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!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Twice Betrayed: A Review and a Critique Giveaway

Congratulations to Rosi Hollinbeck who won JUST AROUND MIDNIGHT from last week's blog. Check out her informative blog with lots of giveaways and writing helps.

I enjoy books that pull me into a character's life and predicament from the opening chapter.  By the time I turned the page into Chapter 2, I wanted to know how almost-14-year-old Perdy Rogers would be involved in the upcoming American Revolution and if she would help her friend elope. That's a lot for author Gayle Krause, to accomplish in the first six pages of her upper middle grade book, TWICE BETRAYED.

On the eve of the Revolution, Perdy is an apprentice to Betsy Ross, the alleged maker of the first American flag. She'd rather be visiting with her friends, Lizzie and Jane Ann, than be stuck in a small room sewing ascots or reupholstering a chair for Benjamin Franklin. So when Jane Ann enlists her help in distracting the ferrymen at the river so their friend Priscilla can elope, Perdy is faced with her Save the Cat debate: 
"I'm torn. A chance to help my friends and do something exciting, but Mam [her grandmother with whom she lives] would never let me go. It means sneaking out after dark. "That late at night?" (p. 7)
Since this is an action-packed story, I'm sure you can guess which path Perdy chooses. That decision, and her idea that the girls should dress as boys in order to distract the ferryman, are like falling dominoes which bring one trouble after another into Perdy's life. 

Bad things happen quickly. Her sister, Abby, falls in the river and despite being rescued by Darach, a young sailor, gets deathly sick. Priscilla and her fiancĂ© drown and are thought to be spies for the British. Government officials accuse Perdy of also being a spy and Jane Ann doesn't come to her defense. Darach sends her heart racing, but she's not sure if she can trust him either. On and on it goes with even the people at the Quaker meeting house unwilling to shake her hand. In the end, her willingness to stand up for the truth and Darach's bold rescue bring her out of death's snares and into a new life. The action packed chapters kept my interest and showed me how important it is to include conflict in each scene. 

One of my favorite parts is when Perdy pieces together scraps left from Miss Betsy's flag making into a quilt for Abby. 
I finish the last seam. All the red and white stripes, are at last, sewn together. The five-pointed stars are easy to make. A fold. A snip. And then a star. Miss Betsy taught me well. Someday, I'll show Abby this trick too. I quickly cut enough white stars to form a circle on the dark blue square. Twelve in all. 
Just then, Abby clunks up the stairs to remind me of dinner. 
She picks my sample pattern off the floor and places it in the center of the star circle. "Here's another star, Perdy."
          "I don't need it." I move it to the side.

       "Yes, use it. I found it. Put my star on too."
I take the sample star from her move it around the circle of twelve. There's no room in it, so I place it in the middle, but it's too small. The design is off-balance. 
Abby reaches up and moves two of the stars. "Put them closer, Perdy, then mine can fit." 
More than anything, I want to see Abby happy, so I rearrange the stars until all thirteen form a circle on the blue square, like the constellation in my dream. 
"My star is on the quilt too." Abby claps. 
"Abby, do you see this circle of stars?" 
She nods. 
Remember, you can never get lost if you keep moving in a circle. You'll always end up where you started." (p. 127)

By Edward Percy Moran
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division
under the digital ID ph.3g02791.
This theme of "coming full circle" is repeated in the book and in fact, the book ends where it began: Perdy going on a new adventure--this time with Darach at her side. (Or, in Save the Cat language, the opening and final images bookend the story.)

The Winged Pen blog recently ran a post by Gita Trelease on the importance of research when writing historical fiction. She wrote, "Tiny details can be time machines" and what counts is creating historical authenticity. From the details about the buttons, ribbons, clothing, uniforms, boats, laws, and government to the shops which lined the streets of colonial Philadelphia, TWICE BETRAYED weaves an authentic tapestry for a story that girls from 10-14 will enjoy.

Some of you may remember the cover reveal for this book when Gayle explained some of the backstory for her book. Clara Gillow Clark won the ARC and then promptly bequeathed it to me. Since Gayle autographed it to me, TWICE BETRAYED goes into my own collection to be shared with my visitors.

Two young church friends displaying
how they organized my children's books and toys.

Instead of the book, Gayle is offering a first chapter critique or MG or YA query critique. Leave me a comment by June 9 to enter, along with your email address if you are new to my blog. Share this blog on social media or become a new follower, and I'll enter your name twice. Just make sure you tell me what you did. 


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