Category Archives: Writing MG Books

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.

Interview with Author Donna Gephart — and a Giveaway for Teachers and Librarians!

I’d like to welcome one of my favorite middle grade authors and one I am happy to call my friend:  DONNA GEPHART!

2934511Donna Gephart’s first novel, AS IF BEING 12-3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH,MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT! won the prestigious Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  Her second novel, HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL, received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and landed on these state reading lists:  Texas, New York, Louisiana and Illinois.  Donna’s new book, OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, about a girl determined to get on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, received a starred review from Kirkus!
 
 

Donna’s books are hilariously funny. They make people laugh. They make people cry. They touch your heart.  Her first three books are all fabulous:

                     

I am thrilled to be able to share her latest book with you. It’s called

Death by Toilet Paper! 

Fans of How to Survive Middle School will welcome the adventures of a contest-crazed seventh grader who uses his wits and way with words in hopes of winning a big cash prize to help his family avoid eviction.
 
Benjamin is about to lose a whole lot more than good toilet paper. But even with his flair for clever slogans, will he be able to win a cash prize large enough to keep a promise he made to his dad before he died?

 

“Gephart’s generous view of humanity’s basic goodness shines through, and she leavens her characters’ difficult situation with plenty of humor. . . Readers can’t help but enjoy this heartening book about hanging in there.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Ben is a character kids will root for, and he’s surrounded by family and friends who help him see things will be okay, a message that may comfort readers facing similar circumstances.”–Publisher’s Weekly 

Here’s where we find out the genius behind the creation:

Donna, tell us about your latest book. Was it fun to write?

Locating facts about toilets and toilet paper that head each chapter was fascinating and fun.  Did you know the first stall in a public bathroom is the least used, therefore, the cleanest?  I got to study books like, Sarah Albee’s Poop Happened!:  A History of the World from the Bottom Up and call it research.

 

 Your books are hilariously funny, but they also have a thread of real-life, and you cover difficult topics at times, such as divorce, separation and even death. Why do you feel the need to do this?

I love reading books that make me care enough to cry . . . and laugh.  That’s my aim when I create books – humor and heartbreak — so my work can also serve as an emotional roadmap for readers.  In Death by Toilet Paper, Ben Epstein figures out how to navigate the impossible stages grief and ultimately move forward with hope.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

Trader Joe’s.  Seriously, I LOVE that store.  When Trader Joe’s is closed, though, I get my ideas from paying attention to unusual names, hobbies, jobs, conversations and stories.  Podcasts, like This American Life, are great ways to get my mind thinking of story ideas.  Reading the Sunday newspaper usually gets me thinking as well.

 

What is your writing process? Do you have a set time to write every day? 

Every day . . . except when life gets in the way, which it sometimes does.  Most days, I exercise outside then make a big cup of hot tea before I begin writing.  I use the Pomodoro Method, which is a program of set times for work and breaks.  I found a free Pomodoro timer online, and it has increased my productivity and kept me off the Internet while writing.

 

Why did you decide to become an author? 

When I was ten and bored, I wrote a story about a horse, although I knew NOTHING about horses.  My mom read my story and made a big fuss.  That’s when I decided I’d be a writer.

But the drive to write probably hatched years earlier in the children’s section of the Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia.  That place was a life-changer for me in the best possible way.  I was lonely and bored and found excellent company on the shelves.  A Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes resonated with me back then . . . and still.

Can you name one teacher that inspired you to write or had an affect on your life? 

Heck yeah!  My 10th grade teacher, Myra Durlofsky, inspired me with her creativity and energy.  She was a great role model.  I put her in a couple of my novels, and I still keep in touch with her!

Also reconnected last year with my childhood librarian, Miss Irene.  I walked into the main library in Philadelphia with my niece and there she was – Miss Irene – looking very much like I remembered her thirty-five years before.  That was a happy reunion!

 

  Donna speaks at elementary and middle schools, book festivals, libraries and conferences, including the S.C.B.W.I. National Conference, the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, F.A.M.E., the Conference on Children’s Literature, etc. She also does Skype visits to connect with schools across the U. S. and internationally. 
 

You do Skype visits for your books, what does that entail?

I LOVE doing Skype visits.  They’re so much fun.  After my interactive presentation with lots of show-and-tell, students ask questions.  And I ask them questions about their favorite books and authors.

 

How do you interact with the students during a Skype visit?

Sometimes, I do a Jeopardy!-style quiz with the students, which gets them totally engaged.  I ask questions and have them guess the outcomes as I tell stories.  There’s no substitute for in person school visits, of course, but Skype visits come close and they are good for the environment – no travel involved.  (Also, I may or may not wear bunny slippers during Skype visits.)  http://skypeanauthor.wikifoundry.com/page/Donna+Gephart

 

What is your favorite part about being an author? 

The creative responses to my books that I receive from both educators and young readers.  I’ve gotten freshly baked lemon squares, paintings, drawings and sculptures of characters and book covers, student-created videos, etc.  And I treasure the letters and emails I get telling me how my story resonated for a particular reader.  The connections I make with readers are what I really value.

If I could tell the lonely, bored girl choosing books from the shelves at the Northeast Regional Library that she would someday grow up to have a literary life, filled with reading, writing and people passionate about literature, I think she’d be quite pleased.

 

Anything else that you’d like to add:

For funny videos, word games, trivia, reading/activity guides, writing advice, etc., check out my site:  www.donnagephart.com.

Thanks for joining us Donna and giving us a peek into your creative process. :)

Donna has graciously donated a very special PRIZE !!

An  educator/librarian prize pack — a signed book, reading/activity guide and a couple dozen bookmarks

To enter, simply leave a comment below. In the spirit of the Donna’s latest book  let us know your funny encounter with toilet paper OR how you would  use a bunch of money you won in contest!  You have until December 10th to enter.

 

 

 

 

 

To Write or Not to Write, That Is the Question

For the record, I am a very brave man. This is not just because I floss before bedtime and sometimes intentionally consume leafy green vegetables. No, it’s much more than that. My bravery blossoms from a single, bold writerly act. Some would call it courageous. Others daring or even heroic.

I would call it quitting.

Yes, after writing the first page of a story, I stopped. Totally up and abandoned the manuscript. Then, with equal doses of valor and cold-blooded resolve, I started to . . .

Outline.

[Cue gasps, groans, and eerie music.]

I am not an outliner. Every other story I’ve ever written has been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants affair. At some point in the writing process I might skip ahead and write the ending to help guide the middle of my story, but planning each scene from the get-go? . . . Are you kidding me?!?!?!

Here’s a list of six things that made me change my ways (at least this one time):

  1. My last 50,000-word story underwent a ton of drafts, a couple with super-major plot revisions that required loads of rewriting as I uncovered new elements of my story on the fly. I liked the final results, but the process of getting there was painful. By creating a bare-bones outline for my newest story (a few sentences per chapter), I uncovered some surprises for myself before I had an entire plot to go back and overhaul.
  2. Revising a few sentences is easier than revamping a 50,000-word manuscript.
  3. I’m a slow writer. I’m an even slower reviser. Less time revising = more time writing.
  4. For a plot to push forward, I know every scene needs conflict and/or suspense to keep the reader engaged. By outlining, I ensured that each chapter was built around some form of tension, which provides the fuel for my story’s problem to keep chugging along on the road to the resolution.
  5. The outline also helped me look at the big picture of the story’s plot, making sure that the overall level of tension steadily increased scene-to-scene, pushing toward the resolution and climax.
  6. I figured outlining is like Brussels sprouts—it might not be that enjoyable at the time, but it’ll probably be good for me in the end.

My outlined story? It’s moving right along and feels way easier to write than anything I’ve ever written before. Will my plot change from my original outline as I progress? Undoubtedly. But it’s sure been nice to have a basic roadmap for the writing journey ahead.

Want a bit more perspective? MUFs own Linda Johns presented “The Case for Outlining” a few months back. Or do you have your own outlining versus seat-of-the-pants-writing viewpoint to share? Post your comments below.


T. P. Jagger The 3-Minute Writing TeacherAlong with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original readers’ theatre scripts for middle-grade teachers.