Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Last Stop (+ a Giveaway!) on Clare Hodgson Meeker's GROWING UP GORILLA Blog Tour

Today my dear friend Clare Hodgson Meeker joins me for a chat about her latest nonfiction-for-kids title. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for an SCBWI Western Washington event as the book launched in early fall, so it’s an extra treat to end the season hosting her here.

Growing Up Gorilla (Millbrook Press, 2019) is the gorgeously photo-illustrated true story of how first-time gorilla mom Nadiri learns to mother newborn Yola, despite having herself been raised by humans. Clare deftly guides young readers through a suspenseful yet tender and uplifting narrative chronicling this mother and child's sometimes rocky bonding period, which is so carefully nurtured by an expert team at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. Readers of all ages will worry over the gorilla pair's obstacles and cheer for their triumphs while also engaging in the fascinating reality of what it really means to be a gorilla, and to care for one.

Welcome to my blog, Clare, and congratulations on the successful launch of Growing Up Gorilla! I’ve so enjoyed watching your journey with this book. We'll talk more about that in a second, but why don't we start with having you share with our readers just a bit about your background. How long have you been writing for children? And how did you turn the endeavor into a career?

Since 1993. I left the practice of law and started freelancing as a grant writer after my two kids were born. Reading picture books to them inspired me to try writing for them, too. My first picture book, A Tale of Two Rice Birds, based on a folktale from Thailand, came out in 1994.

My second book, Who Wakes Rooster?, was published after the manuscript won first place in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s children’s picture book category that same year. The judge, an editor at Macmillan, offered me a publishing contract, but the book didn’t come out for another three years after Simon & Schuster bought Macmillan. I followed that editor to Marshall Cavendish for my next book, a biography of Abigail Adams called Partner in Revolution, which was published in 1998. That book got me hooked on research and writing as a career, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Such an exciting start to your children's publishing career — and you're still going strong! Let's take a closer look at the creation of Growing Up Gorilla. What drove you to write Yola and Nadiri’s story? In other words, what aspect of their story most captured your own imagination?

Like much of the Seattle public, I was fascinated by a Seattle Times article about zoo staff helping a first-time mother gorilla prepare for birth by practicing having her pick up a burlap doll and holding it. The question of whether or not Nadiri would instinctively pick up her baby and nurse her was compelling, since she had been hand-raised by humans away from other gorillas for almost a year after her mother rejected her at birth. I had first heard about Nadiri when she was a baby and I was researching and writing a book about another animal celebrity at the zoo, Hansa: The True Story of an Asian Elephant Baby. But it was Yola’s personality — outgoing and determined — and the bond the zoo staff helped forge between mother and daughter in the gorilla dens where she was raised from the start that drove the plot and captured this writer’s heart.

How did you go about translating your passion for the story into a narrative that’s just right for younger readers? Did that process pose any challenges?

Kids are naturally drawn to baby animals and to reading nonfiction. Most of my books are written for 3rd- to 5th-graders who are hungry for facts and eager to share what they know in the context of a good story. My goal was simply to present Yola and Nadiri’s story through carefully chosen scenes with as little author intrusion as possible. The lesson that mothering is a learned behavior is presented here as something gorillas have shown us and zoos have learned and are responding to over time. The lesson might apply to humans as well, but I leave that to the readers to interpret. It is not my role to be didactic. I tried to focus on the social behavior and family dynamics of this amazing animal species that shares 97.7% of the same genes as us.

I think you accomplished exactly what you set out to do! While your nonfiction books for kids include a number of wonderful animal stories, you’ve also written some lovely biographies and fun sports-related titles. Besides Growing Up Gorilla, which of your nonfiction works is most special to you, and why?

Thank you for asking that question, Lisa. Here are a few special moments for me as a writer: Researching American history through primary documents from Abigail Adams’s time and discovering a swatch of silk material she’d pinned to her journal from her trip to Europe. During research for my Rachel Carson biography, I Could Not Keep Silent, I witnessed this famous nature writer’s beginnings when I found a story she’d written at age eight about two wrens setting up house among her personal papers archived at Yale University. Finally, after catching Sounders FC fever in 2010 with my Soccer Dreams book, I was thrilled to interview MLS soccer heroes Kasey Keller, Steve Zakuani, Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, and Clint Dempsey. Hard work pays off!

Those certainly are some well-earned writerly moments, Clare! Thanks so much for chatting. 


Did someone mention a GIVEAWAY?

To celebrate our mutual love for putting books in kids' hands, Clare and I decided to add a giveaway to this post. The prize is a set of four FREE books — two written by Clare, and two written by me — all of which will go to one lucky winner!

Books in the set by Clare Hodgson Meeker:
  • Growing Up Gorilla — see description above.
  • Soccer Dreams — a fictional tale about a boy from Kenya who moves to Seattle and helps build a winning soccer team. Sidebars feature real-life game strategies and teamwork tips from the MLS Seattle Sounders FC.

Books in the set by Lisa L. Owens:
  • Bigfoot: The Legend Lives On — a fictional story about a boy attempting to unravel the Bigfoot mystery in Mount Ranier National Park. Sidebars feature real-life Bigfoot research, cultural beliefs, and other factual information.
  • Heroes of Dunkirk — a look at the World War II military campaign at Dunkirk as told through stories of heroes at the scene. Sidebars include STEM and hero highlights.

We'd love to get the word out to teachers, librarians, parents/families, and anyone with young readers in mind who could really use and enjoy this set of books.

Enter to WIN by leaving a comment on this post anytime between now and 11:59 PM on December 23. At the end of the giveaway period, I'll use an online randomizer to select a single winning entry. Then I'll post the winner's name in this space by December 26 and arrange to mail the books to the winner in early January 2020.

Thank you for reading, and good luck to all entrants!

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Guest Blogging at LitLinks

I'm thrilled to be today's guest blogger for Patricia Newman's LitLinks, where children's authors, educators, and scientists highlight connections between STEM and language arts.

In "Code Breakers, STEM, and History Inspire Fiction Writing," I've outlined a classroom activity meant to enhance reading comprehension and information retention for readers of my book World War II Code Breakers. Readers will take inspiration from a brief passage about real-life cryptologist Genevieve Grotjan Feinstein to craft their own fictionalized scene about Ms. Grotjan Feinstein's breakthrough discovery of a crucial pattern in Japan's Purple code.

The book, one of four titles I wrote in Lerner's Heroes of World War II series, was designed to cover quite a bit of specific wartime history in a necessarily shorter format. That meant this particular historical Hero Highlight sidebar story had to be told in just a couple of paragraphs. I think there's just enough intriguing factual information in the passage to inspire kids' imaginations and fuel the activity. Readers can use what they've learned about the processes of creating and cracking codes (including the historical context in which they are presented) to take the creative leap of visualizing and writing an exciting fictionalized scene about Ms. Grotjan Feinstein's history-making a-ha moment.

As a complement to the LitLinks piece, I thought it would be fun to offer an add-on activity here at my blog. Treat the following as a warm-up exercise ahead of reading World War II Code Breakers. Or, during the prewriting phase of the main project, use it as vehicle for giving kids some fun hands-on experience to further inspire the writing and illustrating of a fictionalized scene about a real-life wartime code breaker. 

Please enjoy!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Tick-Tock, Don't Stop

I recently restarted the clock on some creative goals. No, not at 0000 hours. More like at "Hey, the clock says THIS is where I am, so let's go from there."

I'm taking this approach not because I'd ever stopped making progress. I just figure now is a good time to pivot away from the myth of my own making that I'm thismuch behind in anything and, therefore, somehow behind in Life. (Spoiler alert: I'm right on time, one that's mine alone to tell.)

And besides, doesn't catching all the way up signal The End? No one wants that.

So, I've hit a mini reset button and am taking a quick sec to feel proud of the many creative milestones I've already ticked off while also meeting and/or exceeding other life obligations and expectations.

I'm not stopping. Just taking everything step by step, minute by minute, day by day. 

Feel like joining me?

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Blog Log

Hoo-boy, I count 11 blogs from the past 2 years just sitting in draft form — and another 17 dating back to 2003. Many of them are fully formed, even, yet they still didn't inspire me to pull the "Publish" trigger.

In most cases, I can tell that I'd taken a break with the intention of coming back in an hour or the next day for one last look. But come back, I did not.

I do have a handle on why my blogging enthusiasm waned. Things changed. Life happened. Stuff I enjoyed doing felt more like chores once other stuff I wanted to do slipped through my fingers. Then life kept on happening. (Lots of it good, but change is change.) Oh, and I . . . as did we all . . . joined Facebook, to name just one thing Social.

Yes, I've attempted to return to regular blogging in the past. Well, no: I've had the idea that I should return to it — that not blogging was some kind of failure.

But right now I'm at one of life's many crossroads. (Maybe I'm at two. Can you be at two crossroads?) And, for the first time in years, I feel like blogging. As in, instead of making myself log on and write this post (any post), I couldn't stop myself.

Just like old times.

Watch this space for book news, musings on the writing life, and what I'm working on. If I really do get back into the swing, who knows — I might even return to keeping my website updated. Stranger things have happened, you know. (See: 2017.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Sneak Peek at My Weekend on the Water Artist's Way Mini Class

The following is cross-posted on SCBWI Western Washington's blog. We have a creativity retreat coming up in October with great opportunities to customize your experience: member-led workshops, discussions, critiques, private writing time, walks in the woods — you decide! If you'd like to join us, register soon!

Hello, fellow retreaters! I can't wait to get to IslandWood and start soaking up the atmosphere, hobnobbing with you all, and marinating in all things KIDLIT & CREATIVITY until it's time to board that ferry back to reality.

I'm also excited to be leading a couple of exploratory sessions for anyone interested in learning more about Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. In addition to following this creativity practice on my own since 2010, I've participated in two outstanding full-program workshops and attended one phenomenal intensive weekend retreat led by Cameron herself. I find the program tools easy to incorporate into my routine and the program's underlying philosophy adaptable to different belief systems, so I really enjoy sharing info with anyone thinking about giving it all a whirl.

Here's the official description of what I've planned for our retreat:

The Artist's Way Mini Class

Julia Cameron's 12-week program consists of targeted exercises and strategies meant to help anyone cultivate a more rewarding personal creativity practice. Along the way, students confront negative patterns and learn how to more easily and consistently access their creative talents. This mini class will cover key Artist's Way principles and give attendees a taste of the program's simple but effective methods. 

A few Artist's Way principles in action.
Saturday: Introduction to The Artist's Way
We'll take a quick look at the progression of themes in a full Artist’s Way cycle (from reclaiming a sense of creative safety to embracing creative possibility and beyond). Then we’ll discuss Morning Pages, Artist Dates, and Walks — aka the program’s hallmark “creative recovery” tools. And we’ll end with a short reflection exercise to start challenging any self-limiting beliefs that might be keeping you from following your personal creative path.

Important note about what Artist's Way techniques can help you discover and accept about your personal creative path: It's not my path or someone else's vision of your path or a path Julia Cameron lays out for you or a facsimile of the latest It-creative's path. It's all YOURS, and that's what makes it right.

Sunday: Artist's Way Hands-On Workshop
This session will include two fun hands-on activities designed to help you connect with some of your deepest creative interests and tap in to your personal power as a creative being. 

Translation in case that didn't sound fun: You will (1) interpret a relevant topic through a stream-of-consciousness drawing activity; and (2) rip up paper goods and use glue to create something new.

Is The Artist's Way right for you? I have no idea! It wasn't right for me until ... it was. But I do believe taking it for a test run in this setting will offer concrete creativity-boosting strategies you can later use, and benefit from, regardless of whether you decide to further explore the program after the retreat.

Each session stands alone, and everyone is welcome at one or the other or, of course, both.

I hope some of you will join me!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Change Is Afoot

How do you like's new home page? The full website is still a work in progress as I complete a move into brand-new digs after leaving the hosting platform I've used for 13 years. I've done enough work so far, though, to go ahead and launch an early version of the update.

Now I look forward to completing the (what seems monumental) task of further developing its various pages. At the moment, for example, cover images for most of my still-in-print titles are up on the Books section's Fiction and Nonfiction subpages, but there's nary a book summary to be had. See the buttonlike thingies I added under the home page's main image? They represent the categories, or bookshelves, I expect to build into the site, and someday they will be clickable buttons. I also have plans for adding more useful content to the Author Visits and Bio pages. These things do take time.

Some of you may have noticed another change. Maybe. It's subtle, but to me it's BIG.

Check out the author name I'm now using for my site and this blog. Yep, I've switched to Lisa L. Owens. That's what I used in the contracts for my next two books (biographies coming out in 2017), and for me this shift also signals the beginning of a new phase in my kidlit career. "L. L. Owens" has served me well, but that pen name was essentially chosen for me in the late 1990s when I started publishing. It made total sense at the time, and I have nothing but positive feelings about it. But I've decided to claim my full name as I pursue writing more trade books and fewer titles geared specifically for the school and library market. More on all that another day.

Change is hard — but it is good!

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Peaceful World Imagined in a Cloud

The Camellia flower's petals fall with its calyx, symbolizing perfect unity.
In remembrance of the September 11 attacks, Lois Brandt invited folks to spend 10 minutes today writing about a peaceful world — a meaningful endeavor, indeed.

What I immediately discovered while starting to write this morning was that it's a snap for me to imagine such a world. But the full-on peace I envision is the stuff of fantasies, of idylls. It's not based in the reality of the world's situation or the human condition, and today in particular, I really didn't want to write about an imaginary world.

So I went about my busy day, planning to try the exercise again once I'd shut down the office for the evening.

While coming in from an after-work dog walk, the Camellia next to my porch caught my eye. Several years ago, an arborist chopped the plant to its quick against my wishes. He insisted that it was in the wrong spot and about to die. Well, it soon started growing again, sprouting right on up out of its stump. This Camellia wanted to live and do its thing in its preferred location, bad soil and space issues be hanged. Its height does need to be contained so it doesn't hit a portion of the house, but otherwise, shrub and home peacefully coexist. The Camellia has even started blooming again, a testament to its resilience in the face of near destruction.

This much we know: Humans will forever experience conflict and, thank goodness, we will forever pursue peace. We learn from tragedy and seek to create a better future. It's what we do. On this somber anniversary of one of our darkest days, I can't offer a blueprint for achieving an ultimate state of peace — but I can pay my respects to those we lost on September 11 with a simple word cloud I created in their honor. I started with the word peace and then spent a few minutes brainstorming some key attitudes and actions that support it.

The color scheme I applied is called Quiet Morning; the cloud's shape is Unconstrained.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Win a Free Skype Visit or Books for Your Classroom!

I'm so pleased to share details of a giveaway sponsored by Online Author Visits!

OAV is a writers' group I belong to founded by my friend Suzanne Williams, the esteemed co-author of the wildly popular Goddess Girls series (among other terrific series and stand-alone books). We provide virtual author visits to schools, libraries, book clubs, writing groups, and anyone else wanting to host a chat with a professional children's or YA author. You can peruse our list of available authors here. We all enjoy using the online presentation format, which makes it easy to connect with people — regardless of location. And those seeking OAV's services love using the virtual option as a cost-effective and easy-to-schedule method of hosting an author guest for their meetings, classes, and other special events.

Online Author Visits has been online for a while, but with the dawn of this new year, we updated our website and reorganized as a group. To celebrate that, we decided to host a special giveaway! Prizes include (1) a FREE Skype visit with me and (2) a FREE set of Trudi Trueit's super-fun Secrets of a Lab Rat series.

This giveaway ends February 17. Winners will be randomly selected at that time. If you'd like to enter, we'd love to have you! Just surf on over to our most recent blog post to throw your hat into the ring. And feel free to share contest details with your favorite teachers, librarians, parents, writers, and readers. Note that you can also enter through OAV's Facebook page by clicking on the Giveaway tab.

Good luck to all who enter!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Deadlines. I've Got Deadlines.

I feel overwhelmed by looming deadlines this morning. This scene from The Pit and the Pendulum comes to mind, in all its Roger Corman–imagined glory:

And now I will stop feeling and get back to working. Must halt that pendulum so I can hop up from the desk, relatively unscathed, in time to truly enjoy a bit of this holiday season.