You can’t tell by book sales. I’m not on the best-seller lists. I’m still able to safely walk through airports without being flagged for autographs.

But the other day I walked into my eight-year old daughter’s class (I was there to volunteer as a writing coach), and I had to wait. I was happy to wait, because Read-Aloud had gone late, and no one wants to interrupt Read-Aloud. Especially WHEN THEY ARE READING YOUR BOOK.

Can Stephen King say that? Has he ever walked into an elementary classroom and watched a whole room of children laugh at his words? Has he waited breathlessly while they try to guess whether Cleo is helping Timber or leading him into a trap, as one child so astutely summarized? (Wise students of literature, these third graders are.) I think not.

I have arrived.

"Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . ."

“Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . .”


Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:


As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)


One Bite at a Time

“I can’t wait until June.” My son’s friend came up to me at lunch today and spoke these words, rousing me from the Good Part of my book. I was supervising the class of fourth graders, who usually talked amongst themselves, played cards, or otherwise stayed occupied with age-appropriate activities. It was an easy gig.

I raised my head, expecting her to say something about the end of school—still eight weeks away. If I were a kid, that’s what I’d be looking forward to. “Hmm? Why’s that?”

“That’s when Timber Howligan comes out!”

Instant panic! I’m only half way through edits, and still have a cover to design. I’m researching the American Humane Society. I’m at least a month behind on blog posts. I’ve been trying really hard not to think about that looming deadline. The last thing I want is to be reminded about all the work I have to do. And at the same time—“That’s really sweet,” I told her. Because it was.

“Have you been working on it?”

“Yes! Yes, of course I have.” I hoped I sounded confident. I didn’t want to turn off one of my only fans. “I’ll keep you posted.”

She bounced off toward her friends, satisfied.

Lately it’s been hard to get back into a writing routine, but that’s one reason I gave myself a deadline—and announced it. When I picked June as the publication date, back in December, it sounded so far away. Plenty of time! Over the past month, as the weather’s gotten warmer and summer has seemed suddenly closer, I’ve done absolutely nothing.

I know a writer writes. I know nothing is supposed to get between me and my craft, or my Muse will stomp off in a huff. I know anything I say is just an excuse. But we took a two week vacation with my family, and you know what? I needed that vacation. So did my family—and my kids needed me. I brought my laptop, I wrote some almost every day, but finding protected time to edit and revise my novel? Nope, that didn’t happen at the beach.

Then we got home, and my cat died. Not in an all of a sudden, over and done with kind of way. More a prolonged kitty hospice kind of thing. It is unbelievable how much time nursing a geriatric, terminally ill cat takes. Not everyone could afford to make that choice, but I did—with a lot of help from her vet—and we made her last week very comfortable.

By the time I picked up my novel again, I felt like another person. I’ve read at least a dozen books since I last worked on it. I’ve stared death in the eyes, watched it come in the middle of the night, breath by breath, and leave nothing behind at the end but a peaceful sigh.

I’m learning not to rush. Deadlines are good—they make things happen. But taking time off to renew myself was good, too. It’s important to write, but it’s also important to have something to write about.

Now I’m back, and I have to remind myself that everything will get done eventually. My husband calls it “eating the elephant,” usually in regards to his big work projects. You can’t possibly eat a giant pachyderm all at once, you have to do it a bite at a time. The same is true for writing a novel, especially if you then decide to take the leap and self-publish it. In the past week, I edited seven chapters and finished a blog post—that’s at least an ear, maybe half a trunk, don’t you think?

Timber Howligan–The art is here!

The interior illustrations for Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat are done! Always trying to support local artists, I hired Wendy H. Wilkins, who is also a children’s writer. Here’s a sneak peek!

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan's office

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan’s office

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

What my kids are reading now

Trying to find something for your child to read? Yep, me too.

For great ideas for middle-grade readers, check out kateywrites, Nerdy Book Club, or Scholastic.com. Don’t forget about your local children’s librarian—if you know even ONE book your child liked, ask for something like it. The Internet is great, but a real librarian is all that with a frontal cortex, a master’s degree, and often a smile. Plus, they have a memory that goes back longer than six months.

We’ve got a nine-year old who reads to the exclusion of taking care of vital needs (sleeping, eating), and a seven-year old who mostly refuses to read independently, for fear we will stop reading to her. Finding fuel to keep both these kids’ fires burning is challenging. The avid reader is picky. The stubborn reader is too, and we’re tired of A-to-Z mysteries (she’s not). The first one was great, but by Q, the formula is…predictable.

Oh, what could the quicksand question be?

Oh, what could the quicksand question be?

Here’s some successes we’ve had recently:

The Seven-Year Old Emerging Reader

—Trying to duplicate the success of Captain Underpants (the first book she read on her own at home), I’ve tried many tricks, but mostly I resort to arguing.

“Just read one paragraph!”
“No. It’s too hard.”
“You can do it!”
“I don’t want to.”
“Just try it!”

Yeah, I know how ridiculous that sounds. My other trick is getting to the good part, and then saying, “Sorry, I’ve gotta go feed the cat.” (Really, I have hungry cats.) Only I come back ten minutes later to find her staring at the same page.

So what finally worked?

I was trying to get her to read things that were too hard. It turns out she really likes those A-to-Z Mysteries for a reason—they’re exactly at her reading level. Right now, she needs that confidence boost. So one night I read her a chapter, and then went to bed. In the morning, she got up and finished the book on her own.

I should have listened to her instead of argued with her.

Same old Nancy, Bess, and George, but with laptops and cellphones.

Same old Nancy, Bess, and George, but with laptops and cellphones.

—The second success was reading her a real novel: We bought her the first Nancy Drew Diaries by Carolyn Keene. She usually balks at longer chapter books, so this was momentous. Some of the words were too complex for her to read on her own (some seven-year olds wouldn’t have a problem with this, but she’s not quite there yet). She loved it, as long as we were reading it TO her. Because I had learned my lesson (see above), I happily read her the whole book, and she happily listened.

Maybe it’s something about those cliffhanger chapters…My son saw us reading to his little sister, and wanted in on the action.

The Nine-Year Old Emerging Reader

Few would consider a nine-year old who can read way above grade level an “emerging reader”, but this article reminded me that reading aloud, even to older children, is still important.

A great book to read aloud to a younger reader, if you don't mind a few swear words and a lot of dead bodies.

A great book to read aloud to a younger reader, if you don’t mind a few swear words and a lot of dead bodies.

So I bought my son Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Sure, I could have set him up with a dictionary. His friend tackled the same book this way, and it’s how I probably would have done it at the same age. There’s nothing wrong with letting kids read complex things, as long as they are given the right tools.

Occasionally, one of those tools may be you reading aloud.

Reading this book to my son gave me a chance to do something I hadn’t done in years—reconnect with him at bedtime. He’d been reading by himself because he could and his sister couldn’t. By reading to him again, I was able to check in: “Did you get what they meant by that?” This book was set in a foreign country almost eighty years ago—there were many things he THOUGHT he got (the words were the same) that meant something else entirely.

Of course, even a nine-year old is too cool to let his mom read to him every night. So he’s back to his usual routine, reading the Guinness Book of World Records, the I Survived series, the Infinity Ring series, Origami Yoda, and anything else that gives him an excuse to stay up long after we tell him to turn off his light.

"One more chapter. I promise....." (Next thing I know, he's on the next BOOK.)

“One more chapter. I promise…..” (Next thing I know, he’s on the next BOOK.)

“Just let me finish the chapter.”
Turns the page.
“Wait, you just started a NEW chapter!”
“Hee hee.”

Though my son hasn’t returned to the mystery genre, reading aloud let us explore something new together: a complex story with mature themes and many new words. My daughter continues to gobble up the whodunits.

It’s no wonder why. They’re usually quick, the tension is high, and there’s always an answer at the end. Kids love a good mystery!  To find more:

Children’s Mystery Series Authors – a list of traditional series

Top Ten Middle-Grade Sleuths – more literary heroes

And though not on either of these lists, Agatha Christie is the Queen of Mysteries for a reason!

Some things are worth waiting for–my experience with a professional editor


Timber Howligan is a silver and gray Maine Coon…just like this one. He’s formidable, not fluffy!

There are so many good things about being a writer—author Katey Howes captures most of them in this post: http://kateywrites.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/an-almost-objective-look-at-choosing-a-writing-career-illustrated/.  I happen to agree with all of these, especially the part about showing up to work in pajamas, and loving it so much you sometimes forget to pick your kids up from school (although, strictly speaking, that is not a good thing if it happens too often).

Over a year ago, I decided to “be” a writer. I wish I could say I’ve forged ahead, guns blazing, conquering all obstacles in my way like my secret agent cat hero, Timber Howligan. Russian spies? Vicious guard dogs? Wily rabbits? No problem for Timber Howligan.

Oh. You haven’t heard of Timber Howligan yet? Er, that’s because the book isn’t published yet. It’s not, um, actually done.

My path has been more like the novel that gets rewritten seven times.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. More for taking a hard look at the first 65,000 words I ever wrote, and realizing…

Wow. That needs work.

Back in November, I thought the book was done. Almost signed, too—with a local independent publisher, but a publisher nonetheless. Obviously there would be one more round of edits, but according to the publisher, they’d be quick—she promised to have the book out within six months of signing the contract.

Except she didn’t want to sign the contract right away. Okaaaaay….I told myself I wasn’t the one in a hurry. She told me when she would call.

In the meantime, I started having second thoughts. As an independent publisher, she offered little in the way of marketing and not much more in the way of services beyond self-publishing, except she took most of the royalties. I did my homework—I talked to some of the authors who had published with her. I read some of the books she’d published.

I decided that when she called, I had a lot more questions to ask.

However, she never called.

So my “publishing” deal fell through, but to be fair, I kind of let it. I wanted my story not just to be published, but to be good.

In December, I hired a professional editor—Mary Kole, of kidlit.com.

This was by far the best thing I have ever done for my writing.

That book I thought was almost done? Major plot surgery. Serious character work. Right now, it’s on life support. I’ll do my best to stitch it back together—hopefully retaining some of the voice and style and humor that I loved about it to begin with.

They say you have to kill some darlings along the way. This edit may have murdered my baby. But not every first novel is going to see the light of the bookstore shelf.

Then why did I write it? I created a character—Timber Howligan, secret agent cat—who will live forever in the hearts and memories of those who have already read my book. Including my eight-year old son, who stayed up late to finish it and laughed at all the right places. My kids dressed up as Timber Howligan and Lester McMuffin (Timber’s best friend) for Halloween. I WROTE A NOVEL. I know how to do it—and because of the patience and professional help of Mary Kole, I know how to do it better next time.

I’m not giving up on this book—Timber deserves everything I can give him. I love this story. It still makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes I cackle while I’m typing. By the time I’m done with it, it will be a lot better than it would have been before…

And worth waiting for.

My eight-year old’s favorite books

I have an avid reader. He is also a reluctant reader. How can he be both? This is how my son gets into a book:

“Son, what are you reading right now?”


“Why don’t you try….”

A. The 39 Clues

B. How To Train Your Dragon

C. The Mysterious Benedict Society

D. Etc.

“No, thank you.”

“No, really. Pick one.”

Whereupon, he will. And he will do nothing else until he finishes the book. Including sleep.

So for all those other parents trying to guide their newly independent readers into interesting territory, here’s what has captivated my son’s attention lately:

The 39 Clues Series

day of doomBy Rick Riordan, David Baldacci, and many others

His favorite book is “Day of Doom, Cahills versus Vespers Book 6.” He has read a total of “16- no, 17” books in this series so far. And, “that’s all there is at the moment.” How would you describe the series? “Nothing is better.” What is it about? “Amy and Dan trying to save the world from the Vespers.” Could you use some adjectives? “Awesome.”

I have not read this. But having heard my son talk about it, there are some mature characters and plot complications. My son knows about credit cards because of these books. And car rentals. But he loves this series above all else, so it’s hard to argue with something that keeps his interest this long.

I did some fact-checking, as you might when interviewing an eight-year old. There are indeed 17 books between the original (11) and Cahills vs. Vespers (6) series. But book one of the Unstoppable series came out in October 2013, and more are planned.

Although I generally believe books are for reading, I admit to letting him explore the website. The games are pretty cool. He kind of learned how to pick locks.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

diary wimpy kid

By Jeff Kinney

What can you tell me about this series? “It’s petty good. Not as good as 39 clues. It’s basically just a journal of Greg Heffley’s life.”

Do you like it? “Yeah. But not as much as the 39 clues.”

What’s good about it? “It’s just really funny.”

I read this also, and while I agree it is funny, and captivating, it reads more like a series of comic scenes than a novel. Kids might laugh, yet miss some of the more sarcastic humor at the same time, much of which relies on pranks and generally treating other people badly. I had to have the following conversation with my son as a result of this series:

“You know I don’t want you to be like any of the people in this book, ever, right?”

“Yes, Mama.”

Which did not stop him from devouring the first four books. In a week. There are seven books in the series so far, plus a do-it-yourself book and a movie diary. Interestingly, because of this book my son has shown interest in keeping a diary himself. We’ll see how that works out, once he realizes his doesn’t come with cartoons.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

mysterious benedict society

By Trenton Lee Stewart

“MBS. Yeah.” And? How do you like this book? “Good.” What’s it about? “That is a really hard question.” Try. Put down Minecraft. “The four friends are trying to save the world from Ledroptha Curtain.”

Much longer than the average middle grade novel, but full of fun puzzles, and yes, a somewhat complicated and not easily summarized plot. Extremely well-written, and age-appropriate, despite its complexity and length. It inspired my son to learn Morse Code. He is working his way through the sequel, “The Perilous Journey,” and enjoying it just as much.

There are a total of four books in the series, including the recently released prequel. I’m going to show my son the website–the games and puzzles looked as fun and challenging as the ones in the book.

How to Train Your Dragon

how to train your dragon

By Cressida Cowell

Is it funny? “Yes, very funny.” Which is better, the book or the movie? “Movie.”

A fun fantasy, relying heavily on bodily function humor. For those hoping the book will be as magical as the movie, be prepared for a very different voice and plot. I admit, I only read the first few chapters. They were cute. And my son enjoyed the book, even after seeing the movie first. However, he required more prompting than usual to actually finish the book, and so far shows no interest in the sequels. Of which there are many. At least ten.

Last but not least…

“I forgot to ask you about your favorite book. What about Timber Howligan?”

“Good. I mean, great.”

‘Atta boy. He read an early draft, stayed up late to finish it, and laughed at all the right places. My book is currently undergoing professional edits and with any luck (and a lot more hard work) will be available to readers…eventually!