Reading books is so much a part of my life and my kids’ lives, I sometimes forget that not everyone feels the same way about books. And don’t worry, we can still be friends even if you don’t love books the way we do!
My oldest son has not always loved books. I read to him as a kid (like, A LOT), I had a home full of books, I modeled reading for fun (confession, maybe too much!), and HERE is proof positive I took him to the library even when it was tought! But still, my son didn’t care for them. In fact, he disliked books and reading so much that his second grade teacher reached out to inform me that he was so far behind on his reading levels, that if something didn’t change, and fast, he was not going to move up a grade with his peers.
I was horrified! There I was, a bona fide book lover, hoping to be an author someday, yet I couldn’t even get my own son to read.
I was lucky. I had resources. My mom was an elementary school principal at the time and had been a reading teacher before that. I asked for advice, and here is what she told me.
“First and most important, find a book that he wants to read. That is very important! It must be his choice.” . . . So turns out, this was harder than I expected. It took a lot of trips to the library. A lot of trial and error, because he didn’t know what interested him. All books were the same to him at that point, and in his mind ALL BOOKS were boring. I grabbed lots of different types of books and I started reading to him.
We didn’t finish many of the books we started, but I didn’t give up. After a lot of searching, we landed on the first book in a brand new series: MAZE OF BONES by Rick Riordan.
“Second,” my mom told me, “once you have a book he loves, read it together. You read it out loud, but follow along with your finger and have him follow along as well.” We read the whole book that way, and moved on to book 2. I was still the one reading, but his attitude was changing. He was more excited about reading time. We kept at it through book 2 and moved on to book 3. That was when everything changed.
My son got tired of waiting for me. He was anxious to know what would happen. And he began sneaking the book and reading it on his own. Slowly, slowly, slowly. And sometimes he would ask for help. But that book forever changed his reading life, and I will always be grateful for both my mom’s advice, and for The 39 Clues series that kept books coming out in such rapid succession.
From there he moved on to comics. He particularly loved the Star Wars comics. And I was so grateful to see him reading! To see him excited to read.
His reading interests grew, and he began to read Rick Riordan’s other books. That led him to read everything he could find about mythology. That led him to studying ancient cultures. That led him to start learning Hebrew and Greek on his own. That led him to study Inca and Mayan cultures. The kid loves to learn!
Those early books that some people would call junk books and a waste of time saved my son’s reading career (and yes, helped him pass the second grade). Those comics gave him confidence. Led him to understand the possibilities that can come with reading.
Please. Get kids excited about reading. Let them read books for the joy of it. Books that speak to their heart. And please, to all you graphic novel creators: KEEP THOSE BOOKS COMING!
What book first made you excited to read?
One of the most important parts of writing is reading. Read as many books as you can in the genre you want to write in. So as you can imagine, I have read a lot of picture books lately. I love a good picture book review, and I love hearing about good books from others. So I’m going to share some of my favorites. I’ll focus on picture book reviews, but since I love middle grade books, I’ll probably throw in a few of those too.
I’ll be posting my reviews on Goodreads where I review other books in addition to the ones I blog about. Feel free to follow me on Goodreads if you like. Please note that I’ll only review books I love on my blog, so if it’s here, I give it five stars (Goodreads’ system).
First up is RAILWAY JACK written by KT Johnston, and illustrated by César Samaniego.
I’m going to confess that while I do love a good non-fiction picture book, my heart is with fiction. Given that, I might have been a little hesitant to pick this up. But boy am I ever glad that I gave this one a chance!
What an amazing story! This book is about an amazing duo: Jim Wide, and his service baboon, Jack. Jim had lost both of his legs in a rail accident and struggled to do his job at the railway until he found Jack. I was fascinated by Jim’s foresight to recognize the potential of what Jack could do to help him. I was amazed by all the skills that Jack was able to learn, and it gave me a greater appreciation for baboons and service animals in general.
The author did an impressive amount of research on the topic. I especially appreciated the photos at the end of the book. I’d never heard of a baboon being used as a service animal, and I found the author’s note about the history of service animals to be interesting and very informative. I have no doubt the discussion questions at the end will lead to great discussions that fascinate kids.
My favorite part was when the heads of the railway came down on Jim for allowing a baboon to do the work of a human. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I won’t tell you what happens, but when you read it, you will know why this is my favorite. (I know, I’m totally the worst! But read it! You won’t be disappointed.)
I can’t end without mentioning the art. The illustrator did a beautiful job on the pictures. They really brought the story to life. I loved the style, and felt it was a great fit for the story. And after seeing the old photographs at the end, I enjoyed looking back through the pictures to note the great attention to detail that Mr. Samaniego paid to his work.
This is a wonderful story that I highly recommend!
Note: I received an e-ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
KT Johnston found history a boring subject in school—but now it’s the passion of her writing.
She earned a degree in biology and conducted wildlife behavior studies before switching to a corporate career. After raising two children and several litter sof curly-coated retrievers, KT began writing, spotlighting special animals who had affected the lives of everyday people. She and her husband live in Minneapolis, where the four-legged members of her family have always been special. KT hopes to inspire others to be curious about our world as well, one true story at a time.
César Samaniego was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1975. He grew up with an artist father, smelling his father’s oils, reading his comic books, and trying to pain over his father’s illustrations! He attended Llotja Arts and Crafts School and graduated with honors in 2010. Since then he has published many books and provided art for apps, textbooks, and animations. César lives in Canet de Mar, a small coastal town near Barcelona, with his wife, daughter, five cats, and a crazy dog.
You can find more of his amazing art here.
It is no secret that I switched my writing gears with my latest release. My first book (The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society) is a middle grade novel, geared towards 8-13 year-olds. My upcoming book (Help Wanted, Must Love Books) is a picture book geared towards 4-7 year-olds.
Because of that change, I am often asked if I still write older books, how easy it is to switch back and forth between writing picture books, and writing middle grade books, and how different is it writing in those two genres. So today I’m going to talk about that.
First, yes! I definitely still write middle grade books. I love the long story form, and being able to tell more. I love reading those books, too, and I still have a lot of stories in me. In fact, I’m working on one now, that I’m not going to tell you anything about (aren’t I mean??!), but I’m on the second draft, so that is a good sign. Hopefully, in the future, you will see more published middle grade books from me.
Here is the thing, when I sent the draft of Help Wanted, Must Love Books to my agent, we had a little chat. She loved it, but she wanted me to understand that if I decided to go that direction, I needed to spend some time working on picture books. Focusing on writing more books, and spending some time (years probably) building up my author cred as a picture book author.
So that is what I have been doing these past couple of years (only recently have I begun working on middle grade again). I feel incredibly fortunate that my book sold. It is not the first picture book I’ve ever written, but it IS the first one I’ve gone on submission with (for all you non-authors, going on submission means that my agent sent it to editors in hopes they would want to publish it). The trick is to repeat that, now!
Now for the question about difficulty. Switching back and forth is do-able, but difficult. The two formats are extremely different. In middle grade, I have space to say all the things. And while I want my writing to be crisp, and only say things it needs to say, it feels incredibly freeing to have SO MANY WORDS with which to write my story.
Picture books are mind-numbing projects where every word on the page has been scrutinized many, many times. Every word must be essential if I want to keep it. Every word must being working hard and expressing as much as possible. And even then, I need to make sure that the word really needs to be said. Because if pictures already express that idea, then it is the chopping block for those words.
With my middle grade, once I signed with my agent, I had a couple of back and forths to fix things, before going on submission, and then a couple more back and forths to fix things with my editor (not to minimize the changes, some of those changes were BIG!), still, once I sent in the final copy, it was final.
With my picture book, we were making changes every step of the way.
We made changes right up until they sent it to print and we could no longer make changes.
It has been fascinating to watch and participate in the process. And despite the whole mind-numbing thing, I love, love, love writing picture books. It is an incredible thing to be able to say so much with so few words, and I feel like my writing is stronger for having learned and studied the craft of picture book writing (and please note, I am still learning, and probably will be forever). I will definitely be in this genre for a long time to come because I love it so much.
So for you authors, do you find it difficult to switch genres in your writing? And for you non-authors, what do you think when an author that you love in one genre switches to write in another? Do you read those books, too?
When we drew up our last summer bucket list, I bribed the kids to go running with me. I told them that if they would run with me 5 days a week, 30 minutes a day, then run a 5k with me at the end of summer, I would take them to Legoland.
So of course, I had to keep up my end of the bargain. I had so many people ask me to tell them what we thought, I decided to do a good old fashioned blog post with all my thoughts. And pictures. So. Many. Pictures!
So first off, I want to say the we LOVED Legoland. We got the two-day parkhopper pass that allowed us entry into both Legoland and the Sea Life Aquarium which is also on site. Honestly, I thought one day of Legoland would be enough, but boy was I wrong. There were so many things the kids loved and wanted to do again, and so many things we just didn’t get to the first day. And turns out the Sea Life Aquarium is not a full-day’s activity. We could have happily spent a third day in Legoland, but I personally would rather be left wanting more than less, so two days was perfect.
Much to my son’s chagrin, we did not stay in the Legoland hotel because it was pricey. However, I booked through the Legoland website when I discovered it cost less with both hotel and tickets together. We stayed at the Hyatt Place which we loved. It provided a very yummy breakfast, had an outdoor pool, a fitness room, and was only about three blocks from the beach. Perfect in so many ways! It was far enough to need to drive to Legoland, which meant we had to pay for parking ($18), but even with that, it still cost less overall. We also bought a picture pass for one day, which was great, although I kindof wish I’d sprung for the year-long pass which wasn’t much more.
My kids are way into Legos (especially my boys), so this was kindof their mecca. If your kids like Legos, they will love this park. Amazing Lego structures fill the park! There are also videos on how the structures were designed. How they were built. How they were shipped to the park. It’s fascinating!
I really wish I could show you everything . . . okay, okay! I couple more!
But there is way more to Legoland than just the amazing creations. There were so many fun, non-traditional rides. For example, usually you see these towers, where you are pulled up and then dropped really fast. Not at Legoland! You use good old-fashioned arm strength to pull yourself up with the ropes. And to make it even more fun, you get to race against the other riders. My arms got a serious workout! Then there was the fire-fighter training ride! A ride that requires teamwork to pump the firetruck into motion (serious effort required!), so you can put out the fire by spraying the water into the bullseye. I loved the teamwork, and we had so much fun competing against the boys.
They had the traditional teacups (Bionicle-themed), several roller-coasters, and a choose-your own level of craziness Nexo-Knight ride. The boys chose the highest level! (The crazies).
But our favorite ride, hands down, was the Ninjago ride. It was a 3-D, interactive video game ride. You karate chop your way through all the bad guys of Ninjago, trying to outscore not only those on the ride with you, but everyone else for the whole day! We managed to make it on the “best scores of the day” board once! (We may have been some of the first people to ride it that day).
And in addition to all the rides, there were Lego stations all throughout the park. We spend a considerable amount of time at these stations. A place to build boats, then send it down the rapids. A place to build cars, then test it on the ramps. Tons of build-whatever-you-want stops, not to mention the archaeological dig. We had a hard time convincing the kids to leave!
We spent a good hour in the Robotics lab, learning how to program a robot to perform specific tasks, and I convinced my family that we NEEDED a lego family drawing. A bit of an expensive souvenir, but I’m so happy we got it to remind us of our super fun trip. I’m kind of in love with it.
We tried these amazing things called Apple Fries. And speaking of food, there was a great variety of healthy and unhealthy alike. The prices were amusement park-ish, but I felt like they weren’t too ridiculous.
One other perk, is that I happily did not get sick at Legoland like I do at most amusement parks (curses on adulthood!). Probably because the rides are a bit more tame than most such parks. Which brings me to my one point of warning. Our oldest was 13 when we went. Seriously, he looked like the oldest kid there. That said, he loved it, but it won’t be long before he has outgrown Legoland . . . at least until he has his own kids.
Oh my! And I almost forgot about all the characters you can meet. I will end with those pictures, but our family gives Legoland an enthusiastic 5 thumbs up! (One last note: We went on the Thursday and Friday in the week before Thanksgiving. Almost no lines. Not crowded at all. Perfect weather. Such a fabulous vacation!)
Hello, hello!!! It has been months and months since I wrote a proper blog, and I could rattle off to you all crazy life events that have kept me from being here, but that would be boring (though one super, major, big reason is that my family and I will be moving soon!).
So instead, I will just tell you that I am finally celebrating the paperback release of The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society! Today, I’m over at the blog From the Mixed-Up Files, being interviewed and offering 4 (FOUR!!) signed copies of my paperback. The giveaway is open through Oct. 24th, so head on over, and enter! Just click HERE. (Even if you already own a copy, books make great gifts. Plus I will personalize it to whoever you’d like.)
Thank you so much for spreading the word, and best of luck!
Because writing a sentence like that, everyone fills in all the blanks I left. Everyone tells their own story of my morning, without even realizing it, I would bet.
Maybe people will read that and think, “she has got it all together.”
Maybe they will imagine that it means I got up early enough to be dressed and showered and make-upped.
Maybe they will imagine I made my kids a big ‘last-day-of-school’ breakfast consisting of bacon and scrambled eggs with spinach and other veggies, not to mention cut fruit (because that would be healthy of me, and I am clearly that kind of miracle-working mom).
Maybe they imagine I had those teacher gifts wrapped up in beautiful packaging and ready a week in advance.
Maybe they will imagine my kids smiling all morning and giving me plentiful hugs because I’m just such an amazing mom.
And maybe they might compare themselves to all that, and feel a little like a failure. Not quite good enough. And that is why I wanted to write this.
Because of course, none of those images would be right. Well, I did get up early to go jogging. But yeah, that shower? It never happened. So fix that showered, dressed, make-upped picture of me. I was in sweaty workout clothes that showed all my lumps. My face was red and blotchy (yeah, I totally get that way when I exercise), and boy, did I ever stink! My kids wouldn’t come anywhere near me, let alone give me a hug. (In fact, I may have threatened one of them with a hug if they didn’t hurry up and get dressed. Maybe. I can neither confirm nor deny this story).
And then there was the whining. Oh, the whining!! For the love of all that is cereal!!! Can we just stop!!!! (Yes, my exclamations increase with each iteration.)
And of course that frantic moment when I remembered. “TEACHER GIFTS!!! I forgot teacher gifts, AGAIN! Quick, write this card! Aren’t you done yet?? Now move people, we have to get to the store before school!”
And those leisurely pictures?
Oh yes, it was all quite lovely. Parenting at its finest. All the stuff we hide away from our super cute Facebook and Instagram posts. The beautiful packaging we put on for the world, so they don’t think less of us.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve listened to countless women compare themselves to what they perceive as reality.
And it’s not right. We all deserve better.
Which is why I decided to start a project this summer. It is an Instagram project that I am calling “The Hidden Reality.” (@the_hidden_reality). It is my attempt to share my own hidden reality with all of you. It is my way of telling you that you are good enough. That you are smart enough. And doggonit, people like you! (They do!)
For now, I just have the picture of my ridiculously messy desk (and yeah, it’s pretty much always that messy), but more are on their way!
And in the mean time, have an awesomely wonderful summer, secure in the knowledge that you are good enough!
P.S. I wrote this with mom’s in mind, but in truth, it applies to everyone. Any kids out there reading this, trust me . . . all your friends (and all those who are not your friends) are looking at others and comparing themselves. Sometimes people are mean because they don’t feel like they are good enough when they compare themselves to others–both adult-people and kid-people. I hope you are not one of them, because you know what? You don’t need to compare. You are good enough just being you. You can be nice to others without being any less of a person. In fact, it’s just the opposite . . . you are more of a person.
In April 2014, I watched the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag take over my Twitter Feed. I remember watching it and reading all the tweets, and trying to understand the urgency that was clearly evident in everything that was being said.
I didn’t join in.
Perhaps some of you are criticizing me now, but there you are. I didn’t join in. I didn’t feel qualified to join in.
Instead, I listened. I examined my own self and worked to figure out what I really thought about all this.
I thought back on my childhood reading. I remembered books like Mildred Taylor’s “Roar of Thunder, Hear my Cry,” and “Let the Circle be Unbroken.” I thought of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” and perhaps there had been some “Dear America” books with diverse main characters . . . and that’s where my memory failed me.
And I was horrified.
Though l grew up in a very un-diverse neighborhood, I always craved to know more about other cultures and people. As a child, I grew up with 2 Tiawanese exchange students who I now consider to be my brother and sister. Before 2014, I lived in a Melanesian country for a year-and-a-half. I learned French and Spanish. I lived in South America for 3 months. I got a Master’s degree in French that focused on the French works from Africa and Haiti and Tahiti and anywhere else French was spoken outside of France. I LOVE other cultures . . .
. . . but I still hadn’t seen the lack of diversity in children’s literature. I hadn’t see it. Even when an editor told me my Ecuador book would have no place in American publishing, I didn’t question that.
I was blinded by privilege that I hadn’t even realized I had.
It is a no-brainer to me that all people deserve respect. That skin color means nothing. I never saw myself as racist, but I also never acknowledged the inherent racism that permeates the world we live in.
I remember the night I first understood. I was out with my dear friend and neighbor. She grew up in Nigeria, but came to the USA for university. She is beautiful and intelligent, and compassionate. When I first met her she’d recently finished her family medicine residency. We were almost home when we noticed our neighbor’s garage door was open. It was late, so we stopped to let them know. Since I was driving, my friend ran to the door, then immediately ran back. She didn’t dare knock at the door for fear of their reaction to her skin color. And it wasn’t a silly fear. Because I was afraid for her, too.
No one deserves to feel that way.
Which is why diverse books are so important. Books and stories bring empathy, compassion, and comfort. They help us understand the Other and the Unknown. They eradicate the fear that leads to hatred and racism and bigotry.
We have all heard that everyone deserves to read about people like themselves. But diverse books are not just for them. We all need these books. All of us. We need to read about characters from all over the world, from all walks of life, living through all sorts of experiences. Because understanding and sympathizing and empathizing with an Other makes us better humans.
We. Need. Diversity.
It has taken me nearly two years of listening to understand just how much I have to learn. Just how much I wasn’t seeing. So I will be continuing to listen.
To those of you know who are speaking out, your voices are being heard. You are making a difference.
But please don’t forget how important it is to still listen. Because it takes both speaking and listening for the world to change.
When I tell people I went on a book tour, I get that look that says they are impressed. That if I’m going on tour, I must have “made it” as an author. A few people dare to dig a little deeper and ask, “So who pays for the tour? You or your publisher?”
And this is where I smile.
So much of what it’s like to be an author is shrouded in mystery. We have old school views of how things work, and when we think “author,” we tend to think Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling, who are anything but typical.
Today I’m going to share what it’s like being a mid-list author. Because the reality is very different than what I always imagined. So below I’m going to answer some of the more common questions I get:
Yes! I most definitely get paid. Buuut, it’s not very much. Numbers vary widely depending on who the author is as well as who the publisher is. 12% of net profits for hardback books, and 25% for ebooks, is pretty common. Especially for a debut author such as myself.
Basically what that means is I get paid less than a dollar per book. So can I retire all my other jobs now that I’ve been published? I really can’t. Maybe if I had enough books out, but “enough” is a questionable number, and it’s higher than you would guess.
This is a bit of an awkward question. Because honestly, I really don’t know. You would think that as an author I should know. But I don’t. Twice yearly (and for some, this is quarterly), I get what is called a “Royalty Statement.” This statement tells me how many of my books sold (and in what format – hardback vs. ebook) during the 6 months of the reporting period.
So if you caught me at just the right time of year, I could tell you how many of my books have sold (though I probably still wouldn’t), but even that is not an answer to how my book is doing. There are just so many things at play, it’s not an easy answer.
This really depends on who you are. For me, as a mid-list author of a smaller publisher, I pay for my tours. This is why I have chosen to do tours in places that I have a connection to . . . whether I was already planning to go there, so I set up some book events because I could. Or I used to live there and know there will be people interested in my book. Or maybe I have a friend who lives there and so that gives me a reason to want to go. But in any case, the cost of a book tour is a big deal, because it is all coming from me.
This is why authors who do school visits outside of their home area require travel fees. Because tours take a lot of time and energy and money! And even though I want to promote my book, I also want to spend time with my family and be there for them (not to mention spending time on writing the next book!).
Again, depending on who you are, how big your publisher thinks your book will be, or even the business model of your publisher, your publisher might set up some of these things. For me (and for most other mid-list authors that I know), I set these up.
For the first leg of my tour, I joined a group of authors, and they set up our panels and visits (since I was coming from out of town). But it was up to me to find the group and help with planning for discussion topics, etc. Group author visits are wonderful because you not only share the work load, but you can pull in a larger audience and have someone to talk to in case you don’t have an audience (and yes, that really happens).
The last two legs of my tour, it was up to me to contact schools, teachers, librarians, and bookstores to find those who were interested in having me come. I contacted people I already knew, and this worked great for my first tour, but this won’t always be the case. The art of cold-contacting is something I am learning.
For blog interviews, I have been fortunate enough to be contacted by the bloggers to ask if I was interested in participating. Also, I have a publicist (hired by my publisher) who works to get my book in front of the right readers who can best help spread the word, including to industry reviewers (School Library Journal, Booklist, etc.).
Promoting a book is a lot of work! And since this is not my area of expertise, it has been a steep learning curve. But for me, the reward really comes when I’ve gotten to meet my readers and see the excitement in their faces at meeting a “real, live author.” (Which I still can’t believe means me!)
So wow, this post went a lot longer than I intended, but I hope you have a little bit better idea about what it means to be an author. It’s hard work. It’s a lot more than just writing. The pay isn’t great. But I love what I do so much, and that’s why I keep doing it!
If you have other questions for me, don’t hesitate to ask!
Of course, once I knew about it, I had big plans to use it on launch day and get all kinds of crazy. I planned to video myself and my family dancing to it. Then I decided that we needed a choreographed dance. But between moving, the book tour, and life, none of that ever happened.
During that trip, we got up to some crazy shenanigans. We spoke at panels, we signed books, and we spent like 87 hours driving in Maryland traffic. In short, we had an amazing time! So when I told them of my plans for Peanut Butter Jelly Time, they jumped aboard the good ship PB&J without a second thought. After a late night of pizza and s’mores, we got out our sharpies, created Harry Potter dancing bananas in homage to THIS awesome Peanut Butter Jelly Time video, and went for it! We even tweeted this teaser picture:
Alas, when I got back from that tour, I upgraded my failing phone, left 2 days later for the next leg of the tour, and totally spaced posting the AWESOME video that we’d made.
Today I am going to rectify that oversight. And so, without further ado, I present the debut of the Beyond the Pages Book Tour Peanut Butter Jelly Time Video!
Have an awesome day, and good luck getting that song out of your head! It’s pretty much permanently stuck in mine.
My mind is boggling, and I hope you can forgive me if I wax a bit nostalgic . . . because I am in awe that this story – one I started on a whim – is going to find its way to readers throughout the world.
Almost exactly twenty-one years ago, I wrote the very first chapter of this book. Another six years passed before I admitted to myself I wanted to be an author, and I spit out a first draft in a mere three weeks.
It only took one rejection to realize I had a lot to learn.
And so another eight years passed while I studied books on writing, attended writing conferences, acquired critique partners, and wrote and wrote and wrote. That’s when I stumbled on that early draft.
It needed a lot of work. Like an actual plot and stuff. And honestly, it was painful to read because it was a testament to just how ignorant I’d been on the craft of writing. But oh the characters! They jumped off the page and I fell in love with them all over again.
Two more years of writing and revising before I found an agent, and another two to find a publisher.
The road has been so much longer than I ever imagined. But oh my heart! To hold in my hands a thing that I created in my head . . . simply indescribable.