Monday, September 30, 2013

Rocking Links for Monday
September 30th, 2013

By Kris Kahrs

     Yep, once again my son has proved to me that Mom is always the last to know.  This week I offer up links to rocking kids books I never knew existed until I found them in my son's backpack, some bookie treats to enjoy while reading your favorite kidlit and my new favorite childrens book illustrator, Paul Stickland (be still my heart).  These books are wonderfully illustrated, cleverly written with fresh ideas and entertaining language.  Please check them out at your local library or favorite indy bookstore, then leave your comments below on your favs.

Actually, I bought Beautiful Oops! for me, although my son and I love to read this together.  I love the idea that mistakes can turn into beautiful opportunities.  Now we talk about our 'beautiful Oops!' and I think it's made us both more tolerant of when things don't turn out the way we originally planned.

I love, love, love cats and A Cat Named Egg?  Well, you had me at sunnyside up or over easy.  This book is funny, clever story in verse.  It has plenty of plays on words and your kid will love the connections it makes.  You will both have fun reading this.

L is for Lollygag is the book I've been waiting for.  The Chronicle Books staff call it 'Quirky Words for the Clever Tongue' and they are right!  This book is about words that are fun to say: flabbergast, skullduggery, zigzag and swashbuckler to name a few.  We bet you can't say them without laughing and your young reader will expand her vocabulary as well.

Almost everyday, my son poses hypothetical battle questions to me, "Who would win in hand to hand combat: Chima or Ninjago?  C3PO or R2D2? Stink Moody or Captain Underpants?  A garbage can or a fire hydrant?  Ahhhhhh!  (I actually made up that last one, but you get my meaning.)  We go through this exercise until I tell him mommy needs to have a lie-down.  Then these books came home in the backpack.  I get it!  This is a 'boy-thing'.  There's a series of 7 of the Who Would Win books; Polar Bear vs. Grizzly Bear etc.  Your little hypothesizer will love 'em.

Two other subjects high up on boys reading hit-lists: potty humor (which I understand from my husband is always funny, no matter how old you are) and non-fiction, so when Will Farts Destroy The Planet by Glenn Murphy, came home in my son's backpack, I knew he had found gold.  Even better, this book is actually about climate change, so it's an educational read.  Who knew?

I did mention my new favorite illustrator above, did I not?  His name is Paul Stickland and his art is amazing.  He is a prolific kids book illustrator and the paper art in his pop-up books is nothing short of extraordinary.  He also does a lot of classroom visits to promote his books and does papercraft with the students.  He says he finds their art inspiring for his own work.  He also shows step-by-step photos of how he builds his pop-up books.

Last, what are books without a few cookies?  Even better, how bout some bookies?  That is, cookies in the shape of your favorite books.  Here are mine.  Yes, you guessed it, cookies made for a Very Hungry Caterpillar.  You can buy them here on Etsy. Yumm-o!

Now it's time for me to curl up with a book and a cat.  Happy reading (and writing).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dispatch #12: Author Corina Vacco
In Conversation

Author Corina Vacco
by Lupe Fernandez

Last month, I attended an SCBWI event in Sonoma County at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts called "Young Adult Lit & Environment Contamination" and met young adult author, Corina Vacco.

Corina introduced the assembled group to Jason, Charlie and Cornpup, three boys living the polluted town of Poxton. My Chemical Mountain is not a futuristic dystopian novel. It's a story of today. It's a story of friendship and family, urban mythology and corporate corruption.

Her beautifully written novel was the winner of the 30th Annual Delacorte Prize for a First Adult Novel.

Mother and Daughter
What kind of influence were your parents on your work and the stories you want to tell?
I grew up in a small, clean suburban town outside for Chicago. As a child, I had no idea that pollution was (or could ever be) catastrophic. In fact, environmental issues felt very far away, almost irrelevant. In contrast, my mom, an environmental activist, dragged me all over the Northern Illinois to various protests and events. I spent many childhood moments toting picket signs alongside my mother, who carried a megaphone. As a young writer/daydreamer, I was already a bit socially awkward. Add protests and an activist mother to the mix, and I was, frankly, mortified. There were people who thought my mom was weird, and I was afraid they would think I was weird too. I remember we had a craft fair at my elementary school, where different parents got to go to each classroom and teach kids how to make a craft of their choosing. All the other moms demonstrated how to create Christmas ornaments or folded napkin birds or construction paper snowflakes. My mom did a Save the Whales presentation. I was so embarrassed - Saving the Whales wasn’t a craft! - and there were certainly kids who teased me about it, but there were also kids who pledged to save the whales that day, so that was nice. Many years later, when the Coast Guard stationed my husband and me in Western New York, near one of the most dangerous landfills in the United States, I finally understood my mother’s passion. Voicing outrage and fighting for change was never weird. It’s been beautiful and important. Fast forward to today, and my mom is my ultimate hero. We’re very close, and I’m grateful and proud that she raised me to be aware of social justice issues and to care for our planet.

Poxton's - a play on the word "pox"? - polluted landscape inspires Jason to create a mythology of Uranium Monsters, Grunting Aliens, Dragon Skeletons and other fearsome creatures. Were there monsters or myths created by Jason that didn't make it into the novel?
None that didn’t make it into the novel, but here’s something that’s kind of interesting: to dream up the landfill mythology, I used to step away from my computer in the middle of a scene and lie down for a nap. Right in the moment when I was about to fall asleep, the landfill monsters would appear in my mind, and I’d force myself to wake up before actually falling asleep so I could run to my computer and write it all down. Tapping into that weird “other” consciousness was an unusual experience. Come to think of it, writing the first outline of MY CHEMICAL MOUNTAIN while parked in my car at the foot of a radioactive landfill was also surreal. I guess I am a proponent for doing weird things to jog your creativity!

Corina received this art from a reader
The events in the story take place in the summer before the boys go to high school. Did you have to condense certain scenes for pacing? 
Yes! Originally, I wrote the story in third-person omniscient and divided the narrative into four parts: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. The book is set in Western New York, a region that left quite an impact on me, both for its beauty and its pollution. At the time, I felt like I had to show Buffalo in the wintertime, because in some ways, wintertime is Buffalo, plus I had included a really cool scene of the boys racing down a snow-covered landfill on their snowmobiles and I was unwilling to leave those pages on the cutting room floor. I also wanted the bonfire scenes to take place in the fall. And there were some soggy, polluted, muddy scenes that seemed to work best in the rainy springtime. I didn’t want to part with any of that. But in reality, the majority of the story took place in the summertime, so even I had to admit, breaking the book into seasons did slow the narrative down. I ended up following the advice of a very insightful agent and condensed the entire book into one summer. At the same time, I changed the point of view to first person, which allowed me to reside deep inside my protagonist’s head. It was a lot of work, but I’m glad I made the changes. I was able to alter and keep many of the scenes—the boys still race down the landfill, but on dirt bikes instead of snowmobiles. I think the pacing struck a chord with my readers, and the immediacy of the condensed time period added a lot of tension and stakes at the end of book.

What has been the most helpful to you in improving your craft?
Time. Lots and lots of time. Three years to be exact. In that time, I learned to love the revision process, because with every rewrite, I could see the book getting better and better, and I could feel myself growing as a writer. In-between rewrites, I’d set the manuscript aside and not look at it for weeks so I could return to the pages with fresh eyes and a more ruthless pair of scissors. It’s funny now, looking back, I remember how eager I was to get my very first draft published. I sent it off knowing it probably needed some work, but also knowing I had a great idea on my hands and the execution was decent. Present-day me is so glad that that particular wish didn’t come true. If the first, second, or even third drafts had been published, I never would have known or fallen in love with the later draft that ultimately was published. And I never would’ve had all those years and all that practice to get to know myself as a writer and to grow and improve my craft. So more than anything else, I always urge my writer friends to be patient with themselves and to give themselves and their work the gift of time—to create, to mull things over, to say goodbye to the scenes that aren’t working, and to think up layers and ideas that will enrich the work. Time is essential to the writer.

Your biography states your husband is in the Coast Guard. How exciting. What are his duties?
My husband is a LT in the Coast Guard and his duties have varied over the years, but his main responsibilities are ensuring that domestic and international commercial vessels and facilities that do business in the United States comply with federal environmental, safety, and security regulations/requirements. In addition, when called upon, he responds to natural and environmental disasters. He provided support during 9/11 and the Haiti earthquake, and was deployed for about 3 months during Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon (the large Gulf oil spill).

Currently he is in his staff tour where he is a Coast Guard Civil Rights Service Provider. His duties include handling complaints for individuals who believe they have been discriminated against, provide required civil rights awareness training to CG employees, conduct mediations, focus groups, and analysis on required annual climate surveys to all CG units within CA, AZ, NV, and UT—about 6000 military and civilian personnel. He most recently received the 2013 Coast Guard Civil Rights Service Provider of the Year.

As parent, how to you balance your awareness of environmental issues with the day-to-day life of your child? Do you worry what's in the puddles he splashes in?
Oh, it’s hard, especially the more involved I get with environmental movers and shakers, and the more inside information I receive about what’s really in our soil and rainfall and food, toys and personal care items and even mattresses. I do worry about the puddles my child splashes in, particularly after learning that our government’s reaction to the Fukishima disaster was to raise the “acceptable level” of radiation exposure for all of us—I don’t find that very reassuring. At the end of the day, I try to cope with things as positively as I can, by controlling the things I can control. Namely in paying attention to what we eat, boycotting companies that do damage, and supporting groups who are fighting to make this world a cleaner place for our children. My experience fighting the toxic Western New York landfill that inspired MY CHEMICAL MOUNTAIN taught me that everything we do, even if it feels small, makes a difference.

I'd like to thank Corina for granting this interview. Rush to you nearest bookstore, purchase and read My Chemical Mountain.

For more about Corina visit her at

Monday, September 16, 2013

Student Book Clubs


by Hilde Garcia

Sounds like a great idea but do they work?

Yes, indeed.

Last spring, our Principal decided to do create a book club. She attended a training, which demonstrated book clubs produce improved reading skills. She wanted to implement one at our school. Being an avid reader and a children’s book author, I jumped on the bandwagon and said, “I can help you set it up.”

I gave her my stash of books. We had to find a book that fit a mid-range reading level and would be welcomed by a wide range of readers; we could only pull off one club school-wide. Excluding a child wasn’t an option. We had several young readers whose reading level were several grades ahead so we didn’t want to say no to them because they were simply in a lower elementary grade.  Nor did we want an older reader to feel the book was too “babyish” for them to read either.

So, she began reading all the choices I gave her. Among them were notable books like The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, The Cat that Could Spell Mississippi by Laura Hawkins, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, Justin Case by Rachel Vail, and The Beef Princess of Practical County by Michelle Houts.

“I think I like this one,” my Principal told me one afternoon late in February.  It turned out to be The Beef Princess.

“I happen to know the author of this book. I bet we could get her to sign the copies for the kids and maybe do a Skype visit at the end of the book club sessions,” I said.  I was so excited, ideas began racing through my mind.

We began to plan. Within two weeks, we had a reading schedule and we launched the title at our very first grass roots International Book Expo.

The Family Reading Night during our International Book Expo was a hit!

Our principal was even taped live by a news station as she read an excerpt from the book. The kids were so excited to participate in a book club with the Principal that 30 books were sold on the spot. By the time everyone was contacted in the school, over 100 books were sold. Everyone wanted to read with the Principal.  And who wouldn’t? It doesn’t get more special than having a meeting with the Principal and not because you were misbehaving.

I kept calling Michelle Houts, the author of The Beef Princess.  “I have to change the total. I have more books sold.” I said to her.  “I’m up to 90.”

“Holy crap Hilde, I should have made you my marketing agent long ago,” she replied.

We chuckled, but her local bookstore stocked the books, she signed them all, and then sent them to us via the good old post office.

Every member of our Book Club signed a code of conduct and promised not to ruin it for anyone else. Many read it ahead of schedule and it was hard to keep the end of the story a secret, but they did it!

When the loud speaker blared out, “Time for Book Club” during lunch recess, kids ran to the library. It was inspiring to see Kindergartners and 1st graders running with their books, even though they had an adult reading the book to them.  It was even neater to see how much they knew about the story and how they could pick out their favorite part.  The discussions were age appropriate and we used Michelle’s classroom guide to help give it some structure.

Our hallways were lined with illustrations from many of our club members. They all received pencils that said ABC- Atikian Book Club (named for our principal).  They were given bookmarkers and the author even sent a special treat, COW TALES CANDY, which made everyone chuckle, and postcards, which the kids filled out and sent to her. The kids were so excited about meeting Michelle via Skype, that one night, I got this wild and crazy idea.

Forget Skype. How about we meet her in person?

Why not? I mean, our PTA needed another assembly to round out our year so there were some funds available… my mind was racing so fast, I couldn’t sleep.  No one else had any ideas they could pull off in a short amount of time, maybe I can make this happen. 

I emailed Michelle.

“Forget Skyping… how about popping over here for an in person meeting?"

“Yeah?”  Remember, she lives in Ohio and we were located in LA.

“Yeah, I just have to convince the PTA,” I said.

My Principal loved the idea and I, of course, forgot to follow some PTA protocol, but in the end, it was approved and three weeks later, she arrived in LA. We set up school-wide assemblies about writing, but held a very special “members only” meeting with only the book club.

And if you thought you couldn’t get kids interested in school on the last week, especially about writing, well then you haven’t met Michelle, her cow tales, nor the magic of a Creative Writing Packet.

Michelle and I spent an evening packing Writing Survival kits. Each child a got a packet that included a “How To Write” Guide, a suggested reading list for the summer, a blank book from Oriental Trading, for that story that was burning to come out of their heads, a magic pencil, rough draft paper- every good writer knows you have to revise - a postcard so kids could correspond with Michelle, and suggested writing tips, all in a handy dandy zip lock bag with the student's name on it.

It was absolutely transforming. Every child felt special and many began writing their stories that week.  It wasn’t that the items were so special, but the presentation gave them power and power is an amazing thing for a child.

Even though everyone went ape over Michelle and her presentation, those 100 kids from the Book Club were the most memorable.  They loved speaking to Michelle and asked her extremely deep questions about the characters and their actions. Michelle had said that it was a unique experience being with a group that knew the book inside and out. Right down to the Kindergartners. And when Michelle let them in on a secret for another story about Practical County, you could hear the gasps back in Ohio. That was my favorite moment! All these kids had collectively gone on this ride with our Principal and didn’t want to end. They wanted more.

Well that was in the Spring. Now, it’s Fall and a new school year has begun. All the students now, whether they were in the club or not last year, are asking if they can be in it this year and we haven’t even chosen the title yet.

It will be revealed during our 2nd annual Family Reading Night the week of our International Book Expo. I don’t know if we will be as lucky as to have the author again in person, but this year’s worry is, what if we have too many kids?

Well, there are never too many kids! Not when you have them excited about reading. I think that was the key element. The interaction with our Principal and other adults, the meeting of the author, reading a fresh new book in a group, really made the experience extraordinary, and kids that might not have even thought about doing this, did it because their pals did it and then they loved it.

And don’t think the word princess detoured the boys. We had over 25 boys of all ages embrace a pink spine and the word “Princess” in the title. They were truly trailblazers.

Our school newspaper interviewed Michelle on the phone. When they were able to meet her in person, they did a follow up. As a result, several articles were written about the event, which ended with punch and cookies in our auditorium and a very special book signing.

My friend’s accommodations were very posh. She stayed at chez Hilde’s in her own private garage studio with pasta and hamburger meals. She was carted around to baseball games and cheer practice.  It’s a good thing Michelle is a mom and totally understood just how crazy a regular week with kids can be.

We are looking forward to when her next book launches. Reading is powerful, but the interaction between a child and an adult about a book can be transforming. Our school learned how engaging it could be to meet a storyteller. Every child at our school realized that they are storytellers too, because after all, only they can tell their own story, no one else.

I leave you with this thought: have you read with a child lately? If not, consider the bond that can come from it and read on. Everyday. Everywhere.

ABC is open for business!

Monday, September 9, 2013

You're Only As Good As Your Opening Line

by Susan J Berger

Richard Peck gave a workshop at the 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference titled You're Only As Good As Your Opening Line.

Of course I had to attend. I felt so connected when I realized I had blogged many of the opening lines he mentioned.

Richard says he spends one day a week perusing the book stores looking for great openings. I've done that! But not once a week.

He gave us a ten point first impressions checklist: I emailed his agent, Linda Pratt, and asked if I could use it.

He said yes, so here goes:

1. Is the first sentence a line and a half long at the most?

2. Do we hear a young voice?

3. Is there a question?

4. Does it start with people, not place?

5. Is there color?

6. If it's not in first person, Why not?  (I write in third. sigh.)

7. How are adult characters kept off the page and off the stage?

8. Where are the unnecessary twenty words? (Richard believes one always has twenty unnecessary words. I think he was referring to the page and not the whole book.)

9. Is there plenty of white space?

Is there a good reason to turn the page?

I plan to use this checklist every time I write a first line...except for the First Person one. I still like Third.

 Richard Peck writes wonderful first lines. Here are three of my favorites.

If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it.
The Teacher’s Funeral.

Unless you never got out of grade school, you have noticed how life keeps making you start over.

You wouldn't think we'd have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.

My next post will be the lines Richard used as examples in his handout.

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


 By Kris Kahrs

Here is a roundup of the last links of summer. This week we have authors' homes to visit for a last summer vacation, a Labor Day Reading List, a new cover on an old favorite and outstanding vintage illustration.  Put down the hot dog and back away from the grill.  Here we go:

A Pinterest board, Literary Travel, has all of your favorite author's homes that have been converted to visitable landmarks.  Planning a world tour?  Start here.
The Management here at The Pen and Ink Blog loves nothing better than to swing in a hammock, sip their lemonade and read a good book.  On this Labor Day, reading shouldn't feel like work, so The Pen and Ink Blog offers a Labor Day Reading List via Flavorwire.

Sometimes in a publisher's desire to spark interest in an old favorite, things go awry. Case in point, this cover art for Anne of Green Gables.  Anne is that you? From Kidlit History blog.

Truly fine illustration in a children's book can significantly enhance the whole experience for a reader and create a lasting impression for a lifetime.  At BrainPickings, they've found some classic Maurice Sendak illustrations circa 1960 for the Velveteen Rabbit.  These are priceless.  Take a peek.

We hope you enjoyed this little vacation for your brain.  Now back to work!