Thursday, January 31, 2008


Yesterday I drove up in front of my grocery store and noticed two police officers handcuffing a young woman. At that exact moment I was learning from NPR about John Edwards' departure from the presidential campaign. The report included a sound-bite of him urging his opponents to remember the poverty issue with their other concerns. Call it a coincidence, but those dual events overwhelmed me.

As someone who has too many books overflowing in her home, it is hard to imagine a child who doesn't own a single book. But it is even harder to accept that same child is hungry for food. According to, over 13 million kids are hungry in the United States today.

When I saw the woman handcuffed yesterday, my heart ached for her. It's one thing to be arrested for robbing a bank and something entirely different to be taken away for stealing a roast.

I found myself thinking of the woman beyond that moment. It was as if I knew her before and after the incident. She was a single mom with two hungry young children. She didn't know anyone who would have enough money to pay her bail, much less be willing to watch her kids. She didn't know how to move beyond that moment.

That's what writers do, isn't it? We witness a fleeting event and it becomes a story. But sometimes those grim stories are somebody elses reality.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Since many readers of this blog are adults, I hope you will forgive me for stepping out of the children's world today to talk about a fine writer of adult literature.

For years I heard her name mentioned by writers I admire. Then a few years ago, I finally bought a book of short stories by Alice Munro. After reading a couple of her stories, I felt like someone who had attended a play that everyone had raved about for years. What took me so long?

Munro has dedicated her writing life to the short story, that humble slice of humanity so many readers ignore. As someone who loves short stories more than any other form, I admit to being a bit annoyed when I hear the same excuse from readers who forsake short stories for novels--"I want more." Why do you need more when someone has said it so powerfully in less pages? Munro's stories may have fewer words than a thick novel, but I find myself thinking about her characters and their dilemmas long after I've finished the last sentence. Isn't that what good stories are supposed to do?

Munro is well into her seventies and she continues to write outstanding stories. That excites me as a reader and a writer. To think our best work can be ahead of us is more than hopeful. It's invigorating.

Last night I thought a lot about Alice Munro when I watched the talented Julie Christie win a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance in Away from Her. The film is a compelling movie about a man losing his wife to Alzheimer's. It is based on a short story--Alice Munro's The Bear Came Over the Mountain.

Though her name wasn't mentioned last night, I hope she heard my applause. Bravo, Ms. Munro! Keep the stories coming.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


"The day is long, but goes fast, which is just what you get when your day is full of things you like and are interested in."

--Violet Bing and the Grand House by Jennifer Paros

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


A baby dressed in a devil's costume, a werewolf flagging down a taxi, employees puffing cigarettes near the ATM, and girls buying apples from a corner vendor. I witnessed those details from a New York taxi window as I rode from the Henry Holt office to my hotel on Halloween afternoon in 2003.

The next night, I ate sweet breads in a vinaigrette and foie gras with Linda Sue Park at La Luncheonette in Chelsea.

How do I have such a remarkable memory? I don't. But I always have a tiny notebook with me. Miscellaneous snippets fill its pages--sensory details of places I happen to be, meals I've eaten, grocery lists, addresses, quotes from Pam Conrad and Flannery O'Connor, book titles, webs of presentations I'm scheduled for or scenes I want to include in a book. Some pages simply showcase a list of words I love.

While researching in Pensacola, a few years ago, I took my tiny notebook to the beach. After settling on top of a picnic table, I wrote my observations--dark hooded seagulls resting on posts, weather forecasts coming from a motorcycle's radio, tanners gathering up their towels. That moment would never be the same, but I could return to it again. All I had to do was open my notebook.

Friday, January 18, 2008


When I asked Danielle to revamp my website two years ago, I had a few goals in mind. I wanted the site to be fun and interesting for kids, but also helpful to teachers and writers. Danielle helped me achieve that, but so have a few other people.

Nine years ago, when I met Cynthia Leitich Smith, she said "You need to have teachers guides to your books."

"I wouldn't know how to begin to write them," I told her.

"Ask a teacher," she said. The answer was so simple.

Most of my novels have teachers guides thanks to Patti Roberts and Betty Carter. And now you can find teachers guides for my picture books, Waiting for Gregory and Skinny Brown Dog. The guides were written by retired special ed teacher, Brenda Willis. Brenda taught students in grades K-8 at Pretty Water School in Pretty Water, Oklahoma. She also happens to be my mom. Thanks Mom!

To read or download one of the guides, simply go to the chosen book's page and scroll down to find the Teachers Guide button.

If you're a teacher of young children in the Texas Panhandle, I hope you've enrolled at Panhandle Association for the Education of Young Children Winter Conference. The conference is this Saturday, January 19 at the Amarillo College Business and Industry Center. I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I should have known when I discovered a Christmas wreath hanging on my daughter's bedroom door and the Noel sign tucked in the corner of the bookshelf that I had not let go of that holiday state of mind. I should have suspected something was amiss when I ordered a cupcake with my coffee the other day and caught myself humming a carol in the car. That explains how the ALA awards announcement happened without me being aware.

This is the first year since I've been published that I didn't remember.
In past years, the announcement date has been quite an affair. My ritual was to check the posted list on line and head to my local bookstore. It's always a bonus to have read a few of the winners before the announcement. It makes me feel like I'm on the cheerleading squad. This year I feel like Rip Van Winkle.

So excuses aside, all traces of the holiday season are packed away and I'm heading toward the bookstore.
If you were like me(though I doubt it) and missed the announcement, you can find out the scoop by following this link:

Congratulations to each of the winners--medals and honors and notables. Enjoy your year. You deserve it!

Monday, January 14, 2008


The available weeks have been set. If you are interested in booking me for the next school year, please contact me at My presentations and writing workshops are for grades K-12th.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Congratulations Pam W. and Aprille L., both from Texas! You are the winners of a signed copy of Skinny Brown Dog.

For those of you who didn't win, here's a little something for you, too. (If you want a bookmark from any of my other books, go to that book's page on this website.)

Also check out the Fun Activity on the Skinny Brown Dog page. You can make cookies at Benny and Brownie's Bakery. And they're not fattening!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


This month's giveaway is extra-special because Donald Saaf agreed to sign the books, too. There will be two winners.

If you want to enter the drawing for a chance to win a signed copy of Skinny Brown Dog:

Send your name and mailing address to

Write January Giveaway in the subject line.

Also this month you have to work a little harder. Study Donald's early pictures of Brownie in the Donald Saaf blog article. Then look at the final picture on the cover. In your entry, include the phyical detail that was added.

You can start entering today. The deadline is Friday, January 11, 2008 at 5:00 pm. central time. Good luck!

Note: The drawing below the cover above is not by Donald. That masterpiece is the creation of first grader, Julia of Amarillo, Texas.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


Six things you might not have known about my writing process of Skinny Brown Dog:

1. The story broke a bad case of writer's block.

2. The original title was That's Not My Dog. Then I learned there was another children's book by that title.

3. Miss Patterson is named for my grandmother's next-door neighbor who taught her to cook. (She did a very good job.)

4. When I first learned that Donald had made the characters animals, I decided to give the children names. It would have seemed odd to call an animal "a little boy."

5. When my editor told me the dog didn't have much personality in an early draft, I didn't have to look far for inspiration. Our dog, Bronte has plenty of personality.

6. I learned how to spell raspberry when I wrote this book.

JANUARY GIVEAWAY: Details tomorrow!

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Donald Saaf, illustrator of Skinny Brown Dog

Today I'd like to introduce you to the other half behind Skinny Brown Dog. Illustrator Donald Saaf is multi-talented. Besides illustrating Ten Little Sleepyheads, Jump Up and other delightful stories, Donald plays the banjo on Dan Zanes' Catch that Train CD. He also sculpts whimsical figures from wood and sandstone. On top of that, he's married to Julia Zanes, a fine artist in her own right.

I asked Donald to share his process of illustrating Skinny Brown Dog. Along with his comments, he sent along a few early sketches.

"For these pictures I used a sort of fake renaissance technique, where I painted them out in tones and then added the color in washes on top. I didn't have a special reason for making them all animals, except that I really enjoy putting animals into clothing, but I found once I did this, it transformed the story a little bit and emphasized the element of unfair exclusion.

"Why isn't a dog allowed?

"This story was a pleasure to work on and I really came to love all the characters."

To learn more about Donald Saaf, please visit his website:

Thursday, January 3, 2008


When my mother asked my grandpa if he'd like to accompany them on their visit to our house during the holidays, Pa said, "I sure do. I've never been to Amarillo before."

I love that my 92-year-old grandfather made room for another new adventure. While he was here, I decided to take advantage of the situation and interviewed him. We had three interview sessions, the last one held the hour before my family departed for their journey home.

A lot of people are interested in genealogy. They want to fill out the family tree with names from generations ago. But I'm most interested in the stories of the people I've known and loved. My mother and Shannon listened as Pa talked about his childhood, his marriage and various jobs. I even asked him stories I'd heard before, but this time I learned something new. One of those favorite stories was about how he met J.P., my grandmother. She was 4 feet 10 inches tall and playful. My grandfather owned a tiny country general store and was busy doing inventory the day she came in with her cousin.

Pa said, "They were cutting up and I couldn't concentrate. I thought they were little kids so I gave them a pack of gum to go play outside the store."

"What changed?" I asked. "How did you go from thinking J.P. was a little girl to courting her?"

With a wink, he said, "I got to looking at her closer and noticed she wasn't no little girl."

Three months later they eloped. That led to another story.

I hope you discover many family stories this year. The stories are there. All you have to do is ask, then listen.