Allison's Book Bag

This is my second post about the 2018 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Now in its 23rd year, the festival is for anyone who loves to read or write children’s books.

This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for older readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.


Laurie Halse Anderson is a New York best-selling author known for her children’s and young adult novels. In 2010, she received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 2010 for her contribution to young adult literature. I bought her book Speak with me to get signed as well as a title from her Vet Volunteer series.

This is her second time in Nebraska. A couple of years ago she visited Omaha and was greeted with lots of popcorn. The title of her presentation at Plum Creek was “Speaking up About Hard Things.”

Adolescence is hard; our culture often doesn’t know how to talk about it.

Anderson currently lives in Philadelphia. Her son is back from the military. He posted recently on social media about the need to listen to victims of sexual violence. This made her cry, because he obviously listened to her passion about this issue. She had five grandsons under the age of six; another grandson is on the way. Life is amazing for her now, but it didn’t use to be.

People who had known Anderson a long time ago and had tried to help her survive are surprised at her current life. As a child, she struggled with speech, attention, and reading. She loved being taken out of class by special education teachers to learn how to read. Once she figured out “the code of reading,” she read all the time and everywhere. On Thursdays, the library used to remain open a little late, and she’d stay to read books on her belly.

Silence poisons us and hurts our society. Identify those things which make you not comfortable and talk about them.

Adolescence was complicated for Anderson. Her family moved three times and she wasn’t happy in middle school. She was no longer a girl but growing into a women. She grew up in a culture of silence and wasn’t taught how to deal with periods. No one talked about changing bodies, relationships, race, or other uncomfortable issues.

Her dad grew up in a small town. He wanted to operate a gas station. Fighting in the war and seeing concentration camps changed his life. He saw firsthand what hate does and decided to live in love by becoming a minister. He wrote poetry and Anderson was inspired to write because of him. Then he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and began to drink. He became an alcoholic and lost his pastoral position. They were living in a parsonage and so they lost their home. Eventually, her dad figured stuff out, and he returned to the church.

The family continued to move, and Anderson hated high school. Their house was a dump. She was tall and didn’t fit in with her peers. In a three-week relationship with a guy, she allowed him to kiss her and he raped her. She didn’t talk about it because she was afraid her dad would shoot him. She values that her parents loved her, but the problem was that she was afraid they’d react out of love and go to jail. Instead she spent a year on drugs, but she had a gym teacher who encouraged her to pursue sports. He inspired her to stay clean and to do her homework. She started hanging out with people with healthier relationships.

Every author gets letters from kids who say they stopped reading at fourth grade, because the books are no longer fun or don’t connect with them. Those kids who aren’t reading at age 18 are another lost citizen. We do a disservice to young people when books don’t reflect their experiences.

Anderson read every book she could find, but not the books being taught in school because she didn’t see herself in those book. For 25 years, Anderson didn’t tell anyone about being raped. Even then, she only spoke up because she was a mother, but she was depressed.

When you’re surrounded by light, you don’t need candles. It’s in the dark that you need light. Even the “normal” kids are confused when they reach adolescence.

Her books are known as a problem novel, a term Anderson dislikes. To her, if a book doesn’t have problems, it’s a phone book. She prefers to call her books “resilience” literature, an ideal which she believes all kids need to learn this.

Her book Twisted was written in reaction to Speak. Only 27% are reported of sexual assaults reported; false reporting is only 2-7% which is the same as other crimes. Boys liked Speak but didn’t understand why the main character was so upset. Anderson said that society need to hear their reaction and to educate them. Guys might say “I pushed too far” “I took it too far” “It’s not rape.” Society needs to talk about boundaries. Her book Shout is a free-verse book that covers experiences of young people who have talked to her about sexual assault.

Her book Wintergirls is about anorexia, which has highest mortality rate in the US. A teen had her mom do a tattoo on her neck: “I am thawing.” Anderson said we all know adults who didn’t make it through their adolescence but are scarred today. We don’t want people to be scarred; we want them to be vibrant.

History is the study of gossip.

Anderson wrote Fever 1793 after reading an article about the fever epidemic in Philadelphia. She likes gross medical things and thought middle school students would too. While doing her research, she stumbled across a fact that changed her life: Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. In his later life he realized this was wrong, but he couldn’t change the situation in his lifetime, and so he released them in his will. Anderson began to research slavery and found a lot of things she didn’t know about the Civil War but hesitated before taking on the project of writing a book from the viewpoint of African Americans. She talked with her editor for six months about race before writing Fever 1793. He told her “Slavery is not the African American experience; it’s the American experience; We as white people owe our nation to learn more.”

Censorship is the child of fear and father of ignorance. Jesus didn’t just say NO; he told stories. When we engage with stories, we fill in the blanks and make connections.

Some of Anderson’s books have been censored. At first, she was hurt and then mad, but this wasn’t constructive and so she began to listen to what the censors had to say. She found out they were afraid. They don’t know how to talk to the kids. They believed if they didn’t talk about it, then bad stuff won’t happen. She’s tried to respect the fear and engage censors in conversation.


Megan MacDonald is the author of the popular and award-winning Judy Moody and Stink series. She is also the author of The Sisters Club and has written many picture books. I bought the first book in each of the series for her to sign. In her presentation, she shared a little about her life and a lot about the inspirations behind her books.

Her dad dropped out of school in eighth grade but was always a reader and instilled a love of reading in MacDonald and her sisters. Her dad’s nickname was “Little Storyteller” because he could turn anything into a story. The threat worked. One day MacDonald and her sister resolved to read all the books on the bookmobile. The sisters didn’t realize that the books were replenished every night and so there was no way to read all the books. Shed learned how to measure the value of a book from her sisters. If the last page made them made cry, the book was good. A family rule was no books at the supper table. Her dad made the threat he would rip out last page if anyone caught with a book.

As the youngest, MacDonald never got to say anything and so developed a stutter. Her mom tried to solve the problem by going to the bookstore to get a book about how to help kids who stutter. A bookstore person suggested Harriet the Spy instead, which inspired MacDonald to start taking notes. She didn’t want to spy on neighbors and so instead she spied on a local famous person. The guy had a big dog and the dog bit her. Her spying days were over, but she continued to journal.

At college, MacDonald picked creative writing to major. She wore her best turtleneck and black pants and tried to look the part. She met with the head of the English department. He told her to go home and rip up her poems. She jumped up to leave but he stopped her. He told her, “You’re a prose writer.” She ran home and looked up the meaning of prose in dictionary to find out who she was. Prose was defined as ordinary and dull. Somehow, she still became a writer. She realized it was okay to write about ordinary stuff.

MacDonald started with picture books. She was working at a public library and running its story time. Puppets were donated. She couldn’t find a story for the hermit crab and so she made up a story. The parents wanted to know where to find the book. She decided to write it down. Next, she wrote about tales from her dad’s life, from history, from illustrations. Some of her books became Reading Rainbow offerings and Sparks New Reader offerings.

Ideas can come from anywhere. MacDonald has a photo of her face down on the driveway. Her parents just wanted a nice photo, but she wasn’t having anything of it and threw a tantrum. This photo inspired the idea behind Judy Moody.

MacDonald wrote two drafts of her book. The first version was a set of random stories. Her editor suggested she find a common theme. Megan submitted a 300-page book. Her editor told her this was too long but suggested she write a series. And she did!

The illustrator took 200 tries to get the cover of Judy Moody right. Judy was too young. Too sad. Too scary. Then impish and just right. The publisher printed the artwork on a cover that looks like brown paper. McDonald’s editor didn’t want to tell her for fear she wouldn’t like it, but the idea worked because brown paper is what Megan grew up with.

Her books start out as an idea written down on whatever is handy. MacDonald wrote down Judy Muddy on a napkin. The idea turned into Judy Moody Becomes Famous. Judy Moody Gets Famous is her book that receives the most mail. Some kids think Judy should have gotten famous by doing something big. Others love that she was famous by a good deed.

MacDonald saved the napkin because the idea on it had turned into a book, but also because students kept telling her that she could sell it on Ebay for millions. She received a book made of napkins. Now she can keep a book of her ideas.

Yes, there is Judy Moody movie! She co-wrote the movie screenplay. The director wants action and so McDonald suggested a chase scene after Bigfoot. Judy Movie has an ABC gum collection: Already Been Chewed gum! The movie people made a gum board and labeled the gums and gave it to McDonald.

The idea of a series about Stink came from boy readers who wanted more about Judy Moody’s brother. The science stuff he likes is based on MacDonald’s interests. She was upset that Pluto was demoted from being a planet. In her town there is a zombie walk. She fed cereal to slime mold, the slime grew, and she took pictures that she sent to Megan. A nephew was the only boy at Shakespeare camp. And the list of ideas continues!


The year after I resigned from teaching, I skipped the annual Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. The call was too strong this year to resist.

Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, now in its 23rd year, is for anyone who loves to read or write children’s books. Saturdays are for adults. Authors sign books at 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sectionals follow the morning signings and precede the afternoon signings. An author luncheon is at noon.

This year I attended sectionals by five authors. I’m featuring picture book authors in this post and will feature authors who write for older readers in a separate post. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.


Kelly DiPucchio is a New York best-sellers’ list author. She received 600 rejections before she got her first acceptance. I bought two of her books at the festival: Gaston is about a puppy mix-up and its sequel Antoinette is about a puppy in peril. My husband reviewed Zombie in Love here in 2013.

DiPucchio shared a presentation entitled My Life in Dog Years. Dogs have always been part of her life.

If my publishers allow me, I’ll keep writing books about just dogs.

Pokey Years

Even DiPucchio’s first memory of a book is a dog title. The Pokey Little Puppy, a children’s book by Janette Sebring Lowrey, was first published in 1942 as one of the first twelve books in the Simon & Schuster series Little Golden Books.  As of 2001, The Poky Little Puppy is the single all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in the U.S., having sold nearly 15 million copies.

Fluffy Years

DiPucchio grew up on a small farm in Michigan. She used to jump off the barn roof into covered manure piles and had a pet goat. For fun, she and her friends played in the cemetery. She grew up outdoors with her imagination.

Her mom belonged to a book club where one receives books through the mail. DiPucchio has found most of the titles she remembers from childhood on Ebay and has enjoyed reliving them.

Her first dog was a cock-a-poo named Fluffy. He inspired the writing of Goldfish wants a Pet.

Chip Years

Her next dog was Chip. “He wasn’t the smartest dog,” DiPucchio said. “He used to sleep on the pavement.”

DiPucchio began to read on her own. When her parents stopped reading to her, DiPucchio’s favorite part of the day became when teachers read to the class. She was excited to buy a hardcover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Scholastic and still owns it.

During her childhood, the family’s basement was flooded. Most of her writings lost. A series DiPucchio wrote called Vegetable Hospital (inspired by General Hospital) was salvaged.

In high school, DiPucchio took art classes and began to compare herself to others. DiPucchio said, “I drew realistic drawings but thought I wasn’t good and so I stopped. I’ve always wonder what might have happened if I had continued. Maybe today I’d be an illustrator too.”

Cujo Years

DiPucchio entered a dark time in her life. “I joke that I’m Barb from Stranger Things,” she said. Her dog Fluffy died. Her parent divorced. Her mom moved off the farm into a townhouse. DiPucchio cut herself off from others and began reading adult novels.

Ming Years

At a new high school, DiPucchio took advantage of the opportunity to change her life. She got contact lens, made new friends, and took an English composition class. At graduation time, whenever everyone was throwing out stuff, she held onto a notebook that she didn’t want to discard. “I wasn’t dreaming of being an author,” DiPucchio said, “but the seeds were planted.”

Spot Years

DiPucchio graduated from college with a degree in social worker. Working with foster care families was tough work but she loved it.

As a mom, she read what she considers cheap commercial books to her children. Everything changed when she started checking out books from the library. DiPucchio said, “I discovered True Story of 3 Little Pigs and wanted to become Jon Scieszka.”

Her grandmother sent her dream notes and asked her to turn them into a story. The result was an unpublished story called The Turtle Who Could Dance. DiPucchio began working seriously on her craft. Her books were too long and so she joined a critique group. “One is told to write what you know,” DiPucchio joked, “I knew sleep deprivation best because of my kids and so my first book was Bed Hogs.”

Whimsey Years

DiPucchio’s next dog was Whimsey. Her son had terrible school anxiety and wanted to trade places with Whimsey. Her son grew up to become a professor!

During the years that the family owned Whimsey, DiPucchio wrote several books. McBloom Clean Up Your Classroom, published in 2008, won the Golden Sower. It resulted in her first trip to Nebraska.  Grace for President was inspired by a student who when looking at a wall of presidents asked, “Where are the girls?” DiPucchio researched the field and found no picture book had covered electoral votes. Crafty Choe also won the Golden Sower. It was Inspired by her daughter who loved to do crafts. DiPucchio wrote Zombies in Love! for fun after she realized no one had written about bacon. She pitched the book this way to her agent: This is the best and worst story I’ve never written. I’ve no idea what you’ll think.”

Gaston Years

Whimsey lived for 14 years. After this death, DiPucchio didn’t plan to get another dog. “I couldn’t handle the emotional loss,” she said. Then she got two dogs!

She also wrote the book Gaston, earning her a third Golden Sower. Gaston was inspired by a You Tube video of a French Bull dog. The narrator’s voice for the book came to DiPucchio in a French accent. The Gaston “phenomena” has caught DiPucchio off guard. “People send me their French Bull Dog photos,” said DiPucchio. “A special needs student is obsessed with Gaston and writes his own.”


Zachary Ohora is an award-winning illustrator and author. I bought one of his books at the festival: Niblet and Ralph is about two pet cats that switch places in a story of mistaken identity. He debuted a presentation called Keeping It Weird.

In the back of my mind when I’m creating books I think “keep it weird.” The children’s book industry is a conservative field. It’s fuzzy and cute. I push limits to be weird.

Ohora is the oldest of five siblings. All had Z names.

He attended a school without library; the school did have a bookmobile. Ohara wanted to grow up to operate a bookmobile.

As a child, he wasn’t allowed to have candy. He drew cartoon cartoons for his peers in exchange for candy bars. Ohara decided to illustrate books as an adult.


  • Hunter Thompson: Gonzo Journalism
  • Frank Zappa: Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
  • Nick Cave (artist who makes sound costumes)
  • Richard Scary


My Cousin Momo is about a flying squirrel that doesn’t want to fly for his cousins. Ohora wanted to write a book about theme: “If you set aside expectations, nice things might happen.” Real flying squirrels inspired the book.

Niblet and Ralph was inspired by an actual incident from his childhood where his family adopted a cat named Ralph that got lost but, in the meantime, an identically marked black, white and gray feline showed up at their house. Ohora realized it was not Ralph, but his parents believed it was the real Ralph until they saw signs posted for the missing cat. The cat lived with them for two years. Their own family cat died, but Niblet and Ralph has a happier end.

No Fits Nilson! is about a friendship between a preschooler and a gorilla. About this picture book, Ohara said, “Kids accept weird stuff make it their own.”

Not So Quiet Library is about two brothers whose Dad would take them out for doughnuts and then to the library, but then one day their outing was interrupted by a monster. According to Ohora, librarians criticize the book for promoting library as “daycare center” and believe that the monster symbolizes a predator or a bad person. All the backgrounds in Not So Quiet Library are from a childhood library. Ohora hired photographers to shoot photos of the library and intended to use the photos as background but marketers wanted more color and so used paintings instead. When Ohora revisited the library after the book’s publication, he realized that his monsters were inspired by painting at library.

Wolfie the Bunny is about an abandoned wolf that gets adopted by bunnies. Ohora wanted the wolf to be scary, the publishers disagreed, and so he put the wolf in a bunny suit. To his surprise, “The wolf looked cute and the book worked.”


Scott Magoon has illustrated several acclaimed picture books including Rescue & Jessica by Boston Marathon bombing survivors Jessica Kensky & Patrick Downes. Rescue & Jessica is based on their real-life experience with Jessica’s service dog Rescue. Magoon shared a presentation entitled You Rescued Me.

I spent the last year wondering how I could impart what this experience means to me.

Magoon has run the Boston Marathon. There are three legal ways to run:

  • Qualify: tough to do
  • Fundraise: partner with the cancer institute
  • Invite: happens to celebrities

The illegal way to run is to “Bandit: jump in and do it.”

In 2013, Magoon ran the Boston Marathon as a bandit. He couldn’t run it as fast as normal due to the heat and the problem gnawed at him. A friend offered to bring him by car to a spot close to the event. As he neared the finish line, he heard an explosion, but didn’t know where it came from and so he continued to run. When screams filled the air, Magoon realized something was horribly wrong.

In the months that followed, Magoon suffered no physical ill effects but emotionally he wasn’t fine. His sleep was disturbed, and he developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He needed something good to come out of the Boston Marathon tragedy.

Out of the blue, Candlewick Publishing called him. The editor had a manuscript about a couple who had run in the marathon and been injured. A service dog had helped in their recovery, and they wanted to share their story. The editor asked Magoon to illustrate the book.

The book gave me something else to focus on. It took the attention off me and it gave extra confidence as I returned to work. I could educate kids about service dogs.

Magoon talked with his editor about the approach for the book. Together they decided on a balance between cartoonish and serious. When he submitted his art to his editor, Magoon was nervous about how the couple would react. After all, it was their story not his.

His editor called and told him that they loved the sketches, and she invited him to send the sketches directly to the couple. Everyone got together. They picked out 10 favorite songs each and shared them over meals together. They bonded. Magoon was asked to illustrate their Christmas card.

As Magoon worked on Rescue & Jessica, his own experiences filtered into the backgrounds. Memories of the couple were also included such as the scene shows where the couple were engaged. Finally, there are hidden themes such as the inclusion of Canis Major (Sirius), guide dog.

Since completion of Rescue & Jessica, Magoon has ran the Boston Marathon again. He’s also worked with an organization that trains service dogs and raised thousands to support them. Promotion of his book has been huge. A news van showed in his driveway. The story was on the Today show. He appeared on ESPN. His whole life is now this book.

The book is doing its mission. It’s helping my new friends healed. Rescue has helped me heal too.”


Make way Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew! There’s a new detective team in town. In Ra The Mighty Cat Detective, Ra and his scarab beetle friend Khepri work to save a young servant girl who has been framed for theft of an amulet in a delightful new mystery for young people by A.B. Greenfield.

The duo of Ra and Khepri immediately won my affection. Ra is spoiled and lazy, liking nothing better than to sleep and eat 24-7, while Khepri is his hardworking sidekick. When Miu pleas for their help, Ra agrees only because he’s blackmailed by Khepri who threatens to fill Ra’s treats with dung if he does nothing. However, Ra soon finds himself enjoying the thrill of hunting down clues and prowling after suspects. He also shows that buried underneath his selfish demeanor lays a caring heart. The longer he works the mystery, the more convinced he becomes that Tedimut is innocent and doesn’t deserve a death sentence. As for Khepri, he proves himself as more than a sidekick, when he puts his life on the line to save Ra from an aggressive leopard and other dangerous encounters. He also shines as a character in his own right, using his mental prowress to figure out the real thief.

The setting for Ra The Mighty Cat Detective fascinated me. Greenfield seamlessly integrated details of ancient Egyptian court life, royal food, religious artifacts, and beloved animals into a comical and engaging adventure. What’s even more impressive is how much rooted in real history the mystery is. In the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, one can find a statue of a cat and a scarab beetle, and this statue inspired Greenfield’s story. There really existed a Director of the Royal Loinclothes and other important people with long titles. Egyptians loved to serve all kinds of meat delicacies except for fish. Amulets were worn for luck and protection. Finally, Egyptians revered animals–particularly cats and beetles. Cats were often worshipped. As for beetles, they were favored due to Egyptians due to the ability of beetles to roll dung into large balls and to have baby beetles emerge from those balls.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention other elements that I enjoyed. The plot is full of twists and turns. Every time Ra (and I) thought he’d figured out the suspect, a new piece of information proved him wrong. There is a huge cast of characters, especially of animals. Every reader will have their favorite, but mine is Miu, a cat whom everyone should have in their life due to her self-sacrificing and preserving personality. The style is easy-to-read and should appeal to both reluctant readers. At the same time, there’s enough attention to detail that avid readers will also find their attention held.

Although I’ve been trying to reduce the number of Advanced Reader Copies I accept, Ra The Mighty Cat Detective is one I couldn’t resist due to the original and fun concept. And now that I’ve been introduced to this new and endearing detective team, I’ll be watching for sequels.

Freddy the Frogcaster is back, this time to tell readers about flash floods. In Janice Dean’s newest title, Freddy makes a mistake in his forecast but then later makes up for it by warning residents of an impending flash flood. Freddy the Frogcaster and the Flash Flood is another informative and entertaining picture book in Dean’s weather series.

Freddy has finally officially become a weekend weather reporter. This pleases him to no end, because he loves thinking, talking, and learning about all kinds of weather. He takes great pride in knowing that the town of Lilypad listens to and trusts his broadcast. Imagine then his dismay when Freddy realizes that the rain had moved north of his town, making his forecast incorrect. Even worse, the townspeople are upset, because they canceled evening events in lieu of the storm. Some of them go so far as to nickname Freddy “False Alarm Freddy”. Readers will relate to how terrible Freddy feels, while also learning through him that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that one should still pursue their dreams.

Despite being upset, Freddy returns to his job where he sees that another storm is on the horizon. Freddy once again issues flood watch warnings, and this time his prediction comes to pass. Floodwaters gush over streams and river banks, causing trees to fall and cars to be swept away. Some families have to be rescued.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to word constraints, Dean rushes through this part of the story. Readers will learn little else about flash floods in the main narrative, but instead will need to turn to the back pages for this information. While I found this section fascinating, especially the trivia about flash floods being the number one weather-related killer in the United States and the summaries of noteworthy historical floods, I would have preferred more of this data to be integrated into Freddy’s story.

Nonetheless, Dean has written yet another engaging story, one that makes weather attractive. The illustrations by Russ Cox remain colorful and reflective of the events in the narrative. Freddy the Frogcaster and the Flash Flood is a good first introduction to the series or a welcome addition for avid fans.

Talon Come Fly With Me by Gigi Sedlmayer is a quiet adventure about a young girl with special needs who befriends two mated condors. While the story suffers from a weak plot and simple writing, it’s also a heartwarming and informative one.

Nine-year-old Matica has a growth handicap that traps her inside a body the size of a two-year-old. It also causes her to be rejected by the residents in the remote village of Peru where she lives with her brother and Australian missionaries. Size however does not impact how she’s viewed by a local mating pair of condors. After a year of her watching them, Matica attempts to meet them face to face. She does this by visiting them in the same place day after day, until one of them becomes curious and flies near her. After this, she brings them dead lizards to eat. As a way of the male bird saying thank you, he flies up to her and allows himself to be touched.

Seldmayer could have easily filled a book with just the above drama, but instead strips her narrative to a few bare-boned chapters. She does the same disservice to Matica’s encounters with poachers, largely because Sedlmayer fails to integrate any tension, conflict, or surprise twists. Instead she relies heavily on a passive narrative laden with dialog. While this simplistic style might make the story more palpable for reluctant readers, it unfortunately left me at times bored.

After Matica has the opportunity to touch a male condor, her relationship expands to include his mate. When poachers attempt to steal a condor egg, the condor couple turn to Matica for help. She carries the egg home with her, where she keeps it warm. Every day the condors check with her to see if their baby has hatched. When the baby is finally born, Matica feeds it, cleans it, and even helps it to learn to fly. The second half of Talon Come Fly With Me is dedicated to Matica’s relationship with the baby condor, and here’s where Seldmayer’s admiration for these unique birds shines through.

Although Matica is a sympathetic character, a story from the viewpoint of the condors alone may have resulted in a stronger emotional connection for me. The condor family are the stars, and through Seldmayer’s detailed portrayal of them, I learned about their idiosyncrasies and their diminishing numbers. Talon Come Fly With Me is a pleasant way to launch one’s reading of nature books, after which one should turn to literary giants of the genre such as Jean Craighead George.

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