of the book for kids who want to learn more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms, and it's narrated by one of the characters, Annalise's friend Zach.

Q: What is one of your favorite things about this story?

A: That it's not only told by Annalise, but also by Renn Lake and its cousin, a river, Tru. They are both genderless, by the way, which seemed right to me. Having the nature elements as narrators really deepens the plot, as they are able to relay events in a way that human narrators couldn't.

Q: What three words best describe the novel?

A: Inspiring, hopeful, thought-provoking. That might be four words.
Q: Flip to a random page and give us a short teaser.

A: "I've thought long and hard about those four heart chambers. A brilliant design. If one should break, as it must have for Annalise when she was first told about being abandoned, there are still three others to rely on. But what about me and Tru, with our simple heart? What if it breaks?"

Q: Is there a scene that makes you tear up, or laugh?

A: There are many! Annalise's little sister Jess is very funny at times but also makes me tear up. She's tough and spunky but fragile, too. There's a scene at the end where she makes her voice heard and stands up for what the kids have done. I smile and cry at the same time.

Q: Annalise's friends, Maya and Zach, each have some issues going on, but they're all supportive of each other. Did you set out to portray their friendships that way?

A: I did. I specifically didn't want a mean girl or a bully, but kids who had their own problems to work through and still cared for and helped each other. Zach is coming off a recent breakup with his boyfriend and Annalise is a great listener. Maya takes charge and gathers the troops when things seem bleak.

Q: The setting is pure small town Wisconsin. How did you go about making it realistic and accurate?

A: I live in northern Illinois, very close to Wisconsin, and I've spent many summers enjoying Wisconsin's lakes. My younger daughter graduated from UW-Madison and there was a small town I'd drive through when I was going to visit her. Just one main street and a few blocks of houses. There's something about these kinds of towns that fascinate me because many of them have remained unchanged for decades and they give us a glimpse of how life once was. While I was writing, I pictured that town in my mind.

Q: Tell us about the Thought Wall in the office of the lakeside cabins that Annalise's family runs.

A: There was a pizza place everyone went to when I was a teenager where patrons could scribble on the wood tables, and I loved that. The idea that guests who were staying in the lakeside cabins could write messages on the office wall just delighted me because it's so present and not online. It speaks to the plot, too, because the messages change when Renn Lake is closed and the reader gets a sense of how people are reacting -- both positively and negatively.

Q: What do you hope that kids take away from the book?

A: To keep raising their voices about changes we need to make to save our planet. And to do whatever they can in their homes, schools, and communities, no matter how big or small, everything will make a difference. Water, land, trees, and plants are so crucial to the balance of all living things. We need to do a better job of caring for them so the earth is healthy for future generations.

Find out more about HELLO FROM RENN LAKE on Michele's website: and consider pre-ordering from, an online bookstore with a mission to support independent bookstores and give back to communities.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Light Still Shining

Ashley Wolff

Like everyone else, I am sheltering in place. Because I have taught classes online for years, I have been fortunate to not experience much disruption in my classes. However, as a writer, it has been more challenging to make my art during this time of anxiety-producing calamity and deluge of bad news.

While staying informed is a necessity to surviving the crisis, it becomes all too easy to become overwhelmed by it. To be swept away by it. To be defeated by the despair of it.

“The arts are … a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

The light still shining amid all the darkness, however, is the harboring community of writers and artists that share my space. Remember the Taoist principle, noted by Chuang Tzu, “When you open your heart, you get life’s ten thousand sorrows, and ten thousand joys.”

Over these many weeks, with all the ten thousand sorrows we’ve experienced as a nation and world community, many artists – writers, illustrators, storytellers, musicians, editors, librarians, teachers, and more – have started to share their art in all its many forms. And in so doing, they became the ten thousand joys, the candles of light amid the dark night. For example:

Illustrator Ashley Wolff and her incomparable Rufus reminded everyone in every state to Be Strong.

Storyteller Kevin O’Malley invited those in his Facebook sphere to send him ideas, whether about their favorite people or their favorite things, and he responded to making every wish come true! 

Kevin O'Malley

Book Riot offers a list of children authors posting videos of reading their books and offering activities for their young audiences.

O! And look at this treat! Master Storyteller Eric Kimmel reads folktales from around the world!

The great Tomie dePaola reads the story he wrote about his Grandpa Tom!

One of my favorites reads my favorite, Rafe Martin reads his The Rough-Faced Girl!

At Publisher’s Weekly, Alex Green showcases How Kids' Lit Is Responding to the Coronavirus .Updated for the April 14 issue, this list includes Follett’s free e-book platform for schools, Capstone’s interactive web resources, Epic’s free digital library, and more.

Storyline Online streams videos featuring celebrated actors reading children’s books alongside creatively produced illustrations. Readers include Viola Davis, Chris Pine, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, James Earl Jones, Betty White and dozens more. Each book includes supplemental curriculum developed by a credentialed elementary educator, aiming to strengthen comprehension and verbal and written skills for English-language learners.

We Are Teachers offer The Big List of Children’s Authors Doing Online Read-Alouds & Activities. With kids at home and parents looking for educational activities, many of our favorite authors are offering online read-alouds and activities on social media. The list includes over 50 of the best virtual author activities below!

Share your favorite videos and inspirations, whatever it may be. Let's add to the ten thousand joys that bring light in this time of darkness!

--Bobbi Miller

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Book Love in the Time of Caronavirus...

Apologies for the take on LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA...but  I am going to be sharing things that we are all sharing these days as we've taken our book promotion indoors.

 Love in the Time of Cholera

My newest book WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY debuted on April 7, 2020 and since I couldn't have the traditional birthday launch, here are a few things I've been doing to get the word out:

1. Blog tour that began in late March and will end in late April.

2. Made a nine minute video for a classroom teacher to share with her students online. It was for a classroom of 4th graders that was supposed to host a launch event this month.

3. shared posts on FB, Twitter and social media.

4. Will be doing a podcast next week.

5. Hosted several give-aways for the book.

6. Shared curriculum Guides and teacher materials, lessons and workshops on the SCBWI website for teachers to use in virtual classrooms.

7. Participated in the #AuthorsTakeAction movement on social media.

  As to whether any of it will make a difference in terms of exposure or sales is beside the point. Being able to connect with others during this unprecedented time is really the goal.

Being able to share the good news and show "BOOK LOVE" TO other author friends is equally important. While we're "sheltering in place" we can still support one another and the KidLit community by:

1. Reading and sharing good books on our social media sites.
2. Writing and posting reviews for our favorite author's books. 
3. Keeping in touch with author friends and the "family" we have in this community called Children's Literature.

May you all stay safe, be well, and enjoy the wonderful world we are privileged to be a part of. #ALONETOGETHER.

Saturday, April 11, 2020