Monday, November 15, 2010


A big Mentor Monday welcome to Cynthia Levinson! She is a fabulous non-fiction writer, having authored piles of fascinating articles and a book coming out from Peachtree in 2012 entitled, WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH.

I first heard an excerpt from this book about 18 months ago and was drawn in immediately. When I was young, non-fiction books merely spewed facts, but Cynthia’s writing is filled with character development, intrigue, action, and fascinating details. Actually, so is Cynthia! ;-)

Here’s a taste:


Eight-year-old Audrey woke up Thursday morning with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, she knew she had to go to jail.

“I want to go to jail,” Audrey told her mother.

“OK,” her mother answered.

She asked her parents to buy her a game she’d been eyeing. She figured that Operation, in which you take the bones out of a plastic figure and put them back together, would entertain her in case she got bored during her week on a cellblock.

Her mother thought it would be polite for her to tell Miss Wills, her third-grade teacher at Center Street Elementary, that she’d be absent. Miss Wills cried.
“I think she was proud of me,” Audrey said.

She also hugged all four grandparents goodbye.

One of her grandmothers assured her, “You’ll be fine.”

Then, Audrey’s mother drove her to church so she could be arrested.
Wait a minute! What kind of eight-year-old volunteers to go to jail? And, what kind of mother says, “OK” and makes sure she gets there? And, why would she get arrested at church?

Is this real?

Yes. Audrey Faye Hendricks and her mother, Lola, are real. So is this story.

Audrey was one of the youngest of about 4,000 black children who marched, protested, sang, and prayed their way to jail during the first week of May 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. Their goal was to end segregation in the most racially separated and violent city in America. Many young people suffered attacks by snarling German shepherds and days of being crammed into sweltering sweatboxes. Some wondered if they would survive. And, if they did, could they accept these punishments with dignity, as they had been taught? Or, would they retaliate against the white policemen who were abusing them?

Audrey and three other young people—Washington Booker III, James Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter—will be your guides through these harrowing events. Along the way, you’ll hear from others as well.

I knew that Cynthia’s agent, Erin Murphy, was shopping this ms around and I was so hoping that it would sell! When I got word that it did, I danced in my office to a blaring SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED, I’M YOURS (my official book contract celebratory song! Go ahead and click it. You know you want to. Do it.)

I know that WE HAVE A JOB will be the first of many books that lucky children everywhere will read from Cynthia!

Here is Cynthia’s Mentor Story:

I didn’t know that Mary Jane was mentoring me until it was too late. Had I known, I would have inhaled every comment and suggestion she made in our critique group. Even her silences, head cocked, were tactfully telling. But, it’s only in retrospect that I realized how honored I should have felt to get guidance from Mary Jane Hopkins before she abruptly died.

It was Mary Jane, who, looking at my tediously over-long and expository manuscripts, suggested I switch from writing fiction to nonfiction. Finding that niche on my own took me another five years, at least 30 rejections of inept fiction, and an exasperated dismissal by a famous writer of my amateurish novel at an expensive weeklong retreat.

While I stubbornly insisted I was going to write picture books, she urged me to write for the magazine market. She was right about that, too, though I didn’t realize it until years later when a famous editor scribbled all over the first chapter of that very same novel at another expensive weeklong retreat.

Along the way, Mary Jane patiently helped me pare words, hone the story, find a rhythm. It’s only because of her that I finally sold two stories—to magazines, of course. The effusiveness of her congratulations masked her own role in these successes. Still, my own blinkered, I-can-do-it-myself attitude meant that one story had to be heavily edited, and the other was never printed.

Just before she suffered the stroke, she had been working on a beautifully crafted novel about a boy whose parents were divorcing and another who was entering the adoption system. Every chapter tightened the emotional grip of the one before. We were nearly as devastated to lose the progress of her story as we were to lose Mary Jane. When her husband asked our critique group to finish the novel, we sorrowfully explained that the distinctive voice, the clean writing, and the characters we looked forward to visiting with every week were hers alone. Mary Jane’s daughter, who inherited her mother’s writing genes, found a page of notes and questions her mother had kept. Question #10, I believe, was “How does it end?”

My writing—almost all nonfiction and, thanks to success in the magazine market, finally branching out to a trade book—would find its flow and reach its end so much more effectively if I could still hear Mary Jane. Fortunately, she taught me, posthumously, to listen, which I do, avidly, to my later mentors, whose advice I embrace.

Thank you, Cynthia! Very touching and a good message for us all!

Here is another song--a beautiful tribute.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Welcome to Printz Honor Winning author, Ellen Wittlinger! Such a pleasure to have her here!

Ellen is the author of 14 books for young readers. Her third book, HARD LOVE, was a Printz Honor Book (among many accolades it received!). This is such a poignant book—and one of my faves!

Her newest book is entitled, THIS MEANS WAR, a terrific story set in the 1960's.
From Booklist:
Wittlinger latches on to a poignant metaphor for war in this lively and readable tale set against the backdrop of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Fifth-grader Juliet lives near a growing military base, which has brought in an influx of new kids, including the rowdy Patsy. It’s a good thing, too, because Juliet’s longtime pal Lowell has abandoned her to hang out with boys, including the overgrown bully, Bruce. This division turns into an all-out battle of the sexes when Bruce devises a nine-day competition that tests the strength and bravery of girls versus boys. These increasingly dangerous tests (entering a dog pen, shoplifting) bring most of the children closer together, though for Patsy and Bruce, they only escalate the conflict. It’s a clever concept that keeps the proceedings fun even as the darker drama of potential world collapse provides a weighty element; young readers will be shocked to learn of Juliet’s daily prayers, including “Dear God, please don’t let the world end today.” A warm way to introduce the cold war. Grades 5-8. --Daniel Kraus
See all Editorial Reviews

As Director of The Whispering Pines Retreat, I met Ellen when she was kind enough to attend as our author mentor. She was a wonderful addition to our faculty that year, as she was so knowledgeable but also kind, approachable, and generous with her time and wisdom. She gave thoughtful, thorough critiques to our writers that year and also gave a terrific presentation on writing humor, which I continue to refer back to even today. By the end of the weekend, I felt very fortunate, that I had made a friend in Ellen, and that makes me lucky indeed!

Here is Ellen Wittlinger:

My Mentors
By Ellen Wittlinger

There are many people who helped me along my crooked path to becoming a writer, but four in particular I’ll never forget. I was an art major in college, partly because I was a slow reader and I wasn’t sure I could get through all the Milton and Chaucer that English majors had to read. But I was writing all the time anyway, and in my senior year I took a poetry course from a young faculty member by the name of Kelly Yenser. Both Kelly and his wife Pamela were poets (and still are,) and they encouraged me to follow that dream too. They were sympathetic readers of my early work, they put books into my hands I hadn’t known to read, and they convinced me to apply to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for graduate school. I would not be a published author today without their example and support.

I wish I could say my years at the Iowa Workshop were also full of wonderful mentors, but they were not. I had a few good teachers, but the classes were large and I was not one of the stars. In those years I worked hard mainly to show those guys (and they were mostly guys) that I was worthy of being there too.

After grad school I was incredibly lucky to get a fellowship to write at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts--a living space and a stipend for seven months and nothing to do but live in one of the most beautiful spots on earth and write. In fact, I got a second year fellowship there too and ended up living on Cape Cod for three years. During that time the person who made the biggest impact on my life was a wonderful poet by the name of Alan Dugan. Dugan (as everyone called him) was a big, rough-voiced, heavy-drinking guy who’d won a Pulitzer Prize before I met him, and went on to win a National Book Award. I was a bit cowed by him, to say the least. But during my first week at the Center Dugan called all ten writing fellows together for an informal chat during which he repeatedly referred to us as his “colleagues.” He always, from then on, treated each of us as an equal, as people whose writing must be taken seriously. Which is when I really began to take myself seriously as a writer. If Dugan believed in me, it must be true.

During my third year in Provincetown, another well-known author became involved with the Work Center, the wonderful short-story writer Grace Paley. Another tough cookie on the outside, Grace was incredibly generous to all of us younger writers, reading draft after draft of the same story and giving honest feedback. I still have a message pinned to the corkboard in my office which has been around since Grace first said it to me: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” She was right.

I am a writer today because of the generosity and support of these four people. Since I’ve become part of the children’s writing community, finding helpful people is less unusual than it was when I was in the (so-called) adult writing world. In that harsher climate, these folks were my saviors, and I thank them for it.

Thanks a ton, Ellen! So grateful to have had you visit MENTOR MONDAYS! ;-)

Monday, November 1, 2010


Welcome to Laura Toffler-Corrie! Thrilled to have her here on Mentor Mondays!

Laura is the author of the hilarious, THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF AMY FINAWITZ, a character being called, “The Tina Fey” of middle grade readers. I highly recommend you pick up the book and put a sitting aside to get to know this hilarious, quirky girl!

From Booklist:

It can’t get any worse for Amy Finawitz. Her best friend, Callie, has abandoned their life in New York City to stay with relatives in Kansas for the year, leaving Amy to cope with eighth grade alone. Thankfully—or not—God sends Amy a replacement friend in the form of Miss Sophia, the little old lady who lives down the hall. Miss Sophia hooks Amy into solving a decades old mystery left in a very old journal. The dynamic duo soon becomes a Terrific Triumvirate when Miss Sophia also asks her fifteen-year-old nephew, Beryl, a Lubavitch Jew, to join their little investigative team.

And if Amy thought her year couldn't get anymore random, she can add the following items to her list: Houdini’s grave, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, cross-dressing magicians, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, crochet circles, Abraham Lincoln, a raucous rendition of Fiddler on the Roof, and a secret treasure.

To get through it all, Amy's going to need a serious Chanukah miracle


Praise For The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz…

“Entertaining…genuinely funny…” –Publishers Weekly

"...value and sweetness."–Kirkus Reviews

Laura Toffler-Corrie


In my early twenties, I decided to return to graduate school and pursue a degree in Dramatic Writing at New York University. I was excited but also terrified. Did I have the courage to share my work? Did I have talent? Could I succeed? On the first day of class, cowered by my insecurities, I decided that the best approach was a cautious one. I would sit in the back of the room and say very little.

However, the professor, Lee Kalcheim, had other ideas. His class was going to be a full participation experience. We would spend the semester writing and sharing our work. At the end, we would mount our own one act play to be performed in front of an audience. When I heard that, it took everything I had not to run out the door and never look back.

Somehow, week after week, I screwed up the nerve to write and present new work and, week after week, Lee was supportive. He encouraged me to develop my writing voice, he laughed at the funny bits and offered supportive criticism when needed. He taught me about character and plot and dialogue. Through his gentle guidance and the supportive atmosphere he created in class, my work improved and my confidence bloomed. On the last day, I did indeed mount my own one act play, in a professional, black box theatre, in front of an audience; one of the most frightening, and exhilarating experiences of my life.

I believe that Lee’s support was instrumental in giving me the courage to pursue a career in writing, with all its attendant rejection and disappointments, and to achieve my dream of being a professional author.

As far as the author goes, she’s pretty hilarious and quirky, too! ;-) THANKS, so much, Laura, for gracing us with your presence here on Mentor Mondays!