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.

Another round: Stephen King’s Finders Keepers vs. Tougas’ Finders Keepers

I’ll admit to obsessing about Stephen King and his best-selling thriller Finders Keepers, which happened to come out a few weeks before my not-as-best-selling kids book Finders Keepers.

Then talk show host Stephen Colbert added insult to injury. Colbert’s first week on The Late Show featured none other than the King himself and a huge news development. President Obama had just bestowed King with the National Medal of Arts.

But don’t weep for me. I had previously been bestowed with my own major award — Best Mom Ever.

You can have the book sales and the gold medal, King. I’ll take the paper-and-crayon medal every day of every year for the rest of my life.

Best Mom Ever Award

Best Mom Ever Award

National Medal of Arts

National Medal of Arts

Stephen King vs. Shelley Tougas

The King-Tougas Title War continues. He got the title Finders Keepers first for his thriller; then came my Finders Keepers for my cute kid book.

Amazon reports the current results:

Finders Keepers, Stephen King, Amazon sales rank: 561

Finders Keepers, Shelley Tougas, Amazon sales rank: Not so good.

But like Rocky, I’m going the distance, Mr. King!

Saturday afternoon fever aka my book launch

Please join me in St. Paul at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Red Balloon Bookstore for my book release party and official launch of Adventures From the Middle, a tour I’m doing with friend and writer extraordinaire S.A. (Stephanie) Bodeen.

We’re doing some fun contests at Red Balloon and, of course, serving cake. A book launch without cake is like a book without words or pictures.

In addition to my second novel “Finders Keepers” entering the world, Stephanie’s book “Lost” recently landed in bookstores. It’s the second book in her exciting Shipwreck Island series. So there’s a lot for us to celebrate.

Hope to see you there! Watch for tour dates for Adventures From the Middle. I’ll post more soon.

Gonna party like it’s my release day … because it is

Happy day!

Happy day!

My second novel, Finders Keepers, enters the world today, exactly 364 days after the release of my debut novel The Graham Cracker Plot. It’s like having back-to-back children, only childbirth was easier.

There’s a joke about being a mom to multiple children. It goes like this: When your firstborn drops a pacifier, you wash it in special sanitizing soap and then boil it for an hour before giving it back to your baby. When your second baby drops the pacifier, you rub it on your jeans and pop it right back in baby’s mouth.

You could look at it two ways. Are you learning and applying those lessons to the next baby? Or are you just overtired and lazy?


Here’s what I learned from my first literary baby, The Graham Cracker Plot:

1. Googling your name and/or book is like eavesdropping. You’re going to discover some mean stuff.

2. Constantly checking your sales rank/book scan totals on Amazon’s Author Central does not actually increase those sales. It also does not increase your self esteem.

3. You have very little control over what happens to your baby once it leaves the laptop.

4. The one thing you can control is your productivity. Stay off the Internet and get typing. That’s how the next book gets into the world.

5. The book world operates on seasons. You get a few months to shine. Then it’s on to the next batch of releases. So enjoy it.

6. You’re a writer, so write. You can – and should – promote your book, but you’re not a marketer, not a distributor, not a sales person, not a Search Engine Optimizer (whatever that is). Write. Keep writing.

7. Lean on your writer friends. They understand the ups and downs, the joy and the heartbreak, and the endless frustration. Everyone else just wonders when you’re getting the movie deal.

8. Thank your agent and editor, because they’re your partners. In my case, that’s agent Susan Hawk (Jenny Bent Agency) and editor Kate Jacobs. They’re brilliant and lovely, and I wish they lived in the Twin Cities instead of New York. Then we could have coffee and be a trio.

There’s more, but it’s my release day, and I’ve got some celebrating to do. Thanks for checking the blog.

And if you’re kind enough to buy Finders Keepers, consider your local indie bookstore. Those stores are the heart of publishing.