Be Better…

She makes you want to be a better…

… friend






She’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal (AKR). An amazing leader of kindness, a creative writer, a filmmaker, an exceptional thinker. Yesterday I visited the Carrie Secrist Gallery in Chicago to see the Amy Krouse Rosenthal: A Beauty Salon exhibit. It was moving, magical, thoughtful, creative, heartfelt; I could go on and on about how unbelievable it was. The beautiful gallery was filled with a huge yellow wall with words of truth and kindness, beanbags, coffee, AKR’s work, movies and of course books, lots of her gorgeous books. I love her books, I love her word play, I love her out-the-box thinking. She has so many wonderful books and you’re missing out if you haven’t read one, or let’s be honest, every single one of them.

If you’re around the city in the next few days, definitely stop in the gallery, the exhibit closes on August 12th.  

If you’re not in the city and aren’t able to make it before then, here are a few highlights from my day today:

Her work and her ideas…

The amazing “I Was Here” wall…

It is meant to be interactive. A place you can share your thoughts, drawings, sign your name or respond to a prompt. Some of my favorites were:

While the prompt changed a few times throughout the exhibit, yesterday it said, “Think about what ATM stands for in your mind, grab one of these pens, and write it.”

To Amy, ATM stood for Always Trust Magic. Here are some ATM’s. Mine is up there somewhere. What would you write?

The movie that made me tear up…

The Money Tree

I leave you with this (even though it wasn’t in the exhibit) but because you’re a reader of our blog, which most likely means you’re a booklover like us, just marvel at a video AKR made of her Book-Filled House (you can find more of her videos on her blog).

Inspired? Exhilarated? Want to do something kind? You can…you can read her books to children, you can participate in acts of kindness, you can donate to the AKR Yellow Umbrella Foundation, you can do something, anything that shares happiness, love and kindness with others.

What’s an Infinity Year?

3 ?s  about The Infinity Year of Avalon James

What are three words you use to describe your book?

Real, Magical, Exciting (I hope…)

How did you come up with the idea behind the infinity year? Is your book fantasy, and the infinity year a real thing that actually happens?  Or is it realistic fiction and the infinity year was something made up by his grandfather?

Well, that all depends on the reader.  I’ve been very pleased that kids completely buy into the magic of the Infinity Year. It doesn’t even occur to them that it might be something made up by the grandfather. Adults are usually more on the fence about it. And I’m happy to leave them there!

Where it came from – here’s the truth. The Infinity Year originally came to me from the thought that an infinity sign is really a sideways eight — and Avalon and Atticus were eight years old in the first draft. Then, my perceptive agent, Susan Hawk, broke the news to me that Avalon was not an eight year old (in her voice and manner) but a ten year old. So, I had to rework the Infinity Year completely. Of course, that completely freaked me out but after all this time, I like it better the way it is now.

What thoughts about friendship do you want kids to walk away with when they are done reading?

That friendship is fragile and friendship is strong. Avalon and Atticus are not alike but they care deeply for each other and their differences end up being part of the glue that holds them together. I want kids to know it’s important to choose friends who are loyal, brave, kind, and fun and that it’s also important to be that kind of friend.

3 ?s about You

If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be and why?

A photographer. A singer. A tightrope walker. But it’s probably a good idea I stick with writer.

What is one book that has stuck with you since you’ve read it?

I recently finished Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley and that stuck with me. I’m a sucker for a magical world and I loved how Cassie created a beautiful and challenging story about a grandson and grandfather. And she’s from Georgia, like me, so that’s cool, too.

What is one item in your fridge that tells us about you?

Can it be from my freezer? There’s a cookie in there from the book launch of The Infinity Year of Avalon James, frozen since October. It’s not a regular cookie, mind. It’s a cookie  with a picture of the book on top and it’s the greatest cookie I’ve ever seen in my entire life!

Happy Book Birthday to…Refugee!!

Refugee is amazing…Refugee is significant…Refugee is thought-provoking…Refugee is unbelievable but surprisingly historical fiction!

Alan Gratz, author and creator of Refugee, was kind enough to step away from his very busy schedule of moving, writing his new book, getting ready for the launch of Refugee, raising his 14 year old daughter and hosting the last local pub trivia game after 7 years to hangout with Storymamas for an hour to discuss Refugee.

According to Alan, in three words, Refugee is:

  1. Action-packed (he decided to make it a hyphenated one-word word)

“I write books I don’t want kids to put down.”

  1. Important

He really didn’t want to use this word to describe his own book, he’s very humble, but he said it’s  because supporting refugee children is important to him, important for kids to know what is happening today and what has happened in the past, important to bring attention to refugees. So important, in fact, that Alan has tried to volunteer his home to host refugee families, but he lives in the ‘boonies’ and it’s better for refugees to live in bigger cities where there are more opportunities and a larger support system. So instead he gives money to causes like Save the Children and UNICEF. He’s such an amazing author and person he’s even giving a portion of the proceeds made from the book sales of Refugee to UNICEF to support refugee children around the world. Is that not enough reason to buy the book and read it, if not for our words of love for this wonderful book?! 😉

  1. Harrowing

This book focuses on some pretty scary stuff. When Alan does school visits he asks thought-provoking questions to help kids imagine life as a refugee child, and the answers to these questions are harrowing:

-Who of the three characters would you be?

-When you leave your house, where do you go?

-If you leave your country, can you get out, will other countries let you in, where would you go?

-What will you put in your backpack?

-What 10 things that fit in your backpack would you take with?

-When you get to the new place you’ll live, are you going to walk into the same grade level classroom or will you have to go back to 4th grade at the age of 14 because you don’t speak the language?


The Birth of Refugee

Interestingly enough Alan wasn’t planning on writing this book, he was planning to write a story about the youngest kid who joined the navy, but when presented to the sales department he was told this book was already being written. WHAT?! Can you imagine being an author, having an idea, doing preliminary research and being told your idea is already being written?! But nonetheless, he’s a dedicated author and this didn’t deter him. He had to come up with a new idea, a new book. He thought the story of the MS. St Louis, a boat carrying Jewish refugees from Germany during WWII heading to Cuba, was an interesting one but that there wasn’t enough there for an entire book. Then during the late winter of 2015, he went on vacation with his family to the Florida Keys. One morning he went for a walk on the beach and saw sitting there in the sand, a raft. Not the raft you are probably imagining, a life raft full of air, but this raft was made of metal roofing from a shed wrapped around sideways, 2 by 4’s, a motorcycle engine and inside were sitting wet clothes, 2 liter bottles of water and candy they had used on their journey.  Alan and his family were changed from that moment on thinking about how when they were sleeping in their comfy hotel, refugees came to America. While they were sitting by the pool reading books, this family was trying to survive on a makeshift raft. Alan went home, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the scene on the beach.

Then walking his dog one day, back from vacation, a story, a novella as he called it, started to be born based on his knowledge of the MS St. Louis, the visions of the raft in the Keys, most likely from Cuba, and the constant, terrifying news stories about Syria. It left him feeling like he needed to do something, something needed to be written, and so once he ended his travel he outlined, researched and began to write Refugee.

Alan admitted when writing, he works the hardest on creating characters, writing interesting, impactful characters. The plot, no problem, he loves writing the plot, he’s a “plot junky”, but when he needs to create characters he writes more than just an outline, he writes a character sheet for each one. He knows how imperative it is to write characters who the reader can connect with, characters who the reader understands. So with Refugee he knew he needed to create the three characters: Mahmoud, Josef and Isabel on and off the page. He needed to share their background stories, those ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories, answer the question who are they now but really, what made them that way?

He wants readers to wonder and think deeply about his characters. He wants readers to think about:

*Why is Mahmoud invisible? Why does he want to be invisible? Why does he embrace that?

*Why does Josef want to grow up to be an adult all of the sudden?

*What are Isabel’s hopes and dreams? Why is she scared of the water? What happened with her grandmother, how does that haunt her and maybe hold her back from what she needs to do?

But developing these stories took a lot of work, research and thought. Because Alan was writing a book about three different characters, in three different time periods, his research was different. The research about Josef, the Jewish refugee, was done in a more traditional research method of checking out books and taking notes. But the stories about Isabel, the Cuban refugee, and Mahmoud, the Syrian refugee, he explained, were much more difficult since these two stories are more recent. While the characters are fictional, everything that happens to his characters were real accounts taken from current reporting resources like magazine and newspaper articles, so finding those stories took a lot more time and effort.

One quote Alan goes back to often when talking about this book is by Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children,  “Every war is a war against the child.” Children are the ones paying the price for war, whether it’s war or famine. His book is less about why they had to leave and more about what they do to survive and thus he developed characters who showed bravery even in a time of huge sacrifice and challenge. He also wanted to give each character ownership over their journey because in a time of tragedy, a time of suffering, kids are the ones who suffer the most since they are unable take action, unlike adults. Once you meet his characters and hear their stories, you will be forever changed, forever empathetic, and maybe like us you will wonder if you were in these situations what you would have done, could you have survived all they endure?

The Process of Writing

Alan, like many authors, has a system for writing and it goes something like this; a month of researching, a month of outlining, a month for his first draft and then a long process of drafting and editing, drafting and editing and finally publishing. He usually takes every three months off from traveling to do author visits and such so he can do the actual writing of his books.

The way Alan outlines his books is very interesting. Here’s a sneak peak of his ‘book board’.

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Each notecard is a chapter in the book. We were curious about where the notecards and outlines go once he is done with the writing. He is too much of a sentimentalist to throw them away and what’s really cool is that a lot of universities collect author’s work. He gives his work to the University of Central Florida in honor of one of his beloved professors who taught him to use YA in the classroom, Tedd Hipple. So if you’re curious you can head to the university, read his book and look at his process for Refugee as well as his other books and those of other authors.

Who is Alan Gratz?

A new career…Interestingly enough if Alan wasn’t an author he would be a game show host because he loves game shows. He grew up watching them and with his trivia hosting gig he probably would make an amazing game show host!

An influential book….One book that has stuck with Alan through the years is Tuck Everlasting because it tackled the topic of death as being a natural part of the cycle of life. As a kid he was so afraid to die, he was preoccupied with his own death. He hadn’t read about death in this context before and so in 7th grade this book had a large impact on him. While he doesn’t reread books often, this one has been reread many times and he even read it to his daughter.

The fridge….Something very interesting we learned about Alan was that he has very little in his fridge. If you looked inside every day would be the same. You would find a round glass bowl with pizza dough in it, because every night for dinner, since 8th grade, he eats a cheese pizza. According to his math he has eaten about 30,000 pizzas in his life. Sounds delicious! So if you ever invite Alan to eat with you, make sure there is pizza at the restaurant!

Storymamas were changed by Refugee and we highly recommend picking up a copy today!

To learn more Alan Gratz checkout his website or follow him on twitter & instagram

Perfection in Finding Perfect

We had the Opportunity to meet with Elly Swartz, creator and author of the book Finding Perfect, and the not yet released Smart Cookie, coming out January 2018. All three storymamas agree Finding Perfect is a book that will stick with us forever. Elly chatted about her book, her journey as an author and what you might expect to find in her refrigerator.


Finding Perfect is a story about Molly who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It is a story about her difficult and emotional journey trying to navigate through middle school with this disease no one knows she has, including herself.

One of the many reasons we fell in love with Finding Perfect was because it’s a book filled with  emotion through Elly’s words and her development of characters. Elly describes her book using three words: heartfelt, authentic and informative. As non-writers we can only imagine how difficult it must be to write a book with such feeling and emotion, but Elly explained that it wasn’t really an easy or hard book to write, just that it was emotional. Many times she would be writing through tears because the emotions her characters were experiencing were her own. While she doesn’t have OCD, she has friends and friend’s children who do have OCD, and she explained in order to create authentic characters it is important to allow the emotions in your own life to guide your writing. While writing this book she would go back to the places in her own life where her heart was hurting. She went to the difficult or dark places in order to create authenticity.

Elly’s hope after writing this book was for it to become universally relatable, and in our opinion, it completely is. As readers, teachers, and mothers, we were able to connect and feel for Molly throughout the book. This is one of those books that makes you gain a better understanding of not only someone struggling with OCD, but also feel empathy for those struggling with any type of anxiety or stress, which is a part of everyone’s life. Children and adults are constantly looking for how to connect with others and when there is a disconnect it can be very scary. Elly explained that there are moments when we all think, ‘What’s going on with me? I’m so scared to find out, scared to actually know and scared to tell anyone there is something going on.’ We all have to overcome hard and difficult things that can feel scary and Elly wants to make sure kids know they aren’t alone in that journey. She wants kids to know nobody’s perfect and no one’s life is untainted by difficult moments.


When Elly writes she usually has a morning routine that goes something like this…

  1. Walk the dog
  2. Workout
  3. Shower
  4. Get dressed
  5. “Put her brain on”

But when she’s really in it, there are times she doesn’t get out of her pajamas, has her coffee, and the next thing she knows she has missed lunch because she’s in the zone.

However, just like other writers, Elly can sometimes get stuck. When she does, her trick is to go somewhere she usually doesn’t associate with her writing, like a coffee shop or to head to the doctor’s office an hour early. This way she says no one sees her and no one sees what she’s doing and there is no pressure.

After talking with Elly for over an hour we learned she is a very dedicated and persistent person, in all the best ways possible. Fifteen years ago her writing journey began, she had read Mick Harte was Here by Barbara Park with her then 4th grade son, and while reading, she felt so many emotions; she was so moved that she decided she wanted to be a storyteller. She started writing, writing, writing. Young writers would be very surprised to know that her journey to getting Finding Perfect published was a long and hard one. Finding Perfect wasn’t her first book, it was actually the 5th book she wrote and it took 8 years to write. Talk about persistence! Even after getting the book sold she spent four years working with a pediatric specialist to make sure her story was authentic and relatable. She wanted to get it right and it was imperative to do so out of respect for the OCD community.

Interestingly though Elly has had many other jobs as well as being a writer. She’s a lawyer and for twenty years she wrote and edited law books with her father-in-law and her husband. Six years ago she started a business to help families navigate the college entrance process. She has a love for helping kids in such a pivotal time in their lives. But she’s been writing all along.


One would think with the very long, and what sounds like a difficult, journey to publish her first book, she would give up, but no. Like we said, she’s extremely persistent. She has a very strong support system and that helped when she wasn’t getting published. Even with the rejection she said, “I love writing more than I hate rejection.” She would give herself 48 hours to be mad or sad but every time she’d end up back in her chair writing. Elly compares writing to the switchback trails in hiking saying, “you see a lot of gems along the way that you wouldn’t have seen if you went straight down”. During the fifteen year journey of writing this book she was fortunate enough to be a part of a writing community where she learned a lot about herself and met some of her closest friends who helped her writing along the way.

When we speak to our students during their own writing, some advice Elly gives is to use your senses in your writing because it helps create authenticity. How does something taste, feel, smell, etc. But they don’t have to be huge moments, they can be “the little slivers in life.” Use what you have; the emotions you’ve experienced to write. Even as simple as the best pizza ever!


Inside of Elly’s fridge you can find:

  • Vanilla Coffee-mate because she always starts her day with a humongous cup of coffee
  • In the summer a bottle of white wine because that is how she ends her day
  • Lots of green vegetables, salads
  • Something yummy that she will cook that night because she likes to cook
  • Twizzlers (not in the fridge but around the house all over) because she love them and so does Molly, and she can eat them because of her allergies.

Storymamas highly recommends Finding Perfect and we hope you will pick up a copy because it is truly amazing. It will make you feel so many emotions while reading. It will make you want to hug Molly, the main character. It will make you want to read her next book too Smart Cookie.

Check out Elly’s website to learn even more about her.

Week in Review

This week we shared books about art, history, science and had our first book giveaway! See below for a review of the books we are loving this week! Also, follow us on Instagram and/or Twitter @storymamas to find out why we loved these books! You can also click on the link for each book to find more about the authors and illustrators!

Louise Loves Art by Kelly Light

Greenglass House by Kate Milford and Jaime Zollars 

This Book Thinks Your a Scientist by London Science Museum and Harriet Russell 

The Legend of Old Abe A Civil War Eagle by Kathy-jo Wargin and Laurie Caple

Today by Julie Morstad

What Will I Be by Nicola Davies and Marc Boutavant

Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

Frazzled by Booki Vivat

Ordinary People Change the World series by Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos


Two Weeks in Review…

We’ve shared the following books to start up our newest hashtag #storymamasbookaday

I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld

Curious George Goes to the Bookstore by Margret & H.A. Rey’s

El Perro con Sombrerro by Derek Taylor Kent and Jed Henry

Adopt a Glurb by Elise Gravel

Dragons Love Tacos 2 The Sequel by Adam Rubinstein and Dan Salmieri

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and Leuyen Pham

Good News, Bad News; Look; Ah Ha; Frog and Fly by Jeff Mack

The Airport Book by Lisa Brown

Mouse Makes Words by Kathryn Heling, Deborah Hembrook and Patrick Joseph

Red Riding Hood, Superhero by Otis Frampton; Ninja-rella by Joey Comeau and Omar Lozano; Snow White and the Seven Robots by Louise Simonson and Jimena Sanchez; Super Billy Goats Gruff by Sean Tulien and Fern Cano

Mine by Jeff Mack

Little Red Gliding Hood by Tara Lazar and Troy Cummings

Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo

Mother Bruce, Hotel Bruce and Be Quiet by Ryan T. Higgins


It’s been two weeks Stories About Stories has been sharing a book a day on Instagram and Twitter @storymamas. If you aren’t already following make sure you do! We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about some of the books we are reading and loving right now.

What is one book you didn’t know about before that you’re excited to read with your children or your students?

Books That are Better Than TV…

Where’s Waldo…remember this awesome book as a kid?

A few months ago my nieces, nephews and my kids were altogether. This doesn’t happen often so it was a treat to spend time together. My favorite parts of the day where when we would wind down and read together. Since my kids are the youngest, many of my nieces and nephews took turns reading to my boys. We brought out our old copies of the Where’s Waldo series, the ones my sister and I would sit around for hours trying to find Waldo, the Wizard and all the missing items. These types of interactive books are awesome! Pop-up books have always been a favorite in my house since my three year old was small enough to interact with books. He still loves the pop-up books but now there are so many books that go beyond those classics; they give you something to explore, problem solve and think about it in a new way. Here are a few of my favorite interactive books:

Let’s Play by Herve Tullet (or any of his books)

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The Odd One Out, Where’s the Pair and Where Did they Go? by Britta Teckentrup

Move by Lolly Hopwood and Yoyo Kusters

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Spot It! by Delphine Chedru

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Who Done It? and Who What Where? by  Olivier Tallec

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Where’s Walrus and Where’s Walrus & Penguin by Stephen Savage

Before After by Matthias Arégui and Anne-Margot Ramstein
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This is Not a Book by Jean Jullien

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One Thousand Things: learn your first words with Little Mouse by Anna Kovecses

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It’s Finally Here…

It’s our first year of #holidaybookaday! The theme: open a new December holiday book every night until the end of the year. This could include books about Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve. Over this past year my fellow blogger, Kim and I have been adding to a “Countdown to the new year” booklist we created together. I have been so excited about starting this tradition with my boys that I actually prepared and wrapped all the books prior to even Thanksgiving! J opened up his first book last night because I couldn’t wait to get started. I’m not sure if he will share in my excitement but I’ve been talking it up and I’m hoping he will enjoy this book journey as much as I know I will. What I’m most excited about is having a variety of holidays represented in our book list. I think experiencing these various holidays through stories will bring about many teachable moments. Feel free to join us on this #holidaybookaday journey over the next month by following the hashtag on Instagram!

Our books all wrapped and ready!
Opening the first book!
Christmas Is… by Gail Gibbons
The second book!
The Christmas ABCs by Jill Howarth

Authors as Celebrities…

In my last post I wrote about the love my 3-year old son has for the book Truck Stuck by Sallie Wolf. I decided as I was writing my last blog post to email Sallie and tell her just how much we love her book and I sent her the link to this blog so she could read our accolades. Here is the email I sent:

Hi Sallie,

I have now read your book, Truck Stuck at least 40 times since we rented it from the library. My three year old son even took it to preschool because he listed it as one of two of his favorite books of all time thus far. I told him we had to return it to the library so others could enjoy it and he started crying! Of course as a book lover I immediately said, “Don’t worry, we can order our own copy so we can have one to keep.” He was so excited and tears stopped. Before returning your book to the library though I read him the author’s information. When I read the part about you living in Chicago (where we live as well) he was so surprised and excited. He put his hands to his mouth and gasped. He said, “that’s so cool!” Anyway I just wanted to say thank you so much for bringing such joy to my sons reading life. I have started a blog with two friends of mine who are also teachers and moms and wanted to share this post I recently wrote because it’s about your book. 🙂

All the best,


I wasn’t expecting much. However, the next day I opened my email and instantly smiled. I was so excited to not only see a comment on the blog from Sallie but to find an email from her as well! I read it halfway through and then I had to share the excitement with someone so I started reading it over again to my husband. I was ecstatic! I couldn’t wait to share with my little guy that a real live author wrote back but I wanted to wait until we got her books in the mail to share with him. Here is the email she wrote to us:

Hi, Ashley,

There’s nothing an author likes to hear more than that someone enjoys her book. Please tell your son that this book is really a Chicago book—and I had trouble finding a publisher until I submitted to an editor outside of New York City. In Chicago we hear about trucks being stuck under viaducts pretty frequently. In NYC they call them “underpasses” and  editors there questioned if a young child would understand the word Viaduct. Of course they do! It’s such a fun word!

I live in Oak Park where the el tracks run right through town and there are quite a few viaducts which trucks must negotiate. I’ve seen stuck trucks numerous times and that’s how I first got the idea for this story. Truck Stuck will be coming out as a board book in Jan. and I hope to have a book release party at The Magic Tree Bookstore, in Oak Park, on Lake St. Perhaps you and your son can come to the Magic Tree and we might meet and I can sign his book.

Happy Reading!


Sallie Wolf

The day we got Sallie’s books in the mail of course J requested that night to read Truck Stuck and Peter’s Trucks. As we were reading Truck Stuck I told J the author wrote us back. You should’ve seen his smile, he was grinning from ear to ear and said, “WHAT?! She wrote us a letter!” I read him the letter and when we got the part about writing about the underpass he said, “wait underpants?! WHAT?!” (and yes he actually does use that much expression when he speaks). Through our laughter I explained to him what an underpass was and we looked at the picture together. For what it’s worth he did like the word ‘Viaduct’ much better than ‘underpass’. 🙂 When I read to him the part about the book release party he said, “We can go right now?” I said, “no not until January.” Then J started singing the month song (since it starts with January). Oh the mind of a three-year-old is just so amazing!

The next book we read that night was Sallie’s other book Peter’s Trucks. J said that he didn’t think it could be as good as Truck Stuck but as we read it he enjoyed it just as much and even made a connection to the concrete mixer that was in both books.

I think it’s safe to say that both J and I have a new celebrity author crush! Neither of us can wait until the book release party to meet Sallie in person! Thanks for the invite!


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