Ever since my kids were little, I’ve taken them to Animal Friends to see all the cats, dogs and bunnies. As a non-profit animal resource center in Pittsburgh, Animal Friends rescues and shelters homeless companion animals and tries to find them adopted homes; it also offers all kinds of community education classes and events. The thing is, though – while we could always look in the cat rooms there (which were always so cute and colorful), we could never go in because that was reserved for volunteers. But now Animal Friends has partnered with Colony Caf√© to offer a gathering place where you don’t have to be on the outside looking in anymore – here, you get to play with the cats and snuggle with them. So from the first moment I read about Pittsburgh getting a cat caf√©, I knew we needed to plan a family adventure to go check it out.  

Colony Cafe in Pittsburgh: wine, coffee, cats

Colony Caf√© is located at 1125 Penn Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh. You can try to park in metered street spots or one of the lots or garages nearby – we parked at the Pittsburgh Parking Authority’s Grant Street Transportation Center garage and it cost us $5. We walked right across the street to the caf√©, so it was very convenient.

The caf√© itself is on the first floor and seems like a nice place to stop in for coffee, wine or food – here’s the menu. They have free WiFi and lots of cozy spots so, even if you don’t plan to visit to the cat loft, you can just hang in the caf√©.   

Colony Cafe Cozy Spots

Colony Cafe in Pittsburgh: cozy spots, cool art, fresh flowers and lots of natural light

But if you come for the cats, then it’s smart to book a reservation which you can do via the caf√© website. While reservations aren’t required, the cat visits are slotted in one-hour increments and the number of people per slot is limited to 10 so that the cats don’t get overwhelmed and everyone can get some cat time. If the slot isn’t full when you visit, you can certainly join in but slots do fill up especially on the weekends. The cats nap and take a break from us humans between 2pm and 3pm each day so plan your visit around that if you go. Other things to note: kids must be 8 years or older to visit the cat loft (except for special events where younger children are welcomed) and the cost to visit with the cats for the hour slot is $8. This fee helps Colony Caf√© cover the costs of caring for and feeding the cats – generally 10 to 12 cats live in the loft full-time until they’re adopted. Speaking of adopting – 48 cats have been adopted from Animals Friends via the Colony Caf√© since it opened in February 2017. The process is a thorough one so don’t expect to visit the cat caf√© and leave with a cat on the same day – Animals Friends is serious about making sure the cats are going to caring homes.  

Colony Cafe Cat Loft

Colony Cafe in Pittsburgh: “because everything is better with cats”

We arrived about 15 minutes before our slotted cat time and were happily greeted when we walked in by the barista behind the counter. He checked us in and, while we waited to head up to the cat loft, I ordered a chai tea and the kids and I read in one of the cozy spots in the caf√©. When we went upstairs for our visit, we were greeted at the door by another staff member. She stayed in the cat loft during the entire hour to answer any questions we might have and also monitor the cat/human interactions.

The cat loft space consists of a few sitting areas where you can observe the cats, who are lounging around in various cat-friendly spots. A basket of toys is set out if you want to play with the cats – my son loved blowing the catnip-infused bubbles which the cats mostly just curiously watched. You can hold the cats and pet them or simply just sit and read and be around them. Pictures of all the cats, along with their names, are hung on the wall so you can learn more about them if you are thinking of adopting. My kids fell in love with a little kitten named Erin – she was so snuggly and they took turns sitting in a chair with her cuddled up next to them. Each cat has a different personality, some didn’t want to be held, but all that I interacted with enjoyed the attention of a nice rub on the head. The litter boxes are accessible through a little cat-sized opening in the wall and the cats can escape in there if they need some quiet time during visits. If you need a restroom during your cat loft visit, you will need to go through the human-sized door back down the steps.    

Colony Cafe Cat Snuggles

Colony Cafe in Pittsburgh: snuggles with a kitty named Erin


Colony Cafe in Pittsburgh

Colony Cat Cafe: the cats are the main attraction

We all loved our visit to the Colony Caf√© – and I appreciated the friendly treatment we got when we were there. Also, we got an email the same day of our visit asking what we thought and if we enjoyed our time. Obviously, the staff cares about trying to make it a welcoming place for humans as well as cats.

Thanks for reading along about our Colony Caf√© family adventure in Pittsburgh – it was just like you were there!  

Love cats? You might like my blog post about the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West.



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The Pirates played the Phillies yesterday and they won 1-0.

But here are 5 things I’ll remember most about being at that game: 

1 – My son got to take the field (along with other kids in his baseball league) and it was such a wonderful experience. He got to meet the shortstop, Mpho’ Gift Ngoepe. I got lots of great pics of him on the field but the one in the featured photo above is a favorite because it reminds me that all the professional players out there started out as young kids (like my son in the photo below) who simply loved to play the game. 


2 – The elementary kids from a local school sang the National Anthem and they did an AMAZING job! 


3 – Pizza Penny won the pierogi race and I don’t really like Pizza Penny. No offense to her, but I don’t know anyone who eats pizza pierogies.    

4 – It rained but we were under cover, literally in the very last row you could possibly sit in up top. With a view overlooking the whole park, the river and the skyline – I was reminded that there’s not really a bad seat in PNC Park to see a game.


5 – Just across the river at PPG Paints Arena, the Pens were crushing the Sens. Good day for Pittsburgh sports!


Thanks for reading!




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FLASHBACK POST: I originally wrote this piece back in 2007¬†when I took my then one year-old daughter to The Andy Warhol Museum. I had taken her a couple times when she was a baby, but WOW, as a toddler, it was an especially great visit. My daughter is¬†now 10 and we’ve visited the museum a few more times over the years but I always remember that toddler¬†visit with her because I was inspired to write this piece, “Exploring the Warhol with a Pint-Sized Pittsburgher”. It never actually found a published home so…FINALLY it’s seeing the light of day!¬†Obviously, the references to specific exhibitions¬†are¬†not valid anymore and, while I’ve¬†added updated text¬†since my most recent¬†visit in 2017 (without kids this time), I kept the old¬†work as an example that¬†The Andy Warhol Museum, no matter which exhibition may be¬†up at any given time, will likely have something of value for Pittsburgh’s youngest art¬†connoisseurs.


My one-year old enjoying The Andy Warhol Museum back in 2007.

My one-year old enjoying The Andy Warhol Museum back in 2007.

Exploring the Warhol with a Pint-Sized Pittsburgher

Take your toddler to the Andy Warhol Museum.  Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.  I took my one-year old daughter and she had a blast! Mommy did, too.  The opportunity for educational fun is fit for a toddler king or queen.  Keep in mind, too, that the museum website (www.warhol.org/education) has a spectacular education section to give you some insight into the collection.  Granted, most of this information is beyond your toddler at this point, but it’s good to know that the resource exists for the future.  As for now, here are some step-by-step guidelines for making the most of your visit with toddler in tow:

1) {from 2007} Don’t go on a weekend if at all possible.  This suggestion was echoed to me by the gift shop attendant who assured me that our weekday excursion was perfect timing.  This museum works well for toddlers because of its large, open spaces.  Going on the weekday means fewer crowds.

1) Updated 2017: I still agree with this, although the museum was not uncrowded mid-week when we went recently just not as crowded.

2)¬†{from 2007} Go before March 30th to see the amazing Ron Mueck at the Andy Warhol Museum exhibition. The unbelievably realistic sculptures on display actually provide a wonderful educational opportunity.¬† Don‚Äôt miss the Mask III sculpture in the entrance gallery on the 1st floor.¬† Basically, it‚Äôs a HUGE face with a lifelike nose, eyes, ears, mouth ‚Äď you get the picture.¬† All those basic parts of the face that toddlers are learning.¬† This piece of art helps to reinforce that knowledge on a grand scale.¬† And don‚Äôt pass up Mask II, an even more impressive BIG face, on the 7th floor.¬† The other Mueck sculptures are great for teaching scale ‚Äď ‚ÄúSee the SMALL man in the BIG boat?‚ÄĚ (Man in a Boat, 5th floor), for example, or ‚ÄúLook at the BIG woman under the BIG blanket!‚ÄĚ (In Bed, 7th floor).¬† Be creative ‚Äď this exhibit can inspire your toddler in all sorts of ways but, remember, no touching.

2) Updated¬†2017: There were still plenty of opportunities to point out parts of the face especially in the silkscreen gallery of famous people.¬†You can also find other body parts in¬†art displayed as part of the¬†current exhibition Andy Warhol: My Perfect Body (through January 22, 2017). If you’re concerned that you may encounter some body parts that you’re not quite ready to discuss as art yet, just know that¬†toddlers are generally easily redirected. They will pay attention mostly to what you choose to point out to them.

Gallery of Warhol's silkscreens of famous people with chairs to lounge on when you and your toddler need a break.

Gallery of Warhol’s silkscreens of famous people with chairs to lounge on when you and your toddler need a break.

3) {from 2007} Bark and meow your way through the Canis Major: Andy Warhol‚Äôs Dogs and Cats (and other party animals) exhibit.¬† Your toddler will take great pleasure in seeing the many images of Warhol‚Äôs dogs and cats, on the 5th floor mainly, as well as the taxidermies of ‚ÄúCecil‚ÄĚ the Great Dane and the Lion.¬† The floor-to-ceiling fish and cow wallpaper on the 5th floor is impressive, too.¬† Practice the animal names and the sounds each animal makes.¬† Take note of the vibrant colors, too.¬† ‚ÄúHave you ever seen a GREEN cat with PINK eyes?‚ÄĚ

3) Updated 2017: “Cecil” the Great Dane and the Lion are still in the museum as well as the wallpaper, too, but just not organized into one exhibit. Kids can find cats, dogs, birds, snakes, cows, fish, elephants and maybe even more that I¬†missed.

Visitors are greeted by cow wallpaper as they enter The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.

Visitors are greeted by cow wallpaper as they enter The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.

A selection of art featuring cats at The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.

A selection of art featuring cats at The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.

4) {from 2007} Learn your colors and shapes and basic words with a little help from Andy.  With over 500 works of art from the Warhol collection on show at any one time, your options for learning about colors, shapes and first words is overwhelming actually.  So just make sure you don’t miss these favorites on display now: Marilyn (6th floor), Flowers, Female Head Collage, Birds (all 5th floor), and Diamond Dust Shoes (4th floor).

4) Updated 2017: Still true although the location and exact works may vary now. My favorite ‘first words’ options this visit were BOAT (Do It Yourself (Sailboats), 1962), SOUP (all work from the Campbell’s Soup series),CHAIR (this¬†work is located in the studio area),¬†& GIRL and BIRD (Seated Girl Looking at Bird Cage, 1940s).

Can you say BOAT? First words with Andy Warhol. Do It Yourself (Sailboats), 1962 at The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.

Can you say BOAT? First words with Andy Warhol. Do It Yourself (Sailboats), 1962 at The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.

Can you say SOUP? First words with Andy Warhol. Works from Warhol's Campbell's Soup series, 2017.

Can you say SOUP? First words with Andy Warhol. Works from Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series, 2017.

Can you say CHAIR? First words with Andy Warhol. This piece is located in the Factory studio area.

Can you say CHAIR? First words with Andy Warhol. This piece is located in the Factory studio area.

Can you say GIRL and BIRD? First words with Andy Warhol. Seated Girl Looking at Bird Cage, ca. 1940s.

Can you say GIRL and BIRD? First words with Andy Warhol. Seated Girl Looking at Bird Cage, ca. 1940s.

5) {from 2007} Relax and have a seat in the Silver Clouds installation.  I would suggest enjoying this interactive installation on the 4th floor after you start to feel like your toddler might be waning.  Sensory overload?  Just need a minute to sit down?  Let your toddler roam around in the Silver Clouds room.  The bright, shiny, rectangular-shaped balloons are durable enough to be batted around gently and they double as mini fun-house mirrors.  The movement of the balloons is peaceful and mesmerizing.

5) Updated 2017: Location has changed for this exhibit but it is still AWESOME for young kids to experience. Don’t miss it. Fun for adults, too.

How the time flies! My one year-old enjoying the Silver Clouds circa 2007.

How the time flies! My one year-old enjoying the Silver Clouds circa 2007.


6) {from 2007} Don’t forget the café, the photo booth, and the store.  After all this educational fun, take advantage of the café.  And after you do that, cross your fingers that the old black and white photo booth in the basement at the foot of the stairs is working on the day you’re there.  If it is, you’ll get to go home with a souvenir worthy of the money it will cost you.  As for the store, it’s just super cool.  I got a print of the GREEN cat with the PINK eyes for my daughter and a heart-shaped lollipop for my husband with words on it that make Mommy glad that her one-year old can’t read yet.

6) Updated 2017: The caf√© and gift store have changed but they’re still cool. The old photo booth is still there in the basement¬†plus they’ve added a new digital one in the lobby area to the left of the front desk. The hands-on studio area called the Factory is a great place to take kids during your visit. Also, several times throughout the year¬†the museum offers a program specifically for kids ages 1 to 4 called Half-Pint Prints.


Thanks for reading!

Twinsies! Main lobby of The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.

Twinsies! Main lobby of The Andy Warhol Museum, 2017.



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Author Spotlight: Mary Jane Miller Talks Iconography and Spirituality 

I‚Äôm happy to add another post¬†in my¬†Author Spotlight series today ‚Äď this time, in the religious art genre.¬†In¬†previous spotlights, I‚Äôve featured authors¬†who have written science fiction,¬†young adult adventure, children‚Äôs picture books,¬†middle grade historical fiction,¬†financial literacy, memoir,¬†fiction with a mental health theme, guide books for¬†addressing different family topics and spiritual self-help. Thanks for reading and now‚Ķ

Meet Mary Jane Miller, author of The Mary Collection and Icon Painting Revealed, both books inspired by her journey as a self-taught icon painter. Icons are a type of¬†religious art which was¬†originally used by the Christian¬†church¬†to teach religious doctrine.¬†Miller is knowledgeable on the icon tradition’s long history and in this¬†Author Spotlight,¬†she¬†gives us insight into why she enjoys writing and¬†painting in this genre, her experience with the publishing process,¬†and advice for others hoping to write a book and follow their calling in life.

Buy Mary Jane Miller’s books and find out more about her work at http://www.sanmiguelicons.com/.

Tell us about your books.

I have written¬†two¬†books. The first one is¬†The Mary Collection: A Meditation on the Madonna and Child, which includes¬†18 images that capture the great mystery of Mary and her unending motherly love. I created a DVD that documents how I painted that¬†collection of icons over a period of one year in my studio. The second book is Icon Painting Revealed, which is a step by step illustrated guide to the process of icon painting and how it reflects and enriches one’s spiritual life because I believe the process of painting icons is an interior journey. Egg tempera is a challenging technique but I tried to simplify the process with this book. I also published two coloring books, Ancient Image, Sacred Lines and One Mind, One World¬† – both of these offer spiritual imagery¬†that is bold, historical and fun to color. There’s a journal space beside each image for jotting down reflections and insights.

Icon Painting RevealedWhat is your inspiration for creating these books?

The infinite range of imagination and potential found in classic iconography influences my writing. I like to imagine a world where there is no good, better and best, only a desire for kindness and mercy. I am inspired by a world where we are grateful for all that surrounds us and where we attempt to connect and respect each other without losing our individual identities. My work is committed to a global culture of non-violence, respect, justice, and peace.

What was your writing process like?

I have a mind full of images and journals filled with words and concepts.¬†I think I write like I paint. I love the beginning and the end and that the¬†middle is filled with variables. As an artist you cannot help but be attracted to everything visual and sensory, the tools are paint, color, form, brushes, shadow, light, proportion, abstract and unknown. I suppose writing is the same. Making words come alive on a page for the reader is good story telling – you’re¬†trying to share what the mind sees and translate it into words.

I paint several paintings at the same time and write on many topics at the same time. I like variety so when I go back to something unfinished, the words take a new order because something has changed in my absence. All strokes and sentences become new again.

What publishing route did you choose and why?

I have only used Lulu.com, which is a way to self publish.¬†I would say, for me, I noticed that the competition is intense to get published because there are so many great writers and artists. I don’t want to compete or get rejected. I have my story to tell from my own experience¬†and, up until now,¬†I have been targeting a¬†fairly unique¬†market for iconography. I have lacked confidence¬†at times¬†but my story is getting clearer and, as I’m getting older, I¬†want to leave a legacy of¬†what I’ve¬†learned.

Tell us about how you’re marketing your work?

I do a variety of things. I run a couple of different websites where I write and showcase my art. I also publish article online and in print publications. I am active on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. I put my books on Lulu.com and Amazon. Lastly, I teach workshops and retreats each year.

One Mind, One WorldAre you working on other projects now?

Yes, I am currently working on a larger book about the absence of women in iconography and their silent voices in the Christian church. The format will include icon history, biographical info, and insights over 20 years working in the¬†egg tempera¬†medium and with¬†iconography’s ancient visual language. The book will include large images painted by me and text description beside each one.

What advice do you have for other writers who may want to write a book?

Get up at night and write that idea down. Leave your work alone from time to time, the middle is not always the middle, creative things happen when you let go of the agenda and initial outline. Watch out for too many words. Go with your heart.

What has been your favorite part of this journey so far?

At 62 I never thought I had anything to say much less the grace to say it.¬†I have surprised myself and wonder how I am here now doing this.¬†Sometimes after reading something 50 times you can still find it interesting, it is spectacular. You might change one little word and it is like adding the final stroke to a painting. Words and ideas on paper are like paintings for me. Recently poetry has popped up unexpectedly in my orbit, a few words in the correct order can be so simple, something like,‚ÄĚlive in the light‚ÄĚ. No explanation is offered, four words, yet it opens a world in the reader’s heart and causes us to stand back and breathe. Beauty always does that.

Thanks so much to Mary Jane for sharing her thoughts with us. To learn more about her work and to purchase her books, check out these sites:

Books by Mary Jane Miller

San Miguel Icons

Modern Catholic Iconography

The Dialogue for World Peace

Sacred Icon Retreat


I want to read more Author Spotlights!




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So, it’s getting closer to¬†Christmas and I’ve seen a lot of ideas for counting down the days with kids, from¬†basic candy calendars (which are¬†simple and delicious) to more altruistic ideas like kindness calendars and reverse advent calendar projects where you make donations to people in need.

We may do a combination of different ideas this year but one thing we’re definitely doing is a ‘Countdown to Christmas with Picture Books’. This¬†is perfect for book-loving families like ours because you basically just¬†wrap up a month’s full of books and count down to Christmas by cuddling up together to read.

Countdown to Christmas with Picture Books

I did this with my kids a couple years ago and it was a big hit. But¬†this year¬†I wondered if they’d still be up for it considering that now they mostly like to read chapter books and middle grade novels on their own.¬†Maybe they miss reading with me as much as I miss reading with them because, when I mentioned reviving the idea, they¬†were¬†TOTALLY excited about¬†unwrapping a pile of picture books to read with their mom.¬†I’m thrilled – I miss sitting near them and reading together as much as we used to do when they were young.¬†And, as a writer,¬†I¬†still love¬†good picture books because they’re little works of art when done well. I believe¬†no one ages out of enjoying picture books.

With that in mind, I picked out a variety of picture books (mostly all¬†published¬†in 2016 and from the library)¬†that will have us laughing, learning, and¬†smiling together.¬†I’ll share about the books on the blog as we open them throughout December.¬†I can’t wait to hear about your list if you do this activity, too! Start getting your books together now so you’ll be ready to go on December 1st.





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This Halloween I dressed as the ‘Trivial Pursuit Master Game – Young Players Edition’ circa 1984.¬†I found the old game from my childhood a few months ago when I was going through¬†stuff at my parents’ house. What a blast from the past!

I tried the game¬†out with my kids and found that questions like “How many sharks are there in the video game Survive?” or “What’s the number of the female agent in Get Smart?” were really dated and they had NO idea about the answer. But there were plenty of other questions that stood the test of time.

I thought it’d be fun to give you a¬†random question from each¬†category¬†and see if you could answer them. Ready?¬†*Answers at the end of the post.

Trivial Pursuit Master Game - Young Players Edition circa 1984

Trivial Pursuit Master Game – Young Players Edition circa 1984

Blue, People & Places: What country did Isabel Peron become the first female president in? (no comment on the dangling preposition)

Pink, Good Times: Does the face on a Kool-Aid package jug have eyebrows?

Yellow, Science¬†& Technology: What does the carburetor provide for a car’s engine – air, gasoline or oil? (note: no use of the Oxford comma!)

Brown, Art & Culture: What war is the setting for The Diary of Anne Frank?

Green, Natural World: Where does a camel store its reserve of water?

Orange, Games & Hobbies: What winter sport played on ice sometimes makes a player draw to the button?



Thanks for playing  Рand I hope everyone had a safe and fun Halloween!


*answers: Blue/Argentina, Pink/Yes, Yellow/Air, Brown/World War II, Green/Its stomach, Orange/Curling





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Author Spotlight: A. K. Downing Talks Into the Air, Young Adult Adventure Novel

I‚Äôm thrilled to be featuring another great writer in my Author Spotlight series today ‚Äď this time, in the young adult adventure genre. In¬†previous spotlights, I‚Äôve featured authors that have written science fiction,¬†children‚Äôs picture books,¬†middle grade historical fiction,¬†financial literacy, memoir,¬†fiction with a mental health theme, guide books for¬†addressing different family topics and spiritual self-help. Thanks for reading and now‚Ķ

Meet A. K. Downing, author of the¬†novel Into the Air, an intriguing read in the YA genre, yes, but perfect to be enjoyed by adults as well. The novel weaves a story about a world after life as we know it now ‚Äď a world in a dark, underground compound with allotments on everything from light to food. A strong female character named Mia Bryn leads readers through a story about journeying into the dangerous unknown, surviving surprising obstacles along the way, and learning to trust your instincts.

In this Author Spotlight, Downing gives us the inside scoop on her inspiration for writing in this genre, her experience with the publishing process as she navigates through as a first-time author, and advice for others hoping to write a book.

Buy Into the Air on Amazon and find out more about A. K. Downing at http://akdowning.com/.

Is this your first novel? Tell us about your inspiration for writing the book.

First I’d like to thank you, Mandy, for highlighting Into the Air on your Author Spotlight series. I am so honored to be asked!

Into the Air is A. K. Downing's first novel.

Into the Air is A. K. Downing’s first novel.

Yes, Into the Air is my first novel. Over the years, I‚Äôve written creative content for clients, but never a work of fiction. The inspiration for Into the Air began as my kindergarten-age daughter and I walked home from a play date. She was making up a story and mentioned a name. For some reason the name stuck with me, and later that night I wrote it down the best I could remember. Around the same time, my husband and I became hooked on ‚Äúprepper‚ÄĚ shows. I started to wonder what the earth would look like a hundred years after a catastrophic event. I was even more interested in how people would resurface and rebuild. A few months later, bits of the story started to take hold‚Ķ and the name my daughter made up suddenly had a purpose

What was your writing process like for this book?

I didn‚Äôt have much of a process ‚Äď at least initially. I didn‚Äôt create an outline. I didn‚Äôt start at the beginning and work chapter by chapter. Ideas came in jumbles. Bits of dialogue woke me up at night. At times, the ideas came so fast it almost felt obsessive. But the story evolved organically, which allowed it to build and become more complex as the years passed.

Almost all the writing took place after my daughter was in bed, or was jotted down while sitting in traffic during my morning commute. When I thought the story was in a good place, I asked 5 people to read it. Each person responded with relevant insight and comments. I rewrote large amounts of the book based on their input. Then, during the final year, I was fortunate to be introduced to an editor who pushed me to rewrite, revise and rethink. Rethinking the story three years into writing it was incredibly hard work, but it made the novel stronger and much more engaging.

What publishing route did you choose (self-publishing, traditional publishing via an agent, crowdsource publishing) and why?

I promised myself I would initially try traditional publishing. I sent queries to agents ‚Äď 75 of them ‚Äď which as any author can tell you, is a long and tedious process.¬† During this time, an author friend sang the praises of self-publishing. She reminded me that even if I was fortunate enough to be picked up by an agent, there was no guarantee that agent could ‚Äúsell‚ÄĚ the book to a publisher, or that the publisher would successfully market the book. The more I heard, the more self-publishing appealed to me. Amazon has a fantastic print-on-demand book division called CreateSpace. They also offer Kindle Direct. Working with these two online resources, I was able to design my own cover, format the inside of my novel, and publish it in both print and Kindle versions.

Tell us about how you’re marketing the book? (website, book signings, videos, etc.)

My online efforts revolve around a novel-focused website and pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. By design the site has minimal content. It features a short video and a few reviews, but my goal is to use it as a jumping point to Amazon and Goodreads. In the next few months I hope to add a blog feature to the website, which will focus on items in the novel. For instance, do underground compounds actually exist? Yes, they really are out there.

Other than social media, my marketing efforts have just begun. Like the book, they are evolving organically. Friends have introduced me to gift shop owners, teenagers I know are talking about forming Into the Air study groups, and a book group in Nashville made it their next read. Recently, IN Community magazine agreed to run a story about the book, and there are other local publications I plan to contact, as well as the local libraries. As someone who has worked in an agency for longer than I care to admit, I know that marketing isn’t a race. It’s a slow drip that continues to spread.

Are you working on other projects now?

I am currently working on the sequel to Into the Air ‚Äď and it feels so good to be writing again. The second book is roughed out. I know the sequence of events and Mia‚Äôs path. Just the other day I had an ah-ha moment that changed the focus of chapter 2. All I can say is Mia and Archer‚Äôs adventure continues with new characters, returning faces, and more mysteries revealed.

What advice do you have for other writers who may want to write a book?

Six months into writing, when I foolishly thought my book was close to completion, my husband burst my bubble and told me that the average first book takes 3 years to complete. I thought he was joking.¬† My advice for other writers is to stick with it. As you can imagine, I had low points while I was writing ‚Äď times when I wanted to quit. But I also had some amazing feel good moments. Writing isn‚Äôt a race and if you love your story and your characters, the work is worth it. The other thing I learned is not to underestimate the power of a good critique. Negative feedback hurts to hear, but if it festers long enough, you‚Äôll start to see how the story can evolve and become better.

What has been your favorite part of this journey so far?

I love these characters. I love Mia’s naivety and spirit. I love Archer’s strength and determination. It is an amazing feeling to know they are out there for others to discover. A friend recently told me that she had a huge crush on Archer. At the time I laughed, but the idea that she connected that much with one of the characters made me feel giddy. I guess mostly I feel immensely lucky to have had a story emerge the way it did, and to hear that people who have read Into the Air are ready to read more. Stay tuned!

Thanks again to A.K. for taking the time to share her insight with us.

I want to read more Author Spotlights!

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I love roller coasters, especially¬†well-designed¬†ones¬†that leave me thrilled at the end without a sore neck or back. Lucky for me, my 7 year-old son is now tall enough and willing enough to ride them with me so last weekend we said goodbye to summer break with a trip to¬†Kennywood, a fun amusement park founded in 1898 that’s now a National Historic Landmark. Located¬†about 12 miles¬†southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, Kennywood is close to the city¬†and there’s lots to love – the¬†history of the park,¬†the heritage days that the¬†park holds each summer to celebrate different cultures¬†but, most of all,¬†I love the¬†roller coasters.

The Thunderbolt roller coaster at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh.

The Thunderbolt roller coaster at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh.

While we’d¬†visited earlier in the summer, we didn’t get to ride all the roller coasters or ride them all together. So, this time it would be¬†all roller coasters, all the time! I spent a little¬†extra money¬†and bought the VIP Coaster Tour for us both. Having just come from a vacation to Disney World, the VIP Coaster Tour was like the Fast Pass of Kennywood. No lines, no waiting – it was awesome. We had a set schedule to ride the coasters – one per hour – which¬†gave us plenty of time to do other things, too. We rode the Swing Shot a couple times, we rode the Wave Swinger and the Pittsburg Plunge;¬†we ate pizza, popcorn, candy – I mean, really, it was the most amazing day with my little guy. And I even scored big at the Quarterback Challenge carnival game by throwing two¬†footballs through a tire. The prizes? Stuffed poop emojis. My son was¬†thrilled. Brownie points forever.

The prizes I won at the Quarterback Challenge carnival game.

The prizes I won at the Quarterback Challenge carnival game.

But, back to roller coasters. Here’s my ranking!¬†If you’ve never been to Kennywood and you want to feel just like you were on the coasters with us, then go for a virtual ride by clicking on the video links from Kennywood’s YouTube channel. Pretty awesome!

6. Exterminator

I rank this coaster last because, frankly, we didn’t even ride it and didn’t want to either. I’m not a fan of coasters in the dark and the theming of it didn’t appeal either so, while it may be a fun ride, I’m ranking it 6. It was the next-to-last coaster on our VIP tour so we just went to Johnny Rockets located inside the park to eat a leisurely dinner instead.

5. Racer

This is a fun ride ‚Äď a classic, wooden coaster that‚Äôs been around since 1927.¬†I love the concept of this ride where two carts race each other to the end, side by side.¬†There‚Äôs a fun camaraderie that occurs between the people in the competing¬†carts, making the ride feel very social. Definitely don‚Äôt miss the experience¬†if you go.

Virtual Racer ride:

4. Jack Rabbit

What a joyous ride! It pops you right up out of your seat on the bumpy hills! This wooden coaster has been around since 1921 and is a must-do at Kennywood. This was the last ride we rode of the day and it was getting toward dusk so the lights came on in the park as we were riding. Nice way to end the coaster tour and our fun day together.

Virtual Jack Rabbit ride:

3. Sky Rocket

I went back and forth about whether to rank this coaster 2 or 3 because I really loved it. Sky Rocket is a smooth ride that shoots you ‚Äúlike a rocket‚ÄĚ from 0 to 50 mph in¬†three seconds up a super steep hill then¬†sends you careening down over the other side at a 90 degree angle. There are some topsy-turvy, curvy¬†tracks that make the ride super enjoyable. If only it lasted longer.

Virtual Sky Rocket ride:

2. Phantom’s Revenge

This coaster was our first on the VIP Tour and what a fun way to start the day! Phantom’s Revenge won out over Sky Rocket (just barely) because of the sheer speed and height of its tallest drop (up to 85 mph and 230 feet). It’s an exhilarating ride that provides one of the best views over all of Kennywood Park and leaves you with a big smile at the end.

Virtual Phantom’s Revenge ride:

And drumroll…

1. Thunderbolt

No question here for me ‚Äď Thunderbolt is the best coaster at Kennywood. It has everything going for it ‚Äď the nostalgia of¬†wooden tracks, the thrilling ‚Äúfun-right-out-of-the-gate‚ÄĚ feeling you get when you immediately go down a hill after boarding, the sense that the ride goes on and on (it doesn‚Äôt feel too short at all) and you pop out of your seat on this ride, too. Simply classic, a do-not-miss ride if you visit Kennywood.

Virtual Thunderbolt ride:

Thanks for reading!

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I haven’t done an Author Spotlight post in a few months so it’s definitely time for one! In¬†previous spotlights, I’ve featured authors from¬†a¬†variety of genres, including:¬†science fiction,¬†children’s picture books,¬†middle grade historical fiction,¬†financial literacy, memoir,¬†fiction with a mental health theme, guide books for¬†addressing different family topics and, now,¬†spiritual self-help.

Meet Tanya Carroll Richardson, author of the¬†upcoming book Angel Insights and also Heaven on Earth, a guided journal published in 2015.¬†I met Tanya once many years ago and¬†I could tell she had¬†a great sense of adventure and passion for life.¬†She has directed some of that passion for life towards¬†helping people “make sense of their past, present and future as an intuitive, and help them make contact with their spiritual support team‚ÄĒespecially their angels.”

In this Author Spotlight, Tanya gives us the scoop on her motivation for writing in this genre, how she reaches out to readers, her experience with the publishing process and advice for others hoping to write a book. Thanks, Tanya Рand look for web links in the interview if you want to learn more about Tanya and pre-order her book!

What motivated you to write in the spiritual self-help genre?

I’ve always been very spiritual, and I got into the self-help genre about 12 years ago when I became very ill. That also brought me to a new level of faith. I don’t identify with any one religion, so Llewellyn‚ÄĒa mind, body, spirit publisher‚ÄĒwas a perfect fit for me.

Tell us about your new book and any previous books. Any new projects in the works?

My latest book, which is out May 8, is Angel Insights (Llewellyn Worldwide). It’s a 300-page nonfiction book about angels: who they are, how to communicate with them, how to get more help and guidance from angels. I have been interviewing people about their angel encounters for over a decade, and I am also a professional intuitive (meaning I give psychic readings) and work closely with angels in my sessions with clients. I came out with a guided journal in 2015 called Heaven on Earth (Sterling Ethos), and in November of 2016 Forever in My Heart: A Grief Journal (Ulysses Press), releases. I am also working on a series of romantic fantasy novels, but I’ve had to put those on hold temporarily while I write guest blogs to promote Angel Insights.

HighResAngelCoverWhat has been your experience with the publishing process?

Well, I got very close to selling a novel about 15 years ago. I had agents at big houses like Little Brown pitching it at the edit meetings and whole teams of people at a house taking it home to read over the weekend. My agent felt really excited about the book and told me from the beginning it would go to auction (this is the dream: a bunch of publishing houses bidding on your book and jacking up the advance price). After about a year it all calmed down. No one made a solid offer. My agent was wonderful, and so supportive. But really it completely broke my heart. I let the experience devastate me. I got a job at a magazine where I ghostwrote nonfiction stories and found that very safe and fulfilling, and just hid out from the book world for a long time. I don’t look at it as a mistake because everything happened for a reason. I learned a lot about writing at that magazine, and I worked on my health and went deeper with my spirituality.

The genre I was originally writing in, literary fiction, is not my calling. My calling is to help people make sense of their past, present and future as an intuitive, and help them make contact with their spiritual support team‚ÄĒespecially their angels. The books I write now are a wonderful compliment to that, where I can touch a large amount of people instead of being limited by a one-on-one session with a client (although I LOVE those one-on-one sessions). It was tough getting back into the book world though, when my nonfiction agent and I sent the proposal around for my 2015 guided journal I had a bit of PTSD, worrying that it would all come to nothing again. But I was wiser, a better writer and more determined this time. And I had the emotional maturity to realize that one “failure” isn’t even close to the end of the world. Writers really require two things: a thick skin, and the ability to pick themselves up very quickly and try again after rejection.

What methods have you used to reach out to your readers (social media? YouTube? tv/radio? book signings/discussions?)

I’m so glad you asked this question! I have a good¬†Facebook following and a decent Twitter following.¬†My husband helps me make my YouTube videos.¬†I’m obviously working all of those to presell and soon sell the book. Also I have a FANTASTIC publicist at my book company, and I am doing an article for Mind Body Green (website) and a series of articles for Beliefnet (website) to promote the book. I’ve also been doing radio shows and podcasts. The great thing about PR is that it works‚ÄĒpeople seek you out and order your book if they like your podcast or article.

HeavenonEarthI was having lunch with a friend yesterday who is the senior editor at an imprint here in NYC. And we were agreeing that all anyone wants to know anymore is: “How big is the author’s platform?” It’s to the point that you get sick of hearing that word “platform.” Platform is especially important in nonfiction. The author’s platform is how many potential readers they can reach on their own, without the help of the publisher or extra promotion. When agents and editors are looking at an author’s platform, they will grade it based on how many Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest followers the author has. It’s not enough to simply have these accounts open and active. They want to see a large number of followers. Same with YouTube. How many subscribers does the author have? How many views and comments are on the videos? If you have strong ties to a print or online publication‚ÄĒsay you are the staff editor of a magazine or have a weekly online blog on a big website‚ÄĒthat will also reflect very favorably on your platform. And of course if you’ve published books that sold well in the past those figures are a slam dunk for your platform. Publishing is getting more and more competitive, and publishing companies are struggling more than they have in the past, so they want authors who are sure bets. Authors who are guaranteed to sell. Will they take a chance on someone with no platform and a great manuscript? Yes, they will do this for a certain number of authors every year, but I fear that number is getting smaller and smaller. This is different with fiction. In the fiction market a good, sellable manuscript is still king. Of course how well or not well your previous fiction books have sold counts enormously. It can be frustrating if you just started an FB author page and struggled to get 500 likes from friends and family. Don’t get discouraged. But do push yourself to try and increase that platform as much as you can, even if you are a fiction author. Buy some Facebook ads to attract people to your page who like the subject you write about. Pitch articles that are a tie-in to your book¬†to big websites. Or if you are a fiction author enter contests, apply for grants and publish in literary journals.

What’s your writing process like?

I don’t really have writers’ block, which I know is very real for some people. I think that is partly from working at newspapers and magazines for so long where there were very tight deadlines. There was no time for writers block. Also, I’m a pretty outgoing person and a natural risk taker, so I’m not the type to be shy about showing my writing or afraid I will write the “wrong thing.” In the past few years since I’ve been writing books again, I find I start planning the book in my mind and take detailed notes for several months before I start writing, and before I get my agent involved and start thinking through a book proposal (if the book is nonfiction). I’m in that process now of planning and note taking for my next nonfiction book, which will be about what I’ve learned as a professional intuitive.

Do you have any words of wisdom for those hoping to write a book?

Yeah, just go for it! Think of how many times you read a book and hated it, or picked up a book at the store and thought, “This idea is so simple.” Look at the whole thing, including the publishing process, as an adventure. And remember being a writer is only one part of your life, and fame, on any scale, doesn’t always have much to do with talent or hard work, so don’t judge yourself if things don’t work out the way you hope. Have fun with it! The book inside you could inspire someone else or even change their life.

Thanks again to Tanya!

To preorder Angel Insights for yourself or anyone who is curious about angels, here’s the Amazon link:

Also, if you’re interested in receiving a one-on-one intuitive reading from Tanya, check out this link to learn more:

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For a very long time, I’ve had a fascination with Ernest Hemingway. Beyond¬†reading the many books and short stories he wrote, like many¬†people, I’m drawn to the man¬†himself – the¬†stories that inspired his¬†books,¬†the artists and writers he was friends with, the places he traveled and,¬†of course, the women he loved.

I’ll go for stretches where my fascination is satiated¬† – where, like a favorite song I’ve played on repeat for way too long,¬†I’ve just simply had enough of Hemingway.¬†And then¬†last month for spring break¬†we soaked up the sun in¬†Key West and, while I’d been there a couple times before, I’d never taken the time to tour the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. This time I made sure to visit and it was awesome.

Hemingway House_National Landmark


We took a tour through the house and as the guide told us highlights of Hemingway’s life, I tried to imagine him in the space. Did he spend much time on this beautiful balcony overlooking the lush grounds? Could he hear the water fountain down below? Visiting and vacationing in a place is different than living your everyday life there –¬†but did he ever just take the time to sit out on this balcony and feel the breeze on his face or was he always busy?

Hemingway balcony in Key West

At first I didn’t think my kids would be too excited to visit Hemingway’s house but when I told them about all the cats they’d see, they definitely wanted to go. We took lots of photos of the cats who were everywhere on the grounds, we stopped by the little cat graveyard and marveled at the¬†cat house that looked just like the big human house. The kids got to pet the cats and feed them treats that our tour guide provided. They loved it.¬†My favorite¬†photo I took was the feature photo¬†for this post¬†of¬†the¬†cat hanging out by the famous Hemingway pool. But this one that my husband took is a close second – just look at that fluffy tail and that sweet face!

Hemingway House Cat

Apparently, Hemingway wrote most mornings and then went fishing in the afternoon or some other activity which¬†probably included¬†drinking. This was¬†my favorite place to see on the tour¬†– his writing studio. I imagined him sitting at that desk in that (not very comfortable-looking) chair tapping away on his typewriter. I love that he was surrounded by books and I love the natural light that must’ve flooded the room each morning like it does here.

Hemingway writing studio in Key West

For more info about the Key West house, Hemingway’s list of works, those adorable cats and so much more, visit the Hemingway Home & Museum website.

Do you have a favorite Hemingway book? Let me know in the comments and thanks for reading!




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I recently visited my hometown of Abingdon, Virginia¬†(awesome place, you should visit) and took a drive out to¬†White’s Mill, a restored late 18th century water-powered flour mill that is registered as a Virginia Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was a great day to take photos because it was sunny yet¬†cold, snowy and icy, too.¬†I got some good photos of the mill so¬†take a look through them and¬†it’ll be “just like you were there” – enjoy!

Historic White's Mill

White's Mill in wintertime

White's Mill Frozen Over

White's Mill Close-up Frozen Over

Shadows on the Snow at White's Mill

Water wheel with ice at White's Mill

Water wheet close-up at White's Mill

Thanks for stopping by – for more “Just Like You Were There” blog posts, click below:

A Perfect Afternoon in Oakland, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob, Public Art at Randyland, Sunday Drive to Harmony and Zelienople, Hiking at Laurel Hill State Park, Exploring Hartwood Acres,¬†Blueberry Picking at Soergels Orchards

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As I sit here working on my first story for 2016, I am reflecting back on the work I did in 2015. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re a writer because you’re always focused on your current stories and then looking forward to what’s next. It’s nice to look back sometimes and what better time to do it than now as we get ready to jump into 2016.


To start off 2015, I did a story about 5 people making Pittsburgh a healthier city. It was one of the most personally inspiring pieces I did all year, and also one of the hardest to get right, requiring hours of work and revision. Ultimately, I was so happy with how it turned out.

5 People...Healthier City

I also continued my new Author Spotlight series with an interview of Christa Melnyk Hines. I have known Christa for many years now and it was a pleasure to highlight her great work.                        


This month I got one of those emails from an editor that makes you do a happy dance. I was offered the opportunity to do a monthly feature for NEXTpittsburgh about the top family adventures going on in the city. These stories take so many hours to put together but I enjoy them immensely because I think people really appreciate them and find them valuable. My first story was the Top Family Adventures in March feature which included events like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Maple Madness and Be My Neighbor Day.

Also this month, I launched my new author website at www.mandyyokim.com! It was a long-term project that finally saw the light of day. I had a wonderful designer to help me through the process ‚Äď Cassie Brkich at Brkich Design Group. She also helped me with my Wonderaddo website and it‚Äôs always nice working with her.


This month I worked on the Top Family Adventures in April feature for NEXTpittsburgh and I did a feature for Kidsburgh about 11 Unique Summer Camps in Pittsburgh. That was a super cool story to write and it ended up being the 6th most popular Kidsburgh feature of the year. I was amazed to learn about the variety of opportunities for kids in the city. CSI Camp for budding forensic scientists or Wilderness Survival Camp, anyone? 

I also wrote a story for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review which highlighted the high school newspaper at Baldwin High School. I like these kinds of community-interest stories plus I love shining a light on the positive efforts of teens.

Unique Summer CampsI started a new Wonderaddo series this month: the Weekend Roundup, which listed a lot of the activities going on around the city that helped families learn about the world right here in Pittsburgh. What kinds of things were in my first Roundup? The 35th Annual Latin American and Caribbean Festival and the 14th Annual Brazil Festival. I continued this series until September when I accepted that few people seemed to be reading the posts which took me a lot of time to compile each week. Oh well, you live and learn. Not every idea is going to work out.

This month my family hosted Armenian guests for dinner through GlobalPittsburgh. I wrote a blog post sharing our experiences for Wonderaddo.

Lastly, I did three Author Spotlights this month and they were all different but equally interesting. Gene Natali Jr. wrote a book about financial literacy, Becky Morales focuses on cultural education for kids and Lara Krupicka likes to help families create bucket lists, which is a neat concept.


I did one of my favorite stories of the year this month ‚Äď it was a feature for Kidsburgh about how to travel the world with your family right here in Pittsburgh.¬†This story was also highlighted on the KDKA-TV Pittsburgh¬†Today Live¬†morning show.¬†¬†

LiveTweetingPghMarathonThis month I attended the Women‚Äôs Press Club Banquet¬†and met so many wonderful people. We got to hear a talk by Terry Mutchler, attorney and former award-winning journalist who was appointed as Pennsylvania‚Äôs first Executive Director of the Office of Open Records.¬†But my favorite memory from that night is getting to meet an editor I‚Äôd worked with at the Tribune-Review. For about five years we had worked together, all by email and phone. It was a pleasure ‚Äď and pretty strange, honestly ‚Äď to meet her in person after all those years.

I did an Author Spotlight on Valentine Brkich, a very clever guy who can make me laugh out loud and that is no small feat!

I finished off the month with a Top Family Adventures in May story. What were some of the top activities in May? The¬†DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and Disney FANTASIA with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.


I did a couple of interesting newspaper stories this month about a Financial Literacy Day at Ross Elementary and the North Hills Future Business Leaders of America team winning a National Championship. I rarely do interviews in person, mostly all of them are done via email or by phone. It was a nice treat to get into the classroom and talk with the students and teachers.

Have you read the All Souls Trilogy? This month I got to hear author Deborah Harkness speak at The Hillman Center for Performing Arts at Shady Side Academy. I found her to be very inspiring and interesting. It was cool to see all the fans of her work there and to be reminded that good writing and good stories matter to readers.

Children's FestivalI wrote two blog¬†posts this month about two of my favorite yearly events in Pittsburgh: the International Folk Festival and the EQT Children‚Äôs Theater Festival. I am always amazed at the dedication and hard work that it takes to put on these big events ‚Äď it‚Äôs nice to know that there are so many passionate people in the city that care about sharing these opportunities with all of us.

I finished up the month with one of the two biggest Family Adventures articles I’ve done to date. The June feature was basically a summer guide to all kinds of family-friendly opportunities in the city. Some cool events I included were the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival and Slide the City. 


This month I wrote a Summer Guide to Exploring the World in Pittsburgh for Wonderaddo. I also participated in the Read Around the World Summer Series on the Multicultural Kid Blogs website where I blogged about Learning about Roberto Clemente.

Women’s soccer was huge this month during the FIFA World Cup Canada and I wrote a blog post about Pittsburgh native, Meghan Klingenberg, who was on the USA team.

Resized Summer Guide_Wonderaddo_2015 (2)

I finished up the month with the Top Family Adventures in July feature, which included the Three Rivers Regatta and the Vintage Grand Prix.


During the heart of summer, I had several firsts. I took my kids to their first opera during Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s Summerfest 2015. It was awesome! I also wrote a guest blog post for Multicultural Kid Blogs about how my kids and I were Learning about France in Pittsburgh.

This month I started a new blog series called Just Like You Were There, which was my way of sharing some of my photos while also spotlighting some of the really cool things to do around Pittsburgh. I kicked it off with a Sunday Drive through Harmony and Zelienople and then I did some Blueberry Picking at Soergel Orchards and took in some public art on the Northside at Randyland.  

I closed out July with the Top Family Adventures in August feature.


One of my favorite stories of the year to research was the 10 Outings for Families in Pittsburgh feature I did for NEXTpittsburgh. This article gave families some fun ideas for getting out to explore the city, complete with suggestions for lunch or a sweet treat. Examples included kayaking at North Park and step climbing on the South Side Slopes.

Top FA in September

I wrote a Family Guide to McKeesport’s International Village for Wonderaddo and continued the Just Like You Were There series with blog posts about Hiking at Laurel Hill State Park, Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob and Mansion Exploring at Hartwood Acres.

I transitioned out of summer into fall with my Top Family Adventures in September feature.


This month I did a cool Author Spotlight on Scott T. Barsotti, who wrote a sci-fi novel called Single Version. One of the interesting things about this story was that I learned about Inkshares, a relatively nontraditional way to get a book published. Although it was too early to know if Scott’s efforts through Inkshares would be successful, I’m happy to report now that he DID eventually get his book published. Congrats, Scott!

In addition to completing the Top Family Adventures in October feature, I was able to get out with the Women’s Press Club for a tour of the Toonseum and view its Political Cartoons and the First Amendment exhibit. We got to hear Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist, Rob Rogers, tell us about the exhibit and I had a blast from the past when I saw work in the show from fellow University of Virginia alum, Jen Sorensen, who does awesome work and was one of just a few women featured in the exhibit.          


This month was a good one for variety ‚Äď I did my monthly Top Family Adventures in November feature as well as a cool story about Raising a Foodie, where I compiled a listing of different cooking opportunities for children. Examples included Valentine’s Day Tea-themed classes at Crate Cooking School and¬†Tween Chef Fall Baking classes at Giant Eagle Market District.

I wrote an event preview for ‚ÄėThe Nayika Project‚Äô which celebrated heroines of Indian culture through a creative hip hop/Indian fusion. I was inspired to write a Just Like You Were There post about A Perfect Day in Oakland after spending time with a dear friend, who turns out is the perfect person to meander through Phipps Conservatory with on a blustery, fall day.

Perfect Day in OaklandFinally, I did an Author Spotlight on Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan who recently self-published a children’s book and will soon be published in Highlights Magazine. I love seeing my writing pals do well, including my college friend who started a blog called Romance Debuts where she interviews romance authors about their books and the steps taken to get published.

Also this month I celebrated Youth Literature Day by hearing author Kate DiCamillo speak as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series. I found her to be warm and funny and completely down-to-earth, despite being one of the most beloved children’s book authors writing today.


This month I attended my first writing conference, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Fall Conference in Pittsburgh. I learned some inside tips from editors and¬†agents. It was a wonderful experience and here‚Äôs hoping I can take some of what I learned and get my own children‚Äôs book manuscript ready to submit soon!

I did an Author Spotlight on Leah Pileggi, an author I met at the SCBWI conference. I admired her for writing a middle-grade historical fiction novel ‚Äď and the research she did for the book was fascinating. I love learning about history which brings me to one of my favorite writing-related events of the year, getting to speak at Duquesne University‚Äôs Graduate History Department. Every couple of years, one of my former professors assigns a paper I wrote about the Cold War and cultural diplomacy way back when I took his class. This is the second time I‚Äôve had the chance to go into the classroom and talk with the students and it‚Äôs very rewarding. Do I feel a little old standing up there talking about my paper with those young college students? Yes. Do I still think it‚Äôs pretty cool? You bet.

Finally this month, I did my last Top Family Adventures in December feature of 2015 which was probably my biggest one yet. I finished it up over Thanksgiving weekend spent with family in Virginia. That’s one of the best aspects about being a freelance writer, you can work from just about anywhere.Susan Sofayov Collage2


And here we are in the last month of 2015 and I’ve written a news story on the Teen Zone at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in East Liberty and an Author Spotlight on Susan Sofayov, who wrote a compelling book about a young woman living with bipolar II disorder.

I’m looking ahead to 2016 now as I finish up my Top Family Adventures feature for January and start researching another story for Kidsburgh due next month.


Thank you for supporting my work throughout the year – cheers to a very happy 2016 for all of you!

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Some people go out of their way to help others and it can make all the difference.¬†Last month I met Susan Sofayov at a writing conference. Besides being willing to share writing tips and information, she impressed me with her generosity and kindness. Susan offered to read my friend’s children’s book manuscript at our table over lunch so she could discuss and give immediate¬†feedback.¬†My friend was so appreciative and happy for that time.

As I talked with Susan more, I¬†learned that she wrote¬†her book, Defective, with the same generous spirit.¬†Through¬†the story, which is about a¬†young law student¬†who is diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, Susan gives insight into the mind of a person battling mental illness. Susan told me that she wanted readers to understand¬†that “though not curable, mental illness, in many cases, can be controlled and people with mental illnesses are everywhere, living productive lives.”

I think we all know someone who is living with mental illness (whether ourselves, our family or friends) – it is such an important issue in our society. Susan’s book helps the reader to understand better and empathize more.

Find out more about Defective on its book website and on Facebook. For musings from Susan, follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Sofayov

Where is your home base? 

I grew up in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, but I’ve lived in Mt. Lebanon for the last fourteen years.  I’ve also lived in Philadelphia and Tel Aviv.

DefectiveBookCoverTell us a little bit about your writing life ‚Äď how often do you write? Do you have a writing routine?

I wish I had a routine!  My husband and I run a real estate development/management company, which takes up more time than I would like.  Lately, when I can eke out an hour or two of writing time, it’s spent revising.

I refer to myself as a monogamist writer.  Unlike some writers who have multiple projects going at any time, I work on one piece until it’s declared finished, which means I can’t stand looking at it anymore. The project I’m currently querying is called the Kiddush Ladies.  The best way to describe it is a Jewish, Steel Magnolias, only darker.

Tell us about what inspired you to write Defective? How long did it take you to research and write it? What was your writing process like for this book?

A combination of events inspired me to write the book, but the most important was my own diagnosis of bipolar II disorder at age 46.  I wanted people to understand that, though not curable, mental illness, in many cases, can be controlled and people with mental illnesses are everywhere, living productive lives. If you read the book and see yourself in the main character, Maggie, please get help.  You owe it to yourself and the people who love you.

I guess you could say I researched for almost forty years and wrote the book in two months. The revising and polishing took over a year. This was the first thing I ever wrote outside of grant proposals, so I had a lot to learn, especially about back story and passive voice.

What was the publishing route for this book? Did you have success right away with your query being accepted?

I sent this book out to agents too early.  It wasn’t ready so I received a bunch of rejections. Once it was ready, I participated in a pitch event on SavvyAuthors.com and received three serious requests.  In the end, I decided to go with Black Opal Books, a small boutique press.

What advice do you have for other writers who are hoping to get published?

Join a critique group, go to conferences, learn the rules of novel writing and publishing, and grow a very thick skin. I’ve seen a lot of writers who take critiques of their work very personally. Other writers who offer to critique your work generally want to help. If you enter a critique situation wanting to only hear good things, you’ll never grow as a writer.  When I went to my first conference, an editor painted my manuscript with red ink.  A year later I saw her at another conference and practically hugged her. Her insights led me to a contract with a publisher.


Thank you to Susan for sharing – and thank you for stopping by the blog!


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A couple of weeks ago I attended the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Pittsburgh. It was my first conference and I was not disappointed. I felt like I was really part of a community of like-minded people, all gathered to share and learn. In addition to attending several panels led by editors and agents, one of my favorite parts of the day was meeting fellow members who have successfully published their work.

Several of these published authors brought their books to sell and as I walked by the tables, one book in particular caught my attention because the author had set out a binder of her research materials. As a history buff and historical fiction fan, I was drawn to this binder of newspaper clippings, transcripts, photos and other examples of investigation and discovery. The book is called Prisoner 88, based on the true story of 10-year old prisoner in Idaho during the 1880s. The author is Leah Pileggi.

Thank you to Leah for taking the time to share some of her insight into writing books, her road to getting published and advice for all of us on the journey.

Learn more about what Leah is up to on her website and on Twitter.

Where is your home base? 

I live in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, but I grew up in Kane, Pennsylvania, the ‚ÄúIce Box‚ÄĚ of Pennsylvania. It‚Äôs a tiny town in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, and it‚Äôs generally the coldest place in the state. And I thought everybody grew up watching logging competitions!

Tell us a little bit about your writing life.

I generally write in my study next to bookcases stuffed with children’s books and writing resources and story ideas. I write every day, but the amount varies. When I’m in the middle of a book project, I generally work on that first. I might also write a journal entry, a Facebook post, a letter to the editor. This morning, I wrote a dialogue between two of the characters in my novel just to see how they would talk about a certain subject. It might or might not become part of the book.

Prisoner88_Final_CVR_300 (2)What inspired you to write Prisoner 88? How long did it take you to research and write it?

Prisoner 88  was a story that was waiting for me to find it. I heard about a 10-year-old prisoner in the 1880s when I took a tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise. Nobody had researched the boy, so I got to do all of the digging. I worked (from Pittsburgh) with the Idaho Historical Society and consulted lots of experts:  hog farmers, an Idaho judge/historian, an Old Pen historian, and descendants of the boy. I studied Mormon publications and histories of Chinese in the Old West. I read newspapers from that time and the trial transcripts. There was no record of how the boy survived his time in prison (for shooting a man in a saloon who had threatened to kill his father), so I wrote my version of how this boy might have survived. The whole project was probably five years from writing the first word until publication.

What was the publishing route for this book? Did you have success right away with your query being accepted?

I’ve never sent out a query. I think I had sent this manuscript out once and gotten it rejected. But I was sending out other manuscripts and getting loads of rejections. I almost gave up on children’s writing. I decided to send what I felt was my best manuscript (Prisoner 88) one more time, and then I would pursue journalism. I found that Emily Mitchell from Charlesbridge was accepting submissions (I read it in the SCBWI Bulletin in the publication column). It seemed like a fit, so I wrote a heart-felt letter, printed out the manuscript and sent it off.

Two weeks later, I got an email from her, and I thought, ‚ÄúWell, on to journalism.‚ÄĚ Her email began, ‚ÄúThank you very much for sending me your manuscript,¬†Prisoner 88. Now relax ‚Äď this is not a ‚Äėthanks but no thanks‚Äô email.‚ÄĚ She went on to say that she loved it and they were putting together an official proposal for acquisition. I called my husband, and he thought I was having a stroke! I rode my bike around the neighborhood aimlessly. I probably cried. Prisoner 88¬† was plucked from the slush pile. It really can happen.

What advice do you have for other writers who are hoping to get published?

Read everything you can in the genre in which you‚Äôre writing. Know what‚Äôs out there. Don‚Äôt imitate but learn from authors that you love. Read carefully. Look at structure. Read their work out loud. Read your own work out loud. Even if the dog thinks you‚Äôre nuts. Get feedback from writers. Friends are great, but you need input from people who have studied writing, so find a critique group. If you‚Äôre stuck, start something new, just to refocus your brain. Then go back. Get perspective. Go to writing conferences (check carefully what is being offered ‚Äď they are not universally worth the money). Focus your energies on the writing process.

What are you working on now?

I‚Äôm working on two books, both set in Pittsburgh. One is middle-grade nonfiction about the Fort Pitt Block House. The other is a contemporary novel‚ÄĒworking title Looking for Louise‚ÄĒa story of an 11-year boy whose world is falling apart. It deals with divorce and friendship and with race relations today and in the 1950s. Pittsburgh icons Teenie Harris and Porky Chedwick both make appearances. Both books are close to being finished, but I haven‚Äôt sold either one yet. Fingers crossed.


Thanks for stopping by the blog!

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Last week I spent a perfect afternoon in Oakland just east of downtown Pittsburgh and home to University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon.

I met a dear friend for one last walk through the¬†Summer Flower Show at the¬†Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.¬†This wasn’t my¬†first visit, more like my 50th because¬†it is one of¬†my favorite places in Pittsburgh. I highly recommend seeing the Phipps in person but, until then, this online tour is really nice.

First, we sat at Caf√© Phipps,¬†drank tea¬†and chatted. Then, we¬†wandered through the plants and flowers in each room,¬†taking our time and occasionally stopping¬†to snap¬†photos of¬†something particularly inspiring. We sat by a ‘fire’ in the¬†Tropical Forest Congo exhibit and talked for what felt like forever. What a joy it is to just sit and talk with a friend.

Afterwards, we went to Craig Street and had¬†lunch at Lulu’s Noodles, poked around the Caliban Book Shop,¬†stopped in at Top Notch Art Supply and¬†bought a few¬†gifts at Snowlion Imports.

What a perfect afternoon! Look through these photos that we took at the Phipps – it’ll be¬†just like you were there.

The lovely Firecracker Plant

The lovely Firecracker Plant in the Serpentine Room

The Madagascar Ocotillo in the Desert Room

The Madagascar Ocotillo in the Desert Room

The Bolivian Hummingbird Sage in the Sunken Garden

The Bolivian Hummingbird Sage in the Sunken Garden

The Lantana 'Gold Rush' in the Sunken Garden

The Lantana ‘Gold Rush’ in the Sunken Garden

The Rattlesnake Plant in the Victoria Room

The Rattlesnake Plant in the Victoria Room

Beaded elephant masks in the Tropical Forest Congo

Beaded elephant masks in the Tropical Forest Congo

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‚ÄúI worked in study abroad for seven years and deeply appreciate your efforts. It's a gigantic - yet small - world out there and we have so much to learn from and appreciate about each other. A broader, richer perspective benefits us all.‚ÄĚ

- Julie H.