Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Huck's Twin Sister!

I love this review of THE WONDER OF CHARLIE ANNE by Ed Spicer, a reading specialist who regularly writes reviews for Michigan Reading Journal. Mr. Spicer has served on the Michael Printz Committee, BBYA, the Caldecott Committee, Notable Children's Books, the Morris Committee, and very soon he will be on the 2013 Margaret Edwards Committee.

"Charlie Anne’s mother has died and now her father is taking her brother Thomas far from home to build roads. The depression is forcing many families to sacrifice. Charlie Anne has eaten potatoes about a hundred different ways.

Charlie Anne will be staying with cousin Mirabel who attempts to civilize her by reading to her from a manners book. When Old Mr. Jolly takes a new wife, one who wears pants, red pepper red pants, Charlie Anne thinks she may have a friend. Rosalyn has an adopted daughter, Phoebe and Phoebe is "colored."

Mirabel won’t even think of allowing Charlie Anne to associate with this family. The
final straw is when her Aunt Eleanor from Boston takes her younger brother Peter to live with them, all the while making it clear that they have no need for girls.Charlie Anne, however, will just see about any attempt to turn her into something she is not!

The distinguishing characteristic in the novel is the voice of Charlie Anne.
Writers who attempt to depict conversations between dead people and the living
often sound, of course, stiff and unnatural. Fusco’s skill is that when Anna
May and Belle, the cows, comment on the events in Charlie Anne’s day or when
Charlie Anne hears the voice of her mother moving across the river, she makes
these voices seem natural and appropriate:

“When I get myself settled, with my back lying up next to Anna May and my eyes
feeling all happy to be filled up with the sight of my beautiful Brown Swiss
Belle, that’s when the two of them tell me how very sorry they are that I am
having enough troubles to fill a wheelbarrow.” (p. 105)

“When I get to the river, I am out of breath. I go up and sit by Mama and rest
for a minute, and I tell her about my awful day, and she tells me she already
knows about it all, but I can tell her some more if it will make me feel
better.” (p. 32).

Fusco waltzes between issues of race, poverty, education, religion, and
politics with skill and without ever having any of these issues muffle the
voice of Charlie Anne. It is no accident that Charlie Anne mentions the book,
Huckleberry Finn—she is definitely Huck’s twin sister.

Purchase this one for middle school and high school libraries."

Read more of Mr. Spicer's reviews at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sweet Similes

Writer and teacher Laurie Smith Murphy uses TENDING TO GRACE when she is teaching writing to her fifth-graders. This is what she wrote in a recent blog post ....

"Similes are like tiny jewels in a summer night sky. They help create a poetic portrait of a character or paint a scenic landscape in a reader's mind. They help take your writing to the next level. I love similes and I love teaching my students to use them in their writing. During read aloud, the students give the thumbs-up sign when they hear one. It's like discovering a secret or finding a stone with rings, and the students always get excited when they catch one. Or when they write one. They rush up to me or wave their hands feverishly to share. "Listen to my simile!" It's the same when they find one while they're reading. "Look what I found, Ms. Murphy!" It's like they've found a hidden treasure. And they have.

One of my favorite things to teach my 5th graders is writing. I use Kimberly Newton Fusco's book, TENDING TO GRACE, to teach about the use of language and, in particular, similes. I read it to them but they all have a copy so they can read along with me. When we hear how Cornelia, the main character, feels about her life, we stop and listen while I read a second time. Then we talk about how the author could have written how Cornelia feels lonely. But she doesn't, she writes, "I want to hide because my life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind at its heel." What a lovely, haunting picture it paints of Cornelia's life.

One of the students' favorite similes discovered in Tending to Grace is the following: "The skin on her hand is thin, translucent, like china held up to the light." This compares Cornelia's mother's hand to china. Lenore is a fragile woman who leaves her daughter with her aunt because she is unable to take care for her herself. Another simile that describes Lenore is: "I want to tell her my whole life story in ten minutes, quicklike so the words tumble down fast and furious, like my mother's promises."

Give yourself, or your students, a path to more descriptive writing. Use similes."

Thanks, Laurie! And how lucky your students are to have a teacher who loves to write!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Encouragement is Everything

Thank you to author and friend Linda Crotta Brennan for her interview this morning on her blog at

Kimberly Newton Fusco's first novel, TENDING TO GRACE, won the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award. According to Booklist's review, “Like Katherine Paterson’s classic The Great Gilly Hopkins…this quiet, beautiful first novel makes the search for home a searing drama.”
THE WONDER OF CHARLIE ANNE is Kim's latest title, and according to Kirkus, “Fusco’s mellifluous style often sounds like singing: “Go do this, the new mama tells me, and I do it, just because.”

When the story opens, 11-year-old Charlie Anne is furious that her papa and older brother are leaving to find work. It’s the Great Depression and times are tough and Charlie Anne, who has a supernatural way of interacting with the world (her recently buried mother, the river, the molasses-eyed cows and even the clothesline) is stuck at home with her siblings and the overbearing, much-older cousin Mirabel, who insists on ladylike behavior and “The Charm of Fine Manners.” But things begin to brighten for Charlie Anne when new neighbors move in — a white woman (who wears red pepper red pants) and her African-American adopted daughter, Phoebe. Two conflicts loom largest: dyslexic Charlie Anne’s battle with “jumbled letters” and her controversial friendship with Phoebe, which stirs up the town’s “backwater” hatred. “We’ll just see about that!” becomes Charlie Anne’s battle cry.

WELCOME, KIM! It's a pleasure to have you here. Could you tell our readers what drove you to write THE WONDER OF CHARLIE ANNE?

I wanted to write something hopeful because I was very discouraged. I had published TENDING TO GRACE and it had done very well, but the years were passing. I had one novel sitting on my editor’s desk in NYC, but, despite two revisions, it wasn’t going anywhere. I started getting up at 5 a.m. and working on another novel as a way to get a positive start on my day before getting my children off to school. That draft was a study in sheer determination. Then spring came and the snow melted and I started hiking along the brook that ran behind my house and I got to thinking about a little girl who lived across the road from my grandparents' farm in Maine. She had a pony, which I wanted to ride very badly, but she had to watch her little brother and do chores from morning until night (or so it seemed to me). I thought a lot about all those chores and I knew how I would have acted: I would have REBELLED. That’s when I heard Charlie Anne's voice for the first time, and I scrapped that other draft because Charlie Anne's voice was so powerful and strong. She was a spirited, tough little nut. There was no looking back.

Charlie Anne's voice is so memorable. I loved listening to her speak. Her voice is lyrical, yet she always sounds like a child. How did you work such a miracle?

Thank you. When I heard her voice in my head I was so excited I ran to my computer and let her talk and start telling her story in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way. Each day when I sat down to write I would reread one of the early chapters, like the first chapter or the one about her cow, Belle, getting stuck in the brier patch. Sometimes I would retype whole sections of her feisty voice so I could absorb it and keep going.

You are also a poet. Does poetry feed your prose?

I read a lot of poetry for inspiration and I write poetry to improve my prose. I find that writing a poem is a wonderful way to delve deeply into my character’s emotions. The first page of THE WONDER OF CHARLIE ANNE began as a poem. Most of the chapters in TENDING TO GRACE began as poems and then I rewrote them into prose. That’s one of the reasons the chapters are so short. One example comes from the first page. I could have written that my main character, Cornelia, had a really rotten life. But when I wrote a poem about what it feels like to have a hard life, this is what came out: “I want to jump out of the car as it rushes along and wrap myself in a row of sheets hanging so low their feet tap the grass. I want to hide because my life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind at its heel.”

The river, Charlie Anne’s dead mother, the cow Anna May, and even the fence talk to Charlie Anne. This feels totally reasonable from Charlie Anne’s POV as the anthropomorphizing of a child. Yet it is more than that. It is real. Charlie Anne’s dead mother alerts her when Phoebe is hurt and leads Charlie Anne to her friend. Can you talk a little about this aspect of the book?

When I was writing I was Charlie Anne and in order to make the supernatural parts of the book believable I absolutely knew they were happening. Charlie Anne is talking to her mama and her mama is talking to her. I know no other way to approach a book.

Phoebe is African-American and one of the strands of your book is how Phoebe is treated when she arrives in this all-white northern town. As a white writer, how did you approach this issue?

I approached this as Charlie Anne would. She has an interesting and very smart girl her own age move in across the road. They have a great deal in common. They see their differences, and misstep many times, but ultimately learn to concentrate on their similarities. One of the themes of the book is when Charlie Anne tells the townspeople, “You can’t love somebody if you don’t know somebody.” She’s talking about empathy, about walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins, about how once we really get to know somebody, walls that separate us start crashing down.

The book is set during the Great Depression. Could yet tell us a little about your research for the book?

I read a lot of history. I scrolled through Library of Congress archives and listened to audio stories of the Great Depression. I love reading old cookbooks and sifting through old recipes. I think they are a window to another time. I found Dorothea Lange photos of girls from the 1930s who looked like my idea of Charlie Anne and Phoebe. I pasted these to the top of my manuscript so I could look at them every day. (The picture of "Charlie Anne" is posted at the top of this blog) As a former journalist, I know that the difference between a great story and a lousy one is research, and that the very best research usually comes from a great interview. I was thrilled when two women who attended a one-room schoolhouse in Rehoboth, MA, sat down with me and talked about life during the Great Depression. Where else could I have found the “standing in the trash bucket” punishment?

Your first book, TENDING TO GRACE, won the American Library Association's Schneider Family Book Award. Could you tell us a bit about this book? How did the experience of writing it compare to writing THE WONDER OF CHARLIE ANNE?

I wrote Tending to Grace after I met my editor, Michelle Frey of Knopf/Random House, at an SCBWI conference. I had submitted ten pages of a different novel and she told me that I had written a plot-driven novel, and that Knopf only publishes character-driven novels. “But I think you could write the kind of literary novel we publish. So if you go home and try again, I’ll take another look.” I don’t think my feet touched the ground for the next month. Then I started wondering, how exactly am I going to do this? I knew a character-driven novel features a protagonist who changes internally, and I was rather surprised I hadn’t accomplished this on my first try, but when I reread it, I knew Michelle was right. After a while I realized that if I had any hope of writing a character-driven novel, I needed a character that faced adversity and changed because of it. And then it hit me: I knew something about that! And that’s when I decided to write about stuttering, which is something I battled as a child. I remember the moment I walked over to my computer and closed my file that held that old novel, opened a new file, and started over. It took a lot of courage to write each day because I was writing about something I had tried to keep hidden. A lot of the things that happened to Cornelia in school happened to me. And then one day I wrote a scene where her Aunt Agatha says: “You know what I say? I say that when you got a voice, you damn well better tell the world who you are. Or somebody else will.” I realized that was exactly what I was doing by writing, and I better keep going. It paid off, because three months after I mailed the completed manuscript off to NYC, Michelle Frey called and offered me a contract and she’s been my editor since.

Are you working on any other books? Could you tell us a bit about them?

Yes, my next novel is scheduled for publication in 2013. The idea came from a little girl I met while I was writing about a carnival back in my reporter days.

Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Many people have asked for the recipe for vinegar pie. I found this one during my research. If you close your eyes, a “hard times vinegar pie” really does taste a lot like lemon.

1/2 c. butter, softened
1 1/4 c. sugar
3 eggs
2 tbsp. cider vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 (8-inch) unbaked pie shell

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, vinegar, and vanilla. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until inserted knife comes out clean.

Posted by Linda Crotta Brennan at 1:00 AM 2 comments

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Meet My Editor

This is my talented editor, Michelle Frey, executive editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Michelle and I are about to begin revisions on my third novel. It is a story very loosly based on a little girl I met at a carnival during my reporting days. Publication is planned for 2013.

I can hardly believe enough time has passed for me to write three novels since I met Michelle at a SCBWI writer's conference in Sturbridge, MA, in 2002.
I'll tell the story of how we met (and how Michelle had me doing cartwheels all the way home) when author and friend Linda Crotta Brennan interviews me for her blog on Oct. 11.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Charlie Anne in Paperback!!!

I now have the date! The Wonder of Charlie Anne will be released in paperback on October 11. Thank you to all my readers who have responded so warmly to Charlie Anne and Phoebe and all the other characters who people their world.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

All That Summer Reading

Thank you to all the teachers across the country who put Tending to Grace and The Wonder of Charlie Anne on their summer reading lists. And, thank you to all the students who are reading the books and will be doing reports over the next several weeks.

As a way to thank you, I will send a signed hardcover copy of Tending to Grace, or an audio CD version of The Wonder of Charlie Anne (read by the talented Ann Marie Lee) to the first 15 students (or teachers!!!) who email me a mailing address.

My email is

Happy Summer!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Letters About Literature

I was recently asked to speak at RI Center for the Book's annual meeting where the 2011 Letters about Literature winners were announced.

It was an exciting evening, held at the State Office Building in Providence. John Cole, Director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, handed out awards to students from across the state who had written letters about their favorite books. Winners had been chosen by a selection committee made up of librarians and authors.

What an evening! The program is a national program where approximately 70,000 young readers from across the country write letters to their favorite authors.

Students are asked:

"How has an author's work--novel, nonfiction, poetry--changed your view of the world or yourself? What did you learn about yourself that you didn't realize before reading the author's work? Don't write a book report. The author already wrote the book and knows what happened. What the author doesn't know is how you reacted while reading the book. Write about that--your response in a reflective, personal letter to the author! That is the LAL writing challenge."

Winners and Honorable Mentions in Rhode Island were:
Level 1 Winner: Isobel McCullough, Wakefield
Level 1 Honorable Mentions: Maddy Murphy, Barrington and Alex Wilson, Hope Valley
Level 2 Winner: Jessica Bellows, Coventry
Level 2 Honorable Mentions: Delaney Burke and Julia DeAngelis, Scituate; Emily Gleason, Portsmouth
Level 3 Winner: Grace Perkins,Portsmouth
Level 3 Honorable Mentions: Danielle Kubicsko, Westerly and Katelyn St. Laurent, Smithfield
Read this year's winning letters at

Thank you to the RI Center for the Book for inviting me to such a special evening. And thank you for taking The Wonder of Charlie Anne to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, last fall. I can tell you that Charlie Anne had a wonderful time!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Workshop by Region's Writing Women

"Women's Words and Voices" was the topic of a day of writing workshops held recently at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA. It was an inspiring day filled with writers from across the region. The event was held to benefit Daybreak, the YWCA's domestic violence service provider in Central Mass. I was asked to speak on fiction writing, my favorite topic!

We celebrated “the potential of all women to find and use their voice and self expression to build meaningful lives,” according to Virginia Navickas, director of domestic violence services for Daybreak and one of the coordinators of the day. Ms. Navickas read some powerful poems and essays written by women who have been helped by Daybreak.

Thank you to Jim Dempsey, who helped coordinate the daylong program. He is an instructor at WPI, an author, and a former reporter comrade of mine at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Charlie Anne is "Strong Girl" Role Model

The American Library Association's AMELIA BLOOMER PROJECT announces its list of books each year that feature strong, powerful, capable, girls. The Wonder of Charlie Anne was named to the 2011 list!

Named for the women's rights activist and writer, The AMELIA BLOOMER PROJECT is part of the Feminist Task Force of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibility Round Table. Each year it offers a bibliography of books with significant feminist content intended for young readers from birth to 18.

The AMELIA BLOOMER PROJECT applauds books that encourage girls and young women to love themselves for who they are. It looks for books that move beyond merely “spunky” and “feisty” young women to characters who not only fight to protect themselves, but also further the rights of others.

The books on the list show girls and young women solving problems, gaining personal power, and empowering others. They celebrate girls and young women as a vibrant, vital force in the world. A book with a strong female character that does not demonstrate that an inequality exists may not be a feminist book, according to project committee. Strong female characters may be plucky, perseverant, courageous, feisty, intelligent, spirited, resourceful, capable, and independent–but the book’s presentation may still not be feminist.

I am thrilled that Charlie Anne has been named to such an important list. As she says so many times about the prejudice and inequality that face her daily, "We'll just see about that!"

Thank you to committee members Angela Semifero, Marshall District Library (MI); Beth Olshewsky, co-chair, Tulare County Office of Education (CA); Dana Campbell, Corvallis-Benton County Public Library (OR); Jennie Law, John Bulow Campbell Library (GA); Joy Worland, Joslin Memorial Library (VT); Linda Parsons, Ohio State University (OH); Maureen McCoy, co-chair, Brooklyn Public Library (NY).

For more information, please visit the Amelia Bloomer Project.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Isaac Paine School

I have a dear friend, Laurie Smith Murphy, who teaches fifth grade at Isaac Paine School in Foster, RI.

Each year she reads Tending to Grace, my first novel, to her students as part of her writing curriculum. This year, her class also read The Wonder of Charlie Anne.

Laurie and I are both writers and we often share our writing projects with one another. As a past special education and current regular education teacher, she helped me describe Charlie Anne's reading disability correctly.

Each year her students are ready with dozens of questions for me about my books, about writing, and about the publishing world. Often, I will be asked a question I have never been asked before.

Here is what her students said about the visit:

"I never met a real author before. It was very interesting to find out what your inspiration was for Tending to Grace. I was also very pleased that you weren't afraid to write about being a stutterer. If Cornelia wasn't a stutterer, the book wouldn't be as good as it is."

"I was also amazed that you had an outhouse that was leaning to the side with one little window in it just like in Tending to Grace."

"You answered all my questions that I wanted to know. You gave me some facts about writing. Now I reread my writing at least twice to see if there are any mistakes."

"Tending to Grace is one of my favorite books. Our class is reading The Wonder of Charlie Anne. I am thinking that it's going to be my favorite book ever."