Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Next Post Will Be from Spain

Dear fellow bloggers,

I will not be posting my book review Friday. Tomorrow (Thursday) I will be on a plane to Spain, and Friday on a road to a small "aldea" or hamlet atop one of the many hills in Galicia. (Shown in picture)

My husband and I go there every year, visiting with our friends, both Spanish and British. I'm taking my computer, so I'll be blogging from one of the many WiFi cafes in the nearby town of Monforte de Lemos... but not on Friday. I will probably post my book review Saturday or Sunday.

Meanwhile, please keep reading the Lori Mortensen inteview in the last post, as she is full of insight and information about this ever mysterious writing endeavor we all love so much.

Ciao for now -- hasta sabado o domingo.

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Interview with Lori Mortensen

Today I am pleased to have Lori Mortensen - - as a guest interviewee. A prolific and award-winning author who writes in a variety of genres for children, Lori Mortensen is also an instructor for The Institute of Children’s Literature.

Q: I loved the pictures you took while writing In the Trees, Honeybees. Was that your first time taking pictures for a book you wrote?

A: Thanks! Yes, that was the first time I’d taken photos for a writing project. Luckily, I’d taken photography classes in high school and college so I was confident I’d get something. The question was—what? It was thrilling to creep around the bee hives and see what I’d discover. I felt like Sherlock Holmes, except instead of holding a magnifying glass, I had a camera.

Q: In an article you wrote for Dawn Publications, you told how researching and writing a book about honeybees led you to discovering how interesting the bumblebees were in Fort Bragg. Have you started a book about bumblebees yet?

A: No, I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean I won’t down the road. To me, what’s exciting about writing is following wherever my curiosity takes me. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of fiction. (In fact, I’ve got two rhyming picture books coming out Fall 2012. “Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg” with Clarion, and “Over the Moon,” with HarperCollins.) When I’ve finished this current stint of fiction, I’ll return to nonfiction again.

Q: Tina Vasquez wrote a wonderful review of Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault in her blog, The Children’s Book Review. Since so much historical research as well as scientific explanation was involved, how long did it take for you to write this book?

A: Writing is always a lengthy process, and it’s especially true for nonfiction. This particular project took about two years. Once Tricycle (now Random House) bought it, it took another year to reach publication.

Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?

A: As with most biographies written for children, one of the most challenging aspects is finding so much wonderful information and only being able to use a small portion of it in the finished product. Because of the limited word count, I must be very selective. In the end, I believe only the best remains. For this particular book, it was also challenging to take complex scientific ideas and explain them simply and clearly. A good example of this is the passage about the lathe. My editor and I went back and forth about the wording of this important passage.

Q: In the “about the author” bio for Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault (via Powell’s Books), you mention your early exposure to the thrill of discovery from your chemist father’s experiments. Did he have a special lab at home? Or were these “kitchen” experiments he did?

A: Both. While my father often used equipment such as Bunsen burners, graduated cylinders, and test tubes in his garage “lab,” his experiments also found their way into the household—much to my mother’s dismay! Although she always supported my father’s investigative nature, she wasn’t a fan of weeds simmering on her stovetop or discovering—the hard way—that he’d disconnected the water hose to the washing machine for one of his experiments. Water went everywhere—lol

Q. While reading an ICL interview (March, 2009), I was surprised to learn that you didn’t have an agent. Is this still true?

A: Happily, no. I’ve got a wonderful agent, Kendra Marcus, with Bookstop Literary Agency.

Q: You’ve written a number of biographies for children -- Harriet Tubman: Hero of the Underground Railroad, Marie Curie: Prize-Winning Scientist, and George Washington Carver, Teacher, Scientist, and Inventor, to name a few. What sparks your interest in writing about a particular individual, as opposed, say, about someone else?

A: Yes, I love writing biographies. Interestingly, an editor at Picture Window Books asked me to write those books, so at first, I knew little about them. But when I delved into the research, I discovered each of them were fascinating, extraordinary people. As I found each nugget of information, I couldn’t wait to put it in the book for young readers to discover as well. For example, Marie Curie’s research exposed her to so much radiation, her notebooks are still radioactive today. (Who knew!?) George Washington Carver never accepted money for all of his work with peanuts. He felt God hadn’t charged him for the knowledge, so he wouldn’t either. (Extraordinary!) One of my favorite “finds” was a line written below Amelia Earhart’s yearbook picture—“the girl in brown who walks alone.” All of these tidbits, so small, but so telling. When I’m fascinated by a subject, I believe my readers will be too.

Q: In nonfiction, do you prefer historical subjects or scientific subjects? Or is your interest about fifty-fifty?

A: I don’t have a preference. I go wherever my curiosity takes me. In Foucault’s case it was both since he was historical and scientific.

Q: It seems you write everything, really: fiction, nonfiction, poems. Have you ever considered writing a poetry collection?

A: I have, but I haven’t put anything together yet. But who knows? I might down the road.

Q: In the Monsters, Mysterious Encounters, and Innovator Series, did KidHaven Press choose the subjects, or were they your choices?

A: An editor at KidHaven gave me a choice of titles and I selected what I thought were the most interesting.

Q: What do you think about leprechauns or basilisks? Any historical phenomena that might have inspired the folklore?

A: They’re fascinating subjects, aren’t they? The purpose of these series was to offer readers both sides of the coin so they could see the pros and cons of each position themselves. I think these particular books do a great job of that and encourage the readers to really think about the possibilities.

Q: You wear many writing-related hats! You also are an instructor for The Institute of Children’s Literature. How did you start teaching for them? And how much time to you spend wearing that particular hat?

A: I’ve been an instructor for The Institute of Children’s Literature since 2006. My work there is particular satisfying because I was once a student many years ago. Today, I spent about one day a week responding to student work.

Q: You have said you don’t illustrate your books. How did you start writing for the Stone Arch Graphic Novel series, and who illustrates those books?

A: Stone Arch Books is part of Capstone Press, which includes Picture Window Books. So as I worked with editors there, I also got opportunities to work with other editors on other projects. Rémy Simard illustrated my particular graphic novel books.

Q: In the Trees, Honeybees, won no less than seven awards. Come See the Earth Turn won a Mom’s Choice Award Honoring Excellence. Harriet Tubman: Hero of the Underground Railroad won a Bank Street College of Education's Best Children's Book of the Year Award in 2008. Has winning awards affected your approach to writing?

A: Winning an award is always nice, but it doesn’t influence my writing. Awards are elusive, so I write because I love what I’m writing about, not because of how it may be noticed or rewarded later on.

Q: Do publishers approach you now to write for them? Or do you simply shop around for an engaging subject to write about and then look for a publisher?

A: Yes to both. Sometimes editors contact me to work on certain projects. Other times, I work on my own projects and send them out through my agent.

Q: From interviews I’ve read, you seem a disciplined writer. Does writing get easier for you as you go along? Or is it always a new challenge?

A: I wish it did get easier—lol! What gets easier after all this time is that I’ll come up with something. I’m always amazed how I can start with a very ordinary idea (or let’s face an awful idea!), and then through the process of revision, it turns into something wonderful. (At least that’s what I think when I’m done with it.)

Q: You’ve mentioned you belong to three writing groups. Are they for different genres? Any of them online? How often do they meet?

A: Two of them are online and are composed of wonderful writing friends I’ve made over the years. And yes, it’s very helpful for the group to be focused on the same genre—essential really. The other one is my local SCBWI group that meets every other month.

Q: What is the most important tip you would give a new writer?

A: Read the genre what you want to write and don’t give up. Persistence is what counts in the end.

Q: You’ve said you were interested in dancing, and taught dance education. Was this ballet? Tap? Did you ever perform professionally?

A: I began dancing in high school, and then earned my Bachelor Degree in Professional Dance at BYU with an emphasis on modern and jazz.. While I never joined an independent dance company, I toured with BYU and taught at high schools and community centers.

Q: Do you have any hobbies (outside of reading) that you turn to in order to “fill the well” and renew your creativity?

A: Lately, I’ve been making my own Greek yogurt, whole wheat bread, and sewing some clothes. I’ve found that getting away from the computer is just as important as sticking with it when I’m working on a project. Getting away puts everything into perspective.

Thank you for such a generous interview, Lori!

Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault -- published through Random House/Tricycle Press 2010 In the Trees, Honey Bees! -- published by Dawn Publications, 2009

To learn more about Lori’s books, visit her website:

(Her personal contact information is also on her website.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Book Review -- The Fences Between Us

It's Friday and time for Book Reviews. Today's book is one I loved reading. Kirby Larson is a marvelous writer, and I'm always on the lookout for her books.

This review can also be seen at Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review, along with a wealth of other reviews in every genre by other reviewers. Please do visit these sites, read the reviews and leave a comment. Please leave a comment here too! I love to hear from you.

Okay; here's the review:

The Fences Between Us

By Kirby Larson
Scholastic Press, $12.99, 313 pages

Thirteen-year-old Piper Davis’s brother, Hank, leaves for boot camp, to see the world via the Navy. Their older sister is in college. Their father is a pastor in the part of Seattle called Japantown. Piper’s biggest worries are whether her father will let her wear Tangee lipstick, and whether her crush on Bud will be returned. Despite Reverend Davis’s church activities, Piper is semi-oblivious to her neighborhood’s biases toward the Japanese.

Then Pearl Harbor is bombed. America enters the war. Japanese communities are evacuated. Families are sent to camps. When the families in Seattle’s Japantown are sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Eden, Idaho, Piper’s father gets government permission to follow his congregation and remain their pastor at the new center.

Piper’s diary entries from 1941 to 1943 reflect her growing maturity. Worries for Hank’s safety in the Pacific mingle with her moral outrage at the treatment of Japanese families. With her camera, Piper becomes a witnesses to their steady dignity in the face of injustice. Tragedies and triumphs interweave throughout this book. Like Piper’s camera, Larson captures a shameful episode in our nation’s history.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Varadan

See more at: San Francisco Book Review and Sacramento Book Review

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


When I started writing seriously, I thought of myself as a short story writer and sometime poetess. I belonged to writing groups that mostly critiqued short stories and flash fictions, and I even got some of my work published. I was still teaching at the time, so many of my stories, for obvious reasons, took place in summer settings -- a lot of hot August afternoons and warm July mornings. Then I took a year's sabbatical to see if I really did want to retire early in order to write. Ah, it was wonderful to have a whole year in which to write! For one thing, at last a story could take place in, say, February or October.

I was still writing for adults, but two things had happened: The classroom doesn't disappear that easily. I really loved teaching, and my favorite grade was sixth grade. Those eleven-year-olds' perspectives had seeped into my psyche. Instead of the family saga novel I had envisioned, young protagonists dealing with tween problems swam to the surface, and those flash fictions had left me with a desire to try picture books.

I did take the early retirement after a year's return to the classroom. But my writing goals had changed. I wanted to write for children, and that's what I've been doing ever since.

Meanwhile, you really can't take the classroom out of a teacher's heart. I still teach an after school art class, and I love it. It enriches my life, and it enriches my writing. My students are ages 7 through 12, and they love to read as well as do art. They recommend good books for me to read, and they share what they like about them. What more could I ask for? (Well, um..., I would like an agent....)

What about you? Do you write in more than one genre? Have your writing interests shifted since you first began?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Book Reviews: The Legend of the Golden Snail

I have mentioned before on this blog that I review Children's, Tweens, and YA books for Sacramento Book Review.

Sacramento Book Review also has a sister company in the San Francisco Book Review.

Starting today, on Fridays I will post one of my reviews with links back to the above two sites where you can read even more reviews by other reviewers. (These sites also offer reviews in other genres besides Children's, Tweens, and YA books. But I'm thinking that most readers of my blog will probably be interested in the above three categories.)

Okay, so...

I had the opportunity to read and review a fabulous picture book: The Legend of the Golden Snail, by Graeme Base. Read the review below, then go to SBR and SFBR to read other reviewers' reviews, and do leave a comment, please -- both here, and at the reviews you visit.

The Legend of the Golden Snail

By Graeme Base
Abrams Books For Young Readers, $19.95, 46 pages

Wilbur’s favorite tale is the one of the Golden Snail who was made captive by a Grand Enchanter before being banished to the Ends of the Earth. There the Golden Snail awaits a new master who can sail to the site and utter a magic spell. Wilbur decides he is just that person. Off he sails on his little boat, with his mother’s reminder to wear his hat.

But Wilbur has a kind nature. On the way to the Ends of the Earth, kind deeds slow him down from his quest. He suspects he’s not much of a Grand Enchanter after all. When he encounters the Dreadful Doldrums and the Slithering Sea and the Maze of Madness, he discovers those kind deeds have not been wasted. Further surprises await him at the Ends of the Earth, where he finds the Golden Snail is not quite the snail he expected.

Graeme Base’s text flows. His illustrations are magical. It is easy to suspend disbelief as Wilbur encounters fantastical creatures on his voyage. It is easy to believe Wilbur’s discovery of what makes him really special.


Sacramento Book Review and

San Francisco Book Review

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Poe Perplex Continues

I have read all of the thirteen tales in Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Terror. The first tale, The Sphinx, had somewhat of an O. Henry ending. The narrator was terrified by something that merely turned out to be an exotic insect seen at an odd perspective that magnified it. But most of the tales do, indeed, deal with terror and horror.

I suppose it's the anticipation of horror that drives most of these stories. In most cases, the ending isn't as gripping as the lead-up. But four stories did fall into the traditional story arc: Hopfrog, The Black Cat (Poe seems to delight in tales where the narrator does something evil and then gives himself away), William Wilson, and The Pit and the Pendulum, which I thought was his best. Of course, maybe Poe has just been growing on me, story by story.

There was a delightful surprise in this little book, though -- Some Words with a Mummy. I was expecting a chilling encounter replete with grizzly details. Instead, a group of scientists unwrap a mummy (after getting museum permission), and find it is still alive. It hasn't gone through the usual embalming process; instead, a different process left it for hundreds of years in suspended animation. Immediately the British scientists and the Mummy get into a competitive discussion as to which culture has achieved the most astounding accomplishments. This is truly a funny tale. Who knew that Poe had a sense of humor? I don't know if he every wrote another funny tale like that one. The story ends with the narrator seeking this special method of preservation and future awakening in order to escape his nagging wife!

So, thank you, Carrie, for the challenge to read a book I hadn't read before and had always meant to read. I can't say I've become a Poe devotee, but I do admire his use of language and his ability to create tension and build suspense. And I was pleased to learn that behind the doleful expression one sees in his photographs there lurked a sense of humor.

Poe joking. Imagine that!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Perusing Poe

In response to a February 28th post on Carrie Keeps Typing , according to The Illinois Libary Project of 1941, March is the month to read the books you've always meant to read. So Carrie suggested readers pick a book they've always meant to read and read it this month. I actually picked an author: Edgar Allan Poe. I have a slender volume of his stories, Tales of Mystery and Terror (including The Fall of the House of Usher0, and a slender volume of his poems, The Raven and Other Favorite Poems.

So far I've read four of the stories and am halfway through the fifth, and I would love to say I'm enthralled and on the edge of my seat and left astounded by horror at the end of these tales. But, I'm not. He certainly can induce an atmosphere of foreboding and unease -- pages and pages of it. But then the story leaps to its conclusion and... that's it. I can't help feeling let down.

Take the Usher story: a family curse that the victim dreads... and dreads. He recounts the curse to his visiting friend, who, seeing Usher's devastated condition and learning of the curse, feels unease... and more unease. More dread and unease. More atmosphere. And then, BAM! The curse is fulfilled, the last of the family dies, the friend flees -- and just in time, too, because the house falls to pieces, and the fragments are sucked into the deeps of the tarn.

Was this surprising? Only the last little details. Do we know who cursed this family and why? Nope. I have query letters on my brain right now, and a side question that immediately pops into my mind is, "How would Poe sum up the plot in a query letter?" (See my challenge in red at the bottom of this post.)

So far, the other stories follow a similar pattern: Ominous atmospheric description (if you don't mind rereading a few paragraphs more than once to be sure you really understood what has taken place), a terrible sense of dread on the part of the narrator, finally a horrendous catastrophe that you've been warned was coming via numerous foreshadowings -- and that's it: end of the story. No denouement. No changed narrator. No conclusions to be drawn about the meaning of it all. Just disaster predicted, disaster delivered. Often the tale is told via a "device", as a message in a bottle, or a book lying handily near the narrator, describing the story behind a painting, etc.

I'm presently halfway through a fifth story: A Descent into the Maelström. It's a longer story, and so far I'm hanging in there. The narrator has followed a guide up a steep cliff to look over island-studded waters that are so affected by deep rocks that periodically a deady vortex wrecks ships and destroys unfortunate swimmers. The guide is one who lived to tell the tale. As usual, the aura of doom is wonderfully drawn. I'm at the place where the guide's boat has been sucked into the vortex, and I am pushing on to find out why he's still alive. I will have to report on this story in some future post.

Likewise the poems.

But for now, back to The Fall of the House of Usher. This story is a classic, a famous one. Even though I'd never read it, I knew of it. And, having read it, for other readers who are so motivated to go get a copy and read it, I would like to know:
How would you query this story to an agent or publisher? What would you put in your first paragraph? Let me know. I am eager to see replies.

Meanwhile, mosey on over to Carrie's blog, because she has another funny post to ponder.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Back to My Blog and WIP

I have been busy going through manuscripts that have been sitting in the filing cabinet too long while I wrote on my WIP. They called to me, accusing me of neglect and abandonment, to the point that my WIP said, "Oh, all right, go take care of them, I'll still be here when you get back."

Well, actually they didn't say any of that out loud, but they do have the silent nag thing nailed.

So, I've spent recent days rewriting, polishing, and then... doing query letters. That has been an adventure in itself, reading agent interviews, agent blogs, Publisher's Weekly announcements, and I get the Guide to Literary Agents Newsletter regularly. I think I found good matches for "all my children" (soap opera music in background). Cross fingers.

The good news is that now I can concentrate on the rewrite of the middle grade historical novel I've been working on for about five years (mainly due to the research needed). And I think I'll do a better job focusing on it, knowing the other manuscripts are off the shelf and in the mail. And I can get back to blogging, which I've really missed!

How about you? Do your manuscripts compete for your attention? Do some distract you from others?