Saturday, November 28, 2020

...Thank you, Maureen Daly....

 by Charlotte Bennardo

This month, the theme, appropriately, is gratitude for authors. Many of my colleagues are posting thanks for specific authors and the impact they had on their lives. While I had favorites as a child and middle grader, I can't remember them, so I can't argue they had an impact on my life. I think the one author that opened up a whole new world for me was Maureen Daly. 


She is credited with writing the first true Young Adult book, Seventeenth Summer (1942). When I read that book, I felt as if this person understood what it was to be a teen, (especially a teen girl) even though I read it when I was just barely into my teens- 12 or 13 years old. I was grateful that someone wrote a book that I could identify with- it wasn't my mother's book or my little sister's. Looking back, it seemed as though this book opened the genre up not only to me, but to many other readers and the publishing world. 

There were other YA reads before Daly's- Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet could be classified as YA not only because of the age of the protagonists, but let's face, it's got almost every teen drama: parental disapproval, rebellious teens, substance abuse (i.e. 'sleeping' poison), gang fights, and family squabbles, but it may have been mostly read by adults, scholars, and English students. Others considered YA are The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (1967) which has stood the test of time. Books like the Nancy Drew Mysteries and Hardy Boys Mysteries (40's-50's) ghost written by various authors, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951), and Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) were books I never cared about, nor thought about once I read them. Zero impact or love for them. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (1979) horrified me with its themes of incest, filicide (parent killing one's child), and child abuse. Never got past the first book.

There are other early YA books, but another pivotal one for me was Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks (1971). I read the book after the movie came out and for me, the book showed me a different possibility for why Alice died. I felt like I was inside her head more while reading the book. The horror of drug addiction made me leery of being around people who used, promoted, or praised drugs. It forever stayed with me. 

I'm grateful for all the authors who contributed to the YA genre mostly because there have always been books for children and adults, and it seemed as though prior to Maureen Daly's book, Young Adults had little to read specifically for them. Now, lines are blurred; adults read YA and have picture books for themselves, older YA readers have the sub genre of New Adult, and really it seems like everyone is reading whatever they wish, but there is still a genre specifically for them. 

And that's the way it should be. 


"She Talks to Us Just Like We're Real People"

When I was a teenager, I worked occasionally as a babysitter for three sisters. They were all so sweet and fun that it was hardly like a job at all. Amy, the oldest, especially loved hearing my stories about people at my high school and which boy had asked me out on a date and what I'd said and so on and so forth. Her dad told me that after one night of my stories, Amy told him she and her sisters liked me because, "She talks to us just like we're real people!" 

 I've always held that comment dear to my heart because that was the feeling I got when I discovered Judy Blume books. When I read Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, I remember thinking, "She gets it. She really gets what it's like to be this age." So when I began to write for tweens, I tried to keep in mind Amy's comments and how I'd felt about Blume's books.

Fast forward to many years later. My father-in-law was on a sailing adventure taking him through Key West. I asked him to stop in at Judy Blume's bookstore if he had the opportunity. He did. AND HE MET HER. Can you imagine?

And because he's the best FIL ever, he brought me back a very special present. Thirteen-year-old me never knew I'd hold such a treasure in my hands! 


So here's to Amy, Judy, and Quinn (my father-in-law)...and to writing for kids just like they're real people...because they are.



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Grateful for Judy Blume (Schindler)

 I guess you always remember your first, and this one's mine:

It's a picture book about two siblings, both of whom are absolutely convinced are loved less by their parents. It's simple and it's honest--which is a big part of the reason why so many of us '80s kids have such a strong connection to Blume, I think. 

Not only did I connect with the feelings in the book when I was little, the characters were similar. (Some of this might be a bit different depending on the illustrator for your edition). But the book as a whole was about a little boy, an older sister. (Just like my family.) The girl is depicted playing the piano (I had just started taking lessons). The boy was a rascal who liked to destroy his sister's tower blocks. (Oh, yeah.) They even had a cat. 

I saw myself in that book. It was the first time it had ever happened. Blume knew what it was like to be me. That was a comfort like nothing I'd known before. 

I think often that this is the book that did it--sold me on storytelling. I'll always be grateful that The Pain and the Great One came into my life. Because it very well may have shaped my life. Made me not just a reader but a storyteller as well. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Reimagine the Holidays: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

 This Thanksgiving I am grateful I have an imagination. With COVID-19 and the trouble in our country, this holiday season will be different from all the others. We will not be with family or friends celebrating in traditional ways or places. So this year, I am using all the powers of my imagination to reimagine the holidays.

Here is the first and most important step in doing that. Imagine the 2021 holiday season, the 2022 holiday season, and onward. I will reimagine this holiday season so that (with luck) I can have holidays next year and the next and the next. I must hold fast to the picture of celebrating in those future years so I can have the strength to celebrate this holiday in a different way. That takes imagination, seeing into the future to sacrifice something important to me now, holding the long view.

As a culture, we aren't trained to do this. We want instant gratification. With extroversion being the primary value in our society, we have difficulty imagining how we could celebrate the holidays, just this once, in a more intimate and inner way. I am trying to use my imagination to explore what that looks like. My hope is that it can be a unique experience.

Stay tuned. I will let you know in December how well this goes.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Thankful for These Authors

Authors inspire me, and I am thankful for their dedication to creativity and craft.

Here are several that have left a long and lasting impact on my writing and my life:

Beverly Cleary - Who doesn't love a character like Ramona and all the kids who live on Klickitat Street?  These characters inspire me to find and develop the authentic realness of the characters in my own books.

Kate DiCamillo - Is there a better example of the beauty of words than the ones DiCamillo chooses to tell the story of The Tiger Rising?  I don't think so.  Her heartfelt story meets creative word choice, and I am inspired to endeavor to do the same when I write.

Joan Bauer - Do characters and stories full of hope and courage inspire you?  They inspire me, and Hope Was Here is one of the best!  Bauer's writing takes everyday, real-life characters and tells stories full of heart and soul.

Anne Lamott - Do you ever need encouragement when a task seems too big?  Lamott's Bird by Bird reminds readers that every project, big or small, is accomplished little by little by little.  When I'm in the midst of an overwhelming rough draft or frustrating revision, and I've lost my way, I remember I can do it if I just go "bird by bird."

Martha Alderson - What writer doesn't need reminders about creating compelling plots?  My copy of Alderson's The Plot Whisperer is always nearby, especially when I am beginning a new project.  Her training on craft is not just inspiring, but her expert advice is extremely practical and helps me turn my creative, rough-draft thoughts into workable manuscripts with strong, defined plots.

So this Thanksgiving month, I highlight these authors in a gesture of gratitude and appreciation!  Check out their books, and you'll probably want to thank them too!

Happy Reading & Writing,

Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Do or Do Not: It's Okay


Emma D. Dryden

I am grateful for these words.

I’ve written about all the ways I try to keep my head in the game. I continue to take classes, read craft books, and just read in general. Take walks. And garden. I also teach. But it can be dispiriting. I confess, there are moments of late that I have no feel for my writing. Then I find myself feeling all sorts of convoluted messiness that I, as a working writer, should write some pages every day. And when I can’t, I feel like perhaps I never will again.

Everyone knows Emma D. Dryden, whom I value as my own Dumbledore. Emma is a long-time indomitable presence in publishing. Working thirty years in the field, she was Vice President, Publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, imprints of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, a position she held until 2009 when she launched drydenbks.

No one knows more than Emma the ups and downs that each writer faces in pursuit of their craft.

Recently, Emma sent this wisdom. This is my favorite quote of the entire year! It seems so apropos for the struggles we as writers and teachers are facing during these trying times. I thought you may need to hear these encouraging words.

How are you doing, by the way?

--Bobbi Miller

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Gratitude and My Grandma -- by Jennifer Mitchell

The topic this month had my mind going in a million different places, I am grateful for so many authors.  Books have transported me to different times and places over the years and each holds a special spot in my heart.  There is something about a true story, especially an autobiography, that always draws me in though.  After reflecting on it I kept coming back to one book/author that I read to my class every year,  Peg Kehret’s book Small Steps:The Year I got Polio.  This book was an accidental find after reading one of Peg Kehert’s fictional books to my class.  As a class we searched for other books written by her, and I stumbled across Small Steps.  I was instantly drawn to this story because my grandma was stricken with Polio as a young child.  For the rest of her life she wore a leg brace, but you would have never known she had a disability, because much like Peg Kehert, she didn’t let her disability define her.  

To me this book is not only a wonderful historical lesson, because children do not have a knowledge base of what Polio is, it is also a wonderful discussion tool for perseverance.  Reading this book gave me a better insight into what my grandma’s struggles must have been like growing up, she was never one to share her difficulties.  I am grateful that Peg Kehret shared how she overcame her own struggles, it shows students that you can accomplish anything even if you have to endure bumps along the way.  

Finding this story eventually led me to sharing it with my grandma, and though she didn’t go in-depth about that part of her life (or struggles), she acknowledged the similarities between what she and Peg both went through.  I am grateful that this book could not only help me understand how Polio affected people’s lives, but also gave me a glimpse into what my grandma lived though as a child.  It was eye opening to realize how complex Polio was, it didn’t just go away after you left the hospital, it had lasting effects for the rest of their lives.  

Each year when I pull this book off the shelf to read to a new group of students I always feel a little bit closer to my grandma knowing that I am sharing a piece of history, and thankful others are no longer afflicted with this disease.   It also gives me plenty of time to share with my students what an amazing lady I had the privilege to call my grandma. Books have the power to help us understand the generations that lived before us, and inspire us to reach for our dreams.

My grandma

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Practicing Gratitude by Darlene Beck Jacobson

 Every morning, weather permitting, I begin the day taking a walk around the schoolyard walking path across the street from my neighborhood. Before the noise and rush of the day begins, I take in my surroundings, talk to God and count my blessings.

It is a perfect way for me to practice gratitude. It is also a way for the writer in me to pay attention. There have been many times when I am stuck and can't move forward in a story. So out I go on a walk. It not only clears my head, it opens my eyes and the rest of my senses to possibilities.

Paying attention to what is in my path can open up a whole new world of gratitude, writer's style.

On a walk I took this morning, I discovered these amazing mushroom flowers.

Isn't this a perfect opening for a story? Who would grow mushroom flowers? What kind of creature lives under the umbrella of them? Is this the hidden opening to Wonderland and maybe I should wait here for the Rabbit or Alice to make their appearance.

Take a walk and be grateful for curiosity and imagination.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Don't Make Me Choose!

 by Jody Feldman

Each morning I find myself contemplating an ever-changing list of things I'm grateful for. While it always starts with family and friends, it may include such wide-ranging thoughts as puffy clouds, warm chocolate chip cookies, comfortable shoes, fresh metaphors, a stranger's smile, or the fact that the song currently playing in my mind is actually one I like.

No problem with that, right? The problem only creeps up when we get to the most fun part of school visits: Q&A. It rarely fails. One kiddo or another will ask, "What/who is your favorite"  I want to stop them right there. Truth is, I don't have a single favorite anything. I love lots of things, and that list frequently changes. 

When they ask about my favorite color, for example, I'll explain my affinity for combinations, like fire colors of red/orange/white, perfect-day colors of spring green/deep sky blue, the slightly offbeat yellow/purple combination; or even that I love the word cerulean, the way it bounces off the tongue. For food, I might mention (at least, today) pizza, watermelon, enchiladas, fried chicken, panang curry, mashed potatoes, chicken piccata, a good burger, the happiness that lives inside cookies, and and and...

However, when they ask about favorite books and authors -- especially, which ones inspire me -- I've actually come up with an answer. It takes the form of ever-changing, ever-growing slides. (Yay, PowerPoint!)

So, this month, surprise! I will not highlight an author or a book or even a genre that I'm grateful for. Instead, I'll share just two of my presentation slides with you. Each book here holds a certain magic for me. And sometimes, magic is better left unexplained.*

*If you'd really like to know the whys behind a title or two, though, happy to explain. Just ask.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

GRATEFUL TO E. NESBIT -- by Jane Kelley

My mother always wanted me to read her favorite children's novel, The Bastable Children by E. Nesbit. But why would I want to look inside these covers?

Bastable? What kind of name is that? No picture? No promise of anything fun? No thanks. 

So I didn't read it until decades later when I was writing kids novels myself. In my second book, The Girl Behind The Glass, I imagined a ghost who had a beloved book. Since that ghost was about my mother's age, I decided to use my mother's own favorite. 

The very first page hooked me. "We are the Bastables. There are six of us besides father. Our mother is dead, and if you think we don't care because I don't tell you much about her, you only show that you do not understand people at all."

E. Nesbit does understand people. She wrote her books over a hundred years ago. The children who are the heroes of her stories wore different clothes and ate puddings. 

"The uncle was very fierce with the pudding." 

And yet we know them. As E. Nesbit said, "When I was a little child I used to pray fervently, tearfully, that when I should be grown up I might never forget what I thought and felt and suffered then."

Her ability to depict the emotional reality of sibling squabbles is not why her books are so beloved. Yes, there is a pudding in that illustration, but there is also a sword. As the book's cheeky narrator said, "The best part of books is when things are happening. That is the best part of real things too."

Things happen. Do they ever! The kids encounter magic carpets, treasure hunting, time travels, and a very grumpy Psammead, which is a sand fairy. It reluctantly grants the children wishes that never quite turn out the way they're supposed to. 
The Psammead.

Nesbit paid attention to the reality. The magic in her books seems real because she included fascinating details. When the kids have a magic carpet, it's a carpet that has been repaired. The rewoven section isn't as powerful, and so whoever sits on that part doesn't travel with the rest. What a brilliant detail! Gore Vidal wrote in the NY Review of Books: "Though a child will gladly accept a fantastic premise, he will insist that the working out of it be entirely consistent with the premise." 

Children still want magic. All readers do. Eleanor Fitzsimons wrote in the Irish Times: "Nesbit offered us the potential for magic at a time in our lives when the boundary between reality and imagination is at its most porous."

"The key to Nesbit's appeal is her ability to write just like one of us. The adventures she describes, though clearly impossible, feel utterly authentic. Surely they could happen to you or me if we were fortunate enough to dig up a grumpy Psammead or stumble upon a broken amulet in an old junk shop."

We want magic. We need magic. But in order for us readers to fully embrace that magic, it needs to be grounded in reality. 

Like so many other authors who admire E. Nesbit -- from C. S. Lewis to J. K. Rowling -- I try to include magic in my books without sacrificing realism. Yes it's more challenging. But reality makes it more interesting. Just like that carpet that doesn't always take you where you expect to go.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Interview with New Smack Dab Blogger Deborah Kalb (Author of Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat) - Holly Schindler

Today, I'm delighted to introduce new Smack Dab blogger Deborah Kalb to our readers with an interview. Her latest book, Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat, just released from Schiffer Kids, and it seemed the perfect place to start: 

HS: Please tell us about The President and Me—elevator pitch.

DK: A series of middle grade novels about fifth graders in present-day Bethesda, Maryland, who have amazing time travel adventures and meet the early presidents—while also dealing with modern-day concerns.

HS: Where did the idea for the time-traveling hat come from?

DK: I went to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, some years back, and noticed the tricornered hats that colonists used to wear. When it came time to create a magical being that would take my present-day characters back to the 18th century, a talking hat seemed perfect! The hat first appeared in book 1, George Washington and the Magic Hat.

When I considered what to do for book 2, which focuses on John and Abigail Adams, I fastened onto the John Adams bobblehead that my family got from the John Adams historical site in Quincy, Massachusetts. A crotchety, talking John Adams bobblehead! From that emerged John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead.

With this new book, I thought the hat might have more to say, so I brought it back in Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat, the new addition to the series.

HS: Tell us about your journalism background. How did it help with this project?

DK: I spent many years as a journalist covering politics and government. I also was a history major in college, and worked on reference books over the years about history and government. My journalism background is part of my ongoing interest in trying to understand how the government works, and how this country’s history affects what’s going on today.

In addition, as a journalist I was usually on very tight deadlines, which helps motivate me now when I’m researching and writing my books!

I’ll say more about journalism and a free press in response to one of your later questions…

HS: In this current political climate, I’ll admit that I was more than just a little intrigued about your choice to write about Thomas Jefferson. How long was this project in the works? Did you ever have any second-thoughts about the project? How did current events help shape the book? (For example, you do mention Charlottesville in the text.)

DK: That’s a great question. The quick answer is that I started working on this series about six years ago, and I’m writing about the presidents in order, so Thomas Jefferson came after George Washington and John Adams and it was his turn.

Of course there’s a lot more to it than that. I knew going into the project that slavery and Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings--an enslaved woman at Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello--would play a big role in the story. In book 1, I also discuss slavery in relation to George Washington, and invite readers, along with my present-day characters, to contemplate how the country’s first president could have enslaved other people.

But in this new book, I decided that one of the main characters my present-day protagonist, Oliver, would meet back in time would be Madison Hemings, the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Madison Hemings grew up as an enslaved person at Monticello. While his mother never gained her freedom, Madison Hemings and his siblings did become free as adults.

As an older adult, Madison Hemings wrote a short memoir describing his childhood at Monticello and his family history. I used that and other research on him to make his story an important part of the book.

I didn’t have second thoughts about the project because I wanted to write about this issue and describe Jefferson in all his facets. And let my characters contemplate that paradox: how the author of the Declaration of Independence could have held other people in slavery.

You’re right that I mentioned Charlottesville. I don’t want to tie my books to a specific year, given that it’s a series and the characters stay in fifth grade, so I try to avoid time-specific references, but I felt it was important to mention given that my characters were visiting Monticello and the University of Virginia, and that the book itself deals with issues that are very timely.

HS: You address Jefferson’s “conflicting beliefs”—and yet, as much as the young characters want definitive answers from Jefferson, about how he could, as you say, “write the Declaration of Independence and yet own other people, including people who were related to him,” they really don’t get any. I’m assuming this is because you can’t put words in Jefferson’s mouth, but it also seems to be to encourage further discussion and research. Can you address that?

DK: Yes, thank you for asking that. You assumed correctly. I try to stick to what Jefferson said rather than come up with ahistorical non-facts that I would make him say in the book. I did a great deal of research for each book, and I do my best to make the sections of the books set in the 18th and 19th centuries be as accurate as possible. (If you take the time-travel element out!)

And of course, I would like to encourage discussion and research. Just as the fifth graders in my books wonder about these conflicting beliefs, I hope my readers think about that too, and try to find out more. It’s important to recognize all facets of historical figures, both the positive things they did and the horrendously negative.

HS: In an MG, it had to be somewhat tricky to navigate which details to include regarding slavery—especially the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. How did you make that decision?

DK: I knew I needed to include their relationship in the book, as I’ve discussed above. But yes, it was tricky to decide how to approach the subject in a middle grade novel. I remember talking with my son’s wonderful former fifth grade teacher for some advice.

I came to the conclusion that the best way to approach it was through Madison Hemings, rather than Sally Hemings. Madison Hemings had written his memoir, so there was a historical record of his life, and I think it’s always good to include historical figures shown as kids. In book 2, John and Abigail Adams’ kids play a major role in the story, for example. It makes the history more relatable.

HS: This plays off an earlier question, but you also address issues of free press here. I especially appreciated the quote about preferring “newspapers without a government,” should a decision between the two have to be made. That quote seems especially pertinent today. Can you speak to that a bit?

DK: Yes, this is an important issue. As a former journalist myself, I really appreciated Jefferson’s willingness to praise newspapers—in contrast to what’s going on today. I am appalled by this administration’s attitude toward a free press, an attitude that smacks of dictatorship rather than the precepts in the U.S. Constitution. The press is not the “enemy of the people.” It scares me that so many people today believe such things.

Also, I decided to make one of my present-day characters, Oliver’s older sister Ruby, an aspiring journalist. She has her own adventures back in the 18th century, where she tries to employ modern-day journalistic techniques during the Revolutionary War.

HS: What was the most surprising tidbit you learned about Jefferson as you were researching the book?

DK: One of the most fun things I learned was that Jefferson and James Madison may have watched a solar eclipse together in the early 19th century. I found this on the Monticello website, which contains vast amounts of historical information. I really liked the idea of the two of them, with Jefferson’s telescope, peering at the eclipse, and decided I needed to include that in the book!

HS: You include quotes throughout. I think my favorite is “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” What’s your favorite and why?

DK: Given my background as a journalist, and coming from a family of journalists, I’d have to go back to “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” It says so much, especially today. I can only hope that in the future, journalism will gain more respect from those who distrust it now.

HS: What do you hope young readers take away from this book?

DK: I haven’t said that much so far about the present-day experiences my characters have. The books go back and forth between the time-travel adventures and the characters’ everyday 21st century lives.

In book 1, my character Sam is dealing with the fact that he and his best friend are no longer speaking. In book 2, my character Ava is coping with her newly blended family, complete with an annoying younger stepbrother. And in book 3, Oliver, who doesn’t have the greatest social skills, is facing difficulties as the new kid in town. I hope readers can relate to those issues.

Also, I’ve been told that although the books deal with difficult historical topics, that they have a lot of humor as well. So I hope readers enjoy that aspect of the story!

And I hope they become curious about these historical figures and want to know more.

HS: What’s next for you?

DK: Various projects. I have a book blog. Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, where I interview authors about their books. I’m working on new adventures for my fifth-grade characters. And I’m also working on some novel manuscripts for adults.

You can keep up with Deborah at her author site (which includes buy links for her books). And, of course, you can keep up with her here at Smack Dab as well! She'll be blogging her each