Welcome! Please sit down, make yourself comfortable, and have a brownie or three...

Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Love & Giveaway: Becky Wallace's THE STORYSPINNER

Tomorrow, March 3rd, is a very special day for a very special lady. My dear friend Becky Wallace has written a gorgeous, intriguing, thrilling YA Fantasy called The Storyspinner. I was lucky enough to read early drafts of this book and cannot wait to get my hands on the hardcover. I preordered 2 copies and will be giving one away. Just leave a comment and consider yourself entered! I'll choose a winner via Random.org and will update this post one week from today.
UPDATE: Random.org chose comment #6, which means Natalie Aguirre has won the hardcover of The Storyspinner! Congratulations, Natalie~ I know you'll enjoy it! Please email me with the address where you'd like the book sent.


Drama and danger abound in this fantasy realm where dukes play a game for the throne, magical warriors race to find the missing heir, and romance blossoms where it is least expected.

In a world where dukes plot their way to the throne, a Performer’s life can get tricky. And in Johanna Von Arlo’s case, it can be fatal. Expelled from her troupe after her father’s death, Johanna is forced to work for the handsome Lord Rafael DeSilva. Too bad they don’t get along. But while Johanna’s father’s death was deemed an accident, the Keepers aren’t so sure.

The Keepers, a race of people with magical abilities, are on a quest to find the princess—the same princess who is supposed to be dead and whose throne the dukes are fighting over. But they aren’t the only ones looking for her. And in the wake of their search, murdered girls keep turning up—girls who look exactly like the princess, and exactly like Johanna.

With dukes, Keepers, and a killer all after the princess, Johanna finds herself caught up in political machinations for the throne, threats on her life, and an unexpected romance that could change everything.


“This tale of murder, kidnapping, and magic held me from start to finish!”
~Tamora Pierce, NYT Bestselling author of The Will of the Empress, The Circle of Magic, and The Circle Opens quartets

“Becky Wallace couples a classic romance with cut-throat political intrigue and wraps it in a detailed and enthralling magical world. I can’t wait for the sequel.”
~Cinda Williams Chima, NYT Bestselling author of The Heir Trilogy and The Seven Realms series


In second grade, Becky Wallace had to sit in the corner because she refused to write anything except princess stories and fairy tales (and because she talked too much). Her time in isolation gave her plenty of opportunities to dream up the fantasy worlds she’s been dabbling with ever since. She was lucky enough to find her own real-life Prince Charming. They have four munchkins and live in happy little town near Houston, Texas.

Becky on TWITTER

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Writing Craft: Joy McCullough-Carranza on BLOOD/WATER/PAINT and plays vs. novels

Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography

I am lucky to be blessed with wonderful critique partners. The women in my writing life are supportive, hilarious, well-read, and fiercely intelligent. Because of that, I wasn't a bit surprised when Joy McCullough-Carranza told me that the play she'd let me read a version of years ago (the play of her heart!) was going to be produced in Seattle. Joy writes middle grade and young adult fiction as well (she is repped by the fabulous agent Sara Crowe), but plays are where she got her start.

Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography
Many of my blog readers are writers of novels. As such, unless we get a movie deal along with a book deal, there is little chance of us ever seeing our characters come to life in person. For a writer, seeing your story unfold in front of your eyes has got to be magical. Joy has been kind enough to answer a few questions about that magic and about the creation process behind it.


BLOOD/WATER/PAINT is an unflinching retelling of the true story of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter whose story unfolds through interactions with the women featured in her most famous paintings and the process of teaching her daughter to paint, and culminates in her fierce battle to rise above the most devastating event in her life and fight for justice despite horrific consequences.
*Photos scattered throughout this post may look like paintings, but they are all beautiful press photos created by Joe Iano*

Ana Maria Campoy, Alex Highsmith, Evelyn DeHais. Joe Iano Photography
What is the creation process and revision process for your plays, and how does that differ from how you create children’s novels?

I wrote plays for fifteen years before I switched to fiction, and when I did, I was overwhelmed by the sheer word count of novels. A full-length play is much shorter than even a middle grade manuscript—my play that’s being produced is under 12,000 words, for example. (It runs about an hour and a half, so even a three-hour monster of a play is only around 25K.) So the sheer word count of a novel was overwhelming and I needed to outline at least a few chapters at a time and think in terms of manageable steps to keep myself moving forward when writing fiction.

With plays, I don’t outline, and I definitely don’t think in terms of word count. (I had to check that word count of my play.) I do a lot of interweaving time periods and storylines in my plays, and it’s a kind of instinctual, rhythmic thing that I don’t think I could plan. Playwrights are more aware of page count, with the general rule that 1 page = 1 minute of stage time. But otherwise, the creative process is similar, even if the craft itself is quite different. And both share those lovely cycles of excitement, doubt, self-loathing, hope, etc. (And lots of rejections!)

Daniel Christensen & Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography
Once I have a draft of a play that I feel really solid about—the point at which I would send a draft of a novel to you for critique, lovely CP—I usually get a group of actor friends together to read it aloud for me. Hearing it aloud teaches me things (I do read my novels aloud by myself, but that’s more for a micro-level polishing pass, whereas this early read of a play gets at bigger issues), and getting feedback from smart actors is hugely helpful. (I should say that having a play draft read aloud by anything less than wonderful, professional actors may not be all that helpful and in fact may be harmful. Teaching playwriting in high schools, I’ve heard really wonderful scenes sound absolutely terrible in the voices of untrained actors. And I suppose the reverse of that is true—I know some actors who can make even scenes that aren’t quite working sound great.)

What elements of your fiction writing are most influenced by your background as a playwright? And vice-versa, please.

I find dialogue super easy, and I’ve been told the voice in my fiction is strong, probably because even in third person, I sort of think of fiction as one giant monologue. My fiction is extremely spare in its description, since playwrights get to leave all that visual stuff to the director and designers, unless it’s super relevant to the plot.

Alex Highsmith and Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography
As for fiction influencing my playwriting, I can’t really say, since I haven’t written a brand new play since I started focusing on fiction. (The play being produced now pre-dates my fiction writing.) I am in the early stages of developing a new play, and I find myself thinking in terms of many more characters and settings than I should for a play, which is not like a novel in its ability to go to every setting and show every single relevant character who might intersect with the story.

Out with it: which is a more enjoyable process for you, writing novels or writing plays?

This is a really serious toss-up. For the last few years that I’ve been focused on fiction writing, I’ve thought it had to be the winner, for the obvious reason that I get to live in my Ravenclaw sweats and never leave my house. (Also, in all seriousness, the amazing community I’ve found among kid-lit writers puts some serious points in this column.)

But right now I’m in rehearsal for a play—and I should note that having a play in production is distinct from the process of sitting home and writing the play, but still—and I am reminded of how unparalleled the collaborative aspect of theater is.
Joy watching rehearsals: Joe Iano Photography
No one writes my plays for me, or even suggests what I should write. But when a playwright sits in a room and watches directors and actors work together through the scenes, there is so much to mine there. You can see when something just isn’t working, and whether it’s the fault of the script or not. Actors and directors talk about the characters and their backgrounds and their motivations and you get to steal from them and act like you totally meant that all along. And that’s to say nothing of what designers bring to the process. I’m not the tiniest bit visual (even though I’ve written a play about a painter) and it boggles the mind to see the emails between the designers and director go back and forth, trying to nail down exactly what the easel would look like in Baroque Italy, etc.

Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography
So…it’s hard to say. I haven’t sold a novel yet. When I have, it may be an easier comparison. Right now I’ve only had the experience of seeing my writing fully realized with plays, so I suppose my first love gets the win (for now).

Again, I'm so thrilled about BLOOD/WATER/PAINT and hope that if you live in the Seattle area, you'll be able to go see it!

SHOW LOCATION: Theatre Off Jackson
DATES & TIMES: February 20th – March 14th 2015

Thu-Sat @ 8pm, &  Monday, March 9th @ 8pm 

(Free Preview Thurs Feb 19th)


Joy McCullough-Carranza is a Seattle playwright with a degree in theater from Northwestern University, where she won the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Award for her play fifty cents in the dark. Other plays include After Midnight, Home/LandChasing MonarchsHiding Hannah, Blood/Water/Paint, Trapped, Mud Angel, and Watching for Wolves, and have been developed and produced in New York, Seattle, San Diego, and Chicago, at Manhattan Theatre Source, ACT Theatre, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Mirror Stage Company, Live Girls, the Mae West Fest, 14/48, Seattle Dramatists, Stage Left Theatre, New Village Arts, Lamb’s Players Theatre, and Northwestern University.  She has twice been a finalist for the Actors Theater of Louisville’s Heideman Award.


Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography

Daniel Christensen & Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography

Alex Highsmith and Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography

Ana Maria Campoy, Daniel Christensen, Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography

Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography

Annette Toutonghi and Evelyn DeHais: Joe Iano Photography

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Perfect Gift: Softies by Heather Campbell

Holiday decorations are already flooding stores, which means it's open season on thinking of gifts for our loved ones. When I discovered that my new friend (and fellow Kindergarten mom) Heather Campbell was opening an Etsy shop called Augustine & Isobel to sell her softies, I immediately asked if I could do a blog post on these precious ladies/gentlemen/creatures.

All the softies are special and the custom-made option allows your child to be their own designer (seriously, check out the custom-made softie/sketch below).

I know you started creating softies with your son. Please tell us how you went from making the first one to selling them on your wonderful Etsy shop.

I had been hoping for some time to open an Etsy shop. I knew I wanted to sell softies, but I felt there wasn’t anything that distinguished me from other sellers. I’m a big fangirl when it comes to other softie artists, and what I’ve learned is that each has their own niche. I really wanted to come up with something unique that set me apart—something that other artists didn’t offer.

I carry around a journal that I use to scribble ideas as they come to me, and while we were on vacation, my then four-year-old son took it and started drawing his own “dolls” for me to make. I loved the exuberance and freedom of his drawings—mine are often too controlled and too self-conscious. I knew immediately that I wanted to sew his dolls. I asked him for permission to sew the ones we made, and then I began to think about the possibilities of offering this service to other parents wanting to bring their kids’ drawings to life.

What makes softies a great gift for children (eh-hem blog readers, with the holidays coming up, nothing says “You’re special to me!” like a one-of-a-kind gift for the children in your life)?

It has been so exciting for my son to see his drawings in 3D. He’s been the designer—I’m just a collaborator. I think it’s really powerful for a child to see his or her imagination leap off the page like that.

I think these dolls would make the PERFECT reading/cuddle buddy. What ages do you recommend softies for?

Softies are wonderful for people of all ages! I have a commission right now to make one for an adult. I can make them very sturdy for kiddos to snuggle and child-safe for little ones who like to chew on their toys, but there’s also an artistic quality to them, and adults can enjoy them as well. 

Tell us about the custom-made option on your Etsy shop.
Custom-made doll from child's drawing

I started making dolls for friends’ children, and I would very specifically choose eye color and hair color for each child. I like the idea of a child being able to specifically choose a doll that has the same hair color/skin color/eye color as they do or as maybe a favorite storybook character does.

When I sew a doll based on a child’s drawing, I can incorporate colors from the drawing, or if the drawing is in black and white, I can use the child’s favorite color.

How do you find the time to brainstorm/design/create softies as a busy mom and editor?

Because of my love for stories, these ideas are always flitting around the edge of my brain—I just need to sketch them before I lose them. I find myself doodling at church, in the car, or while I’m waiting for the pediatrician.

As far as construction goes, once I’ve drafted a pattern and cut the fabric, I just sew in bits and pieces while my kids play or do their own craft projects. It’s really fun during the winter, because I’ll set them up with homemade play dough or a pile of markers, and we work on our projects together. When I get close to a deadline, I put in some late hours after the kids are in bed. But the good news is I love these projects, so it’s not like work at all.


Heather Campbell is a stay-at-home-mom/freelance writer and editor/softie artist. She lives in Palmer Lake, Colorado, a quirky small town northwest of Colorado Springs. Heather has a Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature, and was a children’s & teen librarian for six years. She's been writing YA book reviews for School Library Journal for ten years, and seven years ago she began doing freelance editing of nonfiction books. Her Etsy shop, Augustine & Isobel, has been featured in Stuffed Magazine.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Novels as Picture Books: Hans Brinker, by Bruce Coville and Laurel Long

Hans Brinker, Retold by Bruce Coville, Illustrated by Laurel Long

I have long been a fan of Bruce Coville. His books are full of imagination, wonder, fun, humor, suspense, magic, and characters that readers can relate to. I'm also a huge fan of my public library system. My daughters and I are at one (or both) of our local branches 3-5 times a week and we always load up on two things:

1. Nonfiction picture books relating to animals/insects (my 5-year-old gravitates toward the hairless creatures: Komodo dragons, dung beetles, spiders, sharks, fleas, etc. I once said, "How about something with a little bit of fur?" and she picked the muskrat book) 

2. Picture books

I was beyond delighted to discover this 2007 retelling of Hans Brinker because a) the cover and illustrations are absolutely enchanting and b) I read the novel (by Mary Mapes Dodge, first published in 1865) as a young girl and upon our return home, found my copy:

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here's a short summary:

Set against a backdrop of Holland's frozen canals in a winter wonderland, the year's most exciting event in a little Dutch village is about to take place. But will Hans Brinker and his sister Gretel, with their hand-carved wooden skates, be able to compete against their well-trained young friends who own fine steel blades?

The novel is full of Dutch historical and cultural information and was a bestseller upon publication. By today's standards, young Hans might be seen as too good to be true (as noted by Mr. Coville in his Author's Note). We tend to like our characters multi-layered and a bit more flawed than the almost-perfectly virtuous Hans. But I would argue that the heart of Hans Brinker remains something that even the cynical among us can't deny is pretty darn nice~ the heart of the book tells us that children like Hans~ sturdy, loyal, kind, good~ do indeed exist and have traits that all of us, even the most flawed, can take something useful from. 

I had a wonderful sense of nostalgia while reading this picture book to my girls. It's not easy to condense a novel's essence and capture plot points in a way that honors the original and doesn't confuse those unfamiliar with the story, but Bruce Coville's retelling of Hans Brinker does all of that. His Author's Note at the end of the book is fantastic as well, making excellent observations about the original book's meaning and Hans's place in the world of literary characters.

Laurel Long's illustrations are magical. There's nothing more I can say.

Have you read any exceptional novel-to-picture-book retellings? Please let me know in the comments!

I'll leave you with a few images from the book and encourage you to either buy it and add it to your home collection permanently or check it out from your local library.

Author's Note

Back of the book

Friday, September 26, 2014

An Upcoming Middle Grade Book You Don't Want To Miss: The Troubles of Johnny Cannon (review & giveaway)

It’s hard to create a unique character and plot these days. People might say, “Oh, a boarding school? You’re stealing from Harry Potter!” or “That character with a beloved dog is straight out of Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Because of Winn Dixie!” Well, folks, I’ve found an original voice that nobody can deny is something unique and fresh. Welcome to the world, Mr. Johnny Cannon!

The Troubles of Johnny Cannon by Isaiah Campbell will be released on October 14 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Here's a summary:

Johnny Cannon’s got problems. Money is scarce. Martha Macker, the girl he likes, barely knows he’s alive. His best friend Willie is pretty great, but he also happens to be a black kid—which is not exactly acceptable in Cullman, Alabama. His big brother Tommy went to war and vanished. His Pa may be committing treason in their backyard. And just when it seems like things couldn’t get worse, an old family friend—or maybe enemy—appears and shakes everything up. How’s a kid like Johnny supposed to get himself and his family out of a mess that’s stickier than molasses and twice as tangled as a spiderweb?

What we want more than anything as readers is to feel like we’re in the capable hands of a storyteller—to be swept into another world naturally and vividly. Campbell has the gift of a natural storyteller and a main character with a voice that caused Newbery medalist Richard Peck to describe The Troubles of Johnny Cannon like this: 

"A boy with a highly original voice winces his way into the bewildering world of adults during a neglected moment in American history."

Campbell’s characters are flawed, which is where the authenticity comes in. He’s also not afraid to address the more shameful parts of our past because these things are our past and by addressing them, young readers will get an important reminder of historical injustices and maybe even internally compare them to the injustices that they still see around them in today’s world. It’s not easy to read about things like racism, but I would argue that the most difficult scenes to read in a book are often the ones that stay with us—that touch us deeply and leave a mark.

One of the most amazing things to me is that Campbell manages to develop deep and sensitive subject matter while he weaves a rollicking tale with twists, turns, friendship, and troubles galore. Holy excitement, Batman! This novel’s got it all. I won’t spoil the incredible ending, but I’ll tell you this—Johnny Cannon is a legend in the making. There’s already a sequel scheduled to come out next year, so you better hurry up and buy the first one now!

I believe in this book so much that I’m going to pre-order a copy for one lucky person leaving a comment. I’ll announce a winner on Friday, October 3.UPDATE: The winner is Linda Baie!

Any favorite character voices among books you've read? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pumpkins: The Novel of the Gardening World (and the latest book from a favorite MG author~ w/ giveaway!)

Pumpkin patch on 9-14-14
Pumpkins are one of those plants (technically fruits) that you have to wait for. They sprout fairly quickly, which gives you something to get excited about, but the process seems to drag on forever. Pumpkins, which are already available for plucking from enormous cardboard boxes outside of my local grocery store, are a lesson in patience.

My daughter and I planted the pumpkins in this photo months ago and have watched the vines grow, been delighted by the appearance of tiny yellow balls, thinned away certain plants to let the others grow better, and now we're just watching them get bigger. We're waiting. It's no use trying to hurry them along~ they'll get done when they get done.

Sound familiar? Novel writing can be a lengthy and exhausting process. Moments of excitement are followed by slogging through paragraphs that attempt to move the plot forward~ paragraphs that you know will need to be cut eventually, but at the time aid in helping you get to where you need to be in the story. Extra vines, if you will. And paragraphs of brilliance, little golden gems that delight the writer, are sometimes just disguising themselves as the same thing. Darlings that will need to be pruned for the greater good of the patch.

The pumpkins shown above would benefit from another 30 days of growth, but I'm not sure they'll get it. Unfortunately I live in a place where this sort of thing happens quite early (see other photo): SNOW.
My front porch, 09-12-14
These very short glimpses of winter threaten to shut down the entire pumpkin operation. You can cover the patch with canvas tarps, you can invest in snow-proof electric blankets to keep them cozy until Colorado changes its seasonal mindset the following day, or you can move to a more produce-friendly state. I didn't do any of those things when the snow hit last Friday, but the pumpkins seem to have survived all on their own. Tough little guys. They must really want to finish growing and get carved up as jack-o-lanterns.

In closing, don't let a few unexpected storms ruin your novels, er, pumpkins (see, now I'm getting them confused and to be fair, short stories and picture books can take just as long to "bear fruit," but my writing experience is mainly with children's novels). A growing novel is a hungry, stubborn, tough little thing, so don't give up on it.

Random fact from this fun picture book we picked up from the library: The Maxima pumpkin variety can gain as much as 5 POUNDS A DAY.


OKAY, GIVEAWAY TIME! *UPDATE: The winner is Julia Tomiak! Congratulations, Julia! Shoot me an email with your address and I'll ship it to you :)

One of my favorite middle grade authors is Stuart Gibbs. He's written the The Last Musketeer series (The Last Musketeer, Traitor's Chase, and Double Cross), the Spy School series (Spy School, Spy Camp), and the Fun Jungle series (Belly Up, Poached). I happened to get my hands on an advanced copy of his latest, SPACE CASE (which will be released tomorrow), and absolutely loved it.

It's an adventurous murder mystery with an amazing setting (Moon Base Alpha!), always-stellar Gibbs humor, and a full cast of characters/suspects. I want to pass it along to a lucky reader so just leave a comment and consider yourself entered in the giveaway. The pages have only been touched once and it's a shiny, like-brand-new copy :) *UPDATE: Winner is Julia Tomiak

Book Description:
Like his fellow lunarnauts—otherwise known as Moonies—living on Moon Base Alpha, twelve-year-old Dashiell Gibson is famous the world over for being one of the first humans to live on the moon.

And he’s bored out of his mind. Kids aren’t allowed on the lunar surface, meaning they’re trapped inside the tiny moon base with next to nothing to occupy their time—and the only other kid Dash’s age spends all his time hooked into virtual reality games.

Then Moon Base Alpha’s top scientist turns up dead. Dash senses there’s foul play afoot, but no one believes him. Everyone agrees Dr. Holtz went onto the lunar surface without his helmet properly affixed, simple as that. But Dr. Holtz was on the verge of an important new discovery, Dash finds out, and it’s a secret that could change everything for the Moonies—a secret someone just might kill to keep...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Storytelling Songwriters: Patty Griffin's Trapeze

On an ideal Sunday morning, I get up early to write, my younger kiddos sleep a little late, and I get to watch all of CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood.

On a typical Sunday morning, I get up early to write, the kids trickle out immediately/shortly after, and I try to keep the children occupied so their dad can get a little shut-eye. That's why I was driving, kids in tow, to the grocery store at 5:30 this morning to get coffee, muffins, eggs, hash browns, bacon, and OJ~ to keep the house quiet a bit longer and to gather the makings for a family feast.

I envisioned a lovely family-style breakfast upon our return, but instead the little kiddos were hungry right away, the hubby had gone out back to do something in the yard, and our big kiddo (my 6' 3" teenage stepson~ his sister is already back at her 2nd year of college...time really does fly) snoozed for a long time and woke up to raw-ish hash browns and burned bacon. Not ideal.

Still, some things are fairly constant on Sunday mornings. I like to take time to really listen to favorite music, even if it's a single song. Sometimes it's instrumental, but much of it is storytelling music (a love that was probably inherited from my parents~ see more about my dad's love of music HERE).

Patty Griffin is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters. Her songs tend to be thoughtful and haunting and she has one of those voices that makes you feel the words she's singing. Here's a song that I listened to this morning. Emmylou Harris helps out with the harmonies.

(feat. Emmylou Harris)

Little pink dress, hanging by her knees
Just overhead on the old trapeze
In the old tent tonight, spotlight going round
One of these nights the old girl's going down
Hallelujah, the old girl's going down

She started with us on the back of a horse
Just seventeen and already divorced
She took to the air with the greatest of ease
Like she was born to be gliding on the old trapeze

Some people don't care if they live or they die
Some people want to know what it feels like to fly
Gather their courage and they give it a try

Some guy broke her heart and how her heart it did ache
So she went to the tent of the lady of the snakes
Who gave her a potion and she drank it in
After that her heart never ached again
After that her heart never ached again

Some poeple don't care if they live or they die
Some people want to know what it feels like to fly
Gather their courage and they give it a try
Fall under the wheels of a time goin' by

Little pink dress, hanging by her knees
Just overhead on the old trapeze
In the old tent tonight, spotlight going round
One of these nights the old girl's going down
One of these nights the old girl's going down
One of these nights the old girl's going down
One of these nights the old girl's going down