Monday, March 25, 2019

Behind the Scenes with The Thesauri Queens: An Interview with Angela Ackerman and Rebecca Puglisi

Congratulations to Sandra Warren who won the 15 minute Zoom Author Interview with Marsha Diane Arnold from last week's blog. She donated it to West Marion Elementary School in Marion, NC.


Many of you have heard me extol the virtues of ONE STOP FOR WRITERS a rich, on-line writing tool. I've also frequently mentioned the creators of the site, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, who have co-written and published seven ThesauriI teased them that they are the Thesauri Queens--but you probably know them as two smart, generous women who are being exactly what their website proclaims: Writers Helping Writers.

I bet many of you have used their resources and that's why you're here today--because like me, you're a nosey writer and want to hear how these two women have successfully collaborated for fifteen years.

But first, if you don't know about how Angela and Becca met online, please see Natalie Aguirre's interview. You'll also find out how they developed their unique brand. 

This was taken the first time Angela and Becca met in Disney World!

Now, without further ado-- let's get this interview going!

CAROL: What was it like when you met in person three years after only knowing each other online? 

ANGELA: Because we live in different countries, 99% of our communication is online. However, many years ago I took my family to Disney World, and as Becca lived close by, she agreed to meet us at the Magic Kingdom for the day, just outside Cinderella’s castle. We had traded pictures of one another of course, but as we pulled into the parking lot that day it hit me that a) I’d forgotten my phone at the hotel, and b) MK was huge, and c) 32,000 people entered the park every day that time of year. As this was my debut visit to the park, I began imagining scenarios where Becca would be at one part of the castle and I’d be at another, endlessly waiting for the other to arrive. So, I did what any desperate person might do…I made a sign with her name on it. 

Ironically, I never needed to use it. Somehow despite Magic Kingdom having several ferries and a sky train that transported people to and from the park, Becca and I ended up on the same packed ferry about ten feet from one another. This type of crazy coincidence was only the first of many for us; Becca and I are convinced the universe wants us to be together!

BECCA: One of the things I liked best about this day was the absence of the expected awkwardness that comes when you finally meet an online friend in person. (Well, except for that moment when I realized my car key had fallen out of my pocket on Space Mountain, and I thought we might be spending a huge portion of the day in the parking lot. Luckily, my key was sitting there in the seat, not wedged into a coaster track somewhere, so that was good.) We just picked things right up and enjoyed our day. It was a really good feeling to meet in person and confirm that she was the wonderful, kind, generous, and freaky person I’d always thought she was.

CAROL: How do you work together as a team? How do you figure out who does what?

ANGELA: Luckily Becca and I have writing styles that mesh quite well, but we have different strengths when it comes to business skills. She’s terrific at organization and tracking the million little things that keep us up and running as a business, like knowing book production processes, managing our accounts, making sure bills are paid, and working with third parties (formatters, designers, distributors, etc.). I handle the marketing side of things, our outreach, and steer business strategy. I think our partnership works so well because we trust each other’s knowledge in areas where we are not subject matter experts, and whenever we need to come to a consensus on something, we can talk it through.

BECCA: We assign duties based on individual strengths, which is a pretty simple process because we’re very compatible in our giftedness (or lack thereof). And the rest of it, we just divvy up between us. It’s a simple system, but because we’re each able to look at ourselves realistically and put the ego aside, it’s easy to say, You’re better at this, why don’t you handle it? or You’ve got a ton going on, so I’ll do this one.

CAROL: What have been the bumps in the road to successful collaboration? Do you have advice to other writers who are considering collaborating on a book or project? 

ANGELA: I won’t lie, there are some things we disagree on. For example, Becca hates pickle chips. It’s hard for me to overlook this horrifying flaw, but that’s what you have to do sometimes to keep the peace. Okay, that’s frivolous…but it illustrates the nature of most of the friction between us: superficial. 

However, we have different backgrounds, life views, and comfort zones, so we aren’t twins. Certain content we’re not comfortable writing about might be a sticky point and when this happens, we talk it through and come to a consensus. Another way we differ is that Becca and I have different comfort zones when it comes to risk. But again, it’s fine because we discuss it and challenge the other to convey their point of view better so we can reach an understanding. I love this because it means we always move ahead on the same page, or “on the same page for now,” leaving things open for reassessment down the road. 

My advice for collaborating is to make sure each person is in alignment before jumping into a project. Not only does there need to be a huge amount of trust and respect, collaborators should have complementary communication styles, the same vision and goals, and a strong work ethic. 

BECCA: Yes, to all of this, except the bit about my dislike of pickle chips being a flaw. That’s just a result of having functional taste buds. I would add that potential partners should go into the collaboration with eyes wide open, knowing that, no matter how well you get along, there will be conflict and disagreements. Ironically, this becomes more pronounced if you find success, because success leads to increased complexity, requiring the business to grow and change. Recognizing that choppy waters are ahead can be really helpful in navigating them.

CAROL: What have been the high points of your collaborative work? 

ANGELA: Honestly the best part for me is our friendship; Becca is my better half. I have such tremendous love and respect for her and am eternally grateful for how she helps me grow as a writer and a human being. She’s an advocate for me and everything I do (and I for her), and that’s pretty powerful stuff! 

Another high for me is how we took an idea on how to help writers in a more practical way and helped shape the industry’s ideas of what a writing guide is and isn’t, and what a thesaurus is and is not. This, I believe, has opened the box a bit for all creators as now there are many books-slash-tools called thesauruses (or something similar) that incorporate lists to help writers in some way. Another thing I love is how Becca and I continually innovate, even to the point where we think beyond a book format. Creating One Stop for Writers with Becca and Lee is one of the coolest, most rewarding things I’ve done. In many ways I feel we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do there, and that’s exciting. Our ability to be more open-minded about what is possible is a direct result of hearing from readers about the impact our books have made. Knowing we’re making a difference is a feeling that can’t be beat. 

BECCA: My gosh, there are so many high points. There’s this exponential thing that happens when we put our heads together; the results are typically way bigger than we originally planned. For instance, I came up with a very basic version of the Emotion Thesaurus back when we were critique partners, but it was Angela’s idea to turn it into blog material. And of course, that ended up becoming such a successful book. We’ve achieved so much more together than I believe either of us would have on our own. There are many, many examples of this throughout our journey together. It’s a beautiful thing.

CAROL: Have you always had the same vision? Do you invest equal amounts of time and energy as the Thesauri Queens? 

ANGELA: I think so--mostly? I’ll have to wait for Becca’s answer to know for sure, haha! I guess maybe a better way to phrase my answer is to say that we each have a huge desire to help others and it drives us. We may have our own ideas on how to best accomplish this but the magic between us is we are very good communicators. Because we discuss everything and make it a practice to incorporate the other’s insight before moving forward, we become flexible thinkers. This helps us choose a path that feels right for us both, one that means we’re helping writers and running a sustainable business. And when we don’t quite agree, if it’s important to the other, we compromise because we have such a strong bond of trust. Resentment or negativity is not part of our relationship.  

BECCA: I think it’s truthful to say that we want the same things and we each give as much as we can in pursuit of those goals. It helps that we also see ourselves with a certain duality: we are individuals with many and varying responsibilities outside of work, and we’re also two parts to a professional whole. Real life happens, and there are times when we each have personal stuff going on. In those moments, the other person steps in to fill the gap. I know that Angela has my back, and she knows that I have hers—both personally and professionally. I thank God regularly for bringing the two of us together.

CAROL: Thank you so much, ladies, for sharing your working relationship and your encouragement to all of the men and women who are becoming more skilled writers because of you!

For those of you who haven't used any of Angela's or Becca's Thesauri, you can begin by reading my blog about their latest book, The  Emotional Thesaurus, Second Edition

No matter what genre you are writing or if you write for adults, children, or young adults, ONE STOP FOR WRITERS is the writing resource you need. It's the first place I go when I'm stuck writing a scene. I haven't begun to plummet the depth of writing helps that are included. By the way, their Pinterest board is pretty amazing too!

Monday, March 18, 2019

Badger's Perfect Garden - A Review, Author Interview, and A Zoom Author Visit Giveaway

When Sleeping Bear Press asked me if I was interested in joining Marsha Diane Arnold's blog tour, I was happy to agree. I blogged about May I Come In? here, and look forward to sharing her other new book, Mine. Yours. next month. Diane is a prolific picture book author with over a million copies of her books sold!


When Badger decided to plant a garden with all the different seeds he had stored in the spring, he received help from his friends Red Squirrel and Dormouse.

Badger made sure that the bumpy seeds were planted in one row, round ones in another, and whirly ones in a third. He was excited thinking about his perfectly planted garden with its orderly rows.

Until...a huge storm came. 

Badger grabbed his umbrella and rushed outside. He ran up and down the rows, trying to cover his seeds...The ground began to slide.
His garden and his hopes are ruined. Badger's friends tried to comfort him with hopes of future plantings, but to no avail.

One summer day Badger's friends drag him out of the house to see a wonderous sight.

"It looks like a celebration, it's the most wonderful garden of all!" 

This picture book, beautifully illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki, will delight both children and the adults who read the book to them. The message of joy in spite of what looks like hopeless disaster, can be a great starting point for a conversation.


Carol: What was your inspiration for Badger’s Perfect Garden

Marsha: When I lived in Sonoma County, California, I had a wondrous half acre flower/fruit tree garden and a manzanita/oak forest that was home to forest creatures. That may have been the impetus to begin this story about gardens and sweet animals.

Images from Marsha's garden and forest in California.
Truly inspirational!

Carol: Were you trying to “educate” your readers about being open to new possibilities when something doesn’t work as they expected?

Marsha: I don’t think of my writing as “educating,” but simply writing a story my readers will enjoy. Naturally, my values and personality peek through. For much of my life I have been somewhat of a perfectionist, so the story is about “letting go,” about surrender, and about appreciating the “imperfections” in life, imperfections that are “perfect” in their own way, like Badger’s jumble-tumble garden. 

Carol: Years ago, anthropomorphized animals were frowned on in the children’s publishing industry. Obviously, your books break that rule and I suspect you’ve had no problem selling them! Do you ever receive negative feedback about this? 

Marsha: I see this warning fairly often in essays with titles like “Ten things not to do when you write a picture book.” 

I suspect these warnings spring from editors having read too many substandard stories with talking animals. But many popular writers anthropomorphize animals, food, and even furniture! It’s all in how you write the story. Editors have their preferences and some do not appreciate anthropomorphism. The lesson is to read popular and award winning authors and see what they’re doing and to know what a particular editor’s preferences are.

Carol: Do you take care to make sure your animals show some of their animal traits? For example, Red Squirrel seems friendly and curious. 

Marsha: I like my animal characters to possess characteristics of the real animal, but the story is always my highest priority. Squirrels, though timid, are also curious and social, like Red Squirrel in my book. Badgers can be quite aggressive, but that’s not at all like my Badger. 

I also like my fictional animals to be from the same country or ecosystem. The animals in Badger’s Perfect Garden can all be found in England - the European Badger, Red Squirrel, Dormouse, and Weasel. 


We're switching up the giveaway this time.  Marsha is giving away a free 15-minute Zoom video chat with an educator and his or her classroom. Please leave me a comment by March 21 if you would like to be entered, along with your email address if you are new to my blog. Media specialists--this includes you! Please share this blog post with your favorite teacher or librarian. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS: A Review and Picture Book Giveaway

Congratulations to Danielle H. who for a second week in a row won a book from my blog. The Wizard's Daughter is on its way to her!


Back in November I promised you a review of another book by Alice Faye Duncan. Several blog posts later and in anticipation of National Poetry Month in April, I'm making good on that promise. 

Before today you may not have heard of Gwendolyn Brooks. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 making her the first African American to win a Pulitzer.  Fittingly, Ms. Duncan chose to celebrate Ms. Brooks work by writing her biography in verse and interspersing it with Brooks' own poetry.

The year is 1925. 
Gwendolyn Brooks is eight years old. 
Gray bursts of smoke hide the yellow sun. 
Can flowers grow without sunlight? 
Gwendolyn leans on the front yard gate. 
Gwendolyn is unsure.
As a young girl, Gwendolyn translates her observations and thoughts into poetry.

Her parents encourage her writing but a teacher accuses her of plagiarizing her poems. Her teacher retracts her charge, but Gwendolyn is angry and pens a poem which ends up being prophetic:

If others neglect you,  
Forget, do not sigh. 
For, after all, they'll select you 
In times by and by. 
If their taunts cut and hurt you, 
They are sure to regret 
And if in time, they desert you 
Be sure to forgive and forget.  (Gwendolyn Brooks, 1928)
Her parents recognize her talent and give her time to develop her talent; her poems are published in The Chicago Defender

Gwendolyn writes, revises, studies, and wins prizes for her poetry. She marries Henry, has a son they name Junior, and writes.

SING a song for Gwendolyn Brooks 
She whittles her sonnets with perfect grace. 
Like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost.
Gwen paints poems with paintbrush words 
And Gwen takes home a Pulitzer Prize.



This book would be an excellent curriculum resource. Educators, feel free to use this lesson plan.

You'll find some of Gwendolyn's poems here

I'm giving away a copy of A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS (a part of Sterling Children's Books "People who Shaped Our World" series) in conjunction with the March issue of Talking Story on WOW Women in History. Leave one comment here and I'll enter your name once. Leave a comment through Talking Story and you'll earn a second chance to win. Giveaway ends April 1. Please leave your email address if you are new to my blog. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Wizard's Daughter: A Book Review and Autographed Giveaway

Congratulations to Danielle H. for winning The Smallest Tadpole's War in the Land of Mysterious Waters.

If you, or a teenager you know, is a fan of clean science fiction/fantasy, then The Wizard’s Daughter by Jeff Minerd, is a book you should consider.

Minerd sets his three-book series, The Sky-Riders of Etherium in a world that is futuristic and yet also includes medieval/steam punk elements. The story opens with Brieze, the teenage protagonist, watching her mother jump off the edge of their floating island and into space. Brieze straps on her parachute pack and rescues her from impending death. In the process, Brieze learns that the man they are living with, the Wizard, has proposed to her mother. But, Patentia, can’t let go of the idea that Brieze’s father—her first love—still loves her and will come back for her.

With that, Brieze is thrust into a new normal and into her quest: to find her biological father, Kaishou Fujiwara, and to demand an explanation for why he abandoned her mother. She knows her journey to the Eastern Kingdoms will be fraught with dangers, but she is determined to not let anything stop her. 

The reader meets the other point-of-view character, Tak, a warrior in his own right and Brieze’s romantic interest. (He is the star of the first book in the series, The Sailweaver's Son.) Tak tries to talk Brieze into allowing him to accompany her, but she refuses—a decision she regrets during the long and lonely flight. 

The wizard, her adopted father, gives her a great surprise when he provides the airship she will need for her journey. Painted with a new pigment, the ship takes on the color of its environment. Delighted with the camouflage, Brieze names her airship, Devious. As a sky rider, Brieze “craved the weightless freedom of flying.” This powerful urge, along with Tak’s flying lessons, and her desire to confront her father propel her into a perilous journey and unknown future. 

Minerd's world-building is admirable. I'm quite sure that I could never imagine the complexity of the worlds, strange creatures, and dangers which Brieze encounters. Here is an example that shows some of the world that Brieze navigates in search of clues about her father's disappearance. 

She looked over the ledge. The clouds that covered the roots of the Wind's Teeth [dangerous, sharp mountains in which she had almost crashed] were only a few yards below her, looking like gray mist. She used the sturdy rope with the knots to lower the pack over the ledge, foot-by-foot down through the mist, toward the unseen ground below....
The glowing light stick on the pack dimmed as it descended through the fog....
A hundred knots passed...four-hundred twenty feet...
[She descends over five-hundred feet to the roots of the Wind's Teeth]
When she planted both feet on the ground, they sank in a little, as they would in mud. Brieze took a few cautious steps. The ground supported her, but it was definitely soft. She hadn't expected that. She bent down and scooped up a handful of the whitish-colored stuff she was walking on. It was like dirt, but much finer and dryer. It flowed like water between her fingers...
"Liquid dirt," she said to herself. "Fascinating."
[That night at her campfire] Sand slithered and hissed as the wind pushed it about.
Something moved in the darkness. She heard scrabbling sounds and the faint clink of metal on metal. Sniffing. Lips smacking and chewing. Satisfied grunts. Something was eating the goat strips she'd scattered in the dark...She saw the gleam of their eyes as they drew closer to the fire. Big, bulbous eyes, spaced far apart and glimmering green with the light reflecting off their retinas. There were two pairs of eyes and strangely, a single eye bobbing and blinking all by itself.
But they were Gublins.  (p. 199-4)
I referred to the map in front of the book several times; it helped me picture where Brieze was traveling. The prologue and epilogue were slightly confusing. Both reference characters and dragons that are not shown in the book. I assume they are important to the series, but I would have liked to see how they factor into The Wizard's Daughter.  In addition, I was left hanging at the end of the book. I assume that is because the author wants the reader to read the final book which he is working on, The Dragonlord's Apprentice. I would have preferred a greater sense of completion of this particular story. 


If you are interested in receiving an autographed copy of The Wizard's Daughter, please leave a comment with your email address if you are new to my blog. Giveaway ends March 7.

THE NIGHT WAR: A MG Historical Novel Review

  By now you should have received an email from my new website about my review of THE NIGHT WAR by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (It'll com...