Friday, September 13, 2019

Jo Hackl is in the House!

 Today I'm celebrating the summer publication of the paperback edition of Jo Hackl's terrific middle grade novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe.

Set in an overgrown Southern ghost town, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe takes readers on an adventure with 12-year-old Cricket, who sets out to survive on her own in the woods of an overgrown ghost town to try to solve a clue trail left by an eccentric artist, with a logic all his own, all
to try to find a secret room that may or may not exist. Cricket must use her wits and just a smidgen of luck to live off the land and solve the clues. With the help of a poetry-loving dog and the last resident of the ghost town, maybe, just maybe, she can do it.

Jo stopped by to answer some great questions. Enjoy!

What were your favorite books as a child?

My two favorites were My Side of the Mountain and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I admire how My Side of the Mountain draws readers into the natural world and makes surviving in the wild a quest of its own. Spending time outdoors also changes the main character. I love how From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler immerses readers in the intriguing setting of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and takes them into an art mystery. For Smack Dab, I challenged myself to combine those two elements—outdoor survival and an art mystery clue trail—in one novel. 

How did you go about crafting Smack Dab

I began the first draft in a class offered through Emrys, a local literary arts organization in Greenville, where I live. I attended writing workshops and read books about the craft of writing. I studied and wrote poetry. I wrote the first draft in five months and spent seven more years revising, refining and polishing. I completed at least nine full drafts. I was on at least the fourth draft and several years into the project before I started sending it out. 

What kind of research did you do for the book? 

I trained on everything from fire starting, shelter building and water gathering, to foraging for edible and medicinal plants. I camped out in the woods and recorded information about sights, sounds, and textures. I studied which edible foods are available during each part of the year. I researched the behavior and diet of woodland animals, the migration patterns of Southern birds. I reached out to entomologists and experts on human behavior and the natural world. I studied information about Leonardo DaVinci, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and used that all in constructing the clue trail. 

What kind of a response to Smack Dab have you gotten from readers?

I love to hear from readers and I’ve been thrilled with their response to the book. One reader reported that she read the book 14 times. Many others have written to say how much reading about Cricket’s journey has helped them in their own. So far, half of the readers from whom I’ve heard have been students and half have been adults. The book has layers and it’s interesting to see what layers spoke the most to each reader. 

What are you reading these days? 

I read mostly middle grade and I have about five books going at once. I’m currently reading Shadows of the Lost Sun, the latest in the Map to Everywhere series by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis, The Law of Finders Keepers by Sheila Turnage, Serafina and the Seven Stars by Robert Beatty, Grenade by Alan Gratz, and re-reading When I Crossed No-Bob by Margaret McMullan.

What advice can you give to aspiring middle grade authors? 

You can do it! Start an idea journal and use it write down ideas for things such as character names, quirks, details that help show character traits, and plot ideas. Give yourself permission to write a really bad first draft. The goal of the first draft is just to get your ideas down on paper. If you get stuck, leave a blank. You can always brainstorm with a friend and fill in the details later. Once you have your draft, you have something to work with. Go line by line and look for ways to make your work better. Try to imagine how each character would feel in each scene and give your readers details to make them feel as though they are right there in the scene with your characters. Make sure that each word is the best word and that each scene keeps the story moving. Cut any unnecessary words. Read your story aloud to make sure that the rhythm of the language feels right. Keep writing, looking for ways to make your work even better. Don’t be afraid to take risks. As my character Cricket would say, “sometimes it’s time to start taking chances on yourself.” 

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jo!


Jo Watson Hackl was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, not far from Ocean Springs, where her favorite artist,
Walter Anderson, lived and once painted a secret room. When Jo was eleven, she moved to a real-
life ghost town, Electric Mills, Mississippi. Mr. Anderson’s secret room and the ghost town were Jo’s inspiration for this debut novel. She lives with her family in Greenville, South Carolina. You can find her online at Jo is also the Founder of


Monday, April 15, 2019

Adventures with Flat Avery

I received a "Flat Avery" from a charming 3rd grader in Kansas.

She asked me to take Flat Avery along on some adventures with me.

Here is Avery with my dog, Rocket
Here is Avery at a tea room in Asheville, NC

Avery at the airport

Avery on a flight to Houston, Texas, with me
Avery flying to Houston
Avery at a hotel in Houston
Avery in the library of an elementary school in Houston
Avery in the library
Avery helping me sign books in Houston
Avery with students in Houston

Hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Monday, July 30, 2018

An Interview with Myself to Celebrate Wonderland

Author Cynthia Surrisi has hijacked my blog today and is forcing me to answer hard questions. Because she has promised me many fish tacos, penny candy, and trinkets, I am going along with this crazy scheme.

Cynthia, take it away.

Cynthia: Ah, such POWER!!! I am delighted to be commandeering Barbara’s blog for the issue leading up to the publication of her newest middle grade novel, Wonderland

For those of you who are her fans and followers, I promise you will adore this new book. I wondered whether this adorable author could pull off yet another super winner, and sure enough, she has. See, this is why I am doing this. Barbara is useless at tooting her own horn. 

So, let's get started.

On sale 8/28/18

Cynthia: Here's an easy one: What five words best describe Wonderland?

Barbara: Friendship, confidence, dog-love, funny, heartfelt

Cynthia: What is one question you’ve never been asked at a school visit that you would like to be asked, and what is the answer to that question?

Barbara: What do you want young readers to learn from your books?

The answer: I write books to entertain young readers, not to teach them. But, I'd like to think that readers either come away with a better understanding of a character or situation they weren't familiar with - or - relate to a character or situation and find some degree of comfort or hope. 

Cynthia: Which of your books do you most like to read aloud? What part and why?

Barbara: The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, especially the scenes with Starletta and Elvis. Starletta is so strange and funny and who wouldn't want to hear about Elvis's Spit and Swear Club? 

Cynthia: What is your writing process? Do you write every day?

Barbara: Call me weird, but every story starts with a title. From there, I spend a lot of time thinking about and getting to know my characters. When I have a hazy idea about the story, I just jump on in. I wish I could outline. I'd love that. But I rarely know where the story is going until the act of writing, which can feel like torture sometimes. I write by hand. I love the freedom of that. I revise constantly as I go along, never leaving anything too messy behind me.

I don't write every day unless I'm on a deadline. Some days I'd rather be walking my dogs. But that gives me good thinking time, which is an important part of any writer's process. 

Cynthia: What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey so far?

Barbara: The best moments have been the times I've won a state book award voted on by children. That's the best validation there is for a children's writer. 

Another moment was when I found myself on a panel at a conference with Sharon Creech. I had adored her books for many years and felt so honored to actually be on that panel with her. A "pinch me" moment.

As for the worst moments, I'll fill you in over a glass of wine some time.

Sharon Creech (left) and me

Cynthia: Tell us about a book you wrote a long, long time ago that was so bad that it didn't get published.

Barbara: I wrote a book called Surf's Up, Nicky Weaver. It was my first attempt at writing for children - long before I discovered my voice. So, of course, it had no voice. It was bland and blah. The only good thing any editor had to say about it came from editor Richard Jackson, who liked that the dog in the story was named Jackson.

Cynthia: Show us a picture of your dogs and tell us what each one would say about the other: something positive and something gripe-y.

Barbara: Here are Ruby and Rocket.

Ruby (left) and Rocket

Ruby would say that Rocket annoys her by wanting to play all the time but also that she loves playing with Rocket (just not all the time).

Rocket would say that Ruby gets more attention than he does and won't play with her all the time.

Cynthia: I heard that an artist made a sculpture of one of the characters in one of your books. Can you tell us about it and show us a picture?

Barbara: A fabulous artist named Karen Hawkins made this amazing sculpture of Bird from Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia. I love it.

Cynthia: What's your favorite herb and how do you use it?

Barbara: Ha! I have no sense of smell so not a very sharp sense of taste. Herbs are just useless little specks of green to me.


Cynthia: Well, there you have it, friends. We’ve gotten the inside scoop from Barbara O’Connor. 

I hope it encourages you to get a copy of Wonderland from your favorite bookstore. I guarantee you’ll love it. 


Cynthia Surrisi is the author of a fabulous series of middle grade mysteries set in Maine: The Quinnie Boyd Mysteries (The Maypop Kidnapping, Vampires on the Run, and A Side of Sabotage) - as well as the hilarious picture book, The Best Mother, illustrated by Diane Goode.  You can learn more about her at her website.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Constance Lombardo is in the House!

It's a Book Birthday!!

 Today I'm celebrating the publication of

 Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island
Constance Lombardo

Being on Celebrity Birthday Cake Wars as El Gato was okay, but now Mr. Puffball is going on reality TV as himself! 

He’ll finally earn the fame and fortune he’s dreamed of since kittenhood. But what happens when the fame wears off and the fortune is spent? What happens to a Hollywood stunt cat has-been? (Hint: tropical island adventure!!)

In this third book in the series, Mr. Puffball and the gang find out just how real reality TV can be. Read all about in Mr. Puffball, Escape from Castaway Island, in stores today! 

Constance is here to answer some questions about her hilarious new book.

Why did you send Mr. Puffball into the world of reality TV?
 My kid and I watch our fair share of reality TV. It’s almost like a ‘get famous quick’ scheme for people (or cats!) Also, reality TV brings out the best and worst in people (and cats!) It was fun to drop Mr. Puffball and the whole gang onto Celebrity Castaway Island (think Survivor – with cats!) and see what happens. 

What was the hardest part about writing this book?
 Mr. Puffball is such a good cat, and a loyal friend, it’s been hard to watch his dream of being a star turn into an obsession that overshadowed all his good qualities. But that’s exactly the kind of thing that happens on Cutthroat Kitchen. I figure if it’s good enough for Alton Brown (whom I love,) then it’s good enough for Mr. Puffball. 

A scene from Celebrity Birthday Cake Wars

 What was the best part?
 So many opportunities to be silly! Baking shows, Feline Ninja Warrior, tropical island weather maps, bug eating, quicksand, etc. Not only do I get to write about all this fun stuff, I draw it. I discovered I like drawing old lizards and monkeys of all ages.

 Any reality TV show fun facts from your own life?
 I’m glad you asked me that. My sister-in-law was on Wife Swap. She’s a belly dancer in New York City, and she traded places with a pig farmer from Wisconsin. With her larger-than-life personality, her episode was amazingly fun and inspiring! 

What kind of reality TV shows would your cat G. G. like to see more of? 
 Well, he’s very into chasing rabbits, so maybe Cats v. Bunnies? And he likes to keep it real, so Real Housecats of Asheville would be very popular at my house. Also, with his competitive nature, I think Cutthroat Kitten would be a hit. 

What’s next for Constance Lombardo?
I’m hard at work on my first picture book (yay!!) Surprisingly, it’s not about cats. It’s about kittens.


Constance Lombardo began drawing when she was 10 years old,
inspired in part by the Illustrators Annuals her dad brought home from the ad agency where he worked, and in part by the fact that
her sister did a drawing and got lots of attention. 

She is the proud author/illustrator of the middle grade Mr. Puffball series (HarperCollins): Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars, Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat Across America, and Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island.

Currently, she’s working on her first picture book, Everybody Says Meow (HarperCollins, 2019.) She is represented by Lori Nowicki of Painted Words. Plus she likes cats. 

Thank you for stopping by, Constance.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Side of Sabotage

Guess what today is?

A book birthday!!

The third Quinnie Boyd Mystery:



hits shelves today!!!

And now, for your viewing pleasure,
the world premiere of the trailer 

About the book:

For decades, Gusty's Café has been a beloved staple in Maiden Rock, Maine. Quinnie Boyd's dad runs the café, just like Quinnie's granddad before him. But the family business has new competition when a bad-boy chef from Boston opens his own place in the small vacation town.

The new restaurant takes fancy dining to the extreme. Still, that's not a crime . . . but when things start to go wrong at Gusty's, Quinnie suspects foul play. Are the people behind Restaurant Hubert trying to squash the Boyds' family café? Quinnie is about to find out if it is a coincidence—or sabotage.


Friday, January 12, 2018


My new book, WONDERLAND

Coming Fall 2018

MAVIS JEETER is fearless and bold, but she has never lived in one place long enough to have a real best friend. Her flighty mother has uprooted them again to another new home and taken a job as a housekeeper for the Tully family. Mavis wants this home to be permanent—which means finding herself a best friend.
ROSE TULLY is a worrier who feels like she doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls in her neighborhood. Her closest friend is Mr. Duffy, but he hasn’t been himself since his dog died. Rose may have to break a few of her mother’s many rules to help Mr. Duffy—and find someone who really understands her.
HENRY has run away from home, but he craves kindness and comfort—and doesn’t know where to look for them.
When Mavis and Rose hatch a scheme to find Mr. Duffy a new dog, their lives and Henry’s intersect—and they all come to find friendship in places they never expected.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My Visit to Madison County Schools

I recently spent two great days visiting schools in Madison Country North Carolina. WISH is on the North Carolina Elementary Battle of the Books list.

Getting ready to speak to students at Mars Hill Elementary

Being introduced at Mars Hill Elementary by Melanie Morgan, Library Director at Madison County Public Library

My greeters, tour guides and bodyguards at Brush Creek (l to r) Elizabeth, Bella, Jordan and Phoenix

A nice greeting from Brush Creek Elementary School

Brush Creek 4th Graders displaying their copies of WISH

Speaking to students at Brush Creek Elementary

Signing books at Brush Creek
The beautiful mountain setting of Hot Springs School

4th and 5th graders at Hot Springs School

Some great drawings done by students at Hot Springs School

More great drawings from Hot Springs students


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cover Reveal for A Side of Sabotage

Today I have the great pleasure of having my friend and fab middle grade author, Cynthia Surrisi, here for a cover reveal.

I LOVE cover reveals!

Check it out, y'all!!

Isn't it great??

You can buy a copy of this beauty March 1, 2018.

Now let's hear from Cynthia:

Thanks for inviting me to reveal the cover of my new book here on your blog, Barbara! 

It’s the third Quinnie Boyd Mystery, A SIDE OF SABOTAGE and even
more than the first two, it’s a mystery that can’t stop talking about food!  However, in this one, the food is integral to the suspense.

About the book:

For decades, Gusty’s Cafe has served up hot plates of comfort food to the folks in Maiden Rock, Maine. Quinnie Boyd’s dad runs the cafe, just like Quinnie’s granddad before him. But the family business has new competition when a bad-boy chef from Boston opens his own place in the small vacation town.  

The new restaurant takes fancy dining to the extreme. Still, that’s not a crime . . .  even if Quinnie would rather pass on a snooty dish like “raw-beet foam.” But then things start to go wrong at Gusty’s: the dishwasher overflows, the cooler is on the fritz, and worse! 

Are the people behind Restaurant Hubert trying to squash Gusty’s Cafe? It could be a coincidence or —

--or it could be sabotage. 

Since the first Quinnie Boyd Mystery, THE MAYPOP KIDNAPPING, readers have been asking me if Maiden Rock is a real place, if they can have the directions to Gusty’s Café, and whether I will reveal the recipes for food I refer to in the book. 

The questions intensified after the second book, VAMPIRES ON THE RUN, where Whoopie Pies were featured. 

I expect the questions will keep coming with A SIDE OF SABOTAGE.

I’ll reveal now that Maiden Rock is a fictional town but it
is based on a small coastal town where I used to live during the summers as a child. Gusty’s never existed, but there was a café where I ate the best Maine blueberry pie ever. 

We also used to order our French fries at this cafe, go sailing for the day, then pick up steamed lobster from the lobster pound, grab
our French fry order and pour it all out on newspaper on the kitchen table. My mother made the dipping sauce that turned the fries into what we called lobster fries.

Here are recipes for some of the most requested items in the
books: Gusty Burgers, Lobster Fries, Whoopie Pies, and Bean Scoop.

Gusty Burgers

The charm of a Gusty burger is that it is served on a toasted, buttered English Muffin. You can make any burger you like from all beef to turkey to veggie, but Gusty makes his from 80% fat beef and grill-cooks it with salt and pepper. There are no fillers or additions to the meat. Then h serves it with a slice of raw onion, and mustard. That’s it. You can add a slice of Vermont cheddar and still have a Gusty Burger. Okay, in later years he condescended to put crispy fried onions instead of raw for special customers. 

Lobster Fries

Many folks are disappointed that lobster fries are not strips of fried lobster. I can’t even go there. I’m more for unadulterated lobster steamed in salt water, picked and handled with a light touch for a lobster roll. I will give you Gusty’s Lobster Roll recipe another day.

Lobster fries are the best double-fried fries that you dip in the drawn butter concoction that is typically used for lobster dipping, except Gusty has his own version. When these things are hot, you weep with joy as you eat them and lick the empty paper when they are gone. 

The Fries:

If you are up for the trouble, cut fresh Idaho potatoes into the long familiar shape. Soak them in water in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight. Bring oil to 300 degrees F and dry the potatoes thoroughly in a towel. Fry for five minutes, remove from oil and drain on paper towels. At this point you can either refrigerate the fries for later or increase the heat to 400 degrees and fry them again immediately for a finish to your desired crispiness.

The Lobster Butter:

Melt unsalted butter in a saucepan over low heat until the solids separate and come to the top. Skim off the solids and add saffron threads, mashed garlic, fresh lemon juice and a little orange zest. Continue cooking on low heat until the butter is infused with the added ingredients. Strain before serving with fries as dipping sauce. 

Whoopie Pies
These are Maine through and through. I can tell you how to make them, but they are fussy and the truth is, they have things in them that you probably don’t want to have on your shelf, like shortening. So, like me, when you have a hankering, I’m going to recommend you order from WICKED WHOOPIES 
These are the whoopie pies I had at the book launch and I think they are wonderful.  They got lots of yums, too. 

Bean Scoop

VAMPIRES ON THE RUN introduced readers to the Bean Scoop. Dominic loved it. It fills the hungry spot in a growing boy and an old lobster man.

This one is more in the combining than the cooking. Make your favorite baked beans. Heavily butter a couple slices of dark bread and scoop the beans on top. Great on a cold day.

I hope everyone enjoys A SIDE OF SABOTAGE and I look forward to seeing whether I get requests for Fish Head Soup.

Barbara, come on over and I’ll cook a Gusty’s lunch for you!