Tuesday, August 19, 2014


     Every other Saturday I work at the Hillsdale Branch of the San Mateo Public Library.
 Each time I've worked there, an older couple comes in who intrigue me. He is silver
haired, slight, with a boyish grin. She is silver haired as well, but exotic, with an accent
and a chic wardrobe. They pick out books and films together, commenting on favorites,
and help each other withcheck out. I always wonder about them, where they met, how
long they have known each other, are they friends or is it more romantic. I can imagine
a younger version of the man carrying her books home from school.

     But last week he came alone! Where was she? Was she on a vacation with her
children, visiting family, at a ladies luncheon? How could he come to the library without
her! As I judge their ages to be somewhere in their late eighties, there were other
possibilities for her absence as well, but I didn't want to go there. Since I've only spoken
to them once, when I placed a hold on a book, I couldn't ask.

    So I'll have to wait two weeks to see if they come back together! I hope so. This is
what comes of observing people - and being slightly bored at the reference desk!

     I'm reminded of a wonderful new book I'd like to recommend entitled, Elizabeth Is
Missing by Emma Healey. It's a mystery, the main character and sleuth suffers from
dementia. Seeing the world through her eyes is so interesting.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Great News!

    I was so pleased to see that Don't Sneeze At the Wedding is listed on the Bank Street College of Educations' Best Children's Books of the Year, 2014 edition.



         I've recently become a volunteer judge at Rate Your Story. Each month I receive a
     few manuscripts to critique and rate on a scale of 1-10.

      I'm a tough judge. Because I care so much about children and their books, and
     because I've read thousands of children's books, I hold each manuscript to a high

      To be fair, these are beginning writers. Writing is difficult and it can take years to
    learn the craft. I hope these writers realize that their manuscripts are stepping stones,
    helpful practice on the path to learning to write well. Truthfully, I've yet to receive a
    manuscript which I think any amount of revision would turn into a publishable story.

     Why? Because the plots are tired and weak, the characters are not memorable, there is
   no real conflict, no resolution, hence, no story. There is a lack of understanding of
   children's book formats, a blurring of fact and fiction, such spare wordage that all
   clarity is lost.

        I'm not an editor. The manuscripts haven't been sent to me for publication, only for
     critique. Yet I think publication is the goal. So I'm not sure the writers want to hear
    what I wish to tell them which basically is, "Good try. Now read as many children's
    books as you can then start something new." It isn't what I say. I look for a fine point,
     suggest areas to tweak. And perhaps that is actually more helpful.

     But this is a tough business. So I start to question the value of critique. Is it more
     helpful for writers to have an honest judge, or to be offered encouragement? I think
    about myself too. Would I  have been better off hearing just enough praise to keep me
    going? Or would I have thrived if I  had learned early on how high the bar is, how
     much further I had to go?



Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Special Readers

    I just read a wonderful new children's book entitled The Children of the King written by Sonya Hartnett. It's one of the most well written books, adult or children's, which I have read all year. The jacket cover, illustrated by one of my favorites, Andrea Offerman, is beautiful. The story concerns London evacuees during World War II, and a haunted castle. A great read, yet I wonder if it will find its audience.

     At the public library, children ask me for the same books over and over again - Rick Riordan's books, Rainbow Magic, Diary of A Wimpy Kid, The Magic Treehouse series. What's endearing and sweet is that each child acts as if it's a new discovery, a book I probably have never heard of before. And it is for them, as it should be. Yet my hope is that these series, as good as they are, will not be the only books read during childhood. That children will also find those special books along the way.

      We in libraries used to talk about the "special reader", that child who gravitated towards the award winning books. I was that sort of reader as a child. I liked to browse the shelves and find books on my own, and I didn't want or need suggestions, especially from a "helpful" librarian.

    So maybe the right child for this book will find it. I just probably won't know anything about it.


Friday, April 4, 2014


   Do you believe in ghosts? Statistically, the number of believers ranges from between 18% of American adults to a whopping 45%.  Most of us would say no, yet...

     The folklore of nearly every world culture includes ghost stories 

     Most of us know someone who has his own ghost story, be it a sighting in a haunted
hotel room, national monument or house.

     Don't you?

     I've been thinking about ghostly matters because I am working, on and off, on a ghost story. A scary ghost story. But something strange happens when I am writing it.

     I can't work at night.

     Every time I do, lights turn on and off. Or objects fall off shelves. I hear odd thumps downstairs.


     I have to write it by daylight, preferably when my husband is home.

     Although the ghost is not my main character, I have to know quite a bit about him to create him. His age, his sex, how he died. And what he wants. Which means I am thinking about the ghost and the netherworld he inhabits quite a bit.

      Meg, a twelve year old girl, is my main character. She's being haunted, in an evil way. Meg has to protect her family, especially her little sister. Stuff happens to her, often at night.

      All those thumps and flickering lights - it's only my own imagination, right?

      When I get too frightened, I go back to work on my other middle grade, a story which
features robots. In some ways, artificial intelligence is as scary as ghosts. One can't be genuinely certain what robots may do. Or think.

      But at least I'm not concerned about mechanical men and women trooping up the stairs to my office.



Thursday, January 16, 2014

In Paris the Children Rollerskate

       Many years ago, I had the good fortune to be a student in the beautiful city of Paris,
France. Wandering around, poking into shops and museums was as much of an education as
were my classes at the Universite de Paris. My French at that time was so good, people
 commented on my "cute" accent, and asked if I were from Quebec.

     I was interested in children's books even then. As I walked around the city, I began to notice children rollerskating most places I went. I loved to rollerskate when I was a little girl. This gave me the idea for my first children's book. I was twenty years old.

    My boyfriend came to visit. He was studying photography. I told him my idea and he liked it. We would go around Paris and he would photograph the children rollerskating for my story, which I would also translate into French, so that the book would be bi-lingual, in both French and English.

     And so we did. I remember the day we were taking pictures in front of the then Museum of Modern Art, which had a large flat space in front where children skated. A bus stopped and a group of Japanese tourists descended. Each person stopped in front of me and my boyfriend, smiled or bowed to us, then snapped our picture. I imagined these same tourists going home, showing this photograph of a "typical" French couple to their families and friends, never knowing it was actually two Californians from the USA!

     Months later when I came home, I worked on the picture book manuscript, which I
 had entitled In Paris the Children Rollerskate. My boyfriend, who soon afterwards became
 my husband, enlarged the photographs which we would send out with the story. This was in
the days of typewriters, film and darkrooms. When we thought it was ready, we submitted our manuscript to publishers.

     We got back letters, a personal note from Charlotte Zolotow, regrets from other editors that they were not taking on bilingual books, or that publishing photographs was too expensive, thanks for submitting "an excellent, well-written manuscript", and my favorite, "It is obvious you can indeed write". We were too young and green to know what a gift these sorts of rejection letters were. After sending the manuscript out about five times, I stuck it into a drawer and left it there.

     For a long time I considered the words of the gypsy who had read my palm in Montmartre. "Your luck is bad," she had told me. If I would cross her palm with silver, she would pray for me, and take some of my bad luck onto herself. Being a poor student on a small stipend, I declined. Yet I often wondered, if I had heeded the gypsy and given her some francs, would my book have been published? Because the fact was, everything else she told me about my fate came true.

     "In Paris the children rollerskate. You can see them throughout the city, wherever a large, flat space is found..."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Mother's Best Little Ol' Boy

     I've been thinking about biography, especially  as I've recently completed (another!) revision of my picture book biography on country singer, Hank Williams. Usually a biographer needs a "platform", meaning some sort of background on the subject, but I am not a music historian or an expert on southern living, or anything of the sort. My interest in Hank started as a fan.

     Many years ago, a friend lent us a bootleg copy of Hank's fifteen minute morning radio shows for Mother's Best Flour, recorded in the early 1950s. Of course I had heard of Hank Williams and listened to some of his songs before, but these radio shows blew me away. My imagination went wild listening to that soulful voice and thinking about a rural housewife hearing it, perhaps as she went about her chores in the early morning. I loved the folksy humor, and the ads for Mother's Best, "for all your bakin' needs". And that voice, singing those songs of love and loneliness! Clearly, this boy needed an understanding heart.

    I listened to all of Hank's songs, over and over, read the lyrics, and every book about him I could get my hands on, as well as articles, websites, and histories of the south and music. Everywhere I went his songs seemed to be playing in the background, on movie soundtracks, heard on the radio in recordings by modern singers, by music groups at country fairs and in clubs. I realized just how influential he still is.

     Although many picture book biographies had been written about jazz artists, I found few about country musicians, and none about Hank specifically. I thought he was someone for children to know, not only because of his icon status in American culture, but also because of the saga of his rags to riches story, and the genius of his songwriting. I flew to Nashville to visit the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, Franklin Road, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

    The more I delved into Hank's story, the more I realized he was not just one thing or another, he was a complex human being. A lover of reading, and a school dropout. An angry man and a sensitive genius. A falling down drunk and a spiritual believer. He left few letters, diaries or interviews. At the end of the day, his voice only spoke to me from the lyrics that he wrote. "I can't help it if I'm still in love with you" "I'm so lonesome I could cry" "Why don't you love me like you used to do?" "Praise the Lord! I saw the light!"

    The challenge for a biographer is to find a subject's "truth". Yet some research is conjecture, opinion. One person calls him a loner, the loneliest fellow ever met, another claims him as a great friend. Few people are liked by all, or appreciated by all. Was Hank the mega star, leaving his fanswaiting because he was too drunk to show up at a performance? Or the folksy friend singing jingles about that gal of his and her cakes and pies, asking the boys to gather round for hymn time? Hank was only twenty nine years old when he died, perhaps too young to have yet been only one way or another.

    Is it possible to ever really know another human being, even those closest to us? Some lives cause such impact they are still discussed years later. The best a picture book biographer can hope for is to try to reach the emotional core of a person.