Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

The love of doing, redoing and not doing

In a year of great doing, and the sometimes even harder task of not doing, we thought we’d pause and share our appreciation of the things that give us joy, purpose and meaning no matter what is happening in the world around us.

Julie let what she loves–creating images and writing–speak for itself.

Flourish and Grow by Julie Paschkis

By Julie Paschkis

Planting Thoughts by Laura Kvasnovsky

Illustration by Mila Marquis

Here you are again, on your knees in the dirt. 

Close your eyes and feel the sun warm on your back and the dry papery husks of the bulbs in your hand: Muscari armeniacum.

Breathe in the sharp scent of sandy soil and the darker fragrance of compost and leaf mulch, and hear the birds, if they chirp, and the rustle of the breeze.

The earth waits. Dig in and settle the bulbs, grateful for that ancient impulse to grow, to bloom, to go to seed, to fade.

And grateful for the turning of the seasons that finds you here again, on your knees in the dirt.

Mending by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Dress and photo by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Close your eyes and think about the clothes you are wearing.

Think about everything that went into making them: 

The people who put them together, somewhere in the world, 

the plants and animals and energy that were used in making them.

We mend in gratitude for all these things. 

We practice patience. We practice acceptance. 

We embrace imperfection as part of what makes everything unique.

Words Full of Promise by Julie Larios

Illustration by Piero Schirinzi

I’m a poet. To me, being a poet means using words – individual words – words made of evocative letters. How can letters evoke feelings? Well, when I see the letter “j,” I love the dip it takes below the line, the little hook that feels rebellious, non-conformist. I love the letter “z” in a word, because it feels (and even sounds) strange; it’s a letter that can’t decide if it wants to go forward or backward. When you write it, it reverses direction. It’s a letter full of doubt, and I prefer doubt to certainty. The letter “k” is a bit aggressive, very certain, the Genghis Khan of letters. Each letter of the alphabet has a unique personality, yet together they cooperate, they cohere, they form little societies called words. 

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for each letter of the alphabet, and for the way letters make words and words make poems, and poems are, by nature, inclusive, they invite people of differing experiences to contemplate shared feelings – they help us share a spot at the Thanksgiving table. 

I invite you to think about the shapes of letters. Rebellious, uncertain, bold, shy – you’ll find their nature if you look. String some together into a word, two words, three. Don’t worry about grammar yet. Build a poem with one-syllable words. Right now I’m thinking of the word “thirst.” Begins with a “t,” ends with a “t.” That word feels suspended in time -something hangs in the balance, makes a growl. Then I consider the word “juice.” Playful. Generous. Put them together for a two-word poem, full of promise – “Thirst? Juice!”

Sleep by Bonny Becker

Illustration by Eugeni Balakshin

Close your eyes and think about sleep.

Turn off noise, color, fear, hate, right, wrong.

Even love can wait.

Nothing needs you right now.

Turn off the story.

Slip over the edge into the velvet void.

Nothing needs you right now. 

Be done today with do.

Rest and begin anew. 





Thank you from all of us to all of you.

Addicted to the News

As I write this, I’m headed into my 58th hour of election coverage. Not that I’ve watched or listened to all 58 hours of it….maybe just 56 or 57.

Tuesday ….
Wednesday
Thursday…..
Friday…..

No, I’m kidding. I’ve slept in the last few days, so 15-16 hours over the last couple of days I’ve been in bed dreaming strange dreams of being lost. I’ve also fixed a few meals, washed & dried the dishes. I’ve sat quietly and read my email each day & responded (most interestingly, a message from a friend in Australia who seems to know every detail about our election.) I’ve driven once to the curbside pickup location of the library and gotten several books by Lynda Barry and several films by Alfred Hitchcock.

I’ve showered twice. I’ve washed a couple of loads of clothes. I’ve had a few Zooms with my writing friends in Seattle and my writing friends in Canada, Vermont and Oregon. God bless them one and all for the conversations, and for the laughter which has kept me sane. I’ve watched and re-watched a wonderful loop of short-short videos called Election Distractor which was put together by the New York Times — thank you for the link, Julie Paschkis, that was delightful!

Steve Kornacki at MSNBC’s Big Board

But the fact is that at least part of my heart and mind were on the election news during each one of those other activities. I’m a news addict, especially when it comes to history-making news. The addiction probably began when I was 11 and watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates, continued when I was 14 and John Kennedy was assassinated – my family and I listened to Walter Cronkite report that for four days straight.

Walter Cronkite
Announces the Death of John Kennedy

I’ve always watched Presidential election coverage, from 1960 through the one I’ve been watching now….maybe a dozen national elections?….no, sixteen!

Add in the coverage of rocket launches, John Glenn circling the earth, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Watergate testimony – a whole summer of that kept me riveted. The coverage of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. The O.J. Simpson trial – I felt guilty about being so addicted to that trial coverage, though guilt didn’t keep me from being glued to it, fascinated by the characters as if it were a novel. The terrorist attack on 9/11 – exhausting to watch the videos – over and over again – of those planes flying into the World Trade Center buildings, but there I was, watching it, one day, two days, it became a blur. There was (and continues to be) heartbreaking and nerve-wracking coverage of riots and/or protests all around the country, through the decades.

John Dean Testifies at the Watergate Hearings

Many of these were chilling events. Some were confusing. I watched some of the coverage with friends or family. I watched some of it alone. A few history-making moments were thrilling. All fourteen of the elections were mysterious and compelling, with candidates whose body language I studied, whose words I analyzed. I include the journalists and commentators and pundits – who are these people? What pulls them into this drama?

Friends have told me they were emotionally so drained by both the long months of the pandemic and long months of nasty politics that they couldn’t watch the 2020 debates, much less hours of the actual election night(s) coverage. I have to say that several days of it is now wearing me out. But as I type, Steve Kornacki is over at the Big Board on MSNBC explaining results in Pennsylvania – sounds like he’s going to put up numbers soon which will signify the election of Joe Biden. I’d like to stay up long enough to see the look on his face when he does that. The narrative of these events is all about character – McVeigh, Simpson, Biden, Trump, Nixon, Kennedy, Cronkite, Kornacki. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that History is Character.

The Kennedy-Nixon Debate

The books I read over and over again as a child were biographies – Genevieve Foster’s George Washington’s World, Abraham Lincoln’s World, even Augustus Caesar’s World. I wanted to know who these people were, the clothes they wore, the food they ate. I read historical fiction – Blue Willow by Doris Gates, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Read everything I get my hands on that involved children in the Holocaust. I wanted to see people in their everyday lives, hear their stories. I now collect, in the same spirit, mid-20th century photographs of people I don’t know. People at picnics, people sitting on big boulders, people next to their old cars, people waving from parade floats, people hanging up their laundry. Who are they? I want the details! I want the history.

There are children out there as hungry for history as I’ve always been. I’d die happy (well, I will anyway, but….) if I could write a historical novel for kids. How wonderful it would be to have the 2020 version of my ten-year-old self walk into the library and pull my book off the shelf….you know, that sounds a little surreal – a time-traveling doppleganger who reads a book I haven’t yet written……?

Whoa. I’m getting a little ditzy waiting for election returns from Pennsylvania. It’s now 3:00 a.m. and Thursday night is well on its way to Friday morning. Time to say goodnight to Steve Kornacki who has been on mute in the background as I write. Time for me to get to bed and dream another dream about being lost. I’ll get up tomorrow morning and see history happening. History keeps doing that.

Vote Sun or Moon

A high stakes election is underway in the USA. It is time to vote. It is also time to vote here at Books Around the Table.

Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire

The election here is between The Sun and the Moon. Please look at THE SUN images and THE MOON images below, then cast your vote.

THE SUNS

Abner Graboff

Boris Artzubasheff

Brian Wildsmith

Beatrice Tanaka

Eva Rubin

Mariana Malhao

Yuri Vasnetsov – The Stolen Sun

THE MOONS

Arthur Rackham

Josef Lada

Alice and Martin Provensen

Lev Tokmakov

Melissa Sweet

Tomi Ungerer

Maurice Sendak

Thank you for voting.  And now that you have exercised your voting muscle, go to the polls and cast a real vote!

P.S.Who can really choose between the sun and the moon?  I am selling a 2021  calendar to raise money for the ACLU . It includes both the sun and the moon! This one page poster that sells for $12 and ALL of the money goes to the ACLU. If you buy 5 or more shipping is free. Please click here to find out more or purchase one. Thank you.

 

 

THREE SHORT TAKES

COINCIDENCE

There are things that happen in real life that you would never believe if you read them in a novel – too coincidental, you’d think. Not believable.

But this really happened.

We were watching the vice-presidential debates when a fly landed on Mike Pence’s carefully coifed silver dome. When we looked a little later, we realized we had been mistaken, the fly was in our living room, crawling above Pence’s head on our TV screen. It buzzed over to the coffee table and across to the kitchen. Odd to have a fly in the house, we thought, especially this time of year.

Then post-debate commentators confirmed there had been a fly on Pence’s head. But what about the fly that seemed to come out of our TV? Too coincidental. Not believable.

This morning the Twitter world is atwitter with photos and comments about that fly on Pence’s head. In a New York Times column, Frank Bruni wrote: “How could [Pence] be expected to register or exile an itty-bitty pest when he routinely puts up with a great big one? That fly was some crazy combo of metaphor, visitation and karmic joke.”

What meaning would he attach to the doppelganger fly on our TV?

I am intrigued by coincidence. Or maybe it’s synchronicity? Like when I pick up the phone and the person I was going to call is already on the other end. Or that time we hiked miles down a trail on Orcas Island and found our old neighbors sitting on a log.

I once came out of a BART station in San Francisco and a busker was playing Wagon Wheel, the song that had been running through my head all morning. Another time, I opened the gate into a fancy garden party just as the jazz combo leaned into Laura, the song I was named after.

These coincidences stand out exactly because they seem uncanny, unbelievable. But in a bigger sense, synchronicities shape your life – you are there at the precise right moment to meet the people who open doors and teach and help you along the way. That leads to my second item.

12:34 – WHO LOVED YOU INTO BEING?

Whenever I happen to look at the clock and it is 12:34, I stop and take a minute to think about someone who helped me along the way. I got this idea from Fred Rogers, who called it “One Silent Minute.”

He urged kids to take a whole minute to think about a person who had “loved you into being.” Turns out a minute is a long time to stick with this, so just like Fred, I time it. Sometimes I think about someone from the past, like Doris Fletcher, a neighborhood mom who worked with us sixth grade girls so we could have a singing group, The Six Belles. Songs she taught us still give me comfort. I imagine us standing behind her at the her spinet singing, “May you always walk in sunshine…” Other times, I think about present friends and relations. As Fred reminds us, “Wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self.”

Who will you think about the next time you notice the clock at 12:34?

EMPATHY

With the divisiveness of the presidential election and rising racial unrest, it seems empathy is needed more than ever.

On his brilliant podcast, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explores the topic of empathy with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast, but here are some highlights that will hit home for children’s book creators.

SV – “Deeply written narrative fiction has the ability to pull us deep into the lives of other people.”

JZ—”Absolutely… this is why I love fiction… It allows us to effortlessly voyage into the lives of other people and not just see them from the outside but see them from the inside.

“There’s a fair amount of evidence now that the more fiction that people read, the more empathetic they become. There’s a number of correlational studies that show, for instance, that children who read lots of storybooks (for instance, those who read less nonfiction) become more empathetic.

“There’s also some experimental evidence now that even small doses of fiction produce small but reliable improvements in people’s empathy, especially important because fiction is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people who are different than us…

“There is evidence that when people read novelistic, vivid accounts of, say, experiences of Arab Americans or people of different gender identities than themselves, they form greater empathy for those other groups.”

Zaki argues that empathy is like a muscle — it can be strengthened with exercise and it can atrophy when idle. Fiction is “the empathy gym.”

Shankar Vedantam, host of the Hidden Brain, and his guest, psychologist Jamil Zaki

So there it is: buzzing coincidence, brimming silence, bountiful fiction.

EEK!

EEK! It’s a book.

A few years ago Julie Larios brought a new manuscript to our critique group. It was an alphabet book where each letter was a sound instead of a word. HUZZAH! I loved the idea and asked Julie if I could illustrate it. We both found the idea of random sounds delightful. I imagined an animal to go with each sound. 

My agent at the time felt that the book needed a story. UH-OH.

Julie L. and I decided that I would create a story through the art. So I invented a story with animals to go with and around the sounds. Because I came up with the story we are both credited as authors.

I kept the Mouse I had painted for ACHOO and sent him on a journey. The plot unfolds through the art and the sounds punctuate the story.

The story begins with Mouse picking a flower which he carries through the book. Each page introduces a new character (or characters).  A bird and the bee are the first characters to be introduced and they are on every spread until the flower at last is delivered to the mouse’s love: a Lion. All of the animals (except Lion) are hinted at before they appear and after they leave. The art is a kind of scroll.

If I couldn’t make a sequence work I went to Julie Larios and we reworked either the sound or the action. We changed many of the sounds through the whole alphabet, but always kept the idea of using sounds instead of words.

We sent the book out and it was accepted for publication by Peachtree. The wonderful editor Vicky Holifield guided the book through the next step of its journey. Every sound,  color  and image was considered carefully and discussed with many words. HMMMM. 
For example the sound for p began as PSST, became 
PHEW and ended up as PLOP. My magenta P was turned into a powder pink P.

We struggled at times to get the right words and imagery.

Sometime during the process I realized that my fantasy story was quite autobiographical. Raccoon had a bicycle accident – which I had had in 2016.

A big tree fell – just as a tree fell on my studio in 2019.

 A random marching band came by – which happened when I was visiting Golden Gate Park.

Julie and I hope that children and other readers invent their own narratives to go with the sounds. We want you to head off on your own imaginative journeys. ZWWOOP – Play with language and revel in sounds!

You can get EEK! at Secret Garden Books in Seattle , at Alibris , at Amazon or at your favorite local store. Thank you.

Books that stand the test of time, when time no longer has meaning

A guest post today from my daughter, who is using children’s books to help her through the parenting challenges of COVID:

We’ve heard how the COVID pandemic has brought particular challenges for working parents of small children. Time no longer feels the same, and yet somehow parenting duties have become incessant. As our friend Heidi says, the week only has 3 days now: Today, Tomorrow, and Yesterday. Possum parenting – where the parent plays dead on the couch while the children run feral – can only get you so far; more entertainment is needed. Which children’s books are helping beleaguered parents?

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.12.20 PM

Old Favorites. Both for parents and kids alike, we all need a little extra comfort and gentleness. The familiar refrains of beloved favorites are like the grandparent’s hug we all crave right now: tender, well-worn, and perhaps a little musty. Stories with a repetitive framework, like King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, by Don and Audrey Wood, are especially appealing. Will the king ever get out of the tub? Even though we all know what’s going to happen next – after the knight checks on him, after the queen checks on him – we all can’t wait to see how it unfolds. At the same time, it allows Mom to live vicariously through the ultimate dream of a daylong bathtub (even if it is interrupted periodically for matters of great import).

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.20.54 PM

Shiny and New-to-you. Never underestimate the power of novelty to buy yourself a few moments of sibling harmony. With the library closed, and our bookshelf on constant rotation, adding a new book to our collection has outsized value. We’ve especially appreciated books that take us on new adventures, since we ourselves are staying close to home. One recent new addition for us was Marc Martin’s A River, whose languid rhythm and dreamy pictures lead us on an imaginary journey from a city through the Amazon to the sea and back.

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.23.08 PM

Another favorite is Marianne Dubuc’s Up the Mountain Path, where we follow along with an intrepid kitty named Lucy and her mentor Mrs. Badger on a mountain hike to a great view, but with an ultimate destination of true friendship.

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.22.42 PM

Silly Stories Kids Love that Won’t Drive Parents Bonkers. In the “before times,” you could read your kid their favorite story 10 times over from a place of grounded patience and understanding. When you’re starting from a base of sleep deprivation and overwhelm, set yourself up for success with stories that will make you and your kids laugh. Eat Pete, by Michael Rex, is a particular favorite of my three year-old and his beloved granddad. A monster appears at Pete’s window, and Pete invites him to play, but all he wants to do is eat Pete! The monster puts off the inevitable as long as possible, enjoying playing pirates and blocks instead of indulging in a boy-sized snack, and (spoiler alert) he finally gives in and eats Pete. But as we’ve found out during quarantine with chest freezers full of popsicles and no one to share them with, a full belly is no substitute for a playmate. A big burp later, and the Monster’s redemption is complete: a tiger can change his stripes. Enjoy reading this to a soundtrack of your kiddo’s delighted giggles as the monster navigates his impulses, learns about social expectations, and indulges in a hearty belch and even heartier hug.

Here’s hoping these books and ideas can bring parents a few moments of wonder, delight or calm as you keep on keeping on. As I remind myself every time I think “I can’t do this,” remember you ARE doing this!

p.s. from LMK – Thank you, dear daughter, for writing this post and for hanging in there with the little guys through “the germ season,” as the kids call it. With all you have on your plate, you created a blogpost, too! Incredible.

Dear readers: Please add titles that stand the test of time with your little ones, be they old favorites, shiny new or silly.

Three Little Nudges

If you’ve been feeling uncharacteristically un-creative, you’re not alone. This pandemic has got a lot of us stymied creatively, and understandably so.  But isn’t it true that all we need sometimes are little nudges to get us going again?

So I’ll keep things brief today and just send three nudges your direction.

#1. Best nudge for me lately: WindowSwap – a website that shares photos of views from people’s windows all around the world. Some of the views are simple and domestic, others are sweeping. For example, the view from Lina’s window in Aeschiried, Switzerland…D5088323-D691-4A9F-A83D-C41BEB0AB0F3

…and from Rexina’s window in Bangalore, India…

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…from Simone’s window in Villongo, Italy….

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…and from Ula’s window in Doha, Qatar…

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This WindowSwap nudge is meant to lift your spirits in general, but it can also get your imaginations going.  Just think: Who are Lina, Rexina, Ula, and Simone? Who would you be if one of those views were yours?  What would someone imagine about you if you submitted a photo of the view out a window in your house? When you see the phrase “We’re all in this together,” it’s this kind of sharing that forms connections between people and cultures in times of crisis. We have more in common than some people think.

 

Will you consider your own window view in a new way if you take a photo of it and submit it online for people around the world to see? Here’s the view I might submit, taken from the upstairs bedroom of our house during the neighborhood Sidewalk Chalk Festival.

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#2.  Get inspired tomorrow (Saturday the 18th – 7:30-9:00 EST) when there will be free streaming access to a dance performance in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur. It will feature dance companies from India and Sri Lanka – the setting in the Sackler Wing of the Met, and the heady colors of the outfits worn by the dancers, should get your heart racing and your creative juices flowing.

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The New York Times said “The only proper response to dancers this amazing is worship.” If the phrase “down in the doldrums” has been echoing around in your head since March, this performance should chase it off. And if you miss it tomorrow, I think the Met is making it available soon on YouTube.

#3. Last nudge – this one will make you giddy. Or dizzy. Or both. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is providing 3-D looks at objects in their collection online via a company called Sketchfab. You can turn the on-screen object around 360 degrees, look at it from underneath and from above, you can zoom in….you can practically feel it,  as if you in the museum viewing it, or even better, as if were holding it in your hand. Be sure to go to full-screen mode to get a really close up look. Try the tiny netsuke of a shoki (a vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings) capturing an oni (an ogre.) This photo of it is not 3-D, but you’ll find one at the link.

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I’m a great believer in the power of one sense to heighten another. Music, sculpture, dance, good food  – all can inspire us to be better writers.  If we hit bad writing snags, we can venture outside the world of writing to unsnag ourselves. We can look out a window in Barcelona or Singapore. We can hold a netsuke in our virtual hands. We can watch as East Indian dancers move to the music of a bamboo flute. .

Flag and Country

Usually on the 4th of July I think first of fireworks and then of hotdogs.

This year is different. It is impossible to heedlessly celebrate because of the virus.

And the weeks leading up to July 4th have been filled with protests that lay bare the injustices of America today and throughout history.

Faith Ringgold Flag “Die Nigger” 1969

Faith Ringgold: This Flag is Bleeding 1997

Both the virus and the protests make me think about our responsibility towards each other.

Julie Paschkis 2020

How do we celebrate our country? What truths do we hold to be self-evident? What does it mean to be an American? 

Florine Stettheimer 1939

Bang Bang by Kerry James Marshall 1994

The social fabric is shredded and frayed right now, but that is an opportunity. The torn fabric can be sewn back differently. That would be worth celebrating.

Arcola Pettway

Support Social Justice – Buy Some Art!

Dear Friends,

These are unusual and important times.

I believe we are at a tipping point in America. We can move forward with
equal justice, equal pay, equal care, and equal respect, or we can fall back
into the mire of racism and prejudice.

I am not a lawyer or a politician. I am an artist. I have tried to use my
art to make this world a better place. Now I want to do more if I can. So I will
be selling original artwork from children’s books that I have illustrated to
raise money for the Black Lives Matter movement. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to organizations that support social justice and equity.

To start, I have chosen some of my favorite images from BOOM BOOM, by Sarvinder Naberhaus, published in 2014 by Beach Lane Books.

I will post the images with prices and information on Instagram (@margaretci) and Facebook. If you are interested, please follow me there.

Additional news: Books Around The Table will be publishing new posts every other week, rather than every week as we have been doing. I am stepping back from children’s books for a while to work on other projects, but I will continue to post occasionally as a “guest” blogger on this site.

Thank you for your continued support of our work here at Books Around The Table!

Margaret

 

The STAY Inside Story

For 22 years, the Inside Story has chugged along, staging twice-yearly gatherings at libraries and bookstores to celebrate new books created by Seattle-area children’s authors and illustrators. The goal is to give each book creator two minutes to share something unique and insightful about their book’s creation; to share the story behind the story with the larger children’s book community of teachers, librarians, booksellers and children’s book aficionados. 

But this spring, as you well know, quarantine circumstances prohibited gatherings. Organizer Dana Sullivan was not deterred. He stamped “STAY” across the top of the Inside Story logo and thus the “STAY Inside Story” was born.

 Dana and Michele Bacon are the current caretakers of this Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators event. In previous outings, their tasks included sending out the call to local SCBWI members, setting up venues, coordinating with a bookstore to sell participants’ books, creating programs, and emcee-ing the show.  

The new virtual format demanded an expanded skill set. To his customary roles of illustrator, designer, and web-content creator, Dana added participant coach, rehearsal director, and technology troubleshooter. His sense of humor leavened the challenges, including navigating Zoom webinar technology, with the help of Michele and SCBWI co-chair Julie Artz.

Co-chair of the STAY Inside Story, Dana Sullivan, emceed the event with humor and panache.

You can see the program of presenters and their books here: http://www.danajsullivan.com/inside-story-may-2020.html

It’s an entertaining lineup, including BATT’s own Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine who showcased their lovely new picture book, Where Lily Isn’t, and Vikram Madan, whose spiel about his poetry collection, A Hatful of Dragons: And more than 13.8 billion other funny poems, included a magic trick.

Suzanne Selfors, new proprietor of Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, coordinated book sales through a special section on her website, working with presenting authors and illustrators to provide signed books to purchasers. https://www.libertybaybooks.com/event/scbwis-inside-story

Afterwards, Dana created a YouTube video of the event, which you can see if you click on this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHpaKmWh-Y0

George Shannon and I, who created the Inside Story in 1998 and ran it for the first five years, had cameo roles in the opening scene. We both tip our virtual hats to Dana and his team for this successful first-ever STAY Inside Story. It was so heartening to see our children’s book community rally despite being unable to gather. In fact, attendance topped 100 viewers, a record!

For the inside story about the Inside Story, check out my blogpost from 2013. https://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/?s=Inside+Story