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

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Audiobook Reader/Performer Tavia Gilbert and Giveaway of The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

I'm thrilled to have audiobook reader Tavia Gilbert on the blog today! When I heard that The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher would be made into an audiobook by Dreamscape, I was thrilled, and the moment I heard Tavia Gilbert's audio sample, I knew that she was the perfect choice to bring my story to life. She's a truly gifted performer and I'm so very grateful that she wanted to become the voice of my version of Becky Thatcher. Dreamscape has generously offered to provide a copy of the audiobook for a special giveaway; just leave a comment on this post and you'll be entered! UPDATE: Random.org has spoken and the winner is KENDA TURNER! And there's another chance to win over at Tavia's blog!

Tavia is an award-winning narrator with nearly 300 audiobooks under her belt. Contemporary and literary fiction, biography and memoir, fantasy, romance, children’s literature, science, religion, and more. Tavia’s range of genres is a direct result of her intuitive interpretation, clever diction and pacing, and sensitivity to each author’s or publisher’s needs.

Tell us briefly how you started narrating/performing audiobooks.

My lifelong dream has always been to be a professional actor, and I studied theater in college, earning a BFA in Acting from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. About a year after graduation I moved to Portland, Maine, for what I planned would be about six months, to attend the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, immersing myself in learning the craft of documentary radio. Sound had always been a passion — I’d sung all my life in choirs and loved radio, was passionate about voice studies at Cornish, and had listened to a few magnificent audiobooks.

When the time drew near for me to return to Washington, I met someone and began an important, long-term relationship, and soon realized that Maine was going to be in my life much longer than I’d anticipated. I did commercial work and professional theater in Portland, but still had to rely on a day job, and that was not the dream. Voice acting was the only obvious path to being a self-supporting, full-time, professional actor even from a small market like New England. I set my sights on audiobooks, listened voraciously to the best narrators, took classes, got individual coaching, joined the professional trade organization that organizes the audiobook industry, worked toward breaking in for a couple years, and have now been a full-time narrator for seven years, with about 300 books recorded.

How do you find out about different book jobs that are available?

Most often publishers contact me and assign a book that they think is well suited to my particular voice and acting skills and experience. Or I’ll be given the opportunity to audition for a project, and sometimes I book the job, sometimes not. (Your book was one that I auditioned for, and I wanted it so much it almost hurt, actually! Usually I try to forget about the things I audition for, so if someone else is cast I’m not too disappointed, but I couldn’t manage to do that with Becky Thatcher.) Increasingly, writers contact me directly with projects that they’d like me to work on. Occasionally I’ll pursue a book or a writer’s work that I’m personally interested in. However they come, I’m very grateful!

Do you do different voices? What is your process for developing character voices?

I do do character voices, and I really love vocally creating distinct personalities. That’s one of my strengths, I think — managing the demands of differentiating great numbers of people of various ages, races, genders, attitudes, classes, and dialects. I’m not a master at precise dialect — some I do better than others — but I do create a cinematic landscape successfully, so that the listener always knows who is speaking and the characters remain specific and individual. I don’t actually have much of a process, to be honest with you! I should develop one, probably. I just read the book and take into consideration what the characters say about themselves and each other, and then I act in the present moment, tweak if I need to, take notes so that I can remain consistent throughout a book or a series, and always let the words on the page guide the performance.

Are narrations of books always done word-for-word as written, or are there adaptions needed in some cases to make the spoken version make more sense or flow more clearly?

Narrations are and should be word for word. Narrating an audiobook reveals writing weaknesses quickly. Many skilled writers read their work aloud as they draft and revise, because they know that the rhythm and sensibility, the poetry and lyricism of language can be highlighted when words are brought off the page. If the language is clunky or awkward aurally, it should be rewritten so that it flows, whether it’s going to be read or listened to. 

Your writing was lovely to read. Truly — it is a great pleasure to narrate beautifully- written work. It’s not only a great pleasure — it’s almost always easy and even relaxing to read well-crafted literature. There are exceptions — Annie Dillard is brilliant, but really challenging to voice — but most often, the better the writing, the easier my job. When it’s great, the story almost reads itself.

What are the special considerations an audiobook narrator has when taking care of his/her voice?

I stay very hydrated, drinking water and a combination of Throat Coat and Breathe Right tea throughout the day. I don’t smoke or spend time in smoky environments, only drink with moderation, and would be reluctant to go to an event or a gathering where I had to yell or raise my voice to be heard for a long period of time. I exercise and stay fit and strong so that I’m supporting my voice with as healthy a back, neck, and shoulders, and core as I can. I try to get a lot of sleep. It’s everything, my voice. So I try to take good care of it.

What do you like to read/listen to in your free time?

I have far too little time to read for pleasure, which is a shame, because I’ve been an avid reader all my life. But when I do have time, I read literary fiction, memoir, theology and spiritual contemplation, and narrative non-fiction. I listen to audio a lot, when I’m commuting on the subway, exercising, or doing housework, and I listen to the same things I read for pleasure. I also occasionally listen to purely entertaining things like thrillers and mysteries if the narrator is one of my favorites. If I love a particular narrator’s work I’ll listen to anything they perform, because they can make everything they do fantastic! My favorite narrators are Barbara Rosenblat, Davina Porter, Katherine Kellgren, Bernadette Dunne, Carol Monda, Suzanne Toren, Simon Vance, Richard Ferrone, Johnny Heller, George Guidall, Norman Dietz. They’re also some of my favorite people!

What projects do you have coming up next?

Oh, I have such interesting things! I’m doing a biography of Coco Chanel right now, wonderfully researched and written by Rhonda Garelick, the autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which is remarkable and inspiring and humbling, and the memoir Not Fade Away by Rebecca Alexander, about the way Rebecca chooses to live with joy and ambition even with the diminishing of her sight and hearing. Narrating the stories of four notable women in a row is just wonderful. Who’s the fourth? Becky Thatcher, of course!

Thank you so much, Tavia, for taking the time to answer my questions. Again, I'm so grateful that you chose to voice Becky T!

LINKS~ Find out more about Tavia here!




Just leave a comment to be entered to win a copy of Dreamscape's audiobook of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher! A winner will be chosen via Random.org next Wednesday, August 6. UPDATE: Per Random.org, the winner is Kenda Turner!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hungry For A New Middle Grade Book? ALL FOUR STARS Giveaway!!

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin
Boy, do I have a tasty treat for you. Gladys Gatsby has arrived!

Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated, but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world. But to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret. Easy as pie, right?

I first met author Tara Dairman's wonderful character Gladys Gatsby when 250 words of Gladdy's bold culinary antics were featured in a contest entry on Miss Snark's First Victim. I fell deeply in love with that single page, so you can imagine my feelings about an entire book full of this charming heroine. I wasn't a bit surprised when I learned that the manuscript had been snatched up by a fabulous agent and, shortly after, a very large publisher.

Spirit, humor, heart, and mouthwatering dishes make All Four Stars a must-read for any lover of middle grade literature, particularly young chefs-in-the-making and young foodies. And all of the delicious food items mentioned in the book have been personally savored by the author, who sampled some of the world's most scrumptious meals and nibbles during her 2-year, 74-country honeymoon...yes, it's true, go read about it here). Here's a sample of the fantastic industry praise All Four Stars has gotten:

 Gladys is a lovable character with plenty of spunk and desireand readers will happily cheer her on, while the fresh plot adds a delicious dimension to the host of stories set in sixth grade.

The [restaurant-reviewing] plan goes disastrously and hilariously awry, but Gladys and fine food ultimately triumph. The characters are well drawn…Give this one to your young foodies.-SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL

Younger readers (especially those who know their way around a kitchen) will be amused by Gladys’s reviews of her parents’ horrible cooking (“The peas… arrived at the table in a soggy, mushy state fit for a baby”) and her plot to get to New York City without alerting any adults. The triumphant conclusion makes this a tasty read.

Gladys turns out to be surprisingly canny and resourceful…and Gladys’s psychological journey and personal transformation are solid and credible. [An] entertaining story about the joys of following one’s bliss.

All Four Stars has been named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for July

The book was released on July 10 and I've already bought 3 copies for myself and family members. I love it so much that I'm giving away a copy to my blog readers as well. *Just leave a comment on this post and you'll be entered. The winner will be chosen via Random.org on July 25th.*

UPDATE: Random.org has spoken and the winner of Tara's book is michelleimason!! Congrats, Michelle!

Tara's Website: http://taradairman.com/

Follow Tara on Twitter (@TaraDairman)