A “Master” List: Book Recommendations from my Masters Program

The reason I haven’t posted on my blog in almost a year is because I was finishing up my Masters in Children’s Literature from Simmons University, which meant that I was reading really a lot of books (and writing really a lot of papers). And although my passion is picture books, one great thing this degree did for me was open my eyes to the huge variety of fantastic YA novels, middle grade books, and graphic novels out there. And the best thing I can probably do with this newfound enthusiasm is share it!

Here are, in a sort of random order, 8 of my favorite non-picture book reads I was assigned during my program. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them – just leave a comment below.

…and because I’m bad at favorites, I do have a fuller list of 30 books. I’d be happy to share it, or to recommend books on a specific topic!


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Belated E-Book Release Announcement

I’m going to open with the embarrassing admission that instead of working on school work or lesson planning or editing or the other millions of things that I should be doing, I just spent part of my Sunday evening Googling myself.

And it turns out that not only is there an attractive and, I’m sure, very talented European actress who shares my name, but also there is an e-book version of the story I published in Spider Magazine in 2012!

the day the sea split

In fact, there is even a print version… or there could be, if someone were to want to order 50 or more of them.  

However, this is not actually a shameless self-promotion asking you to order 50 copies of an old story I wrote. (Heck, I don’t even get royalties… if you want to support me, you can buy me a sandwich!).

I’m promoting research here.  Because it turns out that even when you think you know all about yourself, with a little research, you may find out that in fact you’ve authored an e-book that has been available on the market for the past 23 months without your knowing it.

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Mr. Puffball’s Latest Stunt

Mr PuffballIf you haven’t yet, get your paws on this middle grade trilogy by Asheville local (and fabulous person) Constance Lombardo!

A final follow-up to Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars and Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat Across America, Mr. Puffball hopes to finally break free of the stunt cat life and make it big on the red carpet in the recently released Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island.  Castaway Island both stands alone as a delightful adventure if you haven’t read the others (although it’ll likely make you want to) and serves as a satisfying wrap to Mr. Puffball’s ongoing escapades.

This time around, Mr. Puffball’s ambitions are aimed at reality T.V., which, along with celebrity cat puns, give the book a current feel and make it relatable to today’s kids.  Pitting the characters against each other in a Survivor-esque scenario creates opportunities for new character dynamics, more hilarious hijinks, and unexpected twists that keep the series feeling fresh.  Plus, there are monkeys!

The cheeky humor in the Mr. Puffball books just tickles me so much, the characters are truly endearing, and the artwork is funky and packed full of jokes and Hollywood references.  And Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island may just be the best yet.

I recommend this series to anyone… just ask the random kid who rode next to me on a plane to Portland! (It’s not okay to take candy from a stranger, but it’s fine to borrow great books from them, right?)

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Come Write with me at Grub Street!

I’m so excited to be a part of the Grub Street team!  If you haven’t heard of this Boston community of writers teaching and supporting each other, check them out here.


Last week, I had my first opportunity to teach with Grub Street and was so impressed with the writing that was written and shared in just the 45 minutes that we had together.  I can’t imagine the creativity that’s going to come out of longer workshops… some of which have just been announced on the Grub Street site!  I would love for you to check them out or share them with some creative Bostonians of the teen or adult variety.

  • Coming up soon, and totally free, is an afternoon of Zine-making for teens:


  • …and for teens who need a little more time to spend combining visual arts and writing (think comics, illustrated stories, and collage poetry), check out this summer class:


  • But teens aren’t the only ones who get to have fun!  I’m also teaching a week-long workshop for adults this summer on writing for children:


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Laura’s Top 20 of 2017

One of the great perks of being in a masters program for children’s literature (Did I mention that I started a master’s program for children’s literature?) is that you HAVE to read lots and lots and lots of children’s books.  In fact, we’re holding a mock Caldecott Committee to select the most noteworthy book of the year.

But I could never pick just one.  So, just in time for the holiday season, in case you’re planning to shower the younger ones in your life with great literature or need a great picture book to snuggle up with yourself, I present my favorite 20 children’s books published this year (alphabetical by author, because I can’t even bring myself to rank them…).

Note: although I read lots and lots, there are even more I did NOT read… please share them with me!

magical do nothing day


On a Magical Do-Nothing Day

Written and Illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna

Lovely colors and textures illustrate a girl’s exploration in the rain after she drops her technology in the pond.  Totally recommend to  Luddites like myself.


Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating PoetsOut-of-Wonder-Poems-Celebrating-Poets-259x300

Written by Kwame Alexander, Chris Corderly, and Marjory Wentworth; Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

A compilation of poems that celebrate the lives and writing styles of various poets, with brilliantly collaged illustrations.  This one would be a lot of fun to teach with.

The wolf


 The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse

Written by Mac Barnett; Illustrated by Jon Klassen

This picture book is pretty weird.  But I happen to like picture books that are pretty weird, and I know a lot of kids that do, too.


Louis UndercoverGroundwood Logos Spine

Written and Illustrated by Fanny Britt

This graphic novel touches on the tough topic of an alcoholic parent in what feels like a very authentic way, with equally heartfelt pictures.




The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet

Written by Carmen Agra Deedy; Illustrated by Eugene Yelchen

This colorful tale of a Bolivian rooster who will stop at nothing to sing endearingly captures the spirit of fighting for freedom of expression.


Her Right Foot

Written by Dave Eggers; Illustrated by Shawn Harris

This unique book combines a wide, interesting history about the Statue of Liberty with inspiring commentary on immigration.


When’s My Birthday?

Written by Julie Fogliano; Illustrated by Christian Robinson

This bouncy, rhythmic read manages to capture the unbearable anticipation kids feel about their birthdays.  And Robinson’s illustrations are the icing on the cake!



Real Friends

Written by Shannon Hale; Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

This graphic novel manages to capture the complexities of girl friendship and social grouping, based on the author’s own childhood.


Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Jeffers combines insight with playfulness in this guide for human experience of life on this planet.  Written for newcomers to Earth, Here We Are provides a useful perspective for humans of all ages.


A Greyhound, A Groundhog

Written by Emily Jenkins; Illustrated by Chris Appelhans

These joyful, watery pictures match the language, the words tumbling around on your tongue as the greyhound and groundhog spin and romp through the pages.


The Book of Mistakes

Written and Illustrated by Corinna Luyken

I’m a sucker for books about making mistakes, and I love Luyken’s original take on the theme. The evolving artwork makes up the story as the artist makes mistakes and creatively resolves them.  The twist at the end is endearing (and kind of meta…).


The Fog

Written by Kyo Maclear; Illustrated by Kenard Pak

I will confess that I haven’t actually been able to get my hands on a copy of this book.  But from what I’ve read and seen, I love it already.  A bird-watching girl and a people-watching bird meet under the worst circumstances for such observant specimens – in a heavy fog.


Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters

Written by Michael Mahin; Illustrated by Evan Turk

These illustrations are my favorite of the year, reflecting the vibrancy and textures of Muddy’s life.  It’s the story of a man and a guitar and of fighting against a current of racism to rise to the top.  Mahin’s blog on this is worth checking out.


Blue Sky White Stars

Written by Sarvinder Naberhaus; Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

This book places some awe-inspiring wordplay alongside Nelson’s beautiful portrayal of the diversity of people that make America the country it is.



Written by Adam Rex; Illustrated by Scott Campbell

OK, this book might not stand up to critical analysis of gender norms or healthy relationships, but taken with a light humor, this series of love letters between an ox and a gazelle are really cute.  And in a clever move by ox, it shows how loving someone for their flaws is greater than placing them on a pedestal.


After the Fall 

Written and Illustrated by Dan Santat

Scieszka set a high bar for fractured fairy tales when I was a kid, and so I was skeptical of this one.  But Santat pulls off a fresh spin on the story, full of humor and a surprising end.


Town is by the Sea

Written by Joanne Schwartz; Illustrated by Sydney Smith

This story follows a boy who lives by the sea for a day.  Life seems simple for him, but his father is under the sea digging for coal, and the boy knows that someday, he will be too.  In a time when children are told that they can be anything, this perspective reminds them that not all children have had that privilege.


What Does Baby Want?

Written and Illustrated by Tupera Tupera (Japanese design team)

The innovative shape of this board book is perfect for introducing an essential part of many baby’s lives that I’ve never seen represented in a children’s book before – breast feeding.


And So It Goes

Written and Illustrated by Valvdivia Paloma; Translated by Susan Ouriou

This seemingly simple book grapples with some of life’s big questions, like why we come into this world and what happens when we leave it behind.  Lovely illustrations to boot.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality

Written by Jonah Winter; Illustrated by Stacy Innerst

Another awesome biography with illustrations that show both strength and humanity.  Winter addresses the people of the jury as he makes the case for the importance of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s influence on the progress toward gender equality.



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Writing Home: From Page to Stage

I know most authors dream of a movie deal, but I got to see my book brought to life in a way I hadn’t even dreamed of.  This spring, I had the incredibly unique opportunity of working with an entire 4th grade to turn my picture book into a play.

If you are ever looking for fresh ways to combine author visit with teaching artist, I highly recommend this.  Both the kids and I had so much fun and learned so much in the process, and the product blew me away.  But like all good learning, it didn’t come without challenges.


My book, Writing Home: the Story of Author Thomas Wolfe, is a picture book.  It’s short. It has no dialogue.  And it’s a biography, so it’s essentially a story about one person.  The task at hand was to have 82 students write the script and act it out.  And we had just five 45 minute classes to do it.

We got creative with it.  We broke it into 16 scenes, which was cool because Thomas Wolfe got to be black, white, and Latino, male and female, tall and short.  The students learned to extrapolate on what other characters might have been there, and what might have been said that wasn’t on the pages of my book.  What they came up with was clever and entertaining.

When Grover died on stage, the mother threw a sheet over him and the narrator comically tossed a bouquet of flowers on top.  When a circus rented out the boarding house, a student dressed in a clown wig stepped down from the stage to tell jokes to the audience.  To show that Tom won a debate, the students wanted to base it in something that was real for them, so they staged a debate about whether or not toys should be allowed at school.  And when Tom finally returned to Asheville, a British farm boy offered him “some milk, on the house!”


For many of the students, this was their first time in a play.  In addition to figuring out how to adapt the book to script, we practiced staging, projection, and inflection.  All of that in addition to overcoming stage fright.

But seeing them on stage, they totally let loose and had fun with it.  And best of all, they felt successful.  They felt a sense of ownership since they wrote their lines and staged their scenes, then got to see it come to life as we put their scenes together in front of an audience.



Filed under Picture Books, Teaching and School Visits

How Minecraft is Crafting Our Minors

If you know me at all, you probably know that I am one of the last people on Earth that would promote kids playing lots of video games.  But it doesn’t really matter whether or not I would promote it, because kids are playing lots of video games.  And, as a creative writing and art teacher, I made an observation recently that I think is worth sharing (and that makes me sound way less curmudgeon-y than normal).

During my last creative writing residency, when I asked my students to write personal narratives about family memories and then fictional stories about a family member overcoming a made up conflict, they asked if they could write about computer games.  I discouraged it, but said that they could do it if they avoided violence and really focused on the experiences of their family members and not just what was happening in the game. They largely ignored me.

And you know what?  Their stories were awesome.

Ducks Typing photo (2)
Ducks understand the joys of computer games better than I do.

When I let go of my personal biases, I saw how excited they were to write their stories.  Kids who could hardly stay in their seat for 4 minutes were hashing out 3 page stories that ended with “to be continued,” because they did not want to stop.


Their stories were filled with action, adventure, and drama while sticking to a cohesive narrative arc.

I did not have to prod them for detail like I normally do.  They drew out descriptions of how they built houses or escaped from evil ‘animatronics.’

And, most interestingly to me, their narrative voices sounded unlike any other 3rd grade narrators I’d heard.  They were mature and sometimes even archaic, one student referring to the reader as “my child.”  They wove lots of dialogue into their stories, and one student even embedded short fables of the protagonist’s parents’ youth into his longer tale.

The same phenomenon was happening with my art students.  A group of boys who had all but stopped participating in the activities now got excited about any art form they could apply to their favorite characters.  There was no denying that computer games were encouraging kids’ creativity.  And I wasn’t the first to notice it.  A Michigan State University study linked video games to creativity in kids years ago.

The point of all this is not at all to say that parents should go encourage their kids to spend lots of time playing computer games.  It’s to say that since computer games are something that many kids are excited about, we should use that excitement to make connections with other things.  Encourage kids to draw their favorite characters… and then make up their own.  Ask them to write stories or act them out.  Build actual models of what they build in the games or create costumes of the characters.  Come up with math problems about them.

When kids get passionate about something, whether or not it’s something you care about yourself, make the most of it.


Filed under Featured Posts, Thoughts and Insights

One of my Favorite Things

I have a lot of favorite things, but one is that every three weeks, my voicemail makes me listen to all of my saved messages and decide whether I want to re-save them before I can hear any new ones.  I’ve kept some of my favorites from as far back as 2006, including several…um…totally on-key renditions of ‘Happy Birthday,’ an impromptu rap, a friend playing the bagpipes, my nephews learning how to leave voicemails (older nephew in the background: “Say: Hi, it’s Will.”  Will: “Hi, it’s me.”), and even a personalized voice message from Samuel L. Jackson urging me to watch Snakes on a Plane.  Feel free to do the math if you want, but I’ve listened to them a lot, and I still smile every time.


The personalized Snakes on a Plane call site is gone, but you can download an awesome Samuel L. Jackson voicemail here.

All of that just to say that not all of your words have to be monumental to change the world.  Sometimes, they can change the world just by making someone smile – maybe for longer than you’d expect.  So if your writing or your work is ever feeling too heavy or daunting, take a break and call a friend.  Or send them some snail mail.  Or invite them over to watch Snakes on a Plane.  It’ll be time well spent.


Filed under Thoughts and Insights

Happy Multicultural Children’s Book Day!

I’m a little late to the game in discovering that today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day, so I don’t have an exciting blog post prepared.  And even though kids and classrooms should be reading multicultural children’s books every day, I thought it was an occasion worth celebrating and that the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website, with book lists, giveaways, and kits for teachers and parents, was a resource worth sharing.

Thanks to Patricia Tilton for sharing this and reviewing a great multicultural children’s book today on her blog, Children’s Books Heal!

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Burmese Climbing Rhyme

I’ve been exploring different forms of poetry for a book I’m working on, and I’m having such a great time.  Some people, I think, see form as something they have to squash their ideas into.  For me, though, form is more like a ladder to throw down to your poem.  Sometimes your idea may fall off, but often it will climb up to an entirely different place than where it started.

Which is why I’d like to share the Burmese Climbing Rhyme, or Than Bauk, a form that’s been especially challenging and fun for me (and that fits nicely into my simile since it rhymes in steps like a ladder.)  It consists of four syllable, also adapted to four word, lines with an inward-shifting rhyme scheme.  The format looks like this:

x x x a
x x a x
x a x b
x x b x
x b x c
x x c x
x c x x

You can read more about Than Bauk here.

This morning, I decided to try my hand at one in tribute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Enjoy, and if you feel inspired to try writing your own, please share in the comments – I’d love to read them!

To Dr. King,

words were things that

could sing our souls.

His words rolled stones,

touched goals as high

as dreams fly.  Speak.

Don’t die silent.



Filed under Holiday, Writing Technique and Prompts