Sunday, June 25, 2017

Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation

A few months ago, an ELA teacher who works on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota got in touch with me. She wrote to tell me that she has used Flipped in the curriculum for years, with great success in engaging her at-risk students. She sent me photos, letters from students, and art. In return I sent her a big box of assorted books for her and her students. It included a copy of Runaway which she immediately took home and read.

During the next round of communication, I learned a lot more about her and the job she does. For 25 years she has commuted 40 miles each way to teach on this reservation, which is right up near the US/Canada border. It's a very rural, high poverty area, and a lot of her students live in housing projects based on government funding. Drug use and abuse are extremely high, and she deals with deaths of former students almost monthly, trending toward weekly, from incidents related to addiction.  A lot of her students are raised by grandparents, relatives, foster homes, or live in the local shelter. She said that her students tend to thrive with reads that deal with the issues presented in Runaway, because they can relate directly.

Despite this bleak reality, one thing shined through her correspondence with sharp clarity: She loves her job. She loves the kids. She’s their cheerleader and champion, and she goes to work each day with a determination to pave a path away from the statistics that face her at-risk students. 

You may have heard that I have a book coming out on September 5th. The title is Wild Bird and it’s the story of Wren Clemmens, an at-risk teen who gets sent away against her will to a wilderness therapy camp in the Utah desert. It has a Native American component to it because almost all wilderness therapy camps have one, and I wanted to make Wren’s experience as authentic as possible. (And to ensure the Native representation was done correctly, I worked with a sensitivity reader from the Southern Paiute Nation, which is featured in Wild Bird.)

What you probably haven’t heard (because I haven’t told anyone and the dates/times/places aren’t entirely cemented) is that my publisher is sending me on a West Coast tour when Wild Bird comes out.  Mostly, I’ll be in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Seattle.

The publisher’s purpose in sending an author on tour is to help launch the book. To help sell the book. It’s very expensive to send authors on tour. Where they send them is tied to the return they expect/hope to get on their investment. They like to work with stores that have a good track record of smoothly run, well attended events, with good community outreach. It also helps if the store is in or near a big city, where multiple tour stops can be arranged from a single flight into that city.

Publishing is a business. One that has had to tighten its belt over the past decade to stay competitive. It doesn’t make financial sense for a publisher to send an author someplace where books won’t sell, or is too remote.

So I knew there was no chance that my publisher would add a tour stop to Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation. For one thing, being at the tippy-top of North Dakota, it’s nowhere near the West Coast, and the tour is specifically West Coast. For another thing, it’s, like, seventeen flights and a three-hour drive to get to the reservation. And, of course, the ELA teacher made clear that there's not a lot of money for discretionary things like, say, books.

So, yeah. No chance in France my publisher would even consider sending me there.

And yet, I asked.

And to my astonishment, they said yes.

Well, actually, they said, “We think it’s a fabulous idea!”

It may be a business, but my publisher (Random House) has a heart!

And so, added to my tour stops this fall is Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation, where I will do my best to convey a message of hope, and encourage the students to find power through both reading and writing. I am so looking forward to meeting the students and staff there, and plan to do a lot of listening to them.

Meanwhile, I’ll post my tour dates and locations when they become official, which should be soon.

Thank you for checking in. I’ll see you in the comments! 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Girl Power

When I was a kid, "girl power" was not a thing. Girls who would rather do sports or dared to compete with guys were called "tomboys."

I was definitely a tomboy.

For me, this was partly survival. I was sandwiched between two brothers. If I was going to have any fun, I had to keep up with the things they wanted to do.

Also, nowhere in my parents' playbook was the notion of treating their daughter like a princess. They were immigrants, and in this land of new opportunity, they valued hard work, discipline, and education. I wasn't treated differently or given "a pass" on things because I was a girl. We all worked together. We all helped out. My hands were as calloused as my brothers'. Hard work knew no gender.

In school, I was different from my peers, and it made me uncomfortable around them. Girls had Barbies, fashion sense, and pop culture crushes. Me? I could beat every boy on the playground in the 100 yard dash.

What I wish for my young self is that I'd grown up in a time when my mom - or my teachers or my Scout leader or my librarian or anybody - would have known how to articulate the notion of "girl power." The words, the concept, the discussion of the value of being true to yourself would have helped me embrace who I was, rather than try to conceal my differences. Because all kids want to have friends. All kids want to fit in. All kids are afraid that their differences will ostracize them. Back then there wasn't a movement to empower individuality.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm in the process of delicately updating all 18 books of the Sammy Keyes series as the new covers roll out in 2017 and 2018.  (You can read about that process here if you're interested.) Next year will mark 20 years since the first title (Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief) was published, and the truth is, I hadn't read that book (or any of the books I've written) since it went to press. So I was a little concerned that the actual edition I held in my hands wouldn't compare to the romanticized version I held in my head.

The delightful surprise (and relief) for me has been how Sammy is even better than I remember. She really is, in the wonderful words of Sue Grafton, "feisty, fearless, and funny," but more than that, she is unique. She is herself. Despite all the pressures against it, she is true to herself and the things she believes.

And in revisiting the books, I'm understanding better why the impassioned young women who come to my signings with sacks of Sammys have the same message for me:  Sammy empowered them to embrace themselves and pursue extreme goals. In short, Sammy gave them girl power.

I didn't set out to write girl power books. Sammy was just a kid - like any kid - struggling to figure things out. She was me and you, our fears and frailties, flaws and strengths, stumbling through life for truth, trying to find her way, and in doing so, somehow helping us find our own.

It is still mind-boggling to me how much I have learned and grown from a character I created.

Looking back, I can see that my being an outsider influenced the creation of her as an outsider, which, in turn, helped kids who feel like outsiders see that their uniqueness is a strength; that it's okay to be different; that it's okay to be strong. But it has gone beyond my wildest dreams to see the empowering impact that Sammy has had on young girls.

Today, "girl power" is everywhere, and it fills me with joy. When I was in New York for the Bank Street College of Education award, I had the privilege of meeting a huge Sammy Keyes fan and her son. They have read the entire series together three times and are starting on a fourth go-round. 

It turns out that this Sammy fan / mom - Julie Kerwin - is also the founder of iamElemental - a company that makes girl-power action figures. Their motto is "Play with Power" and their action figures are named after power "elements" like Creativity, Ingenuity, Curiosity.... I have Logic on my desk - she's awesome!

So if you're looking for something for girl-power play, I encourage you to check out the iamElemental line of female superhero toys. Smart, fun, and empowering.

I also exclaimed "Hallelujah!" when I first saw Strong is the New Pretty. Anyone looking for a book to encourage young girls to embrace themselves should check this one out. The pictures are gorgeous, the quotes will make you laugh and cheer, and the opening essays before each section are truly inspiring. And if you're a grown woman, reading it will make you want to go back and be a girl all over again....and this time do it your way.

It's important that we promote the idea to girls that it's okay to be feisty and fearless, that it's okay to be different - to be unique - and that strength is beautiful. 

Because the girls who will go on to change the world are not the ones who conform to it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Dark Cloud

During lunch with a former student this week, the conversation turned to depression. She shared some personal stuff and then apologized for going into such depth about her life, her family, and that Dark Cloud that's so good at creeping in to block the sun.

In a rare moment of candor I told her that I knew the Dark Cloud well. 

Everyone thinks I have the perfect life, I explained, and I do. I have a great marriage, two amazing sons, we live in a slice of heaven, I have over thirty books in print, two have been turned into movies, strangers tell me how much my work has helped them in their life, and I'm healthy.  

And compared to the way my life used to be? Wow. I know I've got it good.

So what could I possibly get depressed about?

But that's just it. Depression can defy logic. And trying to reason it away is usually futile.

Also, it's not the same for everyone who suffers from it (or bouts of it), so the remedy - or battle plan - to defeat it is going to be different for different people. The chemistry of the brain is way too complex to prescribe universal solutions.

I try to shake my Dark Cloud by running away. Literally. I know exercise is good for health and fitness, but my real motivation is mood elevation. Can I just say this? I don't love running. I love the result of running. I love the way it calms me down, lifts me up, makes me ready to tackle the things I have been putting off. 

It's all about the endorphins.

I also escape in my writing. 30 novels (8 chapter books) in less than 20 years is the output of a woman possessed; one preferring to create worlds where good can triumph than face off with her own demons. When I'm absorbed in the production of pages, the Dark Cloud stays a safe distance away.

Also of benefit is the simple act of "ditch digging" - the chores of life. If I can get myself up and moving when the Dark Cloud is hovering, I can bat it away. But getting yourself up and  moving when it's upon you is hard. Why bother with chores? I don't feel like going for a run. No, I don't want to answer the phone, the front door, my email. Nothing seems worth doing, and the less I do, the less I feel like doing. It is hard to break that cycle. 

I never, ever talk about this except with Mark, who helps me get up and get going on the things that will chase the Cloud away. I dodge and weave my way through life, and pretty much manage to keep the darkness at bay. And I don't want to acknowledge the Cloud to others because...well, everyone has things they're dealing with, and I have, you know, everything.

But there you have it:  Like many people, I struggle with a powerful and persistent Dark Cloud. And the reason I'm sharing this with you now is because that former student gaped at me when I shared it with her and said, "You have no idea how much better that makes me feel."

She seemed so...relieved. She laughed out loud. She shook her head. She smiled a warm, radiant smile. 

Her reaction made me realize how much we can help each other, just by admitting it. Twenty minutes in the weight room may not work for you the way it works for me, but maybe a hike through the woods will. Or maybe you've tried sweating it away, or writing it away, or scrubbing it away, and it's still there, dark and foreboding, and you just can't shake it. Maybe it's time to seek professional help.

I am not a doctor, and I don't claim to understand the intricacies of brain chemistry, depression, or even mood swings. 

I just want you to know that you're not alone. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Just a Hater

There will be haters. And with the anonymity of the internet serving as barracks, they will shoot freely with their negativity, aiming to hurt you, but willing to settle for knowing they got to you. 

This week I saw that there was a 1-star rating on Goodreads for my upcoming YA novel, Wild Bird. Goodreads reviews can be tough. The majority of people there take their reading very seriously. They are stingy with their 5s. 4-stars is a compliment. 3-stars is really good. But a 1-star? Those are much rarer than 5-stars.

You can get a 1-star on Amazon if someone's book wasn't delivered on time (like that's the author's fault?). Not the case on Goodreads. Most reviewers are there for a legitimate love of literature and have more class than to give a 1-star rating unless they have real issues with a book....and then they'll usually voice those in a review.

There was no accompanying review on Goodreads for the 1-star rating of Wild Bird. And since this is a book that's really only available to reviewers and select educators at this point (because it won't be out until September 5th), I was puzzled.

And then I realized that this same "reviewer" had given all my books--and pretty much only my books--1-star ratings. And that they'd all been rated on the same day.

Ah. A hater.

What did I do to deserve this hate?

I have no idea, and it doesn't matter--I was immediately over it.

Creative people are usually sensitive people, and it's easy to get to us. Especially when our creations are from the heart. It takes me two, maybe three, years of of research, writing, and revising to finish a YA novel. Yet with the split-second tap of a touch pad, someone can give your book one-star and feel that they are in a position of power. Or equal footing. Or that they are somehow a player.

My creative friends: these people are not players. They are not in your court, on your field, or swimming in your pool. They are benched. Their lives don't work to a point that they resort to this to make themselves feel better. How sad is that? How pathetic is that?

So don't give them that power. Don't let them infiltrate your thoughts. Don't even bother to ask who or why. The who is easy: a coward. And the why will never make sense coming from the thoughts of an illogical or hateful mind. Don't waste your time.  

Also, you will lose if you engage. Maybe you can get their profile removed, but they'll just come back as a different fake user, with a different fake profile, and a different fake photo. 

So don't give them your energy. Go back to the creative work you do. Keep driving toward your mission. You have a purpose, a direction, a contribution to make. They have hate, cowardice, and, almost certainly, little to show in the way of actual accomplishments.

Turn your back, walk away, and pity them. 

Hate is a terrible way to live.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

An Interview with Tara Sands, Voice Artist Extraordinaire

I’m so excited to share this week’s post. It features Tara Sands, the voice artist for the Sammy Keyes books, done through Live Oak Media (“where great children’s books play nicely”). 

For the record, Tara is awesome. Kind, generous, excitable, and funny. She also adores her rockin’ grandma, which, come on, says a lot.

The Sammy Keyes books came out before the audio recordings did. My kids were too young for Sammy, but I tried reading them aloud to them anyway. Let's just say they didn't have the enthusiasm I'd hoped for.  

But when the audio books came out, I let Tara do the talking and it suddenly became fun. For them and for me! They wanted to hear more. And then when my sons discovered that Tara voiced for Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, well, they were over the moon excited to listen. They looked at me differently. “You know Tara Sands?

The cool thing for me was, the audios hooked the boys on Sammy. When the new books came out, they wanted to know what was happening in Sammy World now. And since the audio books weren't out yet, they broke down and started reading them. That’s right. I have Tara Sands to thank for getting my own kids into Sammy Keyes.

So, if you haven't already gotten to know Tara, let me give her an official introduction:

Tara can be heard as over 50 characters on the original “Pokemon” series, including Bulbasaur, Richie, Jasmine, Oddish, and Tori. Other favorite roles include Mokuba Kaiba in "Yugioh",  Circe in “Generator Rex,” Summer in "Barbie: Life In The Dream House," Kari in "Digimon Adventure Tri," Karla in "Gundam Thunderbolt," Kombu Infinity in "One Punch Man," Cynthia in "Pokemon Generations," Anna in "Shaman King" and lots more.

Tara has narrated over 150 audiobooks (including the Sammy Keyes series) and for over 100 episodes, Tara was the on-camera host of the Cartoon Network show “Fridays.” There, Tara interviewed dozens of celebrities and had more on-camera food fights than she cares to remember! She has received numerous Earphones awards from Audiofile Magazine and has been nominated for Audie awards as well.

And now, on to the interview!

Welcome to the blog, Tara! We have a lot of Sammy Keyes fans here so we appreciate your taking time to chat with us about what it’s like to voice the audio books for the series.

WV: Walk us through the audition process for a voice artist. How did Live Oak Media select you to be the voice of Sammy Keyes?

TS: It was a long time ago, so I am a bit fuzzy on the details! I remember Paula Parker, the amazing director of all the books, asked me to audition. I am pretty sure I just read a few pages into a tape recorder!! And then I was lucky enough to get the job!!

WV: How did you prepare to record the first book – Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief – where all the characters were brand new?

TS: This series is unusual in that the producer and director were very involved in helping me prepare before we got into the studio. We had some phone conversations about what we envisioned for the characters’ voices, and then tweaked them a bit when once we started recording. Back then I would highlight every character’s dialogue in a different color! Now I use an ipad to read off of and I do make some notes, but nothing that intense! I was very new to audiobooks when I started the Sammy Keyes series, so that preparation was really helpful.

WV: You’ve just recorded the sixteenth title – Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City—how do you prepare to record a Sammy Keyes title now? Do you revisit previous recordings? Do you read the entire book before entering the studio?

TS: It is crazy to think this is Book 16!! Yes, I definitely read the book ahead of time and I make a list of all the characters who appear. Then we cross reference that list with characters from the older titles and listen to sound clips of their voices to get them right. A lot of the kids in the books have really matured or changed over the books, like Casey , so I try to make his voice reflect that change.

WV: I have a newfound appreciation for what you do after voicing the bonus pages for the new Flipped audio. It’s not easy! I wasn’t even doing any characters--it was just me being me—and about twenty pages took me a big chunk of the afternoon. On average, how long does it take you to voice a Sammy Keyes book?

TS: It depends on a few things….if there are a ton of characters it takes a little bit longer. The pacing of the scenes also makes a difference. For the high energy scenes I definitely read faster, and for the more emotional scenes I pace it a little slower. If the voices are hard on my voice (like Officer Borsch) I need to take a lot more breaks to rest my throat! The general rule with audiobooks is that it takes us about 2 hours to record 1 hour of finished audio. So a 7 hour audiobook would take me about 14 hours in the studio. When the writing is good (like yours) I make less mistakes and can go a bit faster.

WV: The cast of Sammy Keyes characters continues to build across the series. Do you have a method, or maybe an ‘audio bible’ that helps you keep the voices straight from book to book?

TS: Well, for many years we didn’t and would have to have stacks of cds and time code lists to go back and listen to each of them. Then last year I took a few hours to make mp3 files of all the major characters and now I have them in a handy dandy folder on my computer.

WV: It seemed that you especially enjoyed voicing Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack. Was it the character of Jack? Billy Pratt? 

TS: Yes! I love Billy Pratt!!! He is exactly who I would have been friends with. I love how kind he to Sammy and how he is up for anything. His relationship with Marissa was a really interesting story line. I imagine he and Sammy staying friends as adults. They would make a good couple.

WV: What have you most enjoyed about the evolving series storyline?

TS: Honestly, I love the writing. I believe that these are real people and I find them incredibly relatable.  You have given them solid histories and back stories to explain why they are who they are. I haven’t stayed with any other series as long as this one and it has been so much fun. I get excited to see what happens next and I know that you don’t write typical “happy ending” stories which I really appreciate. I also love the Grams/Hudson relationship.

WV: Does character evolution mess with voicing those characters? 

TS: “Mess with” is such a strong way of saying it!!! But yeah, in this last book, I had to figure out how to sound like Heather without being mean. That was tricky. She started sounding like Marissa at times, and Paula would make sure I stayed on top of making them different.

WV: You attend lots of Cons and seem to have a really good time doing it. Which character(s) do you voice that create(s) the most fan fever to meet you?

TS: I’ve been lucky to do a lot of  cartoon voices over the years, but the one fans are most excited about is Bulbasaur from Pokemon. It’s so much fun to watch their faces when they ask me to do that voice in front of them – which is especially funny since all he says is “Bulbasaur”!!!!

WV: You’ve voiced all but the last two books to go in the Sammy Keyes series, and it suddenly occurred to me that you probably don’t know how the story ends…or even that the last one isn’t in the voice of Sammy Keyes! I’m not sure how Live Oak will choose to approach the last book, but regardless, it’s almost over! Any reflections on Sammy and the broader purpose or value of these stories, or the series as a whole?

TS: Wow!!! I didn’t know that! I purposely haven’t read ahead! But now I need to!! When I heard you had written a final book, I was so sad. But then I remembered how much I loved re-reading my favorite stories as a kid and I know that’s what people do with these books. It’s especially fun re-reading a series because you know where it’s going and you see all the smart little hints the author planted along the way. So, while I would love it to go on forever, I do love a great ending! I feel really lucky to have been involved since the beginning and hopefully I’ll be at least somewhat involved in the final book.

WV: Thank you so much for your contribution to this body of work. I know you have some ardent fans inside the Sammy Keyes community. Maybe someday we’ll have a Sammy Con! You game?


Isn’t she awesome? If you’ve read through the entire Sammy Keyes series and have been missing our girl, try listening to the audio books. It's a whole new (and really fun) experience. You can get the physical CDs through Live Oak Media here, and they're also available as downloads on Overdrive and Audible.

And finally, if you do the social media thing, you can follow Tara here on Twitter and Instagram at TaraSandsLA, and on Facebook at TaraSandsTaraSands. 

Her website is:

As always, thanks for checking in. See you in the comments!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Puppy Love

Ko-Hii-Ko and me
I am a dog person. I absolutely love them. They haven't come...or gone easy, though.

When my siblings and I were young, it took a lot of nagging to get a dog. Mom had three, then four children, with absolutely no need for more to do.

She bought us goldfish instead. 

After she got tired of netting up dead goldfish, she thought a lizard would be a more practical pet. She converted the aquarium into a terrarium and it was our responsibility to capture live flies for the beastie. This is not as easy as it might sound. Plus, apparently a lizard needs more buzzy things than we were able (or inspired) to catch, because before too long the lizard was dead, too.

Then came the guinea pigs. First Scooter, then Scamper, then hordes of babies in a pen in the back corner of the yard squeaking away. We kids didn't want (or particularly like) the guinea pigs. We wanted a dog. 

This is all chronicled (in a barely fictionalized setting) in my first book, How I Survived Being a Girl, where narrator Carolyn relates how her older brother Jack finally has a little fit about the pet thing.

From Chapter 9 "Rodents and Reptiles": So just when I was thinking we'd never get a dog, Jack got real mad and told Mom he didn't want fish or lizards or guinea pigs--or rabbits or snakes or goats for that matter. He wanted a dog. A dog's what a boy's supposed to have, and no other animal would make up for not having a dog. Except maybe a monkey, if she wanted to give him that.

Me and Tushka
And that's pretty much how, in the real world, we got Ko-Hii-Ko. (If you know anything about my mom, you'll know right off she's the one who did the naming.) Mom insisted that Ko-Hii-Ko be an "outside dog," and we kids didn't argue, or ask for any other kind of pet, ever again. 

When we moved to a new town and Ko-Hii-Ko was hit by a car and died, we were all heartbroken. My mom was the one who said we should adopt a German shepherd puppy from neighbors who had a litter of them. We picked out a cute little shy girl from the back of the pack, mom named her Atushka, and she immediately allowed her into the house.  

Atushka (or Tushka, or Tuki) was a wonderful pet. She adopted our pack, slept on our beds, and wanted to be with us wherever we went. Her favorite activity was wrestling with a running hose. She would bite it, shake it, pounce on it like it was an enormous writhing snake that she was determined to take down. She was also my running buddy. I would take her on long runs up the grade or along the trails on the outskirts of our neighborhood. She was an awesome friend and companion to all of us and lived a long life. So even though she was old and far beyond enjoying life any more, it was still absolutely heartbreaking to have to put her down.

Mark's family had always had dogs, too, and usually in pairs. So when we were ready to get a dog of our own, I said I wanted to get a Siberian husky. I'd seen the most beautiful female husky at a dog show, and that was the dog for me!

Kai-tu and Lassen
To make a long story short, we did not wind up with one cute little female. We got a two-for-one, last-of-the-litter special, and they were males. Males who became big dogs, with lots and lots and lots of shedding fur. 

Protective and sweet, they were so funny when they'd start up a howl. They'd eye each other - one revving up, looking to the other to join in - and soon they'd have enough harmonics going to be mistaken for an entire pack.

Kai-tu and Lassen became my running buddies...or really more my extreme-sport coaches. They had to be on leash or they'd instinctively take off after cats, and since they're bred to pull sleds, my runs became as much an upper body workout as one for my legs.

Endless tufts of fur and all, they were inside dogs...until we had a baby and caught them drooling beside our "mewing" infant in the bassinet. We immediately pulled a classic Lady and the Tramp. "Out!"

Running is how I stay tethered to sanity, so the way I continued to incorporate that into my life as a new mom was by pushing a baby jogger while running with Kai-tu and Lassen. We were a wild entourage, full-steam ahead, and yes, people wisely made way. Especially when the second child was in the jogger and the first one was peddling alongside on his (training-wheeled) bicycle. 

Both dogs lived to "old age" where we, again, had to make the heartbreaking decision to put them down when it was cruel to continue to nurse them through each day.

After that, I was done. I swore I never wanted to go through that again. Besides, I had kids now. And too much to do. I did not need dogs!

But then our kids started asking for puppies. Begging for puppies. 

We got them goldfish.

That bought me a few months.

Then came the Summer of Lizards. They caught wild ones and somehow trained them to perch on their shoulders. Great fun. And it bought me a few more months. 

But lizards are not dogs. (See Chapter 9.) And I knew better than to bother with guinea pigs or rabbits or snakes.

But if I was going to agree to this, I had criteria!

Off the bed? You're kidding, right?
#1: NO FUR. Or, at least, not pillow-sized volumes of it. I'd done my time with the huskies.

#2: SMALLER. Mark and I had different days off, and I needed to be able to pick the dog up and take it to the vet. But it also had to be large enough so there was...

#3: NO YIPPING. It had to have a good bark.

And... #4: It had to be big enough to be a running companion.

And, oh yeah, #5: it had to be good with children.

Being the agreeable guy he is, Mark had only one real requirement, but it was a big one: We had to get two dogs so they'd have each other as company during the day when everyone was at work or at school.

The kids also had a requirement: They had to be puppies.

After much research and talking to lots of people, we wound up with whippets - a breed I would never have imagined for myself. But it didn't take long for them to invade my heart. Look at those faces! I didn't want to love them but I couldn't help it. What incredibly sweet animals. 

Our boys and their boys
So for the past fifteen years they have been part of our family. They were definitely inside dogs, sharing the bedrooms with our sons, doing "the changing of the guard" each night at around 2:00 am when they would switch rooms and look after "the other boy." They lived a good, long, spoiled life.

And telling myself all that should balance out the heartache of recently having to say goodbye, but it doesn't. They went within weeks of each other, and I keep looking for them, keep expecting them to be waiting for us when we come home.  

A librarian friend of mine knew I was sad and missing Bongo and Jazz, so she gave me Gary Paulsen's My Life in Dog Years, which I read cover to cover. It's a collection of short stories about each of his most special dogs, and how they saved him (both literally and figuratively). It was actually very comforting to read. Dog people understand that losing your pet is like losing a friend who was, without reservation, always happy to see you.

Real dog people understand that dogs are not accessories.

They're family.

Bongo and Jazz
I know cat people feel the same way about their feline friends and go through the same end-of-life trauma. I've never had a cat, and I'm not planning to start, so keep your adorable kittens away from me, okay?

Our friends assume that we'll be getting new dogs, but I don't know if I can go through this again. For now we'll just enjoy other people's dogs. 

Or maybe we'll get some goldfish. 

You think?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mystery Solved!

We weren't allowed to talk about it. I guess that falls nicely under the mystery writer umbrella. After all, you're not supposed to know who-dun-it until the end of the story.

But since the 2017 Edgars were announced at a fancy-pants banquet in New York City on Thursday, I'm now permitted to tell you that I dun it. Or, at least, I helped.

I was on this year's Edgar committee in the Young Adult category. There were five of us. I was not the ringleader, and I'm glad. This was my first time serving on a committee like this and it has given me a broadened perspective (and newfound appreciation) of what goes into selecting a handful of books from the many titles submitted.

In theory I knew that there'd be a lot of reading, but...reality check: There was a lot of reading!

You wouldn't think there'd be that many young adult mysteries published in a given year...and it's true, there aren't. But publishers submit books that are thrillers, or suspense novels, or any story, really, that has some tangential mysterious element to it. So you wind up with all these books that don't really qualify as mysteries, but you read them anyway because there must be a reason they were sent in for Edgar award consideration, right?

Required reading
So...what do you do if a book is really good, but only tangentially a mystery? Should it be considered for "best young adult mystery of the year"? I sure didn't think so, so I asked several times for clarification. What definition of mystery are we using? Is a thriller eligible, even though we know the whole time who the bad guy is? Is a simple suspense story a mystery? Does there have to be a central crime?

I guess the best way to summarize what I learned is to share that there's a nominee this year that's not a true mystery. It was one of the best books, suspenseful, thrilling...but not a true mystery. And yet, it made the short list.

Having been on the other side of the process for sixteen Edgar cycles (the span of the Sammy Keyes mystery series), I would now say that - strictly for the purpose of being considered for the Edgar - I  would not want a mystery I'd written to come out in the fall. Books to be considered for the Edgar are all published within a given calendar year, so titles start trickling in early in the year when committee members have time to read-read-read. By fall, there's a deluge of books arriving, and all must be read before mid-December while the holidays and other end-of-year pressures are all bearing down on you. 

It becomes a power-read process...not something you're really hoping for as the author. You want people to savor your book. To enjoy it! To revel in the mystery and try to puzzle it together, not just power through it. 

After reading the submissions is complete, it's time to vote. And I would tell you more about that but there's the section in the Rules for serving on an Edgar committee that states "Any discussions among committee members may not be shared outside the committee."  So I'm not able to really tell you anything other than that the winner  - Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse - was very high on all our lists. We were unanimously happy with the winner, which (I've heard) is not always the case. 

The other nominees were Thieving Weasels (by Billy Taylor), The Girl I Used to Be (by April Henry), My Sister Rosa (by Justine Larbalestier), and Three Truths and a Lie (by Brent Hartinger). 

The Edgar Award "Dress to Kill" banquet is always a fun night. For each and every one I attended as a nominee for a Sammy Keyes book, I was game to fulfill that instruction the best I could...but always in a dress that was $29 or less. It started that first year (when I won for Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief) and wore a dress I'd bought for $29 at a "vintage" store. After that, the price tag of the dress I'd wear to the Edgars became a fun $29 tradition for me. And now, in addition to fun stories I have from each and every Edgar banquet, I also have one for how I found each and every $29 gown. 

"It's just an honor just to be nominated," is also very true. Especially now that I know how crazy-many books get submitted for each category. 

But let me also confess this: It's a lot more fun to win! 

And both are much more thrilling than serving on a committee. I'm glad I did it...and grateful in a brand new way for those who served on committees in years past when there was a Sammy Keyes book lurking in their mile-high stack of reading. 

As always, thanks for checking in. See you in the comments! 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spilling Secrets

Several really cool things happened while I was in New York to accept the Josette Frank Award from the Bank Street College of Education for The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones. 

First, the newsy stuff:

Aside from the awards ceremony (which I wrote about last time), the date (April 6th) happened to be Sammy Keyes' birthday and was (by complete coincidence) also  the day that sample copies of the first three repackaged Sammys landed on my editor's desk. So I got to hold them for the very first time - a super cool way to celebrate Sammy's day!

Besides the whole 'rebirth' thing, the books are "so pretty and shiny!" and inside there's a new "What Do You Think" class/club questions page, which I think makes for a really helpful addition. Series tend to get dissed in terms of substance, but there's always something to think about / discuss with Sammy Keyes! 

For example: 

"Sammy and Marissa have such different homes and families. What are the pros and cons of each?" 

"Why do you think Sammy was so determined to help Holly? Why is Holly so reluctant to take her help?" 

"Sometimes things have surprising value. The value can be monetary, but also sentimental. In your own life, what things are of most value to you?"

The questions are gentle enough to not feel like homework, but substantive enough to encourage thought and discussion. I like that balance. 

The first three books become available on May 2nd, and on the high-top heels of that, the next batch (#4-8) is in the process of being finalized. 

The art (which I also got to see while in New York) is awesome, but I've also been under deadline to turn in tweaks to the text. All those Sammys plus my last-chance read-through of Wild Bird before it goes to press added up to the enormous stack of pages on my desk. I've been a reading machine!

The non-newsy New-Yorky thing I wanted to share with you has to do with the dinner I had with a small group of book people. It's always fun to be out with book people. Conversation is lively and thoughtful and fun. This was a dinner in my honor (because of the awardy-thing for The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones), but I didn't want the focus to be on me. I had already spilled a lot of personal stuff about my "secret life" during my acceptance speech and didn't really want to talk about me. So I suggested that we go around the table and everyone share about their "secret life." Fair's fair, right?

There were about ten of us at dinner, and some of the people had known or worked with each other for many years. But as we went around the table, new and surprising things surfaced. It was fascinating. It wasn't so much a "secret life" thing as it was the sharing of things that others didn't already know about them. One of them worked at a tire store. One of them had danced on Broadway. Everyone had something fascinating about them that the others hadn't known about them before. 

It drove home to me how you can work alongside someone for years, but not really know their personal story. Or what built them into the person that they've become. Maybe it's just easier that way. In my acceptance speech, I talked about how I didn't share about my past life with my new colleagues when I became a teacher because it was too hard, too complex, and really, how could they ever really understand?

In new friendships, I think we tend to start at our meet date and move forward from there. But with lasting friendships, I think it pays to also look backward. Not in a prying way, more in a Tell-Me-Something-I-Don't-Know-About-You way. 

You already know about my "secret life" - the life I had before I became an author which, not coincidentally, is also the life that led me to writing. (If you missed it and are curious, go to the previous post - there's a link.) And you already know about Lincoln Jones's secret life. And Sammy's - talk about a secret life!

So now it's your turn. Some of you have been reading this blog for years. We're all "friends at the blog," so share something about your life. 

Tell us something about you.

As always, thanks for checking in. Looking forward to seeing you in the comments!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Aiming at Brave

I'm pretty sure the forty Bank Street College of Education committee members who sorted through six thousand titles to find a winner for each of their award categories were expecting to hear about The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones from their fiction category winner, not about the author's secret life. 

But since the two are tied together, and since I've come to accept that I can learn from my characters, I took a cue from Lincoln and aimed at being brave.

Any time you open yourself up, you make yourself vulnerable to all sorts of things. It's easier, safer, to keep the windows closed, the curtains drawn. So I was conflicted about sharing this story, these pictures, and my past life with the audience. They're things I've only talked about generally, if at all. Things that still make me weep to revisit. But, channeling Lincoln, I summoned my courage and decided that facing my fear was the only way to conquer it.

My publishing peeps!
I was last on the program, which could have meant that I'd be completely short-circuited by the time it was my turn. But the other honorees' talks were so informative and entertaining that I was wonderfully engaged in their stories and not even thinking about my own.

First up was the category of non-fiction which was shared by three books. Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay is a picture book about a young girl who lives in a garbage dump town and finds hope in making a violin from debris. The author and illustrator were both present to tell their sides of creating this book--it was fascinating!

Next in the non-fiction category, Leigh Walton, the editor of March: Book Three, accepted the award on behalf of the authors. He brought a new angle to a book that has received enormous notice and many awards, something I really enjoyed.

And the final non-fiction award went to Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story. The author, Caren Stelsen, shared her research and how she worked with Sachiko for many years to write this book. Her talk really underscored how dedicated authors are to "getting it right."

Then, in the poetry category, author Julie Fogliano accepted her award for When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for all Seasons. Her talk was funny and sweet and unassuming and...wonderful. The parts about her denying she's a poet made me laugh out loud, but I especially love how her friend helped her get writing again after other pressures and responsibilities in her life had caused her to stop. 

And then it was my turn to talk. Which I did. And survived.

If you're interested in hearing any of the program, you can find the whole thing on the KidLit TV site. My part is only 10 minutes long and starts somewhere around 1:20. Focus on the pictures, not my quivering voice. 

As always, thanks for checking in. See you in the comments!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Happy Birthday, Sammy!

I am getting ready for next week's trip to New York, so this will be a short post, but I did want to point out one very important thing:

Thursday (4/6) will be Sammy Keyes's birthday!

How old this year?

Well, I'd say she's turning "thirteen all over again," but if you're a Sammy fan you already know that she has managed to (finally) put that number behind her. We think.

I hope you'll take a moment during your day on Thursday to wish Sammy a happy birthday in whatever form suits you. Take a shortcut. Ride a skateboard. Wear high-tops. Boycott fuzzy pink sweaters. Maybe even mix up some mac'n'cheese'n'salsa. (It is, in fact, god-like.)

If you want to post or send me pictures, I would love that.

And please know that I'm grateful for this community, where I'm not alone in thinking Sammy's birthday should be celebrated.

See you soon!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Hope, Heart, and Making a Difference

The original cover 
Here's the thing about being a teacher: You're the one left behind. I'm not talking about pay structure or professional status, I'm talking about being left behind by the students. 

Each year teachers ready their classroom, prepare their strategies, devise fresh ways to enrich the curriculum and seed knowledge, then greet a whole new crop of kids, who for nine months will grow stronger and smarter with the care and feeding of considered education. And then, in a buzz of summer break excitement, those students will dash out the door, and out of your life. And you will likely never have a definitive answer to the question all teachers ask themselves: Did I make a difference?

I know this because I did this cycle for fifteen years.

I didn't teach at the cuddle-kid level, where intrinsic rewards can come in spurts of little hugs and tearful goodbyes. I taught high school. Semester courses. Six of them each semester for fifteen years. Somewhere between 28-33 kids per class. Let's call it an average of 30 k/cl. 

When I multiply 6 x 30 x 2 x 15, I get 5,400 students. Some of these took  more than one of my courses, so let's just round down and say approximately 5,000 kids came through my classroom during my tenure as a teacher. I poured my heart and soul into making school fun and educational, into making kids feel like my room was a safe haven--a place they belonged. I ran myself ragged in the pursuit of excellence, especially after I became a mom. I was on my feet all day and lost weight to a point where people thought I was anorexic. I wasn't, I just wasn't taking care of myself the way I was taking care of everything else. 

The new cover
And at the end of fifteen years, I looked back and wondered ... had it been worth it? 

Had I made a difference?

Because, really, that's the reason we teach.

My novel Runaway had been an idea long before it became a book. And the reason it took me so long to begin writing it was because I didn't know how to end it (and I won't start a book unless I have an ending in mind). 

In case you're not familiar with Runaway, it's the journal of Holly Janquell, a girl who runs away from bad foster care shortly after her teacher, Ms. Leone, gives her a journal in an effort to help Holly "turn the page." 

Suddenly, Holly's gone.

And Ms. Leone has no idea what's become of her troubled student. 

I had the basic plot for the book. And I knew where I was going, just not how to end it.

And then one day I was out on a run and the idea for how to end the book hit me like a bolt of lightning. I know exactly where it happened. No, the earth isn't charred there, but it did get sprinkled. The idea hit me so hard that I stopped in my tracks, gasped at the emotion of it, then started crying. Right there in the middle of my run, I got all weepy and overwhelmed and, you know, spastic. 

Because if what happens at the end of Runaway were to have happened to me as a teacher, I would have bawled my eyes out. In the very best, happiest of ways. 

And no, I'm not going to spoiler it here!

Runaway was first published in 2006. The reason I'm bringing all this up now is twofold: 

First, authors experience a thing similar to teachers. We write stories, they go out into the world and we have no idea if the story we poured our heart and soul into has had its intended effect. Did readers understand what you were trying to say? Did they feel it in their heart? Did it make them think? 

The teacher letter
Did it make a difference to anyone? 


Because, really, that's the reason we write. 

I have gotten some beautiful, heartfelt letters from teen readers over the years. But this week, eleven years after Runaway went out into the world, I got a letter from a teacher. (See sidebar.) What he wrote made me weepy-happy because it tells me that yes, he understood. Yes, he felt it. And yes, it made a difference.

The second reason I'm bringing this up now is because we have finally completed the Runaway book trailer. Faithful readers of this blog know that it's been in the works for, what? Eight or nine months? Introducing a trailer after a book has been out for so long is not normally done, but we wanted to do something to celebrate the new cover and help Runaway find new readers. Not that a 90 second trailer should take nine months, but when you watch it, you'll better understand why it did. (Yes, that's the Los Angeles River.) (Oh. And a little trivia: The place where you'll see Holly in the bushes writing in her journal? The path right beside it is where I had my stop-in-the-trail moment.)

So, I will link to the trailer, but before I do, I have a request: Sometime soon, tell the teachers who have made a difference in your life that you appreciate them, and why. This is not hard. They are out there. Teachers love Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Find them. Post to their wall. Send a direct message. Something. It may be just what they need to find the strength to go on in their career. 

And while you're at it, tell your parents. Or your kids. Tell the people who matter that they matter, and why. 

Because, really, that's what we all live for.

And now, here's the RUNAWAY TRAILER. Please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please send light and love out for others to catch. This story is all about hope and heart and making a difference. Help it find its way to the people who need it. 

As always, thanks for stopping by. See you in the comments!