GUEST POST: We Don’t Grow Up, We Just GROW (Thoughts on READ ALOUD TIME) with Juliana Tyson Kissick

I am so excited to have Juliana Tyson Kissick as my guest today. We recently reconnected on Facebook, but I first met her when she was in fourth grade! She was my student. Just take a peek at that adorable class, gathered joyfully around our Thanksgiving project that year. She’s seated in the center with a very young Mrs. Sassi standing behind her.  And there she is working hard. She’s also represented by one of the little birds depicted in the delightful card my mom made for me that school year. The card is dated 1995 and the note I found with it reads:

“Mom made a terrific birthday card depicting an early January day in the new classroom. It was pouring and the power went out. I kept the kids entertained until their parents came by reading. It was a treacherous day with lots of flooding and rain.”

READ ALOUD TIME.  It was my favorite part of the day and it happened every day, right after lunch.  Actually, I think it was everyone’s favorite part of the day – a chance to be transported by storytelling to magical worlds, faraway places and different times.  And I AM THRILLED that Juliana has agreed to share a little bit about what reading books aloud has meant to her over the years.  Take it away, Juliana!

unnamedWhen Laura invited me to write on the topic of reading aloud to children in the classroom, I felt an immediate surge of energy run through my gut. It was as if my soul were demanding I leap through the computer screen, exclaiming, “There is nothing more important than reading to children in schools!!” — a good indicator that I probably had something to say on the matter. And what I came to realize over the course of writing out my reflections was how valuable and multi-faceted the benefits of “story time” really are… and most certainly not just for children.  It’s like my Jewish, anecdotally-driven father always tells me (quoting the magnificent poet, Muriel Rukeyser), “The universe, Juliana, is made of stories, not of atoms.”


Story time. Is there a more cherished, enchanted hour in the world of a young person? The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlotte’s Web, The Boxcar Children, Little House On the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Giver…  I can remember every. single. book that was read to me (or that my classmates and I read aloud to each other) over the course of my elementary schooling. I LIVED for story time. And it wasn’t just because “story time” equated not doing math (something I still avoid, sorry Laura). No, story time wasn’t just an easy out…that’s what recess was for. And it wasn’t just because I was somewhat of a doctoral candidate in the esteemed academic discipline of Class Clownery and more or less couldn’t wait until I was allowed to give a personality (a British accent) to letters on a page… ok fine, maybe it was a LITTLE bit about that (I’m not British, for the record). But really, truly, at the heart of my love for story time was my love for adventure and meaning, adventure beyond the physical entrapments of my birthed circumstances and the moral lessons to help me make sense of it all. Story time was everything I dreamed this life could be and opened my eyes to what it already was… in other words, story time was church. It was spiritual. It transcended me. It was a gathering, a listening, an intuiting, a shared emotional rite of passage that didn’t have a right or a wrong answer. You couldn’t get a check minus in story time. You only had to be a person. And that, dear ones, is why the gift of telling story is just that–a gift. It validates the complexity of our humanity and the diverse range of our experiences, and all we have to do is breathe and listen. 

Unlike reading alone, the experience of being read to (or reading to someone) transforms written narrative into a conversation between heartstrings. When characters are given voice, when a scene depiction is read with purpose and conviction and tone, suddenly this is now a world and these are now living beings that are taking up physical and emotional space in our lives. It becomes real. And when something becomes real, like all the greatest of fiction has taught us, we conjure empathy and compassion. The characters don’t need to look like us, or talk like us, live in our hometown…heck they don’t even have to live on this planet. Story makes everything, and everyone, a worthy subject of our love and understanding. And oh how this world could use a whole lot more of that.

Just yesterday one of my best friends mentioned to me that she and her husband were reading the Harry Potter series to one other before they went to sleep… and I couldn’t help but get wholly and utterly inspired to treat my own grown-up self with the same kind of joy and validation I gave my story-loving, story-needing child self. We don’t really grow up, you see. We just grow. 

Blessings and giggles,


20150408_goodjuju_portraits-057Bio: It probably won’t surprise you to know that Juliana grew up to become a storyteller. She’s a multiple Ovation-nominated choreographer, actor, dancer, and founding member of Los Angeles’ very own Boom Kat Dance Theatre. After over a decade of performing professionally in Southern California, Juliana moved to San Francisco with her husband (and former boy across the literal street), Ryan. It was upon the move to Northern California that Juliana tapped into her love of visual art to further her storytelling career. In 2014, Juliana founded Good Juju Ink, an illustration design company dedicated to spreading “good juju” one funny-but-tender illustration at a time. Good Juju Ink’s greeting cards are sold online at and at Paper Source locations nationwide. 






Laura Sassi 

The ability to interpret visual clues, i.e to read the pictures, is an important skill for pre-readers and emergent readers because it encourages a deeper level of thought and reflection, laying the foundation for strong reading later. It’s an opportunity to think about story elements like plot, mood, and character. With this in mind, here are some visual-based strategies that will enrich your child’s reading of GOODNIGHT, MANGER.

PONDER THE PLOT: As the story unfolds, each spread depicts what happens as Mama, Papa, and the animals try to soothe an overtired Baby Jesus. After reading the text on each spread, pause to ponder the pictures, making observations and predictions about the plot. Say things like: “See how Mama is hugging Baby so gently.  Do you think he will sleep?” or “Look at the manger. Is it like your bed? How is it different?” and later, as Papa rocks Baby after the angels disperse, ask: “Do you think Baby will sleep now? Why or why not?” In other words, use the pictures to dig deeper into what’s going on plot-wise.

MARVEL OVER MOOD: Jane Chapman skillfully uses color and movement to capture the changing mood of the story. As you read the story, pause to consider the mood the colors convey.  For example, the first few spreads have a yellow-orange glow which fills the pages with a sense of coziness and comfort. The characters in the opening spreads are still. Their movements are gentle. But the mood shifts as soon as Baby starts to cry. The mood becomes joyous as conveyed by the vibrant movement of angels.  And the color shifts to a joyous, pure starry-skied blue. As the spreads progress, the mood while joyous, also becomes frenetic. There is so much movement and action, that it seems that Baby Jesus will never be able to sleep. Foxes dance, sheep leap, and poor Mama looks at wit’s end.  And then, at the end, the calm, cozy orange glow returns, balanced by an awesome blue star-lit sky.

CONSIDER THE CHARACTERS’ FEELINGS:  The facial expressions of Jane’s characters are eye-opening. As you read with your child, take time to consider the feelings expressed by each characters facial expressions and even body language. Note the love in Mama and Papa’s faces as they try to soothe their tired Baby. Note the doting eagerness in Hen’s body language as she offers her feathers for Baby’s bed and the uninhibited joy of the angels as they play their instruments and sing and dance in honor of the Baby’s birth. Note the exhausted exasperation on Mama’s face as the shepherds and kings arrive. Finally, notice the wonder and love on the faces of human and beast as they gather round for their closing lullaby.

EXTENSION:  Apply these visual-based reading strategies to each new picture book you read.  Have fun!

SPOTLIGHT: Holiday Cards by Martha South

img_3357My mother was a storyteller.  Like I am, but not exactly. While I use words, my mother used pictures to tell her stories. Her stories didn’t take the form of books. No, they came in the shape of paintings and sketches and – best of all – cards!

Image 7

Any occasion, large or small, provided the perfect excuse for a card.  Birthdays, Christmas, first days of school, births of grand babies, you name it… she made cards. Each card featured her signature birds – but the story each card told was one-of-a-kind.

Over the years several stand out as favorites of mine.


For example, I have always loved the birthday card she made for my husband the year our son turned two. The inside reads, “Lessons the Professor hoped he would never have to teach.” Then, there’s the year my son, then age three, got inventive and made himself some firefighter boots out of toilet paper rolls.  My mom had a field day with that!

img_3353But one of my all-time favorites is this – a magical Christmas card featuring a little bonbon dancing with the Nutcracker.  Inspired by my daughter who was dancing her first Nutcracker that year as a little bonbon, it turned out to be the last Christmas card my mom made for her – and one of the last cards she designed before her ALS made it too hard for her to hold the pencils. Even though she made it when she was already sick, to me, the card sparkles with the magic of Christmas and it fills me with joy.

One of my mom’s dreams was to start her own card business. And to honor that dream, my sister has set up a card business in her memory. Now in celebration of Christmas and in honor of my wonderful mom, she has added a couple of holiday cards to the collection, one of which is this delightful Nutcracker card.

If you are in the market for holiday cards to send out this season, we  would be honored if you considered sending some cards designed by Martha South. To see the cards and learn more about ordering please visit

As an extra incentive, my sister is offering free shipping for a limited time  if you use the promo code “HOLIDAYS”. Thanks, Julie!  The promo code can be entered in at Checkout. Right above “Payment Information,” there will be a blue link called “Use Gift Card or Promo Code”. Click on this, and then enter “HOLIDAYS”.

Blessings all!

Happy Book Birthday! GOODNIGHT, MANGER (board book edition)


Hip hip, hooray!

It’s on its way!  

GOODNIGHT, MANGER, the board book,

releases today! 

With sturdy pages and a padded cover, the board book version of GOODNIGHT, MANGER is terrific for littlest readers who want to turn the pages themselves. With full text, it’s a good size– perfect for showing off all the wonderful details in Jane’s illustrations.

Interested in a signed copy?  Here’s how:  Call The Town Book Store in Westfield, NJ to order the book or books you want. Be sure to explain that you would like to have them signed by the author and pass along the names you’d like included. They will take the order and do the transaction. I will then come in and sign the book or books. Readers can either pick them up in-store at no extra charge, or have them mailed. There will be a shipping fee to cover the cost of mailing, but they can give you those details.

I thought this was a nice way to make signed copies available and support a wonderful independent book store.  Their number is: The Town Book Store (908) 233-3535.

It’s also available at your favorite local or online bookstore! Happy Reading, all!

PUMPKIN TIME: Thoughts on Carving Stories

IMG_1284There’s a sudden new nip in the air and it finally feels like fall is here.  With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this pumpkin-themed post from 2014.  Enjoy!

The way I see it, the stories we write are like pumpkins. The good ones are well-rounded with firm plots. They also possess a certain quirkiness, or one-of-a-kind feel, just like those jack-o-lanterns we enjoy at this time of year.

But here’s the thing. Even if you think your current pumpkin-in-progress is the best pumpkin you’ve ever written, most likely it could still use a good scooping out. Sure, extracting the extraneous goopy bits from your story will be messy, perhaps even disheartening. You may say to yourself, I’m taking out all the best parts. You may may even worry that there’s nothing left!

But, getting rid of the goop will help you hone the structural essence of your story. All those gloppy first-draft ramblings will have been scooped away. Then, to make your story glow, you will need to carve your pumpkin’s soul (i.e. face) with purpose and heart. Add jagged teeth (conflict) and a penetrating gaze (character). Maybe even carve in some goofy eyebrows (humor). Don’t rush. Savor the process. And when you are ready, light a candle and see if your story, er pumpin, glows! If it does, rejoice! If not, double check to make sure you haven’t overlooked any hidden goop. Then keep carving as necessary.

But don’t toss that goop out too quickly! For tangled in those slimy strings, you will find something precious – seeds. For various reasons, these discarded seeds didn’t fit your current pumpkin’s plot. But if saved and explored later, a special few of them may germinate into new and completely different, but wonderfully creative pieces.

Happy Pumpkin Carving all! And don’t forget to save the seeds.

Going on a PATTERN Hunt (Plus a Craft): An Extension Activity for GOODNIGHT, MANGER

img_3308Teachers and Parents:  This is the second in a series I will be posting especially for you.  Over the course of the next few weeks, and in celebration of the release of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, MANGER,  I will be posting several book-linked activities for you to enjoy with your children. 

Going on a PATTERN Hunt (Plus a Craft):

A GOODNIGHT, MANGER Extension Activity for Pre-Readers

Seeing and recognizing patterns are important skills for pre-readers. They lay the ground work for understanding words and stories. With that in mind, here are some fun pattern-related activities you and your child might enjoy after reading “Goodnight, Manger”.

Picture Patterns: Each page of “Goodnight, Manger” is full of colors and patterns. Colors alternate to form stripes.  Shapes are repeated (ex: stars, squares, dots, rectangles, milk splashes, palm fronds). As you explore Jane’s wonderful illustrations, see how many visual patterns you and your child can find. Afterwards, grab crayons and paper and make your own patterned star ornaments. (See sample below).  Or go on a pattern hunt around your house looking for fun visual patterns in curtains, plants, tiles etc.

Text Patterns: The text, too, is patterned visually. Pre-readers might enjoy examining the lay out of words. With your child, notice how the text is clumped into verses. Count how many lines are in each verse (four) and note that this is a repeating pattern throughout the story.

Sound Patterns: When you read the story aloud you’ll note that the sounds of the words form their own patterns as well. With your child, listen for sound patterns. Each verse contains rhyming words at the end of the 2nd and 4th lines (ex: fed/bed, itches/twitches). There are also words that repeat one right after the other (ex: No! No! No! and tap, tap, tap).  After exploring different sound patterns, you and your child might enjoy making a game of creating your own sound patterns using rhyme and repetition.

EXTRA FUN:   Celebrate the joy of Christmas and reinforce the fun of patterns with this simple craft.

img_33071. Cut a simple star shape from stiff paper.

2. Review different pattern options with your child – ex. stars, stripes, dots, swirls, etc.

3. Using pencil, have your child lightly outline the patterns on the ornament, using Jane Chapman’s delightful illustrations as inspiration.  Then, using markers or crayons, color it in!

4.  Tape a yarn or ribbon loop to the back. Then, hang your pretty patterned star on a door nob or on the Christmas tree.



 Teachers and Parents:  This is the first in a series I will be posting especially for you.  Over the course of the next few weeks, and in celebration of the release of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, MANGER,  I will be posting several book-linked activities for you to enjoy with your children. 


An Extension Activity for GOODNIGHT, MANGER

When I read GOODNIGHT, MANGER at Christian preschools and churches, I wrap up our story time together by inviting the children to join me in singing a lullaby to Baby Jesus.  Step-by-step, here is what I do.  Feel free to adjust as you see fit.

REFLECT: First, I take a moment to marvel. I tell the children that this Baby we’ve just read about was like no other baby before or after because he was fully God and fully human. That means he felt everything we do.  And like all babies, he must have cried. We briefly chat about when and why babies cry and how we comfort them.

PRETEND: Second, I have the children pretend to cradle Baby Jesus in their arms. I ask them how they should hold him –  gently, lovingly, safely. Then we all pretend to coo over the Baby Jesus we are holding with phrases like “Oh, isn’t he precious!”, “Don’t cry, sweet Jesus!”, “We love you.”

REVIEW:  Next, I ask them how the characters in the story finally got Baby Jesus to sleep. (It was by joining voices and gently singing a lullaby.)  I ask if they’d like to help Baby Jesus fall asleep too. They are always eager to do this.

SING: I introduce the lullaby by singing the first verse of the famous carol “Away in a Manger”. Feel free to use any carol of your choice. “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” are also easy to teach/ learn. Before they sing, we review what kinds of voices we should use to sing a baby to sleep – loud or soft?  (Soft, of course.)  Then we practice singing the opening words of the carol both ways so they can feel and hear the difference.

REJOICE: Then, with joyful hearts we cradle Baby Jesus in our arms and sing our lullaby.  Our gentle voices are so sweet that Jesus, of course, falls asleep and so, very carefully, we place him in the imaginary mangers that are right in front of us.

GIVE THANKS: Before closing, I challenge the little ones to remember the sweet gift of Baby Jesus who came to  earth – God in the form a human baby – to be the savior of our world.  I note that this is why celebrate Christmas.  Then together we pray, thanking God for loving us so much that he sent his precious Son, Jesus, to earth in the form of a tiny, humble baby.




GUEST POST: On Revising and Never Giving Up with Tami Charles


Today I am delighted to have children’s author Tami Charles as my guest.  Tami and I first met at a NJSCBWI gathering at a local tea shop.  She was in the midst of revising her first novel,  LIKE VANESSA (Charlesbridge 2018).  This summer, again, we organized our own little writers’ retreat and  spent a lovely day on my porch (and inside, too ,because it was dreadfully hot) revising our current works-in-progess.  Disciplined, smart and funny- she knows her stuff.  Take it away, Tami!

So, you wrote a picture book. You received feedback from your critique partners. Your agent has given it her stamp of approval. She submits it to editors and you sit back and wait for the offers pour in. New York Times Bestseller list here you come!

But then, the unthinkable happens…

(Cue horror film music.) 



Several months pass, your hair turns grayer, and the rejections start rolling in—nice ones, albeit. The feedback from the editors is pretty much the same, and you just know what you have to do…revise.

Revisions can sometimes be painful, especially when you’ve already revised your manuscript many times over. But there’s no time for wallowing. It’s time to put a new spin on your story and here’s how to get ‘er done:

Step 1: Take your old manuscript, ball it up, and throw it in the trash. Follow this cathartic moment with a beverage of your choice.  (Iced, skinny caramel latte, anyone?)

Step 2: Go back to the trash and take out your manuscript, silly goose! (Then wash your hands, please!)

Step 3: Strap on your big kid boots and get ready to freshen up your manuscript. Clearly, it was good enough to be subbed out in the first place. It just needs more work. So here are a few tricks to get the ball rolling:

  • Gobble up those mentor texts. Read as many books as possible that fit the theme of your story. Sure, you probably read comp titles when you first wrote your story, but that was a long time ago.  There are new books on the shelves waiting to be explored. Read them. Study them.
  • Rewrite your story in a different verb tense. Is your original manuscript written in past tense? Try writing it in the present. Or take a risk and write it in future tense. Don’t be afraid to experiment with verb tense until your story feels shiny and new.
  • Change the point of view. Did you write your story in third person POV? Consider switching to first person. This will give your reader insight into how all the characters are feeling—not just one.  You could also try second person POV, which if done right, can be an enjoyable reading experience. There are several books that do this well. Some of my favorites are: “Warning: Do Not Open This Book” by Adam Lehrhaupt and “How to Raise a Dinosaur” by Natasha Wing.
  • Rethink your setting. I speak from experience on this one. A few years ago, I shopped around a picture book that had only one setting. Agent feedback was basically the same. Can the characters go somewhere else besides the kitchen, so that the story doesn’t feel stagnant? Challenge accepted. After many revisions (and several lattes), I created additional settings to help move the story along. And guess what? I got an offer! Hooray! Try this tip and thank me later.

Step 4: Submit and MOVE ON! Once you’ve done the necessary revisions, go out on another round of submissions. It may take a while, but trust me, your “yes” is waiting. Use the down time to work on your next manuscript.

Here’s the hard truth: The kidlit universe is a tough industry to crack. Whatever you do, do not give up. You are full of stories and the world needs to hear them. I wish you productivity, creativity, and lots of luck as you revise.


BIO: Recovering teacher. Amateur gardener. Debut author. Tami Charles writes picture books, middle grade, young adult, nonfiction, and enjoys the occasional work-for-hire project. Her middle grade novel, LIKE VANESSA, debuts with Charlesbridge in spring, 2018. She also recently sold two picture books, but can’t spill the beans just yet! For 14 years, Tami served as a public school educator but now writes full time. She is represented by Lara Perkins, of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and lives in Central New Jersey with her husband, son, and a family of deer who take pleasure in annihilating her garden.

Connect with Tami on Facebook,  Twitter and at her website:


THE PHOTO SHOOT: A Day in the Life of a Picture Book (and its Author!)


p1060649One of the unexpected necessities (and fun bits)  of being a picture book author is the occasional photo shoot. Luckily for me, my neighbor Rick Gerrity is a photographer.  Four years ago (Sheesh, where did the time fly?) he graciously took a few book flap/publicity shots of me at home – on the porch, on the stairs and with our sweet pooch, Sophie. The front porch picture now graces the book flaps of my first two books.

Now, four years older and with two more books coming out, it seemed about time to update those photos. Rick, once again, said he’d be happy to take the pictures and really went above and beyond in brainstorming new settings that would capture the picture book spirit.  He’s the one who had the idea to visit Donaldson’s Farm in Hackettstown, NJ, a beautiful fourth generation family-owned farm, and one of only five in New Jersey that grows sunflowers for the Audubon Society!

Our morning began with a tour of the farm given by the lovely Katie Donaldson. In addition to growing 40 acres of sunflowers, they also cultivate umpteen varieties of tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, lettuce, pumpkins, peaches, apples, berries and more! After the tour, it was time for the photo shoot.  =)

I hope the photos below give you a sense of the magic of the day. My daughter came along and Rick let her use one of his fancy cameras.  Thus, the shots captured below are both hers and Rick’s. Thank you Rick, Katie and Miss A. for helping make this such a special and memorable day!

The sunflower field we used was at its peak with about 22,000 sunflowers! Breathtaking! First, we took a few shots by the edge.

Then I stepped into the field… further and further!  What fun! We took shots with the hat and without.

Next, it was time for books to have their time in front of the camera.  The pumpkin patch seemed a fun setting. It was a little tricky getting the books to balance!

When the sun disappeared behind the clouds, we dashed back to the sunflower field for a few more shots.  All in all, I think Rick took about 100 pictures!  There were many good ones, but my favorite is the one I’ve saved for last.   Happy Monday, all!p1060633


FINDING A CRITIQUE GROUP: Four Tips for New Writers


My wonderful in-person critique group celebrating the release of my first picture book with me!

After singing the praises of critique groups, I think it’s only fair now to offer a few tips on how to find a good critique group. After all, finding a critique group can be daunting, especially for a new writer who has been spending most of her/his time writing in isolation. At least, that was my experience as a new writer.

Here then are four tips, I’ve found helpful:

  1. Look inward.  First, decide what you want out of a critique group. Do you want an in-person group or an on-line group? Do you want a genre-specific group (i.e. picture books or poetry, YA or MG etc) or would you like a mix of genres? How much time are you willing to spend per week/month writing critiques? How often do you want to be responsible for submitting work? How big or small do you want the group to be?
  1. Network, network, network.  Once you have a sense of what you want from a critique group, you can use your social networks (on-line and in person) to see if anyone you know is part of a group. If so, is that group open to new members?  Another good strategy is to be pro-active at conferences to see if anyone is in a group that is interested in new members.  The SCBWI blue boards also have a thread devoted to critique groups seeking new members so that’s another possible venue to tap.  Finally, check your local library and book stores to see if they have groups that meet there.
  1. Do a little research.  Once you’ve discovered some potential groups, do a little research. Do the groups have both new and seasoned writers?  Have any members of the group be process? (In my experience, most of the better groups do.)
  1. Give it a try.  Once you have done all of the above, it might be time to take the leap and give it a try! If you feel it is the right step for you, apply to the group that sounds best for you.

Thanks for checking out these tips! I hope you will find, as I have, that being part of a critique group makes all the difference in your growth as a writer.  Happy writing, all!