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.