Debut Year Scrapbook

I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a publishing year to top 2018 (four books of my debut series released). With that in mind, I wanted to collect and share a few of my favorite shots:

Books 1 and 2 launch event at Barnes & Noble, Rockville, MD.

With my indispensable writing partners Lauren Francis-Sharma and Fataima Ahmed-Warner.

A gift I’ll always treasure: Beep as crocheted by these fans’ talented and generous mother.

Niece Gwen and nephew Arthur with book 4, which was dedicated to them. Gwen, is a very talented young artist, and I hired her to draw kids and aliens, which I then melded and included in at least one final illustration in each of the books.

Quite a feeling to finally see my own books in libraries and stores (with some not-too-shabby shelf proximity).

I love receiving photos of kids enjoying Beep and Bob.

Strangely, whenever I try to catch a shot myself, it always seems to be right between all the bouts of raucous laughter (at Baltimore Comic Con).

With my fellow local Electric 18s Jean Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Deborah Schaumberg (and a photobombing Renaissance woman). We were all asked to sign books at the National Press Club’s Annual Author Night in downtown DC.

B&B in the hands of superstars Rachel Renee and Nikki Russell!

I was honored to speak on a panel at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Annual Conference with fellow authors Mary Rand Hess, L.M. Elliott and some guy named Kwame.

With the legendary Tomie de Paola and his latest. Though I’ve only talked to him a few times in the past dozen years, he has always been super generous and supportive.

Hey Nineteens!

Dear Novel Nineteens,

First of all, congratulations on your debuts! I wish your books well. I was initially part of the 2017 Debut Group, but then my publication date got bumped and I joined the Electric Eighteens. So I’ve been a fly on the debut wall for one year and lived it for another. While everyone’s experience is naturally different (mine is a chapter book series that I also illustrate, so already not typical), I know I always appreciated hearing from those who came before me. Mostly I just wanted tips about what to look forward to (or to dread). And since I have a Snow Day today (I’m a teacher when not writing) as well as a Non-Writing Day (for no other reason than laziness), I thought it could be a reflective time to add a few insights to the mix.

Time: About a year before my release, I was talking to author-illustrator Henry Cole, who said something like, “Enjoy this time. It’s the best part!” And I was like, “What does he know, I want my books out now!” Time during a debut year can be maddingly slow, yet it also can speed so fast I often found myself scrambling to hit pause or rewind.

As I said, I was bumped (as many are). To wait an extra six-months initially felt like the cruelest fate in the world. But it turned out to benefit me in two ways: first, I didn’t have to rush through edits and illustrations, and it not only improved the quality of the work it helped me keep my sanity (though they’re short, I was working on four books total, and I teach full time). Even better, I got to join the 18s, and I found having two debut groups is literally twice as good as one!

Rejection: One reason it felt so great to get a book deal was that I could now rejoice in the fact that rejection was now squarely and finally in the rear-view mirror! Silly me. While it’s true that this was a life-changing yes after years of no, I had no idea how much rejection still lay ahead.

I don’t just mean rejection of future books and projects (that’s happened). I mean the rejection of not getting starred reviews, or of not getting reviewed in some journals at all; rejection from conferences and other speaking events; the rejection of not seeing your book on lists; and rejections from all kinds of things you never even knew existed!

Another word for rejection at this point is ‘comparison’. Others are going to get things you don’t (often people in your group). At the same time, you’re getting lots of things others aren’t. But it’s often harder to feel thankful than stung. So what to do? One way to feel grateful is to be grateful. Try to look with fresh eyes at your own accomplishments and celebrate those of others. Also, I haven’t tried this, but some pair up with buddies who check GoodReads, Amazon and other review and ranking sites for them. Some days will be good, some hard. Luckily your readers won’t know or care, and they’re really the ones this is all about. (here’s a cartoon I made about this topic that I shared with the 18s): 
Control: If you’re like me, the main thing you’re probably wondering as a debut is “how can I move the needle?” Sadly, the most eye-opening insight from my debut year is: I have absolutely no control over anything. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. As much as I’d like to, there’s nothing I can do to make my publisher suddenly make me their big publicity priority. I can’t force anyone to review my books or to leave good reviews if they do. I can’t contact traditional media and make them give me the press I want nor can I use social media to make anyone order anything. I can’t even force my own students to buy or read or like my books (d’oh!) though it turns out many of them are my most dedicated fans (home court advantage).

So can the needle not be moved? Of course it can. In fact it will be moved, all over the place, even if you do nothing at all. The good news is that this absolute lack of control, when looked at it the right way, is absolutely freeing. If I could give just one tip, it would be “play to your strengths”. If your strength is posting of Twitter, and you really enjoy it, that may be where you move the needle most meaningfully. Personally, my mind seizes up on Twitter, so I go on sparingly. On the other hand, I love doing school visits; I’m good at it, kids enjoy it, so it really works for me. If you’re the type who would rather pull your own teeth out than speak to a gym-full of noisy kids, then that’s probably not going to work for you. But that’s okay, play to your own strengths. No one can do everything. And the only one who can really enjoy your own author life is you.

Hope something here was helpful. If your debut and writing communities are half as good as mine, you’re already in a great place. Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. And have an amazing year!




Simple Steps to Make Star/Snowflake Thingy



Each year about this time, I make these 3-D star/snowflake thingies with my 4th and 5th grade art students as a (kind of) simple one-period project. They love it, it looks festive, and they can make more over break. Folks have asked for the steps; I was taught by a fellow art teacher and it was passed down to her by…? In any case, I’m sure I’m repeating something that’s already online, but here it is again. (NOTE: I can make one of these in under 8 minutes by now; feel free to try to beat.)

Materials: 8 squares of paper (I cut from copy paper), tape, scissors, pencil and yarn and hole punch if you want to make a hanger.


Step One: Take a square, fold it into one triangle, then fold again.



Step Two: Draw three lines parallel to the long side, or opening on “top”. Lines should go almost to the other side.


Step Three: Cut on lines.


Step Four: Open the sheet.


Steps Five through Eight: Start with the two flaps in the center. Roll them into what I call a “burrito” fold and tape. It should fit around your finger. Next: FLIP THE SHEET OVER, and then burrito fold and tape the next closest flaps to the center. FLIP AGAIN and burrito fold and tape the next two flaps. Finally, FLIP OVER and fold and tape the outside flap things. You will now have one “icicle” and note that it will not be symmetrical.



Step Nine: Make another icicle and nestle the tips together, pinch and tape. Then find the part where the two icicles meet in the center and tape together.



Step Ten: Make eight total and keep attaching to center and then at the points where they meet. NOTE: the most important step of all is to attach a partial star to BEEP!


Step Eleven: Now finish the dang thing by punching a hole in the top and attaching a piece of yarn as a hanger (as seen at top).

Have fun!


Getting to Know: Samantha M. Clark


After a summer hiatus (due mainly to laziness) I’m back with my author interview series. And while I didn’t literally go to the beach this summer, I did have the pleasure of experiencing an armchair shipwreck adventure unlike any other in this stunning middle grade debut by Samantha M. Clark. I caught up with Samantha to learn more:

Me: Can you sum up THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST for the uninitiated?

Samantha: Absolutely! Here’s the pitch from my publisher, Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster:

The Graveyard Book meets Hatchet in this eerie novel about a boy who is stranded on a mysterious beach, from debut author Samantha M. Clark. A boy washes up on a mysterious, seemingly uninhabited beach. Who is he? How did he get there? The boy can’t remember. When he sees a light shining over the foreboding wall of trees that surrounds the shore, he decides to follow it, in the hopes that it will lead him to answers. The boy’s journey is a struggle for survival and a search for the truth—a terrifying truth that once uncovered, will force him to face his greatest fear of all if he is to go home.”

I’ll add that the book is a contemporary fantasy middle-grade novel about fear, insecurity and making your own courage while facing the monsters without and within.

Me: What sparked the creation of your book?

Samantha: This book started as a very small what-if and grew from there. The idea for THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST came to me when we were living in Houston. I was walking our dog on the shore of Clear Lake and began to wonder what would happen if a boy woke up alone on a beach and had no memory of who he was or how he got there. The Boy was so clear in my head, and I thought about him all the way back to our house. I told my husband what I was thinking, and we sat brainstorming ideas for over an hour. Then I got to work.

But the real story—why the Boy was there and what his true journey was—wasn’t clear to me until I wrote the final scene of the first draft. I had this huge ah ha moment, when I thought, “That’s what this book is about.” That story came through in multiple revisions.

Me: What can you share about your creative process?

Samantha: I love discovering how different writers approach their stories, and over the years I’ve tried lots of the tips and tricks I’ve heard about. Some have worked for me, some haven’t, and some have evolved into my current process, but I’m sure they will evolve even more.

One thing that has always been true is that I can’t start writing until I have three things:

  1. The situation that is precipitating the story, like a boy waking up on a beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there.
  2. The ending. The ending might change, but I need to have a destination in mind. Like, with THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, I knew roughly what the ending was going to be, but not exactly, so there were surprises.
  3. The voice. This might change too, but I find that I can’t get into a story until the voice is talking to me. For example, the manuscript I wrote after my first draft of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST was one I had been thinking about for years, but it wasn’t until then that the voice came to me and I was able to write it.

Once I have those three things, I plot out a very rough, bare bones outline and start writing, but that outline will usually change a lot as I discover more about the story and characters. After the first draft is down, it’s revision, revision, revision as many times as needed until I feel like the story is where it needs to be.

Me: What’s the most surprising thing about your publishing journey?

Samantha: To be honest, that I’ve come this far and now have a book published by Simon & Schuster!! As a kid, I thought authors of books were magical people in some mysterious land. We didn’t have author visits at my schools, and I never dreamed that Judy Blume and Enid Blyton were real people, much less that I could be like them…or try to be. 😉 Even when I got older and realized that being a novelist was a thing that people achieved, I never dreamed it would be something I could do. But I hoped, and hope is the most miraculous thing. Hope kept me working, kept me learning, kept me submitting. Hope helped me write in the middle of the night, revise over and over and over. And hope allowed me to never give up, even if I didn’t think a book of mine would ever be in a bookstore or a library. But now it is, in countries all over the world, and that’s surprising, but also amazingly wonderful.

And hope is keeping me writing more stories, learning more about craft, and creating new characters and worlds. Hopefully readers around the world will be reading those one day too.

Me: What do you do when you’re not writing?

Samantha: We have two dogs and I love taking them on long walks when I can. Too often my schedule is so busy that the walks are shorter, but we do get out in the sun. I also love to cook, and I make everything from scratch. And I love gardening and growing things, although I haven’t had as much time for that lately as I would like. In the future…

Me: Any advice to kids who like to write? And to adults who want to write for kids?

Samantha: The best advice I can give any writer of any age is to read. Read everything. Read the genres you love the most, and read books in genres you think you won’t like. Read books with covers that draw you in and covers that don’t appeal to you. Read stories about characters who are like you and stories about characters who are completely different. Reading will help you become a better writer. You’ll get a feel for story, voice, pacing, etc. Just like artists study the work of other artists, writers do the same by reading.

But also, and this important, know that it’s okay if you don’t finish a book. If you’re really struggling to get through a story, it’s okay to put it down. Everyone won’t like every story. Some people love the Harry Potter books, and others don’t. That’s okay. But you won’t know until you try, and a book just might surprise you. Either way, you’ll learn from books you love, like and dislike. So read… a LOT.

Me: As an illustrator who works on my own covers, I’m always interested in learning an author’s involvement in and reaction to their own cover?

Samantha: I didn’t have much involvement in the artwork for THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, but I LOVE the cover, and I’m so very grateful for the work of art director Laurent Linn ( and illustrator Justin Hernandez ( Both of them had a lot of passion for this book, and I think it fully shows in the final product, from the cover to the interior chapter frames to the soft-feel jacket and spot gloss. The chapter frames have little icons that change throughout the book, which I love. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better art director in Laurent Linn. Justin Hernandez was the only artist Laurent sent me, but as soon as I saw his work, I was in awe of his illustrations. I couldn’t be happier with what they came up with for the book.

Me: What’s next for you?

Samantha: I’m working on another middle-grade that’s lyrical in voice, has an unusual point of view and has fantastical elements in a realistic setting, like THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST. Nature is also a big part of the story, but the rest is different. I’m thoroughly enjoying getting to know the characters and world.

And in breaks, I’m getting ready to talk to kids about THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST and writing during author visits. As I said, I didn’t have those as a child and never thought publishing could be in my future. Now, as an author, I want every child to know that if they have a story they want to tell, publishing is definitely in their future, but also that whatever they want to do, they can accomplish it.

Me: Thanks so much, Samantha! Wishing your amazing book much success!

Samantha M Clark is the author of middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (2018, Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). She has always loved stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. After all, if four ordinary brothers and sisters can find a magical world at the back of a wardrobe, why can’t she? While she looks for her real-life Narnia, she writes about other ordinary children and teens who’ve stumbled into a wardrobe of their own. In a past life, Samantha was a photojournalist and managing editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives with her husband and two kooky dogs in Austin, Texas. Samantha is the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and explores wardrobes every chance she gets. Sign up for news and giveaways at .

Getting to Know: Christina Uss


Okay, I may be biased towards books that have bicycles on the cover and Bicycle in the title and feature bicycles and a Bicycle on pretty much every page. But I can also honestly say that I fell in love with The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House, May, 2018) for its whimsical humor, awesome sense of adventure and ample heart (and bicycles)! I caught up with debut middle grade author Christina Uss to learn more:

Me: Can you sum up The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle for the uninitiated?

Christina: Bicycle is the quirky story of a twelve-year-old girl who rides her bike across the United States in search of her first true friend. It’s full of fun and surprises, plus some bits that seem clearly, fully, ridiculously fictional but are actually true, real, factual, and can be visited by kids on bikes.

Me: What sparked the creation of your book?

Christina: Over twenty years ago, I joined a 2-month-long 4,000-mile fundraising ride that led from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, despite not having an abundance of physical stamina or bike handling skills. There isn’t an adjective to sum up that whole ride. It was by turns stunning, inspiring, challenging, terrifying, confusing, and electrifying, and it changed the course of my life. When I decided to write my first book, I knew it was going to involve a girl who had a crazy adventure on her bike. And I knew it would be middle-grade. The books I loved best as a kid were all middle-grade.

Me: What can you share about your creative process?

Christina: As a teenager, I used to hear band names in odd word conglomerations: The Inadvertent Cows or Why Me and Why You? or Here Comes the Smug. Now I hear book titles instead and immediately want to write a book to go with them. (I have eleven-year-old twins who are always saying wonderfully weird things, so I have a pretty long spreadsheet of titles I want to explore.) Some of the titles immediately come with a basic impression of what they’re about: for example, I knew The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle would involve a girl pedaling from the east to west coast, but then had to figure out who this girl was and why she was called Bicycle and what was pushing her to pedal so far.

When I sit down to write, usually for several hours on weekday mornings (and once I can force myself past the anxiety that I have no talent and nothing to say to open the file and start typing), I could go for hours if no one interrupts me. It’s like going underwater and swimming around, hanging out with my characters in this alternate universe. I write pretty linearly but without an outline – just re-read what happened in the previous day’s writing and start up where that left off. Once the whole book is done, I’ll go back and see if I have a coherent plot and character arc and all that good stuff.

Me: What’s the most surprising thing about your publishing journey?

Christina: Everything about it is surreal! One pretty unusual thing is that my book was originally purchased by my editor, Margaret Ferguson, when she was with one publishing house, but then she chose to move to another, smaller house and asked if I’d make the move with her. My instincts said YES – she was so enthusiastic about the book, and so insightful on how to make it the best it could be – and I’m extremely glad I stuck with her and got to meet the wonderful supportive folks at Holiday House through her.

Me: What do you do when you’re not writing?

Christina: I love, love, love, love to sleep, read, and eat. Sometimes reading takes precedence over sleep. I’m like a literate sloth.

Me: Any advice to kids who like to write? And to adults who want to write for kids?

Christina: For kids: have fun with it! Give yourself permission to write anything and everything that comes into your head, because you never know when something amazing will show up. Nothing you create is ever wasted. And to adults: a wonderful task you must perform if you wish to write for kids is reading what kids are reading. In huge, delicious servings, every day. It may seem like procrastination, but Stephen King commanded us all to read voraciously, advising that we all read at least as many hours as we write if I remember correctly, and who are we to argue with him?

Me: As an illustrator who works on my own covers, I’m always interested in learning an author’s involvement in and reaction to their own cover?

Christina: My cover illustrator, Jonathan Bean, did an amazing job. He also made an interior map that I adore – it’s got sea monsters munching on bicycles! My editor was our go-between (my understanding is they don’t often let authors talk directly to their illustrators so they don’t hound them incessantly.) As soon as my editor told me Jonathan wanted a photo of the kind of bike my main character rode to make sure he got the handlebars and rear rack right, I knew he was a good fit. When I saw his first pencil sketch, I was floored. He’d made the cover wrap around the entire book and included so many details and characters! (In fact, my editor ended up asking him to cut back so we’d have more room for the title.) I thought for sure kids would see Jonathan’s cover and decide my book was a fun adventure in which they could lose themselves, which is all I hoped the cover would communicate.

Me: What’s next for you?

Christina: My next novel, THE COLOSSUS OF ROADS will be coming out in 2020 from Holiday House. COLOSSUS tells the story of a boy in Los Angeles who figures out how to secretly, successfully, and spectacularly fix all of L.A.’s traffic problems. And after that…maybe start working on a book titled THE INADVERTANT COWS or HERE COMES THE SMUG?

Me: I’ll be looking forward to all those titles! And wishing Bicycle much success!

You can learn more about Christina at