Monthly Archives: September 2021

Highlights of Highlights!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I have very strong childhood memories of getting the Highlights for Children magazine in the mail. First of all, it was mail – for me! (And my brothers, but mostly for me.)  I’d spot it on the kitchen counter, whisk it off to my bedroom, and immediately turn to the hidden pictures page. Then I’d search and search until I found every last rake, spoon, ice cream cone, and whatever else was listed at the bottom of the page! Today, Highlights publishes entire workbooks of these puzzles. They even have an app.

The first issue of Highlights magazine came out in 1946 and was published by the Pennsylvanian husband-and-wife team – Garry Cleveland Meyers and Caroline Clark. These days, the company’s corporate headquarters is  based in Columbus, Ohio, and includes Zaner-Bloser, Stenhouse Publishers, and Staff Development for Educators. But there’s another arm of the organization you may not know about – The Highlights Foundation. This is a 501 c-3 non-profit, established in 1984, that offers “workshops, retreats, and other support to writers, illustrators, and all creators of kid-friendly content.” (For a quick history of the company, go to: The Foundation was established in 1984  in Chautauqua NY, but is now located in an idyllic rural setting in Honesdale, PA. George Brown, a descendant of Garry and Caroline, is its dynamic Executive Director.

During the pandemic, I took two of the Foundation’s classes online: “Filling the Writer’s Toolbox” with Emma Dryden, and “DIY Revision for your Novel or Non-Fiction” with Susan Campbell Bartoletti. But in August, after being prodded by my writing coach and award-winning author Sarah Aronson, and fellow Story Spinner and RMC-SCBWI Regional Advisor, Susan Wroble, I attended my first in-person event. And even though I am not a fan of mosquitos, ticks, humidity, or frizzy hair, this truly was the “highlight” of my summer.

“The Whole Novel Workshop,” was a six-day intensive for writers of MG and YA fiction. It differed from my other two classes in that it required an application. That meant submitting the first fifteen pages of my MG manuscript, a synopsis, and a cover letter. When my acceptance arrived, I literally whooped and hollered to the dog! Only that’s when the real work began. Not only would I be working on my revision during the workshop, I would also be receiving an in-depth critique of my full manuscript (from the brilliant, hilarious, and award-winning author, Crystal Allen) before I even arrived on campus. There were also three Zoom meetings with our  group (twenty participants and ten faculty), two books to read (one YA novel, one on craft), and partial manuscripts, synopses, and cover letters to read from the members of our assigned “Brain Trust” group (7-8 people). We used the Canvas platform to introduce ourselves (and our pets) and to explore writing prompts, articles, and podcasts. Needless to say, “The Whole Novel Workshop” could have been called “The Whole Summer Workshop!”

Finally, on August 21, the big day arrived. I pulled up to my home for the week, “#16,” the Jane Yolen cabin! (OMG – how did they know???) and basked in the beauty of my surroundings. There was a lovely front porch, with windows overlooking a wooded glen, a bookshelf filled with Jane’s books, posters on the wall, and an owl perched on the rafters. (I love OWL MOON!)


That evening, we all gathered for the start of what can only be described as a week of serious work, tremendous growth, and pure joy. There were craft workshops, thought-provoking morning prompts, critiques, time to write (alone or in community), Brain Trust groups (45-minute discussions about your manuscript led by YOU), one-on-one discussions, interviews with your main character (conducted by the dramatic Crystal!), pristine walks, and time to think about and work through your revision ideas. And the food! Ask anyone who has attended a Highlights workshop and they will definitely talk about the food. The chefs and servers prepare gourmet works of art three times a day, with snacks available twenty-four seven!

I could talk about this magical week for hours. (And believe me, I have.) Instead, here’s a  stream-of-consciousness recap:

Know who your audience is and what your character really wants. (So true, Rob.) Emotion drives action. Look for the fractals. (Jennifer) Journal until you’ve figured things out and do the swirlies. (Sarah) Discuss ideas with fellow novelists. (We love talking about these things, right Nora?!) Go for long walks. (Thanks for being our guide, George.) Play with tense and POV and balance dialogue, narrative, and description by using colored pens. (Nancy) Get rid of unnecessary characters. (Find your orderly, get rid of the priest- Crystal) Try new plotting tools. (Can’t wait to use yours, Erin.) Writing prompts open your mind to new possibilities! (Yes, Melissa!) No writing is wasted time. (More Melissa) Don’t be afraid of marketing. (I will be in touch, Mia.) And other assorted other words of wisdom: Pay attention to your secondary characters. It’s all about voice. Play and think in the rock garden. Be open about making changes. Make writer friends and support their work. (Miss you all!)

And of course… Keep going!

Our incredible faculty rocked it EVERY DAY and worked alongside us. (There was an open mike night on our last evening… WOW!) Endless thanks to: Crystal Allen, Sarah Aronson, Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Rob Costello, Erin Dionne, Mia Garcia, Jennifer Jacobsen, Erin Entrada Kelly, Alex Villasante, Nancy Werlin, Melissa Wyatt . Can you believe this line-up? I am still in awe of each and every one of them.

You must go to Highlights. (Even with the mosquitoes, ticks, and frizzy hair.) Put it on your to-do list. Right now.

I can’t wait to go back.





Filed under craft advice, critique, Partners in Literacy, Revision process, Rondi Frieder, Susan Wroble


My mom asked me to stay while she napped. “Take a nap, honey…on my bed.” I couldn’t refuse my 92-year-old mom. Plus, her air conditioning felt wonderful. We had just come back from being outside on a very muggy day. She quickly dozed off on her small couch. I sat close by on her twin bed and looked around her studio apartment. I was tempted to stretch out and nap, but I was too distracted.

I found myself studying all her favorite things – fragile figurines, throw pillows, antique lamps. Then, I honed in on the walls, studying decorative plates, framed art prints, framed photos of my parents wedding day… I disappeared into studying everything on her walls and atop her furniture. I felt a bit comforted. Afterall, I grew up surrounded by all these things. They were home. My mom was an incredibly talented decorator. Our home was beautiful inside. Every plate, print, figurine had a specific place. And a story. She bought most things at antique stores or from collectors out on farms. In a way, she had bought someone else’s “story” and then went on to create her own. I admit, I didn’t appreciate these things growing up. My chore was dusting them. But then I learned to negotiate with my brothers, so I could mow the lawn – and one of them was happy inside dusting away!

My mom let out an occasional snore as I tip-toed around her little apartment. I wanted to stand close and get a good look at things. I got a bit misty eyed, thinking about all the stories behind them. I was surrounded by story. Then, it hit me. Lots of these things have shown up in my fiction writing – in my character’s homes, in my themes, plots, etc. How could they not, I suppose… Afterall, they are still deep in my roots. These things. Each one holds so many stories. Each one holds part of my story. Each one.

Cards and letters: A red file next to her phone contains recent cards and letters from her kids. Growing up, she stored cards and letters in a mini wood trunk. I love having my characters write or receive letters. And I’m over the moon just imagining one of my characters opening a drawer, then discovering a bunch of letters. I get so excited about the “and then and then”! Especially when a letter holds a secret.

Framed photos: Many black-and-white photos decorate her walls; many feature her parents and grandparents. I never knew them. They were born in Poland, but my mom never told their stories. Oh my gosh! One of my characters is growing up in a Polish family. Even though I only saw my Polish relatives a few times a year (and they taught me how to polka), I never knew their origin stories, their roots. Perhaps, I have desired “finding” them in my writing. Actually, I have.

Shoes: Her brown leather lace-up shoes sit on the floor across from her couch. They have sat there ever since she started wearing a pair of white Reebok shoes. I always picture my character’s shoes, even if I don’t mention shoes in my story. The color, the brand, the style. I’m especially intrigued with why my character would choose a certain shoe.

Landline telephones: My mom has three landline phones, each within a few steps. In our teen years, my brothers and I were always vying for our one landline. All of my YA’s take place in the days of landlines. I prefer the challenge inherent in a landline, such as a family eavesdropping, everyone racing to the ringing phone…

Clocks: There are four clocks spread throughout my mom’s. I remember the obnoxious sound of our cuckoo clock while the seven of us ate Sunday pot roast. Despite my struggle with chronology in writing, I thoroughly enjoy giving clocks a major role. Nothing like an alarm clock startling a character! By the way, my childhood kitchen clock hangs in my writer studio.

Here’s to the finding, discovering the root of our stories, where ‘er they come from! Children’s author E.E. Duncan summed it up best: “It’s interesting to look to ourselves and find those themes that recur in our writing and discover their roots.” Elizabeth is a member of my amazing critique group, Story Spinners. Her biographies and historical fiction explore how history affects everyday people. Her books include, Florence Sabin, Teacher, Scientist, Humanitarian; Felipe and Dolores Baca, Hispanic Pioneers; Ralph Carr, Defender of Japanese Americans; Helen Hunt Jackson, Colorado’s Literary Lady.


Filed under Karen McChesney