Contests!, Reviews, Teaching Reading

Novel Madness 2018 FINALS

Yes, it’s two of the sixth graders’ all time favorites: The House of Hades and Hunger Games. Both novels have loyal followers. The contest will be decided this Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Stay tuned!


Novel Madness 2018–Semifinal Round!

Our novel competition is heating up! This week we said goodbye to some favorites.The remaining books will face off on Monday. These are four very different books, which makes for an interesting matchup.

Here they are:


Matilda by Roald Dahl vs. House of Hades by Rick Riordan

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins vs. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech


Novel Madness 2018–ROUND TWO

To find out about this contest in my sixth grade classroom, go here. Here are the results of Round One, paired with their new opponents for Round Two, which takes place tomorrow. Good luck!




Matilda by Roald Dahl vs. The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Frindle by Andrew Clements vs. House of Hades by Rick Riordan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate vs. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech vs. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen


Novel Madness 2018

Every year in March, to coincide with basketball’s March Madness, my sixth graders participate in Novel Madness to choose their favorite novel of all time. They brainstorm their top sixteen favorites, then pair up to create persuasive speeches. Here are this year’s top 16:


The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Maze Runner by James Dashner

Holes by Louis Sachar

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Frindle by Andrew Clements

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

The Witches by Roald Dahl

House of Hades by Rick Riordan

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


This is an excellent lineup that includes old favorites like Matilda and Holes, and favorite authors like Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling. This list also include first-time appearances by Chomp, and Fever 1793. Good luck everyone!


Happy New Year 2018

Thappy-new-year-fireworkshe turning of the old year into the new is always accompanied by a time of reflection. The past year, 2017, was a terrific year for me. In June, I completed my twentieth year of teaching with a great class, then got another great class come August. In July, I celebrated my 60th birthday by climbing Sentinel Dome in Yosemite with my husband. All year I worked on a massive cross-stitch project to present to my son and his new wife at their wedding in October. 2017 was a time of joyous celebration.

Looking forward, 2018 is a blank canvas. Our family has no milestones to commemorate and no plans for major events. In the scope of my life, it seems 2018 will be a filler year, one we get through on our way to something else–like retirement in 2019. It’s important, though, not to let even one day of any year slip by unnoticed. So for 2018, I plan to surround myself with people who love me and encourage the best out of me, and I won’t let anyone’s negativity derail me. I will finish my revision of Aloha Spirit and get a good start on my next novel because I truly enjoy writing. And if milestones happen along the way, I will experience them in the moment as part of a life filled with joy.

Wishing you and yours a year as happy as my 2017 was, and as promising as my 2018 looks.


Teaching in November


This is a picture I took after school yesterday of the hallway outside my classroom. A little more than an hour before this, the walls teemed with pharaoh portraits, 3D pyramids covered in Egyptian symbols, cartouches with the kids’ names in hieroglyphics, an art prep project of watercolored bug jars, Mesopotamia posters, Model Novel paragraphs, portraits and descriptive paragraphs of their NaNoWriMo novel characters, haunted house pictures with descriptive paragraphs, mosaic names, and zentangled silhouettes of their heads. The walls were full and colorful. They screamed active, happy, working students. And now it’s gone. I took it all down.

I know many of you are not teachers. Each of the eight projects above took hours to plan, prepare for, execute, and display. I do it because I love teaching in a colorful place. I do it because the students are happier in a colorful place filled with their work. It’s possible to teach all year, cover the curriculum, and not create anything to display on walls. At my school, none of us teach like that. We have floor to ceiling stapleable walls and we must use them! But if you visit my school next week during Parent Conferences, you will see bare walls in every wing.

Some of our parents visit school only a handful of times a year, maybe Back to School Night, parent conferences, and/or Open House. I know if I were to visit their places of work a couple of times a year, I might not notice a change in wall decor. I hope that parents coming to school next week notice, and ask about, the lack of student work.

When I was taking down the projects yesterday, I could see the face of each child as they made the project. That sounds melodramatic as I read it back, but it’s true. Those papers represent them as they are in my class. I’m proud of them and want to show off their work. Removing each staple made me sad. And angry.

Our school district and our union are currently negotiating teacher contracts. For the last several years, this process has grown more and more contentious. There are strong beliefs on both sides. The district is able to send emails and flyers home to parents that state their side. Teachers are prohibited from doing the same. If you are a parent, no matter what school district your child attends, ask the teacher what’s going on. If you ask, we can, and will, tell you. Please ask.

Three years in a row, we have received a small raise (3.25%, 4%, and 2%). In all three of those years, however, the rise in our piece of the health care costs has offset what the raise added to our salary, so my salary has not matched the cost of living increase in San Jose. Teachers are paid on a salary schedule dependent on their level of education and years of service. It maxes out at ten years. If you have been teaching for twenty years and have a master’s degree, like I have, you get no raise for the rest of your career unless a cost of living raise is negotiated in the contract. Now the district is considering increasing class size (I have 32 students this year), eliminating art specialists (who give us an hour prep a week to grade papers and plan for 32 students), furlough days, and eliminating aides for kindergarten and TK.

At the beginning of my career, Evergreen School District was the place to be–good salary, good benefits, good work environment, good support from the district. I’m sad that has changed. It seems every week there is another decision that affects my teaching day–requiring us to adopt the new NextGen science standards with no district-adopted curriculum, for example. I don’t put in the extra hours at school that I used to, and I no longer take anything home. My administration no longer appreciates that extra effort, so I don’t give it. This makes me sad and angry.

So next week my students’ parents will come to parent conference. We will discuss progress toward standards and behavior in class. We will discuss seating arrangements and issues with other students. We will discuss homework time at home. And, if you ask, we will discuss our negotiations status. Please ask.

**UPDATE: Teachers in Evergreen School District, if your walls are bare this week, post a picture here in the comments. ETA has posted this, so it will be visible to all. Thanks!



What would YOU like to read?

541842344As you know, my latest novel, ALOHA SPIRIT, is finished and being queried to agents. Time to begin researching novel #6! For both UNDER THE ALMOND TREES and ALOHA SPIRIT, I used women in my family as inspiration. There are several other interesting stories in my family tree, and I want to see which one interests readers the most. Indicate your preference in the comments below. Add a comment if you wish!

  1. Emily Miree was born at Fort Snelling, Minnesota in 1836. Her mother was the sister of James Lockwood, the first governor of Wisconsin. Her stepfather, James Churchman, was a circuit attorney in Illinois, and Emily’s mother traveled with him. They went to California in 1851. Emily was living with the James Lockwood family in 1850. Why didn’t she go west with her mother? James Churchman was a prominent attorney and knew Abraham Lincoln. He went to Valparaiso, Chile, as Lincoln’s ambassador in 1861, taking Samantha with him. Emily had married in 1858. Her husband sold water to the gold miners. They had five children in four different mining towns. Life must have been difficult for Emily–Indian troubles at the fort, stepfather issues as he took her mother traveling, and living hard in mining camps with a young family.
  2. Emeline Beach was the daughter of Moses Yale Beach, an inventor and publisher of the New York Sun, which at that time was a pioneer penny newspaper. Her mother was Nancy Day, sister of Benjamin Day, the founder of the New York Sun. Benjamin was the family member who sold the family’s heirloom Brewster chest, handed down from William Brewster of the Mayflower. Emeline was a lifelong friend of Mark Twain and might have married him, but her father made it clear he did not want a ‘Western rough-neck’ for a son-in-law.  She married the great painter, Abbot Thayer, and lived in an art colony where Mark Twain spent his summers for years. I would love to research these artistic people more deeply and write a story about Emeline and Mark Twain.
  3. Margaret Cusack was 16 in 1888 when she came to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, from Ireland. Her large family was strongly tied to the MacMillan family, with many marriages and census information showing members of both families sharing living quarters. After the Gold Rush, the timber industry in Northern California created a new rush. Scottish and Irish immigrants poured into the state from Canada, including the MacMillan and Cusack families. Margaret married Michael MacMillan in Scotia, California and they had nine children. For this story I would explore the complex family dynamics of a large multi-generational family making its way in a new state and a new industry.

So what do you think, readers? Emily, Emeline, or Margaret? Who intrigues you the most?


Almond Cake

Almond Cake with glasses of almond liqueur–perfect for a book club discussion of my novel, Under the Almond Trees!

I love to cook. When I wrote Under the Almond Trees, it was important to me that the family had a special almond recipe. I used almond cake throughout the novel even though I had never even tasted it! This summer I vowed to remedy this lack and bake an almond cake. I found several vintage recipes, but decided to try a modern one. It was absolutely delicious. Here is the recipe:




  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole almonds
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks and slightly softened
  • 1 tablespoon almond liqueur
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • Powdered sugar for dusting 


Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the sides of a round 8″ cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Put the almonds, sugar, salt, and almond extract in the food processor and process until

This is a picture of the plate in the photo above. Family is everything! This plate was a gift to my grandmother from a Navy buddy of my father’s during World War II. The server in the photo above is a sterling silver piece given to me for my 1981 wedding by my parents. The little red glasses belonged to my maternal grandmother.

the nuts are finely pulverized. Add the butter and liqueur and pulse until blended. Add the eggs and process until thoroughly blended. Add the flour and baking powder and pulse just until incorporated, scraping the bowl once with a rubber spatula to be sure.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the cake is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a rack.


To unmold, slide a thin knife or a small metal spatula around the sides of the cake to release it. Cover the cake with a serving platter and invert. Remove the pan, peel off the parchment liner, and turn the cake right side up. Wrapped airtight, the cake keeps well at room temperature for several days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months; bring to room temperature before serving.

If desired, dust the cake lightly with powdered sugar before serving.

Authors, Interview


boyassemblyToday I did one of my favorite author things–I spoke to 240 kids at the Career Tech Summer Academy. I spoke for half an hour to students ranging from 4th to 6th graders, telling them about me, my books, and being an author. Then I answered questions.

Any teacher knows that when you open up the possibility of questions, the sky’s the limit. Some questions were related to the topic. They asked why I chose horses to write about and wanted to know the name of one of the flying horses in my books. They asked what books I liked to read, and what I was currently working on. The kids were quite naturally curious about me, too. They asked how old I was and if I had any pets, and they wanted to know if I’d read Hunger Games and Harry Potter. I love that they were interested in me as a person!

Then one of the boys asked me when I was coming out with the next Minecraft handbook. You never laugh at a question. Sometimes they ask the offbeat ones on purpose to see your reaction. Sometimes they really do think you will give them an answer. I smiled and explained I couldn’t write a handbook until I got a lot better at Minecraft. He laughed and ran off with his friends. Wonderful creativity! He probably should write his own book!

Adults are good at asking relevant questions. I’m sure they have all sorts of questions that are inappropriate or off-task, but they understand what can be asked and what shouldn’t be. You can teach children to ask good content-related questions that show they are listening and thinking about what is being said, but children have no filter. If they wonder it, they ask it. It’s impossible to be offended. When I told them I didn’t mind them asking how old I was since it was my birthday a few days ago, they wished me a happy birthday.

A half an hour presentation goes very quickly. That made me sad because I really wanted to answer more of their questions!


HNS 2017 Conference

I love attending conferences, and I love speaking at them. This one was no different. I attended great sessions that discussed family sagas, the state of historical fiction in publishing, and how to promote your book. Watch this space for notices of giveaways soon! I’ll be redesigning my webpage, and creating a cool flyer.

I was also a member of a panel on When They Were in the Closet: Writing LGBTQ Characters in Historical Fiction. One of the panelists was David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and guest speaker at the conference. The five of us spoke to a group of about 50 conference goers, and it went very well. Emily Williams, my lesbian character in Under the Almond Trees, held her own with David’s transgender character, John Singer Sargent’s and Shakespeare’s bisexual relationships, a castrato in Boston, and Belle Epoch Paris with a variety of sexual relationships.

After the panel, I pitched Aloha Spirit to an agent. It’s a wonderful experience to speak in concise sentences about a story you used almost 100,000 words to tell! I met a lot of authors in various stages of writing historical fiction, as well as successful authors I admire very much like Gennifer Choldenko, Kate Forsyth, and Anne Easter Smith.

It was my first time in Portland, too. What a beautiful city! It was very hot, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and the beautiful Willamette River in the foreground. Best part of the city was a visit to Powell’s City of Books. It is the most incredible, largest bookstore I have ever seen!

Next year the Historical Novel Society Conference is in Edinburgh, Scotland. The year after that, the Northern American conference will be on the East Coast of the U.S. I hope I’ll be able to attend!