Wednesday, November 23, 2011

McGlynn and the Cleveland

A note to the students of McGlynn Elementary: My next book is not really about a bunch of kids trapped in a snow storm, but the idea is growing on me.

First, some background. During my presentation, my laptop misbehaved, going to sleep before its bedtime, and the projector promptly displayed an entirely white screen with a blue box in the middle and the phrase "No Signal!" directly in the center. Around this time, one of the students asked me about my next book, and since we had just been talking about covers, I joked that the image of the screen was the cover of my next book. The white space was snow, the blue box was a mysterious house, and the title represented the fact that all phone and communication lines have been cut off, etc. We ran with the joke for a little while, and they all knew I was making it up as we went along, but after thinking about it some more, it's really not such a bad idea for a book. Which means someone has probably written it already.

Anyway, on to Cleveland Elementary, another great school. Thanks to the kids for your very, very insightful notes. It's great to know that the central messages - becoming an expert in everything you write about and never, ever handing in your first draft - stayed with you. A few of my favorite comments from the notes:

"I really liked your presentation. I really thought you would just stand there and answer questions but you were a lot better than that."

"I liked how you told us about the weird people you meet..."

"You're really lucky you have only three kids...When you showed us all the messy writing you did it was great because when Mrs. Wesley [teaches us writing she] has us organize our thoughts on paper the way you did."

Thanks again for letting me pop in and talk about reading and writing....

Friday, September 23, 2011

Holten Richmond Middle School: In Defense of Bow Ties

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to visit the Holten Richmond Middle School in Danvers, MA, for a talk with a bright crowd of students. We spoke about writing, rewriting, and rewriting again as I led them through the process of how FISH, my recent pirate novel, evolved from a simple idea into a finished and bound novel full of characters, foreign lands, quests and puzzles.

During the question & answer session, a few of the young gentlemen in the crowd took exception to my appearance in one of the photos displayed during my presentation. At that point in the talk I had been explaining how the idea for a character who loves to swim but hates to fight sprang from my own experience.

As proof of the fact that I abhorred violence, I showed them the photo here, a picture taken on the occasion of my graduation from sixth grade. They said nothing of the white pants, the yellow shirt, the violin case, or the way I leaned so naturally against the prow of that imitation submarine. Instead they were solely interested in my colorful necktie. In fact they were abhorred, wondering aloud why anyone would wear such a thing. Intimidated by these small but powerful young men, I quickly blamed my brother, who was a terrible sartorial influence. But I should have stood up for my tie, and bowties in general. If asked again, I will present my defense, citing, among other things, the fact that they are far less likely to stain or be caught inside a massive, spinning saw than their elongated brethren.

A few brave members of the audience declared that they thought the bow tie was cool. And I thank them for that. Thanks as well to Michelle Deschene-Warren of the Peabody Institute Library and Holten librarian Sarah Woo for putting the event together.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Here's the cover for my next novel, DANGEROUS WATERS. The story follows two kids - seen through the porthole - as they try to protect a rare and important book belonging to Titanic passenger Harry Elkins Widener. You can sort of see the book, a second edition of Sir Francis Bacon's Essaies, beneath the type.

DANGEROUS WATERS is due out in March. More details to come....

Monday, August 1, 2011

Wisdom from a DIY Master

A few months back I had the privilege of interviewing Lance Greathouse, a dental laser repair technician who builds some seriously inventive machines in his spare time. Frightening robots, souped-up wheelchairs, and more. I wrote about his latest creation, a drive-able, fire-spewing tailgating rig, in this piece for Popular Science, but I was also struck by what we'll call his philosophy, or at least the parts of it we discussed. None of this made it into the story, which covered what he did and why he did it, so I figured I'd share some here.

On the creative impulse:

"I get an idea in my head and I've got to build it or I go nuts. It's a sickness. Once I see something I've got to build it or I just go crazy."

The benefits of building:

"When I'm working on something my mind is clear. That's how I relax. People think I'm nuts because I'm out here hammering on something until one in the morning, but that's how I relax. Some people fish, some people watch TV, some people build."

On putting down the phone:

When people ask him how he creates so many cool machines in his spare time, Greathouse asks them to hand him their phone. Then he turns it off and puts it away. "How can you focus on anything when you're always looking at your phone all the time?" he asks.

And on raising kids:

"If I could go back and do it over I would totally eliminate the video games. I hate that stuff with a passion. The kids waste so much time on that and they have absolutely nothing to show for that time. I'd rather my kids go out and collect rocks or sticks."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

FISH Wins Carol Otis Hurst Book Prize

A few weeks ago I learned that FISH is going to receive this year's Carol Otis Hurst Book Prize, awarded to the best in children's writing by a New England author. Hurst, who died in 2007, was a renowned librarian, teacher, storyteller and author. The award started out with a focus on books that centered on the New England experience, but it has since been broadened; which makes sense, given that Fish never visits America. Needless to say, I'm honored and excited.

The Westfield Athenaeum, an amazing library out in western Massachusetts, runs the process, and I'm looking forward to heading out there in September for a reading and talk.

In other news, my next novel, DANGEROUS WATERS, has moved on to the proofreading phase, all set for a March 2012 publication, and I'm working hard to make sure there aren't any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors for my parents to find.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Black Grease, Orange Shoes

Recently I had my car inspected at a local gas station. The owner/manager looked like he should be manning an espresso machine, not examining automobiles. He had a perfectly trimmed little beard and fancy glasses. He was tan, maybe sixty years old, wearing expensive, twenty-something jeans.

He was also sporting a pair of bright orange leather loafers.

-I like your shoes, I said.

-Oh, these?


He leaned in, poised to tell me a secret.

-They cost $1,800.


He shrugged and gave me a look: What a crazy world; he didn't set the price.

-Real Italian leather, he adds, absolved of guilt. The best in the world.

As he finished the inspection I watched his shoes. The orange really was perfect, neither too bright, nor too dull, and the leather looked comfortable. Soft and marbled. What did he mean when he said "real" Italian leather? Are there orange cows in Italy? I wondered. No, of course not, but I pictured them anyway, and decided that there should be, even if they'd clash a little, color-wise, with the rest of the Italian field palette.

The garage was hot and it was hot outside. Wasn't he hot in those shoes? I decided my feet would be sweating.

Plus the floor was spattered with grease and dirt and grime. It really wasn't a place for expensive orange shoes.

He put the inspection sticker on my windshield. This month's color was orange. Maybe he matched his shoes to the color of the month.

-Hey, the sticker matches your shoes.

-Huh? Oh, right.

He gave me the keys and I started to leave.

-You know, I only tell you the price because you asked.

-Thank you.

Did I ask?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The DIY Treehouse

A massive branch broke off a tree in our backyard recently, completely crushing the kids' playhouse. Thankfully, they were not inside at the time.

We made the best of the situation. We borrowed a neighbor's electric chainsaw, sliced up the branch, and salvaged the one section of the playhouse that survived. Mostly, anyway - the front door doesn't quite close. Then we took all the twigs and branches, creating a new structure around the front panel from the plastic house.

To make the roof sun-proof, we cut up the Christmas tree that I'd been promising to dispose of for months, and laid the dried branches on top.

I wish I could say I worked an Arduino board in there somehow, or put the whole thing on wheels and turned it into a robot, but unfortunately I'm only capable of writing about people who do that kind of miracle work; I don't go much beyond sticks. Still, it's pretty sweet inside:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Newburyport Literary Festival

A few weeks ago I was a guest author at the Newburyport Literary Festival up along the coast of Massachusetts. It's a beautiful old brick town on a river, just south of some popular surfing spots in New Hampshire. I drove up to one of them early that Saturday morning with my board in the back of the car, hoping to paddle out, only to arrive at the beach and realize I'd forgotten my wetsuit. Whoops.

The festival, now in its seventh year, was great fun. A whole bunch of smart, attentive kids came to listen to me talk about writing, reading, and FISH at Newburyport's beautiful public library; I'm amazed they sat through it on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

The kids definitely appeared to be budding writers - they asked incredibly sharp questions - and the adults were fun too. I especially enjoyed the grandmother kept questioning me, doubting that I really make a living as a writer.

The festival was also a nice chance to meet some other writers, including the great Rodman Philbrick, author of Freak the Mighty. I'd never read the book, but I whipped through it after hearing him speak, and it's one of the best I've read in a while. The narrative voice is incredible, and there's so much happening behind the words.

Listening to Elisha Cooper discuss his books and art was also a real pleasure. I'm looking forward to reading a few of his works to my kids.

There were numerous adult authors in attendance as well, but honestly, who wants to listen to grown-ups? I'll take sixty-year-old kids any day.

The Festival happens every April, I believe, and it's free. If you're in New England, check it out next year.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Boston Authors Club Awards

Last week I learned that FISH has been selected as a "highly recommended" book by the Boston Authors Club, and that it has been nominated for a 2012 Rhode Island Children's Book Award as well. As far as I can recall, the last award I won was either the co-MVP of the Plandome Country Club Swim Team (a long time ago) or the Shelter Rock Elementary School Spelling Bee Champion (an even longer time ago), so this was pretty big news.

Generally, it made me think that we should all have more awards in life. In the office, at home....everyone deserves an award now and then. Some other awards I deserve:

-Most Forgetful (Some might see this as a negative; I would consider it an honor.)

-Best Morning Coffee Maker (Probably one of the more important roles in any house. Coffee, and how quickly it acts on the brain after wake up call , affects everyone, from parents down to infants.)

-Most Likely to Wake Up Early (This is more of a weakness than a strength, but I want an award anyway.)

-Best Random Storyteller (You need an adventure that features Michael Jackson, Cinderella and mermaids? Give me ten seconds....)

-Worst Tap Dancer (This should still be an award, even though it's a "worst," because bad dancers are incredibly valuable. They make everyone else feel better about themselves.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Soul Surfer

In April 2005, my wife and I were bodysurfing on a beach in Kauai when a bunch of kids paddled out on their boards. The water was clear, clean, aquamarine, and the wind was down, so the surface was glassy and smooth. I was jealous, not having a surfboard with me, and thinking about the fact that these kids probably just got out of school and ran straight to the beach for a surf. Not a bad life. Anyway, there were girls and boys out on their boards, and one of them was paddling a little strangely. Something just didn't seem right about the way she was pulling through the water. It hardly stopped her, though: A nice, waist-high wave rolled in, she turned, jumped to her feet, and coasted our way.

That's when we saw the stump and realized this was the famous local girl, Bethany Hamilton. A year earlier, she'd been surfing at this very beach when a shark attacked her, biting off her arm. Now she was back, playing in the surf with her friends, clearly fearless. Needless to say, watching her surf was an incredible experience. Even with one arm, she was probably the best one out there.

She also has a book out now, and a movie coming out this weekend. Scholastic Book Talk posted an interview with her the other day. It's a good one, but this quote stood out above the rest:

BT: If you could go back to that day and choose not to go surfing, would you?

BH: No. If I could go back to that day, I would go surfing. It may seem like such a terrible thing that happened, but I can see now that there has been so much good that has come out of it. And I wouldn’t change that. Losing my arm was not the end of the world.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Michael Jackson Likes Zombies

A conversation in my house today between the daughters, aged three and five.

5: Michael Jackson had rides at his house and a real tiger. He LOVES kids.

3: No he doesn't. He likes Zombies. Taylor Swift loves kids.

5: No! Michael Jackson loves kids.

3: Well, so does Taylor Swift.

5: Maybe they both like kids.

They worked it out; I neglected to intervene.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I don't want a massage from you...

Normally I try to avoid basing characters on people very close to me, since that could get me into all kinds of personal trouble, but I do love turning random everyday interactions into fiction. Yesterday I had a run-in with a fit-looking, tall octogenarian with hearing aids, an Irish tweed cap, and a big pair of white sneakers he was probably only wearing because he had to. He was looking for the massage therapist down the hall from my office and I offered to help.

-I'm looking for Jennifer.
-I don't think she's in today.
-Do you work here?
-Right there, around the corner.
(This is mostly true; I mainly work at home, in the basement.)
-What do you do?
-I don't give massages.
-I don't want a massage from you. What do you do?
-I'm a writer.
-Yeah? What do you write?
-Why do you need an office to write books?

This is a question I often ask myself. I gave my standard answer, though I don't really know if it's a truthful answer.

-I have kids at home and they're loud.
-OK. What kind of books do you write? Mysteries?
-No. A little bit of everything. Science, kids novels.
-Ah, good!

And with that he turned his big white sneakers down the stairs and left.

Friday, February 25, 2011

You Built What?!

Popular Science has a great recurring series called You Built What?! - I've been contributing for years, meeting some incredibly ingenious, creative people. Mostly over the phone, unfortunately.

A few recent highlights include the world's fastest dining room table, a hot rod powered by saws, and a radio flyer wagon that seats two, and is highway-legal. Check them out here.