I’m so excited to once again be offering virtual visits for World Read Aloud Day: Wednesday, February 1, 2023! It’s been a joy each year to meet your wonderful classrooms and connect with your students. I have a full-time job, so I can’t afford a complete day of visits, but I’m taking a bit of time off to meet with a few classes or library groups.
Welcome to my blog, which includes special posts for teachers and students. Here I’ll share information about my books (including various giveaways), writing prompts, book and research recommendations, events, and wee bits and pieces about my beloved Scotland.
On Saturday, September 17, 2022, I and other New England authors will be appearing in person at the Bath Book Bash at the Patten Free Library in Bath, Maine. From 11 am to 4 pm, this will be a fabulous day with authors and illustrations giving talks and presenting on panels, as well as signing books and chatting with readers. (And there will be food trucks, music, and more!)
I’ll be presenting a monster-building writing exercise, as well as participating in a middle grade fiction panel. If you’re in the area, I hope you can join me!
On this busy weekend, I’ve been getting a lot done. As well as the trailer for Secret of the Shadow Beasts (see this post), I’ve finally managed to finish up my Teachers’ Guide for the book:
I decided to do something a bit different this time around. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is packed with themes—so many, in fact, that in the months running up to its publication date, I was often thinking about those themes and not the absolute fun of the book. I wanted to list those themes on paper, once and for all, in a productive way. It turns out that naming the biggest of those themes (Leadership, Environmentalism, and History) made for some fantastic discussion questions or writing prompts. And there was room for some fun themes (Books and Food) in there too. I had great fun posing questions for each one.
I also wanted to honor my son’s creation of Warriors of the Frozen Bog, the video game that features so prominently in Secret of the Shadow Beasts. I made that into a creative writing exercise, inspired in part by some incredible writing on gaming that I’ve seen from kids. The ugly-cute caps that feature in the book provided a place for a creative (and potentially quite wild) art exercise. And there’s even a recipe for a literal “taste” of what the characters eat!
This Teachers’ Guide has, I hope, enough weighty content to be useful in a rigorous classroom, but also enough relaxing and fun content too—rather like the book itself! I hope it’s useful in the classroom—traditional and homeschool too.
I never got around to pulling a trailer together before Secret of the Shadow Beasts was out (too much going on in all parts of my life!), but at last I had a free morning (and afternoon) where I could work for five hours straight on this! These vids certainly take some time. But I’m thrilled with the result:
The art is, of course, by the incredible Vivienne To. The music is called “Beyond the Warriors” and it’s by Guifrog. I love how well it goes with the spirit of the book.
This was a lot of fun to create. I hope you enjoy it!
I can hardly believe that my third book is about to come out, but in just three weeks, it will be here! To celebrate in this time of the pandemic, I’m holding just two launch events: one Zoom, and one in-person but outside (during which I’ll be masked anytime I’m remotely near anyone). Expect to see more from me this autumn as well, but here’s what’s coming up soon!
On Tuesday, June 14, 2022, at 7 pm, the wonderful Rajani LaRocca (who kindly blurbed Secret of the Shadow Beasts) will be chatting with me about this book on Zoom. Print: A Bookstore (which will have signed copies of both my books and Rajani’s) will be hosting us. I’ve presented with Rajani before, and she is so much fun to chat with! If you join us, you’ll learn a few secrets about the book, including something that her Red, White, and Whole and Secret of the Shadow Beasts has in common. This will be my big Zoom launch event, and I hope you can join us! Register here.
And then, for my in-person event (I’ll be masked up, except when I’m reading aloud and far enough from everyone to keep everyone safe):
Later that week, on Thursday, June 16, 2022, at 3:30 pm, I’ll be appearing for a reading, Q&A, and signing at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth, Maine. This event will be outdoors in their garden. It will be so much fun to see readers of my previous books, but also new readers. Expect a few surprises too! There’s no special registration for this; just show up. If you have questions, though, contact Merrill Memorial Library.
It’s going to be so much fun to connect with my readers again. It’s been so long! I hope if you’ve enjoyed any of my work, you’ll join me at one or both of these events.
Hear all about these mighty fortresses of stone that featured moats, murder holes, portcullises, arrow loops and more. During this event, I’ll share a detailed view of what castles looked like inside and how they functioned in medieval times. Imagine yourself both as a castle defender and invader and learn what to think about when designing your own castle.
Date: Tuesday, May 31, 2022
Time: 4:30 – 5:30 pm (Central Time)
Location: Online (hosted by Arapahoe Libraries)
April is National Poetry Month, so here’s a writing tip that’s extremely useful in poetry as well as prose: figurative language.
Start by picking an object, feeling, or scene.
Right now, outside my window, it’s raining (and I mean serious rain). So I’m going to start with that. And with this simple statement:
Figurative language expands the boundaries of a concept. So with that in mind, how could you expand “It’s raining” to represent more than what you see outside?
The rain by my window is cold, bleak, and wet. Come up with your own list of what rain feels like (or sounds like, or looks like). Imagine what you see while rain splashes into a puddle. Think about language that implies movement. Use literal language (describe exactly what’s happening) if that helps.
Here’s my own list of gloomy rain words: cold, bleak, wet, sharp, slithering, sleek, drenching, bone-chilling, pinging, pounding, roaring, (and then, for the puddle) drops dropping, covering the surface; and then for a few common descriptions: buckets of rain, sheets of rain.
From that list, pick several words you’d like to work with (and feel free to go back and harvest any more that you like). Look for alliteration (words that begin with the same letter) if you’re having trouble starting (I have pinging and pounding and slithering and sleek).
Now think about what those words mean in isolation (forget about the rain for a minute). What do they make you think about?
To me, there’s music in “pinging” and “pounding”: chimes might ping, while a bass drum could pound. My figurative language would imply music. Here’s how I might write that in a very simple, quick, literal way:
pinging and pounding, chimes and a bass drum,
wet music outside my window
Now pick something else from your list. I like “slithering” and “sleek” from mine, so I’ll go with that. I think of snakes with those words, but also river otters, and eels. I’ll need to pick one, and it might look like this:
slithering and sleek, a rush of otters on my roof,
delighting in the wet
If you keep going back to your list, you could come up with many different images (I have buckets of rain and sheets of rain—maybe I could write “a whole barrel of rain rolling down the street”).
Come up with enough of these (even three), and you’ll have your own poem rich with figurative language.
The next step would be to revise, to tweak what you can, thinking about rhythm, and what kind of story you might be telling with your poem. But this is a wonderful start.
(And you may have noticed that I was quite literal with these examples. I’ve known students who struggle with figurative language, and I hope this will help them in particular feel good about using metaphors.)
I’ve always loved monster stories where the “monster” isn’t evil and, while creepy and maybe a bit scary, is there to do good. Most ghost stories don’t do this. In middle grade fiction in particular, ghosts are common devices of spooky evil. And so the fact that the protagonist of Kyle Lukoff’s Too Bright to See lives in a haunted house but was taught by her uncle to love the house and not worry too much about its ghosts made me sure I’d enjoy this novel.
Lukoff does a beautiful job creating a warm, gentle story of a kid who isn’t comfortable in her own skin—and certainly not the clothes and makeup that her best friend Moira wants her to wear. Bug lives in rural Vermont, where everyone knows everyone else. There are clear expectations for middle school, as Moira tells her. Their first year of middle school will be an opportunity to remake themselves anew.
But Bug resists Moira’s attempts to remake her into a girl who looks and acts like a girl—which Moira is certain will help them both fit in at their new school. To Bug, it doesn’t feel right. She wishes she could talk with her late Uncle Roderick about this. He was the kind of uncle she could talk with about anything.
While Bug misses her uncle immensely, she isn’t sure that she wants him to come back as a ghost. But early in the novel, it certainly seems as if he has—and he has a message for her. There’s something important she needs to figure out: a secret that will change her life.
And it’s a secret which I can’t give away (in fact, Lukoff writes in the author’s note precisely how to talk about this book so that reviewers don’t reveal the secret). I loved this story for its secret, and for the warmth and caring that surrounds Bug as she struggles with her identity. Uncle Roderick’s character comes through clearly, not as his ghost, but as Bug’s memories of him.
And that love between family members, and Bug’s coming-of-age, will feel real, strong, beautiful, and familiar to just about every reader who gets into this sweet, refreshing story.
My writing tip for this month is shifting perspective: describing something that might inspire a strong negative reaction in people with positive words. This can be a fun linguistic game, but also a chance to think of how we view things beyond our own initial perspective. In this exercise, we’re going to:
Describe something disgusting with positive words.
Think about the tone you want to take. Be meaningful, or funny, or bitterly ironic. And decide how gross you want to get with your initial image. Here are three mild suggestions:
- A bug in a piece of fruit
- A slice of moldy bread
- A cat’s hairball (recently puked)
Pick one (or your own image). To go beyond the obvious, you’ll want to think about your image from a perspective that would not find it disgusting. What might that be? A scientist or artist might see any one of these three examples as fascinating. Or…someone with an unusual perspective toward life.
Let’s try a scientific perspective first with the bug and apple:
Dr. Singh held up the plum. A small, iridescent green beetle paused in the wound it had eaten in the dense orange flesh. Cotinis mutabilis: a figeater beetle. And yet—Dr. Singh turned the plum to better see the beetle. For an instant, she saw not a pest but a facet of life, a thing of beauty. She watched as it crept, tiny, trusting, and vulnerable among the fragrant fruit.
I’m not a fan of similar beetles that I have in my area (which decimate my roses each year), but I’ve sometimes noticed that they’re actually rather beautiful. And so in this description, even with a scientist who knows well what damage a figeater beetle will cause, she’s able to feel wonder and see it as a fellow creature in this world.
Now let’s try an artist looking at the piece of moldy bread:
That moldy bread—it was a canvas, so colorful, a sea of textures and shapes. I touched my brush tip to my paint and speckled black onto the crown of blue and white on my own canvas. That mold—it was soft, towering, encompassing. It was like the earth coming back, demanding its wheat and water, a full circle of life given to life.
A visual artist would take apart an image into its color and shape. In this brief sketch, I wanted the artist to also think about what their image could symbolize.
Now let’s try the cat’s puked-up hairball from the perspective of someone who has a slightly different perspective:
There it was, on the carpet, glistening in the sun: a boon from my princess. I could not believe she had left this glorious mound of fur and saliva for me, her sniveling, miserable underling. In awe, I crept close. It was warm to the touch, soft against my fingers. As I lifted it, my eyes grew wet. When had I ever deserved this bounty?
I’m not sure that anyone has ever had this reaction to a cat’s puked-up hairball, but what if someone was so obsessed with their cat that they saw it as a gift? This would be a fun character to write!
Part of this exercise is to experiment in perspective, but also to expand what you see. A crack in the sidewalk might be the entrance to a fantasy world. A decaying tree is most certainly home to many creatures. And a moldy piece of bread could be a metaphor, as well as a nice addition to a compost pile.
Now how about a snack?
I’ve always loved layering timely topics in the action of my fast-past novels. For the last four years or so, however, I’ve been thinking about how to do even more. Not just weave one timely topic into a story, but many; or to weave one in are a very deep core. I like the analogy of spinning yarn because every thread of the story (yarn, in both a real and metaphorical sense) will carry those elements and, woven into the whole novel, will fill the work. I think that’s especially important these days, with the enormous issues facing us and children today (from threats to democracies around the world to state challenges of the rights of LGBTQ2A+ kids). We live in a heavy world. I think we’ve always lived in a heavy world, actually, but we talk about it more, and so it’s all part of the threads of our lives these days.
Back to writing. As I wrote my third novel, Secret of the Shadow Beasts, I addressed many big concepts through threads of this story:
- the impact on ongoing environmental degradation (the shadow beasts)
- pandemic denial (people who refuse to listen to government safety rules and go outside after twilight, thus putting themselves at tremendous risk, what with the shadow beasts going after them)
- anti-trans sentiments (with a trans girl as a major character whose bravery, kindness, and wisdom make her a crucial member of her team, and, at one point, enable her to save someone’s life when no one else could)
- the importance of knowing history beyond the heroic stories (that’s a secret of the book)
I also feature a cast that includes important characters of Pakistani, Nigerian, Japanese, and Chinese ancestry—because we live in a global world and that’s what our communities look like.
And I feature a world where kids come first, where adults are there for them, where children’s mental health needs are considered and met.
All woven into a fast-paced, high-stakes narrative.
As I write this kind of children’s fiction, I hope I’m having an impact in this world. If I can model the way things should be, or depict through action the way things shouldn’t, I can take real steps toward making the world a better place. That’s a privilege that all authors of children’s fiction have if they want to take it. And it’s one that I intend to take seriously for this and all my books to come.