Category Archives: Blog Post

From the outside

I don’t know of a single good fiction writer who doesn’t write outside their own experience. Period.

But here’s the thing: Not all ‘outsides’ are created equal.

(For purposes of this piece, I’m going to use race/skin color. Swap out the terms and it applies to many other minority cultures.)

Minorities live in the dominant culture—by definition, right? I am a member of a minority culture (Asian-American) who lives in the dominant culture (white American). I exist in more than one culture. The dominant culture IS my culture; I’m part of it, I’ve lived in it my whole life. When I create middle-class American characters, I’m writing from inside the culture, not outside. I even know the largely white experience of not having to think about my skin color (rare, but it does happen), which means I can and do write white characters.

The reverse is seldom true.

If you are white, when you write a character who is a person of color, you are almost always writing from outside that culture—by definition.

Ergo: It is easier / more authentic / more natural (pick one) for me to create white middle-class characters than it is for you (theoretical white dominant-culture person) to create a character of color. Sorry, that’s the way it breaks. Because once again, I’m not writing from ‘outside my culture’. You are.

So the plain truth of it is that you have a lot more work to do. Hard work. And here’s the next thing: Research is necessary, but not enough.

It’s not enough to do the google/wiki thing. Or to watch lots of videos and documentaries and listen to lots of podcasts. It’s not enough to go to the library and read dozens of books and articles. Research is vital. It is no substitute for experience.

Here are a couple of examples of writers finding their way into another culture via experience. Debby Dahl Edwardson is a white American who writes Inupiat characters. She has lived in an Inupiat community for most of her adult life. She’s married to an Inupiat man. She has half-Inupiat children. Like me, she exists in more than one culture, and that’s where she’s coming from when she writes her amazing and memorable characters.

Okay, you say, but I can’t move to Alaska and marry an Inupiat. Fair enough. Look to James Rumford, then. White American, from Hawaii, author, illustrator, linguist, storyteller. He has written (or written and illustrated) picture books set in at least a dozen international cultures.

Before James writes a story set in another culture, he studies the language. As in, for years. He is now fluent in several languages (including Chinese and Arabic!), and conversant in several more. He wrote a book in Brazilian Portuguese that won awards in Brazil.

Both Edwardson and Rumsford have respect and passion for the cultures their characters come from, and they’ve put in the time to prove it. That’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about. It ain’t no wiki. And all of the above applies in essence if not in degree to secondary characters as well as protagonists: The token, flat secondary character is nothing but a superficial nod at inclusion.

Respect. Passion. And most of all, time. If you, theoretical white dominant-culture person, want to write believable and valuable characters of color, start by investing in those three things.

Response to a Twitter post


A couple days ago, I read a post on Twitter in which a writer mentioned that he deliberately did not specify his characters’ race/ethnicity because he wanted all readers to be able to identify with them.

I’ve heard this before from other writers, including prominent ones. It’s a problem.

If a story depicts someone who leaves their own home and interacts with others in public spaces (in other words, almost any novel ever written) but never or almost never has to consider their racial identity, THAT CHARACTER IS WHITE. This could even serve as a reasonable definition of ‘white privilege’: Only those of the dominant culture have that incredible luxury.

A POC can never go outside their own home or family circle without thinking about their racial identity in some way. The trigger is not always malicious or even negative, but it is inescapable. A POC’s racial identity IS NOT THEIR SOLE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC–but in society, it is *always* a consideration.

So if story setting is proto ‘western world,’ and a character’s racial identity never comes up? They’re not ‘race neutral.’

They’re white.

Recent reading

It took me a while, but I finally figured it out: Why I haven’t blogged my reading in so long. Last year, from about May through October, I was a panelist for the Kirkus Prize. 350+ books inside six months, picture books, middle-grade, and YA. WAY too many to blog about.

After that I couldn’t pick up a book for young readers for MONTHS. Never thought it would be possible to burn out on reading kids’ books, but it happened. I read nothing but adult mystery series and adult nonfiction for weeks and weeks.

But in the last month or two, some amazing and wonderful books have come my way…and I’m BA-A-A-A-CK.



THE LEVELLER, by Julia Durango. YA fiction. Set in the (very near) future of virtual-reality games. A terrific read for lovers of action/adventure stories, gamers, and fans of good writing–OF ANY GENDER. Skillful inclusion of some Cuban history as well as a little romance. *I read it in one gulp.*



THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. Middle-grade memoir, adaptation of a best-selling book for adults. If you liked getting to know Salva Dut in A LONG WALK TO WATER, you’ll find Kamkwamba’s story amazing and inspiring too. A young teen in Mali builds a windmill out of scrap to bring electricity, and hence water, to his family’s drought-stricken farm.










THE YEAR WE SAILED THE SUN, by Theresa Nelson. Middle-grade historical fiction. One of my all-time favorite writers! A gritty story set in 1912 St. Louis, with a setting so real you can feel it, and a character to cheer your heart out for. Can eleven-year-old Julia Delaney find a home and a family when her own falls apart? Don’t let the lyrical cover and title fool you; IMHO they belie the humor, action, and gutsiness of Julia and her story.



KISSING IN AMERICA, by Margo Rabb. YA contemporary. Road trip time! Two teen girls, one on her way to see the love of her life, the other to appear on a TV game show. Friendship, first love, and deep grief, laugh-out-loud humor and gorgeous writing. Plus a great cover!



BONE GAP, by Laura Ruby. YA fantasy. Teenage Finn tries to solve the mystery of a kidnapping, and falls in love along the way. Ambitious structure, with the story told (mostly) from three third person viewpoints. Wonderful setting, with surprising but well-earned plot and character twists (which carried me past the minor annoyance of the intrusion of two chapters from other POVs). Daring. Intriguing. Unusual. Read it.



 ECHO, by Pam Munoz Ryan. Middle-grade historical fiction/fairy tale. Three stories–no, four. Wait, maybe it’s five?–that follow a harmonica that might or might not be magical–on its journey through several decades and lives. A remarkable mashup!


THE SECOND GUARD, by J.D. Vaughn. Middle-grade fantasy. HURRAH for a fantasy that 1) uses Latin-American tropes instead of the weary European ones and 2) has a great kick-ass girl protagonist! Talimendra must train to become part of the Queen’s guard and help save the realm of Tequende. Can’t wait for the next installment.


THE KIDNEY HYPOTHETICAL, by Lisa Yee. YA contemporary. The last seven days of Higgs Boson Biggs’ high-school career, during which everything he’s worked hard for starts to fall apart. FUNNY and moving by turns–or at the same time, and I still can’t think of the title premise without cracking up.



ARCADY’S GOAL, by Eugene Yelchin. Middle-grade historical fiction. What was it like to be a child in Stalinist Russia–a child whose parents have been ‘disappeared’? Arcady’s story might have been unrelentingly grim, but it’s leavened by moments of tenderness and his passion for soccer. The spare writing suits the subject matter perfectly, with the bonus of lovely and haunting illustrations by the author.

 I’m so lucky, to live in a world and a time with such books in it!


May 2015: The Balkans Tour and BEA

Bucharest, Sofia, and Belgrade. Three great cities and three terrific schools.

 A few of MANY highlights:

American International School of Bucharest: The ‘Balkans Tour’ was the brainchild of librarian John Kurtenbach, whom I got to visit in Peru in 2013. When he moved to Romania, he invited me to visit there as well! Librarian Stacey Socholotuk hosted me for two great days, with A LONG WALK TO WATER as their One Book One School read. I saw students from pre-K through Grade 8, and did an evening presentation for parents and families.



Here’s a link to AISB’s Facebook page about my visit:

And Stacey took me and my husband out for really good Italian food at Grano.

Anglo-American School of Sofia: Librarian Rebecca Battistoni took care of me in Bulgaria, where I did sessions for grades K-8, as well as one for a tenth-grade class (LOVE getting to visit with high-school students). While there I was able to announce that AAS was one of the second-prize winners of Salva Dut’s Iron Giraffe Challenge! The school will get a 15-minute Skype with Salva.

Our time in Sofia included two FUN dinners out. The first, with Rebecca, School Director Jim Urquhart, and counselor/athletic director Andie Urquhart; the second, with faculty and staff at a wonderful traditional Bulgarian restaurant.

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Librarian Rebecca Battistoni with friends including Joe Herr, 4th grade teacher (right), and LOTS of Bulgarian food.

AAS Facebook page link:

International School of Belgrade: My host for Serbia was Librarian Mallory Goetz. I met with students pre-K through grade 8; did a writing workshop for middle- and high-school students as well; and an evening presentation for parents. Mallory and the school brass–Director Rob Risch, Lower School principal Brian Lettinga, and Upper School principal Angelo Coskinas–took us out to Terassa, a restaurant within the medieval Kalemegdan Fortress, which wins hands-down for ‘Best Setting’ of all the restaurants we went to.

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After Belgrade, I got to spend three more days in Bucharest just for fun, including a day in the Transylvanian countryside, which looked like this:

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…with flowers growing everything, including wild orchids like this:

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And on our last night before flying home, we had my favorite meal of the trip, at The Artist in Bucharest, which offers a ‘spoon tasting’ menu: one spoonful of EVERY item on the menu! Swoon!

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After a week of jet-lag recovery, it was back on the road again, this time to NYC. I visited the Strand Bookstore, where Brianne Sperber hosted a great event with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from Castle Middle School in Manhattan.



I also got to catch a Mets game with my dear friend Nancy Quade. Here she is standing with her foot next to her brick at Citi Field, a gift from her son (who was best friends with my son in grades K-2): “Nancy Quade and Nathan Kaplan Remember Game 5.” (And true Mets fans will get the reference immediately. A grand-slam single? Look it up!)



The most important reason for my trip was to participate on the We Need Diverse Books panel at BookExpo America. I was honored to be asked to speak on this panel. We had a great time, but also discussed some serious issues. Thanks to everyone who attended, tweeted, and followed the live tweets–it was a terrific audience!


With the other panelists: Tim Federle, me, Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, and Matt de la Pena. (photo credit: Claire Kirch)

C-Span recorded the event:

What a spring I’ve had! I enjoyed my travels immensely but am already back at the day job. I love my boss, and I’ve missed him:


More photos from Dubai

From the American School of Dubai, where I spent the last two weeks.


2015-03-22 05.45.27Members of student council staffing the first station on the elementary school’s Water Walk.


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Students in third through fifth grade, who read A LONG WALK TO WATER, buddied with younger students, walking them around the track to the three stations and explaining Salva’s and Nya’s story.


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Mr. Baltes helps a student balance a jerry can on her head, to get an idea of what it might feel like to be Nya, carrying water every day.



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The Korean/Korean-American teachers took me out for a delightful dinner one evening. From left, Jae Baik, Shirley Pyon, Jenny Sohn, and me. All-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, of course!


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An evening of great pizza and even better conversation: From left: high school psychology teacher Christina Advento, me, author John Coy, elementary school principal JohnEric Advento. Behind us: the lights of The Palm artificial island.




An order of muhammura (various spellings), walnut and red pepper paste, and fresh watermelon juice. Extras of bread, fresh vegetable plate and olives included. Serious yum.


At the Mall of the Emirates:


The famous indoor ski slope. Very popular. I stood there, my mind boggling . . . at whoever thought up the idea–and then made it work!



‘Coach’ in Arabic!



I liked this window at Harvey Nichols: Giantess and fancy backpack. Passerby at right for scale.


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The farewell party, on the rooftop of the Souk Madinat. From left: elementary librarian Natasha Pollock; high school librarian Jenny Baltes; middle-school librarian Jill Egan; John Coy; me; primary librarian Carly Brown; library paraprofessional Mara Ziemelis. What a team! How I hated to leave them!


A magical 24 hours

The work week in Dubai is Sunday-Thursday, so today (Friday) was the start of the weekend. Late yesterday afternoon, I took a taxi to Dubai’s Public Beach, right smack in the heart of the city. It was very windy, with sand whipping everywhere, but the beach and sea were beautiful, and there were lots of little shells. (I love picking up little shells.)

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Then, on the recommendation of librarian Natasha Pollock, I walked a short distance from the beach to a restaurant called Bu Qtair. The opposite of fancy–it’s literally a trailer. No menu. You can have fish, or prawns, or both. Stand in line (with locals and tourists alike); choose your fish when you get to the window; pay by weight. Go outside and wait for your fish to be cooked. When it’s done, a runner calls your name and brings your fish plus a plate of lettuce and lemon quarters. Another runner brings your table. You read that correctly: From somewhere behind the trailer, he hauls out one of those white plastic patio style tables and a stool; you sit, and your fish gets plonked in front of you. A big serving of rice, a pile of flatbread, and a bowl of curry sauce are extra. 25 cents extra. Plastic utensils are available, but I watched the locals and did as they did: ate the freshly grilled piping hot fish with my hands.

2015-03-13 19.37.06Bu Qtair, al fresco seafood at its best.



Pick your fish. I was told that the one I chose is called a ‘hamour.’ It’s coated with a dry rub and gets seared on a big round metal grill…

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…positively crackling crisp outside, tender inside.

After that feast, I walked a couple miles of the beach boardwalk to the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, where the ASD teachers were having their annual Habitat for Humanity fundraiser: a trivia bowl! It was a really fun evening, and I proudly contributed the correct answer ‘Stone Temple Pilots’ to one of the questions.

Only a few hours later, I was up before the sun. Natasha met me at the hotel, and a car picked us up at 5:15am to take us to Al Maha Resort for a day-trip package, their ‘Activities Adventure.’ This stunning resort is located within the grounds of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve about an hour outside the city. We arrived at 6:30, just in time for the beginning of the falcony demonstration. Three falcons and an eagle strutted their stuff for us, including this beauty:


At the end of the demo, she patiently let each of the spectators get up close and personal:


I did say ‘magical’, didn’t I….

Breakfast was next. While we ate, one of the locals dropped by:


Gazelles (like this one) and oryxes are the two largest animals in the preserve.

Next we toured one of the stunning tent suites and then hit the pool area. Oryx, anyone?

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After lunch, we were taken on a wildlife drive, offroad through the dunes. We saw lots more gazelles and oryxes, including a herd with babies nursing!

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Our sharp-eyed guide also spotted a rare lizard, which we admired from afar. Back at the resort, we browsed the gift shop, and had tea and dessert in a deck area with stunning desert views. We drove out of the reserve at sunset, the end of a better-than-perfect day.

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Tomorrow: Taste of Dubai Food Festival!

In Dubai!

Just finished my first week at the American School of Dubai (ASD), and it couldn’t have been better. The librarians and teachers have worked all year to prepare for my visit, and the students are BEYOND AWESOME. The school is so supportive of author presentations that every year, not one but TWO authors visit, so I’m lucky to have John Coy here at the same time: We’re both having a blast!

With John, ready for our first day:

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Students who spoke at the opening welcome assembly getting last-minute tips, with librarians Carly Brown (far left) and Natasha Pollock (right).

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Natasha and John at the assembly.

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A HUGE honor: ASD chose A LONG WALK TO WATER for their first-ever One School One Book program. EVERY student from 3rd grade through high-school seniors read the book! Here’s a display in the elementary library, where students added drops of water with their comments on the book.




At dinner with the amazing librarians. From left: me, K-1 Librarian Carly Brown; elementary librarian Natasha Pollock, author John Coy; middle school librarian Jill Egan; high school librarian Jenny Baltes.

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IT teacher Renee Williams, a longtime Dubai resident, gave us a wonderful tour of the historic district called the Creek. Here’s Renee standing in a traditional Dubai house that’s been converted into the Majlis Art Gallery.



Cross the Creek in an abra, or water taxi. Fare: 1 dirham, about 27 cents!


I have much more to add about my time here in Dubai, and the best part is, it’s only half over! This week I got to spend time with middle-school students, and those in grades 3-5. Next week: kindergarten through grade 2, plus high school. More posts to come!


Below an excerpt from the graduation appreciation speech I gave for Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children program.

* * *

Your best work. It matters. I titled this speech ‘Mattering.’ In the broadest possible sense, books matter. One of the first thing any despotic regime does is to ban or burn books. I wrote about this in WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO, about how the Japanese colonists burned Korean books by the millions, and of course that action has been repeated countless times all over the world throughout human history since the dawn of the written word. Tyrants know that books matter, that books give people power of the most dangerous kind: the power to think independently.

And books for young readers matter even more, for many reasons. Books for babies and toddlers matter because they introduce the very idea of the book as a source of wonder. Holding a book, turning the page, looking at the pictures, making connections between the book and the world: Without these skills, pre-readers cannot become readers. And if pre-readers do not become readers, the world as we know it is doomed. I am not exaggerating.

Young readers need books that grow progressively more sophisticated as they do—they need them quite literally for the development of their brains. It turns out that the act of reading triggers brain stimulation in more areas and on more levels than any other sedentary activity. There is a dramatic and visible difference in brain scans between readers and nonreaders. Reading doesn’t just make kids smarter because they learn what’s on the pages. It actually makes their brains more powerful.

Reading nurtures extended thinking, deep and sustained thought. It gets below the surface of mere conscious communication into the deeper levels of imagery and connection. It is on those levels that we humans experience the sudden flashes of insight, and make the intuitive leaps of discovery that end up changing the world. If young people do not become readers, those parts of their brains will shrivel and die; the insights and discoveries will become fewer and less frequent, and that is why I was not exaggerating when I said that that without raising new generations of readers, the world as we know it is doomed.

These days people talk a lot about the inundation of images in our lives, particularly screen images. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m more interested in how we’re all constantly bombarded by words. Texts, tweets, posts, sites, I don’t need to tell you. Words have become our cheapest currency. The great books of the world increase the value of words exponentially. Young readers need well-written books to show them the true value of words.

Books for young readers matter because they explore worlds and ideas that a kid might be encountering for the very first time. When we adults read a book that we love, we might indeed learn something new from it. But the reason we love it is that on either a conscious or subconscious level, it confirms our world view and by doing so, affirms our sense of self.

With young readers, that sense of self is still developing. If the story you write explores an animal-fantasy world in which squirrels are slaves, you may well be introducing your readers to the truth of slavery for the first time. They might have encountered the concept of slavery in textbooks or a television documentary; they might even know some of the facts. They need your story to explore the truth, which is far more than just the facts, ma’am.

Every great middle-grade novel explores the same question: How do we respond to an unfair world? That’s why I love middle-grade so much. Life isn’t fair. The great middle-grade novel shows us how to respond to unfairness with both grit and grace. It is a lesson that most of us have to keep re-learning our whole lives, but the great stories we read as children can give us a head start on practicing. That’s another thing I believe: that reading is practice for life. Life is unfair and can also be bewildering and difficult, and we all need all the practice we can get.

Whatever the age or genre, what young readers need is stories that do two things: engage, and stick. Stories that are so compelling we get lost in them while we’re reading, and then cannot get them out of our minds afterwards. Characters we care about. Plots that intrigue. Language that enchants. Those are the kinds of stories that foster deeper levels of thinking. They are the opposite of disposable culture, of surface amusement created without heart, easily forgettable and instantly forgotten. They are the stories and books that matter.

* * *

This week on NPR, I listened to part of an interview with the author Wes Moore. He was talking about work. He said that work becomes joy when you figure out where your passion meets the world’s needs. Those of you who are graduating today—you’ve proven your passion. You’ve invested time and money and sweat and probably some emotional agony in your degree. And I’ve already talked about why good books for young readers are needed in the world. Those of us privileged to live here in the U.S. have, I believe, a special responsibility to nurture both leaders and citizens with the capability for the kind of thoughtfulness I spoke of earlier.

Jackie Woodson says that she’s trying to change the world one reader at a time. I admit that there are times when I despair of this goal, when the accursed 24-hour news cycle seems to broadcast nothing but hatred and the terrible things we human beings can’t seem to stop doing to one another. But if the choice is to stop trying, to let the haters win, then there is no choice, is there? Never give up, never surrender. (Any Galaxy Quest fans?)

Where your passion meets the world’s needs. The world does not need more chatter, more empty words. The world needs stories that make us laugh and cry while we’re reading, and think and remember when we’re done. The world needs the stories you are passionate about, written as well as you can possibly write them. In this very room today are people who will produce stories like that, in what I hope is the very near future. 

–St. Paul MN, Jan. 18, 2015


At Hamline, with Dean Mary Rockcastle and grads looking on.

“In the Room”

Kirkus PrizeFirst blog post after a LONG hiatus! I’ve found that I enjoy tweeting, so please follow me on Twitter @LindaSuePark. But some thoughts just won’t fit into 140 characters, no matter how strenuously edited. Ergo…

I’m currently serving on the panel of the inaugural Kirkus Prize, Young Readers literature category. Along with John Peters and Dr. Claudette S. McLinn, we received more than 440 books, from which we had to choose six finalists.

The books we were sent had all been given a star by Kirkus Reviews, so there wasn’t a stinker in the whole pile. I’m proud of the six titles we settled on (after countless hours of individual contemplation and several marathon conference sessions). You can read about them here: And the winner will be announced on October 23: We have an exciting task ahead of us.

What I want to do in this post is to acknowledge how difficult it was to come up with that list of six titles. The books that were ‘in the room’ during our discussions deserve to be highlighted. These books were removed only after much kicking and screaming by one or more of the panelists. If you took the finalists along with the books below as your ‘to-read’ list, I think you’ll be set for a mighty fine stretch of reading.

Here they are, the laudable but cigar-less, alphabetical by author:

Picture books:

  VANILLA ICE CREAM, by Bob Graham

  EYE TO EYE, by Steve Jenkins

  THOMAS JEFFERSON, by Maira Kalman




Middle grade:

  THE MADMAN OF PINEY WOODS, by Christopher Paul Curtis


  NINE OPEN ARMS, by Benny Lindelauf

  RAIN REIGN, by Ann M. Martin


  THE BOUNDLESS, by Kenneth Oppel

  WEST OF THE MOON, by Margi Preus

 BROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacqueline Woodson



  SORROW’S KNOT, by Erin Bow

  HEAP HOUSE, by Edward Carey

  THE FAMILY ROMANOV, by Candace Fleming

  EGG & SPOON, by Gregory Maguire

   FRIDA & DIEGO, by Catherine Reef

  BELZHAR, by Meg Wolitzer


 Finally, a few more titles that I personally adored:

 Picture books:

  HERE COMES THE EASTER CAT! by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda


  THE ANIMAL BOOK, by Steve Jenkins

  EXTRAORDINARY JANE, by Hanna E. Harrison

  BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, by H. Chuku Lee, illustrated by Pat Cummings


Middle grade:

  OUTSIDE IN, by Sarah Ellis

  ANGEL ISLAND, by Russell Freedman

   FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, NATE! by Tim Federle

   SPARKERS, by Eleanor Glewwe



  THE LAST FOREVER, by Deb Caletti

  AS RED AS BLOOD, by Salla Simukka

  GIRL DEFECTIVE, by Simmone Howell


Applause all around!

What a privilege it has been to serve on this committee. John and Claudette have been a true pleasure to work with. And Kirkus editor Vicky Smith has kept things humming along beautifully, responding thoughtfully and helpfully to our every request.

Wish us luck choosing the winner, and watch for the announcement on October 23!

One more photo…

At the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, some of the many volunteers run the Busy Bookworm activity center, with book-centered arts and crafts for young readers. This year, there was a simple-but-GENIUS craft project to go with XANDER’S PANDA PARTY: an awesome paper-plate hand puppet!

Sarah Mead, with book and puppet.

Sarah Mead, with book and puppet. Sarah not only helps with the activities but also does the Festival’s website.

I am the proud owner of one such puppet. Every home should have one (along with the book, of course). 😉