So what’s the link between these pictures?


The Schmutzy Family: Russian Translation


See that tiny glow on stage? That’s Dolly.


Me in the Dolly shirt my husband got for me.












The answer is literacy! Also: yesterday.

Yesterday, I received a Russian translation of The Schmutzy Family from Holiday House. The new edition is for PJ Library, a Jewish book club that sends free books to Jewish kids. For free. The organization has recently branched into Mexico and Russia.

When PJ first started, they got advice and help from Dolly Parton‘s crew at Imagination Library. Dolly started that program in Tennessee to help foster a love of reading with kids and families. The program has since expanded to all over the US and beyond.

And yesterday, I got to see Dolly perform at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. I’ve only seen her once before, in Raleigh when some friends took me for my birthday (thank you, friends!) But I have been a Dolly fan for a long time, and here’s why:

When I was covering music for The Roanoke Times, a lot of the country music singers I interviewed didn’t write their own songs. Dolly (who I never got to interview) wrote thousands. Think about that. THOUSANDS. She also plays multiple instruments, acts, writes books, has a head for business and is funny as all get out. Plus: Literacy. Music + Literacy = Love.




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The End of the School Year

Now that my kids are older, I don’t see their teachers every day or even every week. But I hear about them. I hear about them at the dinner table and in the car on the way to soccer practice. I hear about things they say and projects they assign. And though the kids’ sentences do contain some ughs and the ritual homework kvetching, they also contain sparks. And light.

So to the teacher whose door was always open, and whose idea of “no child left behind” had nothing to do with the federal government, but everything to do with caring about each and every kid: thank you.

To the teacher who turned the classroom into a real community, who had the kids writing and sharing and laughing and reaching: thank you.

To the teacher who encouraged her students to mine their individual strengths and senses of humor all year long:  thank you.

To the teacher who noticed when something was bothering one of her students, even though she had a bazillion others: thank you.

To the teacher whose homework assignments included “go outside”: thank you

To the librarian who sifted through book after book, matching the right one with the right kid: Thank you.

To the music director who changed our lives: There are no words, but I’ll start with the basic two. Thank you.

Last year, I wrote a bunch of summer writing prompts for kids and adults (find them by using the search and looking for key words “summer writing.”) I’ll post some prompts this summer, too, as I think of them.  But I’ll start with this one: Write a thank-you note to a teacher or staff member. You can always start by adding a word of thanks in the comments, here!

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Genre Jumpers: Rob Lunsford

I first met Rob Lunsford at The Roanoke Times, where he had an office with big, glass windows that looked out over the newsroom. (I just made that sound way more majestic than it actually was.) From that room, he did all types of maps, graphics and illustrations for the newspaper under extremely tight deadlines. While his job did include inking illustrations for children’s stories that ran in serial form in the paper’s back pages, I’m counting his illustrations for Deborah Kalb‘s The President and Me: George Washington and the Magic Hat, as a genre jump.

Me: What were some of your first illustrations?

Robert L photo2

Rob, looking serious.

R: I used to ask folks to draw a letter or number and then I would turn it into a picture, a figure, a face. an animal etc.

For example, a 7 made the perfect start for a left-facing man’s face with a flat-top haircut. 8? Just add a circle on top and go for the snowman. This was probably mid elementary school.

Me: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

R: I guess it kind of snuck up one me. High school was about over and I needed a plan. Folks had always liked my drawings so I applied to art school

Me: What’s the first piece of art work you got paid for doing?

R: The summer between fifth and sixth grade I wanted money for some mail order deal. I got neighborhood kids to bring me their T-shirts and pay me 25 cents to put Magic Marker drawings on them.

Me: What’s the most recent piece of art work you published that was not a children’s picture book. 

R: I still do my share of maps and graphics. As far as illustration,  I recently did a “coloring book” style full-page drawing for the local newspaper. The idea was to pick up on the popularity of grown-up coloring books using local and regional landmarks as images.

Me: Talk a little about the different mediums you use for your illustrations.

R: It started with pen and ink or airbrush. That all changed when the Macintosh with drawing programs came along. It was made for me.

Me: Have you done any other illustration work for children? If so, discuss.

prez4R: When I was still at the newspaper I did illustrations for  a few “Newspaper in Education”  chapter-a-week stories. These projects, like “The President and Me” were designed for a juvenile audience.

While not specifically designed for children, I drew a  few “Night Before Christmas” pages and most recently a Halloween maze page. Probably wasn’t quite complicated enough to call it grown-up so we might could call it a children’s illustration.

Me: Do you have a certain audience you picture when you work on illustrations?

R: I just try to understand my specific audience just like when I was doing information graphics for the newspaper. It was never enough to just decorate the facts. Before I tried to explain it, I wanted to understand the information and I wanted to know who I was trying to explain it to.

Me: What type of audience do you like working for the best? (Young people, older people, motor cycle gangs, etc.)

R: Funny you would use motorcycle gangs as a group.  My son is a mechanic and fabricator at a high-end motorcycle shop. We’ve recently been working together on a motorcycle shop logo. That’s been a pleasant project so far.  But really, it’s not the group. It’s when the job comes out right. It’s when I like it and the client likes it and the client appreciates the effort.

Me: Have you depicted George Washington before in your art work? If so, what did he look like? Any images you can share?

R: I’ve drawn plenty of George’s on dollar bills but so far I can’t find one. I’m no stranger to presidents. I did find the attached Lincoln/Grant picture that ran with a story about gifts from $5 to $50 dollars. I think it’s a good example of the presidential caricature style that I enjoy.lincolnforblog

Me: How does one type of illustration work inform another? Courtroom illustration v. kidlit, for example.

R: Courtroom to kids is a good example. Courtroom drawing uses body language, subtle expressions, mannerisms. It’s about being observant. There’s a certain subtle caricature style to it. All of these details make for improving the visual story telling.

Me: Are their any genres you’d like to try that you haven’t tried yet?

R: Coming from a line of carpenters, cabinetmakers and craftspeople I have a calling to do more three-dimensional work. My wife and I have collaborated on a number of carved and painted projects over the years and I’d like to do more.


Thanks, Rob! For more information, visit For books by friends of mine at The Roanoke Times, visit my pinterest page.


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Genre Jumpers: Deborah Kalb

prez4It’s been awhile since I’ve featured a genre jumper on my blog so today I’m introducing you to Deborah Kalb, who jumped genres to write a middle-grade novel called The President and Me: George Washington and the Magic Hat, released this spring from Schiffer Publishing. Stay tuned for a follow-up with illustrator Rob Lunsford, one of my coworkers from  The Roanoke Times (where, come to think of it, he illustrated some of my stories too.) But first: Deborah!

Me: Which came first: fiction or nonfiction, picture book or novel?

prez2D: I worked on nonfiction books for adults first, starting with reference books about politics and government for Congressional Quarterly and then writing a book with my father, Marvin Kalb, about the legacy of the Vietnam War, called Haunting Legacy. But, like many journalists and former journalists, I have several unpublished novels—mystery novels, in my case—stuffed away in a drawer!

Me: What was the first thing you ever published. (And yes, grade-school newspapers count.)

D: I think it was probably a short story I wrote for my high school literary magazine.

Me: How is your current project different from other books you’ve written?

D: My current book is very different from the serious books for adults that I wrote before—although it does include a lot of history! George Washington and the Magic Hat is a middle-grade novel that is the first in a series called The President and Me. It focuses on a group of fifth graders in Bethesda, Maryland, who end up going on some amazing time-travel adventures and meeting the presidents, while also dealing with the trials and tribulations of their present-day lives. It was great to be able to include some humor in my writing! Now I’m working on the sequel, which involves John and Abigail Adams.

One of the best things about this project was collaborating with Rob Lunsford, who did the wonderful illustrations. Rob is a long-time family friend—I first met him when I was in fifth grade.

Deborah & Rob -- post fifth grade!

Deborah & Rob — post fifth grade!

Me: Are you a one-project-at-a-time writer or do you mix it up? How easy is it for you to go back and forth between forms?

D: It’s challenging to go back and forth, but I tend to do that—I often have a reference book I’m working on, and need to shift gears to get back to fiction. I also have a blog where I interview authors (including you) about their books, and that tends to be so fascinating that I forget to write anything myself!

Me: Are there places or themes you tend to explore, both in your writing for younger readers and writing for older ones?

D: Yes, I’d say the common theme involves presidents, in one form or another.

Me: What age group do you prefer?

D: At this point, middle-grade, approximately age 8-12—but that’s all I’ve done so far in terms of kids’ books, so we shall see… But most of the books I remember best from my own childhood are from that age group.

Me: What made you make the jump from writing for adults to writing for kids?

D: I thought it would be a fun thing to try. Plus, I have a son who’s currently in fifth grade, so that was an inspiration as well.

Me: What has writing in one form taught you about writing in another?

D: That’s a great question. I think it’s always important to write clearly and understandably, whatever form you’re writing in. And all the researching skills I learned from being a journalist and writing nonfiction for adults definitely were helpful with the historical aspects of George Washington and the Magic Hat.

Me: Is there a genre you’d like to tackle that you haven’t tackled yet?

D: Not that I haven’t tackled yet, but I would love to go back to one of my mystery novel manuscripts and revise and update it—I just need to find the time!

Thanks, Deborah! You can find out more about Deborah (and lots of other authors, too) by visiting her website.


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Ghosts of Bergen County: Dana Cann

If you’ve ever been in a writing group, here is what you know: Some of the best stories ever written have not actually been published. Their pages are shared — consumed — by the rest of the group. A year passes. Two. We ask after a character whose life we have followed, but whom no one else has had the chance to meet.

How’s Symphony? How’s Cara? Hey, what’s up with Miranda these days?

We think: Come on, Writer Friend, finish up.

We think: Come on, Publishing Industry. Recognize!

Sometimes, it never happens, and the group members (or former group members) remain the only people fortunate enough to read and be changed by these manuscripts. But sometimes, we get lucky and we are able to say: Finally.

That’s what I’m saying that today because Dana Cann’s Ghosts of Bergen County, (Tin House) is out in the world. That’s why I’m grabbing you by your virtual shoulders and saying: Read this.

I can’t tell you exactly when I first met Ferko, Mary Beth, Jen and Amanda in Ghosts because these last years have gotten blurry, along with my vision. But I can tell you that these characters and their intersecting lives have never left me, and that seeing Dana’s debut novel published is one of those all-is-right-with-the-world moments. The book is out next week, though you can find some copies now. I hope it soars.e82f2d_a16ed648e163407e8a89bf098f7d8659

I normally use this space to write about kidlit, so I should probably note that Ghosts is for adults. You can check out Dana’s website to find out more, or follow him at @dana_cann.

And to the rest of you whose manuscripts I’ve read and admired and loved: Keep going. Finally is one of my favorite words.

Dana will be reading from Ghosts at Politics and Prose on April 30 at 6 p.m. and at Barnes & Noble (Bethesda Ave in Maryland) on May 6 at 7.


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