Wednesday, March 28, 2018

My Mother Made Me -- Remembering Virginia Carson Kelley (1924 - 2018)

My mother made me a novelist. It wasn't her intention. We had the worst of our disagreements when I insisted on pursuing a life in the theater. She was right. I wasn't cut out to be an actress. But I did, as I once told her in overly dramatic fashion, HAVE to write. And that's because of her.

Language was Mom's life. Our house was full of books. She loved reading to herself and to us. Usually the books were from her own childhood--well-worn volumes which her own mother had probably read to her. Some were classics like Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and Little Women. Others were more obscure, such as Jane's Father, who, like my own dad, had unconventional but endearing ways.

Mom was also a master of conversation. She could talk with anybody, particularly a shy person whom nobody else seemed to notice. She understood people sometimes painfully all too well. She paid attention to details that we kept hidden even from ourselves. She usually pointed those out to us in humorous fashion. Her "zingers" were famous in our family. She was hardest on herself, however. She loved retelling the story about the time a guest discovered the dead chipmunk our cat left under a chair. Mom just laughed and said she should have done a better job of dusting.

But her letters were her real gifts to us. She seemed to type them effortlessly, batting them out, as she said. Droll descriptions of what she had been doing, the tennis games, the strawberries picked and made into jam, the lunches with friends whom my father referred to her as her clients because they always needed to talk to her. Mostly the letters contained questions and compliments about the details of our lives. They are treasures. I wish I had saved every single one.

At the time when I was becoming a writer, I discovered a short story she had written when she was in college. I can't remember how I found it in a box in the attic. Mom's family had many writers. Her own mother was a well-respected novelist whom some compared to Jane Austen. Her aunt was a biographer and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Her great aunt was a newspaper columnist for the Milwaukee Journal. And so I wasn't surprised by the quality of Mom's short story. I was surprised that she hadn't written more.

Who knows why some march forward while others stand to the side. When I asked her why she hadn't kept on, she said that she was too lazy. But I suspect her own parents hadn't been as encouraging as mine.

Mom was very proud of my books. I always read her early drafts of whatever I was working on. She was generous with her laughter and praise, and always had a few astute suggestions. I am forever in her debt.

Virginia Carson Kelley does leave a legacy. Her beloved children and grandchildren all have some of her wisdom, her wit, her love of family, and her appreciation for words.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


A writer friend read a draft of one of my novels. She gave me lots of great feedback. In particular, she pointed to a scene in which the kids visit their friend and are greeted by a stay-at-home mom.

"I know you're writing the world we usually see," my friend said. "But why use stereotypical roles? Why not show a more diverse world? Then it can become the norm."

"Absolutely," I agreed. I felt chastened to be caught in conventional thinking.

So I changed the scene. I had the stay-at-home parent be a dad. I gave the mom an important, high salary job as a lawyer who is fighting for justice.

There was an unintended consequence. The mom never appeared in the book. She was at her law office. The dad got to be in a funny scene baking spinach brownies. This caused a whole new imbalance. What had I done?!?!

Obviously I could have conceived of a story in which the lawyer mom had a crucial role. But my intention had been to write about saving our planet! (Unfortunately, that was too big a job for a kid, so I changed the idea to saving the butterflies.) Did I have to worry about male-female role models too? Isn't this just a kids' book?

No, it isn't. Words have power. We feel validated when we connect with a character or situation we recognize. When we encounter the unfamiliar, we are enlarged.

Writing is a series of choices. The character does this or that, looks like this or that, and says this or that. The multitude of small decisions coalesce to make the book.

Which brings me to the question I'd been pondering even before my friend's suggestion. The world is beset by problems. So many injustices, so many crises, including those poor monarch butterflies. I'm just a writer. What can I do?

Pay attention. Be aware of the problems. Learn about them. Use facts whenever possible. That will lead to better writing.

Upend preconceived notions. Shun the stale and the trite. That's better writing.

Strive for balance. Not just among types of characters, but within them. Treat every character with respect. That's better writing.

Be honest. Kids see through our best attempts to guide them. They know damn well there's spinach in that brownie. Don't gloss over situations. Characters should change and grow. That's better writing.

One of the reasons I love what I do is that I can make a happy ending. I can't cure cancer or end poverty. But I can make bold heroes who happen to be girls. I can make friendships exist where they usually don't. I can make sensitive dads and brothers. I can make wise women give just the right amount of encouragement and advice.

I can write the change I want to see in the world.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


STEP ONE:  Invite her to your school.

When educators make time for an author visit, they send a strong signal that books are important. Last spring, Mrs. Stacia Kohlstedt asked if I would visit St. Mary's School in Richland Center, Wisconsin. I happily agreed. Meeting young readers always inspires me and reminds me why I do what I do.

STEP TWO:  Read her book prior to the visit.

All of the grades read my books. The students had excellent questions and comments about what they had read. The seventh graders did an entire study on Nature Girl. Their illustrated reports lined the hallway.

I was really impressed by their analysis of character, plot, and setting.

I loved seeing Trail Blaze Betty get the credit she deserves for guiding Megan's journey. (Look--there's her famous hat!)

STEP THREE:  Let her discuss topics she's passionate about.


Fiction is a powerful tool that enables us to view the world from someone else's perspective. In my books, I've been a boy with too much imagination, an African gray parrot, and a snotty girl who is transformed by hiking. In other people's books, I've been a runaway slave, a soldier, and a Syrian refugee. Whether you're a reader, a writer, or both, your life will be enriched by being inside someone who is different from you. 

STEP FOUR:  Invite her to lunch with a few of your students.

Pizza! Kids! Conversation about school and books and butterflies. St. Mary's is passionate about saving monarchs--which happens to be the theme for a book I'm currently writing.

Thank you, Mrs. Stacia Kohlstedt, St. Mary's teachers and students for a wonderful day, for sharing your ideas--and for helping me write my next book.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators knows the importance of school visits. That’s where the kids are! In a noisy world, teachers and librarians are often the best ones to connect readers to books.

Unfortunately, schools aren’t always able to host these visits. But at the Wisconsin Educational Media & Technology Association convention, the SCBWI booth was mobbed by educators entering a drawing for a FREE author visit. Nancy Washnieski, a 6th grade teacher from Washburn, Wisconsin, was the lucky winner of a visit and a bag of books by Wisconsin authors and illustrators.

By happy coincidence, Nancy had already bought a copy of my middle-grade novel NATURE GIRL to share with her students. So I got to make the trip from the coast of one great lake to another -- beyond the reach of the interstate, through the Chequamegon National Forest, past Mercer (the loon capitol of the world), to Washburn on the shore of Lake Superior.

I wasn't sure what kind of school I would find in a town of only 2000. (There are schools in New York City that have that many students!) But I knew we had the most important thing in common – we all loved books.

Nancy had been reading NATURE GIRL to her students. They enjoyed Megan’s adventures on the Appalachian Trail, even though they were shocked she didn’t know how to start a campfire. Unlike my heroine, these kids loved being in nature.

They had so many great questions about writing and the reasons for choices I had made. They shared their ideas for a project I’m just beginning – in which a kid from the country gets lost in the city. 

Thank you, Washburn School! I loved sharing my books with you. And thanks for the water bottle with your school's mascot Castle Guards. It came in very handy as I hiked along the spectacular coast of Lake Superior.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Meet Clint McCool

Zing, zong, zing! Brain flash! It's time for another Clint McCool Escapade.

Clint McCool's real name is Walter. But he had to give himself a new identity. Real life just isn't exciting enough for a kid with limitless imagination.

I had so much fun working on this character. It was great to imagine outrageous adventures with alligators and monsters instead of the serious issues my other characters had been grappling with.

As you can see from these covers, Jessika von Innerebner really brought Clint McCool and his exciting escapades to life.  Her illustrations appear throughout these chapter books.

Pre-order the first books of this series by  clicking this link. 

Creativity should be celebrated. New ideas should be encouraged. And yet Clint McCool does live in the real world where escapades have consequences. Octopus's arms will come off––if you yank on them. Jars of brains will break––if you drop them. Flooded streets are impossible to cross. Your best friend Marco will get mad––if you ruin his XL7 Ray Bender. Especially if you took it without his permission.

Things go wrong! That is unavoidable. But whenever Clint gets in trouble, he learns a lesson. His imagination finds a delightful way to fix the disaster. And he also sincerely apologizes. Because we should also use our powers of imagination to think about how it feels to be someone else.

That's how I love to use my brain.

Zing, zong, zing!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Connecting With Readers

I want my books to be a conversation with another person.

When I write, I imagine the characters and their world. I also imagine what a reader will think or feel. When they will laugh. Or gasp. Or maybe even cry.

Sometimes I'm lucky enough to find out. When I began writing Nature Girl, my first novel for kids, I lived with a young reader--my ten-year-old daughter Sofia. She happened to pick up the notebook in which I had begun the story of a girl named Megan. I could see by Sofia’s enthusiasm that she loved Megan’s journey. And I also knew when Sofia lost interest! Fortunately she could pinpoint exactly where my story had gotten off track, so I could fix it.

Now that my novels are published, I have conversations with more readers. Sometimes I get to meet them at school appearances. Sometimes they write to me to tell me what they like or didn’t like about a book. I love any kind of feedback.

I got a very special email the other day. My second novel, The Girl Behind the Glass, inspired Olivia in Biloxi, Mississippi, to create this fantastic display for a book fair.

Olivia stands in front of her prize winning display.

There’s the house, creepier than I envisioned. I love how it looks like it’s screaming. There are the hemlock trees. There are the twins at the closet door. Olivia even remembered to put in the bats.

Congratulations, Olivia! Your hard work and imagination is amazing. I’m so proud that my book inspired you. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

A birthday blog!

I'm not the only writer who was born today. 
Mary Roberts Rinehart 1914

Mary Roberts Rinehart was born on August 12, 1876. She studied nursing and married a doctor. After the stock market crash of 1903, she turned to writing as a way to make money. And she did! 

She wrote dozens of books and plays, and hundreds of short stories and articles. She was a war correspondent at the Belgian front during WWI. She had breast cancer, like me, and was one of the first to share that experience in an article in The Ladies Home Journal.

Many of her books were mysteries; she was often called the American Agatha Christie. She’s credited with the phrase: “The butler did it!” because he had, in her novel The Door.

In another book, she created a criminal who always wore a bat costume. This character inspired Bob Kane’s “Batman.”

Would she be surprised to find out that those two memes live on one hundred years later? 

Happy birthday, Mary! I'm proud to share your day. I wonder what aspect of my life I will look back on and think, as so many of her characters did in her mysteries, Had I But Known…..