Thursday, April 17, 2014

Earth Week Energy Audit

In honor of Earth Day, I'll be blogging about the environment for the coming week. 

And in the spirit of taking personal action, today I had an energy audit done on my house. 

This is a fantastic service, offered free from National Grid. 

For two and a half hours two men went through my house. They tested airflow with this impressive contraption. 
They checked my insulation, pipes, and ducts.
They changed lightbulbs and tested the efficiency of my refrigerator.

When they were done, they drew up a Home Energy Action Plan, showing me how I could add insulation to prevent heat loss. 
National Grid even offers incentives to help with the installation costs. 

Next winter I'll be warmer and use less energy. What could be better than that! 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gwenyth Swain Author of Hope and Tears and American Adventures: Voices for Freedom

Today I’d like to welcome Gwenyth Swain, author of Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices,
(Calkins Creek, 2012) and “Riding to Washington: the 1963 Freedom March,” part of the anthology American Adventures: Voices for Freedom (Sleeping Bear Press, 2013). Currently a freelance writer and a library aide, Gwenyth formerly ran a middle school and was a senior editor at Carolrhoda Books. Gwenyth loves great stories, both in fiction and nonfiction.

What captured your imagination in the story of Ellis Island? Did any of your ancestors enter the country there?

None of my ancestors entered through Ellis Island. They came too early, before the immigration station opened in 1892. But my grandmother told me once about visiting there, more or less as a tourist, in the early 1900s. She was a girl, and her do-gooding aunts were handing out Bibles to the new immigrants.

Your book has a unique format, a combination of narrative history and letters, diary entries, poems, monologues, and dialogues about individuals, some real people, some fictional, but representative of real group. In essence, this is combination of nonfiction and historical fiction. How did you come up with this format?

I really don’t like it when a nonfiction book has what are clearly fictional (made-up) bits. I wanted to have a combination of fiction and nonfiction but make it clear which was which. Also, I wanted to make sure that all of the fictional elements—the poems, monologues, diary entries, letters—were based solidly in fact.

From the tale of a Lenni Lenape boy to the Irish immigrant Annie Moore, and the workers who helped process the immigrants, the personal entries in your book resonate with emotion. Do you have favorites among these individuals? Who?

One favorite is the story of Danny and Grandpa Salvatore. In it, a grandfather reluctantly and with great fear tells his grandson the truth about how he came to America. I based the story on a true story told to me by Jeff Dosik, one of the Ellis Island librarians, about a man who had wanted so desperately to become American that he swam from Ellis to Jersey City.

Did you travel to Ellis island? Could you describe something of your research process?

I’ve been to Ellis Island twice, once as a tourist and once as a researcher. When researching, I made sure to visit the Bob Hope Memorial Library. It’s full of great information and photographs. I also spoke with people in the Oral History department and listened to interview with immigrants to Ellis Island.

Did your writing process differ when dealing with the historical narrative versus the individual entries? Which did you enjoy writing most?

It was important to make the chapter introductions—the nonfiction bits—as clear as possible to give readers context for the fictional pieces. I really loved writing the fictional monologues, dialogues, letters, diary entries. In general, I started with a particular written source or a historical photograph, which helped to ground the fiction in historical fact.

How have your readers responded to the book? How does it support the Common Core?

I’ve had great responses presenting the book to kids, particularly in middle schools. Hope and Tears fits in nicely with the Common Core requirement for reading informational texts.

In terms of specific standards, look at RI 5.6: Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent. Students can read multiple accounts of the immigrant experience, looking for similarities and differences in the journeys and in what happens upon arrival at Ellis Island.

Your other work is a short story from a much later period in history, the 1963 Freedom March. What drew you to this topic? You have a family connection to the event, right?

The story itself comes from the real-life journey my father and grandfather took in August 1963, when they boarded a bus in Indianapolis bound for the historic March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. Along they way, the “mixed” crowd of blacks and whites on the bus had trouble finding restaurants that would serve them.

Why did you choose to focus on the trip to the Freedom March rather than the march itself?

I was intrigued by the idea of focusing on the journey to the March, rather than on the event itself. After all, anyone who went to the March on Washington was making history, even before the speakers started talking from in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

What were some of your challenges in writing this story?

The challenge with “Riding to Washington” was taking a real story and transforming it into fiction. I knew right away that I wanted to make the story interesting to kids, so even though none of the children in my family went to the March, I made sure the main character in “Riding” was a child—a girl who’s a bit of a trouble-maker at home.

How did this anthology come about? What was it like working on a collaborative project like this?

Riding to Washington was first published as a picture book with illustrations by David Geister. The publisher, Sleeping Bear Press, is very savvy. They’ve seen that kids in grades 2-4 are avid readers of history. So they re-formatted three historical picture books (one by me and two by Gloria Whelan) and put them together as American Adventures: Voices for Freedom. All three stories touch on some aspect of black history.

You’ve written over two dozen other books on a wide range of historical topics. Could you tell us about some of your other work?

My other recent book is a You Choose adventure. You know, the books where at the end of every few pages, you have to decide what the character does. Mine is World War I: An Interactive Adventure, published by Capstone, which has many You Choose books. It was fun to write, and I’ve even gotten fan mail from readers!

What are your plans for the future? What other topics have captured your interest?
On my story slinger blog, I’m doing a series of posts on a favorite topic: the history of one-room schools in America. I’m calling the series “One-Room Nation.” It’s a chance to showcase my research and photos of one-room schools, and I’ve gotten a great reaction so far.

Thank you so much for being a guest on my blog!

Thank you, Linda. It’s a treat to be interviewed by you!

Readers can find out more about Gwenyth Swain and her work at You can also visit her blog at

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Kathryn Erskine talks about Seeing Red

Kathryn Erskine is the acclaimed author of numerous intermediate and teen novels. She won the National Book Award for Mockingbird, a book about a young girl with Asperger’s Syndrome who must help her father deal with her brother’s death. Today, Kathryn’s here to talk about her latest novel, Seeing Red, which is sure to garner its own share of awards.

The young main character, Red Porter, grew up helping his dad fix cars for the family business in small town Stony Gap, Virginia. Now his father has died, and his mom has decided to move them back to her family in Ohio. Red is determined to stop her. He wants to stay right in Stony Gap, where his father’s family has deep roots.

Red’s efforts to save his family business go awry, driving a wedge between him and his longtime friend, Thomas. Digging into the past to help an elderly friend reclaim lost property, Red discovers the dark side of the Porter legacy. Seeing Red is a riveting story about family, friendship, and race relations.

Hi Kathryn, welcome to Lupine Seeds!
You were born in the Netherlands, lived in Israel, South Africa, Scotland, and Newfoundland, and have now settled in Virginia. Seeing Red is set in Virginia, but did your experiences in any of those other places inform the book? How?
Witnessing apartheid in South Africa as a young child set the stage for this novel and my deep feelings about racism.  That continued in Virginia and Alabama in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when Seeing Red is set.  I explain it in detail in the book’s Author’s Note but when you learn those harsh lessons as a child, they’re hard to forget.

You were a lawyer for fifteen years before turning to writing. What drove you to make the change? Have your experiences in the courtroom influenced your work?
Being a lawyer has helped with research, which I’m very serious about, and analysis.  I’ve always loved writing but didn’t think I could make a career of it so decided to wait until I retired.  When my mother died, still in her sixties, I realized that you can’t wait to follow your passion -- you never know what’s going to happen.  I signed up for a local writing class and that was the beginning of this long, sometimes hard and frustrating, but ultimately beautiful journey.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of your favorite books. Do you see parallels between it and Seeing Red? Did you consciously draw on To Kill a Mockingbird in writing Seeing Red?
Not consciously, but a story about racism and tolerance and a child’s view of it came from my own past and great works like To Kill a Mockingbird.  I suppose Seeing Red is a 1970’s version of a small southern town that has, like any town, people who try to be their best like Atticus Finch and people who succumb to fear like Bob Ewell, and ultimately how we as a society deal with racism.  I love that Seeing Red has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird -- that is the greatest compliment.

Could you tell us something about your process? How did Seeing Red evolve from idea to finished manuscript, to published book?
Oh, my goodness, that is a very long story but the short version is that it went through a couple of publishers and a couple of dozen drafts before becoming a published novel.  It started as a voice in my head, like all my stories do, then more characters appear, scenes develop, and eventually I have an idea of what the story is about.  It’s because of the characters that I kept at this book.  They wouldn’t let me go.  It was almost as if it wasn’t my story -- it was theirs and they insisted I tell it.  The most important takeaway for any writer, or anyone really, is to never give up.  I started writing this novel in 1999.  It finally published in 2013. 

This story deals with race relations, abusive parents, woman’s issues, guilt and redemption, and so much more. Yet it never feels heavy handed or didactic. Red, who can tell the model of a car just by the sound of its engine, is such a genuine character. He carries the reader along. How did you put yourself inside the mind of this twelve year boy?
I’m a closet actor.  :o)  Seriously, I have to become my character and see the world through my character’s eyes.  There are many ways of doing that.  I do extensive research about the time and the place and culture so I know how people behave in that particular setting.  I observe kids today, I remember kids from my own childhood.  For Seeing Red, in particular, I walked in the Virginia woods and observed the trees and rocks and creek, throwing stones and stomping on acorns just like Red did.  I sat in the type of desk classrooms had in the early ‘70’s with the attached desk with pencil groove and the seat with a place underneath for your books.  I listened to all the music on my playlist (which is on my website) and much more, and watched movies of and about the era.  I went to historical societies and museums, including the Robert Russa Moton museum in Farmville, Virginia, which shows the history of Massive Resistance in Virginia as if you’re living it.  I visited Rosenwald schools.  I talked with people who lived through that era.  I ate the food Red ate.  I watched the TV shows he watched.  I played Rock’em Sock’em Robots.  I did his chores.  I talked like Red, acted like him, and thought like him.  Basically, I was Red.

Red Porter is a sympathetic character who does some terrible things. How did you balance his guilt with his drive to make things right?
At his core, we know Red is a good person and wants to do the right thing.  We all make mistakes and he feels great remorse for his.  And he tries to make up for what he does.  Those are all admirable qualities.  It’s not that hard to forgive someone who’s earnest and truly sorry and tries to make things right.  If he -- or we -- can use guilt or any negative emotion to spur us into taking action for justice, that’s a good thing.

Secrets propel this story forward. How did you devise this vehicle for your plot? How did you manage to juggle the book’s complex plot strands?
Secrets are an element of the story because we all have them.  And it’s important to know that things are not always as they seem.  We often make judgments based on insufficient evidence.  We need to dig deeper, think critically.  For example, Red is mistaken about Mr. Reynolds based on assumptions and his own prejudices.  We need to get past that.  As far as juggling the issues, I use a software tool to help me organize my story and plot.  With that, I can try make sure the threads of the story are woven in a way that makes sense.

Have you gotten any reactions from young readers about Seeing Red?
Yes, I’m delighted to be receiving fan mail and reviews from young readers.  My favorite is from a girl who said she would’ve given Seeing Red a 5 out of 5 but had to give it a 4 because she was so mad when it ended since she didn’t want the story to be over yet.  I love that!

You’ve written about a boy with a math disability in The Absolute Value of Mike, a girl with Aspergers’ Syndrome in Mockingbird, a foster child in Quaking, and apartheid in Ibhubesi. What drew you to these topics? Do you see any common themes running through all your books?
One of the fun things about being an author is the variety -- you can write about anything!  I enjoy topics that might show young readers something they may know little about.  Reading a novel is an entertaining way of learning.  I think a common theme in my books is tolerance.  Understanding and appreciating people’s differences is important to me perhaps because of growing up in a variety of cultures and always being the different one myself.  And it’s vital for a functioning society.  Now that you mention it, the main character in my next book has albinism!

What’s next? I read some hints that the book you’re working on now will be set in Newfoundland. Can you tell us more?
Ah, well, I did write a YA novel set in Newfoundland but it needs work.  More recently I’ve been working on an adult novel set there.  What’s actually next is The Badger Knight, a Middle Ages adventure novel that Scholastic is publishing this fall.  I love the Middle Ages because it’s almost like fantasy with knights and longbows and superstitions but it actually happened which makes it even more interesting to me.  The main character, Adrian, has albinism and dealing with a difference like that in the Middle Ages could be more than uncomfortable; it could be dangerous.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I’m so grateful to my readers and hope to keep writing books they enjoy.  I have several projects going right now -- some picture books, a novel in verse, a teen road trip novel, and two others that are still in that amorphous phase where the characters are talking to me but I’m not exactly sure where they’re going yet … but I hope to find out soon!
Thank you so much for hosting me on Lupine Seeds, Linda!

Thanks so much for being my guest! Readers can find out more about Kathryn Erskine and her books at

And thanks to all my readers for stopping by. I wanted to share my good new before I close. The Children's Book Council has named When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story as a 2014 Outstanding Science Trade Book and a 2014 Notable Social Studies Book. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Alexis O'Neill on The Kite That Bridged Two Nations

Just out! A contest! Thanks to Alexis' generosity, anyone who leaves a comment on this blog before January 31 will be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of  The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.  

Alexis O’Neill is an award-winning author and an instructor for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program. Her work includes the acclaimed picture books The Recess Queen and Loud Emily. Today she’s here to talk about her recent historical fiction book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.
Homan Walsh loves flying his kite along the great Niagara River. Then men come to town, planning to build a bridge across the river, uniting the United States and Canada. But how will they get the first line across the wide and raging water? When they hold a contest to see who can fly a kite to span the river, Homan rises to the challenge.
Alexis had generously offered a signed copy of her book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations. 
Welcome to my blog, Alexis! 
I read that you got the idea for The Kite That Bridged Two Nations from a minor incident mentioned in David McCullough’s The Great Bridge. Could you tell us about that? What excited you about this idea?
The 19 th century time period, the location of Western New York, that a string could actually start a bridge, the boy’s determination to succeed in spite of tremendous odds – all of this really got my juices going!
Actually, the idea for the story was suggested to me out of the blue by an editor I had never met, from a publishing house I had never worked with. But it turned out that we had both read The Great Bridge by David McCullough about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge by engineer John Augustus Roebling. She was attracted to a short anecdote about how a boy’s kite string began the first suspension bridge over the Niagara River in 1848. That bridge was started by Roebling’ leading competitor, Charles Ellet, Jr., but completed by Roebling when Ellet quit the project in a money dispute. The editor asked if I’d be willing to write a picture book about the kite contest. And I replied with the four words a writer should say when someone asks this: “Why yes, of course!”  (By the way, the original editor rejected my story in the end, but the next editor I sent it to bought it!)
The book is based on a true incident. How much information were you able to uncover about the real Homan? How did you use it to develop the character of Homan?
Other than one interview published at the end of his life with an account of the contest, little was written about Homan Walsh, so I had to go sideways to fill in the blanks. I used census data to find out where he lived and with whom and what kind of jobs he held. A passport application gave information on his height and eye color. Graveyard headstones confirmed birth and death dates. Reports in newspapers of the time attested to his perseverance in his extraordinary kite-flying feat.  And reports from a bridge commissioner corroborated other accounts of Homan’s success and the prize that he was awarded. Secondary sources filled in essential information about the bridge engineer, the weather, terrain, and the times.
What were your challenges in finding a narrative thread for the book’s dramatic arc? How did you solve them?
The true story has a natural, dramatic arc. But finding the narrative thread was a major stumbling block for me. At first, I wrote the story as straight nonfiction. That wasn’t satisfying. Next I played with various points of view, writing poems in the voices of the kite, the ferry, the bridge, the falls and more. And though this was fun to read aloud as Readers’ Theater, the work didn’t carry an emotional punch. In fact, I got so stuck, I traveled back to Niagara Falls for inspiration. Finally, I went away for a week with a writing friend where there was no access to the Internet or other distractions. I read, took notes from my notes, thought, and then wrote what became the first draft for the published book. The key element missing in my other attempts was emotion. The only way I could get to the emotion -- Homan’s the exhilaration of flying a kite, the power of the falls, the thrill of overcoming obstacles -- was through historical fiction in Homan’s point of view.
The Kite That Bridged Two Nations has such a vivid sense of place. I know you once lived in New York State, but you live in California now. What did you do to immerse yourself in the book’s time and place?
New York State’s history is ingrained in me after having lived in Syracuse for so many years. I used to work with historical and art museums there, and conducted workshops for teachers on local history. Even my first published books were about Syracuse! I’ve done extensive research about the Erie Canal, traveled every mile of it, and love that whole period of growth in the mid-19th century when there was such an influx of immigrants and an explosion of innovation.  I travel back to Central New York each year, but I took an extra trip to visit Niagara Falls again to see it through a writer’s eyes. I realized that the word “awesome” was invented to describe the falls!

Your language is so lyrical. It creates such drama:
As inky night spilled on the sky, the river, and the land,
The cold air claimed our hands, our feet—
And contestants dropped away.
I stomped to keep my body warm and pulled my woolens tighter.
Then through the dark, two bonfires bloomed—
First one side, then the other.
The crowds were with me! They urged me on…
How did you use revision to develop your book’s voice?
Revision is a form of play for me. I play with voices, images, verbs, similes and metaphors. I rearrange sentences and paragraphs for impact. When I finally decided to tell the story in Homan’s voice, I went back to my earlier attempt, which was told in poems – and robbed it.  Since poetry is the best way to express emotion, I lifted text from that version and used many elements in my newest draft.

How have young readers reacted to The Kite That Bridged Two Nations?
Here’s an example:  When I do school assemblies, I bring along a replica of Union that a kite expert made for me. One day, I walked onto a campus, kite in hand, heading toward the multipurpose room. As I approached the door, I heard a young voice shout out, “Look, look, Ms. Sanchez! She brought UNION!” When the characters become that real to readers, that’s when I know my story is a success.
Each of your books is very different. Loud Emily is a tall tale set in a New England whaling town. The Recess Queen is realistic fiction about bullying. The Kite that Bridged Two Nations is historical fiction. What was it like working on these different kinds of projects? Do you see any strands that unite all your work?

Language. I love playing with language. Sailors’ commands in Loud Emily. Made up words in The Recess Queen. Vivid verbs in The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.  I love playing with sounds and images, and to do that fully, I keep playing with different kinds of projects.
What can we expect from you in the future? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a picture book biography, a chapter book fantasy, a tween novel and a nonfiction book set in – guess where? – New York State.  Bets are on as to which I finish first!
 Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Yes! I have three cats, am learning to play the ukulele, and dream of being locked in a library overnight with a flashlight, cats and lots of chocolate.

Thank you so much for being my guest, Alexis! Readers can find out more about Alexis O’Neill and her work at

Monday, October 21, 2013

Karen Day, Author of No Cream Puffs

Today I’d like to welcome Karen Day, author of acclaimed fiction for middle grade readers.

Karen wanted to be a writer since she was in fourth grade. She wrote her first (highly melodramatic) novel when she was sixteen and took journalism in college. When she graduated, she wrote for newspapers and magazines, doing the last interview with tennis great, Arthur Ashe, before he died. 

But she yearned to write fiction. Finally she left journalism to write full time.
We’re glad she did! Her titles include the A Million Miles from Boston and Tall Tales. Today we’ll be talking about her sports novel for girls, No Cream Puffs.

It’s the story of 12-year-old Madison Mitchell, the first girl in Michigan to play baseball on an all-boys' little league team. Madison must deal with all the pressures of being a trailblazer. What will her friends think? Will the boy she likes still be interested if she strikes him out? How will she deal with the unwelcome publicity?

Karen, could you describe how the book evolved? What came first, the plot or the characters? Did you work from a detailed outline or were you a “pantser”?

The writing of every book is always different for me (although it’s always hard!). But one thing is true about every book I write: I always come up with the internal arch first. As a writer, mom and reader, I’m most interested in the inner life of kids. How they deal with trauma. How they feel about the inevitable changes that adolescence will bring. In No Cream Puffs, I knew I wanted to write about a girl who was “searching” for a father who didn’t want her. I also knew that I wanted to write about the drama of how it feels to “lose” your best friend, if only temporarily. That my main character would play little league came later. And yes, I am a pantser. No outlines for me!

You capture Madison’s conflicting feelings about playing ball with the boys so well. Were you an athlete as a child? Did you play baseball or another sport?

I loved sports and played everything I could. Like Madison, I was the first girl in my part of the state to play little league with the boys. A lot of what happens to Madison is fictional; however, a lot I took from my life, too. Like Madison, I was a pitcher, played short stop and batted cleanup. And like Madison, I struck out the star of little league in the championship game. I was a natural athlete, but unfortunately I didn’t have the head for it. I was filled with a lot of doubt and conflict. A headcase! I don’t think that people who knew me back then realized this about me. And so this is one of the themes that I wanted to write about in No Cream Puffs – what it’s like to be good at something, a trendsetter, and yet have ambivalence about it. I quit baseball after just one season and turned to competitive tennis, which I played until I was 18. I was a headcase in tennis, too!

I wasn’t athletic as a child. In fact, I was the last one picked for any team. I always envied girls like Madison, but this book gave me a glimpse of what an athletic girl’s struggles might be. How do young readers react to Madison? What do you hope a young reader might take away from your book?

I get more emails about Madison and No Cream Puffs than any of my other books. Madison is at an age when girls aren’t always comfortable with the opposite sex, so I think that many of my young readers like reading about a girl who has so much direct contact with boys! Others like her spunkiness, sympathize with her and her fight with her best friend, and cheer for her against Billy. Underneath all of this, I want girls to know what it was like before there was such a plethora of sporting opportunities in our country. Today’s girls don’t have to worry how to be athletes. Nor do they have to worry that their sporting teams might go away. It wasn’t always like this.

I love Madison’s mom. She blazed trails in her own legal career, and she struggles to give Madison the room she needs to make her own choices about baseball. Was Madison’s mom drawn from anyone you know?

In early drafts I really struggled with mom and what I wanted her character to be. I knew that Madison would have a push-pull relationship with her. I’d been reading a lot of female adolescent development books and was fascinated by the idea that a girl’s primary struggle in adolescence is learning to separate from her mother. Still, my own mom and other mothers I knew kept getting in the way. Then one day, Mitali Perkins, who was in my critique group, suggested that mom should have part of me in her. And something about this helped free me, and I saw her character more clearly.

Huey, the has-been rock star next door, is a unique figure in middle grade literature. He becomes a sort of father figure to Madison, even though he isn’t a very responsible adult. Can you tell us more about this character?

I was very conscious in this book of not doing the expected. For example, I could have written a story where the main character is a star, everyone is against her and she “fights the establishment” to get what she wants. In stead, I made the primary struggle an internal one. Likewise, it seems natural that Madison’s father figure would be the baseball coach or someone who was a good athlete. In stead, I introduce Huey. And I did this because I wanted to show that Madison wasn’t struggling with baseball as much as she was struggling with expectations and fame, something Huey knew a lot about. Also, he was a screw up. So, he was a good alternative to her mother who Madison thought always did everything right.

Madison’s brother David is such a wonderful mentor for her. And she has a marvelous relationship with fellow teammate, Brett. Did you have any strong male mentors in your life? Do you see any parallels between them and these characters?

My dad was a terrific sports buddy when I was growing up. He taught me to play ping pong, basketball, football and baseball. He was a serious, competitive man who valued sportsmanship and winning. He never seemed to tire of playing with me, especially after I started beating him at everything! Because of him, I was very comfortable around men and boys. I realized, at an early age, that what they valued most was winning. The boys on my baseball team liked me because I was good and helped the team. The tennis coaches liked me because I was coachable and won. There were no mind games and no drama. And so, yes, I carried over these experiences when I crafted Brett and David’s characters. They both like Madison and they respect her because she’s good.

A Million Miles from Boston is about Lucy, who’s had a difficult school year, and whose Dad has a new girlfriend. Tall Tales is about Meg, who struggles to keep her father’s alcoholism secret. Where do your book ideas come from? Do you see any recurrent themes or strands that run through your books?

All of my novels seem to deal with girls who feel alone. Lucy misses her mom who died six years earlier. Madison is the only girl playing baseball with the boys and Meg has just moved to a new town and desperately wants a friend. I think that this feeling of being alone is something with which I’m quite familiar and so it feels natural to write about this. Over and over and over! Many of my story ideas come from personal experience. But I also have kids in middle school and high school and so I’m constantly listening to them and their friends and trying to pick up ideas. Ian, the annoying boy in A Million Miles from Boston, came to me after listening to my middle child talk about an annoying boy at school. Meg’s story is based on my husband’s childhood. One of the things I love about writing is taking what I know and experienced and setting it in a different place, with a made-up plot, and seeing what happens.

You work with an editor I greatly admire, Wendy Lamb. What is it like to work with her? Can you tell us a little about the editorial process?

Wendy is an incredible editor. She has a way of strengthening my strengths and building up my weaknesses. My first editorial letter from her, about Tall Tales, was 14 pages long, single spaced! I usually do anywhere from four to eight revisions for her. It’s worth it. She has made all of my books so much better. Typically she’ll break my novel down into individual threads, and she’ll make suggestions on how to change or deepen a particular thread. This is a very comfortable process for me since it’s the way I’ve always approached revision.

Are you working on something new? Can you tell us a little about it?

I’m fascinated by how competitive sports change and disrupt family dynamics. I’m just rewriting a novel about two sisters, one who is a star diver who wants to quit but her family won’t let her. I’m interested in how the younger sister, who narrates the novel, is affected by the attention and drama given to the older sister. I’m also working on a new project, about a 12-year-old girl with psychic abilities. It’s a fun story, something new for me, but also with a serious side. And I’m teaching a lot more now. In the winter, I’ll be running a writing-for-kids adult workshop at Grub Street in Boston.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Thanks for having me, Linda!

Thank you so much for being my guest today. For any readers looking for a great book about girls and sports, I highly recommend No Cream Puffs by Karen Day. You can find out more about Karen and her work at 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When Rivers Burned Award Winner and KidsFaithGarden Post

After a summer break, I'm back with some wonderful news. 
When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story won two awards, a Green Book Festival award in history 
and a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award gold medal. 

KidsFaithGarden Guest Blog
Today is a busy day for me. I'm also appearing as a guest blogger on Nicole Lataif's delightful KidsFaithGarden website with a post on using imagination to promote kindness. I invite you to come join the discussion! 

Finally, I'd like to leave you with this musing on fall: 

Late September
I eat lunch under the glowering skies of late September.
Silence surrounds me until
I bite the succulent flesh of a peach,
Sweet remainder of summer, releasing 
The warble of goldfinches. 
Out of the corner of my eye I catch
The flit of a wing,
But it is only a yellowed leaf twisting in the wind.
Overhead, a winter jay calls. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Author Leslie Connor talks about Crunch

I’d like to welcome author Leslie Connor, to my blog today to talk about her middle grade novel, Crunch. Leslie’s books have won numerous awards, and Crunch is no exception. I counted ten on her website, including Kirkus Best Books of 2010.

Since April 22 is Earth Day, and I have my own environmental book coming out this month, When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story, I just couldn’t pass up this title.

Crunch’s main character, Dewey Marriss, has promised to manage the family’s bike repair business just when the gas pumps run dry. Now his parents are stranded up north, and everyone in town needs a bike.

Dewey and his older sister Lil must look after their younger siblings and run the bike shop on their own. But bike parts are going missing. Is the thief someone they know?

Hi, Leslie! Crunch deals with the energy crisis and the danger of relying on fossil fuels. Yet you are never heavy-handed with that message. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to write about this topic and how you developed the story idea?

Hi, Linda. Thank you for inviting me to visit you at your blog today. I am charmed to be here.

So, I had the idea for Crunch percolating in the back of my mind basically because I am a drifty, dreamy sort who likes to drive down the highway imagining what it’d be like out there with no cars or trucks. (Oh! Smooth and easy biking!)
A few summers ago, gas prices began to rise—a lot. I was being more careful to combine my errands and I made fewer trips out. I wondered what it’d be like if gas got too expensive for most of us…or if the pumps went dry. I remember the energy crisis of the ‘70’s when we went to odd and even (by license plate numbers) at the pumps. My Mom would go and wait in line and sometimes not be back for an hour or more.
I did a lot of thinking about the inventiveness and resourcefulness of human beings. When I thought about travel, the immediate answer was BIKES.

I admire authors who can write in an authentic first person kid’s voice. Did Dewey’s voice come naturally or did you have to work at it? What was your process?

Characters seem to make their way to my ear naturally. (I’m a lucky writer in that regard.) It was interesting for me to write in first person from a male point of view. But I had two brothers growing up and I raised two sons and I am a terrific eavesdropper. Every so often I asked the males in my household, “Hey, would a guy say this?” (My family loves to take me to task.)

As a kid, I was drawn to books where kids had to manage on their own, without adults. You get Dewey’s parents out of the way, stuck in Canada without any gas to get home, and you keep other helpful adults on the periphery with Lil’s prickly pride in handling things on her own. Did you consciously try to keep the adults out of this story?

Yes, having Dewey’s parents away was always in my vision for this story. That was one more problem I could throw at poor Dewey. But I can never bear to leave my young characters completely without some adult nearby who could step in. (That is for my comfort and for the comfort of the reader.) I saw the Marriss’s as a family that had friends in the wings.

There was a lot of stuff about bike repair in this story. The Marrisses also live on a farm and sell eggs and goat’s milk. Are you a biker? Did you ever live on a farm? How much personal experience and how much research went into this book?

I do draw on personal experiences for my projects, Linda. I ride a cruiser/hybrid bike, outfitted with a nice front basket and a rear rack. I can get downtown in under twenty minutes if I pedal hard. For years my husband I rode a tandem together, and I loved that because I could sit on the back and look around while he steered. Both my sons work in a bike store, and my husband has built several bikes from parts while I…ahem…watched. (And if your chain fell off, I could most likely get that back on for you.) So once again, I had good help when it came to writing Crunch!
As for living on a farm, well I have lived in farmhouses, and very close to farms without ever really being The Farmer, though I dream of it. I garden, and I did own two little red hens for a while. I’m on a first-name basis with my neighbor’s goats and sheep, and I will confess right here that I like the smell of horse manure.

Will Dewey and his younger brother Vince be able to keep up with the demand at the bike shop? When will their parents make it home? Who’s stealing those bike parts? Who can they trust? The pace of this story never lags. How did you manage to juggle all these story strands?

Yikes! Your questions take me back to the months when I was writing the story. I worried about those threads—a lot! I’m glad it worked out, but believe me, that manuscript looked like a big crazy forsythia bush for a while and had to be pruned without feeling. When I am working on a novel there is a little bell inside of me that occasionally dings and tells me, hey, you haven’t mentioned such-and-such for six chapters!

In era of angst-driven novels, the Marriss family is refreshingly different. They work together well, taking responsibility for the bike shop and each other. Dad guides Dewey but never tells him what to do. Yet each member of this family is a distinct individual. How did you come up with these marvelous characters?

Wow. Thanks so much! The answer is I’m a good spy! The Marriss’s are, at least partly, spun from some dear friends of ours. They had five kids when we met them and went up to eight. I was always impressed with how responsible the older children in that family were for the youngest members. My characters are always composites of people I know, people I’ve heard about, or people I can imagine. Serendipity becomes a wonderful tool in that regard too.

You didn’t always envision yourself as a writer. Could you tell us about your winding journey to this career? How do your past careers influence your writing?

I came to children’s books thinking of myself more as an illustrator. I fell in love with art very early and earned a Fine Arts degree in college. I felt my compass was pointed straight at picture books: art, with a narrative in mind. But then novel writing surprised me the way a friendly tap on the shoulder might. I’m not sure why it took me so long to acknowledge that there was a writer in me. The signs were there; I had always written behind closed doors. I find art and writing very similar and I guess that isn’t profound since both are creative processes. Like many authors, I think in pictures and I run mental movies and snippets of dialog. All. Day. Long.

Your first book, Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel was a picture book. Next came a YA novel in verse, Dead on Town Line. Your two more recent books Waiting for Normal and Crunch were middle grade novels. Your writing has taken you in many different directions. How do you feel about your varied career? Do you have a favorite genre or age group?

I’m surprised! And pleased! I feel not very responsible for the way these projects arrive to me. One thing I love about genre hopping is that, for me, it seems to keep the writing crisp. I like “Beginner’s Mind” and so if I’ve been away from a genre for little while, I feel new to it again when I come back. If I have a favorite genre, it is probably older middle grade, or ‘tween. Interestingly, that was a time of struggles for me as a kid. Perhaps I set some roots down.

I hear you’re currently working on a YA Contemporary novel, The Things You Kiss Goodbye. Could you give us a sneak preview of what that book will be about?

Oh, sure I will. The story is about sixteen-year-old Bettina Vasilis. A history of restrictive parenting has her dipping her toe into the social scene at her high school a bit behind the rest of the crowd. In spite of that, she finds herself beginning her junior year in a serious romantic relationship with the high school basketball star. She has even won a spot on the cheerleading squad at his urging. But it is all a bad fit. For one thing, the adorable guy bouncing the orange ball is furtively abusive. One day, while Bettina is running away from him, she runs smack into someone incredible—someone kind, enticing, and completely forbidden. So begins a tricky walk on a tightrope of deception.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Yes! I’d like to tell you how much I am looking forward to your important new title, When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story. I am an avid reader of powerful nonfiction, and I know your book will not disappoint.

Wow! That's high praise, especially coming from an accomplished like you. Thank you! And thanks so much for joining me today. I loved Crunch, and I’m so pleased that I had a chance to share it with my readers.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions and for your graciousness, Linda. Let’s make sure our paths cross again! Cheers! ~Leslie