Interview With MG Author Jane Kelley: Would You Dare? Plus a Give-away!

I’ve been seeing and hearing some wonderful “Buzz” regarding a book that’s just been released (July 14): THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS by Jane Kelley.  Jane is a fellow member of the Smack Dab in the Middle blog  ( that we contribute to.  So it is a pleasure to have her as a guest today.  Here’s Jane.                   JAK author photo I’ve been making up stories all my life, but I didn’t really become a writer until about ten years ago, when my daughter was nine years old. As she read the beginning of a novel I was writing in a notebook, I saw what captivated her––and what did not. “Mom,” she said, “I think you’re going to run out of story.” I sure didn’t like hearing that! But I took her advice and rewrote it. NATURE GIRL became my first published novel. Since then, I’ve relied upon her as a critic and a connection to younger people. She’s a busy college student now, but she still gives me feedback. After I described my plan for THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS, she said, “I’ve read so many books about friends who get left behind. I’d like to read one that explores the person who does the leaving.” Once again, I took her advice. The novel follows two friends starting middle school who make drastically different choices. Val is loyal. Lanora is ambitious. My daughter’s comment encouraged me to tell all sides of the story. I thought more deeply about why someone would pick the wrong friends, what happens when she starts to regret it, and what, if anything, could be done to make things right again.                   BofD cover copy THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS will be released on July 14th. “This entertaining and compassionate coming-of-age story explores middle-school cruelty, the heartache of abandonment, and the supple bonds of friendship”. – Publishers Weekly Val and Lanora have been friends forever. Val expects their relationship to stay the same. But after they start middle school, Lanora decides to reinvent herself. Her parents have split up, and she wants to rise above that. Unfortunately Lanora’s choices lead her into trouble. Val hates watching her friend lose her way. She wants to rescue Lanora, but how? Val doesn’t know what to do until a stray cat leads her to a strange boy who lives in an even stranger bookshop. Together they embark on a quest. Will they be able to save a lost friend? Will they get lost themselves? Or will they find a way to help each other become who they want to be . . . . Jane Kelley has created a nuanced, universal story about friendship and that delicate time of adolescence when there is much to lose and much more to find.

One lucky reader of this blog post will be able to enjoy this delightful story by winning a FREE SIGNED COPY of THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS.  Just leave a comment in this post for one entry, tweet about it for a second entry and reblog it for a third entry. Let me know what you’ve done and I will pull a name on Sunday 8-9 and announce the winner on 8-10. 


STAYING AFLOAT: 4 Writerly Things I Learned From Noah and his Ark (And a GIVEAWAY!)

Couldn’t let this great opportunity pass …

Laura Sassi Tales

IMG_0257With the release of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, ARK just a week away, I thought it would be fun to share four things Noah and his ark have taught me about getting boats, er stories, to float.
Don’t expect your boat to float overnight. When I first got the idea for GOODNIGHT, ARK my mind whirred with possibilities. Which animals would be scared of what?  How would they get to Noah’s bed? And how would Noah ever comfort them and return them to their bunks?  I knew early on that I wanted to write the story in rhyme but finding the perfect meter and line length did not come easily. So I played around with plot and form again, and again, and again. Each time I finished a draft, I’d put it away and work on other things for several weeks so I could see it with fresh eyes…

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Introducing Children’s Book Author/Illustrator, Patricia Keeler

Today it’s my pleasure to have an interview with an author/illustrator friend I recently had the pleasure meeting at the NJSCBWI Conference this past June.  Patricia Keeler’s work is playful, uplifting and filled with a sense of whimsy that is a joy to behold.  Here’s Patricia:

What kind of art interested you as a kid?
I would say everything I did in my free time as a kid qualified as art–decorating cookies, stapling together Halloween costumes, cutting my hair, making mud villages, and chalk drawing on the sidewalk. Drawing was in the mix, but it was probably one of my least favorite types of art.

To get the flavor of my home growing up, my mom was a fibers artist. She shaved our black French poodle and wove cloth for a dress for herself. I didn’t want a dress made from my dog.

When did you decide to pursue illustration as an art form?
I was hired to create sets, do advertising, and background images for PBS television programming in Virginia. I was amazed you could get paid for doing that!

Did you go to school or are you self-taught?
I’d say self-taught, as I got a Master’s in Art Education.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in drawing and illustrating?
Say something through your art about your day. Got wet feet on the way to school? Mystery meat for lunch? New cat? Show what your feet feel like wet, what the lunch room mystery meat tasted like, and how happy your new cat was to see you. (Show what your cat would look like if you found her wet and eating mystery meat.)

Don’t worry about using a certain medium like watercolors or colored pencils. That ‘pick a medium’ is a made-up rule. Use whatever in that moment that helps to get your idea out.

Which illustrators do you admire?
I fall in love with every piece of children’s book art I see these days! It’s crazy–or folks are just that good. I think children are amazing artists! But my current perfect illustration person would be a mash-up between Laura Cornell and Frank Viva.

What is your process?
I get coffee from Starbucks and one of those chewy chocolate cookies. Those are scary good. I sit by the Hudson River and watch the boats go by, the dog walkers, babies . . . Then something floats up in my mind that makes me laugh. Like babies flying with books for wings.     BOOK FAIRY

After that it’s a wrestling match with pencil, colored pencil, watercolor, and digital. It’s like trying to pick out a tiny, slippery seed from the inside of a ripe tomato. I just keep picking at that idea until it fabricates.

Generally I make a lot of sketches, than paint a few loosely in watercolor. I scan the images into the computer. I change the colors and add textures.


Digital gives me so many colors, texture, placement options–and I’m learning more all the time. So mostly I run out of time. I feel like I could play with the ideas in Photoshop indefinitely.

Do you have an agent?
Yes! I’m excited to be working with Liza Fleissig and Ginger Harris of Liza Royce Agency.

Do you have new picture books coming out?
I have a busy year ahead because I’ll be illustrating two new books! Both books will be published by Sky Pony Press in the spring of 2017. The working title for the first book is LIZZIE AND LOU SEAL. For the second book we’re still working on the title.

I’ve illustrated, photographed, and/or written trade and educational books including DRUMBEAT IN OUR FEET, (Lee and Low Books, 2006) and A HUGE HOG IS A BIG PIG, (Greenwillow, 2002), a selection of the Junior Library Guild and the Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club. I received the Christopher Medal and the New York Book Festival First Prize in 2011 for illustrations in WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF, an Indie picture book, written by Wendy LaGuardia. Over the years, my books have been reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, Booklist and The Horn Book.

An original painting from DRUMBEAT IN OUR FEET went to the Children’s Art Auction, ABFFE, this past May 2014. This piece was purchased by the Kerlan Collection’s curator, Lisa Von Drasek. The Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota may be the largest collection of children’s books in the world, as they house more than 100,000 books, as well as original manuscripts, galleys and color proofs.

Eventually the Kerlan Collection was interested in the entire DRUMBEAT file, from illustrated pages, galleys, proofs, acceptance letter, contract, pages of editorial critiques, and early sketches to the original paintings. I’m pleased my work found a final home and is now available for students and artists to explore a comprehensive example of children’s book illustration process.      

Patricia in her studio.

Patricia in her studio.

More of my work can be seen at

You can also contact Patricia at:

Thank you, Darlene for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and process.

Kudos: ‘Stargirl’ Movie Nabs The ‘Twilight’ Director & Give-away

This post was too good to not pass around. Kudos to Jerry Spinelli!

Writing and Illustrating

stargirlAs most of you know, I’ve been Jerry Spinelli’s webmaster for the last 12 years. It’s been a fun journey with Jerry and Eileen (her webmaster, too). I’ve read and enjoyed all their award winning books (which is all of them).

I have always been amazed at the love readers have for Stargirl. Everyone sees a little bit of Stargirl in themelves. Even 55 year old women have written Jerry telling him how much they appreciated the book and how it helped validate their time in high school.

But now, we have gone to the next level. The movie rights were sold years ago, but last week Variety announced that ‘Twilight’s’ Catherine Hardwicke is on board to direct an adaptation of the bestselling YA novel “Stargirl.”

When Jerry told me about how Eileen and him drove up New York City to convene “Team Stargirl” with producers and publishers…

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Traveling with Toddlers – Tips, Tools and Tactics to Keep Them Smiling…and Keep You Sane. By Vivian Kirkfield.

Author Vivian Kirkfield is back this month with  some wonderful tips on safe and fun travel with toddlers.  PLUS…there’s a chance to win a free copy of her fabulous book SHOW ME HOW:  Build Your Child’s Self Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking.

Thank you, Darlene…I’m thrilled to be here. With summer upon us, I’d like to share a couple of thoughts about traveling with toddlers. As a mom, I know how difficult it is to pack up and take off…even for a day-trip, it used to feel like I was carting enough stuff for a month. I hope my tips, tools and tactics will be helpful.                DSCN0819
The kids are jumping up and down. The whole family is about to leave on vacation. Maybe you are flying to a famous amusement park. Perhaps you are driving several hours or days to visit with Grandma and Grandpa.
Traveling with young children is HARD…nearly impossible some might say. Two-year old Jake gets hungry when there is no food around, but when you get to the restaurant…he’s fussy and throws his food around. Three-year old Sarah won’t sleep on the plane, but when you arrive at your destination, she demands to be carried and your arms feel numb as you lug the weight of a sleeping child and try to juggle baggage claim and car rental.

Here are seven simple tips to make any trip go more smoothly:

1. If your kids are old enough to understand, tell them about the trip…kids appreciate being told ahead of time so they know what to expect.
2. Organize all of your travel documents and have them easily accessible…picture ID, rental car papers, hotel reservations, shuttle info, important phone numbers, etc. If you can find what you need in a hurry, there will be tons less stress.
3. Encourage kids to get rid of that excess energy before boarding…many airport terminals have special kid-friendly areas where little ones can run and play…check out your airport before you go. If you are driving, make frequent stops to stretch, snack and play.
4. In a handy carry-on (or in a small cooler if you are driving), have appropriate food, bottles, drinks and non-sugary snacks (cheese and crackers, peanut butter and crackers, dried fruit, oranges that can be peeled and sectioned, zip-lock bags with dry cereals).
5. KEEP THE KIDS BUSY, as needed. Some children will be happy looking out of the window or just talking.
a. Bring their favorite toys, ‘lovies’, books and electronics to keep them engaged, calm and happy.
b. A box of crayons and a pad of blank paper can provide an hour of quiet bliss as you and your child tell stories and draw pictures for them. I actually began my picture book writing career this way.
c. A surprise bag with small gaily-wrapped packages can provide a welcome distraction. And remember not to give the kids everything at once…bring out different items to amuse them as the trip progresses.
6. When you leave the plane or take a break from driving at a restaurant or hotel, make sure to check for all of your possessions…kids may have dropped a beloved toy or favorite book that wouldn’t be missed until it was too late.
7. Last, but not least, be positive, upbeat and calm, even when the situation may be difficult…kids take their cues from the adults around them…with your words and your body language, you communicate how you are feeling…and if you stay calm, they may also.

DSCN0867Kids are learning every minute – they are like sponges, soaking up what they see and hear. Why not take advantage of the close quarters in the plane or car or bus or train…and play some fun games that will build a young child’s phonemic awareness.

What is phonemic awareness, you ask?
• The understanding that words are made up of sounds
• The ability to pick out and manipulate sounds in spoken words
And why are these skills so important? Along with alphabet recognition, it is a key to early reading success. A child can build phonemic awareness by listening to rhymes, poetry, songs and wordplay.

Here are seven simple games you can play in the car or on the plane:
• Read poetry and enjoy lots of rhyming stories. When you reread the stories, pause when you come to the matching rhymes and see if your child can fill in the blanks…my grandson LOVES doing this.
• Play Hink Pink – A Hink Pink is a pair of rhyming words that answer a riddle. For example, a large hog is a Big Pig. For older kids you can play Hinky Pinky (using two syllable words as the answer) a fight over a baby’s toy is a Rattle Battle or Hinkity Pinkity (using three syllable words) such as something frozen in the shape of a riding toy is a bicycle icicle.
• Twist Your Tongue – Have fun with tongue twisters like Silly Sally Skates and Slides and Somersaults or Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers! Help your child to make up silly alliterative sentences.
• Make up an unusual list – ‘I’m going camping and I’m going to pack a bat, a cat, a rat.’ OR ‘I’m going camping and I’m going to pack a sock, a sleeping bag, a soccer ball, and a sandwich. Do you think I will want a sweater or a jacket?’ Ask your child to suggest some more things for your list. Can your child hear how your words work together?
• Play I spy with my little eye, something that begins with /s/ (use the letter sound rather than the letter name)
• Clap to the beat of songs and poems
• Make up word riddles – what starts with /b/ and rhymes with red?
And guess what? These simple word games are dynamite for older kids as well. You don’t have to use them only for traveling…they will help keep your little ones entertained while you wait in the doctor’s office or shop at the supermarket.               Picture 158 B 2

Now, if you sign up for Vivian’s newsletter     and leave a comment on this post that says you did, your name gets entered into the proverbial hat. 🙂 to win a copy of  her wonderful book.

Vivian Kirkfield, BA, MS
Writer For Children – Reader Forever
Read my Blog
Follow on Twitter   SHOW ME HOW KINDLE Cover 01

Cool Apps For Cool Kids.

Here are some fun Apps you can download for free to keep your kids entertained on long car trips or while on vacation. 


1.  Despicable Me: Minion Rush

2. Frozen Free Fall:  This is a “match three” game that allows your child matches to unlock favorite Frozen characters.

3. Mouse Maze Free Game – by Top Free Games:  This is a Pac Man style game with a cat and mouse chase.

4. Tic Tac Toe Free: A great intro for young children in learning how to take turns.


1. Candy Island Free: Sweet Shop: Your child owns a candy shop that she must keep stocked to keep customers happy.

2. Wash Pets -Kids Games:  Your child can give a puppy or kitten a grooming session. 

3. Miles From Tomorrowland: This is a space-based racing game.

4. Tynker – Learn to Code: These games allow your child to learn about programming.

If you have any other Apps that your kids enjoy, please share them here.  May all your summer road trips be enjoyable one.

Get Dramatic For Summer Fun!

Today’s post comes from one of my favorite bloggers Gail Terp.  Gail has a number of cool websites and links for summer theatre and acting games for kids. Why not add some drama to your summer fun.  Here’s Gail.

Do your kids have extra free time this summer? I hope so! Here are lots of ideas to get their creative juices going. Time to act up!

Drama Games and Activities
from Kid Activities
There are games, dramas, and activities

Drama: Free Scripts for Kids
from Homeschooling from A to Z
This site has a ton of resources: lots of scripts (from elementary to high school), drama activities, production tips, and even how to make fake blood!

Drama Games for Kids
from Beat by Beat Press
Games are broken down by category: Warm-up, Ensemble Building, Focus, Improv, and more. There are lots of ideas here!

Acting Games
from Stage Milk
Games are broken into categories: Getting to Know a New Group, Focus Games, Improvisation Games, Physical Exercises, Super Fun Games, and Simple Goodies. Practical tips are also included.

Readers Theatre Scripts
from Dr. Young’s Reading Room
This site has a bunch of scripts. There’s a large variety in the stories: fables, retelling of kids’ books, fairy tales. Lots of the scripts are for just a few actors.

Reader’s Theater
from Margie Palatini

I’m a big fan of Margie Palatini’s books (The Web Files, Piggie Pie…) and so was delighted to find her site has Reader’s Theater scripts.

The Jumbo Book of Drama
by Deborah Dunleavy, illustrated by Jane Kurisu (sorry, no link)
This book has many ideas to get your creative drama ideas started. There are not many scripts to read, just countless ideas for creating your own plays and other bits of drama. Some of the chapters are: Magic, Clowning Around (really fun ideas), Puppets and Puppetry, Comedy and Tragedy.

I hope the creative juices really fly!     gail photo

Gail Terp is  a retired teacher who has spent the last 30 years working with enthusiastic and reluctant readers. One of her top goals as a teacher was to connect kids with books they loved. It’s still her goal. Her blog, Best Blog for Kids Who Hate to Read, is one way she uses to reach it. She also write books for kids. Her second book, Nonviolent Resistance in the Civil Rights Movement, published by ABDO Publishing, will be out in September.

Celebrating . . . Ants! by Claudia Mills

Middle Grade Author Claudia Mills is a fellow contributor to the blog Smack Dab in the Middle   and has just released a new MG book about…you guessed it…ANTS!   Here’s Claudia.

Thank you, Darlene, for inviting me to join your delightful blog today. I feel more creative just reading through these fabulous activities to help children’s imaginations flourish and grow. I appreciate this chance to share my new book (the first title in the Nora Notebooks series), The Trouble with Ants, about a girl who has a hard time getting her classmates to appreciate her passion for myrmecology, or the scientific study of ants.

I have to admit I never expected to write a book about ants.   I can’t say that I myself was ever a fan of ants.

It’s more fair to say that, like most adults, I’ve been instead an enemy of ants, especially ants that I find venturing onto my kitchen counters or pantry floors.

But when I wrote an earlier book, Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters (Knopf, 2011),   mason dixon pet disasters cover                the character of Nora appeared on the page to provide a contrast to always pessimistic Mason and always optimistic Brody. Nora is serious and scientific. Rather than seeing the glass as half empty (like Mason) or half full (like Brody), Nora would want to measure the volume of water in the glass, and in millimeters, not ounces. Rather than having pets like fish, hamsters, cats, or dogs, Nora’s “pets” are the ants scurrying around her ant farm, objects of her scientific experimentation.

And now Nora has a book and a series of her very own.    Mill_ 9780385391610_jkt_all_r3.indd

It was challenging for a non-ant-lover like me to write a book about a girl who loves ants. For research, I read the mesmerizing autobiographical account of a lifelong love affair with ants, Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by brilliant scientists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson. From them I learned the astonishing ant facts that Nora collects in her notebook at the end of every chapter, facts like: “A worker ant is less than one-millionth the size of a human being. But all of the ants in the world taken together weigh as much as all the human beings in the world.” And: “The total population of ants in the world is ten thousand trillion.”

I also got an ant farm of my own: “an original Uncle Milton” plastic ant farm, complete with a tube of ants. As with Nora’s first attempt, my ants died off after a few weeks, but not until I had the opportunity to watch their almost miraculous feats of tunnel building. All that impressive engineering, done by . . . ants? Ant farms, and ants, are easy to purchase over the internet. You can also make a do-it-yourself ant farm by gathering ants from your own backyard, but I have to admit I haven’t done this myself. (I’m not that much like Nora!).

I’m hoping that The Trouble with Ants will offer an invitation to young readers to pursue their own eccentric passions and develop their own idiosyncratic subjects of study. And simply to keep their eyes open to the beauty and wonder of the world around them. Next time they see ants swarming on a summer sidewalk, maybe they’ll pause to take a look and reflect on how happy Nora would be at this moment. And maybe they’ll be a little happier themselves, too.

Claudia Mills, Philosophy photo by: Larry Harwood

Claudia Mills, Philosophy
photo by: Larry Harwood

Here is a link to the first review of the book, a starred review in Publishers Weekly:

And here is a link to a website on how to make your own ant farm: The Trouble With Ants makes its debut on September 22.

Composting 101

This blog has had many posts celebrating Mother Nature and the outdoors, as well as recipes using the fruits and veggies grown in our gardens.  In an effort to reduce our carbon footprint and enrich the garden soil, here is the low down on starting a simple compost pile.  I’m not talking about anything time consuming or expensive to maintain. This is just a simple way to reduce household waste and provide you with free fertilizer for the garden.

There are three basic components to COMPOST: Browns: which include dead leaves, shredded newspaper, used coffee filters and wood chips; Greens: These include grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells and coffee grounds; and Water.  The interaction of these components with beneficial bacteria produce a nourishing substance that enriches the soil and improves your garden.   Using organic scraps that have not been sprayed with pesticides will ensure that your soil is in even better shape for growing food.  Avoid such things as meat and fish scraps or dairy items since they cause odors and attract pests.

You can collect the scraps in a small covered container you keep under the sink or on the counter. If you eat a lot of fresh veggies and fruit like I do, you will empty it into the compost bin several times a day.  I use a simple chicken wire cage that is set at the edge of the garden to corral the scraps. 

To get the basic idea on how to set up your own system and what proportion of ingredients to use, consult some online sites such as:   or

There are many options on how to collect and store scraps, so check out the sites for specifics.  There are even options for apartment dwellers using small patio containers that will produce enough compost to enrich your potted plants.

Chicken wire cage with vegetable and fruit scraps and grass clippings.

Chicken wire cage with vegetable and fruit scraps and grass clippings.

So why not give COMPOSTING a try?   Your garden will thank you by producing some delicious food and beautiful flowers. And, you’ll be minimizing your contribution to the local landfill.  Mother Earth will be proud!