Thursday, October 29, 2009

Interview with The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children author, Keith McGowan

KN: Fay Holaderry quotes authentic phrases such as, "I'm at the end of my rope." What did you do to craft Fay's voice?

KM: The witch's voice came very naturally to me with no explicit thought of writer's craft. Her sense of humor appeared on the page fully formed, and I laughed, more as a reader of her journal than as the writer of it. I think somehow her wry sarcasm must just be a part of how I was raised; I come from a very sarcastic family.

KN: How did you ensure Sol and Connie were attractive yet imperfect characters?

KM: The fact that we are all imperfect is a major theme of the book. Nobody is perfect in the book. For me, the truth about humans is that we make many mistakes--at least I do. I wanted to enjoy that imperfection.

Sol and Connie's good qualities come through strongly, on the other hand, I think because of their sibling love for each other. Sol admires Connie's strengths and Connie admires Sol's strengths, and seeing each child through the other's eyes gives us a sense of admiration too.

KN: Please tell us one way your published book is different from an earlier draft.

KM: Everything, in a way, changed from early drafts to late drafts--I am very big on revision--although the core elements of the story never changed. One example of a change is the witch's journal entries. I had a lot of journal entries written; which ones to choose was the question. If you look very carefully and read the entries in the final book, you'll see there's a little story arc of its own in the entries. That, I thought, was how the journal entries should truly read.

KN: Forgiveness is a theme in the book yet the protagonist, Sol, does not forgive Connie while the antagonist, Fay Holaderry, forgives her dog. Why did you chose to have the antagonist forgive and not the protagonist?

KM: This was a very important element of the ending to me. Forgiveness is a big theme in the book, which goes along with the idea of all of us as imperfect people. One clue to what's going on is the title of the last chapter: "Old Enough to Accept Things." The witch is centuries old and has seen a lot of life, so she can forgive others their mistakes. She accepts life's ups and downs. Sol, on the other hand, is only eleven. His sister has done something very upsetting, and the book ends on the same day he finds this out. Sol is still upset and not yet ready to forgive. Sol's inability to forgive his sister her mistake, at least right away, is a sign of his own imperfection and his age. But, you know, I always thought that readers can forgive Sol for his own character flaws.

KN: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

KM: I'd just like to thank you for putting together great curriculum ideas, and to let teachers know that if they read the book with kids, I'd love to hear from them personally about the discussions. My website has a little contact link at the bottom, and also a page for teachers if you go to the "Mixed Up Files" page. I am a former afterschool director and teacher myself, and the child of teachers, so education, teachers, and schools are very important to me.

KN: Thanks for the interview!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


By: Keith McGowan
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 978-0-80508668-3


When Sol and Connie Blink move to Grand Creek, one of the first people to welcome them is an odd older woman, Fay Holaderry, and her friendly dog, Swift, who carries a very strange bone in his mouth. Sol knows a lot more than the average eleven-year-old, so when he identifies the bone as a human femur, he and Connie begin to wonder if their new neighbor is up to no good.

In a spine-tingling adventure that makes them think twice about whom they can trust, Sol and Connie discover that solving mysteries can be a dangerous game, even for skilled junior sleuths.

FORGIVENESS (Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Verbal/Linguistic)

Forgiveness is a theme in the book. Think about a time you forgave someone, or chose not to and how your decision affected the relationship. Or, write about a time someone forgave you or didn’t forgive you and how their decision affected the relationship.

MODERN FAIRY TALES (Verbal/Linguistic)

The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children is a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel. Choose a fairy tale and set it in the modern world. Make sure your voice and setting reflect today’s world.


Illustrations from traditional fairy tales are romantic, but Yoko Tanaka’s illustrations are macabre. Choose a setting from the book, think about whether a romantic or a macabre style best suits the setting you chose, and illustrate it.

SKELETON BONES (Rhythmic/Musical and Visual/Spatial)

Pass out the lyrics to Skeleton Bones. Sing the song together, and then give each student a copy of the human skeleton to label.

Song lyrics:
Skeleton printouts:

WATER IN A GLASS (Logical/Mathematical)

Split the class into groups of three students. Give each child a glass of water. Have him mark the water level on the glass. Ask the students to predict how much the water level will rise when one ice cube is added to the water, two ice cubes, and three ice cubes. Have each student take the temperature of her water before adding the ice cubes. Give student A one ice cube, student B two ice cubes, and student C three ice cubes. Add the ice cubes, measure how much the water level rose and record the observations. Have students take the water temperature every two minutes until the ice cubes have completely melted. What was the mean temperature, the median temperature, and the temperature range of each student’s glass of water?

Book Buddies:

-Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
-Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
-The Fairy Tale Detectives (The Sisters Grimm, Book 1) by Michael Buckley and Peter Ferguson
-Twice Upon a Time: A Guide to Fractured, Altered, and Retold Folk and Fairy Tales by Catharine Bomhold and Terri Elder

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interview with THE LION'S SHARE author, Matthew Mc Elligott

KN: Where did you come up with the idea for THE LION'S SHARE?

MM: I was having a birthday party a few years ago and we were having cake. Everyone had a piece. When we were done, there was still a big slice left over, but no one wanted to take the last piece. So someone – I don’t remember who, but it might have been me – cut it in half and took half. Someone else cut the remaining piece in half. Someone else cut that piece in half. It was really funny, and the cake kept getting smaller and smaller. I thought: there’s got to be an idea for a book in here somewhere.

KN: So halving the cake came from real life. Did your party guests proceed to offer to bake you numerous cakes, too?

MM: The idea of doubling the cakes was strictly from the book, I'm afraid. The idea was to set up a kind of symmetry between the halving and the doubling in the story.

(I really wish everyone had volunteered to make more cake. I love cake.)

KN: How long did it take you to write the first draft?

MM: It's tough to say. Since I illustrate my books too, I'm often tweaking the text as I'm working on the illustrations. The first finished draft - the one I submitted to the publisher - took a couple months and many, many rewrites.

KN: Describe your revision process.

MM: I write a draft, get away from it for a day or so, give it another look and realize it stinks. I repeat this for a few weeks. Finally, when I feel like it's not too bad, I show it to some trusted friends and get their feedback. They always notice gaps and inconsistencies that I missed, so I go back and do some more drafts, then show it around again.

When it finally hits a point that I'm satisfied, and my friends are too, then I'll send it in to my publisher. If they like it, there are always more revisions that they'd like to see, and I rewrite the text a few times more.

KN: Why did you choose an ant to be the heroine?

MM: Mostly because of her size. She's the end of the line. The animals start with the largest (the elephant) and get smaller as each slice of cake gets smaller. What I really wanted was for each animal to be about half the size of the one before, but that just wasn’t possible in each case.

KN: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

MM: I have lots more information about how I wrote and illustrated the book on my website, and I encourage you all to stop by and check it out. I have some sample projects, an explanation of the math behind the book and how it affected the design, demonstrations of how I drew the pictures, and lots more.
It’s all at Hope to see you there!

KN: Thanks Matt!

Sunday, October 18, 2009


By Matthew McElligott
Publisher: Walker & Company New York
ISBN-13: 978-0-8027-9768-1

FROM THE FLAP: When a very small ant is invited to the lion’s dinner party, she knows to be on her best behavior. It’s truly an honor to dine with the king of the jungle.

But the other partygoers don’t share her good manners. The greedy guests gobble up dessert, leaving nothing but a crumb for the ant to share with her king. Baking another cake seems like the perfect way to make it up to him… until the other boastful guests turn her kind gesture into a contest.

Exactly how many cakes are fit for a king?

ANIMAL SEQUENCE: (Bodily/Kinesthetic, Verbal/Linguistic, and Logical/Mathematical)

Have students wear their character masks. Ask students to recall the order in which the animals arrived at the party and have them order themselves accordingly in front of the board. Ask them if they notice a pattern? Then ask the animals to rearrange themselves as to who received the biggest piece of cake? Is there a size pattern? Once again ask them to rearrange themselves in the order they promised to bake cakes for the king? Is there a pattern? Give the students a long piece of paper divided into nine parts. Have them draw the animals in sequence and write a sentence about each animal and their actions.

CHARACTER MASKS: (Visual/Spatial)

Have each student make an animal mask using a paper plate, paints, yarn, and other supplies. Make sure to have at least two of each animal.

CLASSROOM RECIPES: (Intrapersonal and Interpersonal)

Have students bring in a copy of their favorite recipe from home. In class, ask them to write on the bottom of the recipe, and explain why this recipe is meaningful to them. Make copies of the classroom recipes for each student.

LION’S SHARE READERS’ THEATER: (Interpersonal and Bodily/Kinesthetic)

Since there are ten different characters in this book, it is a wonderful Reader’s Theater resource. Students will use their animal masks, and reenact the story.

THE ELEPHANT’S SHARE: (Logical/Mathematical)

Give each student sixteen index cards. Have her write each fraction from the book on two different cards using a marker. Then ask students to shuffle their cards and pair the students up with a partner who wrote his cards in a different color. Ask them to flip over their fraction cards one-by-one. Whoever has the largest fraction takes both cards. Students may refer to the book to figure out which fraction is larger if they forget. Partners keep playing until one person has won all of the cards. Afterwards, sort the cards out by color and find another partner.


Sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in rounds. Here’s a link to the lyrics:

Book Buddies:

-African Acrostics: A Word in Edgeways by Avis Harley and Deborah Noyes
-Bean Thirteen by Matthew McElligott
-Honey… Honey… Lion! by Jan Brett
-The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins
-The Last Leopard by Lauren St. John
-The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Interview with FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW Author, Mei Matsuoka

KN: How did you come up with the idea for FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW?

MM: I really enjoy Philosophy and actually spent a short time studying it in London after University. “Sophie’s World” is one of my favorite books and the questions it poses about the existence of a certain reality really interests me. That was where the idea of a ‘Story-within-a-story’ came from. Footprints are also something that has always fascinated me. As a child, I would always instinctively want to follow them, to see where it might lead me, what I might find. It has that magical quality of something that is a subtle indication of what was there before, but is also ephemeral. It has layers of metaphorical meanings and was a great tool for telling my story about Mr. Wolf, common misconceptions (stereotypes) and how things may not always be so black and white in this world.

KN: How long did it take you to write the first draft?

MM: Writing the first draft was quite quick. Once I have a story I want to tell in my head, it is just a matter of getting it down on paper.

KN: Describe your revision process.

MM: The revision of the second, third and fourth drafts were a much longer process, which came about from getting too much feedback from outside parties. I think the problem was that once I changed a small detail, everything else had to be changed. There was a lot of re-adapting and the more I changed it, the less happy I was with the finished product. In the end, we went back to the original first draft. But I think the process of having gone through the changes was an important one and made me realize the strength of the original text.

KN: Why did you decide to feature an unreliable narrator?

MM: Is he an unreliable narrator? I had never thought of it that way… Maybe slightly confused, but then aren’t we all? We are forever changing our minds on the spot, not knowing who or what we really are, often getting guided by our impulses and instincts. I wanted to show that Wolf wasn’t necessarily in control of what was happening, even when he thought he was. Nothing is ever as straight forward as ‘This is this and that is that’ and I think that it’s good to show that in children’s books as well.

KN: Do people contact you to tell you what they think really happens when Mr. Wolf follows the footprints?

MM: I have heard various responses regarding what might happen to Wolf after he follows the footprints (I often like to ask!) Many children say that he’ll find the duck and eat him and just as many say that he will become friends with the duck after all. Some have said that he won’t find the duck, give up, go back home and have a cup of tea! I’m yet to hear a really unusual answer, but that is always the exciting thing about the story, to see what each person’s take on it is. I always hope that as many people as possible pick up on the subtle details. Such as the pens and paws that are ‘writing’ the ‘story’ pages and also the animal toys in the backgrounds of the ‘reality’ pages. Thank you for reading the book and this interview. Please contact me at I’d love to hear your take on what happens after Wolf follows the footprints!

KN: Thanks for the interview, Mei!

Sunday, October 11, 2009


By Mei Matsuoka
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
ISBN:-13: 978-0-8050-8792-5

FROM THE FLAP: Wolf is feeling offended and indignant: all the wolves he’s ever read about are nasty, scary, and greedy! To set the record straight, he decided to write a story about a nice wolf. But will his wolfish instincts get the better of him after all?

EXCELLENT ENDINGS (Verbal/Linguistic)

Ask students to write an ending to FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW from the wolf’s point of view and another ending from one of the other animal’s points of view. If students are emerging writers, have them illustrate their ending and have them dictate the story to you.


Have students mount their stories from Excellent Endings onto white construction paper. Then have them stamp a border of footprints around their stories. If you don’t have stamps, use potato prints.

FOOTPRINT SCAVENGER HUNT (Bodily/Kinesthetic and Logical/Mathematical)

Photocopy six different sets of footprints. You’ll need about twenty of each kind. Place the footprints throughout the room or school. Divide students into teams of three or four and have them follow their animal footprints. Every five footprints or so, right a clue on the footprint about the size of the animal, whether it’s prey or predator, habitat, and size. At the end of the footprints, children will find a photo of the animal. Challenge students to identify their animal before they find the photo. Go to for drawings of various mammal footprints and useful information about their habitats and diets.


Talk about each animal in the story and about its diet. Create addition and subtraction problems such as: Five flies flew around frog’s head. Frog ate two. How many flies were left? Or, rabbit ate three carrots from one garden and five from another. How many carrots did rabbit eat all together? After doing many as a class, ask students to create their own math stories.

STEPS TO FRIENDSHIP (Interpersonal and Intrapersonal)

Wolf sets out to make friends, but he is unsuccessful. As a class brainstorm a list of things to say to someone when trying to initiate a friendship. The other animals weren’t friendly to wolf either. Brainstorm a list of friendly responses children can say when someone approaches them and asks to be friends. Ask students to trace their footprint, cut it out, and sign their name on their footprint. Post the prints around the room.


-My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza
-The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt and Tony DiTerlizzi
-The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
-Wolves by Emily Gravett

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Interview with THE WORRY TREE Author, Marianne Musgrove

KN: Where did you come up with the idea for THE WORRY TREE?

MM: I had a whole cast of characters loosely based on my family (although my mum would like it known she never did the thing with the spaghetti Bolognese). Unfortunately, there was nothing holding the story together. Since the main character is a worrywart, I thought it would be great to give her a way of managing her worries. I was flicking through an interior design magazine one day and I saw a photo of a child's bedroom with a tree painted on the wall and animals in its branches, and so the Worry Tree was born.

KN: The vivid characters make this book a joy to read. What techniques did you use to make your characters jump off the page?

MM: I always choose a specific detail that I repeat throughout the story to remind people of who the character is, eg, Juliet has a nervous rash and a little anxious 'v' that appears between her eyebrows. This gives the reader a visual picture and also says something about the character (in this case, that she's a worrywart).

I make sure each character has a different sense of humour as this reflects the way they look at the world and distinguishes them from each other, eg, Oaf is mischievous, Nana is dry and Dad is outlandish.

KN: Above you say Juliet is a worrywart, yet she is a very attractive main character. What character traits did you include to make sure Juliet comes across as a fun person? One detail I love is the fact that she compares her initials JJJ to monkey tails, fish hooks, and umbrella handles.

MM: I spent a long time imagining I was Juliet, and then I put her in situations to see how she'd react. As she revealed herself to me, her quirky nature really stood out, eg, her obsession with her collection of used bus tickets, her book containing the number plates of anyone who'd parked in the street. She has a strong sense of justice, something children tend to relate to, and she is very caring, always worrying about other people and how she can help them. I tried to create a character readers would barrack for. Juliet finds herself in many an unjust situation but she always acts nobly and, in the end, her strength of character sees her through.

KN: How long did it take you to write the first draft of THE WORRY TREE?

MM: About a year. I had no experience of writing a novel (apart from the romantic thriller I penned, age eleven). I wrote the entire thing long hand with random scenes spread all over my bedroom floor. Over time, I shuffled them into some kind of order.

KN: Please describe your revision process for THE WORRY TREE.

MM: Ah, revision, how I loathe it, and yet it's so necessary. I wrote nineteen drafts of "The Worry Tree". I like to put my manuscript in the drawer for a couple of months. It's loosens my emotional attachment to the words so I can edit more dispassionately. Then I do a series of very specific edits, eg, I read through, paying attention to the arc of a particular character's journey or I read through only looking for typos or to make sure the continuity of the story holds true.

KN: What other books have you written that WORRY TREE readers might enjoy?

"Don't Breathe a Word" (Random House Australia) has just come out. It's a funny, realistic story about two sisters who live with their grandpa who's been acting rather strangely (he has dementia). They're afraid they'll be split up if anyone finds out so they have to keep it a secret.

"Lucy the Good" (Random House Australia) is the first in a series of books about a girl who spends an awful lot of time in the Time Out chair, though she's always surprised when it happens. Each Lucy book explores an ethical issue with much humour. The first is about what it means to be good. Next year's "Lucy the Lie Detector" will explore truth, lies, rules and the law (according to Lucy).

KN: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

MM: To download a free copy of the Worry Tree poster, you can check out my website at

KN: Thank you for joining us.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


By Marianne Musgrove
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8791-8

FROM THE FLAP: Juliet’s a worrywart, and no wonder! Her little sister, Oaf, follows her around taking notes and singing “The Irritating Song” all day long. Her parents are always arguing about Dad’s clutter. Nana’s so tired of craft lessons that she starts barbecuing things in the middle of the night. And Juliet’s friends, Lindsay and Gemma, are competing to see which of them is her best friend. Juliet can’t fit in any more worries!

But then she makes a remarkable discovery. Behind the wallpaper in her new bedroom, Juliet uncovers an old painting of a very special tree. Nana remembers it well: It’s the Worry Tree, and with the help of the Worry Tree animals, Juliet just might be able to solve some of life’s big problems.

A Living Forest (Bodily-Kinesthetic)

Have students pretend they’re trees. First they crouch as if they’re seeds. Have them unfurl their bodies as the sun shines and the rain falls. Once they’ve reached their full grown height, remind them to keep their roots anchored and have their branches stretch toward the sun. Have a storm come and tell students that even though their branches might sway, their trunks stay balanced and centered no matter what the conditions around them.

Collection Classification (Naturalist and Logical-Mathematical)

Ask students to bring in a collection from home. As individuals, have students classify their collections by an attribute such as size, shape, or color. As a class, classify and sort the collections by attributes. Graph the results.

Fly Away Worries (Intrapersonal, Visual-Spatial, Verbal-Linguistic, and Interpersonal)

Give students a piece of origami paper. Have them write a worry on the white side of the paper. Then, using the directions from, instruct them how to fold their worry into a bird, or another animal mentioned in the book. Have the students pin their worry to the tree. At the end of the day, the teacher can pick one worry off the tree and read it out loud making sure to leave out any names or other identifying information. The class can brainstorm ways they’ve overcome that specific problem.

Grandparent Interviews (Verbal-Linguistic and Interpersonal)

In class ask students to write ten interview questions for their grandparents or another older family relative or acquaintance. The students’ questions should center their grandparents’ childhoods. Ask students to invite their grandparents to the classroom or bring in a photo of their relative and present their findings to the class.

Extensions: Write a creative story about your grandparents’ favorite toy.
Write a see-saw book comparing and contrasting your childhood to your grandparents’ childhood.

The Worry Tree (Visual-Spatial)

The teacher affixes a large trunk with six branches to a bulletin board in the classroom. Ask students to dip one of their palms into a tray of green paint, and make a hand print onto the classroom worry tree. Now the tree is leafy and ready to receive the classroom’s origami worries.

Book Buddies:

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
Dessert First by Hallie Durand
Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows
Piper Reed, Navy Brat by Kimberly Willis Holt
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr