Hoping It’s the Highlight of my Summer!

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Copyright Highlights Foundation

I’m all set to attend my first ever week long writing workshop, and this is a big one. I will be traveling to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to participate in a “Summer Camp” for writers. I’ve sent in a writing sample and will be paired with a mentor for the week. There will be time for writing, honing my craft, networking with other authors, and a little bit of fun! I will blog again about my experiences there, but I know I will learn a great deal about writing books for young people.

Here are some pictures of the facility:

I’ll update the blog once I’ve arrived. Wish me luck! 🙂

Book Sale Next Month!

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Christopher Nolan’s upcoming summer blockbuster movie, Dunkirk is being released next month.  Over 40 authors from the Facebook Second World War Club have joined together for the “Dunkirk Week WWII Epic Novels Sale”. From July 21-27 (the opening week of “Dunkirk”), we will discount a selection of our books to 99 cents to bring you more riveting tales of WWII from around the world.

This is a great chance to discover some awesome WWII stories. To find out more, go to:http://alexakang.com/dunkirk-book-sale/

Wolf Hollow: What Does Evil Look Like?

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Image copyright: Dutton Books for Young Readers, Penguin Group (USA)

Wolf Hollow is a book that I couldn’t write about for quite a long time. It required some time to think about first–to marinate in my brain for awhile due to its themes. The writing is amazingly descriptive and beautiful. It evokes the same beautiful rural imagery of books like The War that Saved My Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Because of Winn Dixie. And like those books, it also deals with some very adult issues that kids face on a daily basis in this world.

In Wolf Hollow, the main character Annabelle comes from a loving home and is surrounded by a large support network. Even though the novel is set during war time, she lives a relatively peaceful life until a new girl moves to town to live with her grandparents. Enter one of the most unlikely villains you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature. Betty isn’t your typical school-yard bully. She isn’t Nelly Olson on steroids. She is sadistic. Cruel. Manipulative. Dangerous. Dishonest. Evil. She poses a threat to anyone who comes between her and whatever she takes a liking to at the moment.

How could a young girl be evil? Ms. Wolk brilliant shows readers this as the narrative unfolds. Her writing is gorgeous, and makes the reader feel as if he/she is right there in the thick of it all. The story will force a reader to face prejudices and ask the question,”What does evil look like?” Kids and adults alike will root for Annabelle and Toby (a veteran of WW1) who appears to suffer from PTSD (known as shell shock back then) and keeps to himself.

Betty makes it her mission to torment Toby. Her methods are calculated and terrifying to read about. You will ask yourself, “How could a little girl be this cruel?” Almost as frightening as the fact that Betty would do some of the awful things she does, is the fact that people so readily believe her side of things. She’s like a spider, craftily spinning her web and waiting for an innocent victim to wander into her trap. If J.K. Rowling had written a book about a middle school aged Bellatrix Lastrange, Betty could have been Bellatrix’s best friend–they are cut from the same cloth.

Wolk’s perfect pacing builds to a momentous climax. I won’t spoil the ending, but be prepared that it will make you think. It’s not easy, and certainly not your typical fairy tale happily ever after. But when are endings ever that way in real life?

My Favorite Ghost Stories

One thing about being an author is you never know what ideas will pop into your head. I was driving home from work a few weeks ago and I heard a song on the radio. The song started my mind down a certain train of thought. By the time I got home, I had a fully formed idea for a novel. After dinner, I went out by the pool with a clipboard, crashed into a chaise lounge chair and completed a 4 Act Plot Chart for a YA novel involving a MC who isn’t still living. This is a huge departure for my writing, but so far I’m enjoying this work in progress and just passed the 6K word mark.

Anyone who knows me, will understand this isn’t a scary story. I don’t do horror in any shape or form. In fact, I’m a huge chicken when it comes to scary books or movies. Beginning this new project made me start thinking about my favorite books and movies that involve ghosts of any kind. Some of them are mildly scary, but certainly not horrifically so. So, without further ado, here’s a list of my favorites.

  1. Ghost. What’s not to love about this 1990 movie with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore? It’s got all the emotions you want to see in a romance, plus the comedic element added by Whoopi Goldberg (who completely nails the role of the psychic Swayze nags into agreeing to help him). You’ll laugh, cry, scream at the screen, and even swoon at the famous pottery wheel scene.

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    Image copyright Warner Brothers Studios
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This classic tale has been retold many ways over the 100+ years since it was released, but it’s never lost its punch. This great exchange at the very beginning of the novel between Ebenezer Scrooge and his nephew is just a tiny example of the wit evidenced in this book:

    “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
    “Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
    He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
    “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”
    “I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
    “Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
    Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
    “Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
    “What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

     

    Does it get any better than this? Haha. Boiled in his own pudding? But this novel isn’t all humor. There are poignant lessons learned by Scrooge that can benefit us all to this day. * Note: The link above directs you to a free copy of the novel online through The Gutenberg Project.

  3. The Sixth Sense. Oh this movie…sigh. I loved it. I dragged my husband to see it a second time because I just couldn’t believe we’d miss the signs that could have led us to figure out the big plot twist before it happened. And yes, on the second viewing it was much more obvious. 🙂 But what I loved about this movie was the heart of the MC, and his relationships with child psychologist Bruce Willis and his Mom. The scene in the car with his mom where he recounts for her something his grandma told him will cause an ugly cry instantly.
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    Image copyright Buena Vista Studios

    4. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I knew nothing about this book when I began reading it, but by the end it had a powerful hold on me. As a pediatric nurse, I’ve experienced first hand the devastating effects losing a child can have on a family. Even as a child dies, he/she worries about the sadness of the parents.  A child viewing the post-mortem disaster her family becomes in the wake of her death makes for a gripping novel. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare in more ways than one.

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    5. Casper the Friendly Ghost. Admittedly, this one goes back to watching the cartoon as a child (and reading the comics!). It was comforting to think of ghosts as friendly and childlike. Nothing like the scary ghosts of my teen years, like the ones found in The Shining or Poltergeist. My sister was always terrified of ghosts, but I never have been. But like I said earlier, I’m a chicken so I avoid reading or watching scary ghost stories if I can help it. 🙂 Casper is my kind of ghost! Casper_the_Friendly_Ghost_issue_No.1_(March,_1991)

     

    I’m sure I could think of more favorites, but I need to get back to working on my own ghost story. As a writer, you have to write never knowing for sure if your story will see the light of day. So you’ve got to love what you do. If you have favorite ghost stories, I’d love for you to comment and share them. Thanks.

A Tiny Superhero with a Huge Heart

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Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (Marvel) takes down a much bigger bad guy! Copyright Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

I have always loved characters that surprise me. Especially if that character is a child that no one expects to do great things. This character is found in all of my favorite books by Roald Dahl–unloved, orphaned, tiny, impoverished–whatever the reason, the world at large has low expectations for the character. And then, our scrappy little kid goes on to prove the world was completely mistaken and we learn that he/she is truly amazing.

In my recently completed picture book manuscript, my main character is certainly not the kid anyone would expect to be a superhero and save his school from a robber. But that is exactly what he does. My character was born with a disability that required him to have a special tube placed in his neck to help him breathe. But don’t count him out just yet. He’s packing a hidden punch.

As a pediatric nurse, I’ve been awed and inspired countless times by the enormity of courage packed into tiny little bodies. Kids are my passion, and writing stories that show their powers (in ways the world doesn’t expect) is more fun than should be legal. I hope that one day this story will make it out into the world and you can share in the fun of watching my tiny little guy with the huge heart take down the bad guys. Until then, Google some videos of Baby Groot in action for a guaranteed smile!

The Song of the Valley Dweller

Have you ever been to a place that has captivated you? A place with the spirit of an enchantress? Somewhere you want to stay forever? I’ve been fortunate enough to spend many of my life’s hours in such a place. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia is a tiny valley that most people have never heard of- but if you’ve been there, you’re not likely to forget. It oozes with charm and a level of serenity that will almost convince you that you’ve stepped back in time.

My great-grandfather, Dr. John Coit, was captivated by the Nacoochee Valley. The views he saw all around him-mountains, streams, rivers, granite cliffs, waterfalls, sunsets, etc., inspired him to pen a poem titled, The Song of the Valley Dweller. It is a beautiful love story, written for a place, rather than a lover. The last two stanzas of the poem read:

Fair Nacoochee, Vale of beauty,
Thou has won my very heart,
All my love is gladly given, 
For a smile of love thou art.
Lynch, Tallulah, Tray, and Yonah, 
May thy circling summits high,
Ever guard this charming valley,
As the years pass swiftly by.
Then if I should fail to hear Him,
And these hand should folded be.
And this heart must cease its labor
Ere the Master’s face I see;
Then may those who know and love me,
Come and lay me close to rest
By the bright streams of Nacoochee,
Near the hills I love the best.

J.K. Coit, May 1922

Years after these words were inscribed as a tribute to the valley, his adopted daughter (my grandmother) moved there with her family. My grandfather became the only doctor in the valley and treated patients in a room converted into his office. The house, with its wrap-around porch and mountain views, was enticing enough to inspire someone in a NYC office to select an image shot from that very porch as the cover of the New York Times best selling  novel, The Notebook.

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The 1800’s era farmhouse comes complete with ghost stories, Native American legends, and a sleeping porch upstairs with full windows on 3 sides. Lucky for my own family, and others who’d love to experience these majestic views for themselves, the house operates as a Bed and Breakfast named, The Stovall House. If you are planning a trip to this area, at least plan to stop in for a meal at the restaurant and soak up the views from the porch.

If you do get a chance to stop in, I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you have a place in this world that has captivated you the way this valley has captivated me and so many others before me, please let me know.

Go Forward with Courage

Sometimes book titles can literally be the hardest part of writing an entire novel. You can spend months or years thoughtfully creating characters, putting them into situations that create drama or suspense for your readers, and crafting dialogue that feels natural and realistic. But once the book is finished, finding the perfect title that feels worthy of the story can be elusive–nothing seems quite right. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across something that strikes like lightning, and you’ll know you’ve landed the perfect title.

That was the case for my latest novel, Go Forward with Courage. A central part of the novel deals with Michi and her family, who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in Arkansas after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the thousands of families impacted by the Executive Order to remove all citizens of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, every step of their journeys to these camps took courage. But it didn’t end there. When they were finally allowed to leave at the war’s end to return home, what were they returning to? It varied of course, but for many of these displaced persons, they had nothing tangible to return to.

The title, Go Forward with Courage comes from a quote by a Native American Chief after his realization that he had no other choice but accompany his people to a reservation.

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“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelope you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists — as it surely will. Then act with courage”.

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When I came across this quote while writing the novel, the similarity of the plight of the Japanese-American citizens displaced from their homes to the Native Americans generations earlier seemed incredibly relevant. My character Michi, and the thousands of others like her, would need courage to face the unknown waiting for them when they returned “home” after the war. Some of the images captured from that time period, express more than my own words ever could.

I have so much admiration for the people who rebuilt lives after having them interrupted during the war. The courage it took is inspiring, and I hope that my story does them justice.

Continuing to Write When “Life” Happens

I made an interesting discovery yesterday while cleaning off the kitchen counter (which has been unusually cluttered lately due to my lack of emotional energy to actually deal with all of that “stuff”). I found my calendar. Now you would think I’d have noticed that it’s been buried under bills and other debris long before now. But when I saw the week it was opened to, it made perfect sense to me. It was opened to a certain week in July.

My older sister died on July 25. It was a Monday and the week was fresh and full of possibilities. But then she didn’t wake up that morning. The possibilities turned into responsibilities as I poured my energy into assisting my parents with everything that accompanies an unexpected death in the family. Since then, when I’m not working or helping my parents, my mind has just not been functioning properly to get any fresh words down.

So yesterday, I flipped the calendar to this week. The current one. Sure, maybe I’ve skipped a couple of months of my writing life, but I’m feeling determined this morning to get back on the saddle. It’s time to revise my completed manuscripts and then plunge into some new ideas. Please wish me luck, and hold me accountable. If you see me (even virtually on Twitter or Facebook) please ask me how my writing is coming. So much of life is a mental game and writing books is certainly no exception.

As I open my documents this morning, I’ll be thinking about how proud my sister was of the books I’ve written and how much she loved reading new chapters as I finished them. I’d like to think that she’s cheering me on still as I attempt to get my head straight to write again. I have to believe that I still have stories to tell and people who want to read them. Mary Beth, this one’s for you!

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Dragon Con 2016

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I was fortunate enough to attend my first Dragon Con last weekend in Atlanta with my family. This was the 30th anniversary of the pop culture, fantasy, and sci-fi convention, and I was joined by more than 77,000 others on this adventure. According the the post- convention press release, “Fans came from around the world and all 50 states, with this year’s convention attracting people from as far away as Japan, New Zealand, and Fiji.” In other words, I was in good company.

What I knew about Dragon Con is that people engaged in cosplay–dressing up as their favorite characters from movies, comics, television programs, video games, and just about anything that reflects their interests. I knew this because I’ve assisted my young adult kids in making these costumes and/or purchasing items to make them look authentic. I vaguely knew that they held panels for people interested in writing because my daughter, who volunteered this year in media relations at the con, had told me about them last year.

What I didn’t know about Dragon Con could fill Lake Michigan. Here’s just a few facts that I found impressive.

  1. The con has it own awards/recognition program called Dragon Awards. These recognize the creators of science fiction and fantasy in books, comic books, games and filmed entertainment.
  2. The con raises money for charity. According to the press release, $98,000 was raised this year for its 2016 official charity, the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency, which helps put homeless individuals on a pathway to achieving a healthy independence.
  3. The con attracts famous actors, writers, producers, etc. There was some serious talent in that place. There are far too many to name, but a few of the individuals that I’ve watched in television during my lifetime were in attendance such as Alex Kingston, William Shatner, Gillian Anderson, and Jason Isaacs and Adam Baldwin. There was a pool of talent at the con that would appeal to people of all ages and interests.
  4. The sheer size of the con! I mentioned the numbers above, but nothing would prepare you for how many individuals (costumed or not) were crowded into a huge area of Atlanta. Event organizers added more than 215,000 square feet to the venues, including the AmericasMart Building 2. The con consumed meeting space in the Sheraton, Marriott Marquis, Westin, Hyatt and the AmericasMart buildings.
  5. The con is quite civic minded. In addition to the fundraising efforts, there was a blood drive held in which over 6,000 units of blood and blood products were donated to an Atlanta blood bank. Also, disability services were visible everywhere and provided assistance to individuals with special mobility/seating needs.
  6. The diversity of the people attracted by Dragon Con was one of my biggest surprises. There were people there who were less than half my age as well as people (almost!) twice my age. There were people there of every race, gender and socioeconomic level. Some costumes were Captain America shirts from Walmart and some looked professionally made to the cost of thousands. The attendees for the most part were gracious with posing for pictures, and seemingly unflustered by the long (and I mean long!) lines, wait times and sheer crowds you had to part to just move anywhere. I loved seeing families there with their kids, all in costume having a great time. 14317415_1242873745744756_2617542351912526429_n
  7. I’m saving the best for last. 🙂 I was stunned at the writing community that was in attendance. There were some terrific panels at the con on the writing craft as well as specific elements of publishing. Brandon Sanderson, who is probably best known for finishing Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, was on a panel that I attended. I ran into him outside of one of the hotels and he was warm and gracious in answering a question and then chatting for several minutes. The authors who attended seemed very willing to interact and share insights with attendees. I was impressed with the breadth of options of panels to attend that focused on writing.

    My takeaway from Dragon Con 2016 is that there is truly something for everyone there. If you’ve ever read or watched anything related to science fiction or fantasy, if you’ve ever watched superhero movies or read comics, if you enjoy art or especially if you like people watching–this is the place to be during Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. 14195279_1059995960781223_8651517751153972000_o

     

    Have you been to Dragon Con or think you might be interested? If so, I’d love to hear your comments! For more information on Dragon Con 2017, please visit the website www.dragoncon.org for more information. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Photo Credits: Sarah Maney

 

Picture Books that Get The Big Picture

As an author, a mom to a special needs son and a pediatric nurse, I am always on the lookout for books portray a realistic representation of the American demographic. We are not all “the same” and that is one of our country’s greatest strengths. One underrepresented group of kids that I’m particularly sensitive to are kids with ‘disabilities’ that make them look or act different from other kids. Here are some picture books for very young children that can begin to introduce characters with special needs in a positive light.

  1. Keeping Up With Roo by Sharlee GlennRoo cover

    I will admit that this book hits close to home. My older sister Mary Beth was always so excited to be an aunt. But each of her nieces and nephews, as they grew older, came to realize that she was different than other adults. This is what happens to the main character Gracie in this story when she starts school. When Gracie brings her friend Sarah home from school, she feels embarrassed about Roo’s behavior. Like all children who have a family member who is “different”, Gracie has to comes to to terms with her aunt’s differences and realize what is really important in life.

     

  2.  Susan Laughs by Jean Willis

    I love the fact that this picture book focuses on all of the things the main character images (1)Susan does that are exactly like every other kid in the world. It isn’t until the very last page of the book that the reader will discover that Susan is in a wheelchair. I took care of a beautiful, smart and sassy little girl who uses a wheelchair and I see her on every page. I highly recommend this book to parents of preschoolers. When you reach the end of the book, the illustration of Susan in her wheelchair provides the perfect teachable moment to discuss all of the similarities Susan has with your own child.

 

3. My Brother Sammy Is Special by Becky Edwards
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I love the way this book explores the complex sibling relationship that occurs when one of the sibling’s has special needs. Generally that sibling is parented differently, with a different set of rules and expectations. The author allows Sammy’s brother to express his resentment and frustration, but ultimately focuses on his love and concern for his brother. This book would be the perfect gift for any child with a special needs sibling.

4. Just Because by Rebecca Elliott

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What I love most about this book is that the younger brother Toby is too young to understand exactly why his big sister Clemmie can’t do the things that other kids can–but he doesn’t need to. In his innocent and accepting heart, he just loves her like she is. The author depicts the positive things these siblings can do together, even if it isn’t what most siblings can do. The writing is beautiful and the illustrations are enchanting. Children with siblings like Clemmie are going to be faced with many challenges as time goes on, but this book’s purpose isn’t to tackle the hard stuff. It’s to focus on the love and affection that is at the heart of the sibling relationship. And it does it beautifully.

5. A Friend Like Simon by Kate Gaynor51OijiofOVL._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_

This book doesn’t focus on the sibling relationship, but on the struggles kids on the autism spectrum have making friends at school. I love this book. I see so much of my own son in the character of Simon. This story is told from the perspective of a kid who is trying to be Simon’s friend at school. But it isn’t always easy. It takes more time and effort to get to know kids who are on the spectrum, but this book shows that it can often be well worth the effort. As a mom of a “Simon” myself, I appreciate the kids who make the effort.

6. The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

51j3FlqSA9LFor any parent of a quiet child that’s felt left out of the “popular group” at school, this book is a true find. The illustrations by Patrice Barton add to the impact of the words because Brian (the invisible boy) starts out gray and becomes more colorful as he begins to see himself as fitting in with someone–anyone. This book truly shows that it only takes ONE kind child to reach out to an “invisible kid” and make them feel a part of a class. Parents, I urge you to teach your children to be this one child. There are “Brians” out there in every classroom. I’ve taught elementary school, and I’ve witnessed the change one child can make.

 

This list is certainly not inclusive of all the excellent books out there. However, these 5 titles resonated with me in a special way. If you have other books to recommend, please comment and let me know about them. I’d love to hear from you!

**Please note that I am not the copyright holder for any of these books, and am using the cover images to aid in readers locating the books at their local stores or libraries.