Tuesday, November 29, 2022


In early November, I traveled virtually to Queens, NY to meet a class of 8th graders at Irwin Altman MS 172 who read my novel, The Seventh Most Important Thing (ALA Notable selection).

A central theme of the book is the healing power of art and its ability to transform darkness into light, hopelessness into possibility...messages that resonate with many of us these days. 

The novel was originally inspired by "Hampton's Throne," a work of art in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The sculpture depicts artist James Hampton's view of a heavenly throne room made of discarded objects wrapped in metallic foil. The story follows what happens when a thirteen year old boy, dealing with anger and grief, is sentenced to work for the artist after injuring him.

Whenever I talk with aspiring writers, I always tell them to write from the heart because if you do that, your readers will respond with gifts from their own hearts...however, it still amazes me and humbles me each time it happens. 

After reading the novel, the students at MS 172 created their own artwork from discarded objects, just like James Hampton. They made purses from paper scraps. Stars from cardboard. Flower arrangements from newspapers and magazines. In posters and visual displays, they depicted "light" vs. the "darkness" in their own worlds. And after reading about Mr. Hampton's favorite words, they brought to life the sayings and messages that are most meaningful to them. [You can see examples of their work in the photos shared with this post.]

However, their thank you notes to me after the virtual visit truly brought home the heart-to-heart power of books and reading. I'll share just a few below:

"Your book helped me and so many people find light in even the darkest of times and helped them find gratitude for the small things in life." -- M

"I could relate to wanting to let go of my own worries and putting them behind me just like Arthur does." -- J

"The way Arthur grieved the loss of his father helped me cope with the grief about the loss of my grandfather." -- J

"I hope in the future I could become someone like Mr. Hampton in creating a masterpiece." - S

That's the heart power of stories. And a special thank you to MS 172's awesome teacher, Catherine Guilz-Feldman for making this experience a reality.  

The ninth most important thing? Teachers.


Sunday, July 24, 2022

 Writing for the Magic

There was a time when I thought winning the prestigious Newbery Medal or having one of my books named a New York Times Bestseller would be the absolute pinnacle of writing achievement.   As an aspiring young author, I used to tell myself that even if I never wrote another word, I would be blissfully happy if I could achieve (just!) one of those dreams in my career.

However, over the past twenty years, my thinking has shifted.  After the publication of my seventh book in 2020, I came to the realization that there is something better to set my sights on as an author. Something more real and more enduring.  

I like to call it: writing for the magic.

What do I mean by writing for the magic?   I mean valuing those moments when your writing causes something unexplainable or rare or coincidental…or yes, magical to happen.  

Here's a recent example: just a few days ago, I met a young reader named Amira and her family from Senegal who happened to be visiting my hometown of Akron, Ohio.  The family reached out to me after I did a virtual author visit in Rome, Italy where Amira attends school. We were all strangers to each other until that very moment...until a book brought us together from around the world.  Senegal. Italy. Ohio.  That’s book magic.   

And I’ll never forget the moment during an author visit in Michigan when 400 middle schoolers suddenly stood up, mid-program, and did a surprise dance routine inspired by my Elvis novel “All Shook Up.” The dance was the brainchild of their school custodian and planned on the spur-of-the-moment. That’s book magic.

And I can still recall the spine-tingling moment that happened during the research for my novel “Crooked River” when I suddenly realized that a real historical event and an ancient Ojibway legend matched…exactly. That’s book magic.

No matter what you write, my advice is to watch and wait for the magic. It’s always there.  Hidden among the words you write. Carried by your readers.  It may even fly around the world to find you.

Sunday, March 28, 2021


True Confessions:  I didn't write the title of this blog post.  It was the slogan of a group of 4th and 5th grade readers in Traverse City, Michigan.  In March, I was the virtual author for their virtual Battle of the Books Grand Traverse competition.  An amazing SIXTY teams competed in this year's battle which was anything but typical.  Teams read nine novels.  They practiced virtually and competed on-screen in a battle that tested their knowledge of all of the novels...and their skills with the mute button! http://battleofthebooksgt.com/

Each team had a name -- and trust me, these were NOT ordinary names.  How about "Book, Line, and Sinker?" or "Where the Wild Books Are" or "Little Readers in the Big Books."  The kids had creative costumes and slogans.  And they created the big snow art designs you see below, inspired by my new novel, THINGS SEEN FROM ABOVE which was a battle book.

It was an epic experience for me and an epic example of the power of books. When I think about the things that have helped us get through the pandemic -- these are the moments and experiences that come to mind.  Enjoy these photos of book joy!


Tuesday, July 28, 2020


Two years ago, it was the hopeful faces online that kept me going. 

When my entire speaking schedule in Spring 2018 was cancelled by my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, I went virtual instead.  A screen became my audience. Skype replaced the cafeteria stage.

To keep things simple, I donated the virtual visits.  Schools knew that if my hair fell out from chemo…or if I had an unexpected doctor’s appointment…or if I just wasn’t up to talking—their visit wouldn’t happen.  Everything was “subject to change without notice.”  They were okay with that.
Fortunately, my hair stayed intact, and the virtual visits saved my sanity.  They gave me a schedule and a reason to get up every day.  Kids wore pink t-shirts.  They held up signs of hope and encouragement.  They made me believe that life would get better someday—and it did. 

One of the biggest surprises was the realization that I could still reach readers through a screen.  With a little practice and creativity, it was possible to keep being the interactive, thoughtful (and slightly random) author/presenter that I am. 

Then came Spring 2020 and the COVID outbreak demolished everything again.  I’ll admit that it felt like an awful kind of déjà vu.

But this time it wasn’t just me sitting at home worrying that I might die from a dread disease – it was the kids too.   I spread the word that I would donate virtual visits to any school group anywhere in April and May. 

I’ll never forget those first Zooms and Google Meets. Kids joined from living rooms, unfinished attics, closets, stairwells, and kitchen tables.  They appeared with homemade slime, family pets, and screaming siblings.  Some kids floated in blue galaxies or tropical forest backgrounds.  Others had their family seated around them like a solemn portrait.

Despite the challenges, these impromptu visits actually worked.  (A ton of credit goes to the parents, librarians, and teachers who made them happen.)  I was able to chat with kids about books and brainstorm characters with them. Virtual classes “toured” my office. We shared what we were going through and the various ways we were coping.  As I’d discovered two years earlier, there is something to be said for being there for each other in tough times. 

And as the school year starts at home again for many kids, I’m determined to keep stretching the virtual learning limits: Can we compose poetry on Zoom? Can we use our closets/attics/kitchens for writing inspiration? Can we create fictional characters from shoes?  Can we build stuff onscreen? (Tetrahedron pyramids for All of the Above? Mini-sculptures for The Seventh Most Important Thing?)

I believe that creativity and joy, even the virtual kind, will keep us going. 

I’m proof of that.

Teachers, librarians, and parents: If you are interested in finding out more about my 2020-21 virtual programs (some free and some fee-based) for your students, please check them out on my website or reach out to me at shelleyvisits@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Spiraling Out The Sadness


There is no question that we are living through very tough times right now.  COVID-19 has overturned our world.  The challenges of uncertainty, isolation, illness, and loss have touched every age group, everywhere. 

What can we do to cope?

In my latest book THINGS SEEN FROM ABOVE, the main character of Joey Byrd creates giant spirals in the playground dirt as a way to deal with his sadness and isolation—an idea inspired by my own nephew. 

“You think of something sad and you start walking,” Joey Byrd says.  “Then you think of more sad things and you walk…and you just keep walking…until the sad things finally go away.” (p. 114).

It isn’t such a crazy idea.  For centuries, spirals and labyrinths have helped to calm the mind.  My nephew called it “spiraling out the sadness.”  While working on the book last year, I met other kids and adults who used similar strategies to cope, including the amazing sand artist Marc Treanor.  Check out his work below. 

Sand labyrinth by Marc Treanor sandcircles.co.uk

The power of art is a theme you’ll find in a lot of my work. In THE SEVENTH MOST IMPORTANT THING, the artist character of James Hampton creates a visionary box made from things that he scavenges on the war-torn island of Guam. He calls it “Death and War turned into something beautiful.” (p.170) In ALL OF THE ABOVE, the teenage characters use art (and math!) to survive.

Like the characters in my books, I’ve used art and writing to help me cope with my emotions since I was a kid.  During COVID-19, I’ve followed Joey Byrd’s advice to “walk until the sadness goes away.” 

So far, I’ve logged more than 300 miles.

There’s no question that we have a lot of sadness to “spiral out” these days.  It is important to let it out. Draw it. Sing it. Write it. Chalk it. Spiral it. Paint it. Dance it. Walk it.  Make labyrinths out of clay, stones, sand, and chalk – even yarn. Learn more here.  Fill a playground-- or a beach—or a piece of paper—with your feelings. 

Know that you are not alone. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Journals: Life Preservers in Scary Times

I’ve kept a journal off and on for more than 40 years.  My first one, in 1977, had a tiny gold lock and key.  I was a sixth grader at the time.  Back then, it was my daily log of events—the place where I recorded everything from Browns’ football scores—to the deadly Ohio blizzard of ’78 which was considered one of the worst in U.S. history (you can read about at the end of this post.).

But it was also my personal sounding board – the place where I poured out my loneliness, my frequent illnesses (yes, I was one of those sickly kids) – and the embarrassing fact that an overnight Girl Scout camp-out scared me so much I cried myself to sleep. 

I spoke to it like a close friend—even apologizing to it for skipped days or dull entries. “Not very exciting today--sorry,” I’d write.  But it never judged.  I could scribble TERRIBLE DAY! (see below)  and it would understand.

That little journal with the gold lock and key was my faithful listener and my sounding board as a kid. Now, as we face the COVID-19 crisis in our world today, keeping a journal continues to be a really important source of comfort and calm for me.

I encourage everyone to give it a try -- no matter what age you are.  Your journal doesn’t need to be anything fancy.  (Right now, I’m using one of my stepson’s old middle school notebooks that I dug out of a box for recycling.  It had a lot of unused pages.  I'm not sure what that says about his work habits…)

There are no rules for how much to write or how often.  Or how neatly. Or how grammatically correct to be. Remember the journal doesn't judge. 

Just write.

Encourage kids and teens in your family or classroom to keep their own journals.  Their reactions to the COVID-19 crisis may be very different than your own. They may want to stick to the facts. Or ignore them.  Or complain about the lack of snacks & decent WiFi in the house--or about you (I did that a lot in my 6th grade journal...). Or they may want to draw and doodle instead.  

Drawing in a journal is okay too!

Let your journal hold you up in this ocean of uncertainty—and let it remind you that someday this will all be in the past, like the long ago Blizzard of '78, and we will be able to look back through the pages to remember how strong we were and what got us through.