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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. Now days 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.

Television IS writing research!


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It’s true. Watching television—certain television shows at least—is writing research. Especially when you stream a season or watch it on DVD (without commercials) and analyze character and story arcs. I have learned a lot about story structure, character development, and dialog from well written television shows.

For me it started with Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since then, there have been a number of other series that have influenced my storytelling and writing style.

The Closer—This show did an amazing job with character idiosyncrasies as a method Brenda Leigh Johnsonfor building empathy.Here’s the series synopsis: The Closer is a police procedural series, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, a Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief. Brenda moved to Los Angeles from Georgia where she trained in the CIA, and gained a reputation as a Closer — a tough interrogator who solves cases and obtains confessions leading to convictions that “close” the case. Deputy Chief Johnson uses her femininity to disarm and distract, and at times resorts to deceit and intimidation to persuade suspects into confessing.

The West Wing—This show excelled on every level. Though, one of the things I loved most was the punchy dialog. What characters say, as well as what they don’t, reveals who they are. Here’s the synopsis: A political drama that followed the triumphs and travails of White House senior staff that won two Peabody Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and 26 Primetime Emmy Awards, including the award for Outstanding Drama Series, which it won four consecutive times.

The West Wing cast

White Collar—This show had engaging characters and story lines, and plot threads with enough twists to keep the most agile guessing. Here’s the synopsis: Criminal Neal Caffrey has been eluding FBI agent Peter Burke for years, a run that finally comes to an end with his capture. But after the resourceful prisoner escapes from a maximum-security facility, then is nabbed once again by Burke, Caffrey suggests a different end-game: In return for freedom, he’ll help the Feds catch long-sought criminals. Though skeptical, Burke soon realizes that Caffrey’s instincts and insight are a rare commodity. Cast of White Collar

NCIS—This show matches strong characters with thought provoking mysteries. What impressed me the most—maybe because it’s what I needed to learn in my own writing at the time—was the finesse used in creating three-dimensional characters with believable interrelationships with humorous quirks. Here’s the series synopsis: Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs leads a group of colorful personalities in investigating crimes — ranging from murder and espionage to terrorism — that have evidence connected to Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

NCIS cast

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—Smart, funny, and brimming with humanity we can all relate to. This series has a stellar cast and equally talented writers who bring the characters to life. The secondary characters are as brilliant at the main character, Midge Maisel. Every writer can learn something from this series. 8 Emmy Awards back up my opinion. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this series yet, maybe the synopsis will inspire you: It’s the late 1950s and Miriam “Midge” Maisel has everything she has ever wanted — the perfect husband, two kids and an elegant apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. Her seemingly idyllic life takes a surprising turn when she discovers a hidden talent she didn’t previously know she had — stand-up comedy. This revelation changes her life forever as she begins a journey that takes her from her comfortable life on the Upper West Side through the cafes and nightclubs of Greenwich Village as she makes her way through the city’s comedy industry on a path that could ultimately lead her to a spot on the “Tonight Show” couch.

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

What’s your current fave television series and why?

How to outsmart the traps of ‘Writer’s Time’


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Some days I wonder if Einstein set out to prove his theory of relativity after experiencing the phenomena of writer’s time:

  1. Suspension in the blissful bubble of the sparkly new idea.
  2. Trudging through horrifically hard scenes or the mire of the middle.
  3. The End…that keeps slipping away.
  4. The Wait after submission, when time freezes.

It took a couple of projects before I recognized the phenomena of writer’s time, and a few more before I learned how to sidestep the traps. The secret to managing writer’s time instead of being controlled by it is to juggle. Yes juggle.

Juggling hands


1. Blissful Sparkly Idea Bubble

You’ve got a sparkly new idea and you’re glowing with inspiration and so caught up in the creative process you’re not aware of time passing. You dance through the prose, and the story all but writes itself. This phase must be what Ray Bradbury was referring to when he said, “You must stay drunk on writing…” because it feels GREAT. The trap is believing that writing will always be this way. If you do, when the euphoria fades and the real work begins, you’ll quit. The secret is to enjoy the blissful bubble while lasts and accomplish as much as possible. This will help you through the other phases of writer’s time.

Creative inspiration


2. Horrifically Hard Scenes and the Mire of the Middle

The blissful bubble popped and you’re face with writing horrifically hard scenes or the slogging through the mire of the middle, and time crawls at a painfully slow pace. Don’t dismay. Every project this phase, to one degree or another. Trust in the process and keep writing. If the muck starts to feel like quick sand, juggle. Pick up another project for a while and rekindle the spark of inspiration. Always remember the quote by Louis L’Amour: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

crawling through the hard scenes

3. THE END is in Sight and Out of Reach

Time fliesTHE END is near, but as you type faster, time speeds up, flying by at a gale force velocity. It’s like being on a treadmill, running in place. Invigorating and infuriating.

You know exactly what needs to happen in your story and what to do to get there. You can taste victory, especially when chocolate is at the end of the deadline, but it’s perpetually out of reach. The secret to remember here is that time is an illusion, and in the end (pun intended) the writer always wins! Keep typing.

4. The Wait

You made your deadline with style and grace, but the excitement of sending off your ‘baby’ soon fades. You put your heart and soul into a story and now it’s gone. The Wait to hear back begins. The trap here is allowing yourself to indulge in feeling lost, or succumbing to insecurity and doubt. Don’t do it!

Instead, juggle. Start a new project, or pick up an old one you put on the shelf. Try a new genre. Write something totally different. Write anything. Keep the creativity flowing. If you don’t, you might find yourself in the same predicament as Han Solo, at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Frozen. Insecurity, doubt, and fear are insidious. Don’t give them a chance to seep in. Keep writing. The secret to getting published (again and again) is to not give up!

Han Solo


Zen and the art of creative rhythm


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Dancing figures silhouette

In the Western world, we are judged—and often judge ourselves—by how much we do. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not always conducive for creativity. Writing, like other creative processes, has a rhythm.

The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them. —Claude Debussy

Musical structure, by definition, is rhythmic. It relies as much on the silence in between the notes as the notes themselves. The written word is much the same, as is the creative process itself. When creativity is continuously forced, full-speed-ahead, we eventually lose inner and outer balance along with the ability to create.

You may have families, jobs, or other obligations that demand a lot of attention on a daily basis. Making time to write may push your limits some days, especially if you’re on deadline. The secret to maintaining your creative rhythm is to periodically step back, if only for a few moments:Spa rocks and lotus flower

  • listen to classical music during your commute
  • stop for a few minutes to fully appreciate a sunset
  • take a short walk and focus on nature
  • sit for a mini meditation, two or three minutes works wonders

I love the line from the film Million Dollar Baby when Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) tells Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank), who he’s coaching in boxing, “Sometimes the best punch you can land, is to take a step back.”

This is not a new concept. It’s Zen wisdom that we intrinsically know, but often forget when swept up in the flurry of life’s demands. Ray Bradbury‘s book, Zen in the Art of Writing, provides a deeper look into the practice from the viewpoint of a master.

Musical notes and splashes of color

It started with a tap dancing cow!


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Tomorrow marks the 7th anniversary of this blog, a blogiversary if you will. It all started with a simple post featuring a tap dancing cow Putting on the Ritz. It’s hard to believe that was 7 years ago!

Tap dancing cow

Dancing…and writing…into the New Year

The focus on blogging has changed in the writing world over the last seven years. Today, Authors spend the majority of their time working on their next project, and very little on blogs. Personally, I enjoy the immediate gratification of writing and posting a short piece and will continue here…though less frequently.

Here’s to a New Year filled with ridiculously spectacular accomplishments!

Mooo-ve over, the best is yet to come!