On a Snowy Day

Quite a contrast to the last post. The autumn-to-winter juxtaposition of the posts was not deliberate, however. I didn’t post last week because I couldn’t think of a topic. And I didn’t know about the snow until last Saturday when my younger brother announced its scheduled arrival on Tuesday (the day I wrote this). Sure enough, overnight, it came. The Grinch couldn’t stop it like he couldn’t stop Christmas from coming. I admit to feeling a tiny bit grinchy when I saw it though. So yes, Ally, I feel the pain expressed in this blog post.

Still, days like this, I’m reminded of the classic book by Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, which Amazon adapted for the screen. As I gaze at the snow-laden branches through my balcony window, I feel the fire of joy trying to melt my cold heart, encouraging me to appreciate the subtle beauty of winter as fall leaves are replaced by white lace.

A mug of hot chocolate is in order!

The Snowy Day cover from Goodreads. Other photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Film Makers and Torch

With me on the blog today is the awe-inspiring Lyn Miller-Lachmann who is here to talk about two more books she has written. She’s already been on the blog in recent months to discuss two other books. Click here and here for those interviews. Today, we’re celebrating her nonfiction book, Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors, which was coauthored by Tanisa “Tee” Moore and published by Chicago Review Press on September 6.

       

Torch, her historical novel for young adults, will be published by Lerner/Carolrhoda on November 1. Click here to read the synopsis.  Lyn is represented by Jacqui Lipton.

El Space: Lyn, you have been quite the workhorse this year with so many books debuting. Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors debuted last month. Torch debuts next month. There’s a connection between the two, besides you as their author. Please share that connection if you can, unless there is a huge spoiler you can’t reveal.
Lyn: No spoiler at all! I came up with the idea for Torch after watching the TV miniseries Burning Bush, which begins with the self-immolation of Charles University student Jan Palach in Prague in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year and his people’s passivity after losing their freedom and independence. The director of that miniseries is Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director who has made a number of significant historical films, including three that explore the Holocaust and the more recent, Mr. Jones, about the Soviet terror-famine known as the Holodomor in 1930s Ukraine. Holland is one of the groundbreaking women directors I included in Film Makers and one of my all-time favorite directors.

El Space: You have so many interests. I’m always curious as to how you choose a project to work on.
Lyn: While Burning Bush showed me the different ways the people of Czechoslovakia resisted the Soviet occupation, I never got a sense from the miniseries of the young people who bore the brunt of the repression, including Palach, who sacrificed his life. I asked myself, Who were his friends? How did his death change their lives? What consequences did they face as a result of their association with him? From there, my characters of Pavol, Štěpán, Tomáš, and Lída emerged.

In the case of Film Makers, my agent, Jacqui Lipton, represented other authors who were writing for Chicago Review’s Women of Power series, and she invited me to submit a proposal. I like films and use them heavily in researching my historical fiction, so I suggested women directors. And since one of the filmmakers I wanted to include was Ava DuVernay and Tanisia Tee Moore, who was one of Jacqui’s other clients at the time, is a huge fan of her work, I suggested Tee as a co-author.

El Space: I was only familiar with nine of the fifteen filmmakers featured in your book. How did you research it? Were you able to talk to the featured directors?
Lyn: The series features contemporary directors, ones still working in the industry, so Tee and I chose some of our current favorites. We wanted directors from diverse backgrounds, those who worked with both popular franchises and indie films, documentary filmmakers, and TV directors and showrunners. Most of the directors make both feature films and TV episodes. We weren’t able to talk to the directors personally—that’s show business—but we saw several in exclusive panels for festivals and premieres.

El Space: How did the characters of Torch come to you? Why was it important for you to tell their story?
Lyn: Pavol is based on Jan Palach and even more on a secondary student, Jan Zajíc, who followed in his footsteps a month later. The first one of his friends who came to me was his girlfriend Lída, who, unbeknown to him, is pregnant with his child. Tomáš is my most autobiographical character—an autistic child of privilege who cannot fulfill his father’s expectations because of his neurodivergence but has a keen eye for the hypocrisy of the communist elite. Pavol is a genuinely kind person, and Tomáš clings to him as his first and only friend. Štěpán, on the other hand, is the bully who has tormented Tomáš all the way through school. However, his friendship with Pavol—due in part because they share a desire for freedom, and in part because he has an unrequited crush on Pavol—motivates Štěpán to change, even though change is hard for him. I wanted to tell these stories because all four teenagers lose their dreams and their futures when the democracy and freedom of expression they’ve been promised is taken away. This freedom is precious to them, and they’re willing to give up everything—their families, their homes, even their lives—to keep it. This is a something I think many young people in our country are becoming aware of now, because we’re beginning to lose our freedom in so many areas.

El Space: Though Torch is historical fiction, it feels current thanks to recent events. How did you wrap your head around the past events? Did you have to turn off today’s news in order to stay immersed in the past?
Lyn: I’ve written about young activists and human rights, most notably my debut YA novel, Gringolandia, about a Chilean refugee teen during the Pinochet dictatorship whose father, an underground journalist, is released from a political prison and comes to live with his family in exile. I think that growing up in an oppressive social and political environment in the South and being bullied because of my differences has made me keenly aware of how societies bully and oppress. And no, I didn’t turn off today’s news. It’s in the background of everything I write.

El Space: What was your process for working on multiple projects with more than one co-author? Is there anything you would do differently? Why or why not? What advice do you have for an author who juggles multiple projects?
Lyn: For both Film Makers and Moonwalking, the verse novel I wrote with Zetta Elliott, my co-author and I were responsible for alternating chapters in the book. In the case of Moonwalking, I wrote the poems from the point of JJ, my white autistic character obsessed with The Clash, and Zetta wrote the ones for Pie, the Afro-Latinx honor student who wants to make it in the art world like Jean-Michel Basquiat. For Film Makers, we divvied up the 15 directors and drew from our backgrounds and experiences in writing their biographies. In both cases, the collaboration worked because each of us had our strengths that complemented each other. But it takes a lot of trust in each other to make that happen.

As far as juggling multiple projects, which I continue to do, what helps is scheduling blocks of time for each project. By now, I have a good idea of how much time each needs and the best environment—work space, time of day—to work on each.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Lyn: I’m working on four translations from Portuguese—two picture books and two YA graphic novels. I’m also in the middle of a YA verse novel that’s set in Portugal and inspired by several of my translation projects. There will be more exciting news to come!

Thank you as always, Lyn, for being my guest!

Searching for Lyn? You can find her at her website and Twitter. Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors  and Torch can be found here:

Amazon        Amazon
B&N              B&N
Indiebound    Indiebound
Bookshop      Bookshop

One commenter will receive Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors. Another will receive Torch. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winners to be announced sometime next week.

Book covers and author photo courtesy of Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Ava DuVernay and Agnieszka Holland photos found somewhere on the internet.

Cozy, Stress-Free Reading

Lately, I’ve heard more than one person describe the stress he/she feels. I can relate! So, in times of stress, at bedtime I turn to books that are calming. Like picture books. Yes, I’m an adult who reads (and loves) picture books. I’m also reading The Silmarillion, in case you’re wondering. But my nighttime favorite picture books include the following. To learn more about them, click on the titles below.

 

Big Bear and Little Fish and Knight Owl

 

Extra Yarn and I’m Not Scared, You’re Scared

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

They make me laugh, think, and cause a warm feeling to well up inside each time I read them.

What, if anything, do you read at night or during the day to de-stress in general? If books aren’t your thing, but other activities are (exercising, puzzles, cleaning, building model cars, crocheting/knitting [me too], sitting with your puppy or kitty in your lap), do tell!

Photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Big Rig

With me on the blog today is the amazing and gracious Louise Hawes, author extraordinaire and member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts! She’s here to discuss her recently released middle grade novel, Big, Rig, published by Peachtree. I love this book, so I’m thrilled to have Louise here! Louise is represented by Ginger Knowlton.

El Space: Louise, what inspired this story? This might sound weird, but as I read your book, I thought of Route 66—the iconic route discussed in the first Cars movie, though that route is not a focal point of this book. Cars made me nostalgic. I had a strong sense of nostalgia as I read Big Rig, the trucking industry being so iconic. Back in the day, when my family traveled, we stopped at truck stops.
Louise: Honestly? What inspired Big Rig is the same thing that inspires all my books—a character. I never start with a story, you see, or even a premise or idea. It’s always a beating heart, a voice, that grabs me. Of course, Hazel, my 11-year old protagonist grabbed me harder than most and held on longer, too. She insisted on having her way as we hit the road together. She made it clear that she’s highly allergic to those two words, THE END. And even though my inner writing teacher tried to tell her about turning points and resolution, she just wasn’t buying it; she didn’t ever want to our story to end. She got her way, as folks will see when they read the book!

At Louise’s book launch—McIntyre’s Fine Books in Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, NC.

And that’s funny about Route 66. I wanted the book’s flyleaves to feature the major U.S. truck routes in a double spread. I never won that battle, but we did get road signs as chapter titles! Oh, and I wore a route 66 tie to the book launch!

Photo by Karen Pullen

El Space: How did you research this book?
Louise: Very unwillingly! At first, when Hazel popped into my mind and told me she and her dad had been traveling across the country for seven years in an eighteen-wheeler, I said to myself, and to her, “NO WAY! I know nothing about trucks, and I don’t want to know even the slightest thing about them.” But of course, after she popped into my mind, Hazel burrowed into my heart. And three years later? I know a LOT about trucks. I’ve researched trucks and the trucking industry. I’ve interviewed dozens of drivers, put plenty of miles in on big rigs. As a passenger. No, I’ve never driven one; at 100 pounds and 5 feet, I wouldn’t trust myself in the driver’s seat. I reached out to organizations like Trucker Buddy, who pair up individual drivers with classrooms; and Women in Trucking, who work with organizations like the Girl Scouts to publicize the fact that there are lots of women active in, and crucial to, the industry.

El Space: Hazel/Hazmat is a great character. She felt like an old soul—a marvelous blend of the past and the present. So confident and engaging. What was your process for finding her voice?
Louise: As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t find Hazel, she found me. But as with any character that inspires one of my books, I needed to trust her before I could begin an actual draft. I have a notebook of free writes (in the form of first-person letters from her to me); that notebook was full of her voice, cover to cover, before I ever wrote a single page of the novel.

   

Canine book reviewers: (Left) Jenn Bailey’s pooch, Ollie. Jenn is a VCFA grad and author. Photo by Jenn Bailey (Right) Bella, the canine co-author of “BEAGLES AND BOOKS,” a blog by Laura Mossa, an Elementary School Reading Specialist. Photo by Laura Mossa.

El Space: You have such wonderful characters. Even Hazel’s mother’s ashes (not much of a spoiler, since you learn that on the first page) is a character with weight in the book. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Louise: What a great question! I think the toughest moments to write were the ones where I needed to stay inside Hazel, and not give myself up to feeling sorry for her, which she never does for herself. The moments when she’s talking to her mom, or afraid of growing up, or angry at her dad—during all those times, she’s just right there in the moment, never feeling “poor me,” or “life sucks.” She’s just bringing her whole self to every experience, knowing better than most of us, that it will give way to a new one before we can truly catch hold.

The feline reviewer is an assistant to a Twitter follower and middle school teacher, Kate McCue-Day. Photo by Kate McCue-Day

El Space: What do you hope your readers will take away after reading Big Rig?
Louise: Besides the fact that a good story doesn’t need a beginning, middle, and end? I guess I’d like readers to undergo the same change-of-mind I did about truckers and trucking. Drivers and their rigs are crucial to all of us—to the economy, to the culture, to our whole way of life. And yet we pretty much forget about them, once we grow past the age of 6 or 7 and stop asking them to pump their air brakes when we drive by. We forget about automation and the driverless trucks that may well be destroying and brutalizing a whole way of life. That’s a thread that winds through the entire book, and I’d hope folks pay attention.

El Space: What inspires you these days?
Louise: Being outside, plain and simple. I need fresh air, and water in the form of the sea, or a lake, or a rainstorm. I need the bull frog in my pond with whom I engage in daily ten-minute dialogues. I need to see how relentlessly beautiful the world is, how it keeps going with or without us. I need something bigger than myself or my day. And nature gives me that.

El Space: What writing advice do you always share with your students and anyone else who’s asking?
Louise: The same advice I’ve been giving ever since I set myself free from slaving over every word via free writes. My first drafts are still like other folks’ second or third passes, and that’s because I can’t leave a word or a sentence alone until I hear it ring true. But with free writing, the loose, free times I spend with my characters, I can relax into them, get out of me. Which is why, behind every chapter I write, painstakingly, laboriously, there is a poem or a free write that came first. So, whenever myself or one of my students has a writing problem that’s stumping us, I advise taking it to our characters. To let it go, turn it over. That doesn’t mean I won’t edit or revise those free writes, or advise my students to do the same. But it does mean that what’s at the start, the heart of our work is something unhampered and flowing, something free.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Louise: I’m working on two things right now—one is a project I started a long time ago and am only finishing this year. It’s YA historical fiction, and the protagonist is Salomé, the biblical character who supposedly performed the dance of the seven veils and won the head of John the Baptist. The other project is a new novel for adults. The character who won me over there is a failed playwright who’s fallen in love with a dead poet. See? There’s just no telling with me, who’ll come out of nowhere and sweep me up and away!

Thank you, Louise, for being my guest!
Looking for Louise? Look here: Website, Twitter, VCFA, Facebook, Instagram
Looking for Big Rig? Look no further than Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Amazon.
Comment below to be entered into a drawing from which one of you will receive a copy of Big Rig! Winner to hopefully be announced next week!

Other books by Louise:

    

Book launch and author photos courtesy of Louise Hawes. Tree photo by L. Marie. Other book covers from Goodreads and Louise Hawes.

Are You Hungry in 2022?

 

This is not a Snickers commercial, assessing your physical hunger level. (Actually, I could go for one of those, right about now.) Let me back up. I was thinking today of my own hunger level in regard to writing. From a young age, I wanted to write anything I could write: stories, novels, play scripts, movie scripts, poetry, graphic novels, essays. I attempted any and all forms of writing. But as I grew older and rejections happened, my hunger slackened. In other words, I played it safe.

But who was I hurting by doing that? Me. So in 2022, I’m tired of avoiding an activity just because of the fear that someone else might not like what results when I try it.

Maybe you feel the same in this dawning of a new year. So with that in mind, my new year’s giveaway is a $50 gift card to Amazon/Amazon UK or some other source that will inspire you in your goal to advance in your writing or illustration, your artistic endeavors in needlework, or your whatever is legal. Maybe you want to purchase a craft book to boost your skill. Or, if you’re like me, you want to buy a coffee table behind-the-scenes book featuring a movie you enjoyed because you’re fascinated by the process of the filmmakers. (The Art and Soul of Dune, anyone?) Or maybe you want to buy a book from a trusted source (like Bookshop.org) or some crafting supplies (Hello, Michaels or JOANN) to inspire you to greater heights.

   

Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Be sure to name the place where you would want to spend the money. I hope to post the winner sometime next week after my next deadline.

Happy New Year!

Check This Out: The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas

With me on the blog today is the marvelous Mary Winn Heider, another Secret Gardener classmate, who is here today to talk about her picture book, The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas, which was published by Running Press Kids. Mary Winn is represented by Tina DuBois.

 

El Space: How on earth did you come up with this concept? Why unicorns?
Mary Winn: And of course the flip side to that coin, how could it possibly be anything but unicorns!

El Space: Good point!
Mary Winn: The truth is that I didn’t come up with the idea—my editor pitched me the premise and I thought it just sounded like so much fun. So I started with the idea that Santa has to use unicorns instead of reindeer, and then I experimented with a variety of scenarios explaining why it had to happen and how it ended up like that, which included both a Magical Animal Temp Staffing Agency and a parody version of The Night Before Christmas. I really love the wild brainstorming phase. But the more I worked on it, the more I was drawn to this very sweet unicorn troop who were absolutely bowled over to be invited to audition as reindeer substitutes. There is something so adorable to me about these fantastic, magical, stylish unicorns being so gaga about Santa.

El Space: Your book is so funny and quirky—a really tough balancing act to pull off. I can’t help thinking of Santa Cows by Cooper Eden, though your book isn’t about cows. 😄 I also think of Elf, a movie I love watching each year. It seems to take just the right balance to keep the humor from sinking into the sea of coy. How do you achieve that balance? I can’t help thinking of your novel, The Mortification of Fovea Munson [click here for the interview with Mary Winn about that book], which also has that balance.

 

Mary Winn: That’s such a lovely compliment—thank you for that, Linda. I agree with you that the balance is important, and while I’m drafting, I definitely err on one side and the other. That overstepping is a really useful part of my writing process—and I think for how I write, the metaphor really works: it feels exactly like being on a balance beam. I start off making big swings and toppling into the tries that don’t quite work, and then gradually making more nuanced adjustments until I feel a sort of intuitive rightness. I don’t have an algorithm so much as a very, very loose recipe. I like to make sure that as absurd and ridiculous as I get (and I like to get real absurd and ridiculous—my writing partner on my current project just sent me comments on a chapter today, which included the note, Mary Winn, this is preposterous. And to be clear, I consider that a really positive note)—as absurd as I go, I make sure that the story always stays grounded in something true and real. In this case, it’s the unicorns’ sincere need to not let Santa down.

El Space: So glad to hear about your process and the hard work you put into your books. And I love the illustrations! How much input did you have with the illustrator, Christian Cornia?
Mary Winn: I didn’t talk to Christian until after the book was out, but I adooooooore the way he drew the unicorns. All the little details, like that How to Rainbow book that one of them is reading at the top—just to die for. And the crocodiles! That crocodiles spread is among my favorite things ever.

El Space: That is a great spread in the book [which you can see part of if you click here and scroll down]! What Christmas book, if any, did you love to read when you were a kid or as an adult? Why?
Mary Winn: Hmmm. . . . Good question. I don’t actually recall one that I liked to read specifically at Christmas. I was a weird, indiscriminate kid, and loved to read seasonal books all year. But I do associate Christmas with reading, because I’d be off from school and I could just read the entire break!

El Space: What will you work on next?
Mary Winn: My next novel—The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy—comes out in March, so I’m starting to think about that book again. It’s funny how they sort of hibernate in your brain between the time that you finish them and they come out. And I’m working on a really exciting hybrid graphic/prose novel with an illustrator pal. It’s definitely the most exciting part of my days right now!

Thanks as always, Mary Winn, for being my guest.

Looking for Mary Winn? You can find her by clicking on one of these:
Website, Highlights, Twitter, Instagram, and Barrel of Monkeys.

Looking for The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas? Look here: Indiebound, Barnes and Noble, and Bookshop

But one of you will receive a copy at your home! Ho-ho-ho! (After Christmas, sadly, but something to look forward to.) Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced early next week.

 

When my copy of The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas arrived, Henry quickly commandeered it. “And look how nicely it fits under the Christmas tree,” he said, I guess as a hint for me to get him a copy of the book since I snatched mine back.

Random squirrel meme:

Mary Winn’s book covers are from her website. Author photo by Popio Stumpf. Santa Cows cover from Goodreads. Elf movie poster from Ebay. Random squirrel meme from sayingimages.com. Balance beam image from HuffPost. Henry photos by L. Marie, who is grateful for her copy of The Unicorns Who Saved Christmas.

What’s Your Genre of Choice?

I’ve mentioned in other blog posts that I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. My parents read fairy tales to me at bedtime and various fantastical books by Dr Seuss. As I grew older and more desirous of reading material, people kept handing me fantasy/sci-fi books or recommending them. The elementary school librarian recommended Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I then had to read the whole Time Quintet.

 

   

 
But around the house, a cache of science fiction books by C.S. Lewis and Isaac Asimov could be found. Also, my dad had a set of Star Trek novels by James Bliss that I read. And yes, when I was a kid, I read many books written for the adult market. Some I probably shouldn’t have. . . .

But I digress. Every year for Christmas, I would receive a Stephen King novel (okay, I guess that’s not much of a digression), so I guess you could say I dabbled in horror at times. But once I discovered Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it was like discovering a family member I hadn’t known before. Of course, I had to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, because y’know, I had to. And that led to many, many other fantasy books by authors like Lois McMaster Bujold, Juliet Marillier, Charles Yallowitz, N. K. Jemisin, Ursula Le Guin (may she rest in peace 😭), and—one of my absolute favorites—Sir Terry Pratchett (photo below; may he rest in peace 😭).

 

 

What genre of books do you turn to again and again? While you consider that, I will reveal the winners of the $25 Amazon gift cards, who, thanks to the random number generator, happen to be Jill and Jennie!

Thank you to all who commented! The holiday giveaways will continue next week. (P.S. If the photos look wonky, it’s because I’m having trouble with the WordPress editor.)

Some book covers from Goodreads. Others by L. Marie. Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia.

Check This Out: A Home for Her Daughter

I’m so pleased to welcome to the blog today the fabulous Jill Weatherholt. Many of you know her and love her. She’s here to talk about her latest Love Inspired novel, A Home for Her Daughter, which was published on August 25.

 

      Here’s the synopsis:

One little girl could change her mom’s mind about love…To give her daughter a brighter future…she must leave the past behind. Inheriting a house, money and a camp is the fresh start Janie Edmiston has been praying for. But the will stipulates Janie must work with her childhood friend—and crush—Drew Brenner, to get the camp running…or lose it all. The newly divorced mother and the widower aren’t looking for love, but sometimes it takes a child to show two broken hearts the way forward…together.

Since Jill is known for her Would you rather . . .? interviews, I decided to use the same format with her.

El Space: Would you rather research and write your next book in Paris or Hawaii?
Jill: Definitely Hawaii. I’m not a city person at all. The ocean is my happy place. The sound of the waves, the smell of the salty air, the gentle breeze, the feel of the sand on my bare feet. I’m ready to go now! I could walk for miles and miles. For me, it’s the perfect place to be still.

El Space: Would you rather have to write a novel next to a room in which a baboon will screech for three minutes every hour for nine hours or write with the knowledge that at some point in the day, an unknown animal will suddenly appear (no advance warning) and brush you with its tail feathers for fifteen minutes?
Jill: I’ll take the baboon. I’m not a fan of surprises, so the idea of something suddenly appearing without notice, would scare me to death. Plus, I’m very ticklish. I could prepare for the baboon’s visits. I like to be prepared.

El Space: Would you rather have coffee or tea for deadline days?
Jill: Coffee for sure! I do enjoy tea, and I drink a lot of it in the winter months to stay warm, but I’ve yet to find one strong enough. I need that jolt. I drink my coffee black and extra strong. Derek has often referred to my cup of joe as “motor oil.”

El Space: You’re celebrating the release of your novel. Would you rather have a slice of cake, a cupcake, or the world’s finest granola bar?
Jill: Granola bar? Seriously? No way! I’m celebrating. Give me the slice of cake and cupcake, but only if it’s chocolate. Anything else is wasted calories.

Thanks, Jill, for putting up with my strange questions!
Looking for Jill? You can find her at her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Looking for A Home for Her Daughter? (I couldn’t help chuckling at how that question sounded if taken out of context.) Head to Jill’s website for places to purchase. But one of you will find this lovely book in your very own mailbox. Winner to be announced on October 15.

Author photo courtesy of the author. Baboon image from blogspot.com. Hawaii image from Wallpaper Cave. Coffee image from Cup of coffee from clker.com. Granola bar image from the Food Network.

Check This Out: WordStirs

With me on the blog today is another of my awesome VCFA classmates, the delightful Laura Byrne, who is here to talk about her news website, WordStirs, which she maintains with her son, Tim.

     

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Laura:
• I’m a former sports editor and writer, whose athletic son had to remind her that there is more at stake in the world than the score of any given football game.
• Tim is a former finance student and current consultant, who plans to drown the world in unbiased, simple news so we can stop beating each other up at family dinners, and get back to arguing about important things, like whether or not ketchup should be refrigerated.
• We are a mother/son partnership that somehow works, despite a few notable differences. Example: Tim lives in Manhattan in an apartment the size of an elevator, with no car, and eats food the names of which most people can’t pronounce, from countries he’s never visited. I live in rural New Jersey, on 25 acres, and make my own bread, which is usually white.
• We bring two worldviews together to model how differences can be valued, and information shared through simple, unbiased articles.

El Space: What’s your process for choosing news stories? How do you keep track of trending news and still sleep and keep your sanity?
Laura: You know how some dogs will chase a ball forever? You toss one down the driveway for my Barney and he won’t stop retrieving it—a thousand throws, some day—until you take that slobbery ball away. That’s Tim and me with news. A thousand stories, and then we take Tim’s slobbery laptop from him. While retrieving all that news, we try to determine, given our readers’ limited time, what single story will help them to understand the world a little better.

Barney and Fred (yes, they are brothers)

El Space: The articles are so engaging! How did you come up the format?
Laura: How WordStirs is organized: Every article set is developed from one topic that is summarized in a paragraph or two in our News Made Simple. Then, that News Made Simple article segues into three additional articles, which continue to explain the topic:
   • The Geek. Want more background on the News Made Simple topic? You can click on the Geek.
   • The Debater. Want to understand two sides of the News Made Simple topic? You can check out the Debater, which is often a discussion between Tim and me.
   • The Runner. In a hurry? The Runner can get you out the door with just enough information about a current event to make you feel informed.

We take a subject, say, the coronavirus relief package, and look at the Fox News perspective. Then, we consider The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—and more. We also go to original documents, including Congressional records and World Health Organization guidelines. We look at fact-checking sites like PolitiFact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org. If we’ve done our job, somewhere in the article set you should see your perspective. But, if we’ve done our job, somewhere you’ll also discover something that makes you think, that challenges you and your prior beliefs.

  

El Space: How has the advent of COVID-19 affected your news coverage?
Laura: The coronavirus has dominated the news, including our coverage, and it carries with it additional concerns. For example, correct information is critically important and yet harder to get than ever as so many people are armchair-epidemiologist-ing the cures, courses of action, and predictions for the future. We’re trying to be even more critical of our sources and careful with our work.

El Space: Who inspires you?
Laura: The Secret Gardeners, my graduating class from Vermont College, are the most talented writers in the world, and their voices are always in my head, reminding me of the power of words.

El Space: Yay! What’s next for the site? What else are you working on?
Laura: Tim and I are working on a podcast. We’ve tried a few practice recordings and, so far, haven’t gotten past teasing each other. We’ll get it together, hopefully soon.

Thanks, Laura, for being my guest! Click here to access WordStirs or follow on Instagram.

Check out this video at Tim Byrne’s YouTube Channel:

The unicorn helps Henry get the point about social distancing.

P.S. The winners of the next two child Yodas are Charles and Marian. Again, I had to let them know ahead of time because of the fluctuating times we live in. I am working on yet another Yoda, so it’s not too late to put your bid in for one. 😀

Author photos and logo courtesy of Laura Byrne. Breaking news image from freepik. Washington Post logo from Wikimedia. Other logos found at various places on the internet. Other photo by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln

With me on the blog today is the fabulous Shari Swanson (another great Secret Gardener classmate; for others, click here and here), who is here to talk about her picture book, Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, which was published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins and debuts today, people! Woot!

     

Shari is represented by John Rudolph. After Shari and I chat, I’ll fill you in on a giveaway of this very book. Now, let’s talk to Shari!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Shari: My favorite color is periwinkle. Actually, periwinkle is a favorite word, too. Perhaps I’ll write a book about Mr. Perry Winkle and his Phantasmagoric Adventures Through Color. (Dibs. 😀)


• I love games, all sorts—puzzles, mysteries, board games, sports, hiding pictures, and treasure hunting.
• I have a beloved dog named Honey, not, surprisingly, named after Abraham Lincoln’s dog.
• I love words—etymologies, derivations, roots, cadence, sound, rhyme—everything about words. When I was in high school, I read All About Words by Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum while suntanning on the beach. One of my favorite courses in college was linguistics.

El Space: How did you come to write this picture book about a dog and Abraham Lincoln? How long was the process of writing the book?
Shari: When I was teaching middle school literature early this millennia, we read about Abraham Lincoln’s early years from an excerpt of Russell Freedman’s book on Lincoln. It was fascinating. I hadn’t ever heard about Lincoln’s Kentucky years and wanted to know more. I thought perhaps children would like to read about Lincoln when he was their age. I had the pleasure of meeting the late Russell Freedman at an SCBWI conference in 2006 and told him how much I wanted to write a picture book expanding on those details from his book. With tears in his eyes, he encouraged me and told me what a wonderful picture book that would be. When I was deep in that research, I discovered Honey. Honey had saved Lincoln’s life! What would the world be like if we hadn’t had Abraham Lincoln? Honey was an unknown hero. Honey, I thought, would make a wonderful picture book. And then I set off to write that story. The first draft of my book was written when I was doing the picture book semester at VCFA, back in 2011. I sold it in 2016, and now it is finally in the world!

El Space: How did you get started writing picture books?
Shari: I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this. I’ve always loved picture books. But I didn’t always understand that I could write them. Somewhere along the line, I realized that you don’t have to be a master artist to write a picture book, and that made me think maybe I could try it. I took a course in picture books at UCLA Extension way back in the early 1990s, I think, so it’s been a lifelong dream. I enrolled in the picture book semester when I was at VCFA with Julie Larios, and a workshop just prior to that with Julie and Uma Krishnaswami. That six months was maybe my favorite in my entire education as it was so filled with play and words and sheer delight.

El Space: How much input did you have with the illustrator? What was your reaction to seeing the illustrations?
Shari: Every picture book author/illustrator interaction is probably different. My editor, Maria Barbo at HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen books, was wonderful at taking my thoughts and opinions into account at each stage of the process. First, she asked me if I had an illustrator in mind to suggest. That inquiry sent me on a delightful tour through bookstores and libraries, trying to find artists that had the right feel for Honey. When she suggested Chuck Groenink, she sent me links to his portfolio. [Click here for a post about Chuck and his process on another picture book.] We both loved his work, especially his use of light in dark scenes, a skill that would be important for the cavern scenes in Honey. Seeing Chuck’s first drafts for Honey was a highlight of my life. Right there in my hands was this charming beautifully-realized art bringing my words to life. As we moved forward, I had the ability at every stage to offer my thoughts. One suggestion that I am thrilled Chuck incorporated was adding more detail to the forest scenes. I wanted the readers to feel just how distracting the woods were, with all the sounds and animals, and have the reader be literally distracted by the detail on the page just as young Abe was distracted on his journey.

El Space: What picture books have inspired you as a kid? As an adult?
Shari: As a child, I loved Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Are You My Mother, by P. D. Eastman, and all things Dr. Seuss. As an adult, I love picture books that are poetic and musical; those that have wildly creative art, perhaps looking at things from unusual perspectives, and those that celebrate characters who are not stereotypic.

     

El Space: Any advice for would-be picture book writers? What do you think a twenty-first century kid needs to see in a picture book?
Shari: My best advice it to read your work out loud. Notice where the pauses and awkward phrasings are so you can fix them. I also think it is hugely important to make a picture book dummy, eight sheets of paper folded in half to make 32 pages, and block out your story. Where are the breaks? Are there interesting page turns? Is there something that is illustratible on each page? Finally, don’t give up. Take the time to create as often as you can. The joy is in the journey. I’m not sure what a modern kid needs to see in a picture book. I hope in Honey, a modern reader can both identify with young Abe—his distractedness, his love for animals, his desire to help—and think about the differences, too, like how Abe walked miles alone through a wild dangerous forest, so that the book is both timeless and grounded in its time.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Shari: I have several more works in progress, but the one getting my immediate attention is a non-fiction picture book, another heartwarming story of an animal/human interaction, this one from WWII.

Thanks, Shari, for being my guest!

Looking for Shari? Look no further than her website, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Looking for Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln? Check out your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

One of you will receive a copy of Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln in your very own mailbox. Just comment below! Winner to be revealed January 20, 2020.

The first meeting of the picture book club almost ended in a fistfight. While Lazy Buns and the Squeezamal agreed that Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, is a great book, they disagreed on the refreshments, or the lack thereof. “It was your job to bring tea with honey for us to share!” the Squeezamal grumbled, Lazy Buns having only remembered to bring herself a cup of coffee.

Author photo by Christie Lane Photography. Book covers, with the exception of Shari’s book, are from Goodreads. Periwinkle flower from Wikipedia. Book storyboard from somewhere on the internet. Other photo by L. Marie. Squeezamals are a product of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company. Lazy Buns is a Pop Hair Pet, a product of MGA Entertainment.