Jo’s Journey 2015 and Welcome Back to the Fall Blog Schedule

“Traveling is never a matter of money, but of courage.”—Paulo Coelho


Sometimes it’s financial security that holds us back, other times it’s emotional security, but it takes courage to step outside your front door and head out into the world. Many are afraid of making that small step. Still, I believe the benefits outweigh the risks. What I learn each time I hit new roads, often while testing my courage, is invaluable in my life. It allows me to grow and understand myself better. It teaches me flexibility and resilience. I trust it makes me a more patient and kinder soul. And it feeds my insatiable story-catching radar. Outside my comfort zones and moving into my courage zones is where I have some of my best encounters and most unusual experiences.

I can’t tell you the amount of times strangers said to me on this trip, “I wish I had the money and freedom to travel like you do.” I try to encourage them that they can make choices to spend their time and money in different ways if they really want to. I encourage those who are single and who are afraid of traveling alone, that if they wait until they find the perfect (traveling) partner they may miss out on so much.

In May when I made a decision to take this trip, I could easily have looked at my circumstances and only seen what I lacked. I could have said that I had neither money nor freedom. Time had pretty much run out and I didn’t have a job and visa to stay in the US. I had used up most of my savings to complete my MFA and believed I would probably have to return soon to Europe. Also, while I love solo travel, I do still prefer to travel with one or two good companions and knew no one with a few weeks spare this summer. It would have been easy to conclude that extended travel was not an option. Instead, I looked at what I did have—time, creative thinking, friends around the nation and the possibility of freeing up some cash if I was willing to give up my room rental in New York. Suddenly the summer looked wide open. Boy, no regrets there!

So let me share some of the highlights of the last two months:

I’m on the road again.
My spine fused to my trusty backpack.
Plans spread out from me like grabby tentacles stretching west and east; north and south.
The miles mount up—through the air; along the rails; in the saddle; above the greyhound wheels…
And each trip, I find, is not unlike writing a novel.
There is a beginning.
And there are climaxes along the way with momentum lulls and unexpected turns.
In the beginning, anticipation strides pace for pace with uncertainty.
But I am always excited.
After all, the journey is filled with ‘whatif?’ possibilities.
My destinations offer a chocolate assortment of hope and optimism, and a belief that everything will turn out well in the end.
But I never know for sure.
And that is the magic and the beauty of being on the road.
New locations, new scenes, new characters.
So it is with a novel.

My journey paints urban-scapes, landscapes and seascapes;                                            all escapes into new realities.
Some routes are little more than skinny lines – some blue, some red, and some black  – outlined crookedly on the map, connecting sprawling metropolitan centers that encroach on contour lines, lakes, farmland and deserts.

Colorado confers craft beers, July 4th in a kayak, sunset kombucha on the porch, whiplash paths up peaks, grey swirling summits, and cyber connections.

Denver station—don’t miss the daily train!
The Zephyr takes my trip into fantasy realms as all long distance train travel still does for me. Despite the demise of steam engines 50 years ago, the romance of rail has not been blown away by the uncompromising diesel and electric monsters that followed.
Chooga chooga, clickety clack—so slow, and so near I can see the faces of the rafters along the Colorado River below. Zipping in and out of tunnels, over the Rocky Mountain passes and through small hamlets scattered along vast red, rocky wastelands of Utah and Nevada. Purple sagebrush tufting the desert.
Aging communities. Decrepit towns. Empty streets. Fences down.
Automobiles rusting in front yards where weeds don’t even grow.
Shuttered, dilapidated buildings, all except the newly whitewashed                               church scarring, jarring the abandonment.
Death rattles in the throats of these towns.
Dust in the wind.
All that remains is hope.
Not even hard times can erase the hope.
Over the Pine-plaid Sierras, regaining time lost in the deserts, picking up speed and arriving at a clip on the west coast.

Sonoma seduces.
With its: divine dairy, wicked wines, balmy clime, bike paths, organic fair.
Characters are everywhere you look in Cali, although I’ll never know their names.
The old lady sitting on her front porch in the shank of the afternoon, her dress worn by too many washings, her face wrinkled by winds too hard and sunshine too hot.
A schoolteacher prays for rain but not as hard as the farmer does.
Grapes and cattle-hay waiting on the rain.
A dog dressed as a clown.
A young man on a unicycle twice his height, with a Rip Van Winkle beard, Birkenstock and teasing tattoos curling below the sleeves of his Deadhead tee.
I see them, and I would like to know more about their lives.                                               Each life demands its own story.
I’ll always wonder.
And I’ll write about some of them even though I’ve never met them.
I don’t have to.

On for a night to San Francisco—a fogless San Francisco, my first. A fire pit and friends on this starry night on an urban Pacific beach.

The heatwaves shimmer through the bus window, bbqueing me as I retrace my steps back over the Donner Pass into Nevada.
“Nev-A-duh”, and don’t get that wrong!
Spooky legends and tales abound here.
Don’t believe me? Ask any of my SCBWI Nevada writing buddies if they’ve seen the ghost in Virginia City.
It is considered one of the most haunted states in the country.
I call it more haunting than haunted, and the novel
I am trying to write as I travel this summer,
suddenly finds its location in the isolation and desolation of the desert scrub and geysers gushing from the nearby foothills.
Nevada provide familiar faces.
Heart-to-hearts and history on early morning walks greeting rattlers and wild mustangs, and discovery-drives.

Los Angeles, a city that will only, always and forever be etched in my heart as the place where my tribe convenes for its summer shindig to celebrate, motivate, congratulate and
conclude with a unanimous “Ay” to another year
of creating, revising, submitting. SCBWI Forever.

West coast finale—epic day road trip snaking the Pacific Coast highway
to sip fruity cocktails in Malibu, spy on seals below the Carpinteria bluffs and savor the festive sights and sounds of Santa Barbara.

After two years of the panther pace of New York,
5 weeks at the more slothlike speed of the West coast has spoilt me.
And I am a little sad to leave the cooler nights, dry azure days                                             and crunchy granola vibe of California.

A Brief New York interlude to see doctors and gather employment documents before heading north for a final fling.

I march through Portland and up the coastline of little ports,
to the beat of the Maine Highland Games’ bagpipes,
the early morning engine hum of the lobster boats
and ships’ bells at the Topsham boat show.
I take early morning walks with unleashed sea dogs along secluded sandy coves, and I remind myself of a promise to write a middle grade novel set in a Maine Lighthouse.

My federal employment documentation now in hand,
I can make my final destination in Jo’s Journey 2015.
A few hours north on the bus,                                                                                                 flanked by thick deciduous forests in their pre-fall green palette,                                   transports me to the St Croix River,
where I cross the border into New Brunswick.
One of the poorest of Canada’s provinces,
but rich in community and lush in hospitality.
Calm lakeside fun whatever the weather.
Dawn solo-kayaking, slaloming islands to the call of loons. A minxy mink, a fat horned caterpillar, a two-foot sleepy snapping turtle and porcupine
join my list of Snowy Egrets, Californian voles and many other critters encountered.

Traveling is indeed like writing a novel.
Both take courage.
You can get on a highway, big or small,
and head straight to your destination.
But you’ll enjoy the journey more if you make a few turns
at a few crossroads, take a few back roads, leave some blank pages on the agenda,
and always take time to schmooze with the locals.

When you travel you start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

And for my blog followers, I am back with my regular Monday, Wednesday Friday schedule.

Summer Travels and Blog Hiatus


Hiking in the The Cévennes National Park in Southern France


A month ago, I was coming to the end of my MFA, and after six months of searching for a job, had almost given up hope. I thought that after the summer, I would need to relocate back to Europe (please note, I love Europe too!) While I enjoy New York City and had great fun here last summer, I decided if these were my last months living in the USA, I should make the most of them. I told my landlady I would be leaving my room rental at the end of June to travel to see more of the country and catch up with old and new friends, and write! About a week after I had taken this decision to make the best of my summer, I received a job offer for a year as a part-time high school librarian, which I am thrilled about.

As with any tool, social media is mainly what you make of it. Yes, it can be a time-suck or worse, a place of criticism and negativity, but my experiences remain positive. So, instead of just signing up with a housesitting website, I decided to throw out my availability and plans on FB, with overwhelming results. The hard part was juggling dates and having to say no, or at least, not this time, to some amazing offers. I am balancing time with friends and time looking after pets and houses, so that I DO get some writing done over July and August. Today, I set off for my first stop, Denver/Fort Collins/Boulder, where I will finally get to see the Rockies and three kidlit friends (RoZo, Stacy and Julie) only one of whom I have met in real life.


I travel for four main reasons:

  • Curiosity
  • Connection
  • Continued learning/growth
  • Culinary exploration

Though I do have a strong desire to have my own place again and make a home, I still love to travel. Travel breaks the routine and prevents me soggifying in the known and comfortable. I travel to see new places, meet new people and reconnect with old friends, and to encounter different cultures and landscapes. But I also travel for the way that travel changes me. I travel to expand my boundaries and to expose myself to other ways of seeing the world. I do believe travel can change us into better people. Travel is also a great way to pick up new story ideas, especially as bus, train, biking and hiking are part of my plans, not just flying.

All this to say, enjoy your summer, and as always, Miss Marple’s Musings will be taking a two-month SUMMER BLOG HIATUS. If you want to follow my travels, please do so on my FB page.

 NB If you are new to writing for children/youngadults, I have just updated my resources page (see toolbar above) where you will find some great sites and suggestions to help get you started.

Guest Post by Maria Gianferrari, Author of Penny & Jelly: The School Show

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetTo follow on from my review of Penny & Jelly: The School Show last Friday, I am very happy to have the author, Maria Gianferrari on the blog today to share about the inspiration for her debut picture book and offer some great writerly tips. Maria writes both fiction and nonfiction picture books from her sunny, book-lined study in northern Virginia, with dog, Becca as her muse. Maria’s debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder, will be released on July 7th, 2015 (HMH Books for Young Readers). A companion Penny & Jelly book titled, Penny & Jelly Slumber Under the Stars, will be released in spring 2016. Maria has five additional books forthcoming from Roaring Brook and Boyds Mills Presses as well as Aladdin Books for Young Readers in the coming years. To learn more about Maria, visit her website: or on Facebook. You can also visit Penny & Jelly at their website, pennyandjelly.comTo win a copy of Penny & Jelly, please leave a comment about your or your kid’s best or worst school show moment! Winner will be drawn on Monday July, 6th!


Thanks for having me here today, Joanna!

I wanted to share the story behind my debut fiction picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder, since its release is right around the corner—July 7th!

The main character, Penny, is on a quest to find a talent in time for the Peabody Elementary School Talent Show. Though she has the help of trusty canine companion, and BFF, Jelly, her search is quite a challenging one, since Penny doesn’t have a talent: she can’t sing, or dance, or play an instrument. So being the list-maker that she is, Penny begins writing lists of possible talents, all of which fail. Except one. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is!

My daughter, Anya, and her sweet dog sister, Becca inspired this story. Like Penny, Anya is an only child, and Becca is really like her sibling in many ways, except that they don’t fight J. They’re playmates and truly best friends, and I wanted to explore a bond like theirs in my story.

Best Friends

Best Friends

Anya’s creativity was also an inspiration for the story. She’s quite an amazing artist and I’m her biggest fan! Here are some samples of her work:

This is a humpback whale drawing she created last year.

Whale by Anya

Whale by Anya

Here’s an owl acrylic, with a small polymer clay owl figurine.


And here are some cute owl pillows.

photo 1

As you can see, Penny’s creativity is very much inspired by Anya.

The third inspiration for the book is the movie High Fidelity, starring John Cusack, one of my very favorite films! It’s one of those rare movies that’s actually better than the book (no offense Nick Hornby!) The main character, Rob, is a charming cad who owns a record store and confesses to the camera like he’s our friend. He and his musical snob sidekicks, Dick and Barry, make “Top 5” lists for: Mondays, memorable break-ups, death. Watching the movie inspired me to insert lists into Penny & Jelly. And my good friend and critique partner, Lisa Robinson gave me the brilliant idea to actually insert cross-outs—thank you, Lisa!!

Since I’m a list-lover, just like Penny, I thought I’d end this post with my Top 5 recommendations for aspiring picture book writers:

  1. I can’t recall where I initially read this, but someone, somewhere said before you attempt to write a picture book, you should read at least 1,000 picture books and I heartily agree! And read 100 picture books in the genre you’re planning to write. Then participate in Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) in November founded by picture book author extraordinaire, Tara Lazar: and Paula Yoo’s National Picture Book Writing Week (NaPiBoWriWee) in May:
  2. Study mentor texts for voice, point of view, use of white space, line, rhythm and refrain. Slip on their skins by hand-writing or typing out the text to feel their pulse and breath in your fingers. Join in writer-educator Carrie Charley Brown’s Read for Research Month (ReFoReMo) in March:
  3. Above all, write and research what you LOVE! The road to publication can be long and winding and this will give you staying power through countless revisions and inevitable rejections. I don’t actually know how many times my nonfiction picture book, Coyote Moon was rejected, but I was obsessed with coyotes. I initially wrote it as an article for Highlights magazine, so even though it was rejected, the coyotes kept howling in my head, and in my heart. So it morphed into a poetic picture book, underwent a gazillion revisions, and was eventually acquired by Emily Feinberg of Roaring Brook Press. To give you an idea of the timeline, the initial research began in the winter of 2007; it was rejected by Highlights in the summer of 2007; it won a Letter of Commendation from SCBWI for a Barbara Karlin Grant in 2010; was acquired in May 2013. Coyote Moon will be published in spring 2016, with incomparable illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline—they’re just stunning!
  4. Don’t feel wedded to your first draft. Play. Experiment with different voices, imitate different books that you love, and incorporate interesting structures like lists, recipes, dialogue, etc. And reading Ann Whitford Paul’s classic, Writing Picture Books is the perfect place to start:
  5. If you want to write picture books, read poetry, and lots of it! Poets are master wordsmiths and experts on craft who know how to distill language, and touch our hearts. I love Joyce Sidman’s lovely nature poetry; Marilyn Singer’s reversos in Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow, the zany poetry of Jack Prelutsky or Douglas Florian, the powerful verse of J. Patrick Lewis or Nikki Grimes. Read verse memoirs and novels that pack an emotional punch and powerful language such as those of Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Karen Hesse, Sonya Sones, Helen Frost, Sharon Creech and Margarita Engle.

We can learn about the writing journey from Joyce Sidman’s profound poem, “What   Do the Trees Know?”

What do the trees know?
To bend when all the wild winds blow.
Roots are deep and time is slow.
All we grasp we must let go.

What do the trees know?
Buds can weather ice and snow.
Dark gives way to sunlight’s glow.
Strength and stillness help us grow.
(from Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold).

Write what you know, and what you feel in your heart!

Thank you again, Joanna, for allowing me to muse on my inspiration for Penny & Jelly!

Please follow the rest of Maria’s blog tour on the following blogs:

  • Friday, June 26th: Kidlit411/Sylvia Liu & Elaine Kiely Kearns
  • Monday, July 6th – Friday, July 10th: Emu’s Debuts virtual book week launch
  • Monday, July 13th: Bildebok/Cathy Ballou Mealey

Updated on July 8th to say the winner, picked at random of PENNY & JELLY: THE SCHOOL SHOW is Carrie Charley Brown!