Friday, November 14, 2014


Look for me at NCTE on Friday, November 21, in Booth 312 (Boyds Mills Press) at 1:00 and in the Anderson's Booth at 3:00. Our panel is at 11:00 in Chesapeake 4, 5, & 6.

And if not in DC, I'll see you in print. Creativity is the art of being yourself, with a little flare.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Comfort Food (Larry Style)

I mentioned Porcupine Meatballs and Black-eyed Peas as being a favorite comfort food in a recent interview for Author Turf. (You can read the entire interview here: I posted the link on Facebook and it seems that despite my attempt to offer valuable writing information, it seems that what struck a chord was my reference to Porcupine Meatballs. (No, they are not made with porcupine meat.) I promised I'd post the recipe here.

I make mine in a pressure cooker, but you could bake them in an oven if you use pre-cooked rice. I haven't tried them in a slow-cooker, but I don't see why that couldn't be done as well. Again, I think I would use pre-cooked rice. So without further ado, the recipe:

1 to 1 1/2 lbs. ground beef/sirloin
1/2 cup uncooked rice
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1 tbs minced onion (or more, depending on your tastes)
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce (remove the sauce from the can)
1/2 cup water

Combine the first four ingredients. Go ahead; use your hands. Shape into small balls. (Using a pound of meat, I usually make 7 to 8 balls for dinner servings. If I'm serving them at a cocktail party, I make them smaller.) Coat the bottom of a pressure cooker with a thin layer of tomato sauce. Arrange the meatballs around the pan. Pour remaining tomato sauce over meatballs to coat. Close the cover securely. Place the regulator on the vent and cook ten minutes on medium or low-medium flame with the regulator rocking slowly. Let the pressure drop on its own. Uncover and serve. In my family, we don't eat a lot of meat, so one dinner-sized meatball will serve one. For hearty eaters, serve two meatballs. (These are good, cold, in a sandwich with mayo and mustard the next day. Just sayin'. Then again, I've been known to eat cold, left-over spaghetti in sandwiches.)

Traditionally, my mom would serve these with Black-eyed Peas (or as my partner calls them, "One-eyed Beans"). When I'm in need of deep comforting (You know, when the post carrier leaves several rejections all on the same day or when the royalty checks are far less than anticipated.), I'll make them as my mom did, simmered in bacon fat with a little water. Usually, though, health rules out and I'll make them with a pinch or two of cayenne pepper and a dash of salt. I use the frozen variety. (Left over Black-eyed Peas can be whirred in a food processor and used as a sandwich spread. Can you tell we try not to let things go to waste around here?)

 Until next time, I'll see you in print. Remember, creativity is being yourself, with a little extra flare.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dealing with Writer's Block?

Joanne Rocklin offers tips and advice (and the occasional recipe) for dealing with writer's block. Check it out here:

Monday, October 13, 2014


I have known writer Faye Gibbons almost for as long as SCBWI's Southern Breeze has been in existence. I was that organization's first keynote speaker, when Faye and I met. We bonded like long-lost cousins and although time and geography prevent us from seeing each other as often as I'd like, we have kept in touch over the years. Recently, her publisher, North South Books, sent me a copy of her new young adult historical novel, HALLEY. It is a story that will melt your heart while at the same time, it will make your blood boil. It has characters this reader loved to hate, others he wanted to shake until they developed a backbone, and still others he wanted to wrap in protective arms. It is a definite "must have" addition to any young adult collection. Bravissima, Faye Gibbons! Bravissima!

Ms. Gibbons has been kind enough to respond to a few questions. Read on to find out more about the genesis of HALLEY and this talented writer.

Can you tell us a little about the evolution of Halley? From whence did it spring (for those who haven't yet read the author's note)?

The origin of HALLEY were my mother's oft repeated stories of when her widowed mother was forced by her parents to sell out her mountain farm and move in with them.  Mama's grandfather really was a hellfire and damnation preacher and a real tyrant.  Mama's mother did indeed work in a cotton mill and hand over all earnings to her father.  Eventually there was a whipping similar to what I described and, my grandmother decided to remarry.  Beyond these basic facts I gave myself permission to do a world of embroidery. The fictional Pa Franklin, I eventually realized, was a fine figure of a man who looked good in nice clothes--and knew it.  Bootsie was loosely based on a young woman of easy virtue and little education that I was around a few times in my childhood.  I didn't intend for her to be anything more than a bad example who could help Halley make good decisions.  Bootsie refused to cooperate, however, and her call to preach came as much of a surprise to me as anybody else. One of my uncles joined the CCC, and I often heard about his experiences during my growing up time.  It seemed like a good escape for Gid.  I could go on, but all the way through the book there are such threads of family history interwoven with fiction.  

Can you describe your writing process?

My writing process is not, sad to say, organized and controlled.  I began HALLEY with some of those bits of family history but wasn't sure where I would take them.  I circled around and around, cutting and rewriting and adding new complications through several revisions.  Then I began polishing--adding a few new parts, but mainly just revising.  There were also several long rest periods when I didn't look at the story for a couple of months.  Sometimes I thought I'd reached a dead end and put it aside to begin entirely new and different projects.  Eventually, I let two writer friends read the manuscript and give me feedback.  Their enthusiasm--along with their suggestions for improvement--drew me back to the project, and this time I finished.  If I live long enough, maybe I'll learn to use the late Pam Conrad's method.  She said she didn't have time to waste on waiting for the story to tell her how to write it (as suggested by Madeline L'Engle).  Conrad made an outline and unless a flash of pure inspiration proposed a change, she stuck to it.  I wish I could write like that, but I can't seem to master it.

I once knew a character, a Baptist preacher, like Pa Franklin. Was there a "Pa Franklin" in your life and can you tell us a little about him?

Yes, I had several mountain Baptist (which I think takes Southern Baptist to a whole new level) preachers in my family.  There was, of course, my mother's maternal grandfather. While Pierce Fields lacked Pa Franklin's overpowering physical presence, he was every bit as much the tyrant.  He wanted children to be totally silent and obedient always, and he seemed disapproving of everyone not exactly like himself.  He was just as unbending in requiring everyone to accept his interpretation of scripture.  I also drew some on my father's father.  Dad Junkins wasn't a preacher, but he was every bit as intolerant of the opinions or beliefs of others.  His one redeeming trait was his storytelling ability.  He could make you laugh with funny yarns or scare the wits out of you with ghost stories.  There were other men in the family and among family friends who helped to flesh out the fictional Pa Franklin.  Back in the South of Depression years, men could pretty well do as they pleased as long as they didn't disturb the neighbors.  In general, women were expected to tolerate and obey. 
What do you hope young readers will take away from HALLEY?
The biggest thing I hope young readers will take away from HALLEY is a determination to get an education and to learn what they need to achieve independence.  I grew up in a poor family where parents had about a second grade education and had no goals for educating their five children.  Because of teachers who introduced me to books I began to see that the way to have a better life than my parents was education.  If I could support myself, I came to see, I would not be at the mercy of an unreliable husband or charity from family or other sources.  I would be able to take care of myself. My siblings learned the same important lesson. Eventually I met an absolutely wonderful man who actually liked having an independent thinking woman as his wife. I chose to make childrearing my main job for a number of years, but I had a teaching degree and knew I COULD get a job and support myself and my children if I needed to.  Too many young people are not giving themselves this opportunity.
What writing project are you currently working on?
I am working on several current projects, but I don't want to go into too much detail.  I'm still in the stage of circling around the material to see what the stories are trying to tell me, and they could dead end somewhere down the road.  I will say that one is historical fiction placed several hundred years ago, and I am having to do a lot of research on it.  Another has a modern day setting and the hero was partially inspired by one of my grandchildren.  I think it will have some humor in it, but I'm hoping to bring in a subplot having to do with a serious subject: mental illness. Finally, I have three picture book manuscripts that I keep tinkering with.  They aren't quite ready to send out yet.
Is there anything you'd like to add so readers will know you and your work better?
In thinking about all my stories, I think my recurring theme is home and family.  That means more to me than anything. If I'm not there for my husband, children, and grandchildren when they need me, nothing else I do will make up for that.  I'm so proud of all my siblings.  Together we all managed to survive and make good lives for ourselves.  I feel a lot of pride too in all those mountain Baptist relatives who managed to wring a living out of rocky, hilly soil.  I especially appreciate those who managed all the while to stay on that straight and narrow path that their faith requires.  Me? I'm Methodist!
Faye Gibbons, thank you so much for sharing with us. I can't pass up this opportunity to share a couple of other titles of yours, MOUNTAIN WEDDING and THE DAY THE PICTURE MAN CAME.
Be sure to check out Faye's website:
She can also be found at the Encyclopedia of Alabama:



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Wonder of Weird--Kelly Milner Halls

Kelly Milner Halls and I have known each other via the conference circuit for years and years. It's always fun when she has a new book on the block because she picks subjects that makes kids Oooo and Ahhhh. Her newest, GHOSTLY EVIDENCE, is no exception. And if you look closely, you'll see a haunted something that is docked diagonally across from my condo. Kelly's website can be found at


Kelly, tell us about GHOSTLY EVIDENCE and your research process for it..


For almost a decade, kids have been asking me to write a book about ghosts.  But the concept of life after death is so personal, so connected to religious preferences and beliefs, I was resistant.  Then I met a third grader who asked me for help with a problem.  A ghost was coming to his room and it scared him, he said.  What should he do to handle it?

I asked him if he was sure it wasn't a bad dream, and he said he was.  So we built a strategy.  First he'd ask her not to scare him so often. Next he'd ask if there was something he could do to help her.  Last, he'd learn how to ignore her.  After all, I told him, as a kid I only scared my sister in dark hallways as long as it made her scream.  The minute she stopped being afraid, I stopped doing it.

That boy seemed confident he had the tools he needed when our talk ended, but I wondered about all the kids.  And I decided to do the research myself and share whatever evidence I found to help them cope. Kids will read it because they love to get scared.  But I hope it will also give them the tools they need to feel a little safer in their beds after being scared stops being fun. 

 How does this work differ from others in this genre?

I hope the fact that I visited haunted places for four years sets this book apart.  Not all of my investigations made it into the book.  About half the text was cut -- my fault.  My editor asked for so many words, and I almost doubled that.  But there is no such thing as wasted research.  The time I invested informed my writing along with my belief system.  I hope both skepticism and possibility are both reflected n the text.



Why do you write what you write?


I was a reluctant reader as kid.  I could read well, I just didn't like the topics presented to me.  I loved Abraham Lincoln, and read everything I could find about him.  But I also loved snakes and bats and dinosaurs and movie monsters and sea monsters and vampires.  Books about THOSE topics didn't exist.  So there was nothing FOR ME to read.  I write the books I would have loved as a kid.  And to my great delight, I'm not the only one looking for them.


What are you currently working on?

I want to write a book on sea monsters, one on Easter Island, one on ventriloquism and one on ghost fishing -- all nonfiction topics.  But Andrew Karre has hired me to write three novels -- FICTION -- about kids who rescue animals for middle grade readers.  The novels will be inspired by three true stories, but will be strictly fictionalized.  I'm almost done with book one, about a girl who saves 25 horses from a burning barn.  The other two should be finished by the spring of 2015.  I hope they'll be worth reading, but the kids will let me know.  Kids are good at telling the truth.  It's why I love them.



Kelly and I will next see each other at the conference of NCTE in Washington DC the week before Thanksgiving. I'm looking forward to it and want to thank you, Kelly, to participating in my journal. We will be joined by the fabulous and innovative Roxie Monro, the dynamic Selene Joy Castrovilla, and the talented Cynthia Levinson.

Friday, August 1, 2014


Recently, I was tagged to participate in a blog tour / blog hop. The invitation came from Shelley Sommer via my publisher, Calkins Creek Books. I wrote to Shelley and explained that I might not be the ideal candidate, since posts to my blog have been random and inconsistent. She extended the invitation anyway, and I hope it stimulates me to be more of a consistent poster in the future. Thank you, Shelley.

While I don’t know Shelley personally, I am familiar with her excellent nonfiction work: Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer and John F. Kennedy: His Life and Legacy. Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg was a 2012 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a selection of the Junior Library Guild.  Shelley is a librarian and middle-school literature teacher, as well as a reviewer of books for School Library Journal, so I know we’d be simpatico. I was especially intrigued to learn that she once worked for the John F. Kennedy Library, an organization that has been very generous to me by providing research materials for some of my projects. You can meet Shelley Sommer here.

Jumping back a bit to look at the blogs of other celebrity writers on the tour, we have Loretta Ellsworth, author of In Search of Mockingbird. This is one that might be paired nicely with To Kill a Mockingbird, as it’s about a young girl who goes in search of Harper Lee seeking answers to questions. You can follow her blog here.

Also on this famous author tour is Gwenyth Swain, who wrote Hopes and Tears: Ellis Island Voices, a beautiful book that happens to be sitting on my reading table. I look forward to getting lost among its pages soon. Here is a link to Gwenyth’s blog.

I’ve been charged with answering the following:

What am I currently working on?

I just delivered The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield: Rain Wizard (tentative title). Hatfield was one of the most successful rainmakers, working primarily in California at the turn of the 20th Century. His work carried him far afield to the Yukon and Honduras, but what set him apart from other rainmakers of the day was his study of science and his distaste for the term “rainmaker.” He never claimed to make rain. Instead, he was a rain coaxer or rain inducer. When weather conditions were right, he caused clouds to weep through his chemical wizardry.

At present, I am researching and writing a biography of Dorothy I. Height, a pioneer in the civil rights movement, and looking forward to the October 1 release of STRIKE! The Farm Workers’ Fight for Their Rights.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

So many of the nonfiction works that cross my desk seem to be written in the picture book format; that is, 32-40 illustrated pages with limited text, and I love them. But by contrast, my books tend to be written either for a somewhat older child or for the child who wants to know more than can be included in the picture book format. Since I am writing for children in the upper elementary grades and into high school and because kids today are so visually oriented, I stuff my books with photographic images to put readers in the place, as it were. I think of them as photo-essays. I also tend to use A LOT OF primary source materials—quotes from newspapers of the day, oral histories, etc.—to give readers a sense of the people and the times in which they lived. Nothing is quite so revealing as the actual words of the people about whom I’m writing.

Why do I write what I write?

Honestly, I write to inform myself. I choose subjects that are of interest to me. Sometimes I’m aware of a curriculum tie and other times, not so much. The civil rights books came about because they were events that took place during my early childhood and which I recalled, but only vaguely. My parents were born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and they told me stories about the way many whites there treated African Americans. The stories they and my maternal grandfather told were hair-raising to the point of being unbelievable—until I researched and discovered they were real stories. I also realized that many—MANY—schools summarize the civil rights movement by alluding to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, and don’t go much in depth beyond that. I like to write about people who lived significant lives, but about whom little is known or whose contributions were overshadowed by those we do know--people like Bayard Rustin or Fred Shuttlesworth. Finally, I realized that many of today’s youth don’t really understand what it was like way back when or appreciate the sacrifices an older generation made so they can enjoy the life they have today. We still have miles to go on the civil rights front, but I write the books I do so youngsters can dig a little deeper into this history of ours and perhaps make our country’s future more inclusive, more equal, more just.  

How does my writing process work?

I always chuckle when I’m asked this question because there are days, weeks, months when I think I don’t have a process at all. While I usually sell a book based on a proposal, the finished project rarely resembles that proposed book at all. Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor, my Sibert Honor Book and winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award, was proposed as a 48-page biography of Shuttlesworth to be illustrated with archival photographs (in other words, a photo-essay). As I got into the research, however, I realized that I couldn’t talk about Shuttlesworth without talking about his nemesis, Bull Connor. As I began piecing together and writing these two main threads, it dawned on me that the book was going to be a bit longer than 48-pages. When I electronically submitted it to my editor, I recall writing, “It’s a little longer than I thought.” She wrote back: “How much longer?” I replied, “Oh, well, about two-and-one-half times as long.” It is still a photo-essay!  

To be helpful to readers, though, let me say that I do a substantial amount of reading BEFORE I begin writing. As I read, I am looking for what I call my door into the story. Once I find that, I then look for significant events to use as threads that will tie the story together. It’s not that different from writing a novel, except that the world I’m writing about and the people actually existed, so I need to be true to that. It’s also a bit like juggling—not that I can—in that there are all of these elements or threads the writer (me) needs to keep track of and tie up before the end of the story, or risk having the whole thing fall apart. A character is introduced, a fight breaks out, one character challenges authority, another character marches or goes on a hunger strike—all of these need to be resolved before the story ends.

On a mundane level, I write/research from about 11:00 in the morning until around 4:00 in the afternoon (longer if a deadline is looming). I don’t take notes unless absolutely necessary. Instead, I purchase or photocopy my research materials and then highlight the parts I think will be important as I read. (Explanation: I can’t read my own handwriting; hence, no notes. I hate doing something twice, especially knowing all the revisions that lie ahead.) I don’t do colored notecards to represent each thread or print out each draft a la Jacqueline Susann (look her up if she's unfamiliar to you) on a different color of paper (especially after her husband admitted that was all fiction--something for the press to eat up and report). Once I'm writing, I begin each day by reading from the start, making revisions as I go (but saving each day’s progress in a separate file in case I need to retrieve something). The rest is butt glue; that is, behind in chair, fingers on keyboard (BICFOC). I am also easily distracted. A ring of the doorbell, plants that need watering, a new recipe I want to try are all good excuses for me to unglue myself from that chair, but usually I manage to stay put. Even if I do become distracted, though, the story is never far away, always lurking in a corner of my mind.

I am honored to pass the baton to the next celebrity writer on the tour . . .

I first met Lee Bennett Hopkins when each of us had a new book out from Boyds Mills Press and they’d both received starred reviews: his Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life and my Merry Christmas, Old Armadillo (both still in print, I might add). Since then our friendship has blossomed, although we live on opposite sides of the country. I keep a copy of Days to Celebrate: A Full Year of Poetry, People, Holidays, History, Fascinating Facts, and More within arm’s length of my desk. Let me tell you something about this poet and Christopher Award winner (for Been to Yesterdays) that you may not know and will likely impress students of all ages: He is listed in Guinness World Records as “the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children.”

I'm sure that like me, you look forward to reading Lee's next offering. In the meantime, you can get to know him here      
Until we meet again, I wish you happy reading, happy eating.



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A New Project

My PR guru tells me that people are tired of Facebook. She says, "Facebook less, blog more." So here we go.

As if I don't already have enough to do, I just signed up another research-intense nonfiction project about an unknown civil rights icon (I'll tell you who another time), and it's due December 15. When will I learn? Let me see where I hid the midnight oil.

Project #1: due end of May
Project #2: due Dec 15
Project #3: due June 1

At least the picture book is finished and off to publisher #1.