B in the World

I am pleased to host my blog’s first-ever guest, children’s author Sharon Mentyka. It feels entirely fitting to have Sharon as my first guest. In addition to being a terrific children’s author, she is a designer at Partners in Design, and put together my website (looks fab, no?). I really admire Sharon’s recently published children’s chapter book, “B in the World.”


Here is the book’s description:

B and his friends Rudy and Grace are super excited to be starting second grade. But when they find out that Ms. Hitchings will be their new teacher, everything changes. Then, to make things worse, Mia, the meanest, bossiest girl that New Horizons School has ever known, arrives. When B and Mia both decide they want to try out for the leading part in the spring play, B wonders how he’ll ever survive the year.

A chapter book for children ages 5 and up and the people who love them, “B in the World” takes an open-hearted, kids-eyed view of what it means to be “different” and celebrates children for who they are meant to be, not how others want to label them.

I’ve read it to my 7-year-old son, shared it with our school librarian, and now I want to share it with you!  Below, Sharon answers my questions about this powerful and important story:

  1. Why did you decide to write this story?

It was kind of a happy convergence of a number of different things. I had been wanting to write a story for early elementary students when a classmate in my MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts mentioned that the son of a friend was going through a lot of pain being bullied at school because he didn’t dress or behave like most of the other boys. I realized that hiding who we really are from others at a young age can only lead to pain and grief later in life—not only for ourselves but for those who love us. The whole idea clicked when I remembered how one of my daughter’s teachers (who became the model for Mr. J in the book) taught his students empathy for each other in those early years when friends can help or hurt us so much.

  1. How long did it take to write it?

Quite a few years, actually! The idea for B was born in 2009 but I knew I needed to do a lot of research first—reading about child development and talking to parents and teachers. And I needed to decide how openly I was going to be presenting B’s gender fluid nature because I knew I would be tackling a sensitive topic. That meant more connecting and talking to folks in the gender diversity community to be sure I was representing concepts accurately. And even though the book’s message of empathy and acceptance needed to appeal to parents, it couldn’t be preachy. The story needed to be an entertaining one for kids. And that took time.

  1. What do you hope readers come away with the book thinking about or talking about?

Many children, especially once they start school, struggle with being somehow perceived as “different”—either because of how they like to dress, or how they look, or simply because of what they like to do. Some of the challenges B faces in this story are gender-connected; some are just kid-related. I would love it if the book can open up conversations about situations like these. Why do we sometimes fear differences? What does it mean to be true to yourself and why you should be proud of it? Why is our first reaction to sometimes to laugh at someone else when we feel nervous? Talking about these kinds of feelings and situations can really help children—and adults—grow more empathy.

  1. Are there other books (for children or adults) written on this topic?

There are quite a few good picture books out there, which I think feel safer to some folks. My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson come to mind. Then the topic picks up again in middle-grade and YA books where gender fluidity becomes more common. And for adults, there might not be anything better than the books and essays by Jennifer Finney Boylan (www.jenniferboylan.net)

But I identified a real gap in the early elementary years, where fitting in and bullying can be critical issues. That’s one of the reasons I decided to write B’s story as a chapter book—those years span a critical time period when parents read to their children and then the children pick up those same books when they begin to read themselves. So there can be a lot of impact there. I have a fiction and nonfiction reading list that folks can download from the Resources section of B’s website if they’re interested.

  1. Where can people (parents and kids) go for more information or support around issues of bullying and/or gender fluidity?

There are so many good resources out there. Gender Spectrum (www.genderspectrum.org) and Gender Diversity (www.genderdiversity.org) are both great, comprehensive support sites that offer a lot of information for families with young children who are exploring gender roles. For teaching empathy and acceptance, Welcoming Schools, which is a program run by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (www.welcomingschools.org) is where I would send folks. They have some wonderful resources on how to be sensitive and also offer simple answers parents can give to young children’s questions about gender.

  1. Why did you decide to self-publish?

That decision really came about because I ran into a few dead-ends going the traditional publishing route. Children’s chapter books follow a bit of a formula and diverging from that model is difficult if you’re not an established author. But I knew from my research there was an audience out there for a book like this, I just knew it, so I decided to tap into that energy. And it’s been a great learning experience as well as very rewarding for me. I’ve received nothing but supportive emails from parents and librarians all over the county, telling me how much a book like this is needed.

  1. In your acknowledgements you mention 2nd graders as beta-readers. Great idea! Any feedback they gave you that was especially helpful?

The kids are really a reality check for me. For B, I read early drafts to several groups of second- and third-graders at a Seattle elementary school and also at a tutoring center where I volunteer. Kids this age have no problem telling you whether they like or dislike characters, or if situations in the story ring true. Are the characters like kids they might know or want to know? Does the language and voice feel right? When I finish reading a chapter, if the kids ask me to read more, then I know I’m on the right track.

  1. What is your next project?

I have two stories currently in progress: one is a graphic novel that centers around a boy who uses art to heal a crisis in his family, and the other is a early middle grade historical novel set in the Pennsylvania coal mines of the 1940s. I’m also looking for a home for two completed middle-grade novels.

  1. Anything else you want to tell us?

Gender identity may feel like the next frontier, but it really is a chance for all of us to practice empathy and acceptance. Given all the global, environmental and political challenges our children will likely be facing, it may be one of the few things where parents can truly make a difference by giving their children the skills and mindset to be who they were truly meant to be, and to know that those choices will be okay.

Thank you, Sharon, for sharing your thoughts about “B in the World.”

This Friday, March 13th is the book launch party for “B in the World” at Secret Garden Books in Seattle.  If you live in the area I encourage you to attend and bring your favorite kiddos!  And everyone, here is information about where you can get a copy of “B in the World.”


Writers Who Lunch

There are many things I could fill this blog post with, my first one in 4 months. I could tell you about the marathon writing sessions I’ve had to finish a major draft of my memoir, GUTS. I could tell you that it looks like I’m a couple of months away from having it ready to send to agents. Maybe you’d like to hear about some of the essays I’ve had published since September, here, here, and here, and about the honorable mention I got in this award. Or I could go on at length about the book proposal I’ve started writing, a business plan/grant proposal-esque document meant to convince agents and editors that, of all the projects they could take on, mine is The One.

But what I really want to talk about is my lunch last week with Stewart O’Nan.

Okay, there were other people there, 2 dozen or so, and Stewart himself didn’t actually eat anything. Instead, he spoke about writing, and read from his new book, WEST OF SUNSET. I have been an O’Nan fan for awhile now, and I was excited a few months ago when I learned he would be featured at the author luncheon series at one of my favorite local bookstores, Third Place Books in Ravenna. WEST OF SUNSET is a novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years living and writing in Hollywood. I recently re-read THE GREAT GATSBY for a writing class, so the novel’s subject intrigued me, but I would have gone regardless. Most any subject matter becomes engrossing in a good author’s hands.

One thing that O’Nan said that stuck with me was when he talked about doing research for his nonfiction book, CIRCUS FIRE, about the Barnum & Bailey Circus fire in Hartford in 1944, when a circus tent caught fire with 8,000 people trapped inside.

“When I interviewed survivors,” O’Nan told us, “they talked about their families, their friends. Those were the stories they told me.” He repeated this later in his talk, when someone asked him about where he gets his story ideas.

“Ever since I wrote Circus Fire,” he said, “I write stories where the characters’ main concerns are the people closest to them.”

It may sound like a small thing, maybe even an obvious thing, but sitting there in the audience, on a break from writing a dry document that tries to explain a story I’ve spent the last 5 years writing, I found it really inspiring. Right, I thought to myself. The people closest to us. They are who we write about when we write nonfiction. And when we write fiction, we write about who our characters care about too.

I feel fortunate to live in such a literary-rich community, where there are plenty of opportunities to get inspiration when I step away from my writing desk. Or hobble away, as the case in these days, since I just had foot surgery.

But that’s another story.


Good Writing Material

My writer friends and I have a phrase we often say to each other while in the midst of a consuming experience, be it a positive or negative one. “Good writing material,” a friend will say after I’ve described a challenging interaction with one of my kids (not that I ever have those), or a hike I took where I got lost.  Life is brimming with good writing material, and we need never worry about running out of topics.

As anyone who has been within earshot of me this fall knows, I am involved in a volunteer role that has both been keeping me from writing and is a great source of stories.  I am the Arts & Enrichment Chair for the PTA at Caleb’s school, a job that sounded like it would be fun and fulfilling when it was described to me last Spring, but instead has turned out to be extremely time- and energy-consuming.  Among other duties, I coordinate the after-school activities.  Without going into details (you’re welcome), I’ll just say that some of my interactions with my fellow parents have caused me a lot of stress and frustration.  It has spawned some interesting conversations with Aki, the Japanese Intern we are hosting, about privilege, and probably will eventually help me learn how to set better boundaries.  Someday I will write The PTA Chronicles, which sounds like fun.  Mostly, though, the experience has made me miss Ahmed.

Ahmed was a patron at the Rainier Beach Library in South Seattle, where I worked as a student intern while getting my library science degree.  A recent Somali immigrant, Ahmed was always warm in our interactions.  One afternoon a few months before my internship ended, I taught a class on how to use databases and the internet.  Ahmed worked as a volunteer for me during the class, translating and providing one-on-one assistance to students.


After the class was over, I handed Ahmed a small box.

“Thanks so much for all of your help,” I said.  He looked down at the box, and back up at me in surprise.

“For me?” he asked.  I nodded, and he opened the box.  Inside was a plain white coffee mug with Seattle Public Library printed on it in black letters.  Ahmed sucked in his breath, stunned, and lifted it out gingerly. “Wow,” he whispered, reverent as he turned it over in his hands.  It was, a co-worker said later, as though I’d handed him the Hope Diamond.  He lifted it above his head with both hands, World Cup trophy-style.

“Thank you Seattle Public Library!” he said.

Thank you, Ahmed, for delighting in such a small thing, and for always appreciating the large and small ways the library staff helped you.  I hope you are well, wherever you are.

I’m about to embark on a journey that should be a great source of writing material – a two-week family trip to New Zealand!  Our dear friends Penny and Dan and their daughters are living on the North Island for the year, so we decided to seize the opportunity to make the trek.


[Photo by Penny Brandt]. Our lodging for the entire trip will be a campervan, and we are leaving all of our electronic devices at home, including our cell phones.  We are looking forward to spending lots of time outside, spending time with our friends, having new adventures, and detoxing from technology.   We are hoping that sharing a small, undistracted space will not make the 4 of us want to strangle each other, though I’m sure we will have our moments of desire for escape.

Despite an over-busy fall in my non-writing life, I managed to generate a couple of essays, one of which will be published in an upcoming issue of Literary Mama.  This will be my first publication experience with something focused on that endless source of writing material: Parenting.  I also took the time this fall to submit some pieces, something I often claim I don’t have time to do, even though it doesn’t actually take very much time and is a hugely important part of the writing process.  I decided to give an essay I’d written a few years ago (and had rejected everywhere) another round of submissions.  Last week it was accepted by Potomac Review.  I’m very excited to add both of these publications to my author bio, and it’s a nice shot in the arm to have some publication successes after a long dry spell.

Finally, I’m changing the “10 Books that had the most influence on you” list that’s been going around Facebook to “10 great books I’ve read recently that you should go to your local independent bookstore and buy for yourself or your loved ones.”   My list crosses genres and ages and leans mostly (though not entirely) to the left coast.  All are authors I admire, and should be on your radar if they aren’t already:


– My favorite book I read this year

POTLUCK by Ana Maria Spagna

– beautiful essay collection about tiny-town life

THE DIRTY LIFE: a memoir of farming, food & love by Kristin Kimball

– the title says it all

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

– middle-grade novel set in 1970s NYC.  Suspenseful and awesome

WE LIVE IN WATER by Jess Walter

– a varied & wonderful short story collection


– fascinating history of avalanches in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest

THE TENDER LAND by Kathleen Finneran

– exquisite memoir that centers around a family tragedy

EVERY DRESS A DECISION by Elizabeth Austen

–       collection by one of Seattle’s finest poets

LOVE, WATER, MEMORY by Jennie Shortridge

– a captivating novel of amnesia and its aftermath

ME, JANE by Patrick McDonnell

– awesome picture book about Jane Goodall

Happy Holidays & Happy Reading!