Friday, September 28, 2012

Journeys of One Kind and Another

photo courtesy of my awesome
younger brother, MicaJon Dykes
Hello, and happy Poetry Friday! Marjorie has Roundup at PaperTigers.

I'm in a contemplative mood this morning, excited to be traveling to Columbus, GA for Chattahoochie Valley Writers' Conference and time with dear poet-friend Doraine Bennett, whose lovely spirit graces many a Poetry Friday. 

I've noticed Mary Oliver comes up a lot in Roundups, and I love that, because her work so often speak to me at THE moments I need it most. Today I'm thinking about the journey, not just as writer, but as a human finding one's voice.

I wrote a post here some time ago about a line of poetry I love: "what is your sound & when & where should I listen?" It's a great question, but it's also one that can make a person feel lacking, as if you haven't done your duty as a living being if you haven't yet figured out your sound, your voice, your purpose.

Which is why I love this poem by Mary Oliver. It offers an alternate view - not a sudden rush, not a proclamation, but something gradual, something that develops over years and experience.

I'm still finding my voice, still creating myself. Some days I feel a lot of pressure to develop faster, more, better. And others, like today, I'm content exactly where I am. 

That's what my journey looks like. And that's just fine.

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,

rest of poem here

Wishing all of my fellow travelers a happy weekend! 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Publisher's Weekly Review of DON'T FEED THE BOY

the adorable back cover
illus. by Stephanie Graegin

Don’t Feed the Boy
Irene Latham, illus. by Stephanie Graegin. Roaring Brook, $15.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59643-755-5

Living at the zoo sounds pretty sweet, but 11-year-old Whit has soured on the experience, having spent his whole life at the Meadowbrook Zoo in Alabama, which is run by his busy and distracted parents. Both Whit’s parents and his homeschool teacher, Ms. Connie, have taught him a great deal about exotic animals, though he’d rather be surrounded by a more ordinary species: other kids. When Whit notices a girl who visits the zoo each day to sketch the birds, he sets his heart on getting to know the “Bird Girl” and finally making a friend his own age. Unfortunately, being a good friend to “Bird Girl,” whose actual name is Stella and who has troubles at home, involves taking dangerous risks and breaking rules that test Whit’s courage and his parents’ trust. The unusual setting and the characters’ tricky family dynamics add tension and zest to Latham’s (Leaving Gee’s Bend) empathetic friendship tale, as do Graegin’s pencil drawings, which portray the story’s upsetting and uplifting moments with gentleness. Readers won’t soon forget Whit and Stella’s adventures. Ages 8–12. Agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. (Oct.) 

Thanks, PW, for extending such a warm welcome to Whit and Stella!! By the way, readers: That peacock? His name is Ferdinand. And that girl sitting on the bench? the Bird Girl, aka Stella. :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Standing in front of people and saying "look at me!" is not something that comes naturally to me. Yet, since the release of LEAVING GEE'S BEND in 2010, it's been my honor and privilege to give nearly 200 presentations!

I have had to really work to overcome my fears, and you know, I'm kind of proud of how far I've come.

Here's just a few tips that seem really simple but have been a big help to me:

1. Scope out the room early to reduce the "surprise" element. ALWAYS get there early. And the more people you can talk to one-on-one beforehand, the more comfortable you'll be.

2. Involve the audience. Even if it is something as simple as asking a question, and raising your hand to indicate they are welcome to raise their hands too. Call on people. People like to be PART of something.

3. Keep a notebook of quotes, stories, statistics, visuals, etc. to enhance your presentations. (This is especially good for funny bits. Note to self: need more funny bits.)

4. Be sure to tell the audience "why" your message is important. This focuses not only you, but the audience.

5. Start with a bang and get right to the meat of your message because first impressions are everything.

6. Use "breathing spaces" to allow your audience an oportunity to reflect on what you've just said. This can be taking a sip of water, whipping out a great prop, asking for audience participation.

7. Make people feel smart, not stupid. In other words, don't ask them questions hoping they won't know the answer. Frame your information in a way that reduces that discomfort. Whenever possible, set up your audience to win.

8. Use an evaluation tool to not only help you improve your presentation in the future, but also to provide a takeaway. You can use the feedback you get to populate a "testimonials" page on your website! Here's what mine looks like: (feel free to copy and use!)

Irene Latham

What did you enjoy most about today’s presentation?

Did the presenter effectively connect with the audience, preparing the audience for the remainder of the presentation?

How informative was the presentation?

Was the information provided meaningful and understandable?

Were the supporting materials helpful in understanding the presentation?

How effectively did the presenter use the supporting materials?

Did the presenter effectively communicate with the audience, using delivery techniques including eye contact, volume and pace?

What suggestions do you have for improvement?

Would you like to see future presentations by this speaker?

Would you recommend this speaker to other groups?

Additional comments:

I'm adding some new elements to my school visits presentations, thanks to a workshop I attended over the summer with the lovely and talented Kristin Tubb (whose newest middle grade novel THE 13TH SIGN is coming in January)! Also, for great tips on how to deal with problems at school visits, check out this post by Cynthia Letiech Smith.

Monday, September 24, 2012


"It's good in some ways, not to have language. It makes you see things. You turn your attention, not to babbling about yourself, broadcasting each and every thought to everyone within earshot -as people often do- but to observing. That's how faeries become so empathetic."

- TIGER LILY by Jodi Lynn Anderson

We may not be able to turn faerie, but we can listen...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tornado Poem

Happy Poetry Friday! Renee has Roundup at the ever-inspiring and above-and-beyond informational No Water River.

I am delighted to share today a poem I wrote for Scholastic's SCOPE magazine. It's about a tornado. Now those of you who live nearby know that our state was greatly affected by the tornado outbreak in April, 2011.

It was such a devastating time in our area that Birmingham Arts Journal, for which I serve as poetry editor, decided to dedicate an entire issue to "storms." After reading hundreds and hundreds of fantastic poems on the topic, I said aloud to more than one person that I didn't think I would ever write a tornado poem.

Ha! Little did I know that a few months later amazing editor Kristin Lewis would be contacting me with the idea of pairing a poem with an in-progress tornado survival story written by another amazing writer, Lauren Tarshis.

But I didn't hesitate. I thought, okay, this will be a challenge. And it was!

Here's the result:

The Tornado

By Irene Latham

The story comes grumbling
over the hill. It tumbles
hailstones and cracks tree-trunks.
It craves front-page news,

so it musters all speed
and muscle. It tears across
Main Street, steals shingles
and un-parks cars.

It whirls, whistles
screams and teems with twists
no one sees coming.
We huddle, hunch

brace ourselves for the end.
When sunshine arrives,
we unfold, emerge.
Our words echo

and soothe as we join
hands with our neighbors.
we sift through rubble

to shape a new story.
It rises like hallelujah!
as a goldfinch gathers
thistle to rebuild its nest.

AND The great folks at Scholastic's SCOPE magazine even posted a dramatic reading of my poem! What a thrill! Thank you SO MUCH.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Okay, so, press releases. If you're an author, you need to know how to craft them. A well-written one can give you lots of mileage -- editors love it when they can just take your press release and print it, as-is! (I have had this happen many times -- remember: media people are just as time-crunched as the rest of us! They will be much more willing to spread the word about you and your work if you make it as easy as possible for them to do so!)

And since it was such a big deal for me to learn how to write a press release, I figured there are others out there just as intimidated as I was.

The best way I can think to teach you is to deconstruct one of mine. First, I'll show it to you in its entirety, then I'll break it down. Feel free to post any additional questions in comments!


September 19, 2012                                      For October 2012 Release

Contact:  Irene Latham                                                                                                    

Alabama Author Goes Behind Zoo Gates for New Book

Birmingham – Stint as Teen Volunteer at Birmingham Zoo Inspires Second  Novel

Inspiration is sometimes found in the most unexpected places – like one’s own backyard. That’s what it’s been like for award-winning Alabama poet and novelist Irene Latham, not once but twice: first in 2010 with her debut historical novel Leaving Gee’s Bend  (Putnam/Penguin, ISBN: 978-0-399-25179-5), which evolved out of her fascination with the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend in Wilcox County, Alabama; and now with her latest novel Don’t Feed the Boy (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, 978-1-59643-755-5, Oct. 16, 2012).

“I signed up for the teen volunteer program because I wanted to be a zoo veterinarian,” said Latham, a Birmingham resident since 1984.  “I loved learning about exotic animal, but all it took was witnessing one surgery to make me realize that perhaps I’d better just write about the animals instead.”

Which is exactly what she did. Don’t Feed the Boy is about a boy who lives at fictional Meadowbrook Zoo, which is named for the North Shelby County neighborhood and modeled after Birmingham Zoo. The book includes all sorts of animal facts and behind-the- scenes adventures drawn from Latham’s training and other research.  

It’s hard to be human when you live at the zoo. Now that he’s eleven, Whit feels trapped by the rules and routine of zoo life. With so many exotic animals, it’s easy to get overlooked. But when Whit notices a mysterious girl who visits every day to draw the birds, suddenly the zoo becomes much more interesting. Who is the Bird Girl? And why does she come by herself to the zoo? Together the two kids take risks in order to determine where it is they each belong. But when Stella asks Whit for an important and potentially dangerous favor, Whit discovers how complicated friendship—and freedom-- can be.

Praised for her authentic and memorable stories, Latham has also published two award-winning volumes of poetry and is highly regarded as a speaker for school, library and other groups. She is often asked how she finds time to write the next book in the midst of all that travel. It’s easy, and it isn’t, Latham said.

“The best part of being a writer is connecting with readers. I can’t tell you how much interacting with students and teachers means to me. It’s one of the best, most unexpected joys of my life. It’s one way to practice what I preach, which is ‘live a life worth writing about.’ Yet I do have to be careful not to over-commit myself. I still have children at home, and I need the writing time to nourish my creative soul.”

Latham lives with her husband and three sons in north Shelby County. She is a frequent visitor to Birmingham Zoo, and has a children’s book of poems also on an animal theme scheduled for release in 2014. It’s easy to pick a favorite animal, Latham said. “Without question, humans are my favorite species. The best part about going to the zoo is sharing that experience with loved ones.”

Two book launch events are scheduled to celebrate the release of Don’t Feed the Boy:
Sunday, Oct. 14, 2-4 pm Birmingham Zoo: admission required; feed giraffes for free!
Sunday, Oct. 21, 2-4 pm North Shelby Library, 5521 Cahaba Valley Road: free!

For more information about Irene Latham or her books, please visit and follow her on Twitter @irene_latham.


Okay, so that was it. Starting at the top:
1. Be sure to include your contact information and a to-be-released date!

2. Title your press release in an attention-getting manner. It should read like a headline. Think about what makes your title newsworthy... can you tie it to recent news? Think a.timing (if your book included Valentine's Day, a Valentine's Day press release makes sense), b.proximity, c. prominence (helps if you're famous or writing can be tied to something or someone famous), d. significance (this is the "how many" angle, as in, this effects a lot of people... the more the better), e. human interest (current topics like bullying, immigration, violence, poor economy, election year). This is your chance to show your angle.

3. Subheading is an opportunity to further develop said angle, allowing you to "hook" the reader. REMEMBER: the media wants to tell a story their readers/viewers will be interested in. They are interested in the STORY, not helping you sell books.

4. First paragraph should open with a general theme - don't mention yourself or your book until the end of this paragraph!

5. Your first quote should be one tailor-written for the intended audience. Since this press release is going out to my local media, it makes sense to tie to a local attraction.

6. "Which is..." are golden transitional words here. "Which is why, which is how, which is where,..." Use whatever makes sense in your case, whatever will get you to (finally) your book!

7. It is very important that this summary be brief and attention-getting. For me, it's the hardest part of the press release. I look over flap copy and any work I did while trying to develop a log line. Again, include the details that seem most relevant to the intended audience.

8. Now is a chance for you to toot your own horn. Include here any reasons readers should be impressed enough to actually read your book. That might be awards, job experience, personal info. And use this space to your advantage! Since I want to continue my work in schools and other speaking engagements, I chose to highlight that aspect of my life here. 

9. Another quote! Speak directly to your audience. This is your opportunity to build some sort of emotional connection. Think about why you write, or why you wrote this particular book. What does it do for your audience? Why should they care? Remember, stories are about the READER, not the writer!

10. Close with any specific invitations to events open to the public -- in fact, it is often these events that make the difference between the press running the story or not running it. If you are traveling anywhere for signings or school visits, be sure to include a open-to-the-public event you can talk about in your press release. That alone makes it newsworthy!

11. Finally, provide contact information once again, but in a form that can be reproduced in an article (or as-is).

And hey, if I can do this, you can do this. You'll want to post it on your website and send to local magazines and newspapers, including the neighborhood variety. I also sent this one to my alumni news magazines and local parenting magazines. 

Feel free to leave questions in comments. Let me know if I can help!

Monday, September 17, 2012


--from A DOG'S WAY HOME by Bobbie Pyron:

"Most folks got a north star in their life - something that gives their life extra meaning. Mine is music."

"Without even thinking, I said, "Mine is Tam."

If you haven't read the book, Tam is a dog.

Man, I love dog stories. And horse stories. And really any-kind-of-animal stories.

And yes, I have a north star.

Do you?

Thursday, September 13, 2012


This time last week I had an unexpected conversation with a thoughtful student at Golden Gate High School (Naples, FL). She told me that when she read Leaving Gee's Bend, it made her angry; she couldn't imagine how Ludelphia could be happy, given her life circumstances.

We talked for a bit about poverty and hard times, and then I asked her if she remembered what it was like to be ten years old. She nodded and said she didn't remember having any worries. I smiled. Exactly. That's exactly why I chose to tell the story in the voice of a ten-year-old. Because at age ten, Ludelphia wouldn't be thinking about what she didn't have. Having never left Gee's Bend, she wouldn't even be aware of what she didn't have.

For Ludelphia, it was all about love. She was loved and wanted, and whatever things she didn't have (meat, shoes, sturdy roof), she was accustomed to.

Is that happiness? Or ignorance?

I love that it made this student mad, love that she was thinking about Ludelphia, puzzling over the way I chose to tell the story. And it reminded me of a quote I wrote in my writing notebook from amazing author ( my hero) Julius Lester, who wrote the Newbery Honor winning To Be a Slave. It's a direct quote from one of the slave narratives:

"Was I happy? You can take anything. No matter how good you treat it - it wants to be free. You can treat it good and feed it good and give it everything it seems to want -- but if you open the cage - it's happy."

- Tom Robinson, Library of Congress

Ludelphia was free. She wasn't a slave, though sharecropping was much like slavery in the way it offered no easy escape to a different (better) life.

Lucy Witherspoon,
The most important thing in the context of the story, is that at age ten, Ludelphia felt free. She wasn't burdened by the knowledge we in the 21st century bear. Her life was tucked in the curve of that river, no bigger than that bend.

And then she was crossing that river, sleeping in a barn, high-tailing it back home in the back of a wagon. She had her Mama and Daddy and Ruben and Etta Mae and baby Rose.

Yes, she was poor. And she was also happy.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Fantastic trip filled with some of the things I love best: books, seafood, salty air, great people, history, sun-dappled walks, inspiring stories.

This picture I took at the Naples dock just before a lovely breezy on-the-water supper with new friends might be my favorite.

I was so glad to have a little time just for myself, especially after a stressful couple of weeks getting boys back in school. I loved the Collier County Museum, with its indoor and five acres of outdoor displays. Stories were everywhere!

I took lots of pictures... how 'bout this Seminole war fort? And hello, how come I didn't know the U.S. government got into all sorts of debt funding not one, but THREE Seminole wars? Clearly I did not live in Florida long enough, or during the right years, to get that Florida history. Fascinating!

A HUGE highlight was getting to meet the library ladies at Golden Gate High School, who went all-out to welcome me with a program that included the presentation of a poem, a student singing a Whitney Houston song, delicious sandwiches and cupcakes from the culinary staff, quilts, and so much LOVE I felt like I was among lifelong friends. Thank you, students and staff and most especially Veronica, Yireldi and Eileen (who made a Ludelphia doll! wait till you see!)

And oh my goodness, the QUILTS! There must have been a dozen of them on display, each with a story to tell. I did my best to take pictures of each. They deserve a blog post all their own! Here's me with some young literacy volunteers with the dynamic, amazing Karen from K is for Kids Foundation. Y'all, there are people in the world doing some really good things. Karen is one of them.

And what to say about #siba12? I loved seeing booksellers I've worked with previously as well as ones who were new to me. I also loved meeting all sorts of authors and was thrilled to run into Sharon Cameron, tireless SCBWI-Midsouth volunteer whose debut novel THE DARK UNWINDING is on shelves now! Yes, I got myself a signed copy. Congratulations, Sharon! And definitely click on her name - one of the coolest websites ever!
Finally, here's a picture of the middle grade panel: Ellis Weiner, moi, the lovely, busy! Shannon Messenger, Kelly (our fearless moderator who operates Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, VA) and Adam-Troy Castro. I had special fun during our signing getting to know the guys, both of whom have long written for adult audiences and are now writing for children. Keep 'em coming, fellas!

And, well, that's not all...but it's all for now. Thanks so much for sharing the adventure with me!

Friday, September 7, 2012


I am away from my desk (having fun at #siba12), but I wanted to share with you the list I've populated over the past couple of weeks as I have savored The Poetry Friday Anthology compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong.

Here's some Twitter handles for contributors to that anthology, and others. If you are not on the list and would like to be, please leave your Twitter handle in comments!

And don't forget to visit lovely Katya at Write. Sketch. Repeat. for Poetry Friday roundup!


Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Heading to the airport today for sunny Naples, Florida, where the SIBA Trade Show will get in full swing beginning Thursday evening.

My part won't happen until Friday, when I share a panel called "Twins, Takers & Middle Grade Stars."

Moderator:  Kelly Justice, Fountain Bookstore
Adam Troy-CastroGustav Gloom and the People Taker
Ellis Weiner, The Templeton Twins have an Idea (Chronicle Books)
Irene LathamDon’t Feed the Boy (Roaring Brook Press)
Shannon Messenger, Keeper of the Lost Cities (Simon & Schuster)

And what will I be doing until Friday?

Well. I have a school visit! Yep, I am thrilled to be visiting Golden Gate High School! I made a special connection with this school and awesome media specialist Veronica Perinon last year during a Skype visit. And now we get to meet in person

Yay for meeting indie booksellers and students and book-lovers of all ages! EXCITED!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


"There are three infallible ways of pleasing an author...

1, to tell him you have read one of his books;

2, to tell him you have read all of his books;

3, to ask him to let you read the manuscript of his forthcoming book.

No. 1 admits you to his respect; No. 2 admits you to his admiration; No. 3 carries you clear into his heart."

- Mark Twain

Truly, it is gift when someone is willing to wade through early drafts of a novel... Thank you to all my wonderful beta readers! Where would I be without you?!

Monday, September 3, 2012


You know how you imagine things one way, and they turn out to be something completely different?

Yeah. Well, it happens to writers all the time, especially as they move from pre-published to published. Which is why this month over at Smack Dab in the Middle our theme is "Misconceptions."

Today it's my turn! You can read my post here.

Now I'm off to put away my white shoes.

Wishing everyone a relaxing (labor-less) Labor Day!