Friday, May 25, 2018


I'm no stranger to tough subjects in books for young readers. My juvenile lit has tackled schizaphrenia, PTSD, and my MG THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY addressed, among other issues, poverty.

I was able to visit several classrooms and reading groups that discussed THE JUNCTION, and one of the discussions that has always stayed with me centered on the main character's neighborhood.

The students in this particular class admitted, during one of their lit talks, that they would be afraid in Auggie's neighborhood. The houses were desribed as being old and ramshackle. They admitted that when they came to areas like that in their own town, they got scared.

But things changed when they got to know the characters. When they started to see the neighborhood from the characters' eyes, they didn't see it as a scary place, but a welcoming one. Homey.

I think about that a lot. I think about how the things that are unlike us scare us. I think about how hard it is to believe, in today's climate, that we could ever share anything with those who are, on the surface, so different from ourselves.

I think about that class. And I think about how maybe, today, reaching out to something or someone who is different is maybe the toughest thing.

And also, now more than ever, the most beautiful.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Imagination Ignited by The Blue Fire: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

If you haven't read Depth Psychologist James Hillman yet, pick up a copy of The Blue Fire. His fascinating ideas on imagination, image, and metaphor will deepen how you approach your writing. (Depth Psychology is "the modern field whose interest is in the unconscious levels of the psyche.")

Hillman writes: "What makes an image archetypal...archetypal quality emerges through (a) precise portrayal of the image; (b) sticking to the image while hearing it metaphorically; (c) discovering the necessity within the image; (d) experiencing the unfathomable analogical richness of the image...

"Rather than pointing at something, archetypal points to something, and this is value. By attaching archetypal to an image, we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest, and deepest possible significance." Page 26 The Blue Fire

The Blue Fire's chapter titles alone should inspire any writer or artist to read into the wee, dark hours, no flashlight needed now that we are grownups. The Poetic Basis of Mind. Imaginal Method. Responding to Images. And I love this one: Imagination, the Ground of Certainty.

Hillman built his life's work around the idea of "letting the image speak."

"By letting the image itself speak, we are suggesting that words and their arrangements (syntax) are soul mines. But mining doesn't require modern technical tools....What does help mining is an eye attuned to the dark."  Page 26 The Blue Fire

In The Roots of Imagination, a very accessible interview available on YouTube, Hillman discusses how we refer to such disasters as 9/11 as "failures of imagination," and how that highlights our need to educate the imagination. Part of that education, I believe, is learning how to "attune your eye to the dark." This is not a valued skill in our culture.

Reader alert, The Blue Fire is not an easy read. Prepare to engage your mind, and if you're lucky, start attuning your eye.

Monday, May 21, 2018

How to Write an Epistolary Novel in Ten Not-So-Simple Steps

“Is it difficult to write a novel told entirely in letters?”  

In the days since the release of my new epistolary novel, Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, I’ve fielded many versions of that question from readers of all ages, and my honest answer is, "Yes!  It most definitely is!"   

So for those readers and writers interested in the challenges of the epistolary form, I offer Ten Not-So-Simple Steps:

1.         Find a voice.  Maybe look for a bright light like Reenie Kelly who really loves to talk.  And talk.  And talk.  Let your character speak.  Learn to pay attention. 

2.         Find a listener for the letters.  The letter requires a receiver, someone on the other end to whom the message is addressed.  A kindly shut-in like Mr. Marsworth can always do the trick.  Dear Abby, too.  Imagine what they’ll answer.  Hear that second voice. 

3.         Go In search of story.   Girl in a new town in 1968.  Frightened girl awakening to the realities of the war in Vietnam.  Worried girl looking for a way to save her older brother from the draft.  Scrappy girl confronting bullies.  Lonely girl facing all these problems with no one else to tell.  Smart girl teaching lessons about love to an unexpected friend. 

4.         Find a way for the correspondence to be exchanged.  What about the milk box just outside the gate?  Or if there’s not a milk box, the mail will work fine.

5.         Know real time is passing.  June 21, 1968.   July 8, 1968.  August 12, 1968.   Date the letters.  Hang up giant calendars to keep track of the events.  

6.         Get used to writing letters in past tense.  As in: “While I was waiting for your letter, those bullies egged Gram’s house.”  Or, “Last night, we had a fight about the war.”

7.         Honor the intimacy of letters.  The letter belongs to the writer and receiver.  The reader can eavesdrop on a letter, but it isn’t meant for us.  “Dear Mr. Marsworth, It’s night and I can’t sleep.”

8.         Remember in a letter, every writer will both reveal and withhold.  Pfc. Skip Nichols won’t tell Reenie Kelly the realities of the war in Vietnam.  He can’t say all he’s seen, not to a child.  Mr. Marsworth is too shy to say what's in his heart.  Even loquacious Reenie Kelly keeps some secrets to herself.  Not everything between the writer and the listener can be said. 

9.         Expect to love these people you’ve been listening to so long.  Trust your readers will come to love them, too. 

10.       Realize a full story has been told in all those letters.  After years of living with these people and their private correspondence, it’s become a book just like you dreamed.  Your characters are living and ready for the world.  Choose a title from the letters.  Settle on Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, because it means their letters will continue long after you are done.   

Yours Truly and Sincerely, 

Sheila O'Connor

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Tough Subjects in Kids Lit: And the Answer Is?

Most readers, writers, teachers, and librarians would likely agree that more and more difficult subject matter is finding its way into books for younger and younger children.  And, in the last several years, the number of middle grade and picture books which include difficult topics has also increased.  As a result, the tackling of tough subjects in children's books has become a pretty hot topic, and lots of people, in the industry and outside the industry, have been weighing in with their opinions.

As a parent, a former teacher, a former librarian, and as a middle grade author, I initially felt compelled to formulate my own opinions about this topic.  But as the discussion surrounding all of this has evolved, and become for many, quite controversial, I have found myself with many more questions than answers.  And currently, as I ponder the questions being asked about how tough subjects are handled in kids lit, the really big question for me has become who is qualified to offer expert advice and guidance about tough subjects in kids lit?

Does my experience as a parent, teacher, librarian, and author qualify me as an expert and make my opinion more noteworthy?  Some would say, "yes," some would say, "no."  I would have to answer with a firm, "I don't know."  Whatever opinion I might have about tough topics in kids lit would be just that - an opinion.  It would be based on my own personal reading experience, my education, and my work-related interaction with young people.  Though this would be more experience than many others, I'm not necessarily sure that truly qualifies me as any kind of expert.

And for me, this question of expertise leads to many more questions.  Here are just a few:

  • What kind of credentials would make someone a qualified expert on this topic?  
  • How do we determine the effects these tough topics have on young readers through the years? 
  • What responsibility do we all bear as parents?  As teachers?  As librarians?  And as authors?

If you were reading my post to uncover some nuggets of wisdom or gain a few profound words about tough topics in kids lit, I apologize for not delivering what you had hoped to find.  It's possible that you not only didn't get any answers to your questions; but instead, you are now finding yourself with even more questions.  Maybe that's a good place for all of us to be.  Asking more questions will likely lead us to more of a conversation about tough subjects in kids lit, and that will hopefully allow us to gain a better understanding as we seek to discover together some answers about this very important topic.

Happy Reading,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh      


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tough Subjects for Young Readers

As a young reader myself, I leaned towards adult novels that took on the big issues – family sagas, emotional turmoil, secrets, pain. It wasn’t until I read S.E. Hinton as an eighth grader that I actually first saw myself reflected in a young adult book, with the rough and tumble crowd going through some really difficult challenges in life.

It meant a lot to me at that time, to find many of my feelings mirrored on those black and white pages.

So when I set out to pen my first young adult novel, there were two tough subjects I wanted to approach. Addiction and chronic illness.

The downside of tough issues is that they are, well, tough. A lot of people can find them sad or depressing or just plain negative. The best part about books and stories to me, however, is that everyone sees themselves as having a place in the world. In knowing and being able to put a finger down next to a character’s name and realize: I am not alone.

I wanted to offer that to my readers as it had once been done for me.

In Break the Spell, my main character Allison is keeping secrets and hiding her pain so as not to burden her family and friends with her illness. My secondary character Ethan is on the run as he decides whether or not to take the fall for his drug-addicted brother. The two collide in the abandoned high school and take refuge there for one long weekend. I’ve always been fascinated by isolation, and what it can bring out in people. In some, it pulls out the worst. In others, it offers an opportunity for examination and a cease fire from the world to actually find some answers to the problems that have been plaguing us.

Allison and Ethan don’t have an ideal happy ending. Because most lives don’t have a fairy tale ending. We all keep moving forward with less than ideal situations, conditions or tasks. It’s through connections, however, like my two main characters, or like young me finding myself in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as I read it alone under the front yard maple tree one weekend: That we find the courage to keep going.

That we realize, I am not alone.

Happy reading!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Small Hurts Matter, Too

We're sharing thoughts this month about the importance of writing books for young readers about "tough subjects": stories that help children face and understand poverty, racism, war, disability, death. I've written about some pretty "tough" subjects myself. My characters experience the death of a loved one in Dinah Forever and Makeovers by Marcia, wrestle with parental divorce in The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, and face the frightening reality of a parent's mental illness in my darkest book, One Square Inch. I'm proud of those books and hope they speak to young readers navigating the turbulent waters of their own troubled lives.

And yet . . . when I think back on my childhood, which had its own share of "tough" things, it's some of the more ordinary pangs of more ordinary childhood that haunt me still:

  • The time my mother made me bring a recycled gift which she had received as an elementary teacher ("dusting powder") to a friend's birthday party - my cheeks still flame at the memory.
  • The time the fourth grade teacher made fun of me in front of the whole room for being unable to do some of the motions in a "Bonnie Prudden"workout tape  - to this day, I am unable to take part in an exercise class for fear of being shamed.
  • The time I saw a note written by one "friend" to another "friend" which said, "Can you believe that Claudia thinks we actually LIKE her?" - decades later, I find it hard not to wonder what my nearest and dearest REALLY think about me.

These are such small things in a world marked by such huge tragedies.

And yet . . . they felt so big to me, to the small child that I was - and still am, deep inside.

So, as we tackle tough subjects in our writing, I think we also need to remember this: problems that may seem insignificant to us as grownups, and that indeed are insignificant in "the scheme of things," matter deeply to the children who are experiencing them. Sometimes I think that to write for children is to be committed to taking seriously problems that the rest of the world doesn't think are very important. Our writing can, without apology, honor these moments of childhood, too.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

An Awful Fact of Childhood

“It never did any child any harm to have something that was a tiny bit above them anyway, and I claim that anyone who can follow Doctor Who can follow absolutely anything.
Diana Wynne Jones

This month, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE authors explore children’s literature that deal with difficult subjects. It has been very interesting to read how other authors tackle the dark topics. Dark stories aren’t new. Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman and Lemony Snicket have been helping children face their darkest years for decades. As  Deborah Lytton reminds us, this category includes “every single Newberry Medal winner and even Harry Potter.”

Indeed, as Maurice Sendak stated in 1964 as he accepted the Caldecott Medal for his Where the Wild Things Are:

[It’s] an awful fact of childhood… The fact of [a child’s] vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration—all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.

Rebecca Westcott reminds us in her article, How Dark is Too Dark in Children’s Literature ,
reading is an individual process. What impacts one young reader may well be bypassed by another. Categorizing books as appropriate for certain ages runs the risk of missing opportunities for discovery and exploration. As the Smack Dab authors shared, the world can be a scary place. Humans are messy. Children face poverty, racism, neglect, violence and more. Reading such books give young readers the words to express what they are feeling, and a model to follow how to navigate tough situations.

 In my own book, Girls of Gettysburg, I use three perspectives to explore the terrible impact of war. Annie, who lost her brothers to the war, is determined to take up arms in their stead. Tillie, the spoiled daughter of a merchant whose romantic notions of war comes face to face with the realities of the high cost. And Grace, the young daughter of a freeman who refuses to leave his home as the southern army marches down on them.

Two books I found particularly worthwhile include A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. In this powerful and poignant story, a boy struggles to cope with the consequences of his mother’s terminal cancer . And Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, presents a spirited protagonist with severe craniofacial deformities facing the world courageously to be accepted on his own terms.

What are the saddest and darkest books you loved as a reader?

Bobbi Miller

Monday, May 14, 2018

Cover and Content Reveal: Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

This month's blog theme is tough subjects and young readers. I'm taking a little detour from that to reveal the cover and some content tidbits for my new middle grade novel, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, coming in November from Simon & Schuster's Aladdin imprint. It's the sequel to Ethan Marcus Stands Up, released last fall.

A little detour, because the novel deals with a tough subject for young readers. Although it isn't what might first come to mind -- topics such as racism, violence, abandonment, loss, death -- but the storyline brings up a different kind of tough issue for kids -- encountering an adult who disappoints, or does something wrong, or even, illegal. Worse if that adult is viewed as a role model.

One of my favorite middle grade novels that deals with this subject is Holes by Louis Sachar. The characters of the Warden, Mr. Sir, and Mr. Pendanski are so bad, so mean, I almost love them. I think that's because we see the reasons behind their badness, their meanness, so it helps us understand why they act as they do.

Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark is narrated by five seventh-graders: siblings Ethan and Erin Marcus, their friends Zoe Feld-Kramer and Brian Kowalski, and the mysterious, aloof tech genius Marlon Romanov. When Erin, Ethan, and Marlon attend a prestigious tech camp during winter break, Ethan is determined to complete his failed standing desk invention attempted during his school's competition, and Erin wants to beat Marlon, who told her he thinks girls aren't as good as boys in science. But neither are having much success until they team up with spacey, Zen girl Natalia and laid-back but brilliant Connor. Against a racing clock, Ethan, Erin, Natalia, and Connor combine their skills and energy to try and make something spectacular that will wow the judges.

But things are not as they seem at the tech camp, which is run by the sunglasses-wearing, Silicon Valley wonder boy Zak Canzeri, known to the world as "Z." Ethan spots something suspicious in an off-limits hallway, and overhears a troubling conversation. Then, after their presentation to the judges, Ethan gets even more unsettled:

"And at the end of my talk, are you ready for this? Z lowers those freakin' sunglasses, tilts his head, and looks directly at me for the briefest second. He slides them back up, but I saw his eyes. They're light brown, with this sort of yellowish rim. And you know what they made me think of? This might creep you out, but a coyote's eyes. I once saw one by our house, and I swear, it had eyes just like Z's."

Ethan, Erin and the rest of their team are shocked by what happens next, and they have to figure out how to react.

So, without further ado, here's the glorious cover, designed by Hugo Santos.
I can't wait for this book to launch into the world!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of the upcoming Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin 2018), Ethan Marcus Stands Up (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin 2017), The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Penguin Random House 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Penguin Random House 2011). Catch up with her at