Raise the Spitfire?

The debate over what to do with the wreck of the Spitfire, the Revolutionary War gunboat featured in my first historical novel, seems to be resurfacing.

Librarian Cally Flickinger alerted me to this article in the Burlington Free Press.  I expect it will reinvigorate our conversations about the value of historical resources.

What do you think should happen?

Studying Spitfire

Julia Miller, a teacher in Peru, NY, has put together a phenomenal web page to go along with her unit on my historical novel Spitfire.  And — better yet — she gave me permission to share it so other teachers can use the resources she’s pulled together. Click here to check it out!

Most teachers who have written to tell me they’re using Spitfire in the classroom are working with students in Grades 4-8, but Miss Miller’s students are in high school. They’re taking a class that I wish had been around when I was in school — Local History and Literature — and I promised a special shout-out to them on my blog. So…

Hi there, Peru High School students!  Miss Miller tells me that you have a list of questions to ask about Spitfire, the history surrounding it, and how I researched and wrote it.  Ask away!  To post a question, click on “Leave a Comment” and type your question in the comments box. You can sign it with your initials if you’d like, but please don’t include your full name for Internet safety reasons.  Give me a day or two to reply to your questions, and then check back here for my responses.  I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

Friday Five

Five things I did this week…

  1. Wrote another 6150 words on my new MG novel – I broke the 27,000 mark tonight, and I love where the story is going. 
  2. Met the illustrator of Spitfire for the first time.  Her name is Martha Gulley, and she’s not only talented but so, so nice.  She’s doing chapter illustrations for my new book, Champlain & the Silent One, right now. Waiting to see what she does with it is like waiting for Christmas.
  3. Talked with librarians and teachers about some school visits I have coming up this spring and cooked up a brand new historical writing workshop to fit one of the school’s requests.  I’m pulling together diaries, artifacts, images, period food and games, and it’s going to be so much fun!
  4. Read Love and Other Uses for Duct Tape by 

     and felt like I was in high school again.  It was funny and sad and wonderful.  And I was reminded that the tiniest sensory details can make a book shine.  The rip in the vinyl seat of a pickup truck.  A crack in the sidewalk that looks like New Hampshire.  I loved this book.  It’s the kind of YA novel that most of my middle school readers aren’t ready for just yet — more of a high school title — but it will be well worth the wait.  Thanks, Carrie!!

  5. Picked up tickets for the family to see The King and I at Chazy Music Theater.  My friend Andrew is directing this play, and you should go, too.  Unless you live in California or Iceland or something. Then I understand.  But you’ll still miss an amazing show.  

Have a great weekend, everyone!

The Real Benedict Arnold

Jim Murphy has done it again — crafted a work of non-fiction so compelling that it will keep kids hooked like an action-packed novel. The fact that Benedict Arnold’s life reads like a novel helps. Murphy asks important questions about the man whose name has become synonymous with the word “traitor” and explores those questions with an open mind and an eye for historical detail. THE REAL BENEDICT ARNOLD takes a look at the man behind the label, his early days of the war, his motivations, and the reasons for the decision that ultimately made him infamous.

This is a fascinating book — one that I’m recommending to teachers as a companion to my own middle grade historical novel SPITFIRE, which tells the story of two young people who were with Benedict Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain in the fall of 1776. Just as Murphy’s AN AMERICAN PLAGUE is a perfect complement to Laurie Halse Anderson’s FEVER, this book will prove to be an invaluable resource for teachers looking to add some non-fiction to classroom libraries and discussions.


I have a bad habit with book festivals and book fairs.  I know that when I’m participating in one, I should spend the weeks leading up to it preparing my presentation and choosing my readings and things like that.  What I tend to do instead is get sidetracked by all the other authors participating and go on a reading binge.  My book festival conversations tend to go like this:

Husband:  What are you doing for the Rochester Children’s Book Festival?

Me: Did you see who’s going to be there??!  James Howe and Tedd Arnold and Michelle Knudsen!  Can you believe that?  E and I loved LIBRARY LION….

Husband: Yes, but…

Me: I hope I get to sit near Tedd Arnold. He has this new young adult book out…

Husband:  Is your presentation ready?

Me:  …and Vivian Van Velde is going to be there…and Coleen Paratore…

You get the idea. 

This Saturday, November 3 is the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, with an AMAZING lineup of children’s authors and illustrators.  I’m participating in the festival’s “Tween Time” showcase of historical fiction, and my kids have convinced me that I need to dress up as my main character again since it was such a hit in Burlington on Halloween.  I’m portraying Abigail Smith, an 18th century girl who disguises herself as a boy to fight in a Revolutionary War battle on Lake Champlain.  If you’re near Rochester, please drop by ‘Tween Time at 10:45. I’ll be there with my hardtack and my haversack, ready to share!

In a rare moment of planning ahead, I finished my presentation last week, so I’ve felt entitled to go on a reading binge of other festival authors’ books.  Here are a couple reviews….

I loved James Howe’s novel THE MISFITS, where a group of middle school outsiders challenges the school’s name-calling habit as a student council campaign platform.  Until last week, though, I hadn’t gotten around to reading the sequel, TOTALLY JOE.  This is a lighter look at what it’s like to be a gay kid in middle school.  Howe introduces readers to Joe Bunch through his main character’s “alphabiography,” a series of essays he has to write about his life, with each topic starting with a different letter of the alphabet (26 chapters, including one on the ubiquitous alphabet-book xylophone, for those keeping track).  Through the assignment, Joe tells the story of his first sort-of boyfriend, middle school bullies, his creative, supportive Aunt Pam, and his quest to be Totally Joe.  It’s honest and tough sometimes without losing its fun voice.  Howe has provided a particular gift in this novel – a book about being gay that’s age-appropriate for someone who’s still in middle school and not ready for some of the edgier titles that seem to abound in YA literature.

I also want to talk about RAT LIFE, Tedd Arnold’s first foray into young adult literature, which was so great that when I finished it, I trotted right over to nominate it for a Cybil Award in the YA Category.  (Nominations are open until November 21st, in case you haven’t nominated your favorites yet!) 

RAT LIFE is one of those books that made me laugh one minute and gasp in shock the next.  Its narrator, Todd, is a would-be writer growing up in Upstate NY in 1972.  In the first pages of the book, he hears about a body found in a river and meets a mysterious character who calls himself Rat.  Todd wonders if  Rat, an underaged recruit who’s just back from a tour of Vietnam, has something to do with that body in the river, and those suspicions mount throughout the novel, all the way to its dizzying climax.  I could go on and on about the humor, the interesting writing strategies Arnold employed, the gut-wrenching scene that almost made me stop reading but is so important to the book… but I’ll let you discover this one for yourself.  Don’t start reading until you have some time; you won’t want to take breaks.


Question:  When does a middle grade historical novel become a Halloween book?

Answer:  When the author agrees to dress up as her main character because she can’t resist Burlington’s Church St. Marketplace Halloween CelebrationSpitfire is about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to fight in a Revolutionary War naval battle on Lake Champlain.  That means…you guessed it…  On Church St. this Saturday, I’ll be an author, disguised as an 18th century girl, disguised as an 18th century boy.  Here’s the official blurb…

Saturday, October 27, 1:00: Join children’s author Kate Messner for a trip back in time to the American Revolution on Lake Champlain at Borders Books and Music, 2nd floor. Kate portrays Abigail Smith, the main character in her middle grade novel SPITFIRE, who disguises herself as a boy to fight in the battle of Valcour Island. Participatory activities for kids are based on the book. A book signing will follow the event.

If you’re leaf-peeping in Vermont this weekend, please stop by and say hello!

On Tuesday, October 30, I’ll be at the North Country Teacher Resource Center Educator Showcase at Plattsburgh State from 4:30-6:00, with five other fun author/illustrator people.  (At this one, I’ll just be regular Kate…)

More with Linda Urban…

Some of you have already had the pleasure of meeting the author of A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT on

‘s blog this week.  If you haven’t seen her interview, it’s terrific.  If you did see Kelly’s post, you can consider this your second date with Linda!   I’m doing a presentation on my upcoming historical novel SPITFIRE at this weekend’s Burlington Book Festival, and Linda’s talk on CROOKED is right afterwards in the same room, so I wanted to invite her here for a visit first.

Whether they’re adults or kids, people who love reading and writing always want to hear the story of how their favorite books came to be.  What was the inspiration for A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT and how did it grow into the middle grade novel it is today?

It started as a picture book.  I was telling author/illustrator David Small about my childhood fantasy of playing classical music on a grand piano and how my dad got seduced by the rhythm switches of a mall organ.  David said, “I can just see the illustrations for that!”  A few weeks later I wrote a picture book, but the voice and pacing were all wrong for a picture book. It wasn’t until two years later that I gave it a try as a novel.  That’s when the story took off.

Many of my blog readers are teachers of writing, and they’re always looking for ways to help kids with revision.  Would you share with us a few of your favorite revision strategies?

Nothing beats reading your work aloud.  That’s when you hear all the word repetition and discover the rhythm of the piece.  For me, writing is about capturing a sound, a voice, a mood.  I can’t be sure I’ve done that until I actually hear the work.

On to the fun stuff now….

Why Neil Diamond?

Many people think I picked “Forever in Blue Jeans” for some sort of cheese factor, but really it is a very sweet, very earnest song that fit Zoe’s story perfectly.  She has to see past the cheese of it, past the disappointment that her competition piece is not the perfect classical composition she had imagined herself playing, and come to love this simple, honest melody.  The lyrics underscore that. 

We live in such an ironic age, enamored of kitsch and edge.  People are made to feel foolish for feeling things with their whole hearts.  If there is anything that I can do to let kids know that it is okay to express what honestly matters to them, I’m all for it.  Hence, a little Neil Diamond.  

The desserts described in A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT sound perfectly delicious.  Are you a great dessert chef, a great dessert eater, neither, or both?

I bake some.  Cookies and breads mostly.  I have a lot of admiration for people who make beautiful desserts.  When you and I spend hours on our writing, part of us is thinking that maybe we’ll find a few words that will live on beyond us, bound in a book, available forever and ever and ever.  A pastry chef can put her heart into a cake – hours of work – and then the whole thing gets swallowed up and that is that.  You really have to care a great deal about making art when you know it is only going to last thirty minutes.

And your favorite dessert is…?

Apple pie.  Yum.

What books — for kids or adults — have you read and loved lately?

I just finished Elijah of Buxton, the latest historical by Christopher Paul Curtis.  What a genius that man is.  He starts by letting us meet Elijah at his most silly and, as his Mama would say “fra-gile”, falling for an elaborate story about “hoop snakes”, playing a practical joke, and getting one played on him in return.  It is hysterically funny and perfect for grabbing the attention of young readers.  In a few short pages you can’t help but know and love Elijah.  And then, slowly, and without losing humor or character, we are introduced into the deep and lasting horrors of slavery that have shaped the lives of the townspeople of Buxton.  The effect is devastating. You’ve got to read this book.

What can folks expect if they come to see you at the Burlington Book Festival this weekend?

I plan to read a little from A Crooked Kind of Perfect and talk with kids and grown-ups about writing, perfection, and getting over the fears that stop us from doing those things that really matter to us. 

If anyone LJ friends are in the area (or up for a road trip!), I know that Linda and I would both love to meet you.  Here’s the scoop on our presentations:

Burlington Book Festival
Waterfront Theatre, Burlington, VT

11:00 AM-12:00 PM


Join Kate Messner for a trip back in time to the American Revolution on Lake Champlain. Kate will read from her middle grade historical novel Spitfire, set during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776, sign books and present an interactive multimedia slide show about the real 12-year-old who fought in the battle. Kids will be invited to taste the food and try on the clothes of an 18th century sailor, handle artifact replicas and design their own powder horns to take home.

Waterfront Theatre Black Box, 3rd Floor

12:30-1:30 PM


Linda will debut her new book for young readers (ages 8-12), A Crooked Kind of Perfect. Listen to excerpts and find out what it’s like to write and publish a novel for kids.

Waterfront Theatre Black Box, 3rd Floor

September is SPITFIRE Month!

I just got the final word from my editor that SPITFIRE will be available by the end of September!  To celebrate the release and the work of all of us who write for young people, I’m hosting a contest and spitfire-of-the-day feature on my blog…

spitfire: (n)  A fiery-tempered, passionate person

My middle grade historical novel is called SPITFIRE for two reasons.

1) On the bottom of Lake Champlain today rests the last remaining gunboat of Benedict Arnold’s Revolutionary War fleet.  It sank while American vessels were fleeing from the British during the Battle of Valcour Island in October of 1776.  Spitfire is the name of that boat and the setting for much of my novel.

2) My main character, Abigail Smith, is a 12-year-old girl who steals a leaky rowboat and runs away to join the American fleet on Lake Champlain.  She is brave, passionate, and more than a little impulsive – a spitfire if ever there was one.

On to the contest…

Are you a SPITFIRE?

The more writers I meet, the more convinced I am that you have to be a real spitfire to survive this career choice.  With that in mind, write a very short  (300 words or less) essay on what makes you a spitfire in your writing life or in some other way that’s entertaining to read about.  

OR… (I’m adding this at the request of modest writers who can’t possibly write about themselves that way)  write about your favorite spitfire character in a book — yours or someone else’s. 

 I’ll feature some of the essays on my blog in the days leading up to SPITFIRE’s release, along with an author photo and/or a picture of your latest book if you’re published.

Send entries with the subject line “SPITFIRE CONTEST” to kmessner at katemessner dot com (no spaces).  Please include:

-Your name
-A link to your website or blog if you have one
-Your essay pasted into the email, with permission to post on my blog
-A jpeg photo of you and/or your latest book attached if you’d like me to post it on my blog with your Spitfire Writer essay to promote your book

The deadline is September 25. Everyone who sends an essay will be entered in a drawing…and if you let people know about the contest on your website or blog and post a link to this page, I’ll enter you in the drawing twice.  Just drop me a comment letting me know you’ve done so.
A winner will be drawn at random from all entries, and that person will receive a signed copy of SPITFIRE, along with a box of Lake Champlain Chocolates.  Because everyone needs chocolate.  Being a spitfire is hard work.

Burlington Book Festival

I know it’s early, but I want to let everyone know about the Burlington Book Festival coming up next month.  Burlington, VT hosts an incredible book festival each fall, just as the leaves are changing color in New England.  If you live in the Northeast (or even if you don’t but you really, really like autumn leaves and books), it’s worth the trip.  Most of the events are being held at Waterfront Theater on the shores of Lake Champlain.

I’ll be presenting  on Sunday, September 16th at the Children’s Literature Festival.  Here’s my blurb from the festival website:

11:00 AM-12:00 PM


Join Kate Messner for a trip back in time to the American Revolution on Lake Champlain. Kate will read from her middle grade historical novel Spitfire, set during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776, sign books and present an interactive multimedia slide show about the real 12-year-old who fought in the battle. Kids will be invited to taste the food and try on the clothes of an 18th century sailor, handle artifact replicas and design their own powder horns to take home.

Waterfront Theatre Black Box, 3rd Floor

Right after my presentation, Linda Urban (

) will read from A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT and talk about the journey of writing and publishing a children’s book.  (Even though Linda says it will make her nervous, my kids and I are definitely going to be in the audience!)

Also on tap for the Sunday kids’ day… Tracey Campbell Pearson, James Kochalka, Anna Dewdney, Harry Bliss, Jim Arnosky, Barbara Seuling, Marie-Louise Gay, Barbara Lehman, and Warren Kimble.

And the rest of the Book Festival is nothing to scoff at either, with writers like Chris Bohjalian, Howard Frank Mosher, Russell Banks, and Joyce Carol Oates speaking on Saturday, September 15th.  The full schedule is posted at the festival website now. If you’re in the area that weekend, please stop by the Children’s Literature Festival and say hello! 

SPITFIRE Presentation

I gave my first presentation on SPITFIRE on Monday and couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant and receptive audience.  Clinton Community College hosts a teachers’ historical workshop about Benedict Arnold in the Champlain Valley.   Facilitators Tom Mandeville and John Mockry do a fantastic job sharing knowledge about Lake Champlain history and leading field trips around the region. 

I was the after-lunch speaker on Monday.   They had lasagna, and I worried about this, but only one person dozed off a little, and I think I woke him up with my bo’sun’s whistle. (It’s used to issue orders during battle…or to get attention during a presentation as the need arises…)

I presented my PowerPoint about the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, the real 12-year-old boy who fought in that battle, and how I researched his life and life on board an 18th century gunboat to write SPITFIRE.   I also gave teachers a sneak peak at my school presentation, showing some of the artifact replicas, articles of clothing, and other 18th century treats I’ll be sharing with students this fall.

I gave my first reading from SPITFIRE to people who don’t live with me, and that was a terrific feeling.  The teachers were kind enough to laugh in all the right places, had nice things to say about my research and writing, and clapped when I was done.

It was a wonderful afternoon, and it was great to spend time with people who love Lake Champlain and its history as much as I do.