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26. A Few Questions About BLUE BIRDS


Please indulge me. I’m a bit gaga over my new book.

Those of you who receive my newsletter have already read this, but I thought it might be fun to share here, too. Since the cover for BLUE BIRDS was revealed in June, I’ve gotten a few questions, the first being this:

Where are the blue birds?

There are two ways to answer: The cover has zero…or three.

The wooden bird the Kimi and Alis share is a representation of the Eastern bluebird — a gift given to Alis by her Uncle Samuel. I sent the Balbusso sisterslink to John White’s watercolor of iacháwanes (the Roanoke word for this bird). I love the echoes of his work Anna and Elena have included, such as the shape of the blue bird’s tail.

The other two blue birds on the cover? They are my girls, Kimi and Alis. Which brings us to the second question: How do you pronounce these girls’ names?

Alis is the Elizabethan spelling for Alice (as is Alys or Alyse. Those Elizabethans, they never were consistent). I have to confess Kimi is a website find, a name simply listed as an Algonquian* girl name. I can’t speak to its veracity or even its proper pronunciation, but in my head Kimi is Keemee (and not Kimmy). Kimi’s name means secret, which was a huge draw for me, as the girls’ friendship is a forbidden one.

For those of you interested, BLUE BIRDS is already available for pre-order. And if you’d like to receive my quarterly-ish newsletter, simply sign up here.


*Algonquian is a language family with over two dozen dialects. The Roanoke spoke a now extinct Algonquian dialect.


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27. The Fuzzy Muse and a BLUE BIRDS Giveaway

When we got Boudreaux three years ago, I hoped she’d keep me company while writing, be a warm, faithful soul who’d stay by me as I worked.  She’s been that and more.

Boo’s been around since the beginning of BLUE BIRDS, back when I started reading everything I could find on the Lost Colony of Roanoke. She took a special shine to the manuscript, too. Here she is with first-round edits,

second-round edits,

Boo and FPP

and now, with an advance reader copy.


It seemed fitting that Boo get her own copy of BLUE BIRDS, but seeing as she hasn’t yet learned to read and it’s not as tasty as she first hoped, Boo’s offering to give her copy away.

If you’d like to read the book a full seven months before it’s published, enter below!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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28. Sometimes You Get an Email That Takes Your Breath Away

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

Thank you for writing May B., the email said, and sent me to this blog post.

At the end of May B., I am crying. I am crying at the ways she is so strong and capable. 

I remember that intimate dedication and I feel like Caroline Starr Rose wrote this book in part for me. 

It was as if she were writing to encourage me on behalf of all my teachers in and outside of the classroom who for years didn’t see that all the misspelled words and run-ons as a red flag. It was as if she were writing right into the places of my heart where those accusations of being careless and not good enough had settled. And she whispered that like May, I could overcome. I could hope for the good things even when they are hard. Thank you Caroline. Thank you May.

I am deeply moved and grateful Amy reached out to share this with me. I’m again reminded that what we create is always bigger than anything we could ever imagine. Please click through to Stories and Thyme to read the rest.

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29. The Fear of Writing Outside Your Experience — And Doing It Anyway

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

Yesterday I turned in my first-round edits on BLUE BIRDS – a verse novel about the Lost Colony of Roanoke told from the perspective of Alis, an English girl, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. The story didn’t start this way. I initially intended to write solely from Alis’s perspective. But when I realized the forbidden friendship between Alis and Kimi is what the entire story hinges upon, I couldn’t keep things as I first planned.

And that kind of terrified me.

There are a lot of opinions and strong, strong feelings as to who has permission to write certain books. I’m a non-Native author. What gives me the right to try and speak for a thirteen-year-old Roanoke girl?

I’m still not sure. But I’ve been a girl. And I know how profoundly friendship can shape a person. I’ve been in new cultural settings and have learned to see the foreign as familiar and the familiar as foreign. This answer won’t be enough for some readers. I understand that. But I’ve gone ahead and written the book anyway.

In the mean time, I’m drawing courage from the It’s Complicated series at the Children’s Book Council Diversity blog.

What are your feelings about writers working outside their cultural experience?



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30. Five Things I Learned From NaNoWriMo

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

It was with a bit of reluctance I decided to join in this year’s National Novel Writing Month. For those of you unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it’s a month-long challenge to produce 50,000 words on a new piece of writing. I’d tried NaNo in 2009 and failed miserably. I never, ever was going to do it again. But things came together for me this year in a way that joining in made sense:

  • BLUE BIRDS was off with my editor
  • I was at the point with my research for a new novel that I was itching to get started
  • I read this blog post by Darcy Pattison
  • My critique partner, Valerie Geary, promised me peanut butter cookies if I made it through

I didn’t sign up officially. Instead I created a contest of one I called Fake-o NaNo, where I aimed to write 1500 words a day six days a week. I missed one day, had a good number of sessions I didn’t hit 1500 (and a couple I wrote more), and felt finished with the draft a few days before Thanksgiving — the exact day BLUE BIRDS “flew” back to me in a big padded envelope.

Here are five things I learned from the experience:

  1. Slow and steady has been my writing mantra this year. But sometimes fast and furious is just as important. Typically, I write verse novels and picture books. It’s a sloooow process, especially when I’m initially drafting. But with this new novel, I’m trying my hand at prose, something I haven’t poked at for seven or eight years. Throwing words on a page was a very liberating, non-committal way to reintroduce myself to this form. With my first NaNo attempt, I got stuck during the first week and decided to stop. This time around was no different. I faced the same impossible rut one week in. But I kept moving, mainly by sticking to the next lesson I learned.
  2. Sometimes you just have to write about the writing. While I’ve kept a journal for this book since April, I still have a lot of exploring to do. Many days I found myself writing about what was working in the story and what wasn’t. Things I’d have to look further into, characters I needed to add, relationships I needed to develop. Really, the draft became a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect on my ideas (or lack of them). I know this will be invaluable when I return to the book in a few months.
  3. Practice holds the fear at bay. I’ve written here a lot about how much angst is bound up in my first drafts. The creative process is a scary thing for me, and beginning (and finishing) a first draft is my biggest challenge. By holding myself to a daily goal, I was able to break through some of that fear by simply showing up and doing the work.
  4. Embrace the mess. The “draft” I finished with is quite possibly the messiest, worst thing I’ve ever written. But it’s been such a great experiment in getting words down, feeling out characters, and sometimes learning exactly what I don’t want to write about (by first doing just that). Knowing I could toss it all took me in some directions I might never have discovered if my approach had been more careful.
  5. Did I mention the cookies? Committing out loud to a friend kept me honest. And the cookies were a great pay off!
Did any of you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? What was your experience like?

This post is a part of Chatting at the Sky’s Tuesdays Unwrapped series.

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31. 2013 Writing Goals: Hit, Miss, or Somewhere In Between?

July’s the month I take a blogging sabbath. Throughout the course of the month, I’ll re-run some oldies but goodies. Enjoy!

I thought it would be fun to look over the goals I set for my writing this year, to see what worked and what didn’t. And in light of this recent discussion on author output, comparison, and finding peace with my own creative processes, the timing felt right.

At the end of last year, our SCBWI-NM monthly schmooze focused on personal writing goals. During that session, I took a one-page calendar and marked out school holidays, family vacations, and other important dates I knew in advance. And then I aimed high.

Here’s what I wanted to tackle in 2013:

  1. research for a new picture book
  2. twelve new picture book manuscripts (!!!)
  3. six months of research for a new novel
  4. three months of drafting this new novel
  5. blog/reading goal: re-read The Complete Journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, Volumes I-V and write about it here

 Author Chris Eboch led a second schmooze discussion in July about reassessing our goals. I noticed a few things:

  1. I was already waaay off on the picture book goal.
  2. Due to some wonderful news, I needed to change my novel goals.
  3. This was all A-okay.

One of the best things I got from Chris’s talk was information on author Kristi Holl’s Rx for Writers: Managing Your Writing Space and Your Writing Time (a free mini e-book).

Kristi talks about four terms that are key to a writer’s success:

  • DREAMS: not under your control
  • GOALS: under your control
  • SUB-GOALS: specific to-do steps under each goal
  • HABITS: daily practices that support your sub-goals

The distinction between what an author can control and what she can’t is key.* For example, while aiming to nab an agent is wonderful, it’s a dream, not a goal. But there are steps (sub-goals) a writer can take to do all that is in her control in this regard, from completing a manuscript, working with critique partners to revise it, taking advantage of contests or grants that might give feedback on her work, researching agents for the best fit, writing and evaluating a query letter, and finally sending it out.

A dream that wasn’t in my control changed the course of some of my writing goals this year. Some goals, such as the twelve picture books, were way off track.

Here’s what I actually did in 2013:

  1. research for a new picture book
  2. two new picture book manuscripts
  3. four months of research on a new novel
  4. one month drafting this new novel
  5. work on first and second-round edits for Blue Birds
  6. blog/reading goal: met! Plus I read the new(ish) LMM biography, THE GIFT OF WINGS by journal co-editor, Mary Rubio

 Over all, I’m pleased with this year’s work. As for next year, I’ll consider re-visiting some of those picture book ideas, work on my novels within my editor’s time table, flex when surprises come, and keep re-assessing what’s best for my work and me.

Do you set writing goals? How have you fared this year?



*Unless you’re a local superstar author who recently shared with me she likes to set goals like “I’ll sell two novels and one picture book this year”…and does just that!


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32. July’s for Reflection and Rest


Three years ago I took my first extended blogging break. My family was going on vacation, and I needed some time to unwind. I scheduled links to old posts and left on a road trip, bringing along a copy of THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS. If you haven’t read it, it’s a remarkable book. I wrote a few posts about it the following August, which you can read here and here.

This book and the month-long break were a real confirmation for me: I need to schedule regular periods of time away from the Internet. With a job that involves a lot of computer time, it is good and healthy for me to sometimes step away.  In addition to my blog break, I also refrain from Facebook and Twitter. If you’re looking for me, you can always drop me an email. Otherwise, I’ll see you again in August.

I’ve scheduled some posts to re-run — a “new” one each week — that I hope will interest you. Enjoy your summer, friends!

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33. An Exquisite, Stunning, Gorgeous Cover for BLUE BIRDS!

I have been waiting to share this beauty since the moment I first saw it. But here’s a secret. You won’t see it here but over at The Nerdy Book Club today. If you don’t know Nerdy, you’re in for a treat. It’s a blog that celebrates children’s literature with posts from teachers, librarians, readers, and authors.

Before you head over, though, I wanted to show you a little something. In February, when I knew my editor and Penguin’s art director were starting to think about a cover, I thought I’d try my hand at creating my own. I did this with MAY B. So did my older boy. With BLUE BIRDS, one image stood out. I tired to capture it here:

February BB sketch

When my editor sent me the initial sketch from illustrators Anna and Elena Balbusso, there were goosebumps. Truly. Head over to the Nerdy Book Club to see why!

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34. Classroom Connections: WHAT FLOWERS REMEMBER by Shannon Wiersbitzky


age range: middle grade
genre: contemporary fiction
topic: Alzheimer’s disease

“[Delia’s] frustration, fear and sense of loss will be readily recognizable to others who have experienced dementia in a loved one, and her story may provide some guidance on how to move down that rocky path toward acceptance and letting go. …What do flowers remember? The stories of the people who cared for them, of course, as Wiersbitzky’s sensitive novel compassionately conveys.” – Kirkus Reviews

Please tell us about your book.

In What Flowers Remember, due to a shared love of flowers and gardening, Delia and her elderly neighbor Old Red Clancy dream up a seed- and flower-selling business. The two make quite a pair. He has the know-how and she has the get-up-and-go. But something is happening to Old Red. And the doctors say he can’t be cured. He’s forgetting places and names and getting cranky for no reason. As his condition worsens, Delia takes it upon herself to save as many memories as she can. Her mission is to gather Old Red’s stories so that no one will forget, and she corrals everybody in town to help.

What Flowers Remember is a story of love and loss, of a young girl coming to understand that even when people die, they live on in our minds, our hearts, and our stories.

What inspired you to write this story?

I spent my childhood summers with my grandparents in a small town in West Virginia, not totally unlike the fictional town of Tucker’s Ferry. As a result, my grandparents became like second parents. When I was in my twenties, my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t forget me. But of course, the disease doesn’t work that way, and I was forgotten along with everyone else he loved. The moment I realized he no longer knew who I was is something I will never forget. It broke my heart. And it was that nugget which inspired this story.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 

I did research on Alzheimer’s as I wrote the novel. The Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of information. While I knew what my grandfather experienced, I didn’t know if that was typical or if there were other signs and symptoms which might be worth including to make it more accurate. Most people only think of Alzheimer’s as losing memories, but it can often cause changes in mood, and even result in a loss of smell. I included both of those in the book.


Alzheimer’s isn’t typically a disease associated with children. Why include this as a topic in a middle-grade novel?  

I never set out to write a book “about Alzheimer’s”. I wanted to write a story that spoke to my own truth, about how it feels to be forgotten by someone you love. Within the context of fiction, I imagined what a young girl might do, and what an entire town might do, if they felt they could, in some way, prevent memories from being forgotten.

The reality is that according to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors will suffer from some type of dementia. One in three. That is an astounding number. It also means that there are many children who will be impacted by the disease. Whether it is grandparents or parents, or someone else they know and love. I hope the story will help kids (and adults) who are experiencing or have experienced Alzheimer’s in some way.

*Note: A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book are donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

There are many topics in the book a teacher could explore:

Memories. Every family has favorite memories. Memories that are passed down from generation to generation. What memories do families keep alive? How? What memories would students never want to forget? Project ideas: Create a memory board. Interview family or friends for favorite memories.

Flowers. Flowers have different meanings and many, like the pansies noted in the book, have different folk tales associated with them. What flowers do students like most? What stories or meanings are linked to them? Project idea: Pick a flower and explain how its meaning links to your own life.

Teaching and Learning. Delia is a sort of gardening apprentice to Old Red. Everyone has a skill they can teach someone else. Project idea: Have each student pick something they’re good at and teach the rest of the class how to do it.

Handling Conflict. Delia and her friend Mae meet up with a local bully at their school festival. Discussion topic: Assess how Delia handled her situation and explore how they have handled their own situations. What might they do in specific circumstances?

You can connect with author Shannon Wiersbitzky here:


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35. Writing Links


How To Kill a School Library in Ten Easy Steps :: School Library Journal

Bestselling YA Authors Share “The Book I’m Most Thankful For” :: Parade Magazine

Why Do Young Readers Prefer Print to eBooks? :: The Guardian

If I Only Had Connections…. :: Rick Riordan

Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Will Be Accommodating: Why “Boy Books” Aren’t Always the Solution :: Laurel Snyder 

Strong Writers Do This :: Kristi Holl

No one cares about your novel: So writers, don’t be boring! :: Salon


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36. Why We Read

Happy is he who  has laid up in his youth and held fast in all fortune a genuine and passionate love of reading.
- Rufus Choate

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37. Straight From the Source: Katherine Longshore on Writing Historical Fiction

Katherine Longshore is a former travel agent, coffeehouse barista and preschool teacher who has finally found her calling writing novels for teens.  She is the author of GILT, TARNISH and BRAZEN, a series of novels set in the court of Henry VIII, published by Viking and the “Downtonesque” MANOR OF SECRETS published by Scholastic.  After five years exploring castles and country manors in England, she now lives in California with three British citizens and one expatriate dog.  Visit her online at www.katherinelongshore.com.

What typically comes first for you: A character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?

I typically begin with character. That said, characters come to me because of the historical era, so it becomes a question of the chicken or the egg. For me, however, the story doesn’t begin without the character, so that’s where I start.

My first book, GILT, came about because I thought, “Catherine Howard was a teenager when she married Henry VIII. She’d be a great character for a YA book!” But my narrator, Kitty Tylney, was born out of a news item about a rape at Richmond High School in California—one observed, but not reported, by as many as twenty other people. And I decided I wanted to write about a character who observed atrocities and wrongdoings, and for whatever reason, didn’t do anything until it was too late.

Anne Boleyn in TARNISH came to me on a long drive one Thanksgiving weekend—I’d been pondering writing about her, but didn’t find the courage until I thought about how she might have felt, as a teenager, being transplanted from her adoptive home of France (where she’d lived for seven years) to the very foreign world of the Henrician court.

The only book where I did the opposite was BRAZEN. I began with the historical figure—Mary Howard—a woman who became quietly independent in later years, avoiding court machinations whenever possible. But I didn’t know who she was—that is, who my fictional character needed to be—until I’d written the first draft. This was definitely a case of the story—and the writing of the novel—informing the character rather than the other way around.

How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?

I like to tell people that I researched Henry VIII, his wives, and the Tudor era for ten years before I started GILT. This is absolutely true, but invites a misconception. I didn’t do the research with the idea of writing a novel in mind, I did the research because I was fascinated and wanted to know more. Ultimately, I wanted to understand the characters, so delving into their psychology through fiction seemed a natural transition.

Once I have made the decision to write a book, however, I usually research for about a month before I begin to write. I reread histories and find new ones to look for new insights. I take notes on index cards, even though I don’t always refer back to them. I’m a visual and tactile learner, so the act of writing something down cements it more firmly in my mind.

I continue to do research throughout every draft, finding specific details like Where was Henry VIII’s court on July 25, 1535? Or What kind of dress would a kitchen maid wear in 1911? Some of the answers can be found online (the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII is an invaluable resource!) and others have to be gleaned from more books. While finishing the third draft of BRAZEN, I read Alison Weir’s wonderful book about Anne Boleyn’s last days, The Lady in the Tower, which helped me write a key chapter using the vivid details Weir is so adept at providing.

What is your favorite thing about research?

The sense of discovery, and being able to pass that on to readers. One of the things I love about reading history and historical fiction is feeling immersed in this world that no longer exists. So discovering bright details that can make the world come alive is utterly inspiring. Which tapestry Henry VIII had hanging in the great hall of Hampton Court. What the upstairs rooms in a country manor smelled like to a downstairs maid. The name of Anne Boleyn’s lap dog, the view from Greenwich Palace…Details give us the greatest impression of the reality of history—that people actually lived and died and loved like we do.

What’s your least favorite thing about research?

Dates and numbers. I was always pretty good at math, and I don’t mind it—in fact, it keeps my mind sharp. But I don’t have an affinity for numbers. I don’t remember them, and sometimes I transpose them (782 can become 287 very easily—in fact, I can look at one number and say the other out loud. Made people very nervous when I ran a cash register!) I’ve been reading about Henry VIII for fifteen years and writing about him for five of those, and I can’t tell you his birth date or year without looking it up. But I can tell you who his mother’s father’s brother’s daughter was (Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury). To me, the real meat of history happens between the people—in the gossip and their personalities and interactions. The numbers and battles never interested me, which is why I think is disliked history as a teen—that’s how our knowledge was tested.

Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?

One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is to make sense of some of the “muddy” historical characters I’ve come across. You would think Anne Boleyn would be straightforward—after all, there have been biographies, novels, plays, poems, operas, songs and movies made about her. But we still don’t know when she was born. It’s generally believed she was born in 1501, but I had to accept a later date (which some historians support) in order for her to be a teenager during the time period I chose to write about.

Mary Howard’s biography is even muddier. We know she married Henry Fitzroy (Henry VIII’s illegitimate son) at the age of fourteen. But no one knows for sure where she was for the next three years. Was she at court, serving Queen Anne Boleyn? Was she at her father’s (the Duke of Norfolk) home of Kenninghall? Or was she somewhere else entirely? Was she ever allowed even to see her husband? No one knows. There is no record. I decided to keep her at court because of a single mention of her being close to Anne Boleyn—and therefore occasionally coming into contact with Henry Fitzroy. Through this decision, I was able to explore the question, “How do you fall in love with someone you rarely get to see?” It became one of the central questions of the book. So for BRAZEN, history in some ways made the story easier to discover. The very muddiness freed me up to write a story that wasn’t hampered by all those dates I find so frustrating.

Unfortunately, history is also incredibly inflexible. I found it heartbreaking to have to write some events into my books. Deaths, arguments, poor decisions. I have used some choice words to rail at history over the past five years, but I always succumb eventually.



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38. Wisdom from A SNICKER OF MAGIC

I watched my whole family, all except Roger Pickle, lodge themselves in the middle row, where they could see me and cheer for me when I took the stage.

I could duel if they were with me. I could do anything if they were with me. My fears were monster big. But their love for me was bigger. Fear seems like all the world when it takes hold of me; it’s all I dream about, think about, and see. But it was love taking hold of me right then. And love is the whole universe — so wide I can’t even see the edges of it.

Love is wild and wonderful.
Love is blue skies and stardust.

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39. Almost Five Years of Blogging: What’s Changed, What’s the Same

blog notebook

I started blogging in September 2009. By then I’d been writing for over eleven years, and though I had no publishing leads, I decided to jump in feet first: I quit my teaching job and started writing full time.

Though opinions have since changed, anyone who was trying to get published “back then” was supposed to blog.* I’ve often been thankful I started writing long before the blogosphere was born. While it was sometimes lonely writing on my own, it was also simpler, too — fewer distractions, no one else’s writing regimen or sales to compare to my own experiences. I sometimes wonder if I’d started writing then how far I would have gotten. How easy it would have been to try and keep up with everyone else on-line and altogether forget about the actual writing thing.

I remember checking out a book about blogging, and though I didn’t understand a lot of it, one thing stuck with me: with so many voices out there, a blogger needed a unique angle. I decided my blog would be called Caroline by line, a name I hoped would be catchy, would be a play on “by line,” and would help people learn I was a CaroLINE and not a CaroLYN (Five years later, I still get LYN-ed as much as before). I opened a free account on Blogger and committed to talking about writing and reading, but also the publication process as I was learning about it. I also threw in some bits and pieces on teaching. These were the things I knew and loved.

Using a weekly planner I got through Writer’s Digest, I kept record of my blog posts. I posted five days a week until I sold May B. (roughly seven months in), then switched to three times a week. In 2010, I took off the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 2012 I gave myself a whole month of sabbath in July. It’s a schedule that I’ve stuck to since.

Though many who started blogging around the time I did have since hung up their fiddles**, I’ve continued on. Not because I’m so great, but because I’ve really fallen in love with it all. After sending manuscripts into the void, sometimes never to be seen again, having immediate feedback from readers was and is the most amazing thing. Some of my most popular posts have been my Running a Book Club for Kids series, this Third-Grade Reading List I created for the said book club, a post on sod houses, and my interview series with author/teacher Donalyn Miller discussing her title, THE BOOK WHISPERER.

I’ve tried regular features. Some have succeeded, some have fizzled, some I’d like to revive: Classroom Connections, a series meant to introduce teachers to new books; Fast Five, an up-close look at five books that share something in common; On Writing and Why We Read, which are simply quotes on the reading and writing life; Navigating a Debut Year for those new to publication; and most recently, Straight from the Source, a series of interviews with authors of historical fiction. Then there was Carpool Conversations, little nuggets I overheard while driving the neighborhood kids to and from school.

Some of you are new around here, and some of you have stuck around since the very beginning. I’m so grateful for all of you and this journey we’ve been on together, from those first days I stepped into the world as an unemployed, unrepresented author to the present, with one book in the world and four more under contract.

If you haven’t before, I’d love for you to introduce yourself in the comments below, perhaps sharing how long you’ve read in these here parts. If there are any topics you’d like me to blog about in the future, I’d love for you to let me know.

Thanks, friends! This blog wouldn’t exist without you.




*Now it seems those of us who write fiction have been cut some slack. It’s you non-fiction folk who are absolutely required / no excuses / get to it / must blog. Or not. Whatever works for you.

**Sometimes only frontier slang will do.

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40. Practice and Art

I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s blog for a few months now, and though much of it doesn’t feel like it directly applies to me, I always find something interesting there. While this post is about the business word, I love how it bleeds into the artist’s world, too. And why not? Can’t business also be art?

2014-02-17 18.02.52

Practice is not the answer here. Practice, the 10,000 hours thing, practice alone doesn’t produce work that matters. No, that only comes from caring. From caring enough to leap, to bleed for the art, to go out on the ledge, where it’s dangerous. When we care enough, we raise the bar, not just for ourselves, but for our customer, our audience and our partners.

Read the rest here.

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41. Do You Write Fan Mail?

I do.

Though I don’t tell authors I appreciate them as often as I should, sometimes I can’t help myself. I  sent a letter to Katherine Paterson after hearing her speak, a big, rambling, gushy thing. Another to Betsy James when I found out there would be a third book in her Seeker Chronicles. One to Tracey Porter to tell her she got the dancing world just right. One to Ellen Potter to thank her for her compassion.

Some letters I haven’t written and probably should have. Others I can’t write because the author is long gone. There was one I wrote a few years ago to Suzanne LeFleur about LOVE, AUBREY. One I wrote last month about Amy Timberlake’s ONE CAME HOME.

There’s the one I wrote today:

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so involved as a reader. The way you gave us opportunities to think through possible encounters, to think back to what had happened in book one, to anticipate — all of that was art, an active art. And then all you had to say about travel, about the kindness of strangers, the unity we can feel in chance encounters, will and fate, accidents and effort, the discoveries we make in our own families, our own wholeness and how others can contribute to our discovering this, living life vs. letting it happen to us — it was marvelous.

“I am a part of everything I’ve read” Theodore Roosevelt said. It’s true. And I am so very grateful to the authors who have made my life richer, fuller, deeper through the books they’ve created.



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42. The Words of Sue Monk Kidd That Are Making Me Brave

Writing outside my own culture has been a challenge, a venue of growth, and an exposure of my writerly insecurities. I’ve drawn encouragement from others who have done the same:

On writing Hetty, her enslaved character, in the first person:

“I didn’t do it lightly. I tried to write her in third person, but it didn’t work. I am intimately drawn to my characters, to see the world through their eyes and to allow the reader to do that.”

About creating a forbidden friendship between two girls, one slave, one free:

“I had to take a deep breath and get the courage to go there. [As a child] I witnessed terrible injustices and racial divides. I didn’t know what to do with that except to write a story that fosters connections across those divides and boundaries.”

Kidd says “the ‘common heart’ philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, an idea that the whole of humanity is connected with intrinsic unity, has inspired her writing career: ‘I try to go there when I am far away from my experience through that mysterious process of empathy.’”

— From the article “Taking Flight,” The Albuquerque Journal, Sunday February 2, 2014


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43. For the Long Years

Thank God for hard stones; thank God for hard facts; thank God for thorns and rocks and deserts and long years. At least I know now that I am not the best or strongest thing in the world. At least I know now that I have not dreamed everything.
– G. K. Chesterton

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44. Writing Links


9 Reasons to Say Goodbye to Your Critique Group :: Smack Dab in the Middle

Take a Different Approach to Writing : Eat Dessert First :: Adventures in YA Publishing

Why Verse? Poetic Novels for Historical Fiction, Displacement Stories, and Struggling Readers :: School Library Journal

Hope, Optimism, Despair: Writer’s Emotional Roller Coaster :: Darcy Pattison

See Grown-Ups Read :: Wall Street Journal

Behind the Books: Ten Ways Authors Can Help Educators :: Melissa Stewart

11 Indispensable Life Lessons Every Woman Can Learn From ‘Anne Of Green Gables’ :: Huffington Post


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45. Beyond Little House: Middle-Grade Frontier Books

frontier books

We all know the Little House books. If you know anything about me, you know Laura Ingalls and I are good friends. With May B. out there in the world, people often ask if I can recommend other frontier stories for young readers, those that move beyond the familiar titles we grew up with. Here’s a list put together by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Library with some additions of my own. Enjoy!

Hard Gold – Avi

Dear America: Land of Buffalo Bones – Bauer

The Courage of Sarah Noble – Dalgliesh

The Quilt Walk – Dallas

Weasel - DeFelice

Prairie River (series) – Gregory

My America: A Perfect Place – Hermes

Our Only May Amelia  and The Trouble with May Amelia – Holm

Julie Meyer: The Story of a Wagon Train Girl - Hoobler

To the Frontier: The Adventures of Young Buffalo Bill – Kimmel

Addie Across the Prairie – Lawlor

My Name is America: The Journal of Jedediah Barstow – Levine

Sarah, Plain and Tall – MacLachlan

My America: As Far as I Can See – McMullan

Dear America: West to the Land of Plenty – Murphy

May B. – Rose

One Came Home - Timberlake

I’ll add a few more titles in:

Prairie School: An I Can Read Book  – Avi

The Misadventures of Maude March – Couloumbis

Dear America: Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie – Gregory

Dear America: The Great Railroad Race – Gregory

Young Pioneers – Lane

Riding Freedom – Ryan

Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing Up on the Prairie – Warren

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46. Classroom Connections: PARCHED by Melanie Crowder + Giveaway

Silver Medal, Parent’s Choice Awards

Junior Library Guild Selection

“A thrilling, imaginative soul quencher. Crowder’s stunning debut is sure to become a modern classic.”—Rita Williams-Garcia, Newbery Honor-winning author of One Crazy Summer

“Readers will want to tackle [this story] with a full water bottle on hand.” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review

age range: middle grade
genre: eco-fable
teacher guide

Please tell us about your book.

Parched is a middle grade novel about a boy, a girl and her dog struggling to survive in a dangerous and drought-scarred land.  It’s a slim volume in which the spare prose mimics the bleak setting.

What inspired you to write this story?

Parched began with a single image that appeared in my mind one day. It was an aerial shot, as if I were in a plane flying low over the savanna. On the ground below, a skinny girl and her pack of dogs walked along a narrow game track. I wanted to know who she was and how she had come to be all alone in such a harsh place. As I dug into the story, I discovered that there was a boy, too, also hurting and alone.  I knew they needed each other, but that trust was next to impossible for both of them.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 
I am amazed by how much research can go into a work of fiction! I spent weeks combing through information on geology, flora and fauna and childhood trauma. Then, of course, there’s the fun stuff: biting into a horned cucumber to get that gooey, tart sensation, standing out in the rain and watching the droplets form and drip down a chain-link fence, and watching videos about dowsing (which is absolutely fascinating!)
What are some special challenges associated with writing an eco-fable?
Well, first, it’s not a broad genre. Parched doesn’t fit easily into any one familiar category. So where do you shelve a book like this? With the adventure stories? Next to the dystopian section? In the children’s section or the teen section? Of course, my answer is, why not all of the above?

Second, it’s so easy for books that begin with an environmental crisis to slide into didacticism. But the best thing about reading is activating your imagination and forming your own opinions—I would never want to take that away from my readers. That said, I hope I have struck just the right balance so that Musa, Sarel and Nandi’s story challenges my readers to think about some of these difficult issues.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom? 

Parched has natural tie-ins to science and social studies, and you can find a discussion guide for the book that explores many of these possibilities here. If I were a teacher, I would use the book as a springboard for projects in which students research an environmental issue facing their community and then develop service projects such as a stream clean-up day or a penny drive to raise money for a nearby wildlife rehabilitation center.

Kids have great ideas and I love to see their excitement translate into positive action in their world.


Melanie has donated a signed copy of Parched to give away. To enter, leave a comment below about something you learned in this interview. US and Canadian residents only, please. The contest closes Monday, June 1.

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47. Phenomenal Woman

i rise

Such an influence on my life. Such a gift to the world. You will be sorely missed.

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48. Writing is not efficient, but no effort is ever wasted.

stormy sandias 2

There’s this book I wrote a while back, something I started in 2001 and officially set aside two years ago. It’s called CAN’T BREAK US and is loosely based on my mother’s girlhood club. The manuscript is something I love to pieces, but after years and years of work just wasn’t coming together. It was my second attempt at a novel, the one that served its purpose in teaching me to write (of course, I still have a lot to learn). I figured we’d reached our end together (the manuscript and I. Book are friends, you know).

Last summer, author/editor/teacher Mike Winchell asked if I might be interested in contributing two pieces of writing — one non-fiction, one fiction — for an anthology proposal. The idea was to show students how authors can take ideas from real life and turn them into a story. My mind went immediately to CAN’T BREAK US, which initially grew from the stories my mother told me in my childhood. Using my author’s note as a starting place, I created my non-fiction piece. Then I pulled out a pivotal chapter, re-wrote it as verse, and sent it in.

In March the anthology sold to Penguin in a two-book deal:

“BEEN THERE, DONE THAT [is] a thematic anthology series with a kid-friendly Common Core tie in, in which a who’s who of award-winning and bestselling MG/YA authors will share a nonfiction narrative, and then write a related short story in order to show the “from-life-to-page” process of taking real-life experiences and transforming them into works of fiction.”

My stories will be a part of the first volume, FAMILY, FRIENDS, ENEMIES AND FRENEMIES, tentatively set to release winter 2016.

It’s easy for me to say no effort is wasted when a scrapped manuscript is recycled into something salable, but I firmly believe this is true for all writing, whether it reaches publication or not. Every attempt at creating informs our later efforts. Word by word (and Bird by Bird) we make our way.

I’m honored a portion of this manuscript will live again in an entirely different form. I’m thrilled to be included alongside so many talented people.




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49. A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse at BLUE BIRDS

While doing school visits in April I thought it would be helpful for kids to see all the hidden work that goes into writing books. Here are the pictures I shared with them — a peek at the “work behind the work” for BLUE BIRDS:

20140428_144722This is my research notebook along with a few of my books and a scattering of bookmark notes. Plus a hand-drawn map of the way I pictured Fort Raleigh.

20140428_144845Here’s the 1587 manifest (those we know as the Lost Colony), some maps, and a timeline of what happened July and August 1587 on the island of Roanoke.

20140428_144949Here’s some feedback from early readers.

20140428_144924Here are some first draft observations I made (adapted from Cheryl Klein’s SECOND SIGHT).

20140428_144808These are “quilts” I’d create after each draft — a way for me to see if the dual point of view narrative was working or not.

edit lettersMy three editorial letters. One thing I love to do is pass around my letters to students. There are usually two responses: they laugh (Whoa! These are intense!) or  they want to know if the letters hurt my feelings (Whoa! These are intense!).

My response? Editors (and teachers) are like the friend who tells us we have spinach stuck in our teeth. It may feel a little embarrassing at first to see our flaws pointed out, but this is the stuff that makes us look infinitely better. It’s amazing to me how much hard work editors (and teachers) commit to writers (and students) while remaining largely behind-the-scenes. Editors and teachers, you are invaluable!

20140428_143607A page from the manuscript itself. Along with those detailed editorial letters, my editor also mails a printed copy of the manuscript with notes throughout.

20140428_142923The manuscript pile on my office floor. (I’ll reuse these for printing future rough drafts).

So there you have it, a glimpse into the inner workings of BLUE BIRDS. Any questions for me?

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50. The Library is Every Child’s Lighthouse


The library is every child’s lighthouse.
It is every person’s sanctuary.
It is every town and county’s fortress
in the face of ignorance,
intrusion and bad behavior.
– Amy Bloom

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