Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday Brunch with Fred Bowen

For today's Sunday Brunch, we're chatting with Fred Bowen about soccer, sportsmanship, and his brand new soccer title Out of Bounds. Enjoy!

Where did the idea for Out of Bounds come from?

About eighteen months ago, I had lunch with Steve Goff, the principal soccer reporter for the Washington Post, and I mentioned that I was writing a new middle-grade soccer book. We talked about various issues in soccer, including sportsmanship. Steve mentioned the custom in soccer that calls for a player to kick the ball out of bounds if an opposing player gets hurt.

I thought a story of a player struggling with the idea of sportsmanship within the context of a very heated soccer rivalry would be a terrific theme for a book.

After lunch, Steve emailed me a video of the game between AFC Ajax and SC Cambuur that is mentioned in Out of Bounds and is featured in “The Real Story” chapter.

What does your writing process look like? 

First, I construct the “arc” of the story by briefly outlining what will be included in each of the fifteen or so chapters in the book. I think this is important because middle readers really enjoy a good story. And a good story – with an interesting beginning, middle and end – takes planning and work.

Once I have the arc, I make a more detailed outline of each chapter. I write the outline up in longhand in a couple 100-page notebooks. These outlines include dialogue and specific details of the story. The outline does not have to be perfect but it is close to what the book will be. This detailed outline is the most fun part of the process. It is the first time I am really telling the story.

Finally, I write a first draft. This is when I try to get the story as close to perfect as I can.

Do you have a specific routine you use when writing? 

It depends on what part of the writing process I am in. If I am outlining the story I might do that writing in my den or (weather permitting) on my back porch. But when I am writing a first draft (or editing a draft) I am at my computer in my home office.

However, at almost every step of the writing process I listen to music. I am a HUGE jazz fan. I listen to Miles Davis (from the 1950s), Tommy Flanagan, Jim Hall, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Tony Bennett, Bill Charlap, Houston Person, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson, and Scott Hamilton to name a few of my favorites. Jazz is America’s greatest contribution to the arts. I think everyone should get to know it.

What do you hope to accomplish with your sports series? 

I have always tried to do three things with each of my 20 sports books for Peachtree

First, I want to tell a good story. I want my books to be fun to read. I love to hear that kids stayed up late to finish reading one of my books.

Second, I want to tell kids something about the history of the sports they love. That’s why I always include a history chapter in all my books.

Finally, I want to get my readers to stop and think about the sports they play.  Kids learn a lot from playing sports and I want my books to be part of that experience.

Are any of the topics in your book(s) especially important to you? 

Sports were very important to me when I was growing up. And I realized from all the coaching that I did that sports are still important to kids.

Playing sports and being part of a team teaches kids some very important lessons such as the importance of friendship, fairness, and dealing with failure. What kids learn on the playing field can be every bit as important and life changing as what they learn in school.

What do you want your readers to know about you? 

I am not just a writer. I am a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I was a lawyer for more than 30 years. I also coached more than 30 kids’ sports teams when my kids were growing up.

But I was always someone who loved reading and sports. I also love stories. So writing sports stories for kids is a dream job for me. I can only hope that the kids who read my books enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.

What do you hope your readers will get from reading Out of Bounds?

I hope kids who play sports will stop and think about winning the right way. It is easy to get lost in the idea of winning at any cost and seeing your opponent as your enemy. But sports, and especially kids’ sports, should be about giving your best and being able to accept the final score whatever it is.

Thanks for joining us, Fred!

You can find more about Fred at and his sports fiction at Keep up with Fred's sports column, "The Score", in the Washington Post

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Storm Called Katrina: Ten Years Later

Guest Post by Myron Uhlberg

Ten years ago, on August 28, 2005, like millions of Americans around the country, I sat glued to my television screen as a monster hurricane came barreling out of the Gulf of Mexico.

I grew up in Brooklyn, barely two miles from Coney Island and the surly Atlantic Ocean. In those pre-electronic days of no TV (let alone computers, iPhones, and IPads), life seemed fairly dull. But one wild September day, when I was eleven years old, the Great Atlantic hurricane of 1944 hit land just east of Brooklyn. I remember holding my coat open, being swept up and down my street by winds that were later reported to be over 100 miles per hour.

Ever since that day in my childhood, hurricanes had held for me an odd fascination. I had begun following the path of Katrina as it approached the southernmost coast of Florida on August 2. At that time the storm was seemingly on a collision course with Aventura, a city founded by Don Soffer, a friend and football teammate from my Brandeis University days. My first girlfriend, whom I’d met as a freshman at Brandeis, also lived in Aventura. This hurricane was personal.

Katrina passed over south Florida, causing considerable damage. With much of her energy spent, she limped, like a dowager in high heels, into the Gulf of Mexico.

However, within a matter of hours, fed by the warm waters of the Gulf, Katrina regained her strength, flexed her muscles, and headed west. The guessing game began: When would she turn toward land? Where would she hit? The Florida panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or perhaps even as far west as Texas?

Anyone who watched the course of that storm over the next two days will remember how Katrina finally made up her mind and hooked to her right, northwards. The suspense ended as it became obvious that she was headed straight for New Orleans—a man-made, crescent-shaped city built on reclaimed land, much of it below sea level, surrounded by two lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Who can forget the images we saw on our TV screen? Winds up to 140 miles per hour and rain falling with biblical intensity. The mighty Mississippi River, one of the largest and most powerful rivers in the world, being pushed backwards, upstream, like a mere puddle. And then the canals overflowing, the levees collapsing, and New Orleans being inundated.

Whole sections of the city had been reduced to roofs poking up like tiny islands in a new lake. And on the roofs were people, in plain sight but apparently ignored. That image struck me. In that moment, those people were experiencing the reality that my deaf parents lived with many times—in plain sight but ignored by the hearing. I couldn’t get that actual, as well as metaphorical, relationship from my mind’s eye. Yet how easy it was, at the end of the day, to click off our TV sets, and as the screen went dark, to turn our back on what we had witnessed.     

Over the course of the next three days, I watched the horror of what Katrina—and years of neglect and indifference—had spawned. New Orleans was drowning right before our eyes.

And where were the children?
  • During the following year I was obsessed with Hurricane Katrina and the answer to that question: what had happened to the children of Katrina? I read the statistics:
  • Katrina had flooded over 80 percent of New Orleans.
  • One million people—men, women and children—were driven from their homes.
  • 20,000 people sought refuge in the Superdome; 76 percent had children under 18 with them.
  • “Refuge” in the Superdome meant living for days hungry, thirsty, half-dressed, with garbage piled high and the bathrooms turned putrid.
  • Three months after Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans, the waters had receded, but according to Newsday, “1,300 children were still missing.”
Every one of my children’s books have started with some aspect of my life, lived as the hearing child of two deaf parents. What I witnessed on TV that August, and later researched in newspapers, books, and websites—the words and the photos—brought to my mind the powerlessness, the confusion, the terror, the uncertainty, and the need for adult reassurance that all the children of Katrina must have experienced, as I had experienced at various times in my young life, and as all children experience at some point.

I was compelled to write the story of one such child of Katrina—a boy who loved his parents and depended on them to see him through any situation—and the story of his parents, who provided him with the love, protection, and hope for the future that we trust all parents will offer to their children.

I thought for a long time about my fictional character, Louis Daniel, and his strong, protective, and loving parents. Then as I wrote about them, they became real to me. I could have been that boy; those could have been my parents. We could have experienced what they experienced. Just as my parents had chosen always to see hope for our family, so Louis Daniel’s parents saw hope for theirs.

Once the book was written, I felt I could say no more. Then I considered who might be best to illustrate Louis Daniel’s story. Who could feel what Louis Daniel felt? Who could express artistically what this boy and his family went through during this horrendous life-altering event?
I visited New Orleans for the first time in 2006, less than one year after Hurricane Katrina. I was there for the American Library Association convention. Illustrator Colin Bootman and I were to receive the ALA Schneider Family Book Award for Dad, Jackie, and Me, a book we’d worked on together. We had never met. But I felt, in a way, that I knew Colin. His artistic interpretation of my deaf father in that story was so emotionally accurate, he might very well had known him.  

I had brought the manuscript of Louis Daniel and hurricane Katrina to the convention. My thought was to show it to Margaret Quinlin—the president and publisher of Peachtree Publishers—who would join us in accepting the award. 

Prior to the awards ceremony, I saw the Superdome and visited the Ninth Ward. What I saw on those visits and the emotions they triggered have remained with me to this day, nine years later.  

Finally, at a luncheon in honor of the Schneider family award recipients, I met Colin Bootman. We—a kid from Brooklyn and a boy born in Trinidad—hit it off immediately. The next day we met for coffee in my hotel’s lobby, and he asked me what we could do as a follow-up to our collaborative award-winning book. I told him that I had been working on a story about a family from the Ninth Ward who had been caught in Hurricane Katrina.  

“Tell me more,” he said. And I did, laying out the entire incredible story of Louis Daniel and his family’s escape from the rising floodwaters, and their subsequent misery during their stay in the Superdome.

Colin listened with rapt attention. When I was finished, he only asked me one question: “How do you visualize the boy, Louis Daniel?” I described a ten-year-old boy who loved playing his cornet, just as Louis Armstrong had done many years before him, when he was a boy living in New Orleans.

“I want to do this book!” Colin said. “I know this boy. How long will it take to write?”

“I already wrote it.”

“When can I read it?”

“Now,” I said, and went up to my room to get the manuscript.
Colin Bootman’s art for this book was beyond my greatest expectations; he captured Louis Daniel perfectly. And his cover art showing Louis under a blue cloudless sky, joyously blowing his cornet on a flooded street in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, was breathtaking. It was all there: catastrophe, the aftermath, life continuing, and the miracle of hope.

It has often been said, you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in the case of A Storm Called Katrina, I believe you can.


As an American History major in college, I was taken with Gore Vidal’s shorthand description of America. He called it “The United States of Amnesia.”

I’ve just turned 82, and often reflect on how much America, and life lived in America, has changed since I was a boy. So much has happened—a series of brutal wars, growing economic inequality, continuing struggles for human rights, increasing dependence on lightning-fast electronic communication and quick sound bites at the expense of building deep commitments and personal relationships. All this does seem to have resulted in a mind-numbing national amnesia.

In writing a story about what happened to a family in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, I hoped to suggest that there was still time to recover, to see the light of what’s truly important in America: family, community, shared purpose, and hope for a better future for everyone.
Whether I succeeded or not, I will always treasure the time I spent in the effort.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Teacher Tuesday with Lilliput

Grades 4-6

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the first novels in history to spark the phenomenon now known as “fan fiction.” Today, we find hundreds of novels, short stories, TV shows, and movies that give a different perspective on some of our most famous works; for example, the Wicked Witch of the West is secretly misunderstood—and also very musically talented—Elizabeth Bennett becomes the next new zombie slayer, Joanna replaces Katniss as the leader of the revolution against the Capitol, and, finally, the untold story of what happens to Gulliver after he returns becomes a fight for hope and freedom.

Lilliput contains many lessons within its pages—the importance of hope and the preciousness of a single moment to name a few—but perhaps its biggest takeaway is that imagination is limitless. Not only does Lily, the main character, think of brilliant ways to return to her home, but Sam Gayton, the author himself, also employs Lilly’s imaginative mindset in deciding to create a sequel to the beloved classic, Gulliver’s Travels.

Imagination is precious at all ages, but it is particularly important during one’s adolescence. Lilliput provides an avenue to discuss Gulliver’s Travels and the events that take place after its conclusion, but it also serves as a platform to discuss the untold stories behind novels that students already love. After discussing Gulliver’s Travels and reading Lilliput with your class, ask your students how Lilliput has changed their perspective on Gulliver’s Travels, if at all. Then, spark another conversation about the student’s favorite books; have they ever wondered if there was a different side to those stories? After discussing the possibilities for a few moments, give your students the freedom to write their own versions of those stories. They will practice their writing skills, but more importantly, they will be challenged creatively. 

Click here for the full summary of Lilliput.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Saturday Afternoon Picnic with Don Tate

My aunt, Eleanora E. Tate, is a children’s book author. While visiting her a few years ago in North Carolina, I shared one of my book ideas with her. The story, I told her, would be about a teenage slave, who escaped an abusive master by using some awesome acquired super power. I didn’t know what that super power would be; maybe some recessed Kryptonian-like gene would come forth at just the right moment to help save the day. A teenage slave with cool gadgets to defeat his villains.

My aunt listened quietly as I told her my idea. She looked down and then away from me. I recognized that disapproving gesture. Something was going very wrong. She was annoyed.

“African-Americans were not slaves,” she interrupted, “we were enslaved.”

Her response made my face burn. Not because she was criticizing my story, but because she was correcting me on the use of a word. We were talking semantics, I thought. Political correctness? Slave vs. enslaved? Really? What difference does it make? Now I was annoyed.

My aunt explained her position, stating that our African-American ancestors were human beings—free human beings, born with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just the same as white people or anyone else. She spoke about how Africans had been kidnapped from their native homeland, torn away from their families and friends, stripped of their language, their religion. “The word ‘slave’ denies our forefathers of their humanity,” she explained. “They were human beings who were enslaved.”

I was dumbfounded. I’d never really thought about the word “slave” so profoundly. I wasn’t trying to deny anyone’s humanity—heck, the word “slave” was used in all the history books that I grew up with as a child. I was simply using the word I’d been taught to use my entire life. The use of the word did not bother me at that time.

The conversation made me worry about another book, though, a book that I’d already written and was being shopped around to publishers by my agent. The title of that book: Slave Poet: The Story of George Moses Horton. It was the story of the first African-American to get published in the South. 

Not long after the conversation with my aunt, Slave Poet sold to Kathy Landwher at Peachtree Publishers. 

I was elated! It had taken several years, but my Slave Poet was really going to be a book! And I loved its title, which seemed perfect to me. Slave Poet was simple, easy to remember, it had a nice rhythm. Enslaved Poet, with its extra syllables, sounded clunky to me, like someone talking with their mouth full of food. I had to keep my beloved title.

Just to be sure, however, I emailed Kelly Starling Lyons and Tameka Fryer Brown, two respected author friends of mine who run the Brown Bookshelf website along with me. Kelly had written the book Hope’s Gift, a story about a family during slavery, which I had illustrated. I didn’t tell them about what my aunt had said, but Kelly and Tameka responded to the word “slave” in much the same as my aunt had. “It’s about humanity and dignity,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s words resonated with me. It was time to change the name of my book.

I’d been a children’s book illustrator for more than 25 years before I discovered how much I enjoyed telling stories with words. If there’s one thing I learned in my journey to becoming a writer, it’s the power of words. They can uplift or edify, or they can cut someone like a sword. As a storyteller of history for children, I needed to choose my words more wisely. Moving forward, I decided that when writing about slavery, I would honor my ancestors—my people—by describing their circumstances more accurately. My aunt was right. They were not slaves; they were human beings who were enslaved.

Realization aside, there was still the issue of writing a new title. I tried a few things out, but nothing seemed to work. I solved my problem by doing more research. While flipping through one of my source books, I discovered a moment in 1883 in which, after Horton had been freed and was living as a writer in Philadelphia, a Chapel Hill professor visited him. This was someone who knew and respected Horton during the years he was enslaved. The professor addressed him as “Poet,” to which Horton responded: “That pleases me greatly . . . you are using my proper title.” 

That was it!

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton would be the perfect title for a book about George Moses Horton—one that would please Horton himself, one that would honor him as the talented wordsmith that he was, and one that would not define his humanity as a piece of property.

As for my enslaved super hero idea…I let that one die along with the use of the word “slave” when describing my ancestors.

This guest post was written by Don Tate, author and illustrator of Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

New Book Wednesday: Poet written and illustrated by Don Tate

George Moses Horton loves words more than anything else. But despite this dedication to the beauty of language, George faces many challenges in learning how to read and write the words he is so curious about.

George is a slave growing up in Chatham County, North Carolina. Although reading is not common among slaves, George listens to his master’s children as they learn their ABCs, he studies a hymnal given to him by his mother, and he absorbs words spoken in sermons and read from the Bible. George learns more and more each day and he quickly develops a love for poetry. Eventually, after much hard work and dedication, George becomes the first African-American man to publish a book in the South.

At its heart, Poet is an inspirational story. The book highlights many historical events and shows how each event affects George’s life. His perseverance is timeless and in reading this book, your eyes will be opened to a lesser-known, yet incredible, piece of history. George is able to express the injustices and heartbreaks he has endured through his poetry, and it eventually becomes his only solace. This story is a remarkable one, and it eases young readers into understanding slavery, how it worked, and how many people suffered greatly from it. George’s story is unique, and it seems only fitting that it be expressed—finally—in the words he valued above all else. 

Click here for the full summary of Poet and here for the full teacher’s guide. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Teacher Tuesday with Random Body Parts

Grades 2-5

This unique book combines a detailed anatomy lesson with a Shakespearian sonnet. Although these two topics are not ordinarily paired, Random Body Parts provides humorous riddles for students to discover interesting details about how their bodies function. This book is perfect for reading out loud with a health or science class, and having the students laugh along as they try to decipher which body part each riddle references. Try this activity with your class as you read Random Body Parts aloud.
  •  Divide your class into groups of five.
  • Cut out shapes or print pictures of the following body parts. Make sure each group of five has one copy of each paper body part. Body parts: ear, eye, bone, spleen, kidney, nose, pancreas, liver, eyelid, brain, lung, heart, tongue, teeth, stomach, skin, blood, red blood cells, white blood cells, and muscles. Be sure to label each body part.
  • As you read the story aloud, have the group quietly decide which body part the poem references before you get to the end of the particular riddle.
  • The first group to hold up the correct body part gets 3 points. Each group that holds up the correct body part thereafter receives one point.
  • Keep score on a white board or chalk board.
  • After the story is completed, the team with the most points wins!

Click here for the full summary of Random Body Parts and here for the full teacher’s guide. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

New Book Wednesday: Watch Out for Flying Kids! written by Cynthia Levinson

The term “social justice” calls to mind many complex topics: wealth, privilege, prejudice, opportunities, discrimination, and more. However, one item that is not often associated with discussions of social justice makes its appearance in Watch Out for Flying Kids!: the circus.  In this book, circus is used as a platform for youth to look past their differences and stand together despite conflict. In both St. Louis, Missouri and Israel, two youth circus groups, Circus Harmony and Circus Galilee, are able to use these unique organizations to hoist them beyond their surroundings and into a world of multicultural harmony.

Watch Out for Flying Kids! reaches new heights in many ways, but one thing that makes this book stand out is that the author, Cynthia Levinson, follows the nine characters of her book for five years as they grow up. The kids Levinson chronicles experience various problems, ranging from athletic injuries to joining the Israel Defense Force, and Levinson is with them every step of the way. Levinson’s dedication clearly reflects the commitment of the characters themselves in achieving their goals and also joining a safe environment through their circus group.

Circuses Harmony and Galilee cross paths many times throughout Watch Out for Flying Kids, as each group makes multiple trips to visit the other. These trips provide a crossroads for acrobatic and circus talent, but more importantly, they challenge the youth circus members to reflect upon their own privileges and to be thankful for them. The five years Levinson follows these children are formative in multiple ways, and by the time the book closes, the children who were once joining their youth circus have transformed into adults forging their own paths.

Watch Out for Flying Kids! provides unique insight into the complexity of acceptance. Although the book tackles heavy items, it does so with a hopeful tone. After all, the kids in this book are light enough to fly, and they would not be able to do so without the circus' ability to lift the heavy chains of inequality away. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Brunch with Sam Gayton

I have five copies of Gulliver’s Travels, the incredible fantasy tale that first got told back around the time when George Washington still had his baby teeth. Yesterday I bought my sixth. Here they all are on my desk, awaiting their newest member (they better not bully him when he arrives).

They’re all different. One of them is full of maps. Another was a bargain at £2. The third is full of tiny, Lilliputian-sized handwriting that I can barely read. The weirdest one has a picture of a little goblin dressed up as a snail at the end. I’m serious. We will never know why.

I didn’t buy a single one of them off the net. I liked to find them unexpectedly, you see. You’d be amazed at how many Gulliver’s there are, lurking down the back of charity shop bookcases, prices pencilled in the top corner of their title pages, sitting dusty and forgotten, waiting to be discovered.

It was sort of an obsession, for a while. Like baseball cards, or Pok√©mon. I just had to collect them. I didn’t know why.

I used to wonder, though. Was it because I wanted to give all these old classics a shelf to call home? Maybe I was just fascinated by the miniature. (I am, by the way - I have loads of small stuff, including a small guitar, a small book, two small people sitting on a small rock and a small creepy doll’s house up in the attic that could definitely feature in a Goosebumps book.)

But then I realised. Maybe it was something else. Maybe I was collecting all these copies so I could see the different ways Gulliver’s Travels had been reprinted, reinterpreted, retold, and redrawn (sometimes with weird snail-goblins).

It took me a while to figure it out, but that was it. That was the reason! I was collecting all these re-tellings because somewhere, deep down the secret paths of my brain where stories wander, I wanted to have a go at reinterpreting Gulliver’s Travels myself.

So I sat down at my desk, and started writing.

I didn’t really know what story I was telling, or how it would be different from Gulliver’s Travels. I didn’t know where it was set, or who it would be about. I was like Gulliver at that point: I travelled to a lot of strange places and got lost in each one.

Some writers hate that wandering feeling of not knowing where a story is going, but I like it. It’s exciting. And I find that if I keep wandering over the page for long enough, I discover something important.

That’s how I found my main character: Lily.

I’d been writing about Gulliver for a couple of months before she showed up.

Before that, I’d explored the idea of Gulliver deciding to journey to a whole bunch of strange new lands. But whatever I wrote, it didn’t seem to feel right. Gulliver didn’t seem like a very nice hero to me. He’s miserable and mean by the end of his travels, and he isn’t exactly Dad of the Year either. He leaves his family for decades, and by the time he comes back, he decides he hates them!

But who else could be my main character? I had no idea.

Then, one day, I found myself writing a chapter about Gulliver’s meeting with two thieves. Their names were Brindle and Petterkin.

This is roughly what I wrote: Brindle and Petterkin hide in a barn during a thunderstorm. They sell a stolen birdcage to a strange traveller called Gulliver, who pays them in tiny golden coins.

During the chapter, one of the thieves (Petterkin, I think) starts to wonder why Gulliver might need a birdcage. And then he notices that Gulliver’s pockets are sewn shut. And finally, at the end of the chapter, Petterkin swears he can hear the tiny, distant sound of someone crying.

Now, Brindle and Petterkin soon got cut out of my story. They weren’t very important characters. But they did help me discover something important – Gulliver wasn’t the hero of my tale, he was the villain! And he’d done something truly terrible. He’d kidnapped a Lilliputian child.

I remember finishing that chapter, and feeling very excited, even though I knew that nothing I had just written would go into my final book.

It didn’t matter. Suddenly, I knew what my twist on Gulliver’s Travels was about.

It was about a tiny girl, three inches tall.

Taken from Lilliput.

Trying to get back.

So that’s the story behind the story. That’s why I found myself buying up copies of Gulliver’s Travels, and how I first discovered my main character, Lily.

But if you’re still wondering why I’m so obsessed with tiny things in the first place, your guess is as good as mine. As Stephen Millhauser says: ‘Wherein lies the fascination of the miniature?’

If you’d like to read the short chapter featuring Brindle and Petterkin (and Lily) click here.