International Dot Day first started in 2009 when I sent a Facebook message to Peter H. Reynolds, author of The Dot, with a vision of one day where kids in schools take a break from normal school work and test-preparation and get creative. I’ve been a teacher for twenty-nine years and I am always astounded how much attention is now focused on testing. Dot Day seemed like a way to counteract that, at least for a day. I always say that you should share your ideas and dreams with someone who will pour gas on them, that’s certainly what happened with this idea when I shared it with Peter.

The first year, I tweeted about the very first Dot Day. Some friends picked up on it, and started celebrating too. Through retweeting and sharing, more people started to jump in.


Counselor Teresa O’Meara and I did a joint unit with fourth grade vocal music class where we talked about “making your mark,” and the kids decorated dots that we hung around the room. In high school chorus, I laid out butcher paper and bought watercolors for them to make dots. In junior high chorus, we made a human dot! It was great fun.


That year, I was surprised to learn that schools I didn’t have any connection to were celebrating too! I was completely blown away by the response, including Richard Colosi’s work with his kindergarten class. I quickly realized the Dot Day, along with Peter’s book was something that spoke to people. The power of social media was palpable.

In 2010, more schools joined the movement. We didn’t keep track of numbers or participants, but it was fun to see people celebrating and sharing the work on Twitter. In 2011, two stellar and connected librarians, Shannon Miller and John Schumacher connected to Dot Day and with each other to super-charge the mission and the movement. They celebrated all week and used social media to spread the word.

Having super-connected teacher librarians made a huge impact. 2011 was the first year we kept track of participants—the total number was around 18,000. Far beyond my wildest dreams.

That same year, I received an email from Newbery Medal winner, Sharon Creech which contained a dot she created. I was struck by how cool it was to see what kind of dot a literary hero would make. Thus, Celebridots was born. 


With the help of the Celebridots and passionate social media advocates, Dot Day 2012 grew to 839,000 participants. After that, the numbers continued to climb, 1.3 million in 2013, 1.8 million in 2014, and this year, 2.3 million. In addition to growth in participants, the number of countries involved in Dot Day has grown as well. This year, we had participants from 116 countries.

(One of the best examples of the power of creativity can be seen in photos from a pediatric cancer hospital in Vietnam. These photos were so inspiring to everyone connected with Dot Day.)


Matthew Winner, Shannon Miller, and Andy Plemmons had a huge impact on participation with their idea for an online document for people to seek connections with other classrooms, using Skype Classroom and Google Hangouts. Watching this develop has been a joy. With this tool, classrooms are connecting, reading the book, sharing their creations, and learning about other schools, states, and countries.


The success of International Dot Day is owed to many people who believed in a more creative and connected world and made it happen. Dot Day has been celebrated in classrooms, whole schools, after-school programs, homes, daycares, district offices, bookstores, hospitals and probably many more places. If you search the Internet for “International Dot Day” or follow #DotDay on Twitter, you will see that all of these celebrations went above and beyond that first year of butcher paper and human dots. It all started with the perfect book, which launched the imaginations of children and adults around the globe.
Posted by elena at 08:10 AM Link to this post

In 2012, Katherine Applegate won the Newbery for her beautifully emotional middle grade novel THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Her new novel, CRENSHAW, coming later this month, tells a very different story, but with every bit as much love and hope. Katherine’s letter to booksellers about her story—and the imaginary friend at the center of it—was too perfect not to share!

If cats could talk, they wouldn’t.
—Nan Porter

Although I am—as gauged by age, if not behavior—a grown-up, I freely admit to having lots of imaginary friends. That’s not so surprising, I suppose, given my vocation.

What is rather surprising is that I never had any imaginary friends as a kid (at least none I can recall.) I had beloved stuffed animals, and beloved real animals, aplenty. Maybe they were all I needed at the time.

Nonetheless, I’ve always longed to write about an imaginary friend. (This may explain why “Harvey” is one of my favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and head to Hulu, stat.) Naturally, once Crenshaw, a large—extremely large—cat, leapt into my own imagination, I simply wouldn’t let him leave the premises.


I loved the idea of casting a cat in the role of a young boy’s confidant. And he had to be a cat, precisely because it played so well against type. Don’t get me wrong: I love cats. Some of my best friends are cats. But let’s be honest. They’re not exactly the go-to species when we talk about “man’s best friend.” They’re aloof, regal, and more than a little stand-offish. “We smirk,” Crenshaw tells his friend Jackson. “We sneer. Rarely we are quietly amused. But we do not laugh.”

It seemed to me that an imaginary friend would be especially welcome in a time of crisis, and Jackson, who’s about to enter fifth grade, is enduring just that. His family is wading through rough economic waters, and he and his little sister Robin have found themselves hungry on more than a few occasions. Jackson is a practical, just-the-facts kind of guy, and the unexpected reappearance of his long-abandoned imaginary friend is disconcerting, to say the least. (In fairness, discovering a giant talking cat, especially one taking a bubble bath, is bound to be a bit unsettling.)

With CRENSHAW, I wanted to limn the experience of so many families in our country—the lost jobs, the scrabbling to make ends meet, the worry and the tears—while realistically portraying a loving family doing their best to get by. I think kids understand far more about the world than we sometimes realize. They know when money’s tight, when parents are on edge, when their world is about to unravel.

And they know, most importantly, when they are loved.

For Jackson, it’s Crenshaw—a big, black and white cat who “looks like he’s heading somewhere fancy in a hairy tuxedo”—who helps him navigate this complicated time. Crenshaw may be imaginary. And he may be easily distracted by a nice, juicy frog. But he’s the best kind of friend to have when times are tough.

If cats could talk, perhaps they wouldn’t. Or perhaps they’d be like Crenshaw, a cat of few words who always knows just what to say.

Crenshaw may be imaginary, but the hunger that Jackson and his family face certainly isn't—thousands of children in the U.S. don't have enough to eat every day. But independent bookstores and food pantries across the country are partnering up to raise food, and give hungry families the same hope that Crenshaw gives Jackson. Have your local indie bookstore register to join the Crenshaw Food Drive, and compete to see which store can collect the most non-perishable food. (Katherine just might make an appearance at your local store!)

Crenshaw Food Drive

Posted by michael at 04:08 PM Link to this post

The long and winding road that led to my novel Firefly Hollow began with some photocopied paintings that arrived in the mail one day. They were by an artist named Christopher Denise, and I spread them out on my big wooden dining table and stood there studying each one.

The idea was that I would write a picture book to go along with them. I love an assignment, but this one intimidated me. The paintings were just so damn beautiful. There was a vole wearing a little sailor's cap, and there was a cricket, and there was a boat and a river. There was the night sky and moonlight and the colors in each painting were like jewels.

Could I write a picture book worthy of those paintings? I wanted to, and I tried. For about a year and half, I tried. But everything I wrote—and I wrote a lot—kept spiraling out into more story than a picture book, with its tiny word count and strict page limit, could handle.

So I gave up. "I'm so sorry. I could probably write a novel around these paintings, but I can't seem to do a picture book."

But it turned out that the artist was okay with the idea of a novel. Hello! I went back to the paintings and studied them with new, novelistic eyes.

What did I love most about them?

The colors. The tenderness in Vole's eyes, the gentle way he bent toward the tiny cricket. The boat and the river and the moonlight. I dreamed of writing a classic novel, one for all ages. I held in my mind the images of Charlotte's Web and Wind in the Willows and My Side of the Mountain. (If you're going to dream, I say dream big.) Because I had room to roam now, I made up two new characters, a firefly named Firefly and a boy named Peter, and I got to work. For years.

Four? Five? More? I honestly don't remember. What I do remember is writing three entirely separate books about Firefly and Peter and Cricket and Vole, and none of them worked. They were dark, heavy, full of anger and fear, at least in my memory, and memory will have to suffice, because I don't feel like unearthing those drafts for verification. The idea of them makes me tired.

I gave up on each of those drafts in turn. Put the paintings away. Took them out again. Put them away. Took them out.

What was the book itself about? What did the book want to be about, on its own terms? Where was its heart and soul?

The answers came to me slowly: Loneliness. Love. Longing.

All things that I remember so clearly from childhood. The enormous thoughts and worries and dreams that children hold inside them. Children live such deep, searching lives. Too often the grownups around them don't give them credit for that. They have forgotten, maybe.

So back to the beginning I went, determined to write a book about loneliness and love and longing. I gathered together three totems: a little wooden cricket, an illustration from the transcendent film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, and Fall and Spring: to a Young Child, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem I first read as a child and which has haunted me ever since.


I kept the totems on the table as I worked—yet another try at this novel that I could sense somewhere in the ether, this novel that I so wanted to write—and gradually, over another year or so, the book took shape. The firefly and the cricket and the boy told me separately how lonely they were, and why, and how they each longed for a real friend.

Vole was harder. I had to figure him out slowly, over time.

In fact, everything about the making of Firefly Hollow was slow. The heart and soul of the book revealed itself to me only in the fullness of time, only on its own slow terms, not the faster ones I would've chosen. I even, for the first time in my life, had to ask for an extension on my deadline.

But here we are. Five-plus years from start to finish, my hope now is the same as it was in the beginning: to have written a classic book, one worthy of those tender, beautiful paintings.
Posted by elena at 08:08 AM Link to this post

MEETING MY MUSE – Christopher Browne

It’s been said that I was born holding a pencil, which is not entirely true. I didn’t pick up a pencil until a few days later, and at that point I was mostly gumming it. My earliest drawings showcased my inner nerd. The evolutionary process of a fish, futuristic worlds, crazy contraptions, wooly mammoths and of course dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs.

I was a kid constantly lost in my imagination and drawing was my only way to make that inner world a reality. I sketched on individual sheets of printer paper and then stuffed them into a perfectly sized “Where’s Waldo” book. This makeshift portfolio was hardly ever shared with anyone. In fact, I didn’t share my illustrations with people until college.

My twenties was a creatively confusing time. I had the urge to make art but wasn’t sure exactly what to create. I mostly drew cartoons, painted empty landscapes and, after moving to Philadelphia, began wheat pasting illustrations to various surfaces. Slowly moving ahead but with no clear direction.

Enter my muse.


In the shape of a severely roughed-up little pitbull.

Marlo was underweight and covered in dandruff and scabs. He was found on a North Philly street as kids threw rocks at him. The girl who saved Marlo couldn’t keep him and that is where I came into the story. Once under my roof, Marlo bounced back quickly and began showing his subtle, quirky personality. He was, and still very much is, a blank slate. Marlo’s the kind of guy you could share a beer with while sitting quietly on a front porch, making the occasional comment about the weather. It was only a matter of time before I started filling in the blanks. What was going on inside the little guy’s head? The imagination of my younger years was still intact which led to visions of Marlo going on wild adventures, breaking the law in dramatic fashion and inventing the crazy contraptions of my childhood. These scenarios found their way into my sketchbooks and eventually begged for a larger venue.


By the summer of 2010 the character of Marlo was fully fleshed out and in need of a proper home. I was also conveniently inspired and motivated to push myself to grow as an illustrator. Growth required discipline, discipline required deadlines and deadlines would work only if someone else held me accountable. To do this, I started a weekly webcomic starring Marlo. Over the next three years I was able to experiment with various mediums and techniques on a weekly basis.


Creating the comic was a thoroughly satisfying process and a personal one until a high school friend got in touch with me. You might know her. Her name is Elena Giovinazzo. She asked me “ever consider doing a Marlo children’s book?” And the rest, they say, is history… I’m kidding. Elena planted the seed and then helped me navigate the often confusing process of expanding a one panel story into a children’s book. My first children’s book, due out in Winter 2017, celebrates imagination. It is also a love letter of sorts to the amazing little pitbull who quietly walked into my life and became my muse.


I’ve thanked Marlo many times, but he acts as if it’s no big deal.
Posted by michael at 08:07 AM Link to this post

A Few Thoughts Before the Circus Comes to Town

Tomorrow is June 2nd. Tomorrow is Circus Mirandus’s release day. Tomorrow, for the first time in my life, I will be a published author.


Since nobody can reasonably expect me to be anything but a tangled mess of joy, gratitude, and nerves tomorrow, I had better take time today to share a few thoughts on my arrival at this long-hoped-for place.

I didn’t get here alone. Maybe everyone else already knows this, but publishing is filled with book-loving magicians—agents, editors, publicists, copyeditors, and so many more people who design the book, market the book, and whip the book into shape. When acquaintances ask what my favorite part of “the process” has been so far, I think they expect me to gush (more than I have already) over things like the book’s gorgeous covers.



But honestly, the best thing about having your novel published is getting to know all of the people who make it happen. When your book finally hits shelves it’s something more than you could have made on your own, and that’s amazing.


And what about before? What about those years spent hacking away at bad rough drafts of books that are now relegated to the dust bunny kingdom at the back of my closet? There were people then, too, who kept me going. I had my family and my writing mentors pushing me to write more, better, truer.

Until one day I found the story I had to tell, and Circus Mirandus was born.

It was so different back then. That first draft was years ago, and though it was brimful of heart, it was a mess. I think you have to love a story with all of yourself to make it through revision after revision with your faith in it still intact.

When you do finally put that last comma in place, you find you’ve arrived in the land of firsts. First time seeing the cover design. First time holding the ARC. First time hearing from a reader who isn’t somehow affiliated with the business of publishing. You get to meet librarians and booksellers and teachers—the best sorts of people in the world. You get letters from parents who are reading advance copies of the book aloud to their children.

And then comes the day when you hold a finished copy of the book for the first time.

And the moment when you turn back the jacket on the hardcover, and you see this:


And it’s magic. Pure magic.

I can’t wait for tomorrow.
Posted by michael at 08:06 AM Link to this post

We asked author/illustrator Darren Farrell about his inspirations, influences, and process. Read on to find out how street art, hip hop, and bananas play a role in his art.

I began life as a writer. Went to journalism school. Worked for design firms, PR companies and advertising agencies as a writer and creative director. Eventually, I was sort of forced against my best wishes into this lifelong artistic pursuit.

I could not for the life of me find an illustrator friend who would spend the bajillions of hours to make a book with me. And so I very slowly began sketching the book myself. People liked my sketches, and I continued working on them. An editor at Bloomsbury liked my very early, initial Doug-Dennis book and really enjoyed the art. She helped to build a little confidence within me and pushed me to keep working, and then the process of Doug-Dennis started my art boulder rolling downhill.


Now, I feel like I test out a little something new with each book and I just keep experimenting and trying to grow stronger all the time. I enjoy growing and adapting to what I find cool and so because of that I am not sure that my style will ever remain totally stagnant. At least I hope not!

I enjoyed making odd and oddly cute characters and I wanted to off-balance them a little bit, make bold moves and do something unique. So I started making characters with these HUGE pink eyeballs. And not two huge pink eyeballs. Each character had one giant eye and one little dot eye. Originally the only color in my book was that pink eye. Everything was black and white like a Silverstein book. And just that splash of pink for the one eye. Really, that is the one and only thing which has remained the same in my books so far. That pink eye. I change mediums a bit and try out variations on my style – but that pink eye always feels cool.


I have also always been a huge fan of the New York hip-hop graffiti, breakdancing, street scene. I can remember as a second grader dragging my family to see Beat Street and they left thinking… wha?? I left feeling so enamored of NYC. In fact, from middle school until I graduated high school, I thought I would grow up to be a rapper. All of this to say that when I moved to New York, I began to soak up all of the gorgeous street art. And I began to get a little into fine street artists like Michael Lau, Barry McGee and just a ton of other people – nameless and famous.

Barry McGee Mural, 3 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217

My natural style seems to involve an INSANE amount of detail. It is important for me to develop some looser styles with less background so that I can let the art explode out from me instead of sculpting it down to the fine details all of the time. In future projects, I also want to start experimenting with more texture in my colors – some actual paint – etc.


I like the idea that I heard in summer camp: if you think about yourself like a banana, you always want to feel green … because when you're done being green, that's when you start the process of going stale. And when it comes to art – I am ALWAYS feeling super duper green. Because I am. I have a lot to learn. Right now, I just do what feels right.

Posted by michael at 10:05 AM Link to this post

For all of those who have marveled at author Jandy Nelson's incandescent writing in I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN and THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, you're in luck: Jandy recently shared a list of writing tips with UK website Female First. We're thrilled to share them here to inspire your next piece of "magic."

1) Be yourself. What makes your voice unique is simply the fact that you’re you, so be yourself completely and fearlessly in your writing. Get your personality on the page. Dive into your passions, sorrows, joys, idiosyncrasies, insights, your personal myths, monsters and miracles. This doesn’t mean you need to write about yourself, you just need to write like yourself. Only you can be you and only you can write like you—that’s your gift alone.

2) See to your gusto. Ray Bradbury said, “. . . if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.” It’s crucial to explore characters/events/times/places/ideas that fascinate, horrify, confound, impassion, enflame, sadden, delight you, things that see to your gusto.

3) Throw rocks at your characters. Someone smart once said: Not only do you have to chase your characters up trees but once they’re up there, you need to throw rocks at them. Characters need to get into big trouble. Do not protect them or care what readers will think of them. Conflict, whether internal or external, makes stories.

4) Writing is revising. As Anne Lamott advises in her wonderful book on writing Bird by Bird: Allow yourself to write a terrible first draft. Then you will revise, revise, and revise some more. But you need that first draft to begin the real work of writing a novel.

5) Curb toward joy. When I was in graduate school, I took a literature class for writers with Edmund White. One day in lecture he talked about how writers can get gloomy: always alone, tapping away at their keyboards for years, often with no support or feedback, and so to compensate for the potential dreariness that might seep into the work purely circumstantially writers might remember to curb toward joy. This idea hit me like lightning and has stayed with me since.

6) Have a Funnel Head. Let everything that compels you fall into your mind, into story. If Picasso hadn’t stepped out of the rain one day into the Paris Museum of Ethnography he might never have seen the African masks that inspired his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and there might never have been cubism. Beg/borrow/steal. Be a collector of the amazing. Shake the world up in your head/heart and let it out all covered in you.

7) Kill your darlings. An oldie but goodie. Samuel Johnson wrote, “When you come across a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Love this. Don’t be writerly, be you. Also, be ruthless. Chuck anything that isn’t serving the story.

8) Take your time and to thine own self be true. Don’t rush and don’t feel pressure to show or send your work out until it’s ready. Do not think about the market. Write the story you must write and take the time needed to tell it the best way you possibly can.

9) Sit in the dark. My friend, the wonderful YA writer, Nina Lacour plays the same song over and over again all day long while she writes. Kent Haruf wrote blindfolded. I write in a dark room with earplugs in and sound machine blasting like a loony. Find the way to work that works for you.

10) Remember writing is magic. If you write fiction you get to live so many lives in your one lifetime. This is brilliant sorcery—enjoy it!

11) Read every amazing book you can get your hands on.
Posted by elena at 08:04 AM Link to this post
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