Kissing cousins and being weird is cool

How do you know a book is a hit? Ask a six-year-old if they like it. If their eyes get big and they retell you the entire story at a fast pace, complete with dramatic hand gestures, I’d say it’s a win.

This was my niece Margot’s response to the book Two Speckled Eggs written and illustrated by Jennifer K. Mann. Calvin and I love this book so we got it for Margot for Christmas.

Margot and Calvin love each other. They also love Two Speckled Eggs.

Margot and Calvin love each other. They also love Two Speckled Eggs.

Let me tell you about Margot and Calvin. These first cousins have a soft spot for each other. When they kissed on vacation last year, Max proclaimed, “They’re married!” (The boys were four and Margot five at the time.) This made us all laugh, except maybe my brother. Fast forward a few months and Calvin started wearing a fake ring. When  someone asked him where he got it, he seriously said, “I got it when I married Margot.” When I tried to tell him he really wasn’t married to Margot (and it’s not the Civil War era) he got mad so I let it be.

The love continued. At our family reunion in Columbus, Ohio, Calvin tried to kiss Margot in front of all MY first cousins. My husband Eddie told them, “That’s how we do it down south.” On Christmas Day, I overheard Margot say to Calvin, “I know you like me the best because you always try to kiss me.”

Calvin came home from school the other day and said he was “over Margot” because he now likes two other girls. It’s ok, because unbeknownst to him, Margot told her mom she doesn’t want to be married. As for Max, he told me he wants to “live alone in an apartment.” (And yes, I know they will be mad at me for sharing this someday. But it’s too good!)

Lyla gives Ginger the best gift of all.

Lyla gives Ginger the best gift of all.

Back to the book. I think most of us can relate to remembering the weird kid at school or maybe we were that weird kid. In Two Speckled Eggs it’s Lyla Browning, the kid who smells funny and brings a tarantula to school. Then there is Ginger who is having a birthday party and doesn’t want to invite Lyla. Ginger’s mom, like all moms everywhere, insists that she invite Lyla to her birthday party.

This book puts a special twist on the message that the person you think is weird is surprisingly interesting and fun. I love everything about it: the story, the illustrations, and the descriptions.

Ginger’s friends don’t end up listening to her at her birthday party and they don’t appreciate her special “silver and gold cake.” Except for Lyla Browning. Lyla also gives Ginger the best present – a homemade nest with two chocolate eggs in it. After everyone leaves the party, Ginger and Lyla pretend to be birds and peck at the beloved silver and gold cake.

Calvin and I love reading this book together. We love reading about the tarantula, the cake, the chocolate eggs, and we really love the part where they pick at it like birds. (I have to admit that in a house full of boys, this feminist makes sure we read about girls.) But it’s not a book for girls it’s just a great book.

Where to find the book and other info

We discovered this book at the Clifton branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. You can buy it directly from its publisher, Candlewick Press. Mann has another book I Will Never Get A Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard coming out in June. It looks awesome. And who doesn’t remember not getting stars at some point in school?

Special shout out to Leslie Cannon for serving as my Editor At Large.



My friend published a book! (It has butt in the title)

The title of this book would make my boys laugh. Little boys love the word butt.

Smart ButtOn a serious note,  Smart Butt: Scenes from a Bold-Faced Life (starring Earlene) is a novel especially geared toward middle grade readers (grades 4-6). I’ve read it twice, I so enjoyed it. My friend Erin Fitzgerald wrote this marvelous book. Erin is a renaissance woman. Service coordinator, mom to teenagers, she’s also a creative force as a writer, musician, and radio personality in Louisville, Kentucky.

Earlene is just turning twelve-years-old and she grabs my heart. She’s figuring out the life of a preteen, a mean girl at school, a mom that’s recovering, and a dad on sabbatical (jail). She has a loving family, has made friends with a homeless dog and can make anything out of duct tape.

Erin, who I met on a writing retreat, answers questions about her book:

Erin Fitzgerald. Photo by Becky LeCron.

Erin Fitzgerald. Photo by Becky LeCron.

Erin, how did the character Earlene come to you? Or what inspired you to write about her?

Earlene came to me – in a way – during the 2011 Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, KY. She was not yet named Earlene, but that is where the idea came for the first story written in that voice, which later was adapted and became a chapter in the book (“The Broken Give-a-Darner”). I think I was mostly inspired by some of the writing prompts we were doing in the Writing for Children classes, led by George Ella Lyon. She has a wonderful way of making you go back into your child self, and remember what the world was like through that filter. That whole week, it seemed I could not help from viewing everything around me from a child’s eyes. It was exhausting, but inspiring. The following year, Earlene grew into a full-blown character and took over, eventually demanding inclusion in more than just a few stories. She had more to say, so she kept hanging around, riding shotgun everywhere I went. (Or maybe I was the one riding shotgun . . .)

Is there any of yourself in Earlene? Why a novel for children?

Earlene is not me, by any stretch, but I do see some of myself in her for sure. I think it is hard to write from where you are and to write what you know, as they say, without putting elements of yourself – and people you have encountered some way or another – into your stories. But she is definitely a fictional character, and has a personality all her own. Some of that personality I think I determined early on, and then much of it presented itself to me over time.

Erin is a singer-songwriter. Photo by Kim Torres.

Erin is a singer-songwriter. Photo by Kim Torres.

As for the format, I did not have any plan to write a novel. (This could be considered a short novel, because of its intended audience, but is more the length of a novella – about 80 pages.) My intention was always just to write a series of short stories, or “snapshots” about Earlene. I was not sure at the time how interconnected they might be – I was just enjoying the short format. As Earlene’s stories continued to unfold, it became evident that her plan was different from mine, and hers eventually won out.

My compromise, once I realized this was going to be a novel of sorts, was twofold: to make each chapter have some standalone element to it, and to keep both the chapters and book short, so that it might be accessible to different types of readers. I also wanted to be sure and include subject matter that reflects some of the types of situations I see kids navigating in real life all the time. Kids of all ages experience challenging situations regarding family, friends, neighborhood dynamics, school, etc. – and while the more intense content is frequent in books for young adults, I do not see it as often in fiction for middle grade readers. I worry that some people feel that difficult subject matter is “too much” for kids in that age range, but I find it is relevant to a lot of kids’ real-life experiences. So many kids are already dealing with these things at younger ages, so I think it is only fair to see them included in the books they read.

Tell me about the duct tape. Do you make things out of duct tape?

Good question, and the short answer is: I do now! I am honestly not sure where the duct tape thing came from. When I was in grade school, there were various things we did that were similar, such as glue bracelets, friendship bracelets, friendship pins, things like that. I knew I wanted Earlene to have a quirky creative outlet of some sort, and it ended up being duct tape. Since then, I have really enjoyed dabbling in duct tape myself.

Have your kids read the book? Any reaction?

Yes, they read it and said they liked it, but it is hard to gauge reactions from them. (Part of that is likely due to them being my kids, and part due to their age at the time. They were almost 15 when they read it, which is just a little bit older than the intended audience.) The most positive feedback I have gotten has been from kids ages 9-12, and from adults.

You mentioned you were using the book in school settings or at work. Can you tell me about that?

I am currently using bits and pieces of the book, along with related games and activities, in a community-based program with families in transition. I am also working with a couple of local actors to develop a small-scale stage adaptation to present to school and community groups. 

Can you tell me a favorite children’s book that you read with your kids and why?

When they were very little, we read together all the time. They loved books with rhyme and rhythm most of all. Some of our favorites at the earlier ages were: Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb (written by Al Perkins, illustrated by Eric Gurney); Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (written by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert); and anything by Dr. Seuss. As they got older and began to read independently, they devoured all chapter books, though often chose to read on their own. And though I was glad they were so interested in books, and so independent in reading, I quickly grew to miss the days of reading picture books with two kids on my lap. During their middle grade years, our reading time diminished significantly, though we did still read passages to each other and discussed the books we were reading, even when we did not always share in the reading time itself. Now that they are teenagers, we sometimes pass books back and forth, and that is a nice feeling. I miss it when we go too long without some sort of shared reading experience.

Can you tell me more about the play adaption you are working on?

Earlene makes art out of duct tape.

Earlene makes art out of duct tape.

The play adaptation is a very simple version of the Smart Butt stories. I am working with two local actors, and the three of us are taking turns in each scene playing the part of Earlene, as the other two do some scene acting and creative movement in the background. As I said, it is a small-scale project, and kind of a pilot project at this point. Our plan is to do one performance in a traditional school setting, one performance in a non-traditional educational setting for kids, and one community performance, open to the public. The timeline is still being negotiated, but should all take place during this school year, so by the end of May at the latest. I am grateful we have had enough supporters to do this pilot project, and we are having fun with it so far.

Thanks, Erin!

Where to buy the book and other info

You can buy Erin’s book published by Motes Books from her website. Two of my favorite Kentucky bookstores also sell it, The Morris Book Shop in Lexington and Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville. Visit Erin’s website to find out more about her music, writing, and teaching.

Erin mentioned attending a George Ella Lyon workshop. Max and Calvin were gifted two of her books that they love. (Thanks, Kate!) We recommend Planes Fly! and Trucks Roll!  Planes Fly! has beautiful art and was a great read before the boys’ first flight. Trucks Roll! uses fun rhymes and visuals. Of course, Calvin gives it a thumbs up because it includes transportation and signs. If you are a teacher, Trucks Roll! has a lesson plan available with it.

Wicked good books

Stacey's party

One of Stacey’s birthday parties. She’s holding up something. I’m on her left in the white dress and bowl cut. (I’m still friends with some of these girls!)

When I was a kid, all the girls in my class wanted to get invited to Stacey’s house. Her home was complete with lots of rooms, teenage siblings, a beautiful mom that wore Dr. Scholl’s, a silver Trans Am, an outside playhouse, guinea pigs, and a secret passageway that led to a secret room.

I’m happy to say Stacey and I are back in touch. She’s a vet and mom to two kids. They gifted us two of their favorite books hailing from their former home of Maine.

The Circus Ship
In 1836, a side-wheel steamer ship set off with an unusual cargo – circus animal, people, and a band. A festive crowd gave it a big send-off. Tragically, the boat caught fire, people perished, and rumors lingered that the animals made it to islands on the Maine coast.

Chris Van Dusen was inspired by these true-life events when he wrote the gorgeous (and happy) The Circus Ship. His ship capsizes off the coast of Maine and the animals swim to shore and begin living among the people. At first they are seen as pests but in a plot twist, “the animals weren’t bothersome, the animals were kind!” the villagers come to love them.

This isle of Maine is crazy for animals.

This isle of Maine is crazy for animals.

During our last reading, Max pointed out, “Well Mama, in real life, I don’t think the lion would get along with the people because of his sharp teeth.”

When the evil circus owner comes back to claim the animals, the townspeople disguise their new friends. This page of the book never fails to be fun; you have to find the hiding animals. My boys never tire of it.

The Wicked Big Toddlah
If you’re a parent, you’ve experienced the beauty and stress of toddlerhood. Everything is a joy and a death trap. Imagine if your baby was a giant. This is the premise for Kevin HawkesThe Wicked Big Toddlah. Toddie, a Maine baby, is so wicked big he comes home on the back of a flatbed truck. The antics of Toddie and an entire town trying to care for him are hilarious.

“How do you think that toddler got those big clothes and that big hat?” Max asked.

“This caution tape is holding the people back because that diaper is the stinkiest thing in the world!” said Max.

“This caution tape is holding the people back because that diaper is the stinkiest thing in the world!” said Max.

A favorite page for my family is when he gets his diaper changed; a helicopter hovers with talc. Poop never gets old with this crowd.

My memory of having two wicked big toddlers is pretty sharp, through a sleep-deprived lens. Thinking of a giant toddler gives me a wicked big stomach!

Where to buy these books and other info
Buy The Circus Ship from Van Dusen’s website and he’ll direct you to Indie bookstores. I’ve been meaning to check out his book about Cincinnati native President William Howard Taft. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath looks hilarious.

I’ve bought The Wicked Big Toddlah from Cincinnati’s Blue Manatee Bookstore and deCafe. If they don’t have it, they will order it. If you buy it off Hawkes’ website, he will sign it. My boys also love The Wicked Big Toddlah Goes To New York.

Calvin and Max were wicked cute toddlers.

Calvin and Max were wicked cute toddlers.