Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


The Best Christmas

When I was a young girl my family lived in Northern CA. At Christmastime we travelled over the Grapevine (a steep pass through the mountains from the Central Valley to the High Desert) to visit my favorite Grandma in Long Beach. Sometimes the wind was howling. Other times the pass was closed due to snow. But most of the time we made it through with no trouble.

The unpredictability of the weather stressed out my poor parents, but it excited me. It was Christmas, with the possibility of snow. It was the magic of the Polar Express in the safety of my own car, with my very capable parents at the helm.

When we arrived at Grandma's, she'd have the fire going and candles lit. Her dining room table would shimmer with her good china and silver. A feast would be awaiting us and afterwards, a good nap in my father's lap near the fire. I could hear the bell then. I wonder if I will hear it again someday.


light in the dark

Tonight is one of my favorites of the holiday season. We will go to our friend Kirsten and Drew's for the annual lighting of candles on their Christmas tree. Yes, they use real candles, and because they are real candles we all must sit around and watch them burn down. After a nice meal and homemade eggnog, the quiet of sitting and watching these beautiful lights is soothing.

At a time of the year when so many animals are slowing down, we are encouraged to speed up in a mad rush to finish end of the year activities and prepare for the holidays. I want to slow down now and reflect about this year and the one to come.

On Monday evening we will have another favorite activity when we go to Hidden Falls down by the Mississippi River for our annual solstice fire. People will bring wood for a fire, beverages to share, musical instruments, and paper to write down things they would like to let go of as well as hopes for the new year. These papers will be placed in the fire that will light up the darkest night of the year. We've got plenty of snow here now, but it is always warm around this fire. You are welcome to join us.

Favorite Christmas Tales

My favorite Christmas tale has always been A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I admit to a couple years of unfaithfulness when I became enamored of Charlie Brown's Christmas when I was young, but I returned to Scrooge when my pagan roots grew strong and the lure of spirits and merriment at the darkest time of year seemed the most sensible of all seasonal past times. I think Mr. Dickens was a great proponent of therapy- a man before his time. When Scrooge is flying with the first spirit of Christmas past, he asks" "Spirit, what is that light on the horizon?" and the Spirit replies, "It is the past." and certainly, in this dark time of year it is filled with memories from the past that may light up our holidays or certainly light a fire to our writing and painting. And it is in our darkest times that we may look to the past to shed some sort of light on our present experience. As a child, I loved the three visiting spirits-- was frightened by them also, but they filled me with hope... hope that things can change for the better.

I cannot finish a blog on my favorite Christmas book without also mentioning The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. I discovered this book about ten years ago and was riveted to the couch from beginning to end. Her knowledge of early pagan celebrations in England and Wales at this time of year, blending the past with the present to create a fantasy that brings the yuletide alive in a battle of light and dark, brought new meaning to this time of year. I now embrace the evergreens and lights as necessary to make it to the new year. It is a book that touched upon my ancient Anglo roots, shedding light on the past to make for a changed present-- as in A Christmas Carol. For me, Christmas is all about the dark and hope for the light to return. And good books are certainly part of the vital light.


A Christmas Treasure

A few years ago, I discovered what has become my favorite children’s Christmas-themed novel: The Great Christmas Kidnapping Caper by Jean Van Leeuwen. The story follows the ongoing antics/adventures of a mouse named Marvin the Magnificent and his two cohorts, Raymond and Fats, who made their first appearance in The Great Cheese Conspiracy and who also appear in three other novels, all of which are fast-paced and funny and make great read-alouds. Good quality copies, reasonably priced, are hard to find (the book was published in the Seventies) but a full-cast audio edition came out a few years ago, so if nothing else you can always turn on the Christmas lights, snuggle under a warm comforter, and listen to a great Christmas story!


Edie's Favorite Christmas Memories

1. Favorite Christmas Ritual—Since early in our marriage, Doug and I (and our two children when they were younger) have gone out to cut our own Christmas tree each year. I always lose my sense of proportion when outside, so we invariably come home with a tree too tall or too big around. And my husband always swears we won’t do this again, since it’s his back that gets the hard end of the deal. This year was no exception, but at least we have a very high ceiling in our log cabin to accommodate a large tree.
2. Favorite Christmas Song—“Lullay Thou Little Tiny Child,” also known as “The Coventry Carol.”
3. Favorite Christmas Picture Book—THE LITTLE FIR TREE by Margaret Wise Brown
4. Favorite Christmas Gift I’ve GivenFor the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration, Good Housekeeping Magazine sponsored a contest for an embroidered picture that depicted something about our American Heritage. Since I loved to embroider, I decided to enter. However, I work slowly, so when the deadline passed, the picture became a Christmas gift for my grandmother, inspired by a cradle built back in 1864 for the birth of her mother, Edith Call (for whom I was named). The cradle was shared by her younger siblings and passed down through multiple generations. I myself slept in it. The picture included the first stanza of a narrative poem written by my great grandmother’s older sister (who did not get to sleep in the cradle) and entitled “Eda’s Cradle.” The gift brought tears to my grandmother’s eyes, and I remember her holding it in her lap all of Christmas Day. After she died, my grandfather returned it to me, and it now hangs in my guest room.
5. Favorite Christmas Gift I’ve ReceivedThe Christmas I was ten or eleven, I received a Magic Designer, also known as a “Hoot Nanny.” That particular Christmas our entire family was sick with bad colds, so we spent all day in our pajamas, making elaborate hoot nanny designs and coloring them with my new set of colored pencils. I saved the hoot nanny, and my own children spent many happy hours creating their own designs.
6. Favorite Christmas Scene from a Children’s Book—The final chapter of THE GOOD MASTER by Kate Seredy


Navidades en Puerto Rico

Christmas in Puerto Rico starts with Advent and ends with the octavitas, eight days after Epiphany. People go parrandiando, singing Christmas songs from house to house. Some of the songs are not religious, like Si me dan pasteles (pasteles are like tamales but they are made with yucca or plantains and are wrapped in banana leaves). The song, accompanied by guitars, drums, trumpets and maracas--or pots and pans--calls for warm pasteles. Each house owner opens her doors--even if it is after three in the morning--and treats the singers with food and drinks. Then the owner joins the group and they all go to the next house. If you can, you stay up until the Misa de Aguinaldo at five in the morning. After Mass, you eat breakfast and go to bed. Work? It's on hold until after the octavitas. Do not expect much service during Navidades en Puerto Rico.


The Best Gifts of All

When I think about all the Christmas gifts I've given, my favorite is one that cost no more than a couple dollars. When I was in my mid twenties I bought a small hardcover blank book. Beginning several months before Christmas I filled it with memories of my mother. I included silly jokes that the two of us shared, anecdotes of times spent together, and reasons why I loved and appreciated her. The quality of the writing was not very good and I didn't fill the book completely as I had hoped, but when Christmas Eve arrived I wrapped it up and placed it under the tree. My mother was oblivious to all its imperfections and it became one of her most treasured possessions.

Several years later I did the same thing for my father and mailed it out to Colorado where he lived. His wife later told me that when he unwrapped the book and began reading, it was the only time she ever saw him cry.

Both of my parents have died now. I'm so glad I took the time to make these books for them while they were still alive. It's true that you don't need money to give a meaningful gift.

On the other hand, the best gift I ever received was not handmade.

As a child I was fascinated by balloons. I wanted to grow up to be a balloonman. Then one Christmas when I was a teenager I received only one small package beneath the tree. When I unwrapped it, it was a bag of balloons. "Go look in the garage," said my mother. Next to our car I found an industrial-sized tank of helium. For the next six months I was the balloonman I had always wanted to be, sending notes up into the sky, making a tiny gondola to carry the neighbor's hamster, and flying anything that was light and could be filled with helium (balloons, baggies, plastic gloves).

Sometimes the best gifts are free, and sometimes they're the result of creative thinking.


Christy Kringle’s Christmas Workshop

This little elf is busy! Each year I enjoy transforming odds and ends into gifts. Yesterday my husband came home to find candle stubs melting in a pot on the stove. Nearby I was peeling labels off pet food cans. After raising his eyebrows he remarked, “I’ve learned that at this time of year it’s better to keep my head low and not ask questions.”

Since moving to California I’ve harvested our trees to make gifts. You think this red and green is for Christmas? Think again! This concoction transports me to Scotland, thus the plaid. I developed a taste for marmalade my sophomore year while living with the Middleton family in Edinburgh.

These are just a couple of the many projects I’m cooking up. I'm never happier than when I'm making gifts.


Christmas traditions

Decorating for Christmas at our house means bringing out ornaments and decorations we've gathered over the past twenty years. It is always fun to open up the boxes as they get dragged out of their storage spots, and reconnect with the holiday things we only see once a year. I think the one I look forward to the most is the carved Nativity scene I got in December 1990, when we were Peace Corps volunteers in Tanzania. At the carver's market in Dar es Salaam, I traded my pair of Nike running shoes, quite well worn, for the set. I think both the carver and I thought we got the better part of the bargain. I know I did, because I couldn't imagine our house for Christmas without seeing these figures up.
I hope all of you have a lovely holiday season!


The End Is Near, and I Am Grateful

As you can see, my blog is a couple of days early, but as you may have noticed, it hasn't appeared for awhile. Better early than never?

Its title reflects the end of my first quarter in the English Composition Master's program at Cal State San Bernardino. I picked Cal State because I thought it might be an easier program than a UC or a private college (where I got my undergrad degree many many moons ago), and certainly because it was a whole lot cheaper. What I found, to my delight and horror, is that not only are the professors brilliant and intersting and funny, but their classes are ten times harder. (No, make that twenty, or thirty.) I haven't seen my husband in a couple of months and my friends, well, they know that I'll call them in the summer to check in. And of course, the bag of potatoes has been one potato lighter lately.

So, what am I grateful for? 1. Not getting the swine flu this quarter. 2. Not losing any papers in cyberspace. 3. The diversity in age, race and gender of my wonderful classmates. 4. The fact that they're suffering too. 5. Jenny, who brought five pies to class the night before Thanksgiving when I had to leave a family dinner to attend class from 6 - 8 p.m. 6. My parents' health, cuz God knows I haven't seen them much either. 7. My husband's patience. 8. The final words typed on my last paper this afternoon at 4 p.m. 9. My final class on Monday. 10. The chance to write with some really hot potatoes who remind me that I have so much to be thankful for!


Some good news on a Friday...

I just got the news that The Compound is a finalist for the 2010-11 Missouri Truman Readers Award. Students in grades 6-8 across Missouri will read all twelve finalists during the 2010-11 school year, then vote for their favorite.
Wow, and I just had to edit to add The Compound is also a finalist for the Missouri Gateway Readers Award.
Fun fact: I lived in Missouri until I was three years old...


Unexpected Gifts

One of the things I'm thankful for is unexpected gifts. Three have come my way recently and I'm thankful for all of them. Last week I was notified that BOX OUT had been selected for the 2010 Tayshas High School Reading List for Texas students. I'm always pleased to have a book chosen for one of the Texas lists and am particularly pleased to have BOX OUT on the Tayshas list.

Today in the mail I received five letters from students at a charter school in Philadelphia who read Crackback and wanted to tell me what they thought, ask some questions, and offer suggestions for future books. The personalities of these students shine through in their letters.

And yesterday I received word that a picture book manuscript of mine has been acquired. This is a story I became interested in when my daughter started college in Massachusetts and I visited a nearby site of historical importance. That my daughter is long graduated and now married is beside the point. I'm thrilled to have a new picture book in the works. Each day we go to work without knowing where the stories or pictures will take us, and so often we receive unexpected gifts. Thank you.



The weekend before the weekend before Thanksgiving, I was giving great thanks to the universe for leading me to my path as a children's book-maker. The weekend began with a day celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, MN.
(http://www.redballoonbookshop.com/) I was honored to create a poster to commemorate this event and at 11 AM I was scheduled to sign said posters. Not content to just sign, I handed out sheets of paper with the banner already printed on them, poured crayons and markers on the floor of the store and let all of the young artists make their own anniversary posters for the Red Balloon. This bookstore has been unbelievably supportive of my books. From publication parties to book festivals to school visits, The Red Balloon Bookshop is at the top of my gratitude list.
The next day was the 60th anniversary of the Kerlan Collection, at the U of Minnesota. (http://special.lib.umn.edu/clrc/kerlan/index.php) A luncheon attended by lovers and creators of children's literature started the event followed by a lecture from one of their best known researchers, Leonard Marcus. There was a wonderful exhibit of some of their holdings, including pieces by Wanda Gag, Gustave Tenggren, Jeannette Winter, and many more. (They even had a few sketches of mine from Our Family Tree and Fold Me A Poem, which thrilled me to be in such company!) Many of Minnesota's great authors and illustrators were in attendance and I loved having the opportunity to converse, discuss and celebrate what we do. I am grateful to live in an area of the country where children's literature is so valued.
I woke up Monday morning, after this weekend of festivities feeling like the luckiest person in the world! I am so thankful to be able to write and paint what has meaning to me and then offer it to the world. What a gift.


In the world of children's literature, I am thankful for...

  1. Creative minds.
  2. Past and current authors who have set and raised the standards.
  3. Editors and publishers who keep acquiring new books in an uncertain economy.
  4. The inventor of the bookcase.
  5. Independent bookstores whose inventories are not dictated by a central office.
  6. Librarians who help to spread the love of the written word.
  7. Teachers who instill the skill and love of reading in their students.
  8. Story characters who make good friends you can count on.
  9. My fellow spuds who come together from our far-flung homes to share thoughts on books and the writing process.
  10. My five grandchildren who love books.
(and 11. A husband who cooks!)


Día de Acción de Gracias

What a wonderful day to be blogging!
My main thanks go to having a daughter alive. A few months ago Juliana phoned me to say that she thought she would be calling with good news but not anymore. She'd had a miscarriage. Sad, but not the end of the world, except that two weeks later she began having an awful pain. This is a lady who didn't say "Ay" when delivering Conor. It was worrisome to hear her complaining now. Her hormones indicated she was still pregnant, but the fetus wasn't in her uterus. One of thirty-three thousand ladies have a baby in a tube and another in a Fallopian tube. So, the doctors discarded that possibility. One day the pain stopped. Juliana was feeling fine, but the hormones didn't go down as much as expected. When her white blood cells went down, worried about an infection, the doctors decided to operate. They found a ruptured Fallopian tube. The fetus had made kind of a cork that saved my daughter from a hemorrhage. Today she's doing well. Her other tube is good. And I am super thankful for having this brave woman in my life.
My father's ninetieth birthday was on November 8. My sister took him to Connecticut and I flew from Oregon to meet him at the airport. When he saw me instead of seeing my sister, he thought that the pilots had made a mistake and had flown him to Portland. We had unforgettable days celebrating with him.
My writing thanks go to my papas calientes, writing group, editors, educators, students, colleagues, writers, READERS, and the inspiration that comes from above.
May you have a peaceful, healthy and loving day.



As a writer, I have many reasons to give thanks this year: my past books, a current project which has caught the interest of an editor, new picture books on the horizon for 2010 and 2011.

But at the moment I am especially thankful for the work I get to do with elementary school children. I just finished a week of working with seven classes of fourth graders as a visiting author. I guided the students through the stages of creating a book, from writing a first draft to making revisions to drawing illustrations. I shared with them both past and current writing projects of mine. We talked about the joys, and frustrations, of writing.

Being able to visit each classroom multiple times allowed the students and me to make a strong connection. By the end of the week they were showing me books they had created at home and giving me illustrations they had sketched in their free time. What a delight it was for me to walk into a classroom and have the students cheer, or to receive a thank you letter saying "I never realized how much I liked writing until you came to our class."

As schools continue to tighten their financial belts even more and money for outside speakers becomes harder to find, I am thankful that I am still asked into the classroom. These experiences are rewarding to me on many levels, and for that I am extremely grateful.


Right now

I’m an anticipator. I worried much of this last year that my husband would lose his job. I felt sad when our daughter began high school this fall, knowing how little time remains for her to be with us. I was scared recently when my mother suffered a mini-stroke. Perhaps these emotions jumpstart needed actions or prepare me for what may come, but nonetheless they stir me into a state of disequilibrium. More than ever I need to break things down and live moment by moment. This very day my husband is employed, our daughter is here, my mother is alive, and I am grateful!

As a freelancer, I struggle to contribute half to our financial mix. The last two years have been particularly tough ones in the publishing industry. Still, there was an “up” side to the economic downturn. With fewer assignments I had more time to develop personal projects. For years I claimed to be too busy to nurture my own ideas. This fall marked the realization of a lifelong dream with my debut as an author in The East-West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan. It’s been two years since I had a book out, so my greatest hope was that this new one would put me back in circulation, give me the chance to keep going. Right away an editor I adore offered me an illustration contract. Two other personal author/illustrator projects may be close to acquisition! I have a comfortable amount of design and art direction work to hold me steady. Generally I have established a better balance in my work life between assignments and ideas I want to develop. I am grateful.

We lived in New York for 18 years. I am often nostalgic for that time. I miss the sense of community I had there, miss feeling part of the publishing world. But looking backward, just like looking forward keeps me from recognizing what is in front of me now. If I examine this moment I am reminded that I know many local colleagues in children’s books and have begun some rich friendships. I rely on these peers to help me critique my work and for an exchange of ideas. Our group blog has shown me that I can experience community independent of location—we do mash, don’t we spuds? I am grateful.


Some Thanks to Give...

As Thanksgiving nears, it's time for the Potatoes to take stock of all the writing things we are thankful for. My list is long.

1. I'm thankful that, once again, I did not quit writing, although I threaten to every year...

2. I'm thankful for my agent, my editor and their role in my latest book deal with Feiwel and Friends that will keep me writing and see my novel The Raft make it to book shelves. ( And I will be thankful at this time, next year, when that book is done and I'm hard at work on the second book of the contract. Um, so I guess I will also be thankful when I figure out what that book will be.)

3. I'm thankful that my second novel is finished, almost ready to be released. The Gardener is out in galley form after a long journey. ( And I must thank fellow potato Mark, who gave me valuable feedback on an early draft.)

4. To show my thanks, I'm holding a giveaway of a shiny new ARC of The Gardener over on my personal blog http://latteya.livejournal.com/ The release date isn't until June, 2010, so you can be among the first to read it. Go, visit, win!

5. And finally, I'm thankful for my fellow Potatoes and the wisdom they impart in every post. I constantly learn from them, it has been so fun to learn more about each individual and celebrate their various successes, and I'm just thankful we have this forum to share our writing journeys.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!




My all time favorite writing exercise is titled Revelation. It is simple and it is complex. It can be used individually or in a workshop or therapeutic setting. I have used it personally to understand my characters issues in more depth, and found that many times it led to entire chapters I didn't know existed before beginnning the exercise. When used in a workshop or therapeutic setting, I begin by asking my audience to write down a secret they have never shared before on a small piece of paper. If they can't think of a secret, they have the freedom to make one up. This is all anonymous.

After finding their secret, and writing it down, they fold up the secret, and I pick them up in a big pottery bowl. After a bit of a display of tossing and mixing the secrets, I walk around the room and let each participant choose a secret (it cannot be their own). Then, the writers are asked to tell the story of the secret they have chosen.

It is a effective jumpstart into a story because it begins with a secret, and a secret many times implies shame which carries enormous emotion and tension. After writing their secret's story, the participants read and share what they have written. Many times in this process, the secret owner is greatly moved, and drawn in compassion toward the writer who adopted their secret; other times the stories elicit belly laughs from all involved.

I've used this with professional writers, writers-in-process (I hope we all are.), college students, high school students, and middle grade students. Most recently, I incorporated the exercise into a narrative therapy "Word" group at the Covenant House, a homeless shelter for young adults.



Reading the other posts on this topic has truly been an inspiration. Regretfully, I have little to add on the topic of “favorite writing exercises” – to the point that I am a day late in submitting my post! I took a few creative writing classes in college (over 20 years ago) and have participated in numerous writing conferences, especially the last few years. Rather than utilize any specific exercises to work on my craft or “jumpstart” my creative juices, however, I have relied on a few fundamental mantras gleaned over the course of my life, as follows:

READ: You always hear successful writers (not to mention editors and agents) tout the importance of reading, and, perhaps even more importantly, learning from what you read. This includes not only favorite/classic/successful fiction but books on writing craft as well. Some of the most helpful titles, for me, from the latter group include Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen and The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb. Also, I find inspiration in reading books about other books, such as Masterplots II, Juvenile and Young Adult Literature Series, a seven-volume series that covers “form and content,” “analysis,” and “critical context” for hundreds of titles; these entries help me study the nuts and bolts of successful fiction like no other resource (kind of like condensed Cliffnotes for children’s literature). In bygone years I would have spent hours at my local library reading Masterplots, but with the advent of the Internet I was able to purchase the entire set (which retails for literally hundreds of dollars) for $5!! It remains my personal favorite resource for inspiration and learning my craft.

WRITE: This one is rather self-evident if your goal is to be a writer. Still, finding time to write amidst life’s many requirements can be a challenge, as can sticking with a project on the not-so-good writing days. Rather than set a word or page-count goal each day, I just make sure I cloister inside my writing shack and “give it a go” every single day I am at home, for at least 3-4 hours.

BELONG TO A CRITIQUE GROUP: It took awhile, but after a few false starts, I have hooked up with two critique groups that provide me with valuable feedback and needed camaraderie. The groups have a mix of published and not-yet-published writers, as well as diverse personalities, that never fail to inspire me and definitely have improved my stories.

Read, write, critique and be critiqued – these are the primary tools I use in my own personal quest to work on my craft and improve my stories. Not the most groundbreaking strategies, I know, but tried-and-true nonetheless. Which isn't to say I won't try a few of the exercises generously shared by others on this blog -- in fact, I already have! I'm always open to new ideas and strategies, and when it all finally pays off with an acceptance letter, I’ll let you know!!


Happy Birthday Isamu and more good news

I am celebrating Noguchi's birthday today (105 candles on his cake). I am also celebrating that THE EAST-WEST HOUSE was selected as one of Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2009. Look at page 6 of the following link. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/kirkusreviews/images/pdf/bestchildren.pdf



A 2009 Parents' Choice Gold Award!

I'm squeezing in an extra "celebratory" post today. This afternoon I found out that ROAD TO TATER HILL won a Fall 2009 Parents' Choice Gold Award, and I'm still dancing all over the house!


A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park

A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park is a mural by Diego Rivera. It is a social commentary. The wealthy could walk inside Alameda Park while the indigenous people watched from outside. Some were vendors. The police made sure that the poor stayed away from the rich.
Write a passage from the point-of-view of a wealthy person who doesn't want poor people in the park.
Then write a passage from the point-of-view of a poor person at the edge of the park, looking in, or trying to get in.
In both passages use as many of the senses as you can (smells, tastes, sounds...) and emotions!


The Power of a Writing Exercise by Edie Hemingway

The topic of “writing exercises” was my idea for this round of blog posts, but now that it’s my turn, I’m having trouble narrowing down my choices of favorite exercises. When I began teaching my Misty Hill Lodge Writing Workshops four years ago, I discovered Pat Schneider’s book, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. What a treasure trove of ideas that book has become for me! I have countless pages highlighted and marked with colored paper clips.

Just last week I used one of her exercises when teaching a writing workshop at Clear View Academy in Cleveland, NC. I asked the students to write a 5-minute autobiography and to slip in one lie (or piece of fiction). It was a great way to get to know each other, and we had fun picking out the lies. I participated, too, and included these tidbits about my life:
1. My great uncle was Ernest Hemingway, and I remember sitting on his lap while he read to me.
2. When I was twelve, I swam with flipper in the Florida Keys.
3. I’ve done many things as an adult, including teaching school, owning and operating a frozen yogurt shop, and writing three books.
Which do you think was the lie? Believe it or not, none of the students even knew who Ernest Hemingway was, so did not guess correctly. But I found that they were very subtle about slipping in their own lies, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

My middle grade novel ROAD TO TATER HILL began as an exercise to write about an event in my childhood that evoked strong emotion. I had no intention of turning that exercise into a fictional novel, but once I got to the core of those buried emotions, I could not stop writing. I did, of course, fictionalize much of it in order to make it a better story that people might want to read. I am pleased that I managed to blur those lines between fact and fiction well enough that my readers often ask me which characters are real and which are fiction.

In the writing of the book, I used two other exercises when I was stuck with where to go next. One was writing in response to music (a CD called “And The Band Played On: Music Played on the Titanic”), which turned into one of my favorite chapters in the book—Annie waltzing with Grandpa. The other exercise was putting two characters (my main character, Annie, and her best friend, Bobby) into a room together just to see what they would say the first time they meet again after an argument. The room was a barn, stacked with bales of fresh cut hay. I won’t tell you what happened, since I want you to read the book, but I will say the scene ended up as another chapter in ROAD TO TATER HILL.

An author friend of mine, Donny Bailey Seagraves, whose book GONE FROM THESE WOODS was recently released by Delacorte Press, also writes from real life experiences. However, her book was based on an event in someone else’s life. It was inspired by a story she heard many years ago about a tragedy that happened in the family of her second grade teacher. Donny carried that “real” story in her head for a very long time, then typed it on a list of story ideas and tacked it to her office bulletin board, which moved from house to house with her before she finally decided to turn it into a fictional story. Years later she visited her second grade teacher (then 90 years old) and found out that the “real” story didn’t match her fictional story. But, if you read the novel, you will see that it certainly did serve as a compelling exercise and inspiration. See http://www.donnyseagraves.com for more information. “Understanding or coping with an accidental death is seldom so directly connected to real responsibility or the need to make peace with such a mistake. Seagraves shows the best way for support to be given as well as how hard it is to forgive. These are tough topics to read about, but the book will bring up many discussions.” (excerpt from School Library Journal review)

So, don’t discount those writing exercises that teachers use to “jumpstart” their students’ creative juices or that you may use to get yourself through a case of writer’s block. Some of them may end up as published books!


Box Out Trailer

Here is a book trailer for Box Out I came across that I think is terrific.


Mandy Lawrence who made did an excellent job.


Fifty-five words or less

I love contests.

That's one reason I was drawn to Steve Moss' book THE WORLD'S SHORTEST STORIES. It's filled with winners from his Fifty-Five Fiction contest, which asked entrants to write an entire story in fifty-five words or less. Who knew such funny, touching, frightening, and surprising tales could be told in such few words!

Several years ago I was giving a workshop to middle school students titled "Becoming a Better Writer Through Contests." As part of the workshop I conducted my own Fifty-Five Fiction contest. The kids didn't have much time to write, perhaps fifteen minutes, but they created some wonderful stories. I gave modest prizes to the top winners, but even better was when the three winners had their stories published in an English textbook and received their own publishing contracts!

Below is one of the winners, written by a girl when she was a student at St. Anthony Middle School:

by Nellene Benhardus

Brushing back my golden hair, I approach the beach. I notice eyes staring as I stride across the sand. Laying my towel out, I sit, absorbing the sun.



"Finished yet?"

I step out of the dressing room and show Mom the suit I've selected.

She sighs. "Man, you're slow!"

Nellene's story still makes me smile. In less than fifty-five words she's painted two distinct characters and given us a glimpse of how they relate to each other.

As I told my students, entering contests with specific word limits forces you to think carefully about each word you choose. All the jingle contests I've entered over the years have proven valuable training ground for writing picture books where there's no room for superfluous language. If you're up for a challenge, give yourself fifteen minutes and see if you can write your own fifty-five word story. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate not having a word limit the next time you sit down to write!

having a successful launch party

Check out this interview at Lee & Low's blog and leave a comment. Add your ideas. Let's get a dialogue going.


Writing 101

Edie suggested we highlight a favorite writing assignment from a class taken or taught for this cycle of posts. My choices are limited. I've taken two writing classes and have taught none. My very first assignment was easy for a newbie—just write from memory for about 5–10 minutes every day for a week. There was no goal stated, so this was more about process. I'm sure you know what I learned during that time, that ideas and connections develop as you go. The process itself is magic. Below is my first little ditty:

Seed of the stone
At the tiptop of our hill I planted corn. Stairs, built from railroad ties Daddy hauled in the Studebaker, zigzagged to an area he leveled mid-way up the slope. Flanking the stairs and bordering our half-acre were stonewalls he pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. No two stones were alike, and every last one of them came from the old quarry in Rockport on our weekly trips to Grammy’s. Tailgate down, Daddy would lift and bend, lift and bend, unloading his boyhood home to ours.

Up we went with a trowel, seeds, and a watering can. Hen-and-chicks peeked out between rocks on either side of the steps. The flowers, shrubs and trees Daddy planted were on the lower half of the hill. Everything above the flat grassy area was wild. There were no more stairs to make the climbing easy, so by the time we reached my spot we were out of breath.

From this height we could see every yard along Russell Street. The school bus driver said ours was his favorite. Across the street, to our left and right were woods. Behind us was bulldozed land, still undeveloped.

I chipped away at the dry earth making a small hole. My seeds were bright and hopeful against the dull brown dirt. I placed them carefully, covered them over and patted them. All tucked in! After watering we headed back down the hill. All summer long we repeated this climb. We must have forgotten a few times because the corn didn’t grow nearly as high as stalks by the roadside stands.

August was a good month to pick corn. That was when we made our harvest trip. A lone short stalk grew with one little ear. Silky threads hung like hair. Eagerly I peeled back the ribbed green husks. The corn was not like any I’d seen. No tidy rows of uniform kernels. Zigzagged and irregular, mine was a golden stonewall.



Fear is a four-letter word. Fear is a blockade, a do not enter, a caution sign; blinking red lights. It deters, procrastinates, and bullies.
I am late with this blog because I let myself be bullied by fear. It sneaks up on me, and punches me in the belly. I catch my breath, and in the absolute frustration of not knowing, I take my hardest step: putting my work out there, taking the jabs of rejection consistently, and bouncing back to receive another hit.
Sometimes I think I must be good company for fear. Fear can find a willing ally in me, one that only too easily admits the lack in my work, the lack of timing, the lack of talent, the lack of marketing skills. I think of all these things. Fear has given me a black eye and I am just about tired of being bullied.
It is about time.


Do It

So many of the posts about fear have been interesting and thoughtful. In thinking about the issue, most of my fears about writing come down to the question of is it good enough. The initial fear of is it good enough to attract the interest of an editor is replaced by is it good enough to pass through an acquisitions process, and then if that happens, is it good enough to be a book. Unlike other aspects of my life where I have repeated chances to improve something, once a book is published, that is the book.

I find myself being aware of these fears and going ahead and doing the work. The moving forward isn't an absence of the fear so much as an acknowledgment of the fear and a decision to just do it. I've heard writers of over one hundred books describe the fear that they won't have anything to say or the work won't be any good so I don't expect the fear to disappear.

As others have said, the fear of a story not being good enough provides a motivation to make it better, and each piece can continue to be improved over and over. At some point, we let it go and when it becomes a book, we live with it in that form even though we know it could be better.

So over and over, I greet the fear, sit down and go to work.


Thoughts on Art and Fear

Several years ago, I attended a lecture given by Janet Stevens at the Kerlan Collection, an incredible collection of children's book manuscripts and illustrations at the University of Minnesota. http://special.lib.umn.edu/clrc/. Her first slide was a photo of the book: Art and Fear, Observation on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland. Her talk revealed her own personal fears and dreams of making "real" art, beyond the picture book. She showed courage in revealing her vulnerability and ended up touching everyone in the room in some way that was very moving. Personally, I disagreed with her about the idea of making "real" art outside of picture books, since I consider what I do as an illustrator of picture books as extremely real, but that is another topic.

In the introduction of Art and Fear, the author's write: This book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work.

"Free will", "choice" and committing to the future and finding one's own work are all part of maturing as an artist and what stirs fear in me. When I sit down to write or stand at my wall to paint, my biggest fear is that I will not find my "true" voice and let it sing strong and clear before I die. Yes, death is the final silence, and though I have been painting for more than thirty years and writing stories for nearly a decade now, it the fear of not finding my true voice, whatever that is, before I die, that eats at me most. I love the gift of another's manuscript and being able to live with it for many months and eventually reveal painted images that enhance or illuminate the words. I also consider the act of illustrating another's words as "finding my own work", even though I am constantly asked "Why don't you do your own work?"

When I do sit down to write my own stories with the intention of making the pictures for them, that is when I wonder if I am saying anything worthwhile? This causes fear to take over and silence me. Then I remember "play". Play is so essential to my life-- it causes accidents and enjoyment and banishes the fears for awhile. Play allows me to be in the moment of moving the pen or brush with courage and blind faith that something worthwhile will emerge-- even if it is just the act of playing. Time is another factor that banishes fear for me-- I need time to make mistakes, wander without pressure, and play until something catches and doesn't let me go.


Choosing the Biggest Fear Among Many

My fellow potatoes have described many fears that ring familiar with me, but perhaps none more than the fear that the “well has run dry” and I have used up all my good story ideas. The other fears – Are my characters believable and sympathetic? Is my plot contrived? Do I even have a plot? Am I just wasting my time? -- are manageable, to me, through the act of writing and revision. But the entire structure of a story rests on the original premise, the germ of an idea that must be unique enough to warrant the months of work it will take to develop it. That’s why, among certain writer friends of mine, when someone shares a great idea the rest of us congratulate him/her and then, inevitably, one of us utters the caveat: “If you don’t do something with it [the idea}, I will!” Though you cannot copyright ideas, and none of us would ever really “steal” someone else’s idea, it points out the value of such a rare and precious commodity. Luckily, I have enough “gems” to last me several years of writing (at the snail’s pace of my own production), but I am always on the lookout for new ideas to stash away for future use, hedging against the fear that someday the well will run dry….


Wearing My Heart on My Sleeve

After reading the previous posts by my fellow potatoes, I'm amazed at the similarity of our writing fears, and I begin to wonder if writers, in general, are better writers because of our fears. If we all wrote fearlessly, we might not take the time for that very necessary revision process. We might not pare down our ramblings or search for the perfect words. We might not work to make our characters believable and our settings real.

Beyond the fear of not producing more work or not even making the time to write, my greatest fear in the writing process is not being able to come up with a plot. I have no shortage of characters and settings and rough ideas, but can I incorporate them into a believable story with a beginning, middle, climax, and resolution? Can I pull it all together?

Once I've worked through that process successfully enough to please myself and an editor, I must face the fear of releasing my work to the world. I venture to say that the majority of serious writers are introverts because writing is such a private and lonely process. The thought of sudden exposure can be exhilarating and paralyzing at the same time--especially in this age of the internet. Even though I tell my students time and again that they can never please everyone and they must focus on pleasing themselves and their particular audience, I still wear my own heart on my sleeve. It's a scary process--putting your heart and soul out for the general public to read and comment upon.


My internal editor

My fears about writing begin with the first draft. Like a student who thinks, "My teacher will hate this." I think, "My editor won't buy this." But is this the time to be thinking that way? This is the first draft. Teacher nor editor will see the story yet. This is the time to create not to panic.

To stop my super-critical internal editor I pretend that a monkey is my real editor. I blind fold her eyes. I also cover her ears because I read aloud everything I write. I also have a Lego doll that I call Dr. Speller. Dr. Speller sleeps throughout my first draft. If something negative still comes to my mind I put it in brackets. [This is stupid.] In other words, I write everything that comes to my mind. Because, if I stop writing, my brain freezes.

In my second draft the brackets are deleted. In the third draft I wake up Dr. Speller. The monkey stays blindfolded until I feel the story is as good as I can make it. I read it aloud for the monkey to hear it. Tweak it here and there, and off it goes to the real editor.

It still comes back bloody with corrections and suggestions in red ink. But the editor likes it and buys it.


Season of Fear

It's that time of the year to be scared...and I don't have to look much further than my writing desk to feel the fear.

Like Christy, I am afraid of not writing. I look at the great accomplishments of my author friends and I fear that I am letting time slip past me without being productive myself. My passion is creating children's books; why do I then struggle so when I sit down to write? How come I haven't accomplished as much as other people I know? Why aren't I using my time better?

And like Stephanie, I'm afraid that when I do write, I won't be able to write anything good. I've been fortunate enough to have a couple of successful books, but maybe I've run out of clever ideas. My mind doesn't feel as nimble as it once was. Whenever words don't come easily, I immediately fear that I'm in the early stages of Alzheimer's, the disease that overtook my father. Maybe I've lost the ability to write at all.

How sad and ironic that the fears themselves are often what stop me. Roosevelt made a pretty good point when he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."


I'm just a hamster who can't say, "No."

I want it all. I am eagerness personified. Overly responsive. My eyes are bigger than my stomach. My hands are in too many pots. Overextended. My biggest fear about writing, is NOT writing. Ideas I have in abundance. Time to develop the ideas is lacking because I am scrambling to fulfill all my commitments. I alone can control this, but I will always give you lists of excuses why I must do everything I do—everything that prevents me from doing this important thing I WANT to do—write.

Okay, I’m going to practice saying the word that causes me fear, “No, no, NO!”


Writing is Scary

Most of my work days are spent in my house, in the workplace I shared with you last week. Nothing scary about that, right? Um, wrong. There are so many scary things about writing once you've become a published author. The first fear about writing a novel? Looking at the blank computer screen and wondering: Can I come up with 50,000 words? There is no way around it but just to write and write.
Then comes the biggest fear is: Is this any good? There is never an easy answer there, or any way to know that until I've sent it to a reader or my editor. Scary.
Once that fear has been dealt with, and we've determined that yes, this story is pretty good, the next fear is Will the review be any good? Waiting to see the first reviews is so stressful, because they can determine so much, like will libraries buy the book, etc. ( Although, I must say, I don't base either my movie-going or book-reading on reviews I see. If I want to see a movie or read a book, I'll do it.) And then, when the book is out, is reviewed well, gets some cool honors and makes a couple nifty lists, another fear creeps into my world.
Will I ever sell another book? This one has been going on for a while with me. It has been a couple years since I got my two book deal for The Compound and the second book of the deal The Gardener is out in ARCs now, so essentially it's done. I was soooooooo relieved to have that fear abated this week when my editor at Feiwel and Friends acquired my next novel The Raft in a two book deal.
Which means it is about time to look at that blank computer screen and start the fear cycle all over again...........


work space

This is the room in which I work and this is the maple tree I look out on.
October glows gold here even when it snows, of which we've had four so far.
I also sometimes rent a studio downtown at the Loft Literary Center, particularly when I'm working on a first draft.
I feel fortunate to do the hard work I love in this place.


Studio Views and Inter Views

I am so lucky to live in a huge old Victorian house with a family that is fine with the activity of mess. I think we would all enjoy having a full-time cook and someone to clean every week, but since that is not an option, we make creative messes in the kitchen, the living room, our bedrooms, and studios.

My studio used to be the master bedroom when the house was living its grand old glory 100 years ago, but since then it became a dining room, living room, and whatever room when the house was turned into a triplex in the 70's. Now it is my studio with a writing chair facing the window and bookshelves nearby. It houses a drafting table for drawing and writing. And I paint on my studio wall with my palette that holds paints and brushes of all sizes and shapes for my needs. I am most comfortable in my studio-- it is the place where I can be myself and shut the door if necessary, only to open doors on creating words and pictures.

I have just returned to my studio after a whirlwind trip to Mumbai, India where I presented and led workshops with students at the American School of Bombay. It was an extraordinary experience that I am still taking in. I was able to talk with Heeru, the elementary school librarian about children's books in India. The stories of her childhood were the folktales and traditional Hindu tales of India. There were books, but most important were the stories she grew up with told to her by her grandmother. Her sons grew up with picture books which taught them about many things in the world, but she knew they did not have the same "family roots" to their stories that she grew up with and feels this is changing the way families stay together in India today. There are more small nuclear families in India, rather than the extended families with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all living under one roof. The result is less oral sharing of stories and more books. Most of the Indian picture books Heeru showed me were traditional stories turned into picture books for educational venues rather than trade markets. I was most taken with Tara Publishing, www.tarabooks.com, a very impressive Indian book publisher. It seems they contact indigenous Indian artists and commission them to write and illustrate Picture books. The two examples below are by Gond Artists who live in the state of Madhya Pradesh in Central India. For these artists, "art is a form of prayer, and they believe that good fortune befalls those whose eyes meet a good image." Their are is traditionally painted on mud floors and the walls of their homes-- how lovely that this publisher is creating a way for their incredible art and stories to come into our homes!


The Shack

I built my writing shack in the woods on our property, within sight of our house but a world away in terms of privacy since the standing rule around these parts is: “Don’t bug Daddy when he’s in the shack!” In this “world within the world,” I escape the demands and routines of my life and just focus on writing, or stare out the window and watch the weather, awaiting inspiration . . .


What a joy to see what my fellow potatoes' work spaces look like. I no longer feel guilty for all the inspirations/distractions that surround my writing area, which is in an extra bedroom of our house. It is also where the cats sleep, thus I sometimes find my stories chewed apart in the morning. They are my fiercest critics!!

I did neaten it up a bit for the photo. Usually I have piles of paper surrounding the computer, which means that I'm being productive. It is actually way too clean for my taste right now.

Favorite stories sit on the bookshelves, as well as family photos, a ceramic dragon who protects my work (obviously not from wild cats), and my own books sit up there as well reminding me that I have had some success in the past and hopefully will have some success in the future. Below the bookshelves are a poster from Pike's Place in Seattle, a framed newspaper article about my six year old neighbor, who stars in my latest book, and a photo of my son's graduation from college. Every once in awhile I take everything off the wall and shelves and keep the space sparse and open, then I have the joy of filling it up again.

So I guess I better get busy creating a new mess. Happy writing!


Edie Hemingway's Work Space

My husband took this picture before I had a chance to clean up my desk. He thought it was important that you see how messy it is when I'm working--papers spread everywhere and sticky notes (with important and not so important information) on any available surface. It's true that this is the way I work. Many times I can't find what I need most. I have a wonderful window to look out into the woods, but I am often easily distracted by birds, squirrels, deer, or anything moving.

However, when I need to free myself of technology and resort to a simple pencil and pad of paper, I climb to the top of my rocks and settle on this bench.


Carmen "T" shelving books in alphabetical order.

This is one side of my office. The whole basement is really mine, because my husband has decided to work upstairs. I have two big desks and many more books, most signed by their authors. I read and reread these books, study them, and teach writing with them. They are my treasure.


My White Bear Lake Home

It may be cluttered, but this is where I work.

My studio is a compact 6 x 9 feet, but it is a great improvement from working at my kitchen table, which I had to do in my previous apartment. The walls are covered with a wide variety of "stuff": postcards from places I've traveled, group photos of the campers at the writing camp where I teach, a signed book jacket from fellow Potato Lauren Stringer, my list of lifetime goals, a candy bar wrapper from Alaska. Plenty of things to inspire - or distract - me, depending on the day.

Unlike Christy, I don't have a view of orange and grapefruit trees out my window. Directly out my window is my neighbor's apple tree, covered with snow. The photo was taken on Monday.

I write many, many drafts longhand before I transfer them to my computer (you can see piles of drafts on the chair and below the window) which I keep in my bedroom.

This has been rather nice, inviting people to my studio via the Internet; I didn't have to vacuum or dust! You are welcome to stop by any time!


Behind closed doors

All eighteen years I lived in Brooklyn I wished I could hide the clutter of my studio. We lived in a brownstone railroad apartment where each room spilled into the next. Glass French doors separated the rooms. My workspace was the middle room, and when it was messy it defined the whole apartment. I liken my work habits to the tides. In the pictures on the left the tide is out and you can actually see surfaces—a rare moment.

By contrast my California studio is situated at the end of the house, and I can close the door. Look what a mess I’m making! I decided to swallow my pride and give it to you straight. I’m in the midst of preparing for my launch party this weekend. I have bags of Japanese rice crackers, candies, sake bottles, and even disposable sake cups in the middle of my floor. My desk and drawing table are strewn with components of promotional keepsake packages I will assemble and then give out at my event. The tide is in; the waves are swelling and stormy! Outside it is dark and pouring rain. Usually I look out to sunshine, an orange and a grapefruit tree, and the occasional humming bird. Next week is clean up time. The tide will pull out again.

Watch me at work in my video trailer for my new book:


Interview with Robert Hedin of the Anderson Center

Can you provide a brief history of the Anderson Center?

The Tower View estate in Red Wing has been a familiar Minnesota landmark for almost a century. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Tower View, along with 330 acres of farm and forest land, comprises a legacy to the region from Dr. and Mrs. Alexander P. Anderson and their heirs. Dr. Anderson gained worldwide renown for developing the American breakfast cereals known as “Quaker Puffed Wheat” and “Quaker Puffed Rice.”

Since 1995, Tower View has been the home of the Anderson Center, the largest residential arts facility in the Upper Midwest. Along with its unique residency program, the Center hosts a variety of artistic, educational, and cultural activities throughout the year, including art celebrations, exhibitions, book fairs, performances, and other community-related events. The Center provides year-round studio space to more than a dozen working artists, including sculptors, glassblowers, painters, potters, poets, and print makers. It is also the home of several organizations whose related missions add to the synergy among disciplines—Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, Tower View Alternative High School, Red Dragonfly Press, among others. Add to this, southeastern Minnesota’s largest sculpture garden and a permanent art collection that is considered one of the finest in rural Minnesota, and the result is a vibrant and dynamic place dedicated to the arts.

Would you describe the Residency Program?

Each year, from May through October, the Center makes available private time and space to some 45 artists, writers, and scholars from the United States and abroad. Residencies, which include meals and lodging at the Center, are for two weeks to one month, during which time resident-fellows are expected to work on a clearly defined project and to make a substantive contribution to the community in the form of a talk, class, or performance of their work.

Since the Center opened, over 500 artists, writers, and scholars from more than 40 states and 26 foreign countries have come to stay at the Center. The Center also engages in artist exchange programs with artist communities in Europe and China and has scholarship programs with the University of Notre Dame, Pacific Lutheran University, and the University of Minnesota.

What is the application process like?

The application process is quite simple, with each applicant asked to fill out a brief application form and to provide a resume, work plan, and samples of work. The application deadline for May, June, and July is February 1; the deadline for August, September, and October is March 1.

Do you have some numbers for the Center’s annual Celebration of Minnesota Children’s Authors and Illustrators?

This wonderful event is hosted by the Anderson Center, Red Wing Public Library, and the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul. Since it began in 1999, the celebration has attracted more than 13,000 people from the five-state area, with over 130 of Minnesota’s finest children’s writers and illustrators having participated. It has always been one of my favorite Anderson Center events, and I look forward to it every year.

Do you have a website?

Yes, it’s www.andersoncenter.org. Or, call: 651-388-2009.

My work space

One day I would love to have my own office. I have a picture in my head of a lovely windowed room with bookshelves all over, brimming with good reads. And I know many lucky writers who do have that kind of space.
But for now, this is my office, our wooden nook off of the kitchen. I've wrtten a lot of stories sitting here. ( It's where I'm sitting now as I type.) I can look out the picture window and see deer in the yard or the UPS man driving up to bring me a package or my kids driving home from school or my dogs as they've escaped from the back yard. In other words, I can sit here and work as I also keep track of the rest of the world. It may be messy, but it's comfortable. And it works. For now, it's perfect.


The Andreson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies

I am fortunate to be spending two weeks on a residency in Red Wing, Minnesota at the Anderson Center. I am interviewing Robert Hedin who is a distinguished poet and wants to get his words just right. I will post the interview next week. In the meantime I will say that the Anderson Center welcomes applications from writers for children, provides board and lodging at no fee, and is a wonderful place to work.


Inspiring the Writers of Tomorrow

Everyone knows the importance of reading in a child's life, but Chadwick Gillenwater, aka Professor Watermelon, inspires kids to use their imaginations and write their own stories. I asked Professor Watermelon to share some of his vision with our blog.

Why the alias, 'Professor Watermelon'?

When I decided that I wanted to teach creative writing to children, I wondered how I could inspire them best. I figured that becoming a character would certainly be the best place to start. After all, one of the major components of creative writing is creating memorable characters. My students see my example from the beginning and are inspired to create their own characters from day one.

What classes do you offer to children?

Like most writers, my philosophy is that “The more you know, the more inspired you will be to write.” And this is the focus in all of my classes. We learn the nuts and bolts of basic plotting and storytelling – but we also learn about people, places, and things from this world and beyond. One week we may learn about plastic flamingo yard ornaments and how they became so popular in America. We may learn about Venetian Masquerades or Louis Armstrong. From all of these topics, children will inevitably find a muse and want to create a story of their own. Using this method, children understand that knowledge can become inspiration, and inspiration becomes art.

What is your favorite part of working with kids on their writing?

At least twice a month we have “Open Mic.” I love to see the confidence in children’s faces when their audience smiles and claps for their story. I love to see the “aha” moments when children get a concept and then use it successfully in their writing. I also love seeing students get lost inside their mind and retrieve some of the most creative morsels that would make any adult writer jealous.

Can you tell us a bit about the 'I Chronicles'?

The “I Chronicles” make up my curriculum. Each Imagination Chronicle will explore a writing concept or a possible “muse” topic. A muse topic can be anything from Jupiter to Eleanor Roosevelt. Say for example we use Jupiter - the Imagination Chronicle would contain the most interesting and inspiring facts on Jupiter so that a student may chose to use Jupiter as their muse. They may choose to use Jupiter as a setting, or maybe they will be inspired to create their own planet as setting in a story. The Imagination Chronicles give students a jumping-off point into their own imagination.

How can kids get their stories published in The Watermelon Press?

After a student completes a second or third draft of their story, they may turn it in to me, Professor Watermelon, for publication in the Watermelon Press. The Watermelon Press is an online ezine located on my website. http://www.professorwatermelon.com/. This is a perfect way for students to share their stories with family and friends who live in other parts of the country or world. It also gives students the satisfaction that their work is out there for the world to see. At that point, they are technically a published author.

Your website says you offer students 'melon money.' What the heck is that?

Melon Money is created by me and kept in the Melon Money Vault in the back of my classroom. They are small dollar bills with a slice of watermelon on them instead of George Washington. Melon Money is earned by completing drafts of stories. At the end of each class, I auction off items that will inspire more creativity. Some items include: writing supplies, art supplies, books, movies, family movie and/or museum passes, etc.

As you can tell from his answers, Chadwick's -- er, I mean Professor Watermelon's -- passion and enthusiasm for teaching the craft of creative writing to children is evident in every line. Check out his website when you get a chance. Better yet, tell a child you know to check it out!!


I'm pleased to post this interview with my friend, Ramona Kerby, Ph.D., a professor and Coordinator of the School Library Media Program in the Graduate Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.

1. Mona, I know you and your husband used to own a bookstore in Texas. Can you tell us your pathway to your current position at McDaniel College?

I earned my Ph.D. while I was a school librarian, but liked my job so much, I stayed for a long time. After I had learned as much as I could, I saw an advertisement that McDaniel College (formerly Western Maryland College) was looking for a Coordinator of the Graduate School Library Media Program, so I applied and got the job. Maryland was an adventure for us, and it turned out great.

2. School librarians are now called Media Specialists. How have their positions and duties changed over the years?

Not all states use the term media specialists. In Texas and Pennsylvania, for example, they are school librarians. Another term that is now being used is teacher librarian. That is probably my favorite term. Nowadays, school librarians should be among the best teachers in the building. They need to teach the teachers and all the children. They are in charge of reading guidance and promoting reading for pleasure. They show everyone the latest in technology and how to use it intellectually and creatively. They help students with the learning process--how best to learn.

3. Hundreds of new children's books are published every year. When teaching children's literature, do you concentrate on classics and award-winning books, or do you try to include some recent releases, as well?

In my children's literature class, we don't really read the classics. We read books that appear on ALA book lists, including the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, and the Notable Books lists. We read current titles that appear on the Maryland and Pennsylvania State Reading Awards lists. We read books--fiction and nonfiction--that are likely to be found on library shelves. We read books by some of my favorite authors.

4. What is the best way for new authors to get their books into the hands of school media specialists and students?

The best way is for that book to receive multiple positive reviews in professional selection sources.

5. How are books chosen for awards and state recommended reading lists, and must these recommendations be made during the year the book is released?

Each award has its own criteria. For state lists, books are typically chosen by a committee of librarians (or in some states by reading teachers). Some states will consider a book that has been published within a three year period; other states will only consider that year of publication.

Thank you, Mona, for your insight into the field of School Library Media Specialists! In addition to her position at McDaniel College, Mona is the author of thirteen books, two of those for school librarians. For children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, she has written biographies, science, history, and fiction. Owney, The Mail-Pouch Pooch, edited by Frances Foster of Farrar, Straus & Giroux is her latest. It's a true story about a mutt that rode the mail trains and became one of the most famous dogs in the world. If wishes come true, Mona wishes "the book stays in print for a long time and is read and loved by children all over the world." You can read more about Ramona (Mona) Kerby at http://www.monakerby.com.




Where were you born and grew up?

I was born in New York City, but my grown up years were in Wenatchee, a small town in Eastern Washington.

Tell us a childhood incident in which you misbehaved.

Me, misbehave? Surely, you are thinking about someone else! Okay, yes we tormented our brother. I say, "we" because generally it was a group effort by the five sisters in the family. But let's see, where to begin on my individual bad stuff...

Perhaps the most humiliating experience was being demoted from room monitor in the third grade. I was the only student to be picked twice for room monitor by the teacher. So I was feeling pretty full of myself. The room monitor got to sit in a special desk and do special things like take the milk count. We were also supposed to keep order, but when the teacher left and some kids started acting up... well, I just laughed along them.

When Miss Ross came back, someone told on me and I was publicly stripped of my Room Monitor status. I had to clear out my pencils, etc, form the special desk and march back to my plain, old regular desk with the whole class watching.

Your mother took you and your siblings to mountains and deserts in search of rare birds. Did you see any?

I don't know how rare they really were, but we were ever in search o f the Lewis and Clark woodpecker. A red-eyed vireo came through once. Another time my mother got incredibly excited and came running for her binoculars. She'd glimpsed what looked to be an amazing bird in our back yard. She raced to the back dining room and I hear her burst out laughing. What she's spied was my brother dangling a red and green model airplane from his bedroom window.
You have a degree in psychology and another in English/Creative writing. Has the degree in psychology helped you write books with grumpy characters such as Bear in the multi-award winner A Visitor for Bear?
Unfortunately, I have to admit grumpy characters come pretty naturally to me. I suppose the connection between the two is a big interest in what makes people tick.
Have your children ended up in your books? If so, how do they feel about it?
Not them specifically, but some of my experiences with them have been behind some of my books. For example, my book “My Brother the Robot” about a boy whose Dad buys a robot to be an example to the boy of a perfect son. That came from one of my daughters almost missing her race at a swim meet because both she and I ended up, well… spacing out. She was thoroughly scolded when she got down to the pool for her race and of course she came in dead last. I felt bad for her and bad that I hadn’t kept better track of the time. That night I was thinking about being a perfect parent with a perfect kid and realized it would be awful! It would be like being robots.
What has the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrator done for you?
An incredible amount. When I first decided to focus my writing on children’s books, I joined SCBWI and met people and learned things that would have taken me years to stumble upon on my own. I’ve met editors and agents and other writers at SCBWI conferences, become connected with area booksellers through them, been featured as a speaker and teacher at meetings and conferences. It’s an organization that seems to be able to offer an opening to the “next step” when I’ve been ready. Joining SCBWI is the first thing I recommend to anyone interested in writing for children.
Do you belong to a critique group? If so, how has it helped you? Do you always trust what the group says? Or do you go home and think about what they are saying?
I belong to two groups. An on-line group that gives feedback whenever needed and a real life group that meets once a month. I trust what my groups say, in that, I know they are all good writers and good critiquers and sincerely want the best book for me. And I’ll almost always at least try what they suggest. But I don’t do it blindly. After all, ultimately I have to decide what works and what doesn’t.
How do you know when an idea won’t work as a picture book?
A picture book has to be both simple and profound. I know an idea won’t work if the storyline is too complex—most picture books can only sustain one single straightforward plot line. But, that can be easy to fix. What’s essential is the underlying point of the story.
I say “point” hesitantly since you don’t want a message to drive your story. But “underneath” the obvious storyline, a good picture book will say something deeper about the world.
For example, Jane Yolen’s “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night.” The storyline is completely charming just on its surface. Big, cry-baby dinosaurs stomping and whining about going to bed to the dismay of their much smaller human parents.
A lesser story might have had dinosaur parents, if the whole point were simply the slap-stick humor. But the more profound, more universal idea under the story is the fact that these human parents, while mildly dismayed, aren’t the least bit intimidated or angry about this problem. They are calm and in control.

A young child’s feelings of angry and frustration must feel like dinosaurs to them. Big, out-of-control things. How reassuring it is to have parents who can handle the dinosaur emotions that you can’t quite handle yourself, yet. That, to me, is the wonderful, underlying appeal of that book.
Some people ask writers of children books when they are going to write a book for adults. Could you, please, speak about the value of writing books for children?
What could be more important than the stories we tell our children? It’s the main way we transmit our culture, our values and our wisdom about life. Those are the years when ideas are new; when the mind is open; when the questions are deep and basic. Kids are just naturally trying to figure out life. And so you feel an extra responsibility to the art. And it is an art.
I suspect when people ask about writing a book for adults, they think it’s a step up from the simpler and easier (writing for children) to the harder (writing for adults.). But, as simple and easy as kids book may look--and some are simplistic and some are just plain lazy-- the good ones are just as hard, if not harder to write than an adult novel. The demands on craft are high. You have to keep your story tightly focused; your descriptions concise and powerful and you have to come to some sort of conclusion. No, you don’t get to wander off into a treatise on the fishing industry or lavish a couple pages on describing the small town or end your story in vague, non-committal despair. I don’t belittle this. It’s great to sometimes have that bigger stage to walk around on. But the smaller form can be harder. One of my favorite sayings is: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”
I also like this quote by W. H. Auden: "There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children."
Is your middle-grade novel Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale based on people who have belittled what you do?
Holbrook is about a lizard who wants to be an artist, but he doesn’t feel appreciated in his small town and leaves to find fame, fortune and adventure in the big city.
Since I’ve been a writer, I’ve rarely run into that—being belittled. Most people are really interested and I get a lot of positive attention out of it. But it was a feeling I had as a kid—that a life in the arts was odd. I felt out of step with my hometown in a lot of ways. It was probably just my own defensiveness, but the arts just didn’t seem to be something very valued. And, although I wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember, I didn’t really see it as a serious possibility until I was in my 20s.
What is easier for you to write, a picture book or a middle-grade novel?
Boy, that’s a hard one. Probably a picture book. Picture books ultimately take a long time to truly condense and polish, but if I have a good idea I’m pretty confident I’ll figure out a way to make it work. With longer books, I’m not as confident. There’s so much more to wrap my mind around and I feel like I stumble about for a long time before I understand what I’m really writing about.
You have done several other jobs related to writing. Speak about them. Don’t they take the same energy as writing?
I teach at the Whidbey Island MFA Program in Writing. And, until recently, I did private critiques and edits and taught for the Institute of Children’s Literature. They do take a lot of the same energy. It’s all about figuring out story and what makes it work and why. I do like teaching, though. And writing is so solitary; it’s good to have something that drags me out of the house!
Is it hard to apply lessons you give to your students to your own work?
Yes! It’s really hard to see your own work. And, in the end, there are no hard and fast rules. The only real question is: does it work? Does the story have that energy, that magic? Writing classes give you practice, feedback and methods to try when things aren’t working—but even if you teach all those things it doesn’t mean you won’t have the same problems as any writer.
You have two new books out, A Birthday for Bear and The Magical Ms. Plum. The latter has already received a wonderful review from Kirkus. Please, tell us about both books and where you will be signing.
“A Birthday for Bear” is a follow-on to “A Visitor for Bear.” In it Bear is his usual fastidious, grumpy self on his birthday—even denying that it is his birthday! Mouse disguises himself as the deliveryman, the postman, even as Santa Claus, trying to get Bear to admit it’s his birthday and enjoy the day. By the way, there are four more Mouse and Bear books in the works.

“The Magical Ms. Plum” is a middle grade novel about a third grade school teacher with a magical supply closet. Whenever she asks her students to get her an eraser or a pencil or some paper clips, they come back with a miniature animal and each chapter involves a different child, a different animal and a different adventure. A lot of the reviews have called it a modern-day Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
At this time, I only have two signings coming up. I’m doing a story hour at Third Place Books at Ravenna in Seattle at 11 a.m. on Oct. 3 and a signing at the Aurora Ave. Costco at 1:00 p.m. on Oct. 17. I’ll be listing other signings as they come up on my website: bonnybecker.com
A Visitor for Bear has been listed as a New York Times Bestseller and in Oprah Children’s Book Club. It has won The Golden Kite Award, E.B. White read Aloud Award, ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year for Picture Books, Amazon.com’s Best Picture Book of 2008. How does it feel to be famous?
Well, it’s hard to handle all the staring. And I do feel a little guilty when I’m ushered to the front of the line at famous restaurants, but… okay, so nobody outside of SCBWI conferences has a clue, but it does feel wonderful to have a book receive such recognition. But even more than that is the satisfaction of writing a really good book.
I’m always pushing to do better with each book and, I feel, in “A Visitor for Bear” and the other Mouse and Bear books that I’ve come the closest to the kind of writing I want to do. It’s a great feeling.