My Presentations & Signings at IRA

Monday and Tuesday of next week, I’ll be in Chicago for the International Reading Association Convention with a wonderfully busy schedule, speaking and signing books.

If you’re there, too, I hope you’ll find me and say hello!  Here’s where to look…

Monday, April 30

10:00-11:00 – Book Signing – OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW and EYE OF THE STORM
Booth 1255 – Anderson’s Bookstore, Convention Book Signing Area
1:00 -2:00   – Book Signing
Booth 1843 – Follett Learning
Booth 1941 – Chronicle Books
Booth 1314 – Scholastic
4:45-5:45 – Presentation – Collaborating to Engage Readers
Hyatt Regency McCormick, CC11B

Collaborating to Engage Readers: Learn How Librarian and Teacher Partnerships Can Increase Reading for Pleasure by Incorporating Book Clubs, Author Visits and Author Skypes in Your School

Hyatt Regency McCormick, CC11B

Description: This session will share a variety of reading events used over the past ten years in our school to take reading interest to the next level. Monthly book clubs, special book club events including a Mother Daughter Book Club and Guys Read Book Club will be outlined including a list of past books and discussion questions/topics, and ideas for promoting and planning your own events. Author visits and author skypes will also be explored during this session. The presenters will share keys to making a successful author visit or Skype in your own school. You will leave this session feeling empowered with practical ideas to increase reading for pleasure in your own school.

Presenters: Kate Messner (Scholastic), Bethany B. Landers (St. George’s Independent School), Mrs. Jennifer Winstead, St. George’s Independent School.

Tuesday, May 1

7:00-8:45 Scholastic Book Club Breakfast

I’ll be speaking at Scholastic Book Club’s “My Favorite Teacher” breakfast, sharing memories of a favorite teacher, along with Mem Fox, Peter Reynolds, Rita Williams Garcia, James Dashner, and Henry Winkler. I will be the one trying not to swoon too obviously at all the others.

9:00-10:00  Book Signing – EYE OF THE STORM
Booth 2342 – Walker/Bloomsbury
Booth 1640 – Stenhouse Publishers

Tuesday afternoon, I’ll be visiting with fourth graders at May Watts Elementary School in Naperille, IL – and then it’s off to the airport for my flight home. If you’re planning to be in Chicago for IRA, please let me know – I’d love to say hello!

Real Inspiration: Notes from the New England SCBWI Conference

I spent last weekend at the annual conference of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. This conference is so special to me because it’s the first SCBWI conference I ever attended, back in 2007.  I met so many incredible, warm, wonderful writers, and since then, I’ve been lucky enough to get to know many of them and call them friends. So giving one of the keynotes at the conference this year really felt like coming home.

(Thanks to Kellie at Walden Pond Press for taking this photo & allowing me to steal it. I had four speaking commitments at this conference, which meant that my brain was occupied and my photography somewhat sporadic. Thanks, Kellie!)

I spoke about what I learned speaking at the 2012 TED Conference, especially when it comes to being brave (speaking to an audience of 1500 with no notes & no podium) and being afraid (I was. But that’s okay…because there are different kinds of afraid, when it comes to life and public speaking and writing, too, and this was the good kind.)  And I also gave my talk on world-building and imagination. (TED hasn’t released the video of my original talk yet, but I’ll be sure to share when they do!)

I really enjoyed the other conference keynotes, too. Sadly, I wasn’t able to stay for Jane Yolen’s speech on Sunday; she’s one of my literary heroes.  But I enjoyed the nonfiction panel that morning with the Tanya Lee Stone, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and Elizabeth Partridge. I loved hearing about the inspiration behind the covers that illustrator Harry Bliss created for the New Yorker, and I found inspiration in Sara Zarr’s talk, where she shared some lessons from children’s book favorites, Frog and Toad.

Linda Urban taught a made-of-wonderful workshop on Getting Unstuck, which helped me to reconsider the motivation of one of my characters in a novel-in-progress.

Linda’s playing ukelele here because she challenged us to explore other art forms as a way of getting “unstuck” when it comes to writing. She’s not just showing off…although she sings some mean blues.

I met a lot of great people at the author-agent panel in which I participated. We talked about getting an agent, how the author-agent relationship works, what agents do, anyway, and things like that.

From left to right, that’s Christine Brodien-Jones and her agent, Steven Fraser; Kristine Asselin and her agent, Vickie Motter,  me and my agent, Jennifer Laughran.

On Sunday, I gave a two-hour revision workshop.  When I originally imagined this session, I was picturing a small group of maybe 12-15 writers, but we had over a hundred. Here they are working on one of the many writing exercises we did. This was a quiet one…

And here they are, working on one of the loud ones!

We talked about revising a manuscript to weed out tired body language and find stronger, more unique ways to show emotion. One way to do that is to brainstorm by role-playing with a partner. If your character is blushing every five pages, for example, you might ask a friend to imagine that he or she is embarrassed and act it out. Then write down what he or she does and says.

One writer in the workshop noticed that in her writing, she always imagines her character from the waist up and never considered what someone’s feet might be doing when they’re angry or scared. Great to consider!

I had so much fun with this group of smart, spirited writers and with everyone at the conference. Thanks, NESCBWI organizers, for a fantastic, inspirational weekend!

A visit with Kent Brown, executive director of the Highlights Foundation

I always loved reading Highlights as a kid, first in our doctor’s office and then signed out religiously from the school library, but it wasn’t until just last summer that I had the opportunity to visit the children’s magazine headquarters in Honesdale, Pennsylvania and spend a day as a guest at the Highlights Foundation workshop site in the woods.  It’s an amazing place that offers a huge variety of workshops and retreats for writers and illustrators — with a schedule that’s going to be even busier in the coming months.  When Alison Myers at Highlights offered me the chance to chat with executive director Kent Brown about what’s in store, I couldn’t resist…

Thanks for visiting my blog today, Kent! I know that you have some changes in store for the Highlights retreat schedule this year. What was behind the decision to change gears from hosting your traditional institute at Chatauqua to offering more at the new facility in Honesdale?  

I see our change as more of an evolution than a major decision.  The decision — the hard one — was not doing Chautauqua in the regular season.  We had a great run there, and many of us — students, faculty, and staff — have lots of attachment to the place. In the past ten years we have continually added workshops at the home of the Founders of Highlights, near Honesdale.  In the past five, we served more people in PA than Chautauqua.  Our new facility encouraged us to re-focus.  We can provide more value to writers with The Barn, a 5000-square foot conference center.

What can writers expect with the new format for the Chautauqua-like retreats?

 We have a full schedule of workshops, but three of them evoke the Chautauqua format. Each of the three is one week long.  So it’s Chautauqua in the Poconos, but with 33 people each week instead of the hundred we had at Chautauqua.  The format, just like Chautauqua, will include keynotes, multiple small sessions on a variety of topics, and a great deal of one-on-ones, both formal and informal.  And, like Chautauqua and all of our programs, the faculty is selected to mingle and share; no head tables, no big egos. Writers will find the format of the three:  Writing from the Heart, Writing Fiction for Children and Young Adults, and Non-fiction Writing for Children and Young Adults, focused by genre or topic more than our larger Chautauqua program.  We do worry that these programs will be seen as too narrow; indeed, many of our writing friends and much of our faculty have diverse interests with respect to genre.  So we understand that worry and will not have a hard edge on the definitions, and will allow for some cross fertilization.

For those who haven’t been to the Founders property, there’s something really special about that place, and I know many folks who attend workshops come over and over. What do you think gives the property that “magical” feel, and what changes will folks notice if they haven’t been to visit in a while?

I don’t know what gives the magical feel.  I can say that I visited my grandparents’ farm every year of my life, at least once.  I cannot remember ever leaving without tears, up to the time I moved there permenantly.  I was 26.

I also know that my grandparents very much believed in celebrating your successes.  I believe writers feel the magic that believes in them and celebrates their successes when they come to the Founder’s home place.

The most dramatic change is The Barn.  We worried that leaving the living room of Grandma’s home would impair the intimate feeling at our workshops.  But we have proven that the new building has the same intimate feel, whether the group is six or thirty six.

Oh yes, I am planting a garden this year.  Marcia has been using fresh vegetables for years, but these will be super-fresh.

Could you share a few of the most memorable things that have happened at Highlights retreats and workshops over the years?

Patti Gauch, always the quick wit, slipped when mounting the stage.  When she got up, she said, “Did you see my new sneakers?”  Child-like for sure.

Dashdong Dog, distinguished visitor from Mongolia, recited his poem, “The Horse,” at a Chautauqua dinner.  Amazing how the rhythm gave us the sense though we did not understand any words.  That experience reinforced in all of us the universality of what we wish for children everywhere.

I love this story – it’s so, so true that we are alike in heart even when our languages differ.

Where do you see the Highlights Foundation going from here?

We have taken on a major challenge to serve twice as many people this year than in recent past years.  We have a commitment to quality and individual attention, and staying small and intimate.  We pledge not to dilute the faculty-student ratio.  We dream of many things:  workshops in other locations;sharing our programs more widely, perhaps in a way that includes those who cannot be on-site.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

 I’m excited about our plans to expand our scholarship program.  Historically we have been able to help almost 25 percent of our Chautauqua attendees.  Our three one-week programs are more than 40% cheaper than we could do at Chautauqua.  And our scholarship program is now reaching every workshop we hold.

 Thanks so much for joining us, Kent, and I look forward to another visit to Highlights before long.  

You can learn more about the Highlights Foundation and check out the full list of upcoming workshops and retreats here.

Hiking in the Fakahatchee Strand

I’ve been kayaking in the Everglades multiple times and out walking on just about every nature boardwalk that Southwest Florida has to offer, and every time I venture into the swamp, I fall just a little more in love with it. There’s something about the soggy mix of plants and birds and snakes – the blend of danger and beauty in a place that is so quiet and so loud, all at once, that’s irresistible. I have an upcoming book set in the Everglades, too (science thriller WAKE UP MISSING is scheduled for September 2013 with Walker/Bloomsbury) so on our recent trip to Florida last week, I really wanted to do some hiking deeper in the swamp.  I contacted Tod at Tour the Glades, a local guide I’d read about on TripAdvisor, but he was totally booked for the week.

“But what is it that you want to see?”  he asked me on the phone. “Orchids?”

“Actually, we’re more interested in looking for panther tracks and just seeing the whole ecosystem,” I told him.

“Oh! In that case, I’ll  give you directions to a good trail, and you can just go on your own.”  He told me about a trail deep in the Fakahatchee Strand, a state preserved nicknamed “the Amazon of  North America”.  Just off its only real road, an uneven, dirt and crushed gravel trail called Janes Memorial Scenic Drive, are some old logging trails that hikers use now.  “You want to look for Gate 7,” Tod told me.  “That trail goes three miles straight into the swamp and then opens up on a huge prairie. You’ll feel like you’re out on the African savannah.”

I could hear in his voice how much he loves this hike. “Thanks,” I told him. “That sounds perfect.”

“You might see panther tracks in the mud and sand off to the side. It’s a great hike either way,” he promised. “You’ll just want to keep an eye out for snakes.”

So early one morning, my son and I set out for the Fakahatchee Strand.  Sure enough, we found this gate, and behind it, a shady trail leading into the swamp.


The air was full of birdcalls and the buzzing of mosquitoes and deer flies as we started out on the trail, slightly elevated above the swampy areas on either side.  This is one of dozens of old logging trams that were built when the Lee Tidewater Cypress Company began logging this area in 1947.  The builders scooped out dirt from either side of the path to raise the ground level enough that they could lay tracks on top of it.  The tramways had to be elevated so that cabbagehead locomotives could get through, pulling the trees.  The side canals filled in with rainwater and swamp, so what remains is a relatively dry trail with marshy areas on either side.  We stayed to the trail, peering into the mud on either side to search for tracks, and listening to the constant rustle of dry palm fronds as critters we could only imagine scuttled deeper into the brush.

There were bugs – oh, were there bugs –not just mosquitoes and deerflies that drew blood, but dazzling giant dragonflies the size of birds, some of them bright scarlet, and butterflies zebra-striped in yellow and black.


We were a couple miles in when we spotted our first snake – a cottonmouth stretched out over the trail.


It was on the small side – about two and a half feet long – and way over on one side of the trail, so we gave it plenty of room and walked on the other side. The snake didn’t move but did treat us to a warning display as we passed.


We marked the path with palm fronts so we’d be extra aware to watch for this snake on our return and continued on our way.  Within another mile, the ground beneath our feet softened from packed mud to loose sand, and the thick walls of vegetation opened up onto the wide open expanse called Four Stake Prairie.


I knew even as I took these photos that they wouldn’t do justice to the feeling of endless open space.  And they don’t.  It was a magical-feeling place, with deer that bounded into the cypress woods as we approached, small islands of scorched palm trees that might have hidden Florida panthers, resting in the shade, and wildflowers that lit the parched land like flames.


Out here, we’d been told to watch for Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, but we didn’t see or hear any.   I took some photos and notes for my upcoming book (I’ll be adding more details when I get back to that manuscript…and more bugs!), and then it was time to start back toward the car.

The small cottonmouth was not where we’d left him, so after a careful scan of the trail, I walked past our palm fronds, only to hear my son gasp behind me.  The snake was hidden in the grass that separated the two halves of the trail, and I’d walked right past it.  It hadn’t moved, but its mouth was open wide.  The trail just isn’t that wide, and there wasn’t an easy way for my son to walk around the snake without venturing through thick brush into the marsh, so I found a six-foot long stick and tried to coax the snake off the trail.  It wouldn’t leave.  It never made a move toward us, but it also never backed down.  Finally, I used the stick to slide the snake carefully, all coiled up, way over to the edge of the trail until there was room to pass.


Less than half a mile further along the trail, we met a much larger cottonmouth – maybe four and a half feet long – lounging half in, half out of the brush.   It was over to one side, so we slipped quietly past and kept walking.


After our second snake sighting, I came to the conclusion that while I’m truly fascinated by venomous snakes and find them truly beautiful in a scary sort of way, I prefer hiking with a guide when such snakes are likely to be part of the experience. Being the “snake-watcher” on this walk left me with less time and watchful energy to enjoy the other wildlife – the lizards and butterflies and panther tracks that we might have seen in canals I was too wary to explore.  As gorgeous as this hike was, my son and I were both ready to see the car at the end of the trail.

This wasn’t the most relaxing hike of my life, but it’s one that I’m so happy to have taken.  Amid the carefully landscaped sidewalks and tidy golf course ponds of my parents’ community in Naples, it’s easy to forget what Florida really is.  Here, it was easy to remember.


Mornings at Corkscrew Swamp

 My blog has been quiet this past week because I was on a mostly-internet free trip to Southwest Florida, visiting some of my favorite people in the world and some of my favorite places, too.  There were warm afternoons reading by the pool and long walks on the beach.   There were boat rides and dolphins and far too many ice cream cones.  And there were two lovely sunrise walks at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.


If you want to see what Florida was like before the condominiums rose and the roads were all paved, and you want to see all that without having close encounters with venomous snakes (that was a different hike last week…and a blog post for another day), then Corkscrew Swamp is just about perfect.  The boardwalk here loops around for just over two miles, through prairie and cypress woods and swamp. You never know what you’ll see along the way.


The feeders just outside the visitor center were crowded with birds when we arrived. That’s an indigo bunting on the left, a female painted bunting on the right.  And here’s a male painted bunting…

This barred owl few right in front of us, then perched on a tree to be admired. This was the first time I’ve seen a barred owl at Corkscew, though we’ve heard them before. Their call is deep and throaty… Whooo…Whooo…Who-cooks-for-yooouu?

I’m always amazed by how close the wading birds pass to the alligators in these small lakes. One of the volunteers said he saw an alligator eat a wood stork the other day, but this heron just walked quietly past, unharmed.

We watched this egret hunt for about fifteen minutes. He seemed to be annoyed with the wood stork nearby that kept catching fish and seemingly playing with them before he finally swallowed them.

Dude…are you going to eat that or what?

The trees at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary are full of beautiful bromeliads.

The swamp is also home to a famous flower — a ghost orchid high on a cypress tree that flower lovers call the “super-ghost” because it has so many blooms some seasons.  It wasn’t flowering when we were there, but when it does, in the summer, it’s front page news. This great video from the Audobon Society shows how the rare flower is pollinated.


If you have the opportunity to hike at Corkscrew, don’t miss it.  You’ll want to arrive when they first open, at 7am.  If you go much later this time of year, the deer flies will be biting.  Bring binoculars.  And a camera.  And a quiet sense of wonder.  You won’t be disappointed.


The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

The Titanic story has certainly been told and told again over the 100 years since her sinking, but in THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, Allan Wolf has managed to capture the voices of the beings that were part of that story in a wholly new and captivating way.

This novel-in-verse chronicles the story of the unsinkable Titanic, from the boarding and preparations to set sail to the voyage, the sinking, and Carpathia‘s rescue and delivery of the survivors to New York. The undertaker’s voice is ever-present, too, capturing the scope of this tragedy intermittently throughout the story, always there from beginning to the end, lest readers forget how this one ends.

I’m always impressed when an author takes a story from history — a story to which I already know the ending — and manages to present it in a way that creates suspense and tension, nonetheless, and Wolf has done this beautifully. Who will survive, and how? The characters whose voices rise in poetry throughout the text feel fully realized, so the stakes are high when the inevitable collision happens and the ship begins to sink.

Those voices are unique, too, and that makes this a great book for book clubs, literature circles, and classes to discuss as part of a conversation on how form and meaning intersect. The young boys, for example, speak in short, back-and-forth bursts like a game of toss-the-ball, while the poems in the voice of the personified iceberg speak in cold, measured iambic pentameter until the very end. There’s simply so much to talk about here, and paired with some nonfiction readings on Titanic and a film clip or two, this could be make for some great connections that meet Common Core Standards in a way that’s truly engaging to kids.

This title would also make an amazing mentor text for a student research project. In THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, Wolf has painstakingly researched two dozen individuals who were part of the Titanic disaster as well as the ship itself and the events surrounding her sinking, and he’s pared what must have been volumes of notes into this beating heart of a story that not only chronicles the historical incident but also paints a haunting picture of the humanity wrapped up in it. Thirty pages of back matter provide the real-life biographies of Wolf’s poetic voices, an extensive and comprehensive bibliography, and further details about Titanic. This format could be adapted to virtually any major historical event students may be studying. Teachers might challenge students to research the event and choose a selection of voices from the incident to speak in poetry, or each student in a class might take on one voice to create a whole group story of the event told from multiple perspectives.

THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT is an ambitious and beautifully crafted book. Share it with your advanced middle school and high school readers, history buffs, and writers; they’ll all find something amazing to take away from this new version of an old story.

In honor of National Poetry Month… “Poetry Speaks”

Poetry Speaks
(by Kate Messner, Copyright 2012)
Good evening.
Thanks for coming.
I’m honored to have this month
A whole month, and April, too (so shiny!)
Dedicated to my words, my breath, my beat.
But before I go on,
I’d like to take this opportunity
To clear up a misunderstanding
About who I am and what I do
How I speak and what I mean
Why my tears run blood-red
And my red blood pulses with ancient drums
Why my heart sprays out confetti when it beats
Like somebody shook up New Year’s Eve
And sent juicy, frothy words
Busting out
All over your nice clean suit.
Who am I?
I am poetry, and let’s get one thing straight.

I am not reserved.

I am not reserved for anyone –
Not dead white men
Scribbling away with quill pens
Not women in crisp black suits
Sipping champagne in big city art centers.
I got nothing against them,
(I do enjoy a black-tie night now and again,)
But don’t you hang a reserved sign on me.
This table has chairs and pens enough for everyone.
I am too many things to be reserved for
Any one thing
Any one body
Any one world.
I am your best day
And your worst.
I’m the bright-light joy
Of brand new babies
Breathing air for the first time,
Crying out,
Hearing words – gushes, rushes of language
Life, super-charged.
I am hands-touch, first-kiss
And all the muddled up
Jumbled up messes that come after.
I am the dark-night-dying-red,
Close-your-eyes and scream pain
Of towers falling.
Over and over
Rewind- replay- still ends the same way
When all we have are words
That weep.
Everybody knows pain
And everybody knows joy.
The wonder of crocus shoots
And chocolate frogs
Stars that shoot across the sky
So fast you’re not even sure
They were real.
But they were.
So I am not reserved.
If you need to slap that sign on me
You just add a note at the bottom
In magic marker or crayon, maybe
Make it say
“Reserved for the old and the young
The rich and the poor
Hearts laughing or crying
Or almost too angry to write.
Reserved for Whole Mad World.”
That’ll do.
Because I am poetry.
And I am out-going –
Out going on subways and buses
In school kids’ lunch bags
And playground rhymes
On the lips of farmers praising early spring
And mothers whispering late-night feedings
I am out-going
Going out –
Going out to preach and party and mourn
Going out to grow the blades of grass
Sing them up into springtime
Words breathe oxygen, sure as they make sounds.
I am poetry, and –
What’s that? My time is up?
I see the buffet table’s ready
So I’ll step down.
But I’ll never be quiet
Know that much.
You’ll hear me out there,
Crying when you are, too.
Screaming injustice till somebody listens,
Laughing at bawdy jokes
In my too-bright red suspenders.
You’ll see me pointing to that sunrise the color of berries,
That leaf that looks like an old man’s face,
That girl in the corner with dreams,
Pay attention.
Thanks for coming today.
Enjoy this feast of words.
And when it’s over,
You go on out.
And make a poem.
Do it.
Make a poem of your own.


Copyright 2012, Kate Messner

A note about sharing poems online: Teachers – Feel free to share this poem with your students, no special permission needed.  Bloggers – If you’d like to share this poem with your readers, please do so by quoting a short excerpt and linking to the full version here. Thanks – and happy National Poetry Month!