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Dogs, Pianos, and Names that Make You Smile

Authors Augusta Scattergood and Sarah Weeks discuss their new books and how they come up with names for their characters.

Sarah: Hey, Augusta Scattergood. You don’t mind if I call you by your full name, do you? It’s such a wonderful name! It makes me smile just to say it. Speaking of names, how did you choose the names for the characters in your new book The Way to Stay in Destiny?

Augusta: Names are so important, aren’t they? But I don't always get them right the first time. Occasionally I give a character a place-holder name until he tells me what to call him. Theo was Shelton for a while! But Theo’s name is such a part of him—the mystery of why he was named for Thelonious Monk and that now he’s “just plain Theo.” Miss Sister was actually named for a dance teacher in my hometown. Speaking of names that make you smile, I can just hear Honey being read aloud to kids. Teeny and Melody jump off the pages. And Bee-Bee Churchill. Great names, great characters.

Sarah: Thanks! Melody’s mother was a musician, so I chose a musical name for her. Even the dog in Honey is named after a famous composer. I was a singer-songwriter for many years before I became an author, so I have a deep love of music. I really enjoyed reading about Theo’s musical talent. I could hear that piano playing inside my head. Our new books have a number of things in common—pianos, bratty neighbors, dogs, and dance lessons—did I leave anything out?

Augusta: Let’s see, both of our books are set in small towns where kids have the freedom to get themselves in and out of escapades. Although I’ve lived in a lot of places, my heart is in the kind of place I grew up, a small southern town.

Sarah: I didn’t grow up in a small town, but I spend my summers in a little town in the Catskill Mountains. My dog loves to swim in our pond there. I wonder if Mo and Ginger would get along.

Augusta: My childhood was filled with animals. Rabbits, fish, parakeets, dogs, and cats. And those were the ones we had for pets. But I’m really a dog person. My book’s dog, Ginger Rogers, didn’t get quite the billing as your dog Mo. I love Mo’s voice and his sweet personality, but Ginger is the old and crotchety type. She did take a shine to Uncle Raymond, who’s a bit crotchety himself actually.

Sarah: You know what makes me crotchety? Doing research! I prefer to make things up. The things I am most interested in writing about are kids and animals, and of course things that make me laugh or cry—or better yet, laugh and then cry. 

Augusta: Since I write historical fiction, I’d better love the research part. Hey, I’m a librarian, what can I say? For my first novel, Glory Be, I did a ton of research about Freedom Summer. While writing The Way to Stay in Destiny, I spent a lot of time fact-checking dates, prices, and baseball records. 

Sarah: I love baseball—especially Little League games! Before we sign off I just want to mention that in addition to Honey, I have a new picture book out called Glamourpuss. It’s about a narcissistic cat who thinks so highly of herself that instead of saying meow, she shortens it to just “Me!” David Small illustrated—lucky me! Nice chatting with you, Augusta Scattergood.

Augusta: You too, Sarah Weeks!

Authors Dav Pilkey and Dan Santat Talk About "Ricky Ricotta"


Exclusive Excerpt from Shannon Hale's "The Forgotten Sisters"

919mtyl1NkLMiri, heroine of Shannon Hale’s Newbery Honor winner Princess Academy and the newly released The Forgotten Sisters returns for a charming third story—and this time, she’s creating a princess academy of her very own.

The sunlight on the water flashed and glared. Miri squinted, her head pounding. The straps of her pack cut into her shoulders. The ground was slippery, her boot soles thick with mud. She could not spare a hand to wipe the sweat dripping onto her cheeks.

You are a tutor, she told herself. You have to be imposing!

The wooden door in its frame looked swollen and misshapen, though perhaps years ago it had fit properly in the cut stone. It swung inward at her first knock, squeaking on its hinges.

“Hello?” Miri called out. She stepped inside.

The building was only one room, and it was nearly empty. The polished stone floor tilted to one side, some stones jutting higher than others, as if over the years the ground had settled.

“Who’s there?”

A girl was climbing in through one of the open windows, followed by two others. They wore loose brown shirts and leggings, stained even browner up to the knees, and held sticks and poles.

“Who are you? What are you doing in our house?” asked the tallest one.

In their house? These wild girls were the royal cousins? Miri guessed the tall one was Astrid, the eldest girl.

“Call the village,” the middle one whispered—probably Felissa.

“She doesn’t look like a bandit,” said the shortest. Susanna.

Miri worked her tongue in her mouth, but it was so dry. They would notice how young she was, and her short stature made her seem even younger. They would see she was a fraud and not a real tutor at all. She had to be strong, speak firmly, demand respect. Be imposing.

“I am your tutor. You may call me Tutor Miri.”

“Who?” asked Astrid.

“You should raise your hand if you . . . when you want to talk . . . or ask something. Though I may not answer. Immediately.”

The girls looked at one another, baffled. Miri’s head felt funny, her legs kind of tingly, but if she sat, she would seem weak.

Astrid raised her hand and said, “You’re in our house.”

Miri looked around. “There aren’t any books. I don’t see a single book.”

“I don’t see a single snake in here either,” said Astrid. “I don’t see a single lot of things. Who are you?”

“I only brought three books because I thought . . .” Her head felt as tilty as the floor. “There’s no furniture either. Why do you live here? You’re the king’s cousins. You’re royalty.”

“So we’ve heard,” Astrid said and stepped in front of her younger sisters, still gripping her long, sharpened stick.

“I’m feeling a little . . . muddled. There was a long walk and so hot and the ground’s still leaning as if it wants to be water—” Miri giggled. “I sound crazy, don’t I? I don’t mean to. I’m just . . . thirsty . . .”

Miri watched the floor swell like a white ocean, leisurely, pleasantly. Her limbs felt wonderfully light, and she sighed right before the floor rose up to meet her.


Guest Post: Marc Brown on the Adventures of Arthur

ArthurThe beloved Arthur Adventure books are now available on Kindle for the first time. See what creator Marc Brown has to say about Arthur's changes over the years.

Arthur has changed over the years—have you noticed? When I first drew him for my son in 1976, he looked more like an aardvark. He had a very long nose and that's where the idea for the very first Arthur story started. Arthur was worried about his nose and wanted to change it because it was giving him all kinds of trouble. Arthur has many problems in his life as we all do but it's always fun to see how he deals with his problems and solves them. 

I've been drawing Arthur now for almost 40 years and the more I was drawing him, the rounder his head became. His nose got shorter and he began to look more human. Over the years I got to know Arthur better and better. He, and all the characters I write about in Arthur's world, came from real people I grew up with and knew as a child. I think that's one reason so many kids can identify with my characters.

I can't imagine a day when I don't draw or doodle. In first grade, I got in trouble for drawing in school. My friend Alan liked to see me draw race cars and rocket ships but my teacher thought I should be doing my school work. In fourth grade I got into trouble for daydreaming too much and today my job is daydreaming and drawing. I wonder if my teachers would be surprised to know that I turned out just fine even though I'm drawing and daydreaming. 

Although I write many books and am considered an author, my favorite part of telling the story is with pictures. So, I guess I consider myself more of an illustrator than an author. It just so happens that I have to write the story so I can illustrate it. And I want you to know how lucky I feel each morning when I go to my studio. I get to do what I love: writing and illustrating stories that many kids enjoy reading. 

It amazes me that Arthur continues to have new adventures and one of his newest is on Kindle. I think it's great that you can now read my books on your cell phone, computer, or tablet anywhere and anytime you want to read them. In books or on screens, as long as kids are reading, I'm very happy. Arthur's last name isn't Read by accident. 

Want to learn how to draw Arthur? Click here to watch an instructional video.

Guest Post: Norman Bridwell on the Enduring Appeal of Clifford

CliffordNorman Bridwell reflects on his career writing Clifford the Big Red Dog, a beloved children's character for more than 50 years now.

Clifford has been a big part of my life for more than fifty years now, and I am so pleased to be able to share him with you.

When I was a child, I spent much of my free time drawing imaginary people in imaginary scenes. I remember walking to and from school making up these stories. At the end of the day, I’d illustrate them on a scrap paper my father had brought home from work for me. 

After I finished high school, I dreamed of doing cartoon-style illustrations for magazines and newspapers. My mother suggested that I go to art school, and I took her advice. While I was there, I found that people enjoyed my funny illustrations and stories filled with wordplay.

In 1962, my wife thought I should try to illustrate children’s books. I showed my paintings to several publishers, but no one was interested. I was very disappointed, but there was a ray of hope! One editor told me to try writing a story based on my painting of a little girl with a very big dog. I was so excited that I wrote the story in just three days.

When my story was bought by Scholastic and published in 1963, I was shocked. I had not expected Clifford the big red dog to be published. Thanks to Scholastic, and some very wonderful editors, the Clifford books were born... and my life changed completely.

Because of Clifford, I have traveled all over the world. The Clifford books themselves have taken quite a journey, too. They’ve delighted children as far away as Siberia. I know because I’ve gotten letters from children who live there.

Creating Clifford has also given me the opportunity to meet incredible people like the President and First Lady of the United States, movie actors, newspeople, and famous authors and artists that I admire.

But most wonderful of all, Clifford has brought me into the lives of many children. I am very lucky. I love kids, and I love to make them laugh – and I hope whether you’re a kid or a grown-up, that’s just what Clifford will make you do.

Guest Post: "Tales of the Great Beasts" Author Brandon Mull

SpiritanimalsBrandon Mull returns to the world of Erdas for Tales of the Great Beasts, a collection of short stories that spins off of the Spirit Animal series.

When my daughter Sadie started begging for a dog, I was hesitant.  I have four kids, and a dog would mean new responsibilities. But Sadie promised she would take care of the animal, and a bird we had owned previously gave me hope that she might mean it. Besides, I had a dog as a kid, and I didn’t want to deny my children that experience.

We settled on a Sheepadoodle—half Old English Sheepdog, half Standard Poodle. As it turned out, after getting the dog, Sadie kept her word. She took on the duties of feeding the dog (named Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and making sure the animal got opportunities to do her business in the side yard. It has been fun to watch the relationship between Sadie and Buffy grow, and to see my daughter learn lessons in responsibility.

The first book in the Spirit Animals series is dedicated to Sadie and Buffy (along with Fluffy, the dog from my childhood, and Mango, our bird that died). I dedicated Wild Born to Sadie and those animals because they reminded me how much people and animals can mean to each other.

Since the Spirit Animals series launched last year, it has been a pleasure to watch the stories and online game inspire kids to read and imagine. In the world of Erdas, when children reach a certain age, they have the chance to summon a spirit animal. If they do, that animal becomes a lifetime companion and friend.

I visit schools all over the United States, and the kids I’ve spoken with seem to love the idea. Many tell me what spirit animal they would choose, and ask what mine would be (dolphin for personality, tiger if I lived in dangerous times).

The Spirit Animals series was designed from the start to be written by a team of authors. My role was to create an outline for the series and to write book one. The other six books would each be written different authors. Since Scholastic put the team together, the other authors are all very talented people.

After completing the outline and book one, my role in the main series was finished, and I went back to work on my latest series, Five Kingdoms. But when Scholastic decided to make a book of short stories called Tales of the Great Beasts, I got the opportunity to tell one more story in the world of Erdas.

The Great Beasts are fifteen powerful animals who watch over Erdas. They are much larger than ordinary animals, capable of human speech, and virtually immortal. The four main animals in Spirit Animals were once Great Beasts, but they perished in battle to save Erdas and became known as the Four Fallen. At the start of the series, the four main characters of Wild Born summon the reborn Four Fallen as their spirit animals.

For my story in Tales of the Great Beasts, I dramatized the battle where Briggan the Wolf, Uraza the Leopard, Jhi the Panda, and Essix the Falcon fell. It’s a key moment in the history of the Great Beasts—bringing it to life felt like writing the climax of a novel.

I expect that Spirit Animal readers will enjoy experiencing that vital moment, along with other stories about the Great Beasts that will offer new insight into some of the favorite characters in the series. And I’ll enjoy watching kids and families continue to connect with Spirit Animals.

Guest Post: Diary of a Wimpy Kid Author Jeff Kinney

DowkComing up with over 200 jokes, creating the cartoons to accompany them, then traveling around the world to share in the results can seem like a long haul — of the best kind! Jeff Kinney, author of the best-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, shares his thoughts on songs for a road trip playlist. The newest title in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, is available November 4.

"Starlight" by Muse: Most people won't be familiar with it but it's a great, upbeat song to set the tone.

"Walls" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: A lost gem that you can't help but sing along to.

"Marry You" by Bruno Mars: This one kept my spirits up during a long book tour. Don't ask me how this one didn't become a huge single.

"Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John: Play this when you need a low-key moment. Beautiful song that still holds up.

"Brownsville Girl" by Bob Dylan: The ultimate road trip song about the ultimate road trip. Plus, every long road trip needs some Bob Dylan.

Hugh Howey on His New Children's Book, "Misty"

MistyScience fiction writer Hugh Howey releases his first children's book this month. The author introduces Misty, about a young cloud learning to be herself.

"Tell us a story," my nieces begged me. We were together for the holidays, and Jordan and Catherine were playing "Storytime." They knew that I was a writer, but my stories were usually too dark for them, with bad things happening to good people. But I couldn't refuse. So I made up a tale on the spot, a story about a cloud named Misty who couldn't turn into shapes the way her friends could, which made her sad and brought on the thunderstorms.

Even while telling a children's story, I couldn't help but take a sinister turn.

My nieces didn't seem to be traumatized by the telling; in fact, I think they liked it. And this character and her world lived on in my imagination. Years went by. I published a number of novels and had quite a bit of success. I was eventually able to quit my day job and take on projects that had little hope of doing well. Returning to the world of Misty, I wrote a formal script for a children's book, and I sent it off to my agent. The next thing I knew, we were looking at illustrators and discussing how to make this a reality. I was going to put together my first children's book.

Growing up, reading was always a major focus in my house. My mother was a school teacher and taught us to read before we went off to kindergarten. Those first encounters with text and story and gorgeous illustrations are why I became a voracious reader -- and eventually a writer. With the freedom to pursue the projects I was passionate about, I thought it would be exciting to reach out to kids just learning to read today. I wanted to share with them this story about a young cloud learning to be herself and learning that it was okay to cry. 

Together with the unbelievably talented artist Nidhi Chanani, we brought Misty's story to life. And any doubts I had about this project vanished with my first beta reader. A friend's 2-year-old daughter sat in my lap while I went through the first proof copy of Misty. We turned the pages slowly while I read aloud. With cries of "again," we started from the beginning. The first time she pointed to a cloud and cried, "Misty," I knew I was hooked. This was what it was all about. Watching a new reader come to life, hopefully a future voracious reader. Maybe even a writer.

Guest Post: C.C. Payne, Author of "Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair"

Lula-bellIn honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, C.C. Payne, author of Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair, shares the books that helped her through some rough days in middle school.

Hey! I’m Lula Bell Bonner. That’s my picture right there on the cover of the novel, Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair—not that I think I'm cool or anything—nobody thinks that. I'm in the fifth-grade, where I'm trying desperately to fit in but (sigh)... it’s not going so well.

See, fitting in at school is a very delicate art form. For starters, it requires the right lunch, the right clothes, the right friends, and relatives who don't show up unexpectedly. I have none of those things.

My Grandma Bernice (who showed up at school this morning WITH HER CURLERS STILL IN HER HAIR!) says that’s okay, because we're not made to fit in; we're made to stand out. But she’s wrong. Standing out or being different in any way is bad—very bad. It causes other kids to make fun of you, laugh at you, and humiliate you until you no longer want to just “fit in”; you want to disappear.

C. C. Payne here. Like Lula Bell, I often wanted to disappear as a middle grader. Like Lula Bell, I was bullied—though there was no official word for it back then, no anti-bullying campaign, and no training for educators or parents on how to handle such situations. My teacher overlooked my torment under the heading of “Kids will be kids.” My dad told me it shouldn't matter if some people didn't like me. My mom’s solution was to “kill with kindness,” even going so far as to have me look up my bully’s phone number and dial it with trembling hands and with the intent of inviting her over (!!!). Thankfully, no one answered. After that, I never again complained. Instead, I silently swallowed my humiliation, pain, fear, and dread. But that was about all I could keep down. Since my stomach was constantly upset, I ate very little—I became even thinner. This caused rumors that I was anorexic—as if I didn't have enough problems. No one understood.

Except for Judy Blume. Her honest portrayal of the pack-mentality that often comes with bullying in the novel Blubber, let me know that I wasn't alone. Wanting to “fit in,” the protagonist, Jill, goes along with the other girls as they bully an overweight classmate, whom they've nicknamed Blubber. Thirty years later, I still believe that Ms. Blume is one of the best friends a middle grade girl—and her parents—can have.

Author Ellen Potter is another worthy friend. 12-year-old Owen, the protagonist of her novel, Slob, is an overweight genius. Naturally, Owen’s classmates—and his gym coach—find these traits unforgivable and Owen finds himself a victim of bullying. Even so, he doesn't feel sorry for himself. No, Owen copes exceptionally well—demonstrating intelligence, resourcefulness, and good humor.

Of course, bullying doesn't only affect those who are overweight. In Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Auggie is a fifth grade boy with severe facial anomalies, who, despite being different, dares to want the same things we all want: acceptance, friendship, and belonging.

All of these books provide understanding, comfort, hope, and courage—not to mention laughter—to those in need, to those who are different, to those who fail to fit in, because they're made to stand out—to shine.

Kelly Barnhill's Recommended Halloween Reading

Witches_boyWitches, wolves, and a very sharp knife--Kelly Barnhill, author of The Witch's Boy, shares her five favorite Halloween reads for middle graders.

When autumn drifts into the forests and prairies of Minnesota, it is easy to believe in ghosts: the shadows become long, all spindly legs and needle-like fingers; the desiccated leaves whisper in the darkness; the skeletal trees scratch at the thinning sky. When I was a young child I used to hunger for scary stories, but my hunger was never so great as it was in autumn. A terrifying tale leaves a peculiar mark on the soul. I recommend these unsettling stories for your late-night reading. They are sure to leave a mark. Possibly forever.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken Because the universe is cruel and capricious, I never managed to connect with this book as a child. It is a pity, because it has all the things that my dark little heart would have adored: evil governesses, malevolent men on trains, wicked schemes, bees, cruel twists of fate, resourceful children, orphanages, and wolves. Also: Mortal Peril. Which never gets old, really.

The Witches by Roald Dahl It is, when it comes down to it, very similar to several family vacations I remember from my youth: a hotel filled with child-hating witches who are concocting a scheme to turn the nation’s children into mice and subsequently setting the exterminators on them.

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge I read Well Witched as an adult, though it was the eleven-year-old version of me, still holding court in my brain, who insisted that I stay up deep into the night reading this sinister tale of kids who steal coins from a wishing well—and the witch who makes them wish they hadn’t. I would suggest starting this book during full daylight. And maybe leaving the lights on at night for at least a week.

Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen Now this is a book with odd similarities to a Certain Other Book about a wizard’s school, but Yolen’s slim volume came out several years before the first of the Potters, and both magical worlds are distinct and unique from one another. What sets this book apart is the terror of the dark wizard’s plot—attacking the wizard’s school with a terrible beast. And what’s worse is that the beast is a quilt. With teeth. And each square of the quilt is the soul of a wizard that has been devoured by the beast. I know, right? Terrifying.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” And so begins a tale of a boy who escapes death—indeed his whole family has just been murdered—and finds safety in a graveyard, under the protection of a kindly vampire and a new family of ghosts. The macabre mixes with the mundane, allowing the journey of childhood to be seen as exactly what it is: a dark, dangerous road, fraught with peril, confusion, and pain, where those who love us will help us when they can, but we must be brave enough to face the darkness on our own. This is why children love scary books, by the way. Because nothing is as scary as childhood itself. Nothing at all.