Thursday, March 26, 2015

Celebrate the Gulf Islands, western Canada! ... and hear about my new book, hot off the press

Located just off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, a few hours northwest of Seattle, Washington, the Gulf Islands are some of the prettiest places on earth. And that's where I am doing my first talk on (and reading from) Andreo's Race, which officially comes off the press April 14.
Join me at the first annual Active Pass Festival on Mayne Island, B.C., 9-10 a.m., Sunday, April 19 at the Mayne Island Library. And partake of the many other activities of the festival too:

Because Andreo's Race is set in Bolivia, and I visited Bolivia as part of my research, I am also showing some slides from my Bolivia visit. (For those who can't pop into the festival, I will feature some of those photos and release a blog about writing Andreo's Race later next month.)

More information on the Gulf Islands:

April 14, 2015 12 and up 7 and up
Just as sixteen-year-old Andreo, skilled in death-defying ironman events in wilderness regions, is about to compete in rugged Bolivia, he and his friend Raul (another Bolivian adoptee) begin to suspect that their adoptive parents have unwittingly acquired them illegally. Plotting to use the upcoming race to pursue the truth, they veer on an epic journey to locate Andreo's birth parents, only to find themselves hazardously entangled with a gang of baby traffickers. Never suspecting that attempting to bring down the ring would endanger their very lives, the boys plunge ahead. Compelling, poignant, and heart-stopping, Andreo's Race takes readers on a perilous quest to discover the true meaning of family.
to order Andreo's Race:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The (sad) tale behind writing Paintball Island

Twelve-year-old Max and his younger sister Marie love having an unspoiled island all to themselves. So when they learn it's being turned into a paintball park, they're torn between enjoying their schoolmates' envy, and worrying about the game wrecking their home. It's time for them to rally their friends and put all they've learned about paintball strategy and teamwork into protecting their land and its wildlife.

Write enough books and one project is bound to fall into the category of a nightmare. Welcome to my story behind writing Paintball Island.
This was originally assigned as the first in a new series of outdoor-sports novels that would be called The Thrill Island Series.
To begin with, I initially decided – idiotically – to make Paintball Island a fantasy. Trouble is, I have never written fantasy and I don't read fantasy, so I couldn't pull it off. When my husband read it on completion, he told me to ditch the fantasy part. Stubbornly, I submitted it anyway. My publisher told me to ditch the fantasy. So I did. That was rewrite No. 1.
When I resubmitted it sans fantasy, my editor – one with whom I'd been working for years with no problems at all – told me she could not edit it because she felt that paintball is a war game and promotes violence, something against her beliefs.
Fine. I found another editor – a well-respected male – and asked my publisher if I could work with him. Permission granted. He had no problem with the topic, but delivered a list of recommended changes to improve the writing. A long list. That was rewrite No. 2.
Just as I completed the changes, my publisher decided to get out of the children's book business, and notified all authors with children’s or teen’s works in progress that they and their projects were kaput.
(I had by then already outlined and partially written the second in The Thrill Island Series, a book I am now converting to a stand-alone; it will of course go to another publisher.)
Dismayed that my publisher would no longer fund the editor with whom I’d been working to assess whether my rewrite had met his expectations, I opted to pay him out-of-pocket myself (thereby squelching any possible profit on the book). He said “good job,” but of course that made no difference to the book’s status, which was back to square one.
My agent shopped it around and found a publisher who said he was interested if I cut its length by about thirty percent. Ouch. After no further responses from other publishers, I proceeded to cut my work to the bone: rewrite No. 3, and the toughest one at that (even with the generous help of my agent).
After reviewing the new shorter version, the publisher informed my agent that, sorry, it wasn't what he wanted after all.
By now, I was convinced that Paintball Island was cursed. I considered shredding it, cutting my losses. But my agent persuaded me to self-publish it, and I even got to choose the cover photo, which is one of my favorite covers. (Adrenalin Ride’s cover is my other favorite.)
On a more positive note, the book was originally inspired by a deaf interpreter I met at a publishing conference, who commented that there were almost no books for teens with deaf characters. I took her business card, met her later for coffee and ended up working closely with her in creating the character of Tony.  I also had local teachers help me find two deaf students to vet Tony’s character after the book was written.
Other trivia regarding Paintball Island:
  •        Garth the goat was inspired by my cabin’s next-door neighbours’ goats, which I got to watch frolicking every day.
  •        I played paintball as part of my research, got hit by friendly fire and returned home with a quarter-sized bruise on my backside, which my husband thought was hilarious. This was despite the fact that I wore my son's hockey padding under my clothing.
  •        Marie's chemistry experiments were vetted by my chemistry professor husband, Steve.
  •        The island, the hot springs and the antagonist’s name Impagliazzo were inspired by a vacation with my family on the island of Ischia, near Naples, Italy. Of course, Paintball Island was also inspired by Mayne Island, British Columbia, where I spend much of my time -- although there are no coyotes there.
  •        I had to read lots of paintball books as part of my research, and had several paintball experts help as well.
  •        The fantasy element I deleted: The hot springs had magical properties.
  •        Once I’d slashed the length by thirty percent, I left it at that for the final version.
  •        This is the second book in which I have featured night-vision goggles. BMX Tunnel Run was the other one.
  •        Do dogs really have an equivalent to catnip? My portrayal of stinking goosefoot weed as “dog nip” is not to be taken too seriously. Likewise, don't try turning bath beads into paintball pellets in real life.
 To order Paintball Island as a paperback or e-book:

Monday, March 16, 2015

A former reluctant reader tells how he got turned around

[An interview excerpted from my book, Jump-Starting Boys

I read some as a boy, mostly the Hardy Boys novels.
But as I got a wee bit older, I wasn’t interested in reading
anymore. I was more into running outside and playing. My
sister embraced reading, but I was more fidgety and restless.
          My family didn’t watch much television and my parents
certainly read a lot. There were always books around, and
I remember my dad reading spy novels. But I figured I read
enough at school, which was a challenge for me. I had a
hard time concentrating. I didn’t have a learning disability; I
was just averse to school. I did have one teacher who was
a role model to me. He took me under his wing in grade
four or five and paid me the extra attention I needed. That
probably wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t been a male.
When I was nine or ten years old, I got interested in
hockey, and my mom and dad bought me books on hockey.
I started reading short stories and rule books and that is
how I got back into reading for a while. But I dropped off
again until I became a Big Brother (mentor) in my thirties.
I’d just gone through a nasty divorce, and after I’d
moved out and started living on my own again, I decided I
had an opportunity to make some changes and give back
to my community. When I met my ‘Little Brother,’ he had
just turned nine. The first time we went for a walk, I asked
him what kind of things he enjoyed. It turned out reading
was one of his interests, and so we talked about reading
as a conversation icebreaker. He talked about the books he
was reading, so I started picking up books and reading as
well. That way I could talk about the books I was reading.
And given that I was going through so much personal
change, I found I needed that chance to get lost in a book.
Meanwhile, I found that being a Big Brother removed all of
the ugliness from my divorce experience.
Sometime not long after I’d become a Big Brother, I
was at my parents’ home, but not downstairs visiting with
them. My younger brother came up, saw me engrossed
in a book, and returned downstairs to tell my parents,
"Something’s wrong with Kieran." 
         My mom and dad came upstairs, concerned; they hadn’t seen me engrossed in
books for so long. I was thirty-eight. They didn’t know that
these days, I always have a book with me as I travel for
work. Nowadays I try to encourage reading, including with
my nephew. I see a lot of me in him. I buy him books when
I can, and we have a book exchange program.
If I’d read more during my school days, I’d have applied
myself there better. What I believe is that boys take longer
than girls to read, and you can’t put too much pressure on
them. Get them comfortable and make it fun.
—Kieran, age forty-two 

Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions).

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Boy" vs. "girl" books

How ironic that only days after I write a blog about having written only one girl book (Breathless) out of my 17 books, I find a message on Facebook from a guy who says Breathless was his favorite book in high school. So much for trying to label books “boy-friendly” or “girl-friendly.”

Yes, I have a reputation for writing “boy-friendly books,” and a former literary agent advised me to stay with this niche, which I'm still having fun doing. And yes, all but one of my 17 books have male protagonists and are about adventure, which boys tend to like better than girls.

But isn’t it great we can’t really package books with blue or pink ribbons? Breathless has a female protagonist whose goals are to lose weight and catch a guy. And it deals with how to handle an overly amorous boyfriend.

But hey, when I was in middle school I remember being mystified by how boys thought and what they wanted, and I sought out “boy books” in the school library (preferably when female friends were not around) to find out. And when my own son was eleven, I remember him reading Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson ( that gave him insight into girls’ cycles. It gave us a lead-in to a facts-of-life discussion.

Anyway, as I’ll never tire of saying, girls read my adventure books too, and all my books have a go-for-it girl character, even if she’s not the main character. So even if librarians and marketing departments push my books as blue, I say they’re pink too. And that means Breathless, which I thought was pink, turns out to be blue too. As Michael took the trouble to tell me:

“My favorite book that you ever wrote was Breathless. I ended up reading it in high school as a book report and it was like the best book I’ve ever read.” – Michael, Elmira, New York

Breathless on Amazon:

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The story behind writing Daredevil Club

The fear of getting caught was part of the excitement.
Kip’s only friends are the members of the Daredevil Club, whose mission is to complete seven dangerous dares before their rivals, the Wildmen, complete their list of dares. Kip had been the leader of the Daredevil Club before he lost the use of his leg in an accident. Now he has difficulty completing the dares. But Kip refuses to back down and admit that he may not be up for the stunts.

When I injured my back in a (non sports-related) fall many years ago, I went from being super-active and athletic to not being able to walk, sit or stand for very long at all. At times, I used a cane, and required wheelchair transport in airports. I endured chronic pain for years.
I wrote many of my books during that time with voice-activated software, because I could not sit at the computer much. But the hardest adjustment of all was losing touch with many friends because what we’d always had in common was sports. I could no longer do sports. And I spent a lot of time with physiotherapists and chiropractors. (Happily, I’ve recovered to a large extent.)
Clearly, the plot of Daredevil Club (in which Kip is willing to take unreasonable risks even after being injured, to keep up with friends) grew directly from that period.

“Kip,” [says the physio], “let’s see if your workouts have increased your range of movement this week. I’m hoping for big things today.”
That meant big pain, I knew. But I knew I could handle it. I was an athlete. I was competitive. Just because I wasn’t in sports anymore didn’t mean I lacked an opponent. My adversary was the part of me that still didn’t work.

          How did I come up with the seven dares that Kip’s gang attempts to do? I asked all the dads on my block the dumbest things they did as teens that they would never tell their teenage kids about. I ended up with a list of twenty-seven stupid “dare” types of things they did! We had a good laugh building that list.
          Other trivia regarding Daredevil Club:

  •            It is set in a fictional “hick” town called Peever. I grew up near Peever, South Dakota. (I was going to donate a copy of Daredevil Club to Peever Library when I finished, but it turns out they don’t have a public library.)
  •            One of the dares involved crawling through a metal culvert. When dropping my son off at snowboarding one day, I saw a pile of metal culverts in the ski hill parking lot waiting for use in a construction project. When no one was looking, I crawled through one to make sure I’d be able to describe it realistically.
  •          To describe the bridge girders along which they crawled, I did a long walk and pause under Burrard Street bridge in Vancouver, Canada (where I live).
  •           The dunk tank in the fair was fun to describe. My husband once built one for my son’s backyard birthday party when my son was a preteen.
  •            On page 51, Kip is in the physio’s waiting room when he picks up a motorcycle magazine and sees a two-page photo spread of a guy on a dirt bike doing a backflip thirty feet above two piles of dirt. Kip wonders whether the stunt worked out or whether maybe the guy landed on his back and was now in a wheelchair. I was writing Dirtbike Daredevils (my book on dirt biking) around the same time as I wrote Daredevil Club; that's where that idea came from. 
  •            When I speak at schools, I’ve noticed that the boys especially love hearing me talk about Daredevil Club. And they always want to know what else the dads on my block came up with that I didn’t include. As if I’d reveal that! Hey, maybe there’s another book in the rest of that list.

To order Daredevil Club:

Friday, March 6, 2015

Book club maestro (or secrets of making a book club work, esp. for boys)

by Pam Withers,

Few people have put as much time and effort into figuring out
what makes a book club successful as Christianne Hayward, who
has been running them for sixteen years.
As a single mother of two boys (one a keener reader than the other), she decided to apply her Ph.D. in education toward inspiring a love of reading in children of all ages. She started her first parent-and-youth book club at the
local community center as a way to ensure that her sons had a
literary group to socialize with. This book club was so well received
that she added a new book club each year, culminating in seventeen
parent-and-youth book clubs ranging from preschool to grade
Today, her Lyceum of Literature and Art in Vancouver,
Canada (, provides a unique, cozy, and specialized learning environment that brings forth the best of afterschool reading and writing
experiences for hundreds of children per week. Her book clubs are
a family affair where parents read the books, attend the groups,
and participate in the discussion along with their children.
Hayward serves as a consultant to educators and book club
leaders around North America. What she finds most gratifying,
however, is running into families of her grown students who say,
“You made such a difference. Even though my child attended your
club for only a year, he became a reader for life.”

Q: What are some of the key ways you engage the boys in
your clubs, as opposed to the girls?
A: First, you need a lot of humor. Boys respond well to a bit of
lighthearted ribbing. Second, I serve food and hot chocolate, hot
apple cider, or herbal teas; humans gather more willingly if food
is involved. (At home, we all settle in with a comfort drink in a
comfortable space to read.) Third, I put up lots of books with
male protagonists and subjects to which boys can relate easily.
A democratic voting system for selecting the books to be read,
buys a certain ownership and involvement from all participants.
Fourth, I use kinesthetic ways of learning: crosswords that test
whether they’ve taken in details of the book we’ve just read, art
projects connected to the book’s scenes, and breaks that feature
food mentioned in the book. Finally, I let them move around. In a
photo of a kindergarten story-time at the Lyceum, you can see the
girls sitting straight and staring at the book, and the boys lounging
on the pillows. But if you look closely, you can also see how incredibly
engaged those boys are.
As for the older boys, I tell them that the best way to understand
that strange group of people called “girls” is to read some books
with a female protagonist. It’s amazing how they internalize that.
Once I ran into a boy in second-year university who’d been in one
of my book clubs years before. “You were so right about that!” he

Q: Some of the boys in your clubs come with their mothers,
and some with their fathers. How important is the gender
role-model factor?
A: For the boys to see a male involved in a book club is huge, but it
doesn’t have to be their father. We often get uncles, older brothers,
and grandfathers and everyone benefits from their presence. Boys
who come with their mothers forge better communication with
them than boys who don’t; book clubs allow the mothers to talk
to their sons about difficult topics through a literary character.
Dads who attend our clubs raise the bar for everyone, because
they tend to be avid notetakers and they hate not doing well on
the crosswords.
Most importantly, the youth see men reading and discussing
reading, or what I call “socializing around reading.” Women do
this more naturally, while men tend to socialize around sports or
games instead. Since coaches don’t usually read books between
periods, and guys don’t typically discuss books after a game, you
have to find a way to expose them to this modeling, by making an
effort at home or enrolling them in a book club.

Q: Roughly what percentage of boys are reluctant
A: In my experience, it can be as high as forty percent. The divide
begins in about fourth grade, and has to do with under-acknowledged
brain differences, a lack of books that interest boys (especially
after sixth grade if they’re not into fantasy), not seeing men
socialize around reading, and a more auditory-driven education
system. Boys often respond better to kinesthetic and visual
learning: Pictionary, graphic books, charades, dramatizations,
debates, crosswords, exercise balls for sitting, and art. At-home
reading and book clubs can cater to these needs more easily than
traditional classrooms. The optimal point at which you can make
a big difference is in grades four, five, and six, by choosing books
that are fun and engaging, by pumping up the number of graphic
books you let him read, and by modeling and sharing your passion
for reading at home.

Q: Some parents steer their kids away from picture books
and graphic novels before the child wishes to give them up,
on the assumption that these are unsophisticated forms of
reading holding him back. What’s your advice?
A: Don’t get too stuck on this. Our youth have to be more visually
literate than we were, able to deconstruct symbols in images
and make meaning. Even PowerPoint presentations at CEO meetings
today have more animation, logos, and visual symbols. When
parents read a graphic novel, it seems choppy to them, but today’s
children know how to bridge between cells in much the same way
you do between lines of a poem. Graphic books engage a different
type of literacy. This doesn’t replace textual literacy but is just as
If you keep throwing books at your boy that are too difficult,
you’ll lose him. One of my sons didn’t read for enjoyment until age
ten; it was a graphic novel that finally hooked him. He’d always
been able to decode competently, and had been read to, but reading
for enjoyment took longer to kick in. Get them graphic books,
auditory tapes, interactive books online, whatever it takes. Keep
them in the game until their maturity catches up with them.

Q: What’s your best advice to parents who want their child
to be a keen reader?
A: Let him be involved in choosing what he reads, and continue
reading to him even after he can read by himself. Where you apply
your greatest influence in what your son reads is through the
books you read to him. Start reading to him long before seventh
or eighth grade; otherwise he might be less open to reading aloud
experiences. Choose themes that interest him, books that have the
hook within the first chapter. Read several chapters ahead yourself
before sitting down with him, so you won’t stumble over names
and if you start to lose his attention, you can synthesize what’s
happening and take him forward to an exciting bit, closing on a
cliffhanger if at all possible. This way, he’ll plead and beg you to
read more, but don’t give in. Make him come to the book hungry
the next day. Also, read to your kids when you’re fresh. For me as
a single mother, being fresh meant early in the morning instead of
at bedtime, and always in the same space with our comfort drinks
in hand.
There are three kinds of reading: independent reading (he reads
by himself, preferably books he has chosen; no more than one error
per page), guided reading (he reads a page, you read a page; no
more than four errors per page), and reading aloud (you do all the
reading). There’s typically a two-year reading-level gap between
expressive and receptive language development, meaning there
is a dramatic spread between what he can read on his own and
what he can understand orally. By reading aloud, you’re building
the scaffolding that will make him a stronger reader, helping him
understand patterns, reinforcing his ability to predict plotlines,
helping him understand causal relationships, and exposing him to
the cadence of oral language.

Q: Why is it important to learn to enjoy reading?
A: Reading is an investment in yourself, an education in itself. It
nurtures curiosity and a thirst for learning more; it can be very
addictive once you have a good experience with it. Literacy is
incredibly important for accessing information, engaging personal
growth, and nurturing breadth of knowledge. It supports emotional
intelligence, which you need in order to excel at the top levels
of industry. Emotional intelligence helps you relate to someone
different than you at work. It helps you articulate your thoughts,
which can boost your ability to speak in front of a group. Broad
reading exposes you to other perspectives, which is very precious
in a diverse society.

Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions). Formerly posted on