The Most Important Slush Pile of All

I taught creative writing (among other things) to 11-12 year old students for 20 years. I’d go home weekends with a pile of stories to read. The range of abilities was tremendous. Most could put a 1-3 page story together, a handful could barely write a decent paragraph, and a few were beyond excellent for a middle grade student writer.Children PlayingMy job was to make sure they had growth no matter where the starting line began. The advice I gave to individual students keeps reappearing for me as I write still another draft or create a new story.

  1. Write stories that excite you, but also don’t be afraid to jump out of your comfort zone.
  2. Read your story out loud so others can hear how your words sound.
  3. Get your story down first. Worry about spelling and grammar later.
  4. Take criticism not as a put down but as suggestions to make your writing better.
  5. Write the story that is in your head. Read through it once to make changes and then put it a way for at least a week. Revising will be a lot easier.
  6. Save everything. The good, the not so good, and anything in between. You may be able to use it another time.
  7. Your writing can always improve.
  8. Read. Read. Read.

Speaking of slush piles… I entered my 39,000 contemporary MG novel, THE BIRTHDAY JINX, into a fun contest over at SC Writes. It’s called The Writer’s Tank and I’m happy to report I made the final cut. Now the fun begins as agents participating can request pages or full manuscripts. You can look at my entry and all the others HERE. It’s the first 250 words. This is the only time THE BIRTHDAY JINX has left the confines of my computer so it’s pretty exciting!

Categories: Contests, Editing, Writing | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

18405519 It’s time to get back to more recent releases. How about one from last month? HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL, a debut by author Robin Herrera, is told from the perspective of young Star Mackie. It’s an unusual MG book that explores social class and its effect on our protagonist and her family. I was ‘hoping’ for a perfect ending – for Star, her older sister she adores, and the dad she has never met – but alas in Star’s “Trailer Trash” world it’s the best you can get. Just like a ride on the ferris wheel theme portrayed in the core of this story, hope is alive in different forms. A heartwarming first effort.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon): Ten-year-old Star Mackie lives in a trailer park with her flaky mom and her melancholy older sister, Winter, whom Star idolizes. Moving to a new town has made it difficult for Star to make friends, when her classmates tease her because of where she lives and because of her layered blue hair. But when Star starts a poetry club, she develops a love of Emily Dickinson and, through Dickinson’s poetry, learns some important lessons about herself and comes to terms with her hopes for the future.
With an unforgettable voice with a lot of heart, Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is the story of a young girl who learns to accept her family and herself while trying to make sense of the world around her.


  1. The relationship Star has with her older sister, Winter. It’s covers the bond that changes as Star learns more about her sister’s YA world, although it never crosses into that genre.
  2. I went back and re-read Star’s vocabulary assignment she has trouble turning in. They are featured throughout the book and are heart tugging to read as Star portrays her problem filled world in those sentences. Nice touch that adds meaning to the story.
  3. The poetry theme as Emily Dickinson again takes center stage in the plot of an MG book (Destiny, Rewritten is the other recent addition). Star’s attempts at a poetry club help all of the characters grow.
  4. Teachers will love all the possible themes in the story for discussion purposes (Absent father, poverty, and many more I won’t give away as spoilers), plus there is a handy study guide in the back of the book.
  5. The biases Star fights against, only to see her have many of her own. It’s the changes she goes through as she becomes aware of them. It kind of renews your hope in the world.


I wish there was a harsher word for people who didn’t live in trailer parks, something as bad as trashy, but the truth was, no one made fun of you for living in a house.

Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

Spring Cleaning

1. Great pitch contest going on right now at SC WRITE. A wide variety of genres are accepted and the requirements are easy to master. Give it a try!

2. Colorado Humanities Book Awards Finalists Announced. You can find all of the nominees here, but I am of course interested in the Juvenile Literature category. Here are the three lucky finalists:

Grave Images by Jenny Goebel (Reviewed on this blog earlier this year)

The Miner’s Cap by Ann N. Black

A Summer of Sundays by Lindsay Eland

Good luck to all. I’m off to the garage now to find the snow shovel. Yep… 70′s yesterday and up to 6 inches of the white stuff today. Springtime in the Rockies!

Categories: Contests, Reading | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gift Of Poetry

I had the opportunity the past week to talk with two classrooms – one filled with energetic 8-year-olds and the other with 28 5th and 6th graders. The topic was Becoming a Better Writer. People who make educational decisions should be required to spend at least a week in a classroom. Teaching is the hardest job hands down. No two kids are alike, and teachers are expected to have them all reach the same spot at the end of the school year. Good luck with that one. Much like a fifty yard dash, kids will finish but not all at the exact moment. Visit a classroom and you will understand.

The school gave me a gift from their publishing department (A couple of volunteer parents). It’s a laminated book of poetry. Here are three of my favorites for your weekend reading:

THE SUN by Devon
The sun is beautiful when you turn off the light.
I love the sun because it is a beautiful sight.
The sun makes me happy and hot.
I love my mommy and daddy a lot.
SPECIAL by Lauren
She is special
Because she had me.
He is special
Because he loves me.
I am special
Because I am theirs.
They are special
Because they are sweet
Everyone is special

Because they are.

Orange is a sunset
       you see over the ocian
Orange is the natural color of
      a Florida fruit that’s ripe.
Orange is love when you’re
      dreaming of  a daisy.
Orange is the color of some ideas
     when you’re thinking about Math.
Orange is happiness like when
      I’m at school.
Categories: Writing | Tags: , | Leave a comment

I AM NOT JOEY PIGZA for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

It’s been a long time since I was first introduced to Joey Pigza. In fact, 1998 to be exact. I picked up a copy of JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY and loved the story of Joey, a boy getting engulfed by his ADHD. Told from his perspective, he reminded me of a few of the Joey’s I had in my classroom. I had heard there was a sequel planned and looked forward to seeing Joey again.

pigzaUnfortunately, I never had the opportunity to return to Joey’s world until now. It happened after reading DEAD END IN NORVELT, and it reminded me that Jack Gantos had written the Joey Pigza series. Sure enough, there were three more books in the series (JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL followed by WHAT WOULD JOEY DO?, and the topic of this week’s review, I AM NOT JOEY PIGZA).  When I came across Joey Pigza on the library bookshelf, only the first and last book were waiting for a reader – the others were checked out. I took a chance that by reading book #4 before the middle two, I would not be lost with plot points. It turned out to not be a problem, as the final Joey Pigza book fills in any holes and stands on its own.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon): Just when Joey Pigza’s wired world finally seems to be under control, his good-for-nothing dad pops back into his life. This time, though, Carter Pigza is a new man – literally. After a lucky lotto win, Carter Pigza has a crazy new outlook on life, and he’s even changed his name to Charles Heinz. He thinks Joey and his mom should become new people, too. Soon Joey finds himself bombarded with changes: a new name, a new home, and a new family business – running the beat-up Beehive Diner. He knows he should forgive his dad as his mom wants him to, and get with the new family program. But Joey is afraid that in changing names and going with the flow he will lose sight of who he really is.

In this rocket-paced new chapter in Joey Pigza’s life, a favorite hero discovers what identity and forgiveness really mean, and how to cook a delicious turkey burger.


  1. Joey Pigza is such a loveable character. I giggled each time he said his favorite line “Do you want fries with that?”
  2. The way Joey handles forgiveness. He is way smarter than the adults in his life.
  3. How the author crafted Joey’s thoughts. Joey often believes things maybe aren’t going so well, but then his upbeat voice tells him otherwise. Things he may not supposed to be doing is stuff every kid would smile at – not going to school, practicing his cooking skills at the yet to be open family diner, being the target in a paint ball match.
  4. Joey gives every kid who may be in an unfortunate situation hope. He’s being raised by two parents who would be runaway winners of the Worst Mom and Dad award, but Joey’s true smarts rise above that. You feel Joey will become a decent, successful adult.
  5. This is one of those books that would appeal to a large audience. From eight years old up to adult, boys and girls alike. Great writing has that power.


I couldn’t answer because my head began to throb and my brain swelled up like a sponge full of tears.

Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

An Evening at The Boulder Bookstore with Agents Sara Megibow & Shannon Hassan

boulder bookWhat a pleasure to listen as Sara Megibow (Nelson Literary) and Shannon Hassan (Marsal Lyon Literary) answered questions about book publishing last night. I hope you find their comments as helpful as I did.

  • 50% of our queries get rejected because they are in genres that we don’t represent.
  • Have one genre. Bookstores don’t shelf books in multiple places.
  • Steps to getting an agent: 1. Book is finished. 2.Know your genre (Read at least 3 books in that genre to make sure you are in the right one). 3.Find a list of agents representing that genre (; Send to first five which allows you to redo the query or manuscript if rejected); 4. Study agency web sites and follow submission guidelines.
  • I read 200 queries each day in 20 minutes. Last year I asked for 98 full manuscripts; 7 were signed; six got deals.
  • In my genres I want more diversity, more people of color, more people of diverse religious backgrounds… There is more discussion in this world than is currently represented on the bookshelf.
  • Shockingly, middle class kid aren’t the only ones who visits bookstores.
  • It takes 2-3 years to write and get published.
  • It’s important to write multiple books in one brand before you move on. You start with several Middle Grade Realistic Fiction books; Years later you move into YA fantasy.
  • Should you resubmit to the same agent with an extensive rewrite? Yes, but don’t discuss the past. It’s not needed, I won’t remember the first one.
Categories: Literary Agents | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

BOOM! for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

gridzbicoverIn 1994 I took my one and only trip to London. I loved every precious minute spent in the city, but have unfortunately never been back. On my last day before coming home I wandered into a charming bookstore. My goal was to pick up a book I could read to my new group of sixth graders in the Fall. I also wanted  it to be from an English author. The first book I came across had a name I could barely pronounce, but the cover grabbed me immediately. The book was GRIDZBI SPUDVETCH!  by Mark Haddon. I read the entire story on the way home and kids the next school year adored the book. It literally disappeared off the shelves.

Flash forward to 2010. I Boomcome across the same book with a completely different cover and name – BOOM! The forward states that the author (Mark Haddon famously known for THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG AT NIGHT-TIME) had received a charming support letter from a group of English school kids and decided to update the story. It’s a rare case where an old book is rewritten for a new generation by the same author. I’m glad he did and it’s only taken me until now to finally read this new version.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon): From the moment that Jim and his best friend, Charlie, bug the staff room and overhear two of their teachers speaking to each other in a secret language, they know there’s an adventure on its way.

But what does “spudvetch” actually mean, and why do Mr. Kidd’s eyes flicker with fluorescent blue light when Charlie says it to him? Perhaps Kidd and Pearce are bank robbers talking in code. Perhaps they’re spies. Perhaps they are aliens. Whatever it is, Jimbo and Charlie are determined to find out.

There really is an adventure on its way. A nuclear-powered, one-hundred-ton adventure with reclining seats and a buffet car. And as it gathers speed and begins to spin out of control, it can only end one way . . . with a BOOM!


  1. Jimbo and Charlie are charming main characters. They are wise, funny, and insightful.
  2. The deadpan humor that sneaks up on you in every chapter.
  3. It was rather fun wading through some of the cultural differences and trying to decipher a few English words like bonnet for a car hood.
  4. What could be a tiresome plot idea – your teachers are aliens – is told in a refreshing way. Sure to appeal to boys and girls alike.
  5. Obvious bad guys and likeable good guys all thrown together in a plot that may have a few holes, but who cares when the danger, mystery, and action is plentiful.


Five minutes after that I’m going to explode too. So I just wanted to say that I love you. And don’t stand too close to me…

One note of caution: Middle grade books in England must have a different set of standards when it comes to language. Sprinkled throughout BOOM! are several “Damns” and “What the Hell…” spoken by both kids and adults.

Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

‘Bloom’ing Book Report

The dreaded book report is something we all have dealt with either as a teacher, parent, or student. It’s no wonder with some of these droll assignments:

                                                 Summarize the plot of the book in three paragraphs.
                                                          Describe your favorite part of the story.
                                                                 Identify the main characters.

These knowledge based questions could be answered by looking at the book jacket or searching for reviews of the book on the Internet. My solution to this was to use questions that probed much deeper into critical thinking. The building blocks were already available. Bloom’s taxonomy has been around for more than 50 years. It’s purpose was to take students beyond thinking in a rote, fact based fashion.

I devised these questions for each of the six levels of the taxonomy and now find them helpful as I look back at the stories I’ve written. In the classroom I gave them point values with the higher levels receiving more points. I varied the requirements based on the readiness level of each student. There was also a rubric to evaluate the quality of their answers. If you have any use for these, you can copy and paste the original offered below.

I. KNOWLEDGE (1 point each)

a. Identify the relationship of the characters in the story.
b. When and where does the story take place.
c. Write about one happening in the story.
d. Who are the protagonists and the antagonists?
e. What was the climax (high point of the story)?


a. What was the cause of any one event in the story?
b. Find a sentence in the story that has some words in it that you do not understand. Decode and explain the sentence in your own words.
c. What did you think of the main character? What clues in the story led you to think this way?
d. Illustrate funny, sad, or exciting parts of the book.
e. Summarize the problem faced by the main character.


a. Think of one way that a character in the story solved a problem. Write what you learned about solving the problem that you could use in solving a problem of your own.
b. Create a diorama from a scene in the book.
c. Make an illustrated dictionary of unfamiliar words you found in the book.
d. Make a map showing the setting of the book.
e. Write a message to a friend telling about the book

IV. ANALYSIS (3 points)

a. Put key events in the story on a sequential chart.
b. Write several new titles for the story that would give others a good idea about what the story is about.
c. What was the author’s purpose in writing the story?
d. Compare the book to a movie or TV program that is similar.
e. Compare and contrast this book’s main character with a real person you know or with a similar character in another book.

V. SYNTHESIS (4 points)

a. Write another ending to the story that is different from the one the author wrote.
b. Create a game to for others to play that will check to see if they really read the book.
c. Design a promotional ad for the book.
d. Write and present a scene from the book as a play.
e. Predict what will happen next if the story continued.

VI. EVALUATION (4 points)

a. Justify the main character’s actions in the story and describe how you might have acted differently.
b. Write a letter to the school media specialist recommending your book for inclusion in the school library. Defend your choice.
c. Choose two characters in the story and decide which character has better qualities/character traits of the two and why you think so.
d. If you could have one character from the story as a friend, why would you make that choice?
e. Write a critical review that could be posted on Amazon or Goodreads.




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Harrison Demchick and Ambitious Enterprises

Earlier this month I won a contest through the wonderful blog PROJECT MAYHEM – The Maniac Minds of Middle Grade Writers. The prize was a review of a synopsis and the first few pages of my manuscript followed by a 30 minute phone conversation with Harrison Demchick, an editor extraordinaire. Here’s his great interview on Project Mayhem that got me interested.

Today, we were able to connect and have our 30 minute consultation. Harrison in that short time gave me some fantastic advice on my writing and ways to improve characters and scenes. He is knowledgeable in developing your story to its greatest heights and in the fine details of editing. Harrison has a nice easy going style that would be easy for any writer to work with. I encourage you to check out AMBITIOUS ENTERPRISES to see what they have to offer.

Categories: Critiques, Editing, Resources | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

DESTINY, REWRITTEN for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

Earlier this year I enjoyed THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY by Kathryn book2Fitzmaurice. I grabbed the opportunity to read her newest, DESTINY, REWRITTEN. It’s a beautifully written story told from the viewpoint of 11-year-old Emily Davis. As I read the book it seemed that it’s proper place would be as a read aloud in the classroom or in the bedroom at night. I’m afraid most boys would only read this if it were assigned. I even tried –

Me: I just finished this book. Want to give it a go?
11-year-old boy: What’s it about?
Me: It’s about destiny and poetry. The story of…
11-year-old boy: Nah, I’m not into girl’s books.

Okay. I was seconds away from enticing him with Mortie, a nine year old cousin in the story who supplies comic relief. But this is really Emily’s story and one that girls, their teachers and parents would love. I’ll keep working on that 11-13 male demographic, but I’m afraid this one may not be for them – at least not at this point in their lives.

PUBLICATION DATE:2013    LEVEL: 5.1         WORD COUNT: 48,899

FULL PLOT (From Amazon): Eleven-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis has been told for her entire life that her destiny is to become a poet, just like her famous namesake, Emily Dickinson. But Emily doesn’t even really like poetry, and she has a secret career ambition that she suspects her English-professor mother will frown on. Then, just after discovering that it contains an important family secret, she loses the special volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that was given to her at birth. As Emily and her friends search for the lost book in used bookstores and thrift shops all across town, Emily’s understanding of destiny begins to unravel and then rewrite itself in a marvelous new way.


  1. I like that rules were broken by the author. Rules that beginning authors have to follow, but once you’re published the reigns are loosened a bit. The first broken rule is the beginning of the story. As writer’s struggle to come up with that eye popping beginning or the perfect action paragraph to grab hold of  readers, you won’t find that here. It’s a slow, well crafted, and drawn out beginning that doesn’t start running away with your attachment until 60 -70 pages in. Stay with it and you will be rewarded with Emily’s search for her destiny.
  2. Emily’s letters to author, Danielle Steele. Most middle aged readers will not have any idea that Steele is a real author of romance novels. No problem – It’s what Emily says in those letters that bring hope to her world.
  3. Reading about a kid who is successful at stepping out of her comfort zone. Great message for kids … and maybe a few adults.
  4. I enjoyed the individuality of the secondary characters. The English professor mom; Cousin Mortie – obsessed with all thing military; and Emily’s best friends’ Wavey – the researcher, and Cecily Ann – the real poet.
  5. Some rich discussion could take place with others who have read the book. Is there destiny for everyone and can you change what has already been decided?


We stood in front of the book table while I whispered an emergency Hail Mary and Mom squeezed my hand, her breath floating out like someone who’d just made the tiniest of wishes on a cluster of birthday candles that they knew would never come true.

Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

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