Wednesday, December 7, 2016

An Amazing Author ~By Suzy Leopold

Today I want to share a book recommendation for all writers. This book is categorized fiction-technique-juvenile literature. Written with children in mind, I found this book to be an excellent read for adult writers. 

Are you ready for a little fun? Here are five clues about the author of today's book recommendation. Here we go!

The author of this book:

  • Was a Reading teacher for 20 years.
  • At the age of 40 she began a writing career. She is now 81 years young.
  • She is an author of many highly acclaimed books for children. She has written more than 90 children's books that include two Newbery Honor award books.
  • "Don't fool with me, or you're going to appear in a book," she told her husband Jim. And sure enough he is.
  • Together with her children, Ali, Jim and Bill, the family opened a bookstore called Dinosaur's Paw in 1990.
Do you need some more clues? Let's see . . . 
  • This amazing author has written across genres that include picture books, novels, nonfiction and several series. 
  • She claims, "I have no special talent. I never took a writing course before I began to write.
  • And here's the final clue . . . Her initials are PRG.
Did you guess Patricia Reilly Giff?

Well, you are correct! Hip, hip, hooray for you!

And here is the recently published chapter book on the craft of writing:

By Patricia Reilly Giff
A Holiday House Book
Ages 8-12 [Don't let this stop you!]
73 pages
34 chapters

Patricia Reilly Giff and her rambunctious golden retriever, Rosie share the process of writing fiction that includes tips and step by step specific examples from many of her previously written books.

Mrs. Giff talks about a little of this and a little of that to make the page of a book right. The just right story blends action, dialogue and description.

Chapter 21
And she goes on to say:
"First you take a person.
Put him in a place.
Give him a problem.
Make him move [That's the action.]
Make him talk. [That's the dialogue.]
Make him worry about the problem.
Let the problem get worse and worse.
And in the end . . . 
You know what to do!
Go for it!"

Time for you to check out the book. Happy reading and writing.

For more about Patricia Reilly Giff check out this link on Book Browse or this biography on Scholastic.
About the Author

Monday, December 5, 2016

Rosi Hollinbeck Reviews Books

by Sue Heavenrich

Rosi Hollinbeck loves words. A retired high school English teacher, she's continuing to follow her passion by reviewing books. Her reviews are published in the San Francisco Book Review and the Manhattan Book Review as well as her blog, The Write Stuff.

"These aren't paying jobs," she says; she does it for the books. The reviewing gig started when a friend suggested she contact the San Francisco Book Review. They were looking for contributors. That was five years ago, and she's still going strong. Rosi reviews some picture books, mostly middle-grade novels, and some YA. She chooses the books she reviews, and is committed to giving an honest assessment of how the books speak to her.

"I see my role as someone who tells the truth about the books," Rosi says. She's not out to sell a book, but to let potential readers know what the story's all about and her impressions. "And there's the discipline of it - the reviews have to be succinct and get to the heart of the book immediately." Rosi's reviews are limited to 200 words - except for reviews she posts on her blog.

When she's reviewing a book, she reads it like... a reader would. She might stick page-markers where a particular passage exhibits excellent writing - something she wants to cite in her review. She'll read through picture books two or three times; novels are so long that she reads them once - and then sits down immediately to jot down her notes.

Rosi considers a lot of things when she reviews a book:
  • is it something a kid would like to read?
  • will it enrich their lives?
  • will they be exposed to good writing?
"I want the book to contain terrific storytelling," says Rosi. "I want it to have reliable characters, with flaws. I like to see some kind of redemption or growth at the end - otherwise what's the point?"

Before choosing a book, Rosi does her homework. When she gets a a list of titles to choose from, she begins by looking for authors she's familiar with. She also looks at the titles - and if one captures her interest she'll read a synopsis about it. She looks at page count; a 500-page fantasy is too long for her - plus she's more interested in historical fiction and contemporary novels.

"I also read a lot of blogs - about 30 a week - and sometimes I see a book that interests me, so I'll ask for a review copy," says Rosi.

Reviewers are subjective - and Rosi hopes people reading book reviews keep that in mind. Even when she ends up with a book that just doesn't resonate with her she tries to find something good to say about it. 

When she's not reviewing books, Rosi is writing them. She's had stories published in Highlights and High Five magazines, and a rhyming story in the anthology, Fifty Funny Poems for Children published in the U.K. Now she's beginning to submit her picture book manuscripts - and a novel. "Plus I'm working on my second novel," she adds.

Rosi's advice for people who want to review books: start by contacting publications where books are reviewed. It might be the San Francisco Book Review, or perhaps a local paper has a book review section. "You can review for Goodreads and Amazon," she adds, "or even start a blog." As for earning money doing it? Mostly you get "paid" in the books you get. You can find out more about Rosi here.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The 12 Days of Christmas in Kentucky with Evelyn Christensen--by Tina Cho

I'm so happy to have my good friend, Evelyn Christensen and her debut picture book, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Kentucky, on the blog! Welcome back, Ev! (To see a previous interview with Ev, check here.)

Evelyn Christensen

Could you tell the Grog readers how you landed the contract to write this book?

This is definitely one of those ‘don’t give up hope’ stories. I used to belong to a wonderful, online picture book critique group with Tina. Our group moderator at the time was Nancy Sanders. Nancy, a very successful children’s author herself, is incredibly generous in trying to help other authors be successful. About seven years ago, she shared with our group that Sterling was doing a Christmas state PB series. She thought it would be fun if all of us queried Sterling about authoring one of the books, so I queried about Kentucky. I got no response. For more than five years. Crickets. I had long since written that venture off as one of the many things we writers do in this authoring business that don’t bear fruit. Then, just before Christmas in 2014, I got an email—“I know this will be a bolt out of the blue, but do you remember writing a letter to me....” It was the editor saying they were ready to do Kentucky and asking if I wanted to ‘audition’ to be the author by writing a sample page for the book. Of course, I wanted to! I wrote my sample, and several months later was delighted to hear I had been chosen from among all those auditioning.

Did you have to do much research?

Yes. I did online research, book research, telephone and email research, and actually visiting locations. I wanted to be able to do more visits and go to all the places I wrote about, but the tight timeline the publisher gave me simply did not allow that.

Christmas in Kentucky

How did you decide what special Kentucky places and people to include?

That was hard, because our state has so many wonderful places and people. The publisher had some constraints for the series that guided some of my decisions. For example, all the places the children in the book visited had to be places that could actually be visited during the Christmas season. That cut out a lot of our fun state parks, which are closed in the winter or have very limited activities. The children’s itinerary also had to be ‘doable’ in the time frame described, because, as my editor said, some people use these books as travel guides. So I had to calculate mileage between sites and travel time. I also needed to pick activities that were in as broad a range of places in our state as possible, so the whole state would feel represented.

I was really glad for the bulletin board at the end of the book, where I could include lots of the special places and people in Kentucky that I didn’t have space for in the twelve days.

How long did it take to write the book?

As I said, the publisher had a pretty tight schedule for the book. I had one month to decide on the itinerary and all the gifts Marybeth was giving to her visiting cousin Martin. This had to be approved by the editor. Then I had one month to write the letters, decide on the bulletin board items, write the back matter, and write detailed illustration notes with online links to the places being visited. 

Handmade stockings

Did you have to do many revisions?

Not many revisions to the text. Mostly just line edit sorts of things. One funny example of that—I had referred to a basketball ‘goal.’ The editor changed it to ‘hoop.’ That just didn’t sound right to me, so I asked on the SCBWI Blueboard. Turns out most people do call it a ‘hoop.’ But we don’t in Kentucky. I told my editor, if we want universality we’ll go with ‘hoop,’ but if we want to be true to Kentucky, we’ll leave it ‘goal.’ She loved the variation and ended up including both in the text.

I did do several revisions on the itinerary and gift list. I didn’t want the kids to spend so much time traveling to western Kentucky, and had planned for a friend to visit from there and share with them about quilts and the museum. But my editor felt it was important for them to go there, so that necessitated rearranging a lot of the plans.

What has been a special moment for you in the writing of this book?

A very surprising moment had to do with the Newport Aquarium. I had decided from the beginning that I didn’t want to focus on things that were just commercially fun or special. I wanted everything to have a tie in with Kentucky. At first, that ruled out the aquarium, but then I thought, “Oh, I can have the kids see the Kentucky state fish there.” Since my editors had said everything had to be factual, I emailed the aquarium to make sure they had the state fish. They didn’t. BUT—they said they would stock it just so my book could include it! I thought that was really cool.

Christmas in Kentucky: The real meaning

What's your plan for marketing? Does the publisher help?

This has been a totally different experience for me from writing educational puzzle books, which required no marketing. Since the book came out in October and is a seasonal book, the marketing has been jam-packed into just a few weeks. I’ve had 5 book signings, with 3 more scheduled; 3 blog interviews; a Goodreads giveaway; articles/book reviews in print and online state newspapers/magazines, and, of course, I’ve been using Facebook and Twitter.

Publisher help? My Sterling publicist set up the Goodreads give-away and the four out-of-town book signings. The Marketing Team did a great job of creating an Activity Kit to go with the book that included five puzzles I sent them. ( They also designed very attractive cards with ordering information on the back that I can give out to managers of gift shops and bookstores when I visit them.

Christmas in Kentucky

What’s it like to have your first picture book published?

It’s been a wonderful experience! People have been amazingly enthusiastic about the book and so encouraging and supportive. I think a large part of it is that it’s not about me. It’s that the book is about their beloved state. And they want to share what’s special about Kentucky with the children in their lives. I handed a signed copy to one friend who’d gotten it for her out-of-state grandchildren, and when she read the inscription, she whispered, “Perfect!” and hugged it to her with tears in her eyes. I’d written, “Hoping this helps you to cherish your Kentucky roots.”

What are you working on now?

Mainly, marketing this book. I did just sign a contract with an ESL publisher for a chapter book. They’ve asked for other books from me, so I’m cogitating on that. I’m also trying to digitally format more of my out-of-print puzzle books so I can make them available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. (

"On the 5th day of Christmas, my cousin gave to me....5 golden bars..."

For fun:

Favorite color: yellow
Food: Turtles (chocolate, caramel, pecans)
Children’s author: Dr. Seuss
Children’s book: The Cat in the Hat

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
New Zealand, because lots of my family have visited there and it sounds beautiful!

A former teacher with a doctorate in education, Ev loves to make learning fun for kids. She has designed several math games and authored more than 40 educational puzzle books. She’s also editor of the ezine Writing for Children’s Magazines. Ev lives with her husband Ralph (who’s always been super supportive of her writing career) in Lexington, KY and delights in playing with her five pre-school grandchildren. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Meet Joanne Fritz, from bookselling to book making

Meet Joanne R. Fritz

For a decade, Joanne Fritz cuddled at home
with the best children's books in the form of
advance reader copies (ARCs), before the
real deal ever popped into reader hands.

And she met the best children's authors in the
bookstore where she hand-sold their books.

She also read the best children's magazines,
such as those from the Highlights family of

Now, she is refining her writing for children, with
help from the best author-teachers we love to
read & study.

What were the best things about being a children’s bookseller?
Besides meeting all those amazing authors, I loved finding the right book for a child.                                                                                      

If the parent told me a few things about their kid and what they liked to read (or didn’t like to read!), 
I could always make several suggestions for books they would love. Parents and grandparents, 
as well as librarians, learned to look for my Staff Pick shelves or seek me out to ask for further recommendations.
By the time I left I had quite a few loyal customers who only wanted to deal with me, especially at the holidays.
Another favorite part of my job was recommending books for Indiebound. They used my blurb for 
Padma Venkatraman’s first novel (back when Indiebound was still called Booksense), hence it was 
fantastic to finally meet her at the Highlights Foundation workshop on Novels in Verse in 2016.
I also wrote children’s book reviews for a local newspaper that was distributed to all the area schools.
Now I review books on my blog, My Brain on Books.   
What were 5-8 titles, off the top of your head, that were guaranteed sellers in 
picture books, middle grade & YA?

It’s been a few years, so this may already seem outdated, but in PBs, Olivia was always popular, 
and any funny books about animals, really. The Pigeon books, Richard Scarry books, etc. 
Anything about trucks sold well, like Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.  
We also sold a lot of classics like Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, and
 Caldecott winners too because they made nice gifts.

In MG, after Harry Potter died down, we sold anything by Rick Riordan and really anything in a series, 
but we also had plenty of customers buying stand-alone Newbery books and whatever our current 
Staff Picks were. And in YA, Hunger Games, Twilight, and similar books sold well back then, but so 
did YA contemporary, like anything by Sarah Dessen or Ellen Hopkins. Now, I think contemporary rules, 
but there will always be fans of fantasy and paranormal.

What are your favorite kinds of children's books? What did you read as a kid?

As a kid, I absolutely loved The Secret Garden, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlotte’s Web.
But I would read anything then, even comic books.
Reading was by far my favorite thing to do, besides climbing trees.
My favorite books remain MG, though now I lean more toward historical fiction and contemporary 
than fantasy, but I do try to read adult fiction occasionally (my favorite read in 2015 was 
All The Light We Cannot See). 
In general, I’m not big on nonfiction (I know I should read more).
Just give me a good story and I’m happy.

Did you write as a kid?

Yes, I did, starting at about the age of eight.
But for a long time I thought of it as a secret I needed to keep.
I didn’t tell my family or friends.
For many years after, I wrote secret stories and poems but never tried to write
a picture book until the birth of my first son.
I also didn’t write on a regular basis back then, only when I felt inspired.
I didn’t start writing novels until 2007, so I’m relatively new at that.

How did the shop prepare for author appearances?

It was a team effort.
The manager took care of ordering books for the signing, basing it on how many 
people we expected to attend. We advertised in the local paper, and more recently, online. 
The day of the signing, we’d set up chairs, a podium, and test the microphone a few hours in advance.

For the children’s authors, I frequently introduced the author myself.
The first time I had to do that I was extremely nervous, but everyone told me I did a great job.
From then on it was fairly easy. I still got nervous and weak-kneed, getting up in front of 50 or 
100 people and talking into the microphone, but I managed.
I also moderated Q&A sessions after the author’s speech, and helped keep the signing 
line moving along smoothly. After a signing, we usually asked the authors to sign stock for our shelves, 
so I got extra chances to talk to them.
Over the years, I was privileged enough to meet many distinguished children’s book authors, 
including but not limited to, Laurie Halse Anderson, Patricia MacLachlan, Richard Peck, 
T.A. Barron, Dan Gutman, Jerry Spinelli, Ellen Hopkins, Beth Kephart, A.S. King, and 
K.M. Walton (whose launch party for CRACKED was by far the biggest of any we had for a YA debut author.)

You undoubtedly have a deserved advantage in becoming a children's writer & author, due
to your bookshop background. Perhaps it's from seeing so many titles. 
Perhaps from meeting children's authors in the shop? And from hearing what young
readers in the shop, said? 

There were many advantages to working in a large children’s book department.
Probably the biggest advantage was having access to so many ARCs.
Since I was able to read (for free) as many current books as I could, I learned a lot about 
writing from that
(and I think any aspiring author should read as much as possible in their genre – if you don’t 
have access to ARCs, go to your local library!)
Restocking shelves helped me learn what books were flying off the shelves and what weren’t, 
so I learned what books were successful, at least in our area. I’m sure every bookstore is different.

As a bookseller, I devised a pitch for each book.
So when my customers asked for a recommendation I could pull out a few books and 
describe each one in an enticing way.
It’s a bit like hooking an agent or editor with the first few lines of your query.

Meeting authors is always wonderful, and some of them I’m proud to call friends now, 
but it really didn’t give me any advantages as a writer. Talking to my young customers h
elped me realize what they look for in a book (as opposed to what their parents look for). 
My customers were diverse and their tastes varied widely.
What one young reader liked, another wouldn’t.  
But they all knew a good cover can make a potential reader pick up a book, but if the first page 
doesn’t deliver, they’ll put it down again.

More about Joanne R. Fritz

Before you leave a note/comment for Joanne here, read some more about her:

A lifelong avid reader, Joanne majored in English at Dickinson College, intending to work in publishing. 
She spent a couple of years as an editorial assistant in New York City, before moving back to Pennsylvania 
and working first in a greeting card company and then in a school library. 
After a stint as a stay-at-home mom, Joanne re-entered the work force as a children’s bookseller in 2002 at Chester County Book & Music Company, in West Chester, PA. At one time, it was one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. It opened in 1982. The bookstore no longer exists, unfortunately, but there are still several indie bookstores within a reasonable driving distance of Joanne's home.  When the bookstore closed, she began writing full time. 

You can meet up with her at MY BRAIN ON BOOKS, her book review blog. 

  "Storm Magic," (above) a rebus by Joanne R. Fritz, was published in the October 2016 issue of Highlights.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

NA-NU NA-NU! How NaNoWriMo Helps a Picture Book Writer - by Kathy Halsey

As you munch on turkey, give thanks with family and friends, perhaps you have a moment to read about a another November tradition, NaNoWriMo. Ask your parents or others around the table today if they recall the Mork and Mindy sitcom that featured comedic genius Robin Williams. Robin played the alien Mork from the planet Ork, and his greeting was, "NA-NU NA-NU."  I felt rather like Mork, visiting another planet as I began my November journey through National Novel Writing Month. 

The challenge to write 50,000 words in one measly month seemed monumental. It feels that way still. I may not make the word count, and  today, if I keep writing at my current pace, I'll reach the finish line March 27, 2017. Plenty of people who embark on this adventure say they "fail" the first year. Whoa, that's harsh. However, my "failure" is still a win in my book. 

I primarily write picture books, have tried my hand at a chapter book and even dipped into  a middle grade. I pride myself of word counts of 300-500 and by final draft time, I usually cross that finish line. So could this older dog learn a new trick? I had to find out if I could sustain a much brisker clip.

My motivation was a "failed" PB biography that just wouldn't budge. Taking revision to the nth level, I played "what if." What if this became a first person, middle grade, historical fiction? I became my main character and revised my structure to a travelogue on which to hang my plot and research. I shared that beginning with a friend's 5th grade class, and voila, they actually clapped after my reading. Yes, I guess I'm writing a middle grade novel. GULP. So here's a few tips to chew on along w/the turkey sandwich.

Top Tips from a Newbie

1.  Prepare for NaNo ahead of time. There are meetings all over the country during October on the website. Also the site includes articles and help boards similar to the SCBWI blue boards.
2. I had a topic and plot via my PB bio, which helped. Perhaps you can dust off a manuscript that tugs at you still for NaNo. I used my fourteen spreads and reimaigned them as chapters. 
3.  Gather your tribe. I hooked up with picture book and nonfiction writer friends  from FaceBook  and they became my first NaNo 'buddies." We spur each other on.
4. Go to meet-ups within your region. This may be more difficult if you live in a small town, but it helps. Some meetings are informational; some are like-minded folks who write on their own, yet join together. I found coffee, munchies, and camaraderie at   The Thurber House and two library branches in Columbus, Ohio. 
5. Be kind to yourself if you slip up and don't reach your word count target for the day. My daily target is 1667 words and I don't always measure up. But I will not quit.
6. JUST WRITE. Sounds simple, but it's not. I am a constant editor and rough drafts come slowly. That works for writing a picture book draft, but for NaNo, I had to plunge forward with a truly #%% draft. I had research holes to fill, too. When I had no time to sift for dates or names, I just wrote "XXX" and highlighted it for later. It almost killed me at first, but it is a DRAFT. (This gets easier over time.)
7. Make this challenge your own. My middle grade novel is probably going to be 30,000 + words, not 50,000. I have to research as I write this month because of the radical change in structure. And, I may not get done by November 30. What? Me worry? No, if  I get this middle grade written by the time the NESCBWI conference rolls around, I win. These are my goals, MY NaNo.
The Benefits
1. NaNo forced me to adopt a real writing routine which became a ritual.  I researched in the morning or read sources for the section I'd write in the afternoon. Afternoons were for writing and "writing sprints." (Timed writing with others made me accountable. Try it even if you aren't interested in NaNo.) 

2.  I found more writing time in my day by breaking it down into manageable segments. The official name for this is the "Pomodoro Technique." The method breaks time into 25 minute intervals with short breaks. Here are twelve timing apps to help. 
3. The resources within the NaNoWriMo website are awesome. There are pep talks and wonderful forums. Listen to these forum titles: Plot Doctoring, Reference Desk (great for NF), Worldbuilding and The Adoption Society. Folks leave characters, plots and catchphrases they've abandoned that you can pick up. 
4.  The confidence you will gain with sustained writing. Yes, there is a real "zone" or "flow" that happens w/this type of writing. My biggest surprise is that my main character really does enter me, and I just type what she is thinking, doing, and saying. I used to scoff when I heard this from other writers. 

Whether I run a 5K or a marathon, I will finish. (If I don't cross the finish line in November, I'll join Camp NaNo which let's me complete a project in any month.)  
I am proud of stretching beyond my comfort zone and pushing myself past what I think I'm capable of as a writer. I took a big leap forward, and I win!