Saturday, December 27, 2014


There is much to be grateful for at this time of year;  friends, family, good food, music, and chocolate.  Always chocolate.  But, today I am feeling especially grateful for readers.  One of the best gifts a writer can receive is a comment from a reader.  And one of the most gratifying comments to read is that the voice of your main character sounds authentic.  It more than makes up for those hours and days of wandering in the wilderness with wild hopes of turning an idea into a story.  You can imagine my gratitude at reading this from a Goodreads reader. “Sullivan must have been a sixth grade boy in a former life, because Arlo is completely believable in his actions and reactions, and her story of how Arlo finds his grandmother and navigates the mysteries of his life - why didn't Poppo and Ida get along? what was his father like? - brings to light both the complexities of family relationships and the simplicity of love and friendship.”

It doesn’t get any better than this.  THANK YOU, dear reader, from the bottom of my heart.

Friday, December 26, 2014


Anticipating the time of resolutions, I hit the coffee shop this morning to continue efforts on my WIP.  In the first draft stage, I much prefer writing in my notebook to tapping keys on a laptop.  It’s easier to engage the imagination by moving a pen across the page.  I took yesterday off and a mere one day away strengthened the wall of resistance.  You know what I mean, that little interior voice that says you're going to fail.  It took longer than usual to push through this morning, but the transitional moment finally did arrive.  

Rituals help.  A journal with unlined pages, embellished with keepsakes, in this case, a card which someone sent me years ago.  I love the quote, attributed to Mexican poetry.  Here's what it says:

"In the evening, when every sound lies sleeping, when all the doors are shut and the soul is open, memories, like quiet visitors, arrive."

It was sent by a dear friend on the first anniversary of my son's death from leukemia.  That was 18 years ago and the fact that she thought to do this still resonates in my heart.  It's a reminder that there are people out there pulling for me, even when I feel most alone.  It lifts me up.  It helps me face the uncertainty of creating a new story.  And I am grateful for the gifts of friendship and support, two things that help push away the dark in this season of the year.

Okay.  Ignition.  Pick up the pen once again.  Here we go.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Last Saturday, I spent a few delightful hours at Bess Long's lovely bookstore in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.  MY SISTER'S BOOKS is a cozy and friendly spot.  Bess stocks new books for 59 book clubs in the area, in addition to a wonderful mix of new and used books.  It's the kind of place where you want to settle in and browse, which is exactly what I did.  
It was a delight to meet local author Trilby Plants and read her Meena Mouse stories. 

After my signing, I hurried over to Columbia to have dinner with a cousin whom I hadn’t had time to visit for too many years.  The next evening brought dinner with another cousin and, now I feel the warmth of the holidays surrounding me after re-connecting with family. Our common memories sustain us and help us understand how we came to be the people we are today.  Beyond that, there is no greater comfort than to be in the company of someone who understands you in ways that only a person who knows where you came from can comprehend.  I am grateful for family and for the opportunity to connect during this special season of the year.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Saturday, December 6th is Take Your Child To A Bookstore day.  MY SISTER’S BOOKS in Pawley’s Island, SC is planning a Children’s Day event and they’ve invited me to be there.   I’m so happy for the invitation.  I look forward to celebrating books and reading with kids and families on that day. 

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve bookstores.  The one that comes to mind happened during the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 1964.  We were living in Colorado at the time.  I was with my parents in Santa Fe and we happened upon a s`mall independent bookstore that sold new and used books.  I found a copy of The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois. The cover looked mysterious and inviting. I sat down on the wooden floor and started reading.  I didn't want to stop.  

I left the bookstore that day with The Twenty-One Balloons and another book called Mulbridge Manor.  During the long drive home to Denver, I was transported to another world in the backseat of our station wagon with my nose firmly planted in a book.  When I looked up, there were the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and miles of open highway. 

It’s a lovely memory and it all started with two parents taking a child to a bookstore on a clear winter Saturday.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I like to collect quotes about the subject of “home.”  Here is a recent one, gleaned from Naomi Shihab Nye’s lovely book, THE TURTLE OF OMAN. 

       “What makes a place your own?  What makes a home a home?  It wasn’t something simple, like a familiar bench, or a fisherman’s yellow sweater vest with a hole in it, or the nut-man’s fat red turban.  It was more mysterious, like a village with tiny stacked houses, so many windows and doors with soft flickers shining out into the night.  You weren’t sure who lived in any of them, but you felt you could knock on any door and the people inside might know some of the same things you knew or welcome you in—just because you all belonged there.  They might tip their heads and say, “Oh yes, aren’t you that boy with the stones in his pockets?  You want some soup?” and it would be lentil soup, which you loved.  Or maybe it was how the beach air smelled--- salty and sweet  in whirls.  You didn’t have to do anything to feel comfortable here.  You just walked outside, took a long breath and thought—Yes.  Sure.  Here I am.

       I am on page 166 of this book but already, I find myself going back to re-read certain passages.  It is a book to savor.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


     When I was writing ALL THAT’S MISSING, I attended a writer’s retreat during which there was a heated discussion about the lack of diversity in middle grade fiction.  There was not yet a WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS campaign, though the need to bring more diversity to children’s literature had been on the radar of children’s literature enthusiasts for a long time.    
         At the time, I was focused on revising the second half of my novel.  Okay.  What I was really doing was RE-WRITING the whole second half of the book.  Trusted readers had told me it needed work.  And they were right. 
         All That’s Missing is realistic fiction with a hint of magic realism.  It is also, in many ways, a quest.  My protagonist, Arlo Jones, must go on a journey to find his grandmother, a woman named Ida Jones, whom he has never really known.  Once he finds her, his task is to discover the reasons for the rift between his mother’s and father’s sides of his family and to heal what is broken. 

The first half of the book is a road trip.  The second half is a story about what happens once Arlo reaches his destination.  I had a pretty good idea of how Arlo’s relationship with his grandmother would develop.  What I needed to figure out was what else would happen to him.  He needed to have a friend near his own age.  He also needed to meet people who had memories of his father and who could help him figure out the reason for the hard feelings between the two sides of his family. 
         Somehow I knew Arlo’s friend would be a girl and that she would be of a mixed racial background.  (If we adopt Toni Morrison’s more enlightened approach to “race,” I would say “ethnic,” rather than “racial” background.) 
         But, here’s where I think I was headed down the wrong path.  I was making my character’s racial identity an issue in the book.  That was turning the story into something it was not intended to be.  It was not a story about racial prejudice.  It was a story about understanding what family means, about finding your place in the world. 
         At the writers’ retreat, I listened to a discussion about diversity.  I heard an African American writer ask her fellow writers when there would be books for her daughters to read in which there were characters of different racial and ethnic identities where race was NOT what the story was about.  She wanted kids doing normal kid things who happened to be of diverse backgrounds.  And wasn’t this what the world looked like?  Shouldn’t contemporary fiction reflect that?
         Hadn’t I spent years going into a local elementary school to share books with kids who came from all kinds of backgrounds and who had different colors of skin and who did not spend their time thinking about these differences in their day-to-day lives?  Weren’t these the kids I was writing stories for?
         So, I revised my novel.  I created a community of characters whose young people were not fixated on ethnic origins.  Family heritage is very much a part of the story, but in a historical context.  In other words, history informs the narrative, as it must.  For example, in one scene a character named Matthew Healy tells Arlo uncomfortable truths about his grandfather, Slocum Jones, the grandfather Arlo never knew, the one who lived with Arlo’s grandmother in the town where his father grew up.  Matthew Healy had been a close friend of Arlo’s father and, as it happens, he is African American.   Now he is the one to help Arlo understand why there was a rift in his family. 

         Matthew squinted at the sun, working the muscles in his jaw like he was trying to figure out how to say something unpleasant.  “Everyone around here knew Slocum,” he said.  “He was a man of strong opinions, I guess you’d say.”

         “Did you like him?”
         Matthew coughed.  “Slocum wasn’t the kind of person you warm up to.  Besides, things were different in those days.”

         “Different how?”
         “Between black and white people.”  Matthew took a long, slow breath.  “You know what I’m talking about?”
         “Yeah.”  Arlo tucked the wood carving back in his pocket.

   So, there it is – the weight of history that informs the present, as it must.  But, it’s not what the book is about. 

   In the tiny Tidewater town of Edgewater, Arlo develops a friendship with Maywood, a girl whose mother is an Art History professor in Richmond and whose father runs the family business, an independent bookstore/cafĂ© in this town where they make their home.  What is evident from the story, but is NOT discussed as an issue, is that Maywood’s mother is African-American and her father is white.  That is NOT what the story is about.  But, Maywood is a fully developed character, (or, at least  I hope she is).   
         I tried very hard to write a story which acknowledged the weight of history, while also reflecting the reality of today’s world.  I thought it was critically important to reflect the ethnic make-up of today’s generation of young people. They are ethnically diverse.  This is not a big deal to them.  It is just life.  Middle grade contemporary fiction should reflect this.  We should, in fact, celebrate the richness which comes with such diversity.  I don’t understand why we don’t.    
         I will confess that I have been disappointed that, despite my efforts, despite reviews which said things like, “an outstanding debut novel,” (VOYA) and a starred review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, the book has not received much attention.  However, those who know me well, know that I am not very good at self promotion and so, perhaps, where there is blame to attach, it must attach to me. 
         All that aside, I still love Arlo and Maywood and Poppo and Mama Reel and Matthew and Ida and I guess I can’t help wanting others to love them too.  It brings great comfort to read comments on Goodreads such as this,
            Such a moving and thoughtful story with a lovely main character. I wanted to scoop Arlo up and look after him.”

    And, especially this, from a reader of the age group to whom I directed the book:  “There aren’t any boring paragraphs that you want to skip.  Read every single word.”  Goodreads reviewer. 

         I still hope the book will find its way into the hands of 8 to 12 year-olds elsewhere.  I would like for them to know Arlo and Maywood too.  I would like for them to understand that they have deep reserves of strength and understanding that will help them face life’s most demanding situations if they will only believe in themselves.  The bottom line is I tried to tell a good story.  That’s what I’m always trying to do.


Sarah Sullivan (14) All That's Missing (7) Passing The Music Down (5) Candlewick (4) middle grade fiction (3) Dear Baby (2) Diversity (2) Diversity in middle grade fiction (2) Henry Ossawa Tanner (2) Once Upon a Baby Brother (2) West Virginia (2) Writing life (2) books about writing (2) books for kids (2) children's books (2) kids books about writing (2) A Land More Kind than Home (1) African American artists (1) Alzheimer's (1) Appalachian music (1) Berea College (1) Bethany Hegedus (1) Birdsall (1) Breece D'J Pancake (1) Casson (1) Central West Virginia Writing Project (1) Countess of Carnavon (1) Cynthia Kadohata (1) Diversity in chidlren's literature (1) Diversity where diversity is not an issue (1) Downton Abbey (1) Elinor Lipman (1) Evelyn Waugh (1) Frank Cottrell Boyce (1) Gabrielle Zevin (1) Gary Schmidt (1) Grandfather Gandhi (1) Hilary McKay (1) Home (1) Jake Krack (1) Julie Zickefoose (1) Karin Fuller (1) Kelly Bennett (1) Kentucky (1) Lady Almina (1) Letters from Your Big Brother (1) Lunch with Books (1) Madelyn Rosenberg (1) Maile Meloy (1) Melvin Wine (1) Milton (1) Mountain Stage Band (1) Naomi Shihab Nye (1) Newbery (1) Ohio County Public Library (1) Patrick Ness (1) Paul Meisel (1) Rappahannock (1) Richard Pollack (1) Richard Russo (1) SOKY Book fest (1) Scott Black (1) Sean Duffy (1) Self-editing for Fiction Writers (1) Southern Kentucky Book Fest (1) Susan Straight (1) Take Your Child To A Bookstore (1) Teaching kids to write (1) The Apothecary (1) The Twenty-One Balloons (1) Tidewater (1) Tricia Tusa (1) Turtle of Oman (1) University of Charleston (1) Ursu (1) Vandalia Books (1) Vermont College (1) WV (1) We Need Diverse Books (1) West Viginia Library Commission (1) West Virginia Division of Culture and History (1) Wiley Cash (1) Wiliam Pene du Bois (1) Writers' Toolkit (1) Writing (1) Writing Process Blog Tour (1) Writing Project (1) Writing workshop (1) Writing workshops (1) You Must Read This (1) Young Writers (1) Young Writers contest (1) books (1) bootleggers (1) creative writing (1) d (1) dialogue (1) epistolary picture books (1) fifth grade (1) first drafts (1) foster care (1) ghost (1) ghost stories (1) kid's books (1) magical realism (1) multicultural (1) mystery (1) old-time music (1) reading (1) story starter (1) teaching (1) writing exercises for kids (1) writing teachers (1)