Book Review: The Happy Writing Book by Elise Valmorbida

The Happy Writing Book cover image

As a writer, I often look to writing advice books for ways to inspire creativity and help me continue to sit down and write on a regular basis. The Happy Writing Book: Discover the Positive Power of Creative Writing by Elise Valmorbida is one of the best books of that type I have read in a while.

First, there’s the cover. The bright orange color with a smiley face illustration (an asterisk for one eye looks like a wink) makes me want to leave it out where I can see it and easily pick it up to read. Also, I took it with me on a few appointments to read while I waited, and every person who saw it commented on how they wanted to read it too. And they weren’t even writers! Sometimes, the biggest challenge in looking at an advice book is being inspired to open it, and The Happy Writing Book is definitely compelling.

But the real value is in the content. The book is divided into sections titled, Happy Beginnings, Happy Middles, and Happy Ends. The sections contain 100 micro-chapters laying out tips, suggestions, and ideas to help writers get started, hone their craft, and keep writing. I found myself reading through all the way once, and making notes about chapters I want to go back and revisit to try the suggested exercises. The list is long.

Now that I’ve finished a first reading, I have started to go back and look at certain areas more closely. I also can easily see picking the book up and opening to a random page to get re-inspired at any point and jump start a piece of writing.

I recommend The Happy Writing Book for any writer or anyone who wants to write aged 12 and up.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Author Carol Estby Dagg Talks About Revising The Year We Were Famous

What motivated you to take on the creation of a revised edition for The Year We Were Famous?

Helga and Clara Estby were family legends, and I did not want their story to die when the 2011 edition went out of print. Steven Chudney, my agent, got the rights back for me so I could publish the book as I originally envisioned it, with photos of the real Helga and Clara Estby and newspaper clippings which reinforced the point that these courageous transcontinental walkers were real women.

How has the process to publish the book on your own compared to your expectations?

I discovered that a lot goes into the publishing process that I had always taken for granted. I thought that once I had the book in Word document I was almost done. Nope! I was fascinated (and sometimes dismayed) to learn about all the detailed decisions and work that goes into interior book layout and cover design, right down to calculating spine width.

Any tips re elements of that process you can share with our readers to help better prepare those who might be considering taking on such a task themselves?

It’s called self-publishing, but although you are publishing without a traditional publisher, you will likely need help from other sources. For instance, you may need someone to design interior layout and cover, and to convert files to a format your printer can use. Since you don’t have a publisher’s marketing team behind you, you may need to hire a publicist to help spread the news about your work. From the time you get an ISBN number to the time you see your first sample copy of your printed book will take months, not weeks. It’ll also cost more than you expected. The reward, though, is seeing a book just the way you wanted it!

What’s different about the Revised Edition?

The revised edition adds the photographs I had always wanted to include in the original, traditionally published edition. Working with a talented graphic artist, Mary Senter, the new edition has a bolder cover with a photograph of my real-life main characters, Helga and Clara Estby, my great-grandmother and great-aunt. Interior photographs and newspaper clippings reinforce the fact that the book, though fiction, is about real women, who walked nearly four thousand miles in an era of corsets, high-topped shoes, and dust-dragging skirts and at a time when many people were scandalized that women would dare such a feat when their place was emphatically at home.

What was your deciding factor for what to include and what to exclude?

Most of my research never made it into The Year We Were Famous. I often spent weeks researching a chapter, then decided it didn’t develop the characters or add an essential element to the story arc and deleted it. My editor at Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt helped me pare two hundred pages from the original manuscript.

For instance, in researching famous characters of the day, such as Annie Oakley, and developing a day-by-day itinerary for Clara and Helga’s walk, I discovered that Clara and Helga would have been walking across Nebraska at the same time that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’s train with Annie Oakley would have, at least momentarily, been in the same place at the same time as the Estbys. I spent weeks reading about Annie Oakley and drafting a scene of their meeting, but that chapter was one that was jettisoned. Ditto, scene with ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown, whose house in Denver was just a block or so away from where Clara and Helga stopped to get the governor’s signature. I toured her house, taking notes, and spent a couple weeks drafting a chapter in which Clara and Helga called on Molly Brown. Fascinating to imagine, but that visit was purely imagined and did not advance the overall plot, so that chapter also hit the round file.

Most of the paring took place in the first, 2011, edition of The Year We Were Famous, but I did delete yet one more chapter in the revised edition, one in which they crossed the Umatilla reservation. My calculations placed them spending a day crossing the reservation, but the chapter didn’t meet the criteria of advancing character development or plot, so I scrapped it.

Do you have favorite photos that are now included in this revised edition?

One of my favorites is the sketch of Clara and Helga that appeared in the New York World upon their arrival in New York City, depicting them both with drawn guns and daggers. I know they would have hated it, because, although it helped sell newspapers, they only used their pistol once, and the ‘dagger’ they carried was probably a pen knife used mostly for sharpening pencils or slicing an apple. The newspaper article completely ignored the fact that one of the goals of the walk was to support the suffrage movement. I like the sketch though, because it does show how brave and determined they were to walk across the country by themselves.

My other favorite is the photograph of Helga and Clara taken on the way home, in simple, possibly homemade dresses, still exhausted from the trip. The ‘after’ photograph is a stark contrast with the photograph taken before the trip, in formal black dresses with leg-o-mutton sleeves.

What unusual research methods did you use when writing the first edition?

Once I decided to write historical fiction and not nonfiction, I needed to write in the voice of a late Victorian young woman. To do that, I gave up reading contemporary books and for a year read only books Clara might have read, from classics for school to the dime novels that were passed from hand to hand among young people of the day.

Besides reading books, I pored over old maps to reconstruct a plausible day-by-day route for the walk. I went on eBay to bid on period postcards of places they passed through, which inspired details for several chapters. I tried baking in a wood stove, drove part of the route with my daughter, and stopped at a little museum in Rawlins, Wyoming, where I bought a pamphlet about a Victorian-era local woman doctor who became Clara’s ‘someone to talk to.’ Approaching the Internet like a treasure hunt, I hopped from clue to clue to research relevant trivia like the history of Underwood typewriters, or the elevation of the pass in the Blue Mountains.

How far did research take me? Getting into character, I bought replicas of high-topped shoes and Victorian satchel, and combed antique stores for a curling iron, wood and boar-bristle toothbrush, match safe, and other things Clara and Helga carried with them. I sewed a Gibson Girl blouse and authentically-styled under-drawers. I’ll wear the shoes and blouse for presentations but don’t ask me to model the drawers!

Ninety-nine percent of my research never makes it to the book in a way that is obvious to the reader, but it helps draw me into that other world. Besides, it’s fun!

When and how did you first make the decision to write this book which originally published in 2011?

I grew up with whispers about the heroic trek Great-Grandmother Helga and her daughter, my Great-Aunt Clara, had made back in 1896. What they’d done wasn’t widely talked about because it had been considered a scandal back in 1896: they’d left the rest of the family, including Clara’s seven younger brothers and sisters, back home in Mica Creek, Washington, to walk clear across the country to New York City on a $10,000 wager that would have saved the family’s farm.

I didn’t discover details about the walk until I was grown, when two articles from Minneapolis newspapers which had been salvaged from a burn barrel started circulating among family members. When I found out that Clara and her mother had walked for 232 days, from 25-50 miles a day, surviving flash flood, blizzards, assailants, days without food or water, and meeting the whole range of 1890s society from bands of Indians to president-elect McKinley, I knew this was a story that had to be told. When I found out that the journals which Clara and Helga had intended to turn into a book had been destroyed, I vowed that someday I would tell their story for them. I became obsessed with reconstructing the book they never wrote.

How did your family react to the book? Were they positive or did some have reservations?

Before the final rounds of edits, I sent copies of my manuscript to two of my cousins and my sisters to see if there was anything they were uneasy about. They all seemed happy to have their ancestors’ heroic feat made better known, especially after Helga and Clara’s notes were burned and they did not have the chance to tell the story themselves. Several of the cousins celebrated the first edition of the book with me in Spokane at Auntie’s Bookstore.

Why did you decide to write the book as fiction instead of nonfiction?

By writing to librarians across the country and scrolling though microfilmed newspaper collections at the University of Washington, I collected a dozen newspaper articles about the walk. There articles weren’t as helpful as I’d hoped, though they often contradicted each other in details, and descriptions of their adventures were tantalizingly brief. Being lost for three days in the Snake River Lava fields, showing a band of Ute Indians how to use a curling iron, or shooting an assailant just rated one sentence in newspaper accounts.

If I wanted to tell readers what it would have been like to walk those 232 days, I’d have to expand those one-liners into fully developed scenes, and the nonfiction book I had intended to write would have to be historical fiction. I expanded research beyond newspaper articles to circumstances related to the walk, biographies of William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, who were running for president that year, rattlesnakes and early days of railroading, eating habits of cougars, and frontier treatments for blisters. I must have read about six million words of background material, including reading only what Clara might have read for a whole year, from classics to dime novels.

Clara and Helga were harder to work with than my made-up people because I was reluctant to ascribe words and thoughts to real people who weren’t alive to tell me I was full of hooey. I finally concluded that although I was using their real names, by the boldness of their forward-thinking action, they were more than Clara and Helga Estby. They were prototypes of the emerging New Woman of the late 1890s, on the leading edge of social change, daring to do what men –and most women—thought was impossible. By being so heroic, they surrendered themselves to the mythmakers, and I became one of them in The Year We Were Famous.

Why did you write The Year We Were Famous from Clara’s point of view?

The focus in family lore had always been on Great-Grandmother Helga. Her cartes de visite that she passed out along the way read “H. Estby and daughter, pedestrians, Spokane to New York.” I was miffed on Clara’s behalf. She had matched her mother step for step and didn’t even get her name on the cards? I decided it was time to give Clara a voice.

How do you research the heart of someone you barely knew? In 1950, the last time I saw Great-Aunt Clara, she was in the hospital dying of cancer. To imagine what she might have been like in her late teens, I immersed myself in 1896. For a year, I gave up reading all contemporary novels and read only what Clara might have read for school or for fun. The dime novels I downloaded from the Internet influenced the style my version of Clara used to tell her brothers about shooting a man in Oregon and meeting a band of Ute Indians.

How long did it take you to create the original edition, and what was your process for getting it published by Clarion/HMH?

Once I knew I wanted to write a book about Clara and Helga, I started taking classes and joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators so I could attend their conferences and workshops. I filled bankers’ boxes and filing drawers with research material and filled piles of composition books with drafts and doodles.

Starting in 1995, I also started collecting rejection slips, twenty-nine in all. I accepted rejections as a way of telling me I had more to learn. Between rejections I took more classes and workshops, experimented with nonfiction and fiction, different points of view, starting points, focus, and voice. I must have rewritten the book at least twenty times.

I’d probably still be throwing manuscripts over the transom if it hadn’t been for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Sue Alexander Award for most promising new manuscript in 2006. That award brought me to the attention of publishers, and I finally signed a contract with Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which, in the last eleven years, had rejected my manuscript twice before.

The first edition of the book came out in 2011, the year I turned sixty-seven years old.

What would you recommend other authors to consider before taking that first step to publish their own work?

Hire a professional editor or enlist other members of a critique group to read your manuscript. Sometimes, what is clearly in your head doesn’t make it to the page, and you need fresh eyes to catch gaps in the plot or action. They can also offer feedback on what is working/not working.

If you’re not a techno-whiz and graphic artist, hire professionals to format your manuscript and create a book you’ll be proud of. I wasted time trying to learn to use a book formatting software because I kept running into situations that didn’t fit the standard model and I couldn’t figure out a work-around.

Wait until your manuscript is almost ready to print before hiring a proofreader. I made many tweaks between the time I thought I was done and the final.

Familiarize or reacquaint yourself with the review and edit functions of WORD. It had been many years since I had used it, and when the proofreader’s comments came back on Edit, I goofed up, lost sections, and had to retype. I ended up creating more bloopers to correct than I started with. Also – don’t be afraid to disagree (after some thought) with your proofreader. At first, I blindly OK’d every comment she made and ended up going back and undoing many of the suggested changes. Only you know what you mean.

Run through your calculations carefully when pricing your book. If you don’t allow for the fact that traditional outlets, like bookstores and libraries, expect a 50-55% discount off list price, every sale could cost you money if you don’t factor in the discount.

Accept the fact that, like in building a house, the process will take longer, especially in this time of Covid, and cost more than you expected.

Book Review: Read Island by Nicole Magistro

Read Island cover image

Read Island by Nicole Magistro is a picture book that celebrates the love of reading. A child sets sail with her mouse and fox friends “past rocky cliffs and cozy nooks,” where they find an island made of books. Animals come from near and far for story time and to enjoy “books with pictures, prose, and rhyme.”

The message: that books let you relax, observe, and explore concepts from the real to the fantastical. And anyone can tap into the magic of stories anytime they read. It’s a sweet message perfect to hear while turning pages.

The gorgeous cut-paper collage illustrations by Alice Feagan includes strips from printed material and features words to complement the rhyming text beautifully.

Read Island is great for lap time, bedtime, or anytime reading with a child.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Besties Work It Out by Kayla Miller and Jeffrey Canino

Besties Work It Out cover image

Beth and Chandra are best friends who set up a lemonade stand to make money. Beth wants to buy her mom a special treat for her birthday, and Chandra hopes to adopt a cat from the local shelter. When the costs outweigh what they make, they turn to plan B, dog sitting. But a series of events threatens to not only erase the money they earn, but put them in the doghouse with their best client.

Besties Work It Out, written by Kayla Miller and Jeffrey Canino, is a graphic novel that follows two girls who are willing to work hard to earn what they want, but they have to figure out how to handle challenges they meet along the way. It’s a cute story that shows the girls’ good intentions, the mistakes they make, and how they set things right. Illustrations by Kristina Luu are colorful and fun.

I recommend Besties Work It Out for readers aged 8 to 12. The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Elinormal by Kate McCarroll Moore

Elinormal cover image

Eleven-year-old Elinor Malcolm feels the pressure of living up to her parents’ expectations. Especially those of her mom, a high-profile lawyer in New York City. Enrolled in a ballet school she doesn’t want to attend, Elinor takes to skipping out to avoid the embarrassment of not fitting in. That’s when she meets a girl unlike any she’s ever known.

Indira is a free spirit who seems to know what Elinor needs when she needs it. She teaches Elinor about meditating to find strength and calmness, and she encourages Elinor to fess up about her deception. But Elinor keeps avoiding the big issues until she can’t any more.

Elinormal by Kate McCarroll Moore is a story about finding yourself and pursuing what’s important to you as opposed to living someone else’s dream. Elinor avoids trouble by lying, and the more things she lies about the more she has to hide. Eventually, she has to face what she’s trying to avoid and tell her parents what she wants even if it doesn’t match up with what they want for her.

Elinor is a likeable character, and young readers aged 9 to 13 should enjoy following along as her story unfolds.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: The Leather Apron Club by Jane Yolen

Benjamin Franklin started the first successful lending library in the United States when he established the Leather Apron Club in Philadelphia in 1727. Best-selling author Jane Yolen writes about this especially for young readers in a picture book called The Leather Apron Club: Benjamin Franklin, His Son Billy & America’s First Circulating Library.

Beautifully illustrated by Wendell Minor, The Leather Apron Club tells the story through Billy’s eyes. And Billy is a reluctant learner. He’s not at all excited when his father hires a tutor for him and his cousin James. But where James continues to be more interested in outdoor adventures than in learning, Billy becomes entranced when his tutor reads to him. Pretty soon Billy’s Pappy, as he calls his father, is inviting him to come along to a quiet place with lots of books to read where others meet. It’s called the Leather Apron Club.

The book weaves in facts about Benjamin and Billy while keeping the story interesting for young readers. Some of Franklin’s more famous sayings, like, “he that lies down with dogs will rise up with fleas,” and “diligence is the mother of good luck,” can be found in the pages.

The back of the book includes more information about the life of William Franklin, the Leather Apron Club, Benjamin Franklin’s views on slavery, and Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Valedictorians at the Gate by Becky Munsterer Sabky

Valedictorians at the Gate cover image

Anyone who has been through the college application process with a teen knows how stressful it can be. Foremost on most people’s minds is how they can stand out in a competitive field and get into the college of their choice. Becky Munsterer Sabky, a former admissions director at Dartmouth has some advice.

In Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College, Sabky offers and insider’s look at what admissions directors consider when choosing who to admit. Her story is relatable and straightforward, and she gives tips on things like how visiting campus can help with the application process, why GPA’s both matter and don’t matter, getting recommendations, early admissions, and more.

Perhaps one of her best pieces of advice is to remind students, and parents, that there isn’t just one school that’s perfect for them and if they don’t get in to their top choice it won’t be a catastrophe. At the beginning of the book, Sabky even shares that she, herself, didn’t get into Dartmouth, but she ended up being really happy where she ultimately attended.

As a parent who has been through this process twice, I found Valedictorians at the Gate to be helpful in giving advice on how to navigate the whole process as well as manage expectations. I think it should be particularly relevant to students in their sophomore and junior years and their parents, but those even younger could benefit as well.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Interview With Judith Rabinor, Author of The Girl in the Red Boots

When I read for review Judith Ruskay Rabinor’s memoir, The Girl in the Red Boots, I was fascinated by her advice to her patients in her psychotherapy practice as well as her personal stories about her own relationship with her mother. In this interview, Dr. Rabinor talks about her challenges in writing her book and gives more observations about the mother-daughter relationship.

Judith Rabinor photo

The Girl in the Red Boots combines memoir with advice for people who want to start conversations about important issues with their own moms. What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?

My biggest challenge was creating a compelling story to engage the reader. This is the mission of all writers: to figure out what makes a reader turn the page rather than put a book down. Did my story offer a universal message? And what was my message? Was it clear? Does one person’s suffering automatically generalize to a universal principal?  Questions multiplied and created more stress: How would my story and my message teach readers my message: Transformation is always a possibility. We are never too old to change, revise our stories and grow: “change your story, change your life.”

I worked on this book for many years before I understood how writing changed my story—and me. That was a big revelation. Pause. My story had changed. An earlier version of this manuscript opens at a deathbed scene: I sit by my mother’s side for four days, reflecting on our relationship. As I wrote I realized that my mother’s death was not the trigger to my transformation. I decided to start at a crisis point and then I knew where to start this book.

Years earlier a writing coach had suggested that a deathbed scene is mundane, almost cliched.. But I couldn’t follow her advice because I wasn’t  ready to see my story differently. What is important to convey is how the very process of reviewing my relationship with my mother prompted me to ask new questions and it is new questions that open up our stories. In the writing and rewriting, I came to many moments where I was filled with awe and new awarenesses–an appreciation of my mother’s love for me and of  my own blind spots.

Tell me about how you decided to weave your own experience along with the stories of mother-daughter relationships from your practice.

Sharing my own story was a decision I deliberated over, slowly. Initially I was hesitant to share my own personal experience thus I was indecisive- would I write a memoir or fiction? I began by writing both and I registered at a local JCC in a memoir and a fiction class, unsure of which direction I should pursue. What gave me the expertise to write the book was my professional work as a psychologist, with decades of experience treating mothers and daughters. On the other hand, my own personal struggle gave me a different yet deeper credential. My own journey taught me to accept my ambivalent and loving feelings: resentment, frustration and disappointment can exist alongside of tenacious loyalty and love.

Sharing my personal experience created a lot of anxiety for me professionally. I worried about my professional identity. I was trained as a psychologist (in the 1970’s) and had learned that therapists should maintain a “blank screen,” an invisible presence. Therapeutic anonymity was the norm. Self- disclosure was frowned upon. But as I became a more experienced therapist, this perspective made little sense to me. Sharing personal information often opened up our relationship. Early on in The Girl in the Red Boots I discuss this issue: when I shared my own experience being bullied as a teenager, a patient spontaneously revealed hidden aspects of her eating disorder.

One things that bothered me about my own mother was her perpetual sunny nature. I experienced her as inauthentic. Her reliance on the pithy philosophy “everything will turn out fine!” was maddening. It made me distrust her. Giving advice and support to others carries more weight when the speaker—author or therapist—has been genuine.

Did the process of writing it open up new observations for you about your relationship with your mom?

I began writing this book with a need to mourn my mother and to vent my anger, frustration and disappointment with her. By the time I completed the book, I realized how deeply I loved her. Writing the book actually facilitated my own transformation. I was able to applaud the fact that my mother supported me (and metaphorically gave me my Red Boots—and a zest for life), but I don’t think I was aware that she actually was my role model. In the course of writing, I came to appreciate my mother’s strengths and see her limitations differently. At the end of the book I sum this up:

“… I have revised my narrative from a “Story of a Disappointed Daughter” to a “Story of a Grateful Daughter.”

There’s so much readers can take away from The Girl in the Red Boots. Is there one message you hope they glean from it?

The main message of The Girl in the Red Boots is that it is never too late to develop a deeper understanding of yourself. “Change your story, change your life,” is the logo on my website. As it’s easy to get stuck in a “story” which may not convey the whole, complicated, messy truth. Learning to live with the messiness of life means we have to abandon idealized images. Ultimately we must live with a messy truth.

Do you believe the observations and advice in your book apply to relationships beyond the mother-daughter one?

Understanding and untangling your relationship with your mother will help you with every other relationship in your life. A cornerstone of all psychological theories is that we are all profoundly impacted by our early experiences. When the mother is the primary caretaker (as is still generally the case in the Western world), this relationship serves as a template for all other relationships. As Bruno Betteheim said, “The ways we were loved—and not loved—has shaped our expectation of how we expect to be loved and how we love.” Understanding our mothers ultimately translates into understanding what we bring to every relationship—the strengths, vulnerabilities and expectations we bring to our connection with husbands and wives, children, friends, colleagues.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers at

Writing this book was a healing journey. As a therapist, I’ve been in the business of  facilitating transformations  for decades. I know people read books to find answers to their own dilemmas. For me, it was actually the writing of this book that opened my eyes and allowed me to reevaluate my story. This book offers far-reaching lessons that are not limited to the mother-daughter relationship—but are applicable to all kinds of important relationships:

#1. Its never too late to make peace with anyone. Even when someone you love is no longer alive, it’s possible to make peace with your own feelings. And if you are at odds with someone you love, if you want to repair the relationship, take a risk, reach out and make the first move. .

#2. Developing compassion for your mother may help you develop compassion for yourself. 

#3. All relationships are imperfect. Expect disappointment, frustration and ambivalence to be part of most relationships.

#4.No one is as bad as the worst thing they’ve ever done.

#5. We are all capable of revising our stories.

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