When Life Imitates Art: Tornado Outbreak & EYE OF THE STORM

My heart is aching this week for people who have been affected by the devastating outbreak of tornadoes. They’ve hit hardest in the South, but other parts of the country have seen tornado warnings as well — New York and New England…where tornadoes aren’t often an issue.

I’ve gotten more than one email this week from writer friends who have read EYE OF THE STORM, my Spring 2012 novel with Walker/Bloomsbury that deals with a future world where tornadoes are stronger and more widespread than they are now. “Did you know this was going to happen?” they want to know.  I didn’t… but this spring weather has been more than a little eerie to me, given the research I did for EYE OF THE STORM and all that I learned about the power these storms can unleash.

Last September, I traveled to Norman, Oklahoma to research this book at the National Severe Storms Laboratory and to interview notable meteorologist and storm photographer Dr. Howard Bluestein.

We talked about what might cause the kind of upswing in severe storms that happens in my novel, which is even much worse than what we’ve been seeing this week. His thoughts will be part of the discussion guide in the book’s back matter.  Here’s a sampling, where Bluestein discusses how scientists try to predict what changes in climate might mean for our future in terms of severe storms:

If we know what the environmental conditions are that can lead to tornadic thunderstorms, then what people have done is you can take a climate model and integrate it into the future to see whether or not those conditions will be more prevalent than they are right now.  So we know what the conditions are. We know that they happen frequently here in this part of the country in the springtime.  If you look at a climate model, it may turn out that these conditions are prevalent over a greater part of the country – maybe a smaller part of the country – maybe a slightly different time of year… these things are all possible.

Advance reader galleys of EYE OF THE STORM should be available before too long, and I’ve already been in touch with my editor about making some available to help raise funds for Red Cross disaster relief in Alabama.  For now…here are some tornado links that might be helpful in your classrooms or just interesting to read.

Why Suddenly So Many Tornadoes? An explanation from AccuWeather

A collection of last week’s storm photos from storm chaser and photographer Steve Miller

Latest on the outbreak from MSNBC

More tornado websites from the EYE OF THE STORM Discussion Guide.

How Tornadoes Work: A nice overview from “How Stuff Works”

Tornadoes: From the Weather Channel’s Storm Encyclopedia

National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center: See the storms the NWS is watching today!

National Geographic – Nature’s Fury feature on tornadoes

FEMA for Kids: The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s tornado site

Tornadoes…Nature’s Most Violent Storms from the NOAA Severe Storms Laboratory

If you know of other great online resources about tornadoes, I’d love to hear about them in comments. I’ll share more about a possible fund raiser/ARC giveaway when I have news.

Friday Five in Photos-Inspiration for Writing My Next Book

I’ve been working on my next novel for Walker/Bloomsbury, WAKE UP MISSING.  It’s a science-gone-wrong novel, set in the Everglades, and while I’m in this early drafting stage, I’ve been looking back at my photos a lot for inspiration for the setting. Here are five photos that helped tonight:

This is an early-morning swamp photograph, when all the spider webs were heavy with dew. I tried to spend time in the swamp during all different times of day, so I could get a sense for what it would be like for my characters through the book and so I could best use those different times-of-day details to reflect the mood of the various scenes. I really loved this early morning quiet.

I also love listening to the sounds of a place I’m going to be writing about. From this barren branch high above the boardwalk, this red-shouldered hawk screamed at me for a good three or four minutes. “DAAAAANGER…..DAAAAAAAANGER…”

This is a strangler fig, a parasitic plant that quite literally hugs its host tree to death. Hello,  metaphor.

These last two aren’t Everglades photos and don’t really have anything to do with my research; they’re just fun.

My family spent a morning at Barefoot Beach north of Naples, which is not only a lovely beach but also a gopher tortoise sanctuary. It said so on a sign right by the entrance gate, and just as we paid our parking fee, along came a tortoise as if to prove the point that it really was a sanctuary.

These signs near the beach walkway puzzled us a bit.

Is the sign meant to discourage well-meaning people who might want to, say, capture a land tortoise and take it swimming?  Or is it intended to remind the land tortoises that they don’t swim, lest they get excited on a hot day and go running ambling into the Gulf of Mexico, only to say, “Oh darn! Bob, I forgot that we’re land tortoises!  If only there’d been a sign to remind us about that whole swimming problem…”

Those last two photos aside, I’m always amazed by how much a few photographs can help bring me back to not only the sights but also the sounds and smells of places I’ve visited for research.  I’m curious…if you write, do you like to use photographs for inspiration?  How do they help?

Everglades Research

I spent last week in south Florida, doing some research for my next book with Walker/Bloomsbury, which is set in the Everglades. It’s too early in the writing process for me to blog much about the story, but I can tell you that like EYE OF THE STORM (2012), it’s a science-gone-wrong novel. And I can share a few photos from my time in the swamp…

This last photo is from the last light of our night kayaking trip up Halfway Creek, in the Big Cypress National Preserve. One of the scenes in my new book takes place deep in the swamp at night, and for me, there’s no better inspiration than being in the right place…at the right time.

My daughter  and I joined a guide for this four-hour paddle, which started as the sun was setting and ended well after dark, with lightning flashing many miles away in the distance and alligator eyes glowing in our headlamps just a few feet away. Photos can’t really do the experience justice, but I’m hoping words will be able to later on, when my characters experience this setting under very different circumstances.

My kids have accused me of setting books in places like the Everglades just so I can spend more time in really cool places. I have to admit…I’m guilty as charged. But can you blame me, when “work” looks like this?

Thankful Thursday: Boatloads of Bookish News!

Lots for me to be thankful for today…as both a writer and a reader. First the writer…

MARTY MCGUIRE comes out in just over two weeks, and that means reviews are starting to come in (eeek!). Happily, they’ve been of the delightful sort so far!

Messner gets all the details of third grade right: the social chasm between the girls who want to be like the older kids and the ones who are still little girls, the Mad Minutes for memorizing arithmetic facts, the silly classroom-control devices teachers use and the energy students of this age put into projects like class plays. Floca’s black-and-white sketches are filled with movement and emotion and are frequent enough to help new chapter-book readers keep up with this longer text. Believable and endearing characters in a realistic elementary-school setting will be just the thing for fans of Clementine and Ramona.

~from the Kirkus Review. Read the full review here.

And Scholastic Audio just sent me a great review of Cassandra Morris’s work on the audio book version of Marty!

Morris is terrific at portraying the characters — snooty girls, chummy boys, and patient adults — and her depiction of Marty’s transformation is especially elegant. Morris has the nuances and personalities of kids down pat as she shares subtle lessons about friendship and self-discovery with humor and grace.

~from the AudioFile Review

I love the way the narration turned out (I had listened to some audition audio files and was so happy when they got Cassandra for the job!) Scholastic Audio also gave me the go-ahead to share a sample of the audio book! Just click here to listen to the first eight minutes or so…

On to Kate-the-Reader now…and I’m thankful for two AMAZING books I read this week:

As much as I loved PENNY DREADFUL, I think this is my favorite Laurel Snyder book yet. Heartbreaking, hopeful, and full of magic, it’s the story of a girl whose life changes when the lights go out and her parents have one last argument before her mother loads the kids into the car and drives out of the state. When they land at her grandmother’s house in Georgia, Rebecca has to deal not only with her parents’ separation but also the angst of a sudden move, switching schools, and then…a magical breadbox that backfires? My heart ached for Rebecca, trying to navigate the stormy waters of a newly broken family while taking care of her little brother and dealing with questions of her own about who she wants to be at her new school. BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX is hard to explain – yes, it’s about a magic breadbox and divorce and seagulls and Bruce Springsteen and friends – but it’s one of those books that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Middle grade readers – especially those who have been through a parental separation – are going to read this one, love it, and hold it close for a good long time. (Due out this fall from Random House)

This book is totally different from BREADBOX and I loved it just as much, in a totally different way.

First a confession, though: I wasn’t much of a non-fiction reader growing up. I loved being swept up in stories. I loved the mystery, the drama, the tension of a great novel, whether it took place in a fantasy world or a town that felt just like mine. And when I thought about non-fiction, I generally thought of things like my junior high school social studies book, which was….fine, I guess…and even occasionally interesting, but certainly not something I’d read for fun.

But lately, I’ve turned into something of a non-fiction fanatic. The reason? Narrative non-fiction gems like those in the Scientists in the Field series. My love of this series started with Loree Griffin Burns’s TRACKING TRASH and THE HIVE DETECTIVES, and most recently, I devoured KAKAPO RESCUE: SAVING THE WORLD’S STRANGEST PARROT in a single breathless sitting.

This is the story of a small group of scientists, rangers, and volunteers on a life-or-death mission to save a species from extinction. When the book starts, there are fewer than ninety endangered Kakapos alive on a tiny, rugged island off mainland New Zealand. Fewer than ninety! And that means every bird, every egg, and every chick is beyond precious. Reading about the steps these scientists and volunteers take to keep them alive – and bring new birds into the world safely – is as thrilling and compelling as any novel I’ve ever read. Truly, this book has everything, joy and triumph and tragedy – even a funny, stalking, lovesick male parrot with an identity crisis. Highly recommended. (Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

So…your turn now.  Spring Break is next week, and I could use some book recommendations.  What are you thankful to have read recently??

Poetry Out of Nowhere: National Poetry Month Flash Mob!

So a few weeks ago, I had this idea.  What if my 7th grade English students staged a flash mob poetry event at the food court of our local mall?  I kind of fell in love with this idea, even though I had no idea how to plan such a thing.  I was pretty sure the school and mall would never approve it anyway, so I figured, “Why not ask?”

So I asked.

And everybody said yes.

And my students fell in love with the idea, too, and said a huge YES! PLEEAAASE?!  And so we figured out together how to pull it off.

We chose Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells” for both its music and because it has four stanzas — one for each of my four ELA classes to prepare.  We assigned parts — some solo and some choral.  We practiced in the classroom, in the cafeteria (until I thought the front office ladies were going to run screaming from the building with their hands over their ears) and in the parking lot one day when it was nice out. Yesterday, we staged a practice run-through in the cafeteria during lunch (to get used to getting funny looks).  And today… was the real deal.

We had five undercover adults helping — two chaperones, two bell-ringers, and one posing as a mall official chucking a fit over the poetry…until she joins in and it turns out she’s part of the plot.  And we had sixty kids, all set loose in the mall food court with half an hour to order pizza and burgers and eat lunch before the clock struck 11:45.  At that time, they knew they needed to watch for a woman to pull something unusual from her knitting bag as she walked by Taco Bell…and that would start the whole thing rolling.  Watch what happened!

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary! (and thanks…)

Beverly Cleary turns 95 years old this week, and while I’ve never had the chance to meet her, she’s had a huge impact on me.

It started somewhere around second grade, when my parents decided that taking ballet lessons would be good for me.  I found myself signed up for weekly classes with Miss Laurie in a community center a few blocks from our old, white house in Medina, NY.

I was not a tall, slender, elegant second grader. I was a little chubby, a lot clumsy, and downright clunky when it came to those ballet moves. My leotard didn’t fit right, and my movements were nothing like beautiful, tall, blond Miss Laurie’s.

That was the year Ellen Tebbits became my best friend.

Ellen, with her woolen underwear under her tutu, who itched and scratched her way through her ballet class, was my hero. Finally! Someone who would understand why I kept picking at the elastic and why I frankly did not want to put my leg up on that barre. Why would I want to do that when I could be home on my bed with my feet up on the wall, reading a book?

Ellen Tebbits was my first introduction to the work of Beverly Cleary, the writer whose characters truly carried this awkward kid through elementary school, until I grew into myself and found words of my own. Her characters were a part of me, just as sure as my two left feet.

Sometimes, people ask why I write for middle grade readers, and when they do, I inevitably think of Ellen and Ramona, and of Beverly Cleary.  How many clumsy girls have they befriended in these past sixty years? (Ellen Tebbits was written in 1951, which seemed impossible to me when I was a kid. How could Beverly Cleary have known I’d need that book 20 years before I was even born??)  The books we read when we’re eight and nine and ten years old are the books that raise us, the books that bring us up with love and laughter, empathy and advice. They are the books that make us who we are.   Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume made me a reader, and later on, a writer, too. They were nothing short of gifts to me when I was a kid.  They still are.

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary!  And thanks.  For everything.

With Ramona in the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden, Portland, OR – 2008

Skyping with Awesome Authors: Part two

I team teach an advanced creative writing class full of thoughtful, imaginative 7th graders who are working on novels of their own right now.  But many of them are at that place right now…   If you write, you’ll recognize it.  It’s the place where the book is underway, but the shininess of the idea has worn off, and suddenly, the project is starting to seem like a whole lot of what-do-I-do-now work.  Is it any good?  And what happens next?  Is it bad if I don’t know yet?

It was a great time to bring in an expert…and we found one who is not only talented but also friendly and willing to get up early to Skype with us during our first period class.

Jenny Moss, the author of  WINNIE’S WAR, SHADOW, and most recently, TAKING OFF, joined us from Texas to talk about her writing process.

Jenny was absolutely fascinating as she reminisced about her time with NASA (she was an engineer there before she started writing for kids!) and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster’s impact on her Texas community, and she was so kind to our students, too.

Jenny empathized with their writing struggles and shared her own process, telling students how her first drafts are really like outlines.  “Skeleton drafts,” she called them, and said they might be just 10,000 words or so, but that early writing gives her a starting place, and from there, she can go back to fill in the details and tell the rest of the story.

Jenny Moss is one of the authors who offer free Skype tours for classes & book clubs that have read one of her books (and truly…TAKING OFF would be an amazing book club selection. You can read my thoughts on the book here.)  She’s a truly wonderful person and a friend, too, so if you Skype with her, be sure to tell her I said hi!

The ice is out! (and we have a MARTY MCGUIRE winner!)

After a warm, rainy, and windy start to the week, we have a winner for my “When will the ice go out?” contest! Some time between nightfall and daybreak, the ice between my house and the island was replaced by sparkling open water.

That means Barbara Baker, who guessed noon on April 5th was closest! Congratulations, Barbara – please drop me an email (kmessner at kate messner . com) with your mailing address so that I can send out your ARC of MARTY MCGUIRE.

Skyping with Awesome Authors!

While I spend a good number of my lunch hours at school Skyping myself out of my classroom to talk with students in other classrooms around the world, I’ve been Skyping some folks into my classroom lately, too!  Last week, as part of our district’s staff development day, I gave a workshop on Web 2.0 tools and literacy.  We talked about class blogs, social reading through Moodle and GoodReads, the joys of professional development through Twitter, and Skype.  Most of the teachers in our department had heard of Skype or used it to talk to relatives but hadn’t used it in the classroom yet.  That changed, though…

David Macinnis Gill, the author of SOUL ENCHILADA and BLACK HOLE SUN, Skyped into our session to talk about how he uses virtual visits to connect with classrooms. He also talked a bit about the world building in BLACK HOLE SUN (which I found to be nothing short of amazing, so I was happy to hear about his methods!). And look who else popped in to visit…

Eric Luper joined us to read a little from his upcoming middle grade novel, JEREMY BENDER VS. THE CUPCAKE CADETS.  Our 6th grade teachers are especially excited about this one since it has such appeal for both boy and girl readers.

Both David and Eric offer free Skype chats with classes and book clubs that have read one of their books, and Eric is also doing an Author Skype Tour for his JEREMY BENDER book launch.

Lest you think the teachers had all the fun…later this week, I’ll post “Skyping with Awesome Authors: Part II” about my creative writing students’ Skype chat with author Jenny Moss.