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Meet teen activist and author Zach Hunter
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ZachHunter Headshot.jpgNineteen-year-old Zach Hunter has spent his teen years trying to solve a problem. That would be the problem -- a global problem -- of modern slavery. Slavery? Yes, slavery. Not a thing of the past! In fact, today there are an estimated 27 million people around the world living as slaves...and half of them are children.

Since he was 12, Zach has been working hard to spark a movement that encourages young people like him to stand up and fight for a cause they believe in. He started the platform "Loose Change to Loosen Chains" to help end global slavery, and wrote three books -- "Be the Change," "Lose Your Cool," and "Generation Change" -- to inspire young people to find a cause they're passionate about and get involved.

We found Zach's books to be well-written and really motivating, with easy-to-follow ideas and practical tips. Books like these definitely mean more as one young person speaking to another. Recently, Zach shared some of his experiences and advice for tweens.

IML: You were 12 when you first became aware of the issue of modern slavery. How did that happen? Was it something you saw or read?

Zach: It was February during African American History Month. I had been learning about some of my greatest heroes -- people like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass who won their own freedom and then worked to free others. I had wished I had been alive to work on the Underground Railroad. For me, the most embarrassing issue in American history was the fact that people of my skin color thought it was OK to own people of another race. Slavery made me so angry and I wished I could have done something about it.  Of course, I was only 12 -- what could I have done? It was at that time that I learned that many children my age were still enslaved today and there WAS something I could do.

IML: Once you knew you wanted to "be the change" when it comes to slavery, what was your first step? I mean, that's a huge problem. Most kids wouldn't know where to start!

be the change.jpgZach: I didn't really know where to start. I was really angry, but I knew feeling mad wasn't enough. I knew my feelings were meant to bring about change.  I did some research and found out that many of the groups that work to free slaves needed money for their work. I also learned that most people were surprised to hear that slavery was still going on. So, I decided I
could use my voice and make people aware -- just like people did during the abolitionist movement 200 years ago. I also learned that there's about $10.5 billion in loose change in American households and many people just throw it away. I thought - what if we, as kids collected change and helped to loosen the chains of oppression. It's nothing novel or new -- just a simple change and awareness drive.

IML: How has your activism helped you in other areas of your life, like family, friendships, and school?

Zach: I used to suffer from a terrible anxiety disorder. I was really nervous to go outside, go to school, etc.  But, when I began speaking up for people who are oppressed, my courage grew.  It hasn't really made school or friendships easier; in fact sometimes, they are harder. It can be kind of hard for people my age to relate to me when they find out I've written books and
speak around the world...but I'm just a really normal guy.

IML: What would you like pre-teens to know about the issue of slavery, and what we can all do about it?

generation change.jpgZach: Our generation can use our freedom and our resources to help others. 27 million people are enslaved today. Half of them are kids. They may work making bricks all day, or weaving rugs. They may be beaten and abused or kept from their families. They work long hours and have no access to school or healthcare. By speaking up, raising funds, writing school papers, posting on Facebook, and telling your friends, you can be part of the solution. You can also be smart about how you spend your money and let the companies you like know that it's really important to you that they get rid of slavery in their manufacturing.

IML: How can we educate ourselves more about this issue?

Zach: I have a lot of information on my website and also, you can check out the website for the U.S. Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Office. In my book "Be the Change," I give a lot of background information about slavery, the people who inspire me and what kids can do to help end the sale of humans.

IML: Your faith plays a big role in your work. Do you think your books will be useful to young readers who are not Christian? When it comes to fighting for something you believe in, what do you think we all share, regardless of our religion or level of spirituality?

lose your cool.jpgZach: Anyone who believes people should be free is welcome to join the effort to end slavery. My faith is important to me and I talk about it in my books -- but anyone, regardless of what they believe or how we might disagree on that issue will find a common point of agreement: our neighbors around the world deserve to be free. Working together, we can accomplish more than we can alone.

IML: You have a lot of great ideas in your books. Any particular favorites?

Zach: I am really glad I got to write about helping people find their own passion to change the world. I talk about this a lot in "Lose Your Cool." I also think the chapter on Kindness in "Generation Change" is something really practical and something we all could do better at.

IML: Thanks, Zach! Keep up the incredible work and we hope your words inspire some IML'ers!

Zach: Thank you!

Tell us: What type of volunteer work have you done or are doing now?

Book Review: "Dear Bully"
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Bullying is such a big part of life growing up that if you ask any adult, they'll surely have a story from their past to tell you about getting bullied, being a bully, or witnessing it. When you hear these stories, do they help you feel less alone or help you understand the situation? Do they help you think past the here-and-now and instead, consider the consequences and lasting effects?

dear-bully-cvr_catalog1-345x500.jpgA new book from HarperTeen called "Dear Bully," edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones, hopes to do just that, with the help of 70 popular YA authors who have contributed their stories about bullying from every possible side of the experience. These stories are funny, sad, horrifying, and thoughtful. They may make you angry, and they're very likely to make you think of something that has happened, or is happening, in your own life.

Our favorite tales include: the one from R.L. Stine, who discovered he could use his talents for being funny to turn the tables on his bullies; Kieran Scott's letter to the queen bee girl who made life miserable for a group of friends; and Lisa Yee's regretful memories of standing by while one girl got picked on by her entire school.

The thing that comes through in these stories is that whatever the experience, no matter how terrible or haunting or scarring, these writers have overcome it to be self-confident and successful adults. In many cases, the authors used the pain from their pasts in their writing, and to become stronger people.

We highly recommend this book to all tweens and teens -- whether you're being bullied or not. It's a great read that will help you better understand what counts as bullying, why people might do it, and how to deal with it while being true to yourself and what you need.

A portion of the proceeds from "Dear Bully" will be donated to the organization Stomp Out Bullying. Learn more at, which features a blog and one new story each week.

"Faces of Hope", and some thoughts, 10 years after 9/11
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We have not one but two big anniversaries coming up this weekend. The first, of course, is the 10th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The second is the anniversary of It's My Life.

That's right. IML was born right after these attacks happened 10 years ago. We had just gotten the news that we were getting funding to create this website for tweens, and were starting to plan it out, when that day happened. One year later, we created a section called September 11 to help IML'ers think about and talk about not just those events, but all the fears and feelings associated with them. Even though most of today's IML'ers don't remember 9/11/01, we think the information on those pages still holds some great advice, especially "Feeling Freaked Out," "Media Madness," and "Celebrate Diversity."

Faces Hope 10 Year.jpgAfter the attacks, a book called "Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11" was published, featuring fifty babies -- one from each U.S. state -- who were busy being born on the same day the world changed for most of us. The author, Christine Pisera Naman, has revisited these now-tweens in her new book, "Faces of Hope: Ten Years Later." Christine shared some of her experiences creating the book as we all reflect on this anniversary.

IML: Besides their birth date, what do the kids in your book have in common? 

IMG_0228.JPGChristine: I think they have much in common.  They are all happy, energetic, full-of-life tweens. They have never lived in a time where 9/11 has not existed but yet they see our world as a hopeful, happy place, one in which they believe that they can make a difference. They are quite a diverse group with each one  coming  from one of the fifty states. They live different lives and lifestyles that have them spread out all over the United States but they remain linked by their birthday and its significance.
IML: What have most of the kids been told about the day they were born, and how did their families keep birthdays joyous while also being respectful?
Christine: Now that the kids are approaching ten years old, the families have now begun telling them a little bit more in detail about the events of September 11.  They know that it is a sad day in our history because innocent lives were lost.  They are aware of the plane crashes and the way in which the events unfolded.  I think that in regards to "knowing," they may be at slightly different levels but it is now a part of the history classes they participate in at school so they do have knowledge.

I think that birthdays are acknowledged two-fold by most families.  We celebrate the child and the great people they are becoming just as you would any child on their birthday. But I also think that the families set aside time to make sure that they respect the bigger picture by honoring and praying for those lost and their loved ones.

IML: Do you think these kids feel a "responsibility" to the world, or at least to those around them, because they were born on 9/11/01?
Christine: Personally, I don't know if they do but I would love it if my own son felt more of a responsibility to do good for the world because he was born on 9/11/01.
IML: The book is dedicated to Christina Taylor Green, who is featured posthumously after being one of the victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last January. What did you learn about Christina during the process of doing the book?
Christine: I learned that Christina was an amazing, beautiful, intelligent little girl.  She was gifted in so many ways and had so many interests that made her into the special child that she was.

IML: Many of today's 10-year-old's don't really understand what happened on that day and how it changed the world. Do you think it's important for kids to know that, or is it better to keep it in the past and focus on the present and future?
Christine: I think it's important for all children to know in a way that's appropriate to them what 9/11 was about.  It is a part of our history and they need to know about the tragic events. It is a good opportunity to teach them about the courage and goodness that came from that day. We can show and tell them that humanity banded together as one and stood up against adversity.

IML: Thank you, Christine! What a great way for us to recognize this day.

Now it's your turn: Tell us how you think the events of 9/11/01 changed the world!

Meet teen sailor (and author!) Alex Ellison
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alex.jpgIf you don't think it's possible for you and your family to live peacefully together in your home, imagine if you had to live peacefully together on a boat...for five years!

When Alex Ellison was 8, he set off with his parents and his sister, Lara, for a one-year trip on their sailboat. One year became five years, spent on the Caribbean island of Nevis and other remote locations. Alex and his family shared adventures as well as challenges -- everything from tropical navigation to dangerous waters to tropical storms.

Alex, who is now 16, kept a daily journal through all of it and has turned that into a memoir entitled "A Star to Sail Her By: A Five-Year Odyssey of Coming of Age at Sea." We asked Alex to tell us a little more about what it was like to spend his tween years traveling on a sailboat and what it's like to look back on this amazing experience.

startosailherby.gifIML: Do you remember what your original reaction and thoughts were, when your parents first informed you that you'd all be going on a sailing journey together? What were you excited about? What were you sad to leave behind?

Alex: I was originally quite surprised, but I really was thrilled; it sounded like a grand adventure. I had sailed before, and I couldn't wait to do so much of it and to see new countries. The prospect of the trip consumed me, so the only thing I was afraid of leaving behind was friends and family; but some of them would visit and at the time, I thought it would only be a year anyway.

IML: How did a one-year trip end up being a five-year trip?

Alex: After about eight months of being at sea, it was almost time for my family to start returning to the U.S., but we all agreed that what we had found was too good to give up after just a year; we wanted to make it our lifestyle.

IML: Most families would implode if they have to spend that much time together in close quarters. How did you keep from driving one another crazy?

Alex: As a family, we had always been fairly close, but living in such a small space was definitely a challenge at first. My sister and I very quickly learned how our own space -- no matter how small -- was very valuable, and if you wanted that respected you had to be respectful. Eventually, we grew more comfortable and we scarcely had any issues.

IML: Did you have certain jobs or responsibilities on the boat?

Alex: Absolutely! When I started the trip I was only eight, but I still helped trim the sails, cook, and I was often on watch: looking out for lobster pots and other obstructions in the water. Five years later, I had learned a lot, and when we had to make several day passages, I took a night shift: sailing the boat by myself from 3 am to 6 am as my family slept below. It was a tremendous responsibility.

alex2.jpgIML: What was the scariest thing that happened during those five years? How did it change you?

Alex: The scariest thing that happened to me was getting sick from swimming in contaminated water. I was swimming in a freshwater stream on an island, but the water was infected from nearby livestock and some of the water got in a cut I had on my foot. The disease nearly killed me, and I had to be flown back to the U.S. for two months of hospitalization. The disease infected my brain, so I had to relearn how to walk and for a few weeks I could not do even basic arithmetic at the age of 10. I eventually regained those skills. Afterwards though, I realized that I was incredibly lucky to have such gifts we take for granted like walking and thinking.

IML: Wow, that must have been intense. We're glad you came through that. So on the flip side, what was the funniest thing that happened?

Alex: One time we were sailing through a storm, and it got so bad that we decided to seek shelter in a nearby harbor called Walliabou. It was foggy as we went in, so we couldn't even see the harbor, but we knew where we were going. As we sailed in, we passed a rock arch with some nooses hanging from it, and as we came in towards the dock, we saw an ancient-looking town. It was entirely deserted, and all the buildings were made of giant blocks of stone and had hay roofs. When we walked ashore we passed the blacksmith's shop and the cooperage.  It was like we'd sailed into the past. We finally found someone living there and we asked them what was up with the town. She smiled and explained, "Oh, they just finished filming Pirates of the Caribbean here, this was Port Royal, and they left the set up!"

IML: That is awesome! Okay, so who was the most memorable person you met during your travels?

Alex: Of all the incredible people I met during my travels, the most memorable was Joseph the fisherman. Just after my ninth birthday, my family sailed to the tiny island of Mayreau in the Grenadines. In that region, it was very common for sailors to be approached by local vendors in boats selling bread they had cooked or fish they had caught. Unlike all the others who had large, homemade speed boats, Joseph rowed around the island in a small, colorful dinghy. After selling my parents some fish one night, he invited me to come fishing with him the following day. So the following day I departed with Joseph as the sun rose in his small craft. We made our way out of the harbor and down the side of the island to a deep offshore reef. For the whole morning we pitched about in his small boat, tossing lines from our hand reels over the side. The bottom of the boat slowly filled with a rainbow of reef fish. I caught a nurse shark, but we had to let that one go since it would have filled the bottom of the boat. As we fished we talked, and I learned some interesting things about Joseph; he had no intention of marrying before the age of 50 because he wanted to avoid the whimsical nature of women until he was mature and experienced enough to handle it. He had plenty of other such advice for me. Joseph remains so memorable to me because of how he exposed me to Caribbean culture and gave me access to such a unique experience at a pretty young age.

IML: How did keeping a journal help you understand what you were experiencing?

Alex: At the time, writing in the journals was a relaxing pastime. I enjoyed writing everything about the day down. A few years later though, when I went to write my book, they were very helpful in recollecting feelings at the time and when I could use them to look at the big picture in detail, they gave me a sense of how I changed and learned over time.

To learn more about Alex and his book, visit We loved all the photos from his adventures!

Book Review and Author Interview: "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"
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missperegrine_cover.jpgIn the new bestselling book "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," by Ransom Riggs, 16-year-old Jacob has the adventure of several lifetimes. After a devastating family tragedy, he finds himself headed for a remote island off the coast of Wales and what remains of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a mysterious place that has, until now, only existed in his grandfather's bedtime stories. Who were these children? What made them peculiar, and why were they sent here? And are they really gone from this place?

We enjoyed this book a great deal, partially because it feels -- and looks -- different than most fantasy novels written for tweens and teens. The story uses vintage photography that's both unsettling and very cool. We think IML'ers will find this one a great summer read full of suspense, mystery, and weird pictures you'll want to show your friends.

Ransom took some time recently to answer our questions for curious (and perhaps peculiar) IML readers!

IML: Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of the book? Do you remember the initial spark that inspired the story?

Ransom: Absolutely.  I've been an amateur photographer since I was a kid, but a few years ago I got interested in another kind of photography -- found photography.  That is: old pictures that used to belong to people but don't have homes anymore.  You can find them at garage sales and second-hand stores and on eBay, and the more I saw of them, the more old pictures I found that I thought were really beautiful.  So I started collecting them.  

One particular kind of old photograph that interested me was pictures of kids -- many of which seemed sort of creepy, with the kids not smiling, wearing old, weird-looking clothes, and having crazy-looking hair.  I started wondering about them, what their stories were.  I couldn't know the truth, of course, since I had no idea who they were. So instead I made up stories about them, one after another, and those were the seeds of the characters -- the peculiar children -- that Jacob meets in the book.

IML: The photographs are pretty fascinating. Where do they come from? What can you tell us about the process of finding them and working them into the story?

missp.jpgRansom: Almost all of them come from flea markets and antique stores.  Many were lent to me by other photo collectors -- people who've been searching for cool old pictures for ten, twenty years, and have really amazing stuff. Working them into the story was the fun part -- but also a challenge.  Sometimes I would come across a photo I really liked as I was writing, and I would find a way to change the story enough so that I could work the photo into the book.  Other times I knew I needed to tell the story in a certain way, so I went out looking for photos of specific types of people or events, to fit what I had already written.  So it was a strange, organic process where the photos influenced what I wrote and what I wrote also influenced the kinds of photos I was looking for.

IML: Usually, you don't see any kind of "visual aids" in books for tweens and teens -- like readers are supposed to outgrow them at a certain point. What do you think they add to the experience of a book?

Ransom: They say that a photograph is worth a thousand words, but I think there are things about really great photographs that you can't describe with even a million words. They're sort of like the soundtrack to a film.  You can take away the music that's playing during a movie scene, and it doesn't really change the meaning of the scene -- but it's hard to argue that good music doesn't add something to the viewing experience. At the same time, just any music won't do. If the music feels wrong, it'll be jarring and mess up the scene. It's the same with photos in a book. The wrong photos would be distracting and mess up the reading experience. If I describe a scene or a person in words and then show you a picture and it's absolutely nothing like what you were imagining, it's like bad music in a film. It takes you out. But a picture that gels with the text can add all sorts of layers and details that would take forever to describe in words.

IML: You're also a filmmaker. How is the process of writing a book different from the process of making a film?

Ransom: You write books alone. You can't make a film without lots of people helping you: actors, cinematographers, editors, sound designers. They're all writing the movie along with you as you make it. So you have to be really open to collaboration. When you write a novel, you're only really collaborating with one person: your editor. And in this brave new Internet age, you may never even meet that person!

IML: Who were the authors and what were the books you loved when you were a

Ransom: I loved the Chronicles of Narnia.  John Bellairs's young adult mysteries were great, and super creepy.  Ghost stories and Sherlock Holmes mysteries were great.  And I had a major soft spot for those Choose Your Own Adventure books.

IML: There's a big (but good) "creep out" factor in this book. Why do you think it's so fun to be "creeped out" when you're reading?

Ransom: I think creepiness is directly related to the unknown, and things that are mysterious (and a bit dark), and wondering about those things is fun and fascinating.  What's buried in the lost tomb?  Are aliens real?  Was it a ghost that just knocked over the picture frame in my room? What makes zombies get up and walk around when they're supposed to be dead? Creepy is better than just plain scary, because you can't look away from creepy -- you want to know the truth!

IML: Definitely! Thank you so much for letting readers know a bit more of the "story behind the story."

You're welcome!

Book Review: "Bitter Melon"
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On IML we often see comments and questions from tweens about parents who are super-strict, or pushing their kids really hard at school, or generally having sky-high expectations for everything, or even using hurtful words to express anger or disappointment. Sometimes, a person is dealing with all of these things at once, and that's a lot to handle. Really, a ton!

Take a look at a recent advice question from Jessica, age 12. Wow.

Sometimes one of the many factors in this kind of situation is a parent's ethnic background and culture. As we talk about a bit in our Immigration section, being from one country and raising your family in another can cause all sorts of fireworks.

Bitter_Melon.jpgWe enjoyed a recent book called "Bitter Melon," by Cara Chow (Egmont USA). "Bitter Melon" is about Frances, a Chinese-American teenager whose one job in life is to get into Berkeley and become a doctor to fulfill her single mother's ambitions for her. She's going along with this until she accidentally discovers a speech class at school and turns out be a natural. While pursuing her new passion, Frances finds herself hiding things from her mother and questioning the way she's been raised. She knows she must be obedient to her mother but also craves the chance to live her own life. 

We felt that many IML'ers could relate to Frances' story and enjoy the heartfelt, honest writing (we give it a rating of B+!), so we asked the author, who was born in Hong Kong and emigrated with her family to the U.S. as a child, to give us some behind-the-pages insight.

IML: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for "Bitter Melon"? How much of your own experiences as a teenager trickled into the book?
Cara: Though my mother and I enjoy a very positive relationship today, we definitely struggled a lot when I was a teen. My mom wanted me to be the best, and her way of motivating me was by being very hard on me. Unfortunately, her parenting strategy did not have the effect on me that she had intended. I wanted to make her proud, but I always felt like a disappointment to her, and this really affected my confidence and self-image as a teen.  Those tumultuous feelings became compost for my imagination as I created the fictional world of Frances Ching over a decade later.
Another source of inspiration was my maternal grandmother.  My mother and her siblings shared a deep loyalty to one another and to their mother.  They survived war and poverty and took very good care of their mother until she died.  My grandmother had her own bedroom in both my mother's house and my uncle's house, which were walking distance from one another so that my grandmother could choose which house she wanted to sleep in from night to night.  I knew that this loyalty was the product of culture, the culture of filial piety, which means "respect for parents and ancestors."  On the one hand, I deeply respected and admired this family style.  On the other hand, I pondered its potential pitfalls.  What if the aging parent was difficult, dysfunctional, or even abusive?  Should the grown child fulfill her obligation to the parent, or should she break free of that obligation?  Should she betray her parent or herself?  That question became the seed for "Bitter Melon."
IML: We see a lot of comments and advice questions on our site from kids whose parents are recent immigrants to the U.S. What are some of the common problems these tweens face?
carachow.jpgCara: Children of recent immigrants often experience greater pressure to conform and to succeed.  This is because immigrant parents have to sacrifice so much to live in the US so that their children can have the opportunities that they couldn't have, and it's human nature to expect a big return on a big investment.  Another reason for this pressure is that most recent immigrants to the U.S. come from non-western cultures, which tend to be more socially conservative and less individualistic.  Had their children grown up where their parents had grown up, most of them would probably not think twice about sacrificing their own needs and desires for the welfare of their families because everyone else around them is doing the same.  Instead, they're watching their American peers having more freedom to express themselves and choose their futures.  They may question and resent their parents yet feel guilty about their doubts and resentment.
IML: What's your advice for young people who are struggling, like Frances, to find their own voice, but don't want to be disrespectful to or dishonest with their parents?
Cara: There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because every family is different.  That said, I would suggest that young people in this situation find safe places in which to express their true thoughts and feelings.  That could be a journal (with a lock perhaps!) or a trusted friend or mentor.  The advantage of a private journal is that no one can criticize or embarrass you, but the advantage of talking to friends or mentors is that they can offer support, encouragement, and advice.  Reading helps too.  One of the reasons I wrote "Bitter Melon" was so that readers who identify with Frances can find solace and validation. 
IML: What are your thoughts on the recent buzz about Amy Chua's memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"? Many of the IML'ers on our site are talking about it.
Cara: As the writer of a novel that explores the pitfalls of "Tiger mothering," I was pretty shocked and troubled to read an article that seemed to be supporting a style of parenting similar to how Gracie raised Frances.  Then, as I watched Chua defend herself and her book on TV, I got confused as to where she actually stood.  On the one hand, she argued that the choice of excerpt and the title of the article ("Why Chinese Mothers are Superior") misrepresented her book as a whole, which was about how she learned to be less extreme in her parenting.  She also argued that the tone of the book was intended to make fun of herself.  On the other hand, when asked if she would do anything differently if given the choice today, she replied that she would do things much the same way.  I think I'll have to read her book myself to figure out exactly what she is trying to say.
As the product of Tiger parenting who is now a mother herself, I am critical of that parenting style.  Though it can push kids to achieve high levels of academic and professional excellence, it can also push kids towards high levels of anxiety and depression.  It can suppress creativity, dampen kids' love for learning, and damage their relationship with their parents.  There must be more constructive ways to bring out the best in young people!
IML: Anything else you'd like tween readers to know about your book?
Cara: There's a forbidden romance in the story...That's not the focus of the book, but it sure piques readers' interest!

IML: Thanks, Cara! We're sure that lots of young readers will identify with Frances' journey and enjoy going on it with her. Good luck with everything.

Thank you!

Book Review: "Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists"
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Here's the funny thing about "changing the world": it sounds like a really big, almost impossible job...but it's actually very easy. For instance, you hear that your local animal shelter is overcrowded and having trouble feeding all the dogs and cats. You donate $10 of your allowance money to help them, and that $10 covers the cost of chow for one dog for a week. There. You just changed the world! Okay, it's not like you ended the problem of homeless animals forever, but for that one dog, for that one week, the world was a better place. Thanks to you.

On IML we talk a lot about volunteering and taking action, and that's because we know it's important to so many of you. Getting involved with a cause you care about is a great way to learn new things, make new friends, understand yourself better, feel a little less powerless in life, and generally feel rewarded. Sometimes, though, it's hard to find that thing...the problem or situation that you want to help fix. Or if you already have your thing (lucky you!), sometimes it's tough figuring out where to start.

dosomething_book_cover.jpgThat's why we were really excited when sent us their new book, called (appropriately) "Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists" (by's CEO and "Chief Old Person" Nancy Lublin, with Vanessa Martir and Julia Steers). It's written especially for tweens who may have trouble finding volunteer opportunities since they don't drive or are limited in what they can do without parental supervision. This spiralbound, easy-to-thumb-through volume has sections called "See It!" (how to figure out what you care most about), "Believe It!" (how to understand the problem better), "Build It!" (mapping out what you want to do), "Do It! (that's kind of self-explanatory), and "Reflect It!" (different ways to look at what you've done and learn from it).

The book is filled with fun quizzes, cool fill-ins, and helpfully specific examples organized by the type of cause. For instance, do you feel most passionate about hunger and homelessness issues? You can get detailed guidelines on how to help by running a fundraising watermelon-eating contest, holding a food drive, or hosting a hunger banquet. We love the way this book is designed and written; it's the kind of thing you could bring to a sleepover and browse through with your friends, or look through with a parent if you want to start a family effort.

IML's Rating: A+

For more ideas, check out our section on Volunteering and other IML'ers comments on the Volunteering You Said It page!

"Vladimir Tod" author Heather Brewer talks books and bullies
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heather_new.jpgHeather Brewer is the author of the five-book series, "The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod." Starting with "Eighth Grade Bites" and ending with the just-published "Twelfth Grade Kills," this fun and frightening saga tells the story of a teenage vampire struggling with typical (and not-so-typical) problems of surviving middle school and high school. IML had a great time talking with Heather about her books, her experiences as a tween, and how young people can take a stand against bullying.

IML: Hi, Heather! Congrats on the success of the Vladimir Tod books!

Heather: Thanks!

IML: Your main character, Vlad Tod, is a vampire. Why do you think the gothic and paranormal genre appeals so much to tweens and teens?

Heather: Personally, I've always been a fan of darker things. I've always loved horror, and Stephen King is my favorite author. I was twelve when I read his novel "Carrie." So for me, it's very natural to be drawn to those things. But I think that there are different reasons for other tweens and teens to be drawn to it. For girls, I think a lot of it is that vampires are the eternal "bad boy." I think that it's something dark and dangerous, but you can experience it in a safe little world. Because when you close the book, it all goes away.

IML: If you were to take away the supernatural angle, do you think your books would still work in the real world of middle school and high school?

Heather: Absolutely. Because I didn't set out to write a vampire story. I set out to write a story about a boy who feels like he doesn't belong...and he just so happens to be a vampire.

twelfthgrade.jpgIML: What part of the books has been the most fun to write?

Heather: The most fun to write has been inventing new and creative ways for Vlad to get his blood, like hiding his blood in Twinkies, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and spaghetti. That's been the most fun, like, "How can I feed Vlad this week?" And also the conversations between Vlad and his best friend Henry, because they're just really fun, and they're very typical teenage boy conversations.

IML: What was hardest to write?

Heather: The most difficult thing was confronting a horrible thing that happened when Vlad was younger. His parents died in a mysterious fire, and that's based on my own childhood. Between the ages of five and twelve, I experienced five house fires, and no one knew what caused them. Growing up with that was very troubling. So dealing with those emotions was absolutely the most difficult thing about writing the books.

IML: How much or yourself do you put into your books?

Heather: Well, I'm a big fan of wearing black, and of reading banned books. And even though Vlad has a very close friend in the character of Henry, he's very much a loner and deals with things in his own quiet way, and that's very much me. Plus, his sarcastic sense of humor is absolutely me!

IML: How has communicating with your fans changed the way your story has progressed from the first book to the final one?

Heather: As the readers have really grabbed onto the characters, I feel a duty to make sure that the characters are absolutely true to themselves, and to include special little things I know the fans will enjoy. There's a small group of characters referred to as "the Goths" and because of the fans, they ended up being a much larger part of the series. So I do try to listen to my readers, and see what they want more of, and still stay true to my vision. They are a part of this, and like I've told them many times before, "I write the stories, but once they're written, they're yours now."

IML: The idea of being an outcast or outsider is central to your story. Vlad is terribly bullied at school. Did this come from your own experience?

Heather: Actually, I think I had it worse that Vlad. I was picked on from Kindergarten all the way through my senior year. I was pinched, and punched, and kicked, and spit-on. I had rumors spread about me; I had things written on my folder. It was awful, going through school. So I withdrew into myself, and I wrote a lot of stories to get those feelings out. I also read everything I could get my hands on, because I could live those different lives if I was reading stories. I would become the characters I was reading about and live with their problems, which seemed so much smaller than my own. Everything in the stories ended happily, but my life just wasn't that way at the time. And that's one of the reasons I started writing the Vlad Tod series, because those feelings of being picked on and bullied really followed me into my adulthood, and they wouldn't go away. So I decided to confront those feelings head-on and write this book and deal with exactly what it felt like, to feel like a freak who didn't belong. And I'm happy to say that by the end of writing this series, I didn't have any of those feelings anymore. Because I got them all down on the page.

IML: How did the bullying begin? Was there anyone you reach out to for help, or did you feel completely alone?

Heather: I did feel completely alone. It began with a boy who pulled my hair when I was going down the slide. And that same boy was in my class, and he put a tack on my chair. Everybody laughed, because I sat on the tack, and then, every single day, someone in my class would put a tack on my chair, and try to "get me" again. It became a clear message of, "You don't belong here. You're not one of us. We don't accept you, and it's okay for us to pick on you." And that's just something that followed me all through school.

IML: Why do you think your schoolmates singled you out for this kind of bullying?

Heather: I really don't know. Maybe it was because I've always been very outspoken and I've always had my own opinion about things. I've never been one of those people to follow the crowd. But in the end, I really have no idea what it was that made them do that.

IML: Did it have a snowball effect? Like, once you were the victim, you became the permanent victim?

Heather: Absolutely, because it became acceptable. They thought, "That's Heather... we're allowed to pick on her." I don't know what was worse, the kids picking on me, or the other kids who wouldn't stand up and say something. When I was trying to defend myself, they wouldn't say, "Hey, she's right. You shouldn't be doing this to someone. It's not nice."

IML: Were any teachers or guidance counselors able help to you?

Heather: Oh, no. They were actually part of the problem. I would be in the hallway at school, being bullied, and I'd see teachers snicker, or turn their heads. They thought it was acceptable, like "Oh, that's okay. It builds character. You can pick on her, because she's THAT girl." And now, I've toured all over this country, and I've asked my readers:  "In your school, what is working and what isn't working when it comes to anti-bullying efforts?" And they all say the same thing: the teachers are part of the problem. They're not helping stop the bullying. And that's sad because you should be looking for people in authority positions to step in and stop something like that. I don't know if they feel like they can't do anything about it, or that it builds character, or that it's just part of being a kid, or something.

IML: What do you say to teachers when you have the opportunity to talk to them?

Heather: The biggest thing for me is, if you are a teacher, and you see another teacher acting in a way that is supporting bullying, then you need to say something to that teacher. Because it has to stop with someone.

IML: Bullying has been in the news a lot lately, and we've all heard of the tragic cases where young people have taken their own lives because they couldn't cope with taunting, teasing and abuse. What do you want to say to teens and tweens who feel desperate and alone?

Heather: It is really terrifying when someone feels like they've reached a point where no one can help them. I wish that somehow we could get through to them to tell them that there is hope. That things will get better. That things can change...but that you can't let the bullies win. When someone thinks, "No one is there for me, no one cares about me," they should know that really, there are many, many people who would love to reach out to them. And I hope that if anyone is thinking of doing something like hurting themselves, that they won't. Because, really, in the end, that does let the bullies win. And you can't let them win.

IML: What about the kids doing the bullying? What do the bullies need to hear?

Heather: I don't think that a lot of teens who bully actually realize that they're doing it. When I do appearances, I always tell young people that if someone is making you feel like you don't belong somewhere, or that you're inferior, or makes you question your self- esteem, then you are being bullied.  So if you are the one making someone feel that way, then you are bullying. If you're doing something that makes someone so upset that they don't feel like they can come to school, or they have to dodge or avoid you, then chances are you're bullying. And you can stop. Don't fall into the group mindset, where a couple of kids are picking on someone, and you laugh along with them. Because then you're part of the problem.

IML: What advice do you have for tweens and teens who want to be professional writers?

Heather: There are two things that every writer has to do. You have to read a lot, and you have to write a lot. And when it comes to writing, the best thing to do is write something every single day. A sentence, a paragraph, a chapter...whatever it is, write something every single day. That's the only way to get better. I call this the formula for writing a book: "butt" plus "chair" equals "writing." If you keep doing that, eventually you'll finish a story!

IML: And have you finished the Vlad Tod story?

Heather: No, I'm actually writing a spin-off series called "The Slayer Chronicles." They take place during the summers between the school years of the Vlad Tod books. They'll end with one book beyond "Twelfth Grade Kills," and I really think of them as a continuation of the series.

IML: Thanks for sharing all this with us, Heather, and good luck with your future books!

Heather: Thank you!

For more about bullies, check out IML's advice on this subject.

For more about Heather Brewer and Vladimir Tod, visit

Book Review: "The Magnificent 12: The Call"
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Many memorable adventure stories begin the same way: You meet a young person whose life is pretty crummy, until they meet someone weird who tells them they need to start a journey to do something really important (usually fighting evil), and they're like, "What? No way!"

People who study literature and mythology know that as The Call, and the "No way!" part is referred to as "Refusing the call." Can you think of other stories that start like this?

mag12.jpgThe first book of the new series "The Magnificent 12" (HarperCollins) is now one of them (it helps that this book is actually subtitled "The Call"). Written by "Gone" author Michael Grant, "The Magnificent 12" introduces us to twelve-year-old Mack MacAvoy, who's average in every way except for the many phobias he suffers from. One day, a three-thousand-year-old man named Grimluk appears in the boys' bathroom to inform Mack that he is one of the Magnificent Twelve. An evil force is on its way, and it's up to Mack to track down eleven other twelve-year-olds in order to stop it.

IML enjoyed this book and thinks you will too. The story of Mack, Grimluk, and the people and creatures they meet on their adventures is hilarious and imaginative. While the publisher is setting this series up to be a huge "brand" with online games and a virtual community, the book itself stands on its own as a well-written, engaging, and fun read. We were lucky enough to get a chance to ask Michael Grant some questions about "The Magnificent 12," and get "the story behind the story." 

IML: How did you come up with the idea for "The Magnificent 12"?
Michael: I wanted to write something funny. I had been writing all these dark, gloomy, creepy books -- the "Gone" series -- and I wanted to write something that was none of those things.  I liked the idea of an absolutely impossible hero: Mack has all sorts of phobias, which are irrational fears. So he would be the last guy you'd expect to step up and save the world. 

IML: How do you feel it's different from other books out there?

Michael: I think "The Magnificent 12" differs in its hero, Mack -- who is so normal he suffers from a serious case of mediumness. Mack isn't the biggest or strongest kid, he isn't secretly a wizard or the son of an ancient god. He just happens to have a bit of something called the enlightened puissance, a sort of ability that allows him to use the ancient Vargran language to fight evil forces. "The Magnificent 12" also differs in its villains, especially the beautiful, witty, and utterly evil Ereskigal. Whose friends (she has no friends) call her "Risky."

IML: The book seems to draw from the myths and legends of many different cultures. Were there any that had particular influence on you as you were developing the story?
Michael: I suppose the biggest influence came not so much from myth as from movies.  Especially "The Magnificent Seven," which was an American version of a Japanese classic called "The Seven Samurai." In both movies, one hero has to assemble a team to fight a powerful evil. That's what Mack has to do: travel the world assembling The Magnificent 12 -- twelve twelve-year-olds.

IML: "The Magnificent 12" is funny. Very funny! Yet it doesn't take away from the suspense or action. Do you think some fantasy books for young people take themselves too seriously?
Michael: I'm really glad people are finding it funny. I wanted to combine crazy, dangerous action with humor. Some people think those two don't go together but I think they absolutely do. After all, doesn't Spiderman make witty remarks and dumb jokes while he's fighting Doc Ock or Green Goblin?

IML: Mack has a lot of phobias. Do you have any yourself? Do you ever get scared or creeped out by your own writing?
MichaelGrantAuthorPhoto.JPGMichael: I have one big phobia: needles. I hate getting shots -- I have to look away. I hate when someone drop a needle or a pin on the floor. I have to find it right away. Actually, even writing about it makes me squirmy. I don't scare myself with my writing -- actually when I think I'm scaring the reader it makes me giggle. I kind of cackle away as I'm writing, thinking about making some kid nervous or maybe even giving him or her a nightmare. 

IML: Ooh, that is a little scary in and of itself! Other than being scared, what would you like readers to take away from reading this first book in the series, and from the series as a whole?
Michael: There is no deep moral in "The Magnificent 12."  I'm not out to teach or make you think. What I want is to make kids laugh and blow milk out of their noses when they're reading. That is my absolute highest goal. In a perfect world, I would scare the reader a little, give the reader some mild chuckles, some laughs, and the occasional big snork.

IML: When you were younger, you moved around a lot. What did you learn about life and general survival from always being The New Kid?
Michael: I was lucky in that I was never really picked on. For one thing, I was always pretty tall. For another thing, the bullies couldn't quite figure out what I was. Was I a nerd? A brain?  A weirdo? A crazy loner? Bullies want to understand who you are before they beat you up.  That's an idea I wrote into "The Magnificent 12," where the bullies at Mack's school are highly organized, with each bully having the responsibility for bullying a particular clique. The bully of nerds, for example, would not beat up Emo kids. That's the Emo bully's job.

IML: You've written a ton of books. Many of our readers are also writers, and I'm sure they'd like to know: What's your writing process like? Do you work on more than one book at a time, switching back and forth? Do you outline your stories before you start writing? How do you stay motivated to finish something?
Michael: I like to write outside whenever I can.  I often write with loud music on my headphones -- usually something punk or ska-punk or hard rock. Not much pop music. No Bieber. But Lady Gaga is on my iPhone playlist. I work for about 4 hours a day. Sticking with it is the hardest thing for me, or probably for most writers. Once you get started you start being tempted to work on some different project. Don't do that! Finish your work, don't get tempted away by something that seems easier. With regard to outlines: I do not outline. I like writing scared, not knowing what I'm doing next. Just like life:  what fun would it be if you knew what was coming?
IML: Not much fun at all! Good point! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insights on the book.

Thanks for inviting me!

"The Magnificent 12: The Call" is available now and has a great "trailer" you can watch:

Book Review: "Time for Kids' Big Book of Why"
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When we ask "Why?" about something, we usually get a range of answers, such as: "Because I said so."; "Well, duh!"; "Hmm. I never thought about that."; or "Don't ask stupid questions!" Occasionally you can find the info you're looking for by Googling, but that's not always reliable (especially when you get five different explanations from five different websites).

Thanks to a new book from Time for Kids called the "Big Book of Why," you can have a lot of accurate information about a lot of really interesting stuff at your fingertips. For instance:

bigbookofwhy.jpgWhy does hair turn gray?
Because every follicle of hair has cells that produce a chemical called melanin, which gives hair its color. As we get older, those pigment cells die off and with less melanin, our hair turns gray or white.

Why does flatulence (farting) smell bad?
The smell comes from bacteria in the large intestine that release small amounts of gas containing sulfur (which smells stinky).

Why do racehorses run counterclockwise?
That dates back to the American Revolution. The man who opened the first circular horse racetrack in America was a patriot, and had the horses run counterclockwise to rebel against the British, whose racehorses ran clockwise. The tradition stuck when runners and racecars also took to the track.

What was Mickey Mouse's original name?
Mortimer Mouse, but Walt Disney's wife didn't like the name (who could blame her?) and renamed him Mickey.

Why is water wet?
Actually, water isn't wet. Wetness is just a feeling we experience when we come in contact with water. When we change certain qualities about water -- like freeze it -- it can feel as hard as a rock rather than wet!

These factoids and hundreds of others are arranged in categories like Animals, Earth, Space, Humans, People and Places, History, Science, Technology, Art and Culture, and Sports. The explanations are great for satisfying curiosity, wowing friends and family, and getting ideas for further research or school projects. We like that many of these questions are so basic, we'd never even thought of them until we saw them here. The book is laid out in an easy-to-read style with colorful photos and illustrations, and the writing is fun to read. It's a great item to bring to sleepovers, family dinners, or just to bed. The Internet may be chock full of information available 24/7, but sometimes a nice hefty book you can hold in your hand is the best answer to many of life's big questions. 

IML's Rating: A