It’s that time of year – everything is all “last minute gifts” in your face and you may be starting to feel a teeny tiny bit caught up in all the anxiety. Never fear – I know you know that things you buy aren’t what is most important in life. You’ll stop to breathe and enjoy your family and friends, I know you will. Being stressed around the holidays isn’t fun for you or the people around you. So this gift list is the Anti-Last Minute Literary Gift List. All the gifts will likely be there after Christmas, too, when you really might want and need to cozy up with a good book or put down a few thoughts in a journal.

Here’s a short but sweet list of literary gifts, all created by some of the incredibly talented friends and acquaintances I’ve met here in the Pittsburgh area.   


Write in a journal

I met my friend Alexis here in Pittsburgh when we were both new moms doing storytimes and playdates with our baby girls. She is now on the other side of the state and our girls are so grown up. She designed the art for these cool journals. Make lists, plan things, write a story. The possibilities are endless.


Mark your place with an artsy bookmark

My friend Dawn made one of these metal, glass-beaded bookmarks for me and I always think of her when I use it. Bookmarks are good for making sure you don’t dog-ear pages in your books – the pages don’t like it. They told me so.


Light the room with a book-themed paper cut nightlight – Mary Poppins theme

I met Kathryn at a writer’s workshop and absolutely loved her work. She says the paper cutting takes a lot of time but, wow! – it’s worth it for this beautiful end product that shows a mystery design when the light is turned on.


Beep, beep! Pre-order this sweet book which is a play on the song, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Writer Kate Dopirak is the kindest person you’d ever meet. She has worked long and hard to earn her success and she is always super helpful and willing to share her knowledge and experience with other writers. I can’t wait for this adorable book to come out – yes, I’ve already pre-ordered it.


Burn a book-themed candle while you read

I don’t personally know the maker of these literary candles but I had to include them because they’re made here in Pittsburgh by a local mom and the scents are inspired by various books. This ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ candle is just one of the examples you’ll find – there’s also The Color Purple, The Great Gatsby, etc…I ordered one of these as a Christmas gift for a friend. Now I’m thinking I should’ve probably ordered one for myself, too.


Thanks for reading and happy gift giving!


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The latest in my ‘Just like you were there’ series: a ride through the Fort Pitt Tunnel!

Driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into the city of Pittsburgh is a must-do when you visit. I remember my first time taking the drive and seeing the city appear at the end of the tunnel – it was magical and I’m sure I was like “Wow!” just like my son does at the end of this video below. And he’s seen the view already several times. It’s the experience that keeps on giving good feels especially at night with all the lights of the city. 

Here in this video, you can take the drive with me (while we listen to Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’) and experience a little bit of the fun virtually although doing it in person and getting a full left-to-right view of it all is highly recommended. 

Enjoy! And for more ‘Just like you were there’ posts, click here.

Just like you were there: riding in the car with me through the Fort Pitt Tunnel with the beautiful lights of Pittsburgh at the end. Bonus: Wham! Christmas music in the background. If you were with me, where would we be going? What would we be doing? You can't change the radio channel, though.

Posted by Mandy Yokim on Sunday, December 3, 2017

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Picture book biographies are one of my favorite kinds of books. Children respond well to the learning that takes place while reading them because – picture books!

I went to the library this weekend and was super excited to get these 2017 picture books right as they were being shelved for the first time – so they are brand new this year and just making their way onto library shelves. Exciting! 

Here they are – 6 new picture books about fascinating women as architects, animators, singers, dancers, authors and activists. Enjoy!

The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter tells the story of Zaha Hadid, a girl born in Iraq, who is inspired by nature and patterns, eventually training to become an architect. Her designs aren’t initially accepted for various reasons, including that she is a woman, she is Muslim and her ideas are different than others. But Zaha doesn’t give up and now her buildings can be seen around the world. I love how this book highlights the tenacity of Zaha and her desire to design buildings how she chose and not how others told her they should be. The end of the book lists some more biographical info, along with key quotes and a listing of the famous buildings she designed in different countries. The text is sparse but powerful. My son’s recommendation? “That was a good book.”

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio tells the story of how Billie Holiday grew up having a rough childhood and how she experienced racism throughout her life even after she became a famous jazz singer. The book tells how she used her vocal talents to sing a song called Strange Fruit which was written to protest the treatment of blacks in the South. This book deals with heavy themes about racism, not shying away from the subject of lynching which is alluded to in the lyrics of the song. The focus of the story is on the power of using art to speak out against injustice. Biographical notes at the end of the book tell more about the song and Billie’s life, including mentioning the substance abuse issues that would cause her death at 44 years old.


Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton by Sherri Duskey Rinker tells the story of author “Jinnee” Burton who wrote classic children’s books like The Little House (a Caldecott Medal Winner), Katy and the Big Snow and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The book does a good job of showing that she wrote the books for her two sons who saw her illustrations and stories come to life as she worked. I liked how the book used lyrical text and illustrations to let the reader feel Jinnee’s creative process. I also liked seeing how her sons inspired her to write and that she worked alongside them, involving them so that they felt invested in the stories.

Danza!: Amala Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico by Duncan Tonatiuh tells the life story of Amalia Hernandez, from deciding she wanted to be a dancer to ultimately founding and running her own dance company that traveled the world. Amalia combined her training in ballet and modern dance with the folk dances of her home country to create innovative works that highlighted Mexico’s history and culture. The illustrations in the book are beautiful and the glossary at the end helps readers to understand many of the terms used in the book.


Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville is the story of Mary Blair, an artist who loved color but came of age in a black and white kind of world. She was one of the first women hired to work at Walt Disney Studios but her career also included work in advertising, children’s book illustrating, television and stage design. While her work did make it into some famous Disney movies like Alice in Wonderland, the book ends with a focus on her vision that culminated in the creation of the classic ride, It’s a Small World. I had never heard of Mary Blair and this picture book format was the perfect way to be introduced to her – a beautiful book with a strong message for readers to be true to themselves and their vision despite the naysayers they may meet along the way.

Dangerous Jane by Suzanne Slade tells the story of Jane Addams, from a young girl seeing people in need to her life as a woman helping hard-working families at Hull House in Chicago. The book also highlights her despair about World War I and her efforts in the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women. The “Dangerous” Jane nickname comes about after the war as she continues to help people from other countries, many accuse her of being a traitor. The book ends with Jane being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first American woman to win it. This book covers a lot of history while still keeping the theme of Jane’s desire to help others as the driving force of the all the content. The timeline at the end of the book lets readers see a progression of even more of Jane’s accomplishments not specifically addressed in the text.


Thanks for reading! Join me on Facebook and Twitter for more discussion about children’s books and reading/writing themed topics.  

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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 Café 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 café, I knew we needed to plan a family adventure to go check it out.  

Colony Cafe in Pittsburgh: wine, coffee, cats

Colony Café 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 café, so it was very convenient.

The café 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 café.   

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 café 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 Café 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 Café since it opened in February 2017. The process is a thorough one so don’t expect to visit the cat café 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 café. 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 Café – 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 Café 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 ( 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’t miss the Mask III sculpture in the entrance gallery on the 1st floor.  Basically, it’s a HUGE face with a lifelike nose, eyes, ears, mouth – 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’t pass up Mask II, an even more impressive BIG face, on the 7th floor.  The other Mueck sculptures are great for teaching scale – “See the SMALL man in the BIG boat?” (Man in a Boat, 5th floor), for example, or “Look at the BIG woman under the BIG blanket!” (In Bed, 7th floor).  Be creative – 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’s Dogs and Cats (and other party animals) exhibit.  Your toddler will take great pleasure in seeing the many images of Warhol’s dogs and cats, on the 5th floor mainly, as well as the taxidermies of “Cecil” 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.  “Have you ever seen a GREEN cat with PINK eyes?”

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 café 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’m happy to add another post in my Author Spotlight series today – this time, in the religious art genre. In previous spotlights, I’ve featured authors who have written science fiction, young adult adventure, 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 spiritual self-help. Thanks for reading and now…

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

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, 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 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,”live in the light”. 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  – and 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’m thrilled to be featuring another great writer in my Author Spotlight series today – this time, in the young adult adventure genre. In previous spotlights, I’ve featured authors that have written 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 spiritual self-help. Thanks for reading and now…

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 – 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

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’ve 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 “prepper” 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… and the name my daughter made up suddenly had a purpose

What was your writing process like for this book?

I didn’t have much of a process – at least initially. I didn’t create an outline. I didn’t 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 – 75 of them – 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 “sell” 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 – and it feels so good to be writing again. The second book is roughed out. I know the sequence of events and Mia’s 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’s 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 – times when I wanted to quit. But I also had some amazing feel good moments. Writing isn’t 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’ll 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 – a classic, wooden coaster that’s been around since 1927. I love the concept of this ride where two carts race each other to the end, side by side. There’s a fun camaraderie that occurs between the people in the competing carts, making the ride feel very social. Definitely don’t 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 “like a rocket” 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 – Thunderbolt is the best coaster at Kennywood. It has everything going for it – the nostalgia of wooden tracks, the thrilling “fun-right-out-of-the-gate” feeling you get when you immediately go down a hill after boarding, the sense that the ride goes on and on (it doesn’t 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—especially 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 – and 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—a mind, body, spirit publisher—was 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—especially 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—people 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—say you are the staff editor of a magazine or have a weekly online blog on a big website—that 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 AcresBlueberry 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! It was a long-term project that finally saw the light of day. I had a wonderful designer to help me through the process – Cassie Brkich at Brkich Design Group. She also helped me with my Wonderaddo website and it’s 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 – 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’s 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’s first Executive Director of the Office of Open Records. But my favorite memory from that night is getting to meet an editor I’d worked with at the Tribune-Review. For about five years we had worked together, all by email and phone. It was a pleasure – and pretty strange, honestly – 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’s Theater Festival. I am always amazed at the dedication and hard work that it takes to put on these big events – it’s 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 – 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 ‘The Nayika Project’ 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’s hoping I can take some of what I learned and get my own children’s 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 – 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’s 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’ve had the chance to go into the classroom and talk with the students and it’s 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’s 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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“I 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.”

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