Answering questions

Kathy Halsey, a retired librarian who is writing for children, wants to know:

Q: What is your writing process?

Q: What are you currently working on?

Q: And so forth.


all rights reserved

all rights reserved


First, thank you for your career, Kathy, matching books to readers.

And thank you for your 2nd career, as a writer.

Back to the first. You likely answered ga-zillions of queries from anxious writers, seeking, for example an obscure local cookbook/history about Michigan maple sugaring via inter-library loan, from upper/lost/outer beautiful Michigan. Writers are also thankful for that. (Note to local taxpayers, support your library when it wants to continue the inter-library loan service, please.)

More  A:


Here is what should be, but is not always, on hand:

Cat, to do the typing

A deadline

Good health, rested body, peaceful mind

Fair trade (no child slave labor) organic dark chocolate, early a.m. only

Guayaki yerba mate (my hubby introduced it when he returned from Argentina), also a.m. only

An idea that I think about day & night & in my dreams & during conversations about movies & while I’m eating & walking & on & on. This is crucial.

The information I find to go with that idea.


Look at that.  Very little, to get me going.

I write in a rainbow of genres. For children, poetry, picture story book, concept book (like ABCs) illustrated non-fiction, fiction in chapter book & middle grade. For adults, magazine pieces, chapter contributions to non-fiction books, my own travel guides, poetry, & mystery stories.

So let’s narrow the mass down to a bit about how I wrote the newest book, SHE SANG PROMISE.

And this will also help me answer the pressing question of a school librarian from Winnetka IL, about the process for writing this specific book.

My newest book is an illustrated story from the life of a Native American leader who became a national figure with her achievements, including a presidential appointment. But she primarily made headlines in her home state, Florida.

And for kids, it was important to research one of her career oddities – she wrestled alligators. In the late 1940s, before reality teevee. For very little money.

I needed:


Local/regional/Tribe histories

A good oral history library

An understanding of events during the time span 1920s-1980s

My subject’s memoir & other publications

Old photographs/information about period clothing

Site visits to subject’s house/reservation/museums

My subject’s permission to tell her story to children (required by the publisher, but something I desire, anyhow)

Copy of her storytelling video

Details of her adult achievements

Observation of alligators & of people wrestling them

The story of her world took place significantly outdoors, so I needed notes about the flora & fauna & geography & weather of her child days.

I needed to begin lining up expert readers, to review my manuscript.

And I probably needed a few other things, which I am forgetting, here.



When I amassed shelves & binders & paper files of materials, including my subject’s newspaper articles & columns, because she edited her tribe’s paper, I began to write.

It was clunky.

So I did what any writer does. I turned to the editor for this project.

And bless her. She sent me lovely illustrated biographies. And then she gave me titles of others, to go look up.


In the second group, I found one that lit a fire under me & is still a favorite, when I read it in school.

It was created by Jacqueline Briggs Martin & Mary Azarian.

I get prickles on my arm when I remember first holding the powder blue cover, fringed with snowflakes. This wood-cut-assisted beauty is one of the best picture books I know about a real, but lesser-known, individual of our planet (that is the sort of person I am drawn to write about. ) The book  is SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY, a Caldecott winner.

And that book about a boy in Vermont obsessed with snowflakes, was a portal into feeling that I could pick my way along the path of  the story of a girl who grew up in subtropical Florida, keeping all manner of wild & domestic creatures as pets in her own informal hot-climate, outdoors zoo. Very different children, geography & life paths.

But the SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY team’s excellent storytelling in words & pictures inspired me.


By Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Artwork by Mary Azarian

By Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Artwork by Mary Azarian

Yet, I was still not writing something to send my editor.

How to begin it ? How to begin it?

When I disliked a ga-zillion first pages, I turned to something that has always amused me since my child days when I created a little cartoon character, Beanie. And that is, doodling. And so I doodled loopy loop shapes. And then on another page, after a few shapes took shape, I dropped the pad. I was unhappy. I looked up & saw on my wall, a map of Florida. The state where my subject was from. And I picked up the pad & began to draw an outline of the state of Florida. I began in the far northwest in the Panhandle. When my thick fat dark pencil reached the southeast part of the state, words appearing from who knows where  – the stars? the swamp?  engaged my neurons: “Think of a gigantic place at the end of land…”

And that was it. I was off and running.

Because I had amassed information on aspects of the world of Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, my subject, pieces of her life that would be kid magnets, I just kept on & on with the writing. Then, because I had written too much, my editor & the editor above her, helped me squeeze out duplications, of which there were umpteen-many.

O! there were many. But they got gone.

The story is told in chronological order, assisted with luscious artwork from Lisa Desimini, a letter to children from the subject’s son, and notes of further information for older children, parents, librarians & teachers.

Kirkus said: “Short poetic stanzas join jewel-toned illustrations to sing the satisfying story of Betty Mae Tiger Jumper.”

It is an American Library Association Top Ten Amelia Bloomer book (a list of titles about exemplary girls and women), it is selected by the National Council on the Social Studies &  it won the Florida Book Awards gold medal. The full title is SHE SANG PROMISE: The Story of Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole Tribal Leader.  It is part of the Accelerated Reader program & its listed on several library/history archives as a reference on Native American topics.

By Jan Godown Annino and Lisa Desimini

By Jan Godown Annino and Lisa Desimini


Q: What is your current project?


A:  A few in the cooker. This year so far I sent several poems for children to a university publisher’s contest & also submitted to an independent publisher, a 3,400-word mystery short story for adults. Another illustrated biography that I enjoyed researching is finished, not contracted, being read. I recently had fun writing a picture book based on my revision of a children’s folksong that has cool present-day ties, & I finished poems of whimsey, on a theme, for kiddos. A third new picture book manuscript is also almost ready to send out. If any of those see a green light I will  switch off from my zippy novel-in-progress for middle grade, & revise the previous project (s). Much as I love the current story & main character set in the 1960s in Florida, I hope for the temporary interruption via the working with-an-editor phase, of one of the “finished” pieces.

Thanks so very much for these Qs Kathy. And good luck with your contributions to the mighty fine new blog, GROG.

















social studies

Maps & globes. The state’s symbols. Our national landmarks & parks & wild places. The people who farmed, fished, created artwork & lived off the land before the time of Columbus. And, everything that happened after that.

Such as the people like my Dad, who , as a boy, worked on a tiny 3-legged stool, in a barn lit by a kerosene lantern.

If these topics make your heart beat fast, you may love Social Studies.

A separate subject, accompanired in years past with huge, vivid color pull-down maps on sturdy maple wood poles. Today the maps are downloaded with ease. And the spot on Earth studied is zoomed into by digital devices that delight me each time I play with them. Amazing,

I remember home walls that were map magnets. Mainly maps from the National Geographic magazine . But a special auto road map would be taped up (taped!), too.

Whether you are a card-carrying social studies type or, like me, you enjoy your own study,  here is a social studies oriented link about Betty Mae Tiger Jumper.

Readers & writers in joy at UCF Book Fest

Loreen Leedy (left) and Carmen Agra Deedy

If you are a picture book fan as I am,  please  imagine my joy – in hearing children’s authors of fantabulous picture books read their creations. In person.

Read isn’t the right word. They chortled. They sang. They lilted. They trilled. They whispered. They acted. And yes, I guess, they also read.

I’m wishing that my photographs could show the full range of expressions. And that means all the rapt faces of the kiddos. And,  fotos of all the children’s authors. Including private exhibitors who did the hard work of setting up & taking down their exhibitor books. I’m offering apologies that missing in mugs, are the scheduled children’s authors I was delighted to chat with:

Victoria Bond & T.R.Simon (ZORA AND ME), & Sea Grant/UCF authors Suzie Caffrey & Diahn Escue. But still, despite such deficiencies in reportage, please: Read on.

This goodness & joy unfolded like a spring lily at the 2nd annual (it’s a babe as festivals grow) University of Central Florida Book Festival. In Orlando.

Marianne Berkes & her seahorse

And since Florida has lost book festivals nearby, let’s not take the newbie for granted. Check back at the UCF book festival site, to see if the whispered date is a go for 2012; April 21 @ UCF.

(Bulletin – I returned home after a couple extra days away, to find that  M.R. Street, my critique partner, has finished revisions of her new novel.  Since I have novel R’s LOOMING  before me – I cheer for finished revisions. This post is dedicated to M.R. Street. Hope to have you sign your book for me at some future UCF book festival.


Snazzy opening reception anchored in Barnes & Noble/UCF, surrounded by lovely & hefty books, served with a generous side of  tasty tidbits (as reported by my hubby) , decadent deserts & non-electric (my favorite kind) classy music, performed  just for us. And this included what melts my heart – a talented harpist & her harp. I searched for my next-day co-presenters, but there were so many good book folks to stop & chat with from one end of the bookshop to the other, including poets, novelists (such as new talents powerhouses, Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon, & veteran non-fiction writers such as newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., who shared that his FIRST novel is in the works – everyone  didn’t always connect with who they set out to shake paws with.

THEN as if that wasn’t enough, we were treated to a pre-Broadway bound group of hoofers extraordinaire who sing & dance & speak about – reading & BOOKS.

Oh, were they great! My photo is borrowed from Florida Book Award winning author ( THE RED UMBRELLA) & now, book festival photographer, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, whose own mug is in this post, with another knockout UCF BF author presenter. the always Hon. Gov./Sen. Grand Floridian Bob Graham. Who everyone should thank many times over for his advocacy to preserve a portion of Florida’s special lands. (Gonzalez/Graham  foto taken at a different book event, as I didn’t always have  the camera handy,  at UCF.)

The BOOKENDS or BOOK ENDS. Either way - fantabulous!

History mavens: your blogger (left) Amie Leavitt & Judy Lindquist

The fact that this troupe, the BOOKENDS (Book Ends? ) isn’t yet appearing at the New York Public Library & at the Chicago Public Library & Boston PL  & D.C. PL & Seattle, etc. & Miami etc. & such, may have to do with their occupations. They are students, middle school students. Thus, they & their teachers keep a schedule more hectic than that of  published writers.  These young singers/actors/readers/writers/movie makers/ are phenomenal. Their energy alone could have lit the B & N lights, without electric wattage. The encore to the reception performance unfolded Saturday at the festival. (Which I didn’t get to see, alas.) Brava! & Bravo! to the BOOKENDS. I hope I am fortunate enough to experience you again, in other venues. Many thanks to  Christina Diaz Gonzalez for her beautiful online photo posts of these great kiddos, here: UCF Book Festival /Reader’s Theater Troupe

BookPALS/PencilPALS Florida coordinator Natalie Rogers (left) & her fan. Photo Credit: DYLAN

I am a devoted fan of the program that provides letters once a month (old-fashioned, placed in an envelope, with a U.S. postage stamp in the upper right hand corner) called PencilPALS & the companion program, called BookPALS (readers visit a classroom on schedule, to read JUST for the joy & love of reading.)

So it was the high point of my  book fest lunch hour that I found my way from the 3rd floor author’s lounge & lively convo. to the bustling activity of the exhibit floor to meet the maven of all this BookPAL/PencilPAL goodness, none other than Florida Coordinator Natalie Rogers. And here she is! I treasure this moment. If you have  a background in performance, such as theater, advertising voice overs or other stage presentations, please consider signing up with this program.

The photo was taken by 1 of her 2 young sons attending, who has a career in photography if you ask me. This young man also tenderly oversaw the patient waiting of his younger brother.  Mom,  do you think these wonderful young readers deserve an extra book for  this? Yes?

Okay, back to the authors. (And many thanks to dear hubby Paolo Annino for many of the fotos that I didn’t take.)

Marianne Berkes is a Florida interpreter of the natural world for the young bunch – bridging our stale living rooms with the freshness of all outdoors, and doing so in rollicking rhyme.  She manages to teach the newest concepts of space, she helps young ones ones count, while letting them know about science & nature found everywhere, especially under the sea and most recently, over in Australia.  It was a pleasure to spend time with her. She introduced me to Suzie Caffery & Diahn Escue, who accomplish the same challenging job of explaining high science concepts with ease. BUT often to even younger fry. That they also do this whilst at the same time, teaching preschool in Florida in an exemplary fashion, means I am in awe of this dynamic duo. Here are some of the dedicated & delightful Caffery/Escue team’s, wonderful, rhyming, books. The next one will tackle explanation of Florida’s ancient Indian middens to the youngest & I am eager to line up for a copy of THAT gem.

Cute Caffery/Escue Collaborations

Marianne Berkes & I were fortunate to be paired (tripled?) with the generous, multi award-winning, Carmen Agra Deedy, on a panel, “Opening Children’s Hearts to Culture & Nature.”

After watching & listening to Carmen play all the parts in her picture book ( illustrated in a dazzling yet soft way, by artist Michael Austin) MARTINA, the BEAUTIFUL COCKROACH, (a title of great import in Florida) which I would have bought a ticket to see & hear, ringside as I was, I am more than ever before an unabashed fan.  In my packing before the trip I left behind my 2nd library bag with Marianne Berkes, Loreen Leedy & Carmen Agra Deedy (I love saying Leedy & Deedy in the same sentence) books in it, so I didn’t get those autographs. But I did get this one on the p. book I bought from the wonderful perky B & N staff at the fest. How cute is this image of Martina Josefina Catalina Cucaracha?  Carmen is super not only with writing & storytelling, but also in artful autographing with squiggly lines. Lesson noted. Actually, many lessons from Carmen, and the other authors, noted. Loreen Leedy, you should know, holds more talent than the average bookstore author – as a gifted illustrator AND writer. And, a wonderful aunt, so-  read on.

MARTINA, as drawn by Carmen Agra Deedy

LOOK AT MY BOOK by Loreen Leedy author & illustrator, How Kids Can Write & Illustrate Terrific Books

One of my best moments of a day of  beautiful moments, involved  a young reader  &  my alligator word search hand out. I have the habit of challenging kiddos to make all the words they can, out of the letters in alligator – some 30 words are possible. (This only makes sense if you know that the subject of my p.b. bio, Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, wrestled alligators when her husband was too ill to entertain tourists, his job to keep food on the table for her & the kiddos in South Florida, after his service to the U.S. in World War II.) As a tipoff for the alligator word search, I said there are 3 words with only 2 letters. Wrong! CONGRATULATIONS to the sharp-eyed word-searcher, who has a great career ahead in editing, if you ask me. (The video takes place in front of one of the many fine vendors. I restrained myself with a purchase from those enticing  book crates-  but picture book fan that I am, it was tough. Do visit, online or in Orlando,  Leedy’s Books . ) And see more on the UCF festival as reported in 2010 (the FIRST one) by Loreen Leedy here & with her 2011 video clip, here . Great to finally meet you, Loreen.

As for the Culture & Nature  panel I mentioned, it was sweet for me by Saturday afternoon, to recognize faces in the audience – folks I had chatted with during the weekend. This is the lone unfuzzed foto I have of our panel. The foloup questions made us think. And I appreciate that so many readers are curious about Betty Mae Tiger Jumper; the picture book biography about her, SHE SANG PROMISE, was the reason for my travel to Orlando.

My focus wasn’t novels, but let me not wind down without sharing that I’ve asked at my library for purchase of  SAVING HOME by Judy Lindquist and Amie Leavitt’s intriguing  THE BATTLE of the ALAMO. It has the set-up where the young reader, following an Arkansas farm boy, can select an outcome. Clever, no? And Judy has a Timucua girl character in her St. Augustine-set story. History in novels is what I love to read. And can you sneak any  closer to Florida’s celebrated literary heritage than by treating yourself to the un-airconditioned days back when, in

ZORA and ME? Imagine Zora Neale Hurston’s best childhood friends. Imagine the fun & trouble these 3 kiddos conjured up, in Eatonville, FL. New talents Bond & Simon have looked into that crystal ball , in a clear, beautiful way. BRAVA!

SAVING HOME by Judy Lindquist

Amie Jane Leavitts BATTLE of the ALAMO

NOT FEATHERS YET Lola Haskins (sweet that her granddaughter is the cover model )

And I am nuts about great books on our craft. So it was good to renew an aquaintance with NOT FEATHERS YET author, poet  Lola Haskins, & also to discover that the wonderful novelist Judith Ortiz Cofer, has this gem: LESSONS from a WRITER’S LIFE.

LESSONS from a WRITERs LIFE Judith Ortiz Cofer

As promised, here as coda, I present The Hon. Bob Graham & Christina Diaz Gonzalez, from a moment when  I snapped them at Florida Heritage Month events  in Tallahassee, March 2011. PLUS, an extra bonus,here is the official 2011 UCF Book Festival poster with  calm books above calm water in the unique vision by UCF Book Festival artist Pamela Miller. Everyone who could, got her autograph of their copy. And some lucky folks bought more of her work.

Read about the aritst, here.

"Worlds on the Horizon" by Pamela Miller