FRENCH FRIDAY: HIGH SCHOOL VISITS IN FLORIDA

Last Friday, I found myself at the very tip of Northern Florida for a full day of school visits.

As I drove on this gorgeous stretch of Florida I was tempted to skip the events and go for a hike and a picnic. The blend of states parks, beach parks, marshes, creeks and ocean is distinct from the rest of the state and on Friday the early morning fog rising from the Amelia River tugged at me, the promise of a beautiful day.

But I’m so glad I only skipped my weekly French Friday blog post 🙂

School visits are always special. These five last ones included.

At the first high school, the librarian had invited me to show up before my presentation so I could have breakfast. She spoke of a continental breakfast. And it would have been plenty enough. There is nothing better than fresh coffee, donuts, banana bread, and fresh fruit to put everyone in a good mood, right?

No, there are the breakfast sandwiches that nobody but locals know about.

To be frank I’m not a huge breakfast person, but I always try what the locals eat. When I am invited somewhere I am part of a place, even for the time of a visit. Or for the time of a breakfast ham, cheese and egg on an English muffin.

And when there is a story behind what I eat, it’s even better.

The chair of the English department was there and as any good English teacher he told good stories. The one behind the breakfast sandwiches is here. In his own words, it was the best idea anyone had to give another life to a closed gas station. In a great American way, although some people thought that serving food in a gas station was weird many more and even the reluctant ones gave it a chance. Their patronage brought the joint to the Washington Post. Not bad. The breakfast sandwich I picked was great. I only wished I could have enjoyed it, slow and easy, but I’m always a little nervous before speaking in front of many people. Next year I will make sure to stop by T-Rays to celebrate the end of the day. Have a look it’s really cool.

Parents play a huge role in American schools. Including at that high school. I spotted some dads signing in for the seniors’ field trip. And a mom stamped my novels (I use an Eiffel Tower and a small café stamps when I sign) so I only had to write a short sentence and add my name. While we worked together we spoke. Of course. She hoped to live in France for a little while, at some point. I love it when people share their dreams because it’s the only way to realize that we are all so similar despite our differences.

At this high school, I met with three groups of sophomores in their media center. I love libraries and librarians. This school is so fortunate to have a huge media center and an amazing librarian who cares so much for the students. I spoke about writing, writing in a foreign language and of France too. I had downloaded more music and I played extracts to cut the presentation and also whenever I felt they needed a break. And when I needed one too 🙂

At the end of the third presentation one of the teachers told me that I was like a teacher. I thanked her. And she added that like a teacher I warmed up as I went and adapted to my audience. I had not really noticed but then saw that my notes were left on a chair. I had not once looked at them. Q&A was fantastic. Few kids had traveled to Europe and even less to France, so it’s always with a mix of humility and pride that I try to introduce my small but complex native country.

I had an hour ahead of me to drive to a neighborhing high school, half an hour away. Traffic was jammed, so I missed the lunch graciously offered by the French teacher and munched on my cereal bars instead. I missed that breakfast sandwich.

There, I met a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, all taking French. They had read my novel in class and had tons of questions.

Their French teacher being French it was an additional treat.

My most favorite moments of the afternoon:

  1. What do you miss most about France ? Some people more than things.
  2. What do you like best about the USA ? The list is too long to even start one.
  3. How long did it take you to be fluent in English ? You don’t want to know.
  4. Can you say: “squirrel” because our French teacher can’t ? She and I are even.

Of course, I answered each and every question and agreed to repeat a few words in English. We joked and laughed and this is what we all should do more often.

On Friday, however, being invited to two high schools located in Florida made it impossible to ignore the shooting that had happened 48 hours earlier, on Valentine’s Day, in another high school in the very same state.

I knew I would make sure to talk to the media specialist and the French teacher before meeting their students. I didn’t have to. Teachers and staff told me upfront that it had been hard to be at school since then, but that life had to go on. At the end of the day an announcement reminded students that support was available to anyone who needed to talk.

And yet it was hard to imagine a similar tragedy happening on these bucolic campuses.

I bet people thought similarly in Parkland.

On my way out I saw groups of teenagers waving goodbye to each other, hugging each other. There was after all a three-day weekend in perspective. They all looked so young, so full of energy and possibilities. And I felt suddenly sad and angry too.

Knowing that my own children had been spared from such tragedies through their entire schooling didn’t change my mood.

I’ve always favored the American inclusive schooling to the more rigid French style I’ve known. But I’ve also envied French students for the safety of their schools. Even now with terrorist threats ever present on the French soil, no student has ever shot his classmates.

Our American children and teenagers could be as safe as the French.

It is an American paradox I will never understand. When people are so civil and courteous in the street, in the stores and on the roads what justifies their need for weapons? When they come together as one in times of hardship what explains the unconditional support for the Second Amendment ?

As our nation was mourning again the loss of young lives, I felt sick and tired of hearing that we needed to keep them and their families in our thoughts and prayers.

Of course, we would. How couldn’t we?

But thoughts and prayers obvioulsy have not exactly worked.

Over the last years, I’ve signed every possible petition regarding gun control and also the need for a better understanding and management of mental health.

Obvioulsy, they have not worked either.

Each time a school shooting or a mass shooting happened we all believed it would be the last.

And yet.

I felt angry.

And I did not want to pray.

So I turned on the radio, which I often do when I drive.

This is how I first heard of the Florida man who decided to turn his own AR-57 in to the sheriff’s office and asked them to destroy it after the school shooting.

If you missed it you can read the interview highlights here. His Facebook post went viral.

I listened to the much longer conversation he had with NPR. At some point, he mentionned that thoughts and prayers didn’t feel enough for him and that the tragedy called for action.

It’s only one man, one action.

What if…

 

The soft Atlantic waves

 

Pour vous qui vivez en France, ce court article paru dans Le Monde recense les fusillades les plus meurtrières aux USA depuis 25 ans. Tristement, je les ai toutes vécues. Après Columbine on a tous ici cru qu’un changement important se produirait. Après Sandy Hook, c’était certain.

Le congrès américain a explicitement interdit la vente d’armes semi automatiques entre 1994 et 2004. Mais depuis que la loi a expiré il est très facile de se les procurer de nouveau pratiquement n’importe où aux US. Seuls les états de New York, de Californie, le district de Columbia, et cinq autres états en interdisent la vente. Les mêmes états limitent aussi le nombre de cartouches qui peuvent être chargées dans une arme. Malgré cela, tout est fait pour annuler les interdictions, légalement et illégalement, en modifiant de façon mineure les armes.

Si vous lisez l’anglais, cet article du New York Times explique la situation actuelle.

Depuis Parkland, les lycéens expriment pour la première fois leur colère au-delà de leur douleur. Manifestations inhabituelles prennent place et la maturité des filles et garçons que nous entendons s’exprimer me donne raison. Je ne cesserai jamais de croire que l’avenir et les changements importants sont entre les mains des adolescents d’aujourd’hui.

En les écoutant depuis ce drame, je me dis que peut-être nous sommes enfin arrivés à un point de non retour.

Malheureusement, entre le moment où j’ai écrit ce billet et aujourd’hui il y a déjà un énorme nuage noir qui planne et laisse augurer de débats houleux.

Si vous le souhaitez, voici un article récent qui illustrent la longue route qui nous attend. Celui sur la situation de la santé mentale aux USA est intéressant. Les deux sont publiés dans le New York Times et peut-être pouvez les lire dans le Monde qui reprend régulièrement leurs articles.

J’ai souvent écrit à propos des rituels américains, particulièrement dans les écoles, rituels qui parfois m’ont fait sourire tant ils sont différents de ceux de la vie scolaire française, souvent étonnée, jamais fatiguée.

Que la tragédie de Parkland devienne un rituel scolaire américain serait monstrueux.

 

 

 

Belated French Friday: C’Est Ouf to Meet Smart, Kind Middle School Students on Crêpes Day

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It’s a belated French Friday post, only because I was meeting a class of 8th graders yesterday.

Which was ouf.

Last Friday, I left you with two French expressions. Dan used the services of Google and suggested “Get the pill” for “Se dorer la pilule” and “This is a pick of ouf” for “c’est un truc de ouf.”

Thank you, Dan for trying. Really, that was cool. But I cannot give you an A. That’s Google’s fault, really.

Google, can you hire me?

* Se dorer la pilule doesn’t mean to get the pill but to get a tan, also simply to relax without doing anything.

Get the pill would be “Prendre la pilule” and it would also be said in reference to the birth control pill.

On the other hand, we don’t have the exact equivalent of the vivid American expression: Take a chill pill.

* Ouf is Fou, only written backwards. Fou in French means crazy.

C’est ouf means it’s crazy.

Un truc is a thing.

C’est un truc de ouf means it’s a crazy thing.

 

So, yes, meeting with the kids yesterday was ouf, in a very good way.

C’est ouf!

Following your advice, I went with a selection of photos depicting France and Paris. One one girl had been to Paris, so all of them enjoyed my personal Normandy selection. And they smiled when they saw me at their age.

As expected, the addition of music was a great idea. I played music while the students settled in. Then I picked classic French songs and extracts of contemporary songs from singers and bands and played them during the presentation. Even the teacher could not sit still when she heard some French rap.

Since the main characters of my novel eat at different cafés, I added a few slides about typical fare that Parisians and French eat at their favorite cafés.

 

And I wore my special T-shirt 🙂

The kids loved my last slides about the Chandeleur. Eating crêpes on February 2 is yummier than waiting for a groundhog to see or not his shadow.

So after the school visit I rushed home to prepare my batter. When my four children lived at home I doubled and sometimes even tripled the recipe and we ate crêpes for dinner. Now my husband and I have a couple for dessert and eat the leftovers warmed up for breakfast.

But when I arrived we changed our minds, so I made a regular batter.

The batter, my mom wrote on her recipe, should not be too thin and should not be too thick. That’s the reputation people from Normandy have: undecided 🙂 But her crêpes batter is the bomb.

 

First crepe is like a first draft. Necessary.

Better

My husband added a sunny-side-up egg on our crepes

We ate until there was no batter left 😦

I wish you all a fantastic weekend!

If you are a football fan, enjoy the Super Bowl. I know of a few diehard Patriots fans around me. It’s in my nature to cheer for the underdog. Although, on Super Bowl I will be found in a park or at the movies, which are pretty quiet on Super Bowl.

Just saying 🙂

 

French Friday: My Étonnant Native Country

One of my best friends, a picture book author, is happy as a clam when she talks to 100 kindergartners. I know of other authors, who adore huge assemblies.

I’m a small group person. Big parties and large venues have never been my thing. Concerts are an exception. Still, I’d rather see my favorite bands or singers in a small club than a stadium.

In the next few weeks, I will meet with more than 400 middle school and high school students. I just found out that their teachers decided to separate them in smaller groups. So I will have one presentation at the middle school and four at two different high schools on the same day. Phew, what a relief.

What worries me now is the fact that for the first time ever I will meet students who take French at school. This should comfort me since anything French is my thing, right? In fact, as I am preparing my presentation, I keep questioning its content.

Usually I split my one-hour power point presention in four parts:

* My French background shown through slides from my hometown and surroundings.

* The process of writing, from the choice of topic to the editing. I also include elements about writing in a non-native language.

* Multiple-choice questions based on my novel, which is shared in class prior to my visit.

* Q&A is always my favorite part, so I allow 10 minutes.

But as I am now selecting my slides, I am caught in a spiral of thoughts:

How do I introduce contemporary France to teenagers who learn how to speak France but have not necessary been there yet?

What should I tell them about my native land? How honest do I want to be?

Is it okay to show its flaws? Will it discourage young people to visit?

In my Middle Grade novel Chronicles From Château Moines I introduced the early immigration issues that took place in the France of my childhood in the 1970s. Almost fifty years later, France is still dealing with immigration issues.

Do I want to show the gathering of migrants at Porte de la Chapelle, still happening after the regular dismantling of the camps and despite the opening of welcome centers, too small to accomodate everyone?

But there is also genuine concern for the migrants’ situation. French people want to exemplify the motto Liberté Égalité Fraternité.

So what about Calais?

Now shouldn’t I stay with a classic vision of France, particularly of Paris, with its lovely cafés and sophisticated boutiques? Is cliché versus authentic okay?

After all, there are still lovely cafés and sophisticated boutiques in Paris. They sit blocks away from the gathered migrants and within an hour from the projects in the suburbs.

In my Young Adult thriller Trapped in Paris, the two protagonists find themselves in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, less than ten miles away and yet another world.

What about music? Music plays a huge role in any teen’s life.

Once in a while, when I’m in a store or a café in the U.S. I hear French music. Almost always it’s soft French music. Often Edith Piaf singing La Vie en Rose or even Charles Trenet and La Mer. But Carla Bruni is now a favorite, as well as Serge Gainsbourg and Zaz.

It is said that when French-style music is played in a store, the atmosphere shifts from ordinary to sophisticated. In fact, some storeowners are known to play French music or French music-style when they have French items, such as wine or cheese, to sell. Shoppers don’t even notice but are still influenced.

Many contemporary French singers such as Julien Doré still exemply the unique French poetic musical style.

But what about hip-hop bands or rappers who use music as a media to address racism, poverty, immigration, unemployment, topics of concern for many French people?

Now I scroll down my own playlist and wonder about the older Manu Chao. The singer started his musical career a few years before I left France but really took off in the mid 1990s. With his mix of reggae, ska, with clear Latino roots he changed the traditional French musical scene.

Now what about the diverse French rap scene, a mix of rap de rue or street rap, conscious rap, popular rap, and other sub genres in between?

Should I add the hip-hop band Nèg Marrons? After all they wrote one of my favorite songs about their parents.

As I prepare my presentation and debate pros versus cons the complexity of my native land is palpable.

So for now only one thing is sure: the choice of the T-shirt I will wear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Writer’s Den

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For the second year in a row I was able to attend the Amelia Island Book Festival, set on the gorgeous Northern Florida Coast.

This festival always gathers famous authors.

I really got the chair de poule when the one and only Goosebumps’ creator R.L. Stine stepped behind his table to sign his books, only a few feet away from mine.

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I spoke with the French chef and TV personality Jacques Pépin. En français, of course.

Although I missed him, David Baldacci was there too.

But it’s even better to meet author friends.

 

photo-50My friend Jennifer Swanson writes awsome non fiction books for children about science.

On Friday, I was part of the Authors in School program and visited a local middle school, half an hour inland. There, I met ninety students who had read my novel Chronicles From Château Moines. Their school librarian had handpicked my book among many others. We had exchanged a few emails prior to my visit, but nothing beats the pleasure to meet in person someone who trusts you with her students.

I’ve already shared on this blog what I think of libraries and librarians. I basically put them on a pedestal. Public libraries have saved me at several moments of my life.

When I was a shy kid who took comfort in books but had no money to buy them new.

When I was a student, new to Paris and still on a tight budget.

When I was a newcomer to the USA and understood that I had to become as fluent as possible in all things American if I wanted to call this vast country my home one day.

The countless hours I’ve spent inside libraries, whether in France or the United States, have offered me so much more than just books.

So on Friday, I was very happy when I found out that I would meet the students inside their school library.

The librarian had given me carte blanche for my presentation, but she had told me that it would be wonderful to emphasize the historical facts that are the backdrop of my novel.

I also knew that most of the students had probably not traveled abroad. After all, I had also lived a rural childhood and only went to London (my first ever trip abroad) when I was at the university, even though I lived right across the Chanel.

So I figured that telling these boys and girls a little bit about France would interest them. But you know what is said about show, don’t tell?

So I added several photos from my native Normandy to my presentation. I’m lucky because Normandy is one of the most renowned French regions in the US. Sadly, it is mostly due to WWII and D Day.

flersMy hometown.

domfrontDomfront, Normandy

caenCaen, Normandy where I did my undergrad studies

plagenormandieD Day landing beaches

But I was visiting twelve and thirteen-year-old students, so this war is a very old war that cannot resonate much with them.

So I told them about my dad chewing his first piece of gum and my mom eating chocolate for the first time in years, when they were barely older than them.

Based on my last school visit and the success of the French song I played, I also added more music to this presention. These kids love French music, even though they don’t understand the lyrics.

I admitted that I couldn’t understand English lyrics either when I arrived in California. They asked me how long it took me to be fluent. In general, specified one.

That’s a hard question. You don’t want to discourage anyone, right? But you cannot lie either. So I made a distinction between oral comprehension and reading skills, between casual conversation and writing skills. Also that is was easier to learn a foreign language when you were a child.

After a Trivia Game based on the novel, we ended with a Q&A moment.

A girl shared that she was like Sylvie in my book: she also wrote songs in a notebook.

A boy told me that he wanted to play professional basketball like Jake.

Another one played the guitar like Scott.

It’s a good feeling when a reader relates to one fictional character.

That’s why I loved reading so much when I was a kid. Finding someone who was a little bit like me or a lot like me made me understand that I was not alone and that much different from anyone else.

Another girl asked me to say something in French. That’s a common question. Even adults sometimes ask me to speak French. So I returned the question and asked them what they wanted me to say.

“Tell us in French that you will sign our books at the end.”

So I did tell them under oohhs and aahhs.

Which always surprises me because French is my native language and I have no idea why everyone thinks it’s beautiful.

I told them that I’d love to speak American English like them and they looked at me like it was the weirdest dream to have.

They also wanted to know if their first names had a French equivalent.

I made Violet (Violette), Luke (Luc), and Alexander (Alexandre) happy and I felt bad to break the news to Tray, Shellby and Devon. But I reassured them: many French kids now have American first names too.

The boys and girls who had a name with a French equivalent asked me to sign their copy of my book in French. Aw…

 

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And they liked the T-shirt I wore. I bought it for another school visit right before Valentine’s Day and decided that it was okay to wear it again, even a few days after Valentine’s Day.

Besides, the story is about peace, said one girl. Right.

So, in case we doubt that our diverse backgrounds and personal stories cannot open discussions and create links between us, here is the truth:

Kids and teens in this early part of the 21st century are curious, smart, open minded, generous and non judgmental.

The future is theirs and it is in good hands when the heart is at the right place.

I trust them. All of them.

From one coast to another and everywhere in between.

And of course, beyond our frontiers.

 

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From Maine to You

 

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Over the last months, many countries, including my native France, have been the target of particularly cruel violence. Whether the acts of radicalized Muslims blinded by the agenda of ISIS/Daech or unstable men, this violence triggers legitimate fear and more hatred. I’ve stopped reading about them, focusing instead on the simple joys of summer, especially short and hence precious here in Maine.

Before summer officially started, I was finished with the revisions I intended to complete on my new Young Adult novel. I have now started the long process of submission. Please, please, can you keep your fingers or whatever you want, crossed for me?

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While waiting for feedback, I’ve started a new story while another simmers at the edge of my mind. For the longest time, I rarely shared that I had too many stories on the stove. I thought it was the proof of an unfocused mind. Until I read that most writers had always several manuscripts on the back burner, too. Many of them renowned authors. But. They also know when to bring one of their simmering stews to the front burner. I’m undecided. Both of my new work-in-progress manuscripts are Middle Grade stories. Both are dealing with contemporary issues linked to economical and social inequality. While I’m covering pages with words and scenes, watching the lake already tipping into August, I leave you with a few photos from my July in Maine.

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Bear with me when I don’t comment on your blogs. I still think of you and wish you well. It’s just that my mind is churning ideas and trying to sort them.

Wherever you are, fill your days to the brim with the precious days of summer.

 

P.S. In my new YA novel tentatively called All the Mountains We Can Climb, there is food. A café. And three restaurants. And many meals around (or not) tables.

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This is our front lake family table in Maine. The table is my son’s age. We bought it so it could fit four children and their parents. I found a tablecloth with fish and I got the small water can at a school event. I love this table. As I love any table where so much happens besides eating.

Trapped in Paris and a Little Bit More…

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One of the bonuses when writers attend conferences and book events is to meet other writers. There is a genuine and quick sense of recognition among people who write for children. And of course there is always the one who goes the extra mile.

Like Christina Benjamin. When our paths crossed at a book festival this winter, I was impressed by the quality of her books and her gorgeous promotional material. We spoke about our books and projects and she spontaneously offered to showcase my YA novel Trapped in Paris on Pages Burners, one of her websites.

You can read her review here and listen to the short interview and watch the video clip here.

My daughter #3 was on her spring break when I asked her to play the interviewer role. She immediatley agreed. My youngest daughter is the one who encouraged me to write when I started jotting down words and sentences in my notebook and didn’t believe that I would ever write in English. As any typical first-generation born-American child she is often my teacher. She calls me Mom and Maman. Our conversations are always a blend of the two languages that cement our home. Here, though, we kept it in English. With a little bit of French touch. Of course.

I want to thank Christina and my daughter for their support and kindness.

And You, for following my writing adventures and other things of my life on this blog.

 

My Essay on the Children’s Writer’s Guild

 

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I’m pleased that the Children’s Writer’s Guild published my essay Written Words Don’t Have an Accent this week.

This essay about language is right in sync with my current A to Z series about these little identical French and American words that have a different meaning, whether they are used in France or in the USA.

I’m also humbled to find myself on the Children’s Writers Guild in the company of authors and illustrators who bring their talent and passion to children’s literature.

Whether you’re a parent, a grandparent, or have children in your life I encourage you to visit their website and particularly their section Review, filled with great feedback about Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult novels.

 

See you tomorrow for the letter G on my series All These Little French and American Words…

 

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What if You Went to a Book Festival?

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Most writers I know would rather stay home or in the corner of their favorite library or café to write. But once in a while we all need to get our introvert selves out there. Me included.

Last Saturday, I joined more than one hundred authors who participated to the annual Amelia Island Book Festival in Fernandina Beach, Florida.

It was my first time and I was filled with anxiety. What if I got lost on my way to an unknown place? What if I didn’t find a parking spot close enough to the venue? What if I had to make several trips to unload my books and my material? What if nobody stopped by my booth? What if I spent the next eight hours alone?

“What if” is a good question to unstuck our brains and unleash our imaginations but totally worthless on the road.

This is what really happened on Saturday.

I almost got lost. There was unexpected fog and roadwork. But I made it way ahead of time to the Fernandina Beach Middle School where high school students unloaded my trunk and carried my books, my material, and even my lunch to the table I would share with another children’s book author. Meanwhile I parked under an oak tree laced with Spanish moss.

Inside the school I met volunteers who welcomed me with warm smiles and led me to the multipurpose room, already buzzing with activity. Authors were unpacking and organizing their table. Most had great promotional displays. Mine were modest in comparison, and yet everyone congratulated everyone’s books. My right and left side neighbors were super friendly and shared their chocolate and mint candies with me.

Starting around ten o’clock, visitors, many with kids of all ages, swarmed the place. Most stopped by my table and many bought my books. I spoke with all of them and was so grateful for their interest, curiosity, and warmth.

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We live in a world that focuses too much on what goes wrong. Many things go wrong and we need to address them. But many things go right, too. Lots of people are hungry for stories, for them, for their children, their grandchildren, and any child in their lives and beyond their lives. Stories remain a universal human link that ties all of us.

Saturday was the proof (if I ever needed one) that books are alive and well alive.

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An awesome addition to this kind of event is also the chance to meet other writers. Although we love the safety of our caves, we also know that we can be ourselves with people who share the same passion for stories and won’t judge our awkwardness.

The camaraderie between authors who write for children and teens is a well-known fact. The generosity when it comes to sharing our struggles, successes, and dreams is genuine.

 

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At some point, I felt a little lightheaded. No wonder: It was one o’clock and I ate breakfast around six. I took a lunch break (Volunteers could man authors’ tables during breaks. How cool is that?)

I stepped outside, blinded by the light. I sat on a stone bench near a grouping of trees. My shoulders relaxed under the warmth of the sun. It was a crisp day for Floridians, I heard. Perfect for me. Despite the beautiful day, I ate my sandwich faster than I had planned.

What if I missed any of the fun?

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Take your iPad to Paris and Normandy For Free Until Labor Day

To introduce my Young Adult and Middle Grade novels to the readers who cannot travel without their iPad, I’m offering Trapped in Paris and Chronicles From Château Moines for Free on iBooks until Labor Day.

Enjoy! Spread the news! Leave reviews!

Happy Reading to All of You From my Favorite Summer Writing Spot in Maine!

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Publishers Weekly

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I am pleased to share with you what Publishers Weekly wrote about my Middle Grade novel Chronicles From Château Moines.

Through my blog posts, my stories, and novels I share snippets of my life, a delicate balance between two languages and two cultures, and my affection for the USA and France, my two homes on earth.

My writing illustrates my journey as a non-native speaker.

I am a work-in-progress and practice is what I get to make it better.

Practice and readers’ support, and once a while a professional review that sustains my goal.

Thank you for reading me.

 

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