Monday, November 25, 2013

For the Love of Food Writing Exercise

It is Thanksgiving week--my girls are off of school, and they have cooking on their minds.  We have already been to two grocery stores to get supplies for major baking.  I was thinking about my books and how food has played such an important role in the stories.  In JANE IN BLOOM, food becomes Lizzie's enemy.  And it becomes Jane's comfort.  Ethel, Jane's babysitter, shows Jane that cooking can show someone how much you care about them (her recipe for Mac & Cheese is on my website in case you want to try it).  In my new novel, food also plays an important role in bringing people together.  And baking is the language of love.  I know that it makes me very happy to cook for my family and to present them with a healthy meal that they will enjoy.  The ability to do that is something I am truly thankful for because there are so many places in the world where a mother cannot do this for her family, even if she wants to.  So this Thanksgiving week, if you have time for a writing exercise, think about food.  What role does it play in your work in progress?  Does food bring your characters together or tear them apart?  Is food plentiful or lacking?  What do your characters eat and how do they feel about it?  If you want a break from your work in progress, write a scene where food is the central character.  How is the presence or absence of food driving your scene and what feelings does it create in your characters?

I want to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving surrounded by people you love.  I give thanks to you for reading my blog!


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Suzanne Morgan Williams Talking School Visits

Today, my good friend and fellow middle grade author Suzanne Morgan Williams is here to talk about school visits.  Suzy is the author of the acclaimed novel, Bull Rider (Simon & Schuster) and numerous non-fiction releases for middle grade students including the recently released China’s Daughters (Pacific View Press).  Suzy, thank you for talking to me today.  I know how much you love visiting with students and I think you’ve done hundreds of school visits.  That makes you an expert.  So tell me—what do you love most about speaking at schools?

Suzy: I get an energy from being with students that is uplifting and inspiring – really. When I talk to kids, I am face to face with the audience for my work and I’m reminded of their concerns, how they think, what makes them laugh and cry. I’ve also found I love speaking no matter what the age of the audience. The give and take between the audience and me is a bit addictive.

Debby:  Do you script your presentation or is it free form?
Suzy: I almost always work with a power point for my presentations and with specific lessons for my writing workshops. I know what I intend to cover for each slide or part of my workshop. That said, I have certain stories I tell and points I can make, but I don’t have a script. I talk to the audience in front of me, respond to their reactions, and often riff on some thought that comes to mind. It’s not uncommon for me to give unique presentations to each group, skipping back and forth in my power point slides to illustrate whatever it is I’m talking about at the moment. So the answer is yes, I go in prepared, often over prepared, but once I’m with the audience, I follow their lead and my heart.
Debby:  How interactive do you get with your programs?  How do you involve the students with your presentation?

Suzy:  This depends totally on the age of the group, the desires of the school, and the points I’m trying to make. Obviously, writers’ workshops are very interactive and work more like a class than a presentation. For large group presentations, my rule of thumb is, the younger the kids the more interactive the presentation. I always try to present in a variety of ways interspersing readings with stories with information. Sometimes I work with student or faculty volunteers or ask the group questions. When I give my Chinese Inventions presentation (for Made in China) I demonstrate concepts with science experiments and use a number of student volunteers. Sometimes with Bull Rider presentations to large groups of teens, the presentation is all me – until the end when I invite questions from the audience. When I meet with kindergarteners and first graders I’m sure to have one or two stories that all the kids can interact with.

Debby:  Let’s talk props.   I remember you telling me once about the props you bring when you are talking about your book, Made in China.  Can you share a little bit about that here?
Suzy: Again, this depends on the presentation and the desires of the school. For Made in China, I carry all the materials I need for science demonstrations – these fill a suitcase and include a Burger King hat, several glasses of various sizes, a bag of mud, a Pyrex casserole dish, a sushi roller, a silk scarf, a photo of a silk worm, empty 2 liter soda bottles (sometimes I ask the school to provide those), an ice cube tray. The list is long and each portion of my presentation is illustrated by a demonstration of how the science works. For a large group presentation on Bull Rider in a middle school, I may arrive with only my power point (has some very cool photos) on a thumb drive and a copy of the book. If the group is younger, I have some signs for an interactive quiz. Sometimes with elementary school audiences, I bring in a suitcase full of the gear I’ve worn on my research trips to the Arctic for my book The Inuit. This is pretty impressive – unless the kids are from Wyoming or North Dakota!

Debby:  What if you have an audience that seems to be zoning out and not connecting with you?

Suzy: Honestly, I’ve got a lot of experience and at this point I’ve honed the presentations to where I’m only using my best material. I’d suggest before giving a paid presentation that an author practice with Scout groups or your kids’ classes or a local Boys and Girls Club – whatever. Then if a part of the presentation doesn’t work, you can take it out before you give the next one. These practice sessions can be billed as just that. If you need to, stop from time to time and ask the kids what they are thinking. Are they bored? What else do they want to know? If the group is smallish, they will get into this and give good feed back before you have to go in front of a big audience. Second hint – if in doubt, tell a story. If the kids are spacing out, you can make some transition and tell them a great story. Everyone loves that, and that’s what authors do best. Just be sure you’ve thought of a couple in advance and you know how you’ll tie them in with the theme of your presentation.
Debby:  What about give-aways?  Do you bring postcards, bookmarks?
Suzy: Yes, I bring postcards which I will sign if asked – either at the time or later and leave them with the librarian or language arts teacher. That way every kid can have a memory, not just the kids with money to buy books. And every postcard includes the ISBN and suggestion to order the book(s) from a local bookstore or online.

Debby:  As a follow up to my last question, do you give books away—or sell them in advance?
Suzy: I don’t give books away unless there is some special reason that moves me. I can’t give a book to only one child and not the whole school. Sometimes I leave a librarian a copy of one of my books as a thank you. But the point is to sell books, not to give them away. I ask schools to pre-sell books although many don’t and some aren’t allowed to sell books. Then I ask them to buy a few to give away in a drawing on the day I’m there, and to announce the places where the kids can buy the books. I always try to get a book signing at a local store following my presentations. Sometimes the schools invite the local stores to come in to sell books, or they’ll order books in advance from the publishers. Sometimes the librarian will get a grant to buy books for the kids in the school. That’s very cool because so many kids are able to leave with their own copy of my book.

Debby:  How about some thoughts for authors that want to do school visits but aren’t huge bestsellers.  Is there a market for them to visit schools?  And if so, how do they go about getting the visits scheduled?

Suzy: Yes. There’s a market for author/presenters who offer content to schools. Most schools want the biggest bang for their bucks and many have been burned by authors who show up, essentially say “This is me and this is why writing, especially mine, is cool.” Then they collect their check and leave. Authors need to familiarize themselves with state standards and Common Core standards and create presentations that can be connected to those (hopefully without the kids knowing J). Offering tips on writing, revising, speaking, researching or creativity will work for most authors.  If you can move beyond those subjects you’ll further enhance your presentations. But you need to do it in an engaging or entertaining way. Be sure to work before and after with teachers to prepare the students and to follow up with any questions or lessons. This will get you good buzz and recommendations for your next school visit.

As for booking visits, that could fill a chapter in a book. I’ll just say that I generally make the first contact. Schools rarely come to me and yet I end up with a lot of jobs. A couple of tips – make yourself available at conferences where you’ll meet teachers and librarians. You can put in proposals to give sessions at these conferences and if you’re accepted, you’ll demonstrate your speaking skills and can hand out your school visit information. I occasionally hear from people I’ve met at conferences as long as two years after the fact. Second, if you are traveling in an area, ask any friends or contacts you have there for recommendations of schools you might contact about speaking. Better, ask if they can make the initial suggestion to teacher friends and you’ll follow up. Local folks are most likely to know which schools invite authors and perhaps which teachers are the types to actually plan and carry out a visit with you.

If you want more ideas, I’d be happy to arrange a consultation. E-mail me at  

Debby:  Last question—Skype.  You and I Skype all the time and I know you use Skype regularly.  How do you change your presentation when you are Skyping as opposed to being there in person?

Suzy:  I prefer to present in person and let schools know that. If they are set on a Skype visit, I’ve done it a couple of ways. They may be able to show a power point while I’m talking. Then we can do a shortened version of that, followed by Q and A. I ask that they set up the web camera so I can see at least a dozen or so students while I talk. That way I can gauge the audience’s reaction to the session.  I’ve also done straight Q and A with kids coming up to the camera to talk. Some computer programs allow for kids to type in questions as I present and that can be useful. This varies, but I try to keep Skype sessions to 35 minutes and they are generally less formal than in person presentations. I think they are a thin substitute for person to person interaction but sometimes it’s the best we can do. And yes, I charge for Skype visits but it’s a lower fee.

Thank you so much, Suzy, for all your advice today!  For more information about Suzy, visit her at


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Writing Challenge for November

Hi there.  I can't believe it is November already!  My daughter and I were in the grocery store Friday morning, and we were shocked to see that holiday items were already being stocked on the shelves.  It seems that the moment Halloween is over, we roll right into the holidays.  I always feel like November and December fly by with so much to do.  And this makes it so much more difficult to find time to write, especially if you are juggling kids and a day job.  I think the thing that helps me the most is remembering that I write because I love it.  Writing is an escape.  It's the present I give myself. 

So my challenge to you this November is to write.  Even if you only have a few minutes--write something.  Anything.

Here's a November exercise:

Change is in the air.  You can smell it, taste it, feel it.  Write about someone making a change.  Maybe it is a welcome change that brings hope with it.  Or maybe it is a change that signals defeat and loss.  If you have a work-in-progress, try bringing a change into your plot.  Something the main character wasn't expecting.  See where it takes you.

Happy November!


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tips for Middle Grade from Ann Haywood Leal

Today I am chatting with my friend Ann Haywood Leal about middle grade novels.  Ann is the author of the critically acclaimed ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER/ Henry Holt and A FINDERS-KEEPERS PLACE/Henry Holt.


Debby:  Ann, thank you for being here. 

Ann:  It was my pleasure!  Thanks for inviting me.

Debby: I wanted to talk about writing the middle grade novel.  To capture the minds and hearts of middle grade students, you have to find subjects that will interest them.  How do you find that perfect balance to touch the ten year old reader with your story?

Ann:  I try to write for the ten-year-old that I was.  I was and still am such a voracious reader.  If I really loved a book when I was young, I would read it more than once.  My mom took my brothers and me to the library every week.  I’m sure I could still go straight to the places where my favorite books were shelved with my eyes closed!  My dream is to write the book that will have that same effect on one of my readers.

Debby:  I love the image of you searching for your favorite books in the library.  And I know you have already touched readers with your beautiful books.  What do you think about heavy subjects, such as homelessness and loss.  Do you think these have a place in MG books?

Ann:  I think that MG readers can handle a lot more than we sometimes think they can.  Homelessness and loss are very real issues that are happening right now around them and quite often to them.  Reading about those kinds of heavy subjects can help kids make sense of things in their own lives.
Debby:  My nine year old is reading A Wrinkle in Time right now.  Madeleine L’Engle weaves the romance into the story with a light hand.  It manages to be just the right amount for this age.  How do you balance romance so that you have just enough but not too much?

Ann:  I think it can definitely be a delicate balance!  MG readers love the hint of romance, but if you get too deeply into it, you run the risk of turning them off, especially those on the lower end of the age range.  I’m an elementary teacher, and I’ve noticed this with my students.  They love to tease each other and hint around that someone might “like” someone else; this information is often delivered second and third hand!  But if you get too much into the actual physical details, I think you are moving into YA territory.

Debby:  I wanted to talk about boy books vs. girl books.  With YA there isn’t the same pressure to be able to appeal to boys and girls at the same time.  Do you feel the pressure to write a book that can be appreciated by both boys and girls?

Ann:  I know that there seems to be a big market right now for “boy” books in MG.  I am often pleasantly surprised to see to whom my books appeal.  My main characters tend to be girls, because that is what my voice leans toward … but I like to have other major and minor boy characters to create a nice balance (if they belong in the story and move it forward in a natural way).  The most important thing, I think, is for a writer to have strong, positive characters, boy or girl, with which the readers can identify. 

Debby:  Can you give other writers some good advice about reacting to trends in middle grade publishing?  Right now, we are seeing so much fantasy—how can writers stay true to their own voices?

Ann:  This may sound a little like a cliché, but I believe it completely:  write the book that’s in your heart.  When you try to write for a trend, and it’s not coming out of your “writer self” in an organic way, it shows.  It can come across as awkward and one-dimensional.

Debby:  I am hanging that sentence on my wall for inspiration, Ann.  Thank you!  Can you give writers one good tip for writing middle grade fiction?  My tip is to read your pages aloud and listen to your words.  Then imagine you are ten.  Would you want to hear more?  What’s your tip?

Ann:  Write the book that you wish you had discovered when you were a MG reader.  Ask yourself what drew you to your favorite books, and what made you keep going back to those treasured stories.

Thank you, Ann, for inspiring me and everyone else today.

Ann:  Thank you, Debby!

For more about Ann, visit her website,, blog

Or follow her on twitter

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cup of Tea

To me, having a cup of my favorite Tulsi rose tea is a way to stretch time.  Somehow, it slows down for a few moments.  And I can remind myself to breathe deeply and embrace the day. 

I think for writers, ideas can be like cups of tea.  We can get lost in our writing and time slows down.  Sometimes it even stops.  And we are somewhere else.  Somewhere inside our own pages. 

So my cup of tea with you today is a new writing prompt. 

Close your eyes.  See a place that exists only in your imagination.  Perhaps it is a whole world of hot pink.  Or it is made of candy (mine would be all chocolate!).  Maybe it's a dark world where trees can move and storms have faces.  See it. 

What does it smell like?  My rose tea smells like a garden filled with fragrant flowers bordered by the exotic mysteries of India.  What does your imaginary world smell like? 

What do you hear?  I hear silence.  Quiet.  Birds chirping softly outside in a tree.  What does your imaginary world sound like?  Do you hear voices or animals?  The ocean?  Chaos? 

Now write it down.  Describe this world.  How it looks, sounds, smells.  Make it real. 

And then sit back and breathe for a moment and remember to embrace the day.  And your own creativity.   Thank you for sharing a cup of tea with me. 


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Set Your Imagination Free

For any of you who are writers, the best advice I can give you is:  WRITE. 

I give myself the same advice every single day.  It's something I learned from the best-friend-I've-never-met, Natalie Goldberg.  For those of you who are not familiar with Natalie, she is the author of the book "Writing Down the Bones."  It is the best book on writing I have ever read (and believe me, I have a lot of favorites!).  I have two copies of the book--one in a regular size and the other a mini that I keep in my purse when I go to writing conferences.  Somehow, the book has always given me a little bit of extra confidence.  It's my lucky charm.  If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it.  The way Natalie writes, you feel like she is a friend, teacher and coach, all rolled into one.  And her advice not only inspires you to do what you love--write--but it gives you the encouragement to believe you can do it.

So, with Natalie Goldberg as my inspiration,  today I am going to give you a writing exercise.  I want you to love writing.  And I want you to believe you can do it.

The key to this exercise is to spend only a few minutes on it.  Let the exercise warm you up before you open your work-in-progress.  Maybe it will jump start a new story idea.  Or maybe it will let you journal something personal.  But give yourself the permission to write without judgment.

Writing Exercise:
Think of an emotion.  Happiness, sadness, grief, anger--choose the first one that pops into your head.  Don't think about it too much.  It's an exercise, not an assignment.  No one will ever see it but you.  Then create a character you would never expect to display that emotion.  Is it a tiny shelter dog who exudes joy, even though its fur is matted down, and it hasn't had a real home in years?  Is it the girl who just won prom queen and has been asked to dance by the football star, but can't stop the tears from running down her face?  Write out your description.  Sketch it if you want.  Really picture this character.  Set your imagination free and see what you can come up with.

Don't forget to let me know how it goes!


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Seven Things I Wish I Had Known

Being a debut author is like entering any new phase of your life.  It's like walking into middle school for the first time as a shy 11 year old, unsure of whether you will be able to find your classrooms or remember your locker combination.  It's like joining a yoga class where everyone else knows the routine, and you need help just to roll out your mat.  And it's like becoming a parent, holding a tiny baby in your arms and not having any clue what to do, but doing it anyway.  When my first novel, JANE IN BLOOM, was released, I wish another author had given me a checklist of things to do.  I would have happily clutched that list in both hands and checked off every single task.  So, for any of you who are debut authors, here are the seven things I wish I had known:

1.  Secure your ARCs.  In standard first time author contracts, the publisher provides a certain number of Advanced Reader Copies.  This number is relatively small, such as 25.  However, if you are going to generate any buzz for your book before it officially debuts, you need ARCs.  Blogger reviews are a good way to get the word out about your book.  But you need to provide ARCs to the reviewers.  Twenty-five ARCs will go fast!  Publishers will send some ARCs out for you to the major reviewers and some bloggers you request.  But you can do more yourself.  And every bit of buzz helps.  If the publisher doesn't want to provide more than 25 at no cost, you can ask for a provision in the contract to purchase them (it will be a nominal fee) and believe me the cost is well worth it. 

2.  Order postcards, book plates, notecards, and bookmarks.  At my publisher's recommendation, I ordered postcards with my book cover on the front and reviews on the back with the ISBN number and my website address.  I can't tell you how many of these I have used.  They make nice give aways at book signings and can be tucked into the cover of your ARC when sending off to reviewers.  I especially like Modern Postcard.  The quality of their printing is very good, and the turnaround is fast.

The front of my postcard

The back of my postcard
I did not discover the wonderful world of book plates until later.  Book plates (for this of you who are like me and think they are plates with images of classic book covers on them) are little square stickers you can autograph and send to people who already have your book. 

My book plate designed by

Notecards are an absolute necessity.  Order some cards with your name across the top or buy a non-personalized set that fits your website/book cover style.  My first set of notecards was pale yellow with my name in red across the top--the cards matched the cover of JANE IN BLOOM.  You will use these when you mail your ARCs to bloggers, when you send copies of your book to teachers or contest winners, for thank yous to your agent and editor.  I have reordered notecards three times already!
Some authors also order bookmarks and matching business cards.  You can format them to include your book cover and a favorite quote from your book.  My friend, Ann Haywood Leal, printed these beautiful bookmarks and business cards for her debut novel, ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER.
Ann Haywood Leal's Bookmark and Business Card
3.  Lists.  Keep lists of all the people you contact and the people who contact you.  It is time consuming to copy email addresses and names onto a spreadsheet or word document on your computer.  But you are the only person who can compile these names and you can reach out to people when your next book is released.  It is worth the time to maintain your contact list. 

4.  Book Trailer.  Some publishers will create a book trailer for new releases, so if your publisher is creating a trailer for your new release, this item is not for you.  If your publisher isn't providing a book trailer for you, consider making one yourself.  A book trailer is a wonderful marketing tool and is worth the investment.  Read my post with YA author Joy Preble.  Her book trailers are extremely engaging and very well done. 

5.  Write.  Do not sit and wait for your book to come out.  Keep writing.  Your best time to sell another book is between your sale and release date.  So write, write, write! Laurie Halse Anderson is running her Sixth Annual Write for Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge right now.  Join in.  Here's the link.

6.  Network.  I can't say enough about this.  Get out there.  Build your Author Platform.  (See my interview with  author and blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith for guidelines on the best way to do this).  Sign up for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Tumblr--whichever one feels most comfortable to you.  But be present.  Today's authors have to be visible online and can no longer hide behind our book jackets.  Find your author voice and establish yourself.  It will help you promote your book and build your career. 

7.  Don't Compare.  This is the most difficult of the tasks to accomplish.  Don't compare your path to anyone else's.  Your reviews, your sales and your journey are unique to you alone.  Don't let the business of being an author get in the way of doing what you love best.  Write.

I wish you all the best!


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Giant Dance Party with Betsy Bird

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Elizabeth Bird.  You might already know Betsy Bird from her popular and influential blog, A Fuse#8Production.  She is also New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist.  But there is more—Betsy has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has also written a picture book entitled Giant Dance Party, illustrated by Brandon Dorman. 

Debby:  Betsy, thank you for taking the time to be here today.  And congratulations on the release of Giant Dance Party!  I wanted to ask you a little bit about trends in children’s book publishing.  You read and review so many new books, I am sure you have a sense of the direction the industry is moving in picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction.  Where do you see changes on the horizon?

Betsy:   Ah!  The million dollar question!  Well, let’s see what I can say with certainty.  It seems that there’s lots of room for ebooks for children and teens to expand.  Libraries are providing them, but won’t see a serious uptick in sales until they do a better job of advertising these formats.  Fortunately, kids like print books perfectly well.  While adults gasp and go gaga over the latest shiny gadget, children and teens effortlessly move between the print and electronic versions of their favorite stories with ease.  So don’t start expecting print to go away.  Until they make a juice proof gigantic thing e-reader, picture books are here to stay.

The merger of Random House with Penguin means will be seeing more of the big houses merging in kind.  The result?  More gaps in the marketplace for the little publishers to swoop in.  And with the rise of Common Core State Standards, expect a serious uptick in nonfiction in the next few years (both good and bad). 

Debby:   I also wanted to ask you about what you think makes a picture book successful with children?  What makes them read something over and over again?

Betsy:   Your query about future trends was the easier question.  Boy, if I could just bottle what it is that makes picture books successful you can bet I’d be a rich woman.  To a certain extent, I have a complete and utter inability to predict the next big picture book thing.  Look at the picture books that appear on the New York Times bestseller list or the Publishers Weekly children’s fiction list.  There you’ll see picture books like “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site” and the latest Fancy Nancy, but how have they become ubiquitous?  No one really knows.

Honestly, if you want to write a picture book and make it successful with your readership, there are a couple things you need to do first.  Go out and read ALL the picture books you can.  Get a sense of the cadences and rhythms.  What kids love are books that sound good to their ears.  The perfect melding of text and art is important, naturally, but to my mind the words are going to make or break the book.  But what is it that makes them want to read a book over and over again?  That’s deeply personal.  For example, right now my own 2-year-old is obsessed with Melanie Hope Greenberg’s Mermaids on Parade.  Why?  Well she loves the words and the art, but for her the real kicker is the fact that it’s about a little girl who wins a trophy.  It all comes down to individual tastes.

Debby:  What about middle grade and young adult books?

Betsy:  Well certainly at that point kids have established their own preferred genres.  Here’s a secret behind the biggest blockbusters, though.  If you want to make the next Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, then you need to do one particular thing: Attain a readership of both boys and girls.  That’s what separates the top seller from the blockbusters.  Kids love books that appeal to everyone.  Look at the covers of these books sometime.  They’re all going for a kind of gender neutrality.  Someone asked me the other day if the new Lunar Chronicles series by Melissa Meyer will be the next Hunger Games.  I told them it could have been (the writing in books like Cinder and Scarlet is addictive in the same way) but they sunk their chances for blockbuster status when they put a pretty little red shoe on the cover of the first book.  No boy in the world is going to pick that up.  So there goes 50% of your potential readership.

Debby:  For those of us that are parents or teachers, can you recommend some new quiet books that might not have made a giant splash, but are worth reading with our children? 
Betsy:  Sure!

On the picture book side (for kids 4-7)

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle – Mine is not the only dance-related picture book this year.  A wordless tale told with flaps, this initially reluctant pairing of a little plump girl in a bathing suit and a snobby flamingo, rapidly becomes a transcendent dance between two new friends.

Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon – Incredibly cool.  A boy spends some of his baseball games in the U.S. and some in Japan.  The similarities and the differences make this the #1 best contemporary Japan-related picture book out there today.

Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales – I adore this book. A little boy imagines himself to be a professional Mexican wrestler, taking on a host of extraordinary and otherworldly contenders.  The only foes he can’t beat?  His baby sisters.

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea – Consider this a unicorn book for boys (though girls will get a kick out of it too). Goat is mighty jealous of sparkly Unicorn.  However, it appears that when it comes to cool talents, Unicorn is pretty jealous of Goat too.

On the chapter books side (for kids 9-12)

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore – A small quiet smart book, part mystery, part historical fiction, and part science fiction.  A boy and his family move into a hitherto unknown ancestral home, only to find that it has some kind of connection to a town of geniuses and maybe even the fabled Fountain of Youth.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle – So much fun. Nate’s an overweight, Broadway-loving middle schooler with big dreams.  So big, in fact, that he hops a bus to New York City to audition for the lead role in E.T.: The Musical!

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein – Imagine what would happen if instead of candy, Willy Wonka had become obsessed with games.  A puzzle filled romp through what is undoubtedly the world’s coolest fictional library.

Mister Orange by Truus Matti – A quiet gem of a historical novel.  Set during WWII, Linus Muller meets a strange but fun old man on his grocery delivery route.  He calls him “Mister Orange” for his love of the fruit, little suspecting his friend is actually the great painter Mondrian.

A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk – Not your typical mystery novel.  Set in 1969 Tanzania, Shida and her village are part of a bold new experiment that is merging several villages together.  But when someone starts wrecking havoc, it’s up to Shida to unveil the culprit.

Debby:  Thank you—what a great list!  Here’s another question for you—if you could wave a magic wand and have certain types of books appear on your shelves at the library, what would they be?   What do you wish you saw more often?

Betsy:  Oh, that’s an easy on.  More races, ethnicities, religions, and alternate lifestyles, please!  Particularly anything starring African-American boys.  Then again, early chapter books starring Latino characters are also few and far between.  I understand the desire to write white characters, but I’m sick of them.  There are WAY too many.  We need more fun and funny books with characters from a variety of backgrounds. PLEASE!

Debby:  I hope writers are taking note of your suggestions!  I want to turn to your own writing career.  What lessons have you learned from your work on the blog and at the NY Library that have helped you in your writing?

Betsy:  The importance of writing something you can read aloud over and over is pretty key.  Having done enough storytimes for antsy toddlers and preschoolers, I knew what elements I had to add to hold the attention of your average everyday four-year-old.  The blog helped me in terms of knowing how to market myself online (having seen what does and does not work for authors in the past).  Together, the lessons I’ve learned have proved invaluable.

Debby:  Giant Dance Party is your debut book.  Can you tell us a little bit about the story—and why you wanted to tell it?  I’m wondering if you ever took dance classes and performed in recitals?

Betsy:  Sure!  I most certainly did take many many dance classes as a child.  But unlike my heroine, Lexy, I didn’t suffer stage fright to the same degree.  In this book a young girl decides that while she loves to dance, she just cannot take recitals any longer.  The solution?  She’ll become a dance teacher instead.  Trouble is, nobody wants to learn from a very small girl.  No one, that is, except for maybe five hulking, furry, blue giants.  Lexy’s game and teaches them, but it turns out she shares more in common with her new students than she ever suspected.

I was inspired to write the book by my illustrator.  Brandon Dorman was an artist I admired for years and years.  Then, one day, out of the blue he informs me that he’d love to do a book with me.  His one stipulation?  He wanted to draw “giants leaping”.   And what involves more leaping than dance, I ask you?  The rest was history.

Debby:  Brandon Dorman’s illustrations are charming and really add to your story.  Illustrations can make or break a picture book so I wanted to know what that part of the process was like for you.  Did you see sketches periodically, or just the finished product?

Betsy:  Under normal circumstances an author is paired with an illustrator and the two never communicate.  Brandon and I were a bit odd since we knew each other beforehand, paired with one another, and our publisher was nice enough to take us on.  Brandon showed me early sketches and then I saw some later ones when we were trying to get the look of the book just right.  In the early days the giants were big, warty, typical types.  Your average awful ogres.  In time, however, they become a little more furry and blue.  Now they’re positively friendly and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I was also allowed to make suggestions about the art.  This is primarily because Brandon is a digital artist and could make changes if needed.  He did change some small things here and there for me.  I was lucky to have both an editor who was open to this process and to have an illustrator willing to make the changes.

Debby:  It sounds like you had a wonderful experience both with your editor and illustrator.  So I have to ask this question, because everyone reading this interview will want to know—what can we expect from you next?  Will there be a sequel to Giant Dance Party?

Betsy:  Probably not, though I’d never entirely rule it out.  I can tell you that I’ve sold a second picture book to Harper Collins and that my editor and I will be working on it soon.  But mum’s the word on that one.  All I can say is that there isn’t a furry giant in sight. 

Debby:  How exciting!  I can’t wait to read it.  Betsy, thank you again for sharing your insights today.  You’ve given me a lot to think about.  You can visit Betsy at her blog and you can follow her on Twitter @FuseEight.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Magic of Friends

Writing is a solitary career.  Our characters become our friends and our writing pets, our partners.  But you cannot underestimate the magic of writer friends.  Last weekend, some of my friends were in Los Angeles for the annual SCBWI Conference.  Every year, we meet for lunch--this group of us who had our debut MG and YA novels released in 2009.  We are the Class of 2k9--there are 22 of us altogether.  This year, there were four 2k9ers present:  Kathryn Fitzmaurice, Ann Haywood Leal, Suzanne Morgan Williams and me.  We speak during the year, via email or on the phone, and we are social media friends, so we stay updated on each other's news.  But there is nothing like having time to talk to friends in person.  I learn so much from them.  Last weekend, we talked about new manuscripts, works-in-progress, agent news, trying to write different genres and then about our children and their adventures.  I heard about exciting new stories, struggles with rewrites, publishing news and rejections.  We have chosen the same profession and debuted at the same time.  So even if our careers follow different paths, we will always be connected--because we embarked that first year together.  We will always be friends. 

If you are a writer, I highly recommend you make some writer friends.  Join a writer's group.  If you write for children, start with SCBWI.  If you are about to be published for the first time, find a group of other writers like you who can cross-promote.  If you are already published, join a group blog.  Ann Haywood Leal and I have just joined Smack Dab in the Middle, a blog for middle grade authors.  Today, reach out to a friend.  Maybe someone you talk to every single day or someone you haven't spoken with in over a year.  I'm going to email a writer I haven't heard from in a long while, Susanna Leonard Hill.  Susanna was my very first writer friend 12 years ago.  We have never met in person, since she lives on the East Coast, and I live on the West Coast.  But it has never seemed to matter because we are bonded over the profession of writing for children.  If you don't have a writer friend, make a commitment to make one today.  

There is power in friendship. 


Monday, July 29, 2013

Tips for Writing with Kids

As a single mom with a day job as an attorney and two girls, 8 ½ (that ½ is important) and 12 years old, with homework and school events, not to mention extra-curricular activities, I have become an expert at juggling.  Staying committed to my writing career involves daily reaffirmations.  And it would have been much easier to give it up than to try and do it all.  But writing feeds my soul—and as a role model for my daughters, I am showing them that when you have a passion for something, you never give up.  They are learning about commitment, discipline and perseverance.  And mostly, they are learning that you have to believe in yourself.  As writers, we have to believe in ourselves or we would never be able to put one word on the page.
If any of you are writers with kids like me, I thought maybe it would be helpful for me to share a few tips—and encouragement for those days when you wonder if, in fact, you can “do it all.” 

No one can write exactly like you, because no one else is you.  So when you have those moments of doubt as a writer, remind yourself that you are one of a kind.  And your stories are unique. 

Here are 7 tips for writers with kids:  

1.       Write what you love.  You are spending precious moments on writing.  Moments away from your kids or other activities.  Sometimes even losing sleep.  Writing with kids involves a tremendous amount of sacrifice.  So it needs to make you happy.   Don’t be afraid to start something new if a story isn’t working for you.  Feed your soul.
2.       Don’t be afraid to use a pen.  A pen is a writer’s BFF.  You can scribble while you wait for your daughter at soccer practice or your son at his piano lesson, in the pick-up line at school or even while you are watching that Disney Channel show for the 11th time.  I keep a pen and paper next to my bed so I can write down dialogue when I wake up or just before I go to sleep.  Even a crayon works.

3.       Engage your kids.  Make your kids a part of your writing.  My girls are the first people to hear new story ideas and read pages of my WIPs.  They give me honest feedback and, since they are my target audience, it really enhances my work.  Reading pages out loud to an audience really helps determine what works and what doesn’t.  Let your kids help you.  Find fun ways to engage them in your work—making up character names or drawing your settings.  

4.       Network.  Making writer friends helps you feel like you are part of a community.  Writing is such an isolated career, but reaching out and making friends connects you to the profession.  And sharing struggles with other writers is much more comforting than trying to explain them to a non-writer.  A non-writer can empathize, but a fellow writer understands.  SCBWI has been wonderful for me.  There are also local groups and blogging communities.  You can reach out with social media to connect to others.  Just make a connection. 

5.       Write every day.  Even one word.  It will add to the last word and the next word.  And eventually, you will have a sentence.  The hardest thing for writers with kids is being able to write daily.  And when you don’t write daily, you lost momentum.  Other things get in the way, other super important things.  It’s really easy to lose track of days and weeks when kids are so busy, and we are busy raising them.  Even blogging counts.  Just work your skills daily.

6.       Don’t compare yourself.  Okay, I’m not very good at this one.  But I am putting it on the list in the hope that I will improve.  I don’t need to say much about this except that everyone’s path is different (you know this already, as I do), and we just have to stay true to ourselves and move forward.  We never know what is next.  So try not to look at other people’s success and let it discourage you.  Comparison is a sure path to writer’s block.  I can guarantee it.  So keep your eyes on your own work, learn from others and move forward.

7.       My secret weapon.  Deadlines are my secret weapon.  I make them up for myself by setting goal dates for completing a new manuscript.  And then I hold myself to them by telling others—my agent or my friends.  It is my way of making sure I complete my manuscripts.  I guess it works for me because I love school.  I like deadlines.  Before I had an agent, I would submit writing to contests.  And the contest deadlines helped me to finish the work.  Or I would attend a writer’s conference and commit to completing the work before the conference so I could pitch it to an agent or editor.  Even just marking a date on the calendar helps.  

Happy writing!


Monday, July 22, 2013

The Language Inside Holly Thompson


Today, I am thrilled to feature Holly Thompson to talk about her new release, The Language Inside (Delacorte Books for Young Readers).

Debby: Welcome, Holly. Thank you for visiting my site today. And many congratulations on your new YA fiction release, The Language Inside. Your YA verse novel, Orchards, won numerous awards and critical praise. Was there a temptation to write a follow up novel in verse?

Holly: Thank you for having me!

Like Orchards, The Language Inside began as a verse novel, not because I wanted the follow-up novel to be in verse format but because the story started telling itself to me in verse—probably because of Emma’s voice and the pain of displacement, the aphasia she experiences during her migraines, and the poems created as she volunteers to help Zena at the long-term care center. There is a lot packed into this novel and verse enabled the various elements to be pared down and braided together. I write in prose as well as verse, but these novels definitely required verse.

Debby: What was the inspiration for The Language Inside?

Holly: As a graduate student in the NYU Creative Writing Program, I volunteered to assist patients writing poetry at Goldwater Hospital and participated in the writing workshops led by poet Sharon Olds there. At Goldwater I was assigned to several patients, and my experiences with poet Julia Tavalaro (see my blog post) were unforgettable and inspired the character of Zena in The Language Inside. I wanted to write about a teen character working with such an individual, who, despite the inability to speak, can control and manipulate conversations and communicate a profound determination and zest for life.

Debby: What is your favorite line in The Language Inside?

Holly: I’m not sure I can identify a specific line or stanza, but I liked working on the “Breasts” chapter, in which Zena and Emma wrangled total control of the story and surprised me as they spoke and shared their poems. I also liked the poem that Emma created on language, “Lonely Is,” from which the book’s title is derived that begins:

Lonely Is

when the language outside
is not the language inside
and words are made of just 26 letters
not parts that tell stories

Debby: Holly, that is breathtakingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing Emma’s poem. In addition to the undeniable power of your prose, I think you do a wonderful job of depicting the difficulties of being bicultural. I know you have lived in Japan for many years. What would you miss the most if you returned to the US? And what do you miss the most about the US while living in Japan?

Holly: Whenever I’m in the U.S. I miss Japan—big things like the volcanic landscape, many aspects of the culture, baths, the service ethic, as well as specifics like the cicada songs, train convenience, my neighborhood, Japanese cuisine. It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing, though I always miss Japanese food when I’m not in Japan. And when I’m in Japan, I miss my U.S. family, New England landscapes, diverse U.S. cities, casual conversations, pies and burritos.

Debby: Orchards is such a beautiful, heart-wrenching book, and every time I look at the pages again, I am struck by how you have managed to tell such a complex story with poetry. Did writing the story in verse limit you or did it expand you ability to tell the story? 

Holly: Orchards was a painful story to write, and it was only possible in spare, pared down verse in which the white space provides breathing room for the character Kana, as well as the reader. The verse and the voice are so integral to the story that I didn’t find the format limiting; rather, the story fed the verse and the verse fed the story.

Debby: Do you have a favorite line in Orchards?

Holly: It’s a simple metaphor and it’s a stanza not a line, but I like Kana’s description of her bicultural self when her Japanese grandparents expect her to act Japanese:

they seem to think
I can just switch
one half of me
and leave the other
half of me
but I’m like
warm water
pouring from a faucet
the hot
and cold
both flowing
as one

Debby: I think these feelings can be shared by all of us when people expect us to be one thing and we are more than that. We are all hot and cold both flowing as one. You have this incredible ability to grip the reader with Kana’s pain and then give us some space to recover. The hanging crow image in Orchards was so powerful for me. And the pain in the book really comes through viscerally in those pages. My book was also seeped in grief, and the writing was very painful for me. How do you work through the pain of your characters?

Holly: Yes, the hanging crow, a fairly common rural Japan custom, made for an intense scene. Grief is central to Orchards, and I cried my way through writing the story. I had to force myself to write through to the end of my first draft during a period when my husband and children were away—crying as much and as long as I needed to. Of course, as I was writing through the pain and Kana’s ranging forms of grief, I was also discovering Kana’s humor, compassion and resilience.

Debby: I’m always interested to hear about how other writer’s work. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you work with a critique group?

Holly: I’m always working on writing, but not at the same time each day and not necessarily every day. I work with a critique group—writer members of SCBWI Japan, both face to face and online. I share the opening chapter or two of a novel once I feel like I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. The critique group comments are so helpful in grounding me. Later, after several revisions of the full draft, I usually share the manuscript with a few beta readers. I also enlist the help of folks who helped guide my research and have them check pages within their area of specialty. And of course, feedback from my agent and editor is always critical in shaping my novels.

Debby: What do you hope your readers will take with them after reading The Language Inside?

Holly: I hope that readers will feel as though they’ve journeyed to Japan in a way, and that they’ll want to know more about Cambodia and Japan, and vibrant immigrant communities such as those found in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts. Also, like Emma, many people around the world identify with cultures outside their ethnicity and heritage, so I hope that readers will become curious about the cultures and languages that individuals may carry within themselves. And finally, the characters of Emma and Samnang both volunteer on a regular basis—perhaps they will inspire readers to consider what they can do to make a difference in their communities.

Debby: I hope so, too. Thank you again, Holly, for taking the time to be here today. And thank you for writing such beautiful fiction.

You can find out more about Holly at her website