Posted in children's books

Books for the Holidays — What Kids Really Want

Jessie Willcox Smith, “The New Book”  1915

What do most kids age 6-17 want to find in the books they read?  Do they want to laugh, explore places they’ve never been, or simply be made to think and feel new things?  A little of everything, as it turns out. Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company, has created a printable, mobile-friendly 2017 holiday gift guide based on top children’s titles and matching them with the kinds of things kids look for themselves when choosing something to read.  Research on these most sought-after characteristics, as well as a plethora of other fascinating information, was carried out by Scholastic and put into their Kids & Family Reading Report™.  Check out the facts and figures, and download the link to the publishing giant’s research-based holiday gift books here.

The holidays are a perfect time to create or add to your family library.  Enjoy!


Posted in about childhood, children's books, fairy tales

Beauty and the Beast, Ages 2-102

Have you seen the new live action Beauty and the Beast? The chances are good that you have; according to Forbes the film earned $6.9 million on its second Monday alone. This isn’t really surprising. The landscape of fairy tale is a map we all know so well. Close your eyes and you will see the contours laid out clearly, at times lovingly spiritual in its universality, at others chillingly human in its earthy specificity. There is the castle, shining in the background, flags flapping in the wind. Then there is the dark and murky wood, where wolves and bears and other frightening creatures roam – and where you must go to face your destiny. Upon this landscape live the many stock characters that breathe life into the tales: the cruel witch, the fairy godmother, the lonely Beast, the despairing princess, the courageous prince.   In this land Magic runs rampant and injustice is fought until finally the balance of life is restored. Our collective unconscious stores this map, these characters, and their stories. We seem never to tire of recreating them time and time again.  Most of us were introduced to fairy tales in childhood, some of us reading large heavily illustrated books ourselves, or having them read to us.

To continue that tradition, Silver Dolphin Books has come out with a series of board books for very young children, called “First Stories,” from which I had the pleasure of reading three fairy tales: Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Each one is a little gem, charmingly illustrated in bright colors and adorable, detailed illustrations.

Chunky and sturdy, the board books are interactive, with tabs to push, pull, and slide. Pull up on one tab and Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a beautiful ball gown; pull down on another, and the Beast appears in his castle door. You can shimmy the witch up Rapunzel’s hair as she leans out of her tower, or push Cinderella back and forth as she sweeps the kitchen – and then, a few pages later, slide her foot up to the glass slipper! This is Exciting stuff.

Amazingly, each tale is pared down to only four rhyming couplets. Silver Dolphin did a good job picking out those plot points, and somehow the stories manage to come across, in no small part because the illustrations by Dan Taylor are richly detailed, in a deceptively sophisticated way.  And not to worry about being too frightening for little ones; while there are scary moments — these are fairy tales we are talking about — the colors are bright and there is a cheerful atmosphere maintained throughout. The iconography of the fairy tale landscape is all there, giving your toddler the means to start their very own map of the enchanted world we all love.

For the older child, or just the young at heart, comes a gorgeous coloring book of Beauty and the Beast, with quotations from the original story by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, first published as a novel in 1740 and later abridged and rewritten into the tale we know by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Ornate and lavish, the exquisite drawings, based on the wonderful work of English artist Walter Crane, are reminiscent of 18th century France.  Once I saw it I immediately went out and bought a set of colored pencils. It will take a while to get through the whole coloring book, but who’s complaining? Any girl –big or little –, who loves to color, will sigh with happiness when they get their hands on this one. Just make sure you have colored pencils or crayons at hand – they won’t want to wait to get started.

Beauty and the Beast Coloring Book put out by Silver Dolphin Press
Beauty and the Beast Coloring Book
Posted in children's books

How the 20,699-word iTunes T&Cs became this year’s hottest graphic novel | Books | The Guardian

Witness the growing form of the graphic novel. I love the originality of this project!

Snoopy contemplates pre-orders and the Hulk navigates iTunes Match … here Robert Sikoryak discusses his ingenious take on Apple’s Terms and Conditions

Source: How the 20,699-word iTunes T&Cs became this year’s hottest graphic novel | Books | The Guardian

Posted in children's books




This is my first post after the long, delicious, deep and richly emotional holidays with my big and boisterous family.  Ah, to write again.  The above link will take you to a review of the movie Hidden Figures (with a nod to the book on which the film is based).  I found it moving and inspiring.  It resonates with the national conversation on so many levels – and left me feeling hopeful, that our higher selves can and will triumph, even as we shimmer and shake on the edge of despair on our way to making this world a better place.  Again, the world of children’s literature; with its books, blogs and reviews, holds — at least for me — an unwavering candle up to the heavens.

Gonna have to see this movie, and soon.


Posted in children's books

Interview with Henry H. Neff



I had the good fortune to take a master writing class with Henry Neff at this year’s 2016 SCBWI Carolinas Conference, “The Power of Story.”  The class was on world building, and boy is he a master at it.  His much-anticipated latest novel, “Impyrium” came out in mid-October, and Henry was kind enough to agree to give me an interview in the midst of what I am sure was a whirlwind of a month.  I loved the book, and will be reviewing it as soon as NaNoWriMo is done 🙂  In the meantime, please enjoy this interview.  It gives honest insight into this very successful and relevant author, who also happens to be a really nice guy.

Q: You are such a wonderful world-builder.  Where does your affinity to this come from?

Thank you. I think it’s a combination of having loved immersive fictional worlds while growing up, and later acquiring a history teacher’s perspective on how to analyze civilizations at specific points in time. The former fueled my interests and imagination; the latter gave me tools to start building worlds of my own.

Q: Why do you write fantasy?

A variety of reasons. First and foremost, I really like fantasy. No one should write a genre that they don’t enjoy. The other reason is that fantasy presents challenges I find fun and engaging. It’s one of those genres that fools people into thinking it’s easy (I can just make stuff up!) but it comes with traps that make it difficult to write well. Two of the biggest are magic and, funnily enough, world building. If you’re not careful, magic can be overdone and lose its impact, unbalance the world, or create gaping plot holes. With world building, many writers invest considerable time and energy in their worlds. That’s not a bad thing, but it can cause some writers to become Tour Guides from Hell where they insist on showing the reader every aspect of the world they’ve so lovingly created. I enjoy the challenge of writing fantasy that’s got some grit, realism, and leaves you wanting more.

Q: How important is it to you to follow your own instincts as a writer?

You never want to ignore your instincts but it’s important to recognize not all your instincts are good ones. We all have blind spots when it comes to our writing style, character development, and plot structure. In my case, I have a tendency to lean too dark, to make things too bleak for my characters, etc. There are times when that makes sense, but I’ve come to realize that I tend to veer in that direction like a wonky shopping cart. Being aware of that tendency helps me keep it in check. That said, I do think it’s important to trust your instincts in situations where you’ve heard conflicting feedback and need to make a decision. I try very hard to listen to my editors, digest their suggestions, and act upon them. 95% of the time they’re right. But there are situations where I simply don’t see it the same way—particularly when it comes to quieter scenes that focus on character development rather than plot advancement. In those scenarios I trust my instincts and I’ve never regretted it.

Q: What was your favorite childhood book?

Ack! So many to choose from! Some that come to mind include: The Ant and Bee books, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Fourteen Bears, The Spooky Old Tree, Charlotte’s Web, Danny the Champion of the World, The Soup books, Tales from a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Dark is Rising, and Sherlock Holmes. Yes, I realize that answer is a cop out 😉

Q: If you were on a train going across America at midnight, conversing with your favorite authors (from any time period)  – who would those authors be?

Tolkien, Maurice Sendak, Patrick O’Brian (author of my favorite historical fiction novels), Ursula LeGuin, and Susan Cooper

Q: What is your writing Kryptonite?  

Momentum. Once I lose it, it’s difficult to get back—particularly on rough drafts.

Q: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal (homunculus J?)

Ooh! I’d choose a lymrill (a creature from my books). They’re tough, lovable, and demanding — the perfect muse.

Q: There is a spiritual undertone to the magic in Impryium. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

I think there’s something spiritual about finding your passion and acting upon it. To some degree, I think that’s true of magic within IMPYRIUM. Part of Hazel’s journey is understanding herself, embracing who she is, and that does play a role in her ability to tap and channel the magic within her. So, yes, there probably is a spiritual/reflective component of magic within my stories. It’s definitely not just supernatural science—it comes from somewhere deeper and soulful.

Q: Hazel is a very well-developed character. What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

I wanted Hazel’s character, persona, and dialogue to resonate as authentic. We’ve all read stories where the author’s attempt to portray a character or demographic fell short. I didn’t want that to be the case and really tried to put myself in Hazel’s shoes—particularly in situations where I thought her reaction (both inner and outer) would differ from someone like Hob’s. Her relationship with her sisters really helped bring that out — the dialogue between them flowed very naturally.

Q: Dàme Rascha has a very human dimension somehow to her character.  Was she based on any real person or persons in particular?

I enjoyed writing for Rascha. She might be cranky and demanding, but she also loves Hazel like a daughter. Ironically, I think Rascha’s “human” characteristics are heightened by the fact that she’s not human. Vyes look like wolves, like some sort of fairy tale monster and there are times I make a point of emphasizing that they have a feral quality that can be unsettling. But when we see that “monster” speaking quietly with Hazel or giving a grudging laugh, it registers as surprisingly human. Rascha isn’t based on any one individual, but I’m sure she’s an amalgam from people in my subconscious. I think most characters are.

Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Write rough drafts quickly. To this day, I take too long with mine and I really don’t think there’s much benefit. Just get the story down, step away from it, and start revising. It’s always easier to react to something that exists than to try and pen perfection as you go. The latter takes too long and it doesn’t result in better writing—just slower submissions.

There you go.  (I can totally use that last piece of advice.) Thanks so much, Henry.  We look forward to to more of the series, so hurry up — I’m not sure I can wait too long for the next installment.

Posted in children's books

International Day of the Girl: Reflections on Nancy Drew

Join me in celebrating the International Day of the Girl!  I share with you my essay on the iconic Nancy Drew, a symbol of American girlhood.  It’s a little nerdy, a little cool, and a tribute to girls, books, and childhood.



“She had character, and she had courage. Her blue roadster – my having a sports car became a life dream. And when I got in it, I just imagined myself being Nancy Drew.”

 — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

In 1920, American women got the vote. Less than ten years later, Nancy Drew arrived on the juvenile fiction scene. She is often portrayed as “emblematic of American girlhood” (Driscoll 5). Accomplished and famous women from Barbara Walters to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer have noted that she was an important role model to them in childhood.[1] The image of a teenage Nancy Drew zipping around in her blue roadster has persisted for almost a century. The series has always had the power to inspire. As Amy Boesky tells us, initial “sales of the Nancy Drew books eclipsed even the contemporary bestselling boys’ series” (Boesky 189). Since then, numerous generations of young people, especially girls, have devoured the series, admiring Nancy Drew’s remarkable skills and living vicariously through her often dangerous adventures. Now the iconic teen sleuth has entered the realm of computer games, particularly those known as Role Playing Games (RPGs), where the player takes on the role of Nancy Drew. Has this shift altered the character of Nancy Drew in any way? What happens narratologically when a player operates a fictional character?

Like books, computer games can be seen as elements of cultural production, and therefore upon examination, it is possible to glean something about the existing culture that produced them. Nancy Drew has emerged as part of girl’s culture, in particular. Cultural theorist Catherine Driscoll has pointed out the “…girl’s role as a marker of cultural identity” that also “installs her as representative of the coherence of an historical period” (Driscoll 15-16). If, as Driscoll also contends, the “category of feminine adolescence {is} specific to late modernity” then Nancy Drew, as one ideal of female adolescence, becomes an ideal subject of inquiry (18). Since the postmodern era has as one of its concerns, the transition from the printed word to the digital, an examination of what happens to a female character in a printed piece of fiction, when it is transferred to the digital medium, becomes a journey of discovery into the cultural underpinnings of such a transition.

Some critics, such as Markku Eskelinen, argue that games and literature are not the same, partially because in many RPGs the reader/viewer/player operates the character of narrator (Papazian 454). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to speculate on whether video games are a narrative form, I agree with Gretchen Papazian, who argues that “some video games – in particular, some RPGs – deploy narrative techniques” (452). As she points out, whether or not you accept narrative terminology as a valid lens for computer games, “it is clear that the player’s role in the…game is key” as they operate the fictional narrator, in this case Nancy Drew (455). I will be looking at the implications for the fictional Nancy Drew, once the player takes on her role, specifically in the HerInteractive Nancy Drew game, Labyrinth of Lies, which came out in September 2014. The game is rated for Everyone Ages 10+.

The original Nancy Drew, created by Edward Stratemeyer, was initially going to be called “Stella Strong” (Boesky 188). Her character has much to be admired. Throughout the series, Nancy’s “heroic qualities….such as independence, self-confidence, intelligence, and physical courage” shine through (Lundin 123-4). Her role as amateur detective also gives her a unique standing. Boesky writes about Nancy Drew as the defender of the established norm; always striving to restore balance, she is a dream adolescent, acting as a “secret agent of the adult world” who patrols “the dangerous line separating the worlds of respectability and evil…with full access to adult privilege” (Boesky 190). From the beginning there existed in Nancy a sense of agency and freedom within the wider world, which was unusual for young women in the earlier part of the 20th century. All these qualities have appealed to girls for over 80 years.

Of course some updating has been necessary. Simon & Schuster bought the syndicate in the late 1970’s and took over the publishing and re-branding of the series in the 1980’s, creating several different Nancy Drew lines designed for various age groups (Marshall 213). In 2004 they came out with the Nancy Drew Girl Detective series, for a target group of tween girls between the ages of eight and twelve. Nancy’s general look on these new covers were brought up to date, while outdated dialogue was replaced within the text to reflect more modern ways of speaking. There was also a significant editorial decision at this point to change the narrator’s voice to Nancy’s own, speaking to the reader in the first person (Marshall 213). This is a far cry from the perspective in The Bungalow Mystery from 1930, where a third-person narrator frequently refers to the teen as Nancy Drew: “Tired as she was, Nancy Drew knew that she could not rest until shore was reached” (The Bungalow Mystery 16). Giving the young detective a voice of her own creates an intimacy with the reader, along with a sense of engagement with the text.

In 2005, with the same age group in mind, the publisher licensed the series to come out as Papercutz graphic novels. These are often linked to Nancy Drew computer games, put out by the company HerInteractive. Since the Nancy Drew concept is already part of a series, it translates well to the gaming world, where Nancy’s mysteries can be played out one at a time, as readers become players.

Readers often use book covers to determine what a character looks like. The earlier Nancy Drew books show a neat and tidy young woman, always in a dress and heels, with a classic hairstyle, often holding on to some clue from the story. Later books show a more modern teenager, wearing jeans and hanging out with friends. The covers of the HerInteractive Nancy Drew computer games depict where the action takes place, with another character or object in the center. All that is left of Nancy Drew is her silhouette – a shadow. The silhouette could be anyone. It could be you. The player does not see Nancy, she sees as Nancy. Opening up a game, a voice whispers, “Dare to Play” and then “It’s up to you, as Nancy Drew.” It’s a clear invitation to step right in and engage with the character. As Nancy tells players on the pamphlet accompanying the DVD of the game, “Without you there would be no reason to create more mysteries, and I would be just a girl without adventure, mystery, intrigue…and a clue.” The same could be said of characters within written texts and their readers, but in this case, since the reader/player actually becomes the character, at least for part of the time, the implications are more complex. Without the player, the silhouette would remain as unrealized potential.

The player usually has two or three choices at any given turn, and these choices set the game in motion. In Labyrinth of Lies Nancy travels to Greece to help curate a new exhibition at a museum of antiquities. Artifacts from the exhibit are disappearing, and Nancy has to figure out what is behind the thefts. As Nancy, there are tasks for the player to accomplish, such as “check in with the museum front office,” “arrange tickets for opening night,” and “explore backstage.” The player uses arrows to navigate, as she explores the virtual world in search of clues. As she goes, she meets up with characters and has a chance to talk to them.   The text is pre-set; the player has a choice of three conversation starters, and this determines the dialogue that then runs, and the information that the player gets. While the text is printed in a box on the screen, the player can watch the person she is talking to, like a movie, and hear the conversation being spoken, at the same time. The player can also choose to call up the Hardy Boys or the director of the museum on the telephone, for help. Just as in the chats with characters from the game, the telephone call is set up with three prompts for opening up the conversation.   Each time the player makes a choice, the fictional character of Nancy Drew takes over and the player transforms back into a reader/watcher for the time being.

There are several other instances where written text is integrated into the game, giving the player access to the fictional character. Clicking on the Diary option at any given time, for example, opens Nancy’s personal journal, which is pre-written text, and explains what is going on in her thoughts, including any observations made or questions to be pondered. This serves to fill out the background of the story, and helps the player focus on essential elements needed to solve the mystery. Of course the player has to pretend that she has written the diary herself.

In another such space, museum director Melina Rosi has left a written note for the player-as-Nancy to find, greeting her and leaving some instructions. It also provides more background information about the exhibit and the upcoming performance, as well as giving a list of tasks to complete. Nancy then hands over some of her agency, in a sense, to the player, who must complete the tasks. In this way she becomes a mentor to the player navigating the virtual world of the game, or at the very least, a partner. This is a major change for the teen detective. As Amy Boesky describes the traditional character of Nancy Drew, “…her’s is the point of view where all answers consolidate; often she works alone, culling information that only she can access” (Boesky 190). In her gaming world, she must share information with the child player who inhabits her character, who then will make further choices and discoveries along the way to solving the mystery.

While Nancy ultimately has the information needed to move the game forward, regardless of the choices made by the player, being given the freedom to move about the virtual world; being able to make calls, take photos, choose whom and when to talk, and putting clues together in order to solve the mystery, gives the child player a tangible sense of accomplishment. In order to become Nancy Drew, the player has to exhibit the characteristics that the teen detective has shown throughout the series. These qualities have not disappeared; they are now shared.

While her character has remained stable, it has also been made accessible, like a country that has opened its borders. Whereas the iconic heroism of the teen sleuth inspired girls for generations, now it has become a collaborative project in character-building. Digital games, especially Rated for Everyone Role Playing Games, offer a cultural paradigm of choice. Papazian refers to the “digital child” who is “granted intelligence, logic, and possibility” (451). The Nancy Drew games are part of this aspect of American girlhood, representing perhaps a trend in the current culture, one that leans towards the figure of a girl full of agency and choice. Within that landscape the digitized character of Nancy Drew has not vanished into the shadows. Her silhouette remains, operational and full of potential, highlighted against the background of the 21st Century.   It serves as a marker of current shifts in the construction of childhood, and reflects her continued relevance to the postmodern child.


Posted in children's books

Give us books, say the children…

thumbelina-annie-stegg-09…give us wings.  You who are powerful and strong, help us to escape into the faraway.  Build us azure palaces in the midst of enchanted gardens.  Show us fairies strolling about in the moonlight.  We are willing to learn everything that we are taught at school, but, please, let us keep our dreams.

Paul Hazard, 1944

French Scholar Paul Hazard came up with the concept of the “universal republic of childhood.” How exciting, and evocative.  It brings to my mind refugee children, waiting for books ( #EducationForRefugees).  These kids need to be remembered.

It also resonates with a wonderful story I’m going to share with you, from this past weekend’s SCBWI children’s writer’s and illustrator’s conference, “The Power of Story.”  It comes from the charming Megan Shepherd’s keynote address.  She was talking to us about her background, and some of the magic things that happened to her, to bring her to writing children’s books.  We bloggers promised not to reveal the techniques and storehouse of creative writing toolbox treasures we learned from this weekend, since all that is the intellectual property of the workshop presenters.  But I think it’s o.k. to share this, since it’s a story, about the power of story.

Megan was working at a summer camp as a teenager.  It was an awesome boy’s camp, that taught exciting adventurous stuff like hang gliding.  Every day was full of noisy fun and glorious mayhem. One day Megan went to get the mail, as always, and the mailroom person said, “We have a problem.” There were about fifty book-sized packages, which did not fit into the tiny mailslots given to campers.  So Megan decided to give them personally to each boy.  It turns out that  inside each package was a copy of the latest newly-released Harry Potter book.  Each boy had made his parents promise to send them the book as soon as it came out.  And they did.  So on that day, fifty boys put down their hang gliding apparatus, went to sit on the grassy hill, and read.  Megan said it was the only day in her whole time at the camp, where there was absolute silence, all day.  And she realized at that moment, the power of reading and it’s absolute value in childhood.

What a fabulous story!  And what a fabulous lesson.  All kids, everywhere, need to read; need to cross the borders of their own life and feel what it’s like to be someone and somewhere else.

I came away from that conference really inspired, remembering why children’s book writers (and illustrators) are so necessary.  It’s our calling, and it truly rocks.