Wisdom of Richard Peck ~ Writing for young readers


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Reposting this as a reminder to myself as I start a new project, and for anyone else who’s starting a new project.

Elizabeth Fais

Richard Peck was an influential voice for me when I started writing for young readers, and with good reason. A Long Way From Chicago, coverHe was a National Book Award finalist TWICE, as well as claiming the Newbery Honor (A Long Way From Chicago) and Newbery Medal (A Year Down Yonder). Richard Peck was nothing short of a master and commander in the art of writing for young readers.

Before becoming an author, Richard Peck was a teacher. His classrooms were filled with the young audience he’d later write for. He admitted that, “Junior-high teaching made a writer out of me.” Peck may have left teaching, but he never stopped sharing his wisdom.

I was fortunate to have heard Richard Peck speak at a couple of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conferences. SCBWI even recorded a video Masterclass with Richard Peck on writing the novel for young…

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The Writer and Rabbit Who Saved the Countryside


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Most people don’t realize that Beatrix Potter was an environmentalist who deserves recognition for her significant contributions on Earth Day.

The lovely new picture book, SAVING THE COUNTRYSIDE, The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, with words by Linda Elovitz Marshall and pictures by Ilaria Urbinati, is a tribute to Beatrix Potter’s dedication in creating a legacy that stretched far beyond her beloved stories. This true story, told with honest heartfelt prose paired with delightful watercolor illustrations, shines a light on Beatrix Potter’s deep love of nature and her desire to preserve her beloved farm, as well as the rest of the surrounding farms and countryside (totaling 4,000 acres!) for the greater good.

Ahead-Of-Her-Time Trailblazer

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was a trailblazer for children’s literature and women’s rights, as well as the environment. Her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (published by Frederick Warne in 1902) established the genre of fiction for young readers. This in itself was a monumental achievement, but even more so in the late 19th century when it wasn’t considered proper for women to work outside the home in a professional capacity. Miss Potter (the 2006 film) provides endearing insights into the whimsical imagination of Beatrix Potter and the societal pressures she faced and overcame. You can watch the trailer for this inspiring film below.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, cover

Born in Kensington, London, Beatrix later moved to Hill Top Farm in Cumbria. She was a biologist and naturalist at heart, and made it her mission to save the beloved countryside that surrounded her farm. In all, she protected and preserved 14 other farms, over 4000 acres of land, all of which were bequeathed to the National Trust upon her death.

Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated 28 books that have been translated into more than 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is still Potter’s most popular and well-loved tale. It’s the story of a mischievous rabbit and the ensuing trouble he finds in Mr McGregor’s vegetable garden!

Miss Potter ~ The inspirational life of Beatrix Potter

3 TREE-rific Informational Picture Books


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There is a wealth of amazing informational picture books on the market today, in every subject and category. Each one beautifully illustrated and wonderfully told. So much so, I have a hard time limiting my purchases whenever I wander into a local bookstore. With spring almost here and Earth Day and Arbor Day coming next month (April 22nd and 30th respectively), now is the time for trees.

I can’t say enough good things about these TREE-rific informational picture books, so I’ll let their stories and artwork do all the talking.

The Tree Lady

The Tree Lady

Written by H. Joseph Hopkins
illustrated by Jill McElmurry

The Tree Lady is the true story of how one tree-loving woman changed a city forever. Kate Sessions arrived in San Diego in 1883 and looked out over an arid and barren landscape. Her vision transformed San Diego into the botanical jewel it is renowned for today. She received many honors for the work she did, but the one that pleased her the most was being called the Mother of Balboa Park. This book is a must read for anyone who doubts that one person can change their world.

The Wisdom of Trees

Written and illustrated by Lita Judge

The story of a tree is a story of community, communication, and cooperation. Although trees may seem like silent, independent organisms, they form a network buzzing with life: they talk, share food, raise their young, and offer protection. Trees thrive on diversity, learn from their ancestors, and give back to their communities. Trees not only sustain life on our planet––they can also teach us important lessons about patience, survival, and teamwork.––Synopsis

Lita Judge’s lush illustrations are matched with the beauty of poems and easily interpreted scientific explanations about the Secrets of the Wood Wide Web. This book provides a depth of insight and knowledge about forests and the animals and other life forms that make their homes within. The Wonder of Trees is sure to intrigue readers of all ages.

What Did The Tree See?

Written by
Charlotte Guillain
Illustrated by Sam Usher

As the might oak tree tells her life story in lyrical prose, we experience her joys and losses as the landscape changes around her over the centuries. The timeline at the end describes the historical milestones over the tree’s lifetime.

Musings from the Writing Cave


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desert cave

Hey, remember me? It’s been a little (!) while since my last post.

I wish I could say I’ve been off climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, exploring the mighty Amazon, or bicycling across France. The truth is much less glamorous: I’ve been writing. Not in a real cave, of course, but the term is fitting. Sitting in a dark room with the computer screen the only illumination is pretty cave-like.

Why the self induced seclusion, you ask? Well, as much as I love posting articles here, it took away from what truly makes my heart sing, writing for young readers.

The turning point came when I was accepted into the SCBWI Nevada Mentorship Program where I received a professional structural edit of my young adult novel. To do the work well, I needed to get serious and put in the time required to take that story to the next level. I suddenly realized that the majority of published authors focused on their next book contract, not writing articles for a blog.

I’m delighted to say that I’m currently seeking representation for that young adult novel. And while I wait for responses, I’m developing and revising picture book manuscripts and planning the start of a middle grade novel that’s been simmering on the back burner for several years.

I do love posting articles here and will continue to do so from time to time. However, nowhere near as regularly as I once did. Now, back to word spelunking in the writing cave.

Old-fashioned typewriter



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By Deborah Hopkinson ~ A Mystery of WWII London

How I Became A Spy coverBertie Bradshaw never set out to become a spy. He never imagined traipsing around war-torn London, solving ciphers, practicing surveillance, and searching for a traitor to the Allied forces. He certainly never expected that a strong-willed American girl named Eleanor would play Watson to his Holmes (or Holmes to his Watson, depending on who you ask).

But when a young woman goes missing, leaving behind a coded notebook, Bertie is determined to solve the mystery. With the help of Eleanor and his friend David, a Jewish refugee–and, of course, his trusty pup, Little Roo–Bertie must decipher the notebook in time to stop a double agent from spilling the biggest secret of all to the Nazis.

This suspenseful WWII adventure reminds us that times of war call for bravery, brains and teamwork from even the most unlikely heroes. [Cover Synopsis]

Danger and daring wrapped in a page-turning mystery

I chanced upon this book while browsing in a local indie bookstore. Everything about it intrigued me and I bought it on the spot.

Bertie Bradshaw volunteered as an air-raid messenger to redeem himself for a past mistake and stumbles onto a mystery of national importance. Hopkinson weaves historical facts through a masterfully plotted mystery, bringing the characters, time, and place to life.

Five things that kept me turning the pages:

  • The first lines: “I wasn’t thinking about becoming a spy that night. I was trying to be brave, do a good job, and stay out of trouble. It wasn’t going well.”
  • The dog: Little Roo, the black spaniel, is a service dog who’s skill is finding people trapped in bombed out buildings. However, Roo’s bond with Bertie runs much deeper and plays an important role in solving the mystery.
  • The history: Real-life facts, such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE) Manual quotes, food rationing, air-raid sirens, General Eisenhower and his dog, bring WWII London—and all that happened there—to life.
  • The cryptography: Ciphers used in espionage during WWII are realistically woven throughout the story. We see how they’re used and learn how they work as our characters break them.
  • The friendships: Bertie, Eleanor, and David, a Jewish refugee, form a kindred bond as they struggle to crack the ciphers in the mysterious notebook, in the race to save the nation, and world, in its darkest hour.

Praise for “HOW I BECAME A SPY”

“This middle grade mystery novel starts with a bang and sends readers on a breakneck journey through World War II London.” —School Library Journal

“Hopkinson has written a cleverly plotted, page-turning mystery that vividly evokes wartime Britain… Fans of puzzles, mysteries, and historical fiction will be delighted by Hopkinson’s latest.” —Booklist 

“Red herrings, a poignant Bradshaw family backstory, ciphers to decode, a subplot regarding a young Jewish refugee friend of Bertie’s, cameos by real-life historical figures (General Eisenhower and his dog; cipher expert Leo Marks)—there’s certainly no shortage of entry points for young readers, and never a dull moment.” —The Horn Book

The “Creative High” is real!


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Creative mind
Artists of all mediums have experienced the energetic bliss of the “creative high” at one time or another. I certainly did when painting and designing, as much as I have while writing. Maybe we didn’t talk about it, but we knew it was there. That it was real. Ray Bradbury, alluded to the creative high in his famous quote on writing:

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. —Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

In recent years, neuroscientists have conducted studies that scientifically prove what artists of all types have known all along.

The biology behind the magic of “Aha!”

Vienna’s Center for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering in collaboration with Goldsmiths University London discovered the secret of the “Aha!-moment”. When people have a flash of insight when solving a puzzle, the mood-enhancing substance dopamine is released. The same is true with artistic creation and insights.

And it just gets better! The initial release of dopamine from a creative endeavor generates continued creativity. L’Amour understood this, as shown in his well known quote on how to avoid writer’s block:

Start writing, no matter about what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. You can sit and look at a page for a long time and nothing will happen. Start writing and it will. —Louis L’Amour

The creative two-step

According to science and world-renown authors, how to get and stay creative can be summed up in two steps:

  1. Do (create), be (happy). Do, be, Do.
  2. Keep on, keeping on.

Backed by science

If you want to learn more about creativity and the chemistry of your brain:

MG Review: Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo


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A story of discovering who you are—and deciding who you want to be. —Book Jacket

When Louisiana Elefante’s granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her that the day of reckoning has arrived and they have to leave home immediately, Louisiana isn’t overly worried. After all, Granny has many middle-of-the-night ideas.

But this time, things are different. This time, Granny intends for them never to return. Separated from her best friends, Raymie and Beverly, Louisiana struggles to oppose the winds of fate (and Granny) and find a way home. But as Louisiana’s life becomes entwined with the lives of the people of a small Georgia town — including a surly motel owner, a walrus-like minister, and a mysterious boy with a crow on his shoulder — she starts to worry that she is destined only for good-byes. (Which could be due to the curse on Louisiana’s and Granny’s heads. But that is a story for another time.) [Synopsis]

A delightful journey of fate, hope and grace

Kate DiCamillo’s storytelling won me over with Because of Winn-Dixie, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Louisiana’s Way Home swept me up on the first page and carried me on a journey I didn’t want to end. On the fateful night when the story begins, Louisiana is forced to leave everything she knows and loves. Yet, like so many situations that appear grim at the outset, Louisiana’s transforms into something far better than she could ever have imagined.

Five things I loved about this book:

The Voice—Louisiana’s plucky spirit and honest insights had me laughing and rooting for her all the way. Like when she insists the dentist must see Granny without having an appointment: “You cannot make an appointment for an emergency, because emergencies are entirely unexpected.”

The Humor—A pervasive humor rings through Louisiana’s voice, the characters, and even the setting to counterbalance the heaviness of Louisiana’s situation and infusing it with hope. Like Louisiana’s criticism of the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel curtains. The motel is in Georgia and she believes the rooms should have “state appropriate curtains” with peaches not palm trees.

The Characters—We see the adults Louisiana encounters through her honest innocence, and their actions show us who they are. Like Grandfather Burke, with his hand as rough as a horse hoof and a heart so gentle that he holds her hand when needs it most.

The Friendship—Friendship sparks between Louisiana and Burke Allen, and his crow Clarence, when he appears on the roof of the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel and offers to get her anything she wants from the motel vending machine. Their friendship blossoms with camaraderie and over time the doorway of grace opens.

The Theme—Difficult situations and how we choose to handle them define us. Ultimately, we decide who we are and who we become. The strong yet gentle way in which Louisiana faces physical and emotional upheaval hint at the person she’ll grow into in the years to come.

Weird things I wonder about: WHY butt pockets?!!


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Wonder is the seed of knowledge.
Francis Bacon

Well…if this is true…I’m in trouble, because I wonder about some pretty weird stuff sometimes.

Like WHY are butt pockets standard issue on jeans? Seriously, WHY??! You’re just going to sit on whatever is in those pockets…eventually. Nowdays that’s likely to be your smart phone! It makes no sense.

I must admit that wondering about the absurdity of this design decision is what prompted my research into the history and origin of blue jean pockets. So, maybe the knowledge-thing applies here after all. Francis Bacon didn’t say how valuable the knowledge had to be.

The Method Behind Butt Pocket Madness

To understand the reasoning behind (no pun intended) the nonsensical placement of jean pockets, we have to go back to when blue jeans—as we know them today—were first created.

Levi Strauss followed the Gold Rush to California in 1853, where he established a dry goods store. One of the items he carried was blue industrial strength cloth known as denim. A Nevada tailor, by the name of Jacob Davis, bought some of Strauss’s denim and put rivets at pocket corners and other stress points to make them stronger. Davis couldn’t afford to patent the idea on his own, and contacted Strauss with a business plan. The patent was granted to Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss & Company on May 20, 1873, and blue jeans were born.

Prior to Levi Strauss’s blue jeans, people wore overalls for messy jobs and manual labor, such as construction, farm work, and painting. These jobs were generally performed while standing, so pocket placement was intended to make it easy to carry and retrieve tools. Blue jeans were originally intended to be worn for the same type of work, and initially were called waist overalls.

Form follows function. No sitting on jobs, where you carry tools in your pockets. Blue jeans were solely used for doing tough jobs for 80 years, until the mid 1950s.

From Work-Horse Wardrobe to Fashion Forward Fame

What happened to change the fate of the work-horse blue jeans?

James Dean happened.

The blue jeans fashion craze caught fire with James Dean’s signature t-shirt, leather jacket, and blue jeans look in the movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Young men across the country copied it immediately.

How did the blue jean fad catch on with young women in a time of poodle skirts and pearls?

Marilyn Monroe started the feminine blue jeans trend when she wore them in the movie The Misfits. Her character joined up with a group of cowboys, and she sported the quintessential female version of James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause outfit.

In the following decades, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and Henry Winkler (as The Fonz in Happy Days) fanned the flame of the blue jeans fashion frenzy. A trend that’s still burning bright.

THAT my friends is WHY we wear jeans with pockets on our backside.

I wonder what Levi Strauss would think of us carrying a computer—with more power than the one that put the first man in space (and took up an entire floor of a building)—in one of his back jean pockets? I think he’d probably design a more functional garment for that purpose. But that’s just me.

MG Review: FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang


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Making Dreams Come True

Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams? [Synopsis]

Discovering the Power of the Written Word

FRONT DESK measured up to all the praise, and then went beyond. It should be required reading in every middle school for a number of reasons. Mia’s pursuing her dream of becoming a writer in the face of discouragement from her family is an important lesson for us all. She didn’t give up or give in, no matter what anyone else said.

Mia discovers the power of the written word when the letters she writes to help solve the problems of her friends produce positive results. Mia expresses her courage with words. There are times when she pretends to be an adult for appropriate authority, in her effort to help a friend and right an injustice. The truth in Mia’s words resolves difficult situations and opens avenues for better lives for her family and friends.

Five things I love most about this book:

1 The Main Character—Mia is compassionate, smart, sensitive, and determined to help her family and friends realize the dream of a better life. Mia radiates an attitude of inclusion, making friends with the Weekly residents at the motel her parents manage as well as students in her class.

2 The Honesty—The author based this fictional story on her own experiences growing up, helping her parents manage a motel. This is a truthful view of the immigrant experience of her parents’ generation, told in a matter-of-fact tone without resentment. It is in turn heartbreaking for the inequities, and heartfelt in the strong sense of family and community that persevered.

3 The Compassion—In spite of the inequities and racist treatment Mia witnesses toward her parents’ generation of immigrants, she responds with kindness and a willingness to help right those wrongs.

4 The Relationships—Mia’s best friend Lupe supports her dream, encouraging Mia even when it means her friend could move away. Mia learns to reconcile the aggressions of Jason, the son of the antagonist motel owner, and find the goodness in him too. The Weekly residents stand by one another and help Mia too, becoming a true family.

5 The Courage and Ingenuity—NO SPOILERS! What I can say is that Mia’s courage, ingenuity, and talent for bringing people together result in her dream coming true in a way that creates a happy beginning to a better life for everyone.

MG Review: WISH by Barbara O’connor


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Wishes do come true

Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since Wish by Barbara O'connorfourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite.

But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true.

That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all. [Synopsis]

Poignantly perfect

WISH is a touching story about a girl and her dog, and how she finds the place where she belongs. There are deeper layers to this story that will resonate with older readers.

Five things I loved most about this story:

1 The Voice—Written in the first-person, Charlie (short for Charlemagne) is smart, spunky, and a little too openly honest. The voice is spot on in the delightful way children Charlie’s age view the world. For example, Charlie’s thoughts on having to live with her aunt and uncle:

When I asked how long I had to be there, she said until things settled down and Mama got her feet on the ground. Well, how hard is it to put your dang feet on the ground? is what I thought about that.

2 The Premise—Charlie is forced to leave everyone and everything she knows to start a new life with relatives she’s never met, in a town she’s never been to before. It’s a journey of the heart in search of belonging. Charlie’s bond with a stray dog she names Wishbone helps her find her way.

3 The Secondary Characters—Charlie’s forced Backpack-Buddy, Howard Odom—with his up-down walk—becomes a true friend. He is a calming and upbeat contrast to Charlie’s hot temper and sour outlook on her new life. Howard’s family gives Charlie a hopeful context for a normal life, while Charlie’s aunt and uncle provide the nurturing, supportive environment that enable her to heal and grow emotionally.

4 The Wish—NO SPOILERS! All I’ll say is that I think we’ve all, at one time or another, wished for something only to discover that what we really needed was right in front of us all along.

5 The Ending—Again, NO SPOILERS! What I can say is that the ending is heartwarming and satisfying. The happiness in the resolution is earned by the transformations the characters experience through the events that bring them together.