#50PreciousWords 2023 Contest

It’s that time of year! The annual #50PreciousWords Contest is going on now. It’s an annual contest hosted by author Vivian Kirkfield to write a children’s book in just 50 words. You can read all the entries here: https://viviankirkfield.com/2023/03/03/official-50preciouswords-2023-international-writing-contest-is-open/

I submitted last year, but this year I wasn’t going to enter. I felt too busy and I’m trying to conserve energy for my high priority projects. At the moment I am trying to finish the final edits on ICE CREAM EVERYWHERE, get EL VECINDARIO DE AJ finalized for the printer, and complete some edits and research on another project that I have some editor interest in. So I figured I’d let this year’s 50 Precious Words contest go by.

But then I started seeing the entries being posted on Twitter, and it got my brain spinning. I decided to look at some of my old story ideas that I hadn’t used yet to see if there was anything that I could tell in just 50 words. I had a few options, but one just jumped out at me and started writing itself in my brain. Sometimes it just works that way.

So here it is, my entry for the 50 Precious Words Contest for 2023. I hope you enjoy it!

The Bucket Brigade

Unseen in the dark—a spark. Then flames.


We run to the well. Neighbors join Father, Mother and me.

It’s up to us: the bucket brigade.

“Make a chain! Pass the water!”

Bucket after bucket douses the blaze.  

Embers die with the sunrise.

We’re exhausted and sore. But victorious.

World Read Aloud Day 2023: Zoom with a Self-Published Author or Illustrator!

World Read Aloud Day 2023 is just around the corner! This year’s annual celebration will be on February 1 and is brought to us by LitWorld and Scholastic. On World Read Aloud Day, authors and illustrators celebrate the power of reading aloud by volunteering their time to read to children around the world via Zoom!

I learned about World Read Aloud Day from author Kate Messner who is coordinating author and illustrator volunteers who are traditionally published. To check out that list, visit Kate’s website! (Also, shout-out to Kate Messner because she already figured out this whole process & I’m 100% copying her–THANK YOU, KATE! )

Here’s Kate’s description of what a WRAD visit looks like:

– 1-2 minutes: Author gives a quick introduction & talks a little about their books.
– 3-5 minutes: Author reads aloud a short picture book, or a short excerpt from a chapter book/novel
– 5-10 minutes: Author answers a few questions from students about reading/writing
– 1-2 minutes: Author book-talks a couple books they love (but didn’t write!) as recommendations for the kids

I’m so happy to be coordinating the self-published authors and illustrators who are volunteering their services to read on WRAD 2023! I know there are some amazing authors and stories on this list, and I hope they all get a chance participate in WRAD this year!

TEACHERS & LIBRARIANS, here’s how to connect with an author or illustrator to Zoom with your classroom or library on World Read Aloud Day:

  • Check out this List of Self-Published Authors & Illustrators, and visit their websites to see which ones might be a good fit for your students.
  • Contact the author directly by using the email provided or clicking on the link to their website and finding the contact form. Please be sure to provide the following information in your request:
    • Your name and what grade(s) you work with
    • Your city and time zone (this is important for scheduling!)
    • Possible times to connect on February 1st. Please note authors’ availability and time zones. Adjust accordingly if yours is different!
    • Your preferred platform (Zoom, Google Meet, etc.)
    • A phone number where you can be reached on that day in case of technical issues
  • Please understand that not all authors will be available at all times. It may take a few tries before you find someone whose books and schedule fit with yours!

IF YOU ARE A SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHOR OR ILLUSTRATOR WHO WOULD LIKE TO BE ADDED TO THE LIST, fill out this form to sign up: SIGN UP: World Read Aloud Day 2/1/23 – Call for Self-Published Author Volunteers

VOLUNTEERS, once your schedule is full, please send an email & I’ll remove your name from the list as soon as possible.

Have fun, everyone!

World Read Aloud Day 2023 – A Call for Self-Published Author & Illustrator Volunteers!

World Read Aloud Day 2023 is coming! On February 1, 2023, authors and illustrators from around the world will do virtual visits for schools and libraries.

LitWorld, which created World Read Aloud Day, explains it this way:

LitWorld founded World Read Aloud Day in 2010 to celebrate the power of reading aloud to create community and amplify new stories, and to advocate for literacy as a foundational human right. Since then, World Read Aloud Day has evolved into a global movement of millions of readers, writers, and listeners from communities all across the world coming together to honor the joy and power of reading and sharing stories, and continue expanding the definition and scope of global literacy.

Author Kate Messner has been organizing a sign-ups for traditionally published authors & illustrators who want to volunteer their time on World Read Aloud Day. Here’s her description of what a WRAD visit looks like:

– 1-2 minutes: Author gives a quick introduction & talks a little about their books.
– 3-5 minutes: Author reads aloud a short picture book, or a short excerpt from a chapter book/novel
– 5-10 minutes: Author answers a few questions from students about reading/writing
– 1-2 minutes: Author book-talks a couple books they love (but didn’t write!) as recommendations for the kids

I saw Kate putting out a call for authors & illustrators to volunteer, but she wasn’t able to include self-published volunteers at this time. SOOOOOO, I decided to go ahead it do it!

If you are a self-published author or illustrator, and you would like to be listed as a WRAD virtual read-aloud volunteer, please fill out this form to sign up: SIGN UP: World Read Aloud Day 2/1/23 – Call for Self-Published Author Volunteers

Teachers & Librarians, please stay tuned because I will post the list and you will be able to get in touch with any volunteers who fit your needs/time zone.

Are you a self-published picture book, middle grade or YA author?? I hope you’ll sign up and spread the word!

My Statement the Freedom to Read

Recently in my community, there was an attempt to have The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids about Sex, Gender, Bodies, and Families by Rachel E. Simon removed from the children’s section of our local library. The person who challenged the book wanted it moved to the adult section, calling it inappropriate. Fortunately, our library board decided not to do that and the book remains in the children’s section where it belongs. I am proud to be among a group of local community members who went before the library board to voice our support for their decision and to make sure we spoke out against book bans and challenges. I encourage you all to remain aware of what is happening in your communities, and support the Freedom to Read wherever you are.

Here is the statement I gave to the library board:

My name is Judy Campbell-Smith. I support the inclusion of The Every Body Book in the children’s section of the Ontario library.
I have read the Every Body Book and can say that is factual, informative, and straightforward on the topic of puberty and sex. It is not pornographic as some have suggested. The book is actually similar to other kids’ puberty books in the library, but is distinctive in that it is written in a way that affirms LGBTQ people and their experiences. This isn’t some hidden agenda; it’s right there in the books’ subtitle. As a parent, I personally would be fine to read this to my child and I don’t believe they would be damaged by coming across this book.
If a book is offensive to me, or contains information I don’t want my child to read, I should monitor my child’s reading activities. Other parents are free to make a different choice. Some parents in the community want a book like The Every Body Book to read with their kids, and there are kids in our community who want and NEED this book for themselves.
As an author, I know not everyone will like or agree with things I write, but I understand that not every book is for everyone. But it would be troubling to know that those who disagree with my work are able to block access for others who want to read it. The Every Body Book went through a review process to be included in the library’s collection in the first place. This challenge has caused it be re-reviewed again and again. I hope the board will continue to stand by its own policies and procedures, using best practices, including the Freedom to Read regarding this book and all others going forward.
As a community member, I am aware that LGBTQ books are being challenged and banned in increasing numbers around the country. These challenges, including this one here with The Every Body Book, are unfair and marginalize LGBTQ individuals in our community. I hope we can treat each other the way we want to be treated and remember that the library belongs to all of us in the community. Thank you.

October 11, 2022

My Words for 2022

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions. If I have a need or desire to make a change in my habits or focus, I tend to do it as needed. The Christmas holidays are usually too full for me to start thinking about those things on January 1 anyway.

I am also a slow-processer. I over-think. I need time to ruminate on things. So yeah, New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for me. Instead, I sometimes have picked a word of the year to focus on. I did this for 2022, but keeping with my glacial pace in thinking about things, it wasn’t until March that I actually felt I had found the words that fit the season I am in.

So here I am in May, getting around to sharing my words for 2022. Oh well! When you think about what the words are, it all makes sense.

My first word for 2022 is… AWKWARDNESS.

Why awkwardness? Because that’s the season I am in. I am promoting AJ’s Neighborhood, out in the querying trenches, and trying to make connections as a professional author. It’s awkward! I get stage fright at public speaking. I’m not good at networking. I feel uncomfortable talking about myself. But I have been doing all those things lately because it comes with the job. I feel very awkward doing it, but I have decided to embrace the awkwardness and not let it keep me from doing the things I need to do.

My second word for 2022 is… COMPLICATED.

This word is a reminder to me. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in doom scrolling and reading hot takes on the internet about politics and society and all the big issues. The rage machine that is the social media and the internet are not really good at conveying the complexities of these issues or facilitating discussions about them. There’s a lot of shouting each other down. That’s not how I want to me in my interactions online or in person. I have my opinions and beliefs, and many passionate ones at that. But I want to keep the fact that things are complicated in the front of my mind. People are complicated. There’s a lot of gray to our current dilemmas and I want to be a person to sees complexity, and let’s complexity be a part of my thinking. I don’t want to sit with false binaries that it seems we are often forced to choose between. And I hope in doing so I can encourage others to do the same. I think embracing complexity will make our arguments more compassionate and our solution-seeking more productive. Hopefully.

So thanks for joining me on this journey, and here’s to a year of more awkwardness and complexity!

Writing Tips: Mentor Texts

I have learned so much about the craft of writing during this last year. I’m no expert, but I thought it would be fun to share some tips and tricks that have been the most helpful to me for improving my skills. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful.

One of the first things I learned about when I joined SCBWI was the concept of mentor texts. A mentor text is a published book that you study and use as a reference while writing your own book. It could be a book that has a similar topic or theme to the one you are writing. Or it could be written in a similar voice or point of view that you are trying to use. Obviously the goal is not to copy another book, but it can be helpful to see a finished product when you are still working with pen and paper or a blank computer screen.

My most recent manuscript is about what it’s like being a pastor’s kid. For my mentor texts, I looked at several other pictures books that were about church so I could see how people wrote about attending church. These mentor texts helped me be aware of some trends with picture books for the Christian market. A lot of these books were rhyming. My book is not. I noodled around with making my book a rhyming story, but ultimately I decided against it. But now I know that I might be competing with books that rhyme and that might be a preference for publishers and agents. If I decide to retool at any point, I know that rhyming might be the way to go.

I also looked at a few books that featured kids talking about their parent’s job. I wanted to see examples of writing from a kids point of view about working parents. This helped me figure out how much I wanted to center the child’s experience.

There was one mentor text that didn’t fit into any of these categories, but in the end it was the book I looked to the most in this process. It is a lovely book called IN MY MOSQUE by M. O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly. In the book, a child takes readers through their day at the mosque. The writing is very lyrical, but not rhyming, and it engages all five senses in its descriptions of the community, rituals and activities in the mosque.

This book really showed me how to make my writing less didactic and more sensory. Yuksel made the experience of the mosque come alive to me as someone who has never been to a mosque. I wanted to bring that approach to my story about a specific childhood experience that many people have never had for themselves. And the book really stays faithful to showing a kid’s point of view which is what I want to do in my book.

One trick I learned with mentor texts is to type them out. This is relatively easy to do with picture books. With IN MY MOSQUE, I sat down and typed up the whole text of the book. I made paragraphs to represent page turns to get a sense of how the book was structured and how ideas were grouped in the book. This way I was able to see how text looked on a typed page versus in an illustrated book. I then used that as a reference to help me see where my page breaks could be and how to give my story a sense of flow and structure with the not-yet existing illustrations in mind.

It might seem a little ironic that for my book about a pastor’s kid, the most helpful mentor text was a book about a kid going to the mosque. But other showing different faiths, IN MY MOSQUE was the perfect book to study for POV, structure, use of language, and its approach to depicting religious practices and communities.

It’s fun to discover new books and understand them in a deeper way, and mentor texts really allow you to do that while improving your writing.

The Birth of a New Book

I had a plan that I made at the beginning of the year. I would write 4 picture books by the end of 2021. The first would be the global food book, followed by a picture book biography, and then 2 more that were not yet clear to me. It was ambitious, but I felt it was do-able.

Well, here we are near the end of 2021. As of a couple of weeks ago, I had completed exactly zero picture books. The global food book had ballooned and become a massive project. What I originally envisioned as a rhyming board book had become almost an encyclopedia. I submitted a draft to a professional agent-editor and received some really great feedback in September, so my revised goal is to edit and complete that book by the end of year.

But then a new idea for a picture book popped into my head just about a month ago. I was so excited about it, but I wanted to hold off and make sure that I finished my food book first. The book had other ideas though. I was writing it in my head and thinking about it so much that I couldn’t help myself. One night, it was bugging me so much I finally decided to type it out on my phone at 2am, just I could finally sleep.

It was the easiest first draft ever. Within days, I sent copies out to some beta readers. A week later, I brought it to my SCBWI critique group. I spent the next couple of weeks revising, and simultaneously drafting a query letter. I sent my query letter off for a critique as well and then spent another day revising that. At this point, both the manuscript and the query are as ready as they’ll ever be to send out for submissions.

While AJ’s Neighborhood is self/indie published, this project is one that is probably better suited to a traditional publisher. The query letter will allow me to submit the manuscript to agents and publishers, and hopefully get someone interested in putting it out into the world for me.

This whole new book process has been just about six weeks. For me (maybe for anyone) that’s crazy fast. When I think of the year that I have poured into the global food book–the research, the revising, the taste testing–six weeks is nothing in comparison! But this new book poured out of me. It’s based a lot on my own life experiences and family stories. And I am so excited because, as far as I can tell, no one else has written this picture book yet.

So, good luck, little book (whose title and subject I am keeping secret for a few more weeks) as you go out into the world! I hope you find a good, safe home where you can grow and reach your full potential!

And I hope you all can read it someday soon!

AJ’s Neighborhood: Release Postponed

Last week we made the decision to push back the release date on AJ’s Neighborhood. Here’s some of what happened:

When Amanda and I originally began discussing the book, I imagined a much shorter amount of time for her to complete the illustrations. If I had my way, the book would have come on in January 2021, but that was just unrealistic. After researching and talking with Amanda, we agreed to a schedule that was more realistic, but ultimately would have meant the book was coming out as soon as humanly possible.

Then in May, our printer/distributer, IngramSpark, announced that due to covid, they were increasing printing times for all books and said they also anticipated shipping delays. The said that printing hardcovers would not take 15 business days. A week later, they increased it to 25 business days.

More recently, in August, I had a very stressful month in which my husband was out of town for a week, leaving me to parent solo. This was followed by a couple of weeks of sickness and quarantine for everyone in my house. In the midst of this I was trying to get our galley copies of AJ’s Neighborhood out to be reviewed, while also preparing a sermon that I preached at my church at the end of the month. Basically, the whole month was CRAZY. Amanda was also very busy finishing her semester of grad school and then traveling. We had planned to have everything ready to start printing by September 1st, but there were still things that needed to be done, and we both we busy dealing with other things.

Then, I had some technical issues with our ISBN and login stuff for the IngramSpark website. It’s all boring but also meant delays beyond what we originally expected.

So a couple of weeks ago, I sat down and looked at the calendar. I looked at the new printing times we were dealing with, looked at how much work we still needed to finish the interior of the book, and looked at shipping costs and turn around times. There simply was no way to guarantee that any books would be shipped on time for the release event we have planned, and if books were shipped, there was no way to guarantee that everything would look the way it is supposed to.

So (after a meltdown) I talking things over with Amanda and the folks at India Street Press. We all agreed that we want the book to come out when it is as perfect as we can make it, and that it was worth it to push back the release date to make sure that can happen. The only negatives to delaying was that the book would not be available for holiday shopping, and also that my perfectionist brain would need to get over itself. That last one is also a positive.

So here we are. I was recently reminded by author Corie Skolnick that writers need to be the CEO of their career and it so true. I was in a prayer group recently where someone said they phrase, “Be a good boss to yourself.” Both those thoughts were echoing in my head as I tried to decide whether we should rush the book out or postpone. It helped to remember that as CEO, I am responsible for putting out a good product that we all can be proud of. And I realized that as being a good boss to myself meant realizing that the original time-tables were maybe overly optimistic, and that it would do no good to put me and Amanda through the stress of trying to meet them when I had the power to change it. So that’s what we did.

I know that ultimately, anyone out there who is anticipating this book is likely a friend or family member, so they will be happy and supportive of the book no matter when it comes out. We really have lost nothing in that sense. I also felt very vindicated to see that other well-known authors have announced their books being delayed until next summer for the same supply chain / covid delays that I am facing. If they can’t guarantee their books on time then who could?

A new release date will be announced soon–probably shortly after Amanda and I get our hands on our first proof and can evaluate where things are at.

In the meantime, we are finishing layout for AJ’s Neighborhood. I am still working on finishing my second book about international food (hopefully we can hear more about that soon). And looks like I will be preaching another sermon at my church in the near future. Plus I have Halloween costumes for the kids to make, and a 2nd birthday party for my daughter to plan.

Someone once asked me how I get everything done, the writing stuff and the mom stuff. The answer is: I DON’T! The house is not always cleaned. Sometimes the kids get too much screen time. Writing deadlines get missed. I know I can work on balancing things better, or being more organized, but this is life. As I am fond of saying to my husband, “I am just a human woman.” I can only be in one place at a time, and I can’t always do more than one thing at a time. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a human thing.

So we will wait a little longer for this book to come out, with all hope and confidence that it will be worth the wait.

AJ’s Neighborhood: The Backstory

AJ’s Neighborhood is inspired by my son and our neighborhood, obviously. We love our neighborhood, and we do take walks to the library all the time. And AJ does wear rainboots a lot despite us living in Southern California drought conditions. But there’s a lot more to the backstory of how I came to write this book.

I wrote AJ’s Neighborhood during the summer of 2020. Earlier in the year I had worked on another book with the hopes of self-publishing it, but that project stalled. However, the research and prep I did on that project made me feel that self-publishing something was achievable.

There was a big event that inspired the story in AJ’s Neighborhood. Early in 2020, before the pandemic, I was taking the kids out to meet up with friends. AJ was two at the time, and Jo was just a few months old. I told AJ to put his shoes on because it was time to go. And by shoes, I mean rainboots, because that is all he would wear then.

I went to get Jo only to find she had a majorly poopy diaper that I would need to deal with before we could get in the car. The thing is–we cloth diaper, so it takes a little bit of time to clean up after a poop. So while I am taking care of things, Jo is also screaming her head off. (She was and remains a top-level screamer.)

When I finally finish with the diaper and get Jo to get in the car, I can’t find AJ anywhere. I am looking in hampers, under beds, in the backyard. I figured out he must have gone out the front door and the baby’s screaming kept me from hearing the noise. Outside, I call his name up and down our street, and freak out our mail carrier. I am hoping he hasn’t tried to cross our busy street to try and make his way to the the fire station to see the engines.

Finally, I have no choice but to call the police. I’m almost hysterical at this point. But it’s only a moment before they tell me someone has found a little boy fitting the description I gave. They direct me to go around the block.

I dash around the corner to find AJ being corralled by a couple who saw him run by their house. They thought it was odd to see a child that small running by himself. Plus he’s wearing rainboots from some reason. They went outside, chatted with him and kept him from running any further while they called the police.

Later, when I had calmed down, I had a serious talk with AJ about not running around by himself. As we talked, I realized that even though he had only gone around the block, he had gotten himself totally lost. AJ has always had a thing for maps, so we made a little map of our neighborhood so he would have a better sense of direction should he get lost again.

That day that AJ got lost stayed in my mind for a while. As a parent, it was a terrible experience. But it quickly became a classic anecdote for our family. I am sure AJ will be sick of hearing about it before long. In the retelling, I was able to see past the scary parts into seeing something interesting, fun and inspiring. I hope I was able to put that feeling into the finished project. Only 2 more months, and you can tell me how I did.

(Also, after this we got these super handy child-proof door knob things because mama is not messing around.)

I Am a Writer

I have been a writer my whole life, but only recently began calling myself one.

As a child, before I could really write my letters, I drew little flip books and made cartoons.

Later, I filled notebooks with stories I illustrated myself.

Later, I wrote a few poems, and many songs. I have several unsuccessful attempts at novels. For a short time after college, I wrote theater reviews for a local paper.

As an adult, I pursued careers in academia and the music industry, and worked in schools and offices. But I always had the dream of some day writing a novel and getting it published.

After my kids were born, I became a stay-at-home mom. I tried to get other jobs, but nothing came through that worked for our family. And still I hoped to write. The desire only grew with every year, and increasingly I felt like I was delaying something I was meant to do.

Well, when the pandemic hit, I realized I was not going to be getting a job anytime soon. So I decided to answer the voice that had been calling me for so long and pursue a writer’s life.

So here I am, trying to make a go of it. I have my first book coming out in less than three months, but it still feels weird to call myself a writer. I have always felt like that title was reserved for people making a living from their pen, people with an agent or a book deal, or at least a book in print. It feels like a jinx to use the label before my book comes out. But I have also never worked at something that felt more like my “calling” than this has. I don’t really know what a theology of calling would say about that in relation to me pursuing writing. All I can say is that I feel that I have internal and external confirmation that I am on a good path.

So I say I am a writer. I say this with hope and expectation, with determination and anticipation. If you’re reading this, you have found me only steps from my front door, starting a new adventure. Thank you for joining me and seeing me here at the beginning.