Summer reads

I’ve been on a blog sabbatical, so I haven’t written lately about the books on my nightstand. I read two books a week, sometimes three, and it’s been a long time since I’ve shared some of my favorites on the blog.

A quick round up:

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko. Once I put Al Capone in my own novel (Finders Keepers), I devoured her Alcatraz series, which also includes Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Does My Homework.

The ongoing adventures of 12-year-old Moose Flanagan are funny, but the reason I love the books is the relationship between his autistic sister Natalie and their family. The secondary characters shine.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life by Pamela Smith Hill. This was one of the ten books I read as I researched my novel Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life (slated for publication in 2017).

This book is not just another Laura biography. It probes her life as a writer, including her relationship with daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was one of the country’s most acclaimed writers around the time of the Depression. If you’ve ever wondered about the influence Rose had on her mother’s series of books, read this book for its insight.

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read this book at least a dozen times as a kid. I needed to revisit it to ground myself in the setting of Walnut Grove, Minn., which is the modern-day setting for Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life.

On the Banks of Plum Creek is my third favorite Laura book. Little House on the Prairie and The Long Winter are numbers one and two.

The Phoenix Files by Chris Morphew is a six-book series about three teens trying to stop a powerful man from destroying the world. Think of it as pre-dystopian. The plot speeds along at a breathtaking pace with three characters taking turns telling the story. Jordan is my favorite: tough, driven, fearless. I don’t read much science fiction, but this series left me hungry for more.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. I’m embarrassed I didn’t read this award winner years ago. It’s a lyrical and evocative story about a lonely hound dog who forms an unlikely family with two kittens. Appelt sets their current troubles against a magical history that seeps into the present.

Next up: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.

Making my list, checking it twice

Time flies, just like reindeer. My annual list of gifts for writers should’ve been posted weeks ago, which would have given you time to find them and ship them to me before Christmas. That’s the price of procrastination.

But there’s always expedited shipping!

Here is my carefully curated list:

1. Earrings that include the two words every writer loves to type:  The End.



2. A keyboard doormat. The keys aren’t in the right place, but the WELCOME is worth the inaccuracy.



3. A perfect over-the-mantel print.



4. Make your technology look old-school in this faux book cover.



5. This is for lovers of books and Michonne. If you’re not a Walking Dead fan, then disregard and skip to number six.



6. A collection of pens for every type of writer — the one who actually gets crap done and the rest of us.








7. Because who doesn’t love a book pun?



8. And who doesn’t love writer arrogance?



9. Writers are poor. Help your writer friend keep the furnace at 55 degrees with these convenient wrist gloves.



10. Because writing is hell.



11. A week-long writing retreat in January–I’d settle for Hawaii–would kick the winter blahs.  There’s slight possibility it’d be productive, too.



Don’t sleep tight — unleash creativity through dream awareness

Welcome to the Middle Grade Blog Party!

Author Lisa Lewis Tyre (Last in a Long Line of Rebels) is hosting a blog party featuring authors of middle-grade lit. We’ll be blogging about the writing life, the creative process, writing tips, and all things middle grade.

To get to Lisa’s blog and see the full menu of blog topics, click here.

For the party, I decided to write about my favorite activity – sleeping.

Sleep is not just the time for restoration. It’s a creative sweet spot, especially those bizarre moments when sleep intersects with our awakened state. That’s when you find yourself thinking about mundane things like did I turn off the garage lights? When’s my dentist appointment? Did I miss my dentist appointment? I think we’re out of milk! As you slowly slip from reality to sleep, you fall into strange thinking patterns. The thought about the dentist appointment twists and turns, and suddenly you’re at the store buying milk with your dentist who’s reminding you the garage light is still on, and, for a moment, you’re aware that sleep is intruding on your consciousness.

This is the sweet spot. You’re not exactly dreaming, but you’re definitely not awake.

It’s much like lucid dreaming, which is being in a complete dream state, becoming aware of the dream state, and changing it into a story, as though you’re directing a movie.

Bizarre? Not entirely. You can find a mountain of books, and even scientific journals, about lucid dreaming. Each year there’s a workshop in Hawaii that teaches lucid dreaming techniques. The workshop is run by sleep expert Steven LaBerge, who researched dream states at Stanford University. (The New York Times wrote about it here.)

It takes practice, but you can learn to tap that pre-dream state and capture your creativity when it’s most pure.

Go to bed thinking about your story. (This works with naps, too. What a great excuse to rest in the middle of the day!) Push away thoughts about milk and dentist appointments. Focus only on your story and your characters. As you fall asleep, hopefully you’ll notice your writer’s mind firing ideas.

It’s essential to keep a notebook next to your bed. If you return to awareness, you must jot down what occurred, even if it seems ridiculous. Later, when you’re writing, that crazy thought might trigger a thought that’s not so crazy or, perhaps, an idea for your next project.

Finding the sweet spot takes patience and practice. Most nights you won’t get there. But when you do, and when it works, it unleashes creativity.

Let’s address the obvious concerns.

I need to actually sleep when I sleep. This sounds like insomnia.

Trying to be semi-awake when you’re semi-asleep can interfere with your sleep patterns, especially at first. But you won’t know until you try. Make your first efforts during the weekend when you know you can grab an extra half hour of sleep.

About that notebook … I’ll wake up my partner by turning on a lamp.

There was a time when I could tell myself, hey, remember this idea in the morning, and I would. As I get older, that’s no longer the case. I once read a tip for improving nighttime memories without having to become fully awake so you can write notes. Take something from your nightstand – a box of Kleenex, for example, and throw it on the floor. Then you don’t have to wake up completely. When you get up in the morning and see the Kleenex, it’ll trigger your memory. I tried it, but Kleenex tossing didn’t work for me. My fiancé wanted to know why there was a box of Kleenex in the middle of the bedroom. So did I. All I knew was the box represented a memory, but the idea was lost.

My favorite writing tool is a “pilot’s pen.” When you press the pen on paper, the tip lights up so you can see what you’re writing. Your partner won’t even roll over. Here’s an example from Amazon.

I tried it, and the pre-dream state is bizarre rather than helpful.

Sometimes that’s the case. I was at a point in a story where I basically had my character backed in a corner, and I didn’t know how to get her out. In that dreamy state, I came up with what seemed like a great idea. The character could turn into a pickle! It was completely depressing to wake up and realize my brilliant idea wasn’t so brilliant. That’s okay. I unleashed the creative, idea-producing part of my brain. That’s an achievement. And eventually I came up with a solution that didn’t involve pickles.

I fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow.

Lucky you. As someone who suffers from insomnia, I’d trade this creative process for consistently getting uninterrupted sleep. Since I’ll never be that person who immediately sleeps, I’m happy to turn a negative into a positive. I consider it a turning-lemons-into-lemonade strategy.

This might be the strangest writing tip you’ve ever heard. That’s okay. Writing is strange. Writers are strange.

Take it from sleep expert LaBerge, who says, “Not all lucid dreams are useful but they all have a sense of wonder about them. If you must sleep through a third of your life, why should you sleep through your dreams, too?”

Read more about LaBerge here.

Goodnight and sleep (mostly) well.

The Hunger Games

I’ve avoided The Hunger Games. Call me sentimental and soft, but I couldn’t get past the horrifying concept of kid-on-kid violence. I suppose it’s hypocritical because I watch zombies devour humans every week on The Walking Dead. But the mother in me struggles with stories about kids suffering, no matter how well told.

A few weeks ago, my daughter checked out The Hunger Games from her school elementary library. I  knew she’d want to read the series at some point – it’s a phenomenon, after all – but I wasn’t expecting her to discover it in fifth grade.

Let me backtrack in case you’re unfamiliar with the story. The Hunger Games is the first novel in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins about a dystopian future in which 24 tweens and teens are forced to kill each other in what’s basically a reality TV show. Only one kid gets to go home. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss, the main character, in the blockbuster film adaptations.

If my daughter was going to read it, then I was, too. I know some parents wouldn’t allow a fifth-grader to read The Hunger Games. (In fact, it’s among the most banned books, according to the American Library Association.) My daughter is a strong reader who’s ready to explore more complex themes. I knew she’d put it down if it was confusing, uncomfortable, or too advanced. I think it’s important to let kids read controversial material in the open, guided by an adult, rather then make it forbidden fruit.

The Hunger Games, I decided, would be a “teachable moment.” It’s been that and more. My daughter and I are having lively and thoughtful conversations about politics, censorship, greed, oppression, and totalitarianism. We compared events in the book to real life. In the world of The Hunger Games, for instance, districts are surrounded by fences to control people. Sounds a lot like the Berlin wall, doesn’t it? We talked about parents’ fear that violence in books and movies might be romanticized, that our kids might lose empathy.

Then there’s our conversation about the incredible writing: setting, characters, plot, pacing … the kind of stuff that makes writers geek out. The New York Times called The Hunger Games “brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced.”


Adventures From the Middle — a recap


We’re already deep into October, and I realized I haven’t blogged about my recent book tour with author S.A. (Stephanie) Bodeen.

We paired up our new middle-grade novels (Stephanie’s Lost and my Finders Keepers) and did a DIY tour we called “Adventures From the Middle.” We made it a “drivable” tour – no budget-busting plane tickets. We had a trial run at Chapter2 in Hudson, WI, where Stephanie celebrated her book launch. Then we hit the road.

We logged about 1,200 miles total, going to stores in Minnesota (Barnes and Noble in Mankato, Content Bookstore in Northfield, Red Balloon in St. Paul) as well as bookstores in Wisconsin (A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Book World in Rice Lake, Books and Co. in Oconomowoc.) After those, we did three school visits in Milwaukee.

I tip my hat to …

  • Stephanie Bodeen. A week before our tour, I got an inner infection that causes severe vertigo. Propped up with steroids and meds for nausea and dizziness, I made it through the tour thanks to Stephanie driving, handling all the logistics, coordinating the schedule, hauling my stuff, taking the lead on the presentations, and much more. Bottom line: I didn’t puke in front of 100 students, and we made all our appearances with no delays.
  • All the teachers, students, and bookstore owners who graciously hosted us, in particular John Sanchez from Fernwood Elementary in Milwaukee. Not only is he the school’s principal, he managed to fix our technical difficulties in the auditorium, a process that involved the circuit breakers and bad batteries and cords plugged into the wrong slots.
  • Phoebe at Boswell Books in Milwaukee. She flawlessly organized our school visits and, it turns out, shares one of our guilty pleasures: HGTV’s “Love It or List It.”
  • Starbucks for caffeinated energy.
  • GPS for keeping two directionally challenged writers on time. It failed us only once when it announced we’d “arrived” at a school when in fact we’d “arrived” at a random house.

And some lessons learned:

  • Be wary of staying at a hotel located on a street called “Lovers Lane.” You might discover the building across the street is a strip club. It was, and no, we didn’t check it out.
  • Don’t eat the “eggs” from a hotel’s free breakfast buffet or the pizza-like substance from Speedway Gas. Just don’t.
  • Schedule some free time to celebrate, because you never know when you’re going to hear your book has been optioned for a movie. That’s exactly what happened to Stephanie. Her awesome new YA novel, “The Detour,” has been optioned by Legendary Pictures. Our celebration consisted of racing to a bank to sign, notarize, and fax the contract before our next appearance.
  • Travel with someone who shares your definition of a relaxing evening. Turns out we both like to put on stretchy pants, have cheap food delivered to the room, and read books before turning off the light around 9 p.m. No nightclubbing.

We hope to tack on a few more events before the year ends. I’ll keep you posted.

Fun times in Eau Claire


I get to make an appearance with two amazing authors at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26 at the L.E. Phillips Public Memorial Library in Eau Claire. We all have new books to celebrate. We’ll do a Q & A, have book-related crafts for kids, and serve some treats.

I met W.H. Beck through an email conversation in which we discovered our families have cabins less than a mile apart on Whitefish Lake near Hayward, Wisconsin. This happens to be the setting for my novel Finders Keepers, so we had lots to talk about. Her new book is called Malcolm Stars.

I haven’t met Julie Bowe yet, but we share a publishing home — the Minnesota-based Capstone. The company published my award-winning book for kids called Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration. Julie’s book is the new edition in her Victoria Torres series called Pompom Problems.

I lived in Eau Claire when I was in kindergarten, so I’m excited to revisit out the town. Since I was young, my memories are pretty limited but include these:

  • There was a restaurant called something like “Jolly Trolls” or “Happy Gnomes.” They had these robotic troll-gnome things, so my sister and I wanted to eat there just to see these things move. None of us liked the food, but who cared? They had robotic troll-gnomes!
  • We used to go to a gas station we called the “stinky store.” They had the best slushies, but the whole place smelled like rotting cauliflower.
  • I went to St. James Catholic School. I don’t remember anything about the school except I walked there each day with my friend Amy. My mom used to follow us in the car to make sure we didn’t get lost. I always wondered why she didn’t just drive us.
  • The first movie I remember seeing played at one of the city theaters — “Peter Pan.” The neighbor boy came with and screamed and ran up and down the aisles and threw popcorn at people.

And now I’ll have a new memory. I hope you’ll come by and share it with me.