My fondest childhood memories are of sitting backstage at Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, listening to my parents and all the other symphony musicians rehearse. Whether they just didn't believe in babysitters or liked having me around (I like to think I was a pretty well-behaved kid), I remember twirling around on a stool in the dim wings, hanging out with the stage hands, one of whom won me a stuffed poodle at the state fair, and just being completely surrounded by music ALL. THE. TIME.
I watched the opera Samson et Delia from the front row after my dad found out no one had bought those seats, and when the giant pillars fell and the music swelled, I burst into tears. The emotion! The sweeping drama of that moment!
So I guess it's no surprise that I'd grow up and write a book about the magnificent Carnegie Hall in New York! My dad grew up in the city and was in a "big band" called Claude Thornhill band way back when. (Anyone even remember the big band era?) The archivists at Carnegie Hall opened up the files to me, and I was enraptured! All the news clippings and photos -- and I even got to see Tchaikovsky's autograph and the trowel used to dig and place the first cornerstone for the building! I brought my friend Melissa Stoller with me, and she was amazed, too. Then, the archivist, Mr. Francesconi, asked if I had ever been inside the hall. Sadly, I had not. So he unlocked it and took us in! He opened up the museum, too, where all the amazing mementos are kept. I was thrilled!
All the research led to Isaac Stern, but he was not the only person who fought to save Carnegie Hall. There were so many others who banded together to "fight" for this historic building. He used to meet with people at the Russian Tea Room next door to brainstorm ways to raise money. He hobnobbed with the mayor at a Passover Seder and talked to him way into the night about how to make this remarkable plan happen. Many thanks to Mayor Wagner for that!
This is a book about community. Unity of purpose. Activism. An activism of love. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. And I hope it inspires children to fight for what they believe in, too!
I wrote Bartali's Bicycle in 2016 after watching an incredible documentary called My Italian Secret, produced by Oscar-nominated Oren Jacoby and narrated by Isabella Rossellini. I was spellbound! I remember it was a rainy gray day, and I was snuggled up on the sofa channel-surfing when I came upon it. It was filled with eyewitness accounts of the brave deeds of unspoken heroes of World War II. These were people who quietly saved lives but not all of them were ordinary people like you and me. Some were wealthy enough that they did not have to help anybody. They could have fled to the United States or, I don't know, gone to their summer homes across the sea? But they chose to put their own lives in jeopardy because there were people in need, people who would have died in concentration camps otherwise.
I had been searching for a story like this -- something meaningful that I could spend time with and turn into a picture book for children. At the same time, I had also been exploring my Jewish heritage. My father was Jewish, but his version of Judaism included matzo ball soup and sleeping till noon on Christmas. That was about it. I never learned much about his childhood in New York City either because he grew up very poor in Harlem and didn't want to think about it. He told me once that the poor people lived in Brooklyn and the lower east side, but the really destitute Jews lived in Harlem. I don't know if that was true, but it always made me appreciate my middle class upbringing in Texas, far from the cockroach-infested apartments he described on those few occasions when he gave in to a case of nostalgia and actually talked about it.
So there I was, watching this documentary, my heart swelling with each story. Then came a segment featuring this man, Gino Bartali, who had won the 1938 Tour de France. He was a devout Catholic. I mean, he took his faith very seriously. He believed that if you talked about a good deed it was no longer a good deed. If you were to do a good deed, it must be done in secret. Now, that was a problem for me because I would need to uncover this man's deeply held secrets if I was to write about him. Two trips to Italy later, I had an overstuffed portfolio and a desktop full of notes, some in Italian waiting to be translated from my voice memo app on my phone. This was getting real!
I spread out all the information I gathered from the Gino Bartali Museum, the Museum of Memory in Assisi, interviews, and text conversations with Gino Bartali's granddaughter, Lisa Bartali. I wrote and rewrote the story many times, especially the spread about the man I refuse to name. Notoriety is, after all, for those who are worthy of it, right? I must have worked on that spread for a solid month before I decided to make it about The Lie. Here it is:
I wanted to describe the evil in these terms so that the book would be accessible to even young children, and I wanted them to understand the importance of Gino's heroism and courage in context.
This was the deciding moment. Would he choose to obey his conscience, that ache in his heart for the destinies of these Jewish families? Or would he cringe and hold back and protect his own family by staying out of it altogether?
Earlier, we caught a glimpse of what he would choose to do when he won the Tour de France. He was told that if he won this most prestigious and grueling race, he was to dedicate his win to Mussolini, the supreme fascist leader of Italy. But when the time came, he just couldn't do it. He had won this award in honor of his brother Giulio who was struck by a car while cycling and killed. This was his proudest moment, his big win, and he refused to dedicate it to a dictator. No, that was not going to happen.
For punishment, after winning the Tour de France, he came home to Florence, Italy, to no parades or honors or even applause. The citizens were told if they celebrated his win, they would be considered unpatriotic rebels and might even be arrested. This must have been difficult for Gino to endure after all that training! But that is what life was like under Mussolini -- and later, it would get even worse when the Nazis took control of northern Italy.
To learn more about what happened, you'll have to read my book! It was a joy to mine the depths, uncover the facts, and get at the real story behind this remarkable man's exploits. In today's world, what he did seems almost too good to be true. That he would sacrifice his own safety and risk being arrested or even put to death to save people from being herded like cattle and sent to concentration camps seems to us truly amazing. Almost unbelievable. But did you know there are heroes today who risk their lives, too? Some of them also do it quietly. I hope we don't have to wait decades to celebrate their bravery, and I hope my book will inspire others to reach for the courage and determination to lay down their own hopes and dreams to serve others. That is what made Gino Bartali a true champion.
Come to my launch party for Bartali's Bicycle, sponsored by SCBWI Carolinas! You can sign up here.
Hooray! After keeping this under my hat for what seemed like ages, I can finally reveal the cover to my new picture book, Bartali's Bicycle, with HarperCollins' Quill Tree Books! And look at the lovely, lovely blog post the beautiful, talented Tara Lazar wrote about it. Don't forget to comment to enter for a chance to win an F&G! Many thanks to Iacopo Bruno, illustrator extraordinaire!!!
I am so grateful to have been included on this amazing podcast alongside other contributors to the Thanku poetry anthology. You are all amazing poets! What an honor! I've learned so much about different types of poetry, and when I talk about this special book with children at school visits, we sometimes practice writing poems together. Writing sonnets with children is interesting -- especially when they are about our least favorite foods!
The pickled beets and peas slipped off my plate.
I promise, Mom, they tumbled to the floor.
And all the other healthy foods I ate
Have filled me up -- there's just no room for more!
I belched and ugly beet taste filled my throat,
"Oh, thank you, Mom! This tastes just like a dream."
"That's it," Mom said, "Now, go put on your coat."
We drove around the block to buy ice cream.
A sonnet must have three stanzas (sometimes called quatrains) of four lines each, followed by a rhyming couplet. Each line of every stanza and the final couplet must be written in iambic pentameter. This means there are five (penta) "iambs" in each line. An iamb is like a horse gallop: da-DUM! Every line must have this same rhythm, which makes sonnets difficult to write!
da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM
Not only that, the first and third lines of each stanza must rhyme.
And the second and fourth lines of each stanza must rhyme.
When I'm working with students, I only try to write one stanza or sometimes two. Never an entire sonnet. That would take much too long!!
You can write sonnets, too! Here's a link to help you get started.
And here is the Children's Book Podcast. I hope you enjoy it!
I'm not sure all of my followers know this, but when I'm not writing, I teach child actors on the sets of movies like Wonder Woman 2 (It's gonna be great, ya'll!)
Well, tomorrow I'm teaching a sweet actor on the set of a movie that's coming out around Christmas. I arrived at the hotel (undisclosed location) and this is what I found outside the sliding door to my room.
Did I mention I used to LOVE horseback riding when I grew up in Texas? I miss it so much!! When you go riding in a city, it's usually a trail ride at a slowpoke pace. I miss the wind whipping across my face when I ride!
So anyway, even though it's a one-day shoot, I'm super excited to get on set tomorrow and then get back to this fab hotel where the horses graze right outside your door!
Also, I'm working on a new picture book biography that involves horses, so THIS IS SO EXCEPTIONAL AN OPPORTUNITY! The universe has smiled on me. Yee-haw!
Hit me up in the comments and share your horse stories. My favorite was the time I was riding bareback in white shorts and didn't realize the back of my shorts had become completely black with dirt and horse sweat and I wore them ALL DAY! Ha!
My friend Julie Hedlund of 12 x 12 recently shared her philosophy about new year's resolutions on her blog, and I'm with her -- resolutions frown down on us from their high and lofty thrones while building on our accomplishments from the previous year makes far more sense! So here are my successes from 2018 and how I intend to use them as a stepping stone for my 2019 goals.
1) After finding an amazing agent in 2017 (Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency!) we went on submission in 2018 with my picture book biography and sold it to a big five publisher. Hooray! As soon as it's officially announced, I will definitely blog about THAT!
2) I sold a poem to Carol Hinz at Lerner (through Miranda Paul's generous call at 12x12). I was so excited to have my sonnet included in Thanku: Poems About Gratitude! But I was very surprised to discover the other authors I would be published alongside of -- young people's poet laureate Margarita Engle, the fabulous Jane Yolen, the amazing Vanessa Brantley Newton, and so many more! I was shocked. But imagine my further surprise when I arrived at our biweekly critique group with the news only to discover that out of all the hundreds of people who sent in poems, two of my critique group members also were included. I could not have been more thrilled! ISBN: 978-1-5415-2363-0.
3) My friend Deborah Heiligman posted on her Facebook page that the Narrative Nonfiction Workshop at Highlights still had scholarship money available, so I quickly sent in my writing sample and they offered me a full scholarship! I was so excited. It had been a career-long dream of mine to attend a Highlights workshop, and here was the very one I needed to whip my next work in progress into shape! My mentor was Barb Kerley, author of What to Do About Alice and A Home for Mr. Emerson, among others. Deborah Heiligman, author of Charles and Emma and Vincent and Theo, was there, and I've been an admirer of hers for YEARS! And Betsy Partridge shared reams of information with us along with her casual charm and wry wit. When she read from her book, Boots on the Ground, we were all riveted. And it has since been chosen as a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence! What a truly gifted author she is! These are heavy hitters in the children's nonfiction world, ya'll! And I am forever grateful!
4) I took my middle grade mess of a novel to The Writing Barn to work with Phoebe Yeh and Lamar Giles and found just the support I needed -- in a laid back setting with deer grazing. It was hard to shift gears and dig in deep immediately after the Highlights workshop, but I did it! Thank you, Bethany Hegedus!
5) I won a prize in Vivian Kirkfield's 50 precious words contest and made a new friend, the author of Lizzie and Lou Seal -- Patricia Keeler! She sent me a copy of her book along with line art and post cards. What a treat!
6) I was asked to speak about lyrical writing at the SCBWI-Carolinas conference in September. Despite a cold and fever and a tiny case of nerves, I think it went pretty well! And I was contacted later by someone from SCBWI Nevada. They want me to speak there via Zoom in 2019!
7) I joined two new critique groups -- one for Jewish writers and one just for picture book biographies. I'm very excited! These are two targeted areas, and I'm proud to be learning and growing among such gifted authors.
8) I wrote five new picture books this past year, and three of them are viable, in my opinion. (The other two are a hot mess, but that's okay, too!) I will be revising the heck out of my top three in January, and I hope to get them on submission soon.
My goals for 2019 are to continue building relationships with other authors, with my agent and editor, somehow pay back the amazing mentors who have helped me along the way (talking about you, Miranda Paul, Stacy McAnulty, and Kim Norman!), to give that kind of support to others, to get those three picture books sold, and to finish my middle grade novel and revise it. I am also applying to Tent (for Jewish authors) again this year -- I was waitlisted for it last year, so maybe this will be my year to get in!
If these things happen, fabulous! If they do not, I will continue writing, developing new concepts, and sticking by my clan. Children's book authors are the best friends a girl could ever have.
I wasn't the only successful family member this past year. My daughter Hannah was featured as an opera-singing klingon at a Star Trek Convention in New York. My other daughter is graduating with honors this year and has already landed her dream job. My son got married (it was a Lord of the Rings themed wedding!) and is in high demand as a lead performer in Charleston's theater scene. And my other son continues to amaze us with his natural talent at creating games and apps! We are a quirky, eclectic bunch of creatives, and I wouldn't have it any other way!
Joyous new year to you all!
I just got back from the 2018 SCBWI Carolinas Conference, where I gave a talk on lyrical writing. It was my first time speaking at an SCBWI event. Yea! Of course, I over-prepared. For the past two months, I have immersed myself in dazzling picture books that filled my heart with rich loveliness. And since my heart is still bursting, I want to share a bit of what I learned with you.
From PW: Carol Hinz at Lerner/Millbrook has bought Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, edited by Miranda Paul (l.) and illustrated by Marlena Myles in her picture book debut. The anthology explores themes of thankfulness and gratitude through poems written by contributors including Joseph Bruchac, Margarita Engle, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Waters, and Jane Yolen. Publication is planned for fall 2019; Karen Grencik at Red Fox Literary represented the author, and the illustrator represented herself in the deal for world rights.
And I forgot to blog about it! In my excitement over getting another manuscript on submission, writing picture book biographies, attending a Highlights workshop on narrative nonfiction (it was spectacular!) and heading to The Writing Barn for a middle grade weekend (also lovely), I was a little busy! Add in a trip to Michigan and a flurry of other exciting things I can't talk about yet -- so many wonderful opportunities are opening up! And did I mention I WENT TO ITALY? WHEEEEEEE!!!! Can I just move to Firenze now? Or Arezzo? Or Lucca? Italy is such a sweet place. I felt like I had finally come home -- not that I don't love my own beautiful city.
And I'm so excited about speaking at SCBWI-Carolinas. I can't wait to share what I've learned about writing lyrically. Meanwhile, here are ten book recommendations (in no particular order) that I think will be especially helpful for anyone planning on attending my session the conference:
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas and Erin Stead
Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
Carmela, Full of Wishes by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson
A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith
Whale in a Fishbowl by Troy Howell and Richard Jones
Ocean Meets Sky by brothers Terry Fan and Eric Fan
If I Had a Little Dream by Nina Laden and Melissa Castrillon
You Belong Here by M. H. Clark and Isabelle Arsenault
What Color is the Wind by Anne Herbauts
The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo
BONUS: I couldn't find this book in our city library system, maybe because it's French? But it's charming and sweet and wonderful.
This is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Siméon and Olivier Sorman
And then, of course, my book Hildegard's Gift is written in lyrical prose.
More later on the thing I can't talk about. Stay tuned!
I'm so excited about this -- I have struggled for years to write lyrically. I studied craft books; I went on long nature walks pondering the meaning of life; I read and reread lyrical picture books until beauty oozed out of every pore of my being like rainbows!
Now I am leading a breakout session on writing lyrically, and I could not be more thrilled about this opportunity. Let me show you what works (and what absolutely DOESN'T!) as we journey together down glitter-glowing magical trails. Come to the SCBWI-Carolinas 2018 Regional Conference!
To register, click here.
Oothar the Blue by Brandon Reese
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this lush, beautifully-illustrated picture book last week and was blown away. Not only is it gorgeous, as a piece of art, it addresses the very real, serious issue of depression in a way that children can readily relate to and understand. It's also FUN! It's witty, charming, and delightful. A must read, especially for boys.
View all my reviews
Brandon Reese is one of my favorite critique partners. He always has a kind word to say and an insightful comment to leave on our manuscripts. So without further ado, let me introduce you to Oothar the Blue by Brandon Reese! Oothar was born a fully-fledged barbarian, and he's available here. Go buy Oothar the Blue for the discerning child reader in your household, girl or boy (but especially boy!) and find out how Oothar beat the blues!
When Megan Hoyt first stepped into a tiny library in East Dallas and checked out The Fairy Doll, time stood still for one brief moment. A book! A lovely, magical book about a little girl, overshadowed and overlooked, the youngest of four, just like me! she thought. Rumer Godden gave way to Madeleine L’Engle and Frances Hodson Burnett. Soon, a sturdy, low-hanging backyard branch became a thoughtful spot where some rather large ideas began to take shape. If reading James Barrie can make a girl flap her arms and jump off a garden wall fully expecting to fly, books truly do pulse with life.