Sunday, March 1, 2015

New MG Magical Realism


The wonderful Alice Hoffman has created an unforgettable middle grade tale. From the first page, we're whisked into the familiar yet magical town of Sidwell, Massachusetts. Filled with secrets and pies, rumors of monsters, young love, and a family curse, the story of twelve-year-old Twig and her family kept me spellbound to the end. Nightbird will be released March 10, and is available for preorder.


What if you had a magic pencil . . . one that knew all the answers? Kate Messner's new middle grade follows middle schooler Ava Anderson as she deals with school, family, saxophone practice, and her sometimes overwhelming anxiety.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bear Hunt

On its 25th anniversary, Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen talk about the making of We're Going On A Bear HuntWatch the video.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

GASP! How to Keep Readers Riveted

I've studied and experimented with a number of plotting systems and strategies, including Save the Cat, The Plot Whisperer, outlining, and the 9-Squares approach. All have given me wonderful insights and helped me structure my stories more effectively. Currently, the one that works best for me is Alexandra Sokoloff's system as explained in her books Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love. I've tweaked the process a bit to suit my way of working, but that's basically the template I use to think through my story. 

GASP Cards
Once I have my story down on the template, I make what I call GASP cards. GASP stands for Goal, Action, Setback, Problem. You can make GASP cards at any point--before writing the first draft, while drafting, or during revision--but I find it helpful to do them earlier rather than later; there's less backtracking that way.

GASP cards are a great way to ... 
  • verify that every chapter (or scene) is advancing the story
  •  make sure the protagonist is active, not passive
  • sequence events in a logical way
  • raise questions that will keep your readers turning the pages
Here's how to do it:
  • Get one index card for every chapter (or every scene, if you prefer)
  • Write the letters G, A, S, P vertically down the lefthand margin of the first card. 
  • Think about what's going to happen in chapter 1, and write it by the appropriate letter.
    • G = GOAL. Remember, this is your protagonist's goal; not your goal. Your goal for a chapter might be to give your protagonist certain information that will eventually help her solve a mystery that she doesn't know about yet. That's no good. Your character can't just mill about waiting to receive the info you wish to impart; that's a recipe for a passive character and a scene that doesn't advance the story. Figure out what she wants right now--it might be to get something (art lessons, a new pair of jeans, a bit of juicy gossip, an A on a test, an invitation to hang out with the cool kids), accomplish something (move up a level in karate, coax a cat out from under the porch, get the cute guy to notice her), or to escape something (evade a bully, get out of detention, avoid being caught sneaking out.) Whatever it is, that's your character's chapter goal.
    • A = ACTION. What action does your character take (or attempt to take) toward her goal? Other things may be happening around her, and her plan may go to hell in a handbasket, but she has to have one.
    • S = SETBACK. As she attempts to take action toward her goal, something unexpected is going to occur. Either her plan won't work out the way she hoped ... or it will work, but something else will happen to mess things up.
    • P = PROBLEM. At the end of the chapter, if the story is advancing as it ought, things will have changed in some way. Your character has refined her goal, or changed her approach, or put it on hold to deal with something more pressing. The setback she experienced has left her with a new problem that propels her forward into the next scene or chapter.
Disclaimer: I didn't invent the idea of breaking scenes down this way. All I did was make up the acronym GASP, which helps me remember what elements need to be emphasized in every scene. I'm not sure where I got the idea... if anyone recognizes it, please tell me and I'll attribute it properly!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger

One of my heroes, Pete Seeger, passed away yesterday at 94. Throughout his long career, he was a positive force for change in the world. I admire his optimism, community spirit, and concern for the environment. He will live on through his music.

Just a few days ago, my husband brought home a tattered book someone had donated. Over the weekend, I sat down at the piano and had fun picking out some of the tunes.

Pete Seeger also authored the wonderful children's story Abiyoyo. Here he is performing the musical story on Reading Rainbow in 1986. 

Rest in peace, Pete Seeger.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Childhood Haunts

When I was little, my family spent a lot of time in Rockport, Indiana. My great-aunt Myrtle, an artist and former teacher, lived alone in an old, two-story house on a sandstone bluff overlooking the Ohio River. That house is the inspiration for my current work in progress, a gothic middle-grade called The Ghost of Morrath Hall.

This summer, my husband, daughter, and I made a pilgrimage to Rockport to check out my childhood haunts. A few highlights:

The cannon on the courthouse lawn. With difficulty, I refrained from climbing up to sit on it, as my brother and I used to do.

Main Street, where you could get an old-fashioned ice cream soda well into the '70s. Alas, Sargent's Soda Fountain is no longer there. Instead, we ate at a delightful Mexican restaurant, Los Panchos. It's not on Main Street, but it has great food and an actual railroad caboose!

The Rockport Library, an original Carnegie library. It was closed, so I couldn't go in, but it brought back wonderful memories. Circa 1968, after my great-aunt moved to a nursing home in Owensboro, my brother and I wandered into this library and spent a happy summer afternoon reading. At closing time, we reluctantly put down our books and got ready to go. But we were in luck--when the librarian found out who we were, she was happy to let us check books out. "Oh--you're Myrtle Posey's kin? Why, we've still got her library card on file. You can use it!" Can you imagine such generosity and trust in this day and age?

The historical marker indicating the spot where, in 1828, 19-year-old Abraham Lincoln set off on his first flatboat trip to New Orleans. There, he had the disturbing experience of seeing a slave auction. It is said that the Emancipation Proclamation owes its origin to this flatboat trip, which helped form Lincoln's views on slavery.

The caves in the bluff. When I was a kiddo, I scampered up there without a thought. On this trip, I kept my feet on terra firma and took pictures. That's my husband and daughter waving down at me.

In the years since I've been there, the property has been added to the Historic Register, and this lovely sign has been erected in the yard. The house is known to be haunted, and is included in the book Haunted Hoosier Trails by Wanda Lou Willis. My brother and I saw our share of spooky lights through the transoms. Naturally, our parents downplayed the hauntedness of the house, hoping to decrease the likelihood of nightmares and sleepless nights. My WIP is a ghost story, but the ghost story is fictitious--that is, it's not based on the actual history of the house.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Let's Talk About Me ...

I have been deep in the revision cave this summer, but have emerged with a completely rewritten MG manuscript. Sent it off to my awesome beta readers yesterday, and am looking forward to their feedback!

Other things going on with me:

  • I start back to work on Tuesday. I'm excited to see my students and get back into the swing of school.
  • My son is flying to California tomorrow for a job interview with Google. Cross your fingers for him!
  • Pavlova is still as cute as can be. It's hard to believe how much she has grown. She continues to enjoy attacking our feet, using the kitchen stools as jungle gyms, and jumping on Xander Cat's head.
  • I combined research and nostalgia by taking a trip to a childhood haunt in Indiana that is the setting for my new novel.
  • My daughter has one more week of her summer job at the St. Louis Zoo before getting ready to head back to college in Chicago.
  • My wonderful family treated me to a lovely birthday dinner at Cafe Natasha. We topped it off with gelato from the Gelateria. Good times!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

An Old Favorite: Bialosky and the Big Parade Mystery

When my kids were little, their favorite 4th of July story was Bialosky and the Big Parade Mystery by Justine Korman.

Bialosky, the sweet and earnest little bear, has lost his trumpet--right before the 4th of July parade! He needs his trumpet to play in the parade, so he and his friends set out to find it. They tail a mysterious stranger who is traveling about town with an oddly marked briefcase. When the stranger stops in at a restaurant, Bialosky and his friends pretend to be waiters in order to gather more clues. Eventually, Bialosky finds the trumpet under his band hat, and the mysterious stranger is revealed to be a fireworks expert, in town for the annual Independence Day fireworks. The story ends with everyone enjoying the fireworks show and munching on delicious muffins. This is a great story to read when preparing preschoolers for a trip to watch the fireworks.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: The Wells Bequest

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my top ten list of middle grade and YA time travel novels. (Really there were eleven, but I figured no one would notice.) I just finished a new one that definitely belongs on the list. The Wells Bequest by Polly Shulman is a companion book to her delightful 2010 middle grade novel, The Grimm Legacy. But the stories stand alone, so there's no need to read them in order.

The Wells in the title refers, of course, to H. G. Wells, and the plot centers around the time machine from his 1895 novella, The Time Machine. Leo and his crush, Jaya, have to travel back in time to the NYC of 1895. There, they attend a lecture at The Electric Club and meet Nikola Tesla and Samuel Clemens (who were, in fact, friends) and attempt to stop an ancestor of Leo's nemesis, Simon, from stealing the plans for Tesla's death ray. I'm not going to summarize any more of the plot, because I don't think I can explain it coherently, but it's a fun story, full of action, humor, young love, sci-fi allusions, and science references. Just read it.

Want to know more? Here's an excellent review from Charlotte's Library.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mermaid Books For Girls

Summer is here at last, and we're all looking for the perfect beach (or poolside) read. And what could be better than MERMAIDS? Here are some great mer-novels for middle grade readers.

Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on

Liz Kessler captures the magic and mystery of mermaids in her popular middle grade series. Isn't Emily Windsnap the most perfect mermaid name you've ever heard?
The Tail of Emily Windsnap 
Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep
Emily Windsnap and the Castle in the Mist
Emily Windsnap and the Siren's Secret
Emily Windsnap and the Land of the Midnight Sun

Helene Boudreau's delightful Real Mermaid series is just right for tween
and young teen girls who like fantasy mixed with light romance:
Real Mermaids Don’t Wear Toe Rings
Real Mermaids Don't Hold Their Breath
Real Mermaids Don't Need High Heels
Real Mermaids Don't Sell Sea Shells (coming in February 2014)

Alice Hoffman, one of my all-time favorite novelists, combines mermaids with her unique brand of magical realism in two standalone stories for young readers:

Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, coauthors of the beloved Peter and the Starcatchers series, turn their yarnspinning skills to mermaids in Escape from the Carnivale. The result is a fast-paced read with humor and suspense (and Peter Pan isn't even in it). Boys will enjoy this one, too.

And a few more titles to check out:

The Fish in Room 11 by Heather Dyer - This one has a boy main character, and will appeal to younger middle grade readers.

Ingo by Helen Dunmore - I haven't read this one yet, but it looks captivating! The story takes place off the coast of Cornwall.

The Forbidden Sea by Sheila NielsonThe author provides some great resources on her blog, including a discussion guide, deleted scenes which give insight into the revision process, and a book list (see below).

Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotsen - How can you go wrong with a novel that opens like this: "Kidnapping children is not a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done." This quirky story, published in 1999, will appeal to those who like Roald Dahl. It's written in an old-fashioned, tongue-in-cheek, third person omniscient style, and is filled with mythical sea creatures, dangerously flawed adults, more than a little violence, and some truly outrageous solutions to problems. Boys and girls will both enjoy this fast-paced adventure.

If you just can't get enough mermaid stories, Sheila Nielson's blog includes a lengthy list of Mermaid Books For All Ages

And Ed's Mermaid Page has still more!

Have a happy, splashy, mermaid-filled summer! If you've ever seen a mermaid (or if you know of any other wonderful mermaid tales), please tell us about it in the comments. 

And be sure to stop by Shannon Messenger's blog for this weeks' list of Middle Grade Monday reviews.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Top 10 MG/YA Time Travel

I always enjoy Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, and it's usually quite a challenge to come up with ten books that fit the theme. This week's topic, Books Featuring Travel, is the exception--it's almost too easy, because there's so much fiction that involves travel. A few favorites that come to mind are Walk Two Moons, Sway, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Mr. Mysterious and Company, The Hobbit, Travels With Charley, The Historian, The Bean Trees, and The Incredible Journey (which I read on a long car trip when I was about ten.)

Just to make it more fun, I'm going to share my TOP TEN TIME TRAVEL NOVELS. As usual, I'll give my list a kid lit twist, focusing on middle grade and YA. Some of these are reviewed elsewhere on my blog--just click on the asterisk to go to my review.

Charlie Bone and the Time Twister
by Jenny Nimmo

Ruby Red 
by Kerstin Geir 

by Kate Saunders 

by Rebecca Stead 

by Penelope Farmer 

by Philippa Pearce 

by Annie Barrows 

by Laurel Snyder 

by Ransom Riggs

by Madeleine L’Engle

by Wendy Mass