amwriting, authors, backstory, brainstorming, character interview, fiction, ideas, middle grade books, research, work in progress, writing life

Who? What? Where? Why?

Image of a seated young black woman dressed as a young professional with her hands on either side of her forehead, her fingers into her hair and her eyes looking upward.

I’ve got an idea for a story!

But I won’t start writing it. Not yet.

There are a few things I have to do before I get to that, like character backstory and setting.

This story will be a middle-grade story, which I have done before, but not in a while. For the two previous middle-grade stories that I wrote, I didn’t create as detailed a backstory as I’m doing now, and that, I now know, was my first big mistake.

I bent the plot to fit an editor’s suggestions in one of those two stories. After a while, the story I’d planned and hoped to tell became almost unrecognizable.

I won’t make that mistake again. I’ll make others; I’m sure of it, but at least not that one.

Image of the silhouette of the profile of a man wearing a hat and backpack standing in the distance at sunset.

Once a character becomes generally known, to me, through my exposition, I find that I’m no longer developing their backstory but am discovering it. That the character is, in a way, informing me of occurrences in their past that affected them for good or bad.

An image of the Avalon preserve house where the rangers and others work. It is a brown house surrounded by trees and overlooking a small pond. The trees and the house are reflected in the water.

This time, I’m also basing the fictional setting of this story on a place I’m familiar with.

I’ve been enjoying visiting the locations for the story’s settings and writing about them through my character’s eyes and ears.

Image of Mill Pond in Stony Brook. The pond's surface is placid and trees grow around its edges. in the distance two white houses are visible on the far right side of the image. The sky is blue and streaked with clouds and the trees and houses are reflected in the water.

And I’ve been researching things that are important to or will impact the characters. Much like the detailed backstory I’m creating, I won’t use all the information I glean. I hope, though, that it will help to make the story as realistic as possible.

I’ve been learning about interesting things like herbal remedies, foraging, and the particulars of Canadian geese.

a gray oblong basket on a grassy area and inside the basket is a bunch of brown capped mushrooms.

Have I piqued your interest?

I hope so.

Image of a canadian goose on the surface of a body of water dipping its beak into the water.
an image of stitchwort a plant that has narrow leaves and delicate five petaled white flowers.

If I have, then I may be going in the right direction.

Do you have any backstory tips or techniques you’ve found helpful to use?

children's books, Helen Oxenbury, Michael Rosen, picture book author, picture book illustrator, picture books, pre-school classroom, We're Going on a Bear Hunt

Food for Thought

Image of two children, a girl and boy,who are reading a book. The  drawing is done in black ink. A dragon wearing a quizzical expression, has a note book with the letters SAT (Standard Achievement Test) on it stands beside them.

My brother shared this image with me via Facebook, and I thought I’d share it with you.

Michael Rosen, an English writer, has written across genres. I’ve often used his book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, with my students, to encourage problem-solving and to introduce the concept of sequences, prepositions, and speech and language development.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, is a story in which a father and a group of children need to figure out how to get passed many obstacles as they hunt for a bear.

Rosen engages the reader in the tale through his use of onomatopoeia and anticipated repeated refrains. Involving the children listening in a choral repetition of the story’s phrase, “We can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, we’ve got to go through it,” catapults your audience into the story and carries them through to its end.

In the linked animation, Michael Rosen is calm when reading the story. My students and I, when reading it, are the complete opposite. By the time we reach the bear, we’ve grown very loud, and then comes the fun of repeating the sequence in reverse while acting out the hurried movements as we head for the safety of home. After all, we’ve discovered the bear and it’s found us! It’s silliness to the extreme. I’d definitely recommend it.

Reading aloud to children, starting at birth, helps build brain connections during the first five years of their life. This is when 90% of a child’s brain development happens. (Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University). I’d say that that’s pretty good evidence that Micael Rosen’s statement, “A child, a book, a read, a chat, that’s how the mind grows, not with a test but with a tale,” is on the money. I would take it a step further and suggest that we all grow, no matter our age, with each book we read/listen to and share.

book vending machines, diversity, eifrig publishing, environmentalism, inclusion, indie books, Laura Schaeffer, literacy, Penny Smith Eifrig, Random Acts of Reading, STEAM, world cultures

Random Acts of Reading

Image of Penny Smith Eifrig, publisher of Eifrig Publishing and co-founder of ROAR, random acts of reading. Penny has long brown hair and is wearing glasses on top of her head as she stands before one of the book vending machines.

It’s my pleasure to introduce Penny Smith Eifrig, the founder of Eifrig Publishing and the co-founder of RoAR, Random Acts of Reading, along with Laura Schaeffer.

Penny, a true innovator whose efforts have consistently focused on encouraging literacy, diversity, inclusiveness, ecology, and community, has introduced an exciting way to promote reading in schools. Instead of students getting candy or chips from the vending machine, they can get books. How cool is that!

Below is my interview with Penny. Within it, she discusses RoAR, the book vending machines, and her initiatives to encourage literacy for all.

Q&A with Penny Smith Eifrig:

1. Penny, what sparked the idea for RoAR?

I founded RoAR almost a decade ago with one of my authors at Eifrig Publishing, Laura Schaeffer because we wanted to help facilitate more author events and access to books in underserved schools—but we never really were able to find a way to set it in motion. A few years ago, I was thinking about ways to support indie authors and publishers who were creating important content from the bottom up—meaning diverse books that originated from a sense of urgency in stories the authors needed to share with their own children, rather than filling a quota mandated from the top down in the big publishing houses. Then I woke up suddenly early in the morning on April 3, 2022, when my quiet mind must have been putting all the pieces together, and spilled out the concept for the Golden Ticket to Literacy and book vending machines into my cell phone. The next day I started the new website with a concept that provided a vessel for all of the ideas that had been swirling in my mind over the years of the pandemic, that combined an exciting literacy program for kids with diverse and inclusive books by indie authors.

2. How has your idea for RoAR develop into a reality?  

It has been a full-time endeavor (next to my “real” work as a publisher and translator) as I collect titles from amazing indie authors and publishers from around the world. While I sometimes feel like I am not making much headway, on other days I see how developed the concept now is, and how functional it is as well, with our first pilot school having an amazing experience with their vending machine. 

3. How did you come up with the concept of a book vending machine?  

I had supplied books for a book vending machine for a school in 2022, so I had seen the concept. When I woke up with the Golden Ticket idea, I immediately reached out to Global Vending Group, the company that created the book vending machines. They were excited to hear of my plans, as many schools who had initially purchased the machines were having a hard time keeping them stocked with good books, as it was so time-consuming and expensive to find the right titles.

4. What types of genres will be housed within the book vending machines?

Our indie-published books include representation in diversity, neuro-diversity, inclusive families, multi-lingual families, world cultures, STEAM and environmental books.

5. I understand that instead of coins, the vending machines operate through tokens that the students place into the machine. How do students earn those tokens? 

That is up to each school. Many schools already have incentives for positive learning and social behaviors, so this works great with that. At our pilot school in Centre Hall, PA, when kids earn 75 of their “Ram Stars” or earn the title of “student of the month” in their classrooms, they receive a token. 

6. Once the student places the token in the machine, besides getting the literacy snack they want, what can or what might happen?

In our pilot school, in addition to the much sought-after Golden Ticket, there are coupons for lots of other fun prizes, like Stinky Feet Day for the whole class (shoes optional), getting to wear a hat all day, getting the principal’s chair to sit in for the day, or getting to have lunch at a special table with 3 friends up on the cafeteria stage. But the big prize is the Golden Ticket, which wins an author event for the whole school and a book for every child.

7. How does a student find a golden ticket?

It is a surprise to be found taped to the inside cover of a book in the machine. 

8. Describe to us what happens, once a student finds the golden ticket?

The school sets up either an in-person or virtual visit with the author of the book containing the golden ticket. (The ticket includes a QR code that announces the prize). Before the visit, EVERY child in the age-appropriate grades for the book receives a free book (not just the kids who can afford to buy a book, like at most author events). This is an important part of the equity aspect of the whole program.

A free book for every child, not only the golden ticket winner! That’s fantastic!

9. How can schools or organizations get involved? What are the steps?

Check out the website at to find out more and then reach out to get started.

10. If people are interested in supporting RoAR, how can they go about doing that?

We recently started a gofundme page to help us get launched. So if folks want to support us in getting books that provide representation for all kids, please consider making a donation!

11. I understand you want to engage children to create and write their own stories through RoAR. How do you plan to do that?

We are hoping that schools will encourage kids to submit their poetry created during special units, as well as picture books and stories they create. We are still in the developmental stages of a writing workshop that kids can apply to join and then write a picture book together as a group. 

12.   What are your future hopes for RoAR?

I am hoping we double the number of machines going into schools every two months (we need to start slowly so we can grow at a sustainable pace), but I hope that by 2025 we have the numbers to really make the program fly (large quantity print runs will make the entire project be sustainable while providing books at a great discount to schools).

For those who are interested here are the social media links for RoAR as well as its website:

Penny, thanks so much for stopping by to let us know about your fabulous efforts to promote diversity, inclusion and literacy through ROAR, the golden ticket, book vending machines!

Book-For-Book Promise, Bushel & Peck Books, Caroline Derlatka, In a Perfect World charity, Manuela Testolini Jordan, picture book author, picture book illustrator, picture books, PocoKins, Sara Ugolotti, The White Feather Foundation, Writing and Illustrating Blog

When You Open a Book

Via Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating blog,, I was the lucky winner of the lovely book displayed below.

When You Open a Book, written by Caroline Derlatka and illustrated by Sara Ugolotti, is filled with beautiful images of familiar childhood fantasies and some imaginative and enchanting new ones. Its prose is engaging and works seamlessly with each illustration and page turn to a satisfying ending.

This picture book is one that parents and children will enjoy and want to read again and again. Bushel & Peck Books, a children’s publishing house with a special mission, published it. Through their Book-for-Book Promise, they donate one book to kids in need for every book they sell. You can even nominate a school or organization to receive free books. Check out their site at; the following is a link to their school/organization nomination form

After receiving When You Open a Book, I contacted Caroline about doing a blog post and author interview, and she kindly agreed.

A lover of all things fairytale, Caroline Derlatka has always believed in magic. She grew up creating fantastical worlds in her head – places filled with unicorns that would give her rides over ribbon rainbows, giant hares that would lead her through cotton candy clouds, and mermaids that would swim with her into the deep. She is a constant dreamer with a million ideas and about eight hundred big plans.

After living in Los Angeles for twenty years, she now splits her time with her husband, son, and 2 cats between the shores of Flathead Lake, Montana, and the green hills of Nashville, Tennessee.

To find out more about her and her other projects, which all benefit various charities, visit her online at You can also find Caroline on Instagram @amusedcaroline.

Author Interview:

Caroline, when did you start writing, and what drew you to write?

I started writing when I was about 8. I was fascinated with fairytales. My dad was sick when I was younger so I was in and out of hospitals a lot and became a very anxious child. I quickly learned to escape my worries through the fantasy worlds I created in my head. Soon after I began writing stories in notebooks. It would be 30 years later before I showed a story to anyone.

Just as I turned 40, Covid hit, and I realized I should just send one of my completed projects to a few publishers. The manuscript I settled on was ‘When You Open A Book’ because it is an ode to the magical places you can go when reading a book. It felt like the obvious choice to start with that one. My publisher, Bushel and Peck, liked the project and the charity I wanted it to benefit (The White Feather Foundation), so they gave me a book deal.

For readers who might want to find out more, the mission of The White Feather Foundation is to raise funds for indigenous, humanitarian, environmental, and clean water projects. Click on this link to find out more about it

Do you have a special writing space?

My favorite place to write is in my bed with a cup of coffee.

What was the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write every day. It just gets you into a habit and prevents you from procrastinating!

Do you have a writing routine?  If you do, please describe it.

I am constantly jotting down notes on my phone throughout the day as ideas hit me. There really is inspiration everywhere. That being said, I try to set a time every day to write in some way.

What suggestions do you have for writers looking to publish picture books?

Don’t give up. Keeping sending your work out until you find an agent or publisher that you / your work connects with. After that, it will get a bit easier. 

Caroline, I noticed on your website that you are involved with a number of charitable projects. Would you share with us a bit about each of them?

I am currently working on an in-school reading program for kids that will be throughout the country. I created the program for kids to light the fire for reading, but to also help raise funds for one of the largest literacy organizations in the country.

I also created a line of handmade-in-Peru dolls called PocoKins ( that help benefit my dear friend’s In a Perfect World charity IAPW helps create the next generation of leaders through its programs which build schools across the globe, and bring clean water and food to communities that need it. The founder, Manuela Testolini Jordan, is doing amazing things in the world for kids, and I wanted to contribute in some little way. The doll line recently got endorsed by UCLA’s Director of Child Psychiatry for having great social-emotional benefits for kids. 

These are a few of the available dolls-

I also have an organic cookie line currently in shelf-life testing. I’m hoping it can help feed hungry children.

You’re incredibly involved, Caroline. Do you have any writing projects going on at the moment?

My next picture book is in the works. I also have 4 completed projects that I have yet to send in, and about 3 or 4 that I am writing now. I like to jump between different books when I write. My goal is to have a different charity associated with each one.

Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to share with us about your debut picture book journey, your writing process, and your other creative and charitable endeavors, Caroline. Best of luck with all of them!

Image of sunrise and a woman with long straight dark hair, her arms outstretched while facing the sun and standing on a balcony overlooking the roof tops of surrounding houses.
a well lived life, emotions, reflections, relationships, thoughts

On Reflection

I don’t usually post philosophical expositions, but I have been preoccupied with what makes a life well-lived, so I’d like to open it up for discussion.

I thought about how our lives are defined; our jobs, where we live, where we came from, our interests, our schooling, etc. They are part and parcel of how our lives are apportioned, but they don’t speak to whether a life is or was well-lived.

What are your thoughts? What do you feel makes a well-lived life?

Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day, I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I can relate to the myriad of emotions displayed in the pictures above. Painful memories I do my best to bury deep, loving, joyful ones I play on repeat.

For most of us, our lives contain a mix of positive and negative memories of interactions with others.

If we intentionally work to make the ratio of interactions higher on the positive side instead of the negative, is that the path to a well-lived life?

It might be. What do you think?

  1. I always enjoy when I’m reading something that I chose to read for fun, like a mystery, and have to…

  2. A wonderful post. I love WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT, and it must be great fun to share with…