Rick Riordan: Demigod Saving the World

One child at a time, or sometimes en masse, Rick Riordan uses his superstar power to transform kids into readers. In a previous article titled Rick Riordan is a Demigod! the author’s ability to shazaam! a boy like Matthew from being a reluctant reader to an avid one was written in stone as if by Magnus Chase’s glowing sword.

Well, there’s more to the story. This is about a tweet, some tickets, and an incredible bookstore.

After that first blog post, the demigod author saw our WR article and responded to Matthew. Previously, Matt felt the demigod’s aura only through the printed page. Suddenly, though, Mr. Riordan had addressed Matt directly, through Twitter. Whoa. And later, during his book signing, Rick told Matt, “It is nice to meet you in person, Matthew.” Double whoa.


Matt’s parents discovered that there would soon be a book signing not too far away at a bookstore called An Unlikely Story in Plainville, MA. Matt was dying to meet the demigod in person. For him, the books were roaring to life.

Tickets were required. They cost $23.41, which would get you two seats and a copy of Thor’s Hammer ($19.99), the latest book in Riordan’s new Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series. Matt’s dad Carl went online at the moment the tickets went on sale. Busy. Carl refreshed. Busy. He refreshed. Busy. In less than one minute all tickets for this event with a seating capacity of 200 had already been sold.  Kym Havens, of An Unlikely Story, confirmed that three thousand people tried to get those tickets. Does that sound like trying to get into a Beyoncé concert? But this was at a bookstore! Fortunately, Carl did get Matt a spot on the wait list.


When Matt and Carl arrived they stood in line at the back of the parking lot for 45 minutes and were given a number, which would determine what seat Matt would be given and his place in the book signing line. Good thing he’d been to Disney World for queuing practice!

An Unlikely Story has a function room on the second floor called The Second Story and that’s where Rick Riordan did his PowerPoint presentation and answered questions for the 200 luckiest kids, while Matt and the other ninety-nine wait-listers were on the third floor watching on video. It was brilliant of the bookstore to offer this additional possibility. Before the presentation, Rick Riordan made an appearance to the wait-list kids and fielded two questions. Matt asked, “Who is your favorite demigod?” The diplomatic answer, “It changes based on the day and my mood, but tonight it is Leo.” What can be better for a kid than a one-on-one with his favorite author?

Know who entertained the kids while they were waiting for Riordan to sign books? None other than Jeff Kinney of the Wimpy Kid series fame, who did his book presentation for them. Now that doesn’t feel at all like a consolation prize, does it. No, it was an incredible surprise! Wait. What? He and his wife own the bookstore? Oh, yes they do. No wonder it’s so cool.


Matthew had met children’s book authors before, but he still hadn’t liked to read. One day his friend Sam told him about The Lightning Thief by a certain, now infamous, demigod author. Sam was not a reluctant reader. He was just spreading the gospel about a thrilling book series. Tons of kids like Sam love these 300-500 page books. The surprise is that kids with ADHD, dyslexia, and general malaise about reading will power through these hefty tomes too. How does this magic happen?

As Matt was waiting in line to get his books signed, he spoke with six or seven other enthusiasts. One boy was formerly a seriously reluctant reader like Matt had been until he encountered the Percy Jackson books. Carl spoke with the mother of a girl who had been reading the Harry Potter books, but got bored and stopped. Now she’s happily reading about mythical battles between Riordan’s demigods and monsters. Matt met two girls, sisters, who have both ADHD and dyslexia, but slog through the Riordan books even though they are difficult because the kids in the books have the same disabilities these girls do. The characters are exactly like the girls (well in some ways), which amazes them. They can relate. So out of six or seven kids Matt spoke to, four had some kind of reading difficulty.

Kym Havens, the bookstore’s Marketing and Events Manager, said, “Rick came up with these stories about gods and demigods for his son, who is dyslexic and had ADHD. So I think that comes through loud and clear to kids when they read his books. He was also a middle school teacher for years, and was obviously a very good one! He is so talented at reaching kids who are a little out of the mainstream. One girl thanked him for including LGTBQ characters in his stories. Another girl at the event told me she and her friends refer to him as “Uncle Rick”. I loved that!”

These are not short, simple books. The first of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard books is set in contemporary Boston, which is also the Midgard of Norse mythology. That’s some mind-blowing cross-over. And Magnus Chase is a homeless teen with a reading disability who has done a bit of shady stuff, yet also a demigod with the power to defeat evil beings. There is we’ve-got-to-save-the-world drama throughout, offset by snappy humor, sometimes enough to make you laugh out loud. This recipe is converting kids of all reading abilities in droves. Like magic.

Cue the bookstore. An Unlikely Story is an amazing facility. This bookstore provides authors and kids a fabulous venue, including presentation space, movie-style posters, an in-house famous author (Jeff Kinney who also has a studio on the third floor) to keep things running smoothly, and swag. Each of the wait-list kids was given an @camphalfblood related tee shirt. The bookstore offers a packed schedule of programs and activities for kids, and sometimes for adults too. And if all of that makes you hungry, you can have breakfast or lunch in their café.

Mainly, though, they help authors like Rick Riordan cast good spells that encourage kids to read about ways to save this troubled world.

And Matt’s reaction to meeting his favorite author ever? He told Carl on the way home that he was, “110% honored.”

Thank you, Rick Riordan! And An Unlikely Story!


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Rick Riordan is a Demigod!


rick-riordan-headshotLook at a picture of Rick Riordan.  You can see his quirky sense of humor in those eyes. Although he might feel like he lives on Mount Olympus considering that his books have earned him thirty-five million dollars so far, he’s really just a regular guy, right? No glowing aura, no apparent ability to morph into something spectacular. Doesn’t look much like a demigod.

However, he has an incredible secret power that raises him above the level of mere mortals.

Okay, a little backstory.


Matthew was a typical, smart, nine-year-old kid. Nice family, cool friends, did well in school, etc. But Matt had a problem. A huge one. He hated reading. It was so FRUSTRATING! His sister Miranda had zoomed through Tolkien’s Hobbit, all of the Harry Potters, and a ton of other books by the age of ten or eleven. Everyone else in his family read to him, read on their own, bought him books and so on, but Matt was not particularly interested. He navigated through some of the Magic Treehouse books and some required reading, but for him reading was boring. Anything else was more fun.

Then Rick Riordan cast a spell.


Matt was transformed forever.

The author’s first series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, washed over Matt like Poseidon’s breath. Suddenly this kid was poring through the first in that series, the 384-page The Lightning Thief, then reaching for the next volume. After the five Percy Jackson books, Matt started in on Riordan’s Kane Chronicles series.


So, I asked Matt about this otherworldly phenomenon.

Me: How did you choose The Lightning Thief anyway?

Matt: Sam suggested it. He thought I’d like it. At the library when your table is called you have to choose your book relatively fast. So it helps to have a suggestion.

Me: Was Sam right?

Matt: Yep. I read The Lightning Thief in eight days. It’s an amazing book. I find that in a series the first book takes a while to get into because you have to learn all the characters. Also, not as much is happening.

Note: (I’ve read it and, um, lots happens. But it is one amazingly big book -384 pages- for a reluctant reader!)

Me: How long did it take you to read the second book?

Matt: Four days. The Sea of Monsters took less time because I knew it was going to be a good book, based on how much I liked the first one. Also, I spent more time reading because I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. It was also shorter. (note: 320 pages, so not much shorter. It did help that in the books Percy is Poseidon’s son and Matt LOVES swimming. Also, there are dolphins, Matt’s favorite animal. He rode one in Florida. He felt like he was Percy. )

Me: How does this compare with the way you read before?

Matt: A ton better. I liked the Magic Tree House books. I could read one in a day. But now I’m reading much bigger books and liking them more. Book 4, that I’m reading now, is 361 pages long.




Me: So what about book 3?

Matt: Titan’s Curse took me about five days. It was very good. It was the first one where Thalia, the daughter of Zeus, was a character. She was about to reach her 16th birthday. The conflict in the story was whether she would destroy Olympus or save it.

Me: What’s next?

Matt: The second series, The Heroes of Olympus, is five books as well. In my mind they are all part of the same series. So there are ten books so far.

Me: What are the characteristics you like in Rick Riordan’s writing?

Matt: The books are more detailed. There is a good plot. The characters–and there are a lot of them–all have different personalities. I like how all the characters help each other out and are, in a way, all connected.

Me: What about the mythology?

Matt: I feel like Greek mythology in this kind of story is pretty cool. There are centaurs, satyrs, and demigods who make the story more interesting. Some of the characters–mainly the demigods–have special powers based on which god or goddess is their mother or father.

Me: This all started because Sam recommended the first book to you. Would you recommend Rick Riordan’s books to other kids?

Matt: Definitely. I’d recommend the series to lots of kids my age.

Me: What advice do you have for children’s book writers?

Matt: Think about the characters. Make them all have a different personality and they are creative, like demigods. Believable bad guys. There are also so many kinds of monsters in this world. And the world should be convincing.

That is the story of how Rick Riordan used his demigod powers to cast a spell, transforming Matt into an avid reader. Matt did not mention that these stories are set in contemporary time, and familiar places, as well as in mythical worlds. I’m on page 449 of The Sword of Summer, the first of a more recent Riordan series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, in which Boston is the heart of Midgard, one of the nine Norse worlds. Magnus is a homeless kid, and a demigod chosen by a Valkyrie to go to Valhalla after a battle with his mythic sword goes awry and Magnus dies on the Longfellow Bridge. The bronze Make Way for Ducklings sculpture at Boston’s Public Garden is actually a portal to another world. And the humor is crazy fun. This summer we were on a long road trip, with Matt silent in the back seat. I thought he had fallen asleep, until he burst out laughing over something he’d just read. Example: The name of the rune-inscribed mythic and powerful Sword of Summer is . . . Jack. Not your typical Viking moniker. You were expecting something more like Snæbjartur, Þjođbjörn, or even Guðjón (Matt’s Icelandic cousin’s name)? No, it’s Jack.

Rick Riordan knows the formulas to transform someone’s world and thereby morph a reluctant reader into an avid one. Matt is eternally thankful for this miracle.


*According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the origin and etymology of ‘shazam’ is an “incantation used by the comic-strip hero Captain Marvel, from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury, on whom he called.”

Photo credits: Rick Riordan’s head shot is from his website. All other photographs are by Egils Zarins.

Update: Yesterday Rick Riordan posted a tweet in response to this article:


So, I called and told Matthew. He said, “I am honored!” Suddenly the Demigod is a real person to Matthew. The author will be doing a signing in our general area on October 4th with tickets made available today at 6:00pm. Matt’s dad tried to get a few of the 200 spots for the event, but they were gone in eight seconds! Waiting list time. Apparently that’s what happens when an author is a demigod!

This post appeared first on Writersrumpus.com, where I write a column once each month.

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September 11, 2001



9/11 design by Dan Nadeau

One day, Jeb Dubus, Rob Blount, and I were in Jeb’s office at what was then the Amesbury Artworks building in Amesbury, MA. We were planning our response to the city’s RPF for the building next door, to work with artists and the city to convert it to artists’ studios. The phone rang.

It was Jeb’s brother Andre, the novelist. He told Jeb that something major had happened in New York and Jeb should go home. Jeb hung up and we continued our planning, not really understanding what Andre referred to. A little while later Andre called again. This was serious. We each immediately went home to televised scenes that will be burned in our memories forever.

The trauma in New York happened in spectacular tragedy. Later, two art events helped many people in our area deal with the emotional impact.

A few days after 9/11 I was to teach the second Drawing I class of the semester at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA. We were all crushed inside by our emotions, though. What should I say to these new  students? I decided to let art do its job.

Abstract mark making was the subject matter and charcoal was the medium for the day. I talked about additive mark making where everyone was to make  marks with charcoal in as wide a vocabulary of tones and textures as possible. I gave them each a tissue to help them with smudging, or they might use their hands. I explained about the reductive process where an eraser could  make marks by removing charcoal. I asked them to think abstractly. Each student worked on an 18″ x 24″ piece of paper for the entire  period. Here is a sample of what happened.

By David Makumbi

By David Makumbi

by Sonnet Stevquoah

by Sonnet Stevquoah

by Jaime Parada

by Jaime Parada

by Nadya Pankratova

by Nadya Pankratova

by Pholla Long

by Pholla Long

by Zhou (Lily) Xu

by Zhou (Lily) Xu

We hung all the drawings done by this class in the main building at the Lowell campus. Many people stopped to ask about the power within these emotional expressions before they were even all hung.

The following summer Jim Zingarelli had an idea to work with the public to make small pictogram-like artworks which could be sold, around the time of the one year anniversary, to show support and raise money for the family of a thirty-eight year old Amesbury man who was on American flight 11, one of the ill fated flights from Boston that crashed into the World Trade Center. Jeb Dubus volunteered that we could use what was then the Amesbury Artworks building and I agreed to coordinate what we called the Pictogram Project.

Everyone who wanted to – artists and townspeople – would make 3″ x 5″ artworks on paper and with materials we provided, or on their own. We would hang them on the walls in an effort to show the staggering number of victims, each of whom was a beautiful person. On September 7th, 2002we spent the day helping everyone who walked in to Amesbury Artworks to do these art works.

In my Graphic Design class at Middlesex I had earlier assigned my students to do a simple 9 /11 logo. All of the designs were intriguing, but Dan Nadeau came up with the amazing design at the top of this page using Roman numerals. I had it made into a rubber stamp.

On day one of the Pictogram Project volunteers (including my mother, Marie Audy!) would stamp the back of each Pictogram artwork when it was complete, and write in the name of one of the victims from a  list that had been published in the newspaper. In this way, we made an effort to honor those who died. Then we hung them on the wall. Here are a few of them.


On the reverse, each was personalized.

a few of the Pictograms


A few more. They were in many media and styles.

On day two of the Pictogram Project, anyone could buy one or more of these little artworks loaded with meaning for $1 each. The money raised was a symbolic gift to the widow and children of Robert Hayes.

Jeb Dubus, me, Debbie Hayes, and Jim Zingarelli

Jeb Dubus, me, Debbie Hayes, and Jim Zingarelli


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First experiences at ALA

ALA conf 2016

The American Library Association (ALA) annual conference, a ginormous offering for ALA’s 68,000 member librarians, was held this past weekend in Orlando at the newly refurbished Convention Center. Why should that matter to you? According to the ALA convention website, approximately 16,000 people who are decision makers concerning which books are purchased for their libraries were expected to attend. Roughly eighty-six percent of them purchase books at this annual conference. This is a huge marketing outreach for new books for kids.

Here is an impressive bit of trivia – the ALA is the oldest and largest library association in the world. How’s that for clout?

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Jair Hernandez int he Diversity Pavilion.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Jair Hernandez in the Diversity Pavilion.

W SD hardcoverFullSize2

Newly available in hardcover too!

I am especially keyed into this 2016 event since Babl Books, Inc. brought my book, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, in its brand new, hard cover, printed in the USA, Spanish translation. This was the first time Babl Books has participated and it was a productive move for all of their authors and illustrators.

Jair Hernandez, President of Babl Books, Inc., continues to promote his mission to publish much-needed quality bilingual picture books that deal with universal themes. Babl Books exhibited in the Diversity Pavilion, in good company with We Need Diverse Books nearby, who also exhibited there for the first time.

W Nancy Cote JBMaryann Cocca-Leffler, Acquisitions Director for Babl, is also an Author-Illustrator of Children’s books. She joined Jair in promoting Babl Books and their 20+ distinguished Authors & Illustrators (current and upcoming lists), including Nancy Cote, David McPhail and Michael Garland.

Jair reports: We met with a lot of enthusiastic librarians, publishers, and vendors who want to see more bilingual books. Our hard work leading up to the conference definitely paid off, as we were able to showcase our books and speak of a literacy need that resonated with many of the people we spoke with.

The road to ALA 2016 wasn’t without its hiccups, which included me dropping all my catalogs in the parking lot. 

ALA catalogs

We felt ALA was a great success for Babl Books and our Author Partners. Maryann and I were able to cap off the weekend  with some local flavor at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, where Maryann tried her first gator!

Maryann adds: All our books are available in hardcovers for Libraries through Babl Books and through Ingram and hopefully soon through Baker & Taylor.

Librarians at ALA were actively on the look-out for bilingual books. Though Spanish seems to be the most sought after, we got enthusiastic response for our bilingual offerings in our other 7 core languages including Portuguese, Chinese and Vietnamese. There was lots of talk about “Family Literacy” and many found our dual text particularly helpful when a child shares their books at home. Many librarians asked for Arabic, which we currently don’t offer, but may look into that possibility.

I think people were most surprised by our innovative translation platform and our POD ability to print quality hardcovers, which truly gives us the ability to add many language offerings. We are actively growing our line and are gaining interest from authors, illustrators and agents.

Our booth was in the Diversity Pavilion. We not only connected with Librarians but other valuable industry professionals. Many Librarians brought along their families. It is nice to hear that as parents they want to bring up their children in a bilingual household. (I slipped some paperbacks books to the kids!)

David McPhail coverSwag – book related freebies – is often available at conferences, book launch parties, and conventions. Jair and Maryann held raffles each day to give away themed packets. On Friday it was a Celebrating the Child pack including Something Special, Jackson’s Blanket, Fatuma, and I Like Buttons. Saturday’s was a Nighttime pack featuring Caroline Dreams, Before You Go to Bed, Time to Say Bye-Bye, and Mouse Counting. On Sunday they gave away a Summer Kick-off pack including Hermit Crab, Whale-snail, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, and Clams All Year.

A conference like ALA Orlando has enormous power to connect people with books for children. This first experience for Babl Books as an exhibitor at a major event like this one proved to be gratifying.

To find out more about Babl Books please visit www.bablbooks.com

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Babl Books at ALA

I am excited that Babl Books, whose mission is to offer bilingual picture books, including mine, to kids everywhere,  will be at ALA this weekend. They are sharing a booth with We Need Diverse Books. Check them out if you go!
BABL BOOKS will exhibiting at the 
ALA Conference in Orlando – Jun 24-27
Find us at the DIVERSITY PAVILION  # 1067F 
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Author – Artist Residency Tips

by Joyce Audy Zarins

If someone from a school overseas invited you to do an author or artist residency in connection with your picture book what would you do? I said yes even before I knew the particulars. If that would be your reaction, there are a few things you may want to consider to maximize this opportunity.

W ACS Lower School

Part of the ACS Cobham International School’s Early Childhood area.

W ACS Early Childhood

The Kindergarten building.

I had never been to England, where the ACS International School in Cobham, Surrey, UK has students from all over the world. This would be different from the artist residency I had done last May in Akyreyri, Iceland where I helped the students in grades one through ten paint murals. The ACS school was interested in my picture book Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, originally published a while ago in New York by Lippincott (and subsequently Harper & Row) in a hardcover English-only version. The book was reissued this past November in six languages, which fit with the school’s international community of students. Would I come and talk to kids in pre K to grade two? I formulated a list of options for the teachers to choose from and started collecting what would be needed. By the time I headed for the airport last week the plan had morphed into a week of presentations for 300 kids in groups of 12-15, including a few classes of 2 year olds. Actually they were closer to three, because it’s nearing the end of the school year. The plan for them was a simple story time.

The entire week-long experience was completely amazing, partly because of the planning that was done ahead. Edori and Helen, the two art faculty I interacted with, came up with excellent projects relating to the art in my book, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar.

Kindergardeners made mixed media collages incorporating white negative space, like in the book.

Kindergardeners made mixed media collages incorporating white negative space, like in the book. Art teacher Edori Fertig came up with this excellent plan.

This shark attack mixed media was a surprise. Poor crabs!

This shark attack mixed media was a surprise. Poor crabs!

I must say that I had an angel. My friend Stephanie Hurlbatt was the children’s librarian in my town when my kids were young and a friend who helped my son with his magic shows. She moved to England long ago, married, and has been teaching at the ACS school since then. She was the mover and shaker for this residency and even organized the reception the school put on for me. She deserves a medal.

First graders made Styrofoam prints, drawing with a pencil what printed as the white lines. The sand dollar book originals were silk screens.

First graders made Styrofoam prints, drawing with a pencil what printed as the white lines. The sand dollar book originals were silk screens. Art teacher Helen decided on this print method.

If you find yourself an angel, here are a few things that might ensure that your experience is as good as mine was.

  1. Arrive two days early, if possible, to avoid jetlag due to the time difference and the slog that travel is. I was expected to present to five groups on Monday, and I was introduced to lots of staff and teachers. You need to be at your best. I arrived on Saturday and left the following Sunday, at the school’s suggestion. A brilliant idea.
  2. Communicate as closely with the different grade level teachers and tailor presentations to fit their curricula as much as possible. I brought four different PowerPoint slide shows and a few demonstration materials geared to different targets and age levels. Also, copies of my book in all six languages, which I donated to the school library at the end of the week even though the school had purchased one copy for each class.
  3. PreK made sand dollars of self hardening clay.

    PreK children made sand dollars of self hardening clay.

    Bring extra copies of your media. Redundancy is a good practice. I checked to be sure the school’s equipment was compatible with what I brought, and then I made two thumb drives with everything on them. This helped when, in the flurry of moving from one class to another, the first stick was left behind in the computer. I also had saved everything on Google Drive, just in case.

  4. Print out a schedule for the week, coded to your list of which presentations are for each grade. Stephanie provided an Excel grid once the schedule was set. Each block listed the grade. I added numbers coded to the list of my offerings which the school had chosen for each grade. For each class, I could easily tell the teacher which number presentation to select on his/her computer.

    A true angel - Stephanie Hurlbatt.

    A true angel – Stephanie Hurlbatt.

  5. I was fortunate that Stephanie, who teaches PreK at the school, was my sidekick for the week, assuring the logistics like where to be, where to have lunch, and so on. For PreK she sang a fun sea-themed song complete with cute gestures with the kids to fill a time gap. Yes, time slots must be conformed to. Stephanie is an amazing liaison.
  6. Managing your reimbursement is necessary. Keep all receipts for your meals, materials, and flight in one place to facilitate the payment process. Amounts for things purchased before your arrival will be in US Dollars while expenses during your trip will be in local currency. Do note that up front on your invoice so there is no confusion. When the school e-mailed me the reimbursement form after I returned home, I discovered that the bank information they needed was unfamiliar. I went to the credit union where my checking and savings are and found that they had an awkward way to handle foreign transactions. I went to a bigger local bank, but they too could have completed the transaction only by going through an intermediary bank first. So I opened an account at a local branch of Santander Bank, since they are based in Spain and have branches in England. I gave the school that bank’s information. However, I learned that all US banks have a different system than European ones. Bank of America might have been a better choice because of their scope.
  7. Keep a list of teachers’ and administrators’ names for thank you emails later. They reached out to you and spent quite a bit to bring you to their school. Mention what you provided and that you tried to tailor your programs to the curriculum for each group. For example I made rubber stamps of ocean organisms and provided books, bookmarks and stickers, and boxes with sea shells, some of which I mailed ahead. I donated these materials. And the second grade classes had all written out similes and metaphors and some classes included onomatopoeia. In addition to talking about these with the kids, I emailed a short response to each class later using the childrens’ names when possible. Showing administrators that you tried to fit your presentation into the school’s educational paradigm reinforces your value to the school.

My experience with this second overseas school residency was awesome. I was even given a gift of bunting – a charming British decorative thing – with pictures of British birds on it, as a memento. Dozens of kids gave me hugs – no such thing as too many of those! One group sang the chant from the book, which they had memorized. And one little girl told me she wished I was her mother! How cute is that.

I hope that your author-artist residency experience will be equally rewarding.


This article also appears at WritersRumpus.com, a blog for authors and illustrators of children’s books.

Posted in Art, children's books, Diverse books, process, Residencies, the world | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Sur on Cape Cod

W beach at Sea Crest Beach Hotel

I’ve just returned home from Big Sur on Cape Cod, a wonderful mentoring weekend for children’s book authors and illustrators organized by Andrea Brown and her most-successful-in-the-US literary agency, in coordination with Lisa Rehfuss. This event is held annually in California, and for the first time was offered here in New England (lucky us). The program and venue were fantastic. The food too, especially those lobster sliders!

W lunch on deck

Box lunches on the deck.

W Littleneck clam chowder

Littleneck clam chowder.

The ratio of mentors – meaning agents, editors, and established authors – to attendees was one to five. Of the fifty attendees at least two had their work requested by agents present during the weekend. Editors Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge and Christine Krones of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will be open to queries from attendees for the next three months. Yolanda Scott also revealed that Charlesbridge will release YA books in 2017. All fifty registrants received fabulous feedback, business pointers, and camaraderie.

W David Elliott

David Elliott with four of his five acolytes.

My two mentors were Kelly Sonnack, a seriously perceptive and business minded Senior Agent at Andrea Brown, Inc. and David Elliott, a New York Times best-selling children’s author and almost opera singer. I am so grateful for the wisdom they and my workshop peers shared. Brandi Hand not only has beautiful red hair, but cleverly volunteered to set up a Big Sur Facebook page for post event sharing.

An added bonus was an impromptu illustration critique session by Anne Sibley O’Brien, a well-known author/illustrator of wonderful books focused on diversity. Workshop attendees from picture book people to YA authors came from the Midwest, New Orleans, and even Stockholm, Sweden.

No time for this!

No time for this!

This weekend was a convergence of fertile minds and eloquent hearts all striving towards compelling writing and art for children’s books.

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Interview: Totally Talented Brian Lies

I recently did an interview for WritersRumpus.com with Brian Lies, successful author and illustrator of gorgeous books for children. It was posted to coincide with the release of Brian’s latest picture book, Gator Dad. You can see his glorious artwork and read about him here.

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Two May Residencies

W-Teens-on-the-Wall-4Iceland, 2015

Being invited for an artist or author residency is such an honor. Last May I went to northern Iceland for a week long artist residency to help seventy kids in grades one to ten paint murals. The school was Valsárskóli in Svalbarðsströnd, which is across the fjord from where my son Eric and his wife Inga live. Inga, whose full name is Inga Sigrún Atladóttir, is the Principal of the school and was kind enough to hire me. It was only the second time that I’ve needed a translator to communicate with students. The youngest kids are beginning to learn English, but the eighth to tenth graders are fluent. All of them painted with enthusiasm and flair. The younger artists worked from sketches they had done of things important to them, from sheep to trees with little people living in them. The middle group did rainbows, Minecraft, and even police cars with lights flashing. Within this rainbow is a red, fire-breathing dragon wearing a nice hat with a flower on it!W-Teens-on-the-Wall-6

The older kids did conceptual self portraits within tracings of their own shadows. We used a powerful light borrowed from their auditorium and drew the shadows on paper first so we could arrange them well on the wall.

Hrafntinna, who was shy, was the last to decide on a pose. She was sprawled on the sofa where the kids were hanging out watching the painting unfold and for the longest time wasn’t sure what position she wanted to be in.

W-Teens-on-the-Wall-3One girl had done a yoga tree pose, some kids were leaning on their closest friends, three buddies were arm in arm, and so on. But she was undecided. So I suggested that she use the horizontal pose she was in right then. She agreed, we traced her, then floated her above everyone else. What color did she choose to paint herself? Sky blue. And when she added her conceptual imagery, it consisted of tiny birds flying within her form.



In the video, the adults (Ásrún, Elizabet, Hrafndís, and Belgie), are teachers who helped enormously with communicating with students (Kristján, Rakel, Hrafntinna, Alda, Alida, Ásdis, Kristbjord, Orri, Ragnar, Stefán, Sævar, Telmar, and Þorri) and with keeping the paint under control. Through the window you can see a bit of the fjord and the snow-covered mountains on the other side.

Working with these teens and  younger people on their artistic visions was an awesome experience.


England, 2016

Sand Dollar bookmark2Now this May I will be heading to Cobham, Sussex, England for another week-long residency, this time at an international school.  The kids will be in preK to 2nd grade classes and we will spend time thinking about art, writing, and nature. My first picturebook, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar (originally published by Lippincott, then Harper & Row in 1980), was reissued last year, in a paperback version, translated into six languages, which is the connection to this international school. Each book also includes the story in English and so these translations are ideal for kids, in the U.S.A. and everywhere, who are bilingual or hope to be.

Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar was inspired by my love of the beach at Plum Island in Massachusetts. It is about Peter and his dog Urchin making a sand castle, then dealing with the sea washing the castle away. He wants the waves to go away, and thinks his sand dollar does make it recede. But when he finds a little flounder, who needs the sea, he says, “What have I done?” And what do you think he does next? This story is about a fine day at the beach, but also about our responsibility toward the environment we love.

I will be bringing sand dollars and other shells, slide shows relating to the beach, giant insects, and steel and mixed media sculpture. And we will make things that show how we feel about the natural world.


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Meet Viðar

ViðarMeet our newest family member, Viðar, who is Dagbjört and Erlingur’s baby. He was born February 2. In line with Icelandic custom, his name was not used until he was christened this past Sunday, Easter. Isn’t he beautiful? The photo was taken by Eric, who is now a grandfather! Viðar and his parents live in Reykjavík.

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World of Books: France, Belgium and Czech Republic

by Joyce Audy Zarins

Les Mammouths

In my small collection of children’s books from around the world, some help explain ways of thinking to the young. The world can be a scary and sometimes puzzling place, so clues are always useful.

In Les Mammouths, Les Ogres, Les Extraterrestres, et ma petite soeur, as the title suggests, creatures of the past and future meet and the question of what is real and what is imaginary is raised. It is also self-referential. This Tom’poche publication originated in Nice, France and is written by Alex Cousseau and illustrated by Nathalie Choux with whimsical decorations that include many references to folk tales and other children’s stories. The colors are warm and bright and blend the possible with the impossible.

Les Mammouths4The existentialism begins with the first sentence, “Papa says that mammoths do not exist.” Well, considering that Papa appears to be that very species, albeit with a bow tie, the fun begins. Papa says that ogres don’t exist either. Mama adds that mammoths only existed a long, long time ago. So what about this nice family with their wide open eyes? The little mammoth asks, “Do you exist or not?”

Papa explains as they walk out on the street and into the world that they only exist when the author of the book writes their story and the illustrator draws it so. In spite of appearances, they are not really on the street or in the world. If the author wants to show on the street an ogre on top of a sheep, he will ask the artist to draw that. Little mammoth notes that the result looks more like a green extraterrestrial than an ogre. Papa concurs. That is because the artist lady is not so good at drawing ogres. She is very good at drawing sheep, though.

Les Mammouths6The little guy with the red pants turns out to be the ogre and imagine his surprise when he is riding in the pannier of Papa Mammoth’s doughnut-wheeled motorcycle and overhears that he doesn’t exist either! Imaginative adventures happen. Past, present, and future collide and there is a lovely mix of realistic artichoke roofs on buildings and doll-faced characters (one of whom is reading the very book we’re discussing) dancing across the pages with the Seven Dwarfs, a blind mouse, and lots of other improbables.

At the end of this philosophical day, the little mammoth mentions something else suggested by the book’s title. “I would love to have a little sister.” But that won’t happen unless the author thinks of it and writes her into the book and the artist draws her, right? No, Papa explains. The little sister will only exist when Papa and Mama wink to each other. This is the way it always begins.

This is a completely delightful book, and I know for a fact that it does actually exist.


In Trouwen met Tanja (Married with Tanja) by Bart Van Nuffelen and Klaas Verplancke there is also a huge emphasis on the written word, but in a different way. For example, the endpapers are covered with a child’s cursive writing that repeats endlessly, “I will not marry Tanja.” The typography throughout the book uses scale and color changes to emphasize the action and meaning of the story using Clarendon type. And the underlying message regards keeping your word, though maybe not when your promise has been coerced.

Trouwen2BOn Marc’s last day of kindergarten before a vacation he and the other kids are doing foolish things, running in circles until they see stars and so on. Along comes Stief, who is grosser than most, especially about bodily functions. He also knows more about the female anatomy than anyone. He imitates a robot making everyone laugh and Marc falls to the ground with the hilarity of it all.

He feels someone grab him – first by his neck, then in other places. It is Tanja. She is silent, then she gently asks him, “Will you marry me?”

She looks weird to Mark because she’s so close. He can only see a bit of her at a time. Her freckles remind him of countries on the globe and he feels like a fly caught in a spiderweb. She asks again and he says no. She squeezes his fingers. Her sharp teeth remind him of the Ural mountains, the Central Massif…even Mount Saint Helen. Steif yells at him to answer her and under pressure he caves in and squeaks out a “yes.” Oh no. What did he do?

Trouwen3During vacation Marc tries outlandish ways to change his bad luck, because he does not want to marry Tanja. When he asks Mom and Dad what happens if you promise… Mom interrupts and says he must keep his promise. Marc feels doomed. He decides to hold his breath until it isn’t true anymore. That doesn’t work. He tries other tricks. Nothing. Zorro, who is Stief in disguise, appears and gives him a clue. And the saga continues. This goes on through the entire vacation, then once back at school, there she is again, the inescapable Tanja. Amid kids chanting and other chaos, The chant from the beginning of the book is repeated and Marc flies head over heels off toward America to escape.

The mixed media images are large-scale madcap exaggerations which makes them completely engaging, especially Tanja as a global entity. And everyone’s eyes are the same bugging-out-of-their-heads type as those in the previously described book – round white circles with expressive black pupils. The illustration colors used are deep tones that make the compositions pop.

The drama is clear and the characters certainly emote.

Jako by

Jako by se tu nekdo snazil nevydat ani hlasku (A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound) by John Irving, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmannova, was translated from the original English by Meander publishers, Czech Republic. It was originally published by Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

This picture book was first told within Mr. Irvings’ novel A Widow for One Year, which was made into the movie The Door in The Floor. In it, the main character is a children’s book writer named Ted Cole. According to an interview with Mr. Irving, he did not set out to write a children’s book until he needed some examples to attribute to the main character of his novel. Does this suggest similarities with the Les Mammouths version of reality?

Jako by3In the picture book story, Tom is awakened in the middle of the night by a sound. He sits bolt upright in bed, eyes wide and bulging. What was that? We can imagine the pounding of his heart. He can’t identify what the sound is because it isn’t like anything he’s heard before. To him it evokes  the movement of a monster with no arms or legs dragging itself along the ground, among other imaginative responses. How creepy is that? Tom’s dad (who wisely does not actually appear in the pictures) explains that it’s just the scurrying of mice in the walls, which comforts Tom. But his little brother Tim can’t sleep for worrying because he doesn’t know what the word “mouse” means. Here again is a reference to the power of really understanding what words mean.

Jako by4This small format book is illustrated with wonderful, semi-disheveled drawings that vividly evoke Tom’s humanity, the shadowy setting, the dim moonlight, and the bulges in the wall. One clue to the mystery of the noises is an image in which a mouse, dramatized by its long shadow, crosses a room in the foreground.

In the end, all three of these books say, in different evocative ways, that reality is what you believe it to be.


This article also appears on WritersRumpus.com.

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Young-Deok Seo

Young-Deok SeoHere is the work of Young-Deok Seo, a South Korean artist who wisely uses bicycle chain as his medium. This is a smart move aesthetically because the chain is beautiful and gives texture and a perforated pattern to these large scale visages. And perhaps more importantly because of its connections to global society and to motion. Here are some examples.

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Female Power Symbol

Today we walked among snow-encrusted trees at Maudslay State Park and an idea came to me. Now that I have drawn it, let me explain.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/First_peace_badge.jpgSymbols can be powerful. Consider Gerald Holtom’s peace symbol, which he designed for the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War in the fifties. It is now widely used and is a universally known symbol for peace.

During the Renaissance symbols were created to represent the male and female genders, which we still use today. The female design refers to the planet Venus and suggests a distaff used for hand spinning yarn. The male symbol represents Mars and the wielding of a spear.

I wanted to design a new symbol for female power, without aggression. The universal female symbol suggests to me a figure with arms outstretched as if welcoming or showing support. Adjusting the position of the horizontal line could imply other meanings. Bent arms did not work very well, nor did curved ones. A simple vee configuration can represent upraised arms, an active pose that implies victory and empowerment. A surrounding circle uses the other female shape and suggests the globe.Female Power origin

This symbol would be visually strongest in black and white due to the nature of those two colors as providing the widest possible contrast. And black and white is beautiful. But it would also be emotionally strong in one color plus white. That color must be purple, a blend of a warm color and a cool one, suggesting both passion and restraint. Purple also represents a union between red and blue, which has additional meaning.

Female Power symbol 1 B&WFemale Power symbol 2 B&W

Female Power symbol 1 PurpleFemale Power symbol 2 P



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Linda Sue Park: Ted talk

In this terrific TedX talk, author Linda Sue Park talks about a path to changing the world. Life is not fair, but stories engage the minds of those who can develop empathy and act in heroic ways.

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Books going global!

Check this out! “Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar,” my first picture book of long ago, is now available on Amazon in five languages! French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. All are paperback and all have the English text also. The book is being reissued by a small Boston start-up, Bab’l Books, Inc., whose mission is to provide dual language books to kids ages 3-7. Other languages and a Kindle version may follow.

Sand Dollar, 5 languages

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Yellow, the Noble Color, is for Emperors and Empresses

This is a review of two books with different target audiences that have one mission: to share some of the treasures and history of the Forbidden City in China with the world. They are voices from the other side of the globe. Can you hear them?

Bowls of Happiness

Bowls of Happiness: Treasures from China and the Forbidden City 

Bowls of Happiness is a picture storybook in sections, part non-fiction. The first, Happiness: Joyful Meetings, begins with the birth of a little girl nicknamed Piggy. The type is scaled for a child and the story is fully illustrated with lovely, delicate line work and colors in an appropriately innocent picture book style. As the child grows, Mom is making a new porcelain bowl for Piggy, painting it with designs from traditional Chinese depictions of nature. See, there are the symbols for cloud, for bat, for longevity. There are peonies and egrets and butterflies just as they were painted on the emperor’s rice bowls, but this bowl is for Piggy.

The second section, Wishing for the Best in Life, is non-fiction for older kids or adults, which suggests that this is a book to be enjoyed by a family together. There are explanations of elements of Chinese language, the ritual use of some of the emperor’s bowls and the symbolism of the designs. Delicate drawings show the artwork on all sides of some, including on the inside of one – a surprise butterfly visible once all the rice has been eaten.

And the final section, Let’s Make a Bowl, talks about the parts of a rice bowl and the practical reasons for their shape. There is even a dye cut bowl on a page where the reader can make a wish, presumably for happiness or something similar.

This beautifully designed and illustrated book is a wonderful window on Chinese culture written by Brian Tse, Illustrated by Alice Mak, and translated by Ben Wang, through the auspices of the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop. Both this and the following book are part of a four book series which were funded by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation in Hong Kong to promote a deeper understanding of China’s rich cultural heritage, beginning with the culture of the Forbidden City.

What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor? Life in China’s Forbidden City


Children everywhere will be amazed to read that heirs to the imperial throne of China were schooled from 5:00 am until 3:00 pm seven days a week with only five holidays each year! By comparison, this makes contemporary education appear super easy. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City is an attractive one hundred and eight page hardcover book that answers the question asked in the title by showing aspects of the daily life of each ruler within the enormous Imperial Palace complex, of 980 buildings and nearly 10,000 rooms, called the Forbidden City. I’ve been there. It is truly amazing. The map below and the photographs are meant to give context, but are not in the book. Share this fascinating slice of history and royal life, illustrated for young people, with your child.

The book shows that beginning in 206 BC Imperial Palace court officials recommended to the emperor that “studying is the only noble thing to do in life” and consequently there were always more scholars on the palace staff than military men. The emperor’s daily needs were well satisfied as shown by the list of foods cooked each day for him, although his meals were always tested first by an entourage of eunuchs. Poison and other risks to the emperor’s life needed to be guarded against. Thousands of eunuchs, female consorts, and others supplied the emperor’s every desire.

Traditionally the first born boy of the royal family would become the next emperor, so princesses were out of luck and would instead be married off young, some even at the age of ten, to suitors from faraway lands. However there was one female emperor, Wu Zetian, who reigned for a time during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Accounts suggest that she was no sweetheart.

W 238_Forbidden City

The Gate of Supreme Harmony (#5 on map) photographed by me in 2008.

This carefully designed book employs a beautiful yellow color throughout, perhaps in honor of Qin Shi Huangdi, who more than 4,000 years ago unified the various tribes into the nation of Chinese people, becoming their first emperor. He was nicknamed the Yellow Emperor. The simple graphic novel style drawings with thick black outlines and the clean page layouts, along with easy to understand text, showcase a surprising amount of information in an accessible way. This may be a good resource for report writing at the younger grade levels and there are many basic facts of interest to the book’s young audience.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony (#6 on map), Forbidden City, Beijing, China, 2008

Kids will be intrigued by the 12 personality symbols embroidered into every emperor’s imperial robe starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.), brief bios of the Ming and Qing emperors (some wise and brave, others not), and accounts of uprisings and entertainments. There is one set of gatefolds to illustrate the ceremony at the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City where Emperor Shunzhi was crowned at the age of six and eventually began his reign when only fourteen, as was customary.

Trade publishers today and organizations such as WeNeedDiverseBooks insist that books for children about the world’s cultures and ethnicities should be written and illustrated by members of that group. Diverse literature for kids doesn’t get more authentic than this non-fiction book about life in China’s Forbidden City. It was written by Chiu Kwong-chui and Eileen Ng, translated by Ben Wang, and illustrated by the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop, which Mr. Kwong-chiu founded in Hong Kong.  What Was It Like Mr. Emperor was written and illustrated by acknowledged experts from Hong Kong and printed in China as well. Although Kirkus found issue with some aspects of the book, it’s simple distillation of a complex and long history is an appropriate introduction for young audiences. The Qing and Ming Dynasties’ Forbidden City in Beijing, originally built under orders of Zhu Di, the Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1424, is now a museum and World Heritage site.

The online description of What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City states that it is intended for children grades 3 and up. In the Forbidden City, a companion book in this series, received the Parents’ Choice Gold Award for 2015.

What Was it Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in the Forbidden City is an authentic introduction to the daily life of typical Chinese emperors, well-presented for today’s children. Note: These reviews are based on copies of the books sent to me by the publisher for that purpose, which is a common practice.

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

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Galleta de Mar, Galleta de Mar

W Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar SpanishToday I received a copy of my book Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar in its final Spanish/ English dual language paperback version, published by Bab’l Books, Boston.

I am excited to see this book in print again! I love the idea of reaching out to bilingual kids. And, its hidden message is environmental – that we need to act responsibly toward nature to keep things in balance. That’s so important right now. The story was inspired by an experience with my children at Plum Island in Newburyport and Newbury, MA
Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar / Galleta de Mar will be available in the UK, US, and Europe and eventually in four or five other languages and as an e-book. If you know of anyone interested in purchasing one, they can get them through Amazon. Here’s the link.

Anyone who has read it can write a short review for Amazon or Goodreads, if you like. (hint, hint)

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Last chance!

W-Elision-2We’ve just de-installed Elision from Sanctuary Arts in Eliot, Maine where it was all summer. There’s still time to see Solidarity and the Flying Horse sculpture exhibit at the Pingree School in Hamilton, MA. De-installation is scheduled for November 23rd.

Sept. 2, 2015 - Pingree School, Hamilton, Massachusetts

Sept. 2, 2015 – Pingree School, Hamilton, Massachusetts

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Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar

I have a teeny bit of news, but it’s in five or six languages!

My first ever picturebook, published in 1980 by J.B. Lippincott, then taken on by Harper and Row, which has been out of print for years, is being reissued by a small start-up as a bilingual paperback and Kindle book. Bab’l Books was started by two Harvard Business school graduates who are not native English speakers. Their mission is to make available dual language books with universal themes for kids ages 3-7. Their translations are obtained through crowd-sourcing.

W Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar cover

Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, which I wrote and illustrated, will soon be available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and possibly German. Each also contains the English text.

Marianne Knowles interviewed Jair Hernandez, my contact at Bab’l Books, for her WritersRumpus blog. In case you are interested, that interview can be found here.

I’m psyched!

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Advice from a kid: Miranda at age 9 and at age 13

A while ago I posted an interview here with Miranda, a very special person to me. Recently, I asked her similar questions about her reading habits and those of kids she knows. The answers show a trajectory  and are useful information for writers, so I also posted this on www.writersrumpus.com.


Nine-year-old Miranda and I went for a walk. She told me what she thinks about books.

Here’s what she said.

Topics that some kids like (kids that I know):

  • Fluffy kitty cat books (I hate them completely)
  • Books with some scary moments and action (I personally like these best :)
  • Craft books like how to decorate cupcakes, paper mache or mask making
  • Humorous books like Junie B. Jones
  • Romance with a little bit of horror
  • New stories with older settings or a combo of two older stories with a new twist.

The best rated stories have…

Only a few scary moments so you don’t get nightmares for a week or so.

Something real has to happen (unlike I bought a kitty and named it Lucie and I put a bow in her hair. The end. BORING!)

A little realistic drama (NO fainting randomly and other random things like SUPER MAN TO THE rescue!)

No cartoons except Diary of a Wimpy Kid (whole series)

Which character is most important?

The heroine/hero and the evil witch, wizard or whatever is in the story.

For example: The Hobbit. In the story a little hobbit named Bilbo wanted to live in peace and quiet. When his wizard friend drops by and talks to him and then leaves he finds that the next day there are a whole group of homeless dwarfs sitting in his house talking. They pull him in to a crazy adventure of rafting, dragons and all sorts of crazy dangers that he never even thought of. He stayed calm and went anyway and never gave up.

The evil person, character, or whatever is important (I actually think it’s most important) because if they weren’t  there what would the hero do?

A final thought from Miranda age 9:

School kids should have library class twice a week (at least) so that they can actually have time to read ‘cause kids really do need to read more than they do now.

W Miranda at Crane'sMiranda, at 13, has this to say:

What are some topics for books that teens like? (kids that you know, and yourself)
Many teens like the hyped up books like Hunger Games and the Fault in our stars. I have not read either of them, but I am sure they are great books. I really enjoy fantasy novels, especially ones with sequels, or ones in a long series.
What characteristics do the best stories have?
I think the best stories are believable, but I also think that suspension of disbelief is an important practice too. I like books that aren’t set in our world or time because I like to read in order to get away from my problems.
Which character in a book is most important?
The most important character in a book is always the antagonist. Without the antagonist, there would be no inciting incident, no rising action, and no climax. It’d be pretty boring.
What is your favorite book ever?
My favorite book ever would definitely have to be the “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.
Is there anything you wish that there was a book about?
I wish there were more young teen “romance” novels. I enjoy reading that sort of thing, but it’s so hard to find a nice romance novel that is appropriate. I do think that current day writers are doing a great job, but I also enjoy older literature such as Shakespeare. I LOVE SHAKESPEARE!!!!!!!!! Even if the sentences are a tad difficult to understand, the stories are so beautiful, and I’d love to see more like that, perhaps written in book form, instead of a play. I might like Shakespeare so much because I myself act and can therefore envision the stage, and beautiful scenery, all tied together with the perfect actors. But, maybe that’s just me. That and maybe because William Shakespeare invented my name… I’m not biased though. In fact that is how I was introduced to Shakespearian literature.
Do you have any final thoughts for writers and illustrators?

All in all I think that if there were more stories set in Shakespeare’s time with beautiful story lines such as his were I would read a lot more (of them).

Miranda Rose dos Santos
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