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.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival

Forevermore when I think of the Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival, I will remember eating my way through Mississippi!

When Augusta and I first landed, she took me to Primo's for vegetable plates:

And the last place she took me served roasted pig:

But it wasn't all good eating. Our presentation, "Putting the Personal in History," was well attended. This picture is from our book signing afterward:

Augusta and I were road tripping it - Thelma and Louise, minus Brad Pitt. Forget what you've heard about blonds having more fun. It's got nothing to do with hair color - it's all about the south!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival

Next week I'm headed to the University of Southern Mississippi with Augusta Scattergood. We're going to co-lead a workshop called, Putting the Personal in History. Augusta and I first presented this material at an SCBWI event in Valrico, Florida. This picture is from Valrico.

And to make our trip even more enjoyable, Augusta and I have been invited to the Ezra Jack Keats Award Celebration and dinner.

Look out, we come!

Friday, February 20, 2015


When I first started writing, I began with picture books because I thought they were easier. HA! They are not. In fact, a clever picture book is one of the hardest things to write. More and more picture books have a "high concept." In other words, you know what the book will be about, just by reading the title. Check out these examples:

In comparison, one of my first picture books was called PIONEER STAR. The premise was that a little girl wanted to drive her grandpa's covered wagon in the Fourth of July parade. It was reminiscent of the bedtime stories I used to tell my little sister when we were growing up. See the difference in my idea and the ones above? The titles and concepts above are much more marketable.

However, nothing we write is ever wasted. I was recently working on a Middle Grade novel, and in one of the chapters, an older sister is telling a bedtime story to her younger one. I pulled out PIONEER STAR and used much of the text to build that scene.

My Middle Grade novel, (title still to be determined), is under contract with Scholastic. So PIONEER STAR will be published, just not as an illustrated picture book as I had imagined.

The path to publishing a picture book is much easier if you start with a "high concept," but I've learned not to throw away any of my stories--sometimes they can be repackaged!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour - ISABEL'S WAR by Lila Perl

An Interview With Lizzie Skurnick (Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour) Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries

Lizzie Skurnick Books is the publisher of ISABEL’S WAR by Lila Perl, which has been named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for teen readers. Since Lila died before the publication of her book, the following interview takes place with her publisher, Lizzie Skurnick.

Copied from Amazon About ISABEL’S WAR and author Lila Perl:

In a stunning new novel completed just before her death in 2013, award-winning author Lila Perl introduces us to Isabel Brandt, a French-phrase-dropping twelve-year-old New Yorker who's more interested in boys and bobbing her nose than the distant war across the Pacific—the one her parents keep reminding her to care more about. Things change when Helga, the beautiful niece of her parent's best friends, comes to live with Isabel and her family. Helga is everything Isabel's not—cool, blonde, and vaguely aloof. She's also a German war refugee, with a past that gives a growing Isabel something more important to think about than boys and her own looks. Set in the Bronx during World War II, Isabel's War is a beautiful evocation of New York in the 1940s and of a girl's growing awareness of the world around her.
Lila Perl, the daughter of Russian immigrants fleeing anti-Semitism, published over sixty volumes of fiction and nonfiction for young readers during her long and distinguished career. In addition to the beloved Fat Glenda series, Perl twice received American Library Association Notable awards for nonfiction and was a recipient of the Sydney Taylor Award for Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story. She died in 2013 at the age of ninety-two. Isabel's War and its completed sequel, Lilli's Quest, were her final works.

Lila Perl was a bit of a legend, having written over sixty books for young readers. What was it like to work with her? 
 Lila was, simply, a delight. When I first called her to ask if we could republish the “Fat Glenda” series--one of my absolute favorites as a teen--we wound up having an hour-long conversation about what it was like to be an author who wrote tens of books while also raising young children. (I was about to have a baby, and I wanted advice!)

What struck me most during that conversation was her absolutely modesty, both about her impressive output and how she lived as a young writer. (In a garden apartment in Queens, writing while her children napped.) To me, she is, as you put it, a legend--but talking to her, I learned that authors of her era had a very different experience from the teen authors of today. YA was actually booming in the 70s and 80s, but publishing didn’t have the enormous marketing apparatus it does today, and the authors weren’t on blogs and Twitter and email. They went to see their editors directly with each book, sitting in a waiting room, and heard from their readers by actual mail, or met them at schools and libraries and book fair visits. Most remarkably, I could tell that Lila had no idea what an enormous fan base she still had. (And has.)

I asked her to write an essay about it, which she (typically) turned in the next day. It’s about her early years as a writer, rejection, and her own Peyton Place

But the most impressive thing, of course, is that Lila was dying of cancer at the time we worked on ISABEL’S WAR and LILLI’S QUEST. She never told me. She finished ISABEL, then wrote LILLI’S QUEST, when I told her we needed to know what happened next. We were actually planning a trilogy, the third book about both the girls at Smith, and you can see hints of the next story in LILLI’S QUEST.

I think the fact that she knew she was dying and turned in two books before her death says the most about her as a writer.

What inspired Lila to write ISABEL'S WAR? 

From her own background as the child of parents who barely escaped the Holocaust, I think Lila was interested both in the Holocaust from the point of view of an American girl, as she was, as well as Lilli, a survivor herself. The characters were a way to tell a unique story only very few people know: the story of the war both here and in Germany. Most books about the Holocaust are (unsurprisingly) miserable and terrifying, if brilliant. What’s remarkable about ISABEL’S WAR is that we get to know Lilli and Isabel as people as well, and the book is actually quite funny.     

The mission of Lizzie Surnick Books is to “reissue the very best in young adult literature from the classics of the 1930s and 1940s to the social novels of the 1970s and 1980s,” yet ISABEL’S WAR is a new release. What about this particular book brought it to your attention and persuaded you to deviate from your stated mission?

I knew very well that the publishing industry changed during Lila’s lifetime, and I suspected that she might have a novel or two in the drawer from when the 80s YA world went out of fashion. She did: the unfinished ISABEL’S WAR, a book her agent had not been able to sell.

When I had it in my hands, I knew we had to know the rest of the story. In some ways, it is a reissue--just one the publishing industry missed on the first go-round.

When will LILLI’S QUEST (sequel to ISABEL’s WAR) be released?

 In the Fall of 2015. We can’t wait!

Can you give us a sneak peek at LILLI’S QUEST?

But of course!


Lilli wakes up to the sickly yellowish light of a November morning. They are still living in that high-ceilinged, ground-floor flat on Heinrichstrasse. The sun never pierces the tall, narrow windows and to Lilli, who hates the darkness, all of the rooms feel like the insides of brown-paper bags. It is 1938 and Lilli is eleven years old.

She and her younger sister Helga, who is ten, share a bed, very high and with tall, knobby bedposts that are carved with elaborate scrolls. The bed once belonged to Oma and Opa, their grandparents. Lilli’s youngest sister Elspeth, now five, is still sleeping in her old baby cot, which is positioned crosswise at the foot of the family heirloom.

Today begins like an ordinary day. The girls of the Frankfurter family wake up, shiver as they wash themselves at the kitchen sink, and dress in their itchy woolen jumpers, thick black stockings, and sturdy oxfords.

They help Mutti prepare the family breakfast of hot milk, bread, and very small rations of jam, which is running short, as are many so-called luxury goods in Germany in 1938. The country, under its Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, is arming not only for war in Europe but to take over the entire world. And Hitler’s armies need to be equipped with the best of everything.

But war shortages aren’t something that Lilli is thinking about right now. She’s more concerned with thoroughly removing the despised skin that has formed on her mug of boiled milk. Mutti gazes at her frowning. “Always the same,” she mutters in a tired voice. “You are throwing away nourishment, my child. It’s hard enough to get milk these days, hard enough to keep body and soul together.”

Lilli can’t help noticing that Mutti, who was once so pretty, with her flaxen hair and flirtatious smile, has become faded and that there is a faint new crease in her forehead. Papa, who has also come to the breakfast table, is dressed in his usual going-to-the-office suit. But in truth he won’t be going anywhere. Many months ago Papa was dismissed from his job as a chief scientist at a chemical plant near the town where the Frankfurters live.

When Papa arrived home in the middle of a workday, the astonished girls asked why. “You should already know the answer,” Papa told them not unkindly. “Why have all of you been forbidden to attend school with German children. Why did the Jewish school then burn down?”

Lilli flashed a bitter smile. “Of course, I know. They hate us, the Jews. What will you do now, Papa?”

There was no answer. Every day Papa dressed for the office. Sometimes he left the apartment and tried to find a job among his Jewish friends. Money had been saved but it was running low and the Frankfurters had to borrow small sums from Mutti’s family, the Bayers, who were not Jewish.                          

Papa responds to Mutti’s criticism of Lilli. “Let the child indulge herself, Martina. Who knows what’s coming?”

Papa is so handsome in Lilli’s opinion – his high cheekbones, the curl of his lips, his dark hair and amber-brown eyes, the richness in his deep voice.

Mutti has caught something in Papa’s words. “You mean…? Do you think there will be trouble today, Josef?”

Lilli’s eyes and those of her sister Helga flash to the six-pointed yellow star with the word Jude, for Jew, which is sewn onto the sleeve of Papa’s suit. If he goes into the streets searching for work, everyone will know that he belongs to the race that Hitler has sworn to wipe out. Already Jews in Germany have been stripped of their rights as citizens. They’ve been mocked, attacked, beaten, and even arrested. From her parents’ conversation, Lilli senses that something truly evil may be coming.

Yet, the day goes by quietly enough. The older girls do their lessons with Papa instructing. Elspeth practices her alphabet and her reading, urged on by Mutti, and then goes off to play with her dolls. Papa reads the evening newspaper, which has been delivered to him by a kindly neighbor, Mr. Doppler, who is a so-called “pure” German and need not fear being questioned or even arrested by one of Hitler’s special police.

Darkness descends and the girls go off to bed.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Winning A Crystal Kite!

At the Miami SCBWI Conference, my book THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL was awarded the Crystal Kite Award for the Southeast Region. Chris Cheng, who is the originator of the Crystal Kite Awards, made the the presentation. Our Regional Advisor, Linda Bernfeld looks on:

The award is in the shape of a kite and comes with white gloves so you don't smudge the crystal. Here's a closer look at it:

A big thank you to everyone who read and voted for JESSIE. I appreciate it!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Raising A Reader

I met Aimee Reid, author of MAMA'S DAY WITH LITTLE GRAY, at the Miami SCBWI Conference.

Aimee asked me to write a post for her blog on raising a reader. I took her up on that challenge because my son is a voracious reader, and I knew it would be fun to reflect on all the reasons why. Hop over to Aimee's blog to read my thoughts on Raising A Reader.