Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Introducing THE PALACE RAT, and author Lynne Marie ~ Christy Mihaly

I'm pleased to welcome author and picture book booster Lynne Marie to chat with GROG. She's celebrating the release of The Palace Rat, illustrated by Eva Santana, and she offered to share some insider's insights. (Also, check out the adorable book trailer at the end of this post.)

You may already know Lynne Marie's work. She has several prior books (listed below) and is the owner/director of the RATE YOUR STORY critiquing and mentoring service,  as well as the organizer of March on With Mentor Texts, among her other activities. 

But let's get to our interview!

Q: Welcome, Lynne Marie! Your latest book is about a rat in the palace of Versailles. How did you ever come up with this idea?

Lynne Marie: The inspiration came on a family trip to France in 1997. We took an excursion to Versailles. As we waited for the tour guide to pass out the tickets, a rat scurried across the courtyard. That inspired a game of "what if?" in my mind. What if that rat was related to the rats of the French Revolution? What if the (long-ago relative) rat was the pampered pet of King Louis XIV? What if others in the Palace were jealous of the King’s attention for the rat? What would they do to get rid of it? How would the rat react? The wheels started turning and never stopped. 

Q: Wow! And the result was a great fairy-tale-like story. Nicely done. The Palace Rat is published by Yeehoo Press. I know they publish in China, too. How have they been to work with?

Lynne Marie: The Palace Rat is my first book published with Yeehoo Press. I am excited that it will also be published in China! The people I worked with were very accommodating and very communicative. It has been a pleasure working with them. 

Q: You’ve published other picture books based on fairy tales or folk tales. What's the secret to making those work? 

Lynne Marie: When writing a folktale, it is important to find a way that today's children can relate to the retold tale. In the case of THE PALACE RAT, my thought was to support the message to bloom where you are planted (as many children don’t have control over where they go or who they go with, both in divorces and foster care, etc.), and doing what you love to do best (this helps with coping and discovery). I hope that my story will inspire little ones, no matter the situation, to bloom where they are planted and to make the best of their strengths. 

 In MOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE SCARES it is more about following your heart and being open to the fact that someday, when you least expect it, you will find your “place.” 

THE THREE LITTLE PIGS AND THE ROCKET PROJECT supports that sometimes the losers can be winners. It just matters that you use what you have to play the right game.

Q: Excellent points! You often discuss the importance of mentor texts. Did you have any particular texts in mind as you wrote this? 

Lynne Marie:  For this story, I used a variety of Mentor Texts, including picture books that featured rat characters, were set in France, or were about moving. I also looked at retellings of City Mouse/Country Mouse and The Prince and the Pauper
I wanted to make sure that my story was new and different, a fresh retelling, and could stand out among and above the rest. I also really wanted to introduce this historic period to readers, to plant a seed and grow a history lover. 

Q:  Much of what you do is supporting other picture book creators. Tell us what motivates you and what you like best about that. 

Lynne Marie: I was really fortunate to realize my dream of becoming a multi-published picture book author and it makes me feel like a fairy godmother to help others to achieve their dreams. I have worked as an editor for a few small presses and run a mentoring and critique service at

And, I am currently an Agent Mentee with the Seymour Agency and am on my way to becoming an Agent. I am very excited about this as it makes me an official Fairy Godmother. 😊 My own literary agent, Marisa Cleveland of the Seymour Agency, is my Agent Mentor. I adore her and think she is the best of the best – so enthusiastic and supportive.

Q: You and I first crossed paths when you took over the administration of Rate Your Story. What made you decide to take that on? 

Lynne Marie: I was already a big fan of the Rate Your Story Rating and Feedback Service ( I actually didn’t want to become a Judge as I would no longer be eligible to be a Member. But Sophia Gholz, the owner at the time, finally convinced me that I should. Then after I'd been a judge for several years, Sophia was ready to hand over the torch and convinced me that I was just the person to take it. I love Rate Your Story and being an important part of many writer’s journeys so I am grateful she did! 

Q: And in addition to your writing life, you’re a travel agent, too! What’s your favorite part of that job? 

Lynne Marie: Yes! I am a Travel Agent with Pixie Vacations ( and I love that job. As mentioned, my travel inspired THE PALACE RAT so you can see that I am passionate about wearing both of these hats. I find travel and history very inspiring and often try to weave what I learn about the world through travel into my stories. I also love reading and collecting world folktales.
Lynne Marie

Q: Okay, now our readers want to know: How do you have time to do it all? What’s your secret? 

Lynne Marie: I love everything I do and it feeds each other. I think that the fact that all the things I do are related and feed each other, it really helps! So no matter what I am working on (writing, reading, travelling, mentoring, giving feedback, etc.), I am learning and growing and creating. 

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Lynne Marie. And good luck with all you're doing!

Thank you, dear Christy, for having me on the GROG blog. I am very happy to have you as a Judge at Rate Your Story and to be on this wonderful path together! 

Aaand, here's that trailer: 

More about Lynne Marie: She is co-host of #SeasonsofKidLit along with Heather Macht. And she is a long-time Cybils judge and feature columnist at Children's Book Insider. When she’s not traveling the world in search of story ideas, she lives in the heart of Florida with her family, a Schipperke named Anakin and a Mini Pinscher named Marlowe Charlotte. Visit her at LynneMarie is represented by Marisa Cleveland and Jonathan Rosen

Here are Lynne Marie's earlier (and forthcoming) titles: 

Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten -- art by Anne Kennedy (Scholastic 2011)
Hedgehog's 100th Day of School -- art by Lorna Hussey (Scholastic 2017)
The Star of the Christmas Play -- art by Lorna Hussey (Beaming Books 2018)
Moldilocks and the 3 Scares -- art by David Rodriguez Lorenzo (Sterling / Scholastic 2019)
Let’s Eat! Mealtime Around the World -- art by Parwinder Singh (Beaming Books 2019)
The Three Little Pigs and the Rocket Project and The Three Little Pigs and the Rocket Project Coloring Book -- art by Wendy Fedan (Mac and Cheese Press 2022)
The Palace Rat -- art by Eva Santana (Yeehoo Press 2023)
Broommates co-written with Brenda Reeves Sturgis – art by Nico Ecenarro (The Little Press 2024)

And if you're looking for Lynne Marie, here are some of the places she hangs out:

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Interview with Author Nancy Churnin on Her Latest Picture Book, Mama's Year with Cancer

I (Tina Cho) want to welcome author Nancy Churnin back to the Grog Blog. You can read a past post about her here. Nancy coauthored a picture book with Shayna Vincent titled Mama's Year with Cancer, illustrated by Wazza Pink, published by Albert Whitman on September 28, 2023. 

*Note: Sadly, on September 12, 2023, Shayna's five-year battle with breast cancer overtook her body and she passed away, three days after celebrating her daughter's 5th birthday. We think of her and her family and all those going through cancer. They are brave heroes. This blog post was written a week before her death. Shayna's family would love it if you purchased this book to help others understand cancer, perhaps buy a copy for your hospital or school or guidance counselor. Thank you! 

This book grabbed my attention because I went through a lumpectomy in 2021 and rung the bell after my radiation treatments, all the while I was still teaching. If you're looking for a book to talk to a child about cancer, this is perfect. Nancy also has a teacher's guide available.

My review (by Tina Cho)

In Mama’s Year with Cancer, a little girl learns to deal with her mama’s diagnosis of cancer, by making her cards, brushing her “new” hair carefully, but also “hating the port on mama’s chest which makes it hard to cuddle.” Speaking to a counselor makes the girl feel better. The girl and Daddy work together to make each holiday through Mama’s year of cancer special until Mama finally rings the bell. Lovely illustrations capture the emotions and headaches of going through cancer. Back matter includes author Shayna Vincent's story of cancer, tips for talking about cancer to children through age 8, further resources, and other books about cancer for children ages 4-8.

1. How did you come up with the idea to write a book about cancer for children?

Shayna Vincent is a dear friend that I met through her mother, children’s book author Johannah Luza. Shayna was struggling to find a book to explain to her young daughters what to expect when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I said to Shayna, “Let’s write the book you want to have in the world.” Shayna is an incredibly kind person who celebrates her daughters’ birthdays as Kindness Days, where they do things for others, just as we share in the book. The idea that she could help other families with our book was a powerful motivation for her. That is the hope we share, that the book will help families dealing with cancer feel seen and cared about and give others understanding and ideas of how to support those in their community with cancer.

                                                           Shayna Vincent with her daughter Avivah

2. You and Shayna collaborated on this book. I’ve never written a book with someone. How did that work? What was your process?

I asked a lot of questions. I listened. I knew that my role in the collaboration was to channel Shayna’s story and spirit and what she wanted to convey. I sent a draft to Shayna. She got back to me quickly with her writing, with notes about what I’d gotten right and what needed to be changed or revised. Drafts went back and forth until Shayna felt the truth of her voice and vision and I knew it was in a form that could help children understand, know their power to help, and the importance of expressing their feelings and receiving help.

3. How much research did you have to do for this story?

I am lucky to have two doctors in my family – my brother, Dr. Jon Churnin, and my brother-in-law, Dr. Carl Nash, as resources. My sister-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, so I was able to consult with her. I am also a longtime journalist who wrote for the Healthy Living section of The Dallas Morning News before I became their theater critic. As a health reporter, I am used to doing research and talking with doctors. I remember – just coincidence – that I had taken a class on cancer in college that I still remembered. I dedicated the book to my sister-in-law, Suzanne Updegraff, and also to my niece, Jaimee Granberry, who was diagnosed with breast cancer while the book was in progress. I am glad to report that Jaimee, who has three young daughters, is doing well, receiving excellent medical care, and loving support from her husband, Jared, and family. I hope she will continue to do well. One of the many things I learned from Shayna, though, is that cancer is never over. We hope for remission, and we stay vigilant.   

4. How long did it take to write this book?

This took a couple of months. It was the fastest writing and turnaround I have ever experienced. I think part of the reason was that Shayna and I were so in synch with each other, and our mission and the universe felt that this needed to be in the world. Sometimes it takes time for ideas to develop and grow. But in this case, we seemed to know exactly the story we wanted to tell. It felt as if we were chasing the story, trying to keep up, rather than pushing it along.

5. This story is told in 1st person point of view, and it works beautifully. Did you originally write it in 1st person?

It never occurred to either of us to write it any other way. Remember, Shayna wanted this to be a book she could share with her daughters to help them understand what cancer is, what the treatments would be like, how their mom would be feeling, what would change and what would stay the same, what they could do, and where they could turn to find help and support. So, it made sense to tell it in the voice of one of her daughters – Mila, who was four when Shayna received her diagnosis – and have the child share her discoveries with the reader.

6. Was it hard to find a publisher for a picture book on a grim topic like cancer?

I am grateful that I have built up relationships with editors and publishers over the years. I had five books published with Albert Whitman and two more on the way when I emailed this manuscript with Sue Tarsky, the senior editor there. I remember it was in December and Sue was on vacation in London. She got back to me the next morning saying she wanted to acquire it. From the start, Sue has been passionate about this story and her care and concern about Shayna. I feel we are all on this mission together to get Shayna’s story into the world.

7.  I like how this book addresses the emotions a child goes through when a family member experiences cancer. I’m sorry that Shayna and her family have had to go through this horrible experience. Did you also interview other families?

This is very much Shayna’s story – not a composite story. That said, I did draw upon medical experts, talk to people I knew who had been on the cancer journey, and do research to make sure everything is accurate. You will see a list of resources in the back matter and a bibliography of children’s books about cancer. I hope these will help people who want and need to know more.

8. I like how Shayna addressed the ringing of the bell in her author’s note, as there have been controversies as to “when” the bell should be rung. Did you also come across that issue when writing this book?

When we began the book, Shayna was very joyful about being able to ring the bell at the end of her year of chemotherapy. We capture that happiness and hope in the book. We felt that was important for a book that would be an introduction to a child’s understanding of having a parent with cancer. Shayna’s cancer journey didn’t end there, however, which you will learn in the back matter. Shayna’s cancer spread and she is now in Stage IV, undergoing new treatments. She addresses that in her author’s note: “Whether ringing that bell marks the end of treatment or the beginning of a new phase, I feel a family should look at it as only a part of their path, instead of one single event or a short period of time. Cancer doesn’t define a person, but even if a patient has been in remission for years or will forever be in active treatment, it changes a person.”

9. What advice would you give to our Grog readers about writing children’s books on hard topics?

Ignoring hard topics doesn’t make them go away. Children going through a difficult time need to feel seen, need to know they’re not alone, need to see strategies for dealing with their difficult situation, need to have their feelings of fear and anger and hope, worry and love validated. These books can be mirrors for these children and windows for children who know someone going through a difficult time. Shayna and I hope that simply by talking about cancer, explaining that it is not catching, how important it is to be a good friend, to share moments of fun, to help as you can, that it will start discussions and open hearts.   

10. What are your next books coming out?

This is a busy year for me! On the same day that Mama’s Year with Cancer comes out, I have my first historical fiction picture book: Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America. It’s the story of Lila, one of the many Irish immigrants who came to America during the Potato Famine of the 19th century, and how she tries to keep her beloved Halloween traditions alive in her new home where people have never heard of these things before. The book is illustrated by Anneli Bray and published by Albert Whitman. I hope it reminds kids to be thankful of the gifts that immigrants bring us. I would love for kids to share images of the jack-o’-lanterns they carve, whether they carve them out of pumpkins or something else!

On Nov. 7, I have two books coming out. Valentines for All, Esther Howland Captures America’s Heart brings me back to the world of picture book biographies with the story of Esther, who came up with the idea of creating and selling Valentine cards in the 1800s to help others express their feelings. I have created a project for this one called Valentines for All, encouraging kids to send valentines to people not expecting them – other kids, other schools, seniors, people in community programs, whoever would be lifted up by a loving note. The book is illustrated by Monika Roza Wisniewska and published by Albert Whitman.

Counting on Shabbat is my first board book. The 48-word rhyming text, aimed at toddlers, is about counting, Shabbat, and kindness as an elderly person prepares for the weekly celebration of Shabbat alone – and is surprised and delighted when there are five knocks on door and a family joins him bringing food and cheer. I hope this book reminds children to remember our seniors, to write notes, to visit, and to share pictures of the caring things they do on my Counting on Kindness page. The book is illustrated by Petronela Dostalova and published by Kar-Ben Publishing.


Nancy Churnin writes children's books about people that inspire kids to make a positive difference and encourage kids to be heroes, too. Dear Mr. Dickens, the story of a woman who spoke up to Charles Dickens, won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award and a 2022 Sydney Taylor Honor, is a Junior Library Guild selection and is featured in an educational program at The Charles Dickens Museum in London, teaching kids to recognize and stand up to antisemitism. Among her other honors: multiple Sydney Taylor Notables, National Council for the Social Studies Notables, Silver Eurekas, Mighty Girl lists, Sakura Medal finalist, Notable Book for a Global Society, Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award, the South Asia Book award, Bank Street College and state book lists and starred reviews. Mama's Year with Cancer, co-authored with Shayna Vincent, is the story of Shayna's cancer journey told through her young daughter's voice. Nancy lives in North Texas. 

You'll find free teacher guides, resources, and projects on her website at Visit her on Facebook at Nancy Churnin Children's Books, on Twitter @nchurnin and Instagram @nchurnin

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember~An Interview with Author Jacqueline Jules by Julie Phend


Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember

On September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. One hundred eighty-four innocent people were killed. The event was part of a coordinated terrorist attack against the United States involving four hijacked flights.

In Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember, author Jacqueline Jules, who was a school librarian in Arlington, Virginia on 9/11, tells the story of that traumatic day through a tapestry of poems written from the point of view of children who were affected.

There’s Kelvin, Age 5, whose class is on the playground when they see a big scary cloud and smell smoke. Everybody leaves school early, and no one explains why.


Delia, Age 17, who is home from school after having her wisdom teeth pulled. Her house starts shaking, and a vase crashes to the floor. When she turns on the TV and sees the news, her head aches worse than her jaw.


Josselyn, Age 14, shops with her family for canned goods. The grocery store is crowded, but everyone is silent.


Cyrus, Age 10, waiting for his fire-fighter father to come home.


Karima, Age 13, whose Muslim family keeps her home from school because they worry that “some people think we’re not American enough.”


Leo, Age 15, was at the doctor’s office that morning. His mother came with him, which was why she wasn’t at her office at the Pentagon.


Ruben, Age 10, whose neighbor did go to work, but never came home.


Michael, Age 8, whose brother went to fight in Afghanistan and promised to come home safely. He broke that promise.


These poignant stories, told in sparse, impactful verse, give voice to the fears and worries of children on that fateful day. I found these poems to be moving and powerful, reminding us of the vulnerability of children, who did not understand what was happening.


Author Jaqueline Jules

An Interview with Jacqueline Jules


      Julie: Thank you for joining me on the GROG Blog to talk about Smoke at the Pentagon. I’m curious about what you, personally, experienced that day. Where were you when you learned the Pentagon had been attacked?


Jacqueline:   On the morning of the attack, I was in Washington, DC. People gathered around the nearest television, like they did all over the country. One woman began screaming that the Capitol Building would be next, and we were in immediate danger. I didn’t feel the same panic. I just felt numb. On my way home to Northern Virginia, I was caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Turning on the radio, an ominous voice promised details of the “Attack on America.” When I finally arrived home, I was greeted by my teenage son, surrounded by a group of friends watching television and discussing the terrible news. Later that day, my husband and I went grocery shopping and were struck by how crowded, yet silent, the store was.


Julie: You say these poems are composites drawn from the experiences of students and friends living in Arlington at the time of the attack. Can you explain more about that process?


Jacqueline:  Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember recalls a history I personally lived. Some of the poems were woven from my own memories of grocery shopping and of seeing my son and his teenage friends processing the painful news. At school, a little boy whispered in my ear that the Pentagon was broken. I will never forget how he cupped his hands over my ear with an urgent desire to share what he knew. I used this experience in the poem, “Calista, Age 16.”


The detail mentioned in the poem, “Delia, Age 17,” of the house shaking and a vase falling from a shelf came from a friend who lived near the Pentagon and was home the morning of the crash.


Where you were and what you were doing on September 11th was a repeated topic of conversation well into 2002, as people shared their stories. Though I didn’t begin to write the book until 2019, my own memories and conversations remain vivid.


        Julie: When and why did you decide to write this book? 


Jacqueline:  In 2008, during a conversation with a group of sixth graders, I learned that my students had no knowledge that the Pentagon had been attacked on 9/11. I thought of this often as the years passed. Would future generations of students remain unaware of what happened in Arlington on 9/11? I discussed this with an author friend in June of 2019. She suggested that I write a book giving voice to the Northern Virginia experience. I began work a few days later.

Julie: What were some of your concerns and considerations in writing about this topic?

            Jacqueline:  As I discuss in the author’s introduction, I did have concerns about exposing young people to this painful day in American history. I didn’t want to arouse fear or animosity. But I also feel strongly that September 11, 2001, is not a day we should forget. Understanding the past can lead us to a better future. It can also show us that we are resilient, and when bad things happen, we can rebuild.  


Julie: Tell us about your publisher. How long did the publishing process take?

Jacqueline:  Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember is my first book with Bushel & Peck. I pitched the manuscript to the editor about six months before a contract came in early 2022. I was delighted to see the book ready for a fall 2023 publication. This gives Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember an opportunity to find its way to library shelves, classrooms, and reading lists well before the 25th anniversary of September 11th in 2026.


Julie: What other thoughts would you like to leave with readers of the GROG Blog?

Jacqueline:  On my website and the publisher’s website, you can find a four page Teacher’s Guide for Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember.

One of the teaching ideas suggests performing the poems as Reader’s Theater. I hope teachers will encourage students to choose a poem to read aloud and act out. By performing Smoke at the Pentagon, I hope students will feel a personal connection to what young people experienced on September 11, 2001, and understand how this event impacted the history of America.


Jacqueline Jules is the award-winning author of over fifty books for young readers including the Zapato Power series, the Sofia Martinez series, My Name is Hamburger, Duck for Turkey Day, Feathers for Peacock, Never Say a Mean Word Again, and The Porridge-Pot Goblin. Visit her website at


Congratulations on this timely book, Jacqueline, and thank you for sharing with the GROG blog.