You Shall Not Pass!!!

My hubbie is an avid motorcyclist. He's never run into a problem like this, but it has special significance. For the rest of us, it's just freaking hilarious!!!! Keep watching!!!

Amanda Cockrell will speak at WIK - interview!

Amanda Cockrell is just one member of the impressive faculty for the 2013 Writing and Illustrating for Kids (WIK) conference, taking place October 12 in Birmingham, AL. WIK is a great place to get inspired, get tips on your craft, and learn about the business of children’s publishing. It’s also an opportunity to meet editors, agents, and an incredibly supportive network of working writers and artists. This annual conference is hosted by the Southern Breeze region (Alabama, Georgia, Florida panhandle) of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ( To find out more or to register, visit
     Today I'm thrilled to have Amanda as a guest...

Q. Hi Amanda, Thanks so much for stopping by! You are an English Professor and head of the MFA in Children's Literature program at Hollins University. How did this become part of your life?
A. Oh my goodness, by complete accident. I am a textbook case of “Don’t try this yourself.” I had got my MA in Creative Writing at Hollins (in the program that later became an MFA program) and when they were starting the summer children’s lit program, Richard Dillard, who was then chair of creative writing at Hollins, and a friend and former professor of mine, asked me if I would like to be the director. I pointed out that he would not find children’s literature anywhere on my transcript, and he said, well I read it, didn’t I? I said, of course. Well then, he said. And anyway I was being hired as an administrator, and since this would be in large part a writing program, he wanted a writer to run it. I was, he said, the only writer he knew who was organized enough to run an office.

But I hadn’t really been in the job very long when it became clear to me that if I wanted to represent the program properly, I needed to start going to children’s literature conferences (the Children’s Literature Association and the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, which has a big children’s literature group) and present papers and try to get some academic work published in the field. So I started doing that. And then we introduced the MFA degree along with the MA, and I started teaching writing in the program. That has been so much fun, I would never give it up.

Q. What about the MFA in Children's Literature and Hollins University is special to you?
A. Well, all of it is, because I’m a sentimentalist. But I think the biggest asset and what keeps me so happy to be involved, is the sense of community between the students, and the faculty too. They are so supportive of each other, and they keep in touch, and mentor each other long after they’ve left the program.

Q. While these roles keep you plenty busy, you've also managed to publish almost a dozen books (under your name and a pseudonym). How do you find the time! And what is your favorite subject to write about?
A. I’m lucky that I have a job where my employer wants me to write books and get things published, so I write in the office a lot, where there are no distractions like the cat throwing up on the bedclothes or the washing machine making odd noises. It’s not like trying to sneak in writing time on the job when you’re supposed to be selling shoes or writing up insurance contracts, so I’m very fortunate in that.

My favorite thing to read and to write about is anything with a touch of magical realism. I taught a writing class in summer 2012 that was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m teaching it again next summer and I can’t wait. My students were so good.
Note: Writing is in Amanda's blood as her mother is a writer too, and wrote one of Amanda's favorites: Shadow Castle. (To the right.)

Q. I had the pleasure of hearing you read from your latest work at the Author Reading at Hollins University this summer. Can you tell us more about it and will it be available for the general public soon?
A. That story, which is called “What To Expect,” will be in the journal Phantom Drift 3: Rewiring the Weird in October. Here’s the website:

Q. I also happen to know you're an avid gardener and collector of pugs and skulls. Tell us more!
A. The pugs are the magical realist result of a novel I wrote called Pomegranate Seed about the Hollywood blacklist. It has been my least successful book because it was published by a small press which promptly folded. I think they sold maybe two hundred copies. (It is available through the Authors Guild’s program though.) I had given the main character a herd of pugs and life imitated art in that book in a number of unsettling ways, including pugs.

The skulls....not actual skulls. Although I did have a dog skull that I found that I photographed a lot until my actual dog chewed it up. But I am a huge fan of the Day of the Dead holidays, being from Southern California, and my skulls are all Day of the Dead sugar skulls or clay ones. We made a life-size papier maché skeleton to set up on the porch for the holiday. This year we are making another one so she’ll have a boyfriend.

I started gardening when we moved into this house, because it had belonged to an architect and the place looked like architectural drawings – all hostas and liriope and bushes sheared into cones. We started planting livelier stuff and then just kind of kept going. I even wrote a poem about it:

Crown Imperial

The new house has flower beds as orderly
as a dentist’s office, hostas and liriope
I think they cut from magazines. There is
no smell here, no scent to bury your

nose and drink deep, inhale, suck it all
in, wishing you were a dog so you could
have it all layer by layer, burrowing down
to the smell of earthworms and the garlic

of last year’s compost. I will buy marigolds
and crown imperial, dragon arum and the buttery
cones of skunk cabbage, such things as give off
a scent more muscular than roses. I will

import the fly-snapping arum of Sardinia,
also known as the dead-horse arum, although not
the corpse flower, amorphophallus titanum,
a giant shaft lifting from a skirt of red

petals, too much scent and metaphor
for this urban space. I will be content
with manageable odors, small but smelly
pushing through the ground, saying it over

and over until I believe it: we are
here, we are here, we are here.

Q. What do you plan to talk about to attendees of the Writing and Illustrating for Kids (WIK) conference in Birmingham this Fall?
A. I’m going to talk about MFA programs, what they can and can’t do for you, and ways to make a decision about that. They can be enormously valuable in honing your craft, but to my mind one of the best things that the right MFA program can offer you is a community of likeminded students and faculty who love and respect children’s books and writing for children. None of them will ask you when you are going to write a “real book” for adults, or do “real” art. Those relationships will last.

Q. Any other news or info you'd like to share with my readers?
A. Just a thank-you for reading this, and if any of them would like to talk with me directly about the Hollins MFA programs, I’d be happy to chat at the conference or any other time. They can reach me at 540-362-6024 or

You can meet other members of the conference faculty by following the WIK blog tour:

Aug. 28 Author Matt de la Peña at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews
Editor Lou Anders at F.T. Bradley’s YA Sleuth
Aug. 29 Author Doraine Bennett at Jodi Wheeler-Toppen’s Once Upon a Science Book
Author Robyn Hood Black at Donny Seagraves’ blog
Aug. 30 MFA program director Amanda Cockrell at Elizabeth Dulemba’s blog
Illustrator Prescott Hill at Gregory Christie’s G.A.S.
Aug. 31 Author Heather Montgomery at Claire Datnow’s Media Mint Publishing blog
Editor Michelle Poploff at Laura Golden’s Just Write
Sept. 3 Author Nancy Raines Day at Laurel Snyder’s blog
Author Jennifer Echols at Paula Puckett’s Random Thoughts from the Creative Path
Sept. 4 Editor Dianne Hamilton at Ramey Channell’s The Painted Possum
Author Janice Hardy at Tracey M. Cox’s A Writer’s Blog
Sept. 5 Author / illustrator Sarah Frances Hardy at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews
Agent Sally Apokedak at Cheryl Sloan Wray’s Writing with Cheryl Sept. 6 Agent Jennifer Rofe at Cathy Hall’s blog
Author / illustrator Chris Rumble at Cyrus Webb Presents


Bullying has become a huge issue in schools. Not that its new. But people are trying to stop it in new ways. Author and former teacher Kate Messner has come up with a good tool for the younger set in SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH. I asked Kate some questions about her new book and her career...

Q. Hi Kate, as a teacher I imagine you've had to deal with a good share of bullying. What inspired you to write Sea Monster and the Bossy Fish?
A. When I was teaching, the most important thing to me was that kids in my classroom treated one another with kindness. If you don’t feel safe and appreciated in your school environment, it makes it awfully difficult to speak up, try new things, and take the healthy risks associated with real learning. That’s why I feel like this story of inclusion will ring true for a lot of families as well as teachers who want their own classrooms to be “kindness zones.”

Q. Its such a timely story and message. How are teachers using Sea Monster and the Bossy Fish in their classrooms?
A. Well, the book is brand new, but I’ve already heard from so many teachers emailing or tweeting to let me know that it will be one of their first shared read-alouds this school year. I hope that’s because they feel like it’s a book that sets a tone – one of fun and friendship – that will be sustained through the year.
     Lots of teachers and librarians are extending the reading with discussions and having kids talk about what good classroom citizenship looks like. Chronicle has created a great poster and handout to go along with those discussions. The “Friend Fish Pledge” reminds kids that it’s important to include everyone in play.

Q. You seem to switch between writing picture books, non-fiction books like Over and Under the Snow, and novels like The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., with ease. How do you keep up?
A. When you said “with ease,” I just about spit out my coffee laughing. It’s never particularly easy; one of the reasons I love writing so much is that it’s always a challenge, and even when I feel like I’ve cracked the secret of a book I’m working on and gotten something just right, I learn that the process needs to be totally different for the next book.
      But that said, I do love writing for different age groups and in different genres, about a wide range of topics. I think that’s because I love learning so much. I’m interested in so many things that I can’t imagine being confined to write just one kind of book.

Q. What was your path to publication?
A. Like most paths to publication, I suspect, mine was paved with rejections. My first book, a Lake Champlain historical novel for middle grade readers, was rejected multiple times before I completely rewrote it and sold it to a small regional press. I did one more book with that small press before writing THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, which felt more like a national book to me. That’s when I started looking for representation (more rejections along the road!) and eventually signed with the agent I have now. I was writing all that time, so I had several projects for her to shop, and she ended up selling my first three books in less than a year.

Q. You gave a TED talk recently - what an honor! How did that go? (Do you have a link so I can share the video?)
A. Oh, it was an incredible honor and just an amazing experience. Terrifying – but amazing. My favorite part, to be honest, was getting to spend the whole week at TED and hear all those other incredible speakers. My talk hasn’t been uploaded as a video yet, but here’s a link to the official TED blog, which summarized it: LINK.

Q. I'm sure you must have more in the pipeline, you're wonderfully prolific. What can we expect next?
A. My next picture book with Chronicle is called TREE OF LIFE, and I’m so excited about this one. It’s a nature/multiplying sort of book that celebrates a kind of rainforest tree upon which more than a thousand different organisms depend. That’s due out in Spring of 2014. I also have another middle school science thriller with Walker/Bloomsbury; WAKE UP MISSING is due out in September, and Scholastic will publish my next Marty McGuire chapter book, MARTY MCGUIRE HAS TOO MANY PETS, in February

Q. Thanks so much for visiting!!! Along with the giveaway below, Kate has a "Friendship Pledge" which you can download right now! Click the image above.

Chronicle is kindly giving away one free copy of SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH to one of my lucky commenters (must live in the US or Canada to win). So enter below!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Decatur Book Festival cometh!!!

If you don't have plans for this Labor Day weekend, might I suggest you head on down to Decatur, Georgia and the 2013 Decatur Book Festival? It's the largest independent book festival in the country with hundreds of your favorite authors (a great kidlit lineup) and tens of thousands of book lovers in attendance!
     I'm especially excited to attend the Kidnote speech by Tomie dePaola on Friday night, and see Tom Angleberger (Origami Yoda), Cece Bell, Peter Brown, Michelle Knudsen (The Library Lion and The Dragon of Trelian), Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky, etc.), Betsy Lewin, Jerry Pinkney, Adam Rex... {{breathe}}, and so many more!
     Dan Santat did this year's awesome poster - LOVE! I can't wait - hope to see you there!

Coloring Page Tuesday - Reading Rhino!

     Read! Read! Read! The more you read, the bigger your brain will get! That's what this reading rhino is hoping!
     Sign up to receive alerts when a new coloring page is posted each week and... Please check out my books! Especially...

Learn about proper parenting language and the power of choice in, Ready for Bed! , Ready for the Day!, and Ready to Play! - click the covers!

Maps of the World

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this article since I read it..."40 Maps That Explain the World" at The Washington Post. Like this one that shows where people are the most and least welcoming to foreigners:

     Other topics are the world's major religions, languages, best places to be born, most emotional places, most racially tolerant, least ethnically diverse, where people feel the most loved. In other words, they cover a range of very interesting topics.
     This is not a glance over article, this is one to read and really study. Its incredibly revealing and quite interesting. (Click the map to go to the article.)

The Book Thief - 1st Official Movie Trailer

Based on the book by Markus Zusak. It looks wonderful - but I'm wondering if they got rid of Death narrating? Does anybody know?

This is how hospitals use my Coloring Pages...

I received a note recently from Natalie, who works at a cancer hospital for adults. They'd been getting a lot of visitors lately who arrive with young children. Hospitals can be scary places for kids - especially when somebody they love is going through a hard time there. She asked if she could share my coloring pages with them.
     OF COURSE!!! (And how nice of her to double check.)
     My images are to encourage a love of reading, to draw attention to my books, but mostly to BRING JOY - especially in tough situations. Natalie shared a photo of two sweet kids enjoying my coloring pages:

     This MADE MY DAY! Isn't it sweet!?
     Is there a hospital near you who might benefit from sharing my images? Please let them know about Coloring Page Tuesdays!

Jeff Mack's AH HA! - Giveaway!

I get a lot of books sent to me now that I do these giveaways. It's helped me understand how a manuscript can jump out at an editor. Even among published books, some stand out more than others. Such is the case with Jeff Mack's AH HA! The text is simple, very simple, with only variations of "Ah-ha!" and "Aahh!" throughout the book. Its the images that tell you how those AH-HAs are supposed to sound. Hands down, it's simply brilliant! Jeff dropped by recently to answer some questions and shared lots of eye candy...

Q. Jeff, congratulations on another brilliant accomplishment - I adore AH HA! How did the idea come to you?
A. Thanks, Elizabeth. Here's how the idea came to me: I had been working on a story about a frog who searches for peace and quiet. Over a few years, I had tried many different plots. In one version, the frog accidentally changes the other animals into monsters with a magic trick. In another, all the animals compete for space on a single rock. Even though I liked some of the ideas, the plots felt too complicated to me. So, one by one, I took out all the extra twists until only the most important parts remained: A frog tries to relax. Each time he thinks he finds a safe spot, we see he's actually in danger. He narrowly escapes, and the cycle starts all over again.

Q. This seems like one of those concepts that comes on strong but takes forever to work out just right. Was it a struggle?
A. It was a little bit of a struggle. The two-letter concept came to me after I had figured out the plot. I had three goals for the text: It had to be useful, interesting, and fun for kids to read aloud. Since the plot is already told with pictures, I chose to have the text show what each character is thinking. That made it useful. To make it fun, I knew it had to contain lots of big emotion. And to make it interesting, I decided to see how simple it could be. I started by having the frog stake his claim to each thing he landed on: "My rock!" "My log!" "My branch!" "Oops. My mistake!" Then I wrote an even simpler version by focusing solely on how each character was feeling. When I finally got down to "Aahh!" and "Ah ha!" I found that those phrases fit each scenario perfectly. Plus, telling an entire story with just two letters was a very interesting bonus for me.

Jeff shared some early storyboards - click on them to see them larger in a new window.

Q. I found AH HA! somewhat reminiscent of Chris Raschka's YO! YES? Was that an inspiration?
A. No, I've never read Yo! Yes? I'll have to look for that. I hope it's not about a frog!

It's not! It's about two boys learning to be friends. Very groovy book too.

Q. AH HA! is so concept driven - how much of the book did you have to create to explain the idea sufficiently to your editor?
A. For AH HA!, I provided my editor, Victoria, with simple cartoon drawings of each page. We had already worked on GOOD NEWS BAD NEWS together so she knew I'd find an interesting way to change the sketches into final illustrations. Plus, she has a great imagination.

Jeff shared a work in progress...

Q. What is your medium? Can you explain how you work?
A. I create each book a little differently depending on the style of storytelling. For CINDY MOO, I used plain-old acrylic paint. For my book THE THINGS I CAN DO, I used crayons and just about anything else I could find including bubble gum, ketchup, and a shoelace. For AH HA!, I drew on paper with markers. Then I scanned them into my computer along with different types of cardboard that I'd splattered paint onto. I used those for textures. Then I colored everything using the computer. I was inspired by looking at examples of 20th-century comic books and 18th-century printmaking. But my process was more like making a collage.

Q. You've created so many beloved titles like GOOD NEWS BAD NEWS, CINDY MOO, and FROG AND FLY - and that's just your picture books! Can you describe your path to publication?
A. Every book takes a different path. Sometimes, I have a conversation with my editor about a rough idea that I eventually develop into a completely different book. That's how my CLUELESS MCGEE series developed. Other times, I carefully plan out my book dummy before I submit it, and it stays more or less the same throughout the process. Both AH AH! and GOOD NEWS BAD NEWS were like that. Each editor has a different method, and each project requires a different approach. Experimentation and serendipity are important to my craft. I have not found one tried and true path for getting all my books published. Not yet, anyway. That's one of the things that keeps my job interesting.

Q. With so many books, you must be a busy guy! How many books do you typically have in the pipeline at any given time? And (if you don't mind sharing) do you have an agent who helps keep it all running smoothly for you?
A. Typically, I juggle three projects at a time. As I write this, I'm working on final art for one picture book, the cover art for another picture book, and some revisions for a 286-page graphic novel/chapter book called CLUELESS MCGEE GETS FAMOUS. I plan out my work schedule, then try to stay focused on what's in front of me each day. My agent, Rubin Pfeffer, helps me coordinate my different project schedules with my editors. Last year, I released three picture books and a chapter book. I have three new books coming out this year and three more books planned for next year. I like to stay busy.

Indeed! This is Jeff's studio while working on CINDY MOO (with his furry assistant McGee.

Thanks so much for stopping by Jeff! It's been lovely and I wish you much continued success!

Chronicle is graciously giving away one free copy of AH HA! to one of my lucky commenters. (Must live in the continental US to win.) Enter below!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

How Librarians Use My Coloring Pages

I can't tell you how tickled I get when I receive sweet messages from librarians who use my coloring pages to help promote reading in their communities. This latest image is from Helen at the Council Bluffs Public Library. She decorates their library windows for each season - this one was summer:

     Is this not the cutest? THIS is one of my favorite ways to see my artwork used!
     Have you used my images in a creative way to decorate your library or classroom? Please send them to me - I'd love to share them right here on my blog!
     Happy reading everybody!

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Opens this Thursday, August 23rd!

Coloring Page Tuesday - Book Making Bear!

     Time to hit the books! How do you put together your lesson plans or make a book? You could try this teddy bear's method...
     Sign up to receive alerts when a new coloring page is posted each week and... Please check out my books! Especially...

Learn about proper parenting language and the power of choice in, Ready for Bed! , Ready for the Day!, and Ready to Play! - click the covers!

The Southern Festival of Books is coming soon!!!!

October 11-13th I will be in Nashville sharing my latest picture book, LULA'S BREW, at the 25th anniversary of the Southern Festival of Books!
     I will be sharing the spotlight with such children's lit luminaries as: Kathi Appelt; Sharon Cameron; Sarah Dessen; Nathan Hale; Kevin Henkes; Irene Latham (who I interviewed HERE); Terra Elan McVoy (who I wrote about HERE); Aprilynne Pike; Rick Riordan; Barney Saltzberg (who I interviewed HERE); Erin and Philip Stead; Kristin O'Donnell Tubb (who I interviewed HERE); and more!
     Woosie - no pressure!
     I can't wait to hang with my peeps and share my love of books with Nashville! Hope to see you there!

Complete List of Children's Lit Statues

School Library Journal has created The Complete Listing of All Public Children's Literature Statues in the United States. Like this one of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who located in the Dr. Seuss National Memorial at the Quadrangle in Springfield, MA.

(Click the image to go see them all.)
Seems to me there must be more. Do you have any in your neck of the woods?
Thanks to Emma Dryden for the tweets up!

The Mortal Instruments

The movie opens this week! Another must see...

Check out more information about the series at the author's website: Shadow Hunters: The Mortal Instruments.

Jim Averbeck's THE MARKET BOWL - Giveaway!

Sometimes a book comes in that you can tell has a history, a story behind the story. Such is the case with Jim Averbeck's new THE MARKET BOWL. It's about a young girl in Camaroon looking for short-cuts to sell her bitterleaf stew. But as her Mama Cecil, and soon Brother Coin does too, doing things right is the right way to go.
     Jim stopped by to talk about his new book...

Q. You spent four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Camaroon. Was this a local story?
A. No, not really. The story is original, but based on some of the things I encountered there - the markets, the belief if ancestral spirits that watch or guide you, and, of course, ndolé (or bitterleaf stew), one of my favorite dishes. Having lived there for four years I felt pretty confident in my ability to capture an authentic flavor of the country. But just to be sure I had two Cameroonian friends check out the story and they gave it a thumbs up.

Q. What does bitterleaf stew taste like?
A. It's delicious! But only if it is prepared correctly. Ndolé leaves are extremely bitter, so they need to be finely sliced and washed many many times to leech out the bitterness. What's left is very tasty. The sauce is made from pumpkin seeds and is creamy and salty. There's a recipe at the end of my book. Folks should try it to get a taste.

Q. This is a very different color palette, media, and feel from OH NO LITTLE DRAGON! How did you approach this book differently?
A. THE MARKET BOWL is for an older audience, so I felt free to make the art a bit more sophisticated. Some of the processes from LITTLE DRAGON were used here. For example, I still scanned papers and cut them "electronically" to make a sort of collage. But I also used acrylic paint to depict the faces and hands of the characters. I was particularly interested in making sure that Yoyo was portrayed with very dark skin. I think too often African skin is lightened up to make the printing easier—a wide swing in tones in a picture can be difficult to reproduce.
      The palette comes straight from Cameroon. I remember writing my family when I lived there about racing through the forest and being moved by the red earth and the deep green of the rainforest. So these were my base colors for the backgrounds. Then I added a crazy, saturated palette of colors and textures for the clothing of the people and the goods in the market place. I’m happy with the results and I think kids will be too.

Q. THE MARKET BOWL reads like a story that got into your soul and wouldn't leave you alone. How did it come to you and eventually become this book?
A. The Peace Corps has three goals. The third goal is to bring knowledge of your host country back to America and to share it with people here. Volunteers are charged to remember to do this when they finish their tour of duty. I did some school visits when I first got back, but I wanted to reach a larger audience if I could. As I gained a wider following for my picture books, I realized that creating one about Cameroon would be the perfect way to do so. The character of Yoyo is based on a little girl who lived near me when I was in Africa. Her name was Lulu. I called her Lulu the Bulu, which was the name of her ethnic group. She had a friend who was named Yoyo, which is where my character’s name comes from. Lulu would visit me with her brother and older sister. Lulu was maybe eight years old and willful and headstrong and thought nothing of staring down the big ntangan (white man) who lived down the lane if he was being an idiot. Once I decided to write that sort of character, I knew I needed a big antagonist, so a god-like ancestor seemed appropriate. I tossed in a million things that I love about Cameroon. I admit, I wasn’t sure anyone besides me would care about this story, which is a love letter to my second country- Cameroon. So I was delighted when the Junior Library Guild chose it as a premier selection.

Q. Are you doing anything special to promote THE MARKET BOWL?
A. I think writers need to look at promoting themselves, and their body of work, rather than individual books. To that end, I recently ran the Red Carpet at the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Award dinner. The results are at

Very cool! Thanks for stopping by Jim!

GIVEAWAY! Charlesbridge has kindly agreed to give away one copy of THE MARKET BOWL to one of my lucky commenters. (Must live in the continental US to win.) Enter below!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Coloring Page Tuesday - Back-to-School!

     Time for School! Many of you are heading back to school this week (or last week or next week). I hope you have somebody looking out for you! Here's to the best school year yet!!!
     Sign up to receive alerts when a new coloring page is posted each week and... Please check out my books! Especially...

Learn about proper parenting language and the power of choice in, Ready for Bed! , Ready for the Day!, and Ready to Play! - click the covers!