An Evening with Lisa Graff

An Evening with Lisa Graff

By Sheilah Egan

Photo by Emmy Widener.

Used with permission.

In the up-close-and-personal setting at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, VA, Lisa Graff began her presentation with low key remarks and a reading from A Tangle of Knots (Starred in Kirkus and Booklist), thus establishing the tone for a very pleasant “evening with the author.” The audience was eager and she gave them just what they wanted to hear: tidbits about her writing, insight into some of her characters, and the opportunity to hear her read aloud.

Her voice is clear and her reading is well paced, easily capturing the interest of everyone as she let the story come to life with her own bright smiles and expressions punctuating the text. When she read some of the more humorous passages and clever details, she employed a relaxed, friendly manner that almost belied the actions of some of the eccentric characters. “Zane can spit perfectly.” she said, looking up briefly in a quick aside. All of the characters have their own particular “voices” and distinctions, many of which she addressed as she read. Despite the urgings of the crowd, Graff concluded the reading only having whetted the appetites of her listeners.

Her poise and obvious interest in the audience’s questions allowed her to field a variety of queries from both students and participating adults with great aplomb. One local librarian had brought two of her students to the event as a reward for their volunteer library work. They were delighted with their “reward” and their questions were thoughtful and direct. Other questions covered such things as how she works, favorite books, requests for advice about writing, etc.

Graff said for her a new story begins with a plot-driven outline that grows in detail as she develops the characters and the details that give the story “a rich, believable reality. Despite the fact that her main interests were science and math, she was passionate about writing from an early age—probably because her own mother was a librarian. She wanted to become a doctor; but once she started writing, she found her true calling. Her advice for aspiring writers included tips such as: save everything–you may be able to “steal” ideas from your own self when writing later in life; be persistent, keep writing and revising; observe and jot down observations from daily life; practice; continue to write when stuck, even if it is just “stuff,” and eventually you will find your way back to real writing.

While working as a children’s editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux, she learned the craft of helping others make their work the “best it could be,” She suggested that writers need to learn from books on writing, read a lot, discuss ideas with others (teachers, friends, mentors), and keep in mind that writing is a very personal experience. When she first began to work with her own editor, she had to accept the editing process and not take it as a personal affront. She came to realize that she had to separate herself from her characters and to grow from her editor’s criticisms and suggestions. In Umbrella Summer she drew on her own experience of having a seriously ill sibling to give veracity to the worries of the healthy sister. Writing from real life can help shape a book, but the author’s imagination is the basis of the story and the characters that populate the invented world.

Humor is important in writing middle grade fiction and she is a naturally “fun” person. Tattling on herself, she related stories about how absorbed she can become when caught up in a section of a story. Everyone was laughing as she described missing her stop on the subway line because she was thinking “so hard about a scene for the Georgie book.” It got even funnier when it came out that, after having headed back to her stop on the returning train, she missed her exit for the second time! “…I walk up and down acting out dialog. I have to say it out loud to make sure it sounds right.” The audience “ate up” the idea that she baked over thirty cakes while deciding which recipes to use in the book, A Tangle of Knots. “My friends loved coming over to help eat them.” She used real recipes but did invent the “garlic cake.”

Lisa Graff is very open with an audience and gives them an invaluable glimpse at the process of writing a book, while spurring them to consider writing, and encouraging them to be life-long readers. Visit her website for more.

Books by Lisa Graff

A Tangle of Knots

Fate brings together an assortment of colorful and sympathetic characters as they search to discover their talents and place in the world. Cadence (Cady) has lived at Miss Mallory’s Home for Lost Girls in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. for years. Although she had been placed with several families, Cady always returned to Miss Mallory’s Home believing that she was at fault. Cady was a Talented baker who not only made delicious cakes, but who could determine which kind of cake best suited a person. She was preparing for the Sunshine Bakers of America Annual Cake Bakeoff when a series of life-changing events occur. Graff deftly leads the reader into a fantasy world where Talents can be stolen, lives interact in mysterious ways, and actions have consequences. Chapter headings denote which of the characters will be the focus of the story at that time. This device helps keep the characters and their storylines straight. The repetition throughout the story of the line, “A grin that he knew more about the world than he was letting on” encourages the reader to look for the multiple layers of the tale. There is much to discuss about each of these characters who bring humor, mystery, and yearning for one’s place in the world. If we could but untangle the “knots” in our lives, we could more clearly see our true relationships with one another. Well-crafted, fine storytelling, memorable characters, and multiple levels of meaning add up to one terrific read and a batch of delicious sounding cake recipes (with their own special meanings). 2013, Philomel Books, Grades 3-6, $16.99. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo (Children’s Literature).

Best Books:

Kirkus Book Review Stars, January 15, 2013

Booklist Book Review Stars, April 1, 2013

Double Dog Dare

This novel is insightful and addresses how characters adjust to new situations. It is a story about changes in the lives of its characters, which include a move to another state, fitting in at a new school, and dealing with a family’s divorce. Lessons about the dynamics of family relationships and the value of friendship are shown throughout the story. Young readers will follow the adventures (and misadventures) of fourth-graders Francine Halata and Kansas Bloom as they compete in a dare contest sponsored by the school’s Media Club to select an anchor for Media News. Their double dog dare provides for a variety of incidents and these events become increasingly challenging as the story progresses. Yet, in the end, Kansas and Francine have to work together to save the endangered news show through their creative presentation in a talent show. The shift from one point-of-view to another shows their respective character development well. 2012, Philomel Books/Penguin, Ages 10 to 12, $16.99. Reviewer: Annie Laura Smith (Children’s Literature).

State Provincial Reading List :

Rhode Island Children’s Book Award, 2014; Nominee

Sophie Simon Solves Them All

Sophie Simon is a genius with parents who misunderstand her. At the age of four she could transform a toaster into a radio; when she was seven, she performed open heart surgery on an earthworm. Mr. and Mrs. Simon felt that Sophie may be growing up too fast for her own good based on what they picked up from the child expert, Doctor Wanda. They want Sophie to have friends and fun. The Simons are further dismayed when they find a calculus textbook that Sophie has been studying, plus she wants a Pembo Q-60, a graphing calculator. She is only in third grade! Sophie orchestrates a plan to buy the calculator; the plan involves helping out her classmates who have problems of their own. The story has a few interesting twists and turns. Readers may sympathize with Sophie as she deals with parents who do not understand her intellectual interests. There are a few illustrations including a who’s who in the story, which is in the front portion of the book. At the back of the book is a description of certain terms (such as reverse psychology, sit-in, and flan) that are mentioned in the book. Some readers may like to try out the recipe for taffy which is included in the book. 2010, Farrar Straus Giroux, Ages 8 to 10, $14.99.

Reviewer: Carrie Hane Hung (Children’s Literature).

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Horned Toad Tales, 2011-2012; Nominee

Umbrella Summer

Ten-year-old Annie Richards has led a happy, carefree life until the sudden death of her older brother, Jared. Five months later, as Jared’s twelfth birthday approaches, the Richards’ family is coping as best they can: Annie’s dad is physically present but emotionally absent; her mom has locked Jared’s bedroom; and Annie has turned into a hypochondriac. Convinced the only way to be safe is “to know exactly what could get me and all the ways to stop it,” Annie steals a neighbor’s encyclopedic tome (The Everyday Guide to Preventing Illness), and clings to it like a life preserver. Annie’s over-the-top anxieties worry her mom and alienate her friends; then Mrs. Finch comes along. A new seventy-something neighbor and recent widow, Mrs. Finch both befriends, and identifies with, Annie and her grief, explaining that “it’s easier to be worried than to be sad.” Together, loveable Annie and the lovely Mrs. Finch help each other grieve and heal. As she did with The Thing About Georgie, Graf has crafted a funny, sad and ultimately uplifting book with characters the reader will not only enjoy meeting, but will remember long after the last page. Highly recommended. 2009, Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, Ages 8 to 12, $15.99.

Reviewer: Naomi Milliner (Children’s Literature).

Best Books:

Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2010; Bank Street College of Education

Children’s Choices, 2010; International Reading Association

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Black-Eyed Susan Book Award, 2010-2011; Nominee

Children’s Crown Award, 2011-2012; Nominee

Great Stone Face Award, 2010-2011; Nominee

Horned Toad Tales, 2010-2011; Nominee

Iowa Children’s Choice Award, 2011-2012; Nominee

Keystone to Reading Book Award, 2010-2011; Nominee

Texas Bluebonnet Award, 2010-2011; Master List

The Life And Crimes Of Bernetta Wallflower: A Novel

Framed for a crime she did not commit, Bernetta Wallflower, student at Mount Olive private school and magician-in-training under her father’s tutelage, is now “grounded for eternity.” Her school suspension is revoked, but Bernetta loses her scholarship and now has to come up with $9,000 in tuition money. Worse than all of this is Bernetta’s suspicion that she was set up by Ashley Johansson, her supposed best friend. If the truth hurts, it becomes clear that Bernetta’s going to have to deal with an awful lot of pain. Truth, ambiguity, and the things that matter reside at the heart of this funny middle grade novel characterized by swiftly escalating catastrophe and a little sleight of hand. By the time Bernetta has figured out that Gabe of the brown hair and Hershey’s chocolate colored eyes may not be entirely trustworthy, the reader is already two steps ahead of her and loving it. Bernetta’s appeal comes in part from her eccentric and eclectic tastes. Who wouldn’t want to tag along with a girl who calls her little brother Semi-Colin? Young Colin plays his part gamely, too, it must be mentioned; his linguistic missteps are reminiscent of time-honored children’s fare. The story is predictable at times. Still, Bernetta is a heroine with heart whose adventures in creative financing–and their amusing repercussions–should hit the spot with the intended audience. 2007, Laura Geringer Books/HarperCollins, Ages 8 to 12, $16.99.

Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami (Children’s Literature).

Best Books:

Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition Supplement 2008, 2008; H.W. Wilson Company


Finalist Middle Grade Novels United States

The Thing About Georgie: A Novel

“I need you to do me a favor,” writes an anonymous commentator as a prelude to chapter one. The reader is asked to reach over the top of his or her head and touch the opposite ear. We are then told that Georgie can’t do that, “even if he wanted to.” Through these short assignments at the beginning of every chapter, we are made aware of how the simple actions we take for granted are not options for our intrepid fourth–grade protagonist, Georgie. It turns out Georgie is a dwarf, a small person in a big world, and he is doing very well, thank you, with a great best friend, Andy, who handles the really big dogs in their dog-walking business, and two loving parents who are symphony musicians. But then Georgie learns: his mom is going to have a baby, who might grow up to play an instrument the way his parents hoped he would; his best friend seems to have found a new best friend and business partner; and the girl who has taunted him since kindergarten, Jeanie the Meanie, is now his partner for a big school project (and apparently still determined to make his life miserable). It all seems to be just too much, but help shows up from an unexpected quarter. Georgie figures out that he can look beyond his limitations to his strengths, as others already have. Short chapters, credible pre-adolescent dialogue, and engaging male and female protagonists make this an accessible book for learning about living with and looking beyond differences. It would have been greatly enhanced by providing a few select resources about dwarfism as supplemental material since the subject certainly arouses the reader’s curiosity. 2006, Laura Geringer Books/HarperCollins Publishers, Ages 8 to 12, $15.99.

Reviewer: Paula McMillen, Ph.D. (Children’s Literature).

Best Books:

Children’s Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, Supplement, 2007; H.W. Wilson

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Black-Eyed Susan Book Award, 2008-2009; Nominee

Bluestem Award, 2013; Master List

Cochecho Readers’ Award, 2009-2010; Nominee

Georgia Children’s Book Award, 2008-2009; Nominee

Horned Toad Tales, 2008-2009; Nominee

Maine Student Book Award, 2008-2009; Nominee

Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award, 2009-2010; Nominee

Nutmeg Children’s Book Award, 2011; Nominee

Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award, 2010; Nominee

Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award, 2008-2009; Nominee

Texas Bluebonnet Award, 2008-2009; Master list

Young Adult novels written under the name Isla Neal with Martin Leicht:


Readers in middle school will appreciate Martin Leicht and Isla Neal’s, which is Book One of the ‘Ever-Expanding Universe’ series. Elvie lives in 2074 and has a best friend and a bright future working on a project on Mars. When she gets involved with handsome but dumb Cole and becomes pregnant, she’s sent to a home for teen mothers for her junior years – and finds herself kidnapped by a team that includes her boyfriend, who tries to warn her that her teachers are aliens after her unborn baby. Science fiction blends with the story of a pregnant teen facing down alien invaders in this fine and very different story, recommended for mature readers. The Fiction Shelf …., 2012, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, grades 6-9, $16.99. Reviewer: Midwest Book Review (Children’s Bookwatch, September 2012).

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