Lucky me! I recently attended a Highlights Foundation writers retreat in the northeastern Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. The campus consists of a “5,200-square-foot Retreat Center known as the Barn, 21 cabins, a lodge, and the Founders’ farmhouse, located in Boyds Mills–10 miles from Honesdale, Pennsylvania.”
I’ve known about the Highlights Foundation since I started on the path to publishing Kidlit and, thanks to a generous scholarship from PJ Library, I was able to attend the “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives.” PJ Library, an organization that “sends free Jewish children’s booky to families across the world every month,” is also well-represented in the synagogue preschool where I teach. Everywhere I look…beautiful children’s books!
Hon, I was so nervous when I drove up.Nervous as in major imposter syndrome! What business did I have being there, surrounded by award-winning Kidlit authors, talented illustrators, well-known Jewish educators, and successful literary agents?
The main reason I signed up was because my literary agent Rena Rossner was going to be there. She was wonderful as were the other professionals, writers, illustrators, and educators. My nerves didn’t go away completely, but though it was my first, hopefully it will not my last writers retreat.
The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.
We do not take lightly what it means to create engaging, authentic stories for children and youth. We believe that you, as storytellers, have profound impacts on the lives of children. This matters a great deal to us as an organization, and most importantly to our world.
Kathleen Wilford, one of my critique partners, can now say her middle-grade historical novel is published! The story is funny, emotional, full of interesting, historical details and, most of all, Cabby is engaging!
Kathleen Wilford’s debut CABBY POTTS, DUCHESS OF DIRT (Little Press) is a delightful story set in the 1870’s during the migration of Americans to the prairies of the Midwest for homesteading. Here is my review:
This historical fiction story set in the 1870’s, is a fast-paced trip to the days of homesteading on the Kansas prairies. When her parents force her to work at grand Ashford Manor, 12-year-old Cabby Potts will do anything to escape, including playing matchmaker between her sister and the rich young lord of the manor. If it succeeds, her scheme will save her family’s struggling homestead. If it fails? Cabby can’t even think about that.
Can Cabby find the courage to stand up for her family, a Native American friend, and an entire community threatened by land-grabbers?
The author does a wonderful job grounding the reader in time and place with period details and appropriate phrasing and language of the era. “My brain buzzed like it was full of gnats” is one of many similes that feels fresh and original. The characters are well-rounded and engaging, making for a quick read. Readers will enjoy Cabby’s antics and feisty demeanor as she navigates the unfamiliar world of the wealthy. A highly recommended debut.
I ran across a book called Prairie Fever, by Peter Pagnamenta, and I was intrigued to learn about the British aristocracy’s fascination with the American West. Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is based on the true story of Victoria, Kansas, an enclave of British aristocrats in the 1870’s. Victoria was designed as a “community of culture and refinement” where “the arts and graces of life” could be imported straight from London.
I couldn’t imagine a bigger culture clash than between the English nobility and hardscrabble American homesteaders. I pictured an outdoorsy 12-year-old girl forced to work as a housemaid at a grand English manor, and the character of Cabby was born. Trying to save her family’s struggling homestead, Cabby plays matchmaker between her pretty, romantic sister Emmeline and the rich young lord of Ashford Manor. What could go wrong with that scheme?
As an author of historical fiction myself, I was immediately drawn into the setting and era of the story. What drew you to writing historical fiction?
I love the way historical fiction immerses readers into a different world. All good fiction is immersive, but with historical fiction, the past comes alive in a fresh way. And there’s a serious side too: I believe that to understand where we ARE, we need to understand where we’ve BEEN. Non-fiction helps readers do that too, but fiction adds an important layer of empathy.
As for this particular era, 1870’s Kansas, I’ve always been fascinated by pioneer literature, from Willa Cather to Laura Ingalls Wilder. My life is so easy compared to women who endured life on lonely prairies, living in sod houses and struggling to keep themselves and their families alive.
Tell us a bit about your research process.
I like to begin with books that situate the time period I’m studying in a larger historical context. I follow that up with more specific books and then with primary sources. For Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt, I consulted homesteader journals, 1870’s editions of the Dodge City Times, an 1841 book by Dr. Samuel Sheldon Fitch called Diseases of the Chest (fascinating, trust me), Mrs. Beeton’s book on the duties of a housemaid . . . etc.! Since I work for Rutgers, I’m lucky enough to have access to the rich depth of primary materials owned by the university. I think primary sources are key not only to authentic details but to the language of the times.
Several experts also helped me with questions, and of course, Google is great for filling in details!
What amazing thing did you discover while writing?
How much time do we have?? I learned so many fascinating tidbits of information, many of which I couldn’t include in the book but would be happy to tell you about sometime. Some facts that DID make it into the book: people used to believe that walking on the prairie could cure consumption (tuberculosis)—housemaids were not allowed to whistle in the house—dried up buffalo dung was burned for fuel.
One fact that informed my book: fully half of all homesteaders didn’t make it and never “proved up” on their claims. We tend to romanticize homesteading on the prairies, but it was brutally difficult.
What message do you want young readers to take away from this story?
I hope kids will enjoy a funny, fast-paced story with lots of drama! Beyond that, I hoped to give readers a clearer picture of the homesteading life. Along with showing how difficult the life was, I wanted readers to see how race and class prejudices infiltrated even supposedly egalitarian rural America. Cabby wakes up to this prejudice as she forms a friendship with Eli, a half-Kiowa boy. She finally learns to use her “intemperate tongue” to stand up for him, her family, and her whole community. In Cabby Potts, I tried to portray a funny, feisty girl growing into more awareness of her world, with all its imperfections. She learns to use her voice to make that world a better place, something I hope we all can do.
Theresa, critique-partner, writer-friend, and fellow triplets-mom, is getting good press! Time for Kids magazine featured her “How to Write Funny” advice and Highlights for Children Magazine asked her to share some “tips and tricks of the trade.” So cool!
Theresa Julian, critique partner, writer-friend, published author, and fellow triplets mom, can be called a humor expert. Her first book, The Joke Machine, teaches kids how they can increase their own funny factor. Her second book, 101 HILARIOUS PRANKS AND PRACTICAL JOKES, illustrated by Pat Lewis, is now out in the world! Woohoo! Darlene Beck-Jacobson added an excellent post to her blog “Gold From The Dust: Bringing Stories to Life,” in which Theresa gives potential pranksters a leg up by sharing tips from her book. Darlene’s post is re-blogged below.
Did you know:
Cows moo with different accents – depending on where they live?
The bones in the human body are held together by marshmallow taffy?
Snakes don’t live in swamps, they live in potato chips cans, like this:
If you didn’t know these facts, it’s okay because – none of them are true. I’m pulling your leg. Kidding. Pranking you.
If there’s a little jokester in your life who wants to learn about pranking, check out 101 Hilarious Pranks & Practical Jokes, a middle grade book written by me and illustrated by Pat Lewis. This super silly book includes – you guessed it – 101 pranks, AND explains how to pull the perfect trick.
The book teaches kids how to pace their prank, find the right attitude, and create a story around it. It explains how kids can kick their pranks up a notch through physical humor, which is using their body to make someone laugh. It’s using goofy faces, funny voices, slipping, tripping, and weird smells and sounds to make their pranks extra awesome.
Here are some tips from the book:
Start a prank with the right attitude. How would you feel if you were really in the prank situation? If you’re pretending you’ve just won a million dollars, act thrilled. If you’re pretending you broke a window, act shocked. If you’ve filled the cabinet with ping-pong balls, act casual and wait for someone to open the door. Pick an attitude, commit to it, and sell it.
Create an interesting story around your prank. Let’s say you want to convince your friend that your family has a “dead finger” collection and you’ve brought in your favorite one to show her. But, of course, it’s really just your finger in a box, covered in ketchup and avocado mush.
If you walk up to your friend and show her the box, it may not be very effective. But if you build it up with a story that draws her in, and then show the box, you’ll get a bigger reaction.
Try creating a story like this: You crept down your creaky basement stairs; opened the rusty door to the back room; and gagged at the stench of rotting skin. When you turned on the light, you found that there, in your very own basement, was a dead-finger collection – probably great-grandpa’s from the war. Now, when you show the box, you’ll probably get the reaction you were looking for.
A good prank is carefully paced, not blurted out or rushed.
Picture this: Your brother walks into the kitchen and hasn’t yet seen the fake tarantula on the cheese casserole. Do you jump up and yell, “Look at the cheese casserole, ha ha!”? No, of course not. You sit and wait, distract him with comments about how good you’ve been (which, is always true, right?), and wait for the time to be ripe. It’s sooo much better if he finds the hairy spider himself!
Let’s face it, facial expressions are key to a good prank because they help sell your story. Picture a face that’s afraid, amazed, annoyed, or bored, like the ones below.
The right face can say a lot more than words. So when you’re pranking, let your face do the talking!
Kooky Arms & Legs
Get your whole body into the prank. If you tell your friend the rat in the garage is THIS BIG, fling out your arms and show just how big. If you’re pretending you’re about to vomit, clutch your stomach, moan and double over in pain. In the prankiverse, body language reinforces your story and paints a picture, and is often funnier than words.
Silly Voices and Sounds
Silly voices and sounds make pranks more believable and fun. If you’re pretending you’ve broken a window, download a crashing glass sound and play it on your phone or computer. If you’ll make a prank call, you’ll need to disguise your voice with an accent or different tone. Funny voices are fun to create and once you’ve nailed a few, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them!
Slipping, Tripping and Prat-falling
101 Hilarious Pranks & Practical Jokes teaches you how to pretend you’re slipping, tripping and falling, so you get the reaction you want. For example, here’s how to pretend you’re hitting your head on a door:
The book also explains how to crack your nose, bite off your finger, detach your head, spit out your teeth, push a pencil through your head, rip your eyeball out, slip in poop, and control gravity. You’re welcome.
So, if there’s a little prankster in your life who’s looking to learn completely ridiculous skills, such as how to use goofy faces, funny voices, bad smells, weird sounds, and smooth body moves to trick their friends, check out 101 HILARIOUS PRANKS AND PRACTICAL JOKESwhich goes on sale Sept. 28, 2021. Then — watch your back
Theresa Julian loves chocolate, changing her ringtones, and writing humorous books for middle graders. Her books have been featured in TIME for Kids magazine, the Barnes & Noble Kid’s Blog, and Today.com. Theresa is a graduate of Boston College and has a Master’s in Corporate Communications. After many years of writing business documents for large corporations, she’s now happily living on the beach, writing funny books for kids. Her mother claims Theresa spent most of first grade sleeping on her desk, but don’t worry, she’s awake now, dreaming up new ways to keep kids reading and laughing.
Independent Book Store Day, April 24, 2021, is billed as “One Day. Hundreds Of Bookstores. Fifty States. Join The Celebration!” My two favorite Indie bookstores are The Book House and Words. Both have great selections, calm, welcoming atmospheres, special events, and the personal touch and help that you can only get at small stores.
I hope to one day, very soon (fingers crossed, wish on a dandelion, Flying Wish Paper and more), enter one or both of these stores as a Kidlit author, not just a customer.
The Storystorm challenge is to create 30 story ideas in 30 days. You don’t have to write a manuscript (but you can if the mood strikes). You don’t need potential best-seller ideas.
You might think of a clever title. Or a name for a character. Or just a silly thing like “purple polka-dot pony.” The object is to heighten your idea-generating senses. Ideas may build upon other ideas. Your list of potential stories will grow stronger as the days pass. Eventually, you will have a list of ideas to flesh out into concepts, premises and manuscripts in the coming year.
On this blog, daily posts by authors, illustrators, editors and other publishing professionals will help inspire you. By the end of the month, you’ll have a fat file of ideas to spark new stories.
This year, STORYSTORM inspired me to start a new journal in which I’m collecting ideas. Some may turn into stories and some may not, but one of the takeaways from this year’s authors and illustrators is to see where your creativity takes you. I’m up for the challenge!
I create with clay, yarn, fabric and, of course, ingredients. I imagine worlds with words.
“When people make the time to read with children, children get the message that reading is important.” NEA
Students, parents, teachers and people from many walks of life, will read to children March 2, in recognition of “National Read Across America Day,” a program the National Education Association established 20 some years ago.
Athletes and actors will issue reading challenges to young readers. Governors and other elected officials will recognize the role of reading with proclamations.
Naomi Gruer, a children’s writer and preschool teacher, participated in a remote event, “World Read Aloud Day,” a few years ago.
“Reading to kids made me so happy because, in that moment, we explored the world inside the story together.”
To prepare the children for the online experience, Naomi asked them to listen for certain things as she read — a funny incident or a silly outcome or a character acting in a peculiar way. “The minute I was on Skype with the kids, everything else melted away. It was as if I was in the classroom with them,” she said.
Later, as a Microsoft Guest Educator, she was asked by several educators to read to their students. One request came from a teacher in Spain, who wanted English to be read to her classroom.
Naomi applied the same format to all her remote classroom sessions: an introduction, followed by reading (either chapters or picture books depending on the age of the students.)
“They listened actively and were ready to point out and discuss the humor. Introducing students to my dog was the ultimate ice breaker.” Naomi blogs at https://bmoreenergy.wordpress.com
What You Can Do:
There are many free and low cost ways to provide children with books in print, online, audio and video formats. For example, the “We Need Diverse Books” program provides free diverse books to schools serving low-income students around the country.
Want to find out more about these pandemic-inspired picture books and E-Books and related info, activities, and free downloads? Check out Pippinherohelpers.com.
NG:How did you come to children’s writing and illustrating?
DM: I think like many of us in the KidLit realm, I fell in love with picture books as a young child and have always been drawn to storytelling. As I got older I developed the desire to create books myself, but never did more than write some poetry and short essays. I visited it again, briefly, before my son was born, having designed a little girl character, but never took her anywhere till the 90s. At that time, when my health declined enough that I became disabled and was moved to write poetry again, a friend encouraged me to write.
I was thinking it was the perfect way for me to be able to stay home and earn a living. Little did I know how difficult it would be to get published! Had I known, I likely wouldn’t have pursued it. As difficult as it has been as far as the pursuit of getting traditionally published, it has also been incredibly joyful because of all the many kindred kidlit friends (like you) I’ve met along the way and I can’t imagine having missed out on all that—ever.
NG: What did you learn in the process of self publishing that most surprised you?
DM: I can’t really say anything about self-publishing actually surprised me because I knew it was a huge undertaking having to do literally everything myself. It’s why I never wanted to do it! I hate dealing with the business/money end of anything and with self-pubbing it’s unavoidable. I considered the project worth it though. I was already very familiar with the process, but did a lot more research and purchased a few “how to” books, including the legalities, etc., all of which helped me make important decisions. Ultimately, because it seemed the wiser choice to keep as much control as possible, not limit where and how I could sell, and keep my private life and finances separate, I ended up investing in my own ISBNs and establishing an imprint.
I guess the one thing I didn’t expect was that the ebooks, though cheap and readily available, weren’t what people (at least my age) preferred. Feedback was the desire for paperback. That pushed me to re-format all six as paperbacks. I can tell you, my father is happy he—and children—will be able to hold a printed book in their hands 🙂 So am I!
NG: Did you start with the story, the art, or was it a combination?
DM: It’s funny—you would think with me being an artist, that art would tend to be where I start, but the only time that really happens is if someone offers a picture prompt! For me, an idea comes, regardless of what triggers it, and I write first. I visualize while I’m writing so the spread illustrations are forming from the beginning of the writing process. My word and art creativity are seamlessly connected in my imagination.
NG: How did you manage your time in order to work on writing, illustrating and publishing the series?
DM: This question actually made me laugh! Manage? Time? From the very beginning I felt pressure because the nature of the subject matter is very timely and I wanted it to be of use as soon as possible, at a time we all hoped would be the worst of the pandemic. (Sorrowfully and tragically, that’s not the case, and in the U.S. will be living with this serious threat for a long while.)
As per usual, I estimate something to take about half the time it actually will so, although I was hoping the books would be available by May/June, the reality of creating 6 books, a website, establishing an imprint and logo, all the glitches that happened along the way and being forced to food shop on occasion and get “some” sleep, there’s never been enough time and here we are at the end of August! And the thing is—I’m not done! Now that the books are finally published and “out there,” I can go back and create the additional artwork required to make 2 more versions: interracial and same-sex parents.
And I feel like I have to give a “shout out” to technology, without which this entire project could not have been possible. I have that proverbial love/hate relationship with it, but in this case — except for the glitches — it was “loooove.” 😉
NG: What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
DM: I’m such an open book, I’m not sure there IS anything! (You) might think that because I thoroughly enjoy good conversation and love to socialize that I might not like to be alone when, in fact — I love being alone!
NG: Who would you like to read your books/what are your goals with the series?
DM: I’m hoping families with young children, and teachers with young students can benefit by the content of the books (ages 3-8), especially now with the problems faced as the school year begins. I think children being able to see their experience in book form, with illustrations that explain something as abstract as a virus, can help them more understand it.
I did my best to show why washing hands, wearing masks and staying physically distant are so important, and by doing these things they become Hero Helpers. By doing so, along with helping the people in their own lives, they ultimately help the heroes who are risking their own lives to help others.
Naomi, thank you SO much for featuring my books on your wonderful blog and giving me the opportunity to talk about them and a bit of what is behind them.
One of the positive aspects of writing Kidlit is the supportive community, and writer/illustrator :Donna Marie has been more than supportive; she’s volunteered countless hours to NJSCBWI. When the pandemic hit the U.S., :Donna wanted to find a way to help kids understand Covid-19 and why their routines were disrupted, and show how they could stay safe. She turned her idea into a reality by publishing Pippin Pals are Hero Helpers, which are available in 6 different versions with 2 more inclusive versions on the way. In addition, on the website Pippinherohelpers.com, :Donna offers additional info and tools for kids and adults and free printable downloads to post anywhere from bathrooms to classrooms that illustrate hand hygiene, wearing/handling face coverings, and more.
What’s the story about?
One morning in March 2020 a child wakes up and gets ready for school only to be told by Mom that he/she has to stay home—it’s a rule. The child doesn’t understand, is upset about no longer being able to play with friends and do many “normal” things like go to the playground, the movies, school or anything outside their home or family. The mother then tells the child about the pandemic—the deadly virus that’s “sneaky and quick.”
Accompanied by illustrations, she explains how easily the virus spreads, how it can make some people very sick, who the heroes are who help the people who need hospital care, along with the many essential workers we count on. The child learns that by doing “stay safe” things like staying physically distant, wearing masks and washing hands they become “Hero Helpers.”
Highlighted are many positives about staying home, and lots of “stay at home” activities, including a surprise “fun” idea Mom has the family do. The child is reassured that, until the doctors say it is “safe” again, they will visit friends and family virtually, continue to be grateful for the good things, and how they will stay strong till this pandemic passes. Kathy Temean on Writing and Illustrating
In :Donna Marie’s words:
When this pandemic hit the U.S., I saw the plethora of wonderful stuff being offered by the KidLit community, librarians and teachers to families with children to help them get through the whole stay-at-home situation and was blown away by it. My natural inclination was wanting to contribute and what came to mind was a book I wrote back when my son was in maybe 3rd grade, so 1993ish. It was called The Rainy Day and in it were ideas of what to do on a rainy day. I figured maybe I could list them and post it in a blog post, but quickly poo-pooed that since it really wouldn’t offer anything more than what was already out there, so why waste my time? But one thought led to another, I ended up writing an almost totally new story, and when I realized I had the power to execute these books digitally to make diverse and inclusive versions, there was no stopping me!
Where can people find Pippin Pals are Hero Helpers?
:Donna is a proud and blessed mother and grandmother, and as a woman of love, hope and faith, she has loved stories since the first time she held ARE YOU MY MOTHER, THE CAT IN THE HAT and MADELINE in her hands. Passionate about storytelling in all forms, the wonder of words and pictures in books has long inspired her to tell stories of her own. As a small voice amid the glorious chorus of book creators, her hope is to add some small measure of value and joy for her gracious readers. And all of this while doing her best not to consume more “goodies” than good books! 😀
I’m currently reading the insightful, researched, and devastating book Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson, and realize how much caste and hierarchy is present in The War I Finally Won, the 2017 sequel to The War That Saved My Life. Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley doesn’t sugarcoat how people were seen and treated in WWII England, whether they were poor or wealthy, children or adults, single or married, Jews or Nazis, and soldiers or spies. One of the most refreshing things about the stories is that the target audience of 8-12 year olds isn’t patronized. Cruelty, physical and emotional pain, disability, sickness, war, and death, and grief are faced head on. So are understanding, acceptance, loyalty, friendship and love.
What’s the story about?
Ada and her younger brother, Jamie, now have a permanent home with their loving legal guardian, Susan Smith. Although Jamie adapts more easily, Ada still struggles with the aftermath of her old life, and how to fit into her new life.
World War II continues, and forces the small community to come together and rely on one another. Ada has never been interested in getting to know her friend’s family—especially Maggie’s mother, the formidable Lady Thorton. However, circumstances bring them in close proximity along with other unexpected characters.
Ada comes face to face with another German! This time she isn’t sure what she should do. How can she help the ones she loves and keep them safe?
Ada’s first story, The War that Saved My Life, won a Newbery Honor, the Schneider Family Book Award, and the Josette Frank Award, in addition to appearing on multiple best-of-the-year lists. This second, marvelous volume continues Ada’s powerful, uplifting story. Goodreads
Quotes from The War I Finally Won
“Love isn’t as rare as you think it is…You can love all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways. Nor is love in any way dangerous.”
“People used to draw dragons on the edges of old maps. When the world hadn’t been fully explored, mapmakers imagined dragons living at the far ends.”
“Fear and what you did with it were two separate things.”
“I don’t want to have to feel grateful,” I said. Susan smiled. “I understand,” she said. “Do it anyhow.”
“I stored this information in my head in the bulging file titled “Things I Wished I Didn’t Know.” It included what it felt like to walk on a clubfoot for ten years, and what it sounded like to have your mother say she never wanted to see you again.”
“That’s your map of the past. What’s in the map of your future?” I stared at her. “What do you want?” she persisted. I had no idea. When I’d first been evacuated I’d wanted to be like the girl riding the pony, racing the train. Now I was. Parts of me were still jumbled—but maybe that girl had been jumbled too. I’d only seen her from the outside.” Goodreads