Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Leonardo the Florentine- A Review and a Giveaway

If you have a middle school reader who enjoys history and art, then this novel which fictionalizes the early life of Leonardo da Vinci will be just the book for him or her. 
This is the first in "The Life and Travels of da Vinci" series and it is obvious that the author, Catherine McGrew Jaime, has researched well a beloved topic. She expertly interwove facts about Leonardo's tense relationship with his father, his apprenticeship to master Verrocchio, Florence's architectural details, and information about the Medici family into a quick-reading narrative. 

In this section, Leonardo has lived in Florence for only six months. He grabbed his drawing utensils--sketching paper and a charcoal stick.
What he really wanted to do was to draw--to draw the buildings that he was seeing here, and to put some of this amazing architecture down on paper where he could study it in the evenings. He had seen a church before he came to Florence, certainly, and yet he had never imagined this many churches in one location before. Church spires punctured the sky above Florence at every block. (p. 53)
When Leonardo wasn't busy helping Verrocchio mix paints, create colorful banners, jeweled robes, and beautiful blankets for the Medici family; or run errands for him, he learned Latin and hovered around other workshops. Alongside Antonio Pollaiuolo, he helped perform autopsies and studied muscles and joints. Other times he visited Paolo Toscanelli, a famous mathematician and mapmaker where he learned elements of astronomy, geography and optics.

At twenty-years-old, six years after being apprenticed to Verrochio, Leonardo was accepted into the Painters' Guild and given the title, Maestro (Master). Although he was entitled to open his own workshop he stayed another five years so he could continue to learn from Verrochio. 

Once on his own, he began receiving small commissions. Although he was a masterful painter, inventing and science were his first loves. Even when money was tight, he "continued his scientific and mechanical work, with designs for screws, drills, mills, and machines for waterworks." (p. 148)  Eventually Leonardo got tired of Florence and decided to apply to the Duke of Milan for work. He wrote a letter to the duke suggesting his defensive plans could be a help to him, packed his belongings, some of his favorite drawings, and his prized silver lyre. With only a few coins to his name he started out on the two hundred mile journey that would take him to his next adventure.
For the next chapter in Leonardo's life, you'll have to read Leonardo: Masterpieces in Milan. If you wish to enter the drawing for this book, please leave me a comment by 6 PM July 1. Make sure you leave your email address if I don't have it. Follow my blog or share this on social media and I'll enter your name twice; just make sure you tell me what you do. 

You might also want to check out Catherine's overview of Da Vinci's life in her book, Leonardo Da Vinci: His Life and His Legacy.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Creative Writing at Explore the Arts

Some of you may remember that last summer I volunteered at the Explore the Arts camp in Greenville, SC. I was thrilled when the camp's director, Donna Shanks-Major, asked me to teach the creative writing class this year. 

I had two classes: the first one consisted of eleven 6th-8th graders who wrote and published a camp blog. After receiving instruction about Muscle Words and the Who? What? Where? and Why? of reporting, they practiced observing and taking notes in a "Paint on Canvas" class. They wrote it up, received my edits and feedback from their peers, revised, and then moved on to observing other classes running concurrently in the Fine Arts Center. I hope you take a few minutes to read our blog; I'm proud of the way in which they learned how to incorporate figurative language and specific details into their work.

Photo courtesy Joanna Henn

The second class included seven eager 4th and 5th graders who came ready to write a story. (When they introduced themselves quite a few said they'd been "writing their whole life.")  Using lesson plans from my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8,  I taught them how to Create a Character, Set the Scene, and Plan a Problem. They were each anxious to start their stories--many had constructed intricate plots in their imaginations before coming to class. 

We used some of the artwork displayed on the Fine Arts Center's walls to prompt their imaginations. In this exercise, they were looking at these pictures and imagining what the story was behind each character. I asked, "Who is this person?" and "What is she feeling or thinking?"

Photo courtesy Claire Natiez

When we studied setting, I asked the students, "What could happen here? What is the mood of this picture?"

This painting

inspired this descriptive paragraph:
The tornado rushes by as howling winds blows dust into the air, and tress bend against the wind. Gritty sand rushed into his mouth every time he took a breath. There was suddenly a chill in the air as hail pounded upon him. Suddenly all he could see was darkness. When he woke up it seemed that all of his bones were aching. Jeffrey L., rising fifth grader. 

I taught them these young writers the basics of writing fiction and they taught me how to dab

Photo courtesy Lydia Hammond

I'm not sure who was enriched more this week!

Monday, June 12, 2017


Congratulations to Joan Edwards who won a critique from Gayle Krause from last week's blog.
You pick up a book at the library or bookstore and start reading it. Maybe it catches your interest, maybe it doesn't. But one thing is for sure, if you're not a writer, you have no idea how much time and effort have gone into writing that book.

Maybe even years.


The last time I blogged about Half-Truths, I was excitedly sending my manuscript to beta readers. Since then I have received feedback from teens, adults, critique partners, and several sensitivity readers. I learned that Kate's character wasn't developed enough and there wasn't enough tension in the first half of the book. I was well into revision when I heard back from my last sensitivity reader. 

Here are some of her comments:

Since you are in the process of revising now, I wanted to take a few moments to share some macro-level thoughts you might take into consideration as you work. I know you have been working on this labor of love for more than 10 years and you probably feel that it is close to where you want it. If that is the case, I'm sure you're hoping to enter the submissions process sooner rather than later, so feel free to keep the following comments as reference material in the event that you don't find an editor for the manuscript. 
My first suggestion is to consider writing this manuscript from the perspective of Kate alone. Your grasp of Kate's life and voice are more authentic than your grasp of Lillie's and honestly, I'm not sure a sensitivity reader is going to be able to help you add the authenticity needed. At best, we can alert you to potential areas of offense--but even in that, it won't be full-proof because African-Americans are not a monolith and things I might not flag as offensive might turn out to be offensive to others. Which brings me to my next point....
Your writing HALF-TRUTHS from Lillie's perspective might not go over well in today's social and political climate. The movement for "own voices" (which I admittedly support) grows stronger by the day, and people of color are hyperaware of works being published by white people that star POC main characters. Yes you have two main characters, but Lillie is especially main. The book even opens from her perspective. The honest truth is that even if you got Lillie's story 90% right, you would likely get called out for the 10% of missteps. Because I know you personally, I know your intentions with this story are nothing but honorable (and I think your overall plot is interesting). I would hate for your book to end up the target of a negative campaign because of inadvertent missteps. For many reasons, today's kidlit atmosphere is fraught, and the cultural scrutiny/backlash of this moment is pretty unrelenting. There is no patience for mistakes of any kind. 
Her feedback stopped me cold.

I was shocked, overwhelmed and discouraged. I first wrote Half-Truths from Kate's POV and would never have considered writing it any other way if an editor hadn't suggested the two points-of-view during a SCBWI-Carolinas conference. 

Did I really have to start all over again? Did I waste eight years pursuing an unreachable goal? Were all these books and all of my expert interviews with African Americans a waste of time?

Even bigger, how was I going to face people in my family, like my brother who never failed to ask, "So, how is the book coming along? You ready to publish it?" And how would I tell you, my faithful blog followers?  I felt like a failure. 


I shared my news with my writing friends who commiserated, advised, and told stories of their own not-so-smooth path to publication. Linda Phillips (author of CRAZY) said she had worried about me taking on the black POV but figured an editor would give me that feedback. Joyce Hostetter wrote, "Don’t forget that I have abandoned two books that I spent about 4 years each on.  And I have lots of other abandoned projects from back before BLUE.  That might be called failure but I learned tons while writing those books.  So I call it an education."

Augusta Scattergood said, "After almost eight years of writing, revising, and submitting, I was critiqued by an agent I truly clicked with at an SCBWI regional conference in Maryland. She eventually decided that novel (which would much later become my second published book, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY) wasn't for her. A year later, I dusted off GLORY BE, sent it to her, and the rest is my publishing history."

I chatted with Kathy Wiechman, author of the award winning book, LIKE A RIVER, on Facebook. After reminding me that this was an opportunity to make my book better she said,"Enjoy working on the revision. That is my favorite part of the process, and I do truly enjoy it. It was that love of doing it that helped me stick with it for 39 years of not being chosen."

Rebecca Petruck, who read multiple drafts of the story and loved the two points-of-view, checked with her agent to make sure I should follow this advice. She also suggested I ask an industry professional. We both received the same response: This wasn't a good time for me, a white author, to write from Lillie's POV. 

What was next? Should I trash this project and start something new? But I loved my premise and every time I shared the pitch with strangers, their eyes got big and they'd say, "Wow!"

While my brother was more empathetic than I expected, my sister, Barbara, advised:

  • You may need to develop a new way of seeing this story.
  • There’s not something wrong with you that you're starting over.  
  • The process is as important as the product.


I took a week off--I had important family concerns to attend to--and then reread a book that a member of my critique group gave me. 

Published in 1957, the twelve essays were a response to the Supreme court's "edict" (as one writer described it) of 1954. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision led to school desegregation. This largely anti-integration pamphlet was written predominantly by white men (three women are listed in the table of contents, I presume all the authors were white because of the point of view they espoused). 

Suddenly, I realized that any of these anti-integration writers could have been Kate's grandfather. Growing up in rural North Carolina in the 40's with him, racism would have been as much a part of Kate's environment as raising goats and attending 4-H. 


I spent another week re-outlining and figuring out how and what Kate would learn from Lillie and how Kate's backstory is going to impact Half-Truths and, voila--I'm back in business.

Whenever I teach writing, I use this graphic organizer from my previous book, TEACHING THE STORY: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8.

The  Writing-Revising Cycle

(Click here for your copy of this handout.)

As I re-vision and rewrite Half-Truths as Kate's story, I'm back at the "Start", but yet I'm not. All the information I've gleaned and all those previous drafts aren't worthless-they will enrich my story. 

Thanks to all of you for your support. Your encouragement on my journey means more to me than you can imagine. 

Stay tuned!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Twice Betrayed: A Review and a Critique Giveaway

Congratulations to Rosi Hollinbeck who won JUST AROUND MIDNIGHT from last week's blog. Check out her informative blog with lots of giveaways and writing helps.

I enjoy books that pull me into a character's life and predicament from the opening chapter.  By the time I turned the page into Chapter 2, I wanted to know how almost-14-year-old Perdy Rogers would be involved in the upcoming American Revolution and if she would help her friend elope. That's a lot for author Gayle Krause, to accomplish in the first six pages of her upper middle grade book, TWICE BETRAYED.

On the eve of the Revolution, Perdy is an apprentice to Betsy Ross, the alleged maker of the first American flag. She'd rather be visiting with her friends, Lizzie and Jane Ann, than be stuck in a small room sewing ascots or reupholstering a chair for Benjamin Franklin. So when Jane Ann enlists her help in distracting the ferrymen at the river so their friend Priscilla can elope, Perdy is faced with her Save the Cat debate: 
"I'm torn. A chance to help my friends and do something exciting, but Mam [her grandmother with whom she lives] would never let me go. It means sneaking out after dark. "That late at night?" (p. 7)
Since this is an action-packed story, I'm sure you can guess which path Perdy chooses. That decision, and her idea that the girls should dress as boys in order to distract the ferryman, are like falling dominoes which bring one trouble after another into Perdy's life. 

Bad things happen quickly. Her sister, Abby, falls in the river and despite being rescued by Darach, a young sailor, gets deathly sick. Priscilla and her fiancé drown and are thought to be spies for the British. Government officials accuse Perdy of also being a spy and Jane Ann doesn't come to her defense. Darach sends her heart racing, but she's not sure if she can trust him either. On and on it goes with even the people at the Quaker meeting house unwilling to shake her hand. In the end, her willingness to stand up for the truth and Darach's bold rescue bring her out of death's snares and into a new life. The action packed chapters kept my interest and showed me how important it is to include conflict in each scene. 

One of my favorite parts is when Perdy pieces together scraps left from Miss Betsy's flag making into a quilt for Abby. 
I finish the last seam. All the red and white stripes, are at last, sewn together. The five-pointed stars are easy to make. A fold. A snip. And then a star. Miss Betsy taught me well. Someday, I'll show Abby this trick too. I quickly cut enough white stars to form a circle on the dark blue square. Twelve in all. 
Just then, Abby clunks up the stairs to remind me of dinner. 
She picks my sample pattern off the floor and places it in the center of the star circle. "Here's another star, Perdy."
          "I don't need it." I move it to the side.

       "Yes, use it. I found it. Put my star on too."
I take the sample star from her move it around the circle of twelve. There's no room in it, so I place it in the middle, but it's too small. The design is off-balance. 
Abby reaches up and moves two of the stars. "Put them closer, Perdy, then mine can fit." 
More than anything, I want to see Abby happy, so I rearrange the stars until all thirteen form a circle on the blue square, like the constellation in my dream. 
"My star is on the quilt too." Abby claps. 
"Abby, do you see this circle of stars?" 
She nods. 
Remember, you can never get lost if you keep moving in a circle. You'll always end up where you started." (p. 127)

By Edward Percy Moran
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division
under the digital ID ph.3g02791.
This theme of "coming full circle" is repeated in the book and in fact, the book ends where it began: Perdy going on a new adventure--this time with Darach at her side. (Or, in Save the Cat language, the opening and final images bookend the story.)

The Winged Pen blog recently ran a post by Gita Trelease on the importance of research when writing historical fiction. She wrote, "Tiny details can be time machines" and what counts is creating historical authenticity. From the details about the buttons, ribbons, clothing, uniforms, boats, laws, and government to the shops which lined the streets of colonial Philadelphia, TWICE BETRAYED weaves an authentic tapestry for a story that girls from 10-14 will enjoy.

Some of you may remember the cover reveal for this book when Gayle explained some of the backstory for her book. Clara Gillow Clark won the ARC and then promptly bequeathed it to me. Since Gayle autographed it to me, TWICE BETRAYED goes into my own collection to be shared with my visitors.

Two young church friends displaying
how they organized my children's books and toys.

Instead of the book, Gayle is offering a first chapter critique or MG or YA query critique. Leave me a comment by June 9 to enter, along with your email address if you are new to my blog. Share this blog on social media or become a new follower, and I'll enter your name twice. Just make sure you tell me what you did. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and The Racial Imagination- A Review and Audio Book Giveaway

Congratulations to Joan Edwards, a faithful follower of this blog, for winning Cleo Edison Oliver in Persuasion Power on last week's post.

I stumbled upon JUST AROUND MIDNIGHT: ROCK AND ROLL AND THE RACIAL IMAGINATION (Harvard University Press, 2016) while perusing Tantor Audio's huge list of audio books. Here's the blurb that drew my attention:
Rooted in rhythm-and-blues pioneered by black musicians, 1950s rock and roll was racially inclusive and attracted listeners and performers across the color line. In the 1960s, however, rock and roll gave way to rock: a new musical ideal regarded as more serious, more artistic-and the province of white musicians. Decoding the racial discourses that have distorted standard histories of rock music, Jack Hamilton underscores how ideas of "authenticity" have blinded us to rock's inextricably interracial artistic enterprise.
I requested the book thinking it might inform my novel, Half-Truths. To be honest, it was a scholarly (yet accessible) work that far exceeded my expectations. All it lacked were snippets from the multitude of songs and albums the author referenced.

I grew up in the 60's singing to the music coming from my father's transistor radio. I had no idea the cultural interchanges between white and black cultures that went on behind the scenes producing the lyrics I sang. I also did not know the personal life stories of the musicians. The author's extensive research and knowledge of music created a rich backdrop for this tumultuous time period. 

Here is just a sprinkling of the issues Hamilton addressed that I never considered as a teeny bopper listening to music at our neighborhood pool. 
  • Racial roots ran deep for the music that was popular in the 50's and 60's. 
  • Blacks felt as if their music was plundered involving issues of cultural ownership and racial authenticity. 
  • Hamilton traced the roots of 60's rock and roll back to the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, who he juxtaposed with Bob Dylan, the leader of the folk rock movement. 
  • Gospel music, slavery songs, civil rights, the southern freedom struggle and political unrest all influenced music. Similarly, there was dynamic back-and-forth movement as music itself influenced politics and culture. 
  • Protests against capitalism made big bucks for record companies. (Think of musicians in the 60's such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and of course, Bob Dylan himself.)
  • Music was made to be danced to and sold.
  • Performance and identity are intertwined for many musicians.
  • The term "invasion" should not have described the Beatles. There were tons of influences on the Beatles from this side of the Atlantic including Motown and Cuban music. Other influences included British blues (itself derived from American blues), Keith Richards, Tads, Skiffle
  • White artists performed black songs and vice versa.  For example, both Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder sang Bob Dylan's songs. Aretha Franklin (the Queen of Soul), Janis Joplin (the Queen of Rock), and Dusty Springfield sang each other's music. Joplin sang black music in white-only venues; Franklin sang the Beatles, "Eleanor Rigby" in first person and made it into a rhythm and blues rendition that Hamilton called "audacious" and "genre bending". Hamilton went into great depth analyzing how each musician's rendition made a song his or her own and their motivation to assimilate the music into his/her own repertoire. 
  • What is soul? In Hamilton's words, "Soul is a way to think about race." According to some commentators at the time, "to have soul was to suffer unjustly at hands of whites." 
  • Do whites have the ethical right to play black music? If not, isn't this racism? The problem was that whites got paid more for their performances. 
  • There were musical commonalities between the Beatles and Ray Charles. Ideas of what white and black musicians can and cannot do, rarely hold up to scrutiny of musical practice. 
  • Often Jimmy Hendrix expressed his dismay at the Vietnam War through musical violence. To him, it was a critique of the society around him. But derogatory remarks made about him among critics often marked him as "other". 
  • The Rolling Stones were obsessively grounded in black roots. 

The narrator, Ron Butler, did an excellent job. I could listen to him read any book! Here is a sample from MIDNIGHT. If you are interested in delving into the cultural and musical environment of the 50's-early 70's, then this is a book for you. 

I'm giving away the MP3-CD that I received from Tantor Audio. It is encoded in MP3 format and is iPod ready but will play only on CD and DVD players or computers that have ability to play MP3 formatted disks. (That meant I could play it in one of our cars but not the other and it didn't work on an old CD player.) Please leave your email address if you are new to my blog. Giveaway ends June 2. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Cleo Edison Oliver in Persuasion Power: A Review and Giveaway

Cleopatra Edison Oliver is a fifth grade force to be reckoned with. Her superpower is the art of persuasion and she is convinced that she can not only create and market personalized hair clips ("Tell the world who you are!") to every girl in her grade, she's sure that her idol, talk show host, Fortune A. Davies, will endorse her. Following the pervious book, CLEO ADDISON OLIVER: PLAYGROUND MILLIONAIRE, PERSUASION POWER by Sundee T. Frazier (Scholastic Books, 2017) will appeal to 4th-6th grade girls.  

In one of the initial scenes Cleo's teacher, Mr. Boring, rebukes her for not focusing on their language arts lesson. Cleo admits that she can't imagine how metaphors or similes could be useful. Mr. Boring points out she used a metaphor in the ad copy for her passion clips. Like an inside joke, for the rest of the book Sundee Frazer sprinkles flavorful similes and metaphors into Cleo's thoughts and speech. For example, when Cleo thinks about another girl who became quickly popular she thinks, "The girl was all whipped cream and no pudding." 

Although this is a book about how Cleo translates her passion for hair clips into big sales, it is equally about Cleo wanting to find her birth parents. 
Her parents loved her. A lot. And yet lately she'd felt a growing desire to know more about her birth parents. To have a relatives list of her own. To see herself in her family. To have some clues about what she might look like all grownup. (p.73)
The author uses an apt simile to describe Cleo's feelings about her adoption: 
She had her parents. But something else--a gnawing, like hunger, except it wasn't in her stomach--told her that something was missing. She just wanted to know: Did they [her birth parents] remember her, wonder about her too? (p.82)
Cleo comes up with a foolproof plan to find her birth mom. She'll become a "kidpreneur" on Fortune's show, her birth mom will see her and contact her. When her mother warns against getting her hopes up too high, 
Cleo lets the words slide off her like grease on a non-stick pan. She was a seed in dirt, a dog chasing a scent, a dentist with a scaler! Nothing--not even her overly cautious mom--could stop her from trying to reach Fortune. (p.107)
Despite anxiety over meeting her birth father, she tells him, "I'm a girl with big dreams who won't let anything stop her. I may be young, I may be small, but I'm as persistent as the Itsy-Bitsy Spider." Her birth father gets a funny look on his face and she's worried that she said something wrong until he says, "That's exactly how I was when I was your age."
Suddenly, she was flinging her arms around his middle and hugging him as hard as she could. His arms hovered above her, then slowly he embraced her, ...and the feeling of her birth dad's arms around her mingled together and became a memory she would never forget--a coin in the piggy bank of herself that she would never, ever spend. (p. 228)
And even though Cleo never appears on Fortune's television show, the ending leaves the reader with a satisfied smile. I have just two points of critique. As much as I enjoyed this fast-paced contemporary novel, I would have liked if better if Caylee, Cleo's "business partner" was a little more developed and provided more push-back. It seemed as if Caylee was always hard at work creating the passion clips and worried over Cleo taking on more orders than they could manage--but there didn't appear to be consequences of Cleo's choice to turn over the majority of the "manufacturing" to her best friend. Similarly, Cleo spends a lot of class and homework time daydreaming about her business passions without any  consequences to her grades. 

This book will entertain the lower middle grade crowd and I have a paperback copy to give away. (My apologies in advance; the book arrived from the publisher with creases in the cover.) Leave me a comment by May 26 and your email address if you are new to my blog, and I'll enter your name in the giveaway. It would be a great book for your daughter, granddaughter, or to add to your classroom library. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Nerdy Books Blog

As blog schedules may have it, I was a guest blogger on Nerdy Books the day after I blogged for Kirby Larson. If you're not familiar with this comprehensive blog for readers, I hope you'll check them out. They have several different types of essays throughout the week; click on "Posts" and browse around.

In my Nerdy blog last week, I highlighted ten mentor texts that have helped me as I've written Half-Truths. Next week I plan to be back in your inbox with another book review and giveaway. Thanks to all of you for your support.