Newbery award winner and New York Times bestselling author

Posts tagged ‘picture books’

For my Holladay ES Peeps

So fun to visit Holladay ES this morning. They’ve been reading MILAGROS in the fourth grade and also TIA ISA in the second grade.  We ran out of time for questions, so as promised, I’m answering here. From grade 2:

How did you get to be so good at writing?
Practice, practice, and more practice. I took lots of writing classes in high school and in college. Even today, I will take a writing class to learn how to tell a story better. Best of all, I have a writing group where I share my work with author friends and get their advice.  
How do you go about writing a book?
I usually start with a good character who has one big problem to solve — but that’s all I know. I write for a few hours every day, and I always start my day by fixing what I wrote the day before. (Sometimes that means I throw it all out and start that work again!) Slowly, slowly — chapter by chapter — the story starts to take shape. One secret is that I usually rewrite the first chapter after I’ve finished writing the whole book. Why? I like the first chapter to give a good hint about everything that is going to happen in the rest of the book.  Since I don’t know what’s going to happen until the book is done, I have to go back and redo it. 
What was your favorite book when you were in 2nd grade?

I can’t remember exactly from second grade, but I can tell you some of the books I loved in elementary school. My all-time favorite book was Charlotte’s Web. Such a sweet story of friendship. I also liked that it was set in the country. I grew up in the city, and the idea of cows and pigs and country fairs seemed so wonderful.

But there were so many books I loved. Here are some of the old book jackets of the stories I loved most. Some of them are still in print today, but they may look very different. Do you love any of these? 

City Mouse Visits Country Mouse, pictures by Richard Scarry

A Day at Marie Reed Elementary School

Last Thursday, I trekked up to DC to spend a day at Marie Reed Elementary School in Adams Morgan.

View from my seat on Amtrak

Four years into my life as a published author and I’ve realized that I’d rather do a thousand school visits than a book signing, which for me are often skimpy on attendance. There’s something about being around little people with no teeth that is much more satisfying.

Marie Reed is a lovely school, if a little oddly appointed. (Partitions offer a reminder of the open education experiment of the 1960s.) Truly, if Christine Reuss, my host, hadn’t been with me, I would never have found my way around. There’s a surprise around every corner. They have a garden that Michelle Obama planted to help them attract butterflies, and they have murals of the late salsa goddess Celia Cruz (¡azucar!) and Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. The auditorium is an amphitheater.

What I loved most about this little gem of a school, though, is that it offers both an English only and a dual language curriculum. This seems so much more sensible to me than trying to teach a language in middle school, when we all know that their tongues go thick and their courage, thin. To see an Asian kindergarten student rattling off “Asi Baila Juanito” like a native is about the loveliest thing I can imagine.

I read to the students, told them about how I wrote Tia Isa Wants a Car and Milagros.Then I listened to their songs and dances, and got treated to a writing project where students wrote – in Spanish or English – something they wanted to work hard to achieve – just the way Tia Isa had worked hard to get her car. Counting to big numbers. Reading for a long time. The list was impressive.

But maybe what I will remember most is the part of our day when I asked the kindergarten and first graders where they would go if they could have a car. Chuckie Cheese was a popular choice. Also, the beach. But one little girl came down the steps to where I was standing with my microphone.

“¿Donde quizieras ir en tu carro? Where would you want to go in your car?

“I would go to El Salvador to see my family,” she said. “I miss them.”

I thought of her the whole train ride home.

Meg’s next appearances:  SCBWI Midatlantic Conference, Arlington, VA, Oct.22 

Holladay Elementary School, Henrico, VA, Monday, Oct. 24

Four Days as a Kid’s Book Radical: CHLA

I’m just back from four days at the Children’s Literature Association’s conference. This year’s theme? Change and Insurrection in Children’s Literature.

view from my dorm at Hollins

The conference was held at Hollins University. For me that meant a three-hour ride through some of the most beautiful countryside in Virginia. Scholars of children’s literature from universities across the world came to present papers and debate ideas about books for kids.  I sat in on sessions about apocalyptic heroines and the use of music as a catalyst in YA literature; on racial whitewashing in The Babysitters Club and “kick-ass slayers and teen terminators;” on gendered portrayals; on how Maurice Sendak tackled taboo. Often, it made my brain hurt the way a good workout reduces my muscles to Jello. Here are a few other reasons I’m so glad I got invited.

Valerie Patterson, Brie Shannon, Steve Withrow and me

Steve Withrow’s documentary The Library of the Early Mind. Steve is a children’s book author and now a film producer. His documentary is a collection of the big names in children’s literature – authors, influential critics, librarians — talking about the books that are on everyone’s shelves. It is by turns informative, heartbreaking and hilarious. (Yes, Lemony Snickett is just as over-the-top in real life). I hope this movie gets shown everywhere and that it finds its way to PBS because it’s fantastic. Beyond the absolute “cool factor” of seeing what each author looks and sounds like – it’s an intriguing look at why and how writers compose.  Here’s a peek at his trailer.

A beautiful exhibit on children’s book illustration at the Eleanor Wilson Museum on campus. The lecture by illustrator Thacher Hurd made my whole Saturday. He’s the son of Clement Hurd, illustrator for the beloved classic, Goodnight Moon.  His family knew Margaret Wise Brown – known to them as Brownie – who was, of course, also the author of The Runaway Bunny and countless other works that have endured. How strange to find out she loved fur coats and was fond of a sport called “beagling.” (Think fox hunting on foot, except with a rabbit as the victim in the dog chase.) You have to shudder to think what might have inspired the title for that classic bunny tale.

Sitting on a panel with Uma Krishnaswami (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything), Wendy Shang, (The Great Wall of Lucy Wu), and Maha Addasi (The White Nights of Ramadan).  It felt like a meeting old friends as we talked about multicultural books and why we write them. Thanks to everyone who came out so early to hear us.

Julia Mickenberg and Philip Nel’s awesome paper called “Radical Children’s Literature Now.” They covered books that truly speak to conservation and  to organizing for opposition. They listed books that challenge gender roles, tackle war, and speak to LGBT issues openly and joyfully.  Here are the notes.

Dinner with my friend and colleague Valerie O. Patterson (The Other Side of Blue), Brie Shannon, and other friends.  The grilled seafood and naan (bread) was delicious!

Tips on book launches

My biggest fans!

This past weekend I celebrated two important milestones: my birthday and the launch of my new picture book. I love birthdays, even though the numbers are getting uncomfortably high. Books signings and launches? Hmmmm. I’m still new enough on the block that I get really excited — and then paralyzed by fear — at the thought of these events. The thought of an empty bookstore is my most gruesome professional fear beyond (1) developing a terminal case writer’s block, and (2) earning bad reviews from places I respect.

Luckily, I was spared this time. In fact, I had a great launch that left me feeling grateful for the many blessings I’ve received as a writer. So, by way of sharing helping writers who are getting started, here’s what I learned.

the window display

Pick a sensible launch spot: Richmond has many big box and fantastic independent bookstores. I chose the magical bbgb tales for kids. It’s  a tiny bookstore with a huge heart, loyal customers, and the kind of personal attention that I need to feel comfortable. Jill, Janessa, Diane, and Juliana love kids, love good books for kids, and they have a creative spirit that I admire. The shop was just the right size for me since I’m a mid-list author right now who needs a cozy spot to fill. You can see  the detail they put into my welcome signs,  the window display, and the refreshments.

Gracias, Manny at Kuba Kuba

Plan early: I started my conversation with bbgb about three months out. We decided that 2 hours was plenty for young readers. We also needed to clear the day and time (which was tricky in June when there are graduations, etc) — and make sure the launch didn’t conflict with the original publication date. Because my real pub date is June 15, I had to get special permission from Candlewick to host the party early.

Channel your inner Martha Stewart: You’ll need a theme, a soundtrack and refreshments — even if you hated doing these things for your own kids’ birthday parties.  Because Tía Isa Wants a Car is a summer book with Latino themes, the folks at bbgb had lemonade on hand, and our local Cuban restaurant, KubaKuba sent trays of empanadas, cheeses, and sandwiches. (Yum!) It was great to see folks sampling Cuban food and loving it. My friend, Gigi, also saved the day by making me an i-pod playlist of Latin music that gave the shop a party atmosphere.

Have a traditional media and a social media plan: This is no longer optional, so do not fight it. My initial conversation with bbgb included finding out which media outlets they would reach with their press releases – but that was just the beginning. Penelope Carrington of 804, an online magazine for our local Richmond Times Dispatch, shot a segment about Tía Isa Wants a Car, which ran about a week ahead of the event.  My own social media was also key. My publicist, Laura Rivas, connected me with several excellent blogs that matched the kind of writing I do. I had the chance to do Q & A’s to talk about the book. LatinBaby Blog and Powerful Latinas were great about this prior to the event. (Thank you, Aurelia Flores for the tweets). Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and fellow bloggers to tweet.

Don’t keep it a secret: Invite your friends, family, and book lovers. I sent a PINGG invitation (truly easy to use) a month before the event. I used my Facebook account and my small-but-increasingly potent Twitter circle to spread the word within two-weeks of the event.

Have things for your readers to do:  Plan to read, of course. But if your audience is composed of little ones, you’ll need more. Consider having activities for them. In our case, bbgb set up tables outside. They provided outlines of a car and plenty of art supplies. The directions read: Color your car. Where do you want your car to go?

story time

an outdoor art activity

Offer fun giveaways: I ordered buttons made from a small section of the cover. They are extremely cool, even if I do say so myself — and they aren’t gross advertisements.  I used Affordable Buttons. Again, you’ll need permission from the publisher to use any part of the cover image. (Thank you, Candlewick!)

lapel pins!

Promote your other books and well as your next events and projects: Every writer has books in progress, upcoming appearances, or other cool things they’re doing. Make sure your favorite fans know what you’re doing. I recently discovered through my friend, Ellen Brown. Booktour is a free and fantastic place to list all your appearances, and it automatically updates your Amazon author page. (If you don’t have one yet, it’s time.) I printed up cards for my upcoming Girls of Summer project, and made some paddle fans with the same info to help folks outside keep cool. (One mistake, the card stock was too thin.)

Enlist a volunteer to be your Name Guard: No one should come to you without a sticky note or index card where they’ve written their names clearly. Sounds silly? Not only does it avoid misspellings, but it saves you from the horror of forgetting a friend’s name. Let me tell you, it happens. There is a lot going on. Folks from all parts of your life are there. It’s easy to forget someone’s name and feel lousy about it for the rest of the day.

Practice your blurb ahead of time:  The pressure of saying the right thing can leave you speechless and awkward! You will get choked up trying to write something meaningful for the special folks; I can’t help you with that. Still, I found it helpful to have one consistent phrase that went into most books. For this launch, mine was Vroom!  I personalized as needed.

Say gracias:  Your mother was right. Everyone appreciates being appreciated. Definitely send a hand-written thank-you card to everyone who helped with the launch and mention them on your social media sites. Beyond that, pause before you go to sleep that night.Remind yourself how lucky you are to be able to write for children and to be surrounded for two quick hours by the people who care about you the most. If not for their support, where would you be?

Thanks everybody!

Girls of Summer

It’s nearly 100 degrees in Richmond, and my air conditioner is broken. It’s going to take a lot to make me happy this week, folks.

So, thank God for a project I’ve been working on with my friend and fellow Candlewick author, Gigi Amateau.  It’s called Girls of Summer, and it’s our own answer to those official summer reading lists that used to suck the joy out of reading for both of us. How we kept reading, we’ll never know.

If you’re not familiar with our stuff, you should know that Gigi and I both write about strong girls. Hers are southern, mine Latina – but we write about tough cookies, and it turns out, those are the same the world over. This summer, as our own beautiful daughters are graduating from high school, we’ve decided to celebrate girl power through the thing we love most: writing.

Here’s a little taste of what we have in mind via a Mac-made trailer. (Thank you Chris Cheng at SCBWI for teaching me how!) But you’ll have to be patient. We’re still putting the finishing touches on things. In the next few weeks, we’ll roll out the blog with our selections and why we like them. We hope you’ll comment, read interviews with the authors and enjoy hearing snippets of work. Then on July 28, 2011 we’ll feature the list as part of James River Writers’ July Writing Show in Richmond, VA.  You’ll be able to hang out with librarians, teachers, kids, and writers — and you’ll meet Steve Watkins and Valerie Patterson, two Girls of Summer authors who will talk about writing YA with strong girls as the focus. Another reason to attend?  Thanks to extremely generous and enthusiastic publicists at more than a dozen publishers, there’s a drawing to win an entire set of the reading list.

So, stay tuned and stay COOL.

Win my book on Latin Baby Book Club

I took my son, the baby of our family, to see colleges this weekend — a road trip that featured a lot of sweet memories, perhaps fueled by eating too much ice cream made on an on-campus creamery.  Yum.

But that wasn’t the only delicious thing that happened. I was also featured on Latin Baby Book Club.(Check it out;  you can win a free copy of TIA ISA WANTS A CAR). How I wish I’d had a blog like that 15 years ago when I was raising my own “latin babies” and teaching them to love books – and their roots. 

We live in Richmond, Virginia, a southern city with a growing Latino population, but it’s not like other places we’ve lived, like South Florida, where Latino culture has so significantly shaped communities. Nobody here was whipping out an empanada from their lunch sack. Cinco de Mayo  and Three Kings Day was about all anybody knew.

My three kids are all American in so many ways. In fact, they speak Spanish so poorly that their abuelas can barely forgive me. Back then, they read Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse and the Magic Treehouse series and Harry Potter. Still, something like Latin Baby Book Club might have helped me do the important work of making my kids proud of where they come from.

Sure, you can’t  keep Latino kids from being as American as anybody else in their class. (Ask my mother; she’ll tell you.) It’s inevitable; you belong to the place you grow up.  It’s just that we all search for the reflection of our experience in the pages of a book. Kids need to see people who look and sound like them going on daring and unforgettable adventures. That’s part of the reason I write: to give all Latino kids (including my own) a sense of the value of our story. Muchisimas gracias a Latin Baby Book Club for sharing my work. ¡Cariños a todos!


After a long day of sitting at the library, where I wrestled endlessly with a chapter, I came home to a great surprise. My editor, Kate, sent me a finished copy of Tía Isa Wants a Car — my picture book that pubs in June. Thank you Claudio Muñoz for the beautiful, retro art and all of your insights.  Thank you Kate for loving this little story. And muchisimas gracias to the real tía Isa who taught me that everyone has the power to get behind her own wheel.

¡Mucho gusto!

Introductions are always a little awkward, except when you’re an author meeting kids of any age. Thankfully, they go right for what matters, no small talk. So here, by way of introduction, are my vitals in kid format.

I live in Virginia with my family (husband, mother-in-law, three teens), a black, shaggy dog (Noche) and a fierce hunting machine cat named Wolfe.

My house is, in fact, messy, especially around deadlines, when I forget to bathe and I wander around mumbling dialogue.

My favorite candy is MilkDuds, no matter what my dentist says. I buy the extra big box at the movies every time.

I write for about four hours a day at a little desk tucked in my livingroom. When I can’t think of what to write I walk Noche or throw in some laundry.

Yes, I speak Spanish and English. My family is from Cuba.

No. I’m not especially rich or famous. I don’t need extra big sunglasses or anything.

You can ask me other burning questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.