Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#MGGetsReal--A Conversation With Kerry O'Malley Cerra

Hi Kerry, Thanks for answering my questions about middle grade novels in general, and your own book, JUST A DROP OF WATER in particular!

Thanks for inviting me.

What book or books from your childhood left a lasting impression and why?
This is a wonderfully easy question for me to answer. Hands down, the book that changed me, has stayed with me to this day, made me a life-long lover of books, and inspired me to become a writer myself is Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume. I can’t say it showed me the world in some profound way, yet it allowed me to love and appreciate the gift of story.

Prior to fourth grade, I honestly don’t recall books in my life. I’m sure I read them. I vaguely remember cozying up in the quaint reading nook of a daycare while my mom cleaned it after hours. But I don’t remember a book. Or books. Not until I was lucky enough to be assigned to room 4B with Mrs. Strelauski in fourth grade. She didn’t just preach about reading, she embraced it fully and read aloud to us at the end of each day. When she began reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing—her voice inflections and expressions are still vivid in my memory—I laughed throughout chapter one and every chapter thereafter. I can still hear her interpretation of Fudge calling for Peter…Pee-tah! Loud and clear.

Yes! Read aloud time is so important. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Barbara Hutchens read CHARLOTTE'S WEB to my class, and I can still hear her voice.

Exactly. I lived for read-aloud time each day. When she finished that book, and I learned it was the first in a series, I checked out every single one of them, locked myself in my bedroom for days, and cracked-up silly with every scene. Who knew books could be so funny? So real? I felt Peter’s triumphs and cried when he lost Dribble. I wanted to live in New York City, play in Central Park, have a dog named Turtle. Secretly, I rejoiced that Peter had no feelings for Sheila Tubman and may have wished for teen librarian, Isobel—AKA Peter’s crush in Fudge-A-Mania—to stumble through poison ivy and get off the pages of my book so my friend Peter and I could hang out some more. This series was like one great movie in my head, playing on repeat for months. I could picture everything. I wanted that life, even if it included a pain-in-the-butt brother named Fudge. Ultimately, these stories were a great escape. And that’s what I’ve come to love most about books!

What book or books served as mentor texts when you were writing JUST A DROP OF WATER?

Historical fiction, as you well know, Shannon, takes a lot of serious research—which means much time is spent with my nose in a book/newspaper before I even begin to write. Luckily, I love research! I love history! But also, my story, though based on an event now considered history, was not, in fact, before my time. I have vivid recollections of that fateful day, September 11, 2001.

Though I was living at the time this terrorist attack occurred, I’m especially glad that I took the time to go back and scour newspapers while I was writing. It allowed me to include what may essentially seem like unimportant details, and yet those minute additions to the book allow young readers—who didn’t experience the events of that day first-hand—to grasp the enormity of the events. For example, I’d forgotten that the NFL canceled all football games the weekend following the attacks. Of course, once I read that in the newspapers, I remembered, but I would never have included it in the book without the reference to it from the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald. That one small detail is often brought up by kids when I do school visits. It helps them put in perspective just how far and wide the tragedy struck. It makes it real for them.

I’m a real hard-nose when it comes to getting facts correct. Kids are smart and they know when we’re trying to pull one over on them. For that reason, and for the fact that I fully believe kids learn more about a time period by immersing themselves in a good book rather than a teacher lecturing, I’m especially particular about details. In my book, I have a tropical storm blowing through town three days after the terrorist attacks. That really did happen, just like so many other scenes and events that take place in my book. Details are important to me.

To answer your question then, for me, newspapers were my main go-to source in writing Just a Drop of Water. Here is a list of the resources I consulted.

Reference Books
Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11 by Geneive Abdo
The 9/11 Report A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón
Islam for Dummies by Malcom Clark
Muslims in America After The Catastrophic Tragedy of 9/11 by Edwin Ali
The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook by Dilara Hafiz, Yasmine Hafiz, and Imran Hafiz
With Their Eyes first-hand accounts of the 9/11 tragedy from students at Stuyvesant High School. Edited by Annie Thoms
Growing Up Muslim by Sumbul Ali-Karamali
Sun-Sentinel Newspaper Broward County, Florida Issues September 12 through October 16
Miami Herald Newspaper Issues September 12 through October 16

Happy reading, my friends! And thanks for having me here, Shannon.

Thank you for answering my questions and being a part of #MGGetsReal!

Monday, August 15, 2016

#MGGetsReal--A Chat With Author Kathleen Burkinshaw

Hi Kathleen! Thanks for stopping by to chat about the books that influenced you as a child and books that served as mentor texts when you were writing, THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM.

Thanks for inviting me!

Kathleen, what book or books from your childhood made a lasting impression?

The first is A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  As an only child in my awkward early teen years I spent a lot of time in my room reading.  Sara Crewe stood out to me because no matter what situation she was in-whether she was a rich student with a doting father, or a suddenly orphaned scullery maid she had a kind soul.  She had the ability to put people at ease and to know when someone needed help.  When things took a turn and she was forced to give up her education and live in the attic as a servant, she mourned, but was determined to make it somehow.  But her imagination and ability to whisk people away when she told a story so they could forget their worries or sadness for a while, stuck with me. 

Fast forward to my early 30s- I had spent a month in the hospital followed by a few more visits over the next fifteen months.  I nearly died from a deep vein thrombosis, and as a result from nerve damage, I had been diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a neurological chronic pain disease.  I could not really walk much and was pretty weak.  However, my four-year-old daughter would sit on the bed with me where we played with her dolls and I read to her. I found the copy of THE LITTLE PRINCESS I bought for her when she was born.  I’d read a few chapters on my own and then would give her a summary each day. It helped take my mind off of some of my pain and I spent time with my daughter who had missed me so much while I was away.  Telling the story to my daughter, reminded me of the joy of using one’s imagination. This revelation led me to pick up my pen (Yup, I’m old school) and create through my pain. Oh! I should mention, my daughter’s name is Sara.

The second book is one I read as an adult, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.  It was the pick for our library book club.  This was a wonderful historical fiction novel that because of the title I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own.  Not only was it a good read, but in the Acknowledgements the author thanked her agent and she also thanked Anna Olswanger.  It happened to be a few months since Anna had done a critique of my manuscript for the SCBWI Carolinas Conference.  When I saw Anna’s name it nudged me to contact her again to ask if she might look at my revisions.  After several months of more revisions, she offered me representation and began to submit THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM to publishing houses.  I will always be grateful that we read that book in book club!

What book or books served as mentor texts when you were writing about Hiroshima and the last days of WWII?

ELEANOR HILL by Lisa Williams Kline.  This historical fiction is based on letters that were written by her grandmother. My own inspiration was a treasured photo of my mother and her papa.

Another mentor text was BLUE by Joyce Moyer Hostetter. It's historical fiction that also took place during WWII, and is written in first person. I chose first person for THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM because I wanted the reader to feel in the moment, just as I had with BLUE.

Reading books by Holly Thompson helped me to write the Japanese conversation true to the time frame and culture, but not be stilted.  In addition, I read books describing what life was like for the Japanese children and their families during the war. Books such as, A BOY NAMED H, by Kappa Senoh and LEAVES FROM AN AUTUMN OF EMERGENCIES, SELECTIONS FROM THE WARTIME DIARIES OF ORDINARY JAPANESE compiled by Samuel Hideo Yamashita.   I, of course, also included books that had other accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, such as THE LAST TRAIN FROM HIROSHIMA: THE SURVIVORS LOOK BACK by Charles Pellegrino.  Lastly, during my revisions I researched internet sources for various newspaper headlines, propaganda posters, and radio slogans during the war in Japan. (Please note that not all these books would be suitable for middle grade students.  I listed sources appropriate for them in the back of my book). 

Thanks, Kathleen for stopping by and being a part of #MGGetsReal!

Kathleen will be blogging on the NCTE blog on August 16th and conducting a giveaway of all five books pictured above!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

#MGGetsReal A Chat With Shannon Wiersbitzky

Hi Shannon! Thanks for chatting with me about Middle Grade books in general and your novels in particular. 

Thank you! Happy to be here.

What book or books from your childhood left a lasting impression and why?

I was always a reader. One of those kids who spent hours in the library and poured over the Scholastic Book Club list hoping my parents would buy me all the titles I marked. My bedroom was always riddled with books. There were a few that really stuck with me from childhood.

The first is The Tripods series by John Christopher. Probably the first sci-fi I remember reading. About these walking machines who controlled humans and prevented creativity and curiosity.

The second is Z is for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien. A teacher read this to us in elementary school and it practically seared into my brain. It is about the aftermath of a nuclear war and a young girl who believes she may be the only person left on earth. Looking back, it seems like an intense topic for an elementary read-aloud, but I’m so glad she did.

Why did these books stick with me? Perhaps because they were absolutely about life and death. I’m not sure I’d thought much about my own death before reading these books. They made me think about what I would do in such dire circumstances. And they made me root for the main character.

Years ago, without recalling the titles, I went into a bookstore and described them. Kudos to the knowledgeable librarian who knew exactly what they were. I bought them and reread them again. They were just as powerful. That says something about great writing.  

What book or books served as mentor texts when you were writing your own book?

WHAT FLOWERS REMEMBER is a companion novel to my debut title, THE SUMMER OF HAMMERS AND ANGELS. As I wrote FLOWERS, I did have to refer back to the first book more than a few times. I had to ensure I didn’t inadvertently give characters some different trait or physical feature. And I wanted to ensure I kept the same tone to my writing.

FLOWERS also deals with the topic of Alzheimer’s. While I’d had my own experiences with the disease through my Grandfather, I wanted to be certain that what I’d seen with him was typical. So I did research online to determine signs and symptoms and typical behaviors.

A few of the sites that were helpful:

I definitely learned a lot more about the disease that I wasn’t aware of through that process. I tried to incorporate some of that in the book so that hopefully anyone dealing with Alzheimer’s could relate their own experience to Delia's. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

What Is #MGGetsReal?

Marketing can be a drag for writers, it can feel so self-promotional. And it requires a lot of time. But with the notion that good teamwork makes any effort easier (and more fun), author Shannon Wiersbitzky, (WHAT FLOWERS REMEMBER), developed a plan. Pull together several authors with books that share a common thread, and join forces to spread the word.

The common thread for #MGGetsReal? Each of the books tackles a tough topic in a way appropriate for Middle Grade readers.

The participating authors are:
·      Shannon Wiersbitzky—WHAT FLOWERS REMEMBER (Alzheimer’s)
·      Kathleen Burkinshaw – THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM, (Hiroshima)
·      Joyce Moyer Hostetter—COMFORT, (War Trauma)
·      Kerry O’Malley Cerra—JUST A DROP OF WATER, (9/11)
·      Shannon Hitchcock—RUBY LEE & ME, (School Integration)

#MGGetsReal will blitz social media for the month of August, 2016.
Our marketing plan consists of:

1.    Developing a unique hashtag for the effort. We chose #MGGetsReal.
2.    Developing "group ads" for social media.
3.    Posting to social media 3x week for the month of August in a way that highlights all five books.
4.    Writing for two blogs not our own, (seeking blogs with national exposure where possible).
5.    Retweeting using the hashtag #MGGetsReal.
6.    Seeking to engage teachers/librarians.
7.    Featuring other writers on our own blogs if applicable.
8.    Reading/writing reviews for each book.
9.    Developing a video that highlights all five books.

We’re counting on teachers, librarians, and fellow SCBWI members to help spread the word. Here’s how you can be an ally:

1.    Consider reading and reviewing the aforementioned books.
2.    Retweet using the hashtag #MGGetsReal.
3.    Share posts on Facebook.
4.    Host one of the authors on your own blog.

#MGGetsReal is a marketing experiment. Help us make it a successful one!

Monday, June 27, 2016


Lots of cool things have been happening to me! I attended the American Libraries Association Conference for the first time ever.

This is a photo of me signing with my friend and fellow Scholastic author, Augusta Scattergood. Several of our Florida SCBWI colleagues gathered to show their support, or maybe just to ham it up!

And I had to snap a photo of my new book beside Augusta's new book!

And this is a stack of our books ready for signing!

In other cool news, I toured the TRIO exhibit at ALA. I was especially interested because RUBY LEE & ME will be part of TRIO in 2017. That means my book will be given to a visual artist and a songwriter. Using RUBY LEE & ME as inspiration, the visual artist will produce a work of art, and the songwriter will pen a song, thus completing the TRIO. The exhibit will debut at the Southern Independent Booksellers' Conference in Savannah.You can learn more by clicking on TRIO.

And finally, I had the opportunity to meet a Louisiana family whose son has been assigned RUBY LEE & ME for summer reading. Here we are at Inkwood Books:

That's all the news that's fit to print. Happy Fourth of July and Happy Summer Reading!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Greenhorn by Anna Olswanger Now A Movie

I read and reviewed the book Greenhorn a couple of years ago so I was intrigued to see how the story translated to film. My verdict: brilliantly!

The film begins in 1981 at a medical center in Jerusalem. Two old friends are seeing each other for the first time in thirty-five years. One is a doctor; the other a rabbi. The rabbi asks a haunting question, "What about the box?"

The film transitions back to Brooklyn in 1946 when the two old friends were young students. Aaron's teacher tells the class that twenty boys will be arriving from Poland. The boys are refugees, displaced by the horrors of WWII. For the classroom full of American boys the war is over. It didn't really affect them, but not so for Daniel, the boy they taunt as a "Greenhorn."

Daniel carries a tin box with him everywhere he goes. One of his fellow students compares it to the way his three-year-old sister carries around her security blanket. Most of the other students torment Daniel, not in a sophisticated way, but in a way typical of middle school. They call him names and point out that he's different, but Daniel is not the only boy they bully. Aaron, a boy who stutters, is also a target. He's called "Gravelmouth."

The film and the book are about the friendship that develops between the Greenhorn and the Gravelmouth. Aaron, the stutterer, finds his voice and sticks up for his friend. We learn what is in the box: soap. It's all Daniel has left of his family. They were murdered by the Nazis and the fat from their bodies turned into soap.

The horror of that revelation brings us back to the beginning of the film, when the rabbi asks the doctor, "What about the box?" I highly recommend you watch the film to find out!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

TeacherTube: Student Book Trailer of RUBY LEE & ME

Savannah Thompson in Mrs. Rodgers's class made a book trailer for RUBY LEE & ME. It's available for viewing on TeacherTube:

Thanks, Savannah! You made my day.