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Grad instructor’s new children’s book is National Book Award nominee

Lisa Graff
September 17, 2013

“A Tangle of Knots,” the new children’s novel by McDaniel graduate instructor Lisa Graff, just landed a prestigious spot as one of 10 National Book Award nominees for young people’s literature. The five finalists will be announced next month, and a winner will be named in November.

“A Tangle of Knots” is Graff’s sixth book for 8- to 12-year-olds, and that doesn’t count the science fiction she co-authors for young adults under the pen name Isla Neal. A magical story told in puzzle-like pieces, “A Tangle of Knots” features an 11-year-old orphan named Cady, who has an exceptional Talent for baking cakes.

Graff is currently teaching “Reading Like a Writer,” the online course she developed for McDaniel’s graduate certificate program, Writing for Children and Young Adults (WCYA). The nomination is just the most recent praise amid rave reviews from Time for Kids, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and Christian Science Monitor.

Although Graff writes children’s books, she doesn’t shy away from tough topics – “Double Dog Dare” deals with divorce, “The Thing about Georgie” centers on dwarfism and the main character in “Umbrella Summer” is grieving and healing after the death of her brother.

These critically acclaimed books – which have landed on the reading lists of 23 states – coupled with Graff’s five years experience as an associate children’s book editor with Farrar, Straus & Giroux made her a top choice for instructor, says WCYA program coordinator and professor Mona Kerby, a noted children’s book author in her own right.

“I am thrilled, proud, and happy that our WCYA instructor Lisa Graff's latest book has been named as a nominee to the National Book Award,” says Kerby, who most recently published “Owney, the Mail Pouch Pooch.” “Our graduate WCYA program is serious about turning out the next generation of writers of children and young adult books, and we have the faculty to help them.

“Lisa is a great writer – just read the first page of ‘The Thing About Georgie’ and you’ll see what I mean – she also had the outstanding experience as an associate editor of knowing what manuscripts were or were not selected and why. She can line edit, dissect stories and offer feedback.”

The writer-editor turned teacher is savoring every minute of her first-time teaching at the college level. She enjoys seeing what the students bring to the table – especially their analyses of the books read for class.

“These are books I've read now four, five times or more, and I'm always shocked to find new perspectives on the stories. That's probably the best part of teaching the literature class – the lively discussions, the things my students point out in the books we read that I never would have picked up on otherwise,” says Graff, who finds keeping up with grading the hardest part of teaching but points out that no one ever went into teaching for the grading.

The idea for “A Tangle of Knots” took root when Graff discovered the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a real store in Alabama that buys unclaimed luggage, mostly from airports, and resells the contents to the public.

“I thought that seemed like an amazing place to set a story, so I held onto the idea for a few years until I had a story idea that would fit just right,” says Graff, who grew up in the shadow of a ski resort in Big Bear, Calif., and wrote her first book at age 8 after whining to her mother that she was bored. “My book takes place mostly in the Lost Luggage Emporium in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is my invented (slightly magical) version of the real store.”

Cake recipes – including peanut butter, peach, s’more and garlic cakes – help describe the characters in the book. 

“I definitely love baking. For me, adding recipes to a book is a really fun way to include readers in the story. It breaks the reader out of the action of the book for just a moment, and in this case, it tells you something about a character you might not have known otherwise,” she says. “Plus, cakes are delicious!”

School Library Journal interview with Lisa Graff

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