Helping Kids Choose Great Books By Melanie Dobson

Guest blogger: Melanie Dobson

Some of my best childhood friends were books. I learned from their pages as I embarked on treacherous journeys, traveled back in time, and helped my favorite characters solve countless mysteries (as if they needed my help…). Books helped me understand the world, and as I grew older, they slowly began to do something else—they inspired me to write adventures of my own.

Forty years later, I still love to read, and when my husband and I adopted our daughters, we wanted to pass along this love of story to them. We’ve spent many sweet hours snuggled around a book as a family, exploring the world together through its magical pages.

When my girls were in preschool, I began taking them to the library to choose books for themselves, and I was shocked to discover what was now available in the children’s and youth sections. I quickly realized that not only did I want to encourage my daughters to love a great story, I needed to help them develop tools to critique a book’s content before they embarked on their own adventures.

In my latest novel, Hidden Among the Stars, the protagonist co-owns a children’s bookstore. Callie, nicknamed Story Girl, explains how a well-written children’s book can mold and shape its readers. It can be a refuge for the mind or it can open the door to a frightening, hostile place. Through Callie’s character, I wanted to communicate my passion for great children’s literature as well as share some of what I’ve learned as a mom who wants to teach children how to choose books wisely.

Hidden Among the Stars is about children’s literature, but it’s also about the dangers of banning books, particularly during World War II. I’m not encouraging a book ban, but I’m a huge proponent of media education as we help our kids make great, healthy choices for what they consume.

As my daughters grew into avid readers, we developed a critique system of sorts that we all understand, dividing books into three different categories for our brains:

Nutrition

The healthy books we search for at the library are ones that fuel our minds, just like good food fuels our bodies. The fruits and vegetables of literature, they offer the best in nutrition for growing the intellect and imagination.

Compelling novels with depth and purpose are a great choice for children, developing their critical thinking skills as they enter a story world very different from their own. Biographies about remarkable people and the many resources explaining how things work help them learn. Poetry and parables expand their minds, challenge their thinking, and often portray God in a fresh, memorable way.

Some of these books taste like berries, others may seem more like brussels sprouts, but they are packed with powerful nutrition to inspire and educate the mind.

Brain Candy

These are the books we read for pure entertainment, the cotton candy of literature. They are super fun and meant to be enjoyed. I love reading brain candy books with my girls, laughing together as we stumble over silly words or take a journey to a faraway land, but like overloading a body on sugar, our brains start to go numb if we gorge them with entertainment.

For most of us, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few pieces of candy, but too much of a sweet thing can induce a sugar coma. Our brains begin to starve if we don’t feed them something with substance.

Poison

Some people believe that children should read whatever they’d like, as long as they are reading, but I think this is a dangerous philosophy. It’s like telling my daughters they can eat whatever they’d like, staying silent instead of warning them if something is riddled with poison. No loving parent is going to allow their son or daughter to eat salmonella-tainted meat, even if this child is craving chicken. They are going to teach them how to recognize and avoid poisoned food.

What constitutes “poison” is different for every parent, but just like salmonella can kill a young person, some of the material in children’s books can slowly kill a mind. Or it can kill the hope that flickers inside.

Books, like movies or music, are not meaningless entertainment. The stories and information inside the covers often begin to define their readers, and I, for one, want my girls to grow strong and healthy in both body and mind, learning to critique their options before deciding what’s best for their brains.


About the Story:

The year is 1938, and as Hitler’s troops sweep into Vienna, Austrian Max Dornbach promises to help his Jewish friends hide their most valuable possessions from the Nazis, smuggling them to his family’s summer estate near the picturesque village of Hallstatt. He enlists the help of Annika Knopf, his childhood friend and the caretaker’s daughter, who is eager to help the man she’s loved her entire life. But when Max also brings Luzia Weiss, a young Jewish woman, to hide at the castle, it complicates Annika’s feelings and puts their entire plan—even their very lives—in jeopardy. Especially when the Nazis come to scour the estate and find both Luzia and the treasure gone.

Eighty years later, Callie Randall is mostly content with her quiet life, running a bookstore with her sister and reaching out into the world through her blog. Then she finds a cryptic list in an old edition of Bambi that connects her to Annika’s story . . . and maybe to the long-buried story of a dear friend. As she digs into the past, Callie must risk venturing outside the safe world she’s built for a chance at answers, adventure, and maybe even new love.

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About the Author:

Writing fiction is Melanie Dobson’s excuse to explore abandoned houses, travel to unique places, and spend hours reading old books and journals. The award-winning author of almost twenty books, Melanie enjoys stitching together both time-slip and historical novels including Hidden Among the Stars, Chateau of Secrets, and Catching the Wind.

Connect with Melanie through her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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Guest Post: Five Risks Worth Taking

Guest Blogger: Courtney Walsh

By nature, I am not a risk-taker. I like things just so. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly neat or organized person, but everything has its place, even though sometimes that place is in a pile on top of another pile on top of another pile.

In my upcoming novel, Just Let Go, my heroine Quinn is, like me, someone who doesn’t easily take risks. Her life is safe and measured. Her moves are carefully planned. As you can imagine, all of that is about to change, and Quinn learns—as many of us do—that there are risks worth taking.

Some risks are worth sleepless nights and anxious hearts. Some warrant crunching numbers and pulling all-nighters. And sometimes those things that we think are the riskiest of adventures turn out to be our biggest blessings.

Here are five risks worth taking:

  1. Learning something new. It can feel incredibly daunting to try and learn a new skill once you reach a certain point. For instance, I’ve always wanted to take an art class, but the art I typically create is not fine art, and I’ve always struggled to see myself as a real artist. I could talk myself right out of signing up for an art class. I could list off a million reasons why I’m not good enough or my work won’t measure up. It’s awkward to think of putting myself out there like that. What will the teacher think? What will the other students think? I sometimes forget to ask what I will think. But I’ve never in my life regretted obtaining knowledge, and you won’t either. Especially if it’s something you’ve been itching to try!
  2. Starting a conversation. Some conversations are downright scary, especially when there are feelings involved. Many of us shy away from conflict or vulnerability so much so that it becomes something that festers inside of us. But the people we love are worth the risk. Whether the conversation begins with “I’m really sorry. . . .” or “This really hurt me. . . .” or “Do you want to be my friend . . . ?” regret is rarely the result. Above all else, it’s our relationships that matter most, so we must pour into them whatever we can, even if it means putting ourselves out there, feeling uncomfortable, or facing a possible awkward silence. Even if it means learning that a person doesn’t value you in the long run. Have the hard conversations—your life and your relationships will be better for it.
  3. Taking the long way. I spend 95 percent of my day in a hurry. I always feel rushed, and it’s not because I didn’t leave enough time to get across town—it’s because I just have that much to do. I wake up with one to-do list and go to sleep with a new one. I’m sure you can relate because that’s how we are these days—busy. But life requires us to slow down, to take the scenic route even if we don’t know what’s around the next turn. If you get lost, at least you’ll have a great story, right? And I’m not only talking about directions. You don’t have to shoot to the top right away—take your time getting there. You don’t have to get engaged immediately or start a family the month after you get married—give yourself time. Unbusy yourself. It’s risky because it’s not the norm, but you won’t regret slowing down and giving yourself that gift.
  4. Following your dream. Nearly five years ago, my husband and I decided to finally take the plunge and start our own business. For years we’d loosely kicked around the idea but always as a sort of joke—we weren’t looking to make a change. But God had other plans for us. This was our dream, to start a performing arts studio and youth theatre for kids in our community—and if we didn’t do it now, we never would. So, we weighed the pros and cons. We asked ourselves, “What is the worst-case scenario, and can I live with it if that happens?” We still ask ourselves that every time we try something new in our business. I’m happy to say that following our dream has been the very best thing we’ve ever done—one of our lives’ greatest blessings. Our professional fulfillment has never been greater and we get to work together too! It was the best risk we’ve ever taken (well, with the exception of #5 . . .).
  5. Falling in love. I’m a romance author, so I couldn’t not include love on my list! More than any other risk, love is the one that is perhaps the scariest. I write about characters who are afraid to risk their hearts, and I always want to tell them at the beginning, “It’s worth it in the end, I promise.” Love doesn’t always work out, so it’s scary to put your heart on the line, but when you find it and it’s right, you’ll be glad you put yourself out there. There is nothing more fulfilling than sharing your life with someone you love, than loving someone else more than you love yourself. Love is the greatest gift of all, but you have to be willing to give a little of yourself to reap the reward.

Risk is, by nature, risky, but not all risks are foolish. Every now and then, you look back and realize they were the best decisions you ever made.


About the Story:

For Quinn Collins, buying the flower shop in downtown Harbor Pointe, Michigan, fulfills a childhood dream but also gives her the chance to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who owned the store before leaving town twenty years ago and never looking back. Completing much-needed renovations, however, while also preparing for a prestigious flower competition with her mother as the head judge, soon has Quinn in over her head. Not that she’d ever ask for help.

Luckily, she may not need to. Quinn’s father and his meddling friends find the perfect solution in notorious Olympic skier Grady Benson, who had only planned on passing through the old-fashioned lakeside town. But when a heated confrontation leads to property damage, helping Quinn as a community service sentence seems like the quickest way out—and the best way to avoid more negative press.

Quinn finds Grady reckless and entitled; he thinks she’s way too uptight. Yet as the two begin working together, Quinn sees glimpses of the vulnerability behind the bravado, and Grady learns from her passion and determination, qualities he seems to have lost in his pursuit of Olympic gold. When a well-intentioned omission has devastating consequences, Grady finds himself cast out of town—and Quinn’s life—possibly forever. Forced to face the hurt holding her back, Quinn has to choose: let go or risk missing the adventure of a lifetime.

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About the Author:

Courtney Walsh is a novelist, artist, theatre director, and playwright. Just Let Go will be her eighth inspirational romance novel. Her debut, A Sweethaven Summer, hit the New York Times and USA Today e-book bestseller lists and was a Carol Award finalist in the debut author category. A creative at heart, Courtney has also written two craft books and several full-length musicals. She lives in Illinois with her husband and three children.

Connect with Courtney through her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Guest Blog: 4 Tips for Helping a Family Member or Friend Deal with Anxiety

Guest Blogger: Beth Vogt

Anxiety attacks are part of my past.

I no longer experience chest pains that were so severe at times I was convinced I was having a heart attack and begged my physician-husband to take me to the hospital.

I no longer avoid large crowds—except in a normal introverted kind of way, not because the thought of having to see people caused a skyrocketing heart rate, clammy skin, and trembling hands.

But mild anxiety can still flare up when stress increases, say, for example, when I’m days out from a deadline. Or when I’m forced into a confrontation with someone. And several of my family members and close friends struggle with anxiety.

Been there. Understand that.

If you reread the title of my post, you’ll see that it says “Helping” someone with anxiety—not “Fixing” someone with anxiety. Fixing someone’s anxiety should never be the focus of your efforts. Caring, supporting, and offering hope to someone enmeshed in the tendrils of anxiety—that’s the point.

How can you help someone who is dealing with anxiety?

  1. Know some common symptoms of anxiety. If you don’t recognize at least some of the universal signs of anxiety or an anxiety attack, you can often miss the warning signs that someone is struggling with more than just normal stress. Some basic symptoms are
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Chest pressure/tightness/pain
  • Light-headedness/dizziness
  • Fear
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  1. Realize you can’t talk someone out of an anxiety attack. There’s no magic phrase that instantly brings calm to someone overwhelmed by anxiety. Your saying, “If you’d just (fill in the blank with your helpful bit of advice)” only makes a person more uneasy because they’re not doing the right thing, i.e. being a stronger person, a calmer person.
  2. Offer your friend comfort, not judgment. 2 Corinthians 1:4 (NLT) says: “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (emphasis mine). We’ve all experienced different troubles and appreciated when someone has understood—when someone offered comfort. This is exactly what someone dealing with anxiety needs: comfort. And sometimes the comfort comes in the form of words. Sometimes it means offering your quiet presence.
  3. Be hopeful. Anxiety weighs down a person’s emotions and it’s hard to maintain a positive perspective. At times, your friend or family member may say, “I’m never going to get better.” Encourage them that they will get through a) the anxiety attack or b) through this season where anxiety seems to hold sway over them. Let them know you are praying for them—and then pray with them if they are open to that. Some encouraging verses to guide your prayers or to write down are
  • Psalm 4:8(when dealing with insomnia)
  • Psalm 46:1 and Isaiah 41:10(when struggling with fear)
  • Philippians 4:7 and Isaiah 26:3(when someone needs peace)

About the Story:

It’s been ten years since Payton Thatcher’s twin sister died in an accident, leaving the entire family to cope in whatever ways they could. No longer half of a pair, Payton reinvents herself as a partner in a successful party-planning business and is doing just fine—as long as she manages to hold her memories and her family at arm’s length.

But with her middle sister Jillian’s engagement, Payton’s party-planning skills are called into action. Which means working alongside her opinionated oldest sister, Johanna, who always seems ready for a fight. They can only hope that a wedding might be just the occasion to heal the resentment and jealousy that divides them . . . until a frightening diagnosis threatens Jillian’s plans and her future. As old wounds are reopened and the family faces the possibility of another tragedy, the Thatchers must decide if they will pull together or be driven further apart.

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About the Author:

Beth K. Vogt is a nonfiction author and editor who said she’d never write fiction. She’s the wife of an Air Force family physician (now in solo practice) who said she’d never marry a doctor—or anyone in the military. She’s a mom of four who said she’d never have kids. Now Beth believes God’s best often waits behind doors marked NeverThings I Never Told You, releasing May 2018, is Beth’s first novel in her women’s fiction series for Tyndale House Publishers.

Beth is a 2016 Christy Award winner, a 2016 ACFW Carol Award winner, and a 2015 RITA Award finalist. Her 2014 novel, Somebody Like You, was one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2014. Having authored nine contemporary romance novels or novellas, Beth believes there’s more to happily ever after than the fairy tales tell us.

An established magazine writer and former editor of the leadership magazine for MOPS International, Beth blogs for Novel Rocket and also enjoys speaking to writers’ groups and mentoring other writers. She lives in Colorado with her husband, Rob, who has adjusted to discussing the lives of imaginary people, and their youngest daughter, Christa, who loves to play volleyball and enjoys writing her own stories. Connect with Beth on website , Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

 

Guest Post: Instant Pantry Miracle Workers

Guest Blogger: Carla Laureano

When you think of great cooking, you probably assume it means elaborate preparations and complicated technique. But as a food enthusiast, I believe the most enjoyable meal is comprised of quality ingredients treated simply—which should come as a great relief to beginning home cooks. Making great food at home is as easy as honing basic techniques and choosing good ingredients. And leveling up your cooking merely takes a few swaps. Once you make these changes, you’ll be wondering how you ever managed without them.

  1. Salt

It’s perhaps the most basic seasoning in all cooking, and once so precious that part of a Roman soldier’s pay was a salt allowance (hence the word salary). And it’s still the easiest way to make food taste good—it makes sugar sweeter and it brings out the flavors of other spices. But if you’re sticking with fine iodized table salt, you’re missing out. I keep no fewer than four jars of different salts in my spice drawer and another several in my pantry . . . and regular table salt isn’t among them.

Kosher salt – The coarser granules are easier to handle while seasoning and hold moisture better than finer crystals, leaving meat moister and juicier. If you’ve thought chicken breast is dry by nature, it could very well be your choice of salts! This is the number one choice of chefs for salting food before or during cooking. My favorite brand is Diamond Crystal for its coarse but uniform granules.

Himalayan salt – You’ll see this sometimes misnamed as “pink sea salt”—it actually comes from the Himalayan mountain range, usually from Afghanistan. Himalayan salt gets its pink color from the minerals found in the mountains and contains essential trace elements that are often missing from a modern diet. You can find it in a range from fine to coarse. I like to use this in food that’s to be seasoned raw or cooked gently since it has a softer salt flavor that is often lost during cooking or beneath heavy sauces.

Sea salt – Like Himalayan salt, sea salt contains various minerals based on its place of harvest and can have a range of flavors depending on its original environment. I buy fine sea salt in bulk and use it in place of iodized salt for baking and salting cooking water. Larger flake salt (such as fleur de sel or Maldon) can be used as a finishing touch on top of any dish from meat to bread to chocolate. The crystal structure of flake salt dissolves slowly on the tongue and gives a hit of saltiness that’s surprising but not overpowering.

  1. Whole Peppercorns

Like any other spice, pepper loses its punch almost immediately after being ground. The difference between ground pepper sold in the jar at the grocery store and peppercorns ground fresh is like night and day: one has a vaguely peppery taste (and the tendency to make you sneeze); the other has a sharp, spicy flavor that makes it easy to understand why it’s called pepper in the first place. In fact, when I don’t want to use a hot pepper, freshly ground black pepper makes a good substitute. When cooking meat, I only use a good salt and freshly ground pepper, but my guests always comment on how flavorful the dish is. Magic.

  1. Whole-grain mustard

This is another swap that barely resembles the highly processed version at the local hot dog stand. It’s true that yellow table mustard has a mellow, inoffensive flavor, but is inoffensive really our highest goal as cooks? Whole-grain mustard, on the other hand, is robust and a little spicy, giving a punch of flavor to whatever it’s used in. Whether spread on a sandwich, used to make a pan sauce or rub, or whisked into a vinaigrette, it’s a serious upgrade to the pale yellow stuff most of us are used to.

  1. Balsamic vinegar

For the longest time, I thought vinegar only came in large plastic bottles and was used in the laundry. Then I discovered the world of vinegars. Like salt, I have no less than half a dozen in my pantry, each with its own unique flavor profile. However, if you can only have one, choose balsamic. Real balsamic vinegar of Modena is made from whole pressed grapes and then aged in a successive series of barrels, each made from different types of wood. The process is similar to that of aging brandy or sweet wine, giving a complex, mellow flavor that distinguishes it from the sharpness of distilled vinegar. It’s best used at the end of cooking, as it doesn’t hold up to heat well, though it can be simmered to gently reduce it to a syrup. Try it drizzled over rich meat or a fresh caprese salad. It also pairs well with berries: bruschetta topped with ricotta and fresh strawberries and sprinkled with balsamic vinegar can’t be missed.

  1. Real maple syrup

Once, my only experience with maple syrup was the artificially flavored stuff used over pancakes; when I tried the real thing, it was a game-changer. I use this sugar substitute more than any other in my kitchen: to bring out the natural sweetness of veggies in sauces or soups, to flavor oatmeal, or in a quick vinaigrette (the fact it incorporates more easily than honey with oil and vinegar is a big point in its favor). And yes, swap out the Aunt Jemima’s for the real thing. Your French toast and pancakes will never be the same.

Now my secret is out: I’m mostly a good cook because I use good ingredients. Try these simple swaps for yourself and see if they don’t work miracles in your kitchen!


About the Book:

Denver chef Rachel Bishop has accomplished everything she’s dreamed and some things she never dared hope, like winning a James Beard Award and heading up her own fine-dining restaurant. But when a targeted smear campaign causes her to be pushed out of the business by her partners, she vows to do whatever it takes to get her life back . . . even if that means joining forces with the man who inadvertently set the disaster in motion.

Essayist Alex Kanin never imagined his pointed editorial would go viral. Ironically, his attempt to highlight the pitfalls of online criticism has the opposite effect: it revives his own flagging career by destroying that of a perfect stranger. Plagued by guilt-fueled writer’s block, Alex vows to do whatever he can to repair the damage. He just doesn’t expect his interest in the beautiful chef to turn personal.

Alex agrees to help rebuild Rachel’s tarnished image by offering his connections and his home to host an exclusive pop-up dinner party targeted to Denver’s most influential citizens: the Saturday Night Supper Club. As they work together to make the project a success, Rachel begins to realize Alex is not the unfeeling opportunist she once thought he was, and that perhaps there’s life—and love—outside the pressure-cooker of her chosen career. But can she give up her lifelong goals without losing her identity as well?

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About the Author:

 

Carla Laureano is the RITA® Award-winning author of contemporary inspirational romance and Celtic fantasy (as C.E. Laureano). A graduate of Pepperdine University, she worked as a sales and marketing executive for nearly a decade before leaving corporate life behind to write fiction full-time. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and two sons, where she writes during the day and cooks things at night.

Connect with Carla on her website , Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

 

Guest Post: Writing from the Heart

Guest Blogger: Robin Patchen

They say write what you know. There are some things I’d rather not know, even if they lead to good stories. This is one of those things.

I have three children. The oldest, Nick, was my easiest to raise. He was compliant, helpful, and eager to please. And then he turned sixteen.

And started smoking pot.

Nick quickly graduated from marijuana to harder drugs. That school year was filled with one battle after another. And then in June, Nick met the Lord. Overnight, he quit using drugs and threw himself into working at the church. The transformation was amazing, and his Dad and I marveled at what God had done in his life.

And then, in April of his junior year, Nick decided he’d just smoke pot one more time.

That was the big lie.

By that summer, he’d become a full-blown addict. In August, his father and I gave him an ultimatum. We told him that if he wanted to live in our house, he couldn’t use drugs. My 18-year-old son set his phone and his car keys on the counter and walked out.

For six days, he lived in a tent, barely ate, never showered. But a friend of his convinced him to come home. He did, went to rehab, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, just over a month after he got there, he left rehab. He relapsed immediately and moved out of the house again.

Through it all, my life was walking, talking, eating, sleeping, and breathing prayers. Constant prayers, usually accompanied by tears and outbursts and recited Scriptures. God was so very gentle with me as I ranted and begged Him to intervene.

Throughout the journey, we learned about addiction, about the millions of Americans who suffer with substance abuse, about how the problem is growing every year, and about how so many people get lost in addiction and never get found again.

There was nothing we could do but pray.

God was so merciful. Nick came home on Thanksgiving morning two years ago. He told us he couldn’t live like that anymore. When I told him how many people had been praying for him, he said, “I know. God never left me alone.” 

This November marks two years since Nick quit using. It wasn’t easy. He had to go back to rehab, then spend months in sober living homes. But today, he’s free and serving as a missionary with Youth with a Mission, telling the world about Jesus, the Savior who rescued him and made him new.

Right after Nick agreed to go to rehab the first time, his father took him to his folks’ house in New Hampshire for a week to get him away from home until a bed became available in rehab. That week was a turning point in their relationship, and it sparked an idea for me—a father, a son, and an addiction. That idea became Generous Lies, the third book in the Hidden Truth series.

When you read the book, you’ll notice it’s dedicated to Nick. When I say I couldn’t be prouder, I mean it. The journey he’s traveled, the things he’s overcome—let’s just say a lot of adults couldn’t have handled it, and he did it all at 18 years old.

Do you have a similar story? I’m amazed at how many of us do. If you’re walking through something like this right now, please reach out for help. We were so blessed by the people who came alongside us, offered us advice, and walked us through this difficult time. You can find them at organizations like Al-Anon and Celebrate Recovery. If you just want someone to pray with you, reach out to me. I would be honored.

This is not a story I would have chosen to live, but my whole family is stronger as a result of it, especially Nick, whose testimony has already touched so many lives. On the Promised Land side of that terrible story, I can’t despise those months in the desert. God knew exactly what he was doing.

If you haven’t yet, pick up your copy of Generous Lies. The story is completely fabricated, of course, but the heart of it comes straight from our lives. I’ve already heard from so many readers who’ve been touched by it. Maybe it’ll speak to you, too.

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About the Author:

Aside from her family and her Savior, Robin Patchen has two loves—writing and traveling. If she could combine them, she’d spend a lot of time sitting in front of her laptop at sidewalk cafes and ski lodges and beachside burger joints. She’d visit every place in the entire world—twice, if possible—and craft stories and tell people about her Savior. Alas, time is too short and money is too scarce for Patchen to traipse all over the globe, even if her husband and kids wanted to go with her. So she stays in Oklahoma, shares the Good News when she can, and writes to illustrate the unending grace of God through the power and magic of story.

Connect with Robin through her: website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.