Author Archives: WendyS

Cool Off with a Refreshing READ!

What’s your favorite way to keep cool during a long hot summer? Is it curling up with a book in an air-conditioned library, making a pitcher of iced tea or taking a nap under a shady tree? Well, here’s another idea – what about an ICY COLD book, as in, a story that takes you to chilly climes? Maybe by the time you’re done, you’ll need a blanket, or at least a cup of cocoa! (Please add your favorite COOL reads in the comments below.)

The Long Winter

THE LONG WINTER by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Ingalls’ family struggle to survive seven months of brutal winter is recounted here in agonizing detail. Here, the pioneer spirit comes particularly to life as the family must make the best of their rapidly dwindling supplies to eke out light, heat and food. At times, tempers flare (Little House style, of course – Laura and Mary argue testily over what kind of stuffing would be best for a non-existent turkey), but the Ingalls family endures with both body and spirit intact.

My Name is Not Easy

MY NAME IS NOT EASY by Debby Dahl Edwardson
When I go off to Sacred Heart School, they’re gonna call me Luke because my Iňupiac name is too hard. Nobody has to tell me this. I already know. I already know because when teachers try to say our real names, the sounds always get caught in their throats, sometimes, like crackers. Luke, an Iňupiac boy living near the Arctic Circle in the 1960s, must leave his family to attend the Sacred Heart School. There, his own language and customs are forbidden, and Luke must navigate the complex tension between the various children at the school. A National Book Award finalist.


PEAK by Roland Smith
With the help of his famous father, “Peak” Marcello avoids juvie after scaling the tall buildings of New York, and instead finds himself getting ready to summit Mount Everest. However, Peak finds that his father’s intentions may be less than completely noble, and must make some hard decisions of his own. The author brings the reality of summiting Mount Everest to life with detailed accounts of the multiple base camps and approaches. Young readers may be interested to know that the record for youngest climber was recently broken in May by a 13-year-old Indian girl, a month after 16 sherpa guides were killed in a deadly avalanche.

Sugar and Ice

SUGAR AND ICE by Kate Messner
If you’re looking for a cooler climate in a more familiar setting, then this book, set in the world of competitive figure skating, may be for you. Seventh-grader Claire Boucher divides her time between her family’s maple tree farm and the local ice skating rink, when her life is upended by a surprise offer to train with an elite Russian coach at Lake Placid. In this new world, Claire must cope with mean girl, her own fears and the double toe loop.

Shackleton's Journey

SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY by William Grill – Ernest Shackleton’s attempts to conduct the first land crossing of Antarctica is a story of both disaster and heartbreak as well as resourcefulness and courage, and this story is lovingly rendered in colored pencil in William Grill’s new book. Readers are rewarded with detailed accounts of the ice-locked ship Endurance, crew members, each dog (warning: while all humans safely returned, the dogs were not so fortunate), the unusual supplies on each ship and maps. Slightly older readers may want to also check out Nick Bertozzi’s graphic novel, SHACKLETON: ANTARCTIC ODYSSEY.

Autobiographies of Middle-Grade Authors

When my 5th grader announced that his class was doing a unit on writer autobiographies, it was all I could do not to run off with the list of suggested books. I love knowing the behind-the-scenes stories, which would also explain why I watch VH1’s Pop-Up videos and listen to director’s commentaries on movies. (For more about the curriculum, click here.)

I was not disappointed. While most autobiographies focus on adult lives, autobiographies by children’s authors take their time with childhoods, providing readers with a fascinating look at growing up in different times and places, while some parts of childhood remain the same. Readers can also find the beginnings of some of their favorite stories, and wonder how their own lives might provide similar inspiration.  Here is a list of memoirs I enjoyed, along with a suggestion of who might also enjoy them.


Boy by Roald Dahl: Fans of Roald Dahl will be delighted to find many of the roots of his stories in his delightful memoir. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for instance, had its beginnings in Dahl’s childhood fascination with sweet shops, and particularly the love/hate relationship between proprietors and customers. Dahl has a lovely knack for recalling the terrors and pleasures of childhood. There are also bonus points for those of us who can’t resist a good English boarding school story. (Do you know what a tuck box is?!)


Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka: From the comic-book appeal of the cover to the wild-growing-up stories, this book all but dares reluctant readers to pick up the book. As one of six brothers, Knucklehead will show readers that Scieszka comes by his zany sensibilities (Time Warp Trio, Spaceheadz and our family favorite, Cowboy and Octopus) very honestly. Readers will find out how to play Slaughterball (and why it was a good thing Scieszka’s mother was a nurse) and how Jon and his brothers livened up the family crèche with toy soldiers.

Abracadabra Kid

The Abracadabra Kid by Sid Fleischman: Born in 1920, Fleischman takes readers to a place that is both familiar and strangely different, with mentions of boot hooks and a level of freedom that most children today would find unsettling. Lovers of magic will find that the book is aptly named, since much of the book focuses on Fleischman’s love of magic, and may want to continue on to his biography of magician Harry Houdini (Escape!) and a novel about a family of magicians set in the Old West called Mr. Mysterious and Company.  History buffs will enjoy Fleischman’s accounts of how he made a living with magic and his service during the war years of the United States.

26 Fairmount

26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola: My family and I enjoyed this Newbery Honor-winning book as a recording, done by the author – a rare treat – and it is full of dePaola’s trademark charm. DePaola recounts short stories from his life in 1930’s Connecticut, complete with the first day of school, holidays and living with two grandmothers. Perfect for transitional readers who have fond memories of Strega Nona and The Barkers.

Bad Boy

Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers: Myers takes his eye for unflinching detail and trains it on his own life in Bad Boy. Starting with his own complicated childhood – he was raised by his father’s ex-wife and second husband – Myers takes readers on his journey toward being a writer as an African-American man in mid-century America. This memoir is probably best suited for slightly older readers, and I would recommend reading this book with Myers’s very thorough and insightful Just Write: Here’s How. Readers may be especially inspired by Myers generous partnership with a young writer named Ross Workman, with whom he co-wrote the book Kick.

Girl Yamhill

I still have a few books on my to-read list that I should mention here. A Girl from Yamhill by one of my favorites, Beverly Cleary, will be read this year, and my 5th grader, who read Jerry Spinelli’s autobiography and is very picky about his reading, recommends Knots in My Yo-Yo String. For adult fiction writers, I also adored Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate, a memoir that proves that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Please share any recommended writer autobiographies or memoirs in the comments below!


A Lesson from Miracle on 34th Street

Building on TP Jagger’s fabulous post on what writers can learn from Christmas songs, today’s post will explore what writers can learn from the classic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street.  In case you aren’t familiar with this gem, here’s a quick description: when no-nonsense Doris Walker hires  a man to play Santa for Macy’s department store, she quickly finds out that while he is the Best Santa Ever, the man also genuinely believes he is Kris Kringle.  Doris, once burned by love, does not believe in Santa or other fantasies, and does not allow her daughter, Susan, to believe in Santa, either.  Kris Kringle sets to work on changing Susan’s mind, while Doris’ neighbor, Fred Gailey, tries softening Doris’ hard worldview.   When Kris’ mental health is challenged in court, everyone involved finds that their views of Christmas have changed because of meeting Kris.  (Note: This movie is so popular that it has been remade several times; do yourself a favor and watch the original 1947 version.)

miracle on 34th

See this one first!

There are four main characters in the movie: Kris Kringle, Doris, Susan and Fred, but the movie is well-buttressed by several secondary but important characters.  There is RH Macy, Doris’ boss, who insists on keeping Kris In spite of his apparent delusions because he is so popular with the customers.  Granville Sawyer is the company psychologist who takes a disliking to Kris, and forces the mental health hearing.   We meet the prosecutor and his family, as well as the judge in charge of the hearing and his political advisor, who reminds the judge that finding against Kris could create a public backlash.

Write your secondary characters as if they are the main characters.

What’s remarkable about all the characters is that while they exist to move the story along, they are also handled with much care and detail.  When I watched the movie this year, I could not help but marvel at how fully developed they were.  Each one brings to life the writing advice, write your secondary characters as if they are the main characters.  We know what each character wants, whether it’s boss man Macy wanting to beat rival Gimbels, or the political advisor seeking a winning election for the judge.  We also get to meet their families and see others interact with them, not just for the purposes of the story, but for their own sake.  You even know the opinions of the district attorney’s wife and meet the judge’s grandchildren.  (My favorite family background moment is when Kris questions whether the twitchy company psychologist is happy at home.  Mr. Sawyer does not respond immediately, but eventually announces, with a bit too much protestation and much manic plucking at the eyebrow, that he has been happily married to Mrs. Sawyer for many years, thank you very much.)

The next time you’re adding a minor character to your story, consider whether he or she (or it!) can be more than a cardboard cog for the story.  Do they have their own motivations and backgrounds?  How would they tell the story from their point of view?  And then, if you like, add your own cinematically-inspired writing advice in the comments below!