It may be somewhat fashionable to call oneself a bad reader, but I’m pretty sure I was bad at it before being bad was cool. I was bad before I read about it on the internet, at any rate.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

I recently had the chance to sit down with a couple dozen high school students and interview them, or mock-interview them, for a job in my library. I had to tell several of them that, although it seems like a natural and appealing thing to say, one should never tell a library interview committee that one loves books.

Why on earth not? Because librarians are offended at the notion that all we do is sit around read books. We also shelve them, put little stickers on them, and dust them from time to time.

But there is more. The librarian, the good librarian, is well-informed about many books, and can offer a suggestion or two to a patron who needs a recommendation. But the recommending skill, the I-can-find-you-anything-you-need skill, is in some ways contrary to the solitary and still skill of real reading.

I noticed shortly after I got my first library job that I had less need to own books, because I was around books all day. More books than I could hope to read in a lifetime. I would borrow ten books at a time, read a few, and renew, renew, renew until I finally had to bring back the rest unread. I wanted to know about this series or that author so I could do my job with reader’s advisory, and much of the time this meant reading a few chapters and moving on to something else.

I didn’t finish many books this way—I think we are all abandoning the idea that finishing is a virtue, anyway—but I did my job and got books into the hands of my patrons. I started listening to audiobooks, too, so I could increase my book consumption, and soon I was never without a book in my bag, three in queue on my MP3 player, six more on my desk, and a ridiculous spreadsheet of what I hoped to read once I had worked my way through what I had already checked out.

The funny thing is, this isn’t too different from how I was as a reader before I became a librarian. I’m not trying to say that my pre-library self was a serious reader with a geological attention span and being a librarian makes me a sort of walking Reader’s Digest Condensed book; I’m saying that my talent for picking up a book, flipping through it to find my favorite passage, reading it, moving on to the first page of a new novel, giving up and going on to look something up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is nicely matched to the work of a librarian.

So of course I, and librarians the world over, love books. Of course I’m being flip when I say I’m a bad reader. But you know how fashion-crazy librarians are.

If I have to think of a joke on the spot, the first one I can remember is:
What’s the difference between a duck?
Answer: One of its legs is both the same.

Never mind that most people I have tried to tell this joke to over the years have pointed out very patiently that the word “difference” implies that two things will be contrasted, and that contrasting something with itself is logically impossible. This is probably the first joke I learned as a kid, which may be why it sticks with me.

tennysonIf I have to think of a poem, the first one that comes to mind is Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which commemorates another kind of poor logic, the flawed cavalry charge at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. It’s not the first poem I ever learned, but it’s one of the first ever to be recorded, as you can hear for yourself here. Made on wax cylinders in 1890, it retains all the charm a beardy old Poet Laureate can muster (quite a lot, by the way; no Tennyson-bashing going on here, not during National Poetry Month). Listen now, or wait a year and a half and celebrate the 160th anniversary of the fatal charge.


Book request haiku: what happens when librarians start to imagine patrons’ requests in a slightly poetic vein. I think the form also lends itself nicely to the tiny amount of information a librarian is sometimes presented with when a patron is looking for a particular book.

The Horn Book printed several of my haiku in their November/December 2012 issue (you can read the clever haiku of some readers in the comments), but here are a few more. The titles are at the end of the post.


Something terrible/ Happened to every letter/Of the alphabet

An elegant mouse/Who lived in a pagoda/And her humble swain

I would have tried the/Frobscottle. But snozcumbers?/That sounds disgusting.

She was strong enough/To lift a horse. I wanted/Her for a neighbor.

The kid starts this fire/With a hammer. Or a jackknife./No–what’s that thing called?

The mom keeps singing/Her grown son to sleep. Is it/Funny, or creepy?

Thanks to the Horn Book for publishing the best of them!

Answers: The Z Was Zapped; The Rescuers; The BFG; Pippi Longstocking; Hatchet; Love You Forever

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Coretta Scott King winner, librarian, and writing hero, recently received the Boston Globe Horn Book award for fiction for No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. What’s a person to do to honor someone as fantastic as Vaunda? (1)

You start by asking another fantastic person for help. Author/illustrator Jan Thomas (Let’s Sing a Lullaby with the Brave Cowboy, Rhyming Dust Bunnies, Pumpkin Trouble, and many more) did a hilarious presentation at my library for Dia de los Ninos in April, and a lovely interview right here (2). I asked Jan if she would apply her unique skills and vision to a portrait of Vaunda, who has herself been a Very Brave Cowgirl.

Here’s the do-it-yourself Read poster I made of Vaunda back in 2009, using ALA Graphics Read software (3).

Vaun read poster

And here’s Jan’s take on that poster.

cowgirl vaunda-001

Wow. All I can say is, wow. I don’t know about you, but I see another classic picture book in the making.

Thanks, Jan and Vaunda for being such good sports! And congratulations, Vaunda.

1. Read an interview with Vaunda here. No Crystal Stair has since made PW’s Best books list for 2012.

2. Read an interview with Jan here.

3. Graphic design elements of ALA Graphics Read software are (c) ALA Graphics, for nonprofit use in promoting literacy.

Congratulations to Lori Mortensen, who is the proud winner of Shirley Raye Redmond’s Fairies! and Oak Island Treasure Pit. Party favors and egg nog back at my place.

This is part of a series of interviews with children’s writers in New Mexico to celebrate the 2012 centennial.
Shirley Raye Redmond has written books about bunyips, mermaids, the Jersey Devil, and Richard Branson. (Quiz: Which one of these things does not belong in KidHaven’s Monsters series?) Her most recent book is Norse Mythology (Gale Cengage 2012). Here, Shirley Raye answers a few questions about her prolific output, the business of writing nonfiction for kids, and, as always, the Profesor’s question.
This might sound like the question of someone prejudiced toward
fiction, but have you always wanted to write nonfiction? Your output is astounding–what keeps you going from project to project?
I’ll admit that nonfiction is my first love—I started out in journalism before getting my M.A. in literature. True stories are often inspirational, frequently amazing, sometimes horrific, and even unbelievable. I’ll never live long enough to pursue all the subjects that appeal to me. I’ve written and sold more than 400 magazine and newspaper articles too, for a wide variety of publications such as Highlights for Children, Cosmopolitan, and Shotgun Sports and New Mexico Magazine.  But I have to confess that my first two book titles were both fiction—Stone of the Sun, a romantic suspense for grown up readers and then Grampa and the Ghost, a humorous juvenile novel, which later became a Weekly Reader selection.
Most recently, I’ve read Fairies! (Random House) and Oak Island Treasure Pit (KidHaven). How did you approach the research for these titles? Were these topics assigned by the publisher, or are you able to suggest topics of interest to you personally?

Fairies are hot—in fact, Disney’s Tinkerbell tales are the number one reading choice (based on book sales) for girls under the age of 9 in the USA. I wanted to cash in on that trend and decided to approach it from a nonfiction angle. I pitched the idea to my Random House editor, who loved the idea. Oak Island Treasure Pit is part of the Kidhaven Press Mysterious Encounters series. I’d written (and researched) a brief article about the owners of the Pit putting it up for sale and sold the piece to ISLANDS magazine. So when the Kidhaven editor asked if I’d like to write a book on the subject, I jumped at the chance. Pirates, buried treasure, ghosts, and booby traps! Who could resist such a nonfiction topic!
Of course writers never have favorites among their books (wink), but you probably have a favorite topic or area of research that interests you. What sort of book do you most enjoy writing?

Whatever topic I’m working on at the moment!
If readers visit my website at www.shirleyrayeredmond.comthey’ll get an idea of the sort of topics I’m interested in.

What do you find most challenging about working within publishers guidelines for some of these projects, given that a book might have to be at a certain reading level?
Because of my background in journalism, I know how to write tight, using simple diction. (Most newspapers are written for a 6th to 8th grade reading level.) This is a plus when writing for kids. Once an editor has approved my topic, she may provide basic guidelines, such as word count or limitations on three-syllable words, etc. Once I turn in a polished draft, the editor goes over this and may make further suggestions regarding age-appropriate diction or sentence structure. The most challenging aspect is finding NEW material that has not appeared in most kids’ book before. For instance, I was thrilled to discover that Christopher Columbus spent a winter in Iceland learning about the Nordic seafarers routes to the New World before he made his historic voyage in 1492. I included this fascinating tidbit in my recent book, Norse Mythology (Lucent Books, June 2012).
How does a typical school visit go for you? 

My school visits have run the gamut from a half-hour reading to a single class of 15 kids to answering questions in a gym filled with students. I particularly like those schools with PTOs that buy copies of my books AHEAD OF TIME for all the students I will be meeting with. When the youngsters have had time to read a title in advance of my visit, their questions are much more to the point and we can have a more animated dialogue. My novel Grampa and the Ghost was actually inspired by a classroom visit with third graders at a school in Illinois.The teacher had asked me to provide a list of a dozen vocabulary words that writers may use in the course of their careers. I added the term ghostwriterto the list and certainly enjoyed the kids’ creative definitions.The Professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s great-uncle, who started a bookstore with 5 books): If you had to pick five books to start your bookstore, what would they be? These are not necessarily your desert island favorites, but the 5 books you would most like to share with the world.

The authors you previously interviewed on your blog have provided a list of great choices, such as Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Bible. I guess I would add the following 5 titles because of the impact they had on me as a young person, prompting me to make the decision at the age of 12 to become a writer:
(1) Little Women (I wanted to be Jo!)
(2) The Magic Garden by Gene Stratton Porter—not to be confused with the better known, The Secret Garden.
(3) I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson (autobiography)
(4) The Little House books (what I call creative nonfiction)
(5) The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (the first book that moved me to tears).
Also, I read Stone Fox when working on my M.A. and found it to be a masterful example of how elementary diction and simple sentence structure can be used to relate a complex and emotional narrative. Anyone wanting to write for kids should read it.
Any advice for writers looking to get into writing nonfiction for

Yes! The good news about nonfiction for kids is that it’s easier to sell than fiction and it stays in print much longer, earning more royalties and subsidiary sales, such as textbook rights and foreign language rights and book club rights. My Simon & Schuster and Random House nonfiction titles have generated tens of thousands of dollars in income for me over the years. Author Jennifer McKerley and I have compiled a workbook that provides all the details of how to break in—Write a Marketable Children’s Book in 7 Weeks. The key word here is marketable. We also write a blog on the topic, which your readers can visit at

Thank you, Shirley Raye!

Shirley Raye has very kindly offered to give away a copy of Fairies! and Oak Island Treasure Pit. To win one of these wonderful books, leave a comment telling me your favorite work of children’s nonfiction. Winners will be drawn randomly from all comments entered before midnight on October 26, 2012. That’s this year, folks, so don’t wait too long.

A very quick post, filed under Things Writers Can Learn from Music Videos: watch the video for “Titanium” by French DJ David Guetta featuring Australian singer Sia. Is it not a perfectly compact story, full of suspense, emotion, and surprise? I’d heard the song before, but I never imagined that the video would be so, well, good. How often do you watch a video and say to yourself, Now that should be a YA novel? (Maybe you said that after watching “Call Me Maybe,” I don’t know. But this one would be a better YA novel.)

It looks like the video isn’t embedding properly–sorry!

Words of wisdom from Carolyn Meyer: everyone needs a couple of flying pigs. (Or at least small flying pig figurines.)

On to the recap of her very first appearance for her latest book in the Young Royals series, The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Carolyn treated us to a brief look at her early career as a writer for The New Yorker. The only trouble, she said, was that The New Yorker didn’t realize she was in fact writing for them: everything kept coming back and never seemed to end up in the magazine. Eventually she found her way to children’s books, and The Wild Queen is the seventh in her series on the turbulent early years of characters like Elizabeth I and Cleopatra.

A few brief questions from the audience:

Why historical fiction? Because research is easier than writing. Also because Carolyn is fascinated by the constricted lives these girls led, and how they managed to make their mark on history under trying circumstances.

Where does she do her research? Entirely on Google. (Another joke.) Okay, some Google. But also the local university and public libraries, and by traveling to the place she writes about. She didn’t travel to Britain for this book, but previous visits supplied plenty of scenery and facts.

How does she decide who to write about next? Often, one book will lead to another. Many of the figures in the Young Royals series are linked in some way: Queen Elizabeth and her sister (Bloody) Mary Tudor; Catherine de Medici and her mother-in-law Mary, Queen of Scots, who was also Elizabeth’s cousin.  But people like Marie Antoinette and Cleopatra just beg to be written about, without any connection to other books.

All this, and homemade scones from Alamosa Books.

 This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers to celebrate the state centennial in 2012. (1)

Carolyn Meyer has made a career of writing historical fiction for young people. Her books include the Young Royals series, The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, and the main subject of this interview, Rio Grande Stories. Written in 1994 and republished more recently with an author’s introduction, Rio Grande Stories is a composite novel written in the voices of students at Rio Grande Middle School in Albuquerque; it’s also a collection of brief essays on New Mexican history, a guide to doing local history projects, and a beautiful example of what happens when children become aware of their own particular place in the world. Welcome, Carolyn!

Your book Rio Grande Stories is like a pocket-size tour of everything that makes New Mexico unique: the cultures, the food, the settings, the traditions. How did you put it together? Did you know most of the stories before you began writing, or did you discover new elements as you wrote?

 I had the germ of most of the stories when I was figuring out what to include. For instance, my husband, Tony Mares, makes an appearance in the story about Padre Martinez of Taos. When I met him, he was an actor wearing a priest’s  cassock and traveling around the state giving performances as Padre Martinez. (He was also writing a play called “Death Comes for Willa Cather,” which should let you know where the author of Death Comes for the Archbishop stands in our household!) And I did meet people who claim to be descended from Padre Martinez, so that story was easy to figure out. None of the others was quite that easy.
In the introduction to the reprint, you say that you learned a lot of New Mexico history from listening to your in-laws. What other kinds of research did you do? Did you have any unusual experiences doing research for the book?

I spent a month at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, teaching writing classes in exchange for use of their wonderful little library and a chance to wander around Espanola, dropping in on a guy who painted low-riders, attending pueblo dances, watching potters, and using the bulging “vertical files” at the library. There was certainly plenty of material available; the hard part was inventing believable characters in stories that would stand up on their own.
You also mention that RGS has inspired real students to undertake family/community history projects of their own. Have you seen any of these projects? What have you heard from teachers and students who have done this?


Schools in Capitan and Loving, NM, invited me to spend several days in each, working with students and developing interviews with locals. Both schools produced books based on their interviews. And I was invited to a middle school in Virginia where the 7th grade had spent a semester creating their own book. They threw a big party for the families and the people they’d interviewed, and I was the guest of honor with my name spelled out in M&Ms on a series of cupcakes. I’ve heard of other schools with similar projects, using RGS as a model, but I’ve not been involved with them.

Your series The Young Royals doesn’t take place in New Mexico, but let’s talk about it anyway! Of all the figures you’ve studied (Marie-Antoinette, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, and many more), whose life was the most fascinating? Which was the most difficult to research? How do you approach the business of getting inside the head of a historical figure? Have you even wanted to write about someone but abandoned the project for lack of sympathy with them?


The most challenging, and therefore the most fascinating, was Cleopatra, because so little is actually known about her: when she was born, who her mother was, what she looked like–minor details! So I had to invent practically everything. Then there was the problem of getting Elizabeth Taylor out of my head. A real problem was deciding where to end her story–her life got really interesting when Marcus Antonius entered the picture, but by then she was much older than my usual readers. Getting inside the head of any historical figure–not just Cleopatra’s–isn’t much different than getting into the head of a contemporary teenager, because the issues are pretty much the same: absent fathers, domineering fathers, jealous sisters, petulant brothers, controlling mothers, vengeful stepmothers, inappropriate boyfriends, unloving husbands, and the fear that  you’re never going to grow up, never be beautiful or happy or in control of your own life. The background changes, the clothes, the food, the customs are different, but the emotions are eternal, and that’s what I try to tap into.

The Professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s bookselling great-uncle, who started a bookstore with only 5 books): If you were going to start a bookstore with 5 books, which would you choose? These don’t have to be your five personal favorite,desert-island books, but the 5 that you would most want to share.


My true colors will show here:

A  dictionary that includes etymology, because our language is so rich and our vocabulary so extensive and drawn from so many sources
A grammar book, one that isn’t too stuffy, because our complex language is so elegant when it’s used correctly
A contemporary translation of the Bible, because the characters, their stories, and the imagery are unequalled
A simple bilingual book (any language) with pictures to introduce a reader to the beauty of an unfamiliar language 
A blank book to write down ideas and observations, but not such a pretty blank book that you’re afraid to write in it
Since this is a series in honor of the NM centennial, what are some of your favorite books set in New Mexico or by NM authors?

Río Del Corazón and Astonishing Light: Conversations I Never Had With Patrociño Barela, two collections of poetry about New Mexico and New Mexicans, by thoroughly New Mexican poet E.A. “Tony” Mares – referenced above as “my husband” and “an actor…giving performances as Padre Martinez.”  I make no apologies for including books written by a spouse, because they are indeed among my favorites. (No apologies needed! I think that’s wonderful.)
What was the best piece of writing advice you received when you were starting out, and what would you pass along to other writers?


“Accept criticism.” I deal with it much better now than I did sixty years ago, and I actually welcome it and learn from it. But criticism is only useful when it comes while the work is still in progress. Once the book is published, you’re better off ignoring it.

 Most importantly, have you ever actually traveled through time to research a book? Kersten Hamilton can travel forward at the rate of one second per second, but I thought perhaps you had discovered some other means in order to get all those books written.


Time travel? No–just long hours of work in the present. 

 Thank you, Carolyn!
Carolyn’s newest book is The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary Queen of Scots, which will be published by Harcourt in the fall of 2012.
 1. Read more interviews with children’s writers in New Mexico here.
2. Carolyn Meyer’s website.

This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers to celebrate the 2012 centennial. (1)

Lauren Bjorkman (2)is the author of My Invented Life (Henry Holt , 2009), a YA novel that takes on sibling relationships, sexual identity, and Shakespeare, all through the voice of cynical-yet-daydreaming teen theatre geek Roz. PW called it “fun, thought-provoking reading,” and I have to agree. Welcome, Lauren!

Roz has such a strong voice, and she’s such a believable mix of self-awareness and denial. How did you develop her voice in writing My Invented Life?

 I started with a picture in my mind—a big, adorable dog that wants to be loved, but doesn’t know how to behave around people. To that, I added some observations I’d made of a young woman in my hometown, a talented actress with a big heart and boundless energy. Once Roz came alive for me, everything I wrote went through the Roz-o-matic filter—would Roz do this? Would Roz say that? It was great fun to create someone so unlike myself.

The plot of My Invented Life models the play, As You Like It, that the theatre geeks are practicing. How did that come about? Were you planning from the start to use Shakespeare? If you had to introduce Shakespeare to teens using a different play, which would it be?

I started with my sisters, and the secret that divides them. Then I fleshed out my characters and designed a rudimentary plot. When I shared my thoughts with my critique group, one talented writer said, “Your plot sounds like a Shakespearean play, where everyone is pretending to be someone else. I’d seen As You Like It in high school, and re-read it. That gave me an insight—Roz had all the hallmarks of an actress. So I transformed her into one.

First off, I’m no expert on education. But I remember my own experience struggling with Shakespeare in high school. Hating it, to be honest. So here are my recommendations based on n=1.

  1. Read the play aloud in class, stopping to interpret the language at every turn. Switch roles, so everyone gets a turn to read.
  1. Let your students watch a theatrical or movie version of the play.
  1. Romeo and Juliet is a good choice because it has both romance and swordplay, and therefore broad appeal.

Stories like Roz’s let readers into the mind of someone who is questioning all kinds of things: sexuality, loyalty, friendship, self-worth. What do you hope readers will take away from reading My Invented Life and other books with similar themes?

For me, reading is often about taking a look at life through new eyes (while being entertained, of course!). Who in the story can I identify with most? What would I do in the main character’s shoes? I want my readers to be surprised, and, if they don’t quite fit in, to feel less alone. My story is celebration of our differences.

In my next novel, Miss Fortune Cookie, about a teen advice blooger, my characters are not LGBT. Still, when a gay hate group pickets their school, they organize an event—a sort of modern day love-in/dance party—to counter-act the hate.

I heard you speak at a bookstore event with Malinda Lo, Alexandra Diaz, Megan Frazer, and Kristin Cronn-Mills on LGTBQ youth literature (3). That was 2010; what do you think of the state of things today? What are some of your favorite recent books for teens on LGTBQ issues?

What a fun event! Sadly, the issues around bullying of LGBTQ teens haven’t diminished, but the number of teen LGBTQ novels published each year continues to grow. More schools have Gay-Straight Alliances than ever before. I adore the It Gets Better Project , and feel optimistic about the future.

I haven’t kept up with my TBR this year because of building a house, and then moving in! That said, I managed to read and fall in love with Will Grayson Will Grayson.

Kirstin Cronn-Mills has a new novel about a trans character coming out in October, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children–Love, transition, violence—mix with music, and broadcast on the radio. Not your typical teenage life.

Malinda Lo’s new YA science-fiction thriller called Adaptation will be released in September. Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.

What is the best part about writing for teens? Have you heard anything from a teen reader that really made your day?

For me, it’s all about fame and fortune. Just kidding! The best part is making connections with teens. It’s great when someone is crazy about my book, of course, but sometimes a teen just needs someone to talk to or take an interest in his or her writing. I love that part too.

Here are a couple fave reactions: One reader wrote that she sighed and hugged my book after finishing it, like it had become a friend. Another chose my My Invented Life as the next Great American Novel for a class assignment, which cracked me up, and made my day.

The professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s great-uncle, who started a bookstore with fivebooks): If you had to start a bookstore with just fivebooks, which five would you choose? These aren’t necessarily your five favorite desert island books, but the five you most want to share with the world.

Hard question! I’m kind of fickle. My favorite books change all the time, depending on what I’m reading.

So I’ll recommend my favorite classics, plus one amazing graphic novel:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Emma by Jane Austen

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Are there any excellent Shakespearean curses that didn’t make it into My Invented Life?

Go read a book, thou infectious clapper-clawed pignut!

Good advice! Thank you, Lauren, for this interview!

1. For more interviews with NM children’s writers, go here.

2. Visit Lauren’s website.

3. Malinda Lo. Alexandra Diaz. Megan Frazer. Kristin Cronn-Mills.