Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Poet's Dream

My sister is a poet. She's been a poet since the age of six. Or eight. Almost her whole life. And now, she has published a book of her poetry. The poems, she says, reveal the emotional journey of her life. The poems she has written over the course of a lifetime. I don't think the poem she wrote when she was six, or eight, are in the book, but poems she wrote in high school and college are included. The book is titled "Dream of the Antique Dealer's Daughter" after the second poem in the book. One of my favorites.

Robin always loved to read. If memory serves me, she was reading Anne of Green Gables in the 2nd grade. We called her the bookworm. She huddled on the couch with a book, even in the middle of summer. When some plaster fell from the living room ceiling, Robin didn't move from her spot on the couch. My mother found her reading, oblivious to what was happening. I was her opposite. Climbing trees, playing pick-up baseball games, making forts in the woods, for I was the tomboy, not a reader. But I was in awe of her. I remember finding her scribbles on pieces of paper around the house. I knew they were hers and sometimes wondered if she left them on purpose, so anyone could find them and read what she was going through at any given moment.

Robin's poems are haunting and lovely, full of emotional images that deserve to be read over and over. I am still in awe of my sister. How she writes with such passion and voice and raw intensity. How she puts personal snippets of her life in these small boxes called poetry. They are beautiful.

My brother's wife, Liz Smith, designed the cover of the book. After reading the poems several times, she wrote down words that evoked themes. Liz then used these words/themes to create personal pieces of the collage that became the cover art. There is a map of Moldova, a mannequin, books, shells and sand, even a painting of my father's. It's the minutia of the poet's dream. It's an amazing work of art, and a labor of love.

An excerpt from the poem on which the book is titled:

She floats above me:  
the mannequin in my parent's shop.
I named her Cordelia
after a storybook character.
The color of coral, her face held
the secret of my growing self.

Robin Smith-Johnson, my sister, has published a book of poetry. My dad, the antique dealer, is surely smiling down from his place in paradise, so proud of his daughter for pursuing her dream.

"Dream of the Antique Dealer's Daughter" by Robin Smith-Johnson, published by Word Poetry, is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Simply Similes

Students shine as bright as the stars in the night sky. Once again, I want to share the similes my students have written. We read Tending to Grace by my good friend, Kim Fusco, to begin the year. It's my way of introducing the students to beautiful language, lovely descriptions, and sweet similes. Kim's first page shows the sad life of her protagonist, Cornelia, with these words:

I want to jump out of the car as it rushes along and wrap myself in a row of
                 sheets hanging so low their feet tap the grass. I want to hide because my life, if it were 
        a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket 
                     dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind 
at its heel. 

Here is a sample of my students' similes and descriptive writing:

I'm as fragile as ice hitting the ground.
I'm feeling as deadly as a war.
I'm as scared as deer getting hit by a car.
I'm as excited as a mad scientist who made a new potion.
I was as sad as a rock in the pouring rain.
I was as scared as a branch held by a thread. 
I'm like a rock people kick down the street.
I'm like ice that will never melt.
I'm like the wind that has a harsh blow.
My feet are like soft jello.
I just stay there like a rag doll.
I'm as graceful as a prancing antelope.
I was so excited that I felt like I was about to explode all my madness. 

The morning we wrote these, describing how we might feel as Cornelia, the students typed them on my laptop at the front of the room. They were projected on the board with an Elmo so everyone could see. The students lined up, eager to type. It was an exciting moment in our classroom. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Filling in the Holes...

I'm in the middle of my 2nd draft of Fairy Girl, a middle grade novel, and finding lots of holes. While walking with my friend, Kim Fusco, we talk about writing. What's working, what we're struggling with, etc. She likens revising to filling in the holes. I like that. I sometimes feel like I'm filling in huge potholes or shoveling dirt into a crater. But she confirmed to me how I was feeling. After writing the first draft and working on the next, discovering holes in the story is common. What happened to that story line? Did the mom disappear? Where is Wilbur, the cat? Why did I include that scene?

Walking and talking has become part of my writing process. I often walk with my dog, Hannah. If I'm having trouble with a plot line or unclear about a character, almost always, the answer comes while I'm taking in the fresh air and the scenic views around me. There's something therapeutic about walking. Talking works just as well. I talk to my sisters or my writer friends. My mom, too. They help me by asking questions. What if Gracie gets caught riding her bike? What is Hen's role in the story? Where did she go?

So, while you're working on revising, remember it's about making discoveries and filling in the holes.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Teachers go to Birmingham - 2013

I spent five incredible days in Alabama, with 43 other teachers as part of the Teaching American History (TAH) program, a federally funded grant program teamed up with the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. One of the goals of this project is to give teachers more content knowledge and a greater understanding of traditional American history and to help bring this content to life in the classroom. In my estimation, this program has achieved that and more.

We traveled along the Freedom Trail through Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and Tuskegee. We visited museums, Civil Rights Institutes, churches, one-room school houses, and Tuskegee University. It was a fascinating and poignant look at the Civil Rights movement in the early 60's. The people we met told us stories that made us cry and stories that made us sit up and take notice. Many of them were teens at the time of the movement and some were "foot soldiers." These were people and children who marched for civil rights and were often incarcerated just for marching peacefully in a public place. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, would be arrested for marching. The children could not reveal their names for if they did, their parents would lose their jobs. They would be held in barns or large fields until placed in jail cells, and often would be held for days, even weeks. They would be wearing the same clothes and given little food. But they weren't afraid. They had faith and that's what kept them going.

It was a spiritual movement and they often sang spirituals while waiting to be freed or working together. They were taught to be nonviolent at an early age. They knew that if they fought back, it would become an "all-out war," and this was a peaceful movement. They met in churches. Monday Meetings, they called them, where they organized themselves and were given lessons on how to be nonviolent.

We visited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Montgomery where he was pastor beginning at the age of 24, and his parsonage where two of his children were born. We went to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls were killed during a bombing. We toured Tuskegee Institute and Booker T. Washington's home. Two of the students gave us a tour of the home and told us how the first students made the bricks that were used to build the institute. "Founded in a one room shanty, near Butler Chapel AME Zion Church, thirty adults represented the first class - Dr. Booker T. Washington the first teacher. The founding date was July 4, 1881, authorized by House Bill 165."

In Selma, we walked two-by-two over the Edmund Pettus Bridge where in 1965 armed policeman attacked peaceful civil rights marchers who were marching for the right to vote. Bloody Sunday, as it is now called. This horrific event helped to bring about change and The Voting Rights Act of 1965, making discriminatory voting practices illegal.

As teachers of history, it is now our mission to bring this piece of our country's history back to our students, without "watering down" what really happened. Everyone should take the Freedom Walk and discover what the Civil Rights Movement was truly all about. And how it continues today...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My New Hero

Yesterday was Malala Yousafzai's 16th birthday. How sweet it was! Malala is the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban because of her desire and campaign for girls' right to an education. She is a survivor, a visionary, a fighter, a dreamer, a courageous, and remarkable 16-year-old. She spoke in front of the United Nations on her birthday about the need for free, compulsory education for all children around the world. "I speak not for myself but for those without voice ... those who have fought for their rights -- their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated."

I hope that world leaders will listen to her plea. I hope that they will stand up to the injustice of women and children, and their right to be educated and to be treated the same as men and boys. Malala is my new hero!


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Heart Tugs

While reading some of the stories my third graders are writing, I realized something was missing. I couldn't put my finger on what it was until I was reading a book during read-a-loud. That moment when you feel a little choked up and it's hard to get the words out, which I do from time to time and was doing that day. Usually when this happens, my students sit up and pay attention because Ms. Murphy is feeling something. I will read the passage over and we talk about how lovely the language is and how it makes us feel. This particular day, I was reading Beholding Bee by my good friend and author, Kimberly Newton Fusco."Listen again," I said to my students. "Listen to how the author is describing how Bee is feeling right now because of the diamond on her face." That's a heart tug. Music to the heart.

Friday, April 19, 2013


With the events of the last few days, I just want to say...peace. In the words of John Lennon "Imagine all the people living life in peace." Can we close our eyes and imagine what the world would be like if there was peace in abundance? Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and imagine.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Next Big Thing

Thanks to my lovely writer friend, Kimberly Newton Fusco, for inviting me to participate in this online literary blog, My Next Big Thing. I am honored to be a part of it. You can visit Kim's blog at, and read about her books, including her latest, BEHOLDING BEE.

This blog is based on questions about my work-in-progress and gives readers a peek into my work and life as a writer. National and international writers have been involved with this blog series, which makes it quite exciting. I am happy to announce that I'll be tagging three other writers at the end of this blog post.

My Next Big Thing is a novel about thirteen-year-old Melody who loves to sing almost as much as she adores her little brother, Max. But when she loses the two things that matter most, how will Melody ever find it in her heart to sing again? With the help of her zany lunchroom friend, Zach, and the home-schooled boy next door, Wing, Melody searches for her voice without her Max. A story of hope and finding your way in a world torn upside down by sadness, MELODY'S SONG is the story of one girl finding inspiration in the transforming power of music.

What is the working title of your book? MELODY'S SONG

Where did the idea come from for the book? I knew I wanted to write a story about loss and how a family deals with it and finds a way to live again. This story is dear to my heart and was a hard one to write. I have dealt with loss of my own and wanted a way to express my experience in a way that is hopeful and life affirming. I hope I was able to do that in MELODY'S SONG.

What genre does your book fall under? Middle grade novel for young people 8-12.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I certainly haven't thought about this, but if I had to choose I guess I would choose Abigail Breslin to play Melody. She is a brilliant young actress.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? When a young girl feels responsible for the loss of her beloved brother, she learns to forgive herself and find her voice.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? That's an interesting question. My story has gone through many, many changes, including a draft in verse. It's been a long, hard process and I'm hopeful that it is now in a draft that is publishable, realizing, of course, that I will be revising it even more, if and when I find someone who wants it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? Well, I must admit, when I read SEE YOU AT HARRY'S by Jo Knowles, my first thought was, Oh no! My story is similar in that the main characters lose a brother but it really ends there. Her book is so well written and the family so quirky, that I really hate to compare them. But it's the only one I can think of off the top of my head.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? Well, I think I already answered why I wrote this story, but to answer who inspired me, I'd have to say my parents. My parents are writers and readers and have always encouraged me, and my siblings, to do what makes us happy and to be creative. I will always be grateful to them for surrounding me with beauty, books, and music.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest? A sweet romance blooms in the story after Melody meets Wing, the home-schooled boy, who plays the guitar and makes her feel special. She also has a good friend in Zach, who makes her laugh and builds her confidence. This is a story of finding hope in the face of adversity. It's a story that shows no matter what you're going through, you can find someone to confide in and find solace with. It's a story of a family who, after being torn apart, finds a way to come together and make a new start.

When and how will it be published? That is a good question. I am tweaking the synopsis and reworking the first few pages and will be sending it for critique at the SCBWI Whispering Pines Retreat in RI, coming up in March. I am currently looking for an agent.

It is with pleasure that I tag and introduce three fellow writers. The first is my sister, Robin Smith-Johnson, who has been a poet since she was six. Next, is my good friend and children's writer, Mary Pierce. And last, but not least, is Liz Dubois, another good friend who is a children's author and illustrator, and product designer. 

As a long-time resident of Cape Cod, Robin Smith-Johnson has been involved with several local poetry groups including the Lead Pencil Poets (Falmouth) and the Guyer Barn Poets (Dennis). Her poems have been published in “CapeWomen,” “Sandscript.” “The Larcom Review,” and “Yankee.”  Her book, Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter, is forthcoming from Word Press, an imprint of Word Tech Communications, LLC. She lives with her family in Mashpee, MA.

Mary Pierce works full time at reading, writing, and playin around with the images on her camera and in her head.  She has published short stories and essays.  Her passion is children's literature.  She is currently working on revising a fantasy novel for middle graders.  You can find her blogging about whatever is on her mind at

Liz Goulet Dubois is an author and illustrator of books for young children, and also a prolific product designer. She graduated with an illustration degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has worked steadily in the arts since then. Her favorite books are ones designed for the very young, including picture books and novelty formats with pop-ups, flaps and touchable areas that are well integrated into the story. Her first preschool book, What Kind of Rabbit Are You? was published by Simon and Schuster. Another interactive book, What Does a Seed Need? was published by Penguin Putnam. She has illustrated two books in Scholastic's My First Biography series. Other clients include Highlights Magazine, Houghton Mifflin, and Golden Books. She lives in Scituate, RI with her husband and three girls. Hobbies include designing, directing and writing for theater, co-leading a troop of Girl Scouts, gardening and creating handmade dolls and crafts. Visit her website at