Whenever I begin a new project I like to read several books in the same genre. This helps me get a feel for trends and what’s happening in the market. My current focus has been reading picture book biographies.

I have to admit that biographies are not my favorite in the picture book genre. They tend to be long, wordy and I find myself losing attention pretty quickly. But to my surprise, I discovered several biographies that broke this mold.


Title: Me…Jane

Author: Patrick McDonnell

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Book Description from publisher:

In his characteristic heartwarming style, Patrick McDonnell tells the story of the young Jane Goodall and her special childhood toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. As the young Jane observes the natural world around her with wonder, she dreams of “a life living with and helping all animals,” until one day she finds that her dream has come true.

One of the world’s most inspiring women, Dr. Jane Goodall is a renowned humanitarian, conservationist, animal activist, environmentalist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 1977 she founded the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), a global nonprofit organization that empowers people to make a difference for all living things.

With anecdotes taken directly from Jane Goodall’s autobiography, McDonnell makes this very true story accessible for the very young–and young at heart.Me-Jane-image

Book Thoughts:

Me…Jane is a lovely picture book. Jane’s  heart and passion for animals are threaded through the spare text and illustrations. This is a biography that reads like a picture book. If you are looking for an in depth description of Dr. Jane Goodall’s life, this is not the book for you. This is more of a peek through the window of her life and leads you to search out more answers.


Title: The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever

Author: H. Joseph Hopkins

Illustrator: Jill McElmurry

Publisher: Beach Lane Books

Description from the publisher: 

Katherine Olivia Sessions never thought she’d live in a place without trees. After all, Kate grew up among the towering pines and redwoods of Northern California. But after becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science, she took a job as a teacher far south in the dry desert town of San Diego. Where there were almost no trees.

Kate decided that San Diego needed trees more than anything else. So this trailblazing young woman singlehandedly started a massive movement that transformed the town into the green, garden-filled oasis it is today. Now, more than 100 years after Kate first arrived in San Diego, her gorgeous gardens and parks can be found all over the city.

Part fascinating biography, part inspirational story, this moving picture book about following your dreams, using your talents, and staying strong in the face of adversity is sure to resonate with readers young and old. tree lady 1

Book Thoughts:

Author H. Joseph Hopkins has written a beautiful picture book that dares to defy the traditional picture book biography model. All of the pertinent information is present and accounted for, but the fun refrain at the end of each paragraph helps give this book a more traditional picture book feel rather than dry biography.


Title: Thomas Jefferson: Life, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything

Author: Maira Kalman

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Book Description from publisher: 

Renowned artist Maira Kalman sheds light on the fascinating life and interests of the Renaissance man who was our third president.

Thomas Jefferson is perhaps best known for writing the Declaration of Independence—but there’s so much more to discover. This energetic man was interested in everything. He played violin, spoke seven languages and was a scientist, naturalist, botanist, mathematician and architect. He designed his magnificent home, Monticello, which is full of objects he collected from around the world. Our first foodie, he grew over fifteen kinds of peas and advocated a mostly vegetarian diet. And oh yes, as our third president, he doubled the size of the United States and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it. He also started the Library of Congress and said, “I cannot live without books.” But monumental figures can have monumental flaws, and Jefferson was no exception. Although he called slavery an “abomination,” he owned about 150 slaves.

As she did in Looking at Lincoln, Maira Kalman shares a president’s remarkable, complicated life with young readers, making history come alive with her captivating text and stunning illustrations.imgres

Book Thoughts:

This is another book that defies the definition of dry boring picture book biography. Packed full of interesting facts and fun, quirky illustrations, Ms. Kalman’s biography is anything but boring. This book is great for children interested in looking a little deeper into the subjects life.

While different in subject and execution, each of the above books have perfectly managed to take a subject that could be boring and present it in a new and interesting way. Do you have any other biographies that break the mold? I would love to hear about them?

Happy Reading,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk


Every writer needs a reader. Or, preferably, lots of them. Eventually. 

Tonight my new class will be sharing work for the first time. This is always a bit nerve-wracking. For the authors, of course, but for me as the teacher/mediator also. Even though I have worked with most of my students in previous classes, I never know how a group is going to gel in a critique session. 

There are no “right” or “wrong” answers in a workshop, but it’s so important to me that the authors get what they need. That they are given something that inspires them to keep chugging along, to work harder, to find joy in the process. 

Some of my writer friends like to get feedback early and often as they draft. Others wait until they’ve reached a certain point before letting anyone else in. Just the other day a friend said to me, “I love the first draft because no one else will ever read it.” 

At some point you have to let others read your work. And that can be terrifying. It’s impossible to predict or control how readers will react to your writing. But it’s also important to know what kind of reactions take root. One thing that helps me to gauge reactions is knowing where my reader is coming from. One of the best things about having a trusted critique group is that I know their pet peeves and inclinations already. 

The best critiques are well-rounded and look at many aspects of the writing. But I’ve found that often times critiquers seem to have a certain focus. One element of the story always takes a bit of precedence. 

Possible roles of readers:

  • ENTERTAIN ME: This reader wants to be surprised. To be amused. To be able to play the movie in his/her head and to stay engaged. This reader notices the excess, the places the story wanders off the path. 
  • LOGIC POLICE: This reader wants everything to make sense. Credibility and plausibility is key. The events and actions have to work within the rules and limits of this particular world.
  • DARE DEVIL: Make this reader worry! The stakes must be high and rising. The worse things are for your character, the happier this reader will be. 
  • ANGST-ADDICT: Looking for heartbreak and longing but joy and delight also. This reader wants to feel all the feels all the time. 
  • CRAFTSMAN: This reader wants the writing to be exquisite.  Perfectly crafted sentences jump out and sing to this reader. But the awkward clunky ones stand out too. A fine tuner, looking for tight and just right writing. 
  • BETWEEN THE LINES: This reader sees the symbolism and metaphors. He/she will identify themes and layers of meaning – that you may not even know you included – and question certain choices based on the bigger picture. 

In a perfect (book) world, all these readers are happy. 

Sarah Tomp


See the Story

I like to cut and paste. I don’t mean on my computer. I mean actual scissors and sticky stuff. 

In preparation for a writing class I’m teaching (Writing for Children II at UCSD Extension), I spent some time yesterday cutting pictures of people from magazines. I find that visual cues can be powerful triggers for creativity. Images can help concretize–which is not a word, but it should be–the vague wandering of one’s mind. Pictures and objects can help make abstract ideas and characters take a more concrete form. 

I know this. I plan to teach this. And yet, I hadn’t thought to do this for my current WIP, aka “the thing that will not be tamed.”

But in cruising through the magazines, all of a sudden I saw a girl and thought, “Hey! That’s X.” And then I saw a phrase that I needed. And a picture of a place I’d been trying to make my characters visit. It was so golly gee exciting. It made me feel like maybe, just maybe, this really is going to be a story some day. 

So. Maybe I need to take my own class. Or at least take my own advice. Maybe it’s even time to make a vision box. 

Here’s one I made while writing MY BEST EVERYTHING. It’s a simple one, but it helped me believe in the story along the way. 

Vision box for My Best Everything

Vision box for My Best Everything

Some of things included:

  • Moon images, of course
  • Bottles, more of course
  • Lulu’s fortune: You will travel far and wide
  • A game wheel for Truth or Dare
  • Moonshiner Tim
  • “Even a spill can be beautiful”
  • Car keys, with key chain that reads For I know the plans I have for you. ~Jeremiah 29:11
  • A rosary
  • Cowboy hat
  • Sea shells
  • Rusty junk car
  • Gold coins
  • A recipe for a science experiment involving yeast and flying grapes

See it. Believe it. 

Sarah Tomp


I knew from an early age that my boys were not going to follow the typical path. Instead of baseball and soccer they preferred taking things apart and computers. And occasionally, they would even take apart my computer, until I put my foot down. People in our neighborhood soon became aware of my gadget boys and would show up at the door with broken electrical items for them to dismantle and dissect.


Once it became abundantly clear that this was their path, I tried to prepare them for a world that seem to give more respect to individuals who could throw or catch a ball rather than reprogram your microwave. To keep the junk to a minimum, I placed large plastic bins under their beds to hold the nuts, bolts, screws, and bits of old equipment that gadget boys tend to gather. I began reading them biographies of people like Edison, Einstein, Jobs, and Gates who didn’t fit the common mold. But it wasn’t always an easy path.

Son #2 discovered robotics during his high school years and that has been a tremendous outlet for him. As a parent, it was wonderful to see my son gathered with hundreds of like-minded kids for competitions.

I ran across this video filmed at the Denver Comic Con of actor Wil Wheaton responding to a question by a young girl on how to deal with being called a nerd. I thought is was very wise and touching and if I had this video when my boys were younger, you can be sure I would have played it for them.

It’s not always easy taking a different path. Today because of men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates being a nerd isn’t as bad as it was in the past. With the advent of computers and computer technology people are more open to accept those who are more technology oriented.

The gadget boys are grown now. But if you were to ask them, I think they would agree with what Wil Wheaton has to say it does get better as you get older.

Happy Reading  Dismantling

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk


Pick a Peck of Poetry

April is Poetry Month!

Check out the Teaching Authors Blog for oodles of poetry links and ideas. And they are having a give-away to celebrate their five year blogiversary!

Writing a poem can be a fabulous way to hone your prose. If you’re struggling with a scene, try distilling it into a poem. Free verse can be, well, freeing. Or, sometimes requiring a bit of structure can paradoxically loosen up your brain to find the gems below the surface. Just recently a friend reminded me: having boundaries allows one to relax within. Love that.

And my dear friend Sharry is having fun with Haikus and Flash Fiction; accented with photographs and the act of flaneur. Be sure to check out her lovely post!

I’m adding a new collection of poems to the books I use when teaching writing: WHAT THE HEART KNOWS: Chants, Charms & Blessings by Joyce Sidman. The title alone is poetry! It’s a beautiful book that comes with a lovely red ribbon to mark your place.

what the heart knowsAnd then, within, is just as beautiful. The book is organized into 4 sections;

  1. CHANTS & CHARMS~to bolster courage and guard against evil.
  2. SPELLS & INVOCATIONS~to cause something to happen.
  3. LAMENTS & REMEMBRANCES~to remember, regret, or grieve.
  4. PRAISE SONGS & BLESSINGS~to celebrate, thank, or express love.

Now that I think about it, aren’t those all the reasons we write? To do just those things?

Sarah Tomp


logo-scbwiToday is the first day you can vote for the SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards for your geographic area. Throw some love and support to local authors! It’s going to be tough pickings here in California!

Last weekend I attended the fantastic Writer’s Day Conference put on by the Los Angeles chapter of SCBWI. So many smart, creative, nice people under one roof!

Katherine Applegate started the morning off with a keynote speech including a hilarious biographical film narrating the history of her and her husband, Michael Grant’s rise to literary success. They poked fun at themselves but it was such a wonderful peek at what it means to be a real working writer. Her talk was exactly what I needed–full of truth and practicality as well as inspiration. I didn’t write down her exact words but I loved what she said about stories being able to both break and mend hearts.

Catherine Linka, bookseller and author of the upcoming novel, A Girl Called Fearless, shared tips on what every writer should know about retail book buying. There were way too many gems to post, but I think she was right on in her reading recommendations. Basically, read what you want to write! And read a LOT: 100 picture books, 75 middle grade novels or 1 YA per week.

Heidi Fiedler shared the book maps she makes when developing and editing books for Teacher Created Materials. She said readers are like archaeologists picking up clues along the way. Love that!

Agent Danielle Smith (newly) of Red Fox Literary gave a moving talk about readers who need our stories.

One idea from Martha Alderson, aka The Plot Whisperer that I found especially interesting was the idea that the middle of a story is the “exotic world” where the antagonists are in charge. I also attended her Plot Intensive the next day–as a plot convert, I highly recommend her books.

And, finally, I just gotta say, the gracious and pleasant Lee Wind is one excellent reader! He read from the first pages and just made everything sound better.

SCBWI truly is an amazing organization fueled by passionate and dedicated volunteers. I am so grateful I found them at the beginning of my writing journey!

Sarah Tomp



There’s been a lot of celebrating here at Casa de Santillan. Son #2 turned 18 and my husband and I just celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary. While searching for cake recipes to help celebrate these milestones I ran across this recipe for Watermelon Cupcakes on the bakerette.com site. I thought these adorable cupcakes would be perfect for a spring or summer birthday celebration and decided to share with our readers.

Photo courtesy of bakerette.com

Photo courtesy of bakerette.com

Author: Bakerette.com
Recipe type: Dessert
Serves: 24
  • 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoons vanilla
  • 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
  • Food coloring
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line cupcake tins with cupcake liners.
  2. Mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat together the milk, water, oil, eggs, and vanilla with an electric beater on medium speed.
  4. Add food coloring to make a pink watermelon color. I used red food coloring with a small amount of yellow.
  5. Fold in chocolate chips and pour batter into prepared cupcake tins about 1/2 to 2/3 full.
  6. Bake for 20-23 minutes. Allow to cool completely using your favorite buttercream frosting. Add green food coloring to the frosting.


Be sure to check out the other crafts and recipes on bakerette.com.

Happy Snacking,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk


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