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Pat Booksby Pat Zietlow Miller

I have a confession to make.

But you can’t tell anyone, OK?

I’m not fond of historical fiction.

I’m a huge reader with wide-ranging interests, so it pains me to say there’s a genre I don’t particularly like—especially when I know many writers who are working hard to create very valuable books in it. It also pains me because I’m smart enough to know that there’s probably historical fiction out there I would like if I got past my prejudice that historical fiction is all 800-page tomes full of hoop skirts, archaic language and obscure references.

So knowing that about me, what genre would you guess my latest picture book belongs to?

Yup. Historical fiction.


What can I say? Life is funny sometimes.

Interestingly enough, it’s not like I set out to write historical fiction. I kind of stumbled into it. I was initially writing a book called THE FASTEST FEET ON FLEET STREET, set in current times, about two girls competing to see who was the better runner, jumper and double-dutch rope skipper.

But the story needed something more. I wasn’t sure what.

The answer came from a discussion with an editor at a writing conference. She suggested anchoring it in a specific time. That one suggestion set off the proverbial light bulb. I immediately thought of Wilma Rudolph.

I knew the outline of Wilma’s story—overcoming polio and other illnesses as a child to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the fastest woman in the world—but not exactly when it had taken place. Research was obviously required.

I used to work as a newspaper reporter, so I know how to conduct research and interview and generally find things out. That part felt familiar as I read books, searched online and emailed experts.

And, as happens anytime I conduct research, l learned things. Things that fit right in with the story I was writing. My research filled in the gaps in my story, strengthened the weak parts and gave it the needed oomph, for want of a more technical term. Soon, the story’s title was THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, a nod to Wilma’s hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.

I was able to weave in facts about the poverty Wilma grew up in and how her hometown was segregated during her youth. I also learned that Wilma paved the way for the town’s eventual integration by insisting that her victory parade in 1960 be open to everyone.

I wrote an author’s note. Got the rights to use a photo of the real-life Wilma riding in her parade.

Before I knew it, I had a historical fiction picture book. That I liked. Maybe it was time to rethink my priorities.

So, when my middle-school daughter came home and grumpily said she had to read a historical fiction book and she didn’t want to because all historical fiction was “boring,” I did not agree with her.

Instead, I put out a call to my online friends and soon had a list of more than 50 historical fiction middle-grade titles they recommended. My daughter and I spent an evening at the library looking some up. She left with THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS and TWERP, while I left with TURTLE IN PARADISE and AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS.

While I still wouldn’t say historical fiction is my favorite genre, I now know that I like it more than I used to.

And I’d certainly be open to writing some again.

As I researched, I found great quotes by Wilma that apply to any era. Here are a few:



Thank you, Pat! Sometimes agents and editors advise writers, “This story needs another layer.” You found yours in historical fiction! 

I’m giving away a copy of this spunky book! Just leave a comment to enter and a winner will be randomly selected in early March!

??????????You know I love lists. I’m a listophile. This blog features t a list of 500+ Things that Kids Like, Things They DON’T Like, and a list of over 200 fun, cool and interesting words. List-o-mania! List-o-rama! The lister! (Pretend I’m talking in Rob Schneider’s SNL “annoying office guy” voice.)

Today I invited debut author Darlene Beck Jacobson to the blog to share the Top 10 Toys and Candies of the early 1900’s, the time when times, well, they were a-changin’. It was also the time during her new middle grade novel, WHEELS OF CHANGE! (Don’t you just LOVE that cover?)

TOP TEN TOYS OF 1900-1920

  1. Teddy Bear (1902)—in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt who, on a hunting trip, had an opportunity to kill a bear and didn’t.
  2. Erector Set—invented by AC Gilbert, a gold medal Olympian in the 1908 Pole Vault.
  3. Lionel Trains (1901)
  4. Lincoln Logs (1916)
  5. Raggedy Ann Doll
  6. Radio Flyer Wagon (1917)
  7. Tinker Toys (1914)
  8. Crayola Crayons 8 pack (1903)
  9. Tin Toys
  10. Tiddlywinks

Other popular toys of the time  included: Baseball Cards (1900), Ping Pong (1901), Jigsaw Puzzle (1909), Snap Card Game, playing cards, marbles, checkers, chess, yo-yos, wooden tops and (of course) dolls.

Let’s see, what would the top 10 toys of today be? I think Teddy Bears might still have a shot at it. Maybe Crayola crayons, too. But I bet no one back then could envision an app being the most popular toy. (An app? they might say. You mean a tiny apple?)

Now let’s devour the top tasty treats of the era!


  1. Candy Corn (1880-s)
  2. Juicy Fruit Gum, Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum (1893)
  3. Tootsie Rolls (1896)
  4. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar (1900) with Almonds (1908)
  5. Necco Wafers (1901)
  6. Conversation Hearts (1902)
  7. Brach Wrapped Caramels (1904)
  8. Hershey Milk Chocolate Kisses (1906)
  9. Peppermint Lifesavers (1912)

Hmm, I think Hershey would still rank pretty high today. But my kids love Sour Patch and Fun Dip and AirHeads and all kinds of gross things now. Give me a Hershey’s any day (although make it a Cookies-n-Cream bar).

Last night was back-to-school night at my daughter’s elementary, and I’m astounded every year when the principal says, “Our children will be working in fields  that haven’t even been invented yet.” That’s how fast things are moving. I’m sure in another hundred years the top toys will be time machines and molecular transporters that will bring the catchphrase “Beam me up, Scotty” back in style.

Today’s world is moving fast, and that tempo is paralleled in WHEELS OF CHANGE with racial intolerance, social change and sweeping progress. It is a turbulent time growing up in 1908. For twelve year old EMILY SOPER, life in Papa’s carriage barn is magic. Emily is more at homehearing the symphony of the blacksmith’s hammer, than trying to conform to the proper expectations of females. Many prominent people own Papa’s carriages. He receives an order to make one for President Theodore Roosevelt. Papa’s livelihood becomes threatened by racist neighbors, and horsepower of a different sort. Emily is determined to save Papa’s business even if she has to go all the way to the President.

Sounds exciting, right? IT IS!

And guess what, you have yet another chance to win another book! Leave a comment stating what YOU think the #1 toy and #1 candy is right now, in 2014. You have until the last seconds of September 29th to enter. The winner receives WHEELS OF CHANGE.

To learn more about Darlene Beck Jacobsen and WHEELS OF CHANGE, visit


Tara and Darlene at NJ-SCBWI 2013!


Who are Tara and Mike? Think of Ebert and Roeper–but discussing children’s books instead of movies. This week we’re giving two bookmarks up to Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino (Roaring Brook Press, May 2009).

“Muscle Man McGinty is a squirrelly runt, a lying snake, and a pitiful excuse for a ten-year old. The problem is…only I can see him for what he really is.”

Tara: So Mike, what attracted you to Neil Armstrong is My Uncle?

Mike Jung: Well, Tara, it was partly the cover (the moon, it’s a very evocative image), partly Nan being a Blueboarder and seeming like a decent sort, and partly the title, which really spoke to me somehow—I instantly felt like there was a story right there in the title. Why’d you read it?

Tara: The title especially drew me in. Even though it mentions the first man on the moon, I didn’t realize the story took place during the summer of 1969, so I was pleasantly surprised. I became immersed in the summers of my childhood, anticipating the arrival of the ice cream truck, just like the kids on Ramble Street.

Before I read it, I imagined Muscle Man McGinty was some sideshow freak at a local carnival. I’m glad he turned out to be a scrawny ten-year-old instead.

Mike: Ha! I was caught off-guard by the time period too. 1969 was the veeeeeery beginning of my time (I was born in the summer of ’69) so it didn’t trigger any memories, but I thought the setting was so vivid, and so lovingly created, that I was immersed in it right away. And I had the same thought about Muscle Man McGinty! I also loved the character he turned out to be—so much sadness, courage, generosity and patience rolled up in one runty little kid.

Tara: Uh, maybe I shouldn’t have dated myself like that. 1969 was before my time, but still, if you remove the historical backdrop—Vietnam and the lunar landing—the story has a timeless feel. It felt like 1979 in my neighborhood, but it could easily take place in 2009, although the kids would be wearing bike helmets and the adults would be talking about Afghanistan and flying cars. If we had flying cars, that is.

What about the novel hooked you?

Mike: I was hooked by more than one thing—the setting, as I mentioned, was superb—but it was the characters that really grabbed me, especially Tammy. I love the voice of Tammy. She’s an incredibly genuine, multi-faceted, fully-realized character. In my eyes, one of the ways to create a successful protagonist is to put all their flaws on glaring, unmistakable display, but still make them sympathetic and understandable. Tammy often comes across as self-involved, oblivious and sullen in all the normal 10-year-old ways—she’s not some kind of villain, but she’s also not super-cuddly and lovable. I loved her anyway.

Tara: Confession: I didn’t love Tammy all the way through the novel. But I loved that I didn’t love her. I can’t recall the last time I felt such conflicting emotion over a main character. I rooted for her, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with her actions. The narration was brilliant because it revealed Tamara’s world so slowly, making you trust her implicitly at first, but toward the end you realized she could be her own antagonist. It felt like that Oscar Wilde song by Company of Thieves: “We are all our own devil.” Tammy wants what she wants and she doesn’t see what she needs to see. I’m being very cryptic, aren’t I?

And I also have to admit, I loved liar Muscle Man more than Tammy sometimes. The way he complimented Tammy’s pitching during the Muscle-Man-against-the-whole-neighborhood kickball game was hilarious because it infuriated Tammy. She wanted to expose him as a loser and he wanted a friend. Muscle Man had a big heart and he was desperate to fill it up.

Why would you recommend this book?

Mike: YOU ARE BEING TERRIBLY CRYPTIC. No problem, though, it’ll keep your blog readers on their toes, show ’em life is real, etc. I agree about the gradual reveal of Tammy’s world—her dysfunctional family, her envy toward the neighbors, her brother and his friend—it unfolds beautifully. There are moments when Muscle Man just broke my heart—you got it exactly right, such a big heart and such desperate attempts to fill it up.

Ultimately that’s why I’d recommend the book, it has tremendous heart. The characters have so much emotional depth, there are moments of real poignancy, and the book ended with the perfect mixture of loneliness, grief, solace, reconciliation and hope. This book is a tour de force, and I’m gonna pounce on Nan’s next one.

Tara: Mike, there’s nothing left to say because you’ve said it all. All the puzzle pieces came together at the end in a very satisfying way, but I still see opportunity for a sequel. Nan, could you get on that right away, please?

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me
by Nan Marino
Roaring Brook Press
May, 2009
Want it? Sure you do!

Blog Guest

Thanks to blog guest Mike Jung for the book banter.

Mike Jung has delusions of galactic conquest–lunar death beams, interstellar armadas, alien flunkies, etc.–but he probably has better odds for achieving notoriety by elbowing his way into the realm of published middle-grade fiction writers. He therefore restricts his empire-building activities to Twitter, which is better anyway because he doesn’t have to get out of his chair. Mike lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter, who exhibit immense patience for all his weirdo tendencies.

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