Monday, November 18, 2019

Villainous License Plates


License Plates! I can't get enough of them. And I know I just yammered on about them a few weeks ago, but I've stumbled across two more personalized plates that are just BEGGING to be discussed. Villainous License Plates. (Dun, dun, DUNNN!)

I need to hear your thoughts, because stories are filling my head. What kind of people come up with these??! What kind of people want these to be their introduction to all the strangers they meet on the road? It's a fascinating thought!

First up we have VILNMKR



In case you aren't sure what that says, I read that as VILLAIN MAKER. Now, of course, I could be totally wrong. Maybe someone's last name is Viln. BUT, I'm sticking to my story that it is VILLAIN MAKER.

So what do you think? Parents who worry they'll mess their kids up? A writer who just loves writing villains? An illustrator who loves drawing villians? Or is it more diabolical than that? Maybe it's an evil scientist with a plot to take over the world. Maybe this is really the Joker's car!!! So many fun possibilities!

Next up goes perfectly with that first one: MMWHAHA



So awesome!! Maybe this is the second car of the person up above. Or maybe it belongs to someone who just likes to laugh evilly in the face of other's struggles. In fact, they like it so much, they paid extra to be able to laugh at all the strangers they pass on the road.

Come to think of it, I found this car parked at my son's school. Should I be worried? Maybe we have a stereotypical principal at his school living out the evil school principal trope. Or maybe he's just living it vicariously through his car since he's a very nice man. (So you have no need to worry, Mr. Principal! I do not suspect your secret identity as a villain AT ALL. Not even a little bit.)

Now I didn't get to see either of these cars actually driving. They were both parked. So I don't know if they drive appropriately for such license plates, but I sure hope I run into these cars again!

Now you tell me! What are the stories behind these license plates?

Monday, November 11, 2019

Happy Veteran's Day

Happy Veteran's Day!

I didn't have the perfect picture to share, but I had this image from a year ago.


This was the Veteran's Day run we participated in. I love the symbolism here of people running toward the finish. Of working hard, giving it their all, and then finishing together with people they may not personally know, but who are now considered friends and compatriots for having struggled together.

It could be easy to think of those others as competitors. To hate or dislike them. But if you have ever been to a community run like this one, it is never like that. People are so loving and welcoming and encouraging. Strangers stand along the course and cheer you on. Volunteers rush to get you water and refreshment when you finish. And then we all celebrate together for having achieved a PR (personal record). Or we commiserate together when it just wasn't our day. It is a beautiful thing.

I feel like Veteran's Day is a little like this. While I know many who have served in the military (Both my grandfathers fought in WWII. My father-in-law served in the Air Force for many years. I have cousins and friends who have served in the military in various capacities.), Veteran's Day is a chance to celebrate everyone. People I don't know. People who have given their all. People who will face struggles for a long time to come.

To everyone who is running in this race, I thank you! I encourage you! I commiserate and celebrate with you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It cannot be said enough.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Author Interview: Lee Gjertsen Malone

Good morning! I'm so excited to have Lee Gjertsen Malone on my blog today.

Lee is the author of two super fun middle grade books, THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH’S (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2016), and CAMP SHADY CROOK (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2019).

I was fortunate to get to know Lee back in 2015 through the debut group The Sweet Sixteens. Not only does she write middle grade novels, but she is a freelance journalist who has covered some fascinating topics. I've always been impressed with her strong sense of self as an author, and her encouragement to other authors to be an advocate for their own books.

Today, we'll be talking about her latest book, CAMP SHADY CROOK. You can find my review of it HERE on Goodreads (but spoiler alert, I loved it!).

All right!! Let's get this party started! (I'll be in green bold)

Welcome, Lee! Please tell us about your book.

It’s called Camp Shady Crook and it’s about two kids, Archie and Vivian, who both come to a very run down camp in Vermont with the same idea — of conning the other kids. They end up competing with each other for dominance but things spiral out of control and they have to figure out how to make them right again.  

Such a fun concept! What inspired you to write Camp Shady Crook and your awesomely devious characters, Archie and Vivian?

I’ve always been intrigued by smart criminals like con artists — even though I’m an extremely law abiding person myself. But it’s fun to put yourself inside the head of someone doing bad things. Archie came to me first. The first chapter, which is written from his perspective, is almost exactly like very first pages I wrote to get them down, since I was supposed to working on something else at the time (isn’t that always the way.) But I had this image of this boy getting on a bus to camp pretending to be rich.

Vivian came later, in part because her motivations for the cons are murkier, tied up less with the need for money and more with her how her self-esteem took a hit at school thanks to a false friend. 

But they both are having that unique summer camp experience where you get to be someone different than you are at home, which is what intrigued me the most about the setting. Where else, as a kid, do you get to try on new personalities for size? Especially if you live in the same town and go to the same school with the same people year after year. 

Summer camp is SUCH a fun setting. I never got to experience this, but I love the idea of trying on a new personality. How about you? Did you ever attend a summer camp? 


Well, I never attended a traditional summer camp. I actually went to nerd camp — a summer program on a college campus (in my case, Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pa) where you could take college level courses. I went the summers I was 14, 15, and 16, and took Archaeology, Geology, and Psychology. Studied hard, made wonderful lifelong friends and got my first kiss. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

I wouldn’t have really liked the “cabin in the woods” kind of camp when I was a kid, though I remember being jealous when I was 10 or 11 about kids who got to go away for weeks. Not about the camp part as much as the idea of being away and on your own in a different place. I had major fantasies of skipping town. That’s why my favorite book was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I literally had full daydreams of getting on the train to Manhattan and going to live in a museum, though I think I would have picked Natural History instead of the Met. 

I loved that book, too! While I thought it would be way cool to live in a museum, I knew I didn't have the guts to pull something like that off. And same with all the cons that Archie and Vivian pull off in Camp Shady Crook! They are so clever! How did you come up with them?

Well, believe or not, there’s actually a science to cons. Why they work, and what kind of people take the bait. And many cons — including some in the book — have been around for years. Archie’s whole persona is based on a con called “The Spanish Prisoner” (though most of us might think of it as “the Nigerian Prince” nowadays) and there’s another con in the book called “the Melon Drop.” For many of them I took the kinds of cons Archie would have read about in his research and put a kid spin on them. I’d like to think that anyone who actually knew anything about cons would recognize quite a few of the techniques Archie and Vivian use.  

Fascinating! And so creative. So I'm imagining that you did a bit or research when writing this book. What is the most surprising thing you had to research?

I love research so I always do a ton — sometimes I have to make myself stop researching just so I get actual writing done! 

Haha! I may know something about such delay tactics. 😬 But I digress. Do continue.

Researching cons was an obvious part of the book, but one perhaps surprising one was researching summer camp itself. As I mentioned, I never went to a traditional summer camp like Camp Shady Brook so I had to research almost everything, including how cabins are organized, what kinds of activities kids do, the stuff you would assume I knew already! 

As for fun/weird research, a little joke in the book is that all the cabins are named after fish native to Vermont, where the camp is located. So I went hunting around in books and online for strangely named Vermont fish — Rainbow Smelt, Longnose Gar, Walleye. Even in copyedits the names still made me laugh.

I was dying at those cabin names! So funny!

Okay, I'm taking a little detour, and this is not about your book, but speaking of research . . . I've been following you on Facebook for a while now, and I'm always fascinated at the various articles you are working on for your day job as a journalist. (I seriously LOVE that you did one on the hiccups!) Given all that you've researched, what has been the most interesting subject you've written about?

This is a very difficult question because I’ve gotten to write about so many interesting things, including hiccups. But a recent interesting piece was on what happens when people get sick in space. This is not an idle question because astronauts are going into space for longer periods of time thanks to the International Space Station and society is always imagining we’ll be send civilians into space soon to colonize other planets. So what happens when someone gets the flu? Or has a heart attack? Do you pack an MRI machine for the mission to Mars? (Those things are heavy). In particular, your readers should know, always cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze in zero gravity because the particles will float around until they hit something. Hopefully a filter, but it could also be your buddy — or his lunch!

Wow. I've never thought about that! And I am maybe a bit grossed out at the idea of puking in space. I'm guessing that Astronauts need strong stomachs!
Finally, I love middle grade for so many reasons. I'd love to hear why you choose to write middle grade.

A lot of my favorite books, the ones I remember and have held dear since I was a kid, are middle grade books. But the reason why I personally write middle grade is actually very boring. I had been writing YA novels and was even agented and went on sub, but nothing sold. Then I wrote a book about a 15 year old boy and a literary agent who read it said “this should be a middle grade book, not YA.” Nine months of revisions later, and voila! I had a middle grade book. And I’ve just kept writing them because they’re so much fun.

It IS so much fun! And I am glad you came over to the middle grade side because your books are so good, and so different than a lot of what we see. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog, Lee! 

And for the rest of you, you can find all the links for following Lee on social media below, as well as links for where you can get your own copy of CAMP SHADY CROOK! 

~~~
Lee Gjertsen Malone is a Massachusetts transplant via Long Island, Brooklyn, and Ithaca, New York. As a journalist she’s written about everything from wedding planning to the banking crisis to how to build your own homemade camera satellite. Her interests include amateur cheese making, traveling, associating with animals, shushing people in movie theaters, kickboxing and blinking very rapidly for no reason. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, daughter and a rotating cast of pets.

You can follow her on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, and Instagram.

CAMP SHADY CROOK is available now at Lee's local indie, Porter Square Books, and can also be purchased through Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Top Five Halloween Picture Books!

Only three days to Halloween, and I'm in a spooky mood. So today, I want to share my top five Halloween picture books! From creepy to spooky, from silly to plain old fun, Halloween books can delight readers old and young. With the number of great Halloween picture books out there, this list barely scratches the surface, but maybe you'll find a fun new book to delight your Halloween lovers out there.

On to the list! First up . . .

THE SPOOKY OLD TREE by Stan & Jan Berenstain

In this super fun (and super spare of words) story, three bears get their brave on to explore a spooky old tree. It has the perfect amount of scare factor for both young and old readers.

PLUS, not only is this book fun to listen to, it is fun to read! You can't help but get out your spooky voice and start making all the sound effects. I so highly recommend this book, you might just have to make a trek to the Himalayas to get it.


Next up is the super creepy CREEP CARROTS by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown.

Jasper Rabbit loves carrots. He eats them for lunch, he eats them for snacks, he eats them every chance he gets. And his favorite carrots come from Crackenhopper Field. But when Jasper starts seeing carrots everywhere . . . creepy carrots . . . Jasper is no longer a fan, and something must be done.

As an author, I totally wish I would have thought of this. So clever, so fun, and SO CREEPY! The pictures brilliantly capture the dark and creepy atmosphere that such a book requires. Go read this one! You won't regret it . . . unless you, too, start seeing creepy carrots everywhere!

EVEN MONSTERS NEED HAIRCUTS by Matthew McElligott is a favorite at our house. Technically, it is not a Halloween book, but it fits right in

Once a month, on the night of the full moon, a young barber sneaks off to his father's barber shop to follow in his dad's footsteps. All night long he snips and snaps, buzzes, and gels his client's hair to perfection.

I love the hilarious ending, and the whole thing is just monstrously clever. I giggle right along with my kids when we read this together. (And I giggle all by myself when I read it just for me!😉) You don't want to miss this one!


A fun new favorite is SAMURAI SCARECROW: A VERY NINJA HALLOWEEN by Rubin Pingk.

Yukio loves Halloween, and he loves his little sister, but he is tired of her always copying him! From jack-o-lanterns to trick-or-treating routes, his sister is always right there in the way. But when Yukio goes too far, can he make it up to her? Or has he brought on the curse of the Samurai Scarecrow?

I can totally relate to Yukio in this super fun story, but I feel so bad for his little sister. I don't want to spoil any endings, but this book takes some fun twists and turns, and let's just say that Yukio definitely learns his lesson. This book was delightfully surprising, and a perfect Halloween book.

And of course, no list about spooky books could ever be complete without THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK STARRING LOVABLE, FURRY OLD GROVER by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael J. Smollin.

When Grover learns that there is a monster at the end of the book, he does everything he can to stop the reader from getting to the end of the book. From asking nicely, to building walls, to begging on hands and knees, but a determined reader can be hard to stop. What's a Grover to do?

This is another one that is technically not a Halloween book. But with a monster at the end of it, how can it not be perfect for such a holiday? My mom read this to me when I was a kid, and I read this to my own kids when they were younger, and sometimes, I read it just because I can. This book is pretty much perfect in my estimation, and if you haven't read it yet . . . WHY NOT??!

Those are just some of my favorites, now how about you? What are your favorite Halloween books?




Monday, October 21, 2019

License Plate Love

One of my very favorite things to talk about on my blog is personalized license plates. And I haven't done it for a LONG TIME!! Turns out I've been saving some license plate pictures for the moment I finally realized this.

For those who are new to my blog, I love personalized license plates because I'm a people watcher, and personalized plates are a peek into the life of the car owner. It gives us a glimpse of who they are, and to a part of their life that is important to them. Half the fun is figuring out what it's supposed to say. The rest of the fun is in the stories you make up to explain why that’s important to them.

And as a writer, I think it's a fun way to build characterization. Do you know what your character would choose for personalized plates? If not, play the game!! It's so fun to find out.


Without further ado, on to the pictures!

Up first: MONAMIE


Perhaps many people would be confused by this license plate, but I happen to speak French, so I happen to know that this awesome license plate says Mon Amie! or My friend!

My guess would be that this is a very friendly French speaker, or more likely a French expatriate now living in Utah. But funny thing, I actually got caught taking this picture by the owner of the car! She WAS very friendly, and she was, indeed from France. I did have to explain myself, but she didn't mind my interest, and was happy to meet a French speaker. :)

Up next:  YRUHERE



This license plate cracked me up. I caught this picture while stopped at a light. Why ARE you here??! I was there on my way to a school visit, so a question I would soon be answering for hundreds of kids. As for this car owner, I would guess they have a wry sense of humor and mean to tell people to back off a little, OR they have strong religious beliefs and are asking the GREAT EXISTENTIAL question. Or perhaps it's both!!

Next on the list: HRLYQUN



We have a Batman fan on our hands here, who apparently has a thing for Harley Quinn. Maybe they have a thing for the Joker. Maybe they identify with her hopeless love and tragic treatment by the man. But I like to think this is meant to be more light-hearted, and they just love the character and comic.

Next: LVTOFLY


This one is a little less clear. LOVE to fly??? or LIVE to fly??? Or perhaps they liked that ambiguity because it's both. The two do go together pretty well. I am guessing this is a pilot. ✈ It could be a professional career pilot, but I'm going on a limb and saying that they fly more for fun than for a job. Small planes. Maybe owns their own? Or perhaps I'm completely wrong, and they just love to drive fast. 🚥😊

Finally! My own: PBNJ


 Yes, yes I did. My husband was really, really excited about the idea, and encouraged this. Of course, symbols are not allowed, so no ampersand (&), but I think this worked out pretty well. People who know me have no doubt why I did this, and people who don't know chuckle and comment: "You must really like PB&Js!"

Yes. Yes I do. In fact, I wrote  a whole book about it! 😂

But I must confess, PB&Js really are a huge part of my life, and they have shaped a lot of who I've become. Especially as an adult. And though it may be cliché, and though I will have more books published in the future, THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY will always be my first. The one that sent me down the wonderful path of author-dom.

I want to know! What would be your personalized license plate? (7 letters max!)


Monday, October 14, 2019

Reading Books We Love

Reading books is so much a part of my life and my kids' lives, I sometimes forget that not everyone feels the same way about books. And don't worry, we can still be friends even if you don't love books the way we do!

In light of this excellent post by Liesl Shurtliff, I wanted to share some stories about my son:

My son in kindergarten

My oldest son has not always loved books. I read to him as a kid (like, A LOT), I had a home full of books, I modeled reading for fun (confession, maybe too much!), and HERE is proof positive I took him to the library even when it was tough! But still, my son didn't care for them. In fact, he disliked books and reading so much that his second grade teacher reached out to inform me that he was so far behind on his reading levels, that if something didn't change, and fast, he was not going to move up a grade with his peers.

I was horrified! There I was, a bona fide book lover, hoping to be an author someday, yet I couldn't even get my own son to read.

I was lucky. I had resources. My mom was an elementary school principal at the time and had been a reading teacher before that. I asked for advice, and here is what she told me.

Image result for image maze of bones"First and most important, find a book that he wants to read. That is very important! It must be his choice." . . . So turns out, this was harder than I expected. It took a lot of trips to the library. A lot of trial and error, because he didn't know what interested him. All books were the same to him at that point, and in his mind ALL BOOKS were boring. I grabbed lots of different types of books and I started reading to him.

We didn't finish many of the books we started, but I didn't give up. After a lot of searching, we landed on the first book in a brand new series: MAZE OF BONES by Rick Riordan.

"Second," my mom told me, "once you have a book he loves, read it together. You read it out loud, but follow along with your finger and have him follow along as well." We read the whole book that way, and moved on to book 2. I was still the one reading, but his attitude was changing. He was more excited about reading time. We kept at it through book 2 and moved on to book 3. That was when everything changed.

My son got tired of waiting for me. He was anxious to know what would happen. And he began sneaking the book and reading it on his own. Slowly, slowly, slowly. And sometimes he would ask for help. But that book forever changed his reading life, and I will always be grateful for both my mom's advice, and for The 39 Clues series that kept books coming out in such rapid succession.

From there he moved on to comics. He particularly loved the Star Wars comics. And I was so grateful to see him reading! To see him excited to read.

His reading interests grew, and he began to read Rick Riordan's other books. That led him to read everything he could find about mythology. That led him to studying ancient cultures. That led him to start learning Hebrew and Greek on his own. That led him to study Inca and Mayan cultures. The kid loves to learn!

Image result for star wars comics coverImage result for lightning thief cover

Those early books that some people would call junk books and a waste of time saved my son's reading career (and yes, helped him pass the second grade). Those comics gave him confidence. Led him to understand the possibilities that can come with reading. 

Please. Get kids excited about reading. Let them read books for the joy of it. Books that speak to their heart. And please, to all you graphic novel creators: KEEP THOSE BOOKS COMING!

What book first made you excited to read?

Monday, October 7, 2019

Picture Book Review: Railway Jack


One of the most important parts of writing is reading. Read as many books as you can in the genre you want to write in. So as you can imagine, I have been reading a lot of picture books lately. I love hearing about good books from others, so I'm going to share some of my favorites. I'll focus on picture book reviews, but since I love middle grade books, I'll probably throw in a few of those too.

My reviews will also be posted on Goodreads where I review other books as well. Feel free to follow me on Goodreads, if you like. Please note that I'll only be reviewing books I love, so if it's on my blog, I give it five stars (Goodreads' system).
First up is RAILWAY JACK written by KT Johnston, and illustrated by César Samaniego.

Image may contain: one or more people

I'm going to confess that while I do love a good non-fiction picture book, my heart is with fiction. Given that, I might have been a little hesitant to pick this up. But boy am I ever glad that I gave this one a chance!


What an amazing story! This book is about an amazing duo: Jim Wide, and his service baboon, Jack. Jim had lost both of his legs in a rail accident and struggled to do his job at the railway until he found Jack. I was fascinated by Jim's foresight to recognize the potential of what Jack could do to help him. I was amazed by all the skills that Jack was able to learn, and it gave me a greater appreciation for baboons and service animals in general.

The author's research on the topic was impressive, and I especially appreciated the photos at the end of the book. I'd never heard of a baboon being used as a service animal, and I found the author's note about the history of service animals to be interesting and very informative. I have no doubt kids would be fascinated, and the discussion questions at the end would lead to great discussions.


My favorite part was when the heads of the railway came down on Jim for allowing a baboon to do  the work of a human. I don't want to give any spoilers, so I won't tell you what happens, but when you read it, you will know why this is my favorite. (I know, I'm totally the worst! But read it! You won't be disappointed.)

I can't end without mentioning the art. The illustrator did a beautiful job on the pictures. They really brought the story to life. I loved the style, and felt it was a great fit for the story. And after seeing the old photographs at the back, it was fun to look back through the book and note the great attention to detail that Mr. Samaniego paid to his work. 

This is a wonderful story that I highly recommend!

Note: I received an e-ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.



KT Johnston found history a boring subject in school—but now it's the passion of her writing. She earned a degree in biology and conducted wildlife behavior studies before switching to a corporate career. After raising two children and several litter sof curly-coated retrievers, KT began writing, spotlighting special animals who had affected the lives of everyday people. She and her husband live in Minneapolis, where the four-legged members of her family have always been special. KT hopes to inspire others to be curious about our world as well, one true story at a time.

You can follow her on Twitter, and learn more about her at her website.


César Samaniego was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1975. He grew up with an artist father, smelling his father's oils, reading his comic books, and trying to pain over his father's illustrations! He attended Llotja Arts and Crafts School and graduated with honors in 2010. Since then he has published many books and provided art for apps, textbooks, and animations. César lives in Canet de Mar, a small coastal town near Barcelona, with his wife, daughter, five cats, and a crazy dog.

You can find more of his amazing art here.

RAILWAY JACK is on Goodreads, and is available for pre-order!