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Posts Tagged ‘Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival

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.”



Last week I posted part one of two about my seventh year of attending the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. In that post, I noted that it was special in a couple of ways. For the first time I had the opportunity to attend the sessions for students, and for the first time I had the opportunity to attend the adult sessions with my group of writing ladies. As usual, at the end of the day, I walked away with a bagful of signed books and dozens of typed pages of notes. 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.


trentreedy_signTrent Reedy’s two favorite things are the Midwest where he grew up and books. Reedy started his presentation off by talking about the power of story. A story shows the struggle of people to survive. Life is one event after another.  Authors shape life into a story arc. Events are arranged into problems and solutions. Even nonfiction can be shaped into a story.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a dorky skinny kid with long nose….

Reedy grew up in the small farm town of Dysart in Iowa. He remembers it as a great place for kids, “a safe island in a sea of corn and beans”. Together with his friends, he had fun riding around on bikes and running around in forts. Sometimes, he browsed books on wire racks at grocery stores, but most of the books stocked were Harlequin Romances.

Did anyone enjoy middle school? If so, there are the doors. 😉

“When you’re a writer, you read differently and find things work or don’t work like you think they should.” Teachers helped Reedy discover reading, but not in an expected way. For a prize, a teacher gave him a book by Ann Martin called Me and Katie by Ann Martin and about an older sister who struggles to adjust to life with her irritating younger sister. Reedy learned through ridicule (as we learn many lessons) the difference between “boys” and “girls” books, but he continued to love the book.

During high school, Reedy decided he wanted to become a writer and he attended University of Iowa with this goal in mind. At the same time, he wanted to relieve his father of some of the stress of being a pipeline worker at Northern Natural Gas, and so he joined the Iowa National Guard.

Hoping to get back in time for college, Reedy accepted the first job offered him, that of Combat Engineer job. He now calls that decision, “the stupidest way to enlist”. Combat Engineers deal with landmines and plastic explosives. One needs to know what they’re doing, but Reedy was not a “Cowboy Commando” or “Super Soldier”. Despite his stint as a Combat Engineer, Reedy did graduate college and even served as a security guard at Dillards.

My whole life changed. I had lived in Riverside, Iowa, for nine years and never had to leave. Now I to say goodbye to family. I left an envelope of letters with my brother. These are the “If you are reading these letters….” Those are tough to write.

trentreedy_girlThe call to return to duty upset him. “Maybe it was easier to be angry than to be scared.” He was mad to leave home. He was also disappointed to hear his lead officer tell his unit that they were there to help. Reedy simply wanted revenge for 9/11. But when he got there and saw the kids and the moms, he couldn’t keep up the anger. There are thousands like those kids and the moms and they aren’t to blame.

His unit rented an Afghan house. It wasn’t designed for sixty soldiers with equipment. The temperature was 90 degrees and very hot. The unit would return from combat, take off their army wear, and their uniforms would be sweated through. Life wasn’t easy. They would maybe get three minutes of a shower every three days. If the well was dry and there was no water, too bad. For food, they’d get two sodas, glob of lasagna, and a little bit of corn.

One day I admired my tan, it began to itch, and I realized it was just dirt. The Taliban would threaten us daily. I had spent my whole life measuring time by crops, but in Afghanistan it was gun, filth, and fears.

Reedy talked about one simply tried to hold onto “who you were, who you are, and to stay that way until you can leave”. There was no time for anything but combat and sleep. There was no room to unpack. The arrival of a truck, despite food being spoiled because the refrigeration had gone out, changed Reedy. The truck was carrying mail too. His wife had sent him a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. Reedy needed that book. He needed something more than dirt, guns, war. He needed hope and beauty. The book “was a glorious reminder of friendship and that we can still find hope in the most challenging times.” As long as there were kids who could have friends, he could survive. And if he never made it back, it’d be okay. “It’s hard to live without music, art, literature, beauty.”

One day Reedy saw two kids playing. One had a box with a string and he’d drag it along. The girl just had yarn. “My parents were poor, but we had more than string. This is when I started to take this war to heart.” He saw a girl with a cleft lip and knew his unit had to help. They collected money to provide for her transportation to a doctor and for the surgery. She became the symbol for Reedy of all Afghans face, especially the girls and women. “The best moment was seeing her smile. I grew up being teased for my nose, but nothing like this girl must have faced. I promised her that I’d do anything I could to help her.”

Our leader called out “Dismissed”. One word and the total control of army was over. I could do whatever I wanted. I was free and alive.

When Reedy returned to Iowa, he set about keeping his promise by writing a book. He spent four years on it. Writing about an Afghan wedding was one of the toughest parts. Afghan weddings are detailed and he couldn’t find a common source. Then there was a scene that his writing instructor, Rita Williams Garcia, told him to cut. It was a violent and tragic scene, but Reedy felt the girl who inspired it deserved to be remembered, and so kept it. Words into Dust was also hard to write, because so many events from war had inspired it.

One day you’re feeling down. You think you’re going to spend the rest of your life grading papers. The kids will never get what “adverb is”. (It has verb right in it!) Then you get the call.

After finishing his manuscript, Reedy struggled to find a market. It was considered unlikely that a white Iowan could write from the viewpoint of an Afghan girl. Reedy himself wished that the girl could write her own book but, at the time he wrote Words into Dust, there was 90% illiteracy for females in Afghanistan. An intern gave his book a chance.

Reedy wrapped up his presentation by talking about the inspiration behind a few of his other books. Stealing Air is based on small towns. “In books there are always rich kids. Or they’re from cities. For us, rich is having a power glove for a Nintendo. I try to bring out small town experience in my books.”

If You’re Reading This was harder for Reedy to write than Words in Dust. “If I move events around, I worry that I’ll mess up everything. For each version, there’s a dozen revisions. There are also many versions where everything IS switched around.” By version six, Reedy was so frustrated that he started to swear. Finally, by version nine, Reedy started to feel as if things were working okay. There’s a letter at the end that Reedy wrote to his father.

trentreedy_msIn talking about his books, Reedy reminded aspiring writers in our audience that writing is in the revision. He showed a breakdown of how many edits his editor sent him, even after the book had already received multiple revisions. “The writing process is long. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s about the process and not about you.”

Reedy next referred to his opening line about how story is power. “This is the way I deal with things, through stories. I hope my stories will help others deal with situations in their own lives.” Reedy is a firm believer that books matter. They might be about different people and places, but there’s always “power in art, literature, and beauty”. Afghanistan taught Reedy that life isn’t just about the basics or survival. Without inspiration, we die inside. Books matter.


Back then no one was talking about multiculturalism and so my parents thought they were doing the right thing, I’m glad that I can speak English as my first language but regret that I don’t know Korean. It’s harder for adults to learn and I can still only speak a little Korean. Before I traveled to Korea I learned the most important question “Where’s the bathroom?”

Linda Sue Park’s parents are from Korea, but she was born and raised in Illinois. There weren’t any other Asians in her childhood neighborhood but, because her family wanted her to do well in America, the family never talked Korean. Even so, they did eat Korean food and celebrate Korean holidays.

lindasuepark_babyphotosFor example, birthdays are big events. When Koreans celebrates a birthday, they wear special traditional clothes, attend a party, and play a game call The Fortune Game. In the latter, several objects are put on a table. Whatever object the birthday person grabs predicts their future:

  • pen—writer
  • book—teacher
  • spool of thread—long life
  • money—rich
  • cake—greedy and lazy

Park’s mom has told her that she grabbed the pen but there is no proof other than her word.

Where do I get ideas? For me the answer is complicated. Some books are a mix of ideas. Others do have that one Eureka moment.

After hooking her audience with a brief bio, Park turns to a discussion of her book Long Walk to Water. Her husband is a journalist and does stories on all kinds of people. He told her about Selba, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and said she should meet him. Her husband was right. “I was blown away by this guy. I even started telling strangers about him. I don’t usually do that but that’s how impressed I was.” After several years, she had a DUH moment. Instead of continuing to share Selba’s story to each new person she met, with a book, she could tell his story to multiple people all at once. Her husband had already written about him for an adult audience, but Park could reach young people.

Selba had been in school. His class heard bombs. The teacher said run away, but not home, and so they did. The boys became The Lost Boys of Sudan. It was a perilous journey. 5000 people died along the way. “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you would not have made it.” Every day was about finding food. Even clothing was traded for food.

lindasuepark_lostboysPark emphasized that everything she wrote in A Long Walk to Water is true. She then talked about how at one point, American visas were issued for many of the refugees. These were all halted, however, after bombing of Washington Memorial. All visas issues for those not already in the US were revoked. Park told of an especially devastating moment when a plane on its way to the US was ordered to go back. Since that time, there hasn’t been a new program put in place for the refugees.

Park’s husband has visited Sudan. He saw how the boys would go with cattle, stay with them, and then return at the end of the day. Some boys have education. The girls would instead walk four to eight hours to fetch water. They rarely had education. The building of wells is bringing about change. The girls are now getting to go to school too. UNICEF says the best way to combat illiteracy and poverty is to teach girls. They will educate others. Selba is the one bringing in the wells.

When The Long Walk to Water first got published, it received some good reviews but didn’t really make a splash. Then New York redid its curriculum. A librarian added Park’s book and it began to do well. This excited Park. She’d hoped people would see Selba has a hero. And they have. But the book has also inspired young people to help.
lindasuepark_wellsThe Long Walk to Water is a concrete example of how a book can help change the world. Building a well costs over $15,000. Young people have raised over one million to bring wells to Sudan. Many schools do $5000, which is a third of the cost. Over ninety of the wells in Sudan have been funded by students who have read the book. The most popular fundraiser is a walkathon, which helps students understand what the girls feel in having to walk. A quarter of a million people are using the wells.

Currently, Linda Sue Park lives New York. Like many women, she has a lot of jobs: wife, mom, grandma, writer, speaker, teacher of writing, pet sitter. This makes her always tired, but she’s also grateful for everything she has. “I have an awesome life: books, babies, and puppies.”


I started writing Wayside Stories back in 1970, before students I talk to were born, and even many of their teachers were born. It’s good the book has been around so long, but it makes me feel old.

Louis Sachar was the lunch speaker at Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. He jumped quickly into talking about one of his most famous series, which was inspired by being a schoolyard supervisor. Back in his college days, Sachar’s favorite authors were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He enrolled in a class where he would study the original Russian, but found the language too much of a struggle. While trying to figure out what to take instead, Sachar encountered a school girl in the middle of Berkeley campus handing out slips of paper that read: “Help. We need teacher’s aide. Earn 3 credits.” He thought it started easier and so volunteered. Long story short, he loved the experience. “It was my favorite thing to leave the heavy world of campus and be with joyful kids.” After a time, the school needed someone to be a noon supervisor, and was willing to pay. The teachers wanted to take a break, but all Sachar had to do was hang out with the kids, and so he applied.

louissachar_signAfter Sachar graduated from Berkeley, because he’d always been interested in writing, he wrote a kids’ book. His first attempt took him ten months. The students where he had worked had called him “the yard teacher”. He turned himself into the character of Louis the yard teacher and featured some of the students. Then he set about trying to get the book published.

A small company accepted Wayside Stories. The book didn’t do well initially because the company had small distribution. He didn’t make much money from it or see it on many shelves, but had faith that felt it would do well if it would get noticed. Sachar received some fan mail and a “Book of the Year” award from New York schools. Then the company went out of business and the book went out of print.

I don’t outline. My best ideas come as I write. I try to get a page written, then take a break to play bridge. For a while, I feel there’s nothing getting done. But after a year I end up with something that works. I don’t talk about my books while writing them because then they become cemented and I want to be open to change.

Sachar didn’t give up, but went on to write There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. The book came about because a friend told Sachar about something that had happened to him in fifth grade. He knew Sachar wrote for kids and so was telling him about his childhood. When this friend was new to San Diego, a teacher brought him up to the front of the class. The teacher asked “Why don’t you sit over there?” but the class said to not sit next to Donny. Sachar’s friend said that was okay with wherever he sat, but the teacher agreed with the class. Sachar changed the names, but put the incident in a book. Editors told him that no teacher would act this way and it wasn’t believable and so wanted to cut the incident. But the story was true and so Sachar kept it.

A lot of publishers rejected There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. One editor expressed an interest but didn’t think there was enough to the story. Sachar asked to see her and she eventually bought the book despite not feeling it would do well. She took him out to lunch and invited another author. Sachar asked the author if she had ever taught. Proving how small of a world we sometimes live in, and how contacts can matter, it turned out the author’s mother had been a character in Sideway Stories. The mother was giving out copies of his book every year to her students. Eventually, the book got republished.

Among his fan mail were letters from a school in Texas. The students told him that their teacher had read his books and liked them. A handful of girls even wrote a letter saying that their teacher was attracted to him and she was single. Louis called up the school. The school was excited to have him visit. Girls made him cookies. The aforementioned teacher invited a group of colleagues to go out to a local restaurant. A counselor came along. Sachar and the counselor hit it off. They visited. He put her in a book. Eventually, he married her.

The idea for Holes came about from living in Austin. As much as Sachar and his family liked it there, Austin is very hot in the summers. And the summers are long. They start in May and they drag into September and October. One day Sachar had to do yard work and he got to thinking about a new character. He’d written close to twenty books about school and didn’t want to do another with that setting and so he put his character in a prison-type camp. About the same time, he took a trip with his daughter to Alcatraz, without telling anyone that the setting fit in perfectly with what I was writing.

What got me started was the excitement of kids and joy of youth. I didn’t seem as little darlings but as real people. I also didn’t have much trouble tapping into my feelings as a kid. Now I struggle. I like writing about kids because they still have the whole world open to them. Lately though, I have a more pessimistic view and that makes it hard to write to kids.

Five years ago, Sachar started to write Fuzzy Mud, when the question for him had become: “How can I write another children’s book?” The main character for Fuzzy Mud kept him going and inspired. In a world where everyone is jaded, her friends call her goody-goody, but she still tries to do right. She goes to a private school where kids are taught to be virtuous and is made to memorize ten virtues. She’s largely ignored but, as things turn scary, she draws on an inner strength. “Despite all the bad in the world, there’s still energy, good, and virtue. I started out trying to write a scary book, but then I kept going because of her.”


The thing about growing up in my neighborhood is that everyone looked out for everyone but there were no education values. Working hard and being loyal were the values. We didn’t hear the message of education.

mattdelapenaMatt De La Pena grew up on border of Mexico in National City. A reluctant reader in high school, Pena read only three books as a student. One of those was House on Durango Street, which he felt was about his neighborhood, and he reread twelve times. “We need an invitation early on to people, community, and language that feel authentic.”

Pena was the first in his family to attend college, but he felt guilty about this success, as if he were selling-out for going to college. While being interested in what the teacher said, he often also thought about his family who weren’t getting to hear the lectures and about how real life was happening back home. When he’d first visit home, his uncles would ask him about college, but their eyes told him that they were waiting to see if he’d judge them.

Hispanics have the highest drop-out rate in the country and it’s taken time for them to see education has a good thing. Having an insider helps the family see the positive.

In college, Pena fell in love with books. Mostly he read books about the African-American and then Hispanic experience. One favorite was a short story collection called Drown, which focuses on the Dominic Republic, by Junot Diaz. Pena also fell in love with writing. His professors collected his work and sent it to five graduate schools. He got accepted by two for Masters in Fine Arts.

Pena going to college has been a mixed blessing. There are both losses and gains. Pena shared a story to explain. Pena was born when his dad was still young. His dad was a high-school dropout. He worked in the zoo as a sanitation person. He moved up to cleaning The Tiger River enclosure. He’d pick up whiskers and mail them to his girlfriend for good luck. He got to do behind-the-scenes tours and showed Paul Simon around. “Man, that dude is short,” his dad later said. (Subtext: His dad is tall.) “You know I shook his hand. He had the softest hand I ever touched.” (Subtext: His dad’s hands have calluses from hard work.) After Pena introduced his dad to books, his dad got his GED, then an education degree from college, and now he teacher in a migrant community. A migrant worker thanked Pena’s dad for giving him education but Pena pointed out, “My dad’s hands are soft in contrast.” Yet on the flip side, his dad now loves books. The first book he read was 100 years of Solitude, which he’s read five times.

I didn’t start out being a writer. But I used to always write poems. People might not be born to writers but they have an interesting way of looking at the world. Those often make good writers.

After Pena shared his background, he talked about his books. Balls Don’t Lie, which was made into a movie, had several inspirations. Pena used to play pick-up basketball and it a rule to never write a story about basketball. The vow lasted three weeks. Pena “learned about the world by play outside the rules. There’s a weird class system. In gritty San Diego, one sold jewelry or sold drugs or one worked at a gas station or in security. He wrote about “powerless powerful men.” Pena’s mom was a foster kid. The family doesn’t know what kind of white she is except that she’s French. In Balls Don’t Life, he explored: “What happens when a kid is moved from place to place without any control?”

Mexican White Boy is the most autobiographical. It raises the question: “Who is the most mixed?” When Pena was growing up, no one would acknowledge being mixed. Now almost everyone will say that they’re mixed. “The world is changing and people are now owning it. The highest growing demographic is mixed.” Pena expanded by using an illustration of his grandmother, who he believes made the best Mexican tortillas. She passed out tortillas based on family rank. “I’d get the first because I looked so light skin.” Pena believes that mixed is: “interesting and complicated” and likes to talk about “brown and brown racism”.

We Were There was inspired by Mice and Men. It’s also written as part of Pena’s evolution in going from writing about mixed kids to featuring mixed kids. It. “When I visited prisons, 97% of them were brown. When I visited the festival, 97% of them are white. This book was a chance to explore group homes.” With most of his books, Pena starts with character but with this one he began with plot. He knew there was going to be a crime. The character didn’t come later until when Pena was giving a presentation. “There was a young girl who left to go to bathroom. She was going to miss my presentation. Another girl took her seat. I thought maybe the young girl would protest. She stood in the back. A guy gave the girl his seat. I stopped and complimented him and asked him questions. Now I knew the character’s name was Miguel and the fact that he would give up his seat.” The guy became the heartbeat of the book.

mattdelapena_marketplaceAfter writing a few books about mixed groups, Pena took a different direction. He discovered that many copies of his books exist in underprivileged schools but not in urban books. One librarian told Pena that she loved his books but didn’t carry them because they didn’t have “those type of kids” in their school. So, he began to start featuring mixed kids without addressing the issue of mixed kids. “Diverse books aren’t just for diverse kids but are for everyone.”

Perhaps the book of Pena’s that most excited everyone is Last Stop on Marketplace, a picture book that won the Newbery. It took Pena five months to write and six months to revise. In that time, he rewrote it  100 times. He thought it needed to be big and tried forty different endings, but then returned to the small one. The surprise ending was intended: Kids would ask him as an author why would he come to their school and so the book is about the grandson seeing that he’s important in the world.

In ending his presentation, Pena encouraged aspiring authors to write what they can feel. To explain, he shared how a reader who liked his book about basketball but yet his favorite parts aren’t the basketball parts. “If you can’t access the feeling right away of a topic, then you shouldn’t be the one who tells the story. You can research a ton but it’ll only work if you feel the topic.”


My seventh year of attending the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival was special in two new ways. For the first time, I had the opportunity to attend the sessions for students. I accompanied the grade two classes at the school where I taught on the bus drive to and from the festival. When we arrived, students scattered to participate in literacy activities. Around 10:00, they were gathered back together to listen to one picture book author, eat lunch on the lawn, and then listen to a second author.

For the first time, I also had the opportunity to attend the adult sessions with my group of writing ladies. We drove to and from the festival together, browsed available books by featured authors together, and attended the luncheon together. Most of the presentations we attended separately, as we all had unique author interests. A couple of the ladies focused on picture book authors, while two of us mostly wanted to hear those who wrote for teenagers.

As usual, at the end of the day, I walked away with a bagful of signed books and dozens of typed pages of notes. This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for younger readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.


lorenlong_snoopyLoren Long never saw his parents draw pictures but someone in his life must have been interested because he grew up liking to illustrate. As a child, he used to turn to the funny papers in the newspaper and try to draw the comics the way they were in the newspaper.

Like many kids, Long liked sports. He followed his brothers around. They all liked to play football. His only interest in museums was one that he called the cowboy one. He would draw horses.

Something conventional that Long’s parents did was read to him. His mom read many books to him. Long himself had a hard time sitting and reading a book. He never dreamed that he’d become an author. He thought they were smarter than him. “It’s not about smartness but about ideas.”

In college, Long didn’t know what he wanted to do. He worked on horse farms, but got told to stay away from horses. “College boys don’t know anything about horses.” His job was to weed, rake, pile hay, and stack. Long also got to drive an old tractor. “You’ll see right away that I used from something from my experience in my Otis books.”

I like to think of my books as little movies. The pictures are movies. Page turns create suspense. We can have quiet and loud images. Otis and the kittens was a tribute to those who run toward danger to save people. Read Otis and the Kitten. Read the original Otis.

lorenlong_otismsAfter sharing his background, Long turned to giving advice about how to write. He said to start with a character. Create a main character and then a secondary one. This is the entry to a story. Next comes setting. Then mood and emotion. “These are needed for songs, movies, anything really and are especially needed for a story.” Of course, in every story, something has to go terribly wrong. Long develops a framework: There is a problem, then Otis always saves the day, and then he returns to the tranquil start.

Long switched here to once again talking about his background. He was illustrating magazines and never dreamed that he’d ever write, but then he started illustrating other people’s books and getting his own ideas. He started by writing down his sons’ stories and changing them to make them more interesting and simple. His sons used to make up stories about a green tractor and a farmer’s son and a cat who got stuck in the mud. It’s not hard to see where the inspiration for Otis came from.

lorenlong_otisLong starts with a painting. It takes about seven months for a story to unfold. He puts the paintings in front of him and let them surround him. Then he writes and rewrites. It takes about fifteen rewrites. Then he’ll ship off his manuscript and the artwork. He’ll receive three or more pages of edits asking him to provide more details. “My wife says you know this will happen. I say I thought this was perfect this time. It hurts to have the critiques but it also makes me a better author.”



Sara Pennypacker started her presentation by showing a photo of her laying down. This is when she does her best work. She tells kids that writing is a lot about dreaming.

sarahpennypacker_sleepWriting is hard. One can make it easier by writing about what makes them passionate. That might be what you love OR what terrifies you. Students will ask her what makes her passionate. When she was younger, she used to love mannequins and feel terrified of moss. One day she combined those two passions. The result reminds her everyday of what she should be writing about.

I hope what I share will inspire those working on the other side of the book. I think we’re all working on the same side. I met with a bunch of other authors at a conference. We were asked, “Why do you do what you do?” Their answers were similar: To make order out of chaos; To make beauty out of what was ugly. To heal or make something feel good that originally felt bad. Mine was to make just out of what was unjust. I realized we all said the same thing but in a different way. Good books have to connect people by their goals.

After this ice-breaker, Pennypacker shared her thoughts on books. She believes that they connect readers to the rest of “their tribe” through time and space. Readers may not know they’re connected. But they are every time a kid reads something and thinks they were the only one.

sarahpennypacker_mossShe also believes books also raise questions. Questions are more important than answers. Answers separate people. Readers should toss a book that is trying to teach. Yes, books will have a moral. They’ll have a strong compass. Authors don’t write books about nothing. It’s hard to keep morality out a book. But a book shouldn’t preach.

To illustrate, she explains how her own books came about. “What happened with the Clementine books is I had a child who struggled with paying attention and having impulse control.” The series shows that these young people might also be problem-solvers and possess creativity and empathy. Pennypacker is passionate about this issue, but her job is to keep morality out of it. “As many times as my character is criticized, someone also compliments her. But you need to keep proselytizing out of it.”

In the Clementine series, Pennypacker writes about a character who has strong views. Her job is to threaten those passions. “Look for how an author feels about character. Do they feel honest and kind?” Books are windows and mirrors. Everyone should be able to see themselves in books; that they’re worthy of stories. Books should also show what’s out there and what’s possible. “I start every book with faults. A standard is to begin with a character who messes up.”

The character of Clementine has been compared to that of Ramona, the famous creation of Beverly Clearly. While Pennypacker acknowledges that she wants to write the same way as Clearly by telling stories of ordinary kids, she feels Clementine is a different character. Pennypacker believes that readers need books about dysfunctional families, but she also missed seeing functional character books. “I told my kids that I know I failed as a parent but I made up good parents for you.” From the start, Pennypacker knew she wanted a limited number of books. She wanted Clementine to be a strong presence and not dry her out. She also wanted to give Clementine privacy as she matured into adolescence. So she choose to end the series after seven books. “In the last book I wept at the signature scene with the principal.”

The Waylon series came about because Pennypacker loves the idea of chapter books, where one can live with a character as a friend and expand upon that character’s life. After Clementine, she wanted to write about a different type of character, but stay in the school system. Pennypacker believes that ten-year-old kids can be highly developed in some ways such as being gifted in science) but young in other areas such as emotional maturity, and wanted to explore these contradictions. “One day they’re two years old and another time they’re one hundred years old.” Pennypacker picked to have a boy as the main character, because she feels it’s tougher to be male in elementary school than female. “They’re fewer molds that keep you safe, reflected in the fact boys get into trouble more, drop out more, and commit suicide more. Boys have more rigid modes that he’s allowed to show,  boys are denied being allowed to show humanness and Waylon will say there’s a science reason.”

Pax is one of Pennypacker’s most recent publications. She heard a story of a mother’s son who went to war and who got injured and will never be able to walk. This inspired Pax. It just won The National Book Award. Pennypacker refers to it as, “the book of my life”. Pax started six years ago. Pennypacker wanted to write about the injustice of war and about the passion that children have for animals. When someone complimented her on her book Sparrow’s Song and said it reminded her of Elephant’s Compassion (a sentient animal in WW11), she realized the two stories needed to be combined. She couldn’t write about war without writing about animals.

sarahpennypacker_signingPennypacker switches back to talking about the importance of books. The story is a map of life. All stories start in an ordinary world. The character doesn’t get to actualize. Then there’s a call to a different world. The hero refuses the call, which leads to all kinds of questions:

  • Do you seek a mentor?
  • Do you need to bond and seek allies?
  • Are you surprised by a trickster?
  • Have you avoided fixing a problem and isn’t that real challenge?
  • Does it require you to develop a new facet of yourself?

In the end, the hero brings back an elixir. Stories help us process our life as stories and share those stories with the tribe.

Pennypacker concludes by telling of a conference she attended where she heard ones talking about Carl Jung and the question, “Why is their evil in the world?” The answer according to Pennypacker? “When people can’t tell their stories.” People need voice, power, platform, and audience. Children don’t have this. But adults do. And so authors can tell stories for young people. “This is why it’s important for children to read and have access to books. I tell young people that they need to tell their story and in a way that they will listen.”


Salina Yoon is from  Korea. There, she grew up in a house with a thatched roof. There were no books, television, toys, or even plumbing. “I tell my kids that I grew up with sticks and rocks. My grandmother would use two mirrors and reflect them to tell a puppet show.”

salinayoon_ideaEven after the family moved to the United States, English was never spoken by her parents. Yoon would look at the pictures in books. This sparked her imagination. She grew up to write almost 200 books.

As an adult, Yoon discovered she enjoyed producing “really creative books” for children, the type she would have liked when a child. She keeps an open mind. Everything can inspire an idea. Eventually, the idea will turn into something beautiful.

Yoon started out in the novelty book industry. She would build the entire book and then send it to a publisher to get them to purchase it. If a project doesn’t sell, she’ll move on to the next project. She doesn’t obsess over it. One idea can lead to many other ideas. Out of fifty submitted books, Yoon used to sell an average of ten.

After this sharing her background, Yoon gave specifics about some of her novelty projects.

  • Do Cows Meow? “I had to research to find out the inside of animal mouths. I had to look at the diagrams of biology of animals. I like the large flaps because kids can grasp hold of them. You can’t sell an obvious concept book; those are done in-house or by a book packager. For me to sell a concept book, it must go beyond the basics. Publishers hate to acquire because they have to spend money on these. So my books have to be unique.”
  • OppoSnakes: “It’s tricky as an illustrator to make it interesting. So straight snake is also sheriff snake. The opposite is tangled snake and is also a bandit snake. Art has more layers to it than just the text. If I start out with an idea, I always have to ask: How can I push it? When I design my books, I have to think of their size and shape too. I made a horizontal book to accommodate the snake.”
  • Pinwheel book: “I used a pinwheel. Everyone knows them. It’s fun to blow on and see in the dark. I want to bring this into a book. How can I put something so thick into a book? This is when I have to use my ingenuity to design a book. I created the book pinwheel. It was special and one of my hardest to create. One can spin the wheels in the book and you get to see all different designs. It doesn’t require batteries. If you spin it enough, a horse pops up like in a carousel. The carousel page took me three weeks to figure out. I want kids to grab my books and to learn from them. The books are interactive toys but also books.”

salinayoon_noveltyIn 2010, there were a lot of transitions in the publishing market and downsizing in novelty books. “Novelty books have less of a profit. They are made by people not machines. So publishers began buying fewer of them.” Yoon started to feel the pinch. She submitted her usual fifty projects and received only two acceptances. She considered leaving the book world and going into a paying world, but the dilemma was what career to pursue. She used to be a designer but hadn’t kept up with that field. She also considered Barnes & Noble or Starbucks. A third option was to create picture books.

Yoon hadn’t grown up drawing or writing and so that idea terrified her. The agony over not wanting another job led her to try. Life experience and relationships give Yoon ideas for picture books. Her oldest son would always pick up things including sticks and pine cones. One day her son asked Yoon to make a blanket for his pine cone. From that idea, Yoon wrote Penguin and Pinecone. Her first attempt caused her many doubts. “What were you thinking? Of course you can’t write! Am I being selfish wanting to do something that I like?”

salinayoon_storyboardYoon now has six books in the penguin series. She explained that a lot of decisions are made to create a spread. She wanted to start out with a character who wouldn’t know what a pinecone would be. A penguin would be in the woods. An opposite would be a pinecone. She used animals because this made the story less problematic and she used a simple palette to create a cold cool feeling but also a gender neutral and warm color. Her mother loves to knit and so she had penguin knit. Penguin is a blend of her son and her mother. The penguin books have made a connection with adoptive parents and empty-nesters.

Yoon also talked about her Bear series, in particular the title Found. It was inspired by her son who couldn’t live without a floppy toy.

salinayoon_plushOne of her most special picture books is Be A Friend, originally called Silent Adventures of Mime Boy. The book draws on Yoon’s own life. When she first came to the United States at age four, it was tough for her to make friends. She spoke, ate, and dressed different. She felt alone. The Mime in Be a Friend represents how different Yoon used to feel. She made the illustrations in black and white, so that the red line adventures and the mime’s red heart would stand out. Yoon tells of how a whole class acted the story out and shared it with her through video. The book has also connected with autistic kids because of the nonverbal communication in it.

Novelty books are pretty anonymous. I never got fan mail. That was fine by me because I’m introverted. Picture books brought me fan mail. This makes me realize the importance of books.

PlumCreekLogoFor twenty years, the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival has sought to encourage a love of reading, writing, and books by bringing nationally renowned authors and illustrators to Nebraska.  The festival started at Concordia University as a one day, one author event, with about 200 adults and children present. It has grown to three days of presentations, with ten authors and illustrators, and the inclusion of sessions for elementary, middle-level and secondary students as well as adults. In 2007, the festival won the Jane Pope Geske award given by The Nebraska Center for the Book for exceptional literary contributions.  In 2010, the festival also became a Read Aloud Nebraska Champion.

This year, the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary by hosting returning authors and illustrators in addition to new presenters on October 1-3. On Friday, around 5,000 students and teachers attended events. These events included Literacy on the Lawn, a session presented by the festival speakers that students took participated in. At the adult conference day on Saturday, about 7,000 adults attended five rotations of sectionals offered by the festival speakers as well as a luncheon, which included a speech from keynote speaker Richard Peck. More than 10,000 adults and children attended over the three days, with 1,500 young people on the waiting list for their day.

Below are links to presentations by the authors whom I saw, as well as reviews of a sampling of their books.

Teaser for Andrew Clements
Review of Extra Credit
Review of Frindle
Review of The Landry News
Review of Lunch Money
Review of School Story
Review of Troublemaker

Writing to Explore
Review of Whaling Season (features Craig George, son of Jean George)
Review of Polar Bear Scientists
Review of First Dive to Shark Dive
Review of Ice Whale by Jean Craighead George

Teaser for Jerry Pallotta
Review of Three Picture Books

Teaser for Richard Peck
Strengthening Your Writing Skills: Presentations by Richard Peck
Review of Past Present Perfect Tense
Review of Long Way from Chicago


JerryPallottaWhen Jerry Pallotta would come home from work, his wife would ask him to “Read to the kids!” Not only did Pallotta love the experience, but he also learned to appreciate children’s books. Many of the books he read were alphabet books and counting books. One day, he decided to write his own alphabet book, one about his memories of lobstering, fishing, mossing, clamming and rowing in his dory at Peggotty Beach in Massachusetts.

Thirty years ago, at age 32, Pallotta wrote his first book. He came up with the idea, wrote it, designed it, researched it, and edited it. His cousin illustrated it. Pallotta published it. He’ll never forget July 7, 1986, the day his first book was published. It eventually became the #1 best-selling book at the New England Aquarium. He was afraid that only his mother would like it, but teachers and kids told him they really liked his book. While speaking in schools, teachers told him they were looking for simple non-fiction nature books. This gave him the confidence to write more. Now his books have sold over millions of copies.

I had the pleasure of hearing Jerry Pallotta speak at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Below are my notes from his speech. Return tomorrow for a review of a few of his picture books. Save the date: November 3!

Pallotta started his presentation by talking about a book he wrote decades ago that no one would publish. The book starts, “An ant did one, but no one could hear it…. Okay, who did it?” When he became famous, he decided to try again and approached Scholastic. They rejected it. Pallotta started to refer to it as the unnamed book by an unnamed author. A few years ago, a high school student was about to shred the book, but Palotta decided to send it out again. After more rejections, Sleepy Bear Publishing accepted it. They provided various titles: Hiccup, Burp, etc. No children’s audience liked it. Finally, the book won favor with the title: A Giraffe Did One.

From this story, Pallotta switched gears to talk about family and hobbies. He showed photos of his wife and his two sons. The one is head of Netflix, while the other doesn’t like to work and so he joined the army. As for hobbies, Pallotta likes to bike across the country. There’s a bike path that goes through many states. He has put a back bike tire in the Pacific and a front tire in the Atlantic.

Next Pallotta talked about being from Massachusetts and its influence on him. His childhood inspires him. When reading alphabet books to his kids, he wanted to write Alphabet of the Bay. He grew up near the ocean and wanted to learn everything about it. His children also inspire ideas. His son inspired The Icky Bug Alphabet Book, when he picked up a bug and said: “Ick.”

Continuing to share about projects, Pallotta shared that he grew up hanging on the rock and the dory. He still does. That become a book idea. His interest in fishing for crabs inspired a book about them and their camouflage. He wanted it to be called Wicked Cool Crab Alphabet Book but Scholastic thought the title too regional. His current project is seventy stories, each featuring a relative, about growing up near the ocean.

Palotta noted that he started writing nonfiction alphabet books, because no one else was doing them. He considers himself lucky because, at the time he began to write, the country was going whole language and everyone was looking for informational alphabet books. He decided to become king of nonfiction alphabet books.

Pallotta also talked about his writing process. For his airplane book, he studied planes for two years before he began to write. Pallotta will often write and rewrite and then revise again. He tries different nouns, verbs, and phrases. The latter he looks up when he isn’t sure about them. For example, should he say “earn their living” or “earn their money”? Kids often provide him slang words. He joked that we should ask him for copies of his rewrites! His bird book has intentional mistakes to catch the reader, such as featuring robins with a chicken egg. The mistakes also allow for humor. He included bats in his bird book and then wrote, bats aren’t birds, get out of this book.

What happens when Pallotta gets stuck? He’ll read every word related to his topic. Then he’ll compile a list of the 32 pages which comprise a picture book, followed by a list of 26 words for the alphabet. It took him two years to find cool beetles for the letter.

Pallotta showed pride in the creativity behind his various books. For example, with his book about beetles, songs from the Beatles were written on the beetles. He doesn’t expect children to get the humor, but adults might. With his eyeball book, he included idioms. He tried to fill the book with great vocabulary and everything he could about eyeballs. It shows info about eyeballs and animals with them. Green is in the book, because his mom had green eyes. For his skulls book, he visited a museum and put his head into ones. The skull book includes presidents in the drawings.

By request of Scholastic, Pallotta wrote the Who Would Win? series. To develop it, he tried to think like seven or eight year old boy who doesn’t like to read. He tricks kids into reading his books, because they think his books will be all about fighting, but they’re all about compare and contrast. Pallotta talked to animal experts for his research.

To wrap up his presentation, Pallotta showed examples of students have been inspired to create their own alphabet, counting, and “Who would win?” books. Students might even dislike reading, writing, or school. Yet they’ll use his books as models to write about things in their house, places in their town, sports, or other interests. Teachers have also joined in the fun, developing their own noun, verb, adjective, and adverb books.

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