Happy Reading, Peru Intermediate School!

May just might be my new favorite month.  Not only are my tulips about to burst into bloom, but it’s also Reading Celebration Month at Peru Intermediate School. I’m their guest author, which means I get to spend time talking books with a crew of excited kids who love to read. 

This poster in the front hallway made me smile.  I’m so glad I could visit on an outdoor recess day! 

What could be better?  More than 500 enthusiastic Peru kids were at the assembly where I spoke this afternoon to kick off their May reading extravaganza.

Note: That’s not me up front.  It’s Mr. Storms, the principal of Peru Intermediate, who chose David Wisniewski’s GOLEM as his favorite book for the faculty/staff slideshow.  This is, in my book, solid evidence that he is a very cool principal.

I love how this school has set up its reading incentive program, making room for all kinds of readers.  Students are meeting with their teachers to decide on their own individual reading goals.  When they meet their goals, which they can choose to make public or keep private, they get to put their names up on one of these way-cool ships in the front entrance display.

Why ships?  The theme for this year’s reading incentive program is Lake Champlain. Since my historical novels are set on the lake, all of the classes are reading at least one of them.  I’ll be spending a full day with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders later on this month to talk about the research and stories behind Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One.   They’ll also get a super-sneak preview of my new book, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z (Walker, Fall ’09), which is set near the lake in modern times.

Today, though, it was all about the reading.  After a slideshow of their teachers’ favorite books, I talked about some of my favorites, past and present.  We talked about how books let us travel through time, show us ourselves, and bring us together. And I shared my own reading goals for the month of May.  I’m planning to read a mix of picture books, poetry, novels for younger kids, high school novels, and books for adults.

Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon
by Jeannine Atkins (I have a shiny new, signed copy from the NESCBWI Conference!)
Masterpiece by Elise Broach (I’ve been wanting to read this for ages – can’t wait!)
Border Songs by Jim Lynch (I loved his novel The Highest Tide and was happy to pick up this advance copy of his latest.)
The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry (I read an early draft of this book and can’t wait to dig into the final version!)
Bug Boy by Eric Luper (Is it cheating that I’ve already started reading this ARC?  I was going to save it, but it just didn’t work out.)
Nine Horses by Billy Collins (This is the book of poetry that I was so excited to find on the library book sale cart for fifty cents.)

I’ll be sure to post some thoughts as I finish each one.  And if you’re a Peru student reading this…know that as I work my way through my pile of books, I’m cheering for you to meet your goal, too!

Places to Go, People to See

Tomorrow, I’m the author guest at Peru Intermediate School‘s Reading Celebration Kickoff for the month of May.  (That’s Peru, NY…not Peru, South America. If you want to hear about the South America Peru, you should visit  , who just had a school visit there!)  I’m excited to meet the kids, talk about some books I loved when I was younger, and share our reading goals for the month.

Friday, I’m presenting a workshop at Vermont’s DCF Conference:

Celebrating 400 Years on Lake Champlain:  Author and English teacher Kate Messner discusses her two historical novels set on Lake Champlain as well as her upcoming book The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z (Walker, Fall ’09).  Kate will share her research and writing process as well as strategies for using her books in the classroom to help celebrate the history and natural landscape of Vermont.

I’m looking forward to spending the day at the conference. I’ll get to hang out with cool librarians and hear talks from David Macauley, whose new book The Way We Work is just so cool, and Beth Kanell, whose historical YA novel The Darkness Under the Water is wonderfully haunting.

And now, some places you might want to go and people you might want to visit…

First of all, have you read Winnie’s War by Jenny MossThis historical novel, set during the 1918 influenza epidemic, is terrific and suddenly feels very timely.  I’m on a panel with Jenny at the 2009 NCTE conference, talking about pairing fiction and nonfiction in the classroom, so we chat online from time to time.  She was telling me that she has a school visit coming up soon, and I can just imagine the questions she’ll be getting.  It’s a great title for teachers who want to explore the changes in medicine, disease preparedness, and technology over the past century.

Kristy Dempsey’s picture book  Me With You is on its way to bookstores as we speak, and if you’ve had a peek at the book trailer on her website, you know how cute this one is.  The illustrations by Christopher Denise are just charming. Kristy is running a contest where you can win a copy over at  .

Linda Urban is reading and signing copies of her new picture book Mouse Was Mad, illustrated by Henry Cole, at Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, VT Saturday morning at 11.  I already have my signed copy and have read it at least a dozen times since Saturday.  I’ve laughed every single time.

And finally, my friend   has a new hedgehog.  Seriously.  Go visit and help her name the prickly critter.

NESCBWI Conference Panel Handout

At the request of some folks on Twitter, I’m posting the handout from last weekend’s NESCBWI panel discussion, "Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Agents…But Were Afraid to Ask."  I participated in the panel, along with my agent Jennifer Laughran of ABLA,  author Jo Knowles and her agent Barry Goldblatt, and author/illustrator Carlyn Beccia and her agent Tracey Adams.  We talked about many elements of the agent-author relationship Saturday afternoon and promised more on how to query an agent in the handout.  Some of it will seem obvious, but believe it or not, agents see query letters that don’t follow guidelines all the time. 

Tips for Querying Agents

1. Do your homework. Make sure you know what kind of work the agent generally represents.  Spell the name correctly.  Make sure your manuscript is ready to submit. Then follow the submission guidelines exactly. 

Why is this important? Because you’re asking someone to represent you as a professional in a career where you will frequently need to follow directions and do things a certain way.  Prove that you can do it up front.  Don’t give an agent a reason to say no.

2. When you write your query letter:

a. Address the agent by his or her name, i.e. Dear Mr. Goldblatt

b. Write a very brief first paragraph explaining why you are writing (to see if the agent is interested in representing your project) and why you chose that agent in particular.  Did you read that the agent was looking for paranormal romance? Does he or she represent an author you love? 

c. It’s fine to say you’ve met one of the agent’s clients or admire their books, but don’t make it sound like you were referred to an agent unless an author specifically referred you and offered to contact the agent to say so. Agents will check on this, and you’ll look unprofessional if you’ve stretched the truth.

d. In your next paragraph or two, give a brief summary of your book.  This summary should read more like jacket copy than a book report.  It’s meant give a quick overview to entice the agent to request your manuscript and does not need to include every little plot element.  It does need to be clear, concise, and well written.  If your book is funny, it helps if your query is funny, too.

e. In your last paragraph, give a brief closing.  You might say to whom your book would appeal or how you think it fits into the market.  Thank the agent and offer to send your manuscript along at his or her request.

3. Give it time.  Agents are incredibly busy and may take weeks or months to respond to your query.  Status query only after three months or whatever the agent’s guidelines suggest.

Keep in mind, there’s a lot of advice out there on querying, and this is just one take on the process. There are no magic query potions.  If you’re interested in learning more about what to do and especially what not to do, you’ll want to check out this post from Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein.

The Top Ten Things I Learned at NESCBWI

10. An unreliable narrator — one who doesn’t tell the truth for any number of reasons — can add tension to a story.  In her workshop called "You Lying Scumbag"  (love that title!),  Jacqueline Davies read a bit from her new historical novel LOST and shared an Ian McEwan quote that stuck with me.  "Narrative tension is primarily about the withholding of information." 

9. Being sort of scared to write about race, for fear of messing up, is not a good reason to avoid it.  Mitali Perkins challenged her workshop participants to include more diversity in their casts of characters, and not in just superficial ways.

8.  Along those same lines…a quote from Floyd Cooper during the diversity panel… "A good multicultural book should start as a good book."

7. It is possible to remain calm, cool, collected, and friendly while coordinating a conference for hundreds of writers. Co-directors Anna Boll and Anindita Basu Sempere proved it over and over again.

6. My agent   is just as terrific in person as she is online.  We met for the first time Friday and got to spend lots of time talking and laughing over the weekend.

5. Agents in general — at least the good ones — are incredibly committed to good books.  I was impressed when an audience member at our panel discussion on agents & authors asked how long an agent will shop a manuscript before it’s dead in the water. The answer?  A really, really long time, if they believe in the manuscript.  Barry Goldblatt told the story of a book he sold after seven or eight YEARS of trying on and off, and Tracey Adams shared a similar experience.  Sometimes, depending on what the market is like, they’ll put a story on the back burner for a while, but that doesn’t always mean giving up on it.

4. The Nashua Crowne Plaza has very good chocolate chip muffins, but it’s impossible to eat them without making a mess.  There are chocolate smudges on half of my notebook pages.

3. Sometimes, when I am really busy and having lots of fun, I forget to take all the great pictures I intended to take.   But I have these…

Saturday night dinner at The Peddler’s Daughter in Nashua

What we had for dinner there, which brings me to….

2. I do like fish & chips!  I do, I like them, Sam-I-Am.  Actually, that would be Linda-I-Am, since it was   who told me I really ought to order them, since they are the specialty of this great Nashua pub and come all wrapped up in newspaper. The meal was fantastic, as was the company.

1. Children’s writers & illustrators and the editors and agents who work with them are some of the friendliest, funniest, smartest, most supportive and generous people on the planet.  I so loved meeting new writer-friends and spending time with people I usually talk with online, including my agent and online critique buddies.  Truth be told, I knew that before this weekend, but every time I attend an event like this, I’m reminded of it, so it’s still #1.

Saturday at NESCBWI – Part II

Highlights of my Saturday afternoon at NESCBWI…

  • I was part of the panel discussion "Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Agents…But Were Afraid to Ask," along with my agent Jennifer Laughran, Jo Knowles and her agent Barry Goldblatt, and Carlyn Beccia and her agent Tracey Adams.  This was my first time presenting at an SCBWI Conference, so I was a little nervous, but having so many smart, nice people on the panel made it a million times easier.  We had great questions.  Can a first-time novelist still find an agent?  (Yes!)   How do you usually communicate with your agent?  (Email, mostly.  It was interesting to note that two of the three agents on the panel had met their clients in person for the very first time just this weekend!)  More on the panel, questions & answers later on.  And if you were at the panel, thank you so much for coming and for your great questions!  Watch your email for the handout later this week!
  • I loved looking at the posters for the illustrator showcase.  I’m always in awe of illustrators, and the folks who created work for us all to enjoy in the conference lobby deserve a big thanks!
  • Fish & Chips!  At a local pub so loud my ears are still kind of ringing.  With homemade ketchup…  Mmmmm….
  • I stayed up wayyyyy too late talking with friends in the hotel lobby.  To that end…. time for coffee.  I’ll post some photos later in the week!

Saturday at NESCBWI

Cynthia Lord’s keynote talk at NESCBWI this morning was…well…it was everything that Cynthia is.  Smart and warm and inspiring and nurturing and wonderful.  If you’ve met Cindy or know her on LJ, you know exactly what I mean.  And she was right…we did need the Kleenex when she shared some of the letters she’s received from kids about RULES.

Other highlights… Jacqueline Davies got us thinking about the different kinds of unreliable narrators in her workshop whose title, "You Lying Scumbag,"  should probably be in the running for most intriguing workshop title ever.

And Mitali Perkins gave a fantatic workshop on race in children’s literature. Many highlights were in her SLJ article on that topic that you can read here.

Time for my authors & agents panel!  EEEeeeEEE!!!  More to come later on…

An Early Update from NESCBWI

I left my camera connector thing at home, so photos will have to wait, but I thought I’d post a quick update from Nashua all the same. (For my mom and others who may not know writer acronyms, NESCBWI stands for New England Society of Children’s  Book Writers and Illustrators.)

Highlights of Day 1:

  • Meeting conference co-chairs Anna Boll and Anindita Basu Sempere and other conference organizers at lunch.  Honestly, the organizational abilities of these women has me in awe. And they shared some exciting news about next year’s conference – a new venue and a 21st century theme, "Moments of Change," focusing on the way technology impacts our craft and careers.
  • Meeting my agent   in person for the first time! She is just as funny and friendly and smart in real life.  I knew it!
  • Seeing writer friends from all over New England, meeting people I’ve only talked with online, and celebrating recent good news with so many of them.  We New England folks are a busy, busy bunch of writers & illustrators!
  • Coming back to my hotell room to find an email from a young reader that started out, "I wanted to write and thank you for being an author!!!"  Every sentence in her email had three exclamation points.  It made my day and was a lovely reminder of why we’re all here.


  • I’m so looking forward to Cynthia Lord’s keynote address after breakfast.  She warned us to bring the Kleenex.  This is just trouble for those of us who are known to cry during Folgers coffee commercials.
  • Terrific workshops on tap – and I’m wishing I could be everywhere at once!  First stop for me today…Jacqueline Davies’ session called "You Lying Scumbag: The Joys and Perils of Creating an Unreliable Narrator."
  • I’m presenting this afternoon as part of a panel on "Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Agents… But Were Afraid to Ask" along with my agent Jennifer Laughran, Jo Knowles and her agent Barry Goldblatt, and Carlyn Beccia and her agent Tracey Adams. We have a crowd of 80 people signed up for the session, and I bet they’ll have some great questions.
  • Then I am going to the conference bookstore, where I will proceed to buy more books that do not fit on my shelves at home.  We need more shelves.
  • Then off to dinner with friends at a place with what’s been pitched to me as the best fish & chips ever.  Stop by for the full rundown on unreliable narrators, friends, fish & chips later on….

Thankful Thursday!

Lots to be thankful for today!

1. When I walked to the library to return books at lunchtime, I found a book of Billy Collins poetry on the 50-cent book sale rack.

NINE HORSES is the only one I didn’t already own.  Suffice to say, I own it now and read it all the way back to school.  

2.  I’m thankful for the guy who almost ran me over because I was crossing the street reading.  He didn’t run me over, and when I finally looked up from my poem, alarmed and sheepish, he smiled instead of making a rude gesture.  That was nice of him. Happy National Poetry Month, guy-in-the-pickup-truck!

3. My Advanced Creative Writing students are giving the spotlight presentation at tonight’s school board meeting.  Four of them are reading from their works in progress.  They are brave and talented and awesome, and I’m mighty proud of them.

4.  Tomorrow, I leave for the NE SCBWI Conference!  I’m going to see my critique buddies   and  and so many other writer friends, and I’ll get to hear  ‘s keynote address and meet my agent   in person for the first time ever…and…and….and…  I’m excited and thankful and sounding like an overzealous first grader now so I’ll stop at that. 

Thank you, Grand Isle School!

A couple weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend a day with the terrific kids at Grand Isle School and their equally terrific librarian, Susanna Paterson, who is both a fellow teacher and a fellow writer. 

Susanna was an amazing hostess who kept me right on schedule through three presentations and a lunchtime book signing, and her students were delightful, smart kids with fantastic questions.

Two of them made me smile within minutes of my arrival.  The first one, a seventh grade boy  who was helping Susanna get the library arranged for my presentation, stopped setting up chairs, walked right up to me and said, "Hi.  I love your book!"  I’m sure he didn’t realize at the time just how much that means to an author who’s just about to start a full day of presentations, full of too much coffee and nerves, but I hope he knows now that he absolutely made my day.

The other kid-who-made-my-day was a second grader who grabbed a front row seat for my presentation to the younger kids. 

"’Are you Kate Messner?"  He bounced up and down a few times.

"Yes, I am,"  I told him.  "It’s nice to meet  you!"

"We went to your website with our teacher!"  More bouncing.


"Yes…"  (pause)  "You look older than I thought you would."

I laughed.  "Well, that happens sometimes, huh?"

He nodded.  "But don’t worry.  Not much older.  Just a little bit older."

He and his classmates proceeded to tell me all about some of the other things they learned at my website.  You ate fried crickets once! You keep pet worms in your basement!  We had a grand time talking about my upcoming picture book, OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW (Chronicle, 2010), animal tracks, and which critters might be hiding under Vermont’s winter snow pack.

They were a fabulous audience, just like the older students I saw later in the morning.  Thanks, Susanna and all my other new friends, for a great day at Grand Isle School!

A Different Kind of Outdoors

I’ve been a quiet blogger lately, mostly because we’ve been on vacation, visiting family in Southwest Florida.  The sunshine was a welcome break from our Northern NY skies that spit snowflakes well into April.  For the past five months, spending time outdoors has meant cold, crisp air, jackets, and gloves…ice-covered lakes and snowy mountains, so it was almost like exploring an alien landscape when we visited Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and enjoyed a 2.25 mile boardwalk hike through stunning Florida wilderness.

Because it’s been such a dry season, the swamp wasn’t as swampy as usual though.  Many of the lakes were dried up or reduced to small ponds with muddy alligator trails leading from one to another.

We did eventually find water, and with it, a couple lounging alligators and dozens of gorgeous wading birds.

The birds here were incredible.  We spotted so many species we just don’t see at home…wood storks, roseate spoonbills, great egrets, black and white warblers, gray catbirds, pileated woodpeckers, and red-shouldered hawks.  We never saw them, but we heard barred owls calling to one another, "Who?  Who? Who-cooks-for-you?" 

E and I enjoyed the trail so much that we left the boys sleeping the next morning and came out for an early morning walk.   This time, a fog sat over the swamp, lacing spiderwebs that had been invisible on our first visit.

Just as we were about to leave, an older woman who was walking a ways behind us called out in a loud whisper, "Come back! There’s something here you’ll want to see."  She was right.

We stood silently with her and watched the red-shouldered hawk until it flew off to a different treetop.

I thanked her for calling us back and asked if she lived nearby. 

She nodded.  "I come here every morning." 

I didn’t need to ask why.  Walking out of the swamp with her that morning, I could tell she feels the same way about this place that my family feels about Lake Champlain.  When a landscape is home, you have a special appreciation for it — not a visitor’s wide eyed wonder, but a deeper connection…a sense for how it breathes and grows and changes every day.  There was a reason she spotted the hawk that we missed, even though he was right along the boardwalk.  Calling us back was her way of sharing a little bit of her morning turf with visitors, and we’re so very thankful that she did.