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Christy Catherine Marshall

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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.




November 22, 2010



As a former English teacher and bonafide bookaholic, I’m always seeking like-minded souls who embrace classic literature. So you can imagine my joy when I stumbled onto The Red Blazer Girls, a brand new middle grade series, written by high school English teacher Michael D. Beil, whose characters are smart, wholesome, and literary.

I really wasn’t looking for anything new to read. My nightstand is already so full of books, I can hardly find my alarm clock. But as I breezed through the library with my kids the other day, The Ring of Rocamadour (book 1 of the series) jumped off the shelf at me. I couldn’t resist when I opened it up and read the first paragraph:

For as far back as I can remember, I have told everyone I know that I am going to be a writer. And it’s not just some idle dream. I have been a busy girl, and my hard drive is bulging with the results of this ambition: a heaping assortment of almost-but-not-quite-finished short stories and at least three this-time-I’m-really-off-to-a-great-start-and-I-mean-it novels. Unfortunately, every single thing I have written — until now, that is — is fatally flawed.

Ha! Did Mr. Beil sneak over to my house and read my diary? Or, since this is his debut novel, are we actually reading his diary?

This snappy writing continues throughout the book, and I couldn’t put it down. So, who are the Red Blazer Girls? Well, although the book cover only shows three, there are actually four girls in the group, in the seventh grade at New York City’s exclusive St. Veronica’s School: Sophie, Margaret, Rebecca, and Leigh Ann. In The Ring of Rocamadour, the girls find themselves caught up in a mystery when the quirky Mrs. Harriman asks for their help solving a 20-year-old puzzle. She’s seeks clues to a treasure hunt initiated by her father for the sake of his granddaughter, on her 14th birthday. Unfortunately, he died before giving her the card, and the birthday gift has never been found.

The Red Blazer Girls are in, and their adventures involve digging through old volumes of the Harvard Classics, quizzing their English teacher on his vast knowledge of Charles Dickens, and even math equations. In fact, several pages of the book take readers through a math problem that made the subject exciting and fun — even for me! I probably haven’t thought about the Pythagorean theorem since high school, but it comes in handy when the girls are trying to pinpoint a secret spot where the next clue may be hidden.

Sophie is an amazing narrator — I love her! I want more books narrated by her. Here’s what she says about herself:

Another confession: call me a geek if you must, but I just love books. I am absolutely obsessed with them. Go on, name any kids’ book or series of books, and I probably have it. I spend so much of my allowance at the local bookstore that Margaret thinks I have some kind of compulsive shopping disorder … Nothing against the library, but there’s something different about having the book within reach when, say, I absolutely need to go back and reread that part in Anne of Green Gables that makes me cry every time I read it. (And speaking of books, if you’re the person who borrowed my well-worn but much loved hardcover copy of The Secret Garden, please return it — no questions asked.)

Ooh… I love this writing. I can see why an acquiring editor at Knopf fell in love. As soon as I finished the first book, I had to start right away on the next one The Vanishing Violin. The clues here involve more verbal logic than math, but I also found this book a fascinating read!

I predict middle school English teachers and librarians will snap this series up — and hopefully publishers will keep up the trend of bringing out books that expand minds and build character in readers.

The Red Blazer Girls are good wholesome reading for girls — with no sleaze or vampires. Thank you, Mr. Beil! Keep ’em coming!






November 16, 2010

Every year, I read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of picture books, yet I rarely take the time to review them. Usually my eyes are propped open as I mumble my way through “just one more story!” to my two younger kids, who love finding another excuse to stall their bedtime.

And then a book like One More Acorn comes along, and I feel like I’m holding a little bit of magic in my hands.

The story itself is enchanting. It’s autumn in Washington DC, and a gray squirrel named Earl must scamper through town to find food for his family. He knows he’s hidden a big acorn somewhere, and he’s off to find it. His wife and children are waiting for him in their small blue house perched high on a tree limb.

As we journey with Earl, we see the beauty of our nation’s capital, lit up with the golden colors of fall. The illustrations are bright-hued and yet soft and muted at the same time. Earl happens upon a “Children’s Day Parade” in which children are encouraged to plant a tree.


And here we come to a dilemma: the children see a big acorn that would be perfect for planting — yet it’s also a potential hearty meal for our hard-working squirrel, who has hungry mouths waiting to be fed at home. What will happen to the acorn? Tee hee. I won’t tell you. Go to your library and check it out. (Or buy it if you can’t borrow it.)

Reading One More Acorn gave me a chance to talk about our nation’s capital to my children, pointing out the various monuments and scenic locations in the pictures. But what truly drew me into this book is the Author’s Note at the back of the book.

I usually read these to myself, but that night my kids begged me to read it to them, so I did. Wow. Here’s the story. You know that book, Corduroy, about the little bear who’s missing his overall button? Well, it was written by Don Freeman, who wrote and illustrated many well-known books for children.

Don Freeman died in 1978, leaving behind his sketchbooks, notebooks, and unfinished works in the care of his only son, Roy Freeman. Decades later, Roy discovered the handwritten text and rough sketches of this squirrel book, which his dad had begun in the early 1960s during a trip to Washington DC. Don Freeman apparently abandoned the project after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

So, thirty years after his father’s death, Roy Freeman found the vision to complete the second half of his dad’s book, enlisting the help of talented artist, Jody Wheeler. The resulting creation is truly a work of art.

I think this would make a wonderful read-aloud book for teachers and librarians, especially as we celebrate the colors of fall and teach children about the change of seasons. From a child’s view, acorns are fun to pick up and collect in coat pockets, but from a squirrel’s view, acorns are food.

One More Acorn is a quiet book. I’m a person who likes to read quiet books to my children. That’s a phrase I learned from author Jane Yolen at SCBWI last spring — she said it’s getting harder for writers to publish quiet books these days. There are no Disney movie tie-ins, flashy pop-outs, or over-the-top humor. Just a quiet story — of a little squirrel, and of a son, finishing up the good work begun by his father.

I’m very thankful we discovered it!




November 2, 2010

I confess. I’m excited Jeff Kinney’s latest installment to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series releases next week! November 9th to be exact. If you’re the parent of an elementary school-aged boy, you get it. Right?

These books are funny, and they’re delightfully inexpensive hardback, so they can handle the wear and tear of being passed around from kid to kid.

I didn’t realize how hugely popular these books were until we were visiting friends in Portland last fall. I rode in the back of a mini-van to the Oregon seacoast with my friend’s two young sons, along with two of my own children. We passed the time by reading Dog Days out loud and playing “Cheese Touch.” This was the first book my then six-year-old son read all by himself. They’re fun for kids to read — and they appeal to the parents on a different level. (I love the mom in this series. We think alike!)

Although I wasn’t too crazy about the movie, (I thought Roderick was way too scary and mean), the books are much better. I haven’t seen a copy of the new purple one, so I’m clueless about what’s inside. But I’m sure I’ll toss one into my cart when I’m rolling through Wal-Mart.

If you’d like to meet Jeff Kinney in person, check out his website for details of his Ugly Truth bus tour. Here are the cities where he’ll be stopping:

Monday November 8–Dallas, TX

Tuesday November 9–Austin, TX LAUNCH EVENT

Wednesday November 10–Little Rock, AR

Thursday November 11–Memphis, TN

Friday November 12–Nashville, TN

Saturday November 13–Birmingham, AL

Sunday November 14–San Diego, CA

I read that he doesn’t do school visits, so if your kids want to meet him, here’s your best chance!




August 31, 2010



I’m excited to welcome a brave and talented guest today whose writing has led her to read with the wolves! Robyn Hood Black is the author of two children’s books, Wolves (Dalmatian/Intervisual Books) and Sir Mike (Scholastic/Children’s Press). She’s had poetry published in Welcome Home and Hopscotch for Girls, and she also has poems slated to appear in Berry Blue Haiku and Ladybug. In addition, Highlights Magazine will publish Robyn’s short story in 2011. I met Robyn at an SCBWI conference, and I’m thrilled she’s come to share with us her expertise!

Hi Robyn. How did you get started writing books for children?

As soon as I was old enough to put crayons to paper, I was making up and illustrating stories. I’ve always wanted to write children’s books. I made a (not so good) one as an art project in high school, and I think my first submission to a publisher was while I was in college. That manuscript was not so good, either!

I sought out opportunities to write at every stage of life, from school newspapers to community newspapers to church newsletters and local magazines, and I’m grateful for what I learned with those bylines.

It sounds like you’ve experienced it all in the world of writing! Do you think it’s helpful to build up a variety of writing experiences before tackling books?

For me, it was. When writing for any kind of publication, you have to think about audience and deadlines and making every word count — and working with an editor. When I got the contract to write WOLVES, which was part of a series, it had a very tight deadline. A writer friend looked at what the publisher wanted and the time frame, and she shook her head, saying, “I would be so overwhelmed…!”

I laughed and said I would be drawing upon my inner newspaper reporter — I knew the person who could crank out eight or more feature stories in a week in her 20s was still inside somewhere. And she was.

Wow — writing eight stories a week is a lot to keep up with! Were you influenced by any particular authors of children’s books along your writing journey? Who were your favorite authors when you were a child?

I remember riding my bike to the library as a kid growing up in Florida, and it always seemed like a magical destination. When I was very little, I loved P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? and The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey. I loved Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books.

Oh, my kids love those same books too!

Also, I would play those Disney storybook albums (kids today might not even know what an LP looks like!) and act out the stories as I turned the pages and took in that wonderful art. I remember appreciating Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when I was the right age for it, and Emily Neville’s It’s Like This, Cat.

I collected fiction and nonfiction books about animals, too, such as Walt Morley’s Kavik the Wolf Dog, all kinds of cat books, and Joy Adamson’s lion books. I still have most of those books, and the records!

What a wonderful collection you must have! OK. Let’s talk about WOLVES! Over the summer, I read Jean Craighead George’s 1973 Newbery winner, Julie of the Wolves. How did you begin working with wolves?



Jean Craighead George has always been one of my heroes. She turned 91 this summer, I believe. Getting the contract to write a book about wolves was a dream come true. I learned so much during the research (and I’m still learning!).

While writing the book, I wanted to observe/photograph/sketch real wolves. I discovered that the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve in Dahlonega, Georgia — not far from my home — had a couple of wolves at that time. I visited them, and the next spring (2008) met two female pups born there, Juno and Luna.

They were four weeks old, and I immediately filled out the paperwork to volunteer there. I’ve worked with animals my whole life — mostly my own and also as a volunteer — and I’ve been lucky to have friends who are professional trainers.

I see the cover of your book, which is WOW KINDA SCARY, and then I see pictures of you hanging out with wolves. Have you ever felt like you were in any danger?



That is a striking picture, huh?! Illustrator Colin Howard did a terrific job. To answer your question, No, BUT — I always stress to kids that wolves are not dogs! Our dogs came from wolf ancestors, but wolves are still wild, even those in captivity. I respect that about them and am conscious about things like body language, the tone of my voice, energy level, and personal space.

We used to have horses — one was particularly difficult; hence the relationship with one particular trainer friend! — and I find working with wolves is more like working with horses than with pet dogs. Instincts are always at the forefront. Dogs have been domesticated over thousands of years; wolves have not.

As an example, one of the worst things about tearing my Achilles this past spring was that I could only interact with Juno and Luna through a fence when I finally made it back out there. My dogs at home were happy to hang out with me on the couch and not count my weakness and vulnerability against me. But around predators, even socialized ones, you have to respect their natures.

I’m confident with the wolves at the preserve because I’ve volunteered with them since they were young pups, but I keep in mind that they are wolves. By the way, a male wolf pup came to the preserve this summer, and he’s been a joy to work with.



Can you tell us a few interesting facts you learned while writing your book on wolves?

Wolves and people have much in common. Both live in social groups with dominance hierarchies, and they work (hunt) cooperatively. They are fiercely loyal to their families. In a wolf pack, usually the top male and female are the only ones who breed, and their pack is really an extended family, usually including pups from previous litters who haven’t struck out on their own yet to form new packs, and sometime an outside member or two.

All the pack members help raise the litter of pups born in the spring. Wolves are wild about pups! The older pack members tolerate their antics and help discipline them when necessary. Another interesting fact — did you know most wolf hunts don’t result in a meal for the wolves? Wolves offer lessons in persistence, something very helpful for writers seeking publication!

Hey, that is so cool! I’m going to have you and your wolves to thank if I ever persist long enough to publish a children’s book! Robyn, I know your school visits are very popular. What’s it like for you to give a workshop at a school?

I LOVE school visits. They take a lot of preparation and energy, but something magical happens during that sharing time with young readers and writers. It’s always a privilege to explore stories and the creative process with kids.

Can you give us any tips on what makes a good school visit?

Starting small is a good way to get your feet wet — volunteering to lead a writing activity in your child’s classroom, for instance. Teachers usually love exposing their students to folks who are passionate about reading and writing and who have something to offer which reinforces what they are teaching.

Your first school visit doesn’t have to be a full-fledged paying author visit with 400 kids on a gym floor. Those are fun, too, but you can work up to that! I always enjoy tailoring programs to specific things the kids are learning. If I can present concepts in a fun and different way, everybody wins!

In a memorable school visit, the author’s passions — for writing and for subject matter — shine through, and he or she is comfortable leading a group of enthusiastic children. Kids, like wolves, thrive on leadership and mutual respect!

You make school visits sound like fun! Do you have any advice for moms who would love to write books for children, but need to carve out a little time and space to create?

First, don’t give up! When I was a stay-at-home mom with small children, sometimes the best I could do was keep my little toe in the waters of writing. But parenting is the most important job on the planet, and when kids are small, it doesn’t leave room for much else (unless maybe you have lots of family members around who love to babysit). Even though my kids are teenagers now, that family-work balance can still be a challenge.

That said, it’s important to take your talents/gifts/interests seriously, or nobody else will. (They still might not even if you do!) If you can leave Dad or Grandma or a trusted friend in charge for a weekend, a conference can be a wonderful break from your daily demands and source of inspiration, for now or for later.

Just think — 24 to 48 hours of adult conversation about children’s books? Ahhhhh. I’ve been a regular conference attendee since my kids were little, and the focused attention to craft not only helps my work, but the networking and friendships continue to enrich my life.

On the home front, even if you can eke out only a few minutes a day to write a paragraph or jot down project ideas or read an article on publishing, take that time. And know that some other “stuff” will not get done. But you’ll be modeling the nurturing of your own gifts for your children, and that’s valuable.

Your husband and children, wonderful as they are, are probably not going to tell you, “Honey/Mom — the world really needs your creative vision. Here, we’ll do all the laundry and grocery shopping and remain quietly in the background while you finish your story.” So you have to believe in yourself and claim a little territory!


Ha! You’re too funny! That does sound like a dream conversation! Can you tell us your number one secret for getting published?

Still working on that …. Actually, speaking of conferences, I have to say getting involved in SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is my number one piece of advice to anyone who wants to jump into the world of writing and/or illustrating for children.

Our Southern Breeze region is very active with lots of dedicated, generous folks. Having said that, it’s important to remember that all the networking in the world — all the blogging, web-surfing, book reviewing — is not a substitute for actually writing.

The most important thing to do if you are serious about writing for children is to develop your craft by reading lots of books in the genres you want to write, and then to write, write, write.

Thanks for this great advice! Here’s one last question, and then I’ll let you get back to your own writing! What are you working on these days?

I recently finished my first novel (round one, anyway) and have sent it off to the first editor on my list. It’s historical fiction and required tons of research! I’ll keep you posted if it receives any interest.

I have a couple of picture book projects I’m hoping to find homes for, and I continue to write and submit poetry. I’m fortunate to have some great critique group partners, and my husband and kids are used to my shoving new works under their noses for feedback. My daughter just left for college, and I’ve already emailed her some works-in-progress!

Thank you SO much, Robyn! You’ve given all of us some wonderful, practical ideas on how to give our creative life the push it needs to meet the real world of publishing. We wish you the best with your future endeavors!

Thank you again for having me, and best wishes in your parenting and writing!

Please visit Robyn Hood Black’s website to keep up with her exciting world of writing. You can also hear Robyn speak IN PERSON at the upcoming SCBWI Southern Breeze Writing & Illustrating for Kids Conference! She’ll be co-presenting two workshops with writer and media specialist Sharon Wright Mitchell on breaking into magazines and how to create successful school visits that tie into curriculum.




August 17, 2010

Over the summer, while browsing through my Auburn University alumni magazine, I was surprised to learn that all 4,000 incoming freshmen are being encouraged to read a book together: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.


Wow. That’s a major book club, don’t you think?

It’s part of the Common Book program that more than 100 universities are starting to participate in. This reminds me of our own community’s Big Read last spring, when we all read To Kill a Mockingbird together. Can you see how a bookish person likes me gets excited about these types of programs?

So, I had Three Cups of Tea on my mind all summer, wondering what’s so great about it that an entire university would be reading it together. Sure, it was a #1 New Times Bestseller for months, but just because it’s selling millions of copies doesn’t mean I’m going to fall in love with it.

But I did. Oh … there is something rich between the covers of this book that reached the core of me. It’s changed the way I view the world. I hope you’ll get a chance to read it, if you haven’t yet. Especially if you’re a woman. Read it, and you’ll understand.

The story begins with Greg Mortenson’s failure to climb the K2 mountain in Pakistan, the second highest mountain in the world. He almost froze to death one night when the porter carrying his heavy backpacks disappeared far ahead. Greg wandered around lost for a while, and ended up in a village called Korphe.

While staying in this village a while to recover his strength, he was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the people. There were children everywhere, and when he asked the elders where these kids go to school, he got some sad looks.

He discovered dozens of children huddled together in the freezing cold scribbling their math equations into the dirt with sticks. From this point on, he vowed that he would someday return to this village and build them a school.

The book is a page turner. He goes from one hard time to another — living out of his car trying to scrape together his own meager living and keep his dream alive. He writes 300 letters on a rented typewriter until some kind soul shows him how to use the “cut and paste” option on a computer, and then he sends out 280 more. At last he finds a person willing to back him up financially so he can build that first school, Dr. Jean Hoerni.

The rest of the book recounts the trials and adventures Mortenson encounters as he builds that first school in Korphe — which leads to launching a whole organization, Central Asia Institute, dedicated to promoting world peace through education. He builds not only schools, but also relationships with people in the war-torn regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.


As you’re reading, you suddenly get the big picture that schools lead to educated minds who are less likely to be recruited by terrorists, and who are less likely to strap bombs to themselves and blow things up.

You realize books lead to peace. And so Mortenson’s mission becomes your own.

There’s now a Young Reader’s edition, which has full-color pictures and a simplified text. I think this would be a fantastic book for teachers or parents to read out loud. Students can also participate in the Pennies for Peace program.



The title of the book comes from the way in which the people in central Asia conduct business. Mortenson’s mentor, Haji Ali, teaches him:

The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.

If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to watch this short interview with Greg Mortenson. You’ll be amazed. I can definitely understand why an entire campus will be reading and discussing this book together, and who knows how many new dreams will be launched from this shared experience.

(I’ve heard the story continues, with the 2009 published sequel, Stones into Schools.)

All photos are complements of Central Asia Institute.




August 3, 2010



I’m happy to welcome Hester Bass as my guest today. If it’s possible to fall in love with a picture book, I fell head over heels for Hester’s award-winning book, The Secret Life of Walter Anderson. I think you will too, when you hear the story behind it!

Hi Hester. I loved your book! Can you tell us how you got the idea to write it?

Thank you, Heather! This book did percolate for a long while. Here’s the scoop. In the early 1980s, my husband Clayton and I were introduced by a Mississippi friend to the work of Walter Anderson, and we were captivated by his broad range of work and adventurous life.

We first saw an exhibition of his work in the mid-80s in Columbus, Georgia and then in 1992 we visited the Walter Anderson Museum of Art (WAMA) in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Anderson’s work seemed to vibrate with intensity, we were transfixed by the murals, and the town of Ocean Springs with its warm friendly people and main street lined with ancient live oaks charmed us instantly.

In 1996, my husband accepted the position of executive director of WAMA and we moved our family to Ocean Springs. I got to know the extended Anderson family, learning more and more details about this extraordinary American artist. I performed as a storyteller then and told Anderson’s life story to the school groups who visited WAMA. The children really leaned into the tale of a man who rode a bicycle instead of driving a car, who could draw with a crayon as expertly as with pen and ink, and who had a special relationship with nature.

Wow! I can see how kids are drawn to his unique personality.

I was absolutely compelled to tell the story of a man who lived under his boat on the beach of an uninhabited island, sometimes eating whatever washed ashore, so he could capture in words and pictures the beauty of the Gulf Coast. I wrote the first draft in 2001, sold the manuscript in 2006, and the book came out in 2009 — but, in a way, it took me over 25 years to write this book.


It was definitely worth the wait! In light of the recent Gulf oil spill disaster, what do you think readers can learn from the life of Walter Anderson?

Although Walter Anderson was widely traveled, most of his art represents what surrounded him every day — pelicans, dolphins, and turtles right down to the lizards, dragonflies, and shrimp — and everything he loved on the Gulf Coast has been threatened by this oil spill. It is an unfathomable tragedy, likely to have even more long-term effects than Katrina.

Walter Anderson was as much as naturalist as an artist and a keen observer of nature. He was among the first to sound the alarm in the 1960s against the effects of DDT on the pelicans, since he saw that something was thinning their eggshells and threatening the species.

I didn’t know that about DDT and pelicans. That sounds scary.

Walter Anderson spent his life striving to bring art and nature into one thing, and I think he succeeded. When I look at his art, the vibrancy of the image draws me in and l have a new appreciation for whatever he is showing me. While I hesitate to place a meaning on anyone’s life or art because every reader or viewer brings his or her own interpretation to bear on the work, I can share the meaning that Walter Anderson’s life speaks to me: get outside and experience the infinite beauty of the natural world.

This is especially important for children. The environment and way of life of the American Gulf Coast are treasures that must be preserved and protected for all to enjoy, and I hope stricter safety measures will be placed in effect to secure greater safeguards against environmental degradation in the future.

I agree. In your book, Walter Anderson often visits Horn Island. Where is this island located? Have you ever been able to visit it?

Horn is a barrier island about twelve miles off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The only way to get there is by boat. I’ve been there several times, and it truly is a magical place that makes me feel I am at the edge of the world. It’s now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and a ranger lives there, but Horn retains the feel of an uninhabited island. There’s no dock so you pull into the shallows and wade ashore as the fish and crabs scurry out of your way. Very quickly though, if you are still and quiet, nature closes back in around you and one begins to realize the appeal of such a place for an artist.

Anderson wrote that he wanted to become a part of nature and not an interruption to it, and this is possible on Horn. Yes, the temperatures can be extreme and the insects are legendary, but Horn is one of my favorite places in the world.

Oh, you make me wish I could go there! Your text goes along beautifully with the amazing illustrations of E.B. Lewis. How did the two of you get matched up to work together?

One of the biggest misconceptions about writing for children is that authors and illustrators work together; usually they don’t talk about the project at all, much less meet, but this case was different. My fabulous editor at Candlewick Press asked my opinion regarding an illustrator, and I felt E. B. Lewis was a superb choice; he’s a gifted watercolorist and someone whom I felt would understand Walter Anderson’s journey as an artist. We met at a conference in 2007 but didn’t talk about the book; we just got to know each other a bit. I learned it was his habit to use photographic references and that he posed models and props to achieve the look he wanted.

In July 2008 I received an invitation to accompany him to Ocean Springs, Mississippi since I knew the people and could help him gain access. We spent a very busy but very fun week in Mississippi, and two of Walter Anderson’s children graciously posed as their parents. His other two children offered their support with locations and getting us to Horn. Many people on the coast have commented to me that E. B. really captured the light and the water accurately, both hallmarks of E. B.’s gorgeous paintings.

Yes, the water is painted so beautifully in the book.

Luckily folks will soon have a chance to see those paintings for themselves in an exhibition called “Creating The Secret World of Walter Anderson” that will open at WAMA in September 2010 and then tour other museums. The show will feature the sketches, photographs, and other aspects of the preliminary work; all the paintings used as illustrations in the book; and originals by Walter Anderson. I’m excited to see all this in one place myself!

I hope this exhibit will travel to a museum near me — I’d love to take my family to see it. Were you surprised when your book won the “Orbus Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children?” What is this award all about? Has it opened any doors for you?

Oh my goodness — yes! — “surprised” is an understatement. The annual NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children is given by the National Council of Teachers of English, established for “promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children” following the literary criteria of accuracy, organization, design, and style. It’s a big deal, to say the least!

I happened to meet the chair of the Orbis Pictus Committee at a conference in New Orleans in November 2009, and she mentioned that she had seen my book and liked it. Well, I was thrilled just to know that the committee was aware of it! The NCTE was set to announce the award on the same day in January as the ALA awards — the American Library Association announces several awards that day, including the other national award for children’s nonfiction: the Sibert Medal — so that day was marked on my calendar as it is every year since it’s considered the “Oscars” of children’s literature. (One hopes but one does not expect, if you know what I mean. 😉 )

The weekend before the announcement I was at a book festival in Texas — Beauty and the Book — rooming with the lovely and talented Kerry Madden. After a very full Friday, I checked my e-mail about 11:30 at night and found one with the simple subject “news” from the Orbis Pictus committee chair.

She said that knowing I was out of town and that ALA’s conference was in Boston — meaning that likely everyone from Candlewick Press was there — she thought I might not hear the “news” in a prompt manner so she suggested I visit the NCTE website since it had been updated a little early. “Congratulations!” she said. Hmmm. When I clicked the link and saw my book cover load in, I screamed — you can check with Kerry — and whooped and hollered with joy! Then I started making the phone calls — yes, at nearly midnight — which continued into the next day.

I really can’t describe the exhilaration of that moment. An award like the Orbis Pictus brings so much attention to the book — and thus to Walter Anderson and his incredible art — that I could never accomplish on my own. I am so deeply grateful, and look forward to thanking everyone in person when I accept the award at the NCTE conference in Orlando in November 2010.

That’s true — all the attention your book gains will help increase awareness of Walter Anderson’s life and work. On a different subject, when I’ve heard you speak at SCBWI conferences, you seem to have a heart for encouraging new writers. What advice would you offer to a writer who has a dream on one day publishing books for children? Is it worth the ups and downs and all the risk?

To answer your second question in a word: yes. It’s worth it. Writing, as any creative pursuit inevitably does, involves the risk of exposing some of your inner life to the opinions of others, which can be very tough to bear. You have to want to write, to be published, to promote, to work hard on every aspect and understand that writing is an art but publishing is a business.

You have to want to succeed and “keep your eyes on the prize” because along the way there will absolutely be setbacks, criticisms, and disappointments to be sure. But. If you work very, very hard to put only your very, very best work in front of an agent or publisher, dreams can absolutely come true; I am living proof.

You’re right, I do love to encourage new writers. I remember very well what it was like to be one because I still am a beginner. I learn new things about myself through writing every day and hope to never lose that beginner’s mind and enthusiasm.

My advice for the dreamers: Go for it. Read constantly, especially in the genre of books that you want to write. Read books on the craft of writing and discover how you work best. Attend conferences to network with writers and be critiqued by professionals. Get out and meet people who love stories — librarians, teachers, and booksellers.

Deconstruct favorite books to see how all the pieces fit together. In my opinion, it is much more important in the beginning to spend time polishing your work until it shines than to spend your time submitting work that is not ready. The greatest mistake most beginners make is to submit a manuscript to an editor or agent before it is the best it can possibly be.

Competition is fierce, but a finely crafted story with vivid characters and a snappy plot that hooks a reader and won’t let go is what every editor is looking for.

Thank you for all of this advice! You’ve encouraged the dreamer living in all of us. Hester, is it true that you once appeared on the TV game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” What was that like? Did you get really nervous or was it mostly fun?

I’ve actually been on two TV game shows and let me tell you, it was fun fun fun! I was on “The $50,000 Pyramid” with Dick Clark when I lived in New York back in 1981. I won a pen and pencil set, some car wax when I didn’t own a car, and some towels. My game went to a tie-breaker and I lost by a few seconds so I didn’t get to the Winner’s Circle.

Then after two-and-a-half years of trying to get on the show, I returned to New York in 2002 to be in the Hot Seat on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” in its first season of syndication with Meredith Vieira. I had been writing for a year or so but needed a cash infusion to get serious about it — attend conferences and such — so this would be, as they say, “life-changing money” for me.

What a dream come true!

Being a game show contestant is definitely nerve-wracking, but I’ve been an actress and a singer and was somewhat accustomed to the pressures of performing in front of an audience. Still, being in the Hot Seat is a unique experience — one mistake and you’re out. I relaxed a bit once I’d used all my “lifelines” at $16,000; then it was just me and the questions.

I successfully reasoned or just plain guessed my way to the $250,000 question, and when I saw it was about “Star Trek” I thought I had it for sure — but it was something that was never on the show. Play along!

Lt. Uhura’s name comes from a Swahili word meaning what: Heaven, Freedom, Travel, or Justice. I felt sure it wasn’t “Heaven” or “Travel” but I couldn’t choose between “Freedom” (the obvious answer, I thought — too obvious) or “Justice” (which could also fit the times and the character) so I had to walk away with $125,000. Whee! I couldn’t sleep until I got back home.

That’s still absolutely amazing!

Oh, and the answer? My guess would have been “Justice” and it would have been wrong: the answer was “Freedom.” I’ll never know what my last two questions would have been, and you know what? That’s okay, I’m happy. 🙂

I can see why — you still came home with plenty to get you to that first writer’s conference. One more question — what’s next for you? Are you working on another book or planning a new adventure? Do you still want to be in a movie and go visit New Zealand?

Next up: I’m going on tour again to appear at bookstores and speak at conferences. I’ve got some school and library visits on my calendar. I’m thankful to say the book also won the 2010 SIBA Book Award for Best Children’s Book given by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, so I’ll be headed to their conference to thank all the marvelous book lovers who keep independence alive.

Congratulations!

Of course I still want to be in a movie (hint, hint to Christopher Nolan — my favorite director!), and New Zealand is the #1 place I want to visit (all those locations from the Lord of the Rings movies — wow!) and my list goes on and on.

I am always writing new stories but I don’t like to talk about them until I have a signed contract; then I can barely stop talking about them. Look for more nonfiction — especially picture book biography — and I hope to break into fiction. I’m writing/ rewriting a novel. So I better get back to it.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us, Hester, You’ve inspired us with our own writing journeys!

Thank you for inviting me to your blog.

Please visit Hester Bass at her website to learn more about her and her wonderful books. I love this quote she shares from Walter Inglis Anderson:

“True art consists of spreading wide the intervals so that imagination may fill the space between the trees.”




July 31, 2010




Ramona and Beezus opened in theaters last Friday, July 23, and we couldn’t wait to see it. I think we saw the previews for it months ago before the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie. And you KNOW what a huge Beverly Cleary fan I am! It was co-produced by Walden Media, which has an amazing track record of turning books kids love into movies.

I was overjoyed to be able to invite some of my friends and their daughters to a rated G movie. I didn’t have to worry about any questionable material. This film was so much fun! My girls love Selena Gomez, and the little girl who played Ramona, Joey King, was absolutely adorable.

If you’ve read the whole Ramona series, you’ll see how the script writers cleverly wove together scenes from several of Beverly Cleary’s books. The overall plot centers around the storyline from Ramona and Her Father, when Mr. Quimby loses his job. Throughout the movie, tension builds because Ramona is afraid they’re going to lose their house, so she’s constantly coming up with schemes to earn some money.

And of course, she gets into lots of trouble.

I thought this was a very appropriate theme for families to see together, with the shambles our American economy is still in. Many parents have been hit with job loss, like Mr. Quimby. Yet, in the movie, good things begin to happen, as Mr. Quimby spends more time with his family between job interviews, and he begins to unearth long-ago talents and desires. There’s a scene where Ramona and her dad spend an afternoon drawing together on the floor that is so full of the joys of parenting.

You can read a detailed review on Focus on the Family’s Plugged-in site. Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays Aunt Bea, and Josh Duhamel, who plays Hobart, create a wonderful romantic subplot. I promise you’ll need to bring some tissues. I left the theater with mascara streaks all over my face.

In Beverly Cleary’s interview on her 94th birthday, she does confess some reservations about Beezus and Henry sharing an on-screen crush. She says:

I wanted the film to be called Ramona Quimby or Ramona Q, because it’s about a little girl, but the movie people were very concerned about their teenage audience and made Beezus older. They included Henry, which I did not want and even had them kiss. I asked to have that scene removed and at this point I don’t know if they did. I expect to get letters saying, “It wasn’t like that in the books.” The little girl who plays Ramona is excellent. She likes my books and was eager to play the part. I’m very pleased with the cinematic Ramona.

I personally found it magical to see Ramona on the big screen. I read the books as a child, read them again to my children, and now have seen a director bring these wonderful characters to life. I remember in Beverly Cleary’s memoir, My Own Two Feet, she describes how she came up with the characters, Beezus and Ramona. She created Beezus as a friend for her main hero, Henry Huggins. And then she thought she’d better give Beezus a sibling, so one day she heard a neighbor call out, “Ramona.” And she thought that was a good name. This took place around 1950.

Ah … and the rest is history.

Go see the movie. Enjoy it. But then go to your library or bookstore and get copies of all the books. Read them aloud as a family — and have FUN!





July 30, 2010

Hey Moms and Book Lovers!

I just found out about this very cool program for kids. We were shopping at the mall recently looking for new backpacks and school clothes, believe it or not, and we slipped into Borders to see what was new in the children’s book department.

I found out it’s not too late for your kids to join in the Double Dog Dare Summer Reading Club. All you have to do is go here and print out the form, then have them fill in ten books they’ve read since school was out. You have until August 26 to turn the forms in, and your kids can win a free book!

The books they can choose from are awesome:

Ramona the Brave, by Beverly Cleary
Miss Daisy is Crazy! by Dan Gutman
Flat Stanley, by Jeff Brown
Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary
The Ruins of Gorlan, by John Flanagan
Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen
The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare
Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes
The River, by Gary Paulsen
Kristy’s Great Idea, by Ann M. Martin (Babysitter’s Club)

Hmmm … in looking over this list, I realize we already own most of these books. But I still plan to go pick up our free copies because, don’t you know, books make great birthday gifts! And they also make nice teacher gifts as well, since I know teachers love having their own stash of great books for kids to read.

Isn’t this a fun idea? Thank you, Borders marketing people! We moms need all the help we can get motivating our children to read.

P.S. Even if you don’t join the program, be sure to read Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney’s letter to educators about the importance of reading.




July 23, 2010



When my youngest daughter slipped this book into our library tote, I thought, “Huh? What’s she trying to say to me?” Secretly, I couldn’t wait to read it, and it made its happy way to the top of our reading pile.

Rarely do I review a picture book, out of the hundreds we read every year. But this one was too adorable to keep to myself, and it also struck a deep chord within me.

I wondered how author Kate Feiffer would handle this topic. I think, deep down, many of us mothers worry that maybe something we’ve said or done will mess up our children’s lives. (Do you?)

The narrator begins her story by telling us how wonderful her mom is:

She makes people smile.
She makes people clean.
She gives hungry people food.
She takes people where they need to go, and then she brings them back home again …

After praising her mom a bit, she then poses the question, “If my mom is such a nice mom, why is she trying to ruin my life?”

She expresses five ways her mom is ruining her life, including such horrors as talking too loudly in public and preventing her from having dangerous fun. The narrator begins to hatch a top-secret escape plan that will bring her freedom. Except, in her imagination, the plan ends up with the police putting her mom in jail, which isn’t so great.

In the same way Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie takes readers on a journey of one hilarious event leading to another, Feiffer’s tale becomes more and more outrageous. Next, the little girl’s dad must get involved to help get the mother out of jail, and she goes on to explain several ways her dad is also trying to ruin her life.

But if both her parents end up in jail for trying to ruin her life, who will take care of her? Who will feed her supper and read her bedtime stories?

It was a relief for me to read this book because it brought humor to the delicate situation of how today’s parents feel the need to overprotect. And since it’s told from a child’s point of view, young readers will be able to relate to the character and realize … hey, other kids have to deal with this too.

I sometimes feel jealous of women who raised families 50 years ago, when the world was a much safer place. They could kiss their children goodbye in the morning and let them walk to school, along with a friendly pack of neighborhood kids. They could let their kids explore the town by bike, like Opie in The Andy Griffith Show.

In my hometown, a little girl was murdered a few years ago when she went off by herself riding a bike, and I remember thinking, “I can’t believe it’s become too dangerous to let kids ride bikes these days!” So now all our bike riding is done as a family, with parental supervision. Like the mother in this book, I drive people places and I bring them home because I want to know where they are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing. But it can be exhausting, all the keeping up!

This is a reassuring book for moms (and dads) that what we’re doing is important work, and it’s no small thing to make a little girl feel loved and safe. Diane Goode’s illustrations capture the humor on every page, with enough detail to render multiple readings an enjoyable task. (Goode illustrated another of my all-time favorite picture books, Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains.)

After checking out Kate Feiffer’s website, it looks like she and Goode have teamed up to create another humorous picture book, But I Wanted a Baby Brother! I’ll have to add this one to my reading list.

Here’s a cute video where girls explain how their moms embarrass them. I hope it make you smile!