A Time to Shine

It's Book Fair time.


Every year, twice a year, I pretend to have my own bookshop. A shop that arrives in one day, packed tight in boxes and stays for one glorious week. The boxes are unwrapped and the books are displayed around the otherwise empty room and with the collective voices of all those authors chattering behind closed covers....the room simmers. 



"I wish I could just stay in here all week," says one visiting teacher. She's a fellow book lover who seems to almost follow the scent of the books down the hallway. She arrives and stands with her eyes closed, hands hanging at her sides, breathing. Her pose is akin to the pose of one who has just arrived at the ocean and is taking in the sounds of the waves and the salt air, only here the ocean is words just waiting to be read.

We live in a small town. They closed our bookstore several years ago. We have a library in which my "request" list sits like a forgotten can of beans on a back shelf somewhere, untouched. I am not alone. There are many like me who put requests in that are never answered. All those new books I am dying to read stay somewhere far, far away until...book fair. 

The kids poor in and exclaim, "book fair is here!", "I love book fair!", "I love books!" Of course it grabs my heart. You should just see their faces. It's better than an ice cream shop. It's words, stories, worlds and they can't wait to get inside. 


As I look across the tables, adding one after another to the stack I plan to read before the fair closes in a week, I can't help but think of the books like old friends. It seems like the invitation to visit was sent ages ago, but not finally, they have arrived. The faces of characters on picture books look out, bright eyed, and I think, "Now is your time to shine."

They don't disappoint. A good book never does. 


Bacon Books v. Candy Books

(Beware vegetarian friends, this post relates good books to bacon!)


Once upon a time in a little school, there was a fifth grade class with children who were bright, funny, talented, and hard working...but when it came to books, they wanted CANDY. 

They also really liked BACON. After several humorous conversations in which books were recommended and turned down we had a heart-to-heart discussion about Candy Books versus Bacon Books.

Let me explain.

Have you ever had a piece of candy? (I may be wrong, but I think this is generally accepted as a common experience.) Something sweet even, a drop of honey? The point of the question is what happens when you have that something sweet? If your tastebuds are anything like mine, you experience something - right away. The sensation happens immediately. 

This immediacy also happens with "candy books." I am referring to the quick delights of books that are easy to love, pleasing to the senses, including the eyes. A perfect example, the Babymouse series by Jennifer Holm. These books are adorable. They are quick and easy to love. Baby mouse is cute, hilarious, adventurous and alluring. The books are short, fabulously illustrated and consistently checked out in my library and other libraries around town. They are candy books. You don't have to work at it. You unwrap it, pop it in your mouth and Ta-DA! Sugary sweetness!


BUT...Candy books are not second rate. They serve a very important purpose! Like Dav Pilkey (over whom I have been in trouble more times than I can count) who draws readers in and gives them the sense that entertainment can actually happen in written form AND it is worth picking up a book AND when you finish the series YOU WILL BE LEFT WANTING MORE. 

The Wimpy Kid Series, Dork Diaries, even mysteries with complicated plots can be candy books. The books can be fantastic, layered and deeply thoughtful, but they are quick to taste and delicious to devour. 

A bacon book is different....

Let's go back to Jennifer Holm. Her book Penny From Heaven is a bacon book. It is rich, layered, historical. It's a story about families, the things that pull them apart and the things that bring them together again. It is a book that most, if not all, my Babymouse readers would love...

The thing is, even though bacon is a mouth-watering, indulgent treat, it doesn't look all that appealing in its package. You need to cook it, separate the greasy layers, deal with the slick unappealing packaging and then...you have to wait. You have to manage the waiting too, turning the bacon, readjusting it on the griddle and possibly even get smattered by grease (which always makes me uneasy about the whole process) until finally the aroma lifts and you remember why this is something you wanted in the first place.

I refer to this as the uphill climb to page 6o.

Sometimes a book grabs you right away. Sometimes those first few paragraphs seal the deal and you are in, but sometimes it takes awhile. Sometimes you need to read for a while to really get a feel for the characters and the story and where the arc is taking you.

This is a bacon book. And like that first taste of bacon, it is worth the wait.

My deal with my students is that they can have all the candy (book candy!) they want but they must, from time to time, try a bacon book.

The rules in my little library are as follows:

1. From time to time - Try something that doesn't immediately look good.

2. Remember to Trust the recommendations of friends, or teachers, librarians, parents etc. Just try it.

3. Even if you don't like it right away - Push through to page 60.


That's when the aroma really lifts. That's when you get to EAT THE BACON.

4. If after page 60 you are still struggling to enjoy the book, put it down.

Life is short. 

5. And finally, there are lots of different books in the world, there are lots of different people in the world, find something that works for you.

Just don't give up too fast. 

Have you tried a bacon book lately? (Vegetarians - should this be changed to a grilled Portabello? Because, yum.)

Also, to that particular fifth grade class who collectively consumed more bacon in a year than I believe I could handle in a lifetime...you guys rock.

Authors and the Art of a Helpful Critique

I am truly excited to announce the impending arrival of Anne Marie Pace at our school this April. Among other adorable picture books, Anne Marie Pace has created the fantastically quirky series, Vampirina Ballerina which has recently been made into a Disney show.


I had the honor of meeting Anne Marie at a SCBWI conference for the MidAtlantic region in late 2016. Like a lot of writers trying out a new genre, I wasn't sure I really understood how to write  a picture book. I had a manuscript which I loved and had worked hard on but it was my first, and I had no way of knowing if what I had produced was picture book quality.

I found out, it wasn't.  

The first thing I saw after introducing myself to Ms. Pace was my manuscript. It was sitting on the table and it looked like it had been handed to a kid to doodle on...there were so many notes in the margins. My heart sank. Was it THAT bad? 

The answer was Yes, and No. It wasn't necessarily bad writing, but it wasn't good PICTURE BOOK writing. There is a difference. I knew that from reading picture books, but I didn't know it from writing them. Ms. Pace taught me the difference. Calmly, patiently, kindly she taught me how to reimagine what I had written so it would fit into the genre I was working in. She gave me suggestions, ideas, resources, and clarity...in fifteen minutes she changed the entire direction of my craft.

There are a lot of people who will tell you what you're doing isn't good enough. There are far fewer who will tell you, honestly, how to fix it. Opinions are indeed only opinions, but a carefully thought out critique is worth its weight in gold.


In the space of fifteen minutes, I went from thinking I could be at the start of a publishing career to realizing I hadn't even begun to figure out the details of the craft I had chosen to tackle. But why not let "tackle" be our key word here? I felt bad for myself for a few days and then, I picked myself up. I sat down with the manuscript and the miles of scribbles and digested everything she had said. I let it all sink it and then, I tackled it. It was a turning point and it opened a door within the world of writing that has lead me down paths I didn't know existed.

Now, two years later I have the honor to meet Ms. Pace again, and this time as an honored guest to our school. She will speak with our older students about the writing process - a task which I believe she is highly qualified for.

Later, in front of an audience of mostly younger students and friends from the community she will act as inspiration, a doorway into the magical world of storytelling. I expect it will be a visit to remember and I am counting down the days. 


A Visit With Robin Newman

This past fall I had the honor of hosting Robin Newman, author of the hilarious Missing Food Investigator books, The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake and The Case of the Poached Egg, at our school in Warrenton Virginia. Robin was amazing.


Robin Newman

 - answering questions about her book of fractured fairy tales, Hildie Bitterpickles Needs Her Sleep.

First of all, she drove down from NYC, with a car full of the coolest swag (tiny broom pens! smooshy eggs you can drop and manipulate to your hearts content!) and a chipper attitude ready to inspire a team of squirrelly students.

With her glitzy witch hat in place, Robin proceeded to make our students laugh and learn all at once. Robin is fun and thoughtful and a whirlwind of ideas. Her books are funny, whimsical and perfect for emergent readers. Before she came I read The Case of the Poached Egg to my students and they were clamoring over the quirky egg jokes as they tried to "crack" the case. The best test of all though was how many asked what other books she had and offered suggestions on the next book in the MFI series. When an author inspires reading, and more reading, her job should be considered well done. Well done Robin!

And thanks.

Book Review: LOVE by Matt de la Pena and Loren Long

LOVE BY Matt de la Pena and Loren Long

I have been looking forward to this one for awhile. My son is a big Loren Long fan and ever since Last Stop On Market Street I am fairly obsessed with Matt de la Pena. I purchased it as a Valentines gift and it struck a note.

This book expands love.

I chose this for a read-aloud today. A jumpy kindergarten class loved it and I dug in for the sweet stuff, "My dad made me burned toast once too!" said one of the boys. "I had a nightmare once and my granny gave me a cuddle," said another. It was good stuff.


Then I took the book to my group of 4 year old Head Start preschoolers. As I was walking in the Head of the Program looked at me and laughed. "Good luck in there today. They are pumped up!" And they were. Twenty kids in red and pink heart shirts with bags of candy splayed out on the tables. They didn't say hello, they ambushed me. I received more hugs on my entry today than I've had all year from this group.

With all the energy I wondered if I had brought the right book. The language is a bit heavier than I typically try with this age group. The length is generous and the arc of the story is more of a flow than a punch.

I started by asking them to tell me something that they love. "My mom", "my brothers", "my pink heart shirt." It was sweet but they were super squirmy and talking over each other.

Then I started to read.

What doesn't really make sense is how a quiet book like this enraptured the class. They were spellbound. Every picture, every word, every page turn had them wide eyed and listening. It was beautiful. I explained a few things along the way. I reread a few sentences that were particularly beautiful. They never missed a beat. When I asked if they had ever had a nightmare they nodded. When I asked if someone gave them a hug after the nightmare they nodded again in a way that melted my heart.

The best though was when the girl in the book looks in the mirror and sees love in her reflection. I took a moment to look out at them and that's when a beautiful brown eyed, honey-brown skinned girl who had never spoken during my story time raised her hand and said in a quiet voice, "she looks like me." 

"Yes," I said. "Beautiful like you."

It's a gorgeous book for many reasons but mostly because of the way LOVE becomes a word that includes so much you want to burst. 

Happy Valentine's Day.


No Sanctuary.

The other morning I woke up to see a text from my cousin Angela, a fellow children's book writer, with a quote from the brilliant Kate DiCamillo. The quote which I'll paste below was jarring in its accuracy. It spoke about the feeling when in the midst of writing that where you are going is....nowhere.



It can feel that way. Like maybe you are actually just vomiting on the page and it is all terrible and worthless and you should do yourself a favor and stop. But of course, if you are a writer, you can't. You just can't. It almost breaks your heart. Like you're standing there halfway up a mountain and your leg is broken, and the skies are dark, and thunder is booming somewhere in the distance and then lightning cracks the tree you're standing next to and instead of being reasonable about anything, you keep going. You just go. Up the mountain despite all the odds, despite rational thought. It doesn't make sense, but you go.

I was at a point like this the other day when Angela crept into my psyche and sent me the quote. If there is one thing I wish for aspiring authors out there, it's to have a buddy that pushes you when you really feel certain you cannot budge. Angela Burke Kunkel, lightning felled the tree, but you reminded me, rational thought is no sanctuary. 

And hey, for those of you who don't have that buddy, may you find it in blogs, or reading groups, or some other magical connection that keeps you in motion. Because motion is where it's at.




”Last week, I went looking for a quote I had taped to the front of an old journal, and what I found was notes that I made as I was writing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  
On January 13 of 2002, I wrote:
“I don’t understand what is going on with Edward and Abilene. Should I keep going? Page 16 now and many things have happened, but it feels out of control and lost. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Should I put it aside? Or should I keep going? I think I’m going to keep going.”
Here I am, sixteen years later, asking those same questions about a different story.  
It is deeply comforting to know that I have been here before.
It is deeply comforting, too, to know that the answer is still the same.
I think I’m going to keep going.”

Kate DiCamillo