Thankful Thursday

It’s not quite Thursday, but I’m feeling thankful for:

…SNOW!!  We didn’t get as much as expected (I think

stole it all when the storm swung to the south), but it’s still beautiful, and the skiing will be great this weekend.

…the delete button on my keyboard.
  I just finished a rewrite of a chapter book that my agent said needed to lose some weight before it sees the light of day.  
                Before:    15,300 words
                After:         9,988 words
 (She was right, too.  The new version is simpler, funnier, more universal, and more kid-friendly. One more revision pass, and I’ll be ready send it off.)

…March Novel Madness, a get-moving, springtime writing project born at the Kindling Words retreat last month.  My goal is going to be 5000 words per week, which should carry me to the end of my new middle grade novel.  I’m especially thankful for the talented, organized, and fabulously fun  Alison James, who sent out inspiration packages to the writers participating in MNM.  Once I figured out that the lumpy envelope in today’s mail wasn’t anthrax, I was delighted to find a word count calendar and peanut M&Ms inside.

…a Map of the World to guide my March writing. 

At one of Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Kindling Words workshops, she discussed the importance of setting details — and how hard it can be to “see” those details when you’re writing a contemporary novel.  I have a much easier time with historical novels, when all the rich setting details come from my research on real places and time periods.  What’s a writer to do with a neighborhood she made up?  Make a map?  That’s what several writers suggested to me, so I sat down with colored pencils and a huge piece of poster paper and mapped Zig’s neighborhood. 

It’s all there — the school, his best friend’s house, the diner, the rock skipping spot…everything. Already, it’s so much easier for me to envision the places that are part of his life.  It was really, really fun.  While I was drawing, I figured out something important about a secondary character’s backstory and discovered some spots in the neighborhood I hadn’t known about before.  Try this strategy!

Bonus for writers with kids at home:  They can do this right along with you.   E spent two hours adding details to her map of our neighborhood while I worked on mine.

Signing, Skating, & Champlain

Three highlights of my February vacation week!

I signed books and met some fantastic readers at Barnes and Noble in South Burlington, Vermont yesterday afternoon.  Thanks to everyone who came out to pick up copies of Spitfire and say hello.  I was especially happy to meet Marje VanOlsen from the South Burlington Community Library in person. We’ve been emailing for a few weeks, and I’ll be presenting a summer program at her library in July. 

Earlier in the vacation week, my family enjoyed the last weekend of Winterlude in Ottawa.  It’s a fantastic winter festival with outdoor entertainment, ice sculptures, and best of all — skating!

As soon as Ottawa’s Rideau Canal freezes, it turns into the world’s longest skating rink — literally.  Those world record folks at Guinness made it official this year. 

We had a beautiful day and enjoyed the full 7.8 km.  Of course, we did make a few stops along the way — most notably to indulge in a Beaver Tail or two.

If  you’re ever in Ottawa, this decadent delicacy is a must-have.  A beaver tail pastry is a very thin strip of fried dough shaped like, well, the flat tail of a beaver.  It’s dusted with cinnamon and sugar or drizzled with maple syrup (my favorite). 

I even managed to get some work done in between skating and scarfing down pastries.  I’ve been asked to do a couple presentations this spring, talking about my upcoming book Champlain & the Silent One, which comes out next fall.  That means going back to the places where I did some of my research to gather photographs and other resources for my school visits.

Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is featuring Samuel de Champlain in an exhibit about people who shaped Canada’s history.

This was especially fun to see…

It’s a navigational tool called an astrolabe, and historians believe it might have belonged to Champlain himself.  According to documents, Champlain lost his astrolabe near a place called Green Lake when he was traveling up the Ottawa River in 1613.  In 1867, a boy named Edward Lee was helping his father clear trees in that area and came upon the instrument pictured above, right where Champlain supposedly dropped it 254 years earlier.

And here’s a quiz for particularly astute blog readers.  Look at this statue of Champlain with his astrolabe at Ottawa’s Nepean point.

There’s something wrong.  Do you know what it is? 

Ice Song

We had a lazy morning on Lake Champlain.  When I woke up, the lake was frozen solid from our back deck to the island about a mile offshore.  When the wind picked up, it churned up the open water to the south, and the ice started talking.

Sometimes, when the ice breaks up, it sounds like a timpani drum.  Sometimes it sounds like thunder. Sometimes it sounds like a sea lion barking.  And sometimes, it sounds like something from another planet — something that doesn’t sound like an earth noise at all.

So we shivered on the porch this morning and listened.  We watched a mink that popped up from a crack in the ice and played for about an hour before she disappeared again.  And we videotaped, so you could listen and watch, too. 

A Tale of Two Eclipses

Oh, what a difference 3,000 miles, 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and a good telescope can make.

Here’s a photograph of the August 27-28, 2007 lunar eclipse that I took through a powerful telescope set up in the Anza-Borrego Desert near Borrego Springs, CA.  We camped in the desert that night so we could view the eclipse in one of the darkest places in the country. It was 99 degrees after the sun went down.

And here is a photograph of tonight’s lunar eclipse that I took from my back deck.  No fabulous telescope.  No coat.  14 degrees outside.   It’s tough to hold a camera steady in this kind of weather.  Maybe you noticed…

I’d try again, but it’s cold out there.  Does that make me a fair-weather astronomer?  My August lunar eclipse story is here, for anyone who missed tonight’s show and would like to experience one.

Nonfiction Monday – An Interview with Jim Murphy

If you’ve spent any time around middle school kids, you know they devour Jim Murphy’s works of nonfiction.  Murphy has won two Newbery Honors for his books The Great Fire and An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.  His latest book, The Real Benedict Arnold, was brought to my attention this fall by a Vermont librarian who purchased it as a non-fiction companion to go along with my middle grade historical novel Spitfire, about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to join Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain during the American Revolution. 

Jim was kind enough to take time out from his writing to answer some questions for blog readers.

Thanks so much for joining us, Jim! Your most well-known works of non-fiction for middle grade readers have focused on disasters — fire, the blizzard, the yellow fever epidemic.  What drew you to write a book about Benedict Arnold?

Yes, I’ve done a lot of books that focus on one or another form of disaster.  In fact, my friends jokingly call me the Master of Disaster.  I try to write nonfiction that reads like a good “you are there” story and a fire or blizzard or whatever has the built feature of having a beginning, middle, and an end.  What’s more, these are often dramatic events that people who survive write about in vivid and dramatic prose.  Combine the event and the people and the result has the potential to be a book that allows readers to experience a part of our history in an active, involving way. 

So you’re right that The Real Benedict Arnold was a bit of a departure for me.  I was drawn to him because most books about the American Revolution or about Arnold simply paint him with the traitor brush and never try it discover why he turned against the Cause.  In addition, very few give him proper credit for his military abilities.  He was, in my opinion, the best field general that the colonies had and deserves a great deal of credit for the ultimate American victory.   

Where did your research for this book take you?  Were there many surprises along the way?

Researching The Real Benedict Arnold was a nightmare.  I ended just about every day with a massive headache and the feeling that I’d only scratched the surface.  But after six or so years the path to the finished began to look clearer.  Here’s why it proved to be so difficult.  I found that many, if not most of the negative stories about Benedict surfaced after he’d turned traitor.  I wondered how many were invented by people who wanted to distance themselves from Benedict or saw it as an opportune moment to get even.  I also wanted to find out the truth about the negative stories that existed before he went over the British.  So every event in his life had to be evaluated as if it was a potential crime scene and my job was to trace every story (positive and negative) back to its origins and then evaluate it as carefully as I could.  The biggest surprise for me was how many of these stories were completely fabricated and false, and then passed along as fact by succeeding generations of historians.

You’ve written both non-fiction and historical fiction.  How does your writing process differ with those two genres?

Research for both my nonfiction and historical fiction is pretty much the same.  I’m a bit obsessive about assembling facts and trying to “see” what the person or event was really like.  The writing process itself is different.  In nonfiction I can include only information that I’ve been able to verify with at least two reliable sources.  This means stopping frequently to discover, for instance, what the weather was like every day during Benedict’s march with his troops through the Maine wilderness.  With my historical fiction, the emphasis is on the characters – what are their conflicts or aspirations, what problems get in their way and how to they overcome them, etc.  Still, I try to create characters that are historically accurate.  This means shying away from giving them obviously modern opinions and ideas (say about the environment or war in general).  

Many teachers are using your books in the classroom, particularly as companion books alongside historical novels.  I know that my school has a class set of An American Plague that we use with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever, and I’ve heard from another school that’s planning to use your new Arnold book as a non-fiction companion to go along with my own historical novel, Spitfire.  As an author, how do you feel about the trend of fiction & non-fiction being paired in the classroom?

On a purely selfish level, I love to have my nonfiction books paired with someone else’s historical fiction counterpart.  In general, kids will much more readily seek out historical fiction than nonfiction (historical fiction comes with a promise of action and drama, while nonfiction seems like tons of facts).  So using one of my nonfiction books and historical fiction together in a classroom allows more readers to get a taste for the way I write history and might even convince some that it might even be fun to read.

I like the pairing of nonfiction and historical fiction for another reason.  Reading historical fiction allows readers to see the past through a character’s eyes and, hopefully, might prompt a series of opinions or questions.  Readers can then use the nonfiction book to check out their ideas or get a fuller understanding of our past. 

Are there other works of historical fiction that you like to recommend as companions to your non-fiction titles?  Have you heard about novels or picture books that teachers  like to use along with Blizzard and The Great Fire?

This is a great question for which I have no answer.  I tend to muddle along day to day struggling to get words on a page, so I haven’t devoted much thought to additional pairings.  And most teachers I’ve spoken with have spoken about the pairings mentioned above, but not offered new ones.  Maybe the notion is so new that most of us don’t think about it in a regular way.  Besides, I have a feeling most of your readers a better qualified to make such pairings.  Or maybe someone out there should write an article about it for SLJ….

(How about it blog readers?  Any thoughts on novels or picture books that would work well as pairings for Murphy’s other books?  Betsy Bird, doesn’t that sound like a blog post in the making?)

Readers always love a sneak preview, Jim.  Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

What am I working on?  Well, I’ve written a nonfiction book about the Battle of Antietam called A Savage Thunder.  It’s a look at how Robert E. Lee and George McClellan managed their armies both before, during, and after the battle, but the story line is driven by scores of firsthand accounts of the fighting.  It will be published by Simon & Schuster in spring, 2009.

I have two other nonfiction books in the works.  One is entitled Truce: The Day the Soldiers Refused to Fight (and is about the famous Christmas truce in 1914).  The other as yet untitled book follows George Washington from his disastrous performance in the Battle of Long Island to his miraculous victory at Trenton.  Neither book has an official pub date, but (if someone somewhere smiles upon me) might appear in 2009. 

Finally, my wife, Alison Blank, and I are writing a history of tuberculosis (which is much more interesting and scary than it sounds).    

Jim, thanks so much for joining us for Nonfiction Monday!  We’ll be looking for those new titles in 2009.

And the winner is…

Happy Valentine’s Book Giveaway Day!  In the spirit of sharing the book love, I held a contest on my blog to give away a signed ARC of Linda Sue Park’s incredible MG novel Keeping Score

And in the spirit of entertaining my children, we devised a fun, Valentine-loving way to pick a winner.

First, I wrote the names of everyone who entered on little foam heart stickers.  If you entered, you’re on one of these.  I promise.

Then we stuck all the hearts to the dartboard in the basement. 

Then the kids closed their eyes and took turns shooting darts at you. 

You can be assured that it was done fair and square, even at great risk to our personal property.  E almost threw a dart through the door window you see next to the dartboard.  When I suggested that she open her eyes and just try to hit the board, she vehemently refused.  She would NOT compromise the integrity of the random selection process.

This took longer than I thought it would.  Bedtime was late. There were many near misses.  Many darts that just grazed the edges of some of your names.  But we were looking for a true piercing of the heart, Cupid style.  Finally, J was successful.

Can you read this?

How about now?


!  Please email me your address, and I’ll mail out your signed ARC of Keeping Score.  Happy  Valentine’s Day, everyone, and thanks for entering!

Edited to add a special LJ “Sharing the Love” note… 

has requested that her prize be sent along to

to help her recover from a knee injury (and I know it will help!).  So, whiskersink, please send me your address, and newport2newport….thanks.  Your kindness this morning made me smile a huge smile. I love this community. 


And don’t forget… Valentine’s Day also means the announcement of the Cybils winners!  Congratulations to the winners and all of the nominees for this year.

Blog Soup

Sometimes I try to make soup out of all the leftovers in the refrigerator.  Today’s post is blog soup — all the little notes I’ve been meaning to mention but haven’t had time. 

One of my favorite indies, Flying Pig Books in Shelburne, VT,  was nominated for the Lucille Micheels Pannell Award honoring bookstores that “excel at inspiring the interest of young people in books and reading.”  If you’ve ever been to see Josie & Elizabeth at Flying Pig, you know  their children’s section is fabulous, and they have a steady stream of guest authors (I’ll be there on April 5th!). The nomination is a well-earned honor!  (Congrats are also in order for winning stores, Books & Books of Coral Gables, FL and Wonderland Books of Rockford, IL. The descriptions of these stores make me want to visit them all.)
Laurie Halse Anderson (

) and her husband are training tirelessly for the Lake Placid Half Marathon.  They’re running with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training to raise money for cancer research.  Even if you only run when being chased, you can click here to contribute to their efforts.

I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting…and this Thursday, the Cybils Award Winners will be announced.  I served as a panelist for MG fiction, and I can’t wait to see what one of our eight finalists the judges choose.

Kerry Madden (

) is having a cool school picture contest on her blog, and she’s giving away signed copies of Jessie’s Mountain.  Here’s your opportunity to profit from that 3rd grade school photo where your collar was tucked in and your hair looked like devil horns.

Speaking of contests, don’t forget that I’m giving away a signed ARC of Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score.  Check out this post for the details. You have  until 6pm EST on Wednesday to enter.  The winner will be announced on Valentine’s Day.

And finally, have you checked out Nonfiction Mondays?  I love the idea of a blogging day devoted to nonfiction.  I missed today’s roundup, but I’ll be participating next Monday.  I hope you’ll stop by to check out my interview with Jim Murphy, award-winning author of fantastic non-fiction titles like The Great Fire, Blizzard,  An American Plague, and most recently, The Real Benedict Arnold.

Building on Spec

For 110 years, the people of Saranac Lake, NY have taken part in a winter ritual that I absolutely love.

They build a palace out of ice.

The tradition dates back to 1898, when the community held its first winter carnival to raise the spirits of tuberculosis patients who had come to Saranac Lake seeking the fresh air cure in its sanitariums and cure cottages.

We took a drive through the mountains last weekend to check out this year’s creation, and it’s spectacular, as always.  Here I am, grinning like a fool, getting snowed on while I smile at its spectacular-ness.

One thing I love about the winter carnival is how people treat it like any other outdoor festival, despite the fact that it’s often below zero here in the winter time.  Last Sunday, amidst blowing snow and rapidly dropping temperatures, there was a guy selling fried dough and cotton candy out of a little booth right next to the palace.

Here’s another thing I love about this tradition. Ice is never a sure thing.  It’s slippery, you know?  Some years, workers start building the palace only to have a big thaw before they finish.  Sometimes, they wait until the very last minute to start because the ice on Lake Flower isn’t thick enough yet.  And the whole time they’re building, they never quite know if it’s going to work out or not. 

It’s a lot like writing.  You have an idea and some building blocks for a story, so you start stacking them together.  But then one slides off.  And another one melts.  And some kid comes by and pushes another one off the pile and it lands on your toe, and you start to think the whole thing might have been a big mistake.  But usually, you keep on stacking and putting things back, and trying new blocks and new spots for the old blocks until things fit.  And eventually, you stand back and see that it really is looking like a story after all.

I admire the guys who build the ice palace.  It’s never a sure thing.  But they plow forward on faith.  And usually, when all the heavy lifting is done, it’s downright stunning.

Contest for Impatient Readers

Sometimes it can be hard to wait.  I’m feeling a little impatient about the books of 2008 for a few reasons.

As a writer, I’m feeling impatient because my second MG historical novel, Champlain & the Silent One,  is still seven months away from the shelves.  It’s off being edited and illustrated now, so all my work is done, except the waiting.  I can’t wait to see the illustrations and the cover, and I really can’t wait to start talking with kids at schools & libraries about Samuel de Champlain and the tribes who guided him on his voyage from Quebec to Lake Champlain 400 years ago.

As a reader and teacher, I’m excited for a whole roundup of 2008 titles from favorite authors & friends & other writers whose work I’ve heard about and can’t wait to read.  I’ve been lucky enough to get sneak peaks of some of them, like Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score, which I reviewed here. This one is so unbelievably good that I’ve decided it’s a crime not to pass it along so someone else can read it and love it and hopefully talk about it, too.

So here’s the contest.  I’m giving a way my pre-read and somewhat well-traveled ARC of Keeping Score.  I won it in a drawing on

‘s blog a few weeks ago and asked Cindy if she’d be okay with me giving it away again.  The ARC traveled with me to the Kindling Words retreat in Vermont last week, where Linda Sue Park (

) graciously signed it for the giveaway.  It’s not a shiny, perfect, unread-by-human-eyes ARC, but it is signed and got to hang out with the likes of Linda Sue and Laurie Halse Anderson and Sara Zarr and Katie Davis and Jane Yolen and other wonderful people.  It’s an ARC with lots of good karma.

If you’d like to be entered the drawing, just leave a comment below with the title of one 2008 release that you can’t wait to read.  The contest ends at 6pm EST on February 13th.  I’ll figure out some bizarre and random way to choose a winner and announce it here on my blog on Valentine’s Day.