Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Welcome to A Mysterious World: Lydia Lukidis' Deep, Deep Down: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench by Kathy Halsey

Deep, Deep Down Book Review

Lydia Lukidis has created a mesmerizing nonfiction picture book that is also poetry– a hard feat for a writer to execute. The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench is so lyrical, I felt the dance of the underwater creatures on a journey to the ocean depths. Repetition, onomatopoeia, and diction that directs the movements of the submersible gives a realistic experience of the trench that is still being explored by scientists today.

Realistic and atmospheric illustrations by Juan Calle, a former biologist now science illustrator, draws readers into a dark but illuminating space as these creatures are introduced in all their amazing quirkiness. Back matter includes a glossary, thoughts on why studying this mysterious world is important, and interesting facts. Curious kids, teachers and librarians will enjoy a deep dive into this fascinating wonder hidden at the bottom of the Western Pacific Ocean. 

Craft Chat with Lydia

Kathy: Deep, Deep Down: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench is written as poetry and nonfiction. Yet, since it’s an imagined voyage that “debunks scary myths,” according to the CIP in the introduction and it’s cataloged as nonfiction in the Dewey Decimal system as 577.7. Was any version straight nonfiction? (So many writers are concerned about how their books will be categorized.)


Lydia: Great question! This is always a concern, specifically with nonfiction. I assumed DEEP, DEEP DOWN would be placed in the nonfiction section of stores and libraries since it’s based on facts and doesn’t insert an invented character as informational fiction does. I think it falls in the expository nonfiction category as its purpose is to explain, describe, or inform readers on a certain concept or idea. Debunking incorrect myths while shining a light on the truth seems to connect to this category. But it’s also true the book asks readers to imagine themselves inside the submersible, journeying to the depths of the Mariana Trench. That angle wasn’t in the initial drafts, but as edits progressed, we thought it would be fun to speak to the reader directly, although I never actually use the pronoun “you,” which was deliberate.

The reader is invited to imagine going on this voyage, too.


Kathy: The creatures of the Mariana Trench are so unusual! What is your favorite creature? Why?


Lydia: I fell in love with all of them! And I confess I had never heard of amphipods before. While all the creatures are fascinating in their own right, I fell madly in love with sea cucumbers and learned so much more about them. I literally spent hours watching real footage of them drifting and floating through the deep sea like underwater ballet and was instantly mesmerized. Their graceful and rhythmic movements made them appear poetic to me and that’s when I understood that the trench itself is a poem.


Kathy: As a nonfiction writer myself, I’m interested in the sidebars for each spread. Why two sidebars? Were they always in the text proper or in the back matter at some point? When you queried this book, how did you distinguish the sidebar sections? (This again can stymie writers.)


Lydia: I’m going to be honest: I spent SO MUCH time obsessing over sidebars!! In my initial drafts, I included some as they contained useful and interesting information. At that point, I had written dozens of nonfiction books for the educational market but had yet to make the leap to trade nonfiction. In an attempt to make this book less “educational” and more “commercial,” I decided to remove all sidebars and place the information in the backmatter (though I kept the depth indications on each page as I felt they were important).


I was resolute about this decision but my editor saw it differently. Capstone publishes so much trade nonfiction that appeals to the library and school market, so sidebars are a norm for them. Every author needs to make certain concessions and I ultimately agreed to keep the sidebars. What I learned is that trade nonfiction CAN feature sidebars, but the structure, language, and voice are what make it more commercial.

Language and voice capture the reader at the beginning.


Kathy: I noticed in your acknowledgements that you thanked six experts. At what point in the writing and research of Deep, Deep Down did you consult experts? How did you find them? What process do you suggest for writer new to contacting experts?


Lydia: This book could not have been written without all six experts. Each one brought their expertise to the table, although Dr. Gerringer was the main consultant. She’s a truly remarkable scientist and person!


Part of the issue was that a lot of the information on the internet was false and even the scientifically accurate details from reliable sources were always changing since our understanding of the trench itself is evolving. I wrote ten versions of the manuscript when I finally got in touch with experts who study and have visited the trench, and then realized most of my facts were wrong. It was a wakeup call for me. I had to completely rewrite the manuscript and edited it over fifty-five times but it was worth it.


I reached out to Schmidt Ocean Institute in 2019 (they study the deep sea, including ocean trenches) and it snowballed from there. I highly encourage all nonfiction writers to seek out experts as they write their books. It could be as easy as doing an internet search and finding scientists or professors in the field as well as those who wrote articles on topics you’re researching. These experts are usually more than willing to share their knowledge, and to date, each one I reached out to agreed to help.


Kathy: What draws you to writing nonfiction? What writing techniques do you use to engage readers in nonfiction?


Lydia: I’m eternally curious about our world and equally mesmerized by it. I find every fact interesting (like, I’m obsessed with tardigrades, still trying to fit them into a book!) I also love reading nonfiction, so it naturally follows that I write it as well.


Writing engaging expository literature is tricky, at least for me. Narrative nonfiction tells a story and it’s easier to infuse the text with conflict, tension, and emotion. But expository literature is based on facts and concepts, and it’s harder to infuse the text with emotion. For me, the key is to connect to my own passion and excitement, and let that shape my words and tone.


Kathy:What are you working on now?


Lydia: I just announced my second nonfiction STEM trade book, DANCING THROUGH SPACE: Dr. Mae Jemison Soars to New Heights, illustrated by Sawyer Cloud and published by Albert Whitman. I’m excited!


And right now, I’m working on something totally different and unexpected. It’s a fictional graphic novel based on my life and it’s forcing me to dig internally at some difficult periods in my teen years. It’s been challenging and who knows if it will ever get published. But as we all know, writers write because we feel compelled to, not because we have any guarantee the manuscript will ever be published. We move forward out of love for our craft!



Lydia Lukidis is the author of 50+ trade and educational books for children, as well as 31 e-Books. Her titles include DEEP, DEEP, DOWN: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench (Capstone, 2023) and THE BROKEN BEES’ NEST (Kane Press, 2019) which was nominated for a Cybils Award. A science enthusiast from a young age, she now incorporates her studies in science and her everlasting curiosity into her books.


Lydia is an active member of SCBWI, CANSCAIP, 12 x 12, and The Authors Guild. She's very involved in the kidlit community and also volunteers as a judge on Rate your Story. Another passion of hers is fostering love for children’s literacy through the writing workshops she regularly offers in elementary schools. Lydia is represented by literary agent Miranda Paul from the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.


Social Media Links

Website & preorder links here.

Twitter: @LydiaLukidis



Watch the trailer now.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

A Slippery Slope of Sledding Stories

 by Sue Heavenrich

One year during StoryStorm (aka: slap-story-ideas-down-on-the-page-as-fast-as-you-can month) I came up with what I thought was the perfect sledding story. It involved a red sled, a big hill, and a bunch of assorted animals. I scribbled and sketched and was pretty impressed with my Wonderful Cool Sledding Story …

…until I did what I should have done back at the beginning: check to see what other sledding stories were out there. Turns out there are a lot. Tons, in fact. When I typed “sled” into the World Cat search bar (World Catalog, for the proper folk), I got thousands of sled books. So I added some filters: print books, in English, written for kids. That narrowed it to 1,985 titles – still too many to look at. I wondered what had been published over the past five years – yes! there is an option for that (in case you are ever looking for comp titles!) – and got the list down to 392 titles. Granted, some of those were about sled dogs, and a whole bunch had nothing to do with sledding down a hill. But one thing was clear:

there’s more than one way to tell a sledding story!

Part of me was thinking: wow! is there anything unsaid? Another part was thinking: yay! editors are open to different approaches to a winter story about sliding down a slope. 

Lots of books feature friends heading to a slope for some fun. Or in some cases, friendly competition. In Peep and Ducky, the friendly sled outing turns into a race which results in a crash and two very unhappy - not to mention cold and wet - friends. Mr. Putter & Tabby is a series of easy readers, each with a handful of short chapters. Mr. Putter and Tabby share a comfortable life and are usually not adventurous. But all that snow looks so fun, so they borrow a sled and head to the top of the local hill. After a cold, eventful slide, they realize that one run is plenty, and retire to a cozy chair and some warm treats.

Some books feature adventures with animals. Even then, there are many ways to approach the story. Red Sled poses the question: What happens when you leave your sled outside at night? In this case a bear borrows it to slide down a hill. Then other animals want to join… Go, sled! Go! follows a similar story, but includes  a snowman and a baker (with cakes!). In both of those, the number of riders increases from one page to the next. Ten on a Sled goes the other direction. Caribou is off for a run with his friends, but the sled is too crowded. So he says “move over”… and just like the song, one slides off and there are nine on the sled.

Maybe you have a story about wanting a sled. That's the core of A Sled for Gabo. Gabo watches other kids sliding down the hill. He wants to join them but doesn’t have warm boots (bread bags over his socks will work). More importantly, he doesn't have a sled… until a neighbor comes up with an idea. Penny and Her Sled takes a different approach. Penny has a sled. What she doesn't have is snow. But she finds a way to play on her sled anyway.

Some stories are set in time and place. When you open the covers of The Iciest, Diciest, Scariest Sled Ride Ever! it's clear you're in New England. New Hampshire, to be exact. And like any kids who've grown up hearing tales about sledding down Mountain Road, these kids decide it's their turn.  Sleds on Boston Common presents a slice of life from the American Revolution. When Henry wakes up on his ninth birthday, the snow is perfect for sledding. But British soldiers have put their tents and cook fires right in the middle of the sled runs. What's a kid to do? True or not, it's based on the local lore of Boston.

So this winter, if you're tempted to write a story about sledding, take a few minutes to think about what sort of story you want to tell. Check out the books in your library and then, after researching World Catalog, do a little bit of hands-on research: grab a sled and head to the nearest snowy slope. After all, you might have an adventure to share.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Jo Watson Hackl: An MG Debut Chat and How to Create a Theme for Your Book by Kathy Halsey

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe Book Review

I met Jo Watson Hackl this past summer at Ohio's first Nerd Camp where she presented sessions for teachers, librarians, and other writers. I was so impressed with Jo's extensive presence online and her educational materials for Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe, I had to purchase it.

As a former middle school teacher and K-12 librarian, I knew students in this age group, as well as educators, would inhale this book as fast as I did. Jo's main character Cricket is plucky, resourceful, and easy to root for as she survives in the woods alone, searches for her mother who has abandoned her, and sleuths out clues to find her mother who deals with mental illness.

Jo deftly weaves together a page-turner that is part mystery, part history, and part adventure. The timeless themes of family issues, being different, yet wanting to fit in; being independent, yet needing security and a home will resonate with many audiences. Educators and librarians can easily use Jo's deep resources as a well to plan outdoor activities focused on nature and grit. This debut novel is a must-read.

Craft Chat

Kathy: Congrats on your debut middle grade. You indicate on your website that it took years to write. How did the book evolve over time? Do you know how many revisions you went through? What came easy? What took the most work?


Jo: Thank you, Kathy.  I’m delighted to be part of your outstanding blog.

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe took over ten years to write and revise. The story changed over time as I centered in on the core emotional journey of Cricket, Smack Dab’s main character. This journey includes her evolving understanding of herself and her changing relationships with the people and creatures (including an adopted pet cricket named Charlene and a poetry-loving dog named Percy) in her .life. Smack Dab is a work of fiction, but it reflects real-life emotions.  I went through dozens of revisions, always with the goal of allowing myself to be vulnerable on the page and to write and revise the scenes I was most afraid to write. I kept working until each part felt true.


I grew up surrounded by the woods of a real-life ghost town, so the relationship to the setting came very easy for me. I wanted to make the setting feel so real to readers that, when they open the pages of Smack Dab, they immediately feel transported into Cricket’s world. I wanted for the setting to function almost as a character in itself. I also wanted to create a clue trail that readers could solve alongside Cricket. If you ever want to have fun as a writer, I highly recommend putting together a clue trail.  It gives you a compelling reason to explore your curiosity and to gather intriguing facts and interesting details and try to make them even more interesting for readers.  A clue trail not only provides Cricket with a quest, but the journey helps her grow as a character and changes her by the end of the novel. My research led me down hundreds of rabbit holes until I found the right combination of clues. I also tried to make each clue have an emotional meaning for Cricket, and it took plenty of revisions to fit them together in a way designed to create a satisfying reader experience.

Yes Electric Mills, the setting, is based on a real lumber town.

Kathy: I love the topics and themes you worked into Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe – family issues, nature, mental illness, art history. Did you arrive at these issues/themes ahead of time or did they reveal themselves organically?


Jo: Thanks Kathy. These issues came to me very organically. I’ve always had a close relationship with nature and wanted to set the novel mostly outdoors. To make the outdoor scenes realistic, I studied extensively on outdoor self-reliance, and learned how to live off the land, make shelter, find food, and create a fire from scratch. You can read about one unusual way of making fire, called “fire out of water,” in Smack Dab.

My favorite artist is Walter Inglis Anderson, and his hidden room provided inspiration for the elusive Bird Room in the story and the personal narrative of the fictional artist in the story tied in nicely with that of Cricket’s mother. Mental health is an issue with which more and more young readers and their families are struggling, and I wanted to write a story that spoke to that issue. When I was a young person learning about the world, perhaps my greatest discovery was how people are amazingly complex, and that no person is just one thing or the other. I wanted to create a story that invites readers to lean into a more nuanced understanding of the world.

Kathy: Your main character Cricket is relatable and intriguing. How can writers create characters worth rooting for and that readers can identify with?


Jo: Great question. For me, the key to any strong relationship is to allow yourself to be open. Cricket isn’t afraid to admit when she’s scared, or worried, or uncertain, and I think that readers can relate to those feelings. It also doesn’t hurt that, early in the book, she risks the wrath of her aunt to save a real-life cricket, whom she promptly names Charlene. I also tried to make every character three-dimensional (even Charlene and a poetry-loving dog named Percy), with positive and negative qualities, conflicting emotions, and plenty of quirks.

Jo and "Pupper," the inspiration for Percy, the poetry-loving dog.

Kathy: Tell us a bit about your online resource Outdoorosity - its genesis, connection to the novel, and your personal life.

Jo: More and more research provides evidence of the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outdoors and I wanted to highlight this and to provide practical, easy ways for readers to reap those benefits.  This inspired me to found years ago as a free resource with inspiration and information about getting outdoors. We post bucket lists each season with fun things to do outdoors. We publish articles about outdoor activities, plants, and animals. We also provide original outdoor photography. I’m currently in the beginning stages of a study that introduces low-cost natural elements to the standardized test setting with the goal of increasing student performance on standardized tests. Interested educators can sign up for more information at . In my own life, I engage with nature every day. I spend as much time outdoors as possible and, six days a week, post photos from nature on social media. My writing office overlooks a view of the woods, and, whenever I feel stuck, a walk outdoors reenergizes me and boosts my creativity. 

Jo and friends at the Earthskills class hiking

Kathy: You have a cohesive, identifiable online presence. What tips do you recommend writers take to stand out, create an authentic brand?

Jo: I’m so glad that you included the word “authentic,” Kathy. To me, that really is key.  I advise writers to find something that they are passionate about and want to share with others, and then build posts around that theme.  To me, it’s time outdoors and nature. Early in the pandemic, I was holed up at home and the world as I knew it felt like it was coming unraveled.  I wanted to find a way to put a bit of positivity out into the world. Photographs of nature were an easy way for me to do that.

Battle of the Books from Kathy's School Library

Kathy: I'd love for you to tell us about your support of Battle of the Books.

Jo: I was very fortunate to have Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe  named to the Battle of the Books list for North Caroline (twice!). I am a first-generation college graduate and wanted to give back to readers and encourage a love of reading. I offer free question and answer sessions to team members from any state where Smack Dab is on the list. I’ve loved my time visiting with the teams, helping them prepare for their upcoming events, and encouraging them in their own reading and writing endeavors.

Kathy: What are you working on now?

Jo: I'm working on another outdoor adventure, art mystery, clue trail story similar to Smack Dab in these elements, and, like Smack Dab, is a coming of age novel. This story features two young chefs who are cousins from feuding sides of the family. They have to work together to survive the woods, solve the clue trail, and not kill each other in the process. I'm having lots of fun.

Jo Watson Hackl is the author of the bestselling novel, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE (Random House Children’s Books), which won the Southern Book Prize and is an Amazon Teacher's Pick. The book is set almost entirely outdoors and includes curriculum tie-ins to art, history, geography, literature, mathematics, and science.

Jo also is the Founder of, a free resource for inspiration and information about nature. Jo loves to do school visits and has presented to over 23,000 students, educators, and other professionals. She donates her honorarium to buy books for children selected by the host organization. 

Working with a team of experienced educators, she has developed a bounty of free resources for educators and other readers including outdoor adventures, a "Building Grit Kit," a "Writing and Revision Toolkit," and a "Book Club Kit."

These can be found here:


Facebook:  Jo Watson Hackl

Twitter: @JoHackl

Instagram:  @JoHackl.

You can contact Jo through her website if you'd like to apply to take part in a mentored implementation of the “Building Grit Kit” or a study implementing nature-based interventions with a goal of improving student performance on standardized tests.