Six ‘Scary’ Back-to-School Reads

Heading back to school is an amazing time of year when students reunite with old friends, meet new teachers and dive into the joys of learning. Right? Of course, but it can also be scary! From those first day jitters to aliens posing as educators. That’s why I decided to put together this list of back-to-school reads that might just scare your pants off. You’ll find a little bit of everything: haunted castles, fairytale villains, teachers who turn students into apples. Anyone who says that school is boring clearly hasn’t walked the halls of Splendid Academy or faced the wrath of the terrifying Miss Trunchbull.

Screen Shot 2019-08-09 at 7.10.41 PMScreen Shot 2019-08-09 at 7.33.30 PMScreen Shot 2019-08-09 at 7.37.06 PMScreen Shot 2019-08-09 at 7.14.22 PMScreen Shot 2019-08-09 at 7.17.45 PMScreen Shot 2019-08-09 at 7.55.37 PM

IMG_4560KIM VENTRELLA is the author of the middle grade novels HELLO, FUTURE ME (2020), BONE HOLLOW (2019) and SKELETON TREE (2017), all with Scholastic Press. She is a contributor to the upcoming NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK anthology (2020, HarperCollins). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Find out more at or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

Another “E” to Remember for Students

School begins soon, and I’ve recently notice the “ABC’s of Going Back to School” printed in some newspapers. Parents always read the list of items a child needs, although not all items listed are school supplies. While reading last week’s list, I noticed an “E” missing. That “E” should have been for eyes–more importantly, eye exams.

We know school supplies are important. By the time a family has purchased clothing, shoes, uniforms, an school supplies, money is definitely getting tight. However, it’s important to include an eye screening, too, before going back to school.

Many parents don’t schedule regular eye appointments for their children. The best exam is a developmental screening that is about an hour long. It has more components to it than just reading an eye chart, and it’s definitely important for the younger child.

As a former teacher, I’ve seen many students with eye issues. If parents read with their child, they may discover some issues, too. In time, parents realize that scheduling an exam really would be beneficial to their child.

While reading with their child, parents might look for the following possible clues of possible eye issues:

Notice if a child skips words when reading.

Watch to see if he has to keep his place with his finger.

Check to see if he is focusing on more than two lines and tryng to read both at the same time.

Watch to see if he’s squinting.

See if he rubs his eyes while reading.

Notice if he complains of a headache after reading.

Check to see if he’s pulling the book closer to him to see the words.

Watch to see if he’s holding the book out as far as he can to read.

When parents discover a child needs an eye exam, hopefully, it’s during the summer or at the beginning of the school year. It would be so much better to discover a visual problem as early as possible; and if it’s in the summer, the child would be able to adjust to his glasses before school starts. Any “beginning of the year” testing would be more accurate, and a child would be happier just able to see more around him.

If it’s discovered that an eye exam is needed after school begins, how much time has lapsed before the discovery? Think of all those wasted days when the child needed to be learning and could have used the glasses to help him with his eye issues.

Glasses can be expensive. However, what is the cost to a child who can’t see as well as his classmates? I think the big “E” for an eye appointment is important in a child’s life. It definitely needs to be on the “ABC’s of Going Back to School” list.

An interview with author Dr. Lisa Marotta


Lisa, welcome to Read Local OK.

First of all, congratulations on your debut picture book, Suki and Sam, AND for winning first place at Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. in the Juvenile Book Category. You must be very happy.

I am incredibly happy that Suki and Sam won an award this year at OWFI. Writing a children’s book has been an interest of mine since I began reading them as a child! The story idea for Suki and Sam has been my longtime companion while I’ve learned about the craft of writing, submitting a manuscript, and publishing. Now the finalized version of Suki and Sam is helping me continue to learn about how to get the book into the hands of readers. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey?

The idea for Suki and Sam gave me the courage to “step out” as a writer. I was an established psychologist working with children and kept my writing life very separate from all but my family members. Wanting to write the best version of this book about grief for children encouraged me to begin to attend writer’s conferences, which taught me very quickly how much I needed to grow as a writer. Apparently, a great idea is not enough! How to convey the idea took me a great deal of time.

I am a social person, and writing is done in isolation. It was surprising and helpful to me that the conferences not only gave me access to essential information, they also connected me to a community of creative people. I joined a critique group early in my journey, The Inklings, and these kind writers gave me the feedback my story needed to evolve into the full-fledged book that just won an award. I also met my publisher, Marla Jones of Doodle and Peck, at a conference. 

Where did you get the idea for Suki and Sam?

It is difficult but rewarding work as a psychologist to work with grieving families.  I have always been drawn to the transformation of a grieving person as they come to accept their loss and develop a new relationship with their deceased loved one. 

The idea for Suki and Sam came while I was folding laundry and watching television when my baby was napping. On the TV there was an artist who was demonstrating his art live in the studio. George Rodrique was an artist who created the blue dog series, a group of paintings that had a blue dog as the central theme. When Rodrique was interviewed, he shared that the inspiration for the image of the blue dog was his childhood dog. I thought that this would be an interesting way to show the transformation of grief in how he painted his dog back into his life, one canvas at a time. 

Through my writing journey, I learned how to convey the heart of the story of how grief impacts children and inspire the hope I see through my clinical work. The napping baby is now a married woman, it took a while for the inspiration to become a book—but it was time well spent. 

Suki and Sam is a poignant read. What has been the response from readers?

Readers sometimes cry when they read the book or tell me that they want to read it later so they can cry privately. It is written and illustrated with the intention of evoking the emotion of grief in the reader. I’ve had readers tell me that they have given Suki and Sam as a gift to a child or adult who is mourning the loss of a pet or a family member. I am grateful that the book finding its way to help people where they are in their life. 

Do you use Suki and Sam in your practice?

In the earliest versions of Suki and Sam, I would tell the story to children who were grieving, and it was helpful. Currently, there are school counselors and private practice therapists who are using the book in their work with grieving children. I have received feedback that it has been therapeutic, which is very rewarding. 

Honestly, it is a little awkward to pull the book from my shelf and read it with a child, since I am the author. I don’t want a child to feel pressured to tell me that they like it because I wrote it, I want them to focus on the story and how it resonates with their experience. Over time I expect I will find a smooth way to reintegrate the book into my practice, but for now, I have it in my waiting room along with many other Oklahoma authored children’s books. 

Your illustrator, Dorothy Shaw, did a wonderful job on the artwork. Did you collaborate with her? How much input did you have?

The inspiration of a grieving artist painting his emotions was a strong part of the story. I IMG_3445chose to put “notes to the illustrator” throughout my manuscript to give some idea of the pictures I had in my head without writing them into the words. I knew all along that someone else would have creative license to do the illustrations. All illustrators have a choice about whether to follow the notes or not, as they are creating from their own imagination. Some of the notes were followed, others were improved and expanded from my original thoughts. I am thrilled with the result, which felt very collaborative. I am so grateful that Dorothy Shaw made the story come to life. She is delightful to work with and I consider Suki and Sam our book.

Do you belong to any writing groups or organizations? If so, how have they helped you?

I believe I thrive in a creative community. I belong to Oklahoma Writers Federated Inc. (OWFI), which is for all genres of writing, and the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). OWFI has a yearly conference, which I have attended since 2000! I recently made some changes to my work schedule so that I can get more involved in SCBWI. They have informative monthly meetings, regular retreats,

and great webinars. My critique group, The Inklings, participates in some online and face to face meetings monthly, and we have two retreats a year. The writing community has been welcoming, inspiring, and also helps me with accountability. I work best with a balance of alone time to write and connection and deadlines to move me forward from that first draft. 

What’s next for you? Do you have other things in the works?

I am eager to begin school visits for Suki and Sam with illustrator Dorothy Shaw. Sharing the story and sparking a conversation about grief has always been the goal of writing the book. 

My writing career plan is to write feeling-centric books that evoke emotion and show ways to express and manage the feeling for children. My day job gives me an advantage in understanding the emotional life of children and the challenges of modern-day life for families. I recently starting writing a story about anxiety. I’m excited to begin the journey again!


Dr. Lisa Marotta is a clinical psychologist and writer. She has a thriving private practice and writes healing stories for children and their families. A sought-after speaker, Dr. Marotta regularly shares mental health information at schools, churches, and other organizations in the Oklahoma City area. Her parenting advice has been featured in MetroFamily Magazine, and her essays and poems have won numerous awards. Dr. Marotta hopes her debut book, Suki and Sam, will help children navigate the complex feelings of grief. Follow her website,, where she blogs about positivity, creativity, and happiness.

Making Connections: Books in Pairs

Sometimes reading one book will help you understand another.  In fifth-grade reading classes, I paired Anna Myers The Keeping Room with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793.   The two books, one set during the Revolution and one in the first years of the new nation, showed students what life was like for different classes of people during this time.  The struggle didn’t end when the war ended, it just changed.

I was always amazed at the questions the books generated, legitimate questions:

How did they wash their hair?

If there were no grocery stores, what did they eat?

Did they have money?

I read Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead aloud to my seniors before we read any of Shakespeare’s plays.  The Newbery-winning Crispin helped students understand Shakespeare’s time and the way income inequality, religion, and the power structure made most of your choices for you.

Before we read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” I read Patricia Reilly Giff’s Nory Ryan’s Song aloud. I didn’t have to explain Swift’s satire; humanizing the Irish potato famine provided the connection they needed.

Here are four recent books with surprising connections. All four books contain a touch of supernatural.  The latter two are great examples of magical realism. They all have other things in common, as well, including exquisite storytelling.

middle ages

The first pair is set in the Middle Ages.  The Inquisitor’s Tale or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz is a literary masterpiece. The story is relentless, the quotable passages bountiful, and Hatem Aly’s illustrations illuminating, pun intended.  The drawings in the margins of the pages mimic the illuminated manuscripts of the era.

The Middle Ages were a time of great division.  People were taught to fear anyone who was different, and even the king feared the peasant girl, the Jewish boy, and the young monk with the dark skin.

Pair this with The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. What the two books have in common are unlikely heroes, miracles, the role of religion in everyday life,  the fear of differences, and quests.  It’s the quests that will draw readers in.

Fast forward to a modern setting.  Like the two books from the Middle Ages, Kim Ventrella’s Skeleton Tree and Kheryn Callender’s Hurricane Child have magic and mystery.  To whom do those twitching fingers belong?  Who is that dark woman at the bottom of the ocean?

magical realism

The real thread that ties the books together are the main characters, kids who must accept who they are and what life throws at them while dealing with issues that even adults find difficult.  There are also two missing parents.  Ventrella’s Stanly needs his father to come home. Callender’s Caroline must find her mother.

These are my recommendations for your summer reading.  Are there books that you’d pair for illumination?  Yes, another pun, but I seriously want answers.



It’s Summer Break…Do I Have to Read?



adult blur book business
Photo by on

How many times as a parent, teacher, or simply as an adult, have you heard the children in your life ask that question?

“Why do I have to read? It’s summer!”

And, often, as a parents you might be tempted to give in. Give them a break.

As a teacher, I can guarantee that it’s quite evident when school starts whether a student has read over the summer or not. The infamous “summer slide” is a real thing, and it’s not a good one.

So, here we are at the middle of June already. Summer has begun humming along, the weather is clearing up enough to go swimming, finally, and schedules are relaxed. So what if the kiddos skip reading for a day? Or two? Or three?

The reasons we all need to keep reading in the summer are many, but I’m going to share the ones that I feel are the most important.

  1. Your child worked hard through the school year to make good grades and do well on the endless number of tests they had to take. A break in the reading routine in the summer can make the beginning of the school year harder.

Reading builds muscle memory, stamina, and vocabulary. It builds the background           knowledge necessary to understand subject content, simply by exposing them to                 things they wouldn’t experience in their everyday life. Reading can take them to                 other places. They learn about other cities, countries, cultures, and ways of life                   simply by reading a story.

But it’s even more than that. Students who read are more empathetic to others.                    They develop an inherent understanding and empathy for others, and begin to                    internalize that people might be going through things they would never know                      about. It also shows them that they aren’t the only ones to go through hard times,                and can even give them solutions to a problem they might encounter.

2.     Children who read widely have an increased vocabulary, and greater understanding         of the world around them.

3.    Reading encourages children to dream big

4.    It’s a snowball effect. Reading builds vocabulary, vocabulary builds understanding            and comprehension, comprehension builds confidence. Confidence gives them the            courage to be a success in no matter what they do.

So, make summer reading an event and a part of each day. Visit the library. Local libraries have summer reading programs that give kiddos incentives to devour those books.

Find a yard sale with books for very little. Go to bookstores.

Kids today are super interested in You Tube, and if you do a quick search, there are countless book trailers in their content that can grab their attention.

And, last but not least, read WITH your kids. Choose books that are a bit above their level, and read them together. It’s a bonding experience that can’t be matched with any other activity in quite the same way.

kids sitting on green grass field
Photo by Victoria Borodinova on

SPARKY & SPIKE author, Barbara Lowell

My guess is you already know the stars of the book Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever. You don’t think so? Well, maybe these two clues will help:  Charlie Brown and Snoopy.


This book, written by Barbara Lowell and illustrated by Dan Andreason, takes us to the childhood of Charles M. Schulz and introduces us to one very special dog.

This is what Kirkus had to say about the book:

“A fetching story, perfect for budding artists and lovers of the funnies.”

And, in a starred review, Booklist called it:

“Doggone fun.”

Nice, huh?

I’m so happy to welcome Barbara to Read Local OK!

Barbara, congratulations on Sparky & Spike being named a Junior Library Guild Selection. What an honor! How you did you come up with the idea for this book?

Thank you, Tammi! I’ve always loved the comic strip Peanuts. I thought that a biography of Charles Schulz would make a fun picture book. I was surprised and happy that no one had written one before.

I first wrote a manuscript about Charles that began when he was about six years old and ended on the day Peanuts first appeared in print. Charles was an adult for a good part of the manuscript. I sent it to a freelance editor who suggested that I focus on Charles as a child and his relationship with his dog Spike. So, I did. Amy Novesky, my editor at Cameron Kids, asked me to add sections from the first manuscript, when Charles is a child, into the second. This turned out to be a great idea.

You’ve written many nonfiction books (biographies, narrative nonfiction, etc.) for kids. Please share some advice for those of us who might want to give nonfiction a try.

I grew up reading lots of nonfiction books. I think a writer needs to have a passion for nonfiction and research. It can take a long time to research a subject and having that passion makes researching fun, not a chore.

Of course, as with any project, a writer needs to read books in their genre. I primarily write picture book biographies and have read hundreds of them. It’s a good idea to take online and/or in person classes about writing nonfiction for children. The Highlights Foundation has excellent classes and does offer scholarships. And subscribe to Melissa Stewart’s blog. She is a great resource. Her blog address is:

What are three fun facts that you learned in your research that didn’t make it into the book?

Charles Schulz named several characters after his friends: Charlie Brown, Linus and Frieda.

He always thought that he would write an action-adventure comic strip not one about children. In Peanuts, Snoopy seeks adventure by leading his Foreign Legion patrol through the desert and fighting the Red Baron atop his dog house.

At first, Charles decided to name the dog in Peanuts, Sniffy. But he discovered there was already a dog with that name in a comic magazine. He chose Snoopy because his mother had once suggested that as a good name for a dog.

You have an upcoming event at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. Tell us a little about this opportunity.

Cameron Kids, an imprint of Cameron + Company is located in Petaluma, California, not far from Santa Rosa. I have been working with Cameron Kids’s publicist, Emma Kallok. She approached the museum about hosting me. During my research for the book, I visited the museum’s online website many times. I’m excited that now I will be visiting the museum in person.

Scoop time! What’s next for you?

My Mastodon, based on a true family that lived in a natural history museum with their “pet” mastodon, will be released in Spring 2020. Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank and the Hiding Place will be out in Spring 2021. It’s a biography of Miep Gies and her relationship with Anne Frank. Miep was one of the people that helped hide Anne Frank. She is responsible for saving Anne’s diary. I recently finished a picture book about a mischievous kid, and I am working on two more nonfiction picture books.

Thank you, Tammi for inviting me!

Thank YOU for stopping by. barbara


Barbara Lowell is the author of Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever; Daring Amelia; Alexander Hamilton, American Hero and more books for children. She is a member of SCBWI.


Twitter: @barbara_lowell