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Christy Catherine Marshall

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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 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.


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 27, 2010

Today’s guest is Meredith Efken, who has written a fascinating novel about adopting a child from China. I’d love to share her book with someone who is interested in this topic. Please leave a comment below or email me privately, and I’ll draw a name on Friday to win LUCKY BABY. [Update: Congratulations to Laura! She won the free copy of this book!]

Hi Meredith. I was excited about reading your book because I know several families who’ve adopted daughters from China. Can you tell us about your inspiration for writing LUCKY BABY?

In 1999, my husband and I adopted our oldest daughter from China. She was fourteen months old, and neither she nor her new parents had the faintest clue what to do with each other. Becoming a family, with the addition of our second (non-adopted) daughter three years later, was this miraculous, inspiring, and sometimes heart-breaking journey. I wanted to write about that journey — not just the usual “orphan finds family in happy-ever-after ending.”

The adoption became the hook for the story, but what I really ended up exploring was the process of becoming a mother — that process of being broken, being shaped, of dying, living, of losing all control over your heart because it doesn’t belong to you any more — and how thrilling, and frightening, and painful it all can be.

Your novel gave me a lot of new insight into the emotions involved on both sides of adoption. How much of Meg and Eva’s story was similar to you and your daughter’s?

Much of it is quite different, actually. My daughter was much younger than Eva when we adopted her, and she didn’t have any physical disabilities (even though we’d been told she did.) Eva’s attachment problems are also far more severe than anything our daughter has experienced, though some of the questions and internal conflict about birth parents and adoptive parents — and their roles in her life — are ones that are very common not just for my daughter but for many adopted children everywhere.

My own family and upbringing, as well as my husband’s, are drastically different (and much more positive) than those of Meg and Lewis in the story. That’s been one of the interesting things about this novel and people’s reaction to it — I must have hit a lot of the emotional notes correctly, because many people assume the story is a lot more autobiographical than it is.

But I did draw on some of my own insecurities and fears about parenting, as well as the stories and experiences of many, many mothers — both adoptive and not. Even though the emotions in the story are not always from my own experience, they are the experiences of many other families. I hope the truth of those experiences comes through in the book.

What made you decide to focus on such a difficult aspect of the adopting experience? (i.e., attachment disorder). Is this common, especially for families who adopt an older child?

Well, first, let me just adjust the question a bit. “Attachment disorder” is a specific psychological disorder that can affect any child who has been neglected or undergone trauma as an infant or toddler — not just children who are adopted. A psychologist can evaluate a child for RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) and recommend therapy and support for the child and the family, but it is definitely a challenging and difficult disorder to work with.

However, RAD is distinct from having problems adjusting to a family or problems developing attachment after an adoption. I think it’s not an either/or situation — RAD or no problems at all. There is a wide range of experience between those two extremes. Not every child who struggles to adapt to their adoptive family has RAD. And not every child who is adopted has attachment problems — no one really understands what causes some children to struggle while others seem to have no problems at all. It’s very complicated.

That said, nearly all adopted children do have struggles unique to the adoption experience. They’ve all experienced a trauma early in life — that of losing their birth parents, even if they can’t remember it. There is a grief process they must go through to deal with that loss. Additionally, a child who has been in an orphanage or foster family experiences loss a second time when they go from that placement to their adoptive family. Even though the adoption provides the benefit of a stable, permanent, loving environment, the loss of the familiar is still traumatic.

That double loss has consequences. It affects a child in often-profound ways. So I chose to write about that, showing one child’s process of grieving and coming to terms with her loss and the impact that has on her family and friends. I don’t consider Eva to have actual RAD. She has experienced deep loss that is far bigger than what she can process on her own, and so she does end up needing the help of a therapist to work through those issues before she can really integrate into her new family.

The process of grieving for what has been lost and then moving forward with a new family looks different for each child. Some children have a much more difficult time than others. Some seem to adjust fine in childhood, but will have to deal with their grief as adults. Others seem to come through it all very smoothly at a young age and are fine. I don’t think that the age of the child at adoption necessarily impacts their attachment or adjustment by itself. My understanding is that there is an entire range of factors that can impact how a certain child reacts to an adoption.

It’s something all adoptive parents need to be aware of, but not fearful of. Adopted children — especially ones who have been in an institutional setting like an orphanage — by the very fact of being adopted have special needs that their new parents have to be prepared to deal with.

Getting support early and being patient, educating themselves, and being committed to the process for as long as it takes are what adoptive parents need to plan on if they choose to adopt. It’s not always easy, but the good news is that the vast majority of adopted children do adapt, and do go on to have very productive, healthy lives. There is a lot of support and a lot of hope available to families who are working through this process.

Thank you, Meredith, for all of this valuable information! While reading your book, I really felt like I was visiting China. You describe the sounds, smells, and sights that take your reader there. How did you learn so much about China? What is your favorite place to visit?

We traveled to China for the adoption in 1999. We spent a couple days in Beijing, about a week in our daughter’s birth city for the adoption, and then about another week in Guangzhou, to go through the immigration process to bring her home. Much of my description of China was based on that trip, including our short tour of our daughter’s orphanage.

When I needed to fill in all the many gaps in my knowledge (since two weeks is hardly enough time to really understand a foreign country), I went to a variety of sources, including blogs of expats living in China, some Chinese friends living in my city, videos on YouTube, and other adoptive families. The hardest part was portraying life in a private Chinese home in China, since I haven’t had the opportunity to actually visit anyone’s home in China.

I found videos on YouTube of people in China getting together with friends in their homes, and I also used real estate listings to see photos of the interiors of various homes in Shanghai. I did a lot of reading about how they celebrate holidays such as Chinese New Year, what foods they eat — like for breakfast — and from there I used my imagination.

My daughter and I traveled back to China last summer (2009), and I was amazed at the difference 10 years has made in the nation. I had to make some last-minute adjustments to my book based on that trip because the country as a whole has become so much more developed over the past decade.

My favorite place I’ve visited is definitely Kunming, in Yunnan Province. The weather is beautiful, the people are friendly, and Yunnan is home to over half of the ethnic minorities that live in China, so the cultural heritage is extremely rich. Plus, they have some beautiful parks and lots of flowers. The food is amazing, too.

You mention Chinese phrases often in your writing. Have you studied the Chinese language? In your book, parents Meg and Lewis want their daughter Eva to retain some of her cultural heritage by learning Chinese. Do you think it’s a good idea for children adopted from China to keep in touch with their native language in some way?

I have studied Chinese just a very little bit. It’s a beautiful language, and not nearly so hard as it has a reputation of being. We’ve got classes in our city that are specifically for adoptive families, but due to our daughter’s dance schedule (she’s intensely pursuing ballet as a possible career) we haven’t been able to make the Chinese classes.

Most of the phrases in the book were either translated for me by Chinese acquaintances or were taken from phrase lists for adoptive families on the internet.

I think children adopted from a different culture should always be offered as many opportunities as possible to learn about and interact with that culture. But each child’s level of interest in doing so is going to be different. I don’t think it’s good to force it on them.

As far as language-learning goes, I think it’s a good idea if the opportunity is there. But realistically, unless the adoptive parents are fluent in the language and use it regularly at home, a child isn’t going to become bilingual or even fluent just by weekly language classes. The exposure to the language is good — it’s good for any child to learn a second language. Learning Chinese is an especially good idea right now, considering that it is becoming a more dominant force globally.

I confess I got hungry for Chinese cuisine while reading your book. It’s full of references to delicious food! What is your favorite Chinese food? Can you find it where you live in the U.S.?

I have to say — if all you’ve experienced of “Chinese food” is in a Chinese restaurant in America, you are missing out. Real Chinese food is completely different — a tremendous variety of flavors and ingredients (a few are far too exotic for my comfort!). It’s quite an adventure!

Some of what I like best in real Chinese food (which varies greatly by region of the country) are the simple dishes — the stir-fried green beans or the mushrooms. I even had a friend in the States once who stir-fried spaghetti squash and sliced sweet peppers, and it was heaven. They don’t actually use such thick sauces as the restaurants here do. The sauce is generally more broth-like, and it lets the flavor of the vegetable really come through.

I also like the dumplings and stuffed buns — which they do serve in some parts of China, though I don’t think it’s quite as common as the dim sum restaurants in our American Chinatowns are.

We had one dish in Kunming during our 1999 trip that I’ve been dreaming of ever since. It was called Yunnan Flavor Soup, though I think it may be called “Over The Bridge Soup” in other parts of the country. The waiter brought us super-heated broth, and a tray of raw meat slices (I wasn’t a vegetarian at that point) which we cooked in the soup broth itself. Then we added vegetables, noodles, and what I believe was a quail egg. The broth cooked all of it, and it was simply delicious–and so much fun to assemble and “cook” it ourselves.

I have not been able to find a recipe for it or any restaurant that makes it, but if anyone knows of a recipe for it, I’d love to have it.

Throughout the book, you weave in certain symbols, such as ladybugs, dragons, and a dream-like Chinese woman who appears at various points in Meg’s journey. Can you tell us how you got interested in writing using magical realism? How do you think it adds to the story?

I really struggled in writing this book to adequately express the sense of wonder and the miraculous nature of the adoption experience. Plain old prose just didn’t seem to do it, and it was quite frustrating from an artistic standpoint. I’d been reading about magical realism as a genre, and it intrigued me conceptually — the writers attempt to flip-flop reality by portraying the fantastic as normal and the mundane as magical — but much of classic magical realism is darkly political in nature and didn’t really appeal to me.

Then I came across some women writers of magical realism, such as Isabel Allende, Sarah Addison Allen, and Alice Hoffman, and their blend of women’s fiction with magical realism techniques really appealed to me.

What the magical realism did for me in writing LUCKY BABY was to make it possible for me to convey the mystical and miraculous journey of the heart that is adoption. It also was a way for me to express my view of faith. As a Christian, I find that my faith is mystical, a bit fantastical to some, and rooted in the supernatural — and yet, it impacts my daily life in ways I nearly take for granted. And at the same time, that faith gives me an appreciation and a wonder for the most mundane of human experiences — eating good food, the beauty of a perfect sunset, the personal connection of one hand holding another. Magical realism seemed a perfect reflection of how I experience God at work in me, so I wanted to try it in this story.

Do you have any advice for families who are interested in international adoption? Are there any organizations you’d specifically recommend? Is it helpful to join an online support network when someone is merely exploring the option?

Don’t rush into it. Count the cost — not just financially, but also in terms of time, emotional energy, and the level of effort involved in caring for a child that has been institutionalized. There are challenges and difficulties that are unique to international adoption, and parents have to be prepared to love their child no matter what — even in the unlikely event that the child can’t love them in return.

I’ve had people suggest that by adopting, we took the easy way out because I didn’t have to go through pregnancy and delivery. And after having been pregnant as well, I can say that physically, adoption is much easier. But adoption has deeply emotional ramifications, and there are no guarantees that it will go smoothly. So long term, I think adoption is harder for parents. They’ve got to be prepared for that and willing to be that rock for their children when it gets hard.

If parents aren’t sure they can do that, then it’s better for them and for the child not to adopt. But if they are willing to take on the challenge and uncertainty, I think they’ll find that the adoption journey is amazing, beautiful, and well worth it all.

Definitely join an online or in-person support group at any phase of the adoption process. There’s so much to learn. It’s hard to list any websites these days because there are so many really great ones, but one of the longest-standing ones and most comprehensive is

Was it difficult for you to make the transition from humorous mom-lit to this novel, where you sometimes write from a Chinese orphan’s point of view? How did your creative coach help you in this process?

It wasn’t the transition that was difficult — because I knew I couldn’t personally manage to make this story a comedy. You have to have a certain amount of distance and perspective to write humorously — at least I do. And I realized early on that I had no distance and no perspective whatsoever when it came to writing about Chinese adoption. It’s why it took me eight years just to decide to write it at all.

The emotions run so deep and strong for me, and my own expectations were so high for doing it well, that it actually crippled me for awhile as I was trying to write. This is where my creativity coach stepped in and was an invaluable part of helping me get past the expectations and self-doubt. She helped me identify exactly what was holding me back from being able to write, and then came up with mental exercises and techniques for dealing with those doubts or concerns. It was all very simple stuff, but it was very effective in helping me get my confidence back.

But there were still parts of the book that were incredibly difficult to write — won’t say which ones here because it would involve spoilers for the plot. There’s a quote about writing by Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” I have no idea who he is and I’ve never read his work, but for the first time in my writing career, in writing LUCKY BABY I found the truth to his statement.

The act of emotionally “opening a vein” as I wrote was terrifying and painful, but also exhilarating. It stretched my writing skills in a way that wouldn’t have happened with comedy — as difficult as comedy actually is. So from an artistic standpoint, it was thrilling to have a chance to grow and write something so different from what I’d done before.

In writing LUCKY BABY, a novel about an American couple adopting a child from China, what was the most important message you wanted to convey?

I wanted to show the complexity of international adoption — the beauty and hope, but also the difficulties. It’s not a fairy tale where the rich American swoops in to rescue a foreign orphan and takes them away to a happy-ever-after life, or where the lonely, childless couple has their dearest wish come true.

Adoption is a beautiful, hope-filled way to build a family, but the hard truth is that it is built on a tragedy — the separation of a child from its birth parents. And there are always consequences of that tragedy that families will face. With international adoption, you have the added challenges of the loss of the child’s birth culture. I wanted to present these issues honestly because this is not a fairy tale.

Becoming a family is a long journey and it can be a hard one. But at the same time, I wanted to show the hope and beauty and healing that the adoption journey can bring as well.

Meredith Efken is also author of the critically acclaimed SAHM I Am series that traces the friendship of a group of stay-at-home mothers through their emails to each other. In addition to writing, Meredith owns the Fiction Fix-It Shop, which offers freelance fiction editing and writing coaching.

P.S. Don’t forget — if you’d like to enter your name to win a free copy of Meredith Efken’s LUCKY BABY, leave a comment below or email me at the address to your left. I’ll draw a name on Friday and will contact you for an address to send this amazing book!

July 9, 2010

My daughters love anything relating to princesses, so we have a super fun guest today who wrote THE BOOK on how to become a princess. Lindsey Leavitt’s debut novel, Princess for Hire, released in March.

Hi Lindsey. Welcome to Mom 2 Mom Connection. I heard you just returned from the American Library Association conference in Washington, DC. What was it like being there as an author?

Man, it was amazing. Every aspiring author has a list of publishing dreams, and this was big on mine.

Librarians are amazing, open, thoughtful, funny, smart people and it was great having book conversations. I love book talk. Plus, it was very surreal to have a few KNOW WHO I WAS (sure, the name tag helps, but I like to pretend I’m a Diva sometimes).

Sounds like a blast! What was the highlight for you?

Newbery/Caldecott dinner. The speeches were pitch-perfect, the chicken breast wasn’t even dry, and ten-year-old Lindsey felt like she’d arrived at the book Olympics.

Your debut novel, Princess for Hire, draws readers into the world of real-life princesses. Did you have to do any research on foreign cultures or customs as you wrote your book?

Research! Yes, I did tons — much more than I would have thought, but fun nonetheless. Pretty legit when you get to buy the PEOPLE Royals Addition and count it as work.

I wanted the scope to go beyond Europe, so I looked at royal traditions around the world. I didn’t want to lock myself into one country, though, so I went with a geographical region and tried to create a general atmosphere. The Amazon one was especially fun to research, as most of what happens to Desi (except for the magical stuff) is based on real customs.

I did a few library visits, looking at those basic country books used for elementary school reports. This gave me an idea where to start, then I researched a handful of countries in depth. I wrote two princesses that never made it into the story, but might in later books, especially since I was so fascinated with Eastern Asian culture. I want a ninja princess in there. Ninjas are awesome.

A NINJA PRINCESS — that will definitely be a hit! Did your previous job as a substitute teacher help you any as you wrote your first novel?

For sure. I never really felt like I knew what I was doing as a sub. Every day, it was a different school, different grade, different kids, all with their own challenges and problems. Often, I would have one page of notes that didn’t help much.

And, let’s be honest, lots of people think subs are idiots. Although I had a degree AND had a couple of years of teaching experience, secretaries would often talk really slow, or the teacher would write “Have them read for an hour” in the sub plans, like actually teaching was a massive improbability.

So I really tapped into that as I threw Desi in all these new situations. Not to mention, I would often write during teacher prep-time, lunch, etc. Nothing publishable, mind you, but it got me interested in writing.

What has been the most surprising aspect of being a first-time novelist?

I guess I thought getting a book deal would be all the literary validation I needed. I was surprised that there was still so much angst on the other side of the publishing rainbow — revisions, reviews, follow-up books, covers. BUT, having a real-live book in print sweetens all the strife. It’s something concrete and real and, in my case, sparkly.

Being the mother of three daughters, I’m sure your home is immersed in the world of princesses! What do your daughters think of all the excitement surrounding their mom’s new book?

They want pictures. They are begging for a book with pictures and not all these boring words. So the princess thing gives me some street-cred, but I’m no Jane O’Conner (Fancy Nancy). My three-year-old also asked why I can’t be a dog groomer, because then she could pet a dog instead of a book.

So I gave her a tiara, and I’m cool again.

Oh yes, life is always better when wearing a tiara. My daughter has tried to sleep in hers. Do you think it’s helpful for writers to be part of an online network of fellow writers, such as your Tenners blog? How did this group come together?

The Tenners have been invaluable. When I sold my book, I wanted to join the Debs (2009 debut group we are modeled after), but I was winter 2010. I was lamenting this with a friend, and she said, “Uh, start your own group.”

So I did, with the help of Heidi R Kling (SEA, Putnam). At first, I just googled around, finding other 2010 authors, and once word got out, people wrote asking to join.

How many authors are in the group now? Do you have plans to stick together beyond the year 2010?

We had to cut it off last October, when our numbers were almost 100. I’ve made some wonderful friends there, and I think we’ll have the group going for a long time. It’s a great resource for all the questions that come up, like “I don’t like my cover, what do I do?” or “I’m doing a signing in New York, who is in?”

Now that Princess for Hire has made her grand debut at the ball, what you do have coming up next?

I have a YA contemporary called SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD that will be out with Bloomsbury in March 2011. It’s a story with first love, first loss, and spandex. But not too much spandex. I have to keep it tasteful.

Well, for us 80s moms, Spandex is always in. We just can’t be seen wearing it in public.

And, of course, the next book in the PRINCESS FOR HIRE series will be out in early May. More scandals, more Desi, and yes, more princess.

We can’t wait! Here’s one last question — How do you get yourself into the writing groove, when kids, house, husband, and everything else demand your attention? Do you have a special time or place in your house where you can be alone to write, or can you pretty much write anywhere?

My very best writing still happens at night, when it’s totally quiet and there is nothing else I have to do. It’s still a challenge, even with this being my job now, to prioritize writing over all the family goodness.

I usually write in spurts, like take a weekend and write non-stop, then don’t write for a week. I can write anywhere — couch, bed, library, Starbucks — but I have this weird thing about having my feet up when I write. Yes, they’re up right now. I want to hire a foot rubber when I hit it big. Now accepting applications.

Couldn’t we all use one of those? Lindsey, this has been too fun. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for parents who’ve been bitten by the writing bug?

Do it. As much as you can, as often as you can. When you aren’t writing, read. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. And enjoy your kids, because they are not only the best part of life, but they offer some wonderful material.

That’s so true! Thank you for this refreshing interview, Lindsey. We look forward to keeping up with you and your books!

Thanks so much for having me Heather and Heather’s wonderful blog readers!

Lindsey Leavitt can be found hanging out at her sparkly website and blog. Her royal book even has its own home, so be sure to stop by and check out the bling.

July 6, 2010

We have a guest today who’s an expert on teaching kids about the great outdoors. I had the privilege of meeting Heather Montgomery at an SCBWI conference a couple of years ago, and her enthusiasm for science writing is contagious!

She’s the author of several fascinating books, including How is Soil Made? Mummies: Truth and Rumors, How To Survive An Earthquake, What’s Inside a Rattlesnake’s Rattle?: And Other Questions Kids Have About Snakes, and Why Do My Teeth Fall Out?: And Other Questions Kids Have About the Human Body.

Besides books, we often see Heather Montgomery’s byline in Highlights magazine, which our whole family loves to read!

Hello, Heather. You look comfortable up there in that tree. How did you become interested in nature writing?

I love nature and teaching about it. One day I realized that I could teach many more people through writing than I could ever hope to reach in person, so I decided to try my hand at nature writing for children.

Were you inspired by nature as a child? What were your favorite activities to do outdoors growing up?

I’ve always loved the outdoors. I grew up in a rural area where we spent our days running through the woods, playing tag in the yard, and pulling oysters out of the Chesapeake Bay.

Our family vacations were to state and national parks, and I attribute my love of learning in the outdoors to those early experiences with awe-inspiring nature rangers.

As a child I was scared of spiders and was not thrilled about some of the subjects that now amaze me, but I’ve learned that the more you learn about something, the less you fear it. Now I regularly hold spiders in my hand to teach children about them. I’ve always been curious about science and how things in nature work.

Yikes! I’m not sure I could hold a spider in my hand. What do you most enjoy now?

I haven’t outgrown my childhood pleasures. I particularly like to climb trees, wade in clear streams, watch bugs, and garden. I also love just about any sport or game played outdoors. One of my greatest pleasures is taking student groups outside to nature journal and discover the excitement of science.

Sounds like you’ve chosen a career you love! Why do you think it’s important for today’s parents and kids to get outside and explore the great outdoors?

The outdoor environment is perfect for stimulating a child’s curiosity. No matter what their interest — science, art, music, sports — they can find nature inspiring and develop life-long healthy hobbies.

Humans like to learn, and being in a natural environment where learning comes easily helps children realize that learning is fun. Free play in the outdoors is critical to the development of curiosity, physical health, and a sense of place.

I agree. Kids learn more from experience than from watching it on a flat screen. I see you’ve written a number of books on a wide range of subjects, from earthquakes to soil to rattlesnakes, and more! How do you choose to write on a topic?

When a potential topic comes to my attention, my first thought is “How interesting is it to me?” Is it something I might want to spend a few years learning and writing about? If I’m not passionate about it, then it won’t make a good topic for a kids book or article.

The second “test” I give it is marketability. Is there a publishing house out there which might be interested in it? Answering this question requires a good bit of market research.

Thirdly, I consider the practicalities. Is there enough material out there on the topic, do I have good access to experts on the subject, etc.?

Most of the books I’ve written (and all that I’ve published so far) have been on assignment. Educational publishers or book packagers have assigned me the project based on my experience and their needs.

What has been one of your most intriguing assignments?

One of the most interesting bits of field research I’ve been able to do was at Mammoth Cave. I joined a group of middle school students who were trying to figure out why one of the rivers in the cave runs backwards sometimes. We crawled through the cave, saw mummified bats, pulled test equipment from a river so far below us that we could not even see it and found a blind cave crawfish. I’m working to turn that experience into a magazine article.

That sounds incredible. I hope we’ll be able to read about it!

I also enjoyed the utterly gross experience of dissecting a rattlesnake. When I was writing my upcoming book on rattlesnakes, I happened to find a dead rattler along the road. Always one for hands-on learning, I decided to dissect it (Warning: Do not try this at home).

Wow! Did you feel like you were in any danger doing this?

Not at the time, but later when I learned that a rattler’s fangs can strike on reflex even after they are dead, I wondered if it had been such a good idea.

From that dissection, I did learn that most rattlers have only one lung — a neat anatomy note that I use during my school visits to help students think critically about how a body is designed.

Do you take your own photographs for assignments? Do you think it helps to sell an article or book idea if a writer includes his or her own photographs?

I do take photos for my projects, but mostly for my own reference and use. They, along with my nature journal, help immensely when I’m working on adding vivid detail to a manuscript. Some editors, like those at Highlights require that you submit photos to support the article, but most prefer to use professional photographers or stock photos.

How did you get started in writing for Highlights magazine? What do you recommend for writers who’d like to break into this publication?

I was fortunate enough to attend the “Writing from Nature” workshop put on by the Highlights Foundation. During an amazing five days I learned boatloads of information about writing for kids and met the science editor for Highlights. A tip I learned at the workshop was that every piece in the magazine is written by freelancers. That includes even the three-sentence “Science Corner” pieces and the short puzzles. Those are a great way to get a foot in the door.

Can you tell us about your involvement with the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators)? Do you think this organization is helpful for people interested in being published in the field of children’s literature?

Joining and becoming actively involved with the SCBWI has been the single step that has most helped my career. Through the organization, I’ve joined a critique group which has proven instrumental in improving my writing and keeping me producing work.

I volunteered to help and have become the Assistant Regional Advisor for Southern Breeze (the Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi region). This involvement has exposed me to numerous talented members who have all willingly shared their knowledge, helping me each step of the way. The SCBWI publications have been an invaluable resource as I have navigated the stormy seas of the marketplace.

Would you recommend SCBWI conferences? Is it a good idea to go if you’re just getting started in writing for kids?

Absolutely! Through SCBWI international and regional conferences I have learned about the business end of being an author, had the pleasure of meeting editors, and forced my shy self into networking. For people new to the industry, in addition to finding a supportive critique group, I would recommend reading the publications provided by the SCBWI.

Then, I’d recommend attending a regional conference or event which focuses on craft. After you have some experience, try to attend conferences and events designed to help market your work. The professional critiques available at these conferences are a good step once your work has been critiqued by peers and revised several times.

This fall I’ll be presenting at both the Carolina’s and the Southern Breeze regional SCBWI conferences. I hope to see you there!

That’s great! I’m hoping to go to one of these SCBWI conferences. Are there any other conferences you’d recommend to aspiring writers?

I highly recommend any of the Highlights Foundation Workshops. The folks at Highlights genuinely care about your progress as a writer and about providing the best literature for children. Plus, their food is scrumptious. 🙂

Mmmm…All the more reason to go! Can you tell us what your latest writing project is these days?

I’m working on numerous projects on topics ranging from hiccups to parasitic wasps and even a work of fiction. In the near future, I’ll have two more snake books published. One is on garter snakes, and the other on rattlesnakes. Did you know that these snakes give birth to live young instead of laying eggs? Nature works in mysterious ways — ways that scientists get to study and figure out!

Cool! You make it all sound like so much fun. Thank you for visiting here with us!

My pleasure.

You can learn more about Heather Montgomery at her author website, as well as at her award-winning consulting business, DEEP: DragonFly Environmental Education Programs. Be sure to scroll down to read Heather’s article, Most Dedicated Mom. I think you’ll be quite surprised!

June 15, 2010

Those of you who’ve been reading here for a while know I’m crazy about Japan. I taught English in Osaka for a couple of years, and when I came home, I left part of my heart over there. Well, I’ve become acquainted with a Christian mom who writes novels in North Carolina, after living in Japan 18 years! I’m so happy to introduce you to author Alice J. Wisler.

Hi Alice. Welcome to Mom 2 Mom! We’re so glad you’re here. Can you tell us a little about your background as the daughter of missionaries in Japan?

I was born in Osaka, Japan in the 1960s to career-missionary parents. I went to Japanese kindergarten in Osaka and an international elementary school in Kyoto. High school was in Kobe, and since the distance was far, I lived in the high school dorm for four years. Then I went back to teach English in a church-run school in the 80s after college and a stint in the Philippines. So, I’ve lived 18 years total in Japan.

Wow. That’s amazing! Do you still find yourself remembering Japan? How do you keep your memories alive? Do you have any favorite Japanese dishes that you like to eat or cook?

Japan is a huge part of my life. I love authentic Japanese food (Kanki and any restaurant that serves their food with sword-like knives is not what I grew up with). Sushi is my favorite. I like to make tempura at home with my fourteen-year-old son. I sing Japanese songs from childhood around the house all the time.

How did you get started writing fiction?

Boredom. I got tired of fighting with my younger brother and needed something else to do. I’ve been writing since first grade. My teacher had me stand up in front of the entire class and read my short stories. One was about having the “chicken pops” and one was about a birthday party. Fiction came to me at about third grade.

Do you think writing can be therapeutic for women who encounter difficult times in life?

Writing is one of the best forms of therapy. When you put your heart and all its anguish on paper, you experience clarity and comfort. I thank God every day for his gift to us in the healing that comes from the tool of writing through sorrow.

Can you share with us about your son, Daniel, and how your writing ministry for grieving parents began to develop?

Daniel, my second child, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the age of three in 1996. He went through chemo, radiation and surgeries to try to reduce and remove the malignant tumor in his neck. In 1997, he died in my arms. He was four. I was thirty-six.

Since then my world changed. I started Daniel’s House Publications in his memory and created a monthly ezine, wrote articles, remembrance cards, spoke at bereavement conferences, and was asked to lead writing workshops. I saw that this tool of writing benefits many, so eventually started teaching online writing courses.

What can people expect from taking your online course, “Writing the Heartache Writing Workshop?”

My online courses last five weeks. I send the assignments out via email and the attendees complete them and send them back to me for feedback. I offer guidelines on writing poetry, essays, and for publication. The five-week outline is available here at my website, as well as information on how to sign up.

Can you tell us about your “in-person” grief-writing seminar that will take place in North Carolina in July?

The all-day workshop I’ll hold on July 17th will be an expansion of what I offer online. We’ll write from photographs and from mementos. We’ll create poetry and essays and share. The atmosphere will be a warm one to tell our stories.

Not everyone will be writing about a significant loved one who has died. Some will participate and write about other losses — loss of dreams, broken relationships, etc. This event will take place at the Country Inns and Suites near the Raleigh-Durham, NC Airport from 8 AM to 5 PM. You can read more about this exciting day here.

Well, it looks like you’ve got a busy summer ahead. Congratulations on your novel, How Sweet It Is, being a finalist for the 2010 Christy Awards! Can you tell us about this book?

How Sweet It Is is about getting away from the past in order to heal and start a new future. Deena Livingston, the main character, has been in an accident and broken up with her fiance. She moves to a cabin in Bryson City in the Smoky Mountains where she’s to teach cooking to disadvantaged middle school kids in an after-school program. The story is about forgiveness.

Are you looking forward to traveling to St. Louis for the awards ceremony?

Yes, I’m looking forward to flying there later this month. I’ll also be signing advanced reading copies (ARCs) of Hatteras Girl at the International Christian Retailers Show held after the Christy Awards.

What is your new novel about?

Hatteras Girl is set in the Outer Banks. Jackie and her childhood friend, Minnie, want to take over the Bailey Bed and Breakfast in Nags Head, but obstacles (including a handsome realtor) get in the way. This is a story about having to wait for dreams to come true.

That’s a topic we’re all familiar with! Do you have any tips for parents who would love to find more time to write? Is it worth the effort?

Keep at it. Don’t give up! Make time to craft the best stories you can write. Edit often. Yes, it is worth the effort because there is no other satisfaction like having your work published.

Thank you for your encouraging advice! Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for this interview, Heather. It’s been fun!

You can learn more about Alice J. Wisler and her really cool novels at her website. Be sure to check out the beauiful Dutch cover of Rain Song!

June 10, 2010

If you’ve been around the Christian mom blogging community for a while, you’ve most likely heard of Kelsey Kilgore, who blogs as Holy Mama. A west Texas mom of four, Kelsey recently published her first novel, A Love for Larkspur. She’s also a gifted humor writer and encourager for stressed-out, battle-worn parents.

Hi Kelsey. How’s the weather in Texas? Have you seen any more tumbleweeds lately?

Here in West Texas, it is HOT. We went to three baseball games on Saturday and at the start of the second game, it was 107 degrees. By the end of the third game it was cooling off at 100, and it felt lovely. Really! West Texas heat is dry, never humid, and that helps.

It’s so hot here, that vets recommend shaving your long-haired cats in the summer.

Isn’t he CUTE?! My ten-year old, Ethan, made the little purple shawl. I haven’t seen any tumbleweeds, but it isn’t really the season now — the best ones are found in winter.

Oh, that cat is ADORABLE — and the shawl too! Can you describe for us a typical west Texas summer scene? I mean, do people really walk around wearing cowboy hats and boots?

Why, yes …. yes you do often see hats and boots here, year-round. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

A typical scene … I don’t get out much and my life revolves around children, so bear with me. What comes to mind are endless Saturdays of kids’ sporting events, the happy shrieks of kids splashing at a swimming pool, and grilling outdoors with family. None of that sounds particularly unique to this part of the country, now that I think about it.

Oh! We feed prairie dogs sometimes, just for fun. They like pretzels and carrots.

A pretzel-eating prairie dog — now that’s definitely not something I’ve ever seen here in Georgia!

OK, I’ve been reading your blog for years. Do you think writing can help alleviate some of the major stresses moms face today?

Writing alleviates some of MY stresses as a mom. But other moms I talk to often say that writing would only add to their stress — everyone’s different. It’s not my major stress reliever — blogging, for me, is more of a tool for documenting my kids’ childhoods and these years in general.

I know this is a fast-paced time period, and I forget so much! I want to always be able to look back and see what I wrote/thought/believed during this time. I don’t mind sharing my life with whoever might be interested in reading about it — but largely, it’s written for the future me!

I agree — if I don’t write it down, I forget it! What else do you find to be a good stress reliever?

My two main stress relievers are cleaning and exercise. Preferably something fairly violent, with lots of punching and kicking of other individuals, but a punching bag will do. Since I tore my left ACL in September, I’m not cleared yet to go back to kickboxing.

In the meantime, I’m trying to build up strength and endurance so I’ll be ready for it again when the doctor gives the go-ahead in December. I haven’t always been this way — I only started exercising after antidepressants stopped working for postpartum depression after my 4-year-old was born.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Not really. Most of the time I don’t even think of myself as being a writer, even now. Writing was something that came very easily to me, and I knew it would always help me out in whatever I ended up doing. As it turns out, I’ve ended up mothering, mostly, with a little writing on the side. Next year all the kids will be in school full time, and maybe then I’ll be writing more — and thinking of myself as more of a writer!

Did you have a teacher or mentor who particularly encouraged you with writing?

Yes, Penny Arrington, high school English teacher extraordinaire. She was the sort of crazy-tough teacher that you either adored … or feared and had nightmares about for the rest of your life. (I mean that in a good way.)

She had super high standards and she expected every single student to meet them — and she pushed us very hard in order to help us get there. I admired that. I admired her. Still do. She’s a high school counselor now, and we had dinner about a year ago when I went back to my home town for a brief visit.

How did you get started writing fiction?

It was a God Thing. A very, very weird God Thing. One night, a very long time ago, I had a vivid dream with all sorts of interesting people. I woke up in the middle of the night and had a sense that I should make it into a book.

In order to let that crazy thought go, I prayed something I should never have prayed. I said, “God, if you want me to write that, help me remember all of it because I usually forget dreams. Amen and goodnight.” And I thought I’d go back to sleep. Instead, I stayed awake all night and scene after scene played out in my head in a way I’d never before (or since) experienced.

So the next day, exhausted, I started to write. It took almost a year. And what came out of that was truly a terrible read. But what ALSO came out of that was a whole year of hands-on learning in what to do and what not to do in fiction writing.

I learned so much from that experience — I wouldn’t trade that awful manuscript for anything! And nor would I read it again, for anything! Or subject anyone else to it — but still, it is precious to me if only in its immense personal value!

In your debut novel, A Love for Larkspur, your main character, Lark, has a close relationship with her mom. Is this based any on your relationship with your mom?

I wanted a good mom-daughter relationship in the story. At the time I wrote it, I was living here in Texas and my own mom was living in Australia. I only saw her once or maybe twice a year. I was also dealing with a mother figure in my life who was painfully, and suddenly, rejecting me.

Those feelings and issues are in there, and I intentionally wrote a strong, positive mom figure into the story so it wouldn’t come off as so “anti-mother!” That being said, my own wonderful mother is extremely different from Lark’s wonderful mother.

Do you enjoy having your mom live closer to you now? What’s your favorite activity to do with your mom?

Now that my mom DOES live close by, I’m so grateful for all the time we spend together! We like to shop or go eat or take the kids swimming. Occasionally she’ll get me to go antiquing with her (not my fave) or we’ll plant flowers or do yard work together.

For those of us who aren’t from Texas, can you tell us about larkspur? When does it bloom?

Larkspur is in bloom right this very second at my house, as you can see, next to golden Stella d’Oro daylilies.

The foliage is delicate, and ferny, and can look very much like a weed to a novice. So when we moved into our last house and a flowerbed seemed to be overrun with these little weedy plants, I tried to pull them all out.

Eventually, after ripping out thousands of them, I gave up. I was shocked to discover what the “survivors” turned out to be! And of course I wished that I’d left them alone. In subsequent years, that flowerbed recovered from my misguided efforts and every June it became a traffic-stopping display of the prettiest larkspur in town. The ones in the photo above were planted from seeds I took from our last house.

Why did you choose this name for your character?

I like unusual character names, and I love plants and flowers. It just worked out to combine the two!

In your novel, Lark enjoys jogging to ward off her stress. Do you also find exercise helps you cope? How do you make yourself go to the gym? Do you have any tips for the rest of us?

When I wrote about Lark jogging, I hadn’t started running. I’d always wanted to, but didn’t think I’d be any good and hadn’t ever tried. I’m a runner now, but I’m fairly new.

When the antidepressants stopped working for the postpartum depression, the doctor suggested hardcore exercise. And I hated this idea. Everyone else at the gym was probably skinny and knew what they were doing — and I had baby-weight and varicose veins. I had no business being there. But the drugs weren’t working and my depressed face-planting on the carpet wasn’t working out so well, so I committed.

I made myself go to the gym and exercise every single day — even though I couldn’t stand it — for six weeks. And then I noticed that I liked it. After that, I let myself go just four times a week if I wanted to, and if it felt like it was enough to keep me sane — but oddly, I usually wanted to go more frequently than that.

Now I still go because I want to. I don’t feel like I’m myself if I skip for very long. That’s all the motivation I need. (And I like to work out at home or go for a run or try other gyms. Not being tied to one location helps). But whatever motivation YOU need? Give it to yourself.

If you want to schedule it so you watch Project Runway while you’re on the treadmill, go for it. Whatever works, within reason, is worth it. Before long, you won’t need to be so creative. But don’t let yourself think, like I did, that you don’t belong or you’re not good enough, or you’ll never fit in with the skinny group. I have social anxiety issues, can you tell?

Oh! And make yourself try a class! I like almost all of them. I’m not coordinated enough for Step classes, but am not above making a total fool of myself in a Zumba class or dropping the barbell on my foot in a weightlifting class. Gyms are full of dorks like me, so it turns out, I fit right in. (And I did get skinny! And sane. Okay, well, no, that’s a total lie, but sane for ME, and I even wear shorts. Short ones!)

I read in ParentLife magazine that you’ve found blogging to be a good way to share your faith. In your four years of writing online, what has been the most positive aspect of blogging?

Overall, the most positive moments have also been the hardest. Our 16-year-old daughter has been a challenge to raise, and we’ve had a heartbreaking four years of placing her in various residential treatment centers and trying to navigate through her psychological/emotional/mental issues and stay strong (and safe) as a family. Sometimes we’ve been successful, and at others we haven’t.

My heart aches for the parents in similar situations who find me by googling various diagnoses their children have been given, and we often end up in long, tearful but supportive email exchanges. None of that happens on my website where people see it — it’s a behind-the- scenes operation that can be emotionally draining, time-consuming, and a wonderfully precious way to tell a mom or a dad, “You are not alone. And you will be okay. I have lived through this and so will you. There is life on the other side of this.”

I remember all too well those dark, hopeless periods of parenting her, and these people often write from that same desperate place — and are stunned at finding someone who understands what no one else in their life has understood. They’re good parents. They’re trying their hardest, and they’re falling apart by the time I hear from them. Those conversations are often divinely timed and inspired.

I’m honored at the way God uses my little website to bless these sweet, depleted parents. I had no idea that sort of thing would ever happen, much less, regularly. But it does, and those exhausted, often misunderstood parents are dear to me in a way I find difficult to explain. Their stories are mine as well — one I don’t often write about except in my emails to these dear strangers.

Kelsey, you have an amazing ministry. Keep it up! Who knew blogging humorous slice-of-life stories would put you on the front lines encouraging battle-weary parents?

Now, back to your fiction writing, do you have plans to write any mom-lit in the future?

Yes, well, maybe. In theory. But you know what always stops me? It feels weird to create children’s characters that are wonderful that I want to spend time with, and yet they’re not my own children. Characters become so real to me, it feels disloyal in a sense.

All the best parts of my male leads come straight from my husband, so I’ve never felt conflicted there. One day I’ll resolve that in my head and make it work. I adore writing about kids and what they say and how they think — I just haven’t transferred that over to fiction yet!

I hope you will someday! In closing, do you have any advice for moms who desire to write with a house full of kids, dogs, cats, and piles of laundry?

You can do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. It’s YOURS. And just because of that, it has value and so it’s worth the effort. If you want to write, you really, really, really should. If it’s for an audience one day, great! If it’s not, that’s just as great! Your thoughts and ideas and creativity deserve an outlet, and if writing is the one you choose, I applaud the choice.

Don’t let the kids, pets, and laundry be your excuses not to do it. I wrote entire book-length manuscripts while breastfeeding babies and perfecting the One-Handed Because I’m Holding a Baby ALL THE TIME And Look — There’s One On My Boob Now Isn’t He CUTE Typing Style.

It can — and should — be done, regardless of children, laundry, or other bits of Life. My mom once gave me the book Anybody Can Write, by Roberta Jean Bryant. I recommend it.

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, Kelsey! You’ve offered us so many great ideas. I think we’re all ready to lasso our next challenge. Yee-ha!

Be sure to visit Kelsey Kilgore’s website and Holy Mama blog, where she rounds up her highly entertaining tales of motherhood and occasional recipes involving pine nuts.

May 27, 2010

We’re in for a treat today — a visit from Georgia author, Deborah Wiles. I cannot begin to tell you what an influence this woman has had on my desire to write for kids. She was the keynote speaker at the 2008 SCBWI conference in Atlanta, and ever since then, I’ve wanted to share some of her advice with you. This month marks the release of her newest novel, Countdown!

How did you get started writing a trilogy about the 1960s?

I started one story that took place in 1962, and then another that took place in 1966. They weren’t related, although they both took place in the sixties.

At some point, I realized that, with one more story — I chose 1968, it’s such a rich year — I would have a look at the entire decade, so I proposed a trilogy of connected novels about the sixties to my publisher. This evolution took place over several years. I had lots of stops and starts. I started Countdown as a picture book in 1996, while freelancing and being a full-time mom as well. It grew up as my children (and I) did.

What do you hope kids will learn about the ’60s while reading your book?

I hope they see themselves in these novels. I hope they understand that history is really biography — personal narrative — and that their stories are important.

I always say that all stories come from three places: what you know and remember, what you feel, and what you can imagine. I hope kids will understand that, in the sixties (and in all of history), there is context for the life they live today, that there is choice, that they can make choices in their own lives today and tomorrow, that make a difference in the world.

I also hope that they laugh and love, right along with Franny.

Some people have referred to Countdown as a graphic novel or a documentary novel. What are they talking about, and how do you use the images to enhance your story?

As I wrote Countdown, I began collecting primary source materials in my research, and I started a file, a Word document, to house all these photos and sayings, newspaper clippings and song lyrics, etc. Soon, I discovered that I was using them to help me tell the story, and I could see that they belonged in the story, and — more than that — they were an actual part of the narrative. So I began to use them in that way, and you’ll find that Countdown is full of photographs and clippings and the social and political commentary of the early sixties.

Did you enjoy growing up in the ’60s?

I loved growing up in the sixties. Of course, I wasn’t aware that it was “the sixties,” but I surely knew that things were changing fast, right under my nose. One day Elvis was in, the next day it was the Beatles. The same with fashion and food and movies and culture — it was an exhilarating time to be alive.

Our kids today are surrounded by bad news — wars, terrorists, bombings, natural disasters. Yet, each generation must find reason to hope. How does learning about our past give students a better vision for the future?

The 1960s was one of the most turbulent, changing, challenging, and defining decades in American history. There was so much dire news then, as well, especially surrounding the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. There was cause to be afraid. And there was always hope.

And love. With Countdown, I hope to grab the reader’s imagination and heart and let her know that there is always cause to be afraid in the world, and yet, there is always, always hope.

There are heroes. And we are they. Each of us, individually, can be heroic in our own ways. And are. The way we live through hard times is by coming together.

Do you have an idea for what the next book in the series will be about?

Oh, yes. The next book takes place in 1966 and revolves around the civil rights movement in this country, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. That’s the larger history arc. The story involves two girls, cousins, who are making a trip from Mississippi to Memphis to find Elvis Presley, whom one of the girls is convinced, with reasonable proof, is her father.

One last question. Many of us here are parents trying to balance a desire to write with managing our homes and families. You didn’t start out as a novelist, did you? Can you share how your writing journey evolved and give us a couple of tips for hanging in there when we’re jotting stories on the back of the box of animal crackers at the playground?

I love this question. It speaks to the heart of my writing life. I knew, when I was in my twenties and had two young children, that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t understand what I had to write about — the desire was so strong, but I didn’t have a story. Or, more accurately, I didn’t understand my story.

In the library, I stumbled across the great essayists — E.B. White was my favorite — and began to see that I could write about my everyday life and turn that into story. I read and practiced for a long, long time. I wrote with a toddler holding onto my leg and saying, “Play, Mommy!” and I wrote at 2am. I wrote with a kindergartener doing his homework beside me. I wrote in fifteen-minute snatches.

I also read what I wanted to write — I checked out bags of books from the library and studied them as I read them to my children. Two books that meant a lot to me were WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS by Cynthia Rylant and HONEY I LOVE by Eloise Greenfield. I took those books apart, to see how they were structured. I so admired Molly Bang’s TEN NINE EIGHT, that I took it apart as well, and — years later — wrote ONE WIDE SKY.

I studied writers I admired. I took a writing class from a good teacher at the local community college, and then another one. I sent stories to New York publishers for ten years before someone was willing to work with me… and then it took another five years before FREEDOM SUMMER and LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER were published.

In those ten years, and in the ten years before that, I freelanced. I wrote essays and magazine features, and I was largely self-taught. I worked for free at first, in order to gather clips. I took those clips to larger papers and magazines, and eventually got paid. I got into a routine that had me up at 4am, writing, every day. It’s a habit I still adhere to today, and it serves me well. No one was awake at 4am, and I could get in two good hours of writing time before it was time to make breakfast for four children and see my husband out the door.

Wow. That’s an amazing schedule. I admire you for being able to get up that early.

A good friend told me once, “you have to want it more than sleep.” I’m not sure about that. What I do know that I was compelled to tell my story. I needed to tell it. Over and over again. And I still feel that compulsion today. I’m still writing out of my life, telling my story. I appreciate the chance to tell some of it here, at Mom2Mom. Thanks very much.

Thank YOU, Deborah, for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to us here and encourage us in our reading, writing, and parenting journeys. You have blessed us here more than you’ll ever know!

You can read more about Deborah Wiles’ novels on her website. And here’s a book trailer where you can also SEE an interview with the author:

May 24, 2010

One of the things I love about going to SCBWI conferences is getting to meet all the fun people who write books for kids. Kristin O’Donnell Tubb is one of those people.

Her debut novel, Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different, made me laugh and want to know more about her. So here she is, coming to chat with us all the way from Nashville, Tennessee.

Welcome, Kristin! How did you come up with the idea to write your first novel?

I grew up in Athens, Tennessee, about an hour and a half south of Cades Cove. We visited the park dozens of times when I was a kid, when my cousins would visit from Chicago.

But in 2002, I went on a tour of the Cove, and was standing in John Oliver’s cabin when the tour guide mentioned that at one point, 12 people lived in the tiny log dwelling. Twelve people! This place had no running water, a handful of windows, and was slightly larger than a luxury closet. How in the world did they live?!

It occurred to me that this place that I’d visited dozens of times as a tourist had once been someone’s home. I wondered: how does one’s home become a national park?

Did you get to hang out much at Cades Cove while you researched your novel?

I’ve visited Cades Cove many times, but once I got the idea to set a novel there, I returned and took dozens of pictures and many notes. Too, I came across a research goldmine: in the basement of the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center near Gatlinburg, there is a library/archive that is solely dedicated to preserving the culture and artifacts of the people who lived in the areas that are now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

They’ve collected everything from recipes and church hymnals to school textbooks and photographs. Land deeds, descriptions of school-yard games, farming techniques — it’s all there. Heaven for an historical fiction researcher!

Are there any locals still around who remember what it was like when the government came in and turned their homes into a national park?

All around East Tennessee, there are people who were born in Cades Cove and spent their childhoods there. I’m constantly amazed at how many people tell me part of their family is from there.

One such person is Dr. Durwood Dunn, a professor at Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, Tennessee. Dr. Dunn was very patient, answering several of my questions while I wrote the book. He’s considered one of the foremost scholars on the history of Cades Cove, and his book, Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community, 1818-1937, was one of the most useful books I used in the research stage.

Have you always had an interest in writing historical fiction?

Absolutely! I love reading historical fiction, and research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

Are you anything like your main character, Autumn? Do you like to “do things different” as well?

I wish I were more like Autumn! She’s spunky and spirited and creative, and she definitely does things different! I’m much more of a rule-follower than Autumn.

Autumn is so funny. Did you ever crack yourself up while writing?

Thank you! Actually, yes, I did crack myself up a few times while writing this book. (I also cried near the end — but NO SPOILERS from me!

I think if you’re immersed in the writing that much — so much that it makes you laugh and cry and feel so deeply — your readers are much more likely to get that from the story, too. At least, I hope so! Of course, anyone who knows me knows I laugh and cry VERY easily!

What was your favorite scene to write?

Probably the opening scene. I’d been researching Cades Cove for several months, and I was itching to begin the writing process. A contest was coming up, and I wanted to enter it. I pounded out the opening scene, title of the book included, in about an hour. (Of course, it went through MANY — manymanymany — rounds of edits after that!)

Something that strikes me as odd about the writing process: I can remember exactly where I was writing, what I was thinking and feeling, when I reread sections of the book now. It’s like listening to an old song, one that transports you to a specific place and time. Just one more thing I love about writing!

That’s all so interesting, especially for an adult reader to know more about your writing process. OK, here’s a question on a different subject. I heard that you actually got to INTERVIEW one of my all-time favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle. Can you share with us how it all happened? That is truly amazing!!

I know, right?! When I was in sixth grade, my fantastic elementary school librarian, Sheila Rollins, instituted a wonderful program: any student could read three of an author’s books, then interview that author by telephone. I remember exactly two things about the interview:

1. The interview was conducted via a speakerphone! It was the coolest piece of technology my 11-year-old self had ever seen. Very Charlie’s Angels.

2. When I told Ms. L’Engle that I, too, wanted to be a writer, she responded, “Good for you! Keep reading and you can do it.”

Wow! I’m sure she’s inspired many of her readers to become writers. Well, Kristin, after reading your book, some friends and I are trying to plan a family trip to Cades Cove. Do you have any recommendations for places we should visit?

You absolutely need to visit the Arts & Crafts Community, a loop just outside Gatlinburg about 8 miles long with dozens and dozens of artists working and living in a gorgeous, creative community.

If you have time, check out the Arrowmont School and see if they’re offering a craft class that you’d be interested in taking. There are always festivals and celebrations in nearby Gatlinburg, so check with the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce to see what might be going on while you’re there.

And of course, you’ll want to hike the many trails throughout Cades Cove and in other sections of the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Thanks for all these great tips! Can you tell us a little bit about your next book?

Sure, here’s the jacket copy for Selling Hope, which will be released November 9 from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. I wish I could share the cover with you, because it is SOOOO PRETTY!

It’s May 1910, and Halley’s Comet is due to pass thru the Earth’s atmosphere. And thirteen-year-old Hope McDaniels and her father are due to pass through their hometown of Chicago with their ragtag vaudeville troupe. Hope wants out of vaudeville, and longs for a “normal” life—or as normal as life can be without her mother, who died five years before. Hope sees an opportunity: She invents “anti-comet” pills to sell to the working-class customers desperate for protection. Soon, she’s joined by a fellow troupe member, young Buster Keaton, and the two of them start to make good money. And just when Hope thinks she has all the answers, she has to decide: What is family? Where is home?

Our family loves Buster Keaton! Here’s one last question: do you have any tips for parents who are trying to carve out a little time and energy to write while shuffling kids into carpools and packing school lunches? How do you manage to squeeze it all in?

I wish I could say that I have this amazing time-pause button, or a clone machine, or an inherited gene that allows me to stay awake for weeks on end. But in reality, I have a wonderful husband who knows that when I’m starting to look stressed, a little writing time will go a long way toward curing that.

I also have a sitter who watches my youngest (a very active 3-year-old boy) a couple of times a week while I write and promote. I have a voice-recorder app on my iPhone, and I record ideas on it when I can’t get to a pen (which is almost always).

So yes, CARVING out time is exactly what I do. Writing is a priority for me, and I treat it like a career. The best career in the world!

Thank you so much for your inspiration, Kristin, and for sharing with us your behind-the-scenes process of writing!

You can read more about Kristin O’Donnell Tubb on her website and her Do Things Different blog. And here’s a really fun video I found about Cades Cove, in case you’re feeling the itch to travel to Tennessee.

April 20, 2010

It’s spring here in Georgia, and our gorgeous dogwoods and azaleas are sending me out into the yard with my clippers, snipping a frenzy of bouquets to spruce up our home. I’m not at all a gardener, but our house rests on property where generations before me still share their love of natural beauty.

If you’re like me and love flowers, then I must tell you about a new young adult book I recently read by Amy Brecount White. It’s called Forget-Her-Nots and shares the story of 14-year-old Laurel’s blossoming realization that she has a supernatural gift of being able to communicate through flowers.

As I read this book, I felt the author to be one of those few kindred spirits I have in this world. She has a fantastic love of literature and her depth of knowledge blew me away. After reading the book, I wanted to know more about her, and I was thrilled when she agreed to answer a few of my questions.

I hope you enjoy meeting Amy Brecount White and will visit her website to learn more about what she’s up to.

Welcome, Amy! How did you get the idea to write a book about the Victorian language of flowers?

It was a combination of factors. I was freelancing a lot of non-fiction articles and always on the lookout for new story ideas. I came across a beautiful coffee table book on tussie-mussies, which are symbolic Victorian bouquets. Although I tried to sell an article on this topic, I never did.

Later, I went to hear author Toni Morrison speak, and she advised aspiring writers to “write the story that only you can write.” That struck a chord with me, and I started to think about my loves and what I cared about most. Flowers, teenage girls (since I’d taught at an all-girls school), literature, and relationships.

I hope you can see all my loves in Forget-Her-Nots.

Oh, yes definitely! That was great advice from Toni Morrison, and I think it’s what makes your book so unique. Are you anything like your main character, Laurel?

Yes, although I don’t have the gift of flowers, I do have a very sensitive nose and adore flowers and gardening. I think all characters have something of their author in them too, even the mean ones. I also coach my daughter’s soccer team and used to play myself.

I’m not surprised to hear that you’re an experienced soccer player and coach! I really enjoyed jumping right into the game with Laurel since I’ve been a soccer mom for several years (though never a player!) Amy, Can you tell us more about how you became so interested in tussie-mussies, which play such an integral role in the plot of your novel?

It came from the book I mentioned earlier and a lot of research into the language of flowers and Shakespeare’s use of flowers. There isn’t a definitive language, but the list in the back of my book contains the most common meanings associated with flowers throughout Western culture. I would love to explore flower mythology and meanings from Eastern cultures — especially India, China, and Japan — in a future novel.

Do you ever send anyone these little bouquets of flowers?

Yes. Before the idea of Forget-Her-Nots was born, a friend and neighbor of mine had ovarian cancer, so I made her a bouquet with flower messages for her health, hope, and strength. I wished so much that it would come true, and that was one of the seeds that led me to write my novel.

I’ve also created a tussie-mussie out of photos of flowers for a niece who lives too far away to send fresh ones.

That’s a great idea, sending a digital bouquet to someone you love. What is your favorite flower?

I love all flowers, but I adore gardenias for their sweet scent and loveliness. Bleeding hearts, lilacs, and dogwoods are other favorites, as they are all blooming in my yard right now.

Oh, I’m sure your yard must be beautiful! As we’re approaching Mother’s Day next month, what flowers would you recommend for a pretty Mother’s Day “tussie mussie?”

I recommend any combination of these flowers and herbs that would smell lovely, and don’t forget to include a card deciphering the meaning of the flowers.

Rosemary – I’ll remember you always.

Sage – I esteem you and all you do for me.

Gardenia – To “transport” you to a place where you’ll be ecstatic.

Fennel – You are worthy of all praise.

White bellflowers – I’m so grateful for all you do.

Irises – To send my message to you.

These are all so lovely, and most should be blooming or available easily around Mother’s Day.

You’ve inspired me to really give careful thought to the meaning of flowers! Back to your novel, was this story based on actual people or places?

I tried to stay true to the countryside and architecture around Charlottesville, Virginia, but there’s no Avondale school there, and I’ve never attended boarding school. I also used historical details about orchid hunters, Charlotte de Latour, and Mt. Kinabalu. Everything else is a product of my over-active imagination!!

Did you ever sneak around like Laurel reading really old books about the secret language of flowers?

Oh! Fun question. I wish. When I was her age, I did stay awake long after I was supposed to be, reading a good book under the covers. In fact, I still stay up too late reading, but I don’t have to hide it anymore. I just have to drink more coffee or green tea the next day. 😉

Are there really people known as “Flower Speakers?”

You never know…. Truly, I think anyone who gives flowers to another person in a spirit of love and good will speak the language. You can lift another person’s mood for days by giving her or him flowers. (This was proven in a study at Rutgers University.)

What do you hope readers will gain from reading Forget-Her-Nots?

My Publisher’s Weekly review said I had “a reverence for the natural world,” which thrilled me. I definitely hope that all my readers young to older will look at flowers differently and see how truly amazing they are. Also, most of my stories are intergenerational and emphasize our connectedness through the generations. I hope young readers see that especially.

Do you have any advice for moms who are trying to take care of their families while also squeezing in a little time to write?

Yes. I freelanced for newspapers (The Washington Post) and magazines (FamilyFun, Washingtonian, Notre Dame Magazine) when my three kids were younger. It was very satisfying to do the research, write the piece, and see it published in a relatively short time. So much we do as moms is repetitive and never-ending. So I would advise budding writers to take on some short projects first. Try your local newspaper or parenting magazine.

I’d also advise you to go easy on yourself and be happy if you write a little bit every day. Definitely always carry a notebook. Some of my best inspiration came on playgrounds!

This is very thoughtful advice, Amy! I’m sure many moms out there can relate to jotting down story ideas on the playground. How do you manage to spend time with your kids and still be a productive writer?

If I’m on a tough deadline, I wake up at 5 or 5:30 and write for a while before I have to get the kids out the door. Then the rest of the day seems to go more smoothly. If you want to do both, you can’t ever have writers’ block. No time!

So I’d always write notes to myself at the end of my writing time about where to start next. I’d give myself a concrete problem to solve or scene to write, so I could start immediately. I often wrote in snatches, meaning an hour here and there. Some writers think they need hours, but writing during nap time or quiet time works well, if you’ve given yourself a specific and doable task.

Also, you have to be able to walk by the pile of smelly laundry and crumby counter and focus on writing. I throw laundry in when I need a break, but try to do most of the housework after my working hours. Now my kids are in school all day, so that helps.

Wow. You make running a home seem compatible with carving out a writing life. These are such great ideas! Are you working on another book now?

Yes, it’s called String Theories. It’s about a 14-year-old girl who gets in over her head, the physics of relationships, a stream, and getting even. It’s a little edgier than the first one, so I’d recommend for ages 14 and up.

I’m sure it will be fantastic. Thanks so much for visiting us here at Mom 2 Mom Connection, Amy! We wish you the best with your writing endeavors and look forward to seeing your next book!

Thanks so much and thanks for hosting me!

You’re welcome!

Note: Special thanks to Susan Salzman Raab and the other fine folks at Raab Associates in NYC for introducing me and everybody here to Amy Brecount White and her books.