All posts by Liza Ketchum

A shout-out to my readers

“Where on earth did you come up for the idea for this story?” A friend posed this question at a recent book signing for my novel, Out of Left Field. I explained how the story grew from a visit, long ago, to the D-Day cemeteries in France. But after the event, I realized that this question—or a version of it—is the one I hear most from audiences, whether the questioner is an eager first grader, an aspiring adult writer, or a curious reader. Often, I answer in relation to the specific book at hand, telling about a trip I’ve taken, or something I read in the paper, or an incident I’ve witnessed.

But questions, comments, or criticisms from readers have inspired me most over the years. Readers’ queries have led me to revise stories, to write sequels, or to create a new novel from scratch.

Twelve Days in August by Liza KetchumMy young adult novel, Twelve Days in August, told the story of a high school soccer team and its struggles with homophobia and prejudice. The main character, Todd, finds himself in conflict with his peers and his own values; the book is really his story. Alex, a talented player (and secondary character) who is new in town, becomes the brunt of bullying and name-calling. Todd has to decide where he stands; his inner turmoil defines the novel. After the book was published, a number of readers wrote to me and asked: “What about Alex? Is he gay, or not?”

Blue Coyote by Liza KetchumI didn’t know. But Alex intrigued me as a character, and I was also fond of his twin sister Rita, who had a minor part in Twelve Days. Since I often write books to answer questions that puzzle me, I decided it was time to tell Alex’s story. The result was Blue Coyote. For those who haven’t read the book, I won’t give away what happens—except to say that the novel faced challenges for its content. Those readers who asked about Alex pushed me to take risks, and I’m glad they did.

A different example of interaction with readers occurred when my novel, Orphan Journey Home, was appearing in serial form in newspapers across the country.

The story ran in weekly installments in over a hundred cities and towns, and readers wrote with questions and comments. The serial form was challenging to write: each chapter could only be 750 words and ended with a cliffhanger designed to entice the reader to buy the paper the next week. While the story was running, I received a contract to expand the novel for publication as a book.

Orphan Journey Home

illustration © C.B. Mordan

This was a unique opportunity. Expanding the story would let me fill in missing gaps in the plot, deepen the characters, and answer readers’ questions.

Usually, when a book is bound and printed, it’s too late to respond to readers. But as schools and libraries invited me to talk about the serial version, I jotted down their comments and questions. Some were factual, such as “What caused milk fever, anyway?” (It took me many months of research, and a moment of serendipity, to find the answer. See the Author’s Note in the book for the answer to that one!) One child wondered how Moses, whose leg was injured on the journey, managed to get crutches in the middle of the wilderness. (Good question!) After a talk I gave in Kentucky where I was puzzled about the route the children might have followed, a local historian sent me a map of the buffalo traces that became rough wagon roads.

The children in this story faced the danger of being “bound out”—kept as servants until they reached adulthood. They were also traveling from a free state (Illinois) to Kentucky, still a slave state in 1828. At one point in their travels, a black boy named George—who is bound out himself—helps the children escape from a man who wants to keep them. When I spoke to students at a library in Dayton, Ohio, an African American boy came up to me, at the end of the program, concerned about George. “Why couldn’t the kids take George with them?” Before I could answer, he figured it out himself. “Oh. Kentucky was a slave state. I guess it wouldn’t be safe to take George there.”

“What else could the kids do?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “At least have them think about George again,” he said. “Maybe they could wish they had saved him.” What a great suggestion. Adding that emotional thread deepened the story.

Finally, one of the best questions I ever heard during a school visit came from a sixth grader. “What do you imagine you’ll be doing in ten years? What will you be writing?”

Out of Left FieldI was too surprised to come up with an answer. How could I predict the future? Now a decade has probably passed since he asked that question. I didn’t know then that I’d write two more historical novels before finishing a story about Red Sox baseball, the Vietnam War, and a boy in search of the truth about his family. (Out of Left Field). I wish I could thank that boy for his great question. I hope his own life has been full of adventure and promise.

Five living dolls: meet the Dionne quintuplets

Circa 1937.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The quints in 1937. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rosie worries about her big family getting bigger. A real-life Canadian family, the Dionnes, started with quintuplets in 1934. Despite the five girls finding fame as toy doll inspirations and child celebrities, their personal lives weren’t easy. Here’s a look at their early years in the media spotlight.

Rosie enjoys marine wildlife on ‘porpoise’

© Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz |

© Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz |

Rosie and her mother spotted porpoises swimming by the beach. How do you tell the difference between dolphins and porpoises? Here are some tips:

Helicopter hero outsmarted California wildfire


A Navy rescue helicopter carried water to a California wildfire in October, 2007. By English: Lance Cpl. Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rosie found help fast when fire threatened her home.

One 2014 California firefighting hero did all his lifesaving while piloting a helicopter.

Are donkeys really stubborn?

"Canyon Donkey" by Laura Leveque

“Canyon Donkey” by Laura Leveque

Are donkeys really stubborn? Rosie faced that possibility at a birthday party. Sometimes, a donkey’s personality is just plain fearless. Here’s a Colorado inspiration that made headlines in 2012.

40 years later, Brady Bunch fans multiply


By ABC Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 At the beginning of Allergic to My Family, Rosie is shocked to imagine being one of six children. America’s most famous fictional six-kid family has stayed young on television for more than 40 years. Fans of “The Brady Bunch” celebrated in 2014 with the first-ever “Brady Con.” 

Californians care for animal wildfire victims

SmokeyBearStampRosie’s California home is threatened by a wildfire. The state has learned how to help forest animals who suffer injuries from such blazes. Discover how some Californians have learned how to care for animal wildfire victims.

Skunks as pets

In Allergic to My Family, Rosie’s family adopts a skunk. Could you really have a skunk for a pet? It’s possible, but over half of our states have laws against doing so. Do your research first, so you know all it takes to raise such an unusual animal.

Here are two sites, Just Skunks and a National Geographic photo-essay by photographer Vincent J. Musi, that will provide you with more information.

A possible career?

© Imfoto | - Girls In Marine Biology Excursion

© Imfoto | – Girls In Marine Biology Excursion

Careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are much in the news for young people. Many schools are refocusing their curriculum to encourage careers in these fields. Rosie has thoughts about becoming a marine biologist in Allergic to My Family. Here’s an interesting link to some of the foremost marine biology research centers in the United States. What about including one center as a destination on your family vacation plans?

Allergic to My Family fuels Olympic gymnastics dreams

AllergicBookKetchumThis month, we’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at one of my middle-grade novels, Allergic to My Family. It’s a tale of adventure and family, filled with humor, available as an e-book.

The main character, Rosie, has plans for being an Olympic gymnast. Are there young readers in your world with the same ambition? And who wouldn’t aspire to be this gymnast?