In the Spotlight: Sara Hoagland Hunter

May 15th, 2014

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Sara Hoagland Hunter. Sara and I go way back — back to when she was a student at Dartmouth College and I was a student at nearby Hanover High School. I looked up to and admired Sara so much back then — and I still do!


Sara Hoagland Hunter

She’s had an amazing career as an award-winning writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, educator, radio producer, lyricist — the list goes on. Is there anything Sara can’t do? I don’t think so!

Sara has written ten books for young readers, including THE LIGHTHOUSE SANTA and THE UNBREAKABLE CODE, about the Navajo code talkers of World War II. Her latest book is EVERY TURTLE COUNTS, an illustrated story based on the international rescue effort to save earth’s most endangered sea turtles, a species called Kemp’s ridleys.

ETC Cover for Susan

Click here to watch the trailer, then pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Sara.

Tell us a bit about how this book came to be — what was the inspiration behind it?

I first heard the story of the Cape Cod sea turtle rescues more than a decade ago from Bob Prescott, the director of the Audubon sanctuary who had discovered the phenomenon.  He first identified a stranded Kemp’s ridley sea turtle on the north side of the Cape about 15 years ago and was surprised since these turtles are born on just one beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. At that time, there were only about 400 remaining Kemp’s ridleys in the world.

I followed up with him, shooting a documentary for a cable network called Outdoor Life.  I traced the Kemp’s ridley rescue and rehabilitation process from when the frozen turtles wash up on the beach between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, through the rehab at the New England Aquarium, and later release in Florida and warmer waters.  No one yet knows why the two and three year old juveniles wander up as far as the Cape to munch on shellfish in the rich waters of Cape Cod Bay.  They used to stay further south, around Chesapeake Bay and sometimes Long Island. When the water temp. begins to drop in the fall,  the juveniles seem to get turned around in their natural migration pattern. They can’t figure out that they need to go north and get around Provincetown and the hook of Cape Cod before they can go south to get to Florida and warmer waters.

Between Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas, up to 200 “cold-stunned” sea turtles (mostly Kemp’s ridleys but some loggerheads, green turtles, and leatherbacks) wash in on the waves.  An army of volunteers of all ages now strolls the beach between Sandwich and Truro looking for these creatures so they can be picked up by Audubon, slowly thawed, and brought to aquariums for rehab.  The rescue record is impressive.  I knew I wanted to tell the story, since unsung heroes are my passion (THE UNBREAKABLE CODE was about the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII;  THE LIGHTHOUSE SANTA was about Edward Rowe Snow, who dropped presents to lighthouse children).

When it came to overlaying story over research, I began to think what child I wanted to rescue this particular Kemp’s ridley.  Immediately, I thought of my niece, Mimi, and her love of animals.  She is a tender-heart with a joyous, childlike thought. She is also diagnosed on the autism spectrum and has been a gift to our family.  I modeled the character on Mimi as a seven-year-old and Mimi was pleased that I would use her real name. The illustrator used photos of Mimi as a seven-year-old to help inform her art. Mimi is now 24 and has enjoyed joining me for many stops on my book tour.

Have you witnessed the turtle stranding yourself?  I’d love to hear about any research you did for the book.
I did accompany a camera crew and a rescuer on a turtle rescue and have footage of it that I show at my book talks.  Mimi and I will hike the beach again this Thanksgiving to see if we can spot one.

I love the way the book ends, with a glimpse of “future Mimi” — what are your hopes for this book, and the impact it will make on readers?
Great question. This book is an extremely hopeful one. The range of abilities and challenges of those diagnosed on the autism spectrum is huge. I actually believe that in future years, individuals will be labeled with more specific labels. The Mimi story is not every autistic child’s story. My model was Temple Grandin, who endorsed the book, and who has had a well known career as an animal scientist.

With the number of those diagnosed on the spectrum now reported as 1 in 68, there is a growing need and urgent opportunity to incorporate those with autism into our communities, helping them stretch to realize their full potential, and providing the  24/7 supervision needed for them to attain their goals. Our country has done a fantastic job providing educational opportunity through the age of 21.  As soon as someone with special needs turns 22, however, that funding disappears, and all of the investment up to that point is at risk, as families scramble to figure out babysitters, scant job programs, and unattainably expensive housing situations.

My current goal is to get the word out about finding meaningful activity for this tidal wave of young adults.  I’ve learned more from Mimi’s pure thought than from anyone I know — both about life and Love.  The day to day challenge of caring for a 24-year-old who cannot live alone is daunting.  The assembly line work offered Mimi in her state day program is not the right sense of fulfillment yet.  All of us need to be working on this.  That’s one reason I’ve enjoyed taking Mimi on tour. She loves being on stage!

Who wouldn’t love being on stage with YOU, Sara!  I love knowing more about this wonderful book, and wish you all the best with it. Thanks so much for joining us here today. Now everybody go visit Sara’s website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her book and READ IT!

To read earlier In the Spotlight interviews with Chris Kurtz, click here, and with Susan Hill Long, click here.

In the Spotlight: Susan Hill Long

September 12th, 2013

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Susan Hill Long. Sue is a dazzlingly talented writer and editor, the mother of two fabulous girls, an avid runner and cross-country skiier and hiker, a fellow bookworm, and also a fellow New Englander! I’m just crazy about her new book, a middle-grade novel called WHISTLE IN THE DARK. It’s already getting rave reviews, with The Christian Science Monitor calling it “wonderful” and “beautifully crafted historical fiction,” and Booklist noting that “as engaging historical fiction does best, this debut novel … vividly brings to light a period in time where values prove timeless.”


I have always been an avid fan of historical fiction. I just LOVE the way richly imagined books like Sue’s can transport me to another time and place and breathe life into history–in this case, a small Missouri lead mining town in the 1920s where 13-year-old Clem, who loves books and stories and words, has to go “down the deep dark” of the mine in order to help his family. There’s a great deal more to the story, of course, but I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to READ it!

I also love books whose characters walk right off the page and into your heart, and WHISTLE IN THE DARK is that kind of book. No wonder an excerpt from the novel won a prize even before it was published! It’s that stunning!

Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Sue, and ask her about writing, her book, and what’s next.

1. Tell us a bit about how you came to be a writer, and how you came to write WHISTLE IN THE DARK.

I was first published at age 5, on my dad’s silk-screen press, which he set up on the ping-pong table in the basement. A career was born!

Not really. I worked as an editor for a while, and began to write for a living after that. I found I much preferred being on the author side of the desk than the editor’s. Of course, to be a writer, a person must learn to edit, to revise.

Susan Hill Long

2. I love Clem! He is just such a REAL boy.  And Grampy, and Old Saw, and Lindy–all of them–they’re just so solid and real. As a writer, how do you develop characters?

Thank you, Heather! I’m so glad you love Clem and his family, friends, and foils. I love them, too, and still think about them sometimes. If they seem real to you, that must be why. (I once heard Sara Pennypacker say she wouldn’t begin writing a book till she would take a bullet for her character.)

3. The book was inspired by a historic event. Can you tell us about that, and also about your research?  What were some of the most interesting things you discovered in the process?

The Great Tri-State Tornado was indeed a real event. It happened in 1925. I read two excellent books in particular about the storm, and also corresponded with a fellow who was kind enough to share his own family’s personal story from that terrible day. Most interesting to me was the way people cope with catastrophe, how they move on, because they must. People tend toward what’s good; they make some good come from bad.

4. Have you ever been down in a mine or in a cave? If you have, how did that experience inform your descriptions here, which make the reader feel like they’re standing side by side with Clem. If you haven’t, is it something you’d like to do?

I have been in a cave, and I don’t even want to talk about it!

5. An excerpt from this book won the Katherine Paterson Prize from Hunger Mountain.  Tell us about that honor, and how it made a difference.

Oh, it certainly was an honor, Heather. When I got the news, I ran down the stairs and out the door and down the sidewalk. I hardly knew what to do with my happiness and surprise. The difference the Katherine Paterson Prize made was both measurable — it encouraged me to complete the manuscript, an agent contacted me through Hunger Mountain, and eventually a book was bound — and immeasurable — the confidence it gave me to keep going, the possession of a secret message I could whisper to myself whenever I needed it. (Psst. Remember that time Katherine Paterson thought your writing was pretty good? Squee!)

6. Are there particular writers who have inspired or influenced you?  Favorite books?

When I was a child, I loved all books by Joan AikenBlack Hearts in Battersea, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — just typing the titles gives me chills! I read The Chronicles of Narnia countless times, and I had two old George MacDonald books that had belonged to my grandfather — The Princess and Curdie and The Princess and the Goblins. Magical.

When I learned that Elizabeth George Speare had died, I burst into tears. I’m not sure why, but I think I felt such a personal connection to her books, and my memory of reading them is still so strong — I lived in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut, till I was 9 years old, and so The Witch of Blackbird Pond was “my” book, because it was set right there in my own town. I loved Kit. I loved my own outrage, reading about Kit’s plight. (She’s not a witch, you’re the witch, you old Goodwife Cruff!)  I’m going to go and read it again right after I finish typing here.

7. Do you have any writing rituals? 

I go for a run to start the day, and when I sit down at my desk I glance at this message: “keep calm and carry on,” which happens to be printed on a very large eraser — important reminder for a writer.

8. What can we look forward to next from you?

I’m working on another novel for middle-grade readers. All I can tell you for now is that I love my characters.

Thanks so much, Sue, for visiting with us today.  Now everybody go visit her website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her book and READ IT!

To read an earlier In the Spotlight interview with Chris Kurtz, click here.


In the Spotlight: Chris Kurtz

July 31st, 2013

Today I’m starting a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful, stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

A born storyteller, Chris Kurtz is also a musician and a third grade teacher (lucky third graders, is all I can say). He’s stepping into the spotlight today to tell us about his book THE ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG.  It has a wee subtitle, too — A NOVEL OF SNOW AND COURAGE — which I just adore.  In fact, I adore everything about this book. It’s exactly what I would have wanted to read when I was in elementary school, or have read to me when I was a bit younger. A funny, heart-warming adventure starring a plucky pig named Flora, who dreams of leaving the farmyard behind and becoming a sled pig in Antarctica! Now I ask you, what’s not to love about that?

I bought multiple copies. One for me, one for my wee niece, and one to have on hand to give as a spontaneous present. Because there’s nothing better than being able to give a spontaneous present, right?

Here’s what some reviewers had to say about the story.  First, from Kirkus:  “Out of the way, Wilbur and Babe: Your cousin Flora has ‘adventurous hooves’!” Booklist notes: “There’s humor as well as heart, grit as well as tenderness in the telling of this Antarctic adventure tale.” Horn Book calls it “a rollicking story” and gave it a star.  I call it BRILLIANT, and give it my highest recommendation.

Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Chris, and ask him about writing, his book, and what’s next.

1.  Tell us a bit about how you came to be a writer, and how you came to write “The Adventures of a South Pole Pig.”

I’m a writer because my sister encouraged me.  [Editor’s note — Chris’s sister is Jane Kurtz, who is also a friend of mine, and who I also hope will be In the Spotlight soon.] She said she thought I was good at telling stories in my letters home while I was living in another country.  My daughter has a cat that is completely white and pretty overweight.  That cat made me think about an animal that might live in the South Pole and have an adventure, and I think pigs are cute.  But in the end I put in a couple of cats in my story, too.

Chris with Kalino the cat

Chris with Kalino the cat

2.  Flora is SUCH an engaging character — I love her spunk. Did she come to you in a flash, or gradually?  I’d love to hear a bit about how you developed her character.

I came upon Flora’s character by thinking about myself.  I’ve made lots and lots of mistakes in my life and I’ve done a lot of dumb things because I thought I was smarter than I really was. So I made Flora get into the same kind of trouble as me.

3.  Are there particular writers who have inspired or influenced you?  Favorite books?

I love learning about other authors.  My favorite author is Kate DiCamillo.  But I was a big reader when I was a kid and I loved dog stories and survival stories.  I still love those kinds of stories. My favorite book when I was a kid was called DESERT DOG by Jim Kjelgaard.  I didn’t know how to pronounce his name until I was an adult.  It’s pronounced keel-guard.

4.  How does teaching influence your writing — or does it? Is there cross-pollination between the two?

I teach writing in a real way.  I know that writers get stuck.  I know that writers have to have no one talking to them when they are trying to write.  I know that writers need thinking time.  And I know that writers need lots and lots and LOTS of encouragement.  So these are some of the things I make sure to give my third grade students.

5.  What can we look forward to next from you?

I’m working on another animal book.  I really like my main character and I hope that my editor likes him too so that I get to have another book out there.  But I know that there are no promises and no sure things in the world of books.

6.  If you were to travel to the South Pole, what one item would you absolutely positively not leave home without?

If I traveled to the South Pole I would be sure to take really, really warm boots.  I hate having cold feet.  But please don’t think that I would ONLY take my boots.  I wouldn’t want arrive in the South Pole without my pants!

Thanks so much, Chris, for visiting with us today.  And for the laugh! Now everybody go visit his website for more fun facts (click here), then buy his book and READ IT!


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