Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Ah... Childhood Memories....

 By Charlotte Bennardo

Photo by Victoria Borodinova from Pexels

Ya just can't escape them. No matter what any author tells you, we bring part of our childhood, even if subconsciously, to our writing. Looking back over my writing life, when I first began, I wrote about what I was most familiar with- my personal life. Who knew better than me what I experienced? It was easy to have characters react the way I would. Of course that leads to a limited world but as I matured and experienced more ups and downs, my writing depended less on my personal life and more on what I saw happening around me.

But... we are a product of our environment. Looking critically at my writing, I can see that some of my characters are a lot like me. In most of my novels, my characters are not angsty, 'if I don't get this, I'll die' type of characters. Maybe they seem a little distant and cool to some readers, but I'm not one for dramatics (although if you listen to my mother I was all about drama when I was 8). Even Jack, my gray squirrel main character in the Evolution Revolution trilogy, while he could be emotional over losing his woods and home like most of us would be, he wasn't over-emotional. I can throw a fit, but I don't pine. I get over whatever threatens me emotionally and forge ahead. In my teen years, I was never hung up on boys, dating, and popularity- that whole jr/sr high school vibe. (Good thing, because I wasn't popular.) Just once though, I left that chill demeanor out of Sharisse, the one main character I created in Blonde OPS. She was all about the clothes, the makeup, the popularity. It was fun to step outside of my literary and personal skin and be someone totally different. It was almost like living a different childhood through my character.

So while we use our childhood memories in our writing, sometimes it's nice to step completely away from those memories and imagine something different.

Charlotte writes MG, YA, NA, and adult novels in sci fi, fantasy, contemporary, and paranormal genres. She is the author of the middle grade Evolution Revolution trilogy, Simple Machines, Simple Plans, and Simple Lessons. She co-authored the YA novels Blonde OPS, Sirenz, and Sirenz Back in Fashion. Currently she is working on several novels for both children and adults. She lives in NJ with her family, two demanding cats, and a crazy squirrel couple who just moved into her backyard oak tree.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Childhood Memories, Tainted by Technology

One of the reasons I love reading is because I feel a strong need to know how stories end. I don't like loose ends, so I keep turning the pages.

When my parents were the age I am now, they might mention something that had happened in their childhood or teen years. They'd tell some fun story about an adventure with, say, Jim, and then end the story with, "Wonder whatever happened to ol' Jim?" And that was, truly, the end.

"Wonder whatever happened to..." is rarely a valid question these days. If you want to know what became of ol' Jim, you can get online and within five minutes, you can most likely see his most recent photo, find out about his entire family, learn his every political opinion, and get a map directly to his house, along with a photo of said house. 

As a person who loves to know how stories end, this should be fantastic. But as a writer, I find it kind of sad. No one gets to live forever in our memory frozen in time, unless said person lives off the grid or we don't bother to look that person up. 

It's better for me not to look up people I used to know when I was younger. If I need to write a character who's a jerk, I need that memory of middle school jerks I knew. But if I look up a kid I thought was a jerk, I might find that he/she has grown into a well-adjusted, wonderful human being. Certainly, I hope we all have matured a great deal since I was pretty much a moron myself back in the day. But if I find out that the kid who beat up the scrawny kid is now a foster dad who takes in hard-to-place, needy children, how can that not color the character description I might have drawn from my memory of him? 

My own children love stories I've told them about a friend from middle school named Andy. Andy used to make up silly songs and sing them during our social studies class. He had zero qualms about being thought goofy or weird, and he let his creativity run wild. I can still sing the words to some of his hilarious songs, and so can my children. I actually tried to look up Andy on Facebook so I could tell him he was a big hit at our house, but I can find no sign of him. In a way, that's too bad, but in another way, I love the fact that Andy, in my mind, will never be older than 13. He will always be the goofy, awesome kid who made everybody laugh. 

I haven't used Andy as a basis for a character...yet. But if I ever wanted to, the memory I'd draw from would remain untainted.

Ginger Rue's latest book, Wonder Women of Science, is co-authored with rocket scientist Tiera Fletcher, who is currently working with NASA on the Mars mission. The book profiles a dozen amazing women (besides Tiera!) who are blazing new trails in their respective STEM fields.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Childhood Memory in The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky (Holly Schindler)

 I rarely ever dropkick anything from my real life into my work.

Once I started doing classroom visits for The Junction, though, I kept getting a line of questions that were really surprising to me:

They were all questions about Victoria, Auggie's nemesis:


Why was Victoria so mean? 

Why did you make Victoria the way she is?

Why did you include Victoria?

In the book, Victoria is the main roadblock in Auggie's path toward renovating her house and proving to everyone in the town of Willow Grove that she's every bit as worthy as anyone who lives on the fancier side. But I needed Victoria to seem awful. Really horrible. On a 5th-grade level. So I had Victoria do the worst thing you could maybe ever do to an eleven-year-old girl:

 She steals Auggie's best friend.

Have I been there? Of course. I've also been in that scenario where some newcomer becomes part of an already-established best friendship...only to have two new people break away, and leave one of the original best friends out in the cold. I know what that feels like. We've all been there. The situation's so common, I really didn't think much of having included it in the storyline...

Until those questions started popping up.

Those kids loved hearing that I'd been there. To some of them, that friendship storyline was one of the very most important storylines in the book. 

I guess, the thing is, it's the most important thing we can ever tell a reader, no matter what their age is: I get it. I've been there. I know exactly what it's like to be in your shoes.


Holly Schindler is a critically acclaimed author of books for readers of all ages. Her debut MG, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, has recently re-released. A corresponding activity book is also now available.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Riding the Bereavement Train—Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun.

Did you know the Five Stages of Grief theory is considered outdated? I didn’t. Not until I looked it up, after death once more barged into my life.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the Five Stages of Grief theory—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—when she researched patients with terminal illnesses. Turns out that is a different kind of grief from bereavement after someone dies.

But I’m supposed to be writing about imagination, right? (grief brain fog, I guess.) Bereavement—wow what a solid, strong word. Say it out loud. Do you hear that heavy, lingering stress on the syllable “reave?” But the word is seldom used anymore. Why not? The word is from Middle English bireven, Old English bereafian, "to deprive of, take away by violence, seize, rob, plunder." That is powerful.

I propose to you that this is exactly how we feel like when someone we love dies. It’s that echoing, bottomless howl that they’ve been ripped away from us. I propose to you that the word “grief” is a gentler word. Say it out loud. Hear how fast the “f” consonant terminates? No lingering there. I propose to you that we don’t take grief seriously in our culture because we can’t tolerate the raw force of bereavement.

I had read before that the Five Stages of Grief don’t proceed in order, but are mixed up. However, that idea of stages implies a rational scaffolding to the wilderness of bereavement. I propose to you that we don’t want to imagine bereavement. It’s too strong. Others turn away from our bereavement because they can’t bear its power. Can’t bear that this might also happen to them (again). I know I’ve done this with my own friends and family.

The first week after a death, people call, send flowers, sympathy cards, and texts. One or two friends might visit. A few weeks after that, people make tepid inquiries—how are you doing? All the while they are hoping you have hopped off the Bereavement Train because it is unbearable. And they can’t fix it. They don’t know what to do. Maybe it would help to talk about something else. A month later, if you are still riding the Bereavement Train, they imply: Get over it. You should be moving on with your life.

I have failed to bear witness to the bereavement of others too many times in my life. But in this most recent death, when a beloved died in agony in my arms, all I could do was hold them, whisper loving words, and bear witness to their suffering and pain. I didn’t think I had that in me—the strength to contain my own horror, fear, and grief so I could bear loving witness. There was nothing else I could do. It was all I could do, the only comfort I could give. And it turns out that “all I could do” was exactly what was needed. Simply to bear loving witness. 

Bear it. Stand it. Hold it.

The next time my friends or family have a loved one torn violently away from them, I hope I’ll be strong enough to bear full loving witness. It is enough. It is all. In the end, it is everything.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

My (Literary) Cinderella Story (Guest Post by Jessica Vitalis, Author of The Wolf's Curse)

As an unpublished author, I spent years dreaming of my first book deal. I imagined my agent would call––no, my agent would show up on my doorstep, a bouquet of flowers and a publishing contract in hand. Celebratory music would play, crowds would cheer, the champagne would flow . . . okay, so maybe this isn’t exactly how I pictured my first book deal going down. Still, I’d always been a decent writer––papers came easily to me in school, and I’d won writing contests, scholarships, and even published an essay in a writing instructor’s textbook. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, I fully expected to write a book, land an agent, and get published right out of the gate.

Although my first book generated a fair amount of agent interest, I didn’t receive any offers of representation, and one agent not-so-gently pointed out my total and complete lack of fiction writing skills. All of the classes I took in college were non-fiction; I had no idea how to write scenes, much less an entire book with a fully developed theme and character arcs.

Undaunted, I set out to write book two. The years passed; between changing diapers and scheduling playdates, I studied craft, read as much middle grade fiction as I could get my hands on, immersed myself in the literary community, and continued writing. By the time I finished book three, my skills were greatly improved. Indeed, I landed a literary agent. Finally! It was time for my publishing dreams to come true!

Book three went out on submission. It received a revision request, which I threw myself into. And then the editor passed. And so did all of the editors after that. My agent and I finally agreed that it was time to work on something new. I wrote book four, set that idea aside, and wrote book five. While that went out on submission, I drafted book six. When the passes for book five started to come in, my agent and I reluctantly agreed that it was time for a fresh start.

Although the parting was amicable, it was still scary. After thirteen years of writing, I had to face the fact that I might never land another agent. But I wasn’t ready to give up. As I set about preparing a query letter and testing the water with a few agents, I saw a notification from a fellow mentor in Pitch Wars, a program I’d been involved with for several years.

This notification wasn’t from any old mentor: it was from Erin Entrada Kelly. The Erin Entrada Kelly (of Newbery fame). She was teaching a class and wanted opening pages to critique with her students; in exchange for sharing our work, she’d pass along all of their feedback plus her own. I jumped at the chance and sent off my opening.

A few weeks passed. Late on Saturday night, I got a message from Erin: I’m obsessed with this story!

I wrote her back, letting her know how very much her enthusiasm meant to me as I entered the querying trenches. And then I sat back and waited to receive her feedback, which I figured would come in sometime over the next week.

The very next day I received another message from Erin. She didn’t have any feedback and had instead used my opening as an example of writing well done; she asked if I’d be willing to send her my full manuscript with an eye toward passing it on to her agent––the brilliant Sara Crowe.

Needless to say, I sent off the full so fast my laptop nearly started on fire. But I’d been in the business for more than a decade and I knew better than to get my hopes up; the odds of getting an offer from Sara were about the same as stuffing my foot into a glass slipper and going on to marry a prince.

The next morning, I received another message from Erin: Sara loved my story and wanted to set up a call! 

Feeling just a little bit like Cinderella, I did a light round of revisions and went out on submission. But having been in the trenches several times before (and with Covid shutting down the world), I still expected the wait to be long and painful. Two weeks later, Sara emailed me that an editor was interested in my book and wanted to know what else I was working on.

A week after that, another email arrived. I’d received an offer! For not just one, but two books! From a dream publisher! Sara did a quick round of negotiations for a pre-empt and by the next day, I’d accepted a deal from Greenwillow/HarperCollins. 

My publishing journey might not have unfolded like I expected, but thanks to a whole lot of hard work and a little bit of help from my very own literary godmother, my first novel will hit shelves on September 21st.




Find Jessica at her author site.  

Snag a copy of The Wolf's Curse.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tying the Strings Together: Childhood to Adult Writer

As a writer, I often spend a small (okay, large) amount of time staring at a blank page, waiting to see what strings of narrative I’ll next pull out of thin air, or, more likely, from my own depths. One of those depths is early childhood. 

Childhood was both an idyllic and challenging time for me. I lived with my parents and sister and many cats and dogs and varying farm animals on more than 120 wooded Wisconsin acres. In summer, I hardly ever wore shoes or came into the house unless I (or the dog) was hungry. Winters were spent making snow forts and watching my sister ice skate on the frozen over ponds. Fall was magical, with its colors of crimson and gold and rust. I was content in my isolated world.

School, however, was breathtakingly difficult for me. I was painfully shy, awkward and reserved. My sister was outgoing and charismatic. If not for her holding my hand to my first few days of elementary school, I think I would have wandered out into traffic. 

Speaking in front of everyone was nearly impossible. I refused to eat or drink anything, and I often simply would not perform my assignments. My kindergarten teacher corrected my method of holding a pencil and demonstrated that which I was to change to. I refused, and to this day, hold a pencil wrong (boy, did I show her). It was hard to make friends and I found it easier to stick to myself. It wasn’t until upper elementary I started to find my footing and most importantly, my voice. I lacked confidence, but felt stronger as I was introduced more and more to the arts of drawing, painting and writing. I also met some very influential teachers that helped me gain confidence to pursue those arts. 

I still have a hard time speaking and eating in front of people. It's hard to share my writing with others, whether an email or a short story or a blog or a book. There are threads of me that still go deep into those childhood roots. The important thing is that I managed to live to tell the tale. I can look back now and empathize with childhood me. Those experiences - from a bully on the playground, to snubbing cookies, and making my first best friend and find the courage to rent library books on my own - have all shaped me and also my writing. 

I hope in my middle grade writing, its young readers can see the awkwardness of finding your way growing up. Making mistakes, but fixing them as best one can, walking into unknown situations, taking risks writing stories or making art. I think somewhere inside, we are all still at least a fragment of our childhood selves. There’s no better well than one’s own to connect with readers. 

Happy Reading! 
AM Bostwick

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Cave of Time

I have a unique perspective here at Smack Dab in the Middle. While most of our contributors are middle-grade writers, I am not. I'm an elementary school librarian. I know and understand middle-grade kids and I am intimately familiar with middle-grade books, but I don't write them. I lean toward YA and New Adult with my writing. That being said, one of my works in progress is, in fact, heavily inspired by a middle-grade classic.

How many of you remember the original Choose Your Own Adventure books? And in particular, the very first, published in 1979, The Cave of Time. My older brother, Dan, was an enthusiastic collector of this series, and he let me borrow them. The number of hours I spent poring over these volumes was legendary. I mean, we had three local TV channels and an eight-track player. Entertainment for us, especially during a long, cold Alaskan winter, was games and books. Strangely enough, I don't remember ever being truly bored. 

I have good memories associated with these books, and this one in particular inspired one of the YA's I've been working on. It's a historical/contemporary time travel story in which our protagonist whacks his head in a cave on a rainy day in the 1880s and wakes up in the present day. I love a 'fish out of water' scenario, and this set-up provides. In addition to the inspiration from Cave of Time, I borrowed some ideas from Narnia as well, as one does. I haven't been a middle-grade human for 35 years, but the impression a good book makes never really fades.

Every one of our present selves is a collection of our lifetime of experiences and that includes what we read. And what we read at a young age can have a huge impact on what we think and who we become. Which is why it's so important to have really excellent stories out there for kids to read. And I like to think I am a part of that, even if I'm not writing those stories. I do the research, I read the books, I buy the books, I cover and label them, and I put them in kids' hands. I hope that one day one of my students will think back on their childhood and realize that a big part of who they are is the books that they read. And maybe, just maybe, they will remember their old librarian fondly.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Re-Union with the Basics!

 As you may remember, I teach for the MFA Program at SNHU, working primarily with students who are finishing their creative thesis projects. Over the years, I have gathered quite a collection of articles and handouts that target some basic writing concepts that are often overlooked in workshops. This past year, I’ve enjoyed getting back to  these basics, finetuning my “writing space.”

You might be interested in a few of these:

Narrative Structure

Backstory and Exposition: 4 Key Tactics. Susan DeFreitas, contributing writer at Jane Friedman’s blog, explores effective strategies in insering backstory into your narrative, explaining, “Landing your novel opening can be tricky. On the one hand, you need to get the reader sucked into the present moment of the story as it’s unfolding; on the other hand, there’s a lot you need to explain about the past, which is precisely the sort of thing that puts readers to sleep…This info is generally known as backstory (essential information about the characters’ past) and exposition (essential information about the context of the story). Getting it right is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face with your novel.”

Story Structure: 7 Narrative Structures All Writers Should Know. As the writers on Reedsy blog offers, “While using a pre-existing blueprint might make you worry about ending up with a formulaic, predictable story, you can probably analyze most of your favorite books using various narrative structures that writers have been using for decades (if not centuries)!”  This blog post explores  seven distinct story structures that any writer can use to build a compelling narrative.

Narrate vs. Dramatize. Alex Donne’s excellent video explains the difference between narrating and dramatizing (show vs. tell), and how you can fix these issues during the revision. Revision is when the magic happens!

Filter Words and Phrases to Avoid in Writing Fiction. Anne R. Allen created an excellent handout that  provides a list of writing filters, with practical examples of how to replace them. As she states,  “All words exist for a reason. Use them wisely to create engaging narrative.”

Purple Prose and the Word Surgeon’s Scalpel. Tom Bentley at Writer UnBoxed elaborates on how these filter words rob your narrative of its vigor. Bently offers excellent examples and explanations, reminding writers to “Keep in mind that when you clean up your writing, you’re not scrubbing it of the voice that makes it distinct and delightful. You’re clearing your throat so that voice sings out strong and true.”

(Related to Narrative Structure) Dialogue

How to Format Dialogue.  Dax MacGregor offers nice illustrations on how to format dialogue, stating “Whether you are writing a short story, full novel or anything in between, the way you format dialogue is the same.”

The MasterClass in How to Format Dialogue in Your Short Story and Novel. The MasterClass staff put together this excellent handout, stating, “Whether you’re working on a novel or short story, writing dialogue can be a challenge. If you’re concerned about how to punctuate dialogue or how to format your quotation marks, fear not; the rules of dialogue in fiction and nonfiction can be mastered by following a few simple rules.

Active vs Passive Characters

How Can We Make Our Characters More Proactive?  Jami Gold’s excellent handout details how a character needs agency in their story, stating “In other words, passive and reactive characters—those without agency—go with the flow, make no decisions, and don’t affect the story because they’re always one step behind. In contrast, proactive/active characters make the story what it is.”

On Passive Characters. Mary Cole of Good Story Company explains, “It's hard for readers to engage with a passive character, especially in the protagonist role.”

Five Ways to Tell If You Have A Passive Protagonist (And If You Do, How To Fix Them). Jimena I. Novaro’s excellent discussion offers a study into passive characters, comparing two beloved novels to illustrate her points, stating “ To illustrate these five places where you can identify a passive protagonist, I’m going to use two books that I love. They’re both good books, but one has the unfortunate flaw of having a passive protagonist, while the other has an awesome, active protagonist. The examples for a passive protagonist are from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling; the examples for an active protagonist are from Sabriel by Garth Nix.”

Finding the Emotional Core. Related to creating active characters is taking advantage of a character’s emotional core. Jo Eberhardt on Writer UnBoxed explores strategies on how to create authentic characters that readers care about, stating, “Create a character who feels deep emotions, and invite the reader to join them on their journey. It creates a bond that can never be broken between your character and your reader — one that will still exist decades into the future.”

Plot Structures

On Pacing: Faster than the Speed of Thought. Donald Maass at Writers UnBoxed explains, “Plot pace is generally what people mean.  Keep things moving.  Get to the next event.  Don’t meander around, cut to the chase.  Get to the meat and quickly move on.  It’s as if story is a double-speed march, or ought to be…As we know, however, story is not always about moving events along rapidly.” 

Good Transitions: A Guide to Cementing Stories Together. Amanda Mascarelle illustrates the process of creating strong transitions that move the story forward, stating, “Most writers learned in elementary school that a good story requires a compelling beginning, middle, and end. But how does one make the pieces fit neatly together? From my tattered memory of grade school, my teachers skipped that part. Or maybe I was home with the chicken pox the day we learned about transitions—the words and phrases, often subtly deployed, that give stories shape and tug readers from idea to idea.”

Mastering Scene Transitions. Beth Hill of The Editor’s Blog discusses how to create effective scene transitions, explaining, “A scene transition takes characters and readers to a new location, a new time, or a new point of view. Transitions can also be used to show a character’s change in heart or frame of mind.”

(Related to Plot) Causal Chains

Why Your Story Needs a Causal Chain. Matthew Retino at The Writing Cooperative demonstrates how – and why – causal chains support the plot, stating, “…chains are fundamental to most forms of fiction…This is especially true if your story has a tragic structure. The sense of inevitability, of one event leading inexorably to another, increases the sense of drama and impending doom.”

What a Coincidence: 7 Clever Strategies for Harnessing Coincidences in Fiction. Steven James at Writers Digest University, offers advice on causality, offering strategies to avoid the dreaded coincidence, stating, “Well-timed coincidences can catapult a story forward, but a poorly planned one can bring your readers to a dead stop. Use these 7 strategies to harness the power of this storytelling tool while steering clear of common missteps.”

(Related to Plot) Chapter Building

How To Organize A Chapter.Nathan Bransford explores strategies to create chapters that move the plot forward, explaining “Too many writers treat their chapters like tanks of gas. They take off without really knowing where they’re going, drive around aimlessly until they run out of fuel, sputter to a stop, and then they start the next chapter after someone takes pity on them and tows them somewhere new.” Of particular interest, he offers a very nice discussion on creating cliffhangers that engage readers, stating , “The key to crafting a great cliffhanger is to construct the climax of a chapter so that its resolution opens up even bigger questions. Think about the fate of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels, Han Solo being frozen in carbonite in Star Wars, or “Who shot J.R.” on Dallas.”

How to Structure Chapters of Your Novel: 8 Tips for Writing Chapters. In this very interesting discussion, MasterClass explains eight strategies that help writers create reader-friendly chapters, explaining,   “Chapters are the vessels of story structure, organizing the  plot points of the larger work and allowing the reader to take a break and absorb what they’ve learned. A short story can be read in one sitting, but a novel is usually broken up into accessible parts, forming a book that can be easily revisited whenever the moment arises. Structuring chapters in a way that keeps readers immersed in the story is essential to novel-writing.”

-- Bobbi Miller

The Powers asked for a bio. I'm never good at these things. Writer, middle grade fiction of various genres, featuring real kids with real emotions dealing with real world issues. Armed with an MA in Children's Literature (Simmons) and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (VCFA), I have worked with childhood heroes, including the indomitable Marion Zimmer Bradley (my first editor) and the genius that defines Gregory MacGuire, Eric Kimmel and Marion Dane Bauer (all advisors); was a contributing writer to Anita Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators; a contributing writer to American Dissidents: An Encyclopedia of Activists, Subversives ..., Volume 1.( Kathlyn Gay, editor. Books include Big River’s Daughter (Historical Fantasy. Holiday House, April 2013) Recommended by the International Reading Association, the Historical Novel Society, and was nominated for the Amelia Bloomer Project (American Library Association, 2013). The Girls of Gettysburg (Historical Fiction. Holiday House, Fall 2014), a Hot Pick on Children’s Book Council for September 2014, an honor for the 2015 Thomas Jefferson Cup Overfloweth and an honor for the 2015 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People. 'Nuf said.

Personal Narratives 101 by Jennifer Mitchell

 As a teacher, adding childhood memories into my writing lessons is something that I focus on each fall.  In our district we always start with a personal narrative unit, it seems to be an easy way for kids to ease into writing for the year-- who doesn’t love to share about a time in their life?  I also think it is an important way to build relationships with students, it gives me an opportunity to have conversations with them about what they selected to write about.  Even reserved students like to tell me about the memory they are writing about, and that builds trust.  Writing at any age can feel overwhelming, but personal narratives seem to resonate with students, and they have a willingness to get their thoughts on paper. 

As a bonus hopefully they see me as a real person not just a teacher-- someone who went on vacations, attended church camp, liked to water ski, and most importantly (the one they always love to hear about) me hitting my grandparents house with my mom’s car twenty-one days after I had gotten my driver’s license.  If that story doesn’t make me a real person to my students I am not sure what will. : )  It is a great memory to be able to model feelings and details for students, because thirty years later I can still remember it very vividly. 

Currently, I am using my summer vacation to Disneyland as my example for personal narrative writing.  I have a student who also went on vacation there this summer. As I was modeling my writing for my class today I was able to draw on her as my expert to make sure my details were accurate. 

Building connections and a writing community with memories is such a great place to get students thinking about their writing (and ready to put thoughts on paper)!

I am a teacher in the Kansas City area :)

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Tapping our Inner Child For Writing by Darlene Beck Jacobson

 This month's theme of mining our own childhood for ideas, settings, and characters in our stories really resonated with me. My latest MG novel WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY began as a strong voice in my head. The main character, Jack, had a lot to say about one summer spent at his grandparents house. After writing a few poems of this novel-in-verse, it became apparent that I needed to decide the time period for his story. And, it needed to be at a time when kids were free to ride bikes, play, hang out together all day long without parents hovering nearby.

So, I chose 1964 which just happened to be the time when I was Jack's age. Filling out his story using the memories of my own childhood was a fun trip on the "way back" machine and added authenticity to the tale. We don't have to write historical fiction to use our own memories and events from childhood in our writing.

What are some ways we can tap into our childhood memories and use them in stories?

* Look through old photo albums and recall the feelings you had when the pictures were taken. I was feeling pretty satisfied having climbed to the highest crotch of our willow tree. What objects are in the background that might evoke feelings or memories that you can use with your current story. Who were you with? Are those people still in your life?

* Listen to music and songs that you enjoyed as a kid. Which songs made you dance and still give you that feeling today? Music has a special way of bringing us back to the time and place we heard the songs when they were new.

* What did you like about celebrations? What rituals did you and your family practice that you carried over into your adulthood? How would your character feel about these rituals?

* How did you feel about dressing up and choosing your own clothes to wear? 

* What was your favorite hang-out spot? What was it about the place that made you want to keep going back? One of mine happened to be our local library...a tiny building filled with musty, dusty books that were portals to adventure beyond my small town imagination.



* Remember your favorite snacks or after-school treats? Are those foods still your favorite and are they popular today?

ALL these ideas help tap into our childhood. The feelings we remember associated with these events and memories are the same feelings kids have today. Use them to add depth and dimension to your modern-day stories. Being a kid transcends time and place.

Darlene Beck Jacobson still loves libraries, trees, and dressing up. The snacks she enjoyed during childhood still make an appearance now and then.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

A Ball, A Wall, and Its impact

by Jody Feldman

I was about 14 years old that day when we were swimming in my aunt and uncle’s backyard pool, just my brothers, my mother and me. Maybe a couple others. Doesn’t matter. What does is this. 

Diameter-wise, it was about 24 inches of thick rubber, a stiff handhold jutting from the top; altogether sturdy enough for bigger kids to sit on and bounce. Not a mainstream pool toy. Nevertheless, and for whatever reason, this kangaroo ball was being hurled around, bouncing and skimming off the water's surface. Not by me, though. I was practicing flips into the deep end then leisurely swimming or treading.

Which is why I wasn't looking when the kangaroo ball propelled my skull against the concrete-and-tile pool wall. The impact had me somehow scrambling out of the water and over the edge where I lay on the deck, stars and flashing lights putting on quite a show

I hadn’t given this incident a thought for decades...until. Until a couple weeks ago when I added this line to my WIP: Since when have the entirety of my thoughts revolved around survival? 

I needed the main character to give a response. And there it was, a flash of me in the pool, trying to keep from drowning. 

Into the narrative it went.
Just that little snippet...
...because I rarely (maybe never?) center full scenes around specific childhood experiences. And yet, so many of them are there, their impact coloring the narrative, bringing a sense of realism to pure story.

Award-winning middle grade author of The Gollywhopper Games series and The Seventh Level, Jody Feldman may be taking a brief dip to the other (older) side with a YA thriller coming out next summer (the line above is from that book), but never fear. There’s MG in her heart.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Interview with Alda P. Dobbs, Author of The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna (+ Giveaway!)

 I can't say how thrilled I am to be joined today by Alda P. Dobb's, whose truly beautiful new book The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna releases September 14.

Give us the elevator pitch—Barefoot Dreams in a sentence.

Twelve-year-old girl will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and make her dreams come true amidst the violence and chaos of the Mexican Revolution of 1913.  

I love the description of a barefoot dream. Could you tell our readers about the significance of the title? Is this a phrase you heard as a child? 

My grandmother was illiterate as a child and though she had many dreams, her main one was to learn to read and write. This dream, however, went against the traditions of her family and she often got in trouble for wishing to better herself. Her family believed the church when it stated that everyone had been assigned a certain lot in life from birth to death, to include a certain social status. She never believed this. I wanted to put this sentiment in the title. Also, as I combed through old photographs of impoverished families from that era, I noticed that the children were always barefoot. It struck me like a bolt of lightning that something as simple as shoes, which we take for granted, was a luxury to people back then. I combined both the bare feet from the photograph and my grandmother’s desire to learn to read, and the phrase “Barefoot Dreams” came to me.

 I’m also so intrigued by the fact that this is a family story. Can you tell us more about that? 

Sure. Growing up I loved listening to many family stories about my great-grandmother’s experiences during the Mexican Revolution. They all told of extraordinary events and unbelievable trials she endured as a child. One story in particular intrigued me. It was of my great-grandmother and her family anxiously waiting for the US border to open along with thousands of other people so that they could cross into safety. I decided to do some research to find out if it was true. Without having an exact date, I searched through old newspapers and after many months of research (and almost giving up!), I found an article that described the event exactly as my great-grandmother had recounted it. I knew then I had to share her story with everyone, and Petra Luna was born!

There’s such great descriptive writing throughout. One of my favorite phrases involves sweat beads that race down Petra’s back like lizards scrambling for shade. Do you enjoy descriptive writing? Does it come naturally? Any tips for becoming a better descriptive writer?

Thank you so much for your flattering words! I do love descriptive writing and I feel I still have a lot to learn. I enjoy observing nature a lot and since this story takes place in the outdoors, I was able to incorporate a lot of what I’ve seen and experienced (not to mention how much I LOVE catching lizards!). I’d say a good tip is to always be observant of your surroundings, whether outdoors, at an amusement park, a café, or at a funeral, always observe your surroundings with all your senses. How does the place smell? What do you hear? How are people talking? What are children doing? Practice making mental notes or write them down so that you can later refer to them.

 Did you incorporate any details handed down from your grandmother? 

I was able to infuse many details and emotions into the scenes thanks to feelings of despair, helplessness, and triumph passed along with every story. In one of the scenes where a lady throws coins on the floor that are owed to Petra, I had to transport myself to the times I heard my grandmother describe this and weave in the emotion I sensed as she told the story. These emotions blended in the stories guided my writing and scene creation.

What was the writing process like? Did having history—and a repeated family tale—help guide you, or did it almost bog you down? (Sometimes, you can almost know too much!)

That’s true! You’re absolutely right. Sometimes having too many family stories can feel overwhelming. For me, my family stories helped inspire characters, their actions, and their beliefs. They also served as a frame or a base into which I could mold scenes that helped carry the plot. The family tales also gave meaning to a lot of the photographs I came across in my research. The expressions on people’s faces, their clothes, their environments all transported me to a world I felt I already knew thanks to my family’s experiences.

 How did you go about building the characters?

That’s a great question. I think I first imagine scenes. I see them as an open stage where characters are invited to step in. If they’re a “fit”, meaning they feel organic to the scene, I let them stay, if not, they’re out. Some of the characters were inspired by people I know or knew but most came from my imagination after reading narratives and interviews of people who lived through the Mexican Revolution. Many photographs from that era also inspired characters.

Where did the tiny diamond detail come from? I think it’s such a powerful symbol.

Aww, thank you! I was born in a region in northern Mexico called the La Region Carbonífera, or the coalmining region. My grandfather was a coalminer, and through him and the rest of the town’s people, I learned firsthand the pride everyone had in this precious black stone. I wanted to incorporate this feeling into the story since it takes place in that region. When I was a child, I was told diamonds came from coal that had been put under immense pressure, and even then, it made me wonder if the same applied to people. Luckily, I still had that thought when I wrote this book!

Why MG? Really, this story is somewhat ageless. As an adult, I still find Petra’s story riveting. I can imagine it being an adult story as well, one featuring a young protagonist. Why did you want to write in this age category specifically?

I’ve always had a special admiration for tweens. There are so many changes coming at them head-on as they stand on the verge of claiming independence while still being afraid to let go. I also admire the courage children exhibit during dire circumstances. By writing this story geared towards young readers, I want them to know that they too have the power and determination to be a leader like Petra. Sometimes we adults don’t give children enough credit yet they are capable of so much if we give them the space and confidence to grow and figure things out on their own. I also want young readers to have hope and realize that no matter the circumstances, they too can look up to their dreams for guidance and strength during dire times. But honestly, I also wrote this book with the intent to share a good story that would appeal to any age group. I wanted to give all readers a sense of the Mexican Revolution and its effects on the poor, the rich, and the foreigners.

 Every project we tackle changes us—as writers, as people. What was the biggest impact writing this book had on you?

Wow, that’s an incredible question. For one, I feel I’m a lot closer to my ancestors. I feel I’m more grateful for all their sacrifices and more aware of the many hardships they endured to give me a life full of opportunities.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on Book 2 now! It’s still untitled but follows Petra Luna and her family to a refugee camp in Eagles Pass, Texas and then to San Antonio where 30,000 refugees settled during that time. I’m also working on the Spanish translation of Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna and will soon record the Author’s Note for the audio book. I’m also kicking the idea of a picture book and a historical YA. Stay tuned!



Like to hear more? Check out this video of Alda talking about Barefoot Dreams. And be sure to visit her at



Click the link below to enter to win a signed copy of The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna (or a Petra Luna coffee mug):

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