Twenty Surprises and Successes in 2020

I have joined the 12 Days of Christmas with Julie Hedlund Facebook group for writers, and on Day 2 of the 12-day challenge we were asked to share 2020 surprises with the group, and on Day 3 to post our 2020 successes on our blogs.  I decided to combine the two and post both on my blog – it is a list that includes a combination of personal and professional surprises and successes, and isn’t in chronological (or alphabetical) order. 

  1. When my youngest child turned 18 in February, I became the proud mama of four young adults.  It is surprising how fast 18 years flies by – my sweet little baby became a beautiful young woman in the blink of an eye – just as her three older siblings before her (well, my two baby boys became handsome young men).
  2. I was invited to join the Board of Trustees of the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County. I am very excited to be part of this wonderful group that supports the good work of our public library system.
  3. I am on the planning committee of the Gaithersburg Book Festival, and coordinate the workshops for children and teens. We successfully converted our amazing one-day hometown festival into a month-long virtual event.
  4. I was able to invest in several professional development opportunities throughout the year: ALA eCourse Leading from the Library, Maryland State Department of Education’s Teaching Online in Maryland, shadow facilitator for another MSDE course, and trained to teach literacy using the Orton-Gillingham multisensory method.
  5. In August I decided to take the plunge and invest in my dream of becoming a children’s author and joined Storyteller Academy.  The courses and instructors have been so informative, helpful, and inspiring!  I am thankful for Kathy Halsey, a fellow school librarian, and my critique group, too. 
  6. I have also joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and am excited for their upcoming Winter Conference!
  7. I have written five picture book manuscripts and started submitting to agents and publishers.
  8. I have participated in one pitch party #PitMad and got a couple of hearts.
  9. I presented Leading from the Library at the Montgomery County Public School – School Library Media Program annual professional day and at the Maryland Association of School Librarians annual conference.
  10. I am the lead teacher for our school’s CARES Enrichment Program, which provides free tutoring for students who need a little help building their confidence with reading.
  11. Despite the pandemic, I was able to get to the beach twice this summer – Old Orchard Beach in Maine and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. Putting my feet into the sand and feeling the power of the ocean revives my soul. While in Maine, I got to lie down on the beach, listening to the roar of the ocean waves, as I watched the Perseids meteor shower. Magical!
  12. I was again able to be a mentor for the NEED Project / Exelon STEM Innovation + Leadership Academy for teen girls, and helped create a series of professional skills workshops.
  13. In addition to my library media lessons, I have hosted monthly Zoom bedtime read alouds for my students. I strive to build a community of readers and dreamers!
  14. I have been able to participate in three Zoom meetings at once – using three different emails and devices.  Wouldn’t have been able to do this in person!
  15. I have attended virtual workshops and conferences that I wouldn’t have been able to attend during a typical school year.  Notables were KidLit Rally 4 Black Lives, Empowering Educators Conference with Jason Reynolds and the Mazza Weekend Conference.
  16. I have lost track of how many children’s books I have read this year, but because of the pandemic and distance learning, I have been able to spend more time walking my dog and listening to adult fiction and nonfiction as well as middle grade novels. I am constantly in awe of the amazing new books that are published each year.
  17. I have been able to spend more time taking care of myself – eating healthy and exercising – and finally taking care of some medical issues that I had been putting off for a very long time.
  18. My flower beds (wildflowers, daisies, and peonies) were just beautiful this year, and my mammoth sunflowers grew to 12-14 feet tall in my little backyard sunflower patch!
  19. I have had more time to build and nurture relationships with my friends and colleagues.
  20. My family and I were able to stay connected via video chat, text, and Zoom calls.  And the occasional socially-distant face-to-face visits.

My goals this year are to continue helping others, continue letting my creativity flow, continue challenging myself, and continue spending time with friends and family. Here I come, 2021!

Ms. McDonald, Look Behind You!

In my county in Maryland, we have been teaching virtually since March. Beginning in May, I began hosting a virtual monthly bedtime read aloud, with themes such as family, love, friendship, and positive self-esteem.  The month in which we had the most fun was October.  My Halloween-themed read aloud included titles such as Creepy Carrots, Creepy Pair of Underwear, Monster Trucks, Stumpkin, Ten Little Pumpkins, The Pomegranate Witch, and Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!

A good friend of mine created an amazing wall display of the ten pumpkins, complete with their individual personalities, and a pomegranate tree and witch silhouette. Orange lights, witch’s hat, pumpkin, and electric candles completed the spooky atmosphere of my office. My mom dressed up as a witch, and came from behind me with pomegranates so that I could show them to my students, my awesome principal dressed up as (what I called) an Elton John look-alike, and read Turkey Trick or Treat and shared “corny” Halloween jokes between my readings.

While all books were well received by our students, it wasn’t until I read Aaron Reynold’s and Peter Brown’s books that my listeners screamed with excitement!   My talented friend had created stick puppets of Jasper Rabbit, the three creepy carrots, and the creepy Frankenstein underwear, and as I read the stories, she knelt on the floor and had them pop up and dance behind me.  It was sooo much fun seeing my students light up, so excited, and trying to warn me of their existence. They screamed so loud that my media assistant kept trying to ‘mute all’, so they could hear me read, but they didn’t care if they could hear the stories – they knew them by heart – and they were desperate to warn me!

At the end of the event we had a Zoom costume parade, and “pinned” each student that wanted to show off their costume.  While this wasn’t our typical in-school Halloween celebration, it certainly did help to fill that need to be together on a fun and creepy holiday.

What fun we adults had putting this Halloween reading celebration together for our students!

  • Creepy Carrots written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown
  • Creepy Pair of Underwear written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown
  • Monster Trucks written by Anika Denise and illustrated by Nate Wragg
  • Stumpkin written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
  • Ten Little Pumpkins written by Rosie Greening and illustrated by Lara Ede
  • The Pomegranate Witch written by Denise Doyen and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
  • Turkey Trick or Treat written by Wendi Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper
  • Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies created by Jorge and Megan Lacera

Don’t Worry, Get Happy with Paul Noth

The 10th Gaithersburg Book Festival is right around the corner, and I am excited to share the third in my trilogy of interviews with GBF featured children’s authors.   Paul Noth will be a featured author paired with Jonathan Roth for both their book presentations, and a children’s workshop entitled Creating Characters with Character, where Noth and Roth will help elementary age kids come up with characters that are fun, interesting and have meaning to the creator. They will brainstorm ideas, draw figures, come up with meaningful motivations and, of course, cool character names.

Paul Noth, known for his witty cartoons regularly appear in the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, has also written for Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Late Show, among other television shows.  He hasn’t been known as a KidLit author till of late. He is the author of How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens (April 2018) described by School Library Journal as “Strange and original with just the right amount of juvenile humor, this story features odd and endearing characters and a wonderfully weird plot.” At the Gaithersburg Book Festival he will be speaking about  How to Properly Dispose of Planet Earth (January 2019), which Kirkus Reviews states that it is … “a story where everyone deserves to be the main character.”   Coming in September 2019 is How to Win the Science Fair When You’re Dead which promises to be another “laugh-out-loud” funny book for middle grade readers.    

How did your journey take you from The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and evening talk shows, to children’s books?

I’ve always wanted to write both picture books and children’s novels. Once my work started appearing regularly in the New Yorker, several agents reached out to me asking if I had ideas for kids’ books, so that provided the opportunity.

What is one (or more) thing(s) that you really want your readers to know about you?

Sometimes I think the less they know about me the better. I like my books and cartoons to speak for themselves. But if they have to know something, it’s that I have two dogs, Watson and Biscuit.

Who is the student you are writing for?  Describe him/her.

He or she treasures funny books and cartoons as much as I do.

What are you most looking forward about the Gaithersburg Book Festival (can be more than one thing ;-D )

I’m really looking forward to collaborating with Jonathan Roth again. He and I hit it off last time. We work well together.

When you tell other authors and illustrators about GBF, what do you say?

I say it’s a great festival and well worth the trip.

What message do you have for your readers?

Thank you for reading my books! I know the second one, How to Properly Dispose of Planet Earth ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, but book 3, How to Win the Science Fair When You’re Dead is out in September!

What message to you have for educators, and especially for school librarians?

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Please visit for more information about him!

Gaithersburg Book Festival will be held on May 18, 2019, 10 am – 6 pm on the grounds of Gaithersburg City Hall.  Visit the website here!

Paul’s books will be available for sale at the Politics and Prose Book Store tent.

Paul Noth and Jonathan Roth

Author Presentation:  Begins at 12:15 pm

Location:  Willa Cather Pavilion

Children’s Workshop: Creating Characters with Character

Time: 11:15-11:45 am

Location: Children’s Workshops Tent

Exploring the Amazing Natural World with Susan Stockdale

The 10th Gaithersburg Book Festival is right around the corner, and I am excited to share the second in my series of interviews with GBF children’s authors! Susan Stockdale is a local author / illustrator and a true gem – her books are fantastic, fabulous, and just plain awesome.  

Susan will be leading a children’s workshop entitled Let’s Create Fabulous Fishes!  (10:15 – 11:00 am in the Children’s Workshop Tent).  She will read her picture book, Fabulous Fishes, then guide children in exploring different fish shapes, colors and patterns to create their own fish using oil pastels on black paper. Then the young artists will complete their art piece by adding a title to their artwork.

I caught up with Susan in April and want to share our conversation about her research and artistic process.

Your picture books – especially Fantastic Flowers and Fabulous Fishes – have a definite joyful feeling to them – what inspires you to create your books? 

I want to excite young children about our amazing natural world, which is always my muse. As a former textile designer, I delight in finding patterns in everything I paint, and nature presents a treasure trove of them.

Can you tell me about your art?  Your books indicate that the art medium is acrylic on paper.  What is your creative process?  How large are your paintings for your picture books? Do you create art using other mediums?

I gather reference photos of my subjects, create many pencil drawings of them and select those I like best for my final illustrations. I submit my drawings to scientists for their feedback to ensure they are factually accurate and revise as necessary. I then trace each drawing onto Bristol paper. For each color, I apply many layers of acrylic paint to give the image a flat, crisp appearance. I work solely in acrylic, my favorite medium, and my paintings are the same size featured in my books.

As a school library media specialist, I teach my students the importance of using multiple reliable sources for research, and citing sources.  I love that each of your books include a thanks to specific experts that helped with your research, a visual glossary, and a bibliography at the end.  Some include an interactive activity.  Can you tell me about your research process?

I research my subjects in magazines, books and reputable online resources; consult closely with scientists; visit natural history museums, zoos and other venues; and, when possible, view my subjects in their natural habitats. My most exotic research trips have been to Africa and the Galapagos Islands. Once I’ve gathered sufficient information on my subjects, I begin writing my manuscript. The poem always comes first, followed by the addendum.

Some of my research resources for Stripes of All Types: (l-r) books; websites; a trip to Costa Rica; visits to museum exhibitions; consultant Dr. Kris Helgen, former head of the Mammal Division at the National Museum of Natural History

Your picture books are wonderful examples of nonfiction genre of animals, and of poetry.  Why did you decide to write your books in a lyrical, rhythmic, and rhyming form?

I didn’t make a conscious decision to write in rhyme when I began creating children’s books. This form just came naturally to me. I’m sure it’s because my mother, a published poet, rhymed words together all the time when I was little. This had a wonderful influence on me. I love how rhythmic rhyme engages children in a fun and musical way. Children learn to anticipate the rhyming word and make predictions, so rhymes help them learn to read.  

What message do you have to students about the importance of research?

Research is essential to conveying accurate facts. I particularly enjoy the surprising information I uncover while researching, such as how Red-billed Oxpeckers “hiss when started, alerting their hosts to possible danger.” I included that fact in my Bring On the Birds addendum.

What is a message from you that I can share with my educator colleagues

Encourage students to read more nonfiction. It sparks their curiosity and opens their minds to the world. It helps them develop background knowledge they need to be academically successful. Also, studies show that reading more nonfiction early on helps children reach the appropriate reading levels in later grades.

What is a message from you that I can share with my students?

When I present at schools, children often tell me that “when I grow up, I want to write and illustrate books.” My response? You don’t have to grow up to do this! You can create your own books now. All you need is a few pieces of paper folded in half, a pencil, and an idea. Have fun!

To learn more about Susan and her books, please visit her website here.

Let’s Create Fabulous Fishes!

TIME: 10:15 am – 11:00 am

LOCATION: Children’s Workshops Tent

AUDIENCE: Elementary School students

Gaithersburg Book Festival will be held on May 18, 2019, 10 am – 6 pm on the grounds of Gaithersburg City Hall.  Visit the website here!

Susan’s books will be available for sale at the Politics and Prose Book Store tent.

Raising Kind Humans One Student at a Time

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s National Day of Service is the perfect time to discuss with my students the importance of helping others. After discussing with my students what Dr. King  meant by “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others”, we got busy helping others.  At my school, I not only encourage my students to ask their parents to help them participate in our county’s many MLK Day of Service events, but I bring a service project to our school.  One year we created poster sized thank you notes for our local firefighters, and I delivered the four posters to the Gaithersburg-Washington Grove Volunteer Fire Department station (where they were thrilled to receive them!), another year we made thank you cards for soldiers at Walter Reed VA Hospital and I delivered them to the Wounded Warriors Project in Germantown.  This year we made over 200 cards for the organization Cards for Hospitalized Kids.  I told the kids that they were making cards for kids just like them, and to create a card that they would like to receive if they were the ones in the hospital.  Many of my students went above and beyond to create meaningful, and absolutely beautiful cards, and I share a few of them below:

Invisible Boy by author Trudy Ludwig and illustrator Patrice Barton is a gentle story shows how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish.

Be a Friend by written and Illustrated by Salina Yoon, is a heartwarming story of self-acceptance, courage, and unbreakable friendship for anyone who has ever felt “different.”   There is also a wonderful song written by Emily Arrow that is a fun addition to the lesson!

Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, and illustrated by Jen Hill is an unforgettable story about how two simple words can change the world.

Small Saulwritten and illustrated by Ashley Spires, is a  high-seas adventure and a  light-hearted celebration of individuality, perseverance and being true to one’s self.

Each Kindness written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E. B Lewis, is the unforgettable story of bullying, and regret for lost opportunities to show kindness.

The first week of February is National School Counseling Week, and to celebrate, I read books about kindness to others, and then we showed kindness to our school counselor, Debbie Miller, by writing her thank you notes.  Students in prekindergarten drew a picture using this thank you note template I created; kindergarten through grade 2 students used a template I found on Teachers Pay Teachers (which I bound into a book each day) and students in grades 3-5 created their own cards.  I asked my students to reflect on lessons Counselor Miller had taught the in their classrooms, issues she may have helped them with, or just say thank you for caring about us. My students have great big hearts, and wrote some of the most beautiful letters and cards to her – the reaction I received each day from Debbie was priceless!

Join me and commit to teaching kindness. Check out the awesome teacher resources on the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation’s website here.

Share in the comments below activities you have done with your students to teach kindness!

The Creative Librarian: Adventures in School Librarianship contains affiliate links – please click here for information.

Dots Helps Us Make Our Mark!

Every September, we participate in International Dot Day – a global celebration of courage, creativity, and collaboration. It is based on the Peter H. Reynolds’ book entitled The Dot—the story of frustrated grade school artist, Vashti, as she sits slumped over her blank piece of paper at the end of art class. “I just CAN’T draw!” she tells her teacher. Her teacher first uses wit, then subtle yet clever encouragement to inspire her student to go beyond her insecurities and become, in the words of a younger boy who “can’t” draw either, and laments that he could never become “a really great artist” like Vashti. However, she encourages him to try, just as her
teacher did. The open-ended conclusion encourages students of all ages to contemplate how they can make their own mark in the world.

Peter H. Reynolds is one of my favorite author/illustrators!

We discussed fixed versus growth mindset, making our mark, and then students created their own art to take home and share with their parents.

Students used our recycled dot-shaped crayons, too! This is a great use for old, broken crayons — find out how to make them here.

GBF: Opportunity for Deeper Connection with Authors and Illustrators

Gaithersburg Book Festival: Opportunity for Deeper Connection with Authors and Illustrators first appeared on the GBF website on January 4, 2016. Click link to GBF website here

By Melissa McDonald

As an elementary school librarian, my favorite part of the Gaithersburg Book Festival is the opportunity to listen to the children’s book authors and illustrators read their books and talk about their inspiration and their craft.  I can read a book aloud to my students with enthusiasm, providing the voices of the different characters, and emphasizing what I think are the important parts on each page.  However, nothing compares to an author reading aloud his or her own book to their adoring audience, or watching the illustrator start with a blank piece of white poster paper and creating the book characters in front of our eyes.  It is magical!  That moment when the author and illustrator connect with his or her readers is a great one indeed.

Throughout my school library I have pictures of myself with authors and illustrators – I think it is important to show my students that the people who create their favorite books are real people – to show them the connection we have through their written word and art.  When I am able, I like to video their talk and book reading, and love to share with my students as most of them are unable to attend events such as these.

51mdbfxwdgl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Last year I enjoyed Michelle Knudsen’s reading of Marilyn’s Monster and listening to Michelle Knudsen and Matt Phelan discuss how they worked together to create the book. Because of these videos, my students were able to connect with the book, the author, and the illustrator on a deeper level than if I had simply read the book to them.  For this I am deeply grateful, and hope that this is one way in which I can encourage life-long readers.

Michelle Knudsen’s Website:

Matt Phelan’s Website:

Marilyn’s Monster by Michelle Knudsen

Michelle Knudsen and Matt Phelan discuss creation of  Marilyn’s Monster

Melissa A. McDonald is a school library media specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools and a member of the Gaithersburg Book Festival planning committee.