STORYSTORM: Thoughts on Christmas Ornaments and Story Sparks!

Right now, I’m “undressing” our Christmas tree. It’s not one of my favorite tasks because by the time I do it the sparkle of Christmas is usually long gone. But this year is different. I’m really enjoying the process this year. And I think the difference is that tonight, as I undress the tree, my mind is whirring with “STORYSTORM” ideas.

For those of you unfamiliar with the word, STORYSTORM is the brainchild of picture book author, Tara Lazar, who wanted to create a month for picture book writers, and now writers in all genres, to focus on brainstorming story ideas for future projects. During STORYSTORM month, which takes place during January of each month, writers are inspired to brainstorm new ideas with daily blog posts by prominent and up-and-coming children’s authors. The posts are inspiring and fun to read and the challenge – to come up with one new story idea each day – is exhilerating! I’ve participated almost  every year and a couple of those story prompts have even resulted in picture books that have been published including, most recently, DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE!

And tonight, as I undress the tree, I can hardly keep my imagination in tow because almost every ornament on the tree has some story to tell, and any one of those stories could very well be the spark for my next bestseller! I’m joking, of course, but … not really… I mean it is possible, right?

Take a look at this ornament, for example. I bought it for my son the Christmas after he took his first ride on the Staten Island Ferry, and now my mind is flooded with memories of Staten Island boat rides, and the wonder of seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, and the wonderful bounce and rhythm of the waves as we crossed from Staten Island to the southern tip of Manhattan. Is there a story here? Maybe. That’s why I’ve paused from “undressing” to free write in my journal.

And see this cowboy boot ornament? To you it’s just a boot, but I remember that my mom bought these (there are two) for my children the Christmas after we visited them in Colorado and they each got a pair of cowboy boots. Miss A wore hers every single day, and no matter what her attire – be it flouncy dress or blue jeans -those boots made a statement. They said, I’m here and I’m ready to make the most of whatever this day brings. Is there a story here? Maybe. That’s why I’ve paused from “undressing” to free write in my journal.

To you this ornament might seem odd. After all, who hangs baskets filled with blueberries on their tree? My mom purchased this ornament for us in memory of fun summers picking blueberries in New England, and my mind is once again flooded with images of granite rock flanked by scrubby blueberry bushes. And my taste buds are watering at the memory of fresh baked muffins. Is there a story here? Maybe. That’s why I’ve paused from “undressing” to free write in my journal.

Here’s my parting thought for tonight, and then I really need to finish undressing this tree. Is there an ornament on your tree, or perhaps some little trinket or artifact sitting somewhere on a shelf in your house, that is full of meaning and might just be the key to unlocking your next story or poem? Well, why are you just sitting there staring at the screen? Go find it… and write all about it because, maybe just maybe, there’s something there that will be the spark that leads to an amazing new story. Have fun!

And now back to undressing that tree. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night. =) Happy STORYSTORMING!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS 2018!

Wishing you all good things as we celebrate the joys of the season. I’m taking a break for Christmas to be with my family but look forward to seeing you all with new posts in 2019. Blessings all, Laura

GOODNIGHT, MANGER: SIX Nativity Themed Activities for Older Kids (Ages 6 – 8)


My Christmas bedtime story, about trying to put a weepy baby Jesus to sleep in a very noisy stable, was inspired by watching my then preschooler play with the sturdy little nativity we take out each Christmas. Her sweet play led to some wonderful kid-friendly conversations about the true meaning of Christmas. Inspired by that, I recently shared 8 Nativity Activities to Teach Little Ones about Christmas. Today I’m delighted to share six more ideas — this time for slightly older children. Enjoy!

  1. Play “What’s Different at the Manger?” Begin by arranging your family’s indoor nativity with your children, taking time to name and explain the significance of each figure in the nativity. Reflect together at the wonder of the Christmas story. Then, take turns having one family member be the “finder.” The “finder” leaves the room, while the “changer” changes one small thing in the nativity. The “finder” returns. Will he/she be able to figure out what’s different? Take turns until everyone has a chance at both roles. 
  2. Ask 20 Questions “Nativity” Style. First, gather around the nativity with a stack of index cards. Then, brainstorm together single-word components of the nativity. Examples include a manger, Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and a star. Have the children write a word on each card. Then shuffle the cards. One person selects a card. Without seeing that card, the others must guess what the word is by asking YES/NO questions. After twenty questions, the round is over and the person with the card can share what their word was.
  3. Compare Stories. Pick a nativity-themed picture book to read together. Then compare it to the actual account of the Christmas story from the Bible. See if your children can find three ways the picture book is similar/different from the Bible story. The picture book, for example, may reconsider the story from a different point of view — such as the POV of the animals in the beloved nativity-themed picture book Who Is Coming to Our House? Or it might imagine “what would happen if…” such as in my Goodnight, Manger where I imagine what might have happened if baby Jesus cried. Be sure to wrap up the discussion with the reminder that the deeper truth behind each picture book is that Jesus, our savior, is the amazing gift of Christmas.  
  4. Build Your Own Nativity. This is a big, fun project that can be done individually or as a group and will occupy a nice bit of an afternoon (perhaps while you put your feet up and sip some tea). First, have your children list all the parts needed for a nativity. Next, have the kids decide what their building materials will be — Legos, clay, felt, cardboard? The possibilities are plentiful. Third, decide who will build what (if you are working together). Finally, build! Afterwards, have the children take turns retelling the story using their own handmade nativity.
  5. Go on a Nativity Hunt. Here’s an engaging STEM activity that will get you and your children outside on a crisp day. Walk around your neighborhood (or drive around town) looking for nativity lawn scenes. Younger children can name the figures you see and older children can keep a tally of each distinct finding. Their tallies, for example, could include the number of stables, stars, angels, sheep, and baby Jesus figurines they find. Afterwards, they can create a colorful pictograph to show their results. Be sure to wrap up the conversation with praise and thanksgiving that Jesus loves us and came to save us, and that’s why we celebrate Christmas.
  6. Create a Nativity Book of Poems! A Family Book of Nativity Poems is a great way to celebrate Christmas and create a family heirloom at the same time. Using sturdy drawing paper, have one child design the front cover. Another can design the back cover. Each page of the book will contain an illustrated poem. Using the index cards you created for activity #2, have each child select a nativity-themed word. That word will become the subject of their poem.  Have them write the title of the poem — the word — across the top of the page. Then let each child decide on their poetic form. The poem could be as simple as a deeply felt phrase:  
    Example: (for angels) “The angels sang for joy! La, la, la, LA!!!”
    Or, they might choose an acrostic:
    Example: (for Mary)
    Mother of Jesus Amazing grace Resting by the manger You smiled at Jesus’ face
    Finish off each poem with a beautiful illustration and bind everything together with ribbon through punched holes. 

A version of this post previously appeared on Noelle Kirchner’s amazing blog .  Thank you, Noelle, for having me and for letting me share here!

12 Days of Christmas Books Giveaway: GOODNIGHT, MANGER

I’m excited to be teaming up with Christian Children’s Authors in a special 12 Days of Christmas Books Giveaway. The giveaway is their way of saying Merry Christmas and it’s your only chance to win a copy of GOODNIGHT, MANGER this holiday season, so I hope you’ll head on over for a peek at my post and all the others!  I’ll make it easy for you. Here is the link

GOODNIGHT, MANGER: 8 Nativity Activities to Teach Little Ones about Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas memories is watching my daughter play with the Baby Jesus that was part of our Christmas nativity. All through December she’d carry him around the house saying things like, “Baby Jesus crying. It’s okay, Baby.”  Then she’d gently feed him or rock him and sing a lullaby. Before listening to her tender play, I’d never thought of Baby Jesus as ever crying. Her sweet play inspired me to write “Goodnight, Manger”, a Christmas bedtime picture book that not only serves as a fun reminder that Jesus was once a baby who cried and felt everything we feel, but which also keeps Christ, rather than Santa, as the focus during the holiday season.   Now, inspired by GOODNIGHT, MANGER, here are:

8 Nativity Activities to Spark Meaningful Conversations about Christmas with Preschoolers


1. Play “I Spy…an angel!” Identify the figures in the Christmas story using the nativity as your playground. After you “spy” each figure, ask simple questions like “Who was Mary?” or “What were the shepherds doing that night?”


2. Play “I Count… three sheep!” Preschoolers love counting. After each count, think about how everyone in the nativity was looking forward to meeting Baby Jesus. Ask them what they think about that.


3. Play “Where is Baby Jesus?” In this variation of hide and seek, take turns hiding Baby Jesus in the nativity (or beyond). Each time you find Him, marvel about how exciting it must have been to see God’s promise for a Savior fulfilled in the birth of a special baby – Jesus!


4. Re-enact the Nativity. Using Luke 2:1-20 as your guide, re-enact the Christmas story using the figurines. Add animal sounds and alleluias to bring the story to life. For extra fun, you can also retell your nativity-themed picture books (such as Goodnight, Manger, for example) using figurines. Be sure to always link back to the all important message that Jesus is the gift of Christmas.  


5. Sing Carols. While holding the appropriate figurines, sing carols that relate to the nativity story.  For example, pretend the angels are flying as you sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Have the wise men march as you sing “We Three Kings.” Place Baby Jesus in the manger as you sing “Away in a Manger,” etc.


6. Care for Baby Jesus. Just as my daughter did, let your child take care of Baby Jesus. Pretend to gently rock and feed him. Maybe even sing him a tender lullaby. Then be amazed together – that God loves us just like we love little babies. He cares for us and comforts us. His biggest gift ever? Sending Jesus to be the Savior of the world.


7. Make your own nativity figurines. Little ones love anything hands on, so roll up your sleeves and make sheep, shepherds, angels and more using whatever materials you fancy. Play dough, felt, glue, paper, crayons and even blocks are all perfect materials for a fun afternoon of nativity building. 


8. Go on a Nativity Hunt. Here’s a fun activity that will get you and your children outside on a crisp day. Walk around your neighborhood looking for nativity lawn scenes. Name the figures you see and celebrate! This also makes a good activity to keep children busy and engaged while running errands in the car.

A version of this post previously appeared on Noelle Kirchner’s amazing blog .  Thank you, Noelle, for having me and for letting me share here!

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: A CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY Interview with Debut Author Tara Knudson!

Today, in celebration of the release of her debut board book CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY  (Zonderkidz, 2018) I am delighted to be interviewing author Tara Knudson.  This adorable cookie-themed book will have you in the spirit of the holidays in no time! Thank you so much for joining us, Tara. Let’s get started.

First off, congratulations! CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY has been out for just over six weeks. How has the launch been?

Thank, you Laura. I’m so happy to be featured on your blog! I can’t believe that CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY has been out for six weeks already. The launch has been exciting! I have loved reading my first book to young children and seeing their joy when I turn the pages. What a special experience!

As the countdown to Christmas begins, I am busy scheduling readings of CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY at schools, libraries, bookstores, and holiday events. It’s such a festive and magical time, and I’m so happy my book can be part of it all.

I have to agree that there is something extra special about having holiday-themed book during this festive season. It sounds like you are enjoying every moment of it.

Have you always been a writer/rhymer? Tell us a little bit about your writerly journey.

It has been a long journey! My Creative Writing folder from second grade is one of my prized possessions. Reading my first stories makes me laugh. Growing up, they were always special to me, but I did not know yet that I wanted to be a writer. 

I started writing poetry when I was in high school. As I dealt with the problems and frustrations that adolescence can bring, I often wrote poems to express my feelings. 

After college, I became a Spanish teacher and I often used children’s picture books in the classroom. I would spend hours at bookstores searching for favorite ones. It was during that time that I fell in love with picture books and decided that I wanted to write them.

In pursuit of my goal, I won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship that allowed me to take a break from teaching and live in Barcelona, Spain for a year and experiment with writing for children. I wrote many poems and rhyming stories for children. I continued to write after my return to the U.S. As years passed, I sold articles and poems to children’s magazines and continued to work on my picture book manuscripts as I took care of my two sons. Then, I signed with an agent who helped me sell my first book.

Such a long journey, but your passion for writing and persistence shine through.

 What inspired you to write CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY?

When my youngest son was in preschool, one of the kids in his class had an egg allergy. I baked egg-free sugar cookies that all the children could enjoy and used cookie cutters to make festive shapes to celebrate different holidays throughout the year. One day, when I was on a walk, the story came out in my head. I rushed home and typed the first draft on the computer. I had a good feeling about it!

While the recipe that is included with the book is not egg-free, I hope people with allergies can tailor the recipe to meet their needs.

That’s how ideas come to me too.  That’s why I always try to have my phone or a small notebook handy. I’m glad you rushed home and wrote it down!

The illustrations really add to the cozy cookie baking feel of your rhyming text. Tell us a little bit about the artist.  Do you have a favorite spread? What makes it your favorite?

The illustrations really are cozy! Pauline Siewert created them. She lives in England and she has illustrated many children’s books. She does beautiful work! 

My favorite spread is the one where the bears are mixing the dough and using the cookie cutters. They are sweet scenes of a mother baking with her child. I love the flour on the bear’s face and also the mouse on the cookie cutter. I did not notice the mouse until after I read the book a couple of times. When I read to children, I tell them to look and see what the mouse is doing in the story. He tells a story of his own and he is very funny. Everyone enjoys him!

Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books and projects in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books? 

My next children’s book, EASTER EGG DAY, will be published by Zonderkidz in February, 2020. I’m very excited! Once the holidays are over, I plan to finish other writing projects that I have started.

Interested readers can buy CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY at independent booksellers as well as online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, Zondervan, and others. Whether they read the book in a library or purchase a copy of their own, I hope CHRISTMAS COOKIE DAY inspires readers to make cookies or bake together this season and build beautiful family traditions.

How exciting that you have another book in the pipeline… and I hope many more beyond that!   Thanks so much for stopping by today. And now, just for fun, please comment with the name of your favorite holiday cookie.  =)

Tara Knudson is a former teacher who has been writing poetry and stories since she was a young girl growing up in Chicago. Her published work can be found in children’s magazines, greeting cards, calendars, and a poetry anthology for teens. Christmas Cookie Day is Tara’s first picture book.

‘Tis the Season: Holiday Book Events with Laura Sassi

Holiday Book Events 2018 2

Saturday November 24, 2018 1 – 3 pm.  I’ll be reading my books and chatting with customers as part of Small Business Saturday at The Town Book Store in Westfield, NJ.

Sunday December 2nd, 2018 2:00– 4:00.  I’ll be reading LOVE IS KIND & signing all my books as part of Gingerbread Sunday at the Miller Cory House in Westfield, NJ.

Saturday December 8 2018 11- 1:00 pm.  Join me for festive readings of all my books with puppets, then shop at the Cranford United Methodist Church’s Christmas Shoppe and Soup Festival. Note: The festival is open from 10 – 3pm.

Books available for purchase & signing at all events.  

(Cash or check only December 2 & 8)

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: A Chat with Mindy Baker in Celebration of her Debut Picture Book MOUSE’S CHRISTMAS GIFT (and a GIVEAWAY!)

Today I’m delighted to have debut Zonderkidz picture book author Mindy Baker here as my guest to chat about her Christmas story MOUSE’S CHRISTMAS GIFT.  Here’s the adorable flap copy:  “Can one tiny church mouse find a way to bring Christmas spirit to his little town when Parson gets sick and the usual Christmas Eve service is cancelled?”  You will have to read to find out, and when you do, I think you fall in love with this heartwarming picture book story just as much as I have.  I can’t wait to share it with my Sunday School kids!  And now… the interview!

Thanks so much for joining us today, Mindy. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you become a writer?

My husband and I have been married for almost 23 years, and we have three children. My oldest daughter is a sophomore in college, and I have a daughter who is a senior in high school and a son who is a freshman in high school. I love being a wife and mom! 

I am also a high school Spanish teacher at a public high school in our area. I enjoy my relationships with my students—they keep my life “muy interesante!”  You can check out my classroom via my “teacher Twitter.” The address is @srabakerhse. 

Another unique thing about me is that I have been able to travel to almost thirty different countries for various reasons. I LOVE experiencing different cultures and am thankful for all of the amazing experiences that I have had along the way in my travels. If you want to hear some crazy travel experiences, ask me…I can talk for hours about my trips!

 

I have always loved writing, but about ten years ago I decided to take a few classes in writing specifically for children and that is how I began to learn about writing picture books. It has been quite a journey, but I truly love writing. It is a creative outlet for me and very relaxing and rewarding.

Wow, what a rich bank of experiences you bring to the writing table!  I always so fascinating to see all the different paths that can lead to writing.

What inspired you to write Mouse’s Christmas Gift?

I had originally seen a publisher’s wish list that included “books that explained the meaning of Christian holidays.” Although this was not the publisher that ended up buying my manuscript, it was what inspired me to begin shaping my story. 

Also, I love Christmas, and I collect nativity sets and church ornaments. It is the running joke in my family that even though they have “banned” me from buying any more nativity sets, somehow the collection keeps growing! 

IMG_4194

Nativity from Mexico

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Nativity from Ecuador

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Nativity from Israel

Honestly, my stories seem to grow from idea seeds or mind pictures. With this story, there were several elements that kept swirling around in my brain. 

–The Christmas Eve service at our home church has always been something special to me, and spiritually significant in my life. 

–The element of family and community, like at a church pitch-in dinner, or get-together with family/friends when everyone brings a dish to share.  I wanted to capture that feeling of “togetherness” or “connectedness.”   

–The idea of light in a dark world, or being a light in a dark world, one person trying to make a difference. I wrestled with how to show this in the manuscript. 

–I have always found stories including mice to be endearing and charming.

So…all of that…somehow became this story!

And you did a wonderful job of bringing all those elements together!  I can’t wait to share you story with my Sunday School classes – which I will be doing next month. They’ll be reading the story and then building it out of Legos!

What would you like readers to take away from this story?

There are several messages that I hope shine through.  The most obvious message is that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world. Without his birth, there would be no Christmas. The second is that even someone small can make a big difference.  Mouse never loses hope, and his acts of setting up the nativity set in the church and lighting a candle in the window set off a chain reaction in the village. A third lesson is that a Christmas celebration is not about how much money you spend. There is beauty in simplicity. I hope that readers uncover even more lessons as they read and connect with the story of Mouse.

These are all wonderful messages – and so beautifully and seamlessly woven in to a rich story.  

Tell us about the illustrations. How long did they take Dow Phumiruk to complete?  Was the process of bringing your words to life through pictures at all collaborative?

As you said, the illustrator of the book is Dow Phumiruk. She told me that it took her about ten months to complete the illustrations for Mouse’s Christmas Gift. A Twitter acquaintance commented that I “struck gold” when Zonderkidz selected Dow to be my illustrator, and I whole-heartedly agree.  Everything Dow draws has a magical quality, and I love the warmth conveyed in the cover, and throughout the entire book. It invites you to curl up and enjoy the story of Mouse.  I am in awe of what she has done with the illustrations. If you are interested, you can connect with her through her website at www.artbydow.com.  

Honestly, Dow and I did not collaborate on the illustrations. Once I submitted the manuscript, Dow and the art team at Zonderkidz took it from there. However, I was delighted at how beautiful the book turned out. I am so thankful and honored to be paired with Dow for this project.

I’m delighted at how the book turned out too. It’s very appealing.

What’s next? Are there more picture books in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?

I wrote a teaching guide for Mouse’s Christmas Gift that will be offered as a free download on the Zondervan website in just a few weeks. I am very excited about that!  Click here for the teacher guide. 

I have been working on several other projects and Mouse’s next adventure, but only time will tell if those manuscripts will make their way into the world. I certainly hope they do! Mouse’s Christmas Gift can be found on Amazon.com, Christian Books Stores, Barnes & Noble, and the Zondervan website. 

Thank you so much, Mindy, for giving us the lovely glimpse into the story from the author’s point of view. And, I don’t think it’s too early to wish you a very Merry Christmas!  

And now for the GIVEAWAY!

If you’d like a chance to win a FREE copy of MOUSE’S CHRISTMAS GIFT, written by Mindy Baker and illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, let me know in a comment below. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident with a street address (as opposed to a P.O. Box and at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Thursday, 11/1/18 at 11:59 pm EST. The winner will be announced on Friday 11/2/18!

SIX Nativity Activities to Teach 6 – 8 Year Olds About Christmas (Plus a GIVEAWAY!)

          One of my favorite Christmas memories is of watching my daughter play with the Baby Jesus that was part of our Christmas nativity. Pretending that Baby Jesus was crying, she’d gently take him out of the manger, rock him, feed him a bottle, and softly sing a lullaby or two.
         Here she is – several years ago – sweetly singing “Away in a Manger” with me after playing with the Baby Jesus. In the background (when we sway) you can even see that little nativity.

    
         Wasn’t that adorable?!  Her sweet play inspired me to write “Goodnight, Manger”, a Christmas bedtime picture book that not only serves as a fun reminder that Jesus was once a baby who cried and felt everything we feel, but which also keeps Christ, rather than Santa, as the focus during the holiday season. 
         With all this in mind, this week I am a guest over at Noelle Kirchner, The Ministering Mom’s website, noellekirchner.com,  sharing SIX Nativity Activities to Teach 6 – 8 Year Olds About Christmas , plus there’s a giveaway for one signed copy of GOODNIGHT, MANGER! I also previously shared on her blog 8 Nativity Activities to Teach Little Ones About Christmas so please check that out as well.
Thank you for having me, Noelle!!
Blessings, all!

And the winner of ‘TWAS THE EVENING OF CHRISTMAS is…

Twas The Evening Cover

I’m delighted to announce that the winner of this week’s special giveaway, a brand new copy of Glenys Nellist’s and Elena Selivanova’s beautiful picture book ‘TWAS THE EVENING OF CHRISTMAS, published by Zonderkidz, is…

AMY!!!!!

Congratulations!  I will be in touch with you today so we can get the book to you.

Thanks again, Glenys and Elena, for sharing your thoughts with us in this week’s interview. I’d also like to thank everyone who took the time to comment and to my daughter, once again, for lending me one of her snazzy hats for the drawing.