Throwback Summer 2016: My very “first” children’s book

Last week, I told you about the discovery I made while cleaning out my parents’ attic: assorted school papers, projects, journals, etc. It really has been both fun and enlightening to look back on all this material and see how it all worked together to help develop my writing style, my sense of humour, and my very personality.

Today, I’m sharing what is probably the most astounding treasure in the entire trove: the very first children’s book I ever wrote!

(Feel free to click on any to enlarge)

Davy BF 1
(If the sun is behind a cloud behind that wall, where the heck did that shadow come from??)

Titled Davy’s Best Friend, it’s a story about a lonely boy whose shadow comes to life and takes him to the land (or rather, cloud) where shadows are created.

I particularly like the part where he goes up…

Davy BF 2
Omigosh, all the shadows have disappeared!! Oh, wait – no…it’s just poorly illustrated.

…and up!

Davy BF 3
That’s right – page 25, and we’re only halfway through the book! At 60 pages in length, it’s a bit…long)

While I don’t recall much about the specifics of the project – indeed, I had forgotten I had even written it in the first place – I do remember that it was a significant part of my high school senior year Creative Writing class, which would put this circa Spring 1985.

Professionally speaking, the text is bland and wordy, and although my teacher loved the originality, I view the story and imagery as an amalgam of Peter Pan, Where the Wild Things Are, and every lonely-boy-as-hero book ever imagined. Ironically, the illustrations, while admittedly amateurish (rendered well before my college art classes), are probably one of the strongest aspects of this thing -and it wasn’t an art class project!

But I got a 100 for it, so I can’t complain. Oh, by the way, Davy does return home at the end…

Davy BF 4
(What happened to the buildings’ shadows? Are they on holiday??)

Someone had asked me if I was concerned about sharing this online, in case someone might take the idea for their own. I said, if someone wants to try publishing a book based on this…good luck to them! Their manuscript would need so much work and revision I’m not sure anyone would be able to tell where the original idea came from.

Now, this all causes me to wonder what would have happened to my life, had I decided to study children’s writing in college instead of the ‘lucrative’ world of radio broadcasting. (“Lucrative” is a rather sarcastic word, I admit…by the time I had left full-time employment in radio in 2012, with a BS and 25+ years experience, I was making less than a first-year teacher at the local elementary school, in a town of 3000 people).

Would I have failed extraordinarily and ended up in radio, anyway? Would I be doing something else entirely? Or would I already have 400 books to my name, a school named after me like my friend David Harrison, and Jane Yolen scratching her head, wondering, “How does that guy DO it?”

Ah, well…who knows. At least I’m writing now, and getting published now. It may be amusing to look back on our younger days and wish we could have had just an ounce or two of the wisdom we have now, but all we can do is move forward starting with today.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a manuscript I need to work on…

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Book review: “The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary” ARC Tour concludes here!

Last 5th Grade coverJust 2 months ago, on April 12, author and poet Laura Shovan celebrated a book birthday: her debut middle grade novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (Random House Children’s Books) was officially released, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

In advance of the release, Laura began a blog tour of her ARC (Advance Review Copy), in which children’s lit bloggers across the country could read the book, share their thoughts on it, and pass it along to the next blogger.

Well, it all wraps up today, as I’m the final blogger on the tour – and I’m so happy for Laura!

It’s an engrossing book, detailing the lives of 18 students in Ms. Hill’s class and their personal struggles and joys with themselves, each other, and the fact that the school board has announced that the school will be closing at the end of the year to be turned into a mall.

Each poem is told from a particular student’s point of view, which allows the reader to get to know the characters intimately well. George Furst, for example (whose middle name is Washington thanks to his history-loving parents), is running for class president but wishes his mother and father had not divorced.

Hannah Wiles is the Type-A, in-charge, know-it-all who, aside from also running for class president, is also struggling with parental issues. Brianna Holmes, meanwhile, is creative and proud – and homeless. Newt Matthews has Asperger’s.

Last 5th grade poem

Through each of their poems, the individual students’ personalities develop over the course of the book, and it’s nice to see their progress and level of maturity by the time the last poem ends. Both funny and poignant in turn, The Last Fifth Grade is a touching book that is as easy to read as it is as easy to get lost in. I do have to admit, the students seem far more worldly and mature than my fifth grade class!

In fairness and honesty, the only disappointment I have to note (and I hate to even mention this, as we’re talking about my friend, Laura’s, book!) is that three of the eighteen students are dealing with the lack of a father in their lives: George Furst, whose dad left the family earlier in his life; Hannah Wiles, who has to live with her dad while her mom is stationed overseas, and Mark Fernandez, whose father passed away.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a stay-at-home dad who works out of the house – hence, I’m a bit touchy on this subject – but no one seems to bemoan living with their mother. Yes, there are some very commendable dads in the book, and I appreciate Laura’s implication of the importance of fathers; I just think it would have been more balanced had there been at least one home that was happy with their dad, even though mom was absent.

But that’s a minor quibble. The importance, of course, is the interaction of the students and their growth throughout this transformative year. Through rich yet kid-friendly language, well-crafted characters, and a wide array of poetic forms (from free verse and haiku to sonnets and limericks), Laura tells a tale that kids will want to follow from first page to last!

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Finally! Marketing postcards!

national-poetry-month 2016

I’m in the process of resubmitting a couple of manuscripts to new publishing houses, but I wanted to at least take a moment to celebrate National Poetry Month by sharing a project I’ve been working on this PAST month…
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It’s been a long time coming, but they’re finally here – with only a few weeks to spare, before I host a workshop at the New England SCBWI’s annual conference at the end of the month!

(click to enlarge)

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2016 Kidlit Progressive PoemDon’t forget: the 2016 Progressive Poem continues today at Penny Parker Klosterman’s little home on the web, so be sure to stop by for a few minutes and see how this year’s poem is…well, progressing!

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To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-Sm
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Book Review: “When the Sun Shines on Antarctica”

Antarctica coverIrene Latham has done it again. A couple years ago, she was hanging out at a watering hole on the African savanna (and that’s not a metaphor – by “watering hole,” I mean a real watering hole) and this year she’s at the bottom of the world, on the largest continent – and largest desert – on the planet.

Irene follows up her 2014 children’s poetry collection, Dear Wandering Wildebeest: And Other Poems from the Water Hole (Millbrook Press) with the equally entertaining and insightful When the Sun Shines on Antarctica: And Other Poems from the Frozen Continent (Millbrook Press).

In fifteen poems, Irene not only teaches readers a little bit about the wildlife and habitat of Antarctica, she imbues each of her subjects with a bit of magic here and a touch of tenderness there, so that each poem helps bring the reader a little closer to the truth. The book opens with the dawn of summer and concludes with the start of winter as the sun sets.

When the Sun Shines on Antarctica

Icebergs brighten
as the sky peels

itself of darkness
and stretches awake.

Glaciers murmur.
Penguins reunite

and seals rouse
from slumber

Whales breach
and blow;

waves rush
and slush

against shifting
ice shelves.

Welcome,
Summer.

We’ve been waiting
for you.

– © 2016 Irene Latham (Millbrook Press), all rights reserved

The poems are primarily free verse, so Irene makes great use of internal rhyme and enjambment to create touching scenes that are sometimes quiet, and other times full of energy.

One of the nice things about this book – and Wildebeest, as well – is that although there is plenty to learn via Irene’s poems, they never feel didactic; they are poetry for poetry’s sake, first and foremost. Sidebars on each page provide more information about each subject (from seals to krill to brinicles!), and the earthy blues and greens of Anna Wadham’s illustrations complement the icy, watery nature of Irene’s scenery – all adding up to a beautiful book to read as well as simply admire.

I had a chance to chat with Irene about the book, her life of writing, and what she has coming up in the near future!

Irene headSo tell us, how did a social work major from the University of Alabama end up with 5 books of poetry, 2 middle grade novels, and another poetry collection due out next month?

I took the scenic route, that’s for sure! While I didn’t attend a single writing class in college, all those courses on developmental psychology and family dynamics have certainly enriched my writing life.

Without any training, how did you end up learning your craft? And what was your first published piece? What do you think of it today – still good, not bad, or would you totally revise it?

I started honing my craft by entering contests sponsored by Alabama State Poetry Society. At first I didn’t place at all, then I started getting Honorable Mentions, and eventually prize money! My big break came when I won a chapbook contest — no cash, but publication and 100 copies of my chapbook NOW PLAYING (poems that used classic movie titles, but were often about something else entirely).

I kind of cringe when I read those poems now — as I’ve continued to grow and develop as a poet I can now see all sorts of flaws! But it was my best work at the time, and an essential, precious part of my journey. Those poems are exactly what they needed to be — and one or two of them I do still like.:)

How do you move between the children’s poetry thought process and an adult’s? Do you work exclusively on one or the other, or do you bounce back and forth, depending on your mood and inspiration?

My initial efforts are most often from my adult self. I was writing a poem last week about pears, and the image that came immediately to mind was Sylvia Plath’s “little Buddhas.” I love that! But of course a kid probably wouldn’t get that. I so admire those children’s poets among us who seem to so easily and naturally find those child-like comparisons. It’s a challenge for me. I am constantly having to coax my inner 8 year old out to play. She’s shy, but one thing I’m good at is persistence.

WildebeestTwo years ago, you were at an African watering hole; this year, you’re in Antarctica! How do you come up with the ideas for your collections, and how long does it usually take you to complete a manuscript?

I have an abundance of obsessions, so coming up with themes/ideas for collections is not my problem. Usually they arise when I read books or go to museums or attend local community events where a speaker might mention something, and I investigate further, and next thing I know, I’m neck-deep!

As for the second part of your question, “complete” is a very slippery word, isn’t it? I could keep tinkering with poems forever and more than once have had a great idea for a way to improve a manuscript after the book is already in print. It’s one of the things that attracts me to writing in the first place – the endless learning curve.

I can churn out a bunch of first-draft poems that will be the skeleton of a poetry book manuscript within a few weeks – I strive for a poem a day. But then it can take years for the individual poems to grow and develop and for me to figure out the point of it all. I’m constantly asking of the manuscript: what is your purpose? what are you trying to say to the world? what else?

Next month, you have ANOTHER collection for children, Fresh and Delicious! Tell us about that! How did it come about?

Fresh Delicious coverFRESH DELICIOUS: Poems from the Farmers’ Market (Wordsong) is my first attempt at poems for a younger (K-2) audience. It started with a contest through my SCBWI region (Southern Breeze, which includes AL, GA, and the FL panhandle). Each June, for free, we can submit some pages for a contest that’s judged by editors. All entries receive a feedback sheet. I wanted to enter the contest, and I had just been to the farmers’ market. Voila! Poems from the farmers’ market!

I was so excited about the poems that I did NOT enter the contest – results aren’t announced until October – and sent them straight to my agent instead. She sent them to Rebecca Davis at WordSong, who had read (and rejected) at least three, perhaps four prior manuscripts (including Dear Wandering Wildebeest). She liked the poems, saw lots of promise, but didn’t feel they were quite ready. Instead, she gave me some brilliant feedback (seriously. BRILLIANT), and off I went, revising away! A couple of revisions later, she presented it at the editorial meeting and we got a green light on the project. O frabjous day!

I am always trying to explain to people that children’s poetry does not need to rhyme! (In fact, I’m hosting a workshop at an upcoming SCBWI conference about free verse) Why do you suppose you are drawn more towards free verse than rhyming poetry?

I am so happy you are teaching people that children’s poetry need not rhyme! Confession: for many years I thought all children’s poetry was Shel Silverstein! I really didn’t know there was a market for the kind of poems I write, which are by and large free verse, until I attended a poetry retreat with Rebecca Kai Dotlich in 2011 (organized by the one and only Robyn Hood Black! I’m so so grateful!). That weekend was a turning point in my writing life.

Afterwards I went on a nearly sleepless writing jag for a week as I discovered I could write the way I write for adults – but for kids. I have a gypsy heart, and being hemmed in by form or rhyme makes me irritable and unhappy. Plus I love beautiful words and lyricism, and for me, writing is a spiritual practice. It’s a way for me to love the world. I am able to achieve all of those things with free verse.

By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate you on TWO OTHER manuscripts you just sold, Pop! Bam! Boom! and It’s Not Black and White. What are they about?

Thank you! Pop! Bam! Boom! started with Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175884 I got to thinking about all the things that explode – seed pods and symphonies and dreams – and I started writing. It’s Not Black & White is a special project based on real-life experiences that I co-wrote with Charles Waters. Told in two voices, it’s about friendship, race, and understanding as it happens in a 5th grade classroom when a black boy and a white girl are forced to be partners on a writing project.

Final question! I have to ask…do you ever get a chance to chat with Father Goose -Charles Ghigna – who’s just south of you in Homewood, AL? And what’s the best advice you ever received – from anyone?

Chuck and I do, in fact, chat from time to time! He’s famous around these parts (more than a hundred books to his credit now!), and he’s been a lovely supporter of my work.

As for advice: When my first book of poems came out (2007), my husband gave me a small plaque that reads, “Live Your Poem.” That’s where my blog name comes from! For years I have shared in presentations that writers have a responsibility to “live a life worth writing about.”

But it’s more that that: we need to be present, open, and delight in our lives – really LIVE. That’s poetry! I also love how those words can mean whatever they need to mean to an individual – your poem-life will be different from mine. And every single incarnation is beautiful.

I think that concept is what draws most of us to poetry, Irene…so thank you for taking the time to chat!

Thank you, Matt, for having me, and for your great questions. I’m excited for YOUR forthcoming books. Yay!

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To my readers, I’m so glad YOU took the time to read today’s post, I’m going to give you an opportunity to win an autographed copy of Antarctica! Just leave a comment below, and I’ll draw a winner at the end of the month…so please let your friends know, so they can get in on it, as well. (and if you share this post via Twitter (using the Twitter button below), you’ll get an ADDITIONAL entry!)

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!
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Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

Exciting news! And more exciting news!

What’s it like to lead a writer’s conference workshop on writing? I’m about to find out!

nescbwi16_conf logoRegistration for the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) gets underway at noon EST today, and it is one of those things we writers look forward to all year. The third-biggest SCBWI conference – behind the two big ones in New York and LA – is three days of learning, networking, and enjoying life…but this year, I have some extra reasons to look forward to it:

  • I will be taking part in the #AskAMentor program on Friday afternoon, where conference faculty hang out and meet others who are just starting to write or who are looking for advice. It is described as ‘speed dating but without the cheesy pickup lines’…and as far as I know, Yours Truly will be the only person there who writes poetry. So I hope you’ll say hi, if you happen to attend!
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  • I also agreed to co-chair the Open Mic nights Fri. and Sat. evenings with fellow poetry writer Sharon Abra Hanen. This is an opportunity to share your children’s poetry or a manuscript with the crowd. This year, we’re adding a special feature we call “Whose Rhyme is it, Anyway?”- a quick, improvisational game where two writers (or teams) are given random words and subjects and need to create a minimum 2-line children’s poem within the allotted time!
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  • The hands-down MOST exciting part of this weekend for me will be on Sunday, when I host my first workshop for industry professionals, “Free yourself with Free Verse Poetry.” This is for all the poor folks who think children’s poetry needs to rhyme and be perfectly metrical. Attendees will be taught the basics of free verse (use of internal rhyme, enjambment, shape of text, etc.) and will be challenged with some on-the-spot writing exercises. This, I hope, will be a nice complement to Holly Thompson’s and Padma Venkatraman’s verse novel workshop taking place earlier the same day.

From plotting to illustrating to character development to marketing…there’s a workshop for just about everything kidlit-related at this conference. If you do attend, please be sure to find me and say hi! Registration begins at noon today, so don’t wait – workshops get filled up very quickly!

But wait…I said there’s MORE exciting news, didn’t I??

I can now finally (and proudly) announce that illustrator extraordinaire Fred Koehler has signed on to illustrate my debut picture book, Flashlight Night (Boyd’s Mills Press), which is due out in Fall 2017!

REBECCA KAI DOTLICH - One DayFred has illustrated numerous picture books including, most recently, Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s One Day…The End (Boyd’s Mills Press, 2015). His own book, Super Jumbo (Dial Books) comes out exactly one week from today, so be sure to check it out! He also illustrates Shelley Moore Thomas’ book, This Book is Not About Dragons (Boyd’s Mills Press), which is due to be released this September. Like I said, busy guy.

I’m especially thrilled about Fred’s decision to illustrate my book because mine will be his first using traditional media (i.e., pen and ink, pencil, etc.). These days, everything is digital – but Fred wanted to capture a classic sort of feeling with this particular project, and I have to admit I’m honored that he liked it enough to do that!

I’ll be sharing some more details about this book as we get closer to the release date. Until then, I’m continuing to send out other manuscripts in search of a publisher! I think I have 8 or 9 different manuscripts all searching for a home right now…fingers crossed, as they say!

I also have some news about two new anthologies that will be coming out (one next year; the other, the year after that!) but I need to keep quiet for now. Once I can make the news public, you’ll be the first to know!

Or maybe I’ll spill a bean or two at the conference…hope to see you there!

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!
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To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-Sm
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Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

Back on the field…finally!

If your memory goes back to a few years ago (and you cared enough to even bother remembering!), I had a major injury on the soccer field two years ago. I tore my right knee apart – the ACL, MCL, and meniscus – while playing on my men’s indoor soccer league and needed surgery to repair the damage.

Well, the injury happened in late November 2013, the arthroscopic ACL reconstruction surgery was late March 2014, rehab took a little over a year, and I spent this past summer and fall continuing to strengthen my leg and hip muscles to ensure the knee would be safe to use in an aggressive setting like indoor soccer.

So after all this time, I’m finally back on the field tonight!

Don’t tell my wife.

Seriously, she supports me, but really doesn’t want to deal with another torn ACL – and I don’t, either, of course. No reason to think it will happen again, as the new ACL (fashioned from a piece of my right hamstring tendon) should be as strong as the original, but I don’t blame her for worrying.

Good things come to those who wait…but waiting only helps so much

Yes, patience is a virtue and the ability to wait patiently is beneficial, but that only gets you so far. One needs to take active steps to achieve certain goals.

For example, after years of writing poetry for adults and getting some published in various journals around the country, I decided in 2009 to make a serious effort to write for children. And not as a hobby; I wanted to make a career out of writing for children, which I knew was neither easy nor, for that matter, lucrative.

Lullabye coverBut I was determined, and set about doing whatever I could to make that happen. I joined an open SCBWI writer’s critique group, then joined SCBWI, started connecting with folks in the business, and learning everything I could. In 2015, I saw the fruits of my labors in the form of EIGHT children’s poems in FIVE children’s books, including my very first children’s publishing credit, Lee Bennett Hopkins’ Lullaby & Kisses Sweet (Abrams Appleseed).

I reached another milestone last year, when Rebecca Davis at Boyd’s Mills Press liked my picture book manuscript, Flashlight Night, enough to purchase it! With a Fall 2017 scheduled release date, it is a true test of patience, believe me.

Patience, patience…

– My new studio won’t be ready until later this year. When we had $20,000 worth of ice dam damage repaired this past December, the contractor volunteered to rip up all the upstairs carpeting – which we were going to need to do – at no charge. We took him up on the offer, but that means there’s no carpeting in my present studio space, so voiceover work is a challenge when it comes to sound dampening. I’ll just have to wait!

– Our 2-year-old daughter, whose nursery is going to be my new studio, no longer takes naps – which means I get no writing, voice, or marketing work done until after the two kids are in bed. She’ll start preschool in another two years, but until then…I’ll just have to wait!

– I currently have 8 or 9 manuscript submissions out there in kidlit land, sitting in the slush piles of various editors and agents. The wheels turn slow, so it’s possible 6 months could go by before I get a response, positive or negative. In some cases, I won’t even get a response unless there is interest! I have some names of people I want to send these manuscripts out to, but until I hear back from these others…I’ll just have to wait.

I could go on and on, but won’t. My point is, trying to have patience in a world of instant gratification is tough – and I’m not perfect at it. Far from it! I hate waiting, just like most people.

I think I’m at the age where I’m young enough to still be a bit impatient and impetuous sometimes, but mature enough to recognize that life is short and tenuous. Who knows what could happen between now and my picture book release date? What if i die before I ever have a chance to see the book in print??

Sorry – there’s that imagination again, coming up with all sorts of circumstances. But seriously, if I DID die before the book came out…there are plenty of things I could have been doing in the interim besides worrying about it! So I’ll try to be patient and wait.

After all, I have a new manuscript I need to work on…

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!
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To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-Sm
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Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

2015 in review: Thank you!

2015 was another big year for my blog!

I had a visitor from China, one from Afghanistan, and one from Ethiopia…I had 300% more visitors from Thailand than I did from Botswana…and while the majority of my 9400 total visits came from here in the U.S. (7300), I had more from the UK than our neighbor to the north, Canada – in fact, I had almost as many visits from Australia as I did from Canada!

How do I know all this? Well, once again, the folks at WordPress.com have compiled my year-end stats, and I wanted to share them with you today, since I hadn’t had a chance to earlier this month…and because without you, I wouldn’t have ANY stats!

– Three of my most-viewed posts in 2015 were from 2012? Yep! Once again, for the 3rd straight year, the MOST popular post was a poem that had received a lukewarm reception when I first shared it. And yet, more people read that than anything else on my blog! Go figure.

– The most popular post was very special to me: In May 2015, I hosted Poetry Friday, which always attracts a huge crowd – but it was my announcement that I had landed my very first book deal with Boyd’s Mills Press that had me singing that day!

– What’s in a name? A popular search phrase: One of the most popular ways people have found me is by searching the term “rhythm and rhyme” via Google. While I knew this was common phrase (one of the reasons I chose it to use in my blog name), it never occurred to how useful it would be in helping folks find me! You learn something new every day, as they say.

I have to thank two of my perennial top-commenters, Linda Baie and Michelle Heidenrich Barnes, who I can always count on to provide their thoughts to the conversation! Also many thanks to Mary Lee Hahn, Diane Mayr, and Brenda Davis Harsham, who round out the Top 5, for their time and interest.

Three other folks I need to tip my hat to are Renée LaTulippeTabatha Yeats, and Irene Latham, a trio of women who are some of the most wonderful people in the world…one the primary reasons being that they have sent me more visitors from their blogs than anyone else! Thank you so much, ladies!

So please click HERE (or click the graphic) and take a quick gander at some of the other interesting details, and thanks again for taking the time to stop by and visit. I hope the New Year is a happy one, and please keep in touch!

Radio, Rhythm, and Rhyme: 2015 in Review! Click the graphic for all the details.

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!
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To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-Sm
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Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!