Monday, August 21, 2017

Life After Publication: A Conversation with Kathleen Burkinshaw and a Great Giveaway!

Congratulations to Linda Andersen for winning Kathy Wiechman's ARC of NOT ON FIFTH STREET.

It is my pleasure to host Kathleen Burkinshaw on her TLCB Blooming Anniversary Tour.

What has life been like for you since The Last Cherry Blossom was published?

This past year has had wonderful, surreal moments as well as frenzied, bittersweet ones.  To hold The Last Cherry Blossom (TLCB) the first time and see it in a bookstore, a library, or in schools was so rewarding. 

A surreal moment was being on stage for my first Author’s roundtable and autograph signing at the 2016 SCBWI-Carolinas conference. When I hear from readers that words I wrote about my mom’s experience growing up in Hiroshima has them thinking about the world differently, I feel humbled and most grateful.

The frenzied moments, for me, were the worry of how and where do I market TLCB? Are there awards that I should consider?  What conferences should I submit a request for proposal? Which ones can I afford to attend? I’m so thankful that SCBWI awarded the Book Launch Honor Award to me. It helped with some of the fees for conferences and allowed me to be an author sponsor of Multicultural Children’s Day this past January, which I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own.

What events and/or marketing have you done? 

I had bookmarks printed while my ARCs were being prepared.  My agent suggested that my publisher give out the bookmarks at the 2016 BEA, ALA, and BookCon in New York, since they would not be giving out copies of my ARCs. This built some buzz for the book.

I had my book launch at a local independent book store, Main Street Books, Davidson, NC.  They had offered to have my ARC reviewed by their teen book club, and suggested that one of the members do a reading with my daughter. I had book swag, such as cherry blossoms, silk fans, cherry blossom lip gloss, bookmarks, and even homemade chocolates in the shape/color of cherry blossoms. At middle school events ahead of time, I gave out bookmarks announcing the launch. 

I also joined a fantastic 2016 debut author group for MG and YA authors, The Sweet Sixteens. Members in this group helped one another by marketing each other’s books/events, and hosting various blog interviews. In addition, we encouraged each other through the highs and lows of pre-publication and afterward. 

A few months before my pub date, my friend, Joyce Moyer Hostetter asked if I’d like to be part of a group with her, Shannon Hitchcock, Shannon Weirsbitzky, and Kerry O’Malley Cerra. Our books all deal with difficult, emotional, or diverse issues that many middle graders face every day. The group is called #MGGetsReal. Kerry O’Malley Cerra painstakingly compiled a list of books by other authors that deal with tough topics which she continues to update. We did blog posts about one another, and with each other.  We also presented at the NC Reading Association discussing #MGGetsReal and our books.

I prepared a spread sheet for my publicity person at Sky Pony Press so she would know whom I had given information to, and who I hoped they could send a press release and copy of my book. I included local newspapers and TV stations, as well as Japanese book reviewers. In addition, I organized a list of awards and their deadlines, where I thought Sky Pony could submit TLCB.

My major marketing strategy is what I call my “Research, then throw it out there and see what sticks." I researched the names of various nuclear disarmament groups, Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivor groups, Japanese American societies, and Asian American publications. I signed up to receive various industry newsletters and writing blogs. I commented on blog posts and if on topic, I would mention my book. I requested a review from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific children’s book review blog, Book Dragon, and was pleasantly surprised when they agreed. 

Because I feel the school market is my best target audience, I researched school library, reading, social studies, and history associations.  I had set up a twitter account less than a year before my pub date. Interestingly, by direct messaging the NC School Library Media Association, I found out how to write a proposal and did my first conference presentation at their annual conference last year. 

I highly recommend Twitter. I’ve met some wonderful teachers, historians, and bloggers through various tweet chats. These look daunting at first, but it’s not as difficult as you might think.  It’s a wonderful way to connect with readers and authors all over the world. 

I also have enjoyed writing my blog, Creating Through the Pain. I started it at least a year before I had a publishing contract. I continue to meet some wonderful people through my blog.

Lastly, I am glad that I learned how to Skype with a class so that I could participate in World Read Aloud Day. Skyping with a class is a great way to meet students when traveling is difficult.

Which would you not repeat?

The tough thing about marketing your book is “that you don’t know what you don’t know.”  I didn’t know that there were certain lists to submit your book to be on their list--for example the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. If your publisher doesn’t know about it and you don’t know it exists, it doesn’t get submitted. Now working on my second book, I’m keeping notes so that I can be sure the second book doesn’t miss out on opportunities.

What advice would you give for the year(s) following publication?

For the year following publication, aside from working on your next book, visit classrooms, and connect with teachers or state school library associations, submit your book to various school library lists in different states that allow you/publisher to recommend your own book, and write guest blog posts. 😊

It is a delicate balance for every author between family, work, and anything else in life and their writing/marketing time. My difficulty is balancing all of these efforts in the middle of pain. There was a large stretch of time, I couldn’t even research or write because all my energy was spent on marketing.  I’m learning to balance my time better to hopefully cut down on pain flare ups. 

But, the most important message is ENJOY, have FUN, and CELEBRATE every exciting step. Remember, you worked hard honing your craft to get to this point. Take it all in, smile, be proud of yourself, and then get back to writing. 
If you would like to enter Kathleen's giveaway for the items shown below, please go to: Two winners will be chosen at random on August 31. (US or Canada residents only.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Not On Fifth Street: An Interview with Kathy Cannon Wiechman

As promised last week, here is my follow up interview with Kathy Wiechman, author of NOT ON FIFTH STREET.

CAROL: Just like in LIKE A RIVER, you wrote NOT ON FIFTH STREET from two points of view. What led to that decision? 

KATHY: NOT ON FIFTH STREET is about a rift between two brothers. When I was a kid and got into a dispute with one of my siblings, my mother always said "There are two sides to every story." And she wanted to hear them both. I felt the only way to give Pete and Gus an equal chance to tell their sides was to write it that way. Since doing that had worked well for me in LIKE A RIVER, I felt comfortable doing it again.

CAROL: Unlike RIVER, Gus’s POV doesn’t follow after Pete’s. You go back in time and show the reader what everything looked like from Gus’s POV. What led you to writing it in that manner? Why didn’t you flip-flop chapters between the two?

KATHY: Part of Pete's worry in Part 1 was due to him not knowing where Gus was or if he was all right. If I had alternated chapters, the reader would have known more than Pete about Gus's circumstances and wouldn't be able to commiserate with him about it, and I think empathy with the POV character is always one of an author's goals. I felt it was a good way to add to the suspense in Part 1.

CAROL: This conflict between Pete and Gus is crucial to this story. How did you come up with that? 

KATHY: When I wanted to write a book about the '37 flood, I knew the flood itself wouldn't provide enough conflict. I grew up in a house with six siblings, my husband grew up with six siblings, and together we raised four children. I am quite familiar with sibling rivalry and the rifts that can cause conflict in a large household. It felt natural for the brothers' feud to be the key to the story. When I began my first draft, the first line I wrote was "Pete had never seen his brother so mad." In the final draft, that line appears in Chapter 2, but I let those words set the mood for the story.

CAROL: Did using your father’s story make writing this book more or less difficult?

KATHY: I was surprised at how much more difficult it was to get into Pete's head because he was based on my dad. I created Pete and he had to be Pete, not Dad. But that was tough to do. The part that was easier was knowing Dad's story so well, I always knew what would happen next. I also spent a lot of time in my grandma's house as a child, and I could always picture my setting so clearly, from the homemade picnic table in the sunroom to the back bedroom overlooking the garage to the mantel clock in the living room.

CAROL Can you give us some idea of how much is fiction and how much is fact? Obviously the flood and the fact that your father evacuated his family was fact. What else?

KATHY: Much of what Pete does, like taking the motor out of the refrigerator, my dad did. And like Gus, he was listed as missing. And my grandmother dug in her heels about evacuating because she didn't know where he was. His family did have his name mentioned on the radio as missing, and that call was put out by WLW from Cincinnati. Dad was not 14 or 15 like Pete and Gus. He was 20, but my Uncle Bill who marked the garage wall with the height the flood reached was only 12.

CAROL: How has life changed for you since receiving the Grateful American Prize?

KATHY: My day-to-day life is the same. I write or work on some part of the process every day. It might be research or promotional, but it's for my books. What has changed is my connection to the phenomenal team of people with the Grateful American Book Prize, who believe, as I do, that knowing American history is essential for today's young people. This group pays attention to what I am doing and they continue to help promote LIKE A RIVER even two years after it won the award. And the cash prize that came with the prize helps to fund my research trips.

CAROL: What’s next?

KATHY: I am working on another Civil War novel. This one takes place in Wilmington, North Carolina during the final months of the war. And I am doing a bit of preliminary research for a possible sequel to LIKE A RIVER.

For a chance to win my ARC, please leave me a comment along with your email address if you are new to my blog. A winner will be chosen on August 17. 

My husband's uncle, Robert Toupal, is
always eager to read well-written historical novels. He often
greets me with, "Got any new books?"

Monday, August 7, 2017

Not on Fifth Street: A Review and ARC Giveaway- Part I

If you're one of my faithful followers, than you're no stranger to Kathy Wiechman's historical fiction for middle grades. I'm proud to review her newest book, NOT ON FIFTH STREET (Calkins Creek, 2017), a fictionalized account of the flood of the Ohio River in 1937

Two feuding brothers + one record-breaking flood = a fast paced middle grade book for boys and girls they won't be able to put down.

After you read the book you'll understand
why this is a perfect cover.

The Review

Thirteen-year-old Pete doesn't understand why his big brother, Gus, has become more interested in a girl named Venus than spending time with him and their friend Richie. They had been the Three Musketeers up until Gus met Venus. On top of that, a New Year's dinner where Venus is the guest goes sour and it's all Pete's fault. 

Then the rain starts. Within days the mighty Ohio river is rising and the folks in Ironton, Ohio fear flooding. Pete looks at the river and thinks,
...out in the middle, the river surged like a fierce animal, whipping into waves that rose and hurried downriver. A tangle of branches floated past, carried in the swift current. Were they branches from an Ironton tree? Or had they traveled all the way from Pittsburgh?
Pete looked at houses and imagined them with muddy water up to the second-floor windows and people using rowboats to go places. He and Dad had fished on the river before. But that river was nothing like this wild, alive one. He hurried away as though it might reach out and grab him. (p. 32)
Pete's father asks Gus to come with him to help out on the riverfront and Pete is devastated. He's the one who works around the house--not Gus, who would be rather reading Shakespeare and "who doesn't know which end of a shovel to hold." Why is he being left behind with the women and children?

Even though he's angry with his father and jealous that Gus was chosen to fight the flooding river, his practical knowledge of their home proves useful to his mother and two siblings. After he starts moving household items to higher ground his mother says:
"Your dad knew what he was doing, Pete, leaving you here to take care of things." 
Was she right? Was that why Dad had taken Gus to the West End? Because he wanted Pete to take care of Mom and the kids and the house? Maybe Pete had been wrong about Dad. (p. 59)
As the rain continues to fall and street after street is flooded, his worries increase over not hearing from his father and Gus. Where are they and why hadn't they been in contact? As he evacuates the family to the second floor the reader feels the impending doom, "He almost felt the river lapping at his heels as he kept moving." (p.86). The ticking clock of the rising river parallels Pete's growing anguish and remorse over his misunderstandings with Gus. 

In the middle of the book, Kathy Wiechman switches over to Gus's point of view. In a manner in which I've never seen before, (and which she'll explain in my interview with her in next week's blog), Kathy begins Gus's POV from the time he leaves with his dad to work on the riverfront. It's a clever device that shows not only what some were doing to battle the rising river while others were trying to survive, as well as each brother's misconceptions and fears about the other.

At first Gus is thrilled to be chosen to do men's work. But after unending hours of filling sandbags, eating little, wearing soaking wet clothes, and blisters blooming on his hands, he feels like a chain-gang prisoner. He can't imagine that Pete really likes this kind of work. In fact, when he asks if his father shouldn't call home to tell his mother they're okay, his father replies, 
"I don't have to worry about home," Dad said. "Pete's there. He can handle things as well as I can." 

Gus had been easing down to the floor as Dad spoke, but he landed hard when the impact of Dad's words hit him. Dad hadn't left Pete at home because Gus would be a good worker, or because Dad wanted to do something with Gus. Dad needed Pete at home because Pete was the reliable one. The one who can handle things as well as I can.  
Julius Caesar couldn't have felt worse when Brutus stabbed him, Gus thought. (p. 139)

In a "love conquers all" moment, when the river continues to surge and the National Guard send the men home, Gus decides he must check on Venus, who lives on the other side of the river. The trip is perilous and Gus proves his mettle as he risks his life to help her family.  While stranded at her house, Gus spends a lot of time thinking about his family, realizing what is important, and wanting to make things right with Pete.

Maybe reading to David (Venus's younger brother) was a way to push the rising water to the back of his mind. But the back of his mind was already filled with shame for the way he'd treated Pete. And regret for failing to tell Mom where Dad was. The flood wasn't his fault, but so much else was.  (p. 198)

I've probably already given away too much of this fine story, but I'll just tell you this--the ending will bring sighs of relief and smiles to readers' faces.  
Navigating the flood in Kentucky

A Classroom Resource

This would be a great classroom resource for history, science, and English classes. I'll use it as an example of "man vs. nature" the next time I teach problems that characters encounter. (Here is my Plan a Problem worksheet.) Teachers could have great discussions about family misunderstandings and trying to see a situation from another family member's point of view. 

The Giveaway

Next week Kathy is going to talk about how her father's experiences in this flood inspired this book. This ARC giveaway will last two weeks. Leave me a comment today and I'll enter your name once. Leave a comment on both blog posts and you'll be in twice. Please leave me your email address if you are new to my blog. Winner will be drawn on August 17th. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

SmartARTS: Art Integration in Greenville, SC

Congratulations to Sandra Warren who won "JUST FLY AWAY" from last week's giveaway.


Some of you have seen my previous blogs about how I'm getting involved in the arts community in my new hometown, Greenville, SC. Today you'll get a glimpse into an amazing arts integration program sponsored by the Metropolitan Arts Council

When I first moved to Greenville, I looked for opportunities to teach writing and was excited to discover the Council's program of training artists to work with teachers in the classroom. An organization committed to enhancing content instruction through the vehicle of visual arts, drama, music, dance and writing? Sign me up! Based on my enthusiasm (and maybe because I wrote Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8), Gayla Day, Director of Arts Education, asked if I wanted to attend their summer training. That's like asking if I love chocolate!

Last week I participated in my first SmartARTS Institute, a four-day instructional event for teachers and teaching artist candidates. Our first day we considered the inquiry question, "What is Arts Integration?" True to the emphasis on experiential learning (students learn content more effectively when they are active physically, mentally, and emotionally) we were given a variety of tasks to perform. One activity was answering with a team "What is Arts Integration?" by ONLY considering sensory information. (My contribution was that it was like a smorgasbord or stir fry. The texture person thought it was like layering fabrics or weaving metal pieces into cloth). In small groups, we created tableaux to answer that same question by using only three words and one phrase: Noun, Verb, Adjective, and Prepositional Phrase. 

The dance class introduced us to a variety ways of moving through space using various body parts and then we choreographed small dances out of tableaux. In a group of four, two students received locomotion cards (examples: hop, gallop, slither, skip) and two non-locomotor (examples: whirl, explode, rise, jump). Our task was to first order the words and then create a tableau going from one word to another. Our group ordered reach, close, creep, and hustle. I'm proud to say we were the only group that created a story: a burglar reached for a open window, closed it, crept, and then hustled away. What a way to teach vivid verbs!

Tuesday we attended theater and music immersion workshops, as well as a session entitled "What is Inquiry?" 

We watched a powerful powerpoint about Hurricane Katrina and in groups of four created tableaux that showed what it looked like before, during, and after the storm hit. 

Here is one group's interpretation of during:

And after. 

After written reflections and group sharing we found out that the inquiry question for our "unit" had been, "What is community?"

We made books on Wednesday in the art immersion:

I enjoyed seeing the variety of ways the teachers covered their papers with color.  The facilitator's instruction that "there's no right or wrong" freed us all, even as we considered the elements of art we incorporated.

 Our instructor showed us how to fold, cut, and glue the 18x24 watercolor paper.

The end products were as diverse as the teachers themselves. The books could be used as a journal for a field trip, a repository of poems or stories, or a collection of recipes.

Throughout the art immersion classes the instructors gave examples of how to integrate their discipline into content areas. I heard about teaching fractions and a number timeline through music; how the Pythagorean Theorem could be applied to imagining, conceiving, and building a structure that would withstand an earthquake; how dance movements could teach South Carolina history; and how poetry could be used to explain science and reflect on history (think: layering meaning about light and dark times in history with the upcoming solar eclipse.) 

I watched Vera Gomez, the poet who I will shadow this fall, teach the writing immersion and then plan a unit with a second-grade teacher. I was impressed with how she responded to the teacher's goal (showing her students how to include more details in their writing) with a wide variety of written, art, and dramatic activities that will meet second grade standards.  

In the role of student, I learned and practiced new concepts. I considered other art disciplines that will invigorate me as a writer. And I'm about to enter a new phase of teaching writing: becoming a teaching artist in the classroom. My brain is stuffed with new ideas that keep me awake at night.

I'm pumped! 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Just Fly Away: An Audio CD Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Connie Saunders who won THE WOLF'S BOY.

Please note that since this is a review of an audio CD, the following quotes might not be exactly correct; I did my best to capture the words.



What do you do if you find out that your father had an affair eight years ago and you have a half-brother you never knew about?

That is fifteen-year-old Lucy Willows' problem and the crux of JUST FLY AWAY (Algonquin, 2017), the debut YA book by actor Andrew McCarthy. When her father discloses the information to her and her sister Julie, Lucy is furious. How could her mother continue living with him? How can anything ever be normal again? How could he have lied to them--pretending they were a perfectly regular family--all this time? Lucy begins a quest to find her brother Thomas. In her suburban New Jersey town this proves to be pretty easy--he lives within biking distance of her home. 

Soon after Lucy finds out about Thomas, she "falls in love" with her best friend's brother, Simon. In Save-the-Cat language, Simon provides the B-story; the love interest who supposedly provides some nuggets of truth. To be honest, as a secondary character, Simon fell flat for me. Although Lucy is crazy about the way he looks and how he kisses, until the end of the book Simon doesn't do a whole lot to warrants her effusive affection. When Lucy tells Simon how angry she is about Thomas, Simon remarks, "It's not his fault you know." True, but not an earth shattering revelation. 

In my opinion, the book bogs down in the middle. There were too many scenes that didn't show more than two teenagers smoking dope and kissing. I kept waiting for more to happen. The book became more interesting when Lucy impulsively decides to run away from home and take a bus to her grandfather's house in Maine; although I wasn't convinced that this type of impulsive behavior was built into her character. In fact, it's not until she happens to see a poster of Maine that she makes this decision and throughout the journey shows little emotional reaction to leaving home. The bus ride had some interesting moments but felt drawn out. 

I love generational stories so I found Lucy's interaction with her grandfather to be the best part of the book. As they walk along the rocks near the coast, Lucy dares to ask him why he is estranged from his son. His answers helps her to understand that her grandfather wrongly took his anger out on her father. Her grandfather remarks, "We see them [people] the way we see them. Other people may see them a different way...We never see our parents as just people. They're our parents. And that ought to be enough for them. But it's not enough."

The walk along the breakwater is the most suspenseful part of the book. Although the walk ends in tragedy, it ultimately leads to more risk-taking and honesty between Lucy and her father. 

In the car back in New Jersey, Lucy asks her father, 

“I guess you can never really know everything about a person, can you?”  
"The best we can try and do is let another person know who we truly are. To let them see us. That is, if we love them and trust them enough. And to do that, we have to reveal ourselves to the other person.” 
Her father admits that he covered up the affair because he didn't want to be seen in a bad light. Lucy babysits for Thomas and while at their house picks up a book that had been her favorite as a child. In it a Japanese farmer wisely looks at several different events from both a positive and negative point of view. At which point Lucy concludes that maybe it's not so bad having a little brother after all- a satisfying ending.


This book could be used as a conversation starter for a teen who has gone through an event such as this or is just having trouble talking with her parent.

I am giving away the audio CD, courtesy of Recorded Books. Leave me a comment by July 28 to be entered in the giveaway. Make sure you leave me your email address if I don't have it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Wolf's Boy: A Review and Autographed Giveaway

Congratulations to Kathleen Burkinshaw who won the Audio CD, MADE YOU UP.


A very long time ago, a baby boy is born with a withered foot. His father, obeying the rules of his people, leaves him out in the open, presumably to die. A mother wolf adopts him and treats him like one of her own pups. One night the boy’s mother hears a human cry mixed in with the cry of the wolves. With great longing for her child, she rescues him. In this way, Kai—or Wolfboy as the village boys eventually call him—begins his difficult, pain-filled life.


The author of THE WOLF’S BOY, (Disney Hyperion, 2016)  Susan Williams Beckhorn, reached out to me after reading my post on Kirby Larson’s blog. Her description of her book, “a ‘first dog’ story inspired by the 1994 finding of the fossilized footprints of a boy and a canine walking side by side in Chauvet Cave in France” intrigued me. Although Susan and I probably disagree about the Biblical view of creation and evolution, I found this middle grade book for boys and girls to be well-written with many layers built into it. 

Interesting enough, Beckhorn incorporated a fictional creator/supreme being, Tal, into the story. At the story’s outset Kai observes that, “Tal gives two arms, legs, eyes, ears. If one is hurt, the other grows stronger. Maybe Tal is trying to make me stronger.” (p. 37) This not only reflects that a belief in a supreme being is common among cultures (Romans 1:20, Acts 18: 22-31) and that difficulties and trials are for our good (James 1:2-4, Romans 5:3-5), but also foreshadows Kai’s journey.

Despite his father’s reservations and his brother’s contempt, Kai gets to keep a wolf pup he rescues. This pivotal point is shown here:
I carried the pup back to my bed. The little wolf nestled against me. She stretched out a foot, bumping my nose. I ran a finger over her muzzle. It was shorter than most. Her little skull seemed rounder too. “Will you be one of the People?” I whisper to her. “Or should I be one of the innos with you?” (p. 49)

The friendship between Kai and his wolf who he names, Uff, grows as they do everything together: sleep, eat, play, and hunt small game and fish. Uff accepts Kai and his lame foot as normal; he doesn’t treat him as cursed (tabat) as the other members of the community do. “You don’t hate me for my bad foot,” I put my forehead against hers. “You are my friend.” (p. 70) 

Since he is tabat, Kai may not touch a weapon and therefore is not trained to be a blood hunter like other boys. As his brother and peers shame him he contemplates running away, with the realization that he’ll have to be able to hunt large animals in order to survive. "There must be a place in the world for us.” Kai thinks. (p. 83) 

The shaman, both revered and feared within the community, is also disfigured. When he tells Kai that he has powers, Kai is puzzled. In another pivotal moment on Kai’s journey the shaman tells him, “You are strange like me. You are other.” (p. 86) 

Without including too many spoilers, Kai risks physical dangers and estrangement from his family and community, and leaves home. His survival journey is a great metaphor for his development as a young man in this unique coming of age story. Kai faces his fear of death, of losing Uff, and of being struck down because he has gone against the rules of the community by creating his own weapon. After his last test he realizes, “I was still myself--Kai, yet I was someone new.” (p. 215)

In the classroom, teachers can use this book to discuss disabilities, friendship, bullying, risk-taking, and survival. If I were a teacher I would latch onto the shaman’s description of other and ask students if they ever felt that way or treated someone else like that. Here is a link to discussion questions.


I am giving away my autographed hardcover copy of this book. Please leave a comment by July 20 for your chance to win it. Share this on social media or start following my blog (be sure to let me know what you did and leave me your email address if you are new) and I’ll enter your name twice. 


By the way, if you are interested in a Biblical view of the world’s age, here is a link to Answers in Genesis.

Monday, July 10, 2017

MADE YOU UP- A Review and an Audio CD Giveaway

Francesca Zappia tackles the difficult subject of schizophrenia in this young adult book, MADE YOU UP. Told from Alex, the 17-year-old’s deep point of view, the reader is brought so completely into her thoughts and emotions that occasionally you can’t figure out what is real and what isn’t—which is exactly Alex’s problem. She uses a camera to record what she sees to help her figure out  what if something is real or a delusion. 

Alex has started in a new school in her senior year because of problems in her previous school. The reader doesn’t find out until ¾ of the way through what these problems were—all we know is that Alex desperately doesn’t want students in her new school to discover her diagnosis, she wants to be perceived as normal and not crazy, and she wants to get into college. (Note to self and other writers: backstory doesn’t need to be spelled out in the beginning. Just enough details to make the story plausible.) Because of last year’s issues, she’s has to provide service hours in a committee led by Miles, a senior she thinks she met as a nine-year-old. Since she had believed their encounter was a delusion, it takes her awhile to realize he is the same boy. Their love/hate relationship serve each other’s needs as they both tackle the specter and stigma of craziness in their lives. 

The book is masterfully written, interweaving Alex’s delusions with real events and characters. But although it’s clear that the phoenix Alex imagines is not real, it’s a surprise to find out that a significant secondary character lives in her imagination and died several year ago. Another time she dismisses the appearance of a boa constrictor as a delusion, but is startled to discover that it is real. (Which is a great way for the author to demonstrate that her delusional fears about Nazi spies are nothing compared to the reality of a snake almost killing her.) The fact that Alex figures out a complicated school mystery is a testimony to her intelligence and persistence. 

I would give this book five stars except for the language and sexual content. I know I represent a small minority in this regard and that MADE YOU UP probably reflects how many high school students talk and act, but I don’t agree that authors should feed that system. This could have been an equally powerful book with toned down language and without the sexual references. That being said, teen readers who choose to read this book will get an intimate view of mental illness including psychotic episodes, hallucinations, and paranoia. 

In the end, Alex forgoes graduation—what she really wanted—and signs herself into a mental health hospital. Although I was sad not to see her obtain her goals, I was glad to see her face her fears and take control of her life by getting the help she needed. As she and Miles agree in the end, “The real thing is always better.”

The narrator, Amanda Ronconi, read the book clearly and I had no difficulty following her rendition. Here is a link to an audio snippet of the book. I am giving away the audio CD courtesy of Tantor Media. Leave me a comment by July 14 for a chance to win. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Multi-Racial Read #19: Notes of a White Black Woman by Judy Scales-Trent- Part I

Congratulations to Cat Michaels who won Leonardo the Florentine from last week's blog. 
I purchased NOTE OF A WHITE BLACK WOMAN several years ago and recently found it while unpacking. I'm glad I did! Judy Scales-Trent provides amazing insights into racial identity as she reveals her thoughts and emotions as a "white black woman." As I often do when reviewing a book like this, I'm going to quote different sections that particularly hit me and which will inform Half-Truths. Since there is much that I want to quote, I will intersperse blog posts from NOTES OF A WHITE BLACK WOMAN with other book reviews and writing observations. I hope this book will challenge your thinking as it has mine.

Pennsylvania State University Press, 1955


Where race is important, there must be a way to sort by race. Thus, to the extent that we talk about race in America, we are basing our talk on notions of racial purity. The concept of race cannot exist without the concept of racial purity.
 The need for racial purity laws arose in America as soon as an African and a European had sexual relations here and produced a child. Was the child African? European? Something else? It is not surprising, then that the question was raised early....By 1662 the state of Virginia, troubled by these relationships, passes its first law banning miscegenation. (p.3)
Just as the forced migration of millions of Yoruba and Ibo wrought destruction on those cultures in Africa as well as in America, so has this newly created African American community been devastated by a vision of the world in which light skin and dark skin are seen as meditations on good and evil, civilization and savagery, intelligence and ignorance. This cruel lesson has not only affected how we see ourselves in comparisons with white Americans; it has also informed how we look at each other within our own community. 
Like my parents, I am a black American with white skin, an African American with both African and European ancestors. Thus, I live a life that is often disjointed, troubling. I also see the world in a different way...For my position does not allow me the luxury of thinking that the notion of race makes any sense. If you are black and white at the same time, once you finally realize that it is not you that is strange, you realize something very strange is going on in this society. Perhaps more directly and more starkly than other Americans, I understand "race" as a socially created metaphor, for my very existence unsettles expectations of "race." (p. 4)
photo © Rob McElroy, 2015

 Journal Entries

November, 1978. Cast out, cast out, always cast out from the only home, the only safe place, the only refuge in a terrifying, vicious land. Cast out, and alone.
No home. No home.
No place to belong.
No place to rest a frightened and lonely heart.
No place to hide.
White people would let me in, of course. They think that I belong with them. They smile at me. They welcome me. They think I'm their sister.  
Missing the safe warmth of my childhood, a colored girl growing up in the protection of a strong family in the segregated South, surrounded by their love and their strength and their definition of me and of themselves.
But I lost something more when I grew up and moved out of the segregated South, out of the safety of my childhood home, because the Jim Crow laws gave me an identity and a protection I couldn't give myself.  
What do you do if you're rejected by one world,...and are constantly rejecting the other? I am perceived by some as white, by some as black, by yet others as a black person but "really white," so (a) you can trust her and (b) you can't trust her. 
And yet I'm me all the time.  (p. 13-14)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Leonardo the Florentine- A Review and a Giveaway

If you have a middle school reader who enjoys history and art, then this novel which fictionalizes the early life of Leonardo da Vinci will be just the book for him or her. 
This is the first in "The Life and Travels of da Vinci" series and it is obvious that the author, Catherine McGrew Jaime, has researched well a beloved topic. She expertly interwove facts about Leonardo's tense relationship with his father, his apprenticeship to master Verrocchio, Florence's architectural details, and information about the Medici family into a quick-reading narrative. 

In this section, Leonardo has lived in Florence for only six months. He grabbed his drawing utensils--sketching paper and a charcoal stick.
What he really wanted to do was to draw--to draw the buildings that he was seeing here, and to put some of this amazing architecture down on paper where he could study it in the evenings. He had seen a church before he came to Florence, certainly, and yet he had never imagined this many churches in one location before. Church spires punctured the sky above Florence at every block. (p. 53)
When Leonardo wasn't busy helping Verrocchio mix paints, create colorful banners, jeweled robes, and beautiful blankets for the Medici family; or run errands for him, he learned Latin and hovered around other workshops. Alongside Antonio Pollaiuolo, he helped perform autopsies and studied muscles and joints. Other times he visited Paolo Toscanelli, a famous mathematician and mapmaker where he learned elements of astronomy, geography and optics.

At twenty-years-old, six years after being apprenticed to Verrochio, Leonardo was accepted into the Painters' Guild and given the title, Maestro (Master). Although he was entitled to open his own workshop he stayed another five years so he could continue to learn from Verrochio. 

Once on his own, he began receiving small commissions. Although he was a masterful painter, inventing and science were his first loves. Even when money was tight, he "continued his scientific and mechanical work, with designs for screws, drills, mills, and machines for waterworks." (p. 148)  Eventually Leonardo got tired of Florence and decided to apply to the Duke of Milan for work. He wrote a letter to the duke suggesting his defensive plans could be a help to him, packed his belongings, some of his favorite drawings, and his prized silver lyre. With only a few coins to his name he started out on the two hundred mile journey that would take him to his next adventure.
For the next chapter in Leonardo's life, you'll have to read Leonardo: Masterpieces in Milan. If you wish to enter the drawing for this book, please leave me a comment by 6 PM July 1. Make sure you leave your email address if I don't have it. Follow my blog or share this on social media and I'll enter your name twice; just make sure you tell me what you do. 

You might also want to check out Catherine's overview of Da Vinci's life in her book, Leonardo Da Vinci: His Life and His Legacy.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Creative Writing at Explore the Arts

Some of you may remember that last summer I volunteered at the Explore the Arts camp in Greenville, SC. I was thrilled when the camp's director, Donna Shanks-Major, asked me to teach the creative writing class this year. 

I had two classes: the first one consisted of eleven 6th-8th graders who wrote and published a camp blog. After receiving instruction about Muscle Words and the Who? What? Where? and Why? of reporting, they practiced observing and taking notes in a "Paint on Canvas" class. They wrote it up, received my edits and feedback from their peers, revised, and then moved on to observing other classes running concurrently in the Fine Arts Center. I hope you take a few minutes to read our blog; I'm proud of the way in which they learned how to incorporate figurative language and specific details into their work.

Photo courtesy Joanna Henn

The second class included seven eager 4th and 5th graders who came ready to write a story. (When they introduced themselves quite a few said they'd been "writing their whole life.")  Using lesson plans from my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8,  I taught them how to Create a Character, Set the Scene, and Plan a Problem. They were each anxious to start their stories--many had constructed intricate plots in their imaginations before coming to class. 

We used some of the artwork displayed on the Fine Arts Center's walls to prompt their imaginations. In this exercise, they were looking at these pictures and imagining what the story was behind each character. I asked, "Who is this person?" and "What is she feeling or thinking?"

Photo courtesy Claire Natiez

When we studied setting, I asked the students, "What could happen here? What is the mood of this picture?"

This painting

inspired this descriptive paragraph:
The tornado rushes by as howling winds blows dust into the air, and tress bend against the wind. Gritty sand rushed into his mouth every time he took a breath. There was suddenly a chill in the air as hail pounded upon him. Suddenly all he could see was darkness. When he woke up it seemed that all of his bones were aching. Jeffrey L., rising fifth grader. 

I taught them these young writers the basics of writing fiction and they taught me how to dab

Photo courtesy Lydia Hammond

I'm not sure who was enriched more this week!

Monday, June 12, 2017


Congratulations to Joan Edwards who won a critique from Gayle Krause from last week's blog.
You pick up a book at the library or bookstore and start reading it. Maybe it catches your interest, maybe it doesn't. But one thing is for sure, if you're not a writer, you have no idea how much time and effort have gone into writing that book.

Maybe even years.


The last time I blogged about Half-Truths, I was excitedly sending my manuscript to beta readers. Since then I have received feedback from teens, adults, critique partners, and several sensitivity readers. I learned that Kate's character wasn't developed enough and there wasn't enough tension in the first half of the book. I was well into revision when I heard back from my last sensitivity reader. 

Here are some of her comments:

Since you are in the process of revising now, I wanted to take a few moments to share some macro-level thoughts you might take into consideration as you work. I know you have been working on this labor of love for more than 10 years and you probably feel that it is close to where you want it. If that is the case, I'm sure you're hoping to enter the submissions process sooner rather than later, so feel free to keep the following comments as reference material in the event that you don't find an editor for the manuscript. 
My first suggestion is to consider writing this manuscript from the perspective of Kate alone. Your grasp of Kate's life and voice are more authentic than your grasp of Lillie's and honestly, I'm not sure a sensitivity reader is going to be able to help you add the authenticity needed. At best, we can alert you to potential areas of offense--but even in that, it won't be full-proof because African-Americans are not a monolith and things I might not flag as offensive might turn out to be offensive to others. Which brings me to my next point....
Your writing HALF-TRUTHS from Lillie's perspective might not go over well in today's social and political climate. The movement for "own voices" (which I admittedly support) grows stronger by the day, and people of color are hyperaware of works being published by white people that star POC main characters. Yes you have two main characters, but Lillie is especially main. The book even opens from her perspective. The honest truth is that even if you got Lillie's story 90% right, you would likely get called out for the 10% of missteps. Because I know you personally, I know your intentions with this story are nothing but honorable (and I think your overall plot is interesting). I would hate for your book to end up the target of a negative campaign because of inadvertent missteps. For many reasons, today's kidlit atmosphere is fraught, and the cultural scrutiny/backlash of this moment is pretty unrelenting. There is no patience for mistakes of any kind. 
Her feedback stopped me cold.

I was shocked, overwhelmed and discouraged. I first wrote Half-Truths from Kate's POV and would never have considered writing it any other way if an editor hadn't suggested the two points-of-view during a SCBWI-Carolinas conference. 

Did I really have to start all over again? Did I waste eight years pursuing an unreachable goal? Were all these books and all of my expert interviews with African Americans a waste of time?

Even bigger, how was I going to face people in my family, like my brother who never failed to ask, "So, how is the book coming along? You ready to publish it?" And how would I tell you, my faithful blog followers?  I felt like a failure. 


I shared my news with my writing friends who commiserated, advised, and told stories of their own not-so-smooth path to publication. Linda Phillips (author of CRAZY) said she had worried about me taking on the black POV but figured an editor would give me that feedback. Joyce Hostetter wrote, "Don’t forget that I have abandoned two books that I spent about 4 years each on.  And I have lots of other abandoned projects from back before BLUE.  That might be called failure but I learned tons while writing those books.  So I call it an education."

Augusta Scattergood said, "After almost eight years of writing, revising, and submitting, I was critiqued by an agent I truly clicked with at an SCBWI regional conference in Maryland. She eventually decided that novel (which would much later become my second published book, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY) wasn't for her. A year later, I dusted off GLORY BE, sent it to her, and the rest is my publishing history."

I chatted with Kathy Wiechman, author of the award winning book, LIKE A RIVER, on Facebook. After reminding me that this was an opportunity to make my book better she said,"Enjoy working on the revision. That is my favorite part of the process, and I do truly enjoy it. It was that love of doing it that helped me stick with it for 39 years of not being chosen."

Rebecca Petruck, who read multiple drafts of the story and loved the two points-of-view, checked with her agent to make sure I should follow this advice. She also suggested I ask an industry professional. We both received the same response: This wasn't a good time for me, a white author, to write from Lillie's POV. 

What was next? Should I trash this project and start something new? But I loved my premise and every time I shared the pitch with strangers, their eyes got big and they'd say, "Wow!"

While my brother was more empathetic than I expected, my sister, Barbara, advised:

  • You may need to develop a new way of seeing this story.
  • There’s not something wrong with you that you're starting over.  
  • The process is as important as the product.


I took a week off--I had important family concerns to attend to--and then reread a book that a member of my critique group gave me. 

Published in 1957, the twelve essays were a response to the Supreme court's "edict" (as one writer described it) of 1954. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision led to school desegregation. This largely anti-integration pamphlet was written predominantly by white men (three women are listed in the table of contents, I presume all the authors were white because of the point of view they espoused). 

Suddenly, I realized that any of these anti-integration writers could have been Kate's grandfather. Growing up in rural North Carolina in the 40's with him, racism would have been as much a part of Kate's environment as raising goats and attending 4-H. 


I spent another week re-outlining and figuring out how and what Kate would learn from Lillie and how Kate's backstory is going to impact Half-Truths and, voila--I'm back in business.

Whenever I teach writing, I use this graphic organizer from my previous book, TEACHING THE STORY: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8.

The  Writing-Revising Cycle

(Click here for your copy of this handout.)

As I re-vision and rewrite Half-Truths as Kate's story, I'm back at the "Start", but yet I'm not. All the information I've gleaned and all those previous drafts aren't worthless-they will enrich my story. 

Thanks to all of you for your support. Your encouragement on my journey means more to me than you can imagine. 

Stay tuned!