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Launching a middle grade vs a young adult novel.

So how is launching a middle grade different than the young adult?

Publishing a middle grade brings with it the hope of reaching teachers and school-aged kids. Since I’m not in bookstores, my biggest hope is through word of mouth and internet searches: teachers looking for books and activities to go along with their Mayan/Aztec/Inca unit.

That’s why you’ve noticed some Maya style blog posts. SEO baby. J

I spent last Friday morning creating my teacher’s guide that will be available on my blog. (Or I came up with all the questions, vocabulary and literature-related activities. I still have to type it up.)

I looked over Anna Staniszewski’s teacher’s guide for My Very Unfairy Tale Life on her blog. Check it out. It’s done really well and I’m following her example. It gave me a place to start and that’s all I needed.

When the morning was done, I felt satisfied. I love to create. And the idea of organizing a teacher’s guide complete with questions and activities that looks professional appeals to the teacher in me. Just like working in Photoshop to create banners and badges. It’s a different kind of creativity.

But I won’t lie. I’ll be glad when it’s finished and up on my blog.

Preparing the teacher’s guide, especially for a book that has ancient history threaded into it, is just one of the differences between publishing a middle grade over a young adult novel. That’s also why I contacted the most creative and talented social studies teacher I know and invited him to contribute the teacher’s guide. It will be awesome!

The question is: do teachers ever look at the teacher’s guides offered on author’s blogs.

That, I don’t know. J

What are some aspects of this business you’ve worked on that is separate from the writing? Are you able to find balance?

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Seeing past the stereotypes.


We all have them. I know I do and I hate catching myself judging a person or place by their typical stereotype. I think of Texas and I see cactus and tumbleweeds. I think Dallas and I see big hair and lots of make up. Living in northern New England, I see the stereotype of New Englanders in action.

Sarcasm, fast-talking, aloof, educated…etc. And to some degree those are true. But beyond the stereotype are really nice people full of compassion. No, we don’t wear our emotions on our sleeves or chat up every single person we run into, like Southerners do. (Stereotype.) I swear I went into McDonald’s in the South and the girl behind the counter took five minutes to list the salad dressings.

But these stereotypes reach into fiction too.

I cringe when I read books where the churchgoers or the cheerleaders or the jocks are branded by the actions of just a few people, and I’m on the receiving end of that stereotype. These stereotypes usually create a villain where there isn’t one in real life.

These stereotypes appeared in ancient history too.

Medieval Europe was considered the center of the world. That was the happening place to be. Even though the commoners lived with their animals, and streams of sewage ran through their homes and in the streets and they rarely showered.

But over in Central America…who were these native people running around in nothing but loincloths? They must be backwards, not very smart, and just brutal to tear out the hearts of their sacrifices.

photo credit

Come to find out they charted the stars, made room in their calendars for leap year, knew to shower daily and keep clean and kept recorded histories of their people. They built awesome temples without cranes or beasts of burden. While people were dropping like flies from the bubonic plague over in Europe, the natives on this other continent were thriving.

I find this completely ironic and amusing. Facts like this only made researching the Maya that much more fascinating.

Of course, now I need to cleanse myself of the stereotypes I have of medieval Europe. J

In How To Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings, I worked hard to build a believable world of the Ancient Maya, weaving in their culture and their way of life through the eyes of a girl on an adventure to rescue her grandfather.

What’s the stereotype of where you live and how is it wrong? Or right?

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John Lloyd Stephens: the father of Maya archaeology.

Kids and adults long for adventure. Kids especially. They hunt for pirate treasure along the ocean shore. They explore the woods in hopes of stumbling upon secret forts.

For some people this desire to explore in hopes of finding something marvelous doesn’t fade away with time. It surely didn’t for John Lloyd Stephens. He might not have found gold or silver but he did find the handprints of an unknown civilization.

Maybe you’ll find a connection to Stephens, the explorer, but would you dare to do what he did and go where he dared to go?

One day he discovered the inside chambers of a pyramid mound filled with rubbish and stones. On the back wall remained hints of red, blue, yellow and green paint.  He had to lie down in the dirt to look at it properly. Could he pry the painting off to bring it back to America? He tried, but it was a permanent fixture of the ruins. All of a sudden his body itched.  His clothes crawled with garrapatas! Thousands of insects like grains of sand washed across his body like tiny prickles, finding their way into the seams of his shirt and pants. They sunk into his flesh, like tics, driving him crazy. Only way to get rid of them was to change his clothes, which were not with him.

This is just one example!  Yikes.

When would you have called it quits? 

Stephens was born in 1805 and grew up in a wealthy family in America.  No cars, no electricity, no television. I imagine Stephens sitting at a desk, piles of thick law books in front of him. His calendar filled with formal luncheons and meetings. But a spark, maybe that had been within him since childhood, burned in his heart. As each day passed, the spark grew, until one day he could take it no longer. The desire to travel and explore the big world burst out and would not be ignored.

In 1834 he left all that he knew behind and traveled Egypt, Israel and Greece. He explored the Egyptian temples, walked through the holy land and encountered the Greek ruins. His craving for high adventure did not end there.

Rumors of ancient ruins in Central America circulated society. Could the stories of Spanish soldiers be trusted? Who built these ruins? At that point in time the people of Central America were considered peaceful farmers. Why would farmers build temples?  The popular beliefs were that the Maya had migrated from the Old World of Europe.  They were either a lost tribe of Israel or from the lost city of Atlantis. Stephens had to know.

He had to see for himself and decide who built these ruins.   

In 1839 Stephens set out for Central America. He hired Frederick Catherwood to come along and illustrate the ruins.

Stephens explored, cleared land, working hard to expose the ruins so Catherwood could illustrate them. He hoped to find lost artifacts or great tombs filled with treasures, but none was found. He climbed the crumbling temples spread all over the countryside, contemplating this mysterious people, tracing his fingers across their hieroglyphics, walking where they walked.

He was in a race against time. These ancient temples and buildings were ravaged by the affects of time. Crumbling and overgrown with jungle, some of them were almost destroyed. He feared if he could not leave with proof of their existence that they would completely disappear.

Stephens returned to write and publish a second book about the Mayan ruins and it brought him a small fortune. Modern scientists credit him with being the forefather of Mayan archeology. Several of his keen observations that went against current beliefs turned out to be true. He believed the hieroglyphics to be records of nobles and kings.

He was right.

He believed the temples and the civilization that built them were not influenced by Europe, which at that time was considered the center of the world.

He was right.

The Maya culture was a separate civilization, which had flourished all on its own.

Here’s a link to one of Catherwood’s illustrations. Click here.

It was in my research on the Maya that I stumbled across the story of John Lloyd Stephens, and I found it absolutely fascinating! Part of the reason I decided to write about the ancient Maya was that I knew nothing about them! Why the temples? Why the blood sacrifice? I wanted to know. And yes, I found the answers! Many of them are woven into How To Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings.

Maybe we’re not so different from John Lloyd Stephens.

Where would you dare to go in the name of exploration? Or what neat stories of people or places have you stumbled upon during research?



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Illustrating: How To Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings.

Meet Ernie D’elia, illustrator for How To Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings. He received a degree in illustration from the American Academy of Art in Chicago and currently lives in Massachusetts.

I invited Ernie to talk a little bit about the thought process behind designing the cover. I had the privilege of meeting him last spring at New England SCBWI. Of course, at the time I didn’t realize he’d be my illustrator.

I absolutely love that Pugalicious Press chose an upcoming talented artist from New England to design the cover. His artwork is incredible. Now, here’s Ernie.


“How do you feel about Mayans?”

That’s what Jennifer Carson from Pugalicious Press asked me.

“I love Mayans!”

I said, and in a few short days I had the manuscript for “How to Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings” in my hands.

When I finished reading it I started sketching some loose ideas. A couple of the earlier sketches had some drama, but lacked an overall vision. As I worked I realized the feel of the book, to me, was very cinematic, so I decided the cover should have an adventure-movie poster feel. Once I decided on the movie poster approach, it all fell into place.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the elements:

First, everybody knows that every good adventure-movie poster has the villain looming menacingly in the background somewhere, so the “Crazy King” had to loom, and he had to be menacing. Head down, scowling, and about to pounce, his body language doesn’t say happy and friendly. I thought the jaguar headpiece from the story would be a great way to add to his ferocity.

 Second, to establish a setting I placed the Mayan temples below the “Crazy King”. Now there was no mistake: he was a crazy Mayan king.

Third, the necklace gives us the “Ancient Spell” part. It was also an important piece of the story, linking our modern day heroes to this ancient setting. In the painting it loops around them, pulling them into this world.


Lastly, I placed the main characters, Bianca and Melvin, right in the middle of it all, surrounded by the dangerous villain and the mysterious glowing green jade necklace. But do they look scared? No. They’re confident, determined, and daring!

There are an additional six black and white illustrations at key points inside, but to see those you’ll have to wait till the book comes out.

From creepy to scary to joyous, “How to Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings” is a great adventure, and I loved doing the artwork for it. Thanks to Laura for writing such a thrilling adventure, and thanks to Pugalicious Press for asking me how I felt about Mayans.


Pugalicious Press sent me the sketches and I chose the one that appealed to me the most. So the following sketch…


…turned into the cover!

Thanks Ernie! I love the cover! I also love the black and whites that will grace the inside print copies. They’ll be fantastic! Can’t wait for everyone to see them.

Sign up for a review copy.

Add to Goodreads.

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