October 31, 2012


It's time for our annual Halloween pumpkin post featuring the multi-talented David LaRochelle, who is an awesome author, speaker, puzzle creator, artist, pumpkin carver and all-around astounding human being.

Here's David's latest pumpkin . . .

It was created to celebrate David's new book . . .

Last year, David's new book was perfect for Halloween . . .

Now, onto the new pumpkins . . .

And David's original Halloween post from 2010. . .

TOMB it may concern: Halloween is my favorite holiday. And it's especially BOOtiful this year because the amazing pumpkin carver, David LaRochelle, is in the (haunted) house.

Before we get to David's astounding pumpkins, here are 6-1/2 things you should know about him.

1. His hilarious novel, ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT, won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.

2. This year, he is promoting TWO brand new picture books -- this one and this one.

3. Reese Witherspoon read his book, THE BEST PET OF ALL, at the WHITE HOUSE!

4. David and I have something in common. We both create puzzles and have been published in GAMES Magazine.

5. David has won some amazing prizes in a number of contests. (Watch the video link at the end to hear about a doozie!)

6. Once a teacher, David now does MANY school visits each year.

6-1/2. David is one of the nicest people I've ever met.


1. Choose the right pumpkin. Check it all over (including the bottom) for soft spots, especially if you buy your pumpkin a week or more ahead of Halloween. More than once I've lost a lovely pumpkin to rot because a teeny, tiny brown spot blossomed into a huge, mushy, rotten patch. And don't shy away from odd-shaped pumpkins or pumpkins with "warts"; these can be inspiration for a unique design.

2. Choose the right tools. Sure, you can carve your pumpkin with a kitchen knife, but for easier cutting and more intricate designs, buy yourself one of the inexpensive pumpkin carving kits you can get at the grocery store (I use PumpkinMasters, but there are other brands). For some of my designs I use a Speedball linoleum carving tool (you can get these at an art supply store) to scrape away just the outside layer of flesh rather than carving all the way through the pumpkin skin.

3. Clean your pumpkin well. Scrape the insides until the surface that you'll be carving is about an inch thick. You can test it with a pin. If it's thicker than that, it will be hard to carve a recognizable design; if it's much thinner, the design might collapse.

4. Be creative! As you plan your design, don't limit yourself to faces. I've carved pumpkins with dragons, snakes, words, a clock, the cover of one of my books, even a Halloween version of Grant Wood's painting "Amercian Gothic." Let your imagination go wild! And who says you have to limit yourself to Halloween ideas? Why not carve a flower, music notes, or even a happy hamster? And sometimes the simplest designs, such as a single question mark, can be the most striking.

5. Transfer your design to your pumpkin. I draw my designs on tracing paper, then tape the paper to my pumpkin and prick along the lines with a straight pin. When I remove the paper, the pin pricks show my design.

6. Lighting your creation. I usually use multiple (up to six or seven) tea candles inside each pumpkin. It makes them glow like beacons, and in case one candle goes out, the pumpkin will still look good. I've also lit pumpkins with Christmas lights. A single blinking colored light inside a pumpkin gives a very creepy effect.

And finally, 6 1/2. Don't worry about perfection. If your knife slips while carving, it will probably give your pumpkin more character. Some of the favorite pumpkins I've seen in the neighborhood are ones with lopsided mouths or mismatched eyes.

To watch David carve a pumpkin and discuss some of his unique carving experiences and amazing contest wins, click here. To go to David's pumpkin-carving page on his site, click here. To learn more about David LaRochelle, click here.

Here's hoping everyone has a Halloween to DISMEMBER. (Insert evil laughter here.)

October 25, 2012

A Funny Thing About Mental Illness . . .

The other day, someone pissed me off!

I promised I wouldn't let her comments bother me.  I knew they were from outdated thinking and a lack of knowledge.


Our older son has bipolar disorder.  The years until we found help and hope were hellishly dark. That's why I'm so vocal about sharing our experience and the resources we've found.  That's why our son is so open about his illness and talks to everyone from fellow sufferers to mental health providers at seminars.

What did that woman say?  That it was probably my fault that our son was the way he is because I was too strict.  (I'm not even going to go into why that's ludicrous.)

Years ago, parents were blamed for their children's mental illnesses, especially mothers.  This is especially cruel as mothers often bear the brunt of finding help and hope for their children.  Now, we know mental illness is a brain illness.  And guilt over that is unnecessary and unhelpful.

People used to think (and some still do) that mentally ill people are just lazy.  If they'd only try harder . . .   Beep!  Wrong answer!  Mental illness is a brain illness like diabetes is a body illness.  Would you tell a kid with diabetes that if she'd just try a little harder her body would produce more insulin?

We're still working to dispel the shame, stigma and perceived weakness that often goes along with seeking treatment for mental illness.  Would you be ashamed to get dialysis if your kidneys weren't functioning properly?

This piece from the Washington Post, "My son is schizophrenic.  The 'reforms" that I worked for have worsened his life" is a must-read:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/my-son-is-schizophrenic-the-reforms-that-i-worked-for-have-worsened-his-life/2012/10/15/87b74a98-eadd-11e1-b811-09036bcb182b_story.html.  It's a great look at what sounds good on paper, but what actually works in real life.  The piece ends with excellent, concrete suggestions to make significant improvements.

These resources have been helpful to us:

1.  N.A.M.I.  (National Alliance on Mental Illness)--  The free "Family-to-Family" course from our local NAMI chapter educated us so much that it completely changed the way we think about our son's illness.  It was a lifesaver.  (N.A.M.I. has many free programs, support groups, resources, etc.)

2.  M.H.A.  (Mental Health America) -- Again, the local affiliate offered us many services and referrals.

3.  The non-fiction book:  Welcome to the Jungle:  Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask by Hilary Smith, which is written in a fun, hip style and offers excellent advice and tools for living as well as possible with the illness.

So, what's the funny thing about mental illness?  Watch Ruby Wax, comedian, talk about it on this amazing TED Talk and tell me if you don't laugh (and learn).  (My favorite part is when she plucks off a piece of a Play-doh brain and tosses it over her shoulder.)

October 23, 2012

Why I Love Skype Visits . . .

Say hello to Ms. Porter's 5th grade class . . .

"Hello, Ms. Porter's 5th grade class!"  
(There are other awesome students outside the screen shot.  "Hello, other awesome students!")

Because How to Survive Middle School landed on the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award list, Ms. Delvallee, a K-8 librarian from Illinois, contacted me about Skyping with Ms. Porter's 5th grade students.  Wow, did these kids have excellent questions!  A big THANK YOU to the sweet boy in the NIKE shirt, who kept giving me the most enthusiastic thumbs up signals.

Loved these kids.  Loved their energy.  Can't wait to send them some personalized book marks.

Thanks so much and happy reading!!!

October 10, 2012


Doctors have stethoscopes.  Teachers have Smartboards.  Accountants have calculators.

Writers have tools, too.

Here are the ones I turn to when I write a book . . .

1.  Before I begin, I remind myself about story structure and character arcs with Robert McKee's excellent STORY:  SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING.  (I found this book so helpful that I made pages of notes and refer to the notes now instead of the original hefty volume.) 

2.  Early in the process, I create a synopsis -- a map, a blueprint, a guide -- that helps me navigate from the beginning through the murky middle to the inevitable ending.  For that, I need to ask and answer hard questions about my intentions.

I find those handy dandy questions in Appendix A:  Outlining Your Novel at the back of Donald Maass' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK.  (I enjoyed his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, too.  But I can summarize the main point of that book in three words:  Work incredibly hard.)

I find Cheryl Klein's SECOND SIGHT:  AN EDITOR'S TALKS ON WRITING, REVISING AND PUBLISHING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS helpful at this point.  This book has lots of useful exercises to help reveal your characters and story in a meaningful way.

Walter Dean Myer's has a great book for young writers called JUST WRITE HERE'S HOW.  In this book, Myer's offers a six-box system for organizing your novel or short story.  In the back are tips for writers, and I found his wisdom applicable for writers of any age.

3.  If I get muddled in the middle of a novel, I'll pull out Rochelle Melander's WRITE-A-THON:  WRITE YOUR BOOK IN 26 DAYS (AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT).  Besides the practical advice throughout, there are perfect quotes at the beginning of each short chapter.

4.  While writing, if my character's keep smiling or gasping or their stomachs keep knotting or twisting, I grab THE EMOTION THESAURUS:  A WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER EXPRESSION to find fresh ways to show how they are feeling.  Thanks to authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi for this invaluable, easy-to-navigate guide. 

I can't wait for Ackerman and Puglisi to come out with their guide for creating characters, which I think is next on their list.  (Places hands on hips, taps foot, clicks fingernails against table, lets out a loud breath, glances repeatedly at clock and crosses arms . . . Oh, thank you page 94!)

5.  When the draft is done and revisions are in order, I'll revisit Cheryl Klein's SECOND SIGHT and I'll read Kate Messner's REAL REVISION:  AUTHORS' STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS.  Besides great ideas, charts and examples, there are oodles of interviews with authors like Jane Yolen, Tom AngleBerger, Cynthia Lord, Kathi Appelt, me and many others.  Again, I found much of the advice and information applicable for writers of any age.

In addition to these great tools, I have an accountability buddy.  Each morning, my friend and I exchange a quick email sharing our day's writing goals.  We check in at day's end to share our progress and encourage each other.

What are YOUR favorite writing tools?

October 5, 2012


 10:01 P.M.  -- They meet for the first time . . .


10:03 P.M.