The Practice of Kindness in a Creative Life


         This morning I’m reflecting on the power of kindness and how this plays a part in my life and my writing. How can I seek to be kinder to others? Most importantly, am I being kind to myself? Do I beat myself up when my writing isn’t going well or do I uplift myself? So many artists, writers and creative people have issues with fear and self-doubt, and many of them succumb to drugs or suicide. Sometimes, the most incredible talents leave this earth because they weren’t able to be kind to themselves. And when we aren’t kind to ourselves, it’s nearly impossible to be kind to others, at least in a real way.

         I have to start with the premise that being kind should be a universal value, something we must seek to bring out in ourselves and in our children. Many visionaries and spiritual teachers have taught the practice of unconditional love for all, but sometimes I think this is vague and unrealistic for many of us. It’s hard to get there from where we are as a society, and therefore, easy to dismiss. I think the practice of kindness is much more attainable. When we are kind to others, we are being kind to ourselves, for none of us can be joyful when we have been unkind. And same vice versa. But how do we practice this? When do we fail?

         As a person, a friend, a wife and a mother, I can easily identify the ways that I’m kind to others and to myself, and I can also see the times I fail. But as a creative person and as a writer, how does kindness play a role?

         For me, the practice of kindness is that which makes others feel happier when they are near you: you say kind things to others and you help them in the ways that you can. The practice of kindness, then, is thinking of others and opening your awareness to the struggles of all, and then finding ways to ease that suffering. The practice of kindness spreads from one person to another. The practice of kindness is that which makes the giver of that kindness feel strong and confident.

         How do we, as writers and creative people, do this for one another? What do we do when a fellow writer is bummed out over a creative disappointment? How do we cheer on one another during failures and success? Or when a fellow writer is in the writer’s version of purgatory as they wait for feedback from their editor or agent, how do we help them out? Recently, when I was in this purgatory, I had several writing friends sending me uplifting comments and encouragements, and I so appreciated this kindness. It boosted me up and got me writing. We must do this for one another.        

         How can we do it for ourselves? I’ve heard writers talk about walking through a bookstore and experiencing feelings of jealousy, despondency, misery. Do we read something and think, man, I could never write like that?

         No matter what level the writer is at, he/she will experience feelings of inadequacy at one time or another. I guess this is true for any field. Reviews make most writers cringe, especially Goodreads; however, we’ve all been guilty of reading them at one point or another, searching for the uplifting comments and then withering at the negative ones. This is just one example of the ways we can sabotage ourselves at creative people.

         How can we fortify ourselves so that being kind to ourselves is easier? How do we uplift ourselves? So many creative people dive into drugs and alcohol, but I feel that this is such a temporary relief, with very negative long-term consequences. I think the practice of kindness to oneself and to others provides such a bigger reward.

         It’s important to uplift yourself and keep creating no matter what is happening and no matter what anyone else says about your work. We are doing this work because we love it and this is so important to remember. I have found when I push through the self-doubt and say nice things to myself, surround myself with other supportive writers, suddenly I’ve made an incredible breakthrough and I’m writing at an entirely new level.

         I also think kindness involves how we reach out to other writers/artists to help them and uplift them. Do we blurb their books? Do we spread the word about other people’s work? Do we offer to mentor younger writers? It’s fascinating to me that often the people who have the busiest, most successful careers are also the people who are reaching out to uplift and encourage others.

         There are always challenges. I’ve found a morning practice of yoga and meditation helps me set an intention for the day, and therefore, the practice of kindness becomes easier. This is why, nearly every morning, I do yoga as a preparation for meditation and then meditate as a preparation for life. On the days I miss, the practice of kindness is a greater challenge.

         Even 10 minutes can change the course of the day. The easiest meditation I know is to sit breathing deeply and be aware of your thoughts. Let them past. Counting breaths up to ten and then starting again at one. And when you feel the tension in your body sliding away, you can repeat a mantra. An easy one: breathe in the word “love” and breathe out the word “peace.” End with a blessing or a wish for yourself, the people you love and the world at large.        

         May there be more kindness in the world and may we all feel more kindness toward ourselves, for this is where it starts. Peace and love to all.


I’m just a teen…What can I do to stop human trafficking?

Trafficked book coverIt seems no matter where people are trafficked, they have one thing in common: the traffickers are feeding on their vulnerabilities. Worldwide, estimates are that 12 to 27 million people are trafficked. Half of these are kids and teens, most are female. Each year, 14, 500 to 17, 500 people are trafficked into America.

However, not just foreigners are trafficked. A lot of people are surprised when I do talks about the number of American kids who are trafficked inside America, not while on a trip abroad – this is very rare, despite what Hollywood wants to tell you. The real story is more shocking. 100 000 American kids and teens are trafficked within America every year. If an average high school has around 1000 kids, that’s 100 high schools. Trafficking doesn’t mean they are being smuggled or transported – it means they’re being exploited, threatened and used for their labor and their bodies, usually in the sex industry.

Most people agree that human trafficking is a terrible problem and an issue we need to solve in our society today. But how? As with many of these big issues, it’s normal to wonder what kind of an impact one person can have, especially if you’re a young person with fewer resources.

Here are some small things any person can do to make a difference. Choose one and do it today and then tweet, Facebook or email me to let me know how it went. Then I’ll share your story as an inspiration to others.

1. Volunteer

Almost all big cities have anti-trafficking organizations, so you can look online to see who is in your city. Some of the ones I recommend who helped me with the research for Trafficked or who’ve helped with the promotion of Trafficked as a tool of awareness are … Love 146, Gems, Restore NYC, Cast LA, La Strada International, Safe Horizon, The Salvation Army.

2. Write your senator or representative in Congress.

Tell him or her that you want strict laws to punish traffickers and funds to support victims of trafficking. Go here.

3. Spread the word.

Kids, teens and college students can make a bigger impact today than they ever could in the past through social media and blogging. Nobody knows how old you are, just that you have something interesting to say. All young people should have blogs and twitter accounts to share the things they are passionate about. As a side benefit, this can lead to a career. Maybe you don’t want to start a Twitter account or blog dedicated to the subject of human trafficking, but at least you can let your friends know about the issue through Facebook or Twitter.

4. Avoid buying slave labor goods.

This includes everything from electronics to clothing to coffee to chocolate. How can you avoid these goods? Shop for fair trade items. Also, shop for things made in the US, or another developed country for a higher chance that it is not made with slave labor. It might cost a bit more, but the quality is usually better too. Better to buy fewer things than to know you might be wearing something made by slave labor. One of my favorite fair trade stores is Ten Thousand Villages and, as a plus, they have unique, good quality gifts.

Here’s an article containing a list of slave labor goods.

5. Donate or start a fund-raiser at your school.

Even if you donate five dollars, it can help. I visited a school in Washington, DC, where students are doing regular bake sales. I did a Skype visit with another school in Utah, where students printed up anti-slavery t-shirts and sold those. Every little bit helps. This is why I’m donating 20 percent of everything I make from Trafficked to anti-trafficking organizations. It’s not much, but it’s something.

There are so many innovative things you can do to help end human trafficking. If you decide to turn your compassion into action, let me know what you end up doing. I love hearing these stories. And it doesn’t have to be big…Even a five-minute tweet can change the world if it’s retweeted enough times. We can work together and end slavery in this generation.


How To Scare Your Readers: Upping the Tension in Your Fiction

When you’re reading and you can’t put a book down, it’s because the author has used certain techniques to up the tension. Tension is what makes you turn the pages, no matter what the genre might be, from suspense to romance to literary fiction. Here are some suggestions for how to increase the nail-biting factor in your writing through plot, character and language devices, along with some examples from young adult fiction.


1. Start at the right scene. It must be able to build from that point, but it should also be a moment things start to change for your character. (Stolen by Lucy Christopher – Ty steals Gemma from her parents at an airport in Thailand. This happens in the first chapter.)

2. Contain the plot within a limited time. Don’t expand it over many years. (Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – the main present day action happens in a day.)

3. Impose a time limit. By this time or date, the world will explode. (The Uglies by Scott Westerfield – When she is 16, she must get the operation to be pretty.)

4. Up the stakes as the novel goes along. Make it bad, then worse. But avoid tricking the reader into thinking there are high stakes when there aren’t, as with dream sequences. (In the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, most of the characters will die.)

5. Create sympathetic characters. Make the readers care about the characters. Develop the voice. If they relate to that character, they care about what happens.

6. Put the characters at risk. This could be emotional risk (If I Stay by Gayle Forman: When Mia learns that her family is dead, will she give up on life?) or real physical danger (The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney: When the boy who raped her discovers she’s told people, will he try to hurt her again?)

7. Unfold information regularly. Let the POV character learn more as the novel unfolds. We should constantly be guessing, just as the character is trying to figure things out. However, if your POV character knows something, we should know it too. Otherwise the reader will feel tricked. If the readers know some information, they’ll start guessing and then keep reading because they want to see if they were right. (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling – Is Snape good or bad?)

8. Avoid a Predictable Plot. Create unexpected twists. Especially add a twist near the end so that the reader knows it could have ended another way. (Shrek: We knew Shrek and Fiona would end up together but we didn’t know that Fiona would end up as an ogre.) (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green also has a twist at the end…but I can’t give it away in case you haven’t read it. Oooh….look at that tension.)

9. Provide multiple viewpoints. You can see the danger coming at the protagonist before the protagonist does. You know things the protagonist doesn’t know and you’re waiting for him/her to find out. (How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr – you have two viewpoints, and so you know things that the other character doesn’t know.)

10. Create difficult choices – No option is great, but the protagonist must choose one. Think of the game, Must Choose…there’s a reason it’s so fun. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – Bella must choose between a werewolf and a vampire.)

11. Add more complications. (Twilight– Could the love triangle between Edward, Jacob and Bella have more complications?)

12. Add more questions. At the end of every chapter, the reader must have a question in her mind. Always ask yourself what the question is and if you could turn up the stakes on it.

13. Add in some close calls. The protagonist didn’t get hurt, but almost did. (Twilight: Edward saves Bella many times at the very last minute. We fear one time he may be too late.)

14. Think in terms of extreme danger. Are you protecting your character in some way? When your character is in danger, make sure it’s closer to the death side of things, instead of breaking an arm. Push the protagonist to his or her limit, not so she breaks but so we fear she might. Don’t be too easy on her/him. If you re-read your novel and you see that you’re feeling more afraid for a secondary character, this is a warning sign that you may be overprotecting the main character.

15. Add uncertainty. Nobody has done this thing before. Or somebody tried it and it didn’t work. (Hunger Games: Katniss shoots the apple.)

16. Sometimes the question is how, not what. Sometimes we don’t need to know if it’s going to happen, sometimes we know, but we want to know how it’s going to happen. (Hunger Games: we know Katniss is going to live, but we want to know how and what happens to those she cares about.)


1. What matters most to your character? Put that thing/person in danger or take it away. (Hunger Games: What matters most to Katniss is her sister, Primrose, and when her name is drawn to fight in a battle to the death, Katniss is thrust into action.)

2. Create a powerful antagonist. Your antagonist should have certain advantages over your protagonist – stronger, more beautiful, more popular. (Twilight: Dangerous vampires overcoming weak, regular girl … in the beginning.)

3. Give your character a personal weakness or fear to overcome. The more common this fear is, the better. Use people’s natural fears. For example, the fear of heights is a common fear. The fear of frogs is not. All of us people who are afraid of heights can get caught up in the terror of someone who must jump off a building. (Divergent by Veronica Roth: When Tris jumps off the building into the abyss, what reader doesn’t feel their heart racing a little faster?)

4. Make your character suffer. That way, when your character is victorious, we cheer much louder. (Harry Potter – His scar makes him writhe in pain anytime Voldemort is near. He’s not invincible.)

5. Give your character some past failure and a fear that he/she will fail again. The backstory is important, even for building tension. (Harry Potter – His parents died protecting him. A friend or someone close to him dies in every book. As a result, we fear for his closest friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.)

6. Place your characters in unusual situations, something nobody has ever heard about. (Holes by Louis Sachar: boys at a juvenile detention center have to dig holes five feet wide/five feet deep.)

7. Keep your reader asking if what the characters are saying and thinking is real or true. This is useful especially in the case of an unreliable narrator. (Liar by Justine Larbalestier)

8. Make sure your character never gives up. They might consider giving up, but they don’t. They should keep fighting even when it seems certain they will lose. (The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle – Even though her whole family has been killed in a car accident, Laurel never gives up.)

9. Give your characters opposing motivations and desires. This is a subtle way to increase tension. When they are speaking, it will add subtext and provide a contrast between what their body language is doing and what they are saying, which adds to the questions in the reader’s mind.


1. Vary the pace of your novel. Use shorter sentences for intense fight scenes and longer sentences for descriptive sections. Or add extra description; draw it out so that we are waiting for something to happen, dying for it to happen, like a first kiss. Sometimes a fight scene is more powerful if shown from all angles, slowly with each little details. In real life, fights happen so fast. If you draw out the moment the first punch is thrown, you’ll add tension.

2. Don’t be afraid to use fragments – sparingly. (Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl: check out the use of fragments to increase tension.)

3. Provide strong details, using all the senses. When you do this, the reader feels like he/she is part of the scene and becomes involved emotionally. (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

4. Don’t forget cliffhangers. You don’t need to tidy everything all neat at the end of a chapter. Leave readers hanging so they have to keep reading. If you have more than one POV character, try to cut a scene leaving one character hanging; then go to scene B and leave character B hanging. (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)

5. Avoid long, flowery descriptions. If you are careful about what details you use, readers will fill in the rest with their imaginations. (Harry Potter: Rowling wastes very few words on descriptions. When Harry first sees the castle, it’s just a few lines.)

Go ahead now. Write. And scare the pants off your readers.

My Book Trailer!! And A Big Nomination for Trafficked!

What an amazing day. I’ve been in Portland, at Madison High School, where Trafficked was named the Madison Reads Book of the Year. I also visited Franklin High School today and I’m about to do a bookstore event at A Children’s Bookstore from 5-6.

So, that was enough, but it’s not all. Today, I was nominated for a big book award and my book trailer debuted. Go to Good Choice Reading to view the trailer and win one of five giveaways!

Here it is…the big nomination: Trafficked has been nominated for the 2013-2014 South Carolina Book Awards in the YA category! Yippee. This is truly the little book that could. I’m grateful to all the people who are spreading the word about this book so that more and more people are starting to hear about it. So wonderful. Besides that, it’s quite amazing to see the other incredible books in this list…just to be mentioned along with these amazing authors is such an honor. Check it out for yourself here.


How I Researched TRAFFICKED and Other Questions Answered!

This interview was first published on Good Choice Reading.


1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your newest book, Trafficked.

I’m trained as a journalist, but I quickly discovered that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life. I wanted to a novelist and make stories up. It had been my dream since I was ten years old and I decided to go for it. However, my journalism background definitely helped me to write this book because of how much research was required. I wrote two novels before this one – they ended up being practice novels. I’ve lived in Mexico and Korea, and travelled all around the world, which was useful experience when writing this book for many reasons, especially because I know how disorienting it is to live in another country where you don’t speak the language. It took me about six years to write TRAFFICKED. It’s about a seventeen-year-old girl who comes to Los Angeles from Moldova to be a nanny and ends up as a modern-day domestic slave.

2. What inspired you to write Trafficked?

I was teaching English as a Second Language to poor illegal immigrant mothers in Los Angeles for the Lennox School District when I first learned about people being trafficked and used as slaves in America. I thought slavery was over, at least in the western world. I had a degree in International Relations and not once had I heard about this. It shocked me. I looked at my beautiful students who had so much love and passion. Every day in class they shared touching stories about their lives. Sometimes we laughed. Sometimes we cried. At the end of class, we ate a picnic from all the delicious food they brought in. I thought, this could happen to any of you, and I just had to learn more and write about it.

3. Were you worried about how readers would react to Trafficked?

I wasn’t. Now it seems strange because people have told me how shocking and disturbing it is to read in certain parts. I just wrote what I saw as the truth, based on the people I’d talked to and the research I’d done. I actually made it a little milder than what is probably the truth for many of these girls because I’d been warned that it could get banned in some areas due to the issue of slavery and the harsh nature of what she goes through. Despite this, I’ve heard some people say it really affected them emotionally. One of my best friends has told me she’s too afraid to read my story. That surprised me because ultimately this story is about the ability we all have to overcome fear and bring ourselves to a place of peace and joy.

4. What was the most difficult part to write in Trafficked?

When Hannah’s getting hurt, that was pretty tough to write. I really get into the characters when I’m writing. It’s kind of like method acting, but it’s method writing, in which I become the character. So when they get hurt, I feel it.

5. Human trafficking is something that is happening today, how much research did you have to do in order to write Trafficked?

I had a lot of stories to draw upon from the immigrants I taught, both from my poor students and the rich ones. I also traveled to Moldova, which has a huge trafficking problem, and I interviewed vulnerable girls in the city and the villages. I traveled in the same way that my girl Hannah travels out of Moldova to Romania and then finally to Los Angeles. A lot of her journey is based on what I experienced. I also interviewed people from anti-trafficking organizations both in Moldova and here in America. Of course, I read a lot too, but really most of the information that made into the book came from my direct experience with people in Moldova and immigrants here in America.

6. What are you working on now?

I have two novels on the go. One of them has to do with bullying. They’re both pretty suspenseful. We’ll see which one comes out first.

A Cafe in a School Library? It’s True!

Two weeks ago, I did author visits at two schools in Brownsville, Texas, and I went to IMG_1928one incredible school with….drum roll… a cafe in the school library. When I first walked in the library of Veterans Memorial High School and saw the tables and chairs, and the little cafe sign and kitchen, I thought, “No way.” But it’s true! They actually have this quaint cafe for the kids in the library.

The librarian and assistants run it during lunch and before school and the funds from this cafe are used to buy books. The cafe creates this warm, welcoming feeling in the library and the kids love coming to the library. They sip their tea and read books, and I guess, feel respected as people who are worthy of a cafe in their school library. It’s such a wonderful way to honor students. We need to do more of this kind of thing for teens.

The librarian told me she has to make the kids leave to go to class. I loved going to the library when I was a teenager. It was the only place I felt safe. But a cafe would have sweetened the deal.

For a fun news article in the Brownsville Herald about my visit to this school, go here!



Top Ten Tips When Hosting an Author Visit

It is my greatest hope that every school will see the value of bringing in authors and illustrators to their schools to nurture a love of reading and to inspire kids to go for their dreams. But what does it take to host a successful author’s visit?

In the last year, I’ve visited over 30 schools around the country and I’ve had many incredible experiences talking to kids and meeting educators, including a district-wide book club in Texas last month where I did 15 school visits in 5 days. It was crazy busy and crazy fun. I’ve also helped organize author visits for both of my daughters’ schools for the last four years, so I’ve seen these author/illustrator visits from both sides. Here’s what I’ve learned works best:

1. Make Sure the Kids Have Read the Book

In Texas, many of the kids had already read Trafficked, which made them much more interested in the visit than when I’ve come to schools where they haven’t read it. It’s important to make sure kids have the books in advance. At my daughter’s elementary school, the principal buys at least one of the books for every classroom, so all the kids have had some exposure to the author or illustrator’s work before the visit.

2. Provide Food and Drink for the Author/Illustrator

In most of the school where I go, the librarians have coffee, water and treats, which is really wonderful when you’re running from school to school and you don’t have much time to eat. Also, if it’s morning, a little caffeine before a visit sure doesn’t hurt to pump up the energy a little. When you’re talking to a lot of kids, your mouth gets dry, so water is helpful. IMG_1929

On a practical note, it’s best to have the water in a bottle form because while you’re talking, you might wave your arms about and if you’re clumsy like me, you might knock water all over the place. Not all authors want food, but when we host authors at my daughter’s school, we provide lunch. The parents at some of the schools in Texas provided a lunch buffet and that was especially great when I was going from school to school. At my daughter’s former school in Brooklyn (PS 321), one of the teachers used to make a treat for all the teachers to share while they had lunch with the author. If you make a cake for the author, they will be stunned. It never happened to me before, but in Texas, I got my first author cake!

3 Be Careful About the Set-Up of the Room

The kids should be facing the author. If you only have tables with chairs around them, position the chairs so that they are all facing forward, not inward to the table. Otherwise, kids look at one another and they are more likely to be distracted.

4. Give Instructions to the Kids So They Know What To Do

In Texas, the kids were instructed to be good listeners and ask lots of questions. This is a big one. Sometimes kids who haven’t had an author visit before don’t really know what to do. I usually ask them questions and I can get them talking, but it’s wonderful if they’ve been prepped. Another good option is to get them to write down questions before the author comes. If they’ve read the book and had time to think about questions in advance, the visits always flow more smoothly.

5. Meet the Author at the Door

When you arrive at a school as an author, it’s a bit disorienting and every school has different rules and procedures, so it’s important for someone to be at the front door waiting. In Texas, the super friendly librarian coordinator, Nora Galvan, drove me to all the schools and introduced me to everyone. However, I’ve been at some schools where I was sent wandering the halls in search of the library or classrooms, and it was fine, but much nicer to not have to worry that you’ll get lost and end up in a broom closet.

6. Introduce the Author or Illustrator

This seems fairly straight-forward, but when you introduce the author, it’s great to give some fun facts about him or her. Kids love that. I find kids often ask me questions about these facts or how they relate to the work. For example, they love to know that I have kids and a rescue dog and that I traveled to Moldova to research the book. You can find this info on the author’s bio page.

7. Stay Close

Sometimes educators will just leave me with the kids. Usually this is fine since I have many years of experience as a teacher, but I often think of authors with less experience. I know some authors who refuse to do visits because of discipline issues and teachers thinking that it’s a good time for them to go have a break. Even for me, I find the kids are much more engaged when someone from the school stays in the room. Also, sometimes it takes the kids a while to get up their courage to ask a question and it helps when educators ask questions to get the ball rolling or to fill in the silences. Another key thing you can do is help the author with timing. I get very into talking with the kids, so it helps to have someone say, hey, you’ve got ten more minutes.

8. Make Sure Kids Have Supplies

If it’s a longer visit, more than 40 min, it’s a great idea for the author or illustrator to have some other writing or drawing activity for the kids. For the last school visit at my youngest daughter’s school, we invited author/photographer, Heidi Fagerburg. She writes stories about animals rescued on the beach near her home and she had the kids draw a picture of an animal they’d rescued or connected with in a special way. The kids loved it. When I do a school visit, if the group is small enough, I like the students to have pens and paper, so I can do a writing experiment at the end and maybe inspire them to keep writing on their own. If they don’t have supplies already, though, it’s too much to get it out once I’m there.  I often bring index cards for them to write on because then it feels different from school and is pretty fun and not so daunting as a big sheet of paper. However, they still need pencils. Check with the author in advance to figure out exactly what they’ll do with the kids. They should not just be reading from the book. I started out reading too long at my first few school visits and now I read about 5 minutes. Kids want to interact, so for most writers, it’s best to keep the reading part short and sweet. On the other hand, at PS 321 in Brooklyn, we had Jacqueline Woodson. She reads from several of her books and you can’t even call it reading because it’s the incredible performance art, which I could watch for hours.

9. Have a Display Set Up in the Library and at the Entrance of the School

At PS 321 in Brooklyn, one of the parents is in charge of making a poster of the author and putting it up in several locations around the school so that all the parents and kids know about the author visit. This makes the school look really great too, for perspective parents. At every school in Texas, they had a large poster of Trafficked and a picture of me, and often a banner welcoming me to the school, which showed me what it felt like from the other side. It gave me such a warm feeling as an author coming to the school and definitely made me want to come back. Even more importantly, kids knew who to expect and they were excited about the book in advance of the visit. It was a district wide book club, so many of the kids had the book, but if they didn’t, they could take it out from the library before I came to the school.

10. Provide Markers, Chalk, Sharpies, Microphone, Powerpoint for the Author

For smaller groups, I prefer to talk to the kids without a Powerpoint, but for a bigger group, pictures really help hold their attention. You have to arrange this with the author in advance. When we host authors at my younger daughter’s school and the author is reading a picture book, it’s super helpful to have it in the Powerpoint form for any group over 20. Otherwise the kids can’t see and get bored quickly. In Texas, because I was running in and out of the schools and all the groups were under forty kids, we didn’t do any Powerpoint. However, when I was visiting schools in Calgary for Wordfest, I did a Powerpoint, showing parts of Moldova. It worked well because the groups had about two hundred kids, and it was easier to engage the bigger audience.

11. A Thank You Gift or Letters

It doesn’t need to be some grandiose thing, but after an author visit, it’s really lovely to get a card or letters from students saying how much they enjoyed the book or the visit. You always wonder, as the author, if they found it useful and you’re much more likely to go back if they appreciated you. If the kids have read the book already, they could write these in advance. At my youngest daughter’s school, one teacher always gives the author a pack of letters at the event itself, and every time, the author is delighted. Otherwise, you could get kids to write their thank you letters afterward. I just received a package of letters from a juvenile detention center where I taught a writing workshop in January. One kid wrote, “I didn’t believe that it takes just 2 minutes to write something down that comes to your mind.” Another wrote, “I think it’s important to let people know about human trafficking because it’s a very serious matter.” From kids who’d committed serious crimes, these letters were precious. I’ll keep them for the rest of my life.

12. Get Parents Involved!

An author or illustrator’s visit takes a lot of work from the planning with the author to ordering books to set-up for the event itself. Every school should have an author or illustrators committee as part of the PTSA/PTA. Maybe you’re thinking that your school doesn’t have money for an author visit. You can get grants for this, but one of the easiest ways around this is to offer to do a large book order. You send home order forms to the parents, which you create, and they send in checks for the books, which the author agrees to sign. At my younger daughter’s school, our book orders range from 100 to 300 books for an author. The publisher will give you a discount, usually 40 percent, and you can either pass the savings on to the parents or use it to pay for the author. It definitely sweetens the deal for the author because they like people to buy their books. I’ve done these book orders a few times for my daughters’ schools and it’s very straight-forward. You call the publisher and tell them how many books you’re ordering and they send them to the school, billing you after the fact. You may not be able to get a huge author with several books to his or her name because most of them charge 1500-5000 per visit. Debut authors will charge less. Also, if you find a local author, she or he may be willing to do it for free. With the lure of the book order, you may be able to get authors to come, as long as they live within driving distance. Or, you can piggy-back on a local bookstore’s efforts and ask whatever author is going there to come to your school.

Just Do It!

Believe me, nothing is more inspirational for someone with a dream than to meet someone who accomplished their own dream. It would have made all the difference for me when I was a kid, which I why I love to do school visits. I always encourage kids to go for their dreams, no matter what, and I use my own struggles as an example. It took me about fifteen years of hard work to make it as an author, but it’s been worth every minute. Please, bring authors and illustrators in to your schools. Even if it inspires one kid to go further than they ever would have gone, it’s worth it.



Teen Choice Book of the Year Nomination


I’m thrilled that TRAFFICKED has been nominated as Teen Choice Book of the Year. You have to vote by February 13th, 2013, so do it now. Your vote really does matter. If TRAFFICKED makes it into the top five, it will be a wonderful boost for the book and do a huge job of increasing awareness in America about this very serious issue. We need to end modern-day slavery in America. We need to say NO to children and teens being used as slaves in America and around the world.

Please go here to vote!

So Your Book Is Published – Now What? Ten Steps in The First Year

The paperback for TRAFFICKED is coming out in February, 2013 and I’m so very grateful. Nowadays, not every book makes it to the paperback stage. If your sales aren’t good enough in the hardback, your book just dies a sad little death, without even an obituary, leaving the writer bereft and alone in her grief.

Thank goodness this isn’t happening to TRAFFICKED. My baby is living on, has been given a second life, in fact, and many more people will have the opportunity to read it in paperback. I know how lucky I am. It’s not a vampire or an angel book. It’s not about an American teenager being bullied. It’s a book about an illegal immigrant who comes to America to find a better life but is forced to be a modern-day slave. It’s tough for the stories of immigrants to be heard. The fact that Penguin was willing to take a chance on Trafficked is a small miracle.

TRAFFICKED has received some attention from the publishing world, fortunately, and it did get wonderful reviews in all the major trades, but bringing it to the attention of the wider public has required a ton of work. My publisher did what it could for TRAFFICKED, especially since it was a book for which huge sales were unlikely, but mostly it has required a lot of my own sweat and tears.

What did I do? Here’s a partial list.

1. In December, I hired a publicist who worked alongside my new publicist at Penguin to get a blog tour going, and they did a wonderful job. I wrote at least twenty different guest blog posts for different blogs. This took weeks of hard work, but it got some buzz going before the pub date.

2. I contacted every bookstore in my area and along the West Coast to schedule a book tour. The owners of the bookstores were surprisingly receptive and everyone I contacted agreed to a reading and signing.

3.  I had my book launch party at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn. About fifty people showed up and the bookstore sold 37 copies of TRAFFICKED that night. I had been hoping for a bigger number, but this is apparently a good number for a debut novel at any bookstore.

4. Shortly afterward, I went on my West Coast Book Tour and did events in Seattle, WA, (Secret Garden Books and Chief Sealth High School) Edmonds, WA, (Edmonds Bookshop) Portland, OR, (A Children’s Place Bookstore) and Vancouver, BC (Blackberry Books). Along the West Coast, I have a lot of friends and family and I made sure they were coming. I told them I needed them. I emailed and Facebooked everyone a few times, so they wouldn’t forget. I have pretty amazing people in my life and they all showed up at all the events, filling the bookstores, buying books.

5. After this, I didn’t stop. I continued to arrange events, do panels, teach at writing conferences, go to festivals. Most of these opportunities came about because I did something to make it happen. I sent an email or made a phone call. Very few events came to me unsolicited. In one case, I begged Penguin to send me to ALA, arguing about how educators love Trafficked, and they agreed, even though it wasn’t a priority book for them, and gave me a badge. I paid for my own way and then, when I was there, I talked to librarian after librarian. One of those librarians read my book, loved it, and I became the Madison Reads Author of 2012, for Madison High School, in Portland, OR, where she is the librarian.

6. I used social media, tweeting frequently. As a result, I connected with one of the festival organizers of Wordfest in Calgary. I didn’t even know about Wordfest at that point, but I think she said something funny and I liked her, so we tweeted back and forth. To my surprise, she read the book and I was invited to Wordfest in Calgary. Penguin couldn’t pay for my flight, but the festival did pay per event and I used that to cover my flight. I would not have gone to Calgary otherwise, and I met with a lot of great kids there, and now I hope to go again. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been on Twitter.

7. I emailed every school in Westchester, where I currently live, and some schools in Brooklyn, where I used to live and where I will soon live again. I went to every library I passed. As a result, I’ve done two school visits in Westchester, taught at a writing retreat for one of those schools, and I’ve been invited to teach at a Westchester writing conference for teens in March. In Brooklyn, the Brooklyn library system has a teen program and they’ve interviewed me for their book club. When I move back to Brooklyn, I’ll send out emails to all the Brooklyn schools.

8. Every time I go on a vacation, I contact libraries and schools in the area. When I was skiing in Park City, Utah, last year, I contacted the high schools there. One of the schools brought me in to talk to the kids. I talked to the local bookstores and once they heard about the school visit, they said they’d order my book right away. When I was in Bellingham, WA, I did an event at the Barnes & Noble.

9. I’ve contacted every magazine, newspaper and online magazine in my area. I’ve done a radio interview for a Westchester radio station as a direct result of a Westchester newspaper article, which I solicited, by telling them about TRAFFICKED. Every time I do an event in an area, I let the newspapers know. I’ve contacted many anti-trafficking organizations to let them know about TRAFFICKED, and tell them that I’m giving twenty-percent of my royalties to anti-trafficking nonprofits. One big anti-trafficking nonprofit, called Love 146, has tweeted about the book and told people to read it. I want this book to make a difference and increase awareness about human trafficking, but people need to know about it. Next week, I’m going to Texas where a school district is doing a district-wide book club for Trafficked. I don’t know how they heard about the book, but I’m glad. Today, I’m contacting the local newspaper there. Maybe they’ll interview me when I get there, you never know.

10. Not a single week has gone by when I didn’t contact someone about the book, and I’ve had at least one event a month, sometimes two or three. When people bring me to events or do anything to help the book, I thank them. Gratitude is important. Giving back is important. This week I went to a juvenile detention center to talk to the kids about writing and about human trafficking. When one of the kids said, “Those girls want it,” I saw how much work there was still to be done. And I’m going to keep doing it. And somewhere along the way, hopefully soon, I’ll finish my next book.

(If you’d like to hear some of my lessons/mistakes from the first year, I recently did a guest blog post on my Top Ten Lessons for A Life Bound By Books.)

An Author Visit at a Juvenile Detention Center

Today I went to my first juvenile detention center. I’ve been to a couple prisons before, adult male prisons, medium and low security, when I was doing a radio journalism piece on AIDS in the prison system, but the juvenile detention center surprised me by how different it was.

Before heading there this morning, I went for a hard run and did a little yoga to calm my nerves and find a sense of peace. I felt nervous, but not because I was going to a detention center. I always feel a little nervous before talking to a group of teens. I want to connect with them, inspire them, and make some kind of positive impact. I remember what it was like to be a teen and I know what it would have meant to me to have an author come talk to one of my classes.

I also know that if you put on any fronts or act like something you’re not, they’ll find you out. Kids sniff out dishonesty faster that a bloodhound sniffs out blood. If you aren’t true to yourself and who you are, forget it. So before I go in front of any group, I need to center myself and get really solid in who I am so that I can give them my truth. That’s all most teens ask for from us adults. Something real. Not a pack of lies.

I drove to the detention center, twenty minutes from my house and parked. The receptionist unlocked the first door from a little booth inside. Then the next door clicked and I was in. I could be wrong about her being a receptionist, but she sure didn’t look like a guard. She was a middle-aged African American woman dressed in regular clothes. She smiled and welcomed me to the facility and said I’d just need to wait for the principal to figure out which book I needed to sign in on. I sat down in one of the two padded waiting room chairs. There was an article on the wall about medical school students who’d recently come to the facility to talk to the kids and I started to read it. The principal came through a set of doors, again a softer sort of person than I’d expected. Really, she looked like a regular teacher, like my daughter’s teacher, wearing a green sweater and pants, medium-length hair, reddish blond, the color of sunflowers.

I expected to go through a metal detector as I had at the other adult facilities. I’d expected to have to leave valuables somewhere. Nothing. I shook hands with the principal and we went to meet the kids. We walked through a series of doors, which she unlocked and locked herself, with no guard. I learned that the guards stay wherever the kids are and at that moment the kids were in the school area.

We walked through a sitting area where some repairmen were standing on a ladder, fixing something, maybe the TV. Then, we continued through the dining area, which consisted of five or six long picnic-like tables with stools attached to them. The principal asked if I’d like to work with the kids there or in the classrooms. I said I’d go wherever they were comfortable. We continued on past some work-out equipment and a pool table.

The principal told me she was a little harried from having an incident with an eleven-year-old kid just minutes before, but she assured me he wouldn’t be there.  Eleven years old. I didn’t know they had kids that young.

When we got to the school area, it looked very much like any other classroom, though with fewer desks. There were two classes going on, about 6 kids in each, all of them teenagers, mostly African-American and male. One of the classrooms had several computers – over ten. This classroom had paper on the windows with masking tape. A giant green and red Christmas bow still hung on the door, as well as some other decorations around the room, even though it’s January and I thought there was something sweet about that, not so much laziness about cleaning it up, but more a desire to keep the brightness of the holidays around a little longer.

I left my bag in the principal’s office and she moved all the kids into the computer classroom. With thirteen kids and about six supervisors or teens, the room was packed. The guard sat in the middle, keeping an eye on a couple kids. He was a kind-faced man, but large, someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. I could sense the kids respected him.

I talked about the research behind my book, read a couple pages and then waited for questions. There’s always a silence with teens. Nobody wants to be first. But if you wait, and if you don’t mind a little silence, someone always puts up their hand. On this day, it was a teacher. I answered her question. Then one of the boys whispered his question to another teacher and she said it out loud.  I answered it. Soon they were all asking questions. I talked a lot about human trafficking and how teens get sold for sex. After I told them thousands of American kids are trafficked, sold for sex, one of the guys said, “That’s not happening to me.” I said, “Probably not. Usually it’s girls, but all of you have sisters and cousins and friends who are girls, so it affects you too.” One guy near the front murmured, “Them girls want it.” They want it. I liked that he spoke up and said what was on his mind. I talked about how it’s different because these girls are being sold, they don’t get the money and they don’t get to choose who. I was glad he said it because I wanted to address this misconception. It’s more common than you’d think.

I moved on to a writing experiment. I talked to them about details in writing and got them to look around the classroom and tell me what they saw. I asked them what made it unique. “The walls are yellow.” “It’s got brick.” “Computers.” “It’s a jail.” That last sentence. Yelled out. Angry.  “It’s a jail,” I repeated. “Now that’s something different from most classrooms. What makes it look like a jail?” “A guard,” someone answered. Funny thing was he didn’t even look like a guard. He had on a black sweater, black pants. Besides being big, I wouldn’t have thought he was a guard. Maybe he had a badge on his pants. To me, he didn’t look like a guard with a full uniform and a hat, but it didn’t matter. They were aware of where he was at all times.

We talked about using your sense of smell when you write. They told me smells they loved: pizza, sours, jolly ranchers, coffee, cheeseburgers. I asked them for smells they hated: body odor, shit, bad breath. The usual suspects. I handed out index cards – they’re great because they don’t feel so much like school and kids like writing on them. I asked them to write about a smell they loved for two minutes. A couple of them kept talking, but most of them wrote. Afterward I asked if anyone wanted to read. I expected crickets.

Immediately, one of the kids in the back put up his hand and read about strawberries. After him, kid after kid read. Some of them got someone else to read. One of teachers wrote about a vegetable dish she makes with peanut sauce. I told them I wanted to be a better cook, but I wasn’t great. I asked if any of them could cook. Several of the guys put up they’re hands. “Yeah, I like to cook,” one of them shouted out. One girl at the front who didn’t look at me the whole time held up her index card. She asked me to read it, but not to read it aloud. It was beautiful. I can’t tell you any more than that because she told me, “Just you.”

It was time to go. I gave them one of my books to read and handed out bookmarks to all of them. They clapped and I stepped out of the room. I stood in the hall talking to another guard, very solid, a little shorter than the first.  He said he was going to buy my book, but he wanted me to sign it. I said I’d be back next month. He said maybe he could get his picture with me and my book. We laughed.

The taller guard stepped out of the room, ahead of the kids, walking backwards, watching the kids who were following him. One kid came out of the classroom, shouting about how another guy had just hit him in the head. He was a larger kid and had been teased a couple times in the classroom about it. The guard asked who and began to deal with it. I followed the principal to her office.

Their lives went on, but maybe I made an impact. I don’t know. It was cool to talk to them anyway and see them writing. It would be pretty exciting if one of them emailed me something they’d written.  I’ll have to wait and see.