Ubuntu, the facts and the heart


scan0143 - Version 2August 26 is a bittersweet day.  My fifth book will publish (sweet) but 18 years ago to the day I lost my mother.  She was warm and wise, witty and fun, brave and beautiful.  And she’s the one who inspired me to pursue a writing career although she never knew it.  While she was proud that I became a lawyer and would always be able to take care of myself, I think she would’ve loved to read my books (whose mother doesn’t?) and been a proud supporter (like my sister, who has already ordered 30 copies of The Badger Knight for friends, whether they want it or not).

My mother was an excellent writer herself and I think dreamed of writing the Great American Novel but ran out of time.  Growing up, homework was our responsibility but she couldn’t help looking at papers we wrote with a critical eye.  Like a reporter, she wanted to see the facts supporting the argument but like the novelist and woman with heart that she was, she also wanted to know the “why” of everything.  I can still see her … “Yes, but why?”  “This is lovely but why is it important?”  Or simply, “Mmm-hmm”– the paper handed back — “and why?”  In fact, we heard “and why?” so often that my sister and I would tease her with, “AND why!” in all sorts of situations.  But she was right.  And it made me a better writer — both the facts and the heart.


She encouraged us to find what inspired us and do it the best we could.  Go after whatever you want, she said, work hard, study hard, do whatever it is to achieve your dream and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.  You can.  She got her pilot’s license at age 15, even before her driver’s license.  But — and this part was important because I can still see the seriousness in her face — pursuing your dream is never at the expense of others.  In fact, you should be helping others at all times. In her words, the world is our community and we are put on this earth to help each other; otherwise, really, what is the purpose?   It’s the African concept of ubuntu.  Maybe she learned it while we were living in South Africa but I suspect she was just born that way.  Of course she gave much money and even more time to charitable causes, but what I remember most is her sitting with an elderly or disabled person and just talking, smiling, laughing until they did, too, or stepping into a situation to diffuse the tension, or standing up for someone or something even when it wasn’t popular.  Everyone deserved equal treatment and kindness.

Here’s Nelson Mandela explaining ubuntu:

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When she finally had a chance to retire, she battled cancer and ran out of time, on this earth, at least.  It made me realize that writing, which I’d planned to do when I retired, couldn’t wait.  I had to start.  And I had to do it well as a tribute to her and to my community.  So I try always to get the facts right, check my sources, do the research.  And then I think about the why, which takes a lot longer because it’s at the heart of every story.  Why did something happen?  Why did someone act that way?  Why are we here?

And that’s why I write.  To bring meaning to my life and to try help young people make sense of this world.  Sure, people can laugh that I gave up a job as a lawyer to write for kids (“Can’t she even write for adults?”) but for me it’s the right choice.  It’s not hard when you boil it down to the essence, to the why.  It’s to try to bring something good into the world.

Thanks, Mom.  Thanks for teaching and embodying ubuntu.  Thanks for making me think of the why.

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Close, Erika Raskin


Close.  What a great book title!  Fellow local author Erika Raskin’s novel (for adults) comes out in a couple of months and here’s the very engaging opening to pique your interest:

Sometime the dread was just a light tapping on the edge of awareness. Other times it was a howl in that dark space between anxiety and terror.

I love it! Here’s the synopsis:

Single-mom Kik Marcheson is doing the best she can. But effort doesn’t seem to count for much in the parenting department.

Her oldest daughter, Doone, is swimming in the deep end of adolescence. Casey, the middle-child slash good-girl is fraying along the edges and Tess, a quirky kindergartner, has installed an imaginary playmate in the family abode.

When Doone falls in with the wrong crowd, a TV therapist offers to help. And things do start to look up. But only for a while.

Erika obviously has a way with words and has earned quite a few accolades since she followed in the family business, as she puts it (love that, too), and became a writer.  To get to know Erika a little better (and she is a very fun person) I hope you’ll enjoy this light interview:

Tea or coffee?  Coffee.

Flavor?  Instant.

Milk or sugar?  Definitely doctored.

Favorite season?  I love the colors and sweater weather of autumn (before the leaves drop) — as well as all the impending celebrations. I also love spring when the gardens put on their party ensembles.

Can you deal better with wind or rain?  Wind. Unless I’m wearing a skirt. Then I get a little frantic.

Deciduous or evergreen?  Evergreen. Barren trees bum me out.

What’s always in your fridge?  Carrots.

Favorite comfort food?  Watermelon.

Chocolate or some lesser nectar of the gods?  In a perfect world I’d eat a watermelon and Dorito diet.

Food you’d rather starve than eat.  I’m a vegetarian…

Cat or dog?  Dog.

Flats or heels?  Heels I plan on retiring them, though, as soon as I get just a little taller.

Natural fibers or synthetics?  I like cotton – but seem to have a lot of the other stuff.

Jeans or fancier?  Jeans. And make-up.

Short hair or long?  In between.

Ideal evening.  Hanging out with my husband after a productive workday, bingewatching TV.

Ideal vacation.  Big beach house with everyone I love inside.

Favorite board, card, or computer game?  Scrabble.

Favorite sport or form of exercise?  Ballet barre.

Language in which you’d most like to be fluent.  Spanish. Still.

Country you’d most like to visit.  Ireland.

Skill you’d most like to acquire.  Being able to sing without scaring small children.

Favorite musical instrument.  Guitar.

You’re going on a book tour: Plane, train or automobile?  Depends on the distance. (Are we there yet?)

Topic you’d most like to write about.  I love writing and exploring different families.

Topic you think most needs writing about.  Social justice issues.

Author you’d like to meet.  Anne Lamott.

Question you’d ask that author.  How did she get so fearless.

What / who gives you spiritual guidance and inspiration?  Different writings, different authors. Sometimes no more than a line can change my path.

What most surprises you about our current culture?  The general acceptance of a loss of privacy. Totally creeps me out.

Some favorite books?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Mockingbird, Angela’s Ashes, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Traveling Mercies

Some favorite movies?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Terms of Endearment, Good Will Hunting, Little Women.

To learn more about Erika and her writing, please visit her website or her author page on Facebook.  Happy reading!



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Walter Dean Myers






“As a writer, I absorb stories, allow them to churn within my own head and heart — often for years — until I find a way of telling them that fits both my time and temperament.” — Walter Dean Myers

I am still reeling over the loss of this caring, smart, funny, determined and very accomplished man — the kind of man who responds to a boy who wants to write a book with him, and does just that (Kick), the kind of man of goes into prisons to talk with young people there, not just talk about the glaring lopsidedness of poor and minority kids in prison, the kind of man who is gracious and thoughtful, hoping to catch a cup of coffee sometime or discuss writing with me over email (while I took breaks between emails to hop-skip around the house, shouting, “Walter Dean Myers emailed me!  Walter Dean Myers emailed me!” and then sat back down again to try act like a grownup), the kind of man who never acted impressed with himself, although he had every reason to.  He’s such a famous author, there’s even fiction that includes him as key character (Love that Dog by Sharon Creech).

He didn’t just contribute to the body of literature — and a critical contribution since his work tended to focus on (often ignored) minorities and their families and neighborhoods — but to the body and soul of who we are.  As National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature his motto was “Reading is not optional.”  It’s not optional because reading is power.  Reading puts us on a higher level.  Reading anything — the directions on a household cleaner, a prescription bottle, a job application — can have serious implications for one’s individual future.  And, as a society, who will we become if we don’t forge those neural pathways that lead to reading, which includes distinguishing shapes, translating shapes into sounds, and shapes and sounds into meaning and understanding?  There is no video game or even audio book that will substitute for that brain training.  Don’t let a kid tell you that reading isn’t important, isn’t worth it, isn’t necessary, or is too much effort.  Tell him that if a kid from the Bronx with a speech impediment who carried books in a paper bag so no one would see he wasn’t “cool,” can read, he  can, too.  He or she might even become a writer, and write over a hundred books in a variety of genres, and maybe become the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.  But most importantly, they will learn to think and feel, to empathize, to experience the wider world, leading to understanding of others and themselves.  Reading will bring them a sense of humanity and humility, something we should all strive for so the world can have more Walters.

Authors, editors, book sellers, and book buyers will, I hope, strive to continue his calling.  He wrote, most recently in a New York Times editorial this year, about the need for minority kids to see themselves in literature, recalling what James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” did for him.  He said, “I’ve reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life’s work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue.”

Thank you, Walter, for all you’ve done for us.  You have long strides for us to emulate and try follow.  But we will.  Because it’s not optional.  And, as you said, “There is work to be done.”





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The Secret of Writing, Revealed

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People often ask me how to write for children, how to get published, how to be successful.  For me, there was one magic elixer that turned my writing life around.  It taught me to really know my audience as well as the industry.  It took my writing and raised it to a higher (publishable) level.  And it’s always there to keep recharging me whenever I need it.  No, it’s not coffee or chocolate or even a loving husband.  It’s something available to all:  the Highlights Foundation.  Sure, they provide that magazine you might’ve had as a kid but it’s much more than that.  It’s a foundation that nurtures writers for children, in any aspect of writing not just magazines (and if there’s some niche you can’t find covered, let them know and they’ll likely add it).  What makes Highlights the magic elixir?  Hmm, well here are some facts:

–experienced and generous faculty

–craft lectures and exercises

–one on one mentoring

–the synergy of other writers

–a nurturing environment (gourmet meals, your own cabin, a serene woodland with stream, yoga, drinks and snacks 24/7)

–most importantly, you’re TREATED as a writer and you’re EXPECTED to be a writer

That last point cannot be underestimated.  How often do we doubt ourselves as writers?  How often do we put our writing at the bottom of the list, below work and family and laundry, etc.?  At Highlights, you are treated seriously and as an equal — so much so that you start believing what you should’ve believed all along:  I’m a writer.  I may have much work to do yet but what I have to say is important.  And I will be published.

Those are the facts.  There are the intangibles, too — the kindness in the air, the support that surrounds you, the incredible creative energy (at the event I just returned from, Patti Gauch called it “lei lines,” or lines of magic that cross right there at Boyds Mills, site of the Highlights Foundation workshops).  I honestly don’t know what it is exactly but I can tell you this.  In the fall of 2003 I attended a Highlights workshop and the following summer I went to Chautauqua, a Highlights conference that’s now held at the same place as the workshops in Boyds Mills, PA.  As a direct result of those two experiences, I published my first novel, Quaking in 2007 and Mockingbird in 2010, and several more since.  They have all done pretty well.  I’m proud of them and proud of my writing.  But mostly I’m grateful to that magic elixir that enabled me to fulfill this dream, and keeps filling me up whenever I need it.

It’s out there waiting for you.  It really is available to everyone (there are scholarships or you can do what a writer at the last workshop did — start a GoFundMe page).  Set your goal.  Write.  Write well.  And then publish.

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Blog Hop — Happy Spring!

Fresh green growth, flowering trees, and even the rain is putting spring in my yard and a spring in my step.  Time to break free of the winter blahs and get reenergized for writing!  Thanks to the very talented Tracey Baptiste for inviting me to be part of this blog hop.  Tracey is an editor and author AND freelance “fairy Godauthor” (I love that) which means she can help you with your writing!  She writes from a great perspective — having grown up in Trinidad before moving with her family to New York city as a teen.  Here’s a fantastic post she just did to keep the #WeNeedDiverseBooks fire going!  Please enjoy reading about Tracey (and please enjoy reading her books, too!).

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Tracey Baptiste is an author and editor of children’s books. Born on the island of Trinidad, Tracey became interested in fairy tales and told her mother at the age of 3 that she would grow up to be a writer someday. She wrote her first novel at the age of 13, moved to New York with her family at age 15, and graduated with her Master’s Degree in Education at age 22. After teaching 2nd grade for several years, Tracey left to work for McGraw-Hill, developing Reading and Language Arts programs. Tracey wrote her first novel, Angel’s Grace, on the commute to work. After leaving McGraw-Hill to freelance, she wrote 7 middle grade non-fiction books including a biography of her fantasy hero, Madeleine L’Engle.

Tracey has recently returned to full-time work (though she happily works from home) as an editor for Rosen Publishing, where she edits non-fiction books for kids. Her second novel, a creepy middle grade called The Jumbies will be out from Algonquin in 2015.

Tracey is represented by Marie Lamba of Jennifer De Chiara Literary and is currently at work on a chapter book for younger kids, and a middle grade novel. She can be found at www.traceybaptiste.com where she blogs a weekly-ish roundup of publishing news. She also helps other writers with their fiction and non-fiction manuscripts via Fairy Godauthor (www.fairygodauthor.com). You can find Tracey in person at the NJSCBWI conference in June. She will be giving two presentations: non-fiction writing, and the author/agent relationship. She will also be critiquing non-fiction proposals.

At the end of this post are several more authors I’ll introduce you to, but first let me answer the Blog Hop questions:

1.  What am I working on?

It depends what day it is.  Seriously, I have so many different projects that I work on whichever one I’m most passionate about that day.  Mostly, I’m a novelist, but I’m working on several picture books and also a novel for adults.  I do try to focus most of my attention on one or two projects so right now it’s a picture book biography and a new novel that, amazingly, might even have a fantasy element which I don’t usually write.  I really need to work on my teen road trip novel, though.  And, OK, there’s also this middle grade historical novel that’s on the top of my list … see what I mean?

2.  How does my work differ from others of this genre?

I think every author has his or her own style.  Mine is to deal with tough issues but include the all important element of humor.  I also think authors have different strengths.  I believe mine is in the characters.  They feel real to me (and, actually, they appear in my head that way so I hardly feel like I can take credit for creating them myself).  I love it when people say the characters in my books stick with him and they don’t want the story to end because they’ll feel like they’ve lost a friend.  I think that’s a lovely compliment.

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I love reading contemporary or historical novels so that’s what I tend to write.  I feel for kids, particularly in their transition to adulthood, which is why I tend to write middle grade and young adult novels.  My books deal with difficult topics because I’m trying to make sense of them myself and hoping that these stories will help kids think through these topics and make some sense of them, too.  My themes are tolerance, understanding, social justice, and peace.  Those themes are important to me in life so they come out naturally in my writing.  Finally, I always end on a note of hope.  That is critical.  I couldn’t write without hope.

4.  How does my writing process work?

It’s messy.  It’s unconventional.  It’s haphazard.  And that’s the way I like it.  I have never enjoyed routine — variety is the spice of life, right?  I love working on whatever project interests me so whatever mood I wake up in determines my work for the day.  Often I’ll sit and write very early in the morning when I’m fresh and the house is quiet and before the day gets away from me.  Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get a power nap and I can repeat the creative surge in the afternoon.  I write (in my head or on my voice app) when I’m driving or taking walks.  And really, writers are always working on stories because we’re observing and tucking little incidents away for future modification and use.  I write whatever comes into my head and the only downside is having to take that jumble and shape it into an organized story.  That is the hardest part for me.  But even in that process I learn something and make revisions and realize why it is I’m writing this story.  Research, to me, is part of the writing process because I couldn’t write without really knowing the ins and outs so I do spend a fair amount of time reading, exploring, traveling, etc. in order to get the information I need to write an authentic story.  It’s probably not the most efficient process but we all have to follow our own style.

And now for three talented writers whom I respect and whose writing I very much enjoy.  Please check them out!

Jennifer Elvgren can make even tough topics understandable to the very young, and memorable for all of us.


A former print journalist, Jennifer’s children’s fiction has appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, and Spider magazines. She is the author of Josias, Hold the Book, a Bank Street College Best Books selection and a recipient of the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Her new picture book The Whispering Town was recently reviewed in The New York Times and received a Starred Review from Booklist. She lives in Albemarle County, Virginia, with her husband, three children, Caspian the Border collie, Copperfield the Foxhound and Goodnight Moon the Quarter Horse. Please visit her at www.JenniferElvgren.com


Dionna Mann is such a beautifully lyrical writer that reading her words is like drinking in deliciousness.

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Dionna is a spinner of children’s yarns, a weaver of nonfiction articles, a forever-learner enrolled in the Institute of Imaginative Thinking and a keeper of an MFA–a Mighty Fine Attitude, that is. Her work has appeared in WEE ONES, KidMag Writer, the SCBWI Bulletin, the ICL’s newsletter, and in regional newspapers. She has sold a non-fiction feature to Highlights for Children and has had a poem accepted by Ladybug. For eight years now, Dionna has been writing articles on editorial assignment for Charlottesville Family, a Parent’s Choice winning magazine. In 2012, her debut middle-grade, FREEDOM PEN, was published by Pugalicious Press. She may be found at www.dionnalmann.com





Shelley Sackier has a wit you can’t even imagine (actually, you can once you read her bio!) — it draws you in and keeps you laughing.


Shelley Sackier is a bone-tired woman who faces a daily insurmountable amount of laundering and cleaning of crockery. These tasks are generated mostly by her faithful hound who is an unusual mixed breed of part highland cow and part wooly mammoth. She owns two children who also tax her with the insatiable need for full bellies and clean underwear. And she accomplishes these undertakings with nothing more than the assistance of her teeth.

With her hands, she is free to idle away her hours writing middle grade and young adult contemporary and historical fiction. June 2015 is the date her publishers have set as the unleashing of her book Dear Opl, a humorous look at grief, obesity, and diabetes; a tagline her editors refuse to acknowledge as marketable.

To learn more about Shelley, visit Peakperspective.com where she blogs weekly about living on a small farm atop a mountain in the Blue Ridge and how it’s easiest to handle most of it with home grown food, a breathless adoration for tractors, and a large dose of single malt scotch.


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Freedom’s Sisters for Black History Month

Freedom’s Sisters was a wonderful traveling exhibit (now online) honoring 20 African American women in the categories Dare to Dream, Inspire Lives, Serve the Public, and Look to the Future.  I posted about many of these women already but realize I never mentioned the last 4 in the group — and now that it’s Black History Month, what better time?

Harriet Ross Greene Tubman (circa 1820 – 1913)

“Every dream begins with a dreamer.”

We all know her as the famous conductor on the Underground Railroad but just how tough she was is astounding — 19 trips into slave territory, ferried all her charges to safety, had a $40,000 reward for her capture (over $1,000,000 in today’s dollars), but she was never caught.  And she commanded a military raid during the Civil War and was a spy for the Union Army.  You know how people ask if you could have dinner with several people from history, who would they be?  Harriet Tubman would be one of them.

For kids, I highly recommend Alan Schroeder and Jerry Pinkney’s picture book, MINTY.  (Her name was Araminta, nickname Minty, but she later changed it to Harriet, after her mom.)

Here’s a kids’ website, too, and a more comprehensive, educational (and fascinating) one from Scholastic.

C. Delores Tucker (1927 – 2005)

“Never again will black women be disregarded.”

The first woman and first African American to be a secretary of state (Pennsylvania, 1971), she also helped found what is now called the National Congress of Black Women in 1985 and served as chairman of the National Black Caucus of the Democratic Party.  Here’s more information from the  National Women’s History Museum.

And yes, she’s the one who spoke out against rap lyrics, for which many ridiculed her, but here’s a very thoughtful contemporary article about that issue from Sharon Toomer in Black and Brown News.

Frances Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)

“More than the changing of institutions we need the development of a national conscience, and the upbuilding of national character.”

Frances Harper was an author of poetry and many novels, and editor and contributor to the Anglo African Magazine, the first African American literary journal.  She was also a participant in the Underground Railroad and lifetime abolitionist, spending almost 50 years traveling traveling tirelessly and giving speeches against racism and sexism.  A friend of Sojourner Truth, she was another tough lady like Harriet Tubman.  Here’s some information about her from the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862 – 1931)

“One had better die fighting agains injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

Another courageous woman, Ida Wells-Barnett sued the railroad in Tennessee for requiring her to sit in a blacks only car — in 1884!– 71 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat.  What’s amazing is that Wells-Barnett actually won the case, although it was later overturned.  She went on to write about the event and other injustices and become a successful journalist and co-owner of Free Speech, an African Americans newspaper.  When she wrote in that paper about lynchings, she ended up having to leave town but that didn’t silence her.  She wrote and spoke around the world about social injustice.

Here’s a great site with info about her from Duke University and a piece in biography.com (although this site has those annoying audio-visual commercials that pop up).


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Talking Story



I was so grateful to have the chance to talk story with students at Pukalani Elementary School in upcountry Maui, Hawaii.  Many of them were in the middle of reading Mockingbird and eagerly asked questions about the book and writing in general. It’s kind of far to go so they don’t get too many author visits which made it special for me — as a kid who never thought it was possible to become an author, I want kids to see they can follow their dreams, writing or otherwise.  Thanks to Jamie Ahlman for organizing and for being a tour guide for the evening, too!  And mahalo for my lovely gifts and thank you notes!!IMG_1720IMG_1719



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