Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Radio Interviews

I was interviewed by the inimitable Laura Kennedy on WGLT Radio (our local NPR station) concerning It Happened in Chicago. Click the link below to listen to the interview!

I was also interviewed by the incomparable Ron Ross at WJBC radio (link below):

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Meet Author Donna Latham!

My guest today is Donna Latham, author of numerous books for children, including Fire Dogs (Bearport Publishing, 2005), which received the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children's Book Award. Donna currently splits her time between St. Charles, Illinois, and Danville, California. Her book Amazing Biome Projects You Can Build Yourself (Nomad Press, 2009) includes profiles of several Chicago-area scientists. Her book Ghosts of the Fox River Valley (Quixote Press, 2007) is set throughout Illinois.

Donna is also an accomplished playwright whose work has been performed from coast to coast. The Train Track Ghosts, a spooky tale set in Wayne, Illinois, was performed in October at Naperville’s Riverwalk Grand Pavillion. For more information about Donna Latham, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Donna: Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of being a writer.

Q: Describe your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write them?

Donna: My first writing love was playwrighting. My childhood best friend Herbert and I wrote goofy little comedy sketches featuring madcap antics and wacky characters. (Hey, I’m still working with the same schtick!) Then, in full-on ham mode, we performed and taped them, complete with sound effects and original music. Later, we played the tapes for our friends in the neighborhood. The sheer joy of making audiences laugh was all the inspiration I needed.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Donna: Writing is a solitary endeavor, but I’m blessed with an amazing network to share the journey. My husband and brother are my go-to guys when I tinker with works-in-progress. They participate with verve in early play readings. My family and friends are incredible cheerleaders—especially my friend Judy, who’s been my editor many times. Judy’s a writer, too, so she gets it. She not only provides emotional support and encouragement but also helps me wrangle with those oh-so-pesky revisions.

Q: When did you become involved in theater and playwriting?

Donna: I’ve been involved with theatre for most of my life. There’s nothing like its intimacy, its immediacy, and its collaborative nature. I’d dabbled in playwrighting for years but really dove into it about six years ago. Now, I alternate between writing plays for kids and plays for adults. Having an actor’s perspective reminds me to create roles performers can sink their choppers into. In October, I traveled to New York to see my adult play MyFace at the Manhattan Theatre Source. The phenomenal actors owned that play beyond my dreams.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Donna: I love Chicago--what a gorgeous, vibrant city! I was born there and lived in the city until my family moved to Mt. Prospect. I attended dearly departed Forest View High School in Arlington Hts. and Dominican University in River Forest. I lived in the Chicago area my entire life, until the last six months.

Q: What did you enjoy most about writing Amazing Biome Projects You Can Build Yourself?

Donna: I loved learning about Earth’s communities, and I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for the natural world. I unearthed so much fascinating information that I had a difficult time finalizing my manuscript. There was always one last tidbit to squeeze into the book. After writing about Earth’s ecosystems, I’m thrilled at spending extended time in the San Francisco Bay Area, an environment radically different from the Fox River Valley. I’m loving the opportunity to explore a strange and wondrous place where people plant poinsettias in “winter gardens.” In the ground. Outside. Who knew?

Q: What is one of your favorite stories from Ghosts of the Fox River Valley? Why?

Donna: Hands down, it’s “Augusta’s Diamond Ring.” It’s my favorite story to perform, my signature piece. In fact, I’ll be performing it at the Geneva Underground Playhouse on New Year’s Eve.

“Augusta’s Diamond Ring” is ghostlore, a spooky story with origins in folklore. The tale features an outraged spirit who returns from the grave to retrieve a—well, let’s just call it a “stolen item.” The story begins with a snippet of local history, the real-life account of the notorious Richards’ Riot of 1849. The riot occurred in St. Charles after John Rood, a medical student at Franklin Medical College, snatched young Marilla Kenyon’s body from her grave and stashed it in Dr. George W. Richards’ barn. An enraged, gun-wielding posse, led by Marilla’s husband, stormed Dr. Richards’ home and fatally shot John Rood. (Every time I peek at the former Franklin Medical College on Main Street in St. Charles, I think of the ghastly incident.)

Q: What type(s) of books do you read for pleasure?

Donna: I’m a reading omnivore. I gobble up everything. My pile of books to read is taller than I am. Right now, I’m lost in Stones From the River, which is brilliant.

Q: What can you tell us about your current Work in Progress?

Donna: I’m knee-deep in the research stages of a piece set during World War II. As part of my research, I recently visited the traveling Schindler exhibit at the Petaluma Historical Museum and heard Holocaust survivor Lillian Judd speak. The exhibit was moving and inspirational, and I’ve thought about Ms. Judd’s experiences repeatedly since my visit.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Donna: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be part of your fabulous blog. I especially like to pop in on it when I’m homesick for Chicago

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chicago Curiosities

Even as I continue to promote and offer presentations about It Happened in Chicago (Globe Pequot Press / 2009), I am hard at work on another book for Globe called Chicago Curiosities. Like many of my other Globe projects, this one is part of a series that includes "Curiosities" from all over the U.S. 

The tone of this book is quite different from the others I wrote for Globe in that humor is encouraged (dare I say, required?). The blurb on the cover of all the books in this series claims that readers will be laughing out loud as they are introduced to the neighbors they never knew they had and discover places they never knew existed -- right in their own backyard. I don't know about laughing out loud. My sense of humor is typically not the sort that people "guffaw" at -- but I hope there will be a moment or two of amusement for those who are kind enough to read it.

I had no trouble finding "curiosities" in Chicago. I'm required to include 75 to 100 of them in the book, and that will be no problem at all. My other task is to take photographs of most if not all of them. 

On a recent 5-day visit to Chicago I took about 150 photos a day! I would never have tried to do this with an old-fashioned film camera. I really have to be able to see what the picture looks like right after I take it, so I can re-do it if necessary -- and a digital camera permits that. 

It's turning out to be a fun project for me and I think the finished book will be entertaining. 

I expect to take one more trip to Chicago (probably in the spring) during which I will focus on curiosities in the Loop area.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Meet Author Kate Gingold!

Today's guest is Naperville resident and local historian Kate Gingold, author of three books published by Gnu Ventures Company: Ruth by Lake and Prairie (2006), Haunted by History: Spectres in a Small Town (2008), and Six Degrees of Abraham Lincoln (2009). Ruth by Lake and Prairie was awarded a Certificate of Excellence by the Illinois State Historical Society as a "wonderful way to present history to young people."

For more information about Kate Gingold, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Kate: Whenever the teacher gave a choice for a final project, I always chose the creative writing option. When I speak to students about writing, I bring in a copy of a story I wrote in second grade on one of those pieces of paper where there's a blank space at the top to draw a picture and lines below to write your story. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer.

Q: Please describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Kate: Like any writer, I have piles of unpublished manuscripts, but my first published book, Ruth by Lake and Prairie, was written for the 175th anniversary of Naperville a few years ago. I am not a Naperville native, so during the planning stages of the anniversary celebrations, I went to the library to bone up on the history. I was hoping to get all the facts in a few pithy pages and figured a children's book would be perfect. But there wasn't one and I thought that with all the new families moving in there ought to be a fun-to-read story about how the town began. The people and the facts are as a accurate as possible, but told as an historic narrative. Like "Little House on the Prairie," but forty years earlier.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Kate: I had wonderfully supportive teachers in high school and my first college years, and then a couple of devastatingly discouraging experiences so that I stopped thinking of myself as a writer for a long time. A close friend, SCBWI member Kim Winters, went back to school to get her master's degree and she was so excited by her writing studies that I got excited again.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Kate: I was born in Chicago and grew up in a suburb just outside of the city boundaries. I attended North Park University on Foster and Kedzie and married a Chicago boy. My son currently lives along the blue line while he's going to school. I live in Naperville now, not too far away, which has ties of its own to Chicago. Joseph Naper was a business partner of PFW Peck. They operated two trading posts, one at Naper's Settlement and one in Chicago. Peck became the wealthiest of the two, but Naper had a town named after him!

Q: What did you enjoy most about writing Haunted by History?

Kate: I adore history research, but children often assume history is going to be boring. Haunted by History takes real people and places from the past and weaves a ghost story around them to slip the facts in with the story. That gave me the opportunity to be more creative with the plot than narrative history allows me to be.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Ruth by Lake and Prairie, please tell us about one you would like to meet and why.

Kate: Few records exist for the historical people who appear as characters in the book, so their personalities developed from analyzing what little we do know. Ruth's best friend on Uncle Joe's schooner is Anna Mariah Sisson. Her family didn't settle near the Napers, but moved on to the Plainfield/Lockport area. I talked with one of Mariah's descendents and he gave me a copy of a photograph of her as a very stylish adult. Little Mariah from the rough homestead in Will County wound up married to a Canadian politician. It's easy to picture Mariah as a charismatic girl with expansive dreams and plenty of gumption. She would have made a fascinating friend!

Q: In Ruth by Lake and Prairie, the characters spend a chapter or so in what would soon be Chicago. Can you describe an interesting "tidbit" you discovered about early Chicago in your research?

Kate: Many Chicagoans are familiar with the Beaubien family, especially Mark Beaubien and his fiddle, which is in the Chicago History Museum. Mark is also credited with building the first frame building, his Sauganash Hotel. At the time of this story, 1831, Chicago is only an abandoned fort, a few cabins and some wigwams, although Mark has started construction on the Sauganash. As crude as the settlement is, the Beaubien brothers sent their daughters to Detroit, a much older city, for finishing school. If you think about it, Jane Austen's Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would have school-aged children at this time as well. Just because the Beaubiens lived in primitive America didn't mean they weren't aware of society's finer things.

Q: What was relatively easy about writing Six Degrees of Abraham Lincoln? What was relatively difficult?
Kate: Nearly every town in Illinois has a Lincoln story. Trying to figure out if the story is true can be tricky. Many local historical societies have already done the research and will usually tell you what they've found out. But who wants to be the bad guy who disproves a favorite local legend?

Q: What can you tell us about your current Work in Progress?

Kate: I've started researching a follow-up to Ruth by Lake and Prairie that deals with the Black Hawk War which occurred the summer after they arrived, and I'm playing with lots of ideas for other local landmarks that can be "Haunted by History", but the most important project on my plate right now is a biography.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Kate: While from an early age I always intended to write and illustrate children's books, I never would have suspected that my niche would be midwest America in the early 1800's. The research is such a hoot and sharing the fun stuff I find with kids is a blast. Who could have known?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meet Author Marlene Targ Brill!

My guest today is Marlene Targ Brill, an award-winning, Chicago-born-and-raised author of 67 books for all age readers. Marlene's latest releases include Michelle Obama: From Chicago's South Side to the White House (Lerner Publications, 2009) and five titles in the Decades of the Twentieth Century in America series (Lerner Publications, 2010).

I met Marlene in the spring of 2007 at the Young Authors Conference at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. For more information about Marlene and her many wonderful books, visit her web site at:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Marlene: I always liked writing and fared pretty well with writing assignments in school.  But I never took the idea of writing for a living seriously until I was creating materials for my students in special education classes.  I began teaching during the dark ages of special education, so teachers like me made most of the classroom materials. I found I liked the creative process, and I kept coming up with ideas for books I thought I'd like to write for my students and other readers.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Marlene: A long-time friend, who was a psychologist, actually inspired me to write.  We both loved writing and drawing, so each week we met one evening a week to do just that--draw and write.  After a few weeks of getting together ,we decided to produce a children's story that would empower children with disabilities and educate readers who were able-bodied.  Just as our project, More Alike Than Different, was ready to send to publishers, however, my friend died.  Her death made me more determined than ever to get our story published.  I was able to find a publisher that offered to produce our story on audiotape, if I would write three more stories to complete a kit.  I was hooked on writing after that. 

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Marlene: Encouragement is a double-edged sword.  My path to publishing is filled with many wonderful people who inspired and aided me, like my psychologist friend.  I learned the business of writing and how to edit, index, and write for all types of freelance projects from professionals in Chicago Women in Publishing.  I gained invaluable writing skills and perspective from the couple critique groups I joined over the last umpteen years, where I met talented colleagues who have become friends and coworkers.  I had some insightful editors who guided my writing and gave me tips to improve my craft.  And now, groups like Off-Campus Writers Workshop and Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators offer continuing support to me and their other members.
Reverse experiences motivated me, too.  When I began writing, too many people told me how hard it was to get published.  Some said that I wasn't a trained writer (true), and I'd be competing against others who were (also true).  The more negatives I heard, however, the more stubborn I became.  I read tons of children's books to dissect what I liked about the writing.  I read all the Newbery winners to see what books others valued.  I wrote and rewrote.  And I remembered the children's book I read as a child called The Carrot Seed, where a boy finds a carrot seed and everyone tells him a carrot will never grow from that seed.  After much patience and tending persistence, the boy grows a large carrot that requires a wheelbarrow to transport it.  And I have published 67 books.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.
Marlene: Even though I live in Wilmette now, I always think of myself as a Chicagoan first.  I am Chicago-born and raised.  I was born in the same building where Daniel Pinkwater lived.  Interestingly, three of the five kids who lived there then have become published authors.  So I tell people who want to write books to knock on the door at 551 Roscoe and ask to drink the water.

Because of the strong connection to Chicago, my writing interests have turned more local the longer I write.  I find it fun to be able to walk the streets my characters/subjects have walked and research Chicago stories where they happened.  I first experienced the joys of researching locally with Diary of a Drummer Boy, the story of a Waukegan, Illinois, Civil War hero.  More recently, I found it easier to make contacts and interview people for my two Obama biographies (Barack Obama: President for a New Era; Michelle Obama: From Chicago's South Side to the White House).

Q: You wrote the first edition of your Barack Obama biography before he became a huge star on the national stage. Can you tell us a little about when and why you wrote the biography, and what the initial response was from publishers?
Marlene: I had been hearing about Obama from local political folks I respected, but I had little knowledge of him personally until I read his autobiography.  I found his story growing up in two cultures and striving to succeed despite family/economic roadblocks compelling.  I thought he and his multicultural upbringing would provide a good role model for young readers--and that was before he was elected to Congress.

After I saw the national response to his speech at the Democratic National Convention, I knew he was somehow special.  I proposed a children's bio about him to my publisher, but they declined at first, saying it was too early.  Then, a couple months later I got a call saying a contract for an Obama bio was in the mail, and they wanted the manuscript ASAP.  I proposed a biography about Michelle Obama early in the presidential election process.  That, too, was tabled until after the election.  Once Barack Obama won, the contract for Michelle arrived in the mail.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing your biography of Michelle Obama? What was difficult?

Marlene: The easiest thing about writing the Michelle Obama biography was the fact that her upbringing was local for me.  I knew about devotion to Chicago neighborhoods and the jostling between northsiders and southsiders.  I had similar experiences in Chicago schools to those classes Michelle took.  I felt totally at home walking the streets where she lived and the halls of schools were she learned.

The most difficult part of writing about Michelle was the fact that the Obama inner circle refused to cooperate with any biographies about her or Barack, even though Barack thanked me for my first effort about him.  But being a Chicagoan helped here, too.  I discovered organizations that helped me locate former teachers and classmates to interview, and I tracked down other helpful sources of information.  I could use my years as a Chicago Board of Education teacher as entry to the schools and my local status to connect with interviewees.

Q: Of the people or characters mentioned in your books, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Marlene: Whoa!  That's like asking someone to choose among their children. I guess one person I'd like to have met is Marshall 'Major" Taylor, the Lance Armstrong of 1900.  Taylor won races as a preteen against grown men, and he attained world bicycle racing status during a time when bicycles were the prized mode of transportation and bicycle racing a world-class event.  But Taylor, who was black, tried to advance when Jim Crow laws reigned, especially in the South.  Yet, he faced the putdowns and unfair laws with grace and honor.  He is my idea of what an athlete should be, someone with impecible character and love for his sport.

Q: What are you working on right now? Where are you in the process?

Marlene: I'm in the research stage for two stories.  Both involve happenings in the 1910s. Guess I'm stuck in the 1910s for now, especially after writing America in the 1910s, a Lerner decade series. My historical fiction always involves a real child and a real happening in their life.  I'm selecting my main character now.

Q:  You have a historical fiction title coming out next summer about the Hart, Schaffner & Marx strike in 1910 that led to 40,000 workers closing down the men's textile industry in Chicago and Milwaukee.  Can you tell us a little about that?
Marlene: Annie Walks Out is about the girl who started the strike: my sister-in-law's aunt, Hannah (Annie) Shapiro.  I learned about her a few years ago but didn't think I had enough story to tell.  Then I started researching the strike and confirmed Annie's key role in it.  I couldn't believe my good fortune to be able to write about a sort-of relative who led a major event.

Annie's descendants helped me with family details and settings I never could have discovered without their help.  For example, although Annie's family lived with other Russian immigrant families on Chicago's poorer West Side, I learned the Shapiros had a bathroom in their apartment, while most families on a floor or in a building shared bathrooms.  This small detail told me that the family had enough money to live comfortably.  Annie Walks Out is a primary-grade historical fiction story that is currently in the illustration phase.  I can't wait to see the pictures.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Marlene: Thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts. I would just add that writing books has given me experiences unlike any other profession.  The people I've met while researching have broadened my prospectives on life and what really is important.  And speaking at schools and libraries and to professional groups keeps me connected with readers and the joys of reading and writing.  What a great profession we have!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Meet Author Margaret McMullan!

My guest today is Margaret McMullan, award-winning author of the novels When Warhol Was Still Alive (1994), In My Mother's House (St. Martin's Press, November 2003), How I Found the Strong (Houghton Mifflin, April 2004), When I Crossed No-Bob (Houghton Mifflin, November 2007), and Cashay (Houghton Mifflin, April 2009).

The main character in Cashay lives in what's left of Chicago's Cabrini Green projects. Reviewers describe Cashay as a "beautifully written, touching and powerful story you won't be able to put down" ... "both gritty, and inspirational" ... a "poignant coming of age story."

Margaret's essays and short stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including Glamour, the Chicago Tribune, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is currently a board member of the New Harmony Project and a professor of English at the University of Evansville, in Evansville, Indiana, where she's working on a collection of stories and a new young adult novel for Houghton Mifflin due out in 2010.

For more information about Margaret McMullan, visit her web site: .

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Margaret: I had a wonderful high school teacher named Alva Lowey. She was from Alabama and I was from Mississippi, and we connected there in Lake Forest, a northern suburb of Chicago. She gave these great assignments and she typed out all of her responses and comments. She was an older lady and she was very professional. She submitted my short story “Bees” to a contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine. It won. I got a gold pen and Mrs. Lowey’s approval. I was hooked.

Q: Please describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Margaret: When I was about 16 years old, my great grandmother asked my mother to come to Washington, D.C. because she knew she was dying. She was 105 years old and she lived in a lovely home for older women. My mother asked me to come with her – to help. We spent a week at my great grandmother’s bedside. It made a huge impression, and later I wrote a short story called “Duet” based on that experience. Then I wrote the novel based on that story – the novel is called In My Mother’s House.

So many people inspire me. Each project has a person behind it. My friend dying of AIDS inspired me to write When Warhol Was Still Alive. My grandmother’s stories inspired me to write How I Found the Strong. A 15 year old girl who asked me to write about her, inspired me to write Cashay. I could go on and on.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Margaret: Jim Whitehead and Bill Harrison were my mentors, teachers, guides, and friends in graduate school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Now my husband, Pat O’Connor, plays the biggest role in my life!

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Margaret: I went to high school at Lake Forest High School and my mother, sister, and I did volunteer work at Holy Family Church in Chicago all during the 1970’s. My parents still live in Lake Forest and my sister and her family live in Chicago. We visit about once a month.

Q: What was easy about writing Cashay? What was difficult?

Margaret: Researching Cabrini Green and the stock market and Chicago was fascinating work and that helped get me into Cashay’s voice.  The hard part was putting her through such difficulties.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Cashay, please choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Margaret: I feel I’ve met all of them because I’ve spent so much time with them. There is a lot of me in Cashay. There is a lot of my sister in Allison. I suppose I would want to be with Cashay and stay with her for a long time.

Q: People assume that research is required to write nonfiction, but many don't think about how important research can be when writing fiction. What sort of research did you do when you were writing Cashay?

Margaret: I hung around urban high schools (with permission, of course) and listened listened listened. I bought rap music, ate twizzlers and pink snow balls, read 5th grade math books, and bundled up against the cold and walked around Cabrini Green. I visited the Chicago museums and took notes at the Museum of Science and Industry. For three days I went into work and shadowed my sister who is a stockbroker. I interviewed my African American students about their hair habits and more. They asked me about mine too. I LOVE the research that goes into writing a novel. I learn so much.

Q: Your latest novel, Sources of Light, will be published in April 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. What would you like us to know about that book?

Margaret: Here’s the way the jacket flap reads: "It's 1962, a year after the death of Sam's father--he was a war hero--and Sam and her mother must move, along with their very liberal views, to Jackson, Mississippi, her father's conservative hometown. Needless to say, they don't quite fit in.

People like the McLemores fear that Sam, her mother, and her mother's artist friend, Perry, are in the South to "agitate" and to shake up the dividing lines between black and white and blur it all to grey. As racial injustices ensue--sit-ins and run-ins with secret white supremacists--Sam learns to focus with her camera lens to bring forth the social injustice out of the darkness and into the light."

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Margaret: I think you and other authors know the key to keeping on: Read read and read some more and then ask yourself if you have your own story or stories to add. Be curious about EVERYTHING. You never know where your next big idea will come from.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meet Sheila Glazov!

Today's guest is Sheila Glazov, award-winning author and internationally known personality type expert, professional speaker and educator. She is the author of What Color Is Your Brain? A Fun and Fascinating Approach to Understanding Yourself and Others; Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift (a version of What Color Is Your Brain? written for children ages 4-12); and Purr fect Pals: A Kid, A Cat and Diabetes© (a picture book written for children ages 2-12 and their families who live with diabetes). 

Reviewers describe What Color Is Your Brain? as: "a fast reading, easy to follow and fascinating examination of human personality". . . "accessible to a wide audience." Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift has been praised for its ability to help children "gain insight into creative writing ideas, personality types, and self-esteem."

For more information about Sheila, her books, and her presentations, visit her web site at: and her blog at:

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Sheila: I was raised in River Forest, which is a suburb of Chicago. My husband and I have lived and raised our family in the Chicagoland area, except for a few years in New Jersey and California.

Q: You once taught elementary school, high school, and college. What motivated you to transition from teacher to professional speaker, author, and creativity coach?

Sheila: My “Orange Brain” enjoys variety and change. Teaching children and adults of all ages and presenting a patchwork of classes energizes me and expands my opportunities for learning and sharing a stimulating assortment of curricula.

Q: What inspired you to develop the color code you use in What Color is Your Brain?

Sheila: I developed WCIYB as an introduction for my strategic planning and creative problem solving workshops. I wanted to create a non-judgmental environment that eliminated criticism. A tone of intolerance often veiled the room. Co-workers and managers only seemed to endure or put up with one another. Because of my teaching background and understanding of learning styles and personality types, I knew I could develop a practical and easy method to create a more harmonious and productive environment; one that would enhance workshop attendees' appreciation and approval for each other’s ideas, attributes and abilities.

Q: Can you share a brief explanation of what the four colors mean?

Sheila: The “Brain Color concept” is an explanation of an individual’s behavior and feelings; however, it is not an excuse for an individual’s inappropriate behavior.

Everyone is a “Brainbow” blending of their “Brain Colors.” “Yellow Brain” decision makers are responsible, disciplined and like to give orders. In the workplace, they are prepared, committed and accurate. They are esteemed when working in an organized environment where they know what is expected of them and can complete tasks on time. When misunderstood, they can become opinionated worriers. Dealing with disorganization frustrates them, making them judgmental and obstinate; and they are often viewed by others as controlling and bureaucratic. They are productive in the workplace if their loyalty, dependability and strong sense of right and wrong is acknowledged.

“Blue Brain” communicators value creativity and make decisions intuitively. In the workplace, these nurturers are inspirational and friendly.  They are esteemed when their environment promotes trust, harmony and flexibility. When misunderstood, they can easily become discouraged and emotional. Dealing with a lack of cooperation frustrates them and causes others to regard them as overly idealistic, sensitive and touchy-feely. They are creative in the workplace if their enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and integrity is acknowledged.

“Green Brain” problem solvers value knowledge and research. They make decisions only when they have gathered and analyzed all pertinent data.  In the workplace, they consider work as their play and are mentally focused nonconformists. They are esteemed when their environment promotes fairness and provides technology. When misunderstood, they can become withdrawn and indecisive. They are frustrated by incompetency, making them intolerant and non-communicative and they are perceived by others as intimidating and lacking in people skills. They are efficient in the workplace if their intellect, competency and curiosity is acknowledged.

“Orange Brain” change agents value results. These resourceful trouble shooters make decisions spontaneously.  They are esteemed when they can enjoy freedom and competition, but don’t have to follow someone else’s rules. They are intolerant of boredom and repetition. When misunderstood, they can become rude and will physically leave the premises. Too much structure frustrates them, which can trigger their disobedience and emotional explosions. Often they are considered impulsive and too fun-loving. They thrive in the workplace if their generosity, idea generation and multi- tasking is acknowledged.

Q: What was relatively easy about writing What Color Is Your Brain?

Sheila: Working with my clients, publisher, editor and the marketing director was easy and encouraging.

Q: What was difficult?

Sheila: Using my “Yellow Brain” to gather and organize all the “Brain Color” data, stories and research for more than 15 years was the most challenging part of writing the book. However, utilizing my strategic planning workshop storyboards made organizing the copious amount of material and keeping deadlines manageable.

Q: Your book, Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift, is the “fairy-tale” version of What Color Is Your Brain? written for children ages 4-12. Can you share some of the challenges of presenting this material for children?

Sheila: The only challenge was using my “Green Brain” to revise my ideas into a sequential storyline. Writing Princess Shayna was similar to writing a love letter. The book has been described as “a rainbow of love for differences.” It was a “love gift” I was privileged to write and share with a multitude of children, families and teachers. I’m looking forward to completing the sequel.

Q: What are some of the creative writing ideas children can find in Princess Shayna's Invisible Visible Gift? Could this approach be used by adult writers?

Sheila: Both children and adults have used the creative writing idea of “Brain Color” character and setting development. Creating multifaceted characters and settings adds dimension, texture, substance, conflict and harmony to their work. Utilizing storyboards to write, organize, revise and formulate a story also is visually dynamic, efficient and effective.   

Q: I have to ask: What color is Chicago's brain?

Sheila: Chicago is a “Brainbow,” a blending, similar to a rainbow, where each color is significant, not completely definitive, but unified. Chicago’s “Yellow Brain” is the unquestionable pride individuals feel for the city. The “Blue Brain” is the friendly and helpful attitude of the city’s residents. The “Green Brain” is represented by the abundance of knowledge seekers and providers in the schools, universities, colleges and libraries within the city. Last, but not least, is the “Orange Brain” entrepreneurial spirit of the Chicagoland business community. 

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Sheila: Yes, thank you for asking. I am committed to offering comfort, encouragement and education to the children and adults who deal with the never-ending challenges of diabetes. I am also dedicated to raising funds for and creating a greater awareness about diabetes. I have first-hand knowledge and experience with the serious challenges diabetes creates. Our eldest son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 24 years ago, when he was 15 years old. My father, had Type 2 diabetes for several years before he passed away from heart disease, which was complicated by his diabetes. Even our family cat developed Type 1 diabetes when he was 13 years old and lived to be 18 years old. Purr-fect Pals: A Kid, A Cat and Diabetes and Princess Shayna’s Invisible Visible Gift include characters who must deal with the “highs” and “lows” of diabetes. What Color Is Your Brain? includes practical information to help individuals improve their understanding about themselves and others, which leads to a healthier lifestyle. I allocate 10% of the royalties from the sale of all my books to JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Meet Author Juliet Bond!

Today's guest is Juliet Bond -- author of the children's book Sam's Sister (Perspectives Press, 2004), described in reviews as "a supportive insight on open adoption" . . . "a moving tale about coping with separation and adjusting to sometimes difficult realities" . . . "a poignant and thoughtful story ... an important contribution to the adoption literature."

A Chicago native, Juliet is a professor at Columbia College. She has taught Chicago History courses and is currently writing a YA novel (historical fiction) about a girl growing up during the turn of the century in the Hull House neighborhood.

For more information about Juliet Bond, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Juliet: Honestly?  I always thought I'd be a singer.  But halfway through college, I took a women's studies course, which got me all fired up about inequality and issues of justice.  I’d caught the "I have to save the world" bug. This lead me into social work and then, finally writing. Though I always kept a journal and loved reading as a kid, I never thought I was smart enough to write. My friends who flew off to Barnard or Stanford for college were the writers. I was the one with the pretty voice and the big heart. 

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Juliet: It wasn't until my friend Jeanne fell into a coma and left behind three kids that I first sat down to write a children's book.  I’d gone to bookstores and searched for something online that might bring her young children some comfort but couldn’t find anything applicable so I wrote my own, and a good friend then illustrated it. We took it to Kinkos, had it bound and gave copies to the family. I've since found out that practically every writer's first children's book is about dealing with the loss of a loved one!  By now, I’ve heard countless editors warn writers NOT to send them their manuscript about grandma dying…they get so many.

My second book was written for the women and children I worked with while at The Cradle, a private adoption agency in Evanston, IL. We'd gotten some disturbing statistics back about women who wanted to make adoption plans but were stymied by the terror of having to tell their children about what they intended. They felt their children couldn’t possibly understand, they felt ashamed and they were turning away from the possibility of keeping in touch with the adopted family (which is called “Open Adoption”) in order to keep the adoption a secret. This felt like a loss to everyone involved, the adoptive family, the adopted child, the birth parents and the birth siblings. I ended up writing a coloring book we used with our clients. The book was a narrative but it included all of the therapeutic techniques we recommended to birth mothers who were considering an open adoption and who were also parenting other kids. (Over 60% of women who make adoption plans are already parenting other children.)

My book was written from the perspective of a five-year-old birth sibling. My boss suggested I send it to an adoption publisher. I did. She happened to be looking for a book on just this topic. The stars aligned and I became a published writer! Since then, I've taken classes, workshops, joined SCBWI, written like a fiend, revised, revised, revised and acquired an agent.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Juliet: Oh, without a doubt it is Jane Yolen!  I spent a weekend with her (and six other writers) at a Highlights Founders Workshop. Her generosity, guidance and warmth made me feel like I could tackle writing with grace and without losing my unique voice and point of view. I’m also honored to have become friends with Kelly Milner Halls who is a fantastic cheerleader and has been generous enough to critique my non-fiction work. I also made some great connections at other conferences and have since joined two critique groups and had the privilege of building some wonderful friendships with writers I admire.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Juliet: I grew up in the Chicago area and have always loved the city but I truly became obsessed when I taught a course on Chicago History and Culture.  It forced me to read and learn all I could about my town. I scheduled bike tours, took the river architecture run, rode the Weird Chicago* bus, scheduled a guided tour of Old Town through Second City Theater and dragged my students to various ethnic enclaves to taste, smell and sample the offerings. It was the field trips that really got me. Connecting the past with the present is so powerful! Since then, I always incorporate field trips into my courses. One of my favorites is when we visit Hull House Museum where many of Chicago's greatest reformers generated their ideas and shared their talents. Their efforts contributed to the formation of the juvenile court system, fair labor practices, the ACLU, NAACP and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They did all of this while maintaining a cultural refuge for 25 different immigrant groups in their community – no easy feat!

Q: What was easy about writing Sam's Sister? What was difficult?

Juliet: Sam’s Sister came very easily actually.  It was firmly based on practices and principles of social work I was using every day.

It was everything that followed that was hard.  I had decided to write but then I had to really learn the craft!  I know it sounds backwards but it was after the publication of Sam’s Sister that I became a writer.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Sam's Sister, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Juliet: I’d like to meet Rosa, the five-year-old birth sibling who is losing her brother to adoption. Though, I relate to the mothers in the story, I know their feelings, their grief, and the depth of their decisions, Rosa is the hero. She’s the one I want to spend my time with. As a child, she has the strength to find joy in the midst of a very painful situation. Adults have often been convinced, through years of disappointment, that optimism is foolish or that it leads to deeper regrets in the long run.

Writing for children is like this gift – a moment where I can shrug off my adult self and fully embrace the hopeful, joyful girl in me who still believes she’ll get the happy ending.

 Q: You have children and a demanding career. What tips would you like to share with other writers on finding time to write?

Juliet: Oh find that Rosa-like girl, I guess.  Her optimism, when you write her, could keep you going. The fact is, without a love for the actual story and the characters you’re writing - you won’t bother to find the time to write them.

Right now I manage a children’s theater, participate in the PTA and teach eleven courses.  I don’t have the time to write but I eke it out by getting up early or putting off grading (or never, ever exercising) because it brings me pleasure and allows me the opportunity to be creative and quiet.

Q: You are currently working on a historical fiction novel for young adults. For the other writers out there, what "stage" are you at with this new novel? What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Juliet: Well I am still at a basic research stage with this one. I am reading all of the children’s and adult books written about Jane Addams and some of the other wonderful young reformers, activists and writers who lived in Chicago at the turn of the century. (I just finished The Jungle by Upton Sinclair who was a regular at Hull House - so amazing!) I know I want to write from the immigrant girl’s perspective and have finished the outline and the first chapter. I want to convey how it felt to emigrate from a lush, riverside village in Europe and end up confined to a few grey city blocks in a neighborhood where the rotting garbage was a foot deep, her emotions, relationships, challenges and growth.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Juliet: Only thank you for the pleasure of participating in your blog.

* Read an interview with author and Weird Chicago tour guide Adam Selzer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meet Author Sara Shacter!

My guest today is Sara Shacter -- a children's writer who grew up in the Chicago area and currently lives in the city itself. Sara's  picture book Heading to the Wedding (Red Rock Press, 2006) was described by Contemporary Bride magazine as "not only charming, but also delightful in the delivery of teaching accepted behavior for kids attending a wedding."  Sara has also written and edited nonfiction for magazines and educational publishers.  Currently she is working on a YA novel and several picture book manuscripts.

For more information about Sara Shacter, visit her website:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Sara: I remember writing stories about Inspector Toenail when I was in elementary school.  But when did I realize I wanted to be a professional writer?  Not until I graduated from college.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Sara: Well, Heading to the Wedding was inspired by a business cocktail party.  I was mingling with some folks and mentioned that I wrote for children.  A woman listening said, "Do you know of a book that teaches kids about wedding guest etiquette?"  I didn't, so I decided to write one.  It was a fun challenge: the story needed to instruct, but not be didactic.  I think I hit the mark: the book always makes kids laugh.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Sara: My husband, hands down.  He's my cheerleader.  He gets so irritated whenever a rejection letter arrives in the mailbox that I end up comforting HIM!  When I say, "It's okay.  It just wasn't the right house.  I'll find a better fit," I come to believe what I'm saying.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Sara: I grew up in Highland Park, a northern suburb.  Though I went east for college, I returned upon graduation.  It's just a fabulous city: big, but not too big.  Gorgeous.  Full of opportunities and inspiration.

Q: What was easy about writing Heading to the Wedding? What was difficult?

Sara: The basic plot was easy: it's the story of a family that decides to have a practice wedding at home, before going to the real thing.  Patrick and his sister Evie learn all about what happens at a wedding, how to make a toast, the importance of taking the closest hors d'oeuvre on the plate, etc.  I pretty much just ran through the course of a wedding.  However, making it funny and compelling, and rounding out the characters in 800 words or less, took much more work!  I lost track of how many drafts I completed.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Heading to the Wedding, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Sara: I love Evie, who actually wasn't even in the book when I sent the manuscript to Red Rock Press!  The editor wanted both a boy and a girl for marketing reasons -- a smart suggestion.  I think Evie's hilarious and irreverent.  I'm more straight-laced, so I enjoy her joie de vivre.

Q: You have written quite a lot of nonfiction for magazines such as Highlights for Children and Chicago Parent Magazine. Can you share some differences between writing a picture book and writing for magazines?

Sara: In a picture book, there must be an opportunity for a compelling illustration on each spread.  Though magazine articles include photos or illustrations, there isn't the pressure to include a new visual every few sentences.  However, magazine nonfiction has its own set of requirements.  Trying to explain, in very little space and in kid-friendly terms, a scientific principal, or what made a historical figure who s/he was, is a challenge!  A wonderful challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Sara: I feel lucky to be working in this field.  There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing a child's face light up when s/he reads something you've written.  And there is no nicer group of colleagues in the world than fellow children's writers and illustrators.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An interview with me

Kathleen L. Maher interviewed me about It Happened in Chicago for her blog. Check it out at this link:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meet Author Ophelia Julien!

Today's guest is Ophelia Julien -- author of several young adult novels, including Saving Jake (New Leaf Books, 2002), about a boy who can "track" lost objects, people, and even past lives with his mind.

Unlike most of us, Ophelia grew up in a haunted house on the north side of Chicago. She reads, writes, and collects ghost stories. Her more mundane activities include baking, knitting, crocheting, and sleeping whenever she can.

For more information about Ophelia Julien, visit her web site at and her blog at

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Ophelia: When the Beatles' song "Paperback Writer" hit the charts and summed it up for me in actual words.  I was in grade school at the time and already writing stories.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it? 

Ophelia: When I was in eighth grade, I wrote what I thought was a novel (40 type-written pages with no margins and no double spacing) set in a boarding school.  The influence was Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co, still one of my all-time favorite books.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Ophelia: I'm an inveterate letter writer (as in fan-girl) and have been since I was a kid.  My first response came from Madeleine L'Engle and I still have that letter.  I also have a note from Stephen King that encouraged me to write what I wanted to write, which was young adult fiction, and a letter from another of my heroes, Richard Peck, who gave me encouragement in an entirely different way.  I was lucky enough to meet Mr Peck.  He's a lovely man.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Ophelia: I grew up in Chicago and didn't move away to the suburbs until I was married and a parent.  Chicago is probably one of my all-time favorite cities.  Its history is hidden because so much burned down in the Great Fire, but it has history, all right.  And lots of haunted places.  Like my childhood home, for instance.

Q: What was easy about writing Saving Jake? What was difficult?

Ophelia: I don't think anything about writing Saving Jake was easy.  For one thing, it's the most autobiographical book I've ever written and I was terrified when it got published and my family was going to be able to read it.  Parts of it were truly painful to put down on paper, but I'm glad I did it.  Maybe the only easy thing was getting the character of Jake Holdridge.  He pretty much rang my doorbell and introduced himself, unlike Philip Corts who ran away from me for almost two years.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Saving Jake, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Ophelia: I'd love to meet Jake face to face.  We understand each other completely and he'd be fun just to hang around with for a day.

Q: In your blog, you talk about the Chicago Swordplay Guild. Do any of your books draw on that particular interest of yours? If not, do you think you might write a book that features swordplay someday?

Ophelia: I'm currently working on a book now that will include swordplay and if I don't get it right, I sure will hear about it!  Actually, I'll need to run those scenes past my colleagues just to make sure I don't mess up.  I'm very interested in swords and sword fighting but interest does not a skilled practitioner make!  One of these years, I also hope to include Tae Kwon Do in a book, since that was my first exposure to martial arts, back when I was in high school and college.

Q: You obviously have a special sensitivity to otherwordly phenomena. Is that a help or a hindrance to you as a writer? Can you give an example of how it helped or hindered you on a specific project?

Ophelia: At one time I might have said my "sensitivity," as you very kindly put it, was a hindrance.  I've tried writing other kinds of stories and no matter what I'm doing, even my adult short stories, I end up putting a paranormal twist into it. I can't seem to keep that out of my creative endeavors and have decided it's best not to try.  And despite my background, I do manage to frighten myself from time to time.  Back when I did newspaper writing, I wrote an annual Halloween feature where people would tell me their true ghost stories and I would write them up.  One year I was home alone typing up my copy and there was a God-almighty crash from the direction of my basement.  It sounded like someone dumped a cabinet full of dishes on the floor.  I got up to investigate and nothing was out of place.  And of course, no one was there.  There's a reason I write during the day!

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Ophelia: Sure.  Right now I'm working through the inevitable frustration of trying to get my next manuscript published.  I'm currently searching for an agent who handles YA fiction, as well.  Someone recently asked me about my dream of being a famous author, but you know what?  That's not exactly it.  In the end, I don't care if people can't remember my name.  But I'd sure love it if they remembered my characters.  Thanks for asking!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Meet Author Pamela Todd!

Today's guest is Pamela Todd -- author of the award-winning novel The Blind Faith Hotel (Simon and Schuster, 2008), described by reviewers as "a deeply felt novel about coming to understand what home really means" . . . "a wrenching, funny, heartwarming story" . . . "a careful exploration of relationships and the emotional dynamics of a family in transition." Pam also wrote Pig and the Shrink (Delacorte, 1999), a "funny middle-grade novel about a boy who tries to turn his overweight friend into a science fair project, only to find that his friend has his own ideas about how to live his life."

For more information about Pamela Todd, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Pam: I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer. It’s the only thing I know how to do. 

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Pam: When I was in third grade, I wrote a poem about commercials and how they made you want to read a book instead of watch TV. Apparently the Chicago Public Schools liked the topic because they published it in a district-wide collection of kids’ poetry.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Pam: My family is my cheering section. I have a great husband who loves books, loves authors, and loves to read. My children – some of whom are writers themselves – are also delightfully encouraging.  My Mom is an artist who is in her eighties and still painting – very inspiring. And my sister gives me all my good ideas.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Pam: I was born on the streets of Chicago – literally.  I made my entrance a little prematurely – in the car on the way to the hospital.  I grew up on the west side in a neighborhood of two-flats, with an unending supply of interesting characters.  And I’ve lived the rest of my life about two miles away from where I started out.  Chicago is the best city in the world, for my money.  We have a beautiful lake and natural areas, a vibrant arts community, an unending supply of free summer entertainment…we’re green, we’re friendly, we’re real…we gave the U.S. a great president…and we totally should have gotten the Olympics.

Q: What was easy about writing The Blind Faith Hotel? What was difficult?

Pam: Writing about nature comes easily. And characters grow in my head like weeds.  But plotting is more work.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in The Blind Faith Hotel, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Pam: Ivy. I want to know what happened to him after the book ended.

Q: You mention on your web site that The Blind Faith Hotel was inspired in many ways by your own life. What about your novel Pig and the Shrink? Did that arise out of personal experience as well?

Pam: Weirdly, yes, although I had forgotten the incident entirely until long after the book was published. Pig and the Shrink is about a boy who turns his friend into a science fair project. I was a psychology major in college, and one of my experiments was trying to get my roommates to quit smoking using the power of suggestion. It worked about as well as Tucker Harrison’s project did. 

Q: You are currently working on a novel called Escaping Gravity. For the other writers out there, what "stage" are you at with this new novel? What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Pam: My biggest challenge is staying focused. I’ve written two essays and two picture books recently, and now I’m off on another adventure – starting an interactive wildlife corridor project.  Fortunately, Escaping Gravity has continued to write itself.  I am keeping notes and it seems to be developing with or without me.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Pam: If not now…when? Just thought I’d throw that in.

Myers Briggs for Your Blog!

You know about the Myers Briggs Personality Test? Well, now there’s a version of that for blogs. Visit Typealyzer, enter the URL of your blog, and see what you get. It Happened in Chicago (the blog) is:

ISTP - The Mechanics

The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment and are highly skilled at seeing and fixing what needs to be fixed. They generally prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts.

The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.

Monday, September 14, 2009

We have a winner!

We have a winner for Quiz #2! Congratulations to Janet G. Messenger, the only person who answered all five questions correctly. She wins an autographed copy of It Happened in Chicago!

The answers I desired (and which Janet provided) are as follows:

1. City of the Big ____________
Answer: (b) Shoulders
Comment: Most people got this one right. The nickname "City of the Big Shoulders" originally comes from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg:

2. The ___________ City
Answer: (d) All of the above (Prairie, Windy, Second)
Comment: Six people got this right.

3. ______ of the Prairie
Answer: (c) Gem
Comment: Only one person got this right. Although "Pride of the Prairie" is a lovely nickname, to the best of my knowledge, it is not used for Chicago. I took a chance on this one because somebody, somewhere may use it -- but I'm sure it's not a commonly accepted nickname.

4. Hog Butcher to the ________
Answer: (a) World
Comment: The actual quote from Sandburg's poem "Chicago" is "Hog Butcher for -- not to -- the World." I fell prey to a common error that people make when quoting this line.

5. __________town
Answer: (d) All of the above (Chi- , Packing, My kind of...)
Comment: Yep, they're all good. Most people chose (a) Chi-, which is a correct answer but not the only correct answer. "Packingtown" historically referred to a particular Chicago neighborhood but has also been used for the city as a whole (due, of course, to the huge significance of Union Stockyards in Chicago history). For example, a literary journal of the arts out of the University of Illinois at Chicago is called Packingtown Review. "My Kind of Town" is the title of a song about Chicago composed by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, made famous by Frank Sinatra.

Thanks to everybody who participated! There will be another quiz next month.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Meet Jen Cullerton Johnson!

In addition to interviews with authors who have written about Chicago (or used Chicago as a setting for their books), I'm starting a new series which will highlight authors who call Chicago home. (Let's call the new series: "It's Happening In Chicago RIGHT NOW!")

My guest today is Jen Cullerton Johnson -- a writer, educator, and urban environmentalist who lives and works in Chicago. Cullerton's published works include Seeds of Change: The Wangari Maathai Story (Summer, Lee & Low / 2010).

On October 10, Cullerton and fellow Chicago authors Michelle Duster, Cynthea Liu, and Trina Sotira will present a writing seminar titled "Collect, Recollect, Connect!" For more information about the seminar, go to MuseWrite.

For more information about Jen Cullerton Johnson, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Jen: My mother died when I was 9 years old and in many ways ended my childhood. Since then I have always been trying to bring back those memories of her and reconstruct her on the page. After I graduated college and moved to Buenos Aires, I was teaching but while I taught I wrote. Education and writing seemed to intertwine. It was then when I decided I would write to become a better teacher and by being a better teacher, I wrote seriously.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Jen: I published many short stories for literary journals. Most of the stories centered on a character that suffered a loss of some kind—be it physical or emotional. One story called "Set the Spine Straight", published by the Coe Review is about a boy who was born with a birth defect, and after years of being neglected in a State facility, his mother comes to bring him home. Writing that story, I felt like I was working out issues of acceptance and direction.

Currently, I am working on a full-length memoir called Yoshimura’s Ghost: Two Years in Rural Japan. The book is about living and working in Japan as the mother of a young child. It weaves in different threads of culture, education, and personal experiences. I have great hopes for this book, especially since I feel it is useful for a cross-country exchange for teachers, mothers, and writers. You can read a sample chapter published on line called, Name Brand Beauties on Sale: Teenage Compensated Dating in Rural Japan.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Jen: I have many friends who are established writers. Their successes inspired me to continue. Yet, my biggest inspiration is my grandmother. She is my best reader. At 73 she became an actress and went on stage. She also has a very critical eye. I can’t pass any B.S. through her, so she keeps it real.

Of course there are writers I admire like the late Lynda Hull, Paul Celan, Toni Morrison, and political people, like Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Prize for her work with the environment. But mostly it is my grandmother and a few close friends who keep me motivated.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Jen: It is family lore that my mother’s family, the Cullertons, has been in Chicago politics for over 150 years. True or not, I grew up knowing that civil service was an important and worthy career.

I have worked for Chicago Public Schools and other educational organizations as an educator, grant writer, and curriculum developer. Currently I am a teacher at a network of charter schools in the inner city.

Q: What was easy about writing Seeds of Change? What was difficult?

Jen: Seeds of Change was not difficult to write. I knew I wanted to write a book for children where they could see a real-life person doing good for the environment. I was very lucky that the life of Wangari Maathai was so inspiring. She is an amazing woman, not only for her work with the environment and the Greenbelt Movement, but for her outstanding dedication to women and children.

Also, my editor, Jennifer Fox at Lee & Low, is exceptional, always pushing for the best in text and in the writer. I am grateful that she allowed me to tell Wangari’s story in an honest and engaging way.

Q: How did you come to be a member of the group of Chicago writers at

Jen: Last April, I posted an Off Topic Reading Opportunity. I invited SCBWI members to donate their time and read their books or talk about writing with LEARN Charter School Network, Romano-Butler Campus.

Five wonderful writers agreed to come and share their work with our students. We had a large turn out of 300 students and their families. Most of the children had never met a writer and had no idea how to connect the person to the page. It was incredible the outpourings of connections and dreams made that evening. I am and always will be grateful to Michelle Duster, Mary Jo Reinhart, Cheryl Burton, Cynthea Liu, and Trina Sotira for their generosity.

From that one evening, many good things have happened. Careers have been bolstered. Students have begun to have more interaction with the literary arts. As an educator and a writer, I could not have imagined the impact.

Three of the writers, Michelle, Trina, and Cynthea decided to work together and bring this writing experience to others. We have been very blessed to see such an awesome response. You would not believe how many people want to tell their stories but need a little help getting down a game plan. I think it is all about connection.

Q: The group will conduct a seminar in Chicago on October 10, 2009. Is there anything you’d like to say to the people who are thinking about attending?

Jen: I would suggest watching the Channel 7 television show, Chicagoing. We talked about the seminars and bringing writing back into our lives and our communities. I think anyone who is interested in developing their story be it fiction or nonfiction will find a place at our seminar. Cliché as it sounds, writing is a journey and those we meet along the way help us.