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November 13, 2013

The Reading Promise

I recently devoured Alice Ozma’s wonderful book, The Reading Promise, and can’t wait to tell you about it. Isn’t this cover scrumptious? I could give it a hug! A father reading to a daughter, the little girl standing on a pile of classic books. This book is everything I believe in about kids, books, writing, parenting … I love it!

When the author, Alice Ozma, was nine years old, she and her father made a reading promise. He promised to read to her every night for 100 nights in a row, without skipping a single night. That doesn’t seem all that hard, does it? But when you think about reading for a little over three months, like an entire summer, without skipping ANY nights, this is not easy. But they did it. Alice’s father never missed a night.

So, to celebrate, they went out to eat pancakes, and over that breakfast, Alice just came up with the number 1,000. She asked her dad if he would commit to reading to her for 1,000 nights in a row. After a few bites of his pancake, he did.

And he kept that promise, not only for 1,000 nights, but for NINE straight years. They called it “The Streak,” and Alice and her dad kept up their reading streak from the year Alice was nine until the day she left for college at age eighteen. I’m almost in tears typing this sentence as I remember the details about where and when they last read together, ending the streak. You will not want to miss finding out how this amazing story wraps up.

Reading a book like this energizes me and gives me hope in the future. I really can’t say enough great things about The Reading Promise. Just knowing that there are people out there like Alice and her father, Jim, makes me feel a part of something big. Every adult who is reading a book to a child today is doing something important and long-lasting, creating a new generation of readers.

You can learn more about Alice Ozma and her dad here, and you can also commit to making your own reading promise!

This book has renewed my zeal in reading out loud to my children at bedtime. I hope it will renew yours as well.

By: Heather Ivester in: Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Education,Family,Parenting | Permalink | Comments Off on The Reading Promise



September 7, 2013



Have you ever wondered how an author turns a story idea into a published book? This video series by New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver is really fun to watch. Over the summer, my daughters and I viewed the seven episodes together and enjoyed hearing Lauren explain how a favorite Maurice Sendak book from her childhood took hold of her imagination and helped inspire her to become a writer.

In the last episode of the series, we listened to Lauren read the first few chapters of her new middle-grade novel, The Spindlers. We loved the characters so much we decided to check the book out from our library and finish reading it together. It’s an exciting book — a bit creepy if you’re scared of spiders — but it shared the positive message of how brothers and sisters can deeply care for each other.

If you’re a teacher, parent, or simply curious about the process of book publication, I highly recommend this wonderful series, How a Book Is Made.

Happy Reading!

By: Heather Ivester in: American Authors,Children's Books,Education,Family,Writing | Permalink | Comments Off on How a Story Idea Becomes a Book



May 28, 2013

Summer is here, and I love encouraging kids to keep a journal, where they’re free to write whatever’s on their mind. Here’s a story of two girls who did just that. Cousins Isabelle and Isabella, ages 10 and 8, decided to write down a secret notebook of “rules” to help keep their younger siblings in line. Their rules included important things like, “Color on paper, not on people” and “Don’t bite the dentist.”

While visiting Walmart earlier in the year, the journal was accidentally dropped in the parking lot and later picked up by a 20-year-old Walmart employee. Although there was no name inside it, the employee knew he had discovered something important, and he went on a mission to find the owners.

Using social media, his plea found its way to the mother of one of the cousins, who recognized her daughter’s journal and claimed it. Then the story of the Walmart-employee-turned-literary-hero got even bigger, was picked up by news media, and ended up being noticed by an editor from Simon & Schuster publishing house on her morning commute in New York.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. En route to an editorial meeting, she brought the story to the attention of her publisher, who worked quickly to contact the authors and offer them a book contract. The hardcover book, Isabelle and Isabella’s Little Book of Rules, will be due out in October.

Here’s a dreams-come-true publishing story worth sharing with your kids. Who knows? Your child’s summer diary may someday end up in the hands of a New York publisher.

Stranger things have happened!

By: Heather Ivester in: Children's Books,Writing | Permalink | Comments Off on Isabelle and Isabella’s Little Book of Rules



January 18, 2013


Percy Jackson books

If you feel as much joy as I do when great kids’ books are made into movies, you’ll get a kick out of this article in Publishers Weekly, The 10 Most Anticipated Book Adaptations in 2013.

There is absolutely nothing I want to see at the movie theater this month, and that’s fine with me. I’m too busy happily plowing my way through the Percy Jackson series — at last! My 9-year-old son has been begging me for months to please hurry up and read The Lightning Thief so we can discuss how amazing the book is and how different it was from the movie.

So I did! I’ve at last cracked the covers of Rick Riordan’s first bestselling series and have become intimately acquainted with the lives of Percy Jackson, Annabeth Chase, Grover Underwood … and now, my mind is reeling with dozens of gods and goddesses, the likes of which I haven’t studied since my long ago days in 8th grade mythology. Camp Half-Blood is a real place to me, somewhere I’d like to visit with my kids.

I flew through The Lightning Thief, which Disney/Hyperion published in 2005 (the same year Scholastic brought out J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Detect any rivalry there?). Next, onward ho to The Sea of Monsters, and I’m wondering if anyone who doesn’t know about the Percy Jackson books might think my choice of reading … a bit odd. Loved that one, and now I’m into The Titan’s Curse. Ah, Riordan’s plotting has become somewhat predictable, but the writing and humor are so good, I can’t stop. (Though actually I have very little time to read each day and I must stop or my kids will all starve and run around in dirty clothes.)

So, you can see why I’m one of the millions of Riordan fans eagerly anticipating the upcoming August 16, 2013 release of “The Sea of Monsters” movie. Now, I confess I did see the 2010 film version of The Lightning Thief before I read the book, but that’s back when I used to say, “I’m not really into fantasy.” I don’t say that anymore now that I love reading what my kids are reading, and discussing books is one of my favorite “connecting points” of motherhood.

Anyway, the 2010 film was OK, but strayed so far from the book, it was like a completely different story. Oh, I hope the director does a better job with the sequel. I can’t wait to take my kids, the ones who’ve READ the book, and we’ll probably get a big group up to go.

Here are the other three movies in the PW List I’m excited about:

*Ender’s Game comes out November 1. I haven’t read this series yet, but my oldest son loves these books, and now I have a reason to read them so I can enjoy the movie too!

*Catching Fire, book 2 of Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series, releases November 22. Two movies in one month for me! I read these books only because my 12-year-old daughter and her friends were all talking about them, and I promised I’d read them before we went to the movie. Wow. I hated and loved these books — the first one is so violent and awful, but when you finish Catching Fire and Mockingjay, you see how the author had to create a world of evil to contrast it with one of peace, and I actually wept and felt bereft for a few days when I finished Mockingjay … so yeah, I can’t wait to take my OLDER kids to the movie. (This series is so inappropriate for the under 12 crowd!)

*Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug. We have to wait until December 13 to see this one. waah! But at least this gives more people time to actually read the entire book. I admit it has been several decades since I’ve read The Lord of the Rings series, but I did reread The Hobbit before the movie, and I plan to make up for lost time — as soon as I finish Percy Jackson, which will take me a while because Riordan hasn’t stopped writing those things! My kids have all finished through The Mark of Athena, book 3 of the Heroes of Olympus series, so I have many words to read before I sleep.

By: Heather Ivester in: Children's Books,Family,Movies | Permalink | Comments Off on Children’s Books I Can’t Wait to See as Movies in 2013



December 9, 2011

I was thrilled to see that a new 50th anniversary edition of A Wrinkle in Time is coming out next month — too bad it’s not in time for Christmas because this would be at the top of my Christmas wish list!

Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s writings will want to own a copy of this new edition, which contains a forward by Katherine Paterson, an afterword by Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, as well as photographs and memorabilia, the author’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech, and other bonus materials.

Although I wasn’t crazy about Disney’s movie version which came out in 2004, I’m so glad we own the DVD because it contains a beautiful interview with Madeleine L’Engle, in which she describes how she wrote the draft of the book in about two weeks, in between changing diapers and reading aloud to her children. It was rejected over 25 times before it was finally accepted by an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, earning her the Newbery Medal in 1963.

I LOVE this book — I remember reading it the first time in third grade, when our family had moved to a new city, and I didn’t know a soul. A kind librarian in my new school showed me the fiction reading room and told me, “I think you’ll enjoy this book,” handing me A Wrinkle in Time. Oh, how I fell in love — and even more so now, as a parent, I love the book because of the Christian message that love conquers all things, even fear.

You can read more about this upcoming new edition here, in Publisher’s Weekly.




August 31, 2011




It’s no easy task, getting most kids to write a paragraph, much less a full creative story. That’s why I felt like I’d uncovered a treasure, when I happened upon Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly. It was parked on the same shelf near a biography of J.K. Rowling that I was checking out for my kids.

We’ve long been fans of Gail Carson Levine’s Newbery Honor work, Ella Enchanted, one of the rare children’s books that survived being transformed into a movie. In fact, it was the movie, starring Anne Hathaway, that got me reading the novel, along with my daughters. Amazing! Levine’s writing is magical, and she doesn’t keep her methods secret. She willingly shares writing tips in classes she teaches to children and adults, as well as on her blog.

If you have a budding young writer in your family (or if YOU are longing to create fiction), Writing Magic is sure to inspire. It’s filled with writing advice, story starters, and most of all, encouragement. Levine believes writing should be fun, and if it’s not, then something is wrong!

In the first chapter, Levine lists her seven rules for writing:

1. The best way to write better is to write more.
2. The best way to write better is to write more.
3. The best way to write better is to write more.
4. The best way to write more is to write whenever you have five minutes and wherever your find a chair and a pen and paper or your computer.
5. Read! Most likely you don’t need this rule. If you enjoy writing, you probably enjoy reading. The payoff for this pleasure is that reading books shows you how to write them.
6. Reread! There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.
7. Save everything you write, even if you don’t like it, even it you hate it. Save it for a minimum of fifteen years. I’m serious …

Levine goes on to explain that last rule. She said she used to think she’d always remember what it felt like to be a kid, but she discovered (as we all do) that you forget the details. The only way to absolutely remember how you feel being a child is to write as a child, and then save those writings.

She further explains:

When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you.

If you save what you write, you still won’t be able to cross back to childhood. But you’ll be able to see yourself in that lost country. You’ll be able to wave to yourself across that wide river.

As a mother, I’m always trying to get my children to write in journals. It’s worked for some of my kids, who love to record their memories, but not for others, who would rather be doing ANYthing but writing. Seeing Levine explain it all so clearly reminded me that someday, if their journals survive the years, they’ll appreciate being able to “wave” to themselves across the bridge from adulthood back to their childhoods.

I haven’t always been good at keeping a journal, though it’s a practice I’ve become passionate about the last fifteen years or so. For me, it’s a connection to my spiritual life, to God, because when I put ink to paper I can block out the distractions of the world (most of the time) and enter into my Quiet Place, where I find the strength and joy I need to face my day. I think kids also benefit greatly from being able to sort out their ups and downs in written form. Diaries are also fascinating raw material for creating fiction.

In Writing Magic, Levine explains why she writes fiction, which I enjoyed reading about. She writes for several reasons: to enjoy the power of creation, to tell a good story, and to make discoveries — about herself and others. As parents, if we can pass along this desire to create through words, we’ll be enabling our children to make their own discoveries. What a noble calling!

Throughout this book, Levine uses examples from her own novels as well as other famous children’s works, to clarify her points. I loved being able to enter into her thought process, as to how she came up with her ideas for books such as Ella Enchanted, Fairest, The Wish, and others. She also offers advice on how to come up with interesting characters and plots that will hook readers, as well as how to inject humor into your writing. Finally, she shares her own publishing journey, and encourages her readers to persevere in getting their work out there.

Levine closes every chapter with two simple commands: “Have fun!” and “Save what you wrote.” She also ends her posts the same way in her blog for young writers. It can’t get much simpler than that.

I hope you get a chance to pick up a copy of Writing Magic. Here’s what the author says on her website about her own book:

When I wrote Writing Magic I’d been teaching creative writing to wonderful middle school kids for six years.

I love to talk, teach, and write about writing. I made up prompts, and we tried them together. If a prompt worked for me, it worked for them, and vice versa. I invented a few prompts just for the book, but almost all are workshop tested, just as you’d expect recipes in a kitchen to have been cooked at least once. I love dreaming up prompts, and they’re probably my favorite parts of the book. Writing Magic is my only banned book, as far as I know. It was banned from middle schools in a district in Illinois because I advise readers to make their characters suffer. In my opinion, a how-to about writing that advised against making characters suffer—that would be the book to ban!

Ha! See? You’ll love this book.

You can read more about Gail Carson Levine on her website or blog.




July 27, 2011

Update: A reader alerted me that Lori Z. Scott’s Meghan Rose website is no longer active, so I’ve removed the link.

Hello friends! I hope you’re surviving the heat this summer. Time is flying for us, and my kids are heading back to school next week. Today, I’m excited to share with you an interview with children’s author, Lori Z. Scott, who writes humorous middle grade fiction, especially for the inspirational book market.

Welcome to Mom 2 Mom Connection, Lori! Can you tell us a little about how you balance your roles as mom and writer?

Being a mother is my highest calling in life. And that means I’m a caregiver, nurse, tutor, cheerleader, counselor, transportation expert, and nutritionist. Doing all those mommy things is a bit like stuffing a sock with pineapples. It’s a stretch, but I pursue my own interests in the empty spaces around the pineapple. I think moms should realize that it’s okay to put the mommy part of our lives first and to trust that God will still bless, fulfill, and lead us in other areas as well. He’s full of surprises that way.

I also teach second grade. Since graduating from Wheaton College, I’ve taught school for longer than I care to remember. I’ve worked mainly with kids in kindergarten, first, and second grade. Teaching has been such a huge part of my life. I guess I’m just not ready to give up playing games and reading comic books yet.

Finally, I’m an author. My students get a big kick out of this, and love having my books in the classroom. We talk about writing a lot, and experiment with patterns and words. By the end of the year, they all view themselves as writers.

That sounds wonderful! I’m sure you really inspire your students with your own publishing success! How did you get started writing for children?

I started writing almost by accident. When my kids were little, we often went to the library to hang out. One day when we were there, I saw a flyer for an amateur science fiction/ fantasy writing contest. I decided to enter. Keep in mind, I hadn’t done any writing for probably fifteen years (except letters to my grandma). In high school, I wrote for our yearbook and school newspaper, and really enjoyed it. But I played volleyball in college, and between practice and studies, barely had time to sleep let alone write. I forgot how much I loved playing with words. I forgot how writers both lose and find themselves in those words.

Oh, I love the way you put that! We “lose and find ourselves in words.” So what happened next?

I entered the contest anyway, and won second place. Encouraged by my success, I tried the MOPS International story writing contest…and WON! After that, I joined a writer’s group, learned more about the writing industry, and started publishing short stories, poems, devotions, and personal essays. I didn’t realize it (God did, of course), but writing those short pieces helped me build both the confidence and skill I needed to later write children’s chapter books.

Do you remember the moment you felt inspired to begin writing the Meghan Rose series?

When my daughter was in first grade, her teacher started reading the Junie B. Jones books in class. Since Meghan liked them, I picked up a few copies. I enjoyed the humor in those books, but when Meghan started acting and talking like Junie B., I started editing out those grammar slips, name calling and bad attitudes…and looking elsewhere. I thought there had to be an alternative choice—a book that was just as funny, but also had a good take-away value.

At that time, most Christian bookstores didn’t carry fiction for that age group, only devotional books and Bible stories. I ended up empty-handed and frustrated. Eventually, at my daughter’s urging, I wrote the book I couldn’t find — a book just for her. I put in everything she wanted — an interesting story filled with giggles and characters worth rooting for — and everything I wanted — good moral values (but with nothing preachy about the story at all). (I hate preachy, I love amusing.) BLAM! Inspiration!

Now fast forward a bit. At a writing conference, my hunt for good fiction came back to mind. Almost on a whim, I wrote up a proposal for a whole series based on the book I wrote for my daughter. After all, I knew there had to be an untapped market because I WAS part of that untapped market. I also felt somewhat qualified to fill the gap because of my extensive experience working with children. I pitched the idea to editors, and eventually landed a contract for the series.

Sounds like you wrote something from the heart, then did your research and found the perfect market niche, Lori!

One thing I find interesting is that when the Meghan Rose series was first released, there were very few Christian fiction titles available for the K-2 age group. Now you can find a handful of other options out there, and I’m guessing (and hoping) more on the way.




Yes, I hope so too. I’m also part of your target market, a mom looking for books that are fun to read, yet will also encourage good character in my kids. How would you describe this spunky little girl, Meghan Rose?

When I started the series, I wanted a character that was likable but flawed, outrageous but clever, passionate but sensitive all rolled into one. I wanted someone who didn’t know all the answers, but was willing to look for them. In a nutshell, I wanted someone just like my own daughter. Since I never intended on publishing the books and originally wrote them just for her, I actually used her as the foundational basis for a fictional character. I even used her name!

I’m sure she was excited to see her name on the book covers! What age group are you gearing the books toward?

They’re geared for kids in grades K-2, the age I’ve worked with the most. But I have had older kids who enjoy reading them too. Although it’s a series, each book can be read as a stand-alone adventure. Each book has an overall theme, such as friendship, patience, joy, honesty, or humility. These concepts are NOT preached, but subtly woven into the storyline. There are discussion questions and activities at the end of the book for those parents (or children) who want to continue to explore the theme. Some homeschool parents have especially appreciated this feature.

Also, the books are not just for girls! A mother of two boys once emailed me about how much her sons enjoyed reading them with her. She said they could hardly read for laughing so hard — they were all HOWLING!! The youngest one loved it so much he started sleeping with the first book under his pillow at night.

In fact, the comment I hear most from people who read the books is, “I laughed out loud.” The second comment I hear most often is about how much kids (and parents) like the discussion questions and activities. How can all that just be for girls?

That’s true! I read them out loud to my son and daughter, and we were all laughing at the crazy scrapes Meghan Rose finds herself in. How do you think your series distinguishes itself from other books available for this target age group, such as the Junie B. Jones series?

My books are geared specifically for a Christian audience. Also, since I spend so much time with this age group, I am very much aware of the challenges they face, the way they think and talk, and the questions they struggle to answer. I think that lends a certain amount of authenticity to the stories. Plus I don’t use words like “stupid”. Overall, the books are heavy on the humor and very, VERY light on the lesson…yet neither quality is lost on the child.

I love how Meghan and her mom discuss prayer and seeking God for answers to problems. Can you share with us an example of how parents can use your books to teach prayer to their own children?

Let me relate my own experience with the stories. As I mentioned, I wrote them for my daughter. Since she is the type to imitate people she likes, she began copying some of the fictional Meghan’s actions. That included prayer. I remember when she was in maybe third grade, she came home from school one day and said, “There’s a mean girl on the playground that I don’t like. I was going to say something mean to her, but then I thought what would Meghan Rose do? So I prayed about it instead. And then I talked to her and made friends with her.”

Wow! She had turned to prayer on her own and then solved her own problem. I never expected the books to have that kind of impact on her thinking, but they did. So as far as parents using the book, I suspect just reading and discussing how Meghan works out her problems might do the trick.

In the back of the books, you offer discussion questions and activity ideas that are fun and helpful for parents and teachers. How do you come up with these ideas?

That’s the teacher part of me flaring up big time! LOL. The ideas come from years practice in the classroom. Kids love extending the story experience by creating their own volcanoes or whatever. I also put a ton of other ideas for parents and kids on my website under the BLAM (Brilliant Little Activities to Make) link.

But seriously, I added that section so parents can capitalize on the book’s underlying message. I mean, how many times have you as a mother read a book and thought, “There’s a good lesson in here” but didn’t know how to draw your child into a discussion about it? I remember reading Where the Red Fern Grows with my daughter and wanting to talk about death and sacrifice. Since I didn’t know where to start, I couldn’t fully take advantage of that teachable moment. (Instead we both just wept all the way through the last few chapters.)

Can you tell us more about your journey to publication? Did you write the books with a certain publisher in mind, or did you seek an agent first?

Like I mentioned earlier, I started with contests, moved on to publishing for magazines, e-zines, and book anthologies, and then finally into writing books.

I guess I’m not a typical writer. I don’t write every day, nor do I have thousands of notebooks filled with stories. When I write, I find a need and fill the need. That means when I write a piece, I have a specific publication, along with their wish-list, style and guidelines, in mind. And please don’t laugh. I don’t have an agent. My bread-and-butter writing goes mostly to magazines, and I don’t need an agent for that. The book series was a complete surprise, and I still haven’t gotten around to finding an agent. However, I feel like Standard (my publisher) has been very supportive, generous, and fair.

How many books are in the series now, and do you know how many more you plan to write?

Right now, there are eight books in the series. Apparently, they have been well received. They have reached the bestselling status!

That’s awesome — congratulations!

Thank you. As far as more books go, that’s up to God and the editors at Standard. Standard is considering more Meghan Rose titles and possibly a spin-off series starring Ryan, the main boy character. I have two Meghan Rose and two Ryan Baker stories drafted. I’ve outlined a third Meghan Rose story, which I hope to draft before school starts. I have titles and themes for a dozen more books, but those will have to wait for next summer since I’ll have little time to write during the school year.


Lori, your writing inspires all of us who are busy moms with a desire to write. Can you give us any advice on how to carve out a writing life in the midst of raising our families?

I think the first thing to keep in mind is that everyone’s writing journey will look different. What works for one writer might not work for you. With that said, here are some suggestions:

1. If you’re very determined to write, be prepared to lose sleep over it. Get up early before the kids are up or stay up late when they’re in bed.

2. Carry a notebook with you. If you have to sit through a practice or wait for school to let out so you can pick up your children, that notebook gives you the opportunity to write wherever you are. Those slots may be 10 minutes or 45… but that time is wasted if you’re just sitting. If an idea comes to you, write it down as soon as possible. I’ve used lots of napkins and envelopes in my day! Plants grow inch by inch. So do stories. Keep a notebook next to your bed too. Sometimes when you’re drifting off to sleep, your mind will work out a glitch in your story.

3. Don’t be afraid to start small. Writing devotions, for example, can teach you to make every word count since they generally run anywhere from 150-250 words in length.

4. Join a writer’s group if you can. They offer support and encouragement. Sometimes they will alert you to writing opportunities. If you can’t (sometimes it’s hard to find a decent babysitter!), then look for an online writer’s group.

5. Write with your children. I remember times when I sat down with my young kiddos and we all had notebooks. We wrote our own stories and drew pictures. An hour later, we’d share our work. The kids loved it. (Side note: my children are older now, and still love writing.)

6. Exercise. Believe it or not, I’ve written whole articles in my mind while running.

Wow! These are some great tips! You’ve really gotten me motivated to get writing with my kids. I have one more question — do you have a favorite quick meal you put together when you’re in a deadline crunch, yet you know the people in your house need to eat? Would you mind sharing with us your recipe?

My secret recipe is called “Run to WalMart and buy a roasted Rotisserie chicken.” I usually throw in baked potatoes, bread, and a vegetable. It’s ready in 10 minutes.

Ha! So I’m not the only one who is rescued by those ready-made meals!

Fun aside, if I’ve got deadlines approaching, I cook ahead. That way when it’s time to eat, I can just throw it in the oven. My favorite is homemade pizza. I use a bread machine to make the dough. I roll the dough out, prick it, and bake it at 375 for 15 minutes. While it bakes, I brown some Jimmy Dean’s hot pork sausage. When the crust is ready, I add Ragu pizza sauce, the sausage, and cheese. Then I bake it for 15 more minutes.

Homemade pizza sounds delicious!

Another quick and hearty meal isn’t a recipe, but a package. Bear Creek has a variety of wonderful powder-form soups available. I throw in whatever meat I want (ham for the potato soup, chicken for the tortilla soup, hamburger for others) and add a loaf of bakery-bought bread. It’s fast, inexpensive, and very yummy.

These are GREAT ideas, and very practical for any busy mom! Thank you so much, Lori, for all of your inspiring advice. It’s been a joy getting to know you better. We wish you all the best as you continue to share your faith through writing, teaching, and parenting.

You can learn more about Lori Z. Scott and her popular Meghan Rose series at her website, which also includes games, jokes and activities for parents and teachers.




June 22, 2011



I hope you’re having a relaxing summer. I’m enjoying a break from the school routine, but I have little time to relax. This month, I’ve been completely consumed by a household full of kids and teens, and we’ve also added four baby goat “kids” to our menagerie. The word “kid” now has two meanings for me. These babies must be bottle-fed several times a day, yet they act like impish toddlers who are into EVERYTHING and don’t want to stay in their playpen. Baby goats are lovable and cute — just like the penguins in this film.

Getting to the movie theater to see Mr. Popper’s Penguins was pure escape for me. Of course, you know I had to see it — a movie based on a classic work of children’s literature! And a Newbery Honor winner at that! Though the plot of the movie deviates from Richard & Florence Atwater’s 1938 work, the screenplay is well written, and it’s thoroughly entertaining for all ages.

Jim Carey plays Tom Popper, a divorced New York realtor who excels in his job making high-end real estate deals, but is a lousy parent. You don’t want to miss the first five minutes of this movie because it shows scenes from Tom Popper’s childhood where he was also consistently disappointed by his absentee father — who traveled the world, sending back snow globes and other souvenirs, but missed important events like Tom’s birthday. History repeats itself.

When the grown-up Tom Popper receives word that his father has passed away, he learns his father has left him one final souvenir: it arrives in a wooden crate at the door of his luxury apartment. Tom thinks it’s a stuffed penguin, until the creature begins to move. He immediately contacts the zoo to come pick it up, and he puts the penguin into a bathtub full of ice cubes, thinking he’ll be sending it out the door soon.

Later, another crate arrives with five more penguins, and then his own family shows up to celebrate his son’s birthday. They’re in for a surprise when they see the apartment full of penguins. His son and daughter immediately fall in love with Dad’s new pets, and even his ex-wife is impressed at Tom Popper’s new role as faithful pet owner.

All kinds of adventures follow, as the zoo keeper is now determined to capture the birds, but Tom decides to keep them because his kids actually enjoy hanging out with their dad now. He even begins to break through the “OMG frowny face” texting world of his 13-year-old daughter, which is a miracle in itself, as any parent of a teen daughter can attest!

To keep the penguins alive, Tom Popper turns his apartment into a winter wonderland. Yet he’s determined to stay on top of his career, which involves convincing the owner of Central Park’s Tavern on the Green (played by “Murder She Wrote” actress Jessica Lansbury) to sell to his corporation. But she won’t sell until she finds the right kind of buyer, one with a big heart.

The penguins lay eggs, and Tom’s heart grows as he and his kids watch the eggs hatch. Slowly, he and his wife seem to be reconciling their relationship, and the kids are thrilled. The theme of this movie is all about keeping family together, and for this reason alone, it’s a great movie. This is the kind of film teachers will want to add to their Friday afternoon “pizza party” collection — it can be shown in the classroom without needing to have the fast forward remote close by. There are so many hilarious scenes and nothing to make a teacher squeamish about showing her students.

Besides the wonderful theme, Mr. Popper’s Penguins has an artistic quality that’s unusual for kid-friendly movies. The colors are relaxing, lots of blacks and whites with bold dashes of color sprinkled in like a painting. In one scene, Mr. Popper and his ex-wife are both wearing black, and her new boyfriend looks out of place in brown — you just want him to get out of the picture! The film is icy cold and uncluttered, a perfect escape from the heat of summer.

Jim Carey is so funny, our whole theater was laughing. Also, you don’t want to miss the closing credits, which show cartoon penguins dancing to a new rendition of “Ice Ice Baby.” All of us Gen-X parents who came of age in the 80s will remember this beat.

The best part about the film is that I believe it will fuel interest in the classic book, Mr. Popper’s Penguins. When we got home from the theater, my 11-year-old daughter immediately pulled the book off a shelf in her room, settled herself in our big rocking chair, and began reading it out loud to her younger siblings. THAT is what made it worth the effort and expense of going to see the movie.

I hope you’ll take your kids to see it — and let’s send the message to Hollywood that we LOVE movies made from the best of children’s literature!





May 10, 2011



Last weekend, I was looking for something fun and short to read, and a quick glance around my home led me to Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s How I Came to Be a Writer. It’s been years since I picked it up, and while reading it this time, I felt like I was cast under the author’s spell, though outwardly I kept one eye on guinea pigs, children, and a tennis-ball chasing dog frolicking around our sunny backyard.

In fact, the whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking, I’ve got to blog about this! There must be one of you at least who needs a jolt of writing inspiration, and this is the book to do it. Have you heard of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor? Her most famous work is Shiloh, which won the 1992 Newbery Award, but her long writing career has spanned seven decades as she’s penned over 130 books for readers of all ages. She’s definitely a good mentor for anyone longing to pursue the publication of fiction.

Ms. Naylor’s first writing break came when she was only 16 years old, and a former Sunday school teacher wrote to ask if she’d be interested in submitting a story to the church school paper she now edited. Right away, Phyllis came up with a sentimental baseball story called “Mike’s Hero.” Her teacher-turned-editor loved it and bought it for $4.67. (Since Phyllis was born in 1933, I’m assuming this happened around 1949.) She kept contributing more stories to church papers and magazines, then started her own humor column, told from the point of view of a 15-year-old boy named P.R. Tedesco. She wrote this for 25 years, and it helped her find her voice as a humor writer, as she describes:

Because I could write about anything at all in the column — friends, fears, parents, school, God — ideas were not hard to think up. By the time I discontinued the series, I had learned to write about serious subjects — segregation, prejudice, capital punishment, and the Vietnam War — in a sardonic way that would still interest teenage readers. The most difficult problem, strangely, was answering an occasional fan letter like this one:

Dear Mr. Tedesco,
You really tell it like it is, Man! What does your girlfriend think of your writing?

Naylor made the shift to publishing books in 1965, by submitting a selection of her short stories, which came out under the title, The Galloping Goat and Other Stories. This led to a another collection of short stories, and then at last, a contract for her first novel. I love how she describes the journey of moving from writing short pieces to writing a whole novel — since this is such a struggle for many writers. She said at first she made the mistake of “trying to throw in everything but the kitchen sink,” which caught the attention of an astute editor, who asked her to revise it. She rewrote the whole book following the editor’s suggestions for improvement, and What the Gulls Were Singing became her first published novel in 1967.

And she’s kept going. What I love about this autobiography is that Phyllis includes many of her early writings and then describes how she would improve them. She’s a writer who never stops growing, and this inspires me, because I can see that writing is a worthy passion of a lifetime. She didn’t stop and sit back on her laurels when she won the Newbery in 1992. She kept on going — in fact, Shiloh was only one book in the Shiloh trilogy.

Go Phyllis.

She is not a one-book wonder, like some of the great writers I’ve read in the past year: Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger. Here are authors who wrote one book and then lost the magic, or the muse, or whatever it took to get their work out there. Phyllis is nearly 80 years old, and she’s still writing. Her latest book came out this year.

I couldn’t find a website under her name, but I found that she’s actually blogging here at Alice McKinley.com. Alice is a character from another one of her popular book series, and is based on her own life. At this point, she’s published 27 books in the series, and she’s going to end it at book 28. From glancing through the blog, I can see she’s extremely popular in Germany. In fact, one of her fans wrote that she couldn’t stand the length of time she had to wait until the books were translated into German, so she learned to read them in English.

I’m not familiar with the Alice series, so I’m unable to endorse their content, but can’t we as writers learn something from an author who’s won the top award in children’s literature and kept on going to reach the hearts of readers? On her blog, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor says this about her writing process:

I guess they “just come to me.” I don’t have any process. I simply try to become whichever girl I’m writing about–the whole girl–what her family sees of her, what her friends see, how she feels inside, what she worries about–all the things that are going on in her life. Writing is always “striking a balance” with humor, serious stuff, body worries, boyfriend problems, philosophical questions…. I have a very good memory of myself growing up and what was happening to me–what I was thinking about–at all ages, and these probably form the basis of my books.

I would love to hear Phyllis Reynolds Naylor speak at a conference someday. I wonder if she still gets out and speaks. She is someone like Katherine Paterson, whose keynote I heard in New York several years ago, and it still stays with me. I don’t know that I’ll ever find the courage to finish the novels I’ve started and abandoned, like orphaned children, on my computer, but at least I’ve been inspired to share her journey with you!

And it all began with this little girl, Phyllis, being read to by her parents. Her father would act out voices as he read Huckleberry Finn, and her mother kept reading great books out loud well into her children’s teen years.

Which reminds me — summer is around the corner. And I know the perfect book to start reading my 8-year-old son as soon as school is out. I have it sitting here right beside me, and I’m thinking maybe I’ll even start reading it tonight.

Care to join us?





February 11, 2011



In yesterday’s Publisher’s Weekly, I read the sad news that Dr. George Edward Stanley, children’s author and professor of languages, passed away suddenly at the age of 68. Dr. Stanley was one of my first writing teachers when I signed up to take a correspondence course at the age of 20 from the Institute of Children’s Literature.

He asked me to address him simply as “George,” and I’ve kept his letters and notes from my course assignments these past 20+ years. Now, of course, I treasure them even more. Dr. Stanley was a wonderful mentor for me, and his early encouragement helped keep my writing dreams alive. Although I have yet to publish my own children’s novel, I still live as one devoted to the world of children’s literature, especially as the mother of five kids who love to read great books.

I wanted to share with you some of George Edward Stanley’s many accomplishments that I found on a memorial page devoted to him:

George graduated from Memphis High School in 1960. He took his B.A. (1965) and his M.A. (1967) from Texas Tech University. His Doctor Litterarum (1974) in African Linguistics is from the University of Port Elizabeth [now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University] in South Africa.

It was while he was a Fulbright professor in Chad, in central Africa, that Dr. Stanley began writing fiction. About the only diversion he found available in that nation’s capital city of N’Djamena was listening to the BBC on his short wave radio. That led to his writing radio plays for a program called World Service Short Story. Three of his plays were eventually produced and so began a lifetime of entertaining and educating children and young adults.

After writing and publishing over 200 short stories in American, British, Irish, and South African magazines and linguistics articles in major international journals, Dr. Stanley turned to writing books. He wrote more than 100 books for young people and one book on writing, WRITING SHORT STORIES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE.

Dr. Stanley was also working on several other books for young people, as well as textbooks for teaching Arabic, Hausa, Indonesian, Persian, Swahili, and Urdu.

Dr. Stanley was a Professor of African and Middle-Eastern Languages and Linguistics in the Department of Foreign Languages at Cameron University. At one time or another he has taught all the Germanic and Romance languages, in addition to African and Middle-Eastern languages.

I also found a listing on his home page at Cameron University of over 100 children’s books he published, including books written under his own name as well as several well-known pseudonyms.

Still, out of all these many accomplishments, the fact that he found time to work with unknown, fledgling writers through a correspondence school shows how dedicated he was to the field of children’s writing. I know that he’ll be greatly missed by all of his current and former students, as well as those who knew and loved him.

His funeral is today in Oklahoma. May he rest in peace, and may his life’s work continue to be an inspiration to those who follow in his footsteps.