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Christy Catherine Marshall

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February 11, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 25, 2010

Whether you’re celebrating Christmas alone or with your family, I hope you enjoy author Lauraine Snelling’s last pearl of wisdom here, concluding the 12 Pearls of Christmas series. I know I’ve been blessed by the past couple of weeks’ worth of stories. Wishing you and your loved ones a Happy and Holy Christmas, wherever you are!


by Lauraine Snelling

When asked to write a Christmas message, one of my first thoughts was: Do I climb up on my soapbox regarding changing the words in Christmas songs, using only holiday, etc.? I thought about it and decided no. After all, they’re only words and what difference does a word make—really make after all?

Then I kept on thinking. If they’re only words… But we as writers know the power of words, as do readers. When the wrong word is used, it jars, while the right word can be most powerful. Take one highly overused and under practiced word—Love. Four letters is all. We toss it around so glibly, saying love ya and luv and love. But think about the power in I love you. Three of the most precious words in our language when put together. Those of us who write romances or books with romance in them, understand the power when one of our characters tells another, I love you. As humans we can never hear that enough or too much.

Christmas is about love. The greatest love story ever told, that of God for us humans, and it never changes. Customs change, politics change, the years change, but God’s love never, ever does. At Christmas we are invited to share that love, to give it away, to pass it around. To find wonder again and joy in simple acts of love. We make contact with people we might never see or talk with through the year. That says I love you. We buy and make gifts to give, we reach out to strangers in need, we try to make sure everyone has a special dinner and every child a present. By giving, we receive.

So, let’s use the power of words, but more so, put feet on those words and pass the love around. Let’s look for and find the wonder, the joy and the peace, maybe in small bits and pieces and perhaps in an avalanche of blessings. Make your days brighter with the simple gift of a smile, a kind word, a touch, for every single one that you give away, will come back to you multiplied. As you give, so shall you receive. Merry Christmas my friends. May we all recognize our blessings—-and let an attitude of gratitude permeate this holiday and every day. With love and joy on this day, Lauraine!


About Lauraine: Lauraine Snelling is the award-winning author of more than sixty books, with sales of over 2 million copies. She also writes for a wide range of magazines, and helps others reach their writing dreams by teaching at writer’s conferences across the country. Lauraine and her husband, Wayne, have two grown sons, and live in the Tehachapi Mountains with a cockatiel named Bidley, and a watchdog Basset named Chewy.

For more information please visit Lauraine’s website:


Today’s your last chance to enter to win a pearl necklace, bracelet, and earrings. {FILL OUT THIS QUICK ENTRY FORM}. The winner will be announced on the Pearl Girls Blog ( on New Years Day!

This post concludes the 12 Pearls of Christmas Series and contest sponsored by Pearl Girls®. For more information, please visit<

December 24, 2010

I wish you all a blessed Christmas Eve, celebrating the birth of our Savior. Today’s installment in the 12 Pearls of Christmas series is from talented author Karen O’Connor. I hope her story here will remind you of the importance of writing down and preserving your own family memories. If you don’t write them down, how will your great-grandchildren know about them?


An Unforgettable Gift
by Karen O’Connor

On Christmas morning, 1912, in Paducah, Kentucky, fourteen-year-old Charlie Flowers and his three brothers and two sisters huddled in their beds, fully dressed, trying to keep warm as the wind howled outside their small frame house.
It was a desperate time for the family. Earlier that year the children’s father had died. And their mother had not found work. The coal had run out and there was little money––none for gifts. Their scrawny tree with decorations made from scraps of colored paper had been given to them the night before by a local merchant.

“Can’t sell this one,” the man said with a nod of his head before handing it over to the eager children.
To pass the time, the siblings joked and shouted stories from their bedrooms across the hallway from one another. Then suddenly a racket from the alley at the rear of the house broke into their games.
“Charlie,” his mother called, “would you see what’s going on out there?”
Charlie pulled on his shoes, grabbed a thick overcoat from the hook by the door, and ran out back.

There stood a man in a wagon bent over a load of coal, shoveling it into the shed as fast as he could.
“Hey Mister, we didn’t order any coal,” Charlie shouted. “You’re delivering it to the wrong house.”
“Your name’s Flowers, isn’t it?” the man asked, still shoveling. 
Charlie nodded yes.
“Well then, there’s no mistake.  I’ve been asked to deliver this to your family on Christmas morning.” He looked the awe-struck boy square in the eye. “And I’m under strict orders not to tell who sent it,” he teased.
Charlie ran into the house, his coattail flapping in the cold morning wind.  He could hardly wait to tell his mother and brothers and sisters. God had provided––just as he had on that first Christmas morning so long ago when He sent his only son to a needy world.
Charlie Flowers died in 1994 at age 96. And right up to the last year of his life, not a Christmas went by that he didn’t tell the story of that sub-zero Christmas morning of his boyhood when two men gave his family an unforgettable gift.
It wasn’t the coal that was remembered or cherished, Charlie often said––welcome as it was––but rather what two men brought to his desperate family. One, for his gift of recognizing their great need and taking the time to do something about it. And the other, for being willing to give up part of his own Christmas morning to deliver it.
That gift of so long ago has continued to warm the Flowers family from one generation to another, as Charlie’s son––my husband, Charles––calls to mind these two unknown men each Christmas morning and whispers a prayer of thanks.


About Karen: Karen O’Connor is an award-winning author and writing mentor living in Watsonville, California with her husband, Charles Flowers. Karen’s latest book is 365 Reasons Why Gettin’ Old Ain’t So Bad (Harvest House 2010).

For more information, please visit Karen on the web at


A three strand pearl necklace will be given away on New Year’s Day. All you need to do to have a chance of winning is {FILL OUT THIS QUICK ENTRY FORM}. The winner will be announced on the Pearl Girls Blog ( on New Years Day!

12 Pearls of Christmas Series and contest sponsored by Pearl Girls®. For more information, please visit

December 11, 2010

I’m going to be participating in the 12 Pearls of Christmas series over the next … you guessed it, 12 days! Be looking for a daily boost of inspiration as you read through these wonderful stories of how God worked in the author’s life. You can even enter a contest to win a beautiful string of pearls, bracelet, and earrings. (More on that tomorrow.)

And if I can get myself to the movie theater, I’m also hoping to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which opened yesterday. If I see it, I’ll let you know what I think!


Did She Know?
by Anna Joujan

Mary, did you know . . . that your baby boy is Heaven’s perfect Lamb? 
And the sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM

I am in the middle of a revival of my used-to-be-annual project of a Christmas card sketch.  For several years, with a few years missed, I have done a sketch of some image of Mary the Mother of Jesus, something that came to my mind without complete awareness of why that particular picture was needing to be put to paper.  It was originally a simple pencil sketch that, once completed, I would have printed out into a set of cards that would go out to all my friends and family.  Along with the sketch, however, I have always had a verse that came to mind to signify the meaning of the drawing in my mind.  And so I have had images such as “Be it unto me according to your word,” as well as a more enigmatic one that went with “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me . . .”  But each one was important for that year of my life.  And so I would spend the necessary costs in order to produce and mail in relatively large scales, for my general penny-pinching tendencies.

This year I did not expect to produce a card.  The fact of my life lately as a boarding school librarian/teacher in Zambia, Africa, has made such projects feel rather far-removed from the realm of possibility.
And yet, I have had an image in my head for several months now.  I started to put it to paper, and I abandoned it for a bit, figuring it was a bit frivolous with all the practical work I had to do.  But then I picked it up again, and it is now nearing the stage of completion, hopefully to be completed with printing and mailing once I arrive in the U.S. for a holiday visit with family.

What I realized is that, frivolous though it may seem, it is actually quite important.  For women [especially Western women of faith], the holidays carry with them great amounts of expectation and stresses.  So much so that we often get swallowed up with the hectic pace and forget to soak in the meaning.  What is important for each of us, I believe, is to “pick and choose.”  We must resist the pressure to do what doesn’t not bring meaning for us.  And we must cling to those traditions and activities that promote an aura of true, Christ-centered celebration for ourselves and for our loved ones.

So this year, Lord willing, I will be sending out my cards—and enjoying every bit of it; and in case you wondered, Mary did you know . . .?  will be the theme


About Anna:  Anna G. Joujan was born in South Dakota, as a Canadian citizen, and was raised in Zambia, the child of missionary teachers.  Since her family’s move to the U.S., Anna spent her childhood and early adulthood traveling throughout the world thanks to various educational and work opportunities . . . France, China, Peru, and Jamaica being some of the stops in her journeys. Her undergraduate degree in French Literature led to a Masters in Information Sciences, and to work as a college and high school librarian, and a cross country coach. She has also returned to Zambia multiple times to teach for individual families and for local schools. All the while continuing pursuing her passions of writing, artwork, photography . . . and card-production.  You can find her online at


A three strand pearl necklace will be given away on New Year’s Day. All you need to do to have a chance of winning is {FILL OUT THIS QUICK ENTRY FORM}. One entry per person, per day. The winner will be announced on the Pearl Girls Blog ( on New Years Day!

12 Pearls of Christmas Series and contest sponsored by Pearl Girls®. For more information, please visit

November 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m very thankful we discovered it!

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 27, 2010

We went and saw Eat Pray Love last weekend. I just had to see it, even though I haven’t read the book yet. (I’ve got it on hold at the library, so it should be coming soon.) I was so curious about this story — a woman’s year-long spiritual memoir, as she travels through Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eat Pray Love. What a great title.

The book, which came out four years ago, is a true phenomenon. It’s #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in paperback nonfiction, and it’s made the list for 180 consecutive weeks. The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, has appeared on Oprah Winfrey telling her story, and of course now it’s a blockbuster movie starring Julia Roberts.

But I went to the movie not knowing much about the book, so I confess it was a little messy and confusing for me — real life is never as neat and tidy as fiction. This movie is a woman’s true story — a very brave woman in my opinion, and I admire her for being a writer willing to share it.

The film opens showing us the glamorous life Julia Roberts/Liz Gilbert is leading: she’s a travel writer based in New York who seemingly has it all: a cute husband who’s crazy about her, a beautiful home, career success with travel assignments around the world. What more could she want?

Yet something is amiss — Liz is unhappy. Although it’s not clear in the movie, she apparently doesn’t want to have a baby. She holds her friend’s baby and asks her, “How did you know you wanted this?” and her friend shows her a box full of little baby clothes that she’s kept for years. Liz then discloses that she’s kept this same type of box … full of magazine clips about travel destinations she longs to visit. She’s confused, and so are we, the movie watchers.

Liz decides to divorce her husband, and this bothered me the whole movie. It was the first time I can remember not sympathizing with a main character. I kept wanting her to wake up and realize she’d made a mistake — but she leaves her old life behind to embark on new adventures. She has a fling with an actor, who’s not quite as tantalizing when they’re in the laundry mat, broke, folding clothes together.

So Liz decides to see the world — these three “I” countries, Italy, India, Indonesia, as she explores her inner “I” and tries to heal from the mess she’s made of her life. Here’s something else that confused me — the movie doesn’t make it clear where she gets the money to do this. There was no scene where Liz approaches her agent or editor and snags a six-figure advance (as she does in real life) to finance her travels. The whole movie I kept wondering, “How does she have enough money to do this?” But in reality, she’s been paid up front to write a book.

So it’s a little similar to the Julie and Julia story and movie, except Julie Powell wrote her year-long blog first, which got picked up by a publisher and turned into a book, then a movie. Gilbert’s book idea was sold before she left, then her travels became a book, which became a movie. OK. See, I’m making this easy for you, so you won’t be as confused as I was.

The film itself is gorgeous. I loved traveling right along with Liz/Julia as she experiences the world far from the madding crowd of New York. (And oh, you’ll want to dive head-first into that Italian pasta!) I looked around the packed theater at people of all sizes and ages, realizing most of us couldn’t afford to travel even for a week to one of these countries. Yet for less than 10 bucks, we’re getting to eat, pray, and love our way through three. Pizza and gelato in Italy, silence and prayer in India, and fresh air and romance in Bali. *sigh.*

There are many reasons for seeing a movie, and here’s one where you’ll spend your money to escape, and that’s OK. For all of us scribblers, the fun part is that Liz is writing the whole time — emails back home, journal entries, tap-tap-tap into her laptop, as she’s forming her thoughts into a book. We can relate to this.

One more confusing thing I’ll clear up: the actress Julia Roberts is 42, although the woman she’s playing was only 31 when she took off on her journey. I think that’s an important point. As I watched the film, I personally felt relieved that I’d gotten most of my traveling out of my system in my early to mid-20s before marriage.

So back to that point I made in the beginning — I couldn’t sympathize with Liz who left her husband because she was unhappy. I kept thinking — why didn’t she and her husband travel together? That seems like more fun to me. When I watched Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, I sympathized with her the whole movie, as did everybody. Liz is a more complex character, that’s for sure.

If you want to find out more nitty-gritty details about the PG-13 rating, check out the Plugged-In review. I definitely wouldn’t take any of my kids to see it. This is a movie you go see on a girls-night-out, in my opinion. But be prepared — the ending is a surprise for those who haven’t read the book.

Which I plan to do very soon!

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 13, 2010

I hope you’re all having an amazing summer, sipping lemonade and staying cool. Here are a few blogworthy bits and pieces I’ve compiled for you. I seem to always be on the lookout for items that relate to TEEN WRITERS, so I think God is working on my heart in this area. I’ll soon have a house full of teens, and of course I want them to be writers!

*Randy Ingermanson has written a wonderful post, How Old Must You Be To Write a Novel? I wish I’d read this when I was 15. Pass this along to any teen you know!

*Michelle Medlock Adams is the new teen content editor for ibegat, an online magazine for teens. She’s written a post full of encouragement and cool links to get teens sending their work out.

*Agent Chip MacGregor recently posted about 10 Errors That Drive Me Crazy. I laughed all the way through this post, yet secretly cringed when I realized how often I commit these annoying bad habits. If you’re looking to improve your writing, read Chip’s list.

*In my other life, before having kids, I used to teach high school English. When I read Whitney L. Grady’s story, Why I Teach, it gave me chills and reminded me why so much joy can be found in the classroom.

*Jan Fields has written a snazzy article here on how to save postage when sending your writing off to editors. What do you do if a publication requests that your manuscript be included in the body of an email? See Jan’s tips on formatting.

*One of my lifetime goals is to read every book that has won a Newbery Award. So, I was totally inspired when I read about this little ten-year-old girl, Laura, who has already read every single Newbery winner. AMAZING! She even includes links to reviews she’s written for most of the books. I better get busy catching up with her.

*Here’s another fun article for you book clubbers out there, How A Book Club Changed My Life.

*Rounding out this list, my good friend Sally Apokedak alerted me to this captivating article by William Zinsser, on how he wrote his perennial best-selling book, On Writing Well. I keep Zinsser’s work only a few inches from my computer, so I loved reading the story behind his creation of it. Thank you, Sally.

Enjoy your summer reading!