Horses, Horses, and More Horses

Young Whitney on Rocky

Young Whitney on Rocky

For all you horse lovers out there, I’m excited to introduce you to Whitney Sanderson, an author from the Random House Horse Diary series. In addition to the two books she’s written for that series, she has a new release, the first in her Horse Rescue series. Whitney wrote Horse Rescue: Treasure to support Little Brook Farm, a horse rescue center. Whitney will be donating 50% of her royalties to Little Brook Farm. So if you or someone you know is a horse lover, sharing this book will not only make them happy, it will also help save horses. And we’re also offering a chance to win a free copy of Treasure.

Hi, Whitney, and welcome to the Mixed-Up Files. We’re looking forward to learning more about you and about horses.

First of all, what did you dream about becoming when you were young?

Even though I loved horses from a young age, I really wanted to be an FBI agent. I was a big fan of the X-Files. Maybe it’s a sign that there will be a paranormal young adult novel in my future.

When did you start writing?

When I was four or five, I would dictate stories to my older sister, and she would type them for me. I remember the first story was called “Ten Cats” and the second was called “Five Dogs,” so I guess I have been drawn to animal stories from the beginning. I was homeschooled, and when I was around fourteen I took a correspondence course in creative writing designed for high school students.

That was the first time I got feedback from someone other than my friends and parents that I might have potential as a writer. Around that time, I joined an online community called The Young Writer’s Club, which sadly no longer exists. That was hugely influential to my writing—I was able to get feedback on and comment on the work of other aspiring teenage writers across the world. I am still in touch with a few of the friends I made on that site more than a decade ago.

Treasure CoverNEWHow did you come up with the idea for Treasure?

I spent the summer volunteering at Little Brook Farm in 2009. I wanted to use my profession as a writer to help spread the word about the good work they were doing, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. At the time, I was working on a book for the Random House Horse Diaries series, which are all told from the horse’s point of view. From there, I had the idea to make up a story about the life of one of the Little Brook horses, based on the facts that were known. There were so many interesting horses on the farm that it was hard to pick just one, but I ended up settling on Treasure because she was such a sweet mare
who was so valuable to the farm despite being “just” a mixed-breed pony who had been saved from slaughter. I was also able to work in a lot of the other horses’ tales, because in my story the horses can talk to each other.

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Young rider with Treasure at Little Brook Farm

Can you tell us why you’re passionate about the charity you’re supporting with this book?

Little Brook Farm is the nation’s oldest horse rescue, established by Lynn Cross in 1977. They have rescued hundreds of horses, ponies, and other animals. People sometimes think that only sick, lame, or behaviorally difficult horses end up homeless or at slaughter auctions, but that is far from true. The farm has a number of rescued horses who have competed in eventing, dressage, and vaulting competitions. Some of these horses do need special care, but still make wonderful horses for pleasure riding or competition. I think it’s so important that people realize rescues are more than throwaway horses.

I also love that Little Brook Farm offers kids from a city environment the chance to experience farm life on class field trips. Lynn showed me some wonderful letters from people who visited the farm as children and wrote years later to say that one trip changed their lives and motivated them to do well in school or seek out careers working with animals. Horses reconnect us to a part of ourselves and our heritage that is easy to forget in a culture where most of our days are spent inside staring at screens or books. In the end, I believe horses help us as much as we help them.

Whitney, you’ve written other horse books. Can you tell us about those and about the research you did for them?

I have wrGOLDEN SUN jacket copyitten two books for the Random House Horse Diaries chapter book series, which my mother, Ruth Sanderson illustrated. Each book is about a different type of horse at the time when that breed was developed. Golden Sun tells the story of a Native American boy and an Appaloosa horse as they grow up on the western plains together in 1790. My second book in the series, Darcy, is about a Connemara pony working on an Irish farm in 1917.

Even though they are fairly simple stories, they required a lot of historical research. Something as simple as not knowing what the weather would be like at a certain time of year or what kind of tack a horse would be wearing can lead to a lot of frustration—because if you don’t get it right, the copyeditor will call you on it later!

In Golden Sun, I made the mistake of just guessing on some things that ended up not being correct, and then having to do a lot of revisions. With Darcy, I was careful to seek sources for anything I was unsure about. It’s one of the challenges of writing historical fiction. One of the benefits is that you end up learning a lot about topics you’d otherwise know nothing about, like Native American vision quests or farming in rural Ireland.

Can you tell us what you like best about horses? And are any of the books based on horses you’ve owned?

One of my favorite things about horses is how individual their personalities are. My Appaloosa, Thor, has a wise and calm disposition—I like to call him a horse philosopher. Another horse I owned, Gabriel, was kind of an equine Abercrombie model—very cute, a little sulky at times, and loved to be the center of attention. Both Thor and Gabe were actually models for two books in the Horse Diaries series—Golden Sun and Koda.Koda

My mother, Ruth Sanderson, takes really detailed photo reference for each illustration in the books, so she often has to set up scenes with various horses and people in costumes…it can be pretty involved. Thor took it all in stride when a bunch of people dressed in American Indian style clothing showed up at the stable to have their picture taken with him for Golden Sun, but Gabe seemed really excited to be in the quarter horse story, Koda. There was one scene where the girl in the book is sick, lying on the ground, and Koda is trying to get her to wake up. Gabe was really hamming it up, circling around and nuzzling her. I think he missed his calling as a Hollywood star. If they ever make the books into TV episodes, he’d be perfect!

You’ve alThe Black Stallionways loved horses–that’s clear. Did you also read horse stories growing up?

Yes, many of them. I read the Black Stallion books, the Thoroughbred series, and all of the Marguerite Henry books. But by far my favorite was The Saddle Club series by Bonnie Bryant. Until pretty recently you could throw out a random nuMistymber between one and a hundred, and I could tell you the title of that book in the series and describe the plot. When I was around nine, I wrote to Bonnie Bryant and was so excited when she wrote back—I kept the letter on my bulletin board for years. Now I sometimes get letters from readers of Horse Diaries, and it’s so cool to realize that kids are enjoying my books the way I once looked forward to the latest Saddle Club.saddle club

It’s awesome to think that maybe someday the fans of your books might end up as authors themselves. I hope you don’t mind answering a few more questions as I’m sure those eager readers would love to know more about their favorite author.

Where have you lived (or visited) and how has that influenced your work?

I grew up in Ware, Massachusetts, which is a pretty rural town. My family had a Victorian house with an old barn, and when I was about eight years old, my parents fixed it up so we could have horses on the property. It was wonderful to be able to go out and see the horses any time I wanted—although I was homeschooled, so it also probably contributed to my rushing through my work so I could get out to the barn faster. The English lessons mostly stuck because I liked reading and writing, but don’t try to quiz me on algebra!

As far as places I have traveled, I was able to visit Ireland with my mom and sister while I was researching Darcy. Being able to see the landscape and culture where the book was set made it so much easier to come up with authentic descriptions. I met a woman who owned Connemara ponies and ran thDarcy jacket copye local pony club for decades, and we got to take a wonderful ride along the windswept coast of Ireland. The internet can tell you a lot, but there is no substitute for visiting the place you are writing about.

Do you have any advice for anyone who dreams of becoming an author?

If you want to be an author, I would say become comfortable with the whole writing process that comes before publication. I tend to start a lot more projects than I finish, but I always feel a sense of pride when I have a completed manuscript that I have sent out to an agent or publisher, regardless of whether I ultimately sell it. Even if that particular work isn’t accepted, the rejections can teach you a lot about the process, and about what not to do. Even if you don’t sell your first story, or your second, just getting practice with carrying through a project from start to finish will serve you well when you finally hit on something that an editor thinks is gold.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I’m currently working on another Horse Rescue book, this time set at Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse rescue in Palmer, MA. Another project I have in mind is a young adult series about a group of teenage girls who get into the sport of three-day eventing.

What super power do you wish you had?

The power to overcome writer’s block! Or to really be able to talk to horses instead of just imagining what they might say.

Do you have a funny story about when you were young?

Well, it’s funny in retrospect…Once, when I was about fourteen, I was riding on a trail with my friend on her 12-hand pony, Widget. There was a small tree fallen across the path, about 3 feet high. I jumped it with Thor, but Widget had second thoughts and ended up only half jumping it. So she was literally balanced on the tree on her stomach with her legs dangling above the ground. She couldn’t seem to get the leverage to move either way, and although she was surprisingly calm about it, we were worried she would panic and really injure herself.

I rode back to the barn for help, but my parents weren’t home and no one was around, so I left some incoherent note about Widget being stuck in a tree on the trail. Then I found a hand saw and a container of jellybeans and rode back into the park. People that I passed on the road gave me very strange looks. Fortunately, the hand saw turned out to be unnecessary, since Widget scrambled over the log as soon as she heard the container of jellybeans rattle. My friend and I decided the moral of that story was “always carry jellybeans in your pocket, because you never know when you might need to get a pony out of a tree.”

Thinking about your parents reading your note about a pony being stuck in a tree makes me laugh — now that I know you got her out safely. I’ll have to remember the jellybean trick. I never realized horses liked jellybeans.

What’s one thing you’ve always dreamed of doing?

Someday I’d like to be able to adopt a rescue horse—and I’ll know where to find one when that day comes!

Whitney on Thor

Whitney on Thor

About Whitney Sanderson:

Whitney Sanderson is the author of Horse Rescue: Treasure. 50% of the proceeds from the book will be donated to Little Brook Farm. Whitney is also the author of Horse Diaries: Golden Sun and Horse Diaries: Darcy, both from Random House. You can find out more about Whitney on her website and about how the various horses were photographed and painted on the Horse Diaries blog.

About the Interviewer:

WantedGraceandtheGuiltless_smA lifelong horse-lover, Laurie J. Edwards has an MA from Vermont College and is completing an MFA in Children’s Writing and Illustrating at Hollins University. With more than 2200 articles and a dozen books in print, she is the author of the young adult Western, Grace and the Guiltless (Capstone, 2014), about an orphaned teen whose only friend is her horse. Laurie would love to connect with readers on Facebook and Twitter, or visit her blog.

Treasure CoverNEWTo win a copy of Horse Rescue: Treasure, leave a comment below. Share this post on Facebook and Twitter and let us know for extra chances to win. Winner will be chosen on January 3, 2014.

Reading for Pleasure, Not Purpose

At a recent book festival, I noticed a tween girl eying my table. Finally she walked over, picked up one of my books, and began reading.

When her mom approached, the girl waved the book over her head like a flag. “This one!” she begged her mom. “Please?”

Her mom smiled patiently. “Let me have a look,” she said. She flipped through the pages as if she were searching for something. “What’s the lexile?” she asked me.

“Lexile?” I repeated, even though I knew what the word meant.

She began to explain the concept of “lexile,” then gave up. “What grade level is this book for?” she asked, sighing.

“Fourth through seventh, mostly,” I answered. “Although some third graders read it, and so do eighth graders. There’s really no rule.”

The mom glanced at her daughter, who by then was at the other end of my table, flipping through another book. “The reason I ask,” she murmured, “is because my daughter is a very advanced reader. She’s in the fifth grade, but she’s reading on a tenth grade level.”

My heart went out to this mom, because I know what it’s like to have a kid who’s an “advanced” reader. Advanced readers tend to be voracious ones, the kind of kid who brushes her teeth with a toothbrush in one hand and a book in the other. It’s a full-time job supporting a book-addicted kid’s reading habit. And finding appropriate books can be an adventure: you don’t want your kid to read books that are too babyish, because they will bore her, and possibly turn her off reading. But at the same time, you don’t want her to read YA books that may be intellectually more stimulating, but too mature in other ways–too dark, too edgy or too sexually explicit. After all, your fifth grader is still a fifth grader. A kid, not an adolescent.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned as a parent, a teacher, and an author: if we want our kids to become lifelong readers, we need to let them read for pleasure. This means allowing them to make their own reading choices (within reasonable limits). And we need to support their choices, not pluck books from their hands in the name of lexiles and reading levels.

Because why does any kid choose any book? Maybe she likes the cover, or the title, or the plot summary on the book jacket. Maybe she likes the author’s style, or finds the main character someone she’d want as a friend. One of my totally unproven (and unprovable) theories about MG reading is that for many kids, especially the “advanced, voracious” ones, reading is a social experience, a chance to hang out with the characters, empathize with them, laugh with them, learn from their triumphs and blunders. And to do any of that socializing in a meaningful way, they need characters they can relate to– which usually means kids roughly around their own age.

But what about the parent’s responsibility to educate her child? Is there anything wrong with a mom leafing through her daughter’s book to check if its language is rich, and enriching? No, of course not; but a kid’s pleasure reading shouldn’t be evaluated on the basis of: Does this book contain vocabulary words? Some of the best-written books don’t even have “big” words–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to give one example. And some of the worst books are bursting with pompous verbiage and gobbledegook. The best middle grade fiction does so much more for kids than just expand their vocabulary.

I recently came across an article about a study conducted by Britain’s Institute of Education, which suggested that children who read for pleasure have a more advanced vocabulary as adults than non-pleasure readers. “The long-term influence of reading for pleasure on vocabulary…may well be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read throughout their twenties and thirties,” said the researchers. “In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from.” For older kids (age 16), reading “highbrow fiction” made the greatest improvement in adult vocabulary; but for the ten year olds, it seems the frequency of pleasure reading, and not the level or “lexile,” may be the most significant factor. To me this suggests that if you want your fifth grade kid to continue developing her already precocious language skills, let her choose her own books. A brilliant piece by Valerie Straus in the Washington Post makes several suggestions for strategies which encourage reading autonomy in the classroom, as well.

And in case you’re wondering what happened to the mom and the daughter at the book festival: They stepped away from my table, talked it over, and returned to buy the book the daughter had chosen in the first place. When I signed it for the girl, I wrote: “Keep reading!” But something told me that advice wasn’t necessary.

Barbara Dee is the author of the middle-grade novels THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, TRAUMA QUEEN, THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON, SOLVING ZOE and JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE.  Find her on the web at www.BarbaraDeeBooks.com and on Twitter @BarbaraDee2.

Make Soup, Not War

The holidays are almost upon us, and no matter what you celebrate this season, you can bet there will be food involved. Beyond simple sustenance, what and how we eat play an important role in our relationships with others. This month’s National Geographic, which focuses on food, emphasizes “the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter.” Likewise, when presented in literature, food is often a symbol of communion between characters, communities, and even cultures. As Thomas C. Foster writes in his book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, “…breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.”

Several middle-grade books feature food and meals in ways that create bonds between characters and cultures. Some even include recipes for parents, teachers, and librarians, who may want to join with their own children or students by reading, cooking, and eating together during this holiday season—or any time of year.

53494In Sharon Creech’s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, twelve-year-old Rosie has had a falling out with her best friend, Bailey, who is sight impaired. The story begins in the kitchen as Granny and Rosie slice carrots, onions, mushrooms, and celery and simultaneously swap stories about their lives. Granny tells about the best friend she left in Italy. And Rosie explains how Bailey is angry with her for learning Braille. By the end of Part One, Rosie realizes Bailey’s anger stemmed from the fact that reading Braille was his special talent. Rosie then brings soup over to Bailey’s house as a peace offering. In Part Two, the recipe for friendship and bonding includes homemade cavatelli, tomato sauce, and meatballs. As Granny, Rosie, and Bailey mix the ingredients, jealousies are revealed and life lessons are learned. Exact measurements aren’t listed in the book, but it’s clear that Granny Torrelli’s instructions for making soup and pasta are surefire recipes for reconciliation between Rosie and Bailey.

imagesIn Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School, eleven-year-old David Greenberg is having a rough time. When the story opens, his mother has already moved to another state. After that, his best friend abandons him, a bully targets him, and his pet hamster dies. Still, the one constant in his life is his grandmother. She’s always there to comfort him, not only with words, but also with her kugel, blintzes, and famous apple cake. And, although there are awkward family dinners in David’s house and in his friend Sophie’s house, as well, the close connection between food and friendship is apparent when David eats two pieces of Sophie’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and slips the third piece in his pocket. At the end of the book, Gephart includes the recipe for Bubbe’s Jewish Apple Cake—sure to comfort the characters at your table.

imagesRose Kent’s Kimchi and Calamari demonstrates the deep connection between food and culture when Joseph Calderaro, who was adopted from Korea by an Italian family, begins researching his background for a school essay assignment. But how can a calamari-eating, cannoli-loving fourteen-year-old find his Korean identity when there’s no information about his personal heritage anywhere? One way is to lie about it, which he does. But another way is to embrace his ancestral culture over dinner with a neighboring Korean family. Joseph bonds with them over sticky rice, bulgogi, and kimchi. As he comes to accept the fusion of his Korean origin and his Italian upbringing, he proudly describes himself as, “One hunk of Joseph slapped between a slice of Italian bread and a mound of Korean sticky rice.” Finally, he has the topic for his essay: “Joseph the Ethnic Sandwich.” While the book doesn’t contain the directions for cooking kimchi or calamari, plenty of mouth-watering Korean and Italian recipes are available on the Internet for hungry readers.

images-1Dumpling Days is Grace Lin’s third novel about Pacy Lin. In this one, Pacy travels to Taiwan for a month for her grandmother’s birthday celebration. And while it’s sometimes difficult for Pacy to navigate her new surroundings, peach buns, soup dumplings, and other delicacies definitely have the power to bridge the gap between cultures. A recipe for Chinese Dumplings can be found at the end of the book.

Other middle-grade novels about food:

The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaeffer—recipes for tea, sandwiches, and scones are included in the book.

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman—recipes can be found on the author’s webpage under Extras.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath—recipes are included at the end of chapters.

If you have a favorite middle-grade novel with food and/or recipes, feel free to serve it up in the comments section. In the meantime, happy reading and eating!

Dorian Cirrone is the author of several books and short stories for children. She blogs about reading and writing (and sometimes eating) at doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/. Hop on over  for writing tips and occasional give-aways.