Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Celebrating Black History Month With Books

I didn't set out to write about school integration. My intention was to pay a simple visit to Mrs. Pauline Porter, my school's first African-American teacher. I wanted her to know what an impact she had made on my life. The visit touched us both.

Mrs. Porter wasn't supposed to be my teacher. She taught first grade in the classroom beside mine, but every afternoon she changed classrooms with my teacher and worked with those of us who were struggling to read. My own teacher didn't have much patience, and so Mrs. Porter was a godsend. But at the time, Mrs. Porter didn't see it that way. She suspected our principal was checking up on her, by sending the white teacher into her classroom. That never occurred to me as a child, but as an adult, I understood her feelings. School integration was hard. By the end of my visit, Mrs. Porter and I weren't sure of the principal's true motive, but we both knew the children she taught had been helped.

My book, RUBY LEE AND ME was inspired by that visit. Over Christmas, I had the privilege to take Mrs. Porter's daughter a copy of my novel. LaVerne insisted on giving me this caroler that Mrs. Porter had painted in a ceramics class. It's sitting in my office as a reminder to write from the heart, to do good work, to make her proud.

Scholastic has compiled this list of new releases to celebrate Black History Month. I think Mrs. Porter would be pleased to see RUBY LEE AND ME on the list.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Scholastic's Mother Daughter Book Club

Scholastic is featuring RUBY LEE & ME as a Mother Daughter Book Club Selection. They've posted discussion questions, a recipe for peach cobbler, and a drawing to win ten copies of the book. You can find more information by clicking here:

Saturday, December 12, 2015


I have been writing for many years, and each Christmas there would be a tinge of sadness because the  gift I wanted most, a published book, continued to elude me. The Christmas of 2012 was different though. That year I held my debut novel, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL in my hands. It was magical!

And this year, the Christmas of 2015, is just as special. I met my editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney in New York, and she handed me a wrapped package. Inside was my new novel, RUBY LEE AND ME. It will no doubt be my favorite present of this holiday season.

There is no place on earth more beautiful than New York City at Christmas. Here are some photos from my trip:

 Happy Holidays to you and yours! May you also receive your heart's desire this Christmas season. Here's a picture of my favorite gift, and you can read a description by clicking here:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


This is what a dream comes true looks like!

RUBY LEE AND ME received a starred review from Booklist, and will be published by Scholastic on January 5th. A description and ordering information is available by clicking here:.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

More From The WOW Retreat in Helen, GA!

I worked on two historical picture books at the WOW Retreat, and for me, that was the perfect amount of material. It gave me the opportunity to revise at night, and then to get feedback on my revisions at the next day's roundtable.

I had taken a manuscript about a female artist. I've lugged around this idea longer than I care to admit. My first breakthrough came when Candace Fleming spoke about her book, PAPA's MECHANICAL FISH.

Candace wanted to write a non-fiction book, but there wasn't enough historical material to do so. I have exactly that same problem with my artist. Listening to Candace, gave me the courage to abandon telling my story as non-fiction.

At roundtables, the consensus was my manuscript lacked tension. I was at a loss as to how to fix it, and while the critiquers were unanimous this was the problem, they didn't offer much insight as to how to fix it either. Still I left roundtable with a nugget to ponder.

The next day, author Linda Skeers lectured on adding conflict to our manuscripts. I jotted down the words: Tension, Suspense, Drama, Problems, Obstacles, Controversy, Debate, Argument. I needed more of these in my story, but I had gotten so close to it, that I couldn't fathom exactly what needed to be done.

It was a happy twist of fate when I learned Linda had a few critique spots open. I grabbed one. That gave me a fresh set of eyes to read my manuscript, and even better, a writer who had just lectured on adding the very thing my manuscript needed.

Linda said my story had the right elements, but I should get to the problem sooner. We hacked a couple of spreads and rearranged others. I left with a page full of notes and feverishly revised that night. I asked Linda to read my revisions the next morning, and she thought I'd nailed it. BUT…

That afternoon's roundtable was with agent, Jill Corcoran. Jill is not a huge historical fiction fan. She said, "I don't know this person, and I'm not sure why I should care about her." That was great feedback. I had won over Linda, who is an historical fiction fan, but I had work to do to make this manuscript appeal to readers who aren't necessarily fans of the genre.

I settled on the idea, "There was no stopping Henrietta." This is a story about perseverance in the face of sweltering heat, poverty, material shortages, even pirates. By focusing on, "There was no stopping Henrietta," it gives the manuscript universal appeal since everyone has obstacles to overcome.

Due to lectures, roundtables, and critiques, both of the manuscripts I took to WOW are completely different than they were before the retreat. It doesn't pay to revise in a vacuum. That's the beauty of WOW!

If you're a writer interested in taking your picture books to the next level, I definitely recommend WOW. Information for next year's retreat is available here:

Saturday, August 1, 2015


The view outside my window at the WOW Retreat in Helen, Georgia!

I recently attended the 2015 WOW Retreat, and it changed my writing life. My original goal was to write historical novels and historical picture books, and while I have one published novel, (THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL), and one novel forthcoming, (RUBY LEE and ME), picture books had eluded me. I finally figured out why when Candace Fleming spoke.

I'm paraphrasing here, but Candace said every picture book has a vital idea. My picture book biography is about an oral storyteller. I jotted down my vital idea. Stories saved Ray, and then he saved the stories.

Next Candace said, "Every scene must contribute to the vital idea." Oh WOW! I pulled out a red pen. My manuscript is about stories, and I had included three spreads that showed Ray singing ballads. I love ballads, and I love those spreads, but they didn't contribute to my vital idea. As Candace lectured, I hacked 300 words with a red pen. It tightened the story right up and it became evident what the story is ultimately about.

The following day, Kristen Fulton weaved her magic. She emphasized the importance of the opening spread which she called, Once Upon A Time, and the last spread, which she termed, They Lived Happily Ever After. I spent a lot of time reading and rereading my opening and closing. One right after the other, skipping everything in between. This manuscript needed to come full circle.

You know that saying writers have, "Don't revise in a vacuum?" It turns out five heads are actually better than one. As my revisions took shape, I had the opportunity at roundtables to get feedback from industry professionals.

The icing on the cake was meeting writer Jackie Wellington. Jackie read through my manuscript and helped me play with ways to add more lyrical language.

I fell in love with my manuscript all over again--that's the magic of WOW! And I'll go you one better: I had a similar experience with a second manuscript, but that will be the focus of a later blog post.

If you write picture books, especially if you write non-fiction or historical ones, I can't recommend this conference highly enough. The 2016 WOW Conference will be held July 17-23rd. More details are available here:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Nobody An Author Loved Is Ever Really Gone

I don't know who originally penned the saying, Nobody An Author Loved Is Ever Really Gone, but I first encountered it on Facebook. Those words definitely hold true in my latest novel, RUBY LEE AND ME.

While RUBY LEE AND ME is fiction, it's inspired by events from my life. Mrs. Pauline Porter, my elementary school's first African-American teacher, taught me to read. Her gentle dignity influenced the character who became Mrs. Smyre in my book.

 I also modeled the characters George, Maybelle, and Robin Willis on my grandparents and on my sister. While the characters are inspired by real people, they took on lives of their own in the story. For instance, the character George Willis drives a beat-up red truck, loves to sing, and has a dog named Rowdy. I borrowed all those characteristics from my grandpa, but my grandpa wasn't as talkative as George Willis. George morphed into the character I needed to tell the story.

RUBY LEE AND ME is my way of paying tribute to the people and places I love from my childhood. All of the people pictured here are dead now, but they live on in my memories. On January 5th, they'll live on in RUBY LEE AND ME. The book is available for pre-order at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.