Monday, January 30, 2017

What's in a Name? by Dianne K. Salerni

Shakespeare’s Romeo said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I wonder, would a character named Rose have the same personality if the author changed her name to Daisy?

In 2011, when I started planning a story about a secret dayof the week, the protagonist came to me with his name already selected. By him. “I’m Jax,” he said, and since I was toying with the idea of setting the story in a fantasy world, I didn’t object at first. But when I decided to set the story in modern day U.S.A, I thought I needed to change his name. American boys weren’t named Jax. (In 2011, I had never heard of that name.)

The problem was, Jax wouldn’t change his name. Not even to something close, like Jack. Somehow, an entire personality had become attached to that name. Jax was stubborn and had a smart mouth on him, but he was also good-hearted and likeable and loyal to a fault. He was impetuous, prone to making mistakes, but always willing to take responsibility for his actions and make things right. All those things had somehow become uniquely tied to three letters: J-A-X.

(Of course, by the time the book was published, I found myself encountering the name Jax or Jaxon everywhere. So, he was right all along.)

I’m not the only author who’s experienced this name-character connection.  Susan Lynn Meyer reports that after hearing the name September Rose (a friend’s daughter’s friend), she immediately knew she had the name of the MG for her book Skating with the Statue of Liberty. She tells me, “I can't exactly say why, maybe because it is such a vivid and unique name, but the name September Rose (Seppie for short) conjured up to me an African-American girl who is full of confidence, energy, and joie de vivre, even in the face of discrimination. She wants to be a singer and dancer, like her idol Josephine Baker.”

In Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl series, a character with the code name Poe is eventually revealed to have the real name of James. However, when the protagonist first called him by that name, the author got a surprise. He shouted that nobody called him James; his name was Jamie. “The scene took ME by surprise,” she says. “I didn't even think of trying to change it. He was so certain.”

Another character who chose her own name is Fairday Morrow. In the book, The Secret Files of Fairday Morrowreaders find out that her mother, Pru, grew up in Nantucket. Because her baby daughter’s gray eyes reminded her of the ocean, Pru named her child after a phrase local fishermen said to tourists. Authors Jessica Haight and Stephanie Robinson say that Fairday’s name inspired her character: “Fairday has an even-keeled personality that built up around her name, though we'd say she does have her own style!”

I could share countless other stories of how my characters’ name choices drove the development of their personality, such as my feisty and ever-truthful Verity Boone and Riley Pendare—who in my original story notes was named Wiley, but who changed his name and hijacked his intended role just before I started the first chapter. Rather than recount them all, I’ll leave you with some writing advice from Diana Peterfreund. When it comes to characters’ names, the characters know best.  

“Follow the names,” Diana says. “Always follow the names.”

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Celebrate the Power of Kids by Donna Galanti

Today I’m asking you to help celebrate the power of kids.

Photo by Chris & Karen Highland via Creative Commons

As grownups we shape and guide kids – as parents, as teachers, as leaders. We are their models. We don’t always do the right thing. We don’t always make the right choices. But we don’t give up trying – and that’s what kids see. You are the reason why a kid didn’t give up. You can make a difference. And as a parent, we carry this awesome gift that is scary and wonderful all at the same time!

When we think of heroes we may think of police officers, firefighters, and doctors. But kids can be heroes too – and it’s up to us to help them see that. They can be heroes sometimes in big, noisy ways and sometimes in small, quiet ways. We all have the power inside to be our own hero!

My (kid-hero) son giving the gift of time to listen to the life stories of his great-uncle
I’ve met and read about so many amazing kids lately that are overcoming obstacles, big and small, and letting the power of their voice shine through. Like Caine. At nine he built his dream and didn’t give up, even when no one would share in it. You’ll be so inspired by what he started. Read the story. And Mason, a seven-year-old who gave up birthday presents to feed an animal shelter. And Erik, an amazing teen author, book blogger (This Kid Reviews Books), and super reader. Get to know him!

Kids matter. We need to let them know they matter. We need to let them know their voice matters. As writers, we can do that through books. You've got the power!

Image by Pixabay

Some of my favorite middle grade reads where kids find their own power within themselves:

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Wonder by R.J. Palacio (after reading 3x, my son would go in the book store and ask, “Do you have any more books like Wonder?”)
Holes by Louis Sachar
Surviving Bear Island by Paul Greci
Ungifted by Gordon Korman
Almost Home by Joan Bauer
The Ruins of Gorlan: Book 1 (Ranger's Apprentice) by John A. Flanagan

I wrote my first children’s book, Joshua and the Lightning Road, for my son Joshua. It’s a story about finding super powers, but also about finding your own special power inside that no one can take away.

In the book, Joshua discovers he has magical powers, but he quickly discovers that sometimes the power he’s had all along within himself is even bigger than magic. He tells his friend Charlie, “You don’t need powers to do the right thing. All you need is to believe in yourself.”

I’m reading an amazing manuscript by one of my novel critique partners right now, Joe McGee and former Mayhemmer, about a young disabled boy who lives as a regular kid. His life challenges don't hold him back from doing what he loves. I don’t want to give anything away J but he inspires me to believe we truly can overcome anything. Words matter – and especially to kids. I hope this manuscript is soon on book shelves everywhere!

One of my favorite childhood heroes was (still is) Anne Frank, who, as we know, lived for over three years in an attic with her family trying to survive during the Holocaust. Anne Frank inspired me as a kid with her words. She taught me that I could be my own hero (we also share the same birthday!). It was because of her that I started my first diary that helped me find my own power through writing.

Anne wrote in her diary, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” She was a quiet hero but her quiet words had the power to affect the world.

A few of my journals from childhood
And I want kids to know they can affect the world too, so I'm sharing my Kid Heroes series that features kids doing heroic things – in big and quiet ways. And for each feature I donate $10 to Kids Wish Network, a special program that grants wishes to kids who face remarkable challenges and are in desperate need of hope.

Nominate a special kid today and help them keep flying on their own special journey  J .

What are some of your favorite books that empower kids (and you too!)? Do you know any kid heroes? 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


The magnitude of the recent Women’s marches across our country and around our globe have lit up the media and inspired conversations in families all across the country and world.

Stories of people who have risen in dissent and stood up for their rights are inspiring to middle-graders, who are keenly aware of issues of justice and fairness.

These books provide can also inspiration for us as writers. Can we imagine a character caught up in one of these pivotal moments in history? On what side of the ideological divide is our character, and her/his family? Does the action cause a rift among family or peers? Is our character thrust into the spotlight as a leader, or does she become emboldened as she learns more about the matters at hand? Sharing history with kids is a great way to fill our own wells as writers.

Here are some recommended titles:

 Hoose, Phillip. M. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. New York: Melanie Kroupa Books, 2009. Claudette is an impassioned and brave teenager who stands up to fight against Jim Crow laws in Montgomery Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks’ action burst into national consciousness. A good story to explore the reasons why some voices become celebrated and other lost to history.

Levinson, Cynthia. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Atlanta: Peachtree, 2012. A dense and richly detailed photo-history of the Children’s March, following the points of view of participants and witnesses to history.

Lewis, John. The March Trilogy. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013-16.
An amazing graphic novel in three parts that tells the first-hand account of U.S. Rep. John Lewis's fight for civil rights and racial justice. Just this week, March Book Three won four awards at the ALA Awards: the Coretta Scott King medal, the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young-adult literature; the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award; and the YALSA Award for excellence in young-adult nonfiction. In addition, it won the National Book Award in November!

Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't you Grow Weary. New York: Viking/Penguin, 2009. A beautiful non-fiction photo history of the civil rights march in Selma in 1965. Contains outstanding photographs and a day-by-day chronological organization.

Pohlen, Jerome. Gay and Lesbian History for Kids. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016. A photo-history tracing lesbian and gay lives and rights through the 1900s into the present day, with a brief chapter on ancient history. Lively and current.

Scandiffio, Laura. Fight to Learn: The Struggle to Go to School. Toronto: Annick Press, 2016. A non-fiction look at the many reasons young people are unable or find it difficult to get to school and get their education, including poverty, discrimination, and violence. In a global approach, details stories of kids dodging gang violence in Chicago to Roma children in Italy to children in Somalia and First Nations kids in Canada. Filled with photographs and details in a readable format.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. Illus. Ekua Holmes. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2015. A book of poems showing the childhood and development of Fannie Lou Hamer as a civil rights leader and icon.

A family at the Women's March in Washington DC
The wide participation of families in the marches around the country and across the globe show us that children are attuned to issues of justice and fairness. I hope these books inspire the young readers in your life as well as light a few sparks for you as a writer for children and teens!

Thursday, January 19, 2017


First, I want to thank Kell for her awesome advice in her 5 January post. She is a pro and it shows! I thought I'd chime in on a few things I've learned the hard way. 

The idea of New Years is daunting. It's fresh, unsullied, massive, and anything is possible. Unlike simply saying we will start tomorrow, the New Year is a big empty space. The first thing we want to do is make big promises to fill it. It’s the New Year, ready for us to tackle whole. Um…let’s take a step back. I know, for me, when I start making the mental stack of things that I want to do, the stack turns into a giant mountain that seems to represent the impossible. And a mountain of things IS impossible. But it is made up of individual things that are not. There are lessons to be learned from mountains. Here are three things to remember as you head into your new year promises:

Ah, deadlines. The bane of existence for many. For me, I take them as a welcome gift. I can appreciate them as a guide towards accomplishment. Instead of seeing deadlines as looming, consider them as something to beat. As a once-editor, I have a deep-seated fear of tardiness. Having to edit and place late articles is a miserable task. There is always the question- will the writer/photographer/reviewer/artist come through? As an author, I find that I tend to beat the deadlines given to me by my publishers. This year was tricky. I have had two manuscripts due to two different publishers, both books coming out this year. Straddling deadlines is a challenge, but I quickly realized that one of the demands, a book with a co-author, was simply unrealistic. Normally, there is about 18 months from manuscript to release. This book was a quick query and contract thing and is slated for release in December, 2017. This means very little time to write. The timing was terrible. I was grading and finishing final edits on the third Young Inventors Guild book. My co-author, Salima Ikram, Egyptologist extraordinaire, needed to spend most of the fall semester on digs and at Yale and traveling to amazing places. No way were we getting the text, let alone the artwork in by October. In addition, we are working with Steve Parke (the artist who did the covers of all three YIG books) who had his book on Prince (he was Prince’s art director for many years) released over this Christmas holiday. I took a deep breath and told my publisher that we could not do it. We’d need more time. Salima, from the caves of somewhere, concurred. Holding my breath, a let out a sigh of relief when they said they’d give us until March. Hurray! There was no reprieve for the YIG3 manuscript so I enlisted my daughter as reader/editor/moral support and we read through the manuscript together and turned it in. This was intense and emotional (both because it is the third in a trilogy and I had to cut out 250 pages I originally thought were important but now see that the team at Bancroft was right and the book will be better for it) but we got it done. The ARC is out. The book shall come.

In addition to books being prepped for publishing, I have a book series I really, really want to write. I know a publisher interested, but I am trying to be smart and not make promises that will kill me. That said, keeping in mind that a deadline can be my friend, I have built into my schedule a deadline. I will not even look at the manuscript (I am chomping at the bit to write) until after March. Then, I will give myself a deadline. I know I will work better, and more often, if I have a goal.

So lesson here:

-       Be realistic. Deadlines can sometimes be adjusted. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time. Be prepared to be denied or for a possible change in release date, but there is no harm in asking your editor if it is possible.
-       Be ready. If a deadline cannot be adjusted, do not feel the looming, but feel the goal.
-       Be committed. If you do not yet have a publisher and you have a book you want to write, give yourself a realistic deadline and honor it. This will get that collection of ideas into a manuscript.

If you have made a list of the seventeen books you want to write and now feel paralyzed, take a step back from that mountain. I know this feeling. It is miserable. If you feel there are so many things you want to do but cannot ever finish them all, don’t. Once again, take things into smaller bits you can swallow.

So, the lesson here is:

-       Make a list. Look at all of your project ideas and make a list. Once you have these down, by title/working title or idea, each one is a separate thing.
-       Make an order. This is a way to prioritize you work. Do not feel bound by what is already partially written or in order of when you started, make the order of what you are most excited to write and start there.
-       Make time. Once you know where you want to start, give yourself some time to work. Maybe consider a deadline. It works for me.

Once you begin writing, decide who you are writing for. I do not believe we can create books in a vacuum. Books are for readers and you will need readers either to read a draft or to read as you work. For me, I read my work aloud to my sleeping husband, beg my children to look at chapters, ask friends to read ARCs, and I feel this gives life to what I write. Do not be afraid to have people make comments counter to what you think is what you want. Sometimes, it makes you all the more determined to stick with the plan. Sometimes it gives you ideas for a better plan.

So the lesson here is:
-       Draft it. As you write, mistakes happen. Changes will happen. Edits and alterations and your direction may shift. Do not be concerned with making the first draft perfect. Just get it down on paper or onto the virtual page.
-       Don’t be afraid. Now that you can look at the one idea, play with it. Enjoy writing bits of it as it slowly (or quickly) turns into your manuscript.
-       Do it! You will be surprised how much pleasure you will get out of writing if it doesn’t feel like part of an insurmountable task. It is not a task. It is writing.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!