Friday, June 24, 2022

Writing about the Holocaust for Kids--with an Auschwitz Survivor (Guest Post by Danica Davidson, Author of I Will Protect You)

Eva Kor was elementary school aged when she survived the Nazi death camp Auschwitz as one of the twins a doctor there used for medical experiments. Later, as an adult, she became an educator on the Holocaust. When I met her in 2018 and she discovered I’d written and published 16 children’s books, she exclaimed that she wanted to do a kid’s book about her story.


I’d gone to see Eva speak at a college after experiencing and noticing an increase in antisemitism, starting in 2015. Eva was also grimly aware of this reality, and she told me passionately that the only way we can stop antisemitism — and other forms of hate, for that matter — is to reach kids in an accessible way. Since she was a child who had survived a death camp, this was an extremely rare opportunity to tell a true story about the heart of the Holocaust from a real child’s point-of-view.


Eva complained that Holocaust education in America, if it happens at all in schools, happens at age 12 or later. And then, she said, it’s too late, because the prejudices have already formed. She also talked about how smart kids are, and how so many adults ignore this fact and try to keep kids in the dark.


I knew about the Holocaust since elementary school. How could I not, when members of my own family were murdered? I grew up thinking all kids knew details of the Holocaust, but as time has gone on and surveys have shown a woeful lack of knowledge on the Holocaust, I’ve realized how wrong I was.


Eva Mozes Kor

We began talking about ages, and how to write this book. Eva made it clear to me our book could not be sugarcoated, because sugarcoating or omitting important details of the Holocaust give people a false impression and make them think it’s not as bad as it was. It didn’t need to be graphic detail, but she wanted kids to know the realities, including the Final Solution.


“I think the youngest you can go for those sorts of details would be eight,” I said after thinking about what I had known about the Holocaust and had understood at different ages. I wasn’t sure how to write those details for younger than eight.


She thought about this for a while, then called me up and said she agreed. A little later, she told me she wanted the book to be for ages eight through twelve.


I couldn’t stop smiling when I heard that, because I’d published 16 books, and most of them were in this age range. In other words, I felt very comfortable writing in this voice.


“That’s called middle grade,” I told her.


“Middle grade,” Eva mused to herself, as if trying out the term. It seemed a little foreign to her, but also as if she liked the sound of it.


We threw ourselves into work. After interviewing Eva and telling her ideas I had, I began writing the book and emailing her chapters at a time. I tell the details of the Holocaust the way my father taught me in elementary school — with simplified language, enough straightforward context for them to understand, without sugarcoating details but also without going into nitty gritty detail on everything. Also, because it is a middle grade book, I didn’t end it right after the Holocaust, but ended it years later when Eva found healing as an adult. Eva hoped our book could help abused kids find healing, and know that you can heal after trauma.


Danica Davidson

Our book, I Will Protect You, was finished in early 2019, and Eva and I accepted Little, Brown’s offer for it in June 2019. Fifteen days later, Eva passed away unexpectedly while on an education trip to Auschwitz, knowing our book would be published, but not here to see it actually happen.


Grab a copy of I Will Protect You or add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Something I’ve Never Heard a Kid Say. Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

What I’ve heard kids say:

I hate math.
I hate P.E.
I hate art class.
I hate writing stories.

Often this is followed by:
It’s too hard.
I don’t know how.

Have you ever heard a kid say,
I hate my imagination?

I’ve never heard anyone say that.

Imagine why not.  



Thursday, June 16, 2022

Life Slump?

At Smack-Dab, we're talking about slumps this month. There are all kinds of slumps you can have. Reading slump? Nah, I'm doing alright there. I read all the time and listen to audiobooks when I drive or walk. (Although I am 13 books behind on my Goodreads goal! Gasp!) But gosh, the rest of my life feels like one big slump.

I shouldn't feel that way. It's summer, when I don't have to work and have lots of free time. It's been warm and windy. My garden is all planted. I've built a temporary fence around it to protect it from the neighbors' two rowdy puppies and mine as well. I've staked up the raspberries, even built chicken tunnels so my chickens can free-range a bit and be safe from the afore-mentioned puppies. Since my brother and his wife are visiting from New Zealand, my house is pretty clean inside. But all I seem to be able to focus on are the things I'm not getting done, the areas where I'm failing. The 16-year old who needs to go to summer school but is refusing to. The 13-year old who needs some guidance in developing self-control and self-reliance. The 30 extra pounds I'm packing around that's leading me to have foot problems. The long list of projects awaiting me. In fact, before my summer vacation even started I found myself pre-emptively stressing out over all the things I know I'm not going to get done.

And writing? Well, I'm writing this. And I'm thinking a lot about writing. But I'm doing very little actual writing. I have this mindset that I can only write first thing in the morning, and in the summer, that doesn't work for me, because it's also the time when I walk the dogs. When it comes to writing, I need to be more flexible and willing to write at other times of the day.

But what's to be done about slumps in general? How do you get out of the slump and back in the groove? It's a very simple, if not foolproof solution, but I find lists to be a great way to organize my thoughts and prioritize projects. Here are some big lists I have posted on the laundry room wall for the whole family to see. I also keep smaller lists on my phone where I keep track of short-term to-do items. As a visual person, these help me to see the big picture, and I get great satisfaction out of checking the box or crossing the item off the list.

But I think the most important thing I, and you, can do, is to accept that you won't get everything done. It's simply impossible. Also, please, leave some time for yourself, and time for fun. Step away from say,  reorganizing the attic, and go have a cocktail with a friend. Choose to go for a hike or to the public garden rather than cleaning the house. If it's sunny out, take the kids to the lake instead of grocery shopping.

Remember, slumps are temporary. Those books we want to read, those stories we want to write, even those attics we want to organize, well, they're not going anywhere. They will be waiting for us when we find ourselves in a better place mentally. I always try to be kind and gentle to others, and I'm sure you, dear reader, are no different. Let us not forget to be kind and gentle with ourselves too. Enjoy the summer!

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

It's Possible


It was bound to happen. My old computer burned out. (Translation: I wore it out.)

Got a new computer, and Personal Computer Wizard set it up. I started working on my draft.  (Translation: 180 pages of revisions.)

Except new computer has all these buttons. Newfangled whatsit buttons with squiggles and wiggles and loopy designs. But I’m trying to finish this revision.  I’m happily working along with these revisions, scene shifts, chapter realignments, line-edits, thinking I’m  ahead of the game. (Foreshadow: You just know what’s coming.)

Yep. I forgot to push a squiggle to save. I lost 80 pages of line edits. The situation is all the more dire because I tend to handwrite everything. Notes on scene changes, contexts, line-edits. And I had already thrown away my handwritten notes and previous printouts.

Yep. Loudest beslubbering hell-hated rude-growing PoopIt ever!  

So, I dug my notes out of the stinky garbage, except apparently the garbage pick-up is more efficient than I am. Most of my notes had already gone to trash haven. So. What. Do. I. Do. Now.  

Where do I begin?

The topic for this round of blogposts is Looking for Motivation. Every writer without exception, no matter where they are in their careers, faces those days when their motivation wanes. In looking for inspiration, it becomes easy for a writer to lose themselves in the thousands of books and articles that offers writerly advice.

Nick DiLallo offers an interesting take in his article, The Best Writing Advice I Ever Ignored, in which he “devoured and internalized every piece of writing advice available. Every tip, trick, tidbit, factoid, and helpful hint. Every “do” and every “don’t…None of it has made me a better writer.” Do whatever works for you, he concludes.

Hannah Mary McKinnon, at Curtis Brown, highlights TenAuthors Share Their Best Writing Advice  offers that, “Most authors will tell you; writing is hard. It’s a solitary occupation, often filled with self-doubt and trepidation. Hours are spent drafting, editing and polishing before feedback arrives and you start all over again.” She wondered what tips her author friends – including Samantha M. Bailey, author of Woman on the Edge; Kimberly Belle, author of The Marriage Lie, Dear Wife and Stranger in the Lake; and,  Laurie Petrou, author of Sister or Mine and Love, Heather, among others—might offer. It turns out, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy.

Tim Denning at Writing Cooperative offers “The Best WritingAdvice I’ve Ever Been Given” from one of the most underrated writers in the world.” As he states, “Good writing advice is hard to find. Most writing advice I read doesn’t help me write better. The writing tips are turds clogging up my brain. I desperately want to write better. My grammar skills need work. I need to expand my vocabulary. I need to get better at getting to the point.” His ultimate discovery: “Simplicity does a lot more for a reader’s brain than writers care to admit. Simplicity drains less of a reader’s energy.” In other words, keep it simple.

Perhaps the very best writing advice I’ve read comes from Shaunta Grimes article, “The Best Writing Advice Ever.”  She remembers that as “an 11-year-old sixth grader sitting in the auditorium…I was just one little girl in a sea of thousands over the decades.” The speaker that day was the indomitable Tomie dePaola. “He advised me that regular people write books” she states. “The best writing advice I’ve ever had was just that it’s possible.”

It's possible.

Like getting back to this revision.

-- Bobbi Miller



Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Battling Reading Slumps :) By: Jennifer Mitchell

For me reading slumps are very real. When I find a book I like I usually can’t put it down, but when I finish it I struggle at times to get the same energy finding a new book.  When I was growing up I don’t think my teachers ever gave students “permission” to abandon books, so that meant once you picked it you struggled through until the end.  So at times as an adult I revert back to that habit, and that slows my reading down.  As a teacher, I try to impress upon my students that there are so many book choices that you should only stick with a book if it is something you are excited to pick up.

Even though reading at school wasn’t always riveting, I was lucky enough to have a mom that took me to the library frequently and relatives that would give me books as presents, and that truly was a gift!  One of my favorite book series growing up was Anne of Green Gables, and that was gifted to me on one of my birthdays.  I spent the summer with my head stuck in the books living in Avonlea. That was not a series I would have probably ever tried had it not been given to me . As a teacher, I really try to read a variety of books for read- aloud so that hopefully one of the genres I pick excites a kid enough to want to read more on their own

As an adult when I am in a slump I try to use my circle of friends who read frequently for suggestions.  I also like to use Goodreads when I am trying to find new things too.  I have found, to change things up, that I like to read children’s books in the summer so that I can bring new books to light for my students in the fall.  I am also lucky enough to still get books as gifts, my daughter has started giving me books for occasions, and I love being gifted books that I might not have researched and picked out on my own.  Finally, you can never underestimate the power of taking a stroll through your local library, I always come out with more books than I can possibly read.  There is just something about picking up books and reading about them that gets me excited to read!

My latest summer read :)

Jennifer Mitchell 2nd/ 3rd grade lopping teacher in the Kansas City area :)

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Face of Real Life in Escapist Fiction (Diane Magras)

Art by Vivienne To

Who couldn’t use a good escape these days? With a worldwide pandemic, climate disasters, threats to essential human rights, and war dominating the news and social media, it’s not hard to feel that the world is crumbling.

This is where escapes come in. And middle grade adventures—fast-paced, otherworldly, and all encompassing—provide incredible escapes. While putting characters in immense danger, these works give young readers an essential distance: Kids can experience chases, battles, and monsters—but in their minds alone.

Yet those escapes can also plant questions and awareness that will give young readers strength—if the author takes advantage of this opportunity.

I’m committed to writing thoughtful stories that offer an escape, yet also address important themes. From the distance that fiction provides, I can bring up powerful topics—gently, and shrouded in fantasy. I hope this technique will help young readers who are experiencing real-world threats themselves feel seen and respected. I also hope it will introduce other young readers to challenging yet rewarding ideas—or strengthen ideas, modeling how this world might deal with issues they already know and care about.

Take the worldwide pandemic. There’s an obvious parallel between that and my third book, Secret of the Shadow Beasts. In my story, a country faces a terrible threat: Shadow beasts emerge at night to decimate humankind with their fatal venom. The government issues warning and rules, but some people ignore them. The kids in my cast battle the monsters (they’re the only ones who can stop the shadow beasts, being immune to the venom)—and find themselves in danger when adults break rules and bring shadow beasts down on all of them. My protagonist—the brave, emotionally vulnerable, and creative Nora Kemp—struggles with a situation that’s tragically common in our world as well: the loss of a parent to a nationwide threat.

Secret of the Shadow Beasts also has a tie-in to climate justice: The shadow beasts themselves come from the destruction of the country’s essential ecosystems. Nora and her companions value the environment and are frustrated that people in the past created the disasters they’re dealing with in their present day. These kids are tasked with the most dangerous work in their world—and are eager to understand why and how it’s become like that. And stop it as much as they can—a bit like the youthful climate justice warriors of our world.

And one more: It’s essential for people in our world to know the full stories of our nations’ histories, the grim injustices, the racism and colonialism, and the mistakes on which our societies were founded. Grim injustices and mistakes of the past play a huge role in Secret of the Shadow Beasts—and it’s Nora and Amar, the history-loving leader of her group, who are especially committed to delving into the truth and bringing to light what’s happened.

Kids are heroes. That’s clear in my book, and it’s something that I want my readers today to feel deep in their bones: the fact that they have the potential to do great things, in small ways as well as large, with all of it forming meaningful steps toward a better world.

Often, escapist fiction fulfills desires: to have an adventure, a tight-knit group of found family around you, to emerge from conflict a hero. And that’s part of Secret of the Shadow Beasts, only some of these are not just wish fulfillment but things that I want to see come true today. Why can’t we have a world where:

children’s voices are essential, trusted, and powerful;

LGBTQIA+ children and adults are respected, their needs provided as a matter of course;

women of color hold positions of immense authority,

society values the greater good; and

most people listen to reason?

Sometimes our world is so bleak that sinking into a fantasy with warmth, humor, and nonstop action is one of the best ways for kids to find comfort. But we children’s authors have the opportunity to do more: We can show our young readers a reflection of the truth, a path forward, and prepare them for their own days to come.


Photo credit: Michael Magras

Diane Magras (she/her) is the award-winning author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, as well as its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is her ambitious third book. An unabashed fan of libraries (where she wrote her first novel as a teenager), history (especially from cultures or people who’ve rarely had their story told), and the perfect cup of tea, Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son.